May 17, 2013
When art meets neuroscience, strange things happen.
Consider the Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art in Oregon which features rugs and knitting based on a brain scan motif. Or the neuroscientist at the University of Nevada-Reno who scanned the brain of a portrait artist while he drew a picture of a face.
And then there’s the ongoing war of words between scientists who think it’s possible to use analysis of brain activity to define beauty–or even art–and their critics who argue that it’s absurd to try to make sense of something so interpretive and contextual by tying it to biology and the behavior of neurons.
Beauty and the brain
On one side you have the likes of Semir Zeki, who heads a research center called the Institute of Neuroesthetics at London’s University College. A few years ago he started studying what happens in a person’s brain when they look at a painting or listen to a piece of music they find beautiful. He looked at the flip side, too–what goes on in there when something strikes us as ugly.
What he found is that when his study’s subjects experienced a piece of art or music they described as beautiful, their medial orbito-frontal cortex–the part of the brain just behind the eyes–”lit up” in brain scans. Art they found ugly stimulated their motor cortex instead. Zeki also discovered that whether the beauty came through their ears, in music, or their eyes, in art, the brain’s response was the same–it had increased blood flow to what’s known as its pleasure center. Beauty gave the brains a dopamine reward.
Zeki doesn’t go so far as to suggest that the essence of art can be captured in a brain scan. He insists his research really isn’t about explaining what art is, but rather what our neurons’ response to it can tell us about how brains work. But if, in the process, we learn about common characteristics in things our brains find beautiful, his thinking goes, what harm is there in that?
Beware of brain rules?
Plenty, potentially, responds the critics’ chorus. Writing recently in the journal Nature, Philip Ball makes the point that this line of research ultimately could lead to rule-making about beauty, to “creating criteria of right or wrong, either in the art itself or in individual reactions to it.” It conceivably could devolve to “scientific” formulas for beauty, guidelines for what, in music or art or literature, gets the dopamine flowing.
Although it is worth knowing that musical ‘chills’ are neurologically akin to the responses invoked by sex or drugs, an approach that cannot distinguish Bach from barbiturates is surely limited.
Others, such as University of California philosophy professor Alva Noe, suggest that to this point at least, brain science is too limiting in what it can reveal, that it focuses more on beauty as shaped by people’s preferences, as opposed to addressing the big questions, such as “Why does art move us?” and “Why does art matter?”
And he wonders if a science built around analyzing events in an individual’s brain can ever answer them. As he wrote in the New York Times:
…there can be nothing like a settled, once-and-for-all account of what art is, just as there can be no all-purpose account of what happens when people communicate or when they laugh together. Art, even for those who make it and love it, is always a question, a problem for itself. What is art? The question must arise, but it allows no definitive answer.
Fad or fortune?
So what of neuroaesthetics? Is it just another part of the “neuro” wave, where brain scans are being billed as neurological Rosetta Stones that proponents claim can explain or even predict behavior–from who’s likely to commit crimes to why people make financial decisions to who’s going to gain weight in the next six months.
More jaded souls have suggested that neuroaesthetics and its bulky cousin, neurohumanities, are attempts to capture enough scientific sheen to attract research money back to liberal arts. Alissa Quart, writing in The Nation earlier this month, cut to the chase:
Neurohumanities offers a way to tap the popular enthusiasm for science and, in part, gin up more funding for humanities. It may also be a bid to give more authority to disciplines that are more qualitative and thus are construed, in today’s scientized and digitalized world, as less desirable or powerful.
Samir Zeki, of course, believes this is about much more than research grants. He really isn’t sure where neuroaesthetics will lead, but he’s convinced that only by “understanding the neural laws,” as he puts it, can we begin to make sense of morality, religion and yes, art.
Here’s some of the latest news about brain scans:
- I see your pain: A study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that scientists were not only able to “see” pain on brain scans, but also could measure its intensity and tell if a drug was helping to ease it.
- Don’t blame me, it’s my brain that hates calculus: A research team at Stanford University School of Medicine concluded that the size and connectivity of a child’s hippocampus, a brain area that is important for memory, is the key factor in how quickly he or she can learn math.
- There lies madness Researchers at Cambridge University in the U.K. say they will scan the brains of 300 teenagers and track how their brains evolve as they age. One thing the scientists want to see is how the brain’s wiring changes as teenagers become less impulsive.
