Friday, February 29, 2008

Garfield minus Garfield

Besides being horribly amusing, Garfield minus Garfield can characterize my day:

For something slightly more amusing:

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Moar test material!

My neuroscience prof this semester* has done some work in the intraparietal sulcus, so not only do we students get to read some of her own published papers, but we get to hear the information straight from the source.

The intraparietal sulcus, just as it sounds, is in the middle of the parietal lobe. A sulcus is just a wrinkle in the gray matter, an in-folding of cortex that increases the surface area (and thus computational ability) of the brain. The parietal lobe can generally be said to do spatial processes, with different areas specialized for different processes.

There's a whole big pile of intraparietal areas (in the sulcus) that we know about. But today's test only covers three of 'em, so you're only going to get to hear about three of 'em. But if you're interested, don't just take my word for it! Go look some stuff up!

Neuroscientists aren't necessarily the most creative at naming things. So when they opened up the intraparietal sulcus, the area closest to the middle of the brain was called the Medial Intraparietal Area (MIP), the lowest area was called the Ventral Intraparietal Area (VIP), and the outermost area was called the Lateral Intraparietal Area (LIP). Crazy, I know, but at least it's really easy to remember where each area is. Another handy thing to know is that intraparietal areas are multi-modal, that is, they respond to more than one kind of sensory input.

Area MIP responds to both visual and somatosensory (touch and body position) input. Specifically, cells in this area respond to the sight of objects within reach, the feel of objects touching the arm and hand, the feel of the hand actively exploring for objects, and the feel of the arm and hand moving. Individual cells in area MIP respond best to complex stimuli. For example, a cell in the right MIP might respond best when you (or a monkey) are reaching with your left hand for an object on your left side when the light is on (so you can see yourself reaching, and the object you're reaching for). It will still respond if you're reaching in the dark, or with the right hand, or even just when you're moving your eyes to look at the object within reach, but it won't respond as well. And it won't respond at all if you are looking at something outside of your reach. Given these things, it's pretty clear that area MIP is used for reaching and grasping things around you, which is an important thing for a person to be able to do.

One very cool thing that this guy Dr. Iriki found is that the receptive field (the area around you that is considered "within reach" and thus sets off a response) in MIP can change with tool use. He sat some monkeys down in a room with food scattered all over the floor, and marked all of the spots where the sight (and reaching) of food activated MIP. Seeing as MIP only responds for stuff within reach, all of the activating spots were pretty close to the monkey, within an arm's length. Then he trained monkeys to use little rakes to pull food closer to them. After this, he checked out MIP's activation again, and he found out that while the monkey was using the rake, MIP responded to bits of food that were further away, within a rake's reach of the monkey. That's kinda crazy cool. Anyhoo, MIP sends signals to area F5, which is a fairly high-level motor area in your brain that has motor programs for reaching and grasping things.

VIP has some very different response properties. Cells in VIP also respond to vision and touch, but it's centered around the face instead of the arm or hand. Each cell in VIP responds when you touch a specific area of your face in a certain way. For example, a cell might respond when you run something across your chin from right to left. However, the same cell will respond if you merely see something move across the space right in front of your chin from right to left, as well. Each cell's receptive field includes a patch of skin on your face or head or upper torso, and the area of space in front of that patch of skin. VIP receives input from the visual area of the brain that detects movement (MT), and it's thought to be the area that determines if you can either reach an object with your mouth or avoid it with your head. If someone throws a dodgeball at your face, this area is what tells you to MOVE MOVE MOVE! If you're bringing a bite of tasty pie to your mouth, this area is what helps you lean down and nom on it. If someone's wiggling their fingers an inch in front of your face, chanting, "I'm not TOUCHING you! I'm not TOUCHING you!" this area is why you get so annoyed.

So far we've covered "arm-centered grasping" with MIP, and what my prof* calls "mouth-centered grasping" with VIP. Area LIP is related to something that was termed "eye-centered grasping," which is just another term for bringing something from the periphery of your vision to the center of your vision. LIP cells respond to both visual and eye-movement signals. LIP cells, like all visual cells, have a specific receptive field - an area on your retina that it responds to if something interesting shows up there, like a flashing light. However, LIP cells are not only stimulated by something showing up in the receptive field, but also when you're about to move your eye so that something will show up on it, and when something was on it a second ago. Whenever you move your eye, a copy of the motor command called the corollary discharge signal is sent back to the brain. Your brain uses this signal to let your visual system know, "Ok, everything on the eye is going to shift this much," so that the world around you seems to stay still when your eyes move. About a third of your LIP cells "re-map" in advance of your eye movement -- they start firing as if they're already seeing what your retina is about to see. The rest of the cells re-map afterwards.

