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!