SfN Day 2 highlights

Day 2: Big day. Tweets will have covered most of this. While “SfN” has been “cracking down” on the livetweeting, apparently the big talks are ok. All the other talks, you have to wait a whole fifteen minutes til it ends. We’ll live. On with the show:

Never trifle with a multisensory perceptron when experience-dependent plasticity is on the line

Thanks to the booze rooster, I was up and at ’em at 8 am checking out a session on the cerebellar theory of autism. Sam Wang from Princeton ran the session and gave a standout talk. I should mention before diving in that this is the same Sam Wang whose election forecast models beat Nate Silver’s in the 2012 presidential election.

But that’s neither here nor there. Wang is also a neuroscientist, and a big proponent of the idea that autism is the result of dysfunction in the cerebellum. People with autism spectrum disorder consistently have abnormalities here, but there’s a paradox: If adults get an injury here they end up with an impaired ability to move, not autism. So Wang proposed that the damage must occur during what is known as a sensitive period to result in autism. This process he likened to the superfamous sensory deprivation experiments by Hubel & Wiesel, in which they sutured the eye of a young cat shut and saw that the deprived visual cortex failed to wire up properly. This only happened during a certain window of the cat’s early life, which told them that for normal function, the visual system requires stimulation in that window and once it’s passed, it’s too late.

Wang argued that, because the cerebellum acts as a neuronal machine for multisensory learning, if it sustains an injury early in life then all of the areas it connects to will fail to wire up properly. Because this doesn’t happen for adults with cerebellar injury, this means the cerebellum plays a special role in wiring up the brain during development. The association cortex, where sensory information is built up into more high-concept information, is deprived of the cerebellar guidance it needs. This lack of sensory convergence in the brain could explain some characteristics of autism spectrum disorders.

I’m “on” so many posters this year! Recognize my signature orange corduroy jacket?

Poster: Choking under pressure

I visited Taraz Lee and Scott Grafton’s poster on choking under pressure. Taraz carefully designed a study where people could receive 5, 10, or 40 dollars for completing a difficult motor task correctly. At the end of the experiment, he chose one trial at random for their payout, meaning it behooved them to bank a bunch of $40 trials. The $40 trials were kept rare to drive up the pressure, and people choked more often on them than on the $5 or $10 trials.

They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan their brains as they completed the task. In their recent paper, they found that the people who ended up choking less on these trials also had greater connectivity between their thinky, task-oriented, rule-loving dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and their action-generating primary motor cortex (M1). “Connectivity,” of course, meaning their slow changes in blood flow tended to change in tandem.

In their current study, they used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to disrupt activity in the dlPFC. This increased the sensitivity to monetary pressure in a bunch of brain regions, causing others to compensate. TMS also turned “champions” (people who did better under monetary pressure) into “chokers.” Currently, Taraz & Scott need more data to see if this emerging pattern holds, but I like to think of the dlPFC as bracing and tightening and focusing as hard as it can on M1 the way a gymnast tries to summon laserlike focus on a balance beam. I sometimes anthropomorphize brain regions.

Ned stickers!

New Hero: Mahzarin Banaji

Banaji’s talk explored how we form in-group biases. Newborn babies will mimic facial expressions–we’re like Krazy Glue when it comes to picking up the expressions and habits of those around us. That’s how we charm our caregivers as babies, and we keep on doing it because someday this is how they will know to take care of us. We’re like them.

Discrimination, she said, isn’t as much about excluding people not like you as it is about giving preference to people like you. Really what we need is a diversity of perspectives. Next time you interview assistants, grad students, whoever–try to be just a little bit open-minded, and you’ll end up rich in the perspective that uptalking weirdo you hired brings. Geniuses aren’t always easy to spot in a crowd.

This applies to all kinds of intergroup behavior, and as it turns out, we are total idiots when it comes to deciding who’s good, who’s competent, who to trust. Simply decreasing the distance between a person’s eyes, studies have shown, will make complete strangers judge a face as dumber. These judgments come out of nowhere–what does it even MEAN, she asked, to say someone has an “honest smile”? And yet, the facial features that cause people to be viewed as “more competent” have predicted the margin of victory in every presidential election. There is no reason to think these heuristics are real or useful, and yet there they are, their fingerprints all over our minds whether we like it or not.

Look at these insatiable nerds.

Look at these insatiable nerds. Still arguing as the poster is being rolled up. They’re the most dedicated people I know, probably.

Tom Jessell: You are nothing without your vestibular system

Motor learning people like to start off their talks by saying something like “The human brain is for producing movement.” We say this because people studying all the fancy stuff like thoughts and feelings and the fun tricks that differentiate us from the animals, well, they tend to get most of the attention, and we have a bit of a chip on our shoulder about it. Movement is freaking amazing, ok? Just because your dog can do it doesn’t make it a dumb trick.