The cells in this area also respond to "memory traces". If a light flashes in an LIP cell's receptive field, the cell will fire for a while even after the light goes out. It's thought of as a spatial marker of sorts, saying to your brain, "There was something interesting here, here, here." The cool thing about LIP is that is also re-maps the memory traces. If a light goes on outside of the cell's receptive field and goes off, and right away you move your eye so that the light would have been in the cell's receptive field, the cell fires even though there's no light anymore. Because the memory trace of that light has been re-mapped to its new position in space - which happens to be in that cell's receptive field.

Your brain is frakkin sweet, is all I'm saying.

And that's about three lectures worth of studying, right there. I'm going to go cleanse my think-palette with some blog reading and web gaming. Hope someone read and enjoyed all this, and if not, oh well.

*In case you were wondering, my prof is Dr. Carol L. Colby, of the Department of Neuroscience and Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at the University of Pittsburgh.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


My original intent in starting this blog was to post about my schoolwork. Cuz, uh, brains are cool. And I'm learning a lot about them. But I've feared that it wouldn't be relevant; most of the stuff I'm learning, of course, is old news to anyone actually in the field.


Not even a week ago, ScienceBlogger Neurophilosophy posted about body schema disorders, which are actually covered in the current exam block for one of my neuro courses.

Body schema disorders are disturbances in the way a person perceives relationships between body parts. Spatial relationships are mainly linked to parietal areas of the brain, so if you damage a specific area of your parietal lobe, you can mess up your personal conceptualization of how your limbs should relate to one another.

The left hemisphere, in general, tends to be used more for verbal or detail-oriented processes. So it's not surprising to see that left parietal damage can affect body schema that are related to what my book calls "linguistic representations of the body". For example, left parietal damage can lead to the inability to tell left from right. It might also lead to finger agnosia, which is the inability to tell one finger from another.

A different set of problems arise from damaging the right parietal lobe. There's anosognosia, which is when a person paralyzed on one side denies that their limb is paralyzed. Not only will they say that their limb moves, but if you ask them to raise or move the limb, the rest of their body will react as if they had (with appropriate facial expression, posture, gaze orientation). right parietal damage could also lead to somatoparaphrenia, or denial/loathing of a body part. Yes, as when that guy cut his hand off and stuck it in the microwave (though that had some Biblical-order craziness to it), and also the interview Neurophilosophy linked to.

Macrosomatagnosia and microsomatagnosia are perceiving a body part to be too big or too small, respectively. These disorders, along with somatoparaphrenia, also seem linked to the temporal lobe. According to this text, the temporal lobe and especially the insula help the parietal lobe map out body parts and aid in the emotional interpretation of body schema. I wonder if this has anything to do with gender identity dysmorphic disorder, or body image disorders like anorexia nervosa. If anyone has any links, I'd be appreciative.

And if not, that's ok, I can go back to my studying. ;)

Source: Banich, Marie T. (2004). Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropsychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Pittsburgh Pharyngulites?

I do not know if there are any Pharyngulites 'sides me around these parts.

If there are, I do not know where they live, or how well they can mobilize, or where they would like to go, or hell, if they're even going to read this.

But since there seems to be this meeting up thing going 'round the countryside, I'd like to chill with any 'Burghers that also like good blogs and calamari.

What say you to Hemingway's in Oakland?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Random smatterings.

PZ sent the flying monkeys swarming over an idiotic commenter. I'm reading the fallout now. Gorgeous!!

Oh, and for you one-uppers out there:

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I don't have to be careful; I've got a gun.

Where do I begin when talking about online gun suppliers...?

