Sunday, December 19, 2010

A big move

I just moved back from the US to the Netherlands after more than seven
years. It's been quite an experience. There are a lot of subtle
changes in culture. For example: being reawakened to the fact that
although many Dutch people are very nice, some of them are quite
rude. While biking through the city, some random girls were shouting
'bitch' at me. Bikes themselves are quite another thing. I am very
happy I can bike everywhere again. Even when you go to IKEA, there is
a bike path that leads you right to the entrance. Because people do go
to IKEA on bikes! It took some getting used to the sheer volume of
other bikes--navigating the group dynamics that arise from that (e.g,,
needing to pass the slow bikers, people biking all over each other at
an intersection...)

Other things that struck me were garbage disposal policies, rules in
general. You actually have to walk 100 m or so to get to an
underground container where you can deposit your trash bag if you use
an electronic card to open it. And then there is paper and glass
recycling in another place. Quite complicated compared to simply
putting it outside your house in the US! And then the amount of little
rules, e.g., you're not allowed to have a water boiler in your office
(but there is no central water boiler either!), not allowed to hang
things on the wall of your office except on the rails provided by the
university, etc etc. It also struck me there are quite a few smokers
in the Netherlands compared to the US (luckily they are not allowed in
buildings anymore, but that's actually quite recent). Speaking of the
office: to my astonishment my office at Zernike science park turns
pretty much into a ghost house at 5 pm. This is quite different from
my office at Princeton, which is buzzing with activity until about 7

And then the trains: what I love is that there are so many of them,
and some of them even have free wifi! What sucks though is that
because of the complexity of the railway system, things can go
dramatically wrong. Like this past weekend, after 25 cm of snow in
Amsterdam: almost no trains were running and I spent *a lot* of time
in a packed train, shuttling from Amersfoort to Amsterdam and back
(including an amazing experience of taking about one hour to get from
Amsterdam Muiderpoort to Amsterdam Centraal). Having said that, the
camaraderie between the travellers was wonderful.

I am sure I will discover many more funny little differences as I am
getting settled more in the Netherlands. It's quite an interesting experience!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Where practice really matters: an accident

It actually already happened a few months ago, but I was too busy too
blog beforehand. At the end of August, I was involved in an accident:
I broke five ribs and had stuff in my lungs (pulmonary contusions)
because I was hit by a car while I was biking. It was a great
lesson in the power of practice. Even though I am by no means a great
practitioner, I started to get a sense of what the masters mean when
they say that they welcome obstacles and suffering, as fuel for their
practice. It is during suffering that you can see how powerful the
practice is, even if you feel you are mostly distracted when sitting
on your cushion.

When the accident happened, somehow there was no fear, because there
is always the refuge in the lama, and in Guru Rinpoche. Guru Rinpoche
is such a powerful Buddha that you are protected, no matter what. When
an accident like this happens, I pray with all my might and feel his
blessing, as in the Heart Practice described in the Tibetan Book of
Living and Dying. After they had made all the diagnosis, I was taken
to the Intensive Care unit. My job was simply to breathe, because
breathing deeply would prevent the contusions from turning into
pneumonia. It was thus literally "breathing as if your life depended
on it," as Jon Kabat-Zinn likes to say. Since I had nothing with me,
not even a cell phone, I just spent the first 24 hours mostly
breathing, and meditating. It was like an involuntary retreat. What
was amazing was that the nursing staff seemed to really appreciate the
atmosphere it created in the room. I also spent some time doing the
practice of Tonglen, for all those people suffering much more than I
did, and especially for the driver of the car who had hit me. Focusing
on others' suffering really makes your own suffering decrease.

I also appreciated the teachings on emptiness when I had a lot of
pain. When you contemplate the impermanence and interdependence of
things, somehow the reality, including the pain, becomes less
solid. And it turned out the pain was really not so bad. In fact, my
suffering was so much eased by this tremendous gratitude that I had
the teachings, and that I had so many wonderful people around me who
came to visit, who called, who prayer for me, and who helped me in
many ways. I was really protected by the Buddha, the Dharma and the

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Dance may prevent cognitive decline in the elderly

