Rhythms of the Brain by György Buzsaki: Review and Excerpts


Buzsaki presents a difficult subject in a commendably clear manner. It is an exemplary piece of scientific writing produced by one of the grand old men of brain wave research. A growing literature, which has expanded significantly since the book’s publication in 2006, suggests neural oscillations are not “noise” or novelties for someone interested in the minutiae of neuroscience, but fundamental to understanding perception, peak performance, emotional regulation, memory formation, the organization of the various “levels” of the brain, a variety of psychiatric illnesses, and consciousness itself.

“There is no good reason to assume that the brain is organized in accordance with the concepts of folk psychology.”

—Cornelius H. Vanderwolf

“Berger called the large-amplitude rhythm (approximately 10 waves per second, or 10 hertz), which was induced by eye closure in the awake, calm subject, the “alpha” rhythm because he observed this rhythm first. He named the faster, smaller amplitude waves, present when the eyes were open, ‘beta’ waves. Paradoxically, Berger’s recordings provided firm physical evidence against his idea that waves generated by one brain could somehow be detected by another brain.”

“Assuredly, neuronal oscillators are quite complex. Nevertheless, the principles that govern their operation are not fundamentally different from those of oscillators in other physical systems.”

“The intimate relationship between space and time is packaged into the concept of “spacetime” (x, y, z, t dimensions). Oscillations can be conceived of and dis- played in terms of either space or time. The phase-plane of a sinusoid harmonic oscillator 8 is a circle. We can walk the perimeter of the circle once, twice, or billion of times and yet we always get back to our starting point….”

“Linear causation works most of the time, and it is the foundation of many essential operations from catching a ball to solving a mysterious murder case. Causation can also fail. For example, in an oscillatory system, most or all neurons with reciprocal, one-way connections or no direct connections may discharge with a zero time lag (i.e., simultaneously), making linear causation impossible….

If the second ball starts moving in the same direction after the arrival of the first ball, we conclude from the timing of the events that the first ball caused the second one to move. However, derivation of such a conclusion depends critically on the exact timing of the events. We make the inference of causality only if the second ball begins to move within 70 milliseconds after the first ball reaches it.”

“Although in this case a simple cause–effect (unexpected object–braking) relationship exists, mental reconstruction offers a different cause. The brain takes into consideration the conduction velocities of its own hardware and compensates for it. For example, touching your nose and toe at the same physical time (or touching your nose with your toe) feels simultaneous even though neuronal events in the cerebrum, representing the touch of two body parts, are delayed by several tens of milliseconds.”

“ ‘Representation’ of external reality is therefore a continual adjustment of the brain’s self-generated patterns by outside influences, a process called “experience” by psychologists. From the above perspective, therefore, the engineering term “calibration” is synonymous with “experience.”

“A quick glance through the Cycles makes it clear that the title Rhythms of the Brain is a bit grandiose relative to the modest content of the book. Many important topics are omitted or glossed over. The vital oscillations generated by the spinal cord and brainstem are completely ignored, and the bulk of the discussion is centered on cortical systems of the mammalian brain. Circadian and other long period oscillations are discussed only as they pertain to the faster neuronal events.”

“The basic circuit capable of the aforementioned control functions is recognizable in all vertebrate brains, small and large. During the course of evolution, the basic circuit is not fundamentally modified, but instead, multiple parallel circuits, consisting of intermediate and longer chains of neurons, are superimposed on the existing wiring. No matter what fraction of the brain web we are investigating, neuronal loops are the principal organization at nearly all levels. A physicist would call this multi-level, self-similar organization a fractal of loops.”

“For the sake of simplicity, let us start with just 50 neurons. To link each of these neurons to all other neurons would require 1,225 bidirectional connections. But we know that this is not the brain’s choice. Neurons are not connected to all other neurons but only to a fraction of them. What is the minimum number of links that can connect each neuron to at least one of its partners? The general solution to this sort of a problem is the most famous in graph theory. It took the genius of two mathematicians, Paul Erdös and Alfréd Rényi, to solve this puzzle. They showed, that using just 98 randomly placed links, a mere 8 percent of the 1,225 all-to-all connections, we can connect all 50 nodes (neurons).”

“The number of random links required to keep the synaptic path length short increases much less than the size of the network. In other words, the larger the network, the greater the impact of each random link on the effective connectivity of the network.”

“By examining the accessibility of the websites on the Internet, his team realized that traffic is directed mostly toward a handful of busy sites, for example, the search engine Google and the popular e-store Amazon.com. These popular hubs are visited orders of magnitude more frequently than, say, my website. Barabási argued that many real-world networks, including the Web, evolve by some rules but they cannot be described by illustrating a typical, representative example. Instead, the connections in these ‘scale-free’ networks obey a statistical rule called the power law.”

“In scale-free systems, things are different. In systems governed by power law statistics, there is no peak at an average value, and a select small group can have the largest effect. For example, if we drop a vase on the floor, it will break into fragments of varying size. There will be a lot of debris but also a number of reasonably large fragments. If we collect all the pieces, from the microscopic ones to the large, and plot their numbers as a function of size on a log–log scale, we will get an oblique line: a power law for fractures. No one fragment can be considered as the characteristic size. There is no “typical example” in a scale-free system. A power law implies that there is no such thing as a normal or characteristic size scale and that there is no qualitative difference between the larger and smaller pieces or events.”

“Giulio Tononi, Olaf Sporns, and Gerald Edelman from the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, searched for a structure-based metric that could more objectively define ‘neuronal complexity’ and capture the relationship between functional segregation and global integration of function in the brain. Using the concepts of statistical entropy and mutual information, they estimated the relative statistical independence of model systems with various connectivity structures. Not surprisingly, they found that statistical independence is low when system constituents are either completely independent (segregated) or completely dependent (integrated).”

“Its robust local tensegrity organization has allowed continuous growth from the small brain of a tree shrew to the giant brain of the whale… The cerebral cortex is a scalable and robust spherical structure. 33 Its modular plan is identical in all mammals, with five layers of principal cells and a thin superficial layer containing mostly distal apical dendrites and horizontal axons.”

“Tensegrity dynamics can be maintained only if the excitatory effects are balanced by equally effective inhibitory forces, provided by specialized inhibitory neurons. If only excitatory cells were present in the brain, neurons could not create form or order or secure some autonomy for themselves. Principal cells can do only one thing: excite each other. In the absence of inhibition, any external input, weak or strong, would generate more or less the same one-way pattern, an avalanche of excitation involving the whole population.”

“A textbook example of a state transition is the shift between water and ice.  A slight change in temperature (an externally imposed influence) can shift the state in either direction. If a system, for example, a neural network, can self-organize in such a way as to maintain itself near the phase transition, it can stay in this ‘sensitized’ or metastable state until perturbed.”

“For example, the thalamus, basal ganglia, and the cerebellum possess a low degree of variability in their neuron types. In contrast, cortical structures have evolved not only five principal-cell types but also numerous classes of GABAergic inhibitory interneurons.”

“How can such a minority group keep in check the excitatory effects brought about by the majority principal cells in cortical networks? Interneurons deploy numerous mechanisms to meet this challenge. In contrast to the typically weak synaptic connections between principal cells, principal cell–interneuron connections are strong. In the return direction, a typical interneuron innervates a principal cell with 5–15 synaptic terminals (or boutons). Furthermore, almost half of the inhibitory terminals are placed at strategically critical positions for controlling action potential output.”

“The primary role of the interneuron networks is to coordinate timing of the action potentials. This task becomes more and more complex as the brain grows because neurons are placed farther apart from each other.”

“The seismologists’ task is literally identical to that of a neurologist who attempts to localize the source of an epileptic seizure from scalp recordings. The source localization problem or, as engineers call it, the “inverse problem” is the task of recovering the elements and location of the neural field generators based on the spatially averaged activity detected by the scalp electrodes. However, surface recordings provide only limited information about the structures and neuron groups from which the hypersynchronous epileptic activity emanates, and the inverse problem does not have a unique solution.”

“The complex EEG or MEG waveform can be reproduced by an appropriate combination of sine waves. This method is similar to the trick used by electronic synthesizers that can make convincing acoustical forgeries of everything from trombones to harps. It is done by a mathematical process called Fourier synthesis, named after the French mathematician Joseph Fourier. 32 The reverse process, called Fourier analysis, takes the complex EEG or MEG signal and decomposes it into the sine waves that make it up. After the signal is decomposed into sine waves, a compressed representation of the relative dominance of the various frequencies can be constructed. This frequency versus incidence illustration is known as the power spectrum. The Fourier method transforms the signal, defined in the time domain, into one defined in the frequency domain.”

“For example, random noise is defined as uncorrelated because it is similar only to itself, and any small amount of temporal shift results in no correlation with the unshifted signal at all. In contrast, oscillating signals go in and out of phase when shifted in time.”

“Coherence is the measure of the state in which two signals maintain a fixed phase relationship with each other or with a third signal that serves as a reference for each. The phase differences are often used to infer the direction of the force, although in most cases such inference is not possible…”

Page 109 lists several key definitions.

“Karl Friston emphasized the importance of short-lived transients in his “labile brain” series (Friston, 2000). According to Friston, brain dynamics move from a stable incoherence through dynamic instability to complete entrainment. A similar idea is echoed by the chaotic organization of Walter Freeman’s “wave packets” (Freeman and Rogers, 2002; Freeman et al., 2003) and the “neural moment” of transient synchrony of Hopfield and Brody (2001). It is not clear, though, how stable incoherence (high entropy) can be maintained in an interconnected system, e.g., the brain. As Sporns et al. (2000a, b, 2002) have pointed out, high-complexity and high-entropy conditions require very different architectures.”

“Perhaps what makes music fundamentally different from (white) noise for the observer is that music has temporal patterns that are tuned to the brain’s ability to detect them because it is another brain that generates these patterns. The long-time and large-scale note structure of Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto is quite similar to the latest hit played by a rock station or to Scott Joplin’s Piano Rags. 26 On the other hand, both high temporal predictability, such as the sound of dripping water, and total lack of predictability, such as John Cage’s stochastic “music” (essentially white noise) are quite annoying to most of us.”

“Psychophysical law that comes to mind in connection with the 1/f nature of cortical EEG is that of Weber and Fechner: the magnitude of a subjective sensation (a cognitive unit) increases proportionally to the logarithm of the stimulus intensity (a physical unit). For example, if a just-noticeable change in a visual sensation is produced by the addition of one candle to an original illumination of 100 candles, 10 candles will be required to detect a change in sensation when the original illumination is 1,000 candles. 28 According to Rodolfo Llinás at New York University, Weber’s law also underlies the octave tonal structure of music perception and production. He goes even further by suggesting that quale, 29 the feeling character of sensation, may “derive from electrical architectures embedded in neuronal circuits capable of such logarithmic order.”

“Pausing with this thought for a second, the math is not as simple as it looks. The seductively simple 1/f α function is, in fact, a very complex one. Every new computation forward takes into consideration the entire past history of the system. The response of a neuron depends on the immediate discharge history of the neuron and the long-term history of the connectivity of the network into which it is embedded. Assuming 100 independent neurons with spiking and nonspiking binary states, more than 10 30 different spike combinations are possible. However, only a very small fraction of these combinations can be realized in the brain because neurons are interconnected; thus, they are not independent constituents.”