Perhaps with our 2nd Amendment: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

I've seen this interpreted (by lay people, of course) in two different ways:
  • Since America needs a militia to keep us secure, people should be allowed to have guns so as to take part in that militia.
  • Since America needs a militia to keep us secure, people should be allowed to have guns to protect themselves from the militia.
Whichever of these you prefer, the end result is the same. People are allowed to have guns for security's sake. The 2nd Amendment doesn't begin, "Hunting being necessary to supply food to the households of a free State," though that surely would have been a given at that time. It seems to specifically guarantee guns to maintain security against other people with guns.

As a result, people-killing guns are available to the general population in America. I can go online and buy a handgun right now if I wanted to. So what?

The big 'So' is that crazy people with murderous intent can also go online and buy a handgun right now if they wanted to, provided they aren't crazy enough to be prohibited from it by federal law. And a couple crazy people did: both Cho Seung-Hui of the VA Tech shooting and Steven Kazmierczak of the Valentine's Day Northern Illinois U shooting purchased handgun equipment from sites run by, an online gun supplier.

The guy who owns and runs TopGlock, Eric Thompson, seems to be really unhappy about having supplied guns to crazy people. He said, "I’ve spent the past weekend feeling absolutely terrible that my company has been linked to both of these heinous crimes. I assume it is just an unfortunate coincidence, but I also believe I now have a special responsibility to do all I can to try and prevent further loss of life." He, of course, is cooperating with police. In fact, he has a collection of police-cooperation stories on his site. He seems very proud of his record of helping police lock crazy people up so they don't shoot people anymore.

Eric Thompson also notices that the whole "gun free zone" thing is only really followed by sane people. Crazy people who bring guns into a gun free zone will be basically unopposed except by the police. So Eric Thompson's initial solution is to get rid of gun free zones and promote sane people carrying guns, so that when crazy people decide to shoot up a school or something, well-trained armed sane people will be able to stop them quicker. A strategy that is very much in line with the 2nd Amendment.

Everyone, including Eric Thompson, think that the merits of this strategy are debatable. Which is why he's starting up the website, to talk about the best ways to prevent more loss of life from crazy-people shootings.

Some people, like Greg Laden, put some of the blame for the crazy-people shootings on the gun distributors. In fact, he came up with a creative new motto for Thompson's website: "Online Gun Suppliers don't kill innocent college students ..... [sic] Crazy guys kill innocent college students. The Online Gun Suppliers just supply them with the tools they need[.]"

To sum up his arguments (and if you think I'm being unfair, look at the damn post yourself):
  1. At least two crazy people have gotten their guns from TopGlock.
  2. TopGlock sells a lot of guns to people.
  3. Eric Thompson has a list of stories where people using his guns have acted against the law, and where TopGlock has helped police track down those people.
  4. Eric Thompson does not have a list of stories where people using his guns have helped to save lives.
  5. [Implied point: TopGlock and Eric Thompson supply guns only to criminals.]
  6. Eric Thompson should be stopped, don't you think?
I disagree, and here's why:

The American Constitution guarantees that people will be able to acquire people-killing guns in order to maintain their personal security. Ok? I didn't write the law, but that's how it stands. I don't think that's gonna change.

Unless we come up with some kind of magic mind-reading murderometer that can tell you the intentions of someone buying a gun, non-obvious crazy people and criminals will be able to buy guns from legitimate sources. And even if we had a murderometer, and could prevent every potential psycho from buying a gun legally, there are many illegitimate means to acquire guns, and those means are very much less hard to track. If a crazy person somehow acquires a gun, it's doubleplusgooder for them to use a legitimate, trackable source than an illegitimate, untrackable source (though it would of course be best if they never acquired one at all). If internet purchasing gives the illusion of anonymity, all the better. The bad guys think they're getting away with it. The good guys have an easier time catching and committing the bad guys.

Plus, so long as gun distribution is legal and common in the USA, I'd much prefer that it be done by people who really want their guns to go to the good guys and not the bad guys. Eric Thompson really seems to care about that. He may not be 100% correct in his solutions, but he's at least on our side, and willing to talk about it. I don't think that needs to be stopped.

What do you think? Comments welcome.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Nisbet and that whole... thing...

Full disclosure: I am one of those "New Atheists". I've never been afraid to talk about my non-faith, and it's led to both good and bad things. I'd known of Dawkins before he wrote about the ubiquitous delusion, and as soon as he proposed the whole out campaign thing, I totally jumped all over that. And when my mom asks me if I've prayed for her lately, I honestly tell her no.