An interesting bit of science this week was a study by Kattenstroth et
al in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, which was entitled "Superior sensory, motor, and cognitive performance in elderly individuals with
multi-year dancing activities"
. Although this study has many problems,
I thought it was still interesting. They compared performance of
elderly with a regular involvement in ballroom dancing (average dance
experience was 16 years) with a control group in a bunch of cognitive
and sensorimotor tests. Not surprisingly, they found that the dancing
elderly did better on the motor tests. They also found that they were
better on Raven's progressive matrices, a standard test of executive
function and cognitive control. I would be quite curious to know
whether those elderly were also better on tests of memory for
sequences, because remembering sequences is what you do a lot in
dancing (although I am not sure to what extent it is required in
ballroom dancing, now I come to think of it). A major problem with
their study was that there is a good chance that we're looking at
selection effects here: the elderly are dancing exactly because they
are still in good physical and mental shape. It would be interesting
to compare this group to a group of elderly who recently had to quit
dancing because of physical problems. Maybe the cognitive effects
could still be seen in such a group. Nevertheless, I think it is
probably always good to keep dancing into old age to stay happy,
healthy and alert.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Stress in academia

This week a message not about some scientific findings but rather
about what it's like to be a scientist, which is ... stressful
sometimes. I was talking about the upcoming grant deadline and he
remarked that I was not stressed at all, hence today's topic. It was
actually true that I wasn't very stressed, and it's an interesting
question to consider why. I think two things that help with stress are
(1) regular exercise and (2) having a bigger perspective. For number
1, I do ballet, which is a great source of joy as well as
exercise-induced endorphins. During ballet class, the only thing I can
focus on is the dance, the music and the expression, because otherwise
I will lose the plot and mess up the exercise. I think it's really
good to have such mental breaks, because they allow you to reorganize
your thoughts, and you'll get back to work with a lot of new ideas and
insights. Recently I read an interesting interview with the Dutch
philosopher Joke Hermsen, who complained about the hurried culture,
and the importance of simply wasting your time so you could get ideas
and reorganize your thought. I think it is a similar idea.

In addition to dancing I have my Buddhist practice, in which I
contemplate life and death every day. In the perspective of life and
death, a simple grant deadline is not such a big deal. In the end,
that is not what life is about. What life is about is more the
intention than the goal--simply because we cannot really control the
results of our actions which are dependent upon so many other
factors. Realizing this, we can take a step back and just say "I put
all my effort in it, now let's just see what happens. Irrespective of
the outcome, may this be of benefit to the world." When we take the I
out in this way, the stress is largely gone.

Disclaimer: This is of course all theory, and in practice I do get
stressed as well, but at least a whole lot less than without these tools!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

How our memory influences our eye movements

I recently read a very interesting paper in Vision Research, which
showed that even if it is not a useful thing to solve the task at
hand, your eyes will tend to go to items that you have in your short
term memory (Mannan, Kennard, Potter, Pan & Soto (2010) Early
oculomotor capture by new onsets driven by the contents of working
memory. Vision Research 50:1590). They had people perform a dual task
where they first got a color to maintain in memory, and then had to
make a saccade to a colored circle on a screen with a tilted line. It turned
out that they were often distracted by the color they held in their
memory, and saccaded to that circle instead. This study therefore
shows again how much our perception is automatic and colored (quite
literally, in this case) by the things we have in mind (in our working
memory, and I am sure in our long term memory as well). "With our
thoughts we make the world."

Monday, July 12, 2010

Tenzin Gyatso Instute: how ancient teachings on wisdom and compassion can bring happiness to the modern world

The weekend of June 17/18th marked a pretty remarkable event in Berne, NY. On a piece of land where previously there was nothing, a group of almost 500 Rigpa students, local residents from the area of Berne, and Tibetan and Himalayan people came together to attend the inauguration of the Tenzin Gyatso Institute (TGI). TGI is a new center dedicated to bringing the ancient wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism in the modern world, and to making it live on. The day was marked by celebrations, uniting three different flavors: Tibetan culture, Western science, and its connecting bridge, the Buddhist teachings.

The event was enlivended with Tibetan music provided by the lovely Tenzin Kunsel (see picture), speeches by the eminent Tibetan leaders Lodi Gyari Rinpoche, Lobsang Nyandak, and Rinchen Dharlo, who all emphasized the historic nature of this event. Very encouraging was the fact among the Tibetan and Himalayan people there were many young people, who wanted to reconnect with their religion and culture. They felt very happy that Sogyal Rinpoche was a modern lama who at the same time upheld an authentic lineage. Young people are particularly important because the group of Western students that is drawn to Buddhism tends to be quite old ;-)

On the theme of science, Daniel Goleman discussed some scientific studies about the nature of happiness, and about what it means to be a good human being. He has been instrumental in the development of the Mind & Life Institute, a research collaboration and public dialogue on the scientific study of contemplative practice, of which I also have been lucky to be a part. It turns out that those two are quite closely related, and that Tibetan Buddhism has quite some expertise in developing these skills. Finally, on the theme of Buddhist teachings, Tsoknyi Rinpoche then showed how some of this expertise develops, when
he taught in his characteristically humorous way about the difference between education of the emotions and education focused on cognition. Whereas the West has mostly focused on the latter, the ancient wisdom of Tibet has strong insights in the former. Sogyal Rinpoche gave a complete teaching about meditation and the way we can
find inner peace and contentment, which is the source of happiness. All we have to do is to remember to turn our mind inwards.

