Ode to the Brain: Encephalon 51st edition now out!

Welcome to the 51st edition of the brain carnival, Encephalon.

25 little gems,
on the mind and the brain-
aren’t they one and the same!

SharpBrains sets the tone for this edition of the Encephalon with a collection of 25 haikus contributed by its readers- all with either the brain or the mind as their guiding theme. While each haiku present there is unique and worth a read, the allusion above to ‘aren’t they one and the same’ has more to do with the ‘mind and the brain’ part — is the age-old dichotomy still relevant; do we still need a mind when we are increasingly comfortable talking in terms of the brain?

Daniel from Neuranthropology examines this age-old dichotomy from a Critical Neurosciences perspective and argues that instead of trying to resolve this dichotomy, one should focus instead, on the new paradigms, methods and approaches that become available when one tries to explain mental phenomenon in neural terms. The other two aspects of Critical Neuroscience he highlights are how ideology may influence the (neuro) science and how the new neuroscience should be a science for change- actively taking responsibility for the impact that new findings bring about.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

Continuing with the mind-brain theme, is it plausible that the reason we focus so much on the dichotomy is just because we have a separate name for the mind from the brain? Dennett seems to think so for consciousness- he believes that just because we have invented a unitary name for that inner-subjective-feel phenomena that may be a result of diverse neural phenomena, we are tricked into believing that we have a unitary consciousness. This trickery or illusion is accomplished by a Magical sleight of hand- that of giving a name to an un-existing phenomenon. Vaughan, over at The Mind Hacks, illustrates this beautifully using a card trick called ‘The Tuned Deck’ in which just attributing a magical tuning property to ‘the’ deck leads to even seasoned magicians getting dumb-founded as they try to discover a single concept behind the many diverse tricks that are used to create that trickery. So it seems that naming something a rose endows it with an essence that was not earlier present!

Oh sweet memory,
my heart breaks deep inside.
Oh sweet memory,
it’s you I’m trying to hide.
Mahfooz Ali

While a rose may or may not smell sweet, depending on whether it is given a name or not, we all know too well the association between sweet and memories. But I bet you didn’t knew that there was another angle to this association between sweet and memories. Latest research indicates that moderate increases in blood sugar levels can lead to better short-term memory. Jeniifer Gibson, from The BrainBlogger, highlights this recent research and cautions that those who have better blood sugar regulation, do better cognitively and that high levels of baseline blood sugar are associated with reduced hippocampal volume and reduced cognitive functioning. So do control your intake of sugar-and don’t use this as a pretext to indulge your sweet cravings- after all research such as this keeps indicating that Alzheimer’s may just be a type-III diabetes!!.

“Where is our Safe Haven?”
“Where do we hide?”
“Up ahead is a church still standing!
I’d better hurry, and get inside.”

While it may be difficult to hide one’s memories, it is very easy for us to spot a hiding place- a safe haven, a nest. Is the same true of mice- do they have ‘concepts’ and ‘categories’ – like the ‘nest’- built-up / learned in their brains? Doctor Spurt at Effortless Incitement revisits a PNAS paper, that had been widely discussed at its time of publication, regarding whether mice encode concepts like nests using its hippocampal neurons. He finds evidence for three such type of neurons and comes out convinced ready to take on all Heideggereans!

No man is an island, entire of itself..
..any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind
John Donne

You may prefer to be confined to your safe haven or your own private island, but research shows that humans, in general, are extremely social and empathetic- determined to get inside each others’ mind- and sometimes on each others nerves! but what about those, who have a diminished ‘theory of mind’? Doc at the Mind, Soul and Body blog describes people with Asperger’s syndrome and how they may lack some of the core prerequisites for discerning other peoples minds- deficits in recognizing faces, interpreting non-verbal cues and figurative languages and reduced empathy. He also takes stock of leading theories of why this difference may be – from inability to ignore sensory stimulus to the ever ubiquitous mirror neurons!

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?

Fair or not, Mirror Neurons have been around for quite some time and have been credited with everything from Global Warming to US economic woes. Marc Dingman, at the Neuroscientifically Challenged, challenges this hegemony of Mirror Neurons, and though does not outright dismisses them, is sure that they would be replaced soon by neuronal groups called convergence-divergence zones (CDZs).Have we already come full circle? Would a mirror by any other name still keep us trapped? Before we jump to conclusions, we ought to read that well written piece about the latest Antonia Damasio paper in Nature, and appreciate that non-local CDZs with which the mirror neurons are to be replaced, are a neuronal circuit- and that too not specific to or linked to imitation. Rather, it is a higher-order association area are where many local CDZs inputs converge and which may subsequently reactivate those local CDZs when one aspect of the older experience is re experienced.

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,
How to divide the conquest of thy sight;
Mine eye my heart thy picture’s sight would bar,
My heart mine eye the freedom of that right.

