This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind


Some sobering words on modern-day academia

I hope everyone has been having a fantastic holiday, I know I've spent most of my time eating, drinking, and generally doing things that don't involve writing blog posts or being productive.  To that extent , perhaps it is most fitting that I mention this article that recently showed up in the Economist.

I feel like quite a few of you all are, or plan to be, PhD candidates, and while this article isn't technically about science, it certainly has some pointed words for the academic world in which we all immerse ourselves.

The article takes a new look at the life and worth of PhD students, and I suspect that many would take issue with the stance that the author has on the value of higher education in this world.  The author notes that, while PhDs were once seen to be an impressive feat of one's life, the recent explosion in programs offering them has cheapened their worth in modern day society.  While this may not be true across the board, it is certainly the case that specific academic disciplines are rife with recruits looking to pursue higher education, oftentimes with unrealistic expectations about what their extra training will afford them in the future.

With a society that is becoming increasingly focused on specialization and operating in an incredibly fast environment, one might argue that the skills that are often taught in PhDs aren't as applicable to the real world as we'd like to think they are.  Certainly, in-depth research and writing are impressive feats, but in the world of blogs and instant communication, are they really what is most important?

As usual, I feel a bit conflicted about these kinds of articles, but I can't help but agree with the basic premise that they take.  The world is a rapidly changing place, and it is certainly possible that even our most well-respected academic institutions haven't been able to keep up.

I'm going to hold off on throwing any more of my own opinion out there, since I'd rather the article speak for itself.  I'm looking forward to seeing how you all feel about this.

via The Economist


Visualizing the field of neuroscience

After an incredibly long and soul-draining travel season, I was pleased to be rewarded with this fascinating new website that lets you get a visual overview of nearly any field within Neuroscience.

It's called brainSCANr, and while it's still in Beta, it provides a way to quickly and easily figure out what fields and concepts are related for a given topic related to brain science.  Essentially, it indexes thousands of papers in the scientific literature, and creates a score of how related they are based off of how often various words co-occur within the same paper.

Granted, it's not a perfect system for this kind of job, but it does surprisingly well at providing topics that you might want to pursue further if you're hoping to traverse new territory or learn something new about the mind.

Give it a shot, though be warned, it can be a little addicting!  Just throw in a little Wikipedia and you may end up losing the next 3 hours of your life...




I just finished reading Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, and doing so has inspired the astrologist in me to start appreciating the vast and unknown universe that makes up 99.99999% of existence.

Lucky for me, there are plenty of amazing people who devote their entire lives to this cause, such as the folks at the Swedish Solar Telescope.  Located in La Palma, Spain, the telescope recently released a stunning high-res image of one of our sun's most interesting phenomena - sun spots.

Seen above as the dark core that is surrounded by the red hot exterior of the sun, one might think that these are actual "holes" in the sun's exterior.  Actually, they're made up of the same gas that exists everywhere else in the sun, so why do they look so different?  The answer is magnetism.

As They Might Be Giants so righteously declared, "The Sun is a mass of incandescent gas."  It exists as an unbelievably hot ball of fusion in which hydrogen and helium (among other things) are being heated and dispersed at an incredible rate.  This process occurs primarily at the Sun's core, and as these gases make their way outwards towards the surface, it creates a turbulent and chaotic environment in which gases are constantly heating and cooling and moving every which way.

So, where is magnetism in all this?  Well, scientists aren't really sure, but the thought is that as the turbulent sea of gas at the sun's surface moves around, it does so in such a way that creates an incredibly powerful magnetic field.  This creates pockets of magnetic pressure that allows the gas contained within that pocket to cool down, resulting in the dark holes that we know as "sun spots."  (as an aside, by cool, I mean, not quite as earth-shatteringly's still around 4000K!)

While sun spots themselves do not affect the earth, the magnetic fields that create them certainly do.  Rather than go into the details (I'm just a neuroscientist, after all), I'll appeal to this slightly frightening picture.

Pretty crazy huh?  Those lines emanating from the sun represent its magnetic field, and those around the earth represent our "magnetosphere," a strong magnetic field created by the earth that "protects" us from all sorts of hellish activity the sun routinely throws our way.

