Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why use Brain Cells in Art?

“Bioart” refers to the manipulation of living cells, tissues, or organisms (or their derivatives) for artistic purposes. While artists and biologists have collaborated for centuries to illustrate biological phenomena (you can see some fantastic modern examples of this tradition here), “Bioart” refers to the practice started in the early 1990’s of artists training in and performing techniques from the biological sciences, such as cell culture, genetic engineering, and surgery.  Artists have used these technologies to create novel living entities (such as a leather jacket grown in vitro) or modify existing living entities (such as Stelarc’s third ear).  These tools provided new options for aesthetic statements (the ability to radically sculpt living tissue to suit particular tastes), ethical statements (if we are growing a small, edible steak in a vat, should we continue to kill cattle for food?) as well as a novel flavor of irony (that “victimless” PETA-endorsed cultured steak required an entire cow’s worth of fetal bovine serum to produce [1]).

Some bio-artworks  incorporate living neurons.  Early works such as Force and Intelligence used neural culture for its aesthetic and, er, cultural significance.  Later however, neural art work began to incorporate the functional aspects of neurons by recording and initiating neural activity.  This bi-directional communication allowed for neural culture to control robotic art installations, giving the biological “brain” a robotic “body”[2].  This embodied neural art is a distinctive subset of bioart much for the same reason that neuroethics is a distinctive subset of bioethics- while similar issues can be addressed (is it alive?), there are a new set of issues that come up (does it feel pain?).  In many ways, embodied neural art is the perfect playground for the “extra-rational” side of the neuroethics discussion. Here, novel neural systems, or novel presentations of natural living systems, can be presented to the public in a manner that encourages both critical thinking and the development of new intuitions.
Peter Gee (center) explains Silent Barrage's processing loop to two museum attendees standing amid the work's robotic "body."  On the wall behind them are shown projections displaying rainbow-colored electrical recordings (left) of the neural activity of the biological "brain" that controls the robots, and the view from the overhead cameras (right) that provide the "sensory input" for the "brain."  Photo by Philip Gamblen.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Who is redefining free will? A Response to Jerry Coyne

Famed evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has recently gained a lot of public attention for his views on free will. As he sees it, we don’t have it. (See here and here for popular press articles from him on the subject. See here, and here for blog posts on his personal blog in which he slan … um, I mean, debates some of those who do not agree with him.)

According to Coyne, free will, at least ‘free will’ as understood by non-scientists and non-philosophers (AKA “the folk”), requires the unconditional ability to do otherwise. The unconditional ability to do otherwise is the ability to do differently than one in fact did, even if everything up until the moment of doing was exactly the same. The ‘everything’ in that previous clause is meant to be taken literal. LITERALLY EVERYTHING. The unconditional ability to do otherwise requires the ability to do otherwise even if every single molecule in the universe was aligned exactly the same way, even if all your thoughts, desires, beliefs, intentions, etc. were exactly the same, etc., etc., etc.

And, according to Coyne, we do not have this ability; the laws of nature won’t allow such an extraordinary ability. Thus, we don’t have free will.

That's right: Embrace your strings! According to Coyne (echoing a point made by Sam Harris), we really are nothing more than puppets. (credit: thenewyorker.com)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Return of the Pedophilic Brain Tumor: Acquired versus Innate Pedophilia

Last week, Reuters carried a story by Kate Kelland about a pediatrician in Italy, Domenico Mattiello, accused of sexually abusing his patients.[1] His lawyers plan to present evidence that his pedophilic urges are the result of a brain tumor and argue that the judge in the case should be lenient. As the Reuter's story mentions, this case is very similar to a US case I blogged about a few months ago, where a 40 year old man suddenly developed pedophilic urges and had to be removed from his home.  The US case was presented at a medical conference, with very little discussion of criminal charges, while Mattiello's case is presented by Kelland as an extreme example of the sort of challenges neuroscience may bring to our understandings of criminal responsibility. I want to push back against this framing, and argue that a tumor such as this poses an interesting ethical question because it does not simply challenge ideas about criminal responsibility, but also serves as a good example of the different responses to "acquired" pedophilia and "innate" pedophilia.[2] 

Original image from  http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/frankenstein/frank_celluloid.html
A display of criminal brains from the era of biological criminality.

Brain-Boosting or Pulp Fiction?

It comes as no surprise that pulling all-nighters comes with the territory of being an undergraduate. It is the price that most of my peers and I have paid at one time or another for trying to get more work completed before a fast-approaching deadline. The sleepless nights ramp up during finals week while the use of caffeine and energy drinks fuels our self-induced, sleep- deprived zombie states.

                                                We all do it: study zombies 
                                      (Credit: zombiesandtoys.blogspot.com)                                 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Snakes On a Brain, or, Why Care About Comparative Neuroanatomy (Vol.1)

Have you ever seen the movie “Snakes On A Plane”? It might have occurred to you that, in real life, Burmese Pythons and Scarlet Kingsnakes don’t act like the computer-animated cobras from the film. Now imagine how a herpetologist would feel while watching it. I’m sensing some anger, some exasperation, maybe even a little righteous indignation.

Once the herpetologist works through these feelings, s/he might do an interview to capitalize on the movie’s popularity and correct some misconceptions the public has about snakes. Or, I don’t know, teach a class for non-science majors called “Snakes On The Colorado Plains”. Or write a blog post about it. That’s what I’m attempting to do here, but it’s not a movie from 2006 that’s got me thinking about reptiles. What happened was, I heard a RadioLab podcast which used the phrase “reptile brain”.

With one glance at this amazing animated gif that I found on VibeDoc.com, I am able to understand the reptilian brain.