Daydream Believer

Today’s NY Times describes research (funded by Eli Lilly of course) that identifies a condition called Sluggish Cognitive Tempo.  SCT is supposedly characterized by “lethargy, daydreaming, and slow mental processing.” The research suggests (no surprise) that drugs might be useful in treating this condition.  The Lilly-funded researchers are publishing papers, giving talks on SCT to professional groups, and even editing the Wikipedia page on the topic.

So, here we have yet another effort by drug companies to find a new nail for one of their chemical hammers.  My worry is that treating daydreamers promises to stifle human creativity, not only in geniuses who (like Albert Einstein) follow daydreams to new realms of insight into the nature of things, but also in ordinary people who use daydreams simply to explore the paths that life offers them in a highly complex world.

Consider how different the spin is in a different newspaper’s account of efforts to drug daydreamers into compliance with a rigid notion of how children should be spending their time.  From the Sydney Morning Herald, August 2, 2010:

The young Albert Einstein was more likely to have been the child staring out of the window in class than the one bent over his books. Einstein, like many great scientists, thinkers and intellectuals, was also a documented daydreamer in the classroom. But what if he had gone to school today? Would he have had the chance to muse on the big scientific questions, or would he have been put on a drug such as Ritalin to aid his concentration?


Today, children’s days tend to be highly structured and daydreaming in school is seen as time wasting and indicative of poor self-control. It is a problem which needs to be labelled and ”fixed”, sometimes medically.

Although this approach is enabling many students to focus, there are fears we may also be dulling creativity – even greatness – in the process. There is mounting research that shows the idle, ”resting” mind is doing everything but resting, perhaps even making us smarter.


Note the list of “symptoms” of SCT:  “lethargy, daydreaming, and slow mental processing.”  The term “daydreaming” often does have a pejorative connotation of distractedness all by itself, but consider how much worse it sounds when paired with “lethargy” and “slow mental processing.”  But if daydreaming actually serves a useful function, and if any effortful cognitive function, including daydreaming, trades off against other things the brain could be doing (e.g. focusing on boring classroom work), then it is necessarily going to be accompanied by the appearance of lethargy and maybe even slow mental processing of the task at hand.  The emphasis is on the wrong problem.  What we need is not treatment of the daydreamers, but treatment of the environment so that people’s daydreams can lead them to happiness and success.


Carving Nature

For a project on the use of images as a source of data in biology, I found myself thinking about the phrase “carving nature at the joints.”  To a biologist the implication of this phrase is clear enough, because it captures a common goal of biologists, and indeed of natural philosophers going back to antiquity. For example, in biology the goal may be to identify the natural divisions separating biological phenomena into groups of the same kind–we see this in the enterprise of classifying organisms into species and higher level taxonomic groups, or recognizing how different genes below to the same “gene family.”  Or the goal may be to to identify the functional subdivisions of the organism that make up the integrated whole–the organs that perform different functions, the tissues that make up the organs, the cells, cellular compartments, and genes that define function on more basic organismal levels.  Either way this “carving” is an essential first step in biology:  part of the description of the phenomena to be studied–a statement about how things are put together, and what things are alike in spite of superficial differences.

In the case of understanding the subdivisions of complex organisms,  the carving up of phenotype is sometimes fairly easy to achieve.  The bones of the vertebrate skeleton are easily distinguished from one another at the joints (the root of the metaphor, of course) or at the the suture lines dividing joining the individual bones of the skull or pelvis.  For other phenomena, it is not so easy.  The difficulty is especially pronounced for behavior, which unfolds in a more or less continuous stream in which subunits, and their boundaries, beginnings, and endings, are hard to parse.

But this is about tracking down the history of a metaphor, rather than the biological problems themselves.

The most direct and widely cited use of this metaphor comes from a book on Evolutionary Psychology by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. They say, “”Knowledge of adaptive function is necessary for carving nature at the joints.” Evolutionary psychologists try to explain the evolution of mental phenomena by proposing how natural selection may have tailored them to solve particular challenges to survival and reproduction.  The assumption of the field, as in the approach to animal behavior pioneered by Darwin, is that the psyche can be segmented into separately evolving subunits in the way that we describe the elaboration of mammalian phalanges into wing struts in bats, or into a hooved foot in horses.

More recently, “Carving Nature At The Joints” was used as the title of recent book by Keim et al. (eds)(2011) that collects papers by philosophers on the topic of “natural kinds” in metaphysics and the philosophy of science.

