Friday, December 30, 2011

Friends with benefits - pet ownership and well-being

My two abyssinian cats and I agree with the (obvious) results of this study by Harmon-Jones et al.:
Social support is critical for psychological and physical well-being, reflecting the centrality of belongingness in our lives. Human interactions often provide people with considerable social support, but can pets also fulfill one's social needs? Although there is correlational evidence that pets may help individuals facing significant life stressors, little is known about the well-being benefits of pets for everyday people. Study 1 found in a community sample that pet owners fared better on several well-being (e.g., greater self-esteem, more exercise) and individual-difference (e.g., greater conscientiousness, less fearful attachment) measures. Study 2 assessed a different community sample and found that owners enjoyed better well-being when their pets fulfilled social needs better, and the support that pets provided complemented rather than competed with human sources. Finally, Study 3 brought pet owners into the laboratory and experimentally demonstrated the ability of pets to stave off negativity caused by social rejection. In summary, pets can serve as important sources of social support, providing many positive psychological and physical benefits for their owners.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Local Jekyll and global Hyde - duality of face perception

Miellet et al. make the curious observation that we can identify faces with either focused foveal global (peripheral) vision:
The main concern in face-processing research is to understand the processes underlying the identification of faces. In the study reported here, we addressed this issue by examining whether local or global information supports face identification. We developed a new methodology called “iHybrid.” This technique combines two famous identities in a gaze-contingent paradigm, which simultaneously provides local, foveated information from one face and global, complementary information from a second face. Behavioral face-identification performance and eye-tracking data showed that the visual system identified faces on the basis of either local or global information depending on the location of the observer’s first fixation. In some cases, a given observer even identified the same face using local information on one trial and global information on another trial. A validation in natural viewing conditions confirmed our findings. These results clearly demonstrate that face identification is not rooted in a single, or even preferred, information-gathering strategy.

Figure - Procedure used to create iHybrid faces. The spatial frequencies (SFs) of two original face images (illustrated here with Brad Pitt and William H. Macy) were decomposed separately into four nonoverlapping SF bands of 1 octave each (<3, 3–6, 6–12, >12 cycles per degree of visual angle). A Gaussian window (SD = 25 pixels, ~1° of visual angle) was then centered on every potential fixation location on each face; this procedure formed a lattice of 5- × 5-pixel cells covering the original 260 × 260 image. When an observer fixated on the stimulus, the local information across the four SF bands for one identity was extracted through the Gaussian window at that location, and the complementary global SF information was extracted from the other identity. The sum of the complementary, fixation-dependent identities formed the iHybrid stimulus. In the example illustrated here, the dashed red line indicates a fixation location at the left eye; local SF information was extracted from this location in the image of Brad Pitt, and the complementary SF information was taken from the image of William H. Macy. An observer who identifies the resulting face as Brad Pitt is using local information, and an observer who identifies this face as William H. Macy is using global information.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Leaning to the left makes an object seem smaller.

From Eerland et al., here is yet another neat example of embodied cognition, how a body state can influence "objective" estimations:
In two experiments, we investigated whether body posture influences people’s estimation of quantities. According to the mental-number-line theory, people mentally represent numbers along a line with smaller numbers on the left and larger numbers on the right. We hypothesized that surreptitiously making people lean to the right or to the left would affect their quantitative estimates. Participants answered estimation questions while standing on a Wii Balance Board. Posture was manipulated within subjects so that participants answered some questions while they leaned slightly to the left, some questions while they leaned slightly to the right, and some questions while they stood upright. Crucially, participants were not aware of this manipulation. Estimates were significantly smaller when participants leaned to the left than when they leaned to the right.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Musicians use both sides of their brains more frequently.

A colleague pointed me to this interesting (to me, because I'm a pianist) work by Sohee Park's laboratory at Vanderbilt. Their central finding is that professionally trained musicians more effectively use divergent thinking (the ability to come up with new solutions to open-ended, multifaceted problems, or thinking 'outside of the box'). Creative thinking was tested both with written word association test and by asking subjects to make up new functions for a variety of household objects. Brain activity was measured by near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), a noninvasive neuroimaging method that allows in-vivo measurement of changes in the concentrations of oxygenated hemoglobin and deoxygenated hemoglobin in the cortex. They suggest that musician's elevated use of both brain hemispheres may be related to having to use two hands independently, as well as follow multiple voices on musical scores. Folley, one of the authors, noted "“Musicians may be particularly good at efficiently accessing and integrating competing information from both hemispheres...Instrumental musicians often integrate different melodic lines with both hands into a single musical piece, and they have to be very good at simultaneously reading the musical symbols, which are like left-hemisphere-based language, and integrating the written music with their own interpretation, which has been linked to the right hemisphere.” Here is the PDF of their article, and here is the abstract:
Empirical studies of creativity have focused on the importance of divergent thinking, which supports generating novel solutions to loosely defined problems. The present study examined creativity and frontal cortical activity in an externally-validated group of creative individuals (trained musicians) and demographically matched control participants, using behavioral tasks and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). Experiment 1 examined convergent and divergent thinking with respect to intelligence and personality. Experiment 2 investigated frontal oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin concentration changes during divergent thinking with NIRS. Results of Experiment 1 indicated enhanced creativity in musicians who also showed increased verbal ability and schizotypal personality but their enhanced divergent thinking remained robust after co-varying out these two factors. In Experiment 2, NIRS showed greater bilateral frontal activity in musicians during divergent thinking compared with nonmusicians. Overall, these results suggest that creative individuals are characterized by enhanced divergent thinking, which is supported by increased frontal cortical activity.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Good minus God - distrust of atheists

Gervais et al offer yet another study on us poor atheists. I follow their abstract with some comments on such studies:
Recent polls indicate that atheists are among the least liked people in areas with religious majorities (i.e., in most of the world). The sociofunctional approach to prejudice, combined with a cultural evolutionary theory of religion's effects on cooperation, suggest that anti-atheist prejudice is particularly motivated by distrust. Consistent with this theoretical framework, a first study using a broad sample of American adults revealed that distrust characterized anti-atheist prejudice but not anti-gay prejudice. In subsequent studies, distrust of atheists generalized even to participants from more liberal, secular populations. In three further studies description of a criminally untrustworthy individual was seen as comparably representative of atheists and rapists but not representative of Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, feminists, or homosexuals. In addition, results were consistent with the hypothesis that the relationship between belief in God and atheist distrust was fully mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them. In implicit measures, participants strongly associated atheists with distrust, and belief in God was more strongly associated with implicit distrust of atheists than with implicit dislike of atheists. Finally, atheists were systematically socially excluded only in high-trust domains; belief in God, but not authoritarianism, predicted this discriminatory decision-making against atheists in high trust domains. These 6 studies are the first to systematically explore the social psychological underpinnings of anti-atheist prejudice, and converge to indicate the centrality of distrust in this phenomenon.

In the New York Times online Opinionator, Louise Anthony makes some interesting points about such studies. A few brief clips:
I gather that many people believe that atheism implies nihilism — that rejecting God means rejecting morality. A person who denies God, they reason, must be, if not actively evil, at least indifferent to considerations of right and wrong. After all, doesn’t the dictionary list “wicked” as a synonym for “godless?” And isn’t it true, as Dostoevsky said, that “if God is dead, everything is permitted”?

Well, actually — no, it’s not. (And for the record, Dostoevsky never said it was.) Atheism does not entail that anything goes.

We “moralistic atheists” do not see right and wrong as artifacts of a divine protection racket. Rather, we find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others...many theists, like many atheists, believe that moral value is inherent in morally valuable things. Things don’t become morally valuable because God prefers them; God prefers them because they are morally valuable.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Prosocial behavior as intrinsic to our brains in absence of social pressure

Zaki and Mitchell question the evolutionary and economic models assume that humans are fundamentally selfish and perform altruistic behaviors only because of social pressure:
Standard economic and evolutionary models assume that humans are fundamentally selfish. On this view, any acts of prosociality—such as cooperation, giving, and other forms of altruism—result from covert attempts to avoid social injunctions against selfishness. However, even in the absence of social pressure, individuals routinely forego personal gain to share resources with others. Such anomalous giving cannot be accounted for by standard models of social behavior. Recent observations have suggested that, instead, prosocial behavior may reflect an intrinsic value placed on social ideals such as equity and charity. Here, we show that, consistent with this alternative account, making equitable interpersonal decisions engaged neural structures involved in computing subjective value, even when doing so required foregoing material resources. By contrast, making inequitable decisions produced activity in the anterior insula, a region linked to the experience of subjective disutility. Moreover, inequity-related insula response predicted individuals’ unwillingness to make inequitable choices. Together, these data suggest that prosocial behavior is not simply a response to external pressure, but instead represents an intrinsic, and intrinsically social, class of reward.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Single nucleotide change in oxytocin receptor gene decreases stress relief by social support.

