“It is a funny sort of excess, this not-not negativity, this multiplicity of the inbetween (i.e. the negative ‘between-ness’ of the not and its other). A kind of spiralling (or, anyway, dizzing) interiority which regurgitates right outside the limit, and in that wake, constitutes it: neither/nor. Indeed, it is, precisely, a surface, or even a strategy of surfaces.”—(Sue Golding, ‘Curiosity’) Golding
The recent release of Susan Greenfield’s new book and the film Lucy, both of which are dependent on tired misconceptions or dubious theories about the brain, suggest one worrying conclusion: we are running out of myths about the brain. So here are some new ones, to keep things ‘mysterious’
One of the best things about being a neuroscientist used to be the aura of mystery around it. It was once so mysterious that some people didn’t even know it was a thing. When I first went to university and people asked what I studied, they thought I was saying I was a “Euroscientist”, which is presumably someone who studies the science of Europe. I’d get weird questions such as “what do you think of Belgium?” and I’d have to admit that, in all honesty, I never think of Belgium. That’s how mysterious neuroscience was, once. Of course, you could say this confusion was due to my dense Welsh accent, or the fact that I only had the confidence to talk to strangers after consuming a fair amount of alcohol, but I prefer to go with the mystery. It’s not like that any more. Neuroscience is “mainstream” now, to the point where the press coverage of it can be studied extensively. When there’s such a thing as Neuromarketing (well, there isn’t actually such a thing, but there’s a whole industry that would claim otherwise), it’s impossible to maintain that neuroscience is “cool” or “edgy”. It’s a bad time for us neurohipsters (which are the same as regular hipsters, except the designer beards are on the frontal lobes rather than the jaw-line). One way that we professional neuroscientists could maintain our superiority was by correcting misconceptions about the brain, but lately even that avenue looks to be closing to us. The recent film Lucy is based on the most classic brain misconception: that we only use 10% of our brain. But it’s had a considerable amount of flack for this already, suggesting that many people are wise to this myth. We also saw the recent release of Susan Greenfield’s new book Mind Change, all about how technology is changing (damaging?) our brains. This is a worryingly evidence-free but very common claim by Greenfield. Depressingly common, as this blog has pointed out many times. But now even the non-neuroscientist reviewers aren’t buying her claims.
Infobesium: The aggregate (data) matter of (unprocessed) information in the modern hyperconnected mind.
Infobesium: A new kind of (emergent?) matter composed mainly of residue data, perceived (read or heard) by a modern hyperconnected mind and unprocessed, therefore remaining untouched by critical thought.
Infobesium: A byproduct of being subjected to a constant stream of infodata that has no possible way of being either accommodated ,digested or spat out for its sheer quantity, memetic attractiveness and perceptual saturation.
Infobesity :The illness resulting from consuming too much information that the current mind cannot process.
Infobesiology :Defines itself as the future possible science of researching, finding and eliminating the causes processes and consequences of too much unprocessed and non digested infodata.
Our thesis is materialism (or physicalism): roughly, the thesis that everything is fundamentally physical. Our antithesis is dualism: roughly, the thesis that not everything is fundamentally physical, and the things that are not fundamentally physical are fundamentally mental. Our synthesis is panpsychism: very roughly, the thesis that everything is (or at least that some things are) fundamentally physical and fundamentally mental.
More specifically, we will be concerned with materialism and dualism about consciousness. Materialism about consciousness is the thesis that consciousness is fundamentally physical: that is, that truths about consciousness are grounded in the fundamental truths of a completed physics. Dualism about consciousness is the thesis that consciousness is not fundamentally physical: that is, that truths about consciousness are not grounded in the fundamental truths of a completed physics.
