Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

Jan 25 2021

Anomaly Hunting and Boris Johnson’s Phone Call

The latest internet conspiracy theory involves a phone call between President Biden and Boris Johnson’s. Johnson is the first world leader that Biden has called as president, and the moment has been captured in photographs. What I find most amazing about these pictures is that it is 2021 and the phone at No 10 still has a cord. Perhaps there is a security reason for this. But what “the internet” found most interesting was the lack of cord – in the reflected images in the mirror, that is. This observation even confused journalists:

Even ITV political editor Robert Peston admitted he was left bemused by the image.

He tweeted: “This is flipping weird. The phone cable should be visible in the mirror descending from Boris Johnson’s watch, in this official Downing St picture. It’s not. What is going on?”

This may become the latest blue dress – gold dress internet sensation. When I look at those pictures I absolutely see a phone cord, no problem. But – I can see how someone might, at first, be confused. There is a mild optical illusion created by the angle of the cord in the reflection vs the primary picture. While this is likely to blow over quickly as just a silly internet phenomenon, it does reflect (pun intended) a couple of phenomena worth pointing out.

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Dec 18 2020

Using Machine Learning to Map the Brain

Published by under Neuroscience

One of the great ambitious scientific projects of our time is mapping all the connections in the human brain, known as the “connectome”. It seem obvious how this would advance our understanding of neuroscience, having a similar effect as mapping the human genome on genetics and genetic medicine. The connectome is more complex than the genome, and mapping it is trickier. We are still in the stage where any significant advances in the basic technology of mapping brain connections will have a huge impact. So of course neuroscientists are researching exactly that.

A recent study uses machine learning techniques to optimize the algorithms used to map brain connections using function MRI scans (fMRI). This is perhaps another example of how neuroscience and computer science are increasingly supporting each other. The researchers were using marmoset brains as their subject. First they mapped regions of the marmoset brain using a standard technique that involved injecting a fluorescent tracer into neurons then following where that tracer goes, through neuronal connections to other parts of the brain. This is perhaps the gold standard technique, but involves sacrificing the animal so that the brain can be sliced and examined microscopically. This technique, therefore, cannot be used in humans.

They then mapped the same regions of the marmoset brain using the less invasive technique of fMRI scanning, which can trace the movement of water through neuronal connections in order to map them. The fMRI method, however, is not nearly as precise as the fluorescent tracer technique. It also suffers from many trade-offs, which the researcher likened to camera settings. You can change the settings to produce very different looking pictures. The question is – which settings (which in regard to the fMRI refers to the computer algorithms that analyze the data) give the best picture of the connectome?

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Dec 15 2020

Being Manipulated by Robots

Published by under Neuroscience

How susceptible would you be to suggestion or even manipulation by a robot, or even just a digital AI (artificial intelligence)? This is one of those questions where almost everyone thinks they would not be affected, while in reality many or even most people are. We don’t like to think that our behavior can easily be manipulated, but a century of psychological research tells a different story. There is an entire industry of marketing, advertising, and product placement based on the belief that your behaviors can be deliberately altered, and not just through persuasion but through psychological manipulation. Just look at our current political environment, and how easily large portions of our society can be convinced to at least express support for absurd ideas, simply by pushing the right buttons.

Robots and AI are likely to play dramatically increased roles in our society in the future. In fact, our world is already infused with AI to a greater extent that we realize. You have probably interacted with a bot online and didn’t realize it. For example, a recent study found that about half of twitter accounting spreading information about coronavirus are likely bots. What about when you know that an actual physical robot is the one giving you feedback – will that still affect your behavior. Apparently so.

In a recent study psychologists had subjects play a computer game which has already been validated as a marker of risk taking. The game involves hitting the space bar to inflate a digital balloon. As the balloon gets bigger, it becomes worth more digital pennies. You can cash in at any time. However, at random the balloon can also pop, and you then lose all your money. The more risk you take, the more money you can make, but the greater the chance that you lose it all, at least on that go. The researchers had subjects play the game in one of three scenarios – alone, with a robot present who told them when to begin, but then was silent, and with a robot present that would give them encouragement to keep going.

