Friday, September 22, 2006

Seriously Creepy Research: The Neurology of the Feeling That Someone's Watching You

Here's some crazy brain research for you: Most people, at some point or another, have had that creepy feeling that somebody's nearby. That they're being watched. Well, a group of scientists just figured out that they can stimulate that disturbing feeling by applying electric stimulation to a specific area in a patient's brain. But they didn't do it on purpose:
"Doctors unintentionally produced the delusion while evaluating a 22-year-old epileptic woman for possible surgery. Though the woman had no history of psychological problems, she repeatedly perceived a "shadow person" hovering behind her when doctors electrically stimulated an area of her brain called the left temporoparietal junction. "Our data most importantly show that paranoia might be related to disturbed processing of one's own body, [which] in some instances may become misrecognized as the body of somebody else," said Olaf Blanke, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. The hallucinatory condition was temporary and ended when stimulations were stopped.

"During her ordeal, the patient described sensing an unknown person standing just behind her, mimicking her body positions. "He is behind me, almost at my body, but I do not feel it," she told doctors, who report their discovery in this week's issue of the journal Nature. When asked to lean forward and grasp her knees, the patient reported that she felt as if the shadow person were embracing her—a sensation she described as disturbing. When performing assigned activities, such as a language-testing card game, she said that the shadow tried to interfere. "He wants to take the card," she told doctors. "He doesn't want me to read."
The photo above is a computerized drawing -- she shadow behind the woman illustrates where she felt this man (and interesting that it was a man, not a woman). What's perhaps most creepy is, the patient -- who had no history of delusions -- thought this was real. She had no idea she was experiencing some kind of hallucination. The researchers think the electronic stimulation temporarily confused her brain's ability to comprehend its own body. Which could make sense, since the part of the brain they zapped is connected to self-perception, distinguishing self from non-self, and understanding where your body is in space.

Of course, this doesn't actually tell us much in the end, since it only happened to one patient, but it's totally fascinating. Perhaps someday it will lead to a larger study that looks at this phenomena ... Finding volunteers for that one might be tricky though. I sure wouldn't do it. Tooooo creepy.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Study Finds Egg In The Face Can Be Dangerous

Here's some good solid (and useful) science for you: Researchers in Liverpool have just announced that "being pelted by a raw egg may result in eye injury." How they know: They examined the medical records of 18,651 patients who'd gone to one eye unit over the course of 14 months. Thirteen turned out to be egg attack victims. As the BBC reported:
"The researchers warn that egg hurling, sometimes used as a form of protest or prank, is far from harmless. They point out, in the Emergency Medical Journal, that an egg has the same dimensions as a squash ball but carries even more weight when lobbed. Jon Durnian, lead author of the paper from the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, said: "The shape and weight of an egg makes it a perfect instrument to cause quite a lot of damage it it is thrown accurately ... Mr Durnian said the public should be made aware of the damage an egg can cause and that throwing eggs should definitely not be encouraged."
Durnian has a special beef with companies who sell eggs specifically designed for lobbing, like "Mischief Eggs," which are apparently sold during Halloween. Who knew?

Now, you're probably thinking to yourself, Who throws eggs anymore? I haven't heard of anyone throwing eggs in years! Well, I must say, if I'd known about those Mischief Eggs, I may have gotten some. Because the truth is, in the last few years, I've actually thrown a few eggs:

My apartment is directly above the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel in Manhattan, which means the streets below my windows turn into a huge parking lot during rush hour. And several times a week, people stuck in that traffic decide to lean on their horns endlessly, as if their blaring will help move cars that are stopped from here to New Jersey. This does not bring out the best in people: Some people roll down windows and shout obscenities at the honkers, others get out of their cars and puff up their chests and actually pound on the windows of honkers. And I have -- twice in three years -- opened my window and hurled eggs at honkers. Fortunately for them, they're in cars with their eyes not pointed toward the eggs. And my aim is terrible, so I couldn't hit a person if I tried. But I can apparently hit the hood of a car.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Six Degrees of Fabricated Research Findings

At this point, pretty much everyone knows the theory of Six Degrees of Separation: That everyone in the world somehow connected through a chain of six people. Well, it turns out, the results from the study that supposedly proved the theory were actually fabricated.