Even fuller disclosure: I have also "framed". I've been known to "frame". Label me a "framer," if you must.

Please, before you write me off completely, let me explain.

A comment on Sandwalk's very reasonable anti-Nisbet post read:
It's one of those irregular verbs:

I frame the issue.
You spin the facts.
He dissembles to suck up to opponents.
Is true, that. There are times when that ability is kind of handy. When I want to open a religious friend's mind to, say, evolution, I'll tell him, "You don't think God's creative process could have worked through evolution? Cuz, dude, there's all this evidence, from multiple different methods. Plus, the Bible (or Holy Book du Jour) was never meant entirely literally -- I mean, you don't believe that animals could talk, right? And the writers were wrong about slavery, and treatment of women, right? So they could easily have been ignorant of the true method that we came to be. Just check it out, man." And then I send him to talkorigins and let him stew on it for a while.

It's not the most upfront way to encourage rational thought, but I like to think it can be a better way than laying out my true opinion about that person's religion. If you tell someone that their whole worldview is BS, they're that much more likely to just set themselves against you. If you sidle up to them all friendly-like, if you slip under their guard and don't set off the faith-preservation alarms, I think you're more likely to really spur some rational thought. Most people, religious or no, are prone to lash out when they feel attacked. Saying "What you think is stupid" will certainly be seen as an attack. Saying "Whatever you believe, here is the evidence, and God could've used evolution just as well as the poof-six-day thing" may not.

However (and this is a BIG 'however'), I think that the direct, rational argument against special creation and/or religion is a very good thing. Especially public debates with large audiences, but the personal ones too. Knowing and hearing the truth is intrinsically important, even if it's truth you don't want to hear. And on top of that, "framing" is just a way of pussyfooting around the issue so that your position seems more reasonable from disparate points of view. It's better to have the honest arguments out in the open to be scrutinized and considered instead of delicately wording things to allow everyone, no matter how out of touch with reality, to be comfortably ignorant.

Saying that publicly known scientists should refrain from criticizing religion is too much. If someone like Dawkins thinks that the Christian god, who loved the world so much that he sacrificed himself to himself in order to prevent his own punishment of humanity, is a silly thing and unsupported by any kind of evidence, then let him sing it loud. And for the love of all that is good, it's not insulting to say that evidence provided by scientific methods blows a strictly biblical worldview out of the water. We shouldn't be accepting of strict biblical worldviews, including but are not limited to: enchanted fruit, talking serpents, unicorns, towers to heaven, male domination over women, and violence against nonbelievers.

Anyone who believes any of these crazy things are beyond any reality-based worldview already. It's useless arguing with the fractally wrong. But reasonable people of faith, the great wishy-washy middle-of-the-road masses who reject evolution reflexively because they've been trained to see it as innately incompatible with whatever they feel 'God' is.. well, that's just false. As long as you have some grounding in this reality, as long as you can admit that the dudes with beards who wrote the Bible made a few mistakes here and there and modern science got a whole lot of stuff right, then evolution can get along just dandy with your religion.

It's a good step towards the fresh air of reality-based living, too.

A comment from Nisbet's recent AAAS panel announcement read:
The ultimate result of this kind of "compromise" will be the kind of high school biology education I had in Texas: a biology class in which the word evolution was never uttered, with an instructor who made it quite clear that the biology textbook chapter on "organic variation" was optional reading.
My high school Bio experience wasn't quite as bad as all that. We learned the mathematical description of evolution, but if I recall it was mostly referred to as "natural selection" and "allele frequency shifting" and not the dreaded 'E'-word, and at least one student who passed my AP Biology class believed in special creation. However, I tend to agree with the commenter's sentiment. Once you start watering down the facts, it's hard to really make people stop. And it's so much easier for high school science teachers to just assign a chapter as a reading assignment and then forget about it instead of trying to maintain both a friendly 'frame' and scientific accuracy.

