Category: Column

Uris Hall. Photo courtesy of Souren Papazian.

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Protesters at the opening of Uris Hall. Photo courtesy of WikiCU.

On the day Uris Hall was completed, students at the School of Architecture came out with signs that read “No More Mudds” and “No More Uglies,” and claimed that if they were to design something like Uris, they would fail their classes. The fact that Uris is a desecration of the McKim & White Beaux-Arts campus is, perhaps, the only consensus that Columbia students have ever arrived to. Although we may be used to Uris being there, it is important to take another look at it not so much to criticize it, but more so to understand the implications behind its history and its future trajectories.

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University Hall. Rogers’ project section and plan. Images courtesy of WikiCU.

Of course, the boxy structure was not always the plan for the central piece of the Northern part of the campus.  The original plan of the campus included University Hall, a horseshoe-like building that looked similar to the red-brick structures surrounding it. Due to a lack of funds, only the first floor of that building was completed in 1900. In 1927, Low was still overfilled with books, so a librarian proposed to expand it to the site of University Hall, and architect James Rogers produced drawings for the project. The project was massive, almost the size of St. John the Divine in plan, and, obviously was not built.

Instead of the library project monstrous in its massiveness, the university decided to build Uris Hall, monstrous in its brutal ugliness. When in 1959 the Business School received the permission to build on the site, University Hall was demolished. The only “legacy” of the U-shape of the original building is the circular library on the ground floor. The history of Uris Hall makes one wonder why Columbia settled on what some describe as a huge air-conditioning unit as the suitable design for the site. Well, the project was made possible by a generous donation of $2.5 million from the megabuilder Uris Corporation, under the condition that Uris Corporation itself would oversee the design process. That resulted in “an ugly box that was devised to be cheap and quick to erect, featuring a hideous glass curtain wall and mill finish aluminum as its exterior,” as described in Everything by Design: My Life as an Architect by Alan Lapidus, who was a student at the School of Architecture during the building’s construction and completion.

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Left: Uris Hall. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Right: Low Library. Photo courtesy of Columbia University.

Uris Hall claims to be a continuation of the original campus, geometrically referencing Low Library. Uris, especially with the 1984 addition of a front lobby, is similar to Low in size, its steps leading to the entry reference Low Steps, its vertical elements reference Low’s columns, concrete matches Low in color, and the plan of Uris is sort of a deconstructed version of Low’s Greek cross plan with a circular dome. However, the failure of this design is that it replaces Low’s majesty and elegance with aggressiveness. Lapidus remembers the day of Uris’ opening: “Watching from our fourth floor studio windows as the powerful, the great, and the near-great and the near-powerful assembled to honor and glorify the despoliation of a classic campus design – crass commercialism disguised as largesse – all of us architect hopefuls were filled with disgust.” McKim & White’s plan of the campus is not a frozen moment in time – it was designed as framework for interpretation and negotiation, as proven by various other buildings on campus, from Butler to NoCo, that were not a part of the original plan but became a harmonious part of it.  Uris does not fit in not because it is more contemporary than its neighbors are, not because of its brutalist aesthetic, not because it doesn’t reference the old campus enough, but because it is a manifestation of commercialistic cockiness on the otherwise elegant campus.

Now that the Business School is looking forward to its relocation to the Manhattanville campus, President Bollinger promised the building to the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, which comprises five of Columbia’s schools, including CC, GS, and GSAS. Bollinger’s vision is to make Arts & Sciences the focus of the Morningside Heights campus. As much as Uris is an architectural stain on Columbia’s campus, it is revealing of the university’s politics, especially in the 1950s-1960s. These decades are exemplified by the school’s projects and decisions that were at best mediocre (e.g. Uris,) at worst scary and discriminatory (e.g. Morningside Park gymnasium a.k.a. “Gym Crow”) from architectural, social, and political points of view. Uris could not reign in its ugliness because its ugliness goes beyond its boxiness. In this context, giving the space of Uris to the Arts & Sciences, whose mission is to “advance the pursuit of learning and communicate that intellectual and moral heritage to successive generations of students,” will potentially create interesting dynamics on campus.

