Category Archives: Science

#NeuroThursday

I have begun a semi-regular Twitter feature: #NeuroThursday, where I discuss some cool neuroscience-related or -inspired topic for a public audience. The inaugural topic is Neolithic trephination!

(Yes, I know today is Friday. Shhh.)

Please let me know, here or elsewhere, if you have any topics you’d like me to think about. The more ideas/requests I get, the more often I’ll be able to do this. I want to go broadly here: if you have any topic you’d like to hear a neuroscientist’s take on (from brain to behavior to ???), let me know and I’ll consider it!

The Evolved Brain

My nonfiction neuroscience essay, “The Evolved Brain,” is up in the January issue of Clarkesworld!

I’d like to use this space for a bit of bonus content: the eleven links and footnotes I’d originally included. We decided to remove them during the editorial process, but if you want to see the sources for my claims, here they are for posterity:

  1. Dr. Marcus’ quote about what “No overarching theory of neuroscience could predict” comes from this New York Times editorial.
  2. For more details on the Information Processing (IP) model, this wikipedia page is a good place to start.
  3. The quotation “All models are wrong, but some models are useful” is generally attributed to George Box, in this book’s original 1978 edition. The variant “models have no truth value” comes from this 2013 article on Bayesian statistics.
  4. For “our decisions remain riddled with biases and errors” (and “sloppy and unreliable kludges”), I like to cite this wikipedia article. If you printed out that list of cognitive biases, it would stretch for 10.5 pages.
  5. “Moral uncertainty induces movement uncertainty” is reviewed in this article. It’s a more general phenomenon about cognitive states influencing action, but the more difficult yes/no judgment questions include ones like “is murder ever justified?” (See the “High-Level Decision Making” section, starting on page 4.)1
  6. “Conscious memory is an unreliable reconstruction” is a widely-known phenomenon, but there’s a good academic review here, and good wikipedia examples here (including the “see also” links at the bottom).
  7. The presence of separate systems for vision-for-perception and vision-for-action is a discovery of wikipedia-level magnitude.
  8. The way optical illusions separate vision-for-perception from vision-for-action was first confirmed here
  9. …and here is the specific example of the Ebbinghaus Illusion unaffected by vision-for-action. This is one of my all-time-favorite articles, because its main thrust is about the strange interaction between the two visual subsystems and handedness. But that’s a whole separate article.
  10. The role of the cerebellum in movement self-prediction has been understood since at least 1998.
  11. The Affordance Competition Hypothesis is best described in this 2010 review, but sadly not available for free anywhere online. The 2007 original article is available, but much less readable.
  12. If you want to watch those neurons following the ACH, those data originally come from this 2005 study, though you can find a lovely graphical summary in the article linked in #5, as well as the 2010 article in #11.

Finally, if you haven’t read the essay “The Brain is Not a Computer” (Aeon magazine, May 2016), I recommend it. I agree with its overall direction, and I think it makes a lot of good points, but it fails because it relies on a straw-man misunderstanding of the IP model, tied to the specifics of computer architecture. The internet is full of rebuttals, and largely fair ones. That’s why I wrote “The Evolved Brain” to show not why the IP model is wrong, but instead why it’s unhelpful, if your goal is to understand the human brain and experience.

November 2016 Update

Let me keep the coals hot here with a quick monthly update…

  • More travel. Oh god the travel. But it was fun! I ate 5 thanksgiving dinners! And now I’m back.
  • Novel revisions coming along, a little behind schedule, currently hope to be done by the year’s end.
  • May be shifting up my convention plans for 2017. Jumping toward the Nebulas, which may mean skipping Capricon. Still aiming for Worldcon but don’t know enough about my summer schedule.
  • I wrote and submitted a nonfiction article to a major market! They accepted the concept pitch, but we’ll see about the article itself. “The Evolved Brain” is based on the second half of the talk I gave to the Viable Paradise Reunion in October.

October 2016 Update

Brief post this month, because I’m in the middle of a 2-week academic conference travel loop.

