Thursday, November 30, 2017

Speed of processing training results in lower risk of dementia

While brain training exercises in general are not receiving a very good press these days, experiments testing effects of BrainHQ's speed of processing exercise called "Double Decision" have been the most convincing. I've tried it out several times, feel like it perks me up quite a bit for awhile, then get really bored repeating it and stop.

In the exercise, you see an image in the center of your vision–for example, either a car or a truck–and at the same time, you see another image way off in your peripheral vision. The images are only on the screen for a brief period of time–well under a second. You then have to say whether you saw the car or the truck in the center of your vision, and then you have to show where you saw the image in your peripheral vision. This challenges the speed and the accuracy of your visual system. And as you get faster and more accurate, the speed increases and the peripheral vision task gets more demanding–pushing your brain further.

Edwards et al. (open source)  now report a randomized controlled trial among 2,802 initially healthy older adults, which examined the efficacy of three cognitive training programs (memory, reasoning, or speed of processing) relative to a no-contact control condition. They found that healthy older adults randomized to the Double Decision speed of processing cognitive training, but not memory or reasoning training, had a 29% reduction in their risk of dementia after 10 years of follow-up compared to the untreated control group.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Behavior modification empires.

I have to pass on this clip from a Maureen Dowd interview of Jaron Lanier
Mr. Lanier believes that Facebook and Google, with their “top-down control schemes,” should be called “Behavior Modification Empires.”
“The whole internet thing was supposed to create the world’s best information resource in all of history,” he says. “Everything would be made visible. And instead we’re living in this time of total opacity where you don’t know why you see the news you see. You don’t know if it’s the same news that someone else sees. You don’t know who made it be that way. You don’t know who’s paid to change what you see. Everything is totally obscure in a profound way that it never was before.“
And the belief system of Silicon Valley is so thick that my friends at Facebook simply still really believe that the answer to any problem is to do more of what they already did, that they’re optimizing the world.
“The Facebook business model is mass behavior modification for pay. And for those who are not giving Facebook money, the only — and I want to emphasize, the only, underlined and in bold and italics — reward they can get or positive feedback is just getting attention. And if you have a system where the only possible prize is getting more attention, then you call that system Christmas for Asses, right? It’s a creep-amplification device.
“Once Facebook becomes ubiquitous, it’s a sort of giant protection racket, where, if you don’t pay them money, then someone else will pay to modify the behavior to your disadvantage, so everyone has to pay money just to stay at equilibrium where they would have been otherwise,” he says. “I mean, there’s only one way out for Facebook, which is to change its business model. Unless Facebook changes, we’ll just have to trust Facebook for any future election result. Because they do apparently have the ability to change them. Or at least change the close ones.”
Why would Facebook change its business model when it’s raking in billions?
“I would appeal to the decency of the people in it,” he replies. “And if not to them, then the toughness of the regulators. It’s going to be one of the struggles of the century.”

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

People who seek solitude are more creative.

Ingraham points to an article by Bowker et al. that makes me feel better about my desire for and comfort with a substantial period of solitude each day. With a psychobabble title like "How BIS/BAS and psycho-behavioral variables distinguish between social withdrawal subtypes during emerging adulthood." I never would have come across the message of this article on my own. You have to read down about three paragraphs into the article to discover that BIS and BAS refer to neurobiological behavioral inhibition and behavioral approach systems. The study is conducted on the usual gaggle of 295 WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) US college students taking a large introductory psychology course. The study makes the point that not all forms of social withdrawal are harmful. In fact there is a correlation between seeking out solitude and creativity. Bowker and colleagues used a standard battery of psychological assessments to show, in Ingraham's words, that:
People who were shy or antisocial scored lower than average on the measure of creativity. But people who were “unsociable” — those who sought out solitude — scored higher on creativity.
Unsociable people, in other words, “may be able to spend their time in solitude constructively, unlike shy and avoidant individuals who may be too distracted and/or preoccupied by their negative cognitions and distress,” the authors posit.
Other research — and indeed, the life experiences of many famously creative people — back up this notion. The solitary genius is a familiar trope in Western society. Think of Thoreau in his cabin, Van Gogh alone in an asylum and Beethoven's withdrawal into silent solitude.
Research also has found (cf. Long and Averill) that highly intelligent people are happier when they have fewer friends. They might spend less time socializing because they are focused on some other longer term objective.

Monday, November 27, 2017

How to turn conservatives into liberals.

