The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'neurology'
Scientists in China have found that mice bred to not be receptive to serotonin have no sexual preferences for either sex:
When presented with a choice of partners, they showed no overall preference for either males or females. When just a male was introduced into the cage, the modified males were far more likely to mount the male and emit a "mating call" normally given off when encountering females than unmodified males were.
However, a preference for females could be "restored" by injecting serotonin into the brain.The researchers have cautioned against drawing conclusions about human sexuality from the result.
The lazy takeaway from this, as seen in news sites, is that serotonin affects sexual orientation, with the suggestion that low serotonin might be the secret to the inexplicable condition known as homosexuality. I'm wondering whether a more plausible conclusion is that, with sexual selection being about competition amongst fit individuals, a prerequisite for having an active sexual preference is passing an internal test of subjective fitness, i.e., being aware that one has sufficiently high status to be picky. In other words, mice without functioning serotonin receptors perceive themselves as losers who will take anything that's warm and regard it, being more than they're entitled to, as a win.
A study from University College London, involving brain scans correlated with political surveys, has found that self-proclaimed liberals and conservatives have differently shaped brains:
"The anterior cingulate is a part of the brain that is on the middle surface of the brain at the front and we found that the thickness of the grey matter, where the nerve cells of neurons are, was thicker the more people described themselves as liberal or left wing and thinner the more they described themselves as conservative or right wing," he told the programme.
"The amygdala is a part of the brain which is very old and very ancient and thought to be very primitive and to do with the detection of emotions. The right amygdala was larger in those people who described themselves as conservative.
New research shows that, neurologically, romantic love is a goal-oriented state and rejection is neurologically similar to cocaine withdrawal.
"This brain imaging study of individuals who were still 'in love' with their rejecter supplies further evidence that the passion of 'romantic love' is a goal-oriented motivation state rather than a specific emotion" the researchers concluded, noting that brain imaging showed some similarities between romantic rejection and cocaine craving. "The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that romantic love is a specific form of addiction."
(via Boing Boing)
New advances in neural imaging are shedding light on what makes a psychopath a psychopath:
In a landmark 1991 E.R.P. study conducted at a prison in Vancouver, Robert Hare and two graduate students showed that psychopaths process words like “hate” and “love” differently from the way normal people do. In another study, at the Bronx V.A. Medical Center, Hare, Joanne Intrator, and others found that psychopaths processed emotional words in a different part of the brain. Instead of showing activity in the limbic region, in the midbrain, which is the emotional-processing center, psychopaths showed activity only in the front of the brain, in the language center. Hare explained to me, “It was as if they could only understand emotions linguistically. They knew the words but not the music, as it were.”
Today, Kiehl and Hare have a complementary but complicated relationship. Kiehl claims Hare as a mentor, and sees his own work as validating Hare’s checklist, by advancing a neurological mechanism for psychopathy. Hare is less gung ho about using fMRI as a diagnostic tool. “Some claim, in a sense, this is the new phrenology,” Hare said, referring to the discredited nineteenth-century practice of reading the bumps on people’s heads, “only this time the bumps are on the inside.”
But the problem is that “psychopathic behavior”—egocentricity, for example, or lack of realistic long-term goals—is present in far more than one per cent of the adult male population. This blurriness in the psychopathic profile can make it possible to see psychopaths everywhere or nowhere. In the mid-fifties, Robert Lindner, the author of “Rebel Without a Cause: A Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath,” explained juvenile delinquency as an outbreak of mass psychopathy. Norman Mailer inverted this notion in “The White Negro,” admiring the hipster as a “philosophical psychopath” for having the courage of nonconformity. In the sixties, sociopathy replaced psychopathy as the dominant construct. Now, in our age of genetic determinism, society is once again seeing psychopaths everywhere, and this will no doubt provoke others to say they are nowhere, and the cycle of overexposure and underfunding will continue.One researcher is doing research on prison inmates (a population in which psychopathy is greatly over-represented, as one might expect) using a brain scanner and tests reminiscent of the Voigt-Kampf test in Blade Runner, measuring their responses to moral questions non-psychopathic individuals would respond to viscerally.
The fMRI machine started up with a high-pitched whirring sound. I began to see photographs. One was of a baby covered with blood. I thought first about the blood, then realized the circumstances—birth—and rated the moral offense zero. A man was lying on the ground with his face beaten to a bloody pulp: I scored this high. There was a picture of Osama bin Laden. I scored it four, although I felt that I was making more of an intellectual than a moral judgment. Two guys inadvertently butting heads in a soccer game got a zero, but then I changed it to a one, because perhaps a foul was called. I had considered deliberately giving wrong answers, as a psychopath might. But instead I worked at my task earnestly, like a good fifth grader.
