Science has a PR problem.  Perhaps it is because science is responsible for some technological developments that have outpaced our moral capacity.  Or perhaps it is because the knowledge bestowed upon us through the scientific process increasingly pushes God out of the gaps.  But some are irritated by “scientists” who arrogantly assert absolute truths about the universe when in actuality, underneath their assertions, there are only probabilities with error bars.

 

I believe that one of the most fundamental problems with science is that we cannot see it.  The vastness of time and space and the minuteness of science’s edge, right now, defy the senses.  We do not have the capacity to imagine the scope and breadth of time involved in the formation of the universe or even the time scale of the evolution of complex life.  It is beyond our capacity to imagine how incredibly insignificant our place is in the cosmos.  Likewise, the realities of life at the cellular level and the complexity of interactions at the subatomic level, escape logic and defy the rules by which we live our lives.

 

Science is a juggernaut of increasingly and unapproachable complexity.  No longer are great discoveries made with home-made telescopes or in monastery greenhouses.  Science has become so specialized and at its focus, so minute, or so vast, that it is beyond the human experience.  The technical and mathematical skills required, and the sophistication of the instruments employed, all take us deeper and deeper, and further and further beyond anything that most of us can comprehend.

These realities literally bring science to the level of science fiction.  I once read a bumper sticker that said “I don’t have enough faith to believe in science.”  Although that sticker was posted by a Christian troubled about science’s role in the diminishment of God, it strikes me, that it may, on another level, represent the level of detachment science has accomplished through its very own progress.  If one does not truly understand the scientific process and the absolute intellectual scrutiny of the process itself, it is easy to assume that faith is necessary to believe in science. To the average person, buying what science tells us does require a leap of faith.

 

Yet, there is a fundamental difference between science and faith.  I once heard Donald Johanson talk about Lucy, his famous find.  In 1973 Johanson found a fossil that dramatically changed the way we conceptualized hominid evolution.  Lucy was a 3.2 million year old Australopithecus afarensis fossil that provided evidence that hominids walked upright before the brain got bigger.  It had been believed up until then, that in hominids, a bigger brain evolved first, giving our ancestral kin the smarts needed to survive a ground based and bipedal existence. The paradigm shifted based on this new evidence.  Such is the way of science.  In his talk, Dr. Johanson clearly and simply differentiated science and faith.  What he said was:

Science is evidence without certainty while Faith is certainty without evidence

 

I guess it boils down to what degree one values evidence.

 

A related issue pertains to the fact that sometimes the results of science are portrayed with too much certainty.  And sometimes writers overreach with their interpretation of findings.  This is a legitimate concern.  The greater scrutiny I give science, the more I see that this problem generally emanates from science writers (journalists) rather than from the scientific community.  Humility and the acknowledgement of the limits of one’s findings (i.e., error bars), are the hallmarks of good science.  This becomes increasingly important as we investigate deeply remote phenomena, be it the quantum realm, the formation of the universe, or even the geological evolution of our planet.  Science attempts to form a clear picture when only intermittent pixels are accessible.

 

A wonderful example of such humility is evidenced in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Some people use his own skeptical analysis as a refutation of his own theory.  Reading the book negates such an argument.  Every paper published in a reputable peer reviewed journal includes a Discussion section where the authors detail the potential flaws and confounds, as well as suggested areas of improvement for future research.  If one accesses the actual science itself, this humility is evident.  But in the media, over reaching is commonplace, and it warrants reasonable suspicion.

 

There are however, areas of science where the evidence is so broad and so complete that certainty is absolutely asserted.  Evolution by means of natural selection is one of those areas.  Yet evolution and the dating of the planet for example run into controversy as they intersect with the beliefs of those who sustain a literal interpretation of the Bible. This is where two world-views diverge, or more aptly, collide.

 

Long ago, when we lacked an understanding of geology, meteorology, the germ theory of disease, and neurology, people tried to make sense of random events like floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, plagues, seizures, depression, mania, and dementia.  We did this because we struggled to make sense of substantial, catastrophic,  and seemingly random events.  When such events occur, it is our nature to seek out patterns that help us make sense of it all.  Vengeful deities were historically the agents of such destructive forces.  Just as we are universally driven to explain our origins, as evidenced by a plethora of diverse creation stories, we are compelled to make sense of our destruction.  As we have come to develop a better understanding of the world around us, little by little, God as a creative and destructive force has been displaced.

 

This increased material understanding of our world poses a serious threat to literal religion.  Although, for most scientists, the target is not the destruction of God.  On the contrary, knowledge is the goal.  Unfortunately, because of this looming and powerful threat, science and knowledge have become targets for some religious people.  The problem with science is that it threatens deeply held ideological belief systems that, at their core, value faith over evidence.

 

It comes back to that Evidence question again.  As humans we are more compelled by stories that provide comfort and give significance to our existence, than by the data that asserts and demands humility.  This is not a problem with science, it is a problem with the human brain.

 

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The geology of Western and Central New York tells an incredible story, the words of which, are laid out in the rolling hills, picturesque valleys, and the seemingly banal roadside cuts throughout this region.  The stunningly beautiful cascading waterfalls of Watkins Glen and Ithaca along with the equally dramatic rock city formations of Cattauraugus and Chautauqua Counties round out this tale with a worthy exclamation point.

Figure 1: Devonian World View

The nascent bedrock of this region was laid down over 380 million years ago (mya) on what was then an equatorial continent rotated about 45o clockwise from its current orientation (see Figure 1).  The fossil remains and geological features also indicate that this area was submersed under a vast shallow ocean (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2: North American Devonian

A continental collision with Baltica (proto Europe) starting 410 million years ago (mya) pushed up the Acadian Mountains that once stood mightily along North America’s east coast.  Forces of nature then slowly eroded these huge mountains and the fine particulates flowed deep out onto the Catskill Delta that then covered much of the Southern Tier of New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Catskill Delta

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over vast periods of time those particulates settled to the bottom of the ocean creating layer upon layer of sediment that eventually lithified: the clay sediments became the shale, the silt became siltstone, and the sand became sandstone (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Northeastern US Devonian Deposition Pattern

Devonian Deposition Key for Figure 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standing in this region 380 mya would have necessitated a boat.  There were no rolling hills of green – just rolling waves of salty water.

