Caveat lector: This blog is where I try out new ideas. I will often be wrong, but that's the point.

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Career... advice?

Back in June, someone over on Quora specifically asked a question of me: "What advice would Bradley Voytek give to undergraduates on studying and researching neuroscience?"

It took me a while to respond for several reasons, not the least of which is that I'm super busy. And also because it felt kind of weird to answer. I mean, I didn't study neuroscience as an undergrad. And I didn't do well as an undergrad. So I certainly shouldn't be doling out advice!

But the beauty of hindsight is that its glasses are often rose-tinted. So I sat down an answered as best I could while trying to avoid platitudes and cliches. My full response is below.

This is a really tough question, because it's so broad. I'm not really sure how to answer it. Because I'm more of a cognitive/systems/computational neuroscientist, I'll approach my answer from that direction.

My wife and I were talking about this recently after watching Freakonomics. She was asking me what classes I was good at in high school. I was a great high school student without really trying to be, but I quickly became a bad college student, mostly because I started learning how to socialize.

What happened to me, I think, was that once I started doing poorly in college while my friends continued to succeed, I started to think I wasn't cut out for college. I started to think I was a hack.

Only much later would I learn of something called "impostor syndrome".

Anecdotally, this appears to be fairly rampant among academics and other "smart" people. At some point during your career, possibly more than once, you will look at your peers and think to yourself, "I'm not as good as they are; I am not cut out for this."

So my first few pieces of advice will be academically related, but not neuroscience specific.

First: listen to that voice. Understand where it's coming from. But be aware that you're failing to recognize your own accomplishments; you're overemphasizing the accomplishments of others and you're vastly underestimating the failures other successful people experience on their way to success.

It's for that last reason that I've been including an entire section in my CV (PDF) called "Failures and Rejections" that includes rejected grant applications, rejected publications, rejected grad school applications, etc.

It's important to me that other people know how hard this life, science, and career stuff really is. People should know that often, success doesn't come easy.

The second piece of non-specific advice: learn to network. Talk to other researchers. Email people about their work when you have questions. Don't be shy. Or rather, go ahead and be shy but recognize that lots of people are shy and the only way to learn from them is to overcome your mutual shyness. Plus, researchers love to know that someone read their work and are interested.

This advice isn't meant as a machiavellian ploy or anything. Networking lets you meet smart people, which gives you new ideas and new collaborations. This, in turn, lets you do science faster and better.

Networking is sharing, not manipulating.

Third: learn how to do your own data analysis. Know statistics well. Know at least some basic programming/scripting in Python, R, Matlab, etc. This will be of immense value in helping you get your research done efficiently and correctly, without needing to rely on other people's code (and time and commitment). This will become more important as our field becomes more data driven.

Ok, now the neuroscience specific advice.

Most importantly, I'd have to say not to buy into the false belief that many neuroscientists seem to carry that somehow we actually know what the brain is doing.

Understand that most neuroscientific "facts" are inherently making statistical, not factual, statements. Broca's area is probably involved in language production, insomuch as there is a brain region that can be clearly identified as "Broca's area" in any one given person. There's a reason why neurosurgeons do electrical stimulation mapping prior to tissue resection. (See Are all the wrinkles on a brain's cortex the same across people?)

Think critically about any statements you encounter in the neuroscientific literature and in your own thinking; e.g.:
  • What does it *mean* for a brain region to be "involved in a task"?
  • Can you have neural correlates of a behavior without needing that neural region?
  • How are the researchers operationalizing "attention", "memory", "emotion", etc.? Are they measuring what they say they're measuring?
  • What does a neuron do? Seriously. Think about this one hard.
  • Look to the literature *before* you start your research. A lot of cool single-unit work was done in the 1960s and 70s that's been forgotten.
  • But don't mistake old research as Truth, either.

I could do this all day, but hopefully this will give you a feel for what I think is important in terms of how I approach my research.

I've written a few pieces of neuroscience skepticism before as well, if you want to delve deeper. For example: "How to be a neuroscientist".

Feel free to email me if you want to know anything more specific. I'm always happy to chat.

