greensword: (Default)
I have spent a good portion of the morning talking to my coworkers about the neuroscience of orgasm. There's a fascinating area of research on women who are paralyzed and numb from the waist down who can still experience orgasm. This appears to be due to the vagus nerve. The word vagus comes from the same root as vagabond, and the nerve is named for the way it "wanders" throughout the body instead of going to the spinal cord and taking the traditional route up to the brain. So when a woman is paralyzed, there is still a way for signals of pleasure to reach her brain and therefore her consciousness*.

In the process of looking up the article that documents this, I also found out that there's research showing that when people orgasm, there's a drastic decrease in activity in their prefrontal cortex. This makes sense, since experiencing an orgasm makes you feel "out of control". Similar research shows that some men and women who have trouble reaching orgasm fail to decrease prefrontal activity. Of course, it's hard to know what's causing what, but it seems to bear out the common wisdom that thinking too much about trying to come only makes it more difficult to do so.

My coworkers and I agreed that this would be a fun line of research to pursue, but that we'd get embarrassed trying to explain our jobs at parties, so it's for the best that we study something more mundane, like morality.

* - The actual mechanics of orgasm, especially in men, can be induced without any conscious awareness, kind of like a crayfish's swimmeret system. (I knew something seemed familiar!)
greensword: (i see right through you)
There is, apparently, a heated debate surrounding the creation of the DSM-V. For those of you who didn't grow up with a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in your home - it is a sort of general consensus of psychiatrists as to which different mental disorders exist and how they should be diagnosed.

It sounds relatively innocuous, until you start thinking about the fundamental questions that lie beneath. What is a mental disorder, and what is just a different way of thinking and behaving? Where is the line between legitimizing suffering and medicalizing otherness? What does mental "illness" even mean?

The DSM weighs heavily in these discussions. Clinicians, health insurance companies, and others use the DSM as a guidebook to deciding what they will recognize, treat, and pay for. The debate going on now has real impact.

The DSM has been controversial in the past. Until 1973, it listed homosexuality as a mental disorder, and it currently lists several provocative disorders, including Gender Identity Disorder, Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. The debate over whether or not these particular disorders should legitimately be included brings up all those fundamental questions.

The current criticisms being leveled at those compiling DSM-V (we currently use DSM-IV) fall along two major lines. First, apparently there is too much secrecy in the process. Whereas all previous revisions have been completely open, contributors to this revision had to sign a confidentiality agreement. Given that more than half of the contributors have financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, that's a little troubling.

Secondly, the head of this revision has called for a "paradigm shift" in the way we think about mental disorders. The person who headed up the previous revision, Allen Frances, is one of the most vocal critics. He warns how in the past, reclassification of disorders such as ADD and autism created "epidemics" in the population and how with pharmaceutical pressure to create more and more disorders that can be medicated, the danger is even more great. The new version is apparently going to focus more attention on prodromal patients - i.e. people presenting with pre-clinical, more mild symptoms. I think it's great to try and catch small problems before they become big ones - we do this with physical health all the time - but like Frances I worry this is little more than a ploy to net more patients for the pharmaceuticals.

Anyway, what do you all think?
greensword: (he saves children)
The transition from Bush to Obama has been a strange one for me. There is a certain ease to opposing someone whose ideology is so different from yours. There is no need to be subtle, to try and tease apart where things are going wrong - you know why they are doing this thing that you hate: because they don't value what you value.

With Obama, things are different. He tells me that he values what I value - liberty, tolerance, security. And yet somehow I find myself outraged, again and again, by his actions. And I find myself trying to make excuses for why he is doing what he's doing. "He has to compromise," I tell myself. "He wants to stand up for our beliefs, but he can't."

It's what psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. It is more complex than simply assuming the ill will of enemies and the good will of friends. It is a way for us to do so without feeling like bleeding hypocrites. We attribute bad outcomes to the situations our friends were put in. But we focus on the intentions of our enemies. It was their fault bad things happened. They wanted it that way. They could have changed things if they'd really tried.

