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 2004
  • Investigating how children can possibly learn language at such remarkable speeds, Patricia Kuhl at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington has discovered that the human brain in its early stages is particularly interested in classifyin the statistical and prosodic patterns in language. The statistical distributions of sounds is used to infer phonemes and words. This process of language learning has a significant impact on the brain, because it alters the very way the brain works (basically, the brain tunes itself to detecting those patterns of speech). Thus the first language is learned faster than any other language, because other languages use different patterns from the ones that the brain has been modeled in early years to detect.
November 2004
  • Stephen Maren at the University of Michigan has showed that the amygdala is crucial for remembering experiences that were associated with fear, and how the amygdala and its interaction with the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, contribute to this process.
  • William Schwartz of the University of Massachusetts Medical School has identified the neural circuits in the brain of fruitflies that are sensitive to sunrise and sunset and used them to set the circadian clock (the day-night cycle).
October 2004
  • Anthropologists led by Peter Brown of University New England in Australia have found the bones of a dwarf human-like species that probably lived isolated on the remote Indonesian island of Flores until 12,000 years ago. They were about one meter tall, and their head was about 15 cms wide. It rests to be seen if this is indeed a human (homo) species or a contemporary species of apes. It could be that "Homo Erectus" (which started spreading around the world about one million years ago) landed on Flores and then remained "locked" in the island. As time went by, the species got smaller. (An isolated mammal gets smaller over time: evolution favors the survival of smaller individuals). Homo Sapiens (us) arrived in Flores sometime between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago, and it may have coexisted with this dwarf species for a while. This is, in other words, another case of coexisting "homo" species, like the Neanderthals in Europe (which disappeared around 28 000 years ago).
  • The Human Genetics group at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge has revised the number of genes in the human genome down to 20,000
  • DNA mostly consists of genes encoding proteins, and regulated by proteins. But a parallel regulatory system seems to exist that is based on RNA: "introns" do not code for proteins (and have long been considered evolutionary leftovers with no usual function) but may be coding for RNA that has a regulatory function. This additional regulatory system (interacting with the protein-based regulatory system) would help explain the complexity of organisms that is still largely unexplained. The Cambrian explosion that witnessed the creation of thousands of complex organisms may be due to the birth of this parallel regulatory system.
  • In a widely-publicized new book, Dean Hamer of the National Cancer Institute speculates that human belief in Gods is genetic: a gene. The book is getting a lot of press, but few reviewers mention that Hamer is the same biologist who once (in 1993) claimed that the X chromosome causes homosexuality, a claim that has been widely discredited. The evidence he provides for his new thesis is very weak. At best, it is an intriguing idea, although an old one: philosophers and anthropologists have long believed that humans are born with a predisposition to "religion".
September 2004
  • Dirk Cysarz of Herdecke University is studying the relationship between breathing, heartbeat and rhymed poetry. Among the many biological clocks that control the human body, there are two that are vital: the Mayer waves (ten-second cycles of blood pressure fluctuation) and the breathing cycle (15 breaths per minute). These two vital clocks are not in sync, although one needs the other. Hexameter is the most classic of classic poetry, used by Homer as well as in other civilizations. Cysarz found that reciting hexameter poetry has the effect of synchronizing breathing and heart rate. Similar phenomena are known to occur during the recitation of the Catholic rosary and the "om" mantra. The cardiorespiratory synchronization is probably due to the specific breathing patterns required to recite the verse. So it might be that classic poetry was born because it "felt good" to recite it, and only later was also used to deliver a message.
  • Claudio Bassetti at the University Hospital of Zurich has been able to locate an area of the brain that is definitely affected by dreams. He analyzed the brain patterns of a woman who lost the ability to dream (Charcot-Wilbrand syndrome) after she had a stroke and deduced that the damaged area was an area that is involved in vision, emotion and memory The woman continues to have REM sleep as normal, which confirms recent findings that dreaming and REM sleep occur in different brain systems.
August 2004
  • Nipam Patel at the University of Chicago, who has been studying the relationship between genes and development (how the body ends up having the shape it has), The Hox Complex is a cluster of genes that controls development, that is shared by many species and that probably existed in the ancestor to all vertebrates. The way the HOx genes express themselves is extremely important, as proven by the fact that altering the regulation of just one Hox gene (Ubx) transforms a normally two-winged fly into a four-winged mutant. Patel has now proven that there is a reason of the Hox complex is the same in all species that have it: the genes must be expressed in a temporal order in order to make sense in space.
