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

Monday, April 30, 2012

NEAT STUFF (ish): The Revenge of Hump Day (also a brief hiatus with filler and reruns) [Full link to blog for email clients.]

The GUIDE... is complete!

Well, there's enough content for a book, anyway.  Or perhaps, I should say - for the first book.

However, it needs editing.  Smoothing.  More editing.

I am probably going to take a week or two off of blogging to do some of that over the next few weeks.

I will be running filler material: reruns of blogs that have been popular, timely, or recently the subject of questions from friends and readers.  I will try to intersperse with some book reviews, funny links, news and perhaps even a guest blog or two, to maintain interest.  It will not necessarily start this week, but I'm posting fair warning so that you know.   

In the meantime, I am going to plug an excellent fanzine.  I have recently (within the past year) become a reader, and even more recently a contributor.  The Revenge of Hump Day ( is the "official" fanzine of LibertyCon, a wonderful, relaxing SF convention held every July in Chattanooga.  [By the way, this is the 25th LibertyCon this summer, and they have a special celebration planned.  Use the link above and select "Home" from the header.]  Scroll down past the subscription link, and and you can find the link forthe most recent issue, with links to past issues below.

The Revenge is the product of the fevered mind of "Uncle Timmy" Bolgeo, engineer and founder of LibertyCon.  Every week, Uncle Timmy loads The Revenge with jokes, links, politically incorrect observation, unbelievably (true) stuff, and science, Science, SCIENCE!  A recent issue (April 11) brought us the story on how Las Vegas missed out on having an attraction based on a life-sized Starship Enterprise, news on Hugo Award nominations, a story about passengers and crew helping to deliver a baby on a flight from Ghana to Atlanta, 101 uses for "100-mph Tape" (along with the real history of duct tape), an article on revolutionary new liquid armor, the search for the black hole at the center of our galaxy, and even an article by yours truly.

I get The Revenge by email every week, and it has become a part of my Tuesday evening schedule.  Make it part of yours!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Administrative Announcement [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Sometime in the next month or so, this blog will be moving.  If I can manage it, the new URL will be, but don't count on it until it happens.  I'll post extensively here.

The reason for the move is twofold:  (1) I am trying to update my website, profile and services by combining the TR Productions video and The LabRats' Guide to the Brain into one site.  I will continue the Teddy's Rat Lab blog as well as introducing a Q&A forum: Ask Dr. Tedd and a general discussion forum for the blog, SF conventions short fiction, etc. 

The second reason is the difficulty I have been having with site controls while I am still dealing with Carpal Tunnel (and surgery, probably late this summer) and I would like more control over scheduling and tagging options.  I also have many complaints that Blogger will not allow some of my readers to log in and comment on my posts.  Thus I need to implement my own site logins, comments, controls and management.

I will attempt to use Blogger's email posting function to mirror some of the blogs when I start out, but I will probably transition to new site only after a few weeks.

Until then, please keep enjoying the blog!

Friday, April 27, 2012

The GUIDE: So you want a disease? [Full link to blog for email clients.]

[Sarah Hoyt and I are coordinating several blogs this week.  Yesterday on her blog as well as here, we helped our friend Stephanie Osborn with a book launch.  Sarah also ran this essay on her blog, which I repeat here for readers who may have missed it over at According to Hoyt.]

My friend Sarah Hoyt talks about "gateway" writers who have characters that seem to dictate their life story to her. This comes as a considerable advantage, because the character becomes more "human" in the telling. It may not be necessary to define all of the characteristics of this character, because they come out in the manner in which the character tells its own story. However, if you're like the rest of us, in order to make the character more real, you need to describe more about the health, habits and life-style of your character. In this case, you may wish to have your character suffering from some disease in order to give them something to do in between action and love scenes. Oh, certainly you may be writing a far off future in which there is no disease thanks to perfect medical care and miraculous nanomachines which can cure anything. On the other hand you may wish your character to have a disease that cannot be easily cured, and thus need to come up with a plausible description of an ailment or affliction. After all, the hero who suffers is more human, and therefore more sympathetic.

So, how do you go about selecting a disease and even more important, how do you find out enough about disease to be able to write realistically about it? For the Internet savvy, the first stop is often Wikipedia. While there are many who complain that Wikipedia is not an accurate source, let alone a primary source, it does have a role as a first stop for finding out information about a disease. Personally, I prefer PubMed Health. PubMed Health ( is a service of the US National Library of Medicine. The National Library of Medicine is both a physical library and an online resource for scientific, clinical, and medical information. PubMed Health is one such searchable database of both common and rare diseases. I refer to it quite frequently in writing my own blog about Neuroscience because it lists common symptoms, rare symptoms and has links to treatments, medicines, and specific websites devoted to that disease. It is a much more concise reference than Wikipedia, although it does not provide as much prose regarding the history of the disease or links to current context such as reference to the disease in books and media.

For fiction writing, what is needed is to understand how the disease makes the character feel. For that purpose PubMed Health is the better resource. The first important consideration is the list of symptoms. If your character has a kidney disorder, you want to know how that feels to your character. Does he or she have pain in a particular place in the body? Are there certain foods or activities which will cause the pain? How does having this disease change the life of your character? From PubMed Health, we learn early symptoms of a kidney disease include loss of appetite, nausea, weight loss, headaches, itching and dry skin. Thus, your character may first show signs of the disease in loss of appetite; in contrast, another character may comment on apparent weight-loss. More advanced disease symptoms include changes in skin color, numbness, muscle twitching, bruising, swelling of the feet and hands. As your story progresses, you may wish for your character to begin to worry. An example would be: upon waking, your character notices swelling of the fingers, and muscle twitches that they can't control. They might develop hiccups (since this is a form of muscle spasm) that not only cause embarrassment, but could be a cause for concern by someone else. Your character might be embarrassed by bad breath, or disturbed by insomnia and morning sickness. Each of these symptoms provides not only a glimpse into what your character experiences or feels, but their reaction to the symptoms is an opportunity for character development.

