Our brains are pretty important organs. Obviously, so are organs like skin and kidneys, but the human brain is what sets people apart from other animals. We still don't know that much about how our brains work, but that's not stopping some fascinating research that could extend our brains' capabilities with technology. Some of this research could help us do more with the brains we have or help keep our brains in tip-top shape as we age. Here are just a few brain projects off the top of my head.
There are numerous hypotheses for how and why sleep is important. The facts show that a wide range of animals need sleep and that a lack of sleep is extremely unhealthy, especially if sleep deprivation lasts more than a few days. For example, sleep-deprived lab rats will die more quickly than rats deprived of food. Sleep is clearly essential to normal functioning, but there's no definitive reason for it. Here are just a few interesting articles that discuss the mystery of the function behind sleep.
There are a bunch of people out there who are into turning themselves into cyborgs or adding to their natural-born abilities. Some of them say they're transhumanists, but others are just super geeks willing to experiment on themselves for fun. (Most folks are probably willing to wait a bit to make sure brain implants are actually safe.) Here are just a few projects that are working on giving lab rats some cool new upgrades.
We may think we're pretty smart, but animals like dolphins are pretty smart too. For over 30 years, scientists have been trying to determine how smart dolphins really are. Bottlenose dolphins have a brain-to-body-weight ratio that is only second to humans, and they also have a very complex neocortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for traits typically associated with human intelligence, such as problem-solving and self-awareness. Researchers have even found that dolphins have von Economo neurons, which are associated with emotions, social cognition, and the ability to sense what others are thinking. Besides dolphins, people may be underestimating the intelligence of animals in general. Here are just a few links related to animal smarts.
Dog owners can now figure out just how smart their dogs are with Dognition. It's a web app that lets dog owners record the results of their experiments, which involve playing games with their dogs designed to assess five dimensions of intelligence (empathy, communication, cunning, memory, and reasoning). The data collected from the Dognition project could help scientists better understand the way dogs think and behave. [url]
Here are eight other animals that show notable signs of intelligence: Chimpanzees have DNA that is more than 98% identical to human DNA; elephants exhibit self-awareness; cephalopods are curious and have the ability to learn and use tools; crows are crafty; squirrels can be deceptive; dogs can understand people's intentions; cats are extremely adaptable; and pigs can distinguish between familiar scribbles on a screen and ones that they have never seen before. [url]
If you'd like to read more awesome and interesting stuff, check out this unrelated (but not entirely random!) Techdirt post.
Humans aren't the only animals on our planet that can communicate with other members of our species. As we study more of our fellow creatures, we continue to find surprising instances of intelligence and thought and problem-solving abilities. Here are just a few examples.
We've discovering interesting things about the way our brains work all the time. Maybe someday we'll fully understand how our brains actually think, but we're a long way from that now. But in the meantime, here are a few more fascinating tidbits from studying our brains that might lead to smarter humans in the distant future.
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.
Click image to see full version
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.