Saturday, February 18, 2017

Elizabeth's hopes and dreams

Early mornings, as I walk the path from the university parking lot to my lab, I stop and pick up occasional potato chip bags or candy wrappers that were left behind by children and other pedestrians that shared the sidewalk, maybe on their way home yesterday from the nearby school, or maybe on their way back from the corner store.

Sometimes there is a crumpled piece of paper, someone’s graded test, perhaps a homework, little windows into a child’s life.

It’s worth looking, because the way they see the world is a perspective akin to that of poets: by recasting the obvious, they help you rediscover the beauty that’s right in front of you.

And so a few days ago I picked up this crumpled piece of paper, where a girl named Elizabeth had listed her hopes and dreams, crossed out a few things, and then finally put check marks next to the ones that, I imagined, she identified as the key ingredients for the recipe of her life.  

Saturday, January 7, 2017

From John to Joni

My colleague Joni began her presentation by describing a patient named “Elliot”, a businessman who had a tumor in his frontal lobe. The surgeons had successfully removed the tumor, but now Elliot “wasn’t Elliot anymore.” His life had started to fall apart. He lost his job, where he had been a successful executive. He divorced his wife, and then married a prostitute (which also ended badly).

Elliot had gone to see Antonio Damasio, the eminent neuroscientist. Damasio noticed that Elliot did fine in all the usual tests, exhibiting intact memory and excellent intelligence. But when asked to look at pictures of emotionally charged events, like an auto accident, or people in distress, Elliot did not register the usual signs of being affected by what he was seeing. The damage to Elliot’s brain had caused him to be unable to access his emotional memory to assign value to things that he sensed or actions that he might do. 

Without access to this emotional context, options could only be evaluated based on “cold-blooded logic”, Damasio noted. And when all you have is logic, options appeared of the same value in the landscape of decisions, and decision-making became quite difficult.

So Elliot might take hours trying to decide between various options for dinner. Food, after all, is something that can be viewed logically as having some caloric value, and some health benefits, but for a normal person the choice of what to eat is often based on memories of how it felt when you ate that food. Without access to memory of pleasure associated with eating the food (which is derived largely from the emotional context in which the food was eaten), the caloric content of food becomes a sterile dimension to base decisions.

Joni used this example to motivate her own research, which focused on the activity of neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex of animals. She showed that the neurons increased their activity when the option promised greater reward, and lowered their activity when the option required the animal to exert greater effort (through lever presses). She showed that the neurons of the orbitofrontal cortex were encoding value of the option, taking into account a measure of the reward that it promised, minus the effort that it required.

And so perhaps when there was damage to these neurons, and their connections to the brainstem regions that were important for registering emotional context of events, people lost the ability to make choices based on the subjective value of that option, that is, how they felt about that choice.

But damage to the frontal lobe, particularly the regions that so dramatically altered the ability to make choices, also changed the way people reacted toward the patient. Joni brought this up later as she sat in my office, describing that a major problem that patients faced following these forms of surgery was in their ability to continue their relationships with people whom they had known all their lives. These friends and family members had a hard time adjusting to a person who looked exactly the same as before, but now suddenly had changed internally. That is, Elliot wasn’t Elliot anymore.

As Joni explained this problem, a tear formed in her eyes.

I suddenly understood that in some ways, a similar problem was faced by people who changed their gender. For them, on the inside they were exactly the same person as before, but now on the outside, they looked something else entirely. That outwardly change made it hard for lifelong friends, children, family, to maintain the relationships that they had built together. Just when they needed it most, the critical bonds were being strained.

You see, about a year ago, Joni was John, married and father to children. Now, she was an elegantly dressed woman with eye shadow and curves.

“I’m still the same person I always was. I’m just being more authentic now.”

