Monty Python’s John Cleese almost explains our brains. In more serious – but no less humorous – insight, see Cleese on 5 factors to make your life more creative.
It makes so much sense!
Should You Use The SNOOZE Button?
My mind says yes, but AsapSCIENCE says no. Waking up is all about our body clock’s natural tendency to come out of the deep sleep cycle we’ve been in all night, slowly bringing our systems online. If our alarm interrupts that boot-up process, grogginess ensues.
So you hit that snooze button, clinging to slumber in 9-minute increments for the next … oh crap, you’re late! Thing is, you probably don’t gain any advantage from the snooze button. It can even propel you into even more exhausting sleep patterns!
I’ll try to listen to science starting tomorrow morning, but first … just a few more minutes.
Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a planetarium show that instead of simply mapping the cosmos explored the brain? Because is that not the true reason that we explore beyond our own planet, via science and our imaginations?
NEURODOME sounds like that show. The idea of exploring the brain and our connection to exploration using cutting-edge animations is something that I want to see happen.
If the preview video above is anything like what the final product will be like, this is a project that deserves support. You can do so at Kickstarter (I have).
Mapping a Living Brain, Neuron by Neuron
A brain, along with all of the thoughts, decisions and consciousness that it brings with it, is nothing more than the sum of its parts. But it is precisely the sum of those parts that makes a brain more than just a pile of neurons and gray goo. Mapping the complex networks of the brain in space and time will be the key to figuring out how it works.
Thanks to some breakthrough work in a fish, we may be getting closer. HHMI scientists have mapped the activity of a zebrafish brain down to the individual neuron in real time! A zebrafish brain contains 100,000 times fewer neurons than our own, but techniques like this will make the Obama administration’s ambitious (and slightly controversial) human Brain Activity Map Project possible. Of course, mapping the activity of a brain isn’t the same as knowing what that activity means, but it’s hard to navigate anything without a detailed map. And when it comes to the brain, a static map is pretty useless. Seeing how signals change over time at a single-cell level is what it will take to turn flashing cells into an idea of what makes the brain tick.
This isn’t our first glance at what “fish thoughts” look like, but it’s definitely the most complete, and the most completely awesome. Check out more great coverage, plus complete videos of the blinking brain, at io9.
I really want to know what this zebrafish was thinking about that made its whole brain light up. Maybe “Oh man, I’m gonna be so famous on the internet after this!!”
We all think the brain is amazing. But are we doing it justice? Neuroscience has given us great insight, but misusing neuroscience can do great harm.
Vaughan Bell has a must-read column at The Guardian detailing how modern neuroscience’s creep into popular culture has turned complex science into headline cliches, added “scientific” fuel to the fire of stereotypes, and obscured how little we really know about the brain.
We need to continue to respect the complexity of this science, instead of distilling it to a tasteless extract.
As neuroscience has gained authority over previous ways of explaining human nature, it is not surprising that people will be compelled to use it if they want to try and make persuasive claims about how people are or should be – regardless of its accuracy. Folk neuroscience has become Freud for Freud-phobes, everyday psychology for the sceptical, although in reality, rarely more helpful than either.
I recommend the whole piece, but especially his list of these popular misconceptions:
The “left-brain” is rational, the “right-brain” is creative
The hemispheres have different specialisations (the left usually has key language areas, for example) but there is no clear rational-creative split and you need both hemispheres to be successful at either. You can no more do right-brain thinking than you can do rear-brain thinking.
Dopamine is a pleasure chemical
Dopamine has many functions in the brain, from supporting concentration to regulating the production of breast milk. Even in its most closely associated functioning it is usually considered to be involved in motivation (wanting) rather than the feeling of pleasure itself.
Low serotonin causes depression
A concept almost entirely promoted by pharmaceutical companies in the 1980s and 90s to sell serotonin-enhancing drugs like Prozac. No consistent evidence for it.
Video games, TV violence, porn or any other social spectre of the moment “rewires the brain”
Everything “rewires the brain” as the brain works by making and remaking connections. This is often used in a contradictory fashion to suggest that the brain is both particularly susceptible to change but once changed, can’t change back.
We have no control over our brain but we can control our mind
The mind and the brain are the same thing described in different ways and they make us who we are. Trying to suggest one causes the other is like saying wetness causes water.
A Mind-Meld Between Two Rats
In science that’s faintly reminiscent of the Borg, two rats’ thoughts were linked across continents. Sort of. Actually, maybe this isn’t as amazingly cool as it sounds. Only sorta cool . . ?
