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Into the nitty-gritty: gradients in brain networks

The world of functional imaging research is on fire right now with connectivity studies. (See my post here for an introduction to the domain of functional connectivity as a tool for studying the brain.) Although we have miles to go before we sleep, the study of distributed networks in the human brain is the forefront right now in bridging the field of psychology with the discipline of neuroscience…a bridge which science will be trying to build in a comprehensive way for the foreseeable future.

The most recent work that I will be presenting at the Human Brain Mapping (HBM) conference in Quebec addresses the relationships between two of the major functional networks in the human brain. Namely, the default mode network, and Read more…

That Pesky Apocalypse

“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common.” -writings found on Assyrian clay tablets, circa 2800 BC (Book of Facts by Isaac Asimov)

Latter days? Corruption and degeneration? The frequency and ubiquity of this theme in the social milieu of modern conservative religion would be difficult to overstate. Hence my interest at seeing the same sentiment expressed in the ancient medium of clay writing some 5,000 years ago.

In my own relatively short stint in corporeal existence, I’ve heard a constant, rumbling undertone of world-ending, Jesus-coming, apocalyptic anticipation, with occasional attribution to specific world events–from Soviet Read more…

Ode to the Brain!

Jill Bolte Taylor, Oliver Sacks, Carl Sagan, and VS Ramachandran? Oh my! The folks at Symphony of Science did not disappoint with their latest autotune montage: Ode to the Brain!

Neuroanthropology: from Abassi to Zu

The human proclivity toward myth fascinates me. The tendency to both generate and consume stories intended to orient our existence into the context of a higher pattern is stunningly ubiquitous.

Ultimately, have the storytelling creators of our myths not projected onto gods and heroes those fears, tensions, and aspirations we feel most profoundly? And have these stories themselves not undergone a Darwinian process?–a natural selection in which the themes and ideas that strike the deepest resonance with human minds are propagated, mutated, and selected anew?

In short, our repository of myth is emergent from our psychology; and our psychology–in turn–is emergent from our neurology. Read more…

The Book of Mormon: God’s favorite musical

I had the pleasure of going this week to see my college buddy Clark Johnsen perform in the new Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon.” Having grown up Mormon myself, and having had many long, searching conversations with Clark over the years about our beliefs and upbringing in the Mormon faith, this was a particularly meaningful pilgrimage for me to the Great White Way.

I knew from my South Park patronage not to expect a musical that my mom would approve. But what I did NOT expect was a smartly-written, endearing production with the intelligence of Joseph Campbell and the heartfulness of Janice Kapp Perry. Read more…

The misnomer of “functional connectivity”

Lately I’ve actually been growing frustrated with the term “functional connectivity.”  The term is used to describe an imaging strategy known as “functional connectivity MRI,” or “fcMRI.” In short, “functional connectivity MRI” is a technique in which the intensity of blood fluctuations in small regions of interest in the brain are charted over time. Then, the synchronicity of blood fluctuations for regions of interest is calculated in order to determine the degree to which those regions of the brain operate in concert with one another.

Now don’t get me wrong: I think that fcMRI is a brilliant technique. I use it in my research, and it yields indispensable information in the collective effort to understand the human brain.

That being said, I think the term “functional connectivity” is a misnomer, and I think a lot of people are assuming that “functional connectivity” tells us something about physical wiring diagrams in the brain. It does not. If anything, “functional connectivity” tells us about the software of the brain, rather than the organ’s hardware.

By analogy, let’s say that a team of sociologists is looking at the student population of a large high school, and proposes to create a diagram of “social connectivity” for the student body, in an effort to graph the cliques, clubs, and sports teams at the school. And let’s say that their technique for “social connectivity” is to look at the number of times that any two students are talking at the same time throughout the day, regardless of their location within the school. Certainly this endeavor to chart the ebb and flow of talkativeness within the student body would be interesting, and could be used to diagram lots of dynamical trends within the Read more…

Human Connectome Project: the great controversy begins

This is one of those topics that is a *very* big deal…but for which it is going to be difficult to convey the import, owing to the technical involvement of the subject. Try to hang with me on this, though–I will do my best to make it digestible!

The necessary starting point is to understand the NIH’s push for a Human Connectome Project. The “connectome” refers to a yet-to-be-created map of the wiring connections in the human brain. This is a very big deal! I don’t think that I can overstate how essential this map will be for revolutionizing our understanding of phenomena such as human cognition and psychiatric disease. By comparison, the Human Connectome will be for neuroscience what the Human Genome is for molecular biology. And, like the Human Genome, the completion of the Human Connectome map will only be the beginning (and a darn-exciting beginning) to better unfolding the layered complexity we each carry within our skulls.

Steve Petersen at Washington University is the chair of the fMRI portion of the Human Connectome Project (hereafter “HCP”). The fMRI team has laid out a two-phase timeline for completion of the project: phase I will be a two-year period of Read more…