Friday, January 28, 2022

The stories we imagine while listening to music depends on our culture.

Margulis et al. (text from their introduction)
....compared quantitative measures of narrativity (the likelihood that an excerpt of music triggers a story in listeners minds) and narrative engagement (how vivid and clear the events of the story are in listeners minds) for a large set of musical excerpts from Western and Chinese musical traditions for listeners in the same three distinct geographical locations as the present investigation—two suburban college towns in the US Midwest and one rural village in the Chinese province of Guizhou. Results showed that people in all three locations readily narrativize to excerpts (i.e., narrativity scores were quite high) with varying levels of narrative engagement for both Western and Chinese instrumental music; moreover, people do so with about the same degree regardless of location. Notably, however, although both excerpt narrativity and narrative engagement scores were highly correlated across the two US locations, they were not correlated (not predictive) for cross-cultural comparisons between listeners in both of the US locations and the remote rural village in Guizhou.
Here is the article's abstsract:
The scientific literature sometimes considers music an abstract stimulus, devoid of explicit meaning, and at other times considers it a universal language. Here, individuals in three geographically distinct locations spanning two cultures performed a highly unconstrained task: they provided free-response descriptions of stories they imagined while listening to instrumental music. Tools from natural language processing revealed that listeners provide highly similar stories to the same musical excerpts when they share an underlying culture, but when they do not, the generated stories show limited overlap. These results paint a more complex picture of music’s power: music can generate remarkably similar stories in listeners’ minds, but the degree to which these imagined narratives are shared depends on the degree to which culture is shared across listeners. Thus, music is neither an abstract stimulus nor a universal language but has semantic affordances shaped by culture, requiring more sustained attention from psychology.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Our brains have multiple representations of the same body part.

Here is a neat finding. Remember your elementary biology textbook picture of the homunculi in our somatosensory and motor cortices? The small human figure spread across the surface of the brain, with a cortical location for each part of the hand or other body part? Matsumiya shows that when we direct our eye and hand movements to the same body part these two movements are found to be guided by different body maps! Here is his abstract:  

Significance

Accurate motor control depends on maps of the body in the brain, called the body schema. Disorders of the body schema cause motor deficits. Although we often execute actions with different motor systems such as the eye and hand, how the body schema operates during such actions is unknown. In this study, participants simultaneously directed eye and hand movements to the same body part. These two movements were found to be guided by different body maps. This finding demonstrates multiple motor system–specific representations of the body schema, suggesting that the choice of motor system toward one’s body can determine which of the brain’s body maps is observed. This may offer a new way to visualize patients’ body schema.
Abstract
Purposeful motor actions depend on the brain’s representation of the body, called the body schema, and disorders of the body schema have been reported to show motor deficits. The body schema has been assumed for almost a century to be a common body representation supporting all types of motor actions, and previous studies have considered only a single motor action. Although we often execute multiple motor actions, how the body schema operates during such actions is unknown. To address this issue, I developed a technique to measure the body schema during multiple motor actions. Participants made simultaneous eye and reach movements to the same location of 10 landmarks on their hand. By analyzing the internal configuration of the locations of these points for each of the eye and reach movements, I produced maps of the mental representation of hand shape. Despite these two movements being simultaneously directed to the same bodily location, the resulting hand map (i.e., a part of the body schema) was much more distorted for reach movements than for eye movements. Furthermore, the weighting of visual and proprioceptive bodily cues to build up this part of the body schema differed for each effector. These results demonstrate that the body schema is organized as multiple effector-specific body representations. I propose that the choice of effector toward one’s body can determine which body representation in the brain is observed and that this visualization approach may offer a new way to understand patients’ body schema.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Using big data to track major shifts in human cognition

