Category: Pop Culture
City dwellers are all too familiar with crowds. In Boston, students regularly navigate through them on their way to class, and more broadly, natives and visitors all have to navigate through sports crowds. These can be particularly dense and sometimes rowdy crowds (have you ever been near Fenway Park after a Red Sox-Yankees game?!).
With crowds occasionally come large-scale riots. A recent notable riot occurred in Vancouver after the Bruins won the Stanley Cup over the Canucks. One of the first signs of unrest was bottles being thrown at TV screens by spectators outside the stadium. It was followed with burning of Bruins apparel and flags. Eventually, a car and truck were overturned and set on fire, and windows of local businesses were smashed. Chaos followed, 100 people were arrested, and there were numerous injuries.
Researchers at Arizona State University are currently studying human behavior in crowds. They use computer modeling to study the outbreak and containment of city riots. One such example can be found here. This video shows the beginnings of a riot outbreak through an immersive model – the progression of the riot and overall crowd behavior is observed from a participant’s point of view. Though various viewpoints are shown in the video, there is initially a focal point of a key initiator, and users can choose their viewpoint when modeling in the program. More
If you were asked to describe the consistency of the human brain, how would you describe it? Like jelly? Cottage cheese? Dr. Katrina Firlik would say tofu—the “soft variety.” In her book, Another Day in the Frontal Lobe (Random House, 2006) Dr. Firlik, a practicing neurosurgeon, offers an insider’s perspective on the world of neurosurgery and recounts the journey that got her where she is today. Through her biting wit and the compassionate nature with which she describes her many patients, Firlik paints a vivid and engaging picture of a field about which many know only a little. More
Time and time again college students are up all night writing a paper they should have started a week ago or cramming for an exam they are going to take the next day. How many times have you compromised your sleep to get things done? How many times have you found that you couldn’t concentrate on what you were doing, making the whole process longer? What if I were to offer you a pill that would let you use your brain at its full capacity?
In Limitless, the protagonist, Eddie Morra, finds this pill and it changes his life. He goes from being a recently-dumped, struggling writer into being a superhuman that no longer needs to sleep. Not only does he finish his novel in the matter of four days, he also manages to win a ridiculous amount of money from the stock market and to get back with his ex-girlfriend, Lindy. By the end of the movie, he is running for United States Senate, being considered for presidency, and has become superhuman due to the change in his brain chemistry after his use of the drug.
Unfortunately, I must inform you that this movie is far from being based on a true story. Not only is the fact that we only use twenty percent of our brains a myth, but neuroscience, as a field, is not developed enough to be able to use what we know about the brain in order to make a pill that allows us to do even half of what Eddie Morra did in the movie.
James Kakalios, a physics professor from the University of Minnesota comments on the movie, saying that even though there are chemicals available known to improve brain functioning and that medical science may soon develop drugs that make us smarter, “Taking a pill and becoming a supergenius? Mmmm, that’s kinda crazy. That understanding of neurochemistry far eludes us at this stage.” He goes on further to support that the claim that we only use twenty percent of our brain is a myth. He says, “We use all of our brains. We don’t understand a lot about how the brain works, but evolutionarily, everything in the three-pound hunk of meat on the top of your head is there for a reason.”
It is suggested that the way that the media depicts neuroscience is problematic because it uses distorted data in order to back up false claims. A study by Diane Beck, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois suggests that this is because neuroscience studies explain human behavior in a seemingly simple way by citing biological data, which is considered more reliable than other types of data concerning human behavior. This study is further supported by another study done by researchers at Colorado State and UCLA that asked a group of undergraduate students to assess the validity of an argument based on data given to them. The argument was that, because both watching television and doing math problems activate the temporal lobe, watching television improves our mathematical ability. Participants of the experiment who were shown bar graphs “supporting” the data were less likely to find the claim convincing than were participants who were shown a brain scan, even though both pieces of data were cryptic. The assumption that what we know about the brain is directly related to what we know about the mind and human behavior suggests that the field of neuroscience is far more developed than it actually is. Although we have made great strides in the field of neuroscience and the field is rapidly developing, movies like Limitless imply that there is no gap between the science of the mind and the science of the brain.
