What Would Real Brain-to-Brain Communication Look Like?

By Neuroskeptic | October 17, 2015 1:32 pm

The past few years has seen “brain-to-brain communication” move from the realm of science fiction into reality. Numerous papers have reported on different brain-to-brain interface devices, of which a typical example is this 2014 report by Rajesh Rao and colleagues describing a device in which EEG is used to detect activity in one person’s brain, which then sends a message over the internet and then uses a TMS coil which generates a magnetic pulse that induces activity in the brain of another person.


Now this device and others like it are undeniably cool, but when you think about it, are they really that groundbreaking? If this is “brain-to-brain communication” (or even “telepathy“!) then doesn’t (say) speech also deserve that title? After all, in speech, the speaker’s brain activity is what drives their vocal cords to encode a message which is sent (via sound waves) to the receiver, and a specialized device (the ear) turns that message into brain activity in the primary auditory cortex. It’s then up to the rest of the brain (i.e. it’s up to the receiver) to make sense of that.

When you think about it like that, the high-tech EEG/TMS set-up looks rather like a Rube Goldberg machine – an impressive and elaborate way of doing something that we already knew how to do in a much simpler way. This got me thinking: if we’re saying that existing brain-to-brain interfaces are not really doing anything new, then what would a ‘real’ brain-to-brain device be like?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: EEG, science, select, Top Posts, Uncategorized

Magnetism: From Neuroscience to Climate Change?

By Neuroskeptic | October 16, 2015 7:50 am

(Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

A few weeks ago, a pair of Canadian scientists, David Vares and Michael Persinger, published a paper concluding that climate change is not caused by carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels, as most people believe.

Instead, they say, global warming and the rise in CO2 are both caused by decreases in the strength of the earth’s magnetic field: Earth’s Diminishing Magnetic Dipole Moment is Driving Global Carbon Dioxide Levels and Global Warming.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: papers, science, select, Top Posts

Can Google Books Really Tell Us About Cultural Evolution?

By Neuroskeptic | October 10, 2015 6:34 am

In 2009, Google made available Google Books (also known as the Ngram corpus), a database that now includes over 8 million books from libraries around the world. The books comprise a collection of words (over 500 billion English words) and phrases and this dataset is freely available for research use. The Books corpus allows researchers to examine changes in the frequency of word use in books over time, dating back to 1800.


This has led a lot of striking findings. So for instance, it has been shown that “individualistic words and phrases” increased between 1960 and 2008 in American books; that “books average the previous decade of economic misery”; and that “male and female pronoun use reflects the status of women.” – among many other claims, some published in the highest-ranked journals.

However, a new paper just published in PLoS ONE could throw a spanner in the works of the thriving Google Books research paradigm.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: history, methods, papers, select, Top Posts

The Poor, Unhappy, Chain-smoking Brain

By Neuroskeptic | October 9, 2015 4:31 am

A thought-provoking new paper from Oxford neuroscientists Stephen Smith and colleagues reports a correlation between a certain pattern of brain activity and, well, a great many things.

The researchers took 461 resting state fMRI scans from the open Human Connectome Project (HCP) database. Associated with each scan is a set of ‘meta-data’ about the volunteer who had the scan. These 158 variables (listed here) cover everything from age and gender, to mental health status, income, and ‘times used tobacco today’.

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The “Male Suicide Epidemic”

By Neuroskeptic | October 5, 2015 1:48 pm

The mass murder and suicide in a college in Oregon last week brought out the following claim by a professional troll:


So is there an epidemic of male suicides? I’ll assume we’re talking about the USA although what I’ll say goes for most other countries. Here are the facts:


  • Male suicide rates are much higher than female suicide rates. The most recent available data for the USA in from 2013, when the age-adjusted male:female suicide ratio was 3.68:1.
  • However, this male suicide bias isn’t new. Thirty years previously, in 1983, the male:female suicide ratio was almost identical, at 3.64:1.
  • Absolute suicide rates rose during the 1980s, fell during the 1990s, reached a minimum in 2000 and have since been rising again, although they are still lower than in the late 80s. In 2000, the suicide minimum, male suicide rates were 85% of the 2013 male level, but female rates were even lower, just 73% of the 2013 female level. So the ratio of males to females was 4.28:1 in 2000 and has been falling since then.
  • The male suicide bias goes back a very long way. In 1950, age-adjusted male suicide rates in the USA were 3.78 times higher than in females – almost exactly the same ratio as in 2013.
  • Going even further back, good statistics from the USA are harder to come by, but in 1905 British Dr William Wynn Westcott wrote that “The relation of the sexes to suicide has been remarkably constant in our country, and in Europe generally, standing at three males to one female.” So the ratio was roughly the same as today, over a century ago.
  • The fact that males are more likely to die by suicide than females is not unique to the USA or even to Western countries. The same thing holds true of the great majority of countries around the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe (although not always to the same extent.)

In summary, there is no male suicide outbreak. Every suicide is a tragedy and since most suicides are men, it is largely a male tragedy, one that deserves all possible attention – but it is not an epidemic.

Then again, perhaps by “epidemic” Milo does not mean to imply that this was a new phenomenon? Some epidemics last a long time, after all. Surely it’s shocking that males have such high suicide rates, however long this has been true?

Well, yes, but my point is that whatever is driving male suicides, it is not especially modern, and is not confined to the West. So the problem, whatever it is, is unlikely to be due to how we ‘treat boys’, given that boys were treated very differently 100 years ago, in Afghanistan or in Zimbabwe today, and yet the male suicide bias has remained all too constant.

Incidentally, Milo’s is not the first simplistic theory to have come undone when faced with the facts about suicide. For instance, back in 2009 a pop psychologist called Oliver James claimed that British people are ‘twice as unhappy’ as their counterparts in the rest of Europe. However, this does not seem plausible given that British suicide rates are much lower than those in some of the other European countries, such as France and Germany, which James held up as models of well-being.

Similarly, consider the idea that we can measure and compare levels of mental illness in different countries around the world using standardized surveys. These surveys have been carried out, at great expense. The problem is, that these estimates don’t correlate with suicide rates. For instance, Japan’s suicide rate is more than double that of the USA, even though Japan has a rate of mental illness (according to the surveys) three times smaller than the USA.

Overall, suicide statistics are, if you’ll forgive the expression, the graveyard of bad ideas about society.

A Primetime Psychology Experiment: Does TV Affect Behavior?

By Neuroskeptic | September 26, 2015 4:14 pm

A remarkable paper just published in PLoS ONE reports on what is, I think, one of the largest psychological experiments of all time.

Researchers Elizabeth L. Paluck and colleagues partnered with a TV network to insert certain themes (or messages) into popular dramas shown on US TV. They then looked to see whether these themes had an effect on real world behavior, ranging from Google searches to drink-driving arrests.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, media, papers, select, Top Posts

Time to Rethink the Reconsolidation Theory of Memory?

By Neuroskeptic | September 22, 2015 7:21 am

An influential theory about the malleability of memory comes under scrutiny in a new paper in the Journal of Neuroscience.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: animals, papers, select, Top Posts

More Doubts Over The Oxytocin And Trust Theory

By Neuroskeptic | September 16, 2015 9:20 am

The claim that the hormone oxytocin promotes trust in humans has drawn a lot of attention. But today, a group of researchers reported that they’ve been unable to reproduce their own findings concerning that effect.

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When Science is a Family Matter

By Neuroskeptic | September 13, 2015 10:52 am

A paper just published in American Psychologist has the unusual distinction of seemingly being written by four members of the same family.
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Psychology Should Aim For 100% Reproducibility

By Neuroskeptic | September 7, 2015 5:58 am

Last week, the Open Science Collaboration reported that only 36% of a sample of 100 claims from published psychology studies were succesfully replicated: Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science.

A reproducibility rate of 36% seems bad. But what would be a good value? Is it realistic to expect all studies to replicate? If not, where should we set the bar?

In this post I’ll argue that it should be 100%.


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