THYMOS
A newsletter of research on Consciousness, Mind and Life

by piero scaruffi

Researchers are welcome to submit news and articles about breakthroughs and events in the areas of cognitive science, artificial intelligence, neurobiology, artificial life, linguistics, neural networks, connectionism, cognitive psychology, mind, philosophy, psychology, consciousness. Email the editor at this Email address. Readers who would like to receive periodic news and updates on cognitive science, philosophy of mind, neurobiology, artificial intelligence, etc, are invited to register to my mailing list.

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December 2017
  • Eduard Tyantov's selection of deep learning's achievements of 2017
  • Susumu Tonegawa's team at the Riken-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics had discovered that the brain simultaneously create two memories of events, one for short-term use and one for long-term use. The traditional view was that all memories are created in short-term memory and then slowly converted into long-term memory. Tonegawa's study proved instead that memories are formed simultaneously in the hippocampus and in the cortex. ("Engrams and circuits crucial for systems consolidation of a memory")
  • Karl Friston, a physicist and psychiatrist at University College London, explained that consciousness is not a thing, rather a process of continual inference of our environment (Aeon article). Traditionally, consciousness was viewed as thing characterized by its purpose. Friston, however, describes consciousness as a process of incorporating our worldview and understanding into the present moment to infer and predict future potentials. Systems that possess consciousness desire to minimize surprise and act in accordance with their preconceived understanding of the world. He argues that the difference between conscious and non-conscious systems is the approach and action they take when dealing with the present moment. Non-conscious systems tend to act in the here and now, with little regard towards consequences. On the contrary, conscious systems take the past into account while in the present moment, in order to draw reasonable conclusions and create a future that is desirable. (Contributed by Cristina Eckhardt)
  • Ido Kanter, a physicist at Bar-Ilan University, has found that in some cases the stereotype of how neurons communicate is not correct. Traditionally, we assumed that each neuron sums up all the signals from other neurons and, when this quantity reaches a threshold, the neuron fires its own signal to other neurons. It now looks like a neuron contains many independent excitable places, each acting as a threshold unit that sums up the incoming signals.
  • Lina Begdache's team at Binghamton University studied the relationship between food and mood and came up with a statistical correspondence that seems to indicate: the mood of young people depends on meat, whereas the mood of older people depends on fruits (paper)

November 2017
  • Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist from the University of Connecticut, discusses extreme rituals and the social effects they have on their community (Aeon article). Traditionally, extreme rituals were studied either through participant observation or in a laboratory setting. Dimitris and his team sought out to combine both methods in order to study extreme rituals in-depth, while in their natural setting. Extreme rituals proved to form strong cohesion between members of a community. The degree of social cohesion was dependent upon the emotional closeness of members and the degree of pain/suffering the ritual inflicted upon participants. By combining collective arousal and ideology, extreme rituals are powerful social technologies that can be used for good or bad. On one hand, they can foster togetherness among a community, but on the other, they can create an "us vs. them" mentality, which can be dangerous when following an insidious ideology. (Contributed by Cristina Eckhardt)
  • Gyorgy Buzsaki's team at New York University discovered that when we sleep our brain's hippocampus experiences ripples (high-frequency bursts) of neural firing. We already knew that the hippocampus helps consolidate long-term memories during sleep so those ripples are likely to provide a clue to how that happens. Now the team has discovered similar ripples occurring at the same time in portions of the neocortex. Their experiments with rats confirmed that the synchronized ripples increase a rat's ability to memorize what it has learned. ("Learning-enhanced Coupling Between Ripple Oscillations in Association Cortices and Hippocampus" )
  • Scientists from Goethe University in Frankfurt (Kirsten Hilger, Christian Fiebach and Ulrike Basten), who have long studied the brainís modular organisation and its association with general intelligence, discovered that the brain of more intelligent individuals displays a form of stronger connectivity: the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex are more efficiently connected to the rest of the brain. ( ("Intelligence is associated with the modular structure of intrinsic brain networks", (Scientific Reports))

October 2017
  • New research from Hannelore Ehrenreich of the Max Planck Institute points towards the link between cannabis use and the onset of psychosis ( Scientific American article). The traditional view, especially in recent years, has shown cannabis as an appropriate treatment for a variety of different ailments. However, new research is showing that a higher frequency of cannabis use before the age of 18 is linked to an earlier age of onset of schizophrenia. Despite conflicting research, scientists are showing that cannabis use upsets the natural flow of the endocannabinoid system, and this upset is linked with psychosis. (Contributed by Cristina Eckhardt)

September 2017
  • Adam Stieg and Jim Gimzewski at UCLA's California NanoSystems Institute are creating a device that can match the computing power and energy efficiency of the human brain. Traditional computing platforms are preprogrammed, and therefore limited, in their ability to efficiently use energy to complete tasks. The flow of information in their silver wire network is similar to the flow seen in the synapses in the brain. Like the synapses in the brain, the responses of the silver wire network can change in response to new experience and information. The system operates in a state of "criticality", which indicates that all parts are interacting and communicating to ensure maximum efficiency. The silver wire network is powerful because it has the ability to autonomously self-organize and create, to ensure maximum efficiency, in contrast to traditional preprogrammed computing platforms (Quanta magazine article). Their "brain" uses as synapses the atomic switches developed by Masakazu Aono's team in Japan. (Contributed by Cristina Eckhardt)