I suppose I should say a word or two about the actual subject of Nisbet's inflammatory post. Basically, he's announcing this panel discussion thingy titled Communicating Science in a Religious America. His own contribution to this panel will be discussion on the topic of "The New Atheism and the Public Image of Science". Hokay then. Now, for a taste of the "synopsis for the full panel".
A major challenge for scientists will be to craft communication efforts that are sensitive to how religiously diverse publics process messages, but also to the way science is portrayed across types of media. In these efforts, scientists must adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the pitfall of seeming to condescend to fellow citizens, or alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs.
This, along with Nisbet's prior treatment of the New Atheists, gives me the impression that the "New Atheists" will be Nisbet's example of condescending, alienating, unappealing pitfalls, and possibly many more emotionally charged epithets. Words like 'scapegoat' come to mind. As noted by the very first commenter on Nisbet's post, there are no New Atheists or even New Atheist sympathizers on the panel. In fact, according to Nisbet, "The criteria for speakers were people who have done research in the area or who have been successful in engaging religious audiences. The prominent New Atheists don't fit that criteria."

Put more amusingly: "Clearly, the "New Atheists" were excluded out of fear that the panel would be relevant."

Ech. The whole thing smacks horribly of a condescending group of intelligentsia who manipulate audiences instead of educate them or honestly discuss with them. I hate to break it to everyone, but I think the New Atheists have engaged more religious audiences than any of Nisbet's crew have - very successfully - but in debate. I need two hands for the number of Dawkins Q&A's or interviews or TV spots I've seen floating around on teh interwebs. Apparently as far as Nisbet's concerned, 'engagement' only applies to unthinking agreement with the speaker, and absolutely no paradigm challenging or critical thought.

To see a grand version of this debated, seriously, check out the comments section of both Nisbet's post and PZ's recent brief note. The two of them duke it out as only the two of them could. It's brutal and beautiful to watch, no matter your opinion.

And maybe it'll make you think a little, too.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Busy busy little bee, is me!

My time this month has been about equally split between my boyfriend and schoolwork. So this is what you get to read about.

The relationship is going extremely well, especially as the first relationship I've had in which mutual intellectual interest in the other's field is part of the attraction. He's a successful electrical and computer engineer, and we have long, sensual conversations about neurological computation and computer protocols. Though, he thinks the next big breakthrough in neuroscience will be in computational simulations, whereas I feel it'll be with biological research. Anyone (read this?) have an opinion?

The schoolwork is also falling into place, finally after three and a half long years. All of the tests I've gotten returned so far have been A's -- Neural Basis of Cognition, Synaptic Transmission, Sensation and Perception. The other classes are history and anthropology (read: gen ed requirements) and while I love getting good grades, it wouldn't faze me to do less well in those. I'm extraordinarily happy because I'm not struggling for my grades, I'm not slaving over books all day and night. I'm doing well because the subject matter interests me. I read it, and I remember it, just like that. Because cognitive processes are much, much more fascinating than, say, plant metabolism or benzene activation. Imagine that.

Someday I will have to explain to a grad school why I got C's in intro biology and chem courses and A's in all my neuro courses... but that day is not today. Thankfully.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

I suppose I should say something about myself...

I've been interested in neuroscience since I first started college. Brains are... well, to put it simply, so cool. You have a two-pound processor in your head, capable of filtering through immense amounts of sensory information, processing and filtering and integrating it into a coherent picture, analyzing it and coming up with complex responses, and then implementing them with precision. Our basic motor and sensory systems are so complex that it takes three years to get a basic level of control. Our cognitive processes are so complex that it takes upwards of ten years to develop to a meaningful level. And still at twenty-two I find that my mind is still developing. This, out of a huge lump of densely packed neurons. How absolutely amazing is that?

I was raised in the Methodist church, and when I realized that the Christian god-man was only one in a collection of myths, it took me a long time to shake beliefs in other supernatural things. For a good year or so, I hung on to the belief in a 'soul'. Later on, when I figured that a soul was probably unnecessary, I realized how important the brain was for... well, everything. I, like every other hopeful scientist in the making, feel that the next big breakthrough will be in the field that fascinates me the most - cognitive neuroscience.

Right now I'm a lowly undergrad, with very little hands-on experience. I love the process, though, and am crawling out of my skin with anticipation for the summer and some real lab experience. Hopefully a thesis, even!

Pay it forward.

In honor of Blogroll Amnesty Day, if anyone wants to be on my blogroll, leave me a comment. The fact that you left me a comment means you're cool enough to be on my list. Totally.