Hell is other people under a dome

March 19, 2017

I am a big fan of the American writer T.C. Boyle. In fact, I talked about a previous novel of his, When the Killing’s Done in a previous post, A few rabbits can’t do any harm.  The 2011 novel looked at the battle between conservationist, Alma Takesue and animal rights activist Dave LaJoy. The former is on a mission to preserve endangered ecosystems from invasive species, whereas the former disagrees with the notion that humans have the right to choose which animals will live or die. This reflects a couple of common tropes in Boyle’s work. One is the environment and how we interact with it. He is also interested in fanaticism, the dynamics of cults and failed utopian projects. In previous works he has looked into the worlds of John Kellogg, Alfred Kinsey and Frank Lloyd Wright.

In his sixteenth novel, The Terranauts, Boyle transplants us into the ecosphere, an artificial ecosystem located in the Arizona desert. His inspiration for the story came from an experiment from the early 1990s known as Biosphere 2 (Biosphere I is Planet Earth.), in which four men and four women were sealed inside a three-acre glass structure in Oracle, Arizona for two years. The two men behind Space Biosphere Ventures were the wealthy Fort Worth Texas oil heir Edward P. Bass and eccentric ecology guru John Polk Allen. In turn, Allen was inspired by Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic dome. The biosphere was a mixture of high-minded science, New Age bullshit and American hucksterism. Curiously, one of the people involved at one point in the Biosphere 2 project was a certain Steve Brannon, Trump’s Campaign CEO and now White House Chief Strategist. The man behind Breitbart News had very different views on the environment back then:

A lot of the scientists who are studying global change and studying the effects of greenhouse gases, many of them feel that the Earth’s atmosphere in 100 years is what Biosphere 2’s atmosphere is today. We have extraordinarily high CO2, we have very high nitrous oxide, we have high methane. And we have lower oxygen content. So the power of this place is allowing those scientists who are really involved in the study of global change, and which, in the outside world or Biosphere 1, really have to work with just computer simulation, this actually allows them to study and monitor the impact of enhanced CO2 and other greenhouse gases on humans, plants, and animals.

Now owned by the University of Arizona, the Biosphere is still in existence. Here are some facts about it I found online:

 

The research facility

7,200,000 cubic feet under sealed glass; 6,500 windows

91 feet at highest point

sealed from the earth below by a 500-ton welded stainless steel liner

40-acre campus

300,000 sq. ft. of administrative offices, classrooms, labs, conference centre, housing

Elevation is 3,820 feet above sea level

Over 3,000,000 visitors since 199

Over 500,000 K-12 student visitors since 1991

Biomes under Glass

Ocean with coral reef

Mangrove wetlands

Tropical rainforest

Savannah grassland

Fog desert

Biosphere II was a kind of Noah’s Ark for plants, animals, and humans. The crew was accompanied by 3,800 species of plants and animals.  It was the first two-year closure of a projected fifty. Closure was meant to be absolute and the sphere was expected to be self-sustaining, with its own food crops (bananas, papayas, sweet potatoes, beets, peanuts, rice, and wheat etc.) and domestic animals pigs goats. Alas it would not turn out that way. The original crew had to break closure on several occasions and there was a complete collapse of the experiment six months into the second closure. This was when Bannon was on board. The place was overrun by ants and cockroaches. What’s more two of the members of the first team vandalised the project from outside.

This is the setup for Boyle’s exploration into the complexity of maintaining an environment and living in a fishbowl.  Boyle begins the book with two epigraphs. The first is from the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of committed, thoughtful people can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  The second is from Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit: “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” (Hell is other people.). I think the second one is more germane to what happens in the ecosphere,

The terranauts are constantly being watched both by Mission Control and the tourists who come to gawk at them as they go about their daily lives. I would have thought that this would make a great idea for a TV programme. It’s amazing that no one has ever thought of it.

