Choose Your Delusion

Things are not always as they seem. We’ve all heard that cliche. Yet, as I always argue, hackneyed phrases develop by virtue of their repeated confirmation of a truth. Still…to what degree can such a claim be made? How far can this cliche really extend? Is it simply a fun expression to throw around in situations that teach us we don’t always see the “whole” story in the face of a given experience? Or does this phrase literally translate into our embodied and physical experience with the world around us? I think you can guess where I’m going with this…

What you see…may be an illusion.

At first blush, this may seem quite annoying. Does this mean that your brain is an unreliable reporter of “objective” reality? Well, yes – but perhaps this is not entirely bad news. Besides the fact that it gives you some neat party tricks to share with your friends, the brain’s inherent biases and filters…may actually be viewed a useful thing. This perspective (pun initially unintended!) recognizes that the more interesting question is: “How are these filters useful?” Indeed why would the brain function to enhance contrasts, to prime and bias our lexical systems, to be so malleable in the face of competing modes of information (for example: incongruent visual versus auditory stimuli)? Indeed, if we do have such built-in biases, what does this mean for us as humans? What does it mean in terms of how we subsequently choose to interact with the world around us?

The “Perceptions & Sensations” portion of the Being Human 2012 conference explored some of these very questions.  Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist who studies perception at the University College-London (UCL), began exploring the can-of-worms topic “perception” by starting with: how we see light. “Even jelly fish see light and they don’t even have a brain… it doesn’t get much simpler than that,” Beau shared. And so we began.

We began with a series of optical illusions. These always make for convincing demonstrations since we, as humans, tend to trust our sense of sight (even when we “know better”), almost preferentially above other senses. Some of the most striking examples were of shapes that were the same shade of gray but when placed in an environment surrounded by black or white, suddenly appeared either lighter or darker, respectively. In neuro-jargon, this effect is termed “contrast enhancement” See below for yourself!

Btw, just for kicks, click here for some other fun optical illusions to play around with.

Next, Beau went on to explain that the brain is – on a large scale – working hard to make sense of its experience. In order to do this, the brain must necessarily be characterized by the appropriate degree of flexibility. After all, we are not presented with the same set of environments all the time – and one of the great hallmarks of “being human” is our capacity to learn in a variety of contexts. To demonstrate this point, Beau dragged the unsuspecting Peter Baumann (the man whose foundation generously funded and organized the conference) onto the stage to be a volunteer. “It’s not very invasive,” Beau jokingly reassured Peter. Indeed. The task? Throw a green ball at a giant dot on the screen in front of him. Easy enough, right?

Well, it took Peter a few tries to get a couple of reliable close-to-target shots. Great. Short training period: done. Next? Well, my UC Davis Neurofolk will recognize what we refer to as Will DeBello’s “Prism Goggles”. Yes. Beau handed Peter a pair of prism goggles. Now for those of you unfamiliar with what these do: they essentially shift your visual world a full twenty degrees to the right. Eek! In other words: Peter was now seeing the black dot twenty degrees shifted over from its actual location – which meant, in order for him to continue hitting the dot on target, he needed to modify his behavior. He had to learn to adjust his throw twenty degrees back to the left in order to compensate.

This is, in principle, similar to Will DeBello’s experiments with Barn Owls. Except instead of a dot, imagine a mouse. Instead of Beau instructing Peter, imagine the owls are receiving auditory feedback from the mouse vocalizations (i.e where the owls hear the squeak versus where the mice are actually located are at odds). In both scenarios, the organism needs to learn to adapt and modify its behavior in order to achieve his goal (hit the dot / get the mouse!) Just like the owls – Peter did, over time, learn to adapt appropriately. And just like the owls, it took him sometime to “unlearn” this behavior once the goggles came off. “Why?” Beau Lotto asks the audience, “because the brain has come to learn to see the world in a new way. It doesn’t know the glasses are off.” Yet. But eventually, Peter’s brain does learn to readjust. Okay, so the brain’s flexibility is an important reason it is capable of learning. Isn’t this old news?

