Category Brain Science

Mother’s Little Helper, the Brainstem

Psychologists have known for a long time what seems pretty obvious intuitively: that given two routes to achieve the same reward, a person will take the easier path.

But Not TWO Miles...

For example, if you were to ask a person to walk a mile to get a thick, juicy steak or ask them to walk two miles to get the same thick, juicy steak, it’s pretty obvious that most people would take the easier way to the food.

This has been codified as the Law of Less Work:

If two or more behavioral sequences, each involving a different amount of energy consumption or work, have been equally well reinforced an equal number of times, the organism will gradually learn to choose the less laborious behavior sequence leading to the attainment of the reinforcing state of affairs. — Clark Hull, Principles of Behavior (1943)

By analogy, and probably by common sense as well, it seems likely that we do the same with mental work as well.

However, it’s not that easy to make the leap.

Review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine is an example of that rare science book that sets me on a new way of thinking. That’s not to say I found it perfect — there is much to disagree with between its covers, some of which I will abstract here — but for framing and displaying the Big Questions that guide us as scientists, it has few parallels.

It seems the only uninterrupted (read: Internet-free) time I have to read is on airplanes. The time between boarding and achieving cruising altitude, and the mirror-image process of landing, is a time that all electronic devices are stowed, and therefore a perfect time for an old-fashioned, paper and pasteboard book.

I was sitting on the plane to Seattle, engaging in my usual practice of “eavesdropping” on what the person to my right was reading.

It was the book Bringing Up Boys by James Dobson. The passage at the top of the page he was reading (page 15, to be precise) said:

“Think for a moment about the above quotes from Steinem, Greer, and the other early feminists. Most of them were never married, didn’t like children, and deeply resented men, yet they advised millions of women on how to raise their children and, especially, how to produce healthy boys. There is no evidence that Steinem or Greer ever had any significant experience with children of either sex. Isn’t it interesting that the media (to my knowledge) never homed in on that incongruity? And isn’t it sad that these women were allowed to twist and warp the attitudes of a generation of kids?”

What I was reading was like a sort of Ode on a Grecian Urn of Nonsense, a perfection in stupidity. How did Dobson know that early feminists “deeply resented men” and “didn’t like children”? That damn mainstream media dropped the ball again, by refusing to expose the perfidy of people fighting for basic human rights. I’m not even sure what the evidence is for either Steinem or Greer “advis[ing] millions of women on how to raise children”. Sure, I know they wrote on the subject, but as an adolescent at the time, I don’t recall a lot of my peers’ parents following Greer’s advice to raise us like Tahitians. I don’t recall a single lavalava being worn to classes in my high school.

Under the Spreading Neurotree

We were on the train to Salt Lake City, the student and I. She was considering a neuroscience minor, and I wanted to introduce her to some high-powered neuroscience at the next opportunity.

Our college/working class town doesn’t have much in the way of neuroscience lectures, but luckily, the University of Utah’s Brain Institute is only an hour’s train and light rail ride away, and so we were on our way down to hear an old friend, Dr. Ed Rubel, speak on his research.

Rubel is one of the smartest guys I know, and he’s a wonderful and engaging speaker. I’ve known him since 1985, when I came to work with my postdoctoral advisor, Dr. Vivien Casagrande.

We arrived early, and waited in the lecture hall. As we became bored with watching the proper connections being made to make Rubel’s slides display on screen, I was explaining to Megan, the prospective neuroscientist, my connection to Rubel.

“Well, Ed Lachica was a graduate student in Casagrande’s lab at the same time I was a postdoc,” I explained. “Ed Lachica went to Ed Rubel’s lab for his postdoc, after he finished his degree with Vivien. So I suppose Ed Rubel is like my scientific father-in-law, if Ed Lachica and I are sons of different fathers.”

She laughed. This seemed complicated, and a little bit strange to her, I could tell.

“Neuroscientists are all connected, one way or another. In fact, there’s a website called NeuroTree where they compile the connections and display them as a sort of ‘Neuroscience Family Tree’.”