What they did: One rat was trained to press one of two levers to get a drink of water, which is a pretty easy thing to get a rat to do correctly. The activity of the whole brain (no single region was isolated, which will be important later) in that rat was then recorded and converted into a pattern of pulses. If the trained rat was pressing lever 1, it was turned into a single pulse, Lever 2? A series of pulses.
Bring in the second rat. In a lab a continent away, it had an implant that delivered either the single pulse (lever 1) or the series of pulses (lever 2) into its brain. Then it made the choice of its own levers for its own drink of water. More often than not, it made the same choice as the “sender” rat. But only slightly more often than chance, or just randomly picking one of two levers.
They did another, similar test with a test involving rats feeling the size of an opening with their whiskers, then choosing “big” or “small” to get a drink, and got similar results. But again, the results were only slightly better than the rat flipping a rat coin.
What questions remain: How are the rats really communicating here? This wasn’t direct brain signaling. It was a computer creating two very different signals and then sending those signals to another rat to respond to. You could do the same thing with bells, probably. The only difference here is that the receiver was fed right into the brain, which is cool, but not as cool. And even the receivers were pre-trained to know the signals. So I’d like to see more done. Lots of scientists in the field are pretty skeptical too. But hey, this is hard stuff, and you’ve gotta start somewhere.
Scicurious has a really cool idea for the next experiment at her blog, and she breaks it down pretty well (hint: not as exciting as the headline makes it sound). Maybe this will lead to some cool brain-to-brain interfaces in the future, but that’s like a caveman inventing the wheel and saying it will lead to a Ferrari. Lots to do in between.
Neuroscience Meets Magic
Neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde observe master gentleman magician/pickpocket Apollo Robbins and explain how he uses the human brain against itself. The direction, and misdirection, of our brain’s attention tendencies are at the core of every great illusion.
I’m not sure which is more amazing, the neuroscience at play here or the amazing magic.
“Did you just take his wallet? He just took that guy’s wallet!”
(Video by Scientific American)
The old tales of left brain/right brain “types” of skills and people have proven to be oversimplified and, well, kinda wrong. But the studies outlined in this cartoon remind us that there’s plenty of interesting biology between the hemispheres.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this reader question today. It’s completely mind-blowing to think that even our immediate, present experience is not actually present or immediate. There is a delay to everything, and we are never truly experiencing now.
Let’s take that mind-bender to another level!
Most of us, if we have any coordination at all, should be able to touch our ankle and nose simultaneously, so that it feels like a single moment.
But hold up a sec! The signal from your ankle had to travel maybe twenty times as far to get to your brain. Depending on the exact type of nerve cell stimulated by that touch, the message can take a noticeable fraction of a second to reach the brain from your foot (the nerve type that responds to touch transmits in the range of 30-70 m/s, although dull pain and warm/cold are about ten times slower).
So did they happen at the same time? Did you actually touch your nose and ankle simultaneously and your brain reassembled the asynchronous signals? Or did you touch your ankle and nose at slightly different moments, so that the sensory info would arrive at the same time?
I genuinely do not know the answer to this. Is there an answer? What do you all think?
When Greg Dunn finished his Ph.D. in neuroscience at Penn in 2011, he bought himself a sensory deprivation tank as a graduation present. The gift marked a major life transition, from the world of science to a life of meditation and art.
Now a full-time artist living in Philadelphia, Dunn says he was inspired in his grad-student days by the spare beauty of neurons treated with certain stains. The Golgi stain, for example, will turn one or two neurons black against a golden background. “It has this Zen quality to it that really appealed to me,” Dunn said.
Neuroscientist-turned-artist Greg Dunn creates incredible work at the intersection of art and science, drawn from his imagination but informed by his knowledge of neuroanatomy.
Greg Dunn does simply fantastic work. My favorites are his neurons drawn in the style of Japanese scrolls.
I'm Joe Hanson, Ph.D. biologist and host/writer of PBS Digital Studios' It's Okay To Be Smart. Check out my "Episode Extras" here. There's a lot of amazing science out there. Let's go discover it together.
"Everyone's favorite Feynman of the Tumblr era" - Maria Popova
Joe's science book recommendations, from brains to biology to space to art to physics.
Featured in The Best Science Writing Online - 2012
Let's learn something together. Click the "Share" button to send a post to Twitter, Facebook, or Google+
I'm working to change the way science is communicated and restore it to its rightful place. This is an indie blog that takes many hours a week to publish. If you'd like to support It's Okay To Be Smart, please consider even a small donation. Together we CAN!
Want to see more great science-y stuff? Check out my LINKS page for some of my favorites.