Chapter 18. Attention and Higher Cognition
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By DENISE GRADY People with severe brain injuries sometimes emerge from a coma awake but unresponsive, leaving families with painful questions. Are they aware? Can they think and feel? Do they have any chance of recovery? A new study has found that PET scans may help answer these wrenching questions. It found that a significant number of people labeled vegetative had received an incorrect diagnosis and actually had some degree of consciousness and the potential to improve. Previous studies using electroencephalogram machines and M.R.I. scanners have also found signs of consciousness in supposedly vegetative patients. “I think these patients are kind of neglected by both medicine and society,” said Dr. Steven Laureys, an author of the new study and the director of the Coma Science Group at the University of Liège in Belgium. “Many of them don’t even see a medical doctor or a specialist for years. So I think it’s very important to ask the question, are they unconscious?” In the United States, 100,000 to 300,000 people are thought to be minimally conscious, and an additional 25,000 are vegetative. In Belgium, the combined incidence of the two conditions is about 150 new cases per year, Dr. Laureys said. An article about the new research was published on Tuesday in The Lancet. Dr. Laureys and his colleagues studied 122 patients with brain injuries, including 41 who had been declared vegetative — awake but with no behavioral signs of awareness. People who are vegetative for a year are thought to have little or no chance of recovering, and the condition can become grounds for withdrawing medical treatment. Terri Schiavo, in a vegetative state for 15 years, died in 2005 in Florida after courts allowed the removal of her feeding tube. © 2014 The New York Times Company
by Bethany Brookshire Every hipster knows that something is only cool before it becomes popular. There’s no point in liking a band once it hits the big time. That shirt is no good once it’s no longer ironic. And it’s certainly not enough to go clean shaven or grow a short beard — that’s much too mainstream. Recent years have seen a resurgence of moustaches, mutton chops and Fu Manchus. A style that really stands out sticks it to conformity. It turns out that when people buck the facial hair trend, they may end up making themselves more attractive. A new study published April 16 in Biology Letters shows that either clean-shaven or fully bearded looks become more attractive when they are rare in the population. The study suggests that humans may practice what’s called negative frequency-dependent selection — people rate rare looks as more attractive than they might otherwise. But when we try to figure out why, the interpretations can get pretty hairy. In every population, there is variation, both in genetics and in how individuals look. But at first blush, this variation doesn’t make a lot of sense. If one particular look is the most attractive and best for the population, sexual selection should make a species converge on a single, popular look. For example, if the best male guppies have stripes, soon all male guppies will have stripes, as females will only mate with stripey males. But in nature, this is clearly not the case. Guppies come in a wild variety of patterns, and so do humans. In guppies, this variation is a result of negative frequency-dependent selection: Female guppies prefer male guppies that look unusual compared to others, rather than guppies that share common features. This helps keep looks and genes variable, a distinct advantage for the species. So an individual guppy’s attractiveness doesn’t just depend on his shining character, it depends on how rare his looks are in relation to other guppies. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and director of the Autism Research Center, replies: Your mother is correct that the scientific evidence points to the brain of people with autism and Asperger's syndrome as being different but not necessarily “disordered.” Studies have shown that the brain in autism develops differently, in terms of both structure and function, compared with more typical patterns of development, and that certain parts of the brain are larger or smaller in people who have autism compared with those who have a more typical brain. One structural difference resides in the brain's corpus callosum, which connects the right and left hemispheres. Most studies show that the corpus callosum is smaller in certain sections in people with autism, which can limit connectivity among brain regions and help explain why people with autism have difficulty integrating complex ideas. An example of a functional difference is in the activity of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is typically active in tasks involving theory of mind—the ability to imagine other people's thoughts and feelings—but is underactive when people with autism perform such tasks. The brain of those with autism also shows advantages. When some people with this condition are asked to complete detail-oriented tasks, such as finding a target shape in a design, they are quicker and more accurate. Additionally, those with autism generally exhibit less activity in the posterior parietal cortex, involved in visual and spatial perception, which suggests that their brain is performing the task more efficiently. © 2014 Scientific American
