30 years ago, I was working in a medical research lab near NIH and Navy Medical in Bethesda, MD. I was a lab technition. My job over the summer of 1986 was to grow bacteriophages to inject plasmid DNA into bacteria to reproduce and harvest to be used in gene splicing studies. I was so facinated by the existance and evolution of bacteriophages. I often thought they seem like a link between organic living organisms and crystaline structures of molecules and compounds that are considered non-living. Eitherway, these buggers are quite facinating and at times quite deadly.

Here is some more information from the Khan Academy –

A bacteriophage is a virus that infects bacteria

bacteriophage, or phage for short, is a virus that infects bacteria. Like other types of viruses, bacteriophages vary a lot in their shape and genetic material.
  • Phage genomes can consist of either DNA or RNA, and can contain as few as four genes or as many as several hundred^{1,2,3}1,2,3start superscript, 1, comma, 2, comma, 3, end superscript.
  • The capsid of a bacteriophage can be icosahedral, filamentous, or head-tail in shape. The head-tail structure seems to be unique to phages and their close relatives (and is not found in eukaryotic viruses)^{4,5}4,5start superscript, 4, comma, 5, end superscript.

    Icosahedral phage, head-tail phage, and filamentous phage.
    Image modified from “Corticovirus,” “T7likevirus,” and “Inovirus, by ViralZone/Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, CC BY-NC 4.0.

Bacteriophage infections

Bacteriophages, just like other viruses, must infect a host cell in order to reproduce. The steps that make up the infection process are collectively called the lifecycle of the phage.
Some phages can only reproduce via a lytic lifecycle, in which they burst and kill their host cells. Other phages can alternate between a lytic lifecycle and a lysogenic lifecycle, in which they don’t kill the host cell (and are instead copied along with the host DNA each time the cell divides).
Let’s take closer look at these two cycles. As an example, we’ll use a phage called lambda (\lambdaλlambda), which infects E. coli bacteria and can switch between the lytic and lysogenic cycles.

Lytic cycle

In the lytic cycle, a phage acts like a typical virus: it hijacks its host cell and uses the cell’s resources to make lots of new phages, causing the cell to lyse (burst) and die in the process.

  1. Attachment: Proteins in the “tail” of the phage bind to a specific receptor (in this case, a sugar transporter) on the surface of the bacterial cell.
  2. Entry: The phage injects its double-stranded DNA genome into the cytoplasm of the bacterium.
  3. DNA copying and protein synthesis: Phage DNA is copied, and phage genes are expressed to make proteins, such as capsid proteins.
  4. Assembly of new phage: Capsids assemble from the capsid proteins and are stuffed with DNA to make lots of new phage particles.
  5. Lysis: Late in the lytic cycle, the phage expresses genes for proteins that poke holes in the plasma membrane and cell wall. The holes let water flow in, making the cell expand and burst like an overfilled water balloon.
Cell bursting, or lysis, releases hundreds of new phages, which can find and infect other host cells nearby.
Image modified from “Conjugation,” by Adenosine (CC BY-SA 3.0). The modified image is licensed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Based on similar diagram in Alberts et al.^66start superscript, 6, end superscript
The stages of the lytic cycle are:
  1. Attachment: Proteins in the “tail” of the phage bind to a specific receptor (in this case, a sugar transporter) on the surface of the bacterial cell.
  2. Entry: The phage injects its double-stranded DNA genome into the cytoplasm of the bacterium.
  3. DNA copying and protein synthesis: Phage DNA is copied, and phage genes are expressed to make proteins, such as capsid proteins.
  4. Assembly of new phage: Capsids assemble from the capsid proteins and are stuffed with DNA to make lots of new phage particles.
  5. Lysis: Late in the lytic cycle, the phage expresses genes for proteins that poke holes in the plasma membrane and cell wall. The holes let water flow in, making the cell expand and burst like an overfilled water balloon.
Cell bursting, or lysis, releases hundreds of new phages, which can find and infect other host cells nearby. In this way, a few cycles of lytic infection can let the phage spread like wildfire through a bacterial population.

Lysogenic cycle

The lysogenic cycle allows a phage to reproduce without killing its host. Some phages can only use the lytic cycle, but the phage we are following, lambda (\lambdaλlambda), can switch between the two cycles.

^{7,8}start superscript, 7, comma, 8, end superscript
In the lysogenic cycle, the first two steps (attachment and DNA injection) occur just as they do for the lytic cycle. However, once the phage DNA is inside the cell, it is not immediately copied or expressed to make proteins. Instead, it recombines with a particular region of the bacterial chromosome. This causes the phage DNA to be integrated into the chromosome.

^7start superscript, 7, end superscript

Lysogenic cycle:
  1. Attachment. Bacteriophage attaches to bacterial cell.
  2. Entry. Bacteriophage injects DNA into bacterial cell.
  3. Integration. Phage DNA recombines with bacterial chromosome and becomes integrated into the chromosome as a prophage.
  4. Cell division. Each time a cell containing a prophage divides, its daughter cells inherit the prophage.
Image modified from “Conjugation,” by Adenosine (CC BY-SA 3.0). The modified image is licensed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Based on similar diagram in Alberts et al.^66start superscript, 6, end superscript
The integrated phage DNA, called a prophage, is not active: its genes aren’t expressed, and it doesn’t drive production of new phages. However, each time a host cell divides, the prophage is copied along with the host DNA, getting a free ride. The lysogenic cycle is less flashy (and less gory) than the lytic cycle, but at the end of the day, it’s just another way for the phage to reproduce.
Under the right conditions, the prophage can become active and come back out of the bacterial chromosome, triggering the remaining steps of the lytic cycle (DNA copying and protein synthesis, phage assembly, and lysis).

  1. Prophage exits chromosome and becomes its own circularized DNA molecule.
  2. Lytic cycle commences.
Image modified from “Conjugation,” by Adenosine (CC BY-SA 3.0). The modified image is licensed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

To lyse or not to lyse?

How does a phage “decide” whether to enter the lytic or lysogenic cycle when it infects a bacterium? One important factor is the number of phages infecting the cell at once^99start superscript, 9, end superscript. Larger numbers of co-infecting phages make it more likely that the infection will use the lysogenic cycle. This strategy may help prevent the phages from wiping out their bacterial hosts (by toning down the attack if the phage-to-host ratio gets too high)^{10}10start superscript, 10, end superscript.

^3start superscript, 3, end superscript
^4start superscript, 4, end superscript
What triggers a prophage to pop back out of the chromosome and enter the lytic cycle? At least in the laboratory, DNA-damaging agents (like UV radiation and chemicals) will trigger most prophages in a population to re-activate. However, a small fraction of the prophages in a population spontaneously “go lytic” even without these external cues^{7,11}7,11start superscript, 7, comma, 11, end superscript.

Bacteriophage vs. antibiotics

Before antibiotics were discovered, there was considerable research on bacteriophages as a treatment for human bacterial diseases. Bacteriophages attack only their host bacteria, not human cells, so they are potentially good candidates to treat bacterial diseases in humans.
After antibiotics were discovered, the phage approach was largely abandoned in many parts of the world (particularly English-speaking countries). However, phages continued to be used for medical purposes in a number of countries, including Russia, Georgia, and Poland, where they remain in use today^{12,13}12,13start superscript, 12, comma, 13, end superscript.
There is increasing interest in bringing back the “phage approach” elsewhere, as antibiotic-resistant bacteria become more and more of a problem. Research is still needed to see how safe and effective phages are, but who knows? One day, your doctor might write you a prescription for phages instead of penicillin!

Self -ness, the Etherial Quantum of Me and the Other Mes …infinitum

May 31st, 2016

The concept of a continuum of matter, time and energy has always taken on a spiritual and metaphysical theme for me. Ever since in high school when I learned of Bell’s theorem, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Schrödinger’s cat, or the concept of spooky action at a distance – quantum entanglement, I have really questioned much of my self-ness as a unit of being. Dawkins with the Selfish Gene and the concept of the unit of selection also put a biological spin on the theoretical physics (pun intended).

So if I move away from thinking about the outside of me, which doesn’t really make sense, but move more toward a mindset of understanding via my subjective brain experience, brain thinking about the brain thinking about the brain…never ending self reflexive paradox..maybe I am more than just me, but a few of me or infinite me, hummmm

Here is another similar video that I like that questions more of the same…

Neuroscience & Quantum Consciousness Videos

May 24th, 2016

Consciousness & Physiology I
Consciousness & Physiology II
Entanglement, Space Time Wormholes, and the Brain
Neuroscience of Consciousness
Consciousness is the Unified Field
God is in The Neurons
YouTube – Part 4 – Phantoms In The Brain (Episode 1)…
YouTube – Part 5 – Phantoms In The Brain (Episode 1)…
Where is consciousness?…
Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D. – Norepinephrine: From Arousal to Panic…
Dharol Tankersley, C Jill Stowe, and Scott A Huettel – Brain Scan Predicts Difference Between Altruistic And Selfish People…
New Scientist – Empathetic mirror neurons found in humans at last…
Dr. Christopher Reist – Psychiatry And The Brain…
John McManamy – Dopamine – Serotonin’s Secret Weapon
YouTube – The Neuroscience of Emotions…
How Our Brains Make Memories…
Alpha, beta, gamma – The language of brainwaves – life – 12 July 2010 – New Scientist…
TSN: Take the Neuron Express for a brief tour of consciousness…
LeDouxlab Web-AudioFearful_Brains…
Joseph LeDoux Can Memories Be Erased…
Zócalo Public Square :: Full Video…
When in doubt, shout — why shaking someone’s beliefs turns them into stronger advocates | Not Exactly Rocket Science | Discover Magazine…
The Brain: How The Brain Rewires Itself – TIME…


Perovskite the New Silicon

May 21st, 2016

Perovskite (pronunciation: /pəˈrɒvskt/) is a calcium titanium oxide mineral composed of calcium titanate, with the chemical formula CaTiO3. The mineral was discovered in the Ural Mountains of Russia by Gustav Rose in 1839 and is named after Russian mineralogist Lev Perovski (1792–1856).[1]This stuff is may impact microelectronics,  telecommunication,  superconductivity,  magnetoresistance,  ionic conductivity, and a multitude of dielectric properties. Because of the flexibility of bond angles inherent in the perovskite structure there are many different types of distortions which can occur from the ideal structure.


From Wikipedia:  perovskite is any material with the same type of crystal structure as calcium titanium oxide (CaTiO3), known as the perovskite structure, or XIIA2+VIB4+X2−3 with the oxygen in the face centers.[2] Perovskites take their name from the mineral, which was first discovered in the Ural mountains of Russia by Gustav Rose in 1839 and is named after Russian mineralogist L. A. Perovski (1792–1856). The general chemical formula for perovskite compounds is ABX3, where ‘A’ and ‘B’ are twocations of very different sizes, and X is an anion that bonds to both. The ‘A’ atoms are larger than the ‘B’ atoms. The ideal cubic-symmetry structure has the Bcation in 6-fold coordination, surrounded by an octahedron of anions, and the A cation in 12-fold cuboctahedral coordination. The relative ion size requirements for stability of the cubic structure are quite stringent, so slight buckling and distortion can produce several lower-symmetry distorted versions, in which the coordination numbers of A cations, B cations or both are reduced.

Perovskites have a cubic structure with general formula of ABO
. In this structure, an A-site ion, on the corners of the lattice, is usually an alkaline earth orrare earth element. B site ions, on the center of the lattice, could be 3d, 4d, and 5d transition metal elements. A large number of metallic elements are stable in the perovskite structure, if the tolerance factor t is in the range of 0.75 – 1.0.[14]

 t = \frac{R_A + R_O}{\sqrt2(R_B+R_O)}

where RA, RB and RO are the ionic radii of A and B site elements and oxygen, respectively.

Perovskites have sub-metallic to metallic luster, colorless streak, cube like structure along with imperfect cleavage and brittle tenacity. Colors include black, brown, gray, orange to yellow. Crystals of perovskite appear as cubes, but are pseudocubic and crystallize in the orthorhombic system. Perovskite crystals have been mistaken for galena; however, galena has a better metallic luster, greater density, perfect cleavage and true cubic symmetry.[5]

Structure of a perovskite with a chemical formula ABX3. The red spheres are X atoms (usually oxygens), the blue spheres are B-atoms (a smaller metal cation, such as Ti4+), and the green spheres are the A-atoms (a larger metal cation, such as Ca2+). Pictured is the undistorted cubicstructure; the symmetry is lowered toorthorhombic, tetragonal or trigonal in many perovskites.[1]

A Perovskite mineral (calcium titanate) from Kusa, Russia. Taken at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Cheaper, longer-lasting perovskite solar cells could be on the way

February 2, 2016

Perovskite-based solar cells have been hampered by poor durability, but a new compound developed at EPFL could lead to cells that are cheaper, efficient and more durable than current devices (Credit: Sven M. Hein (EPFL))

Perovskite solar cells are one of the most exciting green energy technologies to emerge in recent years, combining low cost with high energy conversion rates. Now, researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) have found a way to cut their cost even further by developing a charge-carrying material that is much cheaper, highly efficient, and could even help address the technology’s current major weakness by significantly lengthening the lifespan of the panels.Record efficiencies for solar cells tend to grab all the headlines, but it is other less flashy metrics – such as price per watt – that provide a much fairer assessment of whether a new technology can produce clean energy on the global scale. Perovskite solar cells excel in this area by combining low cost with efficiencies that have already surpassed the 20 percent mark, rivaling standard silicon-based panels while also being, according to a recent study, easier on the environment than any of the best-known alternatives in the solar arena.

But before perovskite cells can make it to mass production, one big issue still remains to be addressed: the outer shell of the panel, the function of which is to conduct electric charge, is made from organic compounds that will quickly wither away in real-life conditions, cutting the life of the cell to a few short months.

