Daydreaming—my brain didn’t get that module

Until I read an article in Scientific Mind this month about daydreaming (“Living in a Dream World” by Josie Glausiusz; not available for free as far as I can find), I wasn’t aware that I lack this mental activity. Definitions vary; one used in the article is that daydreams are “an inner world where we can rehearse the future and imagine new adventures without risk“. Another is “imagining situations in the future that are largely positive in tone”. I would add something to differentiate daydreaming from planning—perhaps that daydreaming includes emotional reactions.

It’s not clear in the article whether research results apply only to positive fictional imaginings or to routine planning and review, as well. The latter is much more common. Also the author conflates daydreaming and the mind’s use of off-task time to solve problems non-consciously.

People can daydream in extravagant adventures à la Walter Mitty, or more mundane imaginings of how good that hot bath will feel after work, or how happy one’s child will be when she receives her Christmas present. Most people, the author says, “spend about 30 percent of their waking hours spacing out, drifting off, lost in thought, woolgathering, in a brown study, or building castles in the air.” And it’s important to our sense of self, our creativity, “and how we integrate the outside world into our inner lives”.

I remember, as a solitary child, pretending to be Superman or Tarzan, but not often; I read, instead. After the age of 10 or 12, I don’t think I had imaginary adventures at all. Not surprisingly, I’m also unable to visualize scenes: “Imagine yourself on a tropical beach” is impossible for me to do. I can think, okay, I’m on a tropical breach, it is warm and sunny, and so on, but there’s no sensory aspect to it, just words. Similarly, my memories of the past (mostly gone now due to fibromyalgia cognitive damage) are all just words, as if someone had described a scene to me rather than my having experienced it. There’s no “mind’s eye” in my mind. In novels I usually tune out while reading the descriptions of landscapes and people; no corresponding mental pictures rise in my mind.

Daydreaming can be escapism but it can also be a way of trying out different futures, and experiencing the associated emotions. I think this could also help motivate a person toward a chosen or hoped-for future, by allowing advance tastes of its rewards or of the misery of its alternative. I make decisions about future choices and I make plans but I don’t try them out mentally in advance, and I also (in jobs, for example) tend to stay where I am rather than striving for something different. I’ve thought of myself as lacking in ambition, but maybe it’s more that I don’t have a way of modelling the future choices with emotional content. Mostly I’ve stayed in jobs until they became intolerable, then moved on, sometimes with no replacement in mind. I can’t even really visualize ideas for a vacation or a trip, especially to someplace I’ve never been.

So, what do I do with that 30% of my waking hours that other people use for daydreaming? Not enough. Sometimes, for a couple of minutes, it seems nothing is going on in my mind, or merely observation, without commentary, of what’s happening around me; I have no idea how typical that is. But mostly the engine’s running, chewing over what’s in front of it. Why are things this way, how could this activity be done better, how does this work, that sort of thing. I used to do a lot of sequential thinking, as if working through thoughts with pen and paper, exploring ideas and putting things together, taking them apart, finding correlations and causes. I could continue working on different mental projects during intervals across days and days, and sometimes wrote that way—at the end of the mental work I’d have an outline and some exact wording to put down on paper. Then I’d revise and expand, but I could work out a lot of it mentally and recall it. No more, since fibromyalgia. Thinking is often slow and I can’t remember from one day to the next what I came up with. Sometimes thoughts flit through and are gone before I can even try to remember them. This is one of FM’s major losses, for me, both a loss of pleasure and a loss of what I can accomplish.

Maybe reading fills the role of daydreaming for me. I read a lot, about equal amounts fiction and non-, and if circumstances prevent me from reading for a couple of days I feel the deprivation. The article mentions non-daydreamers only in passing: “Cognitive psychologists are now also examining how brain disease may impair our ability to meander mentally”. If my impairment is due to a brain disease, it’s one I’ve had since early on.

Others, it turns out, suffer from the opposite disorder, daydreaming that is a compulsion or simply so enjoyable that real life takes a back seat. Some have a second life in an alternate world where continuing characters age just like people in the world the rest of us live in. They may fit this narrative into available mental down-time in their lives, or spend up to 90% of their time “away”.

I find it strange that it took me so long to discover that other people spend a third of their waking hours on a mental activity which I lack entirely. It goes to show how little exchange there is among us humans regarding how we think, how our individual minds work. Humans yo-yo between xenophobia—members of other groups are different, dangerous— and “we’re all really just alike”, but a study of psychological research found “significant psychological and behavioral differences between what the researchers call Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies and their non-WEIRD counterparts across a spectrum of key areas, including visual perception, fairness, spatial and moral reasoning, memory and conformity.“ Maybe in daydreaming as well. But nearly all psychological research is done on WEIRD subjects, for both practical and ethnocentric reasons, so who knows? Same for neuroscience; who’s going to airlift fMRI equipment to the lands of the Yanomamo and then persuade them to lie down with their heads inside?

