mbScience.org http://mbscience.org Understanding Mind and Brain Tue, 11 Apr 2017 14:09:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.4.10 A Unique Approach to Science Education http://mbscience.org/scicon-review/shift-communication-presents-a-unique-approach-to-science-education/ Thu, 08 Oct 2015 15:38:57 +0000 http://mbscience.org/?post_type=os_scicon_review&p=6125 We are collaborating on an approach to neuroscience education that is absolutely unique: the integration of diverse research and creative communities in compelling, beneficial ways that advance frontier science, medicine, and public education.

Pilot participants include Stuart Firestein, PhD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences and author of the acclaimed book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, scientists Dr. Jay Giedd, Dr. Scott Russo, Dr. Marcel Kinsbourne, and Dr. Moran Cerf.

Guest moderators will include journalist and cultural correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Melik Kaylan; Internationally acclaimed best selling author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, Family / Relationship Therapist and clinician, Esther Perel. Neuroscience student Alea Skwara provided a student’s inquiry perspective.

Distinguished Participants

Marcel Kinsbourne, PhD

"Marcel Kinsbourne Participates in mbSci Studio One Pilot"Marcel Kinsbourne, PhD – Neurologist & Cognitive Neuroscientist, Professor of Psychology, The New School for Social Research. Dr. Kinsbourne obtained his D.M. degree at Oxford University in 1963, where he served on the Psychology Faculty before relocating to the United States in 1967. He has held Professorships in both Neurology and Psychology at Duke University and the University of Toronto, and headed the Behavioral Neurology Research Division at the Shriver Center in Boston, Massachusetts. He also served as Presidents of the International Neuropsychology Society and the Society for Philosophy and Psychology. Dr. Kinsbourne’s considerable body of research involves multiple areas of cognitive neuroscience, including brain-behavior relations; consciousness; imitation; laterality among normal and abnormal populations; memory and amnestic disorders; unilateral neglect; attention and Attention Deficit Disorder; autism; learning disabilities; mental retardation, and dyslexia.

Recent Publications:

Imitation and Entrainment: Brain Mechanisms and Social Consequences (2004); The Corpus Callosum as a Component of a Circuit for Selection (2003); How the Senses Combine in the Brain (2003); The Brain and Body Awareness (2002); Adult ADHD: Controlled Medical Assessment (2001); Dynamic

Self-Organization of the Cerebral Network (2001); Disorders of Mental Development (2000); Unity and Diversity in the Human Brain: Evidence from Injury (1998); Time and the Observer: The Where and When of Consciousness in the Brain (1992).

Jay N. Giedd, MD

"Dr. Jay Giedd discusses Adolescent Brain Research in mbSci Studio One Pilot"Jay N. Giedd, MD – Chief, Brain Imaging Section, Child Psychiatry Branch, NIMH. For more than twenty years, Dr. Giedd has studied the development of the adolescent brain. Decades of imaging work have led to remarkable insight and more than a few surprises. Dr. Giedd’s research team at the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health seeks to use cutting edge technologies to explore the relationship between genes, brain and behavior in healthy development and in neuropsychiatric disorders of childhood onset. They conduct longitudinal neuropsychological and brain imaging studies of healthy twins and singletons as well as clinical groups such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, childhood-onset schizophrenia, and others.

Over the past 10 years they have acquired over 3000 MRI scans making this the largest pediatric neuroimaging project of its kind. The lab also studies sexual dimorphism in the developing brain (especially important in child psychiatry where nearly all disorders have different ages of onsets, prevalence and symptomatology between boys and girls) by exploring clinical populations which have unusual levels of hormones (congenital adrenal hyperplasia, familial precocious puberty) or variations in the sex chromosomes (Klinefelter’s syndrome, XYY, XXYY). The lab also conducts studies of monozygotic and dizygotic twins, which are beginning to unravel the relative contributions of genes and environment on a variety of developmental trajectories in the pediatric brain. The group is also involved in the development and application of techniques to analyze brain images and is actively collaborating with other imaging centers throughout the world to advance the image analysis field.

Dr. Scott Russo

"Dr. Scott Russo Panelist in mbSci Studio One Pilot in NYC"Dr. Scott Russo – Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. His research is focused on understanding how the brain adapts to stress and drugs to guide future behaviors that are relevant to addiction and depression.

