Field of Science


Mind Games

Did you know you're a skilled mind reader? Scientists reported this week that people use a neat brain-sharing trick when they're talking to each other.

Specifically, when one person is listening to another person tell a story, the listener's brain lights up with activity in the same areas as the storyteller's brain (with a short delay). As you listen to someone talking, your brain mirrors what their brain is doing. Cool, right? And some parts of your brain actually light up just before theirs, as if anticipating what's coming. The more your brain activity matches the other person's, the better your understanding of their story will be.

This piece of news has been presented in several outlets as a "real-life Vulcan mind meld," but I'm going to pretend I don't know what that is.

So it might be easy for our brains to have a shared understanding. But no matter how fancy his equipment is, there is no way for Leo DiCaprio, or anyone else, to share your dreams. (No Inception spoilers ahead, I promise.) There are ways, though, to control your own dreams.

Researcher Barry Krakow works with nightmare sufferers. Only 4 to 8 percent of adults have chronic nightmares (a dream that's so scary it wakes you up, more than once a week), but the number is much higher among traumatized groups such as veterans and rape victims. Krakow teaches his patients a technique called image rehearsal therapy: while awake, they imagine their nightmares transformed into less terrifying scenes. Apparently, it can work to drive away the nightmares for good.

Deirdre Barrett, another dream researcher, recommends that people solve problems with a technique called dream incubation. This involves focusing on a problem right before sleep, then trying to remember your dreams when you wake up. Ideally, your dreaming mind will have worked out a solution for you (how considerate of it!).

Lucid dreaming, on the other hand, is being aware of a dream while it's happening. It's also used as a form of therapy, or just a neat trick. I became aware of lucid dreaming when I was young (OK, fine! It was in a Star Trek episode where Captain Picard was trapped in a dream, and he could only figure it out by seeing Earth's moon outside his ship). Nightmares are more common in kids, and I had plenty. In one recurring dream, I was lying in the back seat of car with no one driving, speeding down a city road at night.

With my newly acquired knowledge of lucid dreaming, I decided to outwit the nightmare: the next time it happened, I told myself, I'd remember that the dream couldn't hurt me. Soon enough, I was back in my nightmare car. But this time, I sat up in the backseat and remembered that I was dreaming. With my best sassy-little-kid attitude, I told my subconscious, "So what?" And I never had that dream again.

I also discovered that, even without looking out the front of the Enterprise and seeing the moon, I could become aware within a dream. And I learned how to defeat nightmares. Open your eyes, I'd tell myself as my feet churned in sand and the murderer gained on me. Reaching inward, I could find my physical self, locate my sleeping eyes and force them open. Just like that, I was awake in my bed. It was thrilling, like a superpower.

Sadly, I never figured out how to turn all my dreams into fun lucid romps full of flying and dinosaurs. And as a boring adult, I'm stuck with those tedious dreams where the plane is about to leave and for some reason I've forgotten to pack a suitcase or finish that one last exam from college. Maybe Leo can help me.

Large-Scale Disasters (a quiz)

What with the Transformers 3 filming going on near my office building, I've seen and heard a whole lot of explosions this week. Although the fireballs were real, the disaster was not. But some fiery catastrophes are all too real.

1. BP finally got a cap on the well, which may or may not have paused the leak. But another leak, which BP couldn't plug, revealed that:
a. BP has been doctoring some of the photos it releases.
b. CEO Tony Hayward doctored his resumé before BP hired him.
c. All BP interns belong to an elaborate "hot or not"-style internal social networking site.
d. BP is at serious risk of bankruptcy.

2. Two exploded pipelines caused a large oil spill (relative to most, anyway) off the shore of:
a. Canada
b. Chile
c. China
d. Croatia

3. Dick Cheney recently had surgery that left him without:
a. a heart
b. a pulse
c. scruples
d. a spleen

4. Experts are carefully evacuating hundreds of eggs containing super-adorable baby sea turtles from the shores of the Gulf. After hatching, the turtles are released off the eastern coast of Florida. The risk in this feel-good plan is that:
a. the oil will travel around Florida and get the turtles anyway.
b. the turtles' internal navigation systems, calibrated for the Gulf, will get them lost and/or eaten.
c. high levels of Disney World-related pollution will make the turtles ill.
d. hurricane season will, um, hurricane them.

5. The state of New York is planning to "eliminate" 170,000:
a. squirrels, due to a Manhattan rabies epidemic.
b. deer, to reduce car accidents.
c. frogs, due to noise pollution.
d. Canada geese, to prevent plane crashes.

