Chapter 18. Attention and Higher Cognition
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to our mailing list, to receive news updates. Learn more.
Computers built to mimic the brain can now recognise images, speech and even create art, and it’s all because they are learning from data we churn out online Do androids dream of electric squid? (Image: Reservoir Lab at Ghent University) I AM watching it have a very odd dream – psychedelic visions of brain tissue folds, interspersed with chunks of coral reef. The dreamer in question is an artificial intelligence, one that live-streams from a computer on the ground floor of the Technicum building in Ghent University, Belgium. This vision has been conjured up after a viewer in the chat sidebar suggests "brain coral" as a topic. It's a fun distraction – and thousands of people have logged on to watch. But beyond that, the bot is a visual demonstration of a technology that is finally coming of age: neural networks. The bot is called 317070, a name it shares with the Twitter handle of its creator, Ghent graduate student Jonas Degrave. It is based on a neural network that can recognise objects in images, except that Degrave runs it in reverse. Given static noise, it tweaks its output until it creates images that tally with what viewers are requesting online. The bot's live-stream page says it is "hallucinating", although Degrave says "imagining" is a little more accurate. Degrave's experiment plays off recent Google research which aimed to tackle one of the core issues with neural networks: that no one knows how neural networks come up with their answers. The images the network creates to satisfy simple instructions can give us some insights. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd
Link ID: 21149 - Posted: 07.09.2015
CONCORD, N.H. — Can an algorithm pass for an author? Can a robot rock the house? A series of contests at Dartmouth College is about to find out. Dartmouth is seeking artificial intelligence algorithms that create "human-quality" short stories, sonnets and dance music sets that will be pitted against human-produced literature, poetry and music selections. The judges won't know which is which. The goal is to determine whether people can distinguish between the two, and whether they might even prefer the computer-generated creativity. "Historically, often when we have advances in artificial intelligence, people will always say, 'Well, a computer couldn't paint a sunset,' or 'a computer couldn't write a beautiful love sonnet,' but could they? That's the question," said Dan Rockmore, director of the Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth. Rockmore, a mathematics and computer science professor, spun off the idea for the contests from his experience riding a stationary bike. He started thinking about how the music being played during his spin class helped him pedal at the right the pace, and he was surprised when the instructor told him he selected the songs without the help of computer software. "I left there thinking, 'I wonder if I could write a program that did that, or somebody could?'" he said. "Because that is a creative act — a good spin instructor is a total artist. It sort of opened my mind to thinking about whether a computer or algorithm could produce something that was indistinguishable from or even perhaps preferred over what the human does." The competitions are variations of the "Turing Test," named for British computer scientist Alan Turing, who in 1950 proposed an experiment to determine if a computer could have humanlike intelligence. The classic Turing test involves intelligent computer programs that can fool a person carrying on a conversation with it, and there have been many competitions over the years, said Manuela Veloso, professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and past president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 21135 - Posted: 07.06.2015
Jon Hamilton If you run into an old friend at the train station, your brain will probably form a memory of the experience. And that memory will forever link the person you saw with the place where you saw them. For the first time, researchers have been able to see that sort of link being created in people's brains, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Neuron. The process involves neurons in one area of the brain that change their behavior as soon as someone associates a particular person with a specific place. "This type of study helps us understand the neural code that serves memory," says Itzhak Fried, an author of the paper and head of the Cognitive Neurophysiology Laboratory at UCLA. It also could help explain how diseases like Alzheimer's make it harder for people to form new memories, Fried says. The research is an extension of work that began more than a decade ago. That's when scientists discovered special neurons in the medial temporal lobe that respond only to a specific place, or a particular person, like the actress Jennifer Aniston. The experiment used a fake photo of actor Clint Eastwood and Pisa's leaning tower to test how the brain links person and place. More recently, researchers realized that some of these special neurons would respond to two people, but only if the people were connected somehow. For example, "a neuron that was responding to Jennifer Aniston was also responding to pictures of Lisa Kudrow," [another actress on the TV series Friends], says Matias Ison of the University of Leicester in the U.K. © 2015 NPR