John Bargh and collaborators have done another interesting piece of work on how implicit biases can influence us. I pass on their abstract and the first part of their introduction to the article:
Across two studies, we find evidence for our prediction that experimentally increasing feelings of physical safety increases conservatives' socially progressive attitudes. Specifically, Republican and conservative participants who imagined being endowed with a superpower that made them invulnerable to physical harm (vs. the ability to fly) were more socially (but not economically) liberal (Study 1) and less resistant to social change (Study 2). Results suggest that socially (but not economically) conservative attitudes are driven, at least in part, by needs for safety and security.
In the first inaugural address of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1938), given amidst the widespread disquiet of the Great Depression, the president famously warned Americans that their fear could serve as a psychological impediment to much needed social change. Decades later, research bears out Roosevelt's supposition: Across several disciplines and methodologies, research consistently demonstrates an association between threat, broadly defined, and political conservatism. Such work has shown that: (i) political conservatives are, on average, more likely to perceive threat than their liberal counterparts; and (ii) the existence of threat, in myriad forms, is associated with increased endorsement of conservative attitudes that resist efforts toward social change. Here, we test the novel hypothesis that the opposite of threat—that is, heightened feelings of safety—will increase socially progressive beliefs, especially among conservatives. Specifically, we test the prediction that experimentally inducing feelings of safety will increase social liberalism among Republicans (Study 1) and acceptance of social change among conservatives (Study 2).

Friday, November 24, 2017

Common cause of jihad and the Alt-Right

I pass on some clips from an essay by Scott Atran, who is the director of research in anthropology at the CNRS, École Normale Supérieure, and a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford.
Whether alt-Right or radical Islam, the values of liberal and open democracy increasingly appear to be losing ground around the world to those of narrow, xenophobic ethno-nationalisms and radical ideologies. ..According to the World Values Survey, the majority of Europeans do not believe that living in a democratic country is ‘absolutely important’ for them. ..in the US, political scientists Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk find that nearly half of American citizens lack faith in democracy; more than one-third of young high-income earners actually favour army rule, presumably to halt rising social unrest linked to income inequality, job insecurity, and persistent failures in racial integration and cultural assimilation in an age of identity politics.
It was religious philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who first discussed ‘the dizziness of freedom’ and the social disruption that it creates. Seizing on the idea in Escape from Freedom (1941), humanist philosopher Erich Fromm argued that too much freedom caused many to seek elimination of uncertainty in authoritarian systems. This has combined with what social psychologist Arie Kruglanski calls ‘the search for significance’, propelling both violent jihadists and militant supporters of populist ethno-nationalist movements worldwide.
Today, the parallels between the alt-Right and radical jihadism are clear, White-supremacist and jihadi groups parallel one another not only in strategy and tactics, but also in messaging. Klansman and Aryan Nations member Louis Beam published his 1983 manifesto, ‘Leaderless Resistance’, in The Seditionist in 1992 , as a social resistance strategy for white nationalists. Like the jihadi movement, it rejects commanding anti-government acts from the leaders of a top-down hierarchy in favour of letting independent groups and individuals act on their own. And it rejects direct messaging in favour of inferred messaging – all to prevent authorities from decapitating the movement or assigning legal responsibility for cause and effect.
There are leaders, of course – founders of groups, or those who analyse conditions and formulate plans. Whether jihadist or alt-Right, these figures are often educated and well-off. Osama bin Laden was famously a multimillionaire who studied economics and civil engineering. His successor as head of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a surgeon from a distinguished and prosperous family of doctors and scholars. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi received a PhD from the University of Baghdad. Charles Lindbergh was not just an aviator but the son of a lawyer and a US Congressman. William Pierce was a physicist descended from Southern aristocracy. Richard Spencer, the president of the alt-Right’s pre-eminent think tank, the National Policy Institute, is the son of an ophthalmologist and an heir to a cotton-field fortune, who received his MA in humanities from the University of Chicago. Across the wide swath of revolutionary and insurgent groups, founders are usually members of the middle or upper class, who then reach out to the more marginalised, less educated and poorer masses to increase potency.
From jihadis in Europe to white supremacists in the US, people most susceptible to joining radical groups are youth in their teens and 20s seeking community and purpose. The attraction of community is especially keen where there are sentiments of social exclusion or community collapse, whether or not accompanied by economic deprivation. It is a sense of purpose that most readily propels action and sacrifice, including a willingness to fight and die – especially when that purpose is perceived to be in defence of transcendent values dissociated from material costs or consequences.
…what messages could compete?… we must embed ourselves within actual communities to understand which approach may work best. A necessary focus of this effort must be youth, who form the bulk of today’s extremist recruits and tomorrow’s most vulnerable populations. Volunteers for al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and many extreme nationalist groups are often youth in transitional stages in their lives – immigrants, students, people between jobs and before finding their mates. Having left their homes, they seek new families of friends and fellow travellers to find purpose and significance. The ability to understand the realities facing young people will determine whether the transnational scourge of violent extremism continues and surges or abates.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

How gratitude changes you and your brain.

