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Curious?

10 Mar

My wonder of curiosity led me to write the post about it.

On this blog, Cookieland, every Tuesday, I post word of the week. Unfortunately I write Tuesday’s posts in Slovene. Anyway I already presented brains, machines, anger, masks and much more. Writing my Tuesday’s posts, I learned a lot. I was always curious, and keen on getting new knowledge; actually, still I am. Every now and then I fall into a black hole of questions. What am I doing? Did I choose the right master course for me? (I am a student of Cognitive Science on University of Ljubljana.) Even so I know that cognitive science, especially neuroscience, is a hot topic in some countries. People in Slovenia usually think I am some kind of a magician and that there is no use in having knowledge about human mind. I disagree. I think that for a curious human like me this is probably the best master course I could have attended. Even so, I have weeks when I am completely absent and confused. But when I just go with the flow, I realize that I really enjoy myself studying philosophy, artificial intelligence and neuroscience. The most of all I enjoy when I am able to make connections in all of those different fields. So let me explain you something about my curiosity.

To start with from where does curiosity come?

I don’t know the answer. All I can tell is a little story. I love to attend Ljubljana Film Festival every November. A few years ago I watched a movie which somehow had to be related with a word curiosity. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the title, but I just remember my feelings. When I got home, there was just one question on my mind: Where does curiosity come from? Are we born with it? Is it hidden somewhere deep down in human nature? I was troubling people around me with this “silly” question. Everyone wanted me to stop. But I am lucky to have well educated dad. Who told me to check for the answer in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Where I found this explanation: “All men by nature desire to know.” It goes further on with explaining sensation, memory and knowledge. Which leads to explaining the wondering. “That it is not a science of production is clear even from the history of the earliest philosophers. For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe.” An answer I got was satisfactory for me back then. When humans have time and resources to start wondering, they do start philosophize. In nowadays society that sounds a bit folish.

But since Aristotle’s time, 4th century BC, things changed. As if we have got molecular biology that will give us all of the answers to all our questions. It is all hidden in membranes and proteins. I have a bachelor’s degree in biology and I am very fond of molecular biology, so humanists reading this post, I hope you can forgive. Anyway, as a former life science student, I must also admit I haven’t read the whole Metaphysics, but just parts that gave me answer about wondering and curiosity. But I think that even molecular biology and all sort of different modeling of brain networks won’t give us all of answers. Nevertheless, research in molecular biology can give us applicable knowledge to cure diseases, to help environment, to save the Earth.

It is in our nature to be curious. This reminded me on my 5th grade in primary school. When I broke my leg during winter on snowboarding. I had to stay at home for a week. What to do at home alone? As a child of the late 80’s, I was also a bit of a couch potato, especially if I had any broken bones. I watched television and discovered the series Sofies Verden. The series mentioned it was recorded after the book which led me to discovery of the book called Sophie’s World. I asked my mum to buy it and I read it in super extreme fast time. I felt in love with philosophy.

However, somewhere in the first pages of the book there is a story about a rabbit fur. Imagine white rabbit taken out of the magician hat. When we are born, we found ourselves at the very end of long rabbit hair. But during the period of growing up, we are slowly sliding deep down into a rabbit fur. Only the people who have enough courage and wonder stay at the end of hair and ask all sorts of different questions. And as explained in the book, those fearless people are philosophers. I would say it is not necessary to be a philosopher to ask questions: biologists and other curious people also question many important things. But the majority just slip down in the safe and warm part of rabbit fur. That led me to become who I am, the girl with a lot of questions in my mind. I can say the story about rabbit fur changed me and all of that happened long ago.

Probably my desire to know everything led me to study biology in the first place. I love biology. I got knowledge about how the first life came to be. Even so we don’t have got a proof of what was exactly going on. We have some ideas. I learned about origin of eukaryotic cells, from where did multi-cellular life came to be. I found out how did plants occupied land and how did Tiktaalik came from water to land, which led to occupation of land by animals. Besides I know how important is environment and ecology and that we take care for all of the organisms and not just us, humans. Because we all evolved from the same universal common ancestor, LUCA. Furthermore, I could probably list another billions of questions that biology has answers to or is still questioning about.

To sum up my biology period. Biology is super cool, not just if you are an animal or plant person and love nature. But also if you want answers to some important questions. I miss biology.

Nevertheless, a study of mind and cognition is giving me answers to other questions in my mind. Furthermore, it gives me new questions to answer and think about. It occupies my mind.

A part of cognitive science, which is nowadays very popular, covers education. How to improve school systems, programs? Should kids in preschool play more or just gain more knowledge, should they use new technology as tablet computers and Internet, or not? Recently I bumped to the article in Scientific American Mind about Preschool in USA.