So now that we've explored how the character feels and what they experience, how did they get that way? At this point, whether you're using Wikipedia, PubMed Health, consulting an expert resource, or using your own reading of the medical literature, you want to look into the known sources, causes, and risks that might produce the disease. In our example of kidney disease, several lifestyle risks are immediately apparent: high blood pressure, diabetes, or exposure to chemicals/medications which can damage the kidney. Trauma or injury is always possible, or your character might have a congenital disorder which leads to the disease. You can have your character know from the start that he has a family history, or provide the opportunity to discover something about his past as he tries to figure out the source ("etiology" in Doctor-speak) of this disease.

Once you establish how your character experiences the symptoms and consequences of his disease, and discovered his history, it's time to explore how he will treat or seek a cure for his condition. Cures for disease may involve surgery, medication, therapy or any combination of these. Likewise, treatments involving the same factors may provide relief of symptoms, while not exactly providing a cure. Moreover, therapy which requires frequent treatments can find your character to a particular place. He would not do to have a character who requires weekly dialysis set off on a four-month space voyage of retribution, without taking into account the medical facilities available on his vessel of choice. On the other hand, your character may receive a single treatment, or if you'd treatments spaced over a month, and then know that they must return to the hospital in six months to continue treatment. This provides a window of opportunity for events to take place while providing the additional suspense of wondering whether the character will be able to return in time to receive lifesaving treatment. You also have the opportunity to make your character aware of the dangers involved in certain activities: a person with kidney disease should be aware of the fact that a hit or fall or injury in the vicinity of the kidneys could cause permanent damage; an individual with any sort of head injury should avoid any further, lest it results in blindness, deafness, memory loss or even death; a person with heart disease would need to avoid exertion, stress, and would likely have dietary and other restrictions.

All of this research that contributes to what Sarah calls "stage business." In the example she gave us a few weeks back, stage business consisted of one character brewing a cup of tea, while engaged in dialogue with another. The stage business provides a means of keeping track of which character is speaking, and at the same time giving the character some mannerisms that can be used later to identify them amongst others. Understanding the disease provides stage business in the form of treatments, symptoms, and the need to seek medical advice. A diabetic will likely need to inject themselves with insulin; a person with a neuromuscular disease may suffer from muscle spasms, tics, or involuntary motions; heart disease results in limits to specific activities. Each of these can be used to greater damage and character development, and specific elements of plot can be built around seeking and receiving treatment for the disease. Keep in mind that the disease affects not only a single character, but loved ones, family, guardians and coworkers. It is important that the description of the disease is accurate, but more so to obtain enough information to be able to write that character's viewpoint and life experience with the disease.

The resources are readily available online, if you only know where to look. This is one reason why I liked provide links whenever I describe the disease condition, and I discover websites which are devoted to that specific disease. Again, while you can start with Wikipedia, use it only as a starting point. Consult PubMed Health, and make liberal use of Google searches. If all else fails, ask an expert; it will be well worth your time, and make for much more believable characters.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

REVIEW: Sherlock and the Case of the Cocaine [Full link to blog for email clients.]

[Sarah Hoyt and I are coordinating several blogs this week.  This is either late Wednesday blog, or early Friday blog as part of a book launch for our friend Stephanie Osborn.  Sarah is also running an essay of mine on how to research and write a disease in your stories.  I'll rerun that article here tomorrow.]

In a previous blog (, I mentioned a recent book series by my friend Stephanie Osborn, detailing the adventures of The Displaced Detective. So far, Twilight Times has published the first two books of the series: The Displaced Detective: The Arrival and The Displaced Detective: At Speed. Stephanie is one of the scientist writers that I feel have so much to contribute to modern Science Fiction, with graduate and undergraduate degrees in astronomy, physics, chemistry and mathematics as well as over 20 years in the civilian and military space programs, she knows the value of research. A recent guest blog at Sarah Hoyt's According To Hoyt ( describes her process of research into the character of Sherlock Holmes. Suffice it to say that Steph delved much deeper into her characters mannerisms than many of us would ever consider. Please go back and read this blog, you should find it interesting.

On the subject of Sherlock Holmes research, the Gathering of Southern Sherlockians was last weekend in Chattanooga, TN. Stephanie Osborn (a member of the Nashville Scholars of the Three-Pipe Problem) presented a talk entitled, "Sherlock, Sheilas, and the Seven Percent Solution." I mention it here, because the paper is now a 99¢ eBook on Amazon ( and soon to be available for Nook and Kobo as well.

Holmesians and Osborn fans alike will find this an interesting read. To start with, consider that although the stories we know were written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the stories read much more as transcripts of real life than fiction. Thus, much of the "Holmesian" culture treats discussion of Sherlock Holmes as investigations into history. Along the way, they actually shed some light on the real history of the Victorian Age.

In the current example, Stephanie Osborn explores rationale for Holmes' cocaine habit: Cocaine was well known in the 18th century for both its stimulant and topical anesthetic effects. Coca extract was used as a numbing agent for facial procedures due to its ability to deplete neurotransmitters in the oral, nasal and ocular (eye) region; as a drink, it was a "refreshing tonic" that stimulated mental processes. While many might argue that Holmes injected cocaine for the stimulant effects, "Sherlock, Sheilas, and the Seven Percent Solution" presents another possible reason for Holmes' use.  In this monograph, Osborn explores not just the effects of cocaine during acute intoxication but the lingering effects between administrations of the drug. She even notes (with the assistance of a certain neuropharmacologist of mutual acquaintance) that the "rebound" of GABA neurons suppressed by cocaine might even assist with the near obsessive concentration with details of a case.