“A household example of a relaxation oscillator is a dripping faucet. If the faucet is not turned off completely, it behaves like a metronome, generating water spheres and annoying sounds at regular intervals. The energy source that maintains the oscillation is the water pressure, whereas the balance between gravity and local viscosity determines the drop size. If the pressure is reduced, the interval between the drops increases; thus, the oscillator slows down, but the drop size remains the same. The frequency of the relaxation oscillator is calculated from the intervals between the pulses (water drops).”

“A good piano has good resonance because it amplifies the sound. Oftentimes, resonance is unwelcome because it amplifies events we want to avoid. Engineers of bridges and skyscrapers constantly struggle with unwanted resonance.”

“Resonant properties of neurons constrain them to respond most effectively to inputs at biologically important frequencies such as those associated with brain oscillations.”

“The astonishing conclusion from contemporary biophysics is that every part of the neuron can function as a resonator-oscillator. All the neuron needs is channel, activity with opposing actions and feedback to sustain the ying-yang game. Thus, a single neuron consists of myriads of potential resonators whose properties differ due to the different channel properties and densities of the membrane along the somatodendritic and axonal surface.”

“In its broad definition, synchrony refers to the concurrence of events in time, a relation that exists when things occur simultaneously, such as two or many neurons firing within a short time interval. Events that occur at different times are asynchronous. Although this definition of synchrony is found in most textbooks, it is not particularly useful. For two observers to have expectations of something occurring “at the same time” is meaningful only if they see the same clock. Furthermore, a “discrete time window” should be defined for the judgment of simultaneity. Otherwise, it is impossible to name the time at which something occurs…

If the same tune is played at the same time on the radio in both London and New York City, and the London broadcast is transmitted through the Internet, the tunes played by a radio and a computer in New York will not be judged as being simultaneous by a human listener. The same is true for an observer neuron that receives inputs from other neurons with different physical distances. If the difference in travel time of the action potentials from the presynaptic neurons is too long, the target neuron may treat them as asynchronous (separate) events.”

“For real neurons, however, the integration time window is much harder to determine and depends on a variety of factors, such as replenishment of the neurotransmitter in the presynaptic terminal, the actual resistance of the membrane, receptor types, the immediate spiking history of the neuron, and the state of the various conductances in general. When the neuron is very active, it becomes leaky and can integrate over a much shorter window than at times of low activity….

The slower the rhythm, the wider is the window of opportunity for synchronization. In a wider time window, more neurons can be recruited from larger brain areas because synaptic and axonal conductance delays are less limiting; thus, the spatial extent of synchrony is much larger in the case of a slow rhythm.”

“The optimal performance of man-made devices can be notoriously deteriorated by the presence of noise. But noise is not necessarily bad. An oft-quoted beneficial aspect of noise in bistable systems, for example, neurons, is its ability to amplify hidden periodic signals under certain conditions.”

“Noise can maintain spontaneous activity in computer models of neural networks. Signals become detectable due to resonance between the weak deterministic signal and stochastic noise.”

“Although signal amplification through noise appears advantageous for the brain, it has its own problems. A critical issue is the source of noise. Classical theories, in which the brain is viewed as a stimulus-driven device, assumed that spike response variability in response to an invariant input derives from unreliable individual neurons. 31 According to such view, a neuronal population can represent consistent and coherent decisions, but single cells within the population can cast different votes. These individually incongruent opinions are usually regarded as wasted action potentials from the representational point of view and are considered the source of synaptic noise. From the “population code” perspective, stochastic resonance is a clever mechanism because it can “recycle” the wasted action potentials. However, in contrast to the population code model, numerous recent works emphasize that action potentials are used sparingly in the brain, and spiking of neurons is much more reliable than previously thought.”

“Hebb’s cell assembly is a transient coalition of neurons, much like the dynamic interactions among jazz musicians. Members of the cell assembly are brought together by Hebb’s synaptic plasticity rule, on the basis of temporal relations among them: “When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite a cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased.”

“For example, in the hippocampus, spike transmission from pyramidal cell to interneuron is low at both low and high frequencies and highest at 15–40 hertz, which is the typical discharge frequency of an activated pyramidal neuron. In other words, a single but strongly “activated” pyramidal cell can exert an equal or larger effect in discharging its basket neurons than several dozen other presynaptic neurons discharging the same number of spikes because they target different, rather than the same, synapses. In essence, the high-frequency discharge of a pyramidal cell in its receptive field “enslaves” its basket cells through resonance tuning. In turn, the output of the basket cells suppresses the activity of the surrounding pyramidal neurons. Such “winner-take-all” or “rich-gets-richer” mechanisms are abundant in complex systems, from automatons to Bill Gates’s empire, and analogous mechanisms may be responsible for the segregation of neurons in networks strongly interconnected by excitatory collaterals.”

“Perhaps the most spectacular example of low-energy coupling, known to all physics and engineering majors, is the synchronization of Christiaan Huygens’s pendulum clocks. Huygens’s striking observation was that when two identical clocks were hung next to each other on the wall, their pendula became time-locked after some period. Synchrony did not happen when the clocks were placed on different walls in the room. Huygens’s clocks entrained because the extremely small vibrations of the wall that held both clocks were large enough that each rhythm affected the other.”

“However, when very large numbers of neurons come together with some time jitter, their integrated output, in principle, can be so smooth that the population may appear to behave like a sinusoid oscillator. In fact, this principle is routinely exploited by electric engineers to construct reliable sinusoid (i.e., harmonic) generators without the inconvenience of the inertia inherent in real sinusoid generators.”

“There are two requirements for an oscillator: opposing forces and positive feedback. Systems with opposing forces but without feedback can maintain only a transient oscillation with decreasing amplitude, a phenomenon called resonance. Neurons and networks with these properties preferentially treat inputs whose frequency matches their own resonance. Neuronal oscillators belong to the family of limit cycle or weakly chaotic oscillators. Two well-defined oscillators, harmonic and relaxation types, have numerous examples in the brain. Harmonic oscillators are good long-term predictors because their phase is constant. Relaxation oscillators can synchronize quickly and efficiently. Brain oscillators tend to exploit and combine these properties.”

“However, the information theory strategy cannot account for important functions of the brain that do not require immediate environmental inputs, including various the hard-to-define types of mental processing and sleep. I take a different approach in this book, beginning with the examination of the unperturbed, resting-sleeping brain and examining its evolving state changes.”

“The pattern of thalamic connectivity coevolved with the neocortex. However, cortical representations grew much more rapidly. For example, the number of thalamocortical neurons in the mouse is only an order of magnitude less than the number of target neurons in the cortex, whereas in the human brain the ratio is less than one to a thousand. Even though thalamic growth did not keep up with the fast development of the neocortex, higher order nuclei in primates are relatively larger than the first-order relays, indicating that allocation of divergent cortical–thalamic–cortical connections is more important for the evolution of the mammalian brain than enhancing the bandwidth capacity of primary sensory pathways.”

“This is interesting because the same cortical inputs can produce a diametrically opposite change in the network state, depending on the short-term history of the network. The mechanisms responsible for bringing the active network back to silence are not well understood. A combination of various factors, including decreasing. Input resistance of neurons, activity-dependent K + currents, and gain of inhibition over excitation, are considered opposing forces of excitation that collectively revert the network into a silent state. Anesthetics that increase K + conductance or potentiate the action of GABA can prolong the down state. In contrast, cortical neurons in the waking brain stay virtually constantly in the upstate. A major reason for this is that a main action of subcortical neurotransmitters is to decrease K + conductance of cortical neurons”

“The strong cholinergic activity during REM sleep and in the waking brain is mainly responsible for the lack of down states in cortical neurons. The most prominent oscillation of the waking brain is the family of alpha rhythms that occur selectively in every sensory and motor thalamocortical system in the absence of sensory inputs. Nevertheless, alpha oscillations are not simply a result of sensory disengagement but may reflect internal mental processing.”

“Similarly, Robert Stickgold and coleagues at Harvard Medical School found that the magnitude of memory enhancement after sleep was positively correlated with the amount of early-night slow-wave sleep, although it was also correlated with late-night REM sleep. Moreover, behavioral performance also increased after a daytime nap, which is dominated by slow-wave sleep.  Perhaps the most spectacular result in this area of research is the demonstration of sleep facilitation of creative insight. Did you ever wake up with the right answer to a problem that you could not solve the night before? To bring this folk psychology belief into the lab, Born’s team asked their subjects to generate number sequences that included a hidden rule—the second sequence was identical to the last in the series. Uncovering the hidden rule was possible only after several trials. The subjects were given only two trials before going to bed, not knowing about the hidden rule. A night’s sleep triggered insight of the rule the following morning in most subjects, whereas the same amount of time spent in waking during the day had little effect. These experiments provided the first controlled laboratory experiments for the widely known anecdotes of several famous scientists, writers, and musicians that sleep catalyzes the creative process. 14 The potential physiological basis of such associations are discussed in Cycle 12.”

“Brains of yogis and Zen practitioners, therefore, provide unexploited opportunities to examine the effects of long-termbehavioral training on brain rhythms. Unfortunately, it is difficult to obtain consent of highly trained contemplative yogis and students of Zen to participate in laboratory experiments. Not surprisingly, quantitative studies are rare. Nevertheless, the available evidence is telling. When absorbed in the Samadhi of Yoga meditation, when the self-versus-environment distinction disappears, external stimulation is largely ineffective in blocking alpha oscillations, whereas continued blocking without habituation is observed in Zen meditators. Both types of practice increase both the power and the spatial extent of alpha oscillations, and the magnitude of changes correlates with the extent of training. Beginners show increases of alpha power activity over the occipital area, whereas in intermediate meditators the extent of oscillating cortical area is increased and the frequency of alpha oscillations is decreased. After decades of training, large-amplitude theta-frequency rhythm may dominate over a large extent of the scalp.”

“Imagine that the brain and the body would mature separately in a laboratory, and only several years later we would connect them. This newly united brain–body child would not be able to walk, talk, or even scratch her nose. Local stimulation of her hand or foot would trigger generalized startle reactions, as is the case in premature babies, rather than a spatially localized motor response that characterizes a full-term baby. The reason is that the motor or sensory relations generated by the brain grown in isolation would not match.”

“The primacy of movement-induced sensory feedback may also underlie more complex processes such as development of social communication and speech. Songbirds, such as the extensively studied zebra finches, learn their songs from their fathers. This process is more serendipitous, though, than a well-thought-out learning algorithm. The young birds do not start with the first syllables of the father’s song and acquire the rest piece by piece. Instead, each bird “babbles” some sounds, and it is these self-generated “syllables” from which the birds expand to learn a species-specific adult song. Each bird starts out with a unique seed syllable. Analogously, babbling in human babies also reflects a self-organized intrinsic dynamics.”

“If all currently active neurons to a particular face were selectively and instantaneously eliminated in the inferotemporal cortex in my brain, I would not suffer from face recognition problems because neighboring neurons would instantaneously take over the response properties of the eliminated cells. 18 Another objection that can be added to the list of criticisms is that purely feedforward circuits with closed ends do not really exist in the brain.”

“An alternative to the hierarchical connectionist model of object recognition is a more egalitarian solution: binding by temporal coherence. The key idea of this model, usually attributed to Peter Milner, a colleague of Donald Hebb at McGill University in Montreal, and to the German theoretical physicist Christoph von der Malsburg at the University of Heildelberg, Germany, is that spatially distributed cell groups should synchronize their responses when activated by a single object. n this new scheme, connectivity is no longer the main variable; rather, it is the temporal synchrony of neurons, representing the various attributes of the object, that matters. The different stimulus features, embedded in the activity of distributed cell assemblies, can be combined by mutual horizontal links.”

