Columnists


Photo Courtesy of the Zuckerman Institute

The neuroscience major is not unlike many at Columbia in that it is co-sponsored by two departments, psychology and biology. In fact, a little over half of Columbia majors share this structure of co-sponsorship. Ideally, each department communicates with its counterpart to design a robust, cohesive course schedule that draws from the expertise of the individuals in both disciplines.

However, a majority of courses in the neuroscience major retain their specific psychological or biologic identities without fully integrating the other, thereby falling short of a true neuroscience curriculum. I would like to emphasize that I do not believe individual professors are at fault, and I have truly enjoyed my time as a neuroscience major. However, I do believe that heightened interdepartmental communication could help improve the experience dramatically.

Despite efforts to heighten cross-disciplinary conversations, departments at Columbia largely remain insulated from one another. As each individual professor teaches their course, they are largely unaware of what material the students are already familiar with when entering their classes. To take a closer look, let us examine the course of a typical student in the Neuroscience and Behavior “Despite efforts to heighten cross-disciplinary conversations, departments at Columbia largely remain insulated from one another.(N&B) major at Columbia.

For a first-year interested in the major, a potential N&B student will likely fulfill their introductory chemistry requirement and take Science of Psychology in their first year. Neither course is neuroscience-specific, and both are lecture-style. While perhaps not ideal, such sizeable and nonspecific courses are typical for first-year students.

As a sophomore, the repetition becomes more readily apparent. On the psychology side of the major, N&B students can either take Mind, Brain, Behavior (MBB) or Behavioral Neuroscience. While both courses technically fulfill the ‘intro’ neuroscience requirement from the psychology side, they are very different.

MBB is the less science-heavy of the courses and is commonly taken by non-science majors to fulfill their science requirement for the Core. The syllabus can vary based on the professor, but in any given year the course content for these two classes has almost 70% overlapping material, plus a good amount of overlap with Science of Psychology. Some refresher material is a good thing and is useful to better understand new material. However, for three courses in the same department, two of which are required for N&B majors, this high amount of re-teaching is somewhat unnecessary when it instead could be spent learning new information.

Material overlap continues to be a significant concern on both sides of the major. In the rigorous two semesters of Professor Mowshowitz’s Introductory Biology course, at least a month is dedicated to neural mechanisms. Meanwhile on the psychology side, in the series of psychology lecture courses a N&B student may choose to take, the first few weeks are spent covering the same introductory material that these students have now encountered at least three times.

Continuing along the biology side, N&B students wade their way through pre-requisites only to enter their first neuroscience class in the year-long Neurobiology I&II sequence. Between these sequential courses a good deal of overlap still remains, with systems-level information taught in the cellular level fall course and cellular mechanisms covered again to teach systems in the spring.

The remaining requirements for the major include a non-neuroscience specific statistics course and a non-neuroscience specific additional biology course — for which a neuro-themed variant has not been taught since Fall 2013.

Overall, a common experience among N&B majors is a feeling of disjointed repetition and lack of neuroscience-specific courses catered to their needs and/or interests. I do not believe such a feeling is limited to frustrated neuroscience students — I have heard the same complaint expressed again and again by friends in various joint majors throughout Columbia College.

So what can be done to fix the glaring issues in the design of the N&B major? Ideally, the whole major would be restructured from the ground up to create a fully-integrated design. Realistically, the bureaucracy necessary for such an overhaul is untenable. Instead, I have a few simple proposals to streamline and vastly improve the experience of N&B majors at Columbia.

The greatest concern, of course, is the overlap of course materials. Luckily, each professor has a fair amount of leeway in their syllabi. Because of this freedom, I suggest that professors, responsible for N&B courses on the biology and psychology sides of the major, set aside one full working day at the beginning of each semester to overview syllabi with an eye for overlap.

I believe a good deal of the issue in being taught the action potential seven times is well-intentioned, with each professor unsure if the students have covered this material before. Such a semesterly meeting would eliminate the interdepartmental uncertainty and go a long way towards eliminating unnecessary repetition in courses.

Additionally, I propose expanding and integrating voluntary courses between the two departments by allowing more cellular-heavy neuroscience majors to focus in neurobiology courses, and psychology-heavy majors to spend more time on the psychology side. Allowing these electives outside of the ‘core’ major courses to be taken in either department would enable a range of students to unify within a single major.

