Archive for March, 2011

Mar 14 2011

Cognitive Biases and Handedness

One of the mantras of the scientific skeptic is that we need formal logic and scientific methods in order to overcome our cognitive biases. Without a structure to observation and thinking, our biases would overwhelm our conclusions.

This is true not just in the scholarly study of the universe, but in our everyday lives. The more we are aware of the common cognitive biases, the less of a stranglehold they will have on our beliefs. Just realizing the degree to which our perceptions and judgments can be radically altered by seemingly irrelevant factors is very important. In my experience this is often the one critical difference that separates those with a generally skeptical outlook from those more inclined toward uncritical belief. Believers find the subjective reports of others, and their own experiences, to be highly compelling, while skeptics are comfortable dismissing even dramatic anecdotes on the basis of understanding the power of self-deception and cognitive flaws and biases.

In short – believers generally operate under the paradigm of seeing is believing, while skeptics operate under the paradigm that often believing is seeing.

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Mar 11 2011

Localizing Spacial Reasoning

Published by under Neuroscience

This is a bit of a wonky neuroscience news item, but I thought it was interesting – and there are some general points to be raised. Researchers studied brain tumor patients to see which brain parts contribute to certain kinds of visual-spacial reasoning, specifically the ability to mentally rotate objects. (Sorry, the article itself is pay only.)  Right off I was intrigued because this is an old-school method of localization – studying pathology. Today we are far more likely to see fMRI studies, perhaps using transcranial magnetic stimulation, in healthy individuals. But prior to this technology neuroscientists studied patients with stroke and tumors to infer what the different parts of the brain did by what deficits were created when those brain sections were damaged. It’s nice to see this method is still valuable.

At issue here is the question of where, exactly, in the brain is the ability to mentally rotate objects located? This is part of a more general question of what are the different types of spacial reasoning. Neuroscientists have long recognized that people use two basic strategies of spacial reasoning: the first is categorical – reasoning about qualitative properties such as relative position and rotation. The second is quantitative, such as precise distance and angle. While driving, for example, you may know when to take a turn based upon the relative position of various landmarks (categorical reasoning), or you may know that it is the third left after the intersection (quantitative reasoning). Prior data suggested that categorical reasoning is carried out in the dominant (usually left) hemisphere and quantitative spacial reasoning in the non-dominant (usually right) hemisphere.

Of note, the non-dominant hemisphere is the primary side in which visuo-spacial processing occurs. However (and this is one of the main themes to draw from research like this) the brain is comprised of many modules and networks that simultaneously involve various brain regions and both hemisphere. This is partly why the “left brain, right brain” dichotomy is such nonsense. Many brain functions involve either networks or cooperation between different brain regions in both hemispheres – both hemispheres acting as one unified brain.

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Mar 10 2011

A Word on Intuition

Published by under Neuroscience

What is intuition? I won’t resort to a dictionary definition of the word – that’s not what I am interested in. I want to know what it really is – what is the operational definition?

OK – so here’s a dictionary definition:

a. The act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational processes; immediate cognition. See Synonyms at reason.
b. Knowledge gained by the use of this faculty; a perceptive insight.
2. A sense of something not evident or deducible; an impression.

You see – this definition is vague and nonsensical. There is a big difference between “knowing” and “sensing”. Perhaps “believing or believing that you know something” would be better. The second definition is better because it does not imply knowledge.

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Mar 08 2011

New 9/11 Footage

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

Video footage from a police helicopter circling the Twin Towers on 9/11 has been released through a freedom of information (FOI) request – it was originally given to NIST for their investigation. Some of this footage has now found it’s way onto YouTube. (Here’s a more condensed version.) Even after 10 years watching the footage is a powerful reminders of the emotions of that day.

While having an aerial perspective of the devastation of the first tower to fall is compelling video, the video does not provide any new information that impacts the claims of 9/11 truthers. Unfortunately, the camera was not on the tower at the moment it fell. The helicopter had rotated the window that the camera operator was filming through away from the towers. It appears that when the tower fell the camera operator reacted by pointing the camera back at the towers through a different window. But the tower is already down by that time.

As if often the case, perhaps more interesting than the video itself are the comments to the video. It is filled, not surprisingly, with paranoid conspiracy mongering.

