Chapter 18. Attention and Higher Cognition
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By Kerry Grens Brain scans of 3,242 volunteers aged four to 63 years old revealed that those diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—roughly half of the group—had smaller tissue volumes in five brain regions. Because the differences were largest between children, the researchers concluded that ADHD likely involves a delay in brain maturation. The study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry on February 15, is the largest of its kind to date, and the authors hope it will change public perception of the disorder. “I think most scientists in the field already know that the brains of people with ADHD show differences, but I now hope to have shown convincing evidence … that will reach the general public and show that it has [a basis in the brain] just like other psychiatric disorders,” geneticist and coauthor Martine Hoogman of Radboud University in the Netherlands told The Washington Post. “We know that ADHD deals with stigma, but we also know that increasing knowledge will reduce stigma.” Most pronounced among the brain differences between those with and without ADHD was the amygdala, important for emotional processing. “The amygdala is heavily connected to other brain regions. It is a kind of hub for numerous kinds of signaling around salience and significance of events,” Joel Nigg, a psychiatry professor at Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine who was not part of the study, told CNN. “The bigger story here is that alterations in amygdala have not been widely accepted as part of ADHD, so seeing that effect emerge here is quite interesting.” © 1986-2017 The Scientist
By JOANNA KLEIN The good news is, the human brain is flexible and efficient. This helps us make sense of the world. But the bad news is, the human brain is flexible and efficient. This means the brain can sometimes make mistakes. You can watch this tension play out when the brain tries to connect auditory and visual speech. It’s why we may find a poorly dubbed kung fu movie hard to believe, and why we love believing the gibberish in those Bad Lip Reading Videos on YouTube. “By dubbing speech that is reasonably consistent with the available mouth movements, we can utterly change the meaning of what the original talker was saying,” said John Magnotti, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. “Sometimes we can detect that something is a little off, but the illusion is usually quite compelling.” In a study published Thursday in PLOS Computational Biology, Dr. Magnotti and Michael Beauchamp, also a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, tried to pin down why our brains are susceptible to these kinds of perceptual mistakes by looking at a well-known speech illusion called the McGurk effect. By comparing mathematical models for how the brain integrates senses important in detecting speech, they found that the brain uses vision, hearing and experience when making sense of speech. If the mouth and voice are likely to come from the same person, the brain combines them; otherwise, they are kept separate. “You may think that when you’re talking to someone you’re just listening to their voice,” said Dr. Beauchamp, who led the study. “But it turns out that what their face is doing is actually profoundly influencing what you are perceiving.” © 2017 The New York Times Company
By Sam Wong Can a mouse be mindful? Researchers believe they have created the world’s first mouse model of meditation by using light to trigger brain activity similar to what meditation induces. The mice involved appeared less anxious, too. Human experiments show that meditation reduces anxiety, lowers levels of stress hormones and improves attention and cognition. In one study of the effects of two to four weeks of meditation training, Michael Posner of the University of Oregon and colleagues discovered changes in the white matter in volunteers’ brains, related to the efficiency of communication between different brain regions. The changes, picked up in scans, were particularly noticeable between the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and other areas. Since the ACC regulates activity in the amygdala, a region that controls fearful responses, Posner’s team concluded that the changes in white matter could be responsible for meditation’s effects on anxiety. The mystery was how meditation could alter the white matter in this way. Posner’s team figured that it was related to changes in theta brainwaves, measured using electrodes on the scalp. Meditation increases theta wave activity, even when people are no longer meditating. To test the theory, the team used optogenetics – they genetically engineered certain cells to be switched on by light. In this way, they were able to use pulses of light on mice to stimulate theta brainwave-like activity in the ACC. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 23260 - Posted: 02.21.2017