- Trouble brewing: Brain scans may even be able to help detect if a recovering alcoholic is about to fall off the wagon. A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry contends that alcoholics with abnormal activity in areas of the brain that control emotions and desires are eight times more likely to relapse and start drink heavily.
- Robots are people, too: And finally, German researchers say that based on their analysis of brain scans of subjects in a study, people reacted just as strongly to scenes of robots being treated kindly or being abused as they did to humans getting the same treatments.
Video bonus: Samir Zeki explains, in this TED talk, why he’s sure beauty is in the brain of the beholder.
Video bonus bonus: Brain scans can be funny, in a bizarre Japanese humor kind of way. And no, I have no idea why the men in this video are all dressed as female nurses.
More from Smithsonian.com
June 8, 2012
You may soon, if you haven’t already, be making your first visit to the beach since last summer. A lot has happened out in the ocean since then, although most of us probably haven’t been paying much attention. Truth is, the sea doesn’t get a whole lot of press, unless a tsunami or shark attack happens.
But, like I said, a lot of unusual things are going on in the ocean these days. Scientists have been doing some innovative research to a get handle on where all this is headed, but they are truly in uncharted waters. As marine biologist Callum Roberts wrote in Newsweek, “With an ever-accelerating tide of human impact, the oceans have changed more in the last 30 years than in all of human history before. In most places, the seas have lost upwards of 75 percent of their megafauna—large animals such as whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, and turtles—as fishing and hunting spread in waves across the face of the planet.”
Since today is World Oceans Day, here’s a rundown of 10 things we now know about the sea that we didn’t a year ago.
1. The oceans are getting more acidic every day. In fact, according to researchers at Columbia University, acidification is occurring at a rate faster than any time in the last 300 million years, a period that includes four mass extinctions. As the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, oceans absorb it, and it turns into a carbon acid. And that is putting sea creatures at risk, particularly coral, oysters and salmon.
2. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is even greater. The latest on that massive swirl of plastic particles in the North Pacific? It’s way bigger than scientists thought. They’ve known that it’s roughly the size of Texas. But in a new study researchers collected samples from the below the surface, in some cases 100 feet down, and they’ve concluded that the size of the mass may have been underestimated by 2.5 to 27 times. Another study found that small insects known as sea skaters have taken to laying their eggs on the plastic and that that could end up harming crabs that feed on them.
3. Coming soon: Deep sea mining. Advances in robotics, computer mapping and underwater drilling are stirring up interest in mining metals and minerals under the ocean floor. For mining companies, the prospect of finding rich veins of high-quality copper is particularly enticing. Also, later this month three Chinese scientists in a submersible will dive into the Marianas Trench, the deepest place on Earth–which is seen as a prelude to gearing up an underwater mining industry.
4. The Arctic meltdown could make harsh winters more likely. Yes, it’s counter-intuitive, but yet another study, this one by researchers at Cornell, reinforces the theory that warmer water in the Arctic sets off a climatic chain reaction that can result in brutal winters, like last year in Europe, or relentless snowfalls, like those that buried America’s East Coast in February, 2010.
5. Sea life needs to swim farther to survive climate change. After analyzing 50 years of global temperature changes, scientists at the University of Queensland concluded that both the velocity of climate change and the shift in seasonal temperatures will be higher at sea than on land at certain latitudes. And that means that if sea creatures can’t adapt to the rising temperatures, they may have to migrate hundreds of miles if they hope to survive.
6. Looks like tough times ahead for leatherback turtles. They’ve been around for more than 100 million years but some scientists believe leatherback turtles, the largest sea turtles in the world, may not make it through the rest of this century. They’re already threatened by the warmer and drier climate that accompanies El Nino cycles in their nesting grounds in Costa Rica, and scientists are predicting a climate that’s 5 degrees warmer and 25 percent drier on the country’s Pacific coast in coming decades.
7. And not such a happy future for the Great Barrier Reef, either. Industrial development in Australia is a growing threat to the Great Barrier Reef, so much so that it may be designated a world heritage site “in danger” later this year. Australia is experiencing an investment boom from Asia, with over $400 billion worth of projects on the horizon, including coal and natural gas plants and development of new ports.
8. Fukushima radiation is showing up in tuna caught off the California coast. A new study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that bluefin tuna caught off America’s West Coast are carrying radiation from the nuclear power plant in Fukushima badly damaged in a tsunami last year. Fortunately, the radiation is not at levels that would be harmful to humans.