by Alix Spiegel It was late, almost 9 at night, when Justin Holden pulled the icy pizza box from the refrigerator at the Brookville Supermarket in Washington, D.C. He stood in front of the open door, scanning the nutrition facts label. A close relative had recently had a heart attack, and in the back of his mind there was this idea stalking him: If he put too much salt in his body, it would eventually kill him. For this reason the information in the label wasn't exactly soothing: 1,110 milligrams of sodium seemed like a lot. But there was even worse-sounding stuff at the bottom of the label. Words like "diglyceride," with a string of letters that clearly had no business sitting next to each other. It suggested that something deeply unnatural was sitting inside the box. "Obviously it's not good for me," the 20ish Holden said. "But, hopefully, I can let it slide in." He tucked the pizza under his arm, and headed one aisle over for a sports drink. Who among us has not had a moment like this? That intimate tete-a-tete with the nutrition label, searching out salt, sugar, fat, trying to discern: How will you affect me? Are you good? Or are you bad? Here's the thing you probably haven't stopped to consider: how the label itself is affecting you. "Labels are not just labels; they evoke a set of beliefs," says , a clinical psychologist who does research at the Columbia Business School in New York. A couple of years ago, Crum found herself considering what seems like a pretty strange question. She wanted to know whether the information conveyed by a nutritional label could physically change what happens to you — "whether these labels get under the skin literally," she says, "and actually affect the body's physiological processing of the nutrients that are consumed." ©2014 NPR
By ALAN SCHWARZ With more than six million American children having received a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, concern has been rising that the condition is being significantly misdiagnosed and overtreated with prescription medications. Yet now some powerful figures in mental health are claiming to have identified a new disorder that could vastly expand the ranks of young people treated for attention problems. Called sluggish cognitive tempo, the condition is said to be characterized by lethargy, daydreaming and slow mental processing. By some researchers’ estimates, it is present in perhaps two million children. Experts pushing for more research into sluggish cognitive tempo say it is gaining momentum toward recognition as a legitimate disorder — and, as such, a candidate for pharmacological treatment. Some of the condition’s researchers have helped Eli Lilly investigate how its flagship A.D.H.D. drug might treat it. The Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology devoted 136 pages of its January issue to papers describing the illness, with the lead paper claiming that the question of its existence “seems to be laid to rest as of this issue.” The psychologist Russell Barkley of the Medical University of South Carolina, for 30 years one of A.D.H.D.’s most influential and visible proponents, has claimed in research papers and lectures that sluggish cognitive tempo “has become the new attention disorder.” In an interview, Keith McBurnett, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and co-author of several papers on sluggish cognitive tempo, said: “When you start talking about things like daydreaming, mind-wandering, those types of behaviors, someone who has a son or daughter who does this excessively says, ‘I know about this from my own experience.’ They know what you’re talking about.” © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 19479 - Posted: 04.12.2014
Anne Trafton | MIT News Office Picking out a face in the crowd is a complicated task: Your brain has to retrieve the memory of the face you’re seeking, then hold it in place while scanning the crowd, paying special attention to finding a match. A new study by MIT neuroscientists reveals how the brain achieves this type of focused attention on faces or other objects: A part of the prefrontal cortex known as the inferior frontal junction (IFJ) controls visual processing areas that are tuned to recognize a specific category of objects, the researchers report in the April 10 online edition of Science. Scientists know much less about this type of attention, known as object-based attention, than spatial attention, which involves focusing on what’s happening in a particular location. However, the new findings suggest that these two types of attention have similar mechanisms involving related brain regions, says Robert Desimone, the Doris and Don Berkey Professor of Neuroscience, director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and senior author of the paper. “The interactions are surprisingly similar to those seen in spatial attention,” Desimone says. “It seems like it’s a parallel process involving different areas.” In both cases, the prefrontal cortex — the control center for most cognitive functions — appears to take charge of the brain’s attention and control relevant parts of the visual cortex, which receives sensory input. For spatial attention, that involves regions of the visual cortex that map to a particular area within the visual field.
