Monday, November 20, 2006

Encephalon 11: for Prime Time Viewing only!!


I am Sandeep Gautam, your host for tonight, and it is my pleasure to walk you through this brand new episode of the brain carnival called Encephalon.

Before I start, my co-host for tonight, Caroline from the SharpBrains blog, would like to request you to turn off the music, unplug your headphones and concentrate solely on the stories presented in this carnival, to the exclusion of everything else. She recently found that we have limited attentional capacities and that is the reason why we turn down the radio, when we are lost and trying hard to find the correct route. Its common knowledge, that browsing through a collection of cutting edge science posts, from around the world, can be quite taxing on your attentional capacities and there is no room for divided attention here. For those addicted to music, she has some advice to offer - do a simple multitasking task at first and practice before moving on to this more complex task. So all you music addicts are advised to read the mouse trap archives (which evidently don't require much processing or brain use at all) and practice on that easier task first!!

Let me now start with a short recap (Did you every watch a show that didn't have a 'short' recap?). Last time the Mouse Trap hosted a carnival (Synapse #6), we took the readers on a historical journey , where staff correspondent The Neurophilosopher, recounted the story of how Neurons were discovered. That show went on to create history (it is one of the most viewed and popular story on the Neurophiliosopher's blog). This week the Neurophilosopher continues his historical voyage and explores how the nerve function and structure were discovered. While the initial enchantment with the 'animal spirits'/ 'humour' theory led to the emergence of related concepts like the Sanguine, Choleric,Phlegmatic and Melancholic temperaments; the latter day intoxication of Descartes with spirits, was instrumental in the emergence of the hydraulic metaphor for brain/ nerves/ emotions. The conceptualization of nerves, starting from 'hollow tubes', to that of conductors of 'animal electricity', to the modern notions of synaptic chemical transmission and voltage gate function of ion channels has involved the joint effort of many outstanding luminaries, endowing Noble prizes, on three pairs of scientists, along the way. It is also heartening to note, that Andrew Vesalius, in his 'On the Fabric of the Human Body', was not haunted by the animal spirits and was able to take a more rational stand. That may explain why he is one of the authors making it to the shortlist of 25 best science books ever.
(This edition of Encephalon is going very good by far: I have already managed to plug in references to some of my own posts!!)

We all love a good debate , don't we? While it has become increasingly unnecessary to defend evolution against the tirade of Intelligent Designers/ Creationists, yet someone has to take the cudgels, every now and then, and expose the IDers for what they are . In the Debunking section, PZ Myers, of the Pharyngula, responds to the continuing fascination of IDers with the Eye as a designed object, and drives home the point that the presence of shared, deep elements in the diverse and different types of eyes found in the natural world, is reflective of a common descent. He starts off with an article on A Panda's thumb, that argues that the backward layout of vertebrate eye (with nerves and blood vessels placed before the photorecpetors and in the path of incoming light) is a bad design and a quirk of evolutionary history and does not confer any said advantages like the 'cooling of retina'. While PZ Myers, concedes the possibility that an imperfect design and multiple types of eyes, can still be explained by IDers as the result of an Incompetent Designer (on the other hand one can argue that the fact that there are so many different kinds of eyes, each suited to the organism that has it, is proof of a watchmaker, that designs different watches for different needs- a sports watch for trendy youths, a classical gold -plated watch for aged people, and a gizmo-heavy watch for the geek) , he shows that the shared elements (opsins) in the rhobodermic (invertebrate) and cilliary (vertebrate) eyes point towards a common historical descent and are part of the same phylogenetic tree. This makes evolution as the prime candidate for explanation of eye features as they exist. Interesting to note, that c-opsins are also present in the invertebrates and used in Circadian rhythms, while r-opsins are also found in vertebrates and are implicated in circadian rhythm resetting. Well, IDers can still use this as an ammunition for their theories: claiming that the r-opsins in humans is the mythological Shiva's Third Eye. One can play the devil's advocate (I like this part and would gladly do the honors) and claim that two types of eye systems -one r-based, the other c-based are also logical outcomes of physical facts- just like two systems of watches exists - analog and digital - so also do the physical facts of perception decree that 2 types of eyes can be possible - one r-based and the other c-based - and their presence in vertebrates and invertebrates does not point to common descent, but only spurious relationships. I'll let PZee thrash these arguments in his next posting.