 

It was likely quite hot (average temp 80° F) with no appreciable winter and certainly no snow.  At the bottom of the ocean lived brachiopods, crinoids, coral, placoderm fish, eurypterids, and trilobites.  No mammals yet, not even dinosaurs.

 

As the mountain sediment inflow slowly filled our sea and worldwide oceanic water levels trended downward, this area slowly approached the shoreline of that shrinking ocean. Today’s sandstone remains are evidence of beachfront long ago.  The Acadians continued to shed contents but, larger material was laid down.  The top surface of the current mountain top rock city formations of Cattauraugus and Chautauqua Counties were once the bottom of a shallow sea (see Image 1).  The pebbles (see Image 2) in those mighty rock city quartz conglomerate rocks were flushed into this shallow sea by torrential floods.

Image 1: Rock City Formation, Olean, New York

Image 2: Quartz Conglomerate, Rock City Formation, Western New York

Image 2: Quartz Conglomerate, Rock City Formation, Western New York

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s hard to imagine their former lowland status today when standing upon these high points gazing down below at the rolling hills and whittled valleys.

 

Over yet another immensely vast period of time, the earth remained tectonically active and another continental collision, this time with Africa, pushed up the Allegheny Mountains between 360 and 245 mya.  Pangaea, the last super-continent, existed 330 to 220 mya and the dinosaurs reigned supreme on land.  About 190 mya the Atlantic Ocean opened and began it’s ongoing expanse.  Concurrently our continent was propelled north-by-north-west by plate tectonics, slowly bringing it closer to its current northern hemisphere location.  During this gradual transition, a mighty asteroid struck near the Yucatan Peninsula (65 mya) causing a cataclysmic global disaster that is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs (except for those that evolved into our current birds).  Small rodent like mammals did survive and thereafter thrived – ultimately giving rise to us and our fellow mammals.

 

Until about 1.8 mya the geology of this region remained relatively stable.  Things again got exciting as the most recent ice-age commenced.  Huge and powerful glaciers slowly carved their way through our landscape gouging out deep valleys and Finger Lake crevasses (see Image 3).  They slowly plowed through those long accumulated and lithified deposits creating new lower grounds and thus substantial opportunities for erosion.  The surviving rock city formations constitute the few locations in NY that were not scoured by those powerful glaciers. Regardless, the near misses that exposed the under layers of more delicate sedimentary rock beds (e.g., shale), led to the erosion of this base material and thus the characteristic breakage and shifting of those conglomerate structures that make them city like today.

Image 3: New York Finger Lakes – NASA Image

The deep Finger Lake gouges left by the glaciers also left hanging-falls that slowly eroded to form the incredible formations at Watkins Glen, NY (see Image 4), Buttermilk Falls, and Taughannock Falls (in Ithaca, NY).

Image 4: Watkins Glen State Park, New York

About that same time, the high peaks of the Adirondacks were just beginning to rise from the north country plains being uplifted by a magma hotspot.   The Adirondacks are actually composed of bedrock much older than the bedrock exposed in Central and Western New York.

 

All of these remnant features are unique and incredibly beautiful landmarks that speak volumes about the vast amounts of time and power that played out in this story.   Whenever you pass a roadside cut, think back to when each layer was once the floor of a warm ocean.  Make time to get to Rock City in Olean, Panama Rocks in Panama, NY or Thunder Rocks in Allegany State Park.  Think about how the top of those rocks, the relative top of the world in Western New York now, were once the bottom of this world.  Then picture mountainous walls of snow and ice halting just in time to spare your ground.   Finally, imagine their sculpting retreat.  What a beautiful and powerful story our wondrous land tells.

 

References:

 

Allman, W., & Ross, R. (2008). Ithaca is Gorges: A Guide to the Geology of the Ithaca Area. 4th Ed. Ithaca: Museum of the Earth.

 

Ansley, J. (2000). The Teacher Friendly Guide to the Geology of the Northeastern U.S. Ithaca: Paleontological Research Institute.

 

Van Diver, B. (1985). Roadside Geology of New York.  Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company.

 

Whiteley, T., Kloc, G., & Brett, C. (2002). Trilobites of New York: An Illustrated Guide. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

 

Figures 1-4: John Wiley and Sons – used with permission. http://higheredbcs.wiley.com/legacy/college/levin/0471697435/chap_tut/chaps/chapter11-03.html

 

Images 1, 2, & 4: Photographs by Gerald Guild

 

Image 3: NASA Image: http://rst.gsfc.nasa.gov/Sect6/Sect6_2.html

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I am a caring and compassionate man with deep concerns about humanity.  Of utmost importance to me is the issue of human flourishing, which roughly translated, incorporates wellness, happiness, success, and adaptive functioning not only for the individual, but for society in general.  Individual flourishing necessitates societal flourishing and vice versa.  One does not rise at the expense of the other.  Promoting human flourishing has been my life’s work.

 

I see around me much acrimony, the source of which often ascends from moral inclinations from diverse cultures.  This concerns me, as one ought to suppose that morality should promote human flourishing.  Should it not instill virtue and wellness for all?  Unfortunately, the moral teachings of the world’s religions pitch one belief against another.  And it does not take much effort to see that virtually all ideologically based moral systems actually inhibit human flourishing for many.

 

At the core of these issues are several human inclinations that feed and sustain many of the perpetual conflicts that consume our blood and treasure and in other ways gravely harm our brothers and sisters.  Deeper still, at the root of many erroneous human inclinations, is a flawed brain that makes us vulnerable to ideology and likely to sustain beliefs without good reason.

 

Our brains sustain vestigial mechanisms that render us prone to all sorts of cognitive errors and illusions.  As a major consequence, we are inclined to hold on to belief systems regardless of substantive evidence to suggest that we just might be wrong.   This Cognitive Conservatism is a universal human attribute, and it plays out as we disregard, devalue, discredit, and/or out-write ignore evidence that contradicts previously held beliefs.  At the same time, we gladly take in evidence that confirms our beliefs.  This is an undeniable truth about the human condition.

 

Suffice it to say that our brains are belief engines leaving us vulnerable to mysticism and disinclined to accept aggregated evidence.  As such, our moral guidance has been historically guided by intuition (how things seem) as opposed to reason (how things actually are).  As a result, our intuitions in modern times are often wrong.  We tend to be compelled by anecdotes and stories rather than data.  We have relied on intuition and apparent correlations to guide us, and only recently has the scientific method entered our consciousness (circa 1400).

