Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Climate disasters act as threat multipliers in ethnic conflicts.

Schleussner et al. offer a proof of a common assumption about the effects of climate disasters: that they drive people further apart rather than closer together:
Social and political tensions keep on fueling armed conflicts around the world. Although each conflict is the result of an individual context-specific mixture of interconnected factors, ethnicity appears to play a prominent and almost ubiquitous role in many of them. This overall state of affairs is likely to be exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change and in particular climate-related natural disasters. Ethnic divides might serve as predetermined conflict lines in case of rapidly emerging societal tensions arising from disruptive events like natural disasters. Here, we hypothesize that climate-related disaster occurrence enhances armed-conflict outbreak risk in ethnically fractionalized countries. Using event coincidence analysis, we test this hypothesis based on data on armed-conflict outbreaks and climate-related natural disasters for the period 1980–2010. Globally, we find a coincidence rate of 9% regarding armed-conflict outbreak and disaster occurrence such as heat waves or droughts. Our analysis also reveals that, during the period in question, about 23% of conflict outbreaks in ethnically highly fractionalized countries robustly coincide with climatic calamities. Although we do not report evidence that climate-related disasters act as direct triggers of armed conflicts, the disruptive nature of these events seems to play out in ethnically fractionalized societies in a particularly tragic way. This observation has important implications for future security policies as several of the world’s most conflict-prone regions, including North and Central Africa as well as Central Asia, are both exceptionally vulnerable to anthropogenic climate change and characterized by deep ethnic divides.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Our self and our temporo-parietal junction

Eddy does a review of the Temporo-parietal junction area of our brain that appears to be central to our sense of self and other:

•Existing literature places the TPJ at the interface between mind and matter. 
•The right TPJ is critical for the control of self and other representations. 
•Dysfunction of right TPJ may therefore compromise our sense of self. 
•Disintegration of the self may in turn underpin various neuropsychiatric symptoms.
The temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) is implicated in a variety of processes including multisensory integration, social cognition, sense of agency and stimulus-driven attention functions. Furthermore, manipulation of cortical excitation in this region can influence a diverse range of personal and interpersonal perceptions, from those involved in moral decision making to judgments about the location of the self in space. Synthesis of existing studies places the TPJ at the neural interface between mind and matter, where information about both mental and physical states is processed and integrated, contributing to self-other differentiation. After first summarising the functions of the TPJ according to existing literature, this narrative review aims to offer insight into the potential role of TPJ dysfunction in neuropsychiatric disorders, with a focus on the involvement of the right TPJ in controlling representations relating to the self and other. Problems with self-other distinctions may reflect or pose a vulnerability to the symptoms associated with Tourette syndrome, Schizophrenia, Autistic Spectrum Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Further study of this most fascinating neural region will therefore make a substantial contribution to our understanding of neuropsychiatric symptomatology and highlight significant opportunities for therapeutic impact.

Anatomical and functional subdivisions of the temporo-parietal junction. Top row: Functional MRI meta-analysis data...Showing forward inference data identified using the terms ‘social’ in red, and ‘attention’ in green, with overlap in yellow. Bottom row: Standard anatomical maps using Automated Anatomical Labelling. Showing right inferior parietal lobe (cyan), supramarginal gyrus (green), angular gyrus (deep blue), superior temporal gyrus (yellow) and middle temporal gyrus (red).

Monday, August 29, 2016

Psychological disruptions of our online lives.

I want to pass on clips from a review by Steiner-Adair in the Washington Post, describing Mary Aiken's book "The Cyber Effect," that describes how cyberspace is changing the way we think, feel, and behave:
She uses the science of human behavior to define cyberspace as a unique environment — an actual space — not simply a virtual extension of the pre-digital world and our characteristic behaviors there. Yes, we still hang out, connect, flirt, fight, learn, do business and do good online. But disinhibition and anonymity in cyberspace foster a particular pattern of impulsivity, careless or inflammatory expression, social cruelty, deception, exploitation — and vulnerability. Consider the unsettling phenomenon of ubiquitous victimology, in which “the criminals are well hidden but you aren’t.” That extends from the ordinary streets of online life to the deep, criminal underground where predators roam and perps hawk illicit wares from drugs, guns and hired assassins to trafficked humans and tools for terrorism. Forget reality TV, this is reality. And it’s a mouse click away from your living room — and your curious child.
Our real-world senses do not serve or protect us adequately in cyberspace, Aiken warns. As humans, we’re caught in the gap between evolution and a sea change in our environment. Our instincts for appraising mates, pals and trustworthy others are visceral, designed by nature for face-to-face, embodied interaction in a physical environment. They fail to pick up signals when we meet in the cyber-realm. Without those protective filters, and unaware that they’ve been disabled, we’re vulnerable in new ways. Connecting on line feels so easy and natural that we come to assume a newfound sameness and closeness with strangers.
This phenomenon of “online syndication,” as Aiken calls it — using the Internet to find others we think are like-minded and to normalize and socialize underlying tendencies — is a setup for easy disaster, as Aiken shows in her examples of people caught in cyber-crises: humiliating exchanges or exposure, debt, love affairs, fetishes, porn and gaming addictions, or the lure of criminal behavior. They fail to see the big disconnect between who they are in real life and who they are online, and the gap is fraught with consequences.
Aiken is concerned for children’s development, health and safety in a cyber-environment that replaces face-to-face interaction with online engagement and includes easy access to pornography and hyper-stimulating, addictive activity. The evidence is in, she says, and it shows conclusively that “there are windows in the formative years when very specific skills need to be learned. When those developmental windows close, a child may be developmentally or emotionally crippled for life.”
...the Internet “is clearly, unmistakably, and emphatically an adult environment. It simply wasn’t designed for children. So why are they there?” Indeed, why are we giving kids keys to the Internet? Who would ever think it’s a good idea for children to have miniature computers in their pockets that can take them anywhere online, unsupervised and unprotected? Aiken describes the lack of regulation, accountability, privacy and protection for children caught in this digital transition as a “crime against innocence.” It represents a massive seduction of parents and other adults who should know better, she argues. Her forensic perspective compels us all to demand better protection, reminding us that children ages 4 through 12 are the most vulnerable population on the Web.

