The Most Amazing Thing in the Universe
This time last year, I was presenting the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, “Meet Your Brain”that were filmed for the BBC. It was a major life event that took four months of preparation. One of the major hurdles was coming up with demonstrations that would work well for a young audience. To my surprise this was a lot harder than I imagined as there were not that many “off-the-shelf” examples to illustrate the basic principles of neuroscience that we teach our students.
In the end, we came up with three shows-worth of material and demonstrations that went down really well (excellent ratings by the TV pundits & over 4 million viewers). It seems like a distant memory now that I have returned to day job as an academic but I must confess I miss the spotlight and attention that the Christmas Lectures generate.
One legacy is that we have created a free online resource based around the content of the three lectures called “The Brain Bank.” This has all been down to an amazing amount of hard work by my longtime collaborator and friend, Dr. Natalia Gjersoe.
It contains video clips, demonstrations, images and Q&A discussions all aimed at a teenage audience. There are three sections that deal with architecture, functions and the social brain. It is especially good for UK teachers as it explains difficult concepts and tells you which part of the school’s curriculum each of the points cover but it has international appeal. After all, brains are pretty much the same wherever you are!
I really hope it gets used and inspires the next generation of brain scientists.
In August 2008, Rosemary Alvarez from Arizona thought she had the flu. She felt chronically tired and irritable. But when she started feeling numbness in her left arm and her vision became blurred, she knew it was more than flu. She was taken to hospital where an MRI scan revealed that she had a brain tumor around her brain stem. Her neurosurgeon Peter Nakaji, went into this most delicate area in the middle of the brain expecting the worst. Tumors in this region are notoriously difficult to excise because this brain area controls many the major bodily functions that keep us alive. A slip of his scalpel could leave this woman on a ventilator for life. However, as he sliced the outer casing of the tissue around the tumor, he got a pleasant surprise that would make the rest of us wretch – it wasn’t a tumor, but a live tapeworm, taenia solium, that wriggled out. This little fella was far easier to remove than a tumor chuckled Dr Nakaji, and it was the fifth one he had removed that year.
Our bodies are full of parasites that most of us are blissfully unaware of. For example, our guts contain a multitude of bacteria that are essential for digestion and without them we would die. However, Rosemary’s tapeworm was an unwelcome guest that came from eating undercooked pork and poor personal hygiene. What is interesting in her case is the idea that another living organism invading her body had changed Rosemary. The tapeworm wasn’t literally eating her brain like a worm in an apple but it was causing an infection – the natural bodily response to cope with external agents. All manner of things can cause brain infections that lead to changes in personality. We are our brains and if these are damaged, then we are changed, but sometimes the effects can be very subtle.
In what must be one of the most outlandish propositions to appear in recent years, Kevin Lafferty is a scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who thinks that a common parasitic infestation may have influenced the whole of society. Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) is a parasite, typically hosted in cats, that has an interesting life cycle. When the cat defecates, the T. gondii is excreted in the cat feces. Along comes a hungry rat that is less than discerning and nibbles the cat litter containing T. gondii. Inside its new host, the parasite works its way into the brain of the rat where it creates an infection in the region of the amgydala disrupting the normal rat behavior by altering the levels of dopamine. The infected rat now becomes less fearful and adverse to the smell of cats – dangerous changes in behavior that increases the likelihood that the rat in turn, will be eaten by another cat thereby completing the T. gondii cycle.
But T. gondii is not restricted to cats and rats. Approximately one third of the humans on the planet have been exposed and Lafferty believes that this epidemic may have shaped human culture. He explains, “”We have a parasite in our brain that is trying to get transmitted to a cat. This changes an individual’s personality.” In fact, research on humans indicates that chronic T. gondii infection causes significant behavioral changes. It has been reported that in comparison to those who are not infected, women become more intelligent, outgoing, conscientious, sexually promiscuous, and kind whereas men show the opposite profile. It is not clear why the infection would affect women differently to men either. With the gradual domestication of the cat over the course of modern civilization, Lafferty argues that the associated chronic T. gondii infection in the human population is one factor that could have shaped cultural evolution.
We have the census coming up this weekend in the UK where every household has to return information that gives a snapshot of the society. Included amongst the various demographics is the inevitable religion question. It is likely that there will be another increase in the percentage of “no religion” responses given the various polls indicating that the UK is moving towards greater secularity.
A paper just out has even mathematically modeled the decline of religion based on the census data from nine other countries (Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland). The main author has concluded in a interview with the BBC that religion in these countries will become extinct, in the same way that indigenous languages die out when there is competition between different social groups.
No doubt this will be music to the ears of many but then, should we really be that surprised? The history of civilization is littered with the corpses of dead religions. The difference is that those deaths were at the hands of other religions whereas the modern era has science as an alternative way of viewing the universe. I hope so.
That said, there is no box on the census to address beliefs in supernatural phenomena which shows no signs of a decline with remarkable consistency over the past 20 years in the UK alone. I expect that many who tick the “no religion” box still have their beliefs.
At the danger of sounding like a broken record, religions come and go, but beliefs in supernatural possibilities are very stubborn. This is the SuperSense that religions have capitalized so well on over the centuries. It remains to be seen whether all religions will eventually go extinct – I strongly doubt it but I am pretty sure that beliefs in phenomena and forces, that have no evidential basis, will be with us so long as there are brains that are trip-wired to seeing significance where there is none.
