Science/fiction: 10%?

“It is estimated that most human beings only use 10% of their brain’s capacity,” says Morgan Freeman’s character from a lectern in Lucy. It is a widely-believed myth, oft repeated, both in science fiction and in self-help literature.

So do human beings only use 10% of their brain capacity? I’m afraid not. This is one that falls squarely in the fiction category. The myth even has its own wikipedia page. Considering how many times it has been debunked, it’s surprising how persistent it is. And if it is not 10%, then it is 35% (or some other random number below 100%). The truth is, however, that most of the brain is in use most of the time.

Here’s a summary in 3.06 minutes, which also covers some of the superpowers in Lucy:

 

Now, is the reverse true? Could you get by using less of your brain? Yes, sort of, in some cases. Plenty of people live with reduced brain matter (it is a common consequence of aging, after all), without any apparent problems. If the reduction happens over time, the tissue that remain can often compensate nicely. But you’ll still use most of your remaining brain most of the time.

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Science/fiction: Brain stimulation

I am a neuroscientist and physiologist, which means I get to look at a lot of brains and try to figure out how they work. As I am also a writer, I thought I would do a few posts on my particular brand of science as it applies to science fiction. To start it off, I would like to begin with an email that I received today, inviting me to a Brain Stimulation symposium (which I will not attend, but that is beside the point).

Brain stimulation is a thing. An actual thing, used in therapy and research. In its most basic form, it involves introducing a specific amount of electricity to a specific part of the brain, depending on what you want the result to be. If this sounds like ‘wiring up’ a human brain to a machine, it is because that is what it is.

The methods for doing this vary. We have external devices and implanted devices, and they operate on different principles, have different limitations and different risks. However the basics are much the same: introduce an electric current in a specific part of the brain to make the neurons in that part of the brain do what you want them to do. This typically means either exciting or inhibiting the neurons (which can, for simplicity, be thought of as turning them on or off).

Deep brain stimulation is an invasive method. It requires surgery. It is the younger and more advanced cousin of the much older electrical brain stimulation that has been used to target surface areas in the brain with various degrees of success since the mid-1800s and uses electrodes embedded deep in the brain. The surgically embedded electrodes are connected with insulated wires to a stimulator, which is usually implanted somewhere just below the neck. The stimulator controls the electrical impulses to the brain, and its settings is calibrated by healthcare personnel (or anyone with the access, know-how and equipment).

Deep brain stimulation is used in the treatment of diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease and chronic pain. It will  not cure the disease, but it can take away some of the worst symptoms and improve the lives of these patients. Not without risk, of course – brain surgery is no walk in the park – but it is effective. For what else can it be used? Deep brain stimulation, depending on the regions it is implanted, might alleviate major depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, although the jury is still out on how well it works. That is not to say it is not possible – it might merely be a case of finding the right targets and the right stimulation frequency.

Also, it does not have to be electrodes. A slightly more futuristic type of deep brain stimulation based on optogenetics is being developed. Optogenetics is a way of controlling cells (often neurons) using light. The brain’s neurons can be inserted with light-sensitive probes. This is often done using a manipulated virus, carrying the probe, which targets a specific group of cells. The modified nerve cells can now be stimulated by exposing them to light – effectively turning them ‘on’ and ‘off’ with a light switch. This technique is in use in animals, and can be powered and controlled using wireless radio signals. Different wavelengths of light can then be used to target different inserted light receptors in the cells, giving different types of response.

A less invasive method is transcranial magnetic stimulation, where a magnetic impulse is sent to a part of the brain using an external device. The change in magnetic field causes a change in electric current in the brain (which is, of course, the stuff of neurons), and hey presto: stimulation. This method is not invasive in that it does not require any surgery, but it can only penetrate so far into the brain, so its influence is limited to surface regions (as opposed to deep brain stimulation).

How far can this be taken? Can this control someone’s behaviour, or be used to manipulate someone? Well, possibly. To some extent at least. Stimulating motor regions of the brain, which are involved in controlling our movements, can trigger movement. It is possible to record signals from one person and transmit these through, for example, transcranial magnetic stimulation, to the motor regions of another person, making them do the movement of the first person. Like a puppet.

Stimulating an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens has the potential to ‘turn off’ addictive behaviour, such as compulsive overeating, at least in animals. Similarly, targeting a region of the brain called the hypothalamus can create rage in experimental animals. In humans, stimulation of the amygdala (which is an area of the brain associated with fear processing) can trigger aggression and rage. Also, there is at least one case where stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus (often targeted in Parkinson’s Disease) caused a patient to show new, manic personality traits1, which went away when the stimulation was adjusted. Can it be used to ‘turn off’ aggression? Yes, so it seems2. So it is currently possible in humans, if rare (only by accident, or in severe medical cases), to alter personality using brain stimulation.