In short, "Sherlock, Sheilas, and the Seven Percent Solution" is an interesting read, a great example of not just scholarly work, but also bringing real science into Science Fiction. The monograph is worth the low price to gain more insight into the world of Sherlock Holmes and the stories of Stephanie Osborn.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The GUIDE: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Redux [Full link to blog for email clients.]

It seems like every week I'm reminding readers that errors in the text of this blog may be the result of transcription from dictation software. I've been trying to deal with the consequences of severe carpal tunnel syndrome since early March. Today I went for diagnosis, and the experience left me thinking of different things that I could add to this blog in order to inform and entertain my readers.

As defined before, carpal tunnel syndrome results from inflammation of the median nerve as it passes through a groove in the wrist which accommodates muscles, nerves, and blood supply for the hand. These items have to pass over the joint capsule of the wrist so that they are not pinched by the bones, and are held in place by a ligament which passes over the wrist in much the same way as a watchband. Repeated flexure of the wrist or holding the wrist in a position that compresses the nerve and blood supply results in numbness of the thumb and first 2 1/2 fingers, and can eventually cause muscle weakness and wasting. Carpal tunnel syndrome is also called repetitive motion injury, and is common among factory and assembly workers who continually makes small motion of the wrist. It is also common among persons with diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, or have sustained injury to the wrist. It is aggravated by inappropriate height and angle of computer keyboards, as in my case, coupled with several of the previous factors.

Diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome requires testing of the nerve conduction properties of the median nerve above and below the wrist. An electromyogram or EMG consists of placing electrodes on the thumb to record electrical activity downstream of the wrist, and electrical stimulation of the nerve in the palm, at the wrist, and at the elbow. As I went in for this procedure, it was fortunate that I understood what was going to happen.  I reported to be Diagnostic Neurology in midmorning and was greeted by an EMG technician. She explained that the procedure would be overseen by an attending physician and a clinical fellow, but that she would be my major contact as she performed the tests. She started off by attaching a large ground electrode to the back of my hand, and two smaller electrodes to my thumb. She then made a series of measurements and marks to the middle of my palm, my wrist, and my elbow. These would be the site of stimulation, and she needed the distances in order to be able to calibrate the nerve conduction velocity from stimulator to the electrodes.

The stimulation itself comes as a bit of a surprise. I felt a shock similar to that experienced with a strong static discharge, or for momentarily touching the "hot" leads of an AC cord. Anyone who's ever accidentally touched alternating current will recall that there is a brief momentary pain, and muscle twitch, and a vague "buzzing" feeling for few moments after the shock. After the first several stimulations, the surprise factor goes away, but there is a momentary pain from the stimulation. When applied to the wrist and palm, the pain wasn't too bad. However, the nerve is much deeper at the elbow, therefore the amperage required to get the same reaction had to be increased.  The pain did not last, and was over in less than a second.  In all I suppose it doesn't hurt that much more than when the physician taps on a joint with a reflex hammer. After mapping the nerve conduction from palm to thumb, from wrist to thumb, and from elbow to thumb, the technician "reversed" the stimulation, so that it would travel from wrist to neck and back down to the hand. The sequence was designed to determine where the blockage and nerve conduction was located: wrist, arm, or neck.

After mapping the nerve conduction of my left arm, the technician moved my right and repeated the same studies. About this time the clinical fellow return to the exam room, and they tested the ulnar nerve in my left arm by placing electrodes on my little finger, and stimulating the outside of the wrist, and back of the elbow. A couple of tests were rerun to confirm and then the attending physician was consulted. Again I was fortunate to know my physician, and he explain the condition in terms that I understood. The median nerve was compressed in both of my wrists, causing pain on both sides, and numbness in the fingers of the left hand. Next up would be an ultrasound, to actually look in the carpal tunnel, and perform a few measurements of the nerve. An ultrasound machine was wheeled into the room, sensor head used on the inside of the wrist, to show a cross-section of the blood supply muscles in the nerve as it passed through the carpal tunnel. The attending physician pointing out the median nerve, and makes measurements then moved further up the arm to measure the diameter of the median nerve above the wrist.inside the carpal tunnel, the median nerve was inflamed to 2 1/2 times the diameter that it was further up the arm. I was instructed to make a fist, spread my fingers, and bend and flex my wrist. It was fascinating to watch the muscles move around inside the wrist as I made those motions. The same thing was repeated with my other wrist, with similar results.

So I definitely have severe carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists. When the nerve becomes compressed, it is injured and the normal body reaction to injury is inflammation. Thus the increased diameter of the median nerve not only contributes to the pain and numbness, but increases the compression on nerve, muscles, and blood supply to the hand. Treatment options are typically "carpal tunnel release" in which the ligament crossing the carpal tunnel is cut to reduce the tension and compression, or injection of steroids to reduce inflammation. The latter is considered a temporary procedure, and in severe cases is used only when it is not possible to perform surgery at that time. I will have to consider these options when I go back to talk to the doctor, but I have several recommendations, including a surgeon whose work is highly recommended by my neurologist friend.

While one part of me is trying to cope with the idea of surgery, the other was fascinated by the procedures used to diagnose this disorder. I have been familiar with electromyography and nerve conduction studies, but had never actually experienced it myself. The neurology team explained that the use of ultrasound is relatively new and provides the type of diagnosis that previously was only possible once a surgical procedure had begun and the doctors could look wrist to determine the severity of the disorder. It is rather fascinating to watch the muscles of the wrist moving around in real-time as you move your hand. In this case the ultrasound was primarily for confirmation, but the ability to measure nerve diameter was an important contributing factor to the overall diagnosis.

So that's my experience, and current status with respect to carpal tunnel syndrome. I present this description is yet another element for understanding brain science, and peripheral nerve science both for writers and readers of science fiction. I hope this has been informative, and may even prompt some of you to receive proper diagnosis if you suspect you have the same or similar condition.

