Thursday, August 28, 2008

Overcoming the Monster- Indian style!

Thanks to Vaughan, I spent a greater time of my day researching the 'basic plots' that are behind all good stories. Regular readers of this blog, would know that I am a sucker for 'five basic' or 'eight basic' anything (with a variation that 'seven basic' is also accommodated as, as per my theory the eighth basic may be on a different qualitative level and thus likely to be missed!

The original Mind Hacks post was regarding Levitin's new book that claims that there are only six basic types of songs: Friendship, Joy, Comfort, Knowledge, Ceremony/religion/ritual and Love, but I strayed from the main course and started savoring the eight basic dramatic plots served by Dennis Johnson: Cinderella, Achilles, Faust, Tristan , Circe, Romeo&Juliet, Orpheus and the Irrepressible Hero (The FOOL anyone?) (all but the last named after famous characters). It wasn't long before I was reading 'The Seven Basic Plots' by Christopher Booker.

The seven basic plots Booker outlines are : Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage & return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. while I'll most probably write more on the topic after reading the whole book , I would like to comment now on the first plot: 'Overcoming the Monster' .

In this, typically a Hero is pitted against a monster, whom he slays to win a princess/ treasure / kingdom etc. While reading this plot, two famous Lord Krishna myths immediately flashed before me:

The first is the myth of how Satrjit's Mani (pearl) came in possession of Jambvant and how Krishna fought and defeated Jambvant to defend himself from the false theft accusation of the pearl. Now this is no 'traditional' overcoming the monster myth as Jambvant is no monster- rather he is a revered chiranjivi being. Also, Jambvant is not killed, but gracefully withdraws from the fight after realizing the 'god' nature of Krishna. Howvere, like traditional 'overcome the monster' plot, there is treasure guarded and a princess (Jambvati , the daughter of Jambvant) married after the defeat. This time another princess (two marriages!) Satyabhama, who is the daughter of the King Satarjit, is also married to Krishna. Krishna, of course doesnt take the pearl (treasure) buts ends up with two wives! So some form of the plot is there, but not in its entirety. Also, the whole narrative is pre-ordained as Krishna saw moon during inauspicious time, so the take home is that there is no real evil or fight involved - it is all Maya or illusion!!

The second 'overcoming the monster' myth is again from Krishna myth. This time the monster is indeed really monstrous-a big, venomous serpent called Kaliya, and like traditional story the kingdom and the common people are troubled by this serpent; but in this case also no death of Kaliya is involved: he is just tamed and sent to a different place; also it seems Kaliya was there because of fear of Garuda, so again Kaliya per se is not 'really ' evil and all is Maya.

I like this circularity and 'fictional maya-like' view of things of Indian culture very much and I am sure the other plots would also have been similarly adapted by Indians: circular and without any 'real' 'evil' lurking around.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Exploration/ Exploitation == Maximisers/ Satisficers?

There is an interesting research coverage at We are Only Human blog regarding whether people may have two different cognitive styles- one based on exploration of novel ideas and the other based on exploitation or focus on a particular familiar idea. The study employs evolutionary concepts and theorizes that these different cognitive styles may be a reflection of the different foraging styles that might have been selected for and relevant in EEA.

Specifically, while foraging for food in a habitat where the food supply and resources are unpredictable , one is faced with a choice when one has discovered a food source: whether to exploit this food source (a jungle area having sparse edible leaves) or to move ahead in search of a potentially better food source (a jungle area having abundant edible and nutritious fruits) . Both strategies , that of exploring or exploiting can be advantageous and may have been selected for. It is also possible that humans can use either of the strategies based on the environment- (food source distribution) , but may be inclined towards one strategy or the other. The authors of the study surmised that both the strategies have been selected for and we have the potential to use either of the strategy. Moreover, the same foraging strategy we use or are primed of, would also be visible in the cognitive strategy we use.

