Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Encephalon - 46th Edition

Welcome to the Forty-Sixth Edition of Encephalon, a neuroscience blog carnival.

Dave and Greta Munger of Cognitive Daily just attended the 20th Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science in Chicago, and their live reports are hot off the internet. Read about The persistence of racism even among the well-intentioned and Doing algebra -- it's the little things that count.

Also on the educational front, Kylie from PodBlack Blog brings us Girls Got What? Competitions, Science Careers and Benefits, an investigation into whether it's really just brains or really just well-established strategy.

From Chris at Developing Intelligence, we can learn about Impulsivity Due to Distortions in Time: Hyperbolic Discounting and Logarithmic Time Perception. What is hyperbolic discounting? Wikipedia tell us:
In behavioral economics, hyperbolic discounting refers to the empirical finding that people generally prefer smaller, sooner payoffs to larger, later payoffs when the smaller payoffs would be imminent; but when the same payoffs are distant in time, people tend to prefer the larger, even though the time lag from the smaller to the larger would be the same as before.
Typically, cognitive control functions are thought to be a key factor in the ability to delay for a larger payoff. But there's an alternative, as Chris explains:
...if time is not represented linearly by the mind, perhaps it is that peculiarity which generates impulsivity, rather than a failure of control! ..... [Zauberman et al.'s] forthcoming paper in the Journal of Marketing Research demonstrates conclusively that the hyperbolic function that characterizes discounting rate does indeed reflect nonlinearities in time perception.
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is (of course) associated with impulsivity...could there be an element of exaggerated time distortion in their hyperbolic discounting functions? What a wacky idea!

Alvaro, our Encephalon host at Sharp Brains, brings us a more tested idea, Mindfulness Meditation for Adults & Teens with ADHD (by guest blogger Dr. David Rabiner). Mindfulness has been shown (by Davidson and his colleagues, among others) to improve attentional focus and to decrease emotional reactivity.

Buddha brain image from Ellerman.info

The Neurocritic has a past post, Present Tense, that reviews the literature on neuroimaging studies of mindfulness-based meditation.

Speaking of a practice associated with Buddhism, Daniel at Neuroanthropology enters the fray engendered by a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times (by columnist David Brooks) in The Neural Buddhists of David Brooks. Daniel is sympathetic to much of his viewpoint (against hard-wired morality, for instance), but for hard-core materialists, Brooks' most troubling comment is
Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism.
Next, Vaughan from Mind Hacks writes about the rare phenomenon of 'supernumerary phantom limbs' in Phantom extra limbs. A recent paper in Neurology reported on two case studies following hemorrhage in the pons, part of the brain stem:

Both patients had the experience of having a third arm and a third leg... One distressing element for the female patient was that although the patient could 'move' the phantom arm voluntarily, "she described occasional loss of control and feeling strangulated by the phantom arm around the neck".

Speaking of arms, Sandra from Channel N is very excited to present
a video aboot the neuroArm, a robotic system that enables a surgeon to perform remote haptic-assisted neurological microsurgery using real-time MRI. One of the most advanced robots in existence, it's a very exciting Canadian achievement.

The first-ever surgery was successfully performed by Dr. Garnette Sutherland at the University of Calgary on May 12, 2008.
Neuroscientifically Challenged explains The Neuroscience of Distributive Justice. What is distributive justice, you might ask?
...how goods and benefits should be dispersed throughout a society in a fair and just manner. As an extreme example of this dilemma, imagine you are commissioned to deliver 100 lbs. of food to a famine-stricken region that consists of two villages a hundred miles apart. If you deliver half of the food to the first village, then travel to the second, 30 lbs. of the food will spoil during the trip...

Philosophers have offered several solutions to debates of this nature. Utilitarianism... asserts that one’s primary goal should be the achievement of a maximal amount of good or happiness. In the situation described above, a utilitarian might opt to deliver all of the food to the first village. ..... Another approach to such a quandary is known as deontological ethics, which emphasizes not the consequences of one’s actions, but whether the actions are right or wrong, just or unjust. From a deontological perspective, it would be unjust to distribute the food unequally.
To examine the trade-off between equity and efficiency, Hsu et al. (2008) devised a task in which the participants decided on how to allocate money to children living in an orphanage in northern Uganda. You can see an example of an experimental trial in this must-see movie from the paper's Supporting Online Material (embedded below).

Movie s2
No Switch Trial. Illustration of a trial where the subject does not switch the lever. Animation speed is increased for illustration purposes. See Fig. 1 for actual duration of events and screens.

You can bet that The Neurocritic will have something to say about this study in the near future...

Neuroscientifically Challenged also poses the question, Would You Vaccinate Your Kids Against Drugs?

Next up are Brain Games or Drugs for Cognitive Enhancement, written by Sharp Brains guest columnist Pascale Michelon, Ph.D. She discusses the exciting recent finding by Jaeggi et al. (2008): Improving Fluid Intelligence With Training on Working Memory. It's a growing field. For more about working memory, be sure to read Developing Intelligence on The Digital Resolution of the Mind: Discrete Precision in Working Memory.

