Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Of Two Minds

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for the latest Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Dr Moran Cerf, who is one of those scientist/rockstar figures, a former hacker/security expert and Moth "Grand Slam" story winner.

Dr Cerf's lecture dealt with decision making and the brain/body interface. Why do individuals want one thing, but do the opposite thing? At times, it seems that an individual is two people fighting for dominance in one body. How does the brain interact with the body in everyday life?

Dr Cerf illustrated this conundrum by relating the tragic tale of Charles Whitman, the infamous University of Texas "tower sniper". After the mass shooting, the police tried to determine a cause for the shooting spree. Whitman was generally seen as a quiet, law abiding man, but his diary told an alarming tale. Whitman wrote that he "feels like he's not the same guy" and described having violent urges. Before he embarked on his murderous foray, he indicated that he wanted an autopsy performed on him and left a check to pay for it. When an autopsy was performed, a tumor the size of a walnut was found in his brain which impinged on his amygdala.

I another instance, a patient with a frontal lobe tumor began to exhibit signs of sexual deviancy, including pedophila. The removal of the tumor caused him to revert back to his previous sexual mores, but a partial recurrence of the tumor caused a return of the symptoms until it too was removed.

To illustrate the ability of individuals to "color" their perceptions of events, Dr Cerf cited a study (PDF) in which which a group of colonoscopy patients were told to rate the pain they experienced on a ten-point pain scale. Half of the patients experienced an interval at the end of the procedure in which the tip of the scope remained in their rectums. Oddly enough, the patients with the extended colonoscopy rated their experience as less painful than the patients whose colonoscopies were shorter in duration. It is probable that they experienced fewer "highs and lows" during the procedure than those with a quicker colonoscopy, and that the patients with the quicker procedure assessed it from moment to moment, rather than assessing it as one single event.

Studying the "competing influences" in the brain poses some ethical dilemmas- while studies using rats and monkeys can be conducted using electrodes implanted in the brain, human subjects typically refuse to have their brain tissue exposed and to have wires implanted in their brains. The ideal human subjects for such studies are patients who have brain injuries or illnesses. In extreme cases of epilepsy which cannot be treated medicinally (about 4% of cases), the corpus callosum, which connects the hemispheres of the brain is "cut". In these patients, the brain is typically open for two weeks, and electrodes are implanted in the brain to monitor it. The patients are asked for permission to be studied during this period of time.

The two hemispheres of the brain control "handedness" in the body, with a hemisphere controlling the motor functions of the opposite side of the body. The brain is not completely symmetrical, though, for instance, the language center of the brain is typically in the left hemisphere. Dr Cerf showed a couple of videos in which a subject with a "split brain" had to sort tiles or cards with various symbols on them, with one hand at times "correcting" the sorting performed by the other hand.

Electrodes in the brain can detect the stimulation of a single neuron (Dr Cern cited the "Simpsons" neuron also mentioned by Dr
André Fenton
in his SSC lecture). Here's a video of the "Simpsons neuron" in action:

A neuron that fires for a concept came to be known as a "Jennifer Aniston Cell"- one patient's neuron fired not only when an image of Jennifer Aniston was displayed, but also when the patient heard her name or saw it in written form. In another patient a similar cell fired when images, text, and spoken words represented the Sydney Opera House. This neuron was "fooled" when a display of the Baha'ai Lotus Temple was shown, but it stopped doing so when the discrepancies between images of the two buildings was pointed out to the subject.

In another experiment, a subject was asked to manipulate images on a monitor. The images chosen were of icon Marilyn Monroe and actor Josh Brolin- the subject was asked to concentrate on image, then the other, and the image on the monitor would shift accordingly. In essence, two neurons would vie for dominance. Wired has a great summary of the experiment with an accompanying video.

Dr Cerf then moved on to the role that neurons play in movement- in quadriplegics, the brain cells responsible for movement work properly, but patient is immobile. Is it possible to manipulate objects with the brain? Dr Cerf showed a very poignant video of a paralyzed woman who has been able to manipulate a robot arm with an electrode implanted in her motor cortex in order to drink her coffee- I challenge you to try to watch it without tearing up:

Currently, there are flaws in the work. Dr Cerf discussed, as Dr Anne Churchland did in her lecture, the fact that, although computers can "master" the game of chess, they have not been able to direct the physical act of moving the pieces on the board. The mechanics are being improved- in one particular experiment a monkey was able to manipulate a prosthetic arm via an electrode implanted in its brain in order to grab marshmallows:

During the trials, the monkey's arm was immobilized, necessitating the use of the prosthetic arm. Once able to manipulate the arm properly, the monkey continued to use the prosthetic even when both of its arms were free, effectively giving it a "third arm". Imagine the possibilities, an individual could use the TV remote, drink a beer, and scratch oneself all at once. Now THAT's what I call multitasking!

