Monday, August 27, 2012

The brain behind politics

With the upcoming elections in the Netherlands, our craving for polls is on the rise again. As Dutch people very well know, we can be very good with polls although the final outcome is usually completely unrelated to the outcomes of the polls. What's more, even if the polls manage to get it right, it doesn't tell us much about who's actually going to lead our country, as the political structure in The Netherlands is such that winning doesn't automatically mean you're in.
As a Dutch voter who lives abroad, I am one of the lucky few who already got to vote before all the debates even got started. This doesn't matter, since the debates don't really add to my knowledge or help in my decision making process anyway. Politicians often go after the easy catch, and put up a great act of being indignant of their opponents choices and ideas, when they might in fact have acted on those very same ideas when they were in charge of our country. That aside, being able to vote for the political party of my choice is a precious right, which I will exercise even if it means having to look my kids' red pencil for half an hour, or trying to figure out how to refold the paper in such a way that my choice doesn't show. Because an absence of red markings or a wrong fold means your vote is out.

But to the point now. While browsing for information on an upcoming column about the advances in Neuroscience as related to psychiatric diagnoses, I found an interesting article related to voting. The research used fMRI to reveal specific brain activity in swing voters upon showing images and video clips of possible presidential candidates for the US elections of 2008. A short recap of some of their noteworthy conclusions:

Hillary Clinton produced mixed emotions in voters who didn't really take a liking to her. Apparently, although they stated they didn't like her, their brain activity showed they had some difficulty making up their mind (or brain in this case). For Mitt Romney, the initial results were more clear cut. Upon being showed a picture of Mitt, subjects showed high levels of activity in the amygdala, a brain structure related to anxiety (as stated in the article). However, after watching a snippet on him performing in public, the activity in the amygdala died out. Apparently, the subjects found Mitt to be harmless after all. As for Barack Obama, he just didn't sparkle much of anything in the subjects' brain...

Knowing the outcome of the 2008 elections, it doesn't take a brainiac to figure out that the described research, although highly entertaining, doesn't really add up. That is because, next to design issues such as sample size and background factors of the subjects, some alternative explanations weren't explored.
For instance, it might have been that people watching Hillary Clinton were simply contemplating the difficult decision between their desire to want to punch the dear woman in the face, or yell profanities. Or, a slightly more feasible hypothesis, that they simply didn't know whether they should cut her some slack because of her husband's little slip-up (remember Monica) or judge her solely on the basis of her political ideas. Concerning the results of Mitt Romney, the researchers kind of left out some of the other functions of the amygdala. Because although involved in anxiety (and anger), the amygdala is also related to, yes, pleasure. Whether it be the consequence of him having five children or simply his good looks, it could be that the subjects actually took a fancy to dear ol'Mitt. The subsequent decline in activity might then be explained as the result of him found lacking when seen in action. And do I even need to go into the results of Barack Obama, who might not have been the cause of any peaks in the brain but who did manage to peak in the election?

So, what can we learn from all this? We simply do not know enough of our brains yet to come to any definite conclusions between specific brain activity and behavior. Neuroscience is interesting and definitely deserves our further attention as a way of understanding our behavior (and behavior problems), however, we do need to be careful as to the conclusions we draw based on fMRI research. After all, if it shows that even dead salmons contemplate the emotions of people..

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Big Questions for a little brain

Lucas has recently started to ask the Big questions. And whereas some children start relatively small and ease into it, Lucas would not have been Lucas if he would follow such a pathway. Hís first Big question was this: "Zijn tomaten nou fruit of groente?" (Is a tomato a kind of fruit or a vegetable?).
Now, I can deal with difficult questions, but unfortunately his need for answers is not easily met. For example, concerning the extinction of dinosaurs, he's less than happy to find out that scientists do not have a definite answer as of yet. He keeps pressing me for information, as according to him, I must know more. "Nee mama, jij moet meer vertellen." "Jij weet het wél." (No mommy, you have to tell me more. You dó know). One of my solutions to this is to ask him what he thinks. So, let it be known that a moon fell on earth and killed all dinosaurs. Also, tomatoes are a fruit, and baby's are born through your belly button, which hurts, but only for a second. Just thought I'd share the answers to Lucas' Life Questions with you.

