TIME the brain

Why Your Brain Thinks This Picture Shows a Giant, Martian Crab Monster

nasa crab monster mars
NASA Is this a terrifying crab monster or just a pile of rocks?

Blame 'pareidolia' - a phenomenon that makes us see all kinds of things

Think you’re savvy in the ways of social media? OK, which of the following two headlines would be likelier to get your attention?

a) Mars Rover Team Studies Geological Zone With High Silica Content

b) Mysterious Crab Monster Found on Mars!

If you said a), you can probably forget about that job application you sent to Facebook. It’s the crab monster news that, of course, has set social media on fire in the past day, with a real-life, wholly gross image sent back by the Mars Curiosity rover that — when seen up close — does appear to show some sort of giant crab lurking in a cave.

But here’s the less clickable part of that news: It’s definitely not a giant crab lurking in a cave. In fact, it’s just one more example of the sometimes whimsical, always spooky phenomenon known as pareidolia, or the tendency of the brain to see familiar shapes—especially faces—emerging from random patterns.

Pareidolia is what’s behind J.C. Penney’s disastrously ill-designed Adolf Hitler teapot, which was not the marketing name the Penney folks assigned to it, but is the only way the unfortunate product will ever be known thanks to the mustache, bangs and upthrust arm it calls to mind. It’s also the reason we see faces in the random patterns of marble tiles or burned toast, or in the more orderly design of a handbag with two side-by-side loops where the handle is attached and a horizontal zipper below, forming a mouth and a pair of eyes.

The pareidolia phenomenon is actually a deeply rooted one, something that helps infants focus on faces early and also allowed humans in the wild to spot danger easily—picking a potentially menacing human or animal peering out from a backdrop of leaves or scrub. Yes, more often than not it’s a false alarm, but better to overreact fifty times than under-react even once.

A 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to pinpoint the spot in the brain in which pareidolia plays out, and determined that it’s actually in two spots called the left and right fusiform gyrus. It is the left that reacts first to a possible face in a background pattern, sending out a What’s this? signal to the right. The right then makes the call—Is this really a face?—and for safety’s sake, it tends to err on the side of yes. The left then uses those few processing microseconds to consider the context of the image, and often as not will sound the all-clear. The right, however, is sometimes not persuaded, and continues to process the image as a face—helping us avoid danger, perhaps, but scaring us more than we need to be too.

This is not the first time something suspicious on Mars got Earthlings worked up. In 1976, the Viking 1 orbiter discovered what for all the world appeared to be a face staring up from the Martian terrain. Even in that pre-Internet era, the image went the 1970s equivalent of viral, and later figured significantly in the 2000 Brian de Palma movie, Mission to Mars. By then, however, the face had already been unmasked, with a subsequent flyover by the Mars Global Surveyor in 1998 showing it merely to be the natural landform it was—and one that had significantly eroded away at that. A subsequent image from 2001 showed even more natural erasure of the original shape.

In fairness to the folks freaked out by the current image, a crab is not a face and the brain has to work a little harder to force that image out of the background shapes, but it does the job all the same—just as it will interpret a branch in the underbrush as a snake or a shadow in the closet as a monster. Your pattern recognition regions are not the smartest part of your brain, but they’re not designed to be. They only have to be right once, and on the offchance you ever do run across a bear in the woods or a crab monster on Mars, you’ll have your fusiform gyri to thank for keeping you alive.

TIME the brain

Why You’re Pretty Much Unconscious All the Time

Nobody's home: There's less of you here than you think
Getty Images Nobody's home: There's less of you here than you think

A surprising new paper argues that consciousness is just a bit player in the human brain

Your body has a lot of nifty parts, but it’s the brain that’s the it organ of the summer. The brain’s all-the-rage moment is mostly a result of the box office hit Inside Out, from Pixar, the animation company that had previously limited itself to such fanciful questions as “What would happen if your toys could come alive?” or “Are there really monsters in my closet?” With Inside Out, the filmmakers raised their game, taking on a rather more vexing issue: How does the brain work?

