In a world dominated by magical thinking, superstition and misinformation, give yourself the benefit of doubt. This is one skeptic's view of the Universe; natural wonders and supernatural blunders.

"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

 

Are We Really Conscious?

OF the three most fundamental scientific questions about the human condition, two have been answered.

First, what is our relationship to the rest of the universe? Copernicus answered that one. We’re not at the center. We’re a speck in a large place.

Second, what is our relationship to the diversity of life? Darwin answered that one. Biologically speaking, we’re not a special act of creation. We’re a twig on the tree of evolution.

Third, what is the relationship between our minds and the physical world? Here, we don’t have a settled answer. We know something about the body and brain, but what about the subjective life inside? Consider that a computer, if hooked up to a camera, can process information about the wavelength of light and determine that grass is green. But we humans also experience the greenness. We have an awareness of information we process. What is this mysterious aspect of ourselves?

Many theories have been proposed, but none has passed scientific muster. I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary, a shift from a credulous and egocentric viewpoint to a skeptical and slightly disconcerting one: namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do….

Headlines Touting Study as Evidence for NDE, Not So Fast!

….The multi-center study involved placing an image in a location that was hidden from normal view but could be viewed by a person floating above their body during an NDE. This could be a way to objectively differentiate between the two leading hypotheses. Parnia and others believe that reports of NDEs represent actual awareness during cardiac arrest when the brain is not functioning. This, of course, would be compelling evidence for cognition separate from brain function.

I and most scientist favor the more mundane and likely explanation that memories of NDEs are formed at other times, when the brain is functioning, for example during the long recovery process. At least the memories themselves do not differential between these two hypotheses, and this explanation does not require inventing entirely new non-materialist phenomena.

So, I anxiously awaited the results of the AWARE study. I admit I was fairly confident that the results would be negative. My major concern was that the study had been criticized for not having tight protocols – for example, some have charged that the “hidden” images were visible to ER workers and this could provide a mundane conduit for knowledge of the images to get to cardiac arrest survivors. But I hoped this did not occur or affect the results.

But wait a minute – there is no mention in the abstract of the hidden images. How can that be? I understood this to be the main outcome of the study, the one thing that would set it apart from the merely descriptive studies of the past. What happened?…

10 Weird Ways Your Brain Is Tricking You

7 Moral Dumbfounding

…Research has not yet explained why this response occurs. It may be that society’s taboos are simply ingrained into our consciousness so deeply that we feel a powerful moral drive against them even though we cannot logically explain why.

4 Sympathetic Pain

…The part of the brain responsible for this is called the “mirror area” and scientists believe we have something called “mirror neurons,” which are responsible for creating a sympathetic response. Essentially, humans are hardwired to think we are feeling the same things as other people—essentially a very strong version of instinctive empathy.

3 False Memories

…In one experiment, researchers convinced a woman that she had been lost in a mall when she was young. Not only did she believe them, but she started making up details about an old woman who had helped her and talked about looking at puppies. The researchers were able to convince her so well that when they told her the memory was false and it had all been an experiment, she didn’t believe them until she had called her parents to confirm that she hadn’t been lost in the mall.

1 Hypnagogia

Many of us are under the impression that only those under the influence of drugs are likely to experience hallucinations, but nothing could be further from the truth. Hypnagogic hallucinations occur in that span of time when you are falling asleep but not actually asleep, whereas hypnapompic hallucinations occur when you are waking up. Both forms of hallucination can be either auditory or visual in nature….

neurosciencestuff:

