TagMad Science

Neurosexism: Brains, Gender and Tech

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, authors of The New Soft War on Women, once again debunk the idea that there are important neurological differences between men and women:

Baron-Cohen based his ideas on a study done in his laboratory of day-old infants, male and female. He claimed that boy babies looked at mobiles longer, while girl babies looked at faces longer. Based on this study, Parents magazine informed its readers, “Girls prefer dolls [to blocks and toys] because girls pay more attention to people while boys are more enthralled with mechanical objects.”

But Baron-Cohen’s study had major problems. It was an “outlier” study. No one else has replicated these findings, including Baron-Cohen himself. It is so flawed as to be almost meaningless.

Full Story: Re/code: Neurosexism: Brains, Gender and Tech

Should we engineer animals to be smart like humans?

Mojo Jojo meditating

Science fiction writer Tim Maughan reports on the real science of making animals smarter:

In 2011, a research team led by Sam Deadwyler of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, used five rhesus monkeys to study the factors that lead people with diseases like Alzheimer’s to lose control of their thought processes. The researchers trained the monkeys in an intelligence task that involved learning and identifying images and symbols. They were then given doses of cocaine in order to dull their intelligence and made to repeat the test, with predictably less impressive results.

What happened in the next stage of the research was remarkable. The same monkeys were fitted with neural prosthetics – brain implants designed to monitor and correct the functions of the neurons disabled by the cocaine. These implants successfully restored normal brain function to the monkeys when they were drugged – but crucially, if they were activated before the monkeys had been drugged, they improved the primates’ performance beyond their original test results. The aim of the experiments was to see whether neural prosthetics could theoretically be used to restore decision-making in humans who have suffered trauma or diseases such as Alzheimer’s – but as far as these specific tests were concerned at least, the brain prosthetics appeared to make the monkeys smarter.

Full Story: BBC: Should we engineer animals to be smart like humans?

While the obvious answer to that question is “hell no,” Tim points out that the medical research research motivations may make smarter animals an inevitability. He dives deeper into the ethical questions in the article.

More by Tim:

#burgerpunk

Zero Hours

Ebola patients buying survivors’ blood from black market, WHO warns

It doesn’t get much more biopunk than this:

As hospitals in nations hardest hit by Ebola struggle to keep up, desperate patients are turning to the black market to buy blood from survivors of the virus, the World Health Organization warned. [...]

Blood from survivors, referred to as convalescent serum, is said to have antibodies that can fight the deadly virus. Though the treatment is unproven, it has provided some promise for those fighting a disease that’s killing more than half of those it has infected.

Full Story: CNN: Ebola patients buying survivors’ blood from black market, WHO warns

The Next Stage for Google’s Quantum Computing Efforts

New from me at Wired:

Google launched its Quantum A.I. Lab last year to test a machine called the D-Wave Two, an intriguing but controversial system that its makers bill as a quantum computer, and it believes quantum computing could play a key role in so many of its future ambitions, from self-driving cars and other robots to better predictive analytics systems for products like Google Now to things we haven’t even dreamed up yet. Thanks to what’s called the superposition principle of quantum mechanics, it could process data for such projects at speeds that are exponentially faster than what you get from today’s machines.

But the scientific community has greeted the D-Wave machine with skepticism, questioning whether the machine is actually a quantum computer at all, and whether it can actually provide something you can’t get from conventional machines. In joining Google, Martinis lends new weight to the company’s quantum ambitions.

Full Story: Wired: The Man Who Will Build Google’s Elusive Quantum Computer

These tiny scorpions would like to perform an important inspection of your old book collection, please

Book scorpion

Scientific American reports on the horrifying ecosystem of old books:

Book scorpions are the best/worst thing to happen to books, because book scorpions! But also book scorpions…

Properly known as pseudoscorpions, these tiny, tiny creatures have a fondness for old books, because old books also happen to contain delicious booklice and dust mites. And they’re really not book scorpions… at all because they can’t hurt us, and they’ve basically been performing a free pest control service since humans started stacking excessive numbers of dusty, bound-together piles of paper along our walls and nightstands. This arrangement works because old book-makers used to bind books using a starch-based glue that booklice and dust mites love, so without a healthy population of book scorpions patrolling your collection, those gross parasites are probably having a horrible, silent field-day chewing them all apart.

Full Story: These tiny scorpions would like to perform an important inspection of your old book collection, please

(via Matt Staggs)

What exactly goes on in the brain of a writer?

The New York Times reports on fMRI studies on what exactly goes on in the brain while people write. The first version of the study was conducted with amateur writers. The second was conducted with experienced creative writers. The researchers found that there were differences between the brain regions used while brainstorming and actually writing, and between the amateurs and professionals. But not everyone is impressed with the research:

Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, was skeptical that the experiments could provide a clear picture of creativity. “It’s a messy comparison,” he said.

Dr. Pinker pointed out that the activity that Dr. Lotze saw during creative writing could be common to writing in general — or perhaps to any kind of thinking that requires more focus than copying. A better comparison would have been between writing a fictional story and writing an essay about some factual information.