The answer—which involves five colorful characters living inside your head and operating a giant control panel—was perfect at a lot of levels, equal parts fairy tale, metaphor, and sort-of, kind-of, pretty good science. But no sooner did the problem get solved, than the real scientists came along and spoiled the party. And they did it in a big way.

In a new paper published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a group of researchers led by associate professor of psychology Ezequiel Morsella of San Francisco State University, took on the somewhat narrower question of exactly what consciousness is—and came up with a decidedly bleaker view: It’s pretty much nothing at all. Never mind the five characters controlling your thoughts, you barely control them. It’s the unconscious that’s really in charge.

Morsella’s paper was not based on any breaking experimental work. There were no new brain scans or questionnaires or subjects being asked to respond to flashing lights or flickering images on a computer screen. Rather, the work involved little more than a group of really, really smart people thinking really, really hard about things. That, for better or worse, is how most questions about consciousness have been answered since humans began considering them, and the answers have often been pretty compelling.

The one Morsella and his colleagues came up with is something they call “Passive Frame Theory,” and their provocative idea goes like this: nearly all of your brain’s work is conducted in different lobes and regions at the unconscious level, completely without your knowledge. When the processing is done and there is a decision to make or a physical act to perform, that very small job is served up to the conscious mind, which executes the work and then flatters itself that it was in charge all the time.

The conscious you, in effect, is like a not terribly bright CEO, whose subordinates do all of the research, draft all of the documents, then lay them out and say, “Sign here, sir.” The CEO does—and takes the credit.

“The information we perceive in our consciousness is not created by conscious thought,” Morsella said in a statement accompanying the release of the paper. “Nor is it reacted to by conscious processes. Consciousness is the middle-man and it doesn’t do as much work as you think.”

There are deep evolutionary reasons for things to work that way. Humans, like all animals, operate as parsimoniously as possible; if we could be run entirely by our reflexes and instincts with no conscious thought at all, we would. There’s a reason you don’t stop to contemplate whether you should pull your hand off a hot stove, and instead simply do it. Consciousness in that case would just slow things down.

But as we became complex, social organisms, capable of speech and emotion and tool-making and more, we needed a bit of the brain that could step in not so much to run things, but to guide the body or choose between two or three very simple options. Take the experience of holding your breath underwater or carrying a hot dish. Your musculoskeletal system wants you to take a breath in the first case and drop the dish in the second. However, the part of your unconscious brain that is aware of consequences knows why both of those choices are bad ideas. So the conflict is served up to the conscious mind that keeps you in control until you’ve reached the surface of the water or put the dish on the table.

But the unconscious mind is far more powerful and creative than that. The authors cite language in particular—a human faculty that is considered perhaps our highest and most complex gift—as one more area in which consciousness is just a bit player. You may be the world’s finest raconteur, but when you’re speaking you’re only consciously aware of the few words you’re saying at any one moment—and that’s only so you can direct the muscles that make it possible to form and express the words in the first place. All of the content of your speech is being pre-cooked for you before you say it.

Things are a bit different if you’re, say, delivering a rehearsed toast or speaking in a language that is not your own; in these cases, the conscious mind has either mastered a script or is continually consulting an inner dictionary, reminding itself to convert, say, the English cat to the Spanish gato. But the whole goal of language fluency is to eliminate that step, to think in the second language and thus, once again, put the conscious mind out of work.

Morsella goes heavy on the acronyms to make his case. The brain’s guiding principle in mediating between the conscious and unconscious is described as EASE—for Elemental, Action-based, Simple and Evolutionary-based. The system for speaking one word instead of another or holding onto a hot dish even when you don’t want to is PRISM—for Parallel Responses into Skeletal Muscle. But those utilitarian terms do a very good job of capturing the utilitarian way the human system works.

We are, like it or not, biological machines, and the simpler we keep things, the less chance there is for a mistake or a breakdown. The mind, as the most complex part of us, needs the streamlining more than anything else. None of this changes the fact that our brains are the seat of our greatest achievements—our poetry, our inventions, our compassion, our art. It’s just that it’s the unconscious rather than the conscious that should take the bow. The only thing that should have any quarrel with that is one of our lesser impulses: our vanity.