"I think this egg is off"
I was at Prof Barbara Saharkian’s lecture on cognitive enhancement a few weeks back where she talked about the growing use of drugs to improve academic performance. Apparently the situation is epidemic on US campuses where approximately 16% of students are taking these clinical drugs to help them cram for exams or do all-nighters to complete assignments. She presented evidence where drugs such as Ritalin, originally intended for the treatment of ADHD, have been shown to improve performance on a number of cognitive tasks.
Modafinil, originally designed for the treatment of narcolepsy, is one of the latest growing trends of cognitive enhancing drugs. The market for Modafinil is estimated to be worth £700m per annum alone with approximately 90% destined for “off- label” or non-clinical use. According to Saharkian, she found that a number of her US colleagues privately admitted to taking Modafinil when traveling to give lectures as it is very good for overcoming jetlag.
Access to cognitive enhancers is fairly restricted in the UK but there is always the internet. The trouble of course, is that many of these drugs are manufactured in the Far East which has notoriously lax attitudes to quality control. It is simply dangerous to buy your drugs online. In the past, they have been found to contain a variety of toxins.
There again, China also has more natural ways of maintaining concentration. For example, you may want to try spring eggs hard boiled in children’s urine that have been prepared in Dongyang, Zhejiang province, eastern China, for thousands of years and now culture officials want to take it worldwide.
“The urine is gathered from local schools and the very best comes from boys under 10 years old. They pee in buckets and we collect it fresh every day,” chef Lu Ming explained. He continued, “Then the eggs are boiled in the wee, first with their shells on and then with them off for a day and a night before they’re ready to be eaten.” The eggs are regarded as delicious and healthy because they help concentration when feeling sluggish or sleepy.
I have a conference coming up in a couple of weeks where I would like to be alert and attentive. But somehow, I think I will not be relying on any Chinese remedies – natural or not.
As part of my research for my new book about the self illusion, I have just been writing about the subjective experience we all have of being inside our head. This location is called the “point zero” which is the phenomenological experience of where you think you are when you are conscious. There is a simple technique to locate your own point zero. Close your eyes and introspect. Focus on your self. With both hands, point with your index fingers to the sides of your head where you think your inner self is currently located. When both fingers are pointing to where you think you are having experience at this very moment in time inside your head, keep one finger pointing and with the other hand point to this same place from the front of your head so you can accurately triangulate where you feel your site of consciousness is. Now draw the imaginary lines to find the intersection where ‘X’ marks the spot.
This is where most people think they are at the moment
The above diagram is taken from studies of sighted and blind subjects. I think the interesting finding is that most people think that their self resides somewhere behind their eyes in the midline. Now of course, this is just a subjective experience. I think that this positioning is probably due to the need to have a point of reference for all the sensory systems to coordinate to protect the head and the brain within. Anyway we can speculate about this and I would be pleased to hear your opinions.
When I googled zero point, I discovered a decidedly woo-woo operation that is flogging wands and lotions to reduce pain. Here is one of their videos.
It was filmed this summer and has only had just over 700 hits but I see that zero point woo-woo is starting to take off using the same old ideomotor effects, suggestion and basic balance tricks to prove magical powers. Keep your third eye out for this one skeptics!
I finally got round to loading this short movie of my encounter with a terranoid robot at Kyoto’s ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories back in October. This is a “terranoid ” – a robot that you can hold as you interact.
The Westerners working at ATR had nicknamed it, “Casper” after the lovable friendly ghost, but I was reminded more of the cult horror classic “Basketcase” about the wretched siamese twin who is separated from his brother to be carried around in a basket from where he terrorizes his victims. BTW,the origin of the term ‘basketcase’ comes from the British slang for quadruple amputees during WWI.
The aim of the terranoid is to produce androids that one can hold. You can tell where this technology is going but as you can see, there was something very strange about this encounter and I clearly do not seem at ease. The texture of the synthetic skin was very lifelike but it did feel like I was holding a deformed human.
I will get round to uploading my encounter with Geminoid soon. I even got to be her for while and experience what it feels like to remotely control an android. The future is just round the corner, and a lot weirder than you imagine!
New Scientist has pre-empted the publication of nine precognition studies by the eminent social psychologist Daryl Bem which is due out in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology later this year. The reason that this is drawing such attention is that Bem reports nine replications of precognition where participants’ performance on various cognitive tasks is significantly predicted by events that happen after their responses are made. For example, in one study, Bem reverses the classic priming effect. In priming, participants are presented with a positive word such as “beautiful” or a negative word “ugly” and then they have to make a speeded response to categorize pictures in terms of whether they are beautiful or ugly, say for example a picture of a flower or a picture of a wart. When the prime is congruent (“beautiful”) with the image (flower), participants are faster compared to when the prime is incongruent. Bem reversed the sequence so that participants categorized the picture and were then presented with the prime. He still found a significant but reduced effect for the reverse prime. In other words, participants behaviour at time 1 was associated with events that had not yet happened at time 2.
Does Bem have an explanation? Not really. What is the mechanism? The usual appeal to quantum theory that all bets are off. I know that Richard Wiseman is currently attempting to replicate Bem’s findings and until then I must reserve judgement. It would be unscientific to dismiss a peer-reviewed article without waiting for confirmation. But something tells me that this is not going to hold up as a reliable finding.
UPDATE: Richard Wiseman thinks that experimenter bias may have crept in. According to the methods section, words that were recalled that were close to target words were coded as near misses by student experimenters who were aware of which words were the targets. In other words, not truly blinded.