What about the original source of the metaphor? For that we have to go back to Phaedrus, by Plato.  In this dialog, Plato has Socrates explaining two principles of rhetoric “the essence of which it would be gratifying to learn, if art could teach it.” One of these principles is “That of dividing things again by classes, where the natural joints are, and not trying to break any part, after the manner of a bad carver.”  So there you have it–the metaphor in its full glory.  That’s the second of the two important principles offered by Socrates, by the way.  The first principle is “That of perceiving and bringing together in one idea the scattered particulars, that one may make clear by definition the particular thing which he wishes to explain.” Note that you really need both of these principles to capture the problems biologists face in describing nature.  The carving problem corresponds to finding “the ‘natural’ suture lines for evolutionary dynamics” (to use a formulation developed by Richard Lewontin (1979) in identifying a pitfall in the study of adaptation by natural connection).  The bringing-together problem is about recognizing when seemingly disparate things (bats and cows, for example) belong in the same category (mammals).

How do images help?  That’s a story still to tell.



Lewontin, R C 1979. Sociobiology as an adaptationist program. Behavioral Science 24 (1): 5-14.

Grammatical lyrics

This isn’t about science, but it deals with two of my favorite topics:  grammar and music.

A song that came up on my playlist is this one from Snow Patrol:  “Chasing Cars.”

The following lines from the chorus have always made me wonder about the grammatical choices the writer made:
If I lay here
If I just lay here
Would you lie with me
And just forget the world

My first reaction was that “If I lay here” sounded jarring (shouldn’t it have been “lie”?), especially when followed by “Would you lie with me?”  If the writer were just being lazy or clueless, I would have expected him to choose one (lie or lay) and just go with it.  The two words would be equally euphonious in the lyric, and if anything the inconsistency isn’t what you would expect in a pop song.

Unless (I wondered) he used “lay” because it is the subjunctive of “lie.” Which would actually be correct, and quite impressive for a pop lyric, although it may be relevant that the writer is from Northern Ireland and studied English Literature and English Language at the University of Dundee.

Naturally, the internet being what it is, someone has chimed in on the use of lay and lie in this song:

Interestingly the writer of the blog declares confidently that Snow Patrol got it wrong and should have written “If I LIE here.”  However the commentators pounce and point out the correctness of the subjunctive (and then have a discussion of whether Wordsworth might have slipped grammatically in his poem “Daffodils;” he didn’t).

Meanwhile, another song that I really love DOES have an egregious grammatical error that almost spoils the song for me.  It is by Willie Nelson:  “You Were Always On My Mind”

Maybe I didn’t treat you
Quite as good as I should have
Maybe I didn’t love you
Quite as often as I should have

Grrrrr!!!  And it was so unnecessary to use “good” instead of “well.”

It is bad enough when Willie sings it, but I find it all the more grating  when sung with exquisite phrasing and pronunciation by Michael Bublé:

Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone
It Ain’t Necessarily So
I Ain’t Got Nobody (No tengua nadie)
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

For some reason these lyrics bother me not at all.

Incurious curiosity

Over at the NY Times op-ed page, Verlyn Klinkenborg regularly produces rhapsodic musings about his little patch of ground somewhere in the eastern U.S.  I am seldom impressed by the perspicacity of his observations or the poetry of his writing, but his latest effort is worse than boring. It is insulting.  He has noticed that the swallows in his barn have departed for their fall migration, and he wonders various things about this. He wonders these things but does not show any evidence that he has tried to find out whether science has provided explanations.

He starts the piece as follows: “The swallows have gone, and I do not understand it. How do they arrange to depart? ”  Then he  wonders: “Do [migratory birds] leave during a flight they’re already making, or do they somehow gather themselves together beforehand?” The answer? They “gather themselves,” undergoing hormonal changes and laying on fat that will fuel their journey. Only when they are ready will they go.

VK then muses: “Something within them changes in response to something external, the light perhaps.” Yes, there are massive physiological changes, and yes it is in response to the light, day length in particular, although there is evidence of an annual rhythm of migratory tendency that exerts itself even in constant conditions.

These things have been studied for decades, as even a quick glance at Wikipedia would have shown.

VK then mopes: “It is that something within them — instinct, presumably, as opposed to what we would see as conscious thought — that I don’t understand. Humans have always had trouble understanding instinct. If we experience it, we do not recognize it as such. Even the wisest of swallow-watchers, Gilbert White, the 18th-century ecologist and clergyman, could not decide what to make of instinct.”

