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.

Advertisements

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.

science-fiction-1855803_640

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

Book Review: Empire’s End (Star Wars)

aftermathbanner.jpeg

The war is not over… Below is a short goodreads review of Empire’s End, the final book of the official Star Wars Aftermath trilogy by Chuck Wendig. The books are not required reading before seeing the new films, but might be fun to visit for those wanting a better understanding of the Star Wars universe prior to the Force Awakens.


Empire's End (Star Wars: Aftermath, #3)Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig

Empire’s End is, in my opinion, the best book of the Aftermath trilogy. The three books fill in some of the blanks between the events of the Return of the Jedi and the onset of the Force Awakens. We are treated to the birth of the New Republic, the politics and fighting that shaped it, and hints to the origin of the First Order.

The first two books in the Aftermath trilogy revolved around family (arguably, so does a lot of the Star Wars universe), and Empire’s End is no exception. We follow the rag-tag crew of Norra Wexley chasing revenge for the loss of family as much as justice for the fledgling republic, whilst Leia Organa and Han Solo are anticipating the birth of their son, and the antagonists of the piece: Rae Sloane and Gallius Rax, highlight the impact of loss and absent familiar ties.

Indeed, the villains of the series are given ample room to shine in the final installation of the trilogy, and their tales are just as engaging as the heroes. In Empire’s End, we even get a better understanding of Palpatine’s plans and world view, and emerge with a feeling that he is even worse than the films led us to believe.

Aftermath: Empire’s End is primarily character driven. Some of the characters in the trilogy are new to the Star Wars universe; some we know from before (the additional information on Leia and Mon Mothma is particularly gratifying in Empire’s End); and some have moved on from the trilogy to make an appearance in the new films (Snap Wexley, and I’m still holding out hope of seeing Jas and Sinjir on the silver screen).

Overall, Empire’s End is a fast-paced, excellent end to a fun trilogy, worth reading to bridge the gap between the original films and the new ones! (I assume we all agree that the prequels should be quietly forgotten).

View all my reviews


starwars

City of Lost Children

If you have not seen La cité des enfants perdus, directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, you have missed out. This film, although now more than 20 years old, is glorious. It is a French dark science-fiction film with steampunk and surrealist elements. It is visually stunning down to the smallest detail with gloomy canals and streets, atmospheric bars and old decrepit buildings, often presented at an almost grotesque, distorted angle. Even the costumes are top-notch, signed Jean Paul Gaultier. It is complicated, unnerving and almost claustrophobic, but beautiful in its unpleasantness.

For those that write, this is the kind of film that tickles the brain. Here, in viewing, sneaky plots are hatched and oddball what-ifs are born.

Synopsis (some spoilers ahead): The story revolves around the kidnapping of children from an unnamed port city by a cult of cyborgs, called the Cyclops. The children are delivered to a man-like creature called Krank, who steals their dreams for himself. Krank, unable to dream and aging rapidly as a result, keeps the children in his lair at an abandoned oilrig, guarded by his creations (six child-like sons (clones), a dwarf and a brain in a vat). One of the kidnapped children’s adopted elder brother, a carnival strongman named One, is hired by a gang of orphans to steal a safe, but spots the Cyclops during the theft. He then joins forces with Miette, one of the orphans, to save his brother. [End of synopsis, to avoid major spoilers]

The story contains conjoined twins that are also criminal masterminds, trained venomous fleas, a dream-stealing machine, a lost scientist and a fair few fistfights and explosions, in addition to everything mentioned in the brief synopsis above. Still, in my humble opinion, it is not that strange. Of course, the surrealism is present, but the story is quite easy to follow despite making the odd jump. My preferred mode of watching this particular film is letting it drift past, slowly sink in, and not worry too much about the details. To me, the City of Lost Children is more about emotion and ideas than about plot.

So what are the emotions and the ideas? It has been discussed in some detail, brushing upon the dual nature of capitalism and the different faces of human nature, to name but a few. My own thoughts go towards greed. Both sides of the story’s equation contain protagonists and villains. One and Miette are clearly heroic figures in this tale, foiled by very human (and very criminal) elements. At the same time, Krank’s creations are often innocent, foiled by their creator. To me, the overarching theme is how greed and personal gain at the expense of others (the twins, Krank, the Cyclops) conflicts with altruism (Miette, who helps One; One, who seeks to save his brother). It may not be a particularly advanced take on what is arguably a rather complex film, but it is a convenient umbrella for many of the finer discussion points (capitalism, human nature etc.).

