Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Self-Control and Maturity in Action

I am very used to people being wrong on the Internet, but to misattribute the poem "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" to e.e. cummings instead of Wallace Stevens --- that's just really wrong.  And it is, I believe, just about the only assertion in that entire thread that nobody took issue with (and somebody even "liked" it).  Of course, I'm sure no other readers were their state American literature champion in high school or, like me, they are just mature and self-regulating enough to avoid pointing out the error.  But on my own blog, I have no compunction about obnoxiously observing that making a sort of demonstrative, gratuitous literary allusion but fucking it up = signaling FAIL. 

I really like Wallace Stevens' poetry and find it kind of inspiring that he published the majority of his work rather late in life (his first major publication was at age 35) and while holding down a demanding full-time job as a lawyer (and later, a VP) for the Hartford insurance company. 

Done for Now

Had my presentation today so the semester is officially over.  I'm not planning to do any more school-related stuff until Dec 28 (unless I get an email from one of my profs to do something for my RA-ship, which could happen).  Of course, I got home around 4:30 this afternoon and felt a bit like, OK, jeez, what do I do now?  Oh yeah, I need to turn my apartment into a place that does not look like a paper factory exploded so that my visitors tomorrow can sit down.  Hmm...suddenly I have the desire to read one of the books I picked up at the public library on my way home.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

That's the Spirit

I've put together my research proposal presentation for tomorrow.  It's always nice when it's timely (about gift giving to children), you can mention one of your pet peeves (the "one big gift" swindle that started with the wise men and has become a hated tradition for millions of kids), and you can illustrate not just one but two of your points with lolcats.

No one can question my holiday spirit after sharing these lolcats with you. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Two Down

I finished my second paper today.  Now I only have a 10-slide PPT presentation to put together on my research idea for my third class, and that shouldn't take very long to do.  I'll probably start it tonight and finish it in the morning.  (Obviously it does not take that long to create a short presentation when you have worked out the content, but my content is not entirely worked out.)  We do our presentations on Wednesday, then I'm done for the semester.

Friday, December 16, 2011

One Down

My end of the semester items (for classes) included two research proposal papers and one research proposal presentation (do you detect a theme here?).  I turned in one paper earlier this week, and I'm up to my ears in the other one right now.  I'm thinking I might actually survive.

Of course, my three week winter break is already feeling oversubscribed with research projects, but one thing (or maybe two things) at a time.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hermit Thrush

Jen bought me a gorgeous hermit thrush painting, so I thought I would share with you this video of a singing hermit thrush.  I find the song amazing.  The hermit thrush is the state bird of Vermont, where the painter lives, so I'm guessing she knows this bird well.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Lonesome Billy

The funniest rabbit video I've seen in a while (courtesy Disapproving Rabbits).  Who knew the Dutch were so violent?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

More Like in Our Dreams

I dream all the time about my teeth falling out, so I was tickled by the inclusion of that element in this nice Flight of the Conchords song.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Theory of Dreams

OK, I'm going to tell you about a dream I had last night, that I woke up from at 5 a.m. and couldn't go back to sleep again, but this is going to be relevant and instructive for the greater point I want to make.

Tam and I are in grad school together, and I'm taking a math class with her for which all I have to do is show up and pay attention and I will earn my necessary grade.  But I fall asleep during class and when I wake up at the end, Tam's like, Uh oh, you really missed a lot.

After class, I want Tam and me to do something together, but she's going over to a girl from school's house to play doll army instead.

I go home - to my parents' house, where I live in a room that isn't really a room, it's like a tent that doesn't even have solid sheets on the side but mesh where the cold seeps through and I can't be sure if other people can see in.  It's been raining, so the wooden door to the room/tent has not only swollen but the rain has worn much of the wood away, and my grandmother comes by at odd hours to stare through the gaping holes at me.  It's also cold.

I go to my mom, planning to tell her that I demand that I get a new door, a thick metal one that can't be destroyed by the elements, but my mom is too busy helping my sister with a princess costume [or something I already can't remember...I think I totally am making up the part about the costume, actually].

