Tuesday, December 31, 2013

How our advanced capabilities may have come from separation of our primary brain areas.

Buckner and Krienen put forward the fascinating idea that our advanced human capabilities may be a spandrel (i.e. a byproduct of the evolution of some other characteristic, rather than a direct product of adaptive selection). They note that the striking increase of hominid brain size over the past three million years (from ~ 400cc in chimps to ~600-800cc in H. habilis to 1,500-1,800 in H. sapiens) has gone with the enlargement not of the size of primary sensory and motor regions of the brain, but instead with the association regions between them, as if the primary regions had become untethered from each other. These association regions might be to form new circuits as they mature later in development in a more plastic and adaptive way than the primary regions. Now, instead of an automatic and tightly coupled linkage between sensory areas and motor areas driving behavior, the association cortices can insert the computations required for making more complex decisions, retrieving memories, and reflecting.

Phylogeny of the cortical mantle.
Schematic depictions of the cortex of placental mammals are shown with the size and positions of several conserved areas. Two organizational features are apparent in the phylogenic tree. Across all species, the relative positions of the areas are preserved, suggesting they arise from an ancient developmental template, or Bauplan, that is conserved. Second, as the brain is enlarged in primates a greater percentage of the cortical mantle falls between the primary and secondary sensory systems. The insets at the top represent hypothetical estimates of the mammalian common ancestor and the primate common ancestor. Dark blue, primary visual area (V1); light blue, secondary visual area (V2); green, middle temporal (MT) visual area; yellow, primary auditory area (A1); red, primary somatosensory area (S1); orange, secondary somatosensory area (S2).

The Tethering Hypothesis:
Bottom: The developing cortical mantle of the estimated mammalian common ancestor is schematically displayed as a thick line with two representative signaling gradients, labeled Signal A (red) and Signal B (blue). These gradients are heuristic presentations of the signal gradients present in the embryonic telencephalon (Figure 6). In the ancestral mammal, the signaling gradients and extrinsic activity from the sensory systems placed strong constraints on most of the developing cortex. Intermediate zones existed, colored in white, but represented a small portion of the cortical mantle. The resulting cortical organization included multiple sensory–motor hierarchies that occupied most of the mantle and formed canonical networks. Top: Following massive evolutionary expansion of the cortical mantle, in the presence of the same core signaling gradients, most of the cortical mantle emerges that is distant from the combined constraints of signaling gradients and extrinsic sensory activity. This emergent zone is illustrated as the large white area in the expanded cortical mantle. Untethered from sensory hierarchies, these distributed in-between zones are hypothesized to wire to one another and emerge as association cortex. The tethering hypothesis, which at this point should be considered a speculation, offers one framework to explain how association networks evolved their prominence and came to possess circuit properties vital to human cognition. The tethering hypothesis awaits further support or falsification.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Your brain has many genomes.

Life used to be simple. We had one set of genes, found in all cells of the body. Skin cells, liver cells, and brain cells were different only because different subsets of those genes were expressed appropriate to each organ. Now, it is turning out that one organ, like the heart, may be governed by one set of genes (genome) while the brain may be run by a mosaic of other genomes generated by somatic mutations, (as opposed to germline mutations that are inherited and found in every body cell.) Psychiatric genetic studies generally have assumed mutations in red blood cells would also appear in the brain, but mutations unique to brain genomes have now been found.

Thomas Insel, who is head of the National Institute of Mental Health, has written a paper on this situation titled “The dark matter of psychiatric genetics.” Here is his abstract:

Although inherited DNA sequences have a well-demonstrated role in psychiatric disease risk, for even the most heritable mental disorders, monozygotic twins are discordant at a significant rate. The genetic variation associated with mental disorders has heretofore been based on the search for rare or common variation in blood cells. This search is based on the premise that every somatic cell shares an identical DNA sequence, so that variation found in lymphocytes should reflect variation present in brain cells. Evidence from the study of cancer cells, stem cells and now neurons demonstrate that this premise is false. Somatic mutation is common in human cells and has been implicated in a range of diseases beyond cancer. The exuberant proliferation of cortical precursors during fetal development provides a likely environment for somatic mutation in neuronal and glial lineages. Studies of rare neurodevelopmental disorders, such as hemimegencephaly, demonstrate somatic mutations in affected cortical cells that cannot be detected in unaffected parts of the brain or in peripheral cells. This perspective argues for the need to investigate somatic variation in the brain as an explanation of the discordance in monozygotic twins, a proximate cause of mental disorders in individuals with inherited risk, and a potential guide to novel treatment targets.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Cognitive benefits of music lessons?

I’ve done numerous posts on effects that early music training has on the brain. Adults with early music training in general show enhanced capabilities in sensory (auditory time resolution) and motor actives related to music generation. There also has been the claim that early music training also enhances cognitive development in other areas. Mehr et al have now done randomized trial studies that show no consistent evidence for nonmusical cognitive benefits of preschool music enrichment. Only one music curriculum was used, and it is possible that a trial with a different kind or intensity of training might yield different results.
Young children regularly engage in musical activities, but the effects of early music education on children's cognitive development are unknown. While some studies have found associations between musical training in childhood and later nonmusical cognitive outcomes, few randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have been employed to assess causal effects of music lessons on child cognition and no clear pattern of results has emerged. We conducted two RCTs with preschool children investigating the cognitive effects of a brief series of music classes, as compared to a similar but non-musical form of arts instruction (visual arts classes, Experiment 1) or to a no-treatment control (Experiment 2). Consistent with typical preschool arts enrichment programs, parents attended classes with their children, participating in a variety of developmentally appropriate arts activities. After six weeks of class, we assessed children's skills in four distinct cognitive areas in which older arts-trained students have been reported to excel: spatial-navigational reasoning, visual form analysis, numerical discrimination, and receptive vocabulary. We initially found that children from the music class showed greater spatial-navigational ability than did children from the visual arts class, while children from the visual arts class showed greater visual form analysis ability than children from the music class (Experiment 1). However, a partial replication attempt comparing music training to a no-treatment control failed to confirm these findings (Experiment 2), and the combined results of the two experiments were negative: overall, children provided with music classes performed no better than those with visual arts or no classes on any assessment. Our findings underscore the need for replication in RCTs, and suggest caution in interpreting the positive findings from past studies of cognitive effects of music instruction.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Oxytocin and the strength of romantic bonds in men.

Here is an interesting bit from Scheele et al.:

Sexual monogamy is potentially costly for males, and few mammalian species along with humans exhibit it. The hypothalamic peptide oxytocin (OXT) has been implicated in mediating pair bonds in various species, but as yet, we know little about neurobiological factors that might act to promote fidelity, especially in men. Here we provide evidence for a mechanism by which OXT may contribute to romantic bonds in men by enhancing their partner's attractiveness and reward value compared with other women.
The biological mechanisms underlying long-term partner bonds in humans are unclear. The evolutionarily conserved neuropeptide oxytocin (OXT) is associated with the formation of partner bonds in some species via interactions with brain dopamine reward systems. However, whether it plays a similar role in humans has as yet not been established. Here, we report the results of a discovery and a replication study, each involving a double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subject, pharmaco-functional MRI experiment with 20 heterosexual pair-bonded male volunteers. In both experiments, intranasal OXT treatment (24 IU) made subjects perceive their female partner's face as more attractive compared with unfamiliar women but had no effect on the attractiveness of other familiar women. This enhanced positive partner bias was paralleled by an increased response to partner stimuli compared with unfamiliar women in brain reward regions including the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). In the left NAcc, OXT even augmented the neural response to the partner compared with a familiar woman, indicating that this finding is partner-bond specific rather than due to familiarity. Taken together, our results suggest that OXT could contribute to romantic bonds in men by enhancing their partner's attractiveness and reward value compared with other women.

