Your future self already exists in the cloud

The Economist has a short but fascinating piece on the work of physicist Chaoming Song who creates mathematical models to predict your future location based on your mobile phone and online activity. His accuracy rarely drops below 80%.

Song Chaoming, for instance, is a researcher at Northeastern University in Boston. He is a physicist, but he moonlights as a social scientist. With that hat on he has devised an algorithm which can look at someone’s mobile-phone records and predict with an average of 93% accuracy where that person is at any moment of any day. Given most people’s regular habits (sleep, commute, work, commute, sleep), this might not seem too hard. What is impressive is that his accuracy was never lower than 80% for any of the 50,000 people he looked at.

If you think this sounds a little far-fetched the findings have already been published – one paper in Nature Physics and the other in Science.

Yes folks, we’re all unique. Just like everyone else.

Link to The Economist on Chaoming’s network echo location work.

The Perfect Woman

The heaving busts and melodrama of a Latin American soap opera, a television industry desperate for a ratings hit, and the writer makes a woman with Asperger’s syndrome the love interest for the dashing plastic surgeon in the latest telenovela. It sounds like a recipe for disaster but it turned out to be a triumph.

The Venezuelan telenovela was called La Mujer Perfecta – The Perfect Woman. The name was a play on its plastic surgery theme, a subtle nod to the country’s obsession with surgical tweaks and a knowing satire on the fact that the heroine was unconventionally, well, perfect.

If you’ve never seen a Latin American telenovela most are like a crap version of Knots Landing that exist as the semi-official residence of ex-beauty queens. Occasionally, however, they soar into brilliance.

La Mujer Perfecta was one of those examples and it’s discussed in an English-language article by media researcher Carolina Acosta-Alzuru. Wonderfully, she writes the piece as a letter to the lead character Micaela.

Of these six women, you would be the most peculiar, Micaela. You, who had never gone under the plastic surgery knife and who had never fallen in love, would discover the symptoms of love on meeting Santiago Reverón, a famous plastic surgeon married to a diva with a body and face operated on to the point of perfection. And Santiago would fall in love with you, the strangest woman he had ever met. Among your peculiarities is that you process what you hear literally. You do not understand the nuances of spoken language, nor of body language. As such, you cannot parse metaphors, sarcasm, and jokes.

In addition, you lack social filters when speaking; hence, you never lie or sugar coat your expressions. Brilliant, with an intelligence that is above average and a photographic memory, you can speak extensively about some subjects in which you are particularly learned. At the same time, you have difficulty deciphering emotions — your own and those of others. You are methodical and attached to your routines. They are your safety net. Hence, you suffer if anything alters your habits or environment.

Your body language can confuse people: you have difficulty making eye contact and, in general, you do not like to be touched. At the beginning of La Mujer Perfecta, no one (not even you), knew the reason behind your characteristics: Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition that lies in the spectrum of autism. But Asperger’s would not impede the occurrence of your love story with Santiago. And, as you know, a central love story is the defining characteristic of telenovelas.

Imagine if you had the production values of Dallas but still managed to create a brilliantly subversive, interesting and entertaining TV show that the autism community were really proud of.

Imagine if it topped the ratings without resorting to a librarian moment where the lead character takes off her dorky clothes, flicks her hair and is suddenly ‘cured’.

Most of the series is on YouTube but even if you don’t speak Spanish, it’s worth checking out the scene where Micaela and Santiago have their first kiss. It’s incredibly touching.

Micaela says she doesn’t understand why he says ‘he feels butterflies in his stomach’. Santiago comes out with a passionate but poetic declaration of love that Micaela doesn’t get. He touches her. She asks him not to because it feels uncomfortable. He withdraws his hands.

He says he has been trying to distract himself but he constantly thinks about her and feels completely consumed by her. She asks, concerned, “is this bad?” “No”, he replies, “it’s spectacular”.

She smiles and their lips edge closer. The music surges …you seem the perfect woman for me…. They kiss, a gentle tender kiss. Butterflies are flying around them.

And the adverts come and ruin the moment.

Even the most subversive telenovela of its generation is still, after all, a telenovela.

Link to article in academic journal (via @autismcrisis)
Link to pdf of same.

What will the billion dollar brain projects do?

Two neuroscience projects have been earmarked for billion dollar funding by Europe and the US government but little has been said about what the projects will achieve. Here’s what we know.

The European Commision has just awarded half a billion euros to the Human Brain Project – a development of Henry Markram’s Blue Brain project which has made impressive biologically detailed computational models of cortical columns from the rat brain.

The Human Brain Project sells itself as aiming to “simulate a complete human brain in a supercomputer” but this is clearly bollocks.

