Daniel Siegel

Why learning neuroscience is so hard

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    Thirty-three year-old artist Yarun Steinburg built a  model  of how he imagines his brain to be using cardboard boxes, Christmas lights, and TVs with film reels from his life.  From the back, you can see that the inside is modeled after a small city, the tightly-packed and highly detailed "neighborhoods", inviting viewers to pause and reflect on what the inside of their own brain might look like.

Thirty-three year-old artist Yarun Steinburg built a model of how he imagines his brain to be using cardboard boxes, Christmas lights, and TVs with film reels from his life.  From the back, you can see that the inside is modeled after a small city, the tightly-packed and highly detailed "neighborhoods", inviting viewers to pause and reflect on what the inside of their own brain might look like.

I've been reading about neuroscience these last four months, and I've really been struggling to integrate the material into my own words, hence the dearth of blog posts.

I decided to google why neuroscience is so hard, and while it's in part because only long-time meditators and intellectual heavyweights- of which I am neither- really comprehend neurophenomenlology enough to verbalize the subtle and complex processes in a way that laypeople can understand, there are few other reasons.

First of all, there is still so much even neurobiologists don't know about the brain, and parts we don't understand the function of.  There are 100 billion neurons- or nerve cells- and endless combinations they can connect with each other.  The connections between the neurons, called synapses- are shaped by both genes and life experience, but we don't know to what extent genes shape connections, and experience shapes connections.

  Nerve cell.   Image from bbc.co.uk. 

Nerve cell.  Image from bbc.co.uk. 

Moreover, neuroscience requires both objectivity and subjectivity.  If we're going to understand the phenomena of consciousness, on the one hand, we need scientifically valid observations of the brain; on the other, first person subjective accounts of peoples' internal experiences.  Because both the brain and the mind come together to form consciousness, scientists need to get creative and develop tests that measure and scientifically quantify mental phenomena. 

There is a complicated interplay between the brain and the mind: the mind and its attendant concepts and meanings is rooted in the activity of the brain, and the brain- due to its plasticity- is constructed itself by the mind.  As a result, the brain is turning its social circuits that normally attunes to others, inside out and is interacting with itself.  However, we know from the famous double-slit experiment (on the interference pattern of electrons being shot through a double-slit apparatus) that the mere act of observing electrons changes their behavior; just the same, mindfulness research has demonstrated a similar conclusion- that the mere act of becoming aware of your own awareness alters the form and function of your brain.  Your awareness is goes back on itself in a re-entry loop where the emergent process takes on a life of its own, improving memory, focus, and empathy.

The mind can be defined as an embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Regulation is at the heart of mental life, and helping others with this regulatory balance is central to understanding how the mind can change. The brain has self-regulatory circuits that may directly contribute to enhancing how the mind regulates the flow of its two elements, energy and information.
— Dr. Daniel Siegel

Some philosophers would say our consciousness is simply reducible to the chemical and electrical firings of our neurons, while others prefer to hold out for the discovery of the "self node" tucked away somewhere in the folds of our gyri like a pearl in an oyster shell that can answer for each and every one of our thoughts and decisions. 

To make things even more difficult, up until a few years ago, neither the field of psychology or neurobiology had a working, agreed-upon definition of the mind. 

Dr. Siegel, whom I mention a lot, only because I'm reading his book right now (The Mindful Brain), recounts how he has gone around the world speaking to mental health practictioners, and at every event, asked for a show of hands of who had ever had a lecture at any time in their training that defined what the mind was.  His finding- out of the 100,000 mental health professionals that he's taught- was that less than 2% had.  While it's true that philosophers and psychologists have been trying to answer that question since the ancient Greeks at least, what's cool is that we're actually at a unique time in history where we know enough to cobble a rough definition together.  Here is Siegel's own working definition:

The mind can be defined as an embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Regulation is at the heart of mental life, and helping others with this regulatory balance is central to understanding how the mind can change. The brain has self-regulatory circuits that may directly contribute to enhancing how the mind regulates the flow of its two elements, energy and information.