An article published in the Cheyenne State Leader in 1913 reveals the racist attitudes and propaganda surrounding the use and effects of marijuana at that time. (Wyoming Newspaper Project)

Article published by Cheyenne State Leader (1913) Wyoming Newspaper Project

The United States is the largest consumer of cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, and marijuana in the world. The United States also holds the world’s largest prison population, with almost 25% of the world’s prisoners, despite only making up about 4% of the total world population. Drugs have always been deeply rooted in America’s history, and, unfortunately, so has racism. Black and Latino Americans make up almost 80% the federal prison population and nearly 60% of state prison populations for drug transgressions. The numbers alone propose a problem in our nation’s past and current drug policies and legal attitudes, as a study conducted by Duke University professor of psychiatry Dr. Dan Blazer found that White Americans were more likely to abuse drugs than Black and Latino Americans. While many prominent political figures fail to acknowledge the explicit problems in our current criminal justice system, many social and political forces have been pushing to ameliorate our failing policies. Of the many proposed plans, the legalization of drugs has been a continued suggestion.

Learning from the United States’ disastrous Prohibition era, offering to legalize and regulate the sale and consumption of certain drugs as a solution is not a radical idea. Politicians on both sides of our bipartisan system have supported the legalization, or at least the decriminalization of, nearly harmless, marijuana. Eight states so far have legalized weed’s recreational use and commercial sale (Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts), and thirteen more states have decriminalized it (Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont). While altering the legality of marijuana may be a small feat in reforming our criminal justice system, it is without a doubt a step in the positive direction.

The prohibition of cannabis was unequivocally enacted under unscientific and misinformed foundations. Harry Anslinger, the man responsible for the illegality of marijuana, was a fierce prohibitionist. In 1930, President Hoover appointed Anslinger as the first commissioner of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics. From this point on, Anslinger began tackling drugs utilizing falsified information and with little regard to scientific and psychological studies. Anslinger often cited a fear-inciting story of the murderous effects of drugs (which is speculated to be fabricated or at least not completely accurate). In addition, Anslinger declared drug addicts to be “infectious,” stating that one addict worked to create seven others, according to the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drug written by Johann Hari. Anslinger progressed to utilize racism to shake up the American public to follow his zealous anti-drug ideology. It is often a point of contention, however, if whether Anslinger’s racism is what led many of his cruel declarations of drugs (being that many illicit substances came from the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas), or if it was his hatred for narcotics themselves that led him to use racism as a medium to shake up the American public. Nonetheless, racism became a prominent medium of anti-drug policies.

Anslinger’s vicious attacks on marijuana led to some of his most racist declarations. Unable to find instances of marijuana that could lead to mass fear in the public, Anslinger began using deep racism and xenophobia already ingrained in American society. Associating marijuana with people of color, Anslinger declared “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” He went even further asserting that the outlawing of marijuana was primarily due to the “effect on the degenerate races.” As Mexican immigrants began arriving in the United States to meet demands for labor, many brought marijuana with them, as it was a traditional part of Mexico’s social environment (much like what cigarettes were for White Americans mid-20th century). It is also worth noting that hemp had been used in American and European cultures for centuries. In Herodotus’ Histories, it is mentioned as a bathing agent,

“The Scythians put the Seeds of this HEMP under the bags, upon the burning stones; and immediately a more agreeable vapor is emitted than from the incense burnt in Greece. The Company extremely transported with the scent, howl aloud; and this Manner of purification serves instead of washing: For they never bathe their bodies in water” (381).

Neglecting historical reality, anti-drug advocates began using marijuana to demonize Mexicans. Anslinger stated that marijuana consumption caused Mexicans to rape and murder white Americans. Newspapers all over the country ate the xenophobic rhetoric:

“Was it marijuana, the new Mexican drug, that nerved the murderous arm of Clara Phillips when she hammered out her victim’s life in Los Angeles? … THREE-FOURTHS OF THE CRIMES of violence in this country today are committed by dope slaves— that is a matter of cold record.” – Annie Laurie, columnist – Hearst Newspapers

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 used the frequented schema of men of color harming white women. As drugpolicy.org explains, “During hearings on marijuana law in the 1930’s, claims were made about marijuana’s ability to cause men of color to become violent and solicit sex from white women.”

Evidently, the legalization of marijuana has actually taken far too long. Positive effects of regulating and taxing the commercial sale of marijuana have been seen in states and cities that have legalized recreational marijuana. Colorado has experienced an incredible decrease in crime and sharp increases in tax revenue for public education. As a man of color, the legalization of a substance that has been historically used to criminalize us, demonstrates that as a society, we are moving towards having a nation that protects the humanity of all its inhabitants.

(If one is curious about how marijuana consumption affects the body, a simple Google search and a critical comparison between alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana will help).

