And the wordless, in the wind the weathercocks are rattling


An influential theory about the malleability of memory comes under scrutiny in a new paper in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The ‘reconsolidation’ hypothesis holds that when a memory is recalled, its molecular trace in the brain becomes plastic. On this view, a reactivated memory has to be ‘saved’ or consolidated all over again in order for it to be stored.

A drug that blocks memory formation (‘amnestic’) will, therefore, not just block new memories but will also cause reactivated memories to be forgotten, by preventing reconsolidation.

This theory has generated a great deal of research interest and has led to speculation that blocking reconsolidation could be used as a tool to ‘wipe’ human memories.

However, Gisquet-Verrier et al. propose that amnestic drugs don’t in fact block reconsolidation, but instead add an additional element to a reactivated memory trace. This additional element is a memory of the amnestic itself – essentially, ‘how it feels’ to be intoxicated with that drug.

In other words, the proposal is that amnestics tag memories with ‘amnestic-intoxication’ which makes these memories less accessible due to the phenomenon of state dependent recall. This predicts that the memories could be retrieved by giving another dose of the amnestic.

So, Gisquet-Verrier et al. are saying that (sometimes) an ‘amnestic’ drug can actually improve memory.

{ Neuroskeptic | Continue reading }

related { Kids can remember tomorrow what they forgot today }

The root of suffering is attachment


In 1734, in scotland, a 23-year-old was falling apart.

As a teenager, he’d thought he had glimpsed a new way of thinking and living, and ever since, he’d been trying to work it out and convey it to others in a great book. The effort was literally driving him mad. His heart raced and his stomach churned. He couldn’t concentrate. Most of all, he just couldn’t get himself to write his book. His doctors diagnosed vapors, weak spirits, and “the Disease of the Learned.” Today, with different terminology but no more insight, we would say he was suffering from anxiety and depression. […]

The young man’s name was David Hume. Somehow, during the next three years, he managed not only to recover but also, remarkably, to write his book. Even more remarkably, it turned out to be one of the greatest books in the history of philosophy: A Treatise of Human Nature.

In his Treatise, Hume rejected the traditional religious and philosophical accounts of human nature. Instead, he took Newton as a model and announced a new science of the mind, based on observation and experiment. That new science led him to radical new conclusions. He argued that there was no soul, no coherent self, no “I.” “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself,” he wrote in the Treatise, “I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.” […]

Until Hume, philosophers had searched for metaphysical foundations supporting our ordinary experience, an omnipotent God or a transcendent reality outside our minds. But Hume undermined all that. When you really look hard at everything we think we know, he argued, the foundations crumble. […]

Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game. […]

That sure sounded like Buddhist philosophy to me—except, of course, that Hume couldn’t have known anything about Buddhist philosophy.

Or could he have?

{ The Atlantic | Continue reading }

related { Neuroscience backs up the Buddhist belief  that “the self” isn’t constant, but ever-changing }

photo { Rodney Smith }

The face forgives the mirror


Today, of course everybody knows that “Hardball,” “Rivera Live” and similar shows are nothing but a steady stream of guesses about the future. The Sunday morning talk shows are pure speculation. They have to be. Everybody knows there’s no news on Sunday.

But television is entertainment. Let’s look at the so-called serious media. For example, here is The New York Times for March 6, the day Dick Farson told me I was giving this talk. The column one story for that day concerns Bush’s tariffs on imported steel. Now we read: Mr. Bush’s action “is likely to send the price of steel up sharply, perhaps as much as ten percent…” American consumers “will ultimately bear” higher prices. America’s allies “would almost certainly challenge” the decision. Their legal case “could take years to litigate in Geneva, is likely to hinge” on thus and such.

Also note the vague and hidden speculation. The Allies’ challenge would be “setting the stage for a major trade fight with many of the same countries Mr. Bush is trying to hold together in the fractious coalition against terrorism.” In other words, the story speculates that tariffs may rebound against the fight against terrorism.

By now, under the Faludi Standard I have firmly established that media are hopelessly riddled with speculation, and we can go on to consider its ramifications.

You may read this tariff story and think, what’s the big deal? The story’s not bad. Isn’t it reasonable to talk about effects of current events in this way? I answer, absolutely not. Such speculation is a complete waste of time. It’s useless. It’s bullshit on the front page of the Times.

The reason why it is useless, of course, is that nobody knows what the future holds.

