Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

May 18 2015

Ex Machina and AI

Published by under Neuroscience

I saw Ex Machina this weekend. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, mild spoiler alert – I will try to avoid any major reveals, but I will be discussing major aspects of the movie.

First, it’s an excellent film. I highly recommend it. It was both entertaining and thought provoking. Writer/Director Alex Garland clearly understands the topic of artificial intelligence (AI), and is also a talented filmmaker. I was particularly impressed by how much he accomplished with such a sparse film. The majority of the film takes place in one location and with three characters, but he quickly established those characters and the primary tensions that drive the film.

He also manages to weave in a fairly deep commentary on the nature of consciousness and creativity, the nature of AI, and all with a subtext of oppression, misogyny and male-female relationships. I still feel like I am missing a lot of subtext in this film, which will require at least a second viewing and a lot more thought.

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Apr 02 2015

Lunar Cycle Effects Busted

When I was an intern doing a rotation in the emergency department, on one particularly busy shift a nurse commented (to no one in particular) that it must be a full moon. I habitually look at the moon and generally know what phase it is in (right now it is a waxing gibbous, almost full), and so I knew at the time that in fact there was a crescent moon in the sky. I informed her of this. She gave a disappointed look and then went on with her work without any apparent further thought on the matter.

The episode struck me at the time. It seemed to me that I just witnessed a clear example of confirmation bias – what if it had been near a full moon? That would have confirmed her prior belief in a lunar effect, while this negative correlation was brushed aside and likely did not have any negative effect on her belief. (Although, my interpretation and memory of this event can itself be an example of confirmation bias regarding confirmation bias.)

Belief in the so-called lunar effect, that the phases of the moon exert an influence on human behavior with the most common element being a full-moon inducing extreme behavior, is very common. In my experience it is one of the most common pseudoscientific beliefs I encounter in the general public. One survey indicates that 43% of adults believe in the lunar effect, especially mental health professionals, including nurses.

When someone expresses such a belief to me I often use it as an opening to discuss skeptical principles. While belief in the lunar effect is widespread, it is usually not part of any emotionally held religious or ideological belief. It is therefore an excellent teaching opportunity. One question I like to ask is, “how do you think that works?” The most common answer I receive is probably the least plausible – that the tidal effects of the moon influence the brain because the brain is sitting in water (spinal fluid).

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Mar 26 2015

Fox News, the NFL, and Concussion Denial

Published by under Neuroscience

I have been a fan of professional football since my college days (go Pats) but I also recognize that it is a brutal sport prone to injuries. In recent years awareness of the true neurological risk of concussions, especially repeated concussions, has been increasingly coming to light. This may cause some cognitive dissonance among fans, players, and anyone involved with the NFL, including broadcasters.

Recently Fox News published and article in which Dylan Gwinn writes:

Don’t look now, but concussions have become the new global warming: a debate where “consensus” trumps evidence, and heroes and villains are determined by their stances on an issue where the science is bogus at worst and murky at best.

This is classic FUD – fear, uncertainty, and doubt, the primary tactic of those who find reality not to their liking in some particular aspect.

Gwinn creates the classic false dichotomy between consensus and evidence. What if the consensus is based upon scientific evidence, and in fact the consensus of experts is the best way for non-experts to understand what the evidence actually says.

Further, all science is murky, at least to some degree. The clarity of a scientific conclusion exists along a spectrum from genuinely controversial to rock solid, but scientific evidence is always complex, subject to multiple interpretations, and incomplete. It doesn’t take much creativity to portray any scientific conclusion (even those at the rock solid end of the spectrum) as murky. Creationists are evidence of that.

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Feb 27 2015

What Color Is This Dress? It’s An Optical Illusion

Published by under Neuroscience

This is pretty amazing – almost as much for how quickly this has gone viral as for the effect itself. There is now an intense debate going on in the intertubes over whether this dress is black and blue or white and gold. Take a look and decide for yourself. Buzzfeed has a poll which currently puts it at 72% white and gold, and 28% black and blue. Right now there are about 2 million votes, so that is probably statistically significant.

I see black and blue, no matter what screen or version of that picture I look at. It does not seem to be an issue with the monitor or viewing conditions.

The reason, in my opinion, this has gone so viral so quickly is that people are legitimately freaked out by the realization that how they see the world is ultimately a subjective construction of our brains. Taylor Swift tweeted about the debate:

“I don’t understand this odd dress debate and feel like it’s a trick somehow. I’m confused and scared. PS It’s OBVIOUSLY BLUE AND BLACK.”

That about sums it up. She thinks it must be a trick (it is – a trick of the brain), and is scared and confused. At the same time she is caps-lock-certain that her perception of the dress’s color is the objective truth.

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Feb 23 2015

ADHD Is Real

Published by under Neuroscience

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has long been a target of those who dislike the very concept of mental disorders. This is partly because the emotional stakes are high – the diagnosis often results in children being treated with stimulants. Opposition to the concept of ADHD also reflects fundamental misunderstandings about medicine.

A recent opinion piece in The Blaze by Matt Walsh reflects this deep misunderstanding and unease with the concept of mental illness.

Throughout the piece he uses the terms “disease” and “disorder” interchangeably, without defining either. The distinction is important, because it relates to how medicine defines diagnostic entities. Not all diagnoses are created equal. I spend a great deal of time teaching medical students to have a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the labels they will be attaching to their patients.

