Chronicling the follies of religion and superstition, the virtues of skepticism, and the wonders of the real (natural) universe as revealed by science. Plus other interesting and educational stuff.

"Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."

-George Carlin

“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.

-Albert Einstein

“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”

-Carl Sagan

The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.

-Christopher Hitchens

 

“The bottom line is that saying there are differences in male and female brains is just not true. There is pretty compelling evidence that any differences are tiny and are the result of environment not biology,” said Prof Rippon.

“You can’t pick up a brain and say ‘that’s a girls brain, or that’s a boys brain’ in the same way you can with the skeleton. They look the same.”

Prof Rippon points to earlier studies that showed the brains of London black cab drivers physically changed after they had acquired The Knowledge – an encyclopaedic recall of the capital’s streets.
She believes differences in male and female brains are due to similar cultural stimuli. A women’s brain may therefore become ‘wired’ for multi-tasking simply because society expects that of her and so she uses that part of her brain more often. The brain adapts in the same way as a muscle gets larger with extra use.

“What often isn’t picked up on is how plastic and permeable the brain is. It is changing throughout out lifetime

“The world is full of stereotypical attitudes and unconscious bias. It is full of the drip, drip, drip of the gendered environment.”

Prof Rippon believes that gender differences appear early in western societies and are based on traditional stereotypes of how boys and girls should behave and which toys they should play with.

Men and Women Do Not Have Different Brains, Claims Neuroscientist (via featherframe)

THAT’S WHAT I’VE BEEN SAYING.  Glad to see even more research to back it up, though.  ;-)

(Source: thegendercritic)

skeptv:

What is your brain not telling you?

Just because your brain recognizes something, doesn’t mean you see it. Learn more about what your brain is keeping from you in this episode from Stuff to Blow Your Mind.

via Stuff to Blow Your Mind.
Twitter https://twitter.com/blowthemind
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Google+ https://plus.google.com/+StuffToBlowYourMind/

sagansense:


Not So Dumb
Mysterious brain cells called microglia are starting to reveal their secrets thanks to research conducted at the Weizmann Institute of Science.
Until recently, most of the glory in brain research went to neurons. For more than a century, these electrically excitable cells were believed to perform the entirety of the information processing that makes the brain such an amazing machine. In contrast, cells called glia – which together account for about half of the brain’s volume – were thought to be mere fillers that provided the neurons with support and protection but performed no vital function of their own. In fact, they had been named glia, the Greek for “glue,” precisely because they were considered so unsophisticated.
But in the past few years, the glia cells – particularly the tiny microglia that make up about one-tenth of the brain cells – have been shown to play critical roles both in the healthy and in the diseased brain.
The octopi-like microglia are immune cells that conduct ongoing surveillance, swallowing cellular debris or, in the case of infection, microbes, to protect the brain from injury or disease. But these remarkable cells are more than cleaners: In the past few years, they have been found to be involved in shaping neuronal networks by pruning excessive synapses – the contact points that allow neurons to transmit signals – during embryonic development. They are probably also involved in reshaping the synapses as learning and memory occurs in the adult brain. Defects in microglia are believed to contribute to various neurological diseases, among them Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. By clarifying how exactly the microglia operate on the molecular level, scientists might be able to develop new therapies for these disorders.
More than a decade ago, Weizmann Institute’s Prof. Steffen Jung developed a transgenic mouse model that for the first time enabled scientists to visualize the highly active microglia in the live brain. Now Jung has made a crucial next step: His laboratory developed a system for investigating the functions of microglia.
The scientists have equipped mice with a genetic switch: an enzyme that can rearrange previously marked portions of the DNA. The switch is activated by a drug: When the mouse receives the drug, the enzyme performs a genetic manipulation – for example, to disable a particular gene. The switch is so designed that over the long term, it targets only the microglia, but not other cells in the brain or in the rest of the organism. In this manner, researchers can clarify not only the function of the microglia, but the roles of different genes in their mechanism of action.
As reported in Nature Neuroscience, Weizmann scientists, in collaboration with the team of Prof. Marco Prinz at the University of Freiburg, Germany, recently used this system to examine the role of an inflammatory gene expressed by the microglia. They found that the microglia contribute to an animal disease equivalent of multiple sclerosis. Prof. Jung’s team included Yochai Wolf, Diana Varol and Dr. Simon Yona, all of Weizmann’s Immunology Department.

via neurosciencestuff

sagansense:

Not So Dumb

Mysterious brain cells called microglia are starting to reveal their secrets thanks to research conducted at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Until recently, most of the glory in brain research went to neurons. For more than a century, these electrically excitable cells were believed to perform the entirety of the information processing that makes the brain such an amazing machine. In contrast, cells called glia – which together account for about half of the brain’s volume – were thought to be mere fillers that provided the neurons with support and protection but performed no vital function of their own. In fact, they had been named glia, the Greek for “glue,” precisely because they were considered so unsophisticated.

