Archive for the ‘brain and mind’ category

A 21st Century Mother-and-Child

December 24, 2015

Thought I’d try one post this year without politics or snark, and this is it.

A couple of weeks ago I put this up at The Boston Globe‘s site — and it is, I believe, behind a pay wall.  The Globe is kind enough to release the material back to me to post after a bit, as long as I credit and link back to the original posting (see what I did there) — so here it is.  If the image has any resonance this time of year for you….good.  And if what its maker has to say about the multiplication of possibilities it embodies adds a little joy to the picture?  So much the better.

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A mother cradling her infant child.

If the better angels of human nature were to prevail, this picture could become one of those pictures — a single frame that captures an essential piece of the 21st century.

Two human beings, stripped way past bare: two brains, connected in a universal human pose, a mother cradling her infant child.

SaxeTakahashi_MRI_April2015

Rebecca Saxe, a neuroscientist (and my colleague) at MIT, is a maestro of the camera that can make such images, the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or fMRI. To create an fMRI portrait, a subject must lie still inside a narrow cylinder, the inside of a giant electromagnet. The artful manipulation of electromagnetic fields catches the brain in the act — not quite the act of thinking, but of working, nerve cells grabbing oxygen to power the action that ultimately adds up to an idea, a gesture, a feeling.

Making a functional magnetic resonance image demands a lot of its subjects. In a return to the earliest days of photography, you have to lie still for minutes to allow the fMRI machine to complete its tour of your skull. “Moving just a millimeter leaves a blur on the screen,” as Saxe writes at Smithsonian.com. “The mother and baby must hold their pose, as if for a daguerreotype.”

Saxe’s work centers on a fundamental question: How people grapple with the realization that other people have thoughts inside their heads — an area of research called “theory of mind.”

Becoming aware of the fact that people around you are thinking and learning to analyze what those thoughts might be, is a capacity that human beings develop over time — which has led Saxe to attempt to make fMRI images of ever younger children. That allows her to track how growing brains, growing people, form the ability to imagine the reality of other’s minds.

There’s no science in Saxe’s picture of herself with her son — or rather, there’s no data to be used in any formal extension of her theory of mind research. Instead, one reading of the image is simply as a marker, a measure of the current state of a scientific project. Saxe writes that the juxtaposition of her mature brain with the just-getting-started one of her son is the “depiction of one of the hardest problems in neuroscience: How will changes in that specific little organ accomplish the unfolding of a whole human mind?”

That is: This picture captures a key step in the process of discovery — the moment when a human invention extends the reach of human senses into realms that were until then not just unexplored but unreachable. New instruments don’t just reveal more of something, more detail, better precision, or what have you. Often, as here, they open windows onto whole new vistas. We’re a very long way yet from answering Saxe’s question, but in the sight of her and her son’s brains we can recognize that an answer is possible.

That’s reason enough to borrow an afternoon of scanner time — but that’s not the whole story behind this picture. Saxe says she and her colleagues made this particular fMRI image “because we wanted to see it.” She reads in it a specific story, an argument. Mother and Child is an old, old trope, in art and in human experience, and as Saxe writes, there is a reflex to elevate “the maternal values, and the women who embody them” to the exclusion of the possibility (or propriety) of those same women exercising their smarts in any out-of-the-home role.

Mary_Cassat_-_Mothers_Kiss_-_NGC_29879

Saxe with her son, depicted and depicting — as she writes, neuroscientist and mother — collude in the same single frame. That was the goal, to create “an old image made new.” And there it is, in the traditional gesture of a mother kissing her child, and the utterly new view of that caress from the inside out.

To me, for all that Saxe’s gloss is so clearly readable in her picture, there’s a yet broader idea expressed. There’s a lot of loose talk around the so-called two cultures of the humanities and sciences, often presented as two sharply distinct ways of making sense of the world. Saxe’s picture gives the lie to that simplistic framing. Art does many things, but certainly one of them is to give us images that confront us with shards of the strange experience of being human. Science, an artful craft, can do the same — as it does here.

