Friday, February 24, 2006

What makes young kids different from young chimps?

They are LESS critical in imitating the actions of others. Horner and Whiten trained young chimps to remove food from a black box (open the door on its left side) but added some extraneous steps (tap on top of box, pull back blot across top of box). When the box was made transparent, the chimps recognized the unnecessary steps and no longer performed them. Human children (3-4 years old) doing the same exercise did not delete the unnecessary steps!! (see Horner, V. & Whiten, A. (2005). Causal knowledge and imitation/emulation switching in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens). Animal Cognition, 8, 164-181.)

Delete one gene, and turn from timid to daring, if you are a mouse

Can efforts to dial down overly fearful humans be far behind?

Shumyatsky et al. show that deleting a gene that is expressed in the amygdala (required for fear conditioning) generates mice that are less aversive to risk and less intimidated by dangerous sights and sounds. Curiously, the gene is for a protein, stathmin, that inhibits microtubule formation. With it gone, the electrical signals associated with fear conditioning are deficient.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Complex decisions solved better by unconsious than by conscious thought

Ap Dijksterhuis et al. , Univ. of Amsterdam, had a group of students read a comparison of many different aspects of four different cars. They were told they had 4 minutes to choose the best deal and divided into two groups. One group was distracted by being given anagrams to solve during this period. It did better at the choice that the group that spent the 4 minutes consciously thinking about it.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Trashing the God Genome

The following paragraphs are quotes from the harsh review of Dennett's new book (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) written by LEON WIESELTIER, literary editor of The New Republic, in the Feb. 19 New York Times Book Review. The text includes quotes from Dennett, but blogger isn't doing quote marks or dash marks for me at the moment.

It's certainly appropriate to point out that any proposed natural biological account of the origins of religion is a just-so story than can not be tested. Mr. Wieseltier might have pointed out, however, that the just-so stories of conventional religions have led to massive human suffering and chaos. Some of the evolutionary psychology fantasies (Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, for example) yield a more benign outcome.

Clips from the review:
What follows is, in brief, Dennett's natural history of religion. It begins with the elementary assertion that everything that moves needs something like a mind, to keep it out of harm's way and help it find the good things. To this end, there arose in very ancient times the evolutionary adaptation that one researcher has called a hyperactive agent detection device, or HADD. This cognitive skill taught us, or a very early version of us, that we live in a world of other minds, and taught us too well, because it instilled the urge to treat things, especially frustrating things , as agents with beliefs and desires. This urge is deeply rooted in human biology, and it results in a fantasy-generation process that left us finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us......Eventually this animism issued in deities, who were simply the agents who had access to all the strategic information that we desperately lacked. But what good to us is the gods' knowledge if we can't get it from them? So eventually shamans arose who told us what we wanted to hear from the gods.....Folk religions became organized religions.

There are a number of things that must be said about this story. The first is that it is only a story. It is not based, in any strict sense, on empirical research. Dennett is extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking, nothing more. Breaking the Spell is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative. Even Dennett admits as much: I am not at all claiming that this is what science has established about religion. . . . We don't yet know. So all of Dennett's splashy allegiance to evidence and experiment and generating further testable hypotheses notwithstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing.

Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not a biological reductionist. But the charge is proved as early as the fourth page of his book. Watch closely. Like other animals, the confused passage begins, we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal. No confusion there, and no offense. It is incontrovertible that we are animals. The sentence continues: But we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives. A sterling observation, and the beginning of humanism. And then more, in the same fine antideterministic vein: This fact does make us different.

Then suddenly there is this: But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science. As the ancient rabbis used to say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken? Dennett does not see that he has taken his humanism back. Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of biology, then we are not independent of biology. If our creeds are an expression of our animality, if they require an explanation from natural science, then we have not transcended our genetic imperatives. The human difference, in Dennett's telling, is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind, a doctrine that may quite plausibly be called biological reductionism.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Mindful awareness and my frontal lobes?

A note by Sara Lazar et al. in Neuroreport proposes that mindful awareness meditation causes increases in the thickness of areas of the frontal lobes associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing (the sample size is small). It is known that brain areas associated with other skilled activities such as juggling or playing the piano increase in size with practice.

I find it difficult to communicate my experience of mindful awareness. It seems like a contentless animal kind of openness that observes mind products such as thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they rise and decay, sensing itself as distinct from completely being them. This is very different from my usual more immersed self that feels itself to be completely defined by those thoughts, feelings, and emotions. This losing of a normal self, paradoxically, yields a platform for acting in the real world that others experience as a strong presence of self. One description would be that this platform is continually making such distinctions as that between being an angry person and noting the process of angry-ing as it appears and disappears. (I try to expand on this in Mindstuff: a guide for the curious user)

So what use is knowing all this brain stuff??