TIME Innovation

You Don’t Have To Understand Music To Feel Its Power

The Sonic Boom
The Sonic Boom

Joel Beckerman is an award-winning composer and producer for television and the founder of Man Made Music, a company specializing in sonic branding. Beckerman has worked with John Legend, will.i.am, Moby, OK Go, Morgan Freeman, and the composer John Williams. Tyler Gray is an editorial director for Edelman in the New York City office. He was recently editorial director for Fast Company and is the author of The Hit Charade.

Musical moments let you keep track of the drama even when you’re not looking at the screen.

You might know that the Super Bowl on NBC has its own theme. You might even be able to hum regular-season game-night music from Fox, NBC, or ESPN, but odds are you’re not paying strict attention to all of the supporting pieces of music in those broadcasts. You might realize you’re hearing versions of the Super Bowl on NBC theme pop up before commercials or as the show returns from a commercial break, but you probably aren’t aware of how instrumental those bits of music are in keeping you engaged and transforming the Super Bowl into a universally relatable drama. You don’t have to understand it to feel its power.

“Music is one of the highest forms of entertainment that I know,” Fred says. Neuroscience and brain imaging back this up. Sukhbinder Kumar, a staff scientist with Newcastle University’s Auditory Cognition Group whose interest is sound and emotion, has repeatedly found in studies that music is a powerful trigger in all kinds of experiences. “There’s nothing like it that evokes such strong emotions,” he says.

You might not even realize you’re hearing them, but key moments of music are setting expectations and telling you what’s at stake. They’re establishing mini-cliffangers and recapping and reinforcing important plot twists. That way, even viewers who never watch a single regular-season football game don’t feel lost and still want to come back after those four-million-dollar commercial breaks. On a functional level, musical moments let you keep track of the drama even when you’re not looking at the screen. The Super Bowl fanfare cuts through a room, finds you in the kitchen, and tells you: Drop the nachos; the action’s back.

On a deeper level, music highlights and elevates the moments that build on the Super Bowl legacy, so you feel them as they happen. The right music at the right time takes a play you just saw and makes you feel like you’ve witnessed history. And it makes you feel all of this precisely when you need a reason to stay in the story. It’s the same tool directors use to keep you on the edge of your seat during a film or to support key emotional moments that drive the most complex plots forward. “If you talk to any director, they’ll say music is fifty percent of the movie,” says the film composer Hans Zimmer.

His score played a vital role in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a movie, coincidentally, about implanting ideas in people’s minds. The 2010 film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won for cinematography, visual e)ects, sound mixing, and sound editing, despite having an intricate plot that involved alternate realities, time-shifted dimensions, and dreams within dreams within dreams.

“Music is how you can get away with a very abstract story liked that,” Zimmer says. “It was a subliminal way to take you on that journey. It was emotionally comprehensible even if you somehow missed the odd line or intellectually you have a problem rolling with it, which is okay. Music just turns everything into an emotional experience.”

On NBC, the Super Bowl becomes Star Wars. That’s mostly because of its theme, “Wide Receiver,” composed by John Williams, who scored Star Wars, Jaws, Close Encounters, and just about every other award-winning film that generations of people remember. You need to hear only a note or two to recognize it. As Fred Gaudelli put it, “Right off the bat, you’re starting with a pretty heavy piece of music.”

That’s also where I come in. For the 2012 broadcast, NBC asked me and my company, Man Made Music, to give Williams’s beloved score a number of overtly modern twists.

In 2012, the ad prices were higher and the ratings expectations were larger. NBC execs were looking to retain the DNA and the popularity of the original score but modernize the style and extend the theme. They had their regular-season music but needed more to draw from for the Super Bowl, which told a dramatically bigger story with an epic scope. Williams had written a beautiful and timeless theme. My job was to make it of the moment. The Super Bowl itself is timeless, but with every new Roman numeral, it builds on the collection of moments. It is a real-time unveiling of players on their way to becoming MVPs or even the greatest of all time. And it’s not just their Hail Marys and game-changing marathon runs but all of the universal emotions that go along with those plays. Those moments had to instantly make sense to viewers who didn’t know a noseguard from a tight end.

