Optogenetics revisited – TEDtalks

After talking about all these great ideas on how to improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit on the Edge site, I am happy to write about something else again. It turns out to be in part about another great and inspiring site that hosts talks from fascinating people around the world, the TEDtalks video site.

The reason I want to introduce you to the site now is that I recently found a fascinating talk on it about optogenetics and I know from some of you that you liked my post about optogenetics a while ago. So I wanted to share this talk with you.

The TED website

The TED website is devoted to deliver “ideas worth spreading” and make them available to a wide public for free! New talks are added each week and they are all releases under a Creative Commons license. Thanks so much for that! The talks on there on average are nothing less than inspiring, fascinating and stunning. If you ever wonder what to do with 20 minutes and have a fast Internet connection available, this is the site to go!

Ed Boyden

Back to optogenetics though. The talk I saw is Ed Boyden‘s talk at this year’s annual TED conference in Long Beach, California where he is talking about “a light switch for neurons”. Sounds familiar? I hope so, if you have read my earlier post on optogenetics. If not, go back and have a look 🙂

Ed Boyden is an associate professor and leads the synthetic neurobiology group at MIT in Cambridge, MA. He is one of the main players in the field of optogenetics, having co-invented the technology with Karl Deisseroth at Stanford and continuing to do ingenious things in his 2007-founded lab at MIT.

The talk

In this TED talk, he explains in an understandable way how he inserts channelrhodopsins and other light-sensitive proteins into brain cells and the incredible things he can already do with them, or that he expects to be able to do soon. For example, he shows how he could cure mice of analogs of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He also speculates about the possibility to temporarily switch of an epileptic brain specifically during an epileptic seizure to return it to its “stable” state immediately after. He then finishes with another success story in which he uses the ingenious approach of replacing missing photoreceptors in the eyes of blind mice with light-sensitive proteins. The mice are able to sense light again.  This works because the eye is still transparent thus light can still enter the eye and the light-sensitive proteins brought into the eye basically function like a camera that then transmits its pictures to the brain. Wow!

Optogenetics on TEDtalks. A great combination!



Illustration of neurons by Benedict Campbell at Wellcome Images, picture of Ed Boyden by Jeff Kubina

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Improving our cognitive toolkit – The Edge Question 2011 – Part III

Welcome back to some of the thoughtful answers of some bright minds to the question:

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

This post is part III of my small series about the Edge Question 2011; if you have missed part I or II look it up here and here. Off we go: more ideas worth knowing about:

11 Kayfabe

I have to admit I had to look this one up: Kayfabe is a term from professional wrestling. It is the portrayal of events within the industry as “real” (taken from Wikipedia). So it basically means that in professional wrestling everything is staged and the corporation scripts reality. Of course we all know that, so why is kayfabe in this list? Eric R. Weinstein argues that the idea of kayfabe works not only in wrestling but also in real life and if we would consider kayfabe as a possibility for events we would better understand the world. Far too often we think that deception is the exception when in fact it is the rule in systems of selective pressure. He says this is especially important when considering economic theory, which assumes perfect information while in real economy deception is widespread. Kayfabe in wrestling serves to reduce severe danger to participants and boredom and monotony to spectators and participants. A similar system of fabricated reality would be a tempting and applicable option for systems sharing those motivations: science, finance, politics, war and love.

12 Open systems

This again is a concept familiar to most. After all the internet is what made open systems popular. Open source codes and open standards in the web have been a major driving force of its inventiveness and creativity; the ability for everyone to use public open sources and communicate in one common language is what made the web what it is today. Thomas A. Bass argues that open systems have not only existed prior to the world wide web, for example in physics and philosophy, but that some forces are not exactly overjoyed to see open systems succeed and we should fight more to keep or create open systems. Groups more in favour of “closed systems” might for example include companies wanting to keep consumers from copying their systems or police states. Looking at the issue from a science point of view: Open Access publishing anyone?