Friday, December 20, 2013

In praise of failure

Costica Bradatan offers these thoughts (which I’ve clipped from a longer piece).
The design of a superior kind of human being – healthier, stronger, smarter, more handsome, more enduring – seems to be in the works…the promise of continual human progress and improvement is alluring. But there is a danger there, too — that in this more perfect future, failure will become obsolete.
So, allow me to make a case for the importance of failure. Failure is significant for several reasons. I’d like to discuss three of them.
Failure allows us to see our existence in its naked condition.
…we tend to see the world as a solid, reliable, even indestructible place…To experience failure is to start seeing the cracks in the fabric of being..[it]…turns out to be a blessing in disguise…this lurking, constant threat that should make us aware of the extraordinariness of our being: the miracle that we exist at all…Most of us (the most self-aware or enlightened excepted) suffer chronically from a poor adjustment to existence; we compulsively fancy ourselves much more important than we are and behave as though the world exists only for our sake…Failure could be a medicine against such arrogance and hubris, as it often brings humility.
Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are.
It is crucial that we remain fundamentally imperfect, incomplete, erring creatures; in other words, that there is always a gap left between what we are and what we can be. Whatever human accomplishments there have been in history, they have been possible precisely because of this empty space. …the capacity to fail is something that we should absolutely preserve, no matter what the professional optimists say. Such a thing is worth treasuring, even more so than artistic masterpieces, monuments or other accomplishments. For, in a sense, the capacity to fail is much more important than any individual human achievements: It is that which makes them possible.
We are designed to fail.
No matter how successful our lives turn out to be, how smart, industrious or diligent we are, the same end awaits us all: “biological failure.”…most of us have pretended not to see it… A better model may be Ingmar Bergman’s Antonius Block, from the film “The Seventh Seal.” A knight returning from the Crusades and plunged into crisis of faith, Block is faced with the grand failure in the form of a man. He does not hesitate to engage Death head-on. He doesn’t flee, doesn’t beg for mercy — he just challenges him to a game of chess. Needless to say, he cannot succeed in such a game — no one can — but victory is not the point. You play against the grand, final failure not to win, but to learn how to fail.
Bergman the philosopher [in his classic movie "The Seventh Seal"] teaches us a great lesson... We will all end in failure, but that’s not the most important thing. What really matters is how we fail and what we gain in the process. During the brief time of his game with Death, Antonius Block must have experienced more than he did all his life; without that game he would have lived for nothing. In the end, of course, he loses, but accomplishes something rare. He not only turns failure into an art, but manages to make the art of failing an intimate part of the art of living.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My grandsons - making it in the brave new world - part III

This is the final post in my ramblings on the world my grandsons will face. The first two posts dealt with professional achievement, this final piece touches on the challenge to traditional human friendship and intimacy now presented by the internet, or as Frank Bruni puts it, "The Sweet Caress of Cyberspace." He begins by noting a new movie "Her," in which a man (Joaquin Phoenix)falls in love with the voice (Johansson) generated by the operating system of his smart device that provides not only information, but also motivation, consolation, and intimacy. Bruni:
savored a few themes in particular. One is the Internet’s extreme indulgence of the seemingly innate human impulse to contrive a habitat that’s entirely unthreatening, an ego-stroking ecosystem, a sensibility-controlled comfort zone…You want an endless stream of irony? You can have an endless stream of irony. You want unfettered invective about the politicians you’ve decided to hate? Set your bookmarks and social-media feeds accordingly. You can frolic endlessly in foregone conclusions.
In “Her,” the very nature of Johansson’s operating system is to adapt to and evolve from her interactions with Phoenix. She’s a projection of his needs. She blooms in accordance with his wants (and has an aurally explosive orgasm on cue). He needn’t doubt himself, compromise or color outside the lines…It’s a parable of narcissism in the digital world, which lets you sprint to the foreground of everything, giving you an audience or the illusion of one.
But “Her” also traces the flip side of the coin — that with our amassed knowledge and scientific accomplishments, we may be succeeding in rendering ourselves obsolete. ..Google’s grand designs for robots in manufacturing and shipping… Economists have sounded the alarm about what this could mean for employment and the distribution of wealth. It falls to artists to contemplate what this could mean for psyches and souls, and “Her” imagines a society in which human beings are so thoroughly marginalized that they’re being edited out of courtship and companionship, because they’re superfluous, messy. It’s a love story as horror story. If we no longer need anyone in the passenger seat, do we need anyone at all?
I can't imagine this future dystopian extreme is actually the world my grandchildren will face, but it is good to be aware of such possible dangers ahead so that appropriate defenses can be mounted.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My grandsons making it in the brave new world - part II

The first post in this series dealt with mental capabilities required to be included in the small fraction of future workers who live a comfortable life with plenty of disposable income.  Mental capacities also underlie our kinesthetic (athletic movement) abilities.  Amateur and professional sports (not to mention musical and other artistic kinds of performance) appear now to be undergoing a fundamental transformation that is moving beyond traditional instruction, practice, and repetition to include training the brain to more effective perform the mental computations required to be at the right place at the right time.  I recently received an email pointing me to a brain training regime - of the sort I've described for general cognitive enhancement used to counter aging - that specifically addresses the sports of hockey and basketball (the technology was originally developed to teach Israeli Air Force pilots about aerial combat.)  The demonstration video pasted in below shows the integration of a variety of cognitive enhancement techniques (spatial awareness, anticipation of movements) into an ensemble appropriate for those sports.

Is it going to be the case that my grandsons can not hope to compete in their brave new world unless they have explicitly performed cognitive enhancement training on themselves?  I certainly hope not!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My grandsons - making it in the brave new world - part I

I will be going soon to Austin Texas, to spend the holiday with my son's family, who live in the same house I grew up in. Every grandfather says this, but I have to also say a how incredulous I am at the vastly different a world my two year old grandson and his younger brother will face than the one I grew up in, a period of continuously expanding opportunities from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. The same Univ. of Wisconsin assistant professorship I took as a 27 year old would now go only to someone much older, who would most likely have to settle for a non-tenure position, if even that were available. With the partition of our economy into a service sector whose employees can't support a family and an educated, computer savvy, creative, managing elite, an extraordinary set of skill are now required to 'make it.' David Brooks presents a list of mental types that might thrive in a world in which we we must interface with intelligent machines:

Freestylers - who can play with the computer but know when to overrule it (as you sometimes overrule your GPS in neighborhoods you are familiar with).

Synthesizers - who surf vast amounts of data to crystallize a pattern or story.

Humanizers - who make the human-machine interplay feel more natural.

Conceptual engineers - who come up with creative methods to think about unexpected problems.

Motivators - who can inspire efforts on behalf of machines that are more naturally generated in the service of other humans.

Moralizers - who keep performance metrics from being reduced to productivity statistics that devalue personal moral traits like loyalty and end up destroying morale and social capital.

Greeters - who provide personalized services to the 15 percent of workers who 'make it' (have lots of disposable income).

Economizers - who advise the bottom 85 percent how to preserve rich lives on a small income.

Weavers - who try to deal with the social disintegration, disaffected lifestyles, that are a consequence of the inegalitarian facts of this new world.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sequence your microbiome!

Some months ago I paid 23andMe about a $100 to analyze a mouth swab of epithelial cell and report back information on my genetic makeup, ancestry, health risks, etc. I was particularly interested in the SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) that correlate with more or less risk for things like heart disease, alzheimer’s, etc. (The FDA has recently shut down their releasing that information to new subscribers because they have decided it is an untested medical diagnostic procedure.)

I want now to mention another neat test you can purchase for ~$100, where you send in a swab of your poop, mouth , and skin and are sent back information on your microbiome, the genes of hundreds of microbial species (microbiota) that share your body with you. Michael Pollan, the guy who has written best selling food books (Omnivore’s Dilemma, etc.) has done an engaging piece on this. Some clips:
To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial. And it appears increasingly likely that this “second genome,” as it is sometimes called, exerts an influence on our health as great and possibly even greater than the genes we inherit from our parents. But while your inherited genes are more or less fixed, it may be possible to reshape, even cultivate, your second genome.
Disorders in our internal ecosystem — a loss of diversity, say, or a proliferation of the “wrong” kind of microbes — may predispose us to obesity and a whole range of chronic diseases, as well as some infections. “Fecal transplants,” which involve installing a healthy person’s microbiota into a sick person’s gut, have been shown to effectively treat an antibiotic-resistant intestinal pathogen named C. difficile, which kills 14,000 Americans each year....[there is concern] about the damage that antibiotics, even in tiny doses, are doing to the microbiome — and particularly to our immune system and weight. “Farmers have been performing a great experiment for more than 60 years...by giving subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to their animals to make them gain weight...the “Westernized microbiome” most of us now carry around is in fact an artifact of civilization”
...a pristine microbiome — of people who have had little or no contact with Westerners — features much greater biodiversity, including a number of species never before sequenced, and ... much higher levels of prevotella than is typically found in the Western gut....these vibrant, diverse and antibiotic-naïve microbiomes may play a role in Amerindians’ markedly lower rates of allergies, asthma, atopic disease and chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The successful gardener has always known you don’t need to master the science of the soil, which is yet another hotbed of microbial fermentation, in order to nourish and nurture it. You just need to know what it likes to eat — basically, organic matter — and how, in a general way, to align your interests with the interests of the microbes and the plants. The gardener also discovers that, when pathogens or pests appear, chemical interventions “work,” that is, solve the immediate problem, but at a cost to the long-term health of the soil and the whole garden. The drive for absolute control leads to unanticipated forms of disorder.
This, it seems to me, is pretty much where we stand today with respect to our microbiomes — our teeming, quasi-wilderness. We don’t know a lot, but we probably know enough to begin taking better care of it. We have a pretty good idea of what it likes to eat, and what strong chemicals do to it. We know all we need to know, in other words, to begin, with modesty, to tend the unruly garden within.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Psychobiotics - gut bacteria changing our brains?  

