Feeding or sex (or both)?

About three weeks ago I collected some mussels from the intertidal, to use both in the lab and in the classroom. A mussel can itself be an entire habitat for many other organisms. Many of the mussels I brought into the lab this last time were heavily encrusted with barnacles and anemones. I wanted to look more closely at one of the anemones so I took the mussel to the microscope. And, as often happens when I look at stuff under the microscope, I got totally distracted by things other than what I intended to.

But for the record, this is the anemone that started the whole chain of events:

A small aggregating anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima). 5 December 2016 © Allison J. Gong

A small aggregating anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima).
5 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Below the anemone there’s a thick mat of small acorn barnacles (Balanus glandula) and a couple of leaf barnacles (Pollicipes polymerus). They were all alive when I brought the mussel into the lab, and over the weeks a few of them have died. But many of them are still kicking, both figuratively and literally.

Barnacles are most strange animals. Believe it or not, they are crustacean arthropods, somewhat closely related to crabs and lobsters. They live encased within a shelter of calcareous plates, which they can close seal up against predators and desiccation. I’ve never figured out why they are called “acorn barnacles,” as they don’t look anything like acorns to me, but in Balanus and such the base of the shelter is glued directly to a rock or some other hard surface. Leaf barnacles are shaped very differently, and have a fleshy stalk between the shelter that houses the main body of the animal and the rock surface.

Small acorn barnacles (Balanus glandula). 5 December 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Small acorn barnacles (Balanus glandula).
5 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Close-up view of a leaf barnacle (Pollicipes polymerus). 5 December 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Close-up view of a leaf barnacle (Pollicipes polymerus).
5 December 2016
© Allison J. Gong

To picture what’s going on with a barnacle, imagine a shrimp lying on its back, then curl it up and stick the whole thing inside some calcareous plates. The thoracic appendages would be facing up. In barnacles the thoracic appendages are modified to be clawlike feeding structures called cirri. Barnacles are filter-feeders, collecting particles from the water by maneuvering the cirri in a sort of grasping fashion. So in a nutshell, or more precisely a test, a barnacle lies on its back and kicks its legs out to catch food.

Here’s what B. glandula looks like when feeding. Note the clearly jointed cirri, with fine hairs that help catch particles. The cirri can be controlled independently, as you can see when they flick towards the center, and the entire apparatus can be rotated quite a bit.

Same deal with Pollicipes.

So that’s the feeding part. A little strange, but not as interesting as the barnacles’ sex lives. Let’s start with some background about sexual function. And get your mind out of the gutter; this is real science stuff! Most of the animals that you’re familiar with are described as dioecious (Gk: “two houses”). This means that female and male sexual functions are segregated; in other words, there are male bodies and female bodies. Other animals are described as monoecious (Gk: “one house”), so that a single body has both female and male sexual function. Monoecious animals could also be described as hermaphroditic. Some monoecious animals have male and female function in a single body at the same time; we call these simultaneous hermaphrodites. If a body first functions as one sex and then either acquires or switches to the other sex, we say the animal is a sequential hermaphrodite. Many fishes, including the California sheephead and the anemone fishes of coral reefs, are sequential hermaphrodites. Make sense?

Barnacles are simultaneous hermaphrodites. If you dissect an adult barnacle you will find mature ovaries and testes. This means that every barnacle can be both a mother and a father. The logical assumption is that monoecious animals should just fertilize their eggs with their own sperm. . . however, this generally isn’t the case. The whole point of sexual reproduction is to combine the genomes of two individuals, and self-fertilization obviously doesn’t accomplish this. So even though there are many hermaphroditic animals, very few of them are self-fertile.

One other weird thing about barnacles, and crustaceans in general, is their sperm. Arthropods have non-flagellated sperm, which means they don’t swim (although some of them have amoeboid sperm that can ooze around a little bit). Many marine animals reproduce by broadcast spawning; that is, by throwing their gametes into the water, where fertilization takes place. Fertilization is facilitated by the sperms’ ability to swim towards conspecific eggs.