Researchers led by Mohammad Nazeeruddin at EPFL have now developed a new inorganic conductive material for perovskite cells that is cheaper, still allows for high energy conversion rates and, more importantly, offers plenty of wiggle room for experimentation, paving the way for longer-lasting, cost-effective perovskite panels.

The new material, dissymmetric fluorene–dithiophene (FDT), is said to cost less than one fifth to synthesize than previous compounds (US$60 versus $500 per gram) while still retaining a very competitive energy conversion rate of 20.2 percent.

“The previous material (Spiro) was rather difficult to synthesise and purify in large scale, preventing perovskite solar cells market penetration,” Nazeeruddin told Gizmag. “It is also well known in the literature that the stability of Spiro is limited. We are doing stability measurements of the new material: if the stability is established, the economic benefits would be enormous.”

While no determination has yet been made on the stability of the compound used in the study, two considerations leave room for optimism. First, the inorganic nature of the compound is expected to make it more resistant to weather and biodegradation. And secondly, the FTD core material can be reportedly modified with ease, creating not one, but a family of compounds.

The hope is that this amount of wiggle room will be enough for researchers to engineer a material that is both cheap, long-lasting, and still allowing for efficiencies that are competitive with respect to the final price of the panel.

A paper describing the advance appears in the journal Nature Energy.

Source: EPFL

Semiconductor Potentials

To the growing list of two-dimensional semiconductors, such as graphene, boron nitride, and molybdenum disulfide, whose unique electronic properties make them potential successors to silicon in future devices, you can now add hybrid organic-inorganic perovskites. However, unlike the other contenders, which are covalent semiconductors, these 2D hybrid perovskites are ionic materials, which gives them special properties of their own.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have successfully grown atomically thin 2D sheets of organic-inorganic hybrid perovskites from solution. The ultrathin sheets are of high quality, large in area, and square-shaped. They also exhibited efficient photoluminescence, color-tunability, and a unique structural relaxation not found in covalent semiconductor sheets.

“We believe this is the first example of 2D atomically thin nanostructures made from ionic materials,” says Peidong Yang, a chemist with Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and world authority on nanostructures, who first came up with the idea for this research some 20 years ago. “The results of our study open up opportunities for fundamental research on the synthesis and characterization of atomically thin 2D hybrid perovskites and introduces a new family of 2D solution-processed semiconductors for nanoscale optoelectronic devices, such as field effect transistors and photodetectors.”

(From left) Peidong Yang, Letian Dou, Andrew Wong and Yi Yu successfully followed up on research first proposed by Yang in 1994.

Yang, who also holds appointments with the University of California (UC) Berkeley and is a co-director of the Kavli Energy NanoScience Institute (Kavli-ENSI), is the corresponding author of a paper describing this research in the journal Science. The paper is titled “Atomically thin two-dimensional organic-inorganic hybrid perovskites.” The lead authors are Letian Dou, Andrew Wong and Yi Yu, all members of Yang’s research group. Other authors are Minliang Lai, Nikolay Kornienko, Samuel Eaton, Anthony Fu, Connor Bischak, Jie Ma, Tina Ding, Naomi Ginsberg, Lin-Wang Wang and Paul Alivisatos.

Traditional perovskites are typically metal-oxide materials that display a wide range of fascinating electromagnetic properties, including ferroelectricity and piezoelectricity, superconductivity and colossal magnetoresistance. In the past couple of years, organic-inorganic hybrid perovskites have been solution-processed into thin films or bulk crystals for photovoltaic devices that have reached a 20-percent power conversion efficiency. Separating these hybrid materials into individual, free-standing 2D sheets through such techniques as spin-coating, chemical vapor deposition, and mechanical exfoliation has met with limited success.

In 1994, while a PhD student at Harvard University, Yang proposed a method for preparing 2D hybrid perovskite nanostructures and tuning their electronic properties but never acted upon it. This past year, while preparing to move his office, he came upon the proposal and passed it on to co-lead author Dou, a post-doctoral student in his research group. Dou, working mainly with the other lead authors Wong and Yu, used Yang’s proposal to synthesize free-standing 2D sheets of CH3NH3PbI3, a hybrid perovskite made from a blend of lead, bromine, nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen atoms.

Structural illustration of a single layer of a 2D hybrid perovskite (C4H9NH3)2PbBr4), an ionic material with different properties than 2D covalent semiconductors.

“Unlike exfoliation and chemical vapor deposition methods, which normally produce relatively thick perovskite plates, we were able to grow uniform square-shaped 2D crystals on a flat substrate with high yield and excellent reproducibility,” says Dou. “We characterized the structure and composition of individual 2D crystals using a variety of techniques and found they have a slightly shifted band-edge emission that could be attributed to structural relaxation. A preliminary photoluminescence study indicates a band-edge emission at 453 nanometers, which is red-shifted slightly as compared to bulk crystals. This suggests that color-tuning could be achieved in these 2D hybrid perovskites by changing sheet thickness as well as composition via the synthesis of related materials.”

The well-defined geometry of these square-shaped 2D crystals is the mark of high quality crystallinity, and their large size should facilitate their integration into future devices.

“With our technique, vertical and lateral heterostructures can also be achieved,” Yang says. “This opens up new possibilities for the design of materials/devices on an atomic/molecular scale with distinctive new properties.”

This research was supported by DOE’s Office of Science. The characterization work was carried out at the Molecular Foundry’s National Center for Electron Microscopy, and at beamline 7.3.3 of the Advanced Light Source. Both the Molecular Foundry and the Advanced Light Source are DOE Office of Science User Facilities hosted at Berkeley Lab.

Continuum of Life to Death

How did matter in the universe get to conscious life stuff. Is being alive just complex organization of matter. I have often thought about these issues when I think about patterns in organic molecules and biochemical systems in life.

What Makes You You?

When you say the word “me,” you probably feel pretty clear about what that means. It’s one of the things you’re clearest on in the whole world—something you’ve understood since you were a year old. You might be working on the question, “Who am I?” but what you’re figuring out is the who am part of the question—the part is obvious. It’s just you. Easy.

But when you stop and actually think about it for a minute—about what “me” really boils down to at its core—things start to get pretty weird. Let’s give it a try.

The Body Theory

We’ll start with the first thing most people equate with what a person is—the physical body itself. The Body Theory says that that’s what makes you you. And that would make sense. It doesn’t matter what’s happening in your life—if your body stops working, you die. If Mark goes through something traumatic and his family says, CH“It really changed him—he’s just not the same person anymore,” they don’t literally mean Mark isn’t the same person—he’s changed, but he’s still Mark, because Mark’s body is Mark, no matter what he’s acting like. Humans believe they’re so much more than a hunk of flesh and bone, but in the end, a physical ant is the ant, a squirrel’s body is the squirrel, and a human is its body. This is the Body Theory—let’s test it:

So what happens when you cut your fingernails? You’re changing your body, severing some of its atoms from the whole. Does that mean you’re not you anymore? Definitely not—you’re still you.

How about if you get a liver transplant? Bigger deal, but definitely still you, right?

What if you get a terrible disease and need to replace your liver, kidney, heart, lungs, blood, and facial tissue with synthetic parts, but after all the surgery, you’re fine and can live your life normally. Would your family say that you had died, because most of your physical body was gone? No, they wouldn’t. You’d still be you. None of that is needed for you to be you.

Well maybe it’s your DNA? Maybe that’s the core thing that makes you you, and none of these organ transplants matter because your remaining cells all still contain your DNA, and they’re what maintains “you.” One major problem—identical twins have identical DNA, and they’re not the same person. You are you, and your identical twin is most certainly not you. DNA isn’t the answer.

So far, the Body Theory isn’t looking too good. We keep changing major parts of the body, and you keep being you.

But how about your brain?

The Brain Theory

Let’s say a mad scientist captures both you and Bill Clinton and locks the two of you up in a room.


The scientist then performs an operation on both of you, whereby he safely removes each of your brains and switches them into the other’s head. Then he seals up your skulls and wakes you both up. You look down and you’re in a totally different body—Bill Clinton’s body. And across the room, you see your body—with Bill Clinton’s personality.


Now, are you still you? Well, my intuition says that you’re you—you still have your exact personality and all your memories—you’re just in Bill Clinton’s body now. You’d go find your family to explain what happened:



So unlike your other organs, which could be transplanted without changing your identity, when you swapped brains, it wasn’t a brain transplant—it was a body transplant. You’d still feel like you, just with a different body. Meanwhile, your old body would not be you—it would be Bill Clinton. So what makes you you must be your brain. The Brain Theory says that wherever the brain goes, you go—even if it goes into someone else’s skull.

The Data Theory

Consider this—

What if the mad scientist, after capturing you and Bill Clinton, instead of swapping your physical brains, just hooks up a computer to each of your brains, copies every single bit of data in each one, then wipes both of your brains completely clean, and then copies each of your brain data onto the other person’s physical brain? So you both wake up, both with your own physical brains in your head, but you’re not in your body—you’re in Bill Clinton’s body. After all, Bill Clinton’s brain now has all of your thoughts, memories, fears, hopes, dreams, emotions, and personality. The body and brain of Bill Clinton would still run out and go freak out about this to your family. And again, after a significant amount of convincing, they would indeed accept that you were alive, just in Bill Clinton’s body.

Philosopher John Locke’s memory theory of personal identity suggests that what makes you you is your memory of your experiences. Under Locke’s definition of you, the new Bill Clinton in this latest example is you, despite not containing any part of your physical body, not even your brain. 

This suggests a new theory we’ll call The Data Theory, which says that you’re not your physical body at all. Maybe what makes you you is your brain’s data—your memories and your personality.

We seem to be honing in on something, but the best way to get to concrete answers is by testing these theories in hypothetical scenarios. Here’s an interesting one, conceived by British philosopher Bernard Williams:

The Torture Test

Situation 1: The mad scientist kidnaps you and Clinton, switches your brain data with Clinton’s, as in the latest example, wakes you both up, and then walks over to the body of Clinton, where you supposedly reside, and says, “I’m now going to horribly torture one of you—which one should I torture?”

What’s your instinct? Mine is to point at my old body, where I no longer reside, and say, “Him.” And if I believe in the Data Theory, then I’ve made a good choice. My brain data is in Clinton’s body, so I’m now in Clinton’s body, so who cares about my body anymore? Sure, it sucks for anyone to be tortured, but if it’s between me and Bill Clinton, I’m choosing him.

Situation 2: The mad scientist captures you and Clinton, except he doesn’t do anything to your brains yet. He comes over to you—normal you with your normal brain and body—and asks you a series of questions. Here’s how I think it would play out:

Mad Scientist: Okay so here’s what’s happening. I’m gonna torture one of you. Who should I torture?

You: [pointing at Clinton] Him.

MS: Okay but there’s something else—before I torture whoever I torture, I’m going to wipe both of your brains of all memories, so when the torture is happening, neither of you will remember who you were before this. Does that change your choice?

You: Nope. Torture him.

MS: One more thing—before the torture happens, not only am I going to wipe your brains clean, I’m going to build new circuitry into your brain that will convince you that you’re Bill Clinton. By the time I’m done, you’ll think you’re Bill Clinton and you’ll have all of his memories and his full personality and anything else that he thinks or feels or knows. I’ll do the same thing to him, convincing him he’s you. Does that change your choice?

You: Um, no. Regardless of any delusion I’m going through and no matter who I think I am, I don’t want to go through the horrible pain of being tortured. Insane people still feel pain. Torture him.

So in the first situation, I think you’d choose to have your own body tortured. But in the second, I think you’d choose Bill Clinton’s body—at least I would. But the thing is—they’re the exact same example. In both cases, before any torture happens, Clinton’s brain ends up with all of your data and your brain has his—the difference is just at which point in the process you were asked to decide. In both cases, your goal is for you to not be tortured, but in the first situation, you felt that after the brain data swap,you were in Clinton’s body, with all of your personality and memories there with you—while in the second situation, if you’re like me, you didn’t care what was going to happen with the two brains’ data, you believed that you would remain with your physical brain, and body, either way.

Choosing your body to be the one tortured in the first situation is an argument for the Data Theory—you believe that where your data goes, you go. Choosing Clinton’s body to be tortured in the second situation is an argument for the Brain Theory, because you believe that regardless of what he does with your brain’s data, you will continue to be in your own body, because that’s where your physical brain is. Some might even take it a step further, and if the mad scientist told you he was even going to switch your physical brains, you’d still choose Clinton’s body, with your brain in it, to be tortured. Those that would torture a body with their own brain in it over torturing their own body believe in the Body Theory.

Not sure about you, but I’m finishing this experiment still divided. Let’s try another. Here’s my version of modern philosopher Derek Parfit’s teletransporter thought experiment, which he first described in his book Reasons and Persons

The Teletransporter Thought Experiment

It’s the year 2700. The human race has invented all kinds of technology unimaginable in  today’s world. One of these technologies is teleportation—the ability to transport yourself to distant places at the speed of light. Here’s how it works—

You go into a Departure Chamber—a little room the size of a small cubicle.

cube stand

You set your location—let’s say you’re in Boston and your destination is London—and when you’re ready to go, you press the button on the wall. The chamber walls then scan your entire body, uploading the exact molecular makeup of your body—every atom that makes up every part of you and its precise location—and as it scans, it destroys, so every cell in your body is destroyed by the scanner as it goes.

cube beam

When it’s finished (the Departure Chamber is now empty after destroying all of your cells), it beams your body’s information to an Arrival Chamber in London, which has all the necessary atoms waiting there ready to go. The Arrival Chamber uses the data to re-form your entire body with its storage of atoms, and when it’s finished you walk out of the chamber in London looking and feeling exactly how you did back in Boston—you’re in the same mood, you’re hungry just like you were before, you even have the same paper cut on your thumb you got that morning.

The whole process, from the time you hit the button in the Departure Chamber to when you walk out of the Arrival Chamber in London, takes five minutes—but to you it feels instantaneous. You hit the button, things go black for a blink, and now you’re standing in London. Cool, right?