I want to pass on the first few paragraphs of a fascinating commentary by Simon DeDao on an article by Scheffer et al. that was the subject of MindBlog's 12/31/21 post. Motivated readers can obtain a copy of the whole article by emailing me.:
Scheffer et al.’s (1) exciting new work reports an historic rearrangement, occurring in the late 20th century, of the balance between reason and emotion. Its approach is part of a new trend in the psychological sciences that uses extremely large volumes of text to study basic patterns of human cognition. Recent work in this vein has included studies of the universal properties of gender representations (2), the rise of causal thinking (3), and a cognitive bias towards positivity in language itself (4). The goal of going “from text to thought” (5) is an attractive one, and the promise of the machine learning era is that we will only get better at extracting the imprints left, in text, by the mechanisms of the mind.
To establish their claims, Scheffer et al. (1) use principal component analysis to identify two major polarities of correlated vocabulary words in the Google Books corpus (6). The first polarity (PC1) tracks a shift from archaic to modern, in both material life (“iron” is archaic, “computer” is modern) and culture (“liberty” is archaic, “privacy” is modern). The second polarity (PC2) that emerges is the intriguing one, and forms the basis of their paper: Its two poles, the authors argue, correspond to the distinction between “rational” and “intuitive” language.
Their main finding then has two pieces: a shift from the intuitive pole to the rational pole (the “rise” of rationality) and then back (the “fall”) (1). The rise has begun by the start of their data in 1850, and unfolds over the course of a century or more. They attribute it to a society increasingly concerned with quantifying, and justifying, the world through scientific and impersonal language—a gradual tightening of Max Weber’s famous “iron cage” of collectivized, rationalized bureaucracy in service of the capitalist profit motive (7). The fall, meaning a shift from the rational back to the intuitive, begins in 1980, and is more rapid than the rise: By 2020, the balance is similar to that seen in the early 1900s. The fall appears to accelerate in the early 2000s, which leads the authors to associate it with social media use and a “post-truth era” where “feelings trump facts.” Both these interpretations are supported by accompanying shifts toward “collective” pronouns (we, our, and they) in the Weberian period, and then toward the “individualistic” ones (I, my, he, and she) after.
The raw effect sizes the authors report are extraordinarily large (1). At the peak in 1980, rationality words outnumbered intuition words, on average, three to one. Forty years later (and 100 y earlier), however, the balance was roughly one to one. If these represent changes in actual language use, let alone the time devoted to the underlying cognitive processes, they are enormous shifts in the nature of human experience.
1. M. Scheffer, I. van de Leemput, E. Weinans, J. Bollen, The rise and fall of rationality in language. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 118, e2107848118 (2021).
2. T. E. S. Charlesworth, V. Yang, T. C. Mann, B. Kurdi, M. R. Banaji, Gender stereotypes in natural language: Word embeddings show robust consistency across child and adult language corpora of more than 65 million words. Psychol. Sci. 32, 218–240 (2021).
3. R. Iliev, R. Axelrod, Does causality matter more now? Increase in the proportion of causal language in English texts. Psychol. Sci. 27, 635–643 (2016).
4. P. S. Dodds et al, Human language reveals a universal positivity bias. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 112, 2389–2394 (2015).
5. J. C. Jackson et al, From text to thought: How analyzing language can advance psychological science. Perspect. Psychol. Sci., 10.117/17456916211004899 (2021).
6. J. B. Michel et al.; Google Books Team, Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books. Science 331, 176–182 (2011).

Friday, January 21, 2022

What is working for you and what is not?

This post passes on to MindBlog readers the discussion topic for a Feb 6 2:00 p.m. (CST) Zoom meeting of The Austin Rainbow Forum, which I coordinate along with fellow Austinites Darrell Laremore and Charles Curry. If you are interested in attending the session please email forumaustin@gmail.com.

What is working for you and what is not? Are things as bad as most of the media suggest? We are freer, richer, safer than we have ever been before, yet anxiety and suicides are at all-time highs. What sets our ratio of hopelessness to hopefulness?  Do we have overactive fear, negativity, and blame biases?  Below is  a selection of background reading relevant to optimism versus pessimism. 

Maybe things are not as bad as we think

Most People are Good

Social Media isn’t the problem…We are.