In recent years, the human oxytocin system has been increasingly studied as essential to our prosocial behavior and also buffering stress. One single nucleotide variation in the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene named rs53576 (G/A) involves switching between the G and A nucleotides. THe A allel of rs5376 has been associated with lower empathy, reduced reward dependence, lower optimism and self-esteem, and negative affect. Now Chen et al. find a further correlation; individuals with two copies of AA do not show lower cortisol responses to stress after social support. Here is their abstract:
The neuropeptide oxytocin has played an essential role in the regulation of social behavior and attachment throughout mammalian evolution. Because recent studies in humans have shown that oxytocin administration reduces stress responses and increases prosocial behavior, we investigated whether a common single nucleotide polymorphism (rs53576) in the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) might interact with stress-protective effects of social support. Salivary cortisol samples and subjective stress ratings were obtained from 194 healthy male participants before, during, and after a standardized psychosocial laboratory stress procedure. Participants were randomly assigned either to prepare alone or to receive social support from their female partner or close female friend while preparing for the stressful task. Differential stress responses between the genotype groups were observed depending on the presence or absence of social support. Only individuals with one or two copies of the G allele of rs53576 showed lower cortisol responses to stress after social support, compared with individuals with the same genotype receiving no social support. These results indicate that genetic variation of the oxytocin system modulates the effectiveness of positive social interaction as a protective buffer against a stressful experience.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A face only an investor could love...

Here is a quirky item, a bit of a stretch but curious. Given that psychological traits are thought to relate to effective leadership, Wong et al. ask whether any simple physical traits in a leader might correlate with a firms financial performance. They determined the the face width to height ratio of male leaders of 55 Fortune 500 organizations that formed part of the sample of a larger study examining the relationships among CEO characteristics, top-management-team1 processes, and organizational outcomes between 1996 and 2002:
Researchers have theorized that innate personal traits are related to leadership success. Although links between psychological characteristics and leadership success have been well established, research has yet to identify any objective physical traits of leaders that predict organizational performance. In the research reported here, we identified leaders’ facial structure as a specific physical trait that correlates with organizational performance. Specifically, we found that firms whose male CEOs have wider faces (relative to facial height) achieve superior financial performance. Decision-making dynamics within a firm’s leadership team moderate this effect, such that the relationship between a given CEO’s facial measurements and his firm’s financial performance is stronger in firms with cognitively simple leadership teams.

Figure - Industry-adjusted return on assets (ROA) as a function of the cognitive complexity of firms’ top management teams (TMTs) and CEOs’ facial width-to-height ratio (WHR). The slopes illustrated in this graph were calculated using the minimum (low) and maximum (high) values for cognitive complexity and CEO facial WHR. USD = U.S. dollars.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Our mindreading of another person depends on how much skin we see!

This interesting piece in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology makes observations on how our mindreading, or inferring someone's nature, depends on how much of them we are seeing. From the introduction:
Do people’s mental capacities fundamentally change when they remove a sweater? This seems absurd: How could removing a piece of clothing change one’s capacity for acting or feeling? In six studies, however, we show that taking off a sweater—or otherwise revealing flesh—can significantly change the way a mind is perceived. In this article, we suggest that the kind of mind ascribed to another person depends on the relative salience of his or her body—that the perceived capacity for both pain and planned action depends on whether someone wears a sweater or tank-top.
The abstract:
According to models of objectification, viewing someone as a body induces de-mentalization, stripping away their psychological traits. Here evidence is presented for an alternative account, where a body focus does not diminish the attribution of all mental capacities but, instead, leads perceivers to infer a different kind of mind. Drawing on the distinction in mind perception between agency and experience, it is found that focusing on someone's body reduces perceptions of agency (self-control and action) but increases perceptions of experience (emotion and sensation). These effects were found in three experiments when comparing targets represented by both revealing versus nonrevealing pictures or by simply directing attention toward physical characteristics. In two further experiments he effect of a body focus on mind perception also influenced moral intuitions, with those represented as a body seen to be less morally responsible (i.e., lesser moral agents) but more sensitive to harm (i.e., greater moral patients). These effects suggest that a body focus does not cause objectification per se but, instead, leads to a redistribution of perceived mind.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Why do humans collaborate so much?

Chimpanzees apparently have the cognitive skills needed to be a good collaborator. They recognize and attend to other's goals and understand how to pick an effective cooperative partner. Yet, they collaborate very little. Tomasello and his colleagues have designed an experiment that shows that problem is one of motivation rather than understanding. They presented human children and chimpanzees with a foraging problem that could be solved equally well either individually or collaboratively. Children chose the teamwork option three quarters of the time. Chimps,in contrast, performed at chance levels, indifferent to whether a conspecific worked with them. Here is a description of the setup in Santos' review:
Participants from both species were presented with the opportunity to obtain food from one of two out-of-reach boards. To get food from the first board, participants had to pull a set of ropes on their own to move the food board closer. To access food from the second board, participants had to work collaboratively with a conspecific partner, pulling the set of ropes simultaneously with their partner to access the food. Participants from both species were then given a choice between the two boards: did they want to work with a partner or would they prefer to operate the board by themselves? The authors found a big difference across the two populations. Children preferred to obtain food using the collaborative board, choosing the teamwork option about three quarters of the time. Chimpanzees, in contrast, performed at chance; they were indifferent to whether another conspecific worked with them to solve this problem, suggesting they're not as motivated to seek out opportunities to work together.
To explore the chimps motivation in more detail:
They presented chimpanzees with a similar foraging problem to that of the previous study, but varied the payoffs across the solitary and collaborative boards. In their first study, they observed that chimpanzees show a striking preference to work by themselves when the pay-offs are equated across the two boards. They then changed the pay-off structure in the next study, allowing chimpanzees to earn more food when they worked with a partner. Only when the relative pay-off from the collaborative board was increased did chimpanzees show the kind of preference that children showed for foraging collaboratively. Chimpanzees, it seems, need a little something extra to work in a team; children are motivated to do it for free.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Video at the speed of light.

The N.Y. Times points to extraordinary work that captures the image of a light pulse moving through an object, vastly faster than previous high speed photography. The technique might replace current ultrasound imaging in medical technology with photon imaging.

Taming human conflicts in the real world

Alexander and Christia provide a social psychology experiment that doesn't use Western undergraduate psychology students as subjects! They were provided the opportunity by a natural experiment that resulted from the consolidation of four Mostar high schools into three, yielding corat-majority, bosniac-majority and heterogeneous ethnic compositions. The students participated in economic experiments that pit an individual's self interest against the welfare of other participants. These others sometimes belong to the same ethnic group, and sometimes not, at integrated as well as segregated schools. This allowed the authors to measure the willingness to cooperate with others:
Whereas altruism drives the evolution of human cooperation, ethno-religious diversity has been considered to obstruct it, leading to poverty, corruption, and war. We argue that current research has failed to properly account for the institutional environment and how it affects the role diversity plays. The emergence of thriving, diverse communities throughout human history suggests that diversity does not always lead to cooperation breakdown. We conducted experiments in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina with Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks at a critical historic moment in the city’s postwar history. Using a public goods game, we found that the ability to sanction is key to achieving cooperation in ethno-religiously diverse groups, but that sanctions succeed only in integrated institutional environments and fail in segregated ones. Hence, we show experimentally for the first time in a real-life setting that institutions of integration can unleash human altruism and restore cooperation in the presence of diversity.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Our biological immune system activates our behavioral immune system.

Viewing disease cues (skin lesions, someone sneezing) leads people to display a heightened biological immune response (for example, stimulated production of cytokine interleukin-6). Miller and Maner now provide evidence for the converse: Activation of the biological immune system promotes activation of the behavioral immune system. Their abstract:
Activation of the behavioral immune system has been shown to promote activation of the biological immune system. The current research tested the hypothesis that activation of the biological immune system (as a result of recent illness) promotes activation of the behavioral immune system. Participants who had recently been ill, and had therefore recently experienced activation of their biological immune system, in one study displayed heightened attention to disfigured individuals, and in a second study showed avoidance — cognitive and behavioral processes reflecting activation of the behavioral immune system. These findings shed light on the interactive nature of biological and psychological mechanisms designed to help people overcome the threat of disease.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Heirarchies of empathy in the brain

Following the previous post I thought it would be useful to pass on more of Panskepp's review, which provides a more general description:
There is a growing recognition of how animals respond to the affective states of other animals, including the show of empathy, a state once thought to be unique to primates...A key question concerns the nature of the rats' motivations—the affective and cognitive underpinnings of their “empathy.” ...Future research needs to untangle whether empathic responses in mammals arise more from higher cognitive or lower affective brain functions, or some combination of these (see the figure). Human brain imaging studies of empathy suggest both are involved, especially in coping with the distress of others. But solid neurobiologically based evolutionary evidence, both bottom-up and top-down, is so far lacking.