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Back to regularly scheduled rage, weariness, snark, schadenfreude, celebrations of the discomfiture of our adversaries and random brain bubbles after this.  Happy Saturnalia, all.

Image:  Mary Cassatt, Mother’s Kissbetween 1890 and 1891.

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Sunday Link Fest 2: The Links! (What a radical notion)

May 24, 2009

As promised.

1.  Grand snark about self-aggrandizing musicologists.  My question?  If physicists can figure out arXiv and if PL0S-ONE provides a pre and post-hoc review model for scientific publishing, why can’t those musicologists shut out of the charmed circle come up with  new-era publication model of their own?

2.  Fun you-are-there tale about a curator of a Chinese eco park.  Failed attempts to hack cobra anti-venom, fried snake, and some strategic MIT product placement, all in one place.  (By Phil McKenna, an alumnus of the MIT SciWrite Grad Program.)

3.  Long, interesting text-of-speech by Martin Baron of the Boston Globe on the future of the newsroom/newspapers.  More of a meditation than a prescription.  Worth reading.  I wish I could h/t the blog-denizen who sent me here in the first place, but it was long ago in another country and besides….

4.  Good NYT piece on the importance of basic quant skills — especially that of estimation — for everyday life. This is stuff I think about a lot — and even hope to write about more formally than the odd blog post, but for now, this is a nice intro.  (Meanwhile — I almost didn’t link this because of a pop-in add obscuring the top two lines that ignores its “close” button.  NYT take note:  this is not the way to monetize readers.)

5. The kind of piece that makes me see red.  Lazy-man reporting from the Beeb in response to the announcement of the Templeton Prize.  A reporter asks five scientists for bites about God.  No attempt to engage any of the arguments, just five potted quotes.  Read it and gnash.

6.  Sad story of the Nicholas Hughes’ suicide.  The son of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath suffered from depression over the long haul.  While each person’s response to such an affliction is distinct, it has been an occasional theme of that blog that perhaps single most important outcome of neuroscience in the last few decades is the deepening understanding that mental states are the product of material events….that Hughes suffered and seems to have died of a physical illness whose symptoms are experienced as mental phenomena.  I’ve focused on the consequences of mental trauma for veterans of our wars, but as a general area it is hardly reserved to any one class of experience.

More to come, but that clears off the top layer of my browser.

Enjoy.

Image:  Stanislaw Lenz, Fanfara – Serenada, 1910

Brain pets: Rebecca Skloot/Service Animal division

January 12, 2009

So I’m a little late with this, given that Rebecca published this very nice piece of work a week ago in the NY Times Sunday Magazine.

The quick summary:  there is a legal battle shaping up over the use of an increasingly diverse set of species to provide services for a range of conditions that extends well beyond the familiar image of a dog helping a blind person.  Think a guide horse (a very small one) for a blind woman, a parrot for a man suffering from psychotic episodes, and so on.

Most of the piece concerned distinctions that divide those who are helped by such animals don’t make, and that those concerned with issues of health or safety or sheer unfamiliarity in the control of public spaces do.  Is an animal a therapy animal — which do not have guaranteed access to public spaces under the Americans with Disabilities Act — or a service animal, performing a defined task, which do?  Should the ADA be amended to limit the permitted animals to, basically, dogs? Read the work for the details.

All I want to add here is that beyond the fascinating story lines of the emergence of a variety of animals who can now be used to respond to human hardship and the legal argument that such advances have produced, there is a second just-below-the-surface message in Rebecca’s piece.  Two out of the  three human-service animal partnerships that profiled there involve animals that respond to the overt symptoms of mental disturbance — the parrot mentioned above, and  a monkey who has been trained to ameliorate agoraphobia and anxiety attacks.