In 2700, this is common technology. Everyone you know travels by teleportation. In addition to the convenience of speed, it’s incredibly safe—no one has ever gotten hurt doing it.

But then one day, you head into the Departure Chamber in Boston for your normal morning commute to your job in London, you press the big button on the wall, and you hear the scanner turn on, but it doesn’t work.

cubicle broken

The normal split-second blackout never happens, and when you walk out of the chamber, sure enough, you’re still in Boston. You head to the check-in counter and tell the woman working there that the Departure Chamber is broken, and you ask her if there’s another one you can use, since you have an early meeting and don’t want to be late.

She looks down at her records and says, “Hm—it looks like the scanner worked and collected its data just fine, but the cell destroyer that usually works in conjunction with the scanner has malfunctioned.”

“No,” you explain, “it couldn’t have worked, because I’m still here. And I’m late for this meeting—can you please set me up with a new Departure Chamber?”

She pulls up a video screen and says, “No, it did work—see? There you are in London—it looks like you’re gonna be right on time for your meeting.” She shows you the screen, and you see yourself walking on the street in London.

“But that can’t be me,” you say, “because I’m still here.”

At that point, her supervisor comes into the room and explains that she’s correct—the scanner worked as normal and you’re in London as planned. The only thing that didn’t work was the cell destroyer in the Departure Chamber here in Boston. “It’s not a problem, though,” he tells you, “we can just set you up in another chamber and activate its cell destroyer and finish the job.”

And even though this isn’t anything that wasn’t going to happen before—in fact, you have your cells destroyed twice every day—suddenly, you’re horrified at the prospect.

“Wait—no—I don’t want to do that—I’ll die.”

The supervisor explains, “You won’t die sir. You just saw yourself in London—you’re alive and well.”

“But that’s not me. That’s a replica of me—an imposterI’m the real me—you can’t destroy my cells!”

The supervisor and the woman glance awkwardly at each other. “I’m really sorry sir—but we’re obligated by law to destroy your cells. We’re not allowed to form the body of a person in an Arrival Chamber without destroying the body’s cells in a Departure Chamber.”

You stare at them in disbelief and then run for the door. Two security guards come out and grab you. They drag you toward a chamber that will destroy your cells, as you kick and scream…


If you’re like me, in the first part of that story, you were pretty into the idea of teletransportation, and by the end, you were not.

The question the story poses is, “Is teletransportation, as described in this experiment, a form of traveling? Or a form of dying?

This question might have been ambiguous when I first described it—it might have even felt like a perfectly safe way of traveling—but by the end, it felt much more like a form of dying. Which means that every day when you commute to work from Boston to London, you’re killed by the cell destroyer, and a replica of you is created.1 To the people who know you, you survive teletransportation just fine, the same way your wife seems just fine when she arrives home to you after her own teletransportation, talking about her day and discussing plans for next week. But is it possible that your wife was actually killed that day, and the person you’re kissing now was just created a few minutes ago?

Well again, it depends on what you are. Someone who believes in the Data Theory would posit that London you is you as much as Boston you, and that teletransportation is perfectly survivable. But we all related to Boston you’s terror at the end there—could anyone really believe that he should be fine with being obliterated just because his data is safe and alive over in London? Further, if the teletransporter could beam your data to London for reassembly, couldn’t it also beam it to 50 other cities and create 50 new versions of you? You’d be hard-pressed to argue that those were all you. To me, the teletransporter experiment is a big strike against the Data Theory.

Similarly, if there were an Ego Theory that suggests that you are simply your ego, the teletransporter does away nicely with that. Thinking about London Tim, I realize that “Tim Urban” surviving means nothing to me. The fact that my replica in London will stay friends with my friends, keep Wait But Why going with his Tuesday-ish posts, and live out the whole life I was planning for myself—the fact that no one will miss me or even realize that I’m dead, the same way in the story you never felt like you lost your wife—does almost nothing for me. I don’t care about Tim Urban surviving. I care about me surviving.

All of this seems like very good news for Body Theory and Brain Theory. But let’s not judge things yet. Here’s another experiment:

The Split Brain Experiment

A cool fact about the human brain is that the left and right hemispheres function as their own little worlds, each with their own things to worry about, but if you remove one half of someone’s brain, they can sometimes not only survive, but their remaining brain half can learn to do many of the other half’s previous jobs, allowing the person to live a normal life. That’s right—you could lose half of your brain and potentially function normally.

So say you have an identical twin sibling named Bob who developes a fatal brain defect. You decide to save him by giving him half of your brain. Doctors operate on both of you, discarding his brain and replacing it with half of yours. When you wake up, you feel normal and like yourself. Your twin (who already has your identical DNA because you’re twins) wakes up with your exact personality and memories.


When you realize this, you panic for a minute that your twin now knows all of your innermost thoughts and feelings on absolutely everything, and you’re about to make him promise not to tell anyone, when it hits you that you of course don’t have to tell him. He’s not your twin—he’s you. He’s just as intent on your privacy as you are, because it’s his privacy too.

As you look over at the guy who used to be Bob and watch him freak out that he’s in Bob’s body now instead of his own, you wonder, “Why did I stay in my body and not wake up in Bob’s? Both brain halves are me, so why am I distinctly in my body and not seeing and thinking in dual split-screen right now, from both of our points of view? And whatever part of me is in Bob’s head, why did I lose touch with it? Who is the me in Bob’s head, and how did he end up over there while I stayed here?”

Brain Theory is shitting his pants right now—it makes no sense. If people are supposed to go wherever their brains go, what happens when a brain is in two places at once? Data Theory, who was badly embarrassed by the teletransporter experiment, is doing no better in this one.

But Body Theory—who was shot down at the very beginning of the post—is suddenly all smug and thrilled with himself. Body Theory says “Of course you woke up in your own body—your body is what makes you you. Your brain is just the tool your body uses to think. Bob isn’t you—he’s Bob. He’s just now a Bob who has your thoughts and personality. There’s nothing Bob’s body can ever do to not be Bob.” This would help explain why you stayed in your body.

So a nice boost for Body Theory, but let’s take a look at a couple more things—

What we learned in the teletransporter experiment is that if your brain data is transferred to someone else’s brain, even if that person is molecularly identical to you, all it does is create a replica of you—a total stranger who happens to be just like you. There’s something distinct about Boston you that was important. When you were recreated out of different atoms in London, something critical was lost—something that made you you.

Body Theory (and Brain Theory) would point out that the only difference between Boston you and London you was that London you was made out of different atoms. London you’s body was like your body, but it was still made of different material. So is that it? Could Body Theory explain this too?

Let’s put it through two tests:

The Cell Replacement Test

Imagine I replace a cell in your arm with an identical, but foreign, replica cell. Are you not you anymore? Of course you are. But how about if, one at a time, I replace 1% of your cells with replicas? How about 10%? 30%? 60%? The London you was composed of 100% replacement cells, and we decided that that was not you—so when does the “crossover” happen? How many of your cells do we need to swap out for replicas before you “die” and what’s remaining becomes your replica?

Something feels off with this, right? Considering that the cells we’re replacing are molecularly identical to those we’re removing, and someone watching this all happen wouldn’t even notice anything change about you, it seem implausible that you’d ever die during this process, even if we eventually replaced 100% of your cells with replicas. But if your cells are eventually all replicas, how are you any different from London you?

The Body Scattering Test 

Imagine going into an Atom Scattering Chamber that completely disassembles your body’s atoms so that all that’s left in the room is a light gas of floating atoms—and then a few minutes later, it perfectly reassembles the atoms into you, and you walk out feeling totally normal.


Is that still you? Or did you die when you were disassembled and what has been reassembled is a replica of you? It doesn’t really make sense that this reassembled you would be the real you and London you would be a replica, when the only difference between the two cases is that the scattering room preserves your exact atoms and the London chamber assembles you out of different atoms. At their most basic level, atoms are identical—a hydrogen atom from your body is identical in every way to a hydrogen atom in London. Given that, I’d say that if we’re deciding London you is not you, then reassembled you is probably not you either.

The first thing these two tests illustrate is that the key distinction between Boston you and London you isn’t about the presence or absence of your actual, physical cells. The Cell Replacement Test suggests that you can gradually replace much or all of your body with replica material and still be you, and the Body Scattering Test suggests that you can go through a scatter and a reassembly, even with all of your original physical material, and be no more you than the you in London. Not looking great for Body Theory anymore.

The second thing these tests reveal is that the difference between Boston and London you might not be the nature of the particular atoms or cells involved, but about continuity. The Cell Replacement Test might have left you intact because it changed you gradually, one cell at a time. And if the Body Scattering Test were the end of you, maybe it’s because it happened all at the same time, breaking thecontinuity of you. This could also explain why the teletransporter might be a murder machine—London you has no continuity with your previous life.

So could it be that we’ve been off the whole time pitting the brain, the body, and the personality and memories against each other? Could it be that anytime you relocate your brain, or disassemble your atoms all at once, transfer your brain data onto a new brain, etc., you lose you because maybe, you’re not defined by any of these things on their own, but rather by a long and unbroken string of continuous existence?


A few years ago, my late grandfather, in his 90s and suffering from dementia, pointed at a picture on the wall of himself as a six-year-old. “That’s me!” he explained.

He was right. But come on. It seems ridiculous that the six-year-old in the picture and the extremely old man standing next to me could be the same person. Those two people had nothing in common. Physically, they were vastly different—almost every cell in the six-year-old’s body died decades ago. As far as their personalities—we can agree that they wouldn’t have been friends. And they shared almost no common brain data at all. Any 90-year-old man on the street is much more similar to my grandfather than that six-year-old.

But remember—maybe it’s not about similarity, but about continuity. If similarity were enough to define you, Boston you and London you, who are identical, would be the same person. The thing that my grandfather shared with the six-year-old in the picture is something he shared with no one else on Earth—they were connected to each other by a long, unbroken string of continuous existence. As an old man, he may not know anything about that six-year-old boy, but he knows something about himself as an 89-year-old, and that 89-year-old might know a bunch about himself as an 85-year-old. As a 50-year-old, he knew a ton about him as a 43-year-old, and when he was seven, he was a pro on himself as a 6-year-old. It’s a long chain of overlapping memories, personality traits, and physical characteristics.

It’s like having an old wooden boat. You may have repaired it hundreds of times over the years, replacing wood chip after wood chip, until one day, you realize that not one piece of material from the original boat is still part of it. So is that still your boat? If you named your boat Polly the day you bought it, would you change the name now? It would still be Polly, right?

In this way, what you are is not really a thing as much as a story, or a progression, or one particulartheme of person. You’re a bit like a room with a bunch of things in it—some old, some new, some you’re aware of, some you aren’t—but the room is always changing, never exactly the same from week to week.

Likewise, you’re not a set of brain data, you’re a particular database whose contents are constantly changing, growing, and being updated. And you’re not a physical body of atoms, you’re a set of instructions on how to deal with and organize the atoms that bump into you.

People always say the word soul and I never really know what they’re talking about. To me, the word soul has always seemed like a poetic euphemism for a part of the brain that feels very inner to us; or an attempt to give humans more dignity than just being primal biological organisms; or a way to declare that we’re eternal. But maybe when people say the word soul what they’re talking about is whatever it is that connects my 90-year-old grandfather to the boy in the picture. As his cells and memories come and go, as every wood chip in his canoe changes again and again, maybe the single common thread that ties it all together is his soul. After examining a human from every physical and mental angle throughout the post, maybe the answer this whole time has been the much less tangible Soul Theory.


It would have been pleasant to end the post there, but I just can’t do it, because I can’t quite believe in souls.

The way I actually feel right now is completely off-balance. Spending a week thinking about clones of yourself, imagining sharing your brain or merging yours with someone else’s, and wondering whether you secretly die every time you sleep and wake up as a replica will do that to you. If you’re looking for a satisfying conclusion, I’ll direct you to the sources below since I don’t even know who I am right now.

The only thing I’ll say is that I told someone about the topic I was posting on for this week, and their question was, “That’s cool, but what’s the point of trying to figure this out?” While researching, I came across this quote by Parfit: “The early Buddhist view is that much or most of the misery of human life resulted from the false view of self.” I think that’s probably very true, and that’s the point of thinking about this topic.


Related Wait But Why Posts
– Here’s how I’m working on this false view of self thing.
– And things could get even more confusing soon when we have to figure out if Artificial Superintelligence is conscious or not.

Very few of the ideas or thought experiments in this post are my original thinking. I read and listened to a bunch of personal identity philosophy this week and gathered my favorite parts together for the post. The two sources I drew from the most were philosopher Derek Parfit’s book Reasons and Persons and Yale professor Shelly Kagan’s fascinating philosophy course on death—the lectures are all watchableonline for free.