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Mar 07 2011

Education 2.0

Published by under Education

The internet has certainly transformed the way humans create, communicate, and consume information. We are still on the steep part of the curve, in fact, and the world of information continues to go through rapid change and experimentation. This is being brought about partly by software applications and websites (such as WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, etc) that provide tools for communication. The transformation is also being driven by hardware advances – it is now routine for many people to carry around smartphones, which are essentially hand-held computers that provide anytime communication, access to the internet, and a variety of applications.

And yet it feels as if the promise of the internet has not yet adequately penetrated areas that were thought 10-20 years ago to be low-hanging fruit. This includes, in my opinion, education. By now I would have thought that computers would dominate primary education.Yet their footprint remains modest.

Thirty years ago while I was in high school and computers were still incredibly primitive, I thought I was given a glimpse at the future of education. One of our science teachers (who, of course, also ran the computer lab) was a savvy computer user, and incorporated some educational computer programs into our classwork. I specifically remember a program that taught chemical nomenclature. You could play with the program like a game, and you received immediate feedback and correction for all of your answers. After about an hour playing with this program I felt I had truly mastered at least the basics of nomenclature – far faster than if I had studied the same material from a book or received a lecture.

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Mar 04 2011

Reprogramming Stem Cells

Just a quick entry today – researchers have coaxed neural stem cells to differentiate into basal forebrain cholinergic neurons. These neurons are important in memory, and are affected in dementias like Alzheimer’s disease.

This represents a core technological aspect of using stem cells – the ability to make them turn into the kind of cells that are needed. It is not the only hurdle to stem cell therapies, however. Researchers also need to get the cells where they are needed, to get them to survive, and to not form cancers or tumors. In some cases it may also be necessary for the cells to form meaningful connections – this is especially true when replacing neurons in the brain.

So while this in an important advance, we are not there yet.

However – stem cells are useful beyond their direct therapeutic potential. The ability to make these specific kinds of neurons can be used in research, where having a ready supply of cells in a petri dish is highly useful. So this technique can accelerate research, even if it does not have a direct application itself.

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Mar 03 2011

UFO Files Released

The UK has recently released some of its files on unidentified flying objects – UFOs. It does not appear that there is anything shocking in the reports. In the end it seems like the release will result in just another round of news headlines with “UFO” in the title, but nothing else.

The documents do provide further evidence for what I call the psychocultural hypothesis. UFO sightings and encounters are certainly an interesting group of phenomena – but are they evidence of anything alien. Many people I talk to (including a documentary producer just recently) are left with the sense that there must be something going on. No explanation seems satisfactory to explain all the accounts, and there is a residue of unexplained reports.

This is the “where there is smoke there is fire” argument. But I think it misses an important question – there may be fire (a phenomenon) but what kind of fire? I think the fire is a multifaceted psychocultural phenomenon.

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Mar 02 2011

Cell Phones and Brain Function

I am a bit late to this news item but continue to get questions about it, so I thought I would cover it. A recent study shows that cell phone use is associated with alterations in brain metabolism. This may lend credibility to the claim that there are potential risks to cell phone use.

I was interviewed last week about this news item for NPR, and you can listen to the segment here.


There is ongoing concern and controversy over whether or not there is any health risk from cell phone use. (I have written about this here, and here is another article on SBM about the topic.) Specifically there is a concern about an increased risk of brain tumor from cell phone use. The basic science largely does not support plausibility for a risk, given that the energy contained in the radiofrequency radiation from cell phones is too weak to break chemical bonds – and it therefore too weak to cause DNA mutations that might lead to cancer.

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Mar 01 2011

That treatment is not based on science? Don’t Worry, says KevinMD.

A guest blog post on the popular health site, KevinMD, by Dr. Peter J. Weiss, promises in the title an explanation for Why alternative care seems to work. The post does not deliver on the promise, and instead offers a naive and confused justification for using unscientific treatments.

He begins:

People sort of want to try alternative care.  They’re working up to it, but then they read more about it; they read about the theory and they say, “No I don’t believe that theory.  That can’t possibly work.  There’s nothing to it. I’m not going to do it.”  But, the problem is that the theory of why something works or the explanation is not necessary related to the effect of how things actually work.

I have written many blog posts and articles, and I know you need to start off with some hook, and sometimes they are a bit contrived. But you should try to avoid just making stuff up – using unverified assertions. Weiss begins with a premise – that people want to try so-called “alternative care” (which he makes no attempt to define) but they cannot get past that pesky lack of any possible mechanism. I would like to see the survey that even suggests this is the case.

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