Young Scientists from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, Thinking of Studying in the US: I want you here.

Still figuring out a new lab to finish my degree (got distracted by helping the local Hillary phonebank figure out computer issues and working out the logistics for future potential moves), so no news from me. However, wth the news of the immigrant ban, I started thinking about how hard it was for me to get my Italian visa. My Italian landlord says it was so difficult, because the goal is to make entering Italy as difficult as possible for people from less well off countries.  I know Americans were not the target of these policies. Still, this phobia of immigrants made me, an American temporary expat (a term that increasingly believe means white immigrant) worry. I felt unwelcome and this made me feel unsafe.

WordPress tells me that I have some readers from the countries Trump just banned. If any of you are young scientists, who are thinking about advancing their careers in the US, I want to take the time to let you know: I want you here, in the US. I want you to feel safe and welcome here and I (and many other Americans) are doing whatever we can to make that possible.

Know that Trump did not win the majority of the US votes and the majority of my country does not hate you. Our electoral system just allows a minority of our country to take over our executive branch. An angry racist response to Obama’s presidency, combined with unclear goals among liberals allowed this minority to also take over the legislative branch. However, know that:

-Only 58.1% of Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election (in our system this is actually a good turnout)

-Of those, only 46.1% voted for Trump

-While racism and xenophobia were certainly factors in Trump’s appeal, they were not the only factors. Also, they exist on a spectrum and the our president is on the extreme end. Recently, I was listening to an episode of Hidden Brain, which helped me empathize with the broader spectrum of racists. I still strongly disagree with their views, but it’s good to understand where they are coming from.

Our system also gives us many resources to resist. Right now, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is preparing a case to challenge Trump’s ban. Right now, at JFK airport in New York, where legal immigrants (green card holders) are being detained hundreds of protestors are voting their anger. Tomorrow I will join the protest at LAX.

Many of us want you here. Until next time!


In Defense of the Ivory Tower, as a Social and Civic Experiment: Update and some thoughts on Madeline Albright at Scripps

Hello all! I am still in Santa Barbara. Recovering took longer than I thought it world and was not very interesting. It happened gradually, out of order, and sort of progressed and regressed, until I noticed I had been symptom free since January (yay!) As a skeptical one, I developed a rigorous routine of exercise, work, volunteer, work, and an online fMRI class to test this. I have been at that since February and where as, in the past I have not responded well to increased stress, now I seem stable. I have been keeping busy.

I also felt like I did not have much to say that kept with the location, travel, science, academic life, and personal experience based themes I have kept with on this blog. I have had broader topics than I originally intended, but I wanted to stick to things that my experience living, studying, and researching in different places allows me to discuss. Recently my Alma Matter (place I graduated from, Scripps College) started making the news. I think particular story is interesting, when examined through an international lens, and it just so happens to involve some of my favorite subtopics: social inequality and privilege.

Those of you not from the states may have heard something of our graduation ceremonies, which adhere to traditions that can dictate everything right down to what students graduating at each level may wear. One traditional part of the ceremony includes the “graduation speaker”. This is normally someone noteworthy, who typically makes comments on the transition from “college life” to “the real world”. This Saturday, former US secretary of state Madeline Albright will be the speaker at the Scripps graduation and this has been the source of some controversy.

This controversy intersects with recent public criticism of the sheltering of liberal college students in the United States. Here it is important to note that elite American institutions are inherently sheltered environments. In the US, research universities and liberal arts colleges exist on campuses, which are a bit like mini towns and cities. These campuses are where classes are held, labs are located, students eat in dining halls (called the “Mensa” in Freiburg), and where some students live for most or part of their academic careers. The Colleges and Universities govern these mini cities. Universities can even have their own transportation systems and police forces. Campuses also have clubs, sports teams, concerts, orchestras, choirs, gyms, and public social events. In these schools, it is possible for undergraduates’ academic, working, social, and personal lives to exist entirely “on campus”.

For me the sheltered nature of the campus system was both helpful and detrimental. First, it was helpful because it helped me escape sexist stereotypes and ultimately helped me pursue a science career. Scripps is an all women’s college and in that environment, surrounded by other confident, intellectual women, I escaped some sexist norms of American society. I never saw myself as a scientist, before I was surrounded by brilliant women, also pursuing science at Scripps. When I went home for the summer and after I graduated, I noticed I had lost the habit of deferring to men’s opinions and was more willing to stick to my own. Certainly not every woman needs to attend a women’s college to be successful, but it worked for me, Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright, and many other female leaders.

According to the open letter members of the Scripps faculty sent to protest Secretary Albright’s speech, their objections are tied to the recent movements for greater inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities on campus. This has become a national controversy as parts of the US media have claimed these movements are actually just codling students and suppressing “free speech”. This movement is intertwined with the concept of “safe spaces”, where “safe spaces” tend to mean very to those who support them and those who oppose them.

Those who oppose safe spaces might consider them part of the problems I had at Scripps. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I ended up in a highly abusive friendship. Part of my “friend’s” abuse included accusations that things I had said were racist and homophobic. She distorted my words and used my disability to make me question my perceptions of reality. She would then repeat the distorted words to mutual friends, making me feel worthless and undeserving of real friendship. So yes, the language of “safe space” political correctness can be used in harmful ways. However, that does not mean it is always, mostly, or even often used that way. In fact, the creation of a discussion space for students with disabilities helped me find the confidence to escape my “friend”. So it’s not the existence of safe spaces or politically correct ideals that cause problems, but how students, faculty, and administration choose to use them.

In general, I think if university and college mini cities have propose it is to allow for “safe spaces” for these academic communities to imagine and experiment with social and civic rules. If “students” were homogenous bodies of people, who all had the same needs, the administration could just leave them to explore. However, this is not the case and unfortunately, university administrations have a history of prioritizing their reputations and suppressing the students who are harmed within these sheltered civic experiments.

