Friday, June 30, 2006

Scent and Sensibility

This morning I awoke to the smell of jasmine. My plant survived our trip to Philly under the care of a friend, who despite having a self-described "not great track record" with plants, managed to keep most of them alive. Two bit the dust but that was just due to over attention. They got too much water. When I left, the jasmine plant's soil was mud under the topsoil. It must have liked that because when I returned home it had shot out three new stalks which grow blazingly fast. Ten inches in a few days! It hasn't bloomed after its initial blow out that was underway when it came home from the Despot. I was warned that they are finicky and difficult. No worries my main man said I have a "green thumb." A year ago at this time that would have been a ridiculously optimistic statement; however, it turns out I do actually have a knack for it. Gardening is a lot like grooming so I suppose it comes naturally. I was rewarded for my attentiveness this morning with a solo yet intensely fragrant blossom. I could smell it from 5 feet away.

Meanwhile, the gardenia is going great guns in the office. It has three full blossoms and smells fabulous. I moved it a month ago so that it could get full morning light and diffuse light the rest of the day. Judging by the numerous buds that have survived and thrived, it loves this spot. The rubber plant it displaced now lives on the kitchen counter where it can get low levels of diffuse light all day. It seems to be doing well for the time being and a side benefit of its move was a noticeable shift in its stature. Simply by elevating it, Bouncy looks three times as tall and makes me worry that we might have to knock a hole in the ceiling to make room for her!

As long as the babes continue their mid-morning, post-breakfast snooze I may as well blab about something a little more academic. A few announcements for the people who just came in. Others have heard it five times before already I'm sure.

Scent is a topic I've been academically interested in for the past few years and probably personally since before I was born. Scientists have discovered that people who share the same genetic code for MHC prefer the same scents as well. So, it stands to reason that perfume preferences would "run in families." Are sisters and mothers genetically programmed to select the same aromatherapy products from Bath & Body Works? Not exactly. It's not like such convenience was available in the nature red in tooth and claw days (and nights) of the EEA. But we probably did choose mates based on their body odor. Nowadays we cleverly manipulate our body odor to maximize our appeal to others. The mark of a true Darwinian winner is whether or not you actually choose artificial scents that match your MHC.

MHC is a stretch of DNA that creates portions of the surface of immune cells that help the body recognize and differentiate self from non-self. It has profound implications for our ability to stay healthy, but research from Wedekind has also turned up some fascinating connections to its role in mate selection.

It's not surprising that my sister and I and our mother all wound up choosing Jasmine Vanilla scent. Originally I chose Ylang-Ylang Myrrh but it was discontinued so I had to switch. Miraculously the same time I was in PA and shopping, B&BW had a close-out sale of discontinued products so my pal and I stocked up on our favoriate scent. My guess is that this scent, though incredibly appealing to my friend and I, is simply not a hit for a lot of people. Does this indicate we have similar MHC? Well, I can say that I was profoundly sexually unattracted to my friend from the get-go. Perhaps he just didn't smell right to me. An inbreeding avoidance mechanism.

He has turned out to be a truly remarkable friend and what's better, he's found a beautiful woman who adores him. I'm not sure what scent she likes, but the trick is to find someone who is a good match - similar enough that you can stand each other but also not so dissimilar that you can't stand to be near each other.

The fact that the scent was discontinued may also indicate that those who like this oddball conconction might also have a rare form of MHC. This can be both good or bad in an evolutionary sense. I can say, that my mom and sister both have asthma and allergies while I don't. Asthma and allergies are both ultimately caused by immune system reactions that go too far. Their immune system keeps going where others would stop. That's where the problems like itchy watery eyes and tightened airways start. I'm happily free of that hassle. Maybe I won the MHC lottery or maybe I'm reading to much into scented product selection.

In any case, the Ylang-Ylang Myrrh has jasmine in it though you wouldn't know it from the title. We all love jasmine. It's one of the most popular scents in the world. I fell in love with it when I smelled wild jasmine growing in Tunisia. There's just something magic about it.

Just like good breeding combined with Skinnerian Conditioner :-)
We are 6-3-1-1-1 on Housebreaking 101 and W afternoon got a few more steps closer to the livingroom goal:

That night she slept at our feet while we watched the last 20 mins of a Lost re-run. Last night she repeated her performance, albeit with different programming for the audience. Yesterday she sat on command using only hand signaling. The number of trials? 4. Wow, this pup is bright. My brain swelled with visions of her potential. I only hope that doesn't mean my spindle cells are ballooning out of control too...

