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

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.

jir_2016_anon.jpg

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?

My top 5 horror novels

Horror novels are a mixed bunch, and while I tend to enjoy the majority of the ones I read, sometimes you come across that one book that makes you sleep with the lights on. That book that forces you to cast nervous glances over your shoulder even as you tell yourself that you are an adult and this is only fiction. The book that makes you 10 years old again and afraid of the dark. These are those books for me (in no particular order).

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Dark Matter (Michelle Paver). A tour de force of suspense, Dark Matter is a ghost story set in the arctic in the 1930s. Solitude and darkness ramp up the fright factor, and Paver does a great job of adding unease even in the earlier stages of the book, before we ever get close to our arctic destination. Her descriptions of the horror lurking in the unyielding night are terrifyingly efficient, with just enough detail for the terror to creep under your skin. She also does a wonderful job of painting a plausible post-horror epilogue.

The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty). Adapted into perhaps the best horror film of all time, the book is nevertheless a different beast than the upside-down crawl of Linda Blair. The thing that hit me when reading The Exorcist (which I didn’t get from the film) was the existential angst that seeps through the pages. This is a novel that stares into the abyss and finds nothing reassuring there. When I turned the final page, I felt grimy with bleakness and shaken to the core.

The Woman in Black (Susan Hill). I’ve read the book, seen the film and seen the play, and this story has terrified me each time. This is a book that lurks in between scares, letting your nerves fray with each page of waiting for the inevitable fright. And it doesn’t let up. The great marvel of this story is how it continues to bring on the terror right up until the final page. I love this story, even though it made me jump at even the tiniest creak after bedtime.

Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier). Manderley is a place to go mad in this psychological thriller classic. I didn’t know what I was going to when I read that ominous opening “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” for the first time, but for a novel that is arguably as much literary fiction as horror, it certainly left me deeply unsettled. Rebecca is a good example of how some of the best fears are rooted in our own psyche.

The Drugs Don’t Work (Sally Davies). Not a horror novel, but horrific even so. There are dystopian novels out there that highlight what a world without antibiotics looks like, but this is a short non-fiction book by Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, and it is more frightening than any piece of fiction I have come across in recent years.

Book review: Rabid: a cultural history of the world’s most diabolical virus

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, does exactly what it says on the tin. This is a summary of rabies, its history, cultural significance and the ultimate unraveling of some of its secrets at the hands of science.

As non-fiction books go, it is an easy read. Perhaps a bit too easy in places, leaving out the drier details that might interest anyone wanting a more in-depth analysis. For example, the book provides little to no detail on any mechanisms by which the rabies virus modifies behaviour, be that in animals or humans. It gives a very brief nod to rabies altering communication between brain cells as well as killing neurons, but it doesn’t delve into the specifics. This is a shame, as the mind-altering properties of rabies, its defining characteristic, is perhaps the factor that has embedded it so solidly in history.

This can be forgiven, because there is no firm consensus yet as to how rabies operates in the brain. However, there are plenty of hypotheses that the authors could have explored. For example, it has been suggested that in addition to killing cells, rabies disrupts the release and binding of chemical messengers in the brain 1. This includes serotonin, which, among other things, is negatively associated with aggression. Less serotonin equals (typically) more aggression. There is also some studies that suggest that rabies targets brain structures associated with memory, fear and emotion: the hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus 2. I may be biased, but in my opinion, a few paragraphs on the intricacies of the rabid brain would have been the icing on the cake.

587px-rabid_dog_text_and_illustration-_wellcome_l0014575

Apart from this omission, Rabid provides a rather thorough introduction to the history of rabies treatment. It outlines the early misconceptions, the discovery of the virus (a lyssavirus), the numerous host reservoirs (dogs and bats in particular), and attempts at rabies control (culling and vaccines), as well as last-resort treatments (a very good description of the not yet proven Milwaukee protocol). This highlights both the unrelenting force of the disease and the almost paradoxical drive to beat it. With only a handful of people ever surviving, this is the stuff of nightmares and a strong element of the book.

However, it is in describing its impact on society that Rabid truly shines. From the uneasy relationship between humans and dogs (the source of most human cases) highlighting how man’s best friend can turn into man’s greatest horror, to the historical fear of the beast within which has emerged in a number of classic horror novels, this book is nothing but thorough. Rabid makes the case that our fear of rabies has been central to our culture and literature, and after reading the book, I doubt anyone would argue that there isn’t some element of truth to that.

“Stories evolved, too, as they spread, and so we can consider what remained after centuries of such ‘audience testing’ as having a perverse sort of evolutionary fitness. […] The animal infection – the zoonotic idea – is mankind’s original horror, and its etiology traces back inevitably to the rabies virus.”

I have written before about some of the mind-controlling horrors in nature and how they relate to our modern monsters, but rabies is the mother of all such links. Rabid touches briefly upon the most likely modern suspect, the zombie, and goes on to provide a much more substantial discussion on the old classics: vampires and werewolves. It’s not a novel idea by any stretch. For example, a paper in medical science journal Neurology outlined the link between rabies and the vampire legend in 1998 3, and while Neurology is a good source for new developments in neurology, one suspects it may not be the first to report on vampirism. Despite it being an old idea, Rabid does a fine job of describing the numerous links between vampires, werewolves and rabies, spanning the entire range from Byronic ghouls to 28 Days Later.

google_werewolves

In short, Rabid is an accessible, well-written popular science book, which gives a good introduction to rabies-the-disease and an even better one to rabies-the-history. Given the subject matter – one of the most interesting (and feared) diseases in human history – it could hardly be anything but an exciting read. It’s thoroughly recommended for the non-squeamish.

1. http://www.kliinikum.ee/infektsioonikontrolliteenistus/doc/oppematerjalid/Referaadid/Rabies.pdf
2. http://neurowiki2013.wikidot.com/individual:neuroethology-of-parasites-that-alter-host-behavi#toc8
3. http://www.neurology.org/content/51/3/856.short

The Cordyceps

Just listen to the name: the Cordyceps. To me, that falls squarely in Triffid territory. It sounds as unsettling as it is. Those of us who saw Planet Earth (see clip below) could be excused for turning away at the segment where the Cordyceps fungus slowly sprouts from the head of a helpless ant riddled with white threads of fungal mycelium and controlled like a puppet. It’s like something out of the X-files. In fact, it’s like something out of the X-files episode ‘Firewalker’, for those of us old enough to remember hiding behind the sofa during those particular scenes with the throat-bursting fungus..?

The connection between a flesh-invading, mind-controlling fungus and zombie lore is so obvious it is barely worth pointing out. Fictitious variants of Cordyceps have made their mark on popular culture, with games such as The Last of Us and M.R.Carey’s excellent novel ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’. This means that Cordyceps belongs to the category of horrors that deal with predation and contagions/infection, which are incidentally the two features most reliably associated with successful horror films*. And of course there’s the element of death drawn out in stages of increasing terror, from the initial infection of the tissues, to the loss of the mind, down to the literal spike through the head. Now, that’s an existential horror to consider.

The Cordyceps clip is on YouTube in all its gruesome glory. The music lends it that extra creepiness, in case mind-controlling, brain-bursting flesh-eating fungi is not bad enough. Sir David explains better than I ever could:

Here’s the music without the commentary:

 

* Reference: Davis, H. & Javor, A. (2004). Religion, death and horror movies. Some striking evolutionary parallels. Evolution and Cognition, 10, 11–18.