April 29, 2010

Everyone Loves a Hero

The archetypical narrative of the hero’s journey – protagonist encounters a challenge, overcomes the challenge, and triumphs over negative forces -- has deep roots in the human psyche. As Steven Denning so brilliantly writes in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling,

All of us tend to see our own life as a journey with goals and obstacles that get in the way of attaining those goals. So when we hear a story in the form of the hero’s journey, we respond from the deepest reaches of the psyche. This familiar way of looking at the world may be an illusion. True life may actually be a muddle, in which we may never get around to formulating clear goals, so we don’t set out on any journey in which, after encountering obstacles along the way, we finally attain our goal.

We become grown-ups only to find that there are no easy answers (and, to further complicate matters, we can’t let the kids see that we don’t have all the answers). The simple, reliable, and comforting structure of the hero’s journey is in fact how we make sense of the muddle of our lives, how we view our experiences in the world and the experiences of those around us, and how we retell it. The hero’s journey is how we comprehend and derive meaning from our messy lives and the vexing world surrounding us.

99 >? 100

When I was a kid I loved figuring out "brain teasers" and "one-minute mysteries" and the like.

But I am afraid that now, search engines have made such things almost passé.

Consider this one: When is 99 more than than 100?

It's a good puzzle. It's a fun puzzle. But it's also one you can solve in a flash, just by typing it into a search box. So, I suppose that we could see this as a test of character: Today, it's not enough to enjoy doing puzzles; you also need sufficient self-control to eschew the search engine, and figure things out on your own...

April 28, 2010

It's in California.

One of my favorite acronyms was coined by Prof. Daniel P. Weitekamp of CalTech.

The sensitivity of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) is limited by the magnetic polarization (or alignment) of atomic nuclei, which is very small even in the strong magnets used for NMR – around one part in a million. If this could be increased, then the NMR signal would increase proportionally. So, there is room for many orders of magnitude enhancement in NMR signals.

Parahydrogen is a "spin isomer" of molecular hydrogen; it's just good old H2, but with the proton magnetizations pointed in opposite directions. What C.R. Bowers & D.P. Weitekamp showed in 1984 is that when you chemically add parahydrogen across a carbon-carbon double-bond in a molecule, then those newly-tacked-on protons arrive with close to full (100%) nuclear polarization, such that their NMR signals are almost a million times bigger than the signals from the other protons in the molecule. Cool!

What did the inventors dub this new method? Why, they called it "Parahydrogen And Synthesis Allow Dramatically Enhanced Nuclear Alignment", or PASADENA.

Did I mention that they're at the California Institute of Technology, which is in the state of California, in the city of Pasadena?

April 26, 2010

"No one supposes that computer simulations of a five-alarm fire will burn the neighborhood down..."

Just one sentence (another one titles this post) from John Searle's classic 1980 article, "Minds, brains, and programs" setting forth his "Chinese Room" argument against "strong AI":
"No one would suppose that we could produce milk and sugar by running a computer simulation of the formal sequences in lactation and photosynthesis, but where the mind is concerned many people are willing to believe in such a miracle because of a deep and abiding dualism: the mind they suppose is a matter of formal processes and is independent of quite specific material causes in the way that milk and sugar are not."

April 25, 2010

a blanket insult

Just one sentence from Mark Ambinder's cover article on obesity in the May issue of the Atlantic magazine:
"To describe existing federal policies and regulatory approaches on obesity as a patchwork is an insult to quilts everywhere."

April 24, 2010

How are we to respond to foolish critics?

Central to the work of scientists is submitting our writing to review by other people. This includes both the review of grant applications, and the review of scientific manuscripts. From time to time, we receive reviews that we find unfair, or uninformed, or unwise, and when this happens, we wonder how to reply.

Richard Kluger was apparently faced with a similar question in August of 2007, after his book "Seizing Destiny" was reviewed by Richard Brookhiser in the New York Times. Here is Mr. Kluger's letter of response, as it appeared in the New York Times Book Review:

August 26, 2007
A Different Drummer

To the Editor:

I must confess to a moment of churlishness when, after being lulled by your reviewer’s discussion of my book “Seizing Destiny” (Aug. 12), I was awakened by the artful thrust of the hired assassin’s knife. In the next to last paragraph, Richard Brookhiser wrote: “I cannot recommend this book, however. Kluger’s writing is some of the worst I have ever had to read. ... If I had not agreed to review this book, I would have stopped after five pages. After 600, I felt as if I were inside a bass drum banged on by a clown.”

But rather than childishly taking offense at what I interpreted as a gentle rebuke, I soon realized how dutiful — brave, even — the reviewer had been in soldiering on after those first five thoroughly nauseating pages. He even kindly illustrated my utter ineptitude by singling out this sentence I had written on the French Revolution: “French grievances were vented in alternating waves of liberation and repression that swept the overwrought masses toward the cauldron of anarchy.” How could I have butchered the English language so grievously?

