Personal blog of Dr Alex Mendelsohn

Month: September 2021

The one neuron model

The article discusses the bottom-up approach of physics and how it can be applied to mental health conditions. Alex presents a model of the brain as a single neuron to explain anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. According to the model, anxiety is an increase in the firing frequency of the neuron, depression is a slowing of the ticking clock, and bipolar disorder is a quickening of the clock followed by a decrease to normal, then speeding back up again. Alex believes that this model may be a fundamental first step in understanding mental health conditions. He also criticizes the insufficient models used to describe mental health conditions in generalizations.

As I will likely parrot in most of the things I write, physicists think ‘bottom up’. That is, to find some fundamental equation that underlies the whole of whatever it is describing, even if it itself does not give a very accurate portrayal of reality. Think of those classical problems in school physics lessons of a 2D ball being launched by some force at a specific angle. I’m sure some of you have nightmares after the mere mention of SUVAT equations (apologies).

But these Newtonian equations describe the fundamental physics of classical objects travelling along a trajectory really well. To then accurately describe the forces (wind resistance, spin, friction etc.) acting on a 3D real-life ball flying through the air, terms and perturbations are added to the fundamental equations. Importantly, however, terms are never taken away.

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Why don’t we teach how to tell a bad source from a good one?

There are many guides out there on how to cite sources in your writing (e.g. scribbr, citethisforme and OCR) but relatively few on how to actually find these sources. I write about how this underutilised skill could be taught and how it could help society sort through the chaos that is internet literature.   

This is an interesting article about the lack of guidance on how to find reliable sources and distinguish them from bad ones, particularly in the context of academic writing. Alex shares their personal experience of struggling to find and cite sources for their physics dissertation and how they eventually learned the necessary skills during their PhD. He wonders why this critical skill is not taught more widely and proposes that it should be taught from the very beginning of a degree program.

Finally. After years of waiting, I would be heading to university to study physics. I was going to consume knowledge and understanding (pretty poorly at first) from realms of physics most fear 1. Subjects like quantum mechanics, astrophysics, magnetism, thermodynamics and special relativity. My only previous encounter of these topics was from watching Brian Cox waffle on T.V. while staring into the middle distance and ‘reading’2 books deemed a bit too much for the school curriculum3.

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Confessions of a passionate researcher

Alex recounts his disappointment and confusion at the lack of passion and engagement he witnessed during talks at his first scientific conference as a PhD student. He questions why researchers feel the need to make their presentations so clear and devoid of emotion that they become boring and unengaging. He suggests that including a complex narrative could make scientific communication more interesting and suspenseful without sacrificing clarity, particularly when presenting to a general audience. Alex also notes that the culture of obsessive clarity in scientific communication distances researchers from the public and reinforces negative stereotypes about scientists. He argues that passion and character are essential to good science and that researchers should not be afraid to include them in their presentations.

I was just about to attend my first conference as a 1st year PhD student. Finally, after years of waiting, I would get to see the hum of activity of a scientific conference. I was excited to be a part of the deep conversations about each other’s work, the exchanging of ideas, maybe even possible future collaborations. But most of all, I was looking forward to the talks. The life’s work of eminent scientists on a stage, the platform for scientists to show the fruits of their gruelling labour. I was expecting passion, engagement, life. I was expecting to get everything science had meant to me since I was a wee nipper.

I got fear. I got dull, monotone dregs of character. There were a couple of sparks amidst the darkness, but they remained unnoticed to most – without even a nugatory raise of an eyebrow.

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The depressed honey bee

This blog post discusses how the emotions of desire and avoidance dictate the world of a honey bee. Flowers and predators are the only things that stand out to a honey bee, and their world is mostly in greyscale. A depressed honey bee would lose the ability to see colour and would remain in the hive because there would be nothing to fly away to. An anxious honey bee, on the other hand, would see the entire world as red, including flowers, and would be paralyzed by the overwhelming redness. Alex suggests that human emotions are similar to those of a honey bee, with depression and anxiety being complicated conditions that can make the world seem gray or filled with dark red

I imagine the honey bee’s world is dictated by two emotions: desire and avoidance. When a honey bee sees a flower off in the distance, it has a strong desire to fly towards it, to rid it of its nectar. A small reward circuit lights up in its little mind whenever it comes across a flower. Similarly, whenever a honey bee sees a predator, like a bear, spider or bird an avoidance circuit lights up (or in dire situations an attack circuit).

To a honey bee, it is like their world is in greyscale, with only the flowers in green and predators in red standing proudly out against the background. A honey bee does not care about the bright blue sky, or a trickling waterfall, or a lush field of grass. Neither does it care about the mundane, like roads, bricks or trees. To a honey bee, it is as if these things don’t exist. While it sees them, knows they are there, it pays these phenomena absolutely no attention. The honey bee’s world is almost entirely determined by the green flowers and red predators.

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The similarity between needing to pee and mental illness

Alex describes their experience of living with mental illness and the difficulty they face in explaining their feelings to healthcare professionals. They highlight the constant feeling of “okayness” that healthy individuals have, which is absent in those with severe mental illness. Alex compares their struggle to describe their experience to the feeling of needing to pee but not being able to find a toilet. They describe the similarity between the urge to hold on and the temptation to give in to the suffering in both situations. The article ends by emphasizing the difference between the inevitability of relief when one needs to pee and the absence of relief for those living with severe mental illness.

I had just left an rTMS session a little frustrated. The nurses ask how I have been to report back to the doctor, and I always find it difficult to describe. Not because there is some doubt as to what I am feeling (even if I do not understand why I am feeling it) nor because I do not have the language to describe it. I have realised after years of living with mental illness that my words become misinterpreted. I have felt consistently that every doctor and psychiatrist I have had so far has thought I am at least 3x better than I actually am. I think those who have never lived with a severe mental illness don’t realise that for the entirety of their lives they have this background feeling of ‘you are safe enough right now’ running through their heads – sometimes even through deep feelings of grief, sadness, anger and worry. This background ‘okayness’ may only go away for a moment, a day, a month at most (but usually remains in some form even if it doesn’t feel like it). But to the healthy-minded it always comes back. There is eventual relief. This does not happen with the mentally ill.

I was trying to describe to the nurse how a little bit of this ‘okayness’ had started to come back after I started lithium treatment. I said “the days are easier, time goes by faster than it did before”. After some more discussion, the nurse says “so time used to drag and now it is not?”. Time being a drag is like boredom. What I was experiencing was most definitely not boredom. But no matter how hard I thought (thinking is very hard nowadays) I couldn’t think of a way to explain what I was feeling in a way that the nurses could understand. How do you tell someone that under specific circumstances, the feeling they have in the back of their minds they don’t even realise is there, can go away?

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