With this in mind, I remembered an old poem I once wrote. On occasion, Lucas is having monster nightmares, and recently he wondered why mommy and daddy get to sleep together, whereas he had to sleep all alone.


Mam zegt dat monsters niet bestaan,
maar hoe weet zij dat nou?
Als ze mijn kamer binnenkomt, verdwijnen ze heel gauw.
Ze springen in de kasten,
en laden bovendien.
Ze laten niets meer van zich horen, laten zich niet zien.
Totdat ze me een kusje geeft,
en weer naar papa gaat,
dan komen ze tevoorschijn, en worden heel erg kwaad.
Nee, papa heeft maar geluk,
dat mama bij hem ligt.
Bij hem zijn kasten werk'lijk leeg en blijven laden dicht.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Stairmaster: mastering the stairs

I've started training at the YMCA recently. I must say I am close to getting addicted to my workouts. Not in the least because they have absolutely everything there: I can choose an infinite number of interesting workouts, I don't need to take towels or drinks, I can watch television on virtually all the fitness equipment, I can bring the children to their free daycare, and I am met by nice instructors who in no way resemble a soldier, a construction worker, a cowboy or some other sort of Village idiot. And contrary to Dutch standards, the gym here is not full of young men flinching their muscles in an attempt to pick up the unnatural blonde on the elliptical who - next to her perfect body - apparently also suffers from a lack of sweat glands. Instead, the Y is filled with older people, some even quite old. And it is endearing to watch an oldie take up to ten minutes to get up on the treadmill, only to see their walking sticks fall of the minute they start walking. Needless to say, I help out on these occasions.
Because it's always good to incorporate new routines in your workout program, I make a habit out of trying new equipment. But until recently, I was hesitant to use the Stairmaster, an apparatus that requires you to walk an endless staircase. It is, by all standards, the worst fitness apparatus ever, a fate worse than Hell. But in an attempt to conquer my fears, this week I finally went to Hell and back, taking the stairs to what the apparatus said was the 48th floor in a 15-minute-feels-like-15-hours perish-and-die moment. And to make matters worse, instead of feeling invigorated after my workout, it left me confused. Because did I actually walk up to the 48th floor, or should I take into consideration the fact that the United States usually calls ground level 'first floor'? Because that would mean that I only walked up to the 47th floor. It might seem insignificant to you, but if I ever want to partake in the 'stairs run competition' in the Erasmusgebouw in Nijmegen, I need to know my limits. I guess I have to conquer Hell again in another session of the Stairmaster. Stay tuned for Stairmaster: the sequel.

O, and you must agree with me that there is some irony in the fact that Lucas refers to the daycare at the Y as 'de sportschool'? He'll start his own workout routine soon though, as swimming lessons will commence in spring and he really wants to play soccer there as well.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The presents or presence of a Theory of Mind

During my years as a Ph.D. student I have been reading (and writing) about Theory of Mind, aka the ability to attribute mental states (desires, beliefs and feelings) to oneself and others, an ability which seems to be lacking in many children with autism spectrum disorders. I'm not a huge fan of the Theory of Mind concept, as it is ill defined and ever expanding. In addition, many of the so called Theory of Mind tasks seem to hinge on language abilities as much as a Theory of Mind. And although there have been some successes to test Theory of Mind abilities in apes, Theory of Mind and language seem connected on many levels.

But this week I saw the rudimentary workings of the infamous Theory of Mind in my eldest son Lucas (3 yrs). He knows his birthday is coming up in about two months, and his little brother will have his a mere three days later. But way before that, my husband will turn.... well, that isn't really important for this story. So, I asked Lucas what he thought his dad would like to get as a present. He came up with.... a frog. Yes, a frog. No, no clue. My husband is not particularly interested in frogs, we don't keep any frogs or plan to do so in the near future, and Lucas has never displayed an avid interest in them either. So, to understand his trail of thought, I asked whether he could come up with another present. Some serious thinking happened, after which he was absolutely sure of the complete and utter bliss of his dad  if he got some bones. But not just any bones, T-rex bones. No question marks about the nature of that idea, since Lucas is very interested into that himself. But he didn't take another round of questioning as his final resolve was a bunch of flowers. Typical male instinct kicking in there, probably.