“Neurons with overlapping receptive fields and similar response properties synchronize robustly with zero time lag, whereas neurons that do not share the same receptive fields do not synchronize. Importantly, it is the response features of the neurons, rather than their spatial separation, that determine the vigor of synchrony. Neurons several millimeters apart in the same or different stages of the visual system and even across the two cerebral hemispheres have been shown to come together in time transiently by gamma-frequency synchronization”

“Instead, the attributes of the object are generated by the observer’s brain. As Gestalt psychologists have known for long, the whole is often faster recognized than its parts, indicating that object recognition is not simply representation of elementary features but the result of bottom-up and top-down interactions, in harmony with the architectural organization of the cerebral cortex.”

“A particular striking correlation between working memory and gamma oscillation was observed by subdural grid recordings. Working memory is a hypothetical mechanism that enables us keep stimuli “in mind” after they are no longer available. The amount of information to be held at any given time is referred to as memory load, for example, the number of ‘nonsense’ syllables to be stored when trying to repeat a toast salutation in a foreign language.

The longer the string of the syllables, the larger the memory load. Experiments in epileptic patients, equipped with large numbers of subdural electrodes for diagnostic purposes, showed that gamma power increased linearly with memory load at multiple, distributed sites, especially above the prefrontal cortex. The power remained at the elevated level during the retention period but fell back quickly to baseline level after the working memory information was no longer needed.”

“There are two fundamental requirements for affecting synaptic strength: sufficiently strong depolarization of the postsynaptic neuron and appropriate timing between presynaptic activity and the discharge of the post-synaptic neuron. 38 Because both mechanisms are affected by the gamma oscillation–mediated synchronization, adjustment of synaptic strength is a perpetual process in the cortex.”

“It is important to recognize that once synchrony is established on a single gamma cycle, the two sites can remain synchronous for several cycles even without further synchronizing events. This is the major advantage of oscillatory synchrony and the main reason why synchrony can be established by relatively weak connections and few spikes.”

“Model systems are always a trade-off, giving up some direct relevance for simplicity. Consider olfactory perception in insects as a model for visual perception in higher mammals. Yet, these entirely different sensory systems have at least one thing in common: stimulus-induced gamma oscillations. The technical advantages of using insects over mammals are enormous…

[In locusts] Different odorants activate different sets of cells, indicative of some spatial representation of odors. However, many neurons respond to several odorants, and the temporal patterns of spike responses are characteristic to different odorants and concentrations. Laurent observed that at a certain time after the odorant presentation, the individual spikes become phase-locked to the induced gamma cycles as well as to other simultaneously recorded neurons.”

“Gamma oscillations have been hypothesized to offer a solution to the century old ‘binding problem’ of perception. Because different features of an object, such as color, texture, distance, spatial position, and smell, are processed in separate parts of the cortex by different sets of neurons, one should explain how they are bound into a complex representation in a matter of 200 milliseconds or so to ‘reconstruct’ the physical object. An earlier solution of the binding problem is a hierarchical feature extraction in feedforward networks, the product of which is a set of ‘gnostic’ neurons at the top.”

“[Penfield] stimulated various sites of the surface of the neocortex of epileptic patients and asked them to narrate their experience. The stimulations evoked dream-like sensations, combining the actual situation and assumed recalled memories. Repeated stimulation of the same cortical site typically produced different experiences, while stimulation of some other sites could evoke the same experience. A possible explanation of the stimulation results is that the stimulation effects were combined with the ongoing trajectories of neuronal activity.”

“The variation of our motor and cognitive abilities is present at multiple time scales, extending from periods of tens of milliseconds to hours. The brain-state variability to a large extent is internally coordinated even in the waking brain.”

“Virtually all neocortical regions project to the perirhinal and entorhinal cortices, and the neocortical information is funneled to the hippocampus by these structures. Thus, according to the brain hierarchy formula, the hippocampus is the ultimate association structure, receiving the highest order neuronal information”

“But even giants can make (small) mistakes. A few decades after Ramón y Cajal outlined the direction of the main hippocampal output, it was discovered that the subcortical projection of the hippocampus is not the most significant output projection. Instead, the principal hippocampal efferents return to the subicular complex and to the deep layers of the entorhinal cortex, from where the information is routed back to the neocortex. Thus, the principal direction of neocortex–paleocortex traffic is not downward to the archipallium but upward to the neocortex.”

“Let’s begin with some theoretical speculation. The computational properties of recursive organization, such as the extensive CA3 recurrent system, meet the requirements of an “autoassociator.” By its computational definition, an autoassociator is a self-correcting network that can recreate a previously stored pattern that most closely resembles the current input pattern, even if it is only a fragment of the stored version.”

“At the very least, the synaptic interactions among neurons should account for the trial-to-trial variability of phase precession. An analogy may be helpful here to illustrate the differences between the pacemaker and cell assembly models. Imagine musicians of an orchestra playing their parts in isolation, supervised by a metronome timer only. Once all the musicians have played their parts separately, the recorded pieces are combined into a single set. have to convince the reader that the quality of the metronome-paced cut-and-paste piece would never match the quality of a real, concert hall performance, where interactions among musicians are available at a much finer time scale than supplied by the metronome-supplied beat (figure 11.15).”

“Seeing a dog for the first time in life is an episode. However, after seeing many different dogs and pictures of dogs, the universal features assume a semantic meaning: a common name. 113 Neuron members of an omnidirectional or explicit assembly collectively define or symbolize the ‘meaning’ of an item. Such explicit, higher order representation is invariant to the conditions that created it.”

“The most prominent collective pattern of hippocampal neurons is theta oscillation, a sustained rhythm associated with explorative navigation.”

“A major motivation for studying the mechanisms of oscillatory coupling is to use such understanding for describing the direction and strength of functional connectivity between brain areas of interest. Unfortunately, there is no general mathematical or computational theory of oscillatory networks of multiple interacting oscillators.”

Latin Proverbs: N



Nemo nisi per amicitiam cognoscitur

No one learns except by friendship [with the subject being studied]

The literal translation of this proverb is awkward and misleading. If we think of something we want to master as an adversary we are almost destined to never move beyond mere competence, although perhaps we never end up thinking of it as a friend because we are unable to move beyond the frustrating stage of having to consciously plan every our every move to reduce the chance of embarrassing fumbles. The activity does not begin to become “friendly” until some of its more tedious aspects become unconscious. Maybe it is wisest to assume whatever or whoever we are working on, with, through, or for will eventually become amicable – towards us, anyway.

Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.

Drive out Nature with a pitchfork; she will always return.

One of the running gags of the tragicomical sitcom called civilization is the widespread refusal to accept certain facts of nature and, by extension, to equate the acknowledgement of what is with an endorsement of how things ought to be. Whether it is the denial of the sex instinct, the Soviet attempt to replace Mendelian genetics with Lysenkoism, or the uncanny knack for religious apologists of all stripes to shove their heads deep into the mud when paleontological evidence clashes with their preferred creation story, people have a nasty habit of forgetting they are, as Aristotle said, situated somewhere between “the beasts and the gods.”

Ne supra crepidam sutor iudicaret

A shoemaker should not judge beyond the shoe

There are an overwhelming number of opinions in the world, although very few of them are unique, and even fewer are unique to one person. On any given subject even a well-read person likely has only one or two canned tangents prepared when it is mentioned (it is a wonder how no one has won the Loebner Prize yet – a typical human conversation shouldn’t be that hard to simulate – I’m joking, of course)

A shoemaker should not be the only person with a view on the topic. A podiatrist knows more about who will and won’t benefit from them and the person who has to wear them has to decide whether they are comfortable or not.

In other words, the proverb, as well as those who worship at the altar of (perceived) expertise, are assuming we are dealing with a good shoemaker with an omniscient knowledge of his craft and the needs of all those he services. But does the cobbler really need seven consultants to help him make a shoe for a baker? People have been making what we would call shoes for at least 7,500 years. Surely some wisdom has accumulated over seven and a half millennia.

Necesse est aut imiteris aut oderis

You must either imitate or loathe the world

Seneca neatly summarizes the perennial dilemma of the thoughtful person. As philosophy became an academic discipline and philosophers became tenured professors the focus shifted from thinking about the ideal life, which seems terribly pompous nowadays. Over the last half century academics in the humanities (usually calling themselves “critical theorists”) and far too many laypeople appropriated and misapplied Einsteinian physics to every sphere of their everyday lives.

Seneca would not choose Scylla or Charybdis, or if he did, his mind would remain elsewhere. It may not be an entirely false dichotomy, but it is irrelevant to a Stoic.

Nunc est bibendum

Now is the time to drink.

Inebriation rarely offers any answers to our problems, but given the rollercoaster ride that was 2016, I believe we have all earned a glass of whiskey.

Seven More Sonnets



The first bunch can be found here. These were written in rapid succession.



Those for whom dreams are a welcome refuge

And the silence of sleep their sole respite

Mourn at dawn for another lost deluge

And search the drab earth to regain that height.

There they call all they see the fabled truth,

For all seems to be beauty incarnate.

For there headless lies are woven to soothe

And assure them they belong to this state.

What sad mimics, what a sorry charade

The deceits of dreams have lately become.

Fastened to you by an unbroken braid,

From their foolhardy hold I always run.

Some sleepers to night may gladly resign,

But when I see you I know you are mine.


Let’s gather it all in a solemn place,

And stare surely at what we held sacred:

Grey idols, memories we would chase,

Hollow enchanters boredom calls blessed.

On wandering evenings of no matter,

Plain treks to a destination well-worn,

There is nothing, almost nothing to spur

The pulling of the remembering thorn.

Pitiful to pass the precious hours

In time squandered or honourably spent,

But your love’s truth, grace, and powers

Forces my drab memories to relent.

Let us lead these lies to a worthy tomb,

And let our love feed, grow, and bloom



My thoughts were once a shiftless wilderness,

Mad as I was—passing from place to place

Confessing to sin, sinning to confess—

Praying idleness could let me efface

The search for what is fleetingly fresh

In green forests rich, but truthfully bare:

Where fair spirits die with the feckless flesh

And clocks cackle as the vines ensnare

Youth and its red lustre with certainty,

For a free soul without an object pure

Is a windblown weed without real liberty,

Another lost to the world’s false allure.

I embrace your light and the shadows fall,

Next to you this earth is nothing at all.



Wisdom is a tortured slope seldom scaled

By youth or age. For one is too tender,

The other has tried—and already failed.

What sage proverbs could the aged confer

Upon days and nights so unlike their own,

For everyone has a time and but one time

And save for that moment, we are alone.

Then to blank innocence do we align

To stave the decay, life’s cold retort

To the highest hopes of our beginnings?

Naturally some ships will remain in port

And ponder everything’s underpinnings.

From plain time our love let us retreat;

Let us let time be neither fate nor conceit .



The master smith will whisper to her ore

And slowly sow the seeds of her design,

For it does not know the shapes it may take

Or through what honeyed charms she can refine

The basest of beasts, the weakest of minds

In the scarlet hearth of a forge most kind.

