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When I last used Hotmail (and I’ll admit it’s been a while), the service had recently added a feature that allowed you to categorize your email into separate folders. I wasn’t terribly impressed by this, because by that time I had already started using Gmail, and it was pretty obvious that Gmail’s system of “Labels” was way better than Hotmail’s folders. You can attach several labels to the same email in Gmail, but you could only put an email into a single folder in Hotmail. Well, it should be easy enough to see that some things don’t fit well into separate, non-overlapping categories.

I was recently reminded of this fact by a friend’s reaction – or perhaps more accurately, her reaction to my reaction to – the picture above, which I liked so much that I set it as my Facebook cover photo, along with a short description:

“Micrograph of stained hippocampal tissue. The hippocampus is the component of the brain that’s primarily responsible for the formation of new memories (Leonard Shelby, the guy in “Memento” developed severe anterograde amnesia after sustaining damage to his hippocampus – and yes, that can really happen). The pink parts are the neuron cell bodies, the blue fibers are axons, and the green fibers are supporting glial cells (which outnumber neurons 9 to 1).”

My friend pretty much told me that it was a pretty picture, and that was cool, but that it was pretentious and unnecessary to see it as anything more. Well, I disagree, but not entirely – because I do think it’s a pretty picture, but it’s also fascinating because of what it represents.

When you look at that picture, you are looking at the hardware that lay behind what was once a human mind. It’s easy to forget this, but everything that matters to you only really exists within the confines of a tiny region of the universe that you perceive as your skull. We forget this because we forget that there is hardware behind human minds. The universe is made up of various types of waves and particles – there are no sights, sounds, or smells, let alone emotions or experiences. Those things are “virtual” constructs; created by the hardware of the brain and handed on a silver platter to your consciousness – which is also, of course, created by the brain.

Every beautiful piece of music you’ve ever heard, every exhilarating game of football you’ve played, every romantic experience you’ve had, is an outcome of the (currently) mysterious interactions between billions of neurons like those in the picture above. Somehow, somewhere in that mess of molecules are things like a picture of a human being that you recognize as yourself; records, or “memories”, of the activities of entirely different groups of molecules that belonged to you a few years ago; and a whole lot more. It’s an amazing, awe-inspiring thought. And the picture up there is so much the prettier for the fact that it evokes these thoughts.

As a little bit of a contrast, take a look at the picture below, a diagram showing the structure of an animal cell.

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Beyond all doubt, the ways in which cells go about their jobs is absolutely fascinating, but this picture just isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as the one above, is it? So, by thinking about the two pictures, we can conclude that things that are intellectually stimulating are a separate category from things that are are aesthetically pleasing, but that the two sets are not mutually exclusive.

In short, we should’t be forced to put awesome things into non-overlapping folders like “Aesthetically Pleasing Pictures” and “Sciency Stuff”; instead, we should be able to attach both those labels to an experience, and see it as even more awesome!

It is probably wise to exercise a great deal of caution in using treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy (see Messing With Memory) that are essentially mysterious to even the people administering them. But, of course, not many people undergo ECT anyway. Homeopathy is a much more prominent example of a family of treatments of this nature. Please read the following very carefully:

If homeopathy does work, it works through some unknown mechanism that is completely foreign to our present understanding of physics and chemistry. In other words, if the laws of physics, as they stand today, are correct, then homeopathic medicine SHOULD NOT work.

Please follow this link to read a brief summary of the basic tenets of homeopathic medicine; and ask yourself seriously whether it is advisable to build ostensibly scientific theories of disease that are based on vague, undefined (and possible un-definable) terms like “the vital force of an individual”.

Consider this definition (from here) of “dynamization” – the process through which homeopathic remedies are prepared:

Dynamization: The process of increasing the vital energy, and thus the potency, of a substance through specific forms of serial dilutions, termed “succussion” or “trituration”.  Dynamization is the goal of remedy production.  It is the most characteristic aspect of homeopathy. 

