When I need a book that will force me into an existential crisis, my go-to authors are Rand or Kafka—you know, because I like to sound cool at parties. So it came as a surprise that despite my academic intentions in reading this book on the history and implications of probability, The Drunkard’s Walkblew my mind.
I’m fairly confident (95% confident, one might say) that Mlodinow didn’t set out to make people question their existence with this fun non-fiction. It’s full of human interest stories about the Greeks, gamblers, and gamers that made probability theory what it is today. Mlodinow lets the reader solve problems along with the historical figures, making math history more fun and interactive than I would have thought possible.
Mlodinow also has plenty to say to the “lay-statistician” about probability in daily life. Jury duty, medical diagnoses, sport predictions, even business decisions are victims to common misjudgments based on faulty understanding of probability. For that reason alone, this book is worthwhile.
More than that, though, The Drunkard’s Walk got under my skin. Near the beginning of the book, Mlodinow discusses the human tendency to favor stories over statistics. We have a natural, almost insurmountable tendency to find meaning and purpose in the events around us, even when (especially when?) those events are random. I started questioning my long-held life paradigms—was I just searching for patterns in a world void of order? In the later chapters, a discussion on chaos theory hammered the nail in the coffin of my sane state of mind. The sheer overwhelming permutations of possibilities that fractionate infinitely into the future…the crushing weight of chance that brought us to where we are in the world today…the endless array of paths forward, paths to which we don’t know the ending…I felt flattened by the enormity of it all. Why make choices? Why pretend that working hard has any real bearing on future happiness?
I found myself frustrated when my roommate, after I had blurted all these questions in an ever-more-feverish pitch, answered with what I saw as simple assurances and trite self-delusions. Doesn’t she see that we’re walking the lines of an infinite fractal, seemingly moving forward, but really only subjects to the whims of the chaotic law that rules our lives? It was only after talking to some other friends who had read the book that my perspective began to change. I had thought that all-pervasive chance stole every happiness from us, because we could never really work for it. They, instead, thought that chance stole every failure, because how can we be hard on ourselves if chance plays a part in our faults? This, at last, was a hopeful way to navigate life and its inherent randomness.
The Drunkard’s Walk has something in it for everyone—for the scientists who bemoan their lack of proper statistical training, for historians looking for the human side of science, for risk-takers who want to know if their next chance will pay off. For me, now, it has come to remind me to be hopeful and gracious, to not be too devastated when I fail and to not be too proud when I succeed. I recommend to everyone, and would love to hear if it sends you to the pit of despair and back like it did to me. We’ll discuss it and be super fun at parties.
Dr. Tanja Jovanovic is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine. Her research interests focus on the interaction between neurophysiology, neuroendocrinology, and genetics in traumatized populations. She is the Director of the Grady Trauma Project and also a Co-Investigator in the Human Psychophysiology of Emotion Laboratory at Emory University.
I wanted to start this interview with one of Tanja’s favorite quotes: “Don’t become a mere reporter of facts, but try to penetrate the mystery of their origin” by Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov was a Russian physiologist mostly recognized for his work in classical conditioning. Pavlov is also the name of Tanja’s cute collie….stay tuned!
How did you become interested in science and what steps did you take to pursue that interest when you were younger?
I first wanted to be a scientist when I was six or seven years old watching nature shows. I wanted to be the guy in the savanna who watches the animals. Then, as I got older, I decided that life in the savanna was boring most of the time, and, instead, I was going to be the zoologist at the zoo.
Early on, I really wanted to know about vocal communication in animals. Because I was a big animal lover, we would just collect animals, my brother and I. Somebody from the immunological society in Croatia gave me a pregnant mouse. This turned into 20-30 mice very quickly. So, we built this big glass mouse hotel that had little rooms where they could roam around.
Konrad Lorenz was my big hero, and he got me thinking about vocal imprinting. So, I got little guinea pigs. Guinea pigs are precocious, so as soon as they are born they run around and vocalize immediately. I wanted to see if you could force them not to. I made these little sound proof chambers, and I would put the little baby guinea pigs in as soon as they were born. I would feed them, and it was great because they imprinted on me. I mean, they wanted to be around me all the time. It was so super cute!
