SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

Scientists able to read people’s minds
Steve Connor

Having the ability to read someone’s mind with a “thought machine” has come a step closer after scientists showed that they could guess a person’s memory simply by looking at the electrical activity of their brain.

Prof Yash Pal

Prof Yash Pal

THIS UNIVERSE
PROF YASH PAL

You have invited explanations about the sun looking bigger in size, while rising and setting, several times in your column. I think I have an explanation, if it satisfies you. The explanation is a very simple one. One foggy day, I was sitting on the terrace to bask the sun. The fog was not very dense at about 11:30 AM. The sun was easily visible with naked eyes causing no inconvenience to the eyes. While looking at the sun, I noticed that the sun looked a bit bigger in size, later; I realised that I was wrong. But a point struck to my mind from this observation.

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Red meat raises death risk
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People who eat the most red meat and the most processed meat have the highest overall risk of death from all causes, including heart disease and cancer, according to US researchers. The National Cancer Institute study is one of the largest to look at the highly controversial and emotive issue of whether eating meat is indeed bad for health.

Orthrus, a jumping spider species potentially new to science, is pictured in this undated handout photo. The spider was found in a rainforest during a Conservation International-led Rapid Assessment Program expedition of Papua New Guinea’s highlands wilderness in 2008. — Reuters photo

 


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Scientists able to read people’s minds
Steve Connor

Having the ability to read someone’s mind with a “thought machine” has come a step closer after scientists showed that they could guess a person’s memory simply by looking at the electrical activity of their brain.


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Scientists have found that spatial memories can be “read” by a brain scanner so that it is possible to predict automatically where someone imagines themselves to be (the exact location in a maze, for instance) without actually asking them.

“It’s also a small step toward the idea of mind reading, because just by looking at neural activity, we are able to say what someone is thinking,” said Demis Hassabis of University College London.

It may one day be possible to do the same with other types of memories and thoughts, although the possibility of using a mind-reading machine to solve crimes or to fight terrorism is still a distant prospect, Dr Hassabis said.

“It’s at least 10 years, probably more, from getting anywhere near that kind of technology, where you could literally read someone’s thoughts in a single short session when they don’t want you to,” he said. “We might be about 10 years away from doing that, so it might be useful to start having those ethical discussions in the near future in preparation for that – but we’re still a long way from doing anything practical,” Dr Hassabis said.

The study was led by UCL’s Prof Eleanor Maguire who had already shown that a small area of the brain behind a region called the hippocampus is enlarged in male taxi drivers who had done “The Knowledge” – memorising the maze of London streets. Professor Maguire trained a different set of male volunteers to navigate themselves through a virtual maze on a computer while their brains were being scanned by a functional MRI machine. “We know that the hippocampus underpins our ability to navigate, to form and recollect memories and how to imagine the future. But how the activity across millions of hippocampal neurons supports the functions is a fundamental question in neuroscience,” Professor Maguire said.

The scientists found that certain nerve cells in the brain’s hippocampus, called “place cells”, became stimulated in definite patterns of activity that the researchers could analyse to guess where in the maze each man imagined himself to be.

“Remarkably, using this technique we found that we could accurately predict the position of an individual within this virtual environment solely from the pattern of activity within their hippocampus,” she said.

In contrast, previous research on animals suggested that there were no particular patterns of activity within the nerve cells of the hippocampus that could be used to predict spatial memory. “Our technique, which looks at the picture over many thousands of neurons, shows this cannot be the whole story,” Professor Maguire said. “If we’re able to predict spatial memories from brain activity, this means there must be a structure to how it is coded in the neurons.”

The study, published in the journal Current Biology and funded by the Wellcome Trust, the world’s biggest medical research charity, could help scientists to understand the fundamental memory problems behind some neurological diseases. “Understanding how we as humans record our memories is critical to helping us learn how information is processed in the hippocampus and how our memories are eroded by diseases such as Alzheimer’s,” Dr Hassabis said.

By arrangement with The Independent, London
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THIS UNIVERSE 
PROF YASH PAL

You have invited explanations about the sun looking bigger in size, while rising and setting, several times in your column. I think I have an explanation, if it satisfies you. The explanation is a very simple one.

One foggy day, I was sitting on the terrace to bask the sun. The fog was not very dense at about 11:30 AM. The sun was easily visible with naked eyes causing no inconvenience to the eyes. While looking at the sun, I noticed that the sun looked a bit bigger in size, later; I realised that I was wrong. But a point struck to my mind from this observation.

I concluded that the atmosphere or corona of the sun also emits light rays from it. But during the day time we can not see them because the intensity of light coming out of the corona is much less than that of the sun. Hence we can not see the light coming from corona.

While rising or setting the light says coming out of the sun and corona, entering into earth’s atmosphere split in to different colors. The only red or golden-colored rays reach us. Both the red and golden rays coming from the sun and corona together make the sun appear bigger in size. We see the red or golden sun including its corona. But during the day time we see the sun excluding its corona. That is why it looks smaller. While looking through any colored or translucent media the rays coming out of the corona, being weak, are blocked. Hence the sun does not look bigger in size.

Just a comment on your explanation about the sun looking bigger around sunset. Sun’s corona is more than a million times less luminous in the optical region. It is brighter in  X-rays.

More important, your explanation would not explain the fact that the moon also looks bigger near the horizon. It has no corona.

Finally, you cannot escape the fact that when you actually measure the angular diameters of the sun and the moon using an instrument you find that physically there is no difference between their sizes at the zenith and near horizon.  This proves that the observation is psychological and not physical.

Readers wanting to ask Prof Yash Pal a question can e-mail him at palyash.pal@gmail.com
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