Intellectual isolationism is idiocy: Just say no to fences in the brain


Isolationism is the antithesis of the intellectual openness expressed by the French artist, Francis Picabia. From Museum of Modern Art (aka MOMA), November 2016.

Last weekend, I was taking a walk with my spouse, Gisèle. As we passed our neighbor’s house, a large, attractively tawny dog ran towards us barking. But the dog did not come all the way to us, stopping several yards from the street. Gisèle told me the dog had been trained with a so-called invisible fence in which moving past a line triggers a radio frequency signal that activates a mild shock applied through contacts within a special collar worn by the dog. In short, (operant) conditioning:

  • Go out of the confines of the yard (typically marked with small flags at least during the training phase)
  • Get a mild shock
  • Don’t go past the line anymore

I thought about that dog quite a bit. The dog did not even come close to the invisible fence. She no longer needed the punishing shock to stay in the yard. No flags were apparent and I don’t think that the perimeter system was still electrified. Even if it was, the dog no longer challenged it.  I realized the fence now existed entirely within the dog’s brain.

Self-imposed fences

Much has been written about the nonsensical wall along the U.S. – Mexico border that has been proposed by the individual who is the U.S. President as of March 26, 2017. I take issue with the wall’s purpose, expense, and message; but this post is about a different type of fence, exemplified by the recent African Global Economic and Development Summit at the University of Southern California. Not a single African person attended this meeting. Not one.

Tracy Jan of the Washington Post reported that 20 lawyers will be hired by the Department of Justice with the express task of claiming land along the proposed wall path by eminent domain. This will cost an estimated $15,000,000.

The lack of African attendance was not due to a lack of interest, planning, or effort. It was entirely due to U.S. embassies and consulates throughout Africa denying Visas to all. It should be noted that not one of the Africans who applied for a Visa was from the 3 African countries on the current 6-country travel ban (Sudan, Libya, Somalia; individuals from these countries clearly did not even try to attend the conference). Instead, they were from Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Ethiopia and so on. Painting all Africans – yes, you read that correctly: everyone from an entire continent – with one Don’t-Come-Here brush is a turbo-charged version of the nonsense (there is neither reasoning nor logic here) underlying the ban on all of those from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

The 6-country ban is being aggressively, and thankfully successfully, challenged in the courts. But how would you mount a challenge against the one-by-one rejection of visa applications taking place on different days and times at varied sites around the world? As these acts of stinginess are both widespread and scattered, myriad individual insults slip through and ultimately accumulate into massive harm. I am not a lawyer but my hunch is that a diffuse, amorphous enemy is difficult to engage in legal battle.

Shooting ourselves in the foot

Jaleed Gilani, a delightful young medical student from Pakistan, is another victim of this guerilla warfare on American pluralism. I first “met” Jaleed when he wrote me in December 2014. [Jaleed had “met” me when he took my massively open online course or MOOC on Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life.] Jaleed and I e-discussed various ways in which we could possibly work together, to no immediate satisfaction as obstacles secondary to national boundaries were numerous.

By last year (2016), Jaleed had progressed in medical school to a point where he was ready to plan his clinical electives. He asked me about doing his elective in Neurology at the University of Chicago. I put Jaleed in touch with a friend and neurologist colleague, told my friend that I thought highly of Jaleed and then never thought about the whole matter again…. until last week when I received an email from Jaleed:

“I had finally secured my elective in Neurology, got the Letter of Support from the University of Chicago, had made my arrangements for accommodation right next to the campus and after all this, I was rejected my visa from Karachi on the flimsiest of reasons. After seeing the official Letter of Support from the University of Chicago, the consular officer told me ‘The standards of the visa I wished to come for the elective on are too high and I don’t qualify.’  It couldn’t have been more vague.”

Jaleed decided to try again:

“I reapplied from a different city and traveled all the way there, skipping university classes. And I got rejected again, yesterday, with the consular officer telling me “I’m rejecting you for the same reason I rejected you last time.” Another medical student right in front of me applying for a visa was handed the same judgement, without any reason.”

It has become clear that the United States will not issue visas in Pakistan or Africa or I-don’t-know-how-many-other-places. Before ranting about how self-destructive this is, I want to give a shout out to both Tony Reder, friend and neurologist extraordinaire, and Kristyna Hulland of UChicago’s Center for Global Health, both of whom went out of their way to help bring an intellectually talented and highly motivated young scientist to Chicago. Tony, Kristyna, and all the others who would help if asked give me some hope that the individual who is the U.S. President today (March 23, 2017) will not be able to destroy American pluralism.

Intellectual isolationism

The current U.S. government has shut down the professional H-1B visa program. To be exact, the government terminated all expedited reviews. Since all reviews were expedited ones [not many positions will still be open after waiting 18 months or more to hear back about a visa], this policy effectively prevents foreign-born professionals from working in the United States. Home grown talent or bust. Already the H-1B policy has negatively impacted the supply of trained physicians in the United States, particularly in rural areas.

