April 24, 2011

Encephelon #86: Blogging scientific mysteries

Of Florence Nightingale, free will, psychopath-hunters and -- yes -- even octopuses

It’s my turn to host the neuroscience and psychology blog carnival, Encephalon. This month, my blogger colleagues were busy analyzing fascinating unsolved mysteries in the wide-ranging fields of brain and behavior. So all of you sleuths out there, dust off your magnifying glasses and come exploring with me....

The mystery of the bedridden activist

At Providentia, psychologist Romeo Vitelli probes the mysteries surrounding pioneering public health activist Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) in a 2-part series, "The Bedridden Activist." Dr. Vitelli (who for all of you forensic folks escaped Ontario's maximum-security Millbrook Correctional Centre after a 15-year stint) marvels at Nightingale's indefatigable crusade for the poor and downtrodden, despite a debilitating illness that rendered her unable to travel. While discussing the theories of her mysterious illness, Dr. Vitelli also corrects the historical record:
Although Florence Nightingale opposed the Contagious Diseases Act, it was not because she opposed the germ theory of disease (as some critics later argued). Even though germ theory was not taken seriously before Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur made the theory acceptable, Nightingale actually pioneered the need for sanitation and antiseptic conditions. Her opposition to the legislation that was eventually passed stemmed from the intrusive nature of the Act (including mandatory screening of prostitutes for syphilis and detaining infected women). When the act was passed in 1864, she campaigned for its repeal. 

The mystery of free will

Should a man who takes out a murder contract on his wife and children be held responsible? For most people, the obvious answer is, “Of course!” But for pure determinists, free will is an illusion; no one is responsible for anything.

That doesn't fit well with the assumptions of our criminal and civil court systems. Or does it? As Peter reports in his post on "expertimental free will" at Conscious Entities, an odd thing happens when determinism runs up against moral values. In an experiment in which subjects were told to assume that determinism is correct (meaning people are not responsible for their actions), subjects still assigned responsibility to the man who took out a contract on his family.

The mysterious octopus

Octopuses fascinate scientists. That's partly because they are so different from mammals like us. Not only are their brain regions not arranged to correspond with bodily systems, but their individual arms can control some movement without input from their brain. Over at Cephalove, Mike Lisieski discusses a study on the unsolved mystery of exactly how an octopus’s brain uses vision to control ongoing movements. The post is, "The octopus, the maze, and why it matters: behavioral flexibility and sensory-motor integration."

The mystery of the sightless mind

While some researchers study the role of vision in the elusive octopus, others study it in humans. Janet Kwasniak at Thoughts on Thoughts reports on new research into the brains of sightless humans. In “How is the world represented without vision?,” she muses on how, given the importance of vision to our species, it is possible to produce a conscious model of the world without it. And how does the brain use the third of the cortex involved with vision when vision is idle? Attempting to solve those mysteries, the researchers used fMRI technology to compare the brains of congenitally blind people, blind people who were once sighted, and sighted and blindfolded sighted individuals.

The mystery of the calcium in the brain

Here's one that I bet few of my readers have thought much about:

Zen Faulkes at Neurodojo, a biology professor at the University of Texas-Pan American, ponders long-held assumptions about the role of calcium in neuronal functioning. How do you prove the neurons don't use calcium, he wonders? And what do they use instead? These are among the questions addressed in the post, “Neurotransmitter release without calcium.”

The mystery of the ulcer-less zebra

Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology is highlighting the intriguing teachings of Robert Sapolsky, a MacArthur Fellow who divides his time between teaching biology and neuroscience at Stanford University and conducting stress research on baboons in Kenya. In "Robert Sapolsky and Human Behavioral Biology," Daniel provides links to an entire course of study on human behavioral biology that's available for free online at YouTube. If you’re interested in anything from memory and plasticity to schizophrenia, language, individual differences, and human sexual behavior, this 25-session course is worth checking out.

After reading Daniel’s post, I couldn't resist buying a copy of Sapolsky's latest book, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, which explores stress and stress-related illness. To answer the question: Zebras don't get ulcers because they – like our ancestors – do not have to confront the chronic stresses of contemporary life, which our bodies were not designed to withstand.

The mystery of the psychopath hunter

Back to this blog’s central theme of forensic psychology I bring you (drum roll) the biggest mystery of all: What motivates US! I blogged about research into why some psychologists give higher scores than others on a measure of psychopathy. In case you haven't read the post I won't give it all away here, but the researchers found that subjects' levels of empathy and excitement-seeking affected whether they saw others as psychopathic. The post is, "Psychopathy: A Rorschach test for psychologists?"

That's it for now. Past -- and future -- issues of Encephalon are available HERE