9. Melting of ice sheets caused an ancient global flood. Analysis of coral reefs near Tahiti has linked the collapse of massive ice sheets more than 14,000 years ago to a global flood when sea levels around the world rose an average of 46 feet, at a rate 10 times more quickly than they are now. Scientists hope to create a computer model of the mega-flood, which will help them make better predictions of coastal flooding from our modern-day meltdown.
10. And yet, some creatures still find a way to survive. Scientists have known for awhile that microbes have survived for millions of years in the mud of the ocean bottom. But they couldn’t figure out how they stayed alive. Now they know. After probing sediment at the bottom of the Pacific with oxygen sensors, researchers from Denmark found the bacteria are consuming oxygen at extremely slow rates, and that what they’re consuming is organic matter that’s been trapped with them since dinosaurs walked the Earth. Yes, they’ve been chowing on the same meal for millions of years.
Video bonus: It’s hard to find a better ambassador for the sea than Sylvia Earle, who’s been exploring the deep for more than 40 years. Here’s her TED talk from a few years ago, but it’s more relevant than ever. And as a Bonus Bonus, here’s a video slideshow of some of the stranger creatures you’ll ever see, all living under the sea.
March 9, 2012
Last week I wrote about scientists thinking big. And they are thinking big. But compared to Henry Markram, they’re idea lilliputians.
His dream is to build a human brain. Not a real brain of tissue and blood vessels and neurons–but the ultimate super computer, an enormously sophisticated model that would function like a brain, able to learn new behavior and develop cognitive skills. It would be, he says, ”the Hubble telescope for the brain.”
Markram, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, has been on this track for a while, at least back to mid-1990s. But his quest picked up steam in 2005 when he convinced the institute to invest in a “Blue Gene” IBM supercomputer, and then launched what he called the Blue Brain Project, his first big step in having a machine that could simulate brain functions.
Now he wants the European Union to go all in with him. His project is one of six finalists for its two “Flagship” initiatives. The prize? An investment of 1 billion euros or roughly $1.3 billion.
So what would the EU get for this tidy chunk of change? Markram’s plan is to integrate the data from tens of thousands of brain research papers published every year, to take what is known about every section and every function of the brain and use it to create an unfathomably complex model “from the genetic level, the molecular level, the neurons and synapses, how microcircuits are formed, macrocircuits, mesocircuits, brain areas — until we get to understand how to link these levels, all the way up to behavior and cognition.”
Even today’s most powerful supercomputers can’t approach that level of simulation. But by 2020, they might. Ultimately, the code developed for what Markram calls the Human Brain Project would be available to any researcher. It would allow them, for instance, to flood the virtual brain with programmed versions of experimental drugs or disrupt brain functions and observe what happens. This could be a brain research motherlode, one that boosters insist could dramatically improve the ability to map and conceivably, cure brain diseases, all while reducing the need to experiment on animals’ brains.
Now who could have a problem with that? Turns out plenty of scientists do. They say that Markram’s guilty of extremely wishful thinking, that his approach to simulation just won’t work or would be no easier to understand than the brain itself. And they fear that if the EU pumps a billion euros into the project, all neuroscience would be subsumed by Markram’s vision.
Still, he contends that if not him, someone else will develop a virtual brain that works like the real thing. “Simulation-based research is an inevitability,” he told a meeting of scientists earlier this year. “It has happened already in many areas of science. And it is going to happen in life science.”
The brain that wouldn’t die
Okay, now let’s take the brain in a different direction, albeit one that might seem equally fanciful. A few weeks ago, at the Global Future 2045 International Conference in Moscow, a young Russian media mogul named Dmitry Itskov shared his dream of brains unleashed. Phase one of his project, which he calls Avatar, would involve controlling robots with human brains. That’s not so far-fetched. DARPA, the Pentagon research agency, is ramping up its own project, also called Avatar, in which soldiers would control with their brains a mechanical surrogate.
But then Itskov takes the fast train to fantasyland. Phase two would involve “transplanting” a human brain into a synthetic body. He thinks that’s doable within 10 years. And 30 years from now, he believes it will be possible to develop hologram-type bodies that can host an artificial brain rather than a physical one–now he’s speaking Markram’s language. That, claims Itskov, “would be leading down the road to immortality.”
Itskov acknowledges that this can sound like crazy talk. But, he notes, they said the same thing about the Internet.
Here’s more of the latest research on how our brain does what it does:
- Quiet down in there: New Scientist writer Sally Adee says a “thinking cap” is quite plausible after being wired with electrodes that stimulated her brain to induce “flow states.” The stimulation, she says, made her brain shut out all distractions.
