Monday, September 20, 2010

The Yipping Tiger

Yesterday I finished reading The Yipping Tiger, a book I bought after seeing the author, Dr Perminder Sachdev, in a session at Sydney Writers' Festival. The final chapter discusses cognitive decline and dementia related to ageing, and gives this useful summary:
Unfortunately, age does lead to brain changes. Many older brains have changes that resemble those seen in Alzheimer's disease but do not show the full picture of the disorder. It can be debated whether this is simply very early disease that will eventually show up in the clinic, but even in the presence of these changes, the neuronal numbers are not reduced. It seems that nerve cells do not die with age. What seems most likely is that their networks become less efficient.... A typical neuron has one large fibre called the axon and a number of smaller branches called dendrites, which further branch and subbranch into a dendritic tree. These dendrites link the neuron to other neurons, forming a vastly complex network. The dendrites carry small protrusions like mushroom heads that are smaller than a micrometre and can be seen only by special microscopes. All principal neurons in the brain carry these spines on their dendrites and, for some nerve cells, these can number in the tens of thousands. They form links with spines of other neurons in junctions called synapses through which information flows from one neuron to another.... It has been shown that with ageing, the dendritic spines become less dense. There are other changes as well, especially in relation to the synapses.

Sculpture of a neuron by Roxy Paine,
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, May 2010.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Forensic science and art

As an artist exploring the world through the eyes of a scientist, I'm interested in others who take a different approach to their exploration. At the moment, I wish I could get to Ealing in the UK to see an exhibition called Revealing Evidence.
Textile artist Shelly Goldsmith and Photographer Sarah Pickering explore the working methods and thought processes of forensic scientists, to fill their work with stories and imagined scenarios. Together, the work illustrates the extent to which both scientists and artists, working in very different practices, build pictures, construct scenarios and make assumptions.
Welcome to the kingdom of the blind, Shelly and Sarah!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cognitive decline linked to famine in utero

In the Netherlands at the end of World War II, a five-month famine was the result of blockades by the German army. Rations dropped as low as 1600 kJ (400 calories) per day! This has enabled researchers to conduct long-term studies into the health effects of reduced nutrition, particularly in babies who were in utero during this period. A study at age 19 showed no cognitive differences, but a more recent study now that the people are in their fifties showed that those who suffered famine, particularly in the early stages of gestation, do show more decline than their non-famine-affected peers.

See Discover's 80 beats blog for a more in-depth analysis of the study.

Monday, September 13, 2010

This is handmade

The most often asked question about my embroidery works is, "How long did it take you to stitch that?". Penny Nickels is also a stitcher (along with her husband, Johnny Murder, aka the Manbroiderer) who has been asked this question a lot. She was also tired of people who baulked at the prices of her incredibly intricate and beautiful works, such as Haeckel's Siphonophorae (in progress, below).

Siphonophorae in progress, 140 hours so far...

So Penny created a website in which artists are invited to share five-minute videos of themselves doing their work: not talking, or giving a tutorial, but simply sitting and stitching, or sawing, painting, cutting out, etc. The theory behind the site is,
"If you can't sit through 5 minutes of mind-numbingly boring ass handwork, then you don't get to whine about how much it costs. It's just as tedious for us as it is for the viewer. It really is.
And we don't get health insurance."

Click on the link to watch some of the videos. They are mind-numbingly boring, but also educational.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Today's Sydney Morning Herald newspaper ran an article from The Observer which attempts to debunk the myth that differences between the sexes is hard-wired into the human brain. Associate Professor Lise Eliot, interviewed for the article, says that too much emphasis is placed on very minor developmental differences (three per cent or less) between male and female brains, when we should be focussing on the overwhelming similarities. Drawing too much attention to the differences leads to enlarging them by socialising girls and boys differently, in the manner of the Venus/Mars dichotomy popularised by John Gray. "Pernicious pinkification of little girls" is the way the article describes it.