Barnacles, with their non-swimming sperm, generally cannot rely on broadcast spawning to get sperm to egg. They must copulate. How do you suppose they do this? The same way that other animals (e.g., Homo sapiens) copulate, by using a penis or some other structure to transfer sperm from one individual to the body of another. In barnacles the penis’s technical name is intromittent organ. The penis is inserted into the test of a neighboring barnacle and sperm is delivered. The receiving barnacle uses the sperm to fertilize its eggs. Unlike the cirri, the penis is unjointed and flexible, the better to seek out and slip into potential mates. You can see the intromittent organ unrolled and poking around.

Now think about the ramifications of these constraints. Barnacles live their entire post-larval lives permanently cemented to a rock. They also have non-motile sperm so sperm transfer can occur only by copulation. If the key to reproductive success is to mate with as many other individuals as possible, what do you suppose natural selection has done? That’s right: barnacle anatomists, including the great Charles Darwin himself, have noticed that barnacles have incredibly long penises. In fact, compared to overall body size, barnacles have the longest penises in the animal kingdom, up to 15 times the length of the body! That’s what you call bragging rights. Not all barnacle species are so amply endowed, however. The same leaf barnacle that I observed today (P. polymerus) has recently been reported to be a spermcaster; their penises are shorter than body length, and they release sperm that are captured by their downstream neighbors.

Wonders never cease.

Photography challenge, Part II

Last week I finished my 30-day personal photography challenge, and I’m finally getting around to putting up a follow-up to this post. These are the photos from the second half of the challenge.

Day 16: Egret on the stack at Younger Lagoon. A high surf warning is in effect through today and the waves are BIG! This rock stack sits at the mouth of Younger Lagoon and gets bashed by waves 24/7/365. Usually on days like today I’ll see pelicans and cormorants, true seabirds, hanging out on the stack and getting blasted by salt spray. Today a pair of snowy egrets (Egretta thula) landed on the stack but didn’t stick around for more than a few seconds. As birds of wetlands and marshes, they didn’t like it out there in these conditions.

Snowy egrets (Egretta thula) at the mouth of Younger Lagoon. 5 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

5 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 17: Sunrise. I know, another sunrise. But this time, instead of the panoramic scale of brilliant colors I wanted to zoom in and capture the chiaroscuro effect of the backlit trees.

6 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

6 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 18: This day showcased one of my favourite marine artefacts. This is the test, or internal skeleton, of the red sea urchin Mesocentrotus (formerly Strongylocentrotus) franciscanus. I took this photo with the 35mm lens.

7 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

7 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 19: Pie makings. This is the first since I started this project that I’ve not been really happy with any of my photos. Maybe that’s because I took a lot of shots of dead stuff at the marine lab this morning. However, this one does have a certain amount of visual interest, I think. As usual, the colors are spot on.

8 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

8 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 20: Jade plant. Day 20 had me playing with depth of field again. I wanted to photograph something green, to remind myself of the resiliency of life. We somehow acquired this jade plant several years ago, and have dragged it with us from house to house. I think it has made three moves with us. I pretty much ignore it, and it had mostly died before last year’s El Niño rains brought it back to life. And now it looks lush and green again! And may I just keep singing the praises of this 35mm lens? I feel it is making me a much better photographer.

9 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

9 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 21: Diving grebe. A friend invited me to join her at the harbor for some “therapeutic docking”. It took me about 10 minutes to remember that my concussed brain hurts when I lie with my head hanging over the edge of the dock. Oops. So I took pictures above water while my friend hunted for slugs. I really like this particular action shot of a grebe taking a dive from the surface. Bloop!

10 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

10 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 22: Not a sunrise! Looks like another sunrise, doesn’t it? But I took this yesterday at 17:00 so it isn’t a sunrise even though the view is almost due east. So what is going on here?

11 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

11 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 23: Super moon! I took on the super moon to practice some low light photography. I can see why photographers like those big telephoto lenses! My 18-140mm lens did a good job with details of the moon’s surface, which was nice to see. Had to do some digital zooming to get this view.