Jake from Pure Pedantry has submitted a very sad but informative post, Sen. Kennedy and Glioma, which deals with Senator Ted Kennedy's brain cancer, treatment, and prognosis. The majority of these malignant brain tumors are generally fatal. Sen. Kennedy has been a leading proponent of mental health parity, the proposal that insurance companies cover mental disorders and other medical ("physical") disorders in an equivalent manner.

Speaking of which, Dr. Shock writes a critical piece about the pitfalls of supportive psychotherapy in Supportive Psychotherapy mostly Novice Pilots Flying In The Dark Without Maps. Meanwhile, Dr. Deb looks at recent neurobiological research linking burning incense and possible new antidepressant medications in Smell is Swell. A brand new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses! Hippies might have something going with that incense crap!

PodBlack Blog asks us to Chalk It Up To Forensic Science and watch
a lecture presentation at a local Science Education centre that provides not only insights to the minds behind crime-solving but how the public perception mind the messages on TV.
Finally, in My Mascot Only Gave Me Sex Appeal, Kylie tells us that
it may seem strange that the Chinese are willing to blame toys for recent disasters but no weirder than other superstitions that work in people's favour.
Why, that's no stranger than reference to a scary bunny furry wearing a gigantic clock in The Neurocritic's post about why You're My Favorite Person... (which is really about how watching movie clips with your favorite actress can boost your peripheral levels of dopamine and circulating natural killer cells, and activate your medial prefrontal cortex, thalamus, hypothalamus, subcallosal gyrus, posterior cingulate cortex, superior temporal gyrus, and cerebellum).

ADDENDUM: A late-breaking submission from Mo at Neurophilosophy covers the recent finding that a protein extracted from green algae can partially restore visual function: Channelrhodopsin restores vision in blind mice.

That's it for this edition. The next Encephalon will appear on June 9 at Channel N.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Encephalon #46 Forthcoming

Today is the Memorial Day holiday in the US, so there will be some delay in publication of Encephalon. Stayed tuned, it will be up by tomorrow morning.

The Neurocritic thanks you for your patience.

Iraq protest, Santa Monica Beach, LA

Crosses representing soldiers who have died in Iraq, on the Memorial Day weekend (Uploaded on May 29, 2007 by HardieBoys).

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"My Stroke of Insight" Now Available Through Viking Penguin Group

I just found out (via the Fashion & Style section of the New York Times) that Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, is now available through Viking Adult, a division of the Penguin Group.
A Superhighway to Bliss

Published: May 25, 2008

JILL BOLTE TAYLOR was a neuroscientist working at Harvard’s brain research center when she experienced nirvana.

But she did it by having a stroke.

On Dec. 10, 1996, Dr. Taylor, then 37, woke up in her apartment near Boston with a piercing pain behind her eye. A blood vessel in her brain had popped. Within minutes, her left lobe — the source of ego, analysis, judgment and context — began to fail her. Oddly, it felt great.

The incessant chatter that normally filled her mind disappeared. Her everyday worries — about a brother with schizophrenia and her high-powered job — untethered themselves from her and slid away.

Her perceptions changed, too. She could see that the atoms and molecules making up her body blended with the space around her; the whole world and the creatures in it were all part of the same magnificent field of shimmering energy.

“My perception of physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air,” she has written in her memoir, “My Stroke of Insight,” which was just published by Viking.
Previously, Dr. Taylor's memoir was self-published, but her recent inspirational TED talk (and appearances on Oprah's webcast and in Time magazine, for starters) have provided wider exposure for this talented scientist/artist.

Read an early interview with Dr. Taylor, where she discusses her stained glass brains and her post-stroke creative process.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

You're My Favorite Person...

Japanese actress and singer Ryoko Hirosue

...and watching your movies boosts my peripheral levels of dopamine and circulating natural killer cells, and activates my medial prefrontal cortex, thalamus, hypothalamus, subcallosal gyrus, posterior cingulate cortex, superior temporal gyrus, and cerebellum.

Fig. 3 (Matsunaga et al., 2008). Statistical parametric maps (SPM99) showing significant increases in the rCBF in the positive condition minus those in the control condition. (a) Activations of the MPFC and thalamus (TH). (b) Activations of the hypothalamus (HYP), subcallosal gyrus (SCG), and PCC. (c) Activations of the superior temporal gyrus (STG) and cerebellum (CER).


