Friday, July 29, 2016

Worldwide internet access from light based wireless communication

Under the "random curious stuff" category in MindBlog's subtitle, I want to point to this NYTimes piece that fascinated me by using some simple analogies to explain complex technical issues. The work is a prelude to providing internet access anywhere on the planet, from the skies, using drones.:
In a paper published Tuesday in Optica, researchers from’s Connectivity Lab have outlined a new type of light detector that can be used for free-space optical communication, a communication technique that uses light to send data wirelessly.
Free-space optical communication works by encoding communication signals in laser beams. Transmitters on the ground or in satellites shoot that light through the air to receivers that can decode the data. (To understand this on simple terms, think of encoding and sending information through morse code using a flashlight.)
...many free-space optical communication systems use smaller receivers with complex pointing and tracking systems. Because laser beams are narrow and travel in straight lines from point A to point B, these receivers have to continuously maneuver to catch laser beams head-on...Imagine trying to water a small potted plant with a water gun from different angles...To maximize the amount of water you catch, you have to constantly move the pot around.
The Facebook researchers’ solution to this problem is a light detector that doesn’t need pointing and tracking, but still allows for fast transmission...Facebook’s detector contains a spherical bundle of special fluorescent fibers. The bundle, somewhere between the size of a golf ball and tennis ball, is able to absorb blue laser light from any direction and re-emit it as green light. Because that green light is diffuse, it can then be funneled to a small receiver that converts the light back to data...imagine that instead of a water gun, you’re pointing a blow dart gun at a water balloon attached to a funnel over the potted plant. As soon as you hit the balloon, it pops and releases water. With the addition of the balloon, you’ve eliminated the need to move the pot around. You can shoot at the water balloon from any direction, and the plant will get watered.
Facebook’s new detector is able to achieve fast data rates of two gigabits per second — several orders of magnitude higher than those from radio frequencies — because light has a higher frequency than radio waves, and because the fluorescence process is fast. Free-space optical communication can also carry more information than radio communication, and is more secure because narrow laser beams are harder to intercept than wide radio waves.
The technology fits in with Facebook’s plans to beam internet access down from the skies using drones.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Abstract thinking in newborn ducklings!

Martinho and Kacelnik have shown that duckings imprint on the relational concept of "same or different." From Wasserman's perspective on the work:
Adhering to the adage that “actions speak more loudly than words,” scientists are deploying powerful behavioral tests that provide animals with nonverbal ways to reveal their intelligence to us. Although animals may not be able to speak, studying their behavior may be a suitable substitute for assaying their thoughts, and this in turn may allow us to jettison the stale canard that thought without language is impossible. Following this behavioral approach and using the familiar social learning phenomenon of imprinting, Martinho and Kacelnik report that mallard ducklings preferentially followed a novel pair of objects that conformed to the learned relation between a familiar pair of objects. Ducklings that had earlier been exposed to a pair of identical objects preferred a pair of identical objects to a pair of nonidentical objects; other ducklings that had been exposed to a pair of nonidentical objects preferred a pair of nonidentical objects to a pair of identical objects. Because the testing objects were decidedly unlike the training objects, Martinho and Kacelnik concluded that the ducklings had effectively understood the abstract concepts of “same” and “different.”
A duckling in the testing arena approaches a stimulus pair composed of “different” shapes.
This study is important for at least three reasons. First, it indicates that animals not generally believed to be especially intelligent are capable of abstract thought. Second, even very young animals may be able to display behavioral signs of abstract thinking. And, third, reliable behavioral signs of abstract relational thinking can be obtained without deploying explicit reward-and-punishment procedures.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Brain scans are prone to false positives.

An analysis by Eklund et al. has raised serious doubts about positive correlations reported in many of the 40,000 fMRI studies published in the last 2 decades (think of all those ‘This is your brain on politics’ type articles).

