All that chocolate might actually help finish the bumper Christmas crossword over the seasonal period. According to Oxford researchers working with colleagues in Norway, chocolate, wine and tea enhance cognitive performance.
The team from Oxford’s Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics and Norway examined the relation between cognitive performance and the intake of three common foodstuffs that contain flavonoids (chocolate, wine, and tea) in 2,031 older people (aged between 70 and 74).
Participants filled in information about their habitual food intake and underwent a battery of cognitive tests.Those who consumed chocolate, wine, or tea had significantly better mean test scores and lower prevalence of poor cognitive performance than those who did not. The team reported their findings in the Journal of Nutrition.
The role of micronutrients in age-related cognitive decline is being increasingly studied. Fruits and beverages such as tea, red wine, cocoa, and coffee are major dietary sources of polyphenols, micronutrients found in plant-derived foods. The largest subclass of dietary polyphenols is flavonoids, and it has been reported in the past that those who consume lots of flavonoids have a lower incidence of dementia.
Drugs that encourage the growth of new neurons in the brain are now headed for clinical trials. The drugs, which have already shown success in alleviating symptoms of depression and boosting memory in animal models, are being developed by BrainCells, a San Diego-based start-up that screens drugs for their brain-growing power. The company hopes the compounds will provide an alternative to existing antidepressants and says they may also prove effective in treating cognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer’s.
“The fact that you might be able to take small molecules to stimulate specific cells to regenerate in the brain is paradigm-shifting,” says Christopher Eckman, a neuroscientist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL. “[This approach] takes advantage of the body’s innate ability to correct itself when given appropriate cues.” Eckman studies compounds that boost brain cell growth in models of neurodegenerative disease and is not involved with BrainCells.
Fluid intelligence was previously thought to be genetically hard-wired, but the finding suggests that with about 25 minutes of rigorous mental training a day, healthy adults could improve their mental capacities.
David Geary, a professor at the University of Missouri and author of The Origin of Mind, who was not involved with the study, said training in one test generally doesn’t generate gains on a different test.
“Transfer is tough to get,” Geary said. “Training in task A doesn’t typically improve performance on task B.”
But in this case, subjects trained on a complex version of the so-called “n-back task” — a difficult visual/auditory memory test — improved their scores on a set of IQ questions drawn from a German intelligence measure called the Bochumer Matrizen-Test. (The Bochumer Matrizen-Test is a harder version of the well-known Ravens Progressive Matrices).
Initially, the test subjects scored an average of 10 questions correctly on the IQ test.
But after the group trained on the n-back task for 25 minutes a day for 19 days, they averaged 14.7 correct answers, an increase of more than 40 percent. (A control group that was not trained showed only a very slight performance increase.)
Buschkuehl’s team postulates that the n-back task improves working memory — how many pieces of information subjects can keep in their head — as well as the ability to control the brain’s attention. Fluid intelligence tests require those types of thinking, and the training improved performance in these underlying skills.
In January, Nature launched an informal survey into readers’ use of cognition-enhancing drugs. Brendan Maher has waded through the results and found large-scale use and a mix of attitudes towards the drugs.
One in five respondents said they had used drugs for non-medical reasons to stimulate their focus, concentration or memory. Use did not differ greatly across age-groups (see line graph, right), which will surprise some. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in Bethesda, Maryland, says that household surveys suggest that stimulant use is highest in people aged 18-25 years, and in students.
Wish they’d asked about caffeine and other non-prescription stimulants as well.
Life Extension – As covered previously here on Technoccult, aspirin is the best life extension drug on the market. And it’s cheap. See: Top Ten Life Extension Drugs.
Intelligence amplification – Mind machines and smart drugs never did live up to the hype, which is probably why you don’t hear much about them anymore. I actually conducted some trials with volunteers using a brain entrainment machine for my cognitive science class in college. The results: the machine didn’t do jack. I was only ever able to experiment with self-medication with smart drugs, but my general conclusion is that some of them work as stimulants (piracetum, vassopressin) but they’re not worth the money.
The good news is, there are some new high tech intelligence amplification tools on the market: “brain fitness” games like Brain Age and Lumosity. I’m not sure how much good it will do, though. See Seed Magazine’s coverage.
Virtual Reality – We’re still waiting on decent immersive VR, but the Nintendo Wii has brought some elements of VR to homes.
Brain Backups – There’s no wetware brain backup, but if you want to preserve your knowledge for all of eternity, you can try posting the contents of your brain on the web. Google and the Internet Archive (backed by Amazon) are both attempting to archive and back-up the entire web.