13 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

13 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 24: Lavender flower. This day saw me experimenting with bokeh. Before I started playing with this camera I didn’t really appreciate the aesthetic potential of the non-subject material in a photograph. This study has really changed the way I look at the world. I feel that my artist’s eye has developed quite a lot.

14 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

14 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 25: Setting moon. Last night we were fogged in at sea level so we went uphill to get above the marine layer. From that experiment it’s clear that I need more practice with night photography and long exposures. None of the pictures I took last night was very good in terms of technique, but one of them is aesthetically interesting and I may share it later. Anyway. This one is the super moon setting behind the trees this morning, at about the same time the sun was rising behind me.

15 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

15 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 26: Gull in flight. I’m learning that photography is about the moment as much as the subject matter. In this case the subject is a western gull, a California Current endemic species, in flight. What do you think of the moment?

16 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

16 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 27: Light through stained glass window. I went down to the church this afternoon to take pictures of the stained glass windows while the organ was getting fixed, then broken, then fixed again. I like the way the late afternoon sun shone through one of the south-facing windows and onto the opposite wall. I find the effect to be kind of spooky and not at all like the pictures I usually take. Maybe I need to play around more with angles as composition. The church dates back to 1864 (old by California standards!) and is the oldest church building still in use in Santa Cruz County. The gas lights, one fixture of which can be seen in the right-hand side of the photo, are part of the original architecture. The hanging electric lamp is not. We still use the gas lamps for evening services, and they are quite lovely when lit.

18 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

18 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 28: San Juan Bautista. We went to San Bautista to meet family and friends for a birthday lunch and spent some time wandering around the mission grounds. This image captures the three elements of every California mission–the Indian supplicant, the cross, and the bell tower–and hints of the tension in these settlements. Like it or not, the missions are an important part of California history despite their record of enslavement of the people who lived here first.

19 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

19 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 29: Chomp! This day was once again all about the moment. Lucie (calico) and Maggie (tortie) were napping together on the couch when Lucie woke up and started grooming Maggie. Usually it goes the other way around. This time Maggie put up with it for a long time before giving Lucie one warning chomp. After this they groomed each other for a while and then continued their nap for another couple of hours.

20 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

20 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 30: Tiny mushrooms. I wanted the last entry to be something special so I waited until we went hiking at Big Basin Redwoods State Park for Green Friday. Hiking through the redwood forest we saw beauty all around us. And mushrooms everywhere! I was messing around with bokeh again and love how these little mushrooms look against the blurred background. My challenge is finished and I’ve learned a lot about my camera and taking pictures. Mission accomplished!

25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I feel that I’ve learned a lot during this challenge, both about my new camera and about photography in general. And I’ve developed a whole new appreciation for composition and especially for bokeh. I’ve completed the challenge, but intend to keep taking pictures as frequently as I can. I still have so much to learn!

Green Friday

In recent years the day after Thanksgiving has become known as Black Friday, a day when retailers across the nation offer fantastic sales in order to separate Americans from their hard-earned cash. I hate shopping even under the best of circumstances, and you couldn’t pay me enough to step foot in a shopping mall on Black Friday. Fortunately, a trio of organizations have put together about the most awesome alternative to Black Friday that I could imagine. They call it Green Friday.

The idea behind Green Friday, as I understand it, is to get people to spend the day after Thanksgiving outdoors enjoying nature instead of fighting over $5 t-shirts at some big department store. The three organizations–Save the Redwoods League; the California State Parks Foundation; and the California State Parks–sponsored some number of free parking passes at the state parks. I have a Golden Poppy pass, which gets me into state parks in northern California and we didn’t need one of the free passes, but I’ve been wanting to go hiking up in Big Basin so I rounded up my husband and a few friends and off we went.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park is the oldest state park in California, established in 1902. It has long been my favorite of the state parks I’ve visited.

