Posts Tagged ‘Brain’


Emerging Technologies

      Published by Steven Novella

Most Fridays I submit a blog post to Swift, the official blog of the JREF. The article I submitted this morning is about a new study demonstrating  a brain-machine-interface (BMI) that allows a rhesus monkey to control two robotic arms at the same time. This is a technology I have been following here at NeuroLogica, blogging about it whenever I think a cool breakthrough is made.

The topic touches on several areas simultaneously that I find fascinating – neuroscience, computer technology, virtual reality, and predicting future technology. I make the point, as I often do, that predicting future technology has a terrible track record, with the only reasonable conclusion being that it is very difficult.

It’s fun to look back at past future predictions and see what people generally got right and what they got wrong, and then see if we can learn any general lessons that we can apply to predicting future technology.

Major Hurdles

For example, we are not all flying around with jetpacks or taking our flying car to work. This has become, in fact, a cliche of failed future technologies. I think the lesson here is that both of these technologies suffer from a major hurdle – fuel is heavy, and if you have to carry your fuel around with you it quickly becomes prohibitive. There just doesn’t seem to be any way to overcome this limitation with chemical fuel or batteries.

In other words, whenever the viability of a technology depends upon making a major breakthrough that changes the game with respect to some major limitation imposed by the laws of physics, you cannot count on that technology succeeding in the short to medium term. Long term – all bets are off.

The coming hydrogen economy is another example. It turns out, safely and efficiently storing for convenient release large amounts of hydrogen is a non-trivial technical problem that will not be solved as a matter of course.

Incremental Advance

By contrast, even in the 1980s, but certainly by the early 1990′s the promise of the coming internet was in the air. I remember reading fiction, popular science articles, and talking about how the world will change when information becomes digital and ubiquitous. No one predicted ebay and Twitter specifically, but certainly online commerce and communication were anticipated.

The difference here is that computer and electronic technologies had a proven track record of continuous incremental improvement, and that was all that was necessary for the dreams of the internet to become reality. You can extrapolate incremental progress much more reliably that massive breakthroughs.

Not So Fast

Smartphones, also anticipated for decades, are now a reality. The additional lesson here is that sometimes it takes longer than we predict for a technology to mature. I remember people desperately trying to make use of early portable computing devices in the 1990s (like the Newton and other PDA). I was there, using my PDA, but the functionality was just not sufficient to make it easier than a paper notebook. I’m sure some people made it work for them, but widespread adoption was just not happening.

Now, 20 years later, smartphones have finally achieved the promise of portable personal computing devices. People use smartphones not only for communication, but to quickly look up information, to update their Twitter feed, to listen to music and podcasts, as still and video cameras, and as portable GPS devices. They are still rapidly increasing in power and utility, but they have definitely passed the bar of general adoption.

As PDAs, carrying around a small computer was not that useful. It took the development of other applications to really make the technology useful, such as GPS, the internet, MP3s, and miniaturized cameras.

Yes, But What Is It Good For?

Perhaps the most difficult prediction involves how a new technology will be used. Microwaves were developed for cooking. It turns out, they are terrible tools for cooking. The technology might have completely died on the vine, except it turns out they are really convenient for heating food – defrosting, rewarming, and, of course, making popcorn. They quickly became indispensable.

Segways were supposed to change the way people move about a city. They utterly failed in this goal. However, they enjoy a niche for security guards to move around malls and airports.

This is, in my opinion, the trickiest part of predicting future technology adoption. Even when the technology itself is viable, it’s hard to predict how millions of people will react to the technology. Why are we not all using video-phones all the time? In the 1980s I would have sworn they would be in wide adoption as soon as the technology was available. Now I could, if I chose, make every phone call a video call, but I choose not to. For most calls, it’s just not worth it. I’d rather not have to look into a camera and worry about what I am doing.

Likewise, who would have thought that people would prefer texting to talking on the phone? That was a real shocker to me.

Sometimes the adoption of a specific technology depends upon someone finding a good use for it. The technology itself may be viable, but utilization really determines whether or not it will be adopted. There is no substitute for the real-world experiment of millions of people getting their hands on a technology or application and seeing if they like it.

