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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November 2007
  • Ellen Dissanayake has advanced an evolutionary theory on the evolution of art. Instead of being a mere accident due to a brain that evolved creativity for other purposes, she thinks that art is an innate, genetic program. While today's art is mostly an elitist and individualist form of expression, she points out that in the past it was a communal experience (such as festivals) and concludes that communal activities such as singing, dancing, painting, storytelling served the purpose of cementing the group. She sees the prodromes of art in the very relationship between mother and child, which is based on creative gestural and vocal "play". The social rituals would therefore be nothing more than an extension of the rituals between mother and child, and art would be no more than a spin-off of social rituals.
August 2007
  • The Swedish neuroscientist Henrik Ehrsson of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm (Sweden) has induced "out-of-body experiences" (experiences in which a person looks at himself/herself from outside her/his body) in a laboratory by having the person wear virtual-reality goggles and look at herself/himself from behind. A similar experiment was successfully performed by the Swiss neuroscientist Olaf Blanke of Geneva University (Switzerland). In the past he had learned that he could induce out-of-body experiences at will in some epileptic patients by electrically overstimulating a particular part of the brain (the right angular gyrus, that plays a role in integrating sensory inputs). An epileptic fit is basically an electrical overstimulation, which explains why epileptic patiens often report out-of-body experiences.
  • The USA neurologist Bradley Schlaggar at Washington University in St Louis has shown why the adult brain "thinks" differently about long-term goals than a child's brain. The key factor is the way the cingulo-opercular network and the frontoparietal network are integrated. In children the two networks are basically one single network. In teenagers they are partially divided. In adults they are two distinct networks. The human brain grows rapidly in the first six years of life, but then hardly grows at all anymore. What changes is the way its regions are connected, or, better, how they get disconnected.
July 2007
  • The Austrian biochemist Martin Nowak at Harvard University claims that cooperation is on the same level as mutation and selection as one of the factors that determine evolution. Mutation and selection alone would be enough to explain how species evolve, but they would not be enough to explain how new levels of biological organization evolve (for example, how multicellular organisms arose from single-celled organisms). Nowak has employed game theory to show mathematically how clusters of cooperators emerge spontaneously in a network of organisms.
  • The British neuropsychologist Chris Frith at University College London has worked out a model of how "unconscious" and "conscious" decisions are made. According to this bottom-up model, an evolutionarily older part of the brain is the first one to make a decision on how to act, and only later interacts with the higher-level evolutionarily-younger conscious regions.
June 2007
  • The recently published Encyclopaedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) at the Sanger Institute of Cambridge (Britain) shows that protein-coding genes might be in the minority. More and more kinds of RNA are being discovered. Genes are not mere repositories of information about how to build proteins: they are also (and maybe mainly) RNA factories. In turn, some kinds of RNA regulate the life of many protein-encoding genes. DNA contains the instructions (the genes) for making proteins. RNA is the chemical that carries genetic information from the DNA in the nucleus to the location in the cell where proteins are made so that the appropriate amino-acid units can be put together to assemble the proteins. The number of protein-coding genes seems to be mostly the same for all animals, from flies to humans (in the range of 20-30,000). However, the number of genes whose RNA performs other functions vary wildly among species. RNA acts as a simple "messenger" only in simpler organisms. RNA acts more like a manager in complex organisms, i.e. its "regulating" activities are much more widespread.
May 2007
  • The German molecular biologist Detlev Arendt of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg claims that an ancient organism already exhibited the central nervous system of modern animals. The Urbilateria, a tiny worm-like organism that lived one billion years ago, is the ancestor of insects, molluscs, worms and vertebrates (birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians). What all these animals have in common is that their body is mostly symmetrical across an axis running from head to feet. Coincidence or not, it turns out that this is also the oldest known organism to boast a central nervous system.
  • The USA psychologist Amy Pollick at Emory University in Atlanta, has developed a theory that some of the great apes have both a repertory of facial/vocal expressions (that are innate, i.e. genetic) and a repertory of body gestures, that are learned. The meanings of the former repertory is the same regardless of geography. The meanings of latter depend on the context. In the beginning, language may have been movement, not sound.
  • Biologists of the ANDEEP (Antarctic benthic deep-sea biodiversity) project have discovered more than 700 new species of marine creatures in seas surrounding Antarctica. DNA alasyses seem to prove that the world's deep sea areas were colonised by creatures from the Antarctic. Angelika Brandt said: "The Antarctic deep sea is potentially the cradle of life of the global marine species".
March 2007
  • The USA neurobiologist Frank Werblin and the Swiss neurobiologist Botond Roska have discovered that the retina is basically an appendix to the brain. It contains the same kind of cells that the brain is made of (neurons) and these cells process the visual input way before it reaches the brain proper. The brain proper basically receives not a sensory input from the retina but a flow of pre-processed information
February 2007
  • The USA neuroscientist Doris Tsao at Harvard Medical School has discovered that the human brain contains circuits specifically dedicated to recognizing human faces. These are in turn linked to circuits that are dedicated to understanding the emotion of the face. The brain might even evolve circuits dedicate to recognizing the face of a specific person.
January 2007
  • The USA biologist David Haussler has found evidence of the genetic information (the piece of DNA) that makes the human brain so different from the brains of other animals. This "information" is actually not genes, but "programs" that determine which genes are expressed. Haussler calls these programs "Human Accelerated Regions" or "HARs". See their article.

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