It’s interesting that this claim makes the press kit and the flashy video but the actual report (pdf) has much more sober claims about ‘simulating brain dynamics’ and the like.

But it’s important to realise that while their big sell is nonsense, the project is likely to genuinely revolutionise neuroscience in a way that could push the field light years ahead.

What Markram has realised is that the single biggest barrier to progress in neuroscience is the co-ordination, sharing and integration of data.

Essentially, it’s a problem of information architecture but quite frankly, you can’t sell that to politicians and they can’t sell it to the public. Hence the ‘simulating a complete human brain’ fluff.

What the project aims to do is co-ordinate neuroscience teams looking at neurobiology, cognitive neuroscience and computational modelling and give them the tools to easily share data with each other.

One of the big pay-offs will genuinely be the creation of biologically feasible computer simulations of neural networks with the hope that these can be used for practical applications like virtual drug testing and computer-based experiments.

Markram has gained valuable experience of meshing heavy-duty computing with working lab teams and has recruited some of the world’s leading neuroscientists to the project.

Although the spin seems over-the-top scientifically this is an important project that, if successful, could be a scientific landmark.

In terms of the big bucks American counterpart here’s what we know – which, as it turns out, is not very much.

Obama has hinted at spending up to $3 billion on a neuroscience project. He made a vague reference to ‘brain mapping’ and the director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke eventually confirmed he was referring to the Brain Activity Map project – something outlined in a scientific article published in last June’s Neuron.

You can read the piece as a pdf but io9 has some good coverage if you want a summary.

But here’s the thing. The scientific article really just says the project would aim to ‘reconstruct a full record of activity across complete neural circuits’ and turn them into computer models and suggests some technologies that may be useful.

It’s along the same lines as the Human Brain Project but without committing to any details and admits we don’t currently have to the tools to achieve the aims. Even the NINDS director admitted that a ‘concrete plan’ has yet to be finalised.

In fact, considering the vagueness of both the science and the political response I suspect the sudden discussion of the Brain Activity Map project is as much a response to the European cash splash than a well-planned project that has been waiting to be funded.

Although the announcement is probably as much a political as a scientific move the implications are likely to be important.

If we assume that the US has committed to not being left behind by their European colleagues we are likely to see a decade of massive innovation in neuroscience.

We live in exciting times.

2013-02-22 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

The Lancet asks how we can help children cope with trauma? The unfortunate answer is we don’t really know.

“If you don’t share my beliefs, it’s because your brain isn’t working properly”. Excellent piece on the ‘defective brain’ fallacy from the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale.

WA Today has an interesting piece on the Australian swim team that gives an insight into how pro-athletes misuse prescription drugs to get high.

What happens to your brain when you get black-out drunk? asks Gizmodo while dropping it’s kebab over your shirt and mumbling about how your mum is really hot for an older woman.

The Guardian has an interesting piece on how psychologists work with weight-loss surgeons to ensure patients can maintain their progress.

What will it be like to live in a robot society? asks iTechPost while jammed against the door, pump-action shotgun in hand, screaming “To The Bunkers!”

Time covers a fascinating neurosurgery study that ‘watched’ how the brain generates speech.

You’re surprisingly good at absorbing caffeine through your skin. Neurotic Physiology heralds a new age of caffeine body patches.

The Institute for Art and Ideas has an interesting discussion on consciousness and a secular interpretation of the soul between Galen Strawson, David Malone and Nicholas Humphrey.

On the Possible Shapes of the Brain. The Loom looks at how brain folding relates to complexity.

Esquire Magazine have a spectacularly shit article on Obama’s billion dollar brain project that they think might “provide the first viable means of remotely controlling the human mind”.

Five examples of how the languages we speak can affect the way we think are discussed on the TED Blog. Mind control! Calm yourselves Esquire.

The Guardian discusses the first UK clinic to treat stalkers.

Cassie Rodenberg’s blog White Noise tracking the lives of addicts on New York’s streets and is both disturbing and compelling.

The Master and His Emissary

I’ve been struggling to understand Iain McGilchrist’s argument about the two hemispheres of the brain, as presented in his book “The Master and His Emissary” [1]. It’s an argument that takes you from neuroanatomy, through behavioural science to cultural studies [2]. The book is crammed with fascinating evidential trees, but I left it without a clear understanding of the overall wood. Watching this RSA Animate helped.

