Mental and Social Woes of Suspicion

Welcome back! Good to see ya, nice to meet’cha, let’s dive right in! Today’s topic is solely focused on suspicion and how it can affect your social life and mental processes. Of course, it’s only reasonable that I explain how this topic popped into my head.

You see, kiddies, I get extremely suspicious when certain people ask me questions. Whether it’s a stranger or an acquaintance, there are just some people I feel should not be asking me things—no matter how innocent the question. Take this conversation, for instance:

I’m in the kitchen area at work, heating up my lunch in a microwave.
Co-worker: Heating up your lunch?
Me: Yes.
Co-worker: What are you having?
Me: …Soup
Co-worker: What kind of soup?
Me: Homemade soup.
Co-worker: Well, what’s in it?
Me: ::shrugs:: Vegetables and broth.

 

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It was almost as discomforting as this image.

 

 

Yes, I knew what she wanted when asking what kind of soup. And, yes, I knew exactly what was in it. Yes, Dave, seriously. I can put edible things together in a bowl and pour broth over it. Anyway, the problem was this: I didn’t want to answer. Similarly, I don’t want to answer when asked about my prior weekend or my plans for the upcoming weekend. I don’t know why. My only reasoning is: It’s none of this person’s business. The next minute, I’ll turn around and tell the withheld information to a different co-worker. And, I’m not the only one who does this.

For the most part, we all encounter people who rub us the wrong way, people we instantly don’t like without even a word exchanged. I believe the type of guarded suspicion some of us have when asked questions by certain people is a symptom of this. So, why are some people suspicious in this way, and why do certain people seem to rub us the wrong way?

 

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Shown here: Not the wrong kind of rub.

 

 

Looking at the Science Behind Suspicion

Understanding suspicion through science is a good where to start with our conundrum. In order to figure out how people assess the credibility of others, scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTC) investigated the parts of the brain that function in suspicion: the amygdala and the parahippocampal gyrus. The amygdala “plays a central role in processing fear and emotional memories and the parahippocampal gyrus […] is associated with declarative memory and the recognition of scenes,” according to an article featured on VTC’s website. The study went like this:

76 pairs of players, each with a buyer and a seller, competed in 60 rounds of a simple bargaining game while having their brains scanned [using an fMRI]. At the beginning of each round, the buyer would learn the value of a hypothetical widget and suggest a price to the seller. The seller would then set the price. If the seller’s price fell below the widget’s given value, the trade would go through, with the seller receiving the selling price and the buyer receiving any difference between the selling price and the actual value. If the seller’s price exceeded the value, though, the trade would not execute, and neither party would receive cash.

The outcome? According to Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and the Computational Psychiatry Unit at VTC, and the leader of the study, “The more uncertain a seller was about a buyer’s credibility […] the more active his or her parahippocampal gyrus became.”

Knowing what parts of the brain are most active during a state of suspicion is the first step in understanding the emotion, as well as where the suspicion is based. Heightened activity in the amygdala would, theoretically, signify fear-based suspicion, while heightened activity in the parahippocampal gyrus would signify suspicion based on mistrust. Montague suggest the parahypocampal gyrus acts “like an inborn lie detector.”

“So, what?” you demand. “How is this actionable information and why should I care?” Good question! It just so happens that…

 

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Not caring could make you turn out like Dave.

 

 

Suspicion can Cost You Profit… and Worse

First of all, not everything is about you, my precious snowflakes. So, let’s look at the bigger picture. Like most things, suspicion in moderation can be quite good. There is a line, though. Being overly suspicious—either from fear or mistrust—can have negative consequences on financial success. According to Meghana Bhatt, one of the study’s authors:

People [taking part in the study] with a high baseline suspicion were often interacting with fairly trustworthy buyers, so in ignoring the information those buyers provided, they were giving up potential profits. The ability to recognize credible information in a competitive environment can be just as important as detecting untrustworthy behavior.

Not only can individuals with high baseline suspicion have a harder time achieving financial success, they can have a harder time achieving success in their careers. This can lead to a host of new problems, including an increase in stress and anxiety, as well as depression.

Speaking of the mental aspects, studies in suspicion can have implications for psychiatric disorders. “The fact that increased amygdala activation corresponds with an inability to detect trustworthy behavior may provide insight into the social interactions of people with anxiety disorders, who often have increased activity in this area of the brain,” explains Montague.