So anyway I don’t know if he meant to bait and switch, but it was pretty great. Try all you want to produce movement without a good solid vestibular system, but you won’t get very far. This system is a set of fluid-filled canals just beyond the eardrum that helps us balance and generally keep track of our body position in space. This information gets sent to neurons in the spinal cord responsible for twitching the muscle fibers to make us move. Jessell first pointed out that without inhibition from interneurons using the neurotransmitter GABA, wildly oscillating movements result. That is because this inhibition tells the motor neurons when to listen to the feedback and adjust for it and when to just keep on going with the smooth movement. When they administered diptheria toxin to mice to selectively destroy this inhibition, their movements became corkscrewy and hopelessly off-course.

He then talked about how normally, our extensor and flexor muscles work in alternation. Whether bending your knee to walk or flexing a bicep for an admirer, the muscle on one side of the limb is stretched while the other one can go more slack. However, when you, say, fall or lose your balance, they contract at the same time. By playing around with the inhibitory interneurons, altering the function of the pumps that maintain disequilibrium of chloride ions inside and outside the cell, they can switch the inhibition to excitation. They could manipulate the switch from alternation to co-contraction of muscles, and the result was…ok. Imagine if your fingers were so tightly outstretched, your toes too, that if you crawled around you were teetering atop your flexing, rigid fingers. Ballet-style en pointe, on your fingers. Watching a rodent do this was unsettling and weird and it made me deeply appreciate my vestibular sense and its amazing inhibitory interneurons.


That’s all for today, nerds. I don’t know why I’m still up, except for oh wait, it’s DC, so of course there is a pack of feral 22-year-olds above us doing superloud youthful things. Ugh. I hope they lose their vestibular senses so they collapse in a heap and this infernal pounding stops.


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SfN Day 1: Saturday highlight

Rats on bath salts

This is going to be a short post. After the marathon that was Friday, it was all I could do to say hello to everyone in the aisles at the poster sessions, take in a single talk, and peace out to the zoo, where we saw only (wild) deer and a sleeping bear on PandaCam, which we could have done from our warm California apartments.

The talk was a couldn’t-resist morbid curiosity thing. Really nice work by Marcelo Febo from the University of Florida. I came in slightly late, saw that he was using fMRI, and thought, WHO did you get to go in the SCANNER on BATH SALTS? Rats is who, turns out.

fMRI can’t image fast changes in the brain, only the sluggish change in blood flow in response to neurons firing. More blood arrives to deliver more oxygen to fuel them, and we use this as a proxy for brain activity. At this slow timescale, the activity of the nucleus accumbens (the brain’s “pleasure center“) became desynchronized from, strikingly, pretty much everything it normally likes to sync up with around the brain. What this means, how long it lasts, and whether faster activity is doing something similar remain to be seen.

For anyone wanting to know more, you can catch a whole bunch more on bath salts and other crazy drugs on Tuesday. After you’ve visited me at my poster, of course.

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SfN Day 0: Translational & Computational Motor Control highlights

Pro tip: for a quick, delicious lunch away from the masses, hop on Metro at the convention Center, go 2 stops up to U St, and get yourself a half-smoke at Ben's Chili Bowl. You're welcome.

Pro tip: for a quick, delicious lunch away from the masses, hop on Metro at the convention center, go 2 stops up to U St, and get yourself a half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl. You’re welcome.

TCMC is a feisty meeting. For me, it’s the conference before the conference (Did I mention I’m in DC for the Society for Neuroscience conference, or SfN? Well I am). In one day I absorb more than in the rest of the conference combined. The debates in motor control have evolved over the years in such a way that makes me think science does sometimes get us somewhere. It’s thanks in no small part to a small but incredibly passionate and often entertaining group of motor learning researchers. Some highlights:

Shortened eye movements are a feature, not a bug, of motor disorders

Pavan Vaswani from Reza Shadmehr’s lab at Johns Hopkins gave a well-argued talk on saccadic hypometria. Saccades are eye movements, and sometimes they fall short of their goal, particularly for people with certain motor disorders (Parkinson’s disease, cerebellar ataxia, and Lewy body dementia, to name a few). Pavan argued that rather than seeing these too-small eye movements as part of the problem, perhaps they are part of the solution. In motor disorders, executing movements becomes difficult, and performance becomes wildly variable. If you’re not super confident in your accuracy, it behooves you to be a bit more conservative–the size of your errors will be smaller when you make a series of small movements instead of one big, exuberant one. By looking at the trajectories of the eye movements of people with saccadic hypometria and comparing them to computational models of optimal motor control, Pavan and Reza determined that these movements weren’t “cut short” prematurely, but rather had been intended to be short from the outset. This was an elegant example of a way to find out whether a phenomenon represents a pathology or a compensation for pathology–in this case, short saccades appears to be the latter.