Suddenly I understood how mistaken the Book Review’s critic had been about my last book, “Ashes to Ashes,” in his highly laudatory review — and how besotted the jurors were who voted it the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, not usually awarded to wretched writers (I being the fortunate exception). How foolish, I thought, the Times columnist Bob Herbert had been for referring to my “Simple Justice” as a “brilliant and powerful book.” And how blind the former Times reporter Anthony Lukas, a garlanded book author, had been for stating that my book “The Paper: The Life and Death of The New York Herald Tribune” was “probably the best book ever written about an American newspaper ... a brilliant piece of social history.” And how insensitive to hideous prose were the judges who placed both those books among the five finalists for the National Book Award in history for the years in which they were issued.

Here at last, I appreciatively recognized, was a critic astute and forthright enough to do for me what no other reviewer had done before: tell me I am a clown, not a writer. How sad I was for the publisher of my four books of social history, Alfred A. Knopf, which has gained its eminence by bringing out books by similarly dreadful authors. How bad I felt for the four eminent writers and scholars — Joseph Ellis, David Kennedy, Justin Kaplan and Dan T. Carter — who had unaccountably offered admiring words about “Seizing Destiny” for the back of the book jacket. And how insensitive Kirkus was for calling it, in a starred prepublication review, “brilliant.”

Rather than continue writing, I will henceforth devote my energies to mastering one or another percussion instrument (if not the drum, on which your reviewer seems to feel I have a head start). It was an honor to be so subtly awakened from my self-deception by Mr. Brookhiser, who has honed his own skills by laboring for 30 years on the staff of National Review, a beacon of insightful commentary as well as fair and balanced judgment. Thanks, too, to your staff for selecting him. As we say out here in Berkeley, that iniquitous den of bluest liberalism, have a nice day.

Richard Kluger

Berkeley, Calif.

April 23, 2010

booms & whispers

"Science advances by what can seem to be an occasional boom rising over a chorus of mysterious whispers. It remains easier to say what scientists have discovered, or might discover, than to explain how or why, exactly, they discover anything."

April 21, 2010

Sometimes, left is right, & right is left.

When you look at cross-sectional brain images, you should ask whether they are displayed in neurological or radiological convention. In neurological convention, the left side of the brain is on the left side of the image and the right side of the brain is on the right side of the image. Simple. But in radiological convention, the left side of the brain is on the right side of the image, and the right side of the brain is on the left side of the image.

Huh? Why would anyone want to display images "backwards," such that right=left and left=right?

Well, this makes perfect sense, but only when you consider the history of where this convention came from: Imagine that you are standing at the foot of a hospital bed, in which a patient is lying on their back. You are holding up in your hand an x-ray film of their head. You glance from the film to the patient, and back. You want your view of the x-ray film to correspond to your view of the patient. And yes, the patient's right side is on your left, and their left side is on your right. Hence, radiological convention.

April 20, 2010

Prof. Robert Pound (1919-2010)

Today's New York Times contains an obituary of Prof. Robert V. Pound, whose innovation & skills made possible several outstanding accomplishments, including (on a mid-December weekend in 1945) perhaps the first observations of nuclear magnetic resonance in bulk matter, which laid the foundation for the development of magnetic resonance imaging. The obituary contains this paragraph:
"Professor Pound’s mechanical zeal extended beyond the laboratory. As a young man he installed a telegraph key in his blue Ford coupe that allowed him to tap out Morse code messages on the horn. He later owned a hovercraft lawnmower."

My favorite.

My favorite scientific acknowledgement is the second sentence of the acknowledgements section of the paper "Magnetic resonance imaging of male and female genitals during coitus and female sexual arousal" by W.W. Schultz et al., which appeared in the British Medical Journal in 1999. That sentence begins:
"P van Andel does not want to be acknowledged for his idea..."

April 19, 2010

An institute with a name & logo that tell a story!

The Black Dog Institute, of Sydney, Australia, requests that their logo not be used without their permission; so rather than reproducing it here, we provide a link to their webpage discussing it.

April 18, 2010

Reflections on the Smithsonian Institution Conference on Organizational Storytelling, & the Golden Fleece storytelling conference

Although my thoughts are not yet fully formed, I want to offer some immediate reflection on the past 3 days, spent with colleagues, students, and leaders in the field of applied narrative....

* I am especially delighted to have met Victoria Ward, of Sparknow, and to have discussed with her some of the ethical boundaries of working with story within nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations: one person's story should not be elicited solely for the purpose of getting money from a donor, or capturing other resources. Story is not a commodity, to be taken from one person and given to another, for a price. I've previously touched on the dangers of approaching storytelling as a transaction, and I will continue to explore how story can be ethically and effective used as a communication tool within the philanthropic sector.