Recently, I read an article attacking Scripps’ ally guidelines, which are linked to “safe space” concepts in that they ask would-be-allies to be introspective about their privileges, so as not to cause offense in their activism. The author Conor Friedersdorf, a Pomona alum, uses disability as an example and fails to note the many times well meaning people have done harm, while trying to help the disability community. However, he also makes some excellent points, particularly when he makes note of corporate culture and brand name protection at Scripps. In my experience, this corporate culture does not primarily affect (ever threatened) libertarians Friedersdor describes. In contrast, it harms the people the “ally guidelines” mean to protect more than anyone else.

At Scripps, certain people repeatedly made it clear to me that I needed to keep my disability quiet. I was told Scripps did not need to meet my needs as a student with disabilities, because it was “too prestigious” to have many of us. I remember asking a Scripps administrator (who no longer works at Scripps) about hiring someone to cover disability services, who actually had some experience or training in that area, and being told that there were not enough students with disabilities to justify that expense. [Please note now that the Claremont Colleges have since opened a center for students with disabilities and again the person who said this no longer works at Scripps].

Mr. Friedersdorf also points out that the “ally guidelines” come from the Scripps administration. He makes a good point about how encouraging too much reflection, before action, can discourage activism. In my experience, faculty and student run “safe space” movements do not practice politically correct puritanism, but rather protect students with genuine needs. However, it is my understanding that safe space politics has evolved since my time at Scripps to the point where students feel emboldened enough to critique the behavior of others outside designated clubs, groups, and centers. This seems like new territory for me and I am not sure how I feel about it. However, I cannot help feeling that it reminds me of how I felt more comfortable expressing my opinions and not accepting male opinions, by default, after spending time at Scripps.

Sheltered communities can give us the space to imagine realities that are currently untenable in the boarder world. “Safe spaces” not only provide opportunities for experimental changes and embolden socially marginalized students to stand up for themselves, they also provide opportunities for student growth. My involvement in the Dis/Differently –Abled Students Network led to my senior thesis and the research I did in Italy. It got me interested in social decision-making, as a neuroscientist and it is why you are reading this blog right now. For that group, I learned how to configure a website and I learned how to delegate and break up long-term projects among people with very different skills. This summer I am leading a disability ally workshop, during which I get to do a presentation on the neuroscience of bias and decision-making.’

Criticizing elite American colleges for sheltering their students is analogous to criticizing the pope for being too catholic: it is an inherit part of being pope. Most people making these criticisms are not suggesting we get rid elite colleges or the campus system. Rather they seem concerned with the expansion of ideas created in safe space communities and students who want to experiment with ways of assimilating them into a broader (but still sheltered) civic and social community. However, in my experience, this process can help make colleges better for vulnerable students and can give student activist involved confidence and skills that they can use later in life.

In response to the protest, Secretary Albright has agreed to meet with concerned students and faculty, which is (in my opinion) incredibly classy of her. However, I believe the protests were less about her and more about what she represented for Scripps. Scripps has a mixed, but improving record on its relations with students from minority and vulnerable groups. It has promised to adopt a process that encourages greater community participation in its future speaker choices. Given previous improvements, I look forward, with hope, to it honoring this promise.

Note: Joint Master in Neuroscience Applications are due May 22nd.

Traveling Neuroscientist

When naming this blog I thought of traveling salesmen. The image I had was someone who picks up different things to “sell” and goes where they can sell them. In science theoretically we are “selling” ideas. Twice I had left communities I had become attached to, because I understood I needed to go where there were people working on the same ideas that I wanted to work on.

Now I am packing up and getting ready to leave for Santa Barbara, I started to wonder if I regretted going to Rome. The fact that Rome was 35°C + throughout all of my last weeks there did not help. One night I went out walking and I found a fruit stand. With sliced fruit and fruit salad lined up on trays of ice, colorful flags, and techno music playing. It remedied me of a place I heard about on Georgia Traveler, a travel show I used watch when I lived in Atlanta. It was founded by someone from south Texas, who saw that the fruit stands she was used to seeing at home were missing.


Fruit Stand in Milan
Fruit Stand in Milan

The people running the Rome fruit stand looked to be from North Africa. For a euro I was able to get a quarter of a watermelon. It was cut longways and I needed both hands to hold on to it. I sat in some plastic chairs, with some other tourists, with ice cold watermelon juice dripping off my elbows. Life was good.  It’s these moments that make travel great. As I’ve started to live as a traveler, I’ve learned to take them for what they are and try to appreciate them where they are.

Continuing the Blog:

I thought about stopping the blog, now that I’m at home. However, I started the blog primarily to keep in touch with people I met while “traveling” to Atlanta. Now, I have new people I want to keep in touch with in Europe, as well as my Atlanta friends. So Traveling Neuroscientist will continue, for the time being.

Thing I saw today: A French black man wearing a confederate flag

In St. Louis, France.

Me: There is a black man walking down the street with a confederate flag tee shirt.

French friend: The confederacy is the north or…

Me: South.

FF: Why?

Me: I have questions…(Aside: Is it some kind of protest or is he just doing that thing young people do, where try to be as radical as possible? It was vertical, does that mean something?)

FF: Is Racism still a problem in the US?

Me: [Updates friend on current US news]. (With respect to Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and the Guardian’s database) Can you imagine that happening in France???

FF: Sometimes people die in police custody and they don’t know what to say. There isn’t any explanation.

I did some research and found one death and a HRW article on violence against asylum seekers. The scale doesn’t seem the same.