Other Sources:
David Hume: Hume on Identity Over Time and Persons
Derek Parfit: We Are Not Human Beings
Peter Van Inwagen: Materialism and the Psychological-Continuity Account of Personal Identity
Bernard Williams: The Self and the Future
John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Chapter: Of Identity and Diversity)
Douglas Hofstadter: Gödel, Escher, Bach
Patrick Bailey: Concerning Theories of Personal Identity

And a fascinating and related video
For a while now, my favorite YouTube channel has been Kurzgesagt. They make one amazing five-minute animated video a month on the exact kinds of topics I love to write about. I highly recommend subscribing. Anyway, I’ve spoken to them and we liked the idea of tag-teaming a similar topic at the same time, and since this one was on both of our lists, we did that this week. I focused on what the self is, they explored what life itself is. Check it out:



Science of Loving Kindness – Vagus Nerve, Mirror Neurons and Oxytocin

It is a misnomer to say that our mind is our brain. It is not. Our minds are much bigger than our physical brains. Indeed, they are much larger than our nervous system. The discovery of mirror neurons has turned all of our thinking about what we knew of the mind and the soul on its head. If it hasn’t, you aren’t listening to the Spirit’s rumblings. Mirror neurons were discovered in primates in the 1980s and have been studied since then. It is only in the last ten to fifteen years however that inroads have occurred in psychological research.

mirror neurons 2Mirror neurons fire when we observe another’s person’s behavior or emotions. They reflect the other person’s experience to us as if the behavior was one’s own. They facilitate empathy and allow us to enter into the story of another. As I watch you feel or behave, I feel as if I am feeling or doing the same thing. As you feel, I feel with you. As you accomplish victory, I can feel it as if it were my victory. As you experience defeat, I feel a feeling of loss or disappointment. Now, it has to be noted that I do not feel in the same way that you feel. My memory, in concert with my mirror neurons, recognizes your feeling, determining my emotion. If I am watching you experience or act, my mirror neurons reflect your actions or experiences to my system, and I feel emotions as if I were you. Mirror neurons reside in the prefrontal cortex. When it is offline, mirror neurons are also offline, and empathy is no longer possible. This directly impacts our ability to love and move toward one another. If we are defensive, our amygdala is in control of our limbic brain we are not free to love.

Before we go any further, we have to talk about some chemicals that affect our brain and even function as a switch to give control to either the amygdala or the pre-frontal cortex. Once again, we are only scratching the surface of brain chemistry. Let me introduce you to three important chemicals that play important roles in our ability to love: Cortisol — the chemical that surrounds the amygdala determining how on edge we are; dopamine — the chemical that determines our peacefulness; and, oxytocin – the chemical that helps us feel connected to another human being. Though all of these chemicals impact the mind’s function, none of them are exclusively triggered or regulated by the brain. The Vagus Nerve plays a role in how they are produced and controlled.

Vagus Nerve

The Vagus Nerve runs from the brain stem (which handles all your automatic body functions such as heart rate, body heating and cooling, hiccups and yawns, and elimination system functions) through the back of the throat through the pulmonary and cardiovascular centers and down into the intestines. It is the reason that our throats get dry, or our stomach is tied up in knots. It is the reason our heart races, we catch our breath, can’t speak, and have digestive issues. It also affects how much cortisol, dopamine, and oxytocin is created and sent to the brain to regulate or stimulate emotion.

Vagus nerve 2The Vagus Nerve is not a one-directional, body-to-brain- freeway. It carries information both ways. Trauma and shame travel down the Vagus Nerve, from the brain into the body lodging there. Because of this, our bodies “remember” better than our brains. As Dr. Dan Allender says in nearly every class he teaches, “All memory is a myth.” 1  While our right, limbic brains store images, smells, sounds and feelings arising from those events, the narrative our mind holds is strictly a memory of our last thought of the event, rather than the event itself. It is our bodies that store the feelings that arise from or are inflicted directly from the experience. Because of this, our bodies hold our best memory of it, even if we cannot remember any of the narratives.

Because of this, if we hope to love people who are victims of trauma, or who are suffering from chronic shame, merely helping our clients change their thoughts will have little impact. If we are limited or focus on this modality, our attempts to love our clients well may cause harm. This is also why Evidenced Based Theories (CBT, ACT, and DBT, etc.) that are very helpful in addressing problem behaviors and addictions, as well as creating psychic space for work deeper work to be done, can retraumatize someone who is suffering from either early, chronic PTSD or chronic shame. Their thoughts are not the problem their non-verbal memory that is stored in the right limbic brain, brainstem, and the body is. To love these people well, we have to rethink how we work.

Trauma, Health, and the Vagus Nerve

Vagus Nerve Stimulation

When working with clients with chronic trauma I commonly hear stories of seizures, migraines, gastrointestinal problems, and autoimmune disorders. The connection between trauma and health is complex, not surprising because there is still so much to learn about our bodies. One component that has been in the news recently is the vagus nerve, an extensive nerve that is taking center stage as a potential “off switch” for disease.

I find this of interest because one’s mental health can have a significant influence on the vagus nerve. So it is no surprise that vagus nerve regulation can be important for responding effectively to the emotional and physiological symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

“Do you have a sensitive nervous system that adversely impacts your health? By developing an understanding of the workings of your vagus nerve you may find it possible to work with your nervous system rather than feel trapped when it works against you. Fine tune your self-care with vagus nerve regulation strategies that can be practiced in the comfort of your home.“
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Get to Know Your Vagus Nerve

neurons 3

The vagus (Latin for wandering) nerve is far reaching, extending from the brainstem down into your stomach and intestines, enervating your heart and lungs, and connecting your throat and facial muscles. Furthermore, Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory proposes that there are three evolutionary stages of the vagus nerve and that regulation of nervous system states is critical for the treatment of mental health conditions (you can read here in my blog about polyvagal theory).

Did you know that nerve fibers existing throughout your stomach and intestines are referred to as your enteric brain? That is because 90% of those nerve fibers connect back up to the brain through the vagus nerve. A key player in the body-mind connection, the vagus nerve is behind your gut instinct, the knot in your throat, and the sparkle in your smile. You can think of the vagus nerve as a two-way radio communication system helping you stay in touch with your sensations and emotions. What happens in vagus definitely doesn’t stay in vagus.

Vagus Nerve in the News

Vagus Nerve Stimulation Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Several recent articles have discussed medical interventions that provide a potential cure for many physical and mental health conditions (;, The vagus nerve is taking center stage as a potential “off switch” for inflammation related diseases such as epilepsy, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel syndrome. Regulation of the vagus nerve also plays a significant role in mental health care allowing you to effectively respond to the emotional and physiological symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

The field of bio-electronic medicine offers Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) as an intervention to treat rheumatoid arthritis, epilepsy and depression by surgically implanting tiny electronic devices that can send shocks to the vagus nerve. Further research is looking at noninvasive external devices, not yet approved by the FDA, that provides vagus nerve stimulation through the skin. The long term implications of these “electroceuticals” may provide promise for those suffering from chronic disease, depression, and PTSD.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation and Inflammation

Vagus Nerve Stimulation Dr. Arielle Schwartz

The vagus nerve is essential for keeping your immune system in-check. There is a close connection between chronic stress, immune functioning, and inflammation. In brief, short-term activation of your sympathetic nervous system releases of cortisols and helps keep your immune system at healthy levels. Long-term stress suppresses immunity. However, chronic traumatic stress has an inverse reaction, leaving your immune system unchecked which leads to inflammation in the body (you can read more here in my blog on chronic stress and disease).

Activation of the vagus nerve keeps your immune system in check and releases an assortment of hormones and enzymes such as acetylcholine and oxytocin. This results in reductions in inflammation, improvements in memory, and feelings of relaxation. Vagus nerve stimulation has also been shown to reduce allergic reactions and tension headaches.

The Goldilocks Principle

Vagus Nerve Stimulation Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Regulation of the nervous system relies upon the goldilocks principle. We recognize we are “too hot” when we feel keyed up, anxious, irritable, or panicky. We are too “too cold” when we are shut down, depressed, or feeling hopeless. Sometimes we alternate between the two which is like driving with one foot on the gas and one on the brakes. Practices that regulate the vagus nerve are aimed towards either relaxing or re-energizing ourselves depending upon what is needed to feel “just right.”

5 Vagus Nerve Stimulation Exercises

vagus nerve stimulation Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Unless you have a surgically implanted device you actually cannot directly stimulate your vagus nerve; however, you can indirectly stimulate your vagus nerve to relieve keyed up or shut down nervous system states. Remember, your vagus nerve passes through your belly, diaphragm, lungs, throat, inner ear, and facial muscles. Therefore, practices that change or control the actions of these areas of the body can influence the functioning of the vagus nerve through the mind-body feedback loop. You can try these from the comfort of your living room:

  • Humming: The vagus nerve passes through by the vocal cords and the inner ear and the vibrations of humming is a free and easy way to influence your nervous system states. Simply pick your favorite tune and you’re ready to go. Or if yoga fits your lifestyle you can “OM” your way to wellbeing. Notice and enjoy the sensations in your chest, throat, and head.
  • Conscious Breathing: The breath is one of the fastest ways to influence our nervous system states. The aim is to move the belly and diaphragm with the breath and to slow down your breathing. Vagus nerve stimulation occurs when the breath is slowed from our typical 10-14 breaths per minute to 5-7 breaths per minute. You can achieve this by counting the inhalation to 5, hold briefly, and exhale to a count of 10. You can further stimulate the vagus nerve by creating a slight constriction at the back of the throat and creating an “hhh”. Breathe like you are trying to fog a mirror to create the feeling in the throat but inhale and exhale out of the nose sound (in yoga this is called Ujjayi pranayam).
  • Valsalva Maneuver: This complicated name refers to a process of attempting to exhale against a closed airway. You can do this by keeping your mouth closed and pinching your nose while trying to breathe out. This increases the pressure inside of your chest cavity increasing vagal tone.
  • Diving Reflex: Considered a first rate vagus nerve stimulation technique, splashing cold water on your face from your lips to your scalp line stimulates the diving reflex. You can also achieve the nervous system cooling effects by placing ice cubes in a ziplock and holding the ice against your face and a brief hold of your breath. The diving reflex slows your heart rate, increases blood flow to your brain, reduces anger and relaxes your body. An additional technique that stimulates the diving reflex is to submerge your tongue in liquid. Drink and hold lukewarm water in your mouth sensing the water with your tongue.
  • Connection: Reach out for relationship. Healthy connections to others, whether this occurs in person, over the phone, or even via texts or social media in our modern world, can initiate regulation of our body and mind. Relationships can evoke the spirit of playfulness and creativity or can relax us into a trusting bond into another. Perhaps you engage in a lighthearted texting exchange with a friend. If you are in proximity with another you can try relationship expert, David Snarch’s simple, yet powerful exercise called “hugging until relaxed.” The instructions are to simply “stand on your own two feet, place your arms around your partner, focus on yourself, and to quiet yourself down, way down.”

Knowing practices for self-care are important. However, it is also important to know how and when to seek out professional therapeutic help. Asking for help can often be the hardest step. You do not need to walk the healing path alone.

  Vagus Nerve and the Gut of Gut Reactions

The vagus nerve is your body’s master reset button.  Vagus means wandering in Latin, so the nerve was called the “wandering” nerve for the circuitous path it takes from the brain to all the organs in the chest and abdomen. The vagus nerve influences heart rate, respiration, and digestion, but it’s also the brain’s way of monitoring what is going on with those organs.     The vagus nerve is your CEO of calm. It’s the commander-in-chief of your parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve has the important job of ending your body’s fight-or-flight response once a stress has passed.  That is why vagus nerve stimulation is  effective for mood, and has been approved as a treatment for depression. The Vagus Nerve arises from the medulla in the brain and passes through the skull down within the chest cavity where it branches off in multiple directions to innervate organs and muscles. th-30 80 to 90 percent of the nerve fibers are devoted to sending information from the organs/gut back to the brain.  The Vagus nerve is responsible for speech, swallowing, keeping the larynx open for breathing, slowing heart rate, monitoring and initiating digestive processes, and modulating inflammation, among other actions. The Vagus nerve is the main line of communication between the brain and the energy-producing digestive tract. It also relays information to the brain from what is known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) our “second brain” controlling the digestive process; it is made up of over 500 million neurons that surround the digestive tract.   Vagus nerve stimulation can also relieve migraines and quench inflammation.   Most of the traffic in the vagus (80% of its messages) travel upstream from the body to the brain. That’s why the vagus is so important for mood. It monitors the organs to determine if all is well, and when it is, then the mind can rest easy. Contented.

What will resetting our Vagus Nerve do for us?    If properly stimulated it can:      Turn on neurogenesis, helping our brains sprout new brain cells. Rapidly turn off stress, hyper-arousal, and fight/flight via the relaxation response. Sharpen our memories.        Fight inflammatory disease. Help us resist high blood pressure. Block cortisol and other oxidizing agents that age and deteriorate us. Block body-wide inflammation the major agent of aging and poor health. Help us overcome depression and anxious overwhelm. Help us sleep better.Raise levels of human growth hormone. Help us overcome insulin resistance. Turn down allergic responses. Lower chances of getting stress and tension headaches. Help spare and grow our mitochondria a key to our energy levels. Affect our overall ability to live longer, healthier, and more energetic lives.  Wow!

How to Activate the Vagus Nerve? This nerve can become underdeveloped/deactivated if the body’s in a constant state of fight-or-flight due to the stress and anxiety that comes with living in today’s society. This keeps the sympathetic nervous system in survival overdrive: your breathing becomes rapid and shallow, your heart rate increases and digestion becomes impaired.   Vagus nerve stimulation can be turned on by breathing and relaxation exercises… deep/slow belly breathing, holding your breath, cold water immersion, chanting…..

To practice deep breathing, inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Breathe more slowly.Breathe more deeply, from the belly. Exhale longer than you inhale.

 The acts of chanting, both listening and vocalizing, stimulate the vagus nerve through muscle movements in the mouth, like those important to speech and those that work the larynx for breathing. th-31     The nerve also connects to vocal chords and receives some sensation from the outer ear; thus the acts of vocalizing and listening can influence it.                                                                                                                         Another amazing fact about the vagus nerve is its connection to the seven chakras; these ganglions of nerves branch out to all of the seven centers of your body.   So working with our bodies chakra system by aligning and getting them spinning in the correct direction will also reset our Vagus Nerve.

How does mercury affect human animals and why is this important now? Amalgam dental fillings and vaccinations containing mercury specifically affect humans disrupting many metabolic functions leading to sickness. Ingested mercury blocks the action of several key enzymes in humans and  other animals.” Ocean level mercury has tripled so much of the fish we are eating is full of mercury. Once in the human body, mercury acts as a neurotoxin, interfering with the brain and nervous system. Continued exposure leads to the accumulation of mercury in the body.Exposure to mercury can be particularly hazardous for pregnant women and small children. Even in low doses, mercury may affect a child’s development, delaying walking and talking, shortening attention span and causing learning disabilities. Less frequent, high dose prenatal and infant exposures to mercury can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness.