Walking through the aisles of my local health food store, the Williamson Street Co-op, I’ve often been tempted by the claims of exotic yoghurts and “probiotic” drinks like Kefir, that contain strains of Lactobacillus and a number of other “good” bacteria. It turns out a number of these bugs produce and release into our gut neuroactive compounds such as GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and serotonin, a mood regulator. Dinan et al. do a review article on what they term psychobiotics (organisms that alleviate psychiatric illness)
Here, we define a psychobiotic as a live organism that, when ingested in adequate amounts, produces a health benefit in patients suffering from psychiatric illness. As a class of probiotic, these bacteria are capable of producing and delivering neuroactive substances such as gamma-aminobutyric acid and serotonin, which act on the brain-gut axis. Preclinical evaluation in rodents suggests that certain psychobiotics possess antidepressant or anxiolytic activity. Effects may be mediated via the vagus nerve, spinal cord, or neuroendocrine systems. So far, psychobiotics have been most extensively studied in a liaison psychiatric setting in patients with irritable bowel syndrome, where positive benefits have been reported for a number of organisms including Bifidobacterium infantis. Evidence is emerging of benefits in alleviating symptoms of depression and in chronic fatigue syndrome. Such benefits may be related to the anti-inflammatory actions of certain psychobiotics and a capacity to reduce hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity. Results from large scale placebo-controlled studies are awaited.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Three psychological regions of the U.S. - economic, health, social, political correlates

Rentfrow and collaborators probe the possibility of dividing regions of the United States, not in terms of traditional social and economic indicators, but in terms of psychological characteristics instead. It seems reasonable that psychological factors would underlie higher level outcomes such as social and economic indicators.
...the present work aimed to determine whether it is possible to construct a map of the United States based entirely on psychological characteristics, in this case personality traits. What would such a map look like? And how would its individual regions vary in terms of key political, economic, social, and health (PESH) metrics known to vary geographically within countries?
The analysis was at a state level, covered data obtained in many studies for millions of people, and the article has mind-numbing detail on statistical analysis of these studies. Just to cut to the chase, I though it would be interesting to show their final summary and graphic.

The maps displayed show the geographical concentrations of the personality clusters across the United States. What is especially striking is that each of the personality clusters formed a distinctive geographical pattern. Cluster 1 (Friendly & Conventional) comprises states predominantly in the north central Great Plains and in the South. States in the Mountain, Pacific Coast, Mid-Atlantic, and New England regions were the least similar to this particular cluster. States predominantly in the West and some along the Eastern Seaboard were prototypical of Cluster 2 (Relaxed & Creative), whereas most of the states in the Midwest, Great Plains, and Gulf Coast were most different from this cluster. Finally, states in New England and the Middle Atlantic were prototypical of Cluster 3 (Temperamental & Uninhibited), whereas states in the Southeast, Great Plains, and Mountain region were not members of this cluster.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Imaging the the updating of true and false memories.

When we recall, or reactivate a memory, we render it susceptible to alterations such as incorporating relevant new information, so that it might be then stored again in an altered form. Schacter and collaborators at Harvard show show more of what is going on in our brains as reactivation-induced updating both enhances and distorts memory. This process has important implications for understanding the unreliability of eyewitness memories. Here is their abstract:
We remember a considerable number of personal experiences because we are frequently reminded of them, a process known as memory reactivation. Although memory reactivation helps to stabilize and update memories, reactivation may also introduce distortions if novel information becomes incorporated with memory. Here we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the neural mechanisms mediating reactivation-induced updating in memory for events experienced during a museum tour. During scanning, participants were shown target photographs to reactivate memories from the museum tour followed by a novel lure photograph from an alternate tour. Later, participants were presented with target and lure photographs and asked to determine whether the photographs showed a stop they visited during the tour. We used a subsequent memory analysis to examine neural recruitment during reactivation that was associated with later true and false memories. We predicted that the quality of reactivation, as determined by online ratings of subjective recollection, would increase subsequent true memories but also facilitate incorporation of the lure photograph, thereby increasing subsequent false memories. The fMRI results revealed that the quality of reactivation modulated subsequent true and false memories via recruitment of left posterior parahippocampal, bilateral retrosplenial, and bilateral posterior inferior parietal cortices. However, the timing of neural recruitment and the way in which memories were reactivated contributed to differences in whether memory reactivation led to distortions or not. These data reveal the neural mechanisms recruited during memory reactivation that modify how memories will be subsequently retrieved, supporting the flexible and dynamic aspects of memory.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Naked bodies and mind perception.

Numerous studies have found that viewing people’s bodies, as opposed to their faces, makes us judge them as less intelligent, ambitious, likable, and competent. Kurt Gray, Paul Bloom, and collaborators have published a neat study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that shows further than naked bodies are viewed as having less purposeful agency, but stronger feelings and emotional responses They obtained this result by questioning subjects who were shown pictures of 30 porn stars, with each star represented in an identical pose in two photographs, one naked and the other fully dressed. (Simply revealing more flesh by something as simple as taking off a sweater also could change the way a mind was perceived.)  Here is their 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 when comparing targets represented by both revealing versus nonrevealing pictures (Experiments 1, 3, and 4) or by simply directing attention toward physical characteristics (Experiment 2). The 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; Experiments 5 and 6). These effects suggest that a body focus does not cause objectification per se but, instead, leads to a redistribution of perceived mind.
Below I include one graphic showing pictures and data from experiment 3, in which subjects were shown naked or clothed people and than asked to rate the person's mental capacities by answering 12 questions with the following beginning: “Compared to the average person, how much is this person capable of X?” In the place of “X” were six agency-related words (self-control, acting morally, planning, communication, memory, and thought) and six experience-related words (feeling pain, feeling pleasure, feeling desire, feeling fear, feeling rage, feeling joy).
Pictures and data from Experiment 3. Ratings of agency and experience for clothed and naked portraits. Error bars are ±1 SE. From XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits, by T. Greenfield-Sanders and G. Vidal, 2004, pp. 14, 15, 18–21, 30, 31, 44, 45, 80–85, 92, 93, 102, 103.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Unconscious, not conscious, attitudes predict relationship success.

There has been some recent criticism of 'priming" experiments, in which subliminal presentation, particularly of emotional, stimuli is said to influence the outcome of a decision (see my Nov. 12 post). This is not to be confused with unconscious emotional attitudes, which indeed can be a variance with consciously expressed opinions. McNulty et al. do a nice demonstration of this effect, in showing that 'gut feelings' (implicit attitudes) are a better predictor of success in a marriage than explicit attitudes. They measured explicit and implicit attitudes of newlywed couples toward one another twice a year for 4 years. Over time, the implicit or unaware evaluations of the relationship predicted changes of marital satisfaction, whereas the explicit or conscious evaluations did not.

