Saturday, December 18, 2010

A quick departure for my hobby

I'm a photography guy. I love it. I'm still what would be considered an amateur at best , but I'm continually studying and practicing to hone my skill.

Anyhow, I just found a new site called LensHero. It's a site that allows you to compare any lenses you like or you can ask it for suggestions based on your needs.

I just did a search on lenses for my Canon T1i for "Low light situations" and it gave me a report on several lenses from Canon and Sigma in the 20 - 80mm range (all prime lenses) and on Tamaron 60mm lens. It provides a very slick look at some vital stats to let you compare across the range.

It looks terrific as a research tool, but I'd really like to see a little more in two specific areas. First there should be some way of showing recommendations or some kind of rating system. For example, they have both a Canon and a Sigma 50mm lens. The Sigma is more expensive, and I'd like to know if it's worth the extra cost.

Second, I think they're missing a few things that would be nice to know from a lens buying perspective such as: number of elements to the lens (affecting the complexity of the lens) and the number of blades used for the aperture (affecting the bokeh).

But, those two quibbles aside, I think it's a great starting point for your lens purchasing research.

LensHero | DSLR Lenses

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Drug Treatment Could Sharpen Adult Brains

Drug Treatment Could Sharpen Adult Brains: "

Tests in mice show potential for reversing the slowdown in learning that comes with puberty

Anyone who's tried to learn a second language knows that the earlier in life you start, the easier it is to learn. Now, a scientist at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center (SUNY) has not only discovered why learning becomes much harder after puberty, but also how to fix it. The SUNY team found that learning difficulty resulted from the proliferation of special chemical receptors during adolescence, and that the stress steroid THP could reverse the problem.

Sheryl Smith, the lead SUNY researcher, first discovered the learning impairment receptors in 2007, but only recently did she link the spread of the receptors during puberty to increased difficulty learning. Smith tested mice on a rotating walkway containing an electrified section of track. Young mice and older mice learned to avoid the electric shock after only one pass. The pubescent mice, however, failed to learn even after multiple passes, shocking themselves again and again.

Later, Smith began providing the mice with THP, a hormone that lowers stress in young and adult mice, but actually increases stress in teenage mice. Surprisingly, the increased stress counteracted the learning disability, allowing the adolescent mice to learn to avoid electrocution much faster.

This research holds significant promise for human teenagers with learning disabilities, but even Smith cautioned that it will be some time before this research can be applied to humans. Of course, considering how stressful high school life can be already, I'm not sure any teens would volunteer.

[New Scientist]

The Case for Teaching Less Math in Schools

Couldn't agree more. We already overload our students with all the testing requirements. Although, that is somewhat cultural - many other countries have much, MUCH stricter and more consequential testing in place.

When Less is More: The Case for Teaching Less Math in Schools | Psychology Today

The Genetics of Temperament

The Brain Rules blog is quite excellent. As are the books.

Brain Rules: The Genetics of Temperament

Study: Video games can hurt schoolwork

Study: Video games can hurt schoolwork: "Parents who fear that buying a video game system will hurt their kids' schoolwork might be right."

'My Brain Made Me Do It'

'My Brain Made Me Do It': "(Prometheus Books) As scientists explore how the brain works, it's likely that new findings will alter our understanding of human nature, particularly free will. Do our decisions arise from purely mechanistic processes? Is our feeling of self-control an illusion created by our brains? What will become of free will and moral responsibility? 'My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility,' answers these fascinating questions and more."

fMRI becomes big, big science

fMRI becomes big, big science: "There are probably lots of criteria you could use to determine the relative importance of different scientific disciplines, but the one I like best is the Largest Number of Authors on a Paper. Physicists have long had their hundred-authored papers (see for example this individual here; be sure to click on the “show all authors/affiliations” [...]...

Biswal, B., Mennes, M., Zuo, X., Gohel, S., Kelly, C., Smith, S., Beckmann, C., Adelstein, J., Buckner, R., Colcombe, S.... (2010) Toward discovery science of human brain function. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(10), 4734-4739. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0911855107 Toward discovery science of human brain function

Can going to church change your views of god?

Can going to church change your views of god?: "Christians don't agree on the nature of their god. Their different ideas are many and varied, but one broad way of looking at it is that they tend to believe either in a personal god (one who takes an active, day-to-day interest in people's lives and also intervenes), or an impersonal, distant god (the sort of god who lights the blue touch paper at the moment of creation and then retires to a safe distance).So who believes in what kind of god? Well, that's the topic of a recent paper by Scott Schieman at the University of Toronto (I was going to post on an anxiety study today, but Schieman's paper has recently hit the newswires, and the reports miss what's really the central point of his study).We already know that poor people, the poorly educated, African-Americans, and women - i.e. people with low social status - tend to prefer an active, personal god. That's not too surprising.What Schieman wanted to know was whether belief in a personal god was linked to religious activities. He found that it was, and in an intriguing way.He took data from the Baylor religion survey, and compared individual's socio-economic status (a combination of income and education) and compared it with beliefs in divine involvement and divine control. He did that by creating a statistical model derived from the data, and you can see one of the outputs from that model in this figure.The figure shows how belief in divine involvement varies with socioeconomic status for three different groups: people who go to church weekly, those who go several times a year, and those who never go to church.Look first at the right-hand side of the graph (where the rich people are). It shows what you might expect: people who go Church every week tend to believe in divine involvement, but people who never go to church are less likely to (but they still score fairly high).Now look at people with low status, on the left. All of them have high levels of beliefs in divine involvement - even if they don't go to Church!The effect of that is that, among people who go to church weekly, levels of belief in divine involvement stay high as you move up the socio-economic scale. For people who never go to Church, these beliefs drop away as you progress upwards.Schieman interprets this as evidence that going to church regularly can reinforce belief in divine involvement:My observations ... [contest] the view that SES is uniformly associated with lower levels of belief in divine involvement and control. The finding that high SES individuals tend to report similar levels of divine involvement and control as their low SES peers—when they share high levels of religious involvement—challenges the assertion that higher SES contributes to “demythologized beliefs” processes. In contrast, the results are more consistent with the view that exposure to messages and lessons in religious activities reinforces systems of “religious explanations”— especially doctrine about God’s involvement and causal relevance in everyday life.What he's saying is that the reason high status people don't believe in a personal god is not because their education and wealth persuade them that such beliefs are wrong, but rather because they stop going to church. And when they stop going to church, their beliefs in a personal god are no longer reinforced.He does also acknowledge that causality can work in the other direction (high status people who don't believe in a personal god don't go to church). However, after pondering this one quite a bit, I suspect he's on to something.After all, there are lots of reasons for a low status person to believe in a personal god, even if they don't go to church. That's fairly uncontroversial.But you can well imagine that a high status person might have reasons to go to church, even if they don't believe in a personal god. And yet, those that do go to church regularly do actually believe in a personal god.Could it be that repeated exposure to an environment that promotes a particular ideology actually influences your beliefs, despite all the external factors that work to undermine them? It wouldn't be the first time that had happened!Schieman, S. (2010). Socioeconomic Status and Beliefs about God's Influence in Everyday Life Sociology of Religion, 71 (1), 25-51 DOI: 10.1093/socrel/srq004 This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons....

Belief in free will is a belief in vitalism

Belief in free will is a belief in vitalism: "Any readers who have checked out my web lectures or podcasts (particularly the "I-Illusion") know how I deal with the topic of free will and determinism. I would recommend that those of you interested in this topic read this excellent open access essay in PNAS by Anthony Cashmore. (Figure 1 is a nice summary of models for the flow of information between unconscious neural activity and conscious thought.) The abstract and a figure:
It is widely believed, at least in scientific circles, that living systems, including mankind, obey the natural physical laws. However, it is also commonly accepted that man has the capacity to make “free” conscious decisions that do not simply reflect the chemical makeup of the individual at the time of decision—this chemical makeup reflecting both the genetic and environmental history and a degree of stochasticism. Whereas philosophers have discussed for centuries the apparent lack of a causal component for free will, many biologists still seem to be remarkably at ease with this notion of free will; and furthermore, our judicial system is based on such a belief. It is the author’s contention that a belief in free will is nothing other than a continuing belief in vitalism—something biologists proudly believe they discarded well over 100 years ago.