The experiment I did was to switch chinchilla babies and guinea pig babies because chinchilla babies are also precocial species. The tricky part there is that chinchilla gestation is twice as long as guinea pig gestation period. So, I had to breed my guinea pigs after my chinchilla was already pregnant. How old were you at this point? I was about 15 or 16. How did you know the gestation period of a chinchilla? Well, I read about it, she says nonchalantly. A chinchilla was hard to get in Croatia. So, my brother and I took a train to Slovenia to a big expo type thing for chinchillas and rabbits. I had found someone who had a female chinchilla. The downshot to all of this is that the chinchilla never had babies. So, either he tricked me and didn’t really sell me a pregnant chinchilla or she could have maybe not gotten pregnant after he bred her.
Then, when I started as an undergraduate at Oklahoma Christian, Regina Sullivan was at the University of Oklahoma. She was doing olfactory imprinting. So, I tried to mimic everything she did. There is no graduate school [at Oklahoma Christian], but I had professors who would give me keys to a lab. I would buy mice and guinea pigs at the pet store, and I would feed them and take care of them. I built a little odor preference chamber. It was a radial arm maze that I made out of, probably milk cartons, and I would just use a stopwatch to measure how quickly they went into each arm. That was officially my very first publication. It was this tiny tiny magazine that published this little experiment. I was just beyond myself that I wrote this paper. Today, I frequently talk to Regina and she is very supportive of my research, so I feel I have come full circle.
When new graduate students join the lab, one of the first things you say is that you would support a decision to have children in graduate school. This is really a progressive perspective, and you seem to generally emphasize work-life balance. Can you tell me more about this?
I think that to be really satisfied and fulfilled with what you are doing, you really do have to have things that are important to you outside of work. That will make you a more productive scientist because you will be more satisfied with your life.
Specifically talking about family issues, this is something I feel very strongly about, probably because I think we are still not there- where it is considered acceptable to dedicate enough time to your family. There is a lot of lip service paid to that without people really truly believing that you can, in fact, be a dedicated, outstanding scientist AND be a dedicated outstanding parent. I think the danger with women is that there is an assumption that, if you get into a position where you have to choose between parenting and science, you will choose parenting. I think there is a concern that you are not going to seem serious or committed to your career development. So, the side effect of that is it is hard for women to discuss family issues with senior advisors or mentors.
It was very hard for me to tell my mentor that I was pregnant, and it was REALLY hard for me to tell him that I was pregnant AGAIN. The first one could just be a hobby but the second one- now this was really going to suck up a lot of my time. So, what I have learned is that you can do it well, you just have to be organized about it. I don’t think everyone needs to have children. I don’t think it is a key to success or anything like that, but I think a lot of people do want to but feel like they have to compromise or postpone it. It is important to communicate that you don’t have to and that it is perfectly doable. I like to talk about that. It’s a very hard conversation to begin from the student’s perspective, so I just like to open that door so that people feel comfortable when they have that conversation.
This applies to general work life balance issues. I don’t expect people to be in the lab 24/7. Unless I have a deadline, I don’t work that much on weekends. Most of my weekends are family time and me time, and I don’t feel guilty about that. Science is such a hard endeavor. You are going to get rejected so many times, you have to have an underlying joy in what you do to persevere through that. I think that [not having a joy for your work] is a bigger danger of people dropping out of science than having a family.
What would you be doing if you were not an academic researcher?
I wanted to be a dog breeder, but that was always planned to be my hobby on the side. I thought I could still do it when I got Tesla, but she turned out to not be full breed. Tesla’s mom had an affair with someone in the forest. I had never had a collie before, so I kept thinking, the gene expression for the long head- when does that happen? Tesla just never got it. When she was 10 months old, the breeder called me and told me they had found out she was actually only 50% collie. Then, they said I could get the pick of the litter for the next one. Pavlov was tested, and I have all his genetic paperwork. He is full collie. But I will probably neuter him. If I got a third one and I bred them then there would be puppies and chaos! So, I’ve decided that this will be part of my retirement plan.
