Most of us vastly overestimate our understanding of how things work. We think we know more than we do. Why? Because we get by with a little help from our friends. (Sorry.) Cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach explore why we think we're so smart in a new book titled The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. Over at Scientific American, Gareth Cook interviews Sloman about how thinking turns out to be more of a community activity.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT THIS IDEA THAT WHAT WE KNOW IS “SOCIAL”?
People fail to distinguish the knowledge that’s in their own heads from knowledge elsewhere (in their bodies, in the world, and—especially—in others’ heads). And we fail because whether or not knowledge is in our heads usually doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have access to the knowledge. In other words, the knowledge we use resides in the community. We participate in a community of knowledge. Thinking isn’t done by individuals; it is done by communities. This is true at macro levels: Fundamental values and beliefs that define our social, political, and spiritual identities are determined by our cultural communities. It is also true at the micro-level: We are natural collaborators, cognitive team-players. We think in tandem with others using our unique ability to share intentionality.
Individuals are rarely well-described as rational processors of information. Rather, we usually just channel our communities.
The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Amazon) Read the rest
Members of the San Francisco Giants are using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in an effort to improve their performance on the field. According to SF Giants sports scientist Geoff Head (real name!), "some big-name players" are using the Halo Sport device, resembling Beats headphones, to deliver a small amount of current to the wearer's motor cortex. From KQED:
Head decided to try the headset, called Halo Sport, during spring training last year—he gave them to some minor leaguers to wear as they sprinted 20-yard dashes. After two weeks, Head analyzed the results and found that the players who wore the equipment had shaved off a few one-hundredths of a second compared to a control group....
Even though a lot of the data is conflicting, the most positive results do support using tDCS to improve motor control. Hence the slew of startups targeting athletes.
The Giants’ Head says even a tiny advantage can help win games at the major league level. An improvement of two-hundredths of a second can be “the difference between safe and out sometimes,” he says.
"The SF Giants Are Zapping Their Brains With Electricity. Will It Help?" (KQED)
Read the rest
Most of us need a computer interface implanted in our brains like we need a hole in our head. That said, there are benefits to bridging the gap between mind and machine. Joel Murphy is the founder of OpenBCI, an inexpensive, and non-invasive, brain-computer interface (BCI) platform. People have used OpenBCI to control robots, compose music by thinking about it, develop games, and help individuals who are "locked in" and can't control their bodies communicate with the outside world. Mark Frauenfelder and I interviewed Joel about open source, DIY neurotech in this episode of For Future Reference, a new podcast from Institute for the Future:
Please subscribe to For Future Reference: iTunes, RSS, Soundcloud Read the rest
Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne have developed a neuroprosthetic interface that creates a wireless link between the brain and the spine. In a recent experiment, they used it to enable a paralyzed monkey to walk.
Read the rest
The brain-spine interface overcomes a damaged connection by bridging the spinal cord injury — and it does so in real-time and via wireless technology. The neuroprosthetic device implanted in the monkey’s brain correctly interprets activity generated by the motor cortex, and relays this information to a system of electrodes placed over the surface of the spinal cord, just below the injury. A burst of just a few volts, delivered at the right location, triggers specific muscles in the legs. Monkeys implanted with the device were able to walk within six days of the spinal cord injury.
Many people claim that they don't need much sleep, insisting that even five hours a night is enough shuteye for them to feel rested. According to new scientific research, "habitual short sleepers" may actually be handling the brain tasks that most of us deal with during the night, like memory consolidation. From Medical Xpress:
Read the rest
Both groups of short sleepers exhibited connectivity patterns more typical of sleep than wakefulness while in the MRI scanner. (University of Utah radiologist Jeff) Anderson says that although people are instructed to stay awake while in the scanner, some short sleepers may have briefly drifted off, even those who denied dysfunction. "People are notoriously poor at knowing whether they've fallen asleep for a minute or two," he says. For the short sleepers who deny dysfunction, one hypothesis is that their wake-up brain systems are perpetually in over-drive. "This leaves open the possibility that, in a boring fMRI scanner they have nothing to do to keep them awake and thus fall asleep," says (Utah neurologist Chirstopher) Jones. This hypothesis has public safety implications, according to Curtis. "Other boring situations, like driving an automobile at night without adequate visual or auditory stimulation, may also put short sleepers at risk of drowsiness or even falling asleep behind the wheel," he says.
Looking specifically at differences in connectivity between brain regions, the researchers found that short sleepers who denied dysfunction showed enhanced connectivity between sensory cortices, which process external sensory information, and the hippocampus, a region associated with memory. "That's tantalizing because it suggests that maybe one of the things the short sleepers are doing in the scanner is performing memory consolidation more efficiently than non-short sleepers," Anderson says.
When the zombie apocalypse breaks out, the Harvard Brain Bank will resemble the scene at a cheap casino buffet's peel-and-eat shrimp table.
