Category Archives: Our minds

Does size really matter? What’s so special about our brains?

Closing out an evolutionary trifecta for May.  Our ramshackle remodeling has brought us a big, beautiful brain, but is it really the size that gives us our smarts?  If overall mass were all that mattered, you’d have to open an underwater chapter of MENSA, as the sperm whale’s brain swells past all others at nearly 20 pounds.  Ours, by comparison, is only about 3 pounds.  It should be obvious, though, that absolute size can’t be the dominant indicator, as a lot of that real estate is needed just to communicate with a body that big.

That’s why a better rule is the ratio of brain size to body size.  We start to sit a lot prettier from that viewpoint, as primates boast brains 5 to 10 times larger than the “average” animal proportion.  Then again, a person’s brain size to body size ratio is just about the same as that of a mouse.  Birds and ants actually come out ahead of us.  There must be something else yet still at play.

 Is it how the organ is organized?  A March study from Jeroen Smaers and Christophe Soligo of the University College of London seems to show, through analysis of 17 primate species that span 40 million years of evolutionary history, that we really started to take off with an accelerated growth of a specific region of the brain, namely the prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal cortex, part of the frontal lobe, is accepted to be where our thoughtful “executive functions” take place.  In other words, the bit that makes us human.

Three pounds of goo that makes you you.  From

Hold on a second, say Robert Barton and Chris Vendetti in an even more recent study!  With their data they counter that, contrary to popular wisdom, the size of our frontal lobes isn’t any bigger than what you’d expect for our bodies.  They argue that previous investigations didn’t tackle the “scaling” issue properly.  Instead, the pair propose we take a closer look at our heightened connectivity between different brain areas.


What was once “common sense,” that a big brain makes for a brighter being, hasn’t been taken seriously for a while, and even the ideas that supplanted it, like size ratios and organizational complexity, have come under criticism.  We’re not lacking for new ideas on the subject, as British researchers Seth Grant and Richard Emes once presented yet another alternative hypothesis, that it’s the number of different protein interactions in our synapses that set us apart from the rest.

It goes to show just how knotty the study of intelligence can be.  What seems obvious isn’t always true and each successive assertion needs to scrutinized by the community.  New ideas are always cropping up and should be considered.  Our thoughts have gotten us far, but how we got them is still not completely certain.

Next Thing You Know, They’ll Take My Thoughts Away: Can fMRI Read Your Mind?

Big Brother is watching you.  As cameras and information tracking become more ubiquitous in society, our definitions and expectations of privacy must necessarily adjust.  I mean, you could just drop off the grid, but then you wouldn’t get Facebook ads for that callous removal device you so desperately need.  How did they figure that out, anyway?  It may seem eerie and borderline telepathic, but the intrusive suggestions would probably stop if you could keep from Googling “ugly foot skin” every day (it’s okay; no judgment here).  But hell, then maybe they’ll just read your mind for real!  The possible application of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to consumer research has been investigated since at least 2007, and a flurry of recent studies on the emerging method have shown its powerful and perhaps frightening ability to peer into our minds and deduce our thoughts.  Has technology breached the final Orwell firewall, or can we tune out the transcranial surveillance?

Let’s first figure out what fMRI is and what it actually does.  Magnetic resonance imaging, a technique made possible by the positive charge of the protons in our bodies’ hydrogen atoms, is typically used to identify abnormal tissue (such as tumors) and holds great advantage over X-rays and CT scans in both resolution and safety.  While traditional MRI can be focused on any particular part of the body, the “functional” version is trained solely on the brain, and is so named because it uses observations of blood flow therein to determine which parts are active at a given time, although that connection isn’t exactly straightforward.  Still, there are some startling, tangible test successes that are hard to argue away.

In 2008, Jack Gallant and his team from the University of California at Berkeley mapped the brains of subjects while they viewed random images from a set database.  Armed with this blueprint, computer programs were then tasked with matching the picture to the neuronal activity when the subjects were shown the photos again.  The program didn’t always pick right, but it could get at least the basic structure down and choose similar photos.

brain-images-fmriimage courtesy of

Spooky, huh?