After the celebrations were over, the teachings continued for a smaller group of long-time students of Sogyal Rinpoche. To mark the importance of this event, Sogyal Rinpoche shared some of the highest teachings in the Tibetan tradition, and he was even joined by Mingyur Rinpoche on one day, who charmed us all with his phenomenal facial expressions, as was able to in a very short span of time convey us some very deep knowledge and experience. We all felt it was a remarkable and life-changing

It was wonderful to see how, maybe for the first time, large groups of Tibetan and Himalayan people came together with dedicated Western students of Buddhism, united under the wish to preserve this "ancient wisdom for the modern world."

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

FENS conference days 2 & 3

Day 2 of the conference ended with an interesting symposium on
neuroethics organized by Colin Blakemore. Neuroethics is a relatively
new field that incorporates the implications of neuroscience for our
view of the self, for social policy, the ethics of conducting
neuroscience itself, and implications of neuroscience for the public
discourse. Judy Illes started out with discussing how important it is
for neuroscientists to communicate their work to the public. Barbara
Sahakian gave an example of how her fundings on cognitive enhancers
for Alzheimers' patients were increasingly being used on college
campuses and other populations. What are the ethical issues invoked by
these things? Dr. Magistretti had an interesting talk in which he
proposed that a problem with such cognitive enhancement would be that
it tends to make people value quantity (intelligence test scores) over
quality of life. And we have no idea how these drugs affect our
creativity, for example.

The next day, Stanislas Dehaene gave a fascinating talk about how our
brain implements reading. He argued that our alphabets have developed
from shapes that our brains find easy to discriminate. He also talked
about how children early in life read and write in mirror-reverse, but
then they have to unlearn that, because reading and writing is
organized such that words with letters in the opposite direction have
a different meaning. The visual word form area therefore does not show
responses to mirror reverses, whereas closeby IT areas do show
responses to mirror reversed stimuli. Pascal Fries talked about large
scale neuronal assemblies in the monkey, and how attention modulated
periodic activity in the fast gamma band and slower beta band. These
bands showed activity flowing in different directions between
different brain areas. It is very exciting how they are really to
start mapping out the networks in the brain.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

FENS conference, Day 1 & 2

Right now I am in Amsterdam, participating in the FENS conference--the Federation of
European Neuroscience Societies. This is the first time I am actually
going to a conference in my home country! Interestingly, they opened
the conference with a sketch by Freek de Jonge, a famous Dutch
stand-up comedian. Very cool to once see him in real life! (I happened
to be sitting in one of the front rows). The opening was followed by a
lecture by Nobel prize winner Roger Tsien, who spoke about molecules
he developed that could stain particular types of tissues, and he
showed how they could get a tumor to fluoresce in a living mouse and
use that to aid very precise tumor removal. Very impressive!

This morning I gave my poster and had quite a good crowd. I talked
about my efforts to relate the drift diffusion model of decision
making (Ratcliff, 1978) to EEG and fMRI data. We believe that evidence
accumulation is instantiated by brain oscillations, primarily in the
4--9 Hz theta band, which then feeds into the motor cortex, which
actually implements crossing the decision threshold. The latter is
visible in the Lateralized Readiness Potential (LRP). I showed some data
that finds correlations between individual differences in model
parameters and features of the LRP and oscillatory activity. An
interesting talk was given by Franscesco Battaglia, who talked about
theta coherence between the hippocampus (a deep memory structure) and
frontal cortex (mainly associated with executive function). He showed
that this theta coherence is especially strong at points in a maze
where rats have to make decisions. This theta coherence might be
related to dopaminergic influences, which might implement motivational

There was also a fascinating lecture by Prof. Tomasello, who posited
that human culture is defined by not just understanding each others'
intentions (which is called theory of mind), but also sharing
intentions. As opposed to monkeys, e.g., chimps, humans will
collaborate, share information, etc., even if it is not in their own
interest. They will share food, which chimps will never do. Even if a
chimp mother shares food with her child, she only does so when almost
forced by her child. So the really human thing about us seems to be
our altruism!