Mind Matters - The First Year

We did not, alas, make it to the Prague Museum, which is pictured above. But with the end of both the calendar year and Mind Matters' first year it seems a good time to look a back and see where we have been since launching in January. Memory and Learning Looking back requires memory, and by chance that's where we started, with a post by memory researcher James Knierim reviewing what likely will prove the most influential single discovery we covered, that of grid cells in the mouse entorhinal cortex -- a system of neurons that appear to help track location and create context for memories. That discovery, wrote James Knierim,
is one of the most remarkable findings in the history of single-unit recordings of brain activity.... [When I read it,] I realized immediately that I was reading a work of historic importance in neuroscience. No one had ever reported a neural response property that was so geometrically regular, so crystalline, so perfect. How could this even be possible? Yet the data were convincing. "This changes everything," I muttered.
Another memory post, concerning whether patients with amnesia have trouble imagining new experiences, produced what was perhaps the most substantive debate we had between a reviewer (Andre Fenton) and an author of the paper reviewed (Demis Hassibis). We also covered memory with reviews of papers on memories are suppressed and how memories are lost in Alzheimer's. Remembering something means learning it in the first place, of course, and we looked at that as well, examining how humans learn through second-hand experience, which appears to be one of humankind's stronger innovations.

We took multiple visits to two other core concerns of neuroscience that are increasingly linked: neurogenesis and synaptic connectivity. The very idea of neurogenesis -- that the brain makes new neurons -- remains a bit controversial. It was only a decade ago that Liz Gould showed that adult primates generate new neurons, and there's still hot debate over whether and how the brain actually uses them. In April, however, Doug Fields and Brad Aimone reviewed a clever study published just a few weeks before showing that at least some new neurons are used to form memories -- a logical and long-suspected use, but one that had been hard to demonstrate. This followed reviews a few weeks earlier, by Julie Markham and Martha Farah, of a fascinating paper out from Gould's lab showing that fatherhood enriches the brain -- a relief to all parents, such as myself, to whom the sleep deprivation of parenting seems decidedly neurodestructive. Much later in the year, Doug Fields -- much enriched by fatherhood, presumably -- looked at how brain cells really do get destroyed by mountain-climbing. Beyond the Basics Neuroscience isn't all synapses and neurons: One must look at behavior and cognition. Decision-making is one of the areas where cognition creates behavior, and our ventures there hint at the richness of this new area. Our first venture there -- a post with reviews by Alex Haslam and George Loewenstein of a paper on "deliberation without attention," aka "intuitive decision-making" -- produced what was easily the most raucous and politically colored run of comments. This is what happens, apparently, when a couple scientists single out George W. Bush as an example of the limits of the intuitive approach to being The Decider. Thirty-nine comments from every point of the compass -- including a challenge, from a Decider Defender, to any who cared to try to disprove the proposition that George W. Bush will go down in history as our country's greatest president. Never mind the proposition's validity; it was a strange choice of venue to settle the question. W, of course, already has his mind made up: Haslam gamely returned later to review an interesting paper on how stereotypes shape performance.

We got lively reactions too to a post by Rebecca Saxe on how mixed-race jury composition improves jury deliberation and to a pair of posts -- one by Jorge Moll and Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza and one by David Pizarro -- on a much-publicized paper on utilitarian morality (or lack thereof, depending on your perspective). Finally, Navindra Persaud looked at what you might call subliminal neuroeconomics -- how factors you're not consciously aware of, and supposedly didn't even notice, can affect your behavior. Another hot area, that of how genes and environment interact to produce the happy, productive, depressed, or criminal beings we become produced the year's most poorly titled post, "Your Mama or Your MAOA," which was riveting nonetheless; gene-environment issues also droves what was arguably the year's most encouraging post, David Olds' "Can nurture save you from your own genes?", which covered research showing that kindness well-placed can truly change lives. We went on more random and distant wanderings as well: Michelle Wirth's provocative and brave post on pheromones and sex; one by on Jennifer Bartz and Eric Hollander on what you might call hormonal theory of mind and -- the post that most astonished me, for I'd never before heard of the rich line of investigation it reviewed -- Peter MacNeilage's "Dog Tails as Tell-Tales: The Evolution of Brain-Hemisphere Specialization." If you didn't know before, now you do: A dog will wag its tail mostly rightward when greeting its owner, mostly leftward when encountering an unfamiliar and/or dominant dog. And that was just the lead. That post also led to the funnest art of the year:
I now bump up against the length limits with which I so often flayed our contributors. I'll save my few remaining words to thank those contributors. They are busy, thoughtful, wondrously productive people, and they write their generous, thoughtful, astute, brave, and funny contributions for free; along with the readers who respond thoughtfully, they have made this online experiment possible, and they have been extraordinarily pleasant and fruitful to work with. -- Edited by David Dobbs at 12/27/2007 12:28 PM