Rats on a treadmill: Running towards understanding the striatum

Pavel Rueda-Orozco from David Robbe’s lab in Barcelona presented data that used a new task they’d designed to see how the brain represents the timing of habitual actions. Anyone who’s ever fed exams into a Scantron machine knows you can increase your machine-feeding accuracy (and save valuable time) by developing a robotic rhythm. If grad students operated less in isolation, I have no doubt there would be chain gang-style chants to help this. But what Pavel and David did was put rats on a treadmill, and train them to wait a certain amount of time before advancing into an endzone to receive a reward. If they advanced too soon, they got a time out, delaying the possibility of future rewards. At first the rats run erratically up near the endzone, falling behind in spurts on the treadmill to learn the proper delay. But they all soon figure out to let the treadmill carry them to the back of the chamber, and to then advance at a steady pace towards the endzone. Adorably, their habits were idiosyncratic–one stud rat they had named “Michael Jackson” would go to the back, hop/dance around for a few seconds, and then sprint. As the rats learned the task, the firings in an area called the dorsolateral striatum, part of the brain’s habit formation circuitry, became correlated with their position and speed. Interestingly, when the researchers put a plate in front of untrained rats to guide them in the same paced run that the trained rats did, these rats’ neurons fired in a way that was uncorrelated with their movements, showing that the firing of these neurons was effectively “keeping track” of how they were doing on this habitual movement. These data shed new light on habit formation. Studies have traditionally run rats through a T-shaped maze to find a reward in one of two arms, while leaving their movement speed unconstrained. By making their speed part of the habit, they showed that the dorsolateral striatum doesn’t so much initiate actions as it does guide their execution with information about context and kinematics.

The cerebellum is more of a storage unit for motor memories than an editor

Alkis Hadjiosif from Maurice Smith’s lab at Harvard pointed out that in several studies of people with cerebellar damage, some have shown that they can adjust their motor behavior more than others. This begged the question: do you need your cerebellum for this or not? What is the deal there? These studies used visuomotor rotation tasks, where people make reaching movements toward targets. As they reach, their on-screen cursor is rotated–if you’re reaching for the 12:00 position on a clock, you would suddenly see your cursor start going towards 10, and your job is to re-train your arm to go towards 2:00 to compensate for it. This task is commonly used to investigate how and whether people can learn new motor skills, like riding a bike or doing a cartwheel. It turns out that in some studies, patients with cerebellar damage reached to many targets, making the average time between a visit to a given target and the soonest return to that same target around 22 seconds. In others, fewer targets were used, making repeat visits to a target about 5-7 seconds apart. The Smith lab had proposed that there are actually two things going on when we adjust motor behaviors: a temporally stable adjustment that lasts a long time, days even, and a temporally labile adjustment that is quicker, more nimble, more reactive to change, but also shorter-lived. With the longer intervals between trials, this had all but disappeared. Cerebellar damage patients could compensate for rotations at shorter delays but not longer ones, suggesting to them that these people relied on their temporally labile adjustments to get the job done. When the delay was long, they were required to retrieve a stable motor memory and just couldn’t do it–strong evidence for the cerebellum’s role as a stabilizer of motor memories.

To be good at a thing, practice that thing, go practice other things, and then come back to the first thing.

Nicholas Wymbs from Pablo Celnik’s lab at Johns Hopkins had people do a task that involved squeezing a pressure sensor to move a cursor to different targets. Of five targets, you’d go maybe 2-4-1-3-5, squeezing different amounts to get the cursor to each one. This task, called the Sequential Visual Isometric Pinch Task (which ends up being fun to say–SVIPT), is another popular one for studying how people learn to do things. They found that people learned best if they first did the task, then came back and did a variable version of the task–learning to do the task with the squeeze-to-distance ratio turned up or down a bit in between tries–and then tried the task again. This is counterintuitive–you’d think to be good at something you should just do that thing over and over again. But actually, variability is a good thing sometimes. It gives you a sense of the landscape. So to be good at free-throws from, oh, what’s that line called in basketball where they throw the um, like, the penalty shots or whatever? Anyway if you want to be good at that, you should go off and try throwing from lots of different places, and then you’ll have a better understanding of how to do exactly THAT one throw, because you have your motor memory of it situated in a landscape of other, neighboring motor memories. Critically, they said the variable SVIPT only worked if people had already learned the one squeeze-to-distance mapping they’d be tested on. And it only worked if they had waited a while since learning it–the memory had to be “consolidated,” or basically all-the-way baked instead of half-baked, before you could return to it, try out some riffs on it, and then see a benefit of your riffing. When people did the variable task, people who were quicker to correct after big jumps in the squeeze-to-distance ratio turned out to be better at the “original” ratio later on. Physical therapists might soon be able to use this information to inform the schedule of their patients’ therapies for maximum benefit.