From a scheduling perspective, neuroscience courses at a higher than introductory level must be offered on a regular basis. Here, the psychology department far outstrips biology, offering a wide range of rotating seminars. While still skewing towards psychology, some neuroscience-heavy courses are at least offered each semester from the psychology department.

Overall, I put forward a recommendation that Science of Psychology no longer be mandated for N&B majors, and instead it should be replaced by a comprehensive Behavioral Neuroscience introductory course tailored for N&B majors. With this change, Mind Brain Behavior can more specifically and more accessibly target a non-major audience, and Behavioral Neuroscience can serve as the sole prerequisite for Neurobiology I&II, allowing majors to take this course in their sophomore or junior year and leave space for more seminar-style neuroscience electives as upperclassmen taught by professors in their regions of interest.

With a graduating class of 65 majors last year, N&B is the eighth largest program within Columbia College, and has rapidly grown over the last few years. With the opening of the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, Columbia will only continue to attract the best and brightest neuroscience undergraduates. I believe that professors and administrators want to provide the best education possible to the student body — and that many of the problems within the N&B major can be solved by increased communication between the biology and psychology departments and some simple restructuring.

Image via NBC

I’ve been thinking a lot about NBC lately. I’m directing Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor this semester (shameless plug: come see it this weekend!), a hilarious and partly-true comedy that discusses the network’s decision to cancel the 1950’s SNL-like sitcom Your Show of Shows. In the play, NBC is depicted as a money-hungry corporate machine, and I’ve wondered about this every night when I finish running the show with my cast and return to my apartment to watch one of my many shows on none other than nbc.com.

Is NBC still a money machine? Some evidence would suggest that this remains the case. Take Dick Wolf, the procedural drama king, for example. He’s best known for SVU and Law and Order, but when he created Chicago Fire five years ago, he tapped into a niche market. A show about heroic firemen and women had everyone’s attention, and I was right there with the masses as we rooted for everyone at Firehouse 51– for Severide to defeat his drug addiction, for Casey and Dawson to finally get together, for everyone at the firehouse to save another life. At its beginning, Chicago Fire was extraordinarily entertaining, heart wrenching, and even inspiring (in 2013, I witnessed a car crash, and the first thought that ran through my head was to call 911 because I felt like I trusted the fire department more than I ever had before).

But then Chicago Fire took on a ridiculous plotline– Lieutenant Matt Casey was in a constant fight with crooked cop Hank Voight– and I literally cringed every time Voight took the stage. His character was completely unlikeable, and even since his spinoff Chicago P.D. began that year, I have yet to find a single reason to root for this abusive policeman. But I’ve been forced to watch Voight every week because I want to keep up with Chicago Fire, and crossovers are happening too often to ditch one of the shows.

In 2015, Wolf, always one to build on a franchise, added Chicago Med to the mix, which has surprisingly turned into the best in the Chicago series. Med’s staff has some of the most insightful characters of the whole Chicago franchise, and by now I really only watch any of these shows to see how Sarah helps her mentally ill patients, how Will continues to defy hospital policy, how April deals with her tuberculosis. But again, if I ever want to keep up with Med, I have to watch Fire and P.D.

About a month ago, Wolf iced off the cake with Chicago Justice, of which I could only get through two horrifically written (and acted) episodes before finally giving up. I get it– Dick Wolf wants to make more money– but is it really worth sacrificing this much quality? Chicago P.D. and Chicago Justice are probably two of the worst shows on television right now, and it’s an embarrassment to NBC to continue airing them.

Then again, NBC isn’t all that bad. They still produce Saturday Night Live, the best sketch show to hit TV since Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows itself. They host Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and The Voice. They were home to some of TV’s greatest shows like 30 Rock and The Office. And their biggest hit this season, This is Us, was exceptionally well-done. They thrive when they air comedies and variety shows, and for years Dick Wolf has been their go-to drama man.

NBC’s newest show, John Lithgow’s Trial & Error, also holds promise. I’ve only watched the first episode, but it left me laughing and wanting more. Whoever’s idea it was to pair Lithgow with Glee’s adorable Jayma Mayes deserves an Emmy for that alone. I wasn’t floored with laughter, but I was left hopeful, and the artistry behind the show made it clear that the producers weren’t in this for the money.

