Boing Boing 

Memories, mistakes, and scientific evidence in the courtroom

Moheb Costandi has written two amazing profiles on psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, a researcher who has challenged the way we rely on memory in the courtroom and fought against attempts to legitimize "recovered" memories. Hugely controversial — she's received death threats from people who blame her for setting criminals free — Loftus' story isn't purely about science vs. emotion. In fact, Costandi writes, in her efforts make our concept of memory more evidence based, Loftus might be glossing over the rare and the weird-but-real.

What causes an ice cream headache?

It would take a simple experiment to prove, once and for all, what causes "brain freeze". Unfortunately/fortunately the condition isn't particularly serious, so nobody has ever gotten a grant to perform that simple study.

Who’s afraid of the amygdala? Research blows away "fear center" myth

New revelations about your brain’s so-called “fear center” explain why it’s misleading to say “this part of the brain does x”. Maggie Koerth-Baker talks to neuroscientist Paul Whalen and learns that there’s more to fear than fear, itself. Read the rest

When that thing you just heard about is suddenly everywhere

"Baader-Meinhof phenomenon": That's the colloquial name for a funny thing that happens when your brain collides with popular culture. You know how sometimes you'll hear about something for the first time — a new ukelele duo, perhaps, or a scientist whose work you weren't previously familiar with, or some obscure underground subculture ... Boing Boing is full of opportunities for the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon to kick in — and then, suddenly, that new-to-you thing seems to be everywhere? That's what we're talking about. Scientists call it the frequency illusion and Pacific Standard magazine helpfully explains how it works.

Your very fallible memory

Your memories can be manipulated and changed. In fact, this happens often. And you're the one doing it to yourself.

Obama and DARPA want to map the human brain like we've mapped the human genome

Here are a couple different perspectives on the big news out of Washington this afternoon — an ambitious Obama Administration proposal to appropriate $100 million to begin a project to "map the brain". What's that mean? We have a lot of good data on single neurons. We have a lot of good data on what happens in the brain, as a whole, during certain tasks. What we don't really understand is how those individual neurons work together as networks or what activity in the brain really means on the level of causality and processing. That's what this project would be aimed at understanding. At LiveScience, Stephanie Pappas puts the project into scientific (and financial) context. At Nature News, Meredith Wadman writes about why some scientists are wary of this plan.

The power of the swarm

At Wired, Ed Yong has an incredible long-read story about the researchers who are figuring out how and why individual animals sometimes turn into groups operating on collective behavior. That research has implications far beyond the freakish, locust-filled laboratories where Yong's story begins. Turns out, bugs and birds can teach us a lot about the brain, cancer, and even how we make predictions about our own futures.

The Exploratorium's Sound Uncovered: A science museum in your hand (for free)

This review also appears on Download the Universe, a group blog reviewing the best (and worst, and just "meh") in science-related ebooks and apps.

When I go to science museums, I like to press the buttons. I'm convinced this is a special joy that you just do not grow out of. Hit the button. See something cool happen. Feel the little reward centers of your brain dance the watusi.

But, as a curmudgeonly grown-up, I also often feel like there is something missing from this experience. There have definitely been times when I've had my button-pushing fun and gotten a few yards away from the exhibit before I've had to stop and think, "Wait, did I just learn anything?"

Science museums are chaotic. They're loud. They're usually full of small children. Your brain is pulled in multiple directions by sights, sounds, and the knowledge that there are about 15 people behind you, all waiting for their turn to press the button, too. In fact, research has shown that adults often avoid science museums (and assume those places aren't "for them") precisely because of those factors. Sound Uncovered is an interactive ebook published by The Exploratorium, the granddaddy of modern science museums. Really more of an app, it's a series of 12 modules that allow you to play with auditory illusions and unfamiliar sounds as you learn about how the human brain interprets what it hears, and how those ear-brain interactions are used for everything from selling cars to making music.

Read the rest

Are cats fooled by optical illusions?

The Rotating Snake Illusion is a fun image that makes your brain perceive motion where no motion actually exists. Psychologists understand the factors that make an illusion like this work (and work better) — for instance, breaking up and staggering the colored lines that radiate from the center of the circle creates a much stronger sensation of movement. But they don't know exactly why it works yet, according to Japanese psychologists Akiyoshi Kitaoka and Hiroshi Ashida.

And that brings us to this kitten video.

YouTube user Rasmus posted a video that he thinks might show his cat being tricked by the same sense of motion that catches the eyes of humans who look at The Rotating Snake Illusion. On the other hand, this just might be a cute video of a kitten attacking a piece of paper — which is known to happen.

So here's the challenge: Try it on your cat. You can print it off here. Then, report back here and/or post video responses to YouTube. Let's gather some data!

This is not exactly the soundest experimental methodology ever, but it sure would be interesting to see what happens.