I have the strong impression that Europe’s biases aren’t any better than ours. In the UK there is more evidence of a problem. In the wikipedia list of police violence only ArgentinaCanada,, IndiaIranPakistan, the United Kingdom, and the United States get their own lists.

I’m not from here. I don’t know. I just saw a black man walking down the street wearing a confederate flag, in France.

Europe Friends: The confederate flag recently made news in the US after a man gunned down 9 people at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, in South Carolina. There were pictures of the man wearing the flag. There was still a confederate flag up at the state capital in South Carolina and calls to take it down became a way of symbolically dealing with the attack. Before I lived in the South I’d say it was always associated with racism. I heard varying information from black friends in the south.

Before the flag was voluntarily removed, in an act of civil disobedience, Bree Newsome, a civil rights activist and black woman took down the flag from the state capital. Here is what she said on the matter: “The Confederacy is neither the only legacy of the south nor an admirable one. The southern heritage I embrace is the legacy of a people unbowed by racial oppression.”

Life Update: I’m back in Rome, from a three week math class in Germany and packing up to go back to the US. My project is on-going, but I need to go home for personal reasons. I haven’t decided what to do with the blog, in the mean time (finish it when I finish traveling or finish it when I finish my project). I will let you know in the next post. 

Gwen: A butterfly flaps its wings and creates hurricanes

Gwen [1] was Dumbledore [2]. She was a teacher at and founder and leader of Open Alternative School [1] (OAS), where I attended grade school and middle school. We wanted to do what she asked because we trusted her and disappointing her was the worst! She had an ageless quality about her. Her hair had been white, since forever. She almost always wore purple or light blue and drove a periwinkle blue VW van, that we called the “Gwenie-mobile”.

Gwen rarely got mad, but when she did she was terrifying. Shorter than my average 5’5″ (165 cm), she could produce a silent moral rage that expanded to fill an entire room. My parents theorized that the Board of Education let OAS exist, because it was afraid of Gwen.

Me and Gwen talking about OAS (2009)
Gwen and I are talking about OAS on the local public access channel (2009)

Gwen died on December 21st, 2014, at sunrise. For me, Gwen was a mentor and a friend. I remember driving back from the annual camping trip [3] in the Gwennie-mobile, listening to the entire Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. On our way to San Marcos pass: we were laughing at something and I felt wildly happy about it.

Gwen encouraged me to take a science elective at the junior high next to OAS [4]. She helped me find resources for my high school science fair project that went to the California State Science Fair. When I had trouble in college, she helped me remember that I have inherent worth. I am sad she’s gone. I feel incredibly lucky to have known her.

Gwen was passionate about the environment. I remember her telling us about ripping the invader ice plant from the hillside below her house in Rattlesnake Canyon. She is the reason why, if you come to Santa Barbara, I can’t let you leave unless I’m sure you know what chaparral is. She is also why I know the names of many of the wild flowers in the Santa Barbara area. Gwen loved wild flowers.

Before the annual class camping trip, anyone in Gwen’s class [5] got a “leave no trace” talk . The concept behind “leave no trace” is that you want to leave the environment the way you found it. Gwen would add that this is not actually possible and that even our footprints effect the microorganisms in the earth and the ecosystems that surround them. Even our smallest actions affect changes in the environment around us.

This notion stuck with me.  Later I learned about “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”, commonly known as the “butterfly effect.” MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz proposed the concept,  to explain the results of computer weather simulations. The main idea is that small scale events can significantly alter the outcome of subsequent events. To illustrate, this Lorenz suggested that the flapping wings of a butterfly might be the factor that shifts initial conditions just enough to cause a hurricane or tornado. It was a revolutionary idea in many fields of science, because it demonstrated faults in overly simplistic models and it was one of the main concepts of chaos theory.

If, as Dumbledore said, we are our choices [6], I think if we leave anything of ourselves behind it is the changes our choices make. As the “butterfly effect” demonstrates, even the smallest changes can affect future events. Implicit in the “butterfly effect” is the idea that we can’t know the all of outcomes of our actions, but like our footprints in the campground, they continue to have effects after we have left.

I was back home, but sick, when Gwen died. We knew she was critically ill, and I wanted to see her. However, speaking of small changes in conditions, I did not want to introduce my illness to Gwen, on the off chance that I would be that change and her life would end sooner or less peacefully than it would otherwise. I also didn’t want to miss the chance to tell her how much she meant to me. So the night before she died, I asked my dad if he would drive up to her house with a letter.

While I was typing my letter, I logged on to Facebook and asked if any of my friends had anything they wanted to say. Within an hour I had a small packet of letters and photos from her former students. You could see in the ease with which we articulated our emotions and our gratitude: ours was not a normal education [7].

People I've known forever in Santa Barbara: I'm in the left hand corner, in the red dress. The girl in the matching blue dress, the blonde girl right behind me, the girl on the other side who looks a lot like her (they're twins) and the girl behind her will turn up later.
OAS friends, including a classicist, elite cyclist and first generation student tutor, immigrant rights protesters, environmental activist, mother, who is training her sons to be fluent in sign, and me.

Our ability to articulate emotions is just one of the things that makes OAS alumni stand out. OAS has an innovative learning system that emphasizes personal and emotional growth. I know so many OAS alums who have adapted their passions in unique and often revolutionary ways.

We are a specific kind of creative. OAS taught us that instead of asking “how am I doing compared to that guy over there?” we should ask “how can I better understand what that guy over there is doing and can I help?” Not that I always do this, mind.

According to Gwen she was “one of a group” that founded OAS, but she “did do the leadership role,” by which she meant she lead various fights to keep OAS going and mediated the running of OAS for 40 years. Still, at OAS, we interact as equals, which is why Gwen was a “head teacher” and not a “principal.”

