Friday, September 24, 2010

Popular Neuroscience

This is a personal blog, it is not necessarily a reliable source of information.

I don't normally talk about the work I do on co-op terms, because I don't want to accidentally offend my employers by telling everyone how horribly nice they all are or making the similarly unfortunate error of posting confidential information. However, as I'm currently working for a neuroscience lab and it is pretty awesome I figure it couldn't hurt to write a series of posts about neuroscience stuff. Now, having said all that, here's a confidential training video:

Okay, so that video wasn't actually confidential, but I did steal the link from our lab forum. Now, Cleese's talk is pretty advanced (though quite entertaining), so I'm going to take a step back with a short Q&A (I'm not one to pass up an opportunity to talk to myself).

Q: What is neuroscience?

A: It's the study of the nervous system, nominally. In the long run, neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, biology, and computer science are all intricately linked in a crazy quest to understand the way we think, the way intelligence and information processing in general works, and how it all somehow works with physical, biological components.

Q: Is neuroscience really that similar to cognitive science? Isn't it really just biology, but concentrating on the nervous system / brain?

A: I'm not very good with all the research classifications in the area, but it seems like most of what's being published under the label of neuroscience is neurobiology. From an experimental perspective this certainly makes sense: the brain is biological, after all, so obviously a substantial amount of the work being done in reverse-engineering it involves biology. Ultimately though, we're largely interested in the functionality of the brain and the way it gives rise to the interesting, complex interactions we all know and love: calling this functionality 'cognition' and attempting to understand said functionality is more or less what cognitive science is about. There is a big gap in understanding currently between neurobiology and cognitive science which is (to grossly and incorrectly simplify things) what theoretical neuroscience is puzzling over.

Q: tl;dr

A: Grr. Ok, look: biological understanding of brain = improving, but massively, insanely complex already and not capable of explaining brain function. Cognitive science = good at finding ways to do specific things; lacks general theories and can't compete with real brains. Gee, it sure would be nice to have people working on some combination of the above things! Those people would definitely deserve enough funding to pay their co-op students. Big time.

Q: I'm not convinced. What's the point of taking multiple different (and possibly conflicting) approaches?

A: First, which one's 'right'? I dunno. That's pretty much answer enough: they both provide more information, thus they're both valid approaches. If they happen to conflict, even better: there would then be an opportunity to investigate and fix problems that are found with the theories. That's pretty much how science works.

Q: Fine, fine. You can start at either the biology or psychological/cognitive levels, I get that. How could you possibly work from the midpoint between the two levels outwards?

A: This conversation makes more sense when it's less abstract. Instead of talking in terms of a 'midpoint' between two different research areas, I should really have framed this as a need to go beyond current empirical biological data to build more functionally complex models. Instead of making hypotheses based solely on raw data, you can start making predictive models constrained by assumptions, information processing requirements, simplifications required for tractability, and so on...

Q: Sorry to interupt, but isn't this post way too long already?

A: Yes.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hand-Eye Impairment

I had a conversation about piano playing with one of the other guys in my house recently. I had been practicing on my keyboard and he admitted that he used to take lessons himself. As most people do, he downplayed his current ability, but I found it interesting that he did this by saying that he used to always memorize pieces so that he could look at his hands (and therefore never really picked up sight-reading).

I've always hated memorizing music and am actually quite dependent on having a piece of paper in front of me. This is frustrating when I'm near someone else's piano (or my own, without music) and someone asks me to play something. Most piano players would just start playing some song they learned when they were ten, but I really don't remember what I've played before. Perhaps more importantly, having to read the music off a page all the time means I have to spend a lot of effort concentrating on reading that could be better used on technique, or artistry, or listening to what I'm playing instead of just playing it.

So with the goal of memorizing some pieces and with the earlier conversation in mind, I tried playing some pieces while looking at my hands instead of the page. It turns out, I really can't do it. In fact, I am far less capable of playing the piano while looking at my hands then I am when I look away entirely or close my eyes. It seems that looking at my hands move prevents me from being able to use them normally, like my brain's not able to cope with the strange new visual feedback that comes from actually watching what I'm doing.

I find this interesting, as it took many long years of conditioning not to look at my hands while playing and it would appear that that conditioning goes pretty deep. Now to go and work on undoing that work...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Videos, by JoVE!

