Look for plenty of good stuff coming from Liz. She has an introductory post which should be up soon, and then plans to blog on cultural neuroscience, the impact of neuroscience on society and health (and vice versa), monkeys and apes and humans (a long-standing interest of hers, dating back to her undergraduate work on ape learning and communication), and more.
MINDLab is based on fruitful collaborations among leading research groups across Faculties and Institutes at Aarhus University… addressing central scientific problems within culture, music, language and memory. Combining this knowledge with research on novel technologies to examine the living brain, and on the most devastating neurological and psychiatric disorders, we hope to create new means to preserve and recover function and quality-of-life in relation to diseases accounting for 35% of the disease burden in Denmark. MINDLab will also develop new forms of teaching and sharing of knowledge, exploiting crucial synergies across traditional disciplines.
LEVYNA – the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion – has posted an interview with Roepstorff where he discusses his synthetic work in neuroanthropology.
It’s a real pleasure to hear Roepstorff, as I’ve never met him in person. Big hat-tip to Micah Allen for bringing the video to my attention.
A fire tornado! Tesla coils playing music! Exploding microwaves! That’s the X-Labs at the University of South Florida, a student initiative to promote science and engineering.
Take stage production, add in social media skills, and apply that to science. That’s what the X-Labs delivered at the USF’s 41st Engineering EXPO last weekend. I went to the Expo with my ten-year old son, and we had a blast seeing all the great projects geared towards kids and adults alike. The X-Labs show was our grand finale.
Smoke rings and candy liberally doused the audience even before the event began, all part of getting the audience geared up. Then the show started, with a robot playing drums, music and fire mixed together to show sound waves, and spinning chicken wire to create a flaming spiral. That one was entrancing! The photo above doesn’t do it justice. It was like the best souped-up campfire ever.
Then came the video of the thermite explosion – yes, just a video, not a live demonstration.
And finally the music-playing Tesla coils. Followed afterwards by a Q & A about each of the demonstrations, which really got into the science and engineering behind each project. It was definitely one of the most innovative science communication projects I’ve seen. Makes a blog seem all fuddy-duddy. Obviously my ten-year-old loved it!
The Mario video doesn’t quite do justice to the final live demonstration, where they had two coils in action!
But you can see the two of them in action, and get a sense of the show itself, in this video of the 2012 X-Labs Engineering Expo production.
Today I was speaking with my graduate students on the basic format of a peer-reviewed paper, and how following that format will help with the inevitable criticisms that come from peer review. I immediately recalled a very funny animation of how grad students, post-docs, and assistant professors react to negative reviews that I saw awhile back.
And, yes, that’s the grad student reaction in my opening image. Go over to “we regret to inform you” for all three animated reactions. Really priceless.
But, wait, there are more!
Elizabeth Quinn highlighted a very amusing depiction of the different types of peer reviewers using a Team Fortress 2 video game theme. As someone who has played this game, I immediately liked it. Here’s just one image with the accompanying quote from Peer Fortress: The Scientific Battlefield.
Reviews from Pyros need to be held in oven mitts.
Your topic is out of scope.
Your writing is terrible.
Your problem is not worth solving.
Your idea sucks.
Your solution doesn’t work.
Your theory is broken.
Your experiments are hopelessly flawed.
Plus, you’re duplicating the classic result from [Smith and Jones, 1955].
In searching some on my own for the handling of peer review, I came across one that uses the internet meme of Downfall – Hitler Reacts. The way the meme works is to take a climatic scene from the film Der Untergang on Hitler’s final days and use the sub-titles to create the parody.
Our referees, the Editorial Board Members and ad hoc reviewers, are busy, serious individuals who give selflessly of their precious time to improve manuscripts submitted to Environmental Microbiology. But, once in a while, their humour (or admiration) gets the better of them. Here are some quotes from reviews made over the past year, just in time for the Season of Goodwill and Merriment.
• I do not understand why the co-authors of this manuscript have allowed their names to be in the author list.
• It is rare when a reviewer receives a genuinely flawless manuscript to review on an interesting new topic, but the ms by X clearly fits the bill.
• As in many other examples, producing a big dataset of pyrosequencing data does not make a good story. Sometimes I wonder if the ‘wonderful’ old times of serious analysis of 16S rDNA data are over. I am afraid that I am starting to show worrying signs of ageing . . .
• The authors have taken on board my comments from the previous submission of this study. I can only imagine that the previous submission was a pre-submission draft that was accidentally submitted. Or I might just be being nice for once.
Cornelia Bargmann, professor of neuroscience at Rockefeller University, has done decades of work on the C. elegans nematode to understand the links between genetics, the molecular functions of neural circuits, and behavior. Bargmann and her work have received quite a nice write-up in Nature with the open-access piece Neuroscience: As the worm turns.