Emotionally moving sounds have to fit in three-to-fifteen-second spaces during the broadcast. In those snippets, they have to spark feelings and memories you associate with years’ worth of Super Bowl experiences — not just what happened onscreen but the time of year, the lingering winter chill in the air, the friends gathered around a single TV, the celebrations before and a&er the game. Sound like a tall order? It’s not for music, even in those short-form bursts. Cognitive psychologist and Western Washington professor Ira Hyman has published research on this particular power of music, memory, and emotion, and he has written regularly on the topic for Psychology Today.

“Songs that are distinctively associated with a time period or a series of events . . . can act as wonderful memory cues to both bring to mind those memories and then to also bring to mind not only the emotion experience of the time but that sense of nostalgia,” Hyman says, citing studies that have found positive correlation between emotion and memory.

Not only is music an emotional engine, it’s a Magnum V-8 that gets mileage like an EV.

But for the Super Bowl on NBC, we couldn’t just come up with more music. My team and I had to tap into the right styles of music that would acknowledge a new generation of watchers. The new styles would build on a sonic vocabulary. And it couldn’t sound like pandering. We had to connect with new viewers and be relevant in that cultural moment, meaning we had to infuse a whole range of musical styles into John Williams’s original composition and extend it with rock guitars, hip-hop drums, electro beats, and, yes, dubstep.

But most important, we had to be true to the work and evoke a wide variety of emotions to cover all the anticipated story points of the game: tension, triumph, optimism, driving energy, and others. It was like scoring a movie before it’s been filmed. On top of everything, our music would have to cut through the roar of a crowd and sync with the narration of commentators Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. And we had relatively few chances in a mere two-hour, thirteen-minute, forty-four-second broadcast (not including commercials) to drive forward an entire spectrum of emotions.

Qdoba Anthem

Qdoba Logo

Fusion

AT&T Sonic Logo

AT&T Safe

Welcome Home

King from History

NBC Properties NBC Nightly News

NBC Properties NBC Nightly News

NBC Superbowl Backfield

NBC Superbowl Bumper

NBC Superbowl Epic Matchup

NBC Superbowl Play Action

NBC Superbowl Red Zone

Superbowl XLVI – Epic Matchup – Theme

TheWeatherChannel App BNS

TheWeatherChannel AMHQ Open

TheWeatherChannel AMHQ DanNewbie

Excerpt from The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy by Joel Beckerman with Tyler Gray, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2014 by Man Made Music, Inc. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Joel Beckerman is an award-winning composer and producer for television and the founder of Man Made Music, a company specializing in sonic branding. Beckerman has worked with John Legend, will.i.am, Moby, OK Go, Morgan Freeman, and the composer John Williams.

Tyler Gray is an editorial director for Edelman in the New York City office. He was recently editorial director for Fast Company and is the author of The Hit Charade.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME behavior

Breaking Bad Action Figures? Really, Toys R Us?

No, you're not hallucinating, that really is a Walter White doll.
No, you're not hallucinating, that really is a Walter White doll.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

In a spectacularly bad bit of judgment, the big box store puts a meth manufacturer on its shelves.

Human history is often defined by its very worst pitch meetings. Take the one in 1812, when one of Napoleon’s generals told the Great Emperor, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s invade Russia—in the winter!” Or the one in 1985, when the anonymous product developer at Coca-Cola said, “How ’bout we take a product everyone loves, quit making it and replace it with a different formulation no one is asking for! What could go wrong?”

So too it must have gone in the executive suites of Toys R Us, when someone made the compelling case for stocking a brand-new line of action figures based on the wildly successful Breaking Bad series. After all, nothing quite says holiday shopping like a bendable, fully costumed figurine of Walter White—the murderous chemistry teacher turned crystal meth manufacturer—and Jesse Pinkman, his former student and current bag man. And you want accessories? We’ve got accessories—including a duffle bag stuffed with imaginary cash and a plastic bag of, yes, faux crystal meth for White. Pinkman comes with a gas mask, because the folks at Toys R Us are not the kind to forget about corporate responsibility. If your kids are going to grow up to run a meth lab, it’s never too early to teach them basic safety.