Meanwhile, we keep pipping Mythbusters to the post, with vigilant reporters not only debunking the old and haunting myths (like that of a non-blind watchmaker), but also actively nipping in the bud, new myths as they are being formulated and proposed. One such myth is that of exaggerated differences in Male and Female brains and abilities, and Jake Young from Pure Pedantry has covered this earlier too. This time, he returns to examine the extreme, 'male brain', systematizing theory of Autism, and concludes that if extreme male interests/abilities are indeed a symptom of autism, then in the light of the fact that male-female differences are largely socio-cultural, while autism is largely genetic, one can only conclude that the differences in systematizing are an epiphenomena, and not a cause. Moreover, the theory of assortative mating that Simon Baron-cohen proposes , as well as his emphasis on systematizing, to the exclusion of the other major symptoms of autism like social and communicative difficulties, appear lacking and non-comprehensive. Repetitive behavior can be adequately explained by systematising, but how can something as elementary as eye contact aversion follow from geekiness or nerdness of the autistic boy and be a consequence rather than a cause?

While the theory of Autism may be quite controversial and how to help children with Autism not clear, yet for the normal , anxiety and stress- driven, school-going child, we have some hope. They can now cope with the stresses, increase focus and manage emotions, all by themselves. Alvaro, from the SharpBrains blog, reports on an exciting biofeedback program that has managed to improve the performance of children appreciably by providing them feedback about their own stress levels -measured as heart rate variability- and encouraging them to use meditation techniques like Yoga to calm down in stressful situations.

Ok folks, Its time to take a break! See you after the commercials! (All good programs do have commerical breaks!)

But in this commercial break, you will not be flooded with Advertisements that purport to increase your ------ to double its size. (Hey guys, what are you thinking, that ----- was to be filled with a brain muscle name. I can assure you the reference was in no way related to 'what the normal male thinks about every 2 minutes'!)

Instead, in this break, Joe Kissel , of the Interesting Thing Of The Day blog, would like you all to take a Power Nap. No need to watch the commercials. Just take a short power nap- and return rejuvenated - with improved memory, attention and cognitive performance. If sleeping is not your cup of tea, resort to Power Blogging (do remember to quote me if you use this term, I invented it just now!) instead. Fernette and Brock Eide at the Eide Neurolearning blog, report on how blogging increases various cognitive abilities like critical, associational and analogical thinking. But just like the Power Nap, keep your Power Blog posting of a reasonable length. While a long nap would leave you groggy and unable to work, a long post may not have the same effect on you, but would definitely end up making your readers groggy and distracted. believe me, I know from personal experience!

Ok, Welcome back! After the break, we take you out from our studio, and into the fields, where actual stuff happens. Our special correspondent, Chris Patil, of Ouroboros blog, was covering the annual scientific meeting of the Larry L Hillblom Foundation, and reports straight form the filed on the strategy of passive immunization for Alzheimer's. The procedure involves giving the antibodies, that target amyloid Abeta oligomeres, directly to the patients. Interestingly, these antibodies also target IAPP, thought to be instrumental in type II diabetes and may offer some help in curing that disease too. As the prevalence of Diabetes in India is quite high (and as I have a family history of this disease), I'll surely be following the developments here.

Its show time folks! Michael, from the Peripersonal space, presents a retrospective of Charles and Ray Eames film and multimedia work. The makers of such films like the Powers of Ten they are also famous for the creation of the Eames chair and frequently employed and incorporated the latest cognitive psychology concepts in their films and presentations. For example, in their Rough sketch for a sample lesson of a hypothetical course, they not only made efficient use of visuals and sounds (loud enough to make you feel vibrations), but also incorporated smells piped through the ventilation system. The effects were striking, with people smelling oil when seeing it, when no odor was actually present, but because they expected a smell just like they had received for the other scenes.

Odor is strongly linked with memory, and as Vaughan from the Mind Hacks blog, had highlighted, the retronasal olfactory system is also strongly linked with Flavor or Taste Perception. So, with the correct use of technology, (flavor odors presented when people gasp after seeing a visual and are exhaling air and are thus using retro nasal system), one can even induce the sense of taste. When sight, sound,smell, touch (vibrations due to loud sounds) and flavors are combined in a presentation, I am sure the results would be terrific.