Figure (click to enlarge) - Models for the flow of information between unconscious neural activity and conscious thought. In A, the commonly accepted model is shown whereby WILL influences conscious thought and, in turn, unconscious neural activity, to direct behavior. The difficulty with this model is that there is no causal component directing WILL. In B, a causal component for WILL is introduced; however WILL now simply reflects unconscious neural activity and GES (genes, environment, and stochasticism). That is, WILL loses its “freedom.” In C, WILL is dispensed with, and conscious thought is simply a reflection of unconscious neural activity and GES. Conscious thought is now primarily a means of following—more than a means of influencing—the direction of behavior by unconscious neural activity. This subservient role of conscious thought in directing behavior in model C, is indicated by the dotted arrow 2 (contrasting with the solid line for the corresponding arrow in A and B).

Psychopaths' brains wired to seek rewards, no matter the consequences

Psychopaths' brains wired to seek rewards, no matter the consequences: "The brains of psychopaths appear to be wired to keep seeking a reward at any cost, new research from Vanderbilt University finds. The research uncovers the role of the brain's reward system in psychopathy and opens a new area of study for understanding what drives these individuals."

The Ten Coolest Therapy Interventions, Honorable Mentions & Wrap Up

The Ten Coolest Therapy Interventions, Honorable Mentions & Wrap Up: "

You're cooler just for knowing the coolest interventions in psychotherapy. Here it is, the entire Top Ten list along with a few techniques that almost made it and some concluding thoughts.

Talking and listening are the foundation of therapy, but sometimes therapists shake things up with procedures to focus attention on specific elements of healing. A few weeks ago I introduced a buffet table of psychotherapy techniques: some old favorites in the field as well as newcomers. My goal was to give a sense of what therapy provides beyond mere conversation and illustrate some of the unique ways theory is applied.

Descriptions of our work tend to focus on the various psychological theories we use rather than the techniques. Discussing theory does help explain the ideas that underlie the process, but techniques are how many of these theories are put into practice. I thought the techniques needed a series of their own. Just to keep things interesting, I made this overview a Top Ten list.

I also said in the introduction that ranking therapy interventions was fun, but pretty ridiculous. What some clients find transformative others may regard as worthless bunk. And much to some readers' chagrin, effectiveness outcome research was not part of my criteria. Instead, I chose the list based on five factors: creativity, boldness, compassion, mystery and a cool name. I then found experts for each one to describe its coolness. This was the most fun for me, having experts describe the interventions in their own words. Based on my subjective standards, here are the ten interventions that measure highest on this ambiguous yardstick. (click through to see the full article)

The Ten Coolest Therapy Interventions:

  • 10. The Miracle Question - What: One simple question that moves clients toward a solution-focused outcome. Why cool? Immediately shifts the brain toward positive thinking. Guest: Linda Metcalf, author and Solution-Focused Therapy expert.
  • 9. The Empty Chair - What: Telling off your demanding boss, even if the chair opposite you is empty. Why cool? Enabled millions of people to practice expressing how they really feel. Guest: Dan Bloom, President of the Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy.
  • 8. Paradoxical Interventions - What: By prescribing the very symptom you want to eliminate, somehow you gain power and control. Why cool? Insight and progress sneak through the back door. Guest: Cloe Madanes, pioneer of Strategic Family Therapy.
  • 7. Voice Dialogue - What: A summit meeting between conflicted parts of self. Why cool? Helps clients understand how complex they are and work toward integration. Guest: Hal and Sidra Stone, founders of the Psychology of the Selves.
  • 6. Hunger Illusion - What: Stop yourself before acting on habit and see what comes up. Why cool? Gives powerful insight into the unconscious with no therapist required! Guest: George Weinberg, venerable psychologist and Hunger Illusion creator.
  • 5. Head-On Collision - What: ISTDP therapists are essentially resistance exterminators who eliminate harmful defenses. Why cool? It's quick, it's bold, it's hardcore, it's punk rock. Guest: Allan Abbas, leading researcher in ISTDP.
  • 4. Sandplay - What: Using your hands, sand and plastic figures to communicate your internal world. Why cool? The psyche becomes a visible, tangible 3-D environment. Guest: Barbara Turner, prominent author and Sandplay therapist.
  • 3. Primal Therapy - What: Expressing emotions locked away from consciousness. Why cool? It confronts the deepest wounds to achieve profound results. And John Lennon did it. Guest: Arthur Janov, founder of Primal Therapy.
  • 2. Virtual Reality - What: Using a computer-generated environment to help soldiers and others work through emotional trauma. Why cool? Just re-read that last sentence. Guest: Cyber-psychology's bad boy, Skip Rizzo.
  • 1. Transference Interpretation - What: Ties together the past, the present and the therapy in one well-crafted statement. Why cool? Patience, understanding and insight collide in one life-changing sentence. Guest: Popular author and psychoanalyst Glen O. Gabbard.

That's it. A survey of some of the most innovative, transformative interventions psychotherapy has to offer. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Here are a few others that almost made the cut.

10CTI: Honorable Mentions

  • EMDR - Treating thousands of cases of PTSD, one eyeball at a time.
  • Equine Therapy - When the couch becomes a saddle for treating eating disorders, mood disorders, autism, even gang violence.
  • Here and Now - For some folks, this is the most difficult question ever: 'How are you feeling here with me now?'
  • Doubling - This classic group therapy/psychodrama technique involves group members pitching in to help find a voice.
  • Hypnosis - The original therapeutic technique has helped millions with such varied issues as smoking, pain management and putting.
  • Mindfulness - Everyone's talking about it. Is it fad or fixture?
  • Art Therapy - Everything Cathy Malchiodi is saying in her blog series qualifies as cool.

Not every therapist uses specific interventions and not every client wants them. Some clients prefer therapy to be a place where they talk and feel heard by a supportive, insightful person with whom they have a trusting relationship. That's all they need to do productive work. Others are looking for tools that bring quick results or have issues that require a special intervention. It all depends on the client's goals.

As I've said before, these techniques require dozens to thousands of hours of training before therapists can use them ethically and successfully. Beyond accurate implementation, an additional skill is knowing when to use them and when to step back. Sure, I can suggest the empty chair (for example), but am I competent to do so? And is this the time and place for it?

If current clients find some of these techniques appealing I encourage them to discuss it with their therapist. Maybe the therapist has the training and hadn't thought to apply it. Maybe they can get the training or they have an opinion why it's not a good fit. It's also possible for a therapist to refer a client to a specialist in a certain technique (like EMDR). It's all about getting the best treatment for the client.

So that's a wrap. My deep gratitude to all the busy experts who took the time to share their considerable wisdom with the masses. Stay cool.


"Why do we believe", and are atheists really more intelligent?

"Why do we believe", and are atheists really more intelligent?: " editor Dave Munger has written an article for SEED magazine entitled 'Why do we believe'. The article summarizes recent blog entries regarding studies on the origins of religiosity. It's really worth reading to get a good overview of the subject, and what do you know he links my entry on god's will and beliefs in it.

Among the studies that are mentioned is a controversial study entitled 'Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent' (link at the end of this post).

Medical writer Tom Rees devotes his blog Epiphenom to the scientific study of religion. Last week he examined a study on the relationship between intelligence and religious belief. Published in Social Psychology Quarterly, this study by Satoshi Kanazawa replicated the results of several earlier studies in showing that strong religious belief was correlated with lower intelligence. In this case, adolescents who scored higher on intelligence tests were less likely to be religious as adults.

But Rees says Kanazawa’s study goes beyond those earlier studies to arrive at a potential explanation of why less-intelligent people are more religious: Intelligence evolved in order for people to adapt to novel situations.

