Saturday, December 24, 2005

Google Brain Serach

This is awesome. check it out…

To recall memories, your brain travels back in time via the ultimate Google search, according to a new study in which scientists found they can monitor the activity and actually predict what you’ll think of next.

The work bolsters the validity of a longstanding hypothesis that the human brain takes itself back to the state it was in when a memory was first formed.

The psychologist Endel Tulving dubbed this process “mental time travel.”

How it works

Researchers analyzed brain scans of people as the test subjects watched pictures on a computer screen. The images were divided into three categories: celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Halle Berry, places like the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon, and everyday objects like tweezers and a pocket mirror.

To make sure the subjects were paying attention, they were asked a question about each image as it came up, like whether they liked a certain celebrity, how much they wanted to visit a certain place or how often they used a certain object.

Later, without any images and while their brains were still being scanned, the subjects were asked to recall as many of the images as they could.

The researchers found that the patterns of brain activity associated with each picture “reinstated” themselves seconds before the people could verbally recall the memories. On average, the time between beginning brain activity associated with the memory and the subjects verbally stating the memory was about 5.4 seconds.

“When you have an experience, that experience is represented as a pattern of cortical activity,” explained Sean Polyn, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and leader of the study. “The memory system, which we think lives in the hippocampus, forms a sort of summary representation of everything that’s going on in your cortex.”

Googling your brain

The process can be compared to the way web crawlers work to browse and catalogue web pages on the Internet. Web crawlers are automated programs that create copies of all visited pages. Search engines like Google then tag and index the pages.

In the same way, as we’re trying to remember something, our brains dredge up the memory by first recalling a piece of it, scientists say.

When trying to remember a face you saw recently, for example, you might first think broadly about faces and then narrow your search from there, enlisting new details as you go, Polyn explained. It’s like adding more and more specific keywords to a Google search, until finally you find what you want.

Scientists call this process “contextual reinstatement.”

“The memories that came up would be hits and the ones that most match your queries would be the ones that came up first,” Polyn told LiveScience.

Reading your mind

The researchers were even able to do a little mind-reading by watching the search in progress.

By comparing the brain scans of the subjects while they tried to remember the images they’d seen with those collected when they first viewed the images, the researchers were able to correctly conclude whether the people were going to remember a celebrity, place or object.

“We can see some evidence of what category the subject is trying to recall before they even say anything, so we think we’re visualizing the search process itself,” Polyn said.

A similar mind-reading effort was announced earlier this year, when researchers found they could predict where a patient would move his hand based on brain activity the instant prior.

Scientists think that contextual reinstatement is unique to memories that involve personal experiences, so-called “episodic” memories, but that similar processes might be at work in other forms of memory.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The deeper meaning of Christmas

You know I love all the Santa sites. I've spent time on dozens of them, dressing up snowmen, decorating trees and helping ol' Kris Kringle pack his sleigh full of magical surprises for all the good little girls and boys. (And a few slightly naughty adults as well.)

But, as in pervious years, I've reserved this final column before Christmas to share with my Christian readers the sites that have left the seasonal side of the