Of course, there are ethical problems as well as technical ones- one cannot simply implant electrodes into people without an underlying therapeutic need. The human subjects described by Dr Cerf were individuals who needed drastic medical interventions. That being said, it may be possible that the limitations of the human body may be overcome through the use of machines. He cited the transition of the typewriter, from Pellegrino Turri's machine to allow his blind lover to write letters to a ubiquitous office staple.

Dr Cerf then described an experiment in which individuals were presented with a "clock face" graphic, and were instructed to use a button to stop the clock "hand" whenever they chose, and were then asked to indicate when they felt the "urge" to stop the "clock". Using an EEG to measure brain activity, the test administrators determined that brain activity increased three seconds before the button was pressed, and 1.5 seconds before the subject indicated an "urge" to stop the clock. In subsequent iterations of the experiment, the subject was manipulated in different ways- they were told that they couldn't stop the "clock" under certain circumstances and were given conflicting stimuli. In some cases, the subjects tried to "fool" the administrators, but the EEG always gave the subject away.

Dr Cerf wrapped up by reiterating the whole topic of contradictory desires and behaviors. He cited the "snooze alarm" conundrum, in which one's desire to wake, characterized by the setting of the alarm, is "at war" with one's decision to sleep more. He showed various novelty alarm clocks which "escape" the snooze-prone. He wrapped up with a hilarious photo of fitness club patrons taking an escalator one flight to the gym. In the Q&A some bastard asked the good doctor if he'd seen any evidence that the increasing use of electronic gadgets was making subjects more comfortable with electrode implants. Dr Cerf indicated that, to the contrary, the trend is for more conservative therapeutic measures, with the use of electrode implants and radical brain surgery becoming less common as less drastic measures are put into place.

In the middle of the lecture, an individual at the other end of the room from myself fell ill, and there was a brief interruption of the talk, but Dr Cerf recovered quickly without losing his stride. Kudos to Dr Cerf for not missing a beat and delivering a superb lecture. It was another feather in the cap of the Secret Science Club. Here's a brief animated feature covering some of the topics of Dr Cerf's talk:

In other news, I had a conversation with the brilliant and awesome **FUTURE BLOG POST**, a previous Secret Science Club lecturer, about some assistance in an upcoming project. I am looking forward to this project, so watch this space. Additionally, Secret Science Goddess (one of a pantheon of two!) and chanteuse Dorian Devins will be conducting a dialog with Richard Dawkins on Wednesday, 9/25 at NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. A friend of mine who has just recently gotten into science via Dawkins' writings picked up tickets for a bunch of us to go, as soon as I texted him about the event. I feel bad about having told him about Dawkins' dickishness, but I feel that one needs to know about any warts that one's "heroes" may have. Me? I can see the beneficial accomplishments of Dr Dawkins as well as his dickery, and will be keenly interested in the possible controversies that will be brought to the fore in this forum. Of course, my primary reason for attending the event is my unwavering support for Dorian Devins, whose feminist credentials are as strong as her science-supporting community credentials. Put succinctly, I dig Devins more than Dawkins... nobody's ever had to make excuses for her behavior.


OBS said...

Excellent write-up as usual, good sir. All that's needed to get people over their squeamishness over having electrodes implanted in their brains is for it to become a fashion statement and/or fad and/or status symbol. If rich people could control a cool new Apple product with their brains, they'd be cracking skulls instantly.

Jim H. said...

Indeed, excellent write-up. Saw an article last week about a person who was able to manipulate another person's finger remotely. Here, found it:

A good summary of the literature in this area and a philosophical analysis (for non-specialists) can be found in The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger. I did a series of posts somewhere, but haven't completed it. Stay tuned.

mikey said...

By 1980, my dad was starting to act quite weird. He'd have a few glasses of wine and become angry, table pounding and often irrationally angry. He wasn't particularly violent - his experiences in the Western Pacific in WWII had hard-wired him against hurting people, for the most part. But even he was concerned about the emotional changes going on with him. His doctor couldn't find anything wrong, so he referred him to a psychologist, and he dilligently went to sessions for almost a year. Finally, when he began to have trouble with his balance and simple physical actions, they found the brain tumor, one of the worst kinds called an "astral cytoma", and by then he was a dead man on the clock. I suspect that now, thirty plus years later, they might have found it earlier, but these are slow growing tumors, and the suspicion was that this one had its roots in his service with the occupation force at Nagasaki a few weeks after the atomic bombing. So it may not have been something that they would have ever detected in time...

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Simon, it's not even that he's a dickhead, it's just that he's a privileged white guy who thinks that everybody has lived a life similar to his. He really needs to read John Scalzi's Lowest Difficulty Setting post.

Moran Cerf said...


I was told about this blog post summarizing my SSC talk, and now finally read it. It's fantastic! Such a thorough work! I am going to link to it from my website ( and tell people who asked me what I talked about and if I can redo it to go look at your posts --

Thanks for doing this.