All right, folks. That’s it for now. Time for me to dash out of my comely Ikea-laden VRBO and off to the “real” conference. I’m already exhausted.

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Why I cheerlead for science even though sometimes I think it hates me

Nothing to see here, folks. Just a fabulous Halloween eggplant showing what a brain with a massive stroke looks like.

Nothing to see here, folks. Just a fabulous Halloween eggplant showing what a brain with a massive stroke looks like.

This morning, a friend and I were discussing writing letters of recommendation for our students and assistants. We both have a love/hate relationship with science, and it’s the hate part that makes us reluctant to endorse it as a career move. “Some of them are good students, and I feel like I’m doing them a disservice by writing them this stellar letter that will get them into the same mess I’m in right now,” she said.

She’s right. Typically, if a student comes to my office hours and says “I want to do a PhD. How do I do it?” I will tell them. I won’t dissuade them. I will, however, probe for the source of their interest. One recently said to me, “I’m really interested in neuro law, and I figure if I don’t get into law school, I’ll just do a PhD and get into it that way.”

WRONG ANSWER. FOR LIKE SEVEN REASONS. I was so bewildered that I didn’t even try to deter them. I didn’t know where to start. So I smiled and nodded. I hope someone else sets them straight the way my philosophy professor did when I told him I wanted to do a PhD in philosophy (“Take a year. Do something else. Anything else. Then see how you feel.” He could smell my undergraduate fear of the “real world” a mile away, and saved me from even more severe financial, mental, and physical ruin than science has wreaked).

On the other hand, if a student says something like, “I really like research,” they’re at least on the right track. There’s always the (huge) risk that their view of research is through an undergrad lens: collecting data for some grizzled post-doc, delivering it on a thumb drive, and heading off to class. No analysis. No hours spent tearing their hair out over code.  They don’t know what it’s really like yet. These ones are a “maybe,” though. One of my assistants got to live through some serious failures of mine, and when she asked me for a letter, I informed “to whom it may concern” that if I hadn’t managed to deter her, then she’s definitely proven herself as someone who is comfortable with failure and maybe she’ll actually be OK.

If you have a student that falls in the “maybe” pile, please direct them to this series of interviews entitled “Should I do a PhD.” It’s real talk.

Benji teaching a kid how bats navigate using echolocation

Benji teaching a kid how bats navigate using echolocation

But anyway, I pondered this tension between preaching love of science while quietly struggling with it as I showed people real human brains at Cal Academy of Science’s NightLife. Two days later, I pondered it again at the Bay Area Science Festival‘s Discovery Days at AT&T Park. As I sleepily (it was the day after Halloween, ok) helped children learn to echolocate and chatted with parents and science teachers about neuroplasticity, I asked myself:  Why am I doing this? Do I really want that kid to end up like me someday?

I remembered my first science outreach outing as a grad student at Berkeley. I had done volunteer work before, but it had never occurred to me that talking about science could be framed as doing some broader societal good. We talked about brains at a middle school for the children of rich parents. I was immediately turned off. These kids were clearly going to be just fine whether I let them touch a brain or not. “Outreach” was bullshit designed to foster a sense of civic engagement among science nerds. Nobody’s life was changed that day. How disappointing.

Fast forward a couple of years. I did my science, and I volunteered elsewhere thought about volunteering elsewhere like I used to when I didn’t live in the flakiest place in America, but ne’er the twain did meet again. That is, not until later in my PhD when I started to wonder if I wanted to be a scientist. I liked teaching and talking about science, but had trouble envisioning myself running a lab. I began to engage again with organizations & groups that I thought might help me find an “alternative” career that was right for me. Not super religiously, and not even in a terribly go-getter type way–if you’re a grad student, you don’t have to go far to find someone who’s looking for help with some event. I talked to adorable kids about their projects as a “guest scientist” at their school science fair. I started writing. I volunteered at a conference to spark young girls’ interest in science. I showed brains in schools again–and guess what, they weren’t all rich kids.

Do you know how much science is cut from school curricula these days? It’s a lot. Especially in the schools where the PTA can’t just fund a special science teacher to come a couple days a week. Do you know how overworked teachers are? Also a lot. They love having scientists come, and so do the kids. You’re like the cool, fun aunt who carries buckets of brains around.  And that’s just doing the classroom thing. Maybe you hate kids. Fine. Go talk to adults. I can’t tell you how many people at Cal Academy said some form of, “I read there’s a part of the woman’s brain allows them to multitask better.” Do you know how deeply satisfying it was to my black little feminist heart to grab that myth by the neck, wring it out, and replace it with some basic communique on how network analysis works?

