Science Affliction #7

Posted by on Jul 8, 2011 in Story Fodder | 0 comments

For Science Affliction this week, I’m going to broach only one subject. The big, beautiful hunk of gray jelly called the brain. Here’s why: I have a science crush on David Eagleman. I was first introduced to him a few months ago via a TedTalk he did. (It’s 22 minutes long, but so worth a watch or listen when you have the time. He talks about what’s in between everything and that’s really all I can say without rambling for a long time.)

Mr. Eagleman is a neuroscientist who has a ton of interesting stuff to say about the jiggly bits between your ears. Recently, he posted a long article at The Atlantic called “The Brain on Trial”. If you want a quicker synopsis, you can find one at the blog Reading by Eugene. What he’s saying isn’t a new idea, by any means. He suggests that criminal behavior has much more to do with brain chemistry than most people want to admit. He challenges judicial systems to change in order to accommodate what we are finding out about how our brains work and how that impacts our behavior. Eagleman doesn’t say that biology leaves criminals blameless, but he does posit that free will is more an illusion than fact. His argument isn’t that we should just shrug and admit defeat, but that we should use what we learn about the chemistry of the brain to help these people control their impulses.

I did take issue with one passage in his article, not so much for what it said as for what it implied.

When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. The drives you take for granted (“I’m a heterosexual/homosexual,” “I’m attracted to children/adults,” “I’m aggressive/not aggressive,” and so on) depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption.

He doesn’t say anything wrong exactly, but I don’t like the juxtaposition of sexuality with pedophilia and violence here. It’s a comparison I thought we were long past. Maybe that was his point, to reinforce the idea that all of these things are just part of who we are and shouldn’t be treated as choices. I agree, homosexuality is not a choice, but I don’t like the way it’s connected with deviant behavior. It could be that I’m overly sensitive on behalf of they gay community. I’ve been accused of that before.

I can’t say I agree with everything he suggests. I’ve long been a proponent of demanding culpability for our actions as reasoning, thinking beings. However, he does make some compelling arguments in his article, and certainly offers a lot of food for thought on the subject. I want to close with a particularly insightful paragraph near the end of his article because of how he ties all of this back to evolution and the dizzying amount of variability in all life.

Along any axis that we use to measure human beings, we discover a wide-ranging distribution, whether in empathy, intelligence, impulse control, or aggression. People are not created equal. Although this variability is often imagined to be best swept under the rug, it is in fact the engine of evolution. In each generation, nature tries out as many varieties as it can produce, along all available dimensions.

Now, on to the brain links!

1) Is wireless mind control right around the corner? Seems like yes, according to blogger and science writer Ed Yong. He talks about a fascinating (and a little bit scary) field called optogenetics which involves flooding neurons with light-loving proteins and then using light to make said neurons fire. In this way, scientists can provoke all sorts of behavior in mice.

Aside: In one of these science posts I mentioned that I had briefly thought of pursuing a career in neuroscience, but the idea of some of the experiments kind of turned my stomach. This is the kind of thing I mean. There’s no doubt that the experiment is useful and even interesting, but there’s no way I could attach little circuit boards to mouse brains and “drive” them around. Ugh.

2) Will Planet of the Rhesus Monkeys be the next summer blockbuster? Perhaps! A ScienceDaily.com article shares some findings on experiments with Rhesus Monkeys that suggest that they might have more self-awareness than previously thought. Until recently mirror tests were thought the only way to gauge self-awareness, but a new experiment with these Old World monkeys seems to imply another way.

3) Interesting summary of an experiment with pigeons on io9.com that demonstrates that birds can recognize and remember people that bother them.

4) Think those brain boosting games work for more than memory muscles? Possibly! An article on a study regarding brain training games on arstechnica.com suggests that thy might benefit some people by increasing fluid intelligence, but there’s a lot of doubt about the results.

5) Are you an insomniac like me? Livescience.com has a story about a brain-cooling cap that might help you sleep. I might have to try an ice pack on my head the next time I’m lying awake at 4 am.

I hope this week’s science bites got your gray matter churning; I know they did mine.

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