But there are other concepts that are still undefined.  Think about it.  Can you define consciousness?  Neither can psychologists.  What about self, or identity?

The next challenge is that the brain consists of more than just the pinky-brown organ in the head.  As the control centre of the entire central nervous system, the brain's nerves are routed through the spine and spread all the way to the soles of the feet.  The fact that this complex system works in concert to keep our bodies in homeostasis is nothing less than jaw-dropping.  As one scientist wrote, "If given the choice between having to pilot a plane without knowing anything about how to work any of the controls, and sitting at the dashboard of my central nervous system, coordinating the millions of outgoing and incoming processes happening every second, I'd choose the pilot job in a heartbeat."

Finally, because my purpose in studying the brain is to understand how brain form and function relates to different personality types, and that research is still in its infancy, there is little that can be said with objective certainty, although Dario Nardi (among others) have been doing some interesting research at UCLA, mapping the brain patterns of Carl Jung's legendary MBTI types, and is now starting to work with Enneagram types.  I'm sure more research funding will be forthcoming the more it becomes clear how brain research is important to our collective health, but in the meantime, we rely on anecdotal observations.  For example, during an informal study of brain activity and Enneagram types, Dr. Daniel Siegel noted in an interview with Russ Hudson and Jessica Dibb that Type Two's (one of the Enneagram's three image types) "have a lot of mirror neurons".  There is no book yet out there detailing what these observations could mean, but hopefully someone bright will pen the first one soon. 

 

Parenting to Engender Resilience in Children

The best way to understand how a child develops resilience is to look at the role of the nervous system vis-a-vis the rest of their body.  Knowing how the child's brain reacts to stress can help us understand what they need in order to develop empowered and adaptable responses to life's unpredictabilities. 

To Get High or Get Exercise?

I got out one of my neuroscience books today to look something up, and I found some research linked to Saskatchewan (where I live) that made me sit up and notice, so today's an ode to my home province's contribution to this fascinating field.

In 2005, the University of Saskatchewan made a contribution to neuroscience research for its testing of marijuana on rats, and looking at their brains' ability to generate new neurons in response to the drug.  I'm assuming they've made more contributions than just this one, but this 2005 study was given special mention in Wikipedia.  Apparently pot could have a salutary effect on our capacity to retain memories as we get older... similar to the effect on the brain that exercise has. 

  "Human neuron showing actin formation in response to stimulation."  (Image by Michael A. Colicos, UC San Diego)

"Human neuron showing actin formation in response to stimulation." (Image by Michael A. Colicos, UC San Diego)

We've all heard of neuroplasticity by now, which is a catchall term for a bunch of different processes: the generation of new neurons, synaptic pruning or rewiring;   basically anything that changes the anatomy (structure) or physiology (function) of the brain in response to new experiences-- good or bad-- is an element of neuroplasticity (Siegel, 2007).

For the most part, when people talk about neuroplasticity today, they're talking about what their synapses and supporting cells are doing.  Whether you're talking about the effect that mindfulness or your Luminosity app have on your brain, or how one part of your brain compensated for a damaged part after an accident, synaptogenesis is when two neurons who are neighbors to each other decide to form a link so information can flow between them.

 Neurons are known to be generated post-natally in three areas of the adult brain- the dentate gyrus in the hippocampus (DG), the cerebellum (CB), and the olfactory bulb (OB).  [ Source ].

Neurons are known to be generated post-natally in three areas of the adult brain- the dentate gyrus in the hippocampus (DG), the cerebellum (CB), and the olfactory bulb (OB).  [Source].

Neurogenesis, on the other hand, is the process by which entirely new brain neurons are created- the byproduct of neural stem cells and progenitor cells coming together.  Although adult neurogenesis was proved possible in 1965, we're still learning why the brain creates more neurons, as the function of new neurons still isn't very clear.  Most of our neurons were generated while we were still in the womb, but now we know there are three parts of the brain in adult where neurogenesis occurs on a regular basis: the Dentate Gyrus in the Hippocampus, the Olfactory Bulb, and the Cerebellum.