The author Paul Tullis compares private preschools to public ones, and besides that he questions whether kids at the age of 5 really need to know algebra and distinguish different types of whales, or should they just play and socialize. He concludes it is better to play at that age than to learn rocket science. In my opinion, kids have to socialize, so the normal neural pathways can be developed. But not just because of that, as kids, we learn from experiences, we have to try stuff; we have to get dirty; now just to injure ourselves, but also, from microbiological point of view, to get some pathogens as well as some friendly bacteria in our body. So our immune system can develop. We all know that the best way to learn is to learn by doing. All of this should apply also to life sciences education, as well as what was written in the article about Learning by Doing: “Imagine the impact on the arts if we required every aspiring instrumentalist to complete 12 years of theory and careful study of the masters before being allowed to pick up an instrument and play.”

Getting back to curiosity. I found YouTube video talk about superwoman, who invented Montessori educational method.

They encourage kids to ask questions, and they are super great. As you can see on Wikipedia page, kids develop “mathematician” mind. What can be greater than having a ten years old with the knowledge of twenty years old, but without any playful spark in their eyes? I don’t know if this is the result of over-educational preschools. But as described in the Scientific American article, the Montessori Method is not that great. It is nice that they encourage curiosity and that they answer questions with answers; this is the best way to learn. But also parents should do that, when kid asks the billionth why question a day.

To sum up the story about curiosity. Curiosity leads into the future; it gives us answers, and what is more important, it provides even more questions. It opens new possibilities, new perspective on things. It might not be very useful if we want to be a capitalistic machine, but it can definitely fulfill our life and makes us special. Besides that it leads to progress. Maybe even to living on Mars.

To end with another video promoting curiosity. The future belongs to the curious. 

If I may borrow the words written on Brain Pickings page: “I bet legendary physicist Richard Feynman would approve.”

I don’t know where my curiosity and wonder will lead me. I just know that I will try to do everything not to fall deep into rabbit fur. On the other hand, I will still be searching for answers and asking new questions. I want to encourage also you, reader, to be curious, and you can comment with answering what is curiosity for you, or just to give me some feedback.

That is it! I realized that this is what I want to be! I want to be curious and to wonder every day.

Z

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How to enjoy neuroscience?

29 Feb

Here it is. My first, and hopefully not last, post in English. During the last two or three weeks that I spent in my second home, the library, where I was studying for my exam in cognitive neuroscience, I collected some funny, nice, fantastic, useful, super, geek, nerd, cute, neurofanatic … quotes from the book on Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain.

“The brain has been called the most complex piece of matter in the universe. Brain matter consist of a fantastic variety of molecules, many of which are unique to the nervous system.” I really like complex things! Brain’s complexity is one of the reasons I decided to study Cognitive Science (University of Ljubljana) and also partly why I studied biology at bachelor degree. Here are some interesting links about complexity of sex determination in living organisms.

“If the brain were a chocolate-chip cookie dough and the neurons were chocolate chips, the glia would be cookie dough that fills all the other space and ensures that the chips are suspended in their appropriate location.” The name of my blog could be translated as cookieland to English. Besides I love chocolate-chip cookies. Yummy!

“Indeed, the term glia is derived from the Greek word for ‘glue’, giving the impression that the main function of these cells is to keep the brain running out of your ears!” Imagine, without glia cells, we would all have long ears and two long snots down from our nose and neurons would be firing and action potentials spiking all around us. Um… If it is like that, I would put genes for luciferin and luciferase in my neurons, so neurons would shine around me. My avatarian imagination…

“However, we still are confident that neurons perform the bulk of information processing in the brain. Therefore, we will focus 90% of our attention on 10% of brain cells: the neurons.” The special ones …

“Ion pumps are the unsung heroes of the cellular neurophysiology.” Poor ion pumps.

“Normal flies, like humans, can be put to sleep with ether vapours.” Muhuhahahaha!

“… The search was conducted using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. While these insects may be annoying in the kitchen, they are extremely valuable in the lab, because their genes can be studied and manipulated in ways that are not possible in mammals.” Thumbs up for Drosophila!

“Action potentials have certain universal properties, features that are shared by axons in the nervous systems of every beast, from squid to a college student.” I am the beauty, who is the beast?

Chapter about The Effects of Toxins on the Sodium Channel
“The third and most important lesson from studying toxins? Be careful what you put in your mouth.” At least one thing will stay with me forever.

“And among the motor neurons in the medulla are cells that control the tongue muscles via cranial nerve XII. (So think of the medulla the next time you stick your tongue!)” Will you? I don’t think so.