Friday, September 23, 2016

Cairo on your own

On the Cairo subway, a gentleman stands up and offers my wife his seat. On a busy street, the two of us are standing, looking at the city map on our tablet, and a man in a late model car stops and asks if he can help us. In the airport, standing in a long line for what appears to be Gate 4, a man comes up to us and gently points out that this line is for a flight for Baghdad, probably not our destination. At a fruit stand, we try a glass of sugar cane juice, with some warm Egyptian bread from the next door bakery. In the evening of a very hot day, we sit on our porch and watch the Nile go by; where there are a group of female rowers all in head scarves, party boats that are playing Arabic disco music, and the call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

It’s September of 2016, and my wife and I (a couple of 50 year olds) are having four days of adventure in Cairo. We went about it on our own, and had a marvelous time. Here are some of our successes, as well as mistakes.

Before arrival. We used one of the many online services to book a place to stay, a houseboat on the Nile, in the downtown area. This gave us fabulous views, a gentle breeze, and a place to unwind after the hot day, but also the loud music of party boats that went down the Nile till around 2 AM on the weekends. Before leaving, we downloaded a map of the city ($4) on our tablet. As we did not have cell phone service in Cairo, the tablet allowed for GPS tracking and was an excellent way to get our bearings. [You can use your phone/tablet as a GPS by first downloading a map, and then simply putting the device in Airplane mode. While Google Maps allows you to download maps of many places for offline use, it does not allow it for Cairo, so we ended up purchasing the downloadable map.]

Arrival. We acquired a visa upon arrival at the airport. On the plane they handed us an immigration form, and once landed we simply walked to one of the banks and handed them $25 each and received a small sticker (they take US dollars). We then gave the form along with the sticker to the immigration official, who placed the sticker in our passport. That served as the visa. We picked up our bags and met a driver that our host (our landlady) had arranged. It was a 30 minute ride to downtown (we arrived at 1:30 AM). A taxi ride from airport to downtown should cost you no more than $10. Our host was waiting for us when we got to the flat. She had the fridge stocked with food and drinks. We exchanged dollars to Egyptian pounds with her (the rate was 12.5 pounds to the dollar, considerably better than the official exchange rate of 9 pounds to the dollar).

Transportation. Taxis are plentiful and have a meter. The meter starts at 300, meaning 30 cents. Our longest ride took about 30 minutes and cost about $5. None of the taxi drivers we met spoke English, but having a tablet with a map was very useful because we could show the driver where we want to go. However, traffic was crushing and air pollution was severe. A much better bet was to take the metro. The metro was clean, frequent, and efficient, but covered only a limited region. To get to our destination, we often took a metro as far as we could, and then used a taxi. To use the metro, upon entry you will need to buy a ticket. Metro tickets cost 1 Egyptian pound (about 10 cents) and give you access to the entire system. Keep the ticket after you enter because you will need it to exit.

Day 1. Egyptian Museum. When my wife was a teenager, the King Tut exhibition came to Seattle. She remembered the long lines. At the magnificent Egyptian Museum, there are thousands of items from Tut’s tomb, and we were often the only tourists in the various rooms. The museum is in Tahrir Square (Sadat metro station). Upon entry, we bought a ticket and were immediately approached by a guide who offered his services at a rate of 120 pounds per hour (about $10 per hour). He was an older gentleman, well educated, with excellent knowledge of Egyptian history and contents of the museum. (The guides are licensed by the museum, and wear an identification badge.) We checked our backpack at a kiosk and headed in with our guide. The guidebooks had mentioned the crowds, but judging from our experience, after the 2013 revolution/coup there now appears to be very few visitors to Cairo. In most rooms at the museum we were the only people. The museum itself, in my view, contained some of the most beautiful pieces of artistry in human history. Nearly 5000 years ago, when the Egyptian had yet to invent the wheel, they were depicting women with wings, long fingers, elegant body, covered with linen, on the sarcophagus of kings. The craftsmanship, in the chairs, foot rests, staffs, and chariots of the pharaohs, was breathtaking. The most surprising item was the condom that was used by King Tut, and the strap that held the item around his waist, both made of animal skin, in nearly perfect condition.

Walking slowly through the museum, listening to our guide, I thought about how for 5000 years, the belief in the after-life was so strong that it supported whole legions of artists that made such beautiful pieces of work. Then came science, and it erased so much of those beliefs, perhaps now leading to its near complete elimination. Religion was for so long the strongest motivation for support of artistry. Kings paid the artists because they were paying for something that they would personally need in their after-life. I left thinking that perhaps in ancient Egypt we had the golden age for the profession of the arts.