By Matthew Hutson, Veronique Greenwood For some things, such as deciding whether to take a new job or nab your opponent's rook in chess, you're better off thinking long and hard. For others, such as judging your interviewer's or opponent's emotional reactions, first instincts are best—or so traditional wisdom suggests. But new research finds that careful reflection actually makes us better at assessing others' feelings. The findings could improve how we deal with bosses, spouses, friends and, especially, strangers. We would have trouble getting through the day or even a conversation if we couldn't tell how other people were feeling. And yet this ability, called empathic accuracy, eludes introspection. “We don't think too hard about the exact processes we engage in when we do it,” says Christine Ma-Kellams, a psychologist at the University of La Verne in California, “and we don't necessarily know how accurate we are.” Recently Ma-Kellams and Jennifer Lerner of Harvard University conducted four studies, all published in 2016. In one experiment, participants imagined coaching an employee for a particular job. When told to help the employee get better at reading others' emotions, most people recommended thinking “in an intuitive and instinctive way” as opposed to “in an analytic and systematic way.” When told to make employees worse at the task, the participants recommended the opposite. And yet later experiments suggested this coaching was off base. For instance, in another experiment, professionals in an executive-education program took a “cognitive reflection test” to measure how much they relied on intuitive versus systematic thinking. The most reflective thinkers were most accurate at interpreting their partners' moods during mock interviews. Systematic thinkers also outperformed intuiters at guessing the emotions expressed in photographs of eyes. © 2017 Scientific American
By Amy Ellis Nutt For the first time, scientists can point to substantial empirical evidence that people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder have brain structures that differ from those of people without ADHD. The common disorder, they conclude, should be considered a problem of delayed brain maturation and not, as it is often portrayed, a problem of motivation or parenting. In conducting the largest brain imaging study of its kind, an international team of researchers found that ADHD involves decreased volume in key brain regions, in particular the amygdala, which is responsible for regulating the emotions. Although the study, published Wednesday in the Lancet Psychiatry, included children, adolescents and adults, the scientists said the greatest differences in brain volume appeared in the brains of children. Of seven subcortical brain regions targeted in the study, five, including the amygdala, were found to be smaller in those with ADHD, compared with those in a control group. The other regions that showed reductions in volume were: the caudate nucleus (which has been linked to goal-directed action), the putamen (involved in learning and responding to stimuli), the nucleus accumbens (which processes rewards and motivation) and the hippocampus (where memories are formed). © 1996-2017 The Washington Post
Ian Sample Science editor Children who are born very prematurely are at greater risk of developing mental health and social problems that can persist well into adulthood, according to one of the largest reviews of evidence. Those with an extremely low birth weight, at less than a kilogram, are more likely to have attention disorders and social difficulties as children, and feel more shyness, anxiety and depression as adults, than those born a healthy weight. The review draws on findings from 41 published studies over the past 26 years and highlights the need for doctors to follow closely how children born very prematurely fare as they become teenagers and adults. “It is important that families and doctors be aware of the potential for these early-emerging mental health problems in children born at extremely low birth weight, since at least some of them endure into adulthood,” said Karen Mathewson, a psychologist at McMaster University in Ontario. Improvements in neonatal care in the past two decades mean that more children who are born very prematurely now survive. In a healthy pregnancy, a baby can reach 1kg (a little more than 2lbs) within 27 weeks, or the end of the second trimester. The study, which involves data from 13,000 children in 12 different countries, follows previous research that found a greater tendency for very low birth weight children to have lower IQs and autism and more trouble with relationships and careers as they reach adulthood and venture into the world. © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited
By Virginia Morell Strange as it might seem, not all animals can immediately recognize themselves in a mirror. Great apes, dolphins, Asian elephants, and Eurasian magpies can do this—as can human kids around age 2. Now, some scientists are welcoming another creature to this exclusive club: carefully trained rhesus monkeys. The findings suggest that with time and teaching, other animals can learn how mirrors work, and thus learn to recognize themselves—a key test of cognition. “It’s a really interesting paper because it shows not only what the monkeys can’t do, but what it takes for them to succeed,” says Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist at Hunter College in New York City, who has given the test to dolphins and Asian elephants in other experiments. The mirror self-recognition test (MSR) is revered as a means of testing self-awareness. A scientist places a colored, odorless mark on an animal where it can’t see it, usually the head or shoulder. If the animal looks in the mirror and spontaneously rubs the mark, it passes the exam. Successful species are said to understand the concept of “self” versus “other.” But some researchers wonder whether failure is simply a sign that the exam itself is inadequate, perhaps because some animals can’t understand how mirrors work. Some animals—like rhesus monkeys, dogs, and pigs—don’t recognize themselves in mirrors, but can use them to find food. That discrepancy puzzled Mu-ming Poo, a neurobiologist at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences in China, and one of the study’s authors. “There must be some transition between that simple mirror use and recognizing yourself,” he says. © 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