There was a time when the name R.U. Sirius was synonymous with cyberculture. His seminal magazine Mondo 2000 predated Wired, and was even more enthusiastic in its wow-gosh sexification of the new geek order. Articles predicting a slick future of nanotech parties and smart drugs were mixed in with batches of fearful predictions of terrorism, economic collapse, draconian copyright enforcement, increased surveillance and invasive advertising. But Sirius didn’t stop there: After the collapse of Mondo, he went on to write for magazines like 21C, Salon and Disinformation, and edited Getting It. He created the Revolution Party, a non-ideological anti-authoritarian political organization (“If even the alternative parties like Libertarian and Green seem a bit rigid to you, consider joining us”), and campaigned for Presidency of the United States. His latest project, The Thresher, is a political magazine.
But The Thresher is a print magazine. Sirius hardly goes online anymore, except for research. The truth is, the Godfather of GeekChic has moved on.
K: Have you ever read Patrick Farley’s e-sheep comic? He did this one, this autobiographical comic, where there’s this guy, a parody of you… What he tells the main character, the autobiographical character, is that you made up all the stuff for your magazine.
RU: Actually, I say that all the time in public interviews, “We made it all up.” Which in a sense is true — some of it we made up and some of it we didn’t. Mondo 2000 clearly wasn’t journalism in the conventional sense. It was mostly composed of interviews, very subjective, really dedicated to people speaking in their own voice. It was very playful and very surrealistic. I never really wanted to do journalism — I do now because I have to to make a living. And we do it at Thresher, I guess because it’s become a habit now. To say we made it all up is kind of flippant, but we weren’t concerned with responsibility or credibility. We were more concerned with creating a sense of excitement and energy and a sense of belonging to the next wave of culture. And we were concerned with making people laugh.
K: It seems like rather than inventing things, you brought them together. I mean, you could have Terence McKenna and GWAR in the same issue.
RU: *Laughs* A lot of it definitely didn’t make any sense. We had a great liberty to basically be about technoculture, and at the same time we could run stuff that had nothing to do with the main theme of our magazine, which Wired could never do. When we started Mondo, Eric Gullichsen brought around these Japanese magazines and pointed out that Japanese magazines included everything. They’d have serious political articles, children’s stories, pornography, anything you could possibly imagine… It was every magazine in America and every theme they’d have packed into one magazine and they wouldn’t differentiate. Which to me is sort of ideal.
K: To change the subject somewhat, where do we stand on the war on drugs right now? Is it more or less important than it was, say, two years ago?
RU: It’s all sort of integrated into the war on terror, and there’s a lot of complex connections there. It’s amazing that it’s all happening in Afghanistan, which is sort of a nexus for the drug underground and also turns out to be the nexus for Al Quaeda and the place where America wants to build an oil pipeline and the place where we have our troops and bombs. And all those things converge. Narcopolitics, as much as class, is at the center of politics in our time. I don’t think any of that has changed. You also see this integration in Columbia where they’re fighting over drugs and they’re also fighting against leftists and they’re fighting for their oil interests — it’s still rather the same story. On the positive side of course, Europeans almost uniformly are liberalizing drug laws. I don’t know how things are in Canada… I think Vancouver is pretty liberal.
K: Do you think there’s a potential use for psychedelics in psychotherapy?
RU: Yeah, I’ve always thought it was a useful tool. The great thing about having a guide, rather than doing it on your own or in a party, is that it grants permission to take a pretty walloping, great massive dose and go through changes without having to worry about what kind of incursions might occur during the trip. I think if it could be approved for psychotherapy, that would be a tremendous step in the right direction. There’s basically two schools of thought on ending the drug war. One is the libertarian point of view, which is that it should be legalized because it’s a cognitive liberty, a matter of personal choice. And then there’s the attempt to medicalize the situation… harm reduction and so forth. And while I agree with the libertarian view on that, I think medicalization is more likely to be allowed.
K: You wrote about smart drugs years ago, do you still take any of that stuff?
RU: No, actually I’ve had stomach problems for a number of years. I’ve found that I can’t take most of those drugs. I certainly can’t take them regularly.
K: What did you feel worked for you, though?
RU: Oh I can’t remember of course. DMAE, I remember being one that was interesting. There was one that came in liquid drops, Deprenyl… quite good! Hydergine definitely — if you take it every day — sharpens up your memory. It was very closely related to LSD, actually.
K: Yeah, Albert Hoffman invented both of them didn’t he?
RU: Yeah. They all had a stimulant effect. As far as the studies that all the advocates quoted to prove that they were effective long-term enhancers of cognition, I don’t know. I’m not in a position to judge the quality of those researchers. They definitely functioned as stimulants. And they were much more even in terms of how they would take you through the day than cocaine, or methamphetamines…
K: Or caffeine…
RU: Or caffeine, right.