This post is nothing more than a link to the journal of visualized experiments, because there's really no reason you should be reading my ramblings when you could be watching science.

It's like a Discovery Channel show, except far more specialized, technical, and current.

Also, if you watch the first few seconds of a clip and then are frustrated when it asks for a subscription, you are probably not using the University of Waterloo's network at the moment. If that is the case but you are still a Waterloo student/faculty, do the following: go to and click the connect from home link (or just click the connect from home link in this post, that will work as well), then login and go to If that doesn't work, then just do a search for the journal of visualized experiments after logging into the proxy. This is fully worthwhile, really.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Burning Lips and Soaking Music

The engineering jazz band (With Respect to Time) gig went totally alright tonight. How alright? This alright:
FIRE! RAIN! GLubhuGLabuhGlublargala!

Now you might be thinking: it seems to me that could have gone a little more alright. And you would be partially right! Because, yeah, you know, it wasn't completely perfect and we will probably have to print off some new music (including a copy of that trumpet solo I lost before the set... the panicked improvised version was a more legit jazz solo anyway) but it was kind of fun in an insane Oh God There's Frosh Everywhere And Maybe This One Won't Mind If I Shove Him Out Of My Way With A Trumpet Case kind of way.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by how not outright painful this performance was. I mean that in a completely literal sense: trumpet playing is really quite physical, but it uses muscles (lip muscles) that are hardly ever used for anything else. What that means is that if you haven't practiced for a while, playing a long gig can feel an awful lot like trying to run a marathon without training. As of this Tuesday's rehearsal I was in no shape to run a metaphorical trumpet marathon, but somehow it worked out tonight (thanks are owed to the other two trumpet players who showed up today for pulling us through).

I could go on (so much craziness in one evening!) but tomorrow is still a work day, so I should probably get to the sleeping.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Just a doodle because I don't have much to do (aside from work-related things and, as it's a Friday late evening — or very early on Saturday, take your pick — those things can wait). This isn't a "journal doodle" or anything like that... although if anyone wants to jump out of some planes it could become one.

EDIT: After posting the first image, I realized I made some significant technical errors in my depiction of the parachutist's neurophysiological response to the fall. Here's a correction.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How Recruitment Should Work

"We're kidnapping you for your own good. Promise. Write the code and you'll get flatbread."

Yup, the fall term's about to start. It's probably about time to start working on that fancy recruitment campaign for iGEM that we keep dreaming about... but don't worry non-iGEM people who read this blog (hi family!), I'm planning on writing about something else here.

And that something else is...

Things That I'm Going to Rant About to New Students

I don't really see myself as the ranting type in general, but there's something about getting a fresh, naive, relatively uncynical, and slightly puzzled batch of new students that brings out the old curmudgeon in me. So, in list form, the things I'm going to be giving today's generation of youth an earful about are:
  1. The definition of engineering. It perplexes me how many people get to third year engineering and then act surprised when they find out that engineering is the profession of applying scientific and mathematical principles to practical problems. Even in systems design, which is basically the study of distilled engineering ideology abstracted away from specific domains, there are still people who think it's all about hard hats and accounting. Yes, that's a part, but... well... if that's your image of engineering, you are a personal pet peeve of mine.
  2. Time hoarding. There's time management and then there's being a wuss. I know you've heard the failure rate statistics. I'm sure you've been told it's wise to cut back on extra-curricular activities until you get used to the workload. That's garbage. The easiest way not to fail out is to keep trying to maintain your stupidly over-acheiving lifestyle that got you into university in the first place. If you lower your standards down to "just trying to pass" in first year, you'll never recover. This is a somewhat controversial point and your mileage may vary; nonetheless, you don't have much to lose in first year. Now taking on extra work halfway through second year is a different story.
  3. Ability to write. I know, I know. Given the poor standards of this blog, this point's a bit hypocritical, but I stand by it. My standards are not high: just catch the blatant typos and missed articles and use apostrophes more or less where they should be used. You can throw in semicolons, commas, and colons wherever you want. Deal?
  4. Stop whining. You only get to make lists like this when you're at least half done your degree and even then only once a term. Grad students are allowed unlimited whining, but they've earned it.