29 September 2010


MEMORY. David Hirschman summarizes in a clear and accessible manner current research on how memory is recorded (and lost) in the human brain. This information is relevant to nearly every human activity, from raising a child, teaching in school, learning a new skill or name, to the loss of memory with aging. Here is a summary of the article:

"Memory isn't like a video or film, faithfully recording a sequence of minute details and storing it all intact. Rather, it's a far more complex procedure, which preserves brain space by filtering out extraneous details while still allowing us to pull together pertinent information about specific events. So a memory is a set of circumstances, details and characteristics strung together -- the brain can recreate events by activating specific strings in "convergence/divergence" zones and then accessing all the scattered details attached to the string.

"We begin to lose memories as we age when our brains have too much of certain molecules called beta amyloids. While at low levels these molecules are required for our normal memory system, high levels hurt intra-brain communication."

For a fuller, more detailed understanding of memory gain and loss, please click on the link to the article.

COYOTES. Among my most vivid memories from twenty years living in southern Arizona is the haunting, howling, yipping chorus of coyotes at night, declaring their territory. Their vocal talents are such that one or a few coyotes can sound like many. Whether viewed as mythic trickster, as God's dog, or as vermin, the coyote is far and away the most adaptable predator in North America. Efforts at eradication have only produced smarter, more elusive, and more numerous populations of coyotes. They are versatile in their hunting -- going it alone, or in packs, or even cooperatively with other species. Unlike the unfortunate wolf, which still hovers within an eyeblink of extinction, coyotes have expanded their range to include forays into towns and major cities.

Because they are so wary and elusive, wildlife ecologists find that acquiring a deeper understanding of their way of life is "like working with a ghost species." The NYTimes article Mysteries That Howl and Hunt summarizes current research into this virtuoso singer and versatile survivor.

RELIGION TEST. This cracks me up -- and at the same time does not surprise me in the least. A basic religion test administered to a cross-section of Americans revealed that "most people are deeply ignorant about religion. Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life. On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed questions about their own faith. Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities, Jews and Mormans."

How can this be, especially given that most questions had multiple-choice answers? Simple. Blind faith equates with poor knowledge. Most atheists and agnostics were raised in religious homes, but learned to examine, question and ultimately reject the moral hypocrisies and internal contradictions of religion through reading, thinking, and informing themselves. As Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, explained, "I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than most religious people. Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That's how you make atheists."

For a more thorough description of the survey and how various religious groups fared in their responses, as well as a sampling of the survey questions which you can answer for yourself, please check out the Basic Religion Test article.

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