Bat and Bird Songs for Systems Neuroscience

This week’s Science features an article about the songs of bats - not the ultrasonic echolocating calls most often associated with these wonderful creatures but complex vocalizations that bats use socially.

The most well-studied “songsters,” as the author, Virginia Morell, calls them, are songbirds. In species like canaries, zebra finches and starlings, the male sings a courtship song that he learns from his father to woo females.

Milk Does Not Cause Autism

The radical organization whose supposed mission is to protect animal welfare now says that cow milk not only worsens autistic symptoms but can actually cause autism too. PETA’s campaign to stop people from using animal products latched on to obscure studies of dietary influences on autistic symptoms. A PETA blog post refers to two studies that found a link between autistic children’s behavior and consumption of cow milk (or proteins found in cow milk), and jumps to conclude that "dairy foods may worsen or even cause autism.”

Using the Brain to Treat the Body's Diseases

There’s an article in New York Times Magazine about using electrical signals in the nervous system to signal to the rest of the body to somehow alter molecular signaling outside the nervous system. Neuroscientists have known for a while that neurons transmit messages by electro-chemical signals: at each synapse, an electrical impulse arrives from a cell body, is converted to a chemical message via neurotransmitters. The chemical message jumps across the synapse, where it is again converted into an electrical signal at the next (postsynaptic) neuron. For some reason though, the thought that electrical signals interact with non-nervous system elements (like the immune system) has not been very popular; the idea that one could manipulate the electrical signals to “hijack” downstream molecular signaling without affecting neural communication itself seems like magic. 

Oklahoma's Torture-execution

With the world in shock over the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma last week, rather than questioning the morality of capital punishment, we should reevaluate America’s prison system as a whole. With an ever-growing population of inmates, America’s prisons are operating under the arcane notion that punishment deters crimes, while ignoring a growing body of scientific work that could be used to understand why people commit violent crimes and how to reinstate criminals into society successfully. On the question of what causes people to commit horrible crimes, we know that damage to the frontal lobes of the brain (the areas responsible for impulse-control, reasoning, foresight and other “higher” cognitive functions) can cause severe behavioral problems and violent outbursts

Congress to Peer Review Science Funding?

There is a bill circulating in the House of Representatives, sponsored by Lamar Smith of Texas, that aims to give Congress the power of oversight over government grants for scientific research. Grants from the National Science Foundation are given out to basic research projects based on their scientific merit, as determined by a system of peer review. Lamar Smith's legislature hopes to "improve" science funding (= reduce government spending) with this proposal:

The President's BRAIN Initiative

At three pounds, 100 billion cells, 10,000 as many connections, the human brain makes Facebook look like child’s play of a network, not without reason: our brains are solely responsible for our every thought, emotion and action. The human brain is the most complicated machine in the known universe. It is fitting then, that President Obama announced this week that the state of our knowledge of brain function is in a sort of swamp despite tremendous progress in the past century, and it is time to pave our way out in an effort to solve how the brain functions.

Idolatry in Science

Gary Marcus recently celebrated Noam Chomsky in an essay about the famous linguist’s life and influence on the field of linguistics over the past fifty years. There is no doubt that Chomsky has had tremendous impact on American intellectual life over the years, from work on language to political and philosophical ideas. However, Gary Marcus’s description of Chomsky’s influence on the field and his colleagues is somewhat troubling and unfortunately not unique to Chomsky but prevalent in the sciences. In every scientific sphere, it seems, a handful of individuals have excessive sway; these one-percenters are revered to an extent that their opinions go unquestioned (unchallenged) at best or as dogma, at worst. As Marcus points out, young linguists have a hard time studying what Chomsky finds uninteresting, the tragedy of which manifests itself in those people either not getting jobs and recognition in the field, or abandoning their interests in favor of Chomsky’s: “A good way for a young linguistics graduate student to make a name is to develop an intriguing idea that Chomsky mentions in one of his footnotes; it’s a riskier move to study something that Chomsky doesn’t find to be important.”