Until next time, as long as y'all are reading, I'll continue dictating.

Friday, April 20, 2012

NEWS: Convention AAR [Full link to blog for email clients.]

The much promised Stellarcon and Ravencon After Action Report is here!

This past weekend was Ravencon, Richmond, VA..  A month ago was Stellarcon in High Point, NC.   I attended both as a science guest.  Ravencon has a Science track, and attracts a number of talented scientists and scientist/authors.  Stellarcon is working on building a science/academics track with "S.O.N.A.R." - the Symposium On Nerdy Academic Research.

Stellarcon was fun.  An SF convention is like a big family reunion.  One of my friends, Baen Books author Michael Z. Williamson, was a special guest and we spent time talking about sharp pointy things, things that go "boom", good food (and bad) and of course, writing.    Two of the highlights of the con for me were the panels:  "Hard Science Fiction" in which I sat next to Baen Senior Editor Jim Minz as we discussed the present and future of Hard Science Fiction, and the panel on Research for Writers in which I told the tale of MadMike (Williamson's) quest for the messiest assassin weapon for his book Rogue (he settled on a capsule of chlorine trifluoride, one of the most reactive substances known - for more info, look up John D. Clark's Ignition: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants - but you'll have to get it on interlibrary loan, it is sadly out of print).   An hour of absolute hilarity ensued with MadMike and I participated in "Messiest Ways to Kill Zombies."  I promise, we will try this panel again at a future Con, and record video for your enjoyment.

If anything, Ravencon was even more fun, starting with panels on designing aliens, and ending with implications of alien first contact.  I tried out something new at Raven, where many established authors hold readings or "coffee klatch" style small panels, I elected to have an "Ask a Scientist" panel which filled our (small) room to bursting and seemed (to me) to be a great way to spend an hour answering fan questions and talking about many of the topics that get covered here in the blog.

I was thrilled to spend time both on panels with, and talking privately to, authors Paula S. Jordan, Gail Martin, Kate Paulk and Dr. Charles E. Gannon, plus agent Miike Kabongo.  - Chuck:  I still owe you that conversation about blood substitutes - I'm sure we'll see each other at Dragon*Con, but email me before then, and we'll talk!  Paula Jordan and I had many panels together, and she did a wonderful job reining in the talkative authors (and scientists!).  It was definitely a pleasure.  Gail Martin is fairly local to yours truly, and she had some very interesting perspective on the panel "Disturbing Ramifications of Harry Potter" (and confidentially, Mike Kabongo, I am so glad that panel did not go where I was afraid it might!).  By the way, Kate Paulk - you got much more material for your next SF con-based book, right?  Folks, Kate does research like you wouldn't believe, we had several long conversations about background for her books.  Frankly, I would love to plug each and every book here, but I can neither mention nor remember them all!

SF conventions are like family reunions, the good kind.  The only problem is that eventually you have to go home.  To Bunny, Brad, Kell, Glennis, Crystal, Leon, Katie, Clay, Dex, Dale, Lisa, Vonn, Leo, JPMike, Doris, Laura, Paul, Gray, Stacey, Shirt, Vanner, Heather, O'Mike, Kate, and any Baen Bar Flies I've missed (and Phil, sorry you missed it) - until next time...

And many, many thanks to Stellarcon and Ravencon staff for having me as a guest.  It was fun!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

NEWS: The Hand is Quicker than the Mind. [Full link to blog for email clients.]

This is the final blog in a series that addresses a recent article by entitled "Five Seemingly Random Factors That Control Your Memory" (   The article starts off with point number five: "walking through doorways."  In which we learned that our memory divides information into compartments, and those compartments are divided much as the rooms of the house are divided by doorways.  Point number four: "ridiculous fonts" demonstrates that human memory is largely visual, and visual novelty assists in creating the context allowing information to be more easily remembered.  Point number three: "deep voices" reveals that our emotional state, attraction and sex appeal, also contribute to the context which allows information to be more easily remembered.  In the previous blog we addressed point number two: "faces" in which we learn that the visual system, and hence memory, are particularly care and to complex visual objects.  There are even neurons in the brain that specifically respond to faces.

This brings us at last to's number one factor that controls our memory: "hand gestures."  From the article:

"Here's something you've probably never wondered: Why do people talk with their hands? Almost everyone gestures when they're talking -- when they're counting down something, they hold up a hand and point to a finger to tick off each point. During an argument, most people can't illustrate their point without almost accidentally karate chopping you in the throat."
 The article goes on to explain that learning and remembering portions of the brain are connected to the portions of the brain that move our hands.  As we discussed in the previous blogs.  This is the correct explanation but doesn't go quite far enough.  All of these "seemingly random factors" are really getting back to the issue that I have stated many times with respect to memory: memory is dependent on association.  When information is associated with movement: whether that's movement of the hands only, or movement of the entire body, more regions of the brain contribute to the association or context of the memory.  In addition to the simple context of of movement, hand gestures also involve what is known as "kinesthetic sense."  Kinesthetic senses an important component of memory, since your brain needs to know how your body is positioned and where everything is located before you make a new movement.  Much of this information is not processed in the temporal lobe like specific event memory, but in the basal ganglia and cerebellum.  In fact, this is one reason why it is possible to learn skills to the point where performing them requires no conscious thought at all.  Athletes and soldiers call this "muscle memory" even though the memory itself has little to do with the muscles and everything to do with brain.