(via Wired News)
A biologist and a sociologist have put forward a new theory of brain development and mental disorders. Crespi and Badcock's theory posits a spectrum running between autism and related social dysfunctions on one side and schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder on the other, with the struggle between maternal and paternal genes in the womb determining where the child's neurology will fall on this axis:
Dr. Crespi and Dr. Badcock propose that an evolutionary tug of war between genes from the father’s sperm and the mother’s egg can, in effect, tip brain development in one of two ways. A strong bias toward the father pushes a developing brain along the autistic spectrum, toward a fascination with objects, patterns, mechanical systems, at the expense of social development. A bias toward the mother moves the growing brain along what the researchers call the psychotic spectrum, toward hypersensitivity to mood, their own and others’. This, according to the theory, increases a child’s risk of developing schizophrenia later on, as well as mood problems like bipolar disorder and depression.
It was Dr. Badcock who noticed that some problems associated with autism, like a failure to meet another’s gaze, are direct contrasts to those found in people with schizophrenia, who often believe they are being watched. Where children with autism appear blind to others’ thinking and intentions, people with schizophrenia see intention and meaning everywhere, in their delusions. The idea expands on the “extreme male brain” theory of autism proposed by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge.
“Think of the grandiosity in schizophrenia, how some people think that they are Jesus, or Napoleon, or omnipotent,” Dr. Crespi said, “and then contrast this with the underdeveloped sense of self in autism. Autistic kids often talk about themselves in the third person.”
Evolutionary psychologist and language specialist Steven Pinker has an article on the neurology and psychology of swearing, how obscene language differs from regular language and whence it gets its power to perturb:
The upshot is that a speaker or writer can use a taboo word to evoke an emotional response in an audience quite against their wishes. Thanks to the automatic nature of speech perception, an expletive kidnaps our attention and forces us to consider its unpleasant connotations. That makes all of us vulnerable to a mental assault whenever we are in earshot of other speakers, as if we were strapped to a chair and could be given a punch or a shock at any time. And this, in turn, raises the question of what kinds of concepts have the sort of unpleasant emotional charge that can make words for them taboo.
The historical root of swearing in English and many other languages is, oddly enough, religion. We see this in the Third Commandment, in the popularity of hell, damn, God, and Jesus Christ as expletives, and in many of the terms for taboo language itself: profanity (that which is not sacred), blasphemy (literally "evil speech" but, in practice, disrespect toward a deity), and swearing, cursing, and oaths, which originally were secured by the invocation of a deity or one of his symbols.
Ths secularization has rendered religious swear words less powerful, creative speakers have replaced them with words that have the same degree of affective clout according to the sensibilities of the day. This explains why taboo expressions can have such baffling syntax and semantics. To take just one example, why do people use the ungrammatical Fuck you? And why does no one have a clear sense of what, exactly, Fuck you means? (Some people guess "fuck yourself," others "get fucked," and still others "I will fuck you," but none of these hunches is compelling.) The most likely explanation is that these grammatically baffling curses originated in more intelligible religious curses during the transition from religious to sexual and scatological swearing in English-speaking countries:Pinker goes on to discuss the correlation between the hierarchy of obscene words functions and the disease-carrying power of the substances involved, the social forces behind sexual taboos, and concludes that, since obscene language does have power, it should neither be proscribed outright nor used thoughtlessly:
- Who (in) the hell are you? >> Who the fuck are you?
- Holy Mary! >> Holy shit! Holy fuck!
- Damn you! >> Fuck you!
The common denominator of taboo words is the act of forcing a disagreeable thought on someone, and it's worth considering how often one really wants one's audience to be reminded of excrement, urine, and exploitative sex. Even in its mildest form, intended only to keep the listener's attention, the lazy use of profanity can feel like a series of jabs in the ribs. They are annoying to the listener and a confession by the speaker that he can think of no other way to make his words worth attending to. It's all the more damning for writers, who have the luxury of choosing their words off-line from the half-million-word phantasmagoria of the English language.
When Norman Mailer wrote his true-to-life novel about World War II, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948, his compromise with the sensibilities of the day was to have soldiers use the pseudo-epithet fug. (When Dorothy Parker met him, she said, "So you're the man who doesn't know how to spell fuck.") Sadly, this prissiness is not a thing of the past: Some public television stations today fear broadcasting Ken Burns' documentary on World War II because of the salty language in his interviews with veterans. The prohibition against swearing in broadcast media makes artists and historians into liars and subverts the responsibility of grown-ups to learn how life is lived in worlds distant from their own.
(via Mind Hacks)
A new book takes to task the accepted belief that men and women think and/or communicate differently, as expounded by popular psychology books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus:
The bones of Cameron’s argument, set out in The Myth of Mars and Venus, are that Gray et al have no scientific basis for their claims. Great sheaves of academic papers, says Cameron, show that the language skills of men and women are almost identical. Indeed, the central tenets of the Mars and Venus culture – that women talk more than men, that men are more direct, that women are more verbally skilled – can all be debunked by scientific research. A recent study in the American journal Science, for instance, found men and women speak almost exactly the same number of words a day: 16,000.
