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|By Nathan Collins Time, space and social relationships share a common language of distance: we speak of faraway places, close friends and the remote past. Maybe that is because all three share common patterns of brain activity, according to a January study in the Journal of Neuroscience. Curious to understand why the distance metaphor works across conceptual domains, Dartmouth College psychologists used functional MRI scans to analyze the brains of 15 people as they viewed pictures of household objects taken at near or far distances, looked at photographs of friends or acquaintances, and read phrases such as “in a few seconds” or “a year from now.” Patterns of activity in the right inferior parietal lobule, a region thought to handle distance information, robustly predicted whether a participant was thinking about near versus far in any of the categories—indicating that certain aspects of time, space and relationships are all processed in a similar way in the brain. The results, the researchers say, suggest that higher-order brain functions are organized more around computations such as near versus far than conceptual domains such as time or social relationships. © 2014 Scientific American

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 19: Language and Hemispheric Asymmetry
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 15: Language and Our Divided Brain
Link ID: 19860 - Posted: 07.21.2014

|By Ferris Jabr You know the exit is somewhere along this stretch of highway, but you have never taken it before and do not want to miss it. As you carefully scan the side of the road for the exit sign, numerous distractions intrude on your visual field: billboards, a snazzy convertible, a cell phone buzzing on the dashboard. How does your brain focus on the task at hand? To answer this question, neuroscientists generally study the way the brain strengthens its response to what you are looking for—jolting itself with an especially large electrical pulse when you see it. Another mental trick may be just as important, according to a study published in April in the Journal of Neuroscience: the brain deliberately weakens its reaction to everything else so that the target seems more important in comparison. Cognitive neuroscientists John Gaspar and John McDonald, both at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, arrived at the conclusion after asking 48 college students to take attention tests on a computer. The volunteers had to quickly spot a lone yellow circle among an array of green circles without being distracted by an even more eye-catching red circle. All the while the researchers monitored electrical activity in the students' brains using a net of electrodes attached to their scalps. The recorded patterns revealed that their brains consistently suppressed reactions to all circles except the one they were looking for—the first direct evidence of this particular neural process in action. © 2014 Scientific American

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19788 - Posted: 07.03.2014

By MARIA KONNIKOVA THE absurdity of having had to ask for an extension to write this article isn’t lost on me: It is, after all, a piece on time and poverty, or, rather, time poverty — about what happens when we find ourselves working against the clock to finish something. In the case of someone who isn’t otherwise poor, poverty of time is an unpleasant inconvenience. But for someone whose lack of time is just one of many pressing concerns, the effects compound quickly. We make a mistake when we look at poverty as simply a question of financial constraint. Take what happened with my request for an extension. It was granted, and the immediate time pressure was relieved. But even though I met the new deadline (barely), I’m still struggling to dig myself out from the rest of the work that accumulated in the meantime. New deadlines that are about to whoosh by, a growing list of ignored errands, a rent check and insurance payment that I just realized I haven’t mailed. And no sign of that promised light at the end of the tunnel. My experience is the time equivalent of a high-interest loan cycle, except instead of money, I borrow time. But this kind of borrowing comes with an interest rate of its own: By focusing on one immediate deadline, I neglect not only future deadlines but the mundane tasks of daily life that would normally take up next to no time or mental energy. It’s the same type of problem poor people encounter every day, multiple times: The demands of the moment override the demands of the future, making that future harder to reach. When we think of poverty, we tend to think about money in isolation: How much does she earn? Is that above or below the poverty line? But the financial part of the equation may not be the single most important factor. “The biggest mistake we make about scarcity,” Sendhil Mullainathan, an economist at Harvard who is a co-author of the book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much,” tells me, “is we view it as a physical phenomenon. It’s not.” © 2014 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 19735 - Posted: 06.16.2014

