Saturday, November 16, 2019

Remember Her?

I've spent the better part of a month working at one of the satellite sites on my job, rather than my usual haunts. Longtime readers will have noticed that there's been a lack of spice on the blog... a lack of Ginger, in particular. I'm here to remedy that by putting up a photo of mah preshus Ginger, who I've been spoiling all day:

Even though we are officially closed for the season, the gift shop in our visitors' center is open on weekends until December. It's pretty low-key all told, but there was a steady flow of foot traffic all day.. I brought Ginger into the shop with me this afternoon after feeding her in her usual domain, and she hammed it up for the people who stopped by. She's a diva, after all, and the visitors showed her the love that all divas are due.

Friday, November 15, 2019

A Name I've not Heard in a Long Time

I didn't have an opportunity to listen to more than an hour or so of today's impeachment hearings, being preoccupied with a flat tire on the way to work... I will have to catch up on the testimony of Ambassador Yovanovich now that it's quiet. That being said, I was able to poke around the weirder precincts of the t00bz, and I found a doozy:

Helena Blavatsky? Now, that's a name I've not heard in a long time... a long time. I had never really connected Blavatsky and her Theosophist movement to 'Star Wars'. I am well aware of the connection between Theosophy and the 'Weird Tales' authors of the early 20th century, but I figured that the religious underpinnings of 'Star Wars' could pretty much be summed up as Taoism 101. I know that Edgar Rice Burroughs, an influence on George Lucas (or at least those who influenced him), incorporated theosophical ideas into his 'Barsoom' books. I guess in the minds of the right-wing conspiracy mongers, anything that smacks of a non-Christian spirituality, even though it incorporates a pretty anodyne good-vs-evil plot, is connected with infernal forces. Oh, well... as I've said before, the greatest trick the authoritarians every played was convincing the world that the devil exists. Could any Jedi mind trick be that effective?

Aunt Snow wrote a bunch of posts about the Theosophical community and other nontraditional sects in the LA metro area, which make for fascinating reading.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Righties LOVE Stolen Valor

One of the big local stories here in the NYC metro area was the protest against Donald Trump appearing at the Veterans' Day parade. One of the counterprotestors, who threatened to shoot protestors, portrayed himself as a veteran of the Pacific Theater in WW2. Astute observers noted some irregularities with his uniform... he looks like he's stealing valor, besides acting like a fascist while claiming to have fought fascism. Sure, growing up in an age of conscription, he probably served in the military, but his account of his actions has got to be bullshit.

Righties love stolen valor, from Trump on down to the run-of-the-mill MAGAchud. They hate actual decorated veterans, but they are addicted to fake war stories from fellow travelers.

So far, the mainstream media sources haven't come out and exposed this fraudulent old coot. His fifteen minutes of fame has passed by, but his position in the MAGA pantheon hasn't been dissected and rejected. It seems like the news media loves stolen valor as well.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Emotional Brain Development

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring neuroscientist Dr Nim Tottenham of Columbia University. This lecture was presented in collaboration with the Dana Foundation.

Dr Tottenham's lecture concerned early experience and the subsequent emotional development of individuals. The effects of early experiences endure throughout one's lifetime. Her studies in particular explored the interactions of the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala helps us pay attention to emotionally important events. Connections to the prefrontal cortex help to quiet over-arousal of the amygdala. While the whole brain is involved in the processing of emotions, Dr Tottenham takes a narrow view to study emotions- this allows her to look at the system as it is unfolding. She likened it to 'looking at a pie as it is baking'.

Early experience plays a role in emotional brain development- there are sensitive periods in early brain development when the brain is amenable to influence. During these sensitive periods, the phenotype of the central nervous system emerges. Phenotypic expression is affected by environment, and the ability to regulate emotions takes a long time to develop. Mental disorders such as schizophrenia, mood disorders, and substance abuse often emerge during adolescence.

Dr Tottenham went on to describe an experiment to test functional amygdala responses. Forty-five participants ages 4-22 were observed during passive viewing of faces displaying fear expressions. Neuroimages were obtained using magnetic resonance imaging. The participants were allowed to view movies or television shows of their choice, but were intermittently shown, with advance notice, the fear faces. Their amygdala responses were then imaged. Younger participants showed high amygdala responses, and the researchers looked for changes in amygdala activity as a function of age. Dr Tottenham noted that there is a negative correlation between amygdala activity and the age of the subjects- younger participants have stronger responses with more activity. The main role of the amygdala is to allow learning about the relative safety and danger of the environment.

