Sunday SciKu | Compulsive News

This week, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine published work investigating the neural circuits behind information-seeking behavior.

In a clever design, Ilya Monosov and his team taught two monkeys to recognize symbols that foretold either a positive or negative event. By beginning with an uncertain symbol that was subsequently confirmed or denied by a second, they were able to see if the monkeys wanted to know the news.

So basically, the first symbol would mean, “Something good might be coming” (a treat), and both monkeys would watch for the second symbol to learn whether or not the treat really was.

But if the first signal said, “Something bad might be coming” (an annoying puff of air), one of the monkeys waited for the second signal, but the other ignored it, not wanting to learn about the bad news ahead of time.

The researchers then compared the brain activity in the monkeys while this was going on, identifying which areas were involved in making these choices.

Understanding the neurological processes behind information seeking could help develop treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, but has implications for what you’re doing right now, as you scroll through your Facebook feed.

Each swipe up is the addition of another possible positive or negative update, and we become addicted to this casino-style delivery system. Our brains did not evolve for the information age, and it changes our perception of reality in significant ways.

We live in the safest, most tolerant, most prosperous time in human history—there is always more work to do, and always new problems emerging, but the progress we’ve made in the last century is nothing short of amazing. Yet many of those sitting in front of the slot machines at this news casino believe the opposite, and anxiety about the state of the world is at an all-time high. An understanding of the mechanisms underlying this disconnect is important for both society and individual mental health.


our way through
the golden age


Sunday SciKu | Gistification

We’ve long known how memories fade over time into just the kernels of their meaning. After time, most of the details that we recall are only fictionalized details, filling in the gaps around the important narrative.

In a study out of the Universities of Glasgow and Birmingham published last week in Nature Communications, researchers were able to quantify this process of “gistification” for the first time.

It seems to me that writers and artists already understand this process instinctively, and it has to do with what we always talk about as “truth.” Facts are the verifiable details, but they often don’t really matter to the deeper meaning that we call “truth.” A poem can be factually wrong, but still be true. And over time, our memories operate in the same way, because they have the same goal—extracting meaning from the unwieldy chaos of our human lives.

The semantic elements are what matter.


you almost remember
what it means


Sunday SciKu | Ageless Ants

Cr: Unsplash (CC0)

This week’s prompt on the Rattlecast was to write a poem about a parasite, and time was short, so I combined it with the Sunday sciku and just wrote one poem.

Apparently there’s always an abundance of science articles about parasites, because I easily found a dozen in just the last few days. In the most interesting, researchers at Johannes Gutenberg Universitaet Mainz found a tapeworm infection that somehow extends the lifespans of worker ants. These ants are so small that a colony of around 100 make their nest inside as single acorn, but individuals can be infected with as many as 70 of these tapeworms at a time. Infections by Anomotaenia brevis turn the ants yellow, slow the aging process, and trick their sister ants into feeding and grooming them like queens, allowing them to live for several years, rather than several months. We don’t know how it works, but the assumption is that the tapeworm turns on certain ant genes that govern aging and pheromone release—basically turning the regular workers into imposter queens.

What the tapeworm gains by doing this is also unknown, but eventually being consumed by woodpeckers is part of the Anomotaenia brevis life cycle, so we can speculate that these changes make it more likely an ant will ultimately be eaten rather than die of by other means. My hunch is that the loss of brown pigment makes the ants easier for woodpeckers to spot, while the longer lifespan gives them more time to be spotted. Toxoplasma gondii works this way in mice, altering the rodent’s brain chemistry to make them less fearful of cats, so that they’re more likely to be eaten, continuing the parasite’s lifecycle by transporting it back into the cat, where it reproduces.

All of this begs the question, if a tapeworm can extend the lifespan of an ant it infects, why can’t we figure out how to extend the lifespan of humans?

The sciku is a rengay—an American version of the renga developed by Garry Gay. Normally a rengay would be alternate between two authors, putting a series of haiku into a kind of conversation. This one, instead, alternates between an imagined ant and the tapeworm infecting it.


The Ant and the Tapeworm

Temnothorax nylanderi
Anomotaenia brevis

my sisters fill the cup
of an acorn

a cup full of cup
nesting dolls

passing cloud—
the woodpecker’s shadow
moving on

even the dew
is collecting the dew,
worker bee

the drone of the drones
always dying

a yellow leaf
softened by rainwater—
fountain of youth

Sunday SciKu | Enteral Ventilation

Some fish can survive in hypoxic water by gulping air from the surface and absorbing oxygen through their intestines. It turns out mammals can perform this life-saving feat as well. In a study published this week in the journal Med, researchers were able extend the lives of suffocating mice and pigs by delivering an oxygen-rich solution through the anus.

Though the methodology of this animal study was disturbing and ethically questionable, the research might end up saving many lives. We all know now after the pandemic how damaging mechanical ventilation is to fragile lung tissue—early Covid treatments often caused more damage to patients than the disease itself. Ventilators and ECMO machines are also scarce or entirely unavailable in many rural areas. The ability to oxygenate a suffocating patient with a simple enema is an important discovery if it proves to be safe.

This week’s sciku is more of a senryu …


sounds like an insult


Sunday SciKu | Machine Dreaming

Photo by Jr Korpa

This week’s sciku is inspired by a new hypothesis about the purpose of dreaming. No one really knows why we do it, but dreaming must have some beneficial function. Though it’s only 2% of our body mass, our brains consume 20% of our energy. If we just turned them off at night, we’d save 50-100 calories, and that’s a large price for any animal scrambling for food as our ancestors have throughout evolutionary history. If it wasn’t worth the resources, we wouldn’t do it. And yet we do.

The new explanation, proposed by a neuroscientist at Tufts University, was inspired by a problem that arises in machine learning. If you give AI a task to learn, like navigating a car from one point to another, it does a much better job of solving the problem specifically, rather than generalizing what it learns to other environments. This “overfitting” has always been a challenge with AI, and is often solved by adding extra noise into the system to prevent the AI from settling onto a precise solution.

It’s only a speculative idea for now, but maybe that’s the purpose of dreaming. We learn about our environment during the day, but then play with what we learned mentally at night, so that our concepts of what we’ve experienced don’t become too rigid to apply to future situations.

I was re-reading Iain Mcgilchrist’s excellent book “The Master and His Emissary” the other day, and I can’t help but think the bicameral nature of the brain might be playing role here, too, as the right hemisphere is the “generalizer,” harvesting information from the left’s narrow and concrete view of the world to make broader associations it can assimilate into a bigger picture that the left hemisphere is never able to see.

This is the stuff of poetry and all art, of course—the associative, inarticulate understandings of the right brain. The stuff of dreams. So this new idea is interesting to me, though whether it can ever be confirmed remains to be seen.


strange dream:
satellites skimming the surface
of thought