Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Brains on the mind

The front page of today's Science Times is a testament to how ubiquitous the brain has become - well it has always been ubiquitous, nothing happens without it, but the brain seems to be on our mind these days. There are no less than four articles in today's Times - one is on traumatic brain injury - putatively the article addresses occupational therapy for TBI - but it's really more about what TBI is and one particular therapist's interactions with some of her clients.

A second article is about the risk we encounter not from terrorism itself but from the policy of keeping us all in a state of high alert (3 out of five). This might be said to be a different kind of security risk. I won't get into the politics of the policy, just the fact that continual fear mongering in only one way of being on one's guard (the tenor of the campaign against the threat in World War II was very different) and in this case it appears to be a source of health risk as well as (some would say) a boon to one political party.

...worrying about terrorism could be taking a toll on the hearts of millions of Americans. The evidence, published last week in the Archives of General Psychiatry, comes from researchers who began tracking the health of a representative sample of more than 2,700 Americans before September 2001. After the attacks of Sept. 11, the scientists monitored people’s fears of terrorism over the next several years and found that the most fearful people were three to five times more likely than the rest to receive diagnoses of new cardiovascular ailments.

Almost all the people in the study lived outside New York or Washington and didn’t know any victims of the Sept. 11 attacks... About a third to a half of Americans have continued to tell pollsters that they’re personally worried about being victims of a terrorist attack, and that an attack is somewhat or very likely within several months.

This was interesting to me not in light of politics but rather because of the way this report dovetails with the wealth of studies floating around these days pointing to the interaction of our attitudes toward factors like pain, risk, or our own intelligence, and the level of pain we experience, the way we make decisions about risk (not only in gambling games in the laboratory but also in the voting booth), or our performance on tests.

Inside the science section there is a third article about a lab that is able to use a monkey's thoughts to direct the movements of a robot. Although we're still a few years away from bionic men or women this is pretty cool.

...Idoya [the monkey] stepped onto her treadmill and began walking at a steady pace with electrodes implanted in her brain. Her walking pattern and brain signals were collected, fed into the computer and transmitted over a high-speed Internet link to a robot in Kyoto, Japan.

The robot, called CB for Computational Brain, has the same range of motion as a human. It can dance, squat, point and “feel” the ground with sensors embedded in its feet, and it will not fall over when shoved.

Designed by Gordon Cheng and colleagues at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, the robot was chosen for the experiment because of its extraordinary ability to mimic human locomotion.

As Idoya’s brain signals streamed into CB’s actuators, her job was to make the robot walk steadily via her own brain activity. She could see the back of CB’s legs on an enormous movie screen in front of her treadmill and received treats if she could make the robot’s joints move in synchrony with her own leg movements.

As Idoya walked, CB walked at exactly the same pace. Recordings from Idoya’s brain revealed that her neurons fired each time she took a step and each time the robot took a step.

A fourth front page article is really more about cosmology but the concept discussed is one I had never heard of, the Boltzmann brain problem.

The basic problem is that across the eons of time, the standard theories suggest, the universe can recur over and over again in an endless cycle of big bangs, but it’s hard for nature to make a whole universe. It’s much easier to make fragments of one, like planets, yourself maybe in a spacesuit or even — in the most absurd and troubling example — a naked brain floating in space. Nature tends to do what is easiest, from the standpoint of energy and probability. And so these fragments — in particular the brains — would appear far more frequently than real full-fledged universes, or than us. Or they might be us.

These are the kind of articles that always make my brain hurt. This strikes me as such a ridiculously human-centric sort of theory. Why is a free-floating human brain any more mathematically probable than a free-floating human body, or little finger? If we were actually a bunch of brains floating around in space (and according to this article we may well be) then it would be unlikely for us to even come up with the concept of the world we inhabit now, with our illusory bodies walking around on illusory sidewalks, sitting at illusory desks with illusory bad backs, writing illusory blog posts about brains floating in space. It is only because we're a body containing a brain that we can imagine a universe that contains only a brain. If we were the brain we could not imagine the universe that contained the body. If you are another brain and you are reading this, do you get what I'm saying and does it make your brain hurt too?

Anyway, today's Science Times, illusory or not, is a testament to how much a part of the zeitgeist the human brain is whether our concerns are physical, political or cosmological. And don't ask me who the G. Gordon Liddys are, I have no earthly idea.

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