Wherein Rick Berry discusses neurophysiological underpinnings of perception and cognition at MIT

or..What causes one image to grip the imagination as opposed to those that don’t?  This is a pragmatic talk by Rick on how to foment creative production for any enterprise requiring original vision. All are welcome. MIT Johnson Athletic Center / THIS SATURDAY, Sept 13  3:45pm  RM 2 Register @ BostonFIG.com

LET ART THINK  Talk by Rick Berry at Boston Festival of Indie Games

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Awake within a dream: lucid dreamers show greater insight in waking life

People who are aware they are asleep when they are dreaming have better than average problem-solving abilities, new research has discovered.

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Experts from the University of Lincoln, UK, say that those who experience ‘lucid dreaming’ – a phenomena where someone who is asleep can recognise that they are dreaming – can solve problems in the waking world better than those who remain unaware of the dream until they wake up.

The concept of lucid dreaming was explored in the 2010 film Inception, where the dreamers were able to spot incongruities within their dream. It is thought some people are able to do this because of a higher level of insight, meaning their brains detect they are in a dream because events would not make sense otherwise. This cognitive ability translates to the waking world when it comes to finding the solution to a problem by spotting hidden connections or inconsistencies, researchers say.

The research was carried out by Dr Patrick Bourke, Senior Lecturer at the Lincoln School of Psychology and his student Hannah Shaw. It is the first empirical study demonstrating the relationship between lucid dreaming and insight.

He said: “It is believed that for dreamers to become lucid while asleep, they must see past the overwhelming reality of their dream state, and recognise that they are dreaming.

“The same cognitive ability was found to be demonstrated while awake by a person’s ability to think in a different way when it comes to solving problems.”

The study examined 68 participants aged between 18 and 25 who had experienced different levels of lucid dreaming, from never to several times a month. They were asked to solve 30 problems designed to test insight. Each problem consisted of three words and a solution word.

Each of the three words could be combined with the solution word to create a new compound word.

For example with the words ‘sand’, ‘mile’ and ‘age’, the linking word would be ‘stone’.

Results showed that frequent lucid dreamers solved 25 per cent more of the insight problems than the non-lucid dreamers.

Miss Shaw, who conducted the research as part of her undergraduate dissertation, said the ability to experience lucid dreams is something that can be learned. “We aren’t entirely sure why some people are naturally better at lucid dreaming than others, although it is a skill which can be taught,” said Hannah.

“For example you can get into the habit of asking yourself “is this a dream?”. If you do this during the day when you are awake and make it a habit then it can transfer to when you are in a dream.”

Intelligent whites give more enlightened responses than less intelligent whites to questions about their attitudes, but their responses to questions about actual policies aimed at redressing racial discrimination are far less enlightened. For example, although nearly all whites with advanced cognitive abilities say that ‘whites have no right to segregate their neighborhoods,’ nearly half of this group remains content to allow prejudicial real estate practices to continue unencumbered by open housing laws.

Humans not smarter than animals, just different, experts say

Humans have been deceiving themselves for thousands of years that they’re smarter than the rest of the animal kingdom, despite growing evidence to the contrary, according to University of Adelaide experts in evolutionary biology.

"For millennia, all kinds of authorities – from religion to eminent scholars – have been repeating the same idea ad nauseam, that humans are exceptional by virtue that they are the smartest in the animal kingdom," says Dr Arthur Saniotis, Visiting Research Fellow with the University’s School of Medical Sciences.

"However, science tells us that animals can have cognitive faculties that are superior to human beings."

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Musicians show advantages in long-term memory

A peek inside the brains of professional musicians has given University of Texas at Arlington psychology researchers what may be the first links between music expertise and advantages in long-term memory.

Heekyeong Park, assistant professor of psychology, and graduate student James Schaeffer used electroencephalography (EEG) technology to measure electrical activity of neurons in the brains of 14 musicians and 15 non-musicians and noted processing differences in the frontal and parietal lobe responses. The team will present initial results of their new research Tuesday at Neuroscience 2014, the international meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, in Washington, D.C.

“Musically trained people are known to process linguistic materials a split second faster than those without training, and previous research also has shown musicians have advantages in working memory,” said Park. “What we wanted to know is whether there are differences between pictorial and verbal tasks and whether any advantages extend to long-term memory. If proven, those advantages could represent an intervention option to explore for people with cognitive challenges.”

Park’s laboratory in UT Arlington College of Science uses high tech imaging tools – including EEG, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) - to research human cognitive neuroscience. To test working memory, the study participants were asked to select pictorial or verbal items that they’d just been given among similar lures. For long-term memory, participants judged whether each test item was studied or new after the entire study session was complete.