You should go over to Epiphenom to read a summary of the study as well as my commentary on it, posted as a blog comment. In summary: I don't think it's very good. Kanazawa's evolutionary argument is completely based on some pretty wild conjectures and lacks any sort of empiric support. His argument is at most 'sorta reasonable', but we must do better than that surely. For us real evolutionary researchers that have to spend considerable time and effort gathering a solid line of evidence, this sort of jumping to conclusions can be a tad annoying.

Also, let's remember what kind of forces we're dealing with here, how evolution through natural selection actually acts and what it acts on. Even if we assume first, that intelligence tests do measure some sort of good approximation of intelligence, and second, that results gathered today actually reflect a past situation; what difference do a 'good few' average points make for survival? Any conclusions made from the correlation between higher intelligence, as measured by intelligence tests, and atheism are only significant within a larger evolutionary and functional neurobiological context. So take claims that atheists are more intelligent (on average) with a considerable pinch of salt.

Read more on the subject on Epiphenom, here and here.

Kanazawa, S. (2010). Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent Social Psychology Quarterly DOI: 10.1177/0190272510361602

Swedish blog tags: Vetenskap, Biologi, Neurovetenskap, Hjärnan, Religion

Technorati tags: Science, Biology, Neuroscience, Brain, Religion...

R-rated movies increase likelihood of underage children trying alcohol

R-rated movies increase likelihood of underage children trying alcohol: "(Burness Communications) R-rated movies portray violence and other behaviors deemed inappropriate for children under 17 year of age. A new study finds one more reason why parents should not let their kids watch those movies: adolescents who watch R-rated movies are more likely to try alcohol at a young age."

How to convince anyone of anything

How to convince anyone of anything: "

In a series of posts, called readers choice, I write on whatever topics people submit and vote for. If you dig this idea, let me know if the comments, and submit your ideas and votes.

This topic was requested with a slightly different title: How to make a convincing argument.

Right away it’s good to know most people do not like confrontation. The word argument itself tends to make people think of lawyers or divorce proceedings, unpleasant stressful things. It’s worth going for a more positive and less loaded word: convince. The goal is to persuade, to make them want to agree with you and feel happy, or smart, or right, when they do. This has higher odds of success than bludgeoning them with logic, or trying to pin them into a mental submission hold. If you use your brain power to wrap people’s mind into a pretzel, it’s likely once you turn your back they’ll squirm their way right back out to the shape they had before you got involved. And they’ll likely resent you for twisting them up too.

It’s good to know our species sucks at convincing others and being convinced, or acting on those new ideas. Check out the stories of Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Socrates… some of our greatest minds, perhaps our greatest people, tried to convince their followers of some pretty fucking simple ideas (e.g. do not kill, the golden rule), ideas which were often ignored or perverted by their followers in less than a generation. If this crowd couldn’t pull it off with the name of god, the threat of damnation, or the gift enlightenment behind them, the odds for the rest of us can’t be all that great. If you have ideas or a mission, no matter how persuasive you are, most people will not hear you. Most people will not change. The bet is that some will, and that’s enough reward for the effort. Or that your own thinking will sharpen through the process, and that’s valuable too.

The secret behind all the skills of pitching, persuading, selling or inspiring is the individual person you are talking to. There is no magic recipe for convincing large numbers of people of something all at the same time. That’s really hard to do. But if you are only trying to convince one person of something you can learn about them, study their interest and beliefs, and use that knowledge as a foothold for the ideas you want them to support or follow.

If you are in a meeting with 5 other people, identify the most influential people in that room. Those are the people your pitch needs to be aimed at.

The classic mistake people make is focusing on their own pitch. Their points. Their slides. Entirely forgetting who the audience is. This is shooting blind.

Work the opposite way. Understand their goals, their core beliefs, their preferred kind of thinking (data driven, story driven, principle driven, goal driven) – how do they argue for things? How do they convince others to do things? That’s the toolkit to work from. But most people find this boring. They can’t get their egos excited about studying other people, so they don’t. And then they fail. But if you can be generous of mind, and like a method actor put yourself inside their view of the world, you will understand them. And once you understand them you’ll see their perspective on you and your ideas.

I know if I can find a way to connect my idea to something they themselves argue and fight for, my chances improve dramatically. And if I can’t convince them, my studies of how they think, combined with their refutation for my ideas, will teach me something new about their view of things. At a minimum, their counterargument will give me new knowledge that will help me the next time I have to convince them, or someone else, of something. Or it might convince me they are unconvincable, and my time is best spent elsewhere.

I also know that i have to believe in the idea myself and for the right reasons. If I’m not entirely convinced, it’s very hard to naturally convey conviction. But if I can go into a conversation and state, honestly, “I believe so much in this idea I’d bet half this years salary on it” or “If I’m wrong I’ll do all your chores this month”, there is an undeniable power and sincerity whoever is listening will feel. Sometimes this can work as a bluff, but that’s a bad habit to get into.

I think the entire philosophy of user experience design works well for convincing people (Which is ironic as many user experience folks are not very good at convincing people of their ideas). If you deeply understand who you are trying to convince, how their mind works, and why they are in the room listening to you, your ability to position an idea so they understand it, consider it and support it goes way up.

Also see: How to pitch an idea


The scientific brain

The scientific brain: "Good science involves formulating a hypothesis and testing whether this hypothesis is compatible with the scientist's observations. Researchers in the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt together with the University of Glasgow have shown that this is what the brain does as well. A study shows that it takes less effort for the brain to register predictable as compared to unpredictable images."

Belief in the Brain

Belief in the Brain: "

Religious belief may seem to be a unique psychological experience, but a growing body of research shows that thinking about religion is no different from thinking about secular things­--at least from the standpoint of the brain. In the first imaging study to compare religious and nonreligious thoughts, evaluating the truth of either type of statement was found to involve the same regions of the brain.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, used functional MRI to evaluate brain activity in 15 devout Christians and 15 nonbelievers as the volunteers assessed the truth or falsity of a series of statements, some of which were religious (“angels exist”) and others nonreligious (“Alexander the Great was a very famous military ruler”). They found that when a subject believed a statement--whether it was religious or not--activity appeared in an area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is an area associated with emotions, rewards and self-representation.


Ritalin boosts learning by increasing brain plasticity

Ritalin boosts learning by increasing brain plasticity: "Doctors treat millions of children with Ritalin every year to improve their ability to focus on tasks, but scientists now report that Ritalin also directly enhances the speed of learning."

NeuroPop's Ghostly Synth Tunes Take Aim At Your Brain

This is somewhat controversial and not to be confused with the rather stupid brain-altering music you can download to your iPod.

NeuroPop's Ghostly Synth Tunes Take Aim At Your Brain

Remembering Names: Secrets of Memory Experts

Remembering Names: Secrets of Memory Experts: "

When I try, I can learn names quickly and effectively. Even though I don't have a particularly good memory, I've developed skills and tricks: my secrets for learning names.

First, pay attention. If I want to remember someone's name, I make that person the focus of my attention. I look at the person, listen to the person, and ask questions. Focusing on that person, by the way, is a good way to make a positive first impression. I'm not perfect at this. Sometimes when I meet people, their names fly right past me without every slowing down. I turn hoping to find the name, but it has disappeared. This happens because I am thinking about what I want to say, looking for someone else to talk with, or planning what I am going to do next. When the name flies past without registering, I ask the person to repeat it. Then I work to make that person the focus of my attention.

Second, use the name, re-use it, and keep using it. When I meet someone, I use that person's name in my next conversational turn. I don't simply say, 'It's nice to meet you.' Instead I say, 'It's nice to meet you, Helen.' I continue using the name during our conversation. In some conversation turns, I may not say the name, but I think it - rehearsing the name internally. This is my basic trick for learning the names of students who visit me in my office. I start by getting the student's name and then use it throughout the conversation. I always end by thanking the student, by name, for visiting. In even a short conversation, I will use a student's name several times.

