Friday, April 03, 2020

Rejuvenating aging human cells.

Nicholas Wade points to important work by Stanford researchers showing they can rejuvenate human cells by reprogramming them back to a youthful state.
A major cause of aging is thought to be the errors that accumulate in the epigenome, the system of proteins that packages the DNA and controls access to its genes.The Stanford team...say their method, designed to reverse these errors and walk back the cells to their youthful state, does indeed restore the cells’ vigor and eliminate signs of aging...The Stanford approach utilizes powerful agents known as Yamanaka factors, which reprogram a cell’s epigenome to its time zero, or embryonic state....In 2006 Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, a stem-cell researcher at Kyoto University, amazed biologists by showing that a cell’s fate could be reversed with a set of four transcription factors — agents that activate genes — that he had identified...the Stanford team described a feasible way to deliver Yamanaka factors to cells taken from patients, by dosing cells kept in cultures with small amounts of the factors.
The Stanford team extracted aged cartilage cells from patients with osteoarthritis and found that after a low dosage of Yamanaka factors the cells no longer secreted the inflammatory factors that provoke the disease. The team also found that human muscle stem cells, which are impaired in a muscle-wasting disease, could be restored to youth. Members of the Stanford team have formed a company, Turn Biotechnologies, to develop therapies for osteoarthritis and other diseases.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Brain regions that predict money choices also predict allocation of time to watching videos

People currently spend over 1 billion hours every day in attention markets watching video content, and the world’s second-most popular search engine is the video site youtube.com. Combining neuroimaging with a behavioral task, Tong et al. extend the neuroeconomic toolkit to find that brain activity in regions previously shown to predict allocation of money also predicted choices to allocate time to watching videos in the youtube.com attention market. They also find that sampled activity in a subset of these brain regions implicates anticipatory affect at video onset generalizes to forecast the frequency of choices to allocate time as well as the duration of time allocated to videos. Their abstract:
The growth of the internet has spawned new “attention markets,” in which people devote increasing amounts of time to consuming online content, but the neurobehavioral mechanisms that drive engagement in these markets have yet to be elucidated. We used functional MRI (FMRI) to examine whether individuals’ neural responses to videos could predict their choices to start and stop watching videos as well as whether group brain activity could forecast aggregate video view frequency and duration out of sample on the internet (i.e., on youtube.com). Brain activity during video onset predicted individual choice in several regions (i.e., increased activity in the nucleus accumbens [NAcc] and medial prefrontal cortex [MPFC] as well as decreased activity in the anterior insula [AIns]). Group activity during video onset in only a subset of these regions, however, forecasted both aggregate view frequency and duration (i.e., increased NAcc and decreased AIns)—and did so above and beyond conventional measures. These findings extend neuroforecasting theory and tools by revealing that activity in brain regions implicated in anticipatory affect at the onset of video viewing (but not initial choice) can forecast time allocation out of sample in an internet attention market.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Prosocial behavior can increase happiness in the short term but decrease it in the long term.

From Falk and Graeber:  

Significance
Governments around the world increasingly acknowledge the role of happiness as a societal objective and implement policies that target national wellbeing levels. Knowledge about the determinants of happiness, however, is still limited. A longstanding candidate is prosocial behavior. Our study empirically investigates the causal effect of prosocial behavior on happiness in a high-stakes decision experiment. While we confirm previous findings of a positive effect in the short term, our findings distinctly show that this effect is short lived and even reverses after some time. This study documents that prosocial behavior does not unequivocally increase happiness because prosocial spending naturally requires giving up something else, which may decrease happiness in its own right.
Abstract
Does prosocial behavior promote happiness? We test this longstanding hypothesis in a behavioral experiment that extends the scope of previous research. In our Saving a Life paradigm, every participant either saved one human life in expectation by triggering a targeted donation of 350 euros or received an amount of 100 euros. Using a choice paradigm between two binary lotteries with different chances of saving a life, we observed subjects’ intentions at the same time as creating random variation in prosocial outcomes. We repeatedly measured happiness at various delays. Our data weakly replicate the positive effect identified in previous research but only for the very short run. One month later, the sign of the effect reversed, and prosocial behavior led to significantly lower happiness than obtaining the money. Notably, even those subjects who chose prosocially were ultimately happier if they ended up getting the money for themselves. Our findings revealed a more nuanced causal relationship than previously suggested, providing an explanation for the apparent absence of universal prosocial behavior.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Google knows more about me than I do. Further comment on Harari article.

Again I have the eerie feeling that one of the phrases that sticks in my mind from reading Yuval Harari’s books, namely that “Goggle knows more about you than you know about yourself.” is absolutely correct. My March 24th MindBlog post points to an article in the Financial Times by Yuval Harari on the world after coronavirus (brought to my attention by my son Jonathan’s March 21 Facebook post). Google has been watching, and so knows that I would be interested in a Financial Times letter to the editor on March 28 titled ‘So, professor Harari, who am I supposed to trust?’ It is passed to me via my google news app on March 29. I hit the link and read the two paragraph letter, but then when I try to return to the link later I hit a paywall. Turns out a friend has just told me about http://archive.is/ which will attempt to archive the content of any URL you send to it. It retrieves the text of the snarky comment on Harari:
Yuval Noah Harari is a stimulating and interesting figure, even if his arguments aren’t designed to stand up to sustained questioning (“The world after coronavirus”, Life & Arts, March 21). But even using the loosest standards, I was still surprised to see him spend five columns on panic-inducing thought experiments about governments surveilling me under my skin, in which China, Israel and North Korea are set up as perfectly representative nation-states . . . only to then spend three columns begging us all to trust our governments and the experts and wash our hands.
His previous work suggests that Professor Harari wants to be one of the experts in whom we should believe. If he really wants to earn my trust, he must decide whether I’m meant to be terrified of my government, or to trust it completely, or if I should only trust experts who can’t maintain a single line of argument over two pages.
Justin Evans
Washington, DC, US

Monday, March 30, 2020

Vulnerable robots induce prosocial behavior in groups of humans.

Interesting work from Traeger et al.:  

Significance
Prior work has demonstrated that a robot’s social behavior has the ability to shape people’s trust toward, responses to, and impressions of a robot within human–robot interactions. However, when the context changes to interactions within a group involving one robot and multiple people, the influence of the robot on group behavior is less well understood. In this work, we explore how a social robot influences team engagement using an experimental design where a group of three humans and one robot plays a collaborative game. Our analysis shows that a robot’s social behavior influences the conversational dynamics between human members of the human–robot group, demonstrating the ability of a robot to significantly shape human–human interaction.
Abstract
Social robots are becoming increasingly influential in shaping the behavior of humans with whom they interact. Here, we examine how the actions of a social robot can influence human-to-human communication, and not just robot–human communication, using groups of three humans and one robot playing 30 rounds of a collaborative game (n = 51 groups). We find that people in groups with a robot making vulnerable statements converse substantially more with each other, distribute their conversation somewhat more equally, and perceive their groups more positively compared to control groups with a robot that either makes neutral statements or no statements at the end of each round. Shifts in robot speech have the power not only to affect how people interact with robots, but also how people interact with each other, offering the prospect for modifying social interactions via the introduction of artificial agents into hybrid systems of humans and machines.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Springtime for introverts...

Thank goodness some sparks of humor are available to lighten the somber clouds of the COVID-19 pandemic. You should check out Atlantic staff writer Andrew Ferguson’ piece in that magazine as well as New Yorker cartoonist Chris Ware’s “Self-Isolating: A Pandemic Special"...Thirty years of avoiding other human beings...validated! Here are a few clips from Ferguson:
That February was the virus’s American debut is fitting, because many introverts were still recovering from the trauma of the end-of-year holidays...We are the people...who preferred to eat alone at corner tables in restaurants with a book propped up on the salt shaker, ignoring the occasional puzzled or pitying glances from the extroverts at the bar. Replace the restaurant corner table with a tub of takeout, eaten over the sink standing up, and you can see how everyone else’s new normal conforms to our old normal. I have never known an introvert who washed his or her hands fewer than a dozen times a day; it’s our version of calisthenics. Hugs, long a source of terror for us, are now generally understood to be as violent and unwelcome as decapitation. The elbow bump is a social greeting most introverts can live with, far superior anyway to the viral autobahn of the handshake. A brief, awkward wave at six paces would be best of all. Indeed, for a true introvert, any encounter closer than six feet constitutes foreplay.
Only recently has introversion been deemed a social force, thanks to the writer Susan Cain. She became an unofficial spokesperson, a very soft-spoken spokesperson, when she published Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking a few years ago...Her book became a huge best seller with the aid of the internet, which allowed its target audience to buy as many copies as they wished without having to go to the store...Her theme was perhaps novel to some people, but not to us: This is the extroverts’ world; the introverts just live in it...If Cain’s book, readable, clever, and popular as it is, was intended as a revolutionary manifesto, it largely failed. It is very difficult to coordinate an uprising of people who would rather not leave the house. Now, though, the virus has done what a revolution never could: The social order has been upended, and extroverts find themselves living in the introverts’ world.
Consider: As Cain points out, the world’s most introverted country, Finland, is also the world’s happiest.
How introverted are the Finns? Here’s how: You can tell a Finn likes you if he’s looking at your shoes instead of his own.
That’s a joke the Finns tell on themselves! Just because people are introverted doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun. We just don’t want to overdo it, is all.