Perhaps a gutless block would not welcome

The breathless blaze of each blinding blow

For from such beauties the hapless run

Lest they be caught by eyes and lips that know

Their hearts better than they, or would request

They grow again and forsake the fallow.

Let my mould and course be once more recast,

Made mutable by a love unsurpassed.



Against my will, with nothing to my name,

I entered a vessel some have envied.

For their arrivals have been much the same,

But with the sun their looks have not agreed.

This splendid symmetry you admire

Conceals uneven terrain within me.

Of these jagged things you do not tire,

For you know they are beauty’s penalty.

Better still you can whisper with shadows,

The groping cliffs with uncertain edges,

The unexpected encroach of arrows

That enliven the sad sand-swept ledges.

Let the rivulets assume a single course,

For in you they find a purer source.



When the air is crisp and I can commune

With ancient texts or a fortifying tome

Dawn is destined to trouble me too soon

And banish me from my nocturnal home.

When raptured to my untainted abodes

I can see endless wonders within me;

Distant stars, the meanest moods and modes,

Weave themselves together unknowingly.

There is not a thought unturned by the tide

Nor a paltry sand speck it does not know:

A more perfect portrait can be espied

Than in the discordant realms below.

Without you these ventures would be for nought,

For you encompass all that can be sought.



Latin Proverbs: M


The Kanizsa Triangle, an illustration of Gestalt psycology in action.

Malum quidem nullum esse sine aliquo bono.

There is no evil without some good.

This proverb should not be interpreted as blind Panglossianism. That sort of naive optimism is antithetical to the Greco-Roman worldview, which itself was far from homogenous. It is hard to imagine a Stoic, Epicurean, Skeptic, Neoplatonist, Aristotelian, or a run-of-the-mill Pagan trading places with Voltaire’s ridiculous professor (teleology is not the same as believing this is the “best of all possible worlds”). Minor mishaps help us prepare for more formidable disasters. Catastrophes may force us to change by giving us a deeper appreciation for our lives and life itself.

This does not mean we should subject ourselves to hardships, it does not mean it is “for the best” when a monsoon obliterates  a village or a tyrant is given absolute power or a loved one passes away, but these sorts of calamities, whether it is the strengthening of a resolve for liberty, the bonds of family and community, or the expansion of one’s empathy, do not come without some good – which is all that is being claimed here. Since at this point in time tragedies are unavoidable, it is wise to draw what we can from this maxim and apply it to our own typically less-than-ideal circumstances.

Mundus vult decipi

The world wants to be deceived

And maybe the ultimate deception is the need to construct coherent narratives. As Postmodern as this may sound I am not denying the existence of objective facts, the usefulness of the scientific method, or the validity of properly applied deductive logic. I am simply saying there is a universal need – shared even by Postmodernists – to believe we have a consistent and complete picture of the areas we consider important enough to demand this sort of self-deception. The shadows, what Donald Rumsfeld called the “unknown unknowns”, greatly outnumber the other three types of knowables.

Optimism is practical. Occasionally bolstering one’s faith in Lady Luck or Providence is not wholly irrational, since it is likely these terms are  describing a set of very real traits and circumstances working in one’s favor. Pessimism is easy to fall prey to because we are wired to give more weight to negative events, which only assists in constantly amplifying the bias (and engorging the smugness of the pessimist). There is even a special sort of satisfaction in complete agnosticism, partially because it requires so little effort and partially because it often seems like the wisest position to take.

Gestalt psychologists like Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Kohler found that people are very good at “filling in the blanks”, sometimes to their detriment. It is described in the approriately titled Law of Closure. In a way, pretending to know what is between the gaps is an essential form of closure in both senses of the word.

Melius est nomen bonum quam divitae multae.

A good name is better than vast riches

As the information age matures everyone will become increasingly accountable for their actions and, more controversially, their beliefs. Beliefs in some way must be reflective of the person who holds them. Yes? This means someone who holds a specific idea must be entirely evil and therefore deserving of condemnation.  Yet the belief has an origin, likely quite mundane and fairly arbitrary, because there is never an effect without a set of causes behind it (I seem to be channeling Aquinas this morning – bear with me). As I have argued  before, beliefs are rarely the result of critical thinking.

When a person can be beheld as a whole, how do we judge them? Usually not as a whole. It takes too much time and energy to properly evaluate someone’s character. Names rise and fall with sound bites, with incidents that suddenly dim public perception. Surely we all enjoy sharing the triumphs of those we consider representative of ourselves and our values, but nothing is relished more than the fall of the mighty. Care must be taken not because there is so much information, but because a single speck, even if it is only a speck in the eye of one vicious critic, can irreparably damage a legacy.

Mendax memorem esse oportet.

A liar should have a good memory.

In different states of mind we can more readily access different memory clusters. Anyone who has been intoxicated, hypnotized, or has utilized the Stanislavski Technique knows this.

In some way or another we are liars, either by omission (to protect our reputations or spare the feelings of others) or by stating things we know are untrue. Even in the latter case the lies may not be malicious or harmful. Most of us would never tell a child he or she is stupid, even if, as far as we can tell, they are quite stupid.  Someone who constructs a false narrative must remember all its details, otherwise they are bound to be convicted, but the same can be said for someone who is trying to tell the truth.

Yet, as George Costanza said, “a lie is not a lie if you believe it.” Memories must seem true, otherwise one’s recollections will be unconvincing.

Misera fortuna, qui caret inimico.

It is unfortunate to have no enemies

This one is open to interpretation. At first glance it looks like a joke, maybe something a politician once said to lighten the mood of a banquet. On the other hand, it expresses a sentiment older than Rome, older than our species. Rats roughhouse with one another and so did, presumably, our rodent-like ancestors. This bouts are not being waged between two “enemies”, although it would also be silly to claim the rats are friends. There is an instinct to play.

For these reasons Johan Huizinga dubbed our species Homo Ludens. George Leonard writes:

“What we call ‘mastery’ can be defined as that mysterious process through which what is at first difficult or even impossible becomes easy and pleasurable through diligent, patient, long-term practice.”

While many people have contentedly striven for mastery without paying much attention to their rivals, or the world outside their studio or office, there is no doubt competition is a necessary incentive for practitioners who would otherwise see no point in continuing. Even Leonard, who takes a rather spiritual view of mastery, must admit that a game without challenge is incredibly boring.


Thoughts on Meaning



It is natural to long for something long gone. It is just as natural to want a feeling or experience to last longer than it ever could, perhaps even for it to become a permanent way of being, either at the time or, more commonly, when silhouetted by the softening light of hindsight. A tremendous amount of potential is lost to nihilism. The passivity it engenders only causes the afflicted to dig an even deeper hole, to waste more time, to rigidly withhold their energies from expenditure, and to feel increasingly disenfranchised from the dreams they prematurely deemed unreachable or meaningless.

Nothing in the universe is meaningless. Transient? Undoubtedly. Though even then it depends on how you define it. Approximately 300 million cells in our bodies die every minute, but barring hereditary disorders and unfortunate accidents, we live for many decades. To say it is without purpose is to isolate the part from the whole, a symptom of the rabid reductionism still endemic to scientific circles. The celerity of a mailboy, the virulence of a bacterium, and the temperaments of thunderstorms have all shaped the fates of nations. The characters of leaders and thinkers have been impacted as much by their life stories and their encounters with painfully ordinary people as they have by the achievements of their predecessors. To declare an action pointless is to forget it does not and cannot stand alone. Nothing comes from a vacuum. It is the result of countless causes, the chain to which it belongs is so intricate and delicate the doer can contemplate upon but never truly understand its craftsmanship or the craftsman.

For a Daoist meditation in motion is superior to sitting. Lord Krishna exhorts Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita to faithfully execute his dharma as a kshatriya without any regard for victory or defeat. While some schools of Buddhism, particularly the Sotoshu, emphasize the importance of remaining silent and seated in zazen, this is not the case for all. Due to journalistic sensationalism  we are bombarded by editorials that are made out to be the final words on a matter. There is seldom a final word on anything. There is unstoppable change, unexpected detours and, dare I say, progress. As anathemic as the term may be to subjectivists, there has no doubt been a massive expansion of knowledge since the invention of writing and, I would wager, a commensurate increase in possible conscious states. As hinted at in the preceding paragraph, we must at once conceive of things as they are, but always keep in view their place in the grander scheme of things.

Are there perfect forms we can contemplate upon? Is there an entity called Truth that is as unequivocally perfect as an ideal isosceles triangle? I do not know if Plato’s Forms are somewhere in the clouds, but there is no doubt we can experience them. Climb the mountain, revel in the peak. 


Amphibians Through the Ages: Why Frogs Matter

Originally published on Radical Science News

Authors: Lydia Fucsko and Adam Alonzi

Green Tree Frogs Litoria caerulea on bananas ©Lydia Fucsko

Green Tree Frogs (Litoria caerulea) on bananas ©Lydia Fucsko

Amphibian derives from the Greek words ‘amphi’ (double) and ‘bios’ (life) – and their unique life cycles have made them icons of the environmental movement. Frogs have become symbolic of biodiversity conservation and environmental water management.   

Although there are a plethora of amphibians and water sources, the conventional image is of a frog in a pond. In this peaceful place adult frogs sit on branches and leaves, dragonflies hover overhead, and tadpoles wriggle below the surface. Aside from this conventional image, amphibians have a long tradition of mythology that extends into popular culture, advertising, and even web animations.

The common need for water creates a close kinship between humans and these remarkable organisms. Almost anyone can appreciate amphibians, at the very least, for their astonishing diversity (ARAZPA 2008; Attenborough 2008). It is hardly surprising Kermit the Frog has leapt into human popular culture given the character’s universal appeal (Tyler, Wassersug & Smith 2007).

Frogs and toads, as members of the class Amphibia, are commonly referred to as amphibians. Frogs and toads are different than caecilians and salamanders because they do not have a tail after reaching adulthood. Frogs and toads belong to the order Anura, which translates to “no tail.” Further distinctions between frogs and toads are widespread and generally understood, however, “From a taxonomic perspective, all members of the order Anura are frogs, but only members of the family Bufonidae are considered ‘true toads.’ The use of the term ‘frog’ in common names usually refers to species that are aquatic or semi-aquatic with smooth and/or moist skins, and the term “toad” generally refers to species that tend to be terrestrial with dry, warty or bumpy skin.” Frogs and toads are found on every continent except Antarctica. As of April 2015, there are 6,482 species in the Anura order according to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).


Tadpoles, tadpoles, tadpoles!

It is well-known frogs begin their lives as small fish-like creatures called tadpoles. Tadpoles, like their mature counterparts, vary in size and morphology. At this stage they are usually herbivorous, but have been known to prey upon zooplankton, insect larvae, and even other tadpoles (Altig et al, 2007).

Frogs are eaten in many countries, including Peru, India, China and France. They were also considered delicacies by the ancient Romans. In fact, frogs are so prized in certain culinary circles that a number of Asian countries have forbidden their exportation. Although particularly popular in France and China, they are also consumed on the Iberian Peninsula, in Southeast Asia, and parts of the Balkans. It’s true what they say: (some) frogs taste like chicken. Typically their meat is bland and requires frying or hot sauce. Others taste fishy to discerning palates. This should not be surprising, since amphibians are not far removed from the first creatures to climb out of the Devonian sea. By piecing together the puzzle of the geographic distribution of amphibians using DNA sequence data, academics offer further insights into how amphibians crossed vast continents over time.  

