Benjamin C. Kinney Profile picture
SFF writer, neuroscientist, 2x Hugo-finalist Assistant Editor @escapepodcast. Codex, VP18. Short stories and science out in many fine places! He/him
Jonathan Hale Profile picture 1 added to My Authors
19 Oct 19
Alright, #sciencefiction #neuroscience fans: this is the content you’re here for! In ~30 minutes, I will livetweet this #sfn19 “Dialogues Between Neuroscience & Society” talk on the future of AI and machine learning in human society. Bio of speaker Fei-Fei Li for “dialogues between neruoscience & society” talk
Any minute now we should be underway with the #SfN19 Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society talk by @drfeifei on how AI can - and should - change the human experience. Stay turned for livetweeting!
Yes, it is 11:10. No, the talk has not started. We haven’t even begun introductions yet. Stay patient, friends!
Read 75 tweets
20 Jun 19
Inhale deeply, and enjoy the aroma of #NeuroThursday, because this week I want to talk about smell, taste, and emotion – inspired by @tinaconnolly's Nebula- and Hugo-finalist novelette, "The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections." A perfume bottle, labeled
If you haven't read it, it's a wonderful story about memory, food, cruelty, and empathy. But you don't need to read it for this thread. I'm here to talk about neuroscience, not pastry-magic. tor.com/2018/07/11/the…
Tastes and smells are notoriously emotional. Smells can evoke a flood of memories, with all their associations. Freshly-cut grass, your partner's favorite flowers, the spices of your favorite meal, or the ammoniac strike of a campground toilet. Why so strong?
Read 28 tweets
15 Jun 19
Let me know if y’all want a neuroscience on this!
So a very quick #neuroscience on this: initial visual processing in the brain (and retina) works through contrasts. Your brain sharpens differences/edges because that’s where information is...
Your neurons are tuned to heighten/inhibit each other in a way that magnifies differences. So when a neutral color goes up next to red, your brain magnifies that difference and makes the neutral seem as not-red as possible.
Read 6 tweets
22 May 19
I dread to inform you all of this, but "impending doom" is a very common symptom. Not just from living in 2019, either: from pretty much anything that will kill you.

Buckle in for a thread, there might even be some #neuroscience behind this.
And I know it ain't Tuesday, but let's call this a #NeuroThursday anyways. What happens when a person gets a sense of Impending Doom, from jellyfish or otherwise?
Exhaustive research (i.e. wikipedia) tells me that this jellyfish venom leads to symptoms including "chest and abdominal pains, sweating, high blood pressure and difficulty breathing." Fun times! But nothing specific about impending doom?
Read 23 tweets
12 Oct 18
#NeuroThursday is crawling back to life this week to discuss this article: just what, if anything, is important about the role of dopamine in beliefs? More importantly: is this (or any) new knowledge meaningless or meaningful? neurosciencenews.com/belief-dopamin…
Thanks to @oldscout for the topic inspiration! #NeuroThursday has been paused lately while I write a novel on the cold war between AIs who emulate humankind and AIs who reject that bullshit. But this week I take a break from my break.
If you don't want to read the article, here's a summary: dopamine (one of the brain's chemical messengers) is long-known to be involved in e.g. reward and addiction. The article demonstrated that dopamine systems are also involved in updating beliefs in the human brain.
Read 26 tweets
13 Aug 18
Handedness comes in two groups, "right handed" and "not right handed." Most people use their right hands for almost all precision movement, but the other group is a broad spectrum from weakly-right to strongly-left. baen.com/handedness
The way we describe and define handedness creates the effect @CStuartHardwick rightly notices. Culture defines how we talk about it - but the behavior is mostly genetic. The % of righties has remained constant across continents and milennia.
Hand dominance is a more squirrelly thing than most people realize. For example, righties are better at *some* things with their left hand... and *some* of these asymmetries flip in lefties. Take a few minutes on #LeftHandersDay to learn more!