So how does this prove his developing Theory of Mind? It doesn't. But you know what, even I am unable to come up with a decent idea for my husband. So, instead we contemplated presents for his baby brother Kwint. And it didn't take Lucas long to come up with two ideas: penguins and cars. Spot on, and to his credit, Lucas does like penguins, but it's Kwint who's seriously obsessed with them. So, there you have it, Lucas has a Theory of Mind, and a diagnosis of autism is getting more unlikely every day. 

Kwint, on the other hand, is a different story. At a regular visit to the pediatrician (the American consultatiebureau), some eyebrows were raised on the subject of him not using the pronouns 'I' or 'me'. Never mind the pediatrician used a schedule for children aged 2, or the fact that Kwint is having to cope with the challenge of being raised bilingual, or even the fact that he does say words as 'mine' and doesn't meet any other criteria that would merit concerns for a possible developmental disorder. She offered us the opportunity to fill out a huge questionnaire which would be checked by specialists to see if there would be any reason for further checkups. We respectfully declined and went home only to find that the Dutch Van Wiechenschema (used at the Dutch consultatiebureau) considers it a skill for 2,5 year-olds. There still is time...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Social Seating

Als emigrationatrice (vrouwelijke ambassadeur van de emigratie) vlieg ik geregeld naar Nederland op en neer. En natuurlijk is het telkens weer spannend, want je weet nooit of de piloot halverwege de Atlantische Oceaan besluit om 'eruit te stappen', en of er vervolgens niet toch iemand in het vliegtuig zit die met haar hakjes de noodglijbaan afgaat en deze penetreert, waarna een glijdende aftocht niet meer tot de mogelijkheden behoort. Ook is het altijd maar afwachten of de leden van de mile high-group niet per ongeluk vast komen te zitten in het toilet waarna je tien uur lang met samengeknepen billen zit. In dat kader is samenwerking tussen de KLM en de NS wellicht een goed idee.

Maar de echte crux zit 'm in de passagier naast je. En precies daarom heeft KLM het geweldige idee opgevat om bij het reserveren van je stoel de Facebook of Linkedin pagina's van medepassagiers te tonen. Op die manier kun je ervoor kiezen naast iemand plaats te nemen met eenzelfde voorliefde voor voetbalplaatjes, iemand die op zaterdag ook het liefst dronken in de gracht lazert, of iemand die net als jij fan is van het oude kapsel van Justin Bieber. 
Met recht een geweldig idee om de volgende redenen. Zo kan ik, indien één van de passagiers lid is van een terroristische zelfmoordclub, mijn voorkeur kenbaar maken voor een stoel naast de nooduitgang. Of ik kan mijn vlucht cancellen wanneer de ganse fanclub van Ajax (niets persoonlijks) een leuk uitje heeft. En als Justin Bieber zelf ook zijn Facebook pagina linkt aan de KLM, kan ik verdorie nog naast 'the boy himself' zitten ook.
Ik ben dan wel een voorstander voor meer persoonlijke informatie op Facebook. Bijvoorbeeld de mate van knoflookgebruik, een eventuele voorliefde voor overmatig parfumgebruik, aard en inhoud van conflicten met buren/huisbaas/familie/vrienden, en blaasvolume. Dat laatste in verband met het aantal bezoekjes aan de toilet. 

Er is slechts één minpuntje. Waar het voorheen een voorrecht was om niemand naast je te hebben, wordt het nu een punt van medelijden. Terug naar de dagen dat je tijdens gym als laatste voor een team werd gekozen...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Frown Baby Frown

Every now and again I get invited to a full-blown stick-it-in-and-have-some-cake Botox party. I try not to take it personally, which isn't that hard when the invitations arrive via email and are send out to virtually every mom in the Bay area. But it helps that I actually know I don't need any Botox injections. Why would I, when people look shocked when I tell them I have two children. I usually add 'but they're still very small', as if I that would justify it, but maybe I should start every conversation by stating that I am not a teenage mom. Because I'm not, you know. But jokes aside, even if my face would warrant Botox injections to rejuvenate myself (because I'm worth it), I'd decline. And now I have scientific proof that the use of Botox should be frowned upon. 

