Pop Neuroscience Is Bunk
By now you’ve seen the pretty pictures: Color-drenched brain scans capturing Buddhist monks meditating, addicts craving cocaine, and college sophomores choosing Coke over Pepsi. The media—and even some neuroscientists, it seems—love to invoke the neural foundations of human behavior to explain everything from the Bernie Madoff financial fiasco to slavish devotion to our iPhones, the sexual indiscretions of politicians, conservatives’ dismissal of global warming, and even an obsession with self-tanning.
Brains are big on campus, too. Take a map of any major university, and you can trace the march of neuroscience from research labs and medical centers into schools of law and business and departments of economics and philosophy. In recent years, neuroscience has merged with a host of other disciplines, spawning such new areas of study as neurolaw, neuroeconomics, neurophilosophy, neuromarketing, and neurofinance. Add to this the birth of neuroaesthetics, neurohistory, neuroliterature, neuromusicology, neuropolitics, and neurotheology. The brain has even wandered into such unlikely redoubts as English departments, where professors debate whether scanning subjects’ brains as they read passages from Jane Austen novels represents (a) a fertile inquiry into the power of literature or (b) a desperate attempt to inject novelty into a field that has exhausted its romance with psychoanalysis and postmodernism.
Brains are in demand. Once the largely exclusive province of neuroscientists and neurologists, the brain has now entered the popular mainstream. As a newly minted cultural artifact, the brain is portrayed in paintings, sculptures, and tapestries and put on display in museums and galleries.
The prospect of solving the deepest riddle humanity has ever contemplated—itself—by studying the brain has captivated scholars and scientists for centuries. But never before has the brain so vigorously engaged the public imagination. The prime impetus behind this enthusiasm is a form of brain imaging called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an instrument that came of age a mere two decades ago, which measures brain activity and converts it into the now-iconic vibrant images one sees in the science pages of the daily newspaper.
As a tool for exploring the biology of the mind, neuroimaging has given brain science a strong cultural presence. As one scientist remarked, brain images are now “replacing Bohr’s planetary atom as the symbol of science.” With its implied promise of decoding the brain, it is easy to see why brain imaging would beguile almost anyone interested in pulling back the curtain on the mental lives of others: politicians hoping to manipulate voter attitudes, marketers tapping the brain to learn what consumers really want to buy, agents of the law seeking an infallible lie detector, addiction researchers trying to gauge the pull of temptations, psychologists and psychiatrists seeking the causes of mental illness, and defense attorneys fighting to prove that their clients lack malign intent or even free will.
The problem is that brain imaging cannot do any of these things—at least not yet.
Why the fixation? First, of course, there is the very subject of the scans: the brain itself. How this enormous neural edifice gives rise to subjective feelings is one of the greatest mysteries of science and philosophy.
Now combine this with the power of human vision. There are good evolutionary reasons for this: The major threats to our ancestors were apprehended visually; so were their sources of food. Plausibly, the survival advantage of vision gave rise to our reflexive bias for believing that the world is as we perceive it to be, an error that psychologists and philosophers call naive realism. This misplaced faith in the trustworthiness of our perceptions is the wellspring of two of history’s most famously misguided theories: that the world is flat and that the sun revolves around the earth. For thousands of years, people trusted their raw impressions of the heavens.
Brain scan images are not what they seem either—or at least not how the media often depict them. They are not photographs of the brain in action in real time. Scientists can’t just look “in” the brain and see what it does. Those beautiful color-dappled images are actually representations of particular areas in the brain that are working the hardest—as measured by increased oxygen consumption—when a subject performs a task such as reading a passage or reacting to stimuli, such as pictures of faces. The powerful computer located within the scanning machine transforms changes in oxygen levels into the familiar candy-colored splotches indicating the brain regions that become especially active during the subject’s performance. Despite well-informed inferences, the greatest challenge of imaging is that it is very difficult for scientists to look at a fiery spot on a brain scan and conclude with certainty what is going on in the mind of the person.