Link ID: 19478 - Posted: 04.12.2014
In an op-ed in the Sunday edition of this newspaper, Barbara Ehrenreich, card-carrying liberal rationalist, writes about her own mystical experiences (the subject of her new book), and argues that the numinous deserves more cutting-edge scientific study: I appreciate the spirit (if you will) of this argument, but I am very doubtful as to its application. The trouble is that in its current state, cognitive science has a great deal of difficulty explaining “what happens” when “those wires connect” for non-numinous experience, which is why mysterian views of consciousness remain so potent even among thinkers whose fundamental commitments are atheistic and materialistic. (I’m going to link to the internet’s sharpest far-left scold for a good recent polemic on this front.) That is to say, even in contexts where it’s very easy to identify the physical correlative to a given mental state, and to get the kind of basic repeatability that the scientific method requires — show someone an apple, ask them to describe it; tell them to bite into it, ask them to describe the taste; etc. — there is no kind of scientific or philosophical agreement on what is actually happening to produce the conscious experience of the color “red,” the conscious experience of the crisp McIntosh taste, etc. So if we can’t say how this ”normal” conscious experience works, even when we can easily identify the physical stimulii that produce it, it seems exponentially harder to scientifically investigate the invisible, maybe-they-exist and maybe-they-don’t stimulii — be they divine, alien, or panpsychic — that Ehrenreich hypothesizes might produce more exotic forms of conscious experience. © 2014 The New York Times Company
If you know only one thing about violins, it is probably this: A 300-year-old Stradivarius supposedly possesses mysterious tonal qualities unmatched by modern instruments. However, even elite violinists cannot tell a Stradivarius from a top-quality modern violin, a new double-blind study suggests. Like the sound of coughing during the delicate second movement of Beethoven's violin concerto, the finding seems sure to annoy some people, especially dealers who broker the million-dollar sales of rare old Italian fiddles. But it may come as a relief to the many violinists who cannot afford such prices. "There is nothing magical [about old Italian violins], there is nothing that is impossible to reproduce," says Olivier Charlier, a soloist who participated in the study and who plays a fiddle made by Carlo Bergonzi (1683 to 1747). However, Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, a soloist who participated in the study and who until recently played a violin by Bartolomeo Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri "del Gesù" (1698 to 1744), questions whether the test was fair. "Whereas I believe that [the researchers] assembled some of the finest contemporary instruments, I am quite certain that they didn't have some of the finest old instruments that exist," she says. The study marks the latest round in debate over the "secret of Stradivarius." Some violinists, violinmakers, and scientists have thought that Antonio Stradivari (1644 to 1737) and his contemporaries in Cremona, Italy, possessed some secret—perhaps in the varnish or the wood they used—that enabled them to make instruments of unparalleled quality. Yet, for decades researchers have failed to identify a single physical characteristic that distinguishes the old Italians from other top-notch violins. The varnish is varnish; the wood (spruce and maple) isn't unusual. Moreover, for decades tests have shown that listeners cannot tell an old Italian from a modern violin. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
By ANA GANTMAN and JAY VAN BAVEL TAKE a close look at your breakfast. Is that Jesus staring out at you from your toast? Such apparitions can be as lucrative as they are seemingly miraculous. In 2004, a Florida woman named Diane Duyser sold a decade-old grilled cheese sandwich that bore a striking resemblance to the Virgin Mary. She got $28,000 for it on eBay. The psychological phenomenon of seeing something significant in an ambiguous stimulus is called pareidolia. Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwiches and other pareidolia remind us that almost any object is open to multiple interpretations. Less understood, however, is what drives some interpretations over others. In a forthcoming paper in the journal Cognition, we hope to shed some light on that question. In a series of experiments, we examined whether awareness of perceptually ambiguous stimuli was enhanced by the presence of moral content. We quickly flashed strings of letters on a computer screen and asked participants to indicate whether they believed each string formed a word or not. To ensure that the letter strings were perceptually ambiguous, we flashed them between approximately 40 and 70 milliseconds. (When they were presented for too long, people