Latest news from those kinky scientists who live out on the edge. Damn heretics.

They Hacked a Mouse's Brain and Made New Memories...Sort Of

Scientists have hijacked the memories of mice as they slept.  That’s the headline they’re going with, and it is rightly quite sensational, as mainstream media is wont to be.  It may not be entirely accurate though – to our great surprise.

I’m talking about a paper that was published yesterday in the scientific journal Nature (Neuroscience).  It expounds on a breakthrough experiment whereby researchers from the National Center for Scientific Research (CRNS) in France claim to have implanted conscious memories into mice as they slept.[1]  That requires a bit of explanation though.

The group, led by Karim Benchenan of the CRNS Brain Plasticity Unit’s MOBs Team, achieved this astounding breakthrough by implanting electrodes into the brains of mice, specifically targeting a type of brain cell called place cell neurons.  Place cells, which were discovered in 1971, are a specialised type of neuron that are key to remembering where one is and where one has been.  They act as a sort of map inside your head, with individual cells firing when you’re at a certain location, creating a memory of that spot, so that you can find your way back there in the future, should you need to.

Now, when you – or any of us – sleep our brains undertake to review the memories we’ve made during our waking day.  That process entails a firing of the neurons involved in those memories, just as when the original experience occurred, and scientists can monitor this process.

By comparing neural scans of the mice from a period of exploration in a maze, to their later subconscious review of the associated memories, paying attention to place cell neurons, they were able to identify which neurons were associated with memories of which places inside the maze.  Once identified, they used the electrodes implanted in the mouse’s hippocampus, to stimulate a pleasant feeling at the same time as targeted place cell neurons fired during recall.  They effectively created an association between the memory of whatever location was involved and a pleasant feeling, or a reward so to speak.

The interesting thing is, once the mice woke from their short nap, they immediately headed straight for the location now associated to the pleasant feeling, as though looking to recreate the experience.

This research has obvious potential to transform treatments for post-traumatic-stress-disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and even schizophrenia and depression, by allowing clinicians to alter memories, building positive associations where traumatic or problematic ones once existed.

Benchenane insists, and it seems Nature’s peer-reviewers agree, that the mice’s behaviour following the procedure is proof that they have artificially created a conscious memory.  They qualify it by calling it an “association between a particular place and a reward [that] can be consciously access by the mouse.”  But is adding a sensory association to an already existing memory really creating a conscious memory?

The same effect has been sought, and variably achieved, through behavioural conditioning by various means, but the product in that case is always a subconscious association.  As seen with smokers trained to associate cigarettes with the smell of rotten eggs.  The difference seems apparent, but it might be an illusion.

The sole reason Benchenane and his colleagues believe this is the first example of an artificially induced conscious memory is the fact that the mice actively sought out the location associated with the memory and reward upon waking.  Benchenane states, had the mice wandered randomly and simply stopped and focused on that key location once they stumbled upon it, that would have represented a subconscious memory.

This seems like a little semantic word play, as I see it.  I don’t really question the notion of conscious recognition, so much as the idea that a memory was implanted in the first place.  Here’s my reasoning: the researchers simply added an association to a memory that already existed.  The mouse’s natural cognitive machinery created the memory the same way all of its memories are created, by experiencing stimulus.  The question is, is an association the same as a memory?  Clearly, connecting bits of sensory information is a key part of the memory making process, but isn’t a memory a little bit more than just the sum of its parts?  If we are to properly call this the artificial creation of a conscious memory, then I would expect a more direct influence on the origin of the memory, not simply the introduction of another sensory input to be associated to an already existing memory.

I suppose you could reduce this to the argument between dualism and reductionist materialism (no pun intended).  If consciousness, and therefore memory, are nothing more than emergent properties of the biomechanical processes of the brain, then perhaps Benchenan et al are correct.  It certainly appears that their ability to manipulate memories and sensory input supports the notion of emergent consciousness, but reductionist materialism is by no means a foregone conclusion, not yet at least.

But where does that leave us in the dualism camp?  I don’t have the answer.