What about complex ideas? Can these be created or transmitted? Could you make someone agree with you politically or make them aggressive towards a certain group of people? So far, no. In theory, it should be possible, given enough knowledge about how the brain operates. It would be the same principle as recreating a motor response in the example above, but likely involve a range of brain regions (including areas associated with decision making, emotions, attention, and so on) and different stimuli (excitation, inhibition) in a precise pattern over time. That is the theory. In practice, we currently simply don’t understand nearly enough about the brain to reliably describe, much less recreate, the activation patterns of complex thoughts or behaviours using mechanical contraptions. That is still the realm of (dystopian) sci-fi.

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References:
1. https://jme.bmj.com/content/35/5/289.long
2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1878875012006742

Book review: The Hunger

I recently devoured (pun intended) Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, which is a fictional account of the Donner wagon party trying to reach California from Illinois in 1846. For those unfamiliar with the story, the non-fictional party of settlers ran into bad relations, bad decisions and bad weather, which resulted in the unlucky stranded group eventually resorting to cannibalism. A relatively unpleasant piece of history, yet Alma Katsu manages to put an even more horrific spin on the tale.

(Some spoilers ahead).

This is a type of horror novel that I particularly enjoy. First of all, it is slow burn, with increasing levels of tension. It starts small, with a few incidences highlighting the upcoming strife, the unpleasantness of some of the characters, the loneliness of the landscape. There are hints of what is to come, suggesting that the best course of action is to turn back, but these are ignored and dismissed. By the time the party, dogged by urgency at the approaching winter, takes the fateful shortcut that will leave them stranded, the tension is high and there are too many personal stakes in place preventing better decisions to be made. It is utterly believable, with each little step towards the end resting on established human faults much more than bad luck. For me, horror works best if it is slow to start: like the frog in the tepid water, being brought to the boil (although the fable, if useful, has been debunked). Too much pressure too soon, and I will not believe it if the characters do not turn and flee. The gradual, sinister change, however…

This is especially believable when paired with Katsu’s eye for character. Each member of the party carry not only their (more or less) meagre belongings but also the weight of the past. All have a reason to be on the wagon train, and these reasons are optimistic and opportunistic only on the surface. Underneath, there is tragedy, fear, scandal and hate. All of this pulls together to create a stifling, unnerving atmosphere, and leads to mistakes that will cost the group. As a reader you can see it coming – observe the moments where less strained minds might have made a better call – yet the errors seem unavoidable given the history and shortcomings of the characters. Consequently, as the story unfolds, the eventual fate of the wagon train seems almost predetermined. This is a story that is as much about human mistakes, poor leadership and relationships collapsing under increasing pressure as it is about external monsters.

Speaking of monsters: they are cheap. It is easy to have a monster come in from the dark and wreak havoc. It can rise from its Black Lagoon or the Pacific, be a remnant from an ancient civilisation or a bog-standard curse, and it can be perfectly entertaining as-is. However, to me it can never be fully engaging on its own. I like the interaction between the monstrous outside and the monstrous inside – how humanity mirrors the scary things out there. In short, I want my horror stories to be about humans. And Katsu does this terribly well in The Hunger. Every peril on the page echoes with character flaws introduced in detail from the beginning. It is stellar writing. A nod should also be given to Katsu’s eye for historical detail. The facts of the tale are there, as are the facts of the time.

Given the source material, it should come as no surprise that there is a fair element of gore in the novel. Gruesome though it is, it never seems overdone, and the language is precise and almost clinical at times:

“Several unexpected items lay discarded in the snow: a pocket prayer book, a ribbon bookmark fluttering in the breeze.
A scattering of teeth.
What looked like a human vertebra, cleaned of skin.”

“…but by the time they caught up to her, the teenage girl had already killed the baby and was devouring her liver.”

It is highly effective, and it’s there from page one. I’m ambivalent about prologues – sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t – but in The Hunger, it feels right. The prologue sets the stakes, and within a few paragraphs of chapter 1, we have been shown the vastness of the land as well as a first whiff of things to come. Again, it’s excellent writing and the reader can almost smell the disaster looming, long before things even begin to look bad. This is one of the best horror novels I’ve read in a long time. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Last year’s list this year

Last February I wrote a blog post listing a handful of dystopian novels. It’s been almost a year and a half, and I think a further update is required. This time, the list is not one of recommendation, but one of personal consumption. These are the books that I think I need to read this year. I’d be happy for any further recommendations in the comments.