Do we all agree that nobody knows what the future holds? Or do I have to prove it to you? I ask this because there are some well-studied media effects which suggest that simply appearing in media provides credibility. There was a well-known series of excellent studies by Stanford researchers that have shown, for example, that children take media literally. If you show them a bag of popcorn on a television set and ask them what will happen if you turn the TV upside down, the children say the popcorn will fall out of the bag. This result would be amusing if it were confined to children. But the studies show that no one is exempt. All human beings are subject to this media effect, including those of us who think we are self-aware and hip and knowledgeable.

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. […]

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper.

{ Michael Crichton | Continue reading }

My name’s Elvira but you can call me tonight


State-of-the-art forensic technology from South Africa has been used to try and unravel the mystery of what was smoked in tobacco pipes found in the Stratford-upon-Avon garden of William Shakespeare.

Residue from clay tobacco pipes more than 400 years old from the playwright’s garden were analysed. […] Results of this study (including 24 pipe fragments) indicated cannabis in eight samples, nicotine in at least one sample, and in two samples definite evidence for Peruvian cocaine from coca leaves.

{ The Independent | Continue reading }

photos { 1 | John K. }

Into the blue again, after the money’s gone


Around 1930, the director of an evening newspaper had hired Georges Simenon as an advertising attraction. He’d had a cage constructed in the hall of his newspaper where Simenon, under eyes of the public, was to write a serial, non-stop. But on the eve of the big day, the newspaper went bankrupt. Simenon wrote the book in his room.

{ Paris Match | Continue reading }

In 1927 the publisher of Paris-Soir proposed to place Simenon in a glass cage, where he would spend three days and three nights writing a novel in public.

{ NY Times | Continue reading }

photo { Mark Heithoff }

Azur, nos bêtes sont bondées d’un cri


Dogs can infer the name of an object and have been shown to learn the names of over 1,000 objects. Dogs can follow the human pointing gesture; even nine week old puppies can follow a basic human pointing gesture without being taught.

New Guinea Singing dogs, a half-wild proto-dog endemic to the remote alpine regions of New Guinea, as well as Dingoes in the remote outback of Australia are also capable of this.

These examples demonstrate an ability to read human gestures that arose early in domestication and did not require human selection. “Humans did not develop dogs, we only fine-tuned them down the road.”

Similar to the chimpanzee, Bonobos are a close genetic cousin to humans. Unlike the chimpanzee, bonobos are not aggressive and do not participate in lethal intergroup aggression or kill within their own group. The most distinctive features of a bonobo are its cranium, which is 15% smaller than a chimpanzee’s, and its less aggressive and more playful behavior. Dogs mirror these differences relative to wild wolves: a dog’s cranium is 15% smaller than an equally heavy wolf’s, and the dog is less aggressive and more playful. The guinea pig’s cranium is 13% smaller than its wild cousin the cavie and domestic fowl show a similar reduction to their wild cousins. Possession of a smaller cranium for holding a smaller brain is a telltale sign of domestication. Bonobos appear to have domesticated themselves.

In the “farm fox” experiment, humans selectively bred foxes against aggression which caused a domestication syndrome. The foxes were not selectively bred for smaller craniums and teeth, floppy ears, or skills at using human gestures but these traits were demonstrated in the friendly foxes.

Natural selection favors those that are the most successful at reproducing, not the most aggressive. Selection against aggression made possible the ability to cooperate and communicate among foxes, dogs and bonobos. Perhaps it did the same thing for humans.

{ Wikipedia | Continue reading }

Why is the caps lock key still so prominent on keyboards?


Hospitality is always a matter of urgency, always a question of speeds. The unexpected guests arrive and there is always a rush of activity: a hurried welcoming at the door, a quick cleaning up, a surreptitious rearranging or putting back into order, a preparing of food and drink. But even when the guest is expected, has been expected for a long time, there is a sense of urgency. The guests arrive — always too early or too late, even if they are ‘on time.’ Coats are taken; tours are given of the immaculate, impossibly ordered home; drinks are served, food presented. For there to be a place for hospitality, for hospitality to take (the) place, the host must hurry.

{ Sean Gaston | via Austerity Kitchen/TNI | Continue reading }

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack


By definition, exponential growth means the thing that comes next will be equal in importance to everything that came before. […]

this exponential growth has given us terrible habits. One of them is to discount the present.

