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“The playground in our mind is far more compelling and engaging than the most expensive toys and computer games.” J Barth, 1998

The physical sciences provides us with the tools to explain the properties of all sorts of material like glass, metals, concrete, cement, wood, plastics. It is possible to understand why some materials are flexible, or strong, or transparent or hard, or super thin or …..based on infrastructures like how atoms line up or crystal structures.

Mind/brain science provides us with some of the tools that account for who we are, how we have evolved, our capabilities and limitations. It is the science that provides a partial window that can help explain our responses to the world around us, the complex interplay of our genetic heritage and life experiences. This website provides snapshots of how our brain defines who we are.

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How do you manage the ‘big’ problems in the life sciences?

How do you manage the ‘big’ problems in the life sciences?

art 6-14-3


Concocting a managing big life science programs reminded me of how my grandson and I would put together the design of the best candy bar ever. Instead of bed time stories we would conjure up all kinds of ‘as if or maybe if’ stories. We would go back and forth with ingredients and how they might be put together but before we would finish our task Henry would be asleep. We would start in the middle, like with a caramel center, surrounded by a mix of different types of nut chips, and around this core was a marshmallow covering and then we would build out from their with layers of milk and dark chocolate and we rarely made it to the top of the candy bar.

This sketch of management of big life science projects, like the bedtime candy bars, is incomplete but also far less tasty and satisfying. It needs work. Too many gritty inert stuff needs to be removed. The essence of this non-candy bar has to be refined and some of the sour tasting snippets needs sweetening, or maybe on second thought the recipe below should be chucked and some time later we can start over. I will ask Henry about what he thinks.

So how do you manage the ‘big’ problems in the life sciences?


I guess the answers are;

  1. With difficulty
  2. Call on experts for help
  3. Hope for the best
  4. Put chips down and then evaluate how well things turned out
  5. Don’t do too good a job in evaluating the outcome of huge resources that may have been poorly spent

I recently posted a project entitled: Towards a science of addiction: Issues, questions, future research directions. In that post I encouraged other basic and clinical research scientist to add their thoughts about what is necessary for us to have a better understanding of the causes and treatment of all sorts of addictions (with an emphasis on drug addiction). I got back several useful comments.

I now come back to the problem of how best to manage the inevitably limited resources available to progress towards a better understanding of addiction and its treatment.

What follows is an outline of questions and points of view that I think are worth some thought and consideration


Imagine that you are the unquestioned Czar managing a huge slice of life science research and its clinical application. For purposes of this posting assume that area of study is the science of drug abuse. You have total control of 10 years of funding (at current levels of support). Let us also assume as Czar your decisions are not to be questioned for 10 years but thereafter you are open to serious oversight based on your record of success, progress (or failure) and failures consequences can be dire, can make your life miserable. I’ll assume you are smart have some expertise in an area relevant to the research area you are managing and have some experience as a manager.

1. No one would dispute the notion that useful scientific research starts with asking good questions, very good questions. No methodological niceties, or post study acrobatic analysis can make up for the damage done by asking sloppy questions. So too, in setting a strategic agenda for attacking large complex problems. The big question must be broken down into components that make up the whole with each component being is defined in specific operational terms.

2. Starting at the end point of your reign you might now invoke the evaluation plans you would have put in place at the start of your reign. You can play it safe and an evaluation that is weak and imprecise and therefore will spare you some embarrassment especially if the form and content of that evaluation is so vague that any achievements can be sold as a success story. Of course you can also ‘go for broke’ and propose highly specific and clear goals that would need to be met for the 10 year funding to be considered successful.

3. Starting at year one minus one you might gather a group of expert advisers who will help you hone your goals and how to reach them. The problem with this reasonable approach is that those experts are also going to want to have their fingers in the till. No doubt many will point out the value of their area of research and undervalue the potential of areas of study that are far from their own.

4. As a manager expertise is that of the generalist with one or two areas of specific expertise. That limits and biases who you will call on for help.

5. Is there such a thing as an expert manager? Are their some highly complex problems that have been successfully solved because of superb management as opposed to the cumulative work of the experts working separately?

6. Can it be possible to generate collaborative units that enhance the work of gifted scientists who ordinarily work separately from one another?

7. Listening to evidence that is inconsistent with biases I suppose it is irresistible to accept findings that are consistent with our preconceived views on almost any subjects. Of course we also know that we shouldn’t bother collecting evidence that is of value to us only if conclusions reached based on data is merely what we always knew was the truth. Twenty years ago the NIH Cancer Institute convened a blue ribbon panel his charge was to evaluate all sorts of evidence that could inform clinicians about the value of mammogram screens for women under 45 years old. The panel of expert epidemiologists, oncologists, biologists, radiologists, clinicians came to the conclusion that mammograms for women under 45 not of any real value in bringing down the breast cancer rate and death from breast cancer in these younger women. The chair of the panel and all of the panelists were attacked and their academic standing was under threat in public and behind the scenes for coming up with that ‘ridiculous’ conclusion. Over the next years the panel’s conclusions continued to be supported in all sorts of studies. So…..how do we listen, really listen to experts who tell us, not what we want to hear but want to open our eyes and brains to a new way of looking at a problem and scientific evidence. Listening requires a whole set of skills that are essential when using the expertise of those we need to help set research agendas. Why listening, keeping and open mind is so difficult for many is a question whether of consideration.

8. We all have special knowledge. We are experts at some of the things that are relevant for setting a scientific agenda but obviously are unschooled in many other agenda-relevant areas. We are also likely to value our area of expertise more than that of some of esteemed colleagues. We also have our own compliment of ‘friends’ who we trust. Put all this together and surely we have a biased perspective on any complex problem. How could it be otherwise? Do we really mean ‘you can tell me anything’?