Functional MRI (fMRI) is 25 years old, yet surprisingly its most common statistical methods have not been validated using real data. Here, we used resting-state fMRI data from 499 healthy controls to conduct 3 million task group analyses. Using this null data with different experimental designs, we estimate the incidence of significant results. In theory, we should find 5% false positives (for a significance threshold of 5%), but instead we found that the most common software packages for fMRI analysis (SPM, FSL, AFNI) can result in false-positive rates of up to 70%. These results question the validity of some 40,000 fMRI studies and may have a large impact on the interpretation of neuroimaging results.
The most widely used task functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) analyses use parametric statistical methods that depend on a variety of assumptions. In this work, we use real resting-state data and a total of 3 million random task group analyses to compute empirical familywise error rates for the fMRI software packages SPM, FSL, and AFNI, as well as a nonparametric permutation method. For a nominal familywise error rate of 5%, the parametric statistical methods are shown to be conservative for voxelwise inference and invalid for clusterwise inference. Our results suggest that the principal cause of the invalid cluster inferences is spatial autocorrelation functions that do not follow the assumed Gaussian shape. By comparison, the nonparametric permutation test is found to produce nominal results for voxelwise as well as clusterwise inference. These findings speak to the need of validating the statistical methods being used in the field of neuroimaging.
Added note: Check out this NYTimes piece on these issues.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A must see Rube Goldberg machine

The intractability of implicit beliefs

Caoa and Banaji in the Harvard Psychology Dept. introduce their study:
Imagine meeting Jonathan and Elizabeth. One person is a doctor. The other is a nurse. Who is the doctor? Or imagine that an employer is deciding to hire either Colin or Jamaal. A background check will reveal that one person has a violent felony on his record and therefore will not be hired. Who is the violent felon? Before individuating facts are learned, when only gender or race is known, one of two principles can guide beliefs.
The first, which we call the base rate principle, supports the belief that Jonathan is the doctor and Jamaal is the violent felon. If ignoring base rates is considered an error, then one must realize that doctors are more likely to be men than women and people with violent felonies on their record are more likely to be Black than White. In fact, because group membership contains useful information for deciding whether an individual has a certain attribute, stereotypes have been conceptualized as base rates. Moreover, decision theorists have shown that base rates are critical ingredients for making predictions, as neglecting base rates will cause predictions to deviate from what is statistically likely.
Using these base rates, however, is inconsistent with a second principle that we call the fairness principle. By this account, it is morally proper to assume a fair coin, so to speak. Jonathan and Elizabeth are equally likely to be the doctor and Colin and Jamaal are equally likely to have a violent felony on their record. Motivated by egalitarian values, many people believe that base rates cannot and should not be used to make such predictions. In fact, the value of fairness is deeply woven into many legal systems. American courts have rejected the use of base rates to determine guilt, and the European Union has banned gender-based insurance premiums.
In the present work, we assess which principle guides beliefs before individuating facts are learned. Given only information about gender, do beliefs favor Jonathan to be the doctor or both Jonathan and Elizabeth equally to be the doctor? We then assess if the base rate and fairness principles are set aside after individuating facts are learned. Given facts that make abundantly clear who is—and who is not—the doctor, do beliefs align with the facts?
Here is the abstract summarizing their findings:
Meet Jonathan and Elizabeth. One person is a doctor and the other is a nurse. Who is the doctor? When nothing else is known, the base rate principle favors Jonathan to be the doctor and the fairness principle favors both individuals equally. However, when individuating facts reveal who is actually the doctor, base rates and fairness become irrelevant, as the facts make the correct answer clear. In three experiments, explicit and implicit beliefs were measured before and after individuating facts were learned. These facts were either stereotypic (e.g., Jonathan is the doctor, Elizabeth is the nurse) or counterstereotypic (e.g., Elizabeth is the doctor, Jonathan is the nurse). Results showed that before individuating facts were learned, explicit beliefs followed the fairness principle, whereas implicit beliefs followed the base rate principle. After individuating facts were learned, explicit beliefs correctly aligned with stereotypic and counterstereotypic facts. Implicit beliefs, however, were immune to counterstereotypic facts and continued to follow the base rate principle. Having established the robustness and generality of these results, a fourth experiment verified that gender stereotypes played a causal role: when both individuals were male, explicit and implicit beliefs alike correctly converged with individuating facts. Taken together, these experiments demonstrate that explicit beliefs uphold fairness and incorporate obvious and relevant facts, but implicit beliefs uphold base rates and appear relatively impervious to counterstereotypic facts.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Our sociability correlates with epigenetic oxytocin gene modifications.