I urge you to read all of it, but here’s the piece later in “As the Worm Turns” that caught my eye:
Bargmann suspects that this broad picture of nervous-system organization sends a counter-intuitive message about the evolution of behaviour: that the sensory apparatus in each species is evolving rapidly and is highly divergent, creating a different set of behavioural cues and responses for different animals, whereas the overarching behavioural coordination exerted by neuropeptides remains largely evolutionarily conserved. “This is not the way we [usually] think of things in neuroscience,” says Bargmann. “We always think the simplest part will be the sensory part, and maybe that will be the most conserved part. But in fact the sensory periphery is crazy unconserved between different animals.”
Bargmann views neuropeptides like oxytocin and vasopressin as doing fundamental organizational and regulatory work in the nervous system, in particular bringing together coordinated behaviors. Just as Hox genes help organize development, so too these genes, and their accompanying peptides, help to organize basic behaviors related to survival and reproduction.
The Nature article relates this view to Bargmann’s work on reproduction in C. elegans.
Other research groups had defined, in exquisite detail, the series of discrete behavioural steps that male worms have to complete to succeed in mating (searching for a mate, contact, reverse turns, prodding for the vulva, insertion of spicule, transfer of sperm) as well as the motor neurons and muscles that rapidly fire and contract to drive these steps. But when Bargmann and her team analysed how the absence of nematocin affected each of these steps, they realized that each one remained intact.
“It’s not that he can’t turn. It’s not that he can’t do the backing movement. It’s not that he can’t transfer sperm. It’s that he doesn’t know when to do them,” she says. The neuropeptide, in essence, had a “global organizing role” and gave reproductive behaviour a forward drive. “There’s something that’s a much slower input that says something more like ‘continue’ or ‘move forwards’, sort of providing momentum that’s superimposed on it. So the nervous system is doing both fast and slow information processing, in parallel, to drive the behaviour.”
In other words, the pieces of the puzzles don’t “naturally” fit together; rather, that depends on mechanisms that help organize the pieces into a more robust and coordinated behavior.
The input side of a response is the stimuli that cause it. The output side is the response itself – the organism’s behavior. All the experiments I have discussed deal with the output side of emotion. The experiments of Ekman and others show that people in all cultures respond in a similar way to things that frighten them. They do not show that people in all cultures are frightened of the same things. It is an entirely separate question whether the input side of emotion can be explained in evolutionary terms (55).
In other words, Griffiths is arguing that for basic affects (and not more cognitively mediated emotions), there can be relatively stereotypical emotional expressions, as revealed by work by Ekman and others. For a recent review by Ekman, see this 2011 paper, What Is Meant by Calling Emotions Basic; for a really fascinating study, using more advanced experimental methods (with a reductive East vs. West contrast), see this 2012 paper, Facial expressions of emotion are not culturally universal.
In his analysis of emotion, Griffiths is highlighting that the stimuli/sensory side is where a lot of the action happens, whereas on the mechanistic/reactive side, we have some deeply conserved reactions. These can form some of the basic building blocks of emotions, even if cognitively-mediated emotions get reworked. Here I would return to Bargmann’s idea, that once again there are mechanisms that bring all the different elements together, and make new and novel things happen in a coordinated fashion. For two articles that reflects on that, see A functional architecture of the human brain: emerging insights from the science of emotion (2012) and Human Emotions: Universal or Culture-Specific? (2009).
Final thought for the day – and one that I find quite intriguing: Cultures can be conceived as extended sensory systems, in the way that Bargmann describes and where Greg has done foundational work. Cultures have quite a tremendous diversity, even within particular societies. Our systems of symbols, our human sensory periphery, is “crazy unconserved”, as shown quite well in the book Culture and the Senses. Culture gains traction through how it intersects with embodied nervous systems, which have some of their own organizing effects.
Culture as sensory systems, and how that can radically change the sensory inputs that the encultured brain receives.
Photo credit: Cornelia Bargmann. I found the original here.
I’ve just come across a good 2006 full-access review article on the Neurobiology of Exercise. Written by Rod Dishman and eighteen co-authors (!), the article covers some of the main areas that are coming clear with research on exercise and the brain:
-Effects of Exercise on Brain and Behavior
-Exercise as Countering Stress
-How Physical Activity Is Regulated
But the review mainly caught my eye for these lines in the abstract:
Mechanisms explaining these adaptations are not as yet known, but metabolic and neurochemical pathways among skeletal muscle, the spinal cord, and the brain offer plausible, testable mechanisms that might help explain effects of physical activity and exercise on the central nervous system.
Muscle, the peripheral nervous system, and the brain – a dynamic combination! For me, the implications go far beyond trying to understanding something like “exercise and health.” How activity as both cultural and physical form shapes us is a central way to understand ourselves as embodied beings, as having encultured nervous systems that can do incredibly skilled activities. That takes us a step further than – oh, exercise, the brain must have something to do with that.
For a vivid demonstration of just what I mean, watch this video. The action really gets going about 50 seconds in.
And for those of you who want more links, here are some other recent articles:
Intergroup Resources is a powerful new online resource center that offers support and information to communities, organizations, and campaigns that work on social justice around the United States. Through sharing materials, tools, and insights gathered from organizers all around the country, the new site aims to strengthen “intergroup resources” for addressing issues such as immigration, activism, race, and globalization.
