Have you ever tried to swat a fly, only to be foiled, again and again? Ever wonder why flies seem to be so good at avoiding your approach? At TEDxCaltech, biologist Michael Dickinson explains the why this should be no surprise, revealing the shockingly sophisticated biology behind fly locomotion — and incredible power of its tiny brain.

He says:

The engine of a fly is absolutely fascinating. They have two types of flight muscle:

The so-called “power muscle” — which is stretch-activated, which means that it activates itself and does not need to be be controlled on a contraction to contraction basis by the nervous system. It’s specialized to generate the enormous power required for flight. And it fills the middle portion of the fly, so when a fly hits your windshield, it’s basically the power muscle that you’re looking at.

But attached to the base of the wing is a set of little, tiny control muscles that are not very powerful at all, but they are very fast and they are able to reconfigure the hinge of the wing on a stroke-by-stroke basis, and this is what enables the fly to change its wing and generate the changes in aerodynamic forces which change its flight trajectory.

And, of course, the role of the nervous system is to control all this…Flies excel in the sorts of sensors that they carry:

-They have antennae that sense odors and detect wind detection.
-They have a sophisticated eye, which is the fastest visual system on the planet.
-They have another set of eyes on the top of their head — we have no idea what they do.
-They have sensors on their wing — their wing is covered with sensors, including sensors that sense deformation of the wing; they can even taste with their wings.

Top photo via Flickr user cypherone.


Psychiatric disorders — like autism, depression, and schizophrenia — take a terrible toll on human suffering. We know much less about their treatment and the understanding of their basic mechanisms than we do about diseases of the body.Think about it: in 2013 — the second decade of the millennium — if you’re concerned about a cancer diagnosis, and you go to your doctor, you get bone scans, biopsies, and blood tests. In 2013, if you’re concerned about a depression diagnosis, you go to your doctor and what do you get? A questionnaire.Part of the reason for this is that we have an oversimplified and increasingly outmoded view of the biological basis of psychiatric disorders. We tend to view them — and the popular press aids and abets this view — as ‘chemical imbalances’ in the brain, as if the brain were some kind of chemical soup full of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.This view is conditioned by the fact that many of the drugs that are prescribed to treat these disorders, like Prozac, act by globally changing brain chemistry, as if the brain were indeed a bag of chemical soup.But that can’t be the answer, because these drugs actually don’t work all that well. A lot of people won’t take them, or stop taking them, because of their unpleasant side effects. These drugs have so many side effects, because using them to treat a complex psychiatric disorder is a bit like trying to change your engine oil by opening a can and pouring it all over the engine block. Some of it will drip into the right place, but a lot of it will do more harm than good.

—From Dr. David Anderson’s TEDxCaltech talk,”Your brain is more than a bag of chemicals,” a TEDx editor’s pick this week.

Psychiatric disorders — like autism, depression, and schizophrenia — take a terrible toll on human suffering. We know much less about their treatment and the understanding of their basic mechanisms than we do about diseases of the body.

Think about it: in 2013 — the second decade of the millennium — if you’re concerned about a cancer diagnosis, and you go to your doctor, you get bone scans, biopsies, and blood tests. In 2013, if you’re concerned about a depression diagnosis, you go to your doctor and what do you get? A questionnaire.

Part of the reason for this is that we have an oversimplified and increasingly outmoded view of the biological basis of psychiatric disorders. We tend to view them — and the popular press aids and abets this view — as ‘chemical imbalances’ in the brain, as if the brain were some kind of chemical soup full of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.

This view is conditioned by the fact that many of the drugs that are prescribed to treat these disorders, like Prozac, act by globally changing brain chemistry, as if the brain were indeed a bag of chemical soup.

But that can’t be the answer, because these drugs actually don’t work all that well. A lot of people won’t take them, or stop taking them, because of their unpleasant side effects. These drugs have so many side effects, because using them to treat a complex psychiatric disorder is a bit like trying to change your engine oil by opening a can and pouring it all over the engine block. Some of it will drip into the right place, but a lot of it will do more harm than good.

—From Dr. David Anderson’s TEDxCaltech talk,”Your brain is more than a bag of chemicals,” a TEDx editor’s pick this week.