From Seizure to Surgery: first-person account of what it's like to have a brain tumor

Jess Hill has published the second part of a three-part series on what it’s like to have a brain tumor diagnosed, then surgically removed. Read: Magical Realism: From Seizure to Surgery. The earlier installment is here.

What it's like to have a grand mal seizure

Radio producer Jess Hill, who has been working in the Middle East, wrote an account of what the experience of having a grand mal seizure was like.

She wrote the post a week after the episode, and two weeks before having brain surgery to remove the tumor that caused it.

"At the time I was still having seizures every few days, and just the act of writing about the first seizure in such detail almost brought on another one," Jess explains. "I initially planned to keep this account private, but after two months, I’ve decided to share it, if only for the fact that it might be useful to others who have had or will have a similar experience."

It happened when she was in transit via plane from Yemen to Beirut.

Read the rest

The two parts of pain

TIL: That what we think of as "pain" is actually two different things. The most basic sense is called nociception — a non-subjective reflex that drives lots of animals to pull away from dangerous things. Pain — actual pain — is what happens after nociception, and different individuals perceive it differently under different situations. So, for example, nociception is why you jerk your hand away from a hot stove. Pain is the feeling that helps you learn not to touch hot stoves again. Oh, and also, crabs might be capable of feeling both.

A More Resilient Species

“A playful brain is a more adaptive brain,” writes ethologist Sergio Pellis in The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience. In his studies, he found that play-deprived rats fared worse in stressful situations.

In our own world filled with challenges ranging from cyber-warfare to infrastructure failure, could self-directed play be the best way to prepare ourselves to face them?

In self-directed play, one structures and drives one’s own play. Self-directed play is experiential, voluntary, and guided by one’s curiosity. This is different from play that is guided by an adult or otherwise externally directed.

A MacArthur Fellow told me that, when he was a teenager, his single mother would drop him off at an industrial supply store on Saturdays while she ran errands. Using library books as his primary resource, he built a linear accelerator in the garage. It wasn’t until neighbors complained about scrambled television and radio signals in the hours just after school and after dinner that his “playful” invention was discovered.

Read the rest

FDA wants Ambien doses cut for women because users are crashing cars the morning after

The Food and Drug Administration today announced it will require the makers of popular sleeping pills like Ambien and Zolpimist to reduce the recommended dosage in half for women, "after laboratory studies showed that the medicines can leave patients drowsy in the morning and at risk for car accidents." Women eliminate the drugs from their bodies more slowly than men. (NYT)

Junior Seau had brain disease caused by "two decades of hits to the head"

ABC News reports that a team of scientists who analyzed the brain tissue of the late NFL star Junior Seau after his 2012 suicide "have concluded the football player suffered a debilitating brain disease likely caused by two decades worth of hits to the head."

Neuroscience of the human brain while freestyle rapping

Using brain scans, scientists are trying to find how great freestyle rappers drop dope lines. Discovery News reports on a study conducted by researchers the voice, speech and language branch of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Here's the paper: "Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap." (via Clive Thompson; image photoshop mine from original study)

Tapeworms on the brain

Here's a fun fact: Did you know that you can get tapeworms in your brain? You know that you can get a tapeworm from eating infected meat. But when people have tapeworms in their guts, they secrete tens of thousands of eggs a day. And those eggs can end up on food, or other things that people put into their mouths. For some reason—nobody is really sure why—tapeworm eggs that are ingested by humans never mature into adults. Instead, they remain in a larval stage and hang out in a host's bloodstream. Sometimes, they make it to the brain. And, apparently, this happens often enough that it has an actual medical name: Neurocysticercosis.

The good news is that these things are mostly harmless. They don't seem to hurt your brain at all while they're alive. The bad news: As soon as the larvae die, your body's immune system seems to suddenly realize they exist and it goes into overdrive—triggering seizures, loss of feeling in the body, and sometimes leading to death.

Scientific American blogs has the story of one woman in California who had this happen to her. To save her life, surgeons had to remove a calcified tapeworm larva from her brain.

Sara Alvarez was afraid.

It was December 20, 2010, in Sunnyvale, Calif., a town that lives up to its name. The West Coast winter, not as long or as harsh as seasons in the East, gave her the opportunity to take her youngest child out for an afternoon stroll.

In the fading light of dusk, Alvarez, too, began to fade. She lost the feeling in her right leg. Her right foot followed suit. She couldn’t lift or move her right hand. She was weak, and her body was numb.

The National Institutes of Health classifies neurocysticercosis as the leading cause of epilepsy worldwide, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that tapeworms infect 50 million people globally. The CDC says an estimated 1,900 people are diagnosed with neurocysticercosis within the United States yearly.

Read the rest of the story at Scientific American blogs. (WARNING: Surgery images!)