I also think there is an interesting contrast between innocence and experience. Both the human side and the mechanical/created side has a sharp divide between those who are innocent versus those who are not. This is perhaps the most obvious in the relationship between One and Miette, where One is the innocent despite being the adult. It is a lovely contrast, and it allows Miette a very interesting role as the responsible person in their relationship, acting as the guardian of the interests of One. The difference in strength (highlighted by one scene in particular) serves to accentuate this unusual balance. This deviation from traditional roles and relationships is something I always appreciate in storytelling, and The City of Lost Children has it in spades.

Miette is, in fact, one of the most interesting characters in the film. Her experience and cynicism are believable, given that the landscape of the film is that of exploitation of children by adults (either by kidnapping and dream-stealing, or by forcing them into criminal activities). The city of lost children, and lost childhood, indeed.

The performances are solid. Particularly Daniel Emilfork as Krank, and Ron Perlman as One. Perlman was cast on the back of his role in Guillermo del Toro’s Kronos (another great film), and his performance as the taciturn, child-like adult is excellent. Again, it plays wonderfully against Miette, less than half his size and more than twice his intellect and experience.

Angelo Badalamenti (of Twin Peaks fame) created the soundtrack, with the theme sung by the amazing Marianne Faithful. The result is light and ‘carnivalesque’ at times, but with an underlying seriousness and a sombre feel. I particularly love the main theme, L’anniversaire D’irvin and Miette’s theme, but the entire soundtrack is worth a listen.

Have a look at the trailer for a taste of what the film is like:

2017 in horror, fantasy, sci-fi and non-fiction

As usual, I’ve got a long list of books that I want to read in 2017. My goodreads reading challenge is at a modest 35 and I have no specific plans for which ones I’ll choose, but there a few new releases in my preferred genres this year that I’m particularly excited about.

Horror: In the past I’ve tended to seek out older horror novels, but several upcoming releases have caught my eye this time around. Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In, which centres around disturbing disappearances in the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon, looks great. As does Little Heaven by Nick Cutter, a tale set in a ominous New Mexico backwoods settlement called Little Heaven. I’m also keen to read Cherie Priest’s Brimstone, described by the author as one part Penny Dreadful and one part American Horror Story. Should be fun! Finally, there’s Sarah Pinborough’s Behind her eyes, which I am getting simply on the back of knowing Pinborough’s knack for deeply unsettling and menacing storylines.

BrimstoneBehind Her Eyes

Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Having read the two previous Aftermath books, I’m keen to see how this Star Wars space opera featuring Norra Wexley and her rag-tag team ends in Aftermath: Empire’s End (Chuck Wendig). I’m also looking forward to the final installment of V.E.Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, A Conjuring of Light, in which the fate of the four Londons will be settled. Oathbringer, the third book in Brandon Sanderson’s fantastic Stormlight Archive series, will be released in November, and I’m salivating at the promise of another visit to Roshar. M.R.Carey releases the prequel to the excellent apocalyptic zombie story Girl with all the Gifts, titled The Boy on the Bridge, and on top of that, Neil Gaiman is fictionalizing Norse mythology in the book by the same name, which should be a treat. 2017 looks like it will be a good year for fantasy and sci-fi.

Empire's End: Aftermath (Star Wars) by Chuck Wendig

Non-fiction: In terms of non-fiction, I have singled out Beyond Inifinity: an expedition to the outer-limits of mathematics by Eugenia Cheng and In Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra. Both come highly recommended and the topics are intriguing and wonderfully complex, so my expectations are high.

 

Autumn books!

I love autumn. The chill in the air, the colours, the smells, the darker nights. To me, autumn is hot, comforting drinks and nice, comforting books.

pumpkins-2009

This autumn, my reading list is particularly self-indulgent. I almost wish for poor weather to justify the hours I plan to spend on the sofa with a stack of books. While it is not looking like 2016 will be particularly nice and chilly (given recent heat records), we can always hope for a few thunderstorms. Given my penchant for horror, that would suit me just fine.

