This is Your Brain on Starbucks

My father often jokes that hundreds of years from now, future anthropologists will speak of the cult of the Seattle goddess, her shrine adorning every airport, shopping mall, and train station in America.  The worshippers partake in a holy communion of coffee, tea, and espresso.  In fact, anthropologists today tell us that in some indigenous American cultures, drinking psychoactive peyote tea is an important part of religious ceremony.  And yet, the very phrase psychoactive tea is somewhat redundant.  All tea and coffee, unless decaffeinated, is psychoactive, albeit usually not to the same extent as peyote, a cactus native to the American Southwest that contains a hallucinogenic alkaloid called mescaline.Continue reading

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, A Review

Responding to the assertion that computers lack intuition, the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett once (counter-intuitively) argued that computers must have intuition. Ask a computer to calculate the square root of 54357.029. How did the computer get the answer? Lacking awareness, the computer doesn’t know. The answer wasn’t the result of deep thinking or concentration. It was intuition.Continue reading

Learning from Disorder: The Paradox of Information in the Brain

In Dante’s Inferno, the fifth circle of Hell is a place where the wrathful fight each other for eternity.  Similarly, I often consider YouTube comments to be an extracanonical circle of Hell where the trolls fight each other for eternity.  You might, then, imagine my surprise when I found many thoughtful comments expressing wonder and intrigue on a YouTube video of brain activity in a zebrafish.  Continue reading

Jupiter and Beyond! The Unsung Friendship between Neuroscience and Space Exploration

This weekend, I attended a special event at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, CA to celebrate the Juno spacecraft’s July 4th arrival at the planet Jupiter.  Planetary scientists study outer space, while neuroscientists such as myself study inner space.  But as my visit to JPL revealed, the goals and challenges of each discipline are far more similar than you might think.  So, what is Juno, and how does its mission mirror that of many neuroscientists?Continue reading

Brain Waves and Beta Buzz: The Wild Story of Neural Oscillations

What are brain waves?  It’s no wonder the term sounds like science fiction.  In the 1920s, a German psychiatrist embarked on a highly personal quest to discover the supposed medium of telepathy.  By placing electrodes on the human scalp, Hans Berger found waves of electrical brain activity using a tool called electroencephalography, or EEG.  Physicists had recently shown that electromagnetic waves could propagate through space to carry information.  If the brain had its own waves, could they transmit thoughts to others like a radio broadcast?Continue reading

Gliders, Blinkers, and Pulsars: Complexity and the Game of Life

Previously on Knowing Neurons, we considered self-organized criticality (SOC) and network science (AKA graph theory) as two possible sources of complex behavior in the brain and other physiological systems. As discussed in that piece, complex behavior as observed in quantifiable, physiological signals appears healthy, motivating the question of what gives rise to such behavior. In two prior posts, we established that studying individual parts per se in a physiological system will never yield a complete understanding of the system.Continue reading

How Do We Know? The Value of Scientific Models.

Last month, astronomers announced the prediction of a new giant planet in our solar system dubbed Planet IX, a genuine ninth planet with ten times the mass of Earth.  The announcement lead to some confusion on the Internet as to the whether the planet had actually been discovered.  In fact, no direct observation of this planet has been made. Rather, the planet has been predicted by a model, a simplified description of a system which often incorporates hypothetical elements to explain the variance in data.  Because many models use equations to describe a system, a model can often be thought of as a theory with a mathematical backbone.Continue reading