Another SfN in the Books.

I just returned from the Society for Neuroscience 2018 meeting in San Diego. Attendance was down – I heard that only 23,000 attended (rather than the usual 29 – 30,000), but I have not confirmed this. Good talks, good science, but not all is perfect.

Foreign attendance was down, at least in part due to Trump’s travel restrictions. Not only does he fail to accept science, he stands in the way of scientific progress.

Eight current Albion students attended with me. We met with Nick Singletary, a grad student at Columbia University, to get his perspective on life in grad school, and with Debbie Bangasser (Temple U.) to get the perspective of a professor who oversees grad students. Both meetings were useful. 

I hosted a get-together for Albion’s neuroscience alums; a good time was had by all, but sadly only five could attend. At least two others were at the meeting; in the past we’ve had more than 10 alums at the event.

And a highlight for me is getting to see Alice Powers (Stonybrook U.), my first psychology prof ever. She continues to examine learning in turtles, this year demonstrating that neurogenesis in what passes for a turtle’s hippocampus plays a role in learning. By the time I graduated from college in 1977 she was my friend, and I am glad I can call her a friend this many years later. 

Albion Neuro Alums and current students. From left: Amanda Blaker, me, Amanda (Tilot) Komoru, Emily Stephens, Megan Anderson Brooks, Irene Corona, Nicole (Ferrara) Clark, Haley McQuown, Brandon Gary.

Other highlights for me:

  • Seeing many other friends whom I’ve known for decades in some cases, a few years in others. 
  • Meeting a few new friends with shared interests (Alexxai), or just through odd happenstance (Heike).
  • Having the Med Associates representative remember me and my work with earthworms, and want to pick my brain about it.
  • Reeling as always at the growth of FUN (Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience), which rose from its humble beginnings in 1991 to become a powerful force in undergraduate education, hosting a poster session with 172 posters presented by undergrads, and giving away thousands of dollars in travel awards.
  • Checking in with my friends Tim and Greg at Backyard Brains to see what new and innovative projects they’ve developed.

Chronistic Serendipity

Much is made of the importance of serendipity to scientific discovery. Here are some well-known examples:

  • Roentgen’s discovery of x-rays.

    Antenna used by Penzias & Wilson

  • Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity.
  • Hoffmann’s accidental first trip on LSD.
  • Fleming’s discovery of penicillin.
  • Bell’s discovery of pulsars.
  • Penzias and Wilson’s discovery of cosmic background radiation.

All of these “accidental” findings resulted from trained minds being capable of recognizing something unusual and unexpected as worthy of further study. I argue that all of these breakthroughs would have occurred at some point–these folks simply happened to notice them. There was nothing special about the time when the discovery occurred, except that the technology had been developed that allowed it to happen. Once that technology existed, the discovery was inevitable.

However, I suggest that an important discovery in neuroscience–so important that it led to a Nobel Prize–occurred in large measure because of the time when the research was done. The technology that allowed it did not exist a few decades earlier, and a few decades later the technology had changed to the point that the discovery would not have occurred. I’m talking about Hubel and Wiesel’s discovery of the receptive fields of visual cells in the brain’s cortex.

These neuroscientists found that the simplest visual stimulus that activates cells in our cortex is a line, in a particular place and oriented a particular way. Even Hubel has admitted that the discovery was accidental. Cells in the retina and thalamus were known to respond to spots of light (or dark), so Hubel and Wiesel were shining all sorts of spots in front of their anesthetized cats in a failing effort to make the cortical cells fire. 

The scientists used spots painted on glass slides, which were moved around in a projector and displayed on a projection screen in front of the cat. The cortical cells did not respond to the spots, but when the edge of the glass slide moved through the projector, casting a faint line on the screen, a cell responded.  Hubel and Wiesel realized that cortical cells respond not to dots or spots, but to lines, as a result of this accidental finding.

So what was special about this point in time, the 1950s, that allowed this discovery? It is almost certain that, had they done this work in the 1980s or later, they would not have used a glass slide in a projector. Instead, it is likely that they would have used a computer to generate the spots and move them around on a screen in front of the cat. What’s missing in the scenario? The edge of the glass slide. No glass slide, no edge, no line presented to the cat. Their serendipitous finding that cells respond to lines would not have occurred.