From Haas et al.:

Elucidating the genetic and biological substrates of social behavior serves to advance the way basic human nature is understood and improves the way genetic and biological markers can be used to prevent, diagnose, and treat people with impairments in social cognition and behavior. This study shows that epigenetic modification of the structural gene for oxytocin (OXT) is an important factor associated with individual differences in social processing, including self-report, behavior, and brain function and structure in humans.
Across many mammalian species there exist genetic and biological systems that facilitate the tendency to be social. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide involved in social-approach behaviors in humans and others mammals. Although there exists a large, mounting body of evidence showing that oxytocin signaling genes are associated with human sociability, very little is currently known regarding the way the structural gene for oxytocin (OXT) confers individual differences in human sociability. In this study, we undertook a comprehensive approach to investigate the association between epigenetic modification of OXT via DNA methylation, and overt measures of social processing, including self-report, behavior, and brain function and structure. Genetic data were collected via saliva samples and analyzed to target and quantify DNA methylation across the promoter region of OXT. We observed a consistent pattern of results across sociability measures. People that exhibit lower OXT DNA methylation (presumably linked to higher OXT expression) display more secure attachment styles, improved ability to recognize emotional facial expressions, greater superior temporal sulcus activity during two social-cognitive functional MRI tasks, and larger fusiform gyrus gray matter volume than people that exhibit higher OXT DNA methylation. These findings provide empirical evidence that epigenetic modification of OXT is linked to several overt measures of sociability in humans and serve to advance progress in translational social neuroscience research toward a better understanding of the evolutionary and genetic basis of normal and abnormal human sociability.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Cultural differences in music perception

McDermott et al. find that the isolated Tsimane people, who live in the Amazonian rainforest in northwest Bolivia, have no preference for for consonance over dissonance.
Music is present in every culture, but the degree to which it is shaped by biology remains debated. One widely discussed phenomenon is that some combinations of notes are perceived by Westerners as pleasant, or consonant, whereas others are perceived as unpleasant, or dissonant. The contrast between consonance and dissonance is central to Western music and its origins have fascinated scholars since the ancient Greeks. Aesthetic responses to consonance are commonly assumed by scientists to have biological roots11, and thus to be universally present in humans. Ethnomusicologists and composers, in contrast, have argued that consonance is a creation of Western musical culture. The issue has remained unresolved, partly because little is known about the extent of cross-cultural variation in consonance preferences18. Here we report experiments with the Tsimane’—a native Amazonian society with minimal exposure to Western culture—and comparison populations in Bolivia and the United States that varied in exposure to Western music. Participants rated the pleasantness of sounds. Despite exhibiting Western-like discrimination abilities and Western-like aesthetic responses to familiar sounds and acoustic roughness, the Tsimane’ rated consonant and dissonant chords and vocal harmonies as equally pleasant. By contrast, Bolivian city- and town-dwellers exhibited significant preferences for consonance, albeit to a lesser degree than US residents. The results indicate that consonance preferences can be absent in cultures sufficiently isolated from Western music, and are thus unlikely to reflect innate biases or exposure to harmonic natural sounds. The observed variation in preferences is presumably determined by exposure to musical harmony, suggesting that culture has a dominant role in shaping aesthetic responses to music.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Oxytocin both bonds and divides the sexes.

