Encephalon 68: A carnival of neuroscience

Welcome to the 68th installation of Encephalon, a blog carnival devoted to presenting the best recent blog posts in neuroscience and psychology.

Last time I hosted Encephalon I used a new format, motivated by my philosophy about what makes for good science blogging:

Science blogging isn’t merely a means of recording information. The best science bloggers are expert at asking, and then answering, a question that the reader might never have even thought about before. That gives us the organizing theme of today’s carnival: Q&A.

I liked the Q&A format so much that I’m going to use it again (though I don’t promise to always frame the questions that the bloggers themselves intend to be answering). Without further ado, then…

Q: What would neuroscience be like without informed consent?
A: It would be dreadful, as epitomized by the infamous Rafferty experiment. Roberts Bartholow, a physician, performed a series of invasive experiments on the brain of a “feeble-minded” terminal cancer patient, Mary Rafferty. His investigations caused significant pain and may have materially contributed to Rafferty’s death, but that didn’t stop Bartholow from publishing his findings and going on to a successful career. Romeo Vitelli has the gory details at Providentia.

Q: What can we learn from a damaged brain?
A: We learn a great deal about the functioning of the human brain by studying the symptoms that arise from damage to specific areas within the brain. At their best, these studies allow neuroscientists to test hypotheses that couldn’t be falsified in any other way. Brain-damage studies aren’t perfect, however (what study is?) and they’re vulnerable to a wide variety of confounding variables. Using an analogy between brains and computers, Jared Tanner discusses the advantages and disadvantages of brain damage studies at Brain Blogger.

A: The things we learn from damaged brains can be quite specific. From patients with heterotopopagnosia, we have learned that the left parieto-occipital junction is implicated in our ability to recognize the parts of other people’s bodies. At the Neurocritic.

Q: How do we figure out what to do?
A: In order to deal with the world, we must allocate our attention to gather the most relevant information, identify the available options, choose between the alternatives and then execute our action. When you put it that way, it’s a wonder we can get out of bed in the morning. Sandy G ponders stimulus conditioning and maximization of utility functions at The Mouse Trap.

Q: How does socioeconomic status influence the brain?
A: A large body of recent work has elucidated relationships between poverty and neuroanatomy, focusing on the physiological effects of chronic stress. At Neuroanthropology, Daniel Lende takes a critical look at the way some of these findings have been discussed. I was especially impressed by his points about the brain as “fetish” or “token” in discussions of the issue.

Q: Where do emotions come from?
A: Joseph Kim talks about the stereotypical differences in emotional expression between men and women, and between people from different cultures, in a question-filled, free-form post at Brain Blogger.

Q: Why do we have bad moods?
A: Low moods are often associated with unpleasant feelings and difficulty getting through the day. How could such a response have evolved? When the going gets tough, the tough should get going, not lie around on the couch eating pork rinds. In order words, it seems maladaptive to respond to bad circumstances by losing the ability to improve one’s lot. Then again, if risk hasn’t paid off, maybe it makes sense to be risk averse. What’s the ideal outcome? At The Mouse Trap, Sandy G summarizes and discusses a recent peer-reviewed paper on these issues.

Q:What is the mission of neuroanthropology?
A: In a 1986 video, Oliver Sacks describes the goal of the neurologist as “to try to imagine what it is like for them and enter into their situation and their world and relate it to one’s own.” Daniel Lende of Neuroanthropology argues that this effectively summarizes the mission goals of the modern neuroanthropologist. Over the past three decades, a number of developments (in neuroscience, epistemology, anthropology and psychology) have converged to dramatically changed the landscape in which neuroanthropologists work. The upshot, Lende argues is that we’re now able to design scholarly work around the mission defined in Sacks’ statement.

Q: What is the best way to disseminate and discuss a paper before it’s “published”?
A: At The Neurocritic, an discussion of the controversy surrounding the paper formerly known as “Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience.”

Q: How do baseball players catch fly balls?
A: Running to intercept tiny projectile moving rapidly along a (more or less) parabolic course is, to say the least, difficult. A significant amount of scholarship has been devoted to analyzing the trajectories of outfielders as they pursue their implicit strategies for catching that fly ball. Never one to take the easy road, Daniel Lende of Neuroanthropology ponders why novice players tend to take a step forward as soon as they realize a ball has been hit in their general direction.

Q: How do we learn from our mistakes?
A:More broadly, how do we use experience of the past to adapt to a changing environment? At Brain Health Hacks, Ward Plunet describes a study of the effect of a dopamine receptor polymorphism on learning behavior — the results would seem to indicate that some of us have a genetic predisposition to acknowledge (or at least realize) when we’re wrong, and to do something about that.

The next Encephalon will be hosted at Brain Stimulant on April 27th. More information about future installations of the carnival, as well as details about making submissions, can be found at the Encephalon archive.



  1. oh, gosh, more of the tiresome western neuro”scietists” pulling the wings off grasshoppers, jabbing sticks into radios imagining they know where the sound is coming from

    why don’t people ever conceptualize in, say, sanskrit, which has five words just for mind, instead of the clunkiest language on the planet for research in to subtlty?

    why don’t neuroscientists ever ask a yogi what is going on in mind? maybe they are afraid of being laughed at, by their peers and by the yogi ..

    i cannot think of a more barbaric “science” than the neuro one, your model based on the “fact” that consciousness is made by meat …

    eff’n’ay, as they used to say in the face of high degrees of ridiculousness …

    enjoy, gregory lent

  2. (shakes with laughter) It’s totally hilarious to contrast the bitter, inaccurate screed in comment 3 with the lotuses-and-love Buddhist spirituality on that commenter’s blog. It’s pretty clear from his words that he’s either missed the point (about both neuroscience and Buddhism) or doesn’t believe any of what he’s promulgating. At the very least, it’s a near-total failure to “walk the walk.”

    Evidently, Christians don’t have a monopoly on ignorant science-bashing.

    ‘[Apes do read philosophy], Otto. They just don’t understand it. … The central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself.” ‘
    A Fish Called Wanda

    ‘Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.’
    Siddhartha Gautama

  3. Excellent carnival! I was particularly attracted to the post regarding, “How do baseball players catch fly balls?” Something so simple, that just about all of us have done at one time or another, to be analyzed in such a scientific way. A great mix of physics and neuroscience.

    As for your response to comment #3, I can only imagine the defensive tone Gregory is presented with in “his” head as he reads it. Not too mention you pulled out a quote from “A Fish Called Wanda,”…hilarious!

  4. Haha @ Gregorylent.

    Your opinion is biased by your assumption that consciousness isn’t made by meat.

    Observe, investigate, test and conclude. Not the other way round.

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