Yet, it’s not just about learning – nor is it simply about making associations or detecting patterns (though, admittedly, this by itself would be pretty neat!). No, Beau went on to argue, it’s about something else: creating meaning. To demonstrate this point, he presented us with a series of implicit word completion tasks:

C n  y u  rea  t is?

You   a e not r adi g th s.

…and so on. A 1000+ people in the audience correctly guessed: “Can your read this?” then “You are not reading this.” I trust this was an easy task for you, as well. Now try:

W at  ar  ou  rea  in?

If you were like the rest of us, you guessed: “What are you reading?” … priming. It makes sense to guess such a completion especially following the other two meanings we extracted from the previous completion tasks. But it could have just as easily been: “What are you dreaming?” …but we are, of course, “colored” by our past experiences. When we receive a stimulus, we respond based on what our past experiences tell us that stimulus must mean. Not unlike this frog interacting with the “ant crusher” iphone game.

Okay, so…the brain not only learns but it does so  largely based on its repertoire of past experiences. Why is this useful? Why is learning in the long-term as important as learning in the short-term? Well, imagine if that frog had to learn every single time to stick out its tongue to grab its lunch. Imagine if we were incapable of generalizing lessons we extracted from a particular situation across other similar situations. Our biases are indeed useful adaptations. They only become a problem when we completely forget they are there altogether. They become a problem when we confuse our biases with the truth itself.

What makes us uniquely human, amongst other things, is our ability to “see ourselves see”. We are aware of the fact that we entertain two simultaneously existing realities: that which we see and that which we know. It’s what makes optical illusions so fun! Our eyes see one thing and another part of us is aware of a contradicting truth. We get to entertain two possibilities…at the same time.

So what does it mean for us as humans? Well, honestly – not much if we ignore it. If we ignore the fact that our filters exist or we “pretend away” our biases…then we are essentially cutting ourselves off from choice. Indeed, “seeing ourselves see” is another way of describing the process of awareness itself and it is only by being aware of our own biases and filters – across various domains of life – that we may be better poised to engage with our world from a wiser and more mature perspective. Or in the words of Beau Lotto:  “We have two options: either nothing is an illusion or everything is an illusion. Given this realization, we’re all pretty delusional. So…you might as well choose your delusion.”  


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Being Human 2012

I’m really looking forward to tomorrow! I will be attending an event that seems almost tailor-made for a neurogeek and explorer such as myself: Being Human Conference 2012. The lineup of speakers looks amazing. It should be interesting gathering all these ground breaking thinkers in one room! I can’t wait to hear what they have to say and I can’t wait to see what questions the audience will throw their way. You can check out a live feed of the sold-out event here on ForaTV. I will, of course, be blogging and tweeting from the trenches tomorrow! So, stay tuned!


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Dear Friends, I am moving!

AUGUST 2015, UPDATE: I’M BACK! Old posts have been migrated back over.

Posting will resume this year, so please stay tuned!

Follow me….here

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Rationalism: The (un)faithful servant?

“The Intuitive Mind is a sacred gift, the Rational Mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” ~Albert Einstein

I’m sensing a conflict. While the conflict is in part an inner-struggle, I believe that it’s also ongoing in Western science & society (though it’s not always acknowledged to be as such). What on earth am I talking about? I’m talking about the relationship between the rational and the intuitive intelligences. I am intentionally referring to the intuitive as a type of “intelligence” along with the rational.

To some this seems an obvious thing to do, but to others – the two words are themselves at odds. In fact, the belief of the latter group – that intuition is devoid of intelligence (and by extension legitimacy) – is at the root of the inner / personal struggle.