So there’s the selfish thing–it’s fun, it reminds you why you were first enchanted by science in the first place, and it reminds you that you’re not worthless, no matter what your publication record says. You do know shit.

Alexis, Alden, Rachel, & Benji holding down the fort at the Berkeley Science Review booth

Alexis, Alden, Rachel, & Benji holding down the fort at the Berkeley Science Review booth

More important, though, is what happened in this hellscape of a midterm election. NYT columnist Frank Bruni describes Congress’s relationship with science as one that “toggles between benign neglect and outright contempt.” So, we need to be creating a climate where scientifically gleaned information is valued. One where we aren’t electing people who will say “I’m not a scientist” as though that were some sort of absolution.

I just learned from Bill Bryson’s fantastic book A Short History of Nearly Everything that back when we thought putting lead in things was a great idea (it isn’t; the body can’t excrete it so it accumulates in the bones and blood til you have horrible, horrible hallucinations and are left a “permanent staggering wreck” or dead), Clair Patterson, the guy saying “no stop this is terrible” was basically Tyrone Hayesed. The lead manufacturers were funding all the research saying it was ok, and all of a sudden Patterson couldn’t get funding. He was effectively silenced for most of his career. Although, thanks to Patterson’s persistence, we did get the Clean Air Act of 1970, which was something (ice core studies had shown that there was basically no lead in the environment til we started putting it in gasoline to stop engine knock, and then it was catastrophically in everyone and everything). When they took lead out of gasoline in 1986, lead levels in Americans’ blood dropped by 80%.  As recently at 1993, lead solder was still being used in food containers, because lead was big business and no one listened. Moneyed interests can and will keep science, even lifesaving science, out of policy. It happens over and over.

I’m reminded of the moment it clicked for me that science education is voter education. At the Society for Neuroscience meeting in 2012, I went to a talk by my undergraduate neuroscience advisor. It was way up in a remote corner of the conference center, where they put the talks on teaching, not research. SfN is a tightly run ship–I’ve never seen a symposium moderator at this conference actually let a Q&A go over time. And yet, when he was done describing a neuroscience course he taught, the vibe in the room was one of wanting more. The next speaker ceded maybe fifteen minutes of their time just to keep the discussion going. It was nuts.

This course was a neuroscience for non-majors course, co-taught with the aforementioned philosophy professor (the one who talked me out of philosophy as a career, bless him). They made a point to highlight the scientific process, have spirited arguments, read widely from both scientific and philosophical texts. They showed their students that science isn’t a collection of facts but a very human process. It was what I call a “just the marshmallows” approach (Lucky Charms, you guys) to science education. I took a lot of inspiration from this class when I signed on last semester to help out with a “just for fun” class here called Altered States & the Brain.

They weren’t training future scientists, he said, so much as they were educating future voters. Poli sci majors, art majors, English majors–the representation in this class was broad. Which brings me to my point (finally). When you do science outreach, you aren’t necessarily luring future scientists, or trying to make it seem like your job is more fun than it really is. Your jaded brain can rest easy knowing this. You are educating future (or present) voters. You want to send as many people to the polls as possible with an appreciation for what is at stake, how science proceeds, and why we need some damn funding. You want to show them that scientists are people, nice people, who sometimes are full of fun facts but at other times are like, “dang, good question, I really don’t know.” The realization that we scientists are all just flying by the seat of our pants to begin with, and then Congress is basically like “wooooo pants off dance off,” is sobering. Maybe by putting your face out there, you can convince people that there are scientists who aren’t Bill Nye and–whoa–they are even more of an expert than he is on their area of expertise!

That, and I think everyone should hold a human brain at least once in their life. I think it’s got to be right up there with holding a newborn baby, when it comes to gaining a new, mind-blowing appreciation for life.

Shortly after the Giants won their 3rd world series, their field was overrun with children all hopped up on science. Talk about a Field of Dreams, am I right?

Shortly after the Giants won their 3rd world series, their field was overrun with children all hopped up on science. Talk about a Field of Dreams, am I right?

Posted in I didn't mean to write this it just happened, Meta-science & pedagogy, Science | 2 Comments

Brainsplode! New post on the BSR blog

Brainsplosions not drawn to scale.

Brainsplosions not drawn to scale.

My latest on the BSR blog is up! Check it out here. In it, I outline some spooky sensations in the brain, some fun, others not so fun.

Please also enjoy the artwork, created by me in powerpoint, except for the brain image–someone else had to run the scanner as I was busy modeling. Yeah, that’s right. Check out my temporal lobes, world.

And a warning: those of you who know the tyranny of my “Science is a METHOD” jag may point out, “Hey, this isn’t science, this is just shock and awe about the natural world!” And you’re right. The point, though, is that very little actual science has been DONE to uncover the mechanisms behind these sensations. Why don’t YOU go do the experiment?