  • Peter Gordon of the Columbia University has tested Whorf's theory (that the language we speak determines the way we think) on a South American tribe that has never invented numbers. Gordon found out that members of this tribe are indeed unable to "count".
July 2004
  • Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University (Canada) has conducted studies on bilingual people, and concluded that practicing two or more languages may help slow mental decline. She also conducted a study that showed bilingual students scored several points higher than their monolingual peers, and a study on child language acquisition that showed that bilingual children learn to read sooner and are are better at problem solving.
  • American anthropologist Rachel Caspari of the University of Michigan and Sang-Hee Lee of the University of California at Riverside have presented a theory that humans had a fundamental evolutionary advantage over other species. Caspari and Lee calculated the proportion of older to young adults in the human fossil record, and realized that it increased dramatically in the upper Paleolithic. Apparently, around 30,000 years ago humans started living longer and longer lives. That caused a population explosion, as humans kept having children even after their children had children, and older humans helped protect younger ones.
June 2004
  • German researchers Asif Ghazanfar and Laurie Santos at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics have investigated how the human brain came to be specialized to social interactions. They believe that social interaction requires special brain structures. A social animal needs to be able to think like its peers in order to compete with them, predict their moves, plan its own moves. The brain of a social animal must be able to interpret some sensory input as relevant to socialization. They introduce the concept of a "Machiavellian Agent" that carries out that function.
May 2004
  • A new website on Neurogenomics, a discipline at the intersection of Neurobiology and Genetics. Neurogenomics is the study of how the genome contributes to the growth and structure of the nervous system. You can also view the Neurogenomics Project at Northwestern University
  • Paul Chadderton and colleagues at UCL's Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research is studying the kind of computations performed by the input layers of the brain cortex (input representation) and granule cells in the cerebellum (memory storage). See their paper.
  • How cooperation (pervasive in the animal world) emerged through the process of natural selection (which is essentially a competitive, not cooperative, process) has been a puzzle since Darwin. Martin Nowak and his colleagues at the Harvard Program for Evolutionary Dynamics have developed a mathematical model (based, unlike traditional models, on finite populations) that shows which conditions would favor the "victory" of cooperators over competitors. See their paper.
  • Archeologist have found evidence of fire as far back as 750,000 years ago. See this article.
  • Horacio de la Iglesia of the University of Washington and colleagues have shown that the brain contains several clocks (not just one) that might go out of step (for example, during "jet lag"). See the press releases.
April 2004 March 2004
  • New Zealand's biologist Russell Gray has used biological methods to assess the relationship among the various languages of the Earth, and has drawn a comprehensive family tree (Gray's paper on the tree of languages). While the tree is fundamentally the same that linguists had already mapped, Gray's innovation rests in the dates: he credits just about every language with a birth date which is much earlier than held by linguists. In particular, Gray's dating has an impact on the Indo-European debate: Dr. Gray's calculations date the earliest Indo-European language as 8,700 years old. Marija Gimbutas pioneered the thesis that the Indo-Europeans migrated from the Urals towards both Europe and Persia-India in 4,000 BC, whereas Colin Renfrew claimed that the Indo-European language migrated from Turkey towards Europe and Persia with the spread of agriculture in 7,000 BC. Gray's work seems favors the latter thesis.
February 2004
  • "Prions" are proteins that can reproduce. Eric Kandel at Columbia University has discovered that electrical signals flip some proteins of the synapsis into prions, and that such prions replicate, and that the prions strengthen connections with neighboring neurons. In other words, the transformation of these proteins into prions creates a permanent memory trace of the event that generated the electrical signal.
  • Simone Reinders of Groningen University Hospital (Netherlands) has been able to "photograph" the different neural activity of the two personalities that coexist in the brain of patients with "multiple personality disorder". The neural activity of each personality is significantly different depending which personality is in control.
  • John Disterhoft of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago believes that the cause of Alzheimer's disease is a protein called "amyloid beta".
February 2004
  • British zoologist Richard Byrne of the University of St Andrews has identified a correlation in primates between brain size and the tendency to lie: the bigger the brain, the stronger chance that a primate will deceive its peers. The primate that is best at lying and deceit is Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

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