Thanksgiving day is an appropriate time to point to two articles from the Greater Good Magazine.

Wong and Brown describe work on writing gratitude letters suggesting that this improves mental health, and in the usual 'preliminary' fMRI studies.
"...when we compared those who wrote the gratitude letters with those who didn’t, the gratitude letter writers showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude in the fMRI scanner. This is striking as this effect was found three months after the letter writing began. This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain."
And, Fox discusses her work:
...our data suggest that because gratitude relies on the brain networks associated with social bonding and stress relief, this may explain in part how grateful feelings lead to health benefits over time. Feeling grateful and recognizing help from others creates a more relaxed body state and allows the subsequent benefits of lowered stress to wash over us.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A debate on the pros and cons of aging and death.

I want to pass on the final comments from a debate between Allen Frances (a professor emeritus at Duke University who was the chairman of the DSM-IV task force) and his grandson Tyler, who participates in genetics and stem cells research relevant to extending lifespan. Frances’ article gives a point by point summary of their ongoing debate, and is well worth reading.
There is a disturbing myth from ancient Greece. Aurora, the immortal goddess of the dawn, falls so deeply in love with a mortal man that she cannot accept losing him to death. She pleads successfully with the Olympian gods to grant him immortality, but forgets to request that he also be gifted with perpetual youth. Her human lover Is thus punished with the worst of fates- interminable life, daily made more intolerable by progressive aging and deterioration. Jonathan Swift illustrated the same chilling issue in Gulliver’s Travels and also tragically in his own long, tortured, and undignified death from dementia. 
Modern medicine has cursed an increasing percentage of our aging population to suffer this miserable fate- an artificially prolonged life preventing a natural and peaceful death. Medicine is, so far, much more advanced in keeping elderly people alive than in keeping them well. Our goal should be enhanced health, not a longer existence if that existence is painful and has lost all meaning. Medicine should help people live well, but also let them die peacefully and with dignity. 
Tyler is much more optimistic than I that we will soon have the technical means to prolong youth and postpone death- and that we should use them. I am more accepting of the limits of life- eager to improve its quality, rather than expecting to extend its duration. Tyler trusts scientists to make scientific decisions. I believe that scientists have conflicts of interest that make them uniquely unqualified to judge the ethical implications of the scientific opportunities open to them. If scientists can do something, they will do it- fairly heedless of unintended consequences. Tyler has the optimism and enthusiasm of the young. I have the pessimism and caution of the old. 
In a final flourish, Tyler trumped my argument that aging and death are somehow natural to the evolutionary scheme of things with the paradox that evolution has also given us the power to control aging and death and that surely we are programed to use it.
He is probably right. I don’t think our debate will be settled on ethical or theoretical grounds. History provides precious few examples of a society voluntarily rejecting the application of a powerful new technology- e.g., China burning its navy in the fifteenth century; Japan banning guns in the seventeenth. But both were closed societies whose conservative decisions were governed by internal political concerns; they were much less responsive than ours to economic and scientific competition and pressure. 
My guess is that scientists will be given the freedom and the funding to follow every possible path to the fountain of youth and to doubling the lifespan.
If they succeed, some chosen few of humanity will enjoy great benefits, while the masses may suffer even more than they do today and our environment may decay even faster than it already has. But I find aesthetic comfort in the firm belief that the scientists won’t be able to deliver on their extravagant promises. Although our knowledge base is increasing exponentially, the more we learn about the body, the more we appreciate how difficult it is to translate basic science into clinical application. Our bodies are remarkably complex and carefully balanced machines. Scientists can tinker with them, but I suspect that the basic cycle of life and death will be very hard to change.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Building artificial intelligence that can build artificial intelligence

