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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?
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Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Entrepreneurs, innovators, sysadmins, programmers, designers, games developers, hardware experts, tech journalists, tech consultants. The list of tech-related careers is endless.

All you need to do is sign the pledge, pick your tech heroine and then publish your blog post any time on Tuesday 24th March 2009 (Ada Lovelace Day). It doesn’t matter how new or old your blog is, what gender you are, what language you blog in, or what you normally blog about - everyone is invited.


This may be a slight stretch, but I'm going to pick as my 'tech' heroine Mahzarin Banaji. Although she's primarily a psychologist (and more of a social psychologist than a neuroscientist), she's well known for developing the Implicit Association Test, which you can take here. The IAT is a way of measuring people's unconscious biases by asking them to sort people into categories and measuring small but consistent differences in error rates and reaction times. For instance, it takes me a little bit longer to sort non-white faces into the category "American" then into the category "foreign". The IAT has been used to probe a number of different prejudices - including the tendency of people to not see women as scientists and technologists. At a time when public disavowal of prejudice is the norm, yet discrimination seems to keep on keeping on, I think her work is especially relevant.

Since she works and teaches in my department, I've had the pleasure of hearing her speak several times. She is unabashed in her support for women in science:

[Banaji's] implicit association experiments have shown that even female scientists can unconsciously associate men with terms like “astronomy” and “chemistry” and women with “music” and “history.”

Knowing this prejudice well, Banaji says she always goes out of her way to support aspiring female students in science.

“For younger women whose identity as women in science is not fully formed, I need to keep an eye out,” Banaji says. “If somebody like that comes along and asks, ‘I wanna give up mathematics for social studies,’ [I would suggest to her] ‘well, hold on, maybe you should go. But maybe you shouldn’t.’”
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re: piecewise linear splines

A spline is a type of piecewise function, which means that the definition of its function can differ over different subsets of its domain (for instance, when X > 0, it's one thing, when X < 0, it's another thing). If it's a piecewise polynomial, that means that the subsets of the domains where the function changes occur at intervals.

Wikipedia says that a spline with a polynomial of 1 degree would be a linear spline, which makes sense. And a linear spline with the same starting and end point is a polygon! How comprehensible!

Apparently piecewise linear splines are used because the higher order your polynomial interpolation is, the more it oscillates around the endpoints, but don't ask me why that is. I also don't see how the hell to relate this to the hemodynamic response.



... well, that was a waste of half an hour.

To bed, this time for reals.
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Two good comments from [livejournal.com profile] rachiestar and [livejournal.com 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.

star stuff.

Dec. 9th, 2007 11:25 pm
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Posting like crazy today, but it's my birthday (or almost) so I'm not going to apologize. (Unless I just did?)

On Thursday there's another meeting of that discussion group I mentioned a while back, the religious one run by the Hipster Pastor. I've been going pretty regularly, and between me and Samantha and one other atheist (the movie references kid from Saturday) it's become a dialogue between theists and non-theists more than just a meeting group for liberal Christians. Anyway, we're doing an extra meeting this week because no one wanted to wait a whole month for another meeting and when we needed a topic, I suggested everyone bring in a favorite quote that best summed up their spirituality for them. And so now I'm looking for my quote. And of course the first (and only) place I look is in the writing of Carl Sagan. I wonder if spirituality is closely connected to childhood. Because part of the reason I think Carl Sagan's words resonate with me is because I heard/read them all when I was very little, between the ages of six and sixteen. And probably if I just read it now I'd be like "that's so shmoofy". But I love it.

So anyway, some quotes I'm trying to choose between:

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.


Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.


Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.
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This is just in a test tube and hasn't been replicated by another lab, so with many many words of caution, as with the stem cell Diabetes study: holy shit they may have found a treatment/cure for HIV. Also see here.

(And here's the report in Science, for those of you who can decipher it. Let me know if you want the full text, I can probably get at it.)
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Got an e-mail from another lab at NIH which wanted to set up an interview. That means I probably won't be getting back to the Valley until Tuesday (and also raises the possibility that they'd want me to start this summer and I'd have to give up my summer plans). Still, any job opportunity is something to be happy about, especially since my student loan statement came in the mail. $16,625! Makes me wonder how people with less financially stable careers planned are going to make out.

Also, remember way back when I was worried for the poor boys who complain about how hard they have it being a male in science?

Well, fuck that.

Woman Wins Gender Discrimination Lawsuit Against UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute: The truly insane bit? The SECRET STASH OF MONEY they had to supplement the salaries of male scientists only.

Report on Women in Science: Women earn 20-30% of doctorates in the life sciences but only 10-15% of full professors are women.