* Leading up to the weekend, there was some discussion of the extent to which the applications and breadth of the concept of story would be discussed. Will participants solely be discussing face-to-face story sharing? Or the creation of a personal or organizational or meta- narrative through social media? At the Thursday evening program, I deliberately stated that the program was focused on interpersonal story sharing to move listeners to action, especially in a business setting. The insight gleaned from our program can be applied to organizational narrative, messaging framing, and digital storytelling (to mention just a few applications), and each of those communication vehicles has their own approaches and spaces for innovation.

Today, Larry Forster, of Shell Exploration and Production Co., and I discussed our reflections on the two conferences. What I came to realize is that both interpersonal and organizational communication is chaotic and distributed simultaneously across multiple channels, and that story is a tool for making sense of, embracing, and somewhat taming, that complexity. It's not about face-to-face versus social media storytelling, but rather about sharing large narratives and distinct stories across all platforms. Some avenues are better carriers of narrative and some are more suited to the sharing of personal story.

Just as I implore people to make ambiguous concepts concrete, I think those of us working in the field of applied narrative should ask our audiences about their interests and strive to articulate the specific definitions and applications of which we are speaking. I am reminded of Svend-Erik Engh's definition of "diamond" stories, meaning the shining story that perfectly captures brand essence; Shawn Callahan's distinction between "Big S" and "little s" stories; and Cynthia Kurtz's discussion of "natural" versus "purposeful" stories.

* At both our Wednesday program in NYC on communication and story for leaders, and at our Smithsonian Institution program on the use of story in organizations, Svend-Erik and I received the same question: Does one tell a story differently to men and to women?

I believe story sharing knows no gender difference. And I know of no scientific data to support a distinct approach for each gender. What matters is sharing an authentic story with your listener and listening, in turn, to him or her to respond based on their experience. What do you think?

A modest proposition.

Just one sentence from the remarkable paper that we mentioned yesterday, whose running title is "A neurobiological account of Freudian ideas":
"... given the enduring, albeit marginal, influence of psychoanalysis in psychiatry, it may benefit psychiatry if psychoanalysis is properly grounded in neuroscience."

April 17, 2010

A remarkable synthesis.

Prof. Nikos Logothetis has estimated that every day, eight scientific papers are published reporting on studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging. My guess is that this year will not see one with a more remarkable title than "The default-mode, ego-functions and free-energy: a neurobiological account of Freudian ideas" by R. L. Carhart-Harris and K. J. Friston, which appears in the current issue of the journal Brain.

April 14, 2010

"Very good" isn't good enough.

"Very good" just isn't good enough.

The official terminology for scoring grant applications at the National Institutes of Health is as follows:
  1. Exceptional
  2. Outstanding
  3. Excellent
  4. Very Good
  5. Good
  6. Satisfactory
  7. Fair
  8. Marginal
  9. Poor
And, in almost all cases, "very good" just isn't good enough.

April 13, 2010

on snapshots

"The force of a photograph is that it keeps open to scrutiny
instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces."
-Susan Sontag (1933-2004), from "On Photography" (1977)

April 12, 2010

Surprise! [on genetic control of connectivity & anatomy]

The brain's grey matter contains the cell bodies of the brain's neurons. Using MRI, we can ask two questions about the grey matter at a particular location in the brain – a question about structure, and a question about connectivity:
  • HOW MUCH grey matter is there?
  • HOW CONNECTED is it to other grey matter regions?
The first is called grey matter density; it is measured using high-resolution anatomical imaging. The second is called functional connectivity; it is measured by assessing synchronization of slow fluctuations in functional MRI signals, typically during rest.

While everyone's brain has the same rough anatomy and connectivity, we are not identical – people differ, in anatomy and in connectivity. How are such differences related? I would have thought that they were very closely linked, because grey matter that's "beefier" is likely "better connected" as well – the two being, so to speak, two sides of the same coin.

A recent study assessed grey matter density and functional connectivity in 333 people belonging to families whose genetic pedigrees have been established, to look for genetic control over anatomy and connectivity. That is, the authors did not look at differences between people in general; they used what's known about the genetics of these people to ask to what degree the differences in their brains were related to the differences in their genes. They did this for grey matter density, and for functional connectivity. Again, I would have thought that these would be very closely linked.

Surprisingly, however, the results suggest that "genes involved in connectivity are different from those involved in brain anatomy."

Now, this is a first study, and further research is necessary. But I would call this a happy surprise, because – like many scientific surprises – it suggests that we have more to learn.

April 11, 2010

News Flash: Earth Not Superfrigid!

From the corrections printed in today's New York Times:
"Because of an editing error, an article last Sunday about the Large Hadron Collider referred incorrectly to the cooling effect of the Big Bang. It was the universe — not the Earth — that the Big Bang caused to cool from billions or trillions of degrees to superfrigid temperatures today."