Third, associate the name with important features. We are all better remembering features than names (the subject of my previous post: The Baker-baker paradox). Take advantage of what your memory does easily. When I meet people professionally, I use their names with their professional attributes. I ask about their jobs and use their names during that part of the conversation. In social contexts, I use a person's name in association with important personal attributes - common friends, interests, or hobbies. Since these attributes may lead me to encounter people again, associating their name with these features will aid retrieval at the critical moment.

I have seen other writers suggest associating a person's name with a prominent physical feature. For example, if you meet me, you might notice my large nose. Imagining my name written down my prominent nose associates my name with a feature and uses mental imagery. Use the things we remember well, faces and attributes, to help remember names.

Fourth, cheat. I use the best memory aid that has ever been invented. I feel guilty giving away my most important secret: I write names down. Since I know my memory is weak, I rely on external memory aids whenever possible. If I want to remember someone's name, I make a written record after meeting that person. I review my written notes before going to a place where I might encounter that person again. With students in my classes, I use the class roster after class for an additional rehearsal. I look at the roster before I go to class and try to imagine what each student looks like. In addition, my university has class photo rosters on the computer system. I study those photos. If I have a university-wide committee, I review the committee roster just before I attend the meeting. If I attend an off-campus meeting, I review who I will be seeing and look up internet photos if necessary. The written word is a wonderful method of aiding memory - especially if reviewed just before you need the memory. This special secret often makes me appear better at remembering names than I actually am. There's nothing like cheating - or as we cognitive sorts say, using an effective mnemonic device.

In summary, pay attention when you meet someone. Use that person's name immediately and frequently during that first conversation. Associate the name with important personal attributes of the individual - particularly those attributes that will lead to future encounters. Keep written records and use those records prior to times when you know you may encounter individuals again. Finally, no system is foolproof. I admit when I fail and politely ask people to remind me of their names. I've found people respect this and interpret as my sincere interest in learning and remembering their names.


Recent research on memory/learning

Recent research on memory/learning: "(Williams College) Are we over estimating remembering and underestimating learning? Current research by Nate Kornell and Robert A. Bjork address this question and was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology."

How reliable are fMRI results?

How reliable are fMRI results?: "

A new study has looked at the reliability of fMRI brain scanning results over time, finding that the same experiment will only only be moderately reproducible when conducted at two different times, suggesting that fMRI is much less reliable than most researchers assume.

The authors of the paper are the same ones who brought us the study showing that it's possible to find 'brain activity' in a dead fish if the analysis is done in a way that is common but prone to false positives.

The paper will shortly appear in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences but they've put a copy online and, although it's a scientific article, it's remarkably easy to read.

They review all the studies to date on what is known as the 'test-retest reliability' of fMRI. This refers to the ability of a measure to give reproducible results.

For example, if you're measuring an adult's height you want to make sure that your tape measure gives you similar results each time you use it on the same person. Of course, you may have readings that vary by a millimetre or two each time, but if you get wildly different results on Monday and Tuesday, you probably want to bin your tape measure.

In fMRI there are two types of results. One is 'where in the brain' and the other is 'how strong' is the activity.

We can examine the first by looking at how well the active brain areas overlap in scans taken at two different times, and we can examine the second by looking at the similarity of the strength of the results using a statistical test like a correlation.

The better the overlap and the statistical relationship between the results from the same test on the same people at different times, the more we can rely on our measurement technique.

This new analysis reviewed all the previous studies that have looked at the test-retest reliability of fMRI and found that overall, active brain areas overlap about 30% of the time and the correlation for the strength of the activity was about 0.5. To get some perspective a result of 1 would indicate perfectly reliable and reproducible results while a result of 0 would indicate no reliability at all.

An overlap of 30% and a correlation result of 0.5 shows fMRI has moderate reliability, but is much poorer than most people assume.

However, this overall result is perhaps a little too broad, and the authors make the point that the reliability varies depending on the type of scanner being used, what test is being carried out by the participants, what brain areas are being investigated and how the results are analysed.

Indeed, a recent study on the test-retest reliability of fMRI studies of the 'reward system' found the reproducibility of the results to be worse than this general figure while another study found an auditory detection task produced better results.

The authors conclude:

One thing is abundantly clear: fMRI is an effective research tool that has opened broad new horizons of investigation to scientists around the world. However, the results from fMRI research may be somewhat less reliable than many researchers implicitly believe. While it may be frustrating to know that fMRI results are not perfectly replicable, it is beneficial to take a longer-term view regarding the scientific impact of these studies. In neuroimaging, as in other scientific fields, errors will be made and some results will not replicate. Still, over time some measure of truth will accrue. This chapter is not intended to be an accusation against fMRI as a method. Quite the contrary, it is meant to increase the understanding of how much each fMRI result can contribute to scientific knowledge.

Link to full text of paper (via @hysell).


Teaching self-control skills to children reduces classroom problems

Teaching self-control skills to children reduces classroom problems: "(University of Rochester Medical Center) Children taught skills to monitor and control their anger and other emotions improved their classroom behavior and had significantly fewer school disciplinary referrals and suspensions, according to a study by University of Rochester Medical Center researchers."

Where do atheists come from?

Where do atheists come from?: "Social scientists have long wondered why so many people believe in God. We should ask why the rest don't, say Lois Lee and Stephen Bullivant

How Reliable Are Your Memories?

How Reliable Are Your Memories?: "
The article I read examined the issue of repressed memories. Considering the readings for this week, there seems to be a lot of support for the author's theory that many so-called 'repressed' memories recall an incident that may have never, in fact, actually happened. The article summarizes a study done on a mother and her two sons. They were described an event that never actually happened to them as if it was something that they simply didn't remember. Specifically, that one of the sons was lost at the mall and returned to the mother through the kindness of a stranger. While this memory never existed in any of their minds prior to this, because it never happened, they were all able to be fully convinced that the event occured. What I think is most interesting is not simply that they were convinced that it happened, but their minds began to develop additional supporting memories of details. For example, that the man who returned the son to the mother had a beard and was wearing red suspenders. The seeming randomness of these details is fascinating. Furthermore, they all agreed on the same details. What does this mean? Maybe that they all shared, subconciously, memories of a similar man? Where did their minds pull this information from?
Everyone has those disagreements with friends about how a specific story went or how a situation unfolded: who said and did what, with whom, where? Like anyone else, I've been at least somewhat convinced that my memory of the event was incorrect by the intensity of another person who really recalled the event vividly. But like the imaginary bearded man in red suspenders, how accurate are any of these supposedly vivid details?
The author put the study in a more serious context, questioning the validity of the often sexually abusive in nature repressed memories that come up when people undergo psychoanalysis. I'd be interested to see how much more of a push it would have taken to, as the author suggests, convince the mother and her two sons that while the son was in custody of the bearded man, he had been in some way molested. If they can seemingly pull memories of this event out of thin air, how much more of a stretch would it have been to add another more serious event? It may even be easier to convince them of this because of the reputation of memories of traumatic events, especially from childhood, to be repressed. Do you think someone could convince you that something that you walked into the conversation thinking never occurred actually happened?

Study proves conclusively that violent video game play makes more aggressive kids

Study proves conclusively that violent video game play makes more aggressive kids: "A new study published in the March 2010 issue of the Psychological Bulletin, an American Psychological Association journal, reports definitively that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive thoughts and behavior, and decreased empathy and prosocial behavior in youths."

Brain scans now catch chemicals too

Exceedingly cool: Brain scans now catch chemicals too: "A way to visualise chemicals washing through the brain could vastly extend the power of fMRI, a workhorse of neuroscience

Children Teach Themselves to Read

Good stuff

Children Teach Themselves to Read | Psychology Today

Placebos, Truth and Paradox

Placebos, Truth and Paradox: "

In the UK, a House of Commons body has recommended that homeopathy no longer receive state support - for the perfectly good reason that there is no evidence that the theory behind homeopathy has any validity. However, it is recognized that it may have value as a placebo and hence helping some people to get well. The idea, though, seems to be that patients ought not to be misled.