Researchers discover fever’s origin
Fever is a response to inflammation, and is triggered by an onset of the signaling substance prostaglandin. Researchers at Linköping University can now see precisely where these substances are produced – a discovery that paves the way for smarter drugs.
When you take an aspirin, all production of prostaglandins in the body is suppressed. All symptoms of inflammation are eased simultaneously, including fever, pain and loss of appetite. But it might not always be desirable to get rid of all symptoms – there is a reason why they appear.
”Perhaps you want to inhibit loss of appetite but retain fever. In the case of serious infections, fever can be a good thing,” says David Engblom, senior lecturer in neurobiology at Linköping University.
Eleven years ago he had his first breakthrough as a researcher when he uncovered the mechanism behind the formation of prostaglandin E2 during fever. These signaling molecules cannot pass the blood-brain barrier, the purpose of which is to protect the brain from hazardous substances. Engblom showed that instead, they could be synthesised from two enzymes in the blood vessels on the inside of the brain, before moving to the hypothalamus, where the body’s thermostat is located.
Previous work from the research team described a very simple mechanism, but there was not yet proof that it was important in real life. The study to be published in The Journal of Neuroscience with David Engblom and his doctoral student Daniel Wilhelms as lead authors is based on tests with mice that lack the enzymes COX-2 and mPGES-1 in the brain’s blood vessels. When they were infected with bacterial toxins the fever did not appear, while other signs of inflammation were not affected.
”This shows that those prostaglandins which cause fever are formed in the blood-brain barrier – nowhere else. Now it will be interesting to investigate the other inflammation symptoms. Knowledge of this type can be useful when developing drugs that ease certain symptoms, but not all of them,” explains David Engblom.
For many years there has been debate as to where the fever signaling originates. Three alternative ideas have been proposed. Firstly, that it comes from prostaglandins circulating in the blood, secondly that it comes from immune cells in the brain, and thirdly Engblom’s theory, which stresses the importance of the brain’s blood vessels. The third proposal can now be considered confirmed.

neurosciencestuff:

Researchers discover fever’s origin

Fever is a response to inflammation, and is triggered by an onset of the signaling substance prostaglandin. Researchers at Linköping University can now see precisely where these substances are produced – a discovery that paves the way for smarter drugs.

When you take an aspirin, all production of prostaglandins in the body is suppressed. All symptoms of inflammation are eased simultaneously, including fever, pain and loss of appetite. But it might not always be desirable to get rid of all symptoms – there is a reason why they appear.

”Perhaps you want to inhibit loss of appetite but retain fever. In the case of serious infections, fever can be a good thing,” says David Engblom, senior lecturer in neurobiology at Linköping University.

Eleven years ago he had his first breakthrough as a researcher when he uncovered the mechanism behind the formation of prostaglandin Eduring fever. These signaling molecules cannot pass the blood-brain barrier, the purpose of which is to protect the brain from hazardous substances. Engblom showed that instead, they could be synthesised from two enzymes in the blood vessels on the inside of the brain, before moving to the hypothalamus, where the body’s thermostat is located.

Previous work from the research team described a very simple mechanism, but there was not yet proof that it was important in real life. The study to be published in The Journal of Neuroscience with David Engblom and his doctoral student Daniel Wilhelms as lead authors is based on tests with mice that lack the enzymes COX-2 and mPGES-1 in the brain’s blood vessels. When they were infected with bacterial toxins the fever did not appear, while other signs of inflammation were not affected.

”This shows that those prostaglandins which cause fever are formed in the blood-brain barrier – nowhere else. Now it will be interesting to investigate the other inflammation symptoms. Knowledge of this type can be useful when developing drugs that ease certain symptoms, but not all of them,” explains David Engblom.

For many years there has been debate as to where the fever signaling originates. Three alternative ideas have been proposed. Firstly, that it comes from prostaglandins circulating in the blood, secondly that it comes from immune cells in the brain, and thirdly Engblom’s theory, which stresses the importance of the brain’s blood vessels. The third proposal can now be considered confirmed.

bluejewofzsouchmuhn:

sixpenceee:

This video was recommended to me on a book about consciousness. 

If this video doesn’t astonish you, then I don’t know what will.

Go ahead, press play, it only takes 2 minutes of your time. 

FUCK NO I failed utterly. Holy shit.

The brain seems to have internal theories about what the world is like. It then uses sensory input – which tends to be patchy and disorganized – to choose between these. In some sensory situations, different theories come into conflict, sending our perceptions awry.