No matter your philosophical bent in this case, or even in the case of dualism vs. reductionist materialism, Benchenan’s research is indeed a valuable step forward, and has real potential to drastically change the lives of people suffering with debilitating mental illness.  Even if we can’t agree on exactly how or why it works.

[1] Karim Benchenane, Gaetan de Lavilléon, Marie Masako Lacroix, Laure Rondi-Reig. Explicit memory creation during sleep demonstrates a causal role of place cells in navigation. Nature – Neuroscience March 9, 2015. doi:10.1038/nn.3970


Cat's Out of the Box: First Ever Photo of Light's Dual Nature

Probably the closest thing we'll ever have to Schrödinger's cat shown both alive and death: A research team has managed to capture light as both a particle and a wave, the dual behavior lying at the foundation of Quantum mechanics --and which also opened that can of wormholes known as "the observer effect" as well as the "spooky action at a distance" Einstein dreaded so much --ironic, considering *he* was the one who first proposed the dual nature of electromagnetic radiation in the photoelectric effect.

"This experiment demonstrates that, for the first time ever, we can film quantum mechanics – and its paradoxical nature – directly," says Fabrizio Carbone [head of the team at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne]. In addition, the importance of this pioneering work can extend beyond fundamental science and to future technologies. As Carbone explains: "Being able to image and control quantum phenomena at the nanometer scale like this opens up a new route towards quantum computing."

Congrats on your future Nobel prize, signore Carbone --now about that UFO detecting machine I requested…

[LINK]: The first ever photograph of light as both a particle and wave

Cyborg Tears: Blind Man Sees Wife for the 1st Time in 10 Years

It's not as cool-looking as Geordi Laforge's visor in STTNG, but technological advances such as the Argus II Second Sight show blind people won't have to wait until the XXIVth century to recover the ability to see the faces of their loved ones.

EdgeScience #20

Issue 20 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available to download from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). In the new issue:EdgeScience 20

  • "Will the Real Ubik Please Stand Up? Precognition of Scientific Information in the Fiction of Philip K. Dick", by William Sarill.
  • "On The Trail Of Mediterranean Mystery Snakes", by Karl Shuker.
  • "Is Time the Soul of the World?", by Marshall Payn.

Grab a free PDF of EdgeScience 20 from the SSE website, or the print version from MagCloud. If you do grab the free PDF, please consider a small donation to help the EdgeScience team continue with this excellent publication, via the button on the webpage. There's also a link to join the SSE on that page if you want to keep up with the latest academic research into the 'edgier' areas of science.

A Walk in the Clouds... of the Underworld

'Frozen clouds' is not something that can only be found in Sci-Fi films like Interstellar --Oops! Spoiler alert-- as the above image shows.

The photograph was taken by a drone on a newly-discovered chamber inside the Bustamante caves in the state of Coahuila (Mexico), which despite being a popular tourist attraction have only been explored in about 10% of their total depth. Obviously the 'clouds' are not really frozen, but are in fact globular calcite formations created by the thermal waters in the area over a period of 50 million years.

The discovery was made by the Asociación Coahuilense de Espeleología, a local speleology group, and it marks the first time that a robotic probe is used to explore caverns which are inaccessible to human beings. According to the group's president, Ana Gabriela Morales, the team also found a 'floating lake' above what they know call 'the Cloud Chamber', which is thought to be a subterranean river.

The speleological group plans to hand the results of their investigation to the state's authorities once it's concluded. Who knows, perhaps the little robot might stumble upon a secret dwelling of Duendes...

  • Source: "Descubren nubes de roca", Reforma newspaper (19/12/14)

Sight Unseen: Humans Are Able to See Infrared Light (Really)

You've seen the graph since you took Science class in primary school: The electromagnetic spectrum comprised of a tiny-winy slice of visible light, with ultraviolet and X-rays at the top, and infrared at the bottom. And ever since, our teachers have taught us that human beings are incapable of seeing both the infrared or ultraviolet radiation, without the aid of special equipment. Right?