Carl Zimmer Certain people, researchers have discovered, can’t summon up mental images — it’s as if their mind’s eye is blind. This month in the journal Cortex, the condition received a name: aphantasia, based on the Greek word phantasia, which Aristotle used to describe the power that presents visual imagery to our minds. I find research like this irresistible. It coaxes me to think about ways to experience life that are radically different from my own, and it offer clues to how the mind works. And in this instance, I played a small part in the discovery. In 2005, a 65-year-old retired building inspector paid a visit to the neurologist Adam Zeman at the University of Exeter Medical School. After a minor surgical procedure, the man — whom Dr. Zeman and his colleagues refer to as MX — suddenly realized he could no longer conjure images in his mind. Dr. Zeman couldn’t find any description of such a condition in medical literature. But he found MX’s case intriguing. For decades, scientists had debated how the mind’s eye works, and how much we rely on it to store memories and to make plans for the future. MX agreed to a series of examinations. He proved to have a good memory for a man of his age, and he performed well on problem-solving tests. His only unusual mental feature was an inability to see mental images. Dr. Zeman and his colleagues then scanned MX’s brain as he performed certain tasks. First, MX looked at faces of famous people and named them. The scientists found that certain regions of his brain became active, the same ones that become active in other people who look at faces. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 21085 - Posted: 06.23.2015
by Bob Holmes Lions might be one of the biggest threats to hyenas, but that doesn't stop the smaller animals teaming up to steal from the big cats. Nora Lewin from Michigan State University in East Lansing and her colleagues observed the mobbing behaviour at the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Hyenas were also spotted banding together to keep lions away from their dens. The mobbing involves a surprising degree of cooperation and communication. Male lions, which actively pursue and kill hyenas, are much more of a danger than females, who usually just make threats. This could be why the hyenas in the video above are confronting females. The team suggests the hyenas can identify their opponent's age and sex before deciding as a group whether or not to mob it. Levin and her colleagues are now investigating how the hyenas communicate to make a group decision. The findings were reported on 13 June at the annual meeting of the Animal Behavior Society in Anchorage, Alaska. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Maanvi Singh Teenagers aren't exactly known for their responsible decision making. But some young people are especially prone to making rash, risky decisions about sex, drugs and alcohol. Individual differences in the brain's working memory — which allows people to draw on and use information to make decisions — could help explain why some adolescents are especially impulsive when it comes to sex, according to a study published Wednesday in Child Development. "Working memory is the ability to keep different things in mind when you're making decisions or problem solving," explains Atika Khurana, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at the University of Oregon who led the study. Khurana and her colleagues rounded up 360 adolescents, ages 12 to 15, and assessed their working memory using a series of tests. For example, the researchers told the participants a string of random numbers and asked them to repeat what they heard in reverse order. "We basically tested their ability to keep information in mind while making decisions," Khurana says. The researchers then tracked all the participants for two years, and asked about the teens' sexual activity. And through another series of tests and surveys, the researcher tried to gauge how likely each teen was to act without thinking, to make rash decisions and take risks. There was a correlation between weaker working memory and the likelihood that a teen would have sex — including unprotected sex — at a younger age. And they were more likely to act without much deliberation. That trend held true even after the researchers accounted for the teenagers' age, socioeconomic status and gender. © 2015 NPR
The structure of the living cell is defined by the difference between what’s inside and what’s not. Biologists have taken great pains over the years to document the minute workings of the openings in cell membranes that allow hydrogen, sodium, calcium and other ions to make their way inside across the barrier that envelops the cell and its contents. Five scholars of the brain have built upon these observations to suggest that these activities may provide a foundation for a badly needed theory to understand consciousness and some of the cognitive processes that underlie it. They contend that when animal cells open and close themselves to the outside world, these actions can be construed as more than just responses to external stimuli. In fact, they constitute the basis for perception, cognition and movement in the animal kingdom—and may underlie consciousness itself. Read about what the five have to say and then continue to Koch’s reply. The five authors and NYU neurology professor Oliver Sacks; Antonio Damasio and Gil B. Carvalho from the University of Southern California, Norman D. Cook from the faculty of Kansai University in Osaka, Japan and Harry T. Hunt from Brock University in Ontario. They have framed their ideas in the form of an open letter to Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and a Scientific American MIND columnist (Consciousness Redux) and member of Scientific American’s board of advisers.