"There is almost nothing we do with our brains that is hard-wired. Every skill, attribute and personality trait is moulded by experience," Lise Eliot says.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Right brain, left brain II

I recently discussed the issue of duality of the brain and our ever-increasing knowledge of the way the two hemispheres work, separately and together. The traditional understanding of right brain for art and left brain for science is beautifully illustrated in the works above by artist Don Stewart. Stewart trained as a medical doctor before quitting a surgical internship to devote his time to art and writing. His drawings, made using a ballpoint pen, reveal a deep understanding of anatomy and physiology combined with a quirky sense of humour.

Visit his website and choose your favourite. (I like the one called "Quack".)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Of mice and men and worms

Wilberforce (supposedly) asked Huxley, in their famous debate on The Origin of Species, "Is it on your grandfather's or grandmother's side that you claim descent from a monkey?" Wonder how he would have felt if he read this report about a study of gene expression in the brain that points to the existence of a common ancestor of both mammals and worms about 580 million years ago?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Imagining the brain

I stumbled across this brain art exhibition from high school students in Cambridge, UK. The organisers of the annual competition say:
Imagining the Brain is:
A dialogue about science, especially neuroscience
An artistic expression of science and its wider implications.
The themes for works submitted in 2010 were "Diversity or Disorder" and "[St]Ages of the Brain". Click on the link above to see the gallery of submissions from local teenagers, along with some of the judges' comments: there's a lot of food for thought.

Friday, September 3, 2010

SAX on the brain

If you're in Sydney, please check out my friend Ian Saxby's science-inspired artworks at his show on Saturday, September 11th. The show is at 2pm, at Derivan, Unit 4/23 Leeds Street, Rhodes. One of the works on display will be his brainy painting, Beelzebub, that I've featured in this blog before.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dream on, daydreamers

An article from the New York Times reports that electronic multitasking is making us dumber. By filling every idle moment with mental input and sensory stimuli of all kinds, we're reducing our brains' downtime. (I recently wrote about a similar article extolling the virtues of daydreaming.) It is becoming apparent that we need the occasional zoning-out zone to absorb information and lay down long-term memories. Nature walks, apparently, are much better for you than a stroll down a city street.

Bushwalk, anyone?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Left brain, right brain

The latest neuroscience book on my reading list is The Yipping Tiger, by Perminder Sachdev. (You may recall that he was on a panel with Lone Frank that I attended during this year's Writers' Festival.) In chapter two, discussing a man who chooses to have the two halves of his brain disconnected to combat debilitating epilepsy, Dr Sachdev writes:
The strange behaviour of Robert's left hand takes one on a long journey of the concept of the double-brain that began in its rudimentary form with the philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and reached its zenith in the debates of the classical neurologists of the nineteenth century.... The double-brain theory was a potent source of psychological theorising in the nineteenth century, some of which was the consequence of over-enthusiastic leaps of logic.

....Was there indeed a double consciousness or a duality of mind after all? Or was it more fruitful to conceptualise it in terms of specialisation in the brain, with the coordinated activity in these regions laying the foundation for an individual's personality and consciousness? Was the right/left difference the basis for the two dichotomies of existence: rational and emotive–intuitive, propositional and appositional, yin and yang, science and art? The debates that followed were fertile ground for a range of ideas on politics, culture, society, arts and philosophy, which I will not discuss here.
Many people express surprise when I talk about the Kingdom of the Blind project combining my interests in art and science, because the received wisdom is that those subjects are located on different sides of the brain and one must be dominant over the other, or possibly even preclude the other. I hope that one of the results of my work on this project is that it makes people reassess their assumptions about the human brain and how it works.

On a related note, you can listen to this week's Skeptoid podcast, in which Brian Dunning discusses the commonly used Myers-Briggs personality test and its attempts to divide people into two opposing categories (extrovert/introvert, rational/intuitive, etc). Food for thought!