What I learned from a second grader

Pretty deadly

On a flight back from a sisters visit in the Chicago area, I sat next to a charming second grade boy. Despite the fact the battery on his game tablet needed recharging, he sat quietly with his thoughts, a fidget spinner, and looking out the window throughout three hours of a four hour flight. Isaiah—yes, that was his name with brothers Elijah and Ezekiel—was getting a bit restless, and I engaged him in conversation to discover his fascination with carnivorous plants. He had a Pitcher Plant and a Venus Flytrap, both familiar. The Venus flytrap died he reported, because he and his dad stuck their fingers in it too many times.   He went on to describe his Sundews, which I had never heard of nor knew how to spell. He said they have sticky drops, which attract insects and entrap them. Then their petals fold to digest their prey. Online I Iearned that insects may provide nutrients lacking in the soil in which these beautiful plants grow.

I was totally charmed and heartened. Maybe this young boy, who was content imagining,  will grow to be a man who figures out a way for this planet to survive climate change.



This blew me away.

OK, I admit it. I am fascinated with the way the brain works. Even when I read about all of the fascinating discoveries about space, I am in awe of human’s ability to discover such facts from millions of miles away.

Get to the point of this post, Eloise, you’re thinking. So before your eyes glaze over, look at the pairs of pictures above. In particular, I thought the first pair were photos of the same person. Instead, the second is constructed from the neural signals detected when macaque monkeys observed the human faces.

After years of research Caltech biologists, Le Chang and Doris Y. Tsao,  deciphered the code of how faces are recognized. Their discovery could mean a new approach to artificial vision and is considered a huge achievement.

The only structural difference that I can discern is a slight difference in the width of the faces. I guess this article doubly fascinates me as it is about how the brain figures out itself. Literally mind boggling.


Do Women Scientists Have All The Brains?

An elephant never forgets

A few months ago I was fascinated by a 90-year-old neuroscientist who carried a brain around in a flowered hat box. Marian Diamond had made tremendous strides in research of how the brain works and had first access to Einstein’s brain.

Now I’ve read about a 98-year-old woman still doing research on the brain with a specialty in human memory. (It’s hard to communicate with elephants.) She is best known for discovering the seat of memory in the brain. She had access to a victim of epilepsy involved in a famous case where brain surgery cured the man of frequent seizures but destroyed his ability to form new memories of people and events. Her study of the man led her to dispute the notion that memory is diffused throughout the brain and instead resides in the hippocampus. The fact the man could still learn motor skills led to the discovery that the two types of memory are independent. The term “muscle memory” is not just a glib description of remembering how to ride a bike but reflects the fact that a separate part of the brain is in charge.(Well, no, the memory is not in the muscle, but it may as well be as we don’t sense our brains dictating our physical steps.)

While most of Dr. Milner’s research involved studying people who suffered brain injuries, she also observed MRIs while people solved problems to study how the right and left halves of our brain work together to form memories..

Unlike Marian Diamond, Brenda Milner is still working—at McGill University in Montreal. She says it’s because she’s still nosy, as she describes her intellectual curiosity. Her only concession to her age is that she no longer accepts PhD students since they can take  up to five years to complete their work, and at 98, well . . .

Like Dr. Diamond, Dr. Milner is criticized for not taking time for social activism on behalf of women. I think their significant success makes them wonderful role models. That’s so huge, they can be forgiven for not leading the recent Women’s March.



Source: NYTimes Article on Dr. Milner

Unusual Fairy Tale

Want a fun read and help kids in protective child service programs? Most of you know, I’m in a second career as an author. You may not know that I volunteered as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for ten years in Child Protective Services. I was half big sister and half advisor to the court. It was an amazing experience, but let me get to the point. I noticed a lack of literature for children taken from their homes and wrote a fairy tale called The Foster Princess. I’ve decided to publish it as an e-book and it will be released on May 20th.  All profits will be distributed to CASA programs.  Adults are likely to enjoy the story as children and as such is a great read-aloud.

It can be purchased at the early bird price of $1.99. at the following distributors.
On May 20th for Kindle: https://www.smashwords.com/books/search?query=The+Foster+Princess 

Available now for preorder for other ereaders:
Thanks for considering,


Oddities and Endities

Natural Kauai

Plants are social creatures like us and hang out with their favorites. In so doing, they fare better and look better. I’ve always wondered why collections of weeds in the wild look pleasingly natural, but  wild grass growing up through the rosemary on the downslope of our property looks messy. As if we didn’t need to know enough already for attractive landscaping: soil type, drought tolerance, deer resistance, longevity, etc. Now we need to check plants’ facebook pages for their friends.

Someone  accidentally discovered caterpillars that eat plastic. Wax worms chewed their way out of a seal-a-meal bag. Tests revealed they digested the plastic, rather than just used their little teeth as a tool. It’s hoped their digestive enzymes can be replicated. wouldn’t  that be great if they could mass-produce the juices and spray that garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean?.

Speaking of plastic, the UK is experimenting with using recycled plastic for road surfaces. The manufacturer claims it’s cheaper and longer lasting as well as a green alternative.


Did you know there were glow-in-the-dark mushrooms? The glow comes from the same chemicals fireflies employ, but the mushroom glow is constant. They are sprinkled all over the globe including Pisgah National Forest, but not well-known. I guess one doesn’t hike in forests at night. They are of special interest to me as my next book involves an undersea setting where the denizens can bioluminesce.