The Russo Laboratory of Neuroplasticity and Behavior uses a wide variety of experimental approaches to understand how the brain adapts to stress and drugs leading to altered synaptic connectivity and behavioral changes relevant to depression and addiction. We do this by integrating well-established behavioral models, with molecular and biochemical techniques and traditional neuroanatomy.

Moran Cerf, PhD


"Dr. Moran Cerf is Panelist in mbSci Studio One Pilot in NYC"Moran Cerf, PhD – Neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology (‘Caltech’), at the UCLA department of neurosurgery and at New York University. His research focuses on understanding the neural mechanisms of consciousness and free will using direct recording of single neurons from the brains of patients undergoing brain surgery. Dr. Cerf completed his Ph.D at Caltech in computational neuroscience, and holds an MA in Philosophy of Science and a B.Sc in Physics, both from the Tel-Aviv University. Prior to his career as a scientist, Dr Cerf worked as a hacker – breaking into banks and financial institutes, an air pilot and an inventor. Dr. Cerf currently holds a faculty position at the American Film Institute, teaching screen-writing, and is currently the winner of the U.S Moth story- telling competition.His research focuses on studying the ways by which visual inputs are processed in the brain to create a conscious perception.

The studies are conducted with human patients undergoing brain surgery to enable the research of the neural coding underlying our attention. In addition, he conducts eye-tracking studies with subjects with neurological disorders (autism, face blindness, amygdala lesion, agenessis of the corpus calosum, etc) to study mechanisms underlying emotions.

Pilot Episodes will feature:

Tutorials in Specialized Fields

20-minute presentations by each participant’s current research or teaching points.

Roundtable Discussion

A passionate, in depth, high level scientific dialogue across disciplines, focused on the emotion sciences.

Neuroscience In the News

Discussions by scientists and experts in various fields, both skeptics and advocates, on the latest headline stories, this being our first pioneering effort. Thoughtful interdisciplinary dialogue to provide insights that are often missing in the media, and even in the journals.



mbSci Moderators

"Stuart Firestein Professor and Author Moderates mbSci Studio One Pilot"Stuart Firestein, PhD, Professor and Chair, Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia University. Professor Firestein teaches biology and the popular “Ignorance,” a course that invites professors to speak to students about what they don’t know and what they question in their field.

He was recently recognized for his “pioneering work” on the mammalian olfactory system and elected as fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Firestein’s lab focuses on understanding how mammals, equipped with what he describes as “possibly the best chemical detector on the planet,” are able to sense and discriminate a vast number of molecules known to us as odors. Dedicated to promoting the accessibility of science to a public audience, Firestein also serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program for the Public Understanding of Science.

Recently he was awarded the 2011 Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching. His recent and acclaimed book on the workings of science for a general audience is called Ignorance: How It Drives Science, published by Oxford University Press. His areas of research include Stem Cell Biology, Biophysics/Ion Channels; specialization — Molecular physiology of olfactory transduction.

"Esther Perel is mbSci Studio One Pilot Moderator"Psychologist Esther Perel is recognized as one of the world’s most original and insightful voices on couples and sexuality across cultures. Fluent in nine languages, the Belgian native is a celebrated speaker sought around the globe for her expertise in emotional and erotic intelligence, work-life balance, cross-cultural relations, conflict resolution and identity of modern marriage and family. Her best-selling and award-winning book, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, has been translated into 24 languages.

Ms. Perel’s innovative models for couple relations and leadership have won her an international clientele, from the boardroom to the bedroom and from academia to television. Clients include Janssen Pharmaceutica, AT&T, Johnson and Johnson, Anthony Robbins Productions, The Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute, The Wexner Foundation, The Bronfman Foundation and New York University Medical Center. For more than a quarter of a century, she has implemented effective transitions with international families, boards and executive teams.

In addition to Ms. Perel’s psychotherapy practice in New York City, she also serves on the faculties of The Family Studies Unit, Department of Psychiatry, New York University Medical Center and of The International Trauma Studies Program. She is an AASECT certified sex therapist, a member of the American Family Therapy Academy and of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research. Trained and supervised by the legendary teacher, Salvador Minuchin, she has trained therapists and crisis counselors throughout the world lending her expertise in wartime, post-war and refugee families.