What would be a place you would go for the weekend, a place you’d go for a week, and a place you’d go for a month?
For a weekend, I like busy bustling things that I couldn’t do for longer than 72 hours. So, like Manhattan is really good for these short bursts of these dynamic, stimulating events that would be exhausting if you were there for too long. But for short-term, it is a tremendously energizing place to be and absorb the energy. For a week, I would do, maybe, Napa Valley. I’d like to do a tour of vineyards or something like that. In my mind, if I had a month, I think I would read a book for three days, and then write something, like a mini-sabbatical. I would probably write an opinion piece about science. I would like to have a sequestered sort of place – very tropical and relatively remote. It would have to be a month, not any longer. It’s all I could do of being by myself in an isolated destination. So, for that I would do Greece or the Caribbean, somewhere warm and nice where I could just be in flip-flops all day near the water.
If you could send a note to your former graduate school self, what would it say?
I had lots of times in grad school where I didn’t know what I was going to do- lots and lots of times! My advisor was very hands-off, and he wanted his students to work independently. Unless I had something to meet about, my advisor and I would not meet and if I wasn’t working, I didn’t have anything to talk about, so it was a vicious cycle of nothing getting done. I watched a whole lot of TV in that year!
I think the world of him, but I think I would have intervened earlier with myself. For a long time, I didn’t know what I was going to do for my dissertation, even though now it seems like I was meant to do cross fostering in monkeys all along. I think my message would be, even when you think you are being unproductive and spinning your wheels and doing nothing, you are still on the right trajectory. Uh, can we put this on our quote wall? Tanja giggles.
Where do you see the lab in ten years, and if you had unlimited funding, what experiment would you do?
As you know, my absolute love is developmental research. So what I really want on the developmental side is to have this longitudinal program where we start following women during gestation and we have information on this child from conception essentially to birth, to early development, pubertal development, and adolescence. In ten years we can be well on our way to having this longitudinal cohort. I like the idea of sensitive periods and critical windows for intervention. What I would really like to do also is start thinking about innovative interventions. I don’t really like most of our interventions. I don’t like psychotherapy as an intervention. I don’t like the idea of a kid taking a pill for the rest of his life. I would like to train the brain to be more effective and efficient and heal itself. I would develop really high tech innovative interventions that you can do while watching changes in the brain. I would actually have them in the scanner so we can see what is being activated and doing this at different ages. That is the ultimate goal- some kind of prevention- but knowing when and what is still where we are right now.
You were born abroad; can you tell us more about your early life?
This is a very interesting story in that I think about my grandparents. They [paternal grandparents] were from a very small rural place in Georgia, very strict southern Baptists. They had a son who goes off to Georgia Tech. He wanted to be a chemical engineer. He was 20 years old and decided he wanted to do an internship abroad. So, he went to Yugoslavia and worked at an oil refinery, and, being a southern Baptist, he found the only Baptist church there. So, he met my mother there. At the end of the 6-month study abroad from Georgia Tech, he was married and he had decided he was going to quit school and become a missionary. I just think how they [her paternal grandparents] must have gone nuts!
My dad wanted to go into the mission field. So, they [her mother and father] went to a theological seminary in Switzerland. My brother and I were born there. Then, when I was five, we moved to the states. My dad went to a seminary in Louisville and got a PhD in theology. Then, my parents were appointed to go back to Yugoslavia as missionaries, so we went back.
Growing up in a communist country was normal for me then. Now, in hindsight, it seems weird. For example, there was an induction ceremony into the communist party when you were 7, when you get your red star. It was indoctrination. So, when you look at it now it seems a bit shocking, but back then it was a thing to celebrate, “Yay, you’re now part of the communist party.”
Although Yugoslavia was politically atheist, my family was very religious. My upbringing was that there is only one way to live. There was only God’s way and no other way, so never stray from this path; there was a fear of veering off. It took me a long time to realize that that is not really true. If there is a man-made GPS navigation system that could redirect you if you make a wrong turn, then any spiritual being that you would believe in should be able to do the same. I now think there are many different ways to get to the same place in life. So, never be afraid of making the wrong turn. So, even if you are standing there deliberating, you’ll come back to the right place. You can always correct back. You can spend an entire year watching TV and still be okay!