easily saw all the letter strings and demonstrated close to 100 percent accuracy. When they were presented too quickly, people were unable to see the words and performed “at chance,” around 50 percent accuracy.) Some of the strings of letters we flashed were words, others were not. Importantly, some of the words we flashed had moral content (virtue, steal, God) and others did not (virtual, steel, pet). Over the course of three experiments, we found that participants correctly identified strings of letters as words more often when they formed moral words (69 percent accuracy) than when they formed nonmoral words (65 percent accuracy). This suggested that moral content gave a “boost” to perceptually ambiguous stimuli — a shortcut to conscious awareness. We call this phenomenon the “moral pop-out effect.” © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 19453 - Posted: 04.07.2014
By Karen Kaplan There are lies, damn lies – and the lies that we tell for the sake of others when we are under the influence of oxytocin. Researchers found that after a squirt of the so-called love hormone, volunteers lied more readily about their results in a game in order to benefit their team. Compared with control subjects who were given a placebo, those on oxytocin told more extreme lies and told them with less hesitation, according to a study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Oxytocin is a brain hormone that is probably best known for its role in helping mothers bond with their newborns. In recent years, scientists have been examining its role in monogamy and in strengthening trust and empathy in social groups. Sometimes, doing what’s good for the group requires lying. (Think of parents who fake their addresses to get their kids into a better school.) A pair of researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and the University of Amsterdam figured that oxytocin would play a role in this type of behavior, so they set up a series of experiments to test their hypothesis. The researchers designed a simple computer game that asked players to predict whether a virtual coin toss would wind up heads or tails. After seeing the outcome on a computer screen, players were asked to report whether their prediction was correct or not. In some cases, making the right prediction would earn a player’s team a small payment (the equivalent of about 40 cents). In other cases, a correct prediction would cost the team the same amount, and sometimes there was no payoff or cost. Los Angeles Times Copyright 2014
By BRAYDEN KING and JERRY KIM THIS season Major League Baseball is allowing its officiating crews to use instant replay to review certain critical calls, including home runs, force plays and foul balls. But the calling of the strike zone — determining whether a pitch that is not swung at is a ball or a strike — will still be left completely to the discretion of the officials. This might seem an odd exception, since calling the strike zone may be the type of officiating decision most subject to human foible. In research soon to be published in the journal Management Science, we studied umpires’ strike-zone calls using pitch-location data compiled by the high-speed cameras introduced by Major League Baseball several years ago in an effort to measure, monitor and reward umpires’ accuracy. After analyzing more than 700,000 pitches thrown during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, we found that umpires frequently made errors behind the plate — about 14 percent of non-swinging pitches were called erroneously. Some of those errors occurred in fairly predictable ways. We found, for example, that umpires tended to favor the home team by expanding the strike zone, calling a strike when the pitch was actually a ball 13.3 percent of the time for home team pitchers versus 12.7 percent of the time for visitors. Other errors were more surprising. Contrary to the expectation (or hope) that umpires would be more accurate in important situations, we found that they were, in fact, more likely to make mistakes when the game was on the line. For example, our analyses suggest that umpires were 13 percent more likely to miss an actual strike in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game than in the top of the first inning, on the first pitch. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 19426 - Posted: 03.31.2014
