June 22, 2009

come together


Segregation and integration are complementary principles of functional brain organization.

Segregation refers to specialization, the idea that different parts of the brain do different things. Integration refers to communication or networking, the idea that to do something, it is necessary for those different parts of your brain to work together. These ideas are not opposites; they are complementary. They are different sides of the same coin.

A big change in brain mapping was seen at the 15th annual meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, this week in San Francisco. In past years, the focus at this meeting was on segregation, but this week there were hundreds of presentations on integration.

When imagers talk about "functional activation" they are using the language of segregation. The model is that sensory stimuli cause brain activity. When imagers talk about "functional connectivity" they are using the language of integration. The model is that there is always ongoing activity within distributed brain networks, and that stimuli modulate this ongoing intrinsic activity.

The "activation" imager asks "where?" while the "integration" imager asks "how?".

Last Wednesday, there was a satellite symposium at Stanford University, dedicated to functional imaging of the resting state. This makes no sense at all to activation imagers - how can you image activation in the absence of stimuli? But to integration imagers, it is, perhaps, perfection itself, to image the resting/restless brain, while the participant does nothing. Just as Seinfeld was a (wonderful) show "about nothing", this was a (wonderful) symposium "about nothing".

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) wrote that "All of man's troubles stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone." But the restless brain reveals its functional organization, even when we try to sit quietly.

Brain Size Matters

I've been thinking about brain size and capacity for critical thinking. The inciting incident was mistakenly locking the cat in the closet for four hours. Then, days later, doing it again (although for only 90 minutes). I thought: Why did she not learn her lesson?! Why is she still seeking out the closet as a place of rest and security?

Then, I remembered: Why did I not learn my lesson? Why did I not check to see if she was on the bottom prior to closing the closet?

Um, I'm the one with the bigger brain. Size matters in issues of stewardship.

pepperoni pizza

This year, there were three winners of the Pittsburgh Brain Connectivity Competition: One from the Netherlands, one from Taiwan, and one from St. Louis, Missouri USA.

And speaking of St. Louis, perhaps the highlight of the awards ceremony this morning at the Human Brain Mapping meeting was an introductory talk by Washington University's Prof. David van Essen, comparing the thousand-year history of cartography of our planet, with the hundred-year history of cartography of our brain. Prof. van Essen pointed out that the unfolded surface area of each brain hemisphere is roughly equal to that of a thirteen-inch pizza, and that the size of each functionally specialized cortical area is about that of a slice of pepperoni.

a prediction

This morning, in about an hour, there will take place, as a special session of the Human Brain Mapping meeting, an awards ceremony announcing the winners of the Pittsburgh Brain Connectivity Competition. I have very much enjoyed attending this session in past years, and am looking forward to attending this year. And, I have a prediction, which is that this year the prizes will go predominantly to European and Asian research groups, because folks from North America could not focus on this competition, because they were too busy applying for NIH stimulus grants. More later!

how's that?

Today (Sunday) at the Human Brain Mapping meeting, there was a presentation on brain "representation of female body-shape attractiveness", which was funded by the Lord Dowling Fund for Humane Research, whose mission is to fund research which replaces the use of animals. Huh?

June 21, 2009

from Monty Python to South Park


Activation studies using functional brain mapping are almost all subtractive, in that they report on the difference in brain activity between two tasks. For the most part, we can't say anything about performing one task; we have to compare two.

At the Human Brain Mapping meeting in San Francisco, there is a presentation today on the difference, in the brains of deeply religious people, between praying to God and talking to Santa Claus. The point of this, according to the authors, is that these people know that God is "real" while Santa Claus is "fictitious". (Although a friend of mine insists that just the opposite is true.)

Thought for the day: If yesterday's presentation on functional brain mapping in a dead fish resembles Monty Python's "Dead Parrot" sketch, perhaps today's presentation on God vs. Santa resembles the infamous 1995 South Park "Spirit of Christmas" pilot, in which Jesus does battle with Santa over the meaning of Christmas.