- Even Google Maps hasn’t gone there: A state-of-the-art imaging scanner, developed by Siemens, has started mapping the brain in great detail by tracking the passage of water molecules through nerve fibers.
- In the weed: A Canadian researcher studying how marijuana affects memory believes that brain cells other than neurons help determine what we remember. It’s long been thought that neurons do all the heavy lifting in storing memories, but scientist Xia Zhang says his research shows astroglial cells also are involved.
- You’re so in my head: Scientists at the University of Technology in Sydney say that harmonious couples can actually be “on the same wavelength.”
- The secret to winning your March Madness bracket: In short, go with your heart. A study at Columbia Business School found that people who were more likely to trust their feelings were also more likely to accurately predict the outcome of events.
Video bonus: The video’s a few years old, but this TED talk by Henry Markram gives you a good idea of what’s going on inside his brain about brains.
March 1, 2012
Let’s think big thoughts. Everyone else is. Out in Long Beach, they’re in the middle of the 2012 TED conference, where really smart people pay $7,000 to hear other really smart people talk about things that make them sound really, really smart.
In February, Google rolled out its own version of geek gab, with a name that screams high school math club: “Solve for X.” And earlier this week Microsoft staged its annual TechForum, where it showcased its contributions to the cutting edge. Even the Department of Energy joined the prototype party a few days ago, with a conference in Washington designed to highlight bright ideas that may never make it past demo phase.
All of the above are geared to stretch beyond innovation into the realm of “What if?” They’re about celebrating imagination and invention, and with that often comes an upbeat spin on the future. Otherwise, why invent? Case in point: one of the first speakers at this year’s TED event was Peter Diamandis, head of the X Prize Foundation, and one of the founders of Singularity University, which has been described as an “academic boot camp” in Silicon Valley for inventors and entrepreneurs. For Diamandis, the glass isn’t just half full, it’s spilling over the top.
He riffed on the theme of a new book he’s written with science journalist Steven Kotler, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. His take is that human ingenuity and the exponential growth of technology will solve many of the planet’s more vexing problems, including water and energy shortages, in ways we’re only starting to imagine. As Diamandis puts it, “The world is getting better at an extraordinary rate and most people are unable to see the good news through the flurry of bad.” For more rays of his sunshine, check out this clip made prior to his appearance at TED.
In the spirit of Diamandis’ rosy forecast of the future, here are five big ideas that may make you feel better about what’s ahead:
Plenty of juice
It says something about the crowd at TED that a guy gets a standing ovation for talking about batteries. In fairness, though, this was one awesome battery. Even Bill Gates tweeted about it. MIT professor Donald Sadoway shared his story of how six years ago he started developing a liquid battery, a three-layered device comprising high-density molten metal at the top, low density molten metal at the bottom and the layer of molten salt in between. His prototypes got bigger and bigger until he was able to produce a working model the size of a 40-foot shipping container. I know what you’re thinking: What am I going to do with a 40-foot battery? But Sadoway’s invention isn’t about us, it’s about cheap energy, or actually the storage of it, and if it works as well as he says it does, it could be a game changer in making wind and solar power a lot more reliable.
A mightier wind
While we’re on the subject of renewable energy, another invention involving wind power took center stage at the Department of Energy’s confab. Created by Makani Power of Alameda, California, it’s called an airborne wind turbine, but looks more like a small airplane with four propellers. Yet it doesn’t actually fly anywhere. It’s tethered to the ground, but moves in large circles more than 600 feet in the air. Because it’s small and follows a continuous circle, the flying turbine can generate power in winds too weak to turn a more conventional wind turbine. Its developers think it would be most valuable as an off-shore power source, a lot cheaper and less obtrusive than ocean wind farms. It would need only to be attached to a buoy. The Department of Energy has already invested $3 million in the project. Google has kicked in another $20 million.
At Google’s “Solve for X” fest, Kevin Dowling, R&D vice president for MC10, a Massachusetts firm, gave the audience a sense of just how far we’ve come in our ability to bend and stretech electronics. Scientists can now weave electric sensors into paper, leather, vinyl and just about any other flexible surface and can build electric arrays into strips thinner than band-aids that we can attach to our skin. Dowling talked about catheters with sensors that can provide a ”cinematic visualization of what’s going on in a heart in real time,” and gloves that will allow surgeons to actually touch a beating heart and send images wirelessly to a display screen. Dowling explains it this way: “You’re essentially putting eyes in your fingers.”
