September 12, 2018

Let's explore ADHD with owls.

David Sedaris has a book title, "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls." The book has nothing to do with diabetes, but there is a chapter titled "Understanding Understanding Owls," which is about a book called "Understanding Owls," which he owns because his partner Hugh (a painter) needed reference photographs of owls. Sedaris and Hugh found the book title so funny that they had a routine, something like...
“You know,” I’ll say. “There’s something about nocturnal birds of prey that I just don’t get. If only there was somewhere I could turn for answers.”

“I wish I could help you,” Hugh will say, adding, a second or two later, “Hold on a minute…what about…Understanding Owls?”
But what if you really did think it was a good idea to use owls to understand some human disorder? I'm reading, "Scientists Study Barn Owls To Understand Why People With ADHD Struggle To Focus" (NPR).
So a team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore is studying... what goes wrong in the brains of people with attention problems, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Why not study what goes wrong in the brains of people who set up an "owl lab" where...
Shreesh Mysore, an assistant professor... has a distraught bird perched on his forearm. And as he talks, he tries to soothe the animal.
He just "has a distraught bird." Did the scientist cause the bird to become distraught? Why are we entering this story in medias res?
The owl screeches, flaps and digs its talons into the elbow-length leather glove that Mysore wears for protection. He covers the bird's eyes with his free hand and hugs the animal to his chest.

The owl, no longer able to focus on the movements of his human visitors, goes quiet.
So the "hugged" owl who stops fighting has gone quiet because he's no longer distracted?
When it comes to paying attention, barn owls have a lot in common with people, Mysore says.

"Essentially, a brain decides at any instant: What is the most important piece of information for behavior or survival?" he says. "And that is the piece of information that gets attended to, that drives behavior..... When we pay attention to something, we're not just focusing on the thing that we want to pay attention to," Mysore says. "We're also ignoring all the other information in the world. The question is, how," he says. "How does the brain actually help you ignore stuff that's not important for you?"
Some things that are important to me are whether the scientist is harassing the owl, whether the owl has any dignity interests worth respecting, and whether preconceived ideas about the human mind are being projected onto the owl? And what is the human interest in having an "owl lab" at Johns Hopkins and how does it affect the questions asked in the previous sentence?
There's no simple way to study it in a human brain, Mysore says, but owl brains offer a good substitute. The birds have a predator's ability to focus, as well as keen eyesight and hearing. They also have a brain organized in a way that's easy to study. Because owls have eyes that are fixed in their sockets, the birds must swivel their head to look around. That makes it straightforward for the researchers to tell what they're paying attention to.
So you can use an owl to study a human because you can see what they're paying attention to because they have to swivel their heads to look at things. There's not much description of how the owl is subjected to distractions. The main thing I see is "an owl might be listening to bursts of noise coming through special earphones while a computer monitor shows an object approaching quickly."

I'd be interested in understanding owls if the owl could speak — and if, also, somehow I could understand what he was saying* — and I could understand how he felt about confinement in an owl lab, and being made to wear earphones** and subjected to bursts of noise and video images of quickly approaching objects and having a man in elbow-length leather gloves disable all of the things that make him great — his eyes, his wings, his talons. Do owls hate?

There's no simple way to study it in a human brain, but why is it considered simple to treat an owl this way? And, by the way, we do experiment with children. We give them drugs and see if it works, and we judge how it works from the perspective of adults who find certain children very annoying and inconvenient.
______________________________

* In one of the famous books written in prison, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him." [Correction (via buster): "[T]he book Wittgenstein completed as a POW is Tractus Logico-Philosophicus. His remark about the lion appears in Philosophical Investigations, which he wrote while teaching at Cambridge."]

** A deliberate reference to "Ballad Of A Thin Man" ("You should be made/To wear earphones/Because something is happening here/But you don’t know what it is/u, Mister Jones?"). Maybe the owl, if the owl could write songs and screech them like Bob Dylan, he would sing something like that to the researchers in the Owl Lab... "You've been with the professors/And they've all liked your looks...."

