A Musician is a Musician

Apr 12, 2014

As a scientist, you get to know a lot of scientists. I see them at work, at science meetings, at research talks. It's true of most professions. Lawyers know a lot of lawyers, and musicians end up knowing a lot of musicians.

I came to know a lot of musicians during the years when I played in a rock band and in some jazz groups in Philadelphia. I want to tell you something that surprised me about rock musicians, jazz musicians, and rap and hip hop artists.

In terms of personality, they're all very similar. I know fewer classical musicians, but I suspect they're pretty much the same as the others.

Their audiences aren't very similar. Different kinds of people go to hear rock, jazz, and rap. But the ones on stage usually have this musician-type personality, a kind of sensitivity that transcends the musical form. Of course, like any group of people, some are a pain in the ass. But they're the minority.

It doesn't surprise anyone that neuroscientists and anatomists and evolutionary biologists have similar personalities. It's somehow more surprising to find that this is true for jazz and rock and rap musicians. I think it's because of the very different images that they project on stage. My experience has been that the image is almost always a façade, an act, completely unrepresentative of the person.

Cats, music, and inhibitory brain circuits

Apr 5, 2014

It's late in the day, and I listen to music. I'm making an effort to familiarize myself with some recent musicians. I'd stopped listening to pop music with open ears by the time I was about 30. But now I'm making a project out of getting to know new artists.  I'm putting together a playlist of their songs. But to mix things up, I also add a few songs I love from the past.

I listen and type, and my cat Emma is getting into trouble in the kitchen. On a mission to discover hidden food, she jumps fearlessly from high places. She doesn't waste time imagining how she might fall or fail in some other way. Unlike me, she's not afraid of embarrassing herself.

I'm trying to learn from Emma these days. She and I know that if we fall, we can jump again. Of course things that really put us at physical risk are rare and easy to recognize. But I sometimes forget, and become inhibited, treating daily challenges like they were matters of life and death.

Inhibiting our behavior is one of the things that the brain does. Both Emma and I have brains that evolved to put the breaks on our actions once in a while.  For instance, the small almond-shaped amygdala (not really green) learns to recognize danger signs, and responds to them by making our heart race, making us vigilant to even slight changes of sight and sound, and in extreme cases leaving us momentarily paralyzed. In our evolutionary history, this probably made us more likely to notice a predator, and the predator less likely to notice us. This fear circuitry continues to serve a purpose today. It protects us from physical danger. The problem for us humans is that the circuitry flashes on too often, and when it does, we believe we're in a life-or-death situation even when the stakes are low.

I distract Emma from her kitchen escapades by tempting her with a colorful bow that's tied to a string.  Emma likes to pounce on moving things. She watches how I move the bow so she can jump and grab it at just the right moment. Woe to the poor mouse or bird that some day comes across Emma's path. When the time comes, Emma will need to inhibit her impulses until it's time to strike. If she acts too soon, she might miss her target. This type of inhibitory control requires the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex isn't restraining behavior to avoid danger, but maximizes gain by waiting for the most opportune moment to act. But sometimes us humans wait and wait for the best moment, missing out on goodies we could have tried to capture.  Too much frontal cortex. The comedian Jackie Mason describes a guy who says "See that building over there? If I had bought it 40 years ago, do you know how much it would be worth today?" His friend asks him, why not buy a building now?  "Now? Now it's too late!"

Emma's curled up asleep on the bed, tired from jumping and pouncing. I'm still listening to the top songs of 2013. Finally, one of my favorite songs from years ago comes on. Thank God.

Morning Reflections

Mar 30, 2014

This morning I'm making an extra effort to win over the nasty lady behind the counter at the French bakery on 106th and Amsterdam Avenue. The pastries here are freshly baked, I like the coffee, and the ambiance is good for writing. I remind myself that her bad attitude has nothing to do with me.  It's my turn to order and I give her my earnest smile, fake earnest, but apparently enough to oil the gears of the interaction. I know it went better than usual because my heart isn't beating fast and I'm not replaying it in my mind. Instead I'm thinking about the class I taught yesterday with my colleague Al.

Co-taught classes aren't common, but Al and I co-teach a neuroscience class for PhD students a few times a year. It's fun teaching together because Al is funny, smart, and not at all pretentious. During class discussions, we sometimes disagree with each other in front of the students, and then we insult each other, and the students get a big kick out of this. So we play it up even more -- it's become our shtick.

Al talks to the students in an engaging way, until he gets to his first slide. It contains lines representing connections between brain areas, and the lines are going all over the place, and the slide's so busy that it's hard to understand the point. There's a lot of text on the slide too, but the words don't have much to do with the complex diagram. This is a 4 hour class with only a few brief breaks, so when Al starts with these slides, it's a killer. Forty-five minutes and ten slides later, he asks students if they have questions, and they don't. I think it's because they stopped paying attention twenty minutes ago.