Science, Religion and Values: Magisteria Redefined

Science and religion have been archenemies for some time now, with one on a quest for knowledge and truth, and the other seeking to fill a perceived void of meaning in lives. Logical inspection confirms the two systems are incompatible with one another, since science requires evidence for all claims, whereas religion insists on faith when there is no evidence whatsoever. But many do have both science and religion in their lives. How do they deal with the conflict? Stephen Jay Gould wrote in a 1997 essay on the non-overlapping magisteria, NOMA, that there actually is no conflict between science and religion:

Descriptive vs. Predictive Models

When we look back at the important advances in neuroscience in the 20th and 21st centuries, what will we remember? What will we still find useful and worth pursuing further? The field is still in its nascent stages, even a century after Ramon y Cajal showed evidence for the neuron doctrine, establishing the neuron as a fundamental unit of the nervous system; and Brodmann published his cytoarchitecture studies that convinced the world that the brain is divided into distinct areas and likely uses those to divvy up processing. Yet we still have virtually no clue how the brain works: there is no central theory, no cures for brain diseases; only a whole lot of curious, enthusiastic and optimistic minds and some funding to help them get stuff done. And it is rightly so that some neuroscientists have serious physics envy, which pushes them to develop predictive models that (sometimes) give important insights into what mother nature did to make the brain work. A great example of this is the Hodgkin-Huxley model of the action potential. When Hodgkin and Huxley created the model in the early 1950's, biologists had little clue as to how cells generated such complex waveforms. Having observed conductance changes across the cell membrane during the action potential, Hodgkin and Huxley went on to show that the conductances were ion-selective, and worked as functions of time and membrane potential. They then predicted that whatever was mediating conductance of ions had to be voltage-sensitive and allow fast molecular changes. This work led to a wide search for the ion conductors, which turned out to be voltage-gated sodium and potassium channels. The key word there is that the model predicted something. Fast forward to 2011, and we still don't have a greater success story for predictive models than the Hodgkin-Huxley model.

Neuroscientists today are gathering data by the terabytes, describing amazing properties of neurons and networks, and moving on to the next experiments. A typical electrophysiological experiment, for example, involves electrode recordings of populations of cells, and describes the cells' firing properties while the brain is engaged in some behavior or other. What we need is to be able to make predictions about major principles based on information we've gathered over the last century. For example, given that we observe gamma rhythms during object recognition, can we predict not only if gamma is required for that task, but how it helps the brain achieve it? Given these observations, can we predict what features the brain must have to accomplish this task? For example, if we predict that cortical connections constitute "small world" networks, can we understand the rules for wiring better? Better yet, can we infer what the wiring rules must be? As we develop ever more sophisticated tools to study the brain, we should have an easier time making predictions about how it works. We have to step up to the plate in the 21st century, and produce some theories that do more than describe what we see. These theories have to not only capture the complexity of the system but also the relative simplicity by which the system is created.

Optogenetics to Cure Alzheimer's?

Preparing for SfN 2011, I have to give a shout-out to one of the coolest emerging technologies in neuroscience, optogenetics. Optogenetics, as everyone no doubt knows by now, is a method that allows researchers to control the electrical activity of neurons using light. Scientists infect certain types of neurons with an algae transmembrane channel protein that allows the flow of ions into a cell when light of preferred wavelength shines upon it. The method has been described well elsewhere (Steve Ramirez waxes poetic about it on the Mind the Gap Junction blog). Optogenetics is an amazing method for many reasons, but mainly because by allowing us to directly activate or silence neurons, it makes it possible to establish causal relationships in neural circuits: if neuron A is hyperactive, the mouse runs around in circles; if A is silenced, perhaps the mouse is unable to run in circles; therefore, activity in neuron A causes the mouse to run in circles. This is important because traditional electrophysiological methods allow us to only record activity without manipulating it directly (stimulating electrodes are rather crude spatially), and the methods that did allow us to manipulate activity (i.e. pharmacology or stimulating electrodes) have a myriad of effects that make precise causes of behavior unclear (i.e. does TTX act only on sodium channels? Which types? etc).