—By Indre Viskontas and Chris Mooney We've all been mesmerized by them—those beautiful brain scan images that make us feel like we're on the cutting edge of scientifically decoding how we think. But as soon as one neuroscience study purports to show which brain region lights up when we are enjoying Coca-Cola, or looking at cute puppies, or thinking we have souls, some other expert claims that "it's just a correlation," and you wonder whether researchers will ever get it right. Sam Kean But there's another approach to understanding how our minds work. In his new book, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, Sam Kean tells the story of a handful of patients whose unique brains—rendered that way by surgical procedures, rare diseases, and unfortunate, freak accidents—taught us much more than any set of colorful scans. Kean recounts some of their unforgettable stories on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. "As I was reading these [case studies] I said, 'That's baloney! There's no way that can possibly be true,'" Kean remembers, referring to one particularly surprising case in which a woman's brain injury left her unable to recognize and distinguish between different kinds of animals. "But then I looked into it, and I realized that, not only is it true, it actually reveals some important things about how the brain works." Here are five patients, from Kean's book, whose stories transformed neuroscience: 1. The man who could not imagine the future: Kent Cochrane (KC), pictured below, was a '70s wild child, playing in a rock band, getting into bar fights, and zooming around Toronto on his motorcycle. But in 1981, a motorcycle accident left him without two critical brain structures. Both of his hippocampi, the parts of the brain that allow us to form new long-term memories for facts and events in our lives, were lost. That's quite different from other amnesiacs, whose damage is either restricted to only one brain hemisphere, or includes large portions of regions outside of the hippocampus. Copyright ©2014 Mother Jones

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 19: Language and Hemispheric Asymmetry; Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 15: Language and Our Divided Brain; Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19727 - Posted: 06.14.2014

Jane J. Lee Could've, should've, would've. Everyone has made the wrong choice at some point in life and suffered regret because of it. Now a new study shows we're not alone in our reaction to incorrect decisions. Rats too can feel regret. Regret is thinking about what you should have done, says David Redish, a neuroscientist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. It differs from disappointment, which you feel when you don't get what you expected. And it affects how you make decisions in the future. (See "Hand Washing Wipes Away Regrets?") If you really want to study emotions or feelings like regret, says Redish, you can't just ask people how they feel. So when psychologists and economists study regret, they look for behavioral and neural manifestations of it. Using rats is one way to get down into the feeling's neural mechanics. Redish and colleague Adam Steiner, also at the University of Minneapolis, found that rats expressed regret through both their behavior and their neural activity. Those signals, researchers report today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, were specific to situations the researchers set up to induce regret, which led to specific neural patterns in the brain and in behavior. When Redish and Steiner looked for neural activity, they focused on two areas known in people—and in some animals—to be involved in decision-making and the evaluation of expected outcomes: the orbitofrontal cortex and the ventral striatum. Brain scans have revealed that people with a damaged orbitofrontal cortex, for instance, don't express regret. To record nerve-cell activity, the researchers implanted electrodes in the brains of four rats—a typical sample size in this kind of experiment—then trained them to run a "choice" maze. © 1996-2014 National Geographic Society

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 19713 - Posted: 06.09.2014

By JOHN COATES SIX years after the financial meltdown there is once again talk about market bubbles. Are stocks succumbing to exuberance? Is real estate? We thought we had exorcised these demons. It is therefore with something close to despair that we ask: What is it about risk taking that so eludes our understanding, and our control? Part of the problem is that we tend to view financial risk taking as a purely intellectual activity. But this view is incomplete. Risk is more than an intellectual puzzle — it is a profoundly physical experience, and it involves your body. Risk by its very nature threatens to hurt you, so when confronted by it your body and brain, under the influence of the stress response, unite as a single functioning unit. This occurs in athletes and soldiers, and it occurs as well in traders and people investing from home. The state of your body predicts your appetite for financial risk just as it predicts an athlete’s performance. If we understand how a person’s body influences risk taking, we can learn how to better manage risk takers. We can also recognize that mistakes governments have made have contributed to excessive risk taking. Consider the most important risk manager of them all — the Federal Reserve. Over the past 20 years, the Fed has pioneered a new technique of influencing Wall Street. Where before the Fed shrouded its activities in secrecy, it now informs the street in as clear terms as possible of what it intends to do with short-term interest rates, and when. Janet L. Yellen, the chairwoman of the Fed, declared this new transparency, called forward guidance, a revolution; Ben S. Bernanke, her predecessor, claimed it reduced uncertainty and calmed the markets. But does it really calm the markets? Or has eliminating uncertainty in policy spread complacency among the financial community and actually helped inflate market bubbles? We get a fascinating answer to these questions if we turn from economics and look into the biology of risk taking. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress; Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress; Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19711 - Posted: 06.09.2014