Answers are in the comments. And here are two guys who are totally unconcerned about potential disasters (unlike me, after realizing this was going on under my office window).

This dude is so relaxed, he's taking a nap.

"Doing the Happy Dance"

Have you heard this week's big news? No, not about Lindsay going to jail, or whatever's leaking or not leaking out of the oil well. I mean the news from South Africa about a gel for women that can cut HIV infection rates in half.

"Boy, have we been doing the happy dance," says researcher Salim Abdool Karim. Here's why:

Ever since it was discovered in 1984 that HIV causes AIDS, scientists and government officials have been swearing a vaccine is just a few years away. But the virus has proven to be more squirrely than anyone expected. An exciting vaccine was tested on humans starting in the mid-2000's, but researchers had to stop the trial early: not only was the vaccine failing to prevent infection, it seemed to increase the risk of HIV.

In Africa, there are 3.5 million new HIV cases every year, and women are disproportionately affected. As the study notes, "behavioral messages on abstinence, faithfulness and condom promotion have had limited impact," especially in the sub-Saharan region. Some schoolgirls are so desperately poor that they have "transactional" unprotected sex with older men in exchange for financial support.

The new gel is inexpensive, and women can use it without the cooperation (or knowledge) of their partners. It contains a drug called tenofovir that attacks retroviruses (like HIV). And in this trial, women who consistently used the gel cut their risk of HIV infection in half.

More, and larger, studies will have to be done before the gel can be made publicly available. But the 900 women in this study provided better news than the AIDS world--which is to say, the world--has heard in years.

Autism and Automatons

Robots, robots, I love robots, robots are so great, I love, I love, I love robots because they are so cool... *starts singing weird chant about robots*
That's a comment on my magazine's web site from a girl who goes by Mango. A lot of our readers love robots, and they write in to tell us so. I would guess that a lot of them, or at least a decent pie-slice, are also on the autism spectrum. Several of them wrote in to say so after our autism-themed issue. Here's Mango again:
I am a person with Asperger's and proud of it! I go to a gifted school, go to Lego League, and all in all feel pretty smart.
So I was intrigued by this New York Times article about robots in classrooms, especially robots designed to interact with autistic kids. A bunch of labs are working on versions of classroom robots right now. Some of them are not specifically aimed at autistic kids; South Korea, for example, is putting into its classrooms hundreds of robots that will play with the kids and act as teacher aides.

Though a robot is extremely patient and has a great head for facts, none of the robots, so far, are meant to replace teachers. Some give foreign language lessons (I'm sure they're vocabulary whizzes, but how are they with idioms?). Some just hang out with preschoolers, at an age where basic social interaction is the lesson. The article describes one robot that popular with the kids when it first entered a classroom, but had its arms yanked off by the end of the day. Its programmers cleverly rewired it to cry when kids pulled its arms. The result? Over-aggressive kids first backed off--then came back to give the crying robot a hug.

A robot can read your facial expressions and respond accordingly. It can use artificial intelligence and speech recognition to have a conversation with you. And with autistic children, it can conduct a kind of therapy.
In recent experiments at a daycare center in Japan, researchers have shown that having a robot simply bob or shake at the same rhythm a child is rocking or moving can quickly engage even very fearful children with autism.

"The child begins to notice something in that synchronous behavior and open up," said Marek Michalowski of Carnegie Mellon University, who collaborated on the studies. Once that happens, he said, "you can piggyback social behaviors onto the interaction, like eye contact, joint attention, turn taking, things these kids have trouble with."
The story quotes an 8-year-old with Asperger's who practices karate kicks with a robot. "I just love robots," he says, "and I know this is therapy, but I don't know--I think it's just fun."

On the one hand, it seems counterintuitive to treat autistic children, whose chief difficulty is interacting with humans, by having them spend time with a robot instead. But autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, Sacha's cousin) speculates that autistic children find robots more appealing than people because robots are more predictable. He says that autistic kids "find unlawful situations toxic...They can't cope. So they turn away from people and turn to the world of objects."

So researchers have been working on robot buddies for autistic children for years. They avoid creepy androids in favor of cutesy machines. This little guy, for example, is tiny and squishy. But its young autistic friends are happy to give the robot a kiss, or feed it imaginary medicine when it has a Band-aid on its head.

Of course, the robot also has cameras in its eyeballs. But if this is what the future of artificial intelligence looks like, I think I can get behind it.

Make sure you watch this video of the little guy dancing to Spoon before you disagree.