ScytheSharpeningLeighton

Still, the article raised in my mind some questions we could look at right here in the post-industrial West. If people were prevented from daydreaming, by some technological device probably not yet invented, how would they feel? (Recalling the familiar ‘fact’ about deprivation of night-time dreaming making people hallucinate, I looked to see if it was true, and apparently not.) What proportion of people don’t have imaginative daydreams, and is this always a sign of brain disease or dysfunction or just a normal mental variation? We characterize one sort of excessive negative daydreaming as “catastrophizing”; what about individuals making deliberate use of negative or positive futures, to influence their behavior? And how can “daydreaming” be more precisely separated out from other mental processes such as planning, brooding, brainstorming, and worrying?

Muse on it all, and see what your daydreaming mind comes up with.

King vulture

King vulture photo by Tambako the Jaguar, flickr.

Freeze my head (but not yet)

After reading the latest issue of New Scientist, I think I may leave instructions to freeze my head when I die. It’s not because of any terrific new cryogenics method revealed by the magazine, but because of their series of short articles on extremophile organisms. You know, the thermophiles that can survive boiling temperatures (one microbe lived through a spell of 130° C (266° F), like the North American Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) hatchlings, and Woolly Bear caterpillars (Pyrrharctia isabella, which turn into the Isabella Tiger Moth) that can be frozen solid or nearly so and come to life again. Then there are the ones that can survive being dried out by “replac[ing] water molecules [in and around the cell] with sugar, turning their cytoplasm into a solid called sugar glass”. (New Scientist, 13 Nov 2010, p. 41). These are mostly small invertebrates. One in particular takes the survival prize: the tardigrade or water bear.

microphotograph of tardigrade or water bear,  phylum Tardigrada, part of the superphylum Ecdysozoa. They are microscopic, water-dwelling, segmented animals with eight legs.jpg

Microphotograph of tardigrade or water bear, in the phylum Tardigrada, part of the superphylum Ecdysozoa. They are microscopic, water-dwelling, segmented animals with eight legs. Unlike lots of microscopic animals, they do not seem to live by choice on or in humans, so you can study the photo without getting itchy. Photo source.

Because it is directly related to why I might want to freeze my head, let me quote from Wikipedia’s article on the tardigrade’s survival feats:

More than 1,000 species of tardigrades have been described. Tardigrades occur over the entire world, from the high Himalayas (above 6,000 metres (20,000 ft), to the deep sea (below 4,000 m) and from the polar regions to the equator.

The most convenient place to find tardigrades is on lichens and mosses. Other environments are dunes, beaches, soil, and marine or freshwater sediments, where they may occur quite frequently (up to 25,000 animals per litre). Tardigrades often can be found by soaking a piece of moss in spring water.

Tardigrades are able to survive in extreme environments that would kill almost any other animal. Some can survive temperatures of −273 °C (−459.400 °F), close to absolute zero, temperatures as high as 151 °C (304 °F), 1,000 times more radiation than other animals, and almost a decade without water. In September 2007, tardigrades were taken into low Earth orbit on the FOTON-M3 mission and for 10 days were exposed to the vacuum of space. After they were returned to Earth, it was discovered that many of them survived and laid eggs that hatched normally.

Below, a tardigrade in cryptobiosis (dried-out state) waiting for wetter conditions. Photo source.

a tardigrade in cryptobiosis (dried-out state) waiting for wetter conditions. The condition is called cryptobiosis.jpg

What the tardigrade means to me

The greater likelihood of…Life on Mars!

Areologists have found evidence to support the presence of surface water on Mars in earlier times (1, 2). On Earth, the one condition life seems to require is water in the environment. It can adapt to other conditions of astonishing harshness, as the extremophiles show. Therefore, if life developed upon Mars during the time of surface water, it is quite possible it has adapted to the new conditions.

One place to look for water and surviving life forms would be in the deep chasms of Mars, including Valles Marineris which is 1,860 miles long and in places reaches five miles in depth (five times the depth of the Grand Canyon). None of our probes has landed near chasms because we haven’t designed ways to explore them robotically. This is a job for human beings, and I am extremely disappointed that it hasn’t been done yet.

When I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon in 1969, I felt confident that the US and other nations would build on this accomplishment in what seemed a logical progression: space station, lunar base, a manned mission to Mars. I would not have believed that, 40 years after reaching the moon, only one of these elements would be up and running. That one, the International Space Station is a testament to the dedication of a few, but it’s not the robust establishment I expected; it seems to be on a precarious footing in mechanical reliability, and in international support. The other two are as far from reality as they were in 1969—no, farther, because the momentum of the 1960s has drained away, and the world faces more serious problems than it did then. What was justifiably affordable then, may not be now.

I don’t view space exploration as a luxury, or as an activity that merely satisfies our curiosity. It has much more to offer the species than that. We cannot say what we would have learned, what technologies we would have developed, had we followed the path I expected. Perhaps we would even have reached a slightly greater degree of wisdom about ourselves and or treatment of the planet, or maybe not.

But I do know how badly I want to see some questions answered, including “What life is there on Mars?”

And if looks as if, even if I eat my vegetables and exercise diligently, I may not live long enough in the normal course of events to find this out. So, freezing my head may be the only possibility. How can I let a bunch of tardigrades hear the news about Martian life, and not hear it myself?

