Top Down Processing and Michael Shermer

Another old TED video from 2006, this time with Michael Shermer about belief. He covers some great topics in this, in particular how our beliefs shape our perceptions, another perfect example of top-down processing. A quick example:

If you don't feel like watching the whole thing, here are some highlights:

At 7:10 he talks about how we see happy faces on pictures of Mars, and my favorite, "The Nun Bun." He explains how we're primed to see faces based on our extensive experience looking at faces throughout our lives. Our brains shape our incoming sensory information into what it expects to see. So if anything even remotely looks like the features of a face, we'll see a face. It's very difficult not to see it once you already have.

At about 9:07 in he talks about how to hear satanic messages when music is played backwards. He plays Stairway to Heaven for a few seconds normally; then he plays it backwards and everything sounds typically gibberish. That is until he projects some satanic worship lyrics on the screen as you listen to the backwards version, at which point you can "hear" what Robert Plant was REALLY trying to tell us.

Microcosmos and Radiohead

I know, I've been veering off topic a bit, but someone edited Radiohead's "All I Need" with Microcosmos (a film I apparently need to see now), and it's pretty moving. Then again, you could play this song over a knife fight and it would look beautiful, but this was a nice way to spend four minutes.

The original video for the song is also pretty brilliant and gut-wrenching.



The Uncanny Valley Theory...and 30 Rock

I don't tend to go to 30 Rock for my science, but I'll openly admit it - The Uncanny Valley Theory was unknown to me until I watched last week's episode:

"Mori's hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a "barely-human" and "fully human" entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that a robot which is "almost human" will seem overly "strange" to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathetic response required for productive human-robot interaction."

Apparently, this isn't really embraced as legitimate scientific theory, and I can appreciate that, but man, it sure feels true. If you look at this graph, you see what the dip in the valley equates to - a corpse and a zombie. Wow, that really says it all. It sort of explains our obsession (or mine at least) with zombie movies.

Zombies are the versions of us without the free will - I don't think there's anything more terrifying than seeing something human-like on auto-pilot (while trying to devour my flesh). This is probably what freaks me out about religious zealots, it really seems like no one's behind the wheel, making the decisions (while trying to devour my flesh).

Maybe they're not all bad...

Top 20 Science Books For Sci-fi Fans

According to io9

Not what my list would have been, but some intriguing choices.

The one I really expected to see was The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas. Can't catch em all I guess...

Modern Nano Art

Some beautiful "landscapes" only microns across. The one above:

"At Stanford University, Zhenan Bao and her team of researchers work to make organic transistors for cutting-edge electronic devices. One of her graduate students, Zihong Liu, used a cross-polarized light microscope to examine this array of the tiny switches. For Liu, bright parts of the film look like lakes and mountains, while the gold electrodes appear to be a fence."

See more here.

A Quick Mental Experiment on Certainty and Belief

From a great article by Robert Burton about the feeling of certainty and belief:

To understand what I mean about the feeling of knowing, read the following paragraph at normal speed. Don't skim, give up halfway through or skip to the explanation. Because this experience can't be duplicated once you know the explanation, take a moment to ask yourself how you feel about the paragraph. After reading the clarifying word, reread the paragraph. As you do, pay close attention to the shifts in your mental state and your feeling about the paragraph:

A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.

Is this paragraph comprehensible or meaningless? Feel your mind sort through potential explanations. Now watch what happens with the presentation of a single word: kite.

In an instant, you are flooded with the "aha" feeling that the paragraph makes sense. There's no time for deep consideration and evaluation. Before you can reread the paragraph, your unconscious mind has already sorted through various possibilities, determined that the sentences collectively fit the description of a kite and sent you notification.

(Pretty cool, found via Mind Hacks)

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

Which is why the writers of crappy TV shows like Grey's Anatomy probably scour the internets for stories like these. The one time I caught an episode there was a patient with Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder, which turns out to be a real phenomenon. Though like Restless Leg Syndrome, it strikes me as one of those odd disorders that occurs as a side effect of other psychotropic drugs or hormone therapies. Then again, I'm sure there are other causes of PGAD linked to menopause or pregnancy that send the nerves and hormones out of whack (see a video blurb on 20/20 here).