Friday, August 26, 2016

A bit of nostalgia - Powers of 10

I just stumbled across a charming relic from my counter culture days in the 1970's, when I was watching whales and monarch butterflies at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, and learning gestalt, TA, Alexander, massage, and meditation techniques. At one point I signed up for transcendental meditation instruction, and this 1977 video was shown in the first session, after which the instructor said "That's all there is to it"........Sigh.....

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Alerting or Somnogenic light - pick your color

Bourgin and Hubbard summarize work by Pilorz et al.
Light exerts profound effects on our physiology and behaviour, setting our biological clocks to the correct time and regulating when we are asleep and we are awake. The photoreceptors mediating these responses include the rods and cones involved in vision, as well as a subset of photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (pRGCs) expressing the blue light-sensitive photopigment melanopsin. Previous studies have shown that mice lacking melanopsin show impaired sleep in response to light. However, other studies have shown that light increases glucocorticoid release—a response typically associated with stress. To address these contradictory findings, we studied the responses of mice to light of different colours. We found that blue light was aversive, delaying sleep onset and increasing glucocorticoid levels. By contrast, green light led to rapid sleep onset. These different behavioural effects appear to be driven by different neural pathways. Surprisingly, both responses were impaired in mice lacking melanopsin. These data show that light can promote either sleep or arousal. Moreover, they provide the first evidence that melanopsin directly mediates the effects of light on glucocorticoids. This work shows the extent to which light affects our physiology and has important implications for the design and use of artificial light sources.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Oxytocin - a molecular substrate for forming optimistic beliefs about the future

Ma et al. demonstrate a molecular basis for why people tend to incorporate desirable, but not undesirable, feedback into their beliefs:

People tend to incorporate desirable feedback into their beliefs but discount undesirable ones. Such optimistic updating has evolved as an advantageous mechanism for social adaptation and physical/mental health. Here, in three independent studies, we show that intranasally administered oxytocin (OT), an evolutionary ancient neuropeptide pivotal to social adaptation, augments optimistic belief updating by increasing updates and learning of desirable feedback but impairing updates of undesirable feedback. Moreover, the OT-impaired updating of undesirable feedback is more salient in individuals with high, rather than with low, depression or anxiety traits. OT also increases second-order confidence judgment after desirable feedback. These findings reveal a molecular substrate underlying the formation of optimistic beliefs about the future.
Humans update their beliefs upon feedback and, accordingly, modify their behaviors to adapt to the complex, changing social environment. However, people tend to incorporate desirable (better than expected) feedback into their beliefs but to discount undesirable (worse than expected) feedback. Such optimistic updating has evolved as an advantageous mechanism for social adaptation. Here, we examine the role of oxytocin (OT)―an evolutionary ancient neuropeptide pivotal for social adaptation―in belief updating upon desirable and undesirable feedback in three studies (n = 320). Using a double-blind, placebo-controlled between-subjects design, we show that intranasally administered OT (IN-OT) augments optimistic belief updating by facilitating updates of desirable feedback but impairing updates of undesirable feedback. The IN-OT–induced impairment in belief updating upon undesirable feedback is more salient in individuals with high, rather than with low, depression or anxiety traits. IN-OT selectively enhances learning rate (the strength of association between estimation error and subsequent update) of desirable feedback. IN-OT also increases participants’ confidence in their estimates after receiving desirable but not undesirable feedback, and the OT effect on confidence updating upon desirable feedback mediates the effect of IN-OT on optimistic belief updating. Our findings reveal distinct functional roles of OT in updating the first-order estimation and second-order confidence judgment in response to desirable and undesirable feedback, suggesting a molecular substrate for optimistic belief updating.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Slow motion increases perceived intent.