Neuroimaging is a young science, barely out of its infancy, really. In such a fledgling enterprise, the half-life of facts can be especially brief. To regard research findings as settled wisdom is folly, especially when they emanate from a technology whose implications are still poorly understood. As any good scientist knows, there will always be questions to hone, theories to refine, and techniques to perfect. Nonetheless, scientific humility can readily give way to exuberance. When it does, the media often seem to have a ringside seat at the spectacle.
Several years ago, as the 2008 presidential election season was gearing up, a team of neuroscientists from UCLA sought to solve the riddle of the undecided, or swing, voter. They scanned the brains of swing voters as they reacted to photos and video footage of the candidates. The researchers translated the resultant brain activity into the voters’ unspoken attitudes and, together with three political consultants from a Washington, D.C.-based firm called FKF Applied Research, presented their findings in the New York Times in an op-ed titled “This Is Your Brain on Politics.” There, readers could view scans dotted with tangerine and neon yellow hot spots indicating regions that “lit up” when the subjects were exposed to images of Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John Edwards, and other candidates. Revealed in these activity patterns, the authors claimed, were “some voter impressions on which this election may well turn.” Among those impressions was that two candidates had utterly failed to “engage” with swing voters. Who were these unpopular politicians? John McCain and Barack Obama, the two eventual nominees for president.
Another much-circulated study, published in 2008, “The Neural Correlates of Hate” came from neuroscientists at University College London. The researchers asked subjects to bring in photos of people they hated—generally ex-lovers, work rivals, or reviled politicians—as well as people about whom subjects felt neutrally. By comparing their responses—that is, patterns of brain activation elicited by the hated face—with their reaction to the neutral photos, the team claimed to identify the neurological correlates of intense hatred. Not surprisingly, much of the media coverage attracted by the study flew under the headline: “‘Hate Circuit’ Found in Brain.”
One of the researchers, Semir Zeki, told the press that brain scans could one day be used in court—for example, to assess whether a murder suspect felt a strong hatred toward the victim. Not so fast. True, these data do reveal that certain parts of the brain become more active when people look at images of people they hate and presumably feel contempt for them as they do so. The problem is that the illuminated areas on the scan are activated by many other emotions, not just hate. There is no newly discovered collection of brain regions that are wired together in such a way that they comprise the identifiable neural counterpart of hatred.
University press offices, too, are notorious for touting sensational details in their media-friendly releases: Here’s a spot that lights up when subjects think of God (“Religion center found!”), or researchers find a region for love (“Love found in the brain”). Neuroscientists sometimes refer disparagingly to these studies as “blobology,” their tongue-in-cheek label for studies that show which brain areas become activated as subjects experience X or perform task Y. To repeat: It’s all too easy for the nonexpert to lose sight of the fact that fMRI and other brain-imaging techniques do not literally read thoughts or feelings. By obtaining measures of brain oxygen levels, they show which regions of the brain are more active when a person is thinking, feeling, or, say, reading or calculating. But it is a rather daring leap to go from these patterns to drawing confident inferences about how people feel about political candidates or paying taxes, or what they experience in the throes of love.
Pop neuroscience makes an easy target, we know. Yet we invoke it because these studies garner a disproportionate amount of media coverage and shape public perception of what brain imaging can tell us. Skilled science journalists cringe when they read accounts claiming that scans can capture the mind itself in action. Serious science writers take pains to describe quality neuroscience research accurately. Indeed, an eddy of discontent is already forming. “Neuromania,” “neurohubris,” and “neurohype”—“neurobollocks,” if you’re a Brit—are just some of the labels that have been brandished, sometimes by frustrated neuroscientists themselves. But in a world where university press releases elbow one another for media attention, it’s often the study with a buzzy storyline (“Men See Bikini-Clad Women as Objects, Psychologists Say”) that gets picked up and dumbed down.
The problem with such mindless neuroscience is not neuroscience itself. The field is one of the great intellectual achievements of modern science. Its instruments are remarkable. The goal of brain imaging is enormously important and fascinating: to bridge the explanatory gap between the intangible mind and the corporeal brain. But that relationship is extremely complex and incompletely understood. Therefore, it is vulnerable to being oversold by the media, some overzealous scientists, and neuroentrepreneurs who tout facile conclusions that reach far beyond what the current evidence warrants— fits of “premature extrapolation,” as British neuroskeptic Steven Poole calls them. When it comes to brain scans, seeing may be believing, but it isn’t necessarily understanding.