Figure legend - One concept of how mammalian brains generate empathic responses at different levels is shown. Primary emotional processes, where sources of empathy may arise (i.e., feeling what other organisms are feeling), coordinate with secondary-process learning and memory mechanisms (i.e., knowing what others are feeling). Both of these then interact with higher mental processes, which can exert a variety of top-down influences on the regulation of empathic tendencies (i.e., desires to respond compassionately to others' distress).

The layering of evolutionary progressions is evident in the human brain. The deepest midbrain and hypothalamic regions mediate primary-process, instinctual affects. More recently evolved subcortical regions, among them basal ganglia, amygdala, and nucleus accumbens, help promote higher cognitive activities through learning and memory. Although we currently look to mirror-neuron zones of the neocortex for evidence of the highest mind functions such as compassion, empathic tendencies are surely also promoted by the more ancient primary-process emotional networks that are essential foundations for mental life. For example, a primal form of “empathy” is mothers' exquisite sensitivity to crying babies. Might crying access those systems in mothers' brains that are known to mediate separation anxiety in young animals? Perhaps affective urges for maternal caregiving are triggered as mothers' brains experience psychological pain engendered by their infants' cries. It may be that empathic coordination of social motivations is mediated by emotional resonances among nearby animals, allowing receivers to experience the emotions of transmitters. At such deep affective levels, emotional states may reverberate among animals, with no need for learned rerepresentations arising from mirror neurons. Mammals may have intrinsic abilities to resonate with the pains and joys of nearby others through primal emotional contagion. 

Much deep-brain research remains to be done to understand the degree to which mammalian empathy is achieved more through higher social-cognitive processes or primal affective processes in the brain. Simplified models of empathy, as in mice and rats, offer new inroads for understanding our own social-emotional nature and nurture. Such knowledge may eventually help us promote nurturant behaviors in humans.

Empathy in rats - a great video

Bartal et al. show yet another example of how the kind of empathic concern humans can show for others is already developed in the rat, a much more simple mammal. I pass on the summary of the work in Science, and be sure to watch the really excellent instructional video the authors provide, showing how a free rat overcomes the fear (caused by emotional contagion from a distressed rat trapped in a small plastic box) to open a door to let the trapped rats escape:
Empathy, a well-known characteristic in humans, occurs when an individual is motivated to help another, while maintaining emotional separation. Thus, it is distinct from emotional contagion where an individual begins to experience the emotions of other individuals, and act similarly. Emotional contagion is known to occur in many mammalian species, but empathy has often been considered unique to primates. Through a controlled experiment in captive rats, Ben-Ami Bartal et al. (p. 1427; see the Perspective by Panksepp) show that the biological roots of empathy could be much deeper than recognized. Rats were highly motivated to release a restrained cagemate, even when they were not permitted any immediate contact with it after release. Furthermore, when presented with chocolate, a highly preferred food, the rats were still motivated to release their cagemate and even shared the food with them. Thus, empathically motivated prosocial behavior is not limited to primates, and—like many other behaviors previously thought to be limited to this group—may serve similarly important functions across species.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chemical and social mechanisms of self healing.

Two fascinating recent articles deal with the power we seem to have to heal ourselves by believing that a particular faith, meditation, or procedure (like acupuncture or an effective looking sugar pill) will do the job. An article by Michael Specter in the Dec. 12 issue of the New Yorker describes the work of Ted Kaptchuk, who is director of the Harvard Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter. The second article, by Nicholas Humphrey, suggests that the placebo effect is the result of a trick that has been played by human culture, and that is can be generalized to explain how we might also be able to alter our 'self-management systems'.

The Specter article gives a nuanced discussion of the complexity and ambiguities of alternative healing treatments. I am amazed that I had not been aware of results of neuroimaging studies that have tracked brain activity in response to either a drug or a placebo as soon as they are taken. One has shown that injection of saline that has been described as a drug can reduce a patient's symptoms of Parkinson's disease and caused in crease in brain dopamine that the disease destroys. A chemical basis of a pain relieving placebo effect was shown in a seminal 1978 experiment in which dental surgery patients who reported their pain was decreased by receiving an injection of saline instead of morphine had Naloxone added to their I.V. drips. Naloxone is a drug developed to counteract overdoses of heroin and morphine by blocking opioid receptors in the central nervous system that are normally acted on by endorphins. Naloxone blocked the placebo pain relief, proving that its chemical basis was most likely due to the actual relief of endorphins in the brain by the power of belief.

It appears that when we think we are receiving a drug that is capable of changing the level of a molecule that our body can manufacture (dopamine or endorphins in the examples just given) our body goes ahead and changes those levels by itself. There is objective chemical evidence that we can "heal ourselves". (The flip side of this is the "Nocebo Effect", in which the suggestion that a procedure is going to be painful actually cause it to be so, or enhance it.)

The Humphrey article looks at the larger context that he suggest enables these phenomena, and the reason that faith healing and medicine could be as effective as they were become they had any rational or scientific basis. Some edited chunks:
...until less than 100 years ago, there was hardly anything a doctor could do that would be effective in any physiological medicinal way—and still the doctor's ministrations often "worked". That's to say, under the influence of what we would today call placebo medicine people came to feel less pain, to experience less fever, their inflammations receded, and so on...I realized it must be the result of a trick that has been played by human culture. The trick isto persuade sick people that they have a "license" to get better, because they'rein the hands of supposed specialists who know what's best for them and can offer practical help and reinforcements. And the reason this works is that it reassures people—subconsciously —that the costs of self-cure will be affordable and that it's safe to let down their guard. So health has improved because of a cultural subterfuge. It's been a pretty remarkable development.
Noting the overwhelming evidence that our character is molded by sub-conscious environmental and cultural cues he continues:
To explain placebos I think we need to invoke the existence of an "evolved health management system". The placebo effect is a particular kind of priming effect. And what I want to do now is to explain a whole range of other priming effects by invoking the existence of an "evolved self-management system".

It makes sense that our brains should have come to play a crucial part in the top-down management of bodily health. As I see it, what the health management system has evolved to do is to perform a kind of economic analysis of what the opportunities and the costs of cure will be: what resources we've got in reserve, how dangerous the situation is right now, what predictions we can make of what the future holds...So now, where does the placebo effect fit in? Placebos work because they suggest to people that the picture is rosier than it really is. Just like the artificial summer light cycle for the hamster - which causes them to mount a more massive and effective immune response to infection, because it is not as important to conserve resources in the summer as in the winter - placebos give people fake information that it's safe to cure them. Whereupon they do just that.

This suggests we should see the placebo effect as part of a much larger picture of homeostasis and bodily self-control. But now I'm ready to expand on this much further still. If this is the way humans and animals manage their physical health, there must surely be a similar story to be told about mental health. And if mental health, then—at least with humans—it should apply to personality and character as well. So I've come round to the idea that humans have in fact evolved a full-blown self management system, with the job of managing all their psychological resources put together, so as to optimise the persona they present to the world...our ancestors already had a template for doing these calculations, namely the pre-existing health system. In fact I believe the self management system evolved on the back of the health system. But this new system goes much further than the older one: it's job is to read the local signs and signs and forecast the psychological weather we are heading into, enabling us to prejudge what we can get away with, what's politic, what's expected of us. Not surprisingly, it's turned out to be a very complex system. That's why psychologists working on priming are discovering so many cues, which are relevant to it. For there are of course so many things that are relevant to managing our personal lives and coming across in the most effective and self-promoting ways we can.

Because our circumstances have generally improved in the last ten thousand years, and yet evolutionary catch-up occurs relatively slowly, this means that both systems will have become "out of date" in the way they calculate costs and benefits. At both the health-level and the self-level, there are bound to be things humans could not risk doing in the past that they can risk now.