by Bethany Brookshire Gender bias works in subtle ways, even in the scientific process. The latest illustration of that: Scientists recommend women less often than men as reviewers for scientific papers, a new analysis shows. That seemingly minor oversight is yet another missed opportunity for women that might end up having an impact on hiring, promotions and more. Peer review is one of the bricks in the foundation supporting science. A researcher’s results don’t get published in a journal until they successfully pass through a gauntlet of scientific peers, who scrutinize the paper for faulty findings, gaps in logic or less-than-meticulous methods. The scientist submitting the paper gets to suggest names for those potential reviewers. Scientific journal editors may contact some of the recommended scientists, and then reach out to a few more. But peer review isn’t just about the paper (and scientist) being examined. Being the one doing the reviewing “has a number of really positive benefits,” says Brooks Hanson, an earth scientist and director of publications at the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. “You read papers differently as a reviewer than you do as a reader or author. You look at issues differently. It’s a learning experience in how to write papers and how to present research.” Serving as a peer reviewer can also be a networking tool for scientific collaborations, as reviewers seek out authors whose work they admired. And of course, scientists put the journals they review for on their resumes when they apply for faculty positions, research grants and awards. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2017.
By Tiffany O'Callaghan Imagine feeling angry or upset whenever you hear a certain everyday sound. It’s a condition called misophonia, and we know little about its causes. Now there’s evidence that misophonics show distinctive brain activity whenever they hear their trigger sounds, a finding that could help devise coping strategies and treatments. Olana Tansley-Hancock knows misophonia’s symptoms only too well. From the age of about 7 or 8, she experienced feelings of rage and discomfort whenever she heard the sound of other people eating. By adolescence, she was eating many of her meals alone. As time wore on, many more sounds would trigger her misophonia. Rustling papers and tapping toes on train journeys constantly forced her to change seats and carriages. Clacking keyboards in the office meant she was always making excuses to leave the room. Finally, she went to a doctor for help. “I got laughed at,” she says. “People who suffer from misophonia often have to make adjustments to their lives, just to function,” says Miren Edelstein at the University of California, San Diego. “Misophonia seems so odd that it’s difficult to appreciate how disabling it can be,” says her colleague, V. S. Ramachandran. The condition was first given the name misophonia in 2000, but until 2013, there had only been two case studies published. More recently, clear evidence has emerged that misophonia isn’t a symptom of other conditions, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, nor is it a matter of being oversensitive to other people’s bad manners. Some studies, including work by Ramachandran and Edelstein, have found that trigger sounds spur a full fight-or-flight response in people with misophonia. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Ian Sample Science editor Doctors have used a brain-reading device to hold simple conversations with “locked-in” patients in work that promises to transform the lives of people who are too disabled to communicate. The groundbreaking technology allows the paralysed patients – who have not been able to speak for years – to answer “yes” or “no” to questions by detecting telltale patterns in their brain activity. Three women and one man, aged 24 to 76, were trained to use the system more than a year after they were diagnosed with completely locked-in syndrome, or CLIS. The condition was brought on by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease which leaves people totally paralysed but still aware and able to think. “It’s the first sign that completely locked-in syndrome may be abolished forever, because with all of these patients, we can now ask them the most critical questions in life,” said Niels Birbaumer, a neuroscientist who led the research at the University of Tübingen. “This is the first time we’ve been able to establish reliable communication with these patients and I think that is important for them and their families,” he added. “I can say that after 30 years of trying to achieve this, it was one of the most satisfying moments of my life when it worked.” © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited
Noah Charney The Chinese government just arrested a group of people associated with a sham tourist attraction that had lured hundreds of sight-seers to a fake Terracotta Warriors exhibit, comprised entirely of modern replicas. Sotheby’s recently hired Jamie Martin of Orion Analytical, a forensic specialist at testing art, who then discovered that a Parmigianino painting recently sold is actually a modern forgery (Sotheby’s returned the buyer’s money and then sued the person for whom they sold it). And the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, is hoping that a painting of Philip IV of Spain in their collection will be definitively determined to be by Velazquez, and not a copy in the style of Velazquez. And that’s just in the last week or so. Art forgery and authenticity seems to be in the news just about every week (to my publicist’s delight). But I’m on a bit of a brainstorm. After my interview with Nobel Prize winner Dr. Eric Kandel on the neuroscience behind how we humans understand art, I’ve developed a keen interest in art and the mind. I tackled selfies, self-portraits and facial recognition recently, as well as what happens when the brain fails to function properly and neglects to recognize the value of art. Since my last book was a history of forgery, it was perhaps inevitable that I would wonder about the neurology of the recognition of originals versus copies. But while I looked into forgery from a wide variety of angles for the book, neuroscience was not one of them. © 2017 Salon Media Group, Inc.
