transcript of episode 14: SILLY SEASON, 16th July 2021

[🎶 INTRO: "Spring Swing" by Dee Yan-Kee 🎶]

welcome to the error bar: where neurobollocks are neurocastrated

in this episode: how mirror neurons and physics can explain everything about the human brain, the correct way to eat chocolate biscuits & the error bar takes a break

here is the brain news on the 16th July 2021:

[🎶 BIG BEN BONGS 🎶]

MIRRORCLE NEURONS

the Irish News, along with countless other news-reposting platforms, asks us why looking at a tarantula makes our skin crawl, while looking at ice cream makes our mouths water

the answer? well, it's obvious - mirror neurons

for anyone not reading about neuroscience in the late 1990s and the noughties, these supposed miracle neurons were found in some monkey's brains nearly 30 years ago. what's special about them is that these brain cells respond both when the monkey is making a movement, such as grasping a peanut, and when the monkey looks at another monkey or human who's grasping a peanut

the scientists and the media invoke these seemingly-magical neurons to explain the therapeutic benefits of action observation therapy during neurological rehabilitation - a form of medical intervention where patients watch other people making movements so that they can improve their own movements

that's the story here - nothing to do with spiders or ice cream - the story is that a review of previous studies finds that such action observation may be a useful therapy in some neurological conditions

[🎶 INTERLUDE 🎶]

are mirror neurons really a miracle?

well, no. the brain as a whole IS a miracle, and ALL brain cells either respond to stimuli or are involved in movement somehow, so, by the media's loose definition of mirror neurons, the whole damn brain is one big bulging mirror neuron

these neurons are surely very interesting indeed; and so are the potentially beneficial effects of movement observation on neurological rehabilitation

but what i just don't get, thirty years on, is why scientists are still putting out press releases and giving interviews saying, or allowing journalists to say, that mirror neurons are responsible for arachnophobia and ice-cream-ophilia. it's nuts

if you want a more interesting and up-to-date take on mirror neurons this summer, then i would recommend heading over to Perspectives on Psychological Science, where Professors Celia Heyes and Caroline Catmur ask "What happened to mirror neurons?"

it's not open access, but it's brand spanking new, and these authors don't hold their punches - there's your summer holiday blockbuster, folks

conclusion

mirror neurons are real and very interesting, but they make up a very small part of the brain and are responsible for a very small and specific set of sensations and movements in monkeys and humans. please stop the hype!

sources

the science was by Ryan et al. in Archives Of Rehabilitation Research And Clinical Translation; reported in Irish News by @byFionaMacRae on 8/Jul/21


[🎶 BIG BEN BONGS 🎶]

PHYSICS EXPLAINS THE MIND

silly season is here! for listeners unfamiliar with the concept, 'silly season' is the period over summer in the UK where government, the judiciary, schools, universities & the media all stop working. every single man, woman & child downs tools & takes a well-deserved three month vacation, before the serious work begins again in October

wikipedia informs us that other languages call this period 'cucumber time'. during silly season, the media is staffed entirely by unpaid interns waiting for their exam results. it traditionally leads to silly stories being published

the Daily Express - hardly a source of sensible science news at the best of times - makes a flying start to their own silly season of science with two articles about physics & the brain

first, they inform us that Professor Brian Cox, the TV physicist & keyboard player ultimately responsible for the political success of Tony Blair, says that there is no human soul. right, problem solved

next, cosmologist Max Tegmark is wheeled out to inform us that humans' perception of time is just an illusion. great - thank you!

i'm so glad we psychologists & neuroscientists can look to physics for answers to the really difficult questions in life. Aristotle and Kant can finally rest in peace

conclusion

doubtful

sources

reported in The Daily Express by Sebastian Kettley on 9/Jul/21, & The Daily Express by Sean Martin on 4/Jul/21


and the brain in brief...

[🎶 BIG BEN BONGS 🎶]

EAT BISCUITS CHOCOLATE DOWN

if you run a company selling something, a good way to get a yard of free newspaper columns advertising your product is to get a scientist from Oxford to write a scientific report about how to use your product, then to release that report, on the World Day for your product, then tease the press and the public with insufficient information about sample sizes, experimental designs, or standard deviations

that's what happened on World Biscuit Day, as reported in all the media last week

i ran out of patience on this story, dear listener - virtually every newspaper and science website ran a story about how it's better to eat biscuits with the chocolate down, and every article mentioned 'a report' or 'the report' that was released by the company, whose name i am withholding. but i could not find that report or a link to it anywhere. it's a phantom

the biscuit science has been suppressed. will we ever know the truth?

[editorial comment, 1st October 2021: the biscuit science was revealed exclusively to me by Dr Hark Mazaltov, who found the evidence here]

conclusion

evidence unavailable

sources

reported in The Sun by @julia_atherley on 15/Jul/21, & The Mirror by Paige Holland on 9/Jul/21, & Irish Mirror by Michelle Cullen on 9/Jul/21, & The Daily Mail by @shivalibest on 8/Jul/21


[🎶 BIG BEN BONGS 🎶]

HOBSON, LEWONTIN, LAKATOS (rest in peace)

the deaths of three neuroscientists have been announced

the World Sleep Society reported the passing of Dr Allan Hobson, an American MD who studied sleep, dreams & consciousness, and directed the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center

Nature and the New York Times carried the obituary for Professor Richard C Lewontin, a geneticist, evolutionary biologist, and an outspoken critic of poor science and of scientific racism

finally, Nature also reports on the loss of Peter Lakatos, a Hungarian neuroscientist working in New York State. he studied the electrical properties of the brain, particularly its tendency to synchronise and osscillate during perception and attention. five years ago he said: "Data was my muse and I followed wherever it led me."

conclusion

rest in peace

sources

the science was by Dietrich in Nature, & Obleser in Nature Neuroscience; reported in internet source by @_WorldSleep on 12/Jul/21


[🎶 BIG BEN BONGS 🎶]

THE ERROR BAR TAKES A BREAK

dear listeners,

thank you for your continued patronage of the error bar - a podcast that picks holes in the English-speaking world's brain science news stories

i am taking a summer break from casting pods. this week has been much busier than i expected - sorry that the episode arrived late - for two good reasons

first, i was back in my lab at the university of nottingham, setting up equipment and digging out data for this summer's band of masters students to analyse - that's right people, academics typically work all through the summer!

second, as some of you may have read about on twitter, or heard about on Germany's DeutschlandFunk radio, a lot of my time this week has been taken up by the opinion piece that Nature magazine asked me to write, and the various comments and follow-ups. in it i argued that we should criticise our own work much more, and much more openly, to help science move forward faster and straighter - there's a link to the opinion on the error bar's website

have a lovely summer in the Northern hemisphere, a lovely winter in the Southern, and a lovely damp, overcast season in Britain. i'll catch up with you at the error bar in about four weeks' time, with a 95% confidence interval of 4 to 6 weeks

conclusion

cheers!

sources

the science was by Holmes in Nature;


[🎶 OUTRO: "Cosmopolitan - Margarita - Bellini" by Dee Yan-Kee 🎶]

it's closing time at the error bar, but do drop in next time for more brain news, fact-checking & neuro-opinions. take care.

the error bar was devised & produced by Dr Nick Holmes from the University of Nottingham. the music by Dee Yan-Kee is available from the free music archive. find us at the error bar dot com, on twitter at bar error, or email talk at the error bar dot com