Because there are a lot of "parent cells" [ie. neural stem cells and progenitor cells] that can give birth to new neurons in the Dentate Gyrus area of the hippocampus, researchers have focussed a lot on that area for their neurogenesis studies.  (Students of mindfulness may know that the Hippocampus is where short- and long-term memories are stored; the Dentate Gyrus is one of the interlocking parts holding the two hypocampi together). 

The U of S discovered that, in the Dentate Gyrus, where a class of cell membrane receptors called cannabinoid receptors are "involved in a variety of physiological processes including appetite, pain-sensation, mood, and memory", the receptors attached to synthetic cannabis and created new neurons.  The cannabinoid-induced increase in hippocampal neurogenesis had an "anxiolytic and antidepressant effect."

I don't know where that leaves us, as my only interpretation that I can come to is that smoking a sane amount of pot here and there can help us grow new neurons, which helps us become less anxious and less depressed.  Or is it the other way around, that marijuana helps us become less anxious and less depressed, and the extra neurons are just a byproduct of feeling good?  If you're a scientist, you can read the study and e-mail me.

Either way, scientists are interested in this Dentate Gyrus area because- as it was mentioned- the area deals with memory, and because neurogenesis happens here specifically, in this tiny little area of the brain, they're wondering if there are any implications here for Alzheimer's patients.  Who knows, maybe when we're all older, some of us will be smoking pot to extend the lifetime of our memories, and we'll be able to thank the U of S for that.  Others of us will just be exercising, as that seems to stimulate neurogenesis too, at least in mice.

A Very Quick Study on Self-Preservation Twos

Last night, I was scrolling through Facebook and found an article about fraternal twins that don't look anything alike. 

  Fraternal twins James and Daniel from London.  James, left, is outgoing and academic; Daniel, right, is shy and left school as soon as he could.   Photo courtesy of the Guardian

Fraternal twins James and Daniel from London.  James, left, is outgoing and academic; Daniel, right, is shy and left school as soon as he could.  Photo courtesy of the Guardian

  Lucy, left, studies art and design at Gloucester College. Maria studies law and psychology at Cheltenham College.   Photo courtesy of Huffington Post. 

Lucy, left, studies art and design at Gloucester College. Maria studies law and psychology at Cheltenham College.  Photo courtesy of Huffington Post. 

The articles are pretty interesting because they detail what life is like growing up with a twin who's a different race than you. 

This is maybe a bit of a stretch, but when I was thinking about what to write about last night, it struck me that in the Enneagram world, we have a similar enigma to the twin who defies categorization, and that's the Self-Preservation Two: the Helper who would prefer to be helped.  You expect one thing, and you actually get the opposite.

First, let's look at the Type Two in general.  Commonly called "the Helper", their core identity is formed by a sadness around an early disconnection from the Source of Love, and so they go through life trying to replicate that feeling they knew at a preverbal level by going out of their way to connect with others- often by offering their help.  Being envelopped in Divine Love was rapturous, so it's completely understandable that you'd be scrambling to get that feeling back. 

They represent the heart's longing for, as childhood psychologist Margaret Mahler termed it, symbiosis- feeling one with the Mother and her breast.  "The imprint of this symbiotic relationship, then, leaves the Two with the conviction that union with Being [or Source] happens through union with another person" (Maitri, 2000).

Twos are at the beginning of the heart triad, where the search for love, value, and identity take place.  In the heart triad, there is manipulation of the inner state to suit the external environment.  The shapeshifters and chameleons of the Enneagram, Twos, Threes, and Fours ask themselves what prized qualities would make them more loveable, and seek to deliver them, at the cost of their own individuality.  For the Two, that quality they see missing, needed, and therefore most desired in the world, is love. 