So, the next time you're looking at the simple little ball of yellow in the sky, think about all the chaos that's going on were you to take a closer peak at its surface.  Think about the massive oceans of gas that are turbulent enough to eject particles millions of light-years into the solar system, and then you can pick your jaw off of the floor.

via Astronomy Picture of the Day

If you're looking for a more detailed description of this process, then check out the Exploratorium's guide to sun spots.  It covers everything from history to the cutting edge of research in this field, as well as the many ways in which the sun interacts with the Earth's atmosphere.


The world’s coolest magnifying glass

So I'm tempted to describe this video using a bunch of physics jargon, complete with discussions about how much energy is contained within sunlight and how useful it could be if we were to make more efficient use of that energy, but I think this video can be summed up in much simpler terms.

Really, this video is about setting things on fire with little more than a fancy magnifying glass.  Do you really need more description to want to watch?  How about this: there is currently not a single material we know of that can withstand this kind of heat!  Talk about an untapped power of the universe...

For those who are curious, it comes from the Solar Furnace Research Facility in Southern France.  Unfortunately, the awesomeness of this video makes it almost impossible to find information on them, but I'll keep you updated if any other mind-boggling feats of the sun get unearthed!

via Bang Goes the Theory


Taking AI to the next level

At the heart of Artificial Intelligence lies the question of whether we might be able to create artificial systems that behave and compute in the same manner than human beings do.  This would obviously be a mind-blowing breakthrough were it ever accomplished - it would give us a number of new applications for computers, would change the nature of work in our society, and would force us to redefine the very nature of being human.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that such a feat has proven to be incredibly difficult to achieve.  Artificial Intelligence, while it has grown in complexity and scope, is still quite far from achieving any kind of accurate human resemblance.

However, this may change very soon.

Back in 2008, the world of science was abuzz with excitement over a new invention in electronics - the "memristor."  This is an electrical component that behaves very similarly to "resistors" in an electrical circuit, but with one key difference.  Memristors impede the flow of electricity - however, the amount that they do so is dependent on the current that has passed through the memristor in the past.

Now, this might not seem like such a big deal...essentially, this just means that how much resistance a memristor has right now changes over time and as a result of its previous inputs.  But think about the implications of this - essentially, such a piece of hardware has the ability to store some information about its previous input.  It has the electrical equivalent of memory.  With that in mind, let's venture back into the realm of cognitive science.

The problem with traditional artificial intelligence is that it is based on a computer architecture that is inherently different from biological brains.  Computers have a specific place where computations are carried out (CPU), a specific place for short-term memory (RAM), and a specific place for long-term memory (the hard disk) .  What this means is that any time a particular bit of information needs to be altered, it has to pass through a number of bottlenecks that drastically reduce the efficiency and speed of the system.

For those of you who are familiar with brains, you know that they don't work in this fashion - there is no central processing unit embedded within your skulls, there is no "hard drive" area that stores all of your memories.  Instead, there are only millions upon millions of neurons in an interconnected and never-ending chorus of electrical activity.

Such a system does not need to separate its various functions into discrete locations because, broadly speaking, every location in the brain carries out every function that a normal computer would.  The neurons (and possibly their neighboring cells, Glia) both carry out computation as well as store information about the past.

And so all of our efforts to simulate brains have hit this fundamental roadblock - it is incredibly difficult to create machines that act like brains without being built like them.  This is where memristors come in.

By allowing memory to be embedded directly within artificial networks, we are one giant step closer to mimicking the way that biological neural networks compute and store information.  Such a revolution in information technology will allow us to create systems that behave very differently from those currently in use, allowing us to perform tasks that most computers have a lot of difficulty with.

There are a number of different research programs that have realized this and are in the process of doing some really interesting research into artificial intelligence, and I'll keep an eye out for any interesting information about what people are doing with this fascinating technology.  For now, check out this article out of Boston University.  It's written by a team working with HP labs to create one of the first "neural" artificial computers.

And so with these new tools at hand, we can begin to create systems that not only behave, but are built very similarly to human brains.  We're just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding what these powerful networks are capable of, and the future is a bright one indeed.

via IEEE Spectrum