  1. They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 (Milton Mayer). “Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany – not by attack from without or by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler. It was what most Germans wanted – or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusion.”
  2. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Timothy Snyder). “History can familiarize, and it can warn. Today, we are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to totalitarianism in the twentieth century. But when the political order seems imperiled, our advantage is that we can learn from their experience to resist the advance of tyranny. Now is a good time to do so.”
  3. Shake hands with the Devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda (Romeo Dallaire). “It took me seven years to finally have the desire, the willpower and the stamina to begin to describe in detail the events of that year in Rwanda. To recount, from my insider’s point of view, how a country moved from the promise of a certain peace to intrigue, the fomenting of racial hatred, assassinations, civil war and genocide. And how the international community, through an inept UN mandate and what can only be described as indifference, self-interest and racism, aided and abetted these crimes against humanity – how we all helped create the mess that has murdered and displaced millions and destabilized the whole central African region.”

Wish me luck.

 

 

 

Book review: The History of Bestiality

I am willing to bet that most people outside of Norway has not heard about Jens Bjørneboe. It is a shame, because Bjørneboe was a fantastic writer. He was controversial and provocative, with a brutal prose that is both delightful and difficult to read. At the core of his production is a staunch defense of the individual and an absolute willingness to address the bleaker side of humanity in often distressing detail.

His main work is a trilogy: The History of Bestiality. In the three novels within, Moment of Freedom, The Powderhouse and The Silence, Bjørneboe discusses evil. The trilogy, which reportedly took 25 years to write, follows from a series of stand-alone works describing, often in harrowing detail, trespasses against both individuals and groups. He discusses medical experiments on prisoners during WW2 in Ere the Cock Crows (written in 1946 and published in 1952) as well as the harsh treatments of suspected collaborators after the war in Under a Harsher Sky (1957). He debates the cruel treatment of both children and prisoners by the “system” in Jonas (1955) and The evil shepherd (1960), respectively; wrote a deliberately provocative erotic novel Without a stitch (1966) which famously is full of euphemisms and very little by way of vulgar language, wrote several plays, poems and essays that were anti-authoritarian, pro-art and at times deeply misanthropic. But it is in the History of Bestiality that he truly bares his teeth.

Moment of Freedom is an unapologetic, bleak view on justice and humanity. The unnamed narrator is a servant of the court, working in a small German principality called Heiligenberg. His job is to witness the proceedings in a court of law, which he refers to as ‘the daily injustice’, where human failings are plentiful and justice is in farcically short supply. We are told his story as he dutifully fulfills his obligations alongside his recollections of his past life and experiences (although this comes back to him in bits only), and, importantly, how he has been chronicling human monstrosities throughout the ages in a massive twelve-volume tome he has titled “The History of Bestiality.” Bjørneboe’s narrator discusses the inability or unwillingness of humans to do anything but what they are told to do, even in the face of gross injustice. The perfidy and cruelty of man are the central themes in the Moment of Freedom, described by the narrator in a distant, almost clinical, manner.

The Powderhouse continues the tale with the narrator – now a janitor in a mental institution called La Poudrière (the powderhouse) – exploring his history of bestiality. In this novel, Bjørneboe debates the human propensity for evil through a series of lectures given by both the staff and the criminally insane inmates at the institute. The lectures are presented as therapeutic, and centers around crimes of Christianity, with notable exceptions being a lecture by an executioner detailing the complexities of his job. The final part of the novel results in a move in favour of anarchism, a political philosophy which Bjørneboe often appeared to defend.

Finally, there is The Silence. Here, the narrator has escaped to northern Africa. The theme here is the horror of (mostly European) imperialism and conquest, with the narrator (now possibly quite mad) having debates with God and a number of historical figures. His great work, the History of Bestiality, will never be completed, as he recognizes that there is no final chapter. Man will continue to commit cruelty, just as man always has. Still, there is a small glimmer of hope at the end of this bleak journey, as the narrator admits that there is also good in humanity and this goodness may yet grow.

It makes for unpleasant and challenging reading, but the intensity and urgency with which the story is chronicled is hard to resist. While not everybody’s cup of tea, it is still a tour de force of literature. It is not genre horror, but horrifying it is nevertheless. The apocalyptic feel of the trilogy is echoed in his final novel, The Sharks (1974), the only one he wrote after completing The History of Bestiality.

