03 October 2011


Skeptically Speaking | #131 Neurology Past & Present

You should really listen to at least the first 12 minutes of this podcast, which contains an interview with Thomas Naselaris of UC Berkeley, who is one of the researchers behind the new paper "Reconstructing visual experiences from brain activity evoked by natural movies." You probably saw the YouTube video associated with that paper, even though you never heard of it, or Naselaris or his colleagues by name:

This was a pretty widely reported science story last week. Much of that reporting was pretty terrible, including Berkeley's own press release, which opened with " Imagine tapping into the mind of a coma patient, or watching one’s own dream on YouTube." That is entirely NOT what this research did.  The reporting on this was so bad I didn't want to post about it at the time.

What I really like about this interview is that Naselaris is very good about extinguishing that wild speculation and presenting this a straight-forward application of what we already know about the primary visual cortex. (Which is rather a lot. The neuroscience of perception, and especially of vision, is a couple of orders of magnitude more advanced than what we know about higher functions like attention or planning.)

As Naselaris is good enough to point out, this work only models what happens in V1/V2 when people are actually watching a moving picture in front of them. There is a vast gulf between that, and what happens when you remember a scene, or imagine one, or dream one. This is an important step in that direction, but this is not that. Anyway, my hat's off to Naselaris and his colleagues for their modeling work. It's good enough work as is. No need for people to blow it out of proportion.

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Slate | Ron Rosenbaum | The End of Evil? : Neuroscientists suggest there is no such thing. Are they right?

I'm just going to stop right there with the title. Maybe this is a fine article, interviewing fine neuroscientists, who make fine points.  Dinnae ken.

I need to get this off my chest before reading further: Neuroscientists don't have any answers for you about things like this.  I say this as someone who's work falls loosely under the penumbra of neuroscience.  We're in the dark when it comes to something like Evil.  Lights-out, curtains drawn, alarm-clock-unplugged dark.  Neuroscientists can't agree about the mechanisms behind you remembering a phone number. We're still a ways away from understanding "Evil."

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But what if academics, en masse, deploy errors that are equally foolish? This week Sander Nieuwenhuis and colleagues publish a mighty torpedo in the journal Nature Neuroscience. They’ve identified one direct, stark statistical error that is so widespread it appears in about half of all the published papers surveyed from the academic neuroscience research literature.
Keep this in mind when someone tells you that scientists have figured out morality.

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