Turns out a new experiment has demonstrated that, under a special set of circumstances, the human retina CAN perceive electromagnetic wavelengths at the infrared spectrum. The study was carried out by an international team of researchers co-led by scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and their paper was published on Dec. 1, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Online Early Edition.

Using retina cells of both mice and humans, and powerful lasers that emit pulses of infrared light, the researchers found that when the laser was pulsed at rapidly-enough intervals, the light-sensing cells in the retina would get a "double whammy" of energy. When that happens, the eye would be able to detect the light, even though is actually below the range of the standard visible spectrum.

"We're using what we learned in these experiments to try to develop a new tool that would allow physicians to not only examine the eye but also to stimulate specific parts of the retina to determine whether it's functioning properly," said senior investigator Vladimir J. Kefalov, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at Washington University. "We hope that ultimately this discovery will have some very practical applications."

What originated the experiments was something of an odd 'glitch' in another investigation conducted by the research team, in which the team members reported seeing occasional green flashes when working with the infrared laser. Intrigued by the apparent impossibility of such visions, the scientists moved on in trying to solve the mystery.

"They were able to see the laser light, which was outside of the normal visible range, and we really wanted to figure out how they were able to sense light that was supposed to be invisible," said Frans Vinberg, PhD, one of the study's lead authors and a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Washington University.

After consulting the scientific literature, as well as previous reports of people claiming to see in infrared, the team started to conduct trial-and-error experiments, and they eventually discovered that the shorter the pulse, the more likely is a person to perceive it. By packing more photons in the energy pulse makes it more possible that two photons with a wavelength of a 1000 nm (nanometers), would be perceived as a single photon of 500 nm, which falls into the range of visible light (between 400-720 nm).

What appeals to me about this study is not its potential applications in Medicine or industry --or the fact that the scientists didn't follow the "it can't be/therefore it isn't" of skeptics, which helped them uncover a new property of Nature-- but whether it could somehow play a factor in certain 'paranormal events'. Would it be possible that some 'ghostly' apparitions are the result of the witness' retina being excited by electromagnetic energy that, under certain circumstances, might be perceived as visible light?

I'm also reminded of John Keel's ideas about what he coined as the 'Superspectrum', because he was convinced that all paranormal phenomena --from ghosts to UFOs-- had essentially an electromagnetic nature. Also, think of all the reports of flashing lights illuminating UFOs like Xmas trees; not the best approach to go unnoticed --or is it?

Maybe it's possible that individuals who are more sensitive than the average, sometimes perceive manifestations that normally go unseen by the naked eye.

In any case, it's cool to think that my old 4th-grade Science book is now outdated. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm in the middle of my attempt to acquire supervision thanks to the Science for the Masses vitamin supplements. ___________________________________________

[H/T The Anomalist]

Rare Rainbow Cloud Graces Gippsland

fallstreak hole punch cloud rainbow atmosphere weather gippsland

Well that'll teach me for going to work on Monday instead of calling in sick. I missed this spectacular cloud formation appear above my neck of the woods in Gippsland, Australia. The cat was home at the time though, and I bet she had something to do with it. Or God decided at the last second not to crush that house beneath His foot. However, the rare atmospheric phenomena has a more earthly explanation. Known as a Fallstreak Hole, or more commonly a hole punch cloud, it's formed by ice crystals that concentrate in one part of a cloud. ABC news has more photos of this stunning Gippsland hole in the clouds. And for all sorts of castles in the sky, check out the Cloud Appreciation Society's website.

I missed this beauty, but my luck was with me last year.

Via ABC news. Photo submitted by David Barton.

Expanding Our Reality By 'Jacking' New Data Into Our Brain Through Technological Augmentation

As I've discussed previously, we tend to fall into the trap of assuming that 'reality' consists of what we sense around us via our sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. But the truth is that we only see electromagnetic waves and hear audio waves from a tiny section of their entire spectrums. In the video above, neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman discusses this topic, noting that this tiny slice of reality that we mistake for the totality of our environment is labeled our 'umwelt'. Our umwelt is determined by the physical apparatus we have at our disposal to take in sensory data - which to this point has largely been our biological sense organs.