I suspect Gwen would be proud of how I try things, not always knowing if I will succeed, and how I try to understand and listen to people.  Above all I believe she’d be proud of how I have trouble just walking by litter… If I’m running late or my arms are full, I mentally apologize to Gwen. Often, especially in Italy, it’s scattered all over the place and it’s overwhelming, but I imagine a bird choking on it. I can’t just walk by. So I pick up one, just one piece.

Perhaps, if more of our heroes were “one of a group,” we might be less inclined to decide that our actions don’t matter and more inclined to remember our inherent worth.


I talked about my OAS friends, while writing about moving on from different places. This was mostly written for them and other members of the OAS community.  However, I think Gwen was a pretty cool person and others might enjoy hearing about her too. For a full biography see the obituary written by fellow OAS teacher Liz. An OAS parent also wrote a memorial pice. OAS is a unique place and you can read more about why on their website and Facebook

1. Gwen Phillips (see also), Gwennie as her students used to call her, founded Open Alternative School (OAS), where I spent kindergarten and 1st grade and 3rd through 8th grades. For international friends: this school is not representative of schools in the US. It is rare, but there are other similar schools, here and there.

2. When my OAS friends and I read Harry Potter, we all agreed that Gwen was Dumbledore, Dumbledore, a Dumbledore relative, or a real life version of the mythic archetype Dumbledore represents. We weren’t exactly clear on the details. At various times I believed TWO of these and I was just barely old enough for that to be embarrassing, when the US version of the books came out. 

 3. Every OAS class, after 3rd grade (during my time, now I think it’s every class), goes on a camping trip. 

4. OAS shares a campus with a junior high school. When I attended OAS, all 8th grade students could take one or two classes at the junior high. Given the self directed nature of the OAS classes, it was possible to plan work around the junior high class times. 

5. We always use our teacher’s first name at OAS. For international friends: this is not the norm in the US.

6. “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” From Harry Potter and the Chamber Of Secrets, by JK Rowling.

7. OAS spends about a half hour everyday teaching students how to articulate and communicate their emotions in a productive way

Further Reading/ Watching

Here are videos from an interview I did with Gwen, a few years ago. Youtube took them down, because I technically don’t have a license for them, but they aired on the public access channel on a show that (according to the internet) is not airing anymore. I used a sample version of a program to adapt the DVD, which is why they all have “evaluation copy” written across them. Sometime I’ll take the original DVD and talk to public access TV, and get permission to post an embedded video and come up with something better. However, if you’re an OAS student and you’d really just like to hear Gwen’s voice, I tracked down links, which don’t appear on my Youtube account anymore (read: if you’re in Germany click with caution).

Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3

OAS is a one of a kind organization. However, I googled the three education philosophers Liz mentioned in Gwen’s obituary (Herb Kohl, A.S. Neill, and John Holt) and fond some resources for teachers looking to emulate an OAS philosophy and parents, who might like an OAS-like education, but don’t live in Santa Barbara:

Herbert Kohl Official Website and Contact Information

AS Neill on the Summerhill Website

Wikipedia List of Democratic Schools

International Democratic Education Network

Education Revolution: Alternative Education Resource Organization

How Children Fail, by John Holt (Amazon)

For aspiring educators in the SB area Antioch University has a partnership with OAS.

On Campus…


So wandering around campus, after a paperwork meeting, in the campus lab, I saw one of my favorite things: something completely unexpected and random. Let’s investigate! Aside: I think this works best if you imagine the pink panther theme in the background or whatever your favorite “sneaking” song is. Pink panther is what I imagined, as I took these pictures.

The “foot” prints and the “statues” (I’m not sure how much of the text the Facebook preview has) appear together in two frames. One is pretty easy to spot and then the other is just a bit harder.

Oh and see those shoes in the first picture? Those have been my one pair of shoes in Italy, since I put my stuff in storage in October! If you have to have one pair of shoes, at least for colder areas, I recommend lightly lined rain boots. Though, I am definitely, looking forward to getting my stuff from storage this week!

Ok I think we’re out of Facebook preview range. Serious question: do dinosaurs have feet or talons?

Also, checkout this great TED talk from Jack Horner on dinosaur identification practices. It’s a good cautionary tale about letting one’s ego get in the way of good science. Like me, Horner has dyslexia. I don’t know how severe his is, compared to mine (just because one person with dyslexia can/ can’t do something, doesn’t mean everyone with dyslexia can/ can’t; it’s a very diverse disorder).

Speaking of dinosaur identification, I know the carnivore is a representation of an Alloosaurus. I forget what the other one is. I thought about taking a picture of the information plaques, but I was pretty sure I’d remember (famous last thoughts!) I’m going back to campus tomorrow. I’ll check it out again and get back to you next week. If you know, feel free to tell us!

The next post is going to be a personal story about a woman who had a major influence on me. Then it’s back to more neuroscience and travel, as I talk about how I ended up in Rome.

Charlie Hebdo: An International Conversation on Terrorism, Appropriation, and Free Speech

Update: I went home for winter break and am back in Rome now.   Right now, I am trying to get a sense of processes that might be involved in bias against disability and disease. At this stage I am doing psychological work, so I can use that to develop theories about what might be going on in the brain.


One of my most striking memories from Italy so far is the incident where the muslim man was struck, in the hospital. Also, in France I lived in a neighborhood where there were (based on women’s fashion choices) there were a lot of muslims. While the outfits women wore were clearly muslim, they didn’t fit with my idea of what that meant. Once I saw a woman with a matching tiger print hijab and kaftan and another time I saw a woman in a (again matching) purple hijab and kaftan, covered in rhinestone studs! Big hoop earrings that stuck out of the hijab, were also very popular.