Notes

1 Jakosky, Bruce M. et al. Mars’ volatile and climate history. Nature 412, 237-244 (12 July 2001).

2 Bowen, TA and Hynek, BM. Mars’ climate history as inferred from valley networks on volcanoes. Lunar and Planetary Science XXXIX (2008).

Etymological Notes

Rana sylvatica
rana, from Latin rana (frog); sylvatica from Latin sylvaticus (growing in the woods, wild)

Chrysemys picta
chrysemys, from Greek chrysos (gold) and emys (freshwater tortoise”)

Pyrrharctia isabella
Pyrrharctia, from Greek pyr– (fire) and arktos (bear—the animal, also used to refer to the north; here probably alluding to the hairy caterpillar, the “wooly bear”)
isabella, a word used to denote various vague colors: greyish-yellow, sand color, pale fawn, pale cream-brown or parchment; etymology uncertain but see here.

Tardigrada
Tardigrada, from Latin tardigradus (slowly stepping), from tardus (slow) and gradior (step, walk)

Ecdysozoa
Ecdysozoa, from Greek ekdusis (a stripping off) and zoon (a living being, animal; plural zoa)

Bonus for sticking with me to the end…

There’s one caterpillar just about everybody can identify, if only because of its supposed ability to predict the severity of the winter:

Woolly bear caterpillar, which becomes Pyrrharctia_isabella, the Isabella Moth.jpg

The Woolly Bear, of course, and the narrow band of brown on this one indicates a very tough winter to come. Photo by Rhys Alton from flickr.

But who among us knows what the Woolly Bear looks like when he or she grows up? Like this,

Pyrrharctia_isabella, Isabella Tiger Moth, which develops from the Woolly Bear caterpillar.jpg

the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), found in much of North America and Central America. The caterpillar overwinters, hence the ability to withstand freezing temperatures. The Woolly Bear has another distinction: the first insect known to self-medicate. It eats leaves from ragworts, groundsels and other plants that are rich in alkaloids, and these help rid it of parasites; infected caterpillars eat more of such leaves than uninfected ones. Yes, everything it seems has parasites; “Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum”. And I, driven by the desire to know things, doubtless will need to know something else once my thawed-out brain has assimilated knowledge of our first manned mission to Mars.

Christine O’Donnell, religion, and the human brain

Poor would-be senator Christine O’Donnell has been ridiculed for her comment about mice with human brains:

O’DONNELL: … these groups admitted that the report that said, “Hey, yay, we cloned a monkey. Now we’re using this to start cloning humans.” We have to keep…

O’REILLY: Let them admit anything they want. But they won’t do that here in the United States unless all craziness is going on.

O’DONNELL: They are — they are doing that here in the United States. American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains. So they’re already into this experiment.

From transcript of O’Reilly show, Friday, November 16, 2007.

Why would Ms. O’Donnell (or someone who informed her) believe this?

Reports of mouse-brain research have been greatly exaggerated

It doesn’t take much to find some of the “evidence” that may have convinced her or her informant. As others have noted, there have been experiments in which human cells were injected into embryo mice, and became part of their brains. A bit different than “cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains”, but all rumors have to start somewhere.

Bad reporting may be to blame: here’s the headline and first line of the 2005 article on the National Geographic site:

NatGeo article on mice.jpg

From nationalgeographic.com.

In case that last line is too small to read, it says “Researchers in California have created living mice with functioning human stem cells in their brains.”

Earlier that same year (2005) another article on the NatGeo site briefly referred to the same research (before it had occurred) this way “And at Stanford University in California an experiment might be done later this year to create mice with human brains.” The title of this misleading article was Animal-Human Hybrids Spark Controversy. Yes, plenty of controversy, but in the article no hybridization is being talked about, only the use of stem cells to demonstrate their potential to be re-purposed. In biology, a hybrid is the offspring of two plants or animals of different species or varieties, such as a mule (a hybrid of a donkey and a horse), and that is the popular understanding as well. Few would consider a mouse with a few cells of human origin, all functioning as mouse cells, to be a hybrid.

mouse with human headSM.jpg

Christine, you need a smart friend; meet Clyven the mouse

But wait, it’s not all down to irresponsible journalism; perhaps Ms. O’Donnell got her information from this page, on the site of the prestigious RYT Hospital, about “Clyven: The World’s First Transgenic Mouse with Human Intelligence” :

Clyven1.jpg

Here’s the explanatory text from that page.

Margaret A. Keyes, M.D., Ph.D., is a researcher in genetic medicine and Professor of Cell Biology and Genetics at RYT Hospital-Dwayne Medical Center. She is exploring the use of embryonic stem cells as a means to cure neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

By implanting human brain cells (grown from a human embryo’s stem cells) into a mouse engineered to have Alzheimer’s, Dr. Keyes inadvertently made a remarkable and startling discovery: she not only cured the mouse’s Alzheimer’s Disease, but the animal soon developed the relative intelligence of a human being.