Some of the misapplications of neuroscience are amusing and essentially harmless. Take, for instance, the new trend of neuromanagement books such as Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders, which advises nervous CEOs “to be aware that anxiety centers in the brain connect to thinking centers, including the PFC [prefrontal cortex] and ACC [anterior cingulate cortex].” The fad has, perhaps not surprisingly, infiltrated the parenting and education markets, too. Parents and teachers are easy marks for “brain gyms,” “brain-compatible education,” and “brain-based parenting,” not to mention dozens of other unsubstantiated techniques. For the most part, these slick enterprises merely dress up or repackage good advice with neuroscientific findings that add nothing to the overall program. As one cognitive psychologist quipped, “Unable to persuade others about your viewpoint? Take a Neuro-Prefix—influence grows or your money back.”
But reading too much into brain scans matters when real-world concerns hang in the balance. Consider the law. When a person commits a crime, who is at fault: the perpetrator or his or her brain? Of course, this is a false choice. If biology has taught us anything, it is that “my brain” versus “me” is a false distinction. Still, if biological roots can be identified—and better yet, captured on a brain scan as juicy blotches of color—it is too easy for nonprofessionals to assume that the behavior under scrutiny must be “biological” and therefore “hardwired,” involuntary or uncontrollable. Criminal lawyers, not surprisingly, are increasingly drawing on brain images supposedly showing a biological defect that “made” their clients commit murder.
Looking to the future, some neuroscientists envision a dramatic transformation of criminal law. David Eagleman, for one, welcomes a time when “we may someday find that many types of bad behavior have a basic biological explanation [and] eventually think about bad decision making in the same way we think about any physical process, such as diabetes or lung disease.” As this comes to pass, he predicts, “more juries will place defendants on the not-blameworthy side of the line.” But is this the correct conclusion to draw from neuroscientific data? After all, if every behavior is eventually traced to detectable correlates of brain activity, does this mean we can one day write off all troublesome behavior on a don’t-blame-me-blame-my-brain theory of crime? Will no one ever be judged responsible? Thinking through these profoundly important questions turns on how we understand the relationship between the brain and the mind.
Steve Jobs: Pygmalion
From the New York Post:
Chrisann Brennan first met Steve Jobs in 1972, while they were both students at Homestead HS in Cupertino, Calif. Over the next five years, they dated off and on throughout their teens and early 20s. The two were living together with their friend Daniel Kottke, a computer engineer and one of the earliest employees of Apple, in 1977, when the company took off.
The two finally ended their romantic relationship for good in late 1977, after Brennan became pregnant with their daughter, Lisa. Brennan worked as a waitress and collected welfare checks to support herself and their baby daughter.
Jobs publicly denied he was Lisa’s father for years, even though he took a paternity test in 1979 proving he was the dad. He was paying $500 a month in child support when he told Time magazine in 1983, “28 percent of the male population in the United States could be the father.”
Today, Brennan is a painter and graphic designer living in Monterey, Calif., and Lisa is a Harvard-educated journalist.
Here, in an exclusive excerpt from Brennan’s first-person tale, “The Bite in the Apple: A Memoir of My Life With Steve Jobs” (on sale Oct. 29), she describes her frustrating, difficult and passionate years with the business visionary…
Steve often said that he had a strong sense of having had a past life as a World War II pilot. He’d tell me how, when driving, he felt a strong impulse to pull the steering wheel back as if for takeoff. It was a curious thing for him to say, but he did have that sense of unadorned glamour from the forties. He loved the big band sound of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie. At the first Apple party he even danced like he was from the forties. So I could see the fit: Steve as a young man with all that American ingenuity from a less encumbered time, with that simple sense of right and wrong. But that’s not how I pictured him in 1977. Apple was taking off and Steve wasn’t in an airplane, he was in a rocket ship blasting out beyond the atmosphere of what anyone imagined possible. And he was changing.