That, of course, leads to the paradoxical state of affairs. Placebos can work; but patients should be told that they are taking placebos - the desire for transparency and honesty - and that usually reduces their effectiveness.

I wonder how many ill patients would prefer to be informed and remain ill...or rather trivially deceived yet be made better? After all, how many patients worry about the theory behind prescriptions more than whether what is prescribed will make them better?

Naps Can Seriously Improve All-Day Learning Abilities [Naps]

Naps Can Seriously Improve All-Day Learning Abilities [Naps]: "

Taking a 90-minute nap the day of a test or presentation sounds like a ludicrous luxury. But a recent study on the brain's ability to recall facts found that napping at noon could mean a lot more brain power at 6 p.m.

Photo by perpetualplum.

Presenting at this year's meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS), University of California Berkeley researchers revealed the results of testing '39 healthy young adults' on recalling facts they had learned that same day.

At noon, all the participants were subjected to a rigorous learning task intended to tax the hippocampus, a region of the brain that helps store fact-based memories. Both groups performed at comparable levels.

At 2 p.m., the nap group took a 90-minute siesta while the no-nap group stayed awake. Later that day, at 6 p.m., participants performed a new round of learning exercises. Those who remained awake throughout the day became worse at learning. In contrast, those who napped did markedly better and actually improved in their capacity to learn.

It's not the first time, or the second, that we've seen naps and memory functions tied together. But each study has its participants trying out slightly different tasks, and this study suggests that if you're trying to cram in facts you need to recall later, a same-day nap before your last-minute cram might be more helpful than powering through your day with nervous energy.

It also suggests that the brain uses a sleep state between light sleep and deep REM phases to pull a kind of soft reset on the brain's memory recall powers, so a fear that you can't let yourself sleep 'too deeply' in a nap seems unfounded.

Need help getting yourself to drop into that mind-wiping state? Try our favorite cheat sheet for napping. Thanks for the tip Annalee!

Parenting: The Sad Misuse of Self-esteem

Parenting: The Sad Misuse of Self-esteem: "

Self-esteem is the most misunderstood and misused developmental factor of the past thirty years. Child-rearing experts in the early 1970s decided that all of the efforts of our society should be devoted to helping children build self-esteem. I couldn't agree more. Children with high self-esteem have been found to perform better in school and sports, have better relationships, and have lower rates of problem behavior.

The Wrong Message About Self-Esteem

Unfortunately, these same experts told parents that the best way to develop self-esteem was to ensure that children always felt good about themselves. Parents were told to love and praise and reinforce and reward and encourage their children no matter what they did. Unfortunately, this approach created children who were selfish, spoiled, and entitled.

Parents were also led to believe that they had to be sure that their children never felt bad about themselves because it would hurt their self-esteem. So parents did everything they could to protect their children from anything that might create bad feelings. Parents didn't scold their children when they misbehaved. Parents didn't discipline their children when they didn't give their best effort in school. In sum, parents didn't hold their children accountable for their actions, particularly if they made mistakes or failed-'Gosh, that would just hurt my little one's self-esteem!'

Schools and communities bought into this misguided attempt at building self-esteem by 'protecting' children from feeling bad about themselves. For example, school grading systems were changed. I remember between sixth and seventh grade my middle school replaced F for failure with NI (Needs Improvement). God forbid I'd feel bad about myself for failing at something! Sports eliminated scoring, winners, and losers in the belief that losing would hurt children's self-esteem. My four-year-old niece came home one day from a soccer tournament with a ribbon that said '#1-Winner' on it. When I asked her what she did to deserve such a wonderful prize, she said that everyone got one! Though Woody Allen once said that 90 percent of success is just showing up, it's the last 10 percent-the part that requires hard work, discipline, patience, and perseverance-that true success is all about. Children are being led to believe that, like Woody Allen's view, they can become successful and feel good about themselves just for showing up. But showing up is just not enough in today's demanding society. By rewarding children just for showing up, they aren't learning what it really takes to become successful and showing up definitely won't build self-esteem.

The supposed benefit of this mentality is that children's self-esteem is protected. If children aren't responsible for all of the bad things that happen to them, then they can't feel bad about themselves and their self-esteem won't be hurt. This belief has been bolstered by the culture of victimization in which we live-'It's not my fault, it's not my kid's fault. But someone has to be held responsible and we're going to sue them.' In its poorly conceived attempt to protect children's self-esteem, our society caused the very thing that it took such pains to prevent-children with low self-esteem, no sense of responsibility, and the emotional and behavioral problems that go with it.

Of course children need to feel loved and protected. This sense of security allows them to feel comfortable venturing out to explore their world. But we have gone way too far in protecting our children from life's harsh realities. In fact, with this preoccupation with protecting our children, those so-called parenting experts neglected to tell parents about the other, equally important contributor to mature and healthy self-esteem.

The Missing Piece of Self-esteem

The second part of self-esteem that those parenting experts forgot to mention to parents is that children need to develop a sense of ownership of their actions, that their actions matter, that their actions have consequences; 'If I do good things, good things happen, if I do bad things, bad things happen, and if I do nothing, nothing happens.' The antithesis of this approach is the spoiled child; whether they do good, bad, or nothing, they get what they want. Unfortunately, without this sense of ownership, children are thoroughly unprepared for the adulthood because in the real world our actions do have consequences.

This sense of ownership, and the self-esteem that accompanies it, is two sides of the same coin. If children don't take ownership of their mistakes and failures, they can't have ownership of their successes and achievements. And without that ownership, children can't ever really feel good about themselves or experience the meaning, satisfaction, and joy of owning their efforts. Also, without the willingness to take ownership, children are truly victims; they're powerless to change the bad things that might happen to them. With a sense of ownership, children learn that when things are not going well, they have the power to make changes in their lives for the better.

The goal is to raise children with both components of real self-esteem, in which they not only feel loved and valued, but also have that highly developed sense of ownership. Yes, they're going to feel bad when they make mistakes and fail. But you want your children to feel bad when they screw up! How else are they going to learn what not to do and what they need to do to do better in the future? But, contrary to popular belief, these experiences will build, not hurt, their self-esteem. By allowing them to take ownership of their lives-achievements and missteps alike-your children gain the ability to change the bad experiences, and create and savor the good experiences.

Developing Real Self-esteem

Your challenge is to help your children understand how self-esteem develops. Much of your parenting should be devoted to helping your children develop this healthy self-esteem rather than the false self-esteem that is epidemic in our society. You must allow your children to experience this connection-both success and failure-in all areas of their lives, including school, sports, the performing arts, relationships, family responsibilities, and other activities. Your children's essential need to have these experiences will require you to eschew the culture of victimization that pervades modern society. You must give your children the opportunity to develop real self-esteem so they can fully experience all aspects of life, including the failures and disappointments as well as the accomplishments and joys.

Recommendations for Building Self-esteem

  • Love them regardless of how they perform.
  • Give them opportunities to demonstrate their competence.
  • Focus on areas over which they have control (e.g., their efforts rather than results).
  • Encourage your children to take appropriate risks.
  • Allow your children to experience failure and then help them learn its essential lessons.
  • Set expectations for their behavior.
  • Demand accountability.
  • Have consequences for bad behavior.
  • Include them in decision making.

The Child Brain and the Playing Teacher

The Child Brain and the Playing Teacher: "

Scientific research has established that the major part of the development of human brain happens in a child’s first three years of life. These first three years of pre-school life is the most impressionable period of human brain during which new neural networks are being formed in certain parts of the brain. A child who is one year old has the maximum number of brain cells the human brain can have in its entire life span. Neurobiologists believe that about 10 billion nerve cells in the infant brain are constantly making the synapses that promote thought, emotion, and physical movement. The capacity to form such neural connections depends on whether the infant brain receives proper stimulation.

Sensory stimulation such as listening to speech or watching colors or emotional stimulation by getting hugs or eye contact can change the physiological development of infant brain by changing the quality and quantity of the electrical wiring between brain cells. This promotes the growth of dendrites in the brain making stronger and richer neural connections.