Where the book becomes interesting is when she asks why we have become interested in these myths. “The first point to make is that in the past 20 years we have become obsessed by communication,” she says. “And that’s not just in relationships; it’s in customer care, it’s in politics. All problems are seen to be communication problems.
Cameron is not simply irritated that the Mars and Venus books have filled too many Christmas stockings. Her fervour on this issue runs deeper. There is, she thinks, something regressive, deeply conservative, in this outlook because what it seems to be saying is that we can’t change.The author, Deborah Cameron, is a feminist philologist and Rupert Murdoch professor of Language at Oxford (really); other than the Mars-and-Venus brigade, she has in her sights Darwinists (which, I'm guessing, means the likes of Steven Pinker and/or Richard Dawkins), Tories, man-hating "pseudo-feminists" and punctuation/grammar pedants:
“You had people like Prince Charles and Norman Tebbit inferring that if people were making spelling mistakes it was only a short step to them coming in dirty to school and then there’d be no motivation for them to stay out of crime,” says Cameron. “There were these illogical slippery slope arguments: how, if children didn’t know how to use the colon properly, it was only a few steps from drug-taking and criminality. There was a deep moral and social dimension to it all.
After undergoing brain surgery for life-threatening meningitis, a 10-year-old boy from York awoke with an upper-class English accent:
"We went on a family holiday to Northumberland and he was playing on the beach and he said, 'Look, I've made a sand castle' but really stretched the vowels, which made him sound really posh," Mrs McCartney-Moore said.
"We all just stared back at him - we couldn't believe what we had heard, because he had a Yorkshire accent before his illness.
"He had no idea why we were staring at him - he just thought he was speaking normally."If young William's new posh accent is the result of incidental neurological damage to the speech centres of his brain, does it follow that people who naturally speak like that are neurologically defective? The jokes pretty much write themselves.
WIRED has an interesting article on research into extending the human sensory range by formatting the output of other sensors into formats the human nervous system can understand, and letting the flexibility of the human brain (or "neuroplasticity", as it's called) do the rest of the work:
It turns out that the tricky bit isn't the sensing. The world is full of gadgets that detect things humans cannot. The hard part is processing the input. Neuroscientists don't know enough about how the brain interprets data. The science of plugging things directly into the brain -- artificial retinas or cochlear implants -- remains primitive.
So here's the solution: Figure out how to change the sensory data you want -- the electromagnetic fields, the ultrasound, the infrared -- into something that the human brain is already wired to accept, like touch or sight. The brain, it turns out, is dramatically more flexible than anyone previously thought, as if we had unused sensory ports just waiting for the right plug-ins. Now it's time to build them.And a few examples:
For six weird weeks in the fall of 2004, Udo Wächter had an unerring sense of direction. Every morning after he got out of the shower, Wächter, a sysadmin at the University of Osnabrück in Germany, put on a wide beige belt lined with 13 vibrating pads - the same weight-and-gear modules that make a cell phone judder. On the outside of the belt were a power supply and a sensor that detected Earth's magnetic field. Whichever buzzer was pointing north would go off. Constantly.
"It was slightly strange at first," Wächter says, "though on the bike, it was great." He started to become more aware of the peregrinations he had to make while trying to reach a destination. "I finally understood just how much roads actually wind," he says. He learned to deal with the stares he got in the library, his belt humming like a distant chain saw. Deep into the experiment, Wächter says, "I suddenly realized that my perception had shifted. I had some kind of internal map of the city in my head. I could always find my way home. Eventually, I felt I couldn't get lost, even in a completely new place."
The downside to this is that withdrawal's a bitch; having gotten used to the sensory augmentation, one literally becomes disabled when it's taken away:
When the original feelSpace experiment ended, Wächter, the sysadmin who started dreaming in north, says he felt lost; like the people wearing the weird goggles in those Austrian experiments, his brain had remapped in expectation of the new input. "Sometimes I would even get a phantom buzzing." He bought himself a GPS unit, which today he glances at obsessively. One woman was so dizzy and disoriented for her first two post-feelSpace days that her colleagues wanted to send her home from work. "My living space shrank quickly," says König. "The world appeared smaller and more chaotic."Another sensory augmentation technology described there involves using the tongue (a high-resolution array of sensors) to sense pixels in the form of voltages. This is sufficiently effective to allow blind (or blindfolded) people to "see" through an external input device wired to a mouthpiece:
With Arnoldussen behind me carrying the laptop, I walked around the Wicab offices. I managed to avoid most walls and desks, scanning my head from side to side slowly to give myself a wider field of view, like radar. Thinking back on it, I don't remember the feeling of the electrodes on my tongue at all during my walkabout. What I remember are pictures: high-contrast images of cubicle walls and office doors, as though I'd seen them with my eyes.