I go back to my room/tent and lie on the bed/sleeping bag on my back.  And I look down at my left side and Tiger is there.  "Oh there you are" I say and start petting him, and he purrs.  And I accidentally call him "sweet bunny" but he doesn't care, and I call him "sweet kitty" too, and kiss his paw.  After a while, he gets up and wants to jump up on shelf at the head of my bunk bed, but it's covered in things, so I move them and he jumps up on the shelf and from it disappears up onto another bunk bed that is both there and isn't.

I notice that the things I've moved for Tiger are unfamiliar.  There are lots of little pieces (some pink plastic flowers that vary slightly from each other, a diamond ring, a metal triangle) and I start trying to re-arrange them because if I put them in the right configuration..............

When I woke up, I was smiling and I also had tears streaming down my face because I love and miss Tiger, the BEST CAT EVER, to this day.  (My mom's brilliant lover boy cat Belle does not read my blog and is not the kind of cat who would take this obviously completely subjective assessment as diagnostic of anything but my deep and abiding love for Tiger.)

I will now beg your patience to read about the single most important dream of my life, which I had when I was just a kid.

My sister and I are walking through a castle made of grey stone and I don't really know where we're going but I know I need to keep us safe.  This goes on for a while [I don't remember what happens].  At one point, we're in a room with two open doorways at either end, and a football team in their uniforms comes running through one door (like teams do when they burst onto the field at the start of the game and the fans cheer them) and out the other.  As the last player leaves, that doorway closes up behind them.  Then I notice that my sister has disappeared, and I know she got caught up with those football players and won't come back.

When I woke up from that dream, I was sobbing uncontrollably.  I was utterly bereft.  It was biblical in its intensity.  I had the feeling (which I can still weakly recreate and feel in my chest) that people describe as having their heart ripped from their chest.  It was unquestionably the worst-feeling experience of my life.  I think that I have dreamed that same dream, or a version of it, again several times since then.  I know that I have remembered it quite a lot of times over the years, esp. the years right after wards but fairly often even into my early 20's, and occasionally even these days.

One of the mysteries of life is why we dream.  Scientists aren't even totally sure why we sleep, though there is good evidence that one purpose of sleep is to facilitate the consolidation of memory.  Feel free to read or skip this explanation that I wrote studying for a neuroscience exam:

"Consolidation refers to the processes that continue after learning and stabilize, transform, or enhance the newly-encoded memory trace.  Consolidation makes memories more resistant against interference and decay.  During system consolidation, neural memory representations undergo a reorganization so that they become represented by different neural networks.  We consolidate memory more effectively when we are asleep because we use the same processes for taking in (encoding) information and consolidating memories.  Therefore, there is interference in the consolidation process when we are awake (and we are also taking in information) but not when we are asleep.  During sleep, the covert reactivation of the networks that were involved in encoding the information leads to improved memory consolidation.

REM sleep appears to be important for procedural memory (skill at a task).  Depriving people of REM sleep makes it harder for them to learn tasks, and people who have practiced a difficult procedural task tend to engage in greater levels of REM sleep afterwards.  The first stage of procedural memory consolidation, stabilization, appears not to be dependent on sleep, but can be improved with sleep.  The second stage, enhancement, might require sleep.

Slow wave sleep (SWS) is involved in the consolidation of hippocampus-dependent declarative memory (explicit memories of facts and events).  Studies have shown that retrieval performance is better when tested shortly after a period of night-time sleep than daytime wakefulness, even after controlling for differences in fatigue and eliminating circadian rhythm confounds.  However, some studies examining memory over a longer time span, such as one week, do not show a benefit to post-learning sleep.  Because consolidation of declarative memory may occur over several nights, sleep in the subsequent nights might compensate for the lack of sleep the first night.  During SWS, newly encoded representations are repeatedly activated in the hippocampus in conjunction with thalamacortical spindle activity (which propogates to the entire neocortex).  These coordinated activations could achieve a transfer of information and a strengthening of weak memory traces.  During sleep, lower levels of ACh (enabling a feedback of information from the hippocampus to the neocortex) and cortisol (reducing interference with memory retrieval) create an environment favorable to memory reactivation and consolidation