After all, I’m a scientist. In order to be legitimate, I can’t be hokey-pokey (and isn’t that what intuition is?). Skepticism is an important part of my investigative toolkit – and while I’m okay with hypothesizing, and exploring alternative possibilities, all the imaginative and intuitive theories of the world are, in the end, nothing more than theory if they are unsupported by data. Show me your evidence! Or in the words of physicist Richard Feynman:

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

Period. I defend and believe in this sentiment with every fiber of my being. I also believe that there is absolutely no good reason to disparage the role of intuition and creativity in the sciences. In fact, I believe that the spirit of scientific investigation itself is fueled by such things as: excitement (for the question), love (of discovery), joy and pleasure (of finding things out), fun (of exploring the unknown). Notice a common thread? They are all emotions! And emotions are, by definition, excluded from the realm of the “rational”

“Observation provides the empirical data used to form our conclusions, and also arouses certain emotions for which there are no substitutes – enthusiasm, surprise, and pleasure, which are compelling forces behind constructive imagination. Emotion kindles the spark that ignites cerebral machinery, whose glow is required for the shaping of intuition and reasonable hypotheses” ~Santiago Ramon y Cajal

So it is clear that one cannot really ignore that emotions, intuition, and the subjectivity of our beings, play in this game of discovery we call science. Did I just place subjectivity and science in the same sentence? Aaaaaah! I think I just cringed while typing it. Even if we acknowledge that we are inevitably biased as individuals, don’t we believe in an ultimate objective, testable truth out there? And don’t we believe in the power of the scientific method? of peer-review? Yes (mostly), yes…and yes (also most of the time for that last one but that’s another post for another day).

I’d like to draw your attention to an interview, aired recently by one of my all-time favorite science correspondents, Natasha Mitchell, over at All in the Mind. The interview this week was with Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and author of the book “The Master and its Emissary” Interestingly, the subtitle of the book is: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. In it, he discusses how (at least in Western society) we are growing more and more heavily dependent on a rationalized, de-contextualized, and consequently de-humanized point of view.

The main title of the book, “The Master and his Emissary” is intended as a metaphor (inspired by a Nietzsche story). The “Master” is used to represent the right-brained, contextualized, intuitive, big-picture and experiential point of view while the “Emissary” is representative of the left-brained, rational and logical point of view. Of course, McGilchrist himself is quick to point out that both sides of the brain perform varied and important functions and that these are simplifications of their roles. The point, however, is even larger than our society’s potentially increasing brain lateralization. In his own words:

“But I think because it [left-brain/rationalism] is so eloquent on its own behalf, it’s neglected to allow us to perceive that there are other very important things that need to be combined with it and that’s really the message.”

What a shame! Yet, I think it’s true. There are several examples around us both within science itself, and in mainstream society where we see a higher value and respect placed on “logical and rational” and a belittling of the “intuitive” – often writing it off as “new-agey”. Of course we need to be critical of claims, of course logic needs to be applied – but as McGilchrist stated in his interview… there is little to no danger that (at least as scientists) we will give up on rationalism. Perhaps our concern then, to redress the balance, ought to be that we have lost sight of the other type of intelligence.

Thoughts? Feelings? Do share!

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Environmental Enrichment, Stress and the Infralimbic Cortex

We all know this from personal experience: some people are good at handling stress and others…well, they’re simply not. Present any two individuals with the same stressful situation and chances are they will respond differently. Of course no one is immune to the adverse effects of stress, but it’s true that some individuals are, on the whole, particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of stress, while others are, on the whole, resilient. It’s no wonder then, that neuroscientists are asking: What molecular changes in the brain play a role in mediating stress susceptibility or resiliency?

During the last couple of days at SfN, I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Lehmann [Poster RR13], a postdoc in the at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), who asked that very question. In particular, Michael wanted to know whether environmental enrichment could buffer the adverse effects of stress (thereby mediating stress resiliency)  and if so, he wanted to know what brain regions were involved.

