Archive for the 'Neuroscience' Category

Nov 10 2015

Dunning-Kruger in Groups

Published by under Neuroscience

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

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 Neuroscience

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 Neuroscience

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

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

Sep 29 2015

Study Correlates Brain Connections to Intelligence

Published by under Neuroscience

One marker of a good scientific study is that it provokes more questions than it answers. That thought kept occurring to me as I read a recent study: A positive-negative mode of population covariation links brain connectivity, demographics and behavior. The study essentially correlates specific patterns of brain connectivity – the degree to which different parts of the human brain talk to each other – with a suite of what are generally considered positive traits, such as education, income, and self-control.

Let me describe the study and then we’ll try to unpack the many layers of what such a study might mean.

The authors are among the first to avail themselves of the Human Connectome Project (HCP), part of the NIH funded BRAIN project. The HCP seeks to perform high definition function MRI scanning on 1,200 individuals while also gather large amounts of data about those same individuals, such as IQ testing, personality profile, and a host of demographic and historical information. The HCP has already released its data for the first 500 subjects to be scanned, so that other scientists can use the data for their own research.

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9 responses so far

Sep 03 2015

Thinking Style and Paranormal Belief

One burning question that comes up in skeptical circles is whether or not people who believe in the paranormal, are highly religious, or are enamored of conspiracy theories think differently than skeptics. Obviously they have different beliefs, but the question is whether or not their brains function differently in some respects from people who are more rational and scientific.

It certainly seems as if this is the case, but being skeptics we understand the irony of relying on intuition to conclude that other people rely more on intuition. Fortunately we have some psychological research to shed light on this question, including a recent study I will discuss below.

First let me dispense with the obvious false dichotomy – we should not think of this question as if there are two distinct types of people. Psychological studies will often do this, but they are simply dividing a continuum down the middle, or are only considering people at either end of the spectrum.

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155 responses so far

Aug 04 2015

Convincing Antivaxxers

A new study has been published in PNAS exploring methods for changing the attitudes of those who are anti-vaccine. The results differ from a previous study published last year in Pediatrics. Let’s explore their methods and results.

Both studies questioned subjects about their attitudes toward vaccines and their willingness to vaccinate their children. The Pediatrics study was web-based and recruited 1759 parents. They divided them into four groups:

(1) information explaining the lack of evidence that MMR causes autism from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; (2) textual information about the dangers of the diseases prevented by MMR from the Vaccine Information Statement; (3) images of children who have diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine; (4) a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet; or to a control group.

The PNAS study was in person, but only recruited 315 subjects. They divided people into three groups: 1) given information debunking vaccine myths, 2) told about the risks of measles and shown graphic images, 3) control group given information unrelated to vaccines.

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19 responses so far

Jul 21 2015

Expertise and the Illusion of Knowledge

Published by under Neuroscience

In general people think they know more than they do. This is arguably worse than mere ignorance – having the illusion of knowledge. Psychologist David Dunning (of the Dunning-Kruger effect) recently wrote in an editorial about his own study (which I discuss here):

“What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

Dunning was discussing the “ignorant mind.” Further, self-perceived expertise does not protect against this effect and in fact may make it worse. A new paper published in the latest issue of Psychological Science, When Knowledge Knows No Bounds: Self-Perceived Expertise Predicts Claims of Impossible Knowledge, presents four studies exploring the relationship between perceived expertise and the illusion of knowledge.

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29 responses so far

Jun 22 2015

Inside Out – A Neuroscience Metaphor

Published by under Neuroscience

I recently saw the new Pixar movie, Inside Out, which follows the inner workings of a young girl’s mind. (I will be discussing the premise, rather than the plot, of the movie so only mild spoilers.) As a neuroscientist of course I was interested in the metaphors that the writers chose to represent the workings of the human brain. They made many good choices, but there was also some interesting elements missing or misplaced.

Of course, I understand this is a movie. The writers made choices to make the movie enjoyable to children as well as adults, which means they likely made some choices to keep things simple. Other choices may have been driven by the needs of the plot, and still others simply to be cute and entertaining. I get it – this wasn’t a neurology lesson. For example, IMDb notes:

“The writers considered up to 27 different emotions, but settled on five (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger) to make it less complicated. Some of the major emotions that ended up being cut included Surprise, Pride, and Trust.”

Central Command

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8 responses so far

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