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We really are a bunch of celebrity-worshippers.
Don’t deny it, you know it’s true.
Our society is structured around which celebrity is marrying whom, who has children, who (heaven forbid) had a sordid affair, or an even more sordid divorce battle. Brangelina’s on Long Island, Lindsay’s between relationships, Britney’s being Britney, A-Rod’s being pretentious, etc. etc. Even political pundits and others who wouldn’t normally have (willingly) joined the fray have been dragged in. Everyone who has had a few seconds of fame in front of a camera or on a bestseller list is worthy of worship, as far as our society is concerned. Sometimes this brings out the more unsavory elements among us, i.e. the stalkers who can range from the harmless fans to the ones who would literally kill for attention (i.e. Reagan’s almost assassin/Jodie Foster stalker John Hinckley Jr.).
This is not limited to the United States or the Western World, each society has its own, worshipable elite. Shahrukh Khan is a veritable deity in India, and unsurprisingly, Amitabh Bachchan has actually been worshipped as one.
It is just a hair ridiculous, how much we may devote our time to checking the tabloids for the latest, juicy piece of gossip, and how we idolize people who aren’t that different from us (give or take a few million dollars of course). Some aren’t even that worthy of being idolized, like Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and others who only have a hefty inheritance and a few sex tapes to their name.
With social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, accessing these celebrities is a much easier task. Twitter, especially, eliminates that wall of privacy between celebrities and their devoted throng of followers (for better or worse). Sometimes that means seeing a more human side of a celebrity that makes them feel a bit more real to us, sometimes it means revealing things about the inner workings of their mind that may turn us off to them.
I’m not one to celebrity-worship, and yet I still get just a tad excited when someone “famous” follows me on Twitter. Even though I’m not a fan of celebrity-worship, I idolize a few, although a select few. I think it’s in our nature to have idols, more as something to work towards. I still can’t wrap my head around people who idol worship just because “they’re hot.” That being said, here are my top 10 celebrities (and I use the term very loosely) I would LOVE to meet, and my reasons (in no particular order):
1. Keith Olbermann: My favorite Cornell alum, and possibly one of the most erudite people in the news business today. He has a knack for wearing his heart on his sleeve and showing his feelings about the state of affairs without foaming at the mouth like other similar figures (*cough* Bill O’Reilly *cough*).
2. Rachel Maddow: Takes news to a whole new level of awesome with her laid-back style. She’s also incredibly intelligent, obviously evidenced by her holding a Ph.D and being a Rhodes Scholar.
3. Robin Williams: Genius. I have not seen any actor who can be as wildly funny as he is, while also managing to nail serious roles just as well. Just watching his stand-up routines makes one realize just how ridiculously smart he must be to be able to string together so many (somehow relevant) thoughts together, reaching across disciplines and cultures within the course of maybe a few seconds.
4. Benjamin Carson: To put it simply, I want to be him, but I know I have a long road ahead if I even want to be half of what he is. He is unbelievably humble despite being so skilled at his job, as one of the world’s best pediatric neurosurgeons, and he only reached that position after a lifetime of hardship and discrimination. To fare so well in a field that is so risky speaks volumes about his abilities as a surgeon.
5. Vilayanur Ramachandran: If he doesn’t get a Nobel Prize, I will be thoroughly disappointed. His research on phantom limbs lead to a greater understanding of so-called “mirror neurons.” I highly recommend his book Phantoms in the Brain.
6. Hugh Laurie: Not just because he plays the best doctor on TV, but he also seems like a genuinely nice (and very smart) guy. I vaguely knew of him from a few episodes of Blackadder, but he has been brilliant as House M.D. There’s something about self-deprecating, pathologically understated, and sometimes borderline-inappropriate British humor that I love. He’s also a great pianist.
7. Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna: Undoubtedly one of the best Carnatic vocalists alive today, he has a sense of humility that serves to ground not only himself, but everyone around him. Humility is always a wonderful quality for anyone to possess, let alone people in the limelight. Extra cool fact: he’s very interested in music therapy. Anyone who recognizes the therapeutic significance of music is cool in my book.
8. Kal Penn: I’ll admit, I didn’t think he was that big of a deal, but I guess my prior opinion was colored by his less-than-cerebral character choices (though I LOVED Harold and Kumar). I saw him on Rachel Maddow’s show, and it goes without saying that he is an incredibly smart guy. He definitely has his head in the right place, opting for public service over acting when the opportunity presented itself. It’s great that the Asian-American community has such a famous face as the liaison between them and the White House. I’m not sure if Asian-American health issues are quite his domain, but it would be something well worth addressing (did a paper on it myself for a class).