As optogenetics becomes more and more refined and widespread, I can't help to wonder what it will do for the most prevalent of neurological diseases. Will this method cure Alzheimer's? How about Parkinson's? Optogenetics promises to show us circuit-level interactions among neurons and perhaps even to nail down the network effects of particular diseases. But if we're looking to find cures for diseases instead of just fixes, we ought to not forget our molecular biologists and maybe even geneticists. That's not to say that treatments for neurological diseases are worthless! There are, after all, no cures for any brain diseases so far - so anything will be useful. With all this enthusiasm over optogenetics, we have to be honest about its capabilities and limitations.

Fertilized Eggs Are Now People

The people of Mississippi are set to vote on an initiative to amend the state Constitution to define personhood as starting at the moment of fertilization. If fertilized eggs are people, then abortion is murder. The ballot, which has received widespread bipartisan support and is likely to pass, is rather short and rigid:

Section 33. Person defined.  As used in this Article III of the state constitution, “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.

It's no surprise Mississippians are against abortion; what's interesting is that people still turn to religion to answer seemingly scientific questions like when a human should be considered a person. NPR's Michael Martin covers the topic by interviewing religious leaders:

Now, when voters are asked to consider a weighty moral issue such as this, some turn to their faith for answers, so in a minute we've decided to turn to two religious leaders who are on opposite sides of this question.

Why turn to religious leaders on this issue? What do religious leaders know about life? What evidence do they have (regardless of what their religion is) for when life begins or ends? Or what happens after life ends? None. Zero. In fact, there is as much reason to think that Santa Claus is real as there is for thinking that personhood begins at conception.

Anyway, NPR's idea of fair coverage of the issue is to talk to two pro-life pastors, one pro the ballot and the other against. The former, pastor Dillon, supports the ballot because he was brought up to think that life is precious and sacred, and that god wouldn't approve of murder. Well, yes - life is precious, and murder is in most cases wrong. But why is it that the states that oppose abortion are also the ones with the highest rates of capital punishment? And violent crime (see Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion for evidence for these claims)? And if life is so precious, shouldn't we all be vegetarians? Or not eat at all, if we consider the that plants are living organisms too?

On the other hand, pastor McDonald opposes the ballot because its vague wording wouldn't allow exceptions to the rule in cases of rape or incest, and because he is opposed to big government:

And so this far-reaching arm of the government - I mean we're fighting to get government out of our lives, why would we vote to have government to come more into our personal lives and into our families and into our faith even? These matters should be left to people of faith, to be left to parents or the women and men who are specifically, directly involved in it, and not up to government.

This is actually quite an honest admission that most conservatives won't allow - it's very hard to reconcile small government with rigid anti-abortion laws. Why, if some people don't want government telling them what to do, do they want it to tell others what to do? In this sense, I commend pastor McDonald's consistent perspective. The right to choose is both a freedom consistent with conservative beliefs and a governmental protection consistent with liberalism. So why can't people agree?

But the real question is about when life begins. Is a clump of cells to be considered a human being? How about an adult in a vegetative state? Neuroscience has the capability to answer these questions definitively, and the answer that's creeping up is that personhood or mental capacity (and the capacity for joy, suffering, pain, etc) is tightly correlated with functional complexity of the nervous system. That's why some scientists propose that dolphins and other cetaceans be considered "nonhuman persons." The case for fertilized eggs to be considered persons is unambiguous; they are not people, period. Things get more complicated at later stages of development, and at some point abortion may in fact be murder. The difficulty is that unlike pornography, which we can't define but know it when we see it, personhood can be defined (by nervous system function), it's just that we're not sure if we know it when we see it.

Practically, the problem is when people choose to believe something in spite of evidence to the contrary (this is called 'faith'). The pastors in the NPR interview think of embryos as people, and think it's wrong to "kill" these "people" because presumably they feel emotional and physical pain as adult humans do. This is simply delusion, to borrow Richard Dawkins' nomenclature. The sad part is that no amount of evidence will persuade these people of the truth (unless of course archeologists dig up long-lost "Neuroscientific Gospels," in which god commands his followers to demand evidence for everything).

This would be funny if it weren't so sad and dangerous: the Mississippian people are almost certainly doomed to pass the Personhood Amendment, and they are not peerless among the states. Perhaps the best we as scientists can do is to instill in children a desire to think critically and accept nothing without evidence.

