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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Click here for the index of all years
December 2010 November 2010 September 2010
  • In out-of-body experiences, people report a sensation of feeling as though they were outside of their physical bodies. Lukas Heydrich at the Ecole Polytechnique Fdrale de Lausanne has presented clinical and neuroanatomical data showing that body representation is based on the integration of multisensory signals from the entire body. Three aspects are of specific importance for bodily self-consciousness: self-location (where we experience ourselves as being located), first-person perspective (viewpoint of the external world from within the body), and self-identification (how strongly we feel as though our bodies are part of us) are considered to be crucial for bodily self-consciousness. The two patients studied maintained normal self-location and first-person perspective, "They still perceived the world from their normal perspective, and they still felt they were in their bodies. But they had strong problem of self-identification. Patient 1 felt that.[the left].half of him was a stranger and patient 2 felt that everything below his chin was no longer his." This evidence from patients with unusual neurological disorders suggests that the various elements forming the basis of self-perception may be able to be dissociated in the brain. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • A new study has shown that it is possible to understand responses from patients in a persistent vegetative state. Adrian Owen of Cambridge University has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure patients' brain response to determine the answer to `yes' or `no' questions. Since the brain signals associated with "yes" and "no" are quite similar, researchers asked patients to imagine playing tennis for "yes" or walking through their home for a "no" response. Thinking of tennis movements activates spatial areas near the top of the brain, while thinking of moving through a house activates navigational areas near the base of the brain. Electroencephalography (EEG) monitors can be used for this communicative purpose instead of fMRI with the advantages of being much cheaper, smaller, more portable, as well as producing results much more quickly, making a conversation possible. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • A recent study led by Andrew Woods at the University of Manchester has found that auditory background noise can influence perception of the properties of food. Participants in the study consumed different foods while blindfolded, listening to either no sound, or either quiet or loud background white noise. In one experiment, foods were then rated in terms of sweetness, saltiness and liking; in a second experiment, foods were rated terms of overall flavour, crunchiness and liking. Crunchiness was found to be more intense in the loud conditions, while sweetness and saltiness were reportedly lower. This suggests that background noise influences food properties unrelated to sound (sweetness, saltiness) in different ways than those utilizing auditory channels (crunchiness). (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • The importance of the perception of control over one's life has been reviewed by Lauren Leotti at Rutgers University; drawing from neuroimaging, clinical studies, and animal research literature. The review postulates that the feeling of being able to exert control over the environment to produce desired results is not only necessary for well-being, but that it is a biological imperative with the corticostriatal network implicated as the neural substrate underlying the behavior. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
August 2010
  • The phrase "two heads are better than one" has been a popular justification for getting individuals to work together. A study led by Bahador Bahrami of the University College London has explored this question. Participants worked either alone or with a partner to make decisions about images they were presented with. When participants worked with a partner their scores improved, as long as they were able to communicate the reasons for their beliefs and level of confidence in their decision. If participants were only sharing their decisions without open communication about their reasoning, then both partners' performance decreased. This study shows that collaboration is a valuable way to improve performance, with the caveat that partners must be open about their competence and confidence. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • A major problem in philosophy of action has been the difference between intentionally not performing an action and just plain old not doing anything. Though it seems like an insignificant distinction, the difference carries serious implications for legal systems. An analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data led by Simone Khn of Ghent University, reveals that not doing anything is associated with resting state brain areas; in contrast with intentionally non-acting, which is associated with activity in the left inferior parietal lobe and left dorsal premotor cortex. This confirms the legal practice of acknowledging that the decision to not act is in itself an intentional behavior. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • The mystery of dreams has been the subject of popular media and scientific inquiry alike. Many psychological investigations have shown dreaming to be useful for memory consolidation. A recent study led by Mark Blagrove of Swansea University found that in addition to day-reside (dream elements remembered from the previous day), there is a protracted dream-lag, or increased incorporation of elements from 5-7 days prior to the dream. This study was based on the contents of two diaries the participants kept, one for notable daily events and the other for remembered dream content. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • Driving a car while talking on a cell phone is now considered by many legislators to place too many demands on a motorist's attention. While this may be true for most drivers, a study led by Jason Watson at the University of Utah has shown that there is a small minority of motorists who are up to the challenge. Study participants were tested with a driving simulator and an operation span (OSPAN) task to measure their attention. The vast majority of participants showed significant impairment when performing the OSPAN task while driving the simulator; however, 2.5% of participants showed no decrease in performance, and scored in the top quartile of participants on both tasks. This finding reveals that there is a fraction of the population with heightened attentional capabilities, dubbed "supertaskers" by the researchers. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
July 2010
  • The way that language can influence our visual perception, even when an object is barely able to be detects is the topic of a recent study. Gary Lupyan at the University of Pennsylvania has led a study indicating that targeted language can enhance visual sensitivity. Study participants' ability to decide whether briefly presented objects were absent or present was improved by being provided with auditory cues, but not by visual cues. This experiment shows how verbal labels influence lower-level visual processing; demonstrating how a verbal cue can transform otherwise invisible objects into salient stimuli. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • A recent study on taste and choice blindness has found that by manipulating expectations, people are often unable to distinguish between remarkably dissimilar tastes. The study, led by Lars Hall of Lund University, asked shoppers at a supermarket to sample two varieties of jam and tea and decide which alternative of each they preferred. Once a shopper had made a selection, they were asked to sample their choice again, and explain why they chose that variety. But instead of giving the shopper the tea and jam they chose, the researchers switched the sample containers, so that the opposite variety from what was expected was actually given. No more than a third of participants detected the change, even with such significantly different flavors as Cinnamon-Apple and Grapefruit. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • The link between depression and visual perception has been noted metaphorically in such expressions as "feeling blue". Now a new study led by Emanuel Bubl of the Albert-Ludwigs-University of Freiburg has shown that people diagnosed with depression have reduced visual sensitivity to contrast. To assess visual contrast perception at the level of the retina the pattern electroretinogram (PERG) was measured in 80 volunteers. Forty of the volunteers had been diagnosed with major depression (twenty with and twenty without medication), and 40 of the subjects were mentally healthy. The results found that with or without medication, the depressed patients showed dramatically lower levels of retinal contrast. There was also a correlation found between the severity of depression and contrast sensitivity. In light of these findings, PERG recording may be helpful as an objective measure of human depression. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • In spite of the old cliche that "seeing is believing", for young children it may be more true that "being told is believing". Vikram Jaswa of the University of Virginia conducted several experiments examining thirty-month-old children's trust of testimony that conflicts with their expectations of the physical world. Various parts of the study found that the children believed testimony that conflicted with a native bias, and trusted testimony that conflicted with an event they had just witnessed. If the children were able to witness that the testimony must be false as it was being delivered, or they were able to gather their own evidence prior to hearing the contradiction; then they responded more skeptically. These studies show that toddlers have a strong bias to believe what they are told by adults; however, the higher the level of confidence they have in a belief, the more skeptical they are of a contradiction. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • The French neurologist Isabelle Arnulf of and others at the Hopital Pitie-Salpetriere claim that "random eye movement" ("REM") is not random at all. They found that during dreaming the eyes simply scan what is going on in the dream. The movements of the eyes during a dream follow the same rules of the movements of the eyes during awake life.