The phrase "Six Degrees of Separation" was coined by Stanley Milgram -- the famous and largely controversial social psychologist who conducted studies examining people's obedience to authority by testing how many would administer potentially lethal electric shocks to screaming victims. As the official Milgram website explains it, "He found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks-up to 450 volts-to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific authority commanded them to, and in spite of the fact that the victim did not do anything to deserve such punishment. The victim was, in reality, a good actor who did not actually receive shocks, and this fact was revealed to the subjects at the end of the experiment. But, during the experiment itself, the experience was a powerfully real and gripping one for most participants."

For his famous Six Degrees of Separation study, Milgram asked people to give a letter to other people they knew by name, then he tracked how long it took for each letter to end up in the hands of a person the original sender didn't know in another city. He reported that the average number of people it took to get from the sender to an unknown person was six. Hence, the phrase "six degrees of separation." But apparently no one ever bothered to look into his data, until now:
Judith Kleinfeld, a professor psychology at Alaska Fairbanks University, went back to Milgram's original research notes and found something surprising. It turned out, she told us, that 95% of the letters sent out had failed to reach the target. Not only did they fail to get there in six steps, they failed to get there at all. Milgram was a giant figure in his world of research, but here was evidence that the claim he was famously associated with was not supported by his experiments.
Which means the whole Six Degrees of Separation thing is more science-fiction than actual statistics, much to the dismay of the many the films, plays and books written using Six Degrees as their driving force.

Kleinfeld wasn't exactly happy to discover this: "I was shocked. I was horrified." Apparently other studies were done after his that claimed to find similar results:
none of those matched up to the claim either. In the most recent, two years ago, only 3% of letters reached their target. "If 95 or 97 letters out of 100 never reached their target, would you say it was proof of six degrees of separation? So why do we want to believe this?" "The pleasing idea that we live in a 'small world' where people are connected by 'six degrees of separation' may be the academic equivalent of an urban myth," she says.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Speaking of Dr. Seuss ...

In an earlier post, I mentioned that tomorrow is the anniversary of Dr. Seuss's death. Well ... Thanks to Boing Boing, I just came across another Dr. Seuss fact very worth mentioning: The Dr. Seuss Taxidermy Collection (!), which is an absolutely fabulous thing. From the gallery's website:
"Seuss embarked on an ingenious project in the early 1930s as he evolved from two-dimensional artworks to three-dimensional sculptures. What was most unusual for these mixed-media sculptures was the use of real animal parts including beaks, antlers and horns from deceased Forest Park Zoo animals where Seuss’s father was superintendent. Unorthodox Collection of Taxidermy was born in a cramped New York apartment and included a menagerie of inventive creatures with names like the “Two Horned Drouberhannis,” “Andulovian Grackler,” and “Semi-Normal Green-Lidded Fawn.” Shortly after Seuss created this unique collection of artworks, Look Magazine dubbed Seuss “The World’s Most Eminent Authority on Unheard-Of Animals.” To this day, Seuss’s Unorthodox Collection of Taxidermy remains as some of the finest examples of his inventive and multi-dimensional creativity."
In case anyone is feeling generous, I thought I should mention: I would like any or all of the taxidermy collection for my birthday, which also happens to be tomorrow. ;-)

His secret art collection is quite wonderful too. Given my current status as a writer actively worrying about her book, my personal favorite is certainly, "Self Portrait of an Artist Worrying About His Next Book," pictured right, which really nails it. The book he was worrying about when he painted this: "Green Eggs and Ham."

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International Talk Like A Pirate Day

It's that time again: Tomorrow, September 19th, is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, Japanese Respect for the Aged day ... and my birthday. It also happens to be the day Giles Corey was "pressed" to death by villagers who stacked increasingly large rocks on him because he'd been declared a wich in the famous Salem Witch Trials (1692). It was the day women were finally allowed to vote (1893) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid committed their first robbery (1900). It's the anniversary of the first underground nuclear bomb test and the Dodgers last game at Ebbets Field (1957), where they beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 2-0 (fortunately, my father was watching the Dodgers game that day, not the nuclear bomb test). Khruschev was banned from Disneyland on September 19 (1959), 155 people died when a Boeing 747 collided with a mountain in Turkey (1976) and 171 died when their DC-10 was decimated by a terrorist's bomb over the Tunuru Desert in Niger (1989), which probably explains my life-long fear of flying.