It was around this time that Steve, Daniel, and I moved into a rental in Cupertino. It was a four-bedroom ranch style house on Presidio Drive, close to Apple’s first offices. Steve told me that he didn’t want to get a house with just the two of us because it felt insufficient to him.
Steve wanted his buddy Daniel to live with him because he believed it would break up the intensity of what wasn’t working between us. Our relationship was running hot and cold. We were completely crazy about each other and utterly bored in turns. I had suggested to Steve that we separate, but he told me that he just couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye.
A new memoir by his ex-girlfriend sheds light on the cult of Steve Jobs.Photo: Albert Watson
I was glad to hear this but I was also, by this time, deferring to his ideas way too often. Steve also didn’t want us to share a room at the Presidio house. He said he didn’t want us to play assumed roles and that he wanted to choose when we would be together. I was hurt by this, but reasoned that he had a point, that we both needed a sense of space and choice. And so I went along with it.
Steve selected the bedroom in the front of the house. It was like him to want to position himself as the captain of the ship — in front. He was always vying for that superior position. I chose the master bedroom and settled in, knowing I had the best room. Daniel, who was sort of charmingly odd, slept in the living room on the floor next to his piano. But after a month Steve literally picked me up and moved everything I owned and took over the master bedroom. He’d finally realized that I had the better deal: a larger room with an en suite bath and the privacy of the backyard. Steve had paid the security deposit for the rental so was, in fact, entitled to the room he wanted. But he was so graceless that I felt humiliated and outraged.
Even after swapping rooms in this way, Steve and I still shared nights of lovemaking so profound that, astonishingly, some fifteen years later, he called me out of the blue to thank me for them. He was married at the time of his call and all I could think of was, Whoa . . . men . . . are . . . really . . . different. Imagine if I had called him to say such a thing.
We remembered different things. Mainly I recalled how awful he was becoming and how I was starting to flounder. But he was right: our lovemaking had been sublime. At the time of Steve’s phone call, I found that as I listened I was as awed by the memory as by his strange need to risk an expression of such intimacy. After I hung up I stood still and thought, Maybe Steve thinks that love has its own laws and imperative. But why call now?
Chrisann Brennan with daughter Lisa. She and Jobs broke up after she became pregnant in 1977.
His timing had always been so particular.
Living with Steve in Cupertino was not as I had expected it to be. We shared nice dinners and some beautiful evenings, but we could barely sustain a sense of emotional intimacy, much less build on it. It was like a game of Snakes and Ladders, with Steve as the game master. The ups were hopeful and the downs were extreme. I didn’t know how to hold my own with him because he didn’t play fair. He just played to win — and win at any cost. I knew that a solid relationship couldn’t be built on any one person winning, but I couldn’t understand why things kept slip-sliding away and breaking into pieces.
When we first moved into that house, I was by myself during the days when Steve and Daniel went off to Apple. I was deeply frustrated by my lack of creative focus. I had made the commitment to myself to be an artist but I had no idea how to do it. There was so much pain between me and my work that I didn’t know where to begin or how to direct myself. So when my friend Ellen offered to help me get a waitressing job at a restaurant in Palo Alto, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to be around others, to make money, and to wash Steve and Daniel out of my hair on a regular basis. I needed my own independent life and perspective away from that house. I wanted to be around other people so I could remember who I was and what interested me. I also thought that it would help Steve and me to get on a better footing or, if we couldn’t, for me to find my own feet to walk out of the relationship if that’s what I needed to do.
Unfortunately I had to turn down that job because I didn’t have a car and so couldn’t get to Palo Alto. So I ended up working at Apple in Cupertino, driving in the mornings with Steve and Daniel and walking home in the evenings if we didn’t have plans together after work. Eventually I started to take art classes at De Anza, which was conveniently located between Apple and our home. At Apple I worked in the shipping department where, if I remember correctly, I soldered disconnected chips onto boards and also screwed those same boards into Apple II cases for final assembly. The work wasn’t interesting, but the banter and laughter with my cohorts, Richard Johnson and Bob Martinengo, kept me amused.
At that time Apple had about one thousand square feet to its name, divided into three rooms total: one for shipping, one as a kind of tech lab for R & D, and one larger office for all the executives and secretaries.
