Chapter 14. Attention and Consciousness
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By Peter Holley "Lynchian," according to David Foster Wallace, "refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter." Perhaps no other word better describes the onetime fate of Martin Pistorius, a South African man who spent more than a decade trapped inside his own body involuntarily watching "Barney" reruns day after day. "I cannot even express to you how much I hated Barney," Martin told NPR during the first episode of a new program on human behavior, "Invisibilia." The rest of the world thought Pistorius was a vegetable, according to NPR. Doctors had told his family as much after he'd fallen into a mysterious coma as a healthy 12-year-old before emerging several years later completely paralyzed, unable to communicate with the outside world. The nightmarish condition, which can be caused by stroke or an overdose of medication, is known as "total locked-in syndrome," and it has no cure, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. In a first-person account for the Daily Mail, Pistorius described the period after he slipped into a coma: I was completely unresponsive. I was in a virtual coma but the doctors couldn’t diagnose what had caused it. When he finally did awaken in the early 1990s, around the age of 14 or 15, Pistorius emerged in a dreary fog as his mind gradually rebooted itself.
Ewen Callaway The ability to recognize oneself in a mirror has been touted as a hallmark of higher cognition — present in humans and only the most intelligent of animals — and the basis for empathy. A study published this week in Current Biology controversially reports that macaques can be trained to pay attention to themselves in a mirror, the first such observation in any monkey species1. Yet the finding raises as many questions as it answers — not only about the cognitive capacity of monkeys, but also about mirror self-recognition as a measure of animal intelligence. “Simply because you’re acting as if you recognize yourself in a mirror doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve achieved self-recognition,” says Gordon Gallup, an evolutionary psychologist at the State University of New York in Albany, who in 1970 was the first to demonstrate mirror self-recognition in captive chimpanzees2. When most animals encounter their reflections in a mirror, they act as if they have seen another creature. They lash out aggressively, belt out loud calls and display other social behaviours. This is how chimps first acted when Gallup placed a full-length mirror next to their cages. But after a couple of days, their attitudes changed and they started examining themselves, says Gallup. “They’d look at the inside of their mouths; they’d watch their tongue move.” This convinced him that the chimps recognized themselves in the mirror. He knew other scientists would be sceptical, so he developed a test of mirror self-recognition. After chimps started acting as if they saw themselves in the mirror, after about 10 days, he anaesthetized them and applied an odour-free red mark to a location on their faces they could not see, such as above the brow ridge. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group
Link ID: 20467 - Posted: 01.10.2015
|By Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde To a neuroscientist, the trouble with cocktail parties is not that we do not love cocktails or parties (many neuroscientists do). Instead what we call “the cocktail party problem” is the mystery of how anyone can have a conversation at a cocktail party at all. Consider a typical scene: You have a dozen or more lubricated and temporarily uninhibited adults telling loud, improbable stories at increasing volumes. Interlocutors guffaw and slap backs. Given the decibel level, it is a minor neural miracle that any one of these revelers can hear and parse one word from any other. The alcohol does not help, but it is not the main source of difficulties. The cocktail party problem is that there is just too much going on at once: How can our brain filter out the noise to focus on the wanted information? This problem is a central one for perceptual neuroscience—and not just during cocktail parties. The entire world we live in is quite literally too much to take in. Yet the brain does gather all of this information somehow and sorts it in real time, usually seamlessly and correctly. Whereas the physical reality consists of comparable amounts of signal and noise for many of the sounds and sights around you, your perception is that the conversation or object that interests you remains in clear focus. So how does the brain accomplish this feat? One critical component is that our neural circuits simplify the problem by actively ignoring—suppressing—anything that is not task-relevant. Our brain picks its battles. It stomps out irrelevant information so that the good stuff has a better chance of rising to awareness. This process, colloquially called attention, is how the brain sorts the wheat from the chaff. © 2014 Scientific American
By ADAM FRANK In the endless public wars between science and religion, Buddhism has mostly been given a pass. The genesis of this cultural tolerance began with the idea, popular in the 1970s, that Buddhism was somehow in harmony with the frontiers of quantum physics. While the silliness of “quantum spirituality” is apparent enough these days, the possibility that Eastern traditions might have something to say to science did not disappear. Instead, a more natural locus for that encounter was found in the study of the mind. Spurred by the Dalai Lama’s remarkable engagement with scientists, interest in Buddhist attitudes toward the study of the mind has grown steadily. But within the Dalai Lama’s cheerful embrace lies a quandary whose resolution could shake either tradition to its core: the true relationship between our material brains and our decidedly nonmaterial minds. More than evolution, more than inexhaustible arguments over God’s existence, the real fault line between science and religion runs through the nature of consciousness. Carefully unpacking that contentious question, and exploring what Buddhism offers its investigation, is the subject of Evan Thompson’s new book, “Waking, Dreaming, Being.” A professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, Thompson is in a unique position to take up the challenge. In addition to a career built studying cognitive science’s approach to the mind, he is intimate with the long history of Buddhist and Vedic commentary on the mind too. He also happens to be the son of the maverick cultural historian William Irwin Thompson, whose Lindisfarne Association proposed the “study and realization of a new planetary culture” (a goal that reveals a lot about its strengths and weaknesses). Growing up in this environment, the younger Thompson managed to pick up an enthusiasm for non-Western philosophical traditions and a healthy skepticism for their spiritualist assumptions. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 20430 - Posted: 12.20.2014
By Quassim Cassam Most people wonder at some point in their lives how well they know themselves. Self-knowledge seems a good thing to have, but hard to attain. To know yourself would be to know such things as your deepest thoughts, desires and emotions, your character traits, your values, what makes you happy and why you think and do the things you think and do. These are all examples of what might be called “substantial” self-knowledge, and there was a time when it would have been safe to assume that philosophy had plenty to say about the sources, extent and importance of self-knowledge in this sense. Not any more. With few exceptions, philosophers of self-knowledge nowadays have other concerns. Here’s an example of the sort of thing philosophers worry about: suppose you are wearing socks and believe you are wearing socks. How do you know that that’s what you believe? Notice that the question isn’t: “How do you know you are wearing socks?” but rather “How do you know you believe you are wearing socks?” Knowledge of such beliefs is seen as a form of self-knowledge. Other popular examples of self-knowledge in the philosophical literature include knowing that you are in pain and knowing that you are thinking that water is wet. For many philosophers the challenge is explain how these types of self-knowledge are possible. This is usually news to non-philosophers. Most certainly imagine that philosophy tries to answer the Big Questions, and “How do you know you believe you are wearing socks?” doesn’t sound much like one of them. If knowing that you believe you are wearing socks qualifies as self-knowledge at all — and even that isn’t obvious — it is self-knowledge of the most trivial kind. Non-philosophers find it hard to figure out why philosophers would be more interested in trivial than in substantial self-knowledge. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 20402 - Posted: 12.08.2014
|By Piercarlo Valdesolo