By DOUGLAS QUENQUA It’s easy to think of fruit flies as tiny robots that simply respond reflexively to their environment. But just like humans, they take time to collect information and to deliberate when faced with a difficult choice, according to a new study. The findings, published in the journal Science, could help researchers study cognitive development and defects in humans. Scientists have long been fascinated by decision-making, said an author of the study, Dr. Gero Miesenböck, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford. “Going back to the 19th century, psychologists have measured how long it takes humans to make up their minds,” he said. “Usually if you give people a hard perceptual choice, they take longer, because the brain needs to integrate information until it has enough to make a decision. “This is the first time in an animal as low as a fruit fly we have been able to show that similar processes occur.” To study how flies make up their minds, Oxford researchers placed the animals in bifurcated chambers filled on both sides with an odor they had been taught to avoid. When the odor was clearly more potent on one side of the chamber than the other, the flies were quick to choose which chamber to inhabit (and nearly always chose the less odorous one). But when the difference between chambers was subtle, the flies took longer to make a decision, and were more apt to make the wrong choice. “We were surprised,” Dr. Miesenböck said. “The original thought was that the flies would just act impulsively, they won’t take time to deliberate. We found that’s not true.” The process so closely mimics decision-making in humans, the researchers said, that the same mathematical models used to describe the actions of deliberating people can be used to predict a fly’s behavior. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19653 - Posted: 05.23.2014

After a string of scandals involving accusations of misconduct and retracted papers, social psychology is engaged in intense self-examination—and the process is turning out to be painful. This week, a global network of nearly 100 researchers unveiled the results of an effort to replicate 27 well-known studies in the field. In more than half of the cases, the result was a partial or complete failure. As the replicators see it, the failed do-overs are a healthy corrective. “Replication helps us make sure what we think is true really is true,” says Brent Donnellan, a psychologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing who has undertaken three recent replications of studies from other groups—all of which came out negative. “We are moving forward as a science,” he says. But rather than a renaissance, some researchers on the receiving end of this organized replication effort see an inquisition. “I feel like a criminal suspect who has no right to a defense and there is no way to win,” says psychologist Simone Schnall of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who studies embodied cognition, the idea that the mind is unconsciously shaped by bodily movement and the surrounding environment. Schnall’s 2008 study finding that hand-washing reduced the severity of moral judgment was one of those Donnellan could not replicate. About half of the replications are the work of Many Labs, a network of about 50 psychologists around the world. The results of their first 13 replications, released online in November, were greeted with a collective sigh of relief: Only two failed. Meanwhile, Many Labs participant Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, put out a call for proposals for more replication studies. After 40 rolled in, he and Daniël Lakens, a psychologist at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, chose another 14 to repeat. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress; Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress; Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19636 - Posted: 05.19.2014

By DOLLY CHUGH, KATHERINE L. MILKMAN and MODUPE AKINOLA IN the world of higher education, we professors like to believe that we are free from the racial and gender biases that afflict so many other people in society. But is this self-conception accurate? To find out, we conducted an experiment. A few years ago, we sent emails to more than 6,500 randomly selected professors from 259 American universities. Each email was from a (fictional) prospective out-of-town student whom the professor did not know, expressing interest in the professor’s Ph.D. program and seeking guidance. These emails were identical and written in impeccable English, varying only in the name of the student sender. The messages came from students with names like Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, Juanita Martinez, Raj Singh and Chang Huang, names that earlier research participants consistently perceived as belonging to either a white, black, Hispanic, Indian or Chinese student. In total, we used 20 different names in 10 different race-gender categories (e.g. white male, Hispanic female). On a Monday morning, the emails went out — one email per professor — and then we waited to see which professors would write back to which students. We understood, of course, that some professors would naturally be unavailable or uninterested in mentoring. But we also knew that the average treatment of any particular type of student should not differ from that of any other — unless professors were deciding (consciously or not) which students to help on the basis of their race and gender. (This “audit” methodology has long been used to study intentional and unintentional bias in real-world decision-making, as it allows researchers to standardize much about the decision environment.) What did we discover? First comes the fairly good news, which we reported in a paper in Psychological Science. Despite not knowing the students, 67 percent of the faculty members responded to the emails, and remarkably, 59 percent of the responders even agreed to meet on the proposed date with a student about whom they knew little and who did not even attend their university. (We immediately wrote back to cancel those meetings.) © 2014 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 19604 - Posted: 05.12.2014