Antidotes to anxiety and hopelessness

How to stay optimistic when everything seems wrong.

How to be more optimistic

The Compassionate Instinct

What can go wrong - the tide of bad news from our media

America Is Falling Apart at the Seams

The Mental Health Toll of Trump-Era Politics

Going Bananas in the Age of Anxiety

More optimistic long term views

 Hans Rosling: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World - and Why Things are Better Than you Think.    (10 psychological instincts that mislead us, for example to excess fear, negativity, blame, etc. - The link takes you to the first of a series of four blog posts abstracting the main points of the book)

Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress   (The link takes you to a series  of posts abstracting the main points of the book).

Nicholas A. Christakis: Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society  

Can monitoring brain waves boost mental health?

David Dodge does an interesting article asking whether neurofeedback has delivered the mental health revolution it has been promising for decades. The bottom line is that no experiments with proper double-blind controls have been convincing, and positive results obtained in less rigorous experiments with small numbers of subjects could be due to placebo effects.
Well-heeled investors, including the former secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, continue to pour millions into neurofeedback companies that promise dramatic improvements to the ways our brains function...However, neurofeedback is still not accepted as a mainstream treatment within mental health circles — and the most robust research into the intervention so far suggests it is no more effective than a placebo.
Practitioners across the country use neurofeedback to treat conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, epilepsy and traumatic brain injuries. The Food and Drug Administration has cleared a wide range of neurofeedback devices to treat these and other conditions, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list it as an option in cases of ADHD in children, though they stop short of endorsing it.
Robert Thibault, a postdoctoral scholar at the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford University, notes that neurofeedback advocates point to peer-reviewed research that have “impressive results,” but most are not rigorous double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. Of the dozen or so such trials, all but one concluded that fake neurofeedback works just as well as real neurofeedback...neurofeedback therapy success stories are likely caused by the placebo effect and not the treatment. He suggested that the therapy’s success may have something to do with the “healing environment” that practitioners create in their clinics or the allure of using sophisticated brain-monitoring technology.
In many instances, an online course is all that is needed to earn the certificate required to operate one of the dozens of neurofeedback devices on the market...Some companies skip the practitioner entirely by selling pricey neurofeedback devices directly to consumers...While its effectiveness is still debated, neurofeedback is generally thought to be safe. Even critics admit there are few side effects or downsides for those who have the time and money.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

C.E.O.s are our heroes, at least according to them.

An interesting article by Peter Goodman, explains how corporations that claim to be serving the larger common good pay zero taxes. I suggest you read the whole article, which focuses on Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, and will pass on one passage that particularly struck me:
His philanthropic efforts have been directed at easing homelessness in San Francisco, while expanding health care for children. He and Salesforce collectively contributed $7 million toward a successful 2018 campaign for a local ballot measure that levied fresh taxes on San Francisco companies to finance expanded programs. The new taxes were likely to cost Salesforce $10 million a year.
That sounded like a lot of money, ostensible evidence of a socially conscious C.E.O. sacrificing the bottom line in the interest of catering to societal needs. But it was less than a trifle alongside the money that Salesforce withheld from the government through legal tax subterfuge.
The same year that Mr. Benioff backed the ballot measure, his company recorded revenues exceeding $13 billion while paying the modest sum of zero in federal taxes. Salesforce deployed 14 tax subsidiaries scattered from Singapore to Switzerland, moving its money and assets around in a masterful display of accounting hocus-pocus that made its taxable income vanish..Salesforce repeated the trick in 2020, paying no federal taxes despite reporting $2.6 billion in profit.
During President Bill Clinton’s administration, the Treasury Department opened up a loophole that enabled executives at multinational corporations to set up subsidiaries in foreign countries that beckoned with low taxes — Ireland was a popular choice — and then legally transfer their intellectual property there. Their new international outposts charged the rest of the corporation exorbitant licensing fees to use the intellectual property.
The net effect: On their American earnings statements, the wealthiest corporations looked like money losers, paying taxes accordingly.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Different circuits in the brain for reward seeking and novelty seeking.