They used an ingenious technique to prime the subjects with either of the foraging strategies (go read the excellent We are only human blog post) and found that humans were flexible in the use of the appropriate strategy, given the appropriate context, and that the foraging strategy primed the corresponding cognitive strategy. To boot, those primed with an exploratory foraging strategy would be more prone to using exploratory cognitive strategies when confronted with a cognitive task and vice versa. They also found systematic differences between individuals cognitive and foraging styles- some were more exploratory than the others.

This reminds me of the Maximizers/ Satisficers distinction in decision-making style that Barry Scwatrz has introduced and brought to public attention. Basically a Maximizer , when faced with a decision and choice, would go on computing the utility of different choices and try to choose the option that maximizes his utility and is the 'best'. A Satisficer, on the other hand would also explore options, but stop his exploration, when he finds an option that is 'good enough'. I wonder, if just like the exploratory/ Exploitative cognitive and foraging styles, this is just another dimension of the same underlying phenomenon- whether to explore more - or to exploit what is available. To take an example, for marriage, a satisficing strategy may work best - as told in "The Little Prince" one should stop searching for more flowers if one has already had the fortune of possessing a flower.

"People where you live," the little prince said, "grow five thousand roses in one garden... yet they don't find what they're looking for..."

"They don't find it," I answered.

"And yet what they're looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water..."

An interesting experiment would be to see, if the foraging style, the cognitive style, and the decisions style are all correlated within individuals and if priming one can influence the outcome of the other style.

If so, could there be an underlying neural phenomenon , common to all?

Wray, the author of We are only human blog makes a bold conjecture and relates this to the finding that dopamine levels.

Exploratory and inattentive foraging—actual or abstract—appears linked to decreases in the brain chemical dopamine.

He even relates this to cognitive disorders like Autism and ADHD.

By analogy, in conditions where baseline dopamine is more, like in bipolar and psychosis, one may be more inclined to a more staisficing/ 'I'm feeling Lucky' strategy in which the very first option is acceptable. This may explain the 'jumping-to-conclusions' bias in schizophrenia/ psychosis.

To make things more explicit, though the leading dopamine theory in vogue now is of 'error-prediction' , a competing, and to me more reasonable, view of dopamine function is incentive salience i.e. what 'value'/ importance does the stimuli have for the person in question. The importance can be both positive and negative and thus we have found that dopamine is involved in both dread and desire. The dominant reward prediction theory faces many challenges, the least of which is response of dopamine neurons to novel events. A dopamine burst is also associated with 'novel' events and thus dopamine is somehow involved in/ triggered by Novelty. Baseline dopamine may constrain the dopamine surge felt on a novel event. Thus, in schizophrenia/ psychosis , with baseline dopamine high, a dopamine burst on novelty detection may be high enough so that it is meaningful and may not lead to more exploratory behavior. While in the disorders where baseline dopamine is low, one may require a more profound dopamine burst before the stimuli becoming meaningful and thus may go on seeking novel stimulus till one finds one 'big enough to trigger salience'.

We may extend the salience argument to other domains than incentive. If the chief function of dopamine is to mark salience, then it may also be instrumental in memory and attention. Only what is Salient gets attention, and only what is salient gets into Working Memory. Thus,a high dopamine level may predispose to treating almost everything as salient, leading to delusions of reference (everything is meaningfully related to self etc) etc. Working Memory may be taxed due to everything trying to get in- and thus poor WM in people with schizophrenia. Also, every trivial thing may grab attention- leading to poor sensory gating and conditions like lack of pre-pulse inhibition. On the flip side, while making sense of ones experience, one may accept the first possible explanation and do not search further - thus leading to persistence of delusions.

An opposite scenario would be when one keeps exploring the environment and nothing seems novel due to low dopamine levels. This would be the classical Autistic repetitive and stereotype behaviors. There would be sensory over stimulation, as nothing is salient and one needs to explore more and more. On the other hand, WM capabilities may be good/ savant like, as not every piece of information grabs attention. Everything should seem insignificant and the only way to arrive at decision / choose action would be via exhaustive enumeration and logical evaluations of all options. even after obvious explanations for phenomenon, one may keep looking for a better explanation. No wonder , as per my theory, more scientists would be autistic.