The museum closed at 4:30, and so we asked our guide for a good place to eat. He suggested that we try Kosheri, a traditional Egyptian meal, consisting of pasta, lentils, and crispy fried onions. He took us for a 15 min walk down Champollion Rd, to a busy restaurant that only served Kosheri. The sign on the wall proudly said “we have no other branches”. It was absolutely delicious.

Day 2: Giza. Our taxi brought us to the entrance of the Giza pyramids and after a security check, a guy got into our taxi and told the driver to go over to where they were renting horses and camels (this guy worked for the horse master). There, we chose to ride our own horses (the other options were a horse-drawn carriage, or a camel). We made two mistakes here: the tactic used by the horse master was to first put us up on our horse, and then begin negotiations on price. It was harder to walk away when were already up on the horse. Our second mistake was to agree to pay for the tour in advance, rather than at the end. However, having a horse turned out to be a good way to see Giza, making it fun to climb the hills and try vantage points for pictures, and then gallop a little on the warm sand. We rode to each of the three main pyramids and went inside a couple of the smaller ones that surrounded them. In one of the smaller underground tombs, apparently that of an engineer who designed the largest pyramid, we entered to find hieroglyphics on the walls, and one symbol that looked like a face with large ears. It looked like Obama!

I spent a bit of time looking at the stones that had fallen from one of the pyramids. It was red granite. The facade for the pyramids used to be white limestone, some of which was still there on the bottom two rows of one of the pyramids. Magnificent craftsmanship that was later damaged when pieces of the pyramids were taken away to be used in churches, mosques, and palaces. The horse ride lasted about 3.5 hours and cost about $160. As the ride ended, the guide wanted us to spend time at a particular store (which he called a “museum”), which we politely declined.

Afterwards we explored the impoverished village near the pyramids, buying some of the local bread (5 cents a piece) and having a wonderful time at a fruit-juice place, trying the fresh squeezed mango and orange (about 50 cents a glass). From the village, we used our GPS to walk to the main square and then hired a taxi home ($5).

Looking back, it would have better to go to Giza with our own guide. Although seeing the pyramids on a horse is wonderful, the guide offered by the horse master was there merely to handle the horses and could tell us little about the history of the place. The ideal way to see Giza may be to hire a guide in Cairo and go together to Giza, have him negotiate for the horses, and then ride together to see the sights. Coming with your own guide makes dealing with the incredibly aggressive horse masters much easier.

A tapestry depicting Adam and Eve before and after she took the forbidden apple.  The guide suggested that the horse to the right, tied to the tree, represents the ability of humans to control their impulses.

3. Coptic Cairo. Greeks, Romans, and then Christians followed the time of the Pharos. A good place to see the remnants of these civilizations is Coptic Cairo, which houses churches that were built on spots where Mary and Jesus are claimed to have spent a few months during their flight from Palestine. We started with the Coptic Museum, directly across the Mar Girgis metro station, and found a superb guide that we stayed with for the rest of our visit to Cairo. [His contact information is available at the end of this blog. He charged about $10 per hour.]

At Coptic Cairo we spent the afternoon with our guide, walking through the Hanging Church, Church of St. Sergius, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Starting with Pharonic history, he explained the evolution of the symbol that represented the upper and lower Nile, to the cross that the early Christians used in fear of being found by the Romans, to the cross that Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Christians used, to the 7th century arrival of Islam. In the architecture, in the symbols, in the art used to decorate the churches, you can see the sharing of the ideas between the dominoes of history.

Probably the coolest exhibit for me was a recently unearthed library from the 3rd century. An important page on display was from a book that describes “the origins of the world”, describing philosophy of a group of agnostic Christians.

That evening we bought kabobs from a tiny restaurant that both an Egyptian friend and a local driver had recommended: Abou Shakra. The menu was in Arabic only, and the place was not much not to look at, but with the help of the guy behind the counter we ordered some kofteh kabobs. The food was simply superb (dinner for two, $5).