OK, so the "favorite person" alluded to in the title of the paper by Matsunaga et al. is really a favorite actress, not a favorite person IRL. The participants in the study were 12 healthy male volunteers, 20–29 years old. The stimuli were described by the authors as follows:
We compiled 4-min audiovisual clips. The positive film featured a person whom each participant subjectively considered attractive. By free response, the participants themselves selected this person before the day of the experiment. All the selected persons were famous actresses. By the day of the experiment, we compiled an individual 4-min video film from TV programs and movies for each participant. In order to demonstrate the maximum effect, we did not standardize the actions performed by the actresses in the movies, but the films did not contain erotic and sexually suggestive scenes. For example, one film contained scenes of the favorite person smiling. In addition, we compiled audiovisual clips because we thought that the favorite person’s voice was important for participants. The control film was a TV news program with a newscaster whom participants considered not so attractive. Since the newscaster being reported concerned weather in the past, rather than any new information, the participants remained uninterested in the film.
And the results? Watching your favorite actress is rewarding, and it apparently boosts your immune system too:
When the participants watched a film featuring an actress whom they considered attractive, they subjectively reported having experienced positive emotions. Interestingly, the activity of peripheral circulating NK cells as well as the peripheral circulating dopamine level significantly increased only under the positive condition. The following brain regions were significantly activated in the positive condition relative to the control condition: MPFC (BA 9/10), thalamus, hypothalamus, subcallosal gyrus (BA 25), PCC (BA 31), superior temporal gyrus (BA 38), and cerebellum. Further, SPM covariate analyses indicated that these brain regions were temporally associated with peripheral circulating NK cell activity and dopamine level. It was also indicated that the dopamine level was positively correlated with NK cell activity. These results suggest that while an individual experiences positive emotions, the central nervous, endocrine, and immune systems may be interrelated through neurochemical networks.
But what I really want to know is, what happens to your immune system when watching J-Horror films such as Ringu or Honogurai Mizu No Soko Kara (Dark Water)?

Watch one of Ryoko Hirosue's music videos. It was much less bubblegum Jpop1 than I expected...


1 However, the first video in the YouTube J-Pop medley is called NightmaRe (by SNoW) and features a scary bunny furry wearing a gigantic clock.


MATSUNAGA, M., et al. (2008). Associations among central nervous, endocrine, and immune activities when positive emotions are elicited by looking at a favorite person. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 22(3), 408-417. DOI: 10.1016/j.bbi.2007.09.008

Recent studies on psychoneuroimmunology have indicated that positive psychological events are related to immune functions; however, limited information is available regarding associations among the central nervous, endocrine, and immune systems when positive emotions are elicited. In the present study, we demonstrated associations among these systems by simultaneously recording brain, endocrine, and immune activities when positive emotions were evoked in participants as they watched films featuring their favorite persons. Interestingly, the activity of peripheral circulating natural killer cells and the peripheral dopamine level were elevated while participants experienced positive emotions, and these values were positively correlated. The following brain regions were significantly activated in the positive condition relative to the control condition: medial prefrontal cortex, thalamus, hypothalamus, subcallosal gyrus, posterior cingulate cortex, superior temporal gyrus, and cerebellum. Further, covariate analyses indicated that these brain regions were temporally associated with endocrine and immune activities. These results suggest that while an individual experiences positive emotions, the central nervous, endocrine, and immune systems may be interrelated and attraction for favorite persons may be associated with the activation of the innate immune function via the dopaminergic system.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

More Brain Scams

Speaking of brain scamming, Mind Hacks linked to an article in Salon.com about a disreputable informercial unwittingly shown on PBS multiple times:
Brain scam

Why is PBS airing Dr. Daniel Amen's self-produced infomercial for the prevention of Alzheimer's disease?

By Robert Burton

May. 12, 2008 | It's 10 on a Saturday night and on my local PBS station a diminutive middle-aged doctor with a toothy smile and televangelical delivery is facing a rapt studio audience. "I will show you how to make your brain great, including how to prevent Alzheimer's disease," he declares. "And I'm not kidding."

...the doctor, Daniel Amen, is being interviewed by KQED host Greg Sherwood. Sherwood is wildly enthusiastic. After reading Amen's book, "Change Your Brain, Change Your Life," Sherwood says, "The first thing I wanted to do was to get a brain scan." He turns to Amen. "You could start taking care 10 years in advance of ever having a symptom and prevent Alzheimer's disease," he says. "Yes, prevent Alzheimer's disease," Amen chimes in.

Wait a minute. Prevent Alzheimer's disease? Is he kidding? But Sherwood is already holding up Amen's package of DVDs on learning your risk factors for A.D., as well as his book with a section titled "Preventing Alzheimer's." Then, as though offering a landmark insight into a tragic disease -- and encouraging viewers to pledge money to the station -- Sherwood beams and says, "This is the kind of program that you've come to expect from PBS."

If so, that's a shame...
Back in December, The Neurocritic dissected the neurohuckster's editorial in the Los Angeles Times about SPECT-scanning the brains of presidential candidates:
Getting inside their heads ... really inside

Presidential candidates' health is a campaign issue. So what about their brains?

By Daniel G. Amen
December 5, 2007

. . .

Is the brain health of a presidential candidate a fair topic in an election year? Certainly Dick Cheney's heart condition wasn't off-limits in 2000... Should we go so far as to do brain scans? Of candidates for the Oval Office? Some people might consider discussing brain health a ridiculous idea. Not me.

As a neuropsychiatrist and brain-imaging expert, [NOTE: huh, 9 papers in mostly low-profile journals] I want our elected leaders to be some of the "brain healthiest people" in the land. How do you know about the brain health of a presidential candidate unless you look? ...