13 Supervenience

Supervenience is a dependency relationship. It is about how everything relates to everything on different levels. Properties on higher levels supervene on properties of lower levels. Being the same on the lower level implies being the same on the higher level and being different on the higher level implies being different on the lower level, but importantly the opposite is not true: supervenience is not symmetric. This is easiest exemplified by a digital image: at the higher level, you see an image, for example of your partner. At the lower level, the information is in the pixels. The image supervenes on the pixels; no image may differ from another image without differing in its pixels. Yet, the pixels do not supervene on the image! Simply changing the resolution for example will change the pixels but the image will still be an image of your partner. Pixels determine image, but image does not determine pixels. Another example of supervenience is depicted in the box to the left. In his response, Joshua D. Greene states that understanding supervenience would help us understand relationships between complex things. He uses the relationship between humanities and science as well as between mind and brain as examples.

14 Emergence

Many answers named some concept related to emergence as the concept to improve everyone’s toolkit. One of them came from Nicholas A. Christakis. Emergence is the concept that a complex system has novel and coherent properties that cannot be predicted by looking at its parts. Some definitions also include supervenience (see above).  These novel properties are called emergent. The perfect example for emergence is life itself, but there are many others. On the molecular level, life arises from just carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and some other elements, but what an emergent property!

This has implications in science especially: A huge amount of science is done with a reductionist approach of taking systems apart and studying the parts on their own. This has led to many and amazing discoveries but according to emergence, some phenomenae can simply not be explained by studying parts of a system only. Systems Biology, a relatively new discipline of biology is trying to look at biological systems in their wholeness to try to answer questions inaccessible by looking at the parts only.

15 Contingent Superorganism

Superorganisms are organisms that are formed when individuals can link their fate to a (stronger) group. When they have appeared in evolution they have been very successful. Examples are eukaryotic cells, multicellular organisms and ant colonies. Jonathan Haidt thinks that the ability of us humans to form these superorganisms contingently, temporarily and not based on kinship is downright noble and terrifying at the same time and thus names contingent superorganisms as his answer. He mentions that too often we think of life and evolution as pure survival of the fittest, ignoring how good we are at cooperation. He also argues that in recent history any selfless or altruistic act was too quickly labeled as selfish in disguise owing to kin selection or reciprocal altruism. The ability to temporarily form superorganisms is found not only in bology but also in successful corporations as well as in military and it is the reward that makes us want to join larger groups, from rock bands over sports clubs to fraternities. It also is the dream of fascism, sacrifice for the good of the group. Understanding the idea of contingent superorganisms might lead us to better understand ourselves. And, I can’t help to like the idea that the “good in people” can NOT be explained by reciprocal altruism.

And finally, let me share my own thought on the concept that would improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit. It is more simple than most of the ideas presented here. I believe that a lot of the things in our world could be better if more people had a deeper understanding of causality. Understanding what is cause and what is effect can be quite difficult, in science as well as in everyday life. In science being able to distinguish between causes and effects is very important for experimental design as well as for analyzing results and I know some senior scientists having trouble with that. But especially in everyday life, understanding cause and effect will help people see through arguments and judge for themselves. If people were to spot causes and effects more accurately some scams would not be able to fool us. Also, if we would get more accustomed to thinking in these terms regularly I think it would make for much better arguments in politics and lead to better educated decisions in many situations where judging of options is involved.

This finally concludes the three posts about the Edge Question 2011. I hope you liked the series and come back for other posts. In any case, let me know.



Images: Wrestling image by jrandalic, handshake image by Aidan Jones.

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Improving our cognitive toolkit – The Edge Question 2011 – Part II

Welcome back to some of the thoughtful answers of some bright minds to the question:

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

This post is part II of my small series about the Edge Question 2011; if you have missed part I look it up here. Here we go: more ideas worth knowing about:

