Monday, December 08, 2014

Hipster Neuroscience

According to Urban Dictionary,
Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20's and 30's that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.  ...  Hipsters reject the culturally-ignorant attitudes of mainstream consumers, and are often be seen wearing vintage and thrift store inspired fashions, tight-fitting jeans, old-school sneakers, and sometimes thick rimmed glasses.

by Trey Parasuco November 22, 2007 

Makes them sound so cool. But we all know that everyone loves to complain about hipsters and the endless lifestyle/culture/fashion pieces written about them.

And they're so conformist in their nonconformity.

Recently, Jonathan Touboul posted a paper at arXiv to model The hipster effect: When anticonformists all look the same:
The hipster effect is this non-concerted emergent collective phenomenon of looking alike trying to look different. Uncovering the structures behind this apparent paradox ... can have implications in deciphering collective phenomena in economics and finance, where individuals may find an interest in taking positions in opposition to the majority (for instance, selling stocks when others want to buy). Applications also extend to the case of neuronal networks with inhibition, where neurons tend to fire when others and silent, and reciprocally.

You can find great write ups of the paper at Neuroecology and the Washington Post:
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who like to go with the flow, and those who do the opposite — hipsters, in other words. Over time, people perceive what the mainstream trend is, and either align themselves with it or oppose it.

What if this world contained equal numbers of conformists and hipsters? No matter how the population starts out, it will end up in some kind of cycle, as the conformists try to catch up to the hipsters, and the hipsters try to differentiate themselves from the conformists.

But there aren't equal numbers of conformists and hipsters. And this type of cycle doesn't apply to neuroscience research, which is always moving forward in terms of trends and technical advances (right)?

It may be the Dream of the 1890s in Portland, but it's BRAIN 2015 all the way (RFA-MH-15-225):

BRAIN Initiative: Development and Validation of Novel Tools to Analyze Cell-Specific and Circuit-Specific Processes in the Brain (U01)

Although hipsters are in their 20s and 30s, the august NIH crowd (and its advisors) has set the BRAIN agenda that everyone else has to follow. When the cutting-edge tools (e.g., optogenetics) become commonplace, you have to do amazing things with them like create false memories in mice, or else develop methods like Dreadd2.0: An Enhanced Chemogenetic Toolkit or Ultra-Multiplexed Nanoscale In Situ Proteomics for Understanding Synapse Types.

The BRAIN Initiative wants to train the hipsters and other "graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral scholars, medical residents, and/or early-career faculty" in Research Tools and Methods and Computational Neuroscience. This will "complement and/or enhance the training of a workforce to meet the nation’s biomedical, behavioral and clinical research needs."

But this is an era when the average age of first-time R01 Principal Investigators is 42 1 and post-docs face harsh realities:
Research in 2014 is a brutal business, at least for those who want to pursue academic science as a career. Perhaps the most telling line comes from the UK report: of 100 science PhD graduates, about 30 will go on to postdoc research, but just four will secure permanent academic posts with a significant research component. There are too many scientists chasing too few academic careers.

How do you respond to these brutal challenges? I don't have an answer.2  But many young neuroscientists may have to start pickling their own vegetables, raising their own chickens, and curing their own meats.


1  The average age of first-time Principal Investigators on NIH R01 grants has risen from 36 in 1980 to 42 in 2001, where it remains today (see this PPT). So this has been going on for a while.

2  Or at least, not an answer that will fit within the scope of this post. Some obvious places to start are to train fewer scientists, enforce a reasonable retirement age, and increase funding somehow. And decide whether all research should be done by 20 megalabs, or else reduce the $$ amount and number of grants awarded to any one investigator.

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At December 08, 2014 5:31 AM, Anonymous Tannahill Glen said...

Many neuroscientists are going to HAVE to start raising own chickens and pickling own radishes at the rate it's going, given financial revolution in universities. It's a brave new world.

At December 08, 2014 9:58 PM, Blogger practiCal fMRI said...

Strangely enough, the more distracted by BRAINI people seem to get the more sanguine I find myself feeling. Is it, perhaps, because it's an acid test for the fad chasers? I really don't know. What I do know, though, is that the faster those around me try to move the slower I go. Speed is not conducive to quality thinking, any more than a nebulous set of buzz terms is conducive to creativity. (What, we were all sitting on our best ideas waiting for someone to dangle $100M under our noses? Please! If we had killer ideas we'd be chasing them already! Money is only part of the problem. The laws of physics don't care how much money is on offer!)

Some advice to those who aren't quite as sanguine as me. You're reading this on a blog, the chances are you got here via Twitter or some other social medium. Take some time to think about how you're using your networks, and what you can do to use them better. Think of this virtual place as the ultimate conference foyer. Who knows who you might bump into... And don't worry about getting scooped or whatever. Most people don't care as much about your research questions as you do. If you aren't prepared to put some information out there you can't expect to get much back. Take a risk. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Sod the hipsters. Long live the hipsters!

At December 13, 2014 5:01 AM, Anonymous Jespersen said...

Sometimes your blog updates are so confusing I can't really tell what they're actually about, and that's one of those cases. I lost track somewhere around the point you jumped from discussing hipsters to discussing the BRAIN initiative (while still making hipster references for some unknown reason).

At December 13, 2014 12:55 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Jespersen - sorry you were confused by the post. The points I tried to make were:

(1) Fashions/trends/cool outsider status are cyclical states. What's hip one day is mainstream the next. Or as Heidi Klum would say, "one day you're in and the next you're out."

(2) The same could be said for Trends in Neuroscience (sci/tech trends, not the journal). BRAINI strikes me as an initiative trying to stay one step ahead of the mainstream. Yet the agenda is being set by administrators & science advisors well out of hipster age.

(3) I found it ironic that grad students and post-docs (the "hipster" population) are being squeezed out of positions where they could set the trends for funding, yet they're the ones who are doing the experiments.

So who are the real "hipsters" here? What is "hipster neuroscience"?

At December 13, 2014 1:00 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

practiCal fMRI - I'm glad one of us is sanguine, because I am melancholic and filled with black bile.

Openness and collaboration are the keys to the future, but more and more of the research funding is being consolidated into the labs of the scientific One Percenters.

At December 14, 2014 5:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What makes you so sure that neuroscience is a field that is only moving in one direction? Is there no room for counter-intuitive ideas from the counter-counter crowd? ;)

At December 18, 2014 5:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neurocritic: Okay, I see. I didn't really see how the BRAIN initiative connected with the hipster theme. Thanks for clarifying. Though I suppose the fluctuation of trends is a thing in all of science, and not just the neuro- one, no?


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