A regular media commentator, Ms Perel has been widely featured in the international press. She has been a guest on numerous television shows including the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Today Show,” “CBS This Morning,” TV Globo’s “Fantastico” in Brazil and Andrew Denton’s “Enough Rope” in Australia. Her interviews have appeared in leading publications such as The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Vogue, Le Monde, Ha’aretz,Stern, La Republica, The Guardian, The Observer and The Sydney Morning Herald; and she writes a popular column for the magazine Oh La La, published by the Argentine newspaper La Nación.

"Melik Kaylan Portrait"Melik Kaylan has worked as a journalist based mostly in New York for twenty-five years. Among other places, he has been an editor at the Village Voice, contributing editor at Spy magazine, associate editor at Connoisseur magazine, Arts editor at Forbes.com, editor-at-large at ReganBooks. His work has been published widely in the US and UK in the above publications and the Wall Street Journal, Vogue, New York Times, the Times of London, the Spectator, and other places. He has won Cultural Awards in Italy and Turkey for print and television work on antiquities smuggling.

He has been to the Middle East numerous times, to Iraq five times, to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, the Caucasus. His Travel and Leisure article on Tbilisi, Georgia, is included in the 2008 Best American Travel Writing collection. He has scuba dived for bodies with the NYPD scuba unit (New York Magazine), dived with the Cousteau ship in the Red Sea (Forbes.com), searched for Inca treasure in Ecuadoran mountains (Outside magazine), investigated the murder of a fellow journalist in Peshawar, Pakistan (the Spectator). Currently, he writes for the Wall Street Journal about culture.

"Alea Skwara Guest Moderator for mbSci Studio One Pilot"Alea Skwara – NYU Social Psychology MA Student. Alea received her BA in Theatre from Davidson College in 2009 and began her MA in Psychology at NYU in 2011.

Her research interests focus on traumatic emotional experience and the resolution of these experiences, and on interpersonal bonding. More specifically, what are the neural correlates of emotional trauma, and how do they shift over time and with treatment?

What individual and social differences affect this process? Alea is now Lab Manager for Leah Sommerville’s Affective Neuroscience Lab at Harvard.

Treating Sciencephobia – Or, how to read real science without getting a nervous breakdown. http://mbscience.org/treating-sciencephobia-or-how-to-read-real-science-without-getting-a-nervous-breakdown/ Sun, 09 Nov 2014 17:02:04 +0000 http://mbscience.org/?p=6722 "Treating Science Phobia"

For reasons that drive scientists close to despair, many media writers get science stories wrong. They make small advances look like Great Leaps Forward, and when really big steps take place they usually miss the real story.

This is sad, because real science is such a barrel of fun. But you can’t love football if you don’t understand it. Science isn’t any more complicated than football games on tv.

In the popular media scientists are never wrong, which is like saying that your team never loses a game. Boo, hiss. That means missing the real drama that goes on at the frontiers every single day.

Because media writers work under huge deadline pressure, they don’t have time to double-check and triple-check every fact. That’s why scientists always go to primary source journals, the ones where every word is triple-checked by authors, reviewers and editors. Primary journals aren’t perfect, but they have a good accuracy rate.

And — as you know, for the first time in human history anybody in the world can read the primary sources of science. Between Google Scholar and PubMed you are holding in your hands the greatest library of human knowledge. Free of charge. Ready to learn.

There’s only one barrier, and it’s in your own mind. Let’s call it lexophobia, the unreasoning fear of big words. (Yes, I just made that up.) Many, many people avoid reading good science because it all looks like gobbledegook.

Well, have no fear. As part of our MBSCi public service we solve the phobia of big words. (Should you choose to accept this mission, and all that).

Phobias are unreasonable fears, and if you can tolerate reading this blog, you, too can overcome your fear of big words!


Here is a really, really wonderful article in Translational Psychiatry.

Question: “What’s “translational”?”

Answer: Any process whereby DNA encodes RNA, which encodes protein production in cells.

But you knew that, right? It’s high school biology.

So why don’t they just say that, instead of talking in secret code?

“Translational.” Sheesh.

Here is the title.

“Translational Psychiatry (2014) 4, e445; doi:10.1038/tp.2014.85
Published online 16 September 2014

Association between serotonin transporter genotype, brain structure and adolescent-onset major depressive disorder: a longitudinal prospective study

More gobbledegook, right? Well, not really. Just use our handy little dictionary.