Work by Ogasawara et al. is noted by Peter Stern.
Novelty seeking is a key feature of intelligent behavior and adaptive cognition. However, we know little about the circuits that regulate our attraction to novel objects for novelty’s sake. Ogasawara et al. discovered that a brain nucleus called the zona incerta was causally related to novelty seeking. A region in the anterior medial temporal lobe projected to the zona incerta and sent motivational signals required to control novelty seeking through the zona incerta circuit. A novelty-seeking task, in which monkeys were motivated by the receipt of novel objects, showed that this behavior was not regulated by the dopamine reward-seeking circuitry. This work provides evidence for a clear dissociation in the brain circuitry between reward seeking and novelty seeking.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Unlocking adults’ implicit statistical learning by cognitive depletion

Smalle et al. make the fascinating observation that inhibition of our adult cognitive control system by non-invasive brain stimulation can unleash some of our infant implicit statistical learning abilities - the learning of novel words embedded in a string of spoken syllables. This suggests that adult language learning is antagonized by higher cognitive mechanisms.  

Significance

Statistical learning mechanisms enable extraction of patterns in the environment from infancy to adulthood. For example, they enable segmentation of continuous speech streams into novel words. Adults typically become aware of the hidden words even when passively listening to speech streams. It remains poorly understood how cognitive development and brain maturation affect implicit statistical learning (i.e., infant-like learning without awareness). Here, we show that the depletion of the cognitive control system by noninvasive brain stimulation or by demanding cognitive tasks boosts adults’ implicit but not explicit word-segmentation abilities. These findings suggest that the adult cognitive architecture constrains statistical learning mechanisms that are likely to contribute to early language acquisition and opens avenues to enhance language-learning abilities in adults.
Abstract
Human learning is supported by multiple neural mechanisms that maturate at different rates and interact in mostly cooperative but also sometimes competitive ways. We tested the hypothesis that mature cognitive mechanisms constrain implicit statistical learning mechanisms that contribute to early language acquisition. Specifically, we tested the prediction that depleting cognitive control mechanisms in adults enhances their implicit, auditory word-segmentation abilities. Young adults were exposed to continuous streams of syllables that repeated into hidden novel words while watching a silent film. Afterward, learning was measured in a forced-choice test that contrasted hidden words with nonwords. The participants also had to indicate whether they explicitly recalled the word or not in order to dissociate explicit versus implicit knowledge. We additionally measured electroencephalography during exposure to measure neural entrainment to the repeating words. Engagement of the cognitive mechanisms was manipulated by using two methods. In experiment 1 (n = 36), inhibitory theta-burst stimulation (TBS) was applied to the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex or to a control region. In experiment 2 (n = 60), participants performed a dual working-memory task that induced high or low levels of cognitive fatigue. In both experiments, cognitive depletion enhanced word recognition, especially when participants reported low confidence in remembering the words (i.e., when their knowledge was implicit). TBS additionally modulated neural entrainment to the words and syllables. These findings suggest that cognitive depletion improves the acquisition of linguistic knowledge in adults by unlocking implicit statistical learning mechanisms and support the hypothesis that adult language learning is antagonized by higher cognitive mechanisms.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Children universally across societies enforce conventional norms but in culturally variable ways

From Kanngiesser et al. in PNAS:
Humans, as compared with other animals, create and follow conventional norms that determine how we greet each other, dress, or play certain games. Conventional norms are universal in all human societies, but it is an open question whether individuals in all societies also actively enforce conventional norms when others in their group break them. We investigated third-party enforcement of conventional norms in 5- to 8-y-old children (n = 376) from eight diverse small-scale and large-scale societies. Children learned the rules for playing a new sorting game and then, observed a peer who was apparently breaking them. Across societies, observer children intervened frequently to correct their misguided peer (i.e., more frequently than when the peer was following the rules). However, both the magnitude and the style of interventions varied across societies. Detailed analyses of children’s interactions revealed societal differences in children’s verbal protest styles as well as in their use of actions, gestures, and nonverbal expressions to intervene. Observers’ interventions predicted whether their peer adopted the observer’s sorting rule. Enforcement of conventional norms appears to be an early emerging human universal that comes to be expressed in culturally variable ways.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Transcranial stimulation of alpha oscillations up-regulates the default mode network

