Slut Genes, Rats, 16th Notes, and Writing: Neuron Culture’s November Hits

Neuron Culture’s hits in November

Enough With the ‘Slut Gene’ Already: Behaviors Ain’t Traits

By failing to distinguish traits from behaviors, we court confusion over how evolution works — and how underlying traits can mix with experience or other traits to lead to a huge variety of behavior. Yet countless stories about behavioral genetics make just this mistake.

“It’s Just a F**king Little 16th Note. But You Have to Play It.” This carried over from October to be #3 in November.

“You’re skipping through that first D. I know it’s just a fucking little sixteenth note, but you have to play the whole thing. I don’t even mean the time. You’re actually giving it enough time. But you’re playing over it instead of through it. You have to play right through the center of it. It’s a leading note, but it’s not just a step into the room. It is the room, and you have to put us there. Play it. Play through every single note in the piece.”

The Only Time Gabriel Garcia Marquez Saw Ernest Hemingway

Somehow this completes a circle: Hemingway, Garcia commenting on Hemingway’s bullfighter Spanish, and the Colombian wine steward, beaming, bringing me the news of Garcia’s own triumph.

Rats Shall Follow Ye, and Ye Shall Eat Them

Rats seem to be a pest that somehow would have gone before us, or invaded from afar; it seems like something inflicted upon us. Yet they appear to have followed us much as jet-trail trails jet.

How Charles Darwin Seduced Asa Gray

As [Gray] put it to Joseph Hooker in 1858, “[I] sympathize more with & estimate higher the slow induction that leads step by step to sound conclusions so far as they go, than the bolder flights of the genius which so often leads the possessor to mount three pairs of steps only to jump out of the garret window.”

The idea that species were God’s “direct handiwork” was starting to feel like a jump out the window.

Vid at the top: Roots of Breakdance (mashup with “It’s Like That” by Run DMC). Has nothing to do with what I ran this month. Just one of my favorite things on the intertoobz, ever.

Strange Mind, Stranger Brain: The Octopus

Fifi, a giant Pacific octopus at the Seattle Aquarium. By Laszlo Photo, via flickr.

Deep Intellect, a Sy Montgomery piece at Orion, is one of the best things I’ve read in a while:

The moment the lid was off, we reached for each other. She had already oozed from the far corner of her lair, where she had been hiding, to the top of the tank to investigate her visitor. Her eight arms boiled up, twisting, slippery, to meet mine. I plunged both my arms elbow deep into the fifty-seven-degree water. Athena’s melon-sized head bobbed to the surface. Her left eye (octopuses have one dominant eye like humans have a dominant hand) swiveled in its socket to meet mine. “She’s looking at you,” Dowd said.

As we gazed into each other’s eyes, Athena encircled my arms with hers, latching on with first dozens, then hundreds of her sensitive, dexterous suckers. Each arm has more than two hundred of them. The famous naturalist and explorer William Beebe found the touch of the octopus repulsive. “I have always a struggle before I can make my hands do their duty and seize a tentacle,” he confessed. But to me, Athena’s suckers felt like an alien’s kiss—at once a probe and a caress. Although an octopus can taste with all of its skin, in the suckers both taste and touch are exquisitely developed. Athena was tasting me and feeling me at once, knowing my skin, and possibly the blood and bone beneath, in a way I could never fatho,.

This piece is a tour de force, showing the intelligence, close observation and engagement, sensual detail, and fine tuned sensibility that make Montgomery one of our best, albeit most overlooked, science writers. She evokes well the animal’s sheer physical weirdness. But her more serious obsession is with the animal’s singular mind and behavior.