The group with the encouraging robot took significantly more risk in this game than the other two groups, which did not differ from each other. It would have been fun to have a fourth group with a human giving encouragement to see if that differed from the robot – perhaps in a follow up experiment. It’s also interesting that the robot-riskier group made more money than the other two groups. What do these results mean?

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Nov 10 2020

Pre-Bunking Game

A new game called Harmony Square was released today. The game hires you, the player, as a Chief Disinformation Officer, and then walks you through a campaign to cause political chaos in this otherwise placid town. The game is based upon research showing that exposing people to the tactics of disinformation “inoculates” them against similar tactics in the real world. The study showed, among other things, that susceptibility to fake news headlines declined by 21% after playing the game. Here is the full abstract:

The spread of online misinformation poses serious challenges to societies worldwide. In a novel attempt to address this issue, we designed a psychological intervention in the form of an online browser game. In the game, players take on the role of a fake news producer and learn to master six documented techniques commonly used in the production of misinformation: polarisation, invoking emotions, spreading conspiracy theories, trolling people online, deflecting blame, and impersonating fake accounts. The game draws on an inoculation metaphor, where preemptively exposing, warning, and familiarising people with the strategies used in the production of fake news helps confer cognitive immunity when exposed to real misinformation. We conducted a large-scale evaluation of the game with N = 15,000 participants in a pre-post gameplay design. We provide initial evidence that people’s ability to spot and resist misinformation improves after gameplay, irrespective of education, age, political ideology, and cognitive style.

While encouraging, I think there are some caveats to the current incarnations of this approach. But first, let me say that I think the concept is solid. The best way to understand mechanisms of deception and manipulation is to learn how to do them yourself. This is similar to the old adage – you can’t con a con artist. I think “can’t” is a little strong, but the idea is that someone familiar with con artist techniques is more likely to spot them in others. Along similar lines, there is a strong tradition of skepticism among professional magicians. They know how to deceive, and will spot others using similar deceptive techniques. (The famous rivalry between James Randi and Uri Geller is a good example of this.)

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Nov 06 2020

How the Brain Predicts Outcomes

Published by under Neuroscience

This is a really interesting study trying to work out one of the brain regions involved in decision-making. The researchers are studying mice, and using a technique know as calcium imaging and optogenetics to view the activity of brain cells in a living animal in real time. The short version is that a brain region known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is necessary for model-based decision making. But let’s back up a bit and talk about decision making.

There appears to be two basic ways that vertebrates make decisions – model-based decision making and model-free decision making. The former involves creating an internal model of what is likely to happen in the world as a consequence of our specific actions. This approach also updates that model based upon experience. For example you may have a mental model of what is likely to happen if you slap people without provocation. If you ever decided to actually slap someone, their reaction would be used to update your model and inform future model-based decisions.

Model-based decision making is very effective, as it can take into consideration many variables and constantly updates itself with real-world experience. But this approach is also very labor-intensive. One of the basic principles of neuroscience is that brains are lazy, meaning that they tend to choose the pathway of least energy expenditure to get to a desired outcome. What this means on a neurological level is that the brain is generally wired with mechanisms to reduce energy expenditure, by which I mean thinking. As we learn, pathways form that make actions, thoughts, and behaviors more automatic. This often literally means laying down subcortical pathways that can carry out the procedure automatically without having to engage higher cortical processing, which is very energy intensive. For example, when you drive to work, which you have done hundreds or thousands of time, you will likely be on “automatic pilot”. You don’t have to think about your route, or when to turn, you just drive there from memory. It’s so easy, your brain can engage in other tasks, to the point that you may not even remember the drive.

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Oct 29 2020

Brain-Machine Interface with Stentrode

Brain-Machine interface (BMI) technology continues to incrementally but steadily progress, and I do think this is one of the technologies that will transform our future. Studies have already demonstrated that there are no biological or theoretical limitations to such technology – the brain happily communicates with computers and seamlessly incorporates signals to and from them through the existing process of brain plasticity. The real limitation with practical applications of BMI is technological, mostly in designing electrodes that can safely work for a long time.