Big Basin sign

I have to say, the Green Friday thing seemed to be working. The park was very crowded, with lots of families. We chose to hike the Sequoia Trail, a 4-mile loop that begins at the park headquarters and goes past Sempervirens falls, a monument to the founders of the park, and a treacherous passage called Slippery Rock. The oldest and tallest redwood trees in the park are seen from the Redwood Loop trail, which we didn’t hike this time. But it is impossible to see any redwood forest, and not feel awed.

Redwood forest in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. 25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Redwood forest in Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Looking up at redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. 25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Looking up at redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) in Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The oldest of these trees have outlived multiple human civilizations. It’s humbling to be surrounded by such ancient beings.

The forest floor is shaded by the canopy of the redwood and other tall trees. At this time of year, and especially after a rain, the understory is spectacular with greenery and life. It’s all about the mushrooms. California had four dry winters before last year’s El Niño rains, and so far this autumn has been fairly wet. Well, October was wet; we didn’t have rain in November until last weekend. The fungi have been biding their time, waiting for enough water to fall from the sky before sending up their fruiting bodies. Now, I freely admit that mushroom identification is a major weak spot of mine, so take these names with a grain of salt. But I’m learning! The duff on the ground in the area we hiked was a mixture of redwood needles and leaves from tan oak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) and California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica). Many mushrooms were growing directly through the duff, while others were growing on living or dead trees.

Ramaria sp. in the redwood forest in Big Basin Redwood State Park. 25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Ramaria formosa(?) in the redwood forest in Big Basin Redwood State Park.
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This so-called coral mushroom is, I think, Ramaria formosa. We saw a few clumps of it right at the beginning of the hike, in this pale orange color. The branching at the tips appears to be more or less dichotomous, and the overall shape and size of the body reminded me of the intertidal rockweed Pelvetiopsis limitata.

These really pretty bracket fungi may be turkey tails (Trametes versicolor). We found lots of them on both dead and living trees. The ones that are brilliant orange and brown I do recognize as turkey tails, but when they’re pale and creamy like these I’m not sure whether or not they’re the same thing.

Bracket fungus (Trametes sp.) growing on a dead log.
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And there were spectacular displays like this:

25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

and this:

25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

and this:

25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

and strange things like this:

25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Clavaria fragilis, or fairy fingers 25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Clavaria fragilis, or fairy fingers
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I was able to identify those strange white things as Clavaria fragilis, or fairy fingers. The mycelium of this fungus lives underground in grasslands and wooded areas; it is described as common in this area, especially during the wetter months. The arrangement of these fruiting bodies in a more or less straight line is interesting and makes me wonder if the mycelium is living in a log buried under the duff. I don’t know what else would cause the mycelium to grow in such a linear fashion.

My favorite mushroom photo of the day was of these LBMs (little brown mushrooms) that were growing out of a downed redwood. The mushrooms themselves are extremely cute, but what I really like about this picture is the bokeh. I’ve become intrigued by the practice of composing and exposing photographs so that the the non-subject matter is deliberately blurred and becomes part of the overall aesthetic quality of the image. I think I’ve noticed it before, but never really thought about how to achieve it. Practicing it is a whole lot of fun, and I think there will be many more photos like this in my future.

LBMs (little brown mushrooms) growing on a redwood log 25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

LBMs (little brown mushrooms) growing on a redwood log.
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Where there are mushrooms there are mushroom predators such as banana slugs. I think we counted about 10 of the bright yellow gastropods on our hike. Alas, none of them were copulating. But one of them was eating a mushroom!

Banana slug (Ariolimax sp.) eating a mushroom. 25 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Banana slug (Ariolimax sp.) eating a mushroom.
25 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

What a great afternoon it was! Given how crowded the park was I’d say that Green Friday was a success. I’d so much rather see people hiking or at least spending time outdoors than shopping for material things. I hope that Green Friday is here to stay!