The Future

Will all this in mind, what are the technologies that I think are likely to have a huge impact on our future? This is a huge topic, and maybe I’ll dedicate a future blog post to exploring this further, but let me name some that come to mind.

Carbon nanotubes and graphene are the plastics and the semi-conductors of the 21st century rolled into one. This material is strong and has interesting and changeable conductive properties that make them potentially usable in small, energy efficient and flexible electronics. The major limitation right now is mass producing carbon nanofibers in long lengths and large amounts efficiently and with sufficient quality. This seems to be an area of steady progress, however.

This may seem like an easy one, but stem cells clearly have tremendous potential. However, I would have to file this one under – major breakthrough still necessary in order to achieve the full potential of stem cell technology. I also think this is one that will mature 2-3 decades later than popularly anticipated. Maybe by the middle of the 21st century we will begin to see the promise of growing or regenerating organs, reversing degenerative diseases, and healing major damage and disease with stem cells.

And to bring the article back around to the original topic – brain-machine interfaces in all manifestations. The ability to affect brain function with electricity and the ability to communicate between external devices (going in both directions – sensory input and motor or other output device) mediated by a computer chip has massive implications.

On the one hand, this is a new paradigm in treating the brain by altering its function. Right now the major medical intervention for brain function is pharmacological, but this approach has inherent limits. The brain is not only a chemical organ, however, it is an electrical organ, and increasingly we are seeing electrical devices, such as deep brain stimulation, to treat neurological diseases.

Beyond that, the ability to interface a brain and a computer essentially brings neuroscience into the computer age, which further means that applications will benefit from the continued incremental advance of computer technology. It may take a few more decades than we hope or anticipate, but we can now clearly see the day when paralyzed patients can control robot legs or arms through BMI, where we can enter a virtual world and not only control but actually mentally occupy an avatar, and where people can control anything technological in their environment through thought alone.

In short, it has been demonstrated that it is possible for humans to merge with their machines. I know this sounds like hyperbole and science fiction, but the science is pretty solid if immature.

This technology is coming. What remains to be seen is what applications will develop, and how will people react


Red Brain, Blue Brain: Republicans and Democrats Process Risk Differently, Research Finds

A team of political scientists and neuroscientists has shown that liberals and conservatives use different parts of the brain when they make risky decisions, and these regions can be used to predict which political party a person prefers. The new study suggests that while genetics or parental influence may play a significant role, being a Republican or Democrat changes how the brain functions.

Republicans and Democrats differ in the neural mechanisms activated while performing a risk-taking task. Republicans more strongly activate their right amygdala, associated with orienting attention to external cues. Democrats have higher activity in their left posterior insula, associated with perceptions of internal physiological states. This activation also borders the temporal-parietal junction, and therefore may reflect a difference in internal physiological drive as well as the perception of the internal state and drive of others. (Credit: From: Darren Schreiber, Greg Fonzo, Alan N. Simmons, Christopher T. Dawes, Taru Flagan, James H. Fowler, Martin P. Paulus. Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (2): e52970 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0052970)

Dr. Darren Schreiber, a researcher in neuropolitics at the University of Exeter, has been working in collaboration with colleagues at the University of California, San Diego on research that explores the differences in the way the brain functions in American liberals and conservatives. The findings are published Feb. 13 in the journalPLOS ONE.

In a prior experiment, participants had their brain activity measured as they played a simple gambling game. Dr. Schreiber and his UC San Diego collaborators were able to look up the political party registration of the participants in public records. Using this new analysis of 82 people who performed the gambling task, the academics showed that Republicans and Democrats do not differ in the risks they take. However, there were striking differences in the participants’ brain activity during the risk-taking task.

Democrats showed significantly greater activity in the left insula, a region associated with social and self-awareness. Meanwhile Republicans showed significantly greater activity in the right amygdala, a region involved in the body’s fight-or-flight system. These results suggest that liberals and conservatives engage different cognitive processes when they think about risk.