Anyway, here's the real catch - the best medication for PGAD? Anti-depressants. The decrease of libido associated with many anti-deps, Paxil in particular, are so extreme, they actually help ameliorate the symptoms of this surreal condition. Unfortunately, in the blunt-instrument-treatment of anti-deps, they can also masterbate...i mean...exacerbate the problem (I'm sorry):

"Dearmon [a PSAS sufferer] was about to embark on a long road trip in 2000 when she had a panic attack. She knew the car’s vibrations would be torturous, so she visited her primary care physician, who prescribed the antidepressant Paxil, a drug that lists decreased libido as a possible side effect.

"It had a good benefit," she said. "It put a damper on the sensations; they weren’t as strong. I could masturbate once and as time went on, it was every other day; then every few days. Now, I can go until the seventh or 10th day — and by then I can’t even concentrate."

Unfortunately, Paxil doesn’t work for everyone with PGAD. Some patients have said antidepressants actually act as a trigger to the disorder, Leiblum wrote."

(from Furious Seasons)

Robotic Self Assembly

More freaky science fiction reality. I assume this is the technology utilized to create the robot that seeks land mines, sets them off by blowing itself up, and miraculously reassembles itself so it can move onto the next one (the demonstration of which was dubbed inhumane by the colonel watching it).

As for these smart building blocks below, it's amazing how watching the guy kick it towards the end of the video makes you feel like that colonel. Your gut is to have compassion for something, you can't really stop that instinct. It's not really until you consciously recognize that it's just a machine, that you can try to quell the emotion. I assume this is only going to get weirder as technology progresses.

(from Futurismic)


God's Prodigal Son

No need to rip on this shockingly indoctrinated kid speaking out against the "fallacy" of evolution and science to his congregation - the madness sort of speaks for itself.

Disturbing as he is to watch, the kid's is sort of amazing. Every time I see a child as precocious and intelligent as this, it saddens me to know he's not using his potential for something more vital or useful - like becoming a contestant on Viva Hollywood.

(via Pharyngula)


Design and The Elastic Mind

Way too much to discuss in one post regarding this amazing exhibit at MOMA in NY. After taking an hour or so to go through it last week, it was great to see their amazing website basically emulates the whole experience - tons of interactive demos with pictures and video. A must see for programmers, nanotechnologists (i don't think that's a word), interactive designers, artists, neuroenthusiasts, medical practitioners, musicians, etc. The future is coming fast and it's sort of freaking me out.

More on this soon...

(Incidentally, if you watch the video below, check out the part about the "afterlife" project - it will make you squirm a little. It's an intriguing idea in principle, but the execution is a bit creepy...)

Jeff Hawkins - The Future of AI

This is an old TED talk from 2003, but really interesting nonetheless (especially because I just watched it). Jeff Hawkins, neuroscientist and computer engineer, talking about the breakthrough concept that will make artificial intelligence more useful and integrated in every day life - prediction. He talks fast and a bit like he's on speed, but he has some brilliant insights into what it is about human intelligence that is so powerful.

He makes a good point about the sci-fi vs. pragmatic reality of AI - that we're not as likely to see smarter robots as we are to see things like smarter cars and security systems.


More Random Marketing of Anti-depressants

From Furious Seasons:

"This is certainly a fabulous Friday for pharma execs in the land. Abilify gets approved for kids this morning and this afternoon we learn that the FDA just approved Pristiq for depression. The drug is made by Wyeth and is essentially a rejiggered Effexor, only this one was originally developed to help women with hot flashes. You know Wyeth is going to give this drug a huge roll out since Effexor goes off-patent fairly soon and I'm sure that the made-for-hot-flashes-but-good-for-depression sales pitch is going to work wonders with men and women of every age."

Classic. I use to work at a clinical research organization that ran clinical trials on Meridia. Originally marketed as an anti-depressant, the drug struggled for an identity in the crowded playing field. After searching for trends in the data, they noticed people lost weight while on the drug. And lo and behold, a new psychotropic weight loss drug hits the market. This drug isn't just an SSRI, it prevents reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine as well. Oh, and Monica Lewinsky was hired as the spokesperson.


Will and Awakenings

If you've ever read "Awakenings," (or seen the movie based on the Oliver Sacks book) you'd remember that many of the Parkinson's patients were locked in a set of tremors that were so extreme their muscles were literally locked in place. This was the case for decades while they wasted away in the back of mental wards.

Sacks presciently noticed that unlike stroke victims, these forgotten patients could move if the "will" of another person empowered them. Once given the experimental drug L-Dopa, they were able to will their own movements. Sadly, the "awakening" didn't last long and brutal side effects emerged, many actually chose to return to their initial state of catatonia instead of the tardive dyskenia caused by the drug.