Frogs have continued to serve as sources of haute cuisine and new drugs (Adler, 2003; Grenard 1994; Tyler 1997). Throughout the ages frogs and toads have been used in innumerable medicines and magical rituals (Sax 2001, p. 125). Misconceptions about frogs still abound and many superstitions are still believed wholeheartedly. Do they give us warts? Empirical evidence reveals this is not so (Tyler & Looby 2004, pp. 68-69). They even gave us the first human pregnancy test and have helped us better understand mitosis and meiosis.


The Waxy Monkey Tree Frogs

They offer a treasure trove of pharmaceuticals to help humans to combat disease: ways to numb pain, treat ulcers, and improve the organ transplantation process, among many others. Peptides like dermaseptins and magainins in the skin extracts of the waxy monkey treefrog (Phyllomedusa sauvagei) and the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) hold promise. Amphibians are proving to be powerful allies in research against STI-causing pathogens. Such peptides may prove to provide safer microbicides and spermicides. Microbicides are more convenient to use in the form of gels, films, or suppositories, and capable of neutralizing viruses and bacteria. Researchers have also identified a peptide with the potential to accelerate wound-healing on the skin of Graham’s frog (Odorrana grahami). Secretions from many Australian tree frogs contain antimicrobial peptides that form part of the host defence mechanism to ward off bacterial infection.

The size of the African clawed frog’s (X. laevis) eggs allows researchers to see and manipulate them easily. They can study the effects of injecting drugs or DNA into the egg. thThe cells divide rapidly and many ingenious ways of halting, restarting, and modifying the cell cycle have been developed. Their tadpoles are transparent, which is yet another blessing to developmental biologists because it lets them see how tissues and organs are formed. This species can survive for up to twenty years, the entire time furnishing researchers with useful information. The 18th century biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani proved sexual reproduction can only take place through the joining of male and female gametes by putting rubber pants on frogs! It is often claimed frogs will allow themselves to be boiled to death if the temperature of water is raised gradually enough, but this is disputed by Douglas Melton, a Harvard biology professor: “If you put a frog in boiling water, it won’t jump out. It will die. If you put it in cold water, it will jump before it gets hot—they don’t sit still for you.”


The Mink Frog

As ingredients in numerous folk remedies and sources of cutting-edge pharmaceuticals, frogs have long played a role in medical research. The Russian brown frog Rana temporaria, for instance, is dipped into milk to prevent souring. In China powdered toad venom acts much like digitalis in strengthening heart contractions. Tribes in South America have used frog secretions as venom for their arrows and as ointments for their wounds.

Most infections attack the mucous membranes. Since a frog’s epidermis is essentially one large mucous membrane one may wonder why they do not turn into “bags of pus.” Although their skin houses a wealth of antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial agents, it is not especially adept at fighting off certain types of fungi. The mink frog of North America (Rana septentrionalis) can combat the dreaded “Iraqibacter”, a drug resistant bacterium that has infected wounded American soldiers in Iraq.

The foothill yellow-legged frog (Rana boylii) shows promise in fighting methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria, however this species is now facing extinction. Bear in mind many of these compounds are large peptides which, at this time, do not make the best pharmaceuticals. They can elicit immune responses and are often metabolized too quickly. However, as delivery methods become more sophisticated, this may no longer be an issue.


Courtesy of What Do Animals Eat?

Two small peptides isolated from the waxy monkey frog (P. sauvagii) show antiangiogenic properties. By stopping the formation of blood vessels they could be useful in killing tumours. The giant fire-bellied toad (Bombina maxima) has a peptide that does the opposite. Encouraging angiogenesis could be a boon to stroke victims, organ transplant recipients, and patients with certain types of cardiovascular disease. Samples were collected from two groups of frog species: Litoria, which includes the Australian green tree frog, and Crinia, a genus also native to Australia. Litoria produce caerin peptides, which attack cell membranes. Members of Crinia make riparins, which can enhance immune response, regulate blood pressure, and relax tense muscles. Some frogs are also veritable alkaloid factories, a family of molecules that contains recognizable names like caffeine, morphine, psilocybin, and nicotine. Epibatadine is a toxin derived from the Equadorian poison tree frog (Epipedobates tricolor) with analgesic properties.

While it will not supplant opiates in the near future, it may serve as the inspiration for new and less addictive types of painkillers.


Poison Dart Frogs: they pose a greater immediate threat to you and you to them.

Frogs breathe with their lungs and through their skin to regulate moisture and fluid transfer (Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage 2004, p. 1). Humans should not haphazardly handle an amphibian out of regard for its safety. Unless it is a poison dart frog (Dendrobatidae), and you immediately place your fingers into your mouth or near your eyes after contact, you likely pose a greater threat to the little creatures than they ever will to you. Having semi-permeable membranes makes them vulnerable to dehydration and to whatever toxins or harmful microbes someone may be harboring on their hands. A guide to properly handling amphibians can be found here. Every so often a frog deformed by pollution makes its way into the news. This is a result of exposure to harmful chemicals during critical windows of development or to pathogens that have sprung up as a result of ecological imbalances. These unfortunate mutants should serve as sobering illustrations of what the irresponsible disposal of teratogens can do to living things.

As sensitive indicators of changes in their habitat, the health of amphibians is related directly to, and a telling reflection of, disease and dis-ease in the environment. “If chemicals in the water cause mutations and reproductive problems in frogs think of what they could be doing to humans,” states Vicky Poole of the National Aquarium in Baltimore. We can “help save frogs and other amphibians” by limiting the use of chemicals and pesticides which ultimately end up in the watershed and ultimately harm frog populations.

Maleficent, beloved, educative, beneficent, or endangered, frogs and toads have been seen in different lights at different times. These many different roles suit an animal that spends part of its life in the water and a portion on land, time in one body and time in another. They come in a dizzying array of shapes, sizes, and colors. More than just bulging eyed fly catchers, frogs and toads have a diverse assortment of mating rituals, child rearing methods, lifestyles, life cycles, and defences against predators. Frost et al. (2006) note there are estimates of well over 5,200 frog species and there are likely many more to be discovered. Tragically, it is estimated that over 120 amphibian species have become extinct since 1980 (Moore, 2014).

Amphibians, once reviled and perpetually promoted as symbols of doom in literature, are now harbingers not only of spring, but of a burgeoning global shift in consciousness. Conserving these creatures is seen as not only noble, but also in humanity’s best interest – the outdated belief that an ecological crisis was mere hearsay has been put to rest now global warming  is widely accepted by the scientific and the political communities around the world (McKibben, 2006;  Flannery, 2015).

Frogs are used in scientific testing. Most iconically they were used in the past by institutions of learning to teach anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology. In the twenty first century there has been a global outcry against such practices and mounting concern about the health of our water resources. There is a growing awareness about the absence of those creatures that traditionally dwelt in, on, or near waterways—the problem is apparent when an eerie silence falls upon places once bustling with croaks, calls, and songs.

frog brain12

Courtesy of Scrapbook Anatomy

Amphibians have sophisticated nervous systems that allow them to feel pain and pleasure like any other sufficiently advanced animal. The central nervous system of a frog is composed of the front, mid, and hind brains. The hind, which contains the medulla oblongata, keeps the frog balanced. The frontal and mid areas manage sensory inputs. Its peripheral nervous system is composed of ten pairs of cranial nerves, as opposed to twelve in humans, as well as their extensions that allow for the exchange of information between the brain and the rest of the body. For over half a century we have gathered ample evidence that clearly shows nonhuman animals feel pain and experience many other emotions once believed to be unique to Homo sapiens (Balcombe 2010; Bekoff 2007, 2010; Bekoff et al. 2002; Bekoff & Pierce 2009; Fouts & Mills 1997; Griffin 1992).  Thus, it should be clear that it is inhumane to intentionally injure or cause them distress.

Humans have long been mesmerised by the metamorphosis amphibians undergo, and have sought insights into human physiology by observing it. Tyler, Wassersug & Smith (2007, p. 2) note that, “This is not surprising as frogs and humans share similar organ systems and biological needs” (Holmes 1993; Nussbaum and Oksenberg Rorty 1995). There are similarities and differences between mammalian and amphibian physiology. Frogs have a brain, two eyes, two ears, a mouth, and a nose, but have no ribs, only nine vertebrate, and no tail. However, a urostyle, a downward extension of the spinal column, is a tail-like relic from the evolutionary past.

Whereas humans have two lower leg bones, the tibia and a fibula, nature’s great hoppers have only one. Amphibians do not have ears on the outside like mammals, but they can hear. Their ears are composed of a cartilage ring that vibrates which then tickles the fluid, which moves tiny “hairs”, which stimulate the nerves. This is all fine and good, but what is more unusual is the fact a frog’s lungs are almost as sensitive to vibration as their ears. Professor Peter Narins (2006) discovered the two are connected by an airway. This is analogous to the way fish can “hear” with their air bladders.


Courtesy of Dog Kisses

In many locales croaking is synonymous with a midsummer night’s eve. The size of the tympanum, the circular ear cover, is one way to distinguish between the genders. In males it is smaller than their eyes, in females it is approximately the same size. Although for many species emitting a call is critical to attracting a mate, it is just as important that females can hear it! As in most animals, sexual dimorphism exists. When breeding commences the male employs his specialized call to attract females. The male will attempt to climb on top of the female’s back and clasp around her “waist” in what is referred to as amplexus, and the eggs are generally fertilized in the water as she lays them. The male is typically smaller in order not to crush the future mother of his children; the female is larger to store her many eggs. There is great diversity in the world of courtship and reproduction where frogs are concerned.

More than one Nobel Prize has been won with the help of our gracious little friends. The Ig Nobel Prize was awarded to Andre Geim for his frog levitation project. In his defence, he later snatched a Nobel for his work on graphene, making him the one man to have the honour of winning both awards. In 1962 John B. Gurdon proved the reversibility of cell specialization by replacing the nucleus of an egg cell with one taken from an adult. The resulting chimera developed into a normal tadpole. This led to a shared Nobel Prize with Shinya Yamanaka 50 years later. In the 1700’s Luigi Galvani made a seminal contribution to neurology when he passed a current through the legs of a dead frog. The twitching it induced proved the nervous system had an electrical foundation. These experiments made him famous and would later inspire Mary Shelley to write one of the most famous horror novels in the Western canon.

In the Middle Ages amphibians were associated with a sundry of diseases and evils. These superstitions and prejudices did not readily die. Wells (2007) cites the eminent eighteenth century Scandinavian biologist Carolus Linnaeus, who, in 1758, wrote in Systema Naturae (The System of Nature) that, ‘These foul and loathsome animals…are abhorrent because of their cold body, pale colour, cartilaginous skeleton, filthy skin, fierce aspect, calculating eye, offensive smell, harsh voice, squalid habitation, and terrible venom….’

Such a misguided statement may well have been indicative of a general fear felt by the public towards these animals which was further compounded by the hysteria surrounding the alleged practice of witchcraft. The Catholic Church decided frogs were one of the forms familiars could assume, familiars in this case refers to malevolent entities who carry out a witch’s commandments. From that point onward amphibians became synonymous with witchcraft in the West.

Loved or maligned, kissed by princesses or boiled by witches (Cooper 1992, p. 107; Ribuoli & Robbiani 1991, pp. 38-47), amphibians have long enchanted us and continue to appear in folklore, children’s stories, magic and mythology, and popular culture (Heiner 2010).  