This gets scarier and scarier. Clips from an article by Cade Metz:
...perhaps a nightmare for highly skilled computer programmers: artificially intelligent machines that can build other artificially intelligent machines...the Google project called AutoML...a machine-learning algorithm that learns to build other machine-learning algorithms.
The tech industry is promising everything from smartphone apps that can recognize faces to cars that can drive on their own. But by some estimates, only 10,000 people worldwide have the education, experience and talent needed to build the complex and sometimes mysterious mathematical algorithms that will drive this new breed of artificial intelligence.
Neural networks are rapidly accelerating the development of A.I. Rather than building an image-recognition service or a language translation app by hand, one line of code at a time, engineers can much more quickly build an algorithm that learns tasks on its own.
In building a neural network, researchers run dozens or even hundreds of experiments across a vast network of machines, testing how well an algorithm can learn a task like recognizing an image or translating from one language to another. Then they adjust particular parts of the algorithm over and over again, until they settle on something that works. Some call it a “dark art,” just because researchers find it difficult to explain why they make particular adjustments.
But with AutoML, Google is trying to automate this process. It is building algorithms that analyze the development of other algorithms, learning which methods are successful and which are not. Eventually, they learn to build more effective machine learning. Google said AutoML could now build algorithms that, in some cases, identified objects in photos more accurately than services built solely by human experts.
This is not always an easy thing to wrap your head around. But it is part of a significant trend in A.I. research. Experts call it “learning to learn” or “meta-learning.”...“Computers are going to invent the algorithms for us, essentially,” said a Berkeley professor, Pieter Abbeel. “Algorithms invented by computers can solve many, many problems very quickly — at least that is the hope.”

Monday, November 20, 2017

Buddhism is more Western than you think.

Robert Wright does a review of Adam Gopnik’s review (in the New Yorker) of Wright’s book “Why Buddhism Is True.” The whole piece is very clearly written and worth reading, and I want to pass on a few clips:
In recent decades, important aspects of the Buddhist concept of not-self have gotten support from psychology. In particular, psychology has bolstered Buddhism’s doubts about our intuition of what you might call the “C.E.O. self” — our sense that the conscious “self” is the initiator of thought and action…There is a paradox that can surface if you pursue the logic of not-self through meditation. Namely: recognizing that “you” are not in control, that you are not a C.E.O., can help give “you” more control. Or, at least, you can behave more like a C.E.O. is expected to behave: more rationally, more wisely, more reflectively; less emotionally, less rashly, less reactively.
Here’s how it can work. Suppose that, via mindfulness meditation, you observe a feeling like anxiety or anger and, rather than let it draw you into a whole train of anxious or angry thoughts, you let it pass away. Though you experience the feeling — and in a sense experience it more fully than usual — you experience it with “non-attachment” and so evade its grip. And you now see the thoughts that accompanied it in a new light — they no longer seem like trustworthy emanations from some “I” but rather as transient notions accompanying transient feelings.
There’s a broader and deeper sense in which Buddhist thought is more “Western” than stereotype suggests. What, after all, is more Western than science’s emphasis on causality, on figuring out what causes what, and hoping to thus explain why all things do the things they do? Well, in a sense, the Buddhist idea of “not-self” grows out of the belief undergirding this mission — that the world is pervasively governed by causal laws. The reason there is no “abiding core” within us is that the ever-changing forces that impinge on us — the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes — are constantly setting off chain reactions inside of us.
Indeed, this constant causal interaction with our environment raises doubts not only about how firm the core of the “self” is but, in a sense, how firm the bounds of the self are. Buddhism’s doubts about the distinctness and solidity of the “self” — and of other things, for that matter — rests on a recognition of the sense in which pervasive causality means pervasive fluidity.
…psychology has lately started to let go of its once-sharp distinction between “cognitive” and “affective” parts of the mind; it has started to see that feelings are so finely intertwined with thoughts as to be part of their very coloration. This wouldn’t qualify as breaking news in Buddhist circles. A sutra attributed to the Buddha says that a “mind object” — a category that includes thoughts — is just like a taste or a smell: whether a person is “tasting a flavor with the tongue” or “smelling an odor with the nose” or “cognizing a mind object with the mind,” the person “lusts after it if it is pleasing” and “dislikes it if it is unpleasing.”
Brain-scan studies have produced tentative evidence that this lusting and disliking — embracing thoughts that feel good and rejecting thoughts that feel bad — lies near the heart of certain “cognitive biases.” If such evidence continues to accumulate, the Buddhist assertion that a clear view of the world involves letting go of these lusts and dislikes will have drawn a measure of support from modern science.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The emotional intelligence of one- to four-year-olds