Ages ago, doctors who made frequent house calls could  tell the nature of an illness by the smell in the house. Dog noses are employed to detect cancer or an epileptic on the verge of a seizure. Now, a nosey machine  is on the horizon to help diagnose illness.

A small study suggests that exercising before breakfast may be good for reducing fat cells. The odd thing is that exercise after eating consumes more calories, but the study suggests that with no calories to burn, the body turning to the fat cells is of benefit.

Unlike bacteria, viruses are not living creatures. I think I envisioned both as up-to-no-good little things crawling around in my body, but a virus is a bit of genetic code, which interferes with a cell’s genetic instructions and replicates. It’s like inerting an infinite loop into a software program. Step A.Copy me. Step B. Go to Step A.

The medical profession appears to be recognizing the value of chiropractic for bad backs. Studies recognize the alleviation of pain, which is critical as the body naturally heals itself. The only odd thing to me is what took them so long.

For more information click the first sentences.





This Blog May Bug You.

If you, like me, thought human beings were the first farmers, you would be wrong. Ants began farming 55 to 60 million years ago while the origins of human farmers date at the earliest 11,500 BC. While farmer ants have a common farmer ancestor, human farming occurred separately on different parts of the globe at different times with the Chinese first in their domestication of rice.

Ant brains no larger than pinpoints figured out how to grow fungi in climate-controlled underground chambers. If you had X-ray vision, you’d see great webs of chambers under forest floors. Ants weed, water, and keep harmful bacteria away from their crops. Hmm, I wonder how much they charge per hour.

The ants ancestral farmers originated in the rain forest of South America, but 30 million years ago a branch of ants diverged and carried their craft to drier climates. The primary researcher of the evolution of these ants, Dr. Ted Schultzspeculates, “With enough time, the dry climate created ideal conditions for the more complex ant farmers to domesticate the fungus, controlling temperature by digging deeper chambers, or maintaining humidity by bringing in water from fruits, plants or morning dew.” Wow!

Then, there are the bees. They originated intelligent twerking. Not only do they communicate through waggle dancing, they can teach each other to use tools. Biologist Olli J. Loukola2  used a plastic model of a bee to demonstrate that moving a ball to the center of a platform resulted in a reward of a sugary treat. It didn’t take long before a host of bees was pulling strings—literally—for dessert. See video in Sources. The researchers also used bees’ ability to detect magnetic fields to guide bees to pull the ball, but the fake-bee teacher worked best.

Bees also invented crowdsourcing decision-making.  When a swarm of bees needs a new colony, a few hundred scouts will zoom off in different directions to look for potential locations. Then, they twerk to communicate information about found sites to the swarm. This decision-making practice inspired Louis Rosenberg, who runs a Silicon Valley startup called Unanimous AI, to build a tool to support human decision-making by crowdsourcing opinions online. Hundreds of participants respond to a question all at once, pooling their opinions into a single answer. He cites examples of better predictions than polls. He also talks about situations where a swarm of human doctors may make better decisions than artificial intelligence software.

If only humans could work together as well as bees, our planet would be a better place.

  1. Ted Schultz is an entomologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
  2. Olli J. . Loukola is at Queen Mary University of London

Sources:  NYTimes article on Ant Farming
Origins of human agriculture
Bees can teach each other to use tools.
Watch the bees; they’re fun
Emulating bees can boost human decision-making.

Take advantage of your irrational mind!

What was she thinking?
By National Photo Company Library of Congress npcc.06771

We may think we are rational, but behavioral science says otherwise. We are strongly influenced by emotions, identity, and our social environment. A member of the medical profession confesses to paying more attention to drugs and practices his colleagues prescribe than to well researched medical literature.1

Our choices even depend on how options are presented to us. You are about to undergo elective surgery. You are told a) you have an 80% chance of successful surgery and gaining a pain free life or b) you have a 20% chance of no change, becoming worse off, or even death. The first description makes most people feel good about going forward while the second gives pause.

Perhaps the difference is a consequence of the curious fact of behavioral science: that we are more motivated to stave off a loss than we are to make an equivalent gain. Studies show that people feel twice as bad at losing $100 as winning $100 feels good. Professional golfers are more likely to make a putt to avoid a bogie than they are to make a birdie.

When given a choice, people are overwhelmingly likely to stick with default options. This is hugely important to governance for a better society. In countries where you are an assumed organ donor unless you opt out, over 90% are organ donors compared to 4% to 27% in opt-in countries. In California, a program designed to promote use of renewable energy by allowing communities to purchase electricity for their citizens was specifically designed to be opt-out. As an environmental activist I fought a bill designed to kill the program by changing it to opt-in.

I recognize myself in the discovery that people are less likely to buy if there are dozens of options rather than a few.  I’ve walked into a department store and been overwhelmed by too much merchandise. It took years to buy my first computer. When I did, I ordered the same system as a techie friend.

People prefer instant gratification even when the rewards are greater for waiting. One free coffee now or two free coffees later?

OK, how can we use this information to better lives? Individually, we can avoid succumbing to our emotional brain and promise to pay a friend if we don’t keep a resolution. As parents we can influence our children’s behavior. Our institutions can employ positive default practices. The motivating article for this blog discusses employing paying patients for healthy behavior with the proviso of returning  the money for non-compliance. I was surprised by how many patients fail to take their meds (with 125,000 resultant annual deaths) , not surprised at the difficult of losing weight, exercising, and quitting smoking.


  1. Dr. Dhruv Khullar, author of article below.

How  Behavioral Science can lead to better health care