 The importance of resetting the Vagus Nerve came through a shamanic telestic A key piece of intel for the human species at this time!   “The vagus nerve in humans is not directly involved in the management of body temperature. It operates more as an electrical switchboard, relaying information between the two branches of the autonomic nervous system, the enteric nervous system the organs and the brain.  Its main function in the body is to maintain energy balance, ie normal metabolism by switching connections between the organs and the brain through a system of neurotransmitters and enzymes.  It has been called ‘the mirror of the central nervous system.’ (It is also involved in the production of oxytocin, through the activation of mirror neurons.)   The mirroring attention is multi-faceted. Now that the Aeon Sophia is lucid in Her Dreaming, the mirroring function of the vagus system is activated at the level of the Gaia-Sapiens exchange, but She is not receiving sufficient data on human metabolic activity at a species level in order to maintain an optimum and stable temperature in the environment….. Some of the ways given in the tesletic session for resetting the Vagus Nerve were yawning, belly laughs, shouting, stretching back to look at the sky and immersing our heads in a bucket of freezing water, laying on the ground and looking at the stars (physical connection with the earth enables us to manage our own body temperatures efficiently.)

Secrets of the Vagus Nerve

July 2012 | TRT 6:17

Dacher Keltner shares his research on the vagus nerve, a key nexus of mind and body and a biological building block of human compassion.

Enter Oxytocin

In science, this hormone is referred to as the official neuropeptide of “attachment.” This article brings you up to snuff (the bulk of research on oxytocin is on the intranasal delivery mode) on the clinical applications of oxytocin replacement. You will learn that it is a team player with our sex steroid hormones, our ability to be lean and not mean, and as part of the Buddha (vagal) pathway between the brain and gut.9

Oxytocin is a peptide hormone. Peptide hormones are made of amino acids. A peptide is a link of two or more amino acids. As far as peptide hormones go, oxytocin is a small thing, with only nine amino acids. In comparison, thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) contains 201. Sometimes oxytocin is referred to as a nonapeptide, since nona means “nine.”

Oxytocin is historically appreciated for its role in pregnancy. It signals uterine contractions, lets down milk for lactation, and deepens bonding between mother and child.10,11 But there’s more. Emergent research and clinical evidence reveal ever-expanding possibilities for oxytocin replacement in the clinical trenches. For example, oxytocin therapy is being used to treat autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, obesity, addiction, erectile dysfunction, and orgasm disorders, and as a libido, orgasm, and emotional “bonding” enhancer.12-14

Viagra has become a household word. It’s an effective, best-selling sexual medication. Viagra has also been looked at for treating depression and other mental disorders.15,16 Why? It boosts oxytocin production.17

Oxytocin Receptors

Hormones are signaling molecules, or “e-mailers” in the body’s physiologic Internet system. Hormones are made in various organs throughout the body. For example, oxytocin is made in the brain. These hormones are then secreted into the watery highways of the blood, where they swim to specific tissues in search of perfectly fitting receptors. Receptors are proteins shaped like malleable satellite dishes. Hormones swim into their exact receptor. Once inside, the hormone docks into specific binding domains. Marching orders are delivered to genes. Based on these directives, cells take action.

Much of the cross-talk communication that takes place to nudge life to unfold is due to hormonal (ligand to receptor) and genomic (delivering to genes) signaling. There are other forms of signaling, such as receptor-free and nongenomic signaling, but they are beyond the scope of this article.

Oxytocin (OT) delivers messages to specific oxytocin receptors (OTR). We have oxytocin receptors globally in our human biologic real estate, not just in reproductive tissues. I have been using oxytocin replacement in practice for 5 years and have some startling case histories as well as some duds. Five summaries are presented later in this article.


Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus.18 It is made by the neurons of the paraventricular and supraoptic nuclei of the hypothalamus (the same areas of the brain turned on by orgasm; the bigger the orgasm, the more these cells are “turned on”).19,20 These hypothalamic neurons have axons that deliver OT both locally and peripherally.

The brain has high levels of OTRs to receive a wide array of signals. Oxytocin acts as a neurotransmitter signaling the amygdala (seat of faith vs. fear), the nucleus accumbens (sense of well-being), and the hippocampus (home of short-term memory and confidence).21 Oxytocin traverses cerebral regions by diffusing across neural tissue, like you would cut across lanes to get to an off-ramp on a freeway.22 There are OTR receptors throughout the entire spinal cord.23


Animal model research emphasizes a strong relationship between the expression of OT in the brain and the ability to have socially monogamous attachment behavior. These investigations began with the vole. It’s amazing research.

Two closely related species of voles have exact opposite relationship styles: one is monogamous, mating for life, while the other is promiscuous, choosing to be a forever player. What’s the biological difference? The monogamous prairie vole has many more oxytocin and vasopressin (a playmate with oxytocin) receptors and activity in the brain. In comparison, the polygamous vole has far fewer such bonding receptors, and thus, more sleuthing mating behaviors.

Researchers have gone to the trouble of reversing these mating behaviors. They accomplished this by reengineering Mother Nature. By altering OT genes, they could morph typically promiscuous male voles into becoming devoted monogamous voles, and mate-for-life type voles into tomcat types. How? They altered the numbers of oxytocin genes. By reducing or increasing oxytocin signals (and its cohort, vasopressin) in the brain, they could reproducibly alter biologic desire for either monogamy or bigamy (though some say this should be dubbed “pig-amy”).24,25

Moving forward from these findings, Young and Wang manipulated three attachment hormone musketeers (oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine) and influenced preference of one beloved over another. They “gene-jury-rigged” whom the animals would choose to mate with. They named this the neurobiological model of pair bonding.26 A number of researchers have pleaded the case that this is how humans basically meet, mingle, and mate, too.27,28

We know that moms and babes bond through oxytocin. Magnetic imaging of the brains of mothers who see photos of their own infants (compared with pics of matched control infants unknown to them) show that the areas of the brain that “activate” are flush with oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine receptors.29

It’s clear. Oxytocin deserves to be called “the cuddle hormone,” “the love hormone,” or “the cuddle chemical.”


Oxytocin helps buffer stress. It has hormonal influence over the hypothalamus/pituitary/adrenal axis (HPA axis). At various levels OT helps the host cope with stress and promotes anti-anxious reactions.30 In other words, OT signaling reduces the font size of suffering caused by stress.

Sex Hormones and Oxytocin

Sex steroid hormones – estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone – intimately interact with OTR and are part of sex hormonal influence over human emotions. Estrogens act synergistically with OT by enhancing its anxiolytic effects and increasing OTR levels. A single dose of estradiol increases plasma OT levels in women (one of the many reasons that estrogen replacement makes many women enjoy happier moods and avoid antidepressants) and a metabolite of testosterone (nicknamed 3beta-diol) has similar input in the brain and other critical areas, such as within the HPA axis.

Estrogen Receptor β

Estrogen has two major receptors that receive estrogen signals: ER alpha and ER beta. ER beta is an oncogene suppressor (protects against cancer) and anti-inflammatory molecule balancing out the pro-growth signals of ER alpha. Areas in the brain with OTRs stunningly overlap with exactly where ER beta-receptors live.32

Activation of ER beta normalizes HPA axis activity and acts to buffer stress and anxiety. Approximately 85% of OT neurons in the pituitary coexpress ER beta! There is grand crosstalk between OT and ER beta throughout the body. The multiple interplays are just now being explored. I prophesy that the “good” and “bad” roles of oxytocin and estrogen receptor beta will takes twists and turns because in some cellular places (such as the breast, prostate and brain), ER beta dominance (having many of these receptors) is what we want for tissue protection, but in other conditions (such as endometriotic implants and dysfunctional endothelium) this is not the case.

There also appears to be a “threesome” between a metabolite of testosterone (3B-diol – itself a promoter of ER beta) and ER beta and OT. All three synergize, especially in the brain and the vagus nerve.

Vagal or Buddhist Nerve Highway

In utero, when the fetus is developing, a mass of cells that are to become our brain and gut divide in half, and one cellular clump travels northerly to the brain and the other southerly to the gut. What connects the two throughout life is the vagus nerve. It’s the second largest nerve system after the spinal cord. It’s the longest cranial nerve, extending from the brain to the gut and other crucial organs. It starts in the brainstem behind the ears, travels down each side of the neck, across the chest, and throughout the abdomen. It connects the brain to the stomach and digestive tract and many other organs such as the lungs and the heart.

The vagus nerve is a bundle of multiple thousands of nerve fibers, of which 80% are sensory, meaning that these nerves report and reinforce back to the brain what’s going on in the gut and the rest of the body. It’s cellular Big Brother. The vagus nerve is a crucial part of the parasympathetic nervous system (though some is sympathetic, too). It is mostly the opposite of flight and fight.

Healthy vagal tone creates calm. Everyone has their own vagal footprint. The better the vagal tone, the less ruffled we are by stress and the more cast-iron stomachs we seem to enjoy. A healthy digestive tract is mostly parasympathetically “vagal.”

The healthier your vagal tone, the lower your level of cellular inflammation, or the faster you bring inflamed tissues back to normal after infection, or the more peaceful your moods or the faster recovery back to calm after an emotional storm has hit.33

Oxytocin appears to be a major hormone player traveling vagal highways, maintaining calm, hormonal satiety and peace, suppressing inflammation, and more.34 Being a hormone of connectivity, oxytocin upregulation in the vagal nerve – this massive internal feedback loop –  may be part of feeling well and right with the world. Meditation boosts vagal tone and oxytocin.35

Again, crosstalk abounds. The vagus nerve is not only flush with oxytocin receptors, this large feedback nerve also influences the number of estrogen receptors in the nervous system and brain.36 Remarkable!

Romantic Love

Adults shown photos of a romantic partner with whom they are “intensely in love” light up brain areas flush with oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine receptors.37

A number of studies have looked at mating under experimental conditions, before and after orgasm, and when giving couples nasal administration of oxytocin, which delivers it directly to the brain. These have been done in both observational manners (not randomized controlled) and in double-blind, placebo-controlled scientific experimental design. These studies are where the hormonal rubber meets the enhancement effectiveness road.

Oxytocin replacement has been shown to create more pleasurable orgasms and a stronger sense of empathy in both men and women. Men given OT intranasally report the biggest bang, perhaps since during orgasm they naturally make less oxytocin than women, so any bump up might be more noticed.

Since men produce less oxytocin, a bonding hormone, they are less vulnerable to intimacy attachment compared with women.38,39 The highest experimental recorded levels of oxytocin, by the way, were shown to be achieved in women who were multiorgasmic.40 The more oxytocin, the more orgasms – if a woman is capable of having these types of releases. (My theory is that all women are capable, but not all are hormonally replete, or in shape emotionally or physically, or they or their partners have simply not been taught how. I have a new book coming out that outlines exact details.)

Acedemia Posts (Mirror Neurons)


Mirror neurons are one of the most important discoveries in the last decade of neuroscience. These are a variety of visuospatial neurons which indicate fundamentally about human social interaction. Essentially, mirror neurons respond to actions that we observe in others. The interesting part is that mirror neurons fire in the same way when we actually recreate that action ourselves. Apart from imitation, they are responsible for myriad of other sophisticated human behavior and thought processes. Defects in the mirror neuron system are being linked to disorders like autism. This review is a brief introduction to the neurons that shaped our civilization.


Mirror neurons represent a distinctive class of neurons that discharge both when an individual executes a motor act and when he observes another individual performing the same or a similar motor act. These neurons were first discovered in monkey’s brain. In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex, and the inferior parietal cortex [Figure 1].

Figure 1

The mirror neuron system in the human brain. (1) SMA: Supplementary motor area, (2) PSSC: Primary somato sensory cortex, (3) IPC: Inferior parietal cortex, (4) VPMA: Ventral premortal area, neurons having mirror properties, BA: Broca’s area, WA: Wernicke’s

Originally discovered in a subdivision of the monkey’s premotor cortex, area F5, mirror neurons have later been also found in the inferior parietal lobule (IPL).[1] IPL receives a strong input from the cortex of the superior temporal sulcus (STS), a region known to code biological motion, and sends output to ventral premotor cortex including area F5.[2]

Neurophysiological (EEG, MEG, and TMS), and brain-imaging (PET and fMRI) experiments provided strong evidence that a fronto-parietal circuit with properties similar to the monkey’s mirror neuron system is also present in humans.[3] As in the monkey, the mirror neuron system is constituted of IPL and a frontal lobe sector formed by the ventral premotor cortex plus the posterior part of the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG).


Human infant data using eye-tracking measures suggest that the mirror neuron system develops before 12 months of age, and that this system may help human infants understand other people’s actions. Two closely related models postulate that mirror neurons are trained through Hebbian or associative learning.[4,5]


Donald Hebb in 1949 postulated that a basic mechanism for synaptic plasticity wherein an increase in synaptic efficacy arises from the presynaptic cell’s repeated and persistent stimulation of the postsynaptic cell. When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite a cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased. The theory is often summarized as “Cells that fire together, wire together.” This Hebbian theory attempts to explain “associative learning”, in which simultaneous activation of cells leads to pronounced increases in synaptic strength between those cells. Such learning is known as Hebbian learning.


In 1990s, a group of neurophysiologists placed electrodes in the ventral premotor cortex of the macaque monkey to study neurons specialized for the control of hand and mouth actions.[6] They recorded electrical signals from a group of neurons in the monkey’s brain while the monkey was allowed to reach for pieces of food, so the researchers could measure their response to certain movements. They found that some of the neurons they recorded from would respond when the monkey saw a person pick up a piece of food as well as when the monkey picked up the food.