Both of those animals would be denied service animal status under proposed changes to the ADA law, and the parrot has already been banned — and has become the focus of an ongoing dispute — from a dental school where the parrot’s owner gets (or got) his teeth cleaned.

The subtext here is pretty obvious and it runs through Rebecca’s piece, though it is not its overt focus:  mental conditions are not “real” diseases or disabilities.  Their symptoms manifest as behavior, and, of course, behavior is a choice.

Except, of course, it’s not.  I started this blog with a story about the importance of understanding the material reality of the conditions that produce mental symptoms, derangements of the mind.   The arguments being made against the two people whose stories Rebecca tell are ones based on the notion that mental conditions — if they exist (sic!) — may require therapy, but are not subject to the same kind of daily, task based support that we can so clearly recognize in the relationship between a blind person and their horse (or dog).

And that, to keep this short, is the real message here.  It’s not that the argument over whose interests triumph is trivial one — whether that claims of public health or the avoidance of disruption trump those of the people receiving aid from a range of animal helpers on the other.  It’s just that behind this real public and legislative battle is the deeper question of how willing we are to accept the fact that mental illness or discomfort is “real” in the same way that we accept the reality of a clearly physical condition like blindness.

There’s a much longer argument here, all the way back to brain-mind dualism. But if you understand the mind as phenomenon of the material structure we call brain (and more — the sensory systems and all that; bear with me though in the cartoon version for simplicity’s sake), then however you work your view of the matter from there, the notion that mental disorders are qualitatively different from “obviously” physical ones breaks down.

The science – in – public connection here is thus, I think, obvious.  If neuroscience gives a view of mental life based in a material understanding of brain and the ills to which it is heir, and practical medicine shows us how to ameliorate some of its ills, then the denial of working methods to make living with such conditions possible is not simply a matter of competing interests, but is an act of cruelty to people being forced to suffer when simple means of easing suffering are available.

Image:  Berthe Morisot, “Girl with a Greyhound,” 1893

McCain’s Gambling Problem — And Ours

September 28, 2008

It’s already getting its fair share of play, but the enormous NY Times take out on McCain and the gambling industry is must reading for any voter, leaning any which way.

Most of the article is a meticulous, and to my eye devastating account of McCain’s deep-inside-Washington maneouverings on behalf of favored friends and allies in the gambling world.  While the article is meticulous in avoiding charges that Senator McCain violated laws, its account is a powerful, blow-by-blow description of the practical corruption and DC business-as-usual life of a powerful Senator.

But while I’m sure that this story of the corrupted false messiah will get its share of play, the article touches on — but does not delve into — what is to me much the more important issue.

There are hints.  Here is the lede paragraph to the piece:

Senator John McCain was on a roll. In a room reserved for high-stakes gamblers at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, he tossed $100 chips around a hot craps table. When the marathon session ended around 2:30 a.m., the Arizona senator and his entourage emerged with thousands of dollars in winnings.

An aside here:  Mathematically literate readers will wince at the phrase “a hot craps table.”  The notion of a hot table is nonsense: in Wikipedia’s version, “since there is no correlation between die rolls, there is no possible long-term winning strategy in craps.”  Rather, the odds in craps are set to ensure that the house always wins over time — and rather modest increments of time at that.

There are thus only two possible explanations for McCain’s success at the table that night.  He could have  benefited from the fact that randomized processes can produce’ patchy outputs.  Alternatively the casino bosses for whom he was the lead Senator on gambling matters decided to improve their odds in the bigger game of Washington lobbying, and juice McCain’s chances with a little mechanical help.

There is no way of knowing of course what occurred that day – and all casino games are set up to ensure that there are enough winners to persuade the losers (ultimately, everyone) to keep coming back.

So without knowing McCain’s results over a much longer series of his gambling weekends, I wouldn’t  accuse him or anyone of impropriety or worse.

Rather, the deeper issue here is what McCain’s gaming habits tell us about the kind of mind he has.