Bjørneboe killed himself in 1976, having written a long and impressive list of plays, poems, essays and novels. The anger and urgency in his writing remains compelling to this day, and the themes of his work – the almost habitual cruelty of man towards man, and the suffering of the individual at the hands of the system – is unfortunately as relevant today as it was in the mid 20th century.

bjorneboe

 

 

Writing: more from the Journal of Imaginary Research

Following my recent post on trying a new style, I thought I’d post the writing challenge from last year as well. Again, the brief was to write a mock-science abstract, complete with introduction, methods, results and discussion, plus a fake author biography. The piece was based on a random photo. Mine showed two rows of box binders, all with square holes cut in their front and containing cutouts with quotes from literary works – like display cases or tableaus. It was part of someone’s actual research, but I have not got the foggiest what they were investigating. So I made it up.

This one was a bit more straight-forward to write – I didn’t really try to do much with the prose, and instead opted for just having a bit of a laugh with the task at hand. The end result is below.

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I’m overall happier with this piece than with the more recent one, but then again this was much less ambitious. It may be a bit too scientific in style, but should work for the intended audience. My only regret is not putting more 9s in the p-value.

Hope you enjoy it.

Synopses and science

Some time ago I missed a deadline for a competition because I could not get my synopsis finished in time. The reason I didn’t have one prepared in advance was simple: I don’t like writing them. I don’t like how the synopsis reduces the story from a big house, rich in detail, to scaffolding. In truth, my synopses always run the risk of descending into the ‘and then this happened’ story telling of my 7-year old self. It was charming then, but not so inspiring now. So I put it off, as one does. My mistake.

typewriter_synopsis

However, whilst I fail at writing synopses, I am reasonably experienced at writing abstracts. In science, the abstract of a paper has much the same purpose as the synopsis, and it is often what determines whether a paper proceeds from the editor’s desk to the review stage. Get it right or get rejected. Sounds familiar? Unlike synopses, I actually like writing abstracts. Like how it is more precise than the meandering manuscript. Years of training have made a good abstract a thing to be achieved rather than avoided.

So, naturally I wondered if I could translate my appreciation for science abstracts to creative writing.

When I write abstracts, I go through the manuscript looking for key points from each section. These are the points needed for the experiment to make sense. Everything that is covered in the conclusions must be introduced in the results. Everything that is in the results, must arise from the methods. Everything that is in the methods must be supported by the introduction. I gather these points that I want to say, whittle them down and distill them into what I need to say in a few sentences. The trick is to determine what goes in and what gets cut. That means that anything that is, for example, in the methods but not needed for the results, gets scrapped, no matter how interesting.

Then I adjust the balance: no more than two sentences for introduction, two to three for methods, three to four for results, and one for discussion. I tighten the language as much as I can. Word limits tend to be strict (250 words is typical for my branch of science), so brevity is crucial.

Images from arguably prettier sciences than mine: Messier 101 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI), Arches National Park, MSRA (NIAID, flickr.com/photos/niaid)

How does this translate to a synopsis?

I suppose it would look something like the following. First, read the story and take the plot points, chapter by chapter, to create a longish summary. From this, extract the major points needed for the story to make sense at every step and remove the points that are not necessary for the plot to work. This would be what is needed for the synopsis. Then, there is the balance to consider. If it follows the breakdown of scientific abstracts, we are looking at:

Introduction: A short background to set up the conflict (~20%)
Methods: How the characters try to fix or escape the conflict (~30%)
Results: The outcome of the attempted fixing/escaping, including escalation and further endeavours towards resolving the issue (~40%)
Discussion: The resolution with final point of character arch (~10%)

Of course, there is some flexibility in this division. It is not one size fits all. But for someone like me, having approximate targets is helpful. So 20-30-40-10 it is.

Then there’s the tightening of the prose, making sure to get the verbs strong, descriptions powerful and short, and the character(s) motivation clear. Cause and consequence, keep it simple but engaging, less ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ and more ‘therefores’. Word choice needs to be good, to ensure both brevity and impact. Include (some) emotions and reactions, and exclude themes and analysis. There is a place for these latter aspects, but a short synopsis is not that. The last discussion point should indicate that there is a character arch, but detail is not needed.

This is followed by revising the living daylights out of the thing. I typically revise an abstract three or four times, then give it a few rounds of polish before sending it to collaborators. After feedback, there is another round of revisions, more feedback, then final polish. Last spell check. Done.

Following this strategy works for me in my day job, and I have started using it for synopses. It is not the only way to write a synopsis by any stretch of the imagination, and probably not the best approach either, but it slots in nicely with my training and helps me put in the work needed. If anyone has a better suggestion how to tackle this beast, I’d be keen to hear it.

How do you approach writing a synopsis?