Andreas von Bubnoff People who are unable to recognize faces can still learn to distinguish between other types of very similar objects, researchers report. The finding provides fresh support for the idea that the brain mechanisms that process face images are specialized for that task. It also offers evidence against an 'expertise' hypothesis, in which the same mechanisms are responsible for recognition of faces and other highly similar objects we have learned to tell apart — the way bird watchers can recognize birds after years of training. Constantin Rezlescu, a psychologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his colleagues worked with two volunteers nicknamed Florence and Herschel, who had acquired prosopagnosia, or face blindness, following brain damage. The condition renders people unable to recognize and distinguish between faces — in some cases, even those of their own family members. The team trained Florence and Herschel to recognize greebles, computer-generated objects that differ from one another in similar ways to faces. The two volunteers spent eight training sessions of up to one hour learning to recognize 20 different greebles. The objects belonged to five different ‘families’ that were easier to distinguish between than were the individual greebles, and initially the participants took longer to discriminate individual greebles within the same family than they did the different families. But by the end of the training, they could tell individual greebles apart just as quickly — a sign that they had become experts in recognizing them, just as dog trainers can recognize individual dogs as easily as different breeds of dog. The study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group
Link ID: 19408 - Posted: 03.25.2014
By BENOIT DENIZET-LEWISy The traffic was bad, even by the warped standards of a Southern California commute. We were headed south from Los Angeles to San Diego on an overcast morning last spring, but we hadn’t moved in 10 minutes. I was sandwiched in the back seat of the car between John Sylla and Denise Penn, two board members of the Los Angeles-based American Institute of Bisexuality (A.I.B.), a deep-pocketed group partly responsible for a surge of academic and scientific research across the country about bisexuality. We were on our way to an A.I.B. board meeting, where members would decide which studies to fund and also brainstorm ways to increase bisexual visibility “in a world that still isn’t convinced that bisexuality — particularly male bisexuality — exists,” as Allen Rosenthal, a sex researcher at Northwestern University, told me. When someone suggested that we try another route, Sylla, A.I.B.’s friendly and unassuming 55-year-old president, opened the maps app on his iPhone. I met Sylla the previous day at A.I.B. headquarters, a modest two-room office on the first floor of a quiet courtyard in West Hollywood that’s also home to film-production companies and a therapist’s office. Tall and pale, with an easy smile, Sylla offered me books from A.I.B.’s bisexual-themed bookshelf and marveled at the unlikelihood of his bisexual activism. “For the longest time, I didn’t even realize I was bi,” Sylla said. “When I did, I assumed I’d probably just live a supposedly straight life in the suburbs somewhere.” In the back seat, Sylla lifted his eyes from his phone and suggested an alternate course. Then he shrugged his shoulders. “We could go either way, really,” he told us. He smiled at me. “Get it? Either way?” © 2014 The New York Times Company
|By Nathan Collins A car detects when a driver starts to nod off and gently pulls over. A tablet or laptop senses its user is confused and offers assistance. Such interventions seem futuristic, but in fact they may not require any technological breakthroughs: a recent study suggests that with the aid of a standard camera, a simple computer program can learn to read people's eye movements to determine what they are doing and perhaps how they are feeling. Psychologists at the University of South Carolina were curious if a computer could figure out what a person was up to based on their eye movements. They first had 12 people engage in four tasks, including reading lines of text and searching photographs for a specific printed letter. Each person repeated the tasks 35 to 50 times while a camera recorded how their eyes moved. Using a subset of those data, the team trained a simple computer program, called a naive Bayes classifier, to identify which of the four tasks each person was doing. In the remaining trials, the classifier correctly determined which task the person was working on 75 percent of the time, well above the 25 percent expected by chance. Because the computer program is based on a flexible algorithm that is simple but powerful, this set-up could most likely be used to identify emotions or mental states such as confusion or fatigue, the researchers suggest in the paper, which appeared in September 2013 in PLOS ONE. With only a brief training period, a car's onboard computer—existing models are more than powerful enough—could learn how a driver's gaze changed as he or she became more exhausted. Further work, the authors suggest, could lead to devices capable of identifying and aiding people in need of assistance in a variety of situations. © 2014 Scientific American
