transcript of episode 18: SONGS AND GONGS, 15th October 2021

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

welcome to the error bar: where brain rot is ridiculed

in this episode: the neuroscience of birdsong, nobel gongs for sensory neuroscientists, the corporate world of brain-hacking and the neuroscience universe loses three stars

here is the brain news on the 15th October 2021:



one of the troubling things i've learnt from this podcast is that The Daily Mail - the pantomime villain of Britain's press - publishes some of the best brain science news.

in ANOTHER headline without CAPITALS, the Mail tells us that scientists are using machine learning to decode patterns of syllables in bird song.

& that's exactly what the scientists did. computer scientists & neuroscientists in California took three male zebra finches - famed for their pretty colours & songs - implanted electrodes into the equivalent of their premotor cortex - that's an important part of the brain involved in planning movements - & studied the bird brain activity while they sung their pretty songs.

using advanced statistical techniques, they de-composed the brain activity related to the birds' songs into different frequencies, patterns & syllables. the paper focused on a signal called the 'local field potential', which reflects the coordinated electrical activity of a small chunk of brain.

the authors claim this work will help create artificial brain implants for people who've lost the use of limbs, or perhaps their voice. such brain implants could learn & reproduce the signals generated in the brain during complex sequences of movements, such as typing or talking.


is this the brain science of bird song?

i'm not expert enough to understand the novelty or implications of this research & at 38 pages the paper is long - but from what i could understand, this is careful, sophisticated & beautifully presented work.

brain implants in humans regularly feature in the popular press. in the last episode, we did not report the brain science story covered by almost all of the papers - about brain stimulation for depression - because the original article was not open access. sorry.

it is only through fundamental neuroscience research - like this bird song paper - that we have been able to develop brain implants & brain stimulation therapies for humans. i am a bird-lover & there will always be something unsettling about this sort of invasive animal experiments.

but this detailed study of three finches allows us to appreciate birds even more. the three finches had different songs, with different sequences & complexities of syllables. for their main statistical analyses the researchers were forced to choose the most-stereotyped, most-boring singer of the three birds - who they called z007, yes, double-O-seven. we clearly have much yet to learn about how even relatively simple brains produce relatively simple behaviours.

the Mail's article about this beautiful study is ruined only by its last sentence - probably added by an editor - in which we are updated about what Elon Musk has been doing this week 🤦.


a bird named z007 - bird bond - shows us the complex and beautiful relationships between activity in their brain & the syllables of their song. there is much yet to learn.


the science was by Brown et al. 2021: Public Library of Science Computational Biology; reported in The Daily Mail by @RyanMorrisonJer on 23/Sep/21



many, if not all news outlets reported the winners of the Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine. this year, it's for the molecular & biophysical mechanisms of our sensitivity to touch & pain.

the Nobel website points out that the last Nobel for bodily senses was in 1944 - to Erlanger & Gasser's work on the functions of the different kinds of sensory nerve fibres.

this new prize is first, for Julius' work to find & then understand the mechanisms that allow the sensory nerves in the skin to respond to chilli peppers - in particular to capsaicin, the chilli chemical that causes heat & pain.

second, for Patapoutian's work to find & then understand the mechanisms that cause nerve cells to respond electrically when prodded. these mechanically-sensitive structures in nerve cells allow us to feel touches & sense the position & movement of our bodies.

the original work was published between 1997 & 2015, in the journals Nature, Neuron, Cell & Science.


well done


reported in The Scientist by @tennchloe on 4/Oct/21, & The Independent by @_andrew_griffin on 4/Oct/21, & The Guardian by @iansample on 4/Oct/21

and the brain in brief...



in the latest episode of the BBC's new hit series, BREAKING: Bad science, in which desperate users seek to calm their troubled minds with the latest in brain stimulation hardware, the BBC shamelessly promotes two companies trying to sell you a headband.

it's not clear why the BBC sent their business, rather than science or health, editor to cover this story. the claim is that putting on a band that picks up electrical activity from the head can help you stay calm & focused.

this 'news' report names two companies that produce these devices. users of the devices, including athletes, business people & nurses, say they are convinced that they work, that they feel calmer & more focused when using the headband.


can headbands calm our minds?

there is an air of skepticism & an attempt at balance & critique in the BBC article, but overall this is a massive piece of free publicity for two profiteering snake-oil salesmen.

prompted by the ever-skeptical Professor Vince Walsh on twitter, i checked out the websites of the two companies for the scientific evidence.

company A's website shows lots of calm, focused-looking people living healthy & productive lives. the only hint that i could find of any evidence that backs up their claims was a small footnote referring to a survey done by the company's own researcher, claiming that people feel calmer after using the tech. but if you try to download the 'white paper' where this research is described, you are forced to agree to sign up to their mailing list. no, thank you.

company B's website is much the same, lots of calm, beautiful people getting on with their lives in a Zen-like state of focus & health. a browse of their 'frequently-asked-questions' & a search for 'science' within the site yielded no evidence that the product does anything but calm the nerves of the company's shareholders.

after this brief walk through neuro-marketing hell, i feel anything but calm.


instead of paying hundreds of pounds for a headband, take some time off, do some regular exercise & eat a balanced diet. if you are still feeling anxious or stressed, then talk to a friend, partner or doctor.


reported in The BBC by @KpWriting on 11/Oct/21, & Twitter by @vinwalsh on 11/Oct/21



the news media reported the deaths of three influential neuroscientists.

Robert Allen Gardner, linguist & ethologist, is best-known in psychology for his work with Washoe the chimpanzee, whom he helped teach American Sign Language. Robert & Beatrix Gardner raised Washoe in their home until she was five. during that time, Washoe is reported to have learnt 350 signs & to combine them into meaningful sentences. she was moved to the University of Oklahoma, where she died, aged 42, in 2007.

Mortimer M Mishkin worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA for sixty years from 1955 until recently. his latest paper was published in february this year in the journal of neuroscience. he is best known for his work with Leslie Ungerleider, who died a year ago, on the general organisation of the primate visual system. in their model, the primate brain divides the work of vision into two streams - one for identifying what an object is, the other for identifying where it is.

finally, if you're one of the 150 thousand twitter users who follow her, or the millions more who have been touched by her posts, last week the world lost Nadia Chaudhri. Professor Chaudhri worked on the psychology & neuroscience of drug & alcohol abuse at Concordia University in Montreal. in the last few months she has raised a million dollars [this & this] to encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to study neuroscience.

watch a tribute to Prof Chaudhri


rest in peace


reported in The Washington Post by @EmilyLangerWP on 6/Oct/21, & The Scientist by @Lisa831 on 5/Oct/21, & The Scientist by @Lisa831 on 7/Oct/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