It might not surprise you to learn that Toys R Us has faced a teensy bit of blowback from this curious marketing decision. Florida mom Susan Schrivjer has posted a petition on Change.org that has just exceeded 2,000 signatures, demanding that the company pull the products. She also appeared on The Today Show to make her case more publicly.

“Anything to do with drugs is not doing the right thing,” she said. “I just think they need to look at their vision and values as they call them.”

The part that’s more surprising—but sadly only a little—is that even after being called on its appalling lack of judgment, Toys R Us has not responded with the quickest, loudest, most abject oops in corporate history. Instead, it is standing its ground. Why? Because the dolls are sold only in the “adult section” of the store, of course—the ones intended for shoppers 15 and up.

OK, let’s start with the fact that Toys R Us has an adult section at all—something I never knew and I suspect many other parents didn’t either. So what will they stock there next? A line of Toys R Us hard cider? Toys R Us adult literature? A Toys R Us edition of Fifty Shades of Gray—which is really OK because hey, it actually comes with a set of 50 gray crayons? If an adult section must exist at all, at what point does full disclosure require the company to rebrand itself “Toys as Well as Other Things Not Remotely Appropriate For Children But Don’t Worry Because We Keep Them in a Separate Section, R Us”?

More important, let’s look at above-15 as the dividing line for the adult section—a distinction that makes perfect sense because if there’s anything 15 year olds are known for, it’s their solid judgment, their awareness of consequences, their exceptional impulse control and their utter imperviousness to the siren song of drugs and alcohol. Oh, and they never, ever emulate bad role models they encounter on TV, in the movies or among their peers. What’s more, kids below the age of 15 never, ever run wild in a sensory theme park like a big box toy store, finding themselves in departments not meant for them and seeing products they shouldn’t see. Toys R Us, you’ve thought this one out to the last detail!

What the company’s consumer researchers probably know and if they don’t they ought to, is that the brain’s frontal lobes—where higher order executive functions live—aren’t even fully myelinated until we reach our late 20s, which is why young people can be so spectacularly reckless, why soldiers and political firebrands tend to be young and why judges, heads of state and clerical leaders tend to be old. The adult fan of Breaking Bad might actually enjoy the new toys as collectors items–something to be bought or given as a gift with a little twinkle of irony, a this-is-so-wrong-it’s-right sort of thing. But that kind of nuance isn’t remotely within a child’s visible spectrum.

Really, Toys R Us, there is absolutely no surviving this one. Back up the truck, pack up the toys and send them to a landfill. And if you’re even thinking about following this one up with a Boardwalk Empire board game complete with a Nucky Thompson plush toy, stop now. Or at the very least, invite me to the pitch meeting.

Read next: Toys R Us ‘Breaks Bad’ with New Crystal Meth Toys

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

Robin’s Pain: The Mystery of Suicide — and How to Prevent It

Sad Goodbye: Where Robin Williams once stood, flowers now lay
Paul Archuleta—FilmMagic/Getty Images Sad Goodbye: Where Robin Williams once stood, flowers now lay

Robin Williams was just one of 39,000 Americans who take their lives each year. The long-standing puzzle is why anyone arrives at so tragic a place. Increasingly, there are answers

The great paradox of the human brain is that it can’t feel pain. The organ that is the seat of all joy and worry and love and sorrow and whimsy and fear is itself insensible to injury. It’s the reason brain surgery can be conducted on conscious patients without their being any more physically aware of the cutting than if a garment they were wearing were being violated the same way.

But the pain the brain can cause — the bottomless well of grief, the psychic blackness of depression — is something else again. There is both presumption and a certain pointlessness in trying to explain the awful convergence of sorrow and circumstance that drove Robin Williams to end his life. Williams himself may not have known, and if he did, the secret died with him. That doesn’t stop others from trying to make sense of it, of course — and so we hear that he was suffering from clinical depression or bipolar disorder, or that his battles with substance abuse finally claimed him.