Researchers analyzing human, fly, and worm genomes have found that these species have a number of key genomic processes in common, reflecting their shared ancestry. The findings, appearing Aug. 28, 2014, in the journal Nature, offer insights into embryonic development, gene regulation and other biological processes vital to understanding human biology and disease. The studies highlight the data generated by the modENCODE Project and the ENCODE Project, both supported by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the National Institutes of Health. Integrating data from the three species, the model organism ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements (modENCODE) Consortium studied how gene expression patterns and regulatory proteins that help determine cell fate often share common features. Investigators also detailed the similar ways in which the three species use protein packaging to compact DNA into the cell nucleus and to regulate genome function by controlling access to DNA. Launched in 2007, the goal of modENCODE is to create a comprehensive catalog of functional elements in the fruit fly and roundworm genomes for use by the research community. Such elements include genes that code for proteins, non-protein-coding genes and regulatory elements that control gene expression. The current work builds on initial catalogs published in 2010. The modENCODE projects complement the work being done by the ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements (ENCODE) Project, which is building a comprehensive catalog of functional elements in the human and mouse genomes. “The modENCODE investigators have provided a valuable resource for researchers worldwide,” said NHGRI Director Eric Green, M.D., Ph.D. “The insights gained about the workings of model organisms’ genomes greatly help to inform our understanding of human biology.”
In January of this year, the first subject checked into the metabolic ward at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, to participate in one of the most rigorous dietary studies ever devised. For eight weeks, he was forbidden to leave. He spent two days of each week inside tiny airtight rooms known as metabolic chambers, where scientists determined precisely how many calories he was burning by measuring changes in oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air. He received meals through vacuum-sealed portholes so that the researchers’ breath wouldn’t interfere with their measurements. The food itself had been chemically analyzed to ensure an exact number of carbohydrate, protein, and fat calories.
The two-day stays in the chambers were only a small part of the testing, which was also being carried out on subjects at three other institutions around the US. Twice a month, the subjects were required to lie down for dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry scans, an accurate way to measure body fat. They offered up their veins again and again so that scientists could measure their lipids and hormone levels. They provided samples of their stools so the researchers could record the different colonies of bacteria residing in their guts.
And yet for all the poking, prodding, measuring, and testing, the most remarkable thing about the $5 million undertaking may be that it’s designed to answer a question you’d think we’d have answered long ago: Do we get fat because we overeat or because of the types of food we eat? The Energy Balance Consortium Study, as it’s called, is one of the first to be backed by the Nutrition Science Initiative, a nonprofit that prides itself on funding fanatically careful tests of previously overlooked hypotheses. NuSI (pronounced new-see) was launched in September 2012 by crusading science journalist Gary Taubes and former physician and medical researcher Peter Attia. The three NuSI studies now under way, which focus on establishing the root causes of obesity and its related diseases, provide just a glimpse of Taubes and Attia’s sweeping ambition. NuSI has already raised more than $40 million in pledges and is in the midst of a $190 million, three-year campaign to fund a new round of studies that will build off the findings in the initial research. Together, the studies are intended as steps toward an audacious goal: cutting the prevalence of obesity in the US by more than half—and the prevalence of diabetes by 75 percent—in less than 15 years.
Everyone has knick-knacks of sentimental value around their home, but what if your emotions could actually be shaped into household things?
A project recently unveiled at the Sao Paulo Design Weekend turns feelings of love into physical objects using 3D printing and biometric sensors. “Each product is unique and contains the most intimate emotions of the participants’ love stories,” explains designer Guto Requena.
A new analysis suggests the planet can produce much more land-plant biomass – the total material in leaves, stems, roots, fruits, grains and other terrestrial plant parts – than previously thought. The study, reported in Environmental Science and Technology, recalculates the theoretical limit of terrestrial plant productivity, and finds that it is much higher than many current estimates allow. “When you try to estimate something over the whole planet, you have to make some simplifying assumptions,” said University of Illinois plant biology professor Evan DeLucia, who led the new analysis. “And most previous research assumes that the maximum productivity you could get out of a landscape is what the natural ecosystem would have produced. But it turns out that in nature very few plants have evolved to maximize their growth rates.” DeLucia directs the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment at the U. of I. He also is an affiliate of the Energy Biosciences Institute, which funded the research through the Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois. Estimates derived from satellite images of vegetation and modeling suggest that about 54 gigatons of carbon is converted into terrestrial plant biomass each year, the researchers report. “This value has remained stable for the past several decades, leading to the conclusion that it represents a planetary boundary – an upper limit on global biomass production,” the researchers wrote.