In another experiment, they showed the role of the mirror neuron system in action recognition, and proposed that the human Broca’s region was the homologue region of the monkey ventral premotor cortex. Subsequently, a study by Ferrari Pier Francesco and colleagues described the presence of mirror neurons responding to mouth actions and facial gestures.[7]

A recent experiment by Christian Keysers and colleagues have shown that, in both humans and monkeys, the mirror system also responds to the sound of actions.[8] Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can examine the entire brain at once and suggests that a much wider network of brain areas shows mirror properties in humans than previously thought. These additional areas include the somatosensory cortex and are thought to make the observer feel what it feels like to move in the observed way.[9] Neuropsychological studies looking at lesion areas that cause action knowledge, pantomime interpretation, and biological motion perception deficits have pointed to a causal link between the integrity of the IFG and these behaviors.[10,11] Transcranial magnetic stimulation studies have confirmed this as well.[12]

Mukamel et al. recorded activity from 1177 brain neurons of 21 patients suffering from intractable epilepsy. The patients had been implanted with intracranial depth electrodes to identify seizure foci for potential surgical treatment. Electrode location was based solely on clinical criteria; the researchers, used the same electrodes to “piggyback” their research. The experiment included three phases; making the patients observe facial expressions (observation phase), grasping (activity phase), and a control experiment (control phase). In the observation phase, the patients observed various actions presented on a laptop computer. In the activity phase, the subjects were asked to perform an action based on a visually presented word. In the control task, the same words were presented, and the patients were instructed not to execute the action. The researchers found a small number of neurons that fired or showed their greatest activity both when the individual performed a task and when they observed a task. Other neurons had anti-mirror properties, that is, they responded when the participant saw an action but were inhibited when the participant performed that action. The mirror neurons found were located in the supplementary motor area and medial temporal cortex.[13]


Intention understanding

Mirror neurons are associated with one of the most intriguing aspect of our complex thought process, that is “Intention understanding”. There are two distinct processes of information that one can get observing an action done by another individual. The first component is WHAT action is being done? And the second more complex component is WHAT FOR or, WHY (Intention) the action is being done. Figure 2 is a representation of the consequences described. The complex beauty of the discussed subject is the second component where our mirror neurons premonate the future action which is yet to occur. Two neuroscientists[14] first hypothesized that mirror neurons are involved in intention understanding, which was later supported by fMRI study. In this experiment, volunteers were presented with hand actions without a context and hand actions executed in contexts that allowed them to understand the intention of the action agent. The study demonstrated that actions embedded in contexts yielded selective activation of the mirror neuron system. This indicates that mirror areas, in addition to action understanding, also mediate the understanding of others’ intention.[15] These data indicate that the mirror neuron system is involved in intention understanding, though, it fails to explain the specific mechanisms underlying it.

Figure 2

Understanding of “what” and “why” actions through mirror neuron system

In order to explain this hypothesis, a study[16] was carried out on two rhesus macaque monkeys [Figure 3]. The monkeys were trained to perform two actions with different goals. The schematic representation is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 3

The selective activation of different neurons in different goal oriented tasks

In the first, the monkey had to grasp an object in order to place it in a container. In the second, it had to grasp a piece of food to eat it. The initial motor acts, reaching and grasping, were identical in the two situations, but the final goal oriented action was different. The activity of neurons was recorded from the IPL, which has long been recognized as an association cortex that integrates sensory information. The results showed that 41 mirror neurons fired selectively when the monkey executed a given motor act (e.g. grasping). However interestingly, only specific sets (15 neurons) within the IPL fired during the second goal constrained acts.

Some of these “action-constrained” motor neurons had mirror properties and selectively discharged during the observation of motor acts when these were embedded in a given action (e.g., grasping-for-eating, but not grasping-for-placing). Thus, the activation of IPL action-constrained mirror neurons give information not only about, but also on why grasping is done (grasping-for-eating or grasping-for placing). This specificity allowed the observer not only to recognize the observed motor act, but also to code what will be the next motor act of the not-yet-observed action, in other words to understand the intentions of the action’s agent.

Autism and intention understanding

It has been postulated and proved by neuroscientists that the inability of autistic children to relate to people and life situations in the ordinary way depends on a lack of a normally functioning mirror neuron system.[1719] EEG recordings mu waves from motor areas are suppressed when someone watches another person’s move, a signal that may relate to the mirror neuron system. This suppression was less in children with autism.

Basically autism is characterized by two neuropsychiatric abnormalities. First is the defect in the social-cognitive domain which presents as mental aloneness, a lack of contact with the external world and lack of empathy. The second is sensorimotor defects like temper tantrums, head banging, and some form of repetitive rituals. All these are now suggested to be because of some anomaly of the mirror neuron development. One interesting phenomena in autism is the inability to comprehend abstract reasoning and metaphors, which in normal humans is subserved by left supramarginal gyrus rich in mirror neurons. Mirror neuron abnormalities have also been blamed for a number of other autistic problems like language difficulties, self-identification, lack of imitation, and finally intention understanding.

However, the autistic enigma continues as whether the primary deficit in intention understanding found in autistic children is due to damage of the mirror neuron system as it is responsible for understanding the actions of others, or rather there exists more basic defects in the organization of the motor chains. In other words, the fundamental deficit in autistic children resides in the incapacity to organize their own intentional motor behavior.

Emotions and empathy

Many studies have independently argued that the mirror neuron system is involved in emotions and empathy.[2023] Studies have shown that people who are more empathic according to self-report questionnaires have stronger activations both in the mirror system for hand actions and the mirror system for emotions, providing more direct support for the idea that the mirror system is linked to empathy. Functions mediated by mirror neurons depend on the anatomy and physiological properties of the circuit in which these neurons are located. Emotional and empathetic activations were found in parieto-premotor circuits responsible for motor action control. In a fMRI experiment[24] represented schematically below, [Figure 4] one group of participants were exposed to disgusting odorants and, the other group, to short movie clips showing individuals displaying a facial expression of disgust. It was found that the exposure to disgusting odorants specifically activates the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate. Most interestingly, the observation of the facial expression of disgust activated the same sector of the anterior insula.[25] In agreement with these findings, the data are obtained in another fMRI experiment that showed activation of the anterior insula during the observation and imitation of facial expressions of basic emotions.

Figure 4

The mirror neurons of the anterior insula fires at a basic emotional theme, irrespective of different modality of portrayal

Similar results[26,27] have been obtained for felt pain and during the observation of a painful situation, which was involved another person loved by the observer. Taken together, these experiments suggest that feeling emotions is due to the activation of circuits that mediate the corresponding emotional responses.

Evolution of language and mirror neurons

The discovery of mirror neurons provided strong support for the gestural theory of speech etymology. Mirror neurons create a direct link between the sender of a message and its receiver. Thanks to the mirror mechanism, actions done by one individual become messages that are understood by an observer without any cognitive mediation. The observation of an individual grasping an apple is immediately understood because it evokes the same motor representation in the parieto-frontal mirror system of the observer. On the basis of this fundamental property of mirror neurons and the fact that the observation of actions like hand grasping activates the caudal part of IFG (Broca’s area), neuroscientists proposed that the mirror mechanism is the basic mechanism from which language evolved.[28]

Humans mostly communicate by sounds. Sound-based languages, however, do not represent the only natural way for communication. Languages based on gestures (signed languages) represent another form of complex, fully-structured communication system. This hypothesis argues that speech is the only natural human communication system, the evolutionary precursor of which is from animal calls. The argument goes as follows: Humans emit sound to communicate, animals emit sounds to communicate, therefore human speech evolved from animal calls.

The contradictions of the above syllogism are:

  • The anatomical structures underlying primate calls and human speech are different. Primate calls are mostly mediated by the cingulate cortex and by deep, diencephalic, and brain stem structures. In contrast, the circuits underlying human speech are formed by areas located around the Sylvian fissure, including the posterior part of IFG.
  • Animal calls are always linked to emotional behavior contrary to human speech.
  • Speech is mostly a dyadic, person-to-person communication system. In contrast, animal calls are typically emitted without a well-identified receiver.
  • Human speech is endowed with combinatorial properties that are absent in animal communication.
  • Humans do possess a “call” communication system like that of non-human primates and its anatomical location is similar. This system mediates the utterances that humans emit when in particular emotional states (cries, yelling, etc.). These utterances are preserved in patients with global aphasia.


The alternate hypothesis

According to this theory, the initial communicative system in primate precursors of modern humans was based on simple, elementary gesturing.[29] Sounds were then associated with the gestures and became progressively the dominant way of communication. In fact, the mirror mechanism solved, at an initial stage of language evolution, two fundamental communication problems: Parity and direct comprehension. Thanks to the mirror neurons, what counted for the sender of the message also counted for the receiver. No arbitrary symbols were required. The comprehension was inherent in the neural organization of the two individuals.

It is obvious that the mirror mechanism does not explain by itself the enormous complexity of speech. but, it solves one of the fundamental difficulties for understanding language evolution, that is, how and what is valid for the sender of a message become valid also for the receiver. Hypotheses and speculations on the various steps that have led from the monkey mirror system to language have been recently advanced.[30]

In humans, functional MRI studies have reported finding areas homologous to the monkey mirror neuron system in the inferior frontal cortex, close to Broca’s area, one of the hypothesized language regions of the brain. This has led to suggestions that human language evolved from a gesture performance/understanding system implemented in mirror neurons. Mirror neurons have been said to have the potential to provide a mechanism for action-understanding, imitation-learning, and the simulation of other people’s behavior. It must be noticed that the mirror neuron system seems to be inherently inadequate to play any role in the syntax, given that this definitory property of human languages which is implemented in hierarchical recursive structure is flattened into linear sequences of phonemes making the recursive structure not accessible to sensory detection.

Theory of cross-modal abstraction

The ability to make consistent connections across different senses may have initially evolved in lower primates, but it went on developing in a more sophisticated manner in humans through remapping of mirror neurons which then became co-opted for other kinds of abstraction that humans excel in, like reasoning metaphors. Development of sophisticated modules inside the brain makes us unique as far as language is concerned.

Examples: The connections between the inferior temporal gyrus (fusiform gyrus/visual processing area) and the auditory area guide sound mediated visual abstraction/synesthesia.

V. S. Ramachandran, a cognitive neuroscientist, demonstrates this through his famous bouba-kiki effect through cross-modal abstraction [Figure 5]. In this experiment, if we are to name the following diagrams with two given options (bouba and kiki) then, our brain predominantly names Figure 1 as bouba, and Figure 2 as kiki.[31]

Figure 5

Demonstrates the role of mirror neurons in sound mediated visual abstract reasoning

Analysis of bouba is abstracted in the visual center as somewhat gross, voluptuous, rounded, etc., and kiki is abstracted as somewhat sharp or more chiseled.

Example 2: Similarly doing “pincer-like” hand gestures while pronunciation of terms like “tiny”, “little”, “diminutive”, and pouting the lips outwards while pronunciation of words like “you” meaning pointing towards someone.

These features signify cross-modal connections of neurons between face and hand area in the motor cortex (motor-to-motor synkinesia).

Onomatopoiec theory

This theory also revolves around mirror neurons. Onomatopoeia show how man perceives sound. Sounds are defined as disturbances of mechanical energy that propagates through matter as a wave. What makes a particular sound distinct from others are its properties like frequency, wavelength, period, amplitude, and speed. Onomatopoeia is an attempt to produce the sound we hear by converting it into symbols. For instance, we would say the sound a gun makes when it is fired is “BANG”. Although the actual sound is different, we have come to associate “BANG” with a gun. This symbolic association of sound which we perceive through vision in the form of a specific word with correct interpretation is hypothesized to be possible because of mirror neurons.

Theory of recursive em bedding

Michael Corballis, an eminent cognitive neuroscientist, argues that what distinguishes us in the animal kingdom is our capacity for recursion, which is the ability to embed our thoughts within other thoughts. “I think, therefore I am” is an example of recursive thought, because the thinker has inserted himself into his thought. Recursion enables us to conceive of our own minds and the minds of others. It also gives us the power of mental “time travel” that is the ability to insert past experiences, or imagined future ones, into present consciousness. Corballis demonstrates how these recursive structures led to the emergence of language and speech, which ultimately enabled us to share our thoughts, plan with others, and reshape our environment to better reflect our creative imaginations. Mirror neurons shape the power of recursive embedding.

Theory of mind

This theory suggests that humans can construct a model in their brains of the thoughts and intentions of others. We can predict the thoughts, actions of others. The theory holds that humans anticipate and make sense of the behavior of others by activating mental processes that, if carried into action, would produce similar behavior. This includes intentional behavior as well as the expression of emotions. The theory states that children use their own emotions to predict what others will do. Therefore, we project our own mental states onto others. Mirror neurons are activated both when actions are executed, and the actions are observed. This unique function of mirror neurons may explain how people recognize and understand the states of others; mirroring observed action in the brain as if they conducted the observed action.[32]

A schematic diagram showing the various areas in the brain that may have accelerated the evolution of protolanguage [Figure 6].[33]

Figure 6

A, auditory cortex (Hearing); B, Broca’s area (speech and syntax); W, Wernicke’s area (semantics); AG, angular gyrus (cross-modal abstraction); H, hand area; IT, inferior temporal cortex (Fusiform area); F, face area. 1, Bouba–Kiki effect; 2,

Human self-awareness

It has been speculated that mirror neurons may provide the neurological basis of human self-awareness. Mirror neurons can not only help simulate other people’s behavior, but can be turned “inward” to create second-order representations or meta-representations of ones own earlier brain processes. This could be the neural basis of introspection, and of the reciprocity of self-awareness and other awareness.[34]


Although the enigma of human brain is unfathomable, but still the indefatigable attempts made by the ever aspiring cognitive neuroscientsts has opened up a realm of metaphysical secrets in the mirror neuron modular brain that has shaped our civilization.


Source of Support: Nil.

Conflict of Interest: None declared.