Ending H-1B visas hits science particularly hard. Science is difficult. Every scientific problem benefits from attention. Restricting the eyes on a problem to American ones is a senseless approach to progress. At research institutions including The University of Chicago, post-doctoral fellows and young faculty members who are U.S. citizens and those who are foreign nationals on H1B Visas work side-by-side with a common goal: understand the natural world. In my laboratory, I have had several outstanding post-doctoral fellows, all of whom were on H-1B visas. Many of my faculty colleagues started out on H1B visas before becoming resident aliens and in some cases, U.S. citizens.

The international community of humans

As many of you know, I am not big on human exceptionalism. I am proud to call myself a mammal and happy to be in the company of rats, bats, and okapi. Yet, I prize human aspirations to pursue knowledge, emotion, or experience with passion. We humans aim to understand the world through science. We discover ourselves through art. Drama, literature, sport, even “gaming” can all bring us nearer to a good, fulfilled life.

I appreciate people who dive fully into any venture. Building toothpick models of skyscrapers. Playing Magic. As one of Magic’s premier players, Sam Black, who says, “The more you engage with the game, the deeper the questions it presents become. It’s just a vast plane of intellectual space that you could explore endlessly.” I believe that the more you engage with virtually any subject, the deeper the resulting experience.

The current administration is taking the knife to America, trying to excise the world as though non-U.S. countries collectively comprised one enormous tumor. But the the world is no more a tumor than the U.S. is. We all sink or swim together on one planet that has always shared climate and weather, seas and marine life, rivers and mountains, and the wondrous variety of living species. In these modern times, radio waves cross national boundaries and the internet connects people in unknown locales. Corporations, companies, business and trade don’t stop at the national borders. We suffer from common diseases and medical conditions. We must pursue science and technology together as the only path toward prevention, treatment, and relief.

A global approach to research is the key to progress. Developing medical treatments. Predicting tsunamis, hurricanes and cyclones. But even more important than these pragmatic consequences is the chance to expand human knowledge, to understand our lives and the universe where we live. We accomplish so much more when we work together than when we toil separately.


  1. Hl Kai,

    I haven’t read this through, just skimmed it, but thought you would find it interesting.

    Peggy Mason, the sender, was the instructor of a coursera or edx class I took about the brain. Great class, great instructor.

    When my brother Tommy died and I was letting people know, one cousin I looked up on the internet because I knew he was a college professor and then I wrote to his work email. But in doing so I found out he did research on the brain himself and I told him that I was taking her class. He responded by saying he knew her and he had accidently blown up her lab once. Funny story.

    okay, internet is faster. Mac big test this morn and Thurs. Our phone number got changed, which it shouldn’t have. Hopefully that problem will get resolved today.

    first world, 10% (not 1%) problem.



  2. Excellently articulated, Peggy! It’s a pity that a lot of good work done by the predecessors is getting deliberately sabotaged. We must continue to build consensus for a push back. It will be extremely disappointing if the champion of liberty loses the torch that lit the path for many others.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent article, thank you.
    One minor gripe, though: what you are describing with the invisible fence is not negative reinforcement. It’s punishment.


  4. “The fight continues, the dream never dies.” Kennedy I am from the “we shall overcome” generation. The fool we call President is going down. He has exposed the terrible racism that still exists in this country, I continue to fight. Thank you Peggy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well said. We all create fences everyday but generally unintentionally. To become more aware is the path. This direction of our country though is right in our face. I applaud this and am sharing! Thank you


  6. So long as our leaders sole qualification for office is their ability to press the amygdala buttons of the masses; it is a naive and vain hope that votes will reflect much other than bonding-by-exclusion, xenophobic insecurity, Hypernormalisation, and the resulting populist distrust of authority.


  7. I just started following your blog Peggy, everything in here is like a breath of fresh air. Shout our form the Philippines !!!


  8. Beautifully expressed, Dr. M. He who should not be named has every weapon there is — including the scariest: lies and $$$$$$$$$$. I believe there is no concern for anything at all, other than self-aggrandizement and bullying.

    Terrifying, appalling, depressing.

    I believe those with their heads determinedly in the sand are outnumbered by the rest of us, but we must step up our games in every way to stop the current destruction and be ready to repair it asap……………


  9. I love your blog. And an earlier commenter is right: The invisible fence is punishing and it’s positive punishment – that is, something is added and the behavior (running over the line) is reduced or eliminiated.

    On another note, could you change your font color to black? Grey is very hard to see. Thanks.


    • Hmmmm. I am with you 100% re black vs grey. Didn’t realize the page was in grey. I apologize and will try to rectify. Hopefully it’s not a big techno hurdle.


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