When we arrived home, our host texted us to ask if we would like some Sheppard Pie that they had made, our second dinner.

Day 4: Sakkara and Islamic Cairo. We arranged our final day of adventures with the guide that we had met the day before. We rose early and took the metro to its last stop near Giza. Our guide picked us up with and his car and drove about an hour south to Sakkara. Sakkara is home to the first pyramid built in Egypt (called the step pyramid), a superb museum that has some of the finest examples of wooden statues found in the tombs, as well as examples of surgical instruments from around 2500 BC. Unlike Giza, Sakkara provided access to the tombs, where one could see the spectacular artwork on the walls, depicting life of ordinary people, girls playing a game, farmers harvesting grain. The artwork showed bakers, fishermen, and craftsmen, as well as the animals of the Nile, including geese, hippos, and a variety of fish. I was surprised to find that some of the drawings still maintained their colors, blues and reds. 

Sakkarah was special for me because it celebrated probably the first known engineer in history, Imhotep, who designed the first stone pyramid in Egypt around 2780 BC, the step pyramid. The pyramid is still mostly intact after nearly 5 millennia. I wondered whether any of the structures built in the 20th century would be around in the year 7000 AD.

For lunch, we found another fruit-juice place and enjoyed a few glasses of citrus and some local bread, and then headed north to the Islamic Cairo. We focused on the Citadel, a place that Saladin built in the 12th century to fortify the city against the crusaders. The fortress is dominated by the mosque of Mohammad Ali, built in gorgeous alabaster. There were two other mosques in the neighborhood, with one housing the remains of a few modern kings of Egypt, as well as the Shah of Iran.

That evening, we had our host and her sister up to our place, where we enjoyed a wonderful conversation. Our host arranged for a ride to the airport on the next day.

Leaving. The Cairo airport had multiple security check points long before we got to the check-in counter. It took us about an hour to go from arrival at the airport’s first security check to the gate.

And then, something beautiful: the call to prayer, and a large number of passengers, waiting at the various gates, get up and self-organize in a carpeted space between two gates, and begin to pray. Their motions, as if spontaneous choreography among a group of stranger.

On our last evening, sitting with our host and her sister, she asked whether we would return to Cairo. Thinking about her question, I remembered that as we walked on the sidewalks, even in the nicest neighborhoods; I couldn’t help but be saddened by the piles of garbage; couldn’t help but be annoyed by the constant honking of horns; couldn’t help but be unhappy that in one evening from 11pm to 4am, the neighboring house was undergoing noisy construction. Yet, I don’t know of anywhere else on earth that one can view examples of ancient art and engineering, see depictions of how people lived at a time before the invention of the wheel, walk on lands crossed by Alexander, Jesus, and Saladin.

A wonderful local tour guide: Ramadan Emam <>

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Altruism on Wow airlines

On a flight from Iceland to Baltimore on WOW airlines, a new ultra low-fare ride, the young lady sitting in the middle seat next me asked the flight attendant for a bowl of “yum-yum” noodles, and then handed her a credit card. The flight attendant prepared the noodle bowl, pouring in the hot water, handed it to the lady next to me, and then ran the credit card. The machine declined it.

The flight attendant explained that with these new chip cards, sometimes they declined “offline” transactions (I suppose at 35,000 feet, the machine was offline). The flight was 5.5 hours long, and the only food or drink available were the ones that you paid for.

Suddenly a guy behind us got up and offered the flight attendant his card, saying that “I’d like to pay for her.” The lady next to me broke into a wide grin.

After she took a few bytes of her food, she turned to me and said: “I gave him my window seat earlier so he could sit with his girlfriend.”

I got up and got my sandwich out of the carry-on that I had placed in the overhead compartment, when I overheard the lady in the row in front of us ordering a pizza, but her card got rejected too. She asked if they took cash, and the flight attendant said yes, so she searched her wallet and found some money, but she was short. She said: “well, just give me a cup of ice.” (ice was free, but water was not.)