The abstract from interesting work of Caruso et al.
To determine the appropriate punishment for a harmful action, people must often make inferences about the transgressor’s intent. In courtrooms and popular media, such inferences increasingly rely on video evidence, which is often played in “slow motion.” Four experiments (n = 1,610) involving real surveillance footage from a murder or broadcast replays of violent contact in professional football demonstrate that viewing an action in slow motion, compared with regular speed, can cause viewers to perceive an action as more intentional. This slow motion intentionality bias occurred, in part, because slow motion video caused participants to feel like the actor had more time to act, even when they knew how much clock time had actually elapsed. Four additional experiments (n = 2,737) reveal that allowing viewers to see both regular speed and slow motion replay mitigates the bias, but does not eliminate it. We conclude that an empirical understanding of the effect of slow motion on mental state attribution should inform the life-or-death decisions that are currently based on tacit assumptions about the objectivity of human perception.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Lifespan changes in brain and cognition - early life sets the stage.

Walhovd et al. present a fascinating study on the origins of lifespan changes in brain and cognition, defining an extensive cortical region wherein surface area relates positively to general cognitive ability (GCA) in development. They find evidence that especially prefrontal and medial and posterolateral temporal clusters relate more strongly to GCA:

Brain and cognition change with age, with early gains and later declines. Attempts have been made to identify age-specific mechanisms, focusing on when and how declines begin in adults. However, even though general cognitive ability declines with age, there is a high stability in individuals’ cognitive ability relative to their same-age peers. Here we show that the relation between brain and cognition appears remarkably stable through the human lifespan. The cortical area change trajectories of higher and lower cognitive ability groups were parallel through life. Birth weight and parental education were identified as predictors, which provides novel evidence for stability in brain–cognition relationships throughout life, and indicates that early life factors impact brain and cognition for the entire life course.
Neurodevelopmental origins of functional variation in older age are increasingly being acknowledged, but identification of how early factors impact human brain and cognition throughout life has remained challenging. Much focus has been on age-specific mechanisms affecting neural foundations of cognition and their change. In contrast to this approach, we tested whether cerebral correlates of general cognitive ability (GCA) in development could be extended to the rest of the lifespan, and whether early factors traceable to prenatal stages, such as birth weight and parental education, may exert continuous influences. We measured the area of the cerebral cortex in a longitudinal sample of 974 individuals aged 4–88 y (1,633 observations). An extensive cortical region was identified wherein area related positively to GCA in development. By tracking area of the cortical region identified in the child sample throughout the lifespan, we showed that the cortical change trajectories of higher and lower GCA groups were parallel through life, suggesting continued influences of early life factors. Birth weight and parental education obtained from the Norwegian Mother–Child Cohort study were identified as such early factors of possible life-long influence. Support for a genetic component was obtained in a separate twin sample (Vietnam Era Twin Study of Aging), but birth weight in the child sample had an effect on cortical area also when controlling for possible genetic differences in terms of parental height. Our results provide novel evidence for stability in brain–cognition relationships throughout life, and indicate that early life factors impact brain and cognition for the entire life course.
A summary graphic from the review by Jagust:

Conceptual model linking brain development, cognition, brain reserve, and late-life cognitive decline. Early life exposures and genes affect brain development, which in turn is related to GCA. GCA and education are related to one another, and provide brain reserve with advancing age. The graph demonstrates two individuals with high (blue) and low (red) brain reserve. Although the rate of their age-related cognitive decline is identical, the person with higher reserve crosses the threshold for dependence at an older age, thus experiencing a longer independent life. Early-life exposures, however, also confer indirect beneficial effects in addition to brain development, and these are likely to be salutary over the lifespan.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Neural link between affective understanding and interpersonal attraction

From Anders et al.:
Being able to comprehend another person’s intentions and emotions is essential for successful social interaction. However, it is currently unknown whether the human brain possesses a neural mechanism that attracts people to others whose mental states they can easily understand. Here we show that the degree to which a person feels attracted to another person can change while they observe the other’s affective behavior, and that these changes depend on the observer’s confidence in having correctly understood the other’s affective state. At the neural level, changes in interpersonal attraction were predicted by activity in the reward system of the observer’s brain. Importantly, these effects were specific to individual observer–target pairs and could not be explained by a target’s general attractiveness or expressivity. Furthermore, using multivoxel pattern analysis (MVPA), we found that neural activity in the reward system of the observer’s brain varied as a function of how well the target’s affective behavior matched the observer’s neural representation of the underlying affective state: The greater the match, the larger the brain’s intrinsic reward signal. Taken together, these findings provide evidence that reward-related neural activity during social encounters signals how well an individual’s “neural vocabulary” is suited to infer another person’s affective state, and that this intrinsic reward might be a source of changes in interpersonal attraction.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Statistics versus judgement.

