Winter School of Ethics and Neuroscience – day 1: brain reading

The first day of the Winter School was composed of two long sessions. The morning session focused on brain reading: its current state of development, potential applications and ethical issues. As per today, brain monitoring techniques are quite far from “reading thoughts” just like a sound recorder would record a conversation, so our discussions on how ethical it is to potentially read thoughts without a person’s consent (and its implications for privacy) were very speculative.

(Picture source:, 31 May 2013. The winter school participants agreed that putting a brain scan in an article makes it intuitively more reliable, so here is one!)

My impression is that it is not that insightful to know what are the words and sentences that are generated by the brain at a certain moment, also because it is currently more effective to ask the person to tell them aloud. But what about lying? We had a complex discussion about how a brain reading device could detect lying. It could clearly be helpful in detecting if someone is saying yes while thinking no to a certain question; but how about cases of sincere wrong beliefs about given facts, or unconscious filtering of memory, or ill-formed questions? My thought is that it is more insightful to read the brain to know about the current mental state, than going for the high-level information conveyed by words. On that line, some studies tested the hypothesis that a certain set of emotions (and therefore specific mental activations) are triggered by recognising a scene in a picture and could tell for example if that person recognised the crime scene. My first objection is that the brain activation could come from recognising the scene for an unrelated reason, and would therefore be no solid proof.

I find that the application of brain reading in assisting justice would be risky if it were trusted to provide reliable data. The same applies for DNA analysis: if the overall reasoning is unsound, it could even be evidence against someone innocent. My take is that it is just like a new tool in the kitchen: it doesn’t automatically make you a better cook, but in the right hands it can make your job faster or more accurate.


6th Winter School of Ethics and Neuroscience

I just came home after the last session of this Winter School, organised by the Berlin School of Mind and Brain. As I am not a neuroscientist nor a philosopher, I feared I would end up understanding as much as this:

… while I actually  managed to follow all discussions quite well 🙂

I attended the philosophical track, that consisted of presentations and discussion around morals and ethics from various angles: philosophical, emotional, cultural and neurological. I find especially interesting to map a lot of connections among these domains. It was sometimes hard to accept that our moral views can be influenced in ways and extents we can’t imagine, but even if I feel that my convinctions are somewhat not as bomb-proof as before, I prefer to be aware of their weaknesses – just like knowing the potential shortcomings of computer programming made me trust them less, but in a more informed way.

I plan to write down a summary of the contents of each session and some of my comments in separate posts. Stay tuned! I will be happy to continue discussing about those themes in the comments.

From the kitchen: baking trick

Hello all! I wish to share with you a rather known trick to let a simple electric oven bake bread with wonderfully crispy crust.

Bread #16: the best crust so far, thin and tasty

Various baking websites and books recommend to have high humidity for the beginning of the baking process. Professional baking ovens have built-in water sprays that allow to regulate humidity at will, but they are quite expensive. At my mum’s house there is a gas oven. When gas is burnt, it produces small amounts of vapour, that is perfect for bread (and most of oven dishes too). Electric ovens don’t burn anything, so the air inside becomes dry very fast. You notice that if you bake bread and its crust is thick and very hard. It means it has dried out too much and has lost all humidity.

I have bought a relatively cheap electric oven and have only lately started making bread. I quickly realised that the crust was always too thick and dry, so I managed to solve the low humidity issue by adding a baking tin with around one glass of water right before warming the oven up, and leaving it there until the end of baking. The amount of water evaporates during the baking process, so that the tin can stay in the oven until it cools down and it’s safe to remove.

The second improvement is about the surface on which the bread cooks. I used to bake on a metal tin (the one that I decided to fill with water) and I read that a ceramic surface is very suitable for baking. Therefore I used my biggest porcelain casserole dish, upside down (so that the bread will be on the rough, porous surface). I put it in the oven before warming it up, so that the bread will be on a warm surface from the start. It is a bit tricky to put the bread in the oven, but with a small wooden cutting board as support, I manage to transfer the bread on its piece of baking paper quite safely.

I have baked three times with this setup and I am very happy with the flavour and texture of the crust.

Happy baking everyone!