Each year for the Neuroscience retreat weekend, the Central Sulcus produces a packet of articles and fun content for attendees. If you couldn’t attend the retreat last weekend, check out the packet here!
Do androids dream of electric sheep? No, they don’t. At least, that’s the short answer. Did I just ruin one of science fiction’s hallmark novels for you? Again, the answer is no. This book is packed with just-out-there enough hypotheticals to keep you wondering what this world is coming to.
Though he met with little success during his lifetime, in the 60’s and 70’s Philip K. Dick masterfully led the pack in the emerging genre of science fiction writing. He had a knack for anticipating technologies decades before their time, and, even more important as a novelist, for anticipating the ethical and moral questions surrounding society and technology. The 1982 sci-fi film noir Blade Runner was very loosely based on Androids.
In Androids, the reader follows Rick Deckard, a wearied bounty hunter tasked with offing masterfully crafted humanoid robots that have escaped servitude in Mars by pretending to be real humans on the sparsely-inhabited post-apocalyptic Earth. This book creates a world replete with ethical questions that society struggles to answer today: How much should we lean on technology for our daily lives? How much should we shepherd the human genome? If we have the power to alter mood, in what ways should we use it? What is the role of humanity as caretakers of this earth?
All good questions. However, the ethical issue that kept popping out to me from this book was that of empathy. Deckard relies solely on tests of empathy to discern between true humans and all-too-believable androids (It’s worth mentioning that the ability to empathize is by no means uniquely human, but since James already wrote a Science article about that :) ). Supposedly, androids cannot empathize. Pretty soon, though, Deckard realizes that sometimes humans themselves aren’t too great at empathizing. Furthermore, the subject of empathy becomes skewed. In this post-apocalyptic society, humans are supposed to empathize with each other, but end up increasingly placing value on dwindling live animals. Animal care becomes so venerated that owning a pet is a status symbol, but due to animal scarcity, most people get robotic replicas of animals in order to stay in good standing with their neighbors. Thus, both real and fake animals are valued far above humanoid androids, despite humans and androids being so identical it takes a series of involved tests to ever tell the difference. The ability to empathize becomes twisted in this topsy-turvy world.
In this novel, the androids have flesh and blood and whatnot, it’s just been manufactured in a plant rather than in a womb. It’s difficult to come up with a litmus test for ‘true’ humanity, but the ability to empathize is certainly a good place to start. Unfortunately, I—like Deckard—soon start to think of the many exceptions to this potential rule. Certainly, people on the autism spectrum or with a personality disorder may have trouble empathizing. But one need not turn to disease states to see that not all humans have an empathetic drive– all it takes is fifteen minutes of any given news channel. It’d be easy to point to various bombers, gunmen, or violent truck drivers to prove this point, but truly, one needn’t even look that far. On both sides of the aisle, the presidential race provides more than enough examples of people forgetting empathy for the sake of being heard.
Dick postulates that to be empathetic is to be human. Dick frames empathy as an inherently good thing, but something that is also difficult and can make daily living hard. Empathy is more difficult for people like Deckard whose daily job is to kill, but hey, that’s why this is a great story. What Dick doesn’t answer is how we can increase empathy in ourselves and in our society. As hatred-fueled violence continues to rock the US and the world, I don’t know how to answer that question on a personal or societal level.
I very much doubt we’re headed towards a post-apocalyptic radiation-filled ghosttown of a planet any time soon, but by using this setting, Philip K. Dick, with his usual cutting astuteness, illustrates the potential pitfalls of our present culture. Pick up Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and let me know what you think!
It was a star-studded Friday afternoon in Whitehead Auditorium as the best and brightest of Emory Neuroscience came together to celebrate at the 4th Annual NS Golgi Awards. With almost everyone dressed in their best, the 96 degrees outside felt cool in comparison to the sizzling crowd.
