Friday, June 27, 2008

First Olaf event!

I recently received news that Olaf and I will be appearing at Keplers in Menlo Park on October 30. Although this may not end up being the *first* time I read, it is the first time I'm officially scheduled to do so. Woo! I have a lot of practicing ahead.

Thursday October 30, 7:30
1010 El Camino Real
Menlo Park, CA 94025

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Searching for God in the Brain

In 1664, Dr. Olaf van Schuler, protagonist of the first story in the book that bears his name, sliced open the heads of pigs, goats, and cows hoping to find the seat of the immortal soul. The soul resided in the brain, he believed, though he did not know exactly where. He poked and probed; he decided upon the pituitary gland.

Today, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania continue to search for the impact of higher forces on the brain. Injecting Tibetan Buddhist monks, nuns, and Pentecostals with radioactive isotopes and then scanning their brains, Dr. Newberg, a professor of radiology and psychiatry, hopes to identify how faith is manifest in brain activity.

According to the St. Petersberg Times:

The frontal lobes got especially busy. They're the part of the brain he calls the "attention area." The meditators had clearly tapped their frontal lobes to focus on their task.

He also saw the thalamus kick in. That's a pea-sized piece of the brain atop the brain stem that, among other things, sends sensory information to the frontal cortex, where much of our heavy thinking happens. Whatever was happening in meditation, the thalamus was making it feel very real.

The surprise was elsewhere, in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain that helps us orient ourselves in relation to things around us. Newberg discovered that the nuns and Buddhists had actually shut down that part of the brain, suspending their senses of space and time. It was then that they entered the peak of their transcendent experiences — altered states of "timelessness and spacelessness."

Does this mean that religious experience is "all in your head?" Dr. Newberg comments on this in the Global Spiral:

Imagine, for instance, that you are the subject of a brain imaging study. As part of this study, you have been asked to eat a generous slice of homemade apple pie. As you enjoy the pie, the brain scans capture images of the neurological activity in the various processing areas of the brain where input from your senses is being turned into the specific neural perceptions that add up to the experience of eating the pie: olfactory areas register the delightful aroma of apples and cinnamon, visual areas perceive the sight of the golden brown crust, centers of touch perceive the complex mix of crunchy and gooey textures, and the rich, sweet, satisfying flavors are processed in the areas responsible for taste. The SPECT brain scan would show all this activity in the same way that it revealed the brain activity of the Buddhists and the nuns, as blotches of bright colors on the scanner's computer screen. In a literal sense, the experience of eating the pie is all in your mind, but that doesn't mean the pie is not real, or that it is not delicious.

Newberg's next book, How God Changes Your Brain, comes out in March.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Olaf reviewed in Publishers Weekly

This just in--the first review of DOCTOR OLAF VAN SCHULER'S BRAIN, from Publishers Weekly:

Doctor Olaf van Schuler’s Brain
Kirsten Menger-Anderson. Algonquin, $22.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-56512-561-2

Menger-Anderson’s vivid and original collection follows several generations of New York doctors and charts the social and political forces that shaped New York City from the 17th century to today. Dr. Olaf van Schuler emigrates from Holland to New Amsterdam in 1664 and continues his study of animal brains. After he has a child by Adalind Steenwycks, each subsequent generation spins out in its own story, concluding with Dr. Elizabeth Steenwycks, the medical researcher daughter of Dr. Stuart Steenwycks, a plastic surgeon dying of a rare and fatal brain malady. Each generation applies the then current medical wisdom to tasks as varied as explaining a death by spontaneous combustion, resuscitating a boy’s corpse and using phrenology to predict human behavior. In the early 1970s, Americans’ obsession with their body image arises in the woeful tale of Sheila Talbot, 21, whose leaky breast implants hark back to the less-than-helpful medicine practiced in previous generations. The reader can follow how far medicine has advanced, but, surprisingly, note how human suffering and misery hasn’t come such a long way. (Oct.)

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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Spontaneous combustion... can it happen to you?

In "The Burning," one of the stories in DOCTOR OLAF VAN SCHULER'S BRAIN, spontaneous combustion is used as a legal defense against murder. The story is set in the early part of the 18th century, a time when doctors diagnosed illness in terms of the humors, and medical implements were not sterilized before surgery, or at any other time for that matter. How quaint to believe that a human could combust spontaneously, some say. How long ago that was.

Yesterday, the Denver News reported a case of spontaneous combustion. In this case, a boy was badly burned, though not consumed, by a 2-foot-deep layer of coal dust heated by sunshine until it reached an explosive state.

Current thought on the cause of spontaneous combustion varies, but the most popular belief is likely the "wick effect", in which "the clothing of the victim soaks up melted human fat and acts like the wick of a candle," according to wikipedia. The wikipedia article also tells the fascinating story of the BBC's attempt to "prove" the viability of this hypothesis.

In August 1998, using a dead pig wrapped in a blanket and placed in a mocked-up room, the BBC set out to prove the wick effect theory in its science television show QED, episode entitled "The Burning Question".

A small amount of petrol was poured on the blanket as an accelerant. After igniting the petrol, the researchers left it to burn by itself. The temperature of the fire was regularly recorded at only around 800 °C (1472 °F).

As the fire burned through the pig's skin, the fire melted the pig's subcutaneous fats, which flowed onto the blanket. Bone marrow, which also contains a high amount of fat, contributed to the burning.

Sadly, the experimental results were questioned by one of the experts brought on to the show, John E Heymer, "a former police officer and author who has written extensively on the field of spontaneous human combustion" and a frequent contributor to Fortean Times, which is where I first came across the combustion story.

Clearly, the experts continue to disagree.