The Setup

His studies were done in c57bl/6 mice and the environmental enrichment (EE) setup included: hoops and running wheels of multiple colors and textures as well as various types of nesting material. Animals in the control group were provided with standard bedding and nestlet material. Both groups had continual and unlimited access food and water. After 4-6 weeks in their respective homecages (EE & regular), half of the mice from either group were subjected to social defeat stress over a period of two weeks, while the other half were simply left alone for two weeks. In total, then, there were four groups:

(1) Environmentally Enriched (EE) (2) Control (C)
(1a) Social Defeat (SD) Stress (2a) Social Defeat (SD) Stress
(1b) No Stress (2b) No Stress

Following the two weeks of stress exposure, animals were put through a behavioral battery of tests to measure anxiety levels, risk-taking behavior, social interaction and depressive- like behaviors. The results?

Environmental enrichment (EE) mediates stress resiliency

There were no behavioral differences in any of these tests between the non-stressed animals (Groups 1b and 2b). In other words, the environmental enrichment alone was not sufficient to reveal any differences between the animals. Differences were apparent, however, between the groups who were subjected to stress (Groups 1a and 2a). The animals who were in the non-enriched environments displayed higher levels of anxiety and depressive-like behaviors in tests than did the environmentally-enriched (EE) group. In a series of follow-up experiments, Michael then looked at what brain regions differed in activation between these two groups (using the functional neuroanatomical marker  Delta FosB) and found that EE mice (resilient to the effects of stress) mediated their responses via brain regions known to be associated with emotion and fear regulation.

Infralimbic Cortex (IC) is necessary for EE mediated stress resiliency

To further investigate the role of the infralimbic cortex (IC) in particular, Michael ran one last series of experiments. He lesioned the IC using idotenic acid (a substance with selectively destroys neurons) both before and after EE to determine whether or not the IC was necessary for the EE-mediated stress resiliency.

(1) Lesion –> Environmental Enrichment (EE) –> Social Defeat (SD) –> Behavior Tests (2) Environmental Enrichment (EE) –> Lesion –> Social Defeat (SD) –> Behavior Tests

Animals who received the lesion prior to EE, demonstrated changes in behavioral tests. They showed decreased levels of Delta FosB expression in the nucleus accumbens (NA) and the . That is to say, when the IC was lesion prior to EE-induction, the beneficial effects of EE-mediated stress resiliency virtually disappeared. On the other hand, animals who received the lesion after EE-induction, demonstrated no changes in behavior and no decreases in delta FosB expression.

What does it all mean?

Well, for one thing it certainly reinforces the idea that environmental enrichment has positive outcomes for the brain. Furthermore, the last two portions of Michael’s experiments demonstrate something entirely novel: the acquisition of stress resiliency and the expression of stress resiliency operate via two different pathways. In Michael’s own words: “After environmental enrichment if you lesion [the IC] it’s okay, because the expression of the resiliency is now residing in other brain regions – possibly in the accumbens, possibly in the intercalate cell islands of the amygdala…”

So, the “where” is to be determined. I’m sure there will be follow-up experiments, and when there are – I’ll be sure to update. Anyways, this officially concludes my official “SfN reporting”. This blog, though, isn’t going anywhere – so please do keep the feedback (the good and the bad) coming!

P.S. Photo Credit in “The Setup” section comes from this paper.

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Dining in San Diego: The Hash House a go go…

One last break from our regularly scheduled science coverage to report on a unique dining experience in San Diego. Tomorrow I will be resuming my science coverage! Look out for an interview with Michael Lehman for his recent work on environmental enrichment and how it plays a role in mediating stress resiliency through the infralimbic cortex. Read his abstract here.

As we didn’t get back to the hotel until 3 am Monday evening, the girls and I decided we needed to sleep in Tuesday morning. So, sleep in we did. Late Tuesday morning, we decided that before meeting up with our friends, we would stop somewhere closeby for some food. We found a place close to the zoo that had pretty decent ratings: Hash House a go go. The menu promised a good variety of brunch options, so…off we went!

Luckily, there wasn’t much of a wait at the restaurant (we were told this was unusual for this hotspot, but likely due to the fact that we were dining off-peak times). We decided to order our own main egg dishes with an extra side of pancakes to share. When Kira asked our waiter how many pancakes come in a stack, he simply replied: “It’s actually a single pancake, but it’s big enough to share.”