By Diana Kwon Would you rather have $50 now or $100 two weeks from now? Even though the $100 is obviously the better choice, many people will opt for the $50. Both humans and animals show this tendency to place lower value on later rewards, a behavior known as temporal discounting. High rates of temporal discounting can lead to impulsive behavior, and at its worst, too much of this “now bias” is associated with pathological gambling, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and drug addiction. What determines if you’ll be an impulsive decision-maker? New evidence suggests that for women, estrogen levels might be a factor. In a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, Charlotte Boettiger and her team at the University of North Carolina revealed that greater increases in estrogen levels across the menstrual cycle led to less impulsive decision making. The researchers tested the “now bias” in 87 women between the ages of 18 and 40 at two different points in their menstrual cycle – in the menstrual phase when estrogen levels are low and the follicular phase when estrogen levels are high. Participants were given a delay-discounting task where they had to choose between two options: a certain sum of money at a later date or a discounted amount immediately (e.g. $100 in one week or $70 today). Subjects showed a greater bias toward the immediate choice during the menstrual phase of the cycle, when estrogen levels were low. Estrogen levels vary between women and can change with factors like stress and age. When the researchers measured amounts of estradiol (the dominant form of estrogen) from the saliva in a subset of the participants at the two points in their menstrual cycles, they found that not all of them showed a detectable increase. Only those with a measureable rise in estradiol showed a significant change in impulsive decision-making. © 2014 Scientific American

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 12: Sex: Evolutionary, Hormonal, and Neural Bases
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 8: Hormones and Sex
Link ID: 19589 - Posted: 05.08.2014

By Felicity Muth Imagine that you walk into a room, where three people are sitting, facing you. Their faces are oriented towards you, but all three of them have their eyes directed towards the left side of the room. You would probably follow their gaze to the point where they were looking (if you weren’t too unnerved to take your eyes off these odd people). As a social species, we are particularly cued in to social cues like following others’ gazes. However, we’re not the only animals that follow the gazes of members of our species: great apes, monkeys, lemurs, dogs, goats, birds and even tortoises follow each other’s gazes too. However, we don’t all follow gazes to the same extent. One species of macaque monkey (the stumptailed macaque) follows gazes a lot more than other macaque species, bonobos do it more than chimpanzees and human children follow gazes a lot more than other great ape species do. Species also differ in their understanding of what the other animal is looking at. For example, if we saw a person gazing at a point, and between them and this point was a barrier, whether the barrier was solid or transparent would affect how far we followed their gaze. This is because we imagine ourselves in their physical position and what they might be able to see. Bonobos and chimpanzees can also do this, but not the orang-utan. Like us, great apes and old world monkeys also will follow a gaze, but then look back at the individual gazing if they don’t see what the individual is gazing at (‘are you going crazy or am I just not seeing what you’re seeing?’). Capuchin and spider monkeys don’t seem to do this. So, even though a lot of animals are capable of following the gazes of others, there is a lot of variation in the extent and flexibility of this behaviour. A recent study looked to see whether chimpanzees, bonobos, orang-utans and humans would be more likely to follow their own species’ gazes than another species. © 2014 Scientific American

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19581 - Posted: 05.06.2014

by Bethany Brookshire When you are waiting with a friend to cross a busy intersection, car engines running, horns honking and the city humming all around you, your brain is busy processing all those sounds. Somehow, though, the human auditory system can filter out the extraneous noise and allow you to hear what your friend is telling you. But if you tried to ask your iPhone a question, Siri might have a tougher time. A new study shows how the mammalian brain can distinguish the signal from the noise. Brain cells in the primary auditory cortex can both turn down the noise and increase the gain on the signal. The results show how the brain processes sound in noisy environments, and might eventually help in the development of better voice recognition devices, including improvements to cochlear implants for those with hearing loss. Not to mention getting Siri to understand you on a chaotic street corner. Nima Mesgarani and colleagues at the University of Maryland in College Park were interested in how mammalian brains separate speech from background noise. Ferrets have an auditory system that is extremely similar to humans. So the researchers looked at the A1 area of the ferret cortex, which corresponds to our auditory A1 region. Equipped with carefully implanted electrodes, the alert ferrets listened to both ferret sounds and parts of human speech. The ferret sounds and speech were presented alone, against a background of white noise, against pink noise (noise with equal energy at all octaves that sounds lower in pitch than white noise) and against reverberation. Then they took the neural signals recorded from the electrodes and used a computer simulation to reconstruct the sounds the animal was hearing. In results published April 21 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers show the ferret brain is quite good at detecting both ferrets sounds and speech in all three noisy conditions. “We found that the noise is drastically decreased, as if the brain of the ferret filtered it out and recovered the cleaned speech,” Mesgarani says. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013.