Read 4 tweets
8 Aug 18
Quick heads up on the #BlackSpecFic report: the story counts for @escapepodcast @Pseudopod_org and @PodCastle_org are incomplete, and revisions will be forthcoming.
But you should read and learn from the #BlackSpecFic report anyways! The missing data is due to idiosyncrasies of the @EAPodcasts model, and has no impact on any other magazine's numbers.
Long story short, we treat reprints very differently from other magazines. For @escapepodcast specifically, they were ~45% of our 2017 stories, and our editorial process has one unified pipeline for originals + reprints together.
Read 4 tweets
23 Jul 18
Regretting organizing my two Worldcon panels this year. It means I'm not free to throw up my hands in frustration and give up on programming. The last 24hrs have been the last worst icing on a bad cake that's long been baking.
I mean, my panels will be awesome. But if you're skipping programming because you don't trust the con, you've made a sensible choice.
There are always more people who want to be on programming than can fit. There's no way to make everyone happy. I get that. But this weekend's screwups come in the context of a long chain of trust-erosion.
Read 4 tweets
13 Jul 18
So glad this one came out! "After Midnight at the Zap Stop" by @ouranosaurus is an awesome story - full of late-night grease, and the luckless & the worthy. But also because it's a #neuroscience teaching opportunity. Might even be a #NeuroThursday!
One offhand line explains a technology as "stimulating a particular set of mirror neurons." Which works as a story element just fine. It sounds plausible and authoritative! But as a neuroscientist, I have strong opinions about #mirrorneurons. I don't think they're real.
To be clear, mine is a controversial opinion. Many neuroscientists would disagree. But it's a hill I'm willing to fight on, especially given how often "mirror neurons" crop up in popular science.
Read 14 tweets
8 Jul 18
This Lindsey Sterling + Evanescence concert has been going for 3 minutes and it is already amazing.
Update: she is simultaneously dancing, playing violin, and kicking skeletons.
P.S. She too is a skeleton. Hard to be sure at this distance but I believe she has glittery bones.
Read 14 tweets
4 Jul 18
This phenomenon - when you look away from a moving thing, and you briefly see illusory motion in the other direction - is the "Motion Aftereffect," and it comes from some very basic brain maneuvers. Who wants to join me on going full #NeuroThursday here? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motion_af…
Most neurons in the brain (and elsewhere) do this thing called "adaptation," where they accept whatever's going on as the new normal. For example, if you sit down with your laptop on your lap, you'll soon stop noticing the weight.
This can arise from the crudest single-cell level: some ion channels in the cell membrane have negative feedback loops that self-dampen.
Read 14 tweets
23 Jun 18
This morning at #4thStreetFantasy I had an idea about Kill Your Darlings. Let me see if it rings true for anyone else.
As many of us on Writing Twitter may know, Kill Your Darlings is an aphorism that has some value, but is easily interpreted in ways that can be harmful. (Like most aphorisms.) But why is this one so sticky?
I think it has to do with *casting the author in a heroic light*.
Read 6 tweets
15 Jun 18
A great example because color blindness has hidden advantages - colorblind folks tend to be slightly better at detecting non-color differences (e.g. brightness, texture).
Most things in evolution (or in any context) are a tradeoff, and that's what makes group selection such a powerful framework. Easy to see how it might be advantageous to have a population with a mix of color-acuity experts and brightness-acuity experts.
Though, as with all post hoc evolutionary hypotheses, treat this as a thought experiment, salt grain included :)
Read 4 tweets
15 Jun 18
#NeuroThursday is back this week to talk about the #neuroscience of #synesthesia. What does it mean for a letter to have an intrinsic color, for a number to have a distance? And why the heck would this trait evolve in humankind?
Synesthesia is when "stimulation of one sense automatically provokes a secondary perception in another." The secondary perception can be direct ("9's are red") or associative ("9's make me think of red"), either counts.