First, you have to know that McCain has a well documented love of gambling — and specifically for craps with its high reward-higher risk profile and its significant house edge.*  (Which is another way of saying that if over his years as a Senator with oversight over the gambling industry he shows a notable net positive return on his wagers, he is most likely being bribed.  Anyone check his tax records on this?)

This pleasure in the game can take on the color of urgency.  When, during the campaign, his advisors blocked him from heading to a casino floor in Las Vegas to play, he proposed bringing a craps table to his room.

His aides blocked that idea too, but that it even occured to a man in the middle of a Presidential campaign illustrates the depth of McCain’s gambling jones.

Now, what does this love of high risk, immediate reward, and long-term inevitable loss say about McCain’s emotional and intellectual fitness for the Presidency?  Does an affinity for a gambling rush imply anything about the rest of McCain’s capacity for judgment and decision making ability?

The answer, according to both empirical observation and recent neurobiological research, is at least a provisional yes.

Anecdotes (which I know are not data) first:

Just take the last week of the campaign to see what happens when an impulsive risk taker gets on the loose.  McCain’s sudden decision to call for a delay on the debate and assert a (false) suspension of his campaign were widely seen as on-the-spot impulse decisions.  They do not appear to have benefitted him.  His decision to demand a role in the bailout negotiations has been widely described as a disaster…and so on. Going a little further the selection of Gov. Palin looks like another impulse acceptance of great risk for potentially great reward.

Such examples of  McCain’s behavior under pressure does not prove that he is an erratic, risk addicted menace, of course.  But they do provide a portrait that is consistent with that view.

Now, enter neuroscience.  The study of the brain chemistry of gambling is a young one, and anyone looking for a deterministic answer to the question of whether regular but not ruinous risk taking is an indicator for a broader collection of mental attributes is not going to find it there, at least not yet.

But the current focus of the research on dopamine metabolism and the way centers of your brain respond to the stimulus winning and losing, do show the connection between emotion and brain states.

At the same time, studies of problem gambling suggest (and I emphasize suggest) that the brain states that correlate with behaviors like chasing losses, in the words of one such investigation, “might underlie the loss-of-control over appetitive behaviors in other impulse control disorders.”

Other types of studies —  suggest, for example, that gamblers can’t take the long view as well as non gamblers.  (Again, suggest, because no one small sample study can be said to mean very much at all.  Just reminding everyone of what I’m sure y’all know very well).

John McCain the candidate is a gambler — that’s on the record.

He likes to roll the dice. The metaphor is exact. Both his own history and the accumulating evidence of psychological and neurobiological work make it impossible to assume that his love of the game can be confined to a craps table in the basement of the White House.

This is not a comforting thought to attach to someone whose hands could hold the nuclear codes.

*Obama’s gambling as profiled in the same article linked above, has centered on low-stakes poker.  Describing his regular game at the Illinois State Legislature, the article reports:

He always had his head in the game. The stakes were low enough — $1 ante and $3 top raise — to afford a long shot. Not Obama. He studied the cards as closely as he would an eleventh-hour amendment to a bill. The odds were religion to him. Only rarely did he bluff. “He had a pretty good idea about what his chances were,” says Denny Jacobs, a former state senator from East Moline.

It seems to me worth noting the obvious:  where craps is a game of chance with the inevitability of long-term losses, poker is a game of strategy, rewarding an understanding of probability and a capacity for psychological assessment of your opponents.  Hand by hand results may vary, but over time, the more skilled player wins.  So the question in the upcoming election becomes:  would you rather have a craps player or a poker player staring down Putin next time around?

As our French friends would say: the question answers itself.