From their introductory explanation:
The explicit measure was an oft-used semantic differential that asked spouses to report the extent to which they would describe their marriage using 15 pairs of opposing adjectives (e.g., “good” versus “bad,” “satisfied” versus “dissatisfied”). The implicit measure was a version of an associative priming task that required spouses to indicate as quickly as possible the valence of positively and negatively valenced words after being exposed to 300-ms primes of photographs of their partner and various control individuals. An index of spouses’ automatic attitudes was formed by subtracting the time it took them to indicate the valence of the positive words from the time it took them to indicate the valence of the negative words. Both attitude indexes were standardized before analyses. Higher scores on both measures indicate more positive attitudes.
Here is the abstract of the article:
For decades, social psychological theories have posited that the automatic processes captured by implicit measures have implications for social outcomes. Yet few studies have demonstrated any long-term implications of automatic processes, and some scholars have begun to question the relevance and even the validity of these theories. At baseline of our longitudinal study, 135 newlywed couples (270 individuals) completed an explicit measure of their conscious attitudes toward their relationship and an implicit measure of their automatic attitudes toward their partner. They then reported their marital satisfaction every 6 months for the next 4 years. We found no correlation between spouses’ automatic and conscious attitudes, which suggests that spouses were unaware of their automatic attitudes. Further, spouses’ automatic attitudes, not their conscious ones, predicted changes in their marital satisfaction, such that spouses with more positive automatic attitudes were less likely to experience declines in marital satisfaction over time.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Digital Passivity

This piece by Jaron Lanier is well worth reading. A few clips:
I fear that 2013 will be remembered as a tragic and dark year in the digital universe, despite the fact that a lot of wonderful advances took place.
It was the year in which tablets became ubiquitous and advanced gadgets like 3-D printers and wearable interfaces emerged as pop phenomena; all great fun. Our gadgets have widened access to our world. We now regularly communicate with people we would not have been aware of before the networked age. We can find information about almost anything, any time.
But 2013 was also the year in which we became aware of the corner we’ve backed ourselves into. We learned — through the leaks of Edward J. Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor, and the work of investigative journalists — how much our gadgets and our digital networks are being used to spy on us by ultra-powerful, remote organizations. We are being dissected more than we dissect...I wish I could separate the two big trends of the year in computing — the cool gadgets and the revelations of digital spying — but I cannot.
...tablets do something unforeseen: They enforce a new power structure. Unlike a personal computer, a tablet runs only programs and applications approved by a central commercial authority. You control the data you enter into a PC, while data entered into a tablet is often managed by someone else...Steve Jobs...declared that personal computers were now ‘‘trucks’’ — tools for working-class guys in T-shirts and visors, but not for upwardly mobile cool people. The implication was that upscale consumers would prefer status and leisure to influence or self-determination.
To be free is to have a private zone in which you can be alone with your thoughts and experiments. That is where you differentiate yourself and grow your personal value. When you carry around a smartphone with a GPS and camera and constantly pipe data to a computer owned by a corporation paid by advertisers to manipulate you, you are less free. Not only are you benefiting the corporation and the advertisers, you are also accepting an assault on your free will, bit by bit.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Childhood poverty changes adult brain emotion regulation pathways.

Kim et al. add sobering detail to the story of how the chronic stress experienced by children in poverty correlates with long term change in the emotion regulation pathways of those children when they become adults. Controlling our emotions depends on the ability of portions of our prefrontal cortex to suppress activation of our amygdala's reactivity. Apparently chronic stress in childhood blocks normal development of this inhibition. Here is the authors' statement of the significance of their work:
Childhood poverty has been linked to emotion dysregulation, which is further associated with negative physical and psychological health in adulthood. The current study provides evidence of prospective associations between childhood poverty and adult neural activity during effortful attempts to regulate negative emotion. Adults with lower family income at age 9 exhibited reduced ventrolateral and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activity and failure to suppress amygdala activation at age 24. Chronic stressor exposure across childhood mediated the relations between family income at age 9 and prefrontal cortex activity. The concurrent adult income, on the other hand, was not associated with neural activity. The information on the developmental timing of poverty effects and neural mechanisms may inform early interventions aimed at reducing health disparities.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Do you use your head or follow your heart?

Fetterman and Robsinon do a piece of work that tries to provide evidence of what we all commonly suppose: that where we physically locate our self (head or heart) predicts aspects of personality such as rationality versus emotionality, interpersonal warmth versus distance, etc. The kind of work derives from the Lakoff and Johnson studies on embodied cognition - how conceptual metaphors guide thought, emotion, and behavior. The experimental subjects were the usual cohort (112 total, 47 female) of college undergraduates seeking psychology laboratory credit, who were asked "Irrespective of what you know about biology, which body part do you more closely associate with your self? (choose one)." A bit more detail is given, but this is apparently how heart and head types were chosen. I'm going to spare you the details of the numbered experiments that are mentioned, and just note the abstract:
The head is thought to be rational and cold, whereas the heart is thought to be emotional and warm. In 8 studies (total N = 725), we pursued the idea that such body metaphors are widely consequential. Study 1 introduced a novel individual difference variable, one asking people to locate the self in the head or the heart. Irrespective of sex differences, head-locators characterized themselves as rational, logical, and interpersonally cold, whereas heart-locators characterized themselves as emotional, feminine, and interpersonally warm (Studies 1–3). Study 4 showed that head-locators were more accurate in answering general knowledge questions and had higher grade point averages, and Study 5 showed that heart-locators were more likely to favor emotional over rational considerations in moral decision making. Study 6 linked self-locations to reactivity phenomena in daily life—for example, heart-locators experienced greater negative emotion on high stressor days. In Study 7, we manipulated attention to the head versus the heart and found that head-pointing facilitated intellectual performance, whereas heart-pointing led to emotional decision making. Study 8 replicated Study 3’s findings with a nearly year-long delay between the self-location and outcome measures. The findings converge on the importance of head–heart metaphors for understanding individual differences in cognition, emotion, and performance.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Homage to idleness.

All of a sudden this past Saturday morning there was a subtle "poof" from somewhere in my now-cyborg body and it just started thinking and writing again, most likely because its preoccupation with pain was decreasing.

I found myself savoring the period of idleness mandated by having both medial knee joints replaced, and so felt a resonance with this opinion piece by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins "Homage to the Idols of Idleness."
Our struggle against the clock is ancient. As far back as the 2nd century B.C., the Roman playwright Plautus lamented, “The gods confound the man who first found out how to distinguish the hours!” as he railed against the city’s central sundial, which served to “cut and hack my days so wretchedly.” Thousands of years later, what would Plautus make of this ringing, dinging world full of productivity apps that hack ever deeper into our days and nights?
Devices that constantly keep us on course, fixed in place and in time — from the GPS to Siri — ruin our ability to get lost, eradicating randomness and its magic in their wake. Perhaps no one knew this better than France’s early-19th century flâneurs, the idle walkers who happily unspooled their days into the unknown, or the flâneurs’ lowbrow American confreres, the tramp poets of the early 20th century, who surrendered to their surroundings with even more conviction than time-bound monks. In the summer of 1912, the poet Vachel Lindsay set off tramping in a corduroy suit, walking and “meditating on the ways of Destiny,” while preaching the “Gospel of Beauty” to everyone he met...
Our worship of time-management denies the courage these aimless wanderers and idlers demonstrated when stepping out of time. They made the crucial tradeoff: reduced output for liberation. When he died, Henry David Thoreau had published only two books, and “Walden,” then out of print, had been only moderately successful. In the Massachusetts woods, he not only sought solitude, but followed an utterly unconventional timetable, hoeing his beans at 5 a.m. and quitting by noon in order to pursue “other affairs,” like befriending squirrels or lounging next to a spring while reading Homer or the Bhagavad Gita. He chose to “live on the stretch” in order to better savor every moment. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
The stupefying modern obsession with productivity denies the whimsy and the freedom that living fully demands. We must dare to relax our grip on time for a day, or even for an hour, throwing clocks, watches and iPhones over the housetops, untethering ourselves solely for the thrill of not knowing what happens next.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Still alive....

...but in no mood to think or write. 4 hours of rehab exercises every day.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

MindBlog on medical leave.

I'm heading into knee surgery early tomorrow morning, and may not be feeling in shape to continue doing posts for awhile.

The biology of sacred values.