One of the amazing capabilities of the classic amnesia patient H.M. is the fact that even though his memory for events and facts did not last more than 10 min., he showed evidence of being able to learn and remember a skill even though he could not recall ever having learned it.  As you may recall from an earlier blog (,  the patient that history records simply as H.M. had epilepsy, which was not treatable by medication.  A neurosurgeon removed the medial temporal lobe, including hippocampus, from both sides of his brain.  After the surgery, H.M. was able to remember events that had occurred in his childhood, or well before the onset of his epilepsy and his surgery, but was unable to form new memories.  However, when therapists presented H.M. with puzzle which required a certain level of skill to complete, he showed evidence of continually improving performance, even though he would tell doctors each time that he had never seen the puzzle before.  The studies led to our current understanding of skill learning including the phenomenon of "muscle memory."  Again, this should come as no surprise that muscle movements and body movements are associated with memory.  Even though they involve two different memory systems, one requiring the hippocampus while the other does not, in a healthy individual the two systems interact in the formation of new memories.

I owe a debt of gratitude both to the article for bringing up these interesting concepts, and to the friend who asked my opinion of the article - thus prompting this series of blog posts.  As always, I'm very interested in analyzing and interpreting science in the public media and in the news.  If you see an article you wish to suggest for future topic, please feel free to bring it to my attention.

There are many other tricks for improving memory that do not require one to have what is commonly referred to as a "photographic memory."  .  Many of these tricks involve repetition, association and tapping into the normal brain mechanisms which are contributing to the formation of memory all of the time.  as you can see from this series, there are many different factors which both assist and impair the function of memory.  The best way to improve our memory, is to better understand the distractions and the benefits that we can get from context and association.

Until next time, keep using your brain, make associations and observe the context.  You'll be glad you did!

Monday, April 16, 2012

NEWS: More "Cracked" Science [Full link to blog for email clients.]

For the past several blogs we've been discussing a recent article by about five seemingly random factors that control our memory ( Today we will look at the effect of visual objects on memory, specifically with respect to the articles point number two: looking at the floor actually affects your memory.  From the article:

"Picture, in your mind, an elderly person who is desperately struggling to remember a name or event. He's got his hand on his chin, he's muttering to himself ("Was that Steve? No, Steve was in jail that year. Maybe Carl?"). Now let us ask you: Where is he looking?

Either at the floor or the ceiling -- almost as if he expects to find the answer written there. He may also just stare off into space -- anywhere, as long as he's not looking at you. Why?
It's faces."
 Again, while the article was correct, looking at faces does interfere with memory recall, in fact, it's a lot more complicated than that.  All visual items in our field of view affect our ability to recall.  This is due to the large amount of processing that occurs in the visual system which takes spots of light connects them into lines, the lines are connected in the shapes, and the shapes are connected into more complex objects.  An early study by the researchers Hubel and Wiesel found that there were cells in the visual cortex, which responded to lines in our field of view.  The neurons were organized into columns, and each column was sensitive to a bar of light (or an edge/dark line) with a particular orientation, or angle.  Columns for the left eye alternated with columns for the right eye, and these in turn alternated with different orientations or angles until all possible combinations were represented in the visual cortex.  This is the representation found in the area of cortex known as V1.  Association areas, brain areas which combined sensory information, contained neurons which responded to increasingly complex shapes, orientations, and even colors.  In the association area known as V4, are neurons which respond to complex objects in our environment, including faces.  It is rather amazing to think that there are cells in the brain, which respond only to the combination of features comprising a face: two eyes, a nose and a mouth - with or without facial hair.  The association areas in parietal lobe are heavily connected to the medial temporal lobe, and the memory centers therein.  It also appears that there are specific neurons in the hippocampus – the regional brain responsible for encoding and processing, memory – which also respond to features of a visual scene, such as background color or foreground shape.  Thus, what we encode and remember is not the whole scene but specific features – particularly faces.

Thus, it should not be surprising that our memory is sensitive to faces, and when we are attempting to recall items of memory, those faces that we see can interfere with the memory itself.  The more complete answer to the question of why a person looks at the floor at the ceiling or stares blankly into space, is that what they're doing is shutting out visual input.  It's easiest to do this by staring at something that does not have a lot of complex features.  You can get the same effect by simply de-focusing your eyes so that you do not see fine detail of your surroundings.  It's also why people who have to visualize in order to remember, like the computer technician who's trying to tell you what should be on your computer screen, often close their eyes when trying to remember.  It's not just the faces that interfere, but all of the visual input that conflicts with the information were trying to recall.

At the same time, other types of sensory information can also interfere with the process of recall.  While it may be possible to study for an exam with music playing, it's much harder to recall the information and take the exam with distraction.  However, this ties into something known as "state dependent learning."  Because all of our environment contributes to the context when memory is being encoded, quite frequently we need to re-create at least a portion of that context in order to recall.  A student who spends their time studying with TV, music and other dormitory distractions, can have a more difficult time recalling information during an exam.  At the same time a student who studies in a quiet, calm environment, such as a library performs much better in the similarly quiet environment of the examination classroom.  If this is true for auditory and visual distractions, it is even more so for the presence or absence of "recreational pharmaceuticals."

In the next blog we will look at the final "seemingly random factor" and finish this analysis of science in the news.  This past weekend was the RavenCon science fiction convention, and I hope to have a convention report for you to follow the current series.

Until then, keep looking up – or down – whatever it takes to help you remember!

Friday, April 13, 2012

NEWS: More Seemingly Random Factors That Control Your Memory [Full link to blog for email clients.] 

In the previous blog I started a discussion of a recent article that appeared in,  The article was entitled "Five Seemingly Random Factors That Control Your Memory"  (  I previously discussed the neuroscience behind the idea that you can assist your memory by walking through a doorway.  While the article was correct in its description, the actual scientific story behind doorways as means to "jog" one's memory is a bit more complicated.  However, that's a subject for the previous blog.  If you've just found this topic the and Internet search, I suggest you start back here ( at the previous blog before reading this one.

