Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cells = Organisms?

I just finished reading this brief article about the history and (somewhat) current state of cell culture engineering. My academic background has been almost entirely focused in the physical sciences, so I am continuously amazed by the body of common knowledge that exists in the life sciences.

The article states that the methods used to maintain cell cultures are very consistent and reproducible. However, one of the main limitations to maintaining cell cultures over a long period of time is that the individual cells adapt to their artificial environment and begin to take on traits that are different from the primary cultures. I was not expecting this; normally, I am used to the idea that organisms adapt to external stimuli. Of course, an adaption by an organism could be argued as being caused by changes at the (sub)cellular level, but still I am amazed that the individual and basic units of life behave much like the larger organisms they conspire to form, despite their much smaller degree of complexity.

I also found it interesting that massive vats of cultures are used to produce many therapeutic drugs and biochemicals. This too could be considered common sense, but for a humble physicist who remains naive on the subject of biology and medicine it is very much different than the common image of drugs being harvested by dutiful lab technicians from individual Petri dishes.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I wished to live deliberately

An article in the New York Times about a seven day rafting and hiking trip taken by a few neuroscientists has been making its way around my circle of friends lately. This article in part inspired my previous post and takes a scientific (as opposed to philosophical) look at the relaxing effects of a vacation and time spent away from distractions, namely those caused by technology.

Interesting excerpts from the article and my thoughts:
The study indicates that learning centers in the brain become
taxed when asked to process information, even during the
relatively passive experience of taking in an urban setting. By
extension, some scientists believe heavy multitasking fatigues
the brain, draining it of the ability to focus...
Behavioral studies have shown that performance suffers when
people multitask. These researchers are wondering whether
attention and focus can take a hit when people merely anticipate the arrival of more digital stimulation.
This suggests that some neuroscientists believe that the total amount of mental processing power available during a given time is limited and quantifiable. I interpret the second paragraph as meaning that the brain is capable of performing a limited number of tasks at a time, and when a person is anticipating inputs, the act of anticipation takes away from the available processing power.

The comparison of the brain to a PC might be a dangerous one. Our ideas and preconceptions with how a PC works might cloud our understanding of the actual working principles of the brain.

“To the extent you have less working memory, you have less space for storing and integrating ideas and therefore less to do the reasoning you need to do.”
Neuroscientists quantify this processing power in terms of something called working memory. This could be analogous to RAM in a PC.
Mr. Kramer says he wants to look at whether the benefits to the brain — the clearer thoughts, for example — come from the experience of being in nature, the exertion of hiking and rafting, or a combination.
It is not clear what specific aspects of a vacation can lead to more attentive thought. A parent who has to herd three children through Disney World is not likely to experience the same benefits of a vacation as someone who went hiking for a few days with one or two other adults.
Even without knowing exactly how the trip affected their brains, the scientists are prepared to recommend a little downtime as a path to uncluttered thinking. As Mr. Kramer puts it: “How many years did we prescribe aspirin without knowing the exact mechanism?"
There's really nothing new in terms of the perceived benefits of such a vacation. The real challenge is correlating changes in the brain---electrical activity, blood flow, etc.---to feelings of relief and increased attentiveness.

I also often wondered about one particular point while reading the article. The author speaks about performing better or to our "cognitive potential." In what sense is our thinking made better by removing an abundance of digital stimuli? While the quality of any one particular project may suffer if a person is inundated with digital information, could not the increase in the work output make up for it (if such an increase actually exists)?

Friday, August 20, 2010


I'm back from my trip to Hawaii (specifically, Kauai). It  was an amazing trip, the first half of which consisted of a hike along the Kalalau Trail to the Na Pali Coast. Before I set out, I established a rule for myself such that I would allow my brain to wander and think on any topic freely and without effort; in this way I hoped to allow my thoughts to constantly cycle in both my conscious and unconscious and eventually settle into some logical structure. Immediately prior to the hike I had been focusing entirely upon my candidacy exam for the better part of two months and had been having difficulties in processing any new information. Vacations are a great time to let things settle in one's brain and make room for more knowledge.

So why talk about any of this? I did at least come to one philosophical realization that I think is worth mentioning. I have for a long time felt that the feeling of complete and total relaxation that accompanies camping after a long day of backpacking is made possible by the extreme effort that a backpacker puts into a hike. In other words, to truly relax one must really work hard. On this particular hike, I realized that there is a reciprocal relationship here: to do quality work, one must really relax. Like I said above, if one's thoughts aren't allowed to settle, then one can't really make the best of his or her time spent working.