Image:  William Hogarth “The Gaming Table” from A Rake’s Progress, 1732-35.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

One From the Road: Why Can’t David Brooks Behave When I’m On Vacation edition

August 20, 2008

So, I’m blissfully bagging (photographically) three of the Big Five up in KwaZulu Natal, and then equally blissfully chilling in perhaps the best location in the surreal beauty of Camps Bay, almost entirely free of the Intertubes, when I finally make landfall (runway fall has the wrong sound to it) in Johannesburg. There, I innocently sign on to my sister-in-law’s wireless, (just checking my email. Honest. And the Red Sox scores. And every single poll I’d missed, and….) and got smacked by this by-now-old-news story of David Brooks trying wax deep on his newish theme of the neuroscience of politics and culture . (Thanks, sort of, to James Fallows for leading me into this swamp).

The dog-bites-man headline, of course, is that Brooks essentially made up the critical facts of the research he cited. In a column trying to draw cognitive distinctions between the thought and perception of presumed collectivist Chinese and those stalwart individualist Americans, he got just about everything salient wrong. The study he cited did not claim to attempt a random sample, interviewing instead a captive audience of college students; the test image was not of an aquarium, but an underwater scene, the distinctions in results between the two populations were not as claimed – and none of these material errors was the big enchilada:

In a column purporting to probe crucial distinctions between Chinese and American psyches, Brooks cited a study whose Asian population was…wait for it…

…Japanese.

Now, if you want the full, devastating take down on Brooks and a very smart and just about as devastating critique on the body of research Brooks was alleging he had probed deeply enough to opine about, read this, by Penn’s and the Language Log’s Mark Liberman. I got nothing to add about the substance of Brook’s substancelessness beyond Liberman’s take down.

But what I do want to raise is the question of consequences. Brooks really screwed up here by the standards of his profession. He got several specific facts wrong, and those errors undermine the entire article. What is the appropriate response of his readers and, more important, his employers, those who provide him with one of the most significant bully pulpits in contemporary journalism.

First, please note that the observation that Brooks is an opinion-writer, not a news reporter does not buy him much mitigation. The old cliche – everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts – applies here. His interpretation of the science he cited is his own; that I think it is wrongheaded, stupid, shallow, and betrays a lack of understanding of exactly the kinds of difficulties in the research that Liberman documents is of no consequence. People are allowed to be dumb, and other people can decide whether it’s Brooks or his critics who should don the dunce cap.

But the actual specific details of what he suggests is a growing scientific consensus are a different story. Those are actual events and results in the world. Mischaracterizing them to make a half baked (or even, in different and more careful hands, a fully baked) generalization is, in journalism, a kind of fraud, a pernicious betrayal (and disdain for) the trust of your readers.

That’s why in journalism in general and in the science journalism that I and my colleagues try to teach to our grad students, it gets repeated again and again that the first job is to get the facts right.

In science journalism, at least as I learned it and try, never quite perfectly, to practice and teach it, you need to take the next step. Just transcribing accurately what someone has told you or what you have read in a book, a paper or a press release ain’t enough. Actual understanding, and informed judgment matter too. If you are going to apply your own, non-expert interpretation to a result, you need to earn it – and you do so by mastering the background to that research first.

As I said above, others have done a much better job than I could demonstrating that Brooks failed this standard on every level.

So back to the question of what should happen to someone who so baldly screws up. A junior reporter, someone not so branded and “to bit too fail” as David Brooks would, if they demonstrated as much a disregard for facts as Brooks does here would be in serious trouble; if this were a third or fourth instance (and I invite folks to go back through blog reactions, including my own, to earlier Brooks fiascos) they would stand a good chance of being fired.

Now that’s not going to happen. If it mattered that much to the Times, then William Kristol, he of four published corrections since he started at the Grey Lady– would be out of a job. Dut the fact that Brooks made stuff up, in essence, to tell the story he already knew he was going to write (OK – so I’m inferring here, but this is a blog, and I get to) should matter to someone who might still cling to the idea that they worked for the “newspaper of record.”