 

Another problematic inclination stems from our tribal tendencies.  Because of this we have developed a wide variety of diverse and often incompatible moral doctrines.  We have for fear of cultural insensitivity and accusation of bias, been pressured to accept as “moral” such atrocities as genital mutilation, genocide, and the demonization of homosexuality.  Although we might not view such acts as moral, the perpetrators certainly do.  This Moral Relativism, I believe is a grave error, particularly when you look at the subsequent consequences relative to human flourishing.

 

In some cultures it is acceptable to engage in honor killing.  For example, to torture, mutilate, or kill a female family member who has been a victim of rape is considered honorable.  Or consider martyrdom.  Suicide bombers fully believe that they are serving their God by killing infidels.  They further believe that they and 70 of their closest family and friends will be granted eternal bliss in the afterlife for doing God’s benevolent work.   Can we rightfully accept that either of these acts advances human flourishing?  Is it truly acceptable to condone either act because it is believed to be morally acceptable by their culture?  Is disapproving of these acts culturally insensitive or indicative of bias?

 

Using the same logic, is it acceptable to limit the expression of romantic love to only those that happen to be from the opposite sex?  Does rendering homosexuality illegal or immoral, promote or hinder human flourishing?  I suggest that it accomplishes the latter.  And are not the origins of the beliefs that render homosexuality wrong, wrought from the same belief mechanisms that encourage martyrdom or honor killings?

 

If I am driven to use evidence to guide decisions regarding what promotes or diminishes human flourishing, one has to ask the question: “Is science biased?”  I recently read articles by morality guru Jonathon Haidt who suggested that indeed this may be the case.  He didn’t really argue that the data rendered by Social Psychologists was flawed.  He simply argued that the scientists themselves (in the field of social psychology) are heavily skewed to the liberal left.  The problem I have with his argument is that scientists use evidence to guide their beliefs, and as such, end up sharing liberal inclinations.  Does that render them biased?   I believe not.  There is a substantial difference between those that base their beliefs on evidence and those that base their beliefs on ideology.  It is more true to say that ideologues are biased because their beliefs that are unprovable and generally devoid of any real evidence.  This, I believe, is far more dubious.

 

Speaking of bias, I recently read an article written by a Roman Catholic Priest that derided National Public Radio (NPR) as being biased on par with right wing conservative media outlets.  The context of the argument was NPR’s inclination to cover the issue of homosexuality in a way that condoned it.  Because the author holds the belief that homosexuality is immoral, and NPR comes off as pro gay marriage (as well as taking other pro “liberal” positions), the author suggests that NPR, as an institution, is biased.  I could not disagree more with this notion.  NPR may have a liberal slant, but this does not automatically imply that it is biased.  I would argue that at NPR there is a stronger inclination to use evidence-based, rather than ideologically-based reason to guide its reporting.  Isn’t that what reporters are supposed to do?  Somehow, because the evidence does not support the moral inclinations of the church, or those of social conservatives, it is biased?  I think not!

 

This accusation of bias is wrong at a profoundly deep level!  Even if 90% of scientists are secular liberals, that does not render the facts that they expose as biased.  There is only one truth – and if the truth does not fit one’s beliefs, that doesn’t render it less truthful.  Moral relativism opens the door to multiple truths and renders evidence meaningless.  If we condone such thinking, then who are we to judge those who brought down the World Trade Center towers as “evil doers?”

 

Likewise, who are we to diminish the quality of life of a small but no less significant portion of our population because they happen to be born gay, lesbian, or bisexual?  Within consenting relationships, does gender really matter?  Can it be argued that making same sex intimacy illicit, diminishes human flourishing?  Yes it can, and it most definitely does!

 

When ideology crosses a line that diminishes human flourishing it has gone too far.  I am reminded of what I wrote in Surprise Chautauqua after listening to Bishop John Shelby Spong.

“Spong derides religious zealots who promote racism, sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia based upon quotations from the Holy Scriptures.  His rational embrace of science and the realities of human suffering (often as a result of religion’s influence) have guided his journey toward a reinterpretation of the faith story.  He strongly asserts that he wants nothing to do with any institution that diminishes the humanity of any child of God. He deplores how the Bible and the Church have harbored those that have relegated blacks to subhuman status, women as second class citizens, and gay and lesbian people as essentially immoral.”

 

I am incensed when religious doctrine results in human suffering. This is particularly true with regard to the Catholic Church who squandered any hope of offering moral guidance with regard to sexuality when it systematically aided and abetted pedophiles.   The Catholic Church should be granted no more moral authority than radical Islam. Their respective track records with regard to promoting human flourishing are abysmal. Only when we have the courage to stop turning a blind eye toward social injustice and stop condoning systematic human degradation (because it is consistent with a religious “moral” teaching) will all of humanity be able to truly thrive.

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We all love a good story.  Children are mesmerized by them and adults, whether through books, TV, movies, sports, gossip, tabloids, or the news, to mention a few, constantly seek them out.  It is core to our identity, and a vital part of our nature.  It is both how we entertain ourselves, and how we make sense of the world.   This latter tendency troubles me.  Why?  Specifically because we are inclined to value narratives over aggregated data, and we are imbued with a plethora of cognitive biases and errors that all mesh together in a way to leave us vulnerable to believing very silly things.

 

This may be hard to swallow, but all of us, yes even you, are by default, gullible and biased: disinclined to move away from narratives that you unconsciously string together in order to make sense of an incredibly complex world.  Understanding this is paramount!

 

I have discussed many of the innate illusions, errors, and biases that we are inclined toward throughout this blog.  I have also discussed the genetic and social determinates that play out in our thought processes and beliefs.  And throughout all this I have worked diligently to remain objective and evidence based.  I do accept that I am inclined toward biases programmed into my brain.  This knowledge has forced me to question my beliefs and open my mind to different points of view.  I believe that the evidence I have laid down in my writings substantiates my objectivity.  But I am also tired, very tired in fact, of making excuses for, and offering platitudes to, others who do not open their minds to this not so obvious reality.

 

I am absolutely convinced that there is no resolution to the core political, economic, religious and social debates that pervade our societies, unless we can accept this reality.  Perhaps, the most important thing we can do as a species is come to an understanding of our failings and realize that in a multitude of ways, our brains lie to us.  Our brains deceive us in ways that necessitate us to step away from our gut feelings and core beliefs in order to seek out the truth.  Only when we understand and accept our shortcomings will we be open to the truth.