The story is narrated by three first-person narrators, Dawn Chapman and Ramsay Roothoorp, who are both inside the dome and Linda Ryu, who is working on the support staff, with the promise of being included in Mission Three. What unites them is being unlikable I do use books which use the device o having different narrators and these ones are most definitely unreliable. In the novel the ecosphere remains unbreached. But there are plenty of other problems: power cuts, decreasing oxygen levels and poor crop yields to name but a few. But the real drama is interpersonal with all the conflicts you can imagine with eight people trapped in a confined area for two years. I won’t tell you what happens in the end, but it is safe to assume that there will be lots of friction. It may be a scientific project, but it is being carried out by humans with their egos, jealousies and foibles.


I was reading that Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, will be the producer of a TV version of The Terranauts. I am looking forward to it.

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A couple of videos

March 19, 2017

Here are a couple of videos about the real Biosphere:

Inside Biosphere 2: The World’s Largest Earth Science Experiment

Jane Poynter: Life in Biosphere 2


Is Hypnosis real?

January 29, 2017

We all have an image of what a hypnotist does. He says, “look into my eyes” while holding a gold pocket watch, pushing his subject into a semi-sleep, almost zombie-like state. Now the subject will obey everything the hypnotist tells him to do, however evil this may be. This has little basis in reality, but the question of what is going on when we are being hypnotised is, nevertheless, a fascinating one.

The Merriam Webster defines hypnosis as “a trancelike state that resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted by the subject”. Hypnos is the Greek God of sleep and there are many words which have this suffix hypnobate (sleepwalker), hypnagogic (bringing on sleep) and hypnotherapy (treatment of disease by hypnosis).

Can everyone be hypnotised? What the scientific consensus seems to be is that everyone is on a spectrum. Roughly 15% of the population are said to be highly hypnotizable. On the other hand, around 25% are thought to be not hypnotizable at all. As well as entertainers there are many applications. New Age therapists, Past Life therapists and Repressed Memory therapists all make use of hypnosis for their dubious ends.

Hypnosis has been the subject of debate for more than 200 years. Here we have to mention Dr. Franz Mesmer, the father of modern hypnotism, who believed that hypnosis was a mystical force flowing from the hypnotist into the subject; he called it “animal magnetism”. Hypnosis was originally known as mesmerism, after Mesmer, and we still use its derivative, mesmerize, today. As Mesmer turned out to be a fraud, the term hypnotism became the one which was most used.

We see what a person does under hypnosis, but it isn’t clear why he or she does it. This uncertainty is a result of the fact that consciousness and how the human mind works is still in many ways a mystery.  And as I don’t see scientists arriving at a definitive explanation of the mind in the foreseeable future, hypnosis will probably not give all its secrets.

The person being hypnotised is generally very absorbed, relaxed, suggestible and in a state of expectation. The subconscious mind comes to the fore. Your inhibitions are reduced. Some studies say that changes do take place in the brain. However, that’s pretty unremarkable as brain functioning also changes when we relaxed, exhausted or highly attentive. Sceptics tend to argue that hypnotic subjects aren’t really in an altered state of consciousness. Social pressure and the influence of the hypnotist are often enough to convince people that they should act a certain way. When they find themselves obeying they erroneously conclude that they must be in a hypnotic trance. The power of belief is enough to cause remarkable changes in a person. If you think someone is compelling you to act a certain way, then that is how you will act. It may well be what is going in hypnotherapy.  By thinking that hypnosis will ease your pain your mind will bring about this feeling. , It is very much like the placebo effect. Hypnosis and the placebo effect have a lot in common; both rely on the effects of suggestion and belief. Consequently it is really difficult to have an effective placebo control in a study of the effects of hypnosis. I should point out that not everyone agrees with the fakery hypothesis. I just haven’t seen alternative evidence that convinces me yet. It may be forthcoming in the future

The popular stereotypes of what hypnosis is that I referred to in my introduction bear little resemblance to actual hypnotism. In fact, our modern understanding of hypnosis clearly debunks these ideas. Subjects in a hypnotic state are not slaves to their “masters” – they have absolute free will. And they’re not actually in a semi-sleep state -they’re hyperattentive. In no way can hypnotized people be described mindless automatons. People are more suggestible and some inhibitions are reduced. But our safety and morality do not fly out of the window. People won’t do things during or after hypnosis that are out of character. Only in Hollywood can hypnosis turn a mild-mannered person into a cold-blooded murderer.