After extensive consideration by RYT Hospital’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), it was decided that this mouse would be placed under a new study led by Dr. Keyes’ lab.

As part of this new facility (pictured to the right), Clyven is placed inside a light-sensitive box with electrodes attached to him. He is able to communicate and interact with people via this neuro interface. He is able to communicate and interact with people via this neuro interface. [sic] To hear a live audio feed of Clyven inside his box, please click here.

© RYT Hospital-Dwayne Medical Center
Source.

Evidently RYT Hospital has a very understanding Ethics Committee; they approve of confining an animal with a human brain in a little box and punching his head full of electrodes. But Clyven is not bored—in fact, you are invited to chat with him or play a game against him.

Chat with Clyven.jpg

Unfortunately, Clyven’s conversation is limited and repetitious—maybe he himself wrote that quoted passage above, that has the repeated sentence. My best conversation with him was this one,

ME: Hi Clyven.
MOUSE: Yo.
ME: Do you know that a tea party candidate is talking about you?
MOUSE: That’s pretty silly.
ME: Yes.
MOUSE: Tell me more.
ME: I don’t want you to know how dumb people can get.
MOUSE: I’m sorry. I hope to get smarter as time goes on. Please be patient with me. I will be receiving additional neurological treatments next week.

On the other hand, don’t let him persuade you to bet money on that CheezeMaze contest, he’ll beat you paws down.

It’s surprising we haven’t heard more about this RYT Hospital, with the amazingly advanced and useful research that is being done there. Elsewhere on the site, you can read about a new drug, Revitalex

Revitalex.jpg

about successful gene therapy for back pain, and about “NanoDocs”, nanobots that circulate throughout the body repairing tissues.

medical nanites.jpg

Okay, so it’s not a real site but the project of an artist named Virgil Wong. He’s a painter, film-maker, and head of web design for two real hospitals.

Still, can’t you see how anybody might be taken in by the slick style, and accept that there really is a mouse with human intelligence, and nanobots that can tidy up your blood vessels?

No? You say anyone beyond the stage of believing in the Tooth Fairy should have seen through this? and through the distorted reports of growing human brains in mice?

I think so too.

Wherever Christine O’Donnell may have gotten her “information” about mice with human brains, the real problem is minds like hers that are unprepared to question things that most of us would find outlandish. They also believe that Obama is Hitler, Stalin, and a Kenyan anti-colonialist, all at the same time! which would explain why, as I have heard on good authority, Obama has three heads, a fact cleverly concealed by camera angles and good tailoring.

Newt, Eastern.jpg

Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), Red Eft Stage. Etymological note: Notophthalamus from the Greek noto (a mark) and ophthalmus (eye), presumably in reference to the eye spots on the sides and back; viridescens from the Latin, (slightly green) referring to the greenish color of the adults. Source.

One born every minute? or are they made?

Where do these credulous people come from? I don’t mean people like Newt Gingrich, who will repeat anything—no matter how preposterous—if it seems advantageous. No, demagogues use untruths consciously, with calculated intent. The power of the demagogue depends upon there being enough people who cannot distinguish between the likely, the possible, and the absurd, and therefore won’t laugh him off his soapbox. And where do they come from?

The beginning preparation for most credulous people of otherwise normal intelligence is, I think, being raised with a huge area of life and thought which is categorically excluded from rational examination. Now, every culture and sub-culture has some areas like that, because they are essential as part of the group’s self-definition. In this Land of the Unquestioned reside things like appropriate behavior (manners), kinship rules, dress codes, what we eat and how we cook it, all that sort of thing. That’s why our way of life seems so logical and natural, and other groups’ ways seem bizarre and senseless.

No problem when it’s a question of the relative merits of haggis or corn on the cob, but in the area of exclusion there are more significant topics also, such as attitudes to the “Other” (women, outsiders, those in your own group who don’t conform), and toward violence. That’s the cultural “Don’t think about these things” list. Then there’s religion and its list.

Religion is the really big no-fly zone for human reason. It covers a much wider area of life than ordinary cultural indoctrination, often upon a foundation of dogmatic zeal which asserts sole possession of truth, and enforces details of the dogma with extreme fervor.

Totalitarianism and extremist religions share two fundamental principles: there is only one true way, and everyone must be forced to acknowledge it. It is not enough for the non-believer to refrain from critical expression and deviant action: he or she must be made to believe. Hence the show trials held by the Soviets, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the Inquisition, in which tortured inmates confess their nonexistent sins; hence the death penalty for apostasy in Islam, and the roasting alive of unrepentant Christians by the Romans and doggedly heathen Native Americans by the Christians. The Other must be brought within the fold or die, and it should be done in a public and painful way to present a compelling example to everyone else.

Children are born enquirers (non-believers), and about the age of three they start to ask “Why?” about everything, with irritating persistence. Give an answer and they ask for more details or ask “Why?” again. (Offer a non-answer like “I don’t know” or “Be quiet” and they repeat the original question or say nothing; curiosity discouraged begins to shut down.) Their brains are making and pruning connexions, they’re constructing an internal model of the world, and they want and need to know more and to discuss their own thoughts. They are also learning how to learn, how to figure things out.