This interesting website, pointed out to me by a friend, offers to send a daily gem of information to you, usually an excerpt from a published, being a glutton for input streams, I signed up. I usually move on after glancing at a given day's topic, but this excerpt from Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow" I pass on, after excerpting even further:
In his book Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction: A The­oretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence, psychoanalyst Paul Meehl gave evidence that statistical models almost always yield better predictions and diagnoses than the judgment of trained professionals. In fact, experts frequently give different answers when presented with the same information within a matter of a few minutes...Meehl's book provoked shock and disbelief among clinical psychologists, and the controversy it started has engendered a stream of research that is still flowing today, more than fifty years after its publication. The number of studies reporting comparisons of clinical and statistical predictions has increased to roughly two hundred, but the score in the contest between algorithms and humans has not changed. About 60% of the studies have shown significantly better accuracy for the algo­rithms. The other comparisons scored a draw in accuracy, but a tie is tanta­mount to a win for the statistical rules, which are normally much less expensive to use than expert judgment. No exception has been convinc­ingly documented.
The range of predicted outcomes has expanded to cover medical vari­ables such as the longevity of cancer patients, the length of hospital stays, the diagnosis of cardiac disease, and the susceptibility of babies to sudden infant death syndrome; economic measures such as the prospects of success for new businesses, the evaluation of credit risks by banks, and the future career satisfaction of workers; questions of interest to government agencies, including assessments of the suitability of foster parents, the odds of recidivism among juvenile offenders, and the likelihood of other forms of violent behavior; and miscellaneous outcomes such as the evaluation of scientific presentations, the winners of football games, and the future prices of Bor­deaux wine. Each of these domains entails a significant degree of uncer­tainty and unpredictability. We describe them as 'low-validity environments.' In every case, the accuracy of experts was matched or exceeded by a simple algorithm.
Another reason for the inferiority of expert judgment is that humans are incorrigibly inconsistent in making summary judgments of complex information. When asked to evaluate the same information twice, they frequently give different answers. The extent of the inconsistency is often a matter of real concern. Experienced radiologists who evaluate chest X-rays as 'normal' or 'abnormal' contradict themselves 20% of the time when they see the same picture on separate occasions. A study of 101 indepen­dent auditors who were asked to evaluate the reliability of internal corpo­rate audits revealed a similar degree of inconsistency. A review of 41 separate studies of the reliability of judgments made by auditors, pathologists, psy­chologists, organizational managers, and other professionals suggests that this level of inconsistency is typical, even when a case is reevaluated within a few minutes. Unreliable judgments cannot be valid predictors of anything

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

How China is changing your internet.

Here is a fascinating piece done by the NYTimes on the parallel universe of the internet in China.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The long lives of fairy tales.

I pass on some clips from a review by Pagel of work by Da Silva and Tehrani suggesting that some common fairy tales can be traced back 7,000 years or more, long before written languages appeared.
The Indo-European language family is a collection of related languages that probably arose in Anatolia and is now spoken all over western Eurasia. Its modern descendants include the Celtic, Germanic and Italic or Romance languages of western Europe, the Slavic languages of Russia and much of the Balkans, and the Indo-Iranian languages including Persian, as well as Sanskrit and most of the languages of the Indian sub-continent.
Language evolves faster than genes and language is predominantly vertically transmitted. Similarities and differences among vocabulary items, then, play the same role for cultural phylogenies as genes do for species trees, and provide greater resolution over short timescales. The Indo-European language tree is one of the most carefully studied of these language phylogenies
With a phylogenetic tree in hand, the authors recorded the presence or absence of each of 275 fairy tales in fifty Indo-European languages...Of the 275 tales, the authors discarded 199 after performing two tests of horizontal transmission...This left a group of 76 tales for which vertical transmission over the course of Indo-European history was the dominant signal for the patterns of shared presence and absence among contemporary societies. Hänsel and Gretel didn’t make this cut, but Beauty and the Beast did.
Evolutionary statistical methods were then applied to calculate a probability that each of the tales was present at each of various major historical splitting points on the Indo-European language phylogeny, taking account of uncertainty both in the phylogeny and in the reconstructed state. Calculating the ancestral probabilities depends only upon the distribution of tales in the contemporary languages in combination with the phylogenetic tree and so neatly gets around the problem that few if any tales exist as ‘fossil’ texts...Fourteen of the 76 tales, including Beauty and the Beast, were assigned a 50% or greater chance of having been present in the common ancestor of the entire western branch of the Indo-European languages. ..
A further four of the fourteen tales — but not Beauty and the Beast — had a 50% or greater probability of being present at the root of the Indo-European tree. A proto-Indo-European origin for these four tales represents a probable age of over 7,000 years. The tale with the highest probability (87%) of being present at the root was The Smith and the Devil whose story of a smith selling his soul to the devil is echoed today in the modern story of Faust. The authors suggest that metal working technology — as implied by the presence of a smith — could have been available this long ago.
Considering all these notions might lead us to ask why not more of the fairy tales appeared right back at the Indo-European root, or perhaps to wonder if some could go back even further. Perhaps some do. Flood myths appear in many of the world’s cultures, with some speculation that they date to the end of the last Ice Age perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 years ago when sea levels rose dramatically — if true, the western Bible story of Noah is just a comparatively recent hand-me-down.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Brain changes during hypnosis