76 comments:

Bob Boyd said...

"Shreesh Mysore, an assistant professor... has a distraught bird perched on his forearm."

It was a birth defect.

dda6ga dda6ga said...

As the saying ended "baffle 'em with bullshit"

Bill R said...

I'm reading this because I'm distracting myself from getting back to work

Bob Boyd said...

If the owl could speak: "Oh look, a squirrel!"

rhhardin said...

Lions do speak, all the time, and we do understand them. At least lion trainers do.

Wittgenstein's Lion Vicki Hearne

pdf enlarge to read

Henry said...

Sounds like a superhero origin story in the making.

Owl man.

rhhardin said...

Vicki Hearne proposed that the lion was Wittgenstein himself, a lit crit observation.

Henry said...

A bigger issue that underlies the post is this: is animal research unethical by default? Or is their a utilitarian justification? Like, no to barn owl brain studies; yes to rats and curing cancer.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

What is the most important piece of information for behavior or survival?" he says. "And that is the piece of information that gets attended to, that drives behavior.....

If you want to understand ADHD ( or anything else, for that matter ) in the human male, replace behavior or survival with reproduction.

When analyzing such complex phenome-oh,look,boobs!!!

I'm sorry, where was I?

tim in vermont said...

If you want to be a writer that Althouse enjoys, make sure you are born with the right voice, and I am not using ‘voice’ figuratively. You have to have that Spike Jones type voice mentioned in “Up On Cripple Creek” that tuned on Bessie.

Eleanor said...

Why are we trying to "cure" ADHD? Why not just change the learning environment for the kids who display it? We know what works, and it doesn't need drugs. Untie them from their seats, give them time to establish focus and don't expect them to move on to something else until they've decided it's time, and include lots of physical activity. Most kids with ADHD do very well when they're homeschooled. Sometimes we don't even know they're ADHD if they're homeschooled all along. Observing human children isn't that hard, and unlike the owls they can talk to you after a few years of them observing you.

mockturtle said...

"If a lion could speak, we could not understand him."

So true but humans like to think they can understand animals. Think Timothy Treadwell.

mockturtle said...

It would seem that covering the child's head with a falconer's hood would suffice.

Henry said...

Blogger Eleanor said...
Why are we trying to "cure" ADHD? Why not just change the learning environment for the kids who display it? We know what works, and it doesn't need drugs.

And sometimes it does. ADHD, like almost all neurological conditions, is a spectrum.

Kids -- and adults -- with ADHD often have other comorbid conditions including learning disabilities, OCD, executive function impairment, and challenges with emotional regulation.

Ann Althouse said...

"You have to have that Spike Jones type voice mentioned in “Up On Cripple Creek” that tuned on Bessie."

But don't sing. Only talk.

Fernandistein said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nonapod said...

You can explore colon health with the Bowel Owl.

tcrosse said...

If owls wrote songs

Michael K said...

My barn owl box is going on the roof before mating season. It has to have an opening just the right size to keep larger great horned owls from entering.

The commonest cause of barn owl mortality is starvation. During nesting the male owl has to catch 25 small mammals a night.

My screech owl box is already in place.

William said...

Owls should be grateful that they don't taste like chicken.

Big Mike said...

Shreesh Mysore, an assistant professor... has a distraught bird perched on his forearm.

Sounds as though he was named by an owl.

rehajm said...

What dogs would say if they cold talk.

WK said...

Marlin: “while Jim works to distract the owl, remember that you should not be distracted into believing that insurance protection is not required.”
Jim: off in distance struggling to put headphones on flailing owl.....

Carol said...

I hate the way scientists jack around with wild animals. At least what they show on PBS. It's always the same shtick, capture the animal, scare the shit out of it, drug it implant some device or attach a band, and release. For Science!

Bob Boyd said...

Oh that reminds me, I was going to swoop down, but I forgot.

Lewis Wetzel said...

