NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Blood Science, Part 7 [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

[This is Part 7, the final installment of my original short story "Blood Science" - a tongue-in-cheek look at a scientist trying to write Science Fiction and Fantasy from a logical perspective.  See the "Coming Soon" tab above for more on the upcoming schedule, including the return to The Lab Rats Guide to the Brain.]

A notice popped up on Bob's computer.  Sara was online and wanted to talk about the story.  Bob opened the messenger client and began to type.

(17:41:13) DrBob09:  Here.

Announcing yourself on the chat manager was usually polite.  Announce then wait for a response.  Sara came back almost immediately, she had been expecting him, after all, she had requested the dialog after he sent the manuscript. 

    (17:41:42) SWriter: There.

That was another custom of theirs.  Bob usually tried to start a conversation with a pun or joke.  Fortunately Sara usually got it and sometimes beat him to the punchline. 

    (17:42:18) SWriter: You named her MARY SUE?????

It was a bad joke about bad writers and fan fiction.  'Mary Sue's' were thinly disguised versions of the writer him (or her)self.

    (17:42:53) DrBob09:  Sure, you kept telling me my characters were all Mary Sues
    (17:43:26) DrBob09:  and you bet I couldn't write seriously about vampires
    (17:43:37) DrBob09:  because I'm a scientist.
    (17:43:48) DrBob09:  So I wrote logically,
    (17:43:59) DrBob09:  but not too seriously,
    (17:45:21) DrBob09:  and I named her Mary Sue.

It took a couple minutes for Sara's reply to come back.

    (17:48:04) SWriter: LOL
    (17:48:12) SWriter: You are a BAD man!
    (17:48:39) SWriter: And I mean that in a nice way.

Bob decided that deserved Sara's usual reply: 'LOL' – the email and messaging abbreviation for 'Laughing out Loud'.

    (17:49:17) DrBob09:  LOL

After a few minutes without a return message, Bob typed.

    (17:56:34) DrBob09:  Gotta go. 
    (17:56:40) DrBob09:  Trish is waiting.
    (17:56:47) DrBob09:  Tired
    (17:56:53) DrBob09:  Didn't sleep well.
    (17:57:05) DrBob09:  Tell you about it later.
    (17:57:17) DrBob09:  'night.

Sara responded:

    (17:57:43) SWriter:  Do.
    (17:57:48) SWriter:  Tell.
    (17:57:54) SWriter:  But later.
    (17:58:06) SWriter:  get some rest
    (17:58:21) SWriter:  Say Hi to Trish for me.
    (17:58:40) SWriter:  'night.

They both signed off and Bob shut down the programs he'd been using on the computer.  He was glad to have the story complete.  Once Sara had looked at it, he'd consider where to send it.  For now he didn't want to even think about vampires and scientists.  Maybe his next story would be about lumberjacks or car mechanics.

As Bob was packing up to go home, he saw John walk past his office door.

"I thought I told you to stay home."

"Sorry, Boss.  But I'm feeling much better, now.  Keisha gave me one of her herbal remedies."

"Herbal remedies from a Goth?  You trust it?"

"Naw, she's not like that.  She's a nice girl."

"I know, just kidding, but I heard she and Nigel were sick, too.  Back in my day that usually meant wild parties with illicit substances."

"Yes, yes, and you walked to class barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways.  It's not like that.  We were at a pizza place with other students.  Nigel, Keisha and I shared a pizza.  It must have been bad pepperoni."

"Okay.  Fine.  Just so you're well for Comps next week.  You've got your evening exam.  It seems that Pathology and Biochem have had to start doing the same thing.  Must be something in the water."

"Or in the blood."

"Huh?  What?  What was that?"

"Oh, nothing, just a night crew joke.  Don't worry.  I'll be ready."

"You'd better.  I lost one student early in my career to bad Comps.  Bright kid, couldn't take comprehensive exams worth a damn.  I hated to see him go."

"You worry too much, Dr. Bob.  I've gotta get downstairs and start testing the rats.  MaƱana."

"Yeah.  Tomorrow.  No, tomorrow's Saturday.  Give the rats the weekend off.  Rest up, and study.  Watch the 'Buffy" marathon on Sunday.  'See you Monday."   

"Buffy?  I'll pass.  Nope, vampire hunters aren't for me.  Too much blood."

"Oh sure, says the guy with fifteen units of blood in his fridge."

"What?  How do you know about that?" John said, a bit too quickly. 

"Well, I had to sign for it.  Dr. Tepes will be looking for it.  Compartment B-3.  Tell him not to drink it all at once."  Bob turned and left the office, then called back over his shoulder. "Oh, and you've got some ketchup on your chin, you might want to wipe that off or people will be thinking you drank the blood!"

As he turned the corner and headed for the lobby, Bob failed to notice the look of horror on John's face.  

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Blood Science, Part 6 [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

[This is Part 6 of my original short story "Blood Science" - a tongue-in-cheek look at a scientist trying to write Science Fiction and Fantasy from a logical perspective.  See the "Coming Soon" tab above for more on the upcoming schedule, including the return to The Lab Rats Guide to the Brain.]

"... What's he doing? Drinking it?" 

Bob looked up at Jen.  She tried to stifle a giggle, failed, and finally let it develop into full blown laughter.  Bob just stared.  She was getting short of breath from the laughter and gasped out:  "Drinking it?” Gasp. “Vlad the Impaler?” Cough. “Are you serious? Gasp. “You're serious!” Giggle. “That is so funny!"

Bob began to smile.  "Yeah, now that you mention it.  Maybe Vlad – I mean Emil, Geoff and the Night Crew students all got sick from drinking bad blood.  Oh!  Bad Blood.  Yeah, I gotta write that down.  Ha!  Great title, great story idea."

Recovering her composure Jeanette gathered up the signed papers and quickly retreated from the office, the occasional giggle still escaping between deep breaths. 

Good thing I don't have any impending deadlines, Bob thought.  Freshly inspired he brought up his short story on the word processor, erased the title and quickly rewrote the opening scene …

Bad Blood, a short story by Bob Edwards

"Van Helsing *never* had to deal with this," thought Prof. Mary Sue Robberts, author of "Blood Science: The Medical Truth about Vampires."

She looked around the blood bank.  "Vampires? You think vampires did this?"  Her glance took in the broken glass, overturned boxes, empty plastic IV bags and blood smeared over every surface.  She looked at the policeman in disbelief.  "Haven't *any* of you people read my book?"

It was late afternoon when he wrote the closing scene:

"So, they contaminated the blood and trashed the blood bank to force the vampires out in the open?" asked Inspector Gordon.

"Oh yes, the Twenty-first Century is oh so convenient for the modern vampire." Prof. Robberts couldn't pass up the chance to lecture. "Fresh blood comes in disposable bags.  No hunting and no risk of contracting a rare disfiguring disease.  Not to mention all of the intoxicants and drugs you find in the blood of 'nubile maidens' these days.  It's so civilized, but without the blood bank they had to get their blood the old fashioned way."

"So the trap was set, and now we have three less vampires in Triad City.  But who were the hunters?"

"We may never know.  An ancient order, at best guess.  We owe them a debt of gratitude whoever they are."

"We owe them a place in my jail" growled Gordon.  "There's no room for vigilantes in Triad City."

"Don't be so harsh, Inspector.  After all, you called me a vigilante when we first met." 

"Ah, but you're the prettiest vigilante I'd ever met."  Gordon stopped, embarrassed, and stared at his feet.  After a moment he cleared his throat. "Ah, I don't suppose you'd care to have a cup of coffee?"

"Why Inspector!  I never thought you'd ask!"   Robberts put her arm through Gordon's and steered him out the door.  "I know this great little diner that's open all night Thursday to Sunday…"

Bob breathed a sigh of relief, closed the file, opened an email window and quickly sent the manuscript off to Sara before he changed his mind and re-wrote the story for the third time.  