I pulled out my wallet and asked how much she needed. She was short a few bucks, so I took care of it. She said: “when we land, my husband is coming to pick me up and I’ll ask him to pay you.” I told her that that was not necessary.

I sat down and the young lady next to me said: “that was very nice.” I told her that I got the idea from her when I heard that she gave up her seat to a stranger.

A little later another lady, this one to my left across the aisle, touched me on the shoulder and ask if I'd like to have some salted nuts that she had brought with her. I told her that it was very kind and that I also had a chocolate bar that I could share.

Something amazing was happening. In a few minutes, our whole row was sharing whatever we had. It was like a picnic in the sky.

Before we departed the plane, the lady that had offered the nuts gave me a card that had the address of a Buddhist temple. She said I should come.

The experience made me think about altruism and whether it's something that we do more when we see others do it. Maybe that's how we can better our world one person at a time.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The magical lab coat

With her fingers moving quickly, the 5th year PHD student unbuttoned the white lab coat hanging on the front of a row of coats.  She was part of the organizing committee, getting the long coat ready for the 2nd year PHD student who was now walking up the stage to receive it from her Program Director.  The coat had the blue Hopkins logo, embroidered along with the name of the student.  Behind her, the stage screen displayed a slide with her brief history, undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering from Duke, now studying cancer dynamics at Hopkins.  As the Program Director helped the 2nd year student put on her new lab coat, one of her friends let out a shout, the crowd started to clap, and then she turned around to face them.  She was beaming, culmination of all those years of study, now a scientist.

We were in Hurd Hall, a long and deeply sloped auditorium at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, walls paneled with dark wood and paintings of long-gone professors in their regalia.  Earlier, the Dean had welcomed the parents and students.  He had motioned all to stand up, and then asked those who had traveled farther than a 1000 miles to keep standing.  About two dozen parents and friends remained erect.  He then slowly increased the distance threshold, until the last two pairs of parents standing were recognized: they had traveled from Egypt and Spain to see their child be “coated”.

The “coating ceremony” is a once a year, end of summer affair where Hopkins presents a lab coat to the PHD students who have successfully completed their final exam: the Doctoral Board Oral (DBO).  The PHD candidates complete their courses in their first or second year of study, and then take the DBO, an exam where 5 professors from diverse fields gather to make one last measure of the student. 

It’s a nerve-racking event. The student studies for a month, knowing who will be on the board but having no idea about the questions that they will ask.  On judgment day, she stands in front of them and answers questions ranging from mathematics to cellular biology, anatomy to engineering.  Having taken part in many of these exams, I have often wondered whether I could answer all the questions that are asked.  I try to remember how I felt when some 25 years ago it was me who stood and puzzled with the seemingly random questions.  I was scared; knowing that no matter what my previous grades, failure of this exam meant that I would not be allowed to continue.  It meant that I was done, the dream of becoming a scientist denied.  And so I try to be fair --- it’s quite hard to think while under such pressure, your life-long dreams on the line.

The students have taken exams all their lives, and making it this far means that they have excelled in all of them.  The DBO is the last exam that they will ever take.  The coating ceremony recognizes this momentous passage, and with this last hurdle crossed, now a scientist.

The surprising benefits of wearing a lab coat
Richard Feynman, the 20th century iconic physicist, had a father who was a uniform salesman.  In his memoirs, he recalls his father reading a newspaper article about the Pope, and then turning to Richard to say that: “See this man with his fancy clothes?  Underneath that uniform he’s just a man like you and me.”  Richard learned that uniforms don’t matter.  What matters is the person underneath.

But research in social psychology would suggest otherwise: there is something about the clothes that we wear.  Our clothes not only affect the perception of people that we interact with, but surprisingly, our clothes also affect how we behave. 

Experiments have demonstrated that a woman who wears a masculine outfit is more likely to get the job following an interview (Forsythe 1990), and a woman who wears a sexy outfit is viewed by interviewer to be less competent (Glick et al. 2005).  So not surprisingly, the clothes that we wear influence how others perceive us. 