From Gao et al.:
Facilitation of social attraction and bonding by the evolutionarily conserved neuropeptide oxytocin is well-established in female mammals. However, accumulating behavioral evidence suggests that oxytocin may have evolved sex-specific functional roles in the domain of human social cognition. A critical question is how oxytocin differentially modulates neural processing of social information in men and women, leading to divergent behavioral responses. Here we show that intranasal oxytocin treatment produces sex- and valence-dependent increases in amygdala activation when women view individuals identified as praising others but in men those who criticize them. Women subsequently show increased liking for the faces of these individuals, whereas in men it is reduced. Thus, oxytocin may act differentially via the amygdala to enhance the salience of positive social attributes in women but negative ones in men. We hypothesize that oxytocin may have evolved different but complementary roles to help ensure successful reproduction by encouraging mothers to promote a prosocial rearing environment for offspring and fathers to protect against antisocial influences.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Placebo effects in brain training

Foroughi et al. address the question of whether our desire to become smarter may blind us to the role of placebo effects in brain training regimes. They found that few published articles on cognitive training provide details regarding participant recruitment... whether participants were recruited overtly [e.g., “sign up for a brain training study” ] or covertly [e.g., “did not inform subjects that they were participating in a training study”]. The authors:
...designed a procedure to intentionally induce a placebo effect via overt recruitment. Our recruitment targeted two populations of participants using different advertisements varying in the degree to which they evoked an expectation of cognitive improvement. Once participants self-selected into the two groups, they completed two pretraining fluid intelligence tests followed by 1 h of cognitive training and then completed two posttraining fluid intelligence tests on the following day. Two individual difference metrics regarding beliefs about cognition and intelligence were also collected as potential moderators. The researchers who interacted with participants were blind to the goal of the experiment and to the experimental condition. Aside from their means of recruitment, all participants completed identical cognitive-training experiments. All participants read and signed an informed consent form before beginning the experiment.
Here are their summaries:

Placebo effects pose problems for some intervention studies, particularly those with no clearly identified mechanism. Cognitive training falls into that category, and yet the role of placebos in cognitive interventions has not yet been critically evaluated. Here, we show clear evidence of placebo effects after a brief cognitive training routine that led to significant fluid intelligence gains. Our goal is to emphasize the importance of ruling out alternative explanations before attributing the effect to interventions. Based on our findings, we recommend that researchers account for placebo effects before claiming treatment effects.
Although a large body of research shows that general cognitive ability is heritable and stable in young adults, there is recent evidence that fluid intelligence can be heightened with cognitive training. Many researchers, however, have questioned the methodology of the cognitive-training studies reporting improvements in fluid intelligence: specifically, the role of placebo effects. We designed a procedure to intentionally induce a placebo effect via overt recruitment in an effort to evaluate the role of placebo effects in fluid intelligence gains from cognitive training. Individuals who self-selected into the placebo group by responding to a suggestive flyer showed improvements after a single, 1-h session of cognitive training that equates to a 5- to 10-point increase on a standard IQ test. Controls responding to a nonsuggestive flyer showed no improvement. These findings provide an alternative explanation for effects observed in the cognitive-training literature and the brain-training industry, revealing the need to account for confounds in future research.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Consciousness is the brain messing with itself.

George Johnson does a nice summary of some current ideas on what consciousness is that were discussed at a recent symposium (live stream here) at The New York Academy of Sciences. He notes for example Graziano's ideas that I have previously reviewed on MindBlog:
Descartes’s notion of dualism — mind and body as separate things — has long receded from science. The challenge now is to explain how the inner world of consciousness arises from the flesh of the brain.
Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, suggested to the audience that consciousness is a kind of con game the brain plays with itself. The brain is a computer that evolved to simulate the outside world. Among its internal models is a simulation of itself — a crude approximation of its own neurological processes... The result is an illusion. Instead of neurons and synapses, we sense a ghostly presence — a self — inside the head. But it’s all just data processing...“The machine mistakenly thinks it has magic inside it,” Dr. Graziano said. And it calls the magic consciousness.
It’s not the existence of this inner voice he finds mysterious. “The phenomenon to explain,” he said, “is why the brain, as a machine, insists it has this property that is nonphysical.”
Johnson notes other ideas aired at the symposium, such as "the centuries-old doctrine of panpsychism — the idea that consciousness is universal, existing as some kind of mind stuff inside molecules and atoms."