Using imaging, Dr Tottenham was able to 'pull out' the activity of different regions of the brain and compare their activity. The amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are in communication, with the prefrontal cortex having an inhibitory relationship with the amygdala. As the amygdala is 'quieted', there is lower autonomic arousal. Younger individuals have lower amygdala/prefrontal cortex connectivity, and the maturation of connectivity occurs slowly. Children have positive correlation between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, a switch from positive to negative correlation is accompanied by behavioral change. Specifically, normal separation anxiety decreases with age- positive prefrontal cortex/amygdala correlation is connected with higher separation anxiety. The regulation of emotions can be inhibited by early stress (particularly institutional care of children separated from their parents). Early adversity or neglect can result in amygdala hyperactivity.

Dr Tottenham informed us that the brain develops hierarchically, from back to front. The prefrontal cortex matures around twenty-five years of age (she joked that the insurance companies knew this before the scientists did). The amygdala develops in childhood, Dr Tottenham poetically described it as 'the older sister who informs the rest of the brain'. She invoked Wordsworth: "The Child is father of the Man".

One of the contrasts measured in Dr Tottenham's experiment was the contrast between stimulus related amygdala/prefrontal cortex connectivity and resting state connectivity. When the brain is in a resting state, the connectivity is lower- a sort of 'functional skeleton' of the brain takes over, and this connectivity ramps up when fear stimuli are presented.

Dr Tottenham quipped: 'Cells that fire together wire together'. The youngest participants in the study exhibited more brain plasticity than the older participants. The connections 'settle down' as aging occurs. There are Juvenile Sensitive Periods, and stimuli from an individual's youth can help reduce anxiety in adults. Mice in an 'open field', a box without shelter, run to the corners of the enclosure (Dr Tottenham joked, 'like middle schoolers at their first dance'). If the mouse pups are exposed to music, playing the music that they are habituated to will cause them to be less anxious about exploring the center of the enclosure.

It is difficult to identify the Juvenile Sensitive Periods among humans, due to our long lifespans and slow development. In one experiment, Billboard charts were used to date particular stimuli (for instance, the Backstreet Boys were popular in 1997). Subjects were exposed to stress in the form of difficult math problems from the SAT exams. Students were told they were below average, and instructed to speed up their problem solving. Given a choice of music to listen to, US born subjects prefered listening to the Backstreet Boys rather than Justin Bieber, while non-US born subjects had no such preference. The preference among US born subjects was not correlated with liking the Backstreet Boys. Exposure to childhood music led to less autonomic stress, less anxiety.

Dr Tottenham noted that being supported by our parents allows long childhood development... our parents are the scaffolding that allows us to mature and figure out how the world works. Rat pups prefer odors associated with their mothers. If a rat pup is raised to associate a peppermint smell with its mother, that rat will even tolerate a shock associated with the peppermint smell. This preference is regardless of violence versus reward. Parental buffering occurs- the presence of the mother decreases corticosteroidal production and amygdala activity. Having mom around frees the pups to learn about the world around them. Among altricial animals, fight and flight strategies are not reliable, and attachment to parents is a better survival strategy. Human brains are Among altricial animals, fight and flight strategies are not reliable, and attachment to parents is a better survival strategy. Humans being altricial, our brains are neotenous, there is a long period of plasticity. Among precocial animals, such as sea turtles, there is little plasticity, and infants know what to do immediately after birth. The stretched-out period of plasticity among humans gives our parents time to provide the scaffolding which aids in brain development.

In one experiment, subjects were stressed by making them speak publicly- among younger subjects, parental buffering resulted in lower cortisol production, while it had no effect with adolescent subjects. Parents may help their offspring to guide attention to what is important, to allow exploration of scary subjects. Notably, parents are good at buffering if they are calm, but not when they are anxious. During adolescence, the parents lose effectiveness in suppressing amygdala function. The sensitive period of neurohormonal activity ends, but what was learned is reflected throughout life. Dr Tottenham noted that there is value in 'slow cooking', the transition to adult emotional regulation is largely dependent on the environmental scaffolding we receive through adolescence.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. One sobering question regarded the role of attachment in cases of abusive parents- the shock paired with a smell associated with a parent is a model for abuse. To understand how attachment works, the sources of plasticity must be understood, a development which might have implications for family court proceedings. Another question involved the case of institutional care (e.g. orphanages)- 'growing up fast' can trunctate development and result in less coordination between amygdala and prefrontal cortex... on average, of course. Another question regarding promoting plasticity- therapy works on plasticity, and there are pharmacological boosters, such as Prozac, in experiments on rats. Still another question involved the need to support families in order to protect children's mental health. Dr Tottenham noted that a child doesn't struggle alone- we need to address a child's mental health AND what is wrong with society. Regarding 'helicopter parenting', good parenting allows a child to fall, the rupture and repair is needed, and good parents should help a child to mend.