“During World War II, residents on the islands in the southern Pacific Ocean saw heavy activity by US planes, bringing in goods and supplies for the soldiers. In many cases, this was the islanders’ first exposure to 20th century goods and technology. After the war, when the cargo shipments stopped, some of the islanders built imitation air-strips. These incorporated wooden control towers, bamboo radio antennae, and fire torches instead of landing-lights. They apparently believed that that this would attract more US planes and their precious cargo. This behaviour, it turns out, is not a singular occurrence. Anthropologists have found examples of similar behaviour at different times in history, albeit in island populations. In a commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology in 1974, the physicist Richard Feynman used the concept to coin the phrase “cargo-cult science”. The cargo cult’s air-strips had the appearance of the real thing, but they were not functional. Likewise, Feynman used the term “cargo-cult science” to mean something that has the appearance of science, but is actually missing key elements. The phrase has since been used to refer to various pseudo-scientific fields such as phrenology, neuro-linguistic programming, and the various kinds of alternative therapies. Practitioners of these disciplines may use scientific terms, and may even perform research, but their thinking and conclusions are nonetheless fundamentally scientifically flawed.”—How neuroscience is being used to spread quackery in business and education
“Psychologists are aware that intelligence scores are somewhat subject to cultural influence and social opportunity, but some have still insisted that we cannot raise our IQ by much. This is because our general intelligence (or “g”) is a fixed trait that is insensitive to education, “brain training”, diet, or other interventions. In other words, they say, we are all biologically limited in our intelligence levels. The idea that IQ is fixed for life is built into the questionable politics of IQ testing. The most serious consequence of this is the use of IQ tests to blame educational difficulties on students rather than on teaching systems. But it is the job of psychologists to find better ways to teach, not to find better ways to justify the poor performance of students. This particular use of IQ tests has caused one leader in the field of intelligence research, Robert Sternberg, to refer to IQ testing as “negative psychology” in a 2008 article.”—Ignore the IQ test: your level of intelligence is not fixed for life
We’re getting more stupid. That’s one point made in a recent article in the New Scientist, reporting on a gradual decline in IQs in developed countries such as the UK, Australia and the Netherlands. Such research feeds into a long-held fascination with testing human intelligence. Yet such debates are too focused on IQ as a life-long trait that can’t be changed. Other research is beginning to show the opposite.
The concept of testing intelligence was first successfuly devised by French psychologists in the early 1900s to help describe differences in how well and quickly children learn at school. But it is now frequently used to explain that difference – that we all have a fixed and inherent level of intelligence that limits how fast we can learn.
Defined loosely, intelligence refers to our ability to learn quickly and adapt to new situations. IQ tests measure our vocabulary, our ability to problem-solve, reason logically and so on.
But what many people fail to understand is that if IQ tests measured only our skills at these particular tasks, no one would be interested in our score. The score is interesting only because it is thought to be fixed for life.
Who is getting smarter?
Standardised IQ tests used by clinical psychologists for diagnostic purposes, such as the Weschler scale, are designed in such a way that it is not easy to prepare for them. The contents are kept surprisingly secret and they are changed regularly. The score given for an individual is a relative one, adjusted based on the performance of people of the same age.
But even as we become better educated and more skillful at the types of tasks measured on IQ tests (a phenomenon known as the “Flynn effect”, after James Fylnn who first noted it) our IQs stay pretty much the same. This is because the IQ scoring system takes into account the amount of improvement expected over time, and then discounts it. This type of score is called a “standardised score” – it hides your true score and merely represents your standing in relation to your peers who have also been getting smarter at about the same rate.
This apparent stability in IQ scores makes intelligence look relatively constant, whereas in fact we are all becoming more intelligent across and within our lifetimes. The IQ test and the IQ scoring system are constantly adjusted to ensure that the average IQ remains at 100, despite a well-noted increase in intellectual ability worldwide.
“If being inactive is pathological and abnormal, then how come we hate exercise so much?
There was never any evolutionary selection pressure to make us like exercise. If you are a Neanderthal or Homo erectus or an early modern human, you didn’t think, “Gee, I’m going to go for a run so that I’m not going to get depressed”. They had to go long distances every day in order to survive. Not exercising was never an option, so there was never any selection pressure to make people like exercise. On the contrary, there was probably selection to help people avoid needless exercise when they could. Some hunter-gatherers had diets of about 2200 calories a day. When your energy intake is that low, you can’t afford to go for a jog just for fun.