There was an email from Jen.  Dr. Rose had called in sick and asked if Bob would post a note for the class and refer him to the review material on his website.  Dr. Tepes would be in at six and thanked Bob for approving the transfer.  

[To be concluded, in the next installment of "Blood Science."]

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Blood Science, Part 5 [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

[This is Part 5 of my original short story "Blood Science" - a tongue-in-cheek look at a scientist trying to write Science Fiction and Fantasy from a logical perspective.  See the "Coming Soon" tab above for more on the upcoming schedule, including the return to The Lab Rats Guide to the Brain.]

Bob had the all-night talk and news station playing on the radio during the drive to work. Talk radio was usually not his preference, but his headache wouldn't tolerate music this early in the morning. 

It was one of those call-in shows dedicated to insomniac UFO abductees and conspiracy theorists.

"They're real, I tell you!  I looked in his window last week and he had a coffin instead of a bed."

"Thanks for calling, Helen, but why were you looking in his window in the first place?"

"Well, he's so creepy, ain't he?  Greasy hair, funny accent, says he's a professor.  Has few visitors, just some creepy looking college kids.  He only comes out at night and on rainy days, that's not normal!"

"I don’t know Helen, sounds normal for college kids to me.  Are you taking precautions?"

"Oh, yes.  I have the garlic over the doorway, a wooden stake by the bedside, and my Ned had a priest come over and sprinkle the holy water just like it says on the website.  Oh, and I only wear high-necked gowns."

"Very sensible Helen.  Right after the break folks, we've got Bill in South Dakota who says his cat was replaced by aliens.  Be right back."

Dramatic music played for about 5 seconds, then a familiar recording came on…

"Watch it in the evening, read about it in the morning, or Hear It Now on XVPR, News Talk for the Triad."

"This morning's top story, county health officials have ordered the recall of thousands of units of blood from area hospitals after discovering faulty storage units at the local blood bank. Three thousand homes in the Greene Park subdivision are still without power after last evening's thunderstorms, and area police are investigating a pair of suspicious deaths…"

Bob turned into the nearly empty parking lot, and switched off the car, silencing the news announcer in mid suspicion. He walked up to the front door of the building and used his Faculty badge to unlock the security door.  'Mike from Security' was on the phone at his desk and looked up in surprise.

"Oh, you're here already." he put down the phone. "I was just calling to tell you that John showed up about five minutes ago."

"He did?  Did he say where he'd been?"

"Just muttered something about a migraine.  He looked pretty pale."

"He always looks pale."

"Paler than normal.  He looked pretty sick, to me.  I told him you were coming in, but he said he'd take care of it."

"Okay.  I'll go check on him then head back home for a few more hours' sleep."


"It was just a breaker.  He'd already reset it.  So I sent him home, told him not to come back until tomorrow.  Then I checked the readouts on the other equipment and drove 20 minutes back home, only to get 2 hours sleep and be back here for the nine AM class.  That's why I could do with another cup of your fine coffee, Jen."

Jeannette was leaning against the door frame of Bob's office.  "Get it yourself.  Besides, you've got your own coffeepot."

"True, but I've only got a mild blend, too much acid otherwise.  You have truly Wake-the-Dead coffee!"

"Flatterer!  Did he say what it was?"

"He thinks it's either the flu or food poisoning."

"Really?  I've got messages from Nigel and Keisha to their advisors saying pretty much the same thing.  Either they had dinner together, or someone's been sharing germs!"

"Huh.  Those three live in the lab, I can't see them getting into the sort of trouble you're implying. "

" 'Stranger things,' Bob.  Nerd love is the finest." 

"Get out of here.  We both have work to do.  Any word from Geoff or Emil? "

"Not yet, but then since you just taught the class you traded with Dr. Rose, I don't expect to hear from him until this afternoon.  Dr. Tepes only interacts with me via email, and frankly, that suits me just fine."

"Yeah, I can understand that.  Anything else?"

"Oh, right.  I almost forgot.  You need to approve the safety protocol transfer on the blood requisition."

Blood?  As in blood banks?  Why does that seem familiar?

"What, human blood?  What am I requisitioning blood for?"

"It's for Dr. Tepes' stem cell cultures.  You cosigned the protocol as the Department's representative to the Biosafety Committee, so you get to approve the transfers."

"FIFTEEN UNITS!  Why the devil does he need fifteen units?"

"It's there on the protocol.  The factor he's extracting is in nanomolar concentration and he needs a few micromoles to test on the cultures."

"Riiiight.  But the original protocol stated 5 units each month.  What's he doing? Drinking it?"  

[To be continued ...]

Friday, June 24, 2011

Blood Science, Part 4 [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

[This is Part 4 of my original short story "Blood Science" - a tongue-in-cheek look at a scientist trying to write Science Fiction and Fantasy from a logical perspective.  See the "Coming Soon" tab above for more on the upcoming schedule, including the return to The Lab Rats Guide to the Brain.]

He set the printout aside and got to work on the yearly report for his sleep research.  Later that afternoon, once the lab meeting with students was over, he returned to editing his manuscript, but was quickly interrupted by Professor Tepes.

"Bobbb. Could I haff just a moment?"  Tepes' heavy accent revealed his Romanian origins, as did his particular approach to hygiene.  Never a favorite of the students, they had taken to calling him 'Vlad the Impaler' after an incident where he had accidently stuck himself with one of his own needle-sharp recording electrodes. 

"Sure, Emil.  Sit down. "

"T'anks.  I just vant to ask if you could talk to the students in your class about my lab space?  I don't mind them using it during the day.  I only need it at night, but they need to do a better job of cleaning and restocking during the day."

 "Okay.  I'll talk to them.  Maybe I can get Jen to make up some signs."

"T'anks, Bobbb."  Tepes said as he left.

Bob reached over and turned on the small fan beside his desk.  Emil had a certain… "air" about him.  Probably something in his diet.  A little extra air circulation wouldn't hurt, either.

Now there is someone that would make a perfect vampire – black, greasy hair, widow's peak, thick eastern accent.  If only he wasn't so… so unpleasant to be around.  I just can't picture him having his way with a nubile maiden.

But what if it's all an act?  A clever disguise?  Yeah.  I can use that!  What better way for a vampire to hide, than to purposefully drive people away?  Sort of like an undercover cop masquerading as a homeless person.  Right.  I need to find a place to work that in.

Bob started writing in the margins of his manuscript, oblivious to the time until the phone rang.  He looked at the phone, looked at the clock, started to reach for the phone… and stopped.

"Sorry dear.  I must have just left when you called."  He hastily stuffed the manuscript and memory drive into his backpack, turned out the lights, and was out of the office door before the phone stopped ringing. 


Ring! Ring!

Bob reached for the bedside phone.  It was on his side and not Trish's, since she wasn't likely to be getting calls from students in the middle of the night.  He made an effort to not sound sleepy, but couldn't stifle a yawn, "Yeah, um, ah.  Oh.  Hello? "

"Dr. Bob, this Mike with Building Security.  I hate to disturb you at three AM, but there's an alarm sounding in your lab."

"Hmm? Uh, yeah.  Prob'ly the freezer.  Was 'ere a power blip? "

"Yes, sir.  That thunderstorm this evening knocked out the power for about 30 minutes.  The emergency generators took a minute or two to kick in, but we've had power since midnight." 

"S'okay.  Prob'ly tripped a breaker.  Jus' tell John to just hit the reset.  S'long as he doesn't open th'door it should be good 'til I get there in the morning.  There's nothin' crit'cal in there and the rest doesn' have to stay at minus eighty. "

"Doc, that's the problem.  John's not here.  None of them are here.  The usual night owls didn't come in this evening."

Bob finally came awake with this latest information.