Ribuoli and Robbiani reinforce this presence when they mention frogs feature ‘so prominently throughout history, the world over, in legend… art and popular entertainment’ (1991, p. 6). From Exodus to Aesop, Aristophanes, Jim Henson’s most famous Muppet, and the Egyptian goddess of fertility, frogs have played important roles in the mythologies and cultures of the world. Heqet, the Egyptian frog deity, was depicted simply as a frog, or a woman with a frog’s head or, less commonly, as a frog perched upon a phallus. With the annual flooding of the Nile came millions of frogs. It is no wonder Heqet amulets were worn by women who wanted children.

An enduring fable attributed to Aesop concerning a croaking assemblage of frogs provides a timeless moral. In The Frogs Who Desired a King a community of pond dwellers prayed to Zeus for a monarch to rule over them. Zeus, always ready to teach terrible lessons, first made a humble log their ruler. Discontent with a mere figurehead, the serfs petitioned the thunder god for a more fearsome king. Always willing to grant a wish when its outcome is destructive, Zeus sent them a stork that greedily gobbled them up.  

In many mythologies amphibians have been inexorably connected to and associated with the primeval waters from which life emerged. For the Huron Indians and other Native Americans, the deliverer of rain is a frog (Sax 2013, p. 292). The aborigines of Queensland, Australia have a well-known legend that a frog once swallowed all of the waters on the land. Here is one version of The Story of Tiddalik.

Jin Chan, literally means “Golden Toad.” Legend has it Jin was the rapacious wife of one of the Eight Immortals who was punished for stealing one of the peaches of immortality by moneytoadbeing turned into a toad. According to Feng Shui beliefs, Jin Chan, also known as the “Money Toad” or “Money Frog”, is a charm strategically placed in homes and places of business to increase good fortune.

These life forms, which figure so prominently in so many stories and mythologies, are often symbols of prosperity. Today they are profitable commodities for pet traders, but are suffering as a result of being taken from their homes in such large numbers. Many die during transport and those that arrive, as one would expect, are never returned to their habitats. Additionally, the unregulated trading of amphibians has spread many infectious diseases, including the potentially lethal Chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), which was identified in 1998.

Amphibians are a critical link in the food chain. Frogs and toads are carnivores that happily gulp down any living thing they can fit into their mouths Depending on their size, they will prey upon flies, mosquitoes, and other flying annoyances. Larger types will eat worms, grasshoppers, bugs, spiders, worms, larvae, slugs, baby turtles, mice, small fish, snakes, and even other frogs. Besides removing pests, they also serve as an indispensable food source for fish, birds, reptiles, mammals, and even arthropods.  

As mentioned earlier, for many years amphibians have been used as a way of assessing the health of water bodies. The overuse of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, as well as industrial runoff can result in failed metamorphosis, immunosuppression, hermaphroditism, disease, and death.

The pesticide atrazine feminizes male frogs and glyphosate causes growth abnormalities in tadpoles. The hydrological cycle ensures the widespread and sometimes unpredictable dispersal of pollutants. This means the carelessness of one country or city can harm the wildlife of another thousands of miles away. Climate change hits frogs, toads, and their kin especially hard. Their eggs lack the protective shells of birds and reptiles. This makes them susceptible to drying out. Adult frogs, needing to maintain moisture, are always vulnerable to desiccation. Even desert dwelling amphibians depend on the periodic formation of puddles. Mating can be affected by temperature and the availability of water.

Other frogs find themselves accidental tourists in an inhospitableor overly hospitable—land. Sometimes given the epithet “Banana Box”, they are transported across great tracts of land or sea in crates of fruit, vegetables, or plants. Hidden from view these displaced travellers may carry diseases like the deadly Chytrid fungus (Chytridiomycosis) which presents a serious threat to native species. For this reason frogs must never be released into the wild unless special approval is granted.  

Environmental issues are a central topic for debate. Global summits to save frog species are increasing in number and relevance. The Year of the Frog in 2008 with Sir David Attenborough presenting as patron, proved successful in raising awareness of their plight.

The ARAZPA 2008 Year of the Frog Campaign Information pack is available here:   

The latest assessment by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s leading authority on the conservation status of different species, Red List of Threatened Species (update 2015) shows that at a minimum 41% of all extant amphibian species face risk of extinction. Their threatened status is alarming given that so many of them have already left our company for the oblivion of extinction (Walther et al. 2002). Mass extinctions and serious population declines have been observed over the last quarter century (Lips et al. 2006; Pounds et al. 2006; Stuart et al. 2004).

Although there is increasing evidence there are several factors behind these demographic changes (Johnson 2006), the part humans play in this process is obvious in the form of habitat destruction. Global warming is implicated, however, this environmental crisis cannot be remedied with a single approach.

Habitat destruction displaces animals of all kinds. The purposeful or accidental introduction of invasive species has also taken its toll on native populations around the world. The cane toad was brought to Australia to keep pests under control. Unfortunately, it drove many other amphibians to extinction.  Historically black and brown rats, notorious carriers of pestilence, had a negative impact on formerly isolated populations of frogs. Now chytridiomycosis affects one third of all amphibian species, causing further extinctions (Rooji et al. 2015). In 2006, researchers suspected that African frogs used as pregnancy tests may be actually spreading the deadly amphibian Chytrid fungus around the world. It is clear alternative treatments need to be developed if biodiversity is to be preserved.

For the sake of our ecosystems and the preservation of animals that have given so much to humankind, we ought to make their protection a priority as soon as possible.

Warshall reminds us that, ‘Humans lose water constantly-we are not water tight-and we need to replenish ourselves or die. This is a ‘hydro-contract’, an inescapable biospheric life support that we need to work with to maintain ‘hydro-harmonies’ ‘ (2002, pp. 42-43). Still, to this day, the human conception of water is mostly as an abstract resource. Because of this the vital connection we ought to feel with water has been lost. Benefits to the human race must continue to be demonstrated from frog conservation efforts, showing how our fates and theirs are inextricably interwoven. This could influence politicians and the general public to take further steps to protect endangered species and their habitats (Tyler 2007, pp. 1-18).

Why should we help amphibians? It may be suggested this question arises precisely because we have irretrievably lost a measure of our humanity by remaining indifferent to the extinction of so many species worldwide that we have become divorced from our essential compassion. Why shouldn’t we help them?


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Bekoff, M  2010, The Animal Manifesto: Six reasons for expanding our compassionate footprint, New World Library, Novato, CA.

Bekoff, M & Pierce, J  2009, Wild Justice: The moral lives of animals, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Cauble, K, and Wagner, RS 2005, ‘Sublethal effects of the herbicide glyphosate on amphibian metamorphosis and development’, Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, vol. 75, no. 3, pp. 429-435.

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Cooper, JC  1992, Symbolic and mythological animals, Aquarian Press, London.

Goel, PK  2006, Water pollution: causes, effects and control. India, New Age International.

Flannery, T  2006, The weather makers: How man is changing the climate and what it means for life on earth, Grove Press, New York.

Flannery, T  2015, Atmosphere of hope: Searching for solutions to the climate crisis, Text Publishing.   

Fouts, R & Mills, ST  1997, Next of kin: My conversations with chimpanzees, Avon Books, New York.

Frost, DR, Grant, T, Faivovich, J, Bain, RH, Haas, A, Haddad, CFB, De Sa, RO, Channing, A, Wilkinson, M, Donnellan, SC, Raxworthy, CJ, Campbell, JA, Blotto, BL, Moler, P, Drewes, RC, Nussbaum, RA, Lynch, JD, Green, DM, and Wheeler, WC 2006 ‘The amphibian tree of life’  Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, vol. 297, pp. 1-370.

Gehman, JD, Luc, F, Hall, K, Lee, TH, Boland, MP, Pukala, TL, & Separovic,  F 2008,  ‘Effect of Antimicrobial Peptides from Australian Tree Frogs on Anionic Phospholipid Membranes’, Biochemistry, vol. 47, no. 33, pp. 8557-8565.

Griffin, D  1992, Animal minds, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Grenard, S  1994, Medical Herpetology, N.G. Publishing Company, Pottsville.

Hayes, TB, Khoury, V, Narayan, A, Nazir, M, Park, A, Brown, T, Adame, L, Chan, E, Buchholz, D, Stueve, T, and Gallipeau, S 2010, Atrazine induces complete feminization and chemical castration in male African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 107, no. 10, pp. 4612-4617.

Heiner, HA (ed.)  2010, The Frog Prince and other frog tales from around the world: Fairy tales, fables and folklore about frogs, Surlalune Press, Nashville, TN.

Holmes, FL  1993, ‘The old martyr of science: The frog in experimental physiology’, Journal of the History of Biology, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 311-328.

Liu, H, Duan, Z, Tang, J, Lv, Q, Rong, M, & Lai, R 2014, ‘A short peptide from frog skin accelerates diabetic wound healing’, FEBS Journal, vol. 281, no 20, pp. 4633-4643.

Johnson, PTJ  2006, ‘Amphibian diversity: decimation by disease’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, vol. 103, no. 9, pp. 3011-3012.

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Lips KR, Brem, F, Brenes, R, Reeve, JD, Alford, RA, Voyles, J, Carey, C, Livo, L, Pessier, A & Collins, JP  2006, ‘Emerging infectious disease and the loss of biodiversity in a Neotropical amphibian community’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, vol. 103, no. 9, pp. 3165-3170.

McKibben, B 2006, The end of nature. Random House, New York.

Moore, R 2014, In Search of Lost Frogs: The Quest to Find the World’s Rarest Amphibians Bloomsbury: London.

Narins, Peter, Albert S. Feng, and Richard R. Fay, eds. 2006, ‘Hearing and sound communication in amphibians’, Springer Handbook of Auditory Research Springer, vol. 28 of the series, pp 1-11.

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Pounds, JA, Bustamante, MR, Coloma, LA, Consuegra, JA, Fogden, MPL, Foster, PN, La Marca, E, Masters, KL, Merino-Viteri, A, Puschendorf, R, Ron, SR, Sánchez-Azofeifa, GA, Still, CJ & Young, BE  2006, ‘Widespread amphibian extinctions from epidemic disease driven by global warming’, Nature, vol. 439, no. 7073, pp. 161-167.

Pukala, TL, Bowie, JH, Maselli, VM, Musgrave, IF, & Tyler, MJ 2006, Host-defence peptides from the glandular secretions of amphibians: structure and activity’, Natural product reports, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 368-393.

Ribuoli, P & Robbiani, M  1991, Frogs: Art, legend, history, Bullfinch Press/ Little Brown, New York.

Sax, B  2001, The mythical zoo: An encyclopedia of animals in world myth, legend, and literature, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA.

Sax B,  2013, The Mythical Zoo: Animals in Myth, Legend, and Literature 2 ed. Overlook Duckworth Press, New York and London.

Stuart, SN, Chanson, JS, Cox, NA, Young, BE, Rodrigues, ASL, Fischman, DL & Waller, RW  2004, ‘Status and trends of amphibian declines and extinctions worldwide’, Science, vol. 306, pp. 1783- 1786.

Tyler, MJ  1997, ‘The exploitation of frogs: past, present and future’, Australian Biology, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 65-69.

Tyler, MJ & Looby, M  2004, It’s true! Frogs are cannibals, Allen & Unwin, East Melbourne. 

