It’s All In The Mind

Mmmm ... Brains!
Mmmm … Brains!
The human mind is an interesting thing. It completely controls what we can learn about it. Think about that, while ignoring the irony of those three words, and try and imagine any other situation like that. While others may try and influence you no one can truly control your thoughts without your permission. Oh, I’ll grant, there are ways to influence someone’s decision making process. To be more accurate, there are seven. If you’re looking to become a cult leader or something, feel free to click that link. But, even then, simply recognizing the techniques nullifies them. If you’re bored, however, just watch any televangelist. They use them all the time. Nevertheless, the one thing we all have, at one level or another, is control of our own dreams and memories.

Or so you thought.

Phillip Ball, over at the Guardian, quietly noted that scientists can erase memories and replace them with new ones.

Be careful what you wish for. That’s what Joel, played by Jim Carrey, discovers in Charlie Kaufman’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when he asks a memory-erasure company, Lacuna Inc, to excise the recollections of a painful breakup from his mind. During the procedure, Joel realises he doesn’t want every memory of the relationship to vanish and tries desperately to hold on to a few fragments.

The movie offers a metaphor for how we are defined by our memories, how poignant is both their recall and their loss – and how unreliable they can be. So what if Lacuna’s process is implausible? Just enjoy the allegory. Except that selective memory erasure isn’t implausible. It’s already happening.

Researchers and clinicians are using drugs to suppress the emotional impact of traumatic memories. They have been able to implant false memories in flies and mice, so that innocuous environments or smells seem to be “remembered” as threatening. They are showing that memory is not like an old celluloid film, fixed but fading; it is constantly being changed and updated, and can be edited and falsified with alarming ease.

“I see a world where we can reactivate any kind of memory we like, or erase unwanted memories,” says neuroscientist Steve Ramirez of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I even see a world where editing memories is something of a reality. We’re living in a time where it’s possible to pluck questions from the tree of science fiction and ground them in experimental reality.” So be careful what you wish for.

The good news is that, just like in Total Recall or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you have to volunteer for this.

So far.

But not all forms of mind control are malevolent. Some can be downright beneficial. The nice people over at Science Alert tell us how the mind of a paralytic can be tricked into having the patient walk again.

Australian researchers have developed a tiny ‘bionic spine’ that can be implanted into a blood vessel next to the brain to read electrical signals and feed them into an exoskeleton, bionic limbs, or wheelchair to give paraplegic patients greater mobility based on subconscious thoughts.

“Our vision, through this device, is to return function and mobility to patients with complete paralysis by recording brain activity and converting the acquired signals into electrical commands, which in turn would lead to movement of the limbs through a mobility assist device like an exoskeleton. In essence this a bionic spinal cord,” said neurologist and lead researcher, Thomas Oxley from the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the University of Melbourne.

One of the biggest advantages of the new device is how easy it is to implant. Measuring 3 cm long and a few millimetres wide – basically the size of a paperclip – it requires a small cut to be made in the back of a patient’s neck, and is fed into the blood vessels that connect to the brain via a catheter.

Once it hits the top of the motor cortex – where the nerve impulses that control voluntary muscular activity originate – the bionic spine is left behind as the catheter is removed. The whole procedure should only take a few hours, the team reports.

“We have been able to create the world’s only minimally invasive device that is implanted into a blood vessel in the brain via a simple day procedure, avoiding the need for high risk open brain surgery,” said Oxley.

“This is a procedure that Royal Melbourne staff do commonly to remove blood clots,” one of the team, Nicholas Opie from the University of Melbourne, told Melissa Davey at The Guardian. “The difference with our device is we have to put it in, and leave it in.”

Once the bionic spine is implanted, the tiny electrodes on its exterior will stick to the walls of a vein and start recording electrical signals from the motor cortex. These signals are then transmitted to another device implanted in the patient’s shoulder, which translates them into commands to control wheelchairs, exoskeletons, prosthetic limbs, or computers via bluetooth.

This isn’t something a patient will immediately know how to do, but the researchers say that with training, deliberate thoughts about manoeuvring bionic limbs and other apparatuses will eventually be controlled by their subconscious.

While this is certainly not the first piece of technology designed to give paralysed patients the ability to move again using neural signals, the team behind it says it’s an improvement on previous devices because of how tiny it is.

“[M]ost require invasive surgery involving removing a piece of the skull, known as a craniotomy, and which carries a risk of infection and other complications,” Davey explains for The Guardian, adding that a few recently unveiled devices involve bulky electrode caps and robotic suits.

“[A]nother existing procedure, which involves puncturing thousands of electrodes into the brain, is only effective for up to a year before the brain starts treating it as a foreign object and grows scar tissue over it,” she describes.

The device has so far only been tested in sheep, but the team plans to start human trials in 2017, with three patients to be selected from Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Austin Health spinal cord unit as the first recipients.