Williams was publicly sanguine about his mental state, telling NPR in 2006, “No clinical depression, no. I get bummed, like I think a lot of us do at certain times. You look at the world and go, ‘Whoa.’ Other moments you look and go, ‘Oh, things are O.K.’” But after his death, his representative released a statement saying he had been “battling severe depression of late.”

The only thing that can be said with certainty is that Williams arrived at the same terrible place 39,000 other Americans reach each year, and like them, he concluded that the only way to annihilate a terrible despair was to annihilate the self. All anyone can do responsibly is reason back from there — reverse engineer the tragedy — and see what that might reveal.

The numbers can tell you something — sort of. Up to 90% of all people who commit suicide have been diagnosed with depression or some other form of mental illness in their lives. About one third of people with serious depression have had struggles with drugs and alcohol, perhaps as a result of trying to medicate their pain chemically. About 25% to 35% of people who commit suicide have a chemical substance in their blood at the time of death.

But there are plenty of depressed or chemically dependent people in the world, and while their struggles are real, their stories — and their lives — don’t end the way Williams’ did. The difference appears not just to be pain, but pain of a particular valence.

“It’s intolerable, unbearable anguish that can’t go away,” says psychologist Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) and U.S. representative to the International Association of Suicide Prevention. “No matter what people have tried — treatment, medication — it doesn’t help. Logic becomes unreal. Attention and focus fall apart. The brain is just an organ and at some point it says, ‘I can’t take the pain anymore. I must take myself out.’”

But that doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a certain ambivalence and a strange kind of deal-making that can go on before a decision to die is actually reached. Suicidal scenarios may be considered, even planned, taken off the shelf and toyed with as a possibility. “This starts to play certain tricks on the mind,” says Reidenberg. “People think, ‘If someone smiles at me today I’m not going to do it. I’m going to have my last meal and if that goes well, I won’t do it.’”

Not all suicides creep up so slowly — or at least they don’t seem to. Situational despair — the kind that comes from the death of a loved one or a sudden bankruptcy — can, anecdotally, precede a suicide, but this happens less than is popularly believed. All of those investors who leapt to their deaths when the stock market crashed in 1929? Those were mostly a myth — though there were some isolated suicides in the days and months that followed the crash. And even in those cases, there was likely an underlying depression or mental illness that was exacerbated by circumstance. If tragedy were the threshold requirement for suicide, a spectacularly successful and globally celebrated person like Williams — or Kurt Cobain or Ernest Hemingway or Marilyn Monroe — would never have ended things as they did.

On those occasions that short-term pain does play a role in suicide, it’s likelier to occur among teens. That’s partly because the impulse control region of their brains have not fully come online yet — which is why even happy teens make such wildly poor decisions sometimes — and partly because they have such a flawed sense of the long arc of time. “The teenager cares about right now, what’s in front of me,” says Reidenberg. “They’re not looking at the next 60 years, they’re thinking about the next six minutes.”

The biggest thing working in the teens’ favor is that they often seem less than entirely certain about the wisdom of suicide, even after they’ve resolved to try it. “There’s a much higher rate of suicide attempts among adolescents than among other groups, but a much lower rate of actual death,” says psychologist John Draper, project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which runs a website and 24-hour hotline (1-800-273-8255) for people in crisis. “A big part of them doesn’t want to die and the overwhelming majority get through those moments and are glad they’re alive.”

Indeed, says Reidenberg, both teens and adults who attempt suicide but survive often report that in the instant after they took the decisive step — swallowing the pills, leaping from the window — they began hoping that they’d survive the fall or be found alive before the drugs could do their work. Some never try again.

Stopping people short of that point — or pulling them back from the brink if they’ve reached it — can sometimes be a matter of simple preparation. For anyone who has flirted with suicide, Draper recommends putting together a safety plan that can be used in a time of crisis — a list of friends, family members and professionals to contact for help, as well as reminders of self-calming activities or short-term distractions that have worked in the past. Keeping the instruments of self-harm out of reach is important too. About 60% of the 33,000 gun deaths in the U.S. each year are suicides.