But in the past few years, the glia cells – particularly the tiny microglia that make up about one-tenth of the brain cells – have been shown to play critical roles both in the healthy and in the diseased brain.

The octopi-like microglia are immune cells that conduct ongoing surveillance, swallowing cellular debris or, in the case of infection, microbes, to protect the brain from injury or disease. But these remarkable cells are more than cleaners: In the past few years, they have been found to be involved in shaping neuronal networks by pruning excessive synapses – the contact points that allow neurons to transmit signals – during embryonic development. They are probably also involved in reshaping the synapses as learning and memory occurs in the adult brain. Defects in microglia are believed to contribute to various neurological diseases, among them Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. By clarifying how exactly the microglia operate on the molecular level, scientists might be able to develop new therapies for these disorders.

More than a decade ago, Weizmann Institute’s Prof. Steffen Jung developed a transgenic mouse model that for the first time enabled scientists to visualize the highly active microglia in the live brain. Now Jung has made a crucial next step: His laboratory developed a system for investigating the functions of microglia.

The scientists have equipped mice with a genetic switch: an enzyme that can rearrange previously marked portions of the DNA. The switch is activated by a drug: When the mouse receives the drug, the enzyme performs a genetic manipulation – for example, to disable a particular gene. The switch is so designed that over the long term, it targets only the microglia, but not other cells in the brain or in the rest of the organism. In this manner, researchers can clarify not only the function of the microglia, but the roles of different genes in their mechanism of action.

As reported in Nature Neuroscience, Weizmann scientists, in collaboration with the team of Prof. Marco Prinz at the University of Freiburg, Germany, recently used this system to examine the role of an inflammatory gene expressed by the microglia. They found that the microglia contribute to an animal disease equivalent of multiple sclerosis. Prof. Jung’s team included Yochai Wolf, Diana Varol and Dr. Simon Yona, all of Weizmann’s Immunology Department.

via neurosciencestuff

nprglobalhealth:

The Unfixed Brain

This video is a bit graphic, but it’s also pretty amazing.

Most of us “think that the brain is sort of the consistency of a rubber ball,” says neurobiologist Suzanne Stensaas of the University of Utah. That’s the consistency the organ becomes when researchers preserve it in chemicals, such as formaldehyde

But when alive and firing, the brain is actually really soft and compressible, like a sack of goo. “It’s much softer than most of the meat you see in a market,” Stensaas says. 

In this video, Stensaas explores the anatomy of a 1,400 gram brain freshly removed from an autopsy, before it’s put in any chemicals.

The video gave me a whole new understanding and appreciation for how remarkable — and vulnerable — this amazing organ is. 

Wear your helmets!

Video from University of Utah Brain Institute/Youtube.com

thenewenlightenmentage:

"The Human ‘Super Brain’ Emerged 75,000 Years Ago" —New Insights
"Humans obviously evolved a much wider range of communication tools to express their thoughts, the most important being language," said John Hoffecker, a fellow at CU’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “Individual human brains within social groups became integrated into a neurologic Internet of sorts, giving birth to the mind.”
There is abundant fossil and archaeological evidence for the evolution of the human mind, including its unique power to create a potentially infinite variety of thoughts expressed in the form of sentences, art and technologies,” according to Hoffecker. “He attributes the evolving power of the mind to the formation of what he calls the “super-brain,” or collective mind, an event that took place in Africa no later than 75,000 years ago.
Continue Reading

thenewenlightenmentage:

"The Human ‘Super Brain’ Emerged 75,000 Years Ago" —New Insights

"Humans obviously evolved a much wider range of communication tools to express their thoughts, the most important being language," said John Hoffecker, a fellow at CU’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “Individual human brains within social groups became integrated into a neurologic Internet of sorts, giving birth to the mind.”