Eighty-three nominations were received for the few exalted honors. With such a multitude of worthy candidates, the air was thick with suspense prior to the ceremony. Ice-cold beers soothed the nerves and the heat. Schmoozing and boozing abounded as nominees and their entourages waited with bated breath to learn who would win the coveted Golgi Plaques in 2016.
It was an awards show like no other. Using a proliferation of embarrassing photos, hosts Brendan O’Flaherty and Erica Akhter provided both witty banter and a deep social commentary while maintaining—dare I say it—absolute humility and professionalism. The mentors or protégés of the 9 awardees delivered touching speeches (and in Desirée DeLeon’s case, a charango performance) expounding on the virtues of their respective winners. Eyes were moistened. Hugs were plentiful. In a pool of astounding candidates, there was no doubt that all awards were hard-won and well deserved.
Following the ceremony, guests gathered to enjoy hors d’oeuvres, lots of classy beverages, and the sheer impressiveness that is Emory Neuroscience. In addition to our 13 awardees, it should be noted that students received over 46 internal awards, 18 national grants, and published over 40 papers in 2015. It was indeed a year worth celebrating!!
2016 Golgi Award Winners
Outstanding Scientific Achievement: Lauren DePoy Outstanding Early Achievement: Elizabeth Hinton Scientific Outreach: Anzar Abbas University Service: Daniel Curry Leadership: Daniel curry Excellence in Teaching: Kathryn MacPherson Excellence in Mentorship: Michelle Giddens GIN Faculty of the Year: Mar Sanchez GIN Service Award: Arielle Valdez GIN Exemplary Lecturer: Sam Sober
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions on your recent publication for The Central Sulcus, James. And congratulations! Science is a high impact journal.
Thank you very much!
Describe your experience submitting a paper to Science. Compared to other journals, how did their process differ, for better or worse?
It’s extreme science writing. The Science format is terrifyingly short –about 4 pages, or 3 pages without figures. Every line has to convey an enormously vital piece of information. And I had to be confident in every single aspect of the paper – first of all, because it was going to be reviewed by the presiding world experts in my field, but second, because a paper that gets published at that level gets a lot of scientific scrutiny afterward. Plus, I was constantly being reminded about the 95% rejection rate at each step of the process. At the beginning, I was convinced that the most I would get out of submitting would be some expert reviews of my manuscript.
This paper appears to be the culmination of your thesis work. What does it feel like to have years of toil condensed down to four pages?
It was a lot of pressure. There are literally individual sentences that represent more than a year of work. Discussions that could have gone on for pages were condensed to five words. But I ended up loving the short format, actually. It taught me to be essentialist and to write a better story.
Your paper, titled “Oxytocin dependent consolation behavior in rodents” uses the pair-bonding behavior of prairie voles as a model for consolation behavior. Would you describe yourself as more of a prairie or meadow vole?
Would you ever lie to a reporter?
Interesting. In this study, one partner of a pair-bonded prairie vole couple was removed from the home cage to experience stress via shock or no shock, then returned to the cage to “demonstrate” an amount of anxiety and distress-like behavior, while the other partner “observed” the returned partner. When was the last time you cried?
That must have been difficult for you. Were you pair-bonded with any rodents who were available for licking and grooming (“allogrooming”) consolation?
I had my wife with me, but to be honest we focused more on hugging rather than licking and hairstyling.
I ask because in your paper, allogrooming was interpreted as an affiliative form of contact. When the demonstrator experienced the shock condition and was returned to their partner, the time then spent allogrooming increased. This appears to have two possible causes: the observer initiating allogrooming to comfort a distressed demonstrating partner, or the demonstrator soliciting comforting touch to ease its distress. How did you determine that it was indeed the former and not the latter?
This is a very insightful and delicate question. In fact, we don’t know for certain whether the stressed partners solicit grooming from the observers. However, we do know that consolation is not just a response to a stimulus or a signal – observers experience vicarious anxiety and stress in the presence of the stressed demonstrator, and have brain activation consistent with vicarious pain. We also know that observers only console individuals they are familiar with, which wouldn’t be expected if they’re just trying to get the stressed individual to stop doing something they don’t like. Observers are having physiological, behavioral and neural responses consistent with an empathetic response.