This seemed fantastical to her, so I whipped out my iPad and proceeded to show her.

As I did, as if on cue, another neuroscientist/educator, Suzanne Stensaas, was chatting with Rubel.

“We’re brother and sister, I think,” she was saying.

Megan’s eyes opened wide in amazement. My credibility increased then and there.

Yes, there is a NeuroTree. The entries there are all made by contributors, to avoid a certain kind of vandalism or perhaps even the claim of a false connection. I’m on there, as are most of my colleagues, and if you want to see how we’re connected, then you can go there too.

It allows for a neuroscience version of the “Kevin Bacon game” or “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” (a takeoff on the meme “Six Degrees of Separation“) where one tries to construct a path with the minimum number of steps between Kevin Bacon and anyone

Me (Bowling for Boobies) →

1. Jane Wiedlin (“Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure“) →

2. Clifford David (“Pyrates“) →

3. Kevin Bacon! Just three degrees between me and Kevin Bacon!

or Kevin Bacon and anyone in Hollywood.

How many steps between me and Rosanne Cash? Fourteen!

James B. Hutchins (Weber State University)
|    (grad student for)
Frank S Werblin (University of California, Berkeley)
|    (grad student for)
John E Dowling (Harvard University)
|    (grad student for)
George Wald (Harvard University)
|    (trained grad student)
Merle S Bruno (Hampshire College)
|    (grad student for)
Donald R Griffin (Harvard University)
|    (grad student for)
Karl Spencer Lashley (Harvard University)
|    (grad student for)
Robert Mearns Yerkes (Yale University)
|    (trained grad student)
Kenneth W. Spence (Iowa University)
|    (grad student for)
Clark L Hull (University of Wisconsin)
|    (trained grad student)
Neal E. Miller (Rockefeller University)
|    (trained grad student)
Gordon H Bower (Stanford University)
|    (trained grad student)
Douglas L Hintzman (University of Oregon)
|    (trained grad student)
Daniel J Levitin (McGill University)
|    (close friends with, appears in video with)
Rosanne Cash

(I had no idea I was so close to Karl Lashley. There exists no engram in my brain for that information.)

Feel free to post below if you think we’re “related”.


The Truth About Cats’ and Dogs’ (Brains)

As a neuroscientist and dog trainer, I’ve always been fascinated by the interface between the two.

For me, the most powerful forms of dog training utilize the secret bonds of empathy and guidance, much like a psychiatrist will act as docent to take a patient on a guided tour of their own brain.



For example, in the therapeutic school called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, the therapist acts as neuroscientist, suggesting hypotheses and carrying out experiments in conjunction with the patient. “Let’s hypothesize that you will be harmed by snakes, Mr. Jones. Are you saying that all snakes are harmful, or just some types?”

That’s how good, effective dog training works, as well. I have always been drawn to the power and elegance of the very best behavioral-based trainers, such as Dr. Sophia Yin, Monique Anstee and Dr. Suzanne Hetts.

Seven Deadly Sins Sunday: Gluttony Part 2

Each Sunday, I’m excerpting a chapter of The Seven Deadly Synapses, a book on the neuroscience of sin. In this series, we’re examining the sin of Gluttony.

In part 1 of “Gluttony”, we didn’t get to the scientific part. It was mostly just a warm-up. Now it’s time to figure out how the taste system sends a signal to the brain, and how the digestive system handles food.



Part 2

For most of mankind’s history, eating has been the key to staying alive and so has been a human’s main job. Most of a person’s waking hours were devoted to getting calories, processing calories into a healthy and digestible form, and storing calories for future needs. The word “famine” appears 107 times in the King James Version of the Christian Bible (including the passage shown here, that describes a famine so severe that a mother boils and eats her son); “hunger” 60 times; “starve”, “starving”, “starvation”, 19 times. Other religious texts show a similar historical fixation with either metaphorical or real hunger: the word is used 74 times in the Qur’an, and only 18 times in the Upanishads. Gluttony is likely to be a sin mostly because it revels in the flaunting of what mankind has struggled so hard, for so many years, to achieve: nutrition.