"None of them?  Dr. Rose?  Dr. Tepes?  John or Nigel? What about that Goth girl, what's her name, Keisha?"

"No sir, this is the first night in the three years I've been working third shift that I haven't seen anyone else here. It's kind of creepy if you ask me."

"Okay.  I'll be right there, in about 20 minutes.  No wait…" Bob looked at the clock beside his bed.  3:11 AM.  Yawn.  " 's Friday, right?"

"Yes sir, Friday it is."

"Good, Suzie's Diner is open.  I'm going to swing by and get a cup of coffee before I head in.  Be there in 30 minutes."

[to be continued...]

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Blood Science, Part 3 [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

[This is Part 3 of my original short story "Blood Science" - a tongue-in-cheek look at a scientist trying to write Science Fiction and Fantasy from a logical perspective. See the "Coming Soon" tab above for more on the upcoming schedule, including the return to The Lab Rats Guide to the Brain.]

Bob pulled his car into a numbered parking spot, grabbed his lunch, a notebook, and several portable memory drives. Inside the building, he checked the mail room and stuck his head in his secretary's office.

"Afternoon, Jen." He called out.

"Good morning, you mean, Dr. Bob," she responded cheerfully. It was their usual joke. Jeannette's secretarial duties were shared by the three Assistant Professors in the department, but the other two faculty seldom showed up before mid-afternoon.

Jeannette looked a lot like the stereotype of a 50's era school teacher, but was the ideal person for organizing the schedules, mail and manuscripts of the admittedly most disorganized of the departmental faculty. "Would you like your messages, now? Or are you going to retreat to your office for 30 minutes and then call and interrupt me in the middle of my lunch break?" Fortunately she asked it with a smile to show she wasn't really upset.

"Sure, give it to me straight, Jen."

"Okay, Journal of Neurochem wants to know when they can expect their review, you're two weeks late. Journal of Behavioral Pharmacology says you're ¬three weeks late with their review. The Office of Research reminds you that you have a progress report due on your sleep cycle grant in three days. Dr. Rose wants to know if you'll switch lectures with him next week, and you have a call from 'Russ in D.C.' no last name, just said you'd know who it was."

"Thanks, Jen." I handed her one of the memory drives. "The reviews are on here, 'JNC' and 'JBP' files under 'Reviews.' Put the progress report due date on my calendar, and check if I've got any conflicts with Geoff's class. I don't mind switching as long as it's clear."

"The calendar items are done, and the class period is clear. You'll be happier with his nine A.M. class than the 5 P.M. one any way. I know you're happier writing in the early evening. Don't forget 'Russ from D.C.' and your meeting with the students at four o'clock."

"Thanks, Jen."

Once in his office, Bob inserted the memory drive into his computer and printed out the latest version of his story. He had to get to work on that progress report, but surely he could spend a few minutes proofreading what he wrote last night.

Robberts looked around at the bloody scene.

"Vampires? You think vampires did this?" She looked at the policeman in disbelief. "Haven't any of you people read my book?

She carried it with her like a shield any time she got called out to one of these scenes. Even now it was visible sticking out of the top of her backpack: 'Blood Science: The Medical Truth about Vampires by Prof. Mary Sue Robberts, M.D. Ph.D.'

"Look, officer, to a vampire, blood is food. It's life. There are essential nutrients that it can't get any other way. This… this is wasteful. A hungry vampire would never let this much blood get away. It's like going for fast food, ordering a cheeseburger, then smearing it all over yourself instead of eating it.

"I mean, you wouldn't leave donuts all over your patrol car…" She stopped as she looked closely at the trail of powdered sugar that started about an inch below the officer's double chins and trailed down over his rather large belly.

Bob pulled out a red pen and started writing in the margin. 'Needs a better intro. Too slow. ' He struck out the reference to the book title, then wrote:

"Van Helsing ain't got nothing on me." Thought Prof. Mary Sue Robberts, author of "Blood Science: The Medical Truth about Vampires", and vampire hunter.
[to be continued...]

Monday, June 20, 2011

Blood Science, Part 2 [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

[This is Part 2 of my original short story "Blood Science" - a tongue-in-cheek look at a scientist trying to write Science Fiction and Fantasy from a logical perspective.  See the "Coming Soon" tab above for more on the upcoming schedule, including the return to The Lab Rats Guide to the Brain.]


Intent on the story outline, Bob didn't notice the pale graduate student standing in the door. Wondering if his advisor would ever look up from his typing, the student decided to knock discretely.

"Wha'? Oh, John, sorry, I was involved in this outline."

"Another grant? Something that can pay for another technician in the lab? I really need some help in the daytime." John was studying diurnal cycles in rats and needed to perform most of his experiments during the night when rodents were most active.

"Not yet, that particular grant should be reviewed this week. Once I know for certain how it scored, I'll post a position for the daytime tech."

"Oh, good. Thanks. Actually, I came to ask if you could talk to the committee about my Comps?" John was due to take the Comprehensive Qualifying Exam that would allow him to start working on his Ph.D. "With this all-night experiment schedule, it would be a lot easier if I could just take the Comps at night. I could come in, start the experiment, then go to the conference room for the exam. We get breaks every two hours, and that would be sufficient to check on the experiments. Nigel and Keisha are checking with their advisors, too. If would be a lot better for us, after all, you're the one that taught us about the dangers of disrupting an established sleep-wake cycle. Prof. Rose is willing to proctor the exam overnight, so we just need the committee's permission."

"I don't know, John." Bob frowned. "I'm not entirely comfortable with you students working all night out of the eye of the professors. We had a few unfortunate incidents when I was a student…"

"I know. You've told us all about the homeless dude in the restroom and the guy that accidently killed himself. It's okay, we're not alone. There's the security guards, and Profs. Rose and Tepes. They have to run experiments late at night to avoid vibrations from the traffic outside and construction of the new hospital tower." John paused, and pushed back his long black hair. "After all, it's not like we're trying to avoid you – you told us yourself that you used to work until 5 AM, catch 4 hours sleep, then be right back for a lab meeting. It's just until we get these experiments done."

"Okay. I'll talk to the committee. They're meeting tomorrow at 5, so I’ll see about it then."

"Great! Thanks, Dr. Bob!" John left so fast, Bob barely saw him go.

That kid needs a girlfriend. Thought his advisor. So pale and thin. I'd worry about his health, but he's been the best player on the departmental volleyball team for the past two years. Just doesn't get out in the sun much.

Sun. Yeah, Vampires drink blood, so they'd have extra hemoglobin breakdown products in the body. Hyperbilirubinemia. It makes a person sensitive to sunlight. Hmm, but yellow skin… Ah! If they stay out of the sun, then the skin would mostly be pale. Good. That's another one down.

Silver bullets? Stakes through the heart, cutting off the head? Those are all pretty obvious ways to kill anyone, let alone a vampire. Holy water and religious symbols? Make that a myth. Fast healing, though… I've got to figure out a reason why they'd be hard to kill.

Hmm. For now just leave it that they heal fast. They'd have to have pretty good control of clotting and bleeding factors to keep from contaminating their food source. Yeah. Control your own bleeding and you could survive quite a bit of damage.

Bob stopped typing as the phone rang. "Yeah, honey, just finishing up. It is? Wow. Okay, I forgot. I'll meet you at the concert." He replaced the phone, tapped a few keys, saved the outline and turned off his computer. "I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date…" he muttered as he left the office.

[to be continued...]

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Blood Science, Part 1 [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

[This is Part 1 of my original short story "Blood Science" - a tongue-in-cheek look at a scientist trying to write Science Fiction and Fantasy from a logical perspective.  See the "Coming Soon" tab above for more on the upcoming schedule, including the return to The Lab Rats Guide to the Brain.]