Link ID: 21065 - Posted: 06.17.2015
By Jessica Schmerler Approximately one in 68 children is identified with some form of autism, from extremely mild to severe, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. On average, diagnosis does not occur until after age four, yet all evidence indicates that early intervention is the best way to maximize the treatment impact. Various tests that look for signs of autism in infants have not been conclusive but a new exercise could improve early diagnosis, and also help reduce worry among parents that they did not intervene as soon as possible. The two most widely used tests to measure symptoms, the Autism Observation Scale for Infants (AOSI) and the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), cannot be used before the ages of 12 or 16 months respectively. The AOSI measures precursors to symptoms, such as a baby’s response to name, eye contact, social reciprocity, and imitation. The ADOS measures the characteristics and severity of autism symptoms such as social affectation and repetitive and restrictive behaviors. Now a group of scientists at the Babylab at Birkbeck, University of London think they have identified a marker that can predict symptom development more accurately and at an earlier age: enhanced visual attention. Experts have long recognized that certain individuals with autism have superior visual skills, such as increased visual memory or artistic talent. Perhaps the most well known example is Temple Grandin, a high-functioning woman with autism who wrote, “I used to become very frustrated when a verbal thinker could not understand something I was trying to express because he or she couldn’t see the picture that was crystal clear to me.” © 2015 Scientific American
by Penny Sarchet Children with ADHD are more likely to succeed in cognitive tasks when they are fidgeting. Rather than telling them to stop, is it time to let them squirm in class? The results, from a small study of teens and pre-teens, add to growing evidence that movement may help children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder to think. One of the theories about ADHD is that the brain is somehow under-aroused. Physical movements could help wake it up or maintain alertness, perhaps by stimulating the release of brain-signalling chemicals like dopamine or norepinephrine. This hypothesis would help explain why countries like the US are experiencing an epidemic of ADHD – it might be that a lack of physical activity leads to reduced brain function. Fidget britches In the latest study, Julie Schweitzer of the University of California, Davis, and her colleagues asked 44 children with ADHD and 29 kids without to describe an arrangement of arrows. The children with ADHD were more likely to focus on the task and answer correctly if the test coincided with them fidgeting, as tracked by an ankle monitor. Intriguingly, Schwietzer found that it is the vigour of movements, rather than how often children make them, that seems to be related to improvements in test scores. This might mean, for example, that it helps children to swing their legs in longer arcs, but not to swing them faster. "I think we need to consider that fidgeting is helpful," says Schweitzer. "We need to find ways that children with ADHD can move without being disruptive to others." Dustin Sarver at the University of Mississippi, who recently found a link between fidgeting and improved working memory, agrees. "We should revisit the targets we want for these children, such as improving the work they complete and paying attention, rather than focusing on sitting still." He suggests that movements that are not disruptive to other schoolchildren, such as squirming, bouncing and leg movements, as opposed to getting up in the middle of lessons, could be encouraged in classrooms. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd
By Gretchen Reynolds Treadmill desks are popular, even aspirational, in many offices today since they can help those of us who are deskbound move more, burn extra calories and generally improve our health. But an interesting new study raises some practical concerns about the effects of walking at your workspace and suggests that there may be unacknowledged downsides to using treadmill desks if you need to type or think at the office. The drumbeat of scientific evidence about the health benefits of sitting less and moving more during the day continues to intensify. One study presented last month at the 2015 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in San Diego found that previously sedentary office workers who walked slowly at a treadmill desk for two hours each workday for two months significantly improved their blood pressure and slept better at night. But as attractive as the desks are for health reasons, they must be integrated into a work setting so it seems sensible that they should be tested for their effects on productivity. But surprisingly little research had examined whether treadmill desks affect someone’s ability to get work done. So for the new study, which was published in April in PLOS One, researchers at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, recruited 75 healthy young men and women and randomly assigned them to workspaces outfitted with a computer and either a chair or a treadmill desk. The treadmill desk was set to move at a speed of 1.5 miles per hour with zero incline. None of the participants had used a treadmill desk before, so they received a few minutes of instruction and practice. Those assigned a chair were assumed to be familiar with its use. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Mo Costandi According to the old saying, the eyes are windows into the soul, revealing deep emotions that we might otherwise want to hide. Although modern science precludes the existence of the soul, it does suggest that there is a kernel of truth in this saying: it turns out the eyes not only reflect what is happening in the brain but may also influence how we remember things and make decisions. Our eyes are constantly moving, and while some of those movements are under conscious control, many of them occur subconsciously. When we read, for instance, we make a series of very quick eye movements called saccades that fixate rapidly on one word after another. When we enter a room, we make larger sweeping saccades as we gaze around. Then there are the small, involuntary eye movements we make as we walk, to compensate for the movement of our head and stabilise our view of the world. And, of course, our eyes dart around during the ‘rapid eye movement’ (REM) phase of sleep. What is now becoming clear is that some of our eye movements may actually reveal our thought process. Research published last year shows that pupil dilation is linked to the degree of uncertainty during decision-making: if somebody is less sure about their decision, they feel heightened arousal, which causes the pupils to dilate. This change in the eye may also reveal what a decision-maker is about to say: one group of researchers, for example, found that watching for dilation made it possible to predict when a cautious person used to saying ‘no’ was about to make the tricky decision to say ‘yes’. © 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
By Sandra G. Boodman When B. Paul Turpin was admitted to a Tennessee hospital in January, the biggest concern was whether the 69-year-old endocrinologist would survive. But as he battled a life-threatening infection, Turpin developed terrifying hallucinations, including one in which he was performing on a stage soaked with blood. Doctors tried to quell his delusions with increasingly large doses of sedatives, which only made him more disoriented. Nearly five months later, Turpin’s infection has been routed, but his life is upended. Delirious and too weak to go home after his hospital discharge, he spent months in a rehab center, where he fell twice, once hitting his head. Until recently he did not remember where he lived and believed he had been in a car wreck. “I tell him it’s more like a train wreck,” said his wife, Marylou Turpin. “They kept telling me in the hospital, ‘Everybody does this,’ and that his confusion would disappear,” she said. Instead, her once astute husband has had great difficulty “getting past the scramble.” Turpin’s experience illustrates the consequences of delirium, a sudden disruption of consciousness and cognition marked by vivid hallucinations, delusions and an inability to focus that affects 7 million hospitalized Americans annually. The disorder can occur at any age — it has been seen in preschoolers — but disproportionately affects people older than 65 and is often misdiagnosed as dementia. While delirium and dementia can coexist, they are distinctly different illnesses. Dementia develops gradually and worsens progressively, while delirium occurs suddenly and typically fluctuates during the course of a day. Some patients with delirium are agitated and combative, while others are lethargic and inattentive.
Link ID: 21010 - Posted: 06.02.2015
By Arlene Karidis Health-care professionals, educators and patient advocates debate endlessly over attention deficit disorder. Some argue about the cause of the condition, which is associated with inattentiveness and, often, hyperactivity. Many disagree on treatment and parenting techniques. A dwindling group disputes whether it actually exists. Even its name — to be formal, it’s attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder — has been a source of debate. The label ADHD trivializes the disorder, asserts Russell Barkley, a neuropsychiatrist and professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina who has published more than 300 peer-reviewed articles on the condition. “ADHD is not simply about not being able to pay attention. Describing it as such is like calling autism a ‘not looking at people’ problem,” he said, and there is much more to ADHD. Some practitioners and researchers say drugs are by far the most effective treatment. Others argue that long-term drug use addresses symptoms only and does not provide important tools to help people manage their inattentiveness. They say it’s more helpful to focus on behavioral interventions, nutrition, exercise and special accommodations at school. The American Psychiatric Association says there is no doubt that ADHD exists — and it estimates that 5 percent of U.S. children have the condition.
