Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Picking our brains: What are memories made of?

Picking our brains: What are memories made of? - life - 30 March 2010 - New Scientist

Seriously, can New Scientist be any more cool? I'm loving the great brain articles they are putting up.

Picking our brains: Nine neural frontiers

Picking our brains: Nine neural frontiers - New Scientist

New Scientist is just fun. This is another great article that focuses on what we would really like to understand better or overcome in the future.

Ten things we don't understand about humans

Ten things we don't understand about humans - New Scientist

Fantastic article. Although, personally, I'm not terribly interested in the reasons behind pubic hair and nosepicking - these are subjects that hold no allure for me.

Elite Few Can Multitask Driving And Cell Phone

FuturePundit: Elite Few Can Multitask Driving And Cell Phone

Apparently only about 2.5% of the population can handle driving and talking on the phone without losing significant cognitive function. So, no matter what you may think - you're almost definitely one of the 97.5% of people who can't.

People that claim they are multitaskers are also usually pretty bad at it.

CultureLab: Genius, genes and environment

CultureLab: Genius, genes and environment

Just read the darned thing - this is an excellent article outlining the current philosophy and approach to genes and intelligence.

'That was my idea' -- Group brainstorming settings and fixation

'That was my idea' -- Group brainstorming settings and fixation

Apparently "brainstorming" may not be the outlet to creativity that it was once thought.

How Intelligent Is Intelligence Testing?

A project of Pratt Institute's Cognitive Psychology Course: How Intelligent Is Intelligence Testing?

Good article with a couple of excellent links to a couple of other articles. Testing in general is a passion of mine, and intelligence testing is definitely one of the more philosophically challenging issues within the larger area of testing.

Antidepressant Use Up, Psychotherapy Use Down

Antidepressant Use Up, Psychotherapy Use Down

Big-Pharma FTW! Actually, I think that the current trend in psychodnamic drugs is not necessarily a good thing. For some people it can be very valuable, but other people will receive no real benefit - drugs are not the cure-all that the media and popular culture seem to think they are.

Moral judgments can be altered

Moral judgments can be altered

This is a fun little bit of research (more detail can be found here). And it actually relates directly to the post on free will immediately prior to this one.

Brain Stimulant: Free Will and the Brain

Brain Stimulant: Free Will and the Brain

Great post about some of the research being done on free will and the implications.

'Brain exercises' may delay memory decline in dementia

'Brain exercises' may delay memory decline in dementia

Harking back to the old "use it or lose it" philosophy. Myself, I hope to be still going to school and learning when I'm 90 yrs old.

Friday, March 26, 2010

How you emerge from your brain

How you emerge from your brain: "If 'you' are just firing neurons, can you be responsible for your actions? In My Brain Made Me Do It, Eliezer Sternberg says emergence is the answer

I haven't read this article yet, but I'm excited to see what it has to say.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

‘The Male Brain’ Shows the Problem with Many Pop Science Books–They Lack Science

This article is so good I'm including the entire text. Go forth and read:

‘The Male Brain’ Shows the Problem with Many Pop Science Books–They Lack Science: "

A few years ago I read Louann Brizendine’s book, “The Female Brain”, and marveled at her ability to take weak correlations and turn them into impressively scientific-sounding “facts.”

This really is a talent, I think, though not one that has earned her many fans in the science community. That Brizendine is a trained psychiatrist, and a member of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, has not helped her credibility in science circles—in fact, many feel it only makes her more culpable, since she really ought to know better.

What I think she knows, however, is that popular science books don’t have to be evidence-based to become best sellers, and she’s no doubt correct. Her just-released book, “The Male Brain”, will demonstrate that marketplace truism once again, and once again she is raising the ire of scientists.

A few examples will better illustrate why this tension exists. Brizendine likes to say that men and women are very much alike, but different in a few crucial ways. Fair enough. How are we different?

For one, she claims the “I feel what you feel part of the brain–mirror-neuron system–is larger and more active in the female brain. So women can naturally get in sync with others’ emotions by reading facial expressions, interpreting tone of voice and other nonverbal emotional cues.”

What’s interesting is that the “mirror-neuron system” at the core of her claim may or may not be a “system” at all; in fact, whether mirror neurons even exist is still a point of neuroscientific contention. At the very least, how these neurons work is debatable and there’s anything but widespread agreement about what they do. But Brizendine makes it sound as if the matter is settled and we can confidently draw sweeping conclusions.

But take another look at her statement. Is the conclusion she’s reaching a paradigm-breaking discovery? Not at all. It’s just a regurgitation of the same stereotype we’ve heard for years, that women are more empathetic, more in sync with emotions and better communicators. Only now, according to Brizendine, we have a grandiose scientific underpinning for believing it.

Here’s another claim: “Perhaps the biggest difference between the male and female brain is that men have a sexual pursuit area that is 2.5 times larger than the one in the female brain.” This statement begs the question, where exactly is this “pursuit area”? The reader shouldn’t expect an answer—at least not one with scientific validity—because in all likelihood no such “area” exists. At minimum we should be asking how this skirt-chasing control center was identified.