Three of the last four presidents have shown clear brain pathology. [NOTE: oh really?? we only have evidence for AD in Reagan, as much as we'd like to believe that George W. has brain damage.] President Reagan's Alzheimer's disease was evident during his second term in office. Nonelected people were covering up his forgetfulness and directing the country's business. Few people knew it, but we had a national crisis. Brain studies have been shown to predict Alzheimer's five to nine years before people have their first symptoms. [NOTE: uh...no. Published studies say 2-3 years.]
SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) is a relatively inexpensive cousin of PET scanning (positron emission tomography) with lower spatial resolution. The Neurocritic is not all that knowledgeable about SPECT as an imaging method, but these authors are (Committee on the Mathematics and Physics of Emerging Dynamic Biomedical Imaging, National Research Council), in case you're interested in learning more.

Back to Robert Burton and Salon.com:
"SPECT scans are not sufficiently sensitive or specific to be useful in the diagnosis of A.D.," neurologist Michael Greicius , who runs the Stanford University memory clinic, and has a special interest in the use of functional brain imaging in the diagnosis of A.D., tells me. "The PBS airing of Amen's program provides a stamp of scientific validity to work which has no scientific validity."

Throughout March and April this year, "Change Your Brain, Change Your Life" aired nearly 1,300 times on PBS stations across the country, reaching more than 75 percent of U.S. television households. ...the nation's public broadcasting system did not vet "Change Your Brain, Change Your Life" for scientific validity. As a result, it broadcast what amounts to an unregulated infomercial for Amen's unproven treatments.
But it gets even worse:
Amen ... has not followed a traditional scientific path. He received a biology degree from Southern California College, a Pentecostal school, now Vanguard University ("We believe The Bible to be the inspired and only infallible and authoritative Word of God"), and earned his medical degree from Oral Roberts University School of Medicine, defunct as of 1989.

"One of the sustaining factors in my work has been my own personal faith," he declared in his 2002 book... "From the first month that I started to order these (SPECT) scans, I felt that they had a special place in science and that I was led by God to pursue this work."

. . .

And yet Amen's sense of calling hasn't led him to undertake the high-quality clinical investigations that would lend scientific credence to his claims...
Not surprisingly, Amen has his own page at Quackwatch. My question is, how did he get all this free publicity from PBS? Burton had a hard time finding an answer.
In trying to divine PBS' role and obligations in airing such an obviously controversial figure as Amen, I got the proverbial runaround...

Did a local PBS station, or PBS headquarters, do proper vetting? Michael Getler, the PBS ombudsman, didn't have an answer for me and forwarded my message to "the top people." I then got a note from Joseph Campbell, PBS vice president of fundraising programming, who said, "PBS is not responsible for the content of those programs obtained from outside sources (other than PBS); it is up to each individual station to decide on the merits of such non-PBS produced programs."
Daniel Amen responds to "Brain scam"

To learn about more reSPECTable uses of SPECT in Alzheimer's Disease, consult The Whole Brain Atlas.

Here is a mid-ventricular slice which demonstrates the commonest finding in functional imaging of Alzheimer's disease. The dark blue regions in the parietal lobes represent areas of decreased blood flow or perfusion. This reduction in blood flow is due in part to the underlying atrophy, in part to the presence of diseased brain, and in part to the functional "disconnection" of this from other brain regions affected by the disease.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Coming to a marketer near you: Brain scamming

Pretty colorful EEG traces and adorable bunnies!

Why, it's every neuromarketer's dream!1 However,
Some are skeptical

Skeptics say despite its scientific aura, neuro-marketing doesn't do much more than confirm what common sense would tell us anyway - don't advertise detergent to men.

"Guess what: Babies and puppies [Editor: and bunnies] do a lot better to sell things than toothless old men," said Jim Meskauskas, vice president for online media with ICON International and advertising industry pundit.
The above quote comes from this article on neuromarketing:

Coming to a marketer near you: Brain scanning

Tom Abate, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008

. . .

Both NeuroFocus and EmSense base their systems around devices that measure brain activity on the surface of the scalp. NeuroFocus uses a skull cap studded with electrodes. EmSense engineered its sensor into a headband that slips on and off easily. Both firms also track other physiological data - eye motion, for instance - to know what the person is watching.

In practice, the firms pay test subjects to watch commercials. Subjects are wired with the appropriate sensors, which record their reactions. The technology can measure how men and women, for example, perceive scenes differently.

But while NeuroFocus focuses on advertising, EmSense is willing to enter the field of neuropolitical forecasting:

EmSense has focused its brain scans on voters watching both the Democratic and Republican primary races to determine how they react to various candidates. That generated stories - and questions about whether such techniques were appropriate.

Unlike its San Francisco rival, Berkeley's NeuroFocus will not use its brain scanning technology in politics.

"We are perfectly comfortable to help determine whether one kind of cereal advertisement is better than another, but we don't think it is reasonable or right to use tools like ours to help persuade you that one candidate is better for you than another," said Pradeep.

But Elissa Moses, chief analytics officer for EmSense, said neuro-marketing gave better measures of gut-level responses than either focus groups or polls, both of which have long been staples of political contests.

