New research suggests that we remember life like a film

A new study has shed light on just how the brain may process life.  We have known for a long time where memories may be stored, but new research gives us a tantalising glimpse at just how this happens. Publishing in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers may have just shown us just how ‘Hollywood’ are memories may be.

Built for complexity

The new data, gleaned from hundreds of participants, suggests that the hippocampus (an area of the brain associated with memory,) is able to split information into manageable chunks.

Participants watched films (including Forrest Gump,) whilst hooked up to a functional MRI (which can map brain activation in real-time.) At the same time, 16 observers watched the same film and indicated when they believed that ‘events’ in the film began and ended.

Strikingly, it seemed that the brain was most active at these ‘event points’, suggesting that the entire film was memorised in small sections as opposed to one flowing narrative. All in all, it suggests that our brains process information into workable bits of information, much like a film reel.

Brain built for simplicity

So what does this add to our knowledge? Many theories already suggest that the brain acts as a filter for information, only storing what is important. If we were to take in every small bit of data, we would likely be overwhelmed. This new study shows us that the brain may do this based not just on space, but also the emotive and narrative component of what we see.

It may very much be that memory, like a good film, depends on important and emotive set pieces, with the most important moments given the most weight. And when we already know just how tricky memory can be, we can now ask why the brain chooses as it does.

So what do you think? Is there a reason the brain may work like this? What are the benefits? Let us know in the comments, and if you enjoyed this article please share!

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Wedding Crashers

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

 

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On Dying. A Message From Scientific Thinking.

Having spent several years of my life dealing on the frontline of death, it is no shock that the very nature of the end is one that I have often considered. As an atheist, the very idea carries perhaps more weight than for those lucky enough to hold beliefs in a second and eternal life.

But regardless of introspective journies, or indeed the hard moments where I have lost patients and family, there is some universality to the finale.

Beyond the Curtain

To consider the nature of death, one may begin with what we consider life. And although neurobiology may teach us many lessons about the beginnings of what we consider ‘consciousness’, it is clear that there is a difference between the passive actions of molecular machinery and the purposeful meanderings of creatures such as we.



DNA, the very building blocks of species innumerable and immemorable, has no memory beyond its structure, which within itself is only transient and ‘dies’ at the impromptu whim of little force. You would not call it alive in any real sense, any more than the bark of a tree or the ebb of a river. Motion does not mean life, only motion.

The next step up, the interaction between chains of organic molecules guided by chemical gates and gradients, is just as robotic and carries with it no semblance of intelligence. It is us that have defined agency in the evolutionarily derived actions of physics and chemistry. Once again you would not ask a melting lump of sugar how it feels.

So to jump to a creature that we consider alive we must allow for something different, the ability for an organism to not only respond to something outside of itself, (like simple molecules will,) but to manage its response over time.

It is within the structure of a third order neuron system that we begin to see feedback loops that form the basis of sentience, that is the binary form of what, as humans, we owe our special experience to. It is the macrocosmic version of these loops, interacting at incredible speeds, that give us the illusion of what we call ‘mind’

And regardless of our supposed consciousness, which until recently many believed signified some transcendental soul, we can reduce not just our minds, but our entire existence, free will included, to the non-sentient interactions of molecules carved into man-shape.

Considering this, the idea of death becomes one of both greater significance, and lesser all at once.

Before the Gates

So assuming that Science can provide explanations of how we have come to be, think and live, it is fair to demand that it provide an explanation for death. The biological model of death is quite simple; the cessation of an organism in all forms of modality except physical, which itself eventually passes with the sands of entropy. There is no room for a soul, which ceases as the machinery of the body grinds to a halt.

Whatever consciousness, thoughts or soul that once was disappears, a temporary illusion of apparent sentience maintained by the limited capacities of our brains, tempered and reminded of its presence by our nervous systems, intrinsically tied to the physical form in which it carries out it’s life. Simply put, the ‘soul’ is nothing more than a function of the soulless.

But as thinking creatures, who have achieved so much as to fly jets and write poetry, the very concept of death, beyond a question mark or ancient book, eludes us.