Well at least White, who mused rhapsodically about the goings on in his patch of England, tried pretty hard to get answers to his questions. Later, the field of Ethology, established in the 20th century by people such as Heinroth, Lorenz, Tinbergen, von Frisch, Hinde, Thorpe, Griffin, Baerends, Barlow, Marler, and many others, has made a bit of headway there.  The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Lorenz, Tinbergen, and von Frisch in 1973 for their contributions to the scientific study of instinct.

What exactly is the point of curiosity if one is content to remain blind? What is the point of poetry in the service of such willful ignorance?  Those are rhetorical questions.  Here is a non-rhetorical one:  Why is such juvenile, incurious nature writing as Klinkenborg’s published in a paper with such a stellar track record of science writing as the New York Times?

Where curiosity leads: Michigan’s past

I have been thinking of getting a large scale map of the Great Lakes region, and then framing it and hanging it in my living room.  This is partly because I love maps and partly because I love the Great Lakes.  I’d be happy with either a modern map or a vintage one.  To get started, I went to Google and searched for the terms USGS + Map + Great Lakes.  Among other search results was this map of aquifers in the region:


I was amazed by the existence of a circular pattern in the aquifers centered on the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.  I thought that it looked like an impact crater, like the much bigger one on the coast of the Yucatan that has been implicated in the extinction of the dinosaurs.

So I did another Google search, for “are the Great Lakes an Impact Crater,” and was amazed to learn about a geological phenomenon known as the “Carolina Bays.”  These are elliptically shaped depressions in the landscape found all over North America east of the Rocky mountains and especially in the Carolinas.**

Some scientists think they were formed by impacts of objects from the sky, specifically from a shower of large objects ejected by an impact of a bigger thing somewhere else. The long axes of the ellipses point to the Great Lakes region, as if the objects were ejected from there and then flew off on arced trajectories that would have hit the earth at an angle, producing ellipsoid craters.  There are not a lot of meteorites in the soil around the Carolina Bays, so that rules out direct or indirect hits by comets or meteors. Some people think that what rained down on the Carolinas were gigantic chunks of ice that were ejected when a comet hit the ice sheet that covered the Great Lakes region between 95,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Obviously I spent an inordinate amount of time reading about this, and now writing about it!

**By the way, this link is to the “Scientific Psychic” web site. I liked the article, but was distressed by the name of the site.  I was relieved to see this explanation on the home page, so I’m going with it.

sci·en·tif·ic  Adjective. 1) of, relating to, or exhibiting the methods or principles of science.
psy·chic   Adjective. 1) of or relating to the psyche or the mind, 2) lying outside the sphere of physical science or knowledge. Noun. 1) a person apparently sensitive to nonphysical forces.

Scientific Psychic® abides by the methodology of science. Therefore, the word “psychic” refers to adjective definition number 1; any other meaning would constitute an oxymoron. Predictions are based on the scientific method.

The Greatest Psychologist

Drum roll please…..and the winner is…..

Charles Darwin!

This is a fascinating argument, which I have seen made implicitly but never as directly and as comprehensively as this. After all, many of the pioneers of psychology and psychiatry (William James, Edward Thorndike, Conwy Lloyd Morgan, Sigmund Freud) embraced a Darwinian interpretation of human mind.

The HuffPo article is a bit misleading, however, because it gives the impression that Charles Darwin was a guiding light throughout the rise of psychology as a science.  He was not.  Even in Darwin’s time, Wilhelm Wundt, widely considered one of the founders of experimental psychology, rejected Darwin’s account of the evolution of emotion. The early history of psychology in the late 19th century was dominated by a debate between Wundt’s anti-Darwinian “structuralism” and James’s Darwin-inspired “functionalism.”

In the 20th century, psychology came to be dominated by the “behaviorism” of J.B. Watson, a movement that systematically and comprehensively expunged Darwinian thinking from psychology. Watson, with the help of thinkers such as Jacques Loeb and Franz Boas, also pushed Darwin from the social sciences generally, although this situation has been partially reversed in the past 20 years.

