Chapter 14. Attention and Consciousness
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to our mailing list, to receive news updates. Learn more.
Here's what the Swedish artist Oscar Reutersvard did. In 1934, he got himself a pen and paper and drew cubes, like this. He called this final version "Impossible Triangle of Opus 1 No. 293aa." I don't know what the "293aa" is about, but he was right about "impossible." An arrangement like this cannot take place in the physical universe as we know it. You follow the bottom row along with your eyes, then add another row, but when the third row pops in, where are you? Nowhere you have ever been before. At some step in the process you've been tricked, but it's very, very hard to say where the trick is, because what's happening is your brain wants to see all these boxes as units of a single triangle and while the parts simply won't gel, your brain insists on seeing them as a whole. It's YOU who's playing the trick, and you can't un-be you. So you are your own prisoner. At first, this feels like a neurological trap, like a lie you can't not believe. But when you think about for a bit, it's the opposite, it's a release. Twenty years later, the mathematician/physicist Roger Penrose (and his dad, psychologist Lionel Penrose) did it again. They hadn't seen Reutersvard's triangle. Theirs was drawn in perspective, which makes it even more challenging. Here's my version of their Penrose Triangle. What's cool about this? I'm going to paraphrase science writer John D. Barrow, in several places: We know that these drawings can't exist in the physical world. Even as we look at them, particularly when we look at them, we know they are impossible. And yet, we can imagine them anyway. Our brains, it turns out, are not prisoners of the world we live in; we can fly free! We can, any time we like, create the impossible. ©2013 NPR
Lying in bed, unable to move a muscle, so-called locked-in patients have few ways to communicate with the outside world. But researchers have now found a way to use the widening and narrowing of the pupils to send a message, potentially helping these patients break the silence. Doctors use the constriction of pupils under bright light to test whether a patient’s brain stem is intact. But our pupils also show the opposite response—dilation—based on our thoughts and emotions, says Wolfgang Einhäuser, a neurophysicist at Philipps University of Marburg in Germany. Einhäuser had been struggling to interpret changes in pupil size during decision-making when he began to wonder about a different application. He contacted Steven Laureys, a member of the Coma Science Group at the University Hospital of Liège in Belgium, to explore how the pupil could be used to communicate a choice. Laureys works with locked-in patients, who have normal mental acuity but are paralyzed and unable to express thoughts to those around them. Many can control only the muscles that move their eyes; some, not even that. They can learn to communicate using EEG technology, in which electrodes on the scalp detect changes in brain activity. But applying the electrode cap is time-consuming, and the equipment is expensive, Einhäuser says. “If you imagine doing that every day, basically to communicate, that’s troublesome.” To find a different technique, Einhäuser, Laureys, and colleagues reached back in time. “The pieces have been there since the early ’60s,” Einhäuser says. A 1964 study showed that our pupils dilate when we perform mental arithmetic, like attempting to multiply 27 and 15 with no pencil and paper, and that harder tasks led to more dramatic dilation. The team set up a camera and a laptop to explore this automatic response. © 2012 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
by Helen Thomson We all get lost sometimes. Luckily, specialised cells in the brain that help animals find their way have now been identified in humans for the first time. The discovery could lead to better treatments for people who have problems navigating. We know that animals use three cell types to navigate the world. Direction cells fire only when an animal is facing a particular direction, place cells fire only in a particular location, and grid cells fire at regular intervals as an animal moves around. To understand how grid cells work, imagine the carpet in front of you has a grid pattern of interlocking triangles. One grid cell will fire whenever you reach the corner of any triangle in that grid. Shift the grid pattern along ever so slightly to another section of the carpet, and another grid cell will be responsible for firing every time you reach the corners of that grid's triangles – and so on. Grid cells send information to place cells and both kinds of cell send information to the hippocampus – responsible for memory formation. Together, this network of activity helps form a mental representation of an animal's location in its environment. Direction and place cells have been identified in humans but the existence of grid cells has so far only been hinted at in brain scans. To find out whether these cells do exist in humans, Joshua Jacobs at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and colleagues tested 14 people who had already had electrodes implanted in their brains for epilepsy therapy. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 18459 - Posted: 08.05.2013