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 9: Hearing, Vestibular Perception, Taste, and Smell
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 6: Hearing, Balance, Taste, and Smell
Link ID: 19553 - Posted: 04.30.2014

Intelligence is hard to test, but one aspect of being smart is self-control, and a version of the old shell game that works for many species suggests that brain size is very important. When it comes to animal intelligence, says Evan MacLean, co-director of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center, don’t ask which species is smarter. “Smarter at what?” is the right question. Many different tasks, requiring many different abilities, are given to animals to measure cognition. And narrowing the question takes on particular importance when the comparisons are across species. So Dr. MacLean, Brian Hare and Charles Nunn, also Duke scientists who study animal cognition, organized a worldwide effort by 58 scientists to test 36 species on a single ability: self-control. This capacity is thought to be part of thinking because it enables animals to override a strong, nonthinking impulse, and to solve a problem that requires some analysis of the situation in front of them. The testing program, which took several international meetings to arrange, and about seven years to complete, looked at two common tasks that are accepted ways to judge self-control. It then tried to correlate how well the animals did on the tests with other measures, like brain size, diet and the size of their normal social groups. Unsurprisingly, the great apes did very well. Dogs and baboons did pretty well. And squirrel monkeys, marmosets and some birds were among the worst performers. Surprisingly, absolute brain size turned out to be a much better predictor of success than relative brain size, which has been thought to be a good indication of intelligence. Social group size was not significant, but variety of diet was. The paper, published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is accompanied online by videos showing the animals doing what looks for all the world like the shell game in which a player has to guess where the pea is. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 6: Evolution of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19551 - Posted: 04.29.2014

By LAURENCE STEINBERG I’M not sure whether it’s a badge of honor or a mark of shame, but a paper I published a few years ago is now ranked No. 8 on a list of studies that other psychologists would most like to see replicated. Good news: People find the research interesting. Bad news: They don’t believe it. The paper in question, written with my former student Margo Gardner, appeared in the journal Developmental Psychology in July 2005. It described a study in which we randomly assigned subjects to play a video driving game, either alone or with two same-age friends watching them. The mere presence of peers made teenagers take more risks and crash more often, but no such effect was observed among adults. I find my colleagues’ skepticism surprising. Most people recall that as teenagers, they did far more reckless things when with their friends than when alone. Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation indicate that many more juvenile crimes than adult crimes are committed in groups. And driving statistics conclusively show that having same-age passengers in the car substantially increases the risk of a teen driver’s crashing but has no similar impact when an adult is behind the wheel. Then again, I’m aware that our study challenged many psychologists’ beliefs about the nature of peer pressure, for it showed that the influence of peers on adolescent risk taking doesn’t rely solely on explicit encouragement to behave recklessly. Our findings also undercut the popular idea that the higher rate of real-world risk taking in adolescent peer groups is a result of reckless teenagers’ being more likely to surround themselves with like-minded others. My colleagues and I have replicated our original study of peer influences on adolescent risk taking several times since 2005. We have also shown that the reason teenagers take more chances when their peers are around is partly because of the impact of peers on the adolescent brain’s sensitivity to rewards. In a study of people playing our driving game, my colleague Jason Chein and I found that when teens were with people their own age, their brains’ reward centers became hyperactivated, which made them more easily aroused by the prospect of a potentially pleasurable experience. This, in turn, inclined teenagers to pay more attention to the possible benefits of a risky choice than to the likely costs, and to make risky decisions rather than play it safe. Peers had no such effect on adults’ reward centers, though. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 19544 - Posted: 04.28.2014

Forget cellphones; rambunctious friends may be the riskiest driver distraction for teens, according to a new study. Researchers installed video and G-force recorders in the vehicles of 52 newly licensed high school students for 6 months. They found that certain distractions, such as fiddling with the car’s controls and eating, were not strongly related to serious incidents, which included collisions and evasive maneuvers. However, when passengers in the car were engaged in loud conversation, teen drivers were six times more likely to have a serious incident. What’s more, horseplay increased risk by a factor of three whereas cellphone use only doubled it, the team reported online this week in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Forty-three states restrict newly licensed drivers from having more than one other teen in the car, and the study authors say their data suggest that's good policy. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 7: Life-Span Development of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 13: Memory, Learning, and Development
Link ID: 19514 - Posted: 04.22.2014

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.

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
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

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 19468 - Posted: 04.10.2014

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

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 9: Hearing, Vestibular Perception, Taste, and Smell
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness; Chapter 6: Hearing, Balance, Taste, and Smell
Link ID: 19460 - Posted: 04.08.2014

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

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19453 - Posted: 04.07.2014

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

Related chapters from BP7e: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Consciousness
Link ID: 19426 - Posted: 03.31.2014