So I don’t think NBC has a money problem– I think they have a Dick Wolf problem. Maybe this time he has pushed the line between quality and quantity too far– and is on the verge of ruining NBC for everyone.

 

The Must-Binge List: After learning about the foundation of Mormonism in my religion class, I’m now three seasons deep into HBO’s Big Love, which follows a polygamist family in their daily lives. It’s a relatively old show, made especially poignant now by lead Bill Paxton’s recent death, but its messages still hold true today. While it has its ups and downs (you’ll have to bear with them as they drudge through the middle of Season Two), the show’s overall depiction of true human emotions is definitely worthwhile. Paxton plays the role of father/ husband/ patriarchal authority perfectly, and his three wives (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin) are equally impressive. Where other actors in the show lack (see: Amanda Seyfried as the painfully whiny daughter), the four leads are fantastic. My Grade: B

 

P.S.– Laughter on the 23rd Floor is playing Thursday, April 6th at 9pm, and Sunday, April 9th at 2pm and 7pm in the Kraft Center!

 

Currently, I am far too deep in NPR archives than I care to admit with the taste of stale coffee lingering on my lips, and surprisingly this procrastination trip has yielded fruitful insight that I want share with you.

So, NPR does this super dope project wherein it brings up-and-coming performing artists in to do an acoustic set in a tiny desk space, appropriately entitled the “Tiny Desk” series. In large part due to my avoidant behavior, and a smaller part of me that was looking for a potential reprise from the constant trap music that usually floats around in my head (fun side-note: your boss will in fact call you out if you sing about Percocet at work… just a heads up), I stumbled across a soulful rap artist named Noname. Her melodic, thoughtful words over soft jazz tones were just what I needed after what can appropriately be deemed a “rough week.”

Deeper into the performance, Noname herself elaborates more about why she chose to put these words together in this particular order (i.e. what her motivation was), a highlight of any concert in my opinion, but this particular articulation of her emotions really slapped me in the face. She said, “Thank you for appreciating my vulnerability. We should save the world with vulnerability.”

Noname has hit upon something so simplistically novel with this brief interlude. Maybe it was because I was sitting, staring at the blank research paper in front of me, pitying myself for the stupid decisions I’ve recently made (not just in terms of my biannual midterm crisis, but my personal life as well) but this statement kept lingering with me, begging for me to explore it just a bit deeper.

I think I can best describe her genius by emphasizing my own hesitancy at writing this piece. It’s hard to be witty, and careful, and protected behind trivial sexy words, when talking about a subject such as vulnerability. And saying that “I have recently made stupid decisions” is not something easy to burn explicitly into paper. Anxiety gnaws at the back of my head as I write this, whispering, “Just make sure he knows it’s not about him,” and begging me to not validate said illusive “him” with continued thought and emotion, but perhaps that is why discussing it is so important, so revolutionary.

Ironically, vulnerability has no name. Vulnerability is not that boy who “broke your heart” what seems like ages ago, or the friendship wherein amiability has become hyperextended. No, vulnerability is about you. Vulnerability is something only you can posses. As Noname states, “it is my vulnerability.”  The inherent problem in our society then is that our vulnerability is so deeply ingrained into our persona that when revealed to a wrong “other,” it becomes our own downfall. That’s where Noname’s revelation becomes extremely more complex.

Admitting vulnerability is antithetical to survival. This is a fact serving as the foundation of inter-state reactions: revealing vulnerability allows for the other state to use said vulnerability to its own likely aggressively-backed advantage, no matter what the original intentions of the “other” state may be. Tactically, if I am in a battle and I trumpet out, “Ay yo, I have left City Y unguarded,” my opponent would directly advantage by attacking City Y. Although in this situation showing your hand so bluntly initially comes off as stupid, it may actually be self-advantageous. If you put it out there that you understand this particular facet is weak, the other side cannot take advantage of your weakness with their own aggressiveness in a surprise attack. Moreover, you have made it clear that you are not so enchanted by your own strength to think that City Y could stand against the opponent on its own. You have already self-identified your own weakness, and manipulated it to your advantage, making it harder for the opponent to use it against you.