Jobs with daughter Lisa, dressed as Raggedy Ann, on Halloween 1986.
One day I remember a bunch of us standing around Steve’s desk when John Draper, aka Captain Crunch, called. (Draper is well known for his contribution to the blue box technology.) Steve put Draper on the speakerphone so that everyone could hear without Draper’s knowing we were all listening. Draper was full of anxiety, pleading with Steve to do something for him. I don’t remember what now, but I do know that people were quietly laughing at him. This is nothing in the annals of Steve Jobs stories, but I remember it because Steve’s lack of fair play seemed shameless to me. I didn’t care who he was making fun of. I just didn’t like it.
On the nights when Steve and I didn’t have something to do together — and there were more and more of these — he would often come home late and wake me up to talk and make love. On the nights he just wanted to talk, I knew he had been with Kobun [Japanese Zen master Kobun Chino Otogawa was a longtime spiritual adviser to Jobs]. I would wake up to find Steve gently ecstatic, speaking to me in symbolic language with the Zen master’s distinct speech pattern. A number of times he spoke to me about how he had been given “five brilliant flowers.” His demeanor would gleam when he said this, and I would listen to find out what the symbol meant to him. My best guess after months of these reveries was that the flowers were five different people whose enlightenment Steve would be involved in. These blooms apparently included me. In the beginning he talked about “one brilliant flower” and he would touch my nose when he said it, as if to say, “That’s you!” but then it rose to three and then five.
I’d wondered who the others were.
Steve was assuming the role of my spiritual master once again and I felt uneasy about it. What if I didn’t want to be one of his brilliant flowers. Beyond this, the general lack of transparency when it came to Steve and Kobun didn’t feel right, especially when it involved me. A few years earlier Steve had tried to get me to primal scream “Mommy, Daddy, Mommy, Daddy” when we had taken LSD because he thought he was fit to oversee that kind of opening up in me just from having read a book. The fact that he had never gone through primal therapy himself didn’t seem to concern him. It was that Pygmalion thing again.
Tech titan Jobs with the latest in personal computers, circa 1984.Photo: Michael L. Abramson/Getty Images
Now he and Kobun thought Steve should oversee my enlightenment? Also during this time Steve bragged about being lazy. He was working like a maniac but he’d throw his head back with his eyes unfocused and croon, “I am just the laziest man in the world.” After about the tenth refrain I quietly translated this to mean that he was only active in response to inspiration, and so in this way, action was effortless, thus, he was lazy. It smacked of the coded language between him and Kobun. Further, it felt self-aggrandizing. I was left out of the late-night conversations between master and student, but I got these trailers when I was half asleep. Some of it was beautiful and I was glad Steve wanted to share it with me, but some of it felt really skewed. Steve had a way of being spiritually advanced while also being emotionally underdeveloped, and I started to wonder why Kobun didn’t understand this. Why indeed.
I was wary because I didn’t think enlightened people bragged, and I sensed that these two were too infatuated with themselves. The touch on the nose was patronizing. Steve, who was my boyfriend, not my guru, had some confusion about me surrendering to his ego instead of to my own higher purpose and presence. In the end, I think he may have been jealous of me for having my own power and insight. He seemed to want either to own everything or diminish its value.
One evening, Steve and I had a party at the Presidio house. I don’t remember much about the party or who was there — likely, Bill Fernandez, Woz [Steve Wozniak], and Daniel, and their girlfriends. What I do remember is that the next morning there was a confusing moment when Steve, looking around and squinting, asked what we should do with “it.” I didn’t
The late Steve Jobs with his wife, Laurene Powell, at the 2010 Academy Awards.Photo: Alexandra Wyman/Getty Images
understand the question until I realized that he was asking if there was a service we could call in to take care of the dirty dishes. Doing the dishes ourselves was simply no longer an option for Steve. He had entered into an elite world where others took care of the lower-level functions so that he could operate with more efficiency, on his presumably higher plane. I not too happily cleaned them up by myself. This put me into the wrong kind of position with him, because in no world should I ever have been in a service role to Steve in this way. I just didn’t understand how to take care of myself in the face of his enlarged sense of self importance.