9. How do you effectively monitor progress during the 10 years of work on this huge project? During this time will you have the tools and knowledge to cut bait on features of the research that seem to not meet expectations of success?

10. Evaluation that provides information about landmarks of successes and failures on the road to a 10-year anniversary. An evaluative process, if useful does not only monitor outcomes but can provide clues about what worked and what failed in carrying out strategic plans.

11. Leadership matters but so does working in collaboration with others. For a collaborative relationship to be effective takes time to develop along with some dynamic features that include trust, candor, and full inclusion of partners involved in collaboration. In addition it is important to recognize and nurture the group success but also in the context of the career goals of each collaborative participant. No one enjoys working hard and not getting any recognition.

12. Who is the Czar (leader)? What does he have in his personal cupboard? Can he train (learn) to be a better manager, leader? Of course leadership matters. The quality of leadership can make success of an enterprise possible or doom it to failure. I guess what is missing are the ingredients of good leadership and to what extent those qualities can be tweaked to be stronger. Some features of good leadership might be (and anyone can add to this list) are: a. Confidence including knowing own strength and weakness b. Listening, valuing what others have to say, valuing relationships c. Delegating should not be a painful process (i.e., being not overly OCD) d. Enjoying what you do e. Doing the homework without too much cheating f. Honesty

13. All of us are capable of both rational and irrational thinking. Keeping some informal record in our heads of when we are acting on evidence rather than our favorite myths is important.

14. Can effective management skills be taught? What are the characteristics of good candidates for training? What features of being an effective Czar are ripe for training and what is not realistically trainable.

15. All of us are capable of both rational and irrational thinking. Keeping some informal record in our heads of when we are acting on evidence rather than our favorite myths is important.

16. Use some of the tools from cognitive science. There are experts and loads of knowledge about decision-making and the organization of knowledge. Why not use what we know? The analytic methods and models used to break apart complex cognitive functions (providing a foundation of the mechanisms and operations for carrying out those functions) can also be applied to an analysis of successful and unsuccessful science management programs.

17. ‘So what’ to all of the above. Forget all of the points that I have been listed as useful for improving how we manage ‘big’ life science projects. As pointed out most of these ‘suggestions, thoughts’ are obvious. What is not at all obvious is how do we implement what we know works. Once again we are faced with the huge problem of moving from well-established knowledge to application of that knowledge. We are all familiar with so many examples of knowledge that stays rooted on a shelf and not being used (i.e., implementing healthy lifestyles, economic decision-making in our lives…..) We know what we need to do and not do but that assures nothing about implementing that knowledge.

It is one thing to get 4 quarters for a dollar and another to promote change as individuals or institutions. Even when disaster looms ahead we stick to our dysfunctional repertoire of how to and how not to do this and that.  So…what do we know about strategies for inducing change in how institutions function?



I, we, have known but not forgotten many a czar. We have worked for and with fat and thin men and women czars, those that can charm as well those with bad breath. Far too few managers are remembered for being terrific, the kind you would want to work for again, the ones that you both trusted and respected all in the same breath. What made so many of the others odorous? They share some common features as if they were all taught in the same school (which may be the case if one considers life experiences a sort of training ground). What comes to mind are the czars who cared only about working on their own career achievements with little energy left for the organization they represent or commitment to those who work for them. I have found some of these toxic czars, haughty and confident bordering on a sense of entitled superiority. Many are unable to enjoy the presence, the process and content of their work but are instead focused down the road, their road while also looking around to see how their contemporizes are doing in their race to the moon. You certainly are as familiar with those czars as I am. While their have been loads of descriptions of the many czars that run our lives (both in fiction and non-fiction) helpful explanations as to how they have developed into who they are, and you haven’t (been as successful) remains vague and speculative. If you knew the developmental steps and operations that made them who they are you might try your own hand at a transformation that would allow you membership in their club. Czars are just like the rest of us. We come in every flavor and in some situations we are tasty while other conditions bring out a toxic bitter taste in our mouth that then spills beyond us touching others. What are miserable toxic Czars like outside of a ‘work setting? Can they be cruel and dismissive to those that work for the Czar but loving, generous, sensitive and authentic with close friends, their children, wives (or husbands), lovers. Maybe once again we see evident the important role that context plays in what facets of ourselves (including, knowledge, forms of thinking, emotions) are expressed at any given point in time. I suppose there is hope for retooling for those who are capable of effective human relationships in at least some aspects of their lives.

Postscript 2

I need a rest from thinking about managing large scientific projects. So….I’ll put aside these thoughts for another day.

Want to leave all this on a shelf but not before telling you what happened at the retirement party of a well known science manager, a woman, who was about to go further up the ladder of success as President of a large and influential biotech firm. One of her colleagues got up and made a speech that had the audience puzzled, giggling to themselves. While this goodbye event happened 2 years ago I still can’t help laughing out loud when I think of the words spoken by Dr. D.T. He started slowly, talking about how much she has meant to so many, about her efforts to champion the careers of both young and seasoned scientists. He went on to talk about her generosity in sharing the glory of discoveries, and her steadfast commitment to our program, to our shared work together that has resulted in so many significant discoveries. He did not stop but continued to construct and embellish his absurdities. None of us were surprised that our esteemed party leader thanked Dr. D.T. for his kind and flattering words and then added that he was someone who knew her very well especially the pleasure she took in being their for her colleagues and students. Perhaps sometime later someone may have told her the truth that it was a joke shared by the audience but the absurdity of it all was totally lost on her.