Category Archives: Science

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.

 

 

What is Love?

Sometimes love is only recognised when something leaves. And in the feeling of loss, the emotional tumult becomes manifest in some undefinable ache. Something in your chest that once was,  now  is not. Other times it is something that fills you, that breaks apart the worries of life and focuses everything into the space between heartbeats.

Is love just hormones? Or nerve receptors? Or is it something more?

“But that afternoon he asked himself, with his infinite capacity for illusion, if such pitiless indifference might not be a subterfuge for hiding the torments of love.” – Gabriel Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

Love in the blood

It is a habit of science to reduce the complex into understandable pathways. By explaining something to a point of being irreducible we can better understand it. But for something as universal as love the idea may seem not just implausible, but somehow offensive.

After all, what does it all matter if we know our atoms, if we cannot feel love?

Scientists believe that love can be explained in terms of our physiology (i.e how our body works,) and this can be explained as way of surviving. From our earliest ancestors we needed something strong to hold us together, to cement a protective unit for our children.

Love seems to fit the call.

It all starts, they say, with lust. The feeling of attraction, physical in nature and overwhelming. Surges of hormones such as testosterone and oestrogen fill our bodies, and promote sense of wellbeing.

This is what the poets immortalise, the feeling of connection beyond space and time.

Next comes attraction, the impetus of familiarity. New hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and dopamine begin to work. Dopamine itself is a hormone much concerned with addiction, our bodies literally pine for the subject of our love.

That ache, often good if longing, comes somewhere in this whirlwind. This is where the stark images of colour and beauty found in songs finds home.

Finally comes attachment, a feeling mediated by oxytocin, serotonin and vasopressin. These hormones work in different ways, but science shows they foster feelings of connection and comfort. In fact, studies have correlated blood levels of these substances with healthy relationships. This is where the image of old hands intertwined on a park bench lives.

In a small town taking my hand from the words into a promised land. How I wish for a thorn in my heart and deadly was the rose that I got. – Kite, Dance Again.

Love in our hearts

So you may be wondering, does learning all of this remove the special nature of love? Was the lifelong love of Florentino Ariza nothing more than an interplay of chemicals on a lonely mind? Or is there something poetic to it, something that transcends the biology?

We know little about the brain, and less about the mind. Sure, with functional MRI we can begin to tease apart the physicality of thought, and with psychiatry the cognition of life, but even with complex models it seems something is amiss.

Perhaps love is just a victory of evolution, a hormone driven delusion designed to bring us together. Perhaps it serves no function other than to provide a stable resource base for the young and a gateway to reproduction.

But that doesn’t full explain it, much like a painting can never fully capture a mountain.

There is a point, somewhere between our dreams and our reality that life finds comfort. And the complexity of the human mind has led to great poetry, art, literature and film that portrays everything from the spark of eyes meeting to the squalor of heartbreak.

Within our love and pain we have created great beauty far beyond the dance of molecules.

So, for me at least, even if love can be categorised and explained by hormones and biology, it may never be captured. It exists between the heartbeats, and in that silence is a secret that no instrument can reveal.

Welcome home. Ships are launching from my chest
Some have names but most do not. Radical Face, Welcome Home.

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

 

5 Quotes that make Carl Sagan Unforgettable

sagan love quote universe

If you haven’t heard of Carl Sagan then you are missing out. Not only was the renowned astrophysicist a pioneering scientist, but a leader in the field of public science communication. And personally, one of the greatest people to have ever lived.

Without him, it is unlikely that many of us would know much about the universe beyond basic education. And without his television show Cosmosa generation of scientists may have never come to be.  But Carl’s greatest contribution to humanity was his unending patience, empathy and personal charge toward empowering people with knowledge.

sagan top 5

On his ‘ship of the imagination’, Sagan traversed the stars. Image courtesy of Flickr

Even now, his profound insights into human life ring true in arenas ranging from politics to social reform. So let’s count down our top list of his most enduring quotes, perhaps you will find something that you love.