5 Brainiac Brain Facts (in TED-Ed GIFs)

teded:

image

1. We like to think of romantic feelings as spontaneous and indescribable things that come from the heart. But it’s actually your brain running a complex series of calculations within a matter of seconds that’s responsible for determining attraction.

From the TED-Ed Lesson The science of attraction

image

2. Playing an instrument is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout. As you play, your brain simultaneously processes different information in intricate, interrelated, and astonishingly fast sequences.

From the TED-Ed lesson How playing an instrument benefits your brain

image

3. The human brain consumes an astounding 3.4 x 10^21 ATP molecules per minute, making it a legitimate energy hog!

From the TED-Ed Lesson What percentage of your brain do you use?

image

4. As we grow, we install pain detectors in most areas of our body. Just like all nerve cells, these detectors conduct electrical signals, sending information from wherever they’re located back to your brain. But, unlike other nerve cells, nociceptors only fire if something happens that could cause or is causing damage.

From the TED-Ed Lesson How do pain relievers work?

image

5. On a per weight basis, humans pack in more neurons than any other species. That’s what makes us so smart!

From the TED-Ed Lesson What percentage of your brain do you use?

More fun facts at ed.ted.com!

wildcat2030:

The social origins of intelligence in the brain
-
A study of brain injuries in vets showed that brain regions that contribute to optimal social functioning are also vital to general intelligence and emotional intelligence
-
By studying the injuries and aptitudes of Vietnam War veterans who suffered penetrating head wounds during the war, researchers have found that brain regions that contribute to optimal social functioning are also vital to general intelligence and emotional intelligence. This finding, reported in the journal Brain, bolsters the view that general intelligence emerges from the emotional and social context of one’s life. “We are trying to understand the nature of general intelligence and to what extent our intellectual abilities are grounded in social cognitive abilities,” said Aron Barbey, a University of Illinois professor of neuroscience, psychology, and speech and hearing science. Barbey, an affiliate of the Beckman Institute and he Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois, led the new study with an international team of collaborators.

Studies in social psychology indicate that human intellectual functions originate from the social context of everyday life, Barbey said. “We depend at an early stage of our development on social relationships — those who love us care for us when we would otherwise be helpless.”

Social interdependence continues into adulthood and remains important throughout the lifespan. “Our friends and family tell us when we could make bad mistakes and sometimes rescue us when we do.

“And so the idea is that the ability to establish social relationships and navigate the social world is not secondary to a more general cognitive capacity for intellectual function, but that it may be the other way around. Intelligence may originate from the central role of relationships in human life and therefore may be tied to social and emotional capacities.”

(via The social origins of intelligence in the brain | KurzweilAI)

There is by now evidence from a variety of laboratories around the world using a variety of methodological techniques leading to the virtually inescapable conclusion that the cognitive-motivational styles of leftists and rightists are quite different. This research consistently finds that conservatism is positively associated with heightened epistemic concerns for order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity, as well as existential concerns such as perceptions of danger, sensitivity to threat, and death anxiety.

Social Psychologist John Jost (and fellow scholars)

(Source: alternet.org)

neuromorphogenesis:

What Happens If You Apply Electricity to the Brain of a Corpse?
Some habits die hard. Like humans zapping their brains. We did this back in Ancient Greece, when medics used electric fish to treat headaches and other ailments. Today we’re still at it, as neuroscientists apply electric currents to people’s brains to boost their mental function, treat depression, or give them lucid dreams.
Subjecting the brain to external electricity has an influence on mental function because our neurons communicate with each other using electricity and chemicals. This has become relatively common knowledge today, but only two centuries ago scientists were still quite baffled by the mystery of nerve communication.
Issac Newton and others suggested that our nerves communicate with each other, and with the muscles, via vibrations. Another suggestion of the time was that the nerves emit some kind of fluid. Most opaque, and still popular, was the idea – first mooted in ancient times – that the brain and nerves are filled with mysterious “animal spirits”.
“Animal electricity”
During the eighteenth century our understanding of electricity was growing apace, and the use of electricity to treat a range of physical and mental ailments, known as electrotherapy, was incredibly popular. But still it wasn’t obvious to scientists at the time that the human nervous system produces its own electric charge, and that the nerves communicate using electricity.
Among the first scientists to make this proposal was the Italian physician Luigi Galvani (1737-1798). Most of Galvani’s experiments were with frogs’ legs and nerves, and he was able to show that lightning or man-made electrical machines could cause the frogs’ muscles to twitch. He subsequently came up with the idea of “animal electricity” – that animals, humans included, have their own intrinsic electricity.
“I believe it has been sufficiently well established that there is present in animals an electricity which we … are wont to designate with the general term ‘animal’ … “ he wrote. “It is seen most clearly … in the muscles and nerves.”
Neuroscience’s macabre past
However, to Galvani’s frustration, he failed to show that zapping the brain had an effect on the facial or peripheral muscles. Here, he was helped in dramatic, macabre fashion by his nephew Giovanni Aldini (1762-1834).
In 1802, Aldini zapped the brain of a decapitated criminal by placing a metal wire into each ear and then flicking the switch on the attached rudimentary battery. “I initially observed strong contractions in all the muscles of the face, which were contorted so irregularly that they imitated the most hideous grimaces,” he wrote in his notes. “The action of the eylids was particularly marked, though less striking in the human head than in that of the ox.”
During this era, there was fierce scientific debate about the role of electricity in human and animal nervous systems. Galvani’s influential rival, Alessandro Volta, for one, did not believe in the notion that animals produce their own electricity. In this context, the rival camps engaged in public relations exercises to promote their own views. This played to Aldini’s strengths. Something of a showman, he took his macabre experiments on tour. In 1803, he performed a sensational public demonstration at the Royal College of Surgeons, London, using the dead body of Thomas Forster, a murderer recently executed by hanging at Newgate. Aldini inserted conducting rods into the deceased man’s mouth, ear, and anus.
One member of the large audience later observed: “On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. It appeared to the uninformed part of the bystanders as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”
Although Frankenstein author Mary Shelley was only five when this widely reported demonstration was performed, it’s obvious that she was inspired by contemporary scientific debates about electricity and the human body. Indeed, publication of her novel coincided with another dramatic public demonstration performed in 1818 in Glasgow by Andrew Ure, in which application of electric current to a corpse appeared to cause it to resume heavy breathing, and even to point its fingers at the audience.
Death is a process
If a body is dead, how come its nerves are still responsive to external electric charge? In 1818, one popular but mistaken suggestion was that electricity is the life force, and that the application of electricity to the dead could literally bring them back to life. Indeed, so disturbed were many members of the audience at Ure’s demonstration that they had to leave the building. One man reportedly fainted. Modern scientific understanding of the way nerves communicate undermines such supernatural interpretations, but you can imagine that witnessing such a spectacle as performed by Ure or Aldini would even today be extremely unnerving (excuse the pun). A pithy explanation of why electricity appears to animate a dead body comes courtesy of Frances Ashcroft’s wonderful book The Spark of Life:
“The cells of the body do not die when an animal (or person) breathes its last breath, which is why it is possible to transplant organs from one individual to another, and why blood transfusions work,” she writes. “Unless it is blown to smithereens, the death of a multicellular organism is rarely an instantaneous event, but instead a gradual closing down, an extinction by stages. Nerve and muscle cells continue to retain their hold on life for some time after the individual is dead and thus can be ‘animated’ by application of electricity.”
The grisly experiments of Aldini and Ure seem distasteful by today’s standards, but they were historically important, stimulating the imagination of novelists and scientists alike.

neuromorphogenesis:

What Happens If You Apply Electricity to the Brain of a Corpse?

Some habits die hard. Like humans zapping their brains. We did this back in Ancient Greece, when medics used electric fish to treat headaches and other ailments. Today we’re still at it, as neuroscientists apply electric currents to people’s brains to boost their mental function, treat depression, or give them lucid dreams.