In short, studies such as these can help pinpoint sources of certain psychiatric disorders, which can better help scientists nail down proper treatments. But, these types of studies could also help to create a treatment or healthy way in which to promote balance for those with high baseline suspicion. Perhaps a better question is: When my internal lie detector goes off, who should I trust?

 

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Here’s an anxious kitten. You’re welcome.

 

 


 

 

Improving Quality of Life

I’ve previously written a couple of blog posts on tech advancements aimed at aiding movement inhibited individuals. This is another one of those, focused singularly on Brain-Machine Interface (BMI, also called Brain-Computer Interface, BCI), which we’ve touched on before. The reason I’m putting a good deal of focus on these types of topics—aside from the badassness of it—is because of my own physical issues.

You see kiddies, when I was the tender age of 16, I had a horseback riding accident that left me with a rotated hip. That one injury has since plagued me with low-back movement issues that are painful, sometimes debilitating, and decrease quality of life. On top of that, I have pretty bad knee issues—which also stem from the original rotated hip problem. I’ve had three epidurals, two cortisone shots at the knee joint, and so much physical therapy I count it as my second job. The one thing I want to do, physically, compounds all the wounds.

I just want to run. I love to run. I love the way it makes me feel before, during, and after. But, even jogging ¼ mile kills my knees and stresses my back. So, what must it be like for someone who just wants to walk, or even just stand? Life is a lot of things, but movement plays such a significant role in life that it’s something we think about lightly. You know, until we can’t do it anymore.

So, while robotics, neuroscience, and advancements in technology are blow-your-mind-like-a-big-league-hotdog awesome, combining the three to improve quality of life for thousands—millions?—of people is blow-your-mind-in-the-archaic-sense-of-the-word awesome. So, without further ado, let’s dig into the real meat of this blog.

 

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Just look at those cute, evil faces.

 

 

Allowing Locked-In ALS Patients to Communicate

I know what ALS is, but I had never previously heard of the “Locked-In” ALS condition. Thanks to my ignorance, you’ll all get a bit of definition time. You’re welcome. ALS patients suffering from the Locked-In condition are considered to be in the severe stage of ALS, wherein they are conscious and have brain function, but are unable to move. At all.

Science is working toward giving such patients as these a way to communicate again. According to the article Locked-In ALS Patients Answer Yes or No Questions with Wearable fNIRS Device, published earlier this month in Neuroscience News:

Using a wearable system developed by SUNY Downstate Medical Center researcher Dr. Randall Barbour, a team of investigators led by Professor Niels Birbaumer at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Switzerland and University of Tübingen in Germany were able to measure the brain’s hemodynamic response to a series of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, thus allowing these patients to communicate.

While other tech has been used for this goal—EEG, fMRI, etc.—fNIRS (that’s functional near infrared spectroscopic) imaging has proved to be the breakthrough tech needed. But, what does this mean? Well, this is potentially the first step in bettering quality of life for Locked-In ALS patients. Communication, like movement, is a substantial part of life. It’s why we have language areas in the brain, Dave! But, this isn’t the only advance being made with BMI. Next up…

 

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This is your brain on binary code. Any questions?

 

 

BMI Opens Doors to Paralysis Patients

In Bruce Goldman’s article, Brain-Computer Interface Advance Allows Fast, Accurate Typing by People with Paralysis, published by Stanford Medicine, we get another look into BMI advancement. I fully anticipate all the readers here will visit the original article, which means I’m not listing all the scientists involved. Instead, I’m going to refer to them as “The Team.” You’re welcome. Again.

In this study, The Team worked with three paralysis patients, using an intracordical BMI (or in the case of this study, the term BCI is preferred) to send brain signals to a computer. Goldman explains that:

The investigational system used in the study, an intracortical brain-computer interface called the BrainGate Neural Interface System, represents the newest generation of BCIs […] An intracortical BCI uses a tiny silicon chip, just over one-sixth of an inch square, from which protrude 100 electrodes that penetrate the brain to about the thickness of a quarter and tap into the electrical activity of individual nerve cells in the motor cortex.