Full Story: New York Times: This Is Your Brain on Writing

A Weird Hum Is Driving People Insane — And Nobody Knows What’s Causing It

The Hum

Jared Keller writes:

“The Hum” refers to a mysterious sound heard in places around the world by a small fraction of a local population. It’s characterized by a persistent and invasive low-frequency rumbling or droning noise often accompanied by vibrations. While reports of “unidentified humming sounds” pop up in scientific literature dating back to the 1830s, modern manifestations of the contemporary hum have been widely reported by national media in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia since the early 1970s.

Regional experiences of the phenomenon vary, and the Hum is often prefixed with the region where the problem centers, like the “Windsor Hum” in Ontario, Canada, the “Taos Hum” in New Mexico, or the “Auckland Hum” for Auckland, New Zealand. Somewhere between 2 and 10% of people can hear the Hum, and inside isolation is no escape. Most sufferers find the noise to be more disturbing indoors and at night. Much to their dismay, the source of the mysterious humming is virtually untraceable.

Full Story: Policy.Mic: A Mysterious Sound Is Driving People Insane — And Nobody Knows What’s Causing It

(Thanks Skry)

See also:

The Hum (Wikipedia)

A website dedicated to the Hum

The World Hum Map and Database

Why the Solar Roadways Project on Indiegogo is Actually Really Silly

Solar Roadways

Joel Anderson says the Solar Roadways that raised over $1.5 million is visionary but extremely impractical:

But why NOT use our roads? I mean, roofs, roads, who cares, right? Well, in short, because we drive our cars there. Our big, metal, heavy cars. There’s currently a virtually endless supply of places you could install solar panels that DON’T have cars driving over them and, as such, don’t require fancy high-tech glass covering them. Or, for that matter, don’t mean you have to worry about the long term wear-and-tear of millions of tons of steel and rubber driving over them at high speed every year.

This, I’m guessing, is why the question of cost doesn’t come up at any point in either the IndieGoGo video OR the couple’s website. It’s why their idea doesn’t actually make any sense. This is basically just a pitch for a new way to install solar capacity that would cost a lot more than the ways we currently have for installing solar capacity. Which might make sense if we had already exhausted our options for places we could build solar panels on the cheap (we haven’t).

Full Story: Equities: Why the Solar Roadways Project on Indiegogo is Actually Really Silly

(via GlobalInfoWatch)

The Strange World of DIY Brain Zapping

DIY transcranial direct current stimulation

Wired reports on DIY transcranial direct current stimulation, and why the science behind it might not be all it’s cracked up to be:

It’s a rare thing for a scientist to stand up in front of a roomful of his peers and rip apart a study from his own lab. But that’s exactly what Vincent Walsh did in September at a symposium on brain stimulation at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain. Walsh is a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, and his lab has done some of the studies that first made a splash in the media. One, published in Current Biology in 2010, found that brain stimulation enhanced people’s ability to learn a new number system based on made-up symbols.

Only it didn’t really.

“It doesn’t show what we said it shows; it doesn’t show what people think it shows,” Walsh said before launching into a dissection of his paper’s flaws. They ranged from the technical (guesswork about whether parts of the brain are being excited or inhibited) to the practical (a modest effect with questionable impact on any actual learning outside the lab). When he finished this devastating critique, he tore into two more studies from other high-profile labs. And the problems aren’t limited to these few papers, Walsh said, they’re endemic in this whole subfield of neuroscience.

Full Story: Wired: Inside the Strange New World of DIY Brain Stimulation

See Also:

Doctors Worry About DIY Brain Shocks

The Next God Helmet? Zap Your Brain for Insight

Is neuro-skepticism in danger of going too far?

Neuroskeptic points to a recent meta-study of neuroimaging critiques conducted by Martha Farah at the University of Pennsylvania. The blog highlights Farah’s conclusion:

Inferences based on functional brain imaging, whether for basic science or applications, require scrutiny. As we apply such scrutiny, it is important to distinguish between specific criticisms of particular applications or specific studies and wholesale criticisms of the entire enterprise of functional neuroimaging.

In the first category are criticisms aimed at improving the ways in which imaging experiments are designed and the ways in which their results are interpreted. Uncontrolled multiple comparisons, circular analyses and unconstrained reverse inferences are serious problems that undermine the inferences made from brain imaging data. Although the majority of research is not compromised by any of these errors, a substantial minority of published research is, making such criticisms both valid and useful.

In contrast, the more sweeping criticisms of functional imaging concern the method itself and therefore cast doubt on the conclusions of any research carried out with imaging, no matter how well designed and carefully executed. These more wholesale criticisms invoke the hemodynamic nature of the signal being measured, the association of neuroimaging with modular theories of the mind, the statistical nature of brain images, and the color schemes used to make those images seductively alluring.

As mentioned earlier, each of these criticisms contains an element of truth, but overextends that element to mistakenly cast doubt on the validity or utility of functional neuroimaging research as a whole. None of the criticisms reviewed here constitute reasons to reject or even drastically curtail the use of neuroimaging.

Full Story: Neuroskeptic: Brain Scans: Don’t Throw Out The Baby With The Dead Salmon

The full paper is here.

(via Boing Boing)

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