And so Bush and Obama both pushed the bail-out, but Bush was stealing money for his cronies and Obama was making the best of an impossible situation. Neither Bush or Obama (so far) pushed for marriage equality, but Bush is a homophobe and Obama is just hoarding political capital. Bush and Obama have both kept troops in Iraq. Obama understands it is a strategic necessity. Bush likes shooting Iraqis just to watch them die.

Yes, there are concrete differences in ideology, policy, rhetoric between the two Presidents. But we should be wary that easy assumptions sometimes lead to disturbing biases. It is easy to let ourselves believe we are being even-handed, when in fact we are nothing of the sort.
greensword: (Default)
I believe that the universe is rational. I mean that it operates by certain principles that we can, one day, understand.

This really is a belief, though. A form of faith. We won't know until we know, unless, of course, we never know.

Still, I believe that the physicists and mathematicians are going to end up satisfied. Eventually.

I'm not so sure about those who study the human mind. At least, those who study the human mind and expect it to be rational.

Our minds have evolved over half a billion years to do so many things. See, hear, smell, taste, feel, move. Find food, avoid predators, attract mates. Create tools, navigate dominance hierarchies, deceive prey, store spoilable food, predict the movement of the sun and the moon and the stars and the birds, entertain and scare others with stories, settle conflicts with strangers, exchange things of value, etc., etc., I could go on and on.

I'm not sure that our brains, in the end, really make sense. I'm not sure that you're going to be able to take certain functions - our moral sense, what we think is valuable, what we think is beautiful, how we look at the world, how we know things - and come up with a rational answer in line with what philosophy would tell us. I think you might end up with something more messy than that.

Now, I don't know jack about philosophy, so it may be that the discipline contains ways to deal with messiness and irrationality and inherent contradictions. But I definitely don't think you can come into this with the assumption that our minds - and, by extension, human behavior - actually "make sense". That because A should cause B, A will cause B. That this will happen every time. That our predictions about A and B will ever be 100% right.

I think those that want psychology and neuroscience to satisfy a set of set of philosophical principles before they start investigating might be shooting themselves in the foot.

Which, if you think about it, is a pretty irrational behavior itself. Ow!
greensword: (Default)
Number of times I've heard Freud referenced by artists, literary critics, sociologists, political scientists, gender studies majors, schoolteachers and people at parties and dinners: 6 bajillion.

Number of times I've heard Freud referenced by psychologists, neuroscientists, clinicians, researchers, or psych/neuro professors: 0.

I've been in this field for five years. I was raised by a clinician. I think if there was a resurgence in taking Freud seriously, I would know.


Psychology already has.
greensword: (Default)
Dan Gilbert on how to be happy.

I really recommend the video - it's short, funny, persuasive, and easy to understand.

In line with his theories about people generally being happy with what they have, but unhappy with choices, uncertainty, regret, it's easy to understand why this time of our lives - immediately post-college - can be so difficult. So many options lead to choice paralysis and, once the choice is made, to regret. Instead of saying, "Okay, this is what I have, now I'm going to be happy with it" - we think, "Could I be happier doing something else?"

Not that it's a bad thing to try and go after what makes us happiest, and we're probably not going to get it right on the first try. But I think Gilbert is spot on in that a lot of our happiness comes not from the circumstances of our lives but from our own determination to be happy, and we shouldn't lose sight of that.

He's also a wicked good lecturer. Hopefully I'll get a chance to take a class with him once the probationary period is over and I get an employee discount... at the very least, I hope to go to some of his public talks!
greensword: (braaaains?)
Do you believe in any sort of universal "right and wrong"?

Ted Talks

Apr. 10th, 2008 12:08 am
greensword: (Default)
I love TED.

I could spend days on that website, but this talk really struck me as something the flist would find interesting.