These are the nerve cells that send the signals the brain would give off during specific movement tasks (the right hand moving and clicking a computer mouse, for instance). The signals are decoded and converted in real time by a special algorithm, which then allows the patients to control a cursor on the screen in front of them to type out words at a higher speed and accuracy than seen in previous methods. According to Chethan Pandarinath, one of the lead authors of the research report, “We’re achieving communication rates that many people with arm and hand paralysis would find useful. That’s a critical step for making devices that could be suitable for real-world use.”

This is not only exciting, it’s groundbreaking for movement inhibited individuals. Going forward, this tech could help with general household tasks we take for granted—opening doors, changing the thermostat, controlling the TV—and who knows what else?—just by using your mind. This gives movement inhibited individuals access to and a modicum of control over their surroundings. That’s seriously impressive.

Krishna Shenoy, an integral part of The Team—and whose lab pioneered the algorithm for the BMI interface—expects that around five years from now, they may be looking at a “self-calibrating, fully-implanted wireless system [that] can be used without caregiver assistance, has no cosmetic impact, and can be used around the clock.”

 

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Just think of this computer as Professor X… you know… cause it’s reading your mind! Also, pretend this monitor is a computer, so my reference will work.

 

 

Improving on the Improvements

Now, we head over to San Diego State University (SDSU) to learn about new electrodes with increased durability that last longer and transmit clearer signals than current electrodes. This news comes to us from the article Big Improvement to Brain-Computer Interface, published by ScienceDaily with source material provided by SDSU. Here’s a rundown of the study:

The Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE)—a collaboration of San Diego State University with the University of Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—is working on an implantable brain chip that can record neural electrical signals and transmit them to receivers in the limb, bypassing [spinal cord] damage and restoring movement.

The improvement here is the material out of which the chip is made. Current “state-of-the-art” electrodes are made from thin-film platinum, but researchers with CSNE are utilizing glassy carbon. According to the article, “This material is about 10 times smoother than granular thin-film platinum, meaning it corrodes less easily under electrical stimulation and lasts much longer than platinum or other metal electrodes.” These electrodes are being used both along the surface of and inside the brain for more complete—single neuron and cluster—data.

A doctoral grad student in the lab is even taking things one step further. According to the article:

Mieko Hirabayashi is exploring a slightly different application of this technology. She’s working with rats to find out whether precisely calibrated electrical stimulation can cause new neural growth within the spinal cord. The hope is that this stimulation could encourage new neural cells to grow and replace damaged spinal cord tissue in humans. The new glassy carbon electrodes will allow her to stimulate, read the electrical signals of, and detect the presence of neurotransmitters in the spinal cord better than ever before.

 

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I used this to represent “single” vs “cluster” and if you get it, good job. If not, enjoy the cute image.

 

 

Every year, new advances in tech are being made. But, seeing tech advancements geared toward improving quality of life for movement inhibited individuals is… well… awesome.

First Amendment vs Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia Websites

I am concerned.

Well, I’ll back up a moment and talk you through that. There are a couple of issues that ebb and flow as “hot topics” and neither has anything to do with the other. The First Amendment is one. Eating disorders—specifically anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN)—is the other. I say “eating” disorders, but I think they are more aptly put into the category of “anxiety” disorders. But, that’s not really the topic right now. The topic, what has me concerned, is this: There are websites—quite a number of them, in fact—that glorify these disorders.

Pro-Ana (anorexia) and Pro-Mia (bulimia) websites have message boards where tips and advice are shared, not on how to overcome the disorder, but how to hide it better and be more efficient at it.

For obvious reasons, I won’t be linking to any of these sites, as I normally would.

 

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One reason being that we don’t need to encourage this.

 

 

Why do these sites exist?

Let’s turn to our friends over at ANAD, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Inc. (what a mouthful), to get a little insight into this. According to ANAD:

  • ~ 30 million people regardless of age or gender suffer from an eating disorder in the US
  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness (within the subset of eating disorders, AN has the highest mortality rate)
  • In a study following active duty military personnel over time, 5.5 percent of women and four percent of men had an eating disorder at the beginning of the study, and within just a few years of continued service, 3.3 percent more women and 2.6 percent more men developed an eating disorder
  • Nine percent of American women suffer from AN in their lifetime
  • One in five AN deaths is by suicide
  • Five percent of American women suffer from BN in their lifetime

This is maybe one third of the stats you can find on ANAD’s site. 30 million people in the US. That’s 9.2 percent of the US population. That’s 2,925,000 women suffering from AN and 4,875,000 from BN. If 26 percent of females and (according to ANRED.com) 10 percent of males suffer from AN or BN, a businessman would tell you that you’re looking at a ripe market. That’s one reason these sites exist. The market is so ripe, in fact, that one company has struck proverbial oil.