By Neuroskeptic A neuroscience paper published before Christmas drew my eye with the expansive title: “How Thoughts Give Rise to Action“ Subtitled “Conscious Motor Intention Increases the Excitability of Target-Specific Motor Circuits”, the article’s abstract was no less bold, concluding that: These results indicate that conscious intentions govern motor function… until today, it was unclear whether conscious motor intention exists prior to movement, or whether the brain constructs such an intention after movement initiation. The authors, Zschorlich and Köhling of the University of Rostock, Germany, are weighing into a long-standing debate in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, concerning the role of consciousness in controlling our actions. To simplify, one school of thought holds that (at least some of the time), our intentions or plans control our actions. Many people would say that this is what common sense teaches us as well. But there’s an alternative view, in which our consciously-experienced intentions are not causes of our actions but are actually products of them, being generated after the action has already begun. This view is certainly counterintuitive, and many find it disturbing as it seems to undermine ‘free will’. That’s the background. Zschorlich and Köhling say that they’ve demonstrated that conscious intentions do exist, prior to motor actions, and that these intentions are accompanied by particular changes in brain activity. They claim to have done this using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a way of causing a localized modulation of brain electrical activity.
Link ID: 19370 - Posted: 03.17.2014
Linda Carroll TODAY contributor The stimulants used to treat ADHD might be making kids fat, a new study suggests. A study of more than 160,000 youngsters found that kids with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder who received stimulants were at increased risk of becoming obese as they hit their teens. In contrast, kids with ADHD who took non-stimulant medications or got no therapy were very comparable, in terms of weight gain, to kids who didn’t have the disorder. “Our data suggest that stimulant use during childhood might have lifelong effects,” said Dr. Brian Schwartz, the study’s lead author and a professor of environmental health sciences, epidemiology, and medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and senior investigator at the Geisinger Center for Health Research. “They might reset all sorts of physical properties and appetite parameters.” The new research may have uncovered a growing public health issue, Schwartz said. “Our data would seem to offer a lot of cause for concern with respect to prescribing stimulants,” he explained. Schwartz and his colleagues started the study because they were perplexed by the apparent paradox of hyperactive kids being prone to obesity. They scrutinized 12 years-worth of medical information from 163,820 Pennsylvania children, 13,427 of whom received an ADHD diagnosis.
Think women can’t do math? You’re wrong—but new research shows you might not change your mind, even if you get evidence to the contrary. A study of how both men and women perceive each other's mathematical ability finds that an unconscious bias against women could be skewing hiring decisions, widening the gender gap in mathematical professions like engineering. The inspiration for the experiment was a 2008 study published in Science that analyzed the results of a standardized test of math and verbal abilities taken by 15-year-olds around the world. The results challenged the pernicious stereotype that females are biologically inferior at mathematics. Although the female test-takers lagged behind males on the math portion of the test, the size of the gap closely tracked the degree of gender inequality in their countries, shrinking to nearly zero in emancipated countries like Sweden and Norway. That suggests that cultural biases rather than biology may be the better explanation for the math gender gap. To tease out the mechanism of discrimination, two of the authors of the 2008 study, Paola Sapienza and Luigi Zingales, economic researchers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois, and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in Illinois, respectively, teamed up with Ernesto Reuben, an experimental psychologist at Columbia Business School in New York City, to design an experiment to test people's gender bias when it comes to judging mathematical ability. Study participants of both genders were divided into two groups: employers and job candidates. The job was simple: As accurately and quickly as possible, add up sets of two-digit numbers in a 4-minute math sprint. (The researchers did not tell the subjects, but it is already known that men and women perform equally well on this task.) © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Think you’ll always pick chocolate over a bag of chips? Don’t be so sure. Researchers have found that if they can get people to pay more attention to a particular type of junk food, they will begin to prefer it—even weeks or months after the experiment. The finding suggests a new way to manipulate our decisions and perhaps even encourage us to pick healthy foods. “This paper