However, what we wear also affects our own actions, perhaps because we are affected by the identity that goes along with the clothing.  For example, volunteers who were asked to wear a large hood or a cape covering their heads were more likely to behave unkindly, administering electric shocks to others (Zimbardo 1969).  In contrast, when volunteers were asked to wear a nurse’s uniform, they behaved more kindly, less willing to administer those shocks (Johnson and Downing 1979). 

This would suggest that wearing a uniform brings along with it a framework of stereotypical behavior.  That framework may act as a prior belief about how one is supposed to behave.  I wondered, do lab coats have such a power?

Hajo Adam and Adam Glinsky (2012) explored this question at Northwestern University.  In their first experiment, they recruited 74 undergraduate students and assigned them randomly to one of 3 groups: a group that was presented with a white lab coat and told that it was a doctor’s coat and asked to wear it; another group that was presented with the same coat but told that it was a painter’s coat and asked to wear it; and a final group that was shown the lab coat on a table but not asked to wear it.  Each volunteer then performed a task where on each trial they saw a pair of nearly identical pictures and were told that there were 4 differences in the pictures. 

They had to find the differences as quickly as they could.  The measured variable was the number of differences that they could find.  Each volunteer viewed four pairs of pictures.  The students who were told that they were wearing a doctor’s coat did significantly better than the other two groups.

The authors repeated the experiment with 99 other undergraduates who were assigned to the same 3 groups, but now they slightly changed the setup for one of the groups.  For the group that did not wear the coat, they had them sit down so that the doctor’s coat was directly in front of them.  The results of this experiment confirmed that the group that wore the doctor’s coat again performed better than the other groups, but the group that had the doctor’s coat in view did better than the group that wore the painter’s coat.

These results are surprising because the task is a measure of the ability to focus attention on visual stimuli; something that one might imagine is independent of the clothing that you are wearing.  But attention is a highly “top-down”, cognitive process that depends greatly on the state of the brain.  For an undergraduate, perhaps the physical experience of wearing a white doctor’s coat moves this state along a positive aspect of the reward dimension, whereas wearing a white painter’s coat does not.

As I left the coating ceremony, I realized that in addition to being a lovely occasion to celebrate completion of a milestone, our gathering had inadvertently provided each student a physical symbol of an ideal.  How appropriate that the students would be wearing the coat just as they are starting on their quest to discover secrets of nature. 

Adam, H. and Galinsky A.D. (2012) Enclothed cognition.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Forsythe, S.M. (1990) Effect of applicant’s clothing on interviewer’s decision to hire.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology 20:1579-1595.
Glick, S., Larsen S., Johnson, C. and Branstiter, H. (2005) Evaluation of sexy women in low and high-status jobs.  Psychology of Women Quarlterly 29:389-395.
Johnson, R.D. and Downing, L.L. (1979) Deindividuation and valence of cues: effects on prosocial and antisocial behavior.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37:1532-1538.
Zimbardo, P.G. (1969) The human choice: individuation, reason, and order vs. deindividuation, impulse and chaos.  In W.J. Arnold & D. Levine (Eds.) Nebraska symposium on motivation, 17:237-307.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Agency promotes risk-seeking

People and other animals are generally risk-averse.  We tend to prefer sure things, despite their low payoff value, to risky things that may have a high payoff value.  However, a recent study demonstrates that people can change their behavior dramatically, becoming risk-seeking, if they participate in games in which there is an illusion of control.  That is, if you believe that your actions are responsible for the outcome of the gamble, then you are more likely to be risk-seeking.

In a paper that was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sam McDougle, Jordan Taylor and colleagues at Princeton and Berkeley designed a game where there were two targets.  The participant chose one of the targets, and depending on the hit probability of that target, and the payoff value of the target (both manipulated by the experimenters), the participant received points, which would later be exchanged for money.  The hit probability and payoff were randomly varied but always in proportion to each other.  This way, the expected value of each target (hit probability times payoff value) was constant in time, as well as equal among the targets.  This made it so that there was no “optimum” behavior, that is, there was no target that they could pick which would maximize their winnings. 

