Two brains can be better than one

May 8, 2016

I bought one of those dry-erase whiteboards and mounted it on a wall in my office. It's 3 or 4 feet wide, and on the top of it I wrote "New ideas." The only thing standing between me and exciting research projects was a white board where I'd post ideas, think about them, discuss them with colleagues, and so on. And now I had one.
Over the next few months I forgot all about it. One day a researcher friend of mine was in my office talking with me and a grad student about designing an experiment on dopamine and learning.   He pointed to my still-blank white board and said 'Hey, Jon, you put that up months ago, didn't you? Still no new ideas?"

New research ideas really aren't my problem so much as maintaining the energy and focus to bring them to fruition. Some people easily come up with ideas, whether for preparing Turkish coffee in a way they haven't tried before, or coming up with experimental hypotheses about the brain.  But those who easily give birth to new ideas are not always good at bringing a project to completion.  The skills needed to procreate aren't necessarily those that help bring the newborn to adulthood.  Follow through on a project usually involves overcoming inevitable snags that arise, spending the time and energy to work through them even when it would be more fun to do something else, like think of new ideas. 
People who have different kinds of strengths can sometimes work well on projects together. 
And it's not just a matter of bringing together the creative and the disciplined. Different brains approach problem solving in different ways, there are different kinds of creativity. 

Anyhow, I think I am going to put something on that whiteboard today.  I paid for it.  I might as well use it.

The Idea List

Apr 1, 2016

I used to write blog posts using an idea list.

On the list I'd write down things that popped into my mind when I was walking down the street,

waiting for the subway,

or wherever else I happened to be. When I sat down to think of topics, nothing much came to mind. Since I couldn't force them, I had to catch them when they appeared.

When I caught an idea, I'd write it down on my list. Just a few sentences that caught the gist of the idea.  And the list started to grow, and grow and grow.

(My idea list. Okay, maybe it didn't look exactly like this).

It was fun, and it made me feel good that I had plenty to write about. When it was time to write a post, all I needed to do was look at the list. I'd write about the idea at the top, because it had been there the longest. Bit by bit I'd work my way down to the more recent ideas.

But the list of ideas grew faster than I could write the blog posts. Eventually, the idea at the top of the list had been there for a month, six months, a year. The oldest ideas had passed a kind of expiration date, and lost their potency. What was it that had so interested me about the idea?

Exerting self control with a reluctant prefrontal cortex

Mar 20, 2016

When I was younger, I was late more often than not.   During the week before graduating college, my research advisor invited students who had worked in his lab to a barbecue at his house. After we ate he handed us little graduation gifts. Mine was a Mickey Mouse watch to remind me what time it is. I felt bad that he had come to see my lateness as one of my salient characteristics. It's not that he was an uptight guy either.  He was laid-back, with a dog named Pavlov that would roam the hall outside his office. The next year, when I went to grad school at UC, Santa Barbara, I was determined that this would not be the way my new advisor viewed me. (It wasn't.)

In order to be on time, you need to recruit the prefrontal cortex, a brain area that thinks about events in a logical sequential way.  One of the reasons that dreams sometimes involve impossible sequences of events is that the prefrontal cortex is off-line.

But being on time requires something more than knowing what steps you need to take before you leave and how long they will take; it requires self discipline. To be on time we need to stop doing what we're doing at the moment, even if we're enjoying it, and get ready to leave. The prefrontal cortex is important for impulse control, also called 'inhibitory' control, the ability to inhibit our own behavior.

This is how brains would appear if you were looking down at them from the ceiling. The prefrontal cortex is toward the very front of the brain (the boxes are around part of the prefrontal cortex on the right side of the brain). The darkest colors (blue and purple) represent the areas that are most fully developed. The bright green color of the prefrontal cortex in the teen brain shows that it has not fully developed yet.
These brain images show the parts of the brain that reach maturity first.   The prefrontal cortex doesn't become fully developed until after adolescence. So it's not surprising that when we're young we're not very good at stopping whatever we're doing in order to arrive on time for our next appointment. Since I received my Mickey Mouse gift as I was graduating college, I'm happy to see in these images that even the 20-year-old brain lacks a fully developed prefrontal cortex.

Of course being late doesn't necessarily mean that you're lacking the neural machinery to be on time. Even in college, I don't remember arriving late to many movies, or often arriving late to meet a girl for a date.  As is often the case, when our motivation is strong we become very good at tapping into our abilities. 

But arriving on time to see a movie, or for a date, doesn't take a lot of self control. When our actions are guided by our desires of the moment, when we are choosing to do the thing we expect to be most pleasurable, we are not exercising self control. In fact brain imaging studies show that the inhibitory control areas of the prefrontal cortex do not become activated under these types of conditions. Self control comes into play when we choose to do the thing that we do not expect to be most pleasurable at the moment, but which we think will bring us more pleasure (and/or less pain) over the long run. That's really what I was lacking in college, and to some degree lacking today as well.

Then again, self control isn't everything, and, as you can see in the images above, the prefrontal cortex isn't the only brain area. It's just one tool in our mental toolbox.