Pickpocketing as applied neuroscience


Sleights of the Mind, an excellent 2013 book, explored the neuroscience of magic and misdirection, with an absolutely riveting section on stage pickpocket Apollo Robbins and the practical, applied neuroscience on display in his breathtaking stunts (like taking your watch off your wrist without your noticing!).

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Afterparty: neuro-technothriller


Afterparty is a new, excellent science fiction novel by Daryl Gregory, about drugs, God, sanity, morals, and organized crime. Its protagonist, Lyda Rose is a disgraced neuroscientist who once helped develop a drug that rewired its users' brains so that they continuously hallucinated the presence of living, embodied Godhead. Now Lyda is in a mental institution, where she is attempting to win over the therapists who oversee her -- as well as the angelic doctor that manifests only in her mind.

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It may be possible to erase bad memories

A growing body of evidence, dating back to the late 1960s, suggests that we can lessen the emotional blow of negative memories (and even get rid of them altogether) months and years after those memories originally formed. The key is that memories seem to be vulnerable to manipulation and erasure as you're recalling them, not just at the time of creation. The newest research — and some of the most convincing to date — used electroconvulsive therapy to effectively remove the details of traumatizing stories from the minds of healthy volunteers. Virginia Hughes has a story about the newest study at her blog:

Schiller’s experiments have also bolstered the reconsolidation hypothesis. She has shown, for example, that if people recall a fearful memory and then go through ‘extinction learning’ — meaning that they’re shown the fearful stimulus over and over again without any pain — they can erase the emotional sting of the memory. Other groups have shown something similar by giving people propranolol, a beta-blocker, immediately after recalling a memory.

The new study adds ECT to the list. There are still a lot of questions. For example, it’s not clear how ECT is disrupting reconsolidation. Or if it’s doing it at all: The effect could be partly or wholly due to anesthesia, though the researchers say this is unlikely. Most importantly, no one knows whether the procedure would work with old, real memories, as opposed to those artificially created in the lab.

The history of lobotomy in the VA

A couple years ago, I read Jack El-Hai's brilliant book about lobotomy popularizer Walter Freeman — the man who lobotomized Rosemary Kennedy and traveled the country lobotomizing thousands of Americans with an ice pick. Now, at the Wall Street Journal, Michael Phillips has a big feature about Freeman and the influence he had on mental healthcare in the Veterans Administration. It's a chilling and important long read.

Men move more than women do inside an MRI machine

There's a new paper out suggesting that ladies' brains are different from mens' (in ways that support Western stereotypes of gender behavior, natch). It's pretty flawed and has been heavily critiqued, but one critique surprised me — turns out, there's evidence that men tend to move more than women do when you put them in an MRI machine, something that could throw off any attempt to compare MRI data between men and women.

Brainwashed: Neuroscience vs neurobollocks


Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience is a smart and sometimes devastating critique of "neurobollocks" -- the propensity for using brain-science (and, particularly, brain imaging) to reductively explain human motivation. The authors, Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld, are a psychiatrist and a psychologist (respectively) and so it's hard not to suspect that there's a little professional rivalry at play here, but they present a compelling argument nonetheless -- a picture of promising science oversold in the name of winning grants, winning court cases, and, at the worst, duping the gullible.

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Your brain is all squishy: An anatomical demonstration

This video was made by the University of Utah Brain Institute to teach medical students about what a brain looks and feels like before it gets preserved in formalin and takes on the texture of a hard rubber ball.

The big takeaway message: Your brain is seriously squishy. So squishy, in fact, that a finger can dent it. As professor Suzanne Stensaas explains, this is one of the reasons why cerebrospinal fluid is so important. Your brain has to float in that fluid. If it didn't, it would come to rest against the side of your hard skull and quickly end up deformed.

Seriously, this is a fascinating (if extremely graphic) video. (Hilariously, given that fact, it opens with an image of a student eating.) Definitely worth watching!

New studies suggest smarter sleep therapy may help people who suffer from depression

The first of four studies on a poorly-understood link between sleep quality and depression indicates that when antidepressant medication and insomnia therapy are used together, recovery from depression is more thorough, and faster. (Thanks, Miles O'Brien)

Journal of science about kids edited by kids

This seems like it has the potential to be pretty cool. Frontiers in Neuroscience for Young Minds is a new scientific journal that will have kids — ages 8 to 18 — on the editorial review board. The goal: Mentor kids in the process of how science works while simultaneously engaging scientists with questions and comments by the people who are the subject of their research, questions they might not ever hear otherwise.

Musical mind-reading experiment

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)

Elephants get PTSD, too: orphans lack social knowledge they need to survive in the wild


Photograph via National Geographic, by Graeme Shannon

A recent study investigated the impact of culling and relocation on elephant decision-making and cognition decades later. African elephants are highly intelligent and social creatures, and rely on their sophisticated communication skills to survive in the wild. How does the trauma of being separated from "loved ones" and their native terrain change how orphaned elephants think, and cope?

From a recent National Geographic article by Christy Ullrich Barcus:

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Does a fetus feel pain? (And, if so, when?)

Across the United States, politicians are passing laws limiting abortion that are based on the idea that a fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks gestation. But the science underlying this assertion is a lot more complex than it's made out to be. Most scientists don't think fetuses have the neural circuitry to experience pain until later. And the scientists whose research is most often cited as evidence of fetal pain at 20 weeks don't think their work is saying what anti-abortion activists think it does.

Master pickpocket Apollo Robbins on the art of misdirection

EDW Lynch of Laughing Squid says: "Sleight-of-hand artist and master pickpocket Apollo Robbins demonstrates the art of misdirection on an unlucky volunteer in this entertaining TED talk from TEDGlobal 2013."

How to be simultaneously right and wrong

If somebody tells you an ostensible fact about human behavior or human thought and shows you a picture of an fMRI at the same time, are you more likely to believe what you've just been told? There's a debate within science right now about whether people are more easily lead astray by brain imaging, or whether those rainbow pictures of the mind affect our thinking much at all. Some studies show one result. Some show another. At Scientific American Mind, Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer explain why both sides might be right in this fight. It's a neat reminder that answers aren't always binary.

True tales of a chemistry lab accident

The artificial sweetener Splenda was discovered when a chemistry grad student misunderstood his advisor's instructions to "test" a compound and tasted it, instead. (This piece at Scientific American focuses on how the brain responds to, and is changed by, sweeteners.)