day behind. Rather than holiday fun and gift giving, these sites concentrate on

the holy day and the great gift that was received. This is for those of you who feel strongly that the Santa side of Christmas has gotten out of hand. As they put it: "This site is designed to provide a spiritual alternative to the runaway commercialization of one of our faith's most sacred times. You'll find no Santa sites here - just the Good News!" Each year I receive requests from readers for sites with music and words to Christmas songs and carols. I am always happy to respond. I may not have the range for "O Holy Night," and I might not know all the verses to "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," and my voice unquestionably will waver and break when I remember my father as I sing his favorite, "Little Drummer Boy." The truth is, I don't care. I love singing these songs. It fills my heart with a joy like none other. I obviously can't sing along with the Mannheim Steamroller versions of my favorite carols, but that doesn't mean I love them any less (a truth attested to by the fact that I can be seen doing a fairly flamboyant Paavo Jarvi imitation whenever one comes on the car radio). This page offers several midi-versions of some of the group's classics, along with a link for those who long for the originals. This article from the "Catholic Hearth" is beautifully written. It is also filled with wonderful ideas about ways to rededicate the seemingly secular trappings of the holiday and to use them instead as reminders of the deeper meaning of the day. This is slightly outside the bounds of "traditional" when it comes to the art (fractals, framed by "stamp" block borders and color enhanced via computer program). Still, the text is from the Bible and the art, while a bit jarring, is nonetheless beautiful. There are other things on this site, but this page, the "full story" of the birth of Christ, was written to be shared with children. Another version of each section of the story is also included with an annotated text that helps explain unfamiliar terms, unclear passages and put the facts in context with the time in which they occurred. This site too has other sections that deal with the "S" word, (including a story about a Mason, Ohio, man to be found in the "Christmas Present" area in the "News" section). But you'll also find many wonderful stories about the miracles of the season in the "Christmas Past" area.

pageID=38. Although this site does mention Santa Claus, it is only to differentiate between the popular icon and the original St. Nicolas. Finally, I share with you this collection of words, composed by many people. I offer them in the hope that you will choose to read through them until you find the one that most speaks to your heart - and then speak the words yourself, sharing them with those you care about. Blessings to all.

Shankar sends heartfelt wishes for a loving and peaceful Christmas to all those who celebrate the day, no matter where they are in the world. My Address is

Technology and the Pursuit of Happiness

The United States' Declaration of Independence asserts that all individuals have an unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the years since that document was drafted, its phrasing has been subject to much interpretation, and laws have been enacted to limit the scope of those rights, particularly the latter two. For instance, forbidding one from taking mood-altering drugs alienates an individual from his or her liberty and pursuit of happiness, but this limit exists under the debatable reasoning that drug use generally tends to trespass on the rights of others, including their right to pursue happiness.

Electrode Surgery

But what if there were a way to achieve the same "high" sensation as one can get from illegal drugs, anytime, anywhere, and without the chemical side effects and criminal motivation? Such a technology does exist, and has seen limited use in humans for several decades. The practice is known as evoking pleasure by Electrical Stimulation of the Brain (ESB), and despite its invention in 1954, few people have ever heard of it, and much fewer have ever experienced it. It sounds like the stuff of science-fiction, but it's real technology.

The brain's reward center was discovered quite by accident in 1954, when researchers James Olds and Peter Milner were studying a part of the brain called the reticular formation which, when stimulated with implanted electrodes, caused laboratory animals to avoid the action which brought on the sensation. In the early testing, the electrodes did not always end up in the areas of the brain that researchers were aiming for, and one such mistake led to a fortuitous discovery. The electrode on one particular animal missed the reticular formation and went went into the brain's septal area instead.

This animal behaved in an unexpected way: rather than avoiding the action which brought on the electric shock, it repeated the action continually. James Olds wrote the following for Scientific American magazine in 1956:

In the test experiment we were using, the animal was placed in a large box with corners labeled A, B, C, and D. Whenever the animal went to corner A, its brain was given a mild electric shock by the experimenter. When the test was performed on the animal with the electrode in the rhinencephalic nerve, it kept returning to corner A. After several such returns on the first day, it finally went to a different place and fell asleep. The next day, however, it seemed even more interested in corner A.

At this point we assumed that the stimulus must provoke curiosity; we did not yet think of it as a reward. Further experimentation on the same animal soon indicated, to our surprise, that its response to the stimulus was more than curiosity. On the second day, after the animal had acquired the habit of returning to corner A to be stimulated, we began trying to draw it away to corner B, giving it an electric shock whenever it took a step in that direction. Within a matter of five minutes the animal was in corner B. After this the animal could be directed to almost any spot in the box at the will of the experimenter. Every step in the right direction was paid with a small shock; on arrival at the appointed place the animal received a longer series of shocks.