Placebo medication works by tricking the subject with false information into believing the situation warrants a reduction in pain, for example, or the mounting of an expensive immune response. Yet it's precisely because our environment today is less dangerous than it used to be, that responding to this trick no longer puts us at an unacceptable risk...because the same kind of improvement has occurred in our social lives, the same goes for the risks with managing the self. In the "environment of evolutionary adaptiveness"—the social and physical environment, 100,000-10,000 years ago, in which many of our biological adaptations were laid down—our ancestors lived in very small scale societies, where individuals were monitored all the time by the group, and it was essential to conform to others' expectations...We no longer live in such an oppressive environment. We no longer need to play by the old rules, and rein in our peculiar strengths and idiosyncrasies. We can afford to take risks now we couldn't before...I think it really ought to be possible to devise placebo treatments for the self, which do indeed induce them to come out from their protective shells —and so to emerge as happier, nicer, cleverer, more creative people than they would ever otherwise have dared to be.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Perfecting the not quite perfect

I pass on this interesting item by Peter Stern from the Editor's choice section of Science Magazine:
Even the best musicians make slight errors when playing a rhythm. We find this frailty to be appealing, as evidenced by the fact that computer-generated perfect rhythms are often perceived as sterile or artificial. Having known this phenomenon for a long time, software engineers have added slight rhythmic fluctuations to make computer-generated music sound more human. These fluctuations are usually produced by a random number generator. Hennig et al. have now analyzed the statistical properties of music produced by professional musicians. They found that there are long-range fluctuations when humans produce all sorts of rhythms. A small rhythmic fluctuation at some point in time not only influenced fluctuations shortly thereafter, but even after tens of seconds. When given the choice, listeners clearly preferred music produced according to these criteria over the random number-generated fluctuations. The authors conclude that these results may not only have practical implications such as improved techniques for audio editing and humanizing music, but they may also provide new insights into the neurophysiology of time perception and timing of actions.
Here is the Hennig et al. abstract:
Although human musical performances represent one of the most valuable achievements of mankind, the best musicians perform imperfectly. Musical rhythms are not entirely accurate and thus inevitably deviate from the ideal beat pattern. Nevertheless, computer generated perfect beat patterns are frequently devalued by listeners due to a perceived lack of human touch. Professional audio editing software therefore offers a humanizing feature which artificially generates rhythmic fluctuations. However, the built-in humanizing units are essentially random number generators producing only simple uncorrelated fluctuations. Here, for the first time, we establish long-range fluctuations as an inevitable natural companion of both simple and complex human rhythmic performances. Moreover, we demonstrate that listeners strongly prefer long-range correlated fluctuations in musical rhythms. Thus, the favorable fluctuation type for humanizing interbeat intervals coincides with the one generically inherent in human musical performances.

Friday, December 09, 2011

REM sleep chills out amygdala, reduces emotional reactivity

van der Helm et al. at Univ. of Cal. Berkeley have done interesting experiments in which 34 adults were randomly assigned to two groups which both performed an emotion reactivity test twice inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner; separated by a 12 hr interval. The tests involved the rating and subsequent rerating of the same standard set of 150 affective picture stimuli. One group slept during the twelve hours interval with REM (rapid eye movement) sleep monitored by EEG, the other group was a control group that stayed awake during the day. Controls were done to eliminate possible time-of-day differences in emotional reactivity, independent of wake or sleep. Here is their abstract:
Clinical evidence suggests a potentially causal interaction between sleep and affective brain function; nearly all mood disorders display co-occurring sleep abnormalities, commonly involving rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep. Building on this clinical evidence, recent neurobiological frameworks have hypothesized a benefit of REM sleep in palliatively decreasing next-day brain reactivity to recent waking emotional experiences. Specifically, the marked suppression of central adrenergic neurotransmitters during REM (commonly implicated in arousal and stress), coupled with activation in amygdala-hippocampal networks that encode salient events, is proposed to (re)process and depotentiate previous affective experiences, decreasing their emotional intensity. In contrast, the failure of such adrenergic reduction during REM sleep has been described in anxiety disorders, indexed by persistent high-frequency electroencephalographic (EEG) activity (greater than 30 Hz); a candidate factor contributing to hyperarousal and exaggerated amygdala reactivity. Despite these neurobiological frameworks, and their predictions, the proposed benefit of REM sleep physiology in depotentiating neural and behavioral responsivity to prior emotional events remains unknown. Here, we demonstrate that REM sleep physiology is associated with an overnight dissipation of amygdala activity in response to previous emotional experiences, altering functional connectivity and reducing next-day subjective emotionality.

How exercise benefits the brain - importance of BNDF

Gretchen Reynolds summarizes several experiments demonstrating that exercise stimulates synthesis of brain derived neurotropic factor (BNDF), which promotes the health and multiplication of brain cells, and apparently also cognitive health. An Irish group has shown that strenuous aerobic exercise on a stationary cycle boosts BNDF levels and also performance on memory tests. A Brazilian group found that after sedentary elderly rats ran for approximately five minutes several days a week for five weeks, BNDF production increased in memory center of their brains. The old, exercised animals then performed almost as well as much younger rats on rodent memory tests. A study at UCLA showed that if adult rats were allowed to run at will for a week, the memory centers of their brains afterward contained more BDNF molecules than those of sedentary rats. Finally a Stanford study found that the normally occurring decay of performance with age in skilled airline pilots was more pronounced in those who carried a common genetic variation that is believed to reduce BDNF activity in their brains.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Psychopathy correlates with reduced prefrontal connectivity.

Psychopathy, defined as callous and impulsive antisocial behavior, is present in approximately a quarter of adult prison inmates. For many years, it has been known that changes accompanying ventro-medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) damage (lack of empathy, irresponsibility, and poor decision making) bear striking resemblance to psychopathic personality traits. Motzkin et al have now used two complementary neuroimaging methods to quantify the structural and functional connectivity of vmPFC in 27 psychopathic and non-psychopathic prison inmates. Their abstract:
Linking psychopathy to a specific brain abnormality could have significant clinical, legal, and scientific implications. Theories on the neurobiological basis of the disorder typically propose dysfunction in a circuit involving ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). However, to date there is limited brain imaging data to directly test whether psychopathy may indeed be associated with any structural or functional abnormality within this brain area. In this study, we employ two complementary imaging techniques to assess the structural and functional connectivity of vmPFC in psychopathic and non-psychopathic criminals. Using diffusion tensor imaging, we show that psychopathy is associated with reduced structural integrity in the right uncinate fasciculus, the primary white matter connection between vmPFC and anterior temporal lobe. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we show that psychopathy is associated with reduced functional connectivity between vmPFC and amygdala as well as between vmPFC and medial parietal cortex. Together, these data converge to implicate diminished vmPFC connectivity as a characteristic neurobiological feature of psychopathy.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Purging senescent cells can prevent some ills of aging.

I've held off on noting some recent work relevant to longevity that has received quite a lot of press, because I increasingly rebel at the enormous amount of effort going into life extension. It is hard, however, to not be interested in experiments that appear relevant to enhancing the quality of a normal life span, so that health and robustness are maintained until a system failure rapidly takes down the whole show. The report by Baker et al. examines cells that have stopped dividing (senescent cells) and hasten aging in the tissues in which they accumulate (like my arthritic knees!) by secreting agents that stimulate low-level inflammation. Barker et al. use a neat genetic trick (not yet available to us humans) to eliminate senescent cells in mice. From Wade's summary:
...senescent cells...reliably switch on a characteristic marker gene known as p16-Ink4a. [Barker et al.]... arranged that the genetic element that switches on the marker gene would also prime a mechanism to make the cell self-destruct. The mechanism fired only when the mice were dosed with a specific drug. The result was that only senescent cells were at risk from the drug...they could be purged at any desired time in the mouse’s lifetime.
Life-long removal of senescent cells delayed the onset of age-related pathologies in fat,skeletal muscle, and eye tissues, and clearance in late life attenuated the progression of these pathologies (such as cataracts). So, it appears that removal of senescent cells can prevent or delay tissue dysfunction and should extend lifespan.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Ignoring the bad news...the brain’s rose colored glasses

Dolan and Colleagues have done yet another fascinating piece of work, showing brain activity that correlates with the tendency of people to remain overly optimistic even when faced with information about a gloomy future (optimism bias). This is another example of 'not attending to bad news' (noted in a mindblog post last week as underlying some people having less ability to learn from their mistakes). The Sharot et al. study shows that people are selectively worse at incorporating information about a worse-than-expected future, and describes the learning signals in the brain that correlate with this bias:
Unrealistic optimism is a pervasive human trait that influences domains ranging from personal relationships to politics and finance. How people maintain unrealistic optimism, despite frequently encountering information that challenges those biased beliefs, is unknown. We examined this question and found a marked asymmetry in belief updating. Participants updated their beliefs more in response to information that was better than expected than to information that was worse. This selectivity was mediated by a relative failure to code for errors that should reduce optimism. Distinct regions of the prefrontal cortex tracked estimation errors when those called for positive update, both in individuals who scored high and low on trait optimism. However, highly optimistic individuals exhibited reduced tracking of estimation errors that called for negative update in right inferior prefrontal gyrus. These findings indicate that optimism is tied to a selective update failure and diminished neural coding of undesirable information regarding the future.