The way lions speak to people is to eat them.
The way people speak to lions is to shoot them.
And in either of these very short tragedies, a gulf between universes is crossed. Communication is perfect, each inhabits the world of the other.

Bob Boyd said...

In Florida a team of researchers has set up a flamingo lab to study what goes wrong in the brains of people who don't stand on their own two feet.

buwaya said...

The essence of propaganda is to force people to pay attention to, or care about, stuff they would not have otherwise cared about, overriding whatever it was they would have been otherwise inclined to pay attention to or care about.

The modern coordinated news cycle where all possible mass media venues pitch the same message of the day is a developed version of this.

A giant public ADHD inducer. They experiment on we the owls.

mockturtle said...

In Florida a team of researchers has set up a flamingo lab to study what goes wrong in the brains of people who don't stand on their own two feet.

Good one, Bob! ;-D

EDH said...

Well, it’s proven owls have a hard time remembering people.

Every time I asked an owl if he recalled somebody the answer was always the same: “Who?”

mockturtle said...

I hate the way scientists jack around with wild animals. At least what they show on PBS. It's always the same shtick, capture the animal, scare the shit out of it, drug it implant some device or attach a band, and release. For Science!

I agree, Carol. For instance, airlifting a full-grown moose by helicopter to 'relocate' him. :-( Meddling. Always meddling.

Bay Area Guy said...

I bet Owls taste like chicken.

robother said...

Humans understand owls like they understand everything else sentient. They empathize, they imagine another consciousness that experiences reality as they do, that responds similarly to pain, hunger, threats, etc. It might not be the case, but as a working basis it has proved practical in domesticating animals and predicting wild animal (at lest mammalian) behavior.

That empathetic assumption is the basis of the scientific study of owls, as well as Ann's critique of the same.

Henry said...

Blogger Bay Area Guy said...
I bet Owls taste like chicken.

Owls eat small rodents. I bet they taste like grizzly bear.

Smilin' Jack said...

Maybe the owl, if the owl could write songs and screech them like Bob Dylan, he would sing something like that to the researchers in the Owl Lab...

You still wouldn't understand him, but he would sound a lot better.

tim in vermont said...

I was thinking of putting an owl box on my barn, but now I feel like I would be responsible to make sure there were enough critters around to keep ‘em fed. Maybe I should stick to a bat box.

PM said...

Studying animal behavior is enlightening until it becomes pathetic fallacy.

Howard said...

ADHD is a feature, not a bug. It's a side effect of high non-verbal intelligence so that men keep shit working.

traditionalguy said...

Brings to mind "I am Temple Grandin" that gives a really good explanation of Autists. She invented a "squeeze machine"that calmed her down and helped her focus better when facing thought overload.

Be sure to reccomend that movie to anyone with an autistic child relative. It has the answers.

Michael K said...

"Maybe I should stick to a bat box."

I have one of those, too.

Howard said...

Autism, as long as it remains in the micro-dose level, is how you make computer scientists and doctors

Ann Althouse said...

"Brings to mind "I am Temple Grandin" that gives a really good explanation of Autists. She invented a "squeeze machine"that calmed her down and helped her focus better when facing thought overload."

And she identified with cattle and invented slaughterhouse entryways that would keep them calm.

But owls are animals of prey, not herd animals that are preyed upon. Is there any reason to think it's in the owl's interest to get squeezed?

Howard said...

Do you think if you built an owl box near a feral cat coven they would eat the cats?

Michael K said...

I find enough small mammals in my pool to feed a modest sized owl.

I installed two Frog Logs, so that the ones I still find are the ones too stupid to swim to the frog log. Better they should be owl shit.

Howard said...

You should be required to install a small mammal wading pool because speciesism.

Michael K said...


Blogger Howard said...
Do you think if you built an owl box near a feral cat coven they would eat the cats?


Great horned owls will eat puppies, so probably cats, too.

They eat almost anything.