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Articles from Journal of Natural Science, Biology, and Medicine are provided here courtesy of Medknow Publications

Spooky Action at a Distance or aka Quantum Entanglement



Einstein’s ‘spooky action at a distance’ theory referred to ‘quantum entanglement’, which states that the measurement of one particle will instantly influence another particle, regardless of how far apart they are.  When two electrons are entangled (top), a measurement on one instantly determines the state of the other (bottom), no matter how far away it is.

National Geographic’s Video on Spooky Action at a Distance

An aura of glamorous mystery attaches to the concept of quantum entanglement, and also to the (somehow) related claim that quantum theory requires “many worlds.” Yet in the end those are, or should be, scientific ideas, with down-to-earth meanings and concrete implications. Here I’d like to explain the concepts of entanglement and many worlds as simply and clearly as I know how.


Entanglement is often regarded as a uniquely quantum-mechanical phenomenon, but it is not. In fact, it is enlightening, though somewhat unconventional, to consider a simple non-quantum (or “classical”) version of entanglement first. This enables us to pry the subtlety of entanglement itself apart from the general oddity of quantum theory.


A monthly column in which top researchers explore the process of discovery. This month’s columnist, Frank Wilczek, is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Entanglement arises in situations where we have partial knowledge of the state of two systems. For example, our systems can be two objects that we’ll call c-ons. The “c” is meant to suggest “classical,” but if you’d prefer to have something specific and pleasant in mind, you can think of our c-ons as cakes.

Our c-ons come in two shapes, square or circular, which we identify as their possible states. Then the four possible joint states, for two c-ons, are (square, square), (square, circle), (circle, square), (circle, circle). The following tables show two examples of what the probabilities could be for finding the system in each of those four states.

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We say that the c-ons are “independent” if knowledge of the state of one of them does not give useful information about the state of the other. Our first table has this property. If the first c-on (or cake) is square, we’re still in the dark about the shape of the second. Similarly, the shape of the second does not reveal anything useful about the shape of the first.

On the other hand, we say our two c-ons are entangled when information about one improves our knowledge of the other. Our second table demonstrates extreme entanglement. In that case, whenever the first c-on is circular, we know the second is circular too. And when the first c-on is square, so is the second. Knowing the shape of one, we can infer the shape of the other with certainty.

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The quantum version of entanglement is essentially the same phenomenon — that is, lack of independence. In quantum theory, states are described by mathematical objects called wave functions. The rules connecting wave functions to physical probabilities introduce very interesting complications, as we will discuss, but the central concept of entangled knowledge, which we have seen already for classical probabilities, carries over.

Cakes don’t count as quantum systems, of course, but entanglement between quantum systems arises naturally — for example, in the aftermath of particle collisions. In practice, unentangled (independent) states are rare exceptions, for whenever systems interact, the interaction creates correlations between them.

Consider, for example, molecules. They are composites of subsystems, namely electrons and nuclei. A molecule’s lowest energy state, in which it is most usually found, is a highly entangled state of its electrons and nuclei, for the positions of those constituent particles are by no means independent. As the nuclei move, the electrons move with them.

Returning to our example: If we write Φ, Φ for the wave functions describing system 1 in its square or circular states, and ψ, ψ for the wave functions describing system 2 in its square or circular states, then in our working example the overall states will be

Independent: Φ ψ + Φ ψ + Φψ + Φ ψ

Entangled: Φ ψ + Φ ψ

We can also write the independent version as

+ Φ)(ψ + ψ)

Note how in this formulation the parentheses clearly separate systems 1 and 2 into independent units.

There are many ways to create entangled states. One way is to make a measurement of your (composite) system that gives you partial information. We can learn, for example, that the two systems have conspired to have the same shape, without learning exactly what shape they have. This concept will become important later.

The more distinctive consequences of quantum entanglement, such as the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) and Greenberger-Horne-Zeilinger (GHZ) effects, arise through its interplay with another aspect of quantum theory called “complementarity.” To pave the way for discussion of EPR and GHZ, let me now introduce complementarity.

Previously, we imagined that our c-ons could exhibit two shapes (square and circle). Now we imagine that it can also exhibit two colors — red and blue. If we were speaking of classical systems, like cakes, this added property would imply that our c-ons could be in any of four possible states: a red square, a red circle, a blue square or a blue circle.

Yet for a quantum cake — a quake, perhaps, or (with more dignity) a q-on — the situation is profoundly different. The fact that a q-on can exhibit, in different situations, different shapes or different colors does not necessarily mean that it possesses both a shape and a color simultaneously. In fact, that “common sense” inference, which Einstein insisted should be part of any acceptable notion of physical reality, is inconsistent with experimental facts, as we’ll see shortly.

We can measure the shape of our q-on, but in doing so we lose all information about its color. Or we can measure the color of our q-on, but in doing so we lose all information about its shape. What we cannot do, according to quantum theory, is measure both its shape and its color simultaneously. No one view of physical reality captures all its aspects; one must take into account many different, mutually exclusive views, each offering valid but partial insight. This is the heart of complementarity, as Niels Bohr formulated it.

As a consequence, quantum theory forces us to be circumspect in assigning physical reality to individual properties. To avoid contradictions, we must admit that:

  1. A property that is not measured need not exist.
  2. Measurement is an active process that alters the system being measured.

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Now I will describe two classic — though far from classical! — illustrations of quantum theory’s strangeness. Both have been checked in rigorous experiments. (In the actual experiments, people measure properties like the angular momentum of electrons rather than shapes or colors of cakes.)

Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen (EPR) described a startling effect that can arise when two quantum systems are entangled. The EPR effect marries a specific, experimentally realizable form of quantum entanglement with complementarity.

An EPR pair consists of two q-ons, each of which can be measured either for its shape or for its color (but not for both). We assume that we have access to many such pairs, all identical, and that we can choose which measurements to make of their components. If we measure the shape of one member of an EPR pair, we find it is equally likely to be square or circular. If we measure the color, we find it is equally likely to be red or blue.

The interesting effects, which EPR considered paradoxical, arise when we make measurements of both members of the pair. When we measure both members for color, or both members for shape, we find that the results always agree. Thus if we find that one is red, and later measure the color of the other, we will discover that it too is red, and so forth. On the other hand, if we measure the shape of one, and then the color of the other, there is no correlation. Thus if the first is square, the second is equally likely to be red or to be blue.

We will, according to quantum theory, get those results even if great distances separate the two systems, and the measurements are performed nearly simultaneously. The choice of measurement in one location appears to be affecting the state of the system in the other location. This “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein called it, might seem to require transmission of information — in this case, information about what measurement was performed — at a rate faster than the speed of light.

But does it? Until I know the result you obtained, I don’t know what to expect. I gain useful information when I learn the result you’ve measured, not at the moment you measure it. And any message revealing the result you measured must be transmitted in some concrete physical way, slower (presumably) than the speed of light.

Upon deeper reflection, the paradox dissolves further. Indeed, let us consider again the state of the second system, given that the first has been measured to be red. If we choose to measure the second q-on’s color, we will surely get red. But as we discussed earlier, when introducing complementarity, if we choose to measure a q-on’s shape, when it is in the “red” state, we will have equal probability to find a square or a circle. Thus, far from introducing a paradox, the EPR outcome is logically forced. It is, in essence, simply a repackaging of complementarity.

Nor is it paradoxical to find that distant events are correlated. After all, if I put each member of a pair of gloves in boxes, and mail them to opposite sides of the earth, I should not be surprised that by looking inside one box I can determine the handedness of the glove in the other. Similarly, in all known cases the correlations between an EPR pair must be imprinted when its members are close together, though of course they can survive subsequent separation, as though they had memories. Again, the peculiarity of EPR is not correlation as such, but its possible embodiment in complementary forms.


Daniel Greenberger, Michael Horne and Anton Zeilinger discovered anotherbrilliantly illuminating example of quantum entanglement. It involves three of our q-ons, prepared in a special, entangled state (the GHZ state). We distribute the three q-ons to three distant experimenters. Each experimenter chooses, independently and at random, whether to measure shape or color, and records the result. The experiment gets repeated many times, always with the three q-ons starting out in the GHZ state.

Each experimenter, separately, finds maximally random results. When she measures a q-on’s shape, she is equally likely to find a square or a circle; when she measures its color, red or blue are equally likely. So far, so mundane.

But later, when the experimenters come together and compare their measurements, a bit of analysis reveals a stunning result. Let us call square shapes and red colors “good,” and circular shapes and blue colors “evil.” The experimenters discover that whenever two of them chose to measure shape but the third measured color, they found that exactly 0 or 2 results were “evil” (that is, circular or blue). But when all three chose to measure color, they found that exactly 1 or 3 measurements were evil. That is what quantum mechanics predicts, and that is what is observed.

So: Is the quantity of evil even or odd? Both possibilities are realized, with certainty, in different sorts of measurements. We are forced to reject the question. It makes no sense to speak of the quantity of evil in our system, independent of how it is measured. Indeed, it leads to contradictions.

The GHZ effect is, in the physicist Sidney Coleman’s words, “quantum mechanics in your face.” It demolishes a deeply embedded prejudice, rooted in everyday experience, that physical systems have definite properties, independent of whether those properties are measured. For if they did, then the balance between good and evil would be unaffected by measurement choices. Once internalized, the message of the GHZ effect is unforgettable and mind-expanding.


Thus far we have considered how entanglement can make it impossible to assign unique, independent states to several q-ons. Similar considerations apply to the evolution of a single q-on in time.

We say we have “entangled histories” when it is impossible to assign a definite state to our system at each moment in time. Similarly to how we got conventional entanglement by eliminating some possibilities, we can create entangled histories by making measurements that gather partial information about what happened. In the simplest entangled histories, we have just one q-on, which we monitor at two different times. We can imagine situations where we determine that the shape of our q-on was either square at both times or that it was circular at both times, but that our observations leave both alternatives in play. This is a quantum temporal analogue of the simplest entanglement situations illustrated above.

Using a slightly more elaborate protocol we can add the wrinkle of complementarity to this system, and define situations that bring out the “many worlds” aspect of quantum theory. Thus our q-on might be prepared in the red state at an earlier time, and measured to be in the blue state at a subsequent time. As in the simple examples above, we cannot consistently assign our q-on the property of color at intermediate times; nor does it have a determinate shape. Histories of this sort realize, in a limited but controlled and precise way, the intuition that underlies the many worlds picture of quantum mechanics. A definite state can branch into mutually contradictory historical trajectories that later come together.

Erwin Schrödinger, a founder of quantum theory who was deeply skeptical of its correctness, emphasized that the evolution of quantum systems naturally leads to states that might be measured to have grossly different properties. His “Schrödinger cat” states, famously, scale up quantum uncertainty into questions about feline mortality. Prior to measurement, as we’ve seen in our examples, one cannot assign the property of life (or death) to the cat. Both — or neither — coexist within a netherworld of possibility.

Everyday language is ill suited to describe quantum complementarity, in part because everyday experience does not encounter it. Practical cats interact with surrounding air molecules, among other things, in very different ways depending on whether they are alive or dead, so in practice the measurement gets made automatically, and the cat gets on with its life (or death). But entangled histories describe q-ons that are, in a real sense, Schrödinger kittens. Their full description requires, at intermediate times, that we take both of two contradictory property-trajectories into account.

The controlled experimental realization of entangled histories is delicate because it requires we gather partial information about our q-on. Conventional quantum measurements generally gather complete information at one time — for example, they determine a definite shape, or a definite color — rather than partial information spanning several times. But it can be done — indeed, without great technical difficulty. In this way we can give definite mathematical and experimental meaning to the proliferation of “many worlds” in quantum theory, and demonstrate its substantiality.

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 More evidence to support quantum theory’s ‘spooky action at a distance’