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Rats Shall Follow Ye, and Ye Shall Eat Them

The web’s delights abound and a-blend — rats among them. Last night I bumped into an 11-year-old Peter Hessler story about eating rats in Asia. (“‘Do you want a big rat or a small rat?’ the waitress asked.”) Fresh on the tasty tail of Hessler’s memorable meal comes Razib Khan, cribbing from a new paper on PLoS One, to inform me that rats followed us to Asia — and pretty much everywhere else we spread around the globe over the last 100,000 years or so:

[I[t looks like separate and distinction lineages of R. rattus piggybacked on the expansion of humans….

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The Only Time Gabriel Garcia Marquez Saw Ernest Hemingway

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 30 years ago, on seeing Hemingway 32 years earlier in Paris:

For a fraction of a second, as always seemed to be the case, I found myself divided between my two competing roles. I didn’t know whether to ask him for an interview or cross the avenue to express my unqualified admiration for him. But with either proposition, I faced the same great inconvenience. At the time, I spoke the same rudimentary English that I still speak now, and I wasn’t very sure about his bullfighter’s Spanish. And so I didn’t do either of the things that could have spoiled that moment, but instead cupped both hands over my mouth and, like Tarzan in the jungle, yelled from one sidewalk to the other: ”Maaaeeestro!” Ernest Hemingway understood that there could be no other master amid the multitude of students, and he turned, raised his hand and shouted to me in Castillian in a very childish voice, ”Adiooos, amigo!” It was the only time I saw him.

At the time, I was a 28-year-old newspaperman with a published novel and a literary prize in Colombia, but I was adrift and without direction in Paris. My great masters were the two North American novelists who seemed to have the least in common. I had read everything they had published until then, but not as complementary reading – rather, just the opposite, as two distinct and almost mutually exclusive forms of conceiving of literature. One of them was William Faulkner, whom I had never laid eyes on and whom I could only imagine as the farmer in shirtsleeves scratching his arm beside two little white dogs in the celebrated portrait of him taken by Cartier-Bresson. The other was the ephemeral man who had just said goodbye to me from across the street, leaving me with the impression that something had happened in my life, and had happened for all time.

Garcia Marquez wrote this, for the NY Times, 28 years after Hemingway won the Nobel and about a year before he himself won it. His essay, much like his best works, just keeps flowering:

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Rebecca Skloot on Writing HeLa, Structure, & Her Own Younger Self

When I first read Rebecca Skloot’s’ The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks last February, I, like millions of others who have read it, found myself enthralled with and amazed at the remarkable story that Skloot had collected and told. As a writer, I found myself intensely curious about two things: how Skloot decided on the book’s remarkably effective structure; and the tension between the mature writer who wrote the book and a much more naïve and overmatched writer, who was of course the same person, who appeared in the book collecting the very information that the mature writer eventually forged into a gleaming work.

For 18 months I’ve waited for an opportunity to ask Skloot about these things. I finally got a chance a couple of weeks ago, when she and I spent some 90 minutes discussing those and other questions about the book. The best of that conversation is now online at The Open Notebook, the site that interviews science writers about how they build notable stories. Skloot reveals much about structure and her own presence in the book — and other bits that will give succor to fellow writers. For instance:

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Enough With the ‘Slut Gene’ Already: Behaviors Ain’t Traits

Girls Gone Curious

Earlier this week, WBUR’s Here and Now ran a taped interview with me about “Beautiful Brains,” my recent National Geographic article on teen brain and behavior. (You can listen to the interview here.) It’s only six minutes long, but nicely edited to highlight, from a high-altitude evolutionary point of view, what distinguishes adolescence, when we peak in our pursuits of risk, novelty, and same-age peers even as our brains consolidate gains while remaining especially plastic. The adolescent brain, as researcher Jay Giedd likes to say, is not a defective adult brain, but a nicely tuned teen brain. The show also squeezes in some Shakespeare, some fast driving, and a bit of Steve Jobs. Not bad for six minutes.

