Still a favorite: Using space and time to encode vibrotactile information: toward an estimate of the skin’s achievable throughput

Since 2015 there’s a paper that has absolutely eaten me alive, neuron by neuron. It’s called “Using space and time to encode vibrotactile information: toward an estimate of the skin’s achievable throughput (Eagleman, Novich)” and causes my mind to be absolutely paralyzed by possibilities. Sensory substitution! What a thought, Eagleman!

Of course, Paul Bach-y-Rita was one of the original OG’s in this realm.

& now, Elon Musk continues to seek talent for up-&-coming Neuralink – which promises to offer high-bandwidth brain-to-computer interfaces. Hm. Not a bad idea, especially when you consider the therapeutic applications of existing brain-to-computer technologies.

To research or work on any of these technologies would be the opportunity of a lifetime, & I’d cancel pretty much everything in my life right now to pursue them if only I knew how. In the meantime the opportunity to sit back and learn is available & my cynical little mind is already shouting out some words of caution.

BRAIN-TO-COMPUTER-INTERFACES-ARE-NEVER-GONNA-HAPPEN!, says cynical brain

Well, nothing interesting that ever happened was ever-going-to-happen. New inventions are just crazy, that’s how it is! 

(this back-and-forth arguing continues). The primary concern is whether or not a high-bandwidth brain-to-machine interface for general-purpose use would be a good thing. Musk & others are right when they say that a keyboard isn’t enough to transmit a certain amount of information back-and-forth. But is that enough to support the overall claim that as it relates to human beings using and interfacing with information technology, quality of communication is proportional to the bandwidth of the information being passed along? Childish idealism runs rampant in my thoughts now – I’d like to go to coffee w a clever human like Elon & ask them, ‘will the problems you foresee with AI actually be solved by brain-machine interfaces or will they be worsened? Will the malicious capabilities of technology be diminished if humans are more closely linked w technology?’ It seems even a pen and paper (even morse code!) are often not enough for humans to communicate effectively, promptly, or sufficiently. It leads me to wonder if the tech-augmented hippocampus & cortex, adorned with messy glued-on silicon chips, might not be a devastatingly unhealthy Matrix-esque nightmare of limbic slop.

That coffee date won’t be happening anytime soon so in the meantime I’ll have to scroll from afar & hope these technologies work, & serve the common good.

The Optimist

While digging through a “Free Swap” area on campus I came upon a forcefully optimistic series of etchings laid out on some sort of a plaque situation

The Optimist Creed:

  • To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind
  • To talk health, happiness, and prosperity to every person you meet,
  • To make all your friends feel that there is something in them,
  • To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true,
  • To think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best
  • To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own
  • To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievement of the future
  • To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile
  • To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others
  • To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble

Neat. A swirl of reactions shared that space behind my eyes after I located and skimmed over this. One reaction tasted like Wow this is psycho this is brainwashing and another reaction had some sort of a Yeah but you need it, you sick fuck type of overtone. Grabbed the thing, brought it home and made a commitment to memorize it. Thought I’d elect one item on the list as a area to focus on (optimistically, of course) & choose another that seems to be going ok. On typing out the list one jumped out as urgently in need of work and it was less clear which item I’m doing best with. Following that I’m curious to find/post at least an article or two on the neural substrates of positive/negative thinking.

Urgently in need of work: To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize othersThis one screamed at me.

Doing best: Maybe To make all your friends feel that there is something in them, or To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future? The former case makes me smile because I think friends would have good things to say about that. The issue with the latter would be the hours spent daily ruminating about past/current failures. But the feedback I often get from adults is that in the long game I am overwhelmingly more resilient and future-focused than the other young folks they run into. The discrepancy between that externally-imposed feedback and the actual inner experience/introspective assessment is really jarring but hey, that’s psychology.


Materials & readings on optimism, pessimism, & associated neural bonanza:

Richie Unplugged: My #1 role model explains to you how and why to keep your mind right. Had to start with this

  • Bonus- no powerpoint or reading necessary

Richie, plugged back in: A lovely overview of ~current research taking place in the Davidson lab back home in Madison. You’ll note some brief descriptions of research under WELL-BEING & BEHAVIOR that seem to dig most closely towards this gem called optimism

  • This is a pile of summaries about what Richie is working on in Madison. If you’re not salivating upon reading those studies (just consider all the other thousands of studies being funded in the biomedical sciences) you might not be optimistic enough!

From the NYT: Turning negative thinkers into positive ones

  • Mentions some neat research by a researcher by the name of Barbara Fredrickson (creates new bookmark) who I haven’t heard of before.