By Lucas Laursen My cousin Guillermo Cassinello Toscano was on the train that derailed in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, last week when it went around a bend at twice the speed limit. Cassinello heard a loud vibration and then a powerful bump and then found himself surrounded by bloody bodies in wagon number nine. Shaking, he escaped the wreckage through either a door or a hole in the train—he cannot recall—then sat amid the smoke and debris next to the track and began to cry. Seventy-nine passengers died. Cassinello doesn’t remember everything that happened to him. The same mechanisms that kept his brain sharp enough to escape immediate danger may also make it harder for him both to recall the accident, and to put the trauma behind him. "The normal thing is that the person doesn't remember the moment of the accident or right after," says clinical psychologist Javier Rodriguez Escobar of trauma therapy team Grupo Isis in Seville, who helped treat and study victims of the 2004 Madrid train bombings. That's because the mind and the body enter a more alert but also more stressed state, with trade-offs that can save your life, but harm your mind’s memory-making abilities. As the train fell over, several changes would have swept through Cassinello’s body. His adrenal glands, near his kidneys, would have released adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) into his bloodstream. The adrenaline would have directed blood to the powerful muscles of his arms and legs, where it would help him escape the wreckage faster. The hormone would have raised his heart and breathing rates. It also would have stimulated his vagus nerve, which runs from his spine to his brain. Although adrenaline cannot cross the blood–brain barrier, the vagus can promote noradrenaline production in the brain. That hormone activates the amygdala, which helps form memories. © 2013 Scientific American
Link ID: 18444 - Posted: 08.01.2013
By Jessica Shugart Lunch at a restaurant with a friend could lessen the brain’s aptitude for detailed tasks back at work, a new study suggests. If an error-free afternoon is the goal, perhaps workers should consider hastily consuming calories alone at their desks. But bosses shouldn’t rush to glue workers to their chairs just yet. The research is only a first stab at teasing out how a sociable lunch affects work performance, says study leader Werner Sommer of Humboldt University in Berlin. Researchers have long thought that dining with others fosters mental well-being, cooperation and creativity. To test the effects of a midday social hour on the brain’s capacity to get through the workday, Sommer and his colleagues gave 32 university students lunch in one of two settings and then tested their mental focus. Half of the students enjoyed meals over a leisurely hour with a friend at a casual Italian restaurant. The other group picked up their meals from the same restaurant, but had only 20 minutes to eat alone in a drab office. People who went out to lunch got to choose from a limited vegetarian menu; participants in the office group had meals that matched the choice of a member of the other group. After lunch, the group that dined in bland solitude performed better on a task that assesses rapid decision making and focus, the researchers report July 31 in PLOS ONE. Measurements of brain activity also suggested that the brain’s error-monitoring system could be running at sub-par levels in those who ate out. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
Link ID: 18443 - Posted: 08.01.2013
By ABIGAIL ZUGER, M.D. A journey into the human brain starts with the usual travel decisions: will you opt for a no-frills sightseeing jaunt, a five-star luxury cruise, or trek a little off the beaten track, skipping the usual tourist attractions? Now that science’s newfound land is suddenly navigable, hordes of eager guides are offering up books that range from the basic to the lavishly appointed to the minutely subspecialized. But those who prefer wandering off trail may opt for two new ones, neither by a neuroscientist. When the philosopher Patricia S. Churchland explains that her book represents “the story of getting accustomed to my brain,” she is speaking as both a brain-owning human being and a career humanist. An emerita professor at the University of California, San Diego, she has spent a career probing the physical brain for the self and its moral center. And unlike many humanists who hate the science for the irritating violence it does to centuries of painstaking intellectual labor, she is entranced by the power of the data, and her delight is utterly contagious. She loses little time in dispatching the archaic notion of the soul, and suggests that near-death visions of heaven simply represent “neural funny business” in a malfunctioning brain. Can humans still live a moral and spiritual life even without the ideas of soul and heaven? You bet they can. “We may still say that the sun is setting even when we know full well that earth is turning,” Professor Churchland points out, and she is off and running. © 2013 The New York Times Company
