Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

Dec 22 2015

The Genetics of Intelligence

Published by under Neuroscience

DNA1A new study published in Nature Neuroscience explores genes that correlate with intelligence in healthy individuals as well as those with epilepsy and cognitive disorders. They looked at the brains of patients undergoing surgery for epilepsy, which means that a sample of their brain tissue was available. This allowed them to find which genes were highly expressed in brain tissue.

They then combined this data with other data sets including genetic analysis and IQ testing on healthy individuals and those with developmental disorders. They analysed thousands of genes to find those that correlate with differences in IQ.

They found that there are two sets of genes, which they are calling M1 and M3, that highly correlate with intelligence. M3 contains 150 genes that are tightly developmentally regulated. Keep in mind these are genes that they know are highly expressed in the brain.

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24 responses so far

Dec 10 2015

Delayed Gratification and the Brain

Published by under Uncategorized

Neuroscientists, both psychologists and neurobiologists, have been studying the phenomenon of delayed gratification. This is the ability to make choices that deny oneself an immediate or short-term benefit in order to garner a greater long term benefit. A recent study looks at the genetics associated with the ability to delay gratification.

Researchers use a study paradigm known as the marshmallow test to study impulsivity and the ability to delay gratification. The first such studies were conducted in the 1960s and 70s by Walter Mischel, then at Stanford University. Children in the study were offered a small treat, such as a marshmallow, immediately, or were told they could have two treats if they were willing to wait 15 minutes, during which time the researcher left the child alone with the marshmallow.

Follow up studies found that children who were able to hold off on eating the marshmallow had numerous better life outcomes – better academic performance, more successful marriages, better careers, and lower BMI.

Not surprisingly, children with ADHD perform worse on the marshmallow test.

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11 responses so far

Dec 08 2015

What Are You Afraid Of?

Published by under Uncategorized

Fear is an adaptive emotion, phylogenetically ancient, and anatomically located mostly in the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. Understanding fear, however, is about more than neuroanatomy. It is interesting to think what people generally fear, why, and what do they do about it.

Fear is an anxious feeling that can focus on either a current active threat (like being chased by a predator) or on the anticipation of a future negative event. It’s easy to see how that feeling would be adaptive – we worry about bad things happening in the future so that we will take action to prevent or at least mitigate them.

What We Fear?

Psychologists have identified five basic fears, out of which most other fears are based. They are: fear of death, mutilation, loss of autonomy, separation, and “ego death” which is the fear of humiliation or shame.

Despite the obvious adaptive function of fear, many people fear the wrong things, meaning that their fear and anxiety is not proportional to actual threat. This mismatch is maladaptive, so why is it the case?

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25 responses so far

Dec 03 2015

Detecting BS

Published by under Uncategorized

A new study is getting a lot of attention, partly because of its provocative title: On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. It also seems that people generally like to hear stories about how dumb other people are. That is why I often emphasize that such studies are not about “other” people, they are about people.

In this case, however, the researchers do find that there are subsets of subjects who react differently to what they call “pseudo-profound bullshit.” They write:

Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous. We presented participants with bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”).

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77 responses so far

Dec 01 2015

Male and Female Brains

Published by under Uncategorized

Is it more accurate to say that male and female brains are generally the same or categorically different? This question has been somewhat of a controversy, both scientifically and culturally. A new extensive comparison of male and female brains with fMRI scans hopes to provide a definitive answer.

First for some background, we need to address the basic question of how we even approach or address the issue of categorization. Nature is fuzzy and complex, but humans tend to prefer neat and tidy categories to simplify the task of keeping track of everything, and even to help our understanding. There is therefore frequently a conflict between our desires and reality when it comes to creating categories.

The Pluto controversy is a good example of this, one which was surprisingly heated despite the fact that there are no real social or political issues at stake. There is no objective and definitive line between planets as solar system objects and other planet-like objects. Astronomers had to come up with some rules, rules that are unambiguous to apply. Ideally, such rules of categorization will reflect some underlying phenomenon, in this case, for example, how planets form.

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18 responses so far

Nov 10 2015

Dunning-Kruger in Groups

Published by under Uncategorized

This research was published in February of this year, but somehow I missed it when it came out. Fortunately, the internet never forgets, and the study is making the rounds again on social media, this time getting caught in my net.