(via Mind Hacks)
Scientists have developed a drug capable of erasing individual, specific memories. The memory erasure procedure is carried out by administering the drug and then restimulating the memory.
To find out, they trained rats to fear two different musical tones, by playing them at the same time as giving the rats an electric shock. Then, they gave half the rats a drug known to cause limited amnesia (U0126, which is not approved for use in people), and reminded all the animals, half of which were still under the influence of the drug, of one of their fearful memories by replaying just one of the tones. When they tested the rats with both tones a day later, untreated animals were still fearful of both sounds, as if they expected a shock. But those treated with the drug were no longer afraid of the tone they had been reminded of under treatment.Before you book yourself in to do something about your unrequited crushes and/or traumatic childhood experiences, note that the procedure only works on memories that have yet to have been transferred from short-term to long-term memory. And it's not approved for use on humans.
A survey of recent research in neurotheology and the biology of mystical experience, from the magnetic "God helmet" to the possibility of a gene that regulates propensity towards mystical/spiritual experience:
Newberg's scans showed that neural activity decreases in a region at the top and rear of the brain called the posterior superior parietal lobe. Newberg refers to this region as the orientation-association area, because it helps us orient our bodies in relation to the external world. Patients whose posterior superior parietal lobes have been damaged often lose the ability to navigate through the world, because they have difficulty determining where their physical selves end and where the external world begins. Newberg hypothesizes that suppressed activity in this brain region (prompted by an individual's willed activity) could heighten a sense of unity with the external world, thus diminishing a person's sense of subject-object duality.
Intriguingly, Newberg has found some overlap between the neural activity of self-transcendence and of sexual pleasure. This result makes sense, Newberg says. Just as orgasms are triggered by a rhythmic activity, so religious experiences can be induced by dancing, chanting, or repeating a mantra. And both orgasms and religious experiences produce sensations of bliss, self-transcendence, and unity; that may be why mystics such as Saint Teresa so often employed romantic and even sexual language to describe their raptures.
Our sense of self, Persinger notes, is ordinarily mediated by the brain's left hemisphere--specifically, by the left temporal lobe, which wraps around the side of the head. When the brain is mildly disrupted--by a head injury, psychological trauma, stroke, drugs, or epileptic seizure--our left-brain self may interpret activity within the right hemisphere as another self, or what Persinger calls a "sensed presence." Depending on our circumstances and background, we may perceive a sensed presence as a ghost, angel, demon, extraterrestrial, or God.
In the 1980s, a team at the University of Minnesota carried out a study of 84 pairs of twins--53 identical and 31 fraternal--who had been raised separately. The study was the first to suggest a genetic component to what the researchers called "intrinsic religiousness," which includes the tendency to pray often and to feel the presence of God.
Eventually Hamer found a variant, or allele, of a gene called VMAT, that corresponded to higher scores for what he had defined as spirituality. VMAT stands for vesicular monoamine transporter. The gene manufactures a protein that binds monoamines into packages, called vesicles, for transportation between neurons. Hamer calls the VMAT variant "the spiritual allele," or more dramatically, "the God gene".
Rick Strassman has proposed a theory even more reductionist and far-fetched than Hamer's, yet one that has empirical support. Strassman, a psychiatrist in New Mexico, traces spirituality to a single compound, dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. In his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Strassman proposes that DMT secreted by our own brains plays a profound role in human consciousness. Specifically, he hypothesizes that endogenous DMT triggers mystical visions, psychotic hallucinations, alien-abduction experiences, near-death experiences, and other exotic cognitive phenomena.The article concludes speculating on the possibilities discovering the biological root of spirituality could open:
Researchers may persist at these efforts because such studies offer the potential to alter our lives. In principle, these findings could lead to methods--call them "mystical technologies"--that reliably induce the state of spiritual insight that Christians call grace and Buddhists, enlightenment. Already Todd Murphy, a neuroscientist who has worked with Persinger, is marketing the "Shakti headset," a stripped-down version of Persinger's God machine, for "consciousness exploration." Electrodes implanted in the brain that electrically stimulate specific regions are now being tested as treatments for depression and other mental illnesses; conceivably this technology also could be used to induce mystical states.
Suppose scientists found a way to give us permanent, blissful, mystical self-transcendence. Would we want that power? Before Timothy Leary touted LSD as a route to profound psychological and spiritual insight, the CIA was studying its potential as a brainwashing agent. Persinger warns that in the wrong hands, a truly precise, powerful God machine, capable of implanting beliefs or signals that seem to come straight from the Almighty, could be the ultimate mind-control device. "Just think of the practical impact," he says. "People will die for this."
