What’s Spookier Than a Ghost in The Room? The One in Your Body
Whatever you do, don't look behind you – because the answer isn't there, says psychologist Alison Gopnik. The real ghosts are glitches in your brain, and in a way, that's even scarier.
Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. She received her BA from McGill University and her PhD. from Oxford University. She is an internationally recognized leader in the study of children’s learning and development and was the first to argue that children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. She is a columnist (every other week) for The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of over 100 journal articles and several books including “Words, thoughts and theories” (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff), MIT Press, 1997, and the bestselling and critically acclaimed popular books The Scientist in the Crib (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl) William Morrow, 1999, and The Philosophical Baby: What children’s minds tell us about love, truth and the meaning of life, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009. She has also written widely about cognitive science and psychology for Science, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, New Scientist and Slate, among others. And she has frequently appeared on TV and radio including “The Charlie Rose Show” and “The Colbert Report." She has three sons and lives in Berkeley, California with her husband Alvy Ray Smith.
Alison Gopnik: There is a fascinating line of research recently trying to explain why people see ghosts. And it's a phenomenon that people have talked about for a long time that someone will suddenly feel as if there's this presence of another person that's near by. And it turns out that you can actually artificially induced that sense of another presence that's nearby. And you can do it by using the sense that we have of our own presence. So as I'm sitting here now I have a fairly strong sense that I am sitting here now; that there's this person who's me who's sitting here. And part of that is because of my kinesthetic appreciation of the way that my own body works. The fact that when I try to do something my body follows. So what they did in this experiment was to set up a situation where I'm say moving a stick I feel a stick behind me touching my back. So even though I couldn't actually be bringing about that movement it's highly correlated with my own movements, the way that my hand waving is correlated with my intending to wave my hand. So here it is I'm intentionally moving this stick and I'm feeling the stick moving in exactly the same way on my back.
It turns out that when you do that people report, even though they know it's not true, they report that there's this other person that somewhere out there. There's a presence that's there that's responsible for what's happening to them. And when you look at people who report this feeling of presence it's a characteristic of certain kinds of brain damage which affect this kind of kinesthetic sense we have of our own bodies. So the sense that I had that I'm here inside of me not over there that's generated by particular brain areas and with damage to those brain areas that system gets so messed up one of the results is that you think that there's another person there.
Now I think part of what makes that whole story, you know, you might think this is a kind of encouraging Scooby Doo sort of story so it looked like there was a ghost but now no we really found out that the ghost was just this illusion of our own kinesthetic body. But even though that seems kind of comforting I think there's actually something even spookier that's the result of that. And the thing is even spookier is what about that feeling I have about me? What about that feeling that I have that I'm here existing in my body? What these experiments suggest is that's just as much of an illusion as the ghost. So the ghost in the machine, they ghost that's me that's just as much an illusion that my brain is generating as the ghost that's out there that's causing that feeling on my back or the ghost that's out there that's the result of the little glitch in my kinesthetic processing.
So even though I think this is kind of an encouraging thought for Halloween that all those ghosts are really just illusions of your mind, there's a bit of a catch like in all good ghost stories, it's kind of a turn of the screw that says yeah well that might be true about those ghosts but that might be true about that ghost that's my own sense of self too.
According to a 2009 Pew Research survey, 18% of adults in the U.S. say they’ve seen a ghost or at least felt its presence. An even greater number (29%) say they have felt in touch with someone who has died.
Humans have felt presences for at least as long as we have recorded history and, naturally, where there is mystery there are scientists poking and prodding to get to the bottom of it.
So how does this supernatural phenomenon hold up under scientific scrutiny? Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik tells us a spine-chilling story this Halloween, where a bunch of scientists from University Hospital of Geneva ran a neurological study to examine the popular claim of spirit-world sensations. Through a very interesting method, what they found was that patients with a particular kind of damage to their frontoparietal cortex where especially likely to have this ghost sensation, and that our brain can dupe us into feeling things that really aren’t there – we may literally feel a touch on our back due to a brain glitch.
That’s not so scary, right? That’s kind of comforting. Well, Gopnik’s ‘boo!’ moment in this tale comes in the form of a pensive and introspective twist: the frontoparietal cortex is the same brain region that lets us sense our own bodies, and be aware of our own kinesthetic motions. If it can be duped, how do we know that it’s always reliable? How sure are you that your hand is holding a mobile phone, that your thumb is scrolling on the screen, and that you’re tucking it away in your pocket? It feels real, your frontoparietal cortex tells you that’s very real, but this experiment suggests it could very well be an illusion. How confident are you that your sense of your own body is real? It’s something we haven’t got to the bottom of yet.
Alison Gopnik's most recent book is The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children.
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- Benjamin Franklin wrote essays on a whole range of subjects, but one of his finest was on how to be a nice, likable person.
- Franklin lists a whole series of common errors people make while in the company of others, like over-talking or storytelling.
- His simple recipe for being good company is to be genuinely interested in others and to accept them for who they are.
Think of the nicest person you know. The person who would fit into any group configuration, who no one can dislike, or who makes a room warmer and happier just by being there.
What makes them this way? Why are they so amiable, likeable, or good-natured? What is it, you think, that makes a person good company?
