Have you ever driven to work so deep in thought that you arrive safely yet can’t recall the drive itself? And if so, what part of “you” was detecting cars and pedestrians, making appropriate stops and turns? Although when you get to work you can’t remember the driving experience, you are likely to have exquisite memory about having planned your day.
How does one understand this common experience? This is the question posed by Professor of Biology, John Lisman and his former undergraduate student, Eliezer J. Sternberg, now in medical school, in a recent paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Lisman explains that once a task such as driving has become a habit, you can perform another task at the same time, such as planning your day. But looking closer at these two behaviors, driving and planning, one can see interesting differences. The Habit system that is driving you to work is non-flexible: if the new parking regulations at work require you to go left instead or right, the likelihood that you’ll go right is very high. On the other hand, if you heard yesterday that your boss has scheduled a group meeting for noon, the likehood that you’ll plan your day accordingly is high. In other words, your non-habit system is flexible.
What interests Lisman and Sternberg is the relationship of the habit/non-habit systems to concepts of conscious vs unconscious. These concepts were popularized by Freud, who posited a duality of the human mind. Behavior can be influenced by both the conscious system and unconscious system. Freud compared the mind to an iceberg——with the small conscious system above water and the larger unconscious system below. Modern cognitive neuroscience now accepts this duality.
The mind can be described as having an unconscious and conscious part. And the brain can be described as having both habit and non-habit systems. Lisman and Sternberg argue that these two views can be merged: there is a habit system of which we are unconscious and a non-habit system of which we are conscious.
This simple equation turns out to have enormous implications for research on the mind-brain connection. Experiments on consciousness are done in humans because you can ask them to report their awareness, something you can’t do with animals. On the other hand, there are many invasive procedures for studying what’s happening in the brain of animals. So how can you study consciousness in rats?
Lisman and Sternberg provide a simple answer — ask whether rats have habit and non-habits. Scientific literature demonstrates that rats indeed have both habits and non-habits. For instance, when a rat comes to a choice point on a maze (and the reward site is to left), rats display very different behavior depending on how much experience they’ve had with that maze. With relatively little experience, rats pause at the choice point and look both ways before making a decision; in contrast, a highly experienced rats zooms left without stopping. Experiments have shown that different parts of the brain are involved in these two phases. Lisman and Sternberg make two conclusions: first, that rats, like us, have conscious and unconscious parts of the brain and second, that from experiments on rats we can learn to identify the parts of the brain that mediate conscious vs unconscious processes.
In their paper, Lisman and Sternberg also discuss potential objections to their hypothesis, and suggest further tests.
The largest, oldest body of water resides in space
And man, it’s really old and reallllly big. Scientists merrily hunting for quasars found this particular one 12 billion light years away - meaning the light from the quasar left it 12 billion years ago - meaning the cloud of water has existed for the vast majority of the existence of the universe.
And did I mention the water cloud is big? As NASA reports, it contains 140 trillion times the amount of water in the Earth’s oceans. It’s so big that it could supply every person on Earth with 20,000 Earth-sized planets’ worth of water, or 28 galaxies, each with 400 billion stars that each have 10 planets, with water. So where did all that water come from? As Charles Fishman explains,
The water is in a cloud around a huge black hole that is in the process of sucking in matter and spraying out energy (such an active black hole is called a quasar), and the waves of energy the black hole releases make water by literally knocking hydrogen and oxygen atoms together.
That’s well and interesting, but I’ll be honest, this is the part of the article that really caught my attention: “Scientists have found the biggest and oldest reservoir of water ever—so large and so old, it’s almost impossible to describe.”
Is that a challenge? How about the “mighty massive black hole’s phlegm space sphere”? Or “cloudy with a chance of a crap ton of water” or “waterworld” or “APM 08279+5255” (oh wait, that’s the boring name NASA came up with). I, of course, welcome your suggestions.
NASA and the Interior Department marked the 40th anniversary of the Landsat program, the world’s longest-running Earth-observing satellite program. The first Landsat satellite was launched July 23, 1972, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The 40-year Landsat record provides global coverage that shows large-scale human activities such as building cities and farming. The program is a sustained effort by the United States to provide direct societal benefits across a wide range of human endeavors, including human and environmental health, energy and water management, urban planning, disaster recovery and agriculture.
Landsat images from space are not merely pictures. They contain many layers of data collected at different points along the visible and invisible light spectrum. A single Landsat scene taken from 400 miles above Earth can accurately detail the condition of hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland, agricultural crops or forests.
“Landsat has given us a critical perspective on our planet over the long term and will continue to help us understand the big picture of Earth and its changes from space,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “With this view we are better prepared to take action on the ground and be better stewards of our home.”
In cooperation with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), a science agency of the Interior Department, NASA launched six of the seven Landsat satellites. The resulting archive of Earth observations forms a comprehensive record of human and natural land changes.
“Over four decades, data from the Landsat series of satellites have become a vital reference worldwide for advancing our understanding of the science of the land,” said Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar. “The 40-year Landsat archive forms an indelible and objective register of America’s natural heritage and thus it has become part of this department’s legacy to the American people.”
I want them all!!!!
Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror
“When people look at it, it looks crazy. That’s a very natural thing.”
This is a summary of the Curiosity rover’s descent plan from the top of the Martian atmosphere, from 13,000 mph to full stop with zero room for error. There’s 76 explosives, a supersonic parachute, and a completely insane skycrane involved, too.
Hooooooooly crap. At 10:31 PM, PDT, August 5th, 2012 … we will know if it worked. I can’t wait :)
Bonus: Best YouTube comment on this video? “I wish ALL my tax dollars went to NASA”