The discovery of the nature of the receptive fields of visual cortical neurons rested on the scientists doing the work not after a particular point in time, but in a particular time window. This is an example of chronistic serendipity. I would love to hear examples of others if someone can identify any. Post them as comments below.

Amusing Facebook Juxtapositions

Facebook uses an algorithm to determine what to display on your newsfeed. It is proprietary, and designed to keep you on the page so that you consume the ads that are thrown at you. Occasionally this algorithm places items next to each other that, while not amusing in their own right, become amusing because of their proximity. Over the past several years I have collected examples of such juxtapositions – many appear here. Please note that an “amusing” juxtaposition does not necessarily mean that either item by itself is “funny” — it simply means that in my opinion their adjacency made me think or smile. 

Great Meeting!

The Pavlovian Society held its annual meeting in Iowa City, Oct 4-6, 2018. Pres. John Freeman put together an excellent program–fabulous talks spanning the breadth of learning. Here are a few photos:

Thoughts on Grad School Admission

[10/10/2018 – It’s been a while – worth moving to the top of the page.]

[10/20/2012 – I now realize that the students who most need to read this are unlikely to do so because it won’t be on the test.]

Occasionally interactions with students remind me of advice that should be given to everyone who hopes to go to graduate or professional school.  Maybe posting my thoughts here will help someone.

  1. Admission to graduate/medical/law/business/etc school is not a right; nobody is guaranteed admission.
  2. Good grades do not get you admitted.  In fact, other than getting the grad/etc program to look at your application, grades are unimportant.
  3. Good test scores (GRE, MCAT, LSAT…) are also largely unimportant other than getting you a second look.
  4. Re-read points 2 & 3 above.  Go ahead; I’ll wait…
  5. OK – here’s the story on good grades and test scores: if you don’t have them you won’t be considered – if you do have them you will be considered, but not on the basis of the grades or test scores.
  6. You have to provide the admissions committee with something that differentiates you from the other applicants with good grades and test scores.  They will learn why they should admit you via the letters that are written on your behalf.
  7. They will also learn from your letters why they should stop considering you.
  8. Letters are critical.

Consider this in your interactions with professors.  You will need to ask some small number of professors for letters – it would be best if these people thought highly of you.  When I write a letter for a student aiming for grad school, I consider whether this is a student I am comfortable sending to work with a friend.  If the answer is “no” then I cannot write a strong letter.  When I write a letter for a student aiming for med school, I consider whether this is someone I would like to find looking down at me when I regain consciousness in the emergency room.  If the answer is “no” then I cannot write a strong letter.

My letter will address your academic abilities, of course, but it will also address aspects of your character that are not apparent in your transcript:

  • Are you responsible?
  • Are you thoughtful?
  • Are you pleasant?
  • Are you polite?
  • Are you interested in learning or just in getting grades?

These are the things that will matter in grad school.  You have to be able to play nicely with others in order to succeed in science; a 4.o GPA is no assurance of this.  If you want me to write a strong letter for you then do not do any of these things:

  • Make an appointment with me then fail to show up (OK – I understand that stuff happens, so in the event of something unavoidable at least act as if you realize that I was inconvenienced).
  • “Grub” for grades.  Yes – it is certainly fine to ask for clarification if you don’t understand why you missed points on something, but it is not fine to argue that you deserve a point simply because a word in your answer matches a word in a related paragraph in the text.  Meaning derives from the combination of words, not from one word.  And think about it this way: is the additional point that you might get worth alienating the person whom you will ask to write a letter for you?
  • Fail to be polite.  A simple “please” or “thank you” goes a long way.  Your profs are here to help you, of course, and we like to do it.  However, our time is valuable, and meeting you outside of class time or office hours takes us away from other things that we need to do.  Acknowledge this.
  • Turn in papers or assignments late.  You will not get leniency in this regard in the real world: if you miss a grant application deadline, or the deadline for submission of your work to a professional meeting, you have missed it, and will simply have to wait until next time.
  • Be a jerk (’nuff said).