Jiang et al. do the most detailed analysis to date of brain changes that are distinctive to people undergoing hypnosis:
Hypnosis has proven clinical utility, yet changes in brain activity underlying the hypnotic state have not yet been fully identified. Previous research suggests that hypnosis is associated with decreased default mode network (DMN) activity and that high hypnotizability is associated with greater functional connectivity between the executive control network (ECN) and the salience network (SN). We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate activity and functional connectivity among these three networks in hypnosis. We selected 57 of 545 healthy subjects with very high or low hypnotizability using two hypnotizability scales. All subjects underwent four conditions in the scanner: rest, memory retrieval, and two different hypnosis experiences guided by standard pre-recorded instructions in counterbalanced order. Seeds for the ECN, SN, and DMN were left and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), respectively. During hypnosis there was reduced activity in the dACC, increased functional connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC;ECN) and the insula in the SN, and reduced connectivity between the ECN (DLPFC) and the DMN (PCC). These changes in neural activity underlie the focused attention, enhanced somatic and emotional control, and lack of self-consciousness that characterizes hypnosis.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Why do people infer “ought” from “is”?

Tworek and Cimpian offer an interesting perspective, doing experiments illustrating how we ascribe intrinsic value to what is customary. I give the start of their introduction setting the context, and then their abstract:
In his dissent from the Supreme Court decision recognizing a federal constitutional right for people to marry a same-sex partner, Chief Justice Roberts noted that heterosexual marriage has been around “for millennia” in societies all over the world: “the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs”. A possible reading of this remark is that we should take what is typical as a signpost for what is good—how things ought to be.1 Whatever the correct interpretation here, the tendency to move seamlessly from “is” to “ought” is a mainstay of everyday reasoning. However, the validity of such “is”-to-“ought” inferences (or ought inferences) is at best uncertain. The mere existence of a pattern of behavior does not, by itself, reveal that the behavior is good.2 For instance, slavery and child labor were common throughout history, and still are in some parts of the world, yet it does not follow that people ought to engage in these practices. Why, then, do people frequently draw ought inferences and find them persuasive?
People tend to judge what is typical as also good and appropriate—as what ought to be. What accounts for the prevalence of these judgments, given that their validity is at best uncertain? We hypothesized that the tendency to reason from “is” to “ought” is due in part to a systematic bias in people’s (nonmoral) explanations, whereby regularities (e.g., giving roses on Valentine’s Day) are explained predominantly via inherent or intrinsic facts (e.g., roses are beautiful). In turn, these inherence-biased explanations lead to value-laden downstream conclusions (e.g., it is good to give roses). Consistent with this proposal, results from five studies (N = 629 children and adults) suggested that, from an early age, the bias toward inherence in explanations fosters inferences that imbue observed reality with value. Given that explanations fundamentally determine how people understand the world, the bias toward inherence in these judgments is likely to exert substantial influence over sociomoral understanding.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

How our brain and visceral monitoring encode the ‘self’

Babo-Rebelo et al. show that two seemingly distinct roles of the default brain network (DN), in self-related cognition on the one hand, and in the monitoring of bodily signals for autonomous function regulation, on the other, are functionally coupled. They do this by testing whether the amplitudes of heartbeat-evoked responses (HERs) during thoughts systematically covary with their self-relatedness, and whether this mechanism engages the DN. They employ two scales of self-relatedness. The “Me” scale described the content of the thought oriented either toward oneself or toward an external object, event, or person. The “I” scale described the engagement of the participant as the protagonist or the agent in the thought. Here is their abstract:
The default network (DN) has been consistently associated with self-related cognition, but also to bodily state monitoring and autonomic regulation. We hypothesized that these two seemingly disparate functional roles of the DN are functionally coupled, in line with theories proposing that selfhood is grounded in the neural monitoring of internal organs, such as the heart. We measured with magnetoencephalograhy neural responses evoked by heartbeats while human participants freely mind-wandered. When interrupted by a visual stimulus at random intervals, participants scored the self-relatedness of the interrupted thought. They evaluated their involvement as the first-person perspective subject or agent in the thought (“I”), and on another scale to what degree they were thinking about themselves (“Me”). During the interrupted thought, neural responses to heartbeats in two regions of the DN, the ventral precuneus and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, covaried, respectively, with the “I” and the “Me” dimensions of the self, even at the single-trial level. No covariation between self-relatedness and peripheral autonomic measures (heart rate, heart rate variability, pupil diameter, electrodermal activity, respiration rate, and phase) or alpha power was observed. Our results reveal a direct link between selfhood and neural responses to heartbeats in the DN and thus directly support theories grounding selfhood in the neural monitoring of visceral inputs. More generally, the tight functional coupling between self-related processing and cardiac monitoring observed here implies that, even in the absence of measured changes in peripheral bodily measures, physiological and cognitive functions have to be considered jointly in the DN.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Leave the kids alone! A cognitive case for un-parenting