Avoiding temptation works better than relying on willpower alone, a study of brain activity finds. "Struggles with self-control pervade daily life and characterize an array of dysfunctional behaviours, including addiction, overeating, overspending and procrastination," Molly Crockett, a postdoctoral fellow at University College London, and her co-authors said in today's issue of the journal Neuron. "Our research suggests that the most effective way to beat temptations is to avoid facing them in the first place," she said in a release. In the experiment, researchers studied 58 healthy heterosexual males in Cambridge and 20 in Amsterdam. Investigators used functional MRI as part of the study of self-control to explore the neural mechanisms involved. At the beginning of the trial, participants were shown a series of 400 images of women in lingerie or swimwear and were asked to rank them on a scale of zero to 10 on how enjoyable they were. Each man's preferences were then used to present small, short-term rewards or a large reward after a delay. Small rewards were mildly enjoyable erotic pictures and large rewards were extremely enjoyable ones. (The scientists said they could not use money, for example, since subjects could only reap the rewards of money once they left the lab. Food rewards like juice could interfere with the MRI readings.) © CBC 2013
By SABRINA TAVERNISE WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration announced on Monday that it had approved the first brain wave test to help diagnose attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. The test uses an electroencephalogram, or EEG, with sensors attached to a child’s head and hooked by wires to a computer to measure brain waves. It traces different types of electrical impulses given off by nerve cells in the brain and records how many times those impulses are given off each second. The test takes 15 to 20 minutes, and measures two kinds of brain waves — theta and beta. Certain combinations of those waves tend to be more prevalent in children with A.D.H.D., the Food and Drug Administration said in a news release. The disorder is one of the most common behavioral disorders in children. About 9 percent of adolescents have A.D.H.D. and the average age of diagnosis is 7, the drug agency said, citing the American Psychiatric Association. Children who have it tend to be hyperactive, impulsive and exhibit behavioral problems. The maker of the testing device, NEBA Health of Augusta, Ga., gave the F.D.A. data from a study of 275 children and adolescents, ages 6 to 17, with attention or hyperactivity problems. Clinicians used the device, called a Neuropsychiatric EEG-Based Assessment Aid, in combination with traditional testing methods, like listing the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, behavioral questionnaires and I.Q. testing. An outside group of researchers then reviewed the data and decided whether the child had the disorder. The results showed that the device helped doctors make a more accurate diagnosis than using traditional methods alone, the F.D.A. said. An agency spokeswoman said it did not release the study’s data. © 2013 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 18380 - Posted: 07.16.2013
by Helen Thomson "I told my daughter her living room TV was out of sync. Then I noticed the kitchen telly was also dubbed badly. Suddenly I noticed that her voice was out of sync too. It wasn't the TV, it was me." Ever watched an old movie, only for the sound to go out of sync with the action? Now imagine every voice you hear sounds similarly off-kilter – even your own. That's the world PH lives in. Soon after surgery for a heart problem, he began to notice that something wasn't quite right. "I was staying with my daughter and they like to have the television on in their house. I turned to my daughter and said 'you ought to get a decent telly, one where the sound and programme are synchronised'. I gave a little chuckle. But they said 'there's nothing wrong with the TV'." Puzzled, he went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. "They've got another telly up on the wall and it was the same. I went into the lounge and I said to her 'hey you've got two TVs that need sorting!'." That was when he started to notice that his daughter's speech was out of time with her lip movements too. "It wasn't the TV, it was me. It was happening in real life." PH is the first confirmed case of someone who hears people speak before registering the movement of their lips. His situation is giving unique insights into how our brains unify what we hear and see. It's unclear why PH's problem started when it did – but it may have had something to do with having acute pericarditis, inflammation of the sac around the heart, or the surgery he had to treat it. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd
by Emily Underwood Pay attention! Whether it's listening to a teacher giving instructions or completing a word problem, the ability to tune out distractions and focus on a task is key to academic success. Now, a new study suggests that a brief training program in attention for 3- to 5-year-olds and their families could help boost brain activity and narrow the academic achievement gap between low- and high-income students. Children from families of low socioeconomic status generally score lower than more affluent kids on standardized tests of intelligence, language, spatial reasoning, and math, says Priti Shah, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin who was not involved in the study. "That's just a plain fact." A more controversial question that scientists and politicians have batted around for decades, says Shah, is "What is the source of that difference?" Part of it may be genetic, but environmental factors, ranging from prenatal nutrition to exposure to toxic substances like lead, may also account for the early childhood differences in cognitive ability that appear by age 3 or 4. So far, however, "there aren't that many randomized, controlled trials that show that the environment has an impact on a child's abilities," Shah says. The new study does just that. It focuses on the ability to hone in on a task and ignore distractions, which "leverages every single thing we do," says cognitive neuroscientist Helen Neville at the University of Oregon, Eugene. For more than 30 years, Neville and her colleagues have been studying the neural bases of this ability, called selective attention. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science