This is the tactic of vulnerability appreciation that Noname thinks can “save the world,” perhaps just one individual at a time. By recognizing that I cannot do something, while it makes me feel fucking stupid, and humiliated, and embarrassed at first, explicitly stating so will eventually inevitably put me back in control of the situation. No matter the person, if I lay out my weakness, they can no longer harm me by discovering it for themselves. I am not allowing for them to take my vulnerability from me, I keep it, along with whatever power over the situation I initially had. Vulnerability then can only harm me if I become disillusioned by it, if I refuse to listen to it, to engage with the possibilities its unavoidable presence inherently brings.

People are not wars. If I leave you with nothing else then this week, remember that, and go into this weekend with that mindset. Be fucking nice to someone. Appreciate their vulnerabilities. Appreciate your vulnerabilities. And I’ll be damned; maybe we’ll eventually be stronger for it.

 

As a transition from education to profession, college is the place where students have gone through lots of changes, and interpersonal relationships are definitely included. For example, let’s say a young and innocent college kid, Bob, has this feeling that although he is always getting to know new people, it is becoming more difficult for him to keep up with existing connections and friends. Of course, he has some “close friends” whom he keeps in touch with every day, but besides that, how close he is to “non-close friends” completely depends on how lucky they are to bump into each other on the way to Ferris Booth.

AbsentWeakStrong-HiRes-Tie-network

Graphic courtesy of Leadership Close Up

In our society, interpersonal relationships can be characterized as weak ties and strong ties. When you have a strong tie with someone, you keep up with him or her frequently and there are ways that you two meet or connect frequently — just think of someone in your housing group. When you have a weak tie with someone, one the other hand, you might still share a lot of common interests with that person, but for some reason you are connecting with him or her less frequently, and the cause of such infrequency could be unintentional — it might be because you two aren’t in the same class, or because you are living in Wien but your friend is living in Harmony and you don’t meet each other.

However, such infrequent connection could also, if not more likely, be caused by human calculation, and therefore we can actually draw a parallel between friendship and the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory. Yes, friendships can indeed be a game.

Let’s suppose we have two friends, Bob and Jim, and they know each other. One of the assumptions that we apply here is that Bob is a friend to Jim because Bob believes Jim will make him happy, and vice versa for Jim (I’m guessing you don’t to be friends with someone who makes you unhappy!). They both want to be very close to each other, but they are also aware that it takes some cost to keep up, for example if they hang out for an hour they lose an hour of study time, and therefore the more they want to connect, the higher the cost they have to pay to sustain a high level of connection.

In economics, we believe all happiness can be quantified, so we can do a simple experiment here to see how the outcome is derived. Suppose both Bob and Jim have two choices: either to connect the other one frequently or not. There is a special case: let’s say Bob chooses to connect with Jim frequently but Jim chooses to connect with Bob less frequently, what does each other gain out of this relationship? Remember since there is a cost of connecting, Jim will be better off choosing to connect frequently, because he is getting the same care and attention from Bob with a smaller cost. But, on the other hand, it will be hurtful, mostly emotionally, for Bob when he sees Jim is not giving him same attention and caring he deserves. We can characterize the situation in the following payoff matrix:

Picture1
If you have taken economic classes you can see what I mean by this matrix, and you know what Bob and Jim will choose to do.  If you are not familiar with economics, the basic idea behind this is that, because Bob knows he will be better off if when Jim contacts him frequently, he contacts Jim less frequently, Bob has an incentive to choose to connect Jim less frequently. But Jim faces the same situation and he will have an incentive to choose to connect less frequently and as a result, they will end up in a weak tie with each other.

It may seem disappointing in the beginning, but such incentives disappear as long as the game of friendship is being played repeatedly for a long time, and for a long time the real benefit of keeping a close relationship will outweigh the advantage of not returning to your friend once, and in such case a strong tie can be sustained. In other words, your relationship ends when you realize that there is an end of it, and upon such calculation from pure reasoning, there is a sentiment of friendship that we cherish.

Image courtesy of freshNYC

How would you describe yourself?

Most people can immediately come up with at least a few adjectives to summarize their personalities, and when these people are asked how well they know themselves on a scale of 1-10, the answers are overwhelmingly above 8. When asked to estimate if their ‘core’ personalities have remained consistent over time, the majority agree that while they have indeed changed, certain fundamental aspects of themselves remain the same.

People make important decisions based on the idea that personality continuity often underlies individual growth. You believe that person you choose to marry has essential qualities  which will remain good, that criminals have essential qualities which will remain bad, and that the people in your life all have dependable qualities. When attributing the incredible successes or failures of CEOs, celebrities, or pro-athletes, most tend to credit or blame their personalities.