6 Fixed-Action Patterns – Knee-jerk responses

FAP’s once more are a rather familiar concept to everyone although they are probably better known as knee-jerk responses. Irene Pepperberg makes the point that a deeper understanding of FAP’s in us humans as well as in other organisms we interact with could lead to more insight into and critical evaluation of our behavioral patterns. She argues that by being aware of FAP’s and whether supposed FAP’s truly are hardwired into our genes or rather learned, we can understand, predict and in some cases even change the way we act in certain situations ranging from quick decision making to social interactions. This seems to be especially true when the supposed FAP’s are learned and could possibly be unlearned again. As an example for a supposed FAP that turned out to be learned behaviour Irene Pepperberg mentions the herring gull chicks’ pecking at the red spot on its parents’ beak for food. The innate response was limited to aiming at an oscillating object in its field of view; the targeting of the red spot on the beak was acquired through reward.

image by InAweofGod’sCreation

7 The Pareto Principle – “80/20 rule”

The Pareto Principle says that for many, many aspects in life about 80% of the effects come from roughly 20% of the causes. The Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto found this in 1906 when he discovered that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population and it is an important principle in economy today. The numbers 80 and 20 are not what is important here (but they were found to be close in many case) but that a disproportionally large group of effects stems from the top 20 % of causes. Another example from economy, the richest 20% of the world control around 83% of the world’s GDP. The Pareto Principle is also recursive, the 3 richest men in the world own as much as the next 7 together. However, it does not only work in economy. Clay Shirky also mentions twitter amongst other examples: The top 2% of Twitter users send 60% of tweets, in US healthcare 80% of the costs come form treating the 20 most expensive percent of patients, the most severe earthquakes, the social connectedness of friends and so on. These distributions should not be reported as big surprises or shocking news but very often they are. Yet, by realizing the Pareto distributions in appropriate systems and not assuming a bell-shaped Gaussian distribution for all things, we would learn to think about many systems more accurately and could influence those systems more efficiently where necessary. This can range from fair taxing over constraining the volatility of markets to better health care spending.

Image by verbeeldingskr8

Away from economy now, the next 3 concepts will be about our own mind.

8 Subselves

Douglas T. Kendrick suggests Colin Martindale’s concept of subselves as a great addition to everyone’s toolkit. The idea of subselves states that there is no single “you” inside your head. Whoa… who else is there if not just me? According to the theory you have several “you’s” and that who you are is made up of the interplay and the taking charge of several sub-you’s that are more or less prominent in specific situations. The “you” that interacts with your lover is a different “you”, guided by different principles than the “you” that interacts with a business partner. The same goes for a friend or your child. The idea of subselves involves several simple concepts of selective input processing in the brain. Basically, at any given moment our brain is bombarded with so many stimuli that we can only function by categorizing and consciously ignoring almost all of them, in addition a certain set of inputs suppressing other ones. (Focusing will also play a big role in the next two answers to the Edge question.) On higher levels in the brain, these stimuli then lead to one of our subselves taking charge and suppressing the other ones. This idea can combine very well with the more modern concept of brain modularity. We (and animals) use several different mental processes to learn different things so psychologists suggested that there are several different systems (or “you’s”) in our brain to solve different adaptive problems. To use the example from above: one system to respond to your lover and one to respond to your business partner. Perceiving our mind as this set of subselves, Kendrick says, would help us understand why some actions would make sense involving one’s lover but would seem irrational when involving one’s child, as well as other seemingly irrational behaviours.

Image by Mrs Logic

9 Controlling the Spotlight

Image by LarimdaME

As pointed out above, the ability to focus is central to this idea as well. The psychologist Walter Mischel was interested in studying willpower. He tested willpower in 4-year olds by presenting them a plate of treats and told them they could either have one right now or two when he would return.  He then left the room and studied how long they could resist the temptation of eating one of the treats. Only a small percentage of the kids could wait for him to return and he concluded that willpower is inherently weak. He did notice though that the few children that could successfully fight their desire all, without exception, used the same strategy – they diverted their attention from the treats and occupied themselves with another activity. In a nutshell they seemed to forget about the treats. Mischel termed this ability to strategically allocate attention. Interestingly, when Mischel went back and looked up the participants of his study 13 years later, their results in the willpower test correlated astonishingly well with overall success in life. Kids who could wait longer in the willpower test had on average higher S.A.T. scores, had less behavioural problems, could maintain friendships more easily, found it easier to pay attention and struggled less in stressful situations. Jonah Lehrer nominates this skill set for improving everyone’s cognitive toolkit. He points out that in the modern day world with all its distractions and flood of information, being able to focus on the important things becomes more and more valuable. He says that “the world is a confusing place, full of data and distractions – intelligence is the ability to parse the data so that it makes just a little bit more sense.”