 

Because of these flawed tendencies we join together in tribal moral communities lending a blind eye to evidence that casts doubt on our core and sacred beliefs.  We cast aspersions of ignorance, immorality or partisanship on those that espouse viewpoints that differ from our own.  I cannot emphasize this enough, this is our nature.  But, I for one, cannot, and will not, accept this as “just the way it is.”

 

We as a species are better than that.  We know how to over come these inclinations.  We have the technology to do so.  It necessitates that we step back from ideology and look at things objectively.  It requires asking questions, taking measurements, and conducting analyses (all of which are not part of our nature).  It necessitates the scientific method.  It requires open peer review and repeated analyses.  It requires objective debate and outright rejection of ideology as a guiding principle.  It requires us to take a different path, a path that is not automatic, one that is not always fodder for good narrative.

 

I am no more inclined to believe the narrative of Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi suggesting that “his people love him and would die for him” than I am to accept the narrative from Creationists about the denial of evolution or those that deny anthropogenic global warming based on economic interests.  Likewise, I am not willing to accept the arguments from the anti-vaccine community or the anti-gay marriage community.

 

My positions are not based on ideology!  They are based on evidence: both the credible and substantive evidence that backs my position and the lack of any substantive evidence for the opposing views.

 

Granted, my positions are in line with what some may define as an ideology or tribal moral community; but there is a critical difference.  My positions are based on evidence, not on ideology, not on bronze-age moral teachings, and certainly not on fundamental flaws in thinking.  This is a huge and critical difference.  Another irrefutable difference is my willingness to abandon my position if the data suggests a more credible one.  Enough already! Its time to step back, take a long and deep breath – look at how our flawed neurology works – and stop filling in the gaps with narrative that is devoid of reality.  Enough is enough!

 

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Several times over the last couple weeks I have been asked about brainwaves and other measures of the brain. For example, what differentiates a CAT Scan from an EEG, MRI, fMRI, and a PET Scan? And what about those beta, alpha, theta, and delta brain waves?  What are they all about? What do these technologies really measure and what can we infer from them?

 

Before I address these questions, it is important to understand that the brain is an incredibly complicated electrochemical organ composed of an estimated 100 billion neurons (brain cells) interconnected by 100 trillion synapses. Brain activity occurs through a complex interplay of electrical activity within each cell and chemical activity across the synapses (minute gaps between neurons). Once a neuron fires it sends an electrical signal the length of the cell where it releases specific chemicals (called neurotransmitters) into the gap between itself and neighboring neurons. Those neurotransmitters may traverse the gap and attach to neighboring cells’ dendrites (nerve firing receptors), and perhaps trigger a continuation of the signal (via electrical responding) within those adjacent neurons. Every thought we have, every sight we see, everything we feel, taste, and smell occurs through this chain of events.

 

Obviously, the complexity of this series of events are beyond the scope of this article, but it is important to understand this basic and fundamental fact before one can hope to differentiate the various brain measures. It is also important to understand that there are a number of biological systems that service this neuronal network (e.g., glial cells, veins, and arteries). The glial cells in particular are referred to as “housekeeping” cells protecting, supporting, providing nutrition for, and facilitating communication among the neurons. These cells are the most abundant cells in the brain, but they are not considered to be neurons (MedicineNet, 2004).

 

At a basic level, brain activity can be measured by the apparent electrical conductivity going on among the neurons. This is what an Electroencephalography (EEG) measures.  A series of electrodes are placed on the scalp where they detect and measure this electrical activity.  EEGs have been used for years for diagnostic purposes primarily for epilepsy. Formerly, this technique had been used for measuring the impact of strokes and tumors. This function has been replaced by more sophisticated technologies that image the brain (CAT and MRI Scans).

 

EEGs are relatively inexpensive but valid measures of brain activity. This technology was used in the research I discussed in my last post (The Effect of Low SES on Brain Development), but they can also detect brain death.  When someone refers to brain waves, they are referencing the brain activity measured via EEG.  Various states of arousal are associated with specific patterns of electrical activity that when measured denote specific wave patters.  Those wave patterns are widely known as Beta, Alpha, Theta, and Delta as shown in the image on the right along with the associated arousal states.

 

These universal brain wave states reflect neuronal activity levels associated with cognitive and bodily activity levels.  If you are sleeping yet not dreaming, your brain’s activity level is likely to be represented by high amplitude low frequency Delta waves.  At the other extreme, an awake and alert state is likely to be indicated by high frequency Beta waves.  These states are not mutually exclusive and any may coexist at any time based on arousal levels.

 

Much pseudoscience focuses on selling strategies to accomplish “preferred” brain wave states, with little actual data to substantiate claims.  Proceed with caution in this realm.

CAT Scan of Brain

 

Whereas the output of an EEG is a series of wavy lines, newer technologies actually allow us to image the brain itself or at least proxies of activity.  A computerized axial tomography scan, a CAT or CT scan, is an x-ray procedure that combines multiple x-ray images with the aid of a computer to generate cross-sectional views of the internal organs and structures of the body. The image at right is a CAT Scan from Cedars-Sinai.

Imagine the body as a loaf of bread and you are looking at one end of the loaf. As you remove each slice of bread, you can see the entire surface of that slice from the crust to the center. The body is seen on CT scan slices in a similar fashion from the skin to the central part of the body being examined. When these levels are further “added” together, a three-dimensional picture of an organ or abnormal body structure can be obtained” (MedicineNet.com, 2011).

MRI Image of Brain

 

Although CT technology is helpful to look at the structure of the brain and to identify pathologies, it is just a snap shot in time, giving no information about the processes going on within the structure itself.  This is also the case for MRI Scans.  Non-invasive Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) uses powerful magnets, radio frequency pulses, and a computer to produce very detailed pictures of organs, soft tissues, bone and virtually all other internal body structures without ionizing radiation (x-rays).  MRIs provide higher resolution images than x-ray, ultrasound or CAT scans (RadiologyInfo.org).

fMRI Images

 

But, if you want to know what is going on in the recesses of the brain you need a functional MRI (fMRI) or a PET scan.  The fMRI uses the same technology as an MRI but rather than creating a structural image of the tissue itself, the fMRI looks at blood flow in the brain in order to identify, in real-time, specific locations of brain activity associated with thoughts, external stimuli, or activity.   Changes in blood flow captured on a computer, help scientists understand how the brain works.  The image above and to the right are fMRI scans showing brain activity in empathy-generating centers of the limbic system in normal individuals (left) and in psychopathic individuals (right) when they are exposed to violent images (Credit: Department of Clinical and Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Heidelberg).