(via Mind Hacks)
John Birmingham puts forward the case that the political right pretty much has a monopoly on humour, with the left having become too puritanical and politically correct to laugh, with the voices that dare to be outrageous being predominantly right-wing, from shock-jocks and reactionary bloggers to institutions like VICE Magazine (infamously offending the uptight by pejoratively calling things "gay") and the creators of South Park and Team America (who skewered Hollywood liberals and left-wing sanctimony alike).
Of course, this relies on a rather broad definition of "right-wing", as anything that goes against a doctrinaire liberal/progressive view of propriety and "political correctness". By this token, one would classify Coco Rosie as a right-wing band, placing them in the same ideological milieu as Pat Robertson and Little Green Footballs, because one of their number attended "Kill Whitey" parties. And while VICE's Gavin McInnes claimed in American Conservative to represent a hip new conservatism (a view he later retracted, claiming he was joking/being ironic), the cocaine-snorting, nihilistic libertinism epitomised in the magazine, as much as it may offend "liberals" (or straw-man caricatures thereof), hardly fits well with the canon of conservatism and its emphasis on values, tradition and authority. However, it does fit in with the recently noted shift towards Hobbesian nihilism and radical individualism.
On a tangent: some American conservatives are concerned about FOXNews' alarming slide to the radical left; the channel, once the shining beacon of all things Right-thinking, has been compromising its Fair And Balanced™ reputation by running programmes on topics such as global warming. Pundits blame the influx of liberally-inclined ex-CNN reporters, the staffers having spent too long in Godless New York, away from the Biblical certainties of the Red States, or Murdoch not really being "One Of Us", but rather a cynical opportunist.
And finally, a study on the neurology of political belief has showed that True Believers of both stripes are adept at ignoring facts which don't jive with their beliefs, and experience a rush in the reward centres of the brain when they do:
"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts."
The test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted, Westen and his colleagues say. Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained.
It turns out that habitual and pathological liars' brains have more white matter than those of normal people. It could be that the extra white matter gives them the ability to keep track of different versions of stories or the mental states of those being lied to, or, indeed, that telling a lie a day will help to bulk up one's brain. In contrast, people suffering from autism, a condition which impairs the ability to lie (and, indeed, awareness of others' mental states), have less white matter.
Also in neurological news, a new study looks at how the brain sleeps:
When we're awake, different parts of the brain use chemicals and nerve cells to communicate constantly across the entire network, similar to the perpetual flow of data between all the different computers, routers and servers that make up the Internet.
In the deepest part of sleep, however, the various nodes of your cranial Internet all lose their connections.
"The brain breaks down into little islands that can't talk to one another," said study leader Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Sony have received a patent on a technology for inducing sensory experiences by ultrasonically stimulating the brain; it works similarly to the transcranial magnetic stimulation used in the "God helmet", which stimulates the sensation of a supernatural or religious experience, only on a finer level. The patent is here; perhaps this means that we can expect a PlayStation accessory that induces the authentic visual, auditory, tactile and olfactory sensations of stalking cyborg terrorists through the ventilation ducts of an alien space station or whatever.
The pattern of energy is constructed such that each portion of the pattern projected into the neural cortex may be individually pulsed at low frequency. The system produces low frequency pulsing by controlling the phase differences between the emitted energy of the primary and secondary transducer array elements. The pulsed ultrasonic signal alters the neural firing timing in the cortex. Changes in the neural firing timing induce various sensory experiences depending on the location of the firing timing change in the cortex. The mapping of sensory areas of the cortex is known and used in current surgically invasive techniques. Thus, the system induces recognizable sensory experiences by applying ultrasonic energy pulsed at low frequency in one or more selected patterns on one or more selected locations of the cortex.
Macular degeneration is an incurable disorder of the eye, affecting mainly elderly people and causing partial blindness. The curious thing about it is that, in some cases, sufferers see vivid hallucinations. (via MindHacks)
When Don was visiting the graveyard where his wife is buried, he sat for a while on a bench. He suddenly saw one end of the church on the far side of the cemetery become illuminated. Then there appeared great crowds of figures of both sexes and in all manner of dresses moving in a stately way towards the church this time they were not advancing towards him. They entered the large area of illumination and vanished.
A further visual effect which Don considered to be rather spectacular was the disappearance of people in front of him, especially presenters on stage in lecture situations. First the persons head would vanish and then the torso, yet Don would be able to see the background behind where the now invisible figure was standing with perfect, uninterrupted clarity.
It is speculated that the hallucinations, which are known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome, are caused by the brain attempting to fill the gaps in its input, interpolating the noise coming from malfunctioning eyes with past experience. Which, of course, happens all the time, except in normal circumstances, the input is more or less trustworthy. It is also believed that many more people suffer from the condition than would admit to it, lest others consider them to be going insane.