Wonder and Magic

Pretty snowflakes are nothing but some water molecules arranged in special hydrogen bond patterns. Lady Gaga's love songs squeeze and twist your heart only because your brain may be wired to perceive such chord progressions as sad. And your significant-other means the world to you simply because some oxytocin/vassopressin molecules interact with the dopaminergic reward systems during your intimacies. The list goes on, but this is enough to illustrate the pessimism with which some frame scientific knowledge. The explanation of a feature in terms of its underlying mechanism does not diminish its value. Just because love is not created by magic but by an awesomely complex machine (the brain) doesn't make it any less wonderful, in the same way that knowing the ingredients and recipe of New England clam chowder doesn't make it less delicious (I'm afraid the same can't be said for fois gras or animelles, for different reasons of course). The danger of thinking that a mechanistic explanation of something seemingly magical is bad is that it may impede scientific progress. If our friends on Capitol Hill decide next week that it's a waste of time to search for the neural basis or evolutionary advantage of music, we may be deprived further of knowledge about the mechanisms of language, emotions and social cohesion. Ignorance may be bliss, but it's not what started the industrial revolution, the space race or the information age; nor will ignorance cure cancer (fruit-fly research in Paris, France might). Aside from magical parts of human nature, science promises to demystify more sinister ones like violence or racism. What happens if we discover that men have a natural rather than "merely-social" tendency to beat their wives? Does that mean science justifies wife-beating? Not a chance. But we do have to be careful with our facts, since some confuse what is with what ought to be, or worse still - what is natural with what is ought to be.

With scientific explanations of our nature, we will still have magic in our lives. But we can't go on pretending something is true when it is not. The mystery of music may disappear when you are reading about the brain areas involved in music perception, but it won't fail to creep up on you when you're listening to your favorite Beethoven. The question is how to inform the public about the mechanistic nature of everything without them becoming emotionless robots.



The Hard Problem of Consciousness

You’re lying on a sandy beach on a hot sunny afternoon, enjoying a few hours of much needed laziness. As you open your eyes and confront the vastness of the ocean in front of you, light of 600nm wavelength hits your retina, kindling an impossibly long cascade of events in your brain: a molecule called retinal changes shape, neurons fire action potentials down the optic nerve, arrive at the lateral geniculate nucleus deep in the brain causing more action potentials in primary visual cortex in the back of your head, and so on ad infinitum. At some point, the mechanical wonder of 100 billion neurons working together produces something special: your experience of the color blue. What’s special is not that you can discriminate that color from others; nor that you are aware of it and paying attention to it. It is not notable that you can tell us about it, or assign a name to it. It’s that you have a subjective, qualitative experience of the color; there is something it is like to experience the color blue. Some philosophers call these experiences qualia – meaning “what kind” – but it is not important what kind of experience you are having, just that you are having one at all. Modern science hypothesizes that subjective experience is a product of the brain, but has no explanation for it. The brain’s building blocks are neurons; their language is the action potential, an electrical impulse that relays information. Sensory molecules pick up information about the outside world and translate it into action potentials. The information is processed among many networks of neurons, and returns to the outside world via signals to muscles, which effect behavior. Somewhere between sensory molecules and muscles, the neurons organize to create systems for memory, attention, global access of information, self-awareness and language. How the brain achieves this feat is largely unknown, but neuroscientists are hard at work today trying to elucidate the mechanisms responsible. The philosopher David Chalmers calls these the “easy” problems of consciousness because science has the tools to ask questions about them and eventually solve them.

The easy problems have in common the fact that their explanation requires only a mechanism of their function; once we explain a mechanism by which neurons integrate information, for example, the problem of integration is solved. In contrast, experience, or the existence of qualia, is the “hard” problem of consciousness because it has no obvious function and is completely unmeasurable; science has no way of even proposing hypotheses about it.

Philosophical Zombies

Do you know that feeling you have when you fall in love? Most people describe it as something special, unexplainable, mysterious and wholly wonderful. Scientists will describe it in terms of molecules of oxytocin and vasopressin binding receptors on neurons in the midbrain. Surely love is not just a bunch of molecules running wild in your head? Yes and no. The molecules cause one to exhibit seriously strange behavior like not eating or sleeping, but out of their interactions emerges something more. That something is the feeling itself.