After describing the utilities of doorways as a context for memory, the article goes on to mention points number four and three: "Ridiculous Fonts" and "Deep Voices".  The article describes several tests in which subjects were prompted to read and remember information that was presented to them as text.  When the text was printed with an unusual font, it was much easier to remember.  In particular, a school textbook printed in its normal uniform typeface, vs. the same material printed with a noticeably unusual typeface, was much harder to recall from the "normal" typeface.  The reasoning behind this, and the neuroscience as well, is that human memory is quite graphical.  If one examines a lizard brain, you find that the largest portions of the brain are those that process the sense of smell. This is because the lizard primarily uses the senses of smell and taste to explore its environment.  Now look at the brain of a dog or cat: the regions of the brain for processing sight and sound are much larger than those for processing smell and taste.  Cats and dogs still use their sense of smell, but now they have very sensitive hearing, and a decent sense of vision.  Finally, let's look at primates: monkeys, apes, and humans.  Our brains have very large areas for processing visual information.  Oh, we still have a fairly large region for processing auditory information, but the regions for smell and taste are quite small compared to sight and sound.  Again, this is because the primate brain is primarily oriented around visual information to describe its environment.

Memory is Association.  I've said this before, and will continue to repeat that: The association between environmental context, events, and specific information to be remembered is what allows memory to be stored and retrieved. does information that is presented by graphical means is much better remembered.  This is why television commercials are very successful.  It's also why advertisements which catch our eye are much more easy to remember than other types of information.  Unusual fonts are a method for taking information and adding a specific graphical context.  The additional context not only provides more items to be encoded with the information, but also provides additional context information used for recall.  In addition, there are specific brain areas to look for unusual items in our sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.  The cingulate cortex is a region of brain, which reacts to novelty, or information that does not match what is expected.  The amygdala is another region that response to unusual input, since its primary job is to compare current information with remembered, or historical information.  Both regions of the brain are involved in detecting novelty, and in determining whether what we see or sense is familiar or the same as we remember.  Both cingulate and amygdala have connections back to the medial Temporal Lobe where memory is encoded and processed.  Once again, additional context facilitates memory.

A similar mechanism is in play for both men and women who receive information in an appealing context.  For women, hearing information in a low sexy male voice is frequently associated with better recall.  The same works for men, but then, they may get distracted by the source, if it's a sexy female, and not pay enough attention to the information!  Sex appeal (and emotion!) activates additional portions of the brain and the basal ganglia and in the limbic system, which is heavily connected with hippocampus.  Once again, sex appeal provides additional items of context, and the richer the context, the more easily information is retained.  By the way, the appeal of different voices is also reflected in musical choices.  I have noticed that the listening preferences of men and women are quite different: in many cases, men tend to prefer female singers, where women prefer male singers.  This can occur even in the absence of the visual images of the singers, and reflects preferences in the auditory processing of men and women.  Men respond better to treble voices, whereas women respond better to  bass voices.  This may have to do with the tuning preference of the auditory system, and certainly can change with age.  Of course there are other factors:, the style of music, the appearance of the artist, and other social information, but men and women really do seem to have a built-in wiring difference for male and female voices and this shows up in our ability to remember.

In the next blog .  We will continue to discuss the article with the effective faces on memory.

Until next time, just imagine that I'm narrating this  with James Earl Jones's voice!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

NEWS: The Neuroscience behind the story [Full link to blog for email clients.]

I've got to say that I think I have some of the greatest friends and fans in the world.  Just today I was wondering what topics to use for blog posts over the next week or so.  Unfortunately, it seems that I am going to be dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome for some time, so I need to get used to dictating the blogs, and I was worried about what content would be appropriate for dictation.

So today in Facebook, I received a message asking my opinion of a recent article on  Now, normally is funny, satirical, or just plain strange.  However, they really do have some interesting articles in this is one that I thought was worthy of comment on this blog.  The article with the following link ( described find seemingly random factors that control our memory. I think I'll take these one or two at a time and tell you a little bit about the neuroscience that actually explains the strange phenomena.

The article starts out by saying "We have all experienced zone out moments when we totally should remember something that has apparently been deleted from our brains hard drive against our will.  That's because the human brain is a haphazard messy machine that glitches at the slightest strangest provocation.  However our old friend science has tracked down some the completely random things to decide whether or not your memory will choose to function at that particular moment.  Things like: #5 Walking through doorways."  the section goes on to describe the following scenario: you walk into a room, you know you came in here to do something, but you can't remember what it was.  You try to remember and end up retracing your steps: did you come from the kitchen?  Did you come from the bedroom?  Was there something in this room that you wanted or needed?  Once you begin to retrace your steps, you remember what it was that you were trying to do in the first place.  According to the article, the trigger for your memory was walking through the doorway;  your memory partitions information into folders, much like your computer hard drive.  Those folders are organized by events which includes changing spatial locations such as walking through the doorway.

so now we know what has to say about "doorway" memory, which is neuroscience really have to say about this?  Well, it's true.  The brain actually does organize information, according to what we would normally call "contexts".  I've mentioned on many previous blogs that memory involves association, and those associations can be many types of information.  A very important type of context is spatial context.  One of my favorite brain areas, the hippocampus, is involved in the representation of place and spatial relationships.  Back in the 1970s, to scientists discovered that cells in the hippocampus of rats were active only when that animal was in a particular place and its environment (O'Keefe J, Dostrovsky J (November 1971). "The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat". Brain Res. 34 (1): 171–5).  Following these findings neuroscientists who study the hippocampus have spent 40 years defining the spatial mapping properties of neurons in this part of the brain.  We learned many things, that memory for places is a very important context for memory in general.  We've learned that the act of walking from one space to another, through a doorway or small opening, causes the spatial memory to reset and the new map to be formed.  We learn that taking an animal out of a known, well explored area, and putting the animal back in later causes the same map.  To "appear" in the activity of hippocampal neurons.  We've also come to know that information that needs to be remembered, occurring at different spatial locations, is encoded differently.

