Equality of ability, Brain Reading and Harrison Ford's Chest

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As social equality improves, girls become as good as boys at maths but are still better at reading. The study looked at over 275,000 15y olds from 40 different countries, using a number of different measures to gauge equality.

The indication is that as ‘equality’ improves girls’ mathematical ability increases to the point of being as good as, or better than, boys. That boys do not catch up on reading ability may suggest that girls will acquire an overall advantage when treated equally. Or this may betray the problems in the prevailing drive for female equality rather than gender equality. Are the adverse effects of gender expectation on males overlooked due to the (fair) perception of male dominance? Perhaps, but given the effects of numerous biological gender differences on brain development (hormones for example) it seems likely that some natural differences will exist. The difficulty will be telling where the lines are drawn as it seems social factors have a greater influence than most give them credit for.

From this study things are looking up for the girls but the one mathematical gap that did not disappear was the differences between girls and boys in geometry. This seems to have no relation to sexual equality, and may allow men to cling on to their famed claim to be better at navigating than women are.

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Researchers have developed a computer model which can read your mind. The software looks at your brain image using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and attempts to predict the word you are thinking of. It does this not by having a vast bank of different neural patterns for every word in the dictionary and simply matching them to your brain image but by learning the relationships between words and the way these relationships are shown up in the brain. For example, the word ‘Hammer’ is associated with movement and this can be seen as neural activity in the motor cortex. On the other hand the word ‘Castle’ triggers activity in spatial areas of the brain. To manually input all these relationships would take forever so the software learns these relationships from a literature bank. By looking through a trillion-word body of text the model analyses which words frequently appear together. This builds a web of associations similar to those in a human brain.

Once the programme is calibrated with about 60 words it can associate trends in the literature mesh of word relationships with the trends in brain activity for thousands of words. By thinking of a particular word your brain will show up a unique neural pattern. Having never seen that particular pattern before the computer model will be able to make a guess at the word based on the patterns created by other words. It doesn’t always get it right of course but that it does at all is fairly amazing, and even when it’s wrong the suggestion is often of similar meaning.

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Harrison Ford has had his chest waxed to highlight how deforestation hurts the Earth’s environment. Err, Great. There’s a modest physical metaphor for you.