Composite fMRI Images

 

The image on the left shows areas of brain activity associated with being in passionate love (“Graphic Science: Your Brain in Love” in the February 2011 issue of Scientific American. Graphic by James W. Lewis, West Virginia University).

 

The current state of the art is this fMRI technology because of its superior resolution relative to a PET Scan that formerly comprised the only imaging technology that also indicated brain activity.

 

PET Scans or Positron Emission Tomography, is a metabolic imaging tool that is based on molecular biology. PET scan images detail biochemical changes in the body’s tissues, as it traces the body’s metabolic activity. Unlike the newer fMRI technology, PET scans necessitate injections of radioactive material into the body.  Since brain activity involves an increase in blood flow, more blood and radioactive material is reflected in the subsequent images.  The differences between PET and fMRI scans can be seen by comparing the PET scan image below and the fMRI images above.  The PET Scan below was published by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory.  They discovered a key mechanism in the brains of people with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) dementia. The study is the first to document decreases in the neurotransmitter dopamine in those with the condition, and may lead to new, more effective therapies (see HIV Dementia Mechanism Discovered).

This article spans the current brain measuring, imaging, and mapping technologies.  Each approach has specific applications and unique advantages and disadvantages.  The major advantages of MRI technology include the resolution of its images and the fact that use does not involve x-rays or any radioactive dyes or contrasting agents.  However, because MRI machines use 12 to 35 ton magnets, individuals with ferrous metal implants are necessarily excluded from MRI scans for obvious reasons.  There are other devices out there with variations on the MRI theme, each serving very unique imaging niches.  I won’t go into those here.

 

An MRI costs on average between $1100 and $2700 (depending on geographical location, facility, and body area imaged), while a CAT Scan costs between $700 and $3000.  An fMRI costs up to $2000 per imaging hour.  PET scans run between $3000 to $7000.  These costs do explain in part why wide-spread use of these imaging technologies are not common in large research projects.  They also obviously contribute to the high costs of medical care. But, oh what wonders they offer in our efforts to understand the most complicated thing known to humankind.

 

References:

Brandt, R. (2007). What can Neuroscience tell us about evil. Technology Review. MIT

Brookhaven National Laboratory. (2004). HIV Dementia Mechanism Discovered. Brookhaven National Laboratory News.

Cedars-Sinai. (2011). CT Brain with or without Contrast.

Fischetti, M. (2011). Passionate Love in the Brain, as Revealed by MRI Scans. Scientific American. “Graphic Science: Your Brain in Love” February 2011 issue.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  (2008).  New Imaging Techniques That Show the Brain at Work: Brain Scans That Spy on the Senses.

MedicineNet.com. (2011). Computerized Axial Tomography.

MedicineNet.com. (2004). Definition of Glial Cell.

RadiologyInfo.org. (2010). MRI of the Head.

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As I read Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: Modern Denial of Human Nature I was, for lack of a better word, flabbergasted, about the extent of acrimony that seemingly persists regarding the nature versus nurture debate.  This parley, from my naive perspective, was over long ago.  Yet Pinker detailed the extensive history to which some intellectuals, even today, attack the notion of any genetic contribution to traits such as IQ, behavior, political views, religious views, and personality.

 

For me there is very little question about the impact of genes.  It is clear as day in my family.  My daughter for example is very much like me.  And I see the influence of genes nearly every day in my practice.  As a psychologist with a specialty in evaluating and treating difficult to manage children (i.e., Autism Spectrum Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and ADHD), I often work with families who have an exceptionally strong willed and self directed child.  The children that have these latter traits, without Autistic like symptoms, are often classified as Oppositional Defiant.  Along with such independent mindedness, typically comes an explosive temperament and a highly sensitive and precocious level of personal dignity.   It is important to note that a vast majority of the time, the child is a proverbial chip off the ole-block: usually, the father was similarly quite difficult to manage as a youngster.

 

One with a nurture bias might suggest that my daughter and those oppositional children I see are simply products of their environment.  But here is what is interesting.  Often in the families I serve, there are other well behaved, well adjusted, and polite children.  To suggest that the environment uniquely and exclusively shaped the behavior and affect of the troubled child would suggest that there was a substantial level of differential parenting going on in the home.  This scenario is far too common to be a product of differentiated parenting style.  And thorough behavioral analysis almost always rules out this variable.  Socially, the parents are blamed for their bad kid, not because of their gene contribution, but because their alleged poor parenting practices.  Well, most often, poor parenting is not the cause of the problem!  And my daughter’s similarity to me unfolded despite my attempts to foster in her, her own unique identity and insufficient environmental influence.

 

The argument really is moot.  Genes do matter!  The evidence is substantial and it transcends the anecdotes I just shared.  Only those with an ideological position inconvenienced by this reality argue otherwise.  I actually prefer the idea that genes don’t matter.  It would give me greater capacity to affect change in homes given my behavior analytic skills.  It would also give me more hope that my daughter will not develop the same geeky interests that I have.  Too late!  She is a geology major.  Like me, she loves rocks.  It would also give me hope that she wont develop the same G/I ailments that have incapacitated me, my mother, and my grandfather. Again too late.  Sadly, the other day she had to buy some Tums.

 

People are uncomfortable with the idea that issues such as personality and IQ, for example, would have any genetic determinism.  It seems too limiting, too materialistic, and too deterministic.  People, I think, are more comfortable with the idea that they can affect change – that they can arrange outcomes, that the power is in our hands.  But the real power, it seems, is spread out – residing both in our hands and in our genes.  Environmental determinism, in fact, is more consistent with my political and social views, but no matter how inconvenient, I am compelled by evidence to soften my stance regarding this romantic notion.  How I wish that DNA did not enter the picture with regard to such issues.  Or do I?  Had it not, we wouldn’t be here to write/read such musings.  You’ve heard of the whole evolution by means of natural selection thing, haven’t you?