Didn't she read the ill-advised New York Times Op-Ed piece, the critical Letter to the Editor (signed by 17 neuroimaging experts) in reply, and the ensuing fallout?


1 But maybe that approach only works for women...

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Call For Submissions: Encephalon 46

The Neurocritic will host Encephalon #46 on May 26.
Please send your submissions to,

encephalon.host --at-- gmail --dot-- com

by May 25.


SharpBrains has more information on the Encephalon Blog Carnival.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Donovan's Brain Movie Trailer

DONOVAN'S BRAIN (1953 MGM Home Entertainment)

Felix E. Feist directed this second adaptation of the novel by Curt Siodmak (filmed previously in 1944 as The Lady and the Monster and later in 1963 as The Brain), which tells the story of a brilliant brain specialist (played by Lew Ayres) whose attempts to save the life of an accident victim result in the extraction of the dying patient's brain, kept alive via electrodes and a special solution.

Before long, the disembodied gray-matter -- which previously belonged to sinister, wealthy industrialist Donovan -- begins to exert a supernatural influence over the doctor, until the once-kindly scientist begins taking on Donovan's aggressive, paranoid personality traits and is compelled to carry out the brain's nefarious commands... ~ Cavett Binion, All Movie Guide.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Donovan's Brain

Donovan's Brain (1953), directed by Felix E. Feist. Based on the 1942 science fiction novel of the same name, written by Curt Siodmak.
The story revolves around an attempt to keep alive the brain of millionaire megalomaniac W.H. Donovan after an otherwise fatal plane crash. Donovan, who has been pioneering the method of keeping the brain alive in electrically charged saline solution, becomes the first recipient of his treatment. Gradually, the increasingly evil brain develops telepathic abilities and becomes able to control the mind of Dr. Patrick Cory, the character who is keeping the brain alive.
The movie features Nancy Davis (better known as Nancy Reagan) as Janice Corey, wife of Dr. Patrick Corey. In an amazing find, Wikipedia links to the 1944 radio version with Orson Welles, available at archive.org (Orson Welles on Suspense). You can even download Welles' parody of Donovan's Brain!

You can also buy the book from Amazon.com, which presents this understated description (presumably from Pulpless, the publisher that reissued the book in 1999):
...Donovan's Brain is one of the most influential novels of our times.

Dr. Patrick Cory is a scientist who, unable to save the life of W.H. Donovan after a plane crash, keeps his brain alive through an illegal experiment.

The story provides an examination of human evil that is impossible to forget. W.H. Donovan is much more than one of the world's richest men. He is a megalomaniac even before Cory keeps his brain alive in the tank. Once freed of the distractions of the flesh, the will to power is all that drives the brain. It is able to communicate with Dr. Cory through telepathy, but that is only the beginning. Soon it begins to take over the scientist who keeps it alive. Possessed by the mind of Donovan, Cory finds himself helpless to fight the plans of the tycoon. Cory remains aware as he follows orders, becoming more and more like Donovan. His wife is helpless, his assistant is helpless, to stop Donovan's Brain!

A word of warning:Don't start reading this novel unless you have the time to finish it in one sitting! This is a true page turner.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Indignity of Ice Cream Cones

AP Photo by Charles Dharapak

Jason Rosenhouse of EvolutionBlog linked to an article by Steven Pinker in The New Republic:
The Stupidity of Dignity

Conservative bioethics' latest, most dangerous ploy.

This spring, the President's Council on Bioethics released a 555-page report, titled Human Dignity and Bioethics. The Council, created in 2001 by George W. Bush, is a panel of scholars charged with advising the president and exploring policy issues related to the ethics of biomedical innovation...

Many people are vaguely disquieted by developments (real or imagined) that could alter minds and bodies in novel ways. ... Traditionalists and conservatives by temperament distrust radical change. Egalitarians worry about an arms race in enhancement techniques. And anyone is likely to have a "yuck" response when contemplating unprecedented manipulations of our biology. The President's Council has become a forum for the airing of this disquiet, and the concept of "dignity" a rubric for expounding on it. This collection of essays is the culmination of a long effort by the Council to place dignity at the center of bioethics. The general feeling is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.
Although the Council includes two heavy hitters of neuroscience...

Floyd E. Bloom, M.D.
Professor Emeritus in the Molecular and Integrative Neurosciences at The Scripps Research Institute, and the founding CEO and board chairman of Neurome, Inc.

Michael S. Gazzaniga, Ph.D.
Director of Sage Center for the Study of Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara.

...and the report includes articles by atheist neurophilosophers Patricia S. Churchland and Daniel C. Dennett, and (even more surprisingly) transhumanist Nick Bostrom, their influence is vastly outweighed by the inclusion of 15 religious conservatives:
Although the Dignity report presents itself as a scholarly deliberation of universal moral concerns, it springs from a movement to impose a radical political agenda, fed by fervent religious impulses, onto American biomedicine.