So, we know there is an audience for sites like these, but is that enough? Yes, and no. Sufferers of AN and BN are stigmatized, and none more so than men. To whom do you turn if you have a problem—and you know you have a problem—but you know you’ll be made to feel as though you’re worth less (if not exactly worthless) if you seek help. What will people think of you? That you’re weak? That you’re self-centered? That you value too greatly how others view you? That you can be manipulated by the media, or criticism of your appearance, or whatever the case may be? These feelings of worthlessness, of loneliness, of weakness, of anxiety only increase at the thought of saying something about your problem to someone.

With Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia sites, these individuals have a community. And it’s a community reinforcing the behavior of the disorders.

 

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I have no semi-humorous caption for this. Let’s just go with, “Don’t be a dick to people who need help.”

 

 

Why are these sites allowed?

This is my real question. I realize closely monitoring the Internet is like toilet training a cat—possible, maybe worth it, but definitely time, energy, and sanity consuming. Still, you would think websites that aid people in harming themselves, and which could potentially be considered aiding in suicide, would be… you know… not legal. In the same way starving someone is not legal. In the same way assisted suicide is not legal.

I know, I just know, that if Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia sites started to be monitored and subsequently shut down, someone would cry, “You’re violating my First Amendment rights!” Is this true? According to First Amendment Center and Newseum Institute, there are essentially nine categories not protected by the First Amendment:

  • Obscenity
  • Fighting words
  • Defamation (including libel and slander)
  • Child pornography
  • Perjury
  • Blackmail
  • Incitement to imminent lawless action
  • True threats
  • Solicitations to commit crimes

According to Deb McAlister-Holland, “Chat room conversations that [encourage] suicide [have been] denied First Amendment protection.” That, and also perhaps a bit of common sense, leads me to believe that Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia sites—including forums and chats on such sites—wouldn’t be protected. So, why are they still around, and why are there so many?

While rhetoric on such sites may not be the same as, “Go kill yourself,” in some instances, it’s very close.

 

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Want more info on what is and isn’t covered under the First Amendment? Check out Sam Cook’s article, “The First Amendment and What it Means for Free Speech Online.”

 


 

Misconceptions about Night Terrors

There’s little doubt that illnesses, diseases, disorders, and the like can be scary. Moreover, they can be quite terrifying when little is widely known about them. The parasomnia (sleep disorder) known as Night Terrors (NTs) (sometimes, Sleep Terrors) is one of these misunderstood disorders. I first heard about NTs in a grossly misleading psychology class in college. The class, Motivation and Behavior Psych, was much more closely related to neurobiology or neurochemistry—it’s the class that sparked my deep love of neuroscience.

Right. Back to the topic. NTs are often confused with nightmares. It’s pretty widely known that nightmares suck donkey testicles; they’re vivid, scary, uncomfortable, and usually leave lasting impressions upon waking. In my worst nightmare, I awoke to someone standing over me while I slept. It was so real that, when I actually woke up, I thought the person was there. I couldn’t move, I was scared to open my eyes. It was only when I realized my dogs were calmly sleeping that I knew no one else was in the room.

Vivid? Check. Terrifying? Check! Seared into my memory? Super check. Gargling on the sack of a donkey? You bet! The nightmare, Dave, not me. Seriously. NT? Absolutely not.

So, what’s the difference between NTs and nightmares, and why is it important to know? I’m glad you asked!

 

 

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Here’s a fancy chart on NT classification.

