Scientific Spookiness…


Have you noticed that whenever you ask a scientist a question, the first word she or he utters is “So”? You can witness this if you watch programs like BBC’s Horizon or NatGeo’s Through the Looking Glass. Okay, I’m no scientist, but this is a scientific subject… So…

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of books and watching a lot of TV programs about the brain. It fascinates me. I guess because I’ve been an I.T. person for a very long time, and because basically the brain is an enormously powerful computer, that I can see a lot of similarities and would like to understand the brain better.

The problem is, only twenty years ago scientists would have admitted they knew virtually nothing about the brain. And today they would admit they know just slightly more than virtually nothing! Even so, the advances in research in the last twenty years have revealed a heck of a lot about how he brain works, what areas perform what functions, where memories are stored, how the parts communicate, etc., and so we are starting to get some rudimentary ideas of how brains do what they do.

One thing I find confusing is the names scientists come up with for the various parts. I mean – anterior cingulate cortex – where the heck is that? Anterior, I guess means somewhere at the back. And hippocampus. It sounds more like part of a university for zoo animals. But I’m slowly getting the hang of it.

One major difference between brains and computers is that neurons in the brain seem to be able to make connections to, and communicate with all the other neurons. That’s like all the binary digits in random access memory having little chats with each other. It just doesn’t happen.

I was stunned by a throwaway remark in one book. Imagine a brain with 500 neurons. There are more connections between those neurons than there are stars in the universe! And yet, a human brain contains not 500 but billions of neurons. It’s literally mind boggling.

I could go on and on about the things I’ve discovered, but I don’t want to lose readers, so I’ll try to stick to my topic of spookiness. A few stories have left me quite confused…

First, a very simple experiment will tell researchers whether what you are seeing makes you happy or horrified. It only needs a sensor attached to your skin to measure salinity. If you don’t like something, your skin becomes more salty, and the opposite if you do like something.

So … in one experiment, volunteers were hooked up to these sensors, while a computer randomly selected photographs to display. Some were cutesy pictures of babies or puppies … or maybe even kittens, but that for me would send the indicator the wrong way. I don’t like cats. Well, curried they’d be okay. Kidding!

The other type of pictures were of accidents or war photographs… definitely the opposite type.

The results were just as expected. The randomly selected photo caused the expected change in skin salinity, up or down depending on the photo.. But then the researchers wondered how long it would take for the skin to react. Which really means, for the brain to receive an image of the photograph, to decide what type of reaction to have, and then change the skin’s salinity. Yes, brains do all that stuff without you realizing.

What would you think? Five seconds, three, half a second? Brains are pretty fast computers don’t forget. Well, unless you already know the results of the research, your answer is wrong.

The salinity of the skin started to change three seconds before the computer showed the randomly-selected image on the screen.

Spooky, or what?

In another experiment, and this one has not been fully proven, but that’s only because it has to be repeated many many times in controlled circumstances, and I guess so far no one has bothered. But, university students where given a list of twenty words to memorize. The list was in two parts, and ten of the words they only saw once, and the other ten they were allowed to memorize. After thirty minutes of doing something else, they were tested to see what they’d remembered.

No surprises here. They did better with the ten they’d memorized.

But then the experiment was reversed. They were shown the twenty. They spent thirty minutes doing something else. They were tested to see what they’d recalled. And then they were given the list of ten to practice! Sounds daft, I know.

But what is spooky is that their recall of the ten words they hadn’t yet seen but could practice after the test, was better than the rest of the twenty.

Just like the other experiment, there seems to be no way this could happen, but it did. Seriously spooky!

Next; one strange thing about computers is that they can be influenced by the human brain. If you program a computer to do nothing more than make a random selection of 0s and 1s, you would quite rightly expect – over a long period of time – to get an equal number of both. And you do.

But if you put a large number of people in a room and ask them to think about the computer only producing 1s, in other words trying to influence it, there is a very small, but measurable and scientifically significant change. Just like the other experiments you say to yourself “That can’t happen… it’s just too spooky.”

This experiment though has been taken a stage further. It has been discovered that the stress level of the general population can influence a computer’s ability to be completely random. There are now computers around the world doing nothing more than selecting ones and zeros, along with researchers looking for unexpected deviations. That sounds like a job from hell, but someone has to do it.

So, for instance, when the last big earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, a computer there experienced a measurable deviation from an equal number of ones an zeros. And this seems to happen with all major disasters. A computer in the same country as the disaster will react the same way.

But there was one important event that showed-up on computers around the world. You’ve probably guessed, it was 9-11. Everyone was affected to some degree, and the computers showed a deviation that lasted for some four days.

Just like the first experiment though, researchers wondered how long it took for the computers to notice what is essentially an increase in the stress level of the world’s population.

The result is even more boggling than the skin salinity test. The computers around the world saw a difference in stress levels four hours before the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

So what are we to conclude from this combined spookiness? We can see into the future but don’t realize it? Time is not not what we think it is? Or that the old joke is true, that time was only invented to prevent everything from happening at the same time! When you add to this the quantum spookiness of photons being in two places at the same time, you have to wonder if we have any idea what’s going on.

But what I personally find to be the most spooky is that there is very little research into this spookiness. The results of the above experiments just seem to be accepted and swept under the carpet. It’s like it’s something no one wants to talk about, like at a family gathering someone says “Oh, old Uncle Joe, yes, we know what he gets up to but it’s best not to mention it.”

Scientists seem happier to spend gozillions on crashing hadrons into each other, or looking for the cosmic microwave background to determine whether the real age of the universe is 13.9998 or 13.9999 billion years.

Frankly, these are not things that keep me awake at night, but the thought that we really don’t understand time does.

Why are scientists so reluctant to investigate further? Is it something so mysterious that we are not supposed to understand? Has it been programmed into our DNA so that anyone who raises the subject is instantly exterm………….


...has been travelling the world for more than fifty years; having lived and worked in five countries and travelled to many many more. He likes to write about his travels - present and past - along with his other main interests of Information Technology and Motorsport, and he adds a few general twitterings along the way. More info than you could possibly need is available by clicking the ABOUT tab in the top menu line.

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