Two's tend to be friendly, warm, affectionate, and giving.  I heard in an interview with Dan Siegel that Twos have more mirror neurons than other types, which accounts for their ability to sense your needs before you even know about them yourself.  In their conscious minds, the helping is without strings, but unconsciously, because Two's have repressed their agression [because that's not conducive to union], they have a backwards way of getting what they want out of life.  Refusing to satisfy their own needs (because that would be selfish), they are driven by an unconscious belief that if they can just give enough, someone will recognize their sacrifice and come and love them for who they truly are and fulfill all their needs without them having to ask.  In Jung's archetypes, they are the Great Mother or Great Goddess, hoping to finally be recognized as such so they can finally flourish and come to life, like Sleeping Beauty, as Sandra Maitri points out.  Another stereotype is that of the Jewish mother, who, as Maitri says, would say something like, "Look at all I do for you.  And even though you never call me or think about me, here I am, sacrificing for you out of the goodness of my heart.  Don't worry about me, I'll be fine."

The exquisite Sandra Maitri, who is a Type Two herself, describes them thus:

Twos, then, manipulate through giving to get what they want.  They feed you, flatter you, play to you, cajole you, and as Naranjo used to say, unlike Sixes who lick boots, Two's- to use a vulgar but apt phrase- kiss ass.  Their biggest manipulation, however, is being helpful.  They will help you out with whatever you need- whether you were aware of the need or not- whether it's financial help, doing something for you, listening to your troubles, matchmaking, counselling, cajoling, supporting you and so on. 

In a loving relationship, a Two idealises need as the quintessential quality that lovers should have for each other, and they go to greath lengths to make themselves needed. 

They try to insinuate themselves and make themselves indispensable to someone they need in this way so that they will be needed in return. 

I work in a school, and I often have little Type Twos coming into my office often asking if there's anything I need help with.  The asking frequently turns to begging.  "Pleeeeeeeeeease can we help?  Pleeeeeeease is there anything, ANYTHING at all you might need help with?"

OK.  So I'm sure you get the idea.  But now I was going to write about a particular sub-type of the Two, the Self-Preservation Two, where you get all the emotional manipulation without much helping!  But I've run out of time.  I'm just going to have to say "to be continued."

 

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Between the Brain and the Mind: Knowing (or SOCK)

Fluorescent image, obtained using multiphoton excitation (MPE) microscopy, showing the brain neurons of a live mouse expressing GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein). Image courtesy of Carlos Portera-Cailliau, UCLA and Coherent.

We know that the brain's neural firing generates activity in the mind, but in the past 15 to 20 years, we've come to understand that the opposite is also true, that the mind can influence the structure of the brain. The discovery of neuroplasticity showed that instead of the previous scientifically-held belief that the brain stopped developing after the age of two, and thereafter only experienced the decline in the number of neurons in the brain, we are actually capable of activating and even creating new neurons into our senior years. (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). 

In this way, we see that the brain and the mind create each other.  Before embarking on how their functions correlate, it would be useful to distinguish their roles and capacities.

Obviously, the brain is the organ, and the mind is something generated out of the brain's processes, but a little more ethereal because aside from just knowing, we can know that we know- something unique to the human brain. Daniel Siegel defines the mind as the process that regulates the flow of energy and information. 

The mind comes up with concepts through SOCK- sensation, observation, conceptions- they all lead to knowing.  The energy and information that comes in through the S- Sensations is experienced on two levels: internal sensations (travelling from the visceral organs to the Pre-frontal cortex in the forehead region) and external sensations (travelling from the peripheral nervous system to the sensory area of the cortex at the top of the head). 

We have energy and information coming in through the O: Observation, as well.  Siegel describes observation as the key that unlocks the doors to sensation.  You're talking to a friend or relative and you're really present, and you notice something about them you hadn't noticed before- perhaps a smile line, or the worry they seem to be carrying, which leads to a sensation of tenderness arising from the chest area, or you feel tightness because your mirror neurons are picking up on their worries.  Observation keeps us from careening from moment to moment on automatic pilot.