Monday, July 18, 2016

Insurance makes sellers of services dishonest.

This piece from Kerschbamer et al. really resonates with my experiences in Florida, scam central for health insurance fraud:
Honesty is a fundamental pillar for cooperation in human societies and thus for their economic welfare. However, humans do not always act in an honest way. Here, we examine how insurance coverage affects the degree of honesty in credence goods markets. Such markets are plagued by strong incentives for fraudulent behavior of sellers, resulting in estimated annual costs of billions of dollars to customers and the society as a whole. Prime examples of credence goods are all kinds of repair services, the provision of medical treatments, the sale of software programs, and the provision of taxi rides in unfamiliar cities. We examine in a natural field experiment how computer repair shops take advantage of customers’ insurance for repair costs. In a control treatment, the average repair price is about EUR 70, whereas the repair bill increases by more than 80% when the service provider is informed that an insurance would reimburse the bill. Our design allows decomposing the sources of this economically impressive difference, showing that it is mainly due to the overprovision of parts and overcharging of working time. A survey among repair shops shows that the higher bills are mainly ascribed to insured customers being less likely to be concerned about minimizing costs because a third party (the insurer) pays the bill. Overall, our results strongly suggest that insurance coverage greatly increases the extent of dishonesty in important sectors of the economy with potentially huge costs to customers and whole economies.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Who blames the victim?

Niemi and Young ask
What determines whether someone feels sympathy or scorn for the victim of a crime? Is it a function of political affiliation? Of gender? Of the nature of the crime? (If you are mugged on a midnight stroll through the park, some people will feel compassion for you, while others will admonish you for being there in the first place. If you are raped by an acquaintance after getting drunk at a party, some will be moved by your misfortune, while others will ask why you put yourself in such a situation.) Their experiments find that the critical factor lies in a particular set of moral values. Their experiments show that the more strongly you privilege loyalty, obedience and purity — as opposed to values such as care and fairness — the more likely you are to blame the victim.
The abstract:
Why do victims sometimes receive sympathy for their suffering and at other times scorn and blame? Here we show a powerful role for moral values in attitudes toward victims. We measured moral values associated with unconditionally prohibiting harm (“individualizing values”) versus moral values associated with prohibiting behavior that destabilizes groups and relationships (“binding values”: loyalty, obedience to authority, and purity). Increased endorsement of binding values predicted increased ratings of victims as contaminated (Studies 1-4); increased blame and responsibility attributed to victims, increased perceptions of victims’ (versus perpetrators’) behaviors as contributing to the outcome, and decreased focus on perpetrators (Studies 2-3). Patterns persisted controlling for politics, just world beliefs, and right-wing authoritarianism. Experimentally manipulating linguistic focus off of victims and onto perpetrators reduced victim blame. Both binding values and focus modulated victim blame through victim responsibility attributions. Findings indicate the important role of ideology in attitudes toward victims via effects on responsibility attribution.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Social support, stress, and the aging brain

Sherman et al. find that the volume of the amygdala in older adults (a center for stress responses) is positively correlated with stress and negatively correlated with social support, these two effects being apparently independent of each other.
Social support benefits health and well-being in older individuals, however the mechanism remains poorly understood. One proposal, the stress-buffering hypothesis states social support ‘buffers’ the effects of stress on health. Alternatively, the main effect hypothesis suggests social support independently promotes health. We examined the combined association of social support and stress on the aging brain. Forty healthy older adults completed stress questionnaires, a social network interview and structural MRI to investigate the amygdala-medial prefrontal cortex circuitry, which is implicated in social and emotional processing and negatively affected by stress. Social support was positively correlated with right medial prefrontal cortical thickness while amygdala volume was negatively associated with social support and positively related to stress. We examined whether the association between social support and amygdala volume varied across stress level. Stress and social support uniquely contribute to amygdala volume, which is consistent with the health benefits of social support being independent of stress.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Is Donald Trump's frontostriatal connectivity weakened?