Good summary (on Oprah’s website! Ayyye!) of the merits of choosing happiness, featuring a boatload of neuroscience references

  • The article mentions a David Lykken, PHD, here in Minnesota at the U. Haven’t heard of him until now – (adds new bookmark to Brainman folder) – eager to see what he’s about and if he’s around these days. Bad news – on looking the guy up turns out he passed 12 years ago. Oh well.
  • Make sure to scroll all the way down in this reading – it’s actually 5 full pages long but one can easily get the impression it stops when the first page stops.

The association between resting functional connectivity and dispositional optimism (Ran, J. Yang, W. Yang, Wei, J. Qiu, Zhang)

  • Haven’t read this one all the way through but not surprisingly the abstract mentions the vmPFC. Heck!!!

“What is Unrealistic Optimism?” (Jefferson, Bortolotti, Kuzmanovic)

  • Absolutely necessary adjunct reading for anyone getting too hyped, biased, or fundamentalist about optimism
  • Uses the term positive illusion as an umbrella term encompassing their defined notion of unrealistic optimism. Positive illusion would be/is my overall characterization of optimism but it seems these authors demarcate between optimism as being rational/a proper assessment of circumstances (no illusion here) and optimism sometimes being irrational/an improper assessment of circumstances (illusory).

 

Tripping in context

Let’s say you’re sitting at a bar. You’re 1.5 drinks in: confidence blows in the sail of your diaphragm, smiles are beginning to seep from your cheeks, and the voice in your head informs your sad, previously sober-self: What the hell – I really can achieve my goals, and I really do take myself too seriously, and thank the lord for alcohol! We have to do this more often, you mopey fuck!” As GABA floats across the lanes of your head-highways your brain – rather, you – find yourself settling into a disorganized and disinhibited state of bliss. Euphoria is too complicated a word for a feeling this normal. You’re calm once more.

You’re alone in that sense. Somehow your eyes receive some brainspace from your nose, which has utterly hijacked your experience with an awful perfume smell. An older woman 2 seats over is the hare to your tortoise and the current colonizer of your nostrils. You see that she is already a walking (sitting) vessel for a bottle of wine. She orders another. Some song that your dad really likes plays on the bar speakers as you peek down at her right ankle. No mistaking the Louis Vuitton purse at her side, nor the 3 prescription bottles inside of it. Your background in medicine, druggery, and institutionalization have taught you about privacy, but being medication savvy, 3/4 of a second is all you need: notice that the pill bottles all look fresh but bear different logos: St. Paul Corner Drug, CVS, Walgreens Pharmacy. Citizen-healthy-voter you shouldn’t peek, shouldn’t judge, so you look away and try to mind your drink. Hospital-you sees the after-image of the bottles in your mind’s eye. Amphetamine, Xanax, Prozac. Yet another rich lady with a gaggle of doctors. A gaggle of neuroses, sure, and based on her medication choices she’s well aware of her own difficulties. The problem is, these medications shouldn’t be prescribed together. Any legitimate care provider would know not to prescribe an antidepressant with a benzo with a stimulant anywhere other than a college basement. The bartender asks if you want another – in the 1/2 second before answering you have a moment of sadness for all the doctors who are persecuted for prescribing. Yeah, America, blame the doctors for your kids taking adderall. Keep blaming the doctors for Prozac being ineffective. Keep blaming a bunch of debt-laden medical students for doing their best to please you. And then jump onto the next miracle cure, why don’t ya, until the next miracle cure fucks you up. And fuck wine, you think to yourself loudly. You try to remember that there’s no need to be judgmental. Even though you won’t ever relate to this lady she’s ruined your state of mind, which honestly isn’t her fault. So much for the calm.

Then, Grandma-Glamorous yells something that actually resonates: GOSH, I MEAN FOR A MAJORITY OF PEOPLE WITHOUT MAJOR DEPRESSIVE DISORDER, NONE OF THESE ANTIDEPRESSANTS WORK ANY BETTER THAN LIFESTYLE CHANGES ! THEY SAID ON THE NEWS THAT THEY’RE USING THOSE MAGIC MUSHROOMS TO MAKE THE BLUES GO AWAY, HAVEN’T YOU HEARD? DOESN’T A LITTLE WOODSTOCK SOUND MORE FUN THAN WHINING? Fearfully, you almost glance down at her purse again to see if she’s carrying any tabs. She isn’t. What is this lady onto, anyways? She’s not like you: She’s never hallucinated (recreationally or clinically), she prefers medication over lifestyle changes, she drinks like a fish, and – despite her ability to rattle off study findings – appears completely medically irreverent. She’s also upper class and has uttered words supportive of the Trump administration. You wonder if she has a therapist and realize that it doesn’t really matter. She is a consumer and she wants what she wants what she wants. So how do these folks, abusive yet wary of all things prescription, come to love magic mushrooms?