Friday, March 27, 2020

When we return to the gym...A molecular muscle memory helps retraining of muscles after inactivity.

For me the most deranging part of the current "Stay Home" order that I am obeying during the coronavirus crisis is being unable to do my customary workouts at a gym. It is heartening to see Gretchen Reynolds point to a study that finds that...
...if muscles have been trained in the past, they seem to develop a molecular memory of working out that lingers through a prolonged period of inactivity, and once we start training again, this “muscle memory” can speed the process by which we regain our former muscular strength and size.
Swedish researchers...began by recruiting 19 young men and women who had never played sports or formally exercised at all, so that their muscles were new to formal weight training. They checked these volunteers’ current muscular strength and size, and then had them start training a single leg...one-legged workouts continued for 10 weeks, at which point the researchers re-measured muscles, and then the volunteers stopped their training completely for 20 weeks...After this layoff from working out, they returned to the lab, where the scientists checked the current state of their leg muscles, took muscle biopsies from both legs and had them complete a strenuous leg workout, using both legs this time. Afterward, the researchers biopsied the muscles again. Then they checked the levels of a wide array of gene markers and biochemical signals within the volunteers’ muscle cells that are believed to be related to muscle health and growth.
They found telling differences between the legs that had trained and those that had not, both before and after the lone training session. For one thing, the previously trained leg remained sturdier, having retained about 50 percent of its strength gains during the 20 weeks without exercise.
Taken as a whole..the trained leg’s genetic activity suggests that its muscle cells had become genetically and metabolically more ready to strengthen and grow than the cells in the leg that had not trained before. These findings support the idea that muscle memory can occur at the gene and protein level.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Harari on the world after coronavirus.

I want to point to an article in the Financial Times by Yuval Harari that makes a clear description of choices the current pandemic is forcing on us. You should read the whole piece, but here are a few clips:
In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.
In order to stop the epidemic, entire populations need to comply with certain guidelines. There are two main ways of achieving this. One method is for the government to monitor people, and punish those who break the rules. Today, for the first time in human history, technology makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time...governments have already deployed the new surveillance tools. The most notable case is China. By closely monitoring people’s smartphones, making use of hundreds of millions of face-recognising cameras, and obliging people to check and report their body temperature and medical condition, the Chinese authorities can not only quickly identify suspected coronavirus carriers, but also track their movements and identify anyone they came into contact with. A range of mobile apps warn citizens about their proximity to infected patients...This kind of technology is not limited to east Asia. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel recently authorised the Israel Security Agency to deploy surveillance technology normally reserved for battling terrorists to track coronavirus patients.
Asking people to choose between privacy and health is, in fact, the very root of the problem. Because this is a false choice. We can and should enjoy both privacy and health. We can choose to protect our health and stop the coronavirus epidemic not by instituting totalitarian surveillance regimes, but rather by empowering citizens. In recent weeks, some of the most successful efforts to contain the coronavirus epidemic were orchestrated by South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. While these countries have made some use of tracking applications, they have relied far more on extensive testing, on honest reporting, and on the willing co-operation of a well-informed public.
The coronavirus epidemic is thus a major test of citizenship. In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians. If we fail to make the right choice, we might find ourselves signing away our most precious freedoms, thinking that this is the only way to safeguard our health.
The second important choice we confront is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. Both the epidemic itself and the resulting economic crisis are global problems. They can be solved effectively only by global co-operation...A collective paralysis has gripped the international community. There seem to be no adults in the room. One would have expected to see already weeks ago an emergency meeting of global leaders to come up with a common plan of action. The G7 leaders managed to organise a videoconference only this week, and it did not result in any such plan....In previous global crises — such as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2014 Ebola epidemic — the US assumed the role of global leader. But the current US administration has abdicated the job of leader. It has made it very clear that it cares about the greatness of America far more than about the future of humanity.
Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity? If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Modeling Donald Trump - A Process Model of Narcissistic Status Pursuit

From Grapsas et al.:
We propose a self-regulation model of grandiose narcissism. This model illustrates an interconnected set of processes through which narcissists (i.e., individuals with relatively high levels of grandiose narcissism) pursue social status in their moment-by-moment transactions with their environments. The model shows that narcissists select situations that afford status. Narcissists vigilantly attend to cues related to the status they and others have in these situations and, on the basis of these perceived cues, appraise whether they can elevate their status or reduce the status of others. Narcissists engage in self-promotion (admiration pathway) or other-derogation (rivalry pathway) in accordance with these appraisals. Each pathway has unique consequences for how narcissists are perceived by others, thus shaping their social status over time. The model demonstrates how narcissism manifests itself as a stable and consistent cluster of behaviors in pursuit of social status and how it develops and maintains itself over time. More broadly, the model might offer useful insights for future process models of other personality traits.

Monday, March 23, 2020

A Psychological Profile of the Alt-Right

From Forscher and Kteily:
The 2016 U.S. presidential election coincided with the rise of the “alternative right,” or alt-right. Alt-right associates have wielded considerable influence on the current administration and on social discourse, but the movement’s loose organizational structure has led to disparate portrayals of its members’ psychology and made it difficult to decipher its aims and reach. To systematically explore the alt-right’s psychology, we recruited two U.S. samples: An exploratory sample through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (N = 827, alt-right n = 447) and a larger, nationally representative sample through the National Opinion Research Center’s Amerispeak panel (N = 1,283, alt-right n = 71–160, depending on the definition). We estimate that 6% of the U.S. population and 10% of Trump voters identify as alt-right. Alt-right adherents reported a psychological profile more reflective of the desire for group-based dominance than economic anxiety. Although both the alt-right and non-alt-right Trump voters differed substantially from non-alt-right, non-Trump voters, the alt-right and Trump voters were quite similar, differing mainly in the alt-right’s especially high enthusiasm for Trump, suspicion of mainstream media, trust in alternative media, and desire for collective action on behalf of Whites. We argue for renewed consideration of overt forms of bias in contemporary intergroup research.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Surprise! Oil and gas companies give more money to legislators that vote against the environment.

Goldberg et al. analyze campaign contribution data over 28 years to show that, rather than attempting to influence votes, interested parties contribute the most to legislators that have policy positions that are already aligned with the interested party.
Do campaign contributions from oil and gas companies influence legislators to vote against the environment, or do these companies invest in legislators that have a proven antienvironmental voting record? Using 28 y of campaign contribution data, we find that evidence consistently supports the investment hypothesis: The more a given member of Congress votes against environmental policies, the more contributions they receive from oil and gas companies supporting their reelection.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Humans were not designed for sitting in chairs.

As I near my 78th birthday I've become increasingly aware of how debilitating activities like sitting and typing this blog post can be. Moving just a bit is a relief (as when I crank my desktop up to standing level or move about just a bit) and exposes how the body's fluxes can become shut down on sitting. This makes me want to pass on the original abstract for work described by Reynolds on how modern hunter-gatherer people deal with periods of being sedentary.  From Raichlen et al.:  

Significance
Inactivity is a growing public health risk in industrialized societies, leading some to suggest that our bodies did not evolve to be sedentary. Here, we show that, in a group of hunter-gatherers, time spent sedentary is similar to that found in industrialized populations. However, sedentary time in hunter-gatherers is often spent in postures like squatting that lead to higher levels of muscle activity than chair sitting. Thus, we suggest human physiology likely evolved in a context that included substantial inactivity, but increased muscle activity during sedentary time, suggesting an inactivity mismatch with the more common chair-sitting postures found in contemporary urban populations.
Abstract
Recent work suggests human physiology is not well adapted to prolonged periods of inactivity, with time spent sitting increasing cardiovascular disease and mortality risk. Health risks from sitting are generally linked with reduced levels of muscle contractions in chair-sitting postures and associated reductions in muscle metabolism. These inactivity-associated health risks are somewhat paradoxical, since evolutionary pressures tend to favor energy-minimizing strategies, including rest. Here, we examined inactivity in a hunter-gatherer population (the Hadza of Tanzania) to understand how sedentary behaviors occur in a nonindustrial economic context more typical of humans’ evolutionary history. We tested the hypothesis that nonambulatory rest in hunter-gatherers involves increased muscle activity that is different from chair-sitting sedentary postures used in industrialized populations. Using a combination of objectively measured inactivity from thigh-worn accelerometers, observational data, and electromygraphic data, we show that hunter-gatherers have high levels of total nonambulatory time (mean ± SD = 9.90 ± 2.36 h/d), similar to those found in industrialized populations. However, nonambulatory time in Hadza adults often occurs in postures like squatting, and we show that these “active rest” postures require higher levels of lower limb muscle activity than chair sitting. Based on our results, we introduce the Inactivity Mismatch Hypothesis and propose that human physiology is likely adapted to more consistently active muscles derived from both physical activity and from nonambulatory postures with higher levels of muscle contraction. Interventions built on this model may help reduce the negative health impacts of inactivity in industrialized populations.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Krugman on Piketty's new book on inequality - "Capital and Ideology'