To ask what lies beyond, how it may ‘feel’ and what it ‘means’ is a question that Science itself has not answered beyond the retrospective analysis of those who have experienced near-death experiences. And even then, the ‘white light’ and ‘feelings of warmth’ so often attributed to a deity can be explained the death secretions of the brain in the form of DMT and other chemicals. Once again, we have applied agency and purpose to the banal.

To consider the true feeling of ‘non-being’ is simply beyond us. It is like asking what life felt like before you were born. I have no memory of the 13 or so billion years prior to my birth and will have no experience of the trillions after my death.

The experience, unless I am dramatically wrong in my atheism, will be very much the same; beyond comprehension, as there is no mechanism by which we may comprehend it. We are asking a rock to know itself.

As for purpose of life and death, there is likely none beyond which we choose. And if free will is an illusion, which many believe it to be, then the choice itself is mute. The purpose of life is simply existence but without agency or overriding design.

Freidrich Nietzsche may have come the closest in his estimations, in that purpose cannot be known as the universe itself is unknowable, and although science has taught us much about the universe, it has only shown us what and how, not ‘why.’

After the Fall.

To some, the idea of death is one of immense tribulation. I would agree myself, and no wager as simple as Pascal’s, or approach as defensive as agnosticism, changes that. The realisation of the mechanical nature of the human body and the illusory spirit is one that could, if we so let it, steal our significance in both the personal and cosmic sense. Such intellectual discussion means little to the lady dying of cancer, or the old man of kidney failure.

Such arbitrary ruminations are the gift of a far-off death, the distance of time or reality, the time to muse. But upon approaching it, either in hours, days or weeks, the intellectual arguments may provide no solace. In this sense, I very much understand why so much of the world holds on to the safety of heaven, because the reality of randomness and pointless may make life seem unfair.

Why live without purpose, why die at all?

However, even the most logical deductions about the nature of death and it’s purpose can reveal something truly astounding. And that is that if the universe is without agency or purpose, and we are nothing but illusory consciousness formed of asentient molecules, then our lives are incredibly worthwhile.

In the vast cosmos, we have sprung to life, and death is not some great messenger or test of faith, but simply the end of that cycle.

Death is neither bad nor good beyond human morality, but a cessation. The molecules in our bodies will not feel the end, or eulogise the passing of a ribosome. But those we leave behind will greave the loss of kin, another one so unlikely to have experienced life.

For me, as cynical as I am, there is a great beauty around the end of things. It teaches us, perhaps not all at once, that the true value of life is in its living.

We don’t require purpose, just the ability to define it. We don’t need free will, just the illusion of agency. We don’t need an eternal life, just the moments that make us forget about the inanity of it all.

And being a doctor and an atheist, death has taught me this; the end is common, constant and beyond knowledge, but a good life is not. So enjoy every moment, keep writing poems, keep flying jets, keep asking questions and, for as long as you can, breathe.

 

Image courtesy of Flickr.

 

 

 

Glimmer.

biology mental health

Here? Perhaps?

That links to something, it shines, but wait, no.

That was nothing.

Maybe here? More black. But a smile for a second.

Doze.

Breathe. The light is still on. Shapes, it’s okay. Find more.

But, it’s not there. Something outlined, but, turned away.

Circles. Audio. Snippet. Snipped it.

Reasons.

Broken bridges.

Warmth, soft. Hard. Cold, warm. Switch.

Books. So many books. Marked pages.

Maybe here?

Doze

Doze.

Well I keep searching for a heart to love.

Smile. Coffee. Smoke.

Doze.

Maybe here.

Breath.

But.

 

 

A Mixture of stuff, for.