Frank Rose does a nice piece in the NYTimes, pointing to the work of Gregory Berns and others, on brain correlates of why financial incentives are irrelevant when “sacred values” are at stake. (As in the failure of financial incentives offered by the West in getting Iran to give up its “right” to enrich uranium for “peaceful” uses.) Attempts to offer money to get people to alter strongly held beliefs - with issues like gun control, abortion, Israeli or Palestinian rights to the West Bank of the Jordan - result in moral outrage, feelings of contamination, and a need for moral cleansing. Work by Berns and others suggests we have radically different ways of processing ordinary and sacred beliefs. Berns…
...took M.R.I. images of participants’ brains as he asked them to consider changing their personal beliefs in exchange for money. Would they trade their preference for dogs over cats? What about their belief in God? Would they be willing to kill an innocent person?
When participants were questioned about issues of the dog-or-cat variety, their brain scans showed activity in the parietal cortex — a region that’s thought to be involved in making cost-benefit calculations. But when asked about issues on which they declined to make a trade, entirely different parts of the brain were activated — systems that are associated with telling right from wrong and with storing and retrieving rules. The result, Professor Berns observes, could be a new way to gauge sacred values “that is not solely dependent on self-report.”
Are we going to start running international negotiators through an M.R.I. machine to see where they’re processing the issues? [and determine whether or not someone is faking it when they claim sacred values] Highly unlikely. But results like Professor Berns’s might at least disprove the idea, still held by many, that every belief has its price. Given the intensely negative emotions that financial incentives can trigger, this might be a good lesson to learn.
Here is the abstract from the Berns et al work "The price of your soul: neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values" to which the above is referring. It gives a bit more detail on the brain correlates of sacred values:
Sacred values, such as those associated with religious or ethnic identity, underlie many important individual and group decisions in life, and individuals typically resist attempts to trade off their sacred values in exchange for material benefits. Deontological theory suggests that sacred values are processed based on rights and wrongs irrespective of outcomes, while utilitarian theory suggests that they are processed based on costs and benefits of potential outcomes, but which mode of processing an individual naturally uses is unknown. The study of decisions over sacred values is difficult because outcomes cannot typically be realized in a laboratory, and hence little is known about the neural representation and processing of sacred values. We used an experimental paradigm that used integrity as a proxy for sacredness and which paid real money to induce individuals to sell their personal values. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we found that values that people refused to sell (sacred values) were associated with increased activity in the left temporoparietal junction and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, regions previously associated with semantic rule retrieval. This suggests that sacred values affect behaviour through the retrieval and processing of deontic rules and not through a utilitarian evaluation of costs and benefits.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Your fitness age - a simple online calculator

Several popular articles have directed attention to recent work by Nes et al., which suggests that answers to seven simple questions can predict fitness age as well as more exhaustive determinations using peak oxygen intake (VO2) measured on a treadmill, HDL and total cholesterol measurents, accurate determination of body mass index, a lengthy life style questionnaire. Several large scale studies have shown that VO2 max correlates with significantly augmented life spans, and indicates 'fitness age.' They found the simple list of questions predicted VO2 max as well as actual treadmill determinations. I tried their online fitness calculator and discounted its determination that my 71 year old body had the fitness age of a 22-year old. Then I noticed the small detail that the calculator asked for waistline measurement in cm., not inches! Entering the waistline correctly gave me a VO2 max of 40 and fitness age of 59, which is a bit more reasonable. Here is their abstract:
PURPOSE: Cardiorespiratory fitness is suggested to be an important marker of cardiovascular risk but is rarely evaluated in health care settings. In the present study, directly measured peak oxygen uptake (V·O 2peak) from a diverse population of 4637 healthy participants were used to develop and cross-validate a new nonexercise regression model of cardiorespiratory fitness for men and women.
METHODS AND RESULTS: Multivariable regression analysis was used to develop a nonexercise model of cardiorespiratory fitness for men and women separately with V·O 2peak as the outcome. In the final models, 2067 men (mean age = 48.8 yr) and 2193 women (mean age = 47.9 yr) were included, respectively. Cross-validation of the models was done by standard data splitting procedures with evaluation of constant error and total error of a model developed on one sample and cross-validated on another sample. Age, waist circumference, leisure time physical activity, and resting HR, successively, were the most potent predictors of V·O 2peak for both men and women. Together, 61% and 56% of variance in V·O 2peak, for men and women, respectively, were explained by the full models. SEE was 5.70 and 5.14 for the models including men and women, respectively.
CONCLUSIONS: The nonexercise regression model developed in the present study was fairly accurate in predicting V·O 2peak in this healthy population of men and women. The model might be generalized to other healthy populations and might be a valid tool for a rough assessment of cardiorespiratory fitness in an outpatient setting.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Making muscle

Several scientific journals are having a robust and quirky sense of humor these days. I have to pass on this take-off on the Charles Atlas comic advertisements used to describe work by Xu et al. in which a factor obtained from culture of zebrafish embryos is used to induce skeletal muscle differentiation in human induced pluripotent stem cells.

Cell description: The cover catroon tells the story, reported in Xu et al., of an induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC, shown here in a red t-shirt) that cannot make muscle. When a “bully” researcher tries to steal the postdoctoral fellow working with the iPSC, it's back to the lab, where the fellow uses a zebrafish model to discover chemicals that can turn the iPSC into muscle. Facing down the bully, the postdoctoral fellow rides high on his success. This concept was adapted from Charles Atlas comic advertisements related to bodybuilding. Cover artwork by Athens Qin.

Monday, November 18, 2013

More on long-term benefits of early musical training.

White-Schwoch et al. show that older adults who took music lessons at an early age - the type of instrument doesn't matter - can process the sounds of speech faster than those who did not:
Aging results in pervasive declines in nervous system function. In the auditory system, these declines include neural timing delays in response to fast-changing speech elements; this causes older adults to experience difficulty understanding speech, especially in challenging listening environments. These age-related declines are not inevitable, however: older adults with a lifetime of music training do not exhibit neural timing delays. Yet many people play an instrument for a few years without making a lifelong commitment. Here, we examined neural timing in a group of human older adults who had nominal amounts of music training early in life, but who had not played an instrument for decades. We found that a moderate amount (4–14 years) of music training early in life is associated with faster neural timing in response to speech later in life, long after training stopped (>40 years). We suggest that early music training sets the stage for subsequent interactions with sound. These experiences may interact over time to sustain sharpened neural processing in central auditory nuclei well into older age.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Where musical melodies are represented in our brains.

Here is a fascinating piece by Schindler et al. (open access) showing that musical melodies, or ‘gestalts’ are encoded at very early stages of our auditory processing and are constant through changes of key signature and type of instrument playing.
The perception of a melody is invariant to the absolute properties of its constituting notes, but depends on the relation between them—the melody's relative pitch profile. In fact, a melody's “Gestalt” is recognized regardless of the instrument or key used to play it. Pitch processing in general is assumed to occur at the level of the auditory cortex. However, it is unknown whether early auditory regions are able to encode pitch sequences integrated over time (i.e., melodies) and whether the resulting representations are invariant to specific keys. Here, we presented participants different melodies composed of the same 4 harmonic pitches during functional magnetic resonance imaging recordings. Additionally, we played the same melodies transposed in different keys and on different instruments. We found that melodies were invariantly represented by their blood oxygen level–dependent activation patterns in primary and secondary auditory cortices across instruments, and also across keys. Our findings extend common hierarchical models of auditory processing by showing that melodies are encoded independent of absolute pitch and based on their relative pitch profile as early as the primary auditory cortex.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why some of us can, or can't, disengage from pain.

Kucyi et al.,  note a beneficial effect of mind wandering and increased default mode network activity on pain suppression. Here is the author's state of the significance of their work:
The mind easily wanders away from mundane tasks, but pain is presumed to automatically capture attention. We demonstrate that individuals differ in how often their minds spontaneously wander away from pain and that these differences are associated with the disruptive effect of pain on cognitive performance. Brain–behavior relationships underscore these individual differences. When people’s minds wander away from pain, there are increased activations of the default mode network (DMN) and strong interactions between the DMN and periaqueductal gray (PAG), an opiate-rich region mediating pain suppression. Individuals with greater tendencies to mind wander from pain have stronger anatomical links and dynamic functional communication between PAG and DMN. These findings provide clinically important clues about why some individuals cannot disengage from pain.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The promises of 'priming'

I've done numerous posts noting psychological experiments on the phenomenon of priming, whose practical application is a major component of behavioral economics. Gary Gutting argues that the significance of priming in our real lives, more complex than the controlled parameters of a psychological experiment, may be overblown in claims that priming experiments provide powerful new tools for influencing human behavior. He starts by noting:
The classic priming experiment was one in which college students had been asked to form various sentences from a given set of words. Those in one group were given words that included several associated with older people (like bingo, gray and Florida). Those in a second group were given words with no such associations. After the linguistic exercise, each participant was instructed to leave the building by walking down a hallway. Without letting the participants know what was going on, the experimenters timed their walks down the hall. They found that those in the group given words associated with old people walked significantly slower than those in the other group. The first group had been primed to walk more slowly.
And, after reviewing claims made for the power of priming techniques to alter our behavior, Gutting notes:
...that priming experiments seldom tell us how important priming is in realistic situations. We know that it has striking effects under highly simplified and controlled laboratory conditions, where the subjects are exposed only to the stimuli that the experimenters provide. But it is very difficult to know how significant priming stimuli (thinking about money, large numbers, abstract questions) would be in a real-life, uncontrolled environment, where all sorts of stimuli might be conflicting with one another. Also, there is seldom any reason to think that even a strong priming effect will last very long. As Jonathan Ellis has noted, even Kahneman ignores these points when, after summarizing the walking-like-the-elderly experiment, he says: “Although you surely were not aware of it, reading this paragraph [which contained many words relating to the elderly] primed you as well. If you had needed to stand up to get a glass of water, you would have been slightly slower than usual to rise from your chair . . . ”
These limits are well illustrated by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s best-selling book, Nudge. The authors begin with excellent discussions of priming and similar experimental results and then put forward numerous public policy proposals, most of them quite sensible, allegedly inspired by these results. But hardly any of their proposals depend on the results of behavioral economics. Their ideas are mostly a matter of common sense or of strategies long practiced in the business world: in giving people options (regarding decisions like retirement plans or organ donations), make the choice you prefer the default option; provide more or less information on a credit card bill depending on whether you want people to pay just the minimum each month; arrange food in a cafeteria or supermarket so the items you want chosen are most accessible. As Benjamin Friedman pointed out in his review of the book, “we don’t need behavioral economics . . . to think such proposals might be helpful.”
Priming experiments remain important sources of information about the details of how our minds work. It’s possible that they might someday yield valuable techniques for modifying real-world behavior. (Here is one promising if very preliminary example.) But for now claims that they have deep philosophical significance or major practical consequences have scant support.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The serious business of play