By ADAM BEAR and JOSHUA KNOBE What’s normal? Perhaps the answer seems obvious: What’s normal is what’s typical — what is average. But in a recent paper in the journal Cognition, we argue that the situation is more complicated than that. After conducting a series of experiments that examined how people decide whether something is normal or not, we found that when people think about what is normal, they combine their sense of what is typical with their sense of what is ideal. Normal, in other words, turns out to be a blend of statistical and moral notions. Our key finding can be illustrated with a simple example. Ask yourself, “What is the average number of hours of TV that people watch in a day?” Then ask yourself a question that might seem very similar: “What is the normal number of hours of TV for a person to watch in a day?” If you are like most of our experimental participants, you will not give the same answer to the second question that you give to the first. Our participants said the “average” number was about four hours and the “normal” number was about three hours. In addition, they said that the “ideal” number was about 2.5 hours. This has an interesting implication. It suggests that people’s conception of the normal deviates from the average in the direction of what they think ought to be so. Our studies found this same pattern in numerous other cases: the normal grandmother, the normal salad, the normal number of students to be bullied in a middle school. Again and again, our participants did not take the normal to be the same as the average. Instead, what people picked out as the “normal thing to do” or a “normal such-and-such” tended to be intermediate between what they thought was typical and what they thought was ideal. © 2017 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 23165 - Posted: 01.30.2017
Nicola Davis Girls as young as six years old believe that brilliance is a male trait, according research into gender stereotypes. The US-based study also found that, unlike boys, girls do not believe that achieving good grades in school is related to innate abilities. Andrei Cimpian, a co-author of the research from New York University, said that the work highlights how even young children can absorb and be influenced by gender stereotypes – such as the idea that brilliance or giftedness is more common in men. Are gendered toys harming childhood development? Read more “Because these ideas are present at such an early age, they have so much time to affect the educational trajectories of boys and girls,” he said. Writing in the journal Science, researchers from three US universities describe how they carried out a range of tests with 400 children, half of whom were girls, to probe the influence of gender stereotypes on children’s notions of intelligence and ability. In the first test, a group of 96 boys and girls of ages five, six and seven, were read a story about a highly intelligent person, and were asked to guess the person’s gender. They were then presented with a series of pictures showing pairs of adults, some same-sex, some opposite sex, and were asked to pick which they thought was highly intelligent. Finally, the children were asked to match certain objects and traits, such as “being smart”, to pictures of men and women. © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited
By Carl Bialik A woman has never come closer to the presidency than Hillary Clinton did in winning the popular vote in November. Yet as women march in Washington on Saturday, many of them to protest the presidency of Donald Trump, an important obstacle to the first woman president remains: the hidden, internalized bias many people hold against career advancement by women. And perhaps surprisingly, there is evidence that women hold more of this bias, on average, than men do. There has been lots of discussion of the role that overt sexism played in both Trump’s campaign and at the ballot box. A YouGov survey conducted two weeks before the election, for example, found that Trump voters had much higher levels of sexism, on average, than Clinton voters, as measured by their level of agreement with statements such as “women seek to gain power by getting control over men.” An analysis of the survey found that sexism played a big role in explaining people’s votes, after controlling for other factors, including gender and political ideology. Other research has reached similar conclusions. Two recent studies of voters, however, suggest that another, subtler form of bias may also have been a factor in the election. These studies looked at what’s known as “implicit bias,” the unconscious tendency to associate certain qualities with certain groups — in this case, the tendency to associate men with careers and women with family. Researchers have found that this kind of bias is stronger on average in women than in men, and, among women, it is particularly strong among political conservatives. And at least according to one study, this unconscious bias was especially strong among one group in 2016: women who supported Trump.