A child who gets yelled at for asking about talking snakes, or smacked for asking why the God of Love is such a bloody-handed war-approving tyrant in the Old Testament (see note 1), will learn to accept what he or she is told and not think about it. The lesson is to avoid questioning—especially the things in life that seem illogical, cruel, unfair, out of sync with reality. And that “respect for authority” (actually, it is only respect for power and avoidance of punishment) carries over into other parts of life. The more intensely the “No Questions Zone” is defended, the more timid the young mind’s reason becomes.

Curiosity is inborn, but logic is learned. When children are exposed to illogical conclusions, such as “You got a cold right after you ate that ice cream, so no more ice cream” or “I know the Bible is the Word of God because the preacher says so and the Bible says to follow what the preacher says” they won’t learn the basic rules of logic that help humans sort true from false, as well as “probably true” from “probably false”. Ignorance of logic is of course a good thing for those enforcing a monolithic belief system.

Our country’s culture has an equivocal position on learning. Along with its tradition of independence and individualism, the US also has a strong anti-intellectual tradition, because of its religious foundations and the pragmatic demands of survival on successive frontiers from New England to the Pacific coast. When book-larnin’ is seen as irrelevant, perhaps un-masculine, some will make a positive virtue of ignorance. Also, study is hard, ignorance is effortless. Entropy prevails.

Logic and critical thinking are not enough. In order to winnow the wheat from the chaff reliably, it’s necessary to have some actual knowledge. When a statement is made, the hearers check it against their relevant knowledge base. This process is usually instant and automatic. The new information may directly conflict with existing knowledge, or it may just appear quite unlikely based on what is already known. A certain stock of knowledge, reliable because it has been tested or was provided by a trusted authority, is needed to get through life. Yet even some of this knowledge may be false—blondes are dumb, bankers are trustworthy, a barking dog never bites—and individuals must also possess the willingness to re-examine beliefs based on new experience. Except in the No Thinking Zone, where the only safe course is to agree with authority and otherwise keep your mouth shut.

When politics is the subject, then history must have special prominence among relevant areas of knowledge. Just like more workaday fields of endeavor, political systems embody responses to real needs and problems. If I were re-designing the internal combustion engine, I would first need to know why each part had been designed as it was; what earlier mechanisms were tried for mixing the fuel or timing the ignition, and what were their flaws?

It is history which answers these questions in politics, and must be consulted before tinkering or throwing away parts. For example, decades of controversy about the constitutional provision in the First Amendment usually referred to as “separation of church and state” have distorted public understanding of the law’s intent by framing it as a dispute between agnostics or atheists, vs. religious people. In fact it was enacted to defend all religions from government, and from a preference being shown for a single church, as well as to protect government (or non-religious persons) from religion. And the history of state-established religions illustrates the many repressions and disenfranchisements which are imposed upon members of the non-official religions, even including banishment and death. Only modern ignorance permits the discussion of this subject to be framed entirely as a conflict between religion and irreligion. [Christine O’Donnell, in a recent debate, was ignorant of the provision entirely. After the phrase “Government shall make no law respecting establishment of religion” was quoted to her, she asked “That is in the First Amendment?” Yes, it is, though the exact words are “Congress shall make no…”.]

Logic, general knowledge, critical thinking, history: how is the American public doing on these?

37% of Americans believe that houses can be haunted, and 25% believe in astrology, i.e. that the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives.

Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity, only about 10% know what radiation is, and 20% think the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science abandoned by the 17th century.

50% of our fellow citizens believe in alien abductions, though happily only 7% say they or someone they know has been abducted.

39% of Americans could not name any of the freedoms in the First Amendment.

14 percent of Americans say President Barack Obama may be the Antichrist (24 percent of Republicans believe this). Almost 20% believe he is a Muslim. Does that add up to 34% or is there some overlap?

Two-thirds of 1,000 American adults polled couldn’t name a single current justice of the Supreme Court. In the same survey, more than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place, and half of respondents believed that either the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 occurred before the American Revolution.

And 21% believe in witchcraft, so O’Donnell’s “I’m not a witch” ad did have its audience.

When you look through these and other poll results it seems that at least 10% to 25% of Americans believe in just about any unproven concept you can imagine. A larger percentage is very ignorant of history and public affairs.

If you’re reading this, and have been apathetic about getting to the polls, you better think again.

One final poll result: in 2009, 19% percent of Americans agreed that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, and 39% said the press has too much freedom.

mr natural.jpg

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

NOTE 1: I cite only two examples, both from the same holy book, for the sake of brevity, but every religion seems to have its own set of magical events and unquestioned cruelties which must be accepted in order to belong. Belong, get along, go along.

Unclear on the basic concept: White House Press Secretary on Gulf oil spill

As President Obama made his tour of the Gulf region on Monday, White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters aboard Air Force One that BP would move forward in creating an escrow account to ensure, “that all the people who are affected by BP’s oil spill are made whole.”
from politicsdaily.com, June 14, 2010.