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No, jerks, Burning Man isn’t ruined

A surprise dance party at the port-a-potties.

Hello, I am back. Because I still think of this as sort of a science blog, first, I am proud to report that my weeklong sojourn from lab was not without science: I rolled up to the Phage camp just in time for “Ask a Drunk Scientist,” and as luck would have it, at that moment, I WAS a drunk scientist. “Help, I need a neuroscientist–they’re all asking how alcohol works,” one of the Phagelings said. PUT ME IN, COACH, I replied. Twenty minutes later we had covered endogenous opioids, the role of dopamine in pleasure and movement, the communication through coherence hypothesis, and why no, magnets will not heal you, hippie. Never trifle with an MRI researcher when pseudoscience is on the line.

I also spent a good amount of time on my favorite giant science-mobile, Dr. Brainlove (experience the magic through the power of sound here). And I enjoyed tons and tons of non-scientific programming, too, obviously. It was, in short, wonderful. There are pictures of some parts, while others will just have to live on in memory. But what I’m here to write about today is the way the burn has been covered in the media. I am very, very disappointed in it, and I will begin by letting someone I hate tell you why:

“My take, having spent 20 hours walking the streets of this place, is that if your takeaway from looking at the art and the participatory effort that goes into something like this is ‘there were naked people!’ then that’s a reflection on you, not on Burning Man.”

Grover Norquist

Some people are naked, but some people are penguins.

Grover said a smart thing, there. Where he bemoans the focus on naked people, you could easily substitute “dubstep” or “steampunk weirdos” or “fire poi dancers” or “tech bros” or whatever else you hate. For me, that thing is “white people in Native American headdresses.” But time spent complaining is a tragic waste. Seriously, have a coconut water and a nap if you’re cranky–you’ll be right as rain in a few hours. And if, after all of that, you still can’t find something to not hate, there is no hope for you in any world, on the playa or off.

But ok, Grover, that’s pretty much the only thing you’re right about. You and FoxNews really need to quit it with this “no taxes and no government” libertarian horseshit. It’s insulting. That ticket price, half a month’s rent for me, symbolizes trips to Europe I will never take, and I’m not even sorry. It goes to fund the building of fences to keep the event Leave No Trace, the medical tents, the wonderful Black Rock Rangers, and tons of other infrastructure that people arrive early and leave late to work and sweat for because they care. This is a city that stands ready to take care of its citizens, whether they end up needing it or not.

Special people in a special place.

Even so, Black Rock City is not, nor was it ever meant to be, a model for how the world “should” be. Most burners will tell you that, by day 7, they are in many important ways very ready to go home. Even the ones who refer to said home grudgingly as “the default world.” Because we know that this isn’t sustainable. Those port-a-potties are gnarly. You need to sleep at some point. You need a shower. You need to not be standing on what is essentially a giant battery during a lightning storm. There are many reasons why it All Must End. Grover’s championing this event as a model libertarian society misses the point in ways that even your dumbest, dirtiest, hippie understands.

Grover isn’t alone, though–know who else misses the point? The authors of every single article (here, I’m linking only to the mothership) bemoaning the demise of Burning Man due to its being overrun with the “tech elite.” Get your heads out of your asses. Dig deeper than the most superficial layer of your own crusty blogospheric navel lint. Grover couldn’t singlehandedly destroy something beautiful that seventy thousand people built, and neither can your expensive tech camp (and seriously, if it takes you $25,000 in camp dues to have fun at Burning Man, I feel sorry for you, you overmoneyed, hapless buzzkill). I met dozens of insanely friendly people and I have no idea what any of them do for a living (except that topless woman with a half-shaved head and a megawatt smile who turned out to be a nurse–we definitely got her address, since her camp was considerably closer to ours than the medical tent). Some of these people might have been tech douches. I will never know, I was too busy watching them become overwhelmed by something like understanding the True Meaning of Christmas, and it was beautiful.

Spotted around the neighborhood.

And in the meantime, all those touting Burning Man as tech’s logical innovation incubator? No. Burning Man is fun. That’s all it is. Plain and simple. It’s absolutely true that too many people find themselves with the job, money, and respect they’ve always craved, only to find their lives void of any meaning. The immediacy of this blessed event can be transformative. We’re not used to feeling like we’re exactly where we need to be, doing exactly what we need to be doing. The fear of missing out, in the default world, is crippling. Setting that aside can show you who you are and what it is you want out of life. The hedonism, in this way, is enough to change you. Knowing how happy you are capable of being is a great impetus for clearing away everything that holds you back in life. In that sense, sure, it is at least in theory possible that this silliness leads to innovation. But that’s hardly the point.