The exciting thing about this, besides the obvious, is that the implant only needs to be done once and then the patient will be mobile for the rest of their lives. Slim exo-skeletons have already been developed and, by 2017, there is hope that they could be worn like underwear or a T-shirt and not be noticeable to observers.

Now, as with all things, the mind can sometimes let its owner down. Alzheimer’s and Dementia are the most obvious examples. And while strides are being made in treatment and, possibly, a cure, for now we can only address the symptoms. And one of those symptoms, victims getting confused and wandering off, sometimes with lethal consequences, has been the hardest to overcome.

Until now.

Chiarra Sottlie, at NBS News, tells us all about the teenage boy who solved the problem.

Kenneth Shinozuka will soon start the eleventh grade. He’s a Boy Scout and a lover of the outdoors, and he wants to someday cure Alzheimer’s Disease.

Shinozuka, 15, crosses the cheerily decorated room with its floral paintings and karaoke station, and greets Ida with a handshake and polite salutations. Then, he gets down to business.

“I made this sock that lets Conrad know when you walk off your chair or out of bed, and lets him know if you need help,” Shinozuka says, referring to Ida’s nurse.

“Oh really?” Ida asks. “That’s pretty clever.”

“Thank you,” he says, in his characteristic politeness. “So we’re going to put the sock on you know, if that’s okay.” Delicately, he kneels down and slides a blue gingham sock equipped with a sensor on Ida’s right foot.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, of the estimated five million Americans with the disease, about 60 percent of them wander — and often become dangerously lost — as a result.

Shinozuka has invented a pressure sensor that when worn on the bottom of the foot or with a sock detects an increase in pressure and wirelessly sends an alert to a caregiver’s smartphone. Not only did Shinozuka come up with the gadget from scratch and teach himself how to make it, but he’s also beta testing it on patients like Ida this summer.

The CEO and founder of Irvine Cottages, gerontologist Jacqueline Dupont recalls the day earlier this summer when the eager 15-year-old called her saying he wanted to help her patients.

“I just couldn’t believe that anyone so young could achieve so much,” says Dupont. “I thought he was a college student!”

Shinozuka gets that a lot.

He’s matter-of-fact as he reviews his device with Dr. Dupont. “Pressure is applied, the alert is sounded,” says Shinozuka, squeezing the white, lima-bean sized sensor and triggering a musical chime on the iPhone in his other hand.

Side note, he invented this as a way for his family to track his grandfather who suffers from Alzheimer’s and keeps wandering off. The device, while simple, is also 100% effective.

So now that I’ve got you feeling all warm and fuzzy please allow me to scare the living shit out of you.

A while back I wrote about how some simians have entered the Stone Age and are now evolving towards true sentience. Many assumed that this was nature’s way of picking our replacements. And there is enough truth in that possibility to make it worth considering. But, as anyone who’s studied rudimentary anthropology knows, nature always offers alternatives. Before there were homo-sapiens there were many forms of proto-humans. Some we mated with, others we killed, until it was finally just us.

So what other animals are on that list? The answer might surprise you.

I’ll let Mark Prigg, of the Daily Mail, tell you all about crow funerals.

Crows mourn their dead to try and learn about potential dangers to their own lives, researchers have found.

They found the birds can even remember an animal or person seen with a dead crow.

The birds were also able to easily distinguish between people or hawks carrying dead crows and other birds.

‘The funeral behaviour of crows is so widely observed, and people often asked about it – but we haven’t known what was happening,’ Kaeli Swift at the University of Washington, who led the research, told Dailymail.com.

The study recorded the crow’s behaviour when stuffed crows which appeared dead were introduced to areas where they are feeding.

‘I introduced one of my three dangerous scenarios: a masked person holding a dead crow, a masked person standing near perched hawk, and a masked person standing near a perched hawk with a dead crow.’

In all these cases the birds were taxidermy-prepared mounts.

‘The masks were used to work out how the crows recognised people – I had different volunteers each week,’ Swift said.

In 96% of cases , the response was the same.

‘The discovering bird (usually the territory holder) would scold and typically attract 5-11 additional birds.

‘The mob would stick around for 10-20 minutes, scolding loudly and gradually growing more silent and dispersing before all but the territory holders were left.’

Exposure to the dangerous stimuli would only last 30min, after which they were removed.
Volunteers wore realistic facemasks with neutral expressions for the experiments so the crows could recognise faces even though different volunteers were underneath them.

‘I found that crows responded most strongly when they saw a person and a hawk with a dead crow as opposed to a person holding a dead crow or a person near a hawk,’ said Swift.

‘This tells us that context matters, and crows are most sensitive to dead crows when they’re with familiar predators.

Even after 6 week, 38% of the 65 pairs eligible for all 6 tests continued to respond to the ‘dangerous’ person.