Talking of debunking something-anything-one should not forget the Neurocritic. After all, it is his prerogative to criticize and thrash the Junk science. I’m sure Neurocritic would agree with Marc in debunking the Autism-is-due-to-mirror-neurons theory, but this time he is busy analyzing the gazes of people with Autism (hypo social), Williams syndrome (hyper social) and normal children especially how much time and which portions of a social scene do these different populations focus on. He finds that indeed the eye may have a will of its own and tracking it may reveal some of our inner dynamics. He reviews recent research that found that children with Williams syndrome spend more time looking at faces (and in that too on eyes); while the opposite pattern was observed for those with Autism. This Area of Interest had a statistically significant interaction with the group type (Autism, Williams, normal). However the most important takeaway from the study (which one of the commentators pointed and Neurocritc too concurred) was that ‘normal’ children spent a significant time staring at the breasts of the lady in the picture!!

“The brain is my second favorite organ”
Woody Allen

While many psychologist do not hesitate in advising on how to keep your first favorite organ in shape; other saner folks are more concerned about how to exercise your second favorite organ’s muscles and what the emerging trends are. Alvaro at the SharpBrains blog lists the top 10 emerging trends in the brain fitness market and asks for other predictions – offering a free The State of the Brain Fitness Software Market 2008, for the best prediction/ comment. The trends he documents range from low tech computer software to involvement of doctors and pharmacists, insurance agencies and corporate wellness and leadership groups.

Man is the flying eagle, Woman, the singing nightingale.
To fly is to conquer space. To sing is to conquer the Soul.
Man is a temple, Woman a shrine.
Before the temple we discover ourselves, before the shrine we kneel.
In short, man is found where earth finishes, woman where heaven begins.
Victor Hugo

That brings us to the all important question of whether all those who would be spearheading this brain fitness revolution would have our best interests in mind. When big money like Insurance companies, pharmacists (drug companies) and corporates get involved, there is potential for dishing out the Neurotosh, Neurodosh and Nuerodash i.e. tosh or junk science, dosh or big money and dash or corruption all dressed up with a Neuro salad. While brain fitness movement may still be nascent and free of all such corrupting influences, Daniel at the Neuroanthropolgy blog found that this was the current state of affairs with respect to some practitioners of Neuroscience like Louann Brizendine the author of The Female Brain. Reporting from Montreal Critical Neurosciences conference he unearthed evidence of drug company linkages of Louann and how she twisted and over exaggerated the sexual differences in the brain to advocate her own interests.

I shall not sing a May song.
A May song should be gay.
I’ll wait until November
And sing a song of gray.

I’ll wait until November
That is the time for me.
I’ll go out in the frosty dark
And sing most terribly.

And all the little people
Will stare at me and say,
“That is the Crazy Woman
Who would not sing in May.”
Gwendolyn Brooks

Greg over at the Neuroanthropology blog takes this line of argument one step further and looks at how psychiatrists like Prof. Joseph Biederman, who may also have dubious drug company linkages, nevertheless end up being an institution in themselves, and end up having a profound influence on how we conceive and label normalcy or difference. Specifically, Prof Biederman, was responsible for pushing the diagnosis of bipolairty in children and as a result has resulted in for-better-or-for-worse an overwhelming number of children who are now diagnosed with the illness. Does labeling them as bipolar introduce new dynamics in their interaction with parents and peers? What about the lasting effects the anti-psychotics would have during the critical developmental periods? Would this grip of psychiatry in this case, or the just-so evolutionary psychology stories that one readily accepts to rationalize ones prejudices in other cases, over our discourse really good or is it leading to a harmful effect? He leaves us with many more questions than answers! While we normally tend to turn a deaf ear to such songs of gloom, it is important that we heed the warning and at least not label the doomsayer a ‘crazy woman’!

Lastly if you are wondering how you got that headache – it has nothing to do with this ode to the brain. It is because you just ate freezing ice-cream – it has lead to a freezing sensation and to a condition called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. Now, if reading the name of the condition itself leads to a headache don’t blame me. Jokes apart, Waynekid Kam, from the BrainBlogger, describes this condition and explains how eating ice-cream could lead to headaches. Now, if you find the prospect of eating ice-cream a little too unpalatable, you are welcome to send all your ice-cream money to my way- I don’t mind the headaches – or the ice-creams!

That’s all for this edition folks! Do keep sending in your submissions to encephalon.host@gmail.com and it will be featured in the next edition due 19 August at Ouroboros.

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2 thoughts on “Ode to the Brain: Encephalon 51st edition now out!

  1. Doctor Spurt

    Thanks for including my nest-encoding piece. Gotta love that hippocampus. And I hope to do some more bashing of Heideggereans before too long.

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