Link ID: 23134 - Posted: 01.23.2017
By Jordan Axt Imagine playing a game where you’re seated in front of four decks of cards. On the back of two decks are pictures of puppies; on the other two are pictures of spiders. Each deck has some cards that win points and others that lose points. In general, the puppy decks are “good” in that they win you more points than they lose while the spider decks are “bad” in that they lose you more points they win. You repeatedly select cards in hopes of winning as many points as possible. This game seems pretty easy— and it is. Most players favor the puppy decks from the start and quickly learn to continue favoring them because they produce more points. However, if the pictures on the decks are reversed, the game becomes a little harder. People may have a tougher time initially favoring spider decks because it’s difficult to learn that something people fear like spiders brings positive outcomes and something people enjoy like puppies brings negative outcomes. Performance on this learning task is best when one’s attitudes and motivations are aligned. For instance, when puppies earn you more points than spiders, people’s preference for puppies can lead people to select more puppies initially, and a motivation to earn as many points as possible leads people to select more and more puppies over time. But when spiders earn you more points than spiders, people have to overcome their initial aversion to spiders in order to perform well. © 2017 Scientific American
Link ID: 23130 - Posted: 01.21.2017
By Rachael Lallensack A video game is helping researchers learn more about how tiny European starlings keep predators at bay. Their massive flocks, consisting of hundreds to thousands of birds, fly together in a mesmerizing, pulsating pattern called a murmuration. For a long time, researchers have suspected that the bigger the flock, the harder it is for predators like falcons and hawks to take down any one member, something known as “confusion effect.” Now, researchers have analyzed that effect—in human hunters. Using the first 3D computer program to simulate a murmuration, scientists tested how well 25 players, acting as flying predators, could target and pursue virtual starlings, whose movements were simulated based on data from real starling flocks (see video above). The team’s findings reaffirmed the confusion effect: The larger the simulated flocks, the harder it was for the “predators” to single out and catch individual prey, the researchers report this week in Royal Society Open Science. So maybe sometimes, it’s not so bad to get lost in a crowd. © 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By Alan Burdick Some nights—more than I like, lately—I wake to the sound of the bedside clock. The room is dark, without detail, and it expands in such a way that it seems as if I’m outdoors, under an empty sky, or underground, in a cavern. I might be falling through space. I might be dreaming. I could be dead. Only the clock moves, its tick steady, unhurried. At these moments I have the most chilling understanding that time moves in only one direction. I’m tempted to look at the clock, but I already know that it’s the same time it always is: 4 A.M., or 4:10 A.M., or once, for a disconcerting stretch of days, 4:27 A.M. Even without looking, I could deduce the time from the ping of the bedroom radiator gathering steam in winter or the infrequency of the cars passing by on the street outside. In 1917, the psychologist Edwin G. Boring and his wife, Lucy, described an experiment in which they woke people at intervals to see if they knew what time it was; the average estimate was accurate to within fifty minutes, although almost everyone thought it was later than it actually was. They found that subjects were relying on internal or external signals: their degree of sleepiness or indigestion (“The dark brown taste in your mouth is never bad when you have been asleep only a short time”), the moonlight, “bladder cues,” the sounds of cars or roosters. “When a man is asleep, he has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly bodies,” Proust wrote. “Instinctively he consults them when he awakes, and in an instant reads off his own position on the earth’s surface and the time that has elapsed during his slumbers.” © 2017 Condé Nast.
