Encephalon #48: The Usual Suspects

At first the 48th edition looked like a round up of the Usual Suspects, a cop gone bad (the philosopher), a hit man (the critic), his hard-talking partner (the challenger), a hijacker (the pedant), and a con man (the hacker). But that line-up turned out to be fiction. More suspects got brought in; plot lines got complicated.

We anthropologists make lousy cops anyway. “To a cop the explanation’s always simple. There’s no mystery to the street, no arch criminal behind it all. If you find a body and you think his brother did it, you’re gonna find out you’re right.”

We’re going for the mystery.


“We find the concept brilliant, but New York is difficult for new restaurants. How can we be certain that our money will be returned in the long run?” Keaton looks at Edie and smiles confidently. “It’s simple gentlemen, design versatility.”

Let’s start with the evolution of design versatility, synapses from yeast to humans, courtesy of Neurophilosophy. We can add astrocytes (a type of glia cell) to that design, with Greg Laden showing us how blood flow matters as much as any electrochemical signal.

Out of flesh and blood, evolution cobbles things together like our conjoined nervous and sensory systems. Courtesy of our imperfect eyes, the new blog Illusion Sciences gives us the peripheral escalator illusion. Felt like I was going to fall out of a tree, which is not a good thing for a primate. Language is a better thing, and Babel’s Dawn covers how to build that sort of new brain from old parts.

But before we get carried away with our impressive selves, Pure Pedantry tells us that now even monkeys use symbols. And Neurophilosophy adds in that chimps can plan for the future. It looks like those old parts were already pretty damn impressive!


“A truck load of guns gets snagged, Customs comes down on N.Y.P.D. for some answers – they come up with us.”

Bloggers do cover the answers. Want to know how to get into problems? First, cut out the tryptophan, it will put you in a bad mood, a punishing mood; low serotonin and decision making just don’t mix!

Especially if you add in some impulsivity, as Neuroscientifically Challenged covers in a post on rats predisposed to addiction.

Mix in some bondage, drugs or sleep deprivation, and then you can get yourself an out-of-body experience courtesy of Neurotic Physiology.

But if your predispositions don’t match up with your experiences, then it’s time to be vigilant about recovery; after all, We’re Only Human.

In dealing with suspects or pointy eared German Shepherds, visualization is important. Channel N, the Mountie host of the last Encephalon, gives us a video on mental imagery by the very Ivory Tower Stephen Kosslyn.

Still, vision can be fallible, apt to get caught up in illusion, context making us see movement when things are really black and white. For, as Deric Bownds shows us, we want to see into the future to be able to grasp the present, sometimes seeing things that aren’t really there.

The Critique

“Alright, you all know the drill. When your number is called, step forward and repeat the phrase you’ve been given. Understand?”

As much as we like the revolution in neuroscience, brain scientists sometimes act like cops—they’re laying down the law. More than a little crooked criticism is needed.

What better than one of the real highlights of this line-up: Neurocritic’s Mirror Neurons Control Hard-Ons? The Mr. Bean photo comes directly from him, and captures everything that goes wrong with mirror-neurons-explain-the-world enthusiasm.

Mixing Memory wants in too, so he adds Sex = Mirror Neurons. Now I know why sleazy hotels have mirrors on the ceiling—it looks like mirror neurons need extra help getting aroused.

Not so with expressions of fear and disgust and the latest evolutionary psychology declaration of magnificent adaptive benefits. You mean, just mimicking facial expressions with no actual indication of a fitness benefit doesn’t convince you, Dr. X?

Paraskevidekatriaphilia. Say that five times fast before you ask what it is. No, you won’t figure it out that way, but it will make you laugh. And you need to laugh about the fear of Friday the 13th. Or in Romania, Tuesday the 13th. PodBlack continues with her good work placing research on superstition in the proper cultural, educational, and peer-reviewed context.

Hard-wired morality could also use some of that context. Good and bad located in our insula? Let’s neurocriticize that.