Gillian Brown reviews what looks like a very interesting book from Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin "Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation." The look critically evaluates the literature on animal and human play. A few clips from the review:
Some children gain pleasure from climbing trees, some spend hours with building bricks, and others enjoy pretending to be doctors or musicians. In Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation, Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin argue that all of these play activities have in common the generation of novel combinations of actions or thoughts and that early play experiences promote creativity in later life.
...this highly engaging book provides a novel perspective on the role of play activities that apparently lack seriousness. The clarity of prose and diversity of material covered in Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation persuade the reader to reconsider the importance of play in childhood and beyond. For instance, Bateson and Martin point out that childhood play can introduce complexity to the behavioral repertoire and lead to selection for traits that underpin the adoption of novel behavior, thereby altering the evolutionary trajectory of our species. Playful play may be particularly important in generating creativity, and the authors entreat that adults still “have much to gain from deliberately adopting a more playful approach to life.”
To use their quote from George Bernard Shaw, “We don't stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.”

Friday, November 08, 2013

Motor exploration of 5-month old predicts academic achievement at 14 years.

A fascinating part of these observations is the lack of correlation noted in the last sentence of the abstract:. From Bornstein et al.:
A developmental cascade defines a longitudinal relation in which one psychological characteristic uniquely affects another psychological characteristic later in time, separately from other intrapersonal and extrapersonal factors. Here, we report results of a large-scale (N = 374), normative, prospective, 14-year longitudinal, multivariate, multisource, controlled study of a developmental cascade from infant motor-exploratory competence at 5 months to adolescent academic achievement at 14 years, through conceptually related and age-appropriate measures of psychometric intelligence at 4 and 10 years and academic achievement at 10 years. This developmental cascade applied equally to girls and boys and was independent of children’s behavioral adjustment and social competence; mothers’ supportive caregiving, verbal intelligence, education, and parenting knowledge; and the material home environment. Infants who were more motorically mature and who explored more actively at 5 months of age achieved higher academic levels as 14-year-olds.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The quest for personal enhancement - adding self brain stimulation to the toolkit?

I done a series of posts on computer games that can enhance attention, intelligence, memory, navigation and at least partially reverse the effects of aging. (See for example the post on Posit Science's Brain HQ). Interest in brain enhancement by tDCS (trans-cranial direct current stimulation) also has been building exponentially. In previous posts I've noted work showing how his gentle non-invasive technique can alter our sense of fairness, alter belief formation, enhance general intelligence,and mathematical abilities ( with these effects persisting for months), be performed with a do it yourself kit costing around $200, raising both safety and ethical issues. (Even the tDCS units used in research are often little more than a nine-volt battery with two electrodes and a controller for setting the current and the duration of the session. Several YouTube videos show how to make a rough facsimile, but fail to note that applying too much current, for too long, or to the wrong spot on the skull, can be extremely dangerous.) Another post notes a caution that stimulation enhancing one cognitive activity can compromises others.

The New York Times has published two recent article on the technique and the do it yourself approach. One, largely positive, is by Dan Hurley, basically an advertisement for his forthcoming book ‘Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power,’ and the second, by Kate Murphy, notes more cautions.
There is little data on the long-term use of tDCS, and some experts worry is that in addition to serious external burns, people who self-administer could permanently damage their brains, impairing cognitive and motor function in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
“What makes me very nervous about the Foc.us ($249,made by a British firm) and homemade tDCS devices is the intensity and duration of current people are getting,” said Dr. Michael Weisend, a cognitive neuroscientist at Wright State Research Institute in Beaver Creek, Ohio, who conducts tDCS research for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force. “We have zero data on long-term use on anybody’s brain, and I have scars to prove that you can burn yourself pretty badly with tDCS.”
I've actually done most of the BrainHQ computer exercises, and note they have clear effects on my attention, perception, and speed....but I get bored after a bit and don't stay with it. Insufficient motivation, I suppose. I'm not about to start dinking around with commercial or home-made tDCS kits, especially given the evidence that boosting one cognitive capacity can compromise others. I think we ought to bloody leave ourselves alone, unless we have notable cognitive impairments than can and should be addressed. I think the self improvement craze that seems to strive for some kind of uber-human is becoming a social pathology...and don't get me started on the marketing of life-extension fantasies.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Generating music during exercise lessens sense of physical effort.

A fascinating bit of work from Fritz et al. makes one wonder whether our human love of music is based in part on its ability to ease physical effort.  They looked not at the effects not of simple passive listening to music during exercise, which is a feature of many gym environments, but of creating music generated by an electronic kit integrated into the internal workings of weight-training machines (such as stair steppers or weight machines with bars pulled up or down).   Subjects in effect became their own disk jockeys, creating sounds that mirrored their physical efforts.  From Reynolds review, the fascinating observation was:
...that most of the volunteers had generated significantly greater muscular force while working at the musically equipped machines than the unmodified ones. They also had used less oxygen to generate that force and reported that their exertions had felt less strenuous. Their movements were also more smooth in general, resulting in a steadier flow of music.
This suggests that:
A similar dynamic may have motivated early humans to whistle or hum while they hunted or tilled and later to raise their voices in song during barn raisings and other intense physical labor.
The abstract of the work:
Here we present a data set demonstrating that musical agency greatly decreases the perceived exertion during strenuous activity. We believe these findings are a major contribution to how we consider the role of music in the emergence of human societies. Furthermore, these findings are timely because they crucially help to understand the therapeutic power of music, a scientific field about to unfold. Although one would expect this workout with musical feedback (jymmin') to be a rather unconventional and dimensionally constrained (each instrument one-dimensionally regulates a musical signal) way to experience musical agency, the experience of the performers suggests an intimate entwinement of ecstatic pleasure and exertion during the performance.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Slaves of the Internet, Unite!

To continue the rant started in last Tuesday's post, let's move on to emphasizing how, in addition to our digital connections compromising our direct human ones, the rewards for writing and thinking have been vastly diminished. Content in real books, magazines, and newspapers that used to generate an income, for creative individuals now is expected for free, as noted by Tim Kreider ("They really do admire your work, just not enough to pay one cent for it") in his very humorous piece "Slaves of the Internet, Unite!"
People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.
He notes:
...a side effect of our information economy, in which “paying for things” is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom, like calling people after having sex with them. The first time I ever heard the word “content” used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, “content providers” — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art” — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.
Practicalities aside, money is also how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing. Even sort of insulting. And of course when you live in a culture that treats your work as frivolous you can’t help but internalize some of that devaluation and think of yourself as something less than a bona fide grown-up.
My field of expertise is complaining, not answers. I know there’s no point in demanding that businesspeople pay artists for their work, any more than there is in politely asking stink bugs or rhinoviruses to quit it already. It’s their job to be rapacious and shameless. But they can get away with paying nothing only for the same reason so many sleazy guys keep trying to pick up women by insulting them: because it keeps working on someone. There is a bottomless supply of ambitious young artists in all media who believe the line about exposure, or who are simply so thrilled at the prospect of publication that they’re happy to do it free of charge.
Kreider does make a suggestion:
Here, for public use, is my very own template for a response to people who offer to let me write something for them for nothing:
Thanks very much for your compliments on my [writing/illustration/whatever thing you do]. I’m flattered by your invitation to [do whatever it is they want you to do for nothing]. But [thing you do] is work, it takes time, it’s how I make my living, and in this economy I can’t afford to do it for free. I’m sorry to decline, but thanks again, sincerely, for your kind words about my work.
I am impressed Mr. Kreider's old-fashioned courtesy in making such a response. The several requests I get each month to be a 'content provider' for free go straight to the email trash bucket.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Sleep cleans our brains, renews our synapses, consolidates our memories

