transcript of episode 17: HAVANA SYNDROME, 1st October 2021

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

welcome to the error bar: where brain quagmires are quashed

in this episode: the microwaves in cuba that cook spies' brains & make them hear things, dogs hearing their owners' voices in brain scanners & consciousness explained. again.

here is the brain news on the 1st October 2021:



the BBC & Washington Post examine the case of Havana Syndrome - the unusual symptoms reported by officers of the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (or 'spooks') working in Cuba in 2016.

people affected by Havana Syndrome report a variety of acoustic & other bodily symptoms such as buzzing or piercing squeals in their ears. some are affected for months. it's now a top security issue.

but what causes it? the BBC turned to James Lin, an Emeritus Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois in Chicago. during his research career, Lin studied electromagnetic radiation including wireless signals & microwaves, but - and this may turn out to be important - not human sound perception.

while no explanation of Havana Syndrome has yet been found & the Washington Post states that some theories even break the laws of physics, the BBC is undeterred in supporting Lin's claim that these so-called "sonic attacks" are in fact caused by microwaves, pulsed at the heads of spies from a distance.

citing evidence from the 1960s & 1970s, Professor Lin explains that microwaves pulsed behind a person's head lead to them experience clicks, buzzes & pings similar to those of people suffering Havana Syndrome. one proposed mechanism is that the microwaves heat up the surface of the brain - by one ten thousandth of a degree - & this heating creates a thermo-acoustic-elastic pressure wave that travels into the head to stimulate the cochlea & nerves for hearing.


is this the spy who cooked me?

i don't think so.

i wanted this story to be true & it is at least plausible. much of my own research uses powerful electromagnets to stimulate the brain directly & measure the effects on perception & behaviour.

stimulating the brain with a magnet about 20000 times as powerful as the earth's magnetic field for a thousandth of a second, can, if done precisely, make people see flashes of light similar to the 'stars' that appear around cartoon characters' heads after head injuries.

it *should* also be possible to make people feel touches or hear sounds by stimulating their brain electromagnetically. but i don't think we've done that convincingly yet. my experience of this method, using very powerful electromagnets, is that it's really difficult indeed to have any reliable effect at all on people's perception. when a very powerful magnet is right ON the head.

could an enemy agent, operating a powerful microwave gun affect the brains of people inside a distant building? maybe. as i read more, i wanted to believe that the truth was out there.


so i checked the original research.

in 1962, Allan Frey claimed to make both healthy & deaf people perceive sounds by firing microwaves at them. he described the rays as 'extremely low power,' & presented them hundreds of feet away from the person.

the curious thing is that, while apparently-normal-looking audiograms are presented in these papers (an audiogram is the graphical result of a basic hearing test showing which frequencies people can hear), there are almost no details about how the people's hearing was tested, what was the experimental method used, what control conditions were done & how exactly did they exclude the possibility of 'placebo' effects or biases in their reports.

there is a wonderful picture of the effective area for optimal brain stimulation to occur (it's just in front of the ears, shown in the episode image) but no details are given about how this image was created or what it is supposed to show.

i looked at five papers published between 1962 & 1975. frustratingly little detail was given. each paper built on or discussed the previous one, regardless whether it was published in the prestigious Science journal or some obscure academic microwave fanzine.

the physicists & engineers quibbled over the possible mechanisms for the 'well-established' phenomenon of microwave-induced-hearing, testing models as simple as crumpled aluminium foil & as complex as the dissected nerves & brains of cats. but they didn't seem to ask: is this real?


fifty years ago, some non-psychologists asked an interesting psychological question - can humans hear microwave pulses from a distance? the questions were asked badly; the answers were also bad. there's nothing to see & less to hear, here.


the science was by Frey 1962: Journal of Applied Physiology, Lin & Wang 2007: Health Physics, & Lubner et al. 2020: Frontiers in Neurology; reported in The BBC by @gordoncorera on 9/Sep/21, & The Washington Post by Andrea RodrÍguez on 13/Sep/21



among the most popular topics of neuroscience media stories is dog behaviour. the error bar has resisted reporting on almost all of them, just like it has resisted stories about elon musk or from the Daily Express. today i could not resist. i'll bite.

the Daily Mail reminds us that dogs really are man's best friend & that their brain reacts to their owner's voice the same way a human child's brain reacts to its parent.

in this study, dogs were trained to lie still - in a large medical brain scanner - & headphones were placed over their ears. during the experiment they listened to either their owners or someone they'd met only recently talking for about 5 seconds, either praising the dog - good boy! - or reading a recipe.

the experiment found that the auditory cortex - an important part of the brain involved in hearing - & the caudate nucleus - an important area involved in movement, learning, reward & punishment - were more activated both by the praise - good boy! - & by the owner's voice.


do dogs' brains respond more to their owners voice?


whether i'm just in a good mood, or if it's just the oxytocin & dopamine bubbling away in my brain after watching the Daily Mail's dog videos, or because both this study & the Mail's report are really quite good indeed, i'm going to give this study a big tasty biscuit!

this paper is a delight! it reads like any sensible-sounding brain imaging experiment, with all the things you'd expect to find - sparse sampling, anatomical template registration, linear models & familywise error corrections. but the participants are doggies!

the 14 dogs were given three months of training to lie still, with headphones on, in the noisy scanner for at least 6 minutes at a time. during the experiment this was repeated about 5 times while they listened to their own & another human talk nearby.

while i looked hard for things to find fault with, i failed. this is no 'shaggy dog story', but rather a heart-warming tail of human & dog, together at last in the brain scanner.


good boy!


the science was by Gábor et al. 2021: NeuroImage; reported in The Daily Mail by @shivalibest on 8/Sep/21

and the brain in brief...



promoting his new book: Being You, the New Science Of Consciousness, Professor Anil Seth of the Sackler Centre of Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex is popping up all over the media - in the New Scientist, the Guardian & the Irish Times, at least.

according to the media reports - some of which are behind paywalls - Seth argues that the very hard problems of human consciousness - that's how & why we feel subjectively aware & conscious of the world - are finally beginning to be solved.

another central argument picked up by the media seems to be that our perception of reality is just an illusion constructed by the brain.

sadly, i'm out of time to fact-check these large claims. instead, what i will say is that this book sounds like a great Christmas stocking filler for error bar nerds. you could listen to an undergraduate lecture of mine on philosophy of mind over at my youtube channel. or, instead, you can check out Professor Seth's slick website.

disclaimer: consciousness is a non-physical, immaterial, epiphenomenal emergent property of the physical brain which has nothing to do with microtubules. the error bar can almost certainly guarantee that all books that claim to explain consciousness - like Daniel Dennett's "Consciousness Explained," published thirty years ago - won't.


send free copy 😉


the science was by Seth 2021 ; reported in The New Scientist by @anilkseth on 1/Sep/21, & The Irish Times by Joe Humphreys on 16/Sep/21, & The Guardian by Gaia Vince on 25/Aug/21

[🎶 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 University of Birmingham's School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences. 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