Pugnacity, and the need to regrow limbs

My friend Peter Macht is the aquarium curator at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center. He is responsible for all of the live (i.e., wet) exhibits and has a team of student and volunteer aquarists who help him care for the animals in the hall and behind the scenes. Peter and I go way back together, to years before the Seymour Center opened in 2000. Back then the only public space at Long Marine Lab was called the Shed Aquarium because it was, literally, in a wooden shed. I do miss the marine lab the way it was then, when I knew everybody who was there and it was a quieter and more peaceful place to work. However, we’ve come a long way, baby, and the Seymour Center is in just about every way imaginable, a huge improvement over the Shed Aquarium.

For one thing, there are two large exhibits in the Seymour Center, each of which would occupy about half the volume of the old Shed Aquarium. One of these tanks, the Sandy Seafloor tank, has housed many different animals over the years: surf perches, sand dabs, sharks, rays, señoritas, and various invertebrates. My personal favorite continues to be the burrowing sea star Astropecten, although she hasn’t been on exhibit for several years now. The current inhabitants are a close second favorite, even though when they first arrived I didn’t expect them to be nearly as fascinating as I’ve found them.

Pleuroncodes planipes is a little red crab commonly called the pelagic crab or the tuna crab. For once the common names reveal something about the biology of the animal–these crabs spend their lives in the water column over the continental shelf, at least as youngsters, and are one of the favored food items of tunas. They are usually found in the waters of southern California and Mexico, but during the El Niño event of 2015 they washed onto the beaches around Monterey Bay in humongous numbers; they also did so during the ENSO event of 1982-1983.

Front view of a living pelagic crab, P. planipes. 22 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Front view of a living pelagic crab, P. planipes.
22 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Lateral view of a living pelagic crab, Pleuroncodes planipes. 22 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Lateral view of a living pelagic crab, Pleuroncodes planipes.
22 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Although they resemble crayfish, Pleuroncodes is a crab. They are anomuran crabs more closely related to hermit crabs and porcelain crabs than to “regular” brachyuran crabs such as shore crabs and rock crabs. The way you tell the difference between anomuran and brachyuran crabs is to count the number of thoracic walking legs, keeping in mind that the claws are included as walking legs: anomurans have four pairs while brachyurans have five pairs. You can see in the picture of the lateral view that this crab has three pairs of stick-like legs and one pair of chelipeds (claws).

Being arthropods, red crabs molt periodically. Peter has been collecting data on frequency of molts for individual crabs since the spring of 2016. Doing so requires isolating crabs in separate containers, to keep track of which crab molts when and also to prevent the crabs from ripping apart a freshly molted compadre, which they do with great enthusiasm. It is not unusual to see one or more of the inhabitants of the Sandy Seafloor tank missing a leg.

Here’s one of Peter’s tables containing crabs in baskets:

Individual red crabs (P. planipes) in separate baskets. 22 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Individual red crabs (P. planipes) in separate baskets, for their own safety.
22 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

It’s just as well that these guys have extraordinary regenerative capabilities, as they are eager to rip each other’s legs off. With most crabs that I’ve observed in the lab limb regeneration is a gradual process, with the new leg growing a bit with each successive molt. Chelipeds, even with their increased size and complexity, seem to regrow faster than the other walking legs, likely reflecting their importance to the animal’s lifestyle.

Pelagic crab (P. planipes) and its molt. 22 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Pelagic crab (P. planipes) and its molt.
22 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Peter told me last week that he’d seen one of his isolated crabs regenerate an entire cheliped with a single molt, going from nothing to an almost-full-size functional limb essentially overnight. This seemed very unlikely to me, but Peter said he’d seen the before (the empty molt) and after (the actual crab) together in the same container. Unfortunately the crabs end up demolishing and eating their molts within a couple of days, so the evidence doesn’t stick around very long.

Sometimes, though, you get lucky. When I was at the lab yesterday morning Peter told me that he’d seen another of his crabs molt, and that it had grown a missing cheliped since the previous day. And this time he could show me the proof. Voilà!