As with every branch of science, labels are used as placeholders of our understanding of phenomena, and also as a necessary contrivance to allow technical communication among experts, in the scientific literature, and also to the public. In medicine we need labels for certain practical applications, such as documentation, epidemiology, drug indications, reimbursement, and research. Labels are a scientific tool, and they need to be understood to be used properly.

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Feb 06 2015

Did Williams Lie?

Published by under Neuroscience

Memory is a slippery thing. We know from countless psychological studies that memories can easily be fabricated, they will alter over time, and details will shift to enhance the emotional theme of the story. Further, we tend to personalize stories – over time we remember events that happened to our friends as happening to us.

Recently NBC host Brian Williams was caught telling a version of an event that happened 12 years ago that differs from the version others recall, and the version that he himself told at the time. He and his cameraman were in a helicopter group during the Iraqi war in 2003. The leading three helicopters, which were 30-60 minutes ahead, were forced to land upon taking small arms fire, with one copter being hit by an RPG. Williams’ copter also landed when they arrived at the lead group in order to avoid being fired on. The group had to be rescued by ground troops and tanks.

The problem is that Williams’ retelling of this story has shifted a bit over the years, until in the last couple of years he puts himself in the helicopter that was hit by fire. Stars and Stripes gives the timeline of this shifting story. So what’s going on here.

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Jan 26 2015

The Brains of Lucid Dreamers

Published by under Neuroscience

Lucid dreaming is a very interesting phenomenon that perhaps gives us a peek into the inner workings of the human brain. I have had about a dozen lucid dreams in my life that I can remember. Normally while dreaming we are not aware of the fact that we are dreaming. Our dreaming selves accept the reality of the dream. During a lucid dream we become aware that we are dreaming, but we do not wake up. This state is inherently unstable and often results in actually waking up or dreaming that we wake up, which ends the lucidity.

The phenomenon of lucid dreaming was originally known from self report, but was first verified in a 1981 study in which subjects consciously gave a signal while lucid dreaming – they carried out predetermined actions in their dreams that resulted in “observable concomitants.”

One of the goals of lucid dreaming research is to determine what exactly is happening in the brains of those who are lucid while dreaming. One hypothesis is that part of the frontal lobes may be more active, allowing for greater self-reflection and reality-testing while dreaming. Preliminary studies, for example using EEG to look at brain activity during wakefullness, normal REM sleep, and lucid dreaming, suggested that lucid dreaming is a hybrid state between fully awake and REM sleep.  The frontal lobes are more active in lucid states than normal REM, but not as active as fully awake.

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Jan 20 2015

False Confessions

Published by under Neuroscience

When a suspect confesses to a crime, that is a powerfully persuasive piece of evidence. People assume (reasonably) that no one would confess to a crime they didn’t commit, extrapolating from the conviction that they would never do so themselves.

Of course there are legal reasons why someone accused of a crime would confess to guilt, in order to plea to a lesser charge or sentence and avoid the risk of a much more serious sentence. It is an unfortunate reality that innocent people can be wrongly convicted, and therefore an innocent person might confess in order to avoid the worst consequences of such a wrongful conviction.

Would, however, someone confess not to secure a plea bargain but simply because they are being aggressively interrogated? New research suggests that it is possible to form false memories of having committed crimes that one never committed. This is not surprising given all the previous memory research showing  how easy it is to form false memories.

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Dec 18 2014

Egnor Doubles Down on Incoherent Nonsense

Egnor continues his dualist neuroscience denial in two follow up posts, mostly responding to PZ Myers’ take down of his original post. Egnor has also been writing separately about computers, arguing that they have no memory and will never be intelligent (have agency).

In all of these posts Egnor is following the same basic intellectual strategies – use words in a vague and confusing way to befuddle your reader, and assume your conclusion (dualism). Ironically, he writes:

The contemporary criticism of such phrases as “memory is stored in the brain” and “the brain evaluates propositions” and “the occipital cortex perceives images” — criticism made by neuroscientists and philosophers like Maxwell Bennett and Peter Hacker among others — is in keeping with the salient critiques by ordinary language philosophers who insist that we need to be honest and careful with the meanings of words in our scientific discourse. Ordinary language philosophy in neuroscience is an appeal to conceptual hygiene.

The projection is truly amazing. Science denial is pseudoskepticism – all of the form with none of the actual substance.

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Dec 16 2014

Neurosurgeon Thinks the Brain Doesn’t Store Memories

It has been six years since I have written a blog post deconstructing the nonsense of our favorite creationist neurosurgeon, Michael Egnor. In case you have forgotten, he is a dualist writing for the intelligent design propaganda blog, Evolution News and Views. He delights in ridiculing what he calls “materialist metaphysics,” or what scientists call, “science.”

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he has managed to outdo his prior incoherent ramblings. In a recent blog post he claims that it is impossible for the brain to store memories, an idea he ridicules as “nonsense.”

As usual, Egnor is playing loose with definitions and logic, tying himself up in a conceptual knot in order to arrive at his desired destination – the idea that the brain cannot account for mental phenomena. His logic train derails pretty quickly:

It has been known for the better part of a century that certain structures in the brain are associated with memory. The amygdala and the hippocampus in the temporal lobe, and some adjacent cortical regions, have been shown to be associated with the act of remembering in animals and humans.

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