August 2017
  • Why Freud survives (New Yorker). Despite all the evidence against Freud, his name is still routinely mentioned by all of us. No other scientist who failed so badly is still so readily mentioned in scientific literature.
  • Rogier Kievit of the Cognition and Brain Science Unit at the University of Cambridge provided evidence for the "mutualism" model of brain development, according to which cognitive skills help each other during development (paper)
  • Scientists at Georgia State University have concluded that use of marijuana triples the chance of dying from hypertension. ("Effect of Marijuana Use on Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Mortality", 2017)

July 2017
  • Ten years ago Michael Shadlen's team at Columbia University discovered that the brain does not use all the information available before making a decision: there is a threshold beyond which the brain feels confident enough and makes the decision ("Decision-making with multiple alternatives", 2008). They now proved with psychological experiments that that's the moment when you become conscious of that fact as opposed to all the myriad of facts being processed in the brain. You become aware of the fact that has reached that threshold. (Paper: "Piercing of Consciousness as a Threshold-Crossing Operation").
  • Kay Tye's lab at the MIT conducts research on the neural circuit responsible for social behavior in mice". Gillian Matthews is using optogenetics to dissect the neural circuitry underlying social interaction in mice. She found a set of neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus that respond negatively (like pain) to loneliness and therefore encourage mice to seek out socialization. This "loneliness neurons" were predicted by John Cacioppo (University of Chicago), whose "Loneliness within a nomological net: An evolutionary perspective?" (2005) surveyed lonely young adults and concluded that loneliness is an aversive state and that it has evolutionary value because socializing helped animals survive. Those who had the neurons causing pain in loneliness were more likely to socialize and therefore to survive.

June 2017
  • Scientists at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Spain shoed how videogames change the brain (both its workings and its physical structure). Paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
  • Blake Richards and Paul Frankland at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) are showing that forgetting is as important for human memory as remembering ("The Persistence and Transience of Memory", 2016)
  • That plants communicate via chemical signaling was already observed by David Rhoades at the University of Washington ("Responses of Alder and Willow to Attack by Tent Caterpillars and Webworms", 1983) and by Ian Baldwin and Jack Schultz at Dartmouth University ("Rapid Changes in Tree Leaf Chemistry Induced by Damage: Evidence for Communication Between Plants", published just a few months later in 1983). The idea lay dormant until Ted Farmer (University of Lausanne) and Clarence Ryan published the paper "Interplant Communication" (1990). Now Richard Karban at UC Davis is working on the same idea (Quanta)
  • The team of Henry Markram, founding director of the Blue Brain Project at the EPFL in Switzerland used a mathematical technique to model how the brain processes information. The flow of information can be represented with directed graphs, but this flattens the picture of what happens in the brain. While graph theory has been used to analyze network topology, Markram's team collaborated with two mathematicians (Kathryn Hess from EPFL and Ran Levi from Aberdeen University) who employed algebraic topology to analyze those directed graphs, as pioneered by Francesco Vaccarino at the Institute for Scientific Interchange (ISI) in Italy. The result is a representation that shows a multi-dimensional structure. The brain does not think in three dimensions but in as many as eleven dimensions. (Journal of Frontiers in Neuroscience)
  • Alcohol causes hippocampus shrinkage (Scientific American)
  • Eirk Hoel at Columbia University has proven that new causes can emerge at macroscopic scales i.e. "causal emergence" (Quanta Magazine)
  • John Peever at the University of Toronto is studying the origin of dreaming in the brain and his research shows that not dreaming properly may be related to Parkinson's Disease.
  • Matthias Ekman at Radboud University showed that the visual cortex is not only gathering information from the eyes: it is involved in predicting the future (Article in Nature Communications).
  • Edward Campbell's group at Loyola University Chicago is studying the similarities in the chemical action of Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and Huntington's disease (Loyola Univ)

May 2017
April 2017
  • Dani Offen's team at TAU's Sackler School of Medicine has found that cannabis causes schizophrenia in teenagers
  • The University of Basel's Transfaculty Research Platform Molecular and Cognitive Neurosciences group has demonstrated a link between the immune system and the brain (paper). The immune system mainly operates via the blood system which is isolated from the brain, but there seems to be a way that it influences the brain.
  • A report compiled by a team led by Stuart Ritchie at the University of Edinburgh found that women tended to have a significantly thicker cortex than men (the cortex is associated with higher scores on a variety of cognitive and general intelligence tests) while men tend to have bigger brain volumes than women in many subcortical regions such as the hippocampus, the amygdala, striatum, and thalamus.
  • Francesca Siclari's team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is mapping non-REM dreaming activity, that first was considered non-existent, then minimal and now seems to be as prevalent as REM dreaming. Siclari argues that we dream during about 70% of our non-REM sleep, in addition to 95% of our REM sleep ("The neural correlates of dreaming", 2017).

March 2017
February 2017
January 2017
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