No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Notes on a Foreign Country | Think Tank

Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen

Hansen moved to Turkey as a young journalist and immersed herself in the local politics and culture, and wound up learning a lot about the US and its involvement/meddling in foreign countries, and how the people of those countries subsequently view the US. I have a hard time assessing my feeling about the book. Some of it may be generational. For me Vietnam was history, but it certainly loomed large, and the 80s was all about US meddling in the Americas, and the aftermath of our previous meddling in Iran.

It's hard for me to not imagine our disastrous meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan not inspiring similar cynical feelings in millennials, but Hansen seems to have sprung from a more conservative family. Anyway, half of my reaction to the book is, "How could she ever have been so naïve?"

And then the second half of my reaction to the book is, "How can she be so credulous?" Just because she's getting information about the US from critics in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Greece and elsewhere is hardly a guarantee of trustworthiness. So sometimes the kneejerk anti-Americanism rankled.

She's pretty down on Ataturk, deriding his modern day secularist Turkish followers as Western-style hedonist educated elites working towards some alien 'modernity' that is not-Turkish. I mean, that's probably accurate to a certain extent, but it's weird seeing her spend a fair amount of the book being something of an apologist for Erdogan and his Islamist tendencies, only to be suddenly shocked by them a bit further on.

I also have some doubts she understood some of the things she was hearing about. She spends some time on the problems in Greece.

“Did you ever take side money from your patients?” Everybody was listening. “Yes.” “Are you still taking money on the side?” “Not anymore.” “Why?” “Because now, the way things are, I’d be lynched.” The fact that cracking down on doctors counted as a positive development in Greece was a sign of just how troubled Greek society had become.

Greeks aren't upset about doctors performing healthcare. The crucial piece there is 'side money'. One of the huge problems in Greece is tax evasion. Greece can't perform services for its citizens (or pay back loans to international banks) if people are hiding income under the table.


Think Tank: Forty Neuroscientists Explore the Biological Roots of Human Experience, edited by David J. Linden

A neat idea. Ask 40 experts in neuroscience what one thing they'd most like to tell an interested layman about how the brain works. 40 different topics, 40 different takes, 40 different writing styles. Obviously, some wind up being more interesting than others, but the essays are short enough that you'll find something interesting pretty soon. Here's how Linden describes the book:

Scientists are trained to be meticulous when they speak about their work. That’s why I like getting my neuroscience colleagues tipsy. For years, after plying them with spirits or cannabis, I’ve been asking brain researchers the same simple question: “What idea about brain function would you most like to explain to the world?” I’ve been delighted with their responses. They don’t delve into the minutiae of their latest experiments or lapse into nerd speak. They sit up a little straighter, open their eyes a little wider, and give clear, insightful, and often unpredictable or counterintuitive answers. This book is the result of those conversations.

And now just some other snippets that interested me:

After three months of practice, the volunteers could juggle for an entire minute without mistakes—and there were distinct changes in their brains. Structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI),10 used here to examine the anatomical structure of the brain, revealed a selective expansion in the gray matter of the mid-temporal area, the part of the brain that processes the speed and direction of moving objects. There was also an enlargement of the brain region for perceptual motor coordination and visual attention, all components of the skills needed to become a proficient juggler. Three months later, after a break from practicing, most volunteers could no longer juggle, and the corresponding brain expansions had reversed. In just six months, this experiment showed that training causes transient, but very real, structural changes in the brain!

Might there be functional consequences for this reorganization of limited cortical resources? Let’s return to the London taxi drivers. What we have yet to mention is that the taxi drivers’ expansion of the posterior hippocampus comes at the cost of the anterior hippocampus.17 The overall volume of the hippocampus is the same between drivers and controls; it’s just the regional volumes that differ. The posterior hippocampus is thought to store spatial representation of the environment, such that an expansion here could allow for a more detailed mental map. In contrast, the corresponding reduction in anterior hippocampus might explain some of the functional deficits seen in taxi drivers. Most broadly, they’re worse than nondrivers at forming new visual and spatial memories. For example, when given a complex line drawing to copy, they’re worse at redrawing the figure in a later memory test; this task tests the ability to remember how visual elements are spatially arranged.


Another interesting paradox is demonstrated with use of the thermal grill. This device consists of alternating warm and cool metal bars. Not surprisingly, if you place your hand on the grill when the warm and cool bars are activated separately, you will experience warm and cool sensations respectively. However, when the warm and cool bars are turned on together, most individuals will feel intense, burning pain. And they will reflexively quickly withdraw their hands. With the thermal grill, there is pain in the absence of “painful” stimuli; it is an illusion of pain.


Then, in 2005, Edvard and May-Britt Moser and colleagues reported that cells in the entorhinal cortex, one synapse upstream of the hippocampus, respond in a hexagonal grid pattern in space—that is, according to a distinct pattern that is spatially periodic in two dimensions. These “grid cell” responses are strikingly unrelated to the behavioral trajectories of the animals, rather reflecting an internally organized structure imposed on experienced space, sometimes likened to graph paper. O’Keefe and the Mosers received the Nobel Prize in 2014 for these discoveries.


Why does the brain need to predict sensory events that might happen in the future? To answer this question, let us try an experiment. Take a book and place it in your left hand, and then ask a friend to pick up the book from your hand. You will notice that as the book is lifted off your hand, your hand does not stay perfectly still but shifts upward. Now place the book back in your left hand and use your right hand to pick up the book. Something remarkable happens: the left hand that was holding the book remains perfectly still.


Most recently, a set of genes has been described that controls language in both humans and African grey parrots, despite anatomical differences in brain organization between humans and birds and the absence of a common ancestor that shares the language trait.


Fascinating experiment where they showed monkeys paired images of major brand logos with... sexy and unsexy pictures of monkeys. Over time, the monkeys associated the brand logos with sex and status. Haha, stupid monkeys!

Our advertising campaign was remarkably effective. Monkeys developed preferences for brands associated with sex and status. Both males and females preferred brands paired with sexual cues and the faces of high-status monkeys. These findings endorse the hypothesis that the brain mechanisms that prioritize information about sex and status shape consumer behavior today, to the advantage of marketers and, perhaps, our own dissatisfaction.


People were shown faces that were either beautiful or neutral and statements or pictures that depicted morally good or neutral acts. Parts of the brain that respond to rewards in the orbitofrontal cortex also respond to both facial beauty and moral correctness, suggesting that the reward experienced for beauty and goodness is similar in the brain.

This similar experiment on humans is interesting as well. I've often made the comparison that moral judgments are subjective judgments, just as aesthetic judgments are. Here's some evidence that they are treated similarly by the brain, at least in this limited context.



Tags: book, history, philosophy, politics, science

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