If such a condition is possible, it raises the question of how much of our everyday experience do we really get from our senses, and how much do our brains infer. I've seen the claim that the human eye's output is far too poor to give the vivid images we perceive, and much of our perception is the result of post-processing in the brain. Could the bulk of our perceived reality be hallucination, which, in normal conditions, happens to work usefully?
Mind Hacks, the new O'Reilly book of cool tricks and experiments in applied neurology, is out now; the O'Reilly page includes some sample chapters in PDF format. If that's not enough, there is a Mind Hacks blog, constantly publishing new material on similar topics.
Neural imaging technologies have shown that feelings of love lead to a suppression of activity in the areas of the brain controlling critical thought; in other words, love is blind. Or perhaps it just makes you stupid.
Tonight I went to see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I really enjoyed it. The writing was by Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), though he wasn't being as much of a clever-dick as he usually was (though the somewhat self-absorbedly neurotic voice-over at the start had me worried for a while). The direction was by Michel Gondry (who did a number of other films with Kaufman, as well as videos for Björk and French TV commercials), and makes the most of the visual idiom.
I'd classify the film as speculative fiction (one could have called it "science fiction", only this term has been hijacked to mean action movies with dark metallic corridors lit by strips of neon, 1-piece jumpsuits, futuristic gadgets and lots of blinking lights). Basically, the story is this: neurotic boy (Jim Carrey, who's not at all the buffoon he's best known as) meets psycho hairdye girl (Kate Winslet, looking like too many cute-but-insane punk/goth/raver chicks you've probably met), and they hook up; then, sometime later, their relationship falls apart, and she goes to a clinic to have all memories of him eradicated from her mind. He runs into her, she doesn't recognise him then goes to the same clinic to do the same. Only as it's happening, he suddenly has a change of heart and races around the landscape of his mind, trying to save the memories of her from the erasure technicians. There's more to the story, such as one of the technicians (played by Elijah "Frodo" Wood, only looking like a member of a nu-metal boy-band) hitting on a way of using attractive female patients' erased memories to hook up with them, and the issue of whether erasing all memories of a failed relationship would be mostly good or mostly bad.
The gist of the film seems to be that erasing a memory is not the same as preventing an event from recurring; in the film, characters whose memories of their relationships with each other have been erased hook up again and repeat their connections. If you're a sentimentalist or wish to consider the film as a romantic comedy, it could be about the power of destiny and true love and soulmates being brought together by powerful forces beyond their control, like the angels people talk about on American daytime TV talk shows or something. If you're more of a skeptic or a cynic, it's more about one being destined to repeat mistakes if one doesn't remember them. On a deeper level, I thought it was about how the dynamic workings of the human mind are composed not so much of things (such as memories of moments and people) as of processes; you can lose your memories, but if you're still the same person you were before (and if you have lost learnings since, you may be more likely to be), the internal processes of your mind will guide you into repeating what you have forgotten, or at least riffing off it. (Maybe if one was to start a real-life Lacuna Inc., one would combine aversion conditioning with memory erasure, to make the patients avoid their problem exes, but I digress.)
An American woman recently suffered a stroke, and emerged with a British accent. Tiffany Roberts, 61, who had never been to Britain, now speaks with a mixture of Cockney and West Country accents.
"People in America accuse me of lying when I say I was born in Indiana. They would say 'What are you saying that for? Where in England are you from?'
Last year, they confirmed that patients can develop a foreign accent without ever having been exposed to the accent. This is because they haven't really picked up the accent. Their speech patterns have changed. Injury to their brain causes them to lengthen syllables, alter their pitch or mispronounce sounds. These changes make it sound like they have picked up an accent. They may lengthen syllables.
The first case of foreign accent syndrome was reported in 1941 in Norway, after a young Norwegian woman suffered shrapnel injury to the brain during an air raid. Initially, she had severe language problems from which she eventually recovered. However, she was left with what sounded like a strong German accent and was ostracized by her community.(I remember reading about something similar some years back about a British stroke patient who developed a South African accent. I wonder if the explanation means that an midwestern American accent, when damaged, becomes "British", whereas a British accent becomes "South African", whilst a Norwegian accent becomes "German".)
Scientists are discovering the neurological bases of social phenomena such as romantic love, trust, self-awareness and deception.
"We believe romantic love is a developed form of one of three primary brain networks that evolved to direct mammalian reproduction," says researcher Helen Fisher, PhD, of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. "The sex drive evolved to motivate individuals to seek sex with any appropriate partner. Attraction, the mammalian precursor of romantic love, evolved to enable individuals to pursue preferred mating partners, thereby conserving courtship time and energy. The brain circuitry for male-female attachment evolved to enable individuals to remain with a mate long enough to complete species-specific parenting duties."
In the new research, Zak and his colleagues find that when someone observes that another person trusts them, oxytocin - a hormone that circulates in the brain and the body - rises. The stronger the signal of trust, the more oxytocin increases. In addition, the more oxytocin increases, the more trustworthy (reciprocating trust) people are.
