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.

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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.

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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?

Writing: Chekov and The Journal of Imaginary Research

I recently wrote a short piece in a very different style from my normal writing, mostly as a challenge to myself (see my previous post: The road ill-advisedly taken). Knowing it would be a learning experience, I tried not to be too critical of the final result. Completing it and then publishing it, even though it is in a small University journal, is victory enough.

The brief was to write a mock-science abstract, complete with introduction, methods, results and discussion, plus a fake author biography. I had just been to see Uncle Vanya at the Sheffield Crucible (excellent performance, by the way), and decided to give a nod to Chekov and a kick to the many egos of academia. Not sure if I succeeded in doing either, but it was a fun experience. The process showed me that I vastly preferred the text when reading it out loud, compared to simply reading it on screen, and I wonder if that is inevitable or whether it highlights the weakness of the text – i.e. what I could improve. There were also a few editorial changes that I did not agree with, but had little power over. The end result is below, if anyone is interested (the final version and my submitted version).

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My submitted version is as follows:

The eclipse – a loss for our fields.

Total eclipse is when our indispensable sun is overshadowed by the sterile, simple moon. This rare event could cause acute and lasting harm, yet has hitherto been ignored by scientists most ignorant.

For precision, my decision was conducting triple tests of soil and silt and sand. Within each field, my plants were measured carefully, and my professor’s lamp, holding a bright and polished bulb, selected as their ‘sun’. As for the ‘moon’, I chose a base, volcanic rock, presented me by my department’s new replacement, as a token of retirement: a simple thing but suitable. My lamp was lit upon the fields. And then obscured.

For every plant within the fields, the loss of light (my shrouded lamp) caused drooping stems and dying leaves. A swift return of light provoked reversal of the wilting, yet there remained regression next to normal fields.

My data shows, conclusively, that barren rock (the moon) may block the sun (my lamp) and damage fields in manners irreparable. Total eclipse is therefore not a spectacle, but harbinger of harvests lost, as was believed historically. In future work, a test to prove the same repugnant loss occurs when zealous youth replaces expertise and eminence, is well-advised.

Biography

Professor Serebryakov spent his finest years in Moscow’s Biology Department. Following a short sabbatical, he recently returned to active research in Krakow, where he is a founder of the newly established Putative Pontification Society for the Benefit of the Uneducated (in honour of his brother-in-law from his first marriage) and a patron of the Opera Krakowska alongside his young wife. His eagerly-awaited memoirs, describing the recent scandalous lack of support within his former Moscow department, will be published next year. 

Do you ever write in a different style? If so, how did you find it? Have you written in the spoken word type of prose, or do you write poetry? How does that influence your ‘regular’ prose? Are some types of prose best enjoyed when read out loud? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Love over Gold

Have you ever heard Telegraph Road? It is a 1982 song by Dire Straits about the building of America, spanning decades, following the rise and fall of a city built around the ‘Telegraph Road’. The song is more than 14 minutes long. Rolling Stone magazine called the entire album, Love over Gold, [an] “almost suicidal defiance of commercial good sense”. They weren’t wrong.

Commercial good sense it something any artist encounters, and accepts or rejects accordingly. This post is not in favour of either – they both have their merit – but I’d like to give a shout out to those going for the ballsy latter option: reject. Run the risk of not being heard or read, of being overlooked and ignored, of not being paid.

It is not an easy decision, and one has to be very certain of both oneself and one’s art to go down the route of Telegraph Road, knowing that there might easily be nothing but destitution and unemployment at the end. I’m impressed by those who do it, whether they succeed or not, because within that group there are movers and shakers and creators of novelty.

But there is another way of walking that road. It’s also walked by the hordes of people who have the fortune of being able to follow the sage old advice: keep the day job. And I like those too, for all that they might feel as if they are not ‘proper’ musicians, writers, artists and so on, just because they don’t live off of their artistic endeavours. Keep the day job and be free to try new things, knowing that they may never support you, that they don’t have to do so.

I like my day job. It gives me freedom. Freedom to throw caution to the wind, to aim for something that may be new and could be good. (Caveat: it may also be shit – you never know until you try.) Having not hinged my finances on my writing, I can write what I like and still have enough to eat. In short, there are no large penalties to lack of popularity. It’s a less perilous Telegraph Road.

Love over Gold succeeded, despite being weird to the point of failure. Why? Well, there is perhaps another lesson there, beyond any thoughts on the purpose of free art and whether or not financial security plays a role in supporting it. And that lesson is: write Love over Gold after Making Movies. There’s a lot to be said for having an album that sold to platinum in several markets in your backpack when you’re trying something new. But you’ll have to ask someone other than me for any inside information about that.

 

Podcast recommendation

I don’t listen much to podcasts and I am usually more keen on seeking out stories than advice on writing, but I have made an exception for Writing Excuses for quite a few years now. Writing Excuses is a podcast by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells and Howard Tayler, and it addresses story structure, genre, plot, pace – everything, really. Each episode is only 15 minutes long, so good for those of us with limited time or attention spans. To me, it is a short burst of no-nonsense, practical advice and suggestions that makes me sit down and write afterwards rather than pulls me away from the keyboard. It is always worth my time. I am particularly excited about 2018, as this will be the Year of Character. Should be very good indeed.

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard 2018 is our Year of Character, and we kick it off with a quick exploration of the differences between heroes, protagonists, and main characters. Beginning with addressing the question “wait, aren’t they all the same person?” Because that’s the elephant in the room. Or maybe it’s three elephants. Or…

via 13.1: Hero, Protagonist, Main Character — Writing Excuses

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