Basically, I think McGilchrist is attempting a neuroscientific rehabilitation of an essentially mystical idea: the map is not the territory, of the important of ends rather than just means [3]. Here’s a tabulation of functions and areas of focus that McGilchrist claims for the two hemispheres:

Left Right
Representation Perception
The Abstract The Concrete
Narrow focus Broad focus
Language Embodiment
Manipulation Experience (?)
Parts Wholes
Machines Life
The Static The Changing
Focus on the known Alertness for the novel
Consistency, familiarity, prediction Contradiction, novelty, surprise
A closed knowledge system An open knowledge system
(Urge after) Consistency (Urge after) Completeness
The Known The Unknown, The ineffable
The explicit The implicit
Generalisation Individuality/uniqueness
Particulars Context

A key idea – which is in the RSA Animate – is the idea of a ‘necessary distance’ from the world. By experiencing yourself as separate (but not totally detached) you are able to empathise with people, manipulate tools, reason on symbols etc. But, of course, there’s always the risk that you end up valuing the tools for their own sake, or believing in the symbol system you have created to understand the world.

From a cognitive neuroscience point of view, this is fair enough, by which I mean that if you are going to look into the (vast) literature on hemispheric specialisation and make some summary claims, as McGilchrist does, then these sort of claims are reasonable. You can enjoy one of the grand-daddies of split brain studies, Michael Gazzaniga, summarise his perspective, which isn’t that discordant, here [4].

From this foundation, McGilchrist goes on to diagnose a historical movement in our culture away from a balanced way of thinking and towards a ‘left brain’ dominated way of thinking. This, to me, also seems fair enough. Modernity does seem characterised by the ascendance of both instrumentalism and bureaucracy, both ‘leftish’ values in the McGilchristian framework.

It is worth noting that dual-systems theories, of which this is one, are perennially popular. McGilchrist is careful and explicit in rejecting the popular Reason vs Emotion distinction that has come to be associated with the two hemispheres. In this RSA report Divided Brain, Divided World, he briefly discusses how his theory relates to the automatic-deliberative distinction, as (for example) set out by Daniel Kahneman in his Thinking Fast and Slow. He says, briefly, that that distinction is orthogonal to the one he’s making; i.e. both hemispheres do automatic and controlled processing.

I was turned on to the book by Helen Mort, who writes a great blog about neuroscience and poetry which you can check out here: If you’re interested in reading more about psychology, divided selves and cultural shifts I recommend Timothy Wilson’s “Strangers to Ourselves” and Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy”.


[1] If you buy the paperback they’ve slimmed it down, at least in some editions, by leaving out the reference list at the end. Very frustrating.

[2] Fans of grand theories of hemispheric functioning and the relation to cultural evolution, make sure you check out Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind . Weirdly McGilchrist hardly references this book (noting merely that he is saying something completely different).

[3] And when I use the term ‘mystical’, that is a good thing, not a denigration.

[4] Gazzaniga, M. (2002). The split brain revisited. Scientific American, Special Editions: The Hidden Mind.

The blossoms are beautiful on their own

Listen. I totally respect your new neuroscience discovery. Really, my balls are jazzed. But quit with the ‘may lead to a cure for epilepsy, autism and schizophrenia’ thing you always put in your press releases.

Your new neuroscience discovery is genuinely cool, but, let’s face it, no more likely to lead to a cure for schizophrenia than my new garden equipment is likely to end world hunger.

My new garden equipment, by the way, is an equally ball-tingling innovation, but you can see how you’d never get away with the world hunger thing when announcing it to the press.

A lot of neuroscience discoveries are similar in a way. They’re the scientific equivalent of inventing a solar powered bird-scarer.

You read that right. A solar-powered bird scarer.

Kinda clicks into place, doesn’t it? You think to yourself ‘that’s cool’ and you silently nod your head to whoever came up with that agricultural gem.

But the UN aren’t busting their onions to integrate it into their agricultural policy. Monsanto aren’t scratching their nuts over how to cash in.

This doesn’t make it less cool. It still makes a genuine contribution and may even make things easier for the bird-troubled farmer. But it’s unlikely to herald the end of famine.

So, neuroscience press release writers of the world – no need to promise me the world.

The blossoms are really quite beautiful on their own.

Point me to a brain area

I’ve just found an incredibly use brain anatomy atlas that when you point at any part of an MRI scan it tells you which part of the brain you’re looking at in all three planes.

It seems to be part of a very useful website called HeadNeckBrainSpine that is full of handy neuroanatomy tools, tutorials and toys.

If nothing else, do check out the MRI atlas as it will give you a feel for how clearly different brain structures appear on a common type of medical scan.

As some folks on the Twitter arguing service have noted, its only slight drawback is the brain’s biggest structure (the frontal lobes) are not perfectly outlined, but they’re marked adequately and it’s still a massively useful tool that I’ve been referring to ever since I found it.

Link to MRI neuroanatomy atlas.
Link to HeadNeckBrainSpine.