Making a Murderer is Making Viewers Curious About Brain Fingerprinting


After making its premiere in December 2015, the 10-part Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer helped usher in a new genre in streaming entertainment: true crime binge-watching. Viewers were gripped by the story of Steven Avery, a junkyard owner accused of murdering freelance photographer Teresa Halbach in 2005, and the dubious testimony of Avery's 16-year-old nephew—and alleged co-conspirator—Brendan Dassey. Avery had been convicted of a separate crime once before and served 18 years in prison before DNA exonerated him. Holes in the state of Wisconsin’s argument in the Halbach case abound, and grassroots efforts sprung up to argue that Avery had once again been wrongly convicted.

In episode two of season two, which launched on Netflix last week, Avery’s new defense attorney, Kathleen Zellner, asks Avery to submit to a curious examination informally known as “brain fingerprinting.” Wearing a head-mounted sensor that looks a little like the Cerebro helmet donned by Professor X in the X-Men comics and films, Avery is exposed to details of the crime only the perpetrator would know. The sensor can purportedly pick up the electrical signals in the brain of someone experiencing a wave of recognition, indicating they might be the guilty party.

In an otherwise grounded show, this felt like an excerpt from a science-fiction series. Is brain fingerprinting really reliable?

The forensics community isn’t really sure.

The test, which was developed by Lawrence Farwell, Ph.D. and first used in an active criminal investigation in 1999, looks for the P300 response—a surge of electrical activity in the brain roughly 300 milliseconds after a person sees something familiar to them, usually a written detail or image. Instead of looking for a physiological response in a polygraph, or “lie detector” test, Farwell’s method confines its reading to the brain via an EEG wave.

Farwell states that the test, which he calls Farwell Brain Fingerprinting, has never resulted in a false-positive or false-negative result. He says research supervised by the FBI, the U.S. Navy, and the CIA has confirmed its accuracy, and Farwell has published papers about the technique in scientific journals. In a case described on Farwell’s website, convicted murderer Terry Harrington was exonerated after he passed a brain fingerprint test and an eyewitness subsequently recanted her incriminating testimony. Farwell even offers a $100,000 bounty to anyone who can beat the test, a prize he says has yet to be claimed.

Critics of Farwell’s technique say his peer-reviewed studies have been limited to just 30 participants total, a small sample size. One study comparing the P300 response to the polygraph found some guilty subjects passed the brain fingerprint test simply by not paying attention to the images meant to trigger a response. Additionally, there have been relatively few tests conducted on truly guilty parties with psychopathic or mentally ill pathologies.

In short: There just isn't enough data to show that brain fingerprinting is as accurate as Farwell claims—or that it should be admissable in court. As for Avery: He passed his test with flying colors.

[h/t Digital Spy]

Yes, You Have Too Many Tabs Open on Your Computer—and Your Brain is Probably to Blame

If you’re anything like me, you likely have dozens of tabs open at this very moment. Whether it’s news stories you mean to read later, podcast episodes you want to listen to when you have a chance, or just various email and social media accounts, your browser is probably cluttered with numerous, often unnecessary tabs—and your computer is working slower as a result. So, why do we leave so many tabs open? Metro recently provided some answers to this question, which we spotted via Travel + Leisure.

The key phrase to know, according to the Metro's Ellen Scott, is “task switching,” which is what our brains are really doing when we think we're multitasking. Research has found that humans can't really efficiently multitask at all—instead, our brains hop rapidly from one task to another, losing concentration every time we shift our attention. Opening a million tabs, it turns out, is often just a digital form of task switching.

It isn't just about feeling like we're getting things done. Keeping various tabs open also works as a protection against boredom, according to Metro. Having dozens of tabs open allows us to pretend we’re always doing something, or at least that we always have something available to do.

A screenshot of many tabs in a browser screen
This is too many tabs.
Screenshot, Shaunacy Ferro

It may also be driven by a fear of missing information—a kind of “Internet FOMO,” as Travel + Leisure explains it. We fear that we might miss an important update if we close out of our social media feed or email account or that news article, so we just never close anything.

But this can lead to information overload. Even when you think you're only focused on whatever you're doing in a single window, seeing all those open tabs in the corner of your eye takes up mental energy, distracting you from the task at hand. Based on studies of multitasking, this tendency to keep an overwhelming number of tabs open may actually be altering your brain. Some studies have found that "heavy media multitaskers"—like tab power users—may perform worse on various cognitive tests than people who don't try to consume media at such a frenzied pace.

More simply, it just might not be worth the bandwidth. Just like your brain, your browser and your computer can only handle so much information at a time. To optimize your browser's performance, Lifehacker suggests keeping only nine tabs open—at most—at one time. With nine or fewer tabs, you're able to see everything that's open at a glance, and you can use keyboard shortcuts to navigate between them. (On a Mac, you can press Command + No. 1 through No. 9 to switch between tabs; on a PC, it's Control + the number.)

Nine open tabs on a desktop browser
With nine or fewer tabs open, you can actually tell what each page is.
Screenshot, Shaunacy Ferro

That said, there are, obviously, situations in which one might need many tabs open at one time. Daria Kuss, a senior lecturer specializing in cyberpsychology at Nottingham Trent University, tells Metro that “there are two opposing reasons we keep loads of tabs open: to be efficient and ‘create a multi-source and multi-topic context for the task at hand.’” Right now, for example, I have six tabs open to refer to for the purposes of writing this story. Sometimes, there's just no avoiding tabs.

In the end, it's all about accepting our (and our computers') limitations. When in doubt, there’s no shame in shutting down those windows. If you really want to get back to them, they're all saved in your browser history. If you're a relentless tab-opener, there are also browser extensions like OneTab, which collapses all of your open tabs into a single window of links for you to return to later.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

Will the Sun Ever Stop Shining?

Viktor T. Toth:

The Sun will not stop shining for a very, very long time.

The Sun, along with the solar system, is approximately 4.5 billion years old. That is about one-third the age of the entire universe. For the next several billion years, the Sun is going to get brighter. Perhaps paradoxically, this will eventually result in a loss of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, which is not good news; It will eventually lead to the death of plant life.

Within 2.5 to 3 billion years from now, the surface temperature of the Earth will exceed the boiling point of water everywhere. Within about about 4 to 5 billion years, the Earth will be in worse shape than Venus today, with most of the water gone, and the planet’s surface partially molten.

Eventually, the Sun will evolve into a red giant star, large enough to engulf the Earth. Its luminosity will be several thousand times its luminosity at present. Finally, with all its usable nuclear fuel exhausted and its outer layers ejected into space, the Sun’s core will settle down into the final stage of its evolution as a white dwarf. Such a star no longer produces energy through nuclear fusion, but it contains tremendous amounts of stored heat, in a very small volume (most of the mass of the Sun will be confined to a volume not much larger than the Earth). As such, it will cool very, very slowly.

It will take many more billions of years for the Sun to cool from an initial temperature of hundreds of thousands of degrees to its present-day temperature and below. But in the end, the remnant of the Sun will slowly fade from sight, becoming a brown dwarf: a cooling, dead remnant of a star.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.