9. Anthony Bourdain: Undoubtedly the one who gave the culinary experience its spine back after the Food Network lost it, perhaps in a pool of “e.v.o.o” (cannot stand Rachel Ray). Rough, rugged, well-read, and open to all possibilities (except vegetarian fare…something that I think he’s coming around to), he is the everyman’s chef.
10. Norah Jones: One of the few people in the music industry to have not sold out. She has such a beautiful, earthy voice coupled with her great piano-playing abilities, and she’s also probably one of the few people who keeps her music simple, but classy. As much as I love Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey’s ability to add vocal flourishes and riffs with such ease (I’m guilty of trying to do that when I sing…and I’m even more guilty of failing when I try), sometimes it’s nice to just be straightforward.
And one more for good measure…
11. Russell Peters: Master of mimicry, accents, and general humor. A lot of comedians have a knack for nailing accents, but Russell Peters has a knack for integrating various cultural quirks into his act. No, he’s not a racist, he’s an equal-opportunist, picking on any and every group of people (including most notably, Indians). Why? We are all that diverse and sometimes when we look in with another pair of eyes, we can all be that bizarre. Sometimes we just need to laugh at ourselves.
Yes, noticeably absent are people from Bollywood/other Indian cinema. Why? Well I just don’t know what they’re like, they seem mostly full of fluff, and not much else. Maybe when I know more about them, I can make a better judgment call.
So I guess for me, I don’t care how much money a person makes, but a person’s intellectual worth is very important. I don’t mean just degrees and educational pedigree but a general understanding of the world around them. Equally important is one’s humility and devotion to the art or science that they are pursuing. If you can’t be humble, it doesn’t matter how much talent or knowledge you may have, you are not worth being idolized. Yet people will continue to idolize the most pointless people, because of their monetary worth, supposed good looks, and questionable talent.
I guess that’s just how society is, and will be.
This is partially in response to a piece recently published by Salon.com, covering an interview with Alva Noe, a philosopher from UC Berkeley.
I am a Hindu. Hindus believe in the existence of souls. I am studying biology. Biology does not consider the soul to be a possible entity. I am a neuroscience-enthusiast. Neuroscience does not believe the soul is the seat of consciousness.
While Alva Noe argues against a reductionist approach to understanding consciousness, unfortunately that is the very real reality of consciousness. The brain is the seat of consciousness. Why argue that it isn’t? It’s not as though the brain is somehow incapable of being responsible for the functions and emotions that make us wholly human.
I will agree with one aspect: that a lot of experience is very much dependent on the context into which we are placed. Yet that does not diminish the role of the brain, but rather, it reveals just how involved the brain is in crafting consciousness. It has to determine, based on the inputs it receives, how to perceive and react to the stimuli present. This is where his driver versus engine analogy falls apart. It is not a process that happens apart from the brain, it is the brain itself. When someone is brain dead, it’s not as is if consciousness continues to exist apart from the brain. Consciousness dies when the brain dies.
Why is religion something that has to be so separate from neuroscience? It’s as if one cannot coexist with the other, that somehow, neuroscience would undo the wonder that makes religion and religious experience what it is or vice versa. Neuroscience gives a more concrete basis for religious experience, and religion can help us reflect on the sheer wonder that is the brain. Why can’t the soul have a neurological basis? I’m not arguing for the total negation of the existence of the soul, I’m arguing for integrating it into our cerebral selves.
Likewise for love, desires, dreams, whatever emotions and states of mind there are that seem much too complicated to be contained in a network of neurons. These all have strong neurological bases, most have in dopaminergic pathways that give rise to feelings of pleasure and instilling the need to repeat actions that make us feel good (seek out someone we’re crushing on, eating something we like, pursuing a career which interests us). Yet we hate to think of it in these terms, we like to keep a little bit of that veil of mystery intact. It’s understandable, but it’s silly to argue that they are undoubtedly separate from the brain, whether partly or totally.
For better or worse, we are animals. We are a network of organs. We have been blessed with a highly developed forebrain, but that does not make our added ability to perceive ourselves, the world, or anything beyond…anything beyond our membrane-bound brain. What we should perhaps be more in awe of is that, despite the fact that we operate within the confines of our cranium, we can understand and strive for things that seem to exist far beyond us. That is the real wonder of the human psyche.