The basal ganglia seems to be the intersection of these phenomenon. In healthy individuals it appears to be the interface between willed impulses for movements and the motor responses elicited. It also seems to be the culprit for many movement disorders consisting of almost psychically painful, unwilled movements (parkinson's, huntington's, tourette's, dystonia, the list goes on and on and on).


My Power To Will

I've become a bit obsessed with the idea of a "will" center in the brain, and the endogenous neurochemicals associated with it. Obviously it's never as simple one location in the brain for any complex behavior - but there are circuits that have a lot to do with the conscious impulse to perform a physical act, which in a lot of ways is the foundation for the link between our thinking and behavior. Maybe it's where each conscious decision is made at its most fundamental level?

Today's surreal science fiction-esque phenomenon du jour is the newly diagnosed (and, of course, medicated) condition called Restless Leg Syndrome, or RLS as it's commonly referred.

In relation to a prior post, I was not surprised to find that:

"Certain medications may worsen RLS in those who already have it, or cause it secondarily. These include: anti-nausea drugs, certain antihistamines (often in over-the-counter cold medications), drugs used to treat depression (both older tricyclics and newer SSRIs), antipsychotic drugs, and certain medications used to control seizures."

It would surely be interesting to see the numbers of people with "RLS" that are on or have taken anti-depressants. My own (totally unsubstantianted) theory is that the effect of leaving dopamine and/or serotonin in their synapses (as is the goal of reuptake inhibitors) may be creating some kind of feedback loop of movement circuits. These circuits were the result of willed impulses originally, but are now on a highly uncomfortable auto pilot, where the individual can no longer consciously inhibit these looped movements.

It is also noteworthy, that certain medications for RLS have also been used to treat Parkinson's patients. Also of note are the bizarre side effects of Mirapex, a new RLS drug:

"Several unusual adverse effects of this medication may include compulsive gambling, hypersexuality, and overeating"


Akithesia and Anti-depressants

A side effect of certain SSRI's - Akithesia:

"...a syndrome characterized by unpleasant sensations of “inner” restlessness that manifests itself with an inability to sit still or remain motionless."

High-functioning patients have described the feeling as a sense of inner tension and torment or chemical torture.

Akathisia makes some patients act out in violent fits of rage throwing and breaking things or harming others. Ironically antipsychotic drugs are many times prescribed as “mood stabilizers” but then have the opposite intended effect, which often leads to increased doses further escalating the symptoms when the intent was to ameliorate the symptoms."

(antipsychotics are different than anti-depressants, but Akisthesia is a known side effect of anti-deps as well.)

It certainly gives the impression that anti-deps enhance "will." Neurologically, it's difficult to define will, but the idea of initiating physical movement seems a good start, which is also something many people diagnosed with clinical depression complain of - being paralayzed, stuck in bed, etc. Could this effect of anti-deps be responsible for these perceived positive and negative effects?


Elusive Objectivity

Great op-ed by Nicholas Kristof about the elusiveness of objectivity. He refers mostly to politics here, but it really applies to everything. In most cases, I try to let my subjectivity and bias apply only to my sports teams.

We think and argue emotionally, only looking for the facts that support our theory; as opposed to the opposite - looking at the facts, then structuring our theories. It's so deeply embedded in our brains, it's very difficult to stop. I know this is true because I'm so guilty of it.

No,it's not new news exactly, but it it's a phenomenon of neuroscience referred to as top-down processing. We have an expectation of an experience, and we literally structure how the sensory information enters our brains. That sensory info distorts as we contort it based on what we expect. It's a reminder that much of what we see, touch, and hear are self-induced illusions.

On Kristof's blog, of course, all the crazy commenters (with a few exceptions) revert right back to partisan politics. The irony!

Here is some commentary from one of my favorite writers Jonah Lehrer - I think his point about resigning yourself to a sense of certainty despite knowing you are torn between two conflicting ideas is really apt. That craving for the feeling of certainty is what drives most bad thinking. It's probably the root of religious thinking, and why people think they have answers to unanswerable questions - it feels better to feel certain. Questioning creates a sort of psychic pain. I liken it to western music that doesn't return to the tonic (leaving a sense of unpalatable dissonance), or watching a bad TV mystery movie that you can't walk away from because you have to know "who done it."

Anyway, Mr. Lehrer states it better than I do...


