Nuking Dreams

This is from a recent issue of Science:

In 2004, a research team led by Pierre Maquet of the University of Li├Ęge, Belgium, used positron emission tomography (PET) to monitor brain activity in men playing a virtual-reality game in which they learned to navigate through a virtual town (actually a scene from the shoot-’em-up video game Duke Nukem). The same regions of the hippocampus that revved up when the subjects explored the virtual environment also became active when the men slipped into slow-wave sleep that night.

Well first, that’s pretty neat. I guess dreams aren’t a waste of time after all.

But: Duke Nukem?? In 2004? Assuming they meant Duke Nukem 3D and not the 1991 original, that game is almost 10 years old. By today’s standards, the graphics are horrible and unrealistic. You’d think that they would get better results using a game that resembles real life; and, um, less meaningful results with a game where you walk around a pixely city fighting cartoony 2-dimensional pig-people with a freeze ray.

Of course, if they really wanted a Duke Nukem game to use, that was their only choice. The sequel to Duke Nukem – Duke Nukem Forever – is one of the most hilarious things in the video game world. It’s been in development since 1997, and was scheduled to be released in 1998. It is still not out. It’s now almost 10 years over its scheduled relase date. What’s funny is that every few years, news of the game will come out, usually saying that it will be out soon, accompanied by a tiny screenshot. Nobody will admit that it’s been cancelled. The fact that it has “forever” in the title, and abbreviates to “DNF” (i.e., did not finish) makes it even better. Still, there are plenty of games, out now, that have gorgeous graphics which psychology researchers could easily use to simulate real life. Look at Gears of War.

And this, friends, is why spending countless hours playing video games is no more a waste of time than dreaming. It’s pretty much studying for school and my future career as a psychologist.

I’ve now outed myself as a pathetic geek to everyone on Facebook.

To be all intellectually honest, here is the full source of the quote in glorious APA format:

Miller, G. (2007). Hunting for meaning after midnight. Science, 315 (5817), 1360 – 1363.

Bonus picture:


So I was reading this article on the top 10 mysteries of the mind, and one of them was about the purpose of laughter. Nobody really knows what it is.

And when you think about it, laughter is pretty strange. Someone says something “funny”, and in response, your lips curl up and you start grunting. Why?

Some researchers guess that laughing signals to other people that you meant something “in fun”, but this seems kinda circular. People would only do something “in fun” if it was funny, and then that just gets us back to asking what funny means. Others think that laughter is a playful response to things that don’t make sense. Ok, sure, but what’s the point of going into a fit every time something doesn’t make sense? Since I’m in personality psychology, I’d also point out that there are huge individual differences in laughter. Some people laugh at South Park, while others think Hope & Faith is hilarious (note: I’ve never watched it. Maybe it is.)

My guess is that, like most things, laughter is complicated. It serves multiple purposes depending on the situation, and depending on who’s doing the laughing.

Hah! Laughter. It makes me laugh. LOLX0rS.

Book Review: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

I’ll try not to write much here, since this book has already been written about way too much. Briefly, my opinion is that this book doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground, but it puts some common arguments for atheism in popular language and is an enjoyable read. For the most part, it’s well-argued and well-written, and I would recommend it to anyone remotely interested in religion.

Where I think some people may have a problem, however, is that Richard can be a real dick about it sometimes. He tries to remain respectful to religion, and does OK for the most part, but the book is still full of snarky little comments putting down religious folk. While these can be funny, it would have been nice to see someone argue a position without explicitly putting down the opposing position.

In addition, sometimes he can get a little too informal and end up undermining his own arguments. For example, in a section about the consolation that religion can provide, he mentions that there are both happy atheists and miserable atheists; happy Christians and miserable Christians; etc etc. Then he ponders whether, in general, atheists are less happy than religious people, and writes something like “there might be statistical evidence for this. I dunno! But I bet all religions would be about the same.” Dude. You’re a scientist. Look it up. Especially in a book relying on the idea that beliefs should be supported by hard evidence, the least he could do is look up some evidence rather than relying on his hunches. (Incidentally, I did look it up, and as with most things in science, the link between religion and happiness is complicated).

However, don’t take this to mean that Dawkins is some extremist atheist who relies on blind faith as much as many strict adherents to a religion do. The cores of his arguments are grounded in scientific evidence and valid reasoning. In other words, his beliefs are based on reality – the same reality that anyone else can observe, verify, and would likely draw the same beliefs from if they really thought about it. Because of this, most of what Dawkins concludes is almost certainly true.

“Almost” is a key word here. Dawkins himself never becomes so convinced in his own reasoning that he leaves no room to be proven wrong. When speaking of the existence of God, he admits the old cliche that “you can’t prove a negative”; i.e., you can’t conclusively disprove God’s existence. So, he explains why there almost certainly is no God.

[TANGENT] I’m no philosopher, but I have always been confused by the “can’t prove a negative” thing. If something’s existence entails definite, observable consequences, and those consequences are not observed, then that thing’s existence is disproven. It’s a valid argument of the form “If A then B…Not B…Therefore Not A”. So if I say my god is infallible, and she said she would appear to me on March 1st 2007 in the form of a talking polar bear sitting on my front lawn eating Cheetos, and I don’t see this polar bear (which, by the way, I don’t), then my god certainly does not exist. It’s proven. Of course, this only applies to my god, not all gods, which is perhaps what the “can’t prove a negative” rule is really talking about. And perhaps it does not apply to the Christian God, which, I think, has been intelligently designed to avoid positing many concrete observable consquences, and vaguely defined enough to wiggle out of any failures to observe the few that exist. [/TANGENT]

Dawkins provides some good arguements showing why there is no reason to believe that God exists, and perhaps more importantly, shooting down some of the popular arguments for His existence. It probably won’t convince anyone to change their mind, but perhaps atheists can clarify their reasons for believing what they do, and religious people can better understand why atheists disagree with them (and, if they care about justifying their beliefs with reason, try to prepare counterarguments to Dawkins’ in order to strengthen their reasoned faith).

I would recommend the book to atheists, religious people, and people like me who are less easily labeled. At the very least, it will make you think about your own beliefs, which, I believe, is always a good thing.