Chester et al. find an interesting correlation between grandiose narcissism and the strength of connections between brain areas that process self-relevant stimuli (the medial prefrontal cortex) and reward (the ventral striatum):
Narcissism is characterized by the search for affirmation and admiration from others. Might this motivation to find external sources of acclaim exist to compensate for neurostructural deficits that link the self with reward? Greater structural connectivity between brain areas that process self-relevant stimuli (i.e. the medial prefrontal cortex) and reward (i.e. the ventral striatum) is associated with fundamentally positive self-views. We predicted that narcissism would be associated with less integrity of this frontostriatal pathway. We used diffusion tensor imaging to assess the frontostriatal structural connectivity among 50 healthy undergraduates (32 females, 18 males) who also completed a measure of grandiose narcissism. White matter integrity in the frontostriatal pathway was negatively associated with narcissism. Our findings, while purely correlational, suggest that narcissism arises, in part, from a neural disconnect between the self and reward. The exhibitionism and immodesty of narcissists may then be a regulatory strategy to compensate for this neural deficit.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A non-linguistic brain network for mathematics.

From Amalrica and Dehaene:
The origins of human abilities for mathematics are debated: Some theories suggest that they are founded upon evolutionarily ancient brain circuits for number and space and others that they are grounded in language competence. To evaluate what brain systems underlie higher mathematics, we scanned professional mathematicians and mathematically naive subjects of equal academic standing as they evaluated the truth of advanced mathematical and nonmathematical statements. In professional mathematicians only, mathematical statements, whether in algebra, analysis, topology or geometry, activated a reproducible set of bilateral frontal, Intraparietal, and ventrolateral temporal regions. Crucially, these activations spared areas related to language and to general-knowledge semantics. Rather, mathematical judgments were related to an amplification of brain activity at sites that are activated by numbers and formulas in nonmathematicians, with a corresponding reduction in nearby face responses. The evidence suggests that high-level mathematical expertise and basic number sense share common roots in a nonlinguistic brain circuit.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Turning out the vote.

Gilbert Chen summarizes work of Gerber et al.:
A key challenge for any political campaign is to get its voters to actually vote. Field experiments have demonstrated that canvassing and phone calls are more effective than direct mail; all of these interventions increase voter participation by 0.5 to as much as 3 percentage points. With this in mind, Gerber et al. have reexamined an intervention based on the theory that nouns describe more stable attributes than verbs; for instance, “I am a Republican” versus “I vote for Republicans.” They find, using 11,000 voters across three U.S. states, no difference between “noun” and “verb” phone calls and that neither message is as effective as referring to social norms in getting voters to the polls.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Endogenous opioids are not involved in meditation based pain relief

From Zeidan et al.:
Mindfulness meditation, a cognitive practice premised on sustaining nonjudgmental awareness of arising sensory events, reliably attenuates pain. Mindfulness meditation activates multiple brain regions that contain a high expression of opioid receptors. However, it is unknown whether mindfulness-meditation-based analgesia is mediated by endogenous opioids. The present double-blind, randomized study examined behavioral pain responses in healthy human volunteers during mindfulness meditation and a nonmanipulation control condition in response to noxious heat and intravenous administration of the opioid antagonist naloxone (0.15 mg/kg bolus + 0.1 mg/kg/h infusion) or saline placebo. Meditation during saline infusion significantly reduced pain intensity and unpleasantness ratings when compared to the control + saline group. However, naloxone infusion failed to reverse meditation-induced analgesia. There were no significant differences in pain intensity or pain unpleasantness reductions between the meditation + naloxone and the meditation + saline groups. Furthermore, mindfulness meditation during naloxone produced significantly greater reductions in pain intensity and unpleasantness than the control groups. These findings demonstrate that mindfulness meditation does not rely on endogenous opioidergic mechanisms to reduce pain.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

The secrets to a long and happy life.