The report's oddness begins with its list of contributors. Two (Adam Schulman and Daniel Davis) are Council staffers, and wrote superb introductory pieces. Of the remaining 21, four (Leon R. Kass, David Gelernter, Robert George, and Robert Kraynak) are vociferous advocates of a central role for religion in morality and public life, and another eleven work for Christian institutions (all but two of the institutions Catholic). Of course, institutional affiliation does not entail partiality, but, with three-quarters of the invited contributors having religious entanglements, one gets a sense that the fix is in. A deeper look confirms it.

But why are ice cream cones undignified?? Because that's the view of Leon Kass, the former chair of the Council. As Pinker explains:
Kass has a problem not just with longevity and health but with the modern conception of freedom. There is a "mortal danger," he writes, in the notion "that a person has a right over his body, a right that allows him to do whatever he wants to do with it." He is troubled by cosmetic surgery, by gender reassignment, and by women who postpone motherhood or choose to remain single in their twenties. Sometimes his fixation on dignity takes him right off the deep end:

from: The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature
By Leon Kass, M.D., Ph.D.
Published 1999 (new edition, University of Chicago Press)
original published in 1994, now out of print: (New York: The Free Press)
Kass couldn't even bring himself to say what really bugs him about people eating ice cream cones in public.

Even a book review in Studies in Christian Ethics found Kass's squeamishness to be excessive (Clark, 1996):
Much that he has to say is significant, and even cogent. But it is one thing to draw attention to such neglected topics as the duty of hospitality, or good table manners, and another to spend such energy denouncing minor shifts in public appetites: ’the walking street eater ... is a being led by his appetite ... this doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view’. So eating a hamburger ’on the run’ is really wicked: not - we must presume-because it’s bad food badly cooked, not because its purchase finances bad farming practices, but because it’s too impatient, too ’uncivilised’, because it imposes our ’ingestions and chewings’ on others.
But everyone knows that ice cream cones are all-American...

With ice cream in hand, President George W. Bush departs Manning's Ice Cream and Milk in Clarks Summit, Pa., Thursday, Oct. 19, 2006. White House photo by Paul Morse.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The 2008 World Telekinesis Competition...

...is nearly upon us!


This is a game of competitive telekinesis in which two teams compete over a distance to psychically influence the behavior of a candle. The match is played by lighting a candle at the centre of the game board, signalling the beginning of the game. When the candle is extinguished the match is over. The object of the game is to have the wax from the candle drip onto the opposing team's side of the board. This objective is accomplished by remote telekinetic influence.

Hosted by Noxious Sector,
an ongoing collaborative endeavor by Canadian artists Ted Hiebert, Doug Jarvis and Jackson 2Bears, dedicated to the exploration of alternative cognitive function, the paranormal and the absurd. Conceived as a formalized forum for informal inquiry, Noxious Sector projects take the form of performances, curatorial initiatives and artistic collaborations.

Deluge Contemporary Art

Victoria (BC) Canada. May 16 - June 14, 2008

Opening Friday, May 16, 7 to 10 pm

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Encephalon 45 Will Possess Your Heart

Today! At PodBlack Blog: Encephalon #45 - Life Is Good, Brains Are Better. The Neurocritic's musings on Death Cab for Cutie and stalking were included, along with a related post on Domestic Violence and Executive Dysfunction from Brain Blogger. Among the many other excellent submissions: a student post on Stress and Addiction at Neuroanthropology and Ghrelin and the Omnipresence of Food at Neuroscientifically Challenged.

Encephalon #46 will be hosted right here in two weeks, on May 26. Please send your submissions to

encephalon.host --at-- gmail --dot-- com

by May 25. Thanks!

The Meaning of Life

by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie

. . .

The single on our record is a work of fiction that was inspired by things that happened to some people close to me. It’s called “I Will Possess Your Heart,” and it’s eight-and-a-half minutes long. It’s five minutes of build and then a three-minute song. The song is basically about a stalker. It’s about this nice guy who wants this girl he can’t have, and he believes they’ll be together once she realizes how great he is—he just has to wait it out. That’s the part that makes the song really creepy, the delusion of thinking that they were meant to be together. It’s a really dark song. A lot of the material is about the inevitable disappointment people feel as they move through life, and things don’t feel the way they expect. No experience will ever match up to the idealized version in your mind.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Trends in SFN Abstracts

A new paper in PLoS ONE (Lin et al., 2008) applied the methods of computational linguistics1 to analyze the database of abstracts presented at the 2001 to 2006 meetings of the Society for Neuroscience. The results provide an overview of the current state of the field.

Figure 8. (A) Visualization of topic map for all SFN meeting abstracts from 2001 to 2006. Abstracts assigned to different clusters appear in different colors (see legend). (B) Zooming in at the center of the topic map reveals more detailed clusters [click on the figure for a larger view].