Previous research has found crows have an excellent memory for human faces, and Swift said the team have a pending publication on exactly how long they remember for, and said it is ‘years’

She admits she was surprised by some of the results – in particular the fact crows learnt to recognise people simply standing near hawks.

‘That was really surprising.’

So what does that mean? Essentially that crows modify their cultural responses to their surroundings. This allows them to have different bases for their reactions and to interact with other groups that have different reactions to different stimuli and learn.

And that leads to this.

Molly Jackson, over at the Christian Science Monitor, says that Ravens, a more intelligent and evolved version of crows, might possess a true theory of mind.

From ancient Greek mythology to Native American folklore, ravens tend to have the same role: the clever tricksters you don’t want to cross. Corvus corax and its relatives were even spies for Apollo, which didn’t end well for his unfaithful lover Coronis, and served as the eyes and ears of Norse god Odin.

Ravens do spy on each other, it turns out, and they can infer when other birds are snooping on them. New findings, released Tuesday in a study in Nature Communications, highlight just how sophisticated – and human-like – ravens’ cognitive abilities are.

“What really is the feature that’s unique and special about human cognition?” asks co-author Cameron Buckner, a philosopher at the University of Houston.

Something helped propel us to learn language, built political institutions, develop arts and culture. Many biologists and philosophers think it’s our ability to see things through another person’s eyes, and to think about what they might be thinking, skills referred to as “Theory of Mind.”

But ravens do have basic Theory of Mind, the authors suggest, after cracking one of the biggest puzzles in animal cognition debates: without speech, how can we tell what a bird is thinking?

Ravens are willing to eat just about anything, but especially meat. After a group comes across some carrion, and has eaten as much as they can, birds will tuck remaining bits into their throat pouches, then scoot off to bury the scraps in hidden caches they can come back to later. It’s a competitive game of hide-and-seek, in which subordinates often spy to see where a dominant has stashed a future meal, and try to fly in for a taste as soon as the dominant takes off.

Often, though, she knows they’re watching. Ravens use all kinds of tricks to throw off competitors: burying their cache as quickly as they can, for instance, or doing their digging behind a visual barrier; afterwards, they may avoid the spot, hoping not to draw attention to their buried loot. Some will even pretend to dig a hole while secretly keeping their snack in their throat pouch until they can find a more private spot.

It all points to the idea that they know they’re being watched: that they can project other ravens’ motives. Better watch where he’s headed; I’ll dig up a bit as soon as he’s gone. Earlier studies with chimps, monkeys and ravens have also suggested a basic Theory of Mind, but with a major caveat: do the animals really know what others are thinking? Or are they just reacting to physical stimuli: visible raven plus a fresh food cache equals lost supper?

“This was a really difficult problem to overcome,” Dr. Buckner says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. Mere cache-hiding might be “one-to-one stimulus responses,” ravens’ individual trial and error when they see another bird looking their way. To prove that a raven showed Theory of Mind, researchers needed to get the second raven out of the picture, to demonstrate that there was some underlying code helping ravens generalize about others’ motives.

To test it out, they separated two experiment areas with a wall, which they fitted with a window and a small peephole, visible when the window was shut. Offering food to ravens in both rooms, with the windows first open, then closed, they observed baseline caching behavior: how did the birds try to disguise their caches when they could clearly see competitors, and when they couldn’t?

Then came peephole training. Individually, 10 birds were trained to look through the open peephole and spy on a human researcher burying some cheese; afterwards, the window was fully opened, and they could go find their edible reward. (Most could, that is; one feathered fellow named Rufus never mastered the peephole, and had to sit out the rest of the experiment.)

The next time one of the remaining nine ravens entered the caching room, the window was still shut — but the peephole was open, and a loudspeaker on the other side played recordings of the ravens’ noises during the earlier caching stage. The birds couldn’t see the competition (and in fact there wasn’t any, just recorded noises) but, now acquainted with the peephole, they seemed to infer that someone could be watching. The birds hid their caches more quickly and delayed a return visit to the cache, similar to their behavior when they were visibly observed by other ravens.

“Because all available behavior-reading cues have been controlled for in the test condition – there is no actual competitor whose gaze could be read, and the situation is novel from the subject’s perspective – these data provide clear evidence that raven social cognition cannot be reduced to behavior-reading,” the team writes.

In other words, the birds met the researchers’ criteria for Theory of Mind by incorporating information from their own experiences with novel ones, to predict how others might act and how to adapt their own behavior appropriately.

I should note here that crows and ravens have both developed the ability to use tools. Well enough that it’s easy to consider them pre-Stone Age in their development.

Keep this in mind, if you’ll pardon the expression, once humans had developed rudimentary civilizations and communication skills, similar to the ones chimps, ravens, and crows are now demonstrating, it took them barely 10,000 years to turn that into cities, agriculture, and so on. And they had no references to learn from. All the other animals have us.

Maybe wiping our minds and calling it a day isn’t such a bad idea after all.

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