Translational. (See above)

Psychiatry. (Greek) Medical study of the mind. (Gk: psyche, iatros)

Association. This word is a warning to readers that the article reports a correlation between two things, NOT a causal relationships. This is the biggest mistake made by unthinking readers.

serotonin” A thingummy, doohicky, or wossname. Just fiddle your fingers and you get the idea. If you need to know more, check Wikipedia, which is good for such things.

Note: in biology, molecular thingummies always act as tiny keys to fit into tiny locks.

(Molecular = “pretty damned tiny.”)

serotonin transporter” =  A wossname that transports a thingummy. Visualize a baby key in a baby carriage and you’ve got the right mental image. Transporters move molecular keys around.

“serotonin transporter genotype” . The genetic code for the baby in the carriage, the thingummy in the wossname.

“brain structure” – the structure of the brain. (Note: this is not the function of the brain, or some process of the brain, like growth, development, damage, degeneration, etc.) Structures are fairly stable over time.

“adolescent”  A teenager.

“adolescent-onset”. Starts in the teenage years.

“major depressive disorder” – feeling sad or emotionally numb a lot of the time. A major bummer that won’t go away.

“longitudinal study” — a study over a long period of time, like years or decades. Longitudinal studies are notoriously hard and expensive to do. If one subject in such a study costs $1000 for one year, then 100 subjects for 10 years costs a million dollars. Longitudinal studies are very important, but they are big, big projects, usually with government funding.

“prospective study”  – a planned study that allows us to randomly assign some teenagers to two (or more) conditions at the beginning of a ten-year project. Random assignment often allows us to do causal statistical tests on the outcome. But in this case, we already know that the study came out with an “association” (a correlation). The authors are therefore being very careful in what they claim, which is a good thing. There are nice statistical techniques today to get the most out of studies like this, even causal evidence.

And that’s it. The whole gobbledegook sentence made easy enough for a bright 12-year old.

Bottom line: Don’t be afraid of science! Most of it can be translated into ordinary words.

(Note: MBSci’ official blog, A Conscious Brain, will occasionally publish more adventures in real science reading. Always go for the primary source… :) )



Winter SADness? Stick a light in your ear! http://mbscience.org/winter-sadness-stick-a-light-in-your-ear/ Wed, 29 Oct 2014 19:18:05 +0000 http://mbscience.org/?p=6822 "Winter Sadness"An wonderful English madrigal from 1598 by Thomas Weelkes goes

“To shorten Winter sadness

see where the nymphs with gladness

Falala lala lala

Falala lala lala”

And the nymphs  go dancing and singing through the town making people happy.

The point is that human beings have known about “Winter sadness” for a long, long time. However, scientific research on SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is still recent. We know that sunlight and artificial light helps, especially in the mornings, to “pace” your biological light cycle. Surprisingly enough, melatonin PLUS darkness at the right time of evening also helps — melatonin in the brain is triggered by sunset, the onset of night. Synching your wake-sleep rhythm to natural light is a key (called “sleep hygiene” in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). And remember that for most of our evolutionary history humans were sunny hunter-gatherers in Africa, so bright natural sunlight makes sense also. Just like Thomas Weeks’ nymphs, music and dancing also make people happy.

But shining a light in your ear? Frankly I never thought about that until I read an article by a Finnish team led by  Jurvelin et al (2014) suggesting that “Transcranial bright light treatment via the ear canals” might help SAD. The reason? There is not much tissue blocking bright light shone into the ear canals — as soon as you penetrate the ear drum and inner ear liquid, which is very thin and translucent, your bright light source affects the neurons of the ear canal and vestibular (balance) system. There are other medical mysteries having to do with the ear canal, such as the use of ice water to relieve visual half-blindness due to parietal damage. The fact is that nobody is quite sure why those ear tricks work, but they are interesting.

Jurvelin reports that after four weeks of 12 minute daily doses of light energy into the ear canals “all three patient groups showed significant decreases in their Beck Depression Inventory, Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale and Hamilton Depression Scale – SAD version.

All groups should at least a 50% drop of symptoms using the Beck scale. However, one in four patients had “mild adverse events, including headache, insomnia, and nausea.”  This is not unexpected, given that light stimulates the balance system in the inner ear.