In fact, brain activity in these two regions alone can be used to predict whether a person is a Democrat or Republican with 82.9% accuracy. By comparison, the longstanding traditional model in political science, which uses the party affiliation of a person’s mother and father to predict the child’s affiliation, is only accurate about 69.5% of the time. And another model based on the differences in brain structure distinguishes liberals from conservatives with only 71.6% accuracy.

The model also outperforms models based on differences in genes. Dr. Schreiber said: “Although genetics have been shown to contribute to differences in political ideology and strength of party politics, the portion of variation in political affiliation explained by activity in the amygdala and insula is significantly larger, suggesting that affiliating with a political party and engaging in a partisan environment may alter the brain, above and beyond the effect of heredity.”

These results may pave the way for new research on voter behaviour, yielding better understanding of the differences in how liberals and conservatives think. According to Dr. Schreiber: “The ability to accurately predict party politics using only brain activity while gambling suggests that investigating basic neural differences between voters may provide us with more powerful insights than the traditional tools of political science.”


Doctors have been wrestling with a newly discovered illness that attacks mainly young women and looks a lot like psychosis. In Philadelphia, hospitalized women appeared possessed, crying or laughing hysterically one moment and turning catatonic the next. One had seizures and left her arms stuck out in front of her. Finally doctors realized they weren’t crazy—they were suffering from an auto immune disease known as Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis, reports CBS Philadelphia.

Discovered six years ago, the illness strikes the brain with antibodies and causes it to swell—as one doctor explained to two nervous parents: “He told them her brain is on fire,” says a woman who was hospitalized for weeks. “He used those words: ‘Her brain is on fire.'” A spinal fluid test can spot the disease and immunotherapy can treat it, but there is no cure; all patients face possible relapses. Now a former patient is trying to get the word out, explaining that “there could be people in comas right now or people stuck in psych wards that have this disease and aren’t being treated properly.”


The Believing Brain

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ABOUT THE BOOK

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IN THIS, HIS MAGNUM OPUS one of the world’s best known skeptics and critical thinkers Dr. Michael Shermer—founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and perennial monthly columnist(“Skeptic”) for Scientific American—presents his comprehensive theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished. This book synthesizes Dr. Shermer’s 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs. In this book Dr. Shermer is interested in more than just why people believe weird things, or why people believe this or that claim, but in why people believe anything at all. His thesis is straightforward:

We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.

Dr. Shermer also provides the neuroscience behind our beliefs. The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. The first process Dr. Shermer calls patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process he callsagenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.

We can’t help believing. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation. Dr. Shermer outlines the numerous cognitive tools our brains engage to reinforce our beliefs as truths and to insure that we are always right.

Interlaced with his theory of belief, Dr. Shermer provides countless real-world examples of belief from all realms of life, and in the end he demonstrates why science is the best tool ever devised to determine whether or not a belief matches reality.

BRIEF SYNOPSIS

The Believing Brain is divided into four parts. Part I, “Journeys of Belief,” includes personal narratives of belief, including that of the author; Part II, “The Biology of Belief,” bores into the brain and explains how the mind works to form beliefs, from thoughts and ideas down to neurons firing across tiny synaptic gaps as they talk to one another chemically; Part III, “Belief in Things Unseen” applies my theory beliefs to the afterlife, God, aliens, and conspiracies; and Part IV, “Belief in Things Seen,” examines the role of beliefs in politics, economics, and ideologies, explains how belief confirmation works to assure that we are always right, and then explores the history of scientific exploration, from the world to the cosmos, and how science works to overcome the power of belief.

The Believing Brain begins with three personal belief stories. The first story is about a man whom you will have never heard of but who had a profound and life-changing experience in the wee hours of the morning many decades ago that still haunts him to this day and drives him to search for ultimate meaning in the cosmos. The second story is about a man whom you will most definitely have heard of as he is one of the greatest scientists of our age, and he too had a life-changing early-morning experience that confirmed his decision to make a religious leap of faith. The third story is Dr. Shermer’s own passage from believer to skeptic, and what he learned along the way that drove him into a professional career of the scientific study of belief systems.