As you probably know, Botox paralyzes facial muscles. It is especially popular to deactivate those pesky frown muscles that show up when we're angry or sad. But a recent study shows that being able to frown is a necessary evil to understand said emotions. Patients scheduled for a first Botox injection were subjected to a reading task involving sentences with an angry, sad or happy component. After the patients had their treatment, reading time increased for the angry and sad sentences, but not for the happy sentences. Apparently, we need to be able to activate our frown muscles to be able to get in to the feeling and thus understand the sentences.

The moral of this study can be summarized by a quote from the Bible (or an African proverb, depending where you look):

'Sorrow is better than laughter; it may sadden your face, but it sharpens your understanding.'

But personally, I like this one better:
'The frowning face of a goat doesn't prevent it being taken to market.' Unfortunately, I am in the dark as to the meaning of this proverb.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Writings and ramblings...

I know I've been dreadfully absent. It's because of all the projects I am involved in and a couple of new writings I've been working on... but to make it up to you, I'll post a column I've been working on. It's in Dutch, sorry for those of you unable to read it. And after this week I'll be up and running again.

Uit eten in Amerika
Zes uur. Lekker uit eten met een vriendin. Come in, just follow me and I’ll get you guys seated! Te kort jurkje, benen tot aan d’r hoofd en hoge naaldhakken. Dank je. Ze gaat even een menu halen. Exit serveerster. Twee seconden later, enter serveerster. Vlak voor de tafel begint de fake smile met het over de top huppeltje. Hello, I’m Jenny, I’ll be your waitress for the evening. Here are your menus. Can I get you anything to drink? Hè, je had ons toch net al naar onze tafel gebracht? Had je toen niet kunnen zeggen wat je naam was? Maar goed. Uhm. Doe maar een cola. Sorry? O ja, een Coke. Diet or regular? Nou, doe maar een regular, hoor. En zij wil een Diet Coke, kan niet missen, hè. Ice? Ja, lekker, het is hier 34 graden en ik ben zwaar oververhit van de wandeling van de parkeerplaats naar het restaurant, dus wat verfrissing kan geen kwaad. Exit Jenny. Tien seconden later, enter Jenny met twee Cokes met ijs, één Diet, één regular. So, are you ready to order, yet? Nou, eigenlijk niet nee, we zitten nog maar net, en ik heb het menu van vijf pagina’s, het dagmenu, het kaartje met de specials en de restaurant-week special nog niet kunnen lezen. Zouden we nog even op de kaart mogen kijken? Sure you guys, let me know when you’re ready, ok? Tuurlijk, doen we, we zijn per slot van rekening hier gekomen om wat te eten, nietwaar? Exit Jenny. Tien seconden later, enter Jenny. Just checking in. Would you like to know about our specials? Die staan hier netjes op dit kaartje, toch? En we kunnen lezen dus het komt helemaal goed. Would you like a refill? Nou, als je het niet erg vindt, drink ik eerst even deze op. More ice? Nee hoor, er zit nog genoeg ijs in. Exit Jenny, huppelend op die verrekte naaldhakken. Wel twee minuten later, enter Jenny. How are you doing? Are you finding everything ok? Ja hoor, prima. We hebben toch zeker één hele pagina van het menu kunnen bekijken, maar doe maar het dagmenu. Sorry? BBQ-saus. O nee, wacht, doe maar ketchup. Exit Jenny.