I want to pass on some clips from the text of a recent review by Glausiusz of Alison Gopnik's book on child-rearing "The Gardener and the Carpenter," and also from the NYTimes pieces by Gopnik summarizing its main arguments. (Her bottom line: "We don’t have to make children learn, we just have to let them learn." Clips from the book review:
An Amazon trawl for “parenting books” last month offered up 186,262 results. ..This is less genre than tsunami...Yet, as Alison Gopnik notes...the word parenting became common only in the 1970s, rising in popularity as traditional sources of wisdom about child-rearing — large extended families, for example — fell away...Gopnik...argues that the message of this massive modern industry is misguided.
It assumes that the 'right' parenting techniques or expertise will sculpt your child into a successful adult. But using a scheme to shape material into a product is the modus operandi of a carpenter, whose job it is to make the chair steady or the door true. There is very little empirical evidence, Gopnik says, that “small variations” in what parents do (such as whether they sleep-train) “have reliable and predictable long-term effects on who those children become”. Raising and caring for children is more like tending a garden: it involves “a lot of exhausted digging and wallowing in manure” to create a safe, nurturing space in which innovation, adaptability and resilience can thrive. Her approach focuses on helping children to find their own way, even if it isn't one you'd choose for them. The lengthy childhood of our species gives kids ample opportunity to explore, exploit and experiment before they are turned out into an unpredictable world.
Clips from Gopnik:
It’s not just that young children don’t need to be taught in order to learn. In fact, studies show that explicit instruction, the sort of teaching that goes with school and “parenting,” can be limiting. When children think they are being taught, they are much more likely to simply reproduce what the adult does, instead of creating something new.
My lab tried a different version of the experiment with the complicated toy. This time, though, the experimenter acted like a teacher. She said, “I’m going to show you how my toy works,” instead of “I wonder how this toy works.” The children imitated exactly what she did, and didn’t come up with their own solutions.
The children seem to work out, quite rationally, that if a teacher shows them one particular way to do something, that must be the right technique, and there’s no point in trying something new. But as a result, the kind of teaching that comes with schools and “parenting” pushes children toward imitation and away from innovation.
There is a deep irony here. Parents and policy makers care about teaching because they recognize that learning is increasingly important in an information age. But the new information economy, as opposed to the older industrial one, demands more innovation and less imitation, more creativity and less conformity.
In fact, children’s naturally evolved learning techniques are better suited to that sort of challenge than the teaching methods of the past two centuries.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Uncalculating cooperation is used to signal trustworthiness.

Jordan et al. devise an economic game experiment whose results help to explain a range of puzzling behaviors, such as extreme altruism, the use of ethical principles, and romantic love:

Human prosociality presents an evolutionary puzzle, and reciprocity has emerged as a dominant explanation: cooperating today can bring benefits tomorrow. Reciprocity theories clearly predict that people should only cooperate when the benefits outweigh the costs, and thus that the decision to cooperate should always depend on a cost–benefit analysis. Yet human cooperation can be very uncalculating: good friends grant favors without asking questions, romantic love “blinds” us to the costs of devotion, and ethical principles make universal moral prescriptions. Here, we provide the first evidence, to our knowledge, that reputation effects drive uncalculating cooperation. We demonstrate, using economic game experiments, that people engage in uncalculating cooperation to signal that they can be relied upon to cooperate in the future.
Humans frequently cooperate without carefully weighing the costs and benefits. As a result, people may wind up cooperating when it is not worthwhile to do so. Why risk making costly mistakes? Here, we present experimental evidence that reputation concerns provide an answer: people cooperate in an uncalculating way to signal their trustworthiness to observers. We present two economic game experiments in which uncalculating versus calculating decision-making is operationalized by either a subject’s choice of whether to reveal the precise costs of cooperating (Exp. 1) or the time a subject spends considering these costs (Exp. 2). In both experiments, we find that participants are more likely to engage in uncalculating cooperation when their decision-making process is observable to others. Furthermore, we confirm that people who engage in uncalculating cooperation are perceived as, and actually are, more trustworthy than people who cooperate in a calculating way. Taken together, these data provide the first empirical evidence, to our knowledge, that uncalculating cooperation is used to signal trustworthiness, and is not merely an efficient decision-making strategy that reduces cognitive costs. Our results thus help to explain a range of puzzling behaviors, such as extreme altruism, the use of ethical principles, and romantic love.

Monday, August 08, 2016

A brain area crucial to coping with stress.

Sinha et al. show that “neuroflexibility” in a specific region of our ventromedial prefrontal cortex enhances resilience to stress - an increase in its activity dampens down brain areas initially activated by stress. Subjects showing lower levels of this flexibility exhibited higher levels of maladaptive coping behaviors in real life.
Active coping underlies a healthy stress response, but neural processes supporting such resilient coping are not well-known. Using a brief, sustained exposure paradigm contrasting highly stressful, threatening, and violent stimuli versus nonaversive neutral visual stimuli in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, we show significant subjective, physiologic, and endocrine increases and temporally related dynamically distinct patterns of neural activation in brain circuits underlying the stress response. First, stress-specific sustained increases in the amygdala, striatum, hypothalamus, midbrain, right insula, and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) regions supported the stress processing and reactivity circuit. Second, dynamic neural activation during stress versus neutral runs, showing early increases followed by later reduced activation in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), left DLPFC, hippocampus, and left insula, suggested a stress adaptation response network. Finally, dynamic stress-specific mobilization of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VmPFC), marked by initial hypoactivity followed by increased VmPFC activation, pointed to the VmPFC as a key locus of the emotional and behavioral control network. Consistent with this finding, greater neural flexibility signals in the VmPFC during stress correlated with active coping ratings whereas lower dynamic activity in the VmPFC also predicted a higher level of maladaptive coping behaviors in real life, including binge alcohol intake, emotional eating, and frequency of arguments and fights. These findings demonstrate acute functional neuroplasticity during stress, with distinct and separable brain networks that underlie critical components of the stress response, and a specific role for VmPFC neuroflexibility in stress-resilient coping.