Interesting work from Wu et al. showing young children connect diverse positive emotional vocalizations to their probable causes, showing more sophisticated emotion understanding than previously realized:
The ability to understand why others feel the way they do is critical to human relationships. Here, we show that emotion understanding in early childhood is more sophisticated than previously believed, extending well beyond the ability to distinguish basic emotions or draw different inferences from positively and negatively valenced emotions. In a forced-choice task, 2- to 4-year-olds successfully identified probable causes of five distinct positive emotional vocalizations elicited by what adults would consider funny, delicious, exciting, sympathetic, and adorable stimuli (Experiment 1). Similar results were obtained in a preferential looking paradigm with 12- to 23-month-olds, a direct replication with 18- to 23-month-olds (Experiment 2), and a simplified design with 12- to 17-month-olds (Experiment 3). Moreover, 12- to 17-month-olds selectively explored, given improbable causes of different positive emotional reactions (Experiments 4 and 5). The results suggest that by the second year of life, children make sophisticated and subtle distinctions among a wide range of positive emotions and reason about the probable causes of others’ emotional reactions. These abilities may play a critical role in developing theory of mind, social cognition, and early relationships.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

America is facing an epistemic crisis

The Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times" is certainly taking its toll on all of us who don't hide from the current news. I don't recall ever seeing so many interesting and incisive opinion essays in newspapers and magazines. I’ve taken the tile of this post from an article by David Roberts in Vox, and want to pass on a few clips:

Roberts asks "what if Mueller proves his case and it doesn't matter?":
Say Mueller reveals hard proof that the Trump campaign knowingly colluded with Russia, strategically using leaked emails to hurt Clinton’s campaign. Say the president — backed by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Fox News, Breitbart, most of the US Cabinet, half the panelists on CNN, most of the radio talk show hosts in the country, and an enormous network of Russian-paid hackers and volunteer shitposters working through social media — rejects the evidence.
They might say Mueller is compromised. It’s a Hillary/Deep State plot. There’s nothing wrong with colluding with Russia in this particular way. Dems did it first. All of the above. Whatever.
Say the entire right-wing media machine kicks to life and dismisses the whole thing as a scam — and conservatives believe them. The conservative base remains committed to Trump, politicians remain scared to cross the base, and US politics remains stuck in partisan paralysis, unable to act on what Mueller discovers.
In short, what if Mueller proves the case and it’s not enough? What if there is no longer any evidentiary standard that could overcome the influence of right-wing media?
The US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening. (Epistemology is the branch of philosophy having to do with how we know things and what it means for something to be true or false, accurate or inaccurate.)
As long as the base is convinced that Mueller is an agent of the deep state (or whatever), it will punish any Republican politician that strays from the pack and criticizes Trump. For a GOP officeholder, standing up for democratic integrity could mean sacrificing reelection in 2018 or 2020.
As long as Republican politicians are frightened by the base, the base is frightened by scary conspiracies in right-wing media, and right-wing media makes more money the more frightened everyone is, Trump appears to be safe. As long as the incentives are aligned in that direction, there will be no substantial movement to censure, restrain, or remove him from office.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Improving brain function by shocking it.

This post points to three recent articles on non-invasive electrical brain stimulation of various types that enhance brain brain function.

Krause et al. show that Transcranial Direct Current Stimulates associative learning and alters functional connectivity in the macaque monkey brain:

Highlights
• tDCS improves animals’ behavior on an associative learning task 
• Stimulation has local effects on LFP power and coherence. 
• It also causes frequency-specific changes in connectivity between brain areas 
• Inter-area coherence in gamma frequencies is linked to behavioral improvement 
Summary
There has been growing interest in transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a non-invasive technique purported to modulate neural activity via weak, externally applied electric fields. Although some promising preliminary data have been reported for applications ranging from stroke rehabilitation to cognitive enhancement, little is known about how tDCS affects the human brain, and some studies have concluded that it may have no effect at all. Here, we describe a macaque model of tDCS that allows us to simultaneously examine the effects of tDCS on brain activity and behavior. We find that applying tDCS to right prefrontal cortex improves monkeys’ performance on an associative learning task. While firing rates do not change within the targeted area, tDCS does induce large low-frequency oscillations in the underlying tissue. These oscillations alter functional connectivity, both locally and between distant brain areas, and these long-range changes correlate with tDCS’s effects on behavior. Together, these results are consistent with the idea that tDCS leads to widespread changes in brain activity and suggest that it may be a valuable method for cheaply and non-invasively altering functional connectivity in humans.

Grossman et al. (Open Access) describe the use of multiple external high frequency electric fields to generate electric field envelopes inside the brain that can stimulate neurons. This could potentially substitute for current stimulation therapies for Parkinson’s disease, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder that require implanting electrodes in the brain.

