Category Archives: Amens, hallelujahs, huzzahs and kudos

A serendipitous opportunity to validate teaching stories; are my memories veridical?

I found my January, 1997 monthly work schedule the other day.


I’d just turned 33 and recently completed my Master’s much later than my original defense date and under a different supervisor than the professor with whom I’d started. My wife at the time was pregnant with our first child, but we didn’t know it. I was about to decide on a PhD program.

I was significantly older than other Boston-area research assistants I worked with and had a far more itinerant and objectively non-normal career.

I also had absolutely no idea the shape my career would take.

By January, 1997 I’d been at the Boston VA for a year and a half working with amnesic patients for the Memory Disorders Research Center of Boston University. Laird Cermak was the director and I worked primarily with Mieke Verfaellie, Bill Milberg and Dan Schacter. The MDRC atmosphere was friendly, productive, and everyone worked so collaboratively!  Mieke was one of my intellectual mentors and fortunately Twitter provides a platform to connect with colleagues from the past — and in this case to thank Mieke publicly for her mentorship.

As 1996 drew to a close, funding for the MDRC had not been renewed and I moved to Harvard to work full time for Dan.

Finding this schedule allows me to verify two personal stories I’ve told my students for 20 years, stories which are intended to illustrate, on one hand, some difficulty in conducting false memory research in the 90s, in the middle of the so-called “memory wars,” and also what it was like to work with anterograde amnesic patients from day to day.

Meeting Susan Clancy prior to controversy over her work:

Susan Clancy was a graduate student working with Rich McNally at Harvard when she decided to test two different populations of people for susceptibility to false memories, using the Deese-Roediger-McDermott associated word list paradigm. The two populations were women who had reported “recovered” memory of childhood sexual abuse and, subsequently, people who had reported alien abduction. Here’s abstracts of these key scientific papers:

To my mind, as a teacher interested in making clear the intersection of basic science and science directed toward the public interest, you have to talk about these findings carefully but directly. If there are similar mechanisms behind a tendency to claim a recovered memory of a traumatic or implausible event and memory errors in laboratory tasks, we should know this. And the consequences can be significant; in this case Clancy was hounded by people thinking she was denying the reality and/or the potential harm of CSA which she was not doing.

A 2003 New York Times article detailed her career to that point and the controversy surrounding her work.

Relevant to my teaching though, I tell students I can clearly recall the day Clancy came into my office to ask to use the DRM word lists we were using in our studies with amnesic patients. And low and behold, there is the date in black and white!


My memories of Patient SS as a teaching example of working with amnesic patients:

I saw on the schedule that I had meetings to run a “Patient SS” in two experimental sessions a week apart late in the month and early in February.


One thing Youtube videos of amnesic patients don’t show is how often they can tell you the same story (or story fragment) in a very short period of time. I think reporting these small details of working with brain-damaged patients is instructive and valuable to help students prepare for any clinical work they may undertake.

So I tell my students that SS was a relatively “self-taught” physicist who started his own optical company which made lasers. Upon entering his living room the research assistant sees a beautiful wall-mounted clock with colored crystals as hour indices. SS explained, often twice in a minute until the experimental work got underway, that the clock was a gift from his employees and featured many of the crystals that his company developed.

I looked up the original reports of SS and his condition, knowing that as in all neuropsychological reporting there would be comments on his occupation. Sure enough, in Cermak’s original 1976 report, here are the key verifications.  I still don’t know if the company made lasers or what the crystals were for, but I recall the clock and it was beautiful.


Memory is quite fallible and these recollections which I embed in my teaching could have been wrong. I’m glad to have done this exercise and relieved that my memories of 20 years ago seem stable.

That doesn’t mean other memories aren’t wrong though.


In My Sphere, Machinist Man, Hot Wheel City, Three Swallows, Free Supper, Jumbo’s.
Lyrics do not match the record closely in some places…

The Protomartyr No Passion All Technique Crowdsourced Lyrics Project

Part 1 -up to Jumbo’s. These are not complete in comparison to the record.

In My Sphere, Machinist Man, Hot Wheel City, Three Swallows, Free Supper, Jumbo’s



A note on Kim’s review of Watters & Goldrick-Rab’s review of Carey’s The End Of College

I have not yet read Kevin Carey’s The End Of College (henceforth TEOC).

But I’ve read some of it, and an awful lot about it though, all in a short time. I’ve read a case study in the New York Times which is taken directly from the book, a profile of status-seeking George Washington University

I’ve read a précis of sorts, laying out the book’s major themes, which is also found in the pages of the New York Times

Of all the great written work about the book so far, I encourage everyone to read chronologically;

1) John Warner’s review of the book’s take on economic inequality and how that may or may not be solved by TEOC is great and encapsulates my initial serious concerns far better than I could myself. Read it here:

2) Then came a devastating critique by Watters and Goldric-Rab, called Techno Fantasies, which also touches on the false promise of TEOC solving the economic inequalities of college but which is mainly focused on the highly-(cor)related issues of race and privilege and which takes an evidence-focused look at the effectiveness of MOOCs. If one is in the trenches every day reading higher ed news and literature as many college instructors are, these social justice-oriented and pedagogical critiques are familiar and must be more widely known.

