Attending the York Neuroscience Symposium: A medievalist treading new ground

Purkinje cell and dendritic tree, rat cerebellar cortex. Häusser, Michael; Rieubland, Sarah.; University College, London

Purkinje cell and dendritic tree, rat cerebellar cortex. Häusser, Michael; Rieubland, Sarah.; University College, London

My project, ‘Neurodegenerative Disorders and the Handwriting of Medieval Scribes: Using the Past to Inform the Future’ is now entering it’s fourth week. I’m officially back at my desk and have now become a member of York’s Centre for Digital Heritage, which offers exciting prospects for sharing ideas and methodologies.

Over the past month or so, I’ve been tying up loose ends on articles that I begun during my interdisciplinary internship, and I’m now beginning exciting new collaborations. In the same vein of newness and experimentation, I decided to attend the York Neuroscience Symposium last Thursday, to discover more about the scientific basis of my medical humanities project. I was also keen to find out more about the groundbreaking research being carried out at the University of York in this area. Looking at the programme, it appeared to have a good disciplinary mix, with speakers from biology, psychology, and the Hull-York Medical School, but I guessed that I’d be the only humanities scholar there. I’d already met or seen some of the speakers through the YorNight event last year, and through the network created by my home centre, the Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders. So, with an open mind and the expectation of being baffled, I headed down to the York Medical Society building on Stonegate in York city centre – an inspiring location for such an event.

One thing that struck me as I entered the building and headed for the introductory coffee and biscuits is how intimidating it is to step into a conference that is so far away from your usual stomping ground. From the huge Leeds International Medieval Congress to the smaller manuscript symposia and departmental talks that I usually attend, I have become accustomed to spotting a familiar face and heading towards it. Alternatively, I have felt comfortable breaking in to a group of strangers and finding some common ground. In contrast, as I entered the room to grab a coffee, I was surrounded by scientists who seemed to be clustered according to their lab groups, or in small collectives of Ph.D student friends or colleagues. It was fairly difficult to muster up the courage to walk up to a stranger and say, ‘hi’. However, I resolved that a biologist would feel the same if surrounded by medievalists talking about the intricacies of fifteenth-century handwriting. So, I drew in my breath and broke into a friendly group. This was all excellent interdisciplinary experience for me, and helped me to push further out of my comfort zone.

Mouse brain. Torre-Ubieta, Luis de la; University of California, Los Angeles

Mouse brain. Torre-Ubieta, Luis de la; University of California, Los Angeles

As the rustling of papers and murmuring of the audience began to subside, I wondered what I was letting myself in for — how much would I grasp, and how much assumed knowledge would there be? My concerns were allayed as the keynote speech began. It concerned York’s Neuroimaging centre, and the exciting ideas that are being developed there. The speaker, the centre’s director Gary Green, struck an excellent balance between detail and explanation, and I now feel inspired to find out more about the technology. The talk was punctuated with useful metaphorical explanations, such as comparing MRI scanning with attempting to hear the voice of a single person within a packed baseball ground. I’ve jotted down a great number of technical terms and snippets of information to look up over the upcoming weeks.  Following this, I was particularly interested to hear Alex Wade present evidence for shifts in the perception of colours according to the season. The research, conducted with Lauren Welborne and Antony Morland in York’s Psychology department, investigates how changes in the chromaticity of the environment (ie. the quality of its colour) impacts upon the mechanisms of our brains. So, we perceive colour differently according to the seasonal changes that occur around us. He revealed that environmental changes can alter our colour perception very quickly – even over the course of a couple of weeks. Hence, experiment participants were not allowed to go on holiday (a restriction thankfully not endured by medievalists). Someone raised the question of how this effect might differ for individuals living in urban and rural environments, or in geographical locations where the seasonal colours are different. This got me thinking about how we study cognition across historical periods. After all, our environments are constantly shifting, as are our interactions with them.

I was also excited to see Ryan West give a talk about his group’s work on Parkinson’s disease genotypes in fruit flies. It is perhaps hard to believe that these flies and human beings share enough genetic material to conduct research with transferable outcomes. However, they do. This means that the group can conduct research into the visual responses of flies with Parkinson’s genotypes that they hope will transfer into early diagnostic techniques for humans. They use flies, I gather, because their visual systems are remarkably similar to humans and their genetic mechanisms of development are well understood by scientists. Plus, they have short lifespans that suit the experimental approach (correct me if I’m wrong, Ryan). The group’s work is getting a lot of attention within the scientific community and beyond, and my work focuses upon Parkinson’s among other conditions, so it was good to hear this talk.

I stayed only for the morning, as I had an article to edit and a finite capacity for such intense attention. However, the symposium was a great opportunity to populate my brain with a wide assortment of nuggets of information to draw in to my research. I found the degree of concentration necessary to absorb the information exhausting, but also exhilarating. Overall, it was an experience that I’d recommend to anyone pursuing a humanities project that incorporates scientific approaches (or, indeed, anyone who fancies a challenge).

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