Perhaps, I am stretching things too far, but to me the dopamine connection to Salience/ Meaning/ Importance is sort of worth exploring and I will write more about that in future. For now, let us be willing to associate Salience not just with stimuli related to motivation, but also with stimuli relevant in sensation, perception,learning and memory. If so the common underlying mechanism responsible for differentiating us as a exploratory and expolitatory forager (food) may also be related to our different cognitive styles, our different decision-making styles and our different baseline dopamine levels.

Dopamine though is most strongly related to food and sex. I could even stretch this argument and say this may be related to r and K reproductive styles (note these styles are species specific, but I believe individuals in a specie may also vary on the reproductive strategy along this dimension). Thus, while explorers may have r type of reproductive style, the exploiters may have a K reproductive style.

At one extreme are r-strategies, emphasizing gamete production, mating behavior, and high reproductive rates, and at the other extreme are K-strategies, emphasizing high levels of parental care, resource acquisition, kin provisioning, and social complexity.

If K-strategy is what humans have chosen, maybe exploitation in all areas (cognitive, decision-making, foraging) is more relevant and in tune with our nature. Maybe that's why I'll always be on the side of Psychosis than Autism!! Though, to put things in perspective, maybe humans have evolved to use both strategies as the situations demands , and the best thing would be to use the strategy situation-specific and not lean towards either extremes.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Top 100 cutting edge science blogs!

A top 100 cutting edge science blogs list has been compiled by X-Ray Technician Schools and includes a host of good science blogs. Some I already knew and some are new to me. It is a must-visit for every science buff who is interested in cutting edge science and would like to increase the number of good science blogs that one regularly monitors/ reads.

The list is broken up into categories and there are categories like Health and Biology; a category that is conspicuously missing is psychology/neuroscience, but you can find many good blogs related to psychology/neuroscience in that list, so do take a look.

I would also like to thank the hosts for featuring The Mouse Trap blog in that list and hope that this blog lives up to the expectations and does retain its cutting edge focus!

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Ode to the Brain: Encephalon 51st edition now out!

Welcome to the 51st edition of the brain carnival, Encephalon.

25 little gems,
on the mind and the brain-
aren't they one and the same!

SharpBrains sets the tone for this edition of the Encephalon with a collection of 25 haikus contributed by its readers- all with either the brain or the mind as their guiding theme. While each haiku present there is unique and worth a read, the allusion above to 'aren't they one and the same' has more to do with the 'mind and the brain' part --- is the age-old dichotomy still relevant; do we still need a mind when we are increasingly comfortable talking in terms of the brain?

Daniel from Neuranthropology examines this age-old dichotomy from a Critical Neurosciences perspective and argues that instead of trying to resolve this dichotomy, one should focus instead, on the new paradigms, methods and approaches that become available when one tries to explain mental phenomenon in neural terms. The other two aspects of Critical Neuroscience he highlights are how ideology may influence the (neuro) science and how the new neuroscience should be a science for change- actively taking responsibility for the impact that new findings bring about.

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

Continuing with the mind-brain theme, is it plausible that the reason we focus so much on the dichotomy is just because we have a separate name for the mind from the brain? Dennett seems to think so for consciousness- he believes that just because we have invented a unitary name for that inner-subjective-feel phenomena that may be a result of diverse neural phenomena, we are tricked into believing that we have a unitary consciousness. This trickery or illusion is accomplished by a Magical sleight of hand- that of giving a name to an un-existing phenomenon. Vaughan, over at The Mind Hacks, illustrates this beautifully using a card trick called 'The Tuned Deck' in which just attributing a magical tuning property to 'the' deck leads to even seasoned magicians getting dumb-founded as they try to discover a single concept behind the many diverse tricks that are used to create that trickery. So it seems that naming something a rose endows it with an essence that was not earlier present!