Going through my queue of references that might become mindblog posts I come across this piece by O'Connor, describing findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a research project that since 1938 has closely tracked and examined the lives of more than 700 men and in some cases their spouses. of the most important predictors of whether you age well and live a long and happy life is not the amount of money you amass or notoriety you receive. A much more important barometer of long term health and well-being is the strength of your relationships with family, friends and spouses.
...the study has produced many notable findings. It showed, for example, that to age well physically, the single most important thing you could do was to avoid smoking. It discovered that aging liberals had longer and more active sex lives than conservatives. It found that alcohol was the primary cause of divorce among men in the study, and that alcohol abuse often preceded depression (rather than the other way around).
The people in the strongest relationships were protected against chronic disease, mental illness and memory decline – even if those relationships had many ups and downs...people who sought to replace old colleagues with new friends after retiring were happier and healthier than those who left work and placed less emphasis on maintaining strong social networks...Over and over in these 75 years...the study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships with family, with friends and with community.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Why we become more cautious with age.

Rutledge et al. find that the decrease in risk-taking that occurs on aging may be related to dopamine-modulated changes in Pavlovian approach behavior, and not a reduction in the subjective value of incremental rewards as traditional models from economics and psychology would have claimed.

•Aging reduced risk taking for potential gains but not potential losses
•Computational models revealed that a Pavlovian influence of reward decreased with age
•Age-related dopamine decline can explain the decrease in Pavlovian biaseswhy we
The extent to which aging affects decision-making is controversial. Given the critical financial decisions that older adults face (e.g., managing retirement funds), changes in risk preferences are of particular importance. Although some studies have found that older individuals are more risk averse than younger ones, there are also conflicting results, and a recent meta-analysis found no evidence for a consistent change in risk taking across the lifespan. There has as yet been little examination of one potential substrate for age-related changes in decision-making, namely age-related decline in dopamine, a neuromodulator associated with risk-taking behavior. Here, we characterized choice preferences in a smartphone-based experiment (n = 25,189) in which participants chose between safe and risky options. The number of risky options chosen in trials with potential gains but not potential losses decreased gradually over the lifespan, a finding with potentially important economic consequences for an aging population. Using a novel approach-avoidance computational model, we found that a Pavlovian attraction to potential reward declined with age. This Pavlovian bias has been linked to dopamine, suggesting that age-related decline in this neuromodulator could lead to the observed decrease in risk taking.
(You might also check out this article on how monkeys, like humans, become less sociable with age.)

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

A simple model for why moderate beliefs rarely prevail.