So evolution selected for traits that made us relax or be lazy?
Of course. Just like any time you crave sugary, fatty foods – that would have been advantageous for early humans. It’s only now that they have become maladaptive.”—Humans are endurance champs – why do we hate exercise? - opinion - 06 June 2013 - New Scientist
Implant attached to bone in pioneering technique that helps prevent infection and discomfort
Revolutionary technology at a north London hospital has transformed the lives of amputees taking part in a trial by allowing artificial limbs to be attached directly to their skeleton, giving them feeling and mobility far beyond that experienced by people with traditional prosthetics.
Unlike traditional ball-and-socket joints where a socket is placed over the soft tissue of the stump, Itap (intraosseous transcutaneous amputation prosthesis) involves insertion of a metal implant that forms a direct interface with the bone and sticks out through the skin for the prosthetic to be attached.
If the trial conducted at the Royal National Orthopaedic hospital (RNOH) and the Royal Orthopaedic hospital in Birmingham, which ended in June, is deemed a success, Itap could be rolled out across the UK and internationally through specialist clinics.
Mark O’Leary, 40, from south London, was one of the first of 20 above-the-knee amputees to take part in the trial. He described the change it had made to his life. “Just knowing where my foot is, my ability to know where it is improved dramatically because you can feel it through the bone. A textured road crossing, I can feel that. You essentially had no sensation with a socket and with Itap you can feel everything,” he said.
"It’s like they’ve given me my leg back. I know that sounds a bit trite. With this thing I just click the stump on in the morning and I can walk as far as I like, do anything I want within reason. There’s no limit."
Stanford Bioengineer Christina Smolke has been on a decade-long quest to genetically alter yeast so they can brew opioid medicines in stainless steel vats,
Stanford bioengineers have hacked the DNA of yeast, reprograming these simple cells to make opioid-based medicines* via a sophisticated extension of the basic brewing process that makes beer.
Led by Associate Professor of Bioengineering Christina Smolke, the Stanford team has already spent a decade genetically engineering yeast cells to reproduce the biochemistry of poppies, with the ultimate goal of producing opium-based medicines, from start to finish, in fermentation vats.
“We are now very close to replicating the entire opioid production process in a way that eliminates the need to grow poppies, allowing us to reliably manufacture essential medicines while mitigating the potential for diversion to illegal use,” said Smolke, who outlines her work in the August 24 edition of Nature Chemical Biology.
Smolke added five genes from two different organisms to yeast cells. Three of these genes came from the poppy itself, and the others from a bacterium that lives on poppy plant stalks.
Inside the weird and hopeful world of cryonics surgery
In 1972 Max More saw a children’s science fiction television show called Time Slip that featured characters being frozen in ice. He didn’t think much about it until years later, when he started hanging out with friends who held meetings about futurism. “They were getting Cryonics magazine,” he says, “and they asked me about it to see how futuristic I was. It just made sense to me right away.”
More is now the president and chief executive officer of Alcor, one of the world’s largest cryonics companies. More himself has been a member since 1986, and has decided to opt for neuropreservation—just deep freezing the brain—over whole body preservation. “I figure the future is a pretty decent place to be, so I want to be there,” he says. “I want to keep living and enjoying and producing.”
Cryopreservation is a darling of the futurist community. The general premise is simple: Medicine is continually getting better. Those who die today could be cured tomorrow. Cryonics is a way to bridge the gap between today’s medicine and tomorrow’s. “We see it as an extension of emergency medicine,” More says. “We’re just taking over when today’s medicine gives up on a patient. Think of it this way: Fifty years ago if you were walking along the street and someone keeled over in front of you and stopped breathing you would have checked them out and said they were dead and disposed of them. Today we don’t do that, instead we do CPR and all kinds of things. People we thought were dead 50 years ago we now know were not. Cryonics is the same thing, we just have to stop them from getting worse and let a more advanced technology in the future fix that problem.”