Physical rules and current neuroscientific evidence suggest that the brain should function as it does, but without producing feelings, sensations, or subjective experience; we should be philosophical zombies. Philosophical zombies are hypothetical beings that look and act exactly as humans do, but never actually have first-person qualitative experience of anything.

If a philosophical zombie met a nice girl, he would act as if he were in love. He would talk about his longing and joy, but he would not actually have that qualitative feeling of being in love. Even though they have brains just like ours, philosophical zombies are in essence robots – processing information, reporting mental states, having information of pains or emotions, having functional memory, but never actually having an experience of anything. There is nothing it is like to be a philosophical zombie; all processing goes on in the “subconscious.” This is exactly what science – in its current state – would predict. All cognitive processing should go on “in the dark,” without a conscious element.

Yet we obviously are not philosophical zombies. The processing that goes on in our brains is accompanied by a subjective experience. This experience is the most intimate thing you know – it’s almost impossible to imagine life without it – and for that reason, it is also the hardest thing to question or pinpoint in your own mind. Neuroscience hypothesizes that everything there is to your mind, including this subjective experience, is a product of physical events. But your experience itself is seemingly not physical; there is no thing, energy field, radiation or force that is your subjective experience that we currently know about. All we can measure are molecular events and electrical interactions among neurons. So where does experience come from and how can we study it?


The answer may be found in the concept of emergence. From the interactions of a number of matching parts sometimes emerges a behavior or property that cannot be predicted from or reduced to the properties of the constituents. One such unexpected property comes from the simple behavior of individual ants, which produces a complex “society,” whose properties cannot be predicted from the behavior of individual ants. In fact, adding up the contributions of all individual ants does not produce an effect equal to the effect from the ant colony as a whole. Other examples of emergence include snowflakes, which assemble out of interactions among water molecules at low temperatures; temperature, which is based on molecular kinetics; the stock market, which has no central planning or regulation; human society; and subjective experience.

Subjective experience is an emergent property of the brain. As such, it cannot be predicted from our current knowledge of the brain, or reduced to its basal parts. Individual neurons are not aware of anything at all, but 100 billion of them working together are.

Modern neuroscientists aim to peek into the brain at higher and higher spatial and temporal resolutions with the goal of recording the electrical activities of vast numbers of neurons. Once they have recorded the activity, the thinking goes, the only remaining task will be to find out what the activity does. This logic is enticing, but falls short of a explaining the entirety of the brain’s features. One problem is that the entity that emerges – subjective experience – is qualitatively different from neurons and their activities, just as society emerges from interactions among individuals but is qualitatively different from individuals. Moreover, if we were to describe the activities of all individuals that comprise society, we would get no information about society; we would get noise from all the opposing actions. Likewise, if we describe the activities of all the neurons in the brain, all we get is activities of all the neurons in the brain.

An additional barrier is that subjective experience is closed off from outside observation. The contents of your experience are available only to you, and scientists have no way of collecting the data of experience directly. While some neuroscientists are satisfied with collecting first-person data via verbal (human subjects) or behavioral (animal subjects) reports, the fact is that as soon as the subject translates first-person experience into a report, the data becomes of third-person quality.

If aliens discovered earth, they would have no way of knowing that humans had anything going on between their ears beyond electricity and chemistry. This is why neuroscience is so exciting: the most magical machine in the universe is in your head, and we have the opportunity to find out what makes it so special. As neuroscience attracts increasing amounts of talent and funding, we must not forget the most mysterious, least tangible question about the brain.


They can’t stop talking about her. “Look at how popular and successful she is!” “Look at how stupid and ditsy she is!” “What has she done to be so famous?” … Well, I don’t care if she’s smart or stupid, rich or poor. The only things I see when she’s on the screen are those voluptuous curves. Regardless of what you think of her, Kim Kardashian has what most men dream of. Since this is a nerds’ blog, we’re going to take the moment to examine why we men like those curves so much.

