Weird eyes

I’ve been having some odd vision problems lately, and I’d sort of resigned myself to that common symptom of aging, and that I was going to inevitably need bifocals. So this morning I went in for an eye exam.

It turns out that’s not it at all — my eyes are healthy, no serious problems, but one of my eyes has gotten slightly better, which was causing some disparities that were bothering me. So no bifocals. New lenses to compensate.

Also, it was my left eye — which I prefer to call my sinister eye — which has grown more powerful. The little devil PZ dancing on my left shoulder is rewarding me for paying attention to him.

Now I have to get back to grading. Wait, that’s a reward?

Are you planning to go out to eat today?

We did. My wife and I went out to Mi Mexico in Alexandria for a celebratory lunch (she has put up with me for 34 years! Yay!). It was very good — they have a vegetarian menu and prices were reasonable.

But just before I left, I was reading this terrible site, Sundays Are the Worst, which has a huge collection of stories from restaurant waitstaff about serving the Sunday-after-church crowd. You know where this is going: appallingly rude Christians stiffing people right and left. And then we went to a restaurant.

I think I over-tipped. I felt like I had to compensate for Jesus’ selfish followers.

Hey, KPOV Bend Community Radio!

I’ve gotten multiple requests from KPOV to participate in an interview, and I’ve replied to every one, saying I’d be happy to do so…and then a week or two later I get a query again asking if I’d be interested. I think all my replies are getting dumped into a spam trap or something — you might want to check on that.

Still happy to join in. If any of you are in Bend, you might let ‘em know that I really haven’t been ignoring them.

Chaos in email land!

The combination of an attempted hack, jacking up my email security, and breaking my usual email reader have lead to a worse-than-usual mess in my email in-box, and I’m implementing a few changes that won’t affect most of you who write to me, but just in case, I’m spreading the word.

You want to email me? You can still use [email protected]. That is the only valid address for most of you.

Some of you occasionally write to my umn.edu address. That one is getting thoroughly locked up: if you send email there, it will automagically be fed into a nuclear furnace and vaporized, unless you are writing to me from another umn.edu address or from a small set of authorized domains (and I won’t tell you what they are). Pretend that email address doesn’t even exist anymore. This has become necessary as essential work and student email has been getting buried under the noise.

I’m actually enjoying the purity and simplicity of that account right now — it’s so clean and manageable!

Today is my birfday!

I had such plans, such grand plans for today. We’re on spring break, and I am 100% caught up on my grading, so I have no obligations hanging over me. I had a list in my head:

  • Pancakes!

  • A little writing, off and on, on my big super secret project.

  • Build a model airplane. My daughter got me one as a souvenir of her trip to Japan, and my first thought was, “I haven’t built one of these since I was a teenager, 30 years ago”…and then I had to recalculate. 40 years ago. 40. So I was going to aggressively regress to a spotty gangling teen nerd today.

  • Cosmos on the TV tonight!

Doesn’t that sound relaxing? But no, instead I have come down with the Mother of All Colds, and I am hacking and weezing and got little sleep and am feeling miserable.

So plans…revised.

  • Sit.

  • Ooze slime from cranial orifices.

  • Hot tea.

  • Archer season 4 on NetFlix.

  • Hope I’m conscious for Cosmos.

Thst’ll have to do. Maybe later this week I’ll have my party, belatedly, once I finish destroying this virus.

The brain is a complex and funny thing

Can you generate the illusion that your mind has left your body? This woman can.

After a class on out-of-body experiences, a psychology graduate student at the University of Ottawa came forward to researchers to say that she could have these voluntarily, usually before sleep. “She appeared surprised that not everyone could experience this,” wrote the scientists in a study describing the case, published in February in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

So what does the modern researcher do when someone has a weird perceptual sensation? Stick their head in an MRI and look at what’s happening.

To better understand what was going on, the researchers conducted a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study of her brain. They found that it surprisingly involved a “strong deactivation of the visual cortex.” Instead, the experience “activated the left side of several areas associated with kinesthetic imagery,” such as mental representations of bodily movement.