A Harvard neuroanatomist describes the morning she woke up and realized she was having a brain hemorrhage.
greensword: (Default)
Two good comments from [ profile] rachiestar and [ profile] a_priori, respectively, about how social psychology, sociology, and even social neuroscience are often put down as soft, fluff, or not "real science":

Also notice how this hierarchy is gendered -- the "harder" sciences are where people are supposed to value FACTS and QUANTIFIABILITY, while the "soft" sciences are where people just prattle on about qualitative-analysis feelgoodery. Notice how the former disciplines get funded better, get more recognition in interdisciplinary awards, and tend to have real problems with under-representation of women.

The fact that social subjects are so fluffy is what makes doing good, rigorous, truly scientific work on social matters that much harder than work in fields typically regarded as solid. It's possible to turn out respectable work on neurotransmitter receptivity or visual shape-selective population encoding by following an established pattern of research. Good work on society, however, typically requires a more subtle, careful approach.

Then today I was reading this discussion at La Chola about the academic industrial complex:

Academics think of themselves as benign–that they don’t do damage because they are dealing almost exclusively with “knowledge,” and knowledge doesn’t ever hurt, right? Knowledge and the pursuit of it is noble and admirable, right?

There is just so much taken for granted, and when it's taken for granted by a community of people who pride themselves on being thoughtful, skeptical, objective, "knowledgeable", etc. it is just immensely frustrating. The fact of the matter is that science and academia are a gravy train just like business or politics - a way for people to get paid doing something they enjoy, exercise a little power, feel good about themselves, maybe even get famous. And just as in business and politics, there are real consequences to this approach, real issues that get brushed aside and left unaddressed, and real lives that are negatively impacted because of it. I think it is the hypocrisy that gets me more than anything else.
greensword: (Default)
Cross-posted to my blog. Comments welcome either here or there.

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill In War and Society is written by a soldier, and it shows. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is a military psychologist, not a scientist, and as a scientist I found it incredibly frustrating to read this book - almost none of his assertions are sourced or cited in full. Additionally, Grossman's admiration for his fellow soldiers is made manifest throughout the book. Although he makes a good case that these soldiers deserve, if not admiration, at least compassion, his frequent, brook-no-argument assertions that most soldiers are "brave", "noble" people committing a "necessary evil" can be grating to those of a more pacifist bent.

In other words, it was not easy going slogging through this book. However, none of this means that Grossman doesn't have some incredibly thought-provoking things to say.

This book was written to explain a startling fact: throughout most of military history, up until the end of World War II, the vast majority of soldiers (between 75 and 95%) have refused to kill. Brigadier S.L.A. Marshall, who studied this phenomenon during World War II, found that no more than 20% of soldiers would "take any part with their weapons". These results can be found throughout time and across cultures, from Alexander the Great who lost only 700 men in years of fighting, to tribesmen in New Guinea who remove the arrows from their feathers before going off to war, to the soldiers at Rosebud Creek in 1876 who fired 252 rounds for each Native American they hit.

The Battle of Gettysburg is considered one of America's bloodiest battles, but as Grossman shows, it could have been a great deal bloodier... )
greensword: (Default)
Last week I talked about the role of stress hormones and the ANS in aggression. I'm particularly interested in the effects of stress on aggression because my Div III (thesis) looks at the effects of stress on another behavior, altruism. But clearly there are a lot of other factors influencing aggression. A second model of aggression is the serotonin/testosterone model.

There are many different types of aggression, from the rough and tumble play of young siblings to horrific acts of war. Sometimes it can be hard to recognize, but it's there, nonetheless - I'm excited by the recent focus on aggression in middle school girls. While there are thousands of different ways to be aggressive, researchers have found that there are two main aggressive personality types. These types are so common and so distinctive that you can easily see them in fiction as well as real life, including in the best-selling Harry Potter novels.

Continue reading... )

If you'd like to make a comment, please comment here.

PS. I have never felt like quite such a dork before.
greensword: (Default)
Three different people have e-mailed me this study, which seems to be making the rounds in the news.

The article, published in an upcomming issue of Nature Neuroscience, looked at fMRI images of subjects' brains as they played a game with a computer. They also asked subjects to complete a range of measures, including altruism, empathy and other personality questionnaires. They found that activity in the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC) during the game was associated with self-reported altruism but not with any of the personality measures.

