Daniel Engber chats with readers about brains.

Daniel Engber chats with readers about brains.

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.

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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!

Daniel Engber: The familiar saying that "we only use 10 percent of our brains" turns out to be entirely false. People got that idea because the brain is fairly resilient to injury. As Daniel Gilbert points out in one of our pieces, you can have a steel rod rip through a large portion of your frontal lobe and only suffer from mild personality defects. That doesn't mean that your frontal lobe is "untapped" -- it just means that many important functions are distributed throughout the brain, and that the brain has different ways of accomplishing the same goals.

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Burbank, Calif.: Mr. Engber, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. My question is: Alzheimer's Disease runs in my family, so much so that my mother is now stricken with it and she's only 56. I know there might not be any fool-proof ways to prevent it, but I thought I would start by learning new skills (I'm 30 years old, by the way). I took a drumming class and I'm going to learn some Spanish. But I was also wondering if it might help to learn to write or perform other skills left-handed since I'm right-handed. Is there anything you can suggest?? (I also watch "Jeopardy!" and do crossword puzzles).

Daniel Engber: Thanks for the question. Right now I don't believe there's any solid evidence about whether doing crossword puzzles at 30 could stave off Alzheimer's down the road. As Meghan O'Rourke points out on Slate, we're still facing an evidence gap when it comes to "brain training." Drumming class and Spanish lessons do sound rewarding on their own terms, though...

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washingtonpost.com: Train Your Brain(Slate, April 26)

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New York: I find these sorts of studies fascinating but doubt that they will ever be conclusive. If evidence of brain activity means religious ecstasy is an illusion, then couldn't most any other human emotion be considered an illusion as well? For example, suppose I contemplate a beloved but absent person. This triggers emotions that are undoubtedly reflected in brain activity. If the activity is measurable, does that mean my emotions are not real? Or that the absent beloved is not real? What if that absent beloved is God? I don't mean to imply that brain activity can prove the existence of God or a relationship with God. Only that it can't disprove it either.

Daniel Engber: You're pointing out how tricky these concepts can be, and how easy it is to draw your own conclusions from brain-imaging data.

I would point out, though, that no studies at all have suggested that religious ecstasy is an illusion. If anything, they prove that a believer is telling the truth about being ... ecstatic. That ecstasy is as real as any other emotion.

But those same studies can't explain whether the ecstasy comes from God, or from another source.

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Chicago: Curious about your opinion. If one could take a person and make an exact copy of them, down to every last detail (cellular, physiological, etc), would that person be exactly the same as the original? Would the person have the same memories and skills?

Daniel Engber: My personal opinion? Yes. But the premise of the question is utterly impossible, so what does it matter?

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Greenwood Village, Colo.: If homosexual behavior is present in many different animal species and found in all human cultures today and throughout history, then I would assume that the trait would provide some evolutionary advantage. If it doesn't present an advantage, why hasn't the trait been selected against and lost from the genome of these different species?

Daniel Engber: Hmm, good question. I'd just be speculating -- I'm a journalist, after all, and not an evolutionary biologist. But off the top of my head I suppose it's possible that homosexual behavior comes along with a broader category of social or sexual behaviors that -- taken together -- provide some sort of evolutionary advantage.

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Geneva, Switzerland: I wonder why it is simpler to learn something if you form it like a game. I have for long now been active in various Web sites that allows you to create and play games around subjects you are interested in, typically learning where countries are, chemical abbreviations and other type of purpose games. So, in short, why is it simpler to learn something when you add some competition to it?

Daniel Engber: That's interesting -- I've noticed that, too. The obvious answer would be that the game gives you more motivation to do the learning. The more attentional resources you devote to a given task, the more effective you'll be at that task ... I know I pay a lot more attention to a game when I care about winning.

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Cleveland: What are the chances of finding a "religion gene" in human (or other species) DNA? Would that explain religious belief or Atheism? Thanks and keep up the great work.

washingtonpost.com: God Is in the Dendrites(Slate, April 26)

Daniel Engber: Dean Hamer identified his "God gene" by testing people's DNA and asking them how religious they were. It's easy to come up with some sort of answer if you set up your questions this way ... but I'm not sure how much we learn from this approach. Even if some combination of genes made someone more or less likely to believe in God, that might not "explain" anything. After all, there are probably a lot more atheists around Europe today than there were 750 years ago. Is that because the gene pool changed, or because of something else?

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Beautiful Silver Spring, Md.: I don't see how you can have a discussion of neuroscience without addressing the single greatest threat to cognitive abilities that most humans will ever face: Brain-eating zombies. When corpses self-reanimate and rise from their own graves with an insatiable lust for neural matter, it is scientifically documented (in the June 2006 issue of the Journal of Folk Epidemiology) that those whose brains exhibit the highest levels of neuroplasticity exert the greatest attraction for the zombie menace. What does neuroscience have to say about balancing the desire for top cognitive function with the need to avoid forcible neuronectomy at the hands of brain-eating zombies?

Daniel Engber: This is surely one of those areas of research I alluded to above, when I said that scientists avoid studying topics that make them uncomfortable. Why don't you submit a grant proposal to the NIH?

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Sydney, Australia: I was going to ask you about Gingko Biloba, which I have been taking regularly for the past few years ... but I forgot what the question was! Sorry!

Daniel Engber: My sentiments exactly.

I'm signing off now -- Thanks again for all your questions, and keep an eye out for a few more "Brains!" pieces on Slate later in the day. One will look at the myth of "mirror neurons," and the other will investigate what happens to our brains when we hit 70 years old...