A few weeks after the party Steve started telling me that I had too many wrinkles on my forehead. I’m of Irish and French descent and have thin skin from the Irish side. In my early twenties, I had a wrinkle-free face, but when I raised my eyebrows, I had a bazillion tiny lines, like pages of a book. Steve would point this out and then, like a stage mother, literally reach over and smooth my forehead whenever I furrowed my brow. This was a new Steve. I have never liked this sort of thing in mothers, much less in boyfriends.
I am not the kind of woman who places high stakes in her appearance.
That’s not a natural outcome of who I am. But I was puzzled. Steve had always really liked the way I looked before, but now my very face was not okay? I fell to tears, rejected and burdened by it all.
I now understand that Steve was learning how to gain power by insinuating negative self-images onto others. He was starting to define me more by what I wasn’t, than by what I was. This was a whole new category of unkindness and it confused me. It was mean and I felt rejected, but I just didn’t have a comeback.
As Apple grew, so did Steve’s sense of self-entitlement; in parallel they both seemed to take on lives of their own. And his behaviors didn’t improve with success, they changed from adolescent and dopey to just plain vicious. For example, in the pre-Apple days whenever we’d go out for dinner (which wasn’t that often), Steve would often be sarcastic toward the restaurant staff. The host would say, “Two?” and Steve would reply, “No, fifteen!” driving for the implicit “DUH!” But after Apple started we ate out a lot more and Steve’s behavior toward service people changed into a different kind of disempowerment.
The cover of Chrisann Brennan’s new book, “The Bite in the Apple,” out October 29.
Steve would order the same meal night after night, yet he’d complain bitterly each evening about the little side sauces that were served with it, cutting the air with disdain for the waitstaff who would serve up such greasy-salty-tasteless-mock-fine cuisine. He seemed to assume that everyone at the restaurant should know better than to serve up such wallpaper paste — not only to him, but at all. Steve would run down the waitstaff like a demon, detailing the finer points of good service, which included the notion that “they should be seen only when he needed them.” Steve was uncontrollably critical. His reactions had a Tourette’s quality — as if he couldn’t stop himself.
Of course, it must have been sort of wild to have your genius recognized at the age of twenty-two, to be thrust into such a role of authority.
Steve had always been a brilliant misfit, but at this time — to be generous — he wasn’t managing his growing power very well. In fact, he was positively despotic. Excellence had always been a gorgeous thing in Steve, but now he was using it like a weapon. He’d look for excellence and when he didn’t find it, he’d behave badly and take it out on people.
As Steve’s first girlfriend I increasingly experienced what it felt like to have him turn against me. And so it was at this time that I began to perceive that awesome and awful could be but a hair’s breadth apart.
And where Steve’s fullness met mine with staggering beauty (there was a reason he called fifteen years later to acknowledge the importance of the nights we’d shared), he was also becoming so creatively unstable, so out of integrity with himself that everything could slip out of alignment in an instant. That’s when my heart would freeze over. That’s when I’d be left speechless and gasping. Though I would try to adapt to the change, it all soon outweighed his value to me.
From “The Bite in the Apple” by Chrisann Brennan. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
The Universe Is Bigger on the Inside: Tardis regions in spacetime and the expanding universe
Fans of the Doctor Who will be very familiar with the stupefied phrase uttered by all new visitors to his Tardis: "It's...bigger...on the inside." As it turns out, this irrational idea may have something to contribute to our understanding of the universe. A team of cosmologists in Finland and Poland propose that the observed acceleration of the expansion of the universe, usually explained by dark energy or modified laws of gravity, may actually be the result of regions of spacetime that are larger on the inside than they appear from the outside. The researchers have dubbed these "Tardis regions."
Perhaps the most surprising cosmological observation of the past few decades was the 1998 discovery by Perlmutter, Schmidt and Riess, that the expansion of the universe has been accelerating for the past five billion years. This result, which won the 2011 Nobel Prize, was quickly corroborated by observation of independent phenomena such as the cosmic background radiation.