This is despite the fact that headscarves are banned in schools and the work place. I read about these laws, before I came to France. From my American perspective the banning of headscarves seemed extremely intolerant and somewhat shocking. I can see how you might want to call attention to something important to your culture that has been repressed in your current country.

Something else I found extreme and shocking was the intensity of the anger at Charlie Hebdo coming from Pakistan. The headscarf ban and the muslim man in the Roman hospital made me wonder how much colonialism and oppression had to do with the level of anger. That may be true, but while looking into this, I learned a lot more…


In conservative Islam, visual depictions of human and natural forms are prohibited by Hadith or prophetic traditions. Sunni muslims believe pictures of important muslim figures should be prohibited and are particularly sensitive about pictures of Muhammad. Among Shia Muslims images of the Prophet are quite common.


Since I’m not French or Muslim, I asked some friends for help.

Friend from Pakistan

First is a friend from Pakistan, who is studying in Europe.

Why do people have to exercise their freedom by hurting?… From my point of view, there should be a law against Islamophobia and [phobia of] other religions too. 

Me: “I’m looking for information on how moderate and liberal muslims see visual portrayals Mohammed of the in the west. I am wondering if it might be like a white person wearing a Native American headdress in the states…” I also asked him to comment on French laws that negatively affect muslims, like the ban on head scarfs.


On the French Government. “You have to pay a big fine, if you are wearing a head scarf.  For me, it’s simply horrible… The french government [limits]… mosques in the french territory. Why is that so? Where is the freedom of speech now? [see also]”

On blaming all muslims for terrorism. “There are 50,000 terrorists in this world and the number of muslims in the whole world are something like 8 billion. Is it fair to blame everyone for crime they never committed?”

On free speech. “As you already know that Holocaust has been given official status in many countries. It means that you can’t say anything about it else you will end up in jail. I truly believe that we should accept the reality of holocaust as it was the tragedy… Denying it hurts the Jews.”

So why do the people really have to draw the cartoons of our beloved Prophet (P. B. U. H). The muslims are not allowed to draw or even compare our Prophet (P. B. U. H) with any other human beings. Its our religious belief. Why do people have to exercise their freedom by hurting? From my point of view, there should be a law against Islamophobia and [phobia of] other religions too.”

Ethnically French friend, whose family lives in Switzerland

What we call “free speech” concerns the tradition we’ve always had to say everything we want even if you’re mocking someone/something

Me: “I’m trying to figure out what free speech means to the French…I’ve heard Charlie Hebdo criticize US news organizations for inhibiting free speech, by not showing the images of Mohammed, saying that they were inhibiting free speech, but this makes no sense from an US perspective, because these organizations are private not government-owned. Also would you consider the laws that banned head-scarves in schools an infringement on free speech?”

Friend: “First of all, in France we don’t rely on “law amendments” to define how things are, it’s more cultural. What we call “free speech” concerns the tradition  we’ve always had to say everything we want even if you’re mocking someone/something…

The ban of head scarves is a different thing. The French state is secular. So at school (public institution) you are not supposed to show any sign of partnership to a religion. Private schools on contrary can do whatever they want.”

Cambodian Second Generation French Friend

I agree, pictures or drawings of the Prophet are forbidden in Islam so satiric cartoons representing the prophet can be considered offending for Muslims. But it is satire, right?

Me: [Same as what I wrote to my ethnically French friend, whose family lives in Switzerland].


On Free Speech. “Newspapers got freedom of the press -> “liberté de la presse” in French. In addition, every citizen has freedom of thought -> “liberté d’expression”… French schools are neutral toward religion. The exact term is laïcité (freedom of belief). That means equal treatment of every religious belief in school. There is also freedom of opinion: liberté d’opinion et de croyance (everyone is free to have or not have any religious opinion).

I agree, pictures or drawings of the Prophet are forbidden in Islam so satiric cartoons representing the prophet can be considered offending for Muslims. But it is satire, right ? This humor is provocative, by definition. As good satiric journalists, I guess they knew where to draw the line between humor and offense. If people could overcome race and nationalistic prejudices, then the world would breathe more freely.”

On head scarfs. “A massive cross necklace or a yamaka would be banned too… School is a neutral place towards religion… So it’s normal to me that pupils should remove their headscarves in school… The tricky point is that the students may consider that wearing theses headscarves is a right given by their freedom of belief. Therefore, forcing them to remove it in school is violating this right. That’s tricky.

Generally, if the headscarf is not too visible… the teacher will make no comment about it… A similar kind of controversy happened on pork-free meals for school meals at the cafeteria. Normally, it’s not something the school should take care of. But in reality, they often offer an alternative.”


We all come to these conversations with our own set of cultural biases (myself included). My friend from Pakistan sent me sent me this article from Israel. It stuck me how offense was taken at cartoons mocking “fundamentalists”. To me the term “Fundamentalist Islam” is synonymous with terrorism. As a very liberal Christian (Christian and Buddhist path Unitarian Universalist to be exact), I am not threatened by slurs against Fundamentalist Christians, so this was confusing. However, I’ve never been oppressed for being a Christian. Slurs about fundamentalist muslims are related to oppression of muslims.

The Israeli article my friend sent me ends with a call for free speech and rational criticism. The idea that criticism and censorship are not the same is familiar to feminists. It’s possible to condemn the attacks in Paris and suggest that the west isn’t the most welcoming place for muslims.

On the US’s Martin Luther King day, in Germany, 18,000 attended rallies organized by “Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization” (essentially an anti-muslim immigrant hate group) in Dresden. That’s scary! Meanwhile, in france an eight year old was arrested and as of January 20th over 100 anti-muslim incidents were reported within just 12 days.

My French friend of Cambodian extract also had this to add:

As a French girl from foreign origin, I know that in France I will never be considered equal as a French girl with French roots. If I apply for a job, for example. The exact term is “chauvinisme” (derived from the Latin word for bald ) But I will be treated equally because I’m a French citizen.