Ladies and gentlemen: I present the Understatement of the Year Award to Hash House –

I just have one question: At what point does a pancake cease to be a pancake and at what point can you classify it…as an actual cake? Aren’t there diameter restrictions? Depth restrictions? These pictures don’t even capture the gargantuan nature of these portions. That pancake was at least an inch thick.

Don’t get me wrong. The food was delicious – but this pancake was sufficient to feed a family of four! Staci’s meal had an entire rosemary tree planted on top of a hill:

We were so stunned…all we could do was laugh. I think Kira almost wet her pants.

Needless to say, we couldn’t finish it all. We had to request 3 to-go boxes and when that wasn’t sufficient, we asked for another two. We spent the rest of the afternoon carrying eight pounds worth of food around Balboa Park – and yes, we did take turns.

The best part about the entire experience was that even though we were clearly freaking out, our waiter was clearly unphased. I’m guessing they get the reaction all the time – still, I was surprised he didn’t give us more of a warning! At least we had some good laughs. Thanks Hash House! Next time we’re in San Diego, I’ll bring along three friends and we’ll order: one pancake.

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Lady GABA Rocks. Yellow Cab of San Diego Sucks.

A break from our regularly scheduled science coverage to report on an SfN social event + a slightly-bitter commentary on Yellow Cab service of San Diego….

So. Monday night finally rolled around- the night of the Lady GABA throwdown at Stingaree in downtown San Diego. The place was pretty crowded (as was anticipated) and the DJ was pretty good! A clip of some of the sing-along to the music below: ( note:it was dark, so this is more for audio than video really)

The party was slated to officially end at 2 am, so around 1:30 am, my friends and I decided we’d try to beat the rush and catch a cab back to the hotel. After waiting around a few minutes and realizing there were no cabs in sight, we decided to call one up. So, I called Yellow Cab. The representative assured me that there should be one there “soon” as there are “plenty of cabs in downtown”. Well. This statement, dear reader, was kind of… a lie.

After 10 minutes, a Yellow Cab did pull up – but another group of drunk friends flagged it down. “Wait…is that our cab?” my friend, Kira asked me. We weren’t sure, so while the group of 5-6  drunk friends battled it out over who should get in the cab we tried asking the driver if he had been called up or not (he shook his head no) – and quite unnecessarily, one of the girls in the group put up her hand to my friend’s face and said in a most condescending tone: “Honey, we got this.” We should have just gotten in the cab while their friends were arguing it out. Hindsight is a powerful thing.

So after another 10 minutes, I called up Yellow Cab again. I spoke with the same lady who assured me that our cab was on its way – “Number 63,” she said to me, “it should be there soon.” Alright, well – at least we were altogether. We waited and waited, then waited some more. Finally, after forty-five minutes of waiting, I called up, yet again.

It’s unfortunate that I didn’t get the same lady because it was really she who deserved to get a piece of my mind. Instead, someone named Robert answered the phone. I began to explain what happened and he responded unperturbed and quite matter-of-factly: “there aren’t any cabs available.” When I told him that not only were we assured at the outset that there were plenty of cabs available, we were given the specific number of a cab (63) – he said, “she lied to you.”

Indeed. Well, dear reader, you may be wondering if I tried calling up another cab company at this point. I did. I called Orange cab. No lies this time. Just someone who told me that there was no one he could send out but that we should try walking to the Mariott next to the Convention Center to see if we could find any out there. So, we begrudgingly, began ambling our way over. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is surely worth a hundred thousand.

There is a happy ending to the story. About a minute after I ended the recording, Staci and Kira were finally able to hail a cab (hallelujah!) and when the driver turned up the radio and “Promiscuous Girl” started playing, we didn’t even care. We were warm, we were off our feet, and we were finally heading back to the hotel where some warm beds awaited us.

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