"His thoughts frightened him and he bolted into the house, hoping to leave them behind like a hat."


Our ability to measure things about the brain exceeds our understanding of how the brain makes the mind.

Maybe that's why that, at the Human Brain Mapping meeting in San Francisco this week, several groups are presenting work on sleep (example; example). Mostly, they're not studying sleep, per se. Rather, they're trying to exploit different states of mind, in order to figure out what some functional MRI brain signals might mean. The idea, roughly, is that because sleep is not consciousness, if something we measure looks the same in sleep and waking, then that something cannot reflect consciousness or mindfulness.

Of course, it's not quite that simple, because sleep is not just one thing; there are different kinds of sleep. And while slow-wave sleep is very different from the waking state, in REM sleep (also known as paradoxical sleep), brain activity is actually very much like that in the waking state. Or, as Nathanael West wrote in The Day of the Locust (1933):
His thoughts frightened him and he bolted into the house, hoping to leave them behind like a hat. He ran into his bedroom and threw himself down on the bed. He was simple enough to believe that people don't think while asleep.

June 19, 2009

voodoo baloney & a dead fish

We've written here about voodoo baloney (that's what happens when you use some criterion to select data, and then perform, on those selected data, a statistical test, related to that selection criterion, which assumes that the data are completely random, rather than pre-selected).

A related problem concerns multiple comparisons: If you try so many different things that one of them is bound to turn out right, just at random, but then pretend that the one that turned out right was the only one you tried, you're fibbing. (In the context of functional neuroimaging, those "many different things" are the many different locations in the brain.) To illustrate this point, at the Human Brain Mapping meeting in San Francisco this week, there will be a presentation on functional brain imaging of a dead fish.

June 15, 2009

Lead with your heart

I took a wonderful Improv workshop today, Improvising Emotionally, with Rebekka Johnson. It provided another tool to assist me in relinquishing control: Lead not with your head, but with your heart.

Much of what I learned is applicable when using story to connect with your listeners:
  • The details are in the emotion.
  • Don't expand plot, but raise stakes by heightening emotion.
  • We are here to see these characters have an important moment in their lives.
Show, don't tell.

Rebekka also pointed out that, when Improvising, "the thing you want to do most is always in the room." That reminds me of the Buddhist saying, "This is the only moment in which you can find the answers in life."

June 9, 2009

Cognitive Diversity

I am extremely bothered by the trend of business partners or colleagues to aggregate their years of professional work and declare in marketing materials, for instance, "Between them, they have 50 years of experience." I thought this bugged me because it is a meaningless statement. What knowledge does this offer? It merely serves to distract me from their following statements, as I mentally attempt to divide up and guess their respective ages. (If any readers have an inclination of the origins of this trend, please do let me know.)

I now realize that, rather than lacking in meaning, such pronouncements do indeed impart a message: that this team is offering More of the Same. Why, their work is so similar, it can all be lumped and added up together! Such mathematical trickery serves only to disguise empty value.

Please, tell me about the cognitive diversity of your team. Provide information about the idiosyncratic knowledge of your team members. How is your team's cognitive diversity affecting its performance, and resulting in positive effects for your clients? How is your brilliantly assembled team of varying perspectives going to provide me with more creative solutions than a group of like-minded colleagues?

June 7, 2009

form & content

I may never know just why they gave me the ten-percent senior citizen's discount for working on my car, when I was in my early thirties. But I do have two ideas.

See, when I dropped off the car, I left a letter, to say what the car needed -- a proper business-style letter. So, I think it was the letter that got me the discount. But what I don't know is just how.

One idea is that the discount was a reciprocal courtesy -- I addressed them respectfully, so they cut me a break. The "senior citizen" label is irrelevant; this was simply the only discount they could specify in their system.

The other idea, though, is that they thought that anyone who would leave a formal typed letter was necessarily "of a certain age".

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