  • Piero Scaruffi's essay: The Medium is the Brain
June 2010
  • While changes to the brain in long-term meditators have been examined in many previous studies, new research led by Andrew Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania sought to measure the differences in cerebral blood flow (CBF) in experienced meditators as compared to non-meditators. The CBF of long-term meditators was significantly higher (p < .05) as compared to non-meditators in the prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex, thalamus, putamen, caudate, and midbrain. These observed differences associated with long-term meditation appear in structures that form the basis for the attention network and those that relate to emotion and autonomic function. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • The relationship between language and perception has long been a point of contention in the field of cognitive science. A 2009 study revealed that language can be influential in early stages of perceptual processing (Thierry, G., et al.,). A recent study further exploring this connection was led by Panos Athanasopoulos at Bangor University, examining the perceptual processing of Greek speakers located in the UK. The subjects were presented with color terminology which varied from that of their native language. The effects of this were indexed by measuring activity in the brain showing a response to color luminance. The results found that demonstrated differences were strongly influenced by the duration of cultural immersion. This indicates that color categories are not likely rigid perceptual constructs, but flexible linguistic constructs. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • Our physical perception of the world may have an influence on the way we make seemingly unrelated decisions. This study led by Joshua M. Ackerman at MIT consisted of six experiments, involving holding either heavy or light clipboards, solving rough or smooth puzzles, and touching hard or soft objects. The findings reveal that these varying conditions influenced impressions and decisions formed about unrelated people and situations at a subconscious level. For example, heavy objects made job candidates appear more important, and rough objects made social interactions appear more difficult. The way that tactile sensations are shown to influence higher-level decision making falls in line with many common metaphors for our experience, challenging the objectivity with which almost any conclusion can be reached. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • From an evolutionary perspective, among the most important assessments made in a human lifetime is to evaluate the traits of a potential reproductive partner. This ability has been studied in the western industrialized world, based on particpants' accuracy in assessing relevant traits from a facial photograph. In an effort to gain cross-cultural validity, Eduardo A. Undurraga of Brandeis University led a study measuring this capacity in indigenous residents of the Bolivian Amazon. The traits measured were based on sexual selection theory, and included health, dominance, knowledge, and sociability. The results found that female raters were able to accurately assess cues related to health, dominance, and knowledge and male raters were able to accurately assess facial cues related to dominance, knowledge, and sociability. This study supports the idea that objective, personal traits can be judged based on facial cues. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • When we perform an action, we usually do so with a certain intention as to what we want the result of that action to be. A recent experiment lead by Margaret T. Lynn of San Francisco State University examined whether participants could be fooled into believing that an unintended occurrence was actually something that they had intended to happen. Using a mock brain-computer interface, participants were instructed to move a line on a computer screen, though the movements of the line were actually controlled by a fixed program. Although participants were unable to control the movement of the line, when it moved frequently participants were more likely to report that they had intended to move the line than when it moved less often. This experiment raises interesting questions about our sense of agency and how external factors can influence what we think we are doing. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
May 2010
  • Until recently, little has been known about synesthesia, a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a different pathway. In research lead by Romke Rouw of the University of Amsterdam, the neurological basis for two variations of synesthesic experience were explored. The synesthetic form studied in this experiment was grapheme-color synesthesia, where a particular letter or number evokes a specific color experience. In some synesthetes, the color is reported as being experienced internally or "in the mind"; they are known as associator synesthetes. Projector synesthetes, on the other hand, automatically perceive the colors as being part of the external world. The structure and functioning of grey matter were studied using fMRI and VBM in projector and associator synesthetes, and in a control group of nonsynesthetes. It was found that both types of synesthetes have greater grey matter density in the superior parietal lobe (an area of the visual cortex known to be selectively activated by colors). In addition to this similarity, there were differences found between the neural structure and function of associators and projectors. Associators were found to have both increased activation and grey matter density in the hippocampal area; an area that has to do with the formation of memories, which are experienced internally. Projectors were found to have increased activation and grey matter density in the visual and auditory cortices, which have to do with perception of the external world. This research confirms that synesthetic variation in subjective experience has a functional basis in neurological structures and activation. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • A recent study lead by Tobias Loetscher at the University of Melbourne has found that by measuring the position of a person's eye, the size of the next number chosen at "random" by that individual can be reliably predicted. A leftward and downward change in eye position indicated a smaller number would be selected; a right and upward change signaled that a larger number would be produced. This research demonstrates yet another way in which seemingly abstract thought processes can be inferred by the way our bodies are situated in the world. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • The Allen Brain Atlas has introduced a set of gene expression maps for the human brain. Genomic and anatomic information is included with a suite of visualization and mining tools to serve as an open resource for researchers. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), histology and gene expression data derived from both microarray and in situ hybridization (ISH) approaches have all been incorporated. While the compiling of this information shows how much we have learned about the brain, it also reveals how little we really know. One involved researcher compared the endeavor to 15th century explorers creating maps of the New World; it seems there are still many dragons lurking between our ears. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • Research by Luke Clark at the University of Cambridge on reward system activation in regular gamblers has revealed that not only does winning activate this system, but near-misses do as well. Twenty regular gamblers (from recreational to pathological) underwent fMRI scanning while performing a simplified slot machine task. Monetary wins were occasionally delivered as well as near-miss and full-miss outcomes. Both wins and near-miss outcomes were associated with a significant response in the ventral striatum. Increased addiction to gambling predicted an increased response in near-misses; however, severity of gambling did not predict win-related responses. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • A new study suggests that apparent motion through space influences the direction of mental time travel. People frequently slip into daydreams, remembering past episodes or imagining future circumstances; when speaking about such mental events we use directional metaphors such as 'thinking back' or 'looking forward'. Lynden Miles at the University of Aberdeen had participants perform a mundane vigilance task, designed to promote daydreaming, while observing a moving display. The participants viewed one of two displays consisting of thousands of dots; one in which the dots moved toward the center of the screen to give the impression of forward movement, or in the opposite direction to simulate backwards movement. The participants were then questioned about any thoughts they had that were unrelated to the task or the present moment. It was found that those who viewed the backwards display mainly reported thoughts related to the past, while those who viewed the forward display primarily reported thoughts of the future. These findings support the view that mental time travel may have a basis in our physically embodied sense of movement through space. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • A study was recently conducted investigating the neurological link between dietary choices and affective response in vegans, vegetarians and omnivores. Massimo Filippi of Vita-Salute San Raffaele University used fMRI to measure the response of vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores to negative affective scenes of human beings and animals (mutilations, murders, threatening poses, wounds, torture), alternating with images of natural landscapes. During the human negative valence images, vegetarians and vegans showed greater involvement of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC; involved in empathetic response) and inferior frontal gyrus (IFG; involved in risk aversion) than omnivores. During animal negative valence scenes they showed decreased activation of the amygdala (involved in fear conditioning) and increased activation of several areas in the frontal lobe, including the ACC and IFG. There were also differences in response found between vegetarians and vegans. Vegetarians had a prevailing activation of the ACC during negative animal scenes, while vegans showed increased activation of the inferior prefrontal cortex. These results suggest that different dietary decisions can influence not only an individual's motivations and beliefs, but also their neural representations. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
April 2010
  • A recent study has shown that while some cognitive processes, such as fluid intelligence, degenerate with age, there are other gains made in the form of improvement in reasoning about social conflicts. While it has long been a belief in folk psychology that with age comes greater wisdom, Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan has confirmed it experimentally. Subjects ranging from 25 to 90 years of age were tested on several measures of cognition. They were then given newspaper articles about intergroup and interpersonal conflicts, and asked to predict how events would unfold. Older participants were found to use reasoning that involved higher-order reasoning, such as the need for multiple perspectives, allowing for compromise, and recognizing limitations on knowledge. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • The way that we think about time and space is the subject of a study by Daniel Casasanto at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. The study participants were children who watched videos of two snails moving along parallel paths for varying distances or durations. They were then to judge which snail traveled a longer distance or which was moving for a longer duration. The children showed no difficulty ignoring time as a variable when judging distance. In contrast, when they were asked to judge the amount of time that had elapsed, distance confounded their interpretation. The children believed that the snails that had moved a longer distance must also have traveled for a longer time. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • While past studies have shown that several species of nonhuman primates respond negatively to inequitable outcomes, the response had not been fully explored. A new study led by Sarah Brosnan at Georgia State University has investigated this behavior in chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are known to be highly individualistic regarding food, so some of the results were surprising to the researchers. Chimps who received a high-value food (grape) were significantly more likely to refuse it when their group mate received a low-value item (carrot). (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • Mindfulness meditation has been known to improve executive functioning and the ability to sustain attention, but the effects have only been studied over long-term meditators. Fadel Zeidan at Wake Forest University led a study examining the effects of brief mindfulness meditation. After four training sessions, lasting 20 minutes each, the meditation group scored significantly higher than the control groupon measures such as visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning, and showed lower levels of fatigue and anxiety. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
