© 2023 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Study On Dead Fish's Thoughts Snags Ig Nobel Prize


In a couple weeks, the prestigious Nobel Prizes will be announced. But this week, the Ig Nobels honored the silliest discoveries of 2012. A study on the physics of the ponytail; a paper on why coffee spills when you walk; and a prize for a group of psychologists who scanned the brain of an unpromising patient: a deceased Atlantic salmon. Even more unlikely were their findings: the dead fish had thoughts. Who knows - maybe dreams. Craig Bennett did the experiment and accepted the award with good humor, and a couple of fish jokes.

CRAIG BENNETT: Some have called functional neuroimaging, which is an important method for studying the human brain, a fishing expedition. Some have even called the results a red herring. But...

SIMON: Craig Bennett and his colleague, Dr. Michael Miller, joins us now from studios at Harvard University. Gentlemen, thanks for being with us.

MICHAEL MILLER: Thank you, Scott.

: Yeah, it's good to be here.

SIMON: Is there any defensible reason to study the brain of a dead fish?

MILLER: Well, not for genuine, functional brain activities there's not.

: We wanted to illustrate kind of the absurdity of improper statistical approaches, that you can find false positives, or what is essentially garbage results. And using the incorrect statistical approach you can actually see that there are voxels of activity in the dead, frozen salmon's brain.

MILLER: You know, while the salmon was in the scanner, we were doing the testing exactly like a human would have been in there.

SIMON: I'm sorry, did you say to the postmortem salmon, just press this button in case you get antsy?

: We actually did, because we were also training our research assistants on the proper methods on how to interact with humans. And so not only did we give the experimental instructions to the salmon but we also were on the intercom asking if the salmon was OK throughout the experiment.

SIMON: Did you just go into Legal Seafood and say give me a mackerel - forgive me, an Atlantic salmon?

MILLER: It was a Saturday morning and we were conducting the testing very early so that we didn't interrupt the running of humans later in the day. So, I walked into the local supermarket at 6:30 in the morning, and I said, excuse me, gentlemen, I need a full-length Atlantic salmon. And I'm not a morning person, I just kind of added - for science. And they kind of looked at me funny, but then they were like, you know, we'll be happy to oblige. That'll be $27.50, and before I knew it, I had a full-length Atlantic salmon that we ready to scan.

SIMON: Gentlemen, I'm sorry if this question sounds indelicate, but when your experimentation was done, grilled or poached?

: Baked. That was dinner that night.


SIMON: Well, science was served, I expect, right?

: And science was tasty.

SIMON: Craig Bennett and Michael Miller, University of California Santa Barbara, won the Ig Nobel Prize this week. They joined us from Harvard University. Gentlemen, thanks for being with us.

MILLER: Thank you, Scott.

: Thanks.

SIMON: You can hear more highlights from the Ig Nobel Awards later this fall on a special Thanksgiving edition of NPR's SCIENCE FRIDAY. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.