 

As it turns out, we are products of our genes and our environment.  No duh!  Debate over!  Right?  Nope!   I had assumed that it was commonly accepted that genes matter.  I had no idea that acknowledging this reality was in a sense sacrilegious to some.  Although Pinker made clear the debate, I suspected that perhaps this was an esoteric intellectual war of words limited to philosophical types with high brow notions about macro economic models and so on.  But, I became more aware of the lingering embers of environmental determinism as a result of a firestorm that erupted last week regarding an essay written by an environmental advocacy group spread about on Twitter and a subsequent article posted in the Huffington Post.  These articles essentially minimized genetic determinism in major health issues due to the failure of the Human Genome Project to isolate specific genes responsible for specific illnesses.  Out with the genes – in with the environment the proponents celebrated.   Environmental determinists pounced on the absence of evidence as if it were evidence of absence (Carmichael, 2010).  As it turns out, genes are really complex and diseases are influenced, it seems, by gene cohorts rather than any one specific gene.  I am less familiar with the research regarding genetic influence on disease but the tone of the banter reminded me of the debate about human nature detailed by Pinker.

 

I have discussed in several recent posts the impact of genes on important issues such as personality, adaptive functioning, and even political perspectives.  The psychologist Eric Turkheimer pulled together the unusually robust evidence from extensive studies of twins (fraternal and identical) reared together and apart as well as studies of adopted children relative to biological children and concluded that there are three important laws that help explain the development of personality characteristics and intelligence.   The three laws are as follows:

 

  1. All Human traits are heritable;
  2. The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes; and
  3. A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

 

These laws are best summarized based on current research from behavioral genetics as follows:

 

  1. Heredity accounts for about 50% of the variance in the adaptive functioning outcomes of children.
  2. The home environment, as it is influenced by parents, accounts for 0 to 10%, and
  3. The child’s peer group accounts for the remainder (40-50%)  (Pinker, 2002).

 

Corresponding laws regarding the variants affecting diseases are perhaps unclear at this time.  But denial of genetic influence is much like the denial of the heliocentric theory of the solar system or the arguments put forth by Creationists and anti vaccine advocates.  They are guided by ideological notions that hang by a thin thread.  Something near and dear to the hearts of the proponents of exclusive environmental determinism is threatened by evidence.  The only recourse is denial.  Its an old and tired song and dance.  Genes matter – but not exclusively.  Environment matters – but not exclusively.  Get used to it.

 

References:

 

Carmichael, M. (2010). DNA, Denial, and the Rise of “Environmental Determinism”. Wild Type. http://marycarmichael.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/dna-denial-and-the-rise-of-environmental-determinism/#comments

 

Katz, D. (2010).  Is There a Genie in the Genome? The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-katz-md/is-there-a-genie-in-the-g_b_792844.html

 

Latham, J., & Wilson, A. (2010). The Great DNA Data Deficit: Are Genes for Disease a Mirage? The Bioscience Resource Project Commentaries.  http://www.bioscienceresource.org/commentaries/article.php?id=46

 

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

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There are many well intentioned folks out there who believe that childhood vaccinations cause Autism. Last week I covered the origins of this belief system as well as its subsequent debunking in Vaccines and Autism. Despite the conclusive data that clearly establishes no causal link between vaccines and Autism, the belief lives on. Why is this? Why do smart people fall prey to such illusions? Chabris and Simons contend in their book, The Invisible Gorilla, that we fall prey to such myths because of the Illusion of Cause. Michael Shermer (2000), in his book, How We Believe, eloquently describes our brains as a Belief Engine. Underlying this apt metaphor is the notion that “Humans evolved to be skilled pattern seeking creatures. Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants.” (Shermer, p. 38). Chabris and Simons note that this refined ability “serves us well, enabling us to draw conclusions in seconds (or milliseconds) that would take minutes or hours if we had to rely on laborious logical calculations.” (p. 154). However, it is important to understand that we are all prone to drawing erroneous connections between stimuli in the environment and notable outcomes. Shermer further contends that “The problem in seeking and finding patterns is knowing which ones are meaningful and which ones are not.

 

From an evolutionary perspective, we have thrived in part, as a result of our tendency to infer cause or agency regardless of the reality of threat. For example, those who assumed that rustling in the bushes was a tiger (when it was just wind) were more likely to take precautions and thus less likely, in general, to succumb to predation. Those who were inclined to ignore such stimuli were more likely to later get eaten when in fact the rustling was a hungry predator. Clearly from a survival perspective, it is best to infer agency and run away rather than become lunch meat. The problem that Shermer refers to regarding this system is that we are subsequently inclined toward mystical and superstitious beliefs: giving agency to unworthy stimuli or drawing causal connections that do not exist. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist, in his blog post entitled Hyperactive Agency Detection notes that humans vary in the degree to which they assign agency. Some of us have Hyperactive Agency Detection Devices (HADD) and as such, are more prone to superstitious thinking, conspiratorial thinking, and more mystical thinking. It is important to understand as Shermer (2000) makes clear:

 

“The Belief Engine is real. It is normal. It is in all of us. Stuart Vyse [a research psychologist] shows for example, that superstition is not a form of psychopathology or abnormal behavior; it is not limited to traditional cultures; it is not restricted to race, religion, or nationality; nor is it only a product of people of low intelligence or lacking education. …all humans possess it because it is part of our nature, built into our neuronal mainframe.” (p. 47).

 

We all are inclined to detect patterns where there are none. Shermer refers to this tendency as patternicity. It is also called pareidolia. I’ve previously discussed this innate tendency noting that “Our brains do not tolerate vague or obscure stimuli very well. We have an innate tendency to perceive clear and distinct images within such extemporaneous stimuli.” It is precisely what leads us to see familiar and improbable shapes in puffy cumulus clouds or the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich. Although this tendency can be fun, it can also lead to faulty and sometimes dangerous conclusions. And what is even worse is that when we hold a belief, we are even more prone to perceive patterns that are consistent with or confirm that belief. We are all prone to Confirmation Bias – an inclination to take in, and accept as true, information that supports our belief systems and miss, ignore, or discount information that runs contrary to our beliefs.

 

Patternicity and confirmation bias alone are not the only factors that contribute to the illusion of cause. There are at least two other equally salient intuitive inclinations that lead us astray. First, we tend to infer causation based on correlation. And second, the appeal of chronology, or the coincidence of timing, also leads us toward drawing such causal connections (Chabris & Simons, 2010).