Some bastard in the audience, unable to get a question in during the formal Q&A, asked the good doctor if any of her subjects had received a traumatic brain injury in the course of the study, which would affect results. Fortunately, none of them did, but there are studies at the University of Nebraska to gauge the role of concussions in brain plasticity, and the use of physical exercise to increase plasticity.

Once again, the Secret Science Club served up a fantastic lecture. Kudos to Dr Tottenham, Margaret and Dorian, the DANA Foundation, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. While the lecture was wonderful, I could not escape the societal implications of the family separation policy at the border. The US government is doing untold harm to thousands of children, and the mental health effects will be felt for a generation. I had a good amount of time to reflect on this on the subway ride home, so my prefrontal cortex had a lot of regulating to do.

Here's a video of Dr Tottenham discussing emotional regulation to take your mind off of that downer ending:

Pour yourself a nice beverage and soak in that SCIENCE!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Cutting Edge Home Defense Technology

From the 'ya can't just make this shit up' file, a Michigan man (I am shocked he wasn't a Florida Man) defended himself from a home invader with a battleax purchased at a Ren Faire. The home invader wasn't too swift, having been an ex-boyfriend of a roommate of the man he attacked... you'd think he would have learned that the guy was involved in a full-contact combat LARP. D00d didn't have to read Njáls Saga to know that breaking into the home of a heavily armed guy rarely ends successfully. In this case, the invader got his torso chopped in an inverse of that iconic scene from The Shining. Luckily for him, his intended victim didn't have a Bohemian earspoon or a glaive-glaive-glaive-guisarme-glaive, or he probably would have ended with a lethal perforation, rather than having a mere divot taken out. Again, people, it's important to read your sagas.

Perhaps the funniest thing about this sordid tale of primitivism is the fact that the possessor of an elegant weapon for a more civilized age lived in apartment 2A... guy was bearing arms, alright!

Alternate post title: While you were breaking down the door, I studied the blade.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Veterans' Day 2019

Veterans' Day always weirds me out a bit... our society has a strange, split relationship with veterans. We are exhorted to 'thank the troops', but social programs for veterans are often on the chopping block when budgets come up for a vote. Veterans are used as props in political ads, but are swept under the rug when it comes time to address the social difficulties they encounter.

I'm glad that my two younger brothers are now retired from the US Army. The idea that they would be serving under an ignorant, incoherent autocrat-wannabe who has weakened alliances and gutted the diplomatic corp was disquieting. I've long maintained that our foreign policy should not take the form of a 'military response first' strategy, and the idea that Trump plans on using the military as a mercenary force is utterly abhorrent.

At the tail end of this Veterans' Day, I still have mixed feelings about our treatment of veterans. As a society, we need to do better, not only for the men and women who serve in the armed forces, but by the other residents of the globe, who deserve a more measured foreign policy, one in which high-speed chunks of metal aren't the first recourse of a nation which claims to embody lofty ideals.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Locking Up Day

Today is our last day of normal visitation at work. From now on, the gift shop will be open for a couple of weekends for holiday shoppers, and we have a very low-key Winter fundraiser which, due to the limited number of tickets, sells out pretty quickly. This is the day when I can pretty much lock up our auxiliary parking lots for six months, until the tourist season resumes in the Spring.

It's the sort of day when I walk around thinking, "I won't have to unlock this gate for months" and "This sign can be packed away until May." After today, the job becomes a completely different job. One of the seasonal employees asked me how I deal with the change of pace, and I had to confess to her that I like the downtime. She countered, "But, you're so social." Yeah, but I like the quiet, the time when I can read when there's a lull, when the periodic tasks have been accomplished. I like the time spent fussing over the cat, the mornings when I crunch a trail through newly-fallen snow onsite, the 'changing of the guard' as the birds migrate and a new cadre of critters becomes active onsite. I will miss the seasonal workers and the contractors, all lovely people, but that makes their return in the Spring all the more precious.

The hours will still be long, our departmental staffing issues haven't been solved, but the hectic pace will be finished. The slog becomes more manageable, with no need to be in two places at once. It's a time when less pressing tasks can be handled, projects postponed due to the needs of the busy season can be accomplished. It's a nice payoff for a couple of months of hurlyburly, but at the same time, it allows for some recovery so next year's hurlyburly can be dealt with when it begins.