By Maggie Koerth-Baker “The president can’t have a conflict of interest,” Donald Trump told The New York Times in November. He appears to have meant that in the legal sense — the president isn’t bound by the same conflict-of-interest laws that loom over other executive branch officials and employees.1 But that doesn’t mean the president’s interests can’t be in conflict. When he takes office Jan. 20, Trump will be tangled in a wide array of situations in which his personal connections and business coffers are pulling him in one direction while the interests of the American presidency and people pull him in another. For example, Trump is the president of a vineyard in Virginia that’s requesting foreign worker visas from the government he’ll soon lead. He’s also involved in an ongoing business partnership with the Philippines’ diplomatic trade envoy — a relationship that could predispose Trump to accepting deals that are more favorable to that country than he otherwise might. Once he’s in office, he will appoint some members of the labor board that could hear disputes related to his hotels. Neither Trump nor his transition team replied to interview requests for this article, but his comments to the Times suggest that he genuinely believes he can be objective and put the country first, despite financial and social pressures to do otherwise. Unfortunately, science says he’s probably wrong.
Link ID: 23108 - Posted: 01.16.2017
By Ellen Hendriksen Pop quiz: what’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say “ADHD”? a. Getting distracted b. Ants-in-pants c. Elementary school boys d. Women and girls Most likely, you didn’t pick D. If that’s the case, you’re not alone. For most people, ADHD conjures a mental image of school-aged boys squirming at desks or bouncing off walls, not a picture of adults, girls, or especially adult women. Both scientists and society have long pinned ADHD on males, even though girls and women may be just as likely to suffer from this neurodevelopmental disorder. Back in 1987, the American Psychiatric Association stated that the male to female ratio for ADHD was 9 to 1. Twenty years later, however, an epidemiological study of almost 4,000 kids found the ratio was more like 1 to 1—half girls, half boys. © 2017 Scientific American
By Drake Baer Philosophers have been arguing about the nature of will for at least 2,000 years. It’s at the core of blockbuster social-psychology findings, from delayed gratification to ego depletion to grit. But it’s only recently, thanks to the tools of brain imaging, that the act of willing is starting to be captured at a mechanistic level. A primary example is “cognitive control,” or how the brain selects goal-serving behavior from competing processes like so many unruly third-graders with their hands in the air. It’s the rare neuroscience finding that’s immediately applicable to everyday life: By knowing the way the brain is disposed to behaving or misbehaving in accordance to your goals, it’s easier to get the results you’re looking for, whether it’s avoiding the temptation of chocolate cookies or the pull of darkly ruminative thoughts. Jonathan Cohen, who runs a neuroscience lab dedicated to cognitive control at Princeton, says that it underlies just about every other flavor of cognition that’s thought to “make us human,” whether it’s language, problem solving, planning, or reasoning. “If I ask you not to scratch the mosquito bite that you have, you could comply with my request, and that’s remarkable,” he says. Every other species — ape, dog, cat, lizard — will automatically indulge in the scratching of the itch. (Why else would a pup need a post-surgery cone?) It’s plausible that a rat or monkey could be taught not to scratch an itch, he says, but that would probably take thousands of trials. But any psychologically and physically able human has the capacity to do so. “It’s a hardwired reflex that is almost certainly coded genetically,” he says. “But with three words — don’t scratch it — you can override those millions of years of evolution. That’s cognitive control.” © 2017, New York Media LLC.
Link ID: 23067 - Posted: 01.07.2017