Krugman's review is worth reading in it entirely, and I pass on a few clips that encapsulate his summary and option of Piketty's core points. Piketty:
...describes four broad inequality regimes, obviously inspired by French history but, he argues, of more general relevance. First are “ternary” societies divided into functional classes — clergy, nobility and everyone else. Second are “ownership” societies, in which it’s not who you are that matters but what you have legal title to. Then come the social democracies that emerged in the 20th century, which granted considerable power and privilege to workers, ranging from union representation to government-provided social benefits. Finally, there’s the current era of “hypercapitalism,” which is sort of an ownership society on steroids.
For Piketty, rising inequality is at root a political phenomenon. The social-democratic framework that made Western societies relatively equal for a couple of generations after World War II, he argues, was dismantled, not out of necessity, but because of the rise of a “neo-proprietarian” ideology. Indeed, this is a view shared by many, though not all, economists. These days, attributing inequality mainly to the ineluctable forces of technology and globalization is out of fashion, and there is much more emphasis on factors like the decline of unions, which has a lot to do with political decisions.
But why did policy take a hard-right turn? Piketty places much of the blame on center-left parties, which, as he notes, increasingly represent highly educated voters. These more and more elitist parties, he argues, lost interest in policies that helped the disadvantaged, and hence forfeited their support. And his clear implication is that social democracy can be revived by refocusing on populist economic policies, and winning back the working class.
Piketty could be right about this, but as far as I can tell, most political scientists would disagree. In the United States, at least, they stress the importance of race and social issues in driving the white working class away from Democrats, and doubt that a renewed focus on equality would bring those voters back. After all, during the Obama years the Affordable Care Act extended health insurance to many disadvantaged voters, while tax rates on top incomes went up substantially. Yet the white working class went heavily for Trump, and stayed Republican in 2018.

Friday, March 13, 2020

MindBlog passes on a note: on the relief of not being yourself.

I am going to start occasionally doing MindBlog posts on ideas that I think might have the potential of developing into longer pieces of work, but that usually remain as notes in my personal journal. This first one follows in the thread of Monday’s post on the work of Sam Harris. It came together when I woke during the middle of the night to find my mind clogged with a traffic jam of discursive thought. Then what appeared in my mind, in what felt like a mini-epiphany, was the words that I pass on below. They may make little sense to many readers, but please be assured that I have not gone wacko or nutter....
What a relief to know that this is not me, it is just the contents of my consciousness, which shift around all the time and are never the same twice. What has changed, after 45 years of doing an introspective personal journal, is that this sentence has become clear and true for me. It is a prying loose from the illusion of the sensing and executive “I”, self, the homunculus inside.
There is a particular feeling of renewal, starting over, in the first moments of the transition to seeing - rather than immersed in being - one of the contents of consciousness. Meditation practice can be seen as training the ability to inhabit this state for longer periods of time, to experience the self or I as co-equal with other contents of consciousness like seeing, hearing, feeling. It is having thoughts without a thinker, having a self without a self.
What is inside is the animal mirror of expanded consciousness, no longer locked into one or another of its contractions. This feels to me like a potentially irreversible quantum bump, a phase or state change in my ongoing awareness (perhaps a long term increase in my brain’s attentional mode activity alongside a decrease its default mode’s mind wandering?...also frontal suppression of amygdalar reactivity?)
(I would add the note, as I did to Monday's post, that experiences of the sort I describe here can be very disorienting to some people, and should be approached with caution. A google search for the names Willoughby Britton and Jarred Lindahl will take you to their papers on this issue.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Cannabis increases susceptibility to false memory.

From Kloft et al.:  

Significance
This unique randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial examined the susceptibility to false memories under the influence of cannabis, using a basic (DRM) and two applied (misinformation) paradigms. We used a highly powered experimental design, allowing us to test acute and residual drug effects. To achieve high reproducibility and ecological validity, the misinformation paradigms included an eyewitness and a perpetrator scenario, presented in a virtual-reality environment. We show across different paradigms that cannabis consistently increases susceptibility to false memories. The results have implications for police, legal professionals, and policymakers with regard to the treatment of cannabis-intoxicated witnesses and suspects and the validity of their statements.
Abstract
With the growing global acceptance of cannabis and its widespread use by eyewitnesses and suspects in legal cases, understanding the popular drug’s ramifications for memory is a pressing need. In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial, we examined the acute and delayed effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) intoxication on susceptibility to false memory in 64 healthy volunteers. Memory was tested immediately (encoding and retrieval under drug influence) and 1 wk later (retrieval sober). We used three different methods (associative word lists and two misinformation tasks using virtual reality). Across all methods, we found evidence for enhanced false-memory effects in intoxicated participants. Specifically, intoxicated participants showed higher false recognition in the associative word-list task both at immediate and delayed test than controls. This yes bias became increasingly strong with decreasing levels of association between studied and test items. In a misinformation task, intoxicated participants were more susceptible to false-memory creation using a virtual-reality eyewitness scenario and virtual-reality perpetrator scenario. False-memory effects were mostly restricted to the acute-intoxication phase. Cannabis seems to increase false-memory proneness, with decreasing strength of association between an event and a test item, as assessed by different false-memory paradigms. Our findings have implications for how and when the police should interview suspects and eyewitnesses.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Sam Harris' "Waking Up" wakes up Deric's MindBlog

Over the past few months I have gone back to school by doing the entire sequence of lectures and exercises presented by two mindfulness meditation apps. The first of these these, the HealthyMinds App, I have mentioned in a previous post. It derives from a collaborative effort at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, headed by my former colleague Richard Davidson. It is a friendly, approachable, lite version of material covered with greater intellectual depth by the second App, Waking Up, which is done by author Sam Harris and based on his book titled "Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion." I became much more immersed in Harris' program, finishing all of the mini-lectures or 'lessons' and the 50 guided 10 minute exercises. Harris' presentation was a catalyst for me, allowing the material I have been writing about since my 2002 I-Illusion web/lecture to actually gel into place as lived daily experience.