“Neuroscience: Is it All In Your Mind?” Miller McCune
My average morning: My alarm clock blasts the stereotypical sound associated with 7 a.m. mornings. I awake from what I wouldn’t even call sleep, and I stare at the ceiling wondering how I’m going to survive today’s chemistry exam when even the TA insists that this is his “cherry on the top.” Glancing over at my roommate as he snores louder than Yawkey Way on opening day at Fenway Park, I think to myself why couldn’t you just close your mouth and breath through your nose? Looking back at the clock, I guesstimate how much time I have left to savor the comfort of my own bed before jumping up to begin my whole routine. Well, at least this isn’t the worst day I’ve ever had…LOSING. More
Hey Scientists, Where’s My Jetpack?! : The future is here; it just looks a little different than expected
In almost every major futuristic science-fiction work of the last century, jetpacks and flying cars are seemingly as ubiquitous as today’s oversized SUV’s, lining the closets and garages of every hardworking American. Understandably, in the year 2011, this has lead many disenchanted Trekkies and purveyors of assorted geek cultures to ask, “Well, scientists, where’s my jetpack?!” While I commiserate with my fellow fans of Asimov and Adams, several recent innovations have led me to believe that we all might be overlooking just how “futuristic” the time we live in really is. Accessing Google on the iPhone is certainly as close to the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy as we may ever come. We have the ability to beam blueprints of intricate plastic objects and now even organs anywhere in the world and literally print them out. We have computers that can beat us in Jeopardy! And last but not least, Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you Brain Driver, the thought-controlled car. On behalf of scientists everywhere, I accept your apologies, geeks. More
They can’t stop talking about her. “Look at how popular and successful she is!” “Look at how stupid and ditsy she is!” “What has she done to be so famous?” … Well, I don’t care if she’s smart or stupid, rich or poor. The only things I see when she’s on the screen are those voluptuous curves. Regardless of what you think of her, Kim Kardashian has what most men dream of. Since this is a nerds’ blog, we’re going to take the moment to examine why we men like those curves so much.
Men like women with large curves because these provide an adaptive advantage, increasing the likelihood of the propagation of genes. Wide hips are adaptive because they make child birthing easier (more successful); large breasts may provide more nutrition during nursing. The men who go for the curves are more likely to make successful offspring; those offspring incidentally share the same instinct for curves and eventually make more progeny; and the cycle continues.
Now, Kim Kardashian is what you call a supernormal stimulus. She has everything that normally elicits a positive response but exaggerated. “Supernormal stimulus,” by the way, is attributed to the famous ethologist Niko Timbergen, who found that substituting a mamma-seagull’s white beak with its one red spot for a stick with three red spots made the chicks way more excited for food. Many more such examples have been described in a variety of animals. More
Sebastian Seung is a professor of computational neuroscience and physics at MIT. His research in the neuroscience field involves “connectomes,” or the map of connections between and among neurons. The endeavor of investigating and mapping connectomes began in the 1980s and jumped off with the elucidation of the complete connectome of the worm C. elegans in 1986. While C. elegans has about 300 neurons, humans have about 10 billion neurons and ten times that number of connections. These connections can grow and change with and from neural activity and experience, combining to permutations exponentially greater that those of DNA and its four bases. Seung proposes that we “are our connectomes” rather than our genomes, implying that our thoughts, experiences, emotions, and consciousness itself may have a purely neural basis. To refrain from any more spoilers, he artfully expands and explains his hypothesis in the above TED talk that it is surely worth viewing. For a greater philosophical inquiry inspired by his ideas, is our matter all that matters?
BU’s Mind and Brain Society is choosing among three (so far!) shirt designs to represent neuroscience at BU. Here they are! Please comment on which you like best!
I am surprising myself this week by delving into the more psychological and less biological side of neuroscience. Upon seeing the haunting Black Swan over winter break, I was immediately intrigued by its psychological underpinnings. Not long afterward, a friend showed me a fitting article from the Wall Street Journal titled, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” by Amy Chua. As it turns out, Chua’s article is an excerpt from her highly controversial book on parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In her book, she describes to the Western public her use of persistence, force, and even verbal attack to get her children to be their best. Although shocked at some of the details, I found some of Chua’s arguments compelling. But how far is too far? Can we be driven insane by a desire to achieve, like the unfortunate protagonist in Black Swan? Or do the hours at the piano and the endless repetition of multiplication facts pay off in the end?
Nina, played by Natalie Portman, is the main character of Black Swan, a ballet dancer whose life seems to revolve around two places: the dance studio and the apartment she shares with her overbearing mother. The mother, we learn, was a dancer when she was younger and is channeling her unfulfilled ambitions into Nina, who she desperately wants to see take the lead in Swan Lake. Roger Ebert describes this tiger mom in his review of Black Swan as “a mother whose love is real, whose shortcomings are not signaled, whose perfectionism has all been focused on the creation of her daughter.” The daughter becomes so focused on perfecting her art, trying to please her mother and her ballet company director that the rest of her life unravels along with her concept of reality itself.
