The long time that I spent travelling to the 2012 Evolution Conference in Ottawa today was a perfect opportunity to put the finishing touches on my revisions to a manuscript that I'm soon planning to submit for publication. This is a good feeling for a couple of reasons:
1) Aside from a book chapter to be published soon in a volume from Oxford University Press (Rapidly Evolving Genes and Genetic Systems; RS Singh, JP Xu, and RJ Kulathinal eds.), I haven't published a manuscript that wasn't part of a large consortium since 2010.
2) I've been doing this for long enough that I now have a tradition by which a computer is not 'christened' until it has been used to write and successfully publish a manuscript (weird, I know).
I've somewhat convinced myself of the notion that publication of a new primary-author manuscript will be the first step in regaining my footing towards a career in science (see my previous post about my unintentional 2 years spend working unproductively). It's a small-ish step in that the work that I've written up is interesting, but not revolutionary. It's a side project upon which I've been tinkering away while I generate the necessary data for my primary project1. It's also had the benefit of opening up some more interesting research ideas that I'm aiming toward pursuing later this year.
If you're interested, here's a link to a PDF of the poster that I'll be presenting on this work at the conference this weekend. Unfortunately, I only found out that I'd be able to attend this conference quite late, and the registration for talks was already closed - so poster-only it is. I have to admit that this is a bit depressing as it'll be three years in a row that I don't give a talk about my own work at a conference (in 2009 I gave two separate talks at conference in a single week on two totally different projects - I haven't felt quite so productive since). However, things are looking up and in a few months I may have a lot of interesting work to talk about with colleagues and collaborators.
I'm going to switch gears here and talk about a book that I tried to read and am embarrassed to say, failed to complete: Jonah Leher's How we Decide (2009; Houghton Mifflin Hartcourt). I think I picked the book up on a lark after seeing the author give an interesting TED talk and after a mildly interesting start have been forcing myself to trudge through the 29% that I've reached on my Kindle.
I came to the 'realization' that I could simply let it go while listening to an economics podcast wherein a co-host explained why he rarely finished books. I'm paraphrasing here, but he basically said that most books written with the intent to teach are way too long - they really only have one central concept that they want to convey and keep wrapping it up in an ever-expanding array of case-studies and examples. Once you get it, everything else is just fluff.
While I don't necessarily agree that even most books are like this, How we Decide fits this bill to a 'T'. It's yet another in a long string of neuroscience books based on fMRI data that give vague clues about the relationship between behaviors and certain areas of the brain. As an acquaintance of my gf is apparently fond of saying: "fMRI and voodoo are basically the same thing."
The major point is interesting: Contrary to classical Platonic and Aristotelian ideas, we need emotions to make decisions - our brain appears to require trained instinct to tip the scales in favor of one choice or another. fMRI studies show that the frontal cortex is involved in combining logic and emotions together and people who suffer different types of damage to their frontal lobes can either be unable to make decisions at all or be a complete slave to their passions (they typically become very hardcore addicts). This requirement that we need emotion and instinct to make basic decisions explains much of why humans are so prone to various forms of cognitive bias. We intrinsically feel 'more worse' about negative outcomes than we should, and choices can be influenced simply by rephrasing the decision in a positive or negative way (keeping the ultimate outcome identical).
It took me a paragraph to lay out about 100 pages of the book. Admittedly, one difference is that I didn't make untestable (though plausible) hypotheses about why we evolved this way, or claim that Neandertals didn't have this or that brain structure despite us having no actual perfectly preserved caveman brains to analyze (this statement in the book is unreferenced)2.
I'm sure that Lehrer's book will delight most - my dislike of it is probably strongly tied to my evolutionary biology engrained dislike of 'just-so stories'. The brain is very complex, and it's unlikely that we can atomize its various functions into specific areas so neatly. fMRI measures where blood is flowing in the brain, not where neuronal signals are travelling. Its resolution, while impressive, is fairly low for so complex a structure. Directionality of signals and importantly, causality, don't seem quite so obvious to me. Brain research is an exciting field, but scientific conservatism probably doesn't sell books.
The above only applies to some of the off-hand statements made in the course of the book - I think that the main theme of How we Decide (i.e., emotional involvement) is solid and entertaining, but could be conveyed in far fewer very speculative words3. Reading over some of the reviews at Amazon.com, I don't think that my opinons are too far out there...
1After several months of technique-optimization, failed-starts, and headaches, I just sent of some samples for analysis yesterday. If these turn out to be acceptable, I'll be able to shift my focus 100% toward my main project in a few weeks. Fingers are very crossed!
2I asked my gf, who is a neuroscientist, about this, and she scoffed at the idea that we could claim that Neandertals lacked any particular brain structure as the brain-case isn't a great proxy for actual sub-organ morphology. If anyone has any evidence to the contrary, I'm all ears.
3Lehrer's writing reminds me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell, who I understand is very, very popular. It's a style that revolves around using extremely detailed and fleshed-out case-studies to repeatedly reinforce a central concept.