"Interestingly, participants in this experiment were unable to articulate why they behaved they way they did, but nonetheless their brains guided them to behave in `socially desirable ways,' that is, to be trustworthy," says Zak. "This tells us that human beings are exquisitely attuned to interpreting and responding to social signals.
(Or, perhaps, that what we know as the conscious mind doesn't so much make decisions or control our behaviour as rationalise it; could it be that the conscious mind does little more than provide a running commentary for the many physical processes happening in the brain and nervous system, and the (advantageous) illusion of a coherent, unified "self"? But I digress.)
And in other related news: a wink sends testosterone soaring:
He paid male students $10 to come into the lab and leave a saliva sample. Unbeknownst to the men, the scientists staged a five-minute chat with a twentysomething female research assistant before they spit. This brief brush set the men's hormones surging: testosterone levels in their spit shot up around 30%. The higher a man's hormone soared, the more the female research assistant judged that he was out to impress - by talking about himself, for example.
Scientists in the Netherlands have discovered that an orgasm is neurologically equivalent to a hit of heroin. By getting volunteers to have sex whilst keeping their heads perfectly still in a PET-scanning machine, researchers at Groningen University were able to form an image of the neurological effects of orgasm.
Scientists have found the brain centre connected to social rejection. when a person suffers some form of social exclusion (is excluded from a group, ostracised by the cool kids at school, divorced, rejected by a date, &c), their anterior cingulate cortex is stimulated; this is the same part of the brain that responds to physical pain.
This suggests that the need to be accepted as part of a social group is as important to humans as avoiding other types of pain, she said. Just as an infant may learn to avoid fire by first being burned, humans may learn to stick together because rejection causes distress in the pain center of the brain, said Eisenberger.
I wonder whether the pain of social exclusion is not related to withdrawal symptoms from substances such as nicotine or heroin; that is, whether or not social interaction triggers neurochemicals that are addictive. People have been addicted to all sorts of activities, from risk-taking to sex; could it be that we're all social-interaction junkies from birth?
Another question this raises is that of substitutes for social inclusion that keep the same happy chemicals flowing without needing to actually have a social life; for example, internet chat rooms, multi-user roleplaying games (in which people have experienced serious attachment to virtual characters), even long-distance "romances", could be a way of "masturbating" the social-inclusion parts of the brain without the need for real social interaction. Perhaps that's one of the end goals of AI: to produce software that can pass the Turing test and provide simulated social interaction for instant-gratification-dependent cube-hermits without enough time in their high-speed, information-overloaded lives to develop real relationships with other people.
Dr. Michael Persinger of Laurentian University, Canada, has developed a magnetic helmet which stimulates religious and mystical experiences in the wearer. A BBC science series decided to put this to the test, choosing the ultimate test subject: militant atheist Richard Dawkins. The score: Dawkins:1, the God Helmet: 0.
Unfortunately, during the experiment, while Prof Dawkins had some strange experiences and tinglings, none of them prompted him to take up any new faith. "It was a great disappointment," he said. "Though I joked about the possibility, I of course never expected to end up believing in anything supernatural. But I did hope to share some of the feelings experienced by religious mystics when contemplating the mysteries of life and the cosmos."
This suggests that openness to religious experience is controlled by temporal lobe sensitivity (something Dawkins scored low on in a prior test), and that this may be genetic. Which suggests that susceptibility to religious belief could be partly genetic. (Though, obviously, not wholly; the environment would have to play a major role.) (via New World Disorder)
Neurologists have discovered the cause of teen angst. Like many psychological phenomena, adolescent awkwardness and the resulting anxiety comes from physical changes in the brain; in particular, the parts of the brain that deal with emotions and social situations are diminished between the ages of 11 and 18, and the desire to listen to deliberately bad music probably comes from that.
Now perhaps someone will invent a pill for counteracting teen angst, and thus send Hot Topic and Interscope Records into bankruptcy.
Humans were biologically meant to be hugged, it appears. Scientists have discovered that the human skin has a special network of nerves whose sole purpose seems to be to feel pleasurable touches. The C-tactile (CT) nerves are independent from the normal touch receptors and operate at a slower rate; they hook into the unconscious aspect of touch, giving pleasure when stimulated.
"It must be used for unconscious aspects of touch because it is so slow," says Håkan Olausson, who led the study at the Department of Clinical Neurophysiology at Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Sweden. "It seems the CT network conveys emotions, or a sense of self."
A survey at Japan's Nihon University has revealed that video games decrease brain activity in the brain regions for emotion and creativity. Activity does not recover, and heavy video game users were found to have trouble concentrating, managing anger and associating with friends. (Mind you, this is from the Mainichi, which appears to be a somewhat sensationalist tabloid.)
