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 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.