10 The Focusing Illusion – Anchoring

“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.” This sums up Daniel Kahneman’s answer to the question. The focusing illusion is a cognitive bias; it means that people often focus too much on an initial assumption when making decisions. This “anchor” may usually be something learned early on in childhood or some arbitrary value that someone else (or you yourself) put in your mind. There are countless examples for this in life; Kahneman uses the importance of education as a determinant of income as his prime example. Education sure is one of the most important factors when determining future income, but not as much as people think. He says that differences in income among people with the same education are immense and would everyone have the same education, differences in income would only be reduced by less than 10%. There are other prominent misperceptions, like judging whether people in California or the Midwest are happier (bias on sunshine) or judging a used car’s value (bias on model year and odometer reading). Politicians and marketers are experts in exploiting the focusing illusion, for good and bad. Understanding this concept may help in many aspects of life, being able to identify anchors for example could help resist tempting advertising, yet it could also help you in guiding people in a certain direction you want them to go.

Image by Leo Reynold

That’s it for this entry, still to come in the next post amongst others: professional wrestling, superorganisms and what my own answer to the Edge question would have been. Come back!



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Improving our cognitive toolkit – The Edge Question 2011

Edge Question of the Year

Since 1999 the Edge Foundation, a think tank for science, society and technology, has been posing an annual question to its members who always return stunning answers. I already wanted to write about the Edge Foundation and its “third culture” movement in February when its founder John Brockman turned 70 (belated happy birthday) but I got distracted by the pretty images of the Wellcome Image Awards, so I am very happy to write about the answers to the Edge question of the year now (And hope to get back to the third culture in the future). True, the answers were published already in January but they still are a highlight of intellectual thoughts a few months later. This year’s question was:

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

brain image by [Marco…], toolkit image  by Neil T

Scientific concept

To first clarify the question, scientific is used in a very broad sense and means most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything. A scientific concept thus may come from most any field and not just the natural sciences. The only condition it has to fulfill is that it has to be a “rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly but has broad application to understanding the world”.

I simply loved reading through all these concepts and ideas, there are so many great thoughts combined on these pages that I just have to recommend them to everyone interested. Unfortunately I haven’t yet had the time to read all of them, but let me highlight some of my favourite responses. Already though, the list is too long to fit in a single post and I will split it over the next entries. Without further delay… here we go:

1 Einstein’s Blade in Ockham’s Razor

This science classic of course had to be mentioned by someone and indeed Kai Krause did. Simplified (no pun intended), Ockham’s Razor states that among equally strong competing hypotheses the one that makes fewer assumptions is generally the better one. Einstein on the other hand allegedly once said that “things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. Important words in the razor are “simple” and “generally”: defining what is simpler is often very hard and  requires looking at things from different angles. And “generally” obviously says that the simpler hypothesis is of course not always the correct one. There are also examples (redundancy in biology) where Ockham’s razor (at least at first sight) does not apply and simplicity is sacrificed for robustness for example. Understanding Ockham’s Razor is a very useful tool in analytical thinking but as Einstein pointed out it needs to have its limits. The combination of both and to know to what extent to use them constitutes Krause’s answer.

2 A scientist’s daily tools

Many people suggested ways of experiment design that a good scientist works with every day but that do not find their way into everyday life, for example double blind controls (Richard Dawkins) or randomized control trials (Mark Henderson). Double blind experiments are experiments conducted while neither the experimenter nor the participants know what experimental group they belong to and the researcher team only finds out after all the data is collected. This is meant to eliminate placebo effects, observer bias and experimenter bias. A randomized control trial is a usually clinical trial in which participants are allocated to the different conditions tested in a random fashion and it is meant to eliminate allocation bias. Applying these two approaches to other studies might improve some of them considerably. Henderson also mentions that the self-critical culture of science would shine in other areas of life as well. Similarly, Howard Gardner mentioned Karl Popper and falsifiabilty. He reasons that everyone’s cognitive toolkit would improve by asking “How can I disprove my idea?” much more often. This is undeniably a great way of analyzing one’s own thoughts and is right at the heart of good science. Terrance Sejnowski is convinced that a better understanding of the powers of 10 would go a long way.