Former Swingin' Sixties it-girl and veteran actress Julie Christie (still venerated by '60s fetishists, and the subject of a song by Spearmint) has revealed that she suffers from autobiographical amnesia, a rare condition which strips away short- and long-term memory. Which may mean that her subjective experience of her glory days is now less than that of her fans.
Scientists in Sydney have developed a device which increases creativity through magnetic stimulation of the brain. My reactions: (a) I want one, then (b) if it ever makes it to market, it'll probably be banned worldwide; the effects of millions of people becoming unpredictable creatives could be too economically destabilising to allow.
Hey Mr. Taliban: A piece in the Hindustan Times claims that Mullah Omar, the chief of the Taliban, suffers from brain seizures, locking himself away for days at a time, with the official line being that he is having visions. He is also said to suffer from bouts of depression alternating with childlike behaviour. Then again, there's a good precedent for that kind of thing among Holy Men; St. Paul, the founder of the Christian church, apparently suffered from similar seizures, and doesn't the Bible tell believers to be like a child? (Not to mention the Borges story in which a madman is used as a judge in a religious court, on the grounds that the insane are in touch with the Godhead.) (via Follow Me Here)
Tenser, said the Tensor: Scientists are studying Stuck Tune Syndrome, commonly known as 'earworms', or the condition in which a melody or song starts repeating in one's head, becoming impossible to dislodge. A researcher at the University of Cincinnati is investigating what causes a song to become an earworm:
Kellaris, a marketing teacher who moonlights as a bouzouki player in a Greek band, theorizes that certain types of music operate like mental mosquito bites. They create a "cognitive itch" that can only be scratched by replaying the tune in the mind. The more the brain scratches, the worse the itch gets. The syndrome is triggered when "the brain detects an incongruity or something 'exceptional' in the musical stimulus," he explained in a report made earlier this year to the Society for Consumer Psychology.
The fact that the researcher in question is a marketing teacher, and working in "consumer psychology", is slightly worrying, making one wonder exactly how the research is going to be used. (See Egan, Greg, Beyond the Whistle Test.)
A classic example is "If You're Happy and You Know It," he says. The melody in each verse builds sequentially from the previous verse... With each "happy and you know it" line, the melody changes slightly, "but in a predictable way," he says. "It's the same pattern, which makes it more memorable."
Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, is studying the neurology of mystical experience, by taking brain scans of meditators and praying nuns. His results so far are interesting:
During meditation, part of the parietal lobe, towards the top and rear of the brain, was much less active than when the volunteers were merely sitting still. With a thrill, Newberg and d'Aquili realised that this was the exact region of the brain where the distinction between self and other originates.
The limbic system is a part of the brain that dates from way back in our evolution. Its function nowadays is to monitor our experiences and label especially significant events, such as the sight of your child's face, with emotional tags to say "this is important". During an intense religious experience, researchers believe that the limbic system becomes unusually active, tagging everything with special significance.
So it seems that transcendental experience is all in internal metadata, and mystical experiences are just normal experiences with a "THIS IS IMPORTANT" bit set. Which makes sense.
And then there's Michael Persinger of Laurentian University, Ontario, who has developed a helmet that magnetically induces mystical experiences.
Through trial and error and a bit of educated guesswork, he's found that a weak magnetic field... rotating anticlockwise in a complex pattern about the temporal lobes will cause four out of five people to feel a spectral presence in the room with them... What people make of that presence depends on their own biases and beliefs. If a loved one has recently died, they may feel that person has returned to see them. Religious types often identify the presence as God. "This is all in the laboratory, so you can imagine what would happen if the person is alone in their bed at night or in a church, where the context is so important," he says. Persinger has donned the helmet himself and felt the presence, though he says the richness of the experience is diminished because he knows what's going on.
Of course, religious folks are not too keen on the idea that mystical experience is a purely physical phenomenon, and are quick to draw a distinction between "legitimate" mystical states and "illegitimate" ones (such as those induced by drugs or Dr. Persinger's magnetic helmet).
Researchers at Stanford University have found that pessimists' and optimists' brains work differently. Optimists' brains showed stronger reactions to images of rainbows and puppies, whereas pessimists' brains showed no reaction there, but a reacton to images of angry people, cemeteries and spiders (albeit not as much in the emotional centres of the brain).
Magnetic resonance imaging can tell whether you're really in love:
Seeing a lover prompted activity in four brain regions that were not active when looking at pictures of a friend, and caused a significant reduction in the activity of one other area... Two active areas lay deep in the cortex: the medial insula, which may be responsible for "gut" feelings, and a part of the anterior cingulate, which is known to respond to euphoria-inducing drugs... The inactive region was in the right prefrontal cortex--the region that is overactive in depressed patients.
It's probably only a matter of time before this appears on the market, as a device which tells you whether your partner is really in love with you, or just using you for money or sex or somesuch.