Its funny, he thought, how the little things can traverse the years. How old tumbleweeds can blow around your brain, sometimes unseen in the hubbub, but the only break in the silence of the dark hours. ‘Rustle, rustle’ in the twilight hours. Dated pictures and once typed words, ‘rustle, rustle.’
James hunched further over his laptop, the first slide open on the screen. It read ‘A Mixture of Stuff, for James.’ It was an old set of slides, and unlike an old book whose pages would be dog-eared and stained, it held no record of the hours James had spent pouring over it. It was indifferent, but the old graphs, pictures, and words meant more to James than any book ever could.
He did the usual and played the song. Music from years ago filtered out the tinny speakers, filling the room with a blissful melancholy. It was routine, rustle rustle, funeral music for a bygone age. The journal of falling in love, a story that felt unfinished, but the final chapters ripped away. There was something beautiful in that, if desperately sad. He supposed that the song was some eulogy, although it had been meant as a rebirth.
A kindness. Something admirable, a goodbye from the woman he once loved. Still loved. Tried not to love, rustle, abhorred, rustle, adored. He took a long drag from his cigarette and felt the smoke fill his lungs. The slight breathlessness felt poignant, real, a brief departure from his fantasy of melancholia and past pixels.
So he began again, each new slide a jocular aperture, an inside joke made before inside jokes could be, the innermost thoughts of a lost soul mate. Moronic, loved, silly but serious. He could almost feel the same catch in his throat that he had felt years ago, the mixture of laughter and light. He smiled, the cigarette dangling from his lips. It had begun to burn down to the hilt. The song hit the chorus, the keyboards and words of hope dancing with the prose on screen.
He paused for a moment. Her face was almost gone now, his mind pushing it deep down into those hard places, the ones whose angles were felt in the darkest moments. The sheer faces where one may spiral (rustle, rustle) and lose himself. He remembered snatches of her smile, her eyes, her laugh. He had paid more penance for his mistakes than lashes could split his back.
But still, the slides and the music were all that was left (rustle.)
The final slide once again, a silly graph. Weirdness vs interest, a self-effacing joke. But years later, the joke was not as funny. It was damn beautiful, molecules of love coming together (rustle) in a sea of randomness (rustle) now split (rustle) and each (rustle) passing moment driving him further away.
The song ended as the cigarette ebbed out, and he closed the screen. The world around him had seemed much darker since. And in the night his lighter flared, the silence once again filling his brain. Let a single tumbleweed, rustling in the opaque. Perhaps one day the weeds could meet again. Rustle (together.)

Every once in a while I like to write something different. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Ben

Critical Thinking for Young Adults And Children

Years ago, long before Twitter and Facebook, my teachers would ask me and my classmates to sit in a line.  And in a game then called ‘Chinese Whispers*’ we would pass a secret message down the line, mouth to ear. And by the end of the line, the story would likely be very different from what began.

Although this childhood game is just a bit of fun, it has real-life implications. They say that information is power, but the truth is that it is not the information, but whoever controls it and how it is told that holds all the cards.

And today this could not be more important. As the world grows so does our circle of friends and strangers. Some of you will have social media accounts, that over the next few years, will connect you with thousands of people. And you will come to rely on them not just for friendship, but for learning about the world.

And this is where misconceptions, prejudice and being controlled can begin.

The Social Mesh

News articles, blogs, and opinions will filter through this mesh of people in ways similar to the old game of ‘Chinese whispers’, and by the end, it is hard to know what the real story is. And even worse, someone may change the story deliberately to mislead you, or just make one up for some personal reason.

You may have heard US President Donald Trump talk about ‘Fake News‘ (where the stories are untrue, or only parts are told,) or his opponents call him a liar. But when you don’t know the real truth, how can you decide? Is Trump a liar, or are the press spinning tall tales?

Well thankfully there is an answer, and its called ‘Critical thinking.

And in a world where the control of stories is power, it prepares you to decide for yourself what is true, and what is a lie. It helps you decide who to vote for, which issues will affect your life and what you need to do about them. Today I will teach you an introduction into how to think about stories and some questions you might ask.

Critical Thinking and Critical Appraisal.

Critical thinking is a process by which you can approach information. It allows you to ask the right questions about stories to figure out what is real, and what is not. It helps you to spot patterns, tricks and tells that reveal whether the speaker or writer is telling the truth.

Alongside it is something called ‘Critical appraisal’, where you learn how to break apart scientific studies and important papers that often provide the basis for these stories. Today we will focus on critical thinking in general, as critical appraisal requires its own time and a basic understanding of scientific theory and study.