Here’s what I would do. I wouldn’t fire Brook. That would just create another faux martyr for the bad guys. I would suspend him – say through November 8. I’d even suspend him with pay – and here I’m assuming that under his contract with the Times he’s constrained in what else he can do. And then I’d substitute for him on the next-to-last page of the dead tree edition with an intellectually honest, determined conservative. Get someone in their who can actually fight that corner. See what that feels like.

Just thinkin’ on the road, you know. Now its off to hear Pops Muhammad – much more fun than wallowing in the follies of the Lords of Journalism.

Guest Post: Michelle Sipics on the limits to private sector R and D

August 10, 2008

Guest blogger and my former student Michelle Sipics is back with another post centered on her major area of interest — mental health, and especially the intersection of mental health inquiry and treatment and the care and well-being of the elderly.

It’s a crucial topic, IMHO, and it is one that does not get the attention it needs, as part of the larger neglect, at least in writing for the public, of the experience of aging in the United States (and presumably elsewhere, though my knowledge of science/medical journalism stops at the water, and certainly at the English language barrier).

So — see what Michelle has to say, and think about the question she leaves us with.

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Back in June, my good host posted about the media coverage of the psychological tolls of
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He discussed the steps that the military is beginning
to take to address brain injury and mental illness, and I left a comment detailing my
feeling that we have a long way to go before these problems are anywhere near solved.

A fellow commenter–Tom Tyler, by name–suggested that waiting for politicians to fix or
even begin to address such problems is a loser’s bet, and that private R&D is the way to
go to get good research done. He may have a point. I’ve been thinking about that off
and on for the last month or so, and quite recently came across a news article that
highlighted the issue once again.

Those who have read my first guest post on this blog may recall that I have a particular
interest in mental health research, and especially in geriatric mental health. Well,
this article didn’t discuss mental health, but it did focus on an issue that primarily affects the
elderly. It seems that GM is working on a tech- heavy windshield that’s designed to aid
drivers with vision problems: a camera, lasers, and various sensors combine to “enhance”
what’s happening in the driver’s field of vision, so that the edge of the road is
highlighted more clearly, for example.

I think this is a potentially great example of what Tom Tyler discussed in his
aforementioned comment–private R&D leading to a product or service that addresses a
major problem facing ordinary people. Granted, it’s not as if this is pure medical
research; GM stands to make a bundle from it, and it’s clear that their primary
incentive is profit, not altruism. But is motivation, in and of itself, a problem? If,
in the end, people are helped by this system, and less accidents result from its use,
will we mind that it also helps GM’s bottom line–that it wasn’t developed by someone
with no major personal or financial interest in its use?

Personally, I don’t. I see this as an example of the private sector seeing a market
opportunity and jumping on it, to the potential benefit of millions of people. The AP
article about it specifically mentions the fact that the elderly population of the US is
on the verge of exploding, so that by 2030, one-fifth of the US population will be over
65. That, of course, is the group of folks with the most vision problems, and many of
them still drive, so this could be a big boon for both them and GM. Who loses?

Now, the big question for me: how does this concept–private-sector development that can
benefit ordinary people–apply to geriatric mental health?

One obvious issue that comes to mind is drug development. Pharmaceutical companies could
have a huge impact against a disease like Alzheimer’s with the development of an
effective drug. Yes, some are already on the market, but none that can help treat the
illness for more than a year or two at most. I’m sure many others are also in
development or trial stages, but the average time to market beyond discovery for a drug
is around 15 years. With the first of the baby boomers turning 65 in 2011, just three
years from now, things don’t look great at the moment.

A similar possibility is an anti-depressant targeted specifically for the elderly. Why
not? Narrow-focus drugs can be extremely effective. But to my knowledge, no such drug is
in existence or even being researched. (Please, anyone who knows of one, feel free to
correct me.) If one were discovered, brought to market, and widely adopted, it could
potentially prevent scores of suicides and increase the quality of life for elderly
patients suffering from depression. But one key word in that sentence is “adopted.” Many
elderly patients who are in fact suffering from depression are ashamed to admit it and
don’t seek treatment; and, compounding the problem, many don’t recognize aches, pains,
trouble sleeping, etc, as potential symptoms of depression. If they do go to a doctor,
it’s typically a general practitioner–and as I discovered while researching this topic
some years ago, the symptoms of depression are often overlooked by GPs when treating
elderly patients, so the underlying problem can be left undiscovered and the symptoms
cracked up to “old age.”