This bit of work got a flurry of attention recently, but I think is important enough to warrant repeating here.  Xie et al.  have used an elegant two-photon imaging technique to compare awake and sleeping mouse brains. They find that metabolic waste products of neural activity are cleared out of the sleeping brain at a faster rate than during the awake state:
...convective fluxes of interstitial fluid increased the rate of β-amyloid clearance during sleep. Thus, the restorative function of sleep may be a consequence of the enhanced removal of potentially neurotoxic waste products that accumulate in the awake central nervous system.
The review of this work by Underwood has a nice graphic of the fluid-filled channels (pale blue) that expand to flush out waste:

The role of sleep in memory consolidation is well known, and further work of Tononi's group has suggested that in rats, sleep maintains an overall synaptic balance, by uniformly dialing down synapses that have expanded their activity during the day. (I have also previously pointed to work on fruit flies by Tononi's group coming to a similar conclusion.)

Work of this sort suggests that the 50-70 million Americans who have insufficient sleep or some kind of sleep disorder (like sleep apnea) are carrying around extra garbage in their brains during the day and have brain synaptic connection that haven't recovered from previous days' activities, both factors that would seem likely to compromise our mental function!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Scary music for Halloween - Dance Macabre

You should have a look at the 13 scariest pieces of classical music for Halloween, assembled by Limelight Magazine. It is hard for me to select a favorite, but I will point to this classic Disney cartoon of Saint-Saens Dance Macabre:
Saint-Saëns’s creepy 1874 tone poem is a Halloween classic, depicting the revelry of the Grim Reaper at midnight every year at this time. With his cursed fiddle, Death summons the dead from their graves to kick up their heals until dawn. In this vintage Disney animation, listen out for the xylophone sound of rattling bones.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Finding a protein linking exercise to brain health

Yet another candidate for a life enhancing drug? ...perhaps a protein that mimics the effect of the protein FNDC5, which is produced by muscular exertion and in turn boosts the level of a brain-health protein, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic protein) in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. Here is the summary and abstract from Wrann et al. with some technical details:
Exercise induces FNDC5 in the hippocampus.
PGC-1α regulates neuronal Fndc5 gene expression in vitro and in vivo.
FNDC5 positively regulates the expression of the important neurotrophin BDNF.
Peripheral delivery of FNDC5 via adenoviral vectors induces Bdnf in the hippocampus.
Exercise can improve cognitive function and has been linked to the increased expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). However, the underlying molecular mechanisms driving the elevation of this neurotrophin remain unknown. Here we show that FNDC5, a previously identified muscle protein that is induced in exercise and is cleaved and secreted as irisin, is also elevated by endurance exercise in the hippocampus of mice. Neuronal Fndc5 gene expression is regulated by PGC-1α, and Pgc1a−/− mice show reduced Fndc5 expression in the brain. Forced expression of FNDC5 in primary cortical neurons increases Bdnf expression, whereas RNAi-mediated knockdown of FNDC5 reduces Bdnf. Importantly, peripheral delivery of FNDC5 to the liver via adenoviral vectors, resulting in elevated blood irisin, induces expression of Bdnf and other neuroprotective genes in the hippocampus. Taken together, our findings link endurance exercise and the important metabolic mediators, PGC-1α and FNDC5, with BDNF expression in the brain.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Only Disconnect" - The pathology of digital of connectivity

Alas, it seems increasingly clear that to follow E.M. Forster’s dictum “Only Connect” (i.e. with humans in person, what our emotional brain evolved to do.) it is also necessary to follow Evgeny Morozov’s more recent dictum (and title of his review of several several books) “Only Disconnect.” (with the pseudo-connectivity of our tweets,followers, facebook friends, blog hits, google+ plus counts, Klout numbers, Thumbs up or downs, Shout outs, Likes, etc.). I will pass on some clips from Morozov's article. After noting descriptions by the Weimar Republic's literary luminary Siegfried Kracauer of the public over stimulation of his day, and his remedy of 'radical boredom' as an antidote, Morozov continues:
These days, "the state of permanent receptivity" has become the birthright of anyone with a smartphone. We are under constant assault by "interestingness"...the anti-boredom lobby has all but established its headquarters in Silicon Valley...
Information overload can bore us as easily as information underload. But this form of boredom, mediated boredom, doesn't provide time to think; it just produces a craving for more information in order to suppress it.
Morozov quotes from French philosopher Henri Lefebvre from the early 1960's
Today everything comes to an end virtually as soon as it begins, and vanishes almost as soon as it appears..As interest in it gets progressively weaker, so news becomes more rapid and concentrated, until finally, at the end of a shorter and shorter period, it wears itself..We have the phoney "new" faked novelty..The confusion between triviality which no longer appears trivial and sensationalism which is made to appear ordinary is cleverly organized. New shrinks to the size of the socially instantaneous, and the immediate instant tends to disappear in an instant which has already passed.
And then, Morozov notes:
I should admit that I'm something of a "contemplative computing" devotee, which is also to say, a distraction addict. Last year, I bought a safe with a built-in timer that I use to lock away my smartphone and Internet cable for days on end. (Tools like Freedom didn't work for me - they are too easy to circumvent.
What's needed is a modern-day counterpart to the anti-noise campaigners of a century ago.. Information deserve its own environmentalism....what is modernity if not a collection of pickets of silence and distraction? Consider the Amtrak train: yes, we get Wi-Fi, but we also get the Quiet Car..Both radical boredom and radical distraction can get us closer to "authentic rapture within the inauthentic domain." The trick is not to settle for their tepid, mediocre versions.
Likewise, the possibility of controlled disconnection - embedded in software like Freedom and harware like my safe - reassures us that our task lists and deadlines are manageable, if we approach them with distraction. Like travel and dance, both are illusions concocted by modernity... Life in the New Digital Age might be disorienting, but at least it isn't nasty, brutish, and short. Not in the Quiet Car, anyway.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Perspective taking can turn competitors unethical

An interesting bit from Pierce et al.:
Perspective taking is often the glue that binds people together. However, we propose that in competitive contexts, perspective taking is akin to adding gasoline to a fire: It inflames already-aroused competitive impulses and leads people to protect themselves from the potentially insidious actions of their competitors. Overall, we suggest that perspective taking functions as a relational amplifier. In cooperative contexts, it creates the foundation for prosocial impulses, but in competitive contexts, it triggers hypercompetition, leading people to prophylactically engage in unethical behavior to prevent themselves from being exploited. The experiments reported here establish that perspective taking interacts with the relational context—cooperative or competitive—to predict unethical behavior, from using insidious negotiation tactics to materially deceiving one’s partner to cheating on an anagram task. In the context of competition, perspective taking can pervert the age-old axiom “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” into “do unto others as you think they will try to do unto you.”

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Oxytocin, gentle human touch, and social impression.

Another bit of information from Leknes and collaborators, expanding on their work mentioned in a recent post:
Interpersonal touch is frequently used for communicating emotions, strengthen social bonds and to give others pleasure. The neuropeptide oxytocin increases social interest, improves recognition of others’ emotions, and it is released during touch. Here, we investigated how oxytocin and gentle human touch affect social impressions of others, and vice versa, how others’ facial expressions and oxytocin affect touch experience. In a placebo-controlled crossover study using intranasal oxytocin, 40 healthy volunteers viewed faces with different facial expressions along with concomitant gentle human touch or control machine touch, while pupil diameter was monitored. After each stimulus pair, participants rated the perceived friendliness and attractiveness of the faces, perceived facial expression, or pleasantness and intensity of the touch. After intranasal oxytocin treatment, gentle human touch had a sharpening effect on social evaluations of others relative to machine touch, such that frowning faces were rated as less friendly and attractive, whereas smiling faces were rated as more friendly and attractive. Conversely, smiling faces increased, whereas frowning faces reduced, pleasantness of concomitant touch – the latter effect being stronger for human touch. Oxytocin did not alter touch pleasantness. Pupillary responses, a measure of attentional allocation, were larger to human touch than to equally intense machine touch, especially when paired with a smiling face. Overall, our results point to mechanisms important for human affiliation and social bond formation.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A genetic predisposition to note the negative.