Synesthesia comes in countless forms, but color-based are the most frequent. The most well-known is "grapheme-color" synesthesia, where a grapheme (written shape, e.g. letter or numeral) has a color - like the opening picture.
Read 38 tweets
18 May 18
The Madness of Brains™ has been in the news this past week with the Yanny/Laurel effect. Let's use this as a #NeuroThursday peephole into the mysteries of human hearing – via something called the McGurk Effect.
First off, if you haven't dug the Yanny/Laurel thing, there's a great explanation and manipulation up at the New York Times. nytimes.com/2018/05/15/sci…
But @mattdoveywriter alerted me today to a better auditory ambiguity! Try listening for the words "Brain Storm." Then replay it, listening for the words "Green Needle." reddit.com/r/blackmagicfu…
Read 21 tweets
11 May 18
By popular demand, #NeuroThursday will tackle last weekend's big psychological finding in the author world: this study that supposedly claims people read faster with 2 spaces after a period. washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-…
The upshot is: some researchers got a group of people who naturally write with 1 space or 2 space, and made them read both kinds of text. The two-spacer people read a tiny bit faster when they saw 2-space text. But.
Now, there's an easy answer why this article is wrong. Let me start there and get it out of the way so I can then tell you something more subtle & interesting.
Read 36 tweets
27 Apr 18
Hello, friends and lovers of science! #NeuroThursday is gonna lurch back into action with the other side of how you stay balanced: your body's position-sense (proprioception) system.
As a reminder, our last #NeuroThursday discussed the vestibular system: the tools your brain uses to maintain your balance. But that stuff is all in your head, so today we go to the rest of your body.
Proprioception is the original "sixth sense." It's a major sensory apparatus spread across your body, telling you critical information, but it's all so smoothly integrated you almost never have to think about it consciously.
Read 29 tweets
15 Apr 18
Alright, #SoCIA18 friends and followers. Next up is the conference's final act & second keynote: "Is there a sensible way to say Life is alive?" by Ford Doolittle of Dalhousie University!
Steps in the logic: 1. Life (capital L) = LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor) and her descendents. 2. Life and Life only (not lowercase-l) exists - see my tweets on yesterday's Carlos Mariscal talk...
...though the short version is that Life is better viewed as a cluster/individual than as an abstract natural category (which would be lowercase-l life). Anyways: 3. A Godfrey-Smithian approach to 'life' (whatever that means), 4.5.6.too fast.
Read 59 tweets
14 Apr 18
At the #SoCIA18 panel discussion on space settlement. Based on room setup, I might be too busy engaging in discussion to livetweet, but we'll see!
Begins with everyone around the table summarizing their positions. 16 of us. Nice mix of "humans not worth saving" to "yes let's do it (sensibly)" to "will interfere with science" or "too muddled with Earth politics/elites."
I might've been the most radical sounding with "we should create aliens" angle, but I don't take that as an ethical conclusion - just a new vector people should add to the (serious) moral calculations.
Read 35 tweets
14 Apr 18
Last talk of this block: "Neo-Liberal Space Ethics" with Linda Billings. AKA "Yet Another Thing to Fret About: The Neoliberal Ideology of Space Exploration" #SoCIA18
Speaker is a science communication professional, blogs at doctorlinda.wordpress.com
Talking here about exploration (scientific) or exploitation (human). NASA has thus far been driven by search for extraterrestial life, NOT colonizing other planets. Is there any reason to change that priority? (Spoiler: she says no.)
Read 22 tweets
14 Apr 18
Next up, a talk I've been eagerly waiting for: "Cops on Mars: Policing & Weaponization of Space – In the Imagination & Beyond" by Lucianne Walkowicz (@shaka_lulu). #SoCIA18
Looking at the real-world implications of how we imagine space settlement. Specifically today, the placement of law enforcement in future space scenarios.
Some great historical notes about what we thought about Mars. "Mars is Populated by One Giant Thinking Vegetable" is probably the winner.
Read 21 tweets