Found in my office today
Hubel and his partner had connected a microelectrode to a particular neuron in a cat’s visual cortex. They were trying to get the neuron to fire reliably in response to visual stimulation (a black dot). But nothing worked. And then all of a sudden, it started firing like crazy. Turns out this particular neuron was “turned on” by the shadow of the glass slide as it was inserted into their projector – a sharp black line moving across a light background. What’s more, it would only fire when the black line was at certain orientations. It had no interest in a black dot at all.
This was one of the first papers to show that some neurons in our cortex (our upper brain) are very specifically tuned to a very narrow set of stimuli. And it spawned a huge course of “single unit” studies in which psychologists test individual neurons throughout the brain to see which environmental conditions will make them fire. Still a huge part of brain research.
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In a famous paper in the early 1980’s the pediatrician John Lorber asked “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?” He examines hydrocephalics who – despite losing over 95% of the volume of their brain – continue to function in the everyday world and often have IQs over 100. (Hydrocephalics experience a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain.)
I first learned about this paper from my neurolinguistics teacher Suzie Curtiss. Suzie was studying epileptic children who had a whole hemisphere of their brain removed but went on to live normal lives. These cases raise wonderful questions about the nature of intelligence and the incredible ability of the brain to adapt (“plasticity”) to serious injuries or novel environments.
This is the first post of its type…. famous papers which turned a field upside down or challenged conventional wisdom. Note that I’ve linked to a Science magazine article about Lorber, rather than his original academic paper, since I couldn’t find the original online.
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Perhaps you’ve heard of Bruce Yandle’s idea of “the Baptist and the bootlegger.”
This is how it goes: A group of puritans – the “Baptists” – argue that public policy should discourage a particular vice (e.g., alcoholism) by banning consumption. The self-interested heathens – the “bootleggers” – swoop in to support prohibition because it limits the supply and forces the price up, resulting in windfall profits for the providers who remain.
See Prohibition, prostitution, the Drug War, etc.
I’ve been thinking about a phenomenon that is the mirror image of the Baptist and the Bootlegger. Call it “the bleeding heart and the robber baron.”
In this case it’s the well-intentioned lefties – the “bleeding hearts” – who advocate a policy that will benefit the public (e.g., affordable housing, universal health care, public education). And then the self-interested, right-leaning corporatists – the “robber barons” – swoop in to reap economic rents from the policies that give them preferential treatment.
See Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, K12, health insurance companies, the ratings agencies, etc.
In each case, you have support that crosses typical cultural/political lines. In one case, the lefties take the high road, and the righties follow their self-interest. In the other, the righties take the high road, and the lefties follow their self-interest.
In both cases, all the rest of us pay the price. Higher prices, higher taxes, higher incarceration rates, and fewer providers to choose from.
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Here’s where I’m coming from:
(1) completed English major at a liberal arts college (Pomona College)
(2) trained as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company
(3) studied psychology, neuroscience, and linguistics at UCLA in preparation for a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience that I never completed
(4) Completed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program
(5) Well-read (but incompletely self-educated) in evolutionary psychology, behavioral economics, and macroeconomics
In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that I also have a fair bit of training in film-making and storytelling, including a certificate in screenwriting from UCLA Extension and completion of the PBS Producers Workshop. I mention this only because my understanding of storytelling has informed my understanding of human psych, perhaps even more than my 2 years studying cognitive neuroscience!
More about this later….
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…of my brain.
Goals: (1) to capture more of the thoughts that rumble through my head, (2) to force myself to exert more discipline in my thinking, (3) to find a stronger persuasive voice in my writing, (4) to cast doubt upon items of conventional wisdom, (5) to call attention to scientists (and others) who are humbly trying to figure out how human beings work, (6) to document changes in my life.