I attend the weekly chaos and complexity seminar at the University of Wisconsin when I am in Madison WI during the summer. I want to pass on the paper by Marvel et al. in Physical Review Letters that was discussed this past week, as well a few clips from a review by Zyga discussing its purely mathematical "model of ideological revolution.":
We live in a world of extremes, where being fervently for or against an issue often becomes the dominant social ideology – until an opposing belief that is equally extreme emerges to challenge the first one, eventually becoming the new social paradigm. And so the cycle repeats, with one ideological extreme replacing another, and neither delivering a sustainable solution. Political revolutions, economic bubbles, booms and busts in consumer confidence, and short-lived reforms such as Prohibition in the US all follow this kind of cycle. Why, researchers want to know, does a majority of the population not settle on an intermediate position that blends the best of the old and new?
The model of ideological revolution begins with a community consisting of four types of individuals: those that currently hold an extreme opinion A, those that hold the opposing extreme opinion B, those that hold neither A nor B (the moderates), and those that hold A indefinitely and never change their minds (the A zealots).
To run the model, two individuals are randomly selected to interact with each other, with one randomly chosen to be the speaker and the other the listener. If the speaker is an A or B and the listener is a B or A, respectively, the speaker changes the listener's beliefs to AB. If the listener is an AB, then the listener becomes an A if the speaker is an A, and becomes a B if the speaker is a B. Moderate speakers cannot change a listener's beliefs; only extremists rally others toward their cause.
Running this basic model, the researchers found that the proportion of zealots strongly affects the outcome. When zealots are below a critical value, the system remains similar to how it started. But above a critical value, the zealots quickly convert the entire population to A...Marvel noted that "a raft of alternatives to our basic model (built from different assumed interactions) all show the same threshold behavior: when the committed believers reach a certain fraction of the community, they are capable of converting everyone to their perspective," Marvel said. "This suggests that a similar threshold may appear in real systems even when those real systems have dynamics somewhat different from our basic model. As the American anthropologist Margaret Mead is claimed to have said, 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.'"
The researchers tested seven different strategies for increasing the moderate subpopulation in the model...only one could effectively expand the moderate subpopulation – and the strategy was based not on social interaction but on other environmental stimuli, which might take the form of a media campaign in real life. By integrating this new parameter into the model, the number of moderates increased without threat of extinction.
"The one successful strategy, nonsocial deradicalization, involves a particularly strong sort of encouragement of moderation; for example, its terms with the new parameter are independent of the size of the moderate population," Marvel said. "Hence, our findings suggest that this strong form of encouragement may be necessary for spreading a balanced perspective in a sustainable way."
The researchers note that this strategy should be regarded with caution, given that they have not attempted to show that the model's dynamics accurately represent the real world, with its multiple small-scale ideologies, fragmentation of opinions, and other intricacies. Nevertheless, they hope that this general framework for testing possible strategies that encourage moderation may lead to the discovery of more sophisticated methods.

Monday, July 04, 2016

The Myth of Cosmopolitanism

I pass on the initial paragraphs of Douthat's excellent Op-Ed piece in Sunday's NYTimes. It it well worth a read:
NOW that populist rebellions are taking Britain out of the European Union and the Republican Party out of contention for the presidency, perhaps we should speak no more of left and right, liberals and conservatives. From now on the great political battles will be fought between nationalists and internationalists, nativists and globalists. From now on the loyalties that matter will be narrowly tribal — Make America Great Again, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England — or multicultural and cosmopolitan.
Well, maybe. But describing the division this way has one great flaw. It gives the elite side of the debate (the side that does most of the describing) too much credit for being truly cosmopolitan.
Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.
The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”
This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.
They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.
The ending lines:
They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools.
They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.

Friday, July 01, 2016

How exercise enhances brain renewal and growth.

Several studies by now have shown that exercises enhances the production of BDNF (Brain Derived Trophic Factor), which leads to the creation of new nerve cells in the hippocampus (essential for learning and memory - for more on the link of exercise to better mental capacity in older people, see Reynolds.). Sleiman et al. now show that in mice the metabolite β-hydroxybutyrate which increases during heavy exercise induces the activity of BNDF gene promoters. Their detailed abstract:
Exercise induces beneficial responses in the brain, which is accompanied by an increase in BDNF, a trophic factor associated with cognitive improvement and the alleviation of depression and anxiety. However, the exact mechanisms whereby physical exercise produces an induction in brain Bdnf gene expression are not well understood. While pharmacological doses of HDAC inhibitors exert positive effects on Bdnf gene transcription, the inhibitors represent small molecules that do not occur in vivo. Here, we report that an endogenous molecule released after exercise is capable of inducing key promoters of the Mus musculus Bdnf gene. The metabolite β-hydroxybutyrate, which increases after prolonged exercise, induces the activities of Bdnf promoters, particularly promoter I, which is activity-dependent. We have discovered that the action of β-hydroxybutyrate is specifically upon HDAC2 and HDAC3, which act upon selective Bdnf promoters. Moreover, the effects upon hippocampal Bdnf expression were observed after direct ventricular application of β-hydroxybutyrate. Electrophysiological measurements indicate that β-hydroxybutyrate causes an increase in neurotransmitter release, which is dependent upon the TrkB receptor. These results reveal an endogenous mechanism to explain how physical exercise leads to the induction of BDNF.