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Proof is in the Pudding

More measurable progress toward snoozing in the livingroom with me. The trick is to appeal to her first love: water!

Meanwhile Max eyes her from a close distance while he awaits the arrival home of his number one man.

Old Timer's Disease

Now that the little darlings are both sleeping, eyeballing each other from across the room now and then, I have time to read again. One of the things I've been reading is an article in a Scientific American I have had lying around for god knows how long. They carry a few centerpiece articles, many of which tend toward physics and computers, neither of which holds my interest for very long (the exception being a really interesting piece this month - scratch that - the cover says November 2005! on a naturally occuring nuclear reactor in a uranium mining pit in Ghana). The piece I am reading now presents some of Todd Heatherton's cognitive neuroscience research into the making of self-awareness and self-concept, features believed to be unique to humans. He believes the implications of his work may shed light on treatments for Alzheimer's.

The author makes the obligatory reference to William James and Phineas Gage, two individuals all intro psych students ought to know, then goes on to superficially identify the area of the brain Heatherton and colleague Michael Gazzaniga have been studying - the medial prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain isn't really the center of "self" as Heatherton points out (just as it is ridiculous to say that Broca's and Wernicke's areas are together the seat of that other uniquely human trait - language). He believes it sort of acts like the grand central station of all experiences and perceptions that produce a sense of self.

Some far more theoretical research by Matthew Lieberman focuses on two brain networks that feed into self-awareness: the reflexive and reflective systems. The first makes associations based on statistical probabilities and is slow to form because it takes many experiences for this system to become established. Once it is, it works powerfully to reduce the thought needed to answer such questions as "Am I intelligent?" for a college professor or "Am I dexterous?" for a steamboat operator who navigates the narrowest canals on the Illinois River (silly reference to an old article in the Atlantic and also to Mitch, there's a lot you don't know about me!) These sorts of self-relevant questions can be answered automatically without having to think about the evidence. To me, this sounds like a fancy new way of talking about the same old thing: heuristics. Incidentally, the only Nobel Prize awarded to a psychologist (Daniel Kahneman, who won it for economics) was for a body of work that ultimately comes down to heuristics.

The article eventually considers how this body of work could shed light on the evolutionary origins of self-awareness and self-concept, and it is here that I can provide some critical commentary. First, they point out the medial prefrontal cortex (located in the neocortex, who Robin Dunbar pointed out is three times larger than it should be for our human body size) is "one of the most distinctly human brain regions" (a vacuous statement in my opinion) and is also larger in humans compared with other primates (of course the author keeps that human-animal boundary in check by stating that it is larger in humans than nonhuman primates).

The interesting tidbit identifies that this portion of the brain is loaded with spindle cells, which also happen to form the plaques associated with Alzheimer's Disease. An article in yesterday's U-B discussed new research into this debilitating condition. The thing that stuck with me is that no one knows whether these spindle cells have ballooned out of proportion much like cancer cells or whether the afflicted brain just fails to prune them.

In any case, given that other primates don't develop Alzheimer's and don't have enormous neocortexes, it is natural to wonder why humans do. The author paraphrases Heatherton who alludes that the answer is that humans have to have self-sense because we had to cooperate to gather and share food, which requires trust, and that he says requires a sense of self. At this point, my brain, having heuristically navigated the content of my tome of knowledge, produced a sudden urge to cry bullshit. First, plenty of other animals with miniscule neocortexes, and presumably tiny medial prefrontal cortexes cooperate (meercats, Belding's ground squirrels, schooling fish, etc. etc. without having a self-concept, at least as judged by whether they can be estimated to recognize themself in a mirror, a test that is the gold standard for this sort of thing. Most apes of a certain ages and some dolphins appear to recognize themselves in mirrors, but so far no monkey has, save for few cotton-top tamarins whose hair was spray painted with Manic Panic day-glo pink in Marc Hauser's lab. I'd predict that a few large brained birds like crows and parrots, especially the notoriously smart keas, would self-recognize, but that's about it for the animal world. Of course, I have criticized this standard for self-concept for as long as I've been teaching primate behavior. Second, one doesn't need aself-concept to truct others. As reminded by a recent HBES conference talk, oxytocin, a hormone, facilitates trust, and that is one ancient chemical. Even voles have it.

