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Science, and a Pint

Guinness and Black Holes at Lebanon Pub

Valley News illustration - Shawn Braley

Valley News illustration - Shawn Braley

For centuries, these have been the eternal questions: Why is the sky blue? What is the nature of time and the universe? Is there life after death? How did the universe begin?

But there’s yet another great puzzle, which was raised a few weeks ago at Science Pub at Salt Hill in Lebanon, which meets on the third Thursday of each month. And the question from a woman in the audience was this: “Why can’t men remember conversations?”

The subject of the Science Pub was The Mysteries of Memory: When We Can’t Remember or We Can’t Forget. The panelists were David Bucci, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth, and Dr. Matt Friedman, the deputy director of the National Center for PTSD at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction.

Although it drew laughter, the question wasn’t entirely facetious. Bucci waded into an explanation rather gingerly, joking that he didn’t want to get himself into trouble.

The short, simple answer to the question was that men tend to be good at spatial memory while women tend to be good at attention memory, or remembering what was said, what so-and-so looked like, what the surroundings were. This isn’t to say that all men don’t have the ability to remember what Ms. Y said, or whether Mr. X was wearing a tie, or that all women don’t have spatial memory, but that when it comes to remembering, the brains of many men and women seem to function differently.

That kind of question, along with “What would happen if I fell into a black hole?” are fairly typical for Science Pub, said Nancy Serrell, one of the organizers and director of science and technology outreach at Dartmouth College.

The point is to bring together scientists and the general public to talk with each other about the pressing scientific issues of the day in an atmosphere that is congenial and free form. No question is too obvious or dumb because the conversation often takes an unexpected turn into something that is illuminating.

Science Pubs first began in the United Kingdom in 1998, Serrell said. “There was great consternation that the public was not tuned in to scientists at all,” she said, and the effort was made to talk and meet with the public in a place that wasn’t a lab or classroom. Goodbye, formaldehyde. Hello, a pint of Guinness.

The college began Science Pubs at Salt Hill in Lebanon in the fall of 2011. People interested in science or a particular issue show up at around 5:30, drink and eat in a room off the main bar, and then the conversation turns to such topics as black holes, invasive pests, the use of steroids, declining populations of pollinators and the perennial puzzler, What do scientists actually do?

Allison Morlock, a mechanical engineer, had been to a previous talk on climate change, and found it a “laid back, and technically geeky conversation.”

The reason the Science Pubs spread to this country, said Serrell, was that American scientists had the same concern as their U.K. peers. “The National Science Foundation is very concerned that people don’t understand issues that have a scientific basis, that they’re disengaged.”

It’s no longer sufficient for scientists to talk only to each other or to the funding organizations that sponsor research, Serrell said. Organizations that award grant money now expect researchers to go beyond the echo chambers of universities to the public to say why their field of study is important, and what its implications are for everyday life.

“You need to explain to us what role you’re going to play in disseminating this information to people beyond your specialty,” Serrell added.

When it comes to how memory works, and whether we can train our brains to remember more, or forget that which we’d rather not remember, science advances all the time, even though the brain still harbors many secrets.

“The mere act of remembering alters the memory,” Bucci said. Some people believe, he said, that all of our memories are stored in our brain, needing only the right (or wrong) trigger to retrieve them. Others believe some memories disappear because they weren’t important enough to store away.

But in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD), said Friedman, the brain’s “neurocircuitry is altered.”

“People with PTSD are constantly waiting for the next shoe to drop.” Their memories of trauma are not distant or detached, but ever present. They re-experience the symptoms, react strongly to auditory or visual stimuli, have intrusive recollections and flashbacks, and store memories, often, as non-verbal images or kinesthetic, bodily memories.

“It’s like being in a time machine,” said Friedman: one with no off-switch.

The unresolved questions are these: Does the hippocampus, which controls memory and emotion, and which has been seen in MRIs to be smaller in people with PTSD, shrink because of exposure to trauma and the consequent PTSD? Or, are people who have smaller hippocampi more vulnerable to PTSD?

And tangentially, one questioner asked, can you train the brain to cope better with trauma before it occurs?

e_STnS“Basic training trains people physically but not mentally,” Friedman said. But the more soldiers know what to expect, and the more they rehearse coping mechanisms, the greater the chance that they will be more resilient post-trauma, although that does not take into account a person’s genetic vulnerability and disposition, he said. And there’s also social support, which is a critical factor in how people with PTSD fare.

What scientists have learned, said Bucci, is that “memories are very labile and fragile.” Memory is like a muscle that must be exercised and kept elastic, and to preserve it you not only have to do work that engages the brain, but learn new things, to keep the brain challenged and functioning.

Such insights, said Serrell, are why people crowd into the Science Pubs. It’s not only for personal edification but “understanding that we’re in a technological age and that we need to have some conceptual understanding on issues that require our understanding and our votes, so we can form reasoned opinions.”

The next Science Pub is on Thursday, May 16, at Salt Hill in Lebanon. Pub begins at 5:30 and ends at 7:30. The subject will be Earth’s Warming Poles: A New Definition of Glacial Pace? Discussion Leaders: Meredith Kelly, Department of Earth Sciences, Dartmouth; Ross Virginia, Department of Environmental Sciences and Director of Institute for Arctic Studies, Dartmouth; and Laura Levy, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Earth Sciences, Dartmouth.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.