March 2010
  • Ilkka Pyysiainen at the University of Helsinki has been exploring the connection between religion and evolved cognitive functions. The research found that participants with different religious backgrounds showed the same patterns of moral judgement in unfamiliar moral scenarios. This suggests that pre-existing cognitive mechanisms likely served as the basis for a system of beliefs that was selected to foster cooperation. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • Roberto Caldara at the University of Glasgow has led a study exploring cultural differences in eye movements during face recognition. The results showed that strategies used to locate information vary culturally, with Westerners fixating on the eyes and Easterners on the nose. Identical facial information is used, however, for the same ultimate purpose: to recognize conspecifics. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • Eleanor Maguire of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging has shown that using fMRI data, it is possible to detect, decode and distinguish individual traces from episodic memory, memory of autobiographical events, in the hippocampus. The data suggest that such memory traces are stable over time, and could therefore be predictable using this technology. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • Aaron Kay at the University of Waterloo has been investigating the link between spiritual beliefs and the ability to cope with perceptions of randomness. Participants primed with words associated with randomness (chance, chaotic) showed significantly higher incidences of supernatural belief than participants primed with words associated with negativity (slimy, poorly). This effect did not apply, however, to the group that had been informed that anxiety could be a possible side effect of a placebo that was administered at the beginning of the study; it seems this gave the participants a source to which they could attribute their anxious feelings. The results suggest that belief in supernatural forces may help people to cope with feelings of distress caused by a sense of of randomness, even when random events are not perceived as traumatic. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • Kevin Laland at the University of St. Andrews has been exploring the relationship between genetics and cultural processes. He has described how by using a gene-culture co-evolutionary perspective we can gain a more comprehensive and interdisciplinary understanding of human evolution. One theory that may support this idea is niche-construction theory, which describes the capacity of organisms to become involved in directing their own natural selection. Culture appears to amplify the ability humans have to form a niche, and thereby drive their own evolution. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • Joseph Henrich at the University of British Colombia has researched the influence that large-scale social institutions, such as markets and world religions, have on measures of fairness towards anonymous others. Since the evolutionary basis for reciprocity is associated with kinship, such institutions could facilitate interactions in large, unrelated groups. Fifteen diverse small-scale communities in Asia, Africa, North and South America, Oceania, and New Guinea were studied. Market integration correlated positively with fairness, community size correlated positively with punishment, and participation in a world religion was found to be associated with fairness on some measures. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
February 2010
  • Daniel Casasanto at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics has uncovered an interesting link between motor actions and memory. When participants in the study moved a marble upwards they tended to recall more positive memories, whereas moving the marble downwards increased the incidence of negative experiences recalled. The results of this study indicate that spatial metaphors are employed in our minds for more than just language. ( (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
  • Canadian developmental psychologist Janet Werker at the University of British Columbia has shown that having a bilingual mother influences newborns' language preferences. The results of this work suggest that infants' language preferences are influenced prenatally, earlier than had previously been shown. Infants are preparing to learn and discriminate between their native language (or languages) from the beginnings of their lives. (Contributed by Stephanie Smolarski)
January 2010
  • John-Dylan Haynes believes that it is possible to "guess" what a person is thinking because each thought is associated with a unique pattern of brain activity that can serve as a "fingerprint" of such a thought in the brain. A computer can be trained to recognize these "thought patterns" and therefore guess what the brain is thinking.
  • Athanassios Siapas has shown that "theta" oscillations (the clock that controls the formation of long-term memories in the hippocampus) are not synchronized throughout the hippocampus, a fact that suggests "time" in the hippocampus is organized in a regular progression of local "time zones", in a manner that mimicks the way countries have organized their clocks along the parallels of the Earth.
  • Dean Buonomano believes that there exist different biological clocks for different time scales (unlike the watches invented by humans that can time both milliseconds and years). The neural time scale in the range of tens to hundreds of milliseconds seems to work more like ripples on a pond's surface than like a watch.

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