Friday Science Roundup, October 7, 2011

Sorry I missed last week! Explanations reside here. Lightning short versions : I was sick.

But enough of the past. Let’s look into the future… with science!

Brain science, to be specific, one of my all time faves. I guess if you spend a lot of your time inside your own head, you get to be curious about the neighborhood.

And what a find : we may have located the exact fold of the brain that is responsible for our ability to tell reality and imagination apart.

Or, as I prefer to phrase it, it lets us distinguish between internal and external events, between what happens inside our heads and what happens outside them. (I prefer this definition because it is more in line with phenomenology. )

Anyhow, the discovery’s first and most immediate implication is that we might have found the very place that needs help in people with schizophrenia, psychosis, and all that level of mental illness. An inability to distinguish between internal and external events is the closest thing I have ever heard to a definition of schizophrenia, and if this discovery leads to better treatment of the disease, with fewer side effects [1], that alone would be a massively important result.

But I am curious whether said region might be gently and carefully manipulated to create a sort of virtual reality effect, almost a controlled schizophrenia, that could be used to create virtual experiences for entertainment purposes. Bypass the whole complicated business of traditional VR setups and pipe the illusions directly to the brain.

Speaking of reading your mind for fun and profit, Nissan is developing cars that can predict what you will do next and adjust themselves accordingly.

First off, they came up with this technology while trying to invent a thought controlled wheelchair, and how freaking cool would that be?

But the idea is sound. Brain science, as well of masters of the martial arts, already knows that you can predict what someone is going to do via monitoring their muscular responses, the way their eyes move, etc. it only gives you a fraction of a second warning, but that’s fast enough to dodge a blow or, as it turns out, shift gears.

I am very curious about what the subjective sensation of driving such a vehicle would be, however. It could theoretically be an amazingly wonderful driving experience, the ultimate in responsivity. In fact, if the system is not too expensive, it could make cheap, affordable cars drive just like the super sleek and sexy sports cars that have to be engineered incredibly finely to get the same effect.

And of course, if you can anticipate what people are going to do, you can keep them from doing the wrong thing and ending up in a crash. People might resent that at first, but the first time it saves their ass, they will learn to love it.

And finally, be warned, this one is a little uncomfortable for us animal lovers, but the medical implications are worth it : they have invented autistic mice.

Specifically, they have extra copies of a specific gene linked with autism, which has resulted in mice that display three of the main symptoms of autism : low sociability with other mice, far less vocalization than other mice, and repetitive self-grooming that is considered the equivalent of a human autistic’s repetitive behaviours.

I have to admit that my first response to this news was less than scientific : I immediately imagined mice in winter coats, spotting trains and watching Doctor Who in tiny parent’s basements, and having tiny mouse arguments on even tinier mouse forums.

Adorable, yes, but neither nice nor scientific.

Of course, the whole point of inventing these mice [2]} is so that we can better understand autism spectrum disorders in human beings.

I am not sure this approach will bear fruit. It will certainly help us observe autistic behaviour en masse, but I don’t see it leading to useful medicine for humans.

It may give us further insight into how empathy works in social mammals, however, and that could greatly expand our understanding of ourselves.

And that is always a good thing.

That’s it for now, folks! Seeya later.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. One of the main reasons people with these disorders go off their medications is the side effects. This discovery could well lead to drugs more precisely tailored to the disease, and hence, fewer side effects.
  2. Isn’t it amazing how casually we speak of inventing living animals these days? We play God as a matter of course.

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