 

A fundamental rule in science and statistics is that correlation does not infer causation. Just because two events occur in close temporal proximity, does not mean that one leads to the other. Chabris and Simons note that this rule is in place because our brains automatically – intuitively – draw causal associations, without any rational thought. We know that causation leads to correlation – but it is erroneous to assume that the opposite is true. Just because A and B occur together does not mean A causes B or vice-versa. There may be a third factor, C, that is responsible for both A and B. Chabris and Simons use ice cream consumption and drownings as an example. There is a sizable positive correlation between these two variables (as ice cream consumption goes up so do the incidences of drowning), but it would be silly to assume that ice cream consumption causes drowning, or that increases in the number of drownings causes increases in ice cream consumption. Obviously, a third factor, summer heat, leads to both more ice cream consumption and more swimming. With more swimming behavior there are more incidents of drowning.

 

Likewise, with vaccines and Autism, although there may be a correlation between the two (increases in the number of children vaccinated and increases in the number of Autism diagnoses), it is incidental, simply a coincidental relationship. But given our proclivity to draw inferences based on correlation, it is easy to see why people would be mislead by this relationship.

 

Add to this the chronology of the provision of the MMR vaccine (recommended between 12 and 18 months), and the typical time at which the most prevalent symptoms of Autism become evident (18-24 months), people are bound to infer causation. Given the fact that millions of children are vaccinated each year, there are bound to be examples of tight chronology.

 

So what is at work here are hyperactive agency detection (or overzealous patternicity), an inherent disposition to infer causality from correlation, and a propensity to “interpret events that happened earlier as the causes of events that happened or appeared to happen later” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 184).  Additionally, you have a doctor like Andrew Wakefield misrepresenting data in such a way to solidify plausibility and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy using powerful anecdotes to convince others of the perceived link. And anecdotes are powerful indeed. “..[W]e naturally generalize from one example to the population as a whole, and our memories for such inferences are inherently sticky. Individual examples lodge in our minds, but statistics and averages do not. And it makes sense that anecdotes are compelling to us. Our brains evolved under conditions in which the only evidence available to us was what we experienced ourselves and what we heard from trusted others. Our ancestors lacked access to huge data sets, statistics, and experimental methods. By necessity, we learned from specific examples…” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp. 177-178).  When an emotional mother (Jenny McCarthy) is given a very popular stage (The Oprah Winfrey Show) and tells a compelling story, people buy it – intuitively – regardless of the veracity of the story. And when we empathize with others, particularly those in pain, we tend to become even less critical of the message conveyed (Chabris & Simons, 2010). These authors add that “Even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence and statistics culled from studies of hundreds of thousands of people, that one personalized case carries undue influence” (p.178).

 

Although the efficacy of science is unquestionable, in terms of answering questions like the veracity of the relationship between vaccines and Autism, it appears that many people are incapable of accepting the reality of scientific inquiry (Chabris & Simons, 2010). Acceptance necessitates the arduous application of reason and the rejection of the influences rendered by the intuitive portion of our brain. This is harder than one might think. Again, it comes down to evolution. Although the ability to infer cause is a relatively recent development, we hominids are actually pretty good at it. And perhaps, in cases such as this one, we are too proficient for our own good (Chabris & Simons, 2010).

 

References

 

Center for Disease Control. (2009). Recommended Immunization Schedule for Persons Aged 0 Through 6 Years. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/recs/schedules/downloads/child/2009/09_0-6yrs_schedule_pr.pdf

 

Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.

 

Novella, S. (2010). Hyperactive Agency Detection. NeuroLogica Blog. http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=1762

 

Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe. W.H. Freeman / Henry Holt and Company: New York.

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Surprise at Chautauqua

23 July 2010

There are moments in life when you hear something that absolutely blows you away. I experienced such a moment on July 1st at Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. It wasn’t just the words I heard that touched me so. It was the words within the context, and the relative embrace of the words exhibited by the people that surrounded me.

 

First you have to understand the unique setting that is Chautauqua: an amusement park for the mind. It was initially built on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in 1874 as an “educational experiment in out-of-school, vacation learning.” Although initially the courses were for Sunday school teachers, its success and popularity precipitated a broadening of the curriulum to include academic subjects, music, art and physical education. Today on their website they note that “7,500 persons are in residence on any day during a nine-week season, and a total of over 142,000 attend scheduled public events. Over 8,000 students enroll annually in the Chautauqua Summer Schools which offer courses in art, music, dance, theater, writing skills and a wide variety of special interests.”

 

For those longing for intellectual and artistic stimulation in a peaceful setting, it constitutes a veritable fantasy land adorned with quaint Victorian era cottages often fronted with beautiful and pristine landscaping. Among its many homes, inns, and entertainment facilities arranged in a cozy village-like setting, are church houses where people congregate from all over the United States for religious retreats. The four pillars of Chautauqua are Art, Education, Religion, and Recreation. Needless to say, religion (particularly Christianity) is a big part of this community. But so is education and art. They have a quality symphony orchestra, a theater group, an opera company, and a dance ensemble. Nightly, they provide top notch entertainment in the sizable amphitheater.  Throughout each day, every day, there are lectures and events galore.

 

The last three years my wife and I have ventured to Chautauqua for science themed days where we attended lectures by people like Donald Johanson and Carl Zimmer. NASA had a mock up of a Mars Rover there last year. This year I was drawn by Alan Alda who is a true science geek like myself.

 

Each afternoon the Department of Religion hosts a lecture series.  Although I often miss these events for a number of reasons, this year, my innkeeper, knowing my proclivities, strongly recommended that I consider listening to this week’s speaker.  I took her advice and my wife and I skeptically sat at the Hall of Philosophy among an overflow crowd that I could only guess exceeded 1000 people. The lecturer was John Shelby Spong, a Bishop in the Episcopal Church. Rabbi Samuel Stahl introduced Bishop Spong and the Rabbi’s words drew me in, in a way that made me feel as though my mind was being read. It was a spine-tingling experience from the outset, and Spong’s words were unlike any I had ever heard from a man of God.

 

I certainly will not be able to capture and share in this medium the true essence of his message – but I will attempt to briefly summarize it. I STRONGLY encourage any person of faith as well as any person like myself who falls into the agnostic or atheist camp to listen to this lecture: Transcending Religion without Transcending God. You can sign up for a 15 Day Free Trial / Download Account and listen to this lecture online or pay $9.95 for a download to your iPod or MP3 player.