Read the rest
"Brain scans of insects appear to indicate that they have the capacity to be conscious and show egocentrico, apparently indicating that they have such a thing as subjective experience." That's the finding of study written by Andrew B Barron and Colin Klein, and published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences
From the Independent:
They found that in both, consciousness appeared to be associated with the “midbrain”. That part of the brain is the ancient core of the brain, which supports awareness for us and apparently for insects, too.
Though insects have tiny brains, they appear to serve the same function that the midbrain does for humans. They are able to tie together memory, perception and other key parts of consciousness, and use it to decide what to do - which is the same function that human’s brains do.
Read the rest
This bee is clearly smarter than me. [via]
“Bees are known to perform very complex tasks considering the size of their brains and their simplicity compared to high-level organisms,” said Gill. “If we can focus on simple tissues and find the small changes that can have profound effects on behavior, it can give us a basis to start understanding how very small changes to that brain can do that.”
Read the rest
Have you ever tried to draw a brain? I find it hard to get the wrinkles to look right. Scientists at at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland made a solid model of a fetal brain out of gel that developed its own realistic furrows just by dunking it into a solvent.
Read the rest
They made a solid replica of a foetal brain, still smooth and unfolded, and coated it with a second layer which expanded when dunked into a solvent.
That expansion produced a network of furrows that was remarkably similar to the pattern seen in a real human brain.
This suggests that brain folds are caused by physics: the outer part grows faster than the rest, and crumples.
In GQ, Eric Perry writes about how a brain hemorrhage left him "depressed, stuck in a rut, and strangely fearful of death." Then he learned of new medical research on the benefits of psychedelic therapy to treat anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. So Perry signed up for his own acid test with others who were seeking solace via psychedelic experiences. From GQ
Read the rest
My guide for the evening had accepted my 400 dollars, the price for my journey, in tie-dyed pants. It was my own fault I wasn’t tripping very hard—I’d told her, out of nervousness, I didn’t want to travel to other planets—though I suspected she knew less about the “sacraments” she was prescribing to us than she purported to. (“Do you know that Peruvians drip ayahuasca into the eyes of their newborns?” she’d told me earlier. “All Peruvians?” I’d asked, and she’d blushed.) Still, I liked her, partly because there was something in her eyes that made me think of the Wordsworth line from “Elegiac Stanzas”: “A deep distress hath humanized my soul.” I sensed there’d been some suffering in her past. Many of the participants, I noticed, had the same benignly haunted look. An ex-physician told us that ten years ago she’d been diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer; she’d recovered, but couldn’t shake the feeling that it would return any second to finish her off. To allay her lingering fear of death, she’d enrolled in a psilocybin trial, and her “whole reality changed.” She divorced her husband and began to juggle motherhood and what full-time psychonauts call “The Work,” traveling the world to partake in aya ceremonies.
Here's what we know, and what we know we don't know, and what we don't know we know, and what we don't know we don't know. Read the rest
Thinkgeek's Brain Specimen Coasters come in a set of ten, stacking to form a 3D brain. (via Geeky Merch)
Read the rest
Michael sez, "We're both neuroscientists studying human memory with fMRI at the University of Texas at Austin -- I wanted to surprise her with a gift that best symbolized me giving her all that I am.
Read the rest
National Geographic has a nice video (as well as a long story by Carl Zimmer) about scientists who are trying to learn more about the way the brain works by slicing mice brains into incredibly thin sections, fore to aft, and then using scans of those slices to create what amounts to a wiring diagram. The goal is to see how all the parts connect and, hopefully, get a better idea of how they all work together.
The video is lovely, with some great shots of lab work and an animated tour of the mouse brain slices. The animation looks, at first, like a time-lapse thing, but it's actually more like driving down a highway and watching buildings on the roadside appearing, becoming larger, and then shrinking in the rearview. Really great stuff! It also underlines a bit why I'm pretty skeptical of Ray Kurzweil's singularity. Or, at least, his estimations of how long it will take for scientists to understand our brains well enough that they could be replicated digitally.
Video Link Read the rest
David Charles, 21, was arrested for allegedly stealing jars of brain tissue from the Indiana Medical History Museum. Police tracked Charles down after a California fellow purchased the jars for $100 each on eBay. Museum director Mary Ellen Hennessey Nottage spoke to the man who bought the brains. "He just said he liked to collect odd things," Nottage said.
"Police: Man stole brains, sold them on eBay" (Indianapolis Star) Read the rest
Researchers at the University of Washington scanned the brains of volunteers listening to one of several simple songs. Based on the neural activity they saw, the scientists were able to identify what song the subjects were hearing. Psychology professor Geoff Boynton presented the results of their study at this week's Neuroscience 2013 conference. (via New Scientist) Read the rest
TIL: There are studies that suggest new babies really do smell different, and seem to trigger special brain chemical pathways in women. But, simultaneously, the smells we more consciously associate with "new baby" — i.e., the new baby smell used in baby products and baby-fresh scents — varies widely by culture. Make of this what you will. Read the rest