Interesting work from Clancy et al. on the brain's default mode network that carries out our self referential rumination: Significance
In the brain’s functional organization, the default mode network (DMN) represents a key architecture, whose dysregulation is involved in a host of major neuropsychiatric disorders. However, insights into the regulation of the DMN remain scarce. Through neural synchrony, the alpha-frequency oscillation represents another key underpinning of the brain’s organization and is thought to share an inherent interdependence with the DMN. Here, we demonstrated that transcranial alternating current stimulation of alpha oscillations (α-tACS) not only augmented alpha activity but also strengthened connectivity of the DMN, with the former serving as a mediator of the latter. These findings reveal that alpha oscillations can support DMN functioning. In addition, they identify an effective noninvasive approach to regulate the DMN via α-tACS.
Abstract
The default mode network (DMN) is the most-prominent intrinsic connectivity network, serving as a key architecture of the brain’s functional organization. Conversely, dysregulated DMN is characteristic of major neuropsychiatric disorders. However, the field still lacks mechanistic insights into the regulation of the DMN and effective interventions for DMN dysregulation. The current study approached this problem by manipulating neural synchrony, particularly alpha (8 to 12 Hz) oscillations, a dominant intrinsic oscillatory activity that has been increasingly associated with the DMN in both function and physiology. Using high-definition alpha-frequency transcranial alternating current stimulation (α-tACS) to stimulate the cortical source of alpha oscillations, in combination with simultaneous electroencephalography and functional MRI (EEG-fMRI), we demonstrated that α-tACS (versus Sham control) not only augmented EEG alpha oscillations but also strengthened fMRI and (source-level) alpha connectivity within the core of the DMN. Importantly, increase in alpha oscillations mediated the DMN connectivity enhancement. These findings thus identify a mechanistic link between alpha oscillations and DMN functioning. That transcranial alpha modulation can up-regulate the DMN further highlights an effective noninvasive intervention to normalize DMN functioning in various disorders.

Friday, January 07, 2022

Twitter amplifies the political right more than the political left

You should read this open source editorial in PNAS by Susan Fiske "Twitter Manipulates your feed: Ethical considerations," a commentary on the article by Huszár et al., "Algorithmic amplification of politics on Twitter," in the same issue. Here is the Huszár et al. abstract:  

Significance

The role of social media in political discourse has been the topic of intense scholarly and public debate. Politicians and commentators from all sides allege that Twitter’s algorithms amplify their opponents’ voices, or silence theirs. Policy makers and researchers have thus called for increased transparency on how algorithms influence exposure to political content on the platform. Based on a massive-scale experiment involving millions of Twitter users, a fine-grained analysis of political parties in seven countries, and 6.2 million news articles shared in the United States, this study carries out the most comprehensive audit of an algorithmic recommender system and its effects on political content. Results unveil that the political right enjoys higher amplification compared to the political left.

 Abstract

Content on Twitter’s home timeline is selected and ordered by personalization algorithms. By consistently ranking certain content higher, these algorithms may amplify some messages while reducing the visibility of others. There’s been intense public and scholarly debate about the possibility that some political groups benefit more from algorithmic amplification than others. We provide quantitative evidence from a long-running, massive-scale randomized experiment on the Twitter platform that committed a randomized control group including nearly 2 million daily active accounts to a reverse-chronological content feed free of algorithmic personalization. We present two sets of findings. First, we studied tweets by elected legislators from major political parties in seven countries. Our results reveal a remarkably consistent trend: In six out of seven countries studied, the mainstream political right enjoys higher algorithmic amplification than the mainstream political left. Consistent with this overall trend, our second set of findings studying the US media landscape revealed that algorithmic amplification favors right-leaning news sources. We further looked at whether algorithms amplify far-left and far-right political groups more than moderate ones; contrary to prevailing public belief, we did not find evidence to support this hypothesis. We hope our findings will contribute to an evidence-based debate on the role personalization algorithms play in shaping political content consumption.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Higher performance and fronto-parietal brain activity following active versus passive learning