Friday, August 05, 2016

To remember something better, wait, then exercise.

Another nice bit on what exercise can do for you.  The abstract from van Dongen et al.:

•Performing aerobic exercise 4 hr after learning improved associative memory 
•Exercise at this time also increased hippocampal pattern similarity during retrieval 
•Exercise performed immediately after learning had no effect on memory retention 
•Exercise could have potential as a memory intervention in educational settings
Persistent long-term memory depends on successful stabilization and integration of new memories after initial encoding. This consolidation process is thought to require neuromodulatory factors such as dopamine, noradrenaline, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Without the release of such factors around the time of encoding, memories will decay rapidly. Recent studies have shown that physical exercise acutely stimulates the release of several consolidation-promoting factors in humans, raising the question of whether physical exercise can be used to improve memory retention. Here, we used a single session of physical exercise after learning to exogenously boost memory consolidation and thus long-term memory. Three groups of randomly assigned participants first encoded a set of picture-location associations. Afterward, one group performed exercise immediately, one 4 hr later, and the third did not perform any exercise. Participants otherwise underwent exactly the same procedures to control for potential experimental confounds. Forty-eight hours later, participants returned for a cued-recall test in a magnetic resonance scanner. With this design, we could investigate the impact of acute exercise on memory consolidation and retrieval-related neural processing. We found that performing exercise 4 hr, but not immediately, after encoding improved the retention of picture-location associations compared to the no-exercise control group. Moreover, performing exercise after a delay was associated with increased hippocampal pattern similarity for correct responses during delayed retrieval. Our results suggest that appropriately timed physical exercise can improve long-term memory and highlight the potential of exercise as an intervention in educational and clinical settings.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Distinguishing brain correlations from causes.

Many researchers, even though they know better, fall into the trap of assuming that correlations are causes (i.e., if brain activity X occurs just before or at the same time as action Y, it must be causing Y.) Katz et al. offer a nice example of this in looking at a brain region (the lateral intraparietal (LIP) cortex) whose activity reflects deciding on the direction of a moving set of dots. When this region was inactivated in rhesus macague monkeys performing a motion direction discrimination, it had no effect on decision making performance. But, when area MT (a motion detection area that shows only weak correlations with choices) was inhibited, performance was profoundly impaired. This suggests that larger networks should always be considered even in what seem to be simple decisions. The abstract:
During decision making, neurons in multiple brain regions exhibit responses that are correlated with decisions1. However, it remains uncertain whether or not various forms of decision-related activity are causally related to decision making. Here we address this question by recording and reversibly inactivating the lateral intraparietal (LIP) and middle temporal (MT) areas of rhesus macaques performing a motion direction discrimination task. Neurons in area LIP exhibited firing rate patterns that directly resembled the evidence accumulation process posited to govern decision making, with strong correlations between their response fluctuations and the animal’s choices. Neurons in area MT, in contrast, exhibited weak correlations between their response fluctuations and choices, and had firing rate patterns consistent with their sensory role in motion encoding. The behavioural impact of pharmacological inactivation of each area was inversely related to their degree of decision-related activity: while inactivation of neurons in MT profoundly impaired psychophysical performance, inactivation in LIP had no measurable impact on decision-making performance, despite having silenced the very clusters that exhibited strong decision-related activity. Although LIP inactivation did not impair psychophysical behaviour, it did influence spatial selection and oculomotor metrics in a free-choice control task. The absence of an effect on perceptual decision making was stable over trials and sessions and was robust to changes in stimulus type and task geometry, arguing against several forms of compensation. Thus, decision-related signals in LIP do not appear to be critical for computing perceptual decisions, and may instead reflect secondary processes. Our findings highlight a dissociation between decision correlation and causation, showing that strong neuron-decision correlations do not necessarily offer direct access to the neural computations underlying decisions.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Competition does not improve quality of work.

