IARPA and trust detection

Neurodudes reader Jason M. sent me some information about a funding agency, IARPA, or Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, that is funding neuroscience-related research. I had never heard of IARPA before but it has existed since 2006 as something of an intelligence-focused DARPA. There upcoming funding deadline (Aug 21) is for projects on detecting trust signals between humans.

Just last night, I watched the tense but amazing film The Hurt Locker (don’t let the name disuade you, see the phenomenal Metacritic rating), which is about a bomb disposal squad during the recent Iraq War. There is one particularly stirring scene with a suicide bomber who claims that he was forced to wear a vest with explosives and doesn’t want to go through with it. The difficulty in the limited time before the bomb explosion revolves around whether to actually trust the man and the challenge of trusting someone when neither party speaks the other’s language. You can certainly at least understand (putting aside the ethics of war itself) why governments are interested in detecting nonverbal trust cues.

Details about the IARPA call for proposals are after the jump. Continue reading

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VS Ramachandran's TED Talk

Although I’ve been a longtime fan of Ramachandran’s excellent book Phantoms in the Brain, this TED talk is like a compressed summary of the highlight’s of his research. He’s a great speaker and he covers in 20 minutes my two favorite examples in the book (Capgras delusion and mirror treatment for phantom limb syndrome). Perhaps the best part of the talk is that, after listening to it, I was convinced more than ever before of the statistical nature of sensory perception (ie. the brain attempts to find the most likely explanation for sensory observations) and the integrative nature of central processing of multiple modalities. 

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

Atul Gawande also recently wrote a New Yorker article about treating phantom itch with Ramachandran’s mirror box. I found this part of Gawande’s article on statistical inference in perception most interesting:

You can get a sense of this from brain-anatomy studies. If visual sensations were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you’d expect that most of the fibres going to the brain’s primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty per cent do; eighty per cent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals. When Oaklander theorized that M.’s itch was endogenous, rather than generated by peripheral nerve signals, she was onto something important.

I’m not familiar with this field but I wonder if anyone has tried to quantify what percent of our conscious experience that we normally believe to be 100% due to sensory input is actually recall from memory/inference based on past observation. Also, can this percentage adaptively change? Perhaps there are situations where the brain chooses to rely more heavily on memory and other cases where it relies more on primary sensory input.

Where are we with this whole free will thing?

Haim Sompolinsky has written an excellent book chapter on the scientific view of free will and choice, pulling in good ideas from physics and neuroscience along with contemporary philosophical commentary.

I think this chapter might be helpful for neuroscientists outside of the lab. Often a dinner table discussion has moved to the idea of “quantum consciousness” or “quantum free will”. Often, someone will mention Roger Penrose, who has become something of a poster boy for this idea that quantum indeterminacy (eg. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) is one possible way that free will is really free. And then, people look around and say, “Well, you’re a neuroscientist. Do we have free will?” (And that’s when I take another big drink or bite while I figure out something semi-coherent to say.)

Sompolinsky does a nice job of evaluating such claims (in the end, he says we cannot rule out the possibility that the brain is an indeterministic system but it seems unlikely) and provides nice scientific insight. In his view, it is far more likely that the brain’s apparent randomness (eg. individual cell spike rasters vary across repeated presentations of the same stimulus) is more simply explained by thermal noise (think of varying channel gating properties) and chaotic brain dynamics. (Recall, a chaotic system is still deterministic; it simply exhibits aperiodic behavior due to exquisite sensitivity to initial conditions. It is difficult to predict the long-term behavior of chaotic systems. The more we know the initial conditions in detail, the better our prediction.) On the other hand, he argues that the relevant length and time scales for neurons (micrometers and milliseconds) are far larger by many orders of magnitude than those of quantum noise. Chaos might amplify such quantum events, but this is far from being the simplest, most parsimonious explanation. Given the current level of neuroscience understanding, this is almost idle speculation. Regardless of the (in)determinacy of the world, Sompolinsky effectively argues against any non-physical, purely mental (ie. dualistic) agent of causation.

Thus, in sum, the world and our brains might not be determined but, even given that, there’s no reason to believe we have any causative ability to change things in the sense of traditional free will. These observations seem right on the mark to me. I hope they bring some insight for others. Or at least a way to fend off the dinner-table-free-will-conversation barrage of questions.

Determining research trends from Neuroscience abstracts

In this paper at arXiv, Yin et al. report on an analysis of the abstracts from the SfN meetings from 2001 to 2006. It sounds like their analysis uncovered several interesting trends: Two they mention in their abstract are that 60% of authors appear in only one year’s abstracts over the studied period, and that systems neuroscience seems to be on the rise relative to cellular and molecular neuroscience.

-John O’Leary