Owls prey on a huge variety of creatures, including raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, domestic birds, falcons, and other owls. They regularly eat skunks, and may be the only animal with such an appetite. They sometimes hunt for smaller game by standing or walking along the ground. Owls have even been known to prey upon unlucky cats and dogs.

Michael K said...


Blogger Howard said...
You should be required to install a small mammal wading pool because speciesism.


I have a couple that are called Water Bowls.

Henry said...

Is there any reason to think it's in the owl's interest to get squeezed?

Next time it won't just be your beak we rearrange.

MB said...

OWLS!
https://www.facebook.com/owlsday/videos/764775900386135/

traditionalguy said...

Sure , squeeze go ahead and your owls tight. The hard part is catching one. I grant you, cows are easier to catch.

Good old Temple was fixing a problem of cow herding, but what she had learned was true of over-thinkers in general. It is like wrapping new born babies in swaddling clothes to reassure them leaving the womb is safe.

Freeman Hunt said...

"Autism, as long as it remains in the micro-dose level, is how you make computer scientists and doctors"

Heh. Too true. Autism does not only take; in the right amount, it gives and gives and gives.

Earnest Prole said...

If Jordan Peterson can draw conclusions from lobsters about how the human brain works, surely we can learn something from owls.

buster said...

Slightly OT, the book Wittgenstein completed as a POW is Tractus Logico-Philosophicus. His remark about the lion appears in Philosophical Investigations, which he wrote while teaching at Cambridge.

tcrosse said...

"Autism, as long as it remains in the micro-dose level, is how you make computer scientists and doctors"

If not for autism, we'd still be trying to get our Commodore 64's to print "Hello, World".

buwaya said...

ADHD may be a leftover of human hunting instincts.

ADHD hunter hypothesis

A proper test for this of course would be field trials whereby children, with or without ADHD diagnoses, are made to hunt. This would be a fascinating experiment.

Marcus said...

Our hostess said, "whether the owl has any dignity interests worth respecting"

Seriously? Seriously? Conservative Playbook, page 201: Does a fetus/baby have any dignity interests worth responding?

How about just "was the owl harmed in this procedure and, if so, could it have been avoided?"

I don't give a shit about the dignity of owls. How's that for understanding owls?

F said...

Correction: while Wittgenstein did spend nine months in an Italian POW camp at the end of World War One, he had already finished his first book. The "lion" quote comes from his second book, published after his death in the early 1950s and there is no evidence for the proposition that Wittgenstein started writing any part of "Philosophical Investigations" as aearly as 1919. In fact, in his second book he critiques some of his ideas from the first book (the one he completed while on leave in April of 1918). Conclusion: Wittgenstein did not write anything in prison.

Michael K said...

with or without ADHD diagnoses, are made to hunt. This would be a fascinating experiment.

More Indo-European remnants.

Genetic analysis is still pretty crude.

Co-morbidities are more of a problem. The association may be less with hunter-gatherer than with the multitasking of agricultural life.

Until the past century 85% of people were farmers. Focus on long lasting tasks was much less important. Now, it is important to read long articles and focus on tasks that are pretty dull compared to a farmer's usual day.

Fernandistein said...

In one of the famous books written in prison

I'm *pretty sure* a "summer house" in Vienna doesn't qualify as a prison:

"In the summer of 1918 Wittgenstein took military leave and went to stay in one of his family's Vienna summer houses, Neuwaldegg. It was there in August 1918 that he completed the Tractatus, which he submitted with the title Der Satz to the publishers Jahoda and Siegel."

A few months later...

"he was captured by Allied forces on 3 November in Trentino. He subsequently spent nine months in an Italian prisoner of war camp."

Fernandistein said...

This is lame:

"If a lion could speak, we could not understand him."

Then how would you know that the lion was speaking?

Quaestor said...

Do owls hate?

Arrr. Shrink the wog down to vole-size an' we'll find out which way he be lookin'. Arrr.

tcrosse said...

If a lion could speak, he would say "Wimoweh".

Quaestor said...

Then how would you know that the lion was speaking?