Tyler, MJ, Wassersug, R & Smith, B  2007,How frogs and humans interact: Influences beyond habitat destruction epidemics and global warming’, Applied Herpetology, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 1-18.

Van Rooij, P, Martel, A, Haesebrouck, F, and Pasmans, F  2015, ‘Amphibian chytridiomycosis: a review with focus on fungus-host interactions’, Veterinary Research, vol. 46, pp. 1-22.

Walther, GR, Post, E, Convey, P, Menzel, A, Parmesan, C, Beebee, TJC, Fromentin, JM, Hoegh-Guldberg, O & Bairlein F 2002, ‘Ecological responses to recent climate change’, Nature, vol. 416, no. 6879, pp. 389–395.

Warshall, P  2002, ‘Watershed governance’, in D Rothenburg & M Ulvaeus (eds), Writing on water, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, pp. 40-57.

Wells,  KD 2007, The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians, The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London,  p.1.             

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Lydia Fucsko’s PhD research with scientists highlights worldwide amphibian declines and reflects her passion for environmental activism. She is a member of the Education and Sustainability Board of The Lifeboat Foundation: Safeguarding Humanity. https://lifeboat.com/ex/bios.lydia.fucsko  Lydia also holds a Masters Degree in Counselling with other additional degrees. For further general queries, or collaboration on conservation and science education initiatives: Lydia@lydiafucsko.com


Adam Alonzi is a writer, biotechnologist, documentary maker, futurist, inventor, programmer, and author of the novels “A Plank in Reason” and “Praying for Death: Mocking the Apocalypse”. He is an analyst for the Millennium Project, the Head Media Director of BioViva Sciences, and Editor-in-Chief of Radical Science News. Listen to his podcasts here. Read his blog here.

The Stoics: Excerpts from Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius

“Say thus to thyself every morning: today I may have to deal with some intermeddler in other men’s affairs, with an ungrateful man; an insolent or a crafty or an envious or an unsociable or selfish man”

-Marcus Aurelius


“As soon as you have devoted yourself to philosophy, you will have overcome all disgust at life, you will not wish for darkness because you are weary of light, nor will you be a trouble to yourself and useless to others…”



“The beginning of philosophy is to know the condition of one’s own mind.”



“You may revolve such thoughts as these, about the nicest delicacies of senses: about food, this is the dead car-case of fish, a fowl, a hog: about wine, this is the juice of a little grape: about your purple robes, this is the wool of a sheep, steeped in the blood of a little shellfish: about venereal enjoyments, they are the attrition of a base part of our body, and a convulsive sort of excretion of a mucus…Thus we should employ the mind, in all parts of life: when things occur, which, at first, seem worthy of high estimation, we should strip them naked,  view their meanness, and cast aside these pompous descriptions of them by which they seem so glorious.”

-Marcus Aurelius


“We must take a higher view of all things, and bear with them more easily: it better becomes a man to scoff at life than to lament over it. Add to this that he who laughs at the human race deserves better of it than he who mourns for it, for the former leaves it some good hopes of improvement, while the latter stupidly weeps over what he has given up all hopes of mending.”



“Each man’s life is flying away, and thine is almost gone, before thou hast paid just honor to thyself; having hitherto made thy happiness dependent on the minds and opinions of others.”

-Marcus Aurelius


“A philosopher’s school is surgery: pain, not pleasure, you should have felt therein. For on entering none of you are whole.”



“Evil only comes hard upon those who have lived without giving it a thought and whose attention has been exclusively directed to happiness.”



“If you are in Gyaros, do not let your mind dwell upon life at Rome and all the pleasures it offered to you when living there, and all that would attend your return.”



“Hence men undertake aimless wanderings, travel along distant shores, and at one time at sea, another by land, trying to soothe that fickleness of disposition which always is dissatisfied with the present. ”



“Let nothing which befalls thee from without distract thee; and take leisure to thy self, to learn something truly good. Wander no more to and fro; and guard also against this other wandering. For there are some too who trifle away their activity, by wearying themselves in life, without having a settled scope or mark, to which they may direct all their desires and all their projects.”

-Marcus Aurelius


“If you have given way to anger, be sure that over and above the evil involved therein, you have strengthened the habit, and added fuel to the fire. If overcome by a temptation of the flesh, do not reckon it a single defeat, but that you have also strengthened your dissolute habits.”



“Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow.”



“Let silence be your general rule; or say only what is necessary and in few words. We shall, however, when occasion demands, enter into discourse sparingly, avoiding common topics as gladiators, horse races, athletes; and the perpetual talk about food and drink. Above all avoid speaking of persons, either in way of praise or blame, or comparison.”



“We should suggest to ourselves on every occasion this question; is this necessary? But we ought to quit, not only unnecessary actions, but even imaginations, and thus, superfluous actions, diverting us from our purpose, would not ensue.”

-Marcus Aurelius


“It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.”



“.. But one man is possessed by an avarice that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless; one man is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth; one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others, another, driven on by the greed of the trader, is led over all lands and all seas by the hope of gain…”



“The deified Augustus, to whom the gods vouchsafed more than to any other man, did not cease to pray for rest and to seek release from public affairs; all his conversation ever reverted to this subject—his hope of leisure. ”



“What agreeable leisure does he procure to himself, who takes no notice of what others say, do, or intend; but, attends to this only, that his own actions be just and holy; and, according to Agathon, that there be nothing black or ill-natured in his temper.”

-Marcus Aurelius


“Don’t form designs as if you were to live a thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while you may, become good.”

-Marcus Aurelius


“It was once a foible confined to the Greeks to inquire into what number of rowers Ulysses had, whether the Iliad or the Odyssey was written first, whether moreover they belong to the same author , and various other matters of this stamp, which, if you keep them to yourself, in no way pleasure your secret soul, and, if you publish them, make you seem more of a bore than a scholar.”



“Never call yourself a Philosopher nor talk much among the unlearned about Principles, but do that which follows from them. Thus at a banquet do not discuss how people ought to eat, but eat as you ought.”



“Short then is the time which every man lives, and small the nook of the earth where he lives; and short too the longest posthumous fame, and even this is only continued by a succession of poor human beings, who will very soon die, and who know not even themselves, much less one who died long ago.”

-Marcus Aurelius


Mu: A Koan Meditation



The passages in this series of blogs are not examples of genuine satori or even especially clever answers to the koans.  They are merely records of my first serious attempts at incorporating this form of meditation into my daily routine. What I have gleaned from it thus far are examples of the useful but ultimately shallow insights aspirants may dwell on for too long. The path to enlightenment is narrow, the road of delusion is wide and covers its slender brother on both sides.

Eventually one realizes a tremendous capacity for discernment must be developed in order to avoid falling deeper into the throes of self-deception.  Although I have read books on Buddhism, I intentionally avoided read any commentary on the koans I selected lest they interfere with my experiment. I see now this was an unnecessary precaution. The rational mind recedes while it is playing with these timeless picture puzzles. It is merely a distraction. The first koan I chose has a special place in Zen, it also appears to be the source of more scholarly debate than any other. It is as cryptic as it is memorable:

One day Joshu was asked, “does a dog have the Buddha-nature?

The master replied “Mu!” (No/Nothing/It does not matter)

I did not use the story itself, but a question that arose from it: what is Mu?

My answer: Mu is the absence of distance.

How did I arrive upon it? That morning I woke up to a song. A chorus was playing, an acoustic guitar was strumming, and a rudimentary bass beat tagged alone.  Although this has happened before, this was the first time I kept the recording in my mind long enough to rise, turn on the computer, and begin writing the verses. I attribute this clarity of mind to reading a third of The Three Pillars of Zen the day before. Before clearing my thoughts I thought of a few musical acts that I would never see and the many things I could never hope to do in a single lifetime, the many meetings that will never be had, the deplorable ignorance all sentiment beings must toil under, the many opportunities that will be forgone out of time constraints or ignorance of their very existence, and, of course, the undeniable insignificance of every action.

The lion’s share of human angst seems to come from feeling separated from a time or place.  One can happily sit still because there is no need to grasp. Everything is within reach. Everything has its own significance, or lack thereof.




The Two Faces of Aging: Cancer and Cellular Senescence

Originally published on Radical Science News.



Aging, inflammation, cancer, and cellular senescence are all intimately interconnected. Deciphering the nature of each thread is a tremendous task, but must be done if preventative and geriatric medicine ever hope to advance. A one dimensional analysis simply will not suffice. Without a strong understanding of the genetic, epigenetic, intercellular, and intracellular factors at work only an incomplete picture can be formed. However, even with an incomplete picture useful therapeutics can and are being developed. One face is cancer, a number of diseases characterized by uncontrolled cell division. The other is degradation, which causes a slue of degenerative disorders stemming from deterioration in regenerative capacity.

Now there is a new focus on making Geroprotectors which are a diverse and growing family of compounds that assist in preventing and reversing the unwanted side-effects of aging. Senolytics, a subset of this broad group, accomplish this feat by encouraging the removal of decrepit cells. A few examples include dasatinib, quercetin, and ABT263. Although more research must be done, there are a precious handful of studies accessible to anyone with the inclination to scroll to the works cited section of this article. Those within the life extension community and a few enlightened souls outside of it already know this, but it bears repeating: in the developed world all major diseases are the direct result of the aging process. Accepting this rather simple premise, and you really ought to, should stoke your enthusiasm for the first generation of anti-aging elixirs and treatments. Before diving into the details of these promising new pharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, and gene therapies we must ask what is cellular senescence? What causes it? What purpose does it serve?

Depending on the context in which they are operating a single gene can have positive or negative effects on an organism’s phenotype. Often the gene is exerting both desirable and undesirable influences at the same time. This is called antagonistic pleiotropy. For example, high levels of testosterone can confer several reproductive advantages in youth, but in elderly men can increase their likelihood of developing prostate cancer. Cellular senescence is a protective measure; it is a response to damage that could potentially turn a healthy cell into a malignant one. Understandably, this becomes considerably more complex when one is examining multiple genes and multiple pathways. Identifying all of the players involved is difficult enough. Conboy’s famous parabiosis experiment where a young mouse’s system revived an old ones, shows that alterations in the microenviornment, in this case identified and unidentified factors in the blood of young mice, can have be very beneficial to their elders. Conversely, there is a solid body of evidence that shows senescent cells can have a bad influence on their neighbors. How can something similar be achieved in humans without having to surgically attach a senior citizen to a college freshman?

By halting its own division a senescent cell removes itself as an immediate tumorigenic threat. Yet the accumulation nondividing cells is implicated in a host of pathologies including, somewhat paradoxically, cancer, which as any actuary’s table will show is yet another bedfellow of the second half of life. The single greatest risk factor for developing cancer is age. The Hayflick Limit is well known to most people who have ever excitedly watched the drama of a freshly inoculated petri dish. After exhausting their telomeres cells stop dividing. Hayflick et. al astutely noted that “the [cessation of cell growth] in culture may be related to senescence in vivo.” Although cellular senescnece is considered irreversible, a select few cells can resume normal growth after the inactivation of the p53 tumor suppressor. The removal of p16, a related gene, resulted in the elimination of the progeroid phenotype in mice. There are several important p’s at play here, but two is enough for now.