To find food, and eat it, and to balance surfeit with famine, is the responsibility of a few thousand nerve cells in a pinky-end-sized hunk of brain called the hypothalamus. Just like the thermostat in your house keeps the household temperature close to where you want it to be, the hypothalamus is responsible for your body’s balancing acts, the processes and feedback loops that physiologists call “homeostatic mechanisms”. Like Goldilocks, we want our bodies to be “just right”. not too cold, not too hot; not too thin, not too fat; not too much breath, not too little. How the hypothalamus causes us mischief is the root of our story.

Oscar® Winning Neuroscientists

A classic method for earning a quick sawbuck is to bet someone that you can find the word “Wisconsin” on a US $5 bill. You’ll need a magnifying glass, but there it is, around the top of the Lincoln Memorial.

If you’re bored with that bet, or if you just want a change of pace, bet someone you can name two Academy Award winners who have published papers in neuroscience.

Colin Firth and Natalie Herschlag, Neuroscientists (and actors)

As Mind Hacks has already pointed out, both Natalie Portman (neé Hershlag) and Colin Firth (neé Firth) have played a prominent enough role in recent neuroscience research to merit mentions as fifth and third authors, respectively, on neuroscience research papers.

The Kanai et al. paper, on which Firth is an author, has already been covered in this blog. The story of how Firth (and fellow BBC radio host Tom Feilden) came to be co-authors with Kanai and Geraint Rees has been explained in the Neurocritic blog.

Firth originally commissioned Kanai and Rees to scan the brains of two British politicians, one liberal (Labour), one conservative.

To Sleep, Perchance to Cause a Midair Collision

Recent incidents with air traffic controllers have pointed up the hazards of shift work and the supremacy of the circadian rhythm. In one recent case, an air ambulance was forced to land at 2 a.m. without local air traffic controller guidance at Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

These recent incidents have pointed up the existence and causes of what medical science calls Shift Work Sleep Disorder, or SWSD. It’s not clear how many people are affected by SWSD, but it’s probably a fairly significant chunk of the 15% of Americans who perform night-shift work.

Lead (battery) balloon

When I was 19, I dropped out of school for a time and took a job working in a plant that melted down lead plates from car batteries and turned them into lead ingots. The lead ingots were then sold back to AC Delco and other manufacturers of lead-acid batteries.

My job was to maintain the efficiency of the blast furnace by climbing two stories to its top, where there was a small hole about twice the diameter of a pencil. I’d stick a hollow metal rod inside. On the cooler end of the rod was a hand pump and a toy balloon for collecting the gases. Then I’d bring the balloon back to the lab, rushing so that the entire thing didn’t leak, and run the gases through a chromatograph, an instrument that separated the gases by size. I’d report this to the engineers in the morning. These data would tell the engineers, who wore white hardhats, whether the furnace needed more air, or more fuel, to burn efficiently.

Liberally Thinking: Red Brain, Blue Brain

I was at a dinner party, held at a huge mansion lit with gaslamps. We were in one of the most conservative neighborhoods in one of the most conservative states in the union. But this was a party filled with liberals, and the whole enterprise had a feel like we were teenagers who had taken over someone’s parent’s house while they were away on a European vacation.

Sandra Irby had a conversational point to make, an amuse bouche for the group of a half-dozen of us huddled around a Louis XVI coffee table. “I know stupid conservatives, and I know smart conservatives.”

We all nodded at the “smart conservatives” part. Some of my best friends could put William Buckley to shame in the brains (and political orientation) department.

“But I don’t know any stupid liberals. Do you?”

“Teddy Kennedy,” I offered, citing his fatal error at Chappaquiddick.

Edward Kennedy leaves court at Edgartown, surrounded by state troopers. Source: AP.