Men like women with large curves because these provide an adaptive advantage, increasing the likelihood of the propagation of genes. Wide hips are adaptive because they make child birthing easier (more successful); large breasts may provide more nutrition during nursing. The men who go for the curves are more likely to make successful offspring; those offspring incidentally share the same instinct for curves and eventually make more progeny; and the cycle continues. Kim Kardashian Now, Kim Kardashian is what you call a supernormal stimulus. She has everything that normally elicits a positive response but exaggerated. “Supernormal stimulus,” by the way, is attributed to the famous ethologist Niko Timbergen, who found that substituting a mamma-seagull’s white beak with its one red spot for a stick with three red spots made the chicks way more excited for food. Many more such examples have been described in a variety of animals.

But anyway, I am a male and my primitive brain can’t help but to love Kim Kardashian. One could say the male brain is predisposed or hard-wired to love curves like Kim’s. Actually, some folks are still amazed to hear that there are neural correlates of this or that (you see this in the news all the time – “scientists now found the brain mechanisms behind gambling,” social anxiety, or enhanced hearing in the blind. The list goes on). There won’t be any behavior, feeling, thought, etc without neural correlates. I dare you to show otherwise.

In an article on love and the brain, Psychology Today columnist Marnia Robinson describes the neural mechanisms that make prairie voles (similar to mice) pair bond, or stay as a couple for at least one round of mating). It has to do with the distribution of oxytocin receptors, which makes the vole associate its mate with the dopamine reward pathways, meaning that a couple stays together (“in love”) long enough to raise some pups. Marnia notes that we, like the voles, are “programmed to pair bond—just as we're programmed to add notches to our belts.” In another post in her column, she drives the point home:

“Pair bonding is not simply a learned behavior. If there weren't neural correlates behind this behavior, there would not be so much falling in love and pairing up across so many cultures. The pair-bonding urge is built-in and waiting to be activated… The vital point is that our pair bonding penchant arises from physiological events, not mere social conditioning… So, even though many Westerners appear to be caught up in a chaotic hook-up culture for the moment, it doesn't mean that we humans are, by nature, as promiscuous as bonobo chimps or that pair-bonding inclinations are superficial cultural constructs.”

What Marnia means is that committed relationships (perhaps marriage, too) are natural, and therefore you don’t have to worry that everyone you know is only interested in hooking up because they should prefer committed relationships; eventually they’ll all settle down and all will be right in the world. I hope you will forgive me for interpreting Marnia’s writing as a promotion of marriage and an attack on hook-up culture (after all, the title of her post is “Committed Relationship: Like It Or Not, You’re Wired For It”). Humans have a genetically-based neural system that enables them to fall in love and pair bond (again, it shouldn’t be surprising that we have a neural system for this; the only question is what roles do genes and environment play on it). But just because it is there doesn’t mean it is 100% deterministic.

It’s true, in some species the best strategy for gene propagation is for the couple to share the responsibility of child rearing. Evolution favors individuals with the monogamy instinct and it just so happens that monogamous relationships feel good to them. What Marnia is driving at is that you don’t have a choice but to end up in a committed relationship because your brain is “wired for it”.

Is that really true? Decision-making can be described as synaptic integration of relevant inputs based on their weights or importance. Unless you are a cocaine addict running on empty, the factors going into most decision have fairly weighted synaptic representation (i.e. a crack-head’s brain won’t allow factors other than crack to have a big vote in the decision-making congress). Just because a brain is predisposed toward some trait or behavior doesn’t mean that that trait is 100% deterministic. This idea of relative cognitive liberty here doesn’t even invoke free will; the decisions you make are based on the brain’s wiring, your previous experiences, probability, etc – not some soul that does what it wants.

And why does it matter that monogamy is the “natural” thing to do? Who cares what we are by nature? Last I checked, by nature dudes can be expected to throw themselves at every cake, cookie, jar of peanut butter and sexy lady they see. Haven’t witnessed that recently at the local Shaw’s… And it wouldn’t matter if “society” were “making” us do that – we control society! We choose what’s acceptable. If I want to sleep around instead of getting married, that’s my choice! (isn’t it ironic how it’s the conservative right that always worries about threats to personal freedoms and tries to deny personal freedoms in the name of traditional values?).

