At a moment when vaccines promise to end the coronavirus pandemic, emerging new variants threaten to accelerate it. The astonishingly fast development of safe and effective vaccines is being stymied by the glacial pace of actual vaccinations while 3,000 Americans die each day. Minimizing death and suffering from COVID-19 requires vaccinating the most vulnerable Americans first and fast, but the vaccine rollout has been slow and inequitable. Prioritization algorithms have led to the most privileged being prioritized over the most exposed, and strict adherence to priority pyramids has been disastrously slow. Yet without prioritization, vaccines go to those with greatest resources rather than to those at greatest risk.
Without a doubt, the biggest questions about dreaming are all variants on this question: Why do we dream? We began studying dreaming in the early 1990s and, between the two of us, have published over 200 scientific papers on sleep and dreams. Pulling together a variety of compelling neuroscientific ideas and state-of-the-art findings in the fields of sleep and dream research, we propose a new and innovative model of why we dream. We call this model NEXTUP. It proposes that our dreams allow us to explore the brain's neural network connections in order to understand possibilities.
Horror films were wildly popular on streaming platforms over the past year, and 2020 saw the horror genre take home its largest share of the box office in modern history.1 In a year where the world was stricken by real horrors, why were many people escaping to worlds full of fictional horrors? As odd as it may sound, the fact that people were more anxious in 2020 may be one reason why horror films were so popular. A look at typical horror fans may provide some clues about the nature of this peculiar phenomenon. For example, horror fans often mention their own anxiety and how horror helps them deal with it.
In 1991 two hikers in the Italian Alps stumbled on a mummified body buried in the ice. The Iceman, it turned out, died more than 5,000 years ago. At first, archeologists assumed he'd fallen in a snowstorm and frozen to death. Then they discovered various cuts and bruises on his body and an arrowhead embedded in his shoulder. They also found traces of blood on the stone knife he was carrying. Most likely, he died fighting. Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan regards the Iceman story as emblematic of our violent nature. Humans are a quarrelsome lot with a special talent for waging war. In her book War: How Conflict Shaped Us, she argues that warfare is so deeply embedded in human history that we barely recognize its ripple effects.
This week we are reprinting our top stories of 2020. This article first appeared online in our Facts So Romantic blog in May, 2020. In May, the cover of New Scientist ran the headline, "Is the Universe Conscious?" Mathematician and physicist Johannes Kleiner, at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy in Germany, told author Michael Brooks that a mathematically precise definition of consciousness could mean that the cosmos is suffused with subjective experience. "This could be the beginning of a scientific revolution," Kleiner said, referring to research he and others have been conducting.
This week we are reprinting our top stories of 2020. This article first appeared online in our "Maps" issue in January, 2020. On a chilly evening last fall, I stared into nothingness out of the floor-to-ceiling windows in my office on the outskirts of Harvard's campus. As a purplish-red sun set, I sat brooding over my dataset on rat brains. I thought of the cold windowless rooms in downtown Boston, home to Harvard's high-performance computing center, where computer servers were holding on to a precious 48 terabytes of my data. I have recorded the 13 trillion numbers in this dataset as part of my Ph.D. experiments, asking how the visual parts of the rat brain respond to movement. Printed on paper, the dataset would fill 116 billion pages, double-spaced. When I recently finished writing the story of my data, the magnum opus fit on fewer than two dozen printed pages. Performing the experiments turned out to be the easy part.
The Chinese artist Xu Bing has long experimented to stunning effect with the limits of the written form. Last year I visited the Centre del Carme in Valencia, Spain, to see a retrospective of his work. One installation, Book from the Sky, featured scrolls of paper looping down from the ceiling and lying along the floor of a large room, printed Chinese characters emerging into view as I moved closer to the reams of paper. But this was no ordinary Chinese text: Xu Bing had taken the form, even constituent parts, of real characters, to create around 4,000 entirely false versions. The result was a text which looked readable but had no meaning at all.
Some evolutionary biologists say that after we pass reproductive age, nature, like a cat who's been fed, is done with us. The bodily systems that thrived and repaired themselves to ensure that we pass on healthy genes cease to function well and leave us to slink to the finish line the best we can. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of this year's Successful Aging, says "that's not an unreasonable interpretation," but he doesn't settle for the view that aging after 40 is a long and listless mosey to the grave. Levitin, 62, emeritus professor of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University, has lit up readers' minds with his books on the joys of music, This Is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs. But unlike an aging rocker playing his hits on an oldies tour, Levitin has remained fresh as a writer on the brain, exploring, in The Organized Mind, how to navigate our way through information overload to sane shores.
"I have lately been especially attending to Geograph. Distrib, & most splendid sport it is,--a grand game of chess with the world for a Board." In 1938, Yasunari Kawabata, a young journalist in Tokyo, covered the battle between master Honinbo Shusai and apprentice Minoru Kitani for ultimate authority in the board game Go. It was one of the lengthiest matches in the history of competitive gaming--six months. In his 1968 Nobel Prize-winning novel inspired by these events, The Master of Go, Kawabata wrote of the decisive moment when, "Black has greater thickness and Black territory was secure, and the time was at hand for Otake's [Kitani's pseudonym in the book] own characteristic turn to offensive, for gnawing into enemy formations at which he was so adept."
Imagine that someone asked you to come up with a sequence of five words. In any other year, some idiosyncratic combination would likely come to mind. This year, though, one five-word sequence that has been etched into the memories of many Americans, and many worldwide, stands out--"person, woman, man, camera, TV." Donald Trump, touting his ability to memorize these words as part of a cognitive health test, made the sequence famous. We can tie together our personal experiences and acquired knowledge--such as this memory of Trump's behavior--into interconnected memories, recallable at a moment's notice.