In 2011, Anders Breivik a far right Zionist Norwegian Christian, with an islomophobic agenda, set off a bomb amid government buildings in Oslo and then gunned down dozens of people in Utøya.  Recalling this incident a recent guardian article says of the Charlie Hebdo shootings:

Vengeance and hatred directed at Muslims as a whole serves Islamic fundamentalists well. They want Muslims to feel hated, targeted and discriminated against, because it increases the potential well of support for their cause. Already, there are multiple reports of attacks in France against mosques, and even a “criminal explosion” in a kebab shop. These are not just disgraceful, hateful acts. Those responsible are sticking to the script of the perpetrators. They are themselves de facto recruiting sergeants for terrorists.

The Guardian also correctly points out that most victims of Islamic extremists are Muslims. Including Ahmed Merabet, the officer killed at Charlie Hebdo.

After the Norway attacks the Norwegian Prime Minister said “Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity”. Also on this past Martin Luther King day,  10,000 people attended counter protests in Germany. When a bunch of islamophobic bus ads appeared in San Francisco someone went around defacing them with images of Marvel muslim superharoine Kamala Khan. The point of this isn’t to say “not all westerners” to  recent islomophobia. The point here is that western countries can do better.

Further Reading:

Hook-nosed Jew vs. Mohammed cartoons: What’s the difference?

Muslims React to new Charlie Hebdo cover

France’s Prime Minister: “Ethnic Apartheid a reality in France” 

Muslims in France: “They say we’re not French”

Charlie Hebdo: Norway didn’t give in to Islamophobia, nor should France

When schoolgirls dream of jihad, society has a problem. Look at France.

Messages From Rome

I decided that instead of trying to merge the two posts I started in Rome, I would post them each, with dates. You’ll understand why.

Short Term Apartment
Short Term Apartment: First Place I lived in Rome

Saturday October 11, 2014

There is a giant golden rain tree out my window, below oleander, palms, and is that yucca? Growing up in a Mediterranean climate myself, I suppose I am a bit of a homebody in that I firmly believe olive is the correct hue of green; and while the stucco walls are salmon, not the regulation white, there are certainly enough red tile roofs to keep me happy. In the evening, the accordion music & signing from the independent theatre across the street mixes with the techno from the club a few doors down.

Cars drive under a bridge at Villa Borghese.
Cars drive under a bridge at Villa Borghese.

I am, as you may have guessed in Rome now. I’m renting an apartment for two weeks, while I look for housing and work out visa stuff. Over the summer, I spent most of my time in Santa Barbara, in my parent’s house, dealing with a personal concern. So it took me awhile to find a lab. Hopefully, I can get the visa issues sorted out and start soon.

Thursday November 25th, 2014

Rome has:

  • The competitiveness of New York: I was late for a meeting about a new apartment and lost it, because someone else was waiting.
  • The disorganization of France: Any time I ask for residency information I get different answers.
  • A lot of pick pockets (my passport was stolen, because I kept it in something that looked like a wallet)
  • Vguely sketchy dealings. I made the mistake of moving into an apartment as a “new roommate”, where my name would not be on the contract. I got kicked out after two weeks and had to pay a moderately large some of money to get my stuff out.
The metro stops still halfway though the tunnel in termini at rush hour.
The metro stops still halfway though the tunnel in termini at rush hour.

I’ve heard someone from here call Rome part of the “3rd world of Europe”. I didn’t really agree. However, I saw how one could get this impression when I was visited the hospital and was in the hospital waiting room for 12 hours.

As I sat reading the second installment in Song of Ice and Fire, patients were wheeled in on gurneys and left there by the staff. There were also police wandering around. Why did a hospital needed police? One of the other patients in the room got angry and started yelling at the staff and the police took him to another room for awhile. Was that why they were there?

More police came in with a man on a gurney, who had large cuts across his stomach and a wet blood stain right over his heart. I think he may have been stabbed. He was handcuffed and screaming “Fa Male!” He looked over at me and smiled, revealing two silver front teeth. I looked away.

Another patent on a gurney was repeatedly vomiting and, in between expulsions, muttering “Allah” again and again. I was relieved when the staff brought him a bucket to vomit into. Then a staff member started wheel him away and without warning the staff member hit him.

I thought about saying something, but suddenly I was acutely aware of the fact that I was also foreign, in pain, and alone. Everyone else was acting normal. Maybe that nurse had hit his chest (I couldn’t see where the blow landed) and he might be choking, which could happen if you were vomiting??? Did I have the language skills to ask in a way that didn’t have the potential to make things worse? The man had stopped muttering.

Most of the people in the hospital were immigrants, because this is where you go, if you’re not registered with Italian insurance. I was there for either a kidney stone or an infection. The doctors weren’t sure witch, so they gave me antibiotics and painkillers and told me to take both.


I now have a lease in a lovely apartment and in general I am doing pretty well. I just wanted to write this, because despite my knowledge of Italy’s political and economic situation and repeated warnings from my lab, I was not prepared for how things actually are. Rome isn’t really that bad. For more serious Italy problems see the trash crisis in Palermo.

Also the idea that it’s “part of the 3rd world” is absurd. One of my new roommates is from the Ukraine and she is very relieved to be in Rome. Italy’s government disfunction and economic crisis do make it an outlier among countries with a similar recent history. At least the police aren’t gunning down citizens or anything crazy like that!

Stereotypes, Prejudice, Bias, & Deaths of Young Black Americans: My intro to social justice neuroscience.