Below I pass on an idiosyncratic sampling of clips or paraphrases of material from Harris' exercises, lectures, and book. For some readers there might be a flash of recognition, for others the following might make no sense at all.
The pronoun I is the name that most of us put to the sense that we are the thinkers of our thoughts and the experiencers of our experience. It is the sense that we have of possessing (rather than of merely being) a continuum of experience...this feeling is not a necessary property of the mind...the experience of being a self can be selectively interfered with...people can report losing their sense of self to one or another degree
...the present centered expanded awareness that is seeing or feeling fear, anger suffering or pain  is not fear, anger suffering or pain. The same is true for happiness, joy, contentment. It is not these things but the calm presence that surrounds them. 
What do you take yourself to be in this moment? Is it the sensation of your face? Or your head?  Resolve that these too are appearances in consciousness, consciousness is prior to them, a mere witness of them.  Fall back into that position, being the screen on which the movie of your life is being played...This introduces a new capacity to respond differently to experiences. To notice first what it is you are experiencing, and then to introduce an option beyond merely reacting, being captured by the next thought that rises in consciousness.
...rest as that condition in which everything is just appearing...Feel the energy of your body, notice how sounds appear and disappear.  And let your mind be like a mirror. It doesn’t move to reflect what is in it. Everything simply appears on its surface... Now, periodically, gently, don’t make a struggle, look for the one who is noticing. And in that first moment of turning, see if you can observe what noticing is like. What is hearing like in the first instance of looking for the one who is hearing? What is sensing of breath like if you look for the seat of attention?
..There is no state that you are producing that by definition excludes any other experience. A goal is to make features of consciousness obvious, so that they can be obvious in other moments of your life.Your mind is always with you, practice develops a range of insights into what it’s like before it becomes cluttered by concepts, and judgements, and reactions, and other contractions in consciousness.
Kindle a negative feeling, bore into it with your attention, feel it as closely as possible, its energy. This kind of attention robs it of meaning.  It is simply an appearance in consciousness at this moment. How could this arising in feeling be what you are? You are simply noticing it. And it passes away on its own...the half life of any negative mental space is remarkably short.  And just noticing that, apart from any insight you might have into the nature of consciousness, can be freeing.  
It’s almost like you’re watching a film, and consciousness is both the screen and the light projected, the entire substance of experience. The sense that there is a self, a seat of attention, a subject in the middle of experience, that is yet another appearance on the screen, that’s part of the movie. That is part of what is being experienced and what may yet be witnessed from the point of view of open awareness. 
...consciousness is different. It appears to have no form at all, because anything that would give it form must arise within the field of consciousness. Consciousness is simply the light by which the contours of mind and body are known. It is that which is aware of feelings such as joy, regret, amusement, and despair. It can seem to take their shape for a time, but it is possible to recognize that it never quite does. Once one recognizes the selflessness of consciousness, the practice of meditation becomes just a means of getting more familiar with it. The goal, thereafter, is to cease to overlook what is already the case.…we can directly experience that consciousness is never improved or harmed by what it knows. Making this discovery, again and again, is the basis of spiritual life.
Everything we take ourselves to be at the level of our subjectivity—our memories and emotions, our capacity for language, the very thoughts and impulses that give rise to our behavior—depends upon distinct processes that are spread out over the whole of the brain. Many of these can be independently interrupted or extinguished. The sense, therefore, that we are unified subjects—the unchanging thinkers of thoughts and experiencers of experience—is an illusion. The conventional self is a transitory appearance among transitory appearances, and it vanishes when looked for. We need not await any data from the lab to say that self-transcendence is possible. And we need not become masters of meditation to realize its benefits. It is within our capacity to recognize the nature of thoughts, to awaken from the dream of being merely ourselves and, in this way, to become better able to contribute to the well-being of others.
Harris notes a motivation for his writing on spirituality and self transcendence:
Spirituality remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism, and all the other defensive postures that reasonable men and women strike in the presence of unreasonable faith. People on both sides of this divide imagine that visionary experience has no place within the context of science—apart from the corridors of a mental hospital. Until we can talk about spirituality in rational terms—acknowledging the validity of self-transcendence—our world will remain shattered by dogmatism. This book has been my attempt to begin such a conversation.
  (I should mention that a few users of the Waking Up App have found the exercises to be disorienting and stressful, and the App contains a fascinating two hour discussion between Harris and Willoughby Britton and Jarred Lindahl, who have done research on 'The Dark Side of Meditation.' A google search on their names will take you to their publications on this issue.)

Friday, March 06, 2020

Using your brain's functional connectivity to track psychiatric symptoms and treatments.

Sylvester et al. propose examining the functional connectivity of the amygdala as a substrate for precision psychiatry. Their work provides a detailed framework of amygdala–cortical interactions that can be used as a foundation for models relating aberrations in amygdala connectivity to psychiatric symptoms in individual patients.  

Significance
Disrupted functional connectivity of the amygdala may be central to mental illness. Yet, little is known about the functional connectivity of the amygdala in individuals, limiting our ability to understand and treat amygdala dysconnectivity in individual patients. Here, we divide the amygdala into three subdivisions in each of 10 individuals and define connectivity patterns using 5 h of fMRI data per person. We demonstrate that, across individuals, each of the three amygdala subdivisions occupies a roughly consistent location and exhibits consistent functional connectivity with specific cortical functional networks: One to the default mode network, another to the dorsal attention network, and a third without preferential connectivity.
Abstract
The amygdala is central to the pathophysiology of many psychiatric illnesses. An imprecise understanding of how the amygdala fits into the larger network organization of the human brain, however, limits our ability to create models of dysfunction in individual patients to guide personalized treatment. Therefore, we investigated the position of the amygdala and its functional subdivisions within the network organization of the brain in 10 highly sampled individuals (5 h of fMRI data per person). We characterized three functional subdivisions within the amygdala of each individual. We discovered that one subdivision is preferentially correlated with the default mode network; a second is preferentially correlated with the dorsal attention and fronto-parietal networks; and third subdivision does not have any networks to which it is preferentially correlated relative to the other two subdivisions. All three subdivisions are positively correlated with ventral attention and somatomotor networks and negatively correlated with salience and cingulo-opercular networks. These observations were replicated in an independent group dataset of 120 individuals. We also found substantial across-subject variation in the distribution and magnitude of amygdala functional connectivity with the cerebral cortex that related to individual differences in the stereotactic locations both of amygdala subdivisions and of cortical functional brain networks. Finally, using lag analyses, we found consistent temporal ordering of fMRI signals in the cortex relative to amygdala subdivisions. Altogether, this work provides a detailed framework of amygdala–cortical interactions that can be used as a foundation for models relating aberrations in amygdala connectivity to psychiatric symptoms in individual patients.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Why are teenagers so unpredictable and impulsive? - brain changes during adolescence

Why do teenagers frequently behave so unpredictably and impulsively? Perhaps because their brains are undergoing disruptive changes in connectivity between cortical and subcortical areas that collaborate to regulate more advanced behaviors such as such as socializing, mentalizing, and executive skills. From Váša et al.:  

Significance
How does the human brain change during adolescence? We found 2 distinct modes of change in functional connectivity between brain regions, “conservative” and “disruptive,” measured using functional MRI (fMRI) in healthy young people (14 to 26 y old). Conservative regions, often specialized for basic sensory and motor functions, were strongly connected at age 14 before strengthening more by age 26, whereas disruptive regions that were activated by complex tasks comprised both connections that were weak at age 14 but strengthened by age 26 and connections that were strong at age 14 but weakened by age 26. Disruptive maturation of fMRI connectivity between cortex and subcortex could represent metabolically costly remodeling that underpins development of adult faculties.
Abstract
Adolescent changes in human brain function are not entirely understood. Here, we used multiecho functional MRI (fMRI) to measure developmental change in functional connectivity (FC) of resting-state oscillations between pairs of 330 cortical regions and 16 subcortical regions in 298 healthy adolescents scanned 520 times. Participants were aged 14 to 26 y and were scanned on 1 to 3 occasions at least 6 mo apart. We found 2 distinct modes of age-related change in FC: “conservative” and “disruptive.” Conservative development was characteristic of primary cortex, which was strongly connected at 14 y and became even more connected in the period from 14 to 26 y. Disruptive development was characteristic of association cortex and subcortical regions, where connectivity was remodeled: connections that were weak at 14 y became stronger during adolescence, and connections that were strong at 14 y became weaker. These modes of development were quantified using the maturational index (MI), estimated as Spearman’s correlation between edgewise baseline FC (at 14 y, FC14 ) and adolescent change in FC (ΔFC14−26), at each region. Disruptive systems (with negative MI) were activated by social cognition and autobiographical memory tasks in prior fMRI data and significantly colocated with prior maps of aerobic glycolysis (AG), AG-related gene expression, postnatal cortical surface expansion, and adolescent shrinkage of cortical thickness. The presence of these 2 modes of development was robust to numerous sensitivity analyses. We conclude that human brain organization is disrupted during adolescence by remodeling of FC between association cortical and subcortical areas.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Speech versus music in the brain

Peter Stern summarizes work of Albouy et al. in the current issue of Science Magazine:
To what extent does the perception of speech and music depend on different mechanisms in the human brain? What is the anatomical basis underlying this specialization? Albouy et al. created a corpus of a cappella songs that contain both speech (semantic) and music (melodic) information and degraded each stimulus selectively in either the temporal or spectral domain. Degradation of temporal information impaired speech recognition but not melody recognition, whereas degradation of spectral information impaired melody recognition but not speech recognition. Brain scanning revealed a right-left asymmetry for speech and music. Classification of speech content occurred exclusively in the left auditory cortex, whereas classification of melodic content occurred only in the right auditory cortex.
And here is the Albouy et al. abstract:
Does brain asymmetry for speech and music emerge from acoustical cues or from domain-specific neural networks? We selectively filtered temporal or spectral modulations in sung speech stimuli for which verbal and melodic content was crossed and balanced. Perception of speech decreased only with degradation of temporal information, whereas perception of melodies decreased only with spectral degradation. Functional magnetic resonance imaging data showed that the neural decoding of speech and melodies depends on activity patterns in left and right auditory regions, respectively. This asymmetry is supported by specific sensitivity to spectrotemporal modulation rates within each region. Finally, the effects of degradation on perception were paralleled by their effects on neural classification. Our results suggest a match between acoustical properties of communicative signals and neural specializations adapted to that purpose.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Optimism and longevity.