 


The rise of food allergies

June 5, 2016

One in two people suffers from a hidden food allergy. Find out if you are one of them.” Patrick Holford, advocate of alternative nutrition and diet methods

I was travelling on Ryanair – I think it was three or four years ago – and we were told that nobody was allowed to eat peanuts aboard because one of the passengers suffered from peanut allergy. And indeed it may well be the case that studies have been unable to detect peanut particles in the air in sufficient amounts to cause a reaction. However, one of my students, whose son was also allergic to peanuts, explained that if I had been eating peanuts and I had then touched his face, he would have had a severe reaction. John O’Farrell wrote a satirical novel a few ago, called May Contain Nuts in which he satirised modern parental paranoia, but for anyone with this problem, it is all too real.

Our interest in allergies does seem like a modern phenomenon, but the remains of a woman who died 2,000 years ago in Cosa, on the Tuscan coast in Italy tell a fascinating story. This area, which was not especially prosperous, was important for wheat-growing. The 20-year-old woman, who would have stood at 1m 40cm centimetres, appeared to be quite wealthy – archaeologists discovered gold and bronze jewellery buried with her. DNA analysis demonstrated that the woman carried two copies of an immune system gene variant that is associated with coeliac disease. Her skeleton showed signs of malnutrition and osteoporosis both can be complications of untreated coeliac disease. By analysing her bones the researcher were able to conclude the woman had tried to change her diet to cope with her condition

What is going on today? I’m sure you will have had this discussion. When I was growing up I don’t remember so many food allergies. Now they are said to affect between 5% and 10% of the populations of developing countries. A food allergy is an immune system reaction that occurs soon after eating a certain food. This might be mild skin reactions and respiratory distress, through to life-threatening reactions. Food allergies should not be confused with food intolerance, a less serious condition that does not involve the immune system. Severe food allergies do exist, but it is also true that many more people, 30% of the population believe they have one, than actually do.

What are the causes of this trend? One school of thought is that we are just too clean. According to Wikipedia, the hygiene hypothesis states that “a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms (such as the gut flora or probiotics), and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system.” And because of fear we are delaying the introduction of allergenic foods such as egg, peanut or tree nuts. Moreover we now eat more processed foods than ever and this may be affecting our immune system. Finally skin exposure to unrefined nut oil based moisturisers has been blamed. But these theories have not yet been demonstrated

Whenever there is a problem there are solutions. The food industry has given us gluten & wheat-free, milk-free, egg-free nut-free and very soon I’m sure nutrient-free. Next week Rotterdam will be hosting Free-From Food Expo 2016. I am a bit sceptical about these products. You always need to see what they are replacing the harmful substance with. Sugar-free sweets, for example, contain a chemical called lycasin which has a laxative effect. Consumers may believe that free-from means total absence, which is not the case. There was a wonderful example on QI earlier this year. The principal ingredient of sugar-free Tic Tacs is … sugar. This is because, according to the FDA, if there is only half a gram of sugar in a serving it is sugar-free.