People appear to need REM sleep specifically.  If people are deprived of REM sleep (e.g., are awakened whenever they enter the REM state) for several days, they experience an REM rebound when they are allowed to sleep undisturbed.  They will spend a higher proportion of their sleep time in REM sleep proportional to the duration of their deprivation.  However, most studies have not found that REM deprivation causes any physiological harm.  Dreaming is a feature of REM sleep that has been addressed by Hobson’s activation synthesis theory.  While we are awake, we experience brain activation based on the stimuli we encounter.  The cortex tries to synthesize this activation in a sensible manner to make sense of things and tell a coherent story.  During REM sleep, the pons activates the cortex via the thalamus, which elicits well-known images or emotions.  The cortex tries to synthesize this random activation in a sensible manner, but the result is often bizarre due to the random nature of the information the cortex is trying to make sense of."

So maybe dreams are the result of the brain trying to make a coherent narrative out of random firings of the brain, incorporating recent experiences into well-known images.  Let's apply this to my dream from last night:

Tam emailed me about signing up for a class that only involves going to math talks --> the class we were taking in the dream.

It snowed a few inches yesterday.  When we got home from lunch, I was momentarily surprised that the floor of the underground parking garage at our apartment wasn't wet.  Robert said, If it's wet in here, we've got bigger problems than snow.  I'm sure it was also cold in bed last night.  As a kid, my actual bedroom door did expand when it was humid and wouldn't close --> my tent/room with the weird door.

My parents replaced their front door with a nice metal one that was sturdier and less vulnerable to break ins/people peering in because it didn't have windows like the old one --> my desire for a metal door.

I watched an episode of Big Bang Theory yesterday morning in which Sheldon and his girl friend broke up and he ended up with 25 cats in his bedroom --> the reappearance of Tiger.

So that's all good.  But I can't help but ask the question, But why are we conscious of (at least some of) our dreams?  Psychologist John Bargh has famously proclaimed that "99.44%" of our mental life is unconscious, and Roy Baumeister, the King of Consciousness within the social psychological community, has made the case that even if we are unconscious of 95% of what's going on in our heads, that 5% that is conscious is important.  (He makes some interesting, pretty compelling claims that it's because we're such social animals.)  So perhaps we're talking something in the range of <1% to 5% being conscious.  What's up with our awareness of our dreams then?

When I posed the question: Why do we dream? to my evolutionary psych class, people were like, Oooooh.  After class, lots of people were talking to each other about dreams they've had, etc.  It's a compulsion, isn't it, to share your dreams, even though you know that it can be a tedious, annoying thing to do?  And of course it's not just modern Americans who have a fascination with dreams -- lots of cultures have placed a great deal of emphasis on understanding and interpreting dreams.  Is trying to make sense of them just a waste of time?

Well, quite possibly, but I'd like to propose (just for fun and under the influence of too much evolutionary psych reading) a functional theory of dreams.

When I think about my dreams (those dreams I remember, anyway, an important caveat), there are two primary features:

(1) They evoke strong emotions that can linger for a time even after I'm awake (and in the case of the famous Football Dream, feel powerful years and years later).

(2) The plot/content of the dream fades very quickly - so that I sometimes forget details immediately as I am trying to remember them when I wake up - and/or are bizarre, magical, nonsensical, impossible, flat-out ridiculous and just clearly not true.

Tam and I going to grad school together, while I'm living in a tent/room thing at my parents' house with holes in it and Jen is still there and Tiger is there but then not there and huh?

