Friday, October 20, 2017

Coordination of brain waves between humans facing territorial threats.

Here is an interesting piece from Mu et al., first their abstract, and then a chunk of their introduction which gives rationale and background.

Abstract
Throughout history and into the modern era, human groups have been continually subjected to a wide range of societal threats, from natural disasters to pandemics to terrorism. Yet despite this fundamental aspect of human existence, there has been little research on how societal threat affects social coordination at both the neural and the behavioral level. Here, we show for the first time that individuals are better able to coordinate under high societal threat as compared to low or no threat (Experiment 1). Using a method of hyperscanning electroencephalography (EEG), which simultaneously measures brain activity among interacting subjects, we further illustrate that interbrain synchrony of gamma band oscillations is enhanced when people are under high threat, and increased gamma interbrain synchrony is associated with lower dyadic interpersonal time lag (i.e. higher coordination) (Experiment 2). To our knowledge, the current work provides some of the first empirical evidence that gamma interbrain synchrony is associated with social coordination when humans are under threat.
And, excerpts from their introduction:
...there has been little research on the behavioral or neural mechanisms through which humans coordinate under high societal threat. From an evolutionary point of view, the ability of humans to effectively synchronize their actions under threat would presumably confer an important survival advantage.
To address this question, we combine state of the art hyperscanning techniques with exposure to real-world threat. Hyperscanning techniques, which record multiple brains’ neural activity simultaneously with great precision as humans interact over time, are perfectly situated to elucidate the interbrain mechanisms underlying social coordination under high societal threat. Accumulating hyperscanning eletroenthephalograph (EEG) studies have indeed shown that interbrain synchrony plays a critical role in various forms of human coordination, such as the ability to synchronize body movements and speech rhythms and to perform duets.
We complement previous research by examining the role interbrain synchrony plays in coordination when humans are under threat. Using a coordination game validated in previous research (Mu et al., 2016), in Experiment 1, we examined whether dyads exposed to ingroup threat (IGT) would exhibit greater coordination as compared to dyads exposed to outgroup threat (OGT) or no threat control conditions (IGC).
In Experiment 2, we combined hyperscanning EEG with the same threat manipulation (i.e. IGT, OGT and IGC) and the same coordination game employed in Experiment 1 to investigate whether interbrain synchrony would help humans coordinate under conditions of high societal threat. Using a dual-EEG setup, we tested how societal threat influences interbrain synchrony while participants attempted to coordinate. Previous hyperscanning EEG studies have shown that alpha interbrain synchrony is activated in a variety of social coordination tasks, including interactional synchrony, coordinated teamwork and synchronized counting. Thus, we examined whether alpha interbrain synchrony would be recruited to support social coordination in an unexplored context, namely that of societal threat.
We also examined other bands of interbrain synchrony which may be particularly relevant to social coordination under threat—most notably gamma band, a high frequency band (>28 Hz) that is a threat-sensitive neural marker. In particular, single brain analyses have shown that gamma band oscillations contribute to threat detection, reflecting the involvement of a quick subcortical route to the amygdala, which plays a central role in processing threat-related stimuli, such as fearful images and threat-related words. Gamma activity is also higher in anxiety disorder patients who experience chronic fear. Thus, if threat affects interpersonal coordination by modulating interbrain synchrony linked to threat processing, we would expect that gamma band synchrony may be associated with human coordination under threat.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Like apes and small children, ravens plan ahead.

The notion that animal cognition outside of the primate lineage is locked into the present has to be tossed. It appears that cognitive evolution of the ability to plan ahead proceeded independently in the (Corvid) lineage that lead to modern Ravens. Kabadayi and Osvath now show that ravens anticipate the nature, time, and location of a future event based on previous experiences. The ravens' behavior is not merely prospective, anticipating future states; rather, they flexibly apply future planning in behaviors not typically seen in the wild. From the summary by Boeckle and Clayton:
Kabadayi and Osvath test ravens' abilities to plan for future tool use and trading, rather than for food caching (a behavior that might be considered as an adaptive specialization to gather food in order to eat it at a future date)...The authors presented five ravens with a choice of objects. Only one of these objects was a functional tool, which could be used to retrieve food from a puzzle box. The ravens chose correctly not only when they were offered the box but also when they had to store the tool and plan for the next day. In another experiment, the ravens were trained to exchange tokens for food. When the ravens knew that trading would only happen on the next day, they chose and stored these tokens as soon as they were offered to them. By manipulating tool choice, time, and trading opportunities, the authors controlled the value of the items at choice in relation to current as well as future interactions.
The results from the two experiments show that ravens take temporal distance between item choice and reward into account, exercise self-control, and make decisions for predicted futures rather than arbitrary ones. Thus, the birds opt for a more distant but higher gratification rather than an immediate but lower gratification and do so flexibly across behaviors.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Premortem