Then alternative medicine has got into the act. This is just the type of terrain in which it thrives. We don’t know exactly what is going on and what the solutions are. Alternative medicine becomes the medicine of the gaps. Unfortunately naturopaths and their ilk do not diagnose allergies in evidence-based ways. Their methods are either not proven to work or proven not to work. Blood tests cannot identify food sensitivities. Then there is applied kinesiology which involves holding a suspected allergen and then pressing down on that limb. Muscle weakness is said to signify an allergy. Dr. Jimmie Scott of Health Kinesiology has pioneered the Allergy Tap™ method. The practitioner “places the offending substance over a specific acupuncture point on the belly and taps eight pairs of specific acupuncture points.” You can even do the Allergy Tap™ for yourself after buying the materials and doing a course. Scott claims that it can “eliminate allergies, release physical toxicity, emotional traumas, overcome learning blocks, & perform at your best, among other things. The tennis player Novak Djokovic was diagnosed with gluten intolerance using this kind of technique. Another line is Vega Testing. Vega machines are a type of electroacupuncture device, which they say can diagnose allergies and other illnesses. Here is a video showing the device in action:

Once again there is no evidence that it can identify allergies at all. There are others such as cytotoxic testing, hair analysis and a pulse test (this involves measuring the pulse before and after eating a suspected allergen). They all have little basis. It would be great if a simple blood test could offer a reliable shortcut. In The Guardian Alex Renton describes a visit to London’s Hale Clinic, an alternative therapy centre near Harley Street:

“It is amazing. I have won the hypochondriac lottery. I’m the owner of 29 different allergies, sensitive to substances from MSG to strawberries and including such regulars in my life as milk, chicken, wheat dust, red and green peppers, cheese, peanuts, honey, lentils, brewer’s yeast, lactose, various grasses, cat hair, tobacco and “summer and fall pollens”. The fact that I believe I have no hay fever or allergy is not of importance. I am aghast. I don’t know where to start. Cheese? I love cheese. “But your body doesn’t,” says Linda, wagging a finger.”

And of course you have celebrities and no-one does it better than Gwyneth Paltrow. She has her own line of gluten-free ready meals and three years ago she published a cookbook, It’s All Good. What inspired her was being on death’s door after eating too many chips. Paltrow thought she was suffering a stroke, but was actually diagnosed with a migraine and a panic attack. After a battery of tests, her doctor certified that she was allergic to just about everything. This is Hollywood neuroticism and pseudoscience in its purest form. It was pointed out that to eat as Paltrow suggests would cost $300 a day.

There are no easy answers to this problem. If you are allergic to a food at the moment the only solution is to abstain. Hopefully, science will get a better understanding of what is going on. We need to be looking for food diversity in our diets from an early age to keep our gut microbes as healthy as possible. Fermented plant-based foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and soy sauce are good. Beans should play a big role in our diet too. And without going to his extremes Novak Djokovic’s diet sounds pretty good. The world No 1’s diet is based on vegetables, beans, white meat, fish, fruit, nuts, seeds, chickpeas, lentils and healthy oils.

 


Embodied cognition: how fart spray can affect your moral reasoning

March 13, 2016

Scientists have long been grappling with mind-body problem. And in recent years a new theory has emerged. A recent podcast on Radio National Australia looked at embodied cognition. One of the participants, Guy Claxton, gave a nice summary:

Your body is your brain. The brain isn’t just the lump of rather unimpressive-looking porridge that sits between your two ears. The intelligent organ is all the information that is streaming around your body, up to your brain and down from your brain and from your heart to your liver and from your muscles to your skin. When we look at the true way in which intelligence functions, we have to look at ourselves as being this vast conglomerate of almost like a maelstrom of information currents, all of which need to talk to each other and somehow or other have to be resolved in real time into a concerted course of action.

Last year I read a book about this subject, Sensation by Thalma Lobel. She describes how an experience on a holiday in Guatemala set her on a new research path. She awoke in a jungle cottage to absolute silence and pitch-black darkness. It was this disconcerting experience of sensory deprivation that made her want to look at the association between body and mind and the theory of embodied cognition. She summarises her perspective like this:

Our thoughts, our behaviours, our decisions and our emotions are influenced by our physical sensations, by the things we touch, the texture of the things we touch, the temperature of the things we touch, the colours, the smells. All these, without our awareness, influence our behaviours and thoughts and emotions.”