3 Shifting Baseline Syndrome

This is one everyone can relate to as it affects so many areas in life. Thinking long enough everyone can come up with one. Paul Kedrosky introduces it with the collapse of the Newfoundland fishing industry; a great one everyone has heard is the example of winters always having been this warm/cold. The shifting baseline syndrome says that different generations measure any significant change against what they are used to as being normal, which in turn may be a significant change against what previous generations deemed normal. And so on and so forth… Most natural sciences often have extensive records of observations dating back many years, many ecological sciences have not! Understanding the shifting baseline syndrome would lead to asking yourself “what is normal? How do we know it is normal?” much more often and hopefully to a stop in shifting the baselines continually and speaking on an ecological level: before it may be too late.

4 The Einstellung Effect

The Einstellung Effect, suggested by Evgeny Morozov, suggests that we often try to solve problems by comparing them to already known similar problems. We try to use approaches that have been successful in the past however there may be more appropriate methods to solve the problem at hand. This approach might be the best one when two problems are exactly alike, but how often does that happen in real life? This is a hard one to battle, after all switching to autopilot has worked so many times before, right? In addition, the more you know the more you feel you should be able to use all that knowledge for something, no? Forcing yourself to not fall into familiar and convenient patterns when being faced with something that looks similar to what you know can be very hard.  Morozov’s example for the Einstellung Effect is a chess player who tries to tackle similar problems with approaches that have worked before, but it is much wider applicable. In fact to almost anything, from tests in school over situations in sports to scenarios with more severe consequences like police crime fighting or international conflicts.

5 Path dependence

Similar to the previous two concepts this one also has to do with things from the past.  Path dependence in social and economical science explains how things that today seem absolutely normal happened because of a decision taken that made sense at that time. It is irrelevant whether this decision would still make sense today. Path dependence also says that the choices we have today are limited by the choices we made in our past. On the one hand it simply says that history matters. But it also implies that the here and now cannot be seen out of the context of the past and the future and that small decisions now can have a big influence in the future. Ever wondered why we are typing on a QWERTY keyboard for example? Find out in John McWhorter’s answer here. Being aware of path dependence and having a grasp of how much it affects our daily life would certainly enhance everyone’s cognitive toolkit. McWhorter would want to teach that to kids as early as possible.

This ends the first entry in the series about the Edge Question 2011. If you liked it, come back for more soon. It will be about things like open ideas, superorganisms and professional wrestling from people as illustrious as Jonah Lehrer or Daniel Kahnemann…



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Beautiful science images – Wellcome Image Awards 2011

Yesterday, Wellcome Images have announced their winners of the Wellcome Image Awards 2011. The award is meant to highlight 21 of the most beautiful images acquired by the Wellcome Images picture library over the last 16 months.

View the gallery here.

The pictures vary from computer simulated brain cells over the scanning electron micrograph of a honeybee or a team of surgeons performing a keyhole surgery to blood clots on a plaster and a 3D reconstruction of a mouse blastocyst embryo and finally a truly beautiful photomicrograph of a ruby tailed wasp showing its irridescent colours.

A really great aspect of the way these images are presented online is that you can click through the gallery and have not only a short description of the image right next to it but also 2 links per picture briefly and understandably answering 2 questions associated with the image. A great example of what the beauty in science can look like today and a stunning display of science education well done!

Do go there and educate yourself!

The selected pictures are on display at the Wellcome Collection in London GB from February 24th to July 10th, a fantastic venue dedicated to medicine, science, life and art. Wish I could go there.

Cheers, loveforscience

all images in this post were taken from the Wellcome Image Awards 2011 image gallery at http://images.wellcome.ac.uk/indexplus/gallery/Image+Awards+2011.html?f=1&

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