And, an opinion article by Diana et al. discusses rehabilitation of the addicted brain with transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

How linguistic metaphor scaffolds reasoning

Continuing the line of inquiry pioneered by Lakoff and Johnson's 1980 book, "Metaphors We Live by", Thibodeau et al. provide further examples of how the use of metaphor shapes our thoughts. I'm passing on their summary, and also two figures.

Abstract
Language helps people communicate and think. Precise and accurate language would seem best suited to achieve these goals. But a close look at the way people actually talk reveals an abundance of apparent imprecision in the form of metaphor: ideas are ‘light bulbs’, crime is a ‘virus’, and cancer is an ‘enemy’ in a ‘war’. In this article, we review recent evidence that metaphoric language can facilitate communication and shape thinking even though it is literally false. We first discuss recent experiments showing that linguistic metaphor can guide thought and behavior. Then we explore the conditions under which metaphors are most influential. Throughout, we highlight theoretical and practical implications, as well as key challenges and opportunities for future research.
Trends
Metaphors pervade discussions of abstract concepts and complex issues: ideas are ‘light bulbs’, crime is a ‘virus’, and cancer is an ‘enemy’ in a ‘war’.
At a process level, metaphors, like analogies, involve structure mapping, in which relational structure from the source domain is leveraged for thinking about the target domain.
Metaphors influence how people think about the topics they describe by shaping how people attend to, remember, and process information.
The effects of metaphor on reasoning are not simply the result of lexical priming.
Metaphors can covertly influence how people think. That is, people are not always aware that they have been influenced by a metaphor.
Two figures (click to enlarge):





Monday, November 13, 2017

Arousal versus relaxation in meditative practices.

I am grateful to Robert Ruhloff for his comment on MindBlog's Oct. 25th post on Mindfulness, in which he pointed to a reference whose abstract I would like to pass on here:
Based on evidence of parasympathetic activation, early studies defined meditation as a relaxation response. Later research attempted to categorize meditation as either involving focused or distributed attentional systems. Neither of these hypotheses received strong empirical support, and most of the studies investigated Theravada style meditative practices. In this study, we compared neurophysiological (EEG, EKG) and cognitive correlates of meditative practices that are thought to utilize either focused or distributed attention, from both Theravada and Vajrayana traditions. The results of Study 1 show that both focused (Shamatha) and distributed (Vipassana) attention meditations of the Theravada tradition produced enhanced parasympathetic activation indicative of a relaxation response. In contrast, both focused (Deity) and distributed (Rig-pa) meditations of the Vajrayana tradition produced sympathetic activation, indicative of arousal. Additionally, the results of Study 2 demonstrated an immediate dramatic increase in performance on cognitive tasks following only Vajrayana styles of meditation, indicating enhanced phasic alertness due to arousal. Furthermore, our EEG results showed qualitatively different patterns of activation between Theravada and Vajrayana meditations, albeit highly similar activity between meditations within the same tradition. In conclusion, consistent with Tibetan scriptures that described Shamatha and Vipassana techniques as those that calm and relax the mind, and Vajrayana techniques as those that require ‘an awake quality’ of the mind, we show that Theravada and Vajrayana meditations are based on different neurophysiological mechanisms, which give rise to either a relaxation or arousal response. Hence, it may be more appropriate to categorize meditations in terms of relaxation vs. arousal, whereas classification methods that rely on the focused vs. distributed attention dichotomy may need to be reexamined.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Self as object: Trends in Self Research

The current issue of Trends in Neurosciences has a nice open source article reviewing different aspects of assessing what our 'self' is, considering 'self as object' in neural terms:
Self representation is fundamental to mental functions. While the self has mostly been studied in traditional psychophilosophical terms (‘self as subject’), recent laboratory work suggests that the self can be measured quantitatively by assessing biases towards self-associated stimuli (‘self as object’). Here, we summarize new quantitative paradigms for assessing the self, drawn from psychology, neuroeconomics, embodied cognition, and social neuroscience. We then propose a neural model of the self as an emerging property of interactions between a core ‘self network’ (e.g., medial prefrontal cortex; mPFC), a cognitive control network [e.g., dorsolateral (dl)PFC], and a salience network (e.g., insula). This framework not only represents a step forward in self research, but also has important clinical significance, resonating recent efforts in computational psychiatry.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

For your brain's sake, keep moving.

Gretchen Reynolds points to work by van Praag and collaborators showing that a week of activity rather than inactivity (in adult male rats) increases both the formation of new nerve cells in the hippocampus and the richness of their interactions. The new cells had more and longer dendrites, more of which led to spatial memory areas.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Where our brains perceive social interactions.

