Halloween is here, so what better time to talk about human brains? Zombies are always looking to eat fresh human brains, and evil scientists need to re-stock their supply of replacement organs, too. So here are just a few links for any parties that might be interested in getting their hands on some grey matter.
There's an absolutely awesome comic by Jorge Cham of PhDComics (which you should read whether or not you're a PhD student) about the science news cycle, in which a nuanced scientific result showing a slight correlation is turned into a causal relationship by the press, leading to a flat out frenzy of others in the press who don't even bother to understand what the original research was about.
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I'm reminded of this particular comic as the folks at On the Media point us to a story, told by Moran Cerf at The Moth (my favorite storytelling operation), about how, as a grad student, he got some research accepted for publication in Nature, the top of the top in terms of scientific journal prestige. His rather interesting research was about sticking electrodes in patients brains during brain surgery, having them think of certain things, and being able to have a projector project an image of what they were thinking. Cool, right? You can watch the video to see what happened once the press got hold of the story.
In case you can't watch the video, the short version is that Cerf had put together a short video about the research, and at the very, very, very end, when talking to a colleague about how this kind of research might advance in the future, the research mentions something about studying and recording dreams. Now, nothing in the actual research is about studying or recording dreams, but... the BBC picked up on this part of the story, and then everyone picked up on this part of the story, and things only got worse from there. And no matter what Cerf did, everyone was just focused on these claims about dream recording -- even to the point that director Chris Nolan asked him to come on tour in a discussion about the movie Inception.
It's a pretty good reminder that, especially when it comes to scientific research, you really shouldn't believe everything you read.
Oh, and as a random aside, while this story from Moran is entertaining, it does not come close in entertainment value to this other story that Cerf told at a different Moth event about his life as a bank robber. Seriously. No matter what you're doing today, find ten minutes to watch this next video:
Animals may (or may not) be getting smarter, but there sure is growing evidence that animals have more cognitive abilities than we might have expected. In some cases, we're actually breeding animals for intelligence. (Who wouldn't want to buy a genetically engineered parrot with the conversational capability of a 5 year old kid?) Perhaps we'll end up regretting our animal experiments someday when we're faced with super-intelligent birds or insects, but for now, it's interesting to see just how smart our animal pals can get.
There's a lot we still don't know about how our own brains work. Our minds are sufficiently complex that the only practical way to begin studying how they work is to categorize the different processes and try to look at how those individual parts operate. How the brain stores memories is a fascinating field -- that's just starting to yield some real scientific knowledge. Here are just a few tidbits on remembering things.
Human brains are amazingly efficient compared to any computer built so far. Previously, we pointed out some projects to simulate brain activity in various ways. But there's nothing like the real thing. Here are just a few interesting links on detecting and improving our conscious grey matter.
We're a long way away from creating an artificial intelligence from scratch that can perform general tasks. But plenty of researchers are learning some interesting things about AI while they build massively parallel computers or grow microbrains from little clumps of cells. Here are just a few projects where some synthetic brains are being hand-built by people.
There is a lot of demand to improve the institutions of education in various ways. Creating an education system in the US seemingly costs a lot, and the results aren't as tangible (or as favorable) as everyone would like it to be. But in order to improve, perhaps we need a closer look at what actually needs to improve. Here are just a few links on how we learn.
The human brain is a mysterious organ. We don't really have many ways of figuring out what's going on inside people's heads, but there are a few primitive techniques that are starting to delve into the activities of the brain. Here are just some examples of interesting projects studying our brains.
There are a bunch of reports out concerning a new study claiming that Google is rewiring how we remember. It sounds good, but it's not really what the study appears to be saying. Basically, the study is saying that we just don't work as hard at remembering stuff we know we can access again easily. But I don't see that as rewiring. I think that's always been true. It's the same thing as people not remembering their multiplication tables as carefully, because they know they have a calculator. If anything, it just seems like an efficient use of your brain. The report also notes that people have an easier time remembering where to find certain info than they do remembering the info itself. But, again, that's just our brains being efficient. So I don't see how that's rewiring anything. It's just a recognition that, thanks to the internet and other technologies, we can have near ubiquitous access to certain kinds of info, and we function better by remembering how to find it, rather than the info itself. In fact, we've discussed this before, about how people quite reasonably use things like Google as their backup brain and how that actually has some benefits.
Our brains are pretty complex bundles of nerves -- that aren't actually like CPUs at all (even though lots of folks make the brain-CPU analogy). We're still trying to figure these wrinkled organs out with fairly primitive methods, but at least some progress is being made. Here are just a few quick links on some brain studies.