'Hmm, when you think about it, I guess blood really could be the perfect food source.' Bob sat at a computer in his home office staring at a blank word processing screen. 'Sara thinks I'm too much of a scientist to write a vampire story, but I'm going to do it just because of the challenge. I have to come up with a reason though.'

For the past 10 years he had taken time away from family and work to write a few words of science fiction here and there, trying to sell some short stories and work up to that Big Debut Novel. In the previous two years he had corresponded with several SF authors and attended a few conventions in which the emphasis had been on writing, rather than movies, TV and video games. More recently he'd begun corresponding with Sarah, a moderately successful fantasy and science fiction author. Sara believed Bob had talent, but his characters tended to fall too much into the stereotypes of either scientists or Boy Scouts. Bob argued that he had to write what he knew. Twenty five years as a professor and scientist had left its mark, hence Bob's current obsession with trying to write a vampire story based on logic and science.

'Blood carries oxygen, glucose, small proteins and essential nutrients to all of the cells in the body. If I postulate a disease that affects a person's ability to metabolize complex foods, then it could be logical that the creature would turn to human blood to fulfill its nutritional needs.' Bob tapped a few keys, started an internet browser on his computer and pulled up a national database of medical literature. 'Cystic Fibrosis affects the digestion, but our fictional vampire wouldn't last long with the side effects on the lungs. Some form of gastrointestinal parasite? Or maybe a virus that blocks absorption. That way it could be contagious about 1% of the time, accounting for a vampire bite turning the victim into a vampire.'

Bob typed a few notes into his word processor, wrote an introductory paragraph and outlined the next couple paragraphs, but didn't yet know which direction he wanted to take the story. He had a department faculty meeting tomorrow evening and would be late coming home. He'd think about it for a couple of days and perhaps get back to the story next weekend.


It was more than 3 weeks before Bob got back to working on his story. Despite best intentions to get up a little earlier each morning, exercise and spend at least 30 minutes writing, he found himself occupied with work and emails with colleagues later each night. After one extreme evening of grant and manuscript writing, he found himself going to bed as his wife was getting up for an early start at work. As a result, all intentions of early morning activity were lost to catching up on sleep.

It was late afternoon, working on evening. The latest grant application had been submitted and yet another scientific manuscript had been sent off to the editor. With about 45 minutes to call his own, Bob returned to the topic of the vampire story.

'Oh-kay. Blood as a food source to replace essential nourishment. Our fictional vampire is going to want the blood as clean as possible. Iron rich, low cholesterol… hmm, add in a bit of estrogen for the antiaging effects and their natural food source would be young women. Huh. To keep the potential contaminants down, make that "nubile" young women. That's another stereotype down. Now, how to kill a vampire…'

[to be continued...]

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why I write... [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

[This post starts some interim special content for the blog while I am off preparing several grant funding applications.  The next 5 posts will be an original serialized short story "Blood Science" - a tongue-in-cheek look at a scientist trying to write Science Fiction and Fantasy from a logical perspective.  See the "Coming Soon" tab above for more on the upcoming schedule, including the return to The Lab Rats Guide to the Brain.]

I am a scientist. In a very real way I write for a living. My Curriculum Vitae lists over 75 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, over 10 chapters in books, and hundreds of meeting abstracts and presentations. I have written more than 30 research grant applications – about half have been funded, requiring annual or even quarterly progress reports. Each journal article runs to about 15,000 words, book chapters to 20-25,000, grant applications and progress reports are only between 5,000-10,000 words each. If all of these were converted to short stories or novels, I would have "sold" around 15-20 books-worth of material and been ranked among the more prolific fiction writers by this point in my career, and spent more time "on stage" than most movie stars (or TV, maybe, but it doesn't approach theater and stage appearance).

Scientific writing takes a lot of time. The fiction writers I know spend a lot of time either researching or "ideating" to get the story right in their head, then sit down and pound out 10-15,000 words in a long weekend. Granted, they usually have a target of 120,000 words for a novel and typically cannot keep up that pace until completion; six months for a good draft seems typical. For me to perform the work necessary for a 15,000 word journal article takes *at least* 6 months. First the experiments are run – mostly by my technical staff, but I am involved in all of the planning and analysis – then the data is analyzed, charted and graphed, statistics calculated, and I can start to write. I can get 15,000 words written in a week if I have no other duties, but the work of a professor usually doesn't allow that. I have to do most of my writing late at night, when the house is quiet and I am the only one awake. Then comes the editing and re-writing as I pass the manuscript over to a colleague who will approach it from a different perspective. Meanwhile I remake figures, and run new analyses since I usually realize that the results are incomplete, but I didn't realize it until I tried to write them. Meanwhile I am also reading recent papers by scientists in related fields so that I can cite the appropriate comparisons to existing scientific literature when I finish writing the discussion of the paper. So, six months is optimistic; the more appropriate comparison is 6 months to perform experiments, 2 months to analyze, 4 months to write and edit the manuscript. *If* it is accepted to a scientific journal without the need for extensive changes, I will not see it in print for a year or more!

Yes, this is very much like the life of a fiction writer, and it's my day job. SO, why is it that I find myself wanting to write Science Fiction?

Well, part of it is because I *read* Science Fiction, and quite often despair over the misuse of science in books, TV and movies. Dr. Travis Taylor says he started writing because he complained loudly about books and TV that were poorly written, and claimed that he could write better. His wife told him to "put up or shut up." Five solo novels and six collaborations later, "Doc Travis" is a respected SF writer.

Do I think I could do that? Well, no, frankly, for all I know, Doc doesn't sleep. I do not have that much time in my day; and as I have written elsewhere, my mind can either write science, or fiction. I find myself unable to alternate my writing between professional and recreational topics. Once I get an idea for what *I* think would be a good story, I have to clear time to put aside my professional writing and finish the story. Otherwise, I have to stop the story in mid-thought, so to speak, and will have trouble picking it up later.
Don't get me wrong, I *do* have story ideas. I have 5 novel-length stories blocked and outlined, I have even written about 20,000 words each in two of them. I have 5 short stories and 2 novelettes written and ready for submission, five more in various states of completion, and a nonfiction book nearing completion. It's just that I understand that I may never complete the long-form fiction before I retire from the day job. I read the words of advice of authors – I know not to give up the day job for the insecurity of a fiction writing career. I know that for my own purposes, I need a secure base and plenty of time before I can devote the effort that I know it will take to be able to write at the professional SF/F level – let alone be able to *sell* any of these pieces.

But I *am* a writer. I am published. My record is pretty good even within my field. So why do I feel a need to write? Perhaps it is because I am a teacher. I have taught preschool age kids in Sunday school, elementary through high-school as a substitute teacher, college undergraduate & graduate laboratory as a graduate student, and medical and graduate students as a professor. I don't teach much now, but I enjoy it – not always, I had to *learn* how to teach – but I enjoy it when I can. As the first in my family to earn a degree in a medical field, I have been called on as "interpreter" to explain what the doctor said to all members of my extended family. I am asked questions by writers to explain some aspect of science and/or medicine in a way that makes it easy to fit into a story. Then there's that little bit about despairing that writers and Hollywood will ever get brain science right. My compromise between the science-writing and fiction-writing halves of my brain is a blog, and eventual book, which explains brain science in layman's terms.

And again – why write SF? Perhaps the best, the most important reason, is that I tell stories. When I teach, I tell a story that seeks to lead young minds to understanding and knowledge. When I write science, I tell a story of mystery, detective work, and discovery. When my children were very young, my wife and I read and sang to them every night. When their grandparents visited, they also joined the routine. My mother-in-law sang children's songs, my father-in-law had a wonderful style of recitation for classic poetry, my mother snuggled and sang and read – but my father told *stories*! Not experience or personal events – no, my father made up stories on the spot, and the kids were riveted. My Dad could make *any* simple topic into a fantastic adventure. *He* is a storyteller, and I guess I inherited that from him.