The musicians, all of whom had been playing classical music for more than 15 years, outperformed non-musicians in EEG-measured neural responses on the working memory tasks. But, when long-term memory was tested, the enhanced sensitivity was only found in memory for pictures.

The study has not explored why the advantages might develop. Park said it’s possible professional musicians become more adept at taking in and processing a host of pictorial cues as they navigate musical scores.

Park’s abstract for the conference reports that musicians’ neural responses in the mid-frontal part of the brain were 300 to 500 milliseconds faster than non musicians and responses in the parietal lobe were 400 to 800 milliseconds faster than non musicians. The parietal lobe is directly behind the frontal lobe of the brain and is important for perceptual processing, attention and memory.

“Dr. Park’s research uses the latest scientific instrumentation to reveal knowledge about human cognition that was previously unreachable,” said James Grover, interim dean of the UT Arlington College of Science. “It provides usable information about far-reaching advantages arts training can bring.”

Researchers hope to test more musicians soon to strengthen the findings.

Whatever the mechanism involved, Park said the new research is important because music is helpful for long-term memory for non-verbal events and “we are all surrounded by non verbal events.”

“Our work is adding evidence that music training is a good way to improve cognitive abilities,” she said.

(Image: Bigstock)

Our awareness of our own speech often comes after the words have left our mouth, not before.

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If you think you know what you just said, think again. People can be tricked into believing they have just said something they did not, researchers report this week.The dominant model of how speech works is that it is planned in advance — speakers begin with a conscious idea of exactly what they are going to say. But some researchers think that speech is not entirely planned, and that people know what they are saying in part through hearing themselves speak. So cognitive scientist Andreas Lind and his colleagues at Lund University in Sweden wanted to see what would happen if someone said one word, but heard themselves saying another. “If we use auditory feedback to compare what we say with a well-specified intention, then any mismatch should be quickly detected,” he says. “But if the feedback is instead a powerful factor in a dynamic, interpretative process, then the manipulation could go undetected.” In Lind’s experiment, participants took a Stroop test — in which a person is shown, for example, the word ‘red’ printed in blue and is asked to name the colour of the type (in this case, blue). During the test, participants heard their responses through headphones. The responses were recorded so that Lind could occasionally play back the wrong word, giving participants auditory feedback of their own voice saying something different from what they had just said. Lind chose the words ‘grey’ and ‘green’ (grå and grön in Swedish) to switch, as they sound similar but have different meanings. After participants heard a manipulated word, a question popped up on the screen asking what they had just said, and they were also quizzed after the test to see whether they had detected the switch. When the voice-activated software got the timing just right — so that the wrong word began within 5–20 milliseconds of the participant starting to speak — the change went undetected more than two-thirds of the time. And in 85% of undetected substitutions, the participant accepted that they had said the wrong word, indicating that speakers listen to their own voices to help specify the meaning of what they are saying. The remaining 15% didn’t notice the manipulations, but also didn’t seem to notice that the word had changed, and Lind says it is unclear why. The results are published this week in Psychological Science.

PSYCHOGRAPHY

[noun]

1. a description of the phenomena of mind; mapping thoughts.

2. the reception of written spirit messages through a medium; spirit writing. 

3. the production of images of spirits on film without the use of a camera, believed to be caused by spiritualistic forces.

Etymology: Greek ‘psych-’ (mind, spirit, consciousness; mental processes; the human soul; breath of life; literally, “that which breathes” or “breathing”) + -graphia (writing).

[Michael Birnstingl]

What Do Animals Think They See When They Look in the Mirror?

The six horses in a 2002 study were “known weavers.” When stabled alone, they swayed their heads, necks, forequarters, and sometimes their whole bodies from side to side. The behavior is thought to stem from the social frustration brought on by isolation. It can be seen in a small percentage of all stabled horses, and owners hate it—they think it causes fatigue, weight loss, and uneven muscle development, and it looks disturbing.

People had tried stopping the weaving by installing metal bars that limit a horse’s movement, but the study found that a different modification to the stable worked surprisingly well: a mirror. “Those horses with the mirror were rarely [observed] weaving,” the researchers reported. A later study even found that the mirror worked just as well as the presence of another horse.

Studies have shown that mirrors can improve the lives of a variety of laboratory, zoo, farm, and companion animals. Isolated cows and sheep have lower stress reactions when mirrors are around. With mirrors, monkeys alone or in groups show a healthy increase in social behaviors such as threats, grimaces, lip-smacking, and teeth chattering, and laboratory rabbits housed alone are also more active. Mirrors in birdcages reduce some birds’ fear.