Subjecting the brain to external electricity has an influence on mental function because our neurons communicate with each other using electricity and chemicals. This has become relatively common knowledge today, but only two centuries ago scientists were still quite baffled by the mystery of nerve communication.

Issac Newton and others suggested that our nerves communicate with each other, and with the muscles, via vibrations. Another suggestion of the time was that the nerves emit some kind of fluid. Most opaque, and still popular, was the idea – first mooted in ancient times – that the brain and nerves are filled with mysterious “animal spirits”.

“Animal electricity”

During the eighteenth century our understanding of electricity was growing apace, and the use of electricity to treat a range of physical and mental ailments, known as electrotherapy, was incredibly popular. But still it wasn’t obvious to scientists at the time that the human nervous system produces its own electric charge, and that the nerves communicate using electricity.

Among the first scientists to make this proposal was the Italian physician Luigi Galvani (1737-1798). Most of Galvani’s experiments were with frogs’ legs and nerves, and he was able to show that lightning or man-made electrical machines could cause the frogs’ muscles to twitch. He subsequently came up with the idea of “animal electricity” – that animals, humans included, have their own intrinsic electricity.

“I believe it has been sufficiently well established that there is present in animals an electricity which we are wont to designate with the general term ‘animal’ “ he wrote. “It is seen most clearly in the muscles and nerves.”

Neuroscience’s macabre past

However, to Galvani’s frustration, he failed to show that zapping the brain had an effect on the facial or peripheral muscles. Here, he was helped in dramatic, macabre fashion by his nephew Giovanni Aldini (1762-1834).

In 1802, Aldini zapped the brain of a decapitated criminal by placing a metal wire into each ear and then flicking the switch on the attached rudimentary battery. “I initially observed strong contractions in all the muscles of the face, which were contorted so irregularly that they imitated the most hideous grimaces,” he wrote in his notes. “The action of the eylids was particularly marked, though less striking in the human head than in that of the ox.”

During this era, there was fierce scientific debate about the role of electricity in human and animal nervous systems. Galvani’s influential rival, Alessandro Volta, for one, did not believe in the notion that animals produce their own electricity. In this context, the rival camps engaged in public relations exercises to promote their own views. This played to Aldini’s strengths. Something of a showman, he took his macabre experiments on tour. In 1803, he performed a sensational public demonstration at the Royal College of Surgeons, London, using the dead body of Thomas Forster, a murderer recently executed by hanging at Newgate. Aldini inserted conducting rods into the deceased man’s mouth, ear, and anus.

One member of the large audience later observed: “On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. It appeared to the uninformed part of the bystanders as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”

Although Frankenstein author Mary Shelley was only five when this widely reported demonstration was performed, it’s obvious that she was inspired by contemporary scientific debates about electricity and the human body. Indeed, publication of her novel coincided with another dramatic public demonstration performed in 1818 in Glasgow by Andrew Ure, in which application of electric current to a corpse appeared to cause it to resume heavy breathing, and even to point its fingers at the audience.

Death is a process

If a body is dead, how come its nerves are still responsive to external electric charge? In 1818, one popular but mistaken suggestion was that electricity is the life force, and that the application of electricity to the dead could literally bring them back to life. Indeed, so disturbed were many members of the audience at Ure’s demonstration that they had to leave the building. One man reportedly fainted. Modern scientific understanding of the way nerves communicate undermines such supernatural interpretations, but you can imagine that witnessing such a spectacle as performed by Ure or Aldini would even today be extremely unnerving (excuse the pun). A pithy explanation of why electricity appears to animate a dead body comes courtesy of Frances Ashcroft’s wonderful book The Spark of Life:

“The cells of the body do not die when an animal (or person) breathes its last breath, which is why it is possible to transplant organs from one individual to another, and why blood transfusions work,” she writes. “Unless it is blown to smithereens, the death of a multicellular organism is rarely an instantaneous event, but instead a gradual closing down, an extinction by stages. Nerve and muscle cells continue to retain their hold on life for some time after the individual is dead and thus can be ‘animated’ by application of electricity.”