This may already sound difficult, but it’s not. Science may seem difficult, but it’s all about practice. One hour spent learning something makes you one hour better, and it’s true for critical thinking as much as maths homework.

So the concepts I will introduce you to here are just part one of something much bigger, that I will leave to you to investigate the rest.  It’s probably better that way.

Tricks and Tails

First, let us imagine a story. Imagine, for a moment, that your pet dog has chewed up your parent’s favorite plant. It was your job to make sure the dog was looked after, but you left the front door open. Your parents are angry, and asking you what happened.

Dependent on what you want to happen, you will tell a different story. Perhaps you will say that ‘the wind opened the door,’ or perhaps that ‘the dog was asleep.’ Much like the game of Chinese whispers, you are changing the story to suit a particular purpose.

Your parents probably won’t believe you, but you have learned something: that lies can be useful. This is even more true for what you read on newspapers, television and online. If you can spin the facts to tell your story, you can make people do what you want.

But, you know this is wrong. Lies are generally a bad idea.

Unfortunately, ‘fake news’ is just that, lies. It may not be changing the facts ‘the dog ate the plant’, but it will change something about the story. Perhaps the dog ate the plant because ‘your parents weren’t feeding it’, (which may or may not be true,) but suddenly the dead plant is your parent’s fault. Not the dogs or yours.

This is called ‘spin’, a way of communicating information toward a certain story. Or another way of saying ‘bending the truth.’ But in the case of the dog, you are saying something believable, even if a lie. This happens all the time in the adult world, whether it be about Brexit (ask your parents,) or the reasons countries may fight each other.

It is saying something that’s believable, or perhaps even likely, without proof and letting people connect the dots.

Asking Questions

So your parents may ask you a few questions. They may look around the room and notice that the dog’s food bowl is half eaten. They may notice that the television is on with your favorite show playing. Eventually, they will figure out the truth. The facts around them cut through your story.

You have learned something new: ‘lies can be spotted.’

For the dog and the dead plant, this is easy. Your parents know you, your habits and probably when you are lying. They spot patterns in your voice or inconsistencies in your story. It’s just time and practice.

But as the stories become more complicated, and more people are involved, it gets harder. What if the dog was in the next house, and you couldn’t check the food bowl? What if you had to ask your neighbor about the food, and they could lie. Welcome to reading news stories, lots of people, half the information and much more power.

The more uncertainty there is around a story, the harder it is to spot what is added or taken away. Just as further down the chain of ‘Chinese whispers’ the words change, the further through social media or a newspaper from the original source the story travels, the less it can be trusted.

Thankfully for all of us, if we learn to spot common ways in which the news and others will trick us, we can apply our thinking to new information. In the case of the dog and the plant, your parents could just check for bite marks on the plant.

Three simple questions

So instead of spending a long time going through all the tricks, I am going to give you three questions to ask whenever you hear or read a new story. And for each one, a little explanation of why it’s so important.

By the end of the questions, you may have noticed that the story doesn’t quite add up. Or perhaps that something is missing, and you are being forced to believe something false:

Do you feel strongly about what you read or hear (sad, happy, angry?)

Emotions are very useful things. But for a news company, making someone angry with a headline is a good way to sell a paper. But we know that when you are angry,  you pay less attention to the facts.  So if a headline is angry, or uses overly comforting words, it is there to make you concentrate not on the story, but your emotions.

The paper wants you to react to the story in a certain way. A good example would be whenever some British papers talk about people from abroad, they always use angry words. This is because they want you to be angry with those people, even if those people aren’t doing anything wrong. They don’t want you to think about the facts.

So if you read a news story and feel very strongly, take a moment to remind yourself that this could be the purpose of the writer. And that purpose may be to distract you from actually thinking about what the story truly means. So take a moment, forget the feeling, and read again.

If the story seems odd once you read it again without the anger, then you may have spotted something. Remember that a story built on emotion may lack truth.

Can you trust the ‘facts’?