Our bodies are bombarded by insults to their resilient but woefully vincible microscopic machinery. Oxidative stress, DNA damage, telomeric dysfunction, carcinogens, assorted mutations from assorted causes, necessary or unnecessary immunological responses to internal or external factors, all take their toll. In response cells may repair themselves, they may activate an apoptotic pathway to kill themselves, or just stop proliferating. After suffering these slings and arrows, p53 is activated. Not surprisingly, mice carrying a hyperactive form of p53 display high levels of cellular senescence. To quote Campisi, abnormalities in p53 and p15 are found in “most, if not all, cancers.” Knocking p53 out altogether produced mice unusually free of tumors, but find themselves prematurely past their prime. There is a clear trade-off here.

In a later experiment Garcia-Cao modified p53 to only express itself when activated. The mice exhibited normal longevity as well as an“unusual resistance to cancer.” Though it may seem so, these two cellular states are most certainly not opposing fates. As it is with oxidative stress and nutrient sensing, two other components of senescence or lack thereof, the goal is not to increase or decrease one side disproportionately, but to find the correct balance between many competing entities to maintain healthy homeostasis. As mentioned earlier, telomeres play an important role in geroconversion, the transformation of quiescent cells into senescent ones. Meta-analyses have shown a strong relationship between short telomeres and mortality risk, especially in younger people. Although cancer cells activate telomerase to overcome the Hayflick Limit, it is not entirely certain if the activation of telomerase is oncogenic.



SASP (senescence-associated secretory phenotype) is associated with chronic inflammation, which itself is implicated in a growing list of common infirmities. Many SASP factors are known to stimulate phenotypes similar to those displayed by aggressive cancer cells. The simultaneous injection of senescent fibroblasts with premalignant epithelial cells into mice results in malignancy. On the other hand, senescent human melanocytes secrete a protein that induces replicative arrest in a fair percentage of melanoma cells. In all experiments tissue types must be taken into account, of course. Some of the hallmarks of inflammation are elevated levels of IL-6, IL-8, and TNF-α. Inflammatory oxidative damage is carcinogenic and an inflammatory microenvironment is a good breeding ground for malignancies.

Caloric restriction extends lifespan in part by inhibiting TOR/mTOR (target of rapamycin/mechanistic target of rapamycin, also called  the mammalian target of rapamycin). TOR is a sort of metabolic manager, it receives inputs regarding the availability of nutrients and stress levels and then acts accordingly. Metformin is also a TOR inhibitor, which is why it is being investigated as a cancer shield and a longevity aid. Rapamycin has extended average lifespans in all species tested thus far and reduces geroconversion. It also restores the self-renewal and differentiation capacities of haemopoietic stem cells. For these reasons the Major Mouse Testing Program is using rapamycin as its positive control. mTOR and p53 dance (or battle) with each other beautifully in what Hasty calls the “Clash of the Gods.” While p53 inhibits mTOR1 activity increases p53 activity. Since neither metformin nor rapamycin are without their share of unwanted side effects, more senolytics must be explored in greater detail.

Starting with a simple premise, namely that senescent cells rely on anti-apoptotic and pro-survival defenses more than their actively replicating counterparts, Campisi and her colleagues created a series of experiments to find the “Achilles’ Heel” of senescent cells. After comparing the two different cell states, they designed senolytic siRNAs. 39 transcripts selected for knockdown by siRNA transfection, 17 affected the viability of their target more than healthy cells. Dasatinib, a cancer drug, and quercitin, a common flavonoid found in common foods, have senolytic properties. The former has a proven proclivity for fat cell progenitors, and the latter is more effective against endothelial cells. Delivered together they they remove senescent mouse embryonic fibroblasts. Administration into elderly mice resulted in favorable changes in SA-BetaGAL (a molecule closely associated with SASP) and reduced p16 RNA. Single doses of D+Q together resulted in significant improvements in progeroid mice.

If you are not titillated yet, please embark on your own journey through the gallery of encroaching options for those who would prefer not to become chronically ill, suffer immensely, and, of course, die miserably in a hospital bed soaked with several types of their own excretions―presumably, hopefully, those who claim to be unafraid of death have never seen this image or naively assume they will never be the star of such a dismal and lamentably “normal” final act. There is nothing vain about wanting to avoid all the complications that come with time. This research is quickly becoming an economic and humanitarian necessity. The trailblazers who move this research forward will not only find wealth at the end of their path, but the undying gratitude of all life on earth.

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Zhu, Yi, et al. “The Achilles’ heel of senescent cells: from transcriptome to senolytic drugs.” Aging cell (2015).

Every Brain is a Universe: Ontology, Neurotechnology, and Simulation

Originally published on Serious Wonder.

Neurotechnology is the last frontier. Mind-machine interfaces will initially offer ways to simulate, enhance, and stimulate. In conjunction with quantum computers, however, these interfaces will lead to the resolution of the problem of freewill through a proof of its impossibility or through the painstaking design of a being geniunely endowed with this elusive property, the invention of true artificial intelligence (as well as the mentally directed programming environment needed to make it), and assist in the exploration of some largely forgotten debates in ontology. This line of thought ties in strongly with the simulation hypothesis, since these technologies will, ultimately, allow us to create unique and logically contingent universes we can explore as single entities or, as their creators, revel in the totality of what we have wrought.

Try to remember a time you were without consciousness. Go ahead. I hope you almost immediately realized this is a fool’s errand.

battle of lights brain

Since the evolution of what is widely considered sentience human beings have searched for ways to augment or alter their perception and cognition. By observation alone one should realize the last word in the preceding sentence, reviled for years thanks to the Skinnerian stranglehold on the discipline, is the cornerstone of psychology. To dismiss it was foolish, though less foolish than it is to dismiss it now. Consciousness should be of great concern to all because it sets the pace and tone for every moment of our lives. For all intents and purposes, it is our life. It is our morning oatmeal, the joy of rumination, the ecstasy of victory, the caress of another’s lips, the source of sensations even poets struggle to describe. It does not faithfully store our memories; it actively remodels them depending on how and when they are retrieved. Ontology is a subfield of both philosophy and information science. Although seemingly dissimilar, the latter lends a tangible framework to analyzing the former.The human brain is a small organ capable of receiving and generating an infinite number of unique experiences. Yet as phenomenal as this may seem, our inner worlds, as rich and varied as they are, all arise from similar hardware. Hardware we largely share with birds, reptiles, other mammals, fish, and, to a significantly lesser extent, invertebrates. In spite of the seemingly limitlessness of what a brain can do, stemming from mundane combinatorics, there are fleshy ceilings imposed by biology. Moreover, many of the things it can do, like rendering a dancing 8 bit Santa Claus sliding down a hyperrealistic mound of writhing rectangular raccoons, are not particularly profound or prized. Here I am not referring to anything quantative, not to the brain’s seemingly impoverished calculating faculties when compared to an ordinary desktop computer, but to the qualitative properties of the nervous system when it is functioning “normally.” While it is almost impossible at this time to conceive of nervous systems radically different than our own, it is likely they will, at some point, be invented by augmented humans or by artificial intelligence. By throwing a wrench into the machine, in the form of an exogenous molecule or endogenous chemical changes induced by an activity,dasein changes rapidly. While a pint of stout will probably not lead to any personal revelations, a modest dose of LSD may.

Yes, there are countless similar, as well as very different, physical configurations, including ones bereft of carbon, that could give birth to consciousness, but let us forego that intimidating train of thought for a paragraph or two. Phantom limbs illustrate an important, undeniable, but unfortunately counterintuitive fact about existence. When a body part is lost it may not vanish from the nervous system’s master map. The amputated arm or leg continues to sweat, itch, writhe, and rest.  As any thoughtful person should see, this is more than a tidbit of medical trivia. Although measurement can tell us about an object’s mass, density, etc, the way they feel to their owners is entirely in their brain. In Gestalt and Ericksonian therapies a patient may be asked to identify with an inanimate object. Far from an eccentric technique spawned from the excesses of the sixties, it can occasionally lead to dramatic breakthroughs. It should not be hard to see how major departures from the familiar can facilitate creative resolutions. A little bit of reflection should lead one to conclude time, space, and all other categories of perception are highly unstable. Our bodily awareness is attached to reality by a slender thread.

On a warm Florida night a lad of sixteen smoked a sizeable dose of salvia divinorum on his friend’s back porch before transforming into a dinosaur-rocking chair-man viewing himself from the outside, all while becoming intimately acquainted with what it means to be wooden. At once he was the object and the subject, observer and the observed! With this same entheogen others have reported spending years as articles of furniture or, even more mind-numbingly, as completely ordinary people. I once spoke to a fellow who spent nearly a decade as a blue collar worker in contemporary Texas over the course of fifteen of our earthly minutes. Identity is synonymous with a locus of control. When someone mentions their own consciousness they are usually referring to this place of illusory agency. What is generally called the self is thought of as a static entity. It is a mutable thing that holds together an arbitrary collection of preferences and opinions.The locus defines consciousness. It is the mark that assigns other marks to all our behaviors in order to maintain the image it keeps of itself in relation to its contents, which is why it is so prone to retroactively justifying impulse buys.

At this time there is no proof anyone has free will. Some highly regarded academics, like the physicist Roger Penrose, have tried to debunk determinism. Given the preponderance of fixed action patterns one finds in our species, this seems like a silly assertion. Even if microtubules give higher animals some freedom, on a practical level it is obvious this freedom could be enhanced. Conceptual blending offers endless amusement and discovery. When we think of an angry desk, a feeling, likely different than any other we have had before, is elicited. What about an angry desk made of Ibsen-reading chocolate pudding wombats? There is no limit to the subtlety of our contemplations, besides our almost obsolete wetware. From the refinement of our minds and the acceleration in our communications will come an intellectual explosion unlike any other. We do not, and will not, need to process only one or two thoughts at a time. The mechanisms of the unconscious can be augmented. Access to a collective unconscious in the form of a quantum mainframe or global neuronetwork would be one way of exponentially expediting this process. Such an enhanced being could create a universe populated by other self-aware agents endowed with freewill. It could materialize itself as a single resident within its artificial world or, having no limits on how many sensations it could take in or thoughts it could put out, experience its expanding creation in its entirety. Although I am not a strong proponent of the simulation hypothesis, it is possible all of what is called reality is the toy of such a being. It is even more likely we will become the progenitors of such systems.

A sufficiently advanced civilization could manipulate matter at the most infinitesimal of scales. This means our universe may not be a simulation, but a blob on the table of a physics laboratory. Even with these wonders it is likely humans will never completely lose themselves. Their sense of “I” will be greatly enlarged, but it will not vanish. Even with total automation, people will have lives outside of their mind-enhancing toys. It is disturbing to wonder if a superdimensional entity experimenting with a series of procedural generation algorithms could be responsible for our balanced but amoral cosmos. It would require genius of the highest order to design the initial cosmic egg or framework that would give birth in turn to physics, chemistry, and biology. As astonishing and bizarre as it sounds, this sort of unfathomable brilliance is not far away.

Works CitedBaars, Bernard J. In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

Erickson, Milton H., Ernest Lawrence Rossi, and Sheila I. Rossi. Hypnotic Realities: The Induction of Clinical Hypnosis and Forms of Indirect Suggestion. New York: Irvington, 1976. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: Harper, 1962. Print.

Jacquette, Dale. Ontology. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2002. Print.

Perls, Frederick S. Gestalt Therapy; Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York: Julian, 1951. Print.

Photo Credit: Joseph Stella