Putting aside the issue of what utilitarian good may come out of Burning Man, because it is gross, grosser than the port-a-potties, we turn our attention to the seemingly most anomalous spot on the playa: the temple. People leave all sorts of inscrutable mementos and memorials in all corners of this (nondenominational) sacred space. This week of hedonism requires homage to those who have helped us find our way but who cannot be there with us. When the temple burns, the enormity of the blaze reminds all in solemn attendance that they are not alone in their suffering, that the togetherness of our mementos and our time here on the playa can be a source of strength.

Inside the temple.

This year, I watched two burly men use a power drill to affix some sort of golf tournament plaque to a temple wall, in remembrance of someone they had lost. They let deep, ribcage-wracking sobs escape as they hugged each other fiercely. As they patted each other on the back, I heard affirmations murmured, bubbling up through gobs of snot and heartbreak. “It’s you and me now, buddy. We’ve got each other. I love you.” I wasn’t sneering at them for their choice of golf, a blueblooded, eco-horrific pastime. I didn’t tell them their bro hobby was ruining Burning Man. Nobody was laughing at the sight of two grown men crying and hugging. These big dudes were hurting. They had come to the desert to face their hurt together, and to eclipse it for seven days with a happiness too big to torpedo with rumination, regrets, or fear. I snagged a few squares of toilet paper from a woman next to me as my boyfriend assured her friend, “It’s ok, you’re in good company. We’re all hot messes here.”

We are all hot messes here, even Grover and the tech douches. It’s absolutely worth it. It doesn’t ruin it. Mess is, of course, the price of fun.

At long last, I meet Dr. B in person.

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Dear Burners: a treatise on drugs and addiction

Burning Man: it’s less than a week away! Because of Who I Am, I am already packed and wandering around our neatly organized piles in the dining room, finding tiny adjustments to make, futzing with this and that. Re-organizing the freezer. That sort of thing. I’m ready.

So, because I am a scientist, I thought I would take the time to talk to you all about drugs. They are bad, k?

That said, they are also fascinating. Once you dive into learning about neurochemistry, you realize that the brain is basically a giant Rube Goldberg machine. When a neuron fires, tiny gates open all along its membrane to let positively and negatively charged ions in and out. The current this generates means your brain is quite literally electric. It’s also chemical–neurons release neurotransmitters the way M&M’s release chocolate into your mouth.  Neurotransmitters are like keys that fit only certain locks, and when they find the lock that fits, more chain reactions are triggered. In the end, talking about drugs gets kind of boring, because they’re just like any other chemical in the brain. It’s the dynamics that are interesting, not the substances that trigger them.

One dynamic in particular involves everyone’s favorite good-time chemical, dopamine. Dopamine is released in the brain when things feel good. But that’s not all. Dopamine is also crucial for movement–in fact, Parkinson’s Disease arises when dopamine-producing neurons start to die off. Tremor sets in, and you more or less watch the brain run out of gas. Dopamine circuitry gets weird: it is the key to multiple types of receptor, which happen to have opposing gas/brake type actions. And when you learn something new, dopamine is there, sculpting your behavior.

Dopamine release triggered by various substances in the brain.

Dopamine release triggered by various substances in the brain. Slide lifted from Jon Wallis’s lecture slides–ditto for all of these figures.

We, like our brethren in the animal kingdom, do much of our learning by trial and error. When we try something that feels good, or produces a sense of reward, we get a squirt of dopamine. That squirt not tells some parts of our brain that it feels good, and it tells other parts–the parts that work our muscles–to do it again. This works great for, say, learning which turn a rat should take in a maze. Turn left and you’ll get a pellet, dopamine reminds rats.

When we learn that something is good, the dopamine starts to be released as soon as the first sign of it appears. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we salivate at the sound of a bell, and our dopamine rush comes as soon as the reward is predicted.  If the reward is then withheld, we actually see a dip in the amount of dopamine at the moment the reward was expected. As far as your motor system is concerned (and remember, they’re the ones controlling the hands that reach for the things), dopamine teaches you when to expect a reward, instead of telling you “oh shit this feels awesome.”

I hope the internet forgives this lifting of textbook material without permission--it's for a good cause!

Dopamine neurons start firing in response to the “conditioned stimulus (CS),” or the thing that tells you a reward is coming, instead of to the reward itself (R). If a reward is omitted, dopamine neurons grow surly, retreating into an indignant silence.

