WHERE IS MEMORY, EXACTLY?
In your July/August issue the location of human memory comes up in at least three places.
In Ask the Brains, on page 70, David Smith mentions “the hippocampus, which encodes and stores memories.”
In “The Mechanics of Mind Reading,” on page 56, Daniel Bor writes about “patterns in the part of the brain that stores memories, the hippocampus.”
But then, on page 24, Anthony J. Greene, in “Making Connections,” says that “learning and memory are not sequestered in their own storage banks but are distributed across the entire cerebral cortex.” Do these researchers talk to one another?
THE EDITORS REPLY: Darnell is not the only reader who wrote to us about this apparent contradiction. All three researchers are correct: the hippocampus indeed stores memories in the sense that it processes experiences and encodes them as memories elsewhere in the brain. The hippocampus is the librarian, not the library. As Greene explains in detail, the brain does not have a memory storehouse: memories are not filed in any particular location but rather as a complex web of connections throughout the entire brain.
MORE THAN DRAMA QUEENS
I want to thank you for your excellent article on borderline personality disorder (BPD). As a psychiatrist, I felt the article provided an excellent overview of BPD. I wrote to you several months ago after reading an earlier article on BPD [“Dangerous Liaisons,” by Ophelia Austin-Small, November/December 2009], indicating that I felt that article was flawed, judgmental and not up to the scientific standards that I have come to expect from your magazine. This article has restored my confidence in your journalistic practices.
University of Ottawa
I have loved your magazine for years, reading it cover to cover, sometimes twice. Scientific American Mind, always on the cutting edge, is exactly where I expect to find an article on borderline personality disorder that is filled with facts and is lay-friendly to read. Bravo to Amanda Wang for sharing her story. Having struggled with BPD for years, I, too, have felt crazy and very lonely. With my widely swinging emotions and anger, I have received endless criticism and blame for not acting “normal.” The stigma of mental illness is hard to conquer, and the BPD diagnosis makes it harder. Thank you for bringing much needed knowledge to the public and speaking about the treatments that exist. Most important, thank you for filling the article with hope for everyone struggling with this journey.
SOUND AND SPEECH
I read with interest the excellent article by Diana Deutsch, “Speaking in Tones.” Many years ago I discovered that I had a habit I might call “extreme onomatopoeia,” which involves “matching” environmental sounds in my head to a word or phrase with a similar inflection and rhythm. When I drop a pen on my desk with a rattle, I might hear the phrase “who did that” or “break away.” A creaking door might trigger the word “legal” or “beneath it all.” As you can see, the connection is not semantic but simply one of tone. This processing would seem to occur in the overlap area Deutsch has identified, between linear semantic speech and lyrical sonorous music.
On a related note, I wonder to what extent our cultural biases and political or interpersonal clashes might arise from misperceptions orchestrated (so to speak) by differing linguistic tones.
SEEING SEX EVERYWHERE
After suffering through the special issue on “Male vs. Female Brains” [May/June 2010], I expected my reading would be free of sex-and-relationship cant for a while. The new issue dashed my hopes.
Too many recent cover photos have been related to sex or relationships: the attractive woman wearing a skimpy T-shirt and looking mysterious, the half-man/half-woman composite, the woman and man gazing into each other’s eyes. Usually a picture of an unclad woman is snuck in somewhere (she’s curled up inside Mrs. K.’s head on page 58 in the July/August issue). And so many article titles have to do with sex: “Sex in Bits and Bytes,” “How Science Can Help You Fall in Love,” and on and on.
Sure, sex may sell more magazines, at least to a certain demographic and at least in the short term. But some folks, including me, subscribed for other reasons. If I want titillation, I’ll buy some other magazine that focuses directly on it (and with which SciAm Mind cannot compete). When I pick up Mind, I expect more well-rounded coverage that is not preoccupied with one particular topic.
A QUESTION OF NERVES
Regarding “Closing the Gap,” by Valerie Ross [Head Lines], I think there is a flaw in the beanbag experiment the researchers used to confirm that desired objects appear closer. True, people tossing at a $25 gift card fell shorter than those tossing at a card worth nothing. But any golfer will tell you that when people putt with money on the line, they will more often putt short of the hole. The difference is not perception but rather performance when risk is involved—the muscles tense up. In addition, when people notice that they have more adrenaline pumping through their bodies, they will often overcompensate in their attempt to relax. I buy the evidence in the other experiment (in which thirsty participants judged a water bottle as being closer than it actually was), but I think other factors affect the beanbag test.
PEOPLE WITH AUTISM
In Erica Westly’s article “Too Much, Too Young” [Head Lines], she uses the phrase “autistic toddlers.” I feel it is important that the editors recognize the disrespect inherent in that construction. The reverent phrasing would have been “toddlers with autism,” because people with autism (or any disability) are people first! This sentiment is exactly why we have the Americans with Disabilities Act and not the Disabled Americans Act. I would recommend, or at least request, editing articles of this ilk with an eye out for similar lapses in judgment.
In “Born into Debt” [Head Lines], Valerie Ross reports that people carrying two “low” versions of a gene are 15.9 percent more likely to go into credit-card debt than those who have two “high” versions. As Ross explains, the gene in question affects levels of monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), a chemical that breaks down neurotransmitters in the brain. It occurred to me that some very powerful antidepressants are monoamine oxidase inhibitors—they prevent MAOA from doing its job. It follows that people carrying two “low” versions of the MAOA gene produce less MAOA and are, in effect, genetically antidepressed. I can believe such people would enjoy shopping, restaurants and having fun—and perhaps be too impulsive to care about credit-card bills piling up. In contrast, depressed people usually are deeper thinkers who are less receptive to the modern marketing stimuli.
So perhaps “Born into Debt” should be “Born to Be Happy?”