BabyDifferent parts of infant brain get stimulated in different ways when infant brain experiences different emotions leading to connections between different synapses. Infants who experienced playful teaching by happy adults or teachers in a fun environment showed considerable neural activity in areas of brain which specialized for positive emotion. When such infants grow up into adulthood, they are more like to feel positive and stay positive even when they experience a negative or stressful event in their environment. Such stimulation of the infant brain can determine whether the infant will grow into peaceful & happy adult or a violent antisocial troublemaker.

Therefore it is prime responsibility of the adult teachers to stimulate the infant brains in various playful ways to bring about the optimum physiological, emotional, social and mental development of the infant’s brain and body. Playful teaching is a dynamic and constructive behavior which is essential for infant’s healthy growth, development, and learning, especially during the first three years of life.

Lack of play in teaching methods stifles creativity and healthy development. A playful method of teaching allows the child to discover his own strengths, his own body, and his environment by allowing him to experience by experimenting. Opposite of playful method of teaching is the instructional method of teaching in which child is directed how to do things. When the child learns by playful techniques, he develops a head full of knowledge and a heart full of confidence. On the other hand, the instructional method of teaching makes a child feel less confident and less clever because he is given this subtle message by his instructional teacher that he is incapable, he does not know, he needs the teacher to teach him.

As you read below, you will discover how a playful teacher can stimulate the infant brain to result in multifaceted growth of the infant human life.

To develop the gross motor skills and body awareness in an infant, the playful teacher should encourage the child to participate in various physical sports which allow him to walk, climb, kick, jump, climb and catch. This will help the infant to develop higher control of large muscles of the body which coordinate the movement.

To develop higher control of smaller muscles of the body which coordinate fine motor movements, the playful teacher should encourage the infant to indulge in activities such as sketching, painting, sculpting, block building and cutting.

In order to encourage innovation and creative thinking abilities in the child, the playful teacher should allow free reign to fantasy and imagination of the preschool infant. They should encourage the child to playfully re-enact events or take on roles, and use props to replace an original object. They should allow the child to make their own story suiting their personal desires, without putting pressure on them to win any contest and without judging the child. While re-enacting events or playing role of someone else, child learns to visualize and imitate codified rules. While narrating his story as in role playing, child learns creative thinking and learns how to express his story and plan to others more effectively. This helps in building the confidence level of the child.

The playful teacher can develop analytical reasoning and problem solving skills of a child by asking him to arrange and organize what he can see, touch, hear or smell. He should encourage the child to play with another child and help another child in the process to solve the problem which another child may be seemingly facing. By helping another child, the child will learn the skill of problem solving and joy of mastery.

Much before the infant can learn to speak himself any meaningful words, his ears begin to be conditioned by language input of the playful teacher or caring adult. To develop the speech and language skills of the child, the playful teacher should frequently talk to the infants and condition their ears to differentiate between different sounds. By repeated talking to the infant, ability for speech is developed by forming new neural connections which help infant to combine sounds in order to form words. To teach the language skills to older infant, playful teacher should use music and poems to make the child understand comprehension and correct use of those words.

Thus, it can be inferred that a playful teacher can unlock the world for an infant with care. What stimulation the infant brain will get and thus what the child will know, think and feel, will depend on the playful teacher. What playful teacher does not offer, the child will not know.


Do all children learn with the same teaching procedures?

Do all children learn with the same teaching procedures?: "

Simply put no! Though I'm focused here on teaching children with ASDs, it is quite likely that this applies to all children in all settings. It is particularly important when working with individuals with deficits in learning to identify effective techniques for teaching skills that work for that child. Having teaching procedures that are generally effective doesn't cut it. If we are interested in doing something other than leaving all children behind equally, we will need to catch those deficits in learning and remediate them. There are two important components to this. The first is specifically identifying the skill deficits that exist. Not acquiring a specific skill is not enough to go on. It is also necessary to assess related skills to determine the appropriate starting place. For example, when addressing communicative deficits we typically won't start teaching a child to label objects before they can, at least at some level, express their wants, needs, and preferences. I'll tackle assessment more extensively in another post. Secondly, we will need to identify teaching procedures that work.

Many responses are shaped up by the natural consequences that follow behavior however; when there is a skill deficit it is often necessary to prompt the critical responses and explicitly strengthen them. Prompts are usually referred to as stimuli that are effective in promoting the response in the appropriate context. For example, a child that is being taught to request a desired toy through handing a picture of the toy to a caregiver can be taught with physical assistance, through vocal prompts by the caregiver, the caregiver can model the response (and provide the consequence), they can be shown a video of a picture exchange, or via a vast array of similar strategies. Prompting in this context is typically referred to as response prompting and the primary purpose of response prompting is to guide the child's response during instruction.

There are several types of response prompts that have been used for teaching socially significant behavior. Though I'm discussing response prompting here in the context of focused teaching, prompts are everywhere and occur naturally without explicit plans on the part of the caregiver. One of the most commonly encountered prompts in any child's life is vocal prompting. Vocal prompts are very important and many children with ASDs do not effectively learn with them. It certainly should be a goal of any instructional programming to promote behavior that is in contact with vocal prompting but many children will require intense instruction before that is feasible. On the other hand, if vocal prompting is effective then it should be capitalized on. Several studies have shown that children with ASDs will sometimes learn important social skills with vocal prompts. For example, Odom and Strain (1986) worked with children with ASDs who infrequently initiated social interactions with peers. They used vocal prompts such as, "I'd like you to play with Jimmy today" and found that this simple prompting was effective for increasing social interactions.

Textual prompts, or written words/instructions, are another form of prompting that can sometimes be effective. Krantz and McClanahan (1998) used written textual scripts to promote initiating a conversation for children with ASDs who rarely initiated. Not only did initiations with caregivers increase but there was also a significant level of generalization to novel conversational topics that was noted to have occurred. Pictorial prompts (or pictures) have also been found to systematically produce behavior change for person with ASDs. The work of Andy Bondy and Lori Frost is generally well known by educators who work with children with limited or no vocal communication skills. However, the most common form of prompting with persons with limited communicative skills is probably physical prompting. Again, an important goal is to move to more naturalistically occuring prompts but I'd like to talk a little bit more in depth about physical prompting. I'm also glossing over some other types of prompts like gestural prompts and modeling but I plan to do an extensive post on video modeling in the near future.

Physical prompting is sometimes unpleasant to the person being prompted. In these cases, it is most desirable to use another form of prompting during instruction. Even some responses taught to typical children through prompting, like tooth brushing, can be taught using other prompts (modeling and video prompts are often very effective). On the other hand, many people enjoy physical prompts, or the reinforcement that follows being prompted to respond. This sometimes leads to dependence on prompting (though this is by no means limited to physical prompts).

Many complex and important skills are efficiently taught through physical prompts. At the New England Center for Children, we have had a long history of preferring to implement physical (and other) prompts in a manner that avoids the learner making an error. This is sometimes referred to as errorless teaching (or most-to-least prompting). However, we noticed that some children learn more efficiently when providing them with minimal physical prompts in more of a trial-and-error fashion (sometimes referred to as least-to-most prompting). A study we published last year (the lead author was Myrna Libby, a valued colleague who passed away unexpectedly last year) involved a comparison of errorless and trial-and-error teaching procedures (Libby et al., 2009). We taught several children a number of solitary play skills (putting together duplo lego structures) and each child was exposed to each teaching procedure. We found that several of the students learned more rapidly with the trial-and-error approach despite the fact that they made more errors with this procedure while learning. They also learned the skills taught with the errorless procedure. However, there were also several children that did not learn at all with the trial-and-error approach. They only learned with the errorless approach.