From narrative stories Dr. Shermer turns to an architecture of belief systems, how they are formed, nourished, reinforced, changed, and extinguished, first conceptually through the two theoretical constructs he developed called patternicity and agenticity, and then delve deeper into how these cognitive processes evolved and what purpose they served in the lives of our ancestors as well as in our lives today. Dr. Shermer then bores deeper into the brain, right down to the neurophysiology of belief system construction at the single neuron level, and then reconstructs from the bottom up how brains form beliefs. Then we shall examine how belief systems operate with regard to belief in religion, the afterlife, God, extraterrestrials, conspiracies, politics, economics, and ideologies of all stripes, and then consider how a host of cognitive processes convince us that our beliefs are truths. In the final chapters we will consider how we know any of our beliefs are believable, which patterns are true and which false, which agents are real and which are chimera, and how science works as the ultimate pattern detection device.

In the end, all of us are trying to make sense of the world, and nature has gifted us with a double-edge sword that cuts for and against. On one edge, our brains are the most complex and sophisticated information processing machines in the universe, capable of understanding not only the universe itself but of understanding the process of understanding. On the other edge, by the very same process of forming beliefs about the universe and ourselves, we are also more capable than any other species of self-deception and illusion, of fooling ourselves while we are trying to avoid being fooled by nature


Religious Experiences Shrink Part of the Brain

            By ANDREW NEWBERG – SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
A study links life-changing religious experiences, like being born again, with atrophy in the hippocampus

The article, “Religious factors and hippocampal atrophy in late life,” by Amy Owen and colleagues at Duke University represents an important advance in our growing understanding of the relationship between the brain and religion. The study, published March 30 in PLoS One, showed greater atrophy in the hippocampus in individuals who identify with specific religious groups as well as those with no religious affiliation. It is a surprising result, given that many prior studies have shown religion to have potentially beneficial effects on brain function, anxiety, and depression.

A number of studies have evaluated the acute effects of religious practices, such as meditation and prayer, on the human brain. A smaller number of studies have evaluated the longer term effects of religion on the brain. Such studies, like the present one, have focused on differences in brain volume or brain function in those people heavily engaged in meditation or spiritual practices compared to those who are not. And an even fewer number of studies have explored the longitudinal effects of doing meditation or spiritual practices by evaluating subjects at two different time points.

Read more

http://richarddawkins.net/articles/633202-religious-experiences-shrink-part-of-the-brain

Wikipedia:
Andrew Newberg, M.D. is an American Neuroscientist who is the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College, an Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies and an Associate Professor of Radiolog…Read more


Why ‘good’ sugar is the secret to a slim figure

Eating fresh fruit and vegetables helps people resist the temptation of  waist-expanding treats, scientists have found.

Fruit

‘Good’ carbs, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, can help in the battle with obesity
Nick Collins

By , Science Correspondent

12:19AM BST 20 Sep 2011

When our supplies of glucose – found in carbohydrates – drop we begin to lose   our ability to control desire, while our urge to eat increases.

The lack of glucose – which is used to power the brain – makes us helpless against the urge to reach for high-calorie foods, researchers said.

Obese people are particularly vulnerable, with even the slightest drop in   glucose prompting irresistible cravings for carbohydrates, from which we get   most of our sugar.

These can be “good” carbs, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, brown   rice and pasta and wholemeal bread, or “bad” varieties which   include white bread and sugar, fizzy drinks, cakes, crisps and other packet   snacks.

Making sure the brain’s glucose levels do not drop could be the secret to   staying slim, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation   suggested.

Prof Rajita Sinha, of Yale University in America, said: “The key seems to   be eating healthy foods that maintain glucose levels.

“The brain needs its food.”

Volunteers were given injections of glucose and their brains were scanned   while they were shown pictures of high and low calorie foods, as well as   other objects.

When glucose levels were lower, two areas of the brain which regulate pleasure prompted the desire to eat while the prefrontal cortex – which gives us self-control – lost its ability to control the impulses.


Researchers have found evidence for “chronesthesia,” which is the brain’s ability to be aware of the past and future, and to mentally travel in subjective time. They found that activity in different brain regions is related to chronesthetic states when a person thinks about the same content during the past, present, or future.

http://www.physorg.com/news/2010-12-scientists-evidence-chronesthesia-mental.html