The book is in the style of many popular psychology books written today, such as Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely and Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, both of which have been featured in this blog. Lobel argues that the mind can’t work separately from the physical world; that the senses provide a link to both our unconscious and our conscious thought processes. She wants to show the influence that physical sensations exert over our mental states and behaviour. What I most enjoyed were the fascinating experiments. We learn that people prefer a job applicant when their CV is attached to a heavy clipboard; they seemed to perceive the candidate as having a more serious interest in the job. And sitting in a soft chair makes you a softer negotiator. Here are four of the experiments featured in the book:

  1. In 2008 Yale University students were asked to attend a fourth floor laboratory. The experiment really began in the lift, where a research assistant would ask subjects if they could hold her cup of coffee while she took their names. Half of them were handed a hot coffee, while the other half were given an iced coffee. Once she had written down their names, the research assistant took back the coffee and they all went on to the lab, where the participants were asked to judge an unknown person according to a description of their character. The expression a warm person is a typical metaphor we use. But is there something more to it? What we can say is that the subjects who had held the hot cup of coffee in the lift judged the unknown person as being kinder and friendlier. They would have denied this if they had been asked, but that is what the results show.
  2. Researchers prepared two nearly identical videos of football plays (gridiron, I presume) with the only difference being that in one version the players wore white strips and in the other, black. The videos were then played to two groups: students who were college football fans and professional football referees. Both groups were asked how likely they would be to penalise the teams and how aggressively each team was playing. Both the college students and the professional referees said that they would penalize the team in black more often than the one wearing white. The game sequences were more or less identical; the only thing that changed was the colours the teams were playing in. The black kit influenced the referees, leading them to perceive those teams as more aggressive.
  3. In a 2011 study experimenters gave subjects a bit of chocolate, a cracker, or no food. They were then asked to fill out an unrelated questionnaire, after which the participants were told that another professor from the psychology department had just popped in and was looking for volunteers for another, unrelated study Who was more likely to volunteer? The chocolate eaters.
  4. Disgust evoked by physical factors can influence the severity with which we judge moral transgressions, such as stealing library books, offering a bribe, and shoplifting, or moral dilemmas including marriage between first cousins or a scenario in which a man eats his own dead dog. In one study the experimenters sprayed a disgusting smell, a fart spray not far from the participants, while they were answering a questionnaire. In another study participants were given. The results clearly demonstrated that those who were physically disgusted were harsher in their moral judgments compared with those who hadn’t experienced the bad odours or who had drunk sweet or neutral drinks. In other words, the same behaviour was judged as more morally wrong if the person who made the judgment was subjected to unpleasant odours or a disgusting drink. Physical disgust influenced moral disgust. This ties in with studies that show that disgust, which began as a way of protecting us from evolutionary dangers, has become co-opted into other areas. If you are interested in this area check out my post, Ice cream cones, frozen chickens and the meaning of disgust.

I loved all these quirky studies, but I do want to add a word of caution. In a post in January of this year, Brian Nosek and his shades of grey, I looked at the problem of replicability in scientific studies. Indeed the experiments which Nosek studied were in the field of psychology. In his Reproducibility Project he and his colleagues repeated 100 published psychological experiments. Just 36% of the replications reached statistical significance. So you do have to wonder whether the experiments presented by Lobel have been replicated elsewhere. Nevertheless I think I will be following the research in embodied cognition. It has the potential to provide us with some fascinating insights into the relationship between mind and body. I am particularly interested in the area of language. Metaphors are not just figures of speech – they reflect physical realities. But that will have to be a subject for another day.