So with all of these problems, is it really to the benefit of pharmaceutical companies
to spend millions of dollars and so many years developing a drug that targets a problem
patients won’t admit to having? Is private R&D really the best answer here? No
pharmaceutical company is going to put itself in the red to develop a drug that won’t
result in a bottom line profit, even if it could help millions of people. So what’s the
best answer?

Personally, I do think private R&D can still have a huge impact in geriatric mental
health, but first we have to address the problem of stigma–and that problem is largely
left up to society as a whole. Before elderly patients, or any mental health patient,
can benefit from treatment, we have to convince them that it won’t come along with
rolled eyes from friends or condescending speeches about picking oneself up by one’s
bootstraps instead of accepting that treatment. Unfortunately, change like that also
takes time–and we’re running out of it.

My main reason for writing this post was to find out what others think. Can private R&D
help address the coming crisis in geriatric mental health? What issues stand in the way,
and what has to be done to get things rolling? Throw in your two cents, and let’s see
what we can do as a society to improve the situation.

Program Notes: NPR/Nancy Pelosi edition + a little housekeeping

July 28, 2008

Housekeeping first:

I got another vacation coming — this one a honker of a trip to South Africa (family/animals — the key test will be making sure I keep the differences between the two groups clear in my head). I’ll be gone most of August. This blog will keep ticking over — with some help from at least one guest blogger. But I can’t pretend that Inverse Square will be operating on all cylinders (mixed metaphor alert) for the next few weeks. Nothin’ much will be happening anyway.

Anyway — for the month, the style of the blog is going to shift a little — more quick hit posts, fewer illustrations. In that spirit:

Check out this interview with Nancy Pelosi on NPR’s Morning Edition, July 28 edition. It’s a mostly conventional, uncontroversial conversation centered on the release of Pelosi’s new book.

Pelosi went off the rails, for me at least, at the very end of the piece. There, she spoke of how a woman in power would be able to say this:

“I think in an intuitive way and that special quality and that special grace that women bring to it all is something that would be such a source of strength to our country.”

Now, there has been a wealth of research, some of it even reputable, about differences in cognition and other brain functions between the genders. See this, if you want to begin tiptoeing into that field.

Note also that all of the population studies in the world do next to nothing to help you guage the capacity of an individual man or woman. John McCain’s analytical and quantitative skills — categories sometimes trumpeted as strengths of male minds — have not been anything to write home about on this campaign. Hilary Clinton’s mastery of policy analysis was widely seen as a distinction to be drawn against her primary and the putative general election opponent. (As you’ll see from the headline on that link, Brad DeLong’s mantra: “Why, oh why…” has retrospective power

But the point isn’t that individuals are all, by definition, exceptional in some way. It is that it is not intuitive reasoning that women bring to the table as a particular strength — after all, that master of gut knowledge, George Bush, has put thinking by feel into justifiably ill repute as a qualification for the Presidency

No — Pelosi actually got it right the sentence before the one quoted above. It is the distinctive experience of women that would give a female President something new and valuable to bring to the table. Everything to pay disparities to a grasp of what it takes to maintain the daily logistics of families in which men, on average, still do not carry an equal load.

That is: it is a mug’s game to claim for women special fitness for office because of a presumed, at least partially magical quality of how their brains work. Just think of the counter argument, substitute men for women, and rational for intuitive, and think of the justified howls that would result. It is a perfectly legitimate claim to say that women’s lives are different than those of men in the aggregate and in particular — and that such experience is relevant to governance, leadership and policy.

Image: Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, “The Kitchen Maid.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.