I’ve been on a trip, and when I go on a trip, I tend to catch up with Trends in Cognitive Sciences. I hoovered up lots of interesting stuff from the end of last year and the first few issues of this year. These will feature in the next few posts, as will a few holiday snaps — and said snaps will keep appearing well after anyone remembers why they are here, which is a bit odd but at least they’ll soothe my copyright-paranoia.
Before the Trends-fest, brief notes on a couple of items that reached me via more mainstream media. The first was on the BBC website, the second was mentioned on a colleague’s Twitter.
(i) MEMORY REVOLUTION!
This is partly interesting because of what the scientists are saying (in an article in Science), and partly because of how it has been covered. See the BBC report here, for example. It starts excitedly: ‘what really happens when we make and store memories has been unravelled in a discovery that surprised even the scientists who made it’! Problem is, we’re still an enormously long way from this. The ‘making’ and ‘storing’ involved are convincingly linked to certain brain regions but what is made or stored is far from ‘unravelled’, or so it seems to me. I tend to think of the ‘making’ and the ‘storing’ as to a large extent metaphorical, when I am feeling snooty.
Nevertheless, the bit of research in question has more than just good PR on its side. Ingenious manipulation of the brains of mice (what’s that? oh — my moral compass is wobbling a bit) suggests a new paradigm for memory creation. Old story: everything starts as a short-term memory in the hippocampus, then it converts over time into long-term memory in the cortex, if necessary. New story: memories are formed in the hippocampus and the cortex simultaneously, but they’re not available for several days in the latter. There is a link between the two though. This is clever stuff, and surely the beginning of some big new thinking.
And yet, the quibbler in me… the BBC report says ‘the experiments had to be performed on mice, but are thought to apply to human brains too’, and of course I follow, and I’m a friend to comparative cognition, I really am, but there’s quite a lot of reach in that ‘thought to’. Who has much idea what a ‘memory’ is in a mouse? And yet… ‘researchers then used light beamed into the brain to control the activity of individual neurons — they could literally switch memories on or off’. Now, I’ve seen worse abuses of the word ‘literally’ (I sat near some noisy Durham undergrads on a train once, and it was carnage; not literally). But that’s not a perfect use of ‘literally’, to my mind.
(ii) MANIPULATING THE BIASES!
I wrote a cheery account of reading Michael Lewis’s book about the psychology pioneers Kahneman and Tversky. So I was interested to read this less cheery piece by Tamsin Shaw in the New York Review of Books. It’s not surprising that a deeper understanding of cognitive biases is leading to attempts to exploit those biases. I suppose that sort of exploitation has been happening throughout human history, but in the age of social media and fake news a more specific understanding of the processes involved might make it all the more dangerous.