Thus it is quite true that walking through doorways can re-trigger memories and help us to remember what it is we entered the room to do.  However, it's a little bit more complex than that, for it is not just walking through the doorway, but retracing our steps that is important.  As neuroscientists study place cells and spatial representation, we discover that there are number brain areas involved in mapping the pathway or trajectory that a subject takes through their environment.  There are cells in in Toronto cortex that appear to create a "grid" upon which a cognitive map is formed.  There are neurons in brain areas surrounding hippocampus that encode the direction that a subject is pointing or looking.  There are also neurons which appear to encode only particular trajectories: they may fire when the animal goes through a particular location, from right to left, but not when the animal goes through the same location from left to right. Together, all of these neurons form a system known to neuroscientists as "path integration."  Just as much as spatial location is an important context for memory, the pathway or trajectory that subject follows is also important context for memory.  Therefore, it's not just walking through the doorway, but retracing one's steps, in order to jog your memory and recall what you forgotten.  In many ways it's just like trying to remember the title of the song.  You can remember some of the lyrics, but not the title.  So if you start this to sing the song to yourself, all the way to the end of the verse and back to the beginning, you can quite frequently remember the title because now you have the full context.

And as I've stated in other blogs, when it comes to memory, context is everything.

In the next few blogs I continue with this article and talk about two additional factors that help jog your memory, and even assist in forming the memory in the first place.  Until next time, keep walking through those doorways!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

COMMENT: Science Education [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Two interesting articles from the Internet have crossed my desk today. These articles have caused me to consider the state of scientific education in our schools and universities. The first article is one that compares confidence or trust in science or scientific institutions with political affiliation.   William Briggs, a statistician looks at a recent article regarding public trust in various institutions including Science (  While Briggs's blog is specifically questioning the valid statistical basis behind the survey (a peer-reviewed article in American Sociological Review: “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010.”) he raises a very interesting point regarding "science" versus "Scientism". In Briggs' analysis, he notes that the survey asked for correspondence confidence, or levels of trust, and scientific institutions, particularly the leadership of those institutions. The author of the cited peer-reviewed manuscript, however, interprets the respondents response to the survey as trust in science as a field, and not referring to trust in scientific movements, consensus, or popular conception. On the other hand, breaks per first two referred to scientific consensus, or popular conception, as "Scientism." Scientism is an attitude, a consensus or trend in the field of science, but not necessarily investigation or experimentation to discern scientific fact.

For example, when faced with two pieces of data that are contradictory, Science will test both items and reject the one that fails tests of repeatability, parsimony, and consistency. Scientism, rather, rejects the data that does not fit "accepted" doctrine or politically correct posturing. There are many examples of Scientism both from liberal and conservative viewpoints. To the liberal, "creationism" is Scientism; likewise to the religious conservative, evolution occupies much the same niche. Within the field of Science however, evolution consists of a set of consistent theories, that provide a workable foundation for laboratory and field studies. To the conservative, "climate change" is also Scientism, and any dispute or contradiction is quickly shot down because "it's for the children."  To be fair, I consider myself both a conservative politically and religiously, but I consider myself a Scientist with an empahsis on investigation and discovery.  Oh, and by the way, Scientism is not limited to environmental concerns: Any time the status quo is challenged and resisted in a scientific field on the basis of "accepted" knowledge, Scientism is the result.

Yet the purpose of science is not to perpetuate dogma, but to constantly question, investigate, and explore. The second article to catch my attention today regards polar bear populations in Canada. In the town of Nunavik, Ion the western shore of Hudson Bay, a recent census shows that polar bear populations are not declining as quickly as would be predicted Climate Change. In the article (, the locals in Nunavik express confidence that polar bear populations are not endangered, and are in fact thriving. In resonance with the previous discussion Scientism, other comments within the article dispute the polar bear census findings, simply because they do not fit the accepted theories of endangered polar bear populations. This is a clear example of Scientism versus science. Science would approach the discrepancy between theory and observation with the need for more observation and experimental data. Scientism on the other hand, rejects the observation simply because it does not fit the narrative.

These discussions raise the question of how effectively our society is providing scientific education. On the one hand, liberals are fond of pointing out that conservatives are endangering science education with adherence to religious doctrines such as creationism and intelligent design. On the other hand liberalism itself endangers science and other ways.  Dilution of education in science is the result of many factors, and not all of them can be pinned on “conservatives” or the religious right.
  • School budgets cut education resources, with the result that classes can no longer afford experimental sessions and field trips. There are elementary schools in the Los Angeles area whose only science teaching occurs when university volunteers step in to bring science to the classroom (due to NSF grant requirements) without those volunteers, there would be no science taught in those classes.
  • Political and societal pressures have eliminated dissections, frog labs, rat and mouse behavioral experiments. 
  • Fears of chemical exposure, accidents and even terrorism have restricted chemistry labs. 
  • Lack of equipment shuts down physics labs. 
  • Multiculturalism teaches that the scientific, technological Western civilization conveys no advantages over any other culture. 
  • No Child Left Behind and teaching to the EOG tests slows the progress of eduction to the least common denominator. 
  • Abandonment of didactic teaching methods and grading scales in favor of "projects" and building self-esteem neglects the very fundamentals of scientific knowledge.
In particular, Science education is suppressed in favor of Scientism when students are taught that “there is consensus! The science is settled!”

Science is about questioning assumptions and performing experiments to collect data. Stressing “sustainability” and “nonmaterialist science” to the exclusion of investigation and the scientific method takes precious class time away from physical constants, synthetic pathways and biological processes. 