What kind of a disconnected nitwit can use the phrase “made whole” about this? Believe it or not, there are some things money can’t change. All the money in the world cannot turn back the clock and make the ocean clean, bring back to life the millions of dead creatures—the tiny ones we never see also suffered, also died, and from our myopic human standpoint they are important because they’re part of the web of life that makes shrimp for us to catch and eat.

This isn’t “just words”, this is a perversion of thinking that is at the root of our modern lostness. Minds so separated from the real “buzzing blooming confusion” of life, that they are hardly here in the same world with the oiled pelicans and the devastated fishermen. Yet like aliens from some distant galaxy they walk among us and their power is immense, to act in our world, control what we know, run our government like a puppet theatre.

jellyfish.jpg

A dead jelly fish floats in oil in the Gulf of Mexico near Venice, LA. AP photo from Telegraph (UK).

hermitCrabs.jpg

Hermit crabs struggle to cross a patch of oil on a barrier island near East Grand Terre Island, LA. AP photo from Telegraph (UK).

Cheetah or armadillo? Check your reaction speed

You may not like the results, but here’s a quick test of your eye-hand response speed. It’s a little game on the BBC’s site, part of their section on the human body. This part is about sleep, because being tired increases reaction time. Your job is to use a dart gun when sheep at one side of the screen

Sheep.png

make a run for the other side. The dart gun will stop them in their tracks.

sheep2.png

Don’t get an itchy trigger finger, though, because a false move costs you 3 seconds of time in which sheep can run across with impunity. At the end—5 sheep—you’ll get a rating, and a list of your exact times to the thousandth of a second.

These are the fastest sheep I ever saw, and my rating never rose above Ambling Armadillo. Use the link above rather than the one on the BBC’s main Sleep page, because that one goes to a small screen version which gives you even less time to nail those pesky sheep.

Too bad the BBC isn’t using this as an opportunity to collect data; if we all gave our age and sex, they’d have a big sample for correlating those factors with reaction time. How long the time is, depends on mental processing speed; it’s in your brain, not your muscles (although while darting sheep I found that my index finger clicked my laptop trackpad button faster than my thumb, which is usually what I click with in normal computing). Some of the brain-game sellers say their games improve reaction time, and that seems quite believable; athletes practice to increase their reaction speed, and pianists get faster with practice. I’d be interested in knowing how much of the improvement from computer brain games is transferable to non-game situations, though. And naturally the fastest reaction times occur when there is only one action to be chosen: you’re going to be faster using the dart gun against the sheep, than responding to a complex driving emergency where you must decide whether to swerve or brake, how much, and how fast.

Reaction times become longer with age (after the late 20’s, according to this literature review on reaction times), fatigue, distraction, and a variety of other factors. And, when times are measured in thousandths of a second, a single individual will exhibit quite a bit of variation even in a single testing session. The literature review cited was done in 2008 and seems to be a good summary of what’s known.

Looking for more about reaction times, I found another online test which doesn’t have any cute sheep but does track and display the data from all users. It’s not broken down by age or sex, though. The site’s owner says that, based on 2,656,058 clicks recorded thus far, the average (median) reaction time is 215 milliseconds. But some people can regularly post times of 130ms. This test not only rejects clicks that jump the gun (before the signal is given), it only counts data of 100ms and above, in order to avoid skewing the data with “lucky clicks”, when someone’s brain issues an order to click before seeing the signal but then the signal occurs just before their finger performs the movement.

Let us marvel for a moment at the process, which involves multiple neurons structured like this.

Neuron.jpg

Diagram from Wikipedia, where a larger version can be seen.

Communication within a single neuron is electrical, but that between neurons is chemical, so neuron A has to make and release a chemical to pass a message on to other neurons.

Axon.jpg

A signal propagating down an axon to the cell body and dendrites of the next cell. (Wikipedia)

And this is just the transmission part of reaction time. The processes involved in choosing an action…well, my neurons are boggled enough for one day.

Reading and the brain, and “brain scans”

There’s a new book out about what happens in our brains when we read, which may appeal to people interested in accessible accounts of neuroscience, as well as to those of us who are watching the shift from paper to electronic reading.

Reading in the brain : the science and evolution of a human invention
Stanislas Dehaene. (New York : Viking, 2009)
ISBN: 9780670021109 – Description: xi, 388 p. : ill., map ; 24 cm.

ReadingInTheBrainCover.jpg

I put a reserve on it at the library and am waiting for it to arrive. In the meantime, I found that the author has put all the color figures online along with short chapter summaries. The imbalance on the webpage between text, and the diagrams and brain maps, makes the book look more forbiddingly technical than it is, I hope. Unfortunately the book on Amazon doesn’t have the LookInside feature, so we can’t look at more of the text. Reviews have been mostly positive (links to several, on author’s page; Barnes and Noble review) though one was critical of the book’s accessibility for us “interested lay readers”:

Unfortunately, he needs to lay a lot of groundwork. This makes the first 100 pages of the book an excruciating slog. While it picks up after the first two chapters, the book still sometimes slips back into detailed explanations of neurophysiology. Dehaene is first and foremost an academic, and he seems to want to make his work defensible to his peers even as he tries to explain it to laymen. This is especially problematic in his diagrams. Rather than helping to clarify points, his visual presentations are almost always overly technical, presenting formulas and pictures of the brain that are difficult to decipher. Part of the problem is that images are all black-and-white. While he offers up full color versions on the book’s website, that’s only useful to readers who are also regularly consulting their computers. …The result is a work that requires focus to read, but rewards the effort.