By Adrian Cho

It’s one of the strangest concepts in the already strange field of quantum physics: Measuring the condition or state of a quantum particle like an electron can instantly change the state of another electron—even if it’s light-years away. That idea irked the likes of Albert Einstein, as it suggests that something can travel faster than light and that reality is somehow determined by the measurements we make. But now, a team of experimenters says it has clinched the case for this concept, sealing up loopholes in previous demonstrations.”This is an absolute landmark paper in quantum physics,” says Howard Wiseman, a physicist at Griffith University, Nathan, in Australia, who was not involved in the work. “There can no longer be any reasonable doubt that the physical world is profoundly different from our everyday intuitions.” Christopher Ferrie, a physicist at the University of Sydney in Australia, notes that for many physicists, the issue was settled long ago. “Poll any physicists of my generation or later and they will be completely unfazed by [it],” he says. The real advance, he says, is in opening the way for ultrasecure quantum communications technologies.The experiment was performed by Ronald Hanson, a physicist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and colleagues. Hanson declined to discuss the paper, which is posted on the arXiv preprint server, as it’s under review at an undisclosed journal.The experiment involves a concept called entanglement. Consider an electron. Like a top, it can spin in one direction (up) or the other (down). Bizarrely, quantum theory says that the electron can also spin equally both ways at once—although if you measure it, the quantum state will “collapse” so that you’ll find the electron spinning either up or down with equal probability. How such a measurement is made is important. According to quantum theory, you can’t simply read the spin directly; you have to use an analyzer that can be set, a bit like a dial, to a particular orientation to see whether the electron is spinning that way or the opposite way. In the case of the both-ways spin, setting the analyzer vertically leads the electron to collapse into the 50-50 result.Even weirder, two electrons can be entangled so the spin of each electron is completely uncertain, but the two spins are completely locked together and correlated. Suppose then that Alice and Bob share two entangled electrons and each has an analyzer set vertically. If Alice measures her electron and finds it spinning up, she knows instantly that Bob’s is spinning down, even if he’s a galaxy away. That “spooky action at a distance” bothered Einstein, as it suggests the quantum wave describing the electrons collapses at faster-than-light speed. It also suggests that the “reality” of an electron’s spin state—what is knowable about it—isn’t determined until the electron is measured and the quantum wave collapses.Einstein found this idea unpalatable. He argued instead that quantum mechanics was incomplete—essentially, that “hidden variables” encoded in each electron but outside the scope of the theory determine the results of Bob’s measurements. That concept obviates faster-than-light collapse, because the determining factor travels along with Bob’s electron. It also jibes with the notion that measurements reveal some aspect of the world that exists independently of them—just as we assume the color of a tennis ball exists before we look at it.However, in 1964, British theorist John Bell found a way to test the difference between collapsing quantum waves and hidden variables. According to quantum theory, if Alice and Bob tilt their analyzers to different angles, they should no longer see perfect correlations in their measurements. For example, suppose Alice keeps her analyzer vertical and Bob tilts his by 45°. Then, if Alice finds her electron spinning up, the chance that Bob will find his electron spinning down—defined in his new orientation—is only 71%. Bell imagined that Alice and Bob repeatedly varied the orientations of their analyzers. He proved mathematically that hidden variables would produce correlations weaker than a certain limit—spelled out in a formula called Bell’s inequality. Collapsing quantum waves could yield stronger correlations. The formula offered a litmus test for determining whether the hidden variables were really there.Bell also explained that the faster-than-light collapse of the waves wouldn’t necessarily violate relativity’s prohibition on faster-than-light travel. Because Alice cannot control the results of her measurements, she cannot use them to send Bob information faster than light. She and Bob can merely confirm the correlations after the fact. That is now the standard interpretation of relativity.In the 1970s, experimenters began taking measurements designed to see whether Bell’s inequality holds. They consistently found correlations stronger than hidden variables allow. Those results generally convinced physicists that Einstein was wrong. Either quantum waves must indeed collapse faster than light, or the results of measurements could not be predestined by hidden variables: Until an electron spinning both ways is measured, it literally spins both ways.However, performing an airtight test of Bell’s theorem is tricky, and in recent years physicists have fretted over “loopholes” that would allow some effect other than the instantaneous collapse of quantum waves to skew the results. Now, Hanson and 18 colleagues claim to have done the first loophole-free test of Bell’s theorem.To test Bell’s idea, physicists must make sure that no influence other than that of the measurements can travel between the electrons in the time it takes to perform the measurements. That’s a tall order, as light travels 299,792 kilometers per second. Hanson and colleagues separated the two stations with their electrons by 1.28 kilometers on the Delft campus. That gave them 4.27 microseconds to perform both measurements before a light-speed signal from one station could reach the other.The researchers still had to entangle the distant electrons. To do that, they first entangled each spinning electron with the state of a photon that they then sent down an optical fiber to a third station between the other two. Only if the two photons arrived simultaneously and interfered with each other in just the right way would the electrons become entangled, through a process called entanglement swapping. Fewer than one out of 150 million photon pairs registered the right interference signal. Still, the researchers could start the measurements on the electrons before the photons met and go through the data afterward to find the trials that worked. In the preprint, they report 245 successful trials in 22 hours of data-taking.Finally, the physicists have to close the loophole that opens if they can’t reliably read the electrons’ state. Such a failed measurement could obscure the true correlations between the electrons’ spins. To overcome that, Hanson’s team used individual electrons trapped in atomic-size defects in diamonds cooled to near absolute zero. In the defects the electrons easily maintain their delicate spin states and can be manipulated with microwaves and light. The physicists measured the spin of each electron with greater than 95% efficiency.With both loopholes nailed shut, the researchers see a clear violation of Bell’s inequality—torpedoing Einstein’s hidden variable and vindicating collapsing quantum waves. “The only significant concern one could have about this paper is the small data set, which means the result is not as surely established as one would ideally like,” Wiseman says. “But I am sure this will be rectified soon.”It’s always possible to dream up even wilder loopholes, Ferrie says. But the experiment closes the ones that might be used to attack certain developing quantum technologies, such as schemes to use entangled particles to securely distribute the keys for encoding secret messages in so-called “device independent quantum key distributions.” “This is a huge technical milestone,” Ferrie says, “and prerequisite for many future quantum technologies, which are sure to enable the probing and eventual understanding of new physics.”

Some Quantum History

THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE says that you can’t know certain properties of a quantum system at the same time. For example, you can’t simultaneously know the position of a particle and its momentum. But what does that imply about reality? If we could peer behind the curtains of quantum theory, would we find that objects really do have well defined positions and momentums? Or does the uncertainty principle mean that, at a fundamental level, objects just can’t have a clear position and momentum at the same time. In other words, is the blurriness in our theory or is it in reality itself?

Case 1: Blurred glasses, clear reality

The first possibility is that using quantum mechanics is like wearing blurred glasses. If we could somehow lift off these glasses, and peek behind the scenes at the fundamental reality, then of course a particle must have some definite position and momentum. After all, it’s a thing in our universe, and the universe must know where the thing is and which way it’s going, even if we don’t know it. According to this point of view, quantum mechanics isn’t a complete description of reality – we’re probing the fineness of nature with a blunt tool, and so we’re bound to miss out on some of the details.

This fits with how everything else in our world works. When I take off my shoes and you see that I’m wearing red socks, you don’t assume that my socks were in a state of undetermined color until we observed them, with some chance that they could have been blue, green, yellow, or pink. That’s crazy talk. Instead, you (correctly) assume that my socks have always been red. So why should a particle be any different? Surely, the properties of things in nature must exist independent of whether we measure them, right?

Case 2: Clear glasses, blurred reality

On the other hand, it could be that our glasses are perfectly clear, but reality is blurry. According to this point of view, quantum mechanics is a complete description of reality at this level, and things in the universe just don’t have a definite position and momentum. This is the view that most quantum physicists adhere to. It’s not that the tools are blunt, but that reality is inherently nebulous. Unlike the case of my red socks, when you measure where a particle is, it didn’t have a definite position until the moment you measured it. The act of measuring its position forced it into having a definite position.

Now, you might think that this is one of those ‘if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest’ types of metaphysical questions that can never have a definite answer. However, unlike most philosophical questions, there’s an actual experiment that you can do to settle this debate. What’s more, the experiment has been done, many times. In my view, this is one of the most underappreciated ideas in our popular understanding of physics. The experiment is fairly simple and tremendously profound, because it tells us something deep and surprising about the nature of reality.

Here’s the setup. There’s a source of light in the middle of the room. Every minute, on the minute, it sends out two photons, in opposite directions. These pairs of photons are created in a special state known as quantum entanglement. This means that they’re both connected in a quantum way – so that if you make a measurement on one photon, you don’t just alter the quantum state of that photon, but also immediately alter the quantum state of the other one as well.

With me so far?

On the left and the right of this room are two identical boxes designed to receive the photons. Each box has a light on it. Every minute, as the photon hits the box, the light flashes one of two colors, either red or green. From minute to minute, the color of the light seems quite random – sometimes it’s red, and other times it’s green, with no clear pattern one way or another. If you stick your hand in the path of the photon, the light bulb doesn’t flash. It seems that this box is detecting some property of the photon.

So when you look at any one box, it flashes a red or a green light, completely at random. It’s anyone’s guess as to which color it will flash next. But here’s the really strange thing: Whenever one box flashes a certain color, the other box will always flash the same color. No matter how far apart you try to move the boxes from the detector, they could even be in opposite ends of our solar system, they’ll flash the same color without fail.

It’s almost as if these boxes are conspiring to give the same result. How is this possible? (If you have your own pet theory about how these boxes work, hold on to it, and in a bit you’ll be able to test your idea against an experiment.)

“Aha!” says the quantum enthusiast. “I can explain what’s happening here. Every time a photon hits one of the boxes, the box measures its quantum state, which it reports by flashing either a red or a green light. But the two photons are tied together by quantum entanglement, so when we measure that one photon is in the red state (say), we’ve forced the other photon into the same state as well! That’s why the two boxes always flash the same color.”

“Hold up,” says the prosaic classical physicist. “Particles are like billiard balls, not voodoo dolls. It’s absurd that a measurement in one corner of space can instantaneously affect something in a totally different place. When I observe that one of my socks is red, it doesn’t immediately change the state of my other sock, forcing it to be red as well. The simpler explanation is that the photons in this experiment, like socks, are created in pairs. Sometimes they’re both in the red state, other times they’re both in the green state. These boxes are just measuring this ‘hidden state’ of the photons.”

The experiment and reasoning spelt out here is a version of a thought experiment first articulated by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen, known as the EPR experiment. The crux of their argument is that it seems absurd that a measurement at one place can immediately influence a measurement at totally different place. The more logical explanation is that the boxes are detecting some hidden property that both the photons share. From the moment of their creation, these photons might carry some hidden stamp, like a passport, that identifies them as being either in the red state or the green state. The boxes must then be detecting this stamp. Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen argued that the randomness we observe in these experiments is a property of our incomplete theory of nature. According to them, it’s our glasses that are blurry. In the jargon of the field, this idea is known as a hidden variables theory of reality.

It would seem the classical physicist has won this round, with an explanation that’s simpler and makes more sense.

The next day, a new pair of boxes arrives in the mail. The new version of the box has three doors build into it. You can only open one door at a time. Behind every door is a light, and like before, each light can glow red or green.

The two physicists play around with these new boxes, catching photons and watching what happens when they open the doors. After a few hours of fiddling around, here’s what they find:

1. If they open the same door on both boxes, the lights always flashes the same color.

2. If they open the doors of the two boxes at random, then the lights flash the same color exactly half the time.

After some thought, the classical physicist comes up with a simple explanation for this experiment. “Basically, this is not very different from yesterday’s boxes. Here’s a way to think about it. Instead of just having a single stamp, let’s say that each pair of photons now has three stamps, sort of like holding multiple passports. Each door of the box reads a different one of these three stamps. So, for example, the three stamps could be red, green, and red meaning the first door would flash red, the second door would flash green, and the third door would flash red.”

“Going with this idea, it makes sense that when we open the same door on both boxes, we get the same colored light, because both boxes are reading the same stamp. But when we open different doors, the boxes are reading different stamps, so they can give different results.”

Again, the classical physicist’s explanation is straightforward, and doesn’t invoke any fancy notions like quantum entanglement or the uncertainty principle.

“Not so fast,” says the quantum physicist, who’s just finished scribbling a calculation on her notepad. “When you and I opened the doors at random, we discovered that one half of the time, the lights flash the same color. This number – a half – agrees exactly with the predictions of quantum mechanics. But according to your ‘hidden stamps’ ideas, the lights should flash the same color more than half of the time!”

The quantum enthusiast is on to something here.

“According to the hidden stamps idea, there are 8 possible combinations of stamps that the photons could have. Let’s label them by the first letters of the colors, for short, so RRG = red red green.”


“Now, when we pick doors at random, a third of the time we will pick the same door by chance, and when we do, we see the same color.”

“The other two-thirds of the time, we pick different doors. Let’s say we encounter photons with the following stamp configuration:”


“In such a configuration, if we picked door 1 on one box and door 2 on another, the lights flash the same color (red and red). But if we picked doors 1 and 3, or doors 2 and 3, they’d flash different colors (red and green). So in one-third of such cases, the boxes flash the same color.”

“To summarize, a third of the time the boxes flash the same color because we chose the same door. Two-thirds of the time we chose different doors, and in one-third of these instances, the boxes flash the same color.”

“Adding this up,”

⅓ + ⅔ ⅓ = 3/9 + 2/9 = 5/9 = 55.55%

“So 55.55% is the odds that the boxes flash the same color when we pick two doors at random, according to the hidden stamps theory.”

“But wait! We only looked at one possibility – RRG. What about the others? It takes a little thought, but it isn’t too hard to show that the math is exactly the same in all the following cases:”

We just went through the argument of a groundbreaking result in quantum mechanics known as Bell’s theorem. The black boxes don’t really flash red and green lights, but in the details that matter they match real experiments that measure the polarization of entangled photons.

Bell’s theorem draws a line in the sand between the strange quantum world and the familiar classical world that we know and love. It proves that hidden variable theories like the kind that Einstein and his buddies came up with simply aren’t true1. In its place is quantum mechanics, complete with its particles that can be entangled across vast distances. When you perturb the quantum state of one of these entangled particles, you instantaneously also perturb the other one, no matter where in the universe it is.

It’s comforting to think that we could explain away the strangeness of quantum mechanics if we imagined everyday particles with little invisible gears in them, or invisible stamps, or a hidden notebook, or something – some hidden variables that we don’t have access to – and these hidden variables store the “real” position and momentum and other details about the particle. It’s comforting to think that, at a fundamental level, reality behaves classically, and that our incomplete theory doesn’t allow us to peek into this hidden register. But Bell’s theorem robs us of this comfort. Reality is blurry, and we just have to get used to that fact.


1. Technically, Bell’s theorem and the subsequent experiment rule out a large class of hidden variable theories known as local hidden variable theories. These are theories where the hidden variables don’t travel faster than light. It doesn’t rule out nonlocal hidden variable theories where hidden variables do travel faster than light, and Bohmian mechanicsis the most successful example of such a theory.

I first came across this boxes-with-flashing-lights explanation of Bell’s theorem in Brian Greene’s book Fabric of the Cosmos. This pedagogical version of Bell’s experiment traces back to the physicist David Mermin who came up with it. If you’d like a taste of his unique and brilliant brand of physics exposition, pick up a copy of his book Boojums All the Way Through.

Homepage Image: NASA/Flickr


“That leaves only two cases:”


“In those cases, we get the same color no matter which doors we pick. So it can only increase the overall odds of the two boxes flashing the same color.”

“The punchline is that according to the hidden stamps idea, the odds of both boxes flashing the same color when we open the doors at random is at least 55.55%. But according to quantum mechanics, the answer is 50%. The data agrees with quantum mechanics, and it rules out the ‘hidden stamps’ theory.”

If you’ve made it this far, it’s worth pausing to think about what we’ve just shown.