The Act of Falling

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Facing the future with another hand in yours. Photograph by Stephanie Bassos.

 

I recently had the honor and pleasure of reading something at the wedding of two wonderful people: my dear brother-in-law Arvin and his remarkable (now) wife Erica. It was a beautiful and very special ceremony.

My reading was a . . . something (essay? prose poem?) that I wrote for the occasion. In writing it, I was inspired by the couple and their loving ease and flexibility, both together and with extended family. My other inspiration was a cool scientific paper describing the End of History Illusion.

And so, with love and congratulations to happy couple, I am posting the something that they inspired me to write.

Here is a psychological fact: we realize how much we have changed in the past, but we are blind to all of the changing we have left to do. This is as true at 75 as it is at 17. We cannot comprehend that we are each perpetually becoming someone new. It is hard to believe, hard to accept. You will be many different people in the course of a single life.

But what happens when we meet someone and fall in love? We know ourselves and each other right now, at this moment. And we are ready to take this moment forward to forever. But there is a catch. You are not done becoming you and I am not done becoming me. Today is a still-frame but we are movies – unfolding and emerging over time. That is why marriage is a risk, a leap of faith, an act of courage. It is an investment whose return you cannot guarantee.

But sometimes one person finds another, and they fit. Do not call their relationship rock-solid; it is nothing so rigid as that. It is two people who bend and flex, who together weave a future out of cloth and not stone, out of mutual respect and affection, not expectations of permanence or perfection.

Sometimes two people decide to take that leap and to invest in each other, to change and grow together and to commit to honesty and love. Just as a parent can hold a newborn and love all of the people that child might one day grow to be, two people can commit to the certainty of uncertainty, to loving what they have not yet become.

People say that marriage is a balancing act, but it is nothing so contained or so ordinary. It is the act of falling, but of choosing to fall together. It is choosing to create and adapt and sometimes falter and fight because you will have the remarkable privilege of evolving together and of loving the many different people that you will both turn out to be. It is a choice to face an unknown future with another hand in yours. To grow up, or grow out, or grow old – but to grow, and to always keep growing together.

Podcast Interview on Writing Review Articles (Bonus: Grandmother Orcas)

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Photo by Robert Pittman, public domain

I was recently interviewed for the Cell Press Podcast about a post I wrote for CrossTalk, the Cell Press blog. The post was a how-to for scientists who want to write a review article that people will actually read.

Awesomely, people actually read the post too. It quickly became one of the most read posts of 2016, even though it appeared in mid-December. I was delighted by the enthusiastic response and equally delighted to discuss these ideas further for the podcast.

My interview comes at 17:10 in the podcast. Find it after post-menopausal killer whales and the vaginal microbiome! You can also listen here:

Hiatus and Announcement

It has been a month and a half since I last posted. For those of you who might have wondered, I didn’t die and I haven’t been kidnapped. I’ve been preparing to move to Boston for a new job. In early July, I will start as the new editor of Trends in Cognitive Sciences at Cell Press. I’m excited to take the helm of a journal that I have loved reading for many years.

Of course, editors aren’t known for having loads of free time and I don’t expect to be able to blog frequently once my new job begins. I hope to make occasional posts and I certainly hope you will visit me here, on Twitter, and soon in the pages of TiCS. Thank you for reading and please stay in touch!

Zapping Brains, Seeing Scenes

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More than fifteen years ago, neuroimagers found a region of the brain that seemed to be all about place. The region lies on the bottom surface of the temporal lobe near a fold called the parahippocampal gyrus, so it was called the parahippocampal place area, or PPA. You have two PPAs: one on the left side of your brain and one on the right. If you look at a picture of a house, an outdoor or indoor scene, or even an empty room, your PPAs will take notice. Since its discovery, hundreds of experiments have probed the place predilections of the PPA. Each time, the region demonstrated its dogged devotion to place. Less clear was exactly what type of scene information the PPA was representing and what it was doing with that information. A recent scientific paper now gives us a rare, direct glimpse at the inner workings of the PPA through the experience of a young man whose right PPA was stimulated with electrodes.

The young man in question wasn’t an overzealous grad student. He was a patient with severe epilepsy who was at the hospital to undergo brain surgery. When medications can’t bring a person’s seizures under control, surgery is one of few remaining option. The surgery involves removing the portion of the brain in which that patient’s seizures begin. Of course, removing brain tissue is not something one does lightly. Before a surgery, doctors use various techniques to determine in each patient where the seizures originate and also where crucial regions involved in language and movement are located. They do this so they will know which part of the brain to remove and which parts they must be sure not to remove. One of the ways of mapping these areas before surgery is to open the patient’s skull, plant electrodes into his or her brain, and monitor brain activity at the various electrode sites. This technique, called electrocorticography, allows doctors to both record brain activity and electrically stimulate the brain to map key areas. It is also the most powerful and direct look scientists can get into the human brain.

A group of researchers in New York headed by Ashesh Mehta and Pierre Mégevand documented the responses of the young man as they stimulated electrodes that were planted in and around his right PPA. During one stimulation, he described seeing a train station from the neighborhood where he lives. During another, he reported seeing a staircase and a closet stuffed with something blue. When they repeated the stimulation, he saw the same random indoor scene again. So stimulating the PPA can cause hallucinations of scenes that are both indoor and outdoor, familiar or unfamiliar. This suggests that specific scene representations in the brain may be both highly localized and complex. It is also just incredibly cool.

The doctor also stimulated an area involved in face processing and found that this made the patient see distortions in a face. Another study published in 2012 showed a similar effect in a different patient. While the patient looked at his doctor, the doctor stimulated the face area. As the patient reported, “You just turned into somebody else. Your face metamorphosed.” Here’s a link to a great video of that patient’s entire reaction and description.

The authors of the new study also stimulated a nearby region that had shown a complex response to both faces and scenes is previous testing. When they zapped this area, the patient saw something that made him chuckle. “I’m sorry. . . You all looked Italian. . . Like you were working in a pizza shop. That’s what I saw, aprons and whatnot. Yeah, almost like you were working in a pizzeria.”

Now wouldn’t we all love to know what that area does?

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Photo credit: thisisbossi on Flickr, used via Creative Commons license

*In case you’re wondering, the patient underwent surgery and no longer suffers from seizures (although he still experiences auras).

Mégevand P, Groppe DM, Goldfinger MS, Hwang ST, Kingsley PB, Davidesco I, & Mehta AD (2014). Seeing scenes: topographic visual hallucinations evoked by direct electrical stimulation of the parahippocampal place area. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 34 (16), 5399-405 PMID: 24741031

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