Sure, the material I am posting in this blog is fascinating in its own right. Yet, I think all of us studying how the brain works have either an explicit or hidden agenda: We want understanding how the mind/body works to help with understanding not only our personal internal conflicts but also those of the cultural or political organisms of which we are cellular parts. Inappropriate conditioning - enabled by our ancient limbic repertoires (see The Beast Within essay on my website) - contribute to both personal and social conflicts. Wouldn't it be great if more fundamentalists of every stripe could be coaxed into examining the origins and mechanisms of how their minds work. The hope would be that insight into the nature of their anger at outsider infidels might soften their fanaticism...

Watching emotions interfere with goal attainment

Dorsolateral Prefrontal and lateral parietal cortex regions involved in working memory needed for task perseverance are de-activated by emotional arousal mediated by amygdala and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. See Dolcos and McCarthy

Detecting lying, and critical comments on the brain imaging enterprise

Lying can be detected by various imaging techniques as well as by trained human observers. There is an interesting review article in the Feb. 5, 2006 NYTimes magazine by Robin Marantz Henig "Looking for the Lie". Note these VERY IMPORTANT critical comments of Steve Kosslyn, who has distinguished imaging difference between spontaneous and rehearsed lies:

"Kosslyn remains skeptical about the brain-mapping enterprise as a whole. "If I'm right, and deception turns out to be not just one thing, we need to start pulling the bird apart by its joints and looking at the underlying systems involved," he said. A true understanding of deception requires a fuller knowledge of functions like memory, perception and visual imagery, he said, aspects of neuroscience investigations not directly related to deception at all. In Kosslyn's view, brain mapping and lie detection are two different things. The first is an academic exercise that might reveal some basic information about how the brain works, not only during lying but
also during other high-level tasks; it uses whatever technology is available in the sophisticated
neurophysiology lab. The second is a real-world enterprise, best accomplished not necessarily by using elaborate instruments but by encouraging people "to use their two eyes and brains." Searching for a "lie zone" of the brain as a counterterrorism strategy, he said, is like trying to get to the moon by climbing a tree. It feels as if you're getting somewhere because you're moving higher and higher. But then you get to the top of the tree, and there's nowhere else to go, and the moon is still hundreds of thousands of miles away. Better to have stayed on the ground and really figured out the problem before setting off on a path that looks like progress but is really nothing more than motion. Better, in this case, to discover what deception looks like in the brain by breaking it down into progressively smaller elements, no matter how artificial the setup and how tedious the process, before introducing a lie-detection device that doesn't really get you where you want to go."

Imaging the person in the brain....

A NYTimes article by Benedict Carey notes that the brain has become a pop star. Several major articles are appearing every month using brain imaging techniques to show changes in the activities of specific brain areas associated with such things as partisan thinking, schadenfreude, and what happens when a happily married woman's hand is held by her husband's. Here is a partial list of this and other articles I have come upon, with links to some original articles and reviews:

Holding hands calming jittery nerves

Hypnotic suggestion reduces conflict in the brain, measured by the Stroop test, correlating with decreased anterior cingulate cortex activity.

Schadenfreude: Volunteers play an economic game with confederates who play fairly or unfairly. The same volunteers observed these confederates receiving pain. Empathy-related activation (i.e. mirroring the observed pain) in pain-related brain areas (fronto-ionsular and anterior cingulate cortices) was reduced in men but not women when the unfair confederate received pain!

Imagining the politically partisan brain as it unconsciously rejects unwanted input (example: a republicans hearing factual data on mistakes made by George Bush)

Brain activity associated with expectancy-enhanced placebo analgesia. (Journal of Neuroscience)

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Trust and Caring Hormones

Oxytocin and vasopressin, made in the pituitary gland, turn out to be multi-purpose hormones, not just for giving milk and water balance. They are central in promoting social bonding behavior in rats and monkey, and now apparently also in humans. . Giving people a nasal spray of oxytocin raises their trust, as tested in a game devised by Kosfeld et al. They show that the effect of oxytocin on trust is not due to a general increase in the readiness to bear risks. Rather, it specifically affects an individual's willingness to accept social risks arising through interpersonal interactions. The results concur with animal research suggesting an essential role for oxytocin as a biological basis of prosocial approach behavior.

Oxytocin levels normally rise during physical interaction of children and their mothers. Seth Pollack has shown that this rise is not observed in children that have been neglected in Eastern European orphanages and then adopted by parents in the United States. These children have difficultly forming social relationships, even after being adopted into loving families, apparently because the oxytocin system has not developed to give a positive feeling about social interactions.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Language influences perception in left, but not right, hemisphere

See "Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left."
(note: right visual field is processed by left, i.e. language, hemisphere; left visual field projects to the right, i.e. whole gestalt and emotions, hemisphere.)

Abstract: The question of whether language affects perception has been debated largely on the basis of cross-language data, without considering the functional organization of the brain. The nature of this neural organization predicts that, if language affects perception, it should do so more in the right visual field than in the left visual field, an idea unexamined in the debate. Here, we find support for this proposal in lateralized color discrimination tasks. Reaction times to targets in the right visual field were faster when the target and distractor colors had different names; in contrast, reaction times to targets in the left visual field were not affected by the names of the target and distractor colors. Moreover, this pattern was disrupted when participants performed a secondary task that engaged verbal working memory but not a task making comparable demands on spatial working memory. It appears that people view the right (but not the left) half of their visual world through the lens of their native language, providing an unexpected resolution to the language-and-thought debate.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Replace religions with contemplative science?