So I write stories, and tell stories. It seems to be a common feature, that humans are natural storytellers – some get up on stage, others write it down, and some stories never make it out of the imagination. In ancient times, people made up stories about the constellations and patterns in the sky. Cave drawings tell a story, as does oral history. Science is a story, a story of how things work and in some cases, how we *want* them to work. Writing stories means I have to give up a few things to do so: a bit of family time, a bit of sleep, even reading more SF.

Do I think I can do it better? Not necessarily – but to quote Sinatra - I know I can do it "My Way."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Brain. The Machine. The brain-machine interface? [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

This is my final blog prior to an extended professional trip that takes me to California and the United Kingdom.  I am currently in Pasadena, CA on the initial part of the trip will involve a meeting where we discuss brain-machine interfaces.  In a few days I will leave for Scotland to write the third research grant application to be written and submitted between mid-may and July 5th.  A serialized short story will appear here starting Saturday to give me the time off to write even *more*!  Bwahahahahaha!

Brain Machine Interfaces.

No, we're not talking about either "Steve Austin, the Six-Million-Dollar Man" or Star Trek's Borg just yet.  Nor are we at quite the level of creating direct brain to computer links (let alone "mind" to computer).  But what *is* possible in neurally-based prosthetics is ... frankly ... mind-boggling.

The oldest actual *neural* interface is the artificial cochlea, shown here at left.   This device places an electrode into the cochlea to stimulate the auditory nerve at the same sites that a natural deflection of the basilar membrane would stimulate the hair cell neurons (see  This is still not a "natural" or complete prosthetic because it relies heavily on a sound processor to pick the relevant frequencies out and send to the electrode.  The sound processor can be tuned for specific types of sound - most typically speech.

Neuroscientists are making great strides on other sensory prosthetics.  The company 2nd Sight, with it's Argus II retinal prosthetic ( has several patients with the device that works by stimulating retinal neurons that remain after the photoreceptor cells deteriorate from disease.  Again, not a complete prosthetic, and neither of these are direct brain-to-machine interfaces, but the progress is astounding I have seen the patients and heard their stories.  Amazing.[Update:  They have patients *READING*!]

These are "sensory prosthetics" which restore the input functions to the brain.  We don't have taste and smell prosthetics, but work on tactile prosthetics is improving, and we'll get to that later in relation to prosthetic limbs. 

Another prosthetic from the same group is the "Bion" which is an implant that can restore muscle function following paralysis (  It has found use in migraine relief, correcting incontinence and in reducing muscle spasm and rigor caused by disease (i.e. Parkinson's Disease) or spinal injury.

Full limb prosthetics have been around for many years, but with very little complexity, and only restoration of simple motions.  Arm prosthetics have long been only cosmetic or simple claws.  Leg prosthetics have become much more sophisticated as engineers have studies "kinematics" (motion) to develop spring and joint-loaded models (left) that provide a lot of function *without* neural connections.

The real winner in the field is the "DARPA Prosthetic Arm" funded by the "Revolutionizing Prosthetics" effort of the Defense Advanced research Projects Agency (DARPA), which frankly, funds concepts that most folks would think of as Science Fiction.

The DARPA Arm (actually two, there have been two main phases to the project, incorporates a neuron to device linkage to control reach, flex, grasp and maneuver the arm.  Two means are considered to interface it (A) using the remaining nerves that *would* have served the missing limb, or (B) direct to the motor cortical areas of the brain.

A major hurdle in development of a complete prosthetic is feedback of tactile sensory information to the brain.  At present it is still a barrier, but two approaches - interface direct to the somatosensory cortex, or interface to the thalamus - are under consideration.

Still none of these are the brain-to-machine control interfaces of The Matrix.  We just are not there yet.  Current devices are mostly just on-off switches, either using EEG ( or implanted electrodes ( granted, the Brain Gate is a *lot* of on-off switches!  To be fair, much of the original work with limb prosthetics requires the recording of neural activity to be processed or modeled by computer, so there is much work being done in animals with brain-to-computer interfacing, just not much with humans at present.

So we have brain input prosthetics, like the cochlea and retina, and output prosthetics such as the limb and Brain Gate.  Are there prosthetics that operate completely inside the brain the bypass areas damaged by disease or trauma?  Well, yes, there is work on that front as well.   Dr. Theodore Berger heads a team that is working on a prosthetic for the hippocampus (  The principles involved in the work are actually applicable to many different brain areas, and could be used to reconnect different parts of the brain and bypass injuries following stroke, trauma, tumor, or surgery.

The possibilities are staggering.  We are not there yet, but if you just know where to look, the roots of the "bionic" or "cyborg" age are upon.  While I would not want to be "assimilated," I sure do like the idea that some day in the near future we will have the means to replace - perhaps not perfectly - functions that are lost to accident or disease.


Thanks for keeping up with The Guide.  It's been a grueling few months, and I apologize for lapses in the schedule.  I hope you enjoy the entertainment lined up for the next two weeks.

I'll "catch you on the flip side!"

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hypnosis, redux. [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

Some time back, I was asked a question about hypnosis, so I included it as a "mailbag" post. I apologize on behalf of the LabRats, they could not be here to see me trot this one back out in theme with the rest of the "Psychology" blogs in this section.  Rest assured, the LabRats are well and visiting their new cousins in Texas!  Perhaps we can get some pictures for future blogs!

Hypnosis, is it real?.

As I have stated a few times in recent blogs, to really cover hypnosis would require delving into psychology, which is not the primary subject of The Lab Rats' Guide to the Brain.  However, experts agree that the hypnotic (or, more correctly: autohypnotic) trance is a state in which the conscious mind is less active, and one can interact with the subconscious.  Most people are familiar with stage illusionists and hypnotists, and quite frequently doubt the truth of the results.  We do know that a person cannot enter an autohypnotic state unless they *want* to (hence the "auto-" prefix), and they likewise would not act on a suggestion unless they were willing to do so.  Thus the doubters claim that a hypnosis stage act is all about placebo and peer pressure, while the believers cite brainwave studies and cases in which hypnosis has real, lasting effects on behavior.
A true hypnotic trance or "state" looks very much like a dream (or daydream).  The EEG (brain waves) show many characteristics of sleep - first the low power alpha rhythm of meditation and relaxation, then the very slow delta and theta rhythms of deep sleep, followed by the brief, fast rhythms of REM sleep.  Psychologists consider the state to be akin to the "conscious mind" sleeping, while the "subconscious mind" is free to listen and interact with the hypnotist.  We actually enter such a state many times during the day while doing tasks that are quiet, possibly boring, repetitive and automatic (driving!, mowing the lawn, reading, etc.).

The state is also characterized by a lack of the "executive" governance of conscience, inhibition, and anxiety - hence the child-like nature and willingness to act on suggestion.  A major clinical/therapeutic benefit of autohypnotic trance is access to memory.  To understand why this is so, we must look back at what we know of how memory is converted from short-term to long-term storage:  If you want to remember something, you repeat it.  First we repeat the phone number to ourselves, then we write it down, often repeating it again.  Then we read it back.  The brain does the same thing, shuffling short-term memories from prefrontal cortext to hippocampus and back again - many times!  Then we have to let the remembered item sit idle, and come back and repeat it again at a later date.  In our prior discussion of dreams, I mentioned that experiences are most likely repeated in the next sleep or dream period - in fact, interrupting sleep is a good way to interrupt long-term memory.