 

 

Core Differences

Differences between nightmares and NTs range from when during sleep they occur to electroencephalography (EEG) activity. The point here is, the two are fundamentally different. Nightmares, and even nightmare disorder, are “different from NT [and consist of] a lowered motor activity […] the person is not confused on waking up, remembers the nightmares in detail, and the disordered orientation immediately recovers”.² The authors of the article, “Treatment Approach to Sleep Terror: Two Case Reports,” give a robust definition of NT:

NT is classified under parasomnias characterized with sudden attacks of fear associated with the increase in autonomic signs following crying and loud shouting during the first few hours of sleep during the delta stage (associated with the NREM period). Clinically, the person wakes up screaming, scaring, or performing sudden and self-destructive acts (like jumping, running, crashing into something, harming the person beside). The person is non-responsive to the external stimulus during this period […] The person may predominantly experience cognitive impairment signs, such as disordered orientation and memory problems, confusion, and fear on waking up. In addition to these mental symptoms, somatic symptoms associated with the overstimulation of the autonomic system, such as palpitation, sweating, shaking, skin rubor, pupillary response, may appear. While adults generally cannot remember what they experienced the previous night, children can indistinctly remember their fear.²

 

I think that about sums it up. So, while nightmares generally occur during REM, NTs occur prior to REM, during NREM—or non-rapid eye movement. The result of two independent sleep studies stated that NT episodes “begin exclusively during [NREM] sleep, most frequently during slow-wave sleep (SWS), and should not be considered an acting-out of a dream” and that “consciousness is altered during sleepwalking/sleep terror episodes.”¹ NT is most common in children, with a prevalence of ~3-15 percent, and decreases significantly with age, although, “it seems probable that the notion of sleep terrors is largely unknown to people, therefore different types of nocturnal attacks can be reported as sleep terrors.”¹

Difficulty in obtaining more concrete statistics pertaining to NT is a big indication that NT is a misunderstood parasomnia.

 

 

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Not that having this chase you around is a good thing.

 

 

What Triggers NT?

Another great question! Both genetics and environmental stimuli play a role in NT:

It is well known that sleepwalking and night terrors run in families. Based on the study of familial incidence of sleepwalking and sleep terrors proposed that sleepwalking and night terrors share a common genetic predisposition, although the clinical expression of symptoms of these parasomnias may be influenced by environmental factors.”¹

 

The authors of “Treatment and Approach…” explain that “the risk of occurrence [of NT] among the first-degree relatives is ten folds more compared with those with no family history of NT.”²

Cases of NT have also been reported after stressful and/or significant life events, including divorce—personal or parental—death of a loved one, changing jobs or getting let go, changing schools, etc.

 

Why Does This Matter?

Part of why this matters is because additional research in NT could point to treatments aside from “making bedrooms safe” for NT sufferers or being prescribed benzodiazepine, which can cause rebounds or addiction. There is, of course, another reason it would be good to be knowledgeable about NT: “NT is highly associated with schizoid, borderline and dependent personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, [and] generalized anxiety disorder.”²

Which is not to say NT sufferers have those disorders. In fact, when comparing individuals with NT to individuals who only demonstrate somnambulism (sleepwalking), only a percentage of sleepwalkers had been diagnosed as psychotic:

In contrast to sleepwalkers, [individuals with NT] demonstrate higher levels of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive traits, phobias, and depression. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) profile suggests an inhibition of outward expression of aggression. A psychiatric diagnosis was established in 85 percent of patients with current night terrors. Although their psychopathology was more severe than in patients with sleepwalking, none of them was diagnosed as psychotic.”¹

 

Knowing the difference between NT, other arousal parasomnia, and regular ole nightmares can make a difference to the individual suffering from NT. Because a significant symptom of NT is sleepwalking, and because NT sufferers have increased mobility, they could cause damage to self or others.

Personally, I feel it’s important—if you know someone who sleepwalks—to be able to distinguish between and individual with NT and one with somnambulism, you know, on account of those regular ole sleepwalks could be psychotic.

 

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And psychotic children and the worst.

 

 

 


 

 

¹Szelenberger, Waldemar, Szymon Niemcewicz, and Anna Justyna Dąbrowska.

“Sleepwalking and Night Terrors: Psychopathological and Psychophysiological

Correlates.” International Review of Psychiatry 17.4 (2005): 263-70.

²Turan, Hatice Sodan, Nermin Gunduz, Aslihan Polat, and Umit Tural. “Treatment

Approach to Sleep Terror: Two Case Reports.” Noro Psikiyatri Arsivi 52.2 (2015):

204-06.

Why Understanding Dreams Matters

What’s the big deal with dreams and why is it so important we figure it out? Well, because when we dream, our brain is doing something. So, what if what it’s doing is helping or hurting us? The science behind dreaming—especially the physiology and how it relates to health—is a subject we just don’t know a whole lot about.