Richard Thaler, the father of behavioral economics, just received the 2017 Nobel Prize in economics. I thought I would pass on this brief piece he did for edge.org, answering it's annual question "What Scientific Term or Concept Ought to be more widely known?":
The Premortem
Before a major decision is taken, say to launch a new line of business, write a book, or form a new alliance, those familiar with the details of the proposal are given an assignment. Assume we are at some time in the future when the plan has been implemented, and the outcome was a disaster. Write a brief history of that disaster.
Applied psychologist Gary Klein came up with “The Premortem,” which was later written about by Daniel Kahneman. Of course we are all too familiar with the more common postmortem that typically follows any disaster, along with the accompanying finger pointing. Such postmortems inevitably suffer from hindsight bias, also known as Monday-morning quarterbacking, in which everyone remembers thinking that the disaster was almost inevitable. As I often heard Amos Tversky say, “the handwriting may have been written on the wall all along. The question is: was the ink invisible?”
There are two reasons why premortems might help avert disasters. (I say might because I know of no systematic study of their use. Organizations rarely allow such internal decision making to be observed and recorded.) First, explicitly going through this exercise can overcome the natural organizational tendencies toward groupthink and overconfidence. A devil’s advocate is unpopular anywhere. The premortem procedure gives cover to a cowardly skeptic who otherwise might not speak up. After all, the entire point of the exercise is to think of reasons why the project failed. Who can be blamed for thinking of some unforeseen problem that would otherwise be overlooked in the excitement that usually accompanies any new venture?
The second reason a premortem can work is subtle. Starting the exercise by assuming the project has failed, and now thinking of why that might have happened creates the illusion of certainty, at least hypothetically. Laboratory research shows that by asking why did it fail rather than why might it fail, gets the creative juices flowing. (The same principle can work in finding solutions to tough problems. Assume the problem has been solved, and then ask, how did it happen? Try it!)
An example illustrates how this can work. Suppose a couple years ago an airline CEO invited top management to conduct a premortem on this hypothetical disaster: All of our airline’s flights around the world have been cancelled for two straight days. Why? Of course, many will immediately think of some act of terrorism. But real progress will be made by thinking of much more mundane explanations. Suppose someone timidly suggests that the cause was the reservation system crashed and the backup system did not work properly.
Had this exercise been conducted, it might have prevented a disaster for a major airline that cancelled nearly 2000 flights over a three-day period. During much of that time, passengers could not get any information because the reservation system was down. What caused this fiasco? A power surge blew a transformer and critical systems and network equipment didn’t switch over to backups properly. This havoc was all initiated by the equivalent of blowing a fuse.
T
his episode was bad, but many companies that were once household names and now no longer exist might still be thriving if they had conducted a premortum with the question being: It is three years from now and we are on the verge of bankruptcy. How did this happen?
A
nd, how many wars might not have been started if someone had first asked: We lost. How?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A sobering political graphic

The graphic (click to enlarge) is from Thomas Edsall's thoughtful and well-researched piece (as usual) on our current political situation, titled "Democrats are playing Checkers While Trump is Playing Chess." I recommend you read it.


Monday, October 16, 2017

Does acupuncture work by re-mapping the brain?

