On Oxford

Oxford is quite a bit larger than Cambridge, which isn’t a remarkable feat, and still leaves it small enough to across the city centre in 30 minutes – if you can get through the crowds, that is.

There are an incredible number of tourists in Oxford. I think that the majority of pedestrians in the city are in fact tourists on most days. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but I would say that they are the single largest reason for slowing down pedestrian traffic in the city. I can understand the occasional bunch of tourists standing outside a college blocking everyone’s way. I can tolerate young tourists ‘mall-walking’ across the pavement; I certainly had to in Cambridge.

But I just can’t stand the sheer number of tourists choking the streets; they’re on the verge of overwhelming my not inconsiderable skills at crowd navigation. The classic strategies such as slipstreaming and the old ‘step and pivot’ are useless in the face of a solid wall of sightseers.

Anyway. I will have to live it with.

More neuroscience

The theme of today’s conference sessions was on attention, on which William James famously said, “Everyone knows what attention is.” (I never want to hear that phrase again. Ever. I heard it enough today)

I wasn’t too enamoured with the first three talks today, which were arguably given by the big-hitters of the conference. I didn’t think that any of them were particularly compelling speakers and they assumed quite a lot of knowledge on the part of the audience, which is mostly composed of graduates, many of whom didn’t even specialise in neuroscience or experimental psychology.

Kia Nobre, from Oxford, gave an interesting talk about imaging the system that controls attention in the brain, but alas my brain isn’t working properly and I can’t recall what she said. Clearly some sort of cue is in order…

John Marshall, also of Oxford, talked about spatial cognition and whether it’s a right hemisphere specialization. Well, that’s what the title of the talk was – in actual fact, he ended up talking about perceptual neglect, which is an interesting enough subject, especially when considering Bisiach’s imaginal neglect, but I don’t think he said anything particularly new or interesting. That’s not true – he did say one interesting thing, which didn’t have much to do with his talk.

He said that rather than spending our time trying to figure out the anatomical specialisation of different parts of the brain (e.g., insisting that Broca’s area of the brain is only about language), we should instead think that one region in the brain might have a number of specialised functions depending on what neural circuits are active at that time. A useful insight.

Next was Prof. Stephanie Clarke of CHUV, Switzerland. She has this interesting idea that much like the dorsal and ventral streams of processing in the visual system, there are ‘where’ and ‘what’ streams in the auditory system. She presented some histological evidence for this, which was a bit refreshing to see in the conference overburdened with psychophysical experiments, although of course she had her own psychophysical experiments as well to prove the functional point. These experiments basically showed a double-dissociation between recognition and localisation of hearing. Very intriguing stuff.

The last talk was by Geraint Rees, of UCL. This was quite controversial. Rees is an excellent speaker, and he talked about his experiments into proving that awareness (and thus conscousness) resides in the parietal cortex (or at least, in the cerebral cortex) by a clever and peculiar fMRI experiment involving subjects ‘merging’ two different images and involuntarily switching between the images.

The general consensus is that while it was a very clever experiment, of the sort that Nature likes to publish, his conclusions were a bit too ambitious and he had a few too many assumptions…

At the end of the day’s sessions, there was a brief discussion that involved how genes might determine brain function. One of the speakers speculated about how we might have to consider that genes statistically alter the growth of various neuronal regions and bias them towards being able to learn and specialise in certain areas, e.g. facial recognition.

It was at this time, about 5:20pm, that I came up with an idea. I was a bit tired and thinking that I might like to leave the lecture room but couldn’t really because I was sitting in the middle of a row and someone was talking. I then thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could just transfer my consciousness into multiple locations so I could keep an eye on different events – a bit like being on the Internet and participating in several IRC chats at the same time. Not a new idea, I know, but it was quite vivid at the time.

Tomorrow is the last day of the conference, but it won’t give me much respite because I have a symposium to attend on Friday. Five straight days of having to wake up at 8am… I honestly don’t know how I’ll still be alive by this weekend.


So Bhisma has requested a few long posts on the cognitive neuroscience conference I’m currently attending in Oxford (that’s my life – one long, endless round of conferences…). The conference, properly named the Autumn School in Cognitive Neuroscience, began on Monday at the Department of Experimental Psychology. Some thoughts on the sessions:

First talk was by Heidi Johansen-Berg from Oxford on ‘Plasticity of movement representations in disease’. Basically about the problems of investigating remapping of function to different brain areas (elicited by brain trauma), monitored by fMRI. The problem is that of correlation and causation; is the remapping a direct consequence of the trauma, or merely epiphenomenal? Heidi advocates using transcranial magnetic stimulation to tease out of the causation to test the functional relevance of the areas in question in human subjects. Seemed interesting to me, but nothing world-shattering.

Oh, and she mentioned something called DTI – diffusion tensor imaging, which is a way of using fMRI to map out neurones and blood vessels in the brain. Very neat stuff. It works by tracking the self-diffusion of protons, and from that you can infer fibre direction. Check Catani et al, Neuroimage, 2002.

Next talk was by Roger Lemon of UCL. I know this guy because he’s a collaborator with a guy who worked down the corridor in Cambridge. I have serious issues with his use of multi-unit neuronal recording in brains. That’s about it – he did talk about the importance of oscillations in neurones that might serve as a ‘sensorimotor working memory’ to ensure a constant and appropriate level of force while grasping objects.

Nothing hugely interesting for the rest of the day until Daniel Wolpert’s talk (UCL) in the afternoon. Wolpert is an excellent speaker and he talked about his theory of how all human movement is governed by a requirement to reduce the uncertainity of final limb position, given the fact that there is inevitably noise generated when moving limbs in the first place. Touched on the difficulty of tickling yourself, and Bayesian estimates for the uncertainty of the body’s own sensors.