Ironically, the behaviorists were famous for relying upon studies of animals–especially the white rat–to develop general “laws of learning” that were assumed to apply to humans as well as animals.  This is a gambit widely used in biology, as seen in the use of pea plants or fruit flies or maize to study principles of inheritance, squid axons to study how nerve cells transmit signals along their length, or bacteria to infer principles of genetic recombination. All of these have led to insights that have proved broadly true for other organisms, including human beings. This “model organism” gambit works. The reason it does is because of one of Darwin’s key insights: that evolution works through a process of “descent with modification”–a genealogical process whereby traits, once evolved, get passed down, albeit with modification, as species diversify through time. Thus, the behaviorists may have rejected Darwinism, but it is because of a process discovered by Darwin that their methods produced general and lasting insights into how learning works.

Defining normal

Two interesting articles in the 6 February 2013 of the New York Times raise the question of how we categorize people according to their position on the spectrum of human variation.

First, in The Stone series, philosopher Gary Gutting talks about Michel Foucault’s critique of modern psychiatric practice, A History of Madness.  I haven’t read Foucault, but I find a lot to agree with in the claim, attributed to him by Gutting, that categories of mental illness defined by psychiatrists are based not only on empirical observations about people’s behavior, but also on moral judgements about how people compare to socially accepted norms.  Homosexuality was at one time defined, presumably with great certitude, as a mental illness. So was the refusal of some women to accept traditional feminine roles in society.

Gutting uses Foucault as a point of departure to criticize the modification of how depression is defined in the next edition of the DSM.  The new definition eliminates the so called “bereavement exception,” which excluded states of grief triggered by, for example, the loss of a loved one.  This distinction is captured pithily by Andrew Solomon in his book, The Noonday Demon:  “Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.” Gutting says:

“People grieving after the deaths of loved ones may exhibit the same sorts of symptoms (sadness, sleeplessness and loss of interest in daily activities among them) that characterize major depression.  For many years, the DSM specified that, since grieving is a normal response to bereavement, such symptoms are not an adequate basis for diagnosing major depression.  The new edition removes this exemption.”

An important issue at stake, according to Gutting, is how “normal” is defined.  Retaining the bereavement exception assumes that there are normal and abnormal kinds of sadness–ways of defining when a person “ought” and “ought not” to feel sad. Eliminating the exception implies that the only thing that matters is the symptoms, which are very similar for grief and depression.  Gutting argues that this may miss essential information about how people experience sadness, and even about how to treat it. He still sides with Foucault, however, in arguing that such normative judgements are potentially dangerous because they grant psychiatrists (and drug-pushing Pharma companies) a privileged role in deciding what are appropriate and inappropriate paths to happiness.

I would take Gutting’s critique one giant step further.  It is not enough to question the division of  human behavioral variation into categories that are then labeled normal or abnormal using whatever moral judgements.  We also must question how that behavioral variation comes about, and in particular whether it is sculpted by societal pressures larger than anything the psychiatric profession can exert.   Much has been written, for example, about the increasing rate of diagnosis (and pharmaceutical treatment) of ADHD over time.  It is entirely unclear whether this increase reflects a rise in the proportion of children with some objectively defined condition, a broadening of the definition, or a broadening awareness of the condition (driven, for example, by the marketing of new ADHD drugs).

In addition to these possibilities, we must not ignore the additional possibility that what has changed is the environment into which children have to try to fit themselves–in particular the shift in schools and in society away from opportunities to be outdoors and engage in physical activity, and toward contexts where people must sit quietly and work for long periods of time. Rather than asking how we should treat the children in this environment, which little resembles the context in which humans evolved, should we not consider how we might align the environment with our nature?

The same question can be raised about depression.  People who struggle with the pressures and expectations of modern life, and succumb to deep depression in the face of this struggle, are treated as if they are abnormal; few of us ask whether it is the environment that is abnormal–a misalignment of society’s structures with our needs as human beings.

In this way I might question Andrew Solomon’s tidy distinction between grief and depression.  We can say that “depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance,” but this implies that the abnormality is in the depressive rather than in the environment that overwhelms him.

To Gutting, psychiatrists are like Procrustes, stretching or sawing at the legs of travelers to make them fit his iron bed.  What’s missing is an explanation of who built the bed. (Actually, there were two beds, making the problem all the more devilish.)

The second story in the New York Times was about the prevalence of smoking among the mentally ill, and the changing attitudes of mental hospitals toward smoking by inmates.  What struck me was the following paragraph.

“New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the nearly 46 million adults with mental illness have a smoking rate 70 percent higher than those without mental illness, and consume about a third of the cigarettes in the country, though they make up one-fifth of the adult population.”

…especially the last sentence.  Are you kidding me?  One fifth of the adult population is mentally ill? Can this statistic possibly be real?  Is it possible that it is society that is sick?