Of the many things our brains do, constructing false memories is an impressive one.  I can't believe I've never recounted on this blog my stunning false memory: When I was a little kid (under age 4, I think) my parents had a little dog named Sandy.  I remembered this dachsund very well.  It came up in conversation with my mom a while back and she said, Sally, Sandy was a chihuahua mix, not a dachsund - you're thinking of my friend years later who had dachsunds.  And she was totally right.  Even if I had resisted believing it, there is clear evidence - for many years, up to this exact moment, I have had a photo of Sandy in a photo collage hanging over my bedroom dresser.  He looks like a chihuahua, not a dachsund.  I clearly conflated Sandy with those dogs my mom's friend had.  But before that conversation with my mom, I would have bet big money that Sandy was a dachsund - I remembered it so clearly!  Who knows how many other dozens of memories I have are flawed or wrong or totally made up for that matter.  (Research note: Elizabeth Loftus has done fascinating work on false memories in many contexts and became famous/reviled for criticizing the "recovery" of false memories of child abuse during psychotherapy.)

Given how easily we get confused about what has really happened to us, and how powerful the emotions of dreams can be, what if the fact that the details in these dreams are elusive and/or totally bizarre is actually a good thing?  Whatever else may happen today, I am not going to get an email from Tam and think, "Oh now she wants to talk to me after shitting me off to play doll army.  Screw you, bitch."  I am not going to feel angry at my parents and sorry for myself that I had to live in a room that is both a room and a tent with a bed that is a bed and a sleeping bag and a bunk bed with another bunk bed above it that is both there and not there at the same time and had a door that fell apart from the rain such that pieces of wood were suspended in space where other wood surrounding it had rotted away and left me cold and exposed to the elements and my sneaky grandmother [in whose basement I actually did briefly live and where my uncle would irritate the shit out of me by staring in the window in the morning to hassle me into getting out of bed and my grandmother would come down and start the washing machine because my being in bed at 6 a.m. was a sin or something].  As much as I was effected by the Football Dream, there is a 0% chance that I will ever find myself crippled with agony and guilt remembering the time I was walking my sister through a castle and let her get caught up by a football team and taken away.

These emotionally-evocative yet patently unrealistic dreams are kind of interesting.  They make us experience these feelings that are extremely realistic and are linked to causes that do make sense -- like failure or abandonment or the presence of the BEST CAT EVER -- and do happen all the time in the real world.  But the details are too crazy for us to confuse them with real experiences (usually - I'm sure mistakes are made).

So I will propose that the functional purchase of (this type of) dream is to make us feel things, and make us think about it a bit while we're awake, so we will either know for the first time or be reminded of what these feelings feel like when we have them.  Emotions are, pretty much, motivators of behavior, so these dream-evoked emotions can provide us with motivation to act in ways that help us avoid the bad and feel the good.  I don't want my best friend to not like me anymore, so I better not take her for granted - I need to keep up the relationship.  I feel grateful that my parents didn't abandon me or shit me off when I was a kid and I am going to be good to them, too.  When I find something interesting in the world and it seems safe to explore, it's satisfying to try to understand it.  Dreams that expose us to the embarrassment of violating social norms (going to school naked anyone), the thrill of power and control (let's fly over NYC and look down on the skyscrapers), the good clean fun of sex, the contentment of eating a feast, etc., provide their own motivation.  And above perhaps all other things in the world, this critical lesson:  When a very young, small, vulnerable person (who shares with me 50% of the genes that vary among humans) is dependent on me, I will not get distracted and let her be taken away.  Fuck.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

An Early Start

Woke up at 3:45 this morning with ideas for one of my research proposals, so I stayed in bed and worked on that for a couple hours before breakfast with Robert.  Then I sat in my comfy chair and read journal articles all morning, took a shower, and am now here to present to you these two videos in the spirit of "positive affect replenishes self-regulation" before I eat lunch. 

From the brilliant Flight of the Conchords TV show (season 2), following the exploits of a two-man band from New Zealand trying and failing to make it in NYC, supported by the well-meaning but generally incompetent assistance of their band manager, Murray, who is the deputy cultural attache at the New Zealand consulate.