1. On understanding and knowledge.

People are not stupid. They believe things for reasons. The last way for skeptics to get the attention of bright, curious, intelligent people is to belittle or condescend or to show arrogance toward their beliefs.

Throughout his career, Carl was persistent in his pursuit of public empowerment. By treating us all as friends, capable of the greatest feats, he established a paradigm of education by right.

sagan carl quote top 5 universe

Carl Sagan’s Universe was one we could all explore, and he tried to be the greatest guide. Image courtesy of Flickr.

But with some controversy, he took what was privy only to a select few in academia and made it not just palatable, but wondrous to the rest of us. For Carl, you were not just deserving of the universe but enriched for understanding it.

And as an avowed skeptic of common wisdom and conspiracy, he approached each subject with evidence, understanding, and compassion. Simply, he forgave people human mistakes, where others would simply dismiss them.

We should do the same.

2. On the transience of human life and the immortality of words.

One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.

During one episode of his poetic homage to humanity, Cosmos, Sagan visited the ancient library of Alexandria. It was here, for a short while, that the world’s greatest minds came together in a shared mission of understanding.

sagan quote books

Books are nothing less than a voyage of discovery, be they history. science or fiction. Our words stay behind when we leave. Image courtesy of Flickr.

And although much of Alexandria’s history was lost, small amounts remain in collected writings. An enduring legacy of another time. But for Carl words were more than just communication between friends and colleagues, but a version of immortality.

Through the written word we learned to overcome death, share the wisdom of our time with those who would come after. The ‘information-organism’ of humanity finds feet in ink over millennia.

3. On the fragility of understanding and the wonder of creation

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

In this short epithet, Sagan reflects on the vast gulf between human knowledge and the nature of the universe. And depending on your interpretation, he is either jocularly revealing a comedy of nature, or providing a deep insight into the linearity of thought.

supernova sagan star

All that we are was formed in ancient furnaces. Including apple pie. Image courtesy of Flickr.

To make an apple pie requires the ingredients created from the formation of our universe. All that is once was in the bellies of ancient stars, cast into our universe and eventually mealtimes by cosmic forces and eons of time.

But to understand the world we must first invent a way of understanding, and for that the best we have is science. It is through a skeptic and imaginative mind that we may create our universe.

4. On the humility of human life in an infinite universe (see video.)

In his famous soliloquy, Sagan reduces human accomplishment, greatness, cruelty and misunderstanding to the tiny significance it has in the greater universe.

Within his poetic testament he not only shows us just how small we are, but hints at how pointless our self destruction is.

And at the same time he conveys a message of hope disguised in a eulogy. He warns us that our future is down to us, and that hopefully by realising what we have, as tiny as it is, that we may create a better future.

Earth is our only home.

5. On the saving grace of companionship.

For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.

For all his poetry, lessons and foretelling, Sagan hits on something truly profound. Upon recognising the inescapable truths that are our mortality and ineffectual existence beyond a pale blue dot, he returns to what unites us all.

love sagan universe

In the infinite abyss of a dark universe hides rare moments of light and love. Image courtesy of Flickr.

By embracing love we can overcome any distance. And in that the paucity of meaning is rendered mute, bearable and even empowering, as through love we can find meaning in an ocean of irrelevance. Where science can bring humility, love can bring back purpose.

Throughout his career it appears to me that Sagan’s underlying driving force must have been a deep and powerful love for the universe and his fellow man. To continuously fight for public empowerment, against governments, critics and even himself, Sagan had a heart much greater than even his ‘ship of the imagination’ could explore

But to encapsulate Sagan in five quotes is impossible, so we encourage you to explore his work further.

So which was your favourite? What have we missed and what did you take away? Let us know in the comments below. And if you found yourself touched, please help us reach out  by sharing.

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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.

R.I.P Carl.

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