Anti-depressants and Homicide, Suicide

Terribly sad case of a 12 year old kid sentenced to 30 years in jail, for the brutal murder of his grandparents. Christopher Pittman is now 19, and his murder case was recently appealed to the supreme court, and was denied a hearing today, which is terribly tragic given his background and the fact that he was on heavy doses of Zoloft.

(from the CNN article linked to above) "The Food and Drug Administration in 2004 ordered Zoloft and other such medications to carry warnings of an increased risk of suicidal behavior in children."

The extremely weak and unproven theory of depression treatment consists of keeping serotonin in the synapses longer, supposedly "regulating" the baseline of the neurotransmitter in the brain (a baseline that has never been established). Seemingly, the difference between most SSRI's and placebos is the restoration of will power that was formerly missing.

It explains why certain people live by the stuff - many have trouble getting out of bed in the morning; they don't feel like they can function. It seems many anti-deps enable you to act on your will better.

Now imagine giving a drug with those effects to someone with suicidal or homicidal tendencies. It certainly provides one possible explanation for why we're seeing these violent homicides/suicides and finding out the perpetrators are usually dosed with some kind of SSRI.

In Christopher Pittman's case:

"At the time of the crime, the boy had bounced around homes for years, experiencing a half dozen family splits and divorces after his mother had twice abandoned him as a child. She has not been in Pittman's life for years."

"Just days before [the shooting], a doctor had begun prescribing Zoloft, another antidepressant. The family contends the abrupt substitution of drugs caused a bad chemical reaction, triggering violent outbursts."

Most interesting, Pfizer's [maker of Zoloft] comments about the trial:

"[Zoloft] didn't cause his [Pittman's] problems, nor did the medication drive him to commit murder. On these two points, both Pfizer and the jury agree."

This awful, heartless comment is half right. Pittman had problems alright, none of which were his fault either - he was bounced around from home to home with no semblance of structure while often getting abused. No, Zoloft didn't cause his problems either, though it's ironic it's prescribed to somehow cure them.

But did Zoloft drive him to commit murder? In a sense, I would absolutely agree. I believe they provided him with the will to act on his understandable impulses - he was a troubled, angry, and neglected teenager. And it saddens me that despite the overwhelming evidence of a correlation between SSRI's and homicidal/suicidal behavior, this poor young man will be in jail until his 40's. This kid didn't need psychotropic drugs, he needed attention and someone to care for him, and that simple fact is grossly misunderstood.

Here is the old bizarre Zoloft ad that looks like something out of a Kurt Vonngeut novel:

"While the cuase is unknown, depression may be related to an imbalance of natural chemicals in nerve cells in the brain, presscription Zoloft works to correct his imbalance."

Thank you Zoloft for spreading this toxic crap into the American public (232 million prescriptions of Zoloft and other anti-deps in 2007) without really knowing what's causing the depression you're so-called treating.

I'd say we're better off with ecstacy.

Geological Perspective

Cute video of time between ice ages. Provides a bit of perspective for human existence and evolution. Also neat through the eyes of little, sentient rock beings especially when you consider that Darwin was able to understand that physiological changes occur in species over geological time, not human life spans. Probably one of the biggest reasons people have a difficult time really grasping the central tenants of evolution.


Fighting the Curse

As a Red Sox fan, I was all for the burial of a Sox jersey in the foundation of the new Yankee Stadium, which sent the new generation of Crazy Monkey Steinbrenner (Hank Steinbrenner, son of George) to flip out. Unfortunately, they actually found the jersey, effectively lifting the potential curse.

I'm against all kinds of magical thinking, but I've admittedly been guilty of believing in the curse of the Bambino most of my child and adult life (very hard not to when watching the '86 World Series and the 2003 ALCS). I'd say I've been guilty of it up until 2004 when the curse and the belief in such silly baseball ghosts finally began to dissipate.

So it's unfortunate that the Sox fan construction worker that planted the jersey was also a magical thinker, or he would have been smart enough to simply lie that he actually did it, causing Hank and the rest of the Yankee fan monkeys to perpetuate the myth of the "unfound" Sox jersey in the bowels of the newly cursed Yankee Stadium. Too bad...


Is Acid the Solution to War?

Check out these soldiers totally chilaxing on the battle field after being administered LSD. I'm by no means advocating the use of acid...well...except to treat migraines, and to maybe provide us with a little perspective on the absurdity of war. Obviously psychedelics are not something you want to be addicted to - too many false epiphanies and psychological/neurological side effects, but maybe at least a temporary reprieve would help.