The grisly experiments of Aldini and Ure seem distasteful by today’s standards, but they were historically important, stimulating the imagination of novelists and scientists alike.

skunkbear:

As Virginia Hughes noted in a recent piece for National Geographic’s Phenomena blog, the most common depiction of a synapse (that communicating junction between two neurons) is pretty simple:

Signal molecules leave one neuron from that bulby thing, float across a gap, and are picked up by receptors on the other neuron. In this way, information is transmitted from cell to cell … and thinking is possible.

But thanks to a bunch of German scientists - we now have a much more complete and accurate picture. They’ve created the first scientifically accurate 3D model of a synaptic bouton (that bulby bit) complete with every protein and cytoskeletal element.

This effort has been made possible only by a collaboration of specialists in electron microscopy, super-resolution light microscopy (STED), mass spectrometry, and quantitative biochemistry.

says the press release. The model reveals a whole world of neuroscience waiting to be explored. Exciting stuff!

You can access the full video of their 3D model here.

Credit: Benjamin G. Wilhelm, Sunit Mandad, Sven Truckenbrodt, Katharina Kröhnert, Christina Schäfer, Burkhard Rammner, Seong Joo Koo, Gala A. Claßen, Michael Krauss, Volker Haucke, Henning Urlaub, Silvio O. Rizzoli

shawnali:

The first time I held a human brain in Anatomy Lab I was completely speechless. I looked at my classmates expecting a similar reaction and they looked back at me confused like…”dude let’s start identifying the structures.” I had to take a step back and let it process…in my hands was someone’s entire life. From start to finish, every memory, every emotion, every bodily control…was right there in my hands.

shawnali:

The first time I held a human brain in Anatomy Lab I was completely speechless. I looked at my classmates expecting a similar reaction and they looked back at me confused like…”dude let’s start identifying the structures.” I had to take a step back and let it process…in my hands was someone’s entire life. From start to finish, every memory, every emotion, every bodily control…was right there in my hands.

When people come close to death, they sometimes report a whole series of strange experiences, collectively known as a near-death experience (NDE). Although the order varies slightly, and few people experience them all, the most common features are: going down a dark tunnel or through a dark space towards a bright white or golden light; watching one’s own body being resuscitated or operated on (an OBE [out-of-body experience]); emotions of joy, acceptance, or deep contentment; flashbacks or a panoramic review of events in one’s life; seeing another world with people who are already dead or a ‘being of light’; and finally deciding to return to life rather than enter that other world. After such experiences people are often changed, claiming to be less selfish or materialistic, and less afraid of death.

NDEs have been reported from many different cultures and ages, and seem to be remarkably similar in outline. The main cultural differences are in the details; for example, Christians tend to see Jesus or pearly gates; while Hindus meet ramdoots or see their name written in a great book. Religious believers often claim that the consistency of the experiences proves their own religion’s version of life after death. However, the consistency is far better explained by the fact that people of all ages and cultures have similar brains, and those brains react in similar ways to stress, fear, lack of oxygen, or the many other triggers for NDEs.

All these triggers can cause the release of pleasure-inducing endorphins, and can set off random neural activity in many parts of the brain. The effects of this random activity depend on the location: activity in visual cortex produces tunnels, spirals, and lights (as do hallucinogenic drugs that have similar neural effects); activity in the temporal lobe induces body image changes and OBEs, and can release floods of memories; and activity in other places can give rise to visions of many kinds, depending on the person’s expectation, prior state of mind, and cultural beliefs. There is no doubt that many people really are changed by having an NDE, usually for the better, but this may be because of the dramatic brain changes, and because they have had to confront the idea of their own death, rather than because their soul has briefly left their body.

Blackmore, Susan J.. Consciousness A Very Short Introduction, p. 110-111. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print. (via academicatheism)

10 Good Reasons Not to Trust Your Brain

Perhaps the most damaging flaw is the brain’s tendency to think it’s right. In fact, it often insists it is right even in the face of contradictory evidence. So the next time you’re absolutely, positively sure you’re right, consider these 10 reasons not to trust your brain.