A couple of the write-ups about the show, however, carry headlines that make a mistake too often made about behavioral genetics:

Reckless Teen Behavior May Be Evolutionary Advantage | Here & Now

Know a risky teenager? Evolutionarily speaking, that’s good behavior | PRI.ORG

I don’t want to beat up too badly on these press releases; doubtless they were written quickly, and in any case the headlines are the worst of it. But perhaps because they were written quickly, they offer a teachable moment by embedding a common misconception. They mistake behaviors for traits.

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Alison Bass, Your Facts on Helen Mayberg Are Wrong, Wrong, and Wrong

31 Aug 2013: The public memo below, asking jouranlist Alison Bass to correct serious errors she published in a November 2010 post at her site, was originally published at my Posterous site in late 2010, soon after her post. I wrote it because a) Bass had failed to correct her original post with the false accusations, despite a comment I lodged there making it clear she had erred and b) she wrote another post about Mayberg in which she referred back to her erroneous post.  in  I wrote it in 2011 as a comment responding to Bass’s post, but despite several attempts I could not get it through her comment system. Later, in another, May 2011 post full of sloppy allegations, Bass accused me of “cleaning up” Mayberg’s Wikipedia page — an extremely serious charge. She later retracted that accusation —  but also erased the comment in which I had pointed it out, which rather fogs the record. A PDF of a screenshot of that erased corrective comment, made before Bass erased it, is here. It makes more clear how serious a mistake she made, and how sloppy she was willing to be to accuse both Mayberg and me of unethical behavior.
I have reposted this 31 Aug 2013, but dated November 11, 2011 (its original pub date), when I realized that because Posterous ceased operation in 2013, this correction was no longer publicly available, and, alas, people are still citing Bass’s post as reasons not to trust Mayberg’s work (or me). (See, for instance, my comment here correcting John Horgan’s repetition of Bass’s charges.)  As of today, Bass has never responded to my requests for correction.
Extra note: In a few places here, I’ve changed copy to replace phrases that cited links that no longer exist. I’ve also made a few small changes to correct typos or grammatical mistakes. The more substantial such changes appear as strikethroughs for deletions, underlines for replacement copy.

An appeal to Alison Bass:

Alison, when I attempted to correct your errors before, I was less than brutally frank, was in fact rather generous, methinks, because I wanted to leave you a graceful way to admit error. But I see you have doubled down. I’d as soon put this behind us. But it’s important to correct the record, which you have filled with false and easily falsifiable information.

So let me say more directly: In virtually everything you accuse Mayberg of in both your May 2011 post and your earlier, November 2010 post, you are wrong. You are wrong in your facts. You are wrong in your assessment of Helen Mayberg’s priorities,  motives, and character. And you are wrong, and seem to insist on continuing to be wrong even when presented with evidence that would have allowed you to correct your error.

Let’s take your points one at a time.

Mayberg’s alleged failure to disclose data.

You repeatedly assert, in both your posts, that in her talk about her work at the National Association of Science Writers meeting in November, 2010, Mayberg did not report the data on the 20 patients in her Toronto study. This is false. Mayberg DID report the data on the Toronto study. She did not give the data on a separate Atlanta study, because that Emory/Atlanta study is still unpublished. But she did report the data on the Toronto patients, and I told you that the day after you published your first post soon after the conference — but you left the original accusation standing and keep repeating that she did not report it.

Again, I feel a bit stupid repeating this correction, but do so because saying it only once before apparently didn’t work: Mayberg showed the data you say she didn’t show. She showed a slide with the data, and she talked in specifics about the patients’ outcomes as well. She noted improvement in 60% of the patients and full remission in 35%.

Is that data encouraging or otherwise significant?

You think not, and in fact you imply that Mayberg is making a big deal out of unimpressive data that is “not encouraging.” You say you’re not impressed with 35% full remission in patients who were almost inconceivably depressed. That’s your prerogative.

But readers should understand what response and remission means in this group of 20 patients she treated in her pilot study. Mayberg related all of this at her talk. As she said then, full remission, by the most common depression standard, means reducing symptoms enough that a patient won’t score as depressed in the Hamilton Depression Scale.