I have always been phobic about competition, especially in my scientific laboratory work, because I could feel its toxic effects on my risk taking, spontaneity and creativity. The reason that I made some useful contributions to understanding the chemistry of how we see is that I chose to emphasize questions and areas that were not in the current arenas of competition. I also felt the peer review processes involved were frequently biased (I served as a grant peer reviewer for many years.)  Balietti et al. design a laboratory experiment that produces results exactly matching my own experience:
Competition is an essential mechanism in increasing the effort and performance of human groups in real life. However, competition has side effects: it can be detrimental to creativity and reduce cooperation. We conducted an experiment called the Art Exhibition Game to investigate the effect of competitive incentives in environments where the quality of creative products and the amount of innovation allowed are decided through peer review. Our approach is general and can provide insights in domains such as clinical evaluations, scientific admissibility, and science funding. Our results show that competition leads to more innovation but also to more unfair reviews and to a lower level of agreement between reviewers. Moreover, competition does not improve the average quality of published works.  
To investigate the effect of competitive incentives under peer review, we designed a novel experimental setup called the Art Exhibition Game. We present experimental evidence of how competition introduces both positive and negative effects when creative artifacts are evaluated and selected by peer review. Competition proved to be a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it fosters innovation and product diversity, but on the other hand, it also leads to more unfair reviews and to a lower level of agreement between reviewers. Moreover, an external validation of the quality of peer reviews during the laboratory experiment, based on 23,627 online evaluations on Amazon Mechanical Turk, shows that competition does not significantly increase the level of creativity. Furthermore, the higher rejection rate under competitive conditions does not improve the average quality of published contributions, because more high-quality work is also rejected. Overall, our results could explain why many ground-breaking studies in science end up in lower-tier journals. Differences and similarities between the Art Exhibition Game and scholarly peer review are discussed and the implications for the design of new incentive systems for scientists are explained.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Turn-taking skills unique to humans?

In yet another "humans are unique with respect to...." type article Melis, Tomasello and collaborators do experiments showing that humans differ in their ability to carry out long-term collaborative relationships that involve taking turns. I've been reading de Waal's recent book "Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?" (which I highly recommend), which suggests that the "unique to humans" implicit in the title of the article of the article may not be appropriate, for the article demonstrates a more 'advanced' behavior in humans only in a specific paradyme involving just the two species. Potential turn taking behavior in other social animals, invertebrates as well as vertebrates, is still a possibility. The experiments:
...gave pairs of 3- and 5-year-old children and chimpanzees a collaboration task in which equal rewards could be obtained only if the members of a pair worked together first to reward one and then to reward the other. Neither species had previously been tested in a paradigm in which partners can distribute collaboratively produced rewards in “fair” ways only by taking turns being the sole beneficiary.
Here is their abstract:
Long-term collaborative relationships require that any jointly produced resources be shared in mutually satisfactory ways. Prototypically, this sharing involves partners dividing up simultaneously available resources, but sometimes the collaboration makes a resource available to only one individual, and any sharing of resources must take place across repeated instances over time. Here, we show that beginning at 5 years of age, human children stabilize cooperation in such cases by taking turns across instances of obtaining a resource. In contrast, chimpanzees do not take turns in this way, and so their collaboration tends to disintegrate over time. Alternating turns in obtaining a collaboratively produced resource does not necessarily require a prosocial concern for the other, but rather requires only a strategic judgment that partners need incentives to continue collaborating. These results suggest that human beings are adapted for thinking strategically in ways that sustain long-term cooperative relationships and that are absent in their nearest primate relatives.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Zapping your brain at home.

Mindblog has done a number of posts on transcranial electrical stimulation, usually reporting some beneficial cognitive or emotional effects (enter 'transcranial in the mindblog search box to see some of these). Because the technique requires only a 9 volt battery and a couple of wires, do it yourself (D.I.Y) kits have been marketed by a number of websites, but in general professional cognitive scientists caution against home brew science efforts because of potential deleterious effects of brain stimulation (though none have been reported). A recent Gray Matter piece by Anna Wexler reports her study over the past three years of D.I.Y. brain stimulators:
Their conflict with neuroscientists offers a fascinating case study of what happens when experimental tools normally kept behind the closed doors of academia — in this case, transcranial direct current stimulation — are appropriated for use outside them...To date, more than 1,000 peer-reviewed studies of the technique have been published. Studies have suggested, among other things, that the stimulation may be beneficial for treating problems like depression and chronic pain as well as enhancing cognition and learning in healthy individuals.
(I should point out my post noting a review by Farah that references one meta-analysis of the literature that does not support reported cognitive effects.)
Home use remains a subculture, part of the contemporary movement to “hack” one’s body — using supplements, brain-training games and self-tracking devices — to optimize productivity...I have conducted long interviews with dozens of D.I.Y. stimulators, both in person and via Skype; collected hundreds of questionnaire responses; and tracked online forums, websites, blogs and other platforms on which practitioners communicate. I’ve found that they are — for the most part — astute, inventive and resourceful....I’ve found (as I reported last year in The Journal of Medical Ethics) that users adhere to many of the protocols used in scientific studies.
The growth of D.I.Y. brain stimulation stems in part from a larger frustration with the exclusionary institutions of modern medicine, such as the exorbitant price of pharmaceuticals and the glacial pace at which new therapies trickle down to patients. For people without an institutional affiliation, even reading a journal article can be prohibitively expensive.
As neuroscientists continue to conduct brain stimulation experiments, publish results in journals and hold conferences, the D.I.Y. practitioners have remained quiet downstream listeners, blogging about scientists’ experiments, posting unrestricted versions of journal articles and linking to videos of conference talks. Some practitioners create their own manuals and guides based on published papers.
Added note: Want a brain stimulation conference? Check this out.