Oh sweet memory,
my heart breaks deep inside.
Oh sweet memory,
it's you I'm trying to hide.
Mahfooz Ali

While a rose may or may not smell sweet, depending on whether it is given a name or not, we all know too well the association between sweet and memories. But I bet you didn't knew that there was another angle to this association between sweet and memories. Latest research indicates that moderate increases in blood sugar levels can lead to better short-term memory. Jeniifer Gibson, from The BrainBlogger, highlights this recent research and cautions that those who have better blood sugar regulation, do better cognitively and that high levels of baseline blood sugar are associated with reduced hippocampal volume and reduced cognitive functioning. So do control your intake of sugar-and don't use this as a pretext to indulge your sweet cravings- after all research such as this keeps indicating that Alzheimer's may just be a type-III diabetes!!.

"Where is our Safe Haven?"
"Where do we hide?"
"Up ahead is a church still standing!
I'd better hurry, and get inside."

While it may be difficult to hide one's memories, it is very easy for us to spot a hiding place- a safe haven, a nest. Is the same true of mice- do they have 'concepts' and 'categories' - like the 'nest'- built-up / learned in their brains? Doctor Spurt at Effortless Incitement revisits a PNAS paper, that had been widely discussed at its time of publication, regarding whether mice encode concepts like nests using its hippocampal neurons. He finds evidence for three such type of neurons and comes out convinced ready to take on all Heideggereans!

No man is an island, entire of itself..
..any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind
John Donne

You may prefer to be confined to your safe haven or your own private island, but research shows that humans, in general, are extremely social and empathetic- determined to get inside each others' mind- and sometimes on each others nerves! but what about those, who have a diminished 'theory of mind'? Doc at the Mind, Soul and Body blog describes people with Asperger's syndrome and how they may lack some of the core prerequisites for discerning other peoples minds- deficits in recognizing faces, interpreting non-verbal cues and figurative languages and reduced empathy. He also takes stock of leading theories of why this difference may be - from inability to ignore sensory stimulus to the ever ubiquitous mirror neurons!

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?

Fair or not, Mirror Neurons have been around for quite some time and have been credited with everything from Global Warming to US economic woes. Marc Dingman, at the Neuroscientifically Challenged, challenges this hegemony of Mirror Neurons, and though does not outright dismisses them, is sure that they would be replaced soon by neuronal groups called convergence-divergence zones (CDZs).Have we already come full circle? Would a mirror by any other name still keep us trapped? Before we jump to conclusions, we ought to read that well written piece about the latest Antonia Damasio paper in Nature, and appreciate that non-local CDZs with which the mirror neurons are to be replaced, are a neuronal circuit- and that too not specific to or linked to imitation. Rather, it is a higher-order association area are where many local CDZs inputs converge and which may subsequently reactivate those local CDZs when one aspect of the older experience is re experienced.

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,
How to divide the conquest of thy sight;
Mine eye my heart thy picture's sight would bar,
My heart mine eye the freedom of that right.

Talking of debunking something-anything-one should not forget the Neurocritic. After all, it is his prerogative to criticize and thrash the Junk science. I'm sure Neurocritic would agree with Marc in debunking the Autism-is-due-to-mirror-neurons theory, but this time he is busy analyzing the gazes of people with Autism (hypo social), Williams syndrome (hyper social) and normal children especially how much time and which portions of a social scene do these different populations focus on. He finds that indeed the eye may have a will of its own and tracking it may reveal some of our inner dynamics. He reviews recent research that found that children with Williams syndrome spend more time looking at faces (and in that too on eyes); while the opposite pattern was observed for those with Autism. This Area of Interest had a statistically significant interaction with the group type (Autism, Williams, normal). However the most important takeaway from the study (which one of the commentators pointed and Neurocritc too concurred) was that 'normal' children spent a significant time staring at the breasts of the lady in the picture!!