To end on a positive note, let me point out behaviors or characteristics that will lead to a strong positive letter:

  • Express interest and curiosity in the world.
  • Strive for understanding rather than for grades.
  • Read.
  • Treat people with respect.

If you do these things, you will be maximizing the chances that you will gain admission to grad school.

[You might also want to read this or oher thoughts on success organized here – similar but with slightly different emphasis.]

“Engram” – When I’m wrong, I admit it.

For as long as I can remember, when I have introduced students to the concept of the “engram,” or “memory-trace”–the change in the nervous system that encodes a memory–I have told them that the word was coined by Karl Lashley. Lashley spent a career, well over 30 years, searching for the engram, an effort described in one of his later papers, The Search for the Engram (1950), in which he famously concluded (with tongue firmly implanted in cheek) that “learning just is not possible.” Basically, he was unable to find the engram.

I learned at the recent meeting of the Pavlovian Society that I have been wrong for all these years. The term “engram” was coined by Richard Semon, an evolutionary biologist and physiologist. His work is little known, as are most of the other memory-relates words that he coined, but “engram” is still going strong.

Apologies to the many students I have misled.

It’s a Multi-Cultural World

I felt the need to post this after reading numerous posts on Facebook that are racist in the view of most people, but that are not acknowledged as such by the posters. No matter how you personally feel about it, most people view someone using the n-word as racist. Yes, I recognize that there are comics, rappers, hip-hop artists, and a few others who have artistic license to use the word in a manner viewed more as trying to reclaim the word rather than to demean, but they are the exception. If you’re white and using the n-word to describe people that you don’t like, then you are racist.

Our world is multi-cultural, with people of all colors, all religions, all ethnicities, all national heritages…. It doesn’t matter what color you are, what god you worship, where your parents came from, whom you love, how rich or poor you are; what matters is your behavior – do you treat others with respect or not. There are good and bad people of all races, religions, cultures; you can’t stereotype people as good or bad, worthy of respect or not, based on how they look, whom they worship, whom they love, or where their grandparents lived.

If you fail to recognize the multi-cultural nature of the world, if you continue to judge people on the basis of superficial characteristics, you do yourself a great disservice. You cut yourself off from the majority of people who are not like you, and thereby cut yourself off from many people who could help you to grow, offer you employment, become your friends, and generally enrich your life.  The racist will always find similar-minded people who form his circle of friends, but that circle will be much smaller than it could be.

My Gender Posts

Here are two posts I’ve made relating to gender.

Bathroom Wars


I wish the bigots who feel it’s their job to dictate the gender and sexuality of other people would learn some science, or at least recognize that their privileged position does not give them the authority to judge.

Reflections… My Origins, and How They Influenced my Kids

As I’m about to see my youngest graduate from high school and head out into the world, I’m thinking about the people they’ve become, the forces that shaped them, and in turn the forces that shaped me. If you know me, you know that I am socially and politically liberal, and an atheist. I like to think that I act against perceived injustice, that I care about others, and that I try to treat everyone with respect (respect is the default – you don’t have to earn it, but it is yours to lose). I also know that I can be lazy and somewhat of a slob, but I’m focusing on the positive here.

My Dad was an older father – he was ~50 when I was born (I was 44 when Natalie and Nick were born). He traveled a lot for his job (manufacturer’s representative) and struggled with alcoholism for much of the time that I knew him; this contributed to his suicide when I was 14. I saw him expressing curiosity about the mundane; in his travels he frequently stopped at businesses that caught his attention just to see what it was that they did, befriending plant managers and seeing the shop floors. He often came home with samples (I got many plastic model kits as a result of this). He went out of his way to help others; two examples: my school needed bleachers for the soccer fields and he arranged to have the metal supports forged (cast? welded?) and probably provided the 2x12s that served as the bench seats; when my school put in a weight room, he knew about an abandoned foundry that had cast weights, and arranged for us to go in and salvage multiple weight sets (or maybe we trespassed and stole them, but I believe the former). He was politically on the right–we hosted a big barbecue as a fundraiser for Nixon’s 1960 campaign (I still remember the 3-foot portrait of Nixon that confronted me every time I went into our attic after that)–and he struggled with racial equality (I think he recognized it and tried to embrace it, but he came from a time when it was not the norm). When he and my Mom first married they bought a huge abandoned and overgrown mansion, which he then made livable and beautiful with lots of sweat equity; I still commune with him when I do yard work. Sadly the house fell into disrepair after his death, but has been restored as a bed-and-breakfast.