A similar study by the same group in 2011, this time with video, took it a step further.  After building a brain “dictionary” with the help of hours of clips, the computer model was told to reconstruct from scratch what the subjects saw as they were shown random, never-before-used youtube videos.  Check out the results for yourself and see how well they did.  If that’s not invasive enough for you, an experiment from late last year even applies the same kind of technique to reading people’s dreams.

If advertisers try to utilize fMRI, can the long arm of the law be far behind? In a paper published this month, Anthony Wagner and his team describe how they used digital cameras to take 45,000 pictures of a person’s life over a several week period.  When shown their own photos and those of the other participants while under the watchful eye of the fMRI, researchers were able to distinguish whether the person remembered the image 91% of the time, effectively confirming what they had done in the past.  Is there hope such a procedure could be used in criminal cases to place someone at the scene of a crime, or to show a suspect has knowledge only the particular perpetrator could have?


Before you break out the tinfoil hat and line your living room with lead, look at what all those “mind-reading” examples have in common.  The people who had their thoughts pinched had to first submit to having their brains observed during a certain activity so that the computer programs would know what to look for in the future.  You can’t zap the memories out of someone’s head without them first lying still in a big metal tube for long periods of time.  That’s a little easier to avoid than Facebook.

But what if the court orders it!  Present-day polygraphs are inadmissible evidence in the U.S., and the forecast for fMRI lie-detection doesn’t seem any better.  Anthony Wagner’s further studies show that if a person tries to fool the system by intentionally thinking a familiar scene is foreign (and vice versa), an examiner is no more likely than chance to discern the truth.  The Fifth Amendment really is inalienable!

While we continue to see that fMRI technology can be used to guess general conditions, as with a new study that allows observers to know when a person is in pain, your particular thoughts and memories remain off limits for the time being.  Unless of course you just cant resist sticking your head in that tube.

WDTM? Comes to Facebook. Helping or Hurting?

The official What Does This Mean? Facebook page went up yesterday.  What does that mean?  Well, it means that all these blog entries will be posted there for easier access, along with other interesting science-y tidbits.  But really… is it part of the solution or part of the problem?  Is there a problem?  What effects do the the modern super social connectivity and the Internet’s ability to access nearly all knowledge with a few keystrokes have on our minds and brains?  Try to avoid reading in an F-pattern and we’ll see.

One of the Internet’s first functions (besides distributing free porno) was to share information between UCLA, the Stanford Research Institute, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah.  There’s a lot more out there now than just the goings-on at four different institutions, so much so that people don’t even feel the need to remember anymore.  A 2011 study led by Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow showed that experiment participants were less likely to recall presented statements if they were told the information would be accessible to them later on, and that they were more likely to remember where to find the information rather than the content itself.  As we begin to treat the web as our own external, mental hard drive, 84% of us can’t bear to be without our smartphones for even a day.

Okay, we’re in the middle of the “F.”  Still with me?  Good, because you should know it’s not just the trivia questions that keep us clicking.  It’s chemical.  Dopamine, the neurotransmitter in our brains that causes us to seek out satiation, whether that be from food, sex or text, kicks into overdrive with the instant gratification of every e-mail and info nugget we receive, spurring us to want more and more as each desire is rewarded.  Why is it never enough?  Stasis is the bane of evolution and survival.  A happy organism is a complacent one that doesn’t strive or fill new ecological niches.  The chase really is better than catch, and now it can be repeated almost endlessly.

And don’t fool yourself into thinking you can finger your phone and get your work done at the same time.  Research has shown that performing two or more tasks simultaneously or switching back and forth from one thing to another can reduce productivity by up to 40%, and that it may make distractions harder to tune out, leading to mental blocks.  In fact, the people who identify themselves as heavy multitaskers actually perform worse at certain mental plasticity tests, according to a University of Utah study.  The dopamine connection is evident here again, as those same people tend to be the most impulsive and sensation-seeking.