is provocative and very well done,” says Antonio Rangel, a neuroeconomist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who was not involved in the new study. “It is exciting because it’s a proof of concept that a relatively simple intervention can have this long-lasting effect.” Economists who study decision-making had previously found that, when deciding between multiple items, people tend to let their gaze linger on the things that they end up choosing. This observation has motivated companies to pursue flashy packaging to attract consumers’ eyes. Tom Schonberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas, Austin, wondered whether people’s preferences could be changed before being faced with such a decision by training their brains to pay more attention to certain items. His first task was figuring out what kind of junk food people preferred. He and his colleagues recruited more than 200 university students and set up an auction-style program that asked them how much they were willing to pay for 60 different kinds of snacks, from M&M’s to Fritos. Then, the participants went through a 30- to 50-minute computer training program that showed photos of foods that the participants had already rated. When some treats appeared on the screen, a short tone would play and signal the subject to press a button as fast as possible. When other treats popped up, the computer remained silent and the subject refrained from pressing the button. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
|By Jason G. Goldman Most people don't spend much time pondering the diameter of their pupils. The fact is that we don't have much control over our pupils, the openings in the center of the irises that allow light into the eyes. Short of chemical interventions—such as the eyedrops ophthalmologists use to widen their patients' pupils for eye exams—the only way to dilate or shrink the pupils is by changing the amount of available light. Switch off the lamp, and your pupils will widen to take in more light. Step out into the sun, and your pupils will narrow. Mechanical though they may be, the workings of pupils are allowing researchers to explore the parallels between imagination and perception. In a recent series of experiments, University of Oslo cognitive neuroscientists Bruno Laeng and Unni Sulutvedt began by displaying triangles of varying brightness on a computer screen while monitoring the pupils of the study volunteers. The subjects' pupils widened for dark shapes and narrowed for bright ones, as expected. Next, participants were instructed to simply imagine the same triangles. Remarkably, their pupils constricted or dilated as if they had been staring at the actual shapes. Laeng and Sulutvedt saw the same pattern when they asked subjects to imagine more complex scenes, such as a sunny sky or a dark room. Imagination is usually thought of as “a private and subjective experience, which is not accompanied by strongly felt or visible physiological changes,” Laeng says. But the new findings, published in Psychological Science, challenge that idea. The study suggests that imagination and perception may rely on a similar set of neural processes: when you picture a dimly lit restaurant, your brain and body respond, at least to some degree, as if you were in that restaurant. © 2014 Scientific American
by Tom Siegfried Max Planck, who shook the world with his discovery of quantum physics, also offered a warning. “One must be careful,” he said, “when using the word, real.” It was good advice. As physicists explored the quantum domain, they found that usual ideas about reality did not apply. Reality in the realm of atoms was nothing like the world of rocks and baseballs and planets, where Newton’s laws of motions ruled with rigor. Among atoms, the rules were more like Olympic ice skating judging, with unpredictable scores. Gradually physicists, engineers and even screenwriters became familiar with quantum weirdness and used it in lasers, computers and movie plots. Quantum reality might be crazy, but it’s our reality, and most scientists, anyway, have become more or less used to it. Nevertheless, Planck’s warning still applies. Perhaps the quantum picture of reality is another illusion, just like Newton’s was. Human insight into nature may not yet have penetrated reality’s ultimate veil. In other words, maybe reality always dresses itself up in Newtonian or Einsteinian or quantum clothing, and science hasn’t yet seen what reality looks like naked. And that might explain why nature has been able to protect so many of its mysteries from science’s prying eyes — mysteries like the identity of dark matter, the math describing quantum gravity, the mechanism underlying consciousness. And whether humans have free will. Maybe reality always dresses itself up in Newtonian or Einsteinian or quantum clothing, and science hasn’t yet seen what reality looks like naked. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013.
Link ID: 19319 - Posted: 03.04.2014