It is disappointing that, according to this reviewer, the images in the book are not in color like those on the web. This reminds me of a book I looked at recently on the various branches of our early human-ish ancestors, in which maps to locate the various hominid species were poorly done or not there at all. Publishers try to cut corners and end up crippling the book. But I hope that won’t be the case here, and even if parts of it are over my head I look forward to the exploration.

I’m expecting a stimulating mix of actual established neuroscience, conclusions based on new research still open to interpretation, and informed speculation. After discussing how, he believes, reading (including our writing systems) developed in response to our neurological structures—“over time, scribes developed increasingly efficient notations that fitted the organization of our brains”, Dehaene applies the same theory to other areas of human culture: “Mathematics, art, and religion may also be construed as constrained devices, adjusted to our primate brains by millennia of cultural evolution.”

Cautions about fMRI (brain scan) studies: What a fish can tell us

I don’t know how much of Reading in the Brain relies on fMRI data, but many of the popularized “this-is-how-your-brain-works” revelations do rely heavily on brain scans, including fMRI, and we’re seeing some push-back from other scientists. A study at Dartmouth (reported by Wired, and Science News) found that a salmon’s brain had “a beautiful, red-hot area of activity that lit up during emotional scenes [photos put before the salmon’s eyes]”. Wow! Unfortunately for all but the spiritualists among us, the fish in question was dead. Apparently the neural activity that showed up was random, and more rigorous statistical analysis of the data revealed this. While many popularizers, especially in the general media, give the impression that brain scan interpretation is cut and dried, the truth is quite the opposite.

Less dramatic studies have also called attention to flawed statistical methods in fMRI studies. Some such methods, in fact, practically guarantee that researchers will seem to find exactly what they’re looking for in the tangle of fMRI data. Other new research raises questions about one of the most basic assumptions of fMRI — that blood flow is a sign of increased neural activity. At least in some situations, the link between blood flow and nerve action appears to be absent. Still other papers point out insufficient attention to insidious pitfalls in interpreting the complex enigmatic relationship between an active brain region and an emotion or task. (Science News)

Michael Shermer, founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and columnist for Scientific American, gives an excellent presentation of how fMRI works and why “bright spots” in the brain don’t necessarily tell us much of anything. His article (pdf) , “Five Ways Brain Scans Mislead Us”, is as technical as it needs to be but won’t give you a headache. A more technical but still readable article by Edward Vul et al., “Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition” examines one major source of errors in brain scan analyses. [There’s a short summary here at mindhacks.com, if you want to skip the technical details, and an interview with Edward Vul at scientificamerican.com.]

So while the area known as “social cognitive neuroscience” is fascinating, and we all love quick and easy explanations, remember that much of what you read in this area is, like the lottery, best used “for entertainment purposes only”.

ReadingBrainDeadFish1.jpg

If Babbage HAD built his “Difference Engine”

Here’s a funny comics-version, from 2D goggles. Actually it is about mathematician Ada Byron Lovelace (1815 – 1852), but we all know that women never get top billing!

The comic was made for “Ada Lovelace Day”, to promote a film (to be offered to local stations by PBS) about this remarkable woman, and the film-makers need our help:

letters of support from people who have been influenced in some way by Ada and who are willing to help publicise the film, be a part of the interactive website, perhaps show the film, or contribute in any other way.

Rosemarie says, “I need letters from people stating how important a film like Ada is and how they through their networks can help to publicize the film. It would be great if the women have organizations they work or belong to. If they are software developers or computer experts, this would be great. It would be best if they were Americans, as the NSF (National Science Foundation) is American.”

If you’re not American, letters would still be useful of course! The deadline is the end of October.

Please write to:

Rosemarie Reed
On the Road Productions International, Inc.
310 Greenwich Street, 21F
New York, NY 10013
Or email Rosemarie directly, rreed40148@aol.com.

After some thought, I decided to write a letter based on my experiences giving books to kids at the food pantry, and the unabated gender gap I see in kids’ interest in science and math. Sure, the older kids are computer users, but computers are fun personal devices; they still display an aversion to math and science, especially the non-biological sciences. A few boys get drawn in by technology, but I don’t see it in girls. [I have a small sample size, I admit, and it is a rural area.]

Who was Ada Lovelace?