David Derbyshire Every year Robert Hodgson selects the finest wines from his small California winery and puts them into competitions around the state. And in most years, the results are surprisingly inconsistent: some whites rated as gold medallists in one contest do badly in another. Reds adored by some panels are dismissed by others. Over the decades Hodgson, a softly spoken retired oceanographer, became curious. Judging wines is by its nature subjective, but the awards appeared to be handed out at random. So drawing on his background in statistics, Hodgson approached the organisers of the California State Fair wine competition, the oldest contest of its kind in North America, and proposed an experiment for their annual June tasting sessions. Each panel of four judges would be presented with their usual "flight" of samples to sniff, sip and slurp. But some wines would be presented to the panel three times, poured from the same bottle each time. The results would be compiled and analysed to see whether wine testing really is scientific. The first experiment took place in 2005. The last was in Sacramento earlier this month. Hodgson's findings have stunned the wine industry. Over the years he has shown again and again that even trained, professional palates are terrible at judging wine. "The results are disturbing," says Hodgson from the Fieldbrook Winery in Humboldt County, described by its owner as a rural paradise. "Only about 10% of judges are consistent and those judges who were consistent one year were ordinary the next year. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited
Zoe Cormier By trawling through data from 35 million users of online ‘brain-training’ tools, researchers have conducted a survey of what they say is the world’s largest data set of human cognitive performance. Their preliminary results show that drinking moderately correlates with better cognitive performance and that sleeping too little or too much has a negative association. The study, published this week in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience1, analysed user data from Lumosity, a collection of web-based games made by Lumos Labs, based in San Francisco, California. Researchers at Lumos conducted the study in collaboration with scientists at two US universities as part of the Human Cognition Project, which the authors describe as “a collaborative research effort to describe the human mind”. The authors examined results from more than 600 million completed tasks — which measured players’ speed, memory capacity and cognitive flexibility — to get a snapshot of how lifestyle factors can affect cognition and how learning ability changes with age. Users who enjoyed one or two alcoholic drinks a day tended to perform better on cognitive tasks than teetotallers and heavier drinkers, whose scores dropped as the number of daily drinks increased. The optimal sleep time was seven hours, with performance worsening for every hour of sleep lost or added. The study authors also looked at performance over time for users who returned to the same brain-training tasks at least 25 times. Performance decreased with age, but the ability to learn new tasks that relied on ‘crystallized knowledge’ (such as vocabulary) did not decline as quickly as it did for those that measured ‘fluid intelligence’ (such as the ability to memorize new sets of information). © 2013 Nature Publishing Group,
Meghan Holohan NBC News Most of us can't actually be as attractive as professional good-looking people like Kate Upton. But new research shows that an electrical shock to the brain can make people perceive other people to be more attractive. The research may one day point toward new treatments for neurological disorders like depression or Parkinson's. Another workday with your drab, dull-looking coworkers. If only your world was filled with the beautiful people - more Kate Uptons than Katie from accounting, more Jon Hamms than John from HR. Actually, technology exists that could almost make that possible -- provided you're OK with an electric shock to your brain. But the brain zap isn't some party game. Findings from a new California Institute of Technology study could one day help lead to new, noninvasive ways to study and treat mental disorders. The Caltech researchers found that people who receive a mild electrical shock deep within the brain ranked people as more attractive than they did before the jolt. It might sound like a silly thing to study, but Vikram Chib, lead author of the paper, explains that rating the attractiveness of faces is one of the hallmark tasks used to diagnose neurological problems like depression, schizophrenia or Parkinson's. Chib, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech, wanted to know how an area nestled deep with the brain called the midbrain influenced mood and behavior, and if there were a way to manipulate it noninvasively. The midbrain is believed to be the source of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease. While drugs do treat these disorders, Chib and his colleague, Shinsuke Shimojo, hoped that noninvasive deep brain stimulation could change only the midbrain, without influencing the entire body.