There is energy and information coming in through the C: Conception.  Our mental concepts can keep us from direct sensation, sure, but mindfulness teachers remind us not to play favorites among what arises- sensations, observations, and concepts- are all to be treated like a welcome guest and allowed to pass through.  Conception can in fact integrate what we've picked up through sensations and observation into a deeper kind of wisdom than had we been operating out of the prison of ordinary living.

Finally, when each of these three streams-- sensation, observation, and conceptializing-- converge, they reach the headwaters of K: Knowing.  The S, O, and C allow us to Know the present moment, "a knowing paradoxically without words, without concepts, without sensations.  This knowing is a kind of subterranean stream, beneath this valley of the present moment, a formless Knowing" (Siegel, 2007).

Practicing mindfulness over a period of time has shown to have an effect on the structure of the brain- thickening affected areas of the brain, or creating new neuropathways- even new neurons.  The mind and the brain work hand-in hand to build and shape each other.

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Neuroscience of Social: Attunement

My mom read me some advice out of a magazine once, that if you're going to lose weight, you need to get yourself a full-length mirror.  What you can't see, you can't heal. 

Something similar was said at a music workshop; if you want to become a better musician, record and listen to yourself repeatedly.  What you can't hear, you can't improve.

This very same principle applies if you're lonely or feel awkward around people.  Learn how to observe yourself through mindfulness.  If you can't attune to yourself through your highs and lows, you're going to find it hard to find a lover or a group of friends who are willing or able to attune to you in compassion and love.

Attunement is the result of feeling connected to someone, like your emotional state has been "felt" by them, or as Dan Siegel defines it, "how one person... focuses attention on the internal world of another".  Since pre-civilization, our brains have come with a circuitry that allows us to understand others' minds. He describes it as being able to come up with maps of other peoples' attention and intentions.  As the most fundamental example, when parents are in the present moment with their children, "the child's internal world is seen with clarity by the parent, and the parent comes to resonate with the child's state.  This is attunement."  Attunement has as its foundation an approach of curiosity, openness, acceptance and love (COAL), which contributes to healthier intimate relationships, resilience and overall health for the child.

Lily Aldrige and Taylor Swift are best buds.

As adults, having friends (and a spouse) is important to our mental, emotional, and physical health, and has been scienticially shown to affect how long we live.  Single people die from every disease at a higher rate than married people, and several studies have shown that people with only a few social ties and memberships in groups are between two and four times more likely to die sooner than people with many social ties, all other factors taken into consideration.  Loneliness is even a factor in developping cardiovascular disease, Alzheimers, and cancer.  "It is deeply human to have a strong need to belong, to feel a part of something larger than oneself, to be in relationship with others in meaningful and supportive ways" (Kabat-Zinn, pg. 264)

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the most famous neuroscientists because he's the one who first paired mindfulness with neuroscience at UMass in the 1970's.  In recent times, a Stanford team took his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program that he designed and applied it to people with social anxiety disorder.  Those subjects showed improvements in anxiety and depression and an increase in self-esteem. Furthermore,

when asked to practice awareness of breathing in the scanner, the MBSR group also showed what the researchers describe as decreased negative emotion experience, as well as marked reduction of activity in the amygdala, and increased activity in brain regions involved in regulating where one's attention goes. 

When others reject us or skim over us, it makes it hard for us to look at ourselves.  Majorly embarassing yourself in front of a crush usually makes you want to peel your skin off and get a giant eraser to remove the episode from your brain.  That self-aversion is not being able to "see" yourself.  When you can sit with yourself through compassionate awareness in your neediness and pain, you're developping your "inner observer", which Siegel says is like becoming your own best friend.

So if you're wanting to develop better or more relationships, start by cultivating a mindfulness practice.  You need to see yourself in all your stressful, lovely, delightful, and varied states before you can be "seen" by others in all your states.  In other words, you need to love yourself before you can be loved by others.