Lab MiceThese early experiments found that applying a small electrical charge to the brain's reward centers provided a very potent positive-feedback mechanism. Even if an animal was deprived of food for 24 hours, when confronted with a choice between food and this particular type of brain stimulation, it would always select the latter. The researchers also built an apparatus where an animal could use a lever to trigger the electrical current, and after it learned how the mechanism worked, the animal would stimulate its own brain regularly about once very five seconds, taking a stimulus of a second or so every time.

This research led to a number of experiments where animals large and small were rewarded with electrode-driven pleasure when they took the particular actions the researchers were looking for. This positive-reinforcement conditioning was used to dramatic effect, allowing animals to become controllable via human-operated remote.

One of the most striking demonstration was done in 1964 by Dr. Jose Delgado of Yale University’s School of Medicine, when he caused a bull which was charging towards him to stop in its tracks and trot away. He had used a hand-held radio transmitter to energize the pleasure-giving electrodes which had been implanted into the bull's brain the previous day. Dr. Delgado was also known to "play" monkeys and cats like electronic toys.

Between 1950 and 1952, another man named Dr. Robert G. Heath experimentally implanted similar depth electrodes into human brains, the subjects mostly comprised of mentally ill patients from state mental hospitals. His experiments were met with uneasiness from the scientific community at the time, yet he continued. Upon the discovery of the brain's pleasure centers by Olds and Milner in '54, he put much of his research focus there. He found that using ESB in these areas of a human brain had a similar effect as it did on laboratory animals, bringing the subjects immediate pleasure.

From The Three Pound Universe:

A woman of indeterminate age lies on a narrow cot, a giant bandage covering her skull. At the start of the film she seems locked inside some private vortex of despair. Her face is as blank as her white hospital gown and her voice is a remote, tired monotone.

"Sixty pulses," says a disembodied voice. It belongs to the technician in the next room, who is sending a current to the electrode inside the woman's head. The patient, inside her soundproof cubicle, does not hear him.

Suddenly, she smiles. "Why are you smiling?" asks Dr. Heath, sitting by her bedside.

"I don't know … Are you doing something to me? [Giggles.] I don't usually sit around and laugh at nothing. I must be laughing at something." "One hundred forty," says the offscreen technician.

The patient giggles again, transformed from a stone-faced zombie into a little girl with a secret joke. "What in the hell are you doing?" she asks. "You must be hitting some goody place."

Along with electrodes, Heath's team would sometimes implant a tube called a canula which could deliver precise doses of chemicals directly into the brain. When researchers injected the neurotransmitter acetylcholine into a patient's septal area, "vigorous activity" showed up on the EEG, and the patient usually described intense pleasure, including multiple orgasms lasting as long as thirty minutes.

Electrode SurgeryIn another controversial experiment in 1972, Dr. Heath wired up a homosexual man's pleasure centers in order to help him "cure" his homosexuality. During the initial three-hour session, subject "B-19" stimulated himself some 1,500 times. Dr. Heath wrote of the experiment, "During these sessions, B-19 stimulated himself to a point that he was experiencing an almost overwhelming euphoria and elation, and had to be disconnected, despite his vigorous protests." Since unnatural methods can bring about unnatural results, energizing the man's electrodes as he looked at erotic pictures of women temporarily "cured" him of his homosexuality, but once the electrodes were removed, he went back to normal.

Today, medical technology allows such electrodes to be completely implanted into the human body, including a battery pack the size of a book of matches. But these are a rarity, used only in very specific and extreme cases. Not even victims of intractable neuropathic pain or depression are permitted to have their pleasure centers wired. Individuals with happiness deficits are instead treated with drugs, which are both more and less invasive, depending on how you look at it. Medications don't involve holes drilled into the skull, but they do act upon the entire body, causing a host of unwanted chemical side-effects. Often they also result in a lifelong expense.

Some bioethicists feel that ESB technology should be made available to everyone, protected by the "pursuit of happiness" clause in the Declaration of Independence. Are there dangers in having euphoria just a click away, all the time? Would it be bad thing to have intense orgasmic pleasure at the push of a button?