Arrr. If'n a lion sauntered up to ole Cap'n Quaestor an' said in an audible voice Mine Schlubwagen ist breen geworden my reply would be, Avast thar, lion! Ye be talkin' nonsense in German! Arrr.

Henry said...

The Sedaris joke reminds me of the classic Amazon comments thread for How to Avoid Huge Ships.

tcrosse said...

A Navy buddy, who was a Dartmouth dropout, had a Wittgenstein sweatshirt. When people would ask him who Wittgenstein was, he would reply, "Why, he's the Father of Modern Positivism" and leave it at that. This did not win him many friends, besides me.

madAsHell said...

"Wimoweh".

I always heard "Weem-a-wepa".

Bryan Townsend said...

Wittgenstein was in an Italian prisoner of war camp for nine months, but he didn't write the Tractatus there. It was already written.

FullMoon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sebastian said...

"His remark about the lion appears in Philosophical Investigations, which he wrote while teaching at Cambridge.

Althouse was just making one of her sly digs, in this case hinting that Cambridge really is a kind of prison.

Which makes sense, considering that Wittgenstein argued, sorta, that we are all imprisoned in our language games.

JZ said...

"If a lion could speak, we could not understand him."

Reminds me of Cliff Clavin (Cheers!): "Due to the shape of its esophagus, even if it could speak the South American llama could not pronounce the word lasagna."

tcrosse said...

Correction: The Lion would say "Wimoweh" only if he talks in his sleep.

Ann Althouse said...

“Slightly OT, the book Wittgenstein completed as a POW is Tractus Logico-Philosophicus. His remark about the lion appears in Philosophical Investigations, which he wrote while teaching at Cambridge.”

No, very on topic. Thanks. Will do a correction.

Char Char Binks said...

Speaking of mental illness, isn't David Sedaris funny!

Nonapod said...

I don't know if anything truly useful can be gleaned about ADHD in humans by making owls uncomfortable. I know that animal models have proven useful in all sorts of areas of research, but this just seems a bit needless. But I'm willing to be convinced otherwise.

StephenFearby said...

"Secondary" ADHD (abbreviated as S-ADHD) is usually described as ADHD that appears after an immunological event, most often a concussion.

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/2675285

But it is also reported that the aftermaths of concussions can be much more serious if there was a diagnosis of ADHD beforehand.

http://thejns.org/doi/abs/10.3171/2013.5.peds12424

What to make of this?

Damage to the brain with or without a blow to the head most likely derives from a poorly-modulated immune system. It may either be a genetic inheritance or developed by long-term exposure to pollutants:

"...An intriguing association has been identified recently between autism spectrum disorder including attention deficit hyperactive disorders (ADHD) and particle air pollution (Larsson et al., 2009; Zhang et al., 2010; Siddique et al., 2011; Becerra et al., 2013; Volk et al., 2013). Risk factors related to PM include maternal second and third hand smoke exposure, residency during gestation at the highest quartile of exposure to traffic-related air pollution, condensation on windows (a proxy for low rate of ventilation in homes) and polyvinyl chloride (i.e., indoor airborne phthalates) flooring, especially in the bedroom of parents. Interestingly, airway symptoms of wheezing and physician-diagnosed asthma were also associated with autism spectrum disorder 5 years later (Larsson et al., 2009). Since these associations are linking autism and ADHD with environmental variables, they warrant wider knowledge translation by and among the developmental, behavioral and clinical researchers and practitioners."

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4129915/

There are ways to address inflammation in the brain...that range from immune system-modulating supplements to anti-inflammatory near-infrared light.

https://vielight.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Vielight-Newsletter-August-2018.pdf


YMMV

Unknown said...

An intriguing association has been identified recently between autism spectrum disorder including attention deficit hyperactive disorders (ADHD) and particle air pollution

It must have been incredibly common in the 1800s when everyone burned coal and wood for heating. London would have been a hotbed.

And I second the How to Avoid Huge Ships comments!