From the Mind and Life Institute web site:
Huffington recently posted an article about a silent meditation retreat recently held in Barre, Massachusetts. The retreat, sponsored by the Insight Meditation Society and the Mind and Life Institute, was specifically designed for the scientific community: physicists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and clinicians. Sam Harris, author of "The End of Faith", wrote the article, "A Contemplative Science," to chronicle his experience as a participant at the retreat.

Harris poses the premise that the retreat "could mark the beginning of a discourse on ethics and spiritual experience that is as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourses of physics, biology, and chemistry." Since more retreats for scientists are planned, Harris further says, "we could be witnessing the birth of a contemplative science."

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Mirror or Empathy Neurons, the DNA of psychology?

Our brains have multiple mirror neuron systems that are active not only during our own actions and emotions, but also when we are observing similar actions, emotions, or intentions in others.

Quoting V.S. Ramachandran : "Researchers at UCLA found that cells in the human anterior cingulate, which normally fire when you poke the patient with a needle ("pain neurons"), will also fire when the patient watches another patient being poked. The mirror neurons, it would seem, dissolve the barrier between self and others. [1] I call them "empathy neurons" or "Dalai Llama neurons". (I wonder how the mirror neurons of a masochist or sadist would respond to another person being poked.) Dissolving the "self vs. other" barrier is the basis of many ethical systems, especially eastern philosophical and mystical traditions. This research implies that mirror neurons can be used to provide rational rather than religious grounds for ethics (although we must be careful not to commit the is/ought fallacy)."
See: Grasping the Intentions of Others with One's Own Mirror Neuron System
Marco Iacoboni et al. 2005.

Quoting from the Jan 10, 2006 NYTimes article "Cells that Read Minds" by Sandra Blakeslee , an interview with the discoverer of mirror cells:

"We are exquisitely social creatures," Dr. Rizzolatti said. "Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others."

He continued, "Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking."

The discovery is shaking up numerous scientific disciplines, shifting the understanding of culture, empathy, philosophy, language, imitation, autism and psychotherapy.

Everyday experiences are also being viewed in a new light. Mirror neurons reveal how children learn, why people respond to certain types of sports, dance, music and art, why watching media violence may be harmful and why many men like pornography.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Dangerous Ideas....... is a website sponsored by the "Reality Club" (i.e. John Brockman, literary agent/impressario/socialite). Brockman has assembled a stable of scientists and other thinkers that he defines as a "third culture" that takes the place of traditional intellectuals in redefining who and what we are.... Each year a question is formulated for all to write on... In 2004 it was "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" The question for 2005 was "What is your dangerous idea?"

The responses organize themselves into several areas. Here are selected thumbnail summaries most directly relevant to human minds. I've not included cosmology and physics. Go to to read the essays

I. Nature of the human self or mind (by the way see my "I-Illusion" essay on my website):

Paulos - The self is a conceptual chimera
Shirky - Free will is going away
Nisbett - We are ignorant of our thinking processes
Horgan - We have no souls
Bloom - There are no souls, mind has a material basis.
Provine - This is all there is.
Anderson - Brains cannot become minds without bodies
Metzinger - Is being intellectually honest about the issue of free will compatible with preserving one's mental health?
Clark - Much of our behavior is determined by non-conscious, automatic uptake of cues and information
Turkle - Simulation will replace authenticity as computer simulation becomes fully naturalized.
Dawkins - A faulty person is no different from a faulty car. There is a mechanism determining behavior that needs to be fixed. The idea of responsibility is nonsense.
Smith - What we know may not change us. We will continue to conceive ourselves as centres of experience, self-knowing and free willing agents.

II. Natural explanations of culture

Sperber - Culture is natural.
Taylor - The human brain is a cultural artifact.
Hauser- There is a universal grammar of mental life.
Pinker - People differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.
Goodwin - Similar coordinating patterns underlie biological and cultural evolution.
Venter - Revealing the genetic basis of personality and behavior will create societal conflicts.

III. Fundamental changes in political, economic, social order

O'donnell - The state will disappear.
Ridley - Government is the problem not the solution.
Shermer - Where goods cross frontiers armies won't.
Harari -Democracy is on its way out.
Csikszentmihalyi- The free market myth is destroying culture.
Goleman - The internet undermines the quality of human interaction.
Harris - Science must destroy religion.
Porco - Confrontation between science and religion might end when role played by science in lives of people is the same played by religion today.
Bering - Science will never silence God
Fisher - Drugs such as antidepressants jeopardize feelings of attachment and love
Iacoboni - Media Violence Induces Imitative Violence - the Problem with Mirrors
Morton - Our planet is not in peril, just humans are.