This is an example of a trend that has taken over popular psychology and neuroscience publishing: using correlational fMRI data (which areas of the brain show activity under various conditions) to create the appearance of solid, rigorously researched conclusions (e.g. identification of a “pursuit area”). The problem, as a recent study has shown, is that fMRI often produces different results under the same testing conditions, and no one is exactly sure why. This fracture in the reproducibility chain doesn’t necessarily invalidate fMRI results, but it should (and generally does) stop researchers from claiming that the results are conclusive. At best, they are suggestive, at least for now. As the technology improves that may change.

None of those issues are a problem for Brizendine, who, like so many popular science writers, is more than willing to stake a series of claims on shaky evidence that sounds ironclad. So we shouldn’t be surprised when she says something like this:

All that testosterone drives the “Man Trance”– that glazed-eye look a man gets when he sees breasts. As a woman who was among the ranks of the early feminists, I wish I could say that men can stop themselves from entering this trance. But the truth is, they can’t. Their visual brain circuits are always on the lookout for fertile mates. Whether or not they intend to pursue a visual enticement, they have to check out the goods. CNN, 3/24/2010

Brizendine arrives at this conclusion by way of a connect-the-dots methodology: Testosterone plus “visual brain circuits” equals “man trance.” It sounds as though she’s referencing a well-researched phenomenon, and yet I can’t find even a mention of the “man trance” anywhere in PubMed or Google Scholar. Why I can’t isn’t a mystery—she made up the term. That’s fine. An author should be allowed to coin new terms, as long as the underlying facts are solid. But here’s where we have the bigger problem—they’re not. The two studies in PubMed that address the testosterone-visual circuitry connection are about the sexual behavior of birds and goldfish.

Have we developed a sophisticated method of detecting a male bird or goldfish’s entrancement with female bird and goldfish breasts? I’m pretty sure not. This does, however, illustrate another disappointing trend in pop science publishing: extrapolating what sound like compelling conclusions from preliminary (and sometimes quirky) studies–many of which won’t ever be reproduced.

The trick here, once again, is how the “conclusion” is packaged, not how well it’s supported. Every time Brizendine goes on a talk show and discusses the “man trance,” what will stick is the clever, sound-bite ready term. Whether or not the term is evidence-based won’t matter, and usually no one will ask.

Many more examples could be addressed, but I’m sure by now the point is clear: in books like Brizendine’s, we’re not getting the results of science, we’re getting a dose of scientainment. Having it delivered to us by a well-credentialed professional makes it all the more appealing, and—in the time-honored tradition of relying on the authority of “experts”—all the more unassailable.

Unfortunately, the takeaways from these books aren’t enriching the knowledge pool. Instead, they reinforce our natural tendencies to simplify, categorize and stereotype—tendencies that for most of us aren’t in need of reinforcement.


Talk to your babies

Talk to your babies

We've known for a long time that talking to children is important, but this just underscores how mind-bogglingly capable even small infants are at absorbing every little bit of information and experience available to them, and providing them with more experience only leads to good things.

Autism susceptibility genes identified

Autism susceptibility genes identified

I have very little to say about that headline than: if true, this could be an extremely major breakthrough.

New period of brain 'plasticity' created with transplanted embryonic cells

New period of brain 'plasticity' created with transplanted embryonic cells

Ooooo.....very cool! Brain plasticity is essentially what helps us learn and gain new abilities. In the extreme this could lead to treatments for people who are profoundly deaf or blind from birth, or for people who have lost specific cognitive abilities. Those are merely pipe-dreams at the moment, but there is potential that being able to induce brain-plasticity of a sufficient level could allow for a re-wiring of the brain to do all kinds of fun things.

Of mice and memory: 'Working memory' of mice can be improved

Of mice and memory: 'Working memory' of mice can be improved

So - get out there and improve your working memory!

Memory decline linked to an inability to ignore distractions

Memory decline linked to an inability to ignore distractions

Well, this is just plain fun. This story appeared shortly after I posted the last story about how meditation can improve memory - basically through the effects of the ability to ignore distractions.

Ain't it great when research in opposite directions confirms each other?

Scientists find how relaxed minds remember better | Reuters

Scientists find how relaxed minds remember better | Reuters

Not really much of a surprise. Actually, I remember vaguely that one theorist suggested that the reason the "Mozart effect" worked was that the rhythms of the music composed by Mozart resonated with certain brain-wave patterns. Which is really just a pile of horse manure when you look at it more closely. However, the idea that we need to relax our minds and get our brain-waves under control is certainly a good idea. A relaxed brain can potentially be a more focused brain. Relaxation requires removing awareness from distracting stimuli around you, which allows you to devote more attention to singular areas.

Sounds like solid research to me.

How the carrot approach facilitates learning

How the carrot approach facilitates learning: "People who are rewarded for making correct decisions learn quickly. While the 'carrot' approach may produce favorable results, little is understood about how rewards facilitate the learning process."

