Jan 29, 2007
By: Alvaro Fernandez
(Note: the following is inspired by real events but not quite. Caroline is a colleague, not my grandma!)
Over the weekend, I dropped by to say Hi to my grandma Carolina, the Wise Neuroscientist every family should have. She always helps me out. Imagine, then, my relief when she happily spent a few hours with me going over the printed submissions for Encephalon #15. The conversation went so well, that we are adding it to our Neuroscience Interview Series on learning and “brain gyms”.
Alvaro: Thanks again! I have heard organisms have something called a biological clock — what is that?
Carolina: According to Bora of A Blog Around The Clock, a biological clock is a structure that times regular re-occurrence of biochemical, physiological and behavioral events in an organism in constant environmental conditions. The word “clock” is a metaphor, and the concept tries to exclude direct responses to the environment. Make sure to understand this properly, otherwise Bora suggests explaining it to you this way: “If I give you an electroshock every two hours, you will exhibit a 2-hour cycle of convulsions…but that’s not a biological clock”.
Alvaro: Crystal clear. Hmmm, I am thinking of nothing in particular right now, my mind wanders, like a river stream…what may be happening in my brain?
Carolina: Nothing special, as The Neurocritic seems to argue in his series Default Mode or Detritus?, Daydreaming and Thought-Sampling, and Resisting a resting state. Don’t be easily seduced by sexy neuroimaging into believing that “default” constitutes some kind of baseline.
Alvaro: I wouldn’t dare do so, by no means. Did you go to the hairdresser? I like your new style. How is my brain processing that information?
Carolina: Jake of Pure Pedantry answers the more interesting question you should have asked, “How are features bound together to form objects” He describes a very interesting experiment that concludes that Perceptual binding takes time, which means that it has to take place in some brain area.
Alvaro: OK, I may be getting a bit lost here. Is there some cool story or anecdote I can just try to remember and tell to impress my friends?
Carolina: Indeed. Vaughan of Mind Hacks describes how flowers’ fragrance may be contributing to the whole born-again phenomenon. I won’t tell you more.
Alvaro: OK, that is fun enough to keep me going. Does someone comment on issues related to learning?
Carolina: Both Chris of Developing Intelligence and Sandy of The Mouse Trap talk about how we categorize things. Chris emphasizes the utility of labels, while Sandy explores how to bookmark the interesting pages on the web and contrasts assimilation and accommodation with restructuring.
Alvaro: Interesting. Now that I use gmail and don’t categorize emails anymore, yet can always retrieve them on demand, what is going on?
Carolina: Maybe the restructuring of restructuring. Our brains are probably not there yet, but may be interesting to speculate on what a gbrain may look like. Neurophilosopher has a Book review: “Mind Wars”, by Jonathan D. Moreno, where he posits about cognitively and physically enhanced super soldiers. Maybe they will be able to do just that. Another route: Paul Memoirs of a Postgrad defines what conditions must exist for “Cognitive Robotics” to make sense as a scientific field: maybe we need entities that can both reflect on the best structure for his/ her/ its gmail account while emailing back and forth like crazy, like most of you young people do these days.
Alvaro: Any news on memory?
Carolina: Chris reports on how retrieval, encoding, and consolidation may have different developmental trajectories, suggesting that memory problems at different ages may be due to different underlying mechanisms and teases us to stay tuned for future posts where he will relate this with the anatomical development of brain structures involved in long-term memory.
Alvaro: What about the hot area of emotions and decision-making?
Carolina: Orli of Neurontic describes The Limits of Rational Thought, supporting her thesis that emotions are essential to healthy functioning on a Capgras Delusion case described in The Echo Maker novel and on the post “Walt Whitman’s connection to modern neuroscience,” by Jonah Lehrer, where we learn that Damasio spent years studying patients who couldn’t generate emotions because they lacked the brain regions necessary for interpreting physical sensations, like the pounding of the heart. She ends up advocating that “instinctive snap decisions are more reliable than decisions taken using higher-level cognitive processes.”
Alvaro: Is that always so?
Carolina: Well, not necessarily. Sandy elaborates on Moral Intuitions: Musings continued, where we are presented with a number of moral dilemmas that presumably should not be decided impulsively. As an interesting aside, Paul presents A brief overview of Mirror Neurons, where he suggests that recent evidence is showing that mirror neuron play an important part of how people use imitation to learn new skills. We need to know more about in what domains we can trust “genetic intuition” vs. learned one.
Alvaro: Wow, this Encephalon thing is very useful to learn about so many topics. Now, your mirror neurons are probably alerting you to my urgent, irrepressible, need to ask about brain fitness and our blog. What articles have you enjoyed the most?
Carolina: You have a couple of good ones this week. One, Lifelong learning, literally: neuroplasticity for students, boomers, seniors…. I also found the Inaugural Edition: Brain Fitness Blog Carnival pretty interesting. I will try some of the techniques on your grandpa.
Alvaro: Feel free to, but don’t blame me….oops! It is getting late, and I have to leave. Thanks for your help! Have to drive back home.
Carolina: As always, glad to help. One day you too will be able to understand those posts. Before you leave: make sure to follow Cognitive Daily Dave’s advice: Want to drive safely? Talking to passengers may be okay, but talking on the phone isn’t.
Next Encephalon edition: Mind Hacks on 12th February, 2007.