Today’s bread, my #17: roggen, dinkel vollkorn, sunflower and flax seeds, roggen-sourdough

Book recommendation – “Ni d’Ève ni d’Adam” by Amélie Nothomb

(I want to make an experiment and write this post in two versions, one in French and one in English.)


Je viens de terminer la lecture de ce roman qui m’a doucement émue. Il m’est rarement arrivé de me reconnaître autant dans les pensées de quelqu’un d’autre et d’avoir reçu l’inspiration et la calme pour avancer dans ma propre partie d’échecs. Durant ces dernières années, j’ai cherché ce genre de modèle avec une frénesie croissante, n’en trouvant que de très partiels. Le récit de ce début de vie m’a si simplement fait comprendre que je peux renoncer aux développements sociaux classiques (travail, mariage, maison, enfants, chien etc.) sans forcément détruire mon futur ou me sentir coupable pour toujours. J’ai grand besoin d’histoires de survécus. J’ai besoin de savoir qui il y a d’autres histoires où un non n’engendre pas de rage, de bile, de résistance.

De plus, l’autrice est d’origine belge comme moi. Ceci pourrait n’être qu’un mot sur un document officiel, mais c’est ce qui m’a fait dire “Oh, moi aussi!” en lisant les quelques phrases du roman où l’autrice parle des nuages gris de la Belgique avec une affection simple et profonde. Moi aussi, j’aime le temps couvert de la Belgique. Il a été la lumière estompée d’autant de bonnes mémoires.

Je remercie Amélie Nothomb d’avoir réussi un livre aussi sincère et puissant.


[English version]

I just finished the last pages of this novel and I feel so moved. It rarely happened to me to identify myself so easily with the thoughts of someone else, and to receive inspiration and serenity to keep playing my own chess game. I have been looking for such models with increasing frenzy, as I only found very partial ones. This story made me understand that I can give the usual social upgrades up (good job, marriage, house, children, dog, etc…) without automatically condemn my future or feel guilty forever. I need survivor stories so badly. I need to know that there are other stories where a “no” does not generate rage, acrimony, opposition.

Moreover, the autor is Belgian like me. This could be a dry word on an official document, but it is what made me say: “Me too!” when reading the few sentences in which the author writes with simple and deep affection about the dull grey clouds that are so typical of Belgium. I love the overcast skies of Belgium too. They have been the background and the diffuse light of so many good memories.

I would like to thank Amélie Nothomb for her sincere and powerful book.

Why I like reading, and how I like to read

Today I started reading a new novel that I picked from the French section of my local library – Ni d’Ève ni d’Adam“, by Amélie Nothomb. After reading several books in English and Italian, mostly in the efficient and clean, almost steel-like prose of technical explanations, I met a rich, singing, poetic French first-person narrative. It gave me more joy than usual, as if I came back home – and I attempted to find out why.

In general, I particularly like reading novels in French because I find that this language can convey so many nuances of expression, it seems to possess such a vast colour palette. When I read in Italian, I can’t find the same depth, not because Italian doesn’t allow it, but because I don’t feel that Italian and French (nor German or English) are completely interchangeable on all topics. I consider them like musical instruments, with their own structure and voice, that makes them especially able to convey the sense and emotions of a piece of music written specifically for them, or their equivalents. You can spot that when you compare Paganini’s Caprices with their piano “translation” written by Franz Liszt:


It also made me compare the musicality of a language in a given text with the movement of an animal. There are texts who move around swiftly and graciously like leopards, without any noise from their steps. Some texts sound exact and articulate like insect legs, moved with precision, almost mechanical in their appearance. Some other texts move around with the cute awkwardness of a foal, that tries hard not to trip, but that shows the seed of its future elegance. I like to pick up a random book from the library and discover, page after page, which kind of movement it has chosen to embody. The topic doesn’t matter much, because I am reading to discover how other people decided to express their thoughts, and this alone fulfills my curiosity.

To finish, here is the step-by-step (literally!) analysis of horse walk, because it matches with how I sometimes feel when I read a book: it is not about the destination of that walk, nor about the context, but it is my analysis of its components one by one, even if they don’t make sense alone – but when I get out of this “analysis mode” and I go back to the full picture, at the expected reading speed, I spot so many more details. Enjoy!