Often a news story will contain a lot of numbers. They may say ‘40%’ of people think this or that, or that ‘10% of people’ did this or that. These numbers may not be trustworthy, or part of a bigger picture that the paper is choosing to hide. This is to trick you into thinking something is accurate or ‘backed up.’ It may not be.

For example ‘100% of people think that hunting foxes is okay ‘ may sound quite a little odd to you, especially when you realize that the group of people asked were all ‘Fox Hunters (this is called bias, and once you learn to spot it the news becomes very different.) If you were to ask 100 people from school, the answer would be very different.

You may also see newspapers refer to ‘studies’ or ‘one study’ done by a scientist. The problem is that not all studies are good, or even true. If you wanted to sell a medicine, and 3 studies had shown it a bad drug, and one showed it to beuseful, which would you talk about? Newspapers will often pick the studies that suit their story, without talking about the other ones.

This also happens in which stories some newspapers or social media stars will report on. For example, one particular youtuber tends to only report on crimes committed by a specific racial group, whilst ignoring those committed by others. There is a purpose to this, to make you hate a specific group by making it seem like they are all bad.

So when it comes to numbers and studies. it’s always worth finding out more. Who was actually asked? Where there other studies? What did they say, and did the newspaper mention them? Why not? Are these ‘facts’ really true, or are bits missing? If you notice something is missing, then treat the story as misleading.

And when a newspaper seems to only focus on one ethnic or religious group, be all the wiser. There is always more to the story than the color of a man’s face.

Who is telling the story?

You may notice that your parents buy the same newspaper every day, or watch the same news channel. But you may also notice that one newspaper will report on something in a very different way to another. For example, some British newspapers will always attack those from other countries, whilst others will always defend them.

Ask your parents about ‘The Sun’ newspaper, or if in America, ‘Fox News’. Ask them what these two groups say about people from other countries. Then compare it with what ‘The Guardian’ says in the UK, or CNN in America. The answers may surprise you.

This is called an agenda, which is the ‘purpose’ of the newspaper. Not all agendas are the ‘right’ one, and which you agree with is up to you. But if you can look at who is telling the story, you might be able to spot an early clue about whether you are being lied to.

Think of a friend at school who lies a lot. They may sometimes tell the truth, but if you hear a story from them you are much more likely to ignore it. But if you hear a story from someone you trust (or should trust,) you may believe it, even if its a lie.

Newspapers and broadcasters are meant to be trustworthy, but not all of them are. Adults have agendas, and it’s up to you to figure them out. One way is to look at who is telling the story. What have they said before? Do they like the person that they are talking about? Is it possible that they are changing the story because of their beliefs?

Or do they want you to believe what they do?

Bringing it together

So these are just three questions, and there are a lot more of them. It is important to know that each question isn’t meant to tell you ‘Yes or No’ about whether you can trust a story, but help you to spot the tricks.

It is then up to you to use your brain to work out what you can trust. This will only get better as you ask more questions and practice. Much like your parents are an expert in you, you can become an expert in spotting lies by others.

Asking questions, like about whether the plant has nite marks, or whether your neighbor likes dogs, helps you to approach a story prepared. It helps you to spot the lies and prevents you from being forced to believe something false.

Elections are won with lies, wars begun with fake news and truly terrible things spread by rumour. Its up to us to stop it.

The reason this is so important is that the world, especially the rich and powerful, rely on controlling information to control people. When a newspaper is caught lying, it used to be a big deal, but now it is not.  The same is true of politicians and presidents. It’s up to you to spot the tricks.

And the younger you can start, the better decisions you can make. And as a final task, to you, I will leave you with one last question:

‘If this is so important, then why isn’t it all over the news?’

What’s next? Join our wonderful community!

  • Subscribe to our mailing list. We publish regularly, and we wouldn’t want you to miss our great content.
  • If you liked this, then perhaps you will be interested in ‘logical fallacies’
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  • If you liked this article, please help us to reach more people by clicking the icons below.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

*Apologies for the term used here. I feel it fair to acknowledge the relative cultural insensitivities of the past in order to learn from them. You can read an interesting take on the subject here. 

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