TagMad Science

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)

Plant Breeders Release First ‘Open Source Seeds’

NPR reports:

A group of scientists and food activists is launching a campaign Thursday to change the rules that govern seeds. They’re releasing 29 new varieties of crops under a new “open source pledge” that’s intended to safeguard the ability of farmers, gardeners and plant breeders to share those seeds freely. [...]

These days, seeds are intellectual property. Some are patented as inventions. You need permission from the patent holder to use them, and you’re not supposed to harvest seeds for replanting the next year.

Even university breeders operate under these rules. When Goldwin creates a new variety of onions, carrots or table beets, a technology-transfer arm of the university licenses it to seed companies.

Full Story: NPR: Plant Breeders Release First ‘Open Source Seeds’

As the article notes, seed companies also often sell hybrid seeds, which don’t produce identical offspring — think of it as a biological “DRM” system for seeds. It’s sad that “open source” isn’t the norm in agriculture.

Sleep is the answer for nearly every ailment

Time reports:

Researchers have known for some time that sleep is critical for weight maintenance and hormone balance. And too little sleep is linked to everything from diabetes to heart disease to depression. Recently, the research on sleep has been overwhelming, with mounting evidence that it plays a role in nearly every aspect of health. Beyond chronic illnesses, a child’s behavioral problems at school could be rooted in mild sleep apnea. And studies have shown children with ADHD are more likely to get insufficient sleep. A recent study published in the journal SLEEP found a link between older men with poor sleep quality and cognitive decline. Another study out this week shows sleep is essential in early childhood for development, learning, and the formation and retention of memories. Dr. Allan Rechtschaffen, a pioneer of sleep research at the University of Chicago, once said, “If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process ever made.”

Full Story: Time: It’s Time to Pay Attention to Sleep, the New Health Frontier

(via Alex Holmes)

On Gaia tests whether the hypothesis holds up to scientific scrutiny

Scott K. Johnson reviews On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship Between Life and Earth by Toby Tyrrell:

Spiritual groups that hope to attract your interest may exhort you to “Be a part of something bigger than yourself!” But James Lovelock would tell you that you can already check that off your to-do list.

In the early 1970s, Lovelock—with the help of Lynn Margulis—developed the Gaia Hypothesis, which views the Earth and its ecosystems as resembling a sort of superorganism. Lovelock was working for NASA at the time, developing instruments that would aid the Viking landers in looking for signs of life on Mars, so he was thinking about how life interacts with its environment on a planetary scale. And Margulis was famed for her ideas about symbiosis.

This intellectual background led to the idea that organisms are not just passive inhabitants riding a big rock that determined whether they lived or died. Organisms were active participants in the molding of their environment, tweaking and improving conditions as part of a massive, self-regulating system.

In On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship Between Life and Earth, University of Southampton Professor Toby Tyrrell sets out to comprehensively put the Gaia Hypothesis to the test, using everything we’ve learned about life and its history on our planet.

Full Story: Ars Technica: On Gaia tests whether the hypothesis holds up to scientific scrutiny

See also:

Creator of the Gaia hypothesis says “enjoy life while you can”

Manuel DeLanda: “Don’t call me Gaia”

Facts Won’t Change the Minds of the Anti-Vaccination Crowd

I’ve blogged before about Dartmouth College research finding that correcting people’s incorrect beliefs with facts can backfire. Now the same group has confirmed their previous work, this time testing various pro-vaccination messages.

Mother Jones reports:

The paper tested the effectiveness of four separate pro-vaccine messages, three of which were based very closely on how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) itself talks about vaccines. The results can only be called grim: Not a single one of the messages was successful when it came to increasing parents’ professed intent to vaccinate their children. And in several cases the messages actually backfired, either increasing the ill-founded belief that vaccines cause autism or even, in one case, apparently reducing parents’ intent to vaccinate.

The study, by political scientist Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College* and three colleagues, adds to a large body of frustrating research on how hard it is to correct false information and get people to accept indisputable facts. Nyhan and one of his coauthors, Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, are actually the coauthors of a much discussed previous study showing that when politically conservative test subjects read a fake newspaper article containing a quotation of George W. Bush asserting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, followed by a factual correction stating that this was not actually true, they believed Bush’s falsehood more strongly afterwards—an outcome that Nyhan and Reifler dubbed a “backfire effect.”

Full Story: Mother Jones: Study: You Can’t Change an Anti-Vaxxer’s Mind

See also:

Why Facts Backfire

Why we believe lies, even when we learn the truth

Reason Is Used for Justification, Not to Determine Truth

How Stewart Brand Helped Kickstart the De-extinction Movement

Nathaniel Rich’s article on the de-extinction movement includes this letter by Stewart Brand to George Church and Edward O. Wilson:

Dear Ed and George . . .

The death of the last passenger pigeon in 1914 was an event that broke the public’s heart and persuaded everyone that extinction is the core of humanity’s relation with nature.

George, could we bring the bird back through genetic techniques? I recall chatting with Ed in front of a stuffed passenger pigeon at the Comparative Zoology Museum [at Harvard, where Wilson is a faculty emeritus], and I know of other stuffed birds at the Smithsonian and in Toronto, presumably replete with the requisite genes. Surely it would be easier than reviving the woolly mammoth, which you have espoused.

The environmental and conservation movements have mired themselves in a tragic view of life. The return of the passenger pigeon could shake them out of it — and invite them to embrace prudent biotechnology as a Green tool instead of menace in this century. . . . I would gladly set up a nonprofit to fund the passenger pigeon revival. . . .

Full Story: The New York Times: The Mammoth Cometh

The details of how it de-extinction would actually work are fascinating, and if you stick with the article long enough, it does include some criticism from mainstream biologists. For one thing, this isn’t really bringing back an old species so much as it easy creating a new species that is very close to the old. In fact, one environmental lawyer has already suggested that such species could be patentable.

(Thanks Bill!)

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