How science turned into science fiction

Moran Cerf is a neuroscientist. In the video above, which Cory posted on Friday, he tells the story of how a paper he published in the journal Nature ended up getting him phone calls from Apple and invitations to appear with Christopher Nolan on the publicity tour for Inception. The problem: Nolan, Apple, and a lot of other people thought Cerf had figured out a way to record dreams. He hadn't. Not even close.

Cory's piece, and a link that Xeni sent me to the video, got me reading up on this case and I wanted to provide more of the scientific background—so you can see clearly what Cerf's research was really about and how the media got wrong. Back in 2010, Cerf and his colleagues were trying to figure out how humans look at a world cluttered with different faces, objects, smells, and sounds and manage to filter out the specific things we're interested in. What happens when I look at a messy desk and immediately focus in on one piece of paper? If there are two objects on the desk that are familiar to me, but only one of them really matters, how does my brain resolve the conflict and direct my attention in a single direction?

Turns out, at least under laboratory conditions, humans can filter out the important stuff by consciously controlling the firing of neurons in their own brains. Here's how Alison Abbott at Nature News described the research at the time:

In the last six years or so they have shown that single neurons can fire when subjects recognise — or even imagine — just one particular person or object. They propose that activity in these neurons reflect the choices the brain is making about what sensory information it will consider further and what information it will neglect.

In this experiment, the scientists flashed a series of 110 familiar images — such as pictures of Marilyn Monroe or Michael Jackson — on a screen in front of each of the 12 patients and identified individual neurons which uniquely and reliably responded to one of the images. They selected four images for which they had found responsive neurons in different parts of a subject's MTL. Then they showed the subject two images superimposed on each other. Each was 50% faded out.

The subjects were told to think about one of the images and enhance it.

They were given ten seconds, during which time the scientists ran the firing of the relevant neurons through a decoder. They fed the decoded information back into the superimposed images, fading the image whose neuron was firing more slowly and enhancing the image whose neuron was firing more quickly.

Watching this on-line feedback, the subjects were able to make their targeted image completely visible, and entirely eliminate the distracting image, in more than two thirds of trials, and they learnt to do so very quickly.

That's pretty cool, in and of itself. But the headlines associated with this story ended up focusing on a nonexistent VHS system for your dreams.

In the video clip, Cerf explains that the mix-up seemed to stem from a botched early-morning interview with the BBC. He gave hesitant, uncomfortable consent to the idea that maybe, possibly, his research could mean that there might someday be such a thing as a dream recorder. From there, it became a Telephonic game of errors, with other publications writing up stories that quoted the BBC article. Before long, Cerf was the inventor of a dream recorder and fielding calls from hungry investors.

Plenty of publications wrote well-reported stories about Cerf. In fact, Time magazine online managed to put out a responsibly written article and a sensationalistic one (based on the BBC piece) on two different blogs, on the very same day.

But what Cerf remembers (and, likely, what many other people remember about his work) are the stories that got it wrong.


• You can read the full paper "On-line, voluntary control of human temporal lobe neurons" at Cerf's website

• Read the Nature News article describing the study

• put out two stories on Cerf's work on the same day. One of them accurately describes what the research is about. The other one heavily plays up the dream recorder idea that has nothing to do with Cerf's work.

• Watch a couple videos Cerf made about the research, including one where you can hear neurons activating at the sight of a Marylin Monroe picture.

Thanks to Xeni for pointing out this video!