One useful lesson we took from this study was that we would benefit from developing rapid assessment procedures for identifying the teaching procedures that each child learned with most rapidly. Though our preferred strategy of errorless instruction was always effective, we may actually slow learning down if we stuck to this procedure for all children. In full disclosure, we have many different teaching procedures that are used across our school and our goal has always been to tailor instruction to each student's needs. Also, we feel that there is a great need to further explore other subtle nuances of instruction to advance our understanding of how to teach.


We do not see with our eyes. We see with our brains.

We do not see with our eyes. We see with our brains.: "
We do not see with our eyes. We see with our brains.

The evidence lies with a group of 54 wine aficionados. Stay with me here. To the untrained ear, the vocabularies that wine tasters use to describe wine may seem pretentious, more reminiscent of a psychologist describing a patient. (“Aggressive complexity, with just a subtle hint of shyness” is something I once heard at a wine-tasting soirée to which I was mistakenly invited—and from which, once picked off the floor rolling with laughter, I was hurriedly escorted out the door).

These words are taken very seriously by the professionals, however. A specific vocabulary exists for white wines and a specific vocabulary for red wines, and the two are never supposed to cross. Given how individually we each perceive any sense, I have often wondered how objective these tasters actually could be. So, apparently, did a group of brain researchers in Europe. They descended upon ground zero of the wine-tasting world, the University of Bordeaux, and asked: “What if we dropped odorless, tasteless red dye into white wines, then gave it to 54 wine-tasting professionals?” With only visual sense altered, how would the enologists now describe their wine? Would their delicate palates see through the ruse, or would their noses be fooled? The answer is “their noses would be fooled.” When the wine tasters encountered the altered whites, every one of them employed the vocabulary of the reds. The visual inputs seemed to trump their other highly trained senses.

Folks in the scientific community had a field day. Professional research papers were published with titles like “The Color of Odors” and “The Nose Smells What the Eye Sees.” That’s about as much frat boy behavior as prestigious brain journals tolerate, and you can almost see the wicked gleam in the researchers’ eyes. Data such as these point to the nuts and bolts of the Brain Rule: Vision trumps all other senses. Visual processing doesn’t just assist in the perception of our world. It dominates the perception of our world.

Related Links:
Brain Rules Workshops

Midday nap markedly boosts the brain's learning capacity

Midday nap markedly boosts the brain's learning capacity: "New research from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that an hour's nap can dramatically boost and restore your brain power. Indeed, the findings suggest that a biphasic sleep schedule not only refreshes the mind, but can make you smarter.

The results support previous data from the same research team that pulling an all-nighter – a common practice at college during midterms and finals –- decreases the ability to cram in new facts by nearly 40 percent, due to a shutdown of brain regions during sleep deprivation.

At 2 p.m., the nap group took a 90-minute siesta while the no-nap group stayed awake. Later that day, at 6 p.m., participants performed a new round of learning exercises. Those who remained awake throughout the day became worse at learning. In contrast, those who napped did markedly better and actually improved in their capacity to learn.

These findings...

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Religion science: if you pay the piper, do you call the tune?

[ed. note: "This is just one of many surprising findings" - really? You find it surprising that people will give a favorable finding to the people/group funding their research? I find it surprising that you find it surprising.]

Religion science: if you pay the piper, do you call the tune?: "

A hot debate has been taking place these last few days, in the comments section of Harvey Whitehouse's recent post on religion. Part of the dispute has to do with the way cognitive scientists working on that topic might be influenced by the money they get, particularly from a Christian foundation that hopes to promote a more favorable view of religion by funding research in that area, albeit in a nonintrusive way. What, everyone wonders, does funding of this kind do to the work it finances? Is Christian-funded research biased? Is it more likely to present religious people with a rosy mirror?

This question has been adressed systematically by a recent paper looking at broad trends in the sociology of religion (found via The Immanent Frame). The authors, David Smilde and Matthew May, looked at thirty years of religious sociology in five high-profile social science journals, and (among other things) they looked for correlations between funding types and 'pro-religiousness'. Articles were classified as pro-religious when they considered a religious independent variable and a non-religious dependent variable (say, how being baptized affects your likelihood of being in jail), and concluded that the religious variable had 'positive socio-evaluative effects' (baptized people are less likely to go to jail). As for funding type, they looked more precisely at the papers whose authors were funded by foundations with obvious Christian sympathies like the Pew Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, the Metanexus Institute, etc. - compared with papers whose authors had money from other sources, and with papers not funded at all.

Bottom line: authors financed by Christian foundations are more likely to write pro-religious papers than authors who declare no funding at all, but the same applies to all financed authors, wherever their money may come from - governments, or non-religious private foundations. This is just one of many surprising findings.



Another Simple Argument Against Any General Theory of Consciousness

Another Simple Argument Against Any General Theory of Consciousness: "... related to my first Simple Argument, but spun out a bit differently.

(1.) The history of philosophy shows that no theory of consciousness can avoid having some highly unintuitive consequences. (Or more cautiously, the history suggests that. The strength of the conclusion turns in part on the strength of this premise.)

For example, if functionalism is true, some very weird assemblages will be conscious. If consciousness depends upon material constitution, then beings behaviorally indistinguishable from us but materially different might entirely lack consciousness. And: Intuitive notions of consciousness seem to involve sharp boundaries not present in the evolution or development of conscious systems. And so on.

(2.) Therefore, something apparently preposterous must be true of consciousness.

(3.) Therefore, reflection on what is intuitively true -- and metaphysical speculations that depend on such intuitions -- cannot be a reliable guide to consciousness. (What such speculations yield, as is evident from the literature, is a variety of idiosyncratic hunches.)

(4.) Empirical observation of physical structure and behavior also cannot settle the question of which preposterous things are true, because their interpretation depends on prior assumptions about consciousness. (For example: Does observing such-and-such a functional structure establish that consciousness is present? Only given such-and-such functionalist assumptions.)

(5.) So we're stuck.

If we are stuck, the live options seem to be mysterianism (we will never know the truth about consciousness) or eliminativism (the concept of 'consciousness' is broken to begin with, so good riddance).

Music On Your Child’s Mind: Improving Focus Through Song

Music On Your Child’s Mind: Improving Focus Through Song: "

musicMy oldest daughter got me going again. We were making our morning trek to her kindergarten, down the Berkshires into Albany. The ride is difficult enough with the potential of random traffic popping into your lane often and at unusual speeds Add to that 2 children in the back getting, let’s say, a bit rambunctious. It’s enough to make me switch my morning caffeine fix from tea to double espresso. At any rate, Isabella (5 and ½) wanted to play the “music game” as she now refers to it. “Let’s play that game where you see who can guess the name of the song?” Isabella requested. My youngest daughter Veronica (now 3) was egging me on as well. And, of course, this was all (ahem) music to my ears.

During the end of the year (2009) holiday season as part of my Music On Your Child’s Mind series, I wrote a post about a holiday music game you could play to put children in a calmer state of mind as you drive—as well as help teach them flow and higher speed attention skills.

I was delighted that Isabella wanted to play the game again. The problem, however, was that it was no longer the holiday season, so the frequency of songs that the girls would hear on the radio that would match those heard at home would be low—too low I believed to sustain their interest in the game. But the game was fun for them (and me). I really didn’t want to give it up.

For the purpose of this post, let’s say that our game works like Name That Tune. To see how my family began playing as well as how we learned to sustain interest, and hike up attention skills, view Music On Your Child’s Mind: Holiday Music Game.

So I didn’t want to say no when Isabella suggested playing. I dialed up the oldies station, figuring this might offer the best chance for matching songs with ones the kids were familiar with. But I was wrong. My collection of old songs didn’t much resemble the station’s playlist. Isabella wanted to keep playing anyway—in terms of creating a flow experience, a very good sign. I reminded Isabella of some the listening skills that we had attempted in December. The first one focused on repetition. If I could get Isabella working this skill, Veronica would soon follow, I thought. After a few tunes, Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman came on, and Isabella nailed it. She had remembered well the strategy of catching repeating words and lines to help name the tune. “Pretty Woman,” she shouted. Pretty Woman, Veronica echoed.