So if you feel SAD during the winter, trying sticking a light in your ear — but not too much!




Women not to blame for obesity – but estrogens might be. http://mbscience.org/women-not-to-blame-for-obesity-but-estrogens-might-be/ Fri, 10 Oct 2014 20:56:39 +0000 http://mbscience.org/?p=6779 "Women not to blame for obesity - but estrogens might be"

Women not to blame for obesity – but estrogens might be


Around the world it is estimated that 1.4 BILLION individuals are overweight — a previously unknown problem in history, when food deprivation, famine, and day-long physical work were much more common. But why is this happening? Taking in too many calories does not explain the large amount of evidence.



In today’s PLOS ONE, James Grantham proposes “The estrogen hypothesis of obesity,” blaming the major obesity epidemic on “xeno-estrogens” in our environment. “Xeno” means “stranger,” and “xeno-estrogen” means estrogen coming from outside the body, specifically from plastics and many other products that push up estrogen levels in the body, and lower thyroid activity. The UK Daily Mail has a popular write-up of the scientific article.

Major sources of xeno estrogens are PVC’s (in plastic water pipes), soy foods, including soy bean protein added to other foods, soy added to vegetable oil and in some cheeses.

The researchers point to a possible “feminization” in prosperous cultures that have plenty of food – which now includes fast-developing countries like India and China.

Two points:

First, this is an HYPOTHESIS. It needs more study.

Second, estrogen levels in the blood stream are MEASURABLE. So the hypothesis can be tested.

Third, it is easy to test the xeno-estrogen hypothesis in animals, where diet can be completely controlled.

We should get more evidence on this interesting hypothesis very quickly. If it is true, it might require huge investments in reducing soy in human diets, and replacing PVC pipes, or blocking xeno-estrogens in PVC products.



The Kim Kardashian hypothesis of beauty. http://mbscience.org/the-kim-kardashian-hypothesis-of-beauty/ Mon, 22 Sep 2014 16:06:39 +0000 http://mbscience.org/?p=6745 Venus_of_Willendorf_frontview_retouched_2Here is a response I just wrote to a new article by Leonid Perlovsky, “Aeshetic emotions, what are their cognitive functions?” (See here, here, and here).

Perlovsky raises the classical question, “Why do we feel pleasure experiencing the things we consider to be beautiful?” “Why do we seek beauty and pleasure in experiences that do not seem to have any practical use?”

My response is a little more jargony than I normally post on *A Conscious Brain.* But you can handle it…

Notice the sources of these hypotheses — Dan Zahavi, Nicholas Wade, Stephen Brown, and other  bio-anthropologists who have thought a great deal about this question. All cited sources can be found readily on the web and Wikipedia.

Dear Leonid,

I admire your range of interesting papers on fundamental questions. 

In regard to esthetic pleasure and attraction, I would call your attention to a sizable evolutionary anthropology literature on the biological costs and benefits of sexual signals — the classical case being the male peacock, with its beautiful but very expensive mating display. 

Dan Zahavi called this the Handicap Principle in 1975, and the idea is essentially that sexual selection for mating with the fittest mates is so important as an evolutionary driver that hominins like us, and all of our ancestors among primates, mammals and vertebrates, dedicated a great percentage of biological resources to it.

The male peacock posing for sexual selection by the well-camouflaged females is endangering his life by attracting predators by blatant visual, auditory, and presumably olfactory signaling. The female peahen takes no such chances. Thus the male handicaps himself to look beautiful, and interestingly, humans have long used peacock feathers to decorate themselves as well.

It is precisely the apparently inutility of esthetic enjoyment that is evolutionarily important, along the lines of Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption.” Biologically, the male peacock is signaling “looking how strong and fertile I am!!! I can even afford to risk attack by cats, snakes and birds of prey, vast metabolic energy, attacks from competing peacocks in heat, the strength to shiver my tail feathers and preen for hours, simply to attract the best female! What healthy offspring we shall have!

The easy analogy would be to men with muscle cars or Harley-Davidsons when they could drive a mini-car instead. Among recent entertainment stars, Kim Kardashian leads a trend of women spending fortunes on breast and buttocks enlargements. Much earlier in our evolution some varieties of H sapiens evolved large breasts, steatopygous buttocks, and large stomachs to win the competition for sexual selection. 