Ask yourself, again: what is the “vital force” of a substance? And how could it increase when there is less of a substance in the solution? Chemistry does not normally work this way.

Having said all that, I must also note that it would be wrong for anyone to be biased against homeopathy. What this means is that if there is convincing evidence that homeopathy works, then even the most committed skeptics  must honour that evidence and adjust their beliefs about homeopathy. The fact is, though, that the evidence is missing. The following is from a 2002 study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology:

Eleven independent systematic reviews were located. Collectively they failed to provide strong evidence in favour of homeopathy. In particular, there was no condition which responds convincingly better to homeopathic treatment than to placebo or other control interventions. Similarly, there was no homeopathic remedy that was demonstrated to yield clinical effects that are convincingly different from placebo. It is concluded that the best clinical evidence for homeopathy available to date does not warrant positive recommendations for its use in clinical practice.

You will find many more studies like that if you look for them.

In sum, then, there are two crucial differences between ECT and homeopathy: first, although we do not know how ECT works, we have no reason to believe that it goes against what we already know about the brain; the same is not true of homeopathy, because the effects it claims to produce are in direct contravention of what we know about physics and chemistry. And second, there is no convincing scientific evidence that homeopathy does anything more than a placebo would; whereas there is real evidence for the therapeutic value of ECT.

Could "Minority Report" become reality?

Well, it’s probably not terribly likely that things’ll go that far, but consider this:

“There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively ‘free’ decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.”

That’s from a paper published in Nature Neuroscience (you’ll find it here) in which the authors used functional MRI scanning to peer into subjects’ brains as they were making the (rather simple) decision of whether to click a button next to their right hand or their left hand. And as they say in that quote from the abstract of the paper, the researchers could predict which hand would be used, up to 10 seconds before the subject himself became aware of his final decision.

That’s a little scary isn’t it? I mean, what if there comes a time when there are remote fMRI scanners that can be pointed at anyone to see what they’re about to do in the future? What if you’re snatched out of your bed and thrown into prison for a crime you don’t even know you’re about to commit (a la Minority Report)?

Admittedly, there are a few ameliorating factors to counter the scariness of that vision. Firstly, there’s the fact that predictions can only be made about actions to be undertaken in the next few seconds; not minutes, days or weeks. So if you’re planning to assassinate a high-ranking government official, or something like that, don’t worry, they don’t have any chance of catching you until you’ve already got his head centered behind your rifle’s cross-hairs, when it’ll probably be too late anyway (good luck with that, by the way).

Secondly, the accuracy of prediction isn’t terribly impressive right now, to be honest. It was about 60% in the experiments performed for that study. And finally, decisions in real life may be infinitely more complex than “right hand button/left hand button” – and that may make them impossible to predict using brain scanners.

But this research does still raise some very interesting questions about free will. Don’t be too alarmed, though – just the fact that you’re subconscious makes a decision long before you become aware of it doesn’t in itself preclude the possibility of free will’s existence. After all, from a non-dualistic (visit this link for more on dualism) point of view, your mind is simply the firing of a whole lot of neurons, so it’s not like your neurons are holding “you” hostage.

But what if there are physical reasons (maybe something about the particular patterns of neural interconnections in a person’s brain, for instance) for why all of us make the kinds of decisions that we do? Does this mean that there may be limits to what we can think? Or what we can feel?

I hope we do find out some day.

The first correct illustration of the structure of DNA

The following link takes you to the article – by James Watson and Francis Crick – in which the structure of DNA was correctly identified for the first time. It was published in Science in 1953.

I just love the restraint they showed in writing about what their proposed structure might mean for the study of heredity in all living things: “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” And that’s all they say on the matter, preferring to wait for experimental confirmation before pursuing the idea further.

http://www.nature.com/nature/dna50/watsoncrick.pdf

An interesting take on wave-particle duality 😛