There is abundant fossil and archaeological evidence for the evolution of the human mind, including its unique power to create a potentially infinite variety of thoughts expressed in the form of sentences, art and technologies,” according to Hoffecker. “He attributes the evolving power of the mind to the formation of what he calls the “super-brain,” or collective mind, an event that took place in Africa no later than 75,000 years ago.

Continue Reading

In the front of the brain resides the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a large stretch of cortex whose most anterior region is behind the forehead. It is the PFC, and its pathways to emotional brain structures, that yields the intelligence in human social behavior. When, after a stupid mistake, we slap our foreheads, we are giving a bit of a rattle to the PFC.

In the evolution of the hominin brain, the PFC became greatly expanded, and is much larger relative to body size in humans than in our mammalian relatives such as moneys. The human PFC differs not just in size, but in the density of major pathways connecting it to sensory areas in the posterior parts of the cortex.

Neuroscientists think that the selective advantages of the larger PFC included greater capacity to predict, both in the social and in the physical domain, along with a greater capacity to capitalize on those predictions by deferring gratification and exercising self-control. This has enabled greater flexibility in response to what is going on in the world, releasing us from the stock responses to threat and pain seen in evolutionarily simpler mammals such as rodents. With greater predictive capacities come greater opportunities to manipulate, in both the social and physical domains.

The cortical structures crucial to movement and behavior are also in the frontal cortex, just behind the PFC, and complex cognitive-motor skills rely on coordination between the frontal lobe and subcortical structures such as the basal ganglia. Altogether, Mother Nature seems to have found a winner in the PFC, and owing to its role in so many higher functions, the human PFC has been called the “the organ of civilization.”

Churchland, Patricia Smith. Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality, p. 119. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011. Print. (via thenewenlightenmentage)

neuromorphogenesis:

Despite what you’ve been told, you aren’t ‘left-brained’ or ‘right-brained’

The brain is more complex than corporate team-building exercises suggest, but the myth is unlikely to die anytime soon

From self-help and business success books to job applications and smartphone apps, the theory that the different halves of the human brain govern different skills and personality traits is a popular one. No doubt at some point in your life you’ve been schooled on “left-brained” and “right-brained” thinking – that people who use the right side of their brains most are more creative, spontaneous and subjective, while those who tap the left side more are more logical, detail-oriented and analytical.

Too bad it’s not true.

In a new two-year study published in the journal Plos One, University of Utah neuroscientists scanned the brains of more than 1,000 people, ages 7 to 29, while they were lying quietly or reading, measuring their functional lateralization – the specific mental processes taking place on each side of the brain. They broke the brain into 7,000 regions, and while they did uncover patterns for why a brain connection might be strongly left or right-lateralized, they found no evidence that the study participants had a stronger left or right-sided brain network.

Jeff Anderson, the study’s lead author and a professor of neuroradiology at the University of Utah says:

It’s absolutely true that some brain functions occur in one or the other side of the brain, language tends to be on the left, attention more on the right.

But the brain isn’t as clear-cut as the myth makes it out to be. For example, the right hemisphere is involved in processing some aspects of language, such as intonation and emphasis.

How, then, did the left-brained/right-brained theory take root? Experts suggest the myth dates back to the 1800s, when scientists discovered that an injury to one side of the brain caused a loss of specific abilities. The concept gained ground in the 1960s based on Nobel-prize-winning ”split-brain” work by neuropsychologists Robert Sperry, and Michael Gazzaniga. The researchers conducted studies with patients who had undergone surgery to cut the corpus callosum – the band of neural fibers that connect the hemispheres – as a last-resort treatment for epilepsy. They discovered that when the two sides of the brain weren’t able to communicate with each other, they responded differently to stimuli, indicating that the hemispheres have different functions.

Both of these bodies of research tout findings related to function; it was popular psychology enthusiasts who undoubtedly took this work a step further and pegged personality types to brain hemispheres.

According to Anderson:

The neuroscience community has never accepted the idea of ‘left-dominant’ or ‘right-dominant’ personality types. Lesion studies don’t support it, and the truth is that it would be highly inefficient for one half of the brain to consistently be more active than the other.

Yet, despite Anderson’s work and other studies that continue to disprove the idea that personality type is related to one or the other side of the brain being stronger, my guess is that the left-brained/right-brained vernacular isn’t going away anytime soon. Human society is built around categories, classifications and generalizations, and there’s something seductively simple about labeling yourself and others as either a logical left-brainer or a free-spirited right brainer.