They point out that the pSTC has previously been linked to understanding of intentionality. For instance, when subjects see geometric objects moving with seeming purpose across a screen, the pSTC becomes active, but not when the objects move at random. The authors suggest that altruism requires an understanding of agency - what I would call, although the authors do not, Theory of Mind. Because pSTC activity was not linked to the personality measures such as empathic tendency, they suggest that the pSTC acts independently of empathy and other personality measures.

Continue reading... )

If you'd like to comment, please comment here.
greensword: (Default)
When it comes to social psychology, everyone seems to know two names: Milgram and Zimbardo. It's funny, because they both studied essentially the same thing - under what circumstances otherwise normal, compassionate people will act to hurt others.

I happen to prefer Milgram's experiments. They're a lot sounder, experimentally and ethically. Zimbardo sort of threw a bunch of undergraduates into a prison and waited to see what would happen. Milgram tested subjects one by one, systematically changing variables such as the immediacy of the victim, the presence of the experimenter, the presence of peers, even the gender of the subjects. Also, while many people have problems with the psychological harm caused to subjects (would you want to know that you were capable of shocking a person to near death, just because you were ordered to?), there was nowhere near the risk of physical harm to the subjects in Zimbardo's experiment (which had to be stopped after only 6 days).

Anyway, those of you who aren't familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment can now see it whenever you'd like... on YouTube.

Continue reading... )

If you want to comment, comment here.
greensword: (Default)
I'm not sure I buy the idea that human societies were egalitarian before agriculture. I've been seeing first hand that most primate societies are hierarchical, very much including chimpanzees, the closest relation to humans, and bonobos, the second closest relation to humans, or so it's thought. Although the bonobos are non-violent and matriarichal and pretty much just have sex all the time. I wish we had evolved from bonobos. Anyway! I was just reading yet again the standard line about how hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian and it was big bad agriculture that changed everything. Does anyone know where the evidence for that is? How do people back that up?
greensword: (Default)
So, I think I've named my first monkey. The G-baby, Grace, is actually a boy, and so we were thinking up boy names, and they were going to go with Gilligan until I said, "What about Gomez?" And for a five month old cebus apella, G-baby does look oddly like Gomez Addams. So Gomez it is.

Speaking of G-babies... Gretel is already three years old. She looks much younger. The people in the lab think that her low rank might be stunting her growth. But recently she's gone up in the world, mostly because she's taken to attacking Goya, her older sister and the lowest ranking monkey of them all. Goya's got scars all over, and so much of her hair/fur has fallen out that she's more skin than brown. Just looking at her makes me want to cry.

We showed her to Devon from the field station, and he told us about one of their chimpanzees. He was attacked a few weeks ago by several of the other male chimps. They gouged out one of his eyes, and tore off half the lid. He had wounds on his arms and neck. But he's recovering pretty well. Devon also told us about a chimpanzee who was killed at another station. He said the other chimps took a long time about it, beating him to death one by one. "That's - that's torture - " one of the people from my lab said. Is it? We walk such a line between trying not to anthropomorphize these primates and drawing every conclusion we can from them, and applying it to ourselves. Well, it's an easy enough conclusion. The chimpanzees are our closest ancestors. They evolved the ability to torture, and we perfected it. But that's just one hypothesis.

Then I went to my desk and checked my e-mail and clicked on BBCnews. When a conflict has existed since before you were born, sometimes it seems eternal. And I can't bring myself to blame anybody, because who do you blame? The individuals on both sides who escalate the conflict - the suicide bombers, the war criminals - they're just individuals. As long as the situation exists, there will always be someone who will react that way to it. Colleen, a grad student in my lab, told me that capuchins in the wild don't act like ours do. The low-ranking capuchins don't get beat up, they just run away. But Goya has nowhere to run to. We do all we can to protect her, shouting at the other monkeys when they go after her, threatening them with the hose, distracting them with peanuts and froot loops. We're her greatest defenders. But we put her in that situation. We put Gretel into that situation. We're putting the G-baby into that situation.

