transcript of episode 33: EYES WIDE SHUT, 7th November 2022
welcome to the error bar: serving half-measures of cerebral intoxicant
in this episode: how different people see the world of colour differently, the study of love that triggered a studied hate & the annual review of the error bar's existence.
here is the brain news on the 7th November 2022:
[🎶 BIG BEN BONGS 🎶]
the error bar is a long-term subscriber to the Scientific American magazine. it's usually on the bar, absorbing the spillover from a bubbly pint of red ale.
this month, the magazine contains an interview with Dr Bosten from the University of Sussex in the UK. the journalist & the scientist discussed how people differ in their perception of colour. the background to the interview is a comprehensive 35-page review that Dr Bosten published last month in the journal Annual Review of Vision Science.
Bosten's review starts with the individual differences in the cells in our eye - the so-called rods & cones - that receive light & generate electrical signals in the optic nerve. loyal listeners to the error bar will recall our interview with Dr Christopher Taylor in episode #5 in which he explained how chickens may very well see the colour of the universe in very different ways to us humans.
but, as this new review makes clear, us humans also see the universe of colour in very different ways to each other. due to a relatively high frequency of mutations in the genes for colour vision, 2% of X-chromosomes are missing one of the colour genes, giving 0.01% of males mono-chromatic vision - like seeing in black & white. then about 6% of males & 0.5% of females have anomalous colour vision, a bit like the red/green colour vision deficienty. there is even evidence that some females have colour vision capabilities approaching the sophistication of birds.
unlike some written accounts of colour vision differences, however, Bosten continues past the retina, & up the geniculostriate pathway to the visual cortex - an important part of the brain involved in, err, vision.
& they do not stop there. what about the environment you live in? or the language you use to name colours? all affect the way that our brain perceives the light that enters the two holes in the front of our heads.
a highly recommended read
[🎶 BIG BEN BONGS 🎶]
TRIGGERS FOR LOVE AND HATE
the Daily Mail - a British tabloid that rarely misses an opportunity to misrepresent science - leads on an emotive, difficult story from the United States about the use of non-human primates - monkeys - in vision research.
Professor Margaret Livingstone has studied the brain & its visual system for decades. she has worked with lobsters, cats, monkeys & humans. it is some of her recent work with monkeys that has caused controversy.
Livingstone was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA, & as such was invited to present some of her work. she took the opportunity to write about some observations made in female monkeys shortly after they gave birth. in one monkey that gave birth to a stillborn infant, her lab noticed that providing a soft monkey toy stimulated maternal behaviours.
following this observation, her team studied this behaviour in more depth, & experimentally, by removing infant monkeys from the womb before birth & replacing the infant with a soft toy.
in a second series of experiments, the lab has used common surgical procedures to close the eyelids of newborn monkeys to study their visual development.
animal rights campaigners & some researchers working with animals have described Livingstone's work as 'unethical', 'inhumane' & 'cruel'.
[🎶 INTERLUDE 🎶]
is it unethical to study monkeys in this way?
the ethics of animal experiments is not easy.
what is easy, however, is to see how the Daily Mail has framed this story. the majority of their coverage is of the protest against the research & very little is on the reasons for it, despite a lengthy & detailed statement given by Livingstone. perhaps the mail online were upset that the distinguished US neuroscientist 'declined to comment' to the undistinguished UK tabloid. more likely they chose to fuel outrage by describing - & i quote - "research that involved ripping newborn monkeys from their mothers".
the research did not involve any ripping. careful surgeries to remove the baby monkeys were conducted under anaesthesia.
i've met many researchers who work with animals. i've received training in animal research & have done some work with animals myself. i am also an animal lover. these things are not incompatible, but they do conflict. many scientists share these ethical dilemmas.
in a letter written by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a neuroscientist supports their case to close-down this line of research with evidence from twenty-three papers detailing the effects of visual deprivation on the brain. much of this evidence was obtained directly from animal experiments.
for now, in the interest of balance, Professor Livingstone can have the final words. she writes:
"Whether you support animal research or not, you have benefited from therapies derived from work done in animals. And so have your pets. Veterinary medicine also relies on studies in animals. Pets that receive antibiotics, pain killers, cancer treatments, or vaccines or have surgery are the beneficiaries of research done in animals."
ethics isn't monochromatic
the science was by Livingstone 2022: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, & Grimm 2022: Science; reported in The Daily Mail by Stacy Liberatore on 25/Oct/22
and the brain in brief...
[🎶 BIG BEN BONGS 🎶]
WHY IS THE ERROR BAR OPEN
during a particularly-moist evening session in the bar last Wednesday, i was asked: 'why do you do a podcast?'
after spluttering the usual: 'why does anyone have a website or a social media account or update their google scholar profile, or write a blog? why does anyone even do or say anything to anyone any more anyway?' i bought another round of drinks & deftly moved the conversation onto something more triggering.
since then, i've wondered, again, why the bar is open. for any new or old listeners of the audio version, or readers of the text version, or retweeters of the social media version, this is why.
first, for many years, most of my outrage at how poorly some science is done, or how poorly it can be communicated, was confined to chats in the pub, questions at seminars, or stolen conversations at scientific conferences. the COVID pandemic stopped all of that. without this podcast to let off my super-heated air, the critical nuclear reactor in my brain would have gone, er, critical.
second, without the error bar, i'd feel a certain need to write & publish commentaries on some of the science that i come across that i feel needed such a comment or correction. with the error bar, i can instead just focus on writing the one or two papers each year that i actually care about.
third, i hope that the error bar provides a service to those of you who might otherwise feel you need to read the Daily Mail, just in case they write a story about a scientific topic you care about. to be honest: if you don't work on animals, AI or dementia, then i wouldn't worry too much about that.
fourth, it's fun. it's weirdly fun. it's nerdly fun. it also involves signal processing & database programming which are two of my favourite pastimes.
if you like the error bar, then please tell a friend or colleague to listen, share on twitter or another animal-based microblogging site, put a link to an episode, story, or interview in your teaching materials, or just stand outside the BBC until they yield to your demand that i be given a five minute prime time slot every week.
thanks for listening
it's closing time at the error bar, but do drop in next time for more brain news, fact-checking & neuro-opinions. take care.
the error bar was devised & produced by Dr Nick Holmes from University of Birmingham's School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences. the music by Dee Yan-Kee is available from the free music archive. find us at the error bar dot com, on twitter at bar error, or email talk at the error bar dot com.ε