As I have discussed before, there are numerous approaches. Scalp surface electrodes are safe and easy, but have no resolution because the skull attenuates signals to and from the brain. Brain surface electrodes work much better, but they are invasive and tend to form scar tissue which can limit their lifespan. Microwires are a cutting edge approach, very thin hair-like wires that penetrate the brain, and can have both high resolution and long term safety. There is also the clever approach of putting the electrodes inside blood vessels in the brain. One company, Synchron, has been developing this technology since 2010 and their device, the Stentrode (a portmanteau of stent and electrode), has now completed a preliminary human trial.

The idea is to insert electrodes the way a stent would be placed inside a blood vessel to treat a blockage. The advantage here is that the endovascular stent technology already exists. They just had to make the stent out of electrodes, which they did. The huge advantage here is that you can get electrodes inside the skull and next to the brain without opening the skull or doing brain surgery. The brain itself is never penetrated. The electrodes are not as intimate with brain tissue as brain surface or penetrating electrodes, but that’s the tradeoff. The question is – how much efficacy can we get from endovascular electrodes?

Much of the research previously has been done on animals, mostly sheep and pigs. Initially the electrodes were connected directly to an external control device that also provides power. But this requires wires to go through the blood vessel to the outside, which is an infection risk. The latest design, the one studied recently, communicates wirelessly to a control box worn by the subject. The only mention I could find of how the electrodes are powered suggests they are powered wirelessly through this control box. This setup could potentially send and receive signals from the Stentrode.

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Oct 20 2020

Daryl Bem, Psi Research, and Fixing Science

In 2011 Daryl Bem published a series of ten studies which he claimed demonstrated psi phenomena – that people could “feel the future”. He took standard psychological study methods and simply reversed the order of events, so that the effect was measured prior to the stimulus. Bem claimed to find significant results – therefore psi is real. Skeptics and psychologists were not impressed, for various reasons. At the time, I wrote this:

Perhaps the best thing to come out of Bem’s research is an editorial to be printed with the studies – Why Psychologists Must Change the Way They Analyze Their Data: The Case of Psi by Eric Jan Wagenmakers, Ruud Wetzels, Denny Borsboom, & Han van der Maas from the University of Amsterdam. I urge you to read this paper in its entirety, and I am definitely adding this to my filing cabinet of seminal papers. They hit the nail absolutely on the head with their analysis.

Their primary point is this – when research finds positive results for an apparently impossible phenomenon, this is probably not telling us something new about the universe, but rather is probably telling us something very important about the limitations of our research methods

I interviewed Wagenmakers for the SGU, and he added some juicy tidbits. For example, Bem had previously authored a chapter in a textbook on research methodology in which he essentially advocated for p-hacking. This refers to a set of bad research methods that gives the researchers enough wiggle room to fudge the results, enough to make negative data seem statistically significant. This could be as seemingly innocent as deciding when to stop collecting data after you have already peeked at some of the results.

Richard Wiseman, who was one of the first psychologists to try to replicate Bem’s research and came up with negative results, recently published a paper discussing this very issue. In his blog post about the article he credits Bem’s research with being a significant motivator for improving research rigor in psychology:

Several researchers noted that the criticisms aimed at Bem’s work also applied to many studies from mainstream psychology. Many of the problems surrounded researchers changing their statistics and hypotheses after they had looked at their data, and so commentators urged researchers to submit a detailed description of their plans prior to running their studies. In 2013, psychologist Chris Chambers played a key role in getting the academic journal Cortex to adopt the procedure (known as a Registered Report), and many other journals quickly followed suit.

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Oct 12 2020


Psychologists in the UK have created a game that pre-debunks (or “pre-bunks”) COVID-19 conspiracy theories. The game is based on research that shows it can be more effective to give people information about how to identify conspiracy theories or misinformation before they are exposed to it. This is a fantastic idea, and I love the fact that this is being done in coordination with research to show if it is effective.

The current game is called Go Viral. It puts the player in the role of someone spreading conspiracy theories about the pandemic, and their goal is to make the misinformation go as viral as possible. This way the players learn the deceptive tactics of those who spread such misinformation by doing it themselves. This tactic reminds me of magicians who are skeptics. They have learned the techniques of deception, and have experienced how easy it can be to deceive people. Stage magic is essentially the practical art of misdirection, that exploits many of the weaknesses in our ability to perceive and construct an experience of what is happening. This puts magicians into a perfect position to detect deceptive practices on the part of others.