Link ID: 18297 - Posted: 06.22.2013
MONKEYS may have a primitive version of the human ability to put ourselves in another's shoes. Intelligent animals such as apes can intuit others' intentions, suggesting they have some theory of mind capability. But only humans can reason that others may not hold their own beliefs. To study this difference, Rogier Mars of the University of Oxford and colleagues scanned 36 people's brains. Using an algorithm, they created a map of how an area associated with theory of mind is connected to brain regions linked to abilities such as face recognition and interpretation. Next, the researchers scanned 12 macaque brains for a similar pattern of connections. An area involved in facial recognition had a similar pattern, suggesting involvement in abstract thought. That doesn't necessarily mean the structures share a function, Mars says. Theory of mind is probably a spectrum of ways of thinking, he says, and humans got better at it as they evolved. Laurie Santos of Yale University says the structural differences may one day tell us why non-human primates lack the ability to think about others' beliefs. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Keith Payne It was a summer evening when Tony Cornell tried to make the residents of Cambridge, England see a ghost. He got dressed up in a sheet and walked through a public park waving his arms about. Meanwhile his assistants observed the bystanders for any hint that they noticed something strange. No, this wasn’t Candid Camera. Cornell was a researcher interested in the paranormal. The idea was first to get people to notice the spectacle, and then see how they understood what their eyes were telling them. Would they see the apparition as a genuine ghost or as something more mundane, like a bloke in a bed sheet? The plan was foiled when not a single bystander so much as raised an eye brow. Several cows did notice, however, and they followed Cornell on his ghostly rambles. Was it just a fluke, or did people “not want to see” the besheeted man, as Cornell concluded in his 1959 report? Okay, that stunt was not a very good experiment, but twenty years later the eminent psychologist Ulric Neisser did a better job. He filmed a video of two teams of students passing a basketball back and forth, and superimposed another video of a girl with an umbrella walking right through the center of the screen. When he asked subjects in his study to count the number of times the ball was passed, an astonishing 79 percent failed to notice the girl with the umbrella. In the years since, hundreds of studies have backed up the idea that when attention is occupied with one thing, people often fail to notice other things right before their eyes. When you first learn about these studies they seem deeply strange. Is it really possible that we are constantly failing to notice things right in front of us? Is there some mysterious force screening what we see and what remains hidden? © 2013 Scientific American
Link ID: 18263 - Posted: 06.12.2013
by David Robson NO CREVICE of the human experience is safe. Our deepest fears and desires, our pasts and our futures – all have been revealed, and all in the form of colourful images that look like lava bubbling under the skull. That, at least, is the popular conception of neuroscience – and it's worth big money. The USMovie Camera and the European Union are throwing billions of dollars at two new projects to map the human brain. Yet there is also a growing anxiety that many of neuroscience's findings don't stand up to scrutiny. It's not just sensational headlines reporting a "dark patch" in a psychopath's brain, there are now serious concerns that some of the methods themselves are flawed. The intrepid outsider needs expert guidance through this rocky terrain – and there's no better place to start than Brainwashed by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld. Satel, a practising psychiatrist, and Lilienfeld, a clinical psychologist, are terrific sherpas. They are clear-sighted, considered and forgiving of the novice's ignorance. Their first stop is the fMRI scan – a staple of much brain research. Worryingly, the statistical techniques used to construct the images sometimes create a mirage of activity where none should exist. They have a telling example: one research team watching a salmon in an fMRI scanner as images of human faces were flashed at it saw its brain spark into life in certain shots – even though it was dead. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 18222 - Posted: 06.04.2013
Rebecca J. Rosen What would you draw if somebody told you to draw a neuron? According to a new study, your sketch will depend on how much science education you have, but not in the way you'd expect. In the image above, the top row -- those detailed, labeled, neat renderings -- are the work of undergraduates. The bottom row, with their janky, sparse lines, come from the leaders of neuroscience research laboratories. That martini-glass looking thing over there on the left? That's a neuron, as drawn by a professional scientist. The middle row, some intermediary step, shows drawings from postdocs and graduate students. These drawings come from a new study published in the journal Science Education. Its authors, a team at King's College London led by education professor David Hay, found that nearly every single undergraduate student they studied (all but three of 126) faithfully reproduced textbook-style neurons, something akin to a canonical image from an 1899 book detailing the brain, which, the authors say, "has enjoyed an unusually pervasive influence." These drawings are "typified by a multipolar cell body and truncated, feathery dendritic processes around a clearly demarcated nucleus." Many of the drawings were annotated. For the "trainee scientists" -- those in PhD programs or completing a postdoc -- the neurons appeared more like what would be seen in a microscope image. Nuclei were excluded, the number of dendrites was reduced, and orientation was inconsistent -- all characterizing neurons as you would see them "in nature" not in the pages of a textbook. © 2013 by The Atlantic Monthly Group