Best throw out your phone and nuke your Facebook.  *Wait, NO! *  Um, there are tangible advantages from social networking… yeah.  It appears that the benefits derived from traditional social groups, such as the propagation of desirable behavior and the feeling of belonging, are still present in online networking.  And it makes your brain bigger!  Well, Robin Dunbar, the anthropologist regarded for his assertion that a person can never really “know” more than a 150 people (so start trimming those friend lists), discovered with his colleagues that the size of a person’s social network is directly related to the volume of the orbital prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved with decision-making.  It is currently unknown whether accepting those requests actually jacks up your gray matter or if folks so gifted are just naturally gregarious and friendly.

273774-facebook-brainOrwellian image via

Hey, bottom of the “F!”  Not that I’ve got your attention back, it’s probably trivial to point out that the Internet and social networks are simply tools that can be used beneficially or can cause harm, just like anything else.  Understanding how we think and why fancy gadgets sometimes lead us down an unproductive path can help push the needle further toward the former.


February 2013 Revisit: It’s a Conspiracy!~@!~`1

At the end of each month, What Does This Mean? will reflect upon the previous four weeks of posts to correct mistakes, acknowledge discussion and generally put a bow on what we’ve come to know.  Where most media fail to realize that a story doesn’t stop once the ink dries, WDTM? is proud to proclaim that the learning process never ends and that new information should always inform and shape our earlier interpretations.  This inaugural edition will necessarily cover less and take a slightly different tact.  Or is that just what they want you to think???

Frank Drake’s legacy, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), momentarily shut down in 2011.  Was it because they had secretly found what they had been looking for?  Was this year’s flu outbreak part of a government program to sadistically sicken the citizenry?  And how about that meteor in Russia?  Could it have really been an alien spaceship or a nefarious missile test?  Well, I guess anything’s possible, but when you live in a probabilistic universe, you have to play the percentages, and none of those suppositions seem very likely.  So why do major (and sometimes even minor) events always spawn these kinds of way out conspiracy theories?  What does it say about us that we’re eternally looking to undermine the “official story?”  You can probably blame our evolution-addled brains.

Michael Shermer, Editor in Chief of Skeptic magazine and monthly Scientific American columnist, has written several times on the subject.  One of the main driving factors in conspiracy belief seems to be the human tendency to see patterns where they don’t exist.  A phenomenon known as apophenia, it’s thought to be a hold-over from our more danger-plagued ancestors.  Not every rustle in the bushes is a venomous snake, but it’s probably better to assume so and be wrong than the opposite.  As one of the few organisms, if not the only one, to have a theory of mind (the notion that others can think just like I do), we’re also prone to over-observing agency.  “Someone must have done it!”  When we once saw guiding spirits in the rivers and the trees, we now identify shadowy manipulators behind the scenes.  It’s almost comfortable in a way to believe that even if the forces are malevolent, somebody is actually in control of otherwise random events.

And the advent of the internet just amped up the virulence.  Poorly printed leaflets have been supplanted by light speed video delivery.  It’s a lot easier now to find credentialed kooks to back up what you already accept, too.  Smart people are really good at defending views they came to through non-smart avenues.  So when you can find engineers who think the Newtown shooting was staged, it seems a tiny bit more believable than when senile Aunt Edna yells it from the basement.


Okay, I was way wrong about the Chelyabinsk meteor.  I imagined UFO enthusiasts nervously chewing their fingernails, and we got half the Russian population invoking aliens and acts of God.  But when you’ve been legitimately lied to by your government so much, maybe they get a pass.  Let’s not forget, though, that propaganda is different than being able to keep secrets.  Even in America, it’s hard to believe that a government full of Chatty Cathy’s itching for immortality and book deals can keep a lid on everyone involved in a massive Moon landing hoax.  That’s preposterous enough to make a man violent.

But really,  in the Information Age, not one disgruntled grip from the set of “Buzz Bounces Around” has blogged his complicity (or at least had his grandson do it for him)?  Why hasn’t WikiLeaks busted this shit open?  The internet is both the best and the worst thing to ever happen to the spread of weird ideas.  You can bend the digital ears of anyone worldwide with your wackiness, but the rational rebuttal is also mere keystrokes away.  Sites like snopes and the Skeptic’s Dictionary might be outnumbered, but the ammunition exists to combat the crazy if you’re willing to look for it.