But Eagleman also points out that the brain is hugely adaptable in terms of interpreting signals and forming the perception of the outside world from it:

The thing to understand is that your eyes and ears aren't doing the seeing in the first place. Your brain's doing the seeing, and the thing to appreciate is that it is locked in silence and darkness in the vault of your skull. So all the brain ever 'sees', are electrical signals coursing around in giant populations of neurons...that's all the brain ever experiences. It's not seeing the light or the dark out there, or the colours. It's not hearing the conversations. This is all that the brain is experiencing and nothing more.

But the brain is so tremendously flexible that what it's really good at doing is saying "okay well, I've got these data cables coming in...I don't know what information is carried on them." I mean we call those data cables the optic nerve and the auditory nerve, but it doesn't know what it is. All it sees is this kind of stuff, but it's really good at extracting patterns, and figuring out what to do with them, and eventually - amazingly - how to have a direct perceptual experience that it constructs about the outside world.

...It turns out that the brain doesn't care what the peripheral devices are that you plug in. These organs that we know and love like eyes and ears and fingertips - these are plug and play peripheral devices, and you can put anything you want into the system and the brain will figure out how to use it.

These two factors: the limited environment (umwelt) that we perceive through our biological sense organs, and the brain's adaptability to interpreting data fed into it, leads us to an exciting area of the future - augmentation. With the continual growth in technological power - and the continual shrinking in size of that technology - we have now entered an age where we can augment our natural sense organs with new data streams, feeding these new additions to our umwelt into our brains via our current sensory channels.

Eagleman currently has a Kickstarter project running which looks at augmentation as a means to cover the gap left by the failure of a sensory channel - in this case, the hearing impaired, via a sensory substitution vest which converts audio data into tactile data. This allows the brain to gain access to an 'information channel' which normally can't reach it. And as Eagleman explains, the brain quickly learns to recognise patterns from this 'new' data source and make sense of it.

This is just the beginning however - as Eagleman explains, we could feed any data source we wanted into the vest, as long as we have access to it in some way. From invisible radiation sources to stock prices and Twitter trends, we could 'jack' these information channels directly into our brains via augmented devices - in this case a vest, but the possibilities go much further than that - in order to expand our umwelt beyond our current limitations.

Link: Kickstarter: Vest. A Sensory Substitution Neuroscience Project

Freeze Me Until I Can Live Again - A Short Documentary on Cryonics

In the 1960s a ground-breaking idea emerged: that freezing people soon after their death might preserve brain structures, and that in the future advanced technology and know-how might allow these frozen cadavers to be resuscitated and given extended life. Fifty years later, more than 250 people have undergone cryopreservation procedures following their passing (though contrary to what you may have heard, Walt Disney is not one of them), with a small 'cryonics' industry storing their bodies (or in some cases, just their heads) awaiting future salvation.

The above documentary, We Will Live Again, takes a look inside "the unusual and extraordinary operations of the Cryonics Institute", following Ben Best and Andy Zawacki, the caretakers of 99 deceased human bodies stored at below freezing temperatures in cryopreservation. It's a strange and thought-provoking exploration of mortality, and our attempts to avoid it, well worth a watch.

Cyborg Woman Created Through Real-Time Face-Tracking and Projection Mapping

Wow. Just wow. My own face almost fell off at 1:18.

Omote is the result of collaboration that was led by artist Nobumichi Asai, featuring contributions from CGI experts, graphic designers and make-up artists.

Asai has worked in the past with major companies such as Subaru to project computer graphics onto subjects. However, the locations where the graphics are projected onto in the past were all stationary, so the ability of the Omote to follow the person's face as it moves and adapt its projections accordingly is a huge development for the system.

Essentially, Omote can be viewed as electronic make-up, with the ability to project practically anything on a person's face.

Link: Omote face tracking and projection mapping system is amazingly creepy: Here's why