Perhaps our need to cooperate drove the evolution of the neocortex. I don't doubt that humans developed an immense brain because it helped us cooperate more efficiently and effectively than competitors and previous hominids, but I do doubt that cooperation requires a self-concept. The SciAm article alludes to the idea that self-concept drove cooperation which in turn drove the evolution of the human brain.

I don't buy it when there are so many other more compelling theories. See for reference Geoffrey Miller and Robin Dunbar.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Day 3 brought a few milestones, including one that is a significant step in the right direction.

Yesterday I woke up anxious that we adopted a puppy who might not have been socialized enough before she got to us. She spent the first 2 days with us nailed to the back door. She showed very little interest in being near us except to play (once every 2-3 hours for about 20 mins then right back to sleep at the back door). Newfoundlands are supposed to really like and NEED to be with their people, so I expected that. When she didn't deliver, I looked up some information online and found some great information on an AKC Newfoundland site. (If I had cookies enabled on my browser I could backtrack to offer a link).

One thing I learned was right in time and utterly crucial to maintaining her health. She must walk only one minute per week of age per day. For her, that's two seven minute walks. Yikes! I thought. We seriously violated that guideline in ignorance the first two days having taken her all over the WC campus, even letting her jump into a fountain (another no go). And that was just par for the course for one walk. We had been doing two of those per day. So, now better informed, we are resolved to make sure she takes it easy on her growing but delicate bones.

The second vital piece I learned is that Newfies who are not socialized to people by 12 weeks might never take to them, especially if their mother doesn't take to people. The site suggested their is a critical period for developing that affinity for people, and being a psychologist, I read critical period, and gulped. Does this mean she's a lost cause for being glued to our hips like our precious Max (one of his most endearing traits)? My fears were relieved when her first visit to the vet resulted in not only desperately needed and overdue vaccinations and deworming, but also word that her vet thinks she was very well socialized. What a relief. I went away feeling better.

Nevertheless, this morning she wanted to stay by the back door. I managed to get her to come into the livingroom to play (this being the place I eventually want her to warm my toes while we snuggle up and watch movies in the winter). All it took was Peanut Butter Cpt. Crunch. Who knew? The little black panther even sat on command for the opportunity to mouth a piece. I know I should not give her people food, but I was curious to see what effect it would have on her behavior.

After a nice play session, she returned to the kitchen to fuel up, leave more water on the floor, and flop down next to the back door. Fine. I'll just take care of the laundry. We loaded up on new dish towels to keep the now continually wet floor somewhat dry, at times. She gulps water lying down. Water fills her jowns and when she's done drinking she sits up, water running out of them all over the floor and her. To prepare her for the rainy season around here, I've been rubbing her down with a towel even when she's dry.

Having been suddenly much more busy in the past two days than in previous weeks, I reunited with my former self: the one that thrives on having too much to do. I find I'm most productive when I have to juggle multiple tasks. I decided to iron some shirts that hadn't been ironed in about 5 months. I set up in the dining room and lo and behold! Major Milestone #1: Miss Katy's Bear Paw asleep in one of Max's favorite spots with her snoot on the AC vent. We are halfway to the living room! Now I just have to figure out how to get her to sleep on carpet... I have a feeling that would be much easier if carpets grew on farms.

Other milestones included sitting on command without a prompt and using a pillow.

Baby steps... maybe eventually she'll take after big bro:

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Original Post

The recent addition to my small family of a rather large (42 pounds!) 14 week old puppy has created quite a few changes in the past two days. I'm getting up at the crack of dawn, mopping up Newfie slobber, paw prints, WATER, and all sorts of foul things, and worrying about every little thing she and my older, very sensitive spaniel does. To say she has run me ragged is an understatement. I am flat-out bushed, but honestly loving every bit of it. She is a ball of love, and he is, well, a crotchety old man who still adores me.

Introducing Katy's Bear Paw, the Newfoundland, who goes by Katy as in Katydid.

My regularly scheduled programming (scholarly tidbits from the field of evolutionary science and informed commentary about the world at large) will resume after we pass Housebreaking 101.