The long-term storage process is called "consolidation" (or "re-consolidation" as it affects existing patterns) and it helps to store memories by build *associations* with other memories.  I discussed this in the blog on "flashbulb" and PTSD memory, but it is just as important to normal memory storage.  Association is the key, or combination that allows us to retrieve memory when it is needed.  What hypnosis does is allow access to the association and consolidation aspects of memory, much the same as during sleep and dreaming.  Thus a "post-hypnotic suggestion," one which lasts or takes effect long after the end of the hypnotic trance, forms a new associational relationship to existing memory.  This is useful in therapy for anxiety, weight loss, smoking cessation, or in setting up beneficial mental states for surgery or exercise.

Some therapists utilize hypnosis to access repressed memories.  However, from an ethical psychological perspective, such use is not without dangers.  Because the brain is in the "consolidation/association" state during a hypnotic trance, any memory accessed is also subject to creation of new associations, much the same as flashbulb memories are subject to conflation with other events.  In fact, the use of hypnotic regression to uncover repressed memories in children and abuse cases is increasingly condemned.  Essentially every time a memory with strong psychological components is recalled, it can be modified.  In the case of PTSD, the emotional content produces physiological changes - rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweat, anxiety.  The resulting emotional state then re-consolidates with the original memory, strengthening the associated trauma and fear.  Use of hypnosis to treat PTSD requires a careful manipulation to *reduce* emotional triggering as the memory reconsolidates.

Hypnosis and False Memory:

The greatest risk of memory manipulation in this state is that of false memory.  A therapist, trusted by the patient, who consistently questions a patient about a repressed memory, can easily set up associations in the patient's subconscious such that they believe the *suggestion* strong enough to associate it with memory.  Suggestion and reconsolidation do not require hypnosis, but they are certainly aided by the autohypnotic trance. In fact, all that is really needed for formation of a false memory is to repeatedly recall an existing memory under conditions that allow addition of false elements - such as constantly relating an incident with few original details, but strong emotional content (as with flashbulb memories) - the additions take on the seeming of the original memory.

A key sign of false memory is when the physiological reactions do not match the remembered events.  A soldier remembering combat will react tot he sights, sounds and smells of combat; a young man remembering a fleeting encounter with a beautiful young lady will remember the warmth of her touch, the smell of her perfume; in each case, the brain and body areas involved with be active and involved in recall of the memory.  Absent or inappropriate emotion will result when the associated sensory information is separated from memory - for the good, as in PTSD and abuse therapy - and for the bad as in implantation of false memory.

Memory is fragile.  We can impair the mechanism for making new memory (amnesia) and for recalling existing ones (Alzheimer's disease), we can even alter the memories we think are solid with the addition of unrelated information.  Hypnosis can work by adding beneficial suggestions, but can also irretrievably alter the real memory and obscure truth. 

Truly memory is something to be tampered with only with extreme care and skill.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Dreams: Telling the story... [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

So, what *really* is a dream, and what is the purpose of dreaming?

Simply stated, dreams are a necessary function of making *temporary* memories *permanent*.
It's long been known that dreams are composed of memories, and that memories can be triggered by specific electrical activity within the brain. Dr. Wilder Penfield was a Canadian neurosurgeon noted for mapping most of what we know as the "topography" of the brain. In the course of brain surgery to treat epilepsy, he would apply electrical stimulation to various brain areas to locate damaged brain cells. This was (and still is) performed with the patient awake to tell the surgeon what they see, feel, taste, etc. In this manner, as well as studying which functions are lost due to brain damage, neuroscientists know which brain areas are responsible for movement, sensation and various memories. In the 90's, Professors Wilson and McNaughton at the University of Arizona determined that brain cells activated in the rat brain while running a maze were activated in the exact same sequence and relationship while the animal slept immediately following the behavior. From studies since that time, we know that the reactivation of electrical patterns during sleep is essential to "consolidation" of memory from short term storage (essentially what you do when you repeat a phone number to remember it long enough to place a call) to long term storage.

Why is consolidation necessary?  Well, as we discussed a couple of blogs ago, short term/working memory is temporary. It will eventually be forgotten, and in fact, it is best if it is forgotten! It is, by definition, only for short periods or only for the duration of the "working" task at hand.  If we did not forget information, our memories would be cluttered with too much information.  Online the other day, I was asked how much memory (i.e. how many years) I thought a human could actually live before their memories collapsed.  Another correspondent quipped "Do you remember what you had for lunch this day last year?"  Well, of course the answer is no - unless it was a *truly* memorable event - first date or birthday, for example.  Our memories prune themselves, and unused memories are eventually diluted, the information may still be there, but the associations become parts of other memories. 

To get information into longer term memory, it has to be "consolidated".  The key feature is that repeating information strengthens the connections between brain cells that form the basis of the information "code" for memory. However, such strengthening requires time, and metabolic processes in the brain cells. This is one reason why an accident victim may not remember details of an accident (or up to hours before) – there may not have been enough time to *consolidate* the memory before the brain received a trauma that caused it to stop processing information. Sleep provides the time, the low body activity frees up the metabolic processes, and dreams provide the repetition to enable memory to be stored most efficiently.

The second method mentioned above is strong association: emotion, trauma, stress. This is a topic for another time, and as we move through The LabRat's Guide to the Brain, we'll touch on Post-Traumatic Stress, and abnormal memory.

With consolidated memory, the mind can build a sense of *time* with respect to events in the outside world. As with yesterday's post on time and dreams – time in the waking world is important, too.  A popular phrase in psychology from about 10 or more years ago is "time-binding." The label refers to that ability of humans to place memories of events in sequence and judge the amount of time that passes. Time-binding is less known by its *presence*, but by its *absence*. One of the tests given to children suspected of depression or attention deficit disorder is to have them place pieces of a story into sequential order and tell how much time they think elapses during the story. Failure to do so is a pretty good indicator that the child has a deficit in time-binding, and such deficits indicate an abnormal interaction with the outside world.

However, problems with time-binding are neither unusual, nor crippling. So why is time-binding an issue? Do we (humans) really need to know that only 2 minutes has elapsed while we wait at a traffic light? Or that James Garfield was president before Chester Arthur and after Rutherford B. Hayes?

Well, yes, we do. Temporal sequence is *important*! In the real world, everything is a sequence of events, and the consequences of those events only have a finite duration. Event A: A burner is lit on the stove; Event B: a hand is placed over the burner. If B precedes A, no problem – unless the hand remains after the burner is lit. If A precedes B, well, that could be a problem – it depends on how much time has elapsed. Time-binding is difficult for persons on mind-altering drugs, in clinical depression, schizophrenia, and many other disorders.

What does time-binding have to do with dreams?  


The key is sequence.  Ever have that dream where you're taking an exam but never went to class, left your book in your locker and can't remember the combination, and now you can't find the classroom, but vaguely remember that you shouldn't be doing this because you *graduated* 20 years ago? It's a perfect example of the types of problems that occur in novel with Point-of-View shifts and time-binding. The subconscious creates dreams by pulling events at random from memory, but those events don't stand alone, they are part of a sequence that includes other memories not incorporated in the dream. The mind tries to fill in the gaps in time-binding – sometimes failing, as in the case of the Exam Dream. In other cases it succeeds too well. Dreams can take on a reality, complete with false history, that is hard to distinguish from reality.

An important technique in writing is to allow a reader to visualize the passage of time in a story is successful time-binding:  Cause precedes effect, birth before death, and past precedes its future. In dreams, we don't actually have much sequence - a whole lot of memory is called up in *very* rapid succession, and it is up to the parts of the brain which *normally* deal with memory, sequence and cause-and-effect (the Limbic System) to put it all together...

...eventually creating...

...a dream.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What a dream... What? A Dream? [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

Today's blog is a slight recast of an earlier blog on dreams.  However, it first appeared over 5 months ago, and was out of context for The Guide, so I am repeating it here with minor changes:


This morning I had a seven-minute dream. Any of you who have the tendency to repeatedly hit the snooze button on your alarm clock have probably experienced it. The alarm goes off, you barely rouse yourself - just enough to reach out and hit the snooze button, then settle back into the pillows. You have a vivid dream, from which you are awakened by the alarm clock... again... your seven-minute snooze is over.