From Isik et al.:

Significance
Humans spend a large percentage of their time perceiving the appearance, actions, and intentions of others, and extensive previous research has identified multiple brain regions engaged in these functions. However, social life depends on the ability to understand not just individuals, but also groups and their interactions. Here we show that a specific region of the posterior superior temporal sulcus responds strongly and selectively when viewing social interactions between two other agents. This region also contains information about whether the interaction is positive (helping) or negative (hindering), and may underlie our ability to perceive, understand, and navigate within our social world.
Abstract
Primates are highly attuned not just to social characteristics of individual agents, but also to social interactions between multiple agents. Here we report a neural correlate of the representation of social interactions in the human brain. Specifically, we observe a strong univariate response in the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) to stimuli depicting social interactions between two agents, compared with (i) pairs of agents not interacting with each other, (ii) physical interactions between inanimate objects, and (iii) individual animate agents pursuing goals and interacting with inanimate objects. We further show that this region contains information about the nature of the social interaction—specifically, whether one agent is helping or hindering the other. This sensitivity to social interactions is strongest in a specific subregion of the pSTS but extends to a lesser extent into nearby regions previously implicated in theory of mind and dynamic face perception. This sensitivity to the presence and nature of social interactions is not easily explainable in terms of low-level visual features, attention, or the animacy, actions, or goals of individual agents. This region may underlie our ability to understand the structure of our social world and navigate within it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Modern flimflam men? - The Flow Genome Project

Cleaning up my queue of articles on which a MindBlog post might be based, I came across this piece by Casey Schwartz titled “How to Hack your Brain (for $5,000)," which immediately triggered my bullshit detector. It uncritically describes what seems to me a circus act devised by internet age flimflam men, Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler, whose company (the Flow Genome Project, based in my own new hometown of Austin Texas!) is “dedicated to gathering the latest science behind flow states. It’s board of advisers includes neuroscientists, filmmakers and a kiteboarder.” The result seems to be this kind of gibble-gabble of hand waving about various neurotransmitters. From Schwartz's article:
“Flow,” they write, is associated with six neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, norepinephrine, anandamide and endorphins. Knowing the neurochemical profile of flow means, in theory, people can devise ways of achieving it more often, more reliably and more quickly.
One tries in vain to find anything of substance on their website, such as a list of the neuroscientists, or references to work on the neurotransmitters mentioned. Their core video presents the two bright-eyed and bushy tailed entrepreneurs engaging you with their personal stories and lots of kewl graphics of spinning brains and neurons. Since I'm being so negative, I felt obliged to buy the Kindle version of "Stealing Fire" by Kolter and Wheal.

The bottom line is that it is an creative, wide ranging, everything but the kitchen sink, whacked out, exuberant, off the wall advertisement for Flow Genome which doesn't offer much substance. It has detailed references and what looks on the surface like a very respectable bibliography. I can't even begin to describe the confusion and chaos that lies below this veneer if one simply begins to follow through on any of the reference threads. Clicking on footnotes that purport to be supportive of the 'science' gets you a mishmash of review articles. There are several references to "The knobs and levers being tweaked in the brain: See www.flowgenomeproject.com/stealingfiretools." This link does not work. Or, "And if you’re interested in helping further this research, visit: www.stealingfirebook.com/research/". This link does not work.

I have great respect for  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s original writings on the state of ‘flow,’ which clearly lays out Kolter and Wheal's' "four signature characteristics underneath: Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness, or STER for short." However, my 75 year old curmudgeonly brain is not sympathetic to the package offered by the Flow Genome Project, whose claimed positive outcome I suspect might best be described as a mass placebo effect induced by a pseudoscientific charismatic religious act...If you believe it works, it works!

Monday, November 06, 2017

Focus on present predicts enhanced life satisfaction but not happiness

Another study by Felsman et al., in the vein of the work described in MindBlog's Oct. 25 post. That study claimed a correlation between present-moment attention and increased positive affect, this study suggests a correlation with life satisfaction but not happiness:
Mindfulness theorists suggest that people spend most of their time focusing on the past or future rather than the present. Despite the prevalence of this assumption, no research that we are aware of has evaluated whether it is true or what the implications of focusing on the present are for subjective well-being. We addressed this issue by using experience sampling to examine how frequently people focus on the present throughout the day over the course of a week and whether focusing on the present predicts improvements in the 2 components of subjective well-being over time—how people feel and how satisfied they are with their lives. Results indicated that participants were present-focused the majority of the time (66%). Moreover, focusing on the present predicted improvements in life satisfaction (but not happiness) over time by reducing negative rumination. These findings advance our understanding of how temporal orientation and well-being relate.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Cognitive reflection in men impaired by single testosterone dose