Dad gave me an appreciation of the value of hard work, and of the work done by other people, as well as a willingness to help others.

My Mom was a strong advocate of education, although she had only been able to afford one year of college thanks to a generous community scholarship. It was a given, from the time my brother and I were very young, that we would go to college, and our best friend, one of seven kids in his family, was the only one of his siblings to go to college (he attributes this to her influence).

Mom leaned to the left politically and socially; I remember her volunteering at the Crispus Attucks Planned Parenthood Center in Lancaster’s 7th Ward during the 1960s, helping to bring family planning and women’s health care to some of the city’s poorest. She bought four newspapers every Sunday (local Lancaster paper, and the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Washington Post) and read all of them by the following Sunday. She and my Dad had furnished our house with some beautiful antiques by attending auctions, and my brother and I spent much time hanging out at both estate sales and at their favorite established auction houses. It was on our way home from one of these in 1964 or 65 that I recall her pulling over to the side of the road to listen to Pres. Johnson discuss the expansion of US involvement in Vietnam; she cried, knowing the implications for her young sons and the other young men of our country.
Following Dad’s death in 1969 Mom started working outside of the home for the first time in my experience – for several years as the personal assistant to a wealthy older lady in Lancaster, then as a secretary for the local Magistrate (Justice of the Peace); she worked for him until she retired. My brother and I lived far away, so she was alone (with her dog Blue) in that big house, becoming more and more socially isolated and drinking too heavily. Health issues, primarily related to diabetes, got her into the health-care community, resulting in her resettling to a nursing home–probably a great thing for her because the social isolation was gone. She moved to a home in Las Vegas to be near my brother, and spent the last 8(?) years of her life there, enjoying life. She befriended many people, including the Mayor (Oscar Goodman) when they both attended a Seder; I met him at her memorial service in 2006.

Religiously Mom was a deep thinker. She came from a Lutheran upbringing (my Grandmother was an organist in the Lutheran Church in Hughesville PA for more than 40 years) and as a child I attended Lutheran services. My parents were troubled by perceived hypocrisy, and started going to a Unitarian Church, where I spent my teen years. This church was all about social activism in the 1960s and I felt comfortable with that; I was also comfortable with the Unitarian perspective on a questioning approach to God.

Mom gave me the desire for education, my political leaning, and my willingness to question authority, religious and otherwise.

So–my high school seniors, soon-to-be-graduates… how did they become who they are. It’s clear that home values are instilled in children. They reflect both their Mom Jenny and me, but I see in them much of what I got from my parents. I would like to think that my Mom and Dad would be proud and approving of the young adults that Natalie and Nick have become.

Conservative Brains Fear More – Liberal Brains Question More

I’ll be musing, and probably over-simplifying and over-generalizing, here. Some recent studies have suggested interesting brain differences between liberals and conservatives:

  • The amygdala, an area associated with fear-related behavior, is larger in conservatives, and
  • The anterior cingulate cortex, associated with error detection, is larger in liberals.





Conservatives are more likely to fear that something bad will happen: Obama (or, now, The Government, or The Kids, or The Left) is going to take away all the guns. Big amygdala -> more fear. (Apologies to Joe LeDoux for stating it this way.)  This is felt and expressed with certainty by people who identify themselves as members of the “patriot movement.”  Small anterior cingulate cortex -> less recognition that there might be an error.


Liberals lack this fear, and despite the view of the “patriots” neither do they fear guns. They might fear the proliferation of guns and the resulting easy access by irresponsible people, but not the guns as inanimate objects. Smaller amygdala -> less fear. The course of action that should be taken is, however, far less clear and certain to the liberals, with regard to the gun issue or any other complicated matter.  Larger anterior cingulate cortex -> more doubt.

My phrenological analysis is too simplistic and no doubt full of errors (my large anterior cingulate cortex talking). Nonetheless I think there is some value in considering neurologic underpinnings of political positions. 


WordPress Themes