How can you have such a vivid dream in just seven minutes? And what is a dream, really?

To answer the first, we will need to talk about the sense of time in dreams, and that's really a long topic. For today I will focus on the second question, and it will give us some insight into the former.

Dreams are memories. Our memories. They needn't be personal. Snips of movies, commercials, descriptions by a friend, all are fodder for dreams. Sleep consists of many stages, typical scientific terms refer to 4 stages, from stage 1, light drowsiness in which you are vaguely aware of surroundings, to stage four, in which the body is so deeply unconscious that most muscles in the body are shut down. A person spends most of the night progressing from stage 2 to stage 4 sleep and back again. Persons with sleep apnea, asthma or who wake frequently in the night oscillate from Stage 1 to 4. Dreams occur during Stages 2 and 3 in what is called REM (rapid-eye-movement) or "paradoxical" sleep - so called because the brain (and eyes) are as active as during wakefulness even while the body stays completely asleep (even paralyzed).

A full sleep cycle can take as little as 45 minutes, or as much as two hours. During a cycle, the amount of time spent dreaming is quite short, about 10 minutes per cycle, although it is possible to cycle between REM and non REM sleep multiple times per cycle. The recent movie "Inception" got a lot of things right regarding dreams, dream settings, and time within dreams, but sorry, this part they got wrong - people do not typically dream the entire time they are asleep, nor when they are sedated - at least not at the sedation level that would keep a person asleep for 7-10 hours. Sedation suppresses brain and body activity, similar to Stage 4, and usually also suppresses REM sleep. Sure there are drugs that promote sleep and dreaming, but they result in a very light sedation and have their effects mainly through pain relief and muscle relaxation.

But back to those seven-to-ten minutes of dreaming. How can a dream seem so complete, so detailed, and so *long* and occur within orders of magnitude less time than the events it portrays? Several reasons: First, dreams are strung together from memories – as stated about, memories of events during the day, the past, personal experience, stories read from books, movies, TV. Even if only vague impressions, the mind can make a dream from it.

In the last couple of blogs we discussed how memories are stored in the brain as associations. Ever struggle to name a song? Remember part of a tune or a verse, but can't think of the title until you *sing* the verse through to the end and rewind to the beginning? That's association. Each verse, each phrase, is associated in memory, and you have to run through the chain of associations to get to the title. There are other types of associations: cooking smells may help recall a vivid memory of childhood, a sound can trigger a traumatic memory, a touch or color may bring back memories of a first date, first love, first kiss. Once a memory is recalled, it may lead in turn to another memory, and another, and another. Such associations are nearly instantaneous. A series of memories spanning minutes, days, months or years can be recalled in seconds.

Second reason why dreams seem complete and detailed is that filling in the gaps with details is what the brain does. Any student of music can tell you that they can *hear* instruments when reading music. [In fact, there is a fascinating study in which brain imaging which proves just that point: a conductor reading a score shows the same brain activity as if they were hearing the music.] Optical illusions work the same way – the eyes see only lines, shapes and shadows, and the brain fills in even when there are no details in the original image. Mathematical models that mimic the connections of neurons (brain cells) have demonstrated the ability to restore information even when up to half of it is missing or garbled.

Finally, dreams allow the brain to disconnect from the body. There is a location in the brain called the "Red Nucleus" that acts like a cut-off switch. During dreams, the nerve impulses to the muscles are stopped, and many signals from the rest of the body do not reach the brain (consciously). The brain acts as if all of the connections are intact, but the normal feedback delay is not present, and the whole process runs faster. Note that this can account for the "helpless" feeling in some dreams – running in slow motion, sitting in the back seat of a runaway car, unable to defend against an attacker. During these events, the Red Nucleus block of nerve signals is not complete. Commands to muscles are blocked, but the information that those muscles are not moving is getting to the brain.

So, dreams are memories. Memories can trigger recall of other memories at widely separate times. The brain (and mind) are good at taking incomplete information and filling in details – often with familiar situations and other memories. The brain does not have the normal feedback from the body to signal what is a real experience and what is not. Hence the seven-minute dream. In reality, the dream may have only lasted for about 2 minutes, but that is enough time to trigger a sequence of stored memory patterns in the brain, and for the mind to make up a script to go along with the sequences. Sort of like the ultimate moviemaker's storyboard.

Next: The science behind dreams.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A failure of memory. [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

Nope, this time it is not mine.  This is the regularly scheduled June 6th blog, and the topic is how memory fails.

There are several means by which memory fails -

(A) retrograde amnesia - the inability to recall a stored memory
(B) anterograde amnesia - the inability to store memory
  - either of which can be caused by
      (C) disease states that cause A or B
      (D) head/brain injury
(E) abnormal memory (drug abuse and PTSD)
(F) interference

Retrograde (backward) amnesia is the inability to recall information that was previously remembered.  This is the classic "hit on the head and forgets the last 20 years" type of soap-opera amnesia  discussed in this blog:  Anterograde (forward) amnesia is the failure of the association and storage network for making new memory.  Both types of memory are affected by the hippocampus, but in particular, hippocampal damage results in (B) with very little effect on (A).

Many disease states cause amnesia - Alzheimer's disease, of course, results from gradual damage to neurons first to those neurons in hippocampus and Temporal Lobe, causing anterograde amnesia, then more widespread involvement causes retrograde amnesia.  Senility, alcoholism and Huntington's Disease cause retrograde amnesia, by damaging the retrieval circuits in diencephalon and Frontal Lobe.  (Compare with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) which affects the nerves into and out of the spinal cord, leaving all of the higher brain functions intact, but cutting that brain off from a functioning body)  Pituitary or optic nerve tumors can press on the hippocampus and cause anterograde amnesia.  Other brain tumors, stroke or aneurysm can rob brain areas of blood and oxygen (see: thus causing amnesia depending on the precise area affected.

Head injury, traumatic injury, surgery, all cause compression, physical damage and alteration of blood flow to the brain.  Contrary to the TV and movie cliche, a simple blow to the back or top of the head won't do it.  The brain is suspended in a fluid, between "dura mater" a thick membrane lining the skull, and "pia mater" a light thin (permeable!) membrane lining the surface of the brain.  Cerebrospinal fluid is made at specific sites where blood vessels cluster at the origin of several fluid-filled channels called "ventricles" in the brain.  This combination of membranes and fluid cushions the brain.  To damage it, you need to penetrate the membranes (trauma or surgery), infect them (encephalitis or meningitis), or make the brain "slosh" and strike the inside of the skull.  Very strong blunt force blows to the very front, side or lower back part of the skull will cause the brain to move and strike the inside of the skull opposite the impact.  If the Frontal or Temporal Lobes hit the inside of the skull, they get bruised, like any other body part.  Small blood vessels break, tissue swells, and the neurons don't function, resulting in amnesia (usually retrograde).

In addition, any time the brain is physically injured, it swells.  Swelling, tumors, infections, all compress blood vessels and injure neurons.  If temporary, the amnesia is only temporary, but if the injury is permanent, or goes on for too long, teh amnesia could be permanent.  It's become a very common problem in troops returning from war zones - too many time of "having their bell rung" (concussive head injury due to roadside bombs) leads to permanent memory loss.  This is also becoming better understood as a long-term problem following surgery, radiation or chemotherapies for brain tumor or cancer.

All of the above oare problems with memory not working, but in some cases it works too well, and the result is a memory that cannot be forgotten.  I covered this at length in an earlier blog ( and is the root of PTSD and some aspects of drug abuse.  In both cases, the associated information stored with the memory triggers a strong recall - in the PTSD-sufferer, the traumatic stress incident - in the drug user, the desire to seek out drug stimulation.  Every time the memory is recalled, it is rewritten/restored and can be hard to break - however, like the "flashbulb memory mentioned in that earlier blog - the problem is also (possibly) part of the solution - change enough of the association cues, and it may be possible to dilute the memory.

