A quick #NeuroThursday this week, on the topic you've all been waiting for: Harry Potter and the Principles of Neural Science!
Credit to @muchredink for suggesting I do this, based on my version of the "Harry Potter & [the closest book to you]" meme a few weeks back.
Not a lot of neuroscience in HP, it's true. But those stories do contain one striking element that has a neuroscience explanation.
Maybe it's just the movies, but did you eventually get infuriated by how Harry kept going "WOW MAGIC IS COOL" after 4 years at Hogwarts?
Nobody in real life says "wow!" over a slightly new variation of familiar stuff – and neuroscience can help us understand why not.
The answer lies in the reward system of the brain. Our brains have specific systems & circuits that drive pleasure and motivation.
In parts of that network, incl. the Ventral Tegmental Area at the brain's base, researchers have found an effect called Reward Expectation.
In a monkey brain (where you can record such things), cells in there activate when the monkey receives a reward. Sort of.
It's not that those cells are active for rewards – rather they activate when the monkey gets an UNEXPECTED reward.
Tell the monkey he's getting a fruit loop, then give him a fruit loop? Barely a twitch. But give him 2 loops and those cells go wild!
It goes in reverse too. If you tell the monkey she's getting a fruit loop, then cruelly deny the treat, those cells get extra-quiet.
(Neurons usually have a non-zero baseline activity level precisely to allow this: so you can move up or down from the default condition.)
What does this mean? Sometimes, how good you *feel* about something isn't about whether it's objectively good – it's about better vs worse.
This is fundamental to human (and monkey) behavior. It's why boredom isn't fun. It's why a gift feels better than a paycheck.
Reward expectation may even be critical to why we have curiosity, and why we take risks. New things are better than existing things!
And most importantly, it's why Harry Potter really shouldn't be wowed by a bigger-inside magic tent at the Quidditch World Cup.
The #NeuroThursday takeaway: our brains are wired to respond to unexpected events, good or ill. Including those caused by lazy writing.
Please send all Harry Potter opinion disagreements to me via email at comments[at]whitehouse[dot]gov.
For that awesome opening image, credit to this (largely unrelated) article: researchgate.net/publication/22…
If you found any magic in this #NeuroThursday, share it around, or check out my other writing! benjaminckinney.com/publications/
Here's the Storify of tonight's #NeuroThursday: Harry Potter and the Principles of Neural Science. storify.com/bckinney/harry…

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More from @BenCKinney

Aug 13, 2018
Handedness comes in two groups, "right handed" and "not right handed." Most people use their right hands for almost all precision movement, but the other group is a broad spectrum from weakly-right to strongly-left. baen.com/handedness
The way we describe and define handedness creates the effect @CStuartHardwick rightly notices. Culture defines how we talk about it - but the behavior is mostly genetic. The % of righties has remained constant across continents and milennia.
Hand dominance is a more squirrelly thing than most people realize. For example, righties are better at *some* things with their left hand... and *some* of these asymmetries flip in lefties. Take a few minutes on #LeftHandersDay to learn more!
Read 4 tweets
Aug 8, 2018
Quick heads up on the #BlackSpecFic report: the story counts for @escapepodcast @Pseudopod_org and @PodCastle_org are incomplete, and revisions will be forthcoming.
But you should read and learn from the #BlackSpecFic report anyways! The missing data is due to idiosyncrasies of the @EAPodcasts model, and has no impact on any other magazine's numbers.
Long story short, we treat reprints very differently from other magazines. For @escapepodcast specifically, they were ~45% of our 2017 stories, and our editorial process has one unified pipeline for originals + reprints together.
Read 4 tweets
Jul 23, 2018
Regretting organizing my two Worldcon panels this year. It means I'm not free to throw up my hands in frustration and give up on programming. The last 24hrs have been the last worst icing on a bad cake that's long been baking.
I mean, my panels will be awesome. But if you're skipping programming because you don't trust the con, you've made a sensible choice.
There are always more people who want to be on programming than can fit. There's no way to make everyone happy. I get that. But this weekend's screwups come in the context of a long chain of trust-erosion.
Read 4 tweets
Jul 13, 2018
So glad this one came out! "After Midnight at the Zap Stop" by @ouranosaurus is an awesome story - full of late-night grease, and the luckless & the worthy. But also because it's a #neuroscience teaching opportunity. Might even be a #NeuroThursday!
One offhand line explains a technology as "stimulating a particular set of mirror neurons." Which works as a story element just fine. It sounds plausible and authoritative! But as a neuroscientist, I have strong opinions about #mirrorneurons. I don't think they're real.
To be clear, mine is a controversial opinion. Many neuroscientists would disagree. But it's a hill I'm willing to fight on, especially given how often "mirror neurons" crop up in popular science.
Read 14 tweets
Jul 8, 2018
This Lindsey Sterling + Evanescence concert has been going for 3 minutes and it is already amazing.
Update: she is simultaneously dancing, playing violin, and kicking skeletons.
P.S. She too is a skeleton. Hard to be sure at this distance but I believe she has glittery bones.
Read 14 tweets
Jul 4, 2018
This phenomenon - when you look away from a moving thing, and you briefly see illusory motion in the other direction - is the "Motion Aftereffect," and it comes from some very basic brain maneuvers. Who wants to join me on going full #NeuroThursday here? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motion_af…
Most neurons in the brain (and elsewhere) do this thing called "adaptation," where they accept whatever's going on as the new normal. For example, if you sit down with your laptop on your lap, you'll soon stop noticing the weight.
This can arise from the crudest single-cell level: some ion channels in the cell membrane have negative feedback loops that self-dampen.
Read 14 tweets

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