I want to point to recent articles relevant to an issue most of us mull about: "Is my glass half empty or half full?" Jane Brody describes a number of studies linking greater optimism to a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other chronic ailments and to fostering “exceptional" longevity, defined as living to 85 and beyond. And Susan Shain does a self-help piece, citing numerous studies on how to be more optimistic. Finally, Parker-Pope, in the NYTimes Well section summarizes her recipe:  

Spend time with optimistic people. Optimism, like pessimism, can be infectious.  

Reframe negative situations. When something bad happens, ask yourself if there is a potential upside. A setback at work can be an opportunity to rethink your goals. By mindfully looking for a positive, we retrain our brains, and optimism will come more naturally.  

Minimize your exposure to negative news. Don’t bury your head in the sand, but when bad news hits, educate yourself and then turn it off. We don’t need to expose ourselves to a 24-7 bad news cycle just because it’s there.

Start a gratitude practice. Try writing a nightly journal documenting three good things from your day. Or start meals with a family conversation about how you dealt with a daily challenge.

Try meditation. A daily meditation practice is a great way to ease your mind and shift yourself into more positive thoughts.  

Adopt a mantra. When times get tough, fall back on a mantra that can put you in the right frame of mind. “I’ve got this!” or “Accept what you can’t change” can help you get through tough times.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A magic mushroom nose spray for psychedelic microdosing?

Rich Haridy does an interesting article in New Atlas. A few clips:
Alongside the rapidly progressing psychedelic science movement, with researchers rigorously exploring the medical and therapeutic uses of previously taboo psychoactive compounds, is a growing grassroots movement to decriminalize some of these substances...The movement ostensibly started with the passing of a ballot initiative in the City and County of Denver back in March. The publicly voted initiative essentially decriminalized the personal use and possession of magic mushrooms...The long game here is looking toward the 2020 US elections and getting a variety of measures on state ballots...Predicting a wave of psychedelic legalization over the coming decade, Oregon-based start-up Silo Wellness has reportedly developed a magic mushroom nasal spray focused on delivering exact, controlled psychedelic microdoses via an easy inhaler...The product is currently being developed in Jamaica, one of the only countries in the world where magic mushrooms are completely legal.
The science is certainly still out over whether psychedelic microdosing confers real benefits or whether the technique is a glorified placebo, akin to psychedelic homeopathy. As scientists work to clinically verify the effects, and safety, of sustained tiny psychedelic drug doses, there is debate over how much of a dose actually constitutes a microdose.
...there is little agreement in the psychedelic community over whether the movement should push for broad legalization, or a more limited decriminalization...Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling psychedelic science book How To Change Your Mind, summed up these divisions in an influential New York Times op-ed earlier in 2019 titled “Not So Fast on Psychedelic Mushrooms”.
Pollan’s general argument is that while psilocybin seems to be traveling a similar path to legalization as cannabis traversed, we should be clear in understanding they are two very different substances. He supports decriminalization of some psychedelic drugs, and enthusiastically promotes the growing medical and therapeutic uses being researched, but is concerned recreational legalization of psychedelics could be dangerous to unleash into a culture dominated by capitalist sentiment.
“I see cannabis being promoted and pushed to people, as capitalism will do,” Pollan said at an event in Melbourne in July. “When I come home from this trip on Monday and I cross through Bay Ridge from the airport to Berkeley, I’ll see three or four billboards for companies that can deliver cannabis to my home in two hours, and I just don’t think we know enough to legalize these [psychedelic] drugs.”
“We should take lessons from cultures that have been using psychedelics for thousands of years,” he said in July. “They’re always used in a very careful cultural container. They’re never used casually, people don’t take them alone, there’s always an elder involved and there’s always an intention involved … We haven’t devised that proper container and I think we need to do that before we legalize it.”

Monday, February 24, 2020

The role of memory suppression in resilience after trauma.

Mary et al. report the neural differences that control the retrieval of traumatic memories in 102 individuals who were affected by the Paris terror attacks but who dealt with these memories in different ways: 55 developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 47 did not. The used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure how the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a core hub of the brain control system, regulated and suppressed memory activity during the reexperiencing of these intrusive memories. Their abstract:
In the aftermath of trauma, little is known about why the unwanted and unbidden recollection of traumatic memories persists in some individuals but not others. We implemented neutral and inoffensive intrusive memories in the laboratory in a group of 102 individuals exposed to the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks and 73 nonexposed individuals, who were not in Paris during the attacks. While reexperiencing these intrusive memories, nonexposed individuals and exposed individuals without posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could adaptively suppress memory activity, but exposed individuals with PTSD could not. These findings suggest that the capacity to suppress memory is central to positive posttraumatic adaptation. A generalized disruption of the memory control system could explain the maladaptive and unsuccessful suppression attempts often seen in PTSD, and this disruption should be targeted by specific treatments.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Imposter syndrome threatens diversity

I have experienced the 'Imposter Syndrome' since childhood, which motivates me to pass on this open source letter to Science Magazine in its entirety (click the link if you want to go to any of the references cited). :
As higher education institutions adopt admissions and hiring policies that promote diversity and inclusion, they must also implement policies to acknowledge and combat the feelings of self-doubt known as imposter syndrome. Those with imposter syndrome have an innate fear of being discovered as a fraud or non-deserving professional, despite their demonstrated talent and achievements (1). Imposter syndrome has been found to be more prevalent in high achievers (2, 3), women (3), and underrepresented racial, ethnic, and religious minorities (4–7). If institutions and departments don't take steps to allay these fears, the science pipeline could suffer.
At an individual level, imposter syndrome can lead to psychological distress, emotional suffering, and serious mental health disorders, including chronic dysphoric stress, anxiety, depression, and drug abuse (8). In many cases, the phenomenon manifests as early as high school or college (9). Strikingly, in college students belonging to racial minorities, mental health problems have been better predicted by imposter feelings than by the stress associated with their minority status (10). By constantly downplaying their own accomplishments, those suffering from imposter syndrome may sabotage their own career (4). At the societal level, imposter syndrome may explain the higher drop-out rates of women and minorities from the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics pipeline (3, 11).
To effectively increase diversity, institutions must address imposter syndrome by increasing the visibility of the problem, providing access to mental health coaching, and implementing supportive organizational policies. Professors, principal investigators, and peers should encourage students and fellow scientists to focus on factual evidence regarding their academic performance and to set realistic expectations. Open discussions about imposter syndrome at the institutional level should put a name to these feelings and normalize them as common experiences rather than pathologizing them (3). Group peer mentoring can allow mentees to gradually transition into mentors, building their self-confidence as they become independent scientists (12). Institutions should provide training for mentors to help them recognize the negative consequences of the imposter syndrome. Finally, outreach programs to high schools should make students aware of imposter syndrome to help them identify and overcome it as they pursue their own education and careers.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Winner of Dance your PhD 2019 contest - Social experiences in larval zebrafish and their brains

The videos of several of the contestants can be see at this link, where you will also find a description of the work and people behind the winner, a very creative visual treat, shown here:

Monday, February 17, 2020

MindBlog is starting its 15th year...

I’ve just realized that MindBlog, whose first post was on February 8, 2006, has just entered its 15th year. That first post, “Dangerous Ideas” looks like it could have been posted today. It summarized responses to an 'annual question' presented by Edge.org , whose last question, "What is the last question?," was asked in 2018. Here is the 2006 post:

Dangerous Ideas.......

Edge.org is a website sponsored by the "Reality Club" (i.e. John Brockman, literary agent/impressario/socialite). Brockman has assembled a stable of scientists and other thinkers that he defines as a "third culture" that takes the place of traditional intellectuals in redefining who and what we are.... Each year a question is formulated for all to write on... In 2004 it was "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" The question for 2005 was "What is your dangerous idea?"

The responses organize themselves into several areas. Here are selected thumbnail summaries most directly relevant to human minds. I've not included cosmology and physics. Go to edge.org to read the essays

I. Nature of the human self or mind (by the way see my "I-Illusion" essay on my website):

Paulos - The self is a conceptual chimera
Shirky - Free will is going away
Nisbett - We are ignorant of our thinking processes
Horgan - We have no souls
Bloom - There are no souls, mind has a material basis.
Provine - This is all there is.
Anderson - Brains cannot become minds without bodies
Metzinger - Is being intellectually honest about the issue of free will compatible with preserving one's mental health?
Clark - Much of our behavior is determined by non-conscious, automatic uptake of cues and information
Turkle - Simulation will replace authenticity as computer simulation becomes fully naturalized.
Dawkins - A faulty person is no different from a faulty car. There is a mechanism determining behavior that needs to be fixed. The idea of responsibility is nonsense.
Smith - What we know may not change us. We will continue to conceive ourselves as centres of experience, self-knowing and free willing agents.