Instead of being in classes this week, I had the pleasure of heading out to San Diego to attend the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting. Every year a community of around 30,000 neuroscientists gather to present their research, meet up with old colleagues, form new connections, and talk about the future of neuroscience.

Just like the rest of the country, attendees of the conference were overwhelmingly focused on the recent election results. In every panel and poster session, throughout the convention this year it was hard to avoid the implications in Washington’s change in leadership.

They have good reason to be concerned. Science chiefly relies on public money to pay for basic research and development, with 85% of the funding used for neuroscience research coming from federal agencies, chiefly the National Institute of Health (NIH). While a common belief in the scientific community holds that NIH funding increases when Democrats are in power, the truth is more complex than that.

Historically, when the House is under Republican control, funding for science decreases by six billion dollars on average, or approximately one fifth of the total yearly NIH budget. Generally aligning with stereotypes, a Republican presidency means increased defense spending, and less spending on all other aspects of science-related research.

But this upcoming government as many, many think-pieces have already elaborated upon, is not a typical Republican-controlled cycle. Last year, President-elect Donald Trump said on a conservative radio show that, “I hear so much about the NIH and it’s terrible.” On the other hand, Newt Gingrich, one of his closest advisors, has repeatedly called for doubling the NIH’s budget.

In Congress, Republicans are frequently divided on this issue. The powerful and populist Freedom Caucus, whose supporters are partially responsible for Mr. Trump’s rise, wants to slash funding for scientific research by arguing that the NIH spends money on frivolous projects. The current director of the NIH, Francis Collins, fired back that the effective 22% in budget cuts over the last decade has slowed the NIH’s ability to respond effectively to health crises, such as the recent Ebola scare.

For neuroscience funding specifically, Obama’s tenure in the White House has been a positive development. In 2013, the Obama administration launched the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN Initiative, to dramatically increase neuroscience funding over the next decade in the hopes of making progress on various neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, depression, and traumatic brain injuries. This initiative has provided over 300 million dollars of funding a year to neuroscientists throughout multiple arms of government funding, and has already helped advance a deeper understanding of how the brain is wired through the Human Connectome Project. While the BRAIN Initiative has a plan laid out for the next twelve years, it is up to Congress to approve its continuing budget on a yearly basis.

While climate researchers have good reason to fear for their funding sources and defense agencies await a bump in their budgets, the future of neuroscience research is entirely unclear. While once previously considered a non-partisan agency, the NIH has increasingly needed to defend its decisions against criticism from primarily Republican opponents, and neuroscience research has specifically benefited from the Obama administration.

However, significant bumps in NIH funding in the years following the government shutdown from a Republican-controlled Congress may bode well for the future of research funding. Ultimately, it’s up to the Trump administration to decide if this vital research is worth continuing. Until then, neuroscientists will just have to wait.

Uniquely Human runs alternative Mondays. To submit a comment or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

Photo Courtesy of James Xue (SEAS ’17)

And we’re back! Hi folks! I apologize for my recent absence of posts; I was traveling and then what I like to refer to as the “election explosion of chaos” occurred. I know what you’re all thinking… “Great, another article on Trump”. But fear not! I promise to only mention our good ol’ president elect once.

Today I want to talk about a concept I’ve been wrestling with recently: the role of age in relationships. My findings would suggest that things do in fact get better with age, BUT our proclivity for conflict also increases, essentially just making relationships a gigantic pain in the ass. So, “you’re going to suffer… but you’re going to be happy about it.” (Please note that this is definitely a Harry Potter reference, and not some weird/kinky Fifty Shades of Grey bullshit.)

There is a tendency in today’s society to think that younger people are more reckless, ready to throw the first punch or spit the first insult. However, recent Conflict Resolution Researchers have disproved this stereotype. After examining 100,000… I repeat, 100,000 cases, throughout the years, these researchers came to the conclusion that “in general, as the age of leaders increases, they become more likely to both initiate and escalate militarized disputes.” Insert a worried glance towards our post-January, and every so wrinkly, future White House here.

While at first I found these conclusions profound, the more I thought about them in terms of dating, the more obvious they became. As a twenty year old, I can safely say that I have been in maybe one serious relationship conflict. And honestly, that makes complete sense. In comparison to an older dating pool, I simply don’t have as much time or experience, two very potent ammunitions for conflict. Basically, there is a lot more to be pissed off about the longer you’re around.

