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Brains, Mysterious Particles and More Brains

September 15th, 2010 by Jessika

(Photo by The unnamed via Flickr)

This week several of the things I read and listened to seemed to have a common theme: brains. Well, I suppose that’s not exactly what these pieces were about. But they all had something to do with the mind, human and non-human. The lone odd ball in the group was a story about “elusive particles,” particles that are believed to hold clues about the beginning of the Universe. So, I suppose even those particles have to do with the brain since they are everywhere and involved with the creation of us all. (Okay, I know that’s a stretch. But it’s the best I’ve got at the moment.)

At any rate, this post will briefly discuss each of these pieces, fleshing out the concepts from each.

Human

Human The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique is a fascinating look at some of the most fundamental questions about the human mind. In this book, Michael Gazzaniga addresses questions that continue to puzzle scientists. We [humans] know we are unique. But “how unique are we, and how are we unique?”

It’s a little weird to think that the only things separating the human brain from other brains are its size and how all of the neurons and synapses interact. The building blocks in the human brain are the same as in a mouse brain or a pig brain. That thought would definitely scare a lot of people. Humans tend to be rather elitist. We think that we are better than any other creature. But that thinking leads to problems, including the mistreatment of animals. When the evolutionary link between primates and humans was first proposed, many people did not react well. Some people still don’t react well to this idea. So, imagine what their reaction would be if they knew how similar we were to even smaller animals, like the rat or the pig.

Gazzaniga’s book made me want to keep reading. His writing style was very easy to follow, and he used some great illustrations to get his point across. My favorite was how he described scientists chipping away at the idea of uniqueness.

“Scientists are like a dog with a bone,” Gazzaniga wrote. “They keep gnawing away, and sense is being made.”

After reading this, I immediately pictured scientists laying on the ground chewing on a rawhide. It also made me think of scientists fighting each other for that bone. Scientists always seem to battle for recognition.

Particles

This battle to be the best is also seen in KC Cole’s article “Fun with Physics.” The piece focuses on Janet Conrad, a physicist on the hunt to confirm one of the most elusive particles. Conrad belongs to a boys club, a club of male scientists who still harbor some resentment for women in the field. And Conrad is not just any woman. She is young (in her 30s in the article), accomplished, tenured, and, through it all, she keeps her femininity.

She convinced Columbia University to finance her experiment to the tune of $1 million. Columbia’s money has helped Conrad study neutrinos, which Cole describes this way: “But physicists had noticed that when radioactive atoms spat out electrons and transformed into other kinds of atoms, some of the original energy appeared to be missing.” That missing energy is neutrinos, which are known to exist in three forms. Conrad, however, is trying to prove the existence of a fourth form, dubbed a sterile neutrino.

By the time the piece was published, Conrad’s project began detecting neutrinos. But nothing definitive could be concluded yet. It’s now more than seven years later, and I would love to read a follow up on Conrad. Did she find sterile neutrinos? Did she complete her experiment? Are there more women physicists now? How many women has she inspired to study physics?

My list of questions goes on. I did learn a great deal from the article, though, despite all of the questions it left me with. Perhaps the most important was the power of a good quote and description.

Cole used many quotes that made Conrad come alive, and added layer after layer to her. For example, another female physicist describes Conrad as a person who “‘can tell you you’re wrong without telling you you’re stupid.'” While this detail may not seem to mean all that much, it tells so much about who Conrad is. Conrad knows how to talk to people. She knows how to persuade. Her ability to charm has definitely helped her get to where she is, and it will definitely help her in the future. It’s the details like this that make me want to keep reading.

More Brains

This brings me to an article that also used details to characterize a woman.

“‘Delusions of Gender’ argues that faulty science is furthering sexism” is a very brief book review of Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender. Wray Herbert’s review of the book did make me want to read it. But I couldn’t help but be a little skeptical of Fine and her ideas. Herbert characterizes her as a bit extreme, going to great lengths to prove her point and discredit authors of “neurononsense.” Fine even went so far as to take another person’s book and check all of its references.

Neurononsense, Herbert explains, is the idea that today’s advances in technology may not turn out to be anything more than misinterpretations of what’s really there. For example, the colorful images from fMRI brain scans are not based on real-time data. The colors are applied to the image after the data is interpreted. Fine says this data is ambiguous and can be interpreted in many different ways. This data, according to Fine, is sometimes used to make assumptions about the way men and women make decisions. These assumptions can then lead to what fine calls “neurosexism” where differences between male and female brains are used to justify cultural biases against women. Fine also points to many other examples of “neurosexism” past and present.

The whole concept of “neurosexism” is interesting. If Fine’s arguments are indeed accurate (and not skewed by her agenda), then all of the advances in neuroscience could be a bunch of hooey. That has tremendous implications.

Do we really know anything about how the human brain works? Do we really know any more than the earliest neurologists?

Even More Brains (And a Little Bit Extra)

I also came across the human brain in one other place this week.

The September 10 edition of the BBC’s Science In Action podcast. This was my first time listening to the podcast, and I found it much more interesting than I had imagined. In the 26 minute episode, they discussed multiple findings and experiments. But they spent enough time on each topic for the listener to fully grasp what was being described.

The human brain came into play when they began talking about an experiment that looked at child and adult brains. The study found that by the age of 7 a child’s brain is the same size as that of a 30 year old. Decision making patterns were the only difference. In children, it showed their decision making didn’t happen in one centralized location. The brain activated all over the place. On the other hand, decision making in adults occurred primarily in one spot. After hearing this, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some bias in the interpretation of the data. Was there some “neuroageism” going on?

Another experiment they talked about dealt with markers for extinction. A group of researchers discovered that before a population reaches its tipping point, the population expresses a few signs that it is near extinction. The issue with this experiment, however, is that it was done in a controlled environment, in conditions that are unlikely to occur in the naturally. The population was also very small. So, the question is will these researchers’ findings translate into the real world? If it does, we may be able to prevent the extinction of entire species.

One of the best things about this program is the ability of the show’s host, Jon Stewart, to ask the important questions. (I have no idea if these questions are scripted or not. But, regardless, they help move the interviews forward.) For example, at the end of his interview with the researcher studying extinction, he asked about real world applications. This question is so important. But not many people would necessarily think to ask this. Stewart also manages to make the interviews seem like conversations, eliminating scientific jargon as much as possible. That’s no easy feat when talking to scientists.

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