[read more on Slate]

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How Intense Study May Harm Our Workouts

Tire your brain and your body may follow, a remarkable new study of mental fatigue finds. Strenuous mental exertion may lessen endurance and lead to shortened workouts, even if, in strict physiological terms, your body still has plenty of energy reserves.

Scientists have long been intrigued by the idea that physical exertion affects our ability to think, with most studies finding that short bouts of exercise typically improve cognition. Prolonged and exhausting physical exercise, on the other hand, may leave practitioners too worn out to think clearly, at least for a short period of time.

But the inverse possibility — that too much thinking might impair physical performance — has received far less attention. So scientists from the University of Kent in England and the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, known as INSERM, joined forces to investigate the matter. For a study published online in May in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, they decided to tire volunteers’ brains with a mentally demanding computer word game and see how well their bodies would perform afterward.

Fatigue is a complex, multifaceted condition. Exercise science usually concentrates on bodily fatigue, meaning a reduction in our ability to contract muscles and stay in motion. Run, cycle, lift weights or just stand, and a small army of muscles contract, burning fuel and eventually tiring. This fatigue occurs both within the individual muscles and at the level of the nervous system, a condition known as central fatigue.

Our minds tire, too, although the causes are difficult to pin down. Neurons may run low of fuel, and other processes probably also are involved. But it is clear, as many of us know from personal experience, that concentrating intensively on an intellectually demanding project for hours typically leaves you feeling mentally dull.

To determine the impact that such mental fatigue might have on subsequent exercise, the researchers first asked 10 healthy, active young men to visit an exercise lab on several occasions. During each visit, the men began by having monitors and an electrode attached to one leg and then vigorously contracting their leg muscles, while the electrode zapped a small amount of electricity into the muscles, augmenting their effort so that they reached their maximum contractile force at that moment. Tired muscles would be expected to produce less force and respond more feebly to the electrical zapping, telling scientists to what degree the body has developed both localized and central fatigue.

Then, during one session, the men sat for 90 minutes before a computer screen, intently watching individual letters flash by while they counted every four and punched various keys, depending on how each grouping of the letters was configured. This test is known reliably to induce mental fatigue.

During a separate lab visit, the men watched “Earth,” a serene, calming documentary, for 90 minutes.

After both intellectual activities, the men exercised one of their legs at a specialized one-legged ergometer to the point of muscular exhaustion, while frequently telling the researchers how strenuous the exercise felt.

Then they underwent the test of actual maximum contractile force one more time.

As it turned out, mental fatigue significantly affected the men’s endurance. They tired about 13 percent faster after the computer test than after watching “Earth.” They also reported that the workout felt far more taxing.

But, interestingly, their maximum contractile force was about the same after each session. Their muscles responded just as robustly to orders from the brain and the attached electrode after the draining mental workout as after the quiet session, even though the brain-fogged volunteers felt as if their muscles were much more exhausted.

This finding suggests “that maximal force production is not altered by mental fatigue but endurance performance is altered, and this alteration is closely linked with a higher feeling of perceived exertion,” said Romuald Lepers, a professor at the INSERM research laboratory at the University of Burgundy in France and, with Samuele M. Marcora and Benjamin Pageaux of the University of Kent, co-author of the study.

In simpler terms, exercise simply feels harder when your brain is tired, so you quit earlier, although objectively, your muscles are still somewhat fresh.

This finding has multiple implications for how we combine ratiocination and sweat. It suggests, for instance, that the morning of an important race or challenging training session may not be the ideal time to finish your taxes, since overthinking could lead to underperforming physically.

Inversely, the results also suggest that “training our brain to avoid or limit mental fatigue” could be a hitherto untapped means of improving physical performance, Dr. Lepers said. Training yourself to speed through crossword puzzles, in other words, might improve your workouts, by subtly altering how mind and muscles communicate and making your brain less likely to consider your muscles easily enfeebled.

But that possibility hasn’t been tested, Dr. Lepers said. For now, his study’s most compelling conclusion is that, as he says, “our feelings do not always reflect our physiological state” and our bodies may in many instances be sturdier than own minds realize, an idea worth thinking about.

A universal difference

The author of Crazy Like Us, Ethan Watters, has written an excellent article on whether there’s such a thing as ‘human nature’ for the latest edition of Adbusters.

The piece tackles how scientific assumptions about the ‘universals’ of the human mind are having to be revised and discusses research which has shown how people from across the world behave markedly differently in supposedly culturally neutral tasks.