What about the clinicians who are eager to publish? Their credibility requires that they not abuse medication, and that they be less wary of prescriptions. In fact, they must plunge headfirst into pharmacological interventions despite any wariness they experience. Their patients rely on it.

What about you? The nerdy, liberal-leaning undergrad? You have seen in your own body the disastrous effects of various prescription drugs. You’ve also seen in your own body the disastrous effects of various psychedelic drugs. You’ve also seen the benefits of both of these classes of drugs. So, let’s get serious.

What do psychedelics have to offer to the everyman? To the world of clinical psychiatry? Are psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, or MDMA beneficial for mental health? Are they harmful for mental health? How do their effects differ between younger and older people? Between men and women? Are these drugs more effective for people with diagnosed illnesses? Less effective? Dangerous? If I have major depressive disorder, and medications aren’t working for me, should I ask the young fella at the bar if he knows where to buy some shrooms?

 

 

Man’s best friend vs. Malignant Glioma

Easily the coolest research I’ve cut up & snorted in a while. 

It is commonplace to be forcefed research and ideas that are popular and meaningful. Neither popularity though meaning, however, make a given project or consideration in academia practical in the real world. In my experience it is rare to taste research and ideas that are practical. Past that point it is nearly impossible to come across research and ideas that are practical, simple, and clearly overlooked. A lovely bit of writing came up lately that seemed immediately worth reading, considering, and sharing. The fact that is is (all at once) so practical, so simple, and so clearly overlooked gripped me and hasn’t released my wandering, daydreaming self since the moment I printed this paper off some weeks ago. There’s always 10 motherfuckers out there trying to start a new conversation for every 1 team of people hoping to resolve, clean up, or challenge an old one. My response to this early quote was of feeling like these authors were bringing some serious love and professionalism to old conversations:

The framework of this study originated from the desire to explore and combine non-conventional modalities to overcome the limitations of conventional methodologies

It’s rude of me to be offering quotes without offering the paper. You probably won’t print it off and carry it with you for weeks (especially if you didn’t download the .pdf from the link above yet…….) but here’s a reminder of the title

The Effect of Pet Therapy and Artist Interactions on Quality of Life in Brain Tumor Patients: A Cross-Section of Art and Medicine in Dialog (published 2018)  

 

This paper is directly helpful to people. The authors explore the application of pet therapy and art therapy (or, more simply, pets and art) to health-related quality of life – HRQoL – in patients diagnosed with malignant gliomas. In laymen’s term a malignant glioma is a terminal brain tumor, with a median survival time of less than 2 years after diagnosis. This is notable given that many other diseases can be significantly slowed in their course or even eliminated with the best treatments available today. The early claim by the authors is that the traditional goals of medicine are survival and disease-free survival. They go on to assert that traditional medicine does not tend to the needs of those who will not survive and are disease-ridden or terminally ill, and that there are (presumably unexplored) means for improving HRQoL. Though there is perhaps an anecdotal, personal, or folk account for this shortcoming in traditional medicine we should not proceed in reading this paper without questioning this starting point. Many of us will have experiences in healthcare – from birth to the beyond – that are more wholesome, more forward-thinking, and already aware or attuned to the loving tools described in this paper. It would not serve the reader (in my opinion) to get ahead of themselves and act as if traditional medicine has never been aware of how art, pets, or ‘art therapy/pet therapy’ assist HRQoL, including during the process of dying.

With that said let’s stop with a few questions worth pondering. If they make any sense (or if they don’t), jot these down, carry them around, digest them, disagree with yourself, repeat. Google whatever doesn’t make sense. It’s worth it:

In this paper, we describe our unique study that was designed to address two critical questions: (1) can pet therapy in the outpatient setting help improve HRQoL of brain tumor patients? and (2) can patient’s facial expression be used as a proxy measure for their overall HRQoL?

Insulin

Is neat.

Once I had an experience helping a kid at a debate tournament take his insulin. It was one of the scariest moments I’ve ever experienced, for a number of reasons.

How to explain this. Hm.