This is really just a deeper look at Operant Conditioning. And the carrot approach isn't the only effective way to drive learning, however, it is more laboratory-friendly, so there is no surprise that it is being looked at carefully.

Social networking site for researchers aims to make academic papers a thing of the past

Social networking site for researchers aims to make academic papers a thing of the past

I do not believe that this will eliminate peer-reviewed research journals. I believe it will fill the same niche as social media does right now. We still have journalists and TV reporters - social media gives us another outlet and can occasionally provide faster, better, more comprehensive information, but can also help to color current events with a better understanding driven from multiple angles that we previously didn't have available through the "single outlet" style of traditional media.

That's what the social networking and social media sites for scientists will accomplish. Another outlet for researchers to share findings. In time I see the outlets becoming co-equal - but I'm probably wrong. We really haven't settled into what the Interwebs and social media will do for us in the long term. It's still a media outlet under development, and we have no idea where this is going yet.

Researcher Condemns Conformity Among His Peers

Researcher Condemns Conformity Among His Peers - TierneyLab Blog - NYTimes.com

There are many ideas at play here, and many that I harp on all the time. Conformity has much to do not only with social acceptance but also with observational bias. For anyone to claim that they can do research, present evidence, or even just talk in a reasoned way about any subject in a purely objective, non-bias manner is pure crap. We all have bias and we all want to be accepted by like-minded people to be validated. I'd be much more impressed with scientists (and journalists) if the mind-set of the researcher/writer was clearly set forth at the start of any conversation. Wile I don't recommend embracing and celebrating the personal bias we have, at the very least don't try to ignore or pretend that the bias/need for conformity doesn't exist. Recognize it, admit it, tell me where you're coming from, then present your argument.

Short stressful events may improve working memory

Short stressful events may improve working memory: "(University at Buffalo) Experiencing chronic stress day after day can produce wear and tear on the body physically and mentally, and can have a detrimental effect on learning and emotion. However, acute stress -- a short stressful incident -- may enhance learning and memory."

This fits well with other earlier research that shows that mild stress improves motivation to learn and that emotion/stress plays a large role in memory retention. Maybe I need to stress out my students briefly just before each class?

UCLA scientists present first genetic evidence for why placebos work

UCLA scientists present first genetic evidence for why placebos work: "Researchers at UCLA have found a new explanation for why placebos work -- genetics. They report that in people suffering from major depressive disorder, genes that influence the brain's reward pathways may modulate the response to placebo."

If this research can be brought around to something practical, like a genetic test to determine susceptibility to placebo, it could open a whole new front for medical treatment.

Brain Development Of Adolescent Girls Different Than Boys

Brain Development Of Adolescent Girls Different Than Boys: "Here's a big non-shocker: science shows once again that in adolescence girls become different than boys in how they think. The study, by researchers at the National Institute of Mental..."

More non-surprising research, but still pointing out that the idea that brain (and cognitive) development are gender neutral is a load of hogwash.

Sorry, Oprah? Responses to Positive Self-Statement Research

Sorry, Oprah? Responses to Positive Self-Statement Research: "

'Sorry Oprah: Self-help books seldom helpful: Study'
'Self-help makes you feel worse'
'The powerlessness of positive thinking'

These are some of the media headlines inspired by my research on positive self-statements, which I described in my last posting."

This is an excellent article that is worth perusing. She is speaking mostly about the idea of positive self-statements without any kind of cognitive adjustments to alter the approach to your world-view. Simply trying to say "I'm okay!" doesn't quite do it. There needs to be some additional changes made to cognitive processes to really effect lasting change.

Tweens sensitive to others' perceptions of them

Tweens sensitive to others' perceptions of them: "In a new study using brain-mapping techniques, early adolescents and young adults responded to researchers' questions about whether short phrases (such as 'I am popular') described them, and whether they believed others (mothers, best friends, classmates) thought these phrases described them, too. In comparison to the young adults, the tweens were found to see themselves in ways that may depend more on what they believe others think about their abilities and attributes."

This is possibly the least surprising result I've seen in a while. Of course teens are more concerned about how other perceive them. I think the Vygotskian approach to social learning applies best in this situation (as opposed to a Piagetian cognitive approach). Teens are trying to establish an identity and that process is inherently social in nature and relies very heavily on the feedback of others. Talk to any teen for more than a few minutes (or better yet, become a parent of a teen) and this process is abundantly apparent.

'Honest Joes' and cheaters unmasked in brain scans

'Honest Joes' and cheaters unmasked in brain scans: "Given the chance, some people have no temptation to cheat, according to a brain study that could provide the basis for a test of honesty."

While interesting, this seems fairly limited in scope. I see honesty as having several practical applications that could be quite different from the parameters around taking a test. Honesty in relationships, at work, dealing with economic situations, etc. As a lab result it is still quite interesting, but I don't see it having any real practical value anytime soon.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Can You Alter Your Memory?

Can You Alter Your Memory? - WSJ.com

This is not terribly different from many cognitive behavioral approaches to altering perception, and there have been multiple ways to approach this idea over the history of psychology, but this is a pretty good article summing up the technique.