The final entry is interference, and this can take many forms.  When trying to remember a phone number "three-six-oh-four.  Three.  Six.  Oh.  Four."  repetition and no distraction is the key.  If a friend asks you to meet them at Four O'Clock, it can disrupt the remembered chain "Three-six-four-oh."  This is called "proactive interference, and is a failure of the brain to keep information separated.  Another example is the famous parking lot problem:  Every day you park in the same place in the parking lot at school/work.  Today your spot was taken, and you parked somewhere else far away.  You have trouble finding your car because the previous habit interferes with the current (different) memory.

There are other types of interference.  To put a memory into long term storage requires time, and the create the proteins and molecules necessary to alter connections between neurons.  A lot of this is done by the brain passively replaying information during sleep (a partial explanation for dreams).  Interrupt the sleep, and you interrupt the storage process.  Likewise disease, illness, nutritional deficits and head injury will also interrupt the process - one reason why a head injury patient may *never* recover memory of the accident - it just never got stored!

The final type of interference, is if the brain damage occurs to the associational areas - a lack of sense of smell, hearing or vision will interfere with both storage and recall of memories with those components.  Injuries to Wernicke's area (language) can cause memory failures for specific words (aphasia).  Visual or sensory damage can cause the patient to ignore parts of the body or environment (agnosias, or "neglect").  Motor cortical damage can cause "apraxia" where the knowledge of a skill, movement or speech is present, but the patient cannot perform the necessary movements.

From this wonderful complexity of memory, comes the knowledge that there is much to be lost.  Our memories are a large part of who we are, as individuals.  As any person who has lost a loved one to Alzheimer's can attest, the greatest loss is of the self.

So tonight, I close - as I do so often - with the *serious* appeal:  Take care of your brain - it's the only brain you've got.

It's the only memory you've got.

It's the only *self* you've got!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

I forgot... [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

So, how appropriate is it that your humble blogger forgot to post the blog on memory?

Much of this material has been covered in the earlier sections on hippocampus (right), so we are going to discuss what constitutes memory in today's blog, and discuss failures of memory tomorrow.

So, what is memory (in the brain)?  In simplest terms, it is a pattern of activity in neurons that (A) represent an event in the "external" world (i.e. outside those neurons) and (B) can be either held in an active state or recalled once the external event is gone.

The simplest example is how most people remember a phone number - first they read or hear it, then they repeat it - often continuously until they can write it down or use it.  Repeating the whole process makes it easier - because each time strengthens the connections between the neurons that are active with the pattern.  Learning any skill is a prime example - repetition leads to alteration in the neural circuits that hold the code.

What makes memory *special* is that the information you want to learn is not the only thing that gets stored.  To explain, let's take a small detour...

The detour is called "nonlinear systems analysis."  You may have heard it under another name - "chaos theory" - but in this case that's largely a misnomer.  Nonlinear theory states that the output of certain systems is not a linear function of the input.  Consider a water hose - the input is a stream of water with defined volume, pressure, temperature, salinity, etc.  The output, assuming no changes, is exactly the same.  That's a linear function of *unity* (one) since the input and output are the same.  But suppose you put a nozzle on the output end - now you transform the pressure - higher pressure in smaller diameter if the volume stays the same.  That's a linear function, too.

Now consider a dripping faucet - time the space between drips - they are never the same (even if they repeat in *almost* the same sequence).  You can't write an equation to *exactly* describe the inter-drip-interval - thus it is a *nonlinear* system. The reason is that there are *so* many factors that affect the water droplets - temperature, airflow, the spread of a film of water over the faucet head, the tiny irregularities in the worn valve and washer - that every new drop is a function of so many variables that *change* with each preceding drop.  If you make a graph of *two* successive inter-drop-intervals, though, it makes an interesting pattern - seeming to repeat, but not exactly.  It's close though.  The equation is rightly termed "chaos", and the theory that has people excited is that there is an order underlying even the most chaotic system - we can't know the *exact* starting conditions for each drop - but we can estimate them, and if we measure enough, we can get pretty darned close to prediction.

So what does this have to do with memory?  It's the nonlinear aspect - the concept that each pattern measured is the overlying information, plus the sum of all the little "initiation" variables.  This is important to memory, because not only the main pattern gets stored.  The little details - if they repeat - also get stored.  Even it they don't repeat *exactly*, an approximation gets stored.

So memory is more appropriately an association.  The key piece of information is stored *associated* with context.  The words of a song with the melody.  Grandma's face with the smells of her kitchen. The name of that memory person you dated with the smell of their perfume/cologne.  (By the way, odor is a *powerful* associative cue for memory).  When you practice a skill long enough, the knowledge gets associated with the motor movements required to perform it (so-called "muscle memory").

This also means that memory is *recalled* associatively.  If you study with loud music, then try to take the test in the quiet, it will be more difficult to remember.  Because emmory is also stored as *seqeunces* of associations, you may have to sing that verse all the way to the end and start over to remember the name of a song.  You retrace your steps to remember something you may have forgotten.  "Tip of the tongue" phenomenon occurs when something interferes with the associational tag that you were using to recall a fact.

The hippocampus is a key player in making associations, and in short term storage of memory, but not in long term storage.  The hippocampus has capacity for about 7-11 (short) items such as a phone number of address, but only for about 5 to 10 minutes.  After that, you have to put it in longer term memory.  That happens in the Temporal and Parietal Lobes, and the associational functions for retrieval are shared between Frontal Lobe, Temporal Lobe and diencephalon.

So that's how we make and recall memory.  Tomorrow's blog will look at how memory fails - by age, disease or abnormal conditions...

... and I promise not to forget!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A question of sentience. [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

A Science Fiction author once posed the following question:  If a race of intelligent aliens were to encounter human infants how and when would they decide that these creatures were *sentient*?  In the absence of human adults on which to pattern their behavior and learn language, what characteristics would indicate that these developing mammals represent the highest evolutionary development of their home planet?

The question of sentience is not an easy one.  Many folks - scientists included - would say (1) language use, (2) tool use, (3) curiosity, (4) teamwork, (5) sense of self, and (6) sense of others' needs (altruism).

The problem is that many of these characteristics are shared by animal species - dolphins and whales appear to have language, monkey and apes use tools, rats and mice will investigate new spaces and objects, ants and bees work cooperatively, all mammals have the ability to map space in self-centered vs. environment-centered coordinates, and there are many reports of family and altruistic behavior in dolphins, dogs, horses, etc. 

In the 18th century, philosophers added an additional feature: to feel.  Added to the previous 6, a sentient being would show all of the characteristics, and have a personal, emotional commitment to the above.  Unfortunately, this definition may actually rule out some humans! (i.e. sociopaths). 

Doubly unfortunate, a more modern definition of sentience invokes "consciousness."  I say unfortunate, because consciousness is probably the most subjective term in all of psychology - in other words, consciousness is being aware, and we are aware because we are conscious (Velmans, M., & Schneider, S. Eds. 2007. The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness. Farthing, G. W. 1992. The Psychology of Consciousness).

As neuroscientists, we can point to enlarged Frontal Lobes as evidence of "thought" and hence of consciousness, but the question of awareness is still a troubling one - would philosophers and psychologists deny sentience to a sleeping human, unaware of their surroundings and devoid of sensory input?  Or can we attribute sentience to the Internet?  It uses language, communicates and even cooperates between computes, search engines are curious, the 'net uses programming tools and can tell the difference between native and foreign code - but is it aware? 

I submit that we will not know until *some* creation or creature steps up to humankind and says "I think, therefore I am."