The mind-blowing neuroscience of hacking your dreams

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Moran Cerf, a pen-testing bank-robber turned horribly misunderstood neuroscientist (previously, previously) gets to do consensual, cutting-edge science on the exposed brains of people with epilepsy while they're having brain surgery. Read the rest

Brainjacking: the future of software security for neural implants

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In a new scientific review paper published in World Neurosurgery, a group of Oxford neurosurgeons and scientists round up a set of dire, terrifying warnings about the way that neural implants are vulnerable to networked attacks. Read the rest

The woman who can see 100 times more colors than you can

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Concetta Antico, who made the paintings above and below, is an artist known for being a tetrachromat, meaning a genetic difference in her eyes enables her to see approximately 100 times more colors than an average person. "I see colors you cannot perceive or imagine," Antico says. (Previous BB posts about Antico here and here.)

While the vast majority of peoples' eyes contain three kinds of cone sensitive to different wavelengths of light, tetrachromats have four. Apparently the genetic difference isn't very rare, but only a tiny fraction of those who have it actually develop unique perception. Why? UC Irvine researcher Kimberly Jameson and University of Nevada's Alissa Winkler studied Antico, another tetrachromat, and an artist with regular vision. From David Robson's article at BBC Future:

The experiment tested the participants’ sensitivity to different levels of "luminance! at certain wavelengths of light; put simply, with Antico’s eye’s extra cone, she should be picking up more light, meaning that she could see very subtle differences in the brightness of certain shades. Sure enough, Antico proved to be more sensitive than the average person, particularly when looking at reddish tones – a finding that perfectly matched the predictions from her genetic test.

As Jameson had suspected, Antico also performed much better than the other potential tetrachromat who was not an artist – supporting the idea that her colour training had been crucial for the development of her abilities.

Using these results, Jameson then reconstructed some photos to give us a better idea of the way the world may look to Antico.

Read the rest

OpenBCI brain-sensing headset

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OpenBCI is an open-source brain computer interface that had a successful Kickstarter a couple of years ago. They are back with a $99 biodata acquisition device and a 3D-printed, brain-sensing headset. They look cool!

The OpenBCI Ganglion is a high-quality, affordable bio-sensing device. On the input side, there are 4 high-impedance differential inputs, a driven ground (DRL), a positive voltage supply (Vdd), and a negative voltage supply (Vss). The inputs can be used as individual differential inputs for measuring EMG or ECG, or they can be individually connected to a reference electrode for measuring EEG.

We are using a Simblee for our on-board microcontroller and wireless connection. Simblee is RF Digital’s next generation Arduino-compatible radio module. It is smaller, cheaper, and more robust than the RFDuino, which we have been using on our OpenBCI 32bit Boards and USB Dongles. The new Simblee provides user programmable flash, 29 GPIO pins, and the ability to update software over the air (OTA). Every Ganglion will be pre-programmed with versatile firmware so you can get started sensing your body right out of the box. We will also break-out up to 20 of the GPIOs for you to hack with.

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The first drawings of neurons

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In 1837, Italian physician Camilo Golgi devised a reaction to stain the wispy dendrites and axons of neurons, making it possible to see brain cells in situ. In 1875, he published his first scientific drawing made possibly by his chemical reaction, seen here. It's an illustration of the never fibers, gray matter, and other components of a dog's olfactory bulb. "The First Neuron Drawings, 1870s" (The Scientist) Read the rest

Reality check: we know nothing whatsoever about simulating human brains

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In the EU and the USA, high-profile, high-budget programs are underway to simulate a human brain. While these produce some pretty pictures of simulations, they don't display much rigor or advancement of our understanding of how brains work. Read the rest

It's not AI until a robot can take an acid trip

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In "Beyond Zero and One," neuroscientist Andrew Smart investigates the relationship of hallucinations to consciousness, and raises some provocative and cool questions about how this relates to AI: Read the rest

Take an interactive look inside an anxious brain with Neurotic Neurons

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What our brains learn, they can also unlearn—including what makes us anxious. That's the idea behind Neurotic Neurons, an interactive work by Nicky Case that explores the neuroscience of anxiety, and particularly the theory of Hebbian learning, wherein "neurons that fire together, wire together" and create associations in the mind. Read the rest

Blindsight: weird phenomenon deepens the mystery of consciousness

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Blindsight is a strange phenomenon that sometimes occurs when people have lost sight due to visual cortex damage but still respond to visual stimuli outside of their conscious awareness. New research into blindsight is offering clues, and even more riddles, about how we can "pay attention" outside of what we historically have considered conscious thought. From David Robson's fascinating article in BBC Future:

One of the first tasks (in a recent research effort) was to test exactly what blindsight patients are capable of without their conscious visual awareness – and the results have been quite remarkable. Of particular interest has been the fact that they can sense emotion: when presented with faces, they can tell whether it is happy or sad, angry or surprised, and they even start to unconsciously mimic the expressions. “Even though they did not report anything at a conscious level, we could show a change in attitude, a synchronisation of emotional expressions to the pictures in their blind field,” says (Tilburg University scientist Marco) Tamietto...

