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Of recurring nightmares, dream jobs and brain-science brainiacs

A few nights ago I experienced yet another instance of my most frequently recurring dream: I’m back in graduate school, about four weeks into the new semester. And I’m anxiously pacing the floor of my room, having suddenly realized I’m signed up for a hideously difficult advanced-physics course (once upon a time I was a physics major) that I’ve completely spaced out. I’ve missed every single class and read not a single page of the textbook, which outweighs my head.

Given my history, such dreams are understandable.

The next morning I attended the 2016 Stanford Neurosciences Institute Symposium, where I was reminded about 40 different times why I love my job. Some samples:

“The brain is not a cop,” Keith Humphreys, PhD, a drug-policy expert and professor of psychiatry and behavorial sciences, told a few hundred people in the audience in a morning session. “If you’re a drug and you’ve got a nice receptor in the brain that you can bind to, the brain is not going to arrest you.” His point being that it’s our legal system, not our physiology, that decides which substances are psychoactive or not.

“I enjoy coffee,” he said. “It’s an easy thing to get, easy to make, I don’t have to choose between coffee and my family – I mean, I would miss them.”

Nothing prevents great researchers from having great personalities.

During a coffee break I found myself kibitzing with Carla Shatz, PhD, whose resume includes professorships in both biology and neurobiology (she’s a chaired professor, to be precise); the directorship of BioX, Stanford’s high-octane interdisciplinary bioscience consortium; and membership in too many prestigious scientific organizations and receipt of too many prestigious awards to list here.

That distinguished cerebral spelunker told me she has a recurring dream: She’s about to be promoted to full professor, but the prevailing authorities can’t proceed. They’ve discovered she never received her high school diploma, as she neglected to take a math exam. With all her accomplishments she’s still having that dream – i.e., the same dream I’d had the previous night plus or minus a detail or two.

In the afternoon, neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, who’s achieved a ton of media attention for his lab’s seminal experiments showing that injecting blood plasma from young mice into old mice substantially increases the latter’s performance on tests of cognition, showed a slide of a Renaissance painting in which old people were jumping into what looked like a standard garden-variety backyard swimming pool, swimming across it, and emerging on the other side looking like 20-year-olds. The painting was titled, “The Fountain of Youth.” I found myself musing that in a contemporary version of this painting, the liquid in the pool would be red.

Great stuff, I thought afterward. And it would be really nice if next year’s NSI symposium were to feature a dream expert who could explain the significance of recurring nightmares.

Previously: It's a no-brainer: Neuroscience should influence policy on psychoactive substances, The rechargeable brain: Blood plasma from young mice improves old mice's memory and learning and How villainous substance starts wrecking synapses long before clumping into Alzheimer's plaques
Photo of Tony Wyss-Coray courtesy of Stanford Neurosciences Institute

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