I want to pass on a chunk of a sane article offered by Vitaly Napadow in Aeon. Napadow is director of the Center for Integrative Pain Neuroimaging (CiPNI) and an associate professor at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, both at the Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard Medical School. He describes the sort of experiment needed to demonstrate that acupuncture can not be explained solely as a placebo effect:
While most chronic-pain disorders lack ... established, objective outcomes of disease, this is not true for carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), a neuropathic pain disorder that can be validated by measuring electrical conduction across the median nerve, which passes through the wrist. Interestingly, the slowing of nerve conduction at the wrist does not occur in isolation – it’s not just the nerve in the wrist that’s affected in CTS. My own department’s research and others’ has clearly demonstrated that the brain, and particularly a part of the brain called the primary somatosensory cortex (S1), is re-mapped by CTS. Specifically, in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans, the representation of fingers innervated by the median nerve are blurred in S1. We then showed that both real and placebo acupuncture improved CTS symptoms. Does this mean that acupuncture is a placebo? Maybe not. While symptom relief was the same immediately following therapy, real acupuncture was linked to long-term improvement while sham acupuncture was not. And better S1 re-mapping immediately following therapy was linked with better long-term symptom reduction. Thus, sham acupuncture might work through an alternative route, by modulating known placebo circuitry in the brain, while real acupuncture rewires brain regions such as S1, along with modulating local blood flow to the median nerve in the wrist.
Where you stick the needle might matter as well. While site-specificity is one of the key features of acupuncture therapy, it has been controversial. Interestingly, in the S1 region of the brain, different body areas are represented in different spatial areas – this is how we localise the mosquito that’s biting us, and swat it. Different S1 areas might also pass along information to a diverse set of other areas that affect different bodily systems such as the immune, autonomic and other internal motor systems. As far as acupuncture is concerned, the body-specific map in S1 could serve as the basis for a crude form of point specificity. In our study, we compared patients receiving real acupuncture locally to the wrist with patients receiving real acupuncture far from the wrist, in the opposite ankle. Our results suggested that both local and distal acupuncture improved median nerve function at the wrist. This suggests that the brain changes resulting from acupuncture might not just be a reflection of changes at the wrist, but could also drive the improved median nerve function directly by linking to autonomic brain regions that control blood vessel diameter and blood flow to the median nerve.
This new research clearly demonstrates that bodily response is not the only means by which acupuncture works; response within the brain might be the most critical part. Once we better understand how acupuncture works to relieve pain, we can optimise this therapy to provide effective, non-pharmacological care for many more chronic-pain patients.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A 'Gaydar' machine?

Heather Murphy describes the kerfuffle that has ensued after Stanford researchers published a preprint of their work that will soon appear in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychlogy. To teach a machine (a widely used facial analysis program employing a pattern identifying neural network) to detect sexuality, authors Kosinski and Wang copied more than 75,000 dating profiles of men and women seeking same or different sex partners. The software extracted information from thousands of facial data points to generate average composite heterosexual and gay male and female faces (pictures are in the Murphy article). They found that their model did much better than humans at identifying sexual orientation. When the computer was given five photos for each person instead of just one, accuracy rose to 83% for women and 91% for men.

The negative Tweet storms and blog posts criticized the study as being a technology-fueled revival of the long discredited notion that physiognomy, measuring the size and shape of a person's eyes, nose and face, can predict personality traits. Highly inaccurate science, racism by algorithm, etc.

And, even if the machine works as stated, William T.L. Cox, a psychologist who studies stereotypes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes:
Let’s say 5 percent of the population is gay, or 50 of every 1,000 people. A facial scan that is 91 percent accurate would misidentify 9 percent of straight people as gay; in the example above, that’s 85 people (0.91 x 950).
The software would also mistake 9 percent of gay people as straight people. The result: Of 130 people the facial scan identified as gay, 85 actually would be straight.
When an algorithm with 91 percent accuracy operates in the real world, almost two-thirds of the times it says someone is gay, it would be wrong.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Brain and body imaging of the emotional power of poetry.

By now a body of work has grown on how peak musical experiences engage the reward systems of our brains, with concomitant changes such as tingling and goosebumps triggered by our autonomic nervous systems. A colleague pointed me to this discussion by Delistraty of recent work in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience by Wassiliwizky et al. that extends this sort of analysis to the appreciation of poetry. I suggest you read the discussion. Here is the abstract of the work:
It is a common experience—and well established experimentally—that music can engage us emotionally in a compelling manner. The mechanisms underlying these experiences are receiving increasing scrutiny. However, the extent to which other domains of aesthetic experience can similarly elicit strong emotions is unknown. Using psychophysiology, neuroimaging and behavioral responses, we show that recited poetry can act as a powerful stimulus for eliciting peak emotional responses, including chills and objectively measurable goosebumps that engage the primary reward circuitry. Importantly, while these responses to poetry are largely analogous to those found for music, their neural underpinnings show important differences, specifically with regard to the crucial role of the nucleus accumbens. We also go beyond replicating previous music-related studies by showing that peak aesthetic pleasure can co-occur with physiological markers of negative affect. Finally, the distribution of chills across the trajectory of poems provides insight into compositional principles of poetry.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

MindBlog has moved to Austin Texas.