The topic of dreams has been a hot one for so many years you can trace it back to Ancient Greece, where they thought dreams told the future. The beliefs about dreams are numerous and range from ridiculous (showing the future) to plausible, including:

  • Dreams are a manifestation of the unconscious (show of hands, Freudians)
  • Dreams stimulate problem solving
  • Dreams help process negative emotions
  • Dreams are the collecting/discarding of brain trash (that’s very unjustly put, I admit)
  • Dreams consolidate short term memories to long-term memory
  • Dreams are a byproduct of neural impulses

Etc., etc., etc.

You see where I’m going with this? So, who’s right? Put your hand down, Dave, you don’t know the answer. There is no answer. Part of the reason for that is because it’s brain-stuff. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say more, but I will. Of all the sciences, neuroscience is probably the one where the least amount of answers have been discovered. And that’s not a slam on neuroscience—for which I have a deep love—it’s a testament to the human brain.

 

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Which is both wonderful, and poisonous when eaten!

 

 

Why Memory Consolidation is so Appealing

The theory of dreams being a byproduct of memory consolidation/processing makes very good sense to me, despite the nay-sayers. Part of the reason I’m so attached to this theory is because I can see it working. Take the elements in this dream I had, for instance:

  • I was fresh out of college and the only job I could get was as a manager of a local supermarket
  • I had crippling student loans
  • I had just come on shift when there was a zombie outbreak, so I had to lead my employees to safety
  • I had to run to my car to retrieve my revolver

That dream was both awesome and hilarious. It’s one of my favorites. I am also planning to write a book about it, so hands off my dream! Now, compare the dream elements with my reality:

  • When I was fresh out of college, I worked a retail job where I was in management
  • I have slightly less-than-crippling, although no less daunting, student loans
  • I had been marathon-watching Ash vs. The Evil Dead the day/evening before the dream
  • I keep a pistol in my car (this is a judgement-free zone)

This ability to connect dream elements with real world elements gives me the proof I need. But, you’re not me, so I don’t know if the same holds true for you.

 

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This was in one of my cookie comas. The Keebler elves did not fare well.

 

 

Why All the Hubbub About Dreams?

Many people still believe that dreams mean something, whether it’s the expression of the unconscious mind or symbolism of what one might be stressing over, looking forward to, etc. And, if you fall into that category, that’s fine. Remember, judgement-free zone. Mostly.

In any case, learning about dreams—both causes and the result of REM sleep deprivation—can also lead to additional information on such mental health issues as depression, migraines, and the development of mental disorders. I want to note here that, in some cases, REM sleep deprivation has been shown to improve the state of depressive patients.

 

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I can feel the happiness seeping in!

 

 

No matter what you believe dreams to be or not be, mean or not mean, I’d like to think that we can all agree on this: The more we discover about the nature, physiology, and effects of dreaming, the more ammunition we may have against some types of mental health issues. And that, my friends, would be a beautiful thing indeed.

The Skywalker Hand is Coming

As I was traipsing about the wide and wild world of the interwbs in search of awesome stuff, I stumbled—soberly—across this little nugget. If you don’t feel like going to the original article, then shame on you, but I’ll give you a bit of info on it before we get stared anyway. Take a big breath for this next line, because it’s a doozy. “Proof of Concept of an Online EMG-based Decoding of Hand Postures and Individual Digit Forces for Prosthetic Hand Control,” written by Alicia Gailey and Marco Santello of the School of Biology and Health Systems Engineering, Arizona State University, and Panagiotis Artemiadis of the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport, and Energy, Arizona State University, is part of the closed-loop systems for next-generation neuroprostheses research topic from Frontiers in Neurology, a “Frontiers in” journal series from Frontiers.

I’m almost certain that’s 100-percent accurate, but I’d be more confident if my brain was wired to a calculator. Speaking of Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMIs)…

 

Researchers are Looking to Improve Prosthetic Device Functions

For individuals who must utilize a prosthesis—in this case, transradial (below the elbow) or transhumeral (above the elbow)—the technology is only getting better. Overall hand and digit movement has improved greatly from the early days of the mannequin arm prosthesis.

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What? She doesn’t need it.