The average is irrelevant.

More brilliant and practical advice from Seth Godin:

When in doubt, disaggregate

The typical American buys precisely one book a year.


Of course, this isn't true, because when it comes to books, there is no typical American. There are a lot of Americans who buy zero books for pleasure each year. And then there are people like me who buy 400. The average is irrelevant.

When you can't figure out the best way to treat all your customers, the best way to price things, the best thing to offer, realize that the problem is almost always this: you're trying to treat everyone the same. Don't. Break them into groups with similar attributes, and suddenly the path becomes a lot more clear.

This applies to communication as well. Leaders often think it is best to address the most people at one time. This leads to large assemblies; long, legally-vetted press releases and speeches; and disturbingly flat videos. They think this results in true transparency: "Hey, I told everyone the same thing. It's their fault if they don't get it."

The thing is, people hear information filtered through their own experiences. There are as many ways to hear and make meaning of information as there are people in the room.

It's advantageous to speak with people in "small groups with similar attributes". There are many ways to say the same thing; smart leaders deliver the same message while at the same time engaging in two-way, customized communication. This kind of sincere, empathetic communication compliments and engages your listeners, and is more likely to deliver on your communication goals.

April 9, 2010

End-of-the-week fun-fact!

Did you know that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., & President Barack Obama were not the first & second African-Americans to receive the Nobel Peace Prize?

They were the second & third.

The first African-American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize was Dr. Ralph Johnson Bunche (1904-1971), who received the prize in 1950 for brokering the 1949 Armistice Agreement in the Middle East.

"Love looks not with the eyes, but with the..."

"Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind."
- William Shakespeare (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ca. 1594)

"The activity in the brains of 17 subjects who were deeply in love was scanned using fMRI, while they viewed pictures of their partners, and compared with the activity produced by viewing pictures of three friends of similar age, sex and duration of friendship as their partners. The activity was restricted to foci in the medial insula and the anterior cingulate cortex and, subcortically, in the caudate nucleus and the putamen, all bilaterally."
- Andreas Bartels & Semer Zeki (from "The neural basis of romantic love", NeuroReport, 2000)

April 8, 2010

"Relay #70, Panel F"

The first computer bug was identified by Rear Admiral (then Lieutenant) Grace Murray Hopper (1906 - 1992) on September 9th, 1945.

April 6, 2010

Britton Chance & Shoko Nioka

Please join us, NeuroCooking friends, in offering (belated) good wishes of great happiness for Profs.
Britton Chance & Shoko Nioka, married at National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan, on February 6th of this year.

[ Note (added late November, 2010): In memoriam, Britton Chance (1913 - 2010) ]

April 3, 2010

six is the first perfect number

Because there is strong evidence that those who consume alcohol in moderation live longer and healthier lives than those who don't drink, I have strived to conquer my natural aversion to intoxication and my fear of immoderate & inadequate drinking and aspired to drink moderately. Namely, having a beer with dinner.

However, when I looked into the matter, I found that "moderate drinking", for men, means two drinks per day. This was upsetting. Was I underdrinking when I had one beer with dinner?

Was that bottle of beer just half-a-serving?

I became more confused after a summertime visit to Munich, where we sat in beer gardens and drank beer in one-liter mugs, which is about as much as three American beer bottles. So, was my bottle of beer really just one-third-of-a-serving?

Two good insights; two good concerns. Was that one beer one-half, or one-third, as much as I needed to drink healthily? I decided not to disagree with either insight, and instead to resolve the matter diplomatically:
  • 2 drinks = moderation;
  • 1 drink = 3 bottles;
  • 2 x 3 = 6 ;
  • 6 bottles = moderation.
To moderation!

[title refers to this]

April 1, 2010


NeuroCooking NewsService, Kensington Maryland, 1 April 2010: In an announcement of stunning importance, leading neuroscientists today reported the discovery of the brain center dedicated to subserving belief in dedicated brain centers, and the founding of a research center devoted to study of the newly-discovered brain center for brain centers.
"Those functional neuroimaging reports of dedicated brain centers for things like pinball, banjo music, and knitting? Some people believe that stuff, and some don't," said Dr. Wan Ker of Bigger University, who led the study. "We asked why only some people believe it, and used functional brain imaging to answer the question. We found, in the subicular insula, a region that 'lights up' only in people who believe that stuff, and only when they believe it. So, we have found the brain center that subserves belief in brain centers."

Capitalizing on their findings, Prof. Ker and colleagues also announced the establishment of the Center for the Study of the Center for Centers (a.k.a. the Center Center Center) as well as plans to file for related patents. They have already filed a patent on using fMRI to select people with especially active center centers for journal editorial boards. No word on whether Center Center Center candidates will have their center centers assessed.


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