That doesn’t mean we can ignore our nature; we do have innate mechanisms that pull or push us in different directions – I don’t love Kim Kardashian because I chose to, but because as a man I have certain preferences built in. But here’s the catch: just because I think Kim is attractive doesn’t mean I’m going to ditch my girlfriend and hop on the next plane to Hollywood. I can control myself and stay in a meaningful relationship; I can inhibit this reptilian instinct. Likewise, not every man prefers Kim to someone with a flatter topology. We do have innate preferences, but they all have different impact on what we do or how we feel. Next time you see a headline about the genetic basis or experience-driven neuroplasticity of some trait or other, be wary: not everything is as intensely deterministic as the neuropundits will have you believe. For now stay content that you can enjoy Kim Kardashian’s curves without committing any social faux pas.


Nigel Barber. The evolutionary psychology of physical attractiveness: Sexual selection and human morphology. Ethology and Sociobiology. Volume 16, Issue 5, 1995, 395-424

Decision Making in Recurrent Neuronal Circuits Xiao-Jing Wang. Neuron. 60, (2) 215-234.

Committed Relationship: Like It Or Not, You’re Wired For It

Human Brains Are Built to Fall in Love

A little self-education goes a long way. Let Richard Dawkins enlighten you (and if you've seen this already, it's never a bad idea to brush up on the basics of life):

Moral Code

Why is it wrong to kill babies? Why is it wrong to take advantage of mentally retarded people? To lie with the intention of cheating someone? To steal, especially from poor people? Is it possible that Medieval European society was wrong to burn women suspected of witchcraft? Or did they save mankind from impending doom by doing so? Is it wrong to kick rocks when you’re in a bad mood? Questions of right and wrong, such as these, have for millenia been answered by religious authorities who refer to the Bible for guidance. While the vast majority of people still turn to Abrahamic religious texts for moral guidance, there are some other options for developing a moral code. Bibles aside, we can use our “natural” sense of what’s right and wrong to guide our actions; a code based on the natural sense would come from empirical studies on what most people consider to be right or wrong. Ignoring the logistics of creating such as code, we should note that the rules in this code would not have any reasoning behind them other than “we should do this because this is what comes naturally.” How does that sound? Pretty stupid.

The other option is to develop a moral code based on some subjective metaphysical ideas, with a heavy backing of empirical facts. “Subjective” means these ideas won’t have an undeniability to them; they are what they are and that’s it. Take as an example the rule such as “we should not kill babies.” There is no objective, scientific reason why we shouldn’t kill babies. Wait!, you say, killing babies is wrong because it harms the proliferation of our species and inflicts pain on the mothers and the babies themselves! But why should we care about the proliferation of our species? About hurting some mother or her baby? While no one will deny that we should care about these, there is nothing scientific that will explain why. Science may give us a neurological reason why we care about species proliferation (it will go something like, “there is a brain region that makes us care about proliferation of our species.”), but why should we be limited to what our brains tend to make us think or do?

Subjective rules like these must therefore be agreed upon with the understanding that they are subject to change. Interestingly, some argue that science can answer moral questions because it can show us what “well-being” is, how we can get it, etc. But the scientific reason why we should care about well-being is nowhere to be found. The result is that we can use science to answer moral questions, but we have to first agree (subjectively) that we want well-being. Science by itself cannot answer moral questions because it shows us what is rather than what ought to be. (Actually, Sam Harris is the only one to argue that science can be an authority on moral issues; his technical faux-pas is an embarrassment to those who advocate “reason” in conduct).


But more on the idea of metaphysically constructed moral codes. What properties should this code have, and how should we go about synthesizing it? Having one fixed/rigid source as an authority for moral guidance is dangerous. Make no mistake: there must be some authority on moral questions, but it must be flexible, and adaptable; it must be able to stand the test of time on the one hand, but to be able to adjust to novel conditions on the other. This sounds a lot like the constitution of the U.S. But even with such a document as The Constitution, which has provided unity and civil progress since the country’s founding, there are some who take its words literally and allow no further interpretation; if it’s not written in the constitution, it can’t be in the law, they argue (see Strict Constructionism versus Judicial Activism). These folks also tend to be rather religious (read: they spend a lot of time listening to stories from the Bible; not to be confused with “spiritual” or of religions other than the Abrahamic ones). So while we must have a moral code, it must be flexible (i.e. change with time) and we must seek a balance between literal and imaginative interpretations, just as we do with the US Constitution.

