Eight years ago, when neurosurgeon Marcelo Galarza saw images from jazz guitarist Pat Martino's cerebral MRI, he was astonished. "I couldn't believe how much of his left temporal lobe had been removed," he said. Martino had brain surgery in 1980 to remove a tangle of malformed veins and arteries. At the time he was one of the most celebrated guitarists in jazz. Yet few people knew that Martino suffered epileptic seizures, crushing headaches, and depression. Locked in psychiatric wards, he withstood debilitating electroshock therapy. It wasn't until 2007 that Martino had an MRI and not until recently that neuroscientists published their analyses of the images.
The first pieces of the brain's "inner GPS" started coming to light in 1970. In the laboratories of University College London, John O'Keefe and his student Jonathan Dostrovsky recorded the electrical activity of neurons in the hippocampus of freely moving rats. They found a group of neurons that increased their activity only when a rat found itself in a particular location.1 They called them "place cells." Building on these early findings, O'Keefe and his colleague Lynn Nadel proposed that the hippocampus contains an invariant representation of space that does not depend on mood or desire.
Imagine standing up to give a speech in front of a critical audience. As you do your best to wax eloquent, someone in the room uses a clicker to conspicuously count your every stumble, hesitation, um and uh; once you've finished, this person loudly announces how many of these blemishes have marred your presentation. This is exactly the tactic used by the Toastmasters public-speaking club, in which a designated "Ah Counter" is charged with tallying up the speaker's slip-ups as part of the training regimen. The goal is total eradication. The club's punitive measures may be extreme, but they reflect the folk wisdom that ums and uhs betray a speaker as weak, nervous, ignorant, and sloppy, and should be avoided at all costs, even in spontaneous conversation.
Family Physics" may be the best episode of Public Radio's long running show, This American Life. Import key concepts from the realms of quantum mechanics and cosmology and use them to illuminate the everyday world of parents, kids, and their interactions. Introducing the show, however, host Ira Glass was quick to point out how much physicists detest this kind of enterprise. "They hate it when non-scientists … apply principles from physics to their petty little lives and petty little relationships." Glass was equally quick to point out that he and his colleagues at the show just did not care.
My tongue is orange!" my 2-year-old daughter shrieked after licking a dollop of clear hand sanitizer. "Mommy, my ear feels orange," she moaned when an earache struck. It's orange," she whined from inside her snowsuit when a scratchy tag in her new white glove rubbed uncomfortably against her wrist. As her vocabulary blossomed, she started to associate colors with scents. "What smells pink?" (Dryer exhaust puffing out of a neighbor's basement vent.) Anyone who has spent time around toddlers knows they say some strange things.
When Nate Soares psychoanalyzes himself, he sounds less Freudian than Spockian. As a boy, he'd see people acting in ways he never would "unless I was acting maliciously," the former Google software engineer, who now heads the non-profit Machine Intelligence Research Institute, reflected in a blog post last year. "I would automatically, on a gut level, assume that the other person must be malicious." It's a habit anyone who's read or heard David Foster Wallace's "This is Water" speech will recognize. Later Soares realized this folly when his "models of other people" became "sufficiently diverse"--which isn't to say they're foolproof, he wrote in the same post.
If you've been on the internet today, you've probably interacted with a neural network. They're a type of machine learning algorithm that's used for everything from language translation to finance modeling. One of their specialties is image recognition. Several companies--including Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Facebook--have their own algorithms for labeling photos. But image recognition algorithms can make really bizarre mistakes.
It starts without warning--or rather, the warnings are there, but your ability to detect them exists only in hindsight. First you're sitting in the car with your son, then he tells you: "I cannot find my old self again." You think, well, teenagers say dramatic stuff like this all the time. Then he's refusing to do his homework, he's writing suicidal messages on the wall in black magic marker, he's trying to cut himself with a razor blade. You sit down with him; you two have a long talk. A week later, he runs home from a nighttime gathering at his friend's apartment, he's bursting through the front door, shouting about how his friends are trying to kill him. He spends the night crouching in his mother's old room, clutching a stuffed animal to his chest. He's 17 years old at this point, and you are his father, Dick Russell, a traveler, a former staff reporter for Sports Illustrated, but a father first and foremost. It is the turn of the 21st century.
A lot of people don't like the word "moist." Several Facebook groups are dedicated to it, one with over 3,000 likes, New Yorker readers overwhelmingly selected it as the word to eliminate from the dictionary, and Jimmy Fallon sarcastically thanked it for being the worst word in the English language. When you ask people why this might be, there is no shortage of armchair theory: that there's something about the sounds involved, that it puts your face in a position similar to the facial expression of disgust, or that it reminds people of mold or sex.