Al's not done yet with the deadly slides, and I start debating in my mind whether to talk to him about it afterwards. Maybe I ought to just relax. My relationship with Al may be more important than these classes. I'm sure the students have been to boring classes before. I was hoping they'd learn a lot, but it's not the end of the world if they don't. Still, these pupil-dilating slides are really bothering me. So when the class ends, I approach Al.

"Al, when you're not using the slides, everything you talk about is so interesting and digestible. But with these complicated Powerpoint slides, it's hard to ...." He half agrees. He opens up the first slide, and sees that it does have a lot of unnecessary information on it. I've said enough, right? One would think.

But instead, I extend my critique to his next several slides as well.  Do I worry that Al will read this blog? Of course. It's enough that I told him his slides stink, now I have to blog about it too. Al, if you happen to stumble upon this post -- unlikely, but not absolutely impossible -- please know that I value you greatly as a friend and colleague.

I was looking forward to going home directly after class, but Al asks me if I have time to get a beer. I'm glad to hang out and make sure every thing's OK between us. So we go across the street to a bar.

We're in a touristy area of NYC just a few blocks from Penn Station, and the bar's crowded during happy hour. I don't love the vibe, but I like Al, and I'm penitent. I let the loud chatter of the after-work crowd and the 80's music wash over me. The beer is cold and tastes good. Al shouts to the woman behind the bar that we'd like a Giant Soft Pretzel with the cheese dipping sauce, and a plate of the cheesy burritos. Over beers and cheesy food we have a nice conversation, not about class. In a few minutes an hour's passed, and we pay the check.

Al and I are still talking as we head toward the train station. After everything I've ingested, I'm stuffed and a
little buzzed, and I feel like a zombie from the Walking Dead. Of course the whole idea of a zombie is that it doesn't feel like anything to be one. But I walk like one.  And because I have a small stomach, it enlarges like a boa constrictor that's eaten an elephant. Later, alone on the subway, the beer and hypoglycemia make me moody.

It feels good to have left the apartment early this morning. I prefer cafe's to bars, coffee to beer, and an early morning croissant to a late afternoon appetizer. Some poor customer is in line having a bad interaction with the nasty lady behind the counter. I don't know what the customer said, but the lady behind the counter is unleashing sarcasm on her. Ouch.

Mental Effort and Pupil Dilation

Mar 23, 2014

Daniel Kahneman is the only psychologist to have won a Nobel Prize. He gave a talk at City College this week. He's 80 years old, and in his talk he described some memories from his career as a psychologist. He mentioned some experiments he did when he was a young man. He had noticed that when people use a lot of mental energy to think about something - say multiplying 23 x 17 in their heads - the pupils of their eyes dilate. Measuring pupil size, he could actually tell the moment when someone had finished thinking through the difficult problem. The  person would find it pretty freaky when he'd say "You've just finished thinking about it haven't you?"

Some mental activity is effortful and some is effortless and automatic. Pupils dilate during effortful mental activity.  On the other hand, when people converse in a natural way, thinking effortlessly, their pupils do not dilate.  Kahneman's talk was interesting, and he spoke in such a conversational way that it was easy to follow his ideas. I learned a lot, and yet I bet my pupils hardly dilated.

The next day I had to go to another talk. This speaker was very difficult to understand. He was a neuroscientist from China, now working at a university in NYC, and his accent was strong. He would often mumble phrases, making it even more difficult to understand him. He was talking about a technical topic in neuroscience, and I had to use a ton of mental effort to understand what the hell he was saying. I started thinking of how much my pupils must be dilating. Later in the day I would need to teach a long class to graduate students, and here I was wasting my mental energy on this damn pupil-dilating talk.

So I taught the graduate students that afternoon.  In retrospect, I wish I'd looked at their eyes and noticed whether their pupils were dilating as I described brain reward and motivation systems and the firing of dopamine neurons.  Of course, I had enough on my hands teaching this stuff without trying to monitor my pupils' pupils.   But I suppose a teacher can present complex material in a clear and engaging way so that students' mental effort is minimized, or present the same material in a way that's more difficult, laborious, and pupil-stretching.

If the learning experience is enjoyable enough, attention and thinking doesn't seem 'effortful'.  Do our pupils dilate when we're in a mental 'flow' state where we're using our minds to full capacity but we don't notice the passage of time?  Does mental effort come into play when we're thinking about complex issues, or only when we have to 'force' ourselves to think about them?  It might be that some concepts are so new to us that we're going to need some pupil-dilating mental effort in order for the new idea to take hold in our brains.  In this case, at least the pupil dilation would be worth it. 

Nowadays there's a lot of talk about fuel efficiency standards for cars.  A car ought to get some minimum number of miles per gallon of gas.  Maybe classrooms can have mental efficiency standards, with teachers presenting material in a way that minimizes students' mental effort.  We could measure, not only the amount of material learned, but also the amount of pupil dilation required to learn it.