Another interesting example of viewing the world through gene-colored glasses...Todd et al. note an interesting behavioral correlation involving a gene variant, carried by ~50% of Caucasians, of subtype B of the α2-adrenergic receptor: people with the variant are more likely to take note of negative events. They use the "attentional blink" paradigm to reach this conclusion:
The attentional blink...is a phenomenon in which participants are typically unable to identify a target stimulus when it is presented less than approximately 500 ms after a previous target in a rapid stream of stimuli. One interpretation of this blink is that it reflects a failure of attentional filters to consolidate the second target into working memory when it appears too quickly after the first, which results in impaired perceptual awareness. When the second target has emotional significance, there is a reduced attentional blink, or an emotional sparing. This emotional sparing, or reduction of the attentional blink for emotional stimuli relative to neutral stimuli, can be seen as the relative tuning of selective attention to affective stimuli.
Here is their abstract (which contains the fairly common error of using "are responsible for" instead of the more correct "correlate with"):
Emotionally enhanced memory and susceptibility to intrusive memories after trauma have been linked to a deletion variant (i.e., a form of a gene in which certain amino acids are missing) of ADRA2B, the gene encoding subtype B of the α2-adrenergic receptor, which influences norepinephrine activity. We examined in 207 participants whether variations in this gene are responsible for individual differences in affective influences on initial encoding that alter perceptual awareness. We examined the attentional blink, an attentional impairment during rapid serial visual presentation, for negatively arousing, positively arousing, and neutral target words. Overall, the attentional blink was reduced for emotional targets for ADRA2B-deletion carriers and noncarriers alike, which reveals emotional sparing (i.e., reduction of the attentional impairment for words that are emotionally significant). However, deletion carriers demonstrated a further, more pronounced emotional sparing for negative targets. This finding demonstrates a contribution of genetics to individual differences in the emotional subjectivity of perception, which in turn may be linked to biases in later memory.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Silver Lining of a mind in the clouds

This post continues a MindBlog thread on the consequences of our minds being task-focused versus wandering. A seminal paper was Killingsworth and Gilbert's 2010 work "A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.", and I recently posted a more positive view. Franklin et al. now collect data of the sort Killingsworth and Gilbert used, but analyze with a bit more nuance:
The negative effects of mind-wandering on performance and mood have been widely documented. In a recent well-cited study, Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) conducted a large experience sampling study revealing that all off-task episodes, regardless of content, have equal to or lower happiness ratings, than on-task episodes. We present data from a similarly implemented experience sampling study with additional mind-wandering content categories. Our results largely conform to those of the Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) study, with mind-wandering generally being associated with a more negative mood. However, subsequent analyses reveal situations in which a more positive mood is reported after being off-task. Specifically when off-task episodes are rated for interest, the high interest episodes are associated with an increase in positive mood compared to all on-task episodes. These findings both identify a situation in which mind-wandering may have positive effects on mood, and suggest the possible benefits of encouraging individuals to shift their off-task musings to the topics they find most engaging.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Face recognition area of the brain also notes race and sex.

Hundreds of papers have been written on the fusiform face area (FFA) of our brains, which Contreras et al. now show immediately collects information about race and sex as well, showing patterns of activation that are different for black and white faces, and for female and male faces. Meaning is attached to those identifications later in visual processing. This specialization might have appeared for evolutionary or developmental reasons, for it can be important to know the sex and race of other people, especially in contexts in which those differences should change the way in which you interact with them. Here is their abstract:
Although prior research suggests that fusiform gyrus represents the sex and race of faces, it remains unclear whether fusiform face area (FFA)–the portion of fusiform gyrus that is functionally-defined by its preferential response to faces–contains such representations. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate whether FFA represents faces by sex and race. Participants were scanned while they categorized the sex and race of unfamiliar Black men, Black women, White men, and White women. Multivariate pattern analysis revealed that multivoxel patterns in FFA–but not other face-selective brain regions, other category-selective brain regions, or early visual cortex–differentiated faces by sex and race. Specifically, patterns of voxel-based responses were more similar between individuals of the same sex than between men and women, and between individuals of the same race than between Black and White individuals. By showing that FFA represents the sex and race of faces, this research contributes to our emerging understanding of how the human brain perceives individuals from two fundamental social categories.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Out of the group, out of control?

From Otten and Jonas:
The effects of social exclusion are far-reaching, both on an emotional and behavioral level. The present study investigates whether social exclusion also directly influences basic cognitive functions, specifically the ability to exert cognitive control. Participants were either excluded or included while playing an online game. To test whether exclusion altered cognitive control, we measured the electrophysiological responses to a Go/No Go task. In this task participants had to withhold a response (No Go) on a small number of trials while the predominant tendency was to make an overt (Go) response. Compared to Go trials the event-related potential evoked by No Go trials elicited an increased N2, reflecting the detection of the response conflict, followed by an increased P3, reflecting the inhibition of the predominant response. The N2 effect was larger for participants who had experienced exclusion, while the P3 effect was smaller. This indicates that exclusion leads to an increased ability to detect response conflicts, while at the same time exclusion decreases the neural processes that underlie the inhibition of unwanted behavior.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Trashing Malcolm Gladwell

It is with some glee that I have been reading the many negative reviews of Malcolm Gladwell's most recent book (David and Goliath..), in particular Chad Orzel's "Malcolm Gladwell Is Deepak Chopra." He compares Gladwell's style to that of Deepak Chopra, who I immediately decided was a con-artist when I first encountered his work in the 1970s. After noting Gladwell's willful misleading of readers with cherry-picked science, Orzel notes the connection to Chopra:
So what does this have to do with everybody’s favorite bullshit artist stand-up Eastern philosopher? It occurred to me in reading some of the social media reactions that Gladwell stands in relation to good, responsible journalists in more or less the same position that Chopra stands in relation to actual quantum physicists. That is, he’s a glib and gifted writer who can talk just enough of the talk to buffalo people from outside the field. To a physicist, Chopra’s babble about “energy fields” and “congealing quantum soup” presents as utter gibberish, but he drops enough names and technical terms to sound superficially like somebody with real knowledge of physics, making it really hard for those of us who really know how the universe works to convince non-scientists that he doesn’t. If both sides throw around technical terms, but one twists them into a compelling narrative while the other is full of limits and caveats and, you know, math, well, the fact that the people with the complicated story are right doesn’t carry as much weight as it ought to.
A few further writeups are Poole's review relayed in The New Republic, and Chabris in Slate.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Constructive aspects of mind wandering

I've generally been noting research that documents some negative aspects of mind wandering, for example "A wandering mind is an unhappy mind" and "Better memory with less default mode activity." The other side of the coin, how day dreaming can be constructive, is developed by Kaufman here and here(PDF). He and his coauthors point out that the rewards of mind wandering:
...include self- awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences, simulating the perspective of another person, evaluating the implications of self and others’ emotional reactions, moral reasoning, and reflective compassion
Kaufman argues for an definition of intelligence moves beyond emphasis on cognitive control, deliberate planning, and decontextualized problem solving, and that includes:
...an individual’s personal goals, and considers both controlled forms of cognition (e.g., working memory, attentional focus, etc.) and spontaneous forms of cognition (e.g., intuition, affect, insight, implicit learning, latent inhibition, and the spontaneous triggering of episodic memories and declarative knowledge) are important potential contributors to that personal adaptation.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The changing psychology of culture from 1800 through 2000.

Greenfield makes use of the Google Books Ngram Viewer to observe a large shift from collectivist to individualist values during this period, as mass migration occurred from rural to urban areas. The corpus of books published in England and America was examined for the frequency of words like “obliged” and “choose”;“give” and “get”;“act” and “feel”, etc. Their abstract:
The Google Books Ngram Viewer allows researchers to quantify culture across centuries by searching millions of books. This tool was used to test theory-based predictions about implications of an urbanizing population for the psychology of culture. Adaptation to rural environments prioritizes social obligation and duty, giving to other people, social belonging, religion in everyday life, authority relations, and physical activity. Adaptation to urban environments requires more individualistic and materialistic values; such adaptation prioritizes choice, personal possessions, and child-centered socialization in order to foster the development of psychological mindedness and the unique self. The Google Ngram Viewer generated relative frequencies of words indexing these values from the years 1800 to 2000 in American English books. As urban populations increased and rural populations declined, word frequencies moved in the predicted directions. Books published in the United Kingdom replicated this pattern. The analysis established long-term relationships between ecological change and cultural change.