From a brief open source PNAS report by Stillesjö et al. that has a nice graphic of the fMRI data supporting their observations:
We here demonstrate common neurocognitive long-term memory effects of active learning that generalize over course subjects (mathematics and vocabulary) by the use of fMRI. One week after active learning, relative to more passive learning, performance and fronto-parietal brain activity was significantly higher during retesting, possibly related to the formation and reactivation of semantic representations. These observations indicate that active learning conditions stimulate common processes that become part of the representations and can be reactivated during retrieval to support performance. Our findings are of broad interest and educational significance related to the emerging consensus of active learning as critical in promoting good long-term retention.

Monday, January 03, 2022

The Power of Us

A recent New York Times essay by Jon Mooallem, "Is life better when we're together?" is worth a read, and references work of Packer and Van Bavel described in their new book "The Power of Us." Their experiments, a continuation of work started by psychologist Henri Tafjel in the 1970s, illustrate how our social brains are programmed to organize us into "us" and "them" groups on the basis of sometimes completely arbitrary and trivial criteria, as in assigning a study group of subjects into groups A and B on the basis of a coin toss.  Tafjel's work is also referenced in another excellent article by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, "How Politics Got So Polarized."  She reviews a number of recent books in this area, and also notes the phenomenon of "false polarization" - views of the extremes predominate as the moderate majority of people withdraw from the fray of commentary.

Here are some clips from the Mooallem article, the first noting Tafjel's experiments on high school students in Bristol, England.

...biases locked in right away. Overwhelmingly, people in Dr. Tajfel’s experiment gave more of the money he put at their disposal to members of their own group than the other. Moreover, they were bent on creating as large a disparity as possible, even when offered the option of maximizing the amount of money for everyone, at no cost. Their behavior seemed vindictive, “a clear case of gratuitous discrimination,” Dr. Tajfel wrote.
Since then, other researchers have run their own minimal group experiments, pushing those findings further. Dr. Packer and Dr. Van Bavel have split people into leopards and tigers, for example. Others have gone maximally minimal and divided people into group A and group B. Still, the pride — the readiness to connect — is always there. When you tell people they’re in group A, Dr. Packer says, those people are reliably psyched to be in group A. Stick leopard people in a brain imaging machine and show them a picture of a stranger, and their brain activity changes if they know that the stranger is a leopard person, too. Their positivity toward other leopard people increases and even supersedes racial biases that cut the other way.
Dr. Packer and Dr. Van Bavel call the minimal group studies “among the most important studies in the history of psychology.” They demonstrate that “the human sense of self — your gravitational center — does not stay in the same place. With a flip of a coin, people constructed entirely new identities in a matter of minutes.”...The rewards of this kind of connectedness wind up driving all kinds of wonderful human behavior, sometimes less obviously than we’d assume.
But it also leads to the behaviors shown by the insurrections of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
It’s hard to imagine more antisocial behavior than attempting to undo a democratic election with mayhem and violence. But the insurrectionists were doing it together, and pretty joyously, it seemed — snapping selfies, posting them to Facebook with stupid jokes in real time. It was, within their community, a prosocial activity, too.
When a system appears to be malfunctioning, indifferent, reckless or corrupt, that’s a kind of disaster, and people are likely to come together and respond, for better or worse...Some will be volunteers, and some will be vigilantes. But both may be reacting to a similar feeling of free fall, of tumbling. This doesn’t make them morally equivalent; in the end, morality is what keeps them from being equivalent. I know it’s important to keep drawing that distinction, to keep calling it out. I also know it’s not enough.