Final piece of advice:

Everything I've said is anecdotal experience about my own life and my own path, and thus should be treated with as much skepticism as anything else.


CDC, zombies, and Comic-Con

Just a quick update this afternoon.

First, if you haven't seen the new zombie work by the CDC, check it out! It's from the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. Posters were available for free, but they appear to be out of stock now...

You can still download very high-res versions, however.

Next, my interview video with Wired from Comic-Con has been posted online! I have to say I was pretty uncomfortable. I was extremely busy and stressed from work at the time, and took a quick trip downstairs from my hotel room to check out the Wired party that my friend (and Wired writer) Angela invited me to.

Five minutes later I was in a tent off from the main pool party area getting interviewed. I'm just wearing a dirty white t-shirt, and I'm clearly not in my element.

The article's nice though, so I can't complain!


Self-stimulating the brain for heterosexual sex with a prostitute. Seriously.

Deep brain stimulation is such a cool, successful, amazing piece of technology, that I was excited to read a little more about its historical roots. But man. I don't even know what to say now.

I've written about a lot of crazy neuroscience stuff on this blog over the last 20 months:

But this... is the weirdest, most shocking research I've read, bar none. Literally, the litany of crazy shit in this paper is so long that by the end my reading, my notes in the margin devolved to this:

Bradley Voytek WTF

A while back, someone pointed me to a paper from 1972 by Dr. Robert G. Heath titled "Pleasure and brain activity in man: Deep and surface electroencephalograms during orgasm".

"How fun," I thought to myself, so very, very naively. "This will be a nice complement to my post about EEG and orgasms." (I'm quite proud to say these are the flavor of thoughts that I have.)

Instead, I got this unethical marvel.

The first thing I noticed was that 15 out of the 18 works cited in this manuscript are self-citations. That is, 83% of the previous research that this paper was built upon was written by the author himself.

"That's odd," I mused, "probably not the best sign."

To give a little background, this paper was written by Robert G. Heath. I didn't really know anything about this guy, but he was notable enough to have received an obituary in the New York Times. According to that (short) article:

In 1957, Dr. Heath found a protein antibody called taraxein in the blood of schizophrenics that was capable of inducing schizophrenic-like symptoms in monkeys and healthy human volunteers.

The finding was controversial because it was early evidence that schizophrenia is of biochemical origin and not, as was widely believed at the time, related to childhood or other emotional traumas.

Ok, fine. That's nice. But what's weird--and what the New York Times obit doesn't say--is that the taraxein theory of "schizogenesis" appears to be total crap, despite the fact that Heath held fast to his claims. Furthermore, the ethics of this research are questionable, at best. As Professor Alan Baumeister wrote in his historical analysis "The Search for an Endogenous Schizogen: The Strange Case of Taraxein":

On May 3, 1956... Heath announced that he and colleagues "had induced full symptoms of schizophrenia" in two nonpsychotic prisoner-volunteers... by injecting them with an extract from blood of schizophrenic patients.
(All emphases in this post's quotations are mine.)

If you've ever done research, or have any sense of ethics, the thought of using prisoners in an experiment to see if you can induce psychosis should set off your humanity-alarms.

What's more, according to Wikipedia (the arbiter of all Truth, I know):

Heath founded the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Tulane University, New Orleans, in 1949 and remained its Chairman until 1980. He performed many experiments there... [and] was partially financed by the CIA and the US military. One of his collaborators... later reminisced that they had used African Americans as subjects "because they were everywhere and cheap experimental animals".

You stay classy, history of psychiatry.

You'll note that all these things I've talked about so far? Nothing to do with the paper I intend to discuss. All this stuff? This is just flavor text to set the stage for the really unethical stuff.

Needless to say, Heath and his research will likely be the topic of several posts here.

So, back to orgasms and prostitutes. I'm not even going to bother trying to explain the scientific aspects of this paper. The hypothesis, methods, results... none of it matter because they're just completely overshadowed by every crazy part about this research.

I'm just going to quote huge swaths of this paper and let you all say, "WHAT THE HELL!!?"

In patient B-19, a man, EEG's were obtained on two occasions when this arousal culminated in orgasm: once, as a consequence of masturbation and once through heterosexual intercourse.