While there is no doubt that the reactionary conservatism and creationism imperil trust in Science as an institution, it is the far broader threat of conservative and liberal interference and neglect, rather, that poses the greatest threat to education of Science in our nation’s schools.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The GUIDE: Brain & Machine (Part 3 of Bionics and Brain-Machine Interfaces) [Full link to blog for email clients.]

For the final installment in this series, we will look at brain to machine or brain to computer interfaces that do not require a direct interface with neurons.  whereas interfaces that involve electrodes implanted into brain are typically termed "brain machine interface", interfaces that operate "noninvasively" are quite frequently called "brain computer interfaces". Thus when looking at the literature, it can be a bit confusing to see reference to BMI versus BCI, without realizing that they are referring to essentially the same thing.

BCI's typically involve recording electroencephalograph information from the scalp, and using special amplifiers and processors to identify specific frequency components, and use that identification to drive a computer interface. The simplest such connection, is somewhat reminiscent of the "biofeedback" devices popular in the 70s. A biofeedback monitor is simply a single channel EEG amplifier connected to a filter for the "Alpha" frequency waveform of EEG. Using a technique called fast Fourier transformation, the relative power or quantity of waveforms that fall in the alpha frequency band between eight and 12 Hz is represented with a simple analog meter. The alpha frequency is associated with meditation, relaxation, and quiet concentration. The commercially available device from NeuroSky ( was originally designed to measure increases and decreases in alpha frequency, and provide a simple on-off switch for computer interface. Their current devices measure five different frequency ranges, and can produce differential outputs to a computer based on the ratio of EEG frequency. Like many brain machine interfaces, and EEG frequency-based BCI requires the user to train themselves to alter their EEG frequencies. Thus the analogy to biofeedback training, since users learn how to produce active and quiet PEG through a process very similar to meditation.

More sophisticated BCI's are being developed, that use more than just the frequency of EEG to drive a computer interface. Increasing sophistication of a device such as NeuroSky, and the BCI2000 system pioneered by Gerwin Schalk (, have begun to take multiple channels of EEG and look for much finer detail which represents movement intention, and focused attention. Aside from the (unintentional) alliterative nature of the previous sentence, the two processes are very similar. Research in the 1980s and 90s demonstrated that prior to an actual limb movement, areas of the brain involved in planning of movement became active several seconds before the movement. By mapping this activity, researchers could correlate the neural activity with the actual muscle activation, and control a robotic arm by "thought" alone. Such a finding is very important for developing a prosthetic to replace an amputated limb, since prosthetic movement needs to be controlled by the "intention" to move. On the other hand researchers also found that by focusing one's attention on the type of movements that they wish to make, they can also correlate brain activity with movement.

Difficult as it was to perform these analyses with electrodes implanted directly into the brain, it is even more difficult to select the information-containing components from EEG recorded from outside the skull. will the more distant and electrode is located from the neural activity that is to record, the weaker the signal, and the more noise or unrelated information can be recorded at the same time. EEG is a form of recording known as "volume conduction" in which the sum of neural signals from a large volume combine onto a given electrode. The intervening skull and scalp also contribute to attenuation of the signal from specific brain areas. The best way to correct for these effects is to use multichannel EEG in which a dozen or more electrodes are placed onto the scalp, and signals can be localized by comparison between pairs of electrodes with different spatial orientation with respect to the brain area being recorded.  While this enables a finer detail and recording, it still does not compare to the detail that can be obtained with implanted electrodes. Neuroscience as a field is quite familiar with this problem. It is typically referred to as "the inverse problem" in that it requires reverse engineering the inputs (neural activity in specific brain areas) from the EEG output. It is a computationally intensive effort that has not yet been solved. However in the interim, devices such as that produced by NeuroSky and analysis platforms such as BCI 2000 to allow for derivation of information from the EEG Tech and be used to drive a computer or device.

Brain computer interfaces of all types have application not only in bionics and prosthetics, but in providing communication and device control for quadriplegics and those suffering from debilitating neural diseases such as ALS. They are an important component not only of neuroscience but of rehabilitative medicine, and have the potential to teach us much more about the brain, than we have already learned in the process of developing these devices. Thus, the current state of the art in bionics, prosthetics, and brain machine interfaces is still fairly crude. This is not to say that it is not effective, or that it does not provide sufficient information to drive a prosthetic or an interface. It is simply that we are still a long way from the "Six Million Dollar Man" ideal of an interface directly from machines to the brain and from the brain to machines.

This ends our series on bionics, prosthetics, and brain machine interfaces. I will take a brief break from the Lab Rats Guide to the Brain with some current events news articles and a report from the StellarCon science-fiction convention. Please note that I'm still having to dictate blog entries, which may result in some delays in the near future.

Until next time, take care of your brain: we can't quite rebuild it, we don't yet have the technology.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A new direction [Full link to blog for email clients.]

I return from California all refreshed and full of new ideas.  With continued difficulties including Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, asthma, obesity, aging and bad joints, I have decided to steal a cue from my own research and that of SF writer Anne McCaffrey and have my brain directly interfaced with my computer.  I will go Steven Hawking one step better and simply discard this body in favor of a titanium and teflon shell. 

For my purposes, I have selected a suite of sensors manufactured by my own colleagues, and plan to interface my intellect with customized supercomputing processing chips rather than anything commercially available.  I have rejected both the Windows and MacOS operating systems (for obvious reasons) and have written my own OS entitled: MinDGameS. The advantage of this novel OS is not just in the facility of brain-machine interfacing, but also in the ability to support computer games from Atari to XBox.  The 100 fold-speed in processing throughout for writing grants and manuscripts will finally allow me enough spare time to play Halo and Call of Duty.

I regret that this procedure should keep me out of the loop for about 12 months, subjective time.  However, considering the objective acceleration of time sense inherent in the new processing support, I should be back online by next April 1st - or Tuesday, whichever comes first.