The researchers also found that “in personalist autocratic regimes… as the leader’s age increases, the relative risk of conflict declines relative to the rising risk of conflict associated with aging leaders in other types of regimes.” I think this conclusion is very suggestive of a certain phenomenon in the age-relationship rhetoric, i.e. the cougar. I must admit, while writing this I couldn’t get a picture of Putin dressed as a Mrs. Jones character, listening to “Forever Young” out of my mind.

After fighting for so many years, I think both the dictator and the cougar are just looking for some sweet simplicity in their lives (obviously using slightly different tactics to achieve this). While dating a younger partner is sometimes frowned upon, I think it provides an understandable reprieve from the war caused by time that inevitably surrounds the elder’s more typical relationships.

All that being said, I personally look forward to getting older. Not because I am looking forward to more conflict in my life, but because I think conflict so often yields growth. I am ready to fight, and consequently grow, my way into a relationship that is right for me. And hell, if that doesn’t work, I’ll start taking notes from Mrs. Jones or Madonna. The following link provides more information on the research I’ve discussed in this article.

“Sex and the City… and Deterrence” runs alternate Fridays. To contact the writer or submit a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com

Although I had intended to continue the series on the neuroscience of education, when I sat down to write a column a day before the United States votes for a new president, many new senate members, and hundreds of ballot measures, I’ve found that this election has truly consumed us all. So instead, today’s column will be dedicated to the young realm of neuropolitics – and what ramifications neuroscience may have for tomorrow’s vote.

Although contentious elections are nothing new, this cycle certainly feels more polarizing than years past. Many people on both sides are in disbelief as to how supporters of the opposing candidate could possibly overlook the horrible things they’ve said or done. Both sides are utterly confident that not only are they correct, but that all the facts support their position. Here is where fMRI has an answer.

In one of the first studies of its kind right before the 2004 elections, 30 self-identified ‘strong’ Democrats and 30 Republicans reviewed John Kerry and George W. Bush making self-contradictory statements while having their brains imaged. In an experience familiar to anyone who has tried this tactic against a member of the opposing party, the participants were critical of the hypocrisy in the opposing candidate while letting their own candidate off easy. While that result is predictable, the fMRI results were not at all.

The participants achieved this feat of mental gymnastics by quieting down the part of their brains necessary for impartial reasoning like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and instead lighting up emotional circuitry such as the amygdala, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the insula, which will all be important later. Specifically, an area of the brain called the basal ganglia lit up, which is, among other tasks, responsible for rewarding selective behaviors with dopamine. Effectively, partisan brains were triggering dopamine rushes for ignoring the issues in their own candidates’ statements and criticizing their opponents. Once entrenched, it seems very difficult to combat confirmation bias by rational arguments when the ‘rational argument’ part of the brain is offline during these discussions.

The differences that divide us seem to run deeper than confirmation bias. A growing body of research shows some fundamental wiring differences in the brains of liberals and conservatives. One study was actually able to use brain regions of interest from an fMRI to determine political affiliation with 83% accuracy, which is over 10% higher than the next-best factor of parent’s ideology. In general, a conservative brain will more strongly react to disgust and react with more emotionality to uncertain concepts or events, thanks to a larger and more active insula and right amygdala.

Liberals, on the other hand, are less fearful of new stimuli and less reactive to negative events, and more likely to adapt to changes in established patterns. Some of these effects can be attributed to their larger and more reactive anterior cingulate cortex, which has long been known to monitor and mediate conflicting information. From the psychology side of things, personality data shows that conservatives value loyalty, stability, and are both risk- and change-averse.

Meanwhile, liberals are more likely to change their opinions and base decision-making on new information, specifically the kind of fact-heavy information that activates the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Without placing a value judgement on either ideology, it seems that biological differences in how people process and respond to information aligns with ideological differences.

Of course it’s important to keep in mind that the brain is a highly plastic structure, so there’s a classic chicken-and-the-egg problem in play here. Twin studies, long the gold standard for measuring genetic influence, attribute somewhere between 40 to 60% of political preference up to genetics, as manifested by differences in brain structure. It’s also possible, even likely, that slight anatomical differences might snowball into bigger ones if those neurological pathways are strengthened by continued exposure to politically charged information.

As with much of neuroscience, it’s sometimes unnerving to think about how our decisions are so frequently based on the activation of subcortical structures, not conscious thought. While we may find it difficult how someone could possibly vote for the other candidate, perhaps political neuroscience can contribute some understanding to the underlying motivations that determine political choices. So as we decide on a new president this Tuesday, give a thought to those scientists trying to figure out what’s going on in your brain while you’re making that oh-so-important choice.  

Uniquely Human runs alternative Mondays. To submit a comment or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.