Among the interesting findings:
  • The majority of the authors (~60%) had only one abstract over the span of six years. This number may reflect a large group of “transients” comprising mostly undergraduates, graduate students, and perhaps post-docs who entered and exited the neuroscience field in a short period of time.
  • The phenomena of a high transient rate, reflecting a sort of “infant mortality rate” for first time authors was first analyzed by Price [20], who estimated a 22% transient rate for paper authorship from a database consisting of a statistical sample of papers published between 1964 and 1970.
The authors applied graph theory to essentially demonstrate the Six Degrees of Steve Petersen:
  • A fundamental measure used in graph theory is the shortest path between a pair of connected vertices. In the context of the network under study, this measures the number of steps it takes to go from one author to another through intermediate collaborators. From the multi-year SFN database, the lengths of shortest paths between all pairs of authors for whom a connection exists were calculated exhaustively using a breadth-first search algorithm. These numbers were then averaged to yield the mean distance between authors in the entire network.
  • Table 4 shows that the authors in the SFN community are separated from one another by an average distance of 6.09. A similar observation of “six degree of separation” has been reported previously for abstracts in the MEDLINE database [10]...

The authors used Latent Semantic Analysis to reduce the dimensionality of the topics covered in the abstract database.
  • The reduced dimensionality vector space captures most of the important underlying structure in the association of terms and documents, while at the same time removing the noise or variability in word usage [29]. In the reduced vector space, terms that occur in similar documents are located near one another even if they never co-occur in the same document, and topically related documents are grouped near one another based on their semantic relatedness.
This was followed by application of the Normalized Cuts (NCuts) algorithm [30] to partition the results into 10 different topic clusters, shown in Table 5 below (also see Figure 8, at the top of this post):

Finally, changes in topic areas across time revealed the following trends:
  • Among the 10 topic clusters, Cluster 9, which corresponds to visual and motor systems, is shown to have consistently increased in representation over the six year span. On the other hand, Cluster 2, which corresponds to cellular neuroscience, exhibits the most significant decrease in representation over the same period.
  • These results suggest that there is a shift in general scientific interest from cellular-level work such as ion channel, synapse, and membrane physiology, towards more system level research incorporating such topics as vision, kinematics, motor processing, and imaging.
The abstract submission deadline for the 2008 SFN meeting is May 15, 5 p.m. EDT.


1 Oh, OK, here's the Wikipedia page for computational linguistics.


Lin JM, Bohland JW, Andrews P, Burns GA, Allen CB, Mitra PP, Bajic VB. (2008). An Analysis of the Abstracts Presented at the Annual Meetings of the Society for Neuroscience from 2001 to 2006. PLoS ONE, 3(4), e2052. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002052

Annual meeting abstracts published by scientific societies often contain rich arrays of information that can be computationally mined and distilled to elucidate the state and dynamics of the subject field. We extracted and processed abstract data from the Society for Neuroscience (SFN) annual meeting abstracts during the period 2001–2006 in order to gain an objective view of contemporary neuroscience. An important first step in the process was the application of data cleaning and disambiguation methods to construct a unified database, since the data were too noisy to be of full utility in the raw form initially available. Using natural language processing, text mining, and other data analysis techniques, we then examined the demographics and structure of the scientific collaboration network, the dynamics of the field over time, major research trends, and the structure of the sources of research funding. Some interesting findings include a high geographical concentration of neuroscience research in the north eastern United States, a surprisingly large transient population (66% of the authors appear in only one out of the six studied years), the central role played by the study of neurodegenerative disorders in the neuroscience community, and an apparent growth of behavioral/systems neuroscience with a corresponding shrinkage of cellular/molecular neuroscience over the six year period. The results from this work will prove useful for scientists, policy makers, and funding agencies seeking to gain a complete and unbiased picture of the community structure and body of knowledge encapsulated by a specific scientific domain.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

I Will Possess Your Heart

How I wish you could see the potential,
The potential of you and me,
It's like a book, elegantly bound but,
In a language that you can't read (just yet).

I Will Possess Your Heart
------Death Cab For Cutie

The latest single from Death Cab for Cutie describes a stalker's obsession with his distant and unattainable object of desire. As singer Ben Gibbard explains:

"Writing songs of unrequited love and 'stalker-type tunes' isn't exactly breaking new ground or anything like that, but with 'Heart' I feel like it's the sentiments that make it so creepy," Gibbard said. "And this is a work of fiction — it's not something I'm guilty of, hopefully — but to me the narrator in the song doesn't see anything wrong with what he or she is doing. It's more, 'I just happen to walk by your house all the time, and I think how great it would be if I were inside your house looking out at the world.'

"What makes it so unsettling is that one party doesn't understand that what's happening is not appropriate. And they may have pure intentions, but the way it comes off is not the case at all."

The narrator can be categorized as a stalker who is an "unwanted pursuer" (as opposed to a former partner). In a recent study (Spitzberg & Veksler, 2007),
Unwanted pursuers were perceived as less socially competent, more histrionic, more borderline, and less obsessive-compulsive [surprisingly], with discrimination of "normals" from unwanted pursuers of approximately 75% to 80% accuracy. These attributions also significantly predicted a continuous measure of unwanted pursuit victimization (R = .406).
What (if anything) do we know about the neurobiology of stalking? Soliman et al. (2007) reported on the case of a patient with Huntington's disease who stalked her therapist:
The patient developed recurrent thoughts [and] amorous feelings towards her therapist. She engaged in stalking behavior including unwelcome gifts, multiple telephone calls to the therapist's office and home, and making threats towards the therapist. The patient continued to contact the therapist after [she] filed a Personal Protection Order. The patient was successfully treated with risperidone [an atypical antipsychotic] and fluvoxamine [a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor].
Since these unwelcome and intrusive actions were correlated with the onset of the patient's HD, the authors suggested that the stalking behavior could be early manifestation of basal ganglia pathology (Soliman et al., 2007). Her pattern of stalking does appear to have a substantial obsessive-compulsive component:

Ms. A exhibited two symptoms related to her stalking behavior that are probably linked to the basal ganglia lesions associated with HD. Namely, she exhibited obsessive thoughts about her therapist and amorous feelings towards her therapist.

