As the academic fields, particularly if not exclusively, those in the sciences appear to multiply and narrow, many people strain for a return to the interdisciplinary. The mind and brain sciences move into categories formerly considered only by literature, philosophy, or more generally, the liberal arts. Consequently the crossover of science into the mysteries of the human mind has charged a debate concerning the future of the humanities. Many schools are withdrawing funds from liberal arts departments. The University of Louisiana, Lafayette ended its philosophy major and Michigan State University eliminated its major in American studies and classics. The question now is has the conceptualization of human nature shifted from ambiguous poetic ponderings to the seemingly quantifiable and consequently more practical sciences? Or is a modification of the humanities, not necessarily a replacement, in progress? Many humanists and scientists search for what they refer to as “the next big thing,” or the integration of liberal arts and the sciences, partly out of a desire to preserve as well as to progress. Many have found a solution in the interpretation of literature through the neuroscientific lens.
Many subjects of neuroscience studies have concerned the evolutionary basis of the arts and the cognitive faculties involved in reaction to them. Elaine Scarry, a professor of English at Harvard University is amongst the searchers for the NBT or “next big thing,” hosting a seminar on cognitive theory and the arts. Visual cortex studies have provided insight into how an impressionist painting makes its “impression,” for example, how painting techniques create the effect of shimmering water. Magnetic Resonance Imaging studies test the reactions of different brain areas during the reading process in hopes of answering the bigger questions science has for literature, namely, why do we read, how do we form attachments to imaginary characters, and what are the underlying, fundamental mechanisms of such?
Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at University of Kentucky, who specializes in 18th century British literature, hopes to interpret literature from an evolutionary psychologists’ and cognitive scientist’s perspective. Zunshine is currently working on a joint project with cognitive psychologists to investigate the neurological basis of reading. She hopes to test using MRI how the process of reading differs with the complexity of the material read from the Daily News to Marcel Proust. One of the studies concerned an individual’s ability to track multiple sources, or follow a chain of relationships such as he said she said he said…etc. One of the difficulties of reading Virginia Woolf, for example, is that she often asks readers to keep track of six different chains of thought or “levels of intentionality.” The normal human capacity is about three. Zunshine also claims that the narrative “free indirect style,” which mingles the character’s voice with the narrators, enables readers to follow multiple levels of intentionality. According to her, it also stemmed from an evolutionarily selected desire to investigate into other people’s lives or mental sets. Many schools that sense losing interest in the liberal arts are following Zunshine’s angle and implementing cognitive literature courses. The exact influence of the quantifiable brain sciences on the liberal arts and vice versa is still uncertain. Ultimately, the issue at heart concerns the nature of truth, whether it must be quantifiable and whether one lens of interpretation is one of many perspectives or singularly objective. One needs be skeptical at the call of absolute truth, particularly if it be simple. As the territory the quantifiable sciences may settle on expands, are the liberal arts to occupy historically reverential reservations or is there to be cultural integration?
Regardless of the outcome of the NBA finals this year, one team had to go home empty handed. It’s difficult to fathom how athletes immediately get back on their feet and start training for the next round of emotionally tortuous ups and downs. Even though they’re getting paid an absurd amount of money to play the game that they love, there must be some emotional consequences, right? On the surface, viewers can clearly see the bond a sports team has as evidenced by their chest bumps, high-fives, “OH YEAH”s, and less-than-tender slaps on the butt, but there must be another aspect of these superficial rituals that isn’t seen.
So, here comes sports psychology, which aims to improve performance by mediating the psychological effects of injury and loss. Naturally, sports psychology began as a way to increase positive attitudes in individual athletes, as well as entire teams. Later, this branch of psychology went from questioning how to instill positive attitudes in athletes, to wondering what relationship psychological well-being had to strenuous physical activity.
In 1975, the neurological world discovered compounds now known as endorphins – endogenous opioid polypeptides released during exercise, excitement, and orgasm, and known to produce analgesia. But what happens when outside stressors, like losing and injury, interfere with the natural high created by exercise? This connection between brain psychology and kinesiology has recently been researched with the development of the field of psychophysiology, which attempts to solidify the link between psychology and physiology. With the advent of multiple neuroimagery techniques, such as MRI, fMRI, and PET, psychophysiologists have been able to move on from exploring organ systems innervated by the autonomic nervous system, to examining the central nervous system and monitoring brain activity. The illumination of the relationship between stress, physical activity, competition, recovery from an injury, and the underlying cognitive processes could have great implications for the future of professional sports.
More advanced technology has provided insight into the relationship between body and mind. A biofeedback loop can be utilized to facilitate awareness between physiological functions and their activities. Using a variety of precise instruments and an integrating computer system, the user can measure brain waves, skin conductance, muscle tone, and heart rate, just to name a few. Once this information reaches the user, he or she can consciously manipulate the activities of these processes. These changes can be used to heighten performance and boost health. Eventually, the user can learn to manipulate these activities without using these devices.
The fourth quarter of game seven was obviously not the best quarter the Celtics have ever played. What if the field of sports psychology, in combination with psychophysiology, found a way to allow each player to consistently perform to his or her best ability? Then, would the real competition begin? Or would this take the excitement out of the game?