A personal note.  Len and I have just moved back into the family house in Austin Texas where I grew up, through high school. My son and his family recently moved from this house into a larger home, where my Steinway B now resides in a much larger living room. The annual snowbird commute will now be between Madison WI and Austin Texas, rather than Madison and Fort Lauderdale. The picture shows an Essex upright (Steinway sub-brand) that just arrived at the smaller family house to serve as a practice piano.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Price modulates the effectiveness of your pain medication!

Fascinating observations from Tinnermann et al. A Science magazine summary, followed by the article abstract:

Price modulates early pain processing
Patients in randomized clinical trials frequently stop taking their drug, complaining of side effects. However, it turns out that some of these subjects are part of the placebo group and thus never received any active medication. This is a case of the nocebo effect seriously interfering with medical treatment. Tinnermann et al. investigated whether value information such as the price of a medication can further modulate behavioral nocebo effects and the underlying neural network dynamics (see the Perspective by Colloca). They used brain imaging to characterize the circuits involved in nocebo hyperalgesia within the descending pain pathway from the prefrontal cortex to the spinal cord. Their findings revealed how value information increased the nocebo effect.
Abstract
Value information about a drug, such as the price tag, can strongly affect its therapeutic effect. We discovered that value information influences adverse treatment outcomes in humans even in the absence of an active substance. Labeling an inert treatment as expensive medication led to stronger nocebo hyperalgesia than labeling it as cheap medication. This effect was mediated by neural interactions between cortex, brainstem, and spinal cord. In particular, activity in the prefrontal cortex mediated the effect of value on nocebo hyperalgesia. Value furthermore modulated coupling between prefrontal areas, brainstem, and spinal cord, which might represent a flexible mechanism through which higher-cognitive representations, such as value, can modulate early pain processing.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Transcending tribalism - crafting a new vision for America?

I want to point to, and comment on, two recent pieces by David Brooks. In the first, he argues that “the main enemy is not aliens; it’s division — between rich and poor, white and black, educated and less educated, right and left. Where there is division there are fences. Mobility is retarded and the frontier is destroyed. Trumpist populists want to widen the divisions and rearrange the fences. They want to turn us into an old, settled and fearful nation.” The second article deals with the gun control issue having “become an epiphenomenon of a much larger conflict over values and identity.” Both describe a reactionary core of Americans who contract into a vision of a lost past rather than opening up to feel comfortable in a more multicultural society. The first piece suggests the possibility of finding unity in a shared quest for new frontiers, with the same psychological force as the geographical western frontiers of the 1800’s, but instead in communication, the arts, science, and new social structures and media.

My comment would be that we do not face such a new world with a blank slate, but rather an evolved psychology that permits individuals to have stable relationship with only ~150 other people (see Robin Dunbar), in a larger tribe that has clear rules and expectation of its members, and that organize itself to complete successfully with other groups. In the basements of our minds there is a paleolithic psychology trying to cope with an utterly altered world. Having at age 75 just moved back into the childhood home I grew up in, in Austin Texas, I have very strong recall of my immersion in, and comfort with, the social rites of fellow Texans of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

I can not imagine, for myself or others, feeling analogous emotional bonding to an national or international multicultural meritocracy with a ruling elite, permissive of its components having conflicting moralities and rules. An ‘us’ and (or versus) ‘them’ is mentally much less taxing. Brooks faces an uphill battle with his hopeful vision: “The core American idea is not the fortress, it’s the frontier…It may be dormant, but this striving American dream is still lurking in every heart. It’s waiting for somebody who has the guts to say no to tribe, yes to universal nation, no to fences, yes to the frontier, no to closed, and yes to the open future, no to the fear-driven homogeneity of the old continent and yes to the diverse hopefulness of the new one.”

