Daniel Engber chats with readers about brains.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
April 27 2007 6:11 PM

Slate on the Brain

Daniel Engber answers your questions.

Daniel Engber was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, April 26, to discuss this week's special Slate issue, Brains!, about the human brain and recent research, including looks at brain scans, what religion does to your neurons, mental workouts, and more. An unedited transcript of the chat follows. 

Daniel Engber: Hello everyone. Thanks for coming to today's chat about the Brains! issue on Slate. Let's get started...

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Madison, Wis.: Functional MRI now can discriminate between people who are lying (concealing information they know to be true while presenting information they know to be false) and those who are simply telling the truth as they know it. MRI machines are large, bulky, and require large amounts of electricity, but the use of liquid-nitrogen-temperature superconducting magnets and superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs) for the detection of extremely weak magnetic fields, along with high-R-value insulators such as fused silica or aerogels, could reduce size and power requirements to the point that an MRI machine could be worn as a hat. There is even a patent on this idea, held by a retired UC-Berkeley physics professor. If Congress has trouble preventing attorneys general and their former staff members from concealing the truth of their recollections about their own past activities, shouldn't they fund research into the MRI helmet concept and compel those who testify to wear them?

Daniel Engber: A fine idea! Actually, the U.S. government already funds research into the use of functional MRI for lie-detection. The drawbacks of brain-scan lie detectors are the same as those for conventional lie detectors -- they may work some of the time, but you're not guaranteed to get accurate results. The very best liars convince themselves that they are telling the truth ... in that case, no amount of scanning or technology will be able to suss out the difference.

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Portland, Ore.: Who chose William Saletan to author the piece " Best of the Brain: The five biggest neuroscience developments of the year"? As a neuroscience researcher, I was appalled by these five choices, most notably "the medicalization of sexual orientation," a basic science endeavor hugely and grotesquely misrepresented in the media. Perhaps Slate should have consulted an actual neuroscientist when choosing the five biggest neuroscience developments of the year.

Daniel Engber: I think that list would have looked very different had we wanted to focus on the scientific importance of these developments. Instead, the goal was to find the stories that reflected important or disturbing ideas, which emerged from neuroscience research. One of my goals as editor of this issue was to get past some of the straight science reporting on brain discoveries, to do a bit more thoughtful analysis of how these discoveries affect the culture at large.

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Boston: Why is this special issue so narrowly focused on cognitive science-type issues, rather than neuroscience as a whole? Much of the research into how the brain works is not done in humans, and those studies are done on a molecular, cellular or neural circuit level. Why not discuss this vast effort, rather than write only about fMRI or human behavior?

Daniel Engber: Good question. As I said in the previous answer, one of the goals of the special issue was to focus on how neuroscience relates to -- and is interpreted by -- popular culture. We've learned a great deal about the biology of learning by poking electrodes into sea slugs. But we'll probably see a greater impact on our daily lives from the research that follows -- on mice, monkeys, and humans.

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Madrid, Spain: Mr Engber: First of all, thanks for the package. I read it yesterday and got really amazed with the description of the new neurobics club at Sarasota. I'm highly interested in the brain fitness subject because I'm involved in a project to develop a Day Care Center for elderly people in Madrid that would include a Memory Club. Based on your experience and knowledge of this trend I would like to know: what is the level of development of these kind of facilities in the U.S., particularly for the elderly? What are the most relevant software packages around brain training?

washingtonpost.com: Brain-Gym Showdown(Slate, April 25)

Daniel Engber: That "neurobics club" in Sarasota is fairly unusual -- in the sense that it's not affiliated with a retirement community. Mental fitness has become increasingly widespread in the context of assisted living: You can find "brain gyms" in homes around the country. But you don't need a spinning "chi chair" or a sensory-deprivation tank to set these up: As the article illustrates, the work-out equipment consists of little more than a computer and a bunch of commercial software packages. (There's even a Nintendo game.)

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New York: In your opinion, what is presently the weakest area of research in the brain sciences that scientists could be focusing on -- and why do you think this is the case?

Daniel Engber: That's a very difficult question, since the brain sciences are so diverse. As another reader pointed out, the Brains! issue only focuses on a subset of all the important neuroscience research that goes on.

That said, I sometimes wonder if topics that make us uncomfortable get less attention than they should. Research on sex and sexuality, for example, seems to be lagging behind what it should be -- given the importance of those issues. I wouldn't underestimate the effects of squeamishness on the direction of scientific research.

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Oak Forest, Ill.: For years I have heard about the untapped portions of the human brain. Are portions actually completely untapped or are the parts that we utilize just underused? Also, if there are unused portions, do you believe that it is possible to "awaken" them? Thank you!

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