So I got to Rome, where I'm doing work on Social Stereotypes. I've been very busy (more on that next time), but I've been working on this "Shooter Bais" post for a while now. Since I started, there have been  number of recent articles on the psychology and neuroscience of shootings of  young black men. I am going to elaborate on the neuroscience and talk about ethical and practical implications.
Images by Joshua Correll,  example screens from Shooter Bias Video Game Study. Source:
Images by Joshua Correll, example screens from Shooter Bias Video Game Study. Source

Quick update: I’m home in California and I’ll be posting things that I started writing in Rome, but never finished. In Rome I’ve been working on the cognitive basis of social stereotypes about people with disabilities. I was first exposed to the study of prejudice and bias, in Cognitive Psychology and Neuroscience, when I read about the Correll group‘s work on “Shooter Bias”. The aim of the Correll “shooter Bias” studies is to investigate the cognitive basis of police shootings of unarmed black men.

Certain people might know that I’ve been promising to write about this topic for a long time. I’ve been working on it, slowly, but I’ve been busy. Living in Rome, like life in any major city is difficult. It is particularly difficult if you’re a non-European national. However, it is impossible if you’re not from a first world country (according to my land lord this is the point of the “difficult” policies), so in that sense I’m lucky. I have taken extra time reviseing what I originally wrote,  so I’m not repeating what a lot of recent great articles say. Here, I am going to elaborate on the neuroscience and then talk about practical implications.

Note: I was introduced to Shooter Bias and signal detection theory in Psych 120 taught by my undergraduate thesis advisor Michel Spezio at Scripps College. I first read  the 2006 Correll study for a paper I wrote for this class and the Michel Moore video was shown in this class. 

Part I: Facts

From 2006-2012 a white police officer shot a black man (or male child) twice a week.

Dante Parker, 36, San Bernardino County, Calif.—August 12, 2014. Source:
Dante Parker, 36, San Bernardino County, Calif.—August 12, 2014. Source
Ezell Ford, 25, Los Angeles, Calif.—August 12, 2014. Source:
Ezell Ford, 25, Los Angeles, Calif.—August 12, 2014. Source

After Travon Martin died, I remember I was sitting in the lab with my labmate, who is black.

“I’m scared to have kids,” she told me.

“What if one of them is a boy? What will happen to him?”

Kajieme Powell, 25, St. Louis, Mo.—August 19, 2014. Source:
Kajieme Powell, 25, St. Louis, Mo.—August 19, 2014. Source
Akai Gurley, 28, Brooklyn, NY—Nov. 20, 2014. Source:
Akai Gurley, 28, Brooklyn, NY—Nov. 20, 2014. Source

I know she really wanted kids.

She would talk to me about her strategy ideas for managing research and parenting.

Hearing this from her shocked and angered me.

I was angry in 2009, when Raheim Brown, presenting no apparent threat was killed on BART.

That was when I really started paying attention.

Anyone paying attention knows, This. Keeps. Happening.

There is an obvious problem in the way cops interact with young black men and boys.

Tamir Rice, 12, Cleveland, Ohio—Nov. 22, 2014.
Tamir Rice, 12, Cleveland, Ohio—Nov. 22, 2014. Source
Rumain Brisbon, 34, Phoenix, Ariz.—Dec. 2, 2014. Source:
Rumain Brisbon, 34, Phoenix, Ariz.—Dec. 2, 2014 Source

Part II: Science

Since I started writing this I’ve seen three excellent articles by Chris Mooney at Now with Bill Moyers on PBS,  Erika Eichelberger at Mother Jones, and Kimberly Barsamian Kahn at the Origonian, on the neuroscience and psychology of the shootings of young black men.

“Shooter Bias”

Shooter bias is an affect, originally observed in a 2002 study by the Correll group, which was inspired by the shooting of Amadou Diallo by the NYPD in 1999, after police mistook his wallet for a weapon. At the time, my mother was a devoted Awful Truth fan and I remember being introduced to the case though Michael Moore. Of course now it seems like even Moore’s (then humorous) suggestion that African Americans keep their hands up at all times may not be enough to keep them safe: Cognitive psychology is particularly well suited to answer questions about how various factors affect a persons ability to categorize two classes of things. Correll et al. 2002 used a shooter video game paradigm. Participants were asked to respond to images of unarmed and armed white and black men with either a “shoot” or “don’t shoot” button. The authors found that people demonstrated  faster reaction times when shooting armed black men and slower reaction times when choosing the “don’t shoot” button for unarmed black men.

Furthermore, Correll et al. conducted a signal detection analysis. This analysis, based on concepts from engineering, allows psychologists to determine weather an error comes from difficulty discriminating between things or from a tendency to prefer one response over another. Correll et al. found that participants ability to discriminate between armed and unarmed men was the same for images of black and white men. However, participants were more likely to indicate that black images were “armed” than “unarmed”. This indicates that participants have a bias to say that black men are “armed”.

The shooter bias effect occurred in both police officers and members of the general public. In the Oregonian, Dr. Kahn, a social psychologist at Portland State University, describes how her own work shows that bias exists for not just for shooter responses, but for various levels of police force. No research indicates that bias is a conscious process.


Me learning how to use an EEG net, with other students in my undergraduate cognitive neuroscience class.  I'm second from the left in the back. I was experimenting with cutting my own hair, it was not going well, at this time, but results have improved since! Image source:
Me and other students in my undergraduate cognitive neuroscience class, learning how to use an EEG. I’m second from the left in the back. I was experimenting with cutting my own hair. It was not going well. Results improved since! Source.

In a 2006 study the Correll group used EEG to examine the shooter bias effect. Electroencephalography (EEG) records electoral activity along the scalp. The type of activity the Correll group used was an event related potential (ERP). An ERP potential connected with the presentation of a stimulus. To extract an ERP from an EEG signal repeated events are averaged and special algorithms are used to remove noise. The Correll group found that early ERP components differed between black and white targets, in their shooter paradigm and that the degree of difference was correlated with bias (using a ANOVA, not signal detection statistics).