An interesting bit from Nave et al.:
In nonhumans, the sex steroid testosterone regulates reproductive behaviors such as fighting between males and mating. In humans, correlational studies have linked testosterone with aggression and disorders associated with poor impulse control, but the neuropsychological processes at work are poorly understood. Building on a dual-process framework, we propose a mechanism underlying testosterone’s behavioral effects in humans: reduction in cognitive reflection. In the largest study of behavioral effects of testosterone administration to date, 243 men received either testosterone or placebo and took the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), which estimates the capacity to override incorrect intuitive judgments with deliberate correct responses. Testosterone administration reduced CRT scores. The effect remained after we controlled for age, mood, math skills, whether participants believed they had received the placebo or testosterone, and the effects of 14 additional hormones, and it held for each of the CRT questions in isolation. Our findings suggest a mechanism underlying testosterone’s diverse effects on humans’ judgments and decision making and provide novel, clear, and testable predictions.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

The split brain revisited - a new perspective

I pass on the suggestion by Pinto et al. that classical experiments on subjects whose corpus callosum communicating between the two hemispheres has been severed, on detailed analysis, do not imply that those subjects now have split consciousness, or two different 'selves':

Summary
The split-brain phenomenon is caused by the surgical severing of the corpus callosum, the main route of communication between the cerebral hemispheres. The classical view of this syndrome asserts that conscious unity is abolished. The left hemisphere consciously experiences and functions independently of the right hemisphere. This view is a cornerstone of current consciousness research. In this review, we first discuss the evidence for the classical view. We then propose an alternative, the ‘conscious unity, split perception’ model. This model asserts that a split brain produces one conscious agent who experiences two parallel, unintegrated streams of information. In addition to changing our view of the split-brain phenomenon, this new model also poses a serious challenge for current dominant theories of consciousness.
Trends
Five hallmarks characterize the split-brain syndrome: a response × visual field interaction, strong hemispheric specialization, confabulations after left-hand actions, split attention, and the inability to compare stimuli across the midline.
These hallmarks underlie the classical notion that split brain implies split consciousness. This notion suggests that massive interhemispheric communication is necessary for conscious unity.
Closer examination challenges the classical notion. Either the hallmark also occurs in healthy adults or the hallmark does not hold up for all split-brain patients.
A re-evaluation of the split-brain data suggests a new model that might better account for the data. This model asserts that a split-brain patient is one conscious agent with unintegrated visual perception.
This new model challenges prominent theories of consciousness, since it implies that massive communication is not needed for conscious unity.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Gut reasons to brush your teeth.

Cao does a summary and discussion of work by Atarashi et al. :
Numerous microorganisms, including bacteria, colonize the intestine where they play important roles in maintaining homeostasis. However, commensal bacteria with pathogenic potential, such as Helicobacter hepaticus, can also induce intestinal inflammation. Cross-talk between gut microbiota and the host immune system can prevent or mediate chronic intestinal inflammation, the outcome of which depends on gut microbiota composition, immune response, host genetic factors, and how these factors interact. Physiologically, the intestine has developed several strategies to resist colonization by non-native bacteria and control the expansion of pathobionts that have the potential to cause pathology. Intestinal colonization by bacteria from the oral cavity has been suggested to be extensively involved in inflammatory diseases. However, it remains unclear what subset of oral microbiota may ectopically colonize the intestine and whether they induce inflammatory immune responses... Atarashi et al. show that strains of Klebsiella spp. from the salivary microbiota colonize in the gut and can potently induce chronic intestinal inflammation.
Here is the Atarashi abstract:
Intestinal colonization by bacteria of oral origin has been correlated with several negative health outcomes, including inflammatory bowel disease. However, a causal role of oral bacteria ectopically colonizing the intestine remains unclear. Using gnotobiotic techniques, we show that strains of Klebsiella spp. isolated from the salivary microbiota are strong inducers of T helper 1 (TH1) cells when they colonize in the gut. These Klebsiella strains are resistant to multiple antibiotics, tend to colonize when the intestinal microbiota is dysbiotic, and elicit a severe gut inflammation in the context of a genetically susceptible host. Our findings suggest that the oral cavity may serve as a reservoir for potential intestinal pathobionts that can exacerbate intestinal disease.