II. Natural explanations of culture

Sperber - Culture is natural.
Taylor - The human brain is a cultural artifact.
Hauser- There is a universal grammar of mental life.
Pinker - People differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.
Goodwin - Similar coordinating patterns underlie biological and cultural evolution.
Venter - Revealing the genetic basis of personality and behavior will create societal conflicts.


III. Fundamental changes in political, economic, social order

O'donnell - The state will disappear.
Ridley - Government is the problem not the solution.
Shermer - Where goods cross frontiers armies won't.
Harari -Democracy is on its way out.
Csikszentmihalyi- The free market myth is destroying culture.
Goleman - The internet undermines the quality of human interaction.
Harris - Science must destroy religion.
Porco - Confrontation between science and religion might end when role played by science in lives of people is the same played by religion today.
Bering - Science will never silence God
Fisher - Drugs such as antidepressants jeopardize feelings of attachment and love
Iacoboni - Media Violence Induces Imitative Violence - the Problem with Mirrors
Morton - Our planet is not in peril, just humans are.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Mindfulness as an antidote to the intrusions of artificial intelligence?

I want to point to a very interesting New Yorker Magazine article by Ian Parker describing the life and ideas of Yuval Harari, whose work has been the subject of numerous MindBlog posts. A series of five sequential MindBlog posts, starting on 12/31/18, presented an abstracted version of his book "21 Lessons for the 21st Century". Here are some clips from the article that especially caught my attention:
His proposition, often repeated, is that humanity faces three primary threats: nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption. Other issues that politicians commonly talk about—terrorism, migration, inequality, poverty—are lesser worries, if not distractions... Harari highlights the technological one...“Think about a situation where somebody in Beijing or San Francisco knows what every citizen in Israel is doing at every moment—all the most intimate details about every mayor, member of the Knesset, and officer in the Army, from the age of zero.” He added, “Those who will control the world in the twenty-first century are those who will control data.”
The aspect of a technological dystopia that most preoccupies him—losing mental autonomy to A.I.—can be at least partly countered, in his view, by citizens cultivating greater mindfulness. He collects examples of A.I. threats. He refers, for instance, to recent research suggesting that it’s possible to measure people’s blood pressure by processing video of their faces.
...his writing underscores the importance of equanimity. In a section of “Sapiens” titled “Know Thyself,” Harari describes how the serenity achieved through meditation can be “so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it.” “21 Lessons” includes extended commentary on the life of the Buddha, who “taught that the three basic realities of the universe are that everything is constantly changing, nothing has any enduring essence, and nothing is completely satisfying.” Harari continues, “You can explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy, of your body, or of your mind, but you will never encounter something that does not change, that has an eternal essence, and that completely satisfies you... ‘What should I do?’ ask people, and the Buddha advises, ‘Do nothing. Absolutely nothing.’ ”
According to Harari's book “Sapiens,” progress is basically an illusion; the Agricultural Revolution was “history’s biggest fraud,” and liberal humanism is a religion no more founded on reality than any other...In the schema of “Sapiens,” money is a “fiction,” as are corporations and nations. Harari uses “fiction” where another might say “social construct.” (He explained to me, “I would almost always go for the day-to-day word, even if the nuance of the professional word is a bit more accurate.”) Harari further proposes that fictions require believers, and exert power only as long as a “communal belief” in them persists. Every social construct, then, is a kind of religion: a declaration of universal human rights is not a manifesto, or a program, but the expression of a benign delusion; an activity like using money, or obeying a stoplight, is a collective fantasy, not a ritual.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Amazing technology - a total body PET scanner with 100ms resolution.

From Zhang et al. at UC Davis (check out the video, showing injection of 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose into a vein in the right leg):
A 194-cm-long total-body positron emission tomography/computed tomography (PET/CT) scanner (uEXPLORER), has been constructed to offer a transformative platform for human radiotracer imaging in clinical research and healthcare. Its total-body coverage and exceptional sensitivity provide opportunities for innovative studies of physiology, biochemistry, and pharmacology. The objective of this study is to develop a method to perform ultrahigh (100 ms) temporal resolution dynamic PET imaging by combining advanced dynamic image reconstruction paradigms with the uEXPLORER scanner. We aim to capture the fast dynamics of initial radiotracer distribution, as well as cardiac motion, in the human body. The results show that we can visualize radiotracer transport in the body on timescales of 100 ms and obtain motion-frozen images with superior image quality compared to conventional methods. The proposed method has applications in studying fast tracer dynamics, such as blood flow and the dynamic response to neural modulation, as well as performing real-time motion tracking (e.g., cardiac and respiratory motion, and gross body motion) without any external monitoring device (e.g., electrinjocardiogram, breathing belt, or optical trackers).



A few clips from their text:
This high temporal resolution tracer imaging technique opens up the opportunity for new applications, such as studying fast pharmacodynamics, using shorter-lived radionuclides (e.g., 82Rb, 13N, and 15O), and performing motion-frozen scans of the heart, lung, and gastrointestinal tract.
PET with high temporal resolution also has potential applications in the characterization of normal and abnormal brain function. Although functional MRI can detect changes associated with cerebral blood flow (CBF), our approach has the potential to directly measure the absolute value of CBF and cerebral metabolic rate of oxygen. The advantage of CBF as determined with diffusible tracers in PET is that it measures blood flow at the nutrient capillary level (not only in large vessels). During the stimulation, parameters derived within a window of a second may show better correlation with postsynaptic activity and less hemodynamic lag. Moreover, these methods could be used for localizing neural activity by correlating it with specific neurotransmitter activity. Furthermore, without the artifacts induced by cardiac and respiratory motion, ultrafast PET may allow analysis of metabolic processes within atherosclerotic plaques and evaluate their distribution and characteristics throughout the cardiovascular system. Finally, high temporal resolution PET together with the TB coverage allows dynamic tracer studies of brain–heart and brain–gut interactions.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Economic Inequality increases desire for a strong leader.

From Sprong et al., studies very relevant to the current political climate in the U.S., and worldwide:
Societal inequality has been found to harm the mental and physical health of its members and undermine overall social cohesion. Here, we tested the hypothesis that economic inequality is associated with a wish for a strong leader in a study involving 28 countries from five continents (Study 1, N = 6,112), a study involving an Australian community sample (Study 2, N = 515), and two experiments (Study 3a, N = 96; Study 3b, N = 296). We found correlational (Studies 1 and 2) and experimental (Studies 3a and 3b) evidence for our prediction that higher inequality enhances the wish for a strong leader. We also found that this relationship is mediated by perceptions of anomie, except in the case of objective inequality in Study 1. This suggests that societal inequality enhances the perception that society is breaking down (anomie) and that a strong leader is needed to restore order (even when that leader is willing to challenge democratic values).

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Resilient misinformation in a crisis

From Carey et al.:
Disease epidemics and outbreaks often generate conspiracy theories and misperceptions that mislead people about the risks they face and how best to protect themselves. We investigate the effectiveness of interventions aimed at combating false and unsupported information about the Zika epidemic and subsequent yellow fever outbreak in Brazil. Results from a nationally representative survey show that conspiracy theories and other misperceptions about Zika are widely believed. Moreover, results from three preregistered survey experiments suggest that efforts to counter misperceptions about diseases during epidemics and outbreaks may not always be effective. We find that corrective information not only fails to reduce targeted Zika misperceptions but also reduces the accuracy of other beliefs about the disease. In addition, although corrective information about the better-known threat from yellow fever was more effective, none of these corrections affected support for vector control policies or intentions to engage in preventive behavior.

Monday, February 03, 2020

How much are we misled by inauthentic internet content? Perhaps not much...