by Helen Thomson Sean O'Connor is a very rational man. But he also tried, unsuccessfully, to sever his spine, and still feels a need to be paralysed. Sean has body integrity identity disorder (BIID), which causes him to feel that his limbs just don't belong to his body. Sean's legs function correctly and he has full sensation in them, but they feel disconnected from him. "I don't hate my limbs – they just feel wrong," he says. "I'm aware that they are as nature designed them to be, but there is an intense discomfort at being able to feel my legs and move them." The cause of his disorder has yet to be pinpointed, but it almost certainly stems from a problem in the early development of his brain. "My earliest memories of feeling I should be paralysed go back to when I was 4 or 5 years old," says Sean. The first case of BIID was reported in the 18th century, when a French surgeon was held at gunpoint by an Englishman who demanded that one of his legs be removed. The surgeon, against his will, performed the operation. Later, he received a handsome payment from the Englishman, with an accompanying letter of thanks for removing "a limb which put an invincible obstacle to my happiness" (Experimental Brain Research, DOI: 10.1007/s00221-009-2043-7). We now think that there are at least two forms of BIID. In one, people wish that part of their body were paralysed. Another form causes people to want to have a limb removed. BIID doesn't have to affect limbs either – there have been anecdotal accounts of people wishing they were blind or deaf. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 18215 - Posted: 06.01.2013
By Gary Stix Unraveling the mystery of consciousness remains perhaps the biggest challenge in all neuroscience, so big and amorphous that most brain scientists won’t go near the topic, leaving philosophers to speculate about the a prioris. Even defining what consciousness is quickly devolves into lengthy and often ponderous treatises. The World Science Festival assembled a panel of luminaries who will attempt to make sense of this sprawling theme in the allotted 90 minutes. They included Mélanie Boly, a researcher and physician who has performed studies on minimally conscious patients; Christof Koch, a leading researcher on the neural basis of consciousness; Colin McGinn, known for his work on the philosophy of mind, and Nicholas Schiff, a physician-scientist who specializes in disorders of consciousness. Click below here to see these leading lights gathered at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on May 30 to take on whether Homo sapiens is the only conscious species, the question of whether consciousness transcends the physical boundaries of the brain, and an exploration of the biochemical processes that underlie the life of the mind. The session, entitled “The Whispering Mind: The Enduring Conundrum of Consciousness,” is moderated by ABC Nightline co-anchor Terry Moran. © 2013 Scientific American
Link ID: 18212 - Posted: 06.01.2013
By Tina Hesman Saey Genetic factors may exert a tiny influence on how much schooling a person ends up with, a new study suggests. But the main lesson of the research, experts say, should be that attributing cultural and socioeconomic traits to genes is a dicey enterprise. “If there is a policy implication, it’s that there’s even more reason to be skeptical of genetic determinism,” says sociologist Jeremy Freese of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Published May 30 in Science by a group of more than 200 researchers, the study does mark the first time genetic factors have been reproducibly associated with a social trait, says Richard Ebstein, a behavioral geneticist at the National University of Singapore. “It announces to social scientists that some things they’ve been studying that make a difference to health and life success do have a base in genetics.” But even if it does survive further inspection — and many similar links between genes and social characteristics have not — the study accounts for no more than 2 percent of whatever it is that makes one person continue school while someone in similar circumstances chooses to move on to something else. Previous studies comparing twins and family members have suggested that not-yet-identified genetic factors can explain 40 percent of people’s educational attainment; factors such as social groups, economic status and access to education would explain the other 60 percent. That percentage attributed to genetics is similar to the heritability of physical and medical characteristics such as weight and risk of heart disease.That makes a hunt for the genetic factors underlying educational attainment an attractive prospect. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013