A pelagic crab (P. planipes) with its molt. Note that the molt has only one cheliped, while the crab itself has two. 22 November 2016 © Allison J. Gong

A pelagic crab (P. planipes) with its molt. 
22 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Note that the molt has only one cheliped, the left, while the crab itself has two. How cool is that? The crab’s right cheliped is a bit smaller than the left, as might be expected of a regenerating limb, but it’s definitely intact and functional. It was pretty exciting to see evidence of wholescale limb regrowth taking place in such a short period of time, which must be incredibly energetically expensive. On the other hand, chelipeds are extremely important for defense, and there is obvious selective pressure to regrow them as quickly as possible should a crab be unfortunate enough to lose one.

Peter gave me permission to examine the molt more closely, so I took it back to the lab where the lighting is better. And surprise! The right cheliped apparently didn’t grow from nothing overnight. If you look really hard at the photo above, you can just barely see a ghostly transparent sheath where the missing arm would be. Hmm. This was not at all what I expected. Did I really see that?

It turns out that, yes, that is exactly what I saw.

Ventral view of the right side of a molt of the a pelagic crab (P. planipes).
22 November 2016
© Allison J. Gong

See that translucent tiny limb up front? That’s a little cheliped! And it had been there at least six months, as this crab’s last recorded molt was in April. Why hadn’t anyone seen it before? I think because this limb was so small that the crab kept it tucked underneath the carapace, where it wouldn’t be seen from the dorsal (top) side.

In the course of one morning I got taken for quite a roller coaster ride. Peter reminded me that he’d seen a crab apparently regrow a missing appendage in a single molt cycle . . . and had just found a crab whose molt showed exactly that . . . and then that molt ended up including a claw after all. What fun!

Now, why is that little claw so transparent? An arthropod’s exoskeleton is made of a material called chitin, with varying degrees of calcification depending on species. The large marine crustaceans (e.g., crabs and lobsters) have heavily calcified exoskeletons, while insects have much more lightweight, less-calcified exoskeletons. As a crab prepares to molt, one of the things its body does is resorb some of the minerals that it had deposited in the soon-to-be-discarded exoskeleton, so they can be re-used in the new one. If you find a discarded molt on the beach, pick it up and note how little it weighs; you’d be surprised at how flimsy it is.

Here’s my hypothesis. I think that this little cheliped, because it was newly regenerated before this most recent molt, was only lightly calcified. The crab may have used it, but it wouldn’t have been much use for defense. Then, the next time the crab molted the claw was shed along with the rest of the exoskeleton, and the limb was significantly larger. This crab now possesses a complete pair of chelipeds again. After examining the molt I returned it to the crab, which has probably torn it to pieces and eaten already. It’s a way for the animal to recover some of the nutrients it allocated into building the exoskeleton in the first place.

Kind of a neat trick, isn’t it?

Half a year

I have now been concussed for six months. It has been a long half-year. My brain has done a fair bit of recovering, and at least the constant headache is gone. It still hurts when I overexert my brain and I’m still easily overwhelmed by visual and auditory stimuli but overall I feel that I’m getting better.

Over the past week I went through three days of comprehensive neuropsychological testing. The goal of the testing is to determine objectively how well my brain functions in various ways: memory, reasoning, sensory perception. Some of the tests were easy, while others were designed to be difficult or impossible even for people who aren’t suffering from a traumatic brain injury.

First day of testing. The test itself began with a simple interview: What hand do I use to throw a ball? open a door? use scissors or a hammer? operate a computer mouse? The technician timed first how long it took to write my name with my dominant hand, and then with my non-dominant hand. The upshot of all this is that I’m mostly right-handed, with some tendencies towards ambidexterity. This didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.

There were several different memory tests, all of which I found extremely difficult. For the first test I was shown ~15 word pairs on a computer screen. The computer then showed a series of words and I had to record whether or not they were on the original list. Then I would be shown one of the words from the original 15 pairs and had to choose which word from a list was its pair. These word pairs returned to haunt me several times during the morning. As I worked through the other tests I was interrupted after a 20 minute interval to ask how many of the words I could remember; I was also given a second set of words and told to keep them separate from the first. Then I picked up where I had left off and worked for another 30 minutes before being quizzed on the word list. I was given a word and asked if it was on the first list, the second list, or neither. Yikes!