Ada Byron Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron (his only legitimate child); she married a nobleman, and was part of the social whirl of that class, dancing and entertaining. [Photo below from Wikipedia]

Ada_LovelaceBallGown.jpg

Wikipedia tells us that

During a nine-month period in 1842-43, Lovelace translated Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s memoir on Babbage’s newest proposed machine, the Analytical Engine. With the article, she appended a set of notes. The notes are longer than the memoir itself and include (Section G), in complete detail, a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, which would have run correctly had the Analytical Engine ever been built. Based on this work, Lovelace is now widely credited with being the first computer programmer and her method is recognised as the world’s first computer program.
However, biographers debate the extent of her original contributions. Dorothy Stein, author of Ada: A Life and a Legacy, contends that the programs were mostly written by Babbage himself. Babbage wrote the following on the subject, in his Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1846):

I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

The level of impact of Lovelace on Babbage’s engines is difficult to resolve due to Babbage’s tendency not to acknowledge (either orally or in writing) the influence of other people in his work. However, Lovelace was certainly one of the few people who fully understood Babbage’s ideas and created a program for the Analytical Engine, indeed there are numerous clues that she might also have suggested the usage of punched cards for Babbage’s second machine since her notes in Menabrea’s memoir suggest she deeply understood the Jaquard’s Loom as well as the Analytical Engine. Her prose also acknowledged some possibilities of the machine which Babbage never published, such as speculation that “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent”.

The Difference Engine becomes reality after 150 years

Babbage never built his mechanical computer, but the London Science Museum did make a working version. It was finished in 1991 for the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth.

AdaLovelaceDifference_engine.jpg

A view of “some of the number wheels and the sector gears between columns”

AdaLovelaceLondonScienceMuseumsReplicaDifferenceEngine.jpg

Difference Engine model photos source.

Ada Lovelace, “The Right Honourable the Countess of Lovelace”, gave birth to three children (the firstborn was named Byron), and died at 37 of uterine cancer and being bled by her doctors.

Let’s support that film, with letters or emails to demonstrate demand for stations to show it! Here’s the email again, rreed40148@aol.com.

More about girls being turned off to math and science

Feminist Chemists cites a 2008 study by the American Mathematical Society:

In elementary school, girls do as well as or better in math than boys. In middle school, girls with an inclination for math begin to lose interest and fall behind, mostly due to peer pressure and societal expectations. Throughout middle and high school, social stigma and lack of appropriately challenging educational opportunities for the mathematically precocious becomes a hard reality in most American schools. Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, often camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers.

A study published in June by the National Academy of Sciences found

“It’s not an innate difference in math ability between males and females,” says Janet Mertz, a UW-Madison professor of oncology and one of the authors of the article that analyzes and summarizes recent data on math performance at all levels in the United States and internationally. “There are countries where the gender disparity in math performance doesn’t exist at either the average or gifted level. These tend to be the same countries that have the greatest gender equality.”

Gender bias and expectations are not the only thing we have to worry about. It’s not just girls––boys are losing interest too, according to the AMS research:

”The U.S. culture that is discouraging girls is also discouraging boys,” says Janet Mertz, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of oncology and the senior author of the study. “The situation is becoming urgent. The data show that a majority of the top young mathematicians in this country were not born here.”

[NOTE: While Janet Mertz was one of the authors on each study, the PNAS and AMS studies are two different projects. The latter, published Oct. 10 in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, was a comprehensive analysis of decades of data on students identified as having profound ability in math (Science News Oct. 13, 2008). The other study was published June 1, 2009 in the Proceedings of the National Academy. It looked at US and international data on students of all levels of ability, to answer three key questions: “Do gender differences in math performance exist in the general population? Do gender differences exist among the mathematically talented? Do females exist who possess profound mathematical talent? The answers, according to the Wisconsin researchers, are no, no and yes.” (Science News June 2, 2009).

You may remember the remarks of Lawrence Summers in 2005 (he was then President of Harvard, and is now an economic adviser to President Obama), to the effect that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. These two studies would support the conclusion that if innate differences do influence women’s lack of success in these fields, the differences are not in mathematical ability. Maybe we should look at “innate differences” in aggressiveness and willingness to withstand unduly competitive or even hostile treatment from colleagues and superiors. Or at insecurity and discomfort, innate or not, which arise in male academics and administrators when females display ability, competence, and promise. A few decades ago women rarely appeared in symphony orchestras unless they played the harp; auditions behind screens changed that! Did our musical ability transform itself overnight? Probably not. ]

Ada_girlmath.jpg

[Photo from another good article on the AMS study]

Send an email for Ada and our kids, and consider how you yourself might interact with kids about math and science. Take a trip to the Science Museum if you are fortunate enough to live near one, read a book together, in general don’t act as if math and science are boring geek fare. Even if a lot of it is beyond you, as higher math seems to be beyond me, that doesn’t have to be true for the kids you know. Since I was in college, math has become much more important in biological sciences, ecology, even social sciences like history, so if I were a history major today I would probably need to take at least an introductory statistics class.

We all need to model a respect and interest for learning, to the kids around us. Kids start out as voracious learners: have you tried to learn another language lately? Hard, right? Babies do it, and young kids pick up second languages easily. They’re always learning, not just skills and processes but attitudes too, so let’s not convey bad attitudes about learning, reading, thinking!