The last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Eurocentrism of their predecessors, albeit in different ways. Many anthropologists took to the navel gazing of postmodernism and swore off attempts at rationality and science, which were disparaged as weapons of cultural imperialism.

Economists and psychologists skirted the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects…

Henrich’s work with the ultimatum game emerged from a small but growing counter trend in the social sciences, one in which researchers look straight at the question of how deeply culture shapes human cognition.

The article is an engaging look at this new wave of research.

Source: mindhacks.com
Original article: Is There Such a Thing as “Human Nature”?

Dolphins Have Longest Memories in Animal Kingdom

Marine mammals can remember their friends after 20 years apart, study says.

New experiments show that bottlenose dolphins can remember whistles of other dolphins they’d lived with after 20 years of separation. Each dolphin has a unique whistle that functions like a name, allowing the marine mammals to keep close social bonds.

The new research shows that dolphins have the longest memory yet known in any species other than people. Elephants and chimpanzees are thought to have similar abilities, but they haven’t yet been tested, said study author Jason Bruck, an animal behaviorist at the University of Chicago.

Bruck came up with the idea to study animal memory when his brother’s dog, usually wary of male strangers, remembered and greeted him four years after last seeing him. “That got me thinking: How long do other animals remember each other?”

I Remember You!

Bruck studied dolphins because their social bonds are extremely important and because there are good records for captive dolphins (as opposed to wild ones).

So he collected data from 43 bottlenose dolphins at six facilities in the U.S. and Bermuda, members of a breeding consortium that has swapped dolphins for decades and kept careful records of each animal’s social partners.

He first played recordings of lots of unfamiliar whistles to the dolphins in the study until the subjects got bored and stopped inspecting the underwater speaker making the sounds.

At this point, he played the whistles of the listening dolphins’ old friends.

When the dolphins heard these familiar whistles, they would perk up and approach the speakers, often whistling their own name and listening for a response.

Overall, the dolphins responded more to animals they’d known decades ago than to random animals—suggesting they recognized their former companions, according to the study, published recently in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Cheeky Dolphins

Working with animals as intelligent as dolphins was a challenge, Bruck added. The animals loved participating in the experiment so much that they’d often hover over the speaker, blocking the noise.

Others would begin “whistling directly at me as if I could understand them,” he said.

And one set of cheeky young dolphins swam up to Bruck and started whistling the names of the dominant males in their group in order of rank, perhaps suggesting the names they wanted to hear, Bruck said.

Memory Linked to Smarts?

Why dolphins—which live an average of 20 years in the wild—need long-term memory is still unknown. But it may have to do with maintaining relationships, since over time dolphin groups often break up and reorganize into new alliances.

This sort of social system is called “fission-fusion,” and it’s also seen in elephants and chimpanzees—two other highly intelligent and social beings.

Coincidence? Bruck suspects not: “It seems that maybe complex cognition comes from a place of trying to remember who your buddies are,” he said.

You See What You Believe

The world can be chaotic. Cars whiz by on the road. People walk past you. There may be birds and planes flying overhead. Despite all of this potential confusion, you manage to make sense of most of what is happening around you. The ability to comprehend the world reflects an interaction between the things you see around you and your beliefs about the world.

An interesting question is the degree to which your beliefs influence what you are seeing in the moment. This question was explored by Christos Bechlivanidis and David Lagnado in a fascinating paper in the August, 2013 issue of Psychological Science

They created a simple computer-based environment in which basic shapes (like squares and rectangles) could move and influence each other. By playing with the environment for a while, participants could learn how the various objects worked. For example, when a green square collided with a barrier, it caused the red rectangle to become a star. The blue square would only allow squares, but not other shapes to enter its borders. So, in order to get the red rectangle inside the blue square, the green square had to collide with the barrier first. 

In one study, some participants were given a series of exercises in this computer environment so that they learned how the objects acted.  Eventually, they learned how to get the red rectangle inside the blue square. A second group got no training.

Afterward, participants saw a video of the objects moving in the world.  In this video, the red rectangle entered the blue square about 100 milliseconds before the green square hit the platform. The red rectangle turned into a star after the green square hit the platform. All of this happened in the same spatial position, so that participants could see all of the objects without having to move their eyes.

The participants then described the order of events in the test video and gave information about why the events happened in that order. Those who received no training generally saw the events happen in the order in which they happened in the video. They recognized that the red rectangle turned into a square before the green square hit the platform and that the rectangle became a star after it entered the blue square.  When asked, they said that this was the order they saw the events.

