Ben Carson on memory

10 Mar

By all accounts Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson is a talented neurosurgeon. But he seems to be surprisingly ill informed about modern memory science:

…on Monday, he told a factually wrong parable about the brain. Specifically, Carson said, the brain was incapable of forgetting and could be electrically stimulated into perfect recall — a statement that, even though made by one of the most famous former neurosurgeons alive, was far more fiction than science.

It came in an anecdote meant to motivate the federal employees, a bit Carson developed on the public speaking circuit. He described the brain’s surprising power as a way to show the audience that they were more capable than they believed.

Except his description did not hit the mark. “It remembers everything you’ve ever seen. Everything you’ve ever heard. I could take the oldest person here, make a little hole right here on the side of the head,” Carson said, circling his left temple with a finger, “and put some depth electrodes into their hippocampus and stimulate. And they would be able to recite back to you, verbatim, a book they read 60 years ago. It’s all there. It doesn’t go away. You just have to learn how to recall it.”

Here’s the story in the Washington Post.

The insinuation that Carson could zap a patient into reciting, from cover to cover, a book read in 1957 was not true, experts said.

“Using electrodes placed in the human brain to implant memories or to recall forgotten memories is simply not possible at this time,” Darin Dougherty, a psychiatrist and the director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s neurotherapeutics division, told Gizmodo.

Dan Simons, a University of Illinois psychologist who studies attention and memory, told Wired that Carson’s claim was “utter nonsense.” Simons said it failed on nearly all counts: Humans cannot recall large swaths of text unless memorized for that purpose. Doctors cannot force patients to remember anything in crystal detail, even with deep brain stimulation. No human brain holds within it “a perfect and permanent record of our experiences,” the psychologist said.

Crypto-spiritualism: The return of facilitated communication

8 Mar

Spiritualism is the belief that it is possible to communicate with the death through trance mediums. While there are historical antecedents, modern spiritualism began in 1848 in New York state, when the young Fox sisters claimed the power to produce raps from the spirit world.

Spiritualism promised communication with the  dead, and for the bereaved this was often an irresistible  hope.  Fraudulent mediums were happy to provide solace, for a price. Exposures of fraud, probably contributed to the decline of spiritualism, but even today there are believers.

Sunday’s Washington Post brought the sad news of a revival of the discredited technique called facilitated communication. Facilitated communication is supposed to allow people with severe autism and other developmental disabilities to communicate. It is easy to see why parents would want to believe that their non-verbal children could actually communicate, but our evidence shows that that facilitated communication does not work and that the messages are actually authored by the facilitators via the ideomotor effect.

Here is the American Psychological Association’s statement on facilitated communication.

And here is the powerful Frontline documentary on the subject.

Downloading SoundCloud podcasts

6 Mar

I have a dedicated mp3 that I use when I work out. I know that most people just use their smartphones, but I worry about sweating on or otherwise damaging a sensitive and expensive piece of electronic equipment. Also, a dedicated mp3 player is optimized for its purpose and, I believe, delivers better performance. For the record I use the SanDisk Clip Jam with an sd card for added storage.

The only problem I have encountered is that many podcasts are only available through specialized streaming services, such as SoundCloud. Sometimes you can solve this problem by viewing the page source and finding the url for the mp3 file, but not with SoundCloud.

Thus, I was very please to discover this service, the SoundCloud downloader.

Here are some more thoughts about mp3 players.

How do you keep track of all your projects?

5 Mar

One blogger’s approach to time management.

neuroecology

One of the central tasks that we must perform as scientists – especially as we progress in our careers – is project management. To that end, I’ll admit that I find myself a bit overwhelmed with my projects lately. I have many different things I’m working on with many different people, and every week I seem to lose track of one or another. So I’m looking for a better method! It seems to me that the optimal method to keep track of projects would have the following characteristics:

  1. Ping me every week about any project that I have not touched
  2. Re-assess each project every week, both in terms of what I need to do and the priority for the project as a whole
  3. Split the projects into subtypes: data gathering, analysis, tool building, writing (etc).
  4. Be clear in my weekly/monthly/longer-term goals. Review these every week
  5. Some kind of social pressure…

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Why can’t I snap my fingers?

3 Mar

I am unable to snap my fingers. I never really regarded this as any kind of a disadvantage. However, it has been brought to my attention that some people advocate replacing applause with finger snapping. 

When I tell people that I can’t snap my fingers, they often try to instruct me. They assume that I must just be using the wrong technique. But to no avail. The other thing I discover is that I am not alone and that other people are unable to do it.

I have been unable to find an explanation in the medical literature. I suspect that it might have something to do with the mobility of the finger joints.

How to Stop Hiccups

1 Mar

An astounding tour of the medical literature on hiccups:

Another Sapir-Whorf claim

27 Feb

As I have mentioned before, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis  claims that specific languages affect how speakers view the world. Recently, I came across this article about a Japanese company that is making its employees (in Japan) speak English:

Japan continues to work inside a linguistic bubble – not least because many firms in Japan are oriented towards the domestic market and pay little heed to global trends. But this approach is becoming increasingly difficult to justify. Switching to English makes Japanese firms more competitive, while opening employees’ eyes to the outside world.

There is another benefit to using English in business: The language has few power markers. Its use can therefore help to break down the hierarchical, bureaucratic barriers that are entrenched in Japanese society and reflected in Japanese conversation, which could boost efficiency.

What were the effects of this change?

Of course, the Englishisation of companies is not easy. The internal shake-up is profound. Staff who speak English well suddenly acquire a higher status: those who do not fear for their careers.

Today, more than 90 per cent of our employees have achieved the required level of English. This has helped to make our operations more efficient than ever. An employee anywhere in the world can pick up a phone and get an immediate answer, instead of working through a translator.

The impact can also be felt on an individual level. One manager, who initially feared that he would have to leave the company, changed his tune after attending an intensive English-language school in the Philippines, where he met students from South Korea and China who were committed to mastering the language. His English improved quickly, and so did his standing in the company. More importantly, he gained a much-needed global perspective.

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