If a participant was risk-averse, then she should usually pick the target that had the higher hit probability, ignoring the fact that the other target, though less likely to hit, had a higher payoff value.  On the other hand, if the participant was risk-seeking, then she should usually pick the target that had the low hit probability, gambling to get the higher payoff value.

The authors divided the participants into a few groups.  In the Standard group, the volunteers pressed one of two keys, selecting a right or left target.  These participants tended to usually pick the high hit probability target.  They exhibited risk-averse behavior. 

Does risk-aversion change if people believe that they can control the outcome of the gamble through their behavior?  To test for this, the authors changed the task: now instead of pushing a button to indicate the chosen target, the participants reached toward the target while holding a joystick.  As they moved the joystick, a cursor indicated whether they landed on target or not.  This was manipulated through the hit probability.  In reality, it actually did not matter how they moved the joystick.  If the hit probability was low, the cursor would not land on target (but close to it), giving the illusion that they missed the target because of a poor movement.  Remarkably, these participants behaved in a risk-seeking manor.  They usually picked the target that was less likely to hit, gambling that they could capture the high payoff by improving their movement.

The key difference between the two groups was that in the key-press group, the action had very low variability: you press a button, giving the impression that there is little relationship between what you do and the hit probability of the target.  However, in the reach group, the action had high variability: you see that the cursor that appears to be connected to your actions did not hit the target.  Perhaps by reaching slightly differently, you will hit it the next time.  In reality, in both cases the hit probability was predetermined, having nothing to do with your actions.

The work suggests that greater risk-seeking arises in circumstances where there is a likelihood that the actions themselves were responsible for the outcome, and not some external agent.  If, on the other hand, one believes that the outcomes were predetermined, due to an external agent, then they are likely to be more risk-averse, avoiding actions that have low probability of success (but potentially high reward).

Let me take these results and make some generalizations.  Suppose you wanted to build a casino.  The results of this study would say that you should buy slot machines that required some large motion of the arm to pull down a lever, rather than a button-press.  That would make your customers believe that the way they pull the lever has something to do with their winnings, and this belief would make them more risk-seeking.  (The down side is that pulling a lever may get tiring.).

Cultures and religions differ in the relative importance of agency and concept of destiny.  Perhaps a belief in pre-determination of events and an “ultimate cause” would reduce the sense of agency, which in turn would promote risk-averse behavior.


Samuel McDougle, Matthew Boggess, Mattew Crossley, Darius Parvin, Richard Ivry, and Jordan Taylor (2016) Credit assignment in movement-dependent reinforcement learning.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) 113:6797-6802.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A visit to Tehran

The taxi service that my host had arranged called the night before to tell me that because of morning traffic, and the distance of the conference to our apartment, he would need to come at 7:30am.  I said OK and hoped that I would be able to sleep and wake up in time, as the night before the whole family was up at 2 am having “breakfast”, and then sound sleep till around noon.  The traffic turned out to be surprisingly light as we drove southwest of Tehran, toward a region that had a number of fruit orchards. 

The conference, 22nd Iranian Biomedical Engineering meeting, was held at a rather beautiful location, a series of buildings placed in a nicely landscaped campus.  Our building had intricate Islamic style carvings on the ceilings and walls.  The main conference hall was decorated with mosaic of mirrors and tiles, and unexpectedly, two styles of chairs: large, heavily upholstered rows of chairs up front, and smaller, more modestly upholstered chairs in the rows back.  The professors sat up front, the students in the back.

The conference started with speakers who were not scientists, but government officials.  They were there mostly to talk to the cameras (their speech was recorded for the evening news apparently): talk of budgets, lack of budgets, and need for budgets.  One lovely thing was the moderator, who read a short poem before introducing each speaker.  This mixture of “hard” sciences with the “soft” arts, equations and poetry, is one of the pleasures of attending a meeting in Iran.