The participants who received training were much more prone to describe the events in the order that fit with their training. They reported that the green square hit the platform before the rectangle turned into a star, and that the rectangle turned into a star before it entered the blue square. They were also likely to say that this ordering happened, because that reflects the way the environment works. 

At one level, it should not be surprising that we have to use a lot of conceptual knowledge to help us make sense of what happens in the world. Causal relationships do not often change that quickly, and so it is valuable (most of the time) for our beliefs to influence our interpretation of what we see.

However, this influence of belief on behavior can be a problem in situations like eyewitness testimony. It is well known that the reports of eyewitnesses are not that reliable. If people perceive events in a way that is consistent with how they believe that the world works, then their reports of the order of events in a complex situation may be wrong.   Because groups of people are likely to share causal beliefs, even entire groups may see events in the wrong order, so having multiple witnesses who provide corroborating testimony about the order of events does not necessarily mean that the events happened in that order.

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‘Sticky synapses’ can impair new memories by holding on to old ones

A team of UBC neuroscientists has found that synapses that are too strong or ‘sticky’ can actually hinder our capacity to learn new things.

University of British Columbia researchers have discovered that so-called “sticky synapses” in the brain can impair new learning by excessively hard-wiring old memories and inhibiting our ability to adapt to our changing environment.

Memories are formed by strong synaptic connections between nerve cells. Now a team of UBC neuroscientists has found that synapses that are too strong or “sticky” can actually hinder our capacity to learn new things by affecting cognitive flexibility, the ability to modify our behaviours to adjust to circumstances that are similar, but not identical, to previous experiences.

“We tend to think that strong retention of memories is always a good thing,” says Fergil Mills, UBC PhD candidate and the study’s first author. “But our study shows that cognitive flexibility involves actively weakening old memory traces. In certain situations, you have to be able to ‘forget’ to learn.”

The study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that mice with excessive beta-catenin – a protein that is part of the “molecular glue” that holds synapses together – can learn a task just as well as normal mice, but lacked the mental dexterity to adapt if the task was altered.

“Increased levels of beta-catenin have previously been reported in disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease, and, intriguingly, patients with these diseases have been shown to have deficits in cognitive flexibility similar to those we observed in this study,” says Shernaz Bamji, an associate professor in UBC’s Dept. of Cellular and Physiological Sciences.

“Now, we see that changes in beta-catenin levels can dramatically affect learning and memory, and may indeed play a role in the cognitive deficits associated with these diseases,” she adds. “This opens up many exciting new avenues for research into these diseases and potential therapeutic approaches.”

BACKGROUND

To test cognitive flexibility in mice, researchers conducted an experiment where the mice were placed in a pool of water and had to learn to find a submerged hidden platform. The mice with excessive beta-catenin could learn to find the platform just as well as normal mice. However, if the platform was moved to a different location in the pool, these mice kept swimming to the platform’s previous location. Even after many days of training, the ‘sticky synapses’ in their brains made them unable to effectively learn to find the new platform.

Bee brains challenge view that larger brains are superior at understanding conceptual relationships

The humble honeybee may not seem very intelligent at first sight, but recent research has shown that it possesses a surprising degree of sophistication that is not expected in an insect brain. Specifically, the honeybee can understand conceptual relationships such as “same/different” and “above/below” that rely on relationships between objects rather than simply the physical features of objects.

In primates, this ability to understand conceptual relationships is attributed to neuronal activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). However, honeybees don’t have PFCs. Their brains are so small and lacking in complex brain structures that scientists have traditionally thought that the ability to understand conceptual relationships was beyond them.

Scientists Aurore Avarguès-Weber and Martin Giurfa, both from the University of Toulouse and CNRS in Toulouse, France, have analyzed the implications of the honeybee’s ability to understand conceptual relationships, and have published a paper on the subject in a recent issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

"One thing that should be clear from this analysis is that, although it is always a matter of debate what is unique to humans and what to animals, these results show at least something that is not," Giurfa told Phys.org. "While the capacity of conceptual elaboration has been considered (and is still considered) a higher-order capacity proper from primates and other ‘highly-evolved’ animals (the quotes are ironic in this case), the fact that a 950 000-neuron [honeybee] brain can achieve this kind of task shows that the frontier does not reside there.

"The obvious question would be then, what brings as advantage a 100-billion-neuron [human] brain? Obviously several advantages can be cited: language, for instance. Consciousness, whose existence is a matter of debate and of investigation in animals. And the idea that human brains have perhaps replicated redundant and modifiable modules to solve problems that small brains solve with single microcircuits at a smaller scale."

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