For those of you who know me know that I am, simply put, neuro-obsessed. Here’s where I try to justify that.
Think about the human body and how incredibly complex it is. Think of all the chemicals that course through your bloodstream to regulate this organ or that, that allow you to grow and mature. Think of the electrical and structural precision that is needed to keep your heartbeat normal. Think of the myriad events that go on to maintain normal digestion even when you are unaware that it is going on.
Now think of the brain and think of the fact that it regulates all of it. A three-pound (give or take a few ounces), gelatinous and convoluted mass of neural tissue sitting comfortably in your cranium regulates all of it. I think that’s pretty cool, right?
Consider this a kind of (grossly simplified) neuroscience primer from someone who has neither an M.D. nor Ph.D (so take it for what it’s worth).
I should probably start out by saying I’m not entirely sure what to make of the readiness with which doctors prescribe a pill for anything and everything. This is mostly based on my observations and what I’ve heard. I’m not a doctor (though I want to be) and I’m trying to understand this as best as I can given my relative lack of medical knowledge. Yet my gut instinct is to say that doctors are all too willing to find a condition to fit a pill, or a pill to fit a condition (and for everything else, an antibiotic). This seems to especially be the case with psychiatric conditions. Everyone that’s depressed seems to be prescribed pills. I concede that are some that legitimately need medication in order to function, but for the vast majority, it seems unnecessary.
I’m going to stick with antidepressant/stimulant meds for this one. Fibromyalgia and antibiotics deserve their own post.
Humans are programmed to experience fear, because fear is a useful response to noxious stimuli. Yet, there are those fears that are more irrational that others.
I suffer from ligyrophobia. Ligyrophobia is defined as the irrational fear of loud noises. Balloons popping, fireworks, thunder, explosions, dogs barking, and (even at one time) vacuum cleaners used to scare me beyond words. Of course, now it’s greatly improved for the most part. It may seem silly, being scared of loud noises, and it is. I’ll be the first to admit it. My mother blames it on the fact that she went into labor when a car backfired right next to her. I’m not too sure about that, but there is something to be said for traumatic events setting one up for a lifetime of phobias.
The suffix “phobia” itself derives from the Greek, meaning “fear.” A host of prefixes can be attached that denote the specific fear. Agoraphobia is a fear of open spaces (or conversely, leaving one’s home), agora referring to the ancient Greek, open-air marketplace. Arachnophobia is a fear of spiders. The list goes on, with some of the fears being especially off-beat. Fear of hippos. Fear of wrists. My personal favorite is fear of peanut butter getting stuck to the roof of your mouth. Arachibutyrophobia. Try saying that ten times fast.
Emotional memories, especially fears, are generally encoded in the amygdala. The amygdala (from the Latin for “almond” because of its shape) sits in the middle of the brain, and is also encircled by the hippocampus, another important memory-related structure. Yet it is interesting because fear itself is not totally dependent on memory, per se. In an experiment conducted during the turn of the 20th century, it was observed that in a Korsakoff’s patient, pricking her hand would result in her being less likely to shake the researcher’s hand, but she couldn’t pinpoint why that was the case. In Joseph LeDoux’s lab at NYU, rats who were conditioned to associate a 30 second tone with a small shock to the foot. Eventually, rats would freeze and/or display other typical fear responses to the tone alone. Some rats were given amygdalar lesions and lost the conditioned response that they had to the tone, and reacted as though there was no association at all. The response to shock, though, was unchanged.
The amygdala is hardwired to pair variables together, usually sights, smells, sounds, and certain touches to events, positive and negative. Perhaps in phobias, there is a a tendency to overextend and associate seemingly innocuous objects with a negative response. fMRI studies have confirmed the link between amygdalar activation and phobic responses in humans (in this case, with arachnophobes).
So is there a way to really cure phobias? Not really anything much more than strength of will and perhaps therapy. Some fears are easier to overcome than others. It has taken me years to get over some of mine, but will probably take many more to get over it completely. For me, ligyrophobia is something I have had for as long as I can remember. Getting rid of something so rooted in your psyche is a challenge, a challenge which I don’t mind taking. It helps a little, to know the biological underpinnings for why we fear, it makes fear less nebulous and more conquerable. It also helps to have a strong support system, friends, family, and loved ones usually make any task a lot easier.