Making psychotherapy more widely available can help as well. Roughly 60% of the people who need mental health services in the U.S. each year do not get it, often beause of the stigma of seeking help, though just as often because of lack of insurance. The Affordable Care Act is changing that, with requirements that all policies cover mental, not just physical illnesses.

Early detection of people prone to suicide could make a difference, and one finding earlier this summer revealed that a gene known as SKA2, which is abundant in the prefrontal cortex, may play a role in helping people manage negative feelings and contain impulsive behavior — both important brakes on suicidal behavior. Handily, the gene produces blood markers that indicate its level of activity, providing a quick way of diagnosing potential problems long before they start. Talk therapy is important too, and medications may be an important adjunct, though just which drug is best depends on just which patient is being treated — antidepressants for the depressive, mood stabilizers for the person with bipolar disorder.

As with any deadly disease, of course, there is nothing certain about who will be lost to suicide and who will not. Williams himself seemed to understand the knife edge on which such mortal matters balance. In a 2006 TV interview, after completing two months of treatment for a relapse into alcoholism, he described how easy it is for a former drinker to pick up the bottle again. “It’s the same voice that … you’re standing at a precipice and you look down, there’s a voice and it’s a little quiet voice that goes, ‘Jump.’” This week, in his own way, Robin Williams jumped — and a little bit of all of us went with him.

TIME the brain

Noninvasive Brain Control Is Real — and That’s Good

Give in, give in, give in to the light...
tunart; Getty Images Give in, give in, give in to the light...

A diabolical-sounding breakthrough may actually be able to treat a range of disabling diseases

You might think you don’t want anyone controlling your brain. You might think that anyone who did want to control your brain was behaving, you know, invasively. But you’d be wrong — and that’s actually very good news.

Most of the reactions in your brain are mediated either electrically or neurochemically — or, really, a combination of the two. But given the right manipulation, light can do it too.

Nature is awash in light-sensitive proteins known as opsins, which microbes and other simple organisms use to detect different levels and wavelengths of light in their environment and react to them. For more than a decade, scientists have been experimenting with a technique known as optogenetics, which involves introducing opsins into the brain and then using light to switch certain neurons on and off, effectively controlling the behavior of a local region of the brain. (In one dramatic study last year, researchers found they could use the technique to implant false memories in mice, leading them to think they had experienced an electrical shock in a particular part of their cage, which they then avoided.)

The problem was that stimulating the opsins so that they would switch the neurons on and off as desired required threading a fiber-optic cable into the brain and sending pulses of light through it — something even a mouse would rather not sit still for. If there was ever going to be a way to use optogenetics in humans, a more benign method had to be developed.

Enter Ed Boyden, associate professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. Boyden knew that one of the limitations of most opsins is that they respond only to green or blue wavelengths, which are pretty much stopped cold by solid objects like the bone and soft tissue that makes up the head. But red light can penetrate scalp and skull — at least a little bit. Boyden’s team thus went scouring through light-sensitive bacteria and found two that produce red-sensitive opsins. Those proteins, however, produce only a very weak photocurrent — not nearly enough to affect brain function.

So Boyden’s team — especially grad student Amy Chuong — began tinkering with the proteins, genetically engineering mutants that produced a bigger kick when hit with red light. When these engineered opsins were introduced into the brains of laboratory mice, they were able to shut down or turn on local neural activity with nothing more than a well-aimed beam of red light on the skull.

Fantastic — but why exactly would a human being want to go within 10 feet of the technology? A lot of reasons. Epilepsy, for example, is little more than an out-of-control electrical storm in the brain, and optogenetics might offer a quick and painless way to regulate it. Other neurological disorders could similarly be treated in much the way researchers are using transcranial magnetic stimulation as a means to control Parkinson’s disease, depression, migraine headaches and other conditions. The MIT team is also working with investigators at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Switzerland to use the same protein to resensitize cone cells in the retina. If the technique proves successful in mice, in could be used to treat retinitis pigmentosa, which causes blindness by destroying the cones.

So, as with so many other scary-sounding advances in medical history, brain control is very bad — but only until it’s very good.

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