How about World Acid Day? Shhh, no one even has to know, we'll just spray it in the air, like the end of Batman Begins (except without the rioting). Okay, shitty idea, but funny video (found on Wired).

Doctors Banning Pharma Reps

One of my absolute favorite blogs, Philip Dawdy is one of the few journalists I've read that understands the horrible anti-depressant industry - from their missing data, to their aggressive, careless marketing.

In his bio he talks about his history with manic depression (or as my father, a psychiatrist I think Mr. Dawdy would like has repeatedly reminded me, bipolar disorder is an insensitive title, "people aren't batteries," he says - here here). He expounds daily on the state of mental health care in the US over the last 20 years. I'll be posting a lot about the pitfalls of anti-deps, so I'm sure I'll be referring to his work frequently.

Back to the original point of this post - this one doctor, finally fed up with reps for the popular anti-depressant, Seroquel (now being prescribed for manic depression) has banned all pharma reps from his office. Bravo, doctor.

(Despite my struggles to find a consistent source of income, I'm so glad I never gave into becoming a drug rep coming out of college armed with a neuroscience degree. Bravo...me)


Fucking Computers

An elementary step in the progress towards The Singularity as defined by Raymond Kurzweil. A dick mouse, and a program that will respond to the motion of your ocean. Good to know sex is still the main fuel for progress. The Singularity as it's defined in his book is the point at which we won't be able to differentiate between our biology and our technology.

If Mr. Kurzweil is correct, computers will be able to mimic the human mind by 2029. He believes we will have a fully functional understanding of the human brain by then, as well as the computer processing power to simulate it. Given this prediction, he is working on staying as healthy as possible to he can eventually pull a Lawnmower Man, and upload himself, making digital copies so he can live forever. I don't see this happening personally, but it gives me comfort to know that soon I'll at least be able to fuck a computer program.


When Science Goes Wrong...Irony Warning!

Here is an interview from The Daily Show with Simon LeVay, a neuroscientist whose study I referenced in my senior thesis about the biological causality of sexual orientation. He wrote a book called "When Science Goes Wrong," which is ironic given his study showing structural brain difference between gay and straight men was riddled with confounding holes. (If you're wondering, the brains of the gay patients he studied all died of AIDS, and the specific type of behavior linked to homosexuality was never operationally defined. Oh, and LeVay himself is gay).

Speaking of holes, they address the super collider project going on that is now scaring the masses into believing that once this new accellerator is turned on, it will create a black hole that will devour the earth, or a strangelet that will create a sort of sludge matter that will also destroy the earth. It's not much of an interview, and it's ironic that a guy so off base with his own studies would write a book about bad science. Just a nice example of science irony I guess.

The Daily Show interview was giving me trouble, so I linked to it above and here. Posted a cool piece from a great blogger lady interviewing people about the possible black hole.


Cool Cortical Connection Map of Monkey

This doesn't look so complicated! What's the big deal??

It's the mappings of the frontal cortex of a monkey - you can see connections from the amygdala (emotional information like fear), hippocampus (memory encoding), sensory stimuli from the visual cortex, motor cortex, auditory, olfaction, etc.

The frontal cortex is where it's believe we make decisions - some believe it is the seat of our personality. The case of Phineas Gage is one of the oldest, most famous case studies involved with personality and its correlation to the frontal cortex.

Quick background: while working blasting rock (I believe for the railroad), he was responsible for planting explosives, but something went wrong, and while he was patting the gunpowder with an iron rod, he mistakenly caused an explosion, sending the rod through the side of his face, straight through his frontal lobes. He was barely even knocked out by the explosion, and was basically conscious the whole time. He did however start experiencing some "side effects."

A list of issues pertaining to his personality changes:

"Fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was 'no longer Gage.'"


You Look Gay In Those Genes

I'm realizing now this should have been the title of my senior thesis. Instead it was called "Assessing the Biological Causality of Human Homosexuality," or something pedantic like that.

Let me not digress from this beautiful little piece of Australian satire (originally posted by Vaughan at Mind Hacks, who also includes a great quote from Carl Zimmer about the stupidity of these gene studies). The gay scientists over at The Pink Tiger Research Institute have finally isolated the Christian gene.

"We've already prevented this rat from being born christian, hopefully humans will follow."