Today started off with a talk about Janette Atkinson on kids suffering from Williams’ Syndrome. A good talk, except for the fact that it was identical to the one given by her at the Festival of Science last year in Leicester. Oh well.

Kate Watkins (formerly of McGill, now Oxford) talked about using a new technique of ‘Brain morphometry’ to help map out the brain and investigate differences in brain morphology between patients with brain trauma and controls. Not so bad, but I have concerns about the methodology of exactly how ‘morphometry’ works. I imagine I will have to read a paper or two on this to make an informed comment.

Kate Plaisted (Cambridge) discussed her theory of ‘reduced generalisation’ to explain both the social and non-social aspects of autism. We all know that autists are very good at distinguishing very small differences in objects or things that most normal people wouldn’t even notice – this is why autists can solve jigsaw puzzles by simply looking at the shape of the pieces, rather than the pictures on them. Kate argues that the downside of this is that they aren’t good at generalising the similarities between objects and things, which leads to lots of problems down the road – including social deficits.

An interesting theory, that again I will have to read up on. I asked a question at the end, about whether she feels her theory is in conflict with Baron-Cohen’s Theory of Mind (that she briefly mentioned). She basically thinks that it is. I am a bit worried about this because I feel that Baron-Cohen’s theory is awfully convincing as well. She also doesn’t like his idea that ‘autism is an extreme form of the male mind’ – but then, neither do most people.

The last talk today was by John Stein, on ‘The magnocellular theory of dyslexia’. This was great stuff, if very controversial. Stein basically thinks that a great deal of dyslexia, and similar cognitive deficits, can be explained by problems in the magnocellular component of the visual system (the retinal ganglion cells, remember?) – and the putative ‘magnocellular auditory system’ which most people don’t think even exists.

Apparently dyslexics generally have a very reduced magnocellular system which means that they aren’t good at all at stablising their vision, resulting in blurry vision – and blurry text when reading. Why is this so? Several reasons. Dyslexics have an uncommonly high number of auto-immune problems that could explain the reason for an impaired magnocellular system (the growth of which is, appropriately enough, governed by the immune system) and they are also lacking in essential fish oils. By this, he means HUFAs – highly unsaturated fatty acids – that make up an essential component of cell membranes that accelerate the action of ion channels.

Some interesting factoids from his talk: 3/4 of people in jail are illiterate. Half of those in jail are dyslexics. Dyslexia is one of the biggest causes of family strife and misery. Furthermore, the state of literacy in the western world is such that 20% of people in the UK and USA are unable to find the word ‘plumber’ in the Yellow Pages.

All in all, the conference has been interesting. There have been some boring talks, to be sure, but there have been some interesting ones. I have fallen asleep for roughly the average amount of time I normally do during lecture (maybe 10-15% of the time). I’ve met a lot of interesting people in neuroscience, and amazingly enough, despite the fact that this is the sixth conference I’ve been to, it’s the very first academic conference related to my actual line of research.

Mefi photos

Metafilter UK Oxford meetup photos – a highly geeky and highly successful meetup of Metafilter UK members, featuring drinks, noodles, more drinks, a run-in with the police, a gig in a dive bar, yet more drinks and ice cream. I had a lot of fun and met a bunch of very interesting people; hopefully another one will be organised soon.

Lack of imagination

Once again we are at that special time of year when the GCSE and A-Level results are announced for secondary school students here in the UK. There’s almost no point reading the newspapers since they always run the same stories. If the results for an exam improve, that’s because it’s getting easier. If they get worse, it’s because of lowered standards. There’ll be a few people complaining that they didn’t get into Oxbridge with ten A’s at A-Level, and of course there are the stories about the child wonders.

This year it seems that an eight year old boy gained an A* at Maths GCSE. Funny that, how it’s always a Maths or Computer Science exam that people seem to get first. (My take is that GCSE Maths and similar subjects are trivially easy for kids who have the right sorts of minds; there’s nothing inherently difficult about simultaneous equations or calculus, it’s just that they’re boring and most people can’t be bothered putting the effort in.)

There was also another story last week about a 13 year old boy who was expected to get a bunch of A-Levels and had been refused entry to university because he was too young. I find this crazy. There is absolutely no way that a 13 year old can get the best out of university; quite apart from not being able to drink, it’s just not legal for a 13 year old to live on their own. So say you go with your parents; well, that kind of kills off any possibility of living a normal independent university life.

But that’s not the main problem I have with kids doing exams so early and wanting to go to university. My problem is that there are far more interesting and useful things to do than take exams at such an early age. This doesn’t mean that they should spend all their time playing football and mucking about; rather, it means that if they are interested in, say, computers or science, they could try their hand at programming a game or devising experiments. Just not exams!

When I was at San Diego, there was a 16 year old schoolboy in the lab who had been there for a year designing and running his own psychological experiments. He was very sharp and a very nice guy, and I was happy to see that instead of taking a load of pointless exams (who needs ten A-Levels?) he was doing something interesting and productive. Plus, I’m willing to bet that university admissions officers will be more impressed with the three papers he’ll have published than a couple of high exams marks.

I agree that there is a point to doing exams, but I feel that it’s an unconscionable waste of time pushing kids to do a bunch of exams five years ahead of normal. There are so many better things to do.

Oxbridge admissions

While idly browsing through an Oxbridge admissions website, I came across a report of an interview written by someone who applied to the same course at the same college as I did, but a year later. Curious to see if they’d changed anything, I checked out the questions this person was asked at interview.

Practically nothing had changed – this person was asked exactly the same questions that I had been (enzyme kinetics, sketch y=xsinx). The only differences were due to the fact that there was a physics bias instead of a chemistry bias. Incredible. This just goes to show that if you’re on the ball, you can really get an unfair advantage at interviews by using the Internet.