Metaphor FAIL: "Neural Clairvoyance"

Caught this bad description of an otherwise very interesting study at Science Daily:

Neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center have, for the first time, shown what brain activity looks like when someone anticipates an action or sensory input which soon follows.

In the February 25 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, they say this neural clairvoyance involves strong activity in areas of the brain responsible for preparing the body to move.

The findings were made by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in a group of student volunteers who brought with them favorite music CDs. The scientists examined brain images during the silence between songs, and found it brimming with activity. Other students who listened to music they had never heard in sequence before did not have that same neural bustle.

"This now explains how it is that, even before an anticipated song is actually heard, a person can start to tap fingers, dance, or sing to the music they imagine is coming next," says Josef Rauschecker, PhD, director of the Program in Cognitive and Computational Sciences (PICCS), at Georgetown University Medical Center.

While it makes sense that song sequences can be memorized and thus anticipated by a listener, no one before has ever documented the brain activity that is underway in the silence between songs, he says. (Emphasis mine.)

Metaphor FAIL.

Clairvoyance is the ability to perceive things beyond the range of the normal senses. There is nothing clairvoyant about this. The participants had simply listened to their favorite CDs so many times that they memorized the intervals between the songs and that the activity in their brain reflects this knowledge.

This isn't ESP. It would be ESP if they knew what the next song would be on a randomly alternating play list. It would be ESP if they knew the song order without ever listening to the CD.

Our brains are very sophisticated pattern recognizers and pattern completers -- even when those patterns are organized in time rather than in space (such as completing a visual image even though part of it is obscured). It isn't a simple task. Recognizing complex patterns like these is a challenging thing to teach computers to do, but it is one that our brains do quite well.

For example, consider this famous visual illusion called the Kaniza triangle (from here):


You see a triangle because you brain completes the edges over the circles and forms an illusory contour. In fact, the triangle may seem brighter or in front of the background even though they are the same shade of white. Our brains complete sensory patterns that we perceive because we are often not given complete pictures (or sounds) in the world.

What is new is that the study shows a pretty interesting way to identify that activity. They also show that the premotor cortex of the brain is activated during this delay period between songs. That is interesting because the premotor cortex is active during the delay prior to initiating actions. The participants in this study -- as far as I can tell -- did not have to do anything while listening. So it is an interesting question to ask: what is the significance of that delay activity in the premotor cortex? Is anticipating "possible" actions?

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