September 19th is the day Twiggy was born, which has always made me happy, and the day Red Fox died, which has always made me sad. This may explain why the Sanford and Son theme is one of my all time favorite songs. It's also the day Scott Fahlman posted the first recorded emoticon :-) to the internet (1982), which I like, and an earthquake in Mexico killed thousands (1985), which I don't like. Hurricaine Hugo hit South Carolina (1980), the Guelb El-Kebir massacre hit Algeria (1997), a couple of German tourists discovered Otzi the Iceman, and hours later, death took Dr. Seuss (1991), otherwise known as Theodor Seuss Geisel, who drew animated insects for a bug spray company before he became Dr. Seuss the childrens book author. He also penned many a brilliant and bizarre political cartoon. And September 19th isn't our only connection: Dr. Seuss was born in Springfield, MA; I was born in Springfield, IL. And, as many people have pointed out over the years, my last name sounds very much like the name of a Dr. Seuss character.


Organizing Bookshelves

I just posted this at Critical Mass, but had to post it here too, in part to explain why this blog has been quiet lately: Jay Parini has a fun essay in the current Chronicle of Education about his obsession with other people's bookshelves, and the secrets that lurk behind them: "A personal library is an X-ray of the owner's soul. It offers keys to a particular temperament, an intellectual disposition, a way of being in the world. Even how the books are arranged on the shelves deserves notice, even reflection. There is probably no such thing as complete chaos in such arrangements."

Reading that made me laugh: Over the years, my father and I have had endless discussions about the organization of our bookshelves, which we change all the time, usually when we're supposed to be doing something else, like finishing a story for a presssing deadline. Currently, mine is organized by genre (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, with trinkets separating each genre -- a stone gargoyle, a picture of my nephew, a small rubber brain), then by category within genre (science, general nonfiction, memoir, etc, which gets tricky when books fall in more than one category), then alphabetical by author within each category. Those books stand one next to the other on the shelf, but I have special categories within each category for subjects I plan to write about someday -- those books lie flat, stacked one on top of the other, also alphabetized by author.

So I read Parini's essay and thought, someone looking at my bookshelves will immediately learn three things about me: I'm a science nerd, I'll someday write about Appalachia and memory and tattoos, and I probably have a borderline case of OCD, which I clearly inherited from my father, whose shelves are even more intricately organized than mine.

Parini's essay was quite timely for me, because this week I start putting all my books in boxes (alphabetically and categorized) because I'm moving and leaving my wall of built-in shelves behind (that, combined with a big story deadline, explains the quiet blog). This is exciting, because it means I have to buy new bookshelves, which means I have to re-organize my books by shelf as well as category and author ... It's all about perfectly organized chaos.

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Is She Vegetative or Conscious?

I've gotten several emails in response to yesterday's post about scientists finding brain activity in a vegetative patient ... everyone wants to know, What does it mean? Is this woman aware? Are people euthanizing conscious beings when they cut off life support for vegetative patients? The answer: No one knows. Over at "Brains," a blog run by my friend Gualtiero Piccinini, there's this interesting post by a philosopher named Pete Mandik who specializes in consciousness. He suggests what sounds like the next logical step toward understanding what these findings mean in terms of the consciousness of vegetative patients: See if anesthetized patients have similar responses. If the brains of anesthetized patients respond in the same way this vegetative woman's brain responded, Mandik says, that brain activity doesn't = consciousness. But if this woman responds in ways anesthetized patients don't, well ... that's a different story.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

'Vegetative' Woman's Brain Not So Vegetative

Wow, this is pretty stunning: Researchers have just done brain scans on a woman who's in a vegetative state and found that her brain responds to certain verbal cues like a healthy person's brain would. From the Washington Post:
"According to all the tests, the young woman was deep in a 'vegetative state' -- completely unresponsive and unaware of her surroundings. But then a team of scientists decided to do an unprecedented experiment, employing sophisticated technology to try to peer behind the veil of her brain injury for any signs of conscious awareness.

"Without any hint that she might have a sense of what was happening, the researchers put the woman in a scanner that detects brain activity and told her that in a few minutes they would say the word "tennis," signaling her to imagine she was serving, volleying and chasing down balls. When they did, the neurologists were shocked to see her brain "light up" exactly as an uninjured person's would. It happened again and again. And the doctors got the same result when they repeatedly cued her to picture herself wandering, room to room, through her own home.

'I was absolutely stunned,' said Adrian M. Owen, a British neurologist who led the team reporting the case in today's issue of the journal Science. 'We had no idea whether she would understand our instructions. But this showed that she is aware.'
This is amazing stuff -- no question this is going to take us back to Terry Schiavo (sigh) and launch the whole how-do-you-define-brain-death debate into a whole new realm.

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