 

I’m guessing that anyone who listens to this talk with an open mind will be in some way moved by his words. I am also guessing that personal reactions will run the gamut from “this guy is a heretic” to “finally a voice of reason coming from the religious community.”  If you are likely to be among the former, Spong proclaims that he wishes to destroy no one’s faith, but boldly states that “If I can take away your God, you had very little, if you can lose it all in one hour.”

 

If you are religious, keep in mind as you consider listening, that this lecture was part four of a five part series. Spong had lectured in a similar vain for three consecutive days at the Hall of Philosophy to a pretty religious group of people and this day’s crowd was the biggest I had ever seen gathered (excluding events at the amphitheater).  This was not an angry or defensive crowd, but a thoughtful and attentive one.  What Spong said deeply challenged conventional definitions of religion but the people came back for more.  And if you are a rationalist, more inclined toward science than mysticism, you will be refreshed by Spong’s embrace of science and urging away from the traditional notions of religion that many find hard to accept.  Even Richard Dawkins seems to respect Spong.

 

Spong derides religious zealots who promote racism, sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia based upon quotations from the Holy Scriptures.  His rational embrace of science and the realities of human suffering (often as a result of religion’s influence) have guided his journey toward a reinterpretation of the faith story.  He strongly asserts that he wants nothing to do with any institution that diminishes the humanity of any child of God. He deplores how the Bible and the Church have harbored those that have relegated blacks to subhuman status, women as second class citizens, and gay and lesbian people as essentially immoral.  He explains the human experience within a context of understanding derived from biology and anthropology. He links our instinctual drive to survive to all living organisms and with this understanding, supplants the notion of original sin.  He embraces the teachings of Darwin and reinterprets salvation – not as a rescue from the fall from perfection but as a new understanding of what it is to be fully human. After all, we haven’t fallen – we have evolved.

 

Salvation he argues is not to be made religious. It is not to be forced into a particular creed or to follow a particular faith story. Salvation is to be made whole – to be called beyond our limits, our fears, our boundaries, and to be called into a new consciousness, a new humanity – where we can be called beyond our selfish drive to survive, and begin to truly give of our lives and our love.

 

Spong challenges both the notions of a personal God with supernatural powers and the traditional Jesus story.  He derides the traditional notion that humans are inherently depraved – and looks at our understanding of human development and asks if it is a wise parenting strategy to tell a child that he is bad, evil, and depraved in an attempt to turn that child into a healthy adult. He looks at how religion victimizes its followers and how in turn its practice facilitates hate and division.

 

Spong provides a sobering account of religion in general – particularly the prejudicial inspiration it has historically provided and the violence it has incited in the name of one’s preferred deity. Again, rather than reject science as a threat to an ideology, he embraces evidence, and searches for a new spiritual transcendence of God – to fill what he describes as a God Shaped Whole in every living person. His ultimate mysticism is a bit of a stretch for me – but all in all – the 80 minutes required to listen to his message is indeed time well spent.  The experience itself, for me, set in the Chautauqua Institution context, was deeply moving and inspired hope that we can move away from the unnecessary corrosive derision whereby some religious zealots dumb down the masses to protect their fragile foothold or engage in promulgating the dehumanization of those who are different.  It gives me hope that those who have spiritual needs unfulfilled by the wonders of the universe can find peace with God in a way that bolsters our humanity rather than in a way that divides us. Please give Spong a listen and let me know what you experience through his message.

 

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 | Posted by | Categories: Religion, Science | Tagged: , |

I just spent two weeks in Europe with my fellow adventurer and wife visiting the relics of times gone by. In the Louvre we peered upon works laid down well over two thousand years ago by Greek sculptors as well as by Roman, Middle Age, Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque artists. We admired the Impressionists at Musée d’Orsay.

 

We then traveled to Venice, a city that blended Byzantine, International Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque art and architecture in a way that is unique to this breathtaking city. It’s Eastern influences are palpable. Then on to Florence, the home of the Renaissance, which proved to be a showcase for the works of da Vinci, Botticelli, Titian, Michelangelo and many others.

 

When In Rome, we focused on the age of the Empire devoting our attention to the Colosseum, Palantine Hill, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, and our day trip to Pompeii. We didn’t prioritize the treasures at the Vatican or the many other indoor sites. Between the Louvre, Orsay, Uffuzi, and the many works within the countless Basilicas and churches we had previously visited, we had had our fill of crowded indoor shrines. Here we largely delved into the out of doors. The Pantheon was far more striking than I had imagined. And Pompeii, wow! It has to be seen to be appreciated.

 

All this is relevant because although you can see it at home, it is just not the same. Go to Google Maps and search for Pompeii. You can tour the site using street view. Or get a book or watch Travel Channel or History Channel episodes on these great destinations. I guarantee it won’t be the same as seeing it in person, touching it, feeling it, or breathing it in in-vivo. No duh, right?

 

Well, what is it about seeing the “real thing?” Why was I moved to tears to see a statue of Galileo in Florence? Why was it exciting to walk the same basalt cobbles in the Roman Forum as historical figures such as Julius Caesar, Brutus, Marc Antony, and Augustus? Why were there throngs of people gathered around da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? All over Paris, Venice and Florence you could find “descent” replicas (prints and even posters) – yet these images gathered no lines.

 

The answer is essentialism. There is nothing on the streets left by these famous people that magically imbibes the stones with a quality that makes them somehow special. They don’t contain anything truly special at all. I absorbed nothing by touching them or by looking at da Vinci’s or Michelangelo’s original works. And my personal telescope is far more capable than any Galileo original. But it was very exciting to see two of the scopes that he himself had made.

 

I knew that there was an irrational magical quality to these experiences. I knew I was cognitively embellishing all the aforementioned relics; however, I was able to let go, and enjoy the emotional implications. I did, however, find myself less inclined to part with my few and precious Euros for sentimental mementos (made in China) to remember this trip by.

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According to the website at the Museo di Storia della Scienza Galileo’s finger was detached by Anton Francesco Gori on March 12, 1737, when Galileo’s remains were moved from the original grave to the monumental tomb at Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence. The finger became the property of Angelo Maria Bandini and was long exhibited at the Biblioteca Laurenziana. In 1841, the relic was transferred to the just-opened Tribuna di Galileo in the Museo di Fisica e Storia Naturale. Together with the Medici-Lorraine instruments, it was eventually moved to the Museo di Storia della Scienza in 1927. On the marble base is carved a commemorative inscription by Tommaso Perelli.

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