Monday, December 05, 2011

A gene that makes you appear to be kinder...

Kogan and colleagues at the Univ. of Toronto have examined some behavioral consequences of variations of the gene that codes for the receptor for the hormone oxytocin, since high levels of oxytocin are believed to make people more sociable. Volunteers (116) were asked to watch 23 brief silent videos that showed people with GG, GA, or AA versions of the gene responding to their partner telling them a story of personal suffering, and rate how kind and trustworthy the person in the video appeared to be. Those with the homozygous GG version of the oxytocin receptor gene were judged to be kinder than those with GA or AA versions, apparently because those with GG variations used significantly more non-verbal empathetic gestures in their storytelling such as smiling and nodding. Here is the abstract:
Individuals who are homozygous for the G allele of the rs53576 SNP of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene tend to be more prosocial than carriers of the A allele. However, little is known about how these differences manifest behaviorally and whether they are readily detectable by outside observers, both critical questions in theoretical accounts of prosociality. In the present study, we used thin-slicing methodology to test the hypotheses that (i) individual differences in rs53576 genotype predict how prosocial observers judge target individuals to be on the basis of brief observations of behavior, and (ii) that variation in targets’ nonverbal displays of affiliative cues would account for these judgment differences. In line with predictions, we found that individuals homozygous for the G allele were judged to be more prosocial than carriers of the A allele. These differences were completely accounted for by variations in the expression of affiliative cues. Thus, individual differences in rs53576 are associated with behavioral manifestations of prosociality, which ultimately guide the judgments others make about the individual.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Why does synesthesia persist in the population?

Brang and Ramachandran do an interesting review of ideas on synesthesia, a condition present in 2%–4% of the population,in which a sensory stimulus presented to one modality elicits concurrent sensations in additional modalities. In two of the most common variants, auditory tones and achromatic (colorless) numbers produce vivid and perceptually salient colors. The authors point out that synesthesia can be associated with a wide variety of conceptual and perceptual benefits, suggesting that the gene(s) involved may have been selected for because of a hidden agenda. They speculate that increasing the range of sensory associations may extend to other systems such as creativity and metaphor (increasing the range of association between words). They point to examples of people with prodigious memories based largely on using synesthetic associations evoked by the items to be memorized.
In addition to facilitating processes in individual sensory modalities, synesthetes also show increased communication between the senses unrelated to their synesthetic experiences, suggesting that benefits from synesthesia generalize to other modalities as well, supporting their ability to process multisensory information. Furthermore, others have argued that synesthesia is the direct result of enhanced communication between the senses as a logical outgrowth of the cross-modality interactions present in all individuals. Taken collectively, these data suggest that synesthesia may be associated with enhanced primary sensory processing as well as the integration between the senses...synesthesia is a highly heritable phenomenon that is associated with numerous benefits to cognitive processing, potentially underscoring a basis for why this condition has survived evolutionary pressures.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Our brain's fusiform "face" area is about holistic processing of any familiar complex visual input.

As a followup to an older MindBlog post on Chess expertise, I though I would pass on this interesting work from Bilalić et al.
The fusiform face area (FFA) is involved in face perception to such an extent that some claim it is a brain module for faces exclusively. The other possibility is that FFA is modulated by experience in individuation in any visual domain, not only faces. Here we test this latter FFA expertise hypothesis using the game of chess as a domain of investigation. We exploited the characteristic of chess, which features multiple objects forming meaningful spatial relations. In three experiments, we show that FFA activity is related to stimulus properties and not to chess skill directly. In all chess and non-chess tasks, experts' FFA was more activated than that of novices' only when they dealt with naturalistic full-board chess positions. When common spatial relationships formed by chess objects in chess positions were randomly disturbed, FFA was again differentially active only in experts, regardless of the actual task. Our experiments show that FFA contributes to the holistic processing of domain-specific multipart stimuli in chess experts. This suggests that FFA may not only mediate human expertise in face recognition but, supporting the expertise hypothesis, may mediate the automatic holistic processing of any highly familiar multipart visual input.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Neural (MRI) correlates of effective learning.

Here is a rather fascinating prospective use of MRI technology - to distinguish people who might become the most effective decision makers after further more extensive training in a specialization such as medical diagnosis. Their basic finding is that high performers' brains achieve better outcomes by attending to informative failures during training, rather than chasing the reward value of successes. From Downar, Bhatt, and Montague:
Accurate associative learning is often hindered by confirmation bias and success-chasing, which together can conspire to produce or solidify false beliefs in the decision-maker. We performed functional magnetic resonance imaging in 35 experienced physicians, while they learned to choose between two treatments in a series of virtual patient encounters. We estimated a learning model for each subject based on their observed behavior and this model divided clearly into high performers and low performers. The high performers showed small, but equal learning rates for both successes (positive outcomes) and failures (no response to the drug). In contrast, low performers showed very large and asymmetric learning rates, learning significantly more from successes than failures; a tendency that led to sub-optimal treatment choices. Consistently with these behavioral findings, high performers showed larger, more sustained BOLD responses to failed vs. successful outcomes in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and inferior parietal lobule while low performers displayed the opposite response profile. Furthermore, participants' learning asymmetry correlated with anticipatory activation in the nucleus accumbens at trial onset, well before outcome presentation. Subjects with anticipatory activation in the nucleus accumbens showed more success-chasing during learning. These results suggest that high performers' brains achieve better outcomes by attending to informative failures during training, rather than chasing the reward value of successes. The differential brain activations between high and low performers could potentially be developed into biomarkers to identify efficient learners on novel decision tasks, in medical or other contexts.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The speed-accuracy tradeoff in the elderly brain.

Sigh...even more information on my aging brain. The fact that I and other older folks take longer to respond when a task is presented can most charitably be attributed to our being more cautious about making errors, but Forstmann et al. find evidence that this behavior is not entirely voluntary, and can also be related to a decrease in brain connectivity with aging:
Even in the simplest laboratory tasks older adults generally take more time to respond than young adults. One of the reasons for this age-related slowing is that older adults are reluctant to commit errors, a cautious attitude that prompts them to accumulate more information before making a decision. This suggests that age-related slowing may be partly due to unwillingness on behalf of elderly participants to adopt a fast-but-careless setting when asked. We investigate the neuroanatomical and neurocognitive basis of age-related slowing in a perceptual decision-making task where cues instructed young and old participants to respond either quickly or accurately. Mathematical modeling of the behavioral data confirmed that cueing for speed encouraged participants to set low response thresholds, but this was more evident in younger than older participants. Diffusion weighted structural images suggest that the more cautious threshold settings of older participants may be due to a reduction of white matter integrity in corticostriatal tracts that connect the pre-SMA to the striatum. These results are consistent with the striatal account of the speed-accuracy tradeoff according to which an increased emphasis on response speed increases the cortical input to the striatum, resulting in global disinhibition of the cortex. Our findings suggest that the unwillingness of older adults to adopt fast speed-accuracy tradeoff settings may not just reflect a strategic choice that is entirely under voluntary control, but that it may also reflect structural limitations: age-related decrements in brain connectivity.

Monday, November 28, 2011

How not to revert to habit under stress...