The study is an examination of how we make decisions in groups, with the specific question of how we weight the opinions of different members of the group. The researchers studied pairs of subjects (which they call dyads) who were given a specific task, such as identifying a target in a photo they are able to briefly glimpse. Each member of the dyad registers their choice. If they disagree, then one member is chosen at random to be the arbiter. The question is – will the arbiter favor their own opinion, or that of their partner?

For each pair 256 trials were run, and after each one they were given feedback as to who was correct. The idea is that each member of the pair would learn who was performing better. In one experiment they were given a running tally, to make sure they knew who was performing better. In another the task was made more difficult for one partner, increasing the difference in their performance, and in a final experiment the pair was given a financial incentive to perform better.

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16 responses so far

Oct 29 2015

Superbrain Yoga is BS

Published by under Uncategorized

Here is the latest fad to make you smarter with one easy trick – Superbrain Yoga. The technique is simple (and worthless, but we’ll get to that).

All you have to do is touch your left hand to your right earlobe, your right hand to your left earlobe, take a deep breath, and do a squat. Who knew it could be so easy to improve your brain function. There are a few more details, helpfully shared by Parenting Special Needs magazine:

– Connect your tongue to your palate.
– Face East
– The left arm must be inside and the right arm must be outside (over the left arm).
– Inhale while squatting down and exhale while standing up.
– You thumbs should be touching the front part of your earlobes, index fingers behind the earlobes.
– Perform the exercise 14-21 times, once or twice a day.

Facing East is very important, because magic.

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6 responses so far

Oct 23 2015

AI and the Chinese Room Argument

Published by under Uncategorized

In 1980 John Searle proposed what has come to be known as the Chinese Room Argument as a refutation of the functionalist theory of consciousness. This is a thought experiment, much like the other most famous thought experiment in artificial intelligence (AI), the Turing test.

Searle asks you to imagine a native English speaker with no knowledge in Chinese in a locked room with a large number of reference books. Slips of paper with Chinese symbols are passed under the door. The person then looks up the symbols in the reference books, copies the associated symbols onto the paper, and passes it back. In this way the person is generating answers to the questions he is being asked without any understand at all.

I was recently asked this question about the Chines Room Argument:

“My question is, isn’t Searle basically saying that the mind is magical? If the system / room / program can be arbitrarily complex and is able to learn, surely there is nothing material that sets it apart from the brain? I guess I am siding with the epiphenomenalist critics of the argument.”

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156 responses so far

Oct 15 2015

The Nature of Hallucinations

Published by under Uncategorized

A new study tests a hypothesis about the nature of hallucinations, which is a sensory perception not connected to reality (an illusion, by contrast, is a misperception of something that is there). The question the researchers were addressing is whether hallucinations are best understood as a shift in the balance of a normal brain function.

This is an interesting general question in trying to understand brain function and disorders. Many brain disorders are understood not as something in the brain being “broken” but simply out of its optimal parameters. Anxiety is a great example. The phenomenon of anxiety is a healthy and necessary brain function. If you completely lacked anxiety you would lack the motivation to look both ways before crossing the street, or even to have a job or take care of yourself. Too much anxiety, however, can become uncomfortable or even crippling.

The question is, does this same logic apply to hallucinations? Researchers from Cambridge and Cardiff Universities in the UK think the answer is yes.

The basic brain function they think is altered in hallucinations is the relationship between what they call top-down vs bottom-up perception. Bottom up perception involves sensory information being processed by primary sensory systems in the brain, then being passed onto higher and higher systems for analysis, construction, and assigning of meaning.

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14 responses so far

Oct 05 2015

Innumeracy – The Hot Hands Debate Continues

Published by under Uncategorized

There is a general consensus that people overall do not have a good intuitive grasp of statistics. In addition, there are multiple biases filtering our perception and memory. Therefore we tend to engage in a biased evaluation of biased data. The entire gambling industry depends on this fact.

As an example, consider the famous Monty Hall problem. In the classic game show, Let’s Make a Deal, the host Monty Hall would often show three doors to the contestant. In this problem Monty Hall says that behind two of the doors there are goats and behind one there is a new car. The contestant chooses one of the three doors. Monty (who knows where the car is) then opens one of the doors the contestant did not choose to reveal one of the two goats. He then offers the contestant the opportunity to change their pick to the other remaining door. Should they switch?

The answer is unequivocally yes. Yet many people have a very difficult time grasping the statistics behind the explanation. In fact, statistics can be so counter-intuitive that the world’s psychology researchers may in fact perpetuate an error for thirty years before someone realizes it. That is what two researchers (Miller and Sanjurjo) are now claiming.

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82 responses so far

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