Archive for November, 2012

Nov 06 2012

Seeing with Touch

Published by under Neuroscience

The comic book hero Daredevil was blinded by a splash of radioactive waste, but the radioactivity (a common plot device of the time) also heightened his remaining senses. In addition to a form a echolocation, Daredevil was able to “see” by feeling his environment. How plausible is this idea?

While obviously not resulting in super powers, humans may have the ability to learn new senses. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute recently investigated whether or not people could learn to sense their environment with artificial “whiskers.” Rats and some other animals have a sensory organ humans do not, whiskers, with which they probe their environment. Researchers attached artificial whiskers with position and force sensors to the index fingers of subjects. They then sat the subjects between two vertical poles and asked them to detect with the whiskers which pole was farther back.

On the first day of testing the subjects were able to detect a difference in pole position of only 8cm. On the second day they learned to refine their probing techniques in order to detect a difference as small as 3cm.

I also have previously written about human echolocation – people who have learned to use a functional, if crude, form of echolocation to sense their surroundings.

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Nov 05 2012

Moderating Political Opinions

Published by under Neuroscience

Tomorrow (Tuesday November 6th) is election day in the US. The talk of the pundits generally focuses on the fact that this is a very close election and, despite rhetoric from both candidates about bipartisanship, the country seems to be extremely politically polarized. The consensus of opinion is that Democrats and Republicans over the last couple of decades have become more homogeneous, more tribal, and more extreme. (Meanwhile the number of people who identify as independents has increased.) For me political campaigns are a massive exercise in confirmation bias – watching both sides spin the same data in completely opposite directions.

There is no shortage of theories as to why this is the case, but there is also the separate question of what can be done to break, or at least moderate, this polarization.¬†In a series of experiments psychologists have found that slowing down the process of evaluating a political question, and engaging people’s abstract thinking, moderates their political views.

In the first series of experiments¬†Preston and Hernandez found that by giving subjects information in a hard to read font their opinions would be more thoughtful and moderate. They gave two groups a description of a defendant in a capital murder case. One description praised the defendant’s character while the other criticized it. They were then given “sketchy” evidence suggesting the defendant’s guilt. The two groups interpreted the ambiguous evidence differently, with those reading a positive description of the defendant’s character less often finding the evidence sufficient to convict.

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Nov 02 2012

How Common Is Life in the Universe

Published by under General Science


There almost certainly is life elsewhere in the universe. There is no reason to think that conditions and events that led to life on earth are unique, and the universe is a ridiculously vast place. So the odds strongly favor that there must be many occurrences of life out there. There are interesting sub-questions, however – how common is life, how common is complex life, and how common are technological civilizations? Is the universe teaming with bacteria and fungus and little else, or are the stars buzzing with spacefaring races of every description?

The problem with trying to answer this question is that we have an N of 1 – Earth is the only example of life in the universe that we have. We may find examples of life elsewhere in our own solar system (Mars, Europa, Titan, and Enceladus are the current prime candidates), but that will only give us a tiny bit more data. Life elsewhere in our own solar system (especially Mars) may have been seeded from Earth or vice versa, and so we may find life on Mars but still only have evidence for a single life origin in our solar system.

We may also find multiple independent life origins in our solar system, and that would be extremely cool, but would still only answer one of the three questions above. That would tell us that the origin of some kind of life is likely common, and can occur under a variety of conditions, but would not tell us how common complex life or civilizations are.

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Nov 01 2012

Temporal Binding

Published by under Neuroscience

Skeptics should add another term to their lexicon of self-deception and cognitive biases – temporal binding.

Over the last half-century or so psychologists have been quietly documenting many various ways in which people deceive themselves and distort their thinking. This knowledge, however, has insufficiently penetrated the public consciousness. When it does it is mostly framed as, “isn’t that an interesting quirk of the human mind,” but the deeper lesson, that we cannot trust our own perception and memory, is rarely brought home.

Skeptics have taken modern neuroscience to heart. Our philosophy incorporates what I call “neuropsychological humility” – the basic recognition that our brains are subject to a host of flaws and biases, and therefore we cannot simply rely upon what we remember about what we thought we experienced. Rather, we need to rely upon a rational process and objective evidence as much as possible (part of this is relying on rigorous science to form our empirical conclusions). These flaws and biases are not confined to parlor tricks, contrived psychological experiments, and sitting in the audience of a magic show, but apply in everyday life.

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