K: The only one of those [types of drugs] I’ve taken is vassopressin.
RU: Yeah, vassopressin is nice.
K: It worked for me, but every half hour I had to take a couple snorts.
RU: It was the one that was the most like coke; I think its effect on brain chemistry was compared by Pearson and Shaw as blatantly uhhh…
K: It was definitely, ah… addictive and expensive
RU: I gave some of that to William Gibson once, and he really liked it.
K: It’s funny, now the whole smart drug thing has been written off as snake oil.
RU: Bruce Sterling used to joke about people taking things that didn’t work, but I think I convinced him that they’re stimulants.
K: So they’re just stimulants and not long-term brain enhancers?
RU: It’s hard to know. I was taking them regularly during the Mondo 2000 period in the early nineties, and I was definitely quick. I don’t know if I was wise, but I was just quick.
K: How did The Thresher come about?
RU: Dave Latimer is the publisher, and he kind of liked Tom Frank’s The Baffler, a sort of neo-Marxist political journal out of Chicago that’s gotten a lot of response. He liked that and he liked McSweeney’s, and he liked the whole idea of this rough, sort of intellectual form of publishing. Also, it’s become a trendy thing. And I thought it would be a fun way of organizing materials and expressing ourselves. I’d done the opposite with Mondo 2000, which came to the party way over-dressed. We decided to take it the other direction.
K: It kind of seemed that Mondo 2000 was the stoner geeks goofing off in the back of the class.
K: The Thresher is more serious.
RU: Yeah, it’s pretty serious. The second issue, which is just about to go to press, is actually pretty irreverent and a lot weirder, probably as a result of world events and also as a result of my being too busy on other things to concentrate on it closely. I sort of let it slip through my fingers, and as a result, we’ve unintentionally created a darkly comedic, rather nasty issue that I’m looking forward to seeing. I was actually trying to create a publication initially that was pretty serious and politically pragmatic, and sort of trying to operate on the boundaries between mainstream and alternative views. But we sort of blew that all to hell on the second issue. It’s pretty radical. Conspiracy theory and a radical Islamist who writes in a sort of hip postmodernist style.
K: It seems that The Thresher is still largely about technology, just in a different context. Instead of being emerging or future technology —
RU: In the first issue there was an alternative energy thing and also a biowar thing — actually one of the interviews with [Richard] Preston was actually done for an issue of Mondo 2000 that never came out. So yeah, those kind of obsessions are still there. But I don’t know how much of that’s in the new issue, I think it may not be. I had actually considered making number two a technology issue, but again, world events pushed us in another direction.
K: What’s the status of the Revolution Party?
RU: Well, we still have a discussion group [on Yahoo!] but we haven’t really done anything. I feel like it’s time to rethink a lot of things… Not necessarily to renounce where you’ve been before but… I kind of feel like I am (and we are) in a cultural and political, certainly economic and maybe even technological place of standing still. And for me, it’s a great moment to take a deep breath and not immediately presume to be able to come out with a lot of opinions…
We’re questioning not just what’s next, but what it means to be human and what sort of real value it has. A few years ago, I wrote that we’re at a point where we’re thrilled with technology, and we’re disappointed with human beings. At this point I’m not sure that we’re very thrilled with technology anymore.
K: Do you have any idea of how to get control? Was that what the Revolution party was about?
RU: Control and powerlessness are two different things, of course. We shouldn’t expect control but we should expect some kind of power over our lives, government, et cetera… One of the main ideas [behind the Revolution Party] was that people of counter-cultural sensibilities could actually organize and become a political force. Sort of a countervailing force to the Christian Coalition.
K: What can we do to have some sort of effect on our lives and comfort?
RU: I don’t know. I don’t see much point in any of the strategies that people currently employ. I think that the apparatus that we have, in terms of democracy and free speech, is probably as good as it’s going to get — we just have to find a way back to real power within the democratic apparatus that’s been captured by money and so forth.
K: What about blogs, where you’ve got giant decentralized conversations going on between different people?
RU: Yeah, that’s definitely a value.
K: But it seems discussion can only go so far.
RU: Yeah, discussion needs to lead to action. I don’t know if you follow Douglas Rushkoff’s mailing list or not, but he just sent out an email saying that we should act as if we’ve already won. But I think if we’ve already won, we should be able to find ways of supporting each other, and we should have an alternative place to find quality health care, and make a living, and have a home. And we’re so far away from that. We’re just talking. We have this vast information matrix through which we can sort of form these temporary autonomous zones for our mental activities, but I don’t see how it is going to extend beyond that. We can get people out to protest or whatever, and that has a certain amount of effect. But in terms of livingry, in terms of people going into a space together and changing the way we live and consume energy — I’m not saying that can’t happen, I’m just saying that I can’t see how we’re getting there right now.