Besides mirroring expressions, they also show physiological signs of stress when they see a picture of a frightened face...

In 2008, Tamietto and (blindsight research pioneer Lawrence) Weiskrantz’s team put another blindsight patient through the most gruelling test yet... He was blind across the whole of his visual field, and normally walked with a white cane. But the team took away his cane and then loaded a corridor with furniture that might potentially trip him up, before asking him make his way to the other side.

Read the rest

What mentally ill animals can teach humans

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An increasing amount of scientific evidence suggests that animals, from chimpanzees to coyotes to parrots, can suffer from the same mental illnesses as humans. Understanding the biology behind animal depression, OCD, and PTSD could provide insight into why people suffer from mental illness and how these conditions evolved. From BBC Earth:

In a 2011 study, scientists found signs of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in chimpanzees that had been used in laboratory research, orphaned, trapped by snares, or been part of illegal trade.

Stressful events can even leave marks on animals' genes. In 2014, researchers found that African grey parrots that were housed alone suffered more genetic damage than parrots that were housed in pairs...

"All you can do with animals is to observe them," says (University of Mississippi neurogenetics researcher Eric) Vallender. "Imagine if you could study mental disorders in humans only by observing them. It would be really hard to tell what's going on in their brain."

Faced with these obstacles, scientists have begun looking at animals' genes.

"A lot of mental disorders can be quite different. But what we do know is that they have a very, very strong genetic component to them," says Jess Nithianantharajah of the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, Australia.

All mental disorders, from depression to schizophrenia, involve abnormal behaviours. Those behaviours are influenced by genes just like other behaviours.

So the idea is to identify genes that can cause abnormal behaviours in humans and other animals. By tracing the origins of these genes, we can trace the origins of mental disorders.

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A great brief video introduction to consciousness and its myriad mysteries

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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

New neuroscience-based platform to get to know your mind

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My friend Stanford neuroscientist Melina Uncapher and her colleagues are piloting a new public project called mymntr meant to create a "user guide for your brain" through brain tests for self-knowledge, interviews with fascinating creative folks to get a sense of the minds behind the madness, and lots of other cool stuff at the intersection of science and culture. Read the rest

Scientists remote control a mouse with a wireless LED brain implant

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Stanford scientists made mice walk in circles via remote control of a wireless LED implanted in the rodents' brains. Switching the LED on and off controls neurons that have been previously genetically engineered to be light-sensitive. Read the rest

Using neuroscience to know what you want before you know it

Moran Cerf (previously) writes, "Can someone else know what we want a little before we do? And if so - who is in charge of our decisions?" Read the rest

How neurotech will transform the way we work

Over at Backchannel, I wrote about how brain tech could transform how we work in the future, from displays that react to our mental state to offices that respond to our brainwaves.

Stanford and University of California neuroscientist Melina Uncapher is currently leading a pilot study with a large technology company to use mobile EEG tracking to study how the office environment — from lighting to natural views to noise levels — impacts the brain, cognition, productivity, and wellness of workers. Prepping a room for a big brainstorm? Maybe it’s time to change the light color.

“If you want to encourage abstract thinking and creative ideas, do you pump in more oxygen or less?” says Uncapher, a fellow at Institute for the Future. “Do you raise the ceiling height? Do you make sure you have a view of the natural environment, simulated or real? And if you want people to be more heads-down, is it better for them to be in a room with a lower ceiling?”

The goal, she explains, would be to develop a “quantified environment” that you could precisely tune to different types of working modes.

"Our Highest Selves?" (Backchannel)

(Illustration by Anna Vignet) Read the rest

The real state of neuromarketing

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Remember the hype about neuromarketing, the use of brain imaging and other technologies to directly measure consumer preference or the effect of advertisements on our unconscious? In The Guardian, Vaughan "Mind Hacks" Bell looks at the latest in neuromarketing and breaks it down into "advertising fluff, serious research, and applied neuroscience." From The Guardian:

First, it’s important to realise that the concept of neuroscience is used in different ways in marketing. Sometimes, it’s just an empty ploy aimed at consumers – the equivalent of putting a bikini-clad body next to your product for people who believe they’re above the bikini ploy. A recent Porsche advert (video above) apparently showed a neuroscience experiment suggesting that the brain reacts in a similar way to driving their car and flying a fighter jet, but it was all glitter and no gold. The images were computer-generated, the measurements impossible, and the scientist an actor.

In complete contrast, neuromarketing is also a serious research area. This is a scientifically sound, genuinely interesting field in cognitive science, where the response to products and consumer decision-making is understood on the level of body and mind. This might involve looking at how familiar brand logos engage the memory systems in the brain, or examining whether the direction of eye gaze of people in ads affects how attention-grabbing they are, or testing whether the brain’s electrical activity varies when watching subtly different ads. Like most of cognitive neuroscience, the studies are abstract, ultra-focused and a long way from everyday experience.

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Cross-sectioned brain sample drink coasters

Thinkgeek's Brain Specimen Coasters come in a set of ten, stacking to form a 3D brain. (via Geeky Merch) Read the rest

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