The ability to store fat and muscle is a great advantage in cold climates. Siberian-descended Inuits and Amerindians are a good example.  But it handicaps survival in the face of hot droughts. Since human ancestors are known to have barely survived centuries of  drought in the desertification of the Sahara in the millennia before the “African Exodus,” (60,000 YA). Our ancestral population is thought to have collapsed to only 5,000 individuals in North East Africa. Drought adaptation is a major Darwinian constraint on survival. 

(Note that the term “African Exodus” is not the right word for Africans who escaped the desertification of the Sahara by migrating south, nor does it apply to the peoples who remained outside of the Sahara, like the Khoi San of the Kalahari Desert. Khoi San body morphology is gracile rather than robust, as befits a desert-dwelling people, and their knowledge of semi-arid survival tactics is vast. 

Nicholas Wade has pointed out  that tribal peoples perform frequent, vigorous and long-lasting community dancing, and universally harbor other-worldly religious beliefs, both of which are thought to enhance group harmony and therefore survival. Mating in tribal peoples tends to obey strict kinship rules, either within the birth group, or between allied groups. These appear to be Human Universals (Stephen Brown’s Human Universals (1992)). 

More than 200,000 years ago humans dug out colored clay deposits in South Africa, thought to have been used for body decoration by men and women. Those colored clays were apparently traded over long distances. 

Esthetics — the study of beauty — seems to come from at least a 100,000 years of sexual display crafts. Jewelry like pierced seashells and beads are also found far from their origins in North Africa. Body painting, hair styles, special clothing, fierce or charming masks, prominent head gear, vigorous dancing, music-making, singing and use of instruments, seductive movements and gestures, competition within genders, verbal facility, display of cooking and hunting skills, and an unlimited number of creative attention-catching behaviors can be related to sexual display.

Among the Amerindian Sioux male warriors showed off their physical size and strength (often 6′ or taller), and created new clothing fashions each year, while women took a more modest role. “Counting coup” — rushing into an enemy village, physically touching a fierce enemy warrior, and rushing out again to safety was a quantitative measure of masculine heroics. Somewhat like today’s military ribbons, Sioux warriors decorated their clothing to signal the number of times they counted coup. 

Precisely analogous behavior can be seen today in ever-changing female fashions, in male body building, and in military uniforms for men, including medals and honor ribbons displayed on the left chest, reflecting exemplary combat experiences, military skills, and rank in the warrior hierarchy. Military headgear can be especially spectacular, as any tourist who has attended the Buckingham Palace Horse Parade can attest. Today a ritual of competitive marching display is carried out in some Pakistan-Indian border towns, derived directly from the stamping and balletic displays introduced by the British Raj. 

The bodily posture of “pride” is also on display — see palace guards throughout Europe, including the Kremlin in modern Russia. Mammalian positions of pride are anti-gravity postures (head back, torso erect, high goose-stepping) which require physical training, and which oppose the gravitational body postures of social defeat, depression and surrender (head down, bowing low, slow appeasement posture while approaching the victor, etc.) Notice that we instantly recognize those body postures in lions, horses, cats, dogs and humans.

The standard Napoleonic pride statue in European capitals is a forward-facing man on a war horse, bearing a sword. The upward pointing of the sword, spear or rifle in heroic European sculptures may hark back in evolution to the upward-pointing penis during courtship display in chimps and other primate relatives. In the Romantic art of Jacques-Louis David Napoleon Bonaparte appears as the idealized hero on a white horse, the model for hundreds of similar statues and paintings of the time.

Therefore the link between male heroics, female fashions, secondary and primary sexual signals, music and the arts is unavoidable in the arts. Obviously this does not explain all of the arts all the time. The evolution of sexual display is a simple explanation covering a very large amount of evidence. 

Notice that this bio-anthropological hypothesis accounts for a number of features of esthetics you raised in your interesting article.

Is ROBO2 really a language gene? Hmmm… http://mbscience.org/is-robo2-really-a-language-gene-hmmm/ Wed, 17 Sep 2014 16:18:48 +0000 http://mbscience.org/?p=6714 dna-polimerThe popular science media are wondering whether a genetic language code has just been discovered (near the gene ROBO on chromosome 3) … based on a correlation between a human gene variation and the number of words spoken by two-year-old children in Europe.

