Gene's next monthly chat is next Tuesday, January 7 at noon. You may submit questions here.
- Want to find out what you're missing? Check out Gene's November live chat to get an idea of how the monthly chat works.
On one Tuesday each month, Gene is online to take your questions and abuse. He will chat about anything. Although this chat is sometimes updated between live shows, it is not and never will be a "blog," even though many persons keep making that mistake. One reason for the confusion is the Underpants Paradox: Blogs, like underpants, contain "threads," whereas this chat contains no "threads" but, like underpants, does sometimes get funky and inexcusable.
URGENT UPDATE UPDATE:
If this story proves true and the train wreck was caused by the engineer "zoning out," it was the same brain hiccup that causes babies to die in hot cars. The basal ganglie overwhelms the hippocampus.
From my 2009 story "Fatal Distraction":
David Diamond is picking at his breakfast at a Washington hotel, trying to explain.
"Memory is a machine," he says, "and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you're capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child."
Diamond is a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida and a consultant to the veterans hospital in Tampa. He's here for a national science conference to give a speech about his research, which involves the intersection of emotion, stress and memory. What he's found is that under some circumstances, the most sophisticated part of our thought-processing center can be held hostage to a competing memory system, a primitive portion of the brain that is -- by a design as old as the dinosaur's -- inattentive, pigheaded, nonanalytical, stupid.
Diamond is the memory expert with a lousy memory, the one who recently realized, while driving to the mall, that his infant granddaughter was asleep in the back of the car. He remembered only because his wife, sitting beside him, mentioned the baby. He understands what could have happened had he been alone with the child. Almost worse, he understands exactly why.
The human brain, he says, is a magnificent but jury-rigged device in which newer and more sophisticated structures sit atop a junk heap of prototype brains still used by lower species. At the top of the device are the smartest and most nimble parts: the prefrontal cortex, which thinks and analyzes, and the hippocampus, which makes and holds on to our immediate memories. At the bottom is the basal ganglia, nearly identical to the brains of lizards, controlling voluntary but barely conscious actions.
Diamond says that in situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that's why you'll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw.
Ordinarily, says Diamond, this delegation of duty "works beautifully, like a symphony. But sometimes, it turns into the '1812 Overture.' The cannons take over and overwhelm."
Greetings, update readers.
Today, a first. We have a guest updater. He is Stephen Katz, a sociology professor from Canada, a man after my own heart. He writes about how to speak Post-modernism, and it is a scathing indictment of the language of academe.
A few years ago, I briefly toyed with abandoning this hellish craft and teaching journalism / writing full time; I figured the transition would be relatively easy, since I am a Blowhard with Actual Experience, and Prizes. A conversation with two giants in the field quickly persuaded me this was no place I wanted to go; I was informed that though I could surely get a teaching gig, I probably could not get one with tenure, inasmuch as I have no advanced degree. I took great offense at that, patiently explaining that if they knew ANYTHING of my work, they'd realize that I didn't even have an undergraduate degree.
In essence, they were telling me that the field of academia is filled with persons who jealously guard the suffocating, self-celebrating, culture of academia. I explained that this is precisely what's wrong with academia. Both of these people nodded sagely, and said, yes, that's exactly right.
All of this is by way of explaining my deep, deep contempt for academese. And my love of Stephen's piece. It's old, but timeless. Enjoy. We talk more next week.