{ Idle Worlds | Continue reading }

Have you grasped nothing of the reason why I am in the world?


In 1908, an asteroid measuring perhaps 90-190 meters across struck Siberia, damaging over 2,000 square kilometers of Russian forest – an area that measures larger than New York’s five boroughs. Scientists estimate that the energy of that explosion was about 1,000 times that of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

This is far from the only close call that humans have had with asteroids. In 2004, an asteroid big enough to have its own small moon narrowly missed the planet. In 2013, an asteroid struck the Russia countryside with many times the force of the Hiroshima bomb, and was widely captured on video.

And of course, it was an asteroid, smashing into the Earth with the force of more than billion Hiroshima bombs, which nixed the dinosaurs and allowed humans to take over the Earth in the first place. [Previously: The event appears to have hit all continents at the same time | more] […]

The probability that you’ll die from an asteroid may be surprisingly large – about the same probability as dying from a plane crash, according to research.

{ Washington Post | Continue reading }

When most I wink, then do my eyes best see


Einstein wondered what would happen if the Sun were to suddenly explode. Since the Sun is so far away that it takes light eight minutes to travel to Earth, we wouldn’t know about the explosion straight away. For eight glorious minutes we’d be completely oblivious to the terrible thing that was about to happen.

But what about gravity? The Earth moves in an ellipse around the Sun, due to the Sun’s gravity. If the Sun wasn’t there, it would move off in a straight line. Einstein’s puzzle was when that would happen: straight away, or after eight minutes? According to Newton’s theory, the Earth should know immediately that the Sun had disappeared. But Einstein said that couldn’t be right. Because, according to him, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light — not even the effects of gravity. […]

Before Einstein people thought of space as stage on which the laws of physics play out. We could throw in some stars or some planets and they would move around on this stage.

Einstein realised that space isn’t as passive as that. It is dynamic and it responds to what’s happening within it. If you put something heavy in space — let’s say a planet like Earth — then space around it gives a little. The presence of the planet causes a small dent in space (and in fact, in time as well). When something else moves close to the planet — say the Moon — it feels this dent in space and rolls around the planet like a marble rolling in a bowl. This is what we call gravity. […] Stars and planets move, causing space to bend in their wake, causing other stars and planets to move, causing space to bend in their wake. And so on. This is Einstein’s great insight. Gravity is the manifestation of the curvature of space and time.

{ Plus Magazine | Part One | Part Two }

‘The road up and the road down is one and the same.’ –Heraclitus


Two pennies can be considered the same — both are pennies, just as two elephants can be considered the same, as both are elephants. Despite the vast difference between pennies and elephants, we easily notice the common relation of sameness that holds for both pairs. Analogical ability — the ability to see common relations between objects, events or ideas — is a key skill that underlies human intelligence and differentiates humans from other apes.

While there is considerable evidence that preschoolers can learn abstract relations, it remains an open question whether infants can as well. In a new Northwestern University study, researchers found that infants are capable of learning the abstract relations of same and different after only a few examples.

“This suggests that a skill key to human intelligence is present very early in human development, and that language skills are not necessary for learning abstract relations,” said lead author Alissa Ferry, who conducted the research at Northwestern.

{ Lunatic Laboratories | Continue reading }

Full fathom five thy father lies. Of his bones are coral made. Those are pearls that were his eyes.


What happens to people when they think they’re invisible?

Using a 3D virtual reality headset, neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm gave participants the sensation that they were invisible, and then examined the psychological effects of apparent invisibility. […] “Having an invisible body seems to have a stress-reducing effect when experiencing socially challenging situations.” […]

“Follow-up studies should also investigate whether the feeling of invisibility affects moral decision-making, to ensure that future invisibility cloaking does not make us lose our sense of right and wrong, which Plato asserted over two millennia ago,” said the report’s co-author, Henrik Ehrsson. […]

In Book II of Plato’s Republic, one of Socrates’s interlocutors tells a story of a shepherd, an ancestor of the ancient Lydian king Gyges, who finds a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible. The power quickly corrupts him, and he becomes a tyrant.

The premise behind the story of the Ring of Gyges, which inspired HG Wells’s seminal 1897 science fiction novel, The Invisible Man, is that we behave morally so that we can be seen doing so.

{ CS Monitor | Continue reading }

photo { Ren Hang }