It seems clear that the pleasure center of the brain evolved to guide our actions and to motivate us, by rewarding us when we do well. This is evidenced by the fact that the primary activity that living things have evolved to do– to mate and reproduce– brings more pleasure than any other natural means (of course I'm referring to the mating part). Therefore, it may be that a pleasure-giving device would detract from our ambition and good judgment. Some people also worry that individuals who are raised without unhappiness and heartache would lack the "character" that makes us human. There is also the concern that most rewards decline in value after prolonged exposure, and some claim that this sort of technology would slowly erode a person's ability to feel good.

But these are all guesses, there is no way to know for certain how a human might change in response to such technology. One could also point out that many people never tire of other stimulations such as sex or pleasurable foods, and that while many people will naturally partake of those pleasurable activities a lot at first, most will gradually moderate the usage to times when it is most needed or appropriate. But nothing would stop an ESB-wired person from taking a day off work, putting a brick on the button, and enjoying an afternoon of bliss. As an added benefit over sex and cholocate, this technology isn't likely to result in unwanted pregancies, disease, or weight gain.

The idea of putting electrodes into the brain is still too high on the creepy scale for most people, so there is little chance of the pleasure-o-matic concept gaining much following in the near future. But in the coming decades, when technological improvements on the human body begin to become commonplace, this sort of idea may just find some footing.

If you find the whole idea of electrode-induced happiness interesting, there are a whole lot of thoughts on the matter at The Hedonistic Imperative website. You might also enjoy the book The Three Pound Universe by Judith Hooper.

Related Articles: Howard Dully's Lobotomy

Posted in Medical Science, Rights & Privacy, Gray Matter

Friday, December 16, 2005

Christmas in the Middle Ages

Christmas was not celebrated in Medieval days as we know it today...

...but it was still a time that the people knew as The Birthday of the Baby Jesus. The celebration occurred in January on Epiphany or Twelfth Night, and was devoted to good cheer, merrimaking, and the giving of little token gifts of affection as well as sweets. There were also Nativity plays, known as Paradise Plays. Carols were sung, but Christmas trees had not yet come into being. Some people, however, hung real apples on trees outside for the animals to enjoy.

A festive event which most everybody joined in was known as MUMMING. During these events, the people, called MUMMERS or REVELERS, put on masks and jovial costumes. Rabbit costumes were favorites, not only for children, but also for men and women. Costumes copied the clothing of the court, looking regal and expensive. They wore white socks and soft sole shoes. Large white plumes were worn as head pieces. Their favorite musical instrument was a type of trumpet, used at tournaments in which knights showed their bravery. The mummers also put on silent religious plays known as pantomimes.

Minstrels and jesters also dressed up in happy costumes. Minstrels were medieval musical entertainers. They sang songs about poetry as they played small harps. Jesters were men of merriment and silliness. They were often called BUFFOONS because they gave the appearance of being stupid. No one was better at juggling than jesters. Jesters were the entertainers in castles, but they also traveled from village to village to entertain the people. Since village people in the Middle Ages did not travel much, they looked forward to seeing the minstrels and jesters every year during holiday and faire time.

Mummers, revelers, jesters, jugglers, and minstrels were favorite entertainers at court. In the Middle Ages, every castle had Christmas entertaining, sometimes lasting days or weeks. It was customary to invite a few of the farmers who lived on castle property to a dinner which had entertainment. The guests were required to bring their own table covering, napkin, a cup from which to drink, and a trencher or two, or three.

A trencher was like a bowl, but made of hard, stale bread. Everyone had their own trenchers, and ate from trenchers, but no one ate trenchers unless crudely rude, or terribly, terribly hungry. The reason for using trenchers was simple: the bread would soak up gravies, and other liquid from food. This kept the tables dry and clean. Today's custom of dipping one's bread into gravy, or "mopping" up liquid around one's plate, comes from the medieval trencher.