Of course, for the number of hard-driving parents out there, I’m sure there are significantly fewer Ninas: people driven to insanity by their need for perfection. Still, Black Swan makes viewers cringe at the thought of putting someone through such a rigorous practice regimen and limited schedule as hers. In the same vein, Amy Chua’s book has received much backlash, as exhibited on the Today Show where the host read viewer comments on Chua’s approach deeming it “outrageous” and calling Chua “a monster.” Her daughters were not allowed to have sleepovers, participate in school plays, earn any grade less than an A, watch television, and the list goes on. In addition, she relates a story about her daughter Louisa’s struggles to learn a piano piece and the tactics she used to get Louisa to succeed. Chua forbade her daughter to leave the piano even for bathroom and water breaks, threatened her, told her to be less “lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic” – terms she considers motivational.
In contrast, studies have shown that such verbal aggression is detrimental not only to kids’ self-esteem, but to their school grades. One such study, published in Child Abuse & Neglect showed that kids with verbally aggressive parents showed poorer marks in French, their native language, especially those students who perceived themselves as verbally abused. The authors pointed out that children who are the victims of such aggression tend to doubt their scholastic ability, their behavior and their general worth. Another more recent study in NeuroImage showed a 14.1% increase in gray matter volume in the superior temporal gyrus in subjects who were exposed to parental verbal aggression. Statements like these are compelling – but the first study failed to show any decline in math skills due to verbal abuse, and the sample size was quite small in the correlational second study.
As horrifying as Chua’s method sounds, when Louisa finally mastered the piece, she didn’t want to leave the piano and was back on excellent terms with her mother that same night. Oddly, it was an exercise in self-esteem: Chua didn’t want her daughter to give up; she wanted her to understand what it’s like to succeed when you didn’t think you could. In essence, she was berating her daughter to build her confidence because she believed in Louisa’s ability to overcome laziness and fear.
It is a fact of cognitive neuroscience that practice does make perfect (see Piano Teachers Must Be Neuroscientists). In the Time article reviewing Amy Chua’s book, psychology professor Daniel Willingham agrees. He says that once you’ve mastered a physical task like a piano piece, you can perform it without thinking about it, leaving certain areas of your brain free to engage in more complex interpretation of the music you’re playing. Rather than being stifled by verbal aggression, perhaps Chua’s children now have an extra outlet for expression. They may not be perceiving themselves as verbally abused either – it seems that Chua is somehow letting her kids know that she believes in their potential.
With such talent to express themselves with, how could a kid end up like Nina the Crazy Ballerina? My guess is that driving children to succeed is not the issue: it’s instilling a fear of failure, a fear of accomplishing nothing, a fear that Chua pushed her daughters to overcome. In another article in Time article detailing the extent to which parents go to protect their young from everything, Nancy Gibbs writes, “we were so obsessed with our kids’ success that parenting turned into a form of product development,” as she discusses the overload on extracurriculars and safety devices that parents pile on to make sure their kids survive in this competitive day and age. In the article, Gibbs cites author Carl Honore, who says, “With children, they need that space not to be entertained or distracted. What boredom does is take away the noise… and leave them with space to think deeply, invent their own game, create their own distraction. It’s a useful trampoline for children to learn how to get by.” Regardless of whether or not kids can play the piano like Mozart, they tend to find a suitable creative outlet if given time. Do kids who have practiced assigned violin exercises for hours on end have time to reflect on what they are putting into their music on a more emotional level? If they’ve never had the opportunity to create as they please, as adults these people may not know how to cope with a lack of stimulation. Maybe this was the Black Swan’s problem: when presented with a role in Swan Lake that required her to branch off from her drilled-in technical ballet skills and become her character, Nina was afraid of the freedom and the possibility of failure. In my experience growing up with non-Tiger Parents (yet supplemented with Tiger Piano Teacher), it seems to me that a blend of discipline and hard work, along with time to just have fun and be a kid is the best formula for success.