“Figure 7.25 shows a Nissl-stained coronal section through the caudal telencephalon of a rat brain. You don’t need to be Cajal to see that different types of cortex can also be discerned based on cytoarchitecture.” I gives you hope that you may become neuroscientist some day.

“The immense chemical complexity of synaptic transmission makes it especially susceptible to the medical corollary of Murphy’s law, which states that if a physiological process can go wrong, it will go wrong.” True story!

“Evolution is conservative and opportunistic, and it often puts common and familiar things to new uses.” Evolution is the master of The Greatest Show on Earth (a must read).

“For the most part, they are similar or identical to the basic chemicals of life, the same substances that cells in all species, from bacteria to giraffes, use for metabolism.” So … If it is in giraffes, then it is also in me (6.0’)?

“Therefore, remarkably, in one chemical step, the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain is converted into the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain!” Be careful! It’s a thin line … between love and hate.

“Enzymes called protein phosphatase save the day, because they act rapidly to remove phosphate groups.” Thumbs up for phosphatase!

“Neurons integrate divergent and convergent signaling systems, resulting in a complex map of chemical effects. The wonder is that it even works; the challenge is to understand how.” I don’t want to be sentimental, but I am glad it works.

“Signals regulate signals, chemical changes can leave lasting traces of their history, drugs can shift the balance of signaling power – and, in a literal sense, the brain and its chemicals are one.” How poetic!

“For now, remember that when one speaks of an emotional reaction that is beyond voluntary control-like “butterflies in the stomach” or blushing-it usually is mediated by the visceral PNS (the ANS).” The thing that I cannot control in my body.

“Thus, when we said previously that the cerebral cortex has expanded over the course of human evolution, we really meant that the neocortex had expanded. Similarly, when we said that the thalamus is the gateway to the cortex, we meant that it id the gateway to the neocortex. Most neuroscientists are such neocortical chauvinists (ourselves included) that the term cortex, if left unqualified, is usually intended to refer to the cerebral neocortex.” Chauvinists!

After first two parts of the book. “It should be obvious by now that knowing the organisation of synaptic connections is essential to understanding how the brain works. It’s not from love of Greek and Latin that we belabor the neuroanatomy!” Are you sure?!? I thought authors are just plain evil.

“Behavior happens. But why?” I am glad it happens, what about you?

“Motivation can be thought of as driving force of behaviour. By analogy, consider the driving force on sodium ions to cross the neuronal membrane (an odd analogy, perhaps, but not for a neuroscience text). … Of course, human behavior will never be described by anything as simple as Ohm’s law.” Authors almost got me, for a moment there, I thought it is that simple.

“To appreciate the significance of emotions, just imagine life without them. Instead of the daily highs and lows we all experience, life would be a great empty plain of existence with no significance.” Just like zombies. Sometimes I would actually like that and here is a guide for you, what to do, when we all, except you, become zombies.

“But why do we sleep? What purpose does it serve? Despite many years of research, the joke remains that the only thing we are sure of it is that sleep overcomes sleepiness.” After I read that, I became really sleepy … thank you caffeine.

“A chemoattractant is a diffusible molecule that acts over a distance to attract growing axons toward their targets, like the aroma of freshly brewed java might attract a coffee lover.” Mmmmm, smell of the morning coffee, it is like semaphorin for me, signaling it is time to get up.

Overall I had fun studying from the neuroscience book. My (library) friends told me, it is nice to see somebody who really enjoys, what he/she is learning about. It is probably the first study book that I read from the very first page to the last. Maybe I also read the book for Organic Chemistry in the first year of biology. So Bear’s Neuroscience is in good company.

Just a brief thought about exam anxiety. Today I was really nervous, so here is a tip for all of female neuroscience fanatics and fans of Ryan Gosling. What I did in the morning? I checked my cool saved Internet pages on Gimmebar (btw, great on-line app for saving great pages, blog posts, news…) profile and I finally found the one: Neuroscientist Ryan Gosling, I understood all of the pictures, which gave me faith that I have some knowledge. 🙂

Last but not least, a picture for all cognitive neuroscientists out there and also for the ones that have no idea what cognitive neuroscience is. By the way, my mum thinks i do, what society thinks I do, and what I actually do is this; which will hopefully get me to become neuroscientist someday in the future.

That’s it!

Z

Cookieland

29 Feb

The name of my blog means something like Cookieland in English. Due to the knowledge and the stuff I am posting is like a cookie for me (and hopefully also for you.) Although it doesn’t help me to resist actual cookies … So my decision for cookies goes like this …

… until there is no cookies anymore.

That’s it!

Z