At the World Science Festival it’s guilt by assocation from being too Geek Friendly. The Science of Morality links to perps with long records of their own: Daniel Dennett, Patricia Churchland, Antonio Damasio and Marc Hauser.

Finall, when it comes to critique, Cognitive Daily has some rough things to say about Brazil nuts and the results of a poll on nut preference compared to the actual proportion of nuts in a can of ‘mixed nuts.’ The nuts reminded us of suspects, laid out with their names printed on a piece of paper like a police line-up.


“We know you can get to us, and now you know we can get to you.”

In Culture Shock, Mind Hacks describes how culture affects trauma (helped by one of our posts) and then takes us through the history and recent evidence on post-traumatic stress disorder. Conveniently, our own Erin Finley has just provided part two on her work on trauma among Iraq veterans, Cultural Aspects of PTSD, Part II: Narrative and Healing.

Recently Mind Hacks also covered reality around the world (via anthropologist Wade Davis) and how language shapes thought, in this case trying to count when your language doesn’t have numbers. For more on numbers, Amazon style, John Hawks describes the interaction of culture and mathematical logic.

Sharp Brains enlightens us with an interview with Ori Brafman, author of Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior. The hidden forces shaping our actions are as much cultural as they are individual. As Brafman says, “We take on the roles others ascribe to us.”

And sometimes we just remember things wrong, as described in The Anatomy of a False Memory. Patients with frontal lobe damage help identify some of the functional pathways involved in how we reconstruct memories. This type of research then brings us a thorny legal question: If we make memory up, can we ever swear to tell the truth?

Culture In Action: Technology

“I’ve got immunity now. What can you possibly offer me?”

At the very least, emerging technologies offer new ways to diagnose and deal with brain-related disorders. Brain Stimulant covers how ultrasound, coupled with a magnetic field, can now be used to shape neuronal firing, which will surely interest neurosurgeons looking for non-invasive techniques.

Ultrasound might have possibilities for treatment as well. But the brain is often shaped more by actually doing things, rather than by outside people administering drug or behavioral treatments. Children diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder have been helped by cognitive training programs that enhance attention and working memory. And over at Developing Intelligence, we hear about new cross-sensory training techniques to enhance working memory and fluid intelligence.

Isn’t that what activities like capoeira and ballroom dancing already do? Put differently, our technologies often take our brain’s capabilities along for the ride, as each step in the computer revolution shows us. Restless Minds argues that Google and Web 2.0 is about the “flow,” about a service that “enables an effortless flow of your data—and experience—[to] hold your attention.”

But technology has gone one step further in experience, attention, and identity—on-line virtual reality. Savage Minds provides a review of Tom Boellstorff’s recent ethnography of Second Life. We handle gaps in our roles and identities in everyday life with apparent ease; online “we lack many of the cues and strategies we rely upon in the real world.” Based on experience, people are developing new techniques and interpretations, from brb (be right back) to more leeway in letting people play their online identity.

So our brains live in a Material World, surrounded by technology everyday, everywhere. In Brazil mobile phones are used to build new relations and identities, to demonstrate one’s modernity, and thus raise questions about the importance of our bodies, the role of emotions, even addiction. As Sandra Rubia Silva writes, “Owning a mobile phone has become a way of being in the world.”

So, there you have it. Encephalon #48. Anthropology coming up with its usual suspects. Evolution, biology, critique, everyday synthesis, and culture.

The other suspects are below in all their graphic language glory. If you want to follow up on the quotes, you can find the entire The Usual Suspects script here. Look for the next Encephalon at Neuroscientifically Challenged.

12 thoughts on “Encephalon #48: The Usual Suspects

  1. Hey, I can say this now that it’s posted: Daniel gets the credit for this carnival! I may have done the lion’s share of the anthro one a while back, but Dr. Lende busted his a** putting this all together. Credit where it’s due, you know…

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