Black Swan Movie Review – Roger Ebert
Tiger Moms: Is Tough Parenting Really the Answer? – Time Magazine
Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior – The Wall Street Journal
Effects of parental verbal aggression on children’s self-esteem and school marks – Child Abuse & Neglect
Helicopter Parents – Time Magazine
I began writing this post with feelings of guilt and inner turmoil because the article came out just one week too late – apparently V.S. Ramachandran was scheduled to speak about and discuss his new book The Tell Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human in Cambridge at the Harvard Book Store on February 2nd. If you haven’t heard this man’s name thrown around in any of your neuroscience classes, you have most definitely been asleep. As an engaged and involved neuro-nerd, I felt like a huge ass not only for missing this event, but also for not alerting my fellow blog nerds! But the reality of Boston and global climate change lead to this event being canceled. Upon inquiry I was told that they are trying to reschedule this talk, which would be wonderful, and I will be sure to give a shout-out to the internet crowd if I hear about a new date to see this incredibly influential man in our area.
The main point, though, is not the event, but the brand new book released by this professor/author/neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. Currently working as a professor in the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, this man has captured the attention of the neuroscience world for many years and perhaps even more importantly, the attention of those outside the field. His research on oddities such as phantom limbs and synesthesia has vastly contributed to our understanding of the normal and abnormal brain. His previous books, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind and A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers are user-friendly guides to the mind and brain, and have bolstered his research to make Ramachandran a neuro-celebrity.
His new work The Tell-Tale Brain is a 357 page sweep through the structure of the brain, what can happen when it goes wrong, and why we are the way we are when it goes right. He presents the human brain “anatomically, evolutionarily, psychologically, and philosophically” to discover what about our brains creates the human experience. This follows his approach, as he states in the epilogue of Tell-Tale Brain: “One of the major themes in the book – whether talking about body image, mirror neurons, language evolution, or autism – has been the question of how your inner self interacts with the world (including the social world) while at the same time maintaining its privacy. The curious reciprocity between self and others is especially well developed in humans and probably exists only in rudimentary form in the great apes. I have suggested that many types of mental illness may result from derangements in this equilibrium. Understanding such disorders may pave the way not only for solving the abstract (or should I say philosophical) problem of the self at a theoretical level, but also for treating mental illness.” I would say that this richly multifaceted approach seems ambitious, but reviews say Ramachandran’s book is still a comprehensive and satisfying read.
In The Tell Tale Brain Ramachandran elaborates on his older work on synethseia and phantom limbs with new research. With additional empirical research and case studies he builds the story of the cognitive and physical processes behind Capgras Syndrome, when your own mother or poodle becomes an impostor, Cotard’s Syndrome, when you believe that you are dead, and many other rarities. But along with the oddities he also contemplates the evolutionary significance to our normal everyday actions. For example he offers the “peekaboo principle” as a potential explanation for our seemingly universal draw to puzzles, concealment, and partial nudity. I will let you read into that one on your own. He also relates our desire to color-match clothing and accessories to “the experiences of our ancestors when they spotted a lion in the undergrowth by realizing that those yellow patches in between the leaves are parts of a single dangerous object.” Speculation such as this leaves some skeptical.
The main thesis of this piece, though, seems to be the infamous Mirror Neuron and its astronomical influence on human evolution. He believes mirror neurons may be the key to the emergence of culture and language, and essentially, the distinctive human experience. As if the mirror neuron hype wasn’t wild enough, it is about to be taken to a whole different level.
The New York Times Book Review states that some readers may lose track of what is firmly established in research and literature, and what is tentative speculation. This worries me, especially if Ramachandran is aiming at a generally less informed audience. It is easy for something that is an “interesting idea” to turn into a cultural fact if it is passed around and exaggerated enough by people who are not prepared to look to the research – or lack thereof.
I have yet to read this book but I thought it important to give everyone the heads up that this book is something that will be around – you will hear reviews tossed around amongst your classmates, in Paul Lipton’s office, and, if Ramachandran is really making neuroscience as accessible as he hopes, random people on the T. I personally hope that the book does not rely too much on the “shocking” stories we have all come to know, as I feel like some major and important topics in neuroscience can be turned into gimmicks. I have already heard completely unknowing hipsters act really cool by spitting out entirely incorrect information about mirror neurons to “blow the minds” of their friends, so I hope that Ramachandran’s postulations do not add to the vortex that is the obnoxious overconfidence of the only partially informed.
If any of you have read this new book please leave a review/comment and share your take with us!
Book Review- The Tell-Tale Brain- By V.S. Ramachandran – NYTimes.com
The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientists Quest for What Makes Us Human – BrainPickings.org
Vilayanur S. Ramachandran – Wikipedia.org