The tests all started easy and then got progressively more difficult. One of the first tests was shape recognition and matching. I was given a set of identical blocks, each with two solid white faces, two solid red faces, and two half-white and half-red faces divided along the diagonal. Then I had to look at red and white shapes in a notebook and recreate what I saw using the blocks. That was fun.

A slightly different test involved looking at patterns (say, a red triangle within a blue square within a red circle) with a chunk missing and choosing the piece that completes the image. The tricky thing about this test was that the options to choose from were all rotated out of position, so I had to be able to flip them around in my brain to see if they would fit. At first the missing chunks were easy to find, and then the images themselves and the missing pieces got more complicated. I had to guess on many of them.

One of the hardest parts of the day started out pretty innocuously. I was asked to repeat series of numbers (integers from 1-9) after having them read to me. Two numbers, three, four, five, it wasn’t too difficult even when the string was ten digits long. Then the test started over, only with me having to repeat the sequences in reverse order. That was easy until the string was about six digits long, then it got exponentially more difficult. I’d repeat the sequence in my head as I heard it (5, 8, 2, 5, 9, 7, 4, 4, 2, 6, for example) but when I had to start from the end and work backwards I’d have no idea what the first numbers (8 and 5) were. For the last part of this test I had to take strings of numbers and recite them back in numerical order. This also started easily but got increasingly more difficult. The really strange thing about all of this was the manner in which my brain failed. The missing numbers simply weren’t there. I’d remember the first several digits, then there would be nothing. I could have made up something but it would have been a random guess.

After 20 minutes of this I had to go back to the original memory test and list as many of the words as I could.

There was a section of verbal math problems. You know the type: “Jenny has 14 apples and gives two to each of her three younger brothers. How many apples does she have left?” And: “An item’s original price in October is $150.00. In November the store discounts the price on the item by 10%. In December the store adds another discount of 25%. How much does the item cost on December 31?” I had to solve these entirely in my head, without writing anything down. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? And it would have been, if my brain were working properly.

The other math problems were more fun. I got to dust off my old arithmetic and algebra skills and see if they still worked. How long has it been since you did long division by hand, or divided fractions, or solved problems such as: (x+2)(3x-14)=6? Or multiplied 6932.35 by 217.08? I mean, we can all do that, right? It just takes a little practice to remember how to do it. And I got to use pencil and paper, which helped a lot.

There was a standard vocabulary and spelling test. I think I nailed that part. There was also a list of common knowledge questions:

  • Who was the President of the U.S. during the Civil War?
  • On which continent would you find the Sahara Desert?
  • What is the capital of Italy?
  • Who was Catherine the Great?
  • At what temperature does water boil?
  • What is water made of?

and so on.

The most difficult part of the test was the last bit. This section evaluated my reasoning skills. I was given a keypad with the numbers 1 through 4 and told that I would be shown an image on the computer screen that would hint at one of the numbers. If I keyed in the right answer I’d hear a nice ‘ping’ and if I got it wrong I’d get a nasty ‘blat’. There were seven subtests, each consisting of a series of images. The same reasoning worked for an entire subtest but not necessarily for any subsequent subtests. In other words, once I worked out the reasoning for subset #2, I couldn’t automatically assume that it would work for subset #3. And there’s no going back, so I didn’t get to try multiple reasonings on any of the images I got wrong.

As usual the first subtests were pretty easy. I’d figure out the reasoning for one subtest and apply it for the first entry of the following subtest. If it didn’t work I’d have to figure out something else to try. By the last two subtests I was randomly guessing. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on with any of the images. Occasionally I’d get one right, but every time I tried to use the same reasoning on the next image it was wrong. It was extremely frustrating and made my head hurt. A lot. The psychologist told me he knew I was getting frustrated but reassured me that my failures were giving him useful information. I sure hope so.

Second day of testing. This was much easier and less taxing, although I don’t know how well I did. Once again we started with a memory test. This time I was shown a drawing and asked to copy it on a separate sheet of paper, about the same size as the original. Then the original was taken away and I had to draw the thing from memory. This was much harder than it sounds. As in the memory test on the first day I had to try to draw the diagram from memory at 20 and 30-minute intervals.