Career vs. Children: The article is a case study in self-hatred, but it's the comments section that make me want to rip out my fallopian tubes and strangle someone with them. What she has so maturely, so providently grasped already - Lo! at such young age! - is that the concept of "PhD scientist" and "mom" are mutually exclusive. And if you haven't got your fill, you can read some nasty comments here, too.

Sexual harassment in the lab and the classroom.

Because even discovering a particle won't earn you some maternity leave.

$14,000 pay gap in the sciences between men and women.
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Here's a thought:

A lot of programs, especially government-funding programs such as summer REUs, will expressly advertise for women and people of color. Few are actually restricted to those groups, but there's definitely a bias, although there are many other programs that make no demographic distinctions (and I've noticed it a lot less in jobs than summer programs). I've talked about this to a lot of affected people recently - all white men, interestingly. Some have been bitter, some have been resigned, and some are actually very positive about it.

I actually tend to agree that aggressively promoting women is unfair, and I've felt this way for a while. My (admittedly not very nuanced) opinion is that women don't have the systematic socioeconomic disadvantages that people of color often have. I think the issue is one of class, not race, with people who grew up in poverty not having the access to opportunities the way that middle and upper class science-lovers do. Where would I even be if I didn't have constant access to books, a good public school system (even if I kind of hated it), and the option to do volunteer positions in science and politics because I didn't have to spend all my time working to support myself? I'm a woman, yeah, but I'm not oppressed, I'm privileged. And since women in general are no more or less likely to be poor than men, I figure, why favor us in the job hunt?

But I've started to realize that it's not about making up for missed opportunities in the past. It's about preparing for missed opportunities in the future. More than half of all college graduates are women but only 20% of tenured science faculty. Why is that? Unconscious or overt sexism on behalf of hiring committees? Institutional problems such as lack of day-care and no time off for pregnancy? A culture which still encourages women to give up their careers and sacrifice for their husbands instead of vice versa? (It happened in my family. Did it happen in yours?)

Whatever the reason is, it's there. And it needs to be fixed. Right now the best way seems to be flooding the graduate pool with women so that when we inevitably start dropping like flies a reasonable number is left standing. And maybe that's the only way it will be fixed, when there are enough women in positions of power to demand that these structural and cultural inequalities be changed.

Right now I look at my white male scientist friends and think "I don't deserve to be given an advantage over them". But maybe in ten years I'll look back and be thankful I was given one.
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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.
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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.
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Getting the idea for an experiment and then realizing you have no funds, facilities, or time to conduct it is a feeling rather like watching your crush leave a party as soon as you get there. You know there will be other opportunities but you can't escape the dread that someone will come along before you. So you go to bed fantasizing about what it would be like in gorgeous, intimate detail, and then in the morning you have breakfast alone.
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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.
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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.
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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
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My Smith professor today, discussing the visual system:

"Everyone thinks the eye is this delicate thing, but it's not. It's tough, like a basketball." Pause. "Can you imagine little gerbils playing basketball with your eye?"

I forgive you for the crayfish, sir.
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So I was talking to Rachel about this and I've got to say - I think the concept behind the CS department is just bullshit. It doesn't foster interdisciplinary relationships. It prevents them. The act of separating cognitive science classes from natural science classes creates a distance that shouldn't be there. Cognitive science is a type of natural science. Why are neuroendocrinology and neuropharmacology in the NS department? Yes, they're NS, but they're more specifically CS. Why are philosophy classes and media studies classes in the CS department? Some of these classes are science-based, yes, but a lot of them belong in SS or another school entirely.

I haven't taken a CS class since the fall of my second year, and that's not by chance. I keep signing up for CS classes and going to them and finding out they're just a professor spouting philosophy. It's really frustrating, and I wish it weren't so.
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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!
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So, I was waiting by Ellie's office for her to show up, and I began flipping through the closest thing, which was a directory of UMass faculty. I go to the psychology section, scan down the names, and suddenly I see the name 'Ervin Staub'.

"Wait," I tell myself. "Ervin Staub? The Ervin Staub?"

Ellie never shows, and I go find a computer and look the man up. It is, indeed, the Ervin Staub. Beyond excited, I quickly go to see what courses he's teaching next semester. Unfortunately, it says he's not teaching any.

But maybe the spring courses aren't all up yet. I get up my nerve and e-mail him.

I just got an e-mail back.

"There are no courses listed because I am retiring at the end of January. ~ Ervin"

Life is NOT FAIR.
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Does logging on to the internet render you fucking incapable of sourcing your work? I can't seem to find an actual, legitimate document discussing the Umma-Lagash conflict. Hey, maybe somebody just made it up. That sounds like something an archaeologist would do.

I mean, er.

*hides from [livejournal.com profile] deralte*
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