Michael, specializes in peripersoanl space and the associated proprioception sense, so I am sure we can even include proprioceptive, vestibular and kinesthetic effects in the future presentations! Meanwhile, Michael continues on his exploration of psychological themes and concepts in Charles and Ray Eames work, and proposes that the reason they used seven simultaneous screens in Glimpses Of USA, may have been partly due to the known 7+-2 limits of the working memory and how having seven screens would force viewers to sample from all of them without being overwhelmed.

While we are talking about show business, let us also indulge in some celebrity gossip. Everyone knows that the alpha male in chimpanzees, is equivalent to the human celebrity, but nobody had though that chimps too indulged in celebrity worship. Olivier, from the AplhaPsy blog, reports on how his job as a paparazzi, was finally rewarded, when he came across a striking conclusion - that the other chimps, when they were replicating a social-convention, were not actually learning a convention at all. They were just imitating the celebrity, the alpha male, and that the conclusions derived about a theory of mind or social-convention learning in chimps, based on this experimental setup, are flawed.

In our chat section, Alvaro from the SharpBrains blog, makes some Hard Talk with Dr Brett N Steerbarger, who has written extensively on trading and the psychology that is involved in improving trading behavior. They discuss how concepts of structured learning, continuous feedback, self motivation and developing an expertise in a niche are relevant in the context of improving trading performance. If you are a short term trader, you need to see patterns quickly and so need to increase your processing speed and working memory. For long term traders, analytical skills are paramount, while everybody can benefit from emotion management. Expert traders, like all experts in their fields, are a result of skills that are practiced, honed and fine-tuned, sometimes under the instructions of a coach. We are sure you would increase your trading capacities immensely if you took this advice seriously and indulged in some trader specific training. Don't forget to share your increased revenues with this humble blog at that time!!

While expertise, as a result of hard work, rather than training, is one of the most debated issues in Intelligence Psychology, another issue that keeps cropping is the nature of intelligence. Is there an underlying 'g' factor, or is the correlation between the IQ test explicable otherwise. Hugo, from the AlphaPsy blog has the second opinion and reports on a new paper that does away with an underlying 'g' and explains the correlation in terms of effects of one ability on the other.

In our last section (I can anticipate your relief!), we look towards the future and anticipate future trends. IB, from the Fibromyalgia Research Blog, reports on a recent study that found abnormal cerebral activation (increased neural recruitment) during cognitive tasks in Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. He suggests that future study be focussed on finding the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying cognitive deficits like abnormally slow brain waves and sleep disturbances that are found in Fibromyalgia.

Before you leave, our sponsors, Dr Kavokin, from the Rdoctor blog, have some exciting gifts for you. Quickly answer a short quiz about low back pain and take home some cool prizes. While you can savor the quiz at your leisure, I would like to highlight question # 4 regarding whether smoking relieves the back pain or exacerbates it. That question has direct significance to us, as it indicates how mental attitudes affect physical illnesses. Rush in your entries or SMS TRUE/ FALSE on our hot line number 0000. You can also e-mail your answers to Exciting prizes like laptops, iPods and windows viruses are waiting for you!

Thats all for tonight. We will return in a fortnight's time, with the 12th episode of the Encephalon, same time, same day. Don't forget to tune in. Your hosts for that show would be Hugo, Olivier et al at the AlphaPsy blog . The day is 4th of December.

For now, please allow your host to thank all the behind-the-scenes persons - the actual contributors!! Thanks and good night!!

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The neurophilosopher said...

Many thanks Sandeep

Alvaro said...

wow. Great work, Sandy. Now I understand when people complain that we write too much good content and busy people don't have time to read it :-)

I will have to take a Power Nap immediately (I really enjoyed that post, having wondered where the expression came from, we certainly didn't call it Power Siesta in Spain), and be ready to read some of the posts, having gone through your great story. Thanks!

mcewen said...

Power napping! Is that the answer? Tried it in the 80's but it didn't work. Perhaps I should try again.
Best wishes