  • Attended the Viable Paradise 20th reunion, and gave a neuroscience talk on how to understand the brain. For the countless among you who missed it, fear not: I’m working on adapting my talk into a nonfiction article for various publications!
  • Finished up a new short story, “The Hammer’s Prayer.” It’s in the second-draft stage, will need some more thought & revision before it’ll be ready for launch.
  • Sold my first reprint, of a short story that didn’t get spread far on its first sale!
  • Continuing apace with second-draft revisions of the novel. May not hit my December 1 self-imposed deadline, but I won’t be too far behind it.
    • Thus, instead of doing NaNoWriMo, I’m doing NaNoFiReMo. (That’s “Finish Revising.” Or “fire,” as needed.) But no promises since I have multiple end-of-November deadlines.
  • Current short story status: 11 submissions circulating, 3 of them shortlisted.

Social & Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology

I spent last weekend at the Social & Cultural Issues in Astrobiology 2016 conference at Clemson University, South Carolina. A small academic conference (~30 people) discussing nonscientific issues surrounding astrobiology and space exploration, and an absolutely amazing chance to spend two days thinking through the future among some of the world’s foremost thinkers and researchers on the topic.

If you poke around the website, you can find abstracts on all 26 talks: two one-hour keynotes and 24 half-hour talks on everything from ethics to gene theory. Starting on the 3rd talk1, I livetweeted my notes and comments. For an overview of some of the top concerns and opinions around space travel, take a look through the Storifies below!

Session 1: Philosophy of Science

Session 2: Philosophy of Biology

Session 3: Connections and Patterns

Session 4: The Importance of Perspective

Day 2 Keynote

Session 5: Education & Outreach

Session 6: Concepts of Life

Session 7: Applied Ethics

Session 8: Ethical Theory

Mars Landing

So, remember a year ago when I said my wife was going to Mars?

Well, she’s on her way back. Tomorrow morning, she steps out of the dome, back to Earth; still the red-rock slopes of Mauna Loa, but with no spacesuit on, and the breeze in her face for the first time in a year.

I am excited beyond words. So far beyond words that I’ve had no brainspan to update this blog, not even after the amazing time I had at my first Worldcon. No promises that I’ll have a monthly update this week, either. I may have some downtime on Hawaii while she spends her days in debriefing, but I rather expect some internet scarcity!

If you want to read more about her mission, check out her blog or the mission webpage. I’d also love to point you toward the kickstarter for “Red Heaven,” an upcoming documentary about the mission. Both my wife and I have already worked with the creators & crew, and they’re amazing people, excited about the science and project. Consider supporting them – or just enjoy the trailer!

Worldcon 74 Panel Schedule

I just received my panel schedule for Worldcon! I can’t wait for the chance to go up there and share my knowledge, and I hope to see lots of you there!

The Real Lab

Thursday Aug. 18, 18:00 – 19:00, room 2208 (Kansas City Convention Center)

Sometimes things go very right in the lab, and sometimes things go horribly wrong. Professional scientists discuss the sometimes terrifying, often hilarious, crazy things that can happen when working in the lab. How does science happen and is it really as clean cut and precise as we are led to believe? How has science organized itself so that error corrects solid knowledge out of the human stew?

Dr Helen Pennington, Dr. Ronald Taylor, MR. Donald Douglas Fratz, Benjamin C. Kinney, Sharon Joss (M)

Thinking Through Neuroscience in SF and Fantasy

Saturday Aug. 20, 16:00 – 17:00, room 2209 (Kansas City Convention Center)

Neuroscience is a complex and rapidly developing area of technological advancement. We look at some of the recent advances as well as discussing how these are reinterpreted in SF and Fantasy media.

S.B. Divya (M), Anna Kashina, Benjamin C. Kinney, Caroline M. Yoachim

I Don’t Believe In Science

Sunday Aug. 21, 13:00 – 14:00, room 2204 (Kansas City Convention Center)

All too often we hear about people who “Don’t Believe in Science,” but science isn’t about belief.  A discussion about why talking about science in terms of belief does science, and faith, a disservice.

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ1, Carl Fink, Benjamin C. Kinney, Dr. Heather Urbanski (M), Renée Sieber