"The brain is my second favorite organ"
Woody Allen

While many psychologist do not hesitate in advising on how to keep your first favorite organ in shape; other saner folks are more concerned about how to exercise your second favorite organ's muscles and what the emerging trends are. Alvaro at the SharpBrains blog lists the top 10 emerging trends in the brain fitness market and asks for other predictions - offering a free The State of the Brain Fitness Software Market 2008, for the best prediction/ comment. The trends he documents range from low tech computer software to involvement of doctors and pharmacists, insurance agencies and corporate wellness and leadership groups.

Man is the flying eagle, Woman, the singing nightingale.
To fly is to conquer space. To sing is to conquer the Soul.
Man is a temple, Woman a shrine.
Before the temple we discover ourselves, before the shrine we kneel.
In short, man is found where earth finishes, woman where heaven begins.
Victor Hugo

That brings us to the all important question of whether all those who would be spearheading this brain fitness revolution would have our best interests in mind. When big money like Insurance companies, pharmacists (drug companies) and corporates get involved, there is potential for dishing out the Neurotosh, Neurodosh and Nuerodash i.e. tosh or junk science, dosh or big money and dash or corruption all dressed up with a Neuro salad. While brain fitness movement may still be nascent and free of all such corrupting influences, Daniel at the Neuroanthropolgy blog found that this was the current state of affairs with respect to some practitioners of Neuroscience like Louann Brizendine the author of The Female Brain. Reporting from Montreal Critical Neurosciences conference he unearthed evidence of drug company linkages of Louann and how she twisted and over exaggerated the sexual differences in the brain to advocate her own interests.

I shall not sing a May song.
A May song should be gay.
I'll wait until November
And sing a song of gray.

I'll wait until November
That is the time for me.
I'll go out in the frosty dark
And sing most terribly.

And all the little people
Will stare at me and say,
"That is the Crazy Woman
Who would not sing in May."
Gwendolyn Brooks

Greg over at the Neuroanthropology blog takes this line of argument one step further and looks at how psychiatrists like Prof. Joseph Biederman, who may also have dubious drug company linkages, nevertheless end up being an institution in themselves, and end up having a profound influence on how we conceive and label normalcy or difference. Specifically, Prof Biederman, was responsible for pushing the diagnosis of bipolairty in children and as a result has resulted in for-better-or-for-worse an overwhelming number of children who are now diagnosed with the illness. Does labeling them as bipolar introduce new dynamics in their interaction with parents and peers? What about the lasting effects the anti-psychotics would have during the critical developmental periods? Would this grip of psychiatry in this case, or the just-so evolutionary psychology stories that one readily accepts to rationalize ones prejudices in other cases, over our discourse really good or is it leading to a harmful effect? He leaves us with many more questions than answers! While we normally tend to turn a deaf ear to such songs of gloom, it is important that we heed the warning and at least not label the doomsayer a 'crazy woman'!

Lastly if you are wondering how you got that headache - it has nothing to do with this ode to the brain. It is because you just ate freezing ice-cream - it has lead to a freezing sensation and to a condition called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. Now, if reading the name of the condition itself leads to a headache don't blame me. Jokes apart, Waynekid Kam, from the BrainBlogger, describes this condition and explains how eating ice-cream could lead to headaches. Now, if you find the prospect of eating ice-cream a little too unpalatable, you are welcome to send all your ice-cream money to my way- I don't mind the headaches - or the ice-creams!

That's all for this edition folks! Do keep sending in your submissions to and it will be featured in the next edition due 19 August at Ouroboros.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Encephalon: call for submissions

The next edition of the fortnightly brain carnival Encephalon, will be published right here at The Mouse Trap. So all you brainy folks out there, do send in your submissions before Monday, the 4th of August to and I would love to include your submissions in the next issue.

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