Microsoft, meanwhile, provided a glimpse of grocery shopping in the future at its TechForum. No more pushing carts around the store for us. Instead, the “Smarter Cart,” designed by Chaotic Moon, a mobile apps developer in Austin, Texas, as part of a partnership with Whole Foods, would use Microsoft’s Kinect 3D camera and voice recognition system to help the cart follow us around the store. The cart, which has a Windows 8 tablet attached, could let also let you know in which aisle the dog treats are hiding and also suggest recipes, although hopefully not involving dog treats. But here’s the best part: No more checkout lines. Your cart has its own scanner. You shop, you scan, you leave. The future’s already rosier.
A little birdie told me
Back at TED the other day, another demo that dazzled the not-so-easily impressed crowd featured what could become the Defense Department’s smallest spy. It’s the Nano Hummingbird, by AeroVironment Inc., of Monrovia, California, developed for DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, and it’s designed to not only move like a hummingbird, but also look like one. So it can hover or sit on a branch, all while shooting video. The little drone can fly as fast as 11 miles per hour, go sideways, backward and forward, as well as go clockwise and counterclockwise. Its flights, controlled remotely, can last close to 10 minutes.
Imagine what Albert Hitchcock could have done with this.
Video bonus: And now a video interlude from U.S poet laureate Billly Collins, who also took the stage in Long Beach, proving that the TED folks gets the soul thing. Collins now sets some of his poems to animation, showing that he gets how they like their entertainment.
November 28, 2011
I know memory is a very fickle friend, but firing blanks three times in one day when I tried to remember a name was ridiculous. So when I heard about new research into a so-called “memory pill,” I thought, “Can we fast-track this thing?”
Scientists would call it a “cognitive enhancer,” which has come to mean drugs that can sharpen the brain’s focus, such as Ritalin or Adderall. In the recent study the drug was Modafinil, designed originally to treat narcolepsy, but in this case given to a group of sleep-deprived surgeons. While the medication didn’t seem to improve the performance of the doctors in simulated surgery, it did enhance their short-term memory and sped up their ability to complete complicated tasks.
All of which raises ticklish questions. If a pill can make doctors better surgeons, shouldn’t we want this? What about fighter pilots or, say, New York cab drivers? And might we reach the point where brain enhancers are required to perform certain jobs?
These issues have been percolating for several years, as Ritalin and Adderall have evolved from a treatment for attention deficit disorder to a pharmaceutical study aid for college and high school students. Back in 2008 the New York Times asked, “Brain enhancement is wrong, right?” In the article one scientist spoke of “cosmetic neurology” and others raised the prospect of a designer drug divide between those with access to brain meds and those without.
Already Modafinil, which can be purchased online with a prescription, is being marketed as a way to “cut through the fog of excessive sleepiness.” Earlier this month, BBC science editor Susan Watts reported the results of an anonymous online questionnaire about the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs. Just under 40 percent of the 716 respondents said they had used one and 92 percent of them said they would do it again.
At the moment, brain drugs can improve performance only marginally. But in a recent piece on the BBC’s “Newsnight,” Watts cuts to the chase: “What if a pill could make you 50 percent smarter, or even 100 percent. Would you still say no?”
She also reports that scientists are getting serious about something they’re calling “moral enhancement.” They’ve apparently begun testing hormones that could make people kinder, more empathetic, more moral.
Are you ready for a Nice pill?
Here are other developments in tapping the brain’s potential:
- The Biggest Loser, Rodent Edition: Harvard scientists found that after they transplanted healthy neurons into the damaged brains of obese mice, the mice lost a considerable amount of weight.
- Bad memory lane: A study at the University of Texas hopes to prove that a reportedly memory-enhancing drug called methylene blue will help speed the recovery of post-traumatic stress disorder patients.
- Bilingual brainiacs: According to a study at the University of Toronto, bilingual people don’t exhibit symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease until they have twice as much brain damage as those who speak only one language.
- You too can think deep thoughts: By using real-time feedback from MRI scans, people may one day be able to train their brains to be more introspective, say researchers at the University of British Columbia.
- Ready when you are: A London neuroscientist thinks we could eventually have a mobile app that lets us know when our brain is most prepared to remember something.
Bonus video: Not only does Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman lay out the difference between experience and memory—being happy in your life versus being happy with your life—but he even uses colonoscopies to help make the point.
The Question: Is it our responsibility to get as much out of our brains as possible?