Zo. Kunnen we even bijpraten. Hoe is het met jou? Hoe gaat het met je ve.... Nee, de soep was voor mij, zij had de salade. Zie ik eruit als een salade-persoon? Sjezus, kan het nog sneller. Nou goed, we slurpen wel wat langzamer. Wat? Nee, geen refill dank je, mijn maaginhoud is voorlopig dichtgevroren dankzij de hoeveelheid ijs in de vorige cola, dus tenzij je thee in de aanbieding hebt laat ik het hier even bij. Nee, grapje. Ik hoef geen thee. Nee, echt niet. Exit Jenny.
Echt waar? Moet hij veel overwerken, dan? Nou dat is ook... Hè? Nee, het gaat echt prima. Ja, het eten is heerlijk, hoor. Wel een beetje veel ketchup in de soep. Neehee, ik hoef geen refill. Nou goed dan, omdat je zo aandringt. Het is toch gratis, hè, en we blijven Nederlanders, ook al wonen we hier. Exit Jenny.
Wat zei je nou? Dat is ook wat. En wat zegt zijn baas er dan... Wat is er nu weer? O, dank je. Nee, je mag het bord meenemen. En hier is de lepel. Ik had hem nog in mijn hand. Ja gek he, ik had mijn laatste hap nog niet op. Maar goed. Neem maar mee. Hebben we eindelijk even een momentje rust.
Zijn baas dus. Nou, vervelend hoor. Ik zou als ik hem was... Wat? Nee, ik had de pasta, zij heeft de maaltijdsalade. Ja, bedankt. Nee, ik hoef geen refill meer, de bubbels van die twee cola’s beginnen me naar het hoofd te stijgen. Ook niets anders. Ja, doe maar wat Parmezaanse kaas. Nee, dat is wel genoeg, ik kan de pasta eronder niet meer zien, en mijn bord ziet eruit als een net uitgebarste Vesuvius. Lekker hoor.
Waar waren we? Hebben zijn collega’s er iets van gezegd? Dat is misschien wel... Pardon? Nee, je hebt me een minuut geleden toch al een refill aangeboden? Nou, weet je wat, kom maar gewoon door met die refills, kan mij het schelen. Ja, lekker. Ook ijs ja. En een citroentje? O, dat heb je dan weer niet. Nou, dan niet hoor. Ja, we roepen echt wel als we wat nodig hebben. Ga ik op de tafel staan schreeuwen en tapdansen, wees maar niet bang. Dahaggg.
Zijn collega’s zeggen er ook niets van? Dat is ook gek...Nee, geen refill had ik gezegd! O. Oké. Nee, dat wisten we niet. Fijn dat je het even meldt. We zullen de w.c. niet gebruiken. Wordt lastig met al die refills, maar goed.
Hoe voel jij je eronder? Nee, dat snap ik, dat is natuurlijk...Wat nu weer? Ja, neem maar mee. Ik heb geen honger meer na al die refills. Bedankt hoor. Sorry? Of ik er een bakje voor wil? Wat bedoel je daar nou weer mee? O. Nee, het is niet alsof ik die pasta morgen weer ga opwarmen. Die is morgen zo verlept dat ik ‘m zelfs niet opgestijfd krijg met die hoeveelheid ijsblokjes die je in mijn cola heb gedaan. Of ik dat zeker weet? Ja natuurlijk, ik weet toch zeker zelf wel wat ik wil. Een dessert? Nou, daar heb ik wel zin in. Ik kan wel een bak chocolade gebruiken om het beeld van je blikkerende nepglimlach van mijn netvlies af te vlakken. Prima, doe me die maar.
Jeetje zeg, wat naar dat jullie zo in een dip zi...Ja! Natuurlijk is die chocoladetaart voor mij. Denk je nou echt dat zij met haar graatmagere zandloperfiguur überhaupt durft te denken aan chocoladetaart? Ze ziet de grammen er al aankomen. Ja, ga maar weg. Hallo? Hallo? HALLO? Ik sta hier nu al vijf minuten met mijn handeren te wapperen, ik heb er geen vork bij gekregen. Beetje moeilijk eten zo, hè? Ja, bedankt. O, krijgen we direct de rekening? Goed hoor, ik wilde toch geen koffie. Doos. Die fooi kan ze ook op d’r buik schrijven.
Hoe laat is het eigenlijk? Half zeven. Jee, als ik me haast kan ik net de kinderen nog op bed leggen. Was gezellig, hè? Hebben we fijn even bij kunnen praten. Doen we snel nog een keer. En de groeten aan je vent!