Similar to the Myers-Briggs test – another widely used personality test with limited scientific evidence – the left-brained/right-brained thinker theory provides us with an explanation for why we are the way we are, and offers insights into where we fit into the world. It’s also a great conversation starter – and if used as a novelty, or a way to strengthen the “weaker half” of your brain, the myth is pretty harmless.

The problems start, however, when the left-brained/right-brained myth becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When your 12-year-old fills out an online personality test that pegs her as a “right-brainer” and she decides to skip her math homework – because the test told her she isn’t good with numbers – the persistence of this false dichotomy starts to become destructive. The same goes for the unemployed worker who forgoes applying for their dream job because the job description calls for creativity skills they think they may not have.

What research has yet to refute is the fact that the brain is remarkably malleable, even into late adulthood. It has an amazing ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells, allowing us to continually learn new things and modify our behavior. Let’s not underestimate our potential by allowing a simplistic myth to obscure the complexity of how our brains really work.

sagansense:

No Engineer Would Have Designed the Human Brain the Way It Is

"What a piece of work is a [human]!" remarks Hamlet. "How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!" And yet [human], this "paragon of animals," is no source of delight to Shakespeare’s contemplative prince.

One can hardly blame him.

Consider what a “freaking mess” the human brain is, after all. David Linden, professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, peers into the hardware that [humans have] been given, and finds the most primitive operating system:

"We have two visual systems in our brain, a subconscious one and a conscious one. We have two auditory systems in our brain, a subconscious one and a conscious one. No engineer ever would have designed it like this."

No wonder that Hamlet, plagued as he is by visions of ghosts and thoughts of suicide, has such a difficult time sorting things out. He has to take in information from two different streams and fuse them together. That’s what creates our behavior.

And so if God designed our brain, you could call him a really bad engineer. Or, to put it another way, as François Jacob famously said, evolution is a tinkerer and not an engineer. When you’re a tinkerer, David Linden explains, "you throw things together to solve the problem at hand. You don’t build elegantly and you don’t build the way an engineer would build to try to consider all the possible contingencies. You’re just solving the one problem that circumstances have dealt you at this moment."

That is why we should avoid falling into the trap of believing that just because something evolved means that it is useful to us today. Our brains are impressive, Linden says. But the engineering behind the brain “is completely insane.”

Source: bigthink

From a naturalistic perspective, the shortcomings of the human mind make perfect sense, they are expected. But once you posit a creator, you the have a lot of explaining to do. You have to make up all sorts of evil spirits to explain why god’s most glorious product is plagued with dysfunction.

thenewenlightenmentage:

People With Highly Superior Powers of Recall Also Vulnerable to False Memories
Nov. 19, 2013 — People who can accurately remember details of their daily lives going back decades are as susceptible as everyone else to forming fake memories, UC Irvine psychologists and neurobiologists have found.
In a series of tests to determine how false information can manipulate memory formation, the researchers discovered that subjects with highly superior autobiographical memory logged scores similar to those of a control group of subjects with average memory./p>
Continue Reading

thenewenlightenmentage:

People With Highly Superior Powers of Recall Also Vulnerable to False Memories

Nov. 19, 2013 — People who can accurately remember details of their daily lives going back decades are as susceptible as everyone else to forming fake memories, UC Irvine psychologists and neurobiologists have found.

In a series of tests to determine how false information can manipulate memory formation, the researchers discovered that subjects with highly superior autobiographical memory logged scores similar to those of a control group of subjects with average memory./p>

Continue Reading

skeptv:

Reading minds

Neuroscientists are starting to decipher what a person is seeing, remembering and even dreaming just by looking at their brain activity. They call it brain decoding.

In this Nature Video, we see three different uses of brain decoding, including a virtual reality experiment that could use brain activity to figure out whether someone has been to the scene of a crime.

via Nature Video Channel.


Daniel Dennett on Tools To Transform Our Thinking

On May 22nd Dan Dennett came to Intelligence Squared to share the insights he has acquired over his 40-year career into the nature of how we think, decide and act. Dennett revealed his favourite thinking tools, or ‘intuition pumps’, that he and others have developed for addressing life’s most fundamental questions. As well as taking a fresh look at familiar moves — Occam’s Razor, reductio ad absurdum — he discussed new cognitive solutions designed for the most treacherous subject matter: evolution, meaning, consciousness and free will.

By acquiring these tools and learning to use them wisely, we can all aspire to better understand the world around us and our place in it.