There were several sensory perception tests on the second day. I was tested for bilateral sensitivity to touch on the backs of my hands: With my eyes closed I had to say whether or not I felt a touch on my left hand, my right, or both. There was a similar hearing test.

The most fun was a test to see whether or not I could tell if two rhythms were the same or different. I thought this was very interesting, because I realized that if two rhythmic patterns have the same beginning it’s not easy to tell if they’re different at the end. For example:

| | | ||| | | |

sounds more similar to | | | ||| | ||

than it does to || | ||| | | |

I had to stick my hand into a curtained box, and the tester put a wooden block into it. I had to determine what shape the block was, then use my other hand to point to the correct shape on a card. I did this with both hands.

A related test for shape recognition ended up being a lot harder than I thought it would be. I was blindfolded and a vertical wall was placed in front of me. There were shapes carved into the wall (I couldn’t see them, of course) into which wooden blocks would fit. I was given a “tour” of the board with my right hand, and then told to find the blocks on the table in front of me and put each block into its correct shape using only that hand. The shapes I remember are square, circle, oval, star, triangle, large parallelogram, small parallelogram, half-moon, and trapezoid (I think, not sure about that one). I’d be interested to know how other people worked this puzzle. I did it by picking up a block and holding it in my hand, then using my fingers to find the shape on the board. I think some people might determine a shape on the board and then go hunting for the right block. I can’t say that my way was the best, but I did eventually get all the blocks matched up correctly. It went faster with my left hand because I already had some familiarity with how the board was laid out. But I thought it would be a cake-walk when I got to use both hands, and it totally wasn’t. Maybe it was too much sensory input at one time for my brain to make sense of.

After the board was put away I was allowed to remove the blindfold. Then I had to draw the board, including the shapes in their respective places. I don’t think I did very well on this part.

The last test of the day was one of those T/F personality tests. I was instructed to answer the questions as they applied in the last month or so. There were several questions about drugs: Have I ever lost track of time due to drug use? Has my personality changed since I started using drugs? Have I used illicit or illegal drugs in the last six months? Has my drug use affected my relationships with friends and family? It wasn’t hard to figure out what those questions were angling for.

Third day of testing. Today was the last day of the neuropsychological workup, and it was the easiest. It started with a casual interview, to provide a description of the accident and my early injuries. Then I took a long version of the T/F personality test. I had to answer only 360 of the 500+ questions, which was good because many of them were very unclear. I was finding it difficult to make sense of statements such as “I always regret never having done such-and-such when someone told me not to.” Uhhhh. . .

Then we got the What It All Means debrief. Since I don’t have the full written report yet I can’t give you the long version, but the take-home message is that: (1) my verbal skills are still really good; (2) my incidental and working memory functions are average, probably less good than they should be; (3) I don’t have any major deficits at this point but the ones I do have seem to result from injury to the left side of my brain.

One result I found interesting was this timed finger tapping test I did last week. I had to tap a digital counter with my index finger as many times as possible in 10 seconds. With my right hand I got 57 taps in 10 seconds, and with my left hand I did the same. Apparently right-handed people should be able to tap faster with their right hand. So either I’m sort of ambidextrous and my right hand isn’t as dominant as it is in other right-handed people, or my right hand is somewhat impaired and should have tapped more than 57 times in 10 seconds. On the other hand, 57 taps in 10 seconds is pretty high for anybody with either hand. Given other indications of minor injury to the left side of my brain, a minor impairment on the right side of my body makes sense.

In terms of how to assist my brain in its recovery, the psychologist suggested continuing to do what I can, as long as it doesn’t cause my head to hurt, then to respect my brain’s limits. At this point overdoing it could set me back. In a nutshell, I continue to rest and not overexert myself.

With the analytical part of my left brain not quite up to speed, this afternoon I decided to exercise the artistic right side and made a little drawing:

Persimmon