Why and how is a rigid moral authority dangerous? Our authority must change with time because new developments in our understanding of the world must update how we interact with others. For example, if science finds tomorrow that most animals have a brain part that allows them to feel emotional pain in the same way that humans do, we will have to treat them with more empathy; research on dolphin cognition has recently produced an effort by scientists to have dolphins be considered and treated as nonhuman persons. Furthermore, if we don’t explain why we do certain things, we won’t understand why we do them and therefore won’t know why violating them is bad. This unquestionability aspect of God as moral authority or the Strict Constructionists as law-makers is what makes them particularly dangerous and leads to prejudice and ignorance. Our moral code must therefore be based on empirical research, with every rule being subject to intense scrutiny (think of two-year-olds who keep asking, “but why?”).

But why should we have a moral code in the first place? Perhaps if everyone followed a moral code of some sort, the world would have fewer injustices and atrocities. Getting people to follow a moral code of any kind is a completely different issue.

Sam Harris gets it wrong.

Nonhuman Personhood for Dolphins

Cetacean Cognition

Mirror Self –Recognition in Dolphins

Witches are immoral and should be burned

Connectomics is the name. Connections are the game.

You are unique, just like everyone else. Connectomics is the study of the structural and functional connections among brain cells; its product is the "connectome," a detailed map of those connections. The idea is that such information will be monumental in our understanding of the healthy and diseased brain. Sebastian Seung thinks that a complete connectome of the human brain will be one of the great prizes in 21st-century neuroscience.

Efforts to construct brain connectomes are split into two categories: ones that use imaging techniques like MRI, PET, and DT, thus focusing on macroscopic connections or tracts; and those that use electron microscopy to map the tinniest of axons (0.2-20 microns in diameter) and individual synapses.

While this may sound daunting, it also seems the obvious thing to do in order to really understand how the brain works. After all, don’t all our memories, personalities, and behaviors dependent on the structure of the brain, down to the microscopic level? So why is connectomics so new? Because the three-pound enigma that can contemplate all things big and small – from protons and electrons, to planets and stars, to galaxies and the whole universe – contains more parts than anything we’ve ever studied before. The human brain, we’ve been told, holds 100 billion neurons, with close to one quadrillion synaptic connections total; storing all of that information in one brain would take one Exabyte of data (that’s one trillion Gigabytes).

Jeff Lichtman and colleages at Harvard remain hopeful. They are developing novel tools to automate the tedious task of scanning brain slices. They expect the connectome to reveal differences in the way healthy and diseased brains are wired.

The effort is laudable, considering its scope and ambition, but it begs the question: does all behavior, experience, perception, etc depend on the structure of synapses and connectivity of neurons? More pointedly, does structure determine all function – chemical and electrical? Sure, larger synapses or more dendritic spines make stronger connections and more efficient transmission of information, but a snap-shot connectome won’t take into account temporal dynamics and enzymatic processes, which play a big role in the active brain.

In his TED talk, Sebastian Seung says that to test the hypothesis that “I am my connectome,” we could try to read out memories from someone’s connectome. But memories are not just synaptic connections – they are also assemblies of neurons in time or firing sequence. The connectome does not take those into account. And Seung fails to explain how we could actually verify any of those personal memories, since current methods of constructing a connectome involve cutting the brain into thousands of 30-micron slices.

If we could devise some non-invasive methods to construct a human connectome at the synapse level, what ethical issues would we face? Could a personal connectome be the ultimate breach of privacy? Could it redefine or “undefine” what we consider to be normal brains/mental states?

Constructing a comprehensive human connectome is a great challenge. A bigger challenge would be to model the electrical dynamics of the 100 billion human neurons. But perhaps the most important quest for neuroscience isn’t building a connectome, but learning how neuronal activity creates experience.

Neurocartography - Narayanan Kasthuri and Jeff Lichtman via NIH Public Access

Sebastian Seung: I am my connectome -

Seeking the Connectome, a Mental Map, Slice by Slice -