Why the acceleration is occurring is not currently understood, although it can be described. In terms of conventional cosmological theory, it calls for the existence of a "dark energy," an energy field permeating the universe. However, because gravity attracts normal mass-energy, dark energy would have to have a negative energy density, something unknown as yet in nature. In addition, roughly 75 percent of the contents of the universe have to be made up of dark energy to get the observed acceleration of expansion. Even though dark energy provides a reasonable description of the universal acceleration, its value as an explanation is still controversial. Many have the gut reaction that dark energy is too strange to be true.
Professors Rasanen, and Szybkab, of the University of Helsinki and the Jagellonian University at Krakow, together with Rasanen's graduate student Mikko Lavinto, decided to investigate another possibility.
The "standard cosmological model," which is the framework within which accelerated expansion requires dark energy, was developed in the 1920s and 1930s. The FLRW metric (named for Friedmann, Lemaître, Robertson and Walker, the major contributors) is an exact solution to Einstein's equations. It describes a strictly homogeneous, isotropic universe that can be expanding or contracting.
Strict homogeneity and strict isotropy means that the universe described by an FLRW metric looks the same at a given time from every point in space, at whatever distance or orientation you look. This is a universe in which galaxies, clusters of galaxies, sheets, walls, filaments, and voids do not exist. Not, then, very much like our own Universe, which appears to be rather homogeneous and isotropic when you look at distances greater than about a gigaparsec, but closer in it is nothing of the sort.
Rasanen's research team decided to examine a model universe having a structure closer to ours, in an attempt to look for alternate explanations of the accelerating expansion we see. They took an FLRW metric filled with a uniform density of dust, and converted it into a Swiss cheese model but cutting random holes in it. This has the effect of making the model inhomogeneous and non-isotropic (except very far away), and hence the Swiss cheese model looks more like our own Universe, save for the fact that our Universe does not seem to be full of holes.
While Swiss cheese is delicious, a universe with holes is not. To rectify this, Rasanen's team filled in the holes with plugs made from dust-filled exact solutions of Einstein's equation. These plugs are a reasonable model of the region near a sizable body, such as a galaxy. By putting the plugs in the holes, and then smoothing the intersections between them, they obtained a rather uniform spacetime with a lot of smaller blobs of matter dispersed throughout it – a (very) simple analog to the structure of the universe in which we live.
Rasanen's team made the plugs from a model in which the spatial parts essentially fold in on themselves as the spacetime evolves. As suggested by the figure above, such folds increase the length of a path passing through the plug without changing the external dimensions of the plug. For some such plugs, the length of a path through the plug becomes longer throughout the life of the Universe.
The team calls such a plug a Tardis region, and a spacetime containing Tardis regions is called a Tardis spacetime. As seen in the figure below, the proper diameter and volume of a properly configured plug starts somewhat larger than the apparent quantities, but then grows to much larger sizes.
Let's get to the story about Tardis regions and expansion of the universe. Because gravity is universally attractive, in an inhomogeneous universe a denser region will tend to expand more slowly than will a less dense region – there is less gravitational interaction holding the less dense region together.
Although the Tardis regions expand faster than the surrounding dust space, this does not change their apparent size from outside, so at first glance it is difficult to see how this accelerates the expansion of the universe. The key is that when an observer looks at a distant object in a plugged Swiss cheese space, the light they see has passed through a number of plugs, the number increasing the further away the object. As the length of a path through a Tardis region rapidly becomes larger as time goes by, the total length of the path the light followed from an object increases faster than does the space outside the plugs. The result is that the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating with time, without additional influences such as dark matter.
To sum up, a space with a large number of relatively small Tardis regions will appear initially to expand at roughly the same rate as does the dust space in which the Tardis regions are embedded. As time goes on, however, the Tardis regions expand faster than the Swiss cheese, and as they fill larger fractions of the photon paths between objects and observers, the expansion of the universe as measured by optical tests over large distances will appear to accelerate.
The effect can be made large enough to reproduce the observed acceleration, so the idea isn't silly. But is this the explanation? It is too early to tell. The model is very artificial and simplistic, but does suggest that there is at least one possible alternate to dark energy within the bounds of classical general relativity.