James Randi, for example, made a career out of exactly this. He has caught faith healers, for example, using standard mentalist tricks to deceive their audience. One example is the one-ahead trick. You have everyone fill out a “prayer card” with their basic information and what they want to pray for. All these cards are placed in envelopes and are then placed in a bowl, and the preacher draws them one by one “predicting” what each one will say prior to opening the envelope and “revealing” that they were correct. The audience is flabbergasted as the preacher, by seemingly divine means, knows all about them. However, the preacher is simply stating what they just read on the previous card. If you are a magician, this technique is easy to detect – and now you can detect it much easier because I just told you about it.

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Sep 08 2020

QAnon and Other Conspiracies

I previously wrote that the flat Earth movement is the mother of all conspiracies – it essentially is the ultimate conspiracy in that, if you believe that the world is actually flat then you also have to believe that there has been a massive conspiracy involving millions of people all of the world over centuries. If “they” can lie to us about the shape of the world, then they can lie to us about anything. Once you have been convinced that the spherical nature of the Earth is a grand conspiracy, then you can believe anything. Facts, expertise, authority all cease to exist. And that, I think, is the point. That is the appeal of flat Eartherism – it gives you permission to believe anything you want, to reject any claim, any fact, out of hand. You have the freedom to construct reality the way you wish, and can dispense with the tedious part of having to deal with actual reality.

Recently another conspiracy has been getting more attention, and may have eclipsed the flat Earth theory as the most extreme conspiracy. This one is more of a politically-based rather than science-based conspiracy, but that is not as critical as you might think. Phenomenologically they are the same, and the subject matter is actually secondary. But in any case, the Q conspiracy holds that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats are part of a world-wide cabal of Satan-worshiping cannibalistic pedophiles who are trying to secretly take over the world. Further, Trump is actually secretly a genius who is working behind the scenes, with Mueller and in some incarnations with JFK Jr. who is secretly still alive, to uncover this cabal and bring them to justice (an event they call the “Storm”), and when he does he will usher in a golden age.

As with the flat Earth, the first reaction someone might have to hearing these conspiracies is that they are incredibly dumb. They are epically stupid, in a childish way. That may be true, but if you stop there then you miss what is actually going on. Also, it is very tempting to conclude that because the conspiracy theories themselves are mindbogglingly ridiculous, that people who believe them must be themselves “epically stupid”. But I don’t think that’s true, and that conclusion misses the actual phenomenon at work.

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Aug 31 2020

Elon Musk Unveils Neuralink Pig

Three days ago Elon Musk revealed an update to his Neuralink project – a pig named Gertrude that had the latest version of the Neuralink implanted. (I first wrote about the Neuralink here.) The demonstration does not seem to involve anything that itself is new with brain-machine interfaces, but it does represent Musk bringing the state of the art together into a device that is designed to be commercial, rather than just a laboratory proof-of-concept.

Unfortunately, I have had to cobble together information from multiple sources. There does not appear to be a scientific paper with all the technical details spelled out, and the mainstream reporting is often vague on those details. But I think I have a clear picture now. The device is a coin-sized, 23 mm diameter and 8 mm thick. It was implanted “in” the skull, and also described as being “flush” with the skull. From this I take it that the device is not on top of or inside the skull, but literally replacing a small piece of skull. It has 3,000 super thin and flexible electrodes that connect to 1000 neurons. The device itself has 1024 channels (a channel reads the electrical difference between two electrodes).

The company also reports that it has an internal battery that can last “all day” and then recharge overnight. It also communicates to an external device (such as an app on your smartphone) via bluetooth with a range of 5-10 meters. As an electronic device, this is pretty standard, but it is good to have these features in a small implantable device.

The big question is – what can the Neuralink actually do? The demonstration, in this regard, was not that impressive (compared to the hype for Neuralink) – just the absolute bare minimum for such a device. It was implanted in a pig and was interfaced with neurons that connect to the snout. This demo device was read only; it could not send signals to the pig’s brain, only read from the brain. The demonstration consisted of Gertrude sniffing around her cage, and when she did so we could see signals from the neurons in her brain that were interfacing with the Neuralink.

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