3) Joshua Kim’s review came out the same day as the above; it is here:“-end-college”. I don’t like the salutation but otherwise find Kim’s review relatively balanced. Certainly not as breathless as Carey’s book appears to be.

4) The problem that’s burning up the internet right now is Kim’s choices in responding to the Watters and Goldric-Rab critique – which he titled Criticism vs. Attack, found Most of this response is all about tone policing. I believe that Kim’s position comes from institutional sexism plain and simple. Two must-read pieces on this are by David Perry here: and here:

In fact, from the title to the opening salvo paragraphs, Kim’s address to Watters and Goldrick-Rab is deeply tone policing. He makes serious misstep which others are not really addressing. He says that they don’t seriously engage with Carey’s concerns about the present state of “college.” Let me quote Kim here:

In the case of the The End of College this closing off of the conversation is particularly troublesome, as Carey is engaging in an important critique of our existing higher education system. What I found strange in the Watters and Goldrick-Rab review was no recognition of Carey’s focus on the structural flaws and inconsistencies that characterize much of U.S. higher education. 
If you read The End of College you learn that Carey is very worried about the costs of college, and is concerned about the general quality of student learning on most campuses. Carey spends much of the book trying to understand the roots of the hybrid university system, and how we arrived at a situation where huge numbers of students are excluded from receiving a postsecondary education.  Carey writes that, 
.. As college becomes more expensive, the have-nots are increasingly students from low-income backgrounds. Colleges are taking existing inequality and making it worse”.  (page 85)
I’d be surprised if Watters and Goldrick-Rab don’t share this concern.
So I went back to the Watters and Goldrick-Rab piece to see if they addressed Carey’s accounting of the raft of higher ed problems as espoused in TEOC. Of course they engaged with the problem! They state quite clearly:
Carey’s book comes at a time of rising college costs, swelling student debt and cuts to university courses, faculty and majors. From students to parents to taxpayers, everyone is alarmed about higher education’s most pressing challenges. As an education technology writer and scholar of higher education policy, we are, too.
Later in the piece:
One of Carey’s strongest objections is to the way in which higher education confers enormous benefits on the privileged and powerful (an issue that we agree is a major problem and have each written about time and again).
And still later, describing the role of education experts:
And the story that they tell is quite comforting for many who look at the rising cost of college and the fragile economy and hope that their children will be able to follow the right path toward a more secure future. 
How could Kim have failed to see the plain agreement that Watters and Goldbrick-Rab have with some if not all of the negative preconditions for Carey’s futuristic arguments for disruption? Pretty great example of confirmation bias, to this cognitive psychologist’s eyes.
As for the sexism, I leave that to others. I think David Perry nails that pretty well.

Top 10 Hammond Funk & Soul list in progress


Ray Sharp and the Soul Set – Earthquake


Mickey and the Soul Generation How Good Is Good?


Art Butler – Soul Brother


The Soul Lifters – Hot Funky and Sweaty


Dave Baby Cortez Getting to the Point




Dave Baby Cortez I Turned You On.


The Hunter and His Games – How You Get Higher


Mickey and the Soul Generation Iron Leg

Are “big ideas” taught in grad school now? An appreciation of John Hughlings Jackson.

John Hughlings Jackson was one of the founding fathers of neurology, and he got there they way you had to get there in the 1800s and now; by careful clinical observation and by the deployment of keen inductive powers.

This post is developed in three parts. First, I’ll discuss the observations that led to Hughlings Jackson’s firm belief in the primacy of the brain as a sensoimotor machine; that is his characterization of epilepsy. Next, I’ll cover his writings on the evolution of the brain, which led to key neurological insights such as “positive” and “negative” signs and more generally to an organizational scheme that allows predictions of the consequences of brain damage that we may see at bedside. Finally, I’ll briefly describe a whole host of work, some from much earlier writing in this blog and supplemented by a variety of scientific findings and very recent popular science writing, all of which show that Hughlings Jackson was a total intellectual badass. At the end of this piece, I’ll lament the science writers who can’t apply his work and who can’t even ask the people they interview about it knowledgeably.

I. Epilepsy

Can there be a better illustration of Kantian inference to best explanation (the so-called Transcendental Method) – or a more romantic one – than the following?