MRI coronal view of the Amygdala. Source:
MRI coronal view of the Amygdala. Source.

Amodio, the scientist interviewed in the Mooney article, recently published a nature paper that reviewed current work on the neural basis of stereotyping and prejudice. In the paper, Amodio identifies a prejudice and stereotyping network, which includes the amygdala, insula, striatum, ventral medial prefrontal cortex, and orbital frontal cortex. The amygdala, in particular, has been associated with the threat perception in racial prejudice.

Amodio points out that the amygdala is not a single organ but made up of 13 neuculi (brain neuculi, not to be confused with cell neuculi), each of which have different functions. Sensory organs feed into the lateral nucleus of the amygdala, allowing it to respond quickly to stimuli. The central nucleus is implicated in pavlovian fear conditioning and the basal nucleus gives appetitive and instrumental responses.  In humans the amygdala plays a role in processing social cues and social threat. For this reason, researchers have suspected that it may have a role in race prejudice. None of the studies he described found that amygdala response varied between black and white faces, but it did vary as a function of behavioral prejudice and eye blink responses to black and white faces.

Part III: Implications

Racism does not Require Intent

“We all want to believe in progress, in history that marches forward in a neat line, in transcended differences and growing acceptance, in how good the good white people have become. So we expect racism to appear, cartoonishly evil like a Disney villain. As if a racist cop is one who wakes in the morning, twirling his mustache and rubbing his hands together as he plots how to destroy black lives.” –Brit Bennett, writing for Jezabel.

As scientists, we can validate that racial bias affects  shoot/ don’t shoot decisions. In Neuroscience we can study concepts like bias and prejudice, in relation to particular social groupings (African Americans, People with Disabilities, Gay Men, Asian Women, etc.). However, in demonstrating the existence of bias we can only validate the cultural experience of racism. We can validate that racial bias is expressed in shoot don’t shoot decisions. We can’t determine weather or not someone “meant” to be racist, but this is unnecessary. Oppression can happen without the intent or even the knowledge of the person doing it.  Racism is in our culture and expressing it does not require effort. Not expressing it, however, is a choice and does require effort and education.

Gravitas and black lives.

When I wrote about the Isla Vista shooting,  I talked about how the narratives of the white mass shooter and the white police shooter differ in the empathy ascribed to victims. I recently read a 1997 interview with Angela Davis, where she was asked to compare the black community to immigrant groups in the US. To answer this question she describes how corporate exploitation of people in other countries have created “alternative economies…that has for example eradicated large numbers of jobs that black people traditionally have been able to count upon and created communities where the tax base is lost now as a result of corporations moving to the third world in order to discover cheap labor”.  She describes the connection between the conditions that affect African Americans and that affect immigrant populations in the 1990s, but she evades the interviewers attempt to equate African Americans with immigrant groups.

It’s easy to take the similarities between groups and situations as evidence that the “real” problem isn’t something specific to the experience of black people in the US. Here, it’s useful to introduce the feminist concept of intersectionality, which is an approach that focuses on how individuals expierence multiple forms of oppression and privilege are experienced. Normally the term is used when discussing people who belong to more than one oppressed group (e.g. black women, queer women, etc.) An essential idea in intersectional feminism is that while individual experiences are important they are not useful for describing a population. For example, a women of a particular race or nationality doesn’t represent all women. When it comes to experiences that revolve around threatening feelings about a particular identity (such as fear of being targeted, because of perceived weakness among women) these experiences are common to those who share the identity. People who have relationships with people who have this identity can certainly feel the affects of these experiences, but we need to be careful about how we talk about those feelings.

Found on:
Don’t do this.  Source.

When I read African American bloggers, I notice a strong desire that people (and presidents) acknowledge that police shootings of young black men are a problem specific to the black community. It is not just the individuals who are killed or their families who are affected. I think about my friend’s fear of having children. I also see reflected in the way black activists talk about these shootings. After Travon Martin died, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tome created #blacklivesmatter. According to Garza, “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.  It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”

Garza then goes on to describe how #blacklivesmatter became “all lives matter, brown lives matter, migrant lives matter, women’s lives matter”, after a Law and Order SVU episode. I was reminded of criticism that the  #yesallwomen movement, after the Isla Vista shooting, was sexist, because it excluded men. However, one of the main points of this movement was to expose experiences that are invisible to men. Likewise, Garza points out that changing “black lives matter” to “all lives matter” undermines the original idea and fails to acknowledge existing privilege.

Suggested Further Reading/ Watching

Here is the full video of the arrest and death of Eric Garner. It is extremely disturbing, but I think that is part of what makes it useful. If you’re not angry yet, please watch:

Rome Next Year

Getting to have my ideal thesis project and easy access to amazing gelato? 
Could it get better?


Next year, I will be doing my Master’s thesis in Rome, on a project closely related to my undergraduate thesis on disability stereotypes. My thesis left me with some interesting and potentially useful conclusions and many more questions. I didn’t think I was going to get back to that, until much later in my career. So this is exciting for me! Getting to have my ideal thesis project and easy access to amazing gelato? Could it get better?

I am busy registering for classes, finding housing, figuring out travel plans et al. However, I am also working on a post on “Michel Brown, Shooter Bias, and Social Justice Applications for Cognitive Neuroscience Research” .  Hopefully I’ll have that up next week. In the mean time, you can check out the write up on Rome I did, during the Italy trip my mother and I took, in my junior/senior year of college.


Caveat on Rome:  My program still has to approve the project, but since I presented something similar as my final project last semester, I think it is a likely bet.