For starters, I have no idea what debate tournaments are about. Or what debate is really about. I have never debated, participated in Mock Trial, or even witnessed a formal debate (let alone participated in or witnessed a formal debate tournament) (let alone judged one). And somehow, despite that, this story begins with my traveling to a nearby city to judge a high-school debate tournament. A friend asked if I could stand-in as a judge for a debate tournament because he thought I’d do an OK job. Something to do with me being great at arguing with him – it seemed, well….Weird. Having agreed, and having dragged myself to a random school somewhere in MN on a Saturday in November, I found myself in a large cafeteria with hundreds of suit-clad kids. I was chilly. There were cans of soda, powerades, and bottled waters to drink. Everything smelled really clean and like it had been freshly vacuumed. Again, weird.

The debates around the school were timed. Lincoln-Douglas in their style, and seemingly extreme in their demands, these mini-events had (via some sort of career-scented tractor beam) pulled in the young professionals of tomorrow from all over the country. A ton of school buses sat outside. It was all honestly pretty intimidating. A handful of color-coded maps each depicted the locations and times of the dozens of debate events. During the middle period of the day (just during/after lunch) perhaps 95% of the kids ran off for their respective debates, leaving the cafeteria entirely empty. It’s (again,) weird how loud hundreds of suit-clad kids can be and how quiet a large linoleum can be once they filter out. One kid, munching down on his food some 5 or 6 tables over, remained after just a few minutes.

I was sipping on some blue powerade as the sound of a small body vomiting smacked my ears with baseball-type force. Again. A third time. My hand quivered and my stomach fell across my shoes (not literally) upon hearing it – vomiting really isn’t my thing – and I pitied whichever person, likely that kid some 5 or 6 tables over, was having the gut attack. As a younger person I was on the swim and cross country and track teams and hated more than anything to take a bus out to a competition. The feeling of sitting in a foreign school around 11:14am on a weekend, waiting to be judged against my peers, wrung out my stomach like a sock each time. So I could feel this kid’s pain – a fourth time – and, after he puked a fifth time, I began to get concerned. I remember thinking Five is a fuck-ton.

On turning around to face the bright cafeteria – there were skylights, and the place had an even and frosty glow – I saw the young boy aforementioned gripped to a garbage can for dear life. The garbage can was the rolling kind, with 4 wheels and a height of maybe 3 feet 6 inches. He was small and appeared to be on his heels as wretch-fest #6 commenced. His diaphragm and entire upper body lurched, as if some invisible tentacles were sucking him violently into the garbage can. Fuck: this was no nausea or performance anxiety. Something was seriously wrong. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Another thing I remembered from childhood was my sincere desire to be left alone whenever I was vomiting. How to approach while also giving the kid his necessary space?

Cornering my body a bit (rather than facing the kid square on) I edged up slowly, waving timidly with a hand and offering a bashful and solemn ‘hey’ of a smile. He made eye contact with me as the tentacles gripped him and tugged again. “Hey dude, just so you know I’m Ian and I’m an EMT, so if you need anything lemme know, and if you want me to leave you alone I c-“

“I’m type 1, my last A1C was fine but I’m at least over 300 right now and my pump is broken. Can you help me? (pukes)

[translation: I have type 1 diabetes and am having a blood sugar crisis. My last check-up at the doctor’s was ok. But right now my blood sugar is dangerously high and my insulin pump, which I need to fix my blood sugar, is broken.]

Before continuing this story I figure I’ll leave you with a bit of history. Read up, teach yourself a bit about what to expect with diabetes (you might run into some crises yourself someday, if you haven’t before) and then I’ll write the rest of this story down

https://www.diabetes.org.uk/about_us/news_landing_page/first-use-of-insulin-in-treatment-of-diabetes-88-years-ago-today

Ishi no ue ni mo san nen

Where is undergraduate neuroscience headed? One small slice of this predictive pie has been gobbled up by my advisor, Eric Wiertelak. He’s consumed & produced much undergraduate neuroscience work over the years and been largely involved in the related publications. Here’s one (of several) writings on the subject-

Warming to the Changing Face of Neuroscience and Neuroscience Education

Where undergraduate neuroscience is headed is a hugely important question. This field will be changing rapidly and it will be interesting to keep track of it over time. Should one care about the future of the healthcare industry, politics, the arts, and technology one should also be interested in the nature of neuroscience education. Again- it’s not just biology, psychology, computer science, and bad hollywood movies riding the neuroscience train – the arts in general, economics, social media, and even education itself are all headed new directions suggested by brain research. Undergraduates are often beginning lifelong journeys into these fields and it can be pretty interesting to look into how that group of people is studying the mind directly. I have never been involved in JUNE (and may never be) but enjoy seeing this tiny article from Eric.

We shouldn’t train engineers only to build toys but also to solve problems using those toys. A liberal arts approach offers to neuroscience what the well-rounded engineer also needs: which is a perspective on how to use their problem-solving tools to help other people.