Jackson’s beloved wife was epileptic. She died too young, in part because of complications of the disease. One of Hughlings Jackson’s major discoveries was of Jacksonian seizures, the tendency for some types of motor activity such as twitches to “march” from the distal portion of a limb (the arm) toward the face, with no loss or alteration of consciousness. Hughlings Jackson was able to infer the topographic representation of the motor cortex by his observations!  Somatotopy is fundamental and found in every introductory textbook, usually accompanied by a graphic such as this, taken from McGill University:


The way I was taught this idea in my graduate Neuropsychology courses was lovely; he was consistently distraught over his wife’s symptoms and driven to think about her problems, watching her seizures with a total inability to help her. And so his complex sets of ideas grew from watching the harm suffered by his wife.

II. Representation and rerepresentation; the evolution of the brain.

One other major contribution that Hughlings Jackson made was to think of the brain as an evolved organ over time; inner “core” areas of the brain were responsible for functions that would – in phylogenetically-later developing areas – be duplicated. There was an ordinal re-representation of lower areas by higher areas. York and Steinberg have written extensively about Hughlings Jackson, and I quote them here from a 2011 Brain article:

Hughlings Jackson assumed that the cortex was the highest evolutionary level of the nervous system. As such, it controlled and inhibited the function of lower levels so that cortical disease led to two sets of symptoms, ‘negative’ from loss of the controlling cortex and ‘positive’ from the emergence of the lower centre (Spencer, 1855; Russsell Reynolds, 1861; Pearce, 2004). This implied an anatomical and physiological hierarchy of higher and lower centres, with the higher ones suppressing the function of the lower ones. He expresses the physiological relationship between higher and lower functions in Spencer’s evolutionary principles:The higher the centre the more numerous, different, and more complex, and more special movements it represents, and the wider region it represents-evolution. The highest centres represent innumerable, most complex and most special movements of the organism, and … each unit of them represents the organism differently. In consequence, the higher the centre the more numerous, complex and special movements of a wider region are lost from a negative lesion of equal volume-dissolution. (Hughlings Jackson, 1882)

Two common terms used to denote what Hughlings Jackson is talking about here are disinhibition and “unmasking.” Because of the inherent, evolutionarily-derived redundancy of the brain and higher control over lower areas, when higher areas are damaged residual function of lower areas can be revealed.

Unmasking is a useful lens by which to view the operations of the brain. Take blindsight, for example. In blindsight, damage to visual cortex results in blindness in parts of the visual world; these holes are called scotomas. The explanation of residual visual capability in blindsight is that some basic visual information can be processed by an evolutionarily older pathway – the superior colliculus to MT pathway. Ramachandran talks about this and we see the behavior of famous patient GY here:

III. Recent work relevant to unmasking; my previous blogging, the science of learning and memory, and recent popular science missed opportunities.

I’ve already written about this stuff! Here

and also here (although, I apparently didn’t fully finish my thoughts)

In a large scale review of memory formation during sleep, Walker (2005) discusses procedural memory formation by the blockage of GABA inhibitory activity. In several sensorimotor systems, it appears, blocking inhibitory suppression allows latent connections to come to the fore. See page 54 here:

But frankly, I was upset after reading this article in Popsci by Adam Piore.

The article is all about how brain damage has “unleashed” the power of visual and musical artists is such a way that comparisons should be made to savantism. I don’t have a problem with this characterization per se, but I have a problem with not properly grounding these ideas historically, and not realizing scientifically the large-scale context within which we should interpret behavioral effects after brain damage. And I take severe objection with the radical incompleteness in saying the following: “Savants can access raw sensory information, normally off-limits to the conscious mind, because the brain’s perceptual region isn’t functioning.” What?

Unmasking doesn’t require brain damage to be visualized, but perhaps just an extraordinary, intense single experience which can exercise dormant pathways. Again, in a recent gee-whiz kind of science article with little background, we understand that there is a release of stereo depth processing in stereoblind people after exposure. This article by the BBC of course mentions plasticity and even briefly mentions that there may be long-dormant withered pathways that can be reawakened, so in that respect it is much better than the article above.

Why Poland?

I get this question a lot. After all, I’m not a historian, I’m not Catholic. I’m just a regular college professor, cognitive psychologist, who ended up living in Poland for almost a year.

There are so many answers to this question, and they emerge more or less strongly each day. But one theme is consistent; when I think of Why Poland? I think of this picture, of the White March in Krakow in 1981, after the attempted assassination of the Pope, and the events which led up to this point. Image

The Polish Pope first came to Poland in 1979, and the power of his visit, his words, on stimulating the Polish people to action cannot be underestimated. The extent of the crowds who came to see him, despite publicity blackouts, is incredible. Here is a great accounting of the visit:

To quote from his final 1979 speech:

“The human being is free…There is therefore no need to fear. . . . So . . . I beg you: Never lose your trust, do not be defeated, do not be discouraged.”

And so began the ten-year long journey that ended with the Poles being the first country in Eastern Europe to reject communism, with great sacrifice. The Poles have always sacrificed. They love freedom and liberty as few people ever will, ever could.

And so this to me is the answer to Why Poland?