Brian Nosek and his shades of grey

January 31, 2016

In this blog I have featured many psychological experiments, Stanley Milgram persuaded ordinary people to administer what they thought were 450-volt electric shocks to subjects in an educational experiment. Philip Zimbardo famously had 25 Stanford students play the roles of guards and prisoners in a two-week experiment that had to be suspended in under a week. And David Rosenhan managed to get eight sane people, including himself, admitted to various psychiatric hospitals in the USA, by briefly simulating auditory hallucinations.  What proved more difficult was to get them out. All these experiments have achieved iconic status in psychology.

Here is one experiment I haven’t featured before. A study observed that political moderates were better at perceiving shades of grey accurately than left-wing or right-wing extremists. It is an amazing result, and yet it does seem to have a ring of truth about it. The researchers could, perhaps should, have stopped there. They could have sent it in a renowned psychological journal, because this result was eminently publishable. However, they decided to run the test again with a very large sample. Alas, the result didn’t show the second time. Now there hopes of publishing a paper had gone up in smoke. They couldn’t send both studies to a journal – it just wouldn’t be published. Had they just sent the first one, it would have been far more likely to have been accepted.

So, how reliable are psychological experiments? Scientific claims are not based on someone in authority saying that it is true. Reputation is not decisive. What is important is that the findings can be independently reproduced; another scientist following the same procedure will achieve the same results.

Enter Brian Nosek a psychology professor from the University of Virginia, the man behind the study about the shades of grey. Nosek, a social psychologist and the co-founder and director of the Center for Open Science, was able to persuade 270 of his peers to take part in a study repeating 100 published psychological experiments that had been published in prestigious psychology journals in 2008 to see if they could get the same results a second time around. The Reproducibility Project, which began in 2011, was supposed to take between six and nine months. In reality it would last three years. The project was a curious enterprise. There were no eureka moments. This was not cutting-edge research that would lead to fame and glory. Nevertheless, it is vital that it be carried out.

The results were finally published in the prestigious Science magazine last summer. 97% of the 100 studies originally reported statistically significant results. This is what you’d expect. Many experiments fail to produce meaningful results, and they are not generally published. This is what is known as publication bias. It is also sometimes known as the “file drawer effect” – results that do not support their hypotheses will stay in the researchers’ file drawers. In the new study just 36% of the replications reached statistical significance. This needs to be analysed; just because something fails to replicate doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Some of these failures could be down to luck, or poor execution, or an inability to reproduce the conditions needed to show the effect. Nevertheless the results were not good.

What is going on is probably not fraud. The problems are more subtle than that. We must stop treating single studies as unassailable versions of the truth. There is a pressure to publish. It is novel findings that are sought, and there is little incentive for attempts at replicating findings, such as those carried out in the Reproducibility Project.  I also think that many of the studies should be true. There is something seductive about them. I remember reading one experiment that showed that if you hear that if you are holding something warm, such as a cup of coffee, you are more likely to perceive someone else as emotionally “warm”, and you are more likely to behave in a friendly, generous way. This may well be true but I would like to know whether or not it has been replicated.

And I fear that this lack of reproducibility is confined to psychology. Another study found that around $28 billion worth of research per year in medical fields is non-reproducible. Discoveries should be thoroughly examined and repeatedly observed before they are universally accepted. Published and true are not synonyms. Scepticism is what makes science so powerful.  We are now seeing reforms and they need to continue. There should be more transparent reporting, a clear hypothesis before any data is analysed, and sharing of the results so that they may be vetted.  I look forward to more work from the Center for Open Science in the future. There may not be much glory in it, but the researchers who do it, will be making the world a better place


The Brain: The Story of You: a review

December 19, 2015

In 1980 PBS broadcast the great Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, a landmark series, which did a masterful job of popularising science. Now, 35 years later, neuroscientist David Eagleman transports us to another mysterious place. This time the destination is the inner cosmos – the brain. Sagan is tough act to follow, but Eagleman will also make you see yourself in a new way. The Brain: The Story of You, a new six-part series, also made by PBS, is crammed with fascinating insights and unusual perspectives.