Fellside img_2261by M.R.Carey has been on my radar for some time, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to wait until Halloween to dig into that particular book. A twist on the classic ghost story set in a prison at the edge of the Yorkshire moors should fit the season nicely. I have been told that Fellside is a book susceptible to spoilers, like Carey’s earlier The Girl With All The Gifts, so I’m staying clear of reviews, although ratings suggest I’m in for a treat. Actually, just looking at the cover makes me excited. amityvillecover

I’m planning on tackling an old classic: The Amityville Horror: A True Story by Jay Anson, as it is one of those stories I’ve watched but never actually read. I have been told that the book is creepier than the film(s), so I’ve got my hopes up.

I’m also looking forward to a steampunk fix. Island of Birds, the sequel to Austin Hackney’s Beyond the Starline, has recently been released, and I may also pick up a book in the Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest, probably Clementine or Dreadnought. If anyone has any thoughts on which I should go for after Boneshaker, let me know in the comments.

aftermathYet another sequel, Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig, is also on my list, which should get me in the mood for the upcoming Star Wars Rogue One film in December (not that I need to get more in the mood for Star Wars). I truly enjoyed the first Aftermath novel, although I am aware that the response to it was not uniformly positive. All I can say is that Mister Bones is right up there with BB-8 on the list of favourite droids, but for very different reasons.

I also plan to settle down with two non-fiction books: 1812: Napolerabidon’s Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski, which was recommended to me more than a year ago by a friend, and Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, simply because the subject matter is fascinating. The monster du jour, zombies, do not make an appearance in Rabid, if reviews are to be believed, but I expect to get a fair few parallels with werewolf myths in addition to the history and biology of one of the nastiest viruses out there. The scientist in me is quite excited about Rabid.

In short, it’s looking like it will be a pretty good autumn. What are you planning on reading? Let me know in the comments.

Book review: Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon is one of those books I happened to stumble upon and decided to give a shot. Wedged between two other books purchased that day, I didn’t even open it until a few days later. But when I did, I didn’t close it until the last page. (Slight spoilers ahead).

If you haven’t read it yet, Flowers for Algernon is a classic masterwork. The story is about Charlie Gordon, a below-average intelligent man, who is the first human subject for an experimental surgical procedure designed to improve intelligence. Preceded by the successful surgery on a laboratory mouse, the eponymous Algernon, Charlie’s intervention is successful, and his intelligence begins to rise.

The story unfolds through diary entries written by Charlie. We see how his grammar and spelling improves, how he becomes capable of complex thinking and expressing himself clearly, both on the page and to others. We see how his relationships grow from simple to difficult – first as he discovers slights and jokes at his expense that he previously had not had the capacity to spot, and second as he inevitably surpasses those around him, from his beloved teacher Alice Kinnian to the ambitious research lead Dr Nemur. His ability to form meaningful relationships suffers from the widening gap in intelligence between himself and those of a normal intellect, a cruel mirror of his former life. And then we observe how he regresses, just as Algernon did. From his scientific prowess and rich vocabulary down to his literacy – it is all stripped away. And throughout this process, we observe his grief and despair at the loss of his mind, followed by the inevitable isolation as a man who remember his former self but knows that it is hopelessly out of reach.

I’m normally not too fond of the epistolary form, but in this case I think it is perfect. It allows Keyes to present both the rise and descent of Charlie’s intelligence directly, and the result is almost painfully personal.

The novel does what most great sci-fi does: it uses the genre to debate current problems. Sci-fi has a long and illustrious history of social commentary, emphasised by its larger-than-life settings. You can strip human society bare when extrapolating using aliens, spaceships or futuristic drugs. In Flowers for Algernon, we are treated to the question of intelligence versus emotion, to the role of intellect in human relationships, and perhaps more importantly, to the mistreatment of those with a mental disability. Keyes wrote the original short story (which was given a Hugo award and later developed into the more familiar novel) against the backdrop of his own work teaching English to students with special needs.

Flowers for Algernon is the kind of book that works perfectly, from start to finish, with a story so clear it seems inevitable that it was written. It is perhaps the most bitter-sweet sci-fi book I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and it left me awed and heartbroken at the same time. In Charlie Gordon’s own final words:

“PS please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.”

algernon