A stressful situation can have the effect of making us actually less able to flexibly cope with the issue at hand, because we tend under stress to regress to older habitual responses that may be less appropriate. Observations by Schwabe et al. suggest that we might be able to lessen this behavior by popping an old fashioned pill like propanolol, a β-adrenoceptor antagonist (which has been used for many years by some musicians to quell their performance anxiety). The second abstract below, from Hermans et al. provides a more detailed view of how our brain networks are changing during stress, and how this is attenuated by β-adrenoceptor receptor blockage.
Stress modulates instrumental action in favor of habit processes that encode the association between a response and preceding stimuli and at the expense of goal-directed processes that learn the association between an action and the motivational value of the outcome. Here, we asked whether this stress-induced shift from goal-directed to habit action is dependent on noradrenergic activation and may therefore be blocked by a β-adrenoceptor antagonist. To this end, healthy men and women were administered a placebo or the β-adrenoceptor antagonist propranolol before they underwent a stress or a control procedure. Shortly after the stress or control procedure, participants were trained in two instrumental actions that led to two distinct food outcomes. After training, one of the food outcomes was selectively devalued by feeding participants to satiety with that food. A subsequent extinction test indicated whether instrumental behavior was goal-directed or habitual. As expected, stress after placebo rendered participants' behavior insensitive to the change in the value of the outcome and thus habitual. After propranolol intake, however, stressed participants behaved, same as controls, goal-directed, suggesting that propranolol blocked the stress-induced bias toward habit behavior. Our findings show that the shift from goal-directed to habitual control of instrumental action under stress necessitates noradrenergic activation and could have important clinical implications, particularly for addictive disorders.
And, more detail from Hermans et al., who find in human studies robust stressor-related changes in functional neuronal activity and connectivity within a network of brain areas, which correlate with increased reports of negative emotionality by the participants, as well as with increases of cortisol and alpha amylase in their saliva:
Acute stress shifts the brain into a state that fosters rapid defense mechanisms. Stress-related neuromodulators are thought to trigger this change by altering properties of large-scale neural populations throughout the brain. We investigated this brain-state shift in humans. During exposure to a fear-related acute stressor, responsiveness and interconnectivity within a network including cortical (frontoinsular, dorsal anterior cingulate, inferotemporal, and temporoparietal) and subcortical (amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, and midbrain) regions increased as a function of stress response magnitudes. β-adrenergic receptor blockade, but not cortisol synthesis inhibition, diminished this increase. Thus, our findings reveal that noradrenergic activation during acute stress results in prolonged coupling within a distributed network that integrates information exchange between regions involved in autonomic-neuroendocrine control and vigilant attentional reorienting.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A nap enhances relational memory

Lau et al. make the following interesting observations:
It is increasingly evident that sleep strengthens memory. However, it is not clear whether sleep promotes relational memory, resultant of the integration of disparate memory traces into memory networks linked by commonalities. The present study investigates the effect of a daytime nap, immediately after learning or after a delay, on a relational memory task that requires abstraction of general concept from separately learned items. Specifically, participants learned English meanings of Chinese characters with overlapping semantic components called radicals. They were later tested on new characters sharing the same radicals and on explicitly stating the general concepts represented by the radicals. Regardless of whether the nap occurred immediately after learning or after a delay, the nap participants performed better on both tasks. The results suggest that sleep – even as brief as a nap – facilitates the reorganization of discrete memory traces into flexible relational memory networks.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Brief musical training in kids enhances other high level cognitive skills.

Article like this one from Moreno et al. make me think that my life long piano practice may be part of the reason I'm still hanging onto a few of my mental marbles as I age. (I realized the other day that my sight reading of complex musical scores, which requires glancing several measures ahead of the one being played, and remembering them, is essentially working memory training of the sort that has been shown to enhance general intelligence.) Here is the abstract from Moreno et al:
Researchers have designed training methods that can be used to improve mental health and to test the efficacy of education programs. However, few studies have demonstrated broad transfer from such training to performance on untrained cognitive activities. Here we report the effects of two interactive computerized training programs developed for preschool children: one for music and one for visual art. After only 20 days of training, only children in the music group exhibited enhanced performance on a measure of verbal intelligence, with 90% of the sample showing this improvement. These improvements in verbal intelligence were positively correlated with changes in functional brain plasticity during an executive-function task. Our findings demonstrate that transfer of a high-level cognitive skill is possible in early childhood.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Quantitating how positive emotions increase longevity.

Increasing general well-being of citizens is usually taken to be the the goal of government and public policy, and MindBlog has pointed to numerous studies that link positive affect and other measures of well-being with longer survival and reduced risk of diseases in old age. is well-being best measured? Most studies have have mainly relied on assessments of recollected emotional states, in which people are asked to rate their feelings of happiness or well-being in general, either without any time frame or over a specific time period. Psychological research has established that recollected affect may diverge from actual experience because it is influenced by errors in recollection, recall biases, focusing illusions, and salient memory heuristics. Steptoe and Wardle1 address the issue that recollected affect may diverge from actual experience because it is influenced by errors in recollection, recall biases, focusing illusions, and salient memory heuristics. They note that the “memory–experience gap” between life as it is remembered and life as it is experienced may be important to the processes through which the past impacts on future behavior. They address this issue by looking at data aggregating momentary affect assessments over a single day for a large number of individuals:
Links between positive affect (PA) and health have predominantly been investigated by using measures of recollected emotional states. Ecological momentary assessment is regarded as a more precise measure of experienced well-being. We analyzed data from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, a representative cohort of older men and women living in England. PA was assessed by aggregating momentary assessments over a single day in 3,853 individuals aged 52 to 79 y who were followed up for an average of 5 y. Respondents in the lowest third of PA had a death rate of 7.3%, compared with 4.6% in the medium-PA group and 3.6% in the high-PA group. Cox proportional-hazards regression showed a hazard ratio of 0.498 (95% confidence interval, 0.345–0.721) in the high-PA compared with the low-PA group, adjusted for age and sex. This was attenuated to 0.646 (95% confidence interval, 0.436–0.958) after controlling for demographic factors, negative affect, depressed mood, health indicators, and health behaviors. Negative affect and depressed mood were not related to survival after adjustment for covariates. These findings indicate that experienced PA, even over a single day, has a graded relationship with survival that is not caused by baseline health status or other covariates. Momentary PA may be causally related to survival, or may be a marker of underlying biological, behavioral, or temperamental factors, although reverse causality cannot be conclusively ruled out. The results endorse the value of assessing experienced affect, and the importance of evaluating interventions that promote happiness in older populations.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Compatibility of Neuroscience and Free Will? - a further discussion

Because several people have mentioned a recent NYTimes piece on neuroscience and free will to me, I've decided to pass on its basic points here, given that MindBlog has done frequent posts on the issue of free will (most recently for example, see here, here, and here). The recent article by Nahmias starts with reference to Wegner's book "The Illusion of Conscious Will," whose arguments are a central part of my "I-Illusion" web lecture you can see the MindBlog column to your left. Nahmias argues that the debate is usually mis-framed as being between scientific materialism and Cartesian dualism, and further that it does not take account of the more extended time frames involved in deliberation of alternative courses of action.
The sciences of the mind do give us good reasons to think that our minds are made of matter. But to conclude that consciousness or free will is thereby an illusion is too quick. It is like inferring from discoveries in organic chemistry that life is an illusion just because living organisms are made up of non-living stuff. Much of the progress in science comes precisely from understanding wholes in terms of their parts, without this suggesting the disappearance of the wholes. There’s no reason to define the mind or free will in a way that begins by cutting off this possibility for progress.

...people sometimes misunderstand determinism to mean that we are somehow cut out of the causal chain leading to our actions. People are threatened by a possibility I call “bypassing” — the idea that our actions are caused in ways that bypass our conscious deliberations and decisions. So, if people mistakenly take causal determinism to mean that everything that happens is inevitable no matter what you think or try to do, then they conclude that we have no free will.
...discoveries about how our brains work can also explain how free will works rather than explaining it away. But first, we need to define free will in a more reasonable and useful way. Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.

...As long as people understand that discoveries about how our brains work do not mean that what we think or try to do makes no difference to what happens, then their belief in free will is preserved. What matters to people is that we have the capacities for conscious deliberation and self-control that I’ve suggested we identify with free will.

...None of the evidence marshaled by neuroscientists and psychologists suggests that those neural processes involved in the conscious aspects of such complex, temporally extended decision-making are in fact causal dead ends. It would be almost unbelievable if such evidence turned up. It would mean that whatever processes in the brain are involved in conscious deliberation and self-control — and the substantial energy these processes use — were as useless as our appendix, that they evolved only to observe what we do after the fact, rather than to improve our decision-making and behavior. No doubt these conscious brain processes move too slowly to be involved in each finger flex as I type, but as long as they play their part in what I do down the road — such as considering what ideas to type up — then my conscious self is not a dead end, and it is a mistake to say my free will is bypassed by what my brain does.