K: What else are you working on?
RU: I’m writing a book called Counter Cultures Through the Ages: From Abraham to Acid House, a history book about 15 different cultures that were anti-authoritarian and accepted a philosophy of constant change — what Nietzsche called transubstantiation. I’m doing that for Villard, which is a subsidy of Random House. I’ve never written a history book before, and it’s taking all of my time. It’s a very complicated project…
I’m really kind of boring right now. Studying history, right now I’m studying Sufism. I’m advancing through the years in this book and trying to get up to the stuff that I already know, which would begin with the Enlightenment… the Age of Reason.
K: How far are you into the book?
RU: I’ve finished almost half of it. I had to turn in half of it to get the rest of the advance, and they’re way pleased with what I have so far. So that’s good news, that I’m not wasting my time and this thing will go to print. It should be done in about a year, so it will be a year and a quarter before anyone sees it.
K: What do you do online these days?
RU: I do a lot of my research online, for the book, and also for various journalistic assignments I have. I just finished a piece on Michael Ruppert for Rolling Stone. He’s the 9/11 conspiracy guy, he’s sort of become the most famous person presenting evidence, supposed evidence, that the Bush administration knew what was going to happen, even in a more precise manner than we know now. That he knew exactly what was going to happen and allowed it to happen for a political advantage. Anyway, in relevance to your question, I use the web for research on something like that.
K: More for work than for fun then?
RU: Yeah, more for work than for fun. I’m not really participating in a lot of discussion groups; sometimes I still go on The WELL and let myself get sucked into conversation there. And I don’t use multimedia at home, because all I have [is a 1999 iBook]… it just doesn’t really do multimedia adequately. I got to enjoy the peer-to-peer music and all that while working at the Getting It office and I miss that.
K: Do you have any favourite blogs or porn sites?
RU: It’s been a while since I’ve been on the blogs…
K: So you don’t keep up with them?
RU: Well, I used to, but I’ve sort of fallen off now. I can’t remember the names now, but there were some people I really liked. MetaFilter? I think was it MetaFilter? I thought that was good. And one run by Jorn Borger the name of which escapes me [Robot Wisdom]. But no, I haven’t been following the blogs lately. Like I said I’ve been so busy working on research. I’ve been following conspiracy sites primarily because of my work for Rolling Stone.
K: Lately there’s been a lot of talk about a return to the old days of the internet, a return to the non-profit spirit. At the same time, there are a lot of new startups and venture capital is finally being pumped back into the net. This might not really be your field anymore, but do you feel that the internet and business can ever be separate again, or do you feel that it’s going to go back to its non-profit roots?
RU: People are going to try to form businesses there — some of them are going to fail and some of them are going to succeed — but the sense that this is some sort of agora that you pump yourself in and everything turns into gold… there was never any logic to it whatsoever, and I don’t think we’re going to return to that. But the business is there, and people are using it for other purposes; politics, creativity, porn, communication… it’s all going to go on there at once. That’s good. I think community and experimentation was the dominant mythology in the early nineties and then business in the late nineties, and now there isn’t one… There’s no zeitgeist now.
K: In terms of what you’ve written about, you’ve basically gone from psychedelics, to technology, to tabloid stuff, to politics. So was that a natural process of one thing leading to another?
RU: Well, I was actually very political when I was younger. I was a member of the Yippies in my early adulthood, and was editor of an underground newspaper — a Yippie newspaper in Binghamton, New York. So I started off writing about politics, and by the time I got to Mondo in 1989 it was just a different way of approaching what we thought at that time was the progressive revolutionary thing. In some ways the politics were kind of hidden in Mondo 2000. It was odd because we were interpreted as being libertarians by some people, whereas we were the type of people who would tend to glamorize the Weather Underground or something like that. But we did take sort of an experimentalist, “let the cards fall where they may” stance and up-front claimed to be politically irresponsible. That was sort of our pose.
K: If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, politics and history, what would you be doing?
RU: I’d like to take a long slow ride across America and talk to people out there beyond the San Francisco bay area and see what people are thinking about.
K: Have you ever thought about relocating?
RU: I’ve thought about it from time to time. If I did relocate it would probably just be to go to New York City because my fiance’s relatives live there. But I do think it would be fun to live in a small town out in the middle of nowhere.
(Originally published at http://www.shift.com/content/web/387/1.html July, 2002)