Intergroup Resources will:
◦Create online and offline “learning spaces” where we practice, provide feedback and refine the tools available for intergroup work
◦Link the four dimensions of intergroup work—Dialogue, Education, Action and Reflection—and deepen our understandings of their interconnections within the DEAR framework
◦Guide the adaptation of existing tools and materials to locally-specific contexts
My USF anthropology colleague Angela Stuesse played a central role in creating this project, along with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State. Intergroup Resources grew out of Stuesse’s doctoral research, which is relayed in the forthcoming book Globalization Southern-Style: Immigration, Race, and Work in the Rural U.S. South.
Globalization “Southern Style” shows the changes that a small town in Mississippi goes through when Latino immigrants began working and organizing in chicken processing plants alongside local African Americans. USF News featured Stuesse and her work in the article “Bridging the Immigration Divide,” describing how her community-based research led to the genesis of the Intergroup Resources initiative:
The conference will foster interdisciplinary, international approaches to studying culture and health and highlight advances in cultural neuroscience that address closing the gap in population health disparities. Speakers from across the world will present cutting-edge research at the intersection of epidemiology, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, and genetics.
The conference will be held at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL from May 10-12, 2013.
Vaughan Bell, a clinical psychologist and the main force behind Mind Hacks, spent several years working with Médecins Sans Frontières in Colombia. The MSF (Doctors without Borders) program focused on health in rural areas, particularly those affected by civil combat, and Dr. Bell played a major role in helping to address mental health in those regions.
Despite the fact that the Colombian armed conflict has continued for almost five decades there is still very little information on how it affects the mental health of civilians. Although it is well established in post-conflict populations that experience of organised violence has a negative impact on mental health, little research has been done on those living in active conflict zones. Médecins Sans Frontières provides mental health services in areas of active conflict in Colombia and using data from these services we aimed to establish which characteristics of the conflict are most associated with specific symptoms of mental ill health.
An analysis of clinical data from patients (N = 6,353), 16 years and over, from 2010–2011, who consulted in the Colombian departments (equivalent to states) of Nariño, Cauca, Putumayo and Caquetá. Risk factors were grouped using a hierarchical cluster analysis and the clusters were included with demographic information as predictors in logistic regressions to discern which risk factor clusters best predicted specific symptoms.
Three clear risk factor clusters emerged which were interpreted as ‘direct conflict related violence’, ‘personal violence not directly conflict-related’ and ‘general hardship’. The regression analyses indicated that conflict related violence was more highly related to anxiety-related psychopathology than other risk factor groupings while non-conflict violence was more related to aggression and substance abuse, which was more common in males. Depression and suicide risk were represented equally across risk factor clusters.
As the largest study of its kind in Colombia it demonstrates a clear impact of the conflict on mental health. Among those who consulted with mental health professionals, specific conflict characteristics could predict symptom profiles. However, some of the highest risk outcomes, like depression, suicide risk and aggression, were more related to factors indirectly related to the conflict. This suggests a need to focus on the systemic affects of armed conflict and not solely on direct exposure to fighting.
This conclusion – that fighting itself is often not as bad as hardship and domestic abuse and other traumas that can fill every day – is one borne out in other research on adversity.
Bell drives this point home in his Mind Hacks post:
The study looked at how symptoms of mental illness were related to experience of direct conflict-related violence (exposure to explosives, threats from armed groups, deaths of loved ones etc), violence not directly related to the conflict (domestic violence, child abuse etc) and what we called ‘general hardships’ – such as economic problems and poor social support.
We predicted that the more someone was exposed to violence from the armed conflict, the worse mental health they would have, but what we found was a little different.
Experience of the armed conflict was more linked to anxiety while non-conflict violence was more related to aggression and substance abuse. Depression and suicide risk, however, were represented equally across all of the categories.
This is interesting because a lot of conflict-related mental health interventions are focused on trauma and PTSD, where as our study and various others have found that trauma is only one effect of being caught up in an armed conflict.
For the third presidential election in a row, dozens of Nobel prizewinners in physics, chemistry and medicine signed a letter endorsing the Democratic candidate… If the laureates are speaking on behalf of science, then science is revealing itself, like the unions, the civil service, environmentalists and tort lawyers, to be a Democratic interest, not a democratic one.
This is dangerous for science and for the nation… In the current period of dire fiscal stress, one way to undermine this stable funding and bipartisan support [for science] would be to convince Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, that science is a Democratic special interest.
Sarewitz’s foil in making this argument, in telling Nature’s readers to make a New Year’s resolution to “gain the confidence of people and politicians across the political spectrum by demonstrating that science is bipartisan,” is social science. That is where the danger lies – that science could actually become like social science!
Neuroanthropology. Sometimes it’s straight-up neuroscience, sometimes it’s all anthropology, most of the time it’s somewhere in the middle. Greg is the cultural guy, now interested in bio stuff. Daniel is the bio guy, now interested in cultural stuff. Or, to say it differently, Greg does capoiera, mixed martial arts, and rugby. Daniel does alcohol, drugs, and video games. Two very different styles of recreation.