So, does neuroscience mean the death of free will? Well, it could if it somehow demonstrated that conscious deliberation and rational self-control did not really exist or that they worked in a sheltered corner of the brain that has no influence on our actions. But neither of these possibilities is likely. True, the mind sciences will continue to show that consciousness does not work in just the ways we thought, and they already suggest significant limitations on the extent of our rationality, self-knowledge, and self-control. Such discoveries suggest that most of us possess less free will than we tend to think, and they may inform debates about our degrees of responsibility. But they do not show that free will is an illusion.

If we put aside the misleading idea that free will depends on supernatural souls rather than our quite miraculous brains, and if we put aside the mistaken idea that our conscious thinking matters most in the milliseconds before movement, then neuroscience does not kill free will. Rather, it can help to explain our capacities to control our actions in such a way that we are responsible for them. It can help us rediscover free will.
In response to numerous comments on his article Nahmias notes:
One point I did not have time to develop, but many comments raise, is that we do not possess as much free will as we tend to think...Psychology indeed suggests that we are often unaware of what motivates us, we often rationalize our actions after we act, and we often are influenced by external factors that we'd prefer not to be influenced by... because I understand free will as a set of naturalistic capacities, I believe that empirical discoveries can illuminate not only how it works, but also limitations to it. This also means we are sometimes less praiseworthy or blameworthy than we tend to think...Conversely, I do not think that free and responsible action always requires conscious or rational deliberation. As Aristotle taught us, we are responsible not only for these sorts of choices but also for our habits and character traits that derive from these choices, though again, it largely remains to be discovered what degrees of freedom and responsibility we possess.

Monday, November 21, 2011

How to qualify as a social partner.

Most theoretical models for human social interactions explore relatively simple scenarios to allow for analytical solutions. Rockenbacha and Milinski have now devised a more sophisticated social-dilemma game that come closer to modeling real world interactions. Here is how they pose the issue:
What is the benefit of watching someone? Observing a person's behavior in a social dilemma may provide information about her qualities as a social partner for potential collaboration in the future: Does she contribute to a public good? Does she punish free riders? Does she reward contributors? Do I want to collaborate with her? Direct observation is more reliable than trusting gossip. Being watched, however, is not neutral: An individual's behavior may change in the presence of an observer (the “audience effect”), and the observed may be tempted to behave as expected to manage her reputation. Watchful eyes may induce altruistic behavior in the observed. Even a mechanistic origin of recognizing watchful eyes in the brain has been described as cortical orienting circuits that mediate nuanced and context-dependent social attention. However, watching also may induce an “arms race” of signals between observers and the observed. The observer should take into account that the behavior of the observed may change in response to observation and therefore should conceal her watching; the observed should be very alert to faint signals of being watched but should avoid any sign of having recognized that watching is occurring. The interaction between observing and being observed has implications for the large body of recent research on human altruism. Especially when a conflict of interest exists between observers and observed, they may use a rich toolbox of sophisticated strategies both to manipulate signals and to uncover manipulations.
The authors observe that in deciding on social partners observed cooperativeness is decisive, and severe punishment is hidden. Here is their abstract:
Conflicts of interest between the community and its members are at the core of human social dilemmas. If observed selfishness has future costs, individuals may hide selfish acts but display altruistic ones, and peers aim at identifying the most selfish persons to avoid them as future social partners. An interaction involving hiding and seeking information may be inevitable. We staged an experimental social-dilemma game in which actors could pay to conceal information about their contribution, giving, and punishing decisions from an observer who selects her future social partners from the actors. The observer could pay to conceal her observation of the actors. We found sophisticated dynamic strategies on either side. Actors hide their severe punishment and low contributions but display high contributions. Observers select high contributors as social partners; remarkably, punishment behavior seems irrelevant for qualifying as a social partner. That actors nonetheless pay to conceal their severe punishment adds a further puzzle to the role of punishment in human social behavior. Competition between hiding and seeking information about social behavior may be even more relevant and elaborate in the real world but usually is hidden from our eyes.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Improve your motor memory!

Here is an bit of work Zhang et al. on consolidation of motor memory that more clearly confirms what I know from my own experience of trying to learn a new piano piece. If I watch a video of myself playing a passage where I have difficulty with the notes, I remember the notes better than if I actually play them several times - the actual movement appears to get in the way of forming a motor memory of it. (The same effects can happen with mentally visualizing the movements, a trick known to many athletes and performers).
Practicing a motor task can induce neuroplastic changes in the human primary motor cortex (M1) that are subsequently consolidated, leading to a stable memory trace. Currently, little is known whether early consolidation, tested several minutes after skill acquisition, can be improved by behavioral interventions. Here we test whether movement observation, known to evoke similar neural responses in M1 as movement execution, can benefit the early consolidation of new motor memories. We show that observing the same type of movement as that previously practiced (congruent movement stimuli) substantially improves performance on a retention test 30 min after training compared with observing either an incongruent movement type or control stimuli not showing biological motion. Differences in retention following observation of congruent, incongruent, and control stimuli were not found when observed 24 h after initial training and neural evidence further confirmed that, unlike motor practice, movement observation alone did not induce plastic changes in the motor cortex. This time-specific effect is critical to conclude that movement observation of congruent stimuli interacts with training-induced neuroplasticity and enhances early consolidation of motor memories. Our findings are not only of theoretical relevance for memory research, but also have great potential for application in clinical settings when neuroplasticity needs to be maximized.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

MindBlog back in Fort Lauderdale, FL

I'm tired from three days driving with my two Abyssinian cats from Madison WI to my condo in Fort Lauderdale, FL (posts have been coming out on autopilot)... The picture is my work pod, just set up in my office here.

Resonating with others: changes in motor cortex

Individual concepts of self, or self-construals, vary across cultures. In collectivist cultures such as Japan, individuals adopt an interdependent self-construal in which relationships with others are central, whereas in individualist cultures like the U.S., a more independent self-construal with less emphasis on relationships with others is more likely to be adopted. Obhi et al note some interesting brain correlates of shifting self construal from interdependent to independent. Their data suggest that motor resonance mediates nonconscious mimicry in social settings:
“Self-construal” refers to how individuals view and make meaning of the self, and at least two subtypes have been identified. Interdependent self-construal is a view of the self that includes relationships with others, and independent self-construal is a view of the self that does not include relations with others. It has been suggested that priming these two types of self-construal affects the cognitive processing style that an individual adopts, especially with regard to context sensitivity. Specifically, an interdependent self-construal is thought to promote attention to others and social context to a greater degree than an independent self-construal. To investigate this assertion, we elicited motor-evoked potentials with transcranial magnetic stimulation during an action observation task in which human participants were presented with either interdependent or independent self-construal prime words. Priming interdependent self-construal increased motor cortical output whereas priming independent self-construal did not, compared with a no-priming baseline condition. These effects, likely mediated by changes in the mirror system, essentially tune the individual to, or shield the individual from, social input. Interestingly, the pattern of these self-construal-induced changes in the motor system corroborates with previously observed self-construal effects on overt behavioral mimicry in social settings, and as such, our results provide strong evidence that motor resonance likely mediates nonconscious mimicry in social settings. Finally, these self-construal effects may lead to the development of interventions for disorders of deficient or excessive social influence, like certain autism spectrum and compulsive imitative disorders.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Brain areas that increase in size with social network size.

The number of individuals that a single person can keep close track of is generally taken to be roughly 150 ("Dunbar's number), which would be the size of a tightly knit social grouping. This estimate derives from a comparative analysis of primate neuroanatomy and behavior and has led to the corollary that the magnitude of the number is determined by the size of the neocortex. Sallet et al. have now made the interesting observation that the relationship between brain size and social group magnitude can be plastic, finding that that housing macaque monkeys in larger groups increases the amount of gray matter in several parts of the brain involved in social cognition. We know from many studies that requiring increased skill in perceptual or motor abilities correlates with increases in sensory and motor areas of the brain, so it makes sense that requiring exercise of "social muscles" increases the grey matter volume in temporal and frontal lobes areas that have been identified as potential contributors to social success in both humans and monkeys. Here is the abstract:
It has been suggested that variation in brain structure correlates with the sizes of individuals’ social networks. Whether variation in social network size causes variation in brain structure, however, is unknown. To address this question, we neuroimaged 23 monkeys that had been living in social groups set to different sizes. Subject comparison revealed that living in larger groups caused increases in gray matter in mid-superior temporal sulcus and rostral prefrontal cortex and increased coupling of activity in frontal and temporal cortex. Social network size, therefore, contributes to changes both in brain structure and function. The changes have potential implications for an animal’s success in a social context; gray matter differences in similar areas were also correlated with each animal’s dominance within its social network.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Synaptic switch to social status in medial prefrontal cortex.