Then a series of songs came on that were very difficult for the children and me too. Again we looked for repeating words. But, this time, the strategy didn’t work. So we went to the chorus and tried to catch the title there. After a couple of attempts, Isabella got Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, by Jim Croce—which she’d never heard before, that I am aware of—then missed a few titles, and then nailed Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally. She didn’t do so well on the next series that came up, and then caught Don McLean’s American Pie—instantly. This was because she had taken a big interest in the melody and lyrics well before we ever began the holiday music game. In fact, she had asked me to sing the song while she accompanied me many times over the last year. So she knew the song well. Veronica trailed in right behind Isabella on this one. Both kids beamed. The game still had magic for them. Even though they were getting fewer titles correct, they still figured they had what it takes to get right answers and remained highly excited and focused on playing.

So I took things to the next step and set out to customize a CD the children could use to play the game on long drives. The advantage of using my own “playlist” was that I would be able to target specific skills, as well as increase the challenge as we moved forward. The idea was to heighten their skill and further their pleasure through self-reward. I made one mix of children’s songs only, and another compilation that contained songs for “older people.” These first mixes were meant to be easy—I included lots songs that my daughters had heard before and ones that mentioned titles in the first line. For me, building confidence and satisfaction is an important part of sustaining interest and just as important in transferring the mindset to other tasks. That said, I didn’t shy away from sprinkling in titles that could be inferred from patterns of repeating words and phrases and some that could be noted in the chorus. This assortment paralleled skills the girls had learned when we began playing the game last November. I also included some new challenges like: starting some songs in the middle and looping certain sections or lines from other songs.

I then put together a CD in which we could try to identify theme. I had already explained theme to Isabella in the earlier version of the game. But now I wanted to develop it more.

If you’d like to try the game, here are a few other variations: Put together a CD in which you try to identify various instruments: different drums, piano, flute, sax, trumpet, violin, electric bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, accordion and so on. This part of my playlist worked well with both children.

You can include mixes of instrumental music. Mine ranged from Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and Brahms Lullaby to Pachelbel’s Cannon and Handel’s Hallelujah, to Jessica by the Allman Brothers. This, of course, exercised a batch of other listening skills.

I periodically ask each daughter if it “feels good” to know the answer.

How you praise is an important piece of this game. Rather than telling my daughters how right they are or how smart they are when they get a correct answer, I ask instead how it “feels” to know the answer. “Good,” they say. And I reinforce this idea by telling them that it feels good to me too when I know an answer.

Other possible variations of the game may include: asking children how certain songs make them feel emotionally and/or physically—happy, sad, excited, and so on. Isabella says, “Nothing gives me more energy than listening to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.” This may come as a surprise to someone who doesn’t know her. However, those of us who do, know that she practices dancing the Nutcracker every day, year round, for her December ballet performance—which she has danced now for 3 years—not to mention her fascination with her collection of Nutcracker DVDs as performed by a myriad of artists—even cartoon characters. Veronica has her own favs. She prefers whimsical songs like those of The Laurie Berkner Band and classic children’s tunes that rhyme.

Playing the music game during drives into Albany (or anywhere) has made rides a lot of fun. I’ve noticed that both girls have been gathering more intrinsic reward from other aspects of their life as well: like (some) household chores and even in their relationships with others. And Isabella with her schoolwork. Again, asking how a specific action feels helps make this transfer. Making your own music mixes is fun, and you can see results fairly soon, as well as have calmer more enjoyable rides wherever you go.

As a footnote, Isabella and I heard American Pie again on the radio a few days ago. We had been talking more about theme when the song came on. I mentioned that one of the ideas in McLean’s song had to do with music that people couldn’t dance to. This led to my explaining his disappointment with “some” Beatles songs during that time period because they were darker and less merry. Isabella commented with emphasis, “But you CAN REALLY dance to HIS song [American Pie].” And she started showing me some dance moves from her car seat. Of course, I thought. She loves to dance. Of course she’d “focus” on that. And we raised the literary (and parental) bar one more time as I attempted a definition of irony and an appropriate explanation of what the concept of “darker” means in music.

Notes: For a scientific adventure into the world of human attention see my newest book
Can I Have Your Attention?: How to Think Fast, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Concentration




Infant Brains Are Hardwired for Language

Infant Brains Are Hardwired for Language: "

In Brain Sense, I describe how the capacity for language develops in the infant brain before birth.

Brain activity in the left-hemisphere language centers can be detected in infants as young as five days. Behavioral experiments have demonstrated that days- or weeks-old infants can distinguish the 'melody' of their native language from the pitches and rhythms of other languages. They can assess the number of syllables in a word and perceive a change in speech sounds (such as ba versus ga), even when they hear different speakers.

Very young babies can also pick up a change of words in a sentence. Two-month-olds can tell the difference between 'the rat chased white mice' and 'the cat chased white mice' even after a two-minute delay. This ability vanishes when the same sounds are played backward.

'From the first weeks of life,' says French researcher Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz, 'the human brain is particularly adapted for processing speech.' Her MRI studies of infant brains have convinced her that language processing in newborns relies largely on the same brain circuits that adults use.

She has also found that a baby's native language enjoys a significant advantage in key language-processing centers of the brain. Babies show the same patterns of brain activity as adults when it comes to distinguishing the native language from a foreign one.

Now new research shows that infants born to bilingual mothers possess, at birth, the ability to discriminate two languages. 'Hearing two languages regularly during pregnancy puts infants on the road to bilingualism by birth,' reports the Association for Psychological Science, announcing a study published online January 29.

According to researchers Krista Byers-Heinlein and Janet F. Werker from the University of British Columbia and their colleague in France, Tracey Burns, infants born to bilingual mothers--women who spoke two languages regularly during pregnancy--exhibit different language preferences than infants born to mothers who spoke a single language during the prenatal months.

The study compared babies born to English monolinguals and babies born to Tagalog-English bilinguals. The researchers measured how fast the babies sucked when they heard either of those languages. (Sucking rate is well established as a measure of an infant's interest in a stimulus.)

In one experiment, the babies heard ten minutes of speech, with every minute alternating between English and Tagalog. The babies born to English monolingual mothers sucked faster when they heard English. They more or less ignored the Tagalog. But the babies born to bilingual mothers sucked equally fast for both English and Tagalog.

In additional experiments, the bilingual infants showed an ability to discriminate English and Tagalog--to keep one separate from the other--a necessity for mastering two languages. 'These results suggest that prenatal bilingual exposure may affect infants' language preferences, preparing bilingual infants to listen to and learn both of their native languages,' says the Association's press release.

'Monolingual newborns' preference for their single native language directs listening attention to that language,' say the researchers. 'Bilingual newborns' interest in both languages helps ensure attention to, and hence further learning about, each of their languages.'

For more information:

Brynie, Faith. Brain Sense, Chapter 22, 'Listening and Language.'

Byers-Heinlein et al., 'The Roots of Bilingualism in Newborns,' Psychological Science (online).

Brynie, Faith. 'Newborn Brain May Be Wired for Speech.'

How does religion affect psychiatric treatment?

How does religion affect psychiatric treatment?: "(Wiley-Blackwell) 'The boundary between religious belief and the practice of psychiatry is becoming increasingly porous,' say the editors in the Preface to Religion and Psychiatry: Beyond Boundaries. 'No longer can psychiatrists in a multi-faith, multcultural globalized world hide behind the dismissal of religious belief as pathological, or behind a biomedical scientism, as they are more frequently confronted by distressed patients for whom religious belief may determine their choice of symptoms and their compliance with treatment.'"

How nerve cells grow

How nerve cells grow: "Brain researcher Hiroshi Kawabe has discovered the workings of a process that had been completely overlooked until now, and that allows nerve cells in the brain to grow and form complex networks. The study shows that an enzyme which usually controls the destruction of protein components has an unexpected function in nerve cells: it controls the structure of the cytoskeleton and thus ensures that nerve cells can form the tree-like extensions that are necessary for signal transmission in the brain."