Oktopus Orakel

What would his decision be? On a live television broadcast, the rugged young celebrity considered his options one last time. The audience members watched him with bated breath, each with their own loyalties at heart. Whichever team he chose would be feeling the reverberations for years. Finally, with no more hesitation, he plunged his eight tentacles into the box on the right and devoured his mussel reward.

No, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to write about octopuses and sports twice in one week.

Paul (what kind of a name is that for an octopus, by the way? It's like when someone names their golden retriever Katie, and when they call for it in the park you think they've lost their child) is a 2-year-old octopus living in an aquarium in Germany. He has correctly predicted the outcome of all six World Cup games that the German team played this year. In 2008, he went four for five in predicting winners of the European soccer championships.

For each game, Paul is presented with two clear plastic boxes. Each box holds a tasty mussel and displays the flag of one of the two teams. The box Paul dines from first is supposed to represent the winning team.

When asked to choose between Germany and Spain before Wednesday's game, Paul initially sat on top of the German box for a moment--then dove decisively into Spain's box. After his prophesy came true, the octopus's countrymen turned on him. Several German newspapers called for him to be thrown in a frying pan, even offering recipe suggestions.

Meanwhile, a Spanish-American chef removed octopus from his restaurant's menu in honor of Paul. And PETA, true to form, demanded that the captive-born animal be sent back to the ocean. "It is extremely thankless, imprisoning the intelligent octopus in order to use it as an oracle," said a PETA marine biologist. (A spokesperson for the German aquarium responded that, intelligent as Paul is, he would probably die if left to fend for himself.)

This morning, Paul made his most anticipated pick yet, choosing Spain over the Netherlands to win the World Cup finals.

His handlers have already noted that Paul is a "Germany expert," and his predictive powers for other nations are less well established. Will his prediction come true? If not, will Spain continue to be so adoring toward the cephalopod ? (After Paul received cooking threats this week, the Spanish prime minister joked that he was "thinking of sending him a protective team.")

Paul does add another layer to the question of which team you're rooting for. Maybe you're hoping to see Paul crash and burn. Personally, I don't have strong sports loyalties or any known genetic ties to Spain or the Netherlands. I picked Argentina to win it all in my knockout pool (though my picks were, possibly like Paul's, largely random). So in the absence of another reason to root for someone, I'm going to have to cheer for the octopus. Viva el Pulpo Paul!


Did you know Wimbledon ended? I totally missed it. But what's not over is the World Cup. BVVVVVVVvvvvvVVVVVVVzzzzzzzzzVVVVV! (That's how you say "Woohoo!" in Afrikaans.)

In Zulu, "to celebrate" is jabulani, which is also the name of this year's new soccer ball. While a normal soccer ball is made of 32 panels--a mix of hexagons and pentagons--the Jabulani has only 8 panels. And instead of being stitched together, which creates deep grooves, the panels are thermally bonded. This means the surface of the ball seems to be smoother, overall, compared to the classic black-and-white ball.

But apparently, a bumpier surface is better. That's why golf balls have dimples: they cause the air flow to hug the ball tightly, which reduces drag and makes the ball fly straighter. With a smooth surface, the air flow kind of zips off from the ball and creates a wide wake behind it. You can see this in the video from Caltech that I screen-grabbed above. Instead of hugging the back of the ball, the air is shooting away from it. Researchers say that this might make the new soccer ball fly in an unpredictable way. I'm sure that British goalie will be eager to agree.

In other sports news, did you know that Wimbledon had its first official poet this year? Matt Harvey wrote a new poem for every day of the competition. In honor of the three-day Mahut-Isner marathon match, he wrote (inevitably, it seems) a haiku:

high performance play
all day yet still no climax
it's tantric tennis

His sound poem called "Thwok!" is both ridiculous and pretty awesome.

bounce bounce bounce bounce
thwackety wackety zingety ping
hittety backety pingety zang
wack, thwok, thwack, pok

...Actually, you should just listen to him reading the whole thing, because the British accent makes it better.

By the end, Harvey admitted he was "losing it slightly":

so Serena really oughta
fear a Vera Zvonareva
upset--she knows she could not get
a more ominous opponent

But isn't some silly rhyming a nice foil to the usual earnestness of Wimbledon? I'm sure Ogden Nash would have thought so. And he certainly would have wanted me to balance out all the seriousness on this site with some lighthearted poetry. So here's Ogden, commenting on--what else?--the inkfish.

The Octopus
Tell me, O Octopus, I begs
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus;
If I were thou, I'd call me Us.