Her experience, the scientists wrote, “really was a novel one.” But just maybe, not as novel as previously thought. If you are capable of floating out of your body, don’t keep it to yourself!

OK, I won’t. I used to be able to do that. When I was roughly 5 to 7 years old, and with declining frequency in years afterwards, I experienced this phenomenon routinely, and it was exactly as described. As I was drifting off to sleep, I’d have this peculiar sensation of heightened kinesthesia — I’d be acutely aware of my body, where every limb was, and I’d also lose my other senses — my hearing was muffled, with a kind of low hum, and I wouldn’t be able to see anything. But at the same time, I also had an exaggerated consciousness of objects around me, so I’d literally feel like a small boy with an awareness expanding to fill the room, losing the disconnect between self and other. And then I’d fall asleep.

Even as a child, though, I didn’t describe it to myself as floating outside myself; I called them my “big head dreams”, because of the way my awareness of space increased. I might have been annoyed at my bedtime, but I didn’t will myself to float out into the living room and watch TV, ghostlike, with my parents. I saw it as an odd shift in the focus of my attention as I drifted off to sleep, a kind of hallucination, nothing more.

I enjoyed the sensation and would voluntarily succumb to it, but it occurred less often as I got older. Probably the last time I experienced it was in my teens, but I still vividly recall what it felt like.

It was not out-of-body travel. Rebecca Watson has a reply to the article, and clarifies for the gullible that no, scientists aren’t studying out-of-body experiences, they’re looking at sensory processing and mental imagery.

The word “hallucination” appears ten times in the case study yet zero times in the Popular Science article. Because of this, a naive person who reads the PopSci article but not the original paper may walk away with the belief that the brain scans show what happens when a person actually leaves their body, as opposed to showing what happens when a person feels as though they are leaving their body. Again, the difference seems small but is actually quite large: the former describes a study that would be at home on an episode of Coast to Coast or Fringe or those episodes of Family Matters where Urkel did science experiments, and the latter would be at home in a scientific journal to be used as the basis for further study and experimentation.

Move along, it’s all mundane brain science. No spirits involved.

I’m on my way to #scio14

That’s not good news. The good news will be “I’m at #scio14“, because I’ve got a lot of traveling ahead of me. And it’s been one of those days that I always dread: the day I have to return tests in genetics. I write hard tests…well, not really that hard conceptually, but I avoid questions of a form that allows them to be answered with rote execution of a formula, which means that students who are struggling to understand often end up taking weird detours in their answers, and do poorly. And then there’s the usual bimodal grade distribution of a class that emphasizes logic and methodology; some find it trivial, others just freak out. Everyone is miserable, and it makes lecturing no fun at all.

But I can’t do otherwise. I’ll throw more practice problems at them, and drill them through the process over and over again, and usually, most of them will make it through to the end.

Anyway, now I’m off to the airport. Long drive, long night, get into Raleigh-Durham sometime tomorrow. Then I have to be the student for a few days and learn.

I hope there isn’t an exam at the end.

Speaking at the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota

I do sometimes get out and spend some time with the little branch campuses of my university. On 5 February, at 3:30 in 335 Borlaug Hall, I’ll be talking about…

How can you change the culture if you won’t join the conversation? Science and social media

The values of scientists often poorly align with some of the values of the wider culture, and even within science, we often see generational clashes, where established scientists conflict with a younger cohort. The battleground where ideas are fighting it out right now is on the internet. I’ll be discussing both intra-scientific concerns, such as the struggle against sexism, and the external concerns we ought to be having over the public perception of science and the concerted efforts to provide a welcoming environment for creationists, climate change denialists, and fear of GMOs in the public and in the halls of power.

It’s all about putting science in a wider social context, and how the tools we use to do that are social media. I won’t be telling everyone that they must use them, but that they shouldn’t fear them and that they need to have some respect for even seemingly trivial media, like Twitter. The conversation changes how we think and what we are aware of, and is far more influential than we realize.