There are really only two things that make someone likable.
This is the kind of advice that comes from one of history's most famously good-natured thinkers: Benjamin Franklin. His essay "On Conversation" is full of practical, surprisingly modern tips about how to be a nice person.
Franklin begins by arguing that there are really only two things that make someone likable. First, they have to be genuinely interested in what others say. Second, they have to be willing "to overlook or excuse Foibles." In other words, being good company means listening to people and ignoring their faults. Being witty, well-read, intelligent, or incredibly handsome can all make a good impression, but they're nothing without these two simple rules.
The sort of person nobody likes
From here, Franklin goes on to give a list of the common errors people tend to make while in company. These are the things people do that makes us dislike them. We might even find, with a sinking feeling in our stomach, that we do some of these ourselves.
1) Talking too much and becoming a "chaos of noise and nonsense." These people invariably talk about themselves, but even if "they speak beautifully," it's still ultimately more a soliloquy than a real conversation. Franklin mentions how funny it can be to see these kinds of people come together. They "neither hear nor care what the other says; but both talk on at any rate, and never fail to part highly disgusted with each other."
2) Asking too many questions. Interrogators are those people who have an "impertinent Inquisitiveness… of ten thousand questions," and it can feel like you're caught between a psychoanalyst and a lawyer. In itself, this might not be a bad thing, but Franklin notes it's usually just from a sense of nosiness and gossip. The questions are only designed to "discover secrets…and expose the mistakes of others."
3) Storytelling. You know those people who always have a scripted story they tell at every single gathering? Utterly painful. They'll either be entirely oblivious to how little others care for their story, or they'll be aware and carry on regardless. Franklin notes, "Old Folks are most subject to this Error," which we might think is perhaps harsh, or comically honest, depending on our age.
4) Debating. Some people are always itching for a fight or debate. The "Wrangling and Disputing" types inevitably make everyone else feel like they need to watch what they say. If you give even the lightest or most modest opinion on something, "you throw them into Rage and Passion." For them, the conversation is a boxing fight, and words are punches to be thrown.
5) Misjudging. Ribbing or mocking someone should be a careful business. We must never mock "Misfortunes, Defects, or Deformities of any kind", and should always be 100% sure we won't upset anyone. If there's any doubt about how a "joke" will be taken, don't say it. Offense is easily taken and hard to forget.
On practical philosophy
Franklin's essay is a trove of great advice, and this article only touches on the major themes. It really is worth your time to read it in its entirety. As you do, it's hard not to smile along or to think, "Yes! I've been in that situation." Though the world has changed dramatically in the 300 years since Franklin's essay, much is exactly the same. Basic etiquette doesn't change.
If there's only one thing to take away from Franklin's essay, it comes at the end, where he revises his simple recipe for being nice:
"Be ever ready to hear what others say… and do not censure others, nor expose their Failings, but kindly excuse or hide them"
So, all it takes to be good company is to listen and accept someone for who they are.
Philosophy doesn't always have to be about huge questions of truth, beauty, morality, art, or meaning. Sometimes it can teach us simply how to not be a jerk.
A recent study analyzed the skulls of early Homo species to learn more about the evolution of primate brains.
For nearly two centuries, scientists have known that humans descended from the great apes. But it's proven difficult to precisely map out the branches of that evolutionary tree, especially in terms of determining when and where early Homo species first developed brains similar to modern humans.
There are clear differences between ape and human brains. Compared to apes, the Homo sapiens brain is larger, and its frontal lobe is organized such that we can engage in toolmaking, planning, and language. Other Homo species also enjoyed some of these cognitive innovations, from the Neanderthals to Homo floresiensis, the hobbit-like people who once inhabited Indonesia.
One reason it's been difficult to discern the details of this cognitive evolution from apes to Homo species is that brains don't fossilize, so scientists can't directly study early primate brains. But primate skulls offer clues.
Brains of yore
In a new study published in Science, an international team of researchers analyzed impressions left on the skulls of Homo species to better understand the evolution of primate brains. Using computer tomography on fossil skulls, the team generated images of what the brain structures of early Homo species probably looked like, and then compared those structures to the brains of great apes and modern humans.
The results suggest that Homo species first developed humanlike brains approximately 1.7 to 1.5 million years ago in Africa. This cognitive evolution occurred at roughly the same time Homo species' technology and culture were becoming more complex, with these species developing more sophisticated stone tools and animal food resources.
The team hypothesized that "this pattern reflects interdependent processes of brain-culture coevolution, where cultural innovation triggered changes in cortical interconnectivity and ultimately in external frontal lobe topography."
The team also found that these structural changes occurred after Homo species migrated out of Africa for regions like modern-day Georgia and Southeast Asia, which is where the fossils in the study were discovered. In other words, Homo species still had ape-like brains when some groups first left Africa.
While the study sheds new light on the evolution of primate brains, the team said there's still much to learn about the history of early Homo species, particularly in terms of explaining the morphological diversity of Homo fossils discovered in Africa.
"Deciphering evolutionary process in early Homo remains a challenge that will be met only through the recovery of expanded fossil samples from well-controlled chronological contexts," the researchers wrote.
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.