While this convincing story pervades our culture, modern research indicates that this idea of an individual’s consistent personality is just a myth. A few months ago, the longest-running study on personality was published. Begun in 1947, teachers were asked to rate their fourteen-year old students on six personality traits. Sixty-three years later, researchers tracked down as many of the original participants as they could and analyzed their personalities.

Upon analysis, none of the six traits showed any significant stability across the time-span. While ideas about personality and experimental methods have changed drastically in the intervening decades, more modern neuroscientific research backs up these sorts of long-running surveys with fMRI studies of the changing brain.

While many ‘tests’ of personality exist on the internet, almost none of them hold any neuropsychological weight. This includes the famed Myers-Briggs model, which sorts individuals into sixteen distinct personalities according to four to five traits, each with a corresponding letter. If you have ever had someone tell you they are an ENFP, or INTJ, that’s the model they’re referring to. Though certainly entertaining, such tests have long-been discredited for being too myopic and binning people into binary categorizations.

Although many scientists disagree, the generally-accepted model of personality these days is the Big-Five, which gives individuals a rating from 1-100 on five distinct traits — Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. If you are interested, this is the best way to take it online.

Recently, neuroscientists have begun to examine how high scores on various factors in the Big Five might map onto brain structure. Using structural MRI, one team examined brain volume as it varies with brain region size, finding that extroverts had a larger medial orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region which processes reward. This area is heavily implicated in response to social reward, so it is  possible that extroverts enjoy social interactions because they supply them with a ‘hit’ of dopamine.

Increased scores on neuroticism correlate with bigger brain regions associated with threat, punishment, and negative behavior. It is possible that neurotic people feel the potential threat of a negative event more powerfully than those with smaller cingulate cortices, and therefore are more concerned over potentially troubling events.

Agreeableness correlated with a larger lateral prefrontal cortex, a region that loosely corresponds with planning and higher-order processing. Though they did not find a significant association with Openness, neuroscientists found some possible correlations with parts of the parietal cortex associated with integrating sensory stimuli.

While this study did not use functional MRI to tell us what regions are activated when exhibiting behaviors associated with these traits, there does appear to be some association between the sizes of these brain regions and an individual’s personality.

If psychology research tells us personality changes drastically over time, and neuroscience research indicates that our brains reflect our personalities, what underlying mechanisms in our brains are underlying these changes?

Some potential clues lie in memory research. A large body of evidence tells us that each time a memory is ‘accessed’, it is altered, sometimes dramatically, before going back into storage. As experiences pile up in our lifetimes, the memories we make are incorporated into the ways we face new information, and change the ways we make decisions.

The other massive factor in our decision-making comes from our surroundings — specifically, our social surroundings. The cultural norms which permeate a place can strongly influence how a personality changes over time, as new experiences permeate the neural wiring. With that in mind, it’s hard to think of a more distinct social environment in the U.S. than our home, New York City itself.

When asked what made a person a New Yorker, former mayor Edward Koch put it most succinctly: “you have to live here for six months, and if at the end of the six months you find you walk faster, talk faster, think faster, you’re a New Yorker.”  I have certainly found that a few years here have changed me in more ways than knowledge gained in the classroom — parts of my personality seem fundamentally altered by my time living in Columbia and in adapting to the the unique social norms such a city carries.

In a place as hectic, stressful, and sometimes isolating as New York City, the unconscious effect of environment likely affects us all. Combined with a student population of high-achieving and hard-working Columbians, it’s possible our particularly potent stress culture might be drawing heavily from the city itself for fuel. While we often talk about the culture-shock of NYC on many of our students during orientation weeks, we rarely take the time to analyze how exactly our city might be changing us.

Maybe the pressures of Columbian sub-culture paired with tough-it-out mentality of the city makes us feel busier and more focused, and therefore primes to think faster and act smarter. Maybe some of these changes are positive, learning how to ‘tough it out’ certainly has its benefits. But I’m more worried about the negatives, about how a city so known for indifference may be affecting our compassion and human integrity.

Luckily, any negative characteristics our brains may be picking up from the city aren’t permanent. The same neuroplasticity which hardened us can prioritize compassion again, if we make a conscious effort to make others as important as our busy schedules. We have the ability to change our own culture of Columbia and only let the positive aspects of the city in.