Weekly facts and quotes, 11/3 – 11/9


For memory is so necessary that Plato was right to call it a great and mighty goddess – in my part of the world they actually say a man ‘has no memory’ to mean that he is stupid. When I complain that my memory is defective they either correct me or disbelieve me, as though I were accusing myself of being daft. They see no difference between memory and intelligence.

On liars, Montaigne


In Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota there were many, many German speakers. World War I changed all that.

“German is criminalized in 23 states. You’re not allowed to speak it in public, you’re not allowed to use it in the radio, you’re not allowed to teach it to a child under the age 10,” Gordin explained.

The Supreme Court overturned those anti-German laws in 1923, but for years that was the law of the land. What that effectively did, according to Gordin, was decimate foreign language learning in the US.


In the original screenplay the Alien is not an implied bioweapon but rather a member of a long extinct race who copulate within pyramid structures. Since the planetoid’s extinct alien inhabitants were capable of architecture and religion, the Alien, as initially conceived, was not to be an entirely hostile creature. As it ages, O’Bannon explained, the Alien “becomes more and more harmless. Finally, its blood-lust gone, the Alien becomes a mild, intelligent creature, capable of art and architecture, which lives a full, scholarly life of 200 years.” To add to the concept of the Alien becoming more intelligent and emotionally content as it matures, O’Bannon excused the Alien’s blood-thirst aboard the Nostromo as a sort of juvenile panic that, given the right environment, may have passed: “It’s never been subject to its own culture, it’s never been subject to anything except a few hours in the hold of the ship. Quite literally, it doesn’t have an education. The Alien is not only savage, it is also ignorant.”



Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

(A Little Book in C major (1916) ; later published in A Mencken Crestomathy (1949). )


Picasso called this Canadian 1952 stop-motion short the best film that was ever made.


As a brief aside, it came out a few years ago exactly how the UK got away with such a good deal out of the Maastricht negotiations; not joining the Euro, and without really making any meaningful concessions. John Major, then prime minister and new to the role had a senior civil servant (and expert in European law) John Kerr hide under the table during negotiations. Apparently Kerr secretly passed notes to Major throughout the meeting which pretty much gave him all the right things to say such that Britain got all it wanted out of the negotiations, without really giving anything away.

John Kerr was also rumoured to be, in part, the inspiration for Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister.

(alternate source)

What should we be allowed to forget?

Should we be dampening the emotional aspect of memory?

Two decades ago, scientists began to wonder if they could weaken traumatic memories by suppressing the hormonal rush that accompanies their formation. They turned to propranolol, which was already on the market as a treatment for hypertension and blocks the activity of hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine….Next, in 2002, neuroscientists reported that emergency room patients who took propranolol within 6 hours of a traumatic event were less likely to experience the heightened emotions and arousal associated with PTSD one month later, compared with people who took placebos.

The hitch was that in order to interfere with memory consolidation, propranolol needed to be given within hours of a trauma, long before doctors knew whether someone would go on to develop PTSD. But around the same time, studies began to show that memories can once again become fragile when they are recalled…Perhaps, researchers hypothesized, propranolol could weaken emotional memories if PTSD patients took the drug after they conjured up the details of a painful experience. By blocking the effects of norepinephrine and epinephrine upon recall, propranolol might dampen down activity in the amygdala and disrupt reconsolidation.

I liked this comment someone left on the article:

If the memory of my trauma were to be removed, I would make no sense to myself.

If we could edit our memories, what is important to who we are? Is there a threshold of pain beyond which we should not be forced to endure our entire lives? What was adaptive one hundred thousand years ago may not be adaptive in modern society.

Your mind is not YOUR mind

Sorry about the light posting these past couple of weeks, I went through an ultra busy phase.  I’ll start reviewing some social neuroscience research again tomorrow, but I thought I’d try a quick post about how intimately linked the mind and environment are.

Let’s start by asking ourselves what we mean by our mind.  Generally, we can reduce this to our brain, right?  Synapses fire, neurons compute and we think and interact with the world.  Most neurons receive input via electrical or chemical interactions with other neurons.  But not all of them do!  Clearly, I’ve been stressing the role of neurohormones and other peptides and how they relate to the brain; but the brain interfaces with and receives input from the whole body, so in a way the brain and the body are only somewhat distinct.  The body is a kind of fuzzy extension of the brain.  Our brain also receives direct input from the environment; the light hitting our eyes, the sound hitting our ears, etc.  One has to realize that our mind cannot exist without the input to the brain from the outside world.  This is one reason why projects like the Blue Brain are somewhat silly.

This philosophy is, I think, called the Extended Mind.  And this isn’t some wacky theoretical idea that will never affect you; we’re actually going through a technological phase that will radically reshape our extended mind.  CNet tries to give a good example of that:

Google, in essence, becomes a part of you. Imagine Google playing a customized audio commentary based on what you look at while on a tourist trip and then sharing photo highlights with your friends as you go. Or Google taking over your car when it concludes based on your steering response time and blink rate that you’re no longer fit to drive. Or your Google glasses automatically beaming audio and video to the police when you say a phrase that indicates you’re being mugged.

The article ends by being more than a bit silly.  But we need to focus on this part here.  We’ve put our memories on paper so long that we forget that we have an external memory (external hard drive, if you will).  These memories aren’t really well integrated into our minds – we have to go out and find and read the book or notes for them to be useful. Now, Google Goggles and such promise to fully integrate external manifestations of our mind, blurring the difference between brain and external world.

These external manifestations currently take the form of factual memories and actions.  But our remembrances are also a creation of our interaction with the world.  The Independent has a good article on how memories are not fully ‘our own’:

One 54-year-old identical twin, on hearing the other claim ownership of the memory of a roller-skating injury from when they were eight or nine, responded indignantly. “Well, that actually happened to me if you don’t mind… I think you’ll find if you think really hard it was me.” The other, yielding ground, eventually responded: “Oh well, I guess we get confused; it happened so long ago.”

Now, from the previous discussion, it should be clear that memories being ‘our own’ doesn’t truly make sense because our whole mind is extended outside of our brain.  Still, the idea that our memories are almost totally unreliable, that they can be fabricated and based on what we hear other people say?  That we can share memories?  That sounds crazy and a bit disturbing (to me at least!).  But it’s true: our minds are not our own.  They are a combination of our brain, our body, and our physical and social environment.  There is truth to the saying that no man is an island.