 

 

According to the authors of “Proof of Concept…,” “Options currently available to individuals with upper limb loss range from prosthetic hands that can perform many movements, but require more cognitive effort to control, to simpler terminal devices with limited functional abilities.”

Which means that, even considering the improvements to hand and arm prostheses, there is still room for growth. In an effort to increase the performance of upper limb prosthetic devices, researches are looking to BMIs for answers. But this research may help more than amputees. Utilizing BMIs and neuroprostheses can potentially help individuals suffering from neurological disorders that affect brain-to-body connections resulting in functional impairment and/or paralysis.

 

Looking for Advancements

Advancing functionality for hand/arm prostheses can dramatically help the end-user. The human hand is involved in countless tasks each day and, right now, available prostheses just aren’t cutting the mustard.

That’s a horrible expression. Would up to snuff be better? No. No, I don’t think there is such a thing as a good situation during which the word “snuff” is used. Anyway, let’s take a look at the challenges that prosthetic hand developers face, as per “Proof of Concept…” authors:

One of the main remaining challenges for prosthetic hand developers is in allowing the user to reliably control many different hand movements without too much cognitive effort. Body-powered systems are reliable, but their harness system can result in fatigue and strain. Furthermore, body-powered prostheses are limited in their functionality. Control systems based on electroencephalographic (EEG) signals can be used to control prosthetic hands for above-elbow amputees and paralyzed individuals. However, the implementation of these systems tends to be challenging because EEG signals are associated with many other behaviors besides hand motion, such as proximal musculature involved in hand transport, trunk movement, and so forth. Other methods are being developed to extract signals from within the brain or peripheral nerve tissue, but such methods are invasive and expensive.

And that’s why researchers and developers are turning to myoelectric systems. I’m not a complete dick, so here’s a brief explanation of myoelectric systems. Myoelectric systems focus on the application of myoelectric signals to control human-assisting robots or rehabilitation devices based on electromyographic (EMG) activity of residual muscles following an amputation. We’re starting to get our BMI here.

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What do you mean this is wrong? Wrong BMI or wrong tool?

 

The Research

The authors of “Proof of Concept…” tested the myoelectric control system on the commercially available i-limb from Touch Bionics. They sent commands wirelessly to the prosthesis in which “the integer value of the flexion command was proportional to the predicted flexion force.” The subjects, five males and three female, were all right-handed, able-bodied individuals.

We asked subjects to perform two sets of tasks. […] For both tasks, we recorded EMG signals from five surface EMG electrodes and extracted features from these signals to train a one-against-one support vector machine (SVM). This SVM was used to distinguish hand poses, and a random forest regression (RFR) was used to predict each of the five digit forces.

After this came the EMG decoder system training and testing. There’s a lot of math involved at this point, so I highly recommend you go check it out. If fact, here’s the link again. If you’re determined to stick with me, however, I thank you for your loyalty (and possibly laziness). No judgement.

A large part of this research was digit force prediction, but that alone wouldn’t be helpful. The authors point out that “the EMG-to-force mapping for the middle finger is going to be different for a thumb-middle finger precision grasp versus a closed fist. Incorporating an SVM classifier that distinguishes between hand postures, myoelectric control of hand motion, and individual digit forces for everyday activities becomes more feasible.”

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Pretty sure I did something wrong here.

 

 

The Takeaway

Utilizing myoelectric systems can add an amount of dexterity that current prostheses just can’t touch. This offshoot of BMI can allow for a more responsive and realistic—in movement—hand/arm prosthesis that could allow amputees—or those individuals with partial paralysis—to function in a more natural manner without tapping into the cognitive resources that EEG-signal control systems use.

Guest Post: The War on Science

This is a must read.

In My Stride

Jennie invited me to write a couple of lines for her blog, I feel flattered and honoured, so here we go. Jennie and I “met” on Twitter over the #actuallivingscientists debate. I am a mineralogist from continental Europe, currently mixing magmas for a living as just another Post Doc.