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Developping the social instinct

I was saying yesterday how developping the social instinct, whether it's in the middle (second) position, or bottom (third) position is kind of hard if you've neglected it for so long that you don't have anyone to practice it with.  There really is an epidemic of aloneness in the Western world today.  People get left alone after a divorce, or after the children leave home for university, or maybe they just never got married in the first place.  For most people being alone is a terrible feeling, leads to depression, and has been shown to lead to earlier death.  People stay in marriages to avoid being alone, or they cling to their adult children by going to visit them as often as possible.  People avoid growing up so they can stay out late and party, and don't have to face being alone.  Like seriously very few people want to be alone forever.  Even Type Fives, with the archetypal battery that needs to be alone to recharge, want people to come knock on their doors every so often and engage them.

Now, some people just gravitate towards social situations, and that's their preferred way of human interaction.  They maybe make up a third of the population.  They find it easy to be around others, and it feels wonderful.  I'll eventually write about those guys, but this blog post is for those people who find it hard to be with others, either because they have trouble reading social cues at school or at the office, or they feel like they don't fit in at parties, they never know who to talk to at business events, or how to make networking feel natural, or it simply exhausts them too much to be in a group of people.

This image is from anotherjennifer.com

Let's first take a look at what Social people look and feel like from the outside.  To those with a Social blind spot, the energy of the group feels like everyone's all gently swinging in a hammock together, and they've all figured out the rhythm of the swaying back and forth, and they want it to keep going, so awkward pauses get filled with extra verbiage- maybe a platitude here and there- that may not mean a hell of a whole lot, but it keeps the rhythm going, and allows the other people to figure out a thread to pick up on and start on that. 

The point is the rhythm and the delicious and alive feeling of giving and taking.  There's a buzz in being able to connect, to support and feel supported, engage in a back-and-forth conversation that isn't necessarily going anywhere, but they're knitting something- and that's a big fuzzy sweater, and when the sweater's done, they're going to all get in the sweater and wear it together.  

This is actual art, so of course I'm going to say where I got it.  It's called "Group Sweater" by Sydney Chastain-Chapman, and who wouldn't want to get into this sweater?  Knowing where you fit into the group, and feeling connected to a bunch of friends is part of the deliciousness of the human experience.

Someone with Social as their lowest instinct is going to be like "What the fuck people.  What color of yarn are you using? [because Socials aren't knitting an actual sweater- it's a metaphor]  What pattern are you knitting?  Who's in charge here?  Whose lead do I follow?  Where am I supposed to sit?  Is anyone going to lend me a pair of needles?  Oh.  I was supposed to bring my own?  Dammit.  They're in my room.  Maybe I'll go knit the sweater from there.  See ya!"

For those with a Social blind spot, it's going to feel like they're a big old dog that just ruined the swaying of the hammock, and they just took their sharp energy and ruined everything, and now the Socials have to get the momentum going again. 

OK, so if this is you, there is help.

I was listening to a talk with Russ Hudson and Jessica Dibb the other day, and they were talking about intimacy, how you don't necessarily have to be around other people to experience it- you can be intimate with the night sky, or with the forest, Russ was saying.  Now intimacy is the domain of the Self-Preservation and Sexual instincts, and the area that Socials may struggle with.

So if that was true, I thought, the opposite must also be true- that you don't necessarily have to be around others to develop your social instinct.  I thought that was an interesting idea, and it's something you can breathe into at home or at work as you notice your connection to the potted plant and the connection to the kitchen sink and the walls on either side of you as you go up the stairs.  Just noticing the energy of what's physically around you, and how it feels to be amongst the objects in your environment is going to wake you up to a different energy.

Dr. Dan Siegel provides another lens.  He says that our brains were initially wired to be social, and we can improve our social connections just by being social with ourselves.  That may sound weird but it's actually the neurobiological starting point for the practice of mindfulness where we become our own observer.

But unfortunately, I now have to say "To be continued..." because it's getting late, but I will talk about the neurobiology of Social tomorrow.

 

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