Link ID: 21008 - Posted: 06.02.2015
by Helen Thomson Imagine a world where you think of something and it happens. For instance, what if the moment you realise you want a cup of tea, the kettle starts boiling? That reality is on the cards, now that a brain implant has been developed that can decode a person's intentions. It has already allowed a man paralysed from the neck down to control a robotic arm with unprecedented fluidity. But the implications go far beyond prosthetics. By placing an implant in the area of the brain responsible for intentions, scientists are investigating whether brain activity can give away future decisions – before a person is even aware of making them. Such a result may even alter our understanding of free will. Fluid movement "These are exciting times," says Pedro Lopes, who works at the human-computer interaction lab at Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany. "These developments give us a glimpse of an exciting future where devices will understand our intentions as a means of adapting to our plans." The implant was designed for Erik Sorto, who was left unable to move his limbs after a spinal cord injury 12 years ago. The idea was to give him the ability to move a stand-alone robotic arm by recording the activity in his posterior parietal cortex – a part of the brain used in planning movements. "We thought this would allow us to decode brain activity associated with the overall goal of a movement – for example, 'I want to pick up that cup'," Richard Andersen at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena told delegates at the NeuroGaming Conference in San Francisco earlier this month. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd
Alison Abbott Redouan Bshary well remembers the moment he realized that fish were smarter than they are given credit for. It was 1998, and Bshary was a young behavioural ecologist with a dream project: snorkelling in Egypt's Red Sea to observe the behaviour of coral-reef fish. That day, he was watching a grumpy-looking grouper fish as it approached a giant moray eel. As two of the region's top predators, groupers and morays might be expected to compete for their food and even avoid each other — but Bshary saw them team up to hunt. First, the grouper signalled to the eel with its head, and then the two swam side by side, with the eel dipping into crevices, flushing out fish beyond the grouper's reach and getting a chance to feed alongside. Bshary was astonished by the unexpected cooperation; if he hadn't had a snorkel in his mouth, he would have gasped. This underwater observation was the first in a series of surprising discoveries that Bshary has gone on to make about the social behaviour of fish. Not only can they signal to each other and cooperate across species, but they can also cheat, deceive, console or punish one another — even show concern about their personal reputations. “I have always had a lot of respect for fish,” says Bshary. “But one after the other, these behaviours took me by surprise.” His investigations have led him to take a crash course in scuba diving, go beach camping in Egypt and build fake coral reefs in Australia. The work has also destroyed the stereotypical idea that fish are dumb creatures, capable of only the simplest behaviours — and it has presented a challenge to behavioural ecologists in a different field. Scientists who study primates have claimed that human-like behaviours such as cooperation are the sole privilege of animals such as monkeys and apes, and that they helped to drive the evolution of primates' large brains. Bshary — quiet, but afraid of neither adventure nor of contesting others' ideas — has given those scientists reason to think again. © 2015 Nature Publishing Grou
Anya Kamenetz Are you a pen-clicker? A hair-twirler? A knee-bouncer? Did you ever get in trouble for fidgeting in class? Don't hang your head in shame. All that movement may be helping you think. A new study suggests that for children with attention disorders, hyperactive movements meant better performance on a task that requires concentration. The researchers gave a small group of boys, ages 8 to 12, a sequence of random letters and numbers. Their job: Repeat back the numbers in order, plus the last letter in the bunch. All the while, the kids were sitting in a swiveling chair. For the subjects with ADHD, moving and spinning in the chair were correlated with better performance. For typically developing kids, however, it was the opposite: the more they moved, the worse they did on the task. Dustin Sarver at the University of Mississippi Medical Center is the lead author of this study. ADHD is his field, and he has a theory as to why fidgeting helps these kids. "We think that part of the reason is that when they're moving more they're increasing their alertness." That's right — increasing. The prevailing scientific theory on attention disorders holds that they are caused by chronic underarousal of the brain. That's why stimulants are prescribed as treatment. Sarver believes that slight physical movements "wake up" the nervous system in much the same way that Ritalin does, thus improving cognitive performance. © 2015 NPR
Link ID: 20931 - Posted: 05.14.2015
By GREGORY HICKOK IN 1890, the American psychologist William James famously likened our conscious experience to the flow of a stream. “A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described,” he wrote. “In talking of it hereafter, let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.” While there is no disputing the aptness of this metaphor in capturing our subjective experience of the world, recent research has shown that the “stream” of consciousness is, in fact, an illusion. We actually perceive the world in rhythmic pulses rather than as a continuous flow. Some of the first hints of this new understanding came as early as the 1920s, when physiologists discovered brain waves: rhythmic electrical currents measurable on the surface of the scalp by means of electroencephalography. Subsequent research cataloged a spectrum of such rhythms (alpha waves, delta waves and so on) that correlated with various mental states, such as calm alertness