My new book about your life in spikes

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Credit: Princeton University Press

Your life is lived in spikes. Your brain uses electricity to communicate, its neurons talking to each other by sending tiny pulses of voltage down a gossamer thin cable. We neuroscientists call those pulses “spikes”. And as spikes are how neurons communicate, they are how you do anything: talk, eat, and run; see, plan, and decide.

It is the spikes pouring forth from the end of motor neurons that make your muscles contract just so, into a broad grin, eyes wrinkling; into an outstretched arm, grasping that steaming mug; into the thumb swiping up and up, scrolling and scrolling and…


That Was The Year That Was

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Credit: Pixabay

It seems we are cursed to live in interesting times. A year starting with the threat of conflict, Donald Trump authorising the assassination of the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, Iran retaliating with rocket attacks on US military bases, and then tragically shooting down an airplane of its own citizens by mistake. All banished to distant memory by the global pandemic unfolding in slow motion.

And yet ironically I’d wager for most of us this year has been the least interesting on record, a year in two dimensions, endlessly staring at a screen in your own home, reading from it, typing…


The world of scientific publishing is unravelling fast

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Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

Psst, keep it to yourself, but I’ve got a one-time, never-to-be-repeated deal to offer you: give me several thousand dollars and I will write an illogical, error-strewn rant about the deep flaws of your life’s work, in prose that was either written at midnight under the influence of a triple espresso or by a narcoleptic mountain goat.

Tempted? That’s literally what the Nature family of scientific journals have announced this year: should you aspire to publish an open-access paper in Nature Physics, Nature Methods or Nature Genetics, you have to pay them 2190 euros ($2650) upfront for the privilege of…


The unruly offspring of machine learning and neuroscience

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Credit: Michael Gaida via Pixabay

If there’s one thing we humans are good at, it’s finding patterns. Maths is awash with them — Fibonacci sequences, triangle numbers, the golden spiral. You’re doing it right now, these black marks on a screen making patterns you recognise as letters, words, sentences.

If there’s one thing we humans are bad at, it’s finding patterns where none exist. Balls of gas light years distant are not tracing the outline of a hunter, a plough, or a crab for the sole benefit of a bipedal primate on a blue dot near a middling orange star. …


What the latest fMRI “crisis” means for the rest of science

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fMRI researchers hard at work. Credit: Pixabay

To the outside observer, it can seem that fMRI research careens from one public crisis to another. Detecting brain activity in a dead salmon. Impossibly high correlations between brain activity and behaviour. Serious flaws in fMRI analysis software leading to claims of tens of thousands of papers being (partially) wrong. Finding wildly different active brain regions from the same set of fMRI scans by just varying the parameters in standard analysis pipelines. “Oof” says The Rest of Science, “glad that’s not us.”

And now a paper in Nature shows that a big groups of experts all looking at the same…


A new study shows we cannot tell how you’re using the evidence before you

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Lumberjack making a decision. Credit: Photo by CIRA/.CA

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings. Even if we’re patently not. When we make difficult decisions, we like to think we add up the evidence before us. This accumulation may be conscious, the reading of endless online reviews of the smorgasbord of smartphones, accumulating endless pros and cons about seemingly identical black rectangles on their cameras and screens and ports and chips and tiny differences in the bezel before taking the plunge. This accumulation may be subconscious, as your mind notes a rustle of grass, then the flash of striped fur, then the barely perceptible breathing of…


How to spot a neuroscientist in the wild

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Neuroethologist in the wild. Image credit: Pixabay

We here report the discovery of a new species of the genus Homo, for which we propose the binomial Homo Neuroscientus. Despite dating their last common ancestor with Homo sapiens to within a mere hundred years ago, the evolutionary pressure of being forced to reckon with the most complex organ in known existence has driven rapid divergence in Neuroscientus. This has given rise to an absurdly overextended obsession with the brain, while atrophying other, normal features of the genus Homo. Indeed, in our field studies we found the sense of social etiquette to be vestigial at best.

Over two decades…


I think we all need a little lie down

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Wow, who’d have thought 2019 would be the year we cracked the brain? Feet up, job done everyone. No doubt you, like I, was stunned when it turned out the zona incerta was the key to unlocking everything. That innocent bundle of neurons, tucked up neatly betwixt the thalamus and the brain’s basement, revealed as the nexus through which all action and perception flow.

(But then we always suspected the cortex is a mere blanket for regulating the temperature of the crucial parts of the brain. And while some continue to protest that “the folds of human cortex are what…


An Actual Scientific Case for Brain Simulations

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Jaffa cakes. Important for simulating the brain.

Brains are messily complex bags of cells. Cobbled together by evolution over half a billion years or more, the bauplan of the mammalian brain is a bolted together mish-mash of bits that work in tandem to keep you alive long enough to procreate.

Say you wanted to understand how one of those bits of the brain work, understand what it is they do. Then you have to chose where you want to sit in the pecking order of neuroscience. You can do experiments on the bit of the brain. You can write down theories in maths for what that bit…


The firing and the wiring at the same time

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Credit: Pixabay

The best thing about being a neuroscientist is that neuroscience never stands still. Barely a week passes without some new major result, a sparkling technological breakthrough, a provoking theoretical idea. And the sheer complexity of brains means the questions available are practically infinite. So even if your specific corners of brain research have briefly slowed their breathless pace, there is always more to learn. Always new questions to tackle. Indeed, there are whole regions of the mammalian brain whose mysteries have barely been probed, and which will no doubt turn out to be crucial for our understanding. My money’s on…

Mark Humphries

Uses his brain to understand brains. Is that possible? Neuroscience: https://humphries-lab.org

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