Bail et al. analyze data describing attitudes and online behaviors of Republican and Democratic Twitter users from late 2017 and find no evidence that interaction with Russian troll accounts (operated by the Russian Internet Research Agency, IRA) had a effect on political attitudes and behaviors. Their abstract:
There is widespread concern that Russia and other countries have launched social-media campaigns designed to increase political divisions in the United States. Though a growing number of studies analyze the strategy of such campaigns, it is not yet known how these efforts shaped the political attitudes and behaviors of Americans. We study this question using longitudinal data that describe the attitudes and online behaviors of 1,239 Republican and Democratic Twitter users from late 2017 merged with nonpublic data about the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) from Twitter. Using Bayesian regression tree models, we find no evidence that interaction with IRA accounts substantially impacted 6 distinctive measures of political attitudes and behaviors over a 1-mo period. We also find that interaction with IRA accounts were most common among respondents with strong ideological homophily within their Twitter network, high interest in politics, and high frequency of Twitter usage. Together, these findings suggest that Russian trolls might have failed to sow discord because they mostly interacted with those who were already highly polarized. We conclude by discussing several important limitations of our study—especially our inability to determine whether IRA accounts influenced the 2016 presidential election—as well as its implications for future research on social media influence campaigns, political polarization, and computational social science.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Universality and diversity in human song

In the same vein as the previous post on cultural variation and universal structures in music, another massive research collective reports on their study of universality and diversity in human music, emphasizing different dimensions of experience. They provide interactive graphic tools providing detailed descriptions and samples of songs. The tools pointed to in this and the previous MindBlog post give readers access hundreds (probably thousands) of different music samples, and their variety is astonishing. Here is a summary description done by Science magazine:
It is unclear whether there are universal patterns to music across cultures. Mehr et al. examined ethnographic data and observed music in every society sampled (see the Perspective by Fitch and Popescu). For songs specifically, three dimensions characterize more than 25% of the performances studied: formality of the performance, arousal level, and religiosity. There is more variation in musical behavior within societies than between societies, and societies show similar levels of within-society variation in musical behavior. At the same time, one-third of societies significantly differ from average for any given dimension, and half of all societies differ from average on at least one dimension, indicating variability across cultures.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

What music makes us feel - 13 cross cultural categories

From Cowen et al.:
(Be sure to check out their striking visualization of the data. By moving the cursor about the screen you can listen to the different emotional categories of music, each differently color coded).

Significance
Do our subjective experiences when listening to music show evidence of universality? And if so, what is the nature of these experiences? With data-driven methodological and statistical approaches, we examined the feelings evoked by 2,168 music excerpts in the United States and China. We uncovered 13 distinct types of experiences that people across 2 different cultures report in listening to music of different kinds. Categories such as “awe” drive the experience of music more so than broad affective features like valence. However, emotions that scientists have long treated as discrete can be blended together. Our results provide answers to long-standing questions about the nature of the subjective experiences associated with music.
Abstract
What is the nature of the feelings evoked by music? We investigated how people represent the subjective experiences associated with Western and Chinese music and the form in which these representational processes are preserved across different cultural groups. US (n = 1,591) and Chinese (n = 1,258) participants listened to 2,168 music samples and reported on the specific feelings (e.g., “angry,” “dreamy”) or broad affective features (e.g., valence, arousal) that they made individuals feel. Using large-scale statistical tools, we uncovered 13 distinct types of subjective experience associated with music in both cultures. Specific feelings such as “triumphant” were better preserved across the 2 cultures than levels of valence and arousal, contrasting with theoretical claims that valence and arousal are building blocks of subjective experience. This held true even for music selected on the basis of its valence and arousal levels and for traditional Chinese music. Furthermore, the feelings associated with music were found to occupy continuous gradients, contradicting discrete emotion theories. Our findings, visualized within an interactive map (https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/∼acowen/music.html) reveal a complex, high-dimensional space of subjective experience associated with music in multiple cultures. These findings can inform inquiries ranging from the etiology of affective disorders to the neurological basis of emotion.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Repeated fake headlines feel more moral

In a bit of work relevant to the current impeachment drama Effron and Raj find that repeatedly viewing a false headline increases approval and reduces perceptions of how unethical it is to share it with others:
People may repeatedly encounter the same misinformation when it “goes viral.” The results of four main experiments (two preregistered) and a pilot experiment (total N = 2,587) suggest that repeatedly encountering misinformation makes it seem less unethical to spread—regardless of whether one believes it. Seeing a fake-news headline one or four times reduced how unethical participants thought it was to publish and share that headline when they saw it again—even when it was clearly labeled as false and participants disbelieved it, and even after we statistically accounted for judgments of how likeable and popular it was. In turn, perceiving the headline as less unethical predicted stronger inclinations to express approval of it online. People were also more likely to actually share repeated headlines than to share new headlines in an experimental setting. We speculate that repeating blatant misinformation may reduce the moral condemnation it receives by making it feel intuitively true, and we discuss other potential mechanisms that might explain this effect.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Altruistic behaviors relieve physical pain.

From Wang et al., the fascinating observation that altruistic behavior diminishes both acute and chronic pain by damping activity in brain areas responsible for subjective pain.

Significance
For centuries, scientists have pondered why people would incur personal costs to help others and the implications for the performers themselves. While most previous studies have suggested that those who perform altruistic actions receive direct or indirect benefits that could compensate for their cost in the future, we offer another take on how this could be understood. We examine how altruistic behaviors may influence the performers’ instant sensation in unpleasant situations, such as physical pain. We find consistent behavioral and neural evidence that in physically threatening situations acting altruistically can relieve painful feelings in human performers. These findings shed light on the psychological and biological mechanisms underlying human prosocial behavior and provide practical insights into pain management.
Abstract
Engaging in altruistic behaviors is costly, but it contributes to the health and well-being of the performer of such behaviors. The present research offers a take on how this paradox can be understood. Across 2 pilot studies and 3 experiments, we showed a pain-relieving effect of performing altruistic behaviors. Acting altruistically relieved not only acutely induced physical pain among healthy adults but also chronic pain among cancer patients. Using functional MRI, we found that after individuals performed altruistic actions brain activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and bilateral insula in response to a painful shock was significantly reduced. This reduced pain-induced activation in the right insula was mediated by the neural activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), while the activation of the VMPFC was positively correlated with the performer’s experienced meaningfulness from his or her altruistic behavior. Our findings suggest that incurring personal costs to help others may buffer the performers from unpleasant conditions.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Childhood deprivation alters adult brains despite subsequent environmental enrichment.

A sobering study from Mackes et al:  

Significance
Millions of children worldwide live in nonfamilial institutions. We studied impact on adult brain structure of a particularly severe but time-limited form of institutional deprivation in early life experienced by children who were subsequently adopted into nurturing families. Institutional deprivation was associated with lower total brain volume in a dose-dependent way. Regionally specific effects were seen in medial prefrontal, inferior frontal, and inferior temporal areas. Deprivation-related alterations in total brain volume were associated with lower intelligence quotient and more attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms; alterations in temporal volume seemed compensatory, as they were associated with fewer attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms. We provide evidence that early childhood deprivation is related to alterations in adult brain structure, despite environmental enrichment in intervening years.
Abstract
Early childhood deprivation is associated with higher rates of neurodevelopmental and mental disorders in adulthood. The impact of childhood deprivation on the adult brain and the extent to which structural changes underpin these effects are currently unknown. To investigate these questions, we utilized MRI data collected from young adults who were exposed to severe deprivation in early childhood in the Romanian orphanages of the Ceaușescu era and then, subsequently adopted by UK families; 67 Romanian adoptees (with between 3 and 41 mo of deprivation) were compared with 21 nondeprived UK adoptees. Romanian adoptees had substantially smaller total brain volumes (TBVs) than nondeprived adoptees (8.6% reduction), and TBV was strongly negatively associated with deprivation duration. This effect persisted after covarying for potential environmental and genetic confounds. In whole-brain analyses, deprived adoptees showed lower right inferior frontal surface area and volume but greater right inferior temporal lobe thickness, surface area, and volume than the nondeprived adoptees. Right medial prefrontal volume and surface area were positively associated with deprivation duration. No deprivation-related effects were observed in limbic regions. Global reductions in TBV statistically mediated the observed relationship between institutionalization and both lower intelligence quotient (IQ) and higher levels of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms. The deprivation-related increase in right inferior temporal volume seemed to be compensatory, as it was associated with lower levels of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms. We provide compelling evidence that time-limited severe deprivation in the first years of life is related to alterations in adult brain structure, despite extended enrichment in adoptive homes in the intervening years.

Monday, January 20, 2020

What is your biological age? A problem with the epigenetic clock approach.

Having already sent off blood samples to 23andMe and Helix, mainly out of curiosity over possible genome details relevant to my health (Apparently I might be slightly less inclined to dementia issues and more inclined to heart issues), I couldn't resist sending off yet another blood sample to myDNAge, for a test based on Horvath's epigenetic aging clock. The test analyzes DNA methylation patterns of over 2,000 loci on the human genome to give an 'accurate' biological age prediction. I hoped to confirm my smug opinion that my biological age is ~ 10 years less than my chronological age.

I have not yet received a result that might confirm my opinion, but any result I get (after laying out $300 for the test) is now called into question by El Khoury et al. (open source), who show that both the Horvath clock model ,as well as another model by Hannum, systematically underestimate age in tissues from older people. The testing data used in generating this clock did not have a large representation of tissue from elderly individuals, and closer analysis of such date shows a divergence from Horvath's extrapolated line. Details of the analysis are in the open source paper. Here is the summary:

The age prediction properties of both Horvath and Hannum DNA methylation clock models begin to degrade as subjects enter old age. This is at least partly due to saturation, i.e., DNA methylation proportion at some loci approaching 0 or 1, and confounding with the effects of other age-related processes will also play a role. It is likely that this could be ameliorated with additional loci and/or further refined modeling of the currently used set. Association tests using age acceleration should incorporate age as a covariate (as should those using DNA methylation values for individual loci) to avoid spurious associations.