In case you have been living under a rock for the past 6 months: both science and women (and many others) have been target of a brutal onslaught by the new commander in chief, who shall formerly be addressed here as Lord Dampnut. The #actuallivingscientist hashtag was a thread were scientists presented themselves and their work, showing the world that they are real people with awesome gadgets (animals, minerals…). Many female colleagues made a point in posting pictures of themselves wearing specialised suits for lab- and field work, accompanied by the #dresslikeawomen hashtag, to drive home the point that female scientists…

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Idun Verdandi, an Ísigstān Slave

Idun Verdandi was born in the Ísigstān kingdom. Idun was born a slave in the house of the Vetr Sun, living in the very same castle as the hēahcyning himself. This knowledge was no comfort. Idun had once been told the story of her beginning. Her mother, also a slave, had tried to first hide Idun, then to smuggle her from the castle. Although Idun’s father wasn’t complicit in this act, both he and Idun’s mother were killed. A warning to any who would try to deprive the hēahcyning of his property.

Idun hugged her knees to her chest and leaned her back against the ice-flecked stone wall of her chamber. The other slave girls slept. She could not. The night fevers often interfered with her sleep. Idun raised a thin hand perched atop a thinner arm and brushed her long hair toward the front of her face, making a vail. The silver-white strands making up the first foot of hair from scalp to shoulder looked dull, stringy. The other foot and a half, from shoulder to waist was in worse shape. The black dye, which marked slaves, dried her hair. Turned it brittle.

Ísigstān natives were born with three distinctive traits. The silver-white hair, pale skin, and black irises. These traits were adaptations to the frost-bitten land. The paleness of hair and skin to better hide from natural predators, and black irises that would better protect their eyes from the intensity of the sun. The slaves were made to dye their hair. The more valuable slaves could keep half of the growth—and only half—their natural silver-white. It wouldn’t be long before Idun would have to add more dye.

Another, more permanent demarcation was inflicted on slaves in early childhood. This was the brand that ran from one cheek to the other, curving over the nasal bridge in a turned down crescent shape. Many of the slave children died from the brand.

Idun touched the rough, raised skin before letting her hand fall away. Sleep would take her soon.

She grabbed the piece of cloth she had ripped from her bedding and placed it in her mouth. She let a corner piece of the cloth stay pressed between her lips so that once she awoke, she could yank the rag out. For almost a month, she slept that way. If her night screams ever woke the hēahcyning again, she was told, she’d pay with her flesh.

Idun lay back, almost curling in on herself. As she began to drift, she felt the skin of her arms start to burn, handprint shapes glowing along her biceps.

Every night, this is how it began.

Coming up…

Coming up next:

IDUN: A first look at a brand new character!

If you’re eager to get back to the more scientific blog posts, you don’t have to wait long. Tomorrow we’re going to take a look at whether seeing is really believing, as we discuss how the brain utilizes different sensory inputs to decipher an entire picture.

Music is the Muse

I took a break from writing a blog for which I’d need to indulge in research. I started today off doing something I had zero desire in ever doing. Or, rather, it began last night. I was driving home, listening to an album. Every time I listen to this album, I feel it building a story. Maybe not the one the musicians are trying to tell, sure, but a story that won’t go untold. It refuses. For months, I’ve resisted. Never, ever, have I had the desire to write anything on the same plane as a work that could be called epic, nor have I had interest in world building. But, what do I know?

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Now, we just add a little bird right here…

 

 

Language, Please…

I see why Tolkien was so keen on using dead languages. Particularly Old English. It’s beautiful, it’s melodic (an educated guess, on account of it being a… well, a dead language), and it feels epic. So, as I sat down to outline the first few chapters for the first book in this tale, I realized I needed to brush off my Norse sagas, my Old English texts, and my Celtic mythology. I realized this mostly after I spent three hours coming up with a couple of character names and the name of the land the protagonist is from. I must have taken a severe linguistic inflection dump after college.

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That’s the face of someone who just took a massive brain dump.

 

 

Sweet, Sweet Resolution

So, I rounded up my linguistics sources, settled on character and (one) place names, and jotted the outline of the first nine chapters for this first installment. It feels great. It feels daunting. It feels terrifying. And boy, I can’t wait until I really get to dig in. I’ve set a happy pace I can keep, because once the outline is done, there’s no stopping the creative juices.

While writing (and editing and touching base with fifty people a day) for a magazine as my day (read: paying) job and writing blogs eat up time, there is an hour per day somewhere in all that for which I can spare a moment of world building, one sentence in a hybrid dead/new language, one action scene or touching moment.

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I think I can be bribed.

 

Andy Lidstone

Author, Interpreter, Wordsmith

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