and deep sleep. Researchers also found that the properties of these rhythms varied with perceptual or cognitive events. The phase and amplitude of your brain waves, for example, might change if you saw or heard something, or if you increased your concentration on something, or if you shifted your attention. But those early discoveries themselves did not change scientific thinking about the stream-like nature of conscious perception. Instead, brain waves were largely viewed as a tool for indexing mental experience, much like the waves that a ship generates in the water can be used to index the ship’s size and motion (e.g., the bigger the waves, the bigger the ship). Recently, however, scientists have flipped this thinking on its head. We are exploring the possibility that brain rhythms are not merely a reflection of mental activity but a cause of it, helping shape perception, movement, memory and even consciousness itself. What this means is that the brain samples the world in rhythmic pulses, perhaps even discrete time chunks, much like the individual frames of a movie. From the brain’s perspective, experience is not continuous but quantized. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Ian Sample, science editor Brain scans of children who were born prematurely have revealed differences in the connectivity of key regions that may play a role in developmental disorders. Previous studies have already highlighted that children who are born preterm are more at risk of autism and other behavioural conditions, such as the poor attention that is associated with ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The new findings could help doctors understand why preterm children are so often affected, and work out whether medications or different styles of care could help the children reach their full potential. Researchers at King’s College London scanned the brains of 66 infants on average 42 weeks after their mothers’ last period before the birth. Forty seven of the babies were born prematurely, at less than 33 weeks. The other 19 babies were born on average after 40 weeks gestation. In their final weeks in the womb, babies’ brains are building connections at an incredible rate, which makes them particularly sensitive to changes in the last trimester. If a baby is born prematurely, the crucial period of brain growth happens in the radically different environment of the neonatal unit. From the MRI scans, the scientists found that infants born prematurely had increased connectivity in only one part of the brain they tested. A region called the thalamus, a kind of neural relay station, was better connected to a part called the lateral sensory cortex, which handles signals from the mouth, lips and jaw. The result might be explained by pre-term babies breast or bottle feeding much earlier, or being given dummies while on supportive breathing machines. © 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
Paul Oswell “Cool” is a bit of a moving target. Sixty years ago it was James Dean, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette as he sat on a motorbike, glaring down 1950s conformity with brooding disapproval. Five years ago it was Zooey Deschanel holding a cupcake. In a phone interview with Steve Quartz, the co-author of the recently published Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World, we skirted around a working definition. Defining cool turns out to be tricky even for someone who has just written an entire book examining the neurological processes behind it. Quartz’s most succinct definition was that cool is “the sweet spot between being innovative and unconventional, but not weird”. Quartz is the director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. So when asked to describe what the lab does, he did not deliver a “cool” answer, but rather a precise one: it is, he said, “concerned with all the dimensions of decision making, from simple gambles and risk assessment right up to very complex reasoning and the nature of moral behaviour”. He wrote the book with his colleague Anette Asp, with whom he has long done research on “neuroeconomics” and “neuromarketing”. Those fields use imaging techniques to look at the ways our brains process the emotions and responses we have to brands and products. The results, as Quartz and Asp posit in the book, reflect primal instincts we have around ideas of status. Their technique gives results that are much more accurate about what the kids are into, these days, than traditional marketing focus groups have ever been able to give us. © 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
by Helen Thomson Giving people the illusion of teleporting around a room has revealed how the brain constructs our sense of self. The findings may aid treatments for schizophrenia and asomatognosia – a rare condition characterised by a lack of awareness of a part of one's body. As we go about our daily lives, we experience our body as a physical entity with a specific location. For instance, when you sit at a desk you are aware of your body and its rough position with respect to objects around you. These experiences are thought to form a fundamental aspect of self-consciousness. Arvid Guterstam, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, and his colleagues wondered how the brain produces these experiences. To find out, Guterstam's team had 15 people lie in an fMRI brain scanner while wearing a head-mounted display. This was connected to a camera on a dummy body lying elsewhere in the room, enabling the participants to see the room – and themselves inside the scanner - from the dummy's perspective. A member of the team then stroked the participant's body and the dummy's body at the same time. This induced the out-of-body experience of owning the dummy body and being at its location. The experiment was repeated with the dummy body positioned in different parts of the room, allowing the person to be perceptually teleported between the different locations, says Guterstam. All that was needed to break the illusion was to touch the participant's and the dummy's bodies at different times. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.