Wang et al. have determined the social hierarchy within groups of mice by using multiple behavioral tests and find that the social hierarchical status of an individual correlates with the synaptic strength in medial prefrontal cortical neurons. Furthermore, the hierarchical status of mice can be changed from dominant to subordinate, or vice versa, by manipulating the strength of synapses in the medial prefrontal cortex. Here is the abstract, followed by a figure from the review by Maroteaux and Mamell:
Dominance hierarchy has a profound impact on animals’ survival, health, and reproductive success, but its neural circuit mechanism is virtually unknown. We found that dominance ranking in mice is transitive, relatively stable, and highly correlates among multiple behavior measures. Recording from layer V pyramidal neurons of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) showed higher strength of excitatory synaptic inputs in mice with higher ranking, as compared with their subordinate cage mates. Furthermore, molecular manipulations that resulted in an increase and decrease in the synaptic efficacy in dorsal mPFC neurons caused an upward and downward movement in the social rank, respectively. These results provide direct evidence for mPFC’s involvement in social hierarchy and suggest that social rank is plastic and can be tuned by altering synaptic strength in mPFC pyramidal cells.

Illustration (click to enlarge) - Synapses and rank - Excitatory synaptic drive onto cortical pyramidal neurons in the mouse brain is stronger in dominant individuals than subordinates. Modulating synaptic strength by increasing or decreasing AMPA receptor–mediated transmission switches the initial social ranking.

Monday, November 14, 2011

On understanding our brains...

I thought I would pass on some chunks of the lead editorial in the Nov. 4 Science Magazine, written by two senior establishment neuroscientists, Sidney Brenner and Terrence Sejnowski:
Like most fields in biology, neuroscience is succumbing to an “epidomic” of data collecting. There are major projects under way to completely characterize the proteomic, metabolomic, genomic, and methylomic signatures for all of the different types of neurons and glial cells in the human brain. In addition, “connectomics” plans to provide the complete network structure of brains, and “synaptomics” aims to uncover all molecules and their interactions at synapses. This is a good time to pause and ask ourselves what we expect to find at the end of this immense omic brainbow.

Linnaeus's catalog of species and the classifications he imposed on them turned data into knowledge, but it did not lead to an understanding of why they were all there. That had to wait for Darwin's theory of evolution and the development of genetics. All the lists that we will accumulate about the brain, although necessary, will be far from sufficient for understanding. The human brain contains an estimated 86 billion neurons and an equal number of glial cells. The complete structure of the enormously simpler 302-neuron network of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans was published in 1986. But without the activities of neurons and their synapses, it was far from a complete “wiring diagram.” Today, with genetically encoded calcium sensors, with better knowledge of the molecules present at synapses, and by integrating the omic catalogs with developmental and dynamical data, we may finally be in sight of completing the worm wiring diagram, as required for a full understanding of this one relatively simple nervous system.

…Since the 1980s, neuroscience has received visionary financial support from private foundations, jump-starting new fields including cognitive neuroscience and computational neuroscience based on new techniques for imaging and modeling the human brain. The global view of human brain activity thus far obtained from imaging experiments has changed the way we think about ourselves. Homo neuroeconomicus has replaced the rational-agent model of human behavior, neuroeducators want to make children better learners, and neuroethicists have been inspired by the discovery of biological links to aggression, trust, and affi liation. However, individual differences often dominate. Although expensive bets are being placed on explaining the diversity of human behavior and mental disorders with genetic polymorphisms, gene mutations, and chromosomal rearrangements, the results so far have been modest

The Internet is making neuroscience more accessible to the public. The Society for Neuroscience, which convenes its annual meeting next week, will soon launch, a reliable source of information about the brain. In-depth interviews with neuroscientists can be found online at And a Neuroeducation X Prize is being planned to encourage innovation in online computer games that enhance cognitive skills. Let us celebrate what our brains have discovered and what they can tell us about themselves.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Where in the brain does 'negative surprise' happen?

Egner points to an article by Alexander and Brown that provides an integrated model of how the brain deals with the non-occurrence of an expected event, such as George Bush and the famous non-opening Chinese door, suggesting this type of negative surprise drives neural responses in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and adjacent medial prefrontal cortex (dACC/mPFC), regions whose functions have been disputed in recent years. Their model provides a common denominator for a wide range of dACC/mPFC responses that have previously been attributed to diverse cognitive computations, making it a promising candidate for an integrative theory of this region's function. Their predicted response–outcome (PRO) model attempts to reconcile diverse finding, by suggesting that individual neurons generate signals reflecting a learned prediction of the probability and timing of the various possible outcomes of an action. These prediction signals are inhibited when the corresponding predicted outcome actually occurs. The resulting activity is therefore maximal when an expected outcome fails to occur, which suggests that what mPFC signals, in part, is the unexpected non-occurrence of a predicted outcome. Here is their abstract:
The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and especially anterior cingulate cortex is central to higher cognitive function and many clinical disorders, yet its basic function remains in dispute. Various competing theories of mPFC have treated effects of errors, conflict, error likelihood, volatility and reward, using findings from neuroimaging and neurophysiology in humans and monkeys. No single theory has been able to reconcile and account for the variety of findings. Here we show that a simple model based on standard learning rules can simulate and unify an unprecedented range of known effects in mPFC. The model reinterprets many known effects and suggests a new view of mPFC, as a region concerned with learning and predicting the likely outcomes of actions, whether good or bad. Cognitive control at the neural level is then seen as a result of evaluating the probable and actual outcomes of one's actions.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Insensitivity to social reputation in autism.

Further characterization of how social cognition is changed by the autism disorder - evidence for distinctive brain systems that mediate the effects of social reputation:
People act more prosocially when they know they are watched by others, an everyday observation borne out by studies from behavioral economics, social psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. This effect is thought to be mediated by the incentive to improve one's social reputation, a specific and possibly uniquely human motivation that depends on our ability to represent what other people think of us. Here we tested the hypothesis that social reputation effects are selectively impaired in autism, a developmental disorder characterized in part by impairments in reciprocal social interactions but whose underlying cognitive causes remain elusive. When asked to make real charitable donations in the presence or absence of an observer, matched healthy controls donated significantly more in the observer's presence than absence, replicating prior work. By contrast, people with high-functioning autism were not influenced by the presence of an observer at all in this task. However, both groups performed significantly better on a continuous performance task in the presence of an observer, suggesting intact general social facilitation in autism. The results argue that people with autism lack the ability to take into consideration what others think of them and provide further support for specialized neural systems mediating the effects of social reputation.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Our resting brain networks can be formed by multiple architectures.

There has been a lot of interest lately (see Jonah's Lehrer's nice summary) in the resting, default, or 'mind wandering' state of our brains. It recruits functional networks with rich endogenous dynamics which typically distributed over both cerebral cortices. An interdisciplinary collaboration involving Ralph Adolphs, whose experiments were carried out by Michael Tyszka, asked the question of whether these resting states, as one might suppose, require the presence of the corpus callosum, the large bundle of fibers connecting the two hemispheres. What they found is that a normal complement of resting-state networks and intact functional coupling between the hemispheres can emerge in the absence of the corpus callosum, suggesting that resting brain networks can be formed by multiple architectures. Their abstract:
Temporal correlations between different brain regions in the resting-state BOLD signal are thought to reflect intrinsic functional brain connectivity. The functional networks identified are typically bilaterally distributed across the cerebral hemispheres, show similarity to known white matter connections, and are seen even in anesthetized monkeys. Yet it remains unclear how they arise. Here we tested two distinct possibilities: (1) functional networks arise largely from structural connectivity constraints, and generally require direct interactions between functionally coupled regions mediated by white-matter tracts; and (2) functional networks emerge flexibly with the development of normal cognition and behavior and can be realized in multiple structural architectures. We conducted resting-state fMRI in eight adult humans with complete agenesis of the corpus callosum (AgCC) and normal intelligence, and compared their data to those from eight healthy matched controls. We performed three main analyses: anatomical region-of-interest-based correlations to test homotopic functional connectivity, independent component analysis (ICA) to reveal functional networks with a data-driven approach, and ICA-based interhemispheric correlation analysis. Both groups showed equivalently strong homotopic BOLD correlation. Surprisingly, almost all of the group-level independent components identified in controls were observed in AgCC and were predominantly bilaterally symmetric. The results argue that a normal complement of resting-state networks and intact functional coupling between the hemispheres can emerge in the absence of the corpus callosum, favoring the second over the first possibility listed above.