The original article is entitled: “Common variation near ​ROBO2 is associated with expressive vocabulary in infancy.” Beate St. Pourcain et al (2014)  Nature Communications 5,  Article 4831 doi:10.1038/ncomms5831

In scientific writing the phrase “associated with” means “correlated with.”

But as every science student knows, the number of days in the year is nicely correlated with the number of nights — proving nothing whatsoever about causality. Daylight does not cause darkness, even though they are perfectly correlated.

Scientists desperately try to avoid confusing correlation with causality, and the Medical Research Council team in the UK that made this finding does not make this basic error. But popular media are driven by headline pressures using very simple, stereotyped templates, like “MAJOR DISCOVERY X JUST MADE BY SCIENCE!!!

Unfortunately, the article shows no causal relationship between a small genetic change and language learning in little kids.

Good students of science can learn by comparing the popular headline with the original article — very easy to find these days by searching Google Scholar or PubMed.gov.

Then you can be the scientific thinker. Is this headline really true?

Searching PubMed — endowed with 20 MILLION scientific abstracts, free of charge — we immediately see that the ROBO2 gene is found in three species — humans, rats, and mice.

Furthermore, an analog of ROBO2 is found in the flatworm C elegans, a famous study organism in biology.

Question: Shouldn’t a language gene be unique to humans, since only humans possess language in the full meaning of that word? If researchers were to find the same tiny piece of genetic code in C elegans, shouldn’t flatworms be talking to each other?

The fact is that the popular headline tells us nothing new.

Language researchers have understood for half a century that human language has a genetic basis, because:

1. Spoken language is limited to homo sapiens. It is extremely hard to teach language to other creatures, but in humans it’s hard to prevent babies from learning language. They do  it all by themselves. Nobody really knows how they do it.

(We don’t really teach natural language – we just create the natural conditions for language to be learned.)

2. Language-specific brain damage is only found in humans. The most famous examples are Broca’s aphasia (impaired speaking) and Wernicke’s aphasia (impaired comprehension and poor production).

3. Major features of language, like syntax and a giant vocabulary (around 100,000 words) is only known in humans.

4. Human babies learn a rich phonology (producing speech sounds) very early in life. Pronunciation of one’s native language tends to “freeze” by puberty, after which it is hard to learn to speak a very different language like a native. Language learning seems to have a “critical period” when it happens at amazing speed, not like later on. Critical periods indicate a genetic window of opportunity.

5. Our vocabulary and its remarkably rich set of meanings (semantics) has no known parallels among other species.

HOWEVER, we do share some very basic speech-like behaviors with other species — like whale song and bird song, making emotionally charged sounds, and major evolutionary functions of sound production.

Baby baboons screech just like human babies. They do it for similar evolutionary reasons.

The human vocal system is amazingly complex, with hundreds of specialized muscle groups.

We spontaneously learn a subtle and very large range of sounds, including the famous “click phonemes” in African groups like the Khoi San — the “bushmen” of the Kalahari desert. Some anthropologists suggest that click languages may be the earliest surviving languages in the world.


Bottom line: There is a great deal to be learned from sophisticated genetic studies. The famous FOXP2 gene was discovered in an London family with a variety of speech impairments. The media celebrated that major language discovery, until …. FOXP2 was found in alligators, too. 

Some days you might as well stay in bed.

Cat bug changes behavior – NY Times Science Section http://mbscience.org/cat-bug-changes-behavior-ny-times-science-section/ Mon, 15 Sep 2014 12:47:41 +0000 http://mbscience.org/?p=6699 Cat LadyFrom the NY Times Science Section: Toxoplasma Gondii — a popular bacterium that gets to humans by way of cats — has been shown to manipulate brain states. Infections have previously been known to cause brain damage, but this is at a much more subtle and basic level, since the bacterium seems to change gene expression in a small population of neurons in a tiny center of the amygdala. Infected rats may lose their natural fear of cats as a result. T Gondii infects about 11% of Americans and 40% of people in underdeveloped countries. This finding opens the possibility that bacteria, viruses and prions may cause mental disorders — or, as we prefer to call them “MIND BRAIN HEALTH CONDITIONS,” which affect up to 5% of the human population at some time. The New York Times presents an accurate writeup here:  For intrepid Mind Brain fans, the original article is here:

Joanne P. Webster, Maya Kaushik, […], and Glenn A. McConkey (2014) Toxoplasma gondii infection, from predation to schizophrenia: can animal behaviour help us understand human behaviour? 