Okay, that's kind of weird on its own, but hey, the research could be very interesting. I mean, the patient had electrodes implanted under his skull. This is usually done to determine where exactly in the brain the source of seizure activity is. This method is still used, and working with these patients is a major component of my research.

And sex research is fascinating! So if you've got someone in this situation, and they agree without any kind of coercion, then why not?

Wait, what's that Dr. Heath? This patient is homosexual? Oh...

Well please, tell us more about the patient and your experiments.

This man... had a 5-year history of overt homosexuality and a 3-year history of drug abuse. He was considered a chronic suicidal risk... and had made several abortive suicidal attempts... One month of military service... was terminated by medical discharge because of "homosexual tendencies"... The patient's experimentation with drugs began... with ingestion of vanilla extract. He became habituated to amphetamines, and he had used a variety of other sedative and hallucinogenic chemicals (marijuana regularly, nutmeg frequently, d-LSD sporadically, as well as inhalants, such as glues, paints, and thinners, and sedatives).

This is to set the stage. This patient has severe epilepsy, is a drug addict, and is extremely depressed.

So what does Heath do next?

...the patient was equipped with a three-button self-stimulating transistorized device... The three buttons... were attached to electrodes in the various deep [brain] sites, and the patient was free to stimulate any of these three sites as he chose... He was permitted to wear the device for 3 hours at a time: on one occasion he stimulated his septal region 1,200 times, on another occasion 1,500 times, and on a third occasion 900 times. He protested each time the unit was taken from him, pleading to self-stimulate just a few more times... the patient reported feelings of pleasure, alertness, and warmth (goodwill); he had feelings of sexual arousal and described a compulsion to masturbate.

For those of you who don't know, this type of behavior was seen in rats in the original brain stimulation and reward experiments by Olds and Milner. Rats self-stimulated sometimes to the point of death.

Seems like a perfect situation for a heavy drug addict, right? Just let him stimulate the "reward" and "pleasure" parts of his brain for hours on end!

But wait! There's more!

One aspect of the total treatment program for this patient was to explore the possibility of altering his sexual orientation through electrical stimulation of pleasure sites of the brain. As indicated in the history, his interests, contacts, and fantasies were exclusively homosexual; heterosexual activities were repugnant to him.

He's gay. Very clearly gay. And his brain is getting forcibly stimulated such that he's experience strong sensations of sexual pleasure.

A twenty-one-year-old female prostitute agreed, after being told the circumstances, to spend time with the patient in a specially prepared laboratory.

A "specially prepared laboratory"? Nice. Did the doc light some candles?

And where did they get the prostitute? How did that conversation go?

Scene: 1970s, late night; car rolls up to young woman standing under a streetlight; window rolls down as car approaches

"Excuse me, miss? My name is Dr. Heath. I've got a young, gay man hooked up to a brain stimulator back in the hospital. He's been stimulating himself stupid horny these last few days. If I give you $40 would you mind coming back with me and see if you can't screw him straight-wise? Be sure to mind the wires because they're hooked right into his brain.

Can you imagine writing this into your IRB proposal? I mean. What?

And I love the matter-of-factness about describing how this all played out:

The laboratory was modified to permit complete privacy, and an extension cord was inserted between the plugs in the patient's hand and the jack box to the recording room to give him adequate mobility.

He goes on:

Later, the patient began active participation and achieved successful penetration, which culminated in a highly satisfactory orgiastic response, despite the milieu and the encumbrances of the lead wires to the electrodes.

To recap: this study involved taking a severely depressed, drug addicted, gay man into the hospital, letting him stimulate his own brain, and then tracking down a prostitute to have sex with him.

This is the most boggling, unethical, and offensive piece of "research" I've ever come across. I can't imagine what the rest of the papers by this guy are like.

If anyone has seen anything in the peer-review literature that's worse, I'd like to hear about it.

Heath RG (1972). Pleasure and brain activity in man. Deep and surface electroencephalograms during orgasm. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 154 (1), 3-18 PMID: 5007439
Baumeister A (2011). The search for an endogenous schizogen: the strange case of taraxein. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 20 (2), 106-22 PMID: 21480035