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) showed significantly higher levels of FOS-positive cells in observers exposed to a stressed partner. When an oxytocin receptor inhibitor is injected into the ACC of observers before the consolation test, the increase in partner-directed grooming was abolished. Tell me, James, why doesn’t my mother love me?
You postulate that oxytocin signaling within the anterior cingulate might modulate consolation through “physiological, emotional, and or behavioral responses.” Would you expound on that, because obviously Science wasn’t going to give you the space to?
This is one of those points where five words replaced a paragraph. Basically, we observed that blockade of oxytocin receptor signaling in the ACC, or throughout the brain, completely prevented the observer’s consoling response. However, we don’t really know if the treatment prevented the observer from noticing the partner’s distress, prevented them from “feeling” it or “caring” about it, or directly blocked their motivation or ability to mount a prosocial response. Separating out those different possibilities would have required a lot more experiments, which would all have been very interesting but I wanted to graduate.
Consolation behavior could be considered empathy-based. You might already be aware, certain professions are associated with higher rates of psychopathy, a diagnosis frequently characterized by a lack of empathy. Please comment on the likely functionality of CEO’s and Lawyer’s anterior cingulate cortices.
This is really fascinating. Scott Lilienfeldin the Psychology Department does a lot of research on the “successful psychopath.” A lot of professions require people to suppress their empathy and emotional responses in order to be successful, which is easier if you have lower empathy in the first place. Surgeon is a classic example – they need to suppress their natural emotional response in order to cut into a patient, a technique they call “cognitive reappraisal.” A CEO that is sensitive to the situations and emotions of the thousands of employees below them might be great as a boss, but he or she won’t necessarily be great at transferring wealth into the hands of shareholders, which is the CEO’s real job. So, psychopaths may be naturally better at these jobs, or having these jobs makes you a little more psychopathic, or both.
A quick shot of intranasal oxytocin, or an AAV overexpressing oxytocin receptors in the ACC, might make these people nicer to be around – but probably worse at their jobs.
Could oxytocin receptor antagonist injections to the ACC be a model for psychopathy? And if so, could it explain my mother’s behavior?
I honestly think this is one of the more exciting possibilities for this research. The primary defining characteristic of psychopathy is a lack of empathy for others. By learning more about the biological mechanisms that guide empathy, we can learn more about how they can go wrong in disorders like psychopathy, and possibly how to treat them.
Do you remember a particularly entertaining run of your experiment?
Near the end of my experiments, Kerry Ressler left for Harvard, taking all the equipment I had been using with him. I absolutely had to run a few more experiments that required a fear conditioning chamber, so I cobbled a conditioning chamber together from random parts he left behind. Then I literally had to have someone stand outside the testing room with a hand timer, play tones from YouTube, and flip a switch to deliver shocks.
You conclude your paper by proposing that consolation behavior in prairie voles indicates that consolation doesn’t require advanced cognitive capacities. Could it also be the case that scientists have underestimated the cognitive abilities of nonhuman animals?
My coauthor, Elissar Andari (also my wife), will be very happy to hear that you asked that! She criticized that part of the manuscript as saying, “voles are too dumb to have cognitive empathy.” When I wrote that, I was actually addressing a longstanding theory in animal psychology that suggested that consoling responses were only observed in “large brained” species because they had to be sophisticated enough to understand the situation and mental state of the distressed animal. It is not currently thought that “small brained” rodents have that level of sophistication, but other experiments on rescuing behavior in rats (and even in ants!) may soon turn that assumption on its head. Coauthor Frans de Waal also just published a book, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”, where he argues that science has a long, misguided history of judging animal intelligence based on their ability to understand and solve human-like problems.
How might we request a correction to your “acknowledgments” section so that it thanks me personally for assisting with your microscope needs?
Oh. Well. This is awkward. I just remembered, I suddenly have somewhere I need to be.
Thank you again for your time, James and congratulations on your recent success!