One of the officials described a new institute, set up about a year ago following a large donation from a wealthy Iranian in Canada.   The institute was named after the donor: Movafaghian Research Center in Neurorehab Technologies.  A young scientist working there, Saeed Behzadipour, later described that the first floor housed a rehab clinic where patients tried out student-designed devices like an exoskeleton robot, and a balancing system.  The second floor housed the students and scientists, and the third floor housed start-up companies that commercialized the devices.  How nice, I thought; finally the wealth and success of a few expatriates coming back to do some good.

My talk was in the afternoon.  Looking at the conference hall, it seemed that most of students were female (later I learned that almost 70% of the undergraduate in Iran were female).  I gave a talk that described my student Yousef Salimpour’s work on non-invasive cortical stimulation in Parkinson’s disease.  My talk was in English, which is a little embarrassing.  I remember my dad coming to one of my talks many years back.  Afterwards he told me that he thought no one understood a word I said.  But after I finished there was a line of students who asked questions.  The last student in line was a young lady who had brought me a gift, a beautiful little book. 

I ended my talk with a poem from Abo Ali Sina, the 12th century Persian physician.  I had read the poem on the plane ride, having discovered it in my new Iranian passport.  Each page had a drawing of a monument in remembrance of a Persian poet or artist, and a few words from them.  What a nice passport, I thought, focusing on Persian artists and scientists.

The conference had a modest exhibition hall.  There I saw a company that displayed an exoskeleton robot that wrapped around the legs and torso and walked stroke patients, and another company with a robot that moved a patient out of their bed and had them stand up.  Many of the companies displayed hospital instruments, dialysis machines and the like -- all quite proud of the fact that they were able to build the machines despite crippling economic sanctions.  (Perhaps because I was raised in the American west, I have always admired people who aspire to be self-sufficient.)

During the regular sessions I heard a talk by a student , Sahar Jahani, who had done an experiment using functional near infrared spectroscopy, measuring activity in the prefrontal cortex during an attention task.  It was a nicely designed and executed study, showing that activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex increased with task difficulty.  But what was really impressive was the fact that she was using an instrument designed and built by an earlier group of engineering students. 

The conference book listed around 200 abstracts, all in English.  It seemed that despite years of sanctions, science had survived.


Some of the very best neuroscientists in Iran work at a place called Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences (IPM), in the School of Cognitive Science.  What stands out is that while almost everywhere else in the world research on non-human primate brain is declining, with laboratories closing due to the high monetary and political costs of neurophysiological research, here is a place where research is expanding.  I saw three laboratories working on the cerebral cortex and the neural basis of vision. 

I gave a one day short-course, summarizing the work of the last couple of decades on how the brain controls movements of the eyes; contributions of the basal ganglia, superior colliculus, and the cerebellum.  We started at 9:30am, with a room that was so full that, to my delight, they kept on bringing in chairs.  The sight of all those eager students, and their wonderful questions that followed every slide, was a source of energy that fed me for the whole day (the lecture ended at 4:30pm).  I then met with individual students and visited labs.  The labs were recording from neurons in the brain with amplifiers and other electronics that were all homemade, another example of survival in the face of sanction imposed scarcity.  When the day had come to an end, I felt that I had experienced one of the best visits that I had had to any scientific institution.

With the students at the short course on Decisions and Actions, held at Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences (IPM), Center for Cognitive Science.


The most unusual feature of the city of Tehran is its sheer number of private banks (that is, not-government owned): driving through the city, it is hard to pass a block of a major street without passing a couple of bank branches.  There are more numerous than corner delis.  On the display windows are rates for certificates of deposit: 20% annual interest.  This implies that inflation must be much higher than that.

I sat and listened to the song of the caged love birds, hanging outside the corner grocer, and watched a  Persian alley cat cross the street.  The best thing about my short visit, however, was the quality of food.  The bread baker a few doors down from the apartment baked a thin flat bread, and sold it hot as it came out of the clay oven for around 15 cents.  The vegetables, particularly the ordinary humble tomatoes, were as red in the inside as the gorgeous color on the outside.  The dairy products, the sheep’s milk cheeses, were spectacular.  The cream pastries that I bought from the confectionery a block away were as good as those that I had had in Paris.  But what made the experience special was that this quality came at a fraction of the price that I had paid back home in America.