The relationship between disorders of the basal ganglia and symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has been previously established.

They also cited the work of Meloy and Fisher (2005), who

hypothesized that the obsessive thoughts and amorous feelings related to stalking are caused in part by low activity of the central serotonergic pathways and increased dopaminergic activity. ... These hypotheses are consistent with the observation that Ms. A’s obsessive thoughts and stalking behavior remitted with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor and antipsychotic treatment, which increases serotonergic drive and suppresses dopaminergic activity, respectively.

Risperidone and fluvoxamine for our creepy narrator, then.

You gotta spend some time, love.
You gotta spend some time with me.
And I know that you'll find love.
I will possess your heart.



Meloy JR, Fisher H. (2005). Some thoughts on the neurobiology of stalking. J Forensic Sci. 50:1472-80.

Soliman S, Haque S, George E. (2007). Stalking and Huntington's disease: a neurobiological link? J Forensic Sci. 52:1202-4.

Spitzberg BH, Veksler AE. (2007). The personality of pursuit: personality attributions of unwanted pursuers and stalkers. Violence Vict. 22:275-89.

You reject my advances and desperate pleas
I won't let you let me down so easily
So easily.

Watch the full-length video (8:31).

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008


From The Social Cognitive Neuroscience of Organizations (Annals of the New York ResearchBlogging.orgAcademy of Sciences, Vol. 1118) comes this new hyphenated neuroword from David John Farmer:

Neuroscience as Catalyst

Abstract: Neuroscience promises to act as a catalyst, in the longer run, in seeking re-unification of the fragmented social sciences (e.g., political science and economics) and social action subjects (e.g., public administration and business administration) that concern governance. Neuroscience can achieve this because it reveals that taken-for-granted concepts, and the language used to express them, should be challenged. What should be sought is a language called in this paper Neuro-Gov.
So Neuro-Gov is a language, not a neuroscientific approach to governance à la the recently maligned1 microfield of neurolitcrit (see Neuroaesthetics and Post-Structuralism for a summary).

A choice quote: 2
Does Neuro-Gov, among others, have the substance and the momentum to release the coming generation from the traditional, common-sensical languages speaking about governance? Substance is taken to mean catalytic power to generate, and momentum means "muscle" power to induce, to seduce—such compelling power as is exerted by hard science on the upswing. Reading neuroscience seems to highlight the undesirability of the social mis-construction of common sense—and to emphasize the desirability of deconstructing such misleading constructions.
Deconstructing! Yay! That misleading construction harks back to the unforgettable 1997 article,
Derrida, Deconstruction, and Public Administration

Derridean deconstruction is a significant resource for public administration thinking and practice. It facilitates antiadministration,3 for example. This article recognizes the severe difficulties that deconstruction presents. Yet, it supports the claim that deconstruction can help public administration. It does so by exploring the nature of deconstruction, by illustrating how bureaucratic deconstruction can be used in public administration and how it is useful, and by analyzing the most significant of deconstruction's difficulties.
But back to Neuro-Gov. The author mentions the emerging mini-fields of neuro-economics4 and neuropolitics, with the former being "further along" than the latter:
First, some neuro-political-scientists want to shape the choice of research questions, e.g., focusing on the political aspects, rather than leaving the neuro-field to economists. Second, some work directly with fMRI functional magnetic resonance imaging (imaging the workings of the living brain), and are not limited to passive using. This is mentioned only because it is suggestive of the range of interest. In my view, such positivist activity is incidental to the hermeneutic major league action; white coat-ism is not suggested. Neuropolitics is a fringe area of political science activity in terms of quantity, even though it is important at this margin.
Note that the highlighted sentence reveals disdain for the scientific method, which makes the Neuro-Gov project entirely neurrelevant for actual working scientists. Neuro-Gov is, after all, just another language game, as readily acknowledged by the author.


1 The article, by The Times Literary Supplement
Neuroaesthetics is wrong about our experience of literature – and it is wrong about humanity.
2 The language of Neuro-Gov is not universal.

3 Otherwise known as anarchy.

4 Among other hyphenated neurowords, such as neuro-afficianados, neuro-psychotherapy, neuro-benefits.


FARMER, D.J. (2007). Neuro-Gov: Neuroscience as Catalyst. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1118(1), 74-89. DOI: 10.1196/annals.1412.002

FARMER, D.J. (1997). Derrida, Deconstruction, and Public Administration. American Behavioral Scientist, 41(1), 12-27. DOI: 10.1177/0002764297041001003

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