Are you looking forward to eternal life in the digital afterlife?

Friday, 22 July, 2016

We may live forever more in a digital afterlife. It’s a notion we hear a lot about, and wouldn’t it be something to know, and interact with, our descendants living centuries in the future? But is it really possible? Could we upload our brains, so to speak, into some hard drive, and live, fully conscious, as a kind of digital avatar of our once corporeal selves?

You could have the same afterlife for yourself in any simulated environment you like. But even if that kind of technology is possible, and even if that digital entity thought of itself as existing in continuity with your previous self, would you really be the same person? As a neuroscientist, my interest lies mainly in a more practical question: is it even technically possible to duplicate yourself in a computer program? The short answer is: probably, but not for a while.

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Did you know, no one actually knows why we like music?

Friday, 15 July, 2016

While there are plenty of ideas as to why we enjoy music, and listening to it, scientists cannot put their finger on precisely why is this so.

Today’s scientists have their own explanations. Maybe it’s the structure of the inner ear, or the neat ratios of frequencies in harmonious chords. Or maybe dissonant chords sound dissonant because of something called roughness: If you were to simultaneously play two notes right next to each other on a piano – a C and a C-sharp, say – their sound waves would clash in a jarring, unpleasant way.

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Multitasking, not the best way to take on numerous tasks

Wednesday, 6 July, 2016

I think it’s been known for some time now that trying to do a couple of things at once, or multitask, is a fanciful notion. We can only ever do one thing at a time.

Attempting to complete several tasks in rapid succession, or having a couple of things on the boil at the same time – what we really mean when we talk about multitasking – however is no less exhausting than actual multitasking would be, if it were possible.

When we attempt to multitask, we don’t actually do more than one activity at once, but quickly switch between them. And this switching is exhausting. It uses up oxygenated glucose in the brain, running down the same fuel that’s needed to focus on a task.

So, do one thing at a time. But what thing first? That is the question.

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I was busted by my brainwaves during last night’s heist

Thursday, 21 April, 2016

Forget about wearing the balaclava and gloves during tonight’s heist, it’s not your facial features, or finger prints, that will give you away, but rather your brainwaves, or brain prints, that stand to reveal your identity to the powers that be (though possibly a tin-foil hat might help).

Researchers at Binghamton University in US recorded the brain activity of 50 people wearing an electroencephalogram (EEG) headset while they looked at a series of 500 images designed specifically to elicit unique responses from person to person – eg a slice of pizza, a boat, or the word “conundrum.” They found that participants’ brains reacted differently to each image, enough that a computer system was able to identify each volunteer’s ‘brainprint’ with 100 per cent accuracy.

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The brain peaks at 20, and then it’s down hill right? Don’t be so sure

Monday, 7 March, 2016

Fluid intelligence, being our ability to both remember, and make decisions quickly, declines from about age twenty. That’s not to say it’s all down hill from then. Apparently different regions of the brain peak at different times of our lives.

Crystallised intelligence, or facts and knowledge that we have built up, for instance, may not reach a height until we are about seventy.

“At any given age, you’re getting better at some things, you’re getting worse at some other things, and you’re at a plateau at some other things. There’s probably not one age at which you’re peak on most things, much less all of them,” says Joshua Hartshorne, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and one of the paper’s authors.

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There’s a neuroscience to the way we perceive the taste of wine

Monday, 22 February, 2016

What does neuroscience have to do with appreciating wine? Rather a lot as it happens, since it is our nervous systems that ultimately decide whether we like what were drinking or not.

We don’t just taste with our senses, we taste with our minds. And our minds are routinely affected by a host of influences of which, quite often, we are not even aware. Both our senses and our common sense can be led astray by any number of extraneous factors originating in what we know, or think we know, about the wine we are drinking. Figuring out how our minds work in such complex domains as the evaluation of wines – which are, among other things, economic goods – is the province of neuroeconomics.

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Colder weather may enhance mental function, I can believe that…

Wednesday, 17 February, 2016

Contrary to popular belief, winter doesn’t necessarily act as a dampener on people’s emotional well being, with some recent research showing depression symptoms are no higher during the colder months, than they are at any other time of the year.

Likewise, winter has little impact on mental function, and may even enhance brain activity.

Meanwhile, during the vigilance task, brain activity was lowest in the winter and highest in the summer. Some media outlets have interpreted this as evidence for winter sluggishness, but as the participants’ performance and alertness was as good in winter as at other times of year, their reduced winter brain activity can actually be seen as a sign of improved efficiency. For comparison, consider research showing how the more expert people become at a task, the less brain activity is seen while they perform that task, as the brain becomes more efficient.

There might be something in that. We’ve had weeks of heat and humidity in this part of the world, which I’m sure has turned my brain to mush. I’ll stop short of saying I that wish it were winter though, as it will be soon enough.

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Has a remedy for sleep paralysis been devised?

Wednesday, 20 January, 2016

Sleep paralysis is an unsettling experience, whereby you feel trapped in your apparently motionless body, for what seems like an inordinate amount of time. I have several brushes with the phenomenon each year, which is induced, ironically, by a lack of sleep, and also by lying on your back, which I had always believed was the best sleeping position.

Thankfully sleep paralysis, of itself, isn’t anything to worry about. It doesn’t point to some other nastier disorder, and the sensation is usually short lived. If that’s not enough though, a Meditation-Relaxation (MR) therapy has been developed, that you may like to try:

The simple treatment method, called Meditation-Relaxation (or MR) therapy, comes across as a nod to the mind-body connection – the sort of kumbaya “think good thoughts” exercise that might appeal to yogis more than post-docs. But, the simplicity of the treatment belies the immersive case reports and theories about parietal lobe disturbance that give it heft (and probably lab cred). Unlike treatment for nightmares, MR therapy can be performed during an attack to temper or potentially end it altogether.

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The cause of writer’s block, and more importantly, some remedies

Wednesday, 21 October, 2015

Writer’s block may come about as a result of an inability of certain brain regions to fire on all cylinders when required. I thought I’d adopt a metaphorical stance just there, since writer’s block isn’t afflicting me. Right now. If inactivity in a brain region is at the root of the problem, who knows, maybe a pill will soon come along to remedy the situation. We live in hope.

In the meantime, here are a few things to try, should the dark shroud of writers block have enveloped you:

  • Read someone else’s writing, some inspiration might help
  • Break the work down into pieces
  • Write something, anything, without stopping
  • Plan breaks into your writing schedule
  • Don’t procrastinate… although that’s easy to say

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How to counter interruptions? By electric stimulation to the brain…

Friday, 2 October, 2015

Interruptions are worse than a nuisance at the best of times, and a lost train of thought occasioned by a telephone call or whatever, may not only mean a lost idea, but can also impact on productivity. And that can begin to carry a financial cost, if it happens often enough. So, what to do? Eliminate interruptions? Good luck with that.

Scientists however think it may be possible, by way of electrical stimulation to the appropriate region of the brain, to counter the effects of interruptions, thereby leaving the brain where it left off, so to speak, and able to process whatever task it was working on, as if nothing had happened. And all, maybe, from the comfort of your open plan office cubicle.

So Blumberg and his colleagues recently decided to apply electrodes over one part of the brain that’s known to be active in shaping attention. And this area – it’s called the prefrontal cortex – plays a very important role in directing how we pay attention to different things. And the electric stimulation gave this area a little boost. The researchers then gave volunteers different tasks, interrupted them and then measured how quickly they could refocus their attention after the interruption.

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