J Exp Biol. Jan 1, 2013; 216(1): 99–112.
Try the original – it’s quite readable.
Be nice to your Precuneus – it might be your real self… http://mbscience.org/be-nice-to-your-precuneus-it-might-be-your-real-self/ Sun, 14 Sep 2014 16:19:04 +0000 http://mbscience.org/?p=6620 The hardest thing about the brain is learning the labels. Let’s take the Precuneus as example. It’s one of the most important parts of our brains, so much that we would be totally lost without it (Literally).  In fact, the Precuneus may be the most basic “seat of the self.”

Other areas of cortex do self-like jobs, too: For example, the prefrontal cortex does executive functions like decision-making.

But Precuneus may involve the “observing ego” — the “I” we talk about in everyday conversation. It’s the point of view of the self on the world.

Here is how the Precuneus looks when we divide the brain in half like a melon, and look at the inside of the right half, nose pointing to the left. If you find that confusing, just hold out your two fists, thumb to thumb, and pretend your right fist is your right hemisphere, left fist left hemisphere. It makes it easier to visualize the brain in three dimensions.


The Seat of the Self? Something close to it. It lives on the inside of each cortical hemisphere, and is associated with “self reflection”.

But nobody knows what the word “Precuneus” means, because we no longer speak Latin as the standard language of science.

Brain labels go back to the first really accurate atlas of human body, published in 1564 by Andreas Vesalius, with fantastic illustrations by an unknown artist who may have been a pupil of the great Italian painter Titian.

It was the Renaissance that brought us our fundamental knowledge of the brain — as far as it can be seen with the naked eye. Since 1564 brain anatomy has been studied at smaller and smaller scales, and it goes on even today.

Since everybody in science used Latin at that time, our brain words come from that language. If we could magically translate brain words into English we’d be pleasantly surprised by how simple they are. The first anatomists simply called what they saw by everyday names.

For example:

1. Cerebrum = brain

2. Cerebellum = little brain

3. Hemisphere = half sphere

4. Cortex = bark (like a tree)

5. Thalamus = bridal chamber (a sexual association — try looking at the thalamus on top of the brainstem)

6. Cuneus = wedge

7. Precuneus = area in front of the wedge. (In Latin the prefix “pre” means “in front of”).

Now you can see why they called the reddish area in Figure “in front of the wedge.”

Looking at the brain with the naked eye, the “wedge” is the triangular area at the back of the brain, where visual areas are located.

Various lines of evidence indicate that the Precuneus is involved in self-related activities. But all conscious experiences involve an implicit self — we see, we hear, we love or hate. Some unconscious activities do NOT seem to be self-related the way conscious experiences are. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued two centuries ago, consciousness can be thought of as a process of adaptation of the self to the world. Only very rarely are people conscious of something without relating it to themselves. Even a baby crawling on a carpet must be able to tell when she is coming closer to a toy.

The cortex is equipped with egocentric maps that located one’s own body with respect to other things in the surroundings. These maps reside in the parietal lobe, and the Precuneus is a piece of parietal lobe that flops over on the inner wall of each hemisphere. In brain jargon, Precuneus is the “medial aspect” of the parietal lobe.

So what happens when you lose your Precuneus? There is some evidence that your state of consciousness changes very profoundly.

Patients with brain damage may lose consciousness. With moderate impairment they may go into Minimal Conscious States (MCS), showing  intermittent periods of fairly normal waking. But with more severe damage they are diagnosed as Persistent Vegetative State (PVS) — showing normal vital functions like breathing, and even the basic signs of sleep and waking, but very few signs of normal conscious functioning.

Some scientists believe the difference between MCS and PVS is activation of the Precuneus, a possible seat of the self.

A good discussion on the role of Precuneus and self, MCS and PVS may be found here, at the Neurocritic blog.

(h/t to Neurocritic and medical scientists like Steven Laureys and Niko Schiff, who have made immense progress on comatose states in the last few decades.)

PS. If you want to visualize where the Precuneus is located in the brain, there is a neat rotating brain animation here