Of course, if we released them into the wild, they'd all die sooner anyway. Goya might not get beat up but she'd starve to death when food got tight and the others took her food and refused to feed her. That's the practicality of the situation. Pidyon shvuyim, one of the greatest tenets of Jewish law, demands the redemption of captives. Israel in the past has traded thousand of prisoners - some innocent, yes, but some terrorists - for a single Israeli soldier. Today they decided on a different path. Maybe it was motivated by practicality. Maybe they thought they could save more lives by attacking rather than trading. At this point, who knows? Can anyone really find a solution garaunteed not to spill any more blood?

I don't have an answer. All I have is a guilty conscience, and a headache.
greensword: (Default)
I visited the lab today. It's got a really great atmosphere - the people who work there are friendly and funny, and the capuchins themselves seem pretty happy there. There's about thirty or forty of them, but my supervisors tell me I'll be able to recognize them instantly within a week. They all have very distinct personalities. My favorite so far is Sammy. He likes to play with the water tap and splashes water at the other monkeys. He'll splash at the lab workers, too, depending on how hesitant you are around him. Apparently the capuchins are really, really good at reading facial expressions and body language. If you have confidence, they'll treat you like an alpha monkey, but if you seem hesitant - like I'm sure I will when I'm in there - they'll feel free to tease you and taunt you as much as they like. I also like Grace and Brazil. They're the two baby monkeys in the colony right now. They ride around on the backs of their mothers. I'll take pictures if I can.

I went into one of the other buildings to use the bathroom, and it was a very different atmosphere. There are posters everywhere against animal rights activists, saying things like, "Thanks to animal testing, these people can protest for 20.8 years longer." There are also lots of displays. Right across from the bathroom is a display showing primate tissues with hepatitis, AIDS, etc. It's pretty deeply disturbing. On the one hand, I absolutely believe in the importance of animal testing in curing these diseases. On the other hand, seeing the capuchins for only a day, I got a deep sense of them, their personalities, their intelligence. It's really strange, because they don't look that human, but occasionally they do something really human, like opening a latch to get through a door, or going through the pockets of the lab workers.

I don't think I'm going to resolve this anytime soon. At least in my lab I won't have to worry about that. The monkeys are pretty well treated, and while I'm sure there's a case to be made against it, too, in my mind it's a lot more easy to accept than what's happening elsewhere at Yerkes.
greensword: (Default)
I submitted nine applications to different programs this year, and looked at dozens more. If I could have worked with any mentor from any program, I would have chosen Dr. Frans de Waal.

Guess who I'll be working with this summer?

Yeah. :D
greensword: (Default)
It's silly of me, but I expected more of the New York Times. They had an article in last Sunday's magazine about deception, and I was excited to see them mention a woman who claimed to have found an ERP component for lying. I did a little research, and guess what? This professor has a grand total of three published journal articles, none of which use ERPs. PsychInfo does reveal that someone else found an ERP component for lying, several actually, but they're all very complex and none of them directly measure deception. They're just high-tech versions of "If he's sweating, he's lying" and "If she's guilty, she'll be startled by our mentioning these things!"

Come on. It was the magazine's cover story. (Allow me to appreciate the irony a little belatedly.) You'd think they'd put a little more effort into making sure they got everything right!
greensword: (Default)
So, I'm taking this neuroendocrinology seminar at UMass, and I went to class today for the first time. Basically we have one assignment for the entire semester, but it's intense - a two hour long presentation on a topic of our choice. And a paper to go with it, but I figure after a two hour lecture, a paper will seem like a piece of cake.

I'm thinking of doing it on testosterone and social hierarchies and the challenge hypothesis and how that all translates from animals to humans. I bumped into the subject twice last semester and now it's kinda calling out to me. And hopefully it's the sort of research that could lead to experiments further down the road.

Anyway, I'm pretty psyched about the whole thing, no pun intended all right, fine, pun intended.



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