Update on post.....I emailed mydnage.com about this issue, and got the following response:
Dear Deric,
We observed the phenomena mentioned in the recent publication entitled “Systematic underestimation of the epigenetic clock and age acceleration in older subjects” 4 years ago. Our algorithms that are optimized for sample type (optimized either to whole blood or urine) have already took this factor in consideration. In short, your result will not be influenced.

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Mind-Body problem - How our brain talks to stress systems in our body.

Dun et al. use a neuronal pathway tracking technique to show how different brain areas link to the adrenal medulla to connect its activity (secretion of epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and a small amount of dopamine) to how we think and feel.:
Which regions of the cerebral cortex are the origin of descending commands that influence internal organs? We used transneuronal transport of rabies virus in monkeys and rats to identify regions of cerebral cortex that have multisynaptic connections with a major sympathetic effector, the adrenal medulla. In rats, we also examined multisynaptic connections with the kidney. In monkeys, the cortical influence over the adrenal medulla originates from 3 distinct networks that are involved in movement, cognition, and affect. Each of these networks has a human equivalent. The largest influence originates from a motor network that includes all 7 motor areas in the frontal lobe. These motor areas are involved in all aspects of skeletomotor control, from response selection to motor preparation and movement execution. The motor areas provide a link between body movement and the modulation of stress. The cognitive and affective networks are located in regions of cingulate cortex. They provide a link between how we think and feel and the function of the adrenal medulla. Together, the 3 networks can mediate the effects of stress and depression on organ function and provide a concrete neural substrate for some psychosomatic illnesses. In rats, cortical influences over the adrenal medulla and the kidney originate mainly from 2 motor areas and adjacent somatosensory cortex. The cognitive and affective networks, present in monkeys, are largely absent in rats. Thus, nonhuman primate research is essential to understand the neural substrate that links cognition and affect to the function of internal organs.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

You ideal job can be predicted by your social media behavior.

So...are occupational guidance counselors going to be replaced by social media algorithms? From Kern et al.: 

Significance
Employment is thought to be more enjoyable and beneficial to individuals and society when there is alignment between the person and the occupation, but a key question is how to best match people with the right profession. The information that people broadcast online through social media provides insights into who they are, which we show can be used to match people and occupations. Findings have implications for career guidance for new graduates, disengaged employees, career changers, and the unemployed.
Abstract
Work is thought to be more enjoyable and beneficial to individuals and society when there is congruence between one’s personality and one’s occupation. We provide large-scale evidence that occupations have distinctive psychological profiles, which can successfully be predicted from linguistic information unobtrusively collected through social media. Based on 128,279 Twitter users representing 3,513 occupations, we automatically assess user personalities and visually map the personality profiles of different professions. Similar occupations cluster together, pointing to specific sets of jobs that one might be well suited for. Observations that contradict existing classifications may point to emerging occupations relevant to the 21st century workplace. Findings illustrate how social media can be used to match people to their ideal occupation.

Monday, January 13, 2020

An alternative neural mechanism for treating anxiety disorders through safety signal learning.

In these times of political polarization all over the world, over one third of all people experience anxiety disorders, in which circumstances frequently are taken to be more threatening than they actually are. This makes understanding the inhibition of emotional over-reactivity an important goal of brain research. Meyer et al. make a significant contribution by identifying a pathway that engages the ventral hippocampus for the attenuation of threat responses through conditioned inhibition using neurons that are more active to safety and compound cues than threat cues. This pathway might be a target for therapeutic approaches. Their summaries:  

Significance
Although fear can contribute to survival, difficulty regulating threat responses can interfere with goal-directed activities and is the hallmark of anxiety disorders. These disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses, affecting up to one-third of the population. In parallel studies across species, we identify a pathway that engages the ventral hippocampus for the attenuation of threat responses through conditioned inhibition. Conditioned inhibition relies on the specific involvement of ventral hippocampal neurons projecting to the prelimbic cortex in mice and homologous ventral hippocampal–dorsal anterior cingulate cortex functional connectivity in humans. These findings highlight a pathway for the inhibition of fear with the potential to enhance interventions for anxiety disorders by targeting an alternative neural circuitry through safety signal learning.
Abstract
Heightened fear and inefficient safety learning are key features of fear and anxiety disorders. Evidence-based interventions for anxiety disorders, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, primarily rely on mechanisms of fear extinction. However, up to 50% of clinically anxious individuals do not respond to current evidence-based treatment, suggesting a critical need for new interventions based on alternative neurobiological pathways. Using parallel human and rodent conditioned inhibition paradigms alongside brain imaging methodologies, we investigated neural activity patterns in the ventral hippocampus in response to stimuli predictive of threat or safety and compound cues to test inhibition via safety in the presence of threat. Distinct hippocampal responses to threat, safety, and compound cues suggest that the ventral hippocampus is involved in conditioned inhibition in both mice and humans. Moreover, unique response patterns within target-differentiated subpopulations of ventral hippocampal neurons identify a circuit by which fear may be inhibited via safety. Specifically, ventral hippocampal neurons projecting to the prelimbic cortex, but not to the infralimbic cortex or basolateral amygdala, were more active to safety and compound cues than threat cues, and activity correlated with freezing behavior in rodents. A corresponding distinction was observed in humans: hippocampal–dorsal anterior cingulate cortex functional connectivity—but not hippocampal–anterior ventromedial prefrontal cortex or hippocampal–basolateral amygdala connectivity—differentiated between threat, safety, and compound conditions. These findings highlight the potential to enhance treatment for anxiety disorders by targeting an alternative neural mechanism through safety signal learning.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Great graphics - a review of cerebral cortex structure/folding from mice to humans.

I pass on this open source review article for the small number of MindBlog readers who might find it useful in their teaching. The summary color graphics of increasingly larger vertebrate brains (Mouse, Marmosett, Macaque, Chimpanzee, Human) show overall appearance and cell number, myelin patterns, and cortical parcellations. Here is the technical abstract:
Advances in neuroimaging and neuroanatomy have yielded major insights concerning fundamental principles of cortical organization and evolution, thus speaking to how well different species serve as models for human brain function in health and disease. Here, we focus on cortical folding, parcellation, and connectivity in mice, marmosets, macaques, and humans. Cortical folding patterns vary dramatically across species, and individual variability in cortical folding increases with cortical surface area. Such issues are best analyzed using surface-based approaches that respect the topology of the cortical sheet. Many aspects of cortical organization can be revealed using 1 type of information (modality) at a time, such as maps of cortical myelin content. However, accurate delineation of the entire mosaic of cortical areas requires a multimodal approach using information about function, architecture, connectivity, and topographic organization. Comparisons across the 4 aforementioned species reveal dramatic differences in the total number and arrangement of cortical areas, particularly between rodents and primates. Hemispheric variability and bilateral asymmetry are most pronounced in humans, which we evaluated using a high-quality multimodal parcellation of hundreds of individuals. Asymmetries include modest differences in areal size but not in areal identity. Analyses of cortical connectivity using anatomical tracers reveal highly distributed connectivity and a wide range of connection weights in monkeys and mice; indirect measures using functional MRI suggest a similar pattern in humans. Altogether, a multifaceted but integrated approach to exploring cortical organization in primate and nonprimate species provides complementary advantages and perspectives.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Brain aging reduced by elevating acetyl-CoA levels.

Acetyl coenzyme A (acetyl-CoA) is a central molecule in the energy metabolism of mitochondria in our cells. Currais et al. show that two Alzheimer's disease (AD) drug candidates known to reduce cognitive decline in a mouse model of AD increase acetyl-CoA levels and preserve mitochondrial function. Here is their technical abstract:
Because old age is the greatest risk factor for dementia, a successful therapy will require an understanding of the physiological changes that occur in the brain with aging. Here, two structurally distinct Alzheimer's disease (AD) drug candidates, CMS121 and J147, were used to identify a unique molecular pathway that is shared between the aging brain and AD. CMS121 and J147 reduced cognitive decline as well as metabolic and transcriptional markers of aging in the brain when administered to rapidly aging SAMP8 mice. Both compounds preserved mitochondrial homeostasis by regulating acetyl-coenzyme A (acetyl-CoA) metabolism. CMS121 and J147 increased the levels of acetyl-CoA in cell culture and mice via the inhibition of acetyl-CoA carboxylase 1 (ACC1), resulting in neuroprotection and increased acetylation of histone H3K9 in SAMP8 mice, a site linked to memory enhancement. These data show that targeting specific metabolic aspects of the aging brain could result in treatments for dementia.