Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Does the brain have a will of its own?

The belief in free will--that personal choices are not simply determined by fate or forces of a physical or divine nature--is under attack!

John-Dylan Haynes of the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Hu­man Cog­ni­tive and Brain Sci­ences in Leip­zig, Ger­ma­ny has looked into the matter, and published his findings, summarized recently in World Science:

Cer­tain pat­terns of brain ac­ti­vity pre­dict peo­ple's de­ci­sions up to 10 sec­onds be­fore the peo­ple are aware of them... Re­search­ers tracked brain ac­ti­vity while peo­ple viewed a stream of let­ters on screen, and then pressed a but­ton. Each par­ti­ci­pant was asked to de­cide freely which of two but­tons to press and when to press it.

Scan­ning the brains with a tech­nique called func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance im­ag­ing, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors used a sta­tis­ti­cal meth­od known as pat­tern rec­og­ni­tion to ex­am­ine brain ac­ti­vity as­so­ci­at­ed with each choice. Ac­ti­vity in two brain re­gions, called the pre­fron­tal and pa­ri­e­tal cor­tex, pre­dicted which but­ton the per­son would press, they found... This ac­ti­vity oc­curred up to 10 sec­onds be­fore sub­jects were con­sciously aware of hav­ing made a de­ci­sion, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers.

Is it true that our decisions are made before we are even aware of them? Has all the trouble I've taken to choose entrees from menus been wasted time? Have I already decided on the answer to that question? At least the brain appears to be efficient.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

First page proofs of Dr. Olaf

Last week, I mailed back the first page proofs of Dr. Olaf. Seeing the book laid out really made it feel real, and I can't wait to see the bound review copies later this month. And yes, every time I read through the pages, I have changes--even though the manuscript has gone through several great edits and a thorough copy edit. I don't think the tweaking impulse will ever stop, even after the book is printed and bound and sitting on bookstore shelves (September 9!). That's the news of the moment, just a brief update to share where the book is at the moment.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Preserving the Brain

In 1898, former Civil War surgeon Burt Green Wilder, M.D., launched an impressive collection consisting of whole human brains (perhaps the first such collection in the US). According to Cornell University's Chronicle Online:

Wilder wanted to see if differences could be detected in size, shape, weight and amount of convolution between the brains of "educated and orderly persons" and women, murderers, racial minorities and the mentally ill. Eventually, it was concluded that such differences could not be detected, at least not by the naked eye or any 19th-century tools.

The collection, containing brains of the likes of Helen Hamilton Gardener, suffragist; E.B Titchener, "dean of experimental psychology in America;" and Edward Howard Rulloff, convicted murderer, grew to contain at least 600 specimens. Sadly, by 1978, most of the specimens were "dried up," and many were "purged."

Currently, eight brains and their biographies are on display in Cornell's Uris Hall. The remainder of the collection is "stored in a basement closet." The collection, maintained in Cornell's Dept. of Psychology, contains "14 brains of prominent people and 12 brains of less known or infamous people."