The trouble begins when it’s not a pellet (or even a piece of chocolate) we seek, but a substance which itself grabs hold of dopamine and drives it itself. Because your brain makes changes to accommodate new information that challenges its previous beliefs, it cares a lot when it sees its predictions violated. Once the reward is predictable, it stops learning. You know that food is good, or TV is good, or that lying motionless staring at the ceiling is good, and yet you have not triggered an uncontrollable downward spiral by learning this. Not necessarily, anyway. There is a difference between chemical and psychological dependence. You can form strong habits towards these things, but you cannot, strictly speaking, be “addicted” to them (this is a point I emphasize over and over with my Altered States and the Brain students). That is because when a drug comes in, you get the little predictive burst of dopamine that says, “Look, drugs!” but then something else happens. The drug itself pumps more dopamine out. This is much like the dopamine that happens early in learning, before you know how good something is going to be. Except the difference is, you already knew that. You didn’t need to learn it MORE. And yet, your brain is getting TAUGHT by that extra dopamine. Your want ratchets infinitely skyward, as you embark upon a neverending journey of learning to love the drug. You want it more each day than you did the last.

This idea comes from David Redish, now at the University of Minnesota, who refers to addiction as a computational process gone awry.

At this point I should say that I’m playing pretty fast and loose with the most standout memories of several classes I’ve either taken or taught. These were the mindblowing take-homes. I doubt I’d misremember the most important details, but it’s certainly possible. 

Anyway. The bitch of it is, different brain systems drive your wanting a drug and your liking it. This is why drugs of addiction have people reaching for them long after it’s stopped being fun. Dopamine keeps you wanting a drug long after your increasing tolerance has outgrown the opioid system’s pleasure response. In rats, they can measure how habitual something is by “devaluing” a reward. Rats, like humans, both eat and drink. They love their pellets, and they love love love sugar water. So say they’ve learned to press a bar for pellets. If you let them have all the pellets they want the day before your experiment, and the day of, they still press that bar even though they are so full of pellets, then you, my friend, have instilled a habit. Say, though, the rat loses interest, until it becomes clear that today you’re giving out sugar water, at which point he starts hitting the bar again. This behavior is not a habit, but goal-directed. The rat is doing it because he wants something you are giving.

Habits are scary because they erode our sense of control. And now, I would like to talk to you about cocaine and why it is the scariest drug. Below is a slide lifted/modified from this 2004 paper by Linda Porrino and colleagues.

The blue shows the increase in a certain kind of dopamine receptors in a part of the brain called the striatum. Your brain is popping out new locks for the key that is cocaine, and that scares the hell out of me. The blue spreads from the bottom to the top, starting in regions that are related to motivation and emotion, and spreading into regions responsible for sensory and motor function, decision-making, and other “smart” stuff we do.

Another finding comes from Linda Wilbrecht’s lab here at Berkeley: cocaine causes things to happen in another part of your brain, the part where sensory information meets up with stored information from memory to do things like rule following, decision making, etc. The neurons there grow new connections within a few hours, these connections are more iron-clad than most connections, and the amount of new connections in different rats is correlated with how much the rat prefers a cocaine chamber over a boring chamber.

Admittedly, both of these findings freak me out for totally visceral reasons. Granted, I don’t like to see studies where things change the brain and we don’t know why–the one where birth control thickened its users’ cortex was disquieting to me, in spite of the fact that (or especially because) they didn’t know what effects this had. I think it freaks me out, honestly, for the same reasons some images might (DO NOT CLICK THIS NEXT LINK UNLESS YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS OR ARE NOT SQUEAMISH AT ALL). Heard of trypophobia, fear of holes? Well, I have it bad. I think the fear has to do with like, if there were all of these little things emerging from your skin, it would mean that you had become like a sack of maggots or something. No wonder we fear it. BUT I DIGRESS.

I don’t like the idea of creepy little changes happening under my skin, and I don’t like the idea of them happening in my brain, especially when those changes mean my brain is circumventing my control, growing new little buggers that seek something desperately without my permission. So, take that for what you will.

But I would like to leave you with one closing thought (I’ve saved the best for last here–a list! Of drugs! IN ORDER! Get Buzzfeed on the phone, stat). Scientists can use bar-pressing as a measure of a substance’s addictive potential. The easier it is to get an animal to press a bar to receive a substance, the more addictive we figure it is. As it turns out, cocaine is at the very top of this scale. It goes like this:

The scale of addictiveness.

The scale of addictiveness.

And there you have it. I know many a burner for whom this chart is good news, and also many for whom their drug of choice, popular or obscure, is left out. Sorry. This is just what I got out of my Berkeley education, and you didn’t even have to grade papers or anything to receive this wisdom, so, practice gratitude, ya hippies. Anyway, I want to point out once again, drugs are bad. But what we’re talking about today is addiction, and as it turns out, that’s not really what you have to worry about with crazy psychonaut fuel. Anecdotally, I have heard it through the grapevine that lab animals just stone cold DO NOT LIKE psychedelics like LSD and mushrooms. Which, if you think about it, makes a lot of sense.

I hope this post has at least given you some food for thought, at least as far as your own burner-y spirit journey of self-discovery and freedom and whatever is concerned. Addiction is not cute, kids. Have a safe burn. See you out there.

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