Watch a video on biofeedback here:
This month in Nature Neuroscience an article was published by the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine (Perez-Tilve et al.) detailing the effects of the neuroendocrine system on cholesterol levels. According to the article, hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol) is difficult to treat as a whole because there isn’t much known about the molecular origin of the condition. Unfortunately, symptoms are too well known: obesity, high blood pressure, poor glucose metabolism. The research presented shows a link between high levels of the hormone ghrelin and high cholesterol.
In one portion of the study, mice given ghrelin for a week showed increases in body fat and in cholesterol, but control mice did not. Ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry, acts on a central nervous system circuit called the central melanocortin system. When mice were given melanocortin inhibitors, HDL cholesterol increased, implying that melanocortin receptors regulate HDL regardless of food eaten.
Another hormone, GLP-1, was tested in the mice. This hormone makes you feel satisfied after having eaten, so the researchers gave mice infusions of GLP-1 for a week. Their cholesterol decreased compared with the control mice – so it was concluded that gastrointestinal hormones can regulate cholesterol both positively and negatively. Additional research showed that mice that were deficient in the genes that code for GLP-1 receptors had higher cholesterol than wild-type mice.
Perhaps in the near future the use of statins to control cholesterol levels could be decreased or even eliminated. While the cardiovascular implications of high cholesterol are dangerous, so are the side-effects of the treatment. Statins, the common treatment for high cholesterol, don’t deal with the regulatory hormones; instead, they inhibit enzymes that take part in the synthesis of cholesterol. They also don’t work to reduce triglyceride levels and raise HDL levels. Although HDL is known as “good cholesterol” the study showed that rats with high HDL were susceptible to atherosclerosis and symptoms of high cholesterol. Pharmaceutical research is already being directed toward finding agonists for GLP-1 receptors and antagonists for ghrelin receptors in order to treat all of the symptoms of hypercholesterolemia.
New York Times columnist John Tierney recently dared to discuss women in science (the occasion being the passing of a law called “Fulfilling the potential of women in academic science and engineering” in the House).
The problem is well known: there are fewer women than men in the top scientific positions at universities. Speculations about its causes have sparked considerable controversy over the years, leading to the demise of many an academic (Larry Summers is a notable example. When Summers was president of Harvard, he gave a speech in which he suggested that women are inherently incapable of being top-notch scientists; Summers was forced to resign shortly afterward) and instilling in them a fear of the taboo topic.
Discussing women in science has nevertheless remained sexy in a strange sort of way. Tierney cites some relevant research on the right tail of scores distributions (while average scores on standardized tests are the same for boys and girls, boys outnumber girls four to one on the top math scores around the 99.9th percentile; this is despite the push since the 1990’s to close the gap). The fear is not only that this gap won’t disappear anytime soon, but that its causes are genetic (innate!).
99.9th percentile aside, Tierney seems to have overlooked the possible social reasons for the underrepresentation of women in the sciences. These might be the games and toys that parents and teachers give their children (do girls play games involving spatial reasoning?) and/or the gargantuan investment that women make when starting a family (having children and raising them is no small feat).
Perhaps while neuroplasticity is such a hot topic in the brain sciences, someone could systematically explore the effect of early exposure to math and science on later performance on standardized tests.
As for family planning, maternal investment is a product of evolution and unlikely to change soon. Perhaps fathers can take one for the team by helping rear the kids (after they’re born, of course)?
Tierney’s original opinion may be found here.
— G. Guitchounts
On June 3rd, six volunteers were locked inside a mock space capsule to endure a 17 month simulation of a mission to Mars, called the Mars500. This will be the longest of these types of trials; during the simulation, an all-male crew is expected to perform operations required to complete a round-trip Mars mission. In addition, they must maintain relative physical and mental health in an isolate, confined environment. Scientists hope to gain perspective on the psychological stresses and effects an actual long-term space mission would have on its crew.
While such a lengthy test will provide useful data to psychologists and space scientists alike, it also seems to be a preliminary gesture towards a future of deep-space travel that is dominated entirely by men.
Women were excluded due to “tension between the sexes.”An organizer of the simulation alluded to to a previous co-ed experiment, in which a Russian volunteer attempted to kiss his female associate at a New Year’s Eve party. As a result, a highly qualified, female cosmonaut was not allowed to participate in the experiment.
Similar fears of inappropriate sexual interaction have been used to prevent women from accompanying their male counterparts in other situations for generations. Women have been considered a distracting element, to the point that even their presence jeopardizes the success of a particular endeavor.
An all-woman crew was considered to be unfeasible due to the fact that, according to the organizers, out of 5,600 applicants only one woman was qualified for the job. Though, considering that the discrimination was brought about through the actions of a man, it is a wonder that men aren’t considered unfit for such experiments due to their disqualifying inability to contain their sexual impulses. Ideally, though, one should hope that equal opportunity be given to members of both genders.
This segregation will deprive scientists of any further data on co-ed experiments of this type, thus rendering future real life co-ed missions improbable, if not altogether impossible.
I can’t help but be reminded of the hackneyed but somehow lovable way in which Star Trek: The Next Generation made commentary on social issues, in this case through the introduction of a greedy, swindling, misogynistic race called the Ferengi, who are shocked to learn that members of Starfleet work alongside their females.
Indeed, in the context of many Utopian science fiction tales, the future human race is often portrayed as one that has reached some type of social maturity, and has out-grown its former preoccupation with delineating differences between gender, race, nationality or religion. It is unfortunate that, at present, our rate of technological growth far surpasses that of our social progress.