One typical example is how our senses work. We think that we have direct access to the world through our senses. But this is an illusion. In the outside world there is no colour, no sound, no smell; everything is taking place in our brain. The brain has no access to the external world. Our sensory organs – eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin –collect information from a whole range of disparate sources such as electromagnetic radiation, air compression waves, and aromatic molecules. Our senses then translate this data into the language the brain understands: electrochemical signals. The idea that seeing isn’t happening in your eyes, hearing isn’t taking place in your ears and smell isn’t happening in your nose takes some getting used to. The electrochemical rendition may not be 100% faithful, but it is sufficient for us to navigate successfully through the world.

All this is brought to life by some wonderful visual effects. Here are some of the fascinating cases and experiments that Eagleman shows in the series. They are accompanied by short videos that you can find on YouTube.

Ian Waterman

The shows have a number of case studies. In 1971 Ian Waterman was a butcher on Jersey. Then the 19-year old came down with a severe case of gastric flu, which destroyed half his nervous system. He had no sense of touch below the neck and he lost the sense of proprioception, which tells the brain about the position of our limbs. Waterman was told he would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. But with sheer determination he has made himself get up and walk. But it is a struggle as he has to think consciously about every movement his body makes.

The Trolley problem

In a post from 2009, Some philosophical thought experiments #1, I looked at the Trolley problem:

 A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track. Fortunately, you can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch? Consider another, similar dilemma. You’re walking along the track again, you notice the trolley is out of control, although this time there is no auxiliary track. But there is a man within arm’s reach, between you and the track. He’s large enough to stop the runaway trolley. You can save the five people on the trolley by pushing him onto the tracks, stopping the out-of-control vehicle, but you’ll kill the man by using him to stop the trolley. Again, what do you do?

This is a staple of ethics debates, but neuroimaging provides an interesting perspective. In the first scenario, which involves pulling a lever, activates the regions involved in solving logical problems; it is like solving a mathematical problem. In the second scenario, in which you have to push the man onto the track, activates additional networks into the decision: brain regions involved in emotion. This doesn’t necessarily help us resolve the ethical dilemma, but it does help why people often say yes to pulling the lever, but reject pushing the man onto the track, even though the calculation of lives lost is exactly the same.

Mirroring Others

The effects of Botox on facial muscles are well known. What is surprising is that people who have used are Botox worse at identifying the emotions shown in pictures correctly. The reason is apparently that we will often subconsciously mirror other people’s emotions when we are with them. Botox impedes this imitation, making users proved worse at interpreting emotions.

Discerning Babies

Eagleman recreated an experiment by Paul Bloom et al. which tested the ability of 100 babies to judge social behaviour of a puppet that had previously helped or harmed another puppet in a short show without dialogue. When asked after the show to choose a bear to play with almost all the babies choose the bear that had been kind. Even though they can’t walk or talk, they already have the tools to make judgments about others.

What is Empathy?

Eagleman shows how watching someone else in pain activates one’s own pain matrix, the pain processing areas of the brain. This is the foundation of empathy. But not all empathy is created equal. With collaborator Don Vaughn, he wanted to carry out a study using brain scans to determine how empathetic we are to people who are different from us. The 135 participants saw videos of a hand, which was labelled “Christian,” “Jewish,” “Hindu,” “Muslim,” “Scientologist” or “Atheist”, being touched by a cotton swab or stabbed by a syringe. While this was happening, the blood flow to their brain was being measured. The idea was to look at the regions of the brain that respond when viewing another person in pain. The results were sobering. Some people were equally empathetic to all hands, but many did care more about “their team”, including the atheists.  We really are influenced by the in-group / out-group dynamic. And remember the only difference was a label.

There are many themes in the book – how the brain can distort time, its plasticity, the fallibility of memory, the feeling of free will, the unconscious, the power of now, the mechanisms of decision making and the quest for immortality. It’s a series I can highly recommend.

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You can find more videos here.