It would take a very charismatic new leader to pull all this together. Sigh… we thought we had that at one point, with Barack Obama.

Friday, October 06, 2017

MindBlog's book abstracts.

I’ve been working on abstracting a book I’ve mentioned recently, Sapolsky’s “Behave - The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst,” hoping to present the basic message of its chapters in a series of MindBlog posts. This is taking longer than I expected. It is a more sprawling and messy affair (just like human behavior) than some of the other book extracts I have offered this way (Gilbert - Stumbling on Happiness, 8 posts; Metzinger - The Ego Tunnel, 5 posts, Grazanio - Consciousness and the Social Brain, post). I’m actually doing this brief post to point you to those previous abstracts, which are worth a look, because I suspect few current readers are aware of them.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Curtailing proactive policing can reduce major crime.

Weisburd points to work by Sullivan and O’Keeffe, yielding counter-intuitive results, that "took advantage of a natural experiment in New York City that resulted from the strangling death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Subsequent political events led to the New York City Police Department (NYPD) engaging in a ‘slowdown’ characterized by dramatic reductions in arrests and summonses. One would have expected crime to go up in this period if this type of proactivity was effective. Instead, analyzing several years of data obtained from the NYPD, they find that civilian complaints of major crimes decreased. Accordingly, they conclude that prior proactivity did not reduce crime, but led to increases in crime." Here is the Sullivan and O'Keeffe abstract:
Governments employ police to prevent criminal acts. But it remains in dispute whether high rates of police stops, criminal summonses and aggressive low-level arrests reduce serious crime1,2,3,4,5,6,7. Police officers target their efforts at areas where crime is anticipated and/or where they expect enforcement will be most effective. Simultaneously, citizens decide to comply with the law or commit crime partly on the basis of police deployment and enforcement strategies. In other words, policing and crime are endogenous to unobservable strategic interaction, which frustrates causal analysis. Here, we resolve these challenges and present evidence that proactive policing—which involves systematic and aggressive enforcement of low-level violations—is positively related to reports of major crime. We examine a political shock that caused the New York Police Department (NYPD) to effectively halt proactive policing in late 2014 and early 2015. Analysing several years of unique data obtained from the NYPD, we find that civilian complaints of major crimes (such as burglary, felony assault and grand larceny) decreased during and shortly after sharp reductions in proactive policing. The results challenge prevailing scholarship as well as conventional wisdom on authority and legal compliance, as they imply that aggressively enforcing minor legal statutes incites more severe criminal acts.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Brain circuits that modulate sociability.

The social bonding neuropeptide oxytocin can be traced over 500 million years, with analogous peptides found in birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians, and some invertebrates. Hung et al. have found that release of oxytocin in the ventral tegmental area of the brain increases prosocial behaviors in mice. Optogenetic manipulation of oxytocin release influences sociability in a context-dependent manner. Oxytocin increases activity in dopamine cells that project to the nucleus accumbens, another key node of reward circuitry in the brain. Here is their abstract, followed by a nice graphic of the relevant systems in the human brain.
The reward generated by social interactions is critical for promoting prosocial behaviors. Here we present evidence that oxytocin (OXT) release in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a key node of the brain’s reward circuitry, is necessary to elicit social reward. During social interactions, activity in paraventricular nucleus (PVN) OXT neurons increased. Direct activation of these neurons in the PVN or their terminals in the VTA enhanced prosocial behaviors. Conversely, inhibition of PVN OXT axon terminals in the VTA decreased social interactions. OXT increased excitatory drive onto reward-specific VTA dopamine (DA) neurons. These results demonstrate that OXT promotes prosocial behavior through direct effects on VTA DA neurons, thus providing mechanistic insight into how social interactions can generate rewarding experiences.


Tuesday, October 03, 2017

You want younger or older?

Interesting piece from Mona Chalabi:

(According to the Census Bureau, the average age difference between men and their wives is 2.3 years.)

Monday, October 02, 2017

This year's Ig Nobel prizes.

If you want a few chuckles, have a look at this link. The prize winning work this year shows that cats can be simultaneously solid and liquid because of their ability to adopt the shape of their container.