“There is nothing to fear but fear itself,” Franklin D. Roosevelt once said. Certainly misplaced fears should be avoided, but I don’t think there we should ever attempt to fear nothing, because fear is after all a much-needed survival response. Some spiders, sharks, lightning (at least, close-range), and other things are obviously dangerous, and should be feared and avoided to a degree. I think Ellen DeGeneres summarized this and other points in one of her monologues the best, and I’ll leave you with that.
For those of you somehow associated with neuroscience, you probably have run into those two letters sometime during the course of your studies. Oddly enough, I didn’t know what H.M.’s name really was, until the day he died. H.M. didn’t know much beyond his own name and a few memories up until 1953. It was then that he underwent an operation to remove part of his brain that was deemed responsible for his seizures. As a result, he lost the ability to create new memories.
Every person he met from then on was new, every place he visited was unfamiliar, no matter how many times he came into contact with them. I can’t imagine living a life like that, but his life allowed us to understand more about how our minds worked.
Thank you H.M. Maybe you will finally find some familiarity in the hereafter. Rest in peace.
We all dream. In fact, over a lifetime, we spend about six years dreaming. Six years! Imagine what you could do over six years of your life.
So my question is, should dreams be treated solely as the product of neurotransmitters and REM during sleep? Or should they be interpreted as something deeper, steeped with meaning? For someone like me, who is both an aspiring doctor with a fondness for neuroscience and a deeply spiritual person who deals in the abstract, it’s a bit of a debate.
Neuroscience hasn’t gotten around to providing a concrete biological definition of dreaming, but there are theories being thrown around. This is the best summary I can come up with:
During sleep, your brain goes through periods called rapid eye movement (REM), where (if one were to do an EEG) the resulting brain waves during those periods look remarkably similar to those from wakefulness. Scientists have postulated that several neurotransmitters are involved in creating the dream state, while a host of others are suppressed. The result is a situation similar to wakefulness, but also a state of virtual paralysis so as to prevent the sleeper from acting out the motions in his or her dreams. Curiously enough, a chemical called dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is suspected to have a large role in creating the dream state. Among other things, it is a psychedelic agent. Need I say more?
Yet of course, there are others who treat dreams differently. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung published numerous case studies where they analyzed patients’ dreams. They, as well as several psychologists downstream, held that dreams reflected the interplay between the conscious and the unconscious. The unconscious allowed thoughts inaccessible to the conscious to bubble to the surface during dreams. Dreams, therefore, could be interpreted to get at the underlying emotions.
So who’s right? The neuroscientists or the psychologists? I’d like to think both are right.
Yet interpreting dreams is an inexact science that is open to many, often wrong, interpretations. Is it really worth it? Sometimes it helps to give some degree of closure or clarity, since dreams have a tendency to just be downright strange, if not emotionally charged. That’s of course, if you can get at an interpretation that achieves that end.
Then there are the prophetic dreams. Some say they’re religious experiences, some say they’re random events. Others argue it’s the brain putting 2 and 2 together into some logical conclusion that turns out to be right in real life. I, however, am not sure. I’ve had a few of these, and I can’t describe them any other way other than inexplicable.
Why do some people experience dreams differently from others? I have talked to my friends about my dreams, and find that among many of my friends, I tend to have very vivid dreams replete with the whole range of sensory experiences: color, touch, smell, sound…heck sometimes music. Others I know tend to have consistently bizarre, and often humorous dreams. Others still have violent dreams. Perhaps it’s a function of our individuality, including how we deal with experiences that we may have had in our day to day activities that have since sunk into our subconscious.
So will we ever solve why we have dreams, and how to deal with them? Probably not, but what say you, the reader? How do you deal with dreams? Any interesting ones?
This made me very happy. The theory, to date, has always been that neurons are differentiated to the point that they cannot replicate in the event of any sort of damage. Hence, if you lose a neuron, you can’t replace it. This has been the problem in dealing with diseases and conditions that are characterized by targeted or widespread loss of certain neural pathways: Parkinson’s and dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra, Alzheimer’s and acetylcholinergic neurons, heck ecstasy use and 5-HT (serotonin) pathways, etc. etc.
The results of this study are promising: they were able to generate functioning tissues (not just cells) from stem cells. Besides serving as another way to study neurological conditions, perhaps without so much of a need for rat or other models, the fact that functioning neural tissue can be generated means that several diseases characterized by a loss of neural tissue may be able to be cured.
Now to deal with the matter of funding stem cell research more strongly…