LOS ANGELES — The world is awash in plastic. It’s in our cars and our carpets, we wrap it around the food we eat and virtually every other product we consume; it has become a key lubricant of globalization — but it’s choking our future in ways that most of us are barely aware. I have just returned with a team of scientists from six weeks at sea conducting research in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — one of five major garbage patches drifting in the oceans north and south of the Equator at the latitude of our great terrestrial deserts. Although it was my 10th voyage to the area, I was utterly shocked to see the enormous increase in the quantity of plastic waste since my last trip in 2009. Plastics of every description, from toothbrushes to tires to unidentifiable fragments too numerous to count floated past our marine research vessel Alguita for hundreds of miles without end. We even came upon a floating island bolstered by dozens of plastic buoys used in oyster aquaculture that had solid areas you could walk on. Plastics are now one of the most common pollutants of ocean waters worldwide. Pushed by winds, tides and currents, plastic particles form with other debris into large swirling glutinous accumulation zones, known to oceanographers as gyres, which comprise as much as 40 percent of the planet’s ocean surface — roughly 25 percent of the entire earth.
No scientist, environmentalist, entrepreneur, national or international government agency has yet been able to establish a comprehensive way of recycling the plastic trash that covers our land and inevitably blows and washes down to the sea. In a 2010 study of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers, my colleagues and I estimated that some 2.3 billion pieces of plastic — from polystyrene foam to tiny fragments and pellets — had flowed from Southern California’s urban centers into its coastal waters in just three days of sampling.
Some people can hold huge amounts of information in their mind and even manipulate it, trying out different ideas, while other people can only hold small amounts. Why do people have the particular capacity they have? How can we investigate these differences between people? It turns out the key to answering these questions is to get people to remember information in only one of their five senses, for example, vision. By doing this we narrow down the field of things to investigate. We can look at the precise brain anatomy related to just that one sense in different people and figure out which parts of their brain allow for greater information capacity. This is exactly what we did in our Cerebral Cortex paper. We found that people with a physically larger visual cortex – the part at the back of the brain that deals with what we see – could hold more temporary information in their memory. This is interesting for a number of reasons because it suggests that the physical parameters of our brains set the limits to what we can do with our minds.
The larger your visual cortex the more visual information it can hold. But the “visual cortex bucket” has to actively hold on to the information. It takes voluntary effort on your behalf to continually hold this information and then use it.
It is worth noting that size is not everything. Many other brain factors can and will influence your mental life and indeed your working memory capacity.
These factors include the degree of internal connections between different brain areas, the level of neural transmitters, the hormones in your body and brain, and of course the amount of stress you are under.
In our study, we found that both the thickness and the surface size of the visual cortex independently predicted how much people could hold in visual working memory. So indirectly at least, it seems that your parents or ancestors might have passed their visual cortex down to you, or at least its size.
Robo Brain is currently downloading and processing about 1 billion images, 120,000 YouTube videos, and 100 million how-to documents and appliance manuals, all being translated and stored in a robot-friendly format. The reason: to serve as helpers in our homes, offices and factories, robots will need to understand how the world works and how the humans around them behave. Robotics researchers like Ashutosh Saxena, assistant professor of computer science at his Cornell University and his associates at Cornell’s Personal Robotics Lab have been teaching them these things one at a time (which KurzweilAI has covered over the last two years in four articles).
“Yet viewing our genome as an elegant and tidy blueprint for building humans misses a crucial fact: our genome does not exist to serve us humans at all. Instead, we exist to serve our genome, a collection of genes that have been surviving from time immemorial, skipping down the generations. These genes have evolved to build human ‘survival machines’, programmed as tools to make additional copies of the genes (by producing more humans who carry them in their genomes). From the cold-hearted view of biological reality, we exist only to ensure the survival of these travellers in our genomes.”—Is our genome full of junk DNA? – Itai Yanai and Martin Lercher – Aeon
Scientists can now monitor and record the activity of hundreds of neurons concurrently in the brain, and ongoing technology developments promise to increase this number manyfold. However, simply recording the neural activity does not automatically lead to a clearer understanding of how the brain works.
“No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high.”—Virginia Woolf, Orlando (via talesofpassingtime)