If you need a refresher or a handy reference on your neurotransmitters, check out Neurotransmitters: A Primer from the Dana Foundation. The primer makes this particularly useful point: “And while neurotransmitters are too often discussed as having a single role or function, neuroscientists are finding that they are multi-faceted, complex, and interact with one another in a variety of different ways.”
I recently picked up Hallucinations, the latest book by Oliver Sacks, at the library. In the introduction (all I’ve read so far), he subtly echoes the language of William James when he talks about his wish to describe about “the great range, the varieties, of hallucinatory experience, an essential part of the human condition.” The headline of a recent interview with Sacks notes that he wants to destigmatize hallucinations. So this seems as good a time as any to write a little about my own experiences with hypnopompic hallucinations, which occur when you’re waking up and can be bizarrely intertwined with dreams.
Happy Carl Sagan Day! On the anniversary of Carl Sagan’s birth, people around the world celebrate the beauties of the natural world and the science that allows us to discover them. Maybe there’s an event near you listed on the Carl Sagan Day page, or maybe you’d like to watch an episode (or more) of Cosmos on Hulu (free). Better yet, watch with a child or teenager if you can.
I really like what Sagan had to say about living and about facing death:
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.
The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. (From a 1996 article, “In the Valley of the Shadow,” in Parade)
New research on rats suggests that habits might be more complicated than they look: http://arstechnica.com/science/2012/10/researchers-shut-down-habits-with-a-burst-of-light/
Hat tip to Tom for the link
This is a week and a half old, but worth looking up if you haven’t seen it: An article on Slate examines what prehistoric art can tell us about the human brain. According to the article, cave paintings and other very early art may represent a kind of visual shorthand and abstraction in which salient features are exaggerated. The dots, squiggles, and other more obviously abstract features may be a representation of what early humans saw in hallucinations or trance visions deep in the caves where they painted, which are essentially visual noise in the brain that becomes amplified when visual input from the outside world is absent. The more haunting question of what exactly these paintings and other art objects meant to their creators and exactly why they created them is harder to answer.
The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology reports on new evidence that suggests cultural diffusion from modern humans to Neanderthals in central and southern France and northern Spain between 40,000 and 45,000 years ago: http://www.mpg.de/6600503/Neanderthals_meet_Homo_sapiens
Over the next few days, the Thinking Meat Project is going to take on a new look. I hope that in the long run, the new look will make the site a more interesting place. In the short run, however, things may look peculiar from time to time. What with the election, the huge storm approaching the Eastern Seaboard, and whatever private worries and concerns you may have, I’m sure this news is very small potatoes indeed. However, I thought I’d mention it in case you visit the site in the next few days and wonder what on earth is going on.
You may have seen a recent cover story on Newsweek in which Eben Alexander claimed that his experiences while in a coma provided evidence of the existence of heaven. For a neurosurgeon, Alexander seems to know remarkably little about how the brain actually works. This post by Steven Novella at Neurologica explains the brain science involved. Sam Harris also wrote a longer piece on Alexander’s story. I’m sure the experiences Dr. Alexander had were lovely, but I don’t think they had anything to do with heaven, except insofar as heaven is a state of mind.