The very top score possible in the Hamilton scale is 38. To be not depressed or in remission, you need to score under 8.

Here’s the scale:

0-7 = Normal

8-13 = Mild Depression

14-18 = Moderate Depression

19-22 = Severe Depression

≥ 23 = Very Severe Depression

Most of us have never seen people with scores over 20, for those people rarely get out and about. Their lives are deeply, intensely miserable. They were catastrophically, almost catatonically depressed.

The average score of the patients in Mayberg’s Toronto trial was 25. (If I remember correctly, all scored over 20.) All had been severely depressed for years despite multiple drug treatments, CBT, and, for 17 of them, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). None  — none — had ever responded significantly or lastingly to any other treatment, including (for 17 of the 20) ECT.

This was by design. Mayberg didn’t want to do an experimental treatment on people who had not exhausted every possible remedy. But this meant her patients for this pilot study were people for whom nothing worked, and who remained horrifically depressed, in an especially excruciating sort of hell. To be scored as cured — to reach remission — these deeply sick patients had to be brought to a Hamilton score below 8. Their depression scores had to be cut, in other words, by some 65%.

To Mayberg’s experimental treatment, as you note, 60% had significant response, and 35% fully remitted. The average Hamilton score dropped from 25 to 15 — even though about a third didn’t quality as responders, because their scores didn’t drop more than 15%. (Mayberg is trying to figure out why those didn’t respond; she wants to either figure out how to make them well or identify why this procedure can’t make them well, if that’s the case, so she won’t needlessly use an intrusive treatment on people who won’t respond.)

Meanwhile, 35% of these patients achieved full remission. That is, they went from the most excruciating, debilitating depression to normal. Most of the other 25% who did respond went into the moderate or mild range — the low teens, and some the upper single digits, of the Hamilton scale. They were still depressed. But they again had lives.

You assert that this is not impressive. The patients thought it was. It is also scientifically significant: Even as you throw stones at delusory targets, Mayberg’s work is helping to displace the neurochemical model of depression that has led to the egregious overuse of largely ineffective antidepressant drugs that you and I have both rightly lamented.

We can argue, of course, over whether 60% response and 35% remission in the 20 Emory patients is “encouraging.” But we should not be arguing over whether Mayberg disclosed that information at the talk. She reported it quite explicitly, and it’s in the published literature, as I told you before in comments attempting to correct your errors at the previous post, even providing the  links (paper; pdf). She published the Toronto data and talked explicitly of it at NASW, where she also showed a slide of it. Yet you keep saying she’s hiding it and ask why she didn’t tell us about it at the talk.

Did Mayberg disclose her industry ties?

You say she didn’t. She did. She noted she received equipment donations and that she had consulted for ANS/St. Jude Medical. She showed this information in a slide during the talk, and at my request today sent the slide to me today. Here is exactly what it says:


Off-label usage: DBS electrodes/pulse generators manufacturers: Medtronics, St. Jude Medical

Patent: US2005/0033379A1 (co-inventor Andres Lozano) issued March 2008, SJM assignee. Licensed to ANS/St. Jude Medical 2003

Consultant: St. Jude Medical (Neuromodulation Division)

This was the second slide of the talk (after the title slide). She drew attention to it by saying she wanted to make some disclosures. The information shown above was the slide’s only content. The letters were cleanly laid out and plenty big enough to read, and she left it up there long enough for anyone interested — as you claim to have been — to read it.

It’s not terribly ambiguous. Many of these relevant interests were also listed on later slides that described the results of individual studies. I myself do not recall exactly what she said out loud about any consultancy with ANS, and there’s no video posted, so I can’t check. But I do remember her drawing attention to her relationships, and, more to the point, the consultancy was plainly and explicitly listed on the slide.

Given your intense interest in her disclosures, I don’t understand how you missed these disclosures. But you did. Your repeated accusation that she failed to disclose her consultancy is just plain wrong. You complain that you thought St. Jude Medical was a hospital, and you imply that your confusion arose from some intention of Mayberg’s to deceive. Yet Mayberg disclosed both ANS and St Jude Medical as partners in the research (see slide contents above), and she identified ANS as a device maker and as a consultancy client. St Jude Medical is the company that bought ANS. So in separately identifying ANS and St Jude Medical, Mayberg effectively twice named the entity in question, which is, and has been since 2005, ANS/St. Jude Medical, the instrument maker. That you mistook one of those names as that of a hospital named St. Jude Medical Center— a hospital that apparently has a neuromodulation division, at least in your read of the slide— does not mean Mayberg was trying to mislead you. It means you made a mistake. If Mayberg had been wanting to mislead you, she would not have listed ANS; she would not have opened her talk with a slide and comments about disclosures; and she would not have listed those relationships on it.

You’re making a tangle of a simple truth here. Mayberg made no attempt to hide these relationships; she in fact offered an explicit right-up-front disclosure of them in her second slide; and she simply did not make the failures to disclose you accuse her of. Your memory and impression, as well as your account and accusations, directly contradict the reality that was before you and several hundred others that day.

“History of failure to disclose…”  

Here you are almost half-right but actually, alas, again completely wrong. When the Nemeroff et al VNS paper you refer to above was published in 2006, the paper did indeed fail to disclose conflicts of interest.

However, your accusation that Mayberg failed to disclose is wrong. She did disclose. She and the other authors all disclosed their interests (they were paid for their time in a working group that did the review that was published), as was requested by a journal editor. But for some reason — and whatever it was, it was not under Mayberg’s control — the journal did not publish that disclosure paragraph in the print issue or the original web version. Later the journal published a corrected version with proper disclosures online.

This is obviously not ideal. But again, the failure was the journal’s, not Mayberg’s. She disclosed; the journal didn’t. The journal’s failure became a big deal because the lead author, Howard Charles Nemeroff, who was head of Emory psychiatry at the time (and thus Mayberg’s new boss; she had recently moved to Emory from Toronto), was the journal’s top editor and had been involved in other failures to disclose. Nemeroff indeed did have a history of failure to disclose. And the failure on this paper was not, as your post above seems to suggest, the sole reason he lost the chairmanship. It was just the final straw.

Mayberg, however, disclosed her interest — but the journal didn’t print them. Thus you err in saying she failed to disclose. I can understand you concluding that she didn’t disclose, since no disclosure was originally printed. But the fact remains that you are wrong in saying she did not. This is not a trivial distinction, since you use this one failure to disclose to claim she had “a history of failure to disclose.”

Altogether, of course, the VNS paper was problematic, for several reasons: among them, because of the failure to disclose; because the company’s input created conflicts; and because the first draft was reportedly written, either largely or in part, by a ghostwriter, who was thanked in the acknowledgments but not listed as an author. (A Cyberonics scientist also took part but was listed as an author.) Such ghostwriting is a practice that many, including me, find questionable.

So what are we to make of Mayberg’s participation in this review and her co-authorship of this paper? It’s obviously not her finest moment. But to know what to make of it, we must ask whether that episode appears to be part of a pattern of behavior and an acceptance of serious conflicts of interest and failures to disclose, or whether it seems to be an aberration that she learned from. I would argue the latter. Mayberg’s conduct before and since then suggests that was the case. She does not court or accept big lucrative relationships or sponsorships with device makers — even though some of those makers would very, very much like to have such relationships with her. She assiduously avoids the sort of hype and commercialization that is far too common in the medical device industry. She takes pains to describe her procedure as experimental, a pilot, and in need of double-blinded trials. She always notes that it’s appropriate for only a tiny portion of the depressed population. And I don’t believe you’ll find her name on any more ghostwritten papers. She saw the ugly, and she recoiled.

Aside from that stands another, more proximate problem in your post of May 2011: You have used that one failure to disclose, which was the journal’s failure, rather than Mayberg’s, along with other failures-to-disclouse of which you falsely her (at the NASW talk), to assert in your very headline that Mayberg has a “history of failures to disclose conflicts of interest.” As I just explained, your VNS example is flawed, false, and erroneous — she didn’t fail, the journal did. And your NASW example is demonstrably, completely wrong. So where is the rest of this history?

Getting it wrong

Getting the facts wrong is not good, but, well, it happens. The bigger problem in all this is that you  so eagerly harness these errors — and so far refuse to acknowledge or correct them — in an effort to paint Mayberg as someone she is not: as someone who oversells results, hides data, and exploits her research, and by implication her patients, for financial gain. There are people out there like that, and I fully support and indeed take part in criticizing them. They are the bane of medicine.

But here you have mistaken your mark. Helen Mayberg is not the shill you suggest. Rather, she is and has always been a) deeply concerned with figuring out a model of depression to replace the flawed neurochemical model that has led to so much overmedication; b) intensely, deeply, movingly concerned with the welfare of her patients; and c) consistently vocal in her concern that this treatment not be overused or oversold. One of her patients wrote you to tell you this, and of Mayberg’s caution about expectations in generating expectations about the treatment. The patient describes Mayberg’s caution as almost excessive. I saw that myself. When I did the reporting for the story I wrote about her work in the Times in 2006, Mayberg took pains to convey — and urged me to include in the story —  her concern that the treatment might become too trendy and get used too widely and by people who didn’t use it well and/or on patients who were not as depressed and without other options as the patients she works on.

So to sum — and if I repeat myself, it’s because saying all this once already seemed to have no effect — your posts assert two main things: that Mayberg failed to disclose relationships and data in the talk at NASW, which she in fact did plainly disclose and discuss; and that she has a history of failure to disclose, which failure does not exist. You also assert, by implication and in your direct use of accusations based on facts that don’t exist, a cynical and erroneous assessment of her motives, principles, and character.

Quite frankly, you seem to carry a bias so dense that facts cannot penetrate it. You fail to see and hear things plainly displayed and said before you. You fail to acknowledge corrections when they are offered in good faith. It’s as if you went to her NASW talk having perceived some cues — device maker; depression treatment; past association with Nemeroff — that provoked a conditioned response — Attack — and a confirmation bias that nothing can penetrate.

Your target image went faulty. Mayberg simply isn’t what you think she is, and she has not done the things of which you accuse her. I’m at the neuroscience meeting as I write this, and a couple of days ago I was talking, not for attribution, to a medical ethicist: someone keenly aware of the dangers of conflicts of interest. This person knows Mayberg not by chance, but because Mayberg too is keenly concerned with conflicts of interest, and because she has talked with this person both in private conversations and in public and semi-public conversations at conferences about the use of medical devices, about conflicts of interest and the eagerness of some in the medical device community, both doctors and companies, to oversell the effectiveness of devices so as to make money. I told this person about Mayberg’s talk and your accusations. This person laughed and said, “She’s  whacking Mayberg? Picked the wrong example. It’s hard to think of someone who’s more careful about these things.”

If we journalists are to have credibility when we call out conflicts of interest, we need to check our facts, and if we get them wrong, we need to acknowledge that when corrected. I’d be pleased to see you do that in this case.

Links & Lit: My Favorite Reads of Late, 11/8/11


Some of my favorite short ‘net reads over the last few weeks:

Auroras! via Jerry Coyne, as above. To get a heads-up on coming auroras via Twitter, btw, follow Aurora_Alerts.

Stunning wren duets are conceived as a whole but sung in two parts, by Ed Yong. (He wrote the piece; did NOT sing one of the two parts.) A true deep wonder of nature. Human ensemble players, take note. Beautiful work written up beautifully.

500 Years of Women’s Portraits in Western Art – in Three Minutes. Seriously remarkable morphing going on here: One set of eyes through the ages. With Yo-Yo providing soundtrack. Lovely. Via Two Nerdy History Girls, relayed by the fabulous Jenny McPhee‘s twitter.

Stephen Fry linked to a post. David Quigg poins to and comments on Stephen Fry’s pointer to Hugh Grant’s courageous scrapping with the UK press. Points scored. BTW, my heads-up source on this, too many Daves, Quigg’s Tumblr, is an invaluable source of such gorgeous and unexpected musings on reading and writing.

naked dense bodies provoke depression (and other tall scientific tales) From Tal Yarkoni, a wonderful list of entertaining scientific paper titles. E.g. “Are Analytical Philosophers Shallow and Stupid”. Plus orgasms.

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Hemingway, Bach, Led Zeppelin: Neuron Culture’s Musical October

‘Twas an aural month at the blog. Here are October 2011’s biggest hits at Neuron Culture:

Listen: Hemingway’s Short, Moving Nobel Prize Speech

I have read the speech a few times before. Yet when I listened to it today for the first time, at a time when I am re- reading his stories now and have him much on my mind, the words struck me with a new power. He was in a terrible place just then.

fMRI Shows My Bullshit Detector Going Ape Shit Over iPhone Lust

The fMRI scan above shows my brain* reading a truly horrific NY Times Op-Ed piece. The piece, written by a man named Martin Lindstrom, who calls himself a “fan of the consumer” (meaning what? he blows on us?), is called You Love Your iPhone. Literally. Literally.

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Why Your Surgeon Should Be a Gamer

Boing-Boing has a snip from Nick Bilton’s I Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain are Being Creatively Disrupted, which is an incredibly long title for what sounds like a fun book. The excerpt looks at a study that suggests surgeons who play video games do better at laparoscopic surgery than surgeons who don’t.

A few years ago, researchers quizzed more than thirty surgeons and surgical residents on their video- game habits, identifying those who played video games frequently, those who played less frequently, and those who hardly played at all. Then they put all the surgeons through a laparoscopic surgery simulator, in which thin instruments akin to extremely long chopsticks are inserted into one or more small incisions through the skin along with a small camera that is inserted into an additional small opening. Minimally invasive surgery like this frequently is used for gallbladder removal, gynecologic procedures, and other procedures that once involved major cutting and stitching and could require hours on an operating table.

The researchers found that surgeons or residents who used to be avid video game players had significantly better laparoscopic skills than did those who’d never played. On average, the serious game players were 33 percent faster and made 37 percent fewer errors than their colleagues who didn’t have prior video- game experience.

The more video games the surgeons had played in the past, the better their numbers. This wasn’t tested on a group of kids who played twelve hours of video games a day and hadn’t showered in weeks. These residents and practicing surgeons simply played three or more hours of action video games a week. Some of the more advanced video- game- playing students managed to make 47 percent fewer errors than others and were able to work as much as 39 percent faster.

This jibes with  something my father, a surgeon, mentioned to me years ago. Dad studied under Michael DeBakey and then did general surgery for about 30+ years in Houston. In his last 10 or 15 years or so working, he took up laparoscopy — one of the early-birds on that worm — and it completely reinvigorated his practice and his pleasure in the work. I remember him telling me, probably 25 years ago or more, about a laparoscopic technician in his 20s — not a surgeon, but someone who helped drive the machinery, essentially — who had played a lot of early-gen video games in his youth and still did. It quite stuck in my mind; he said that kid was easily the best lap tech he had worked with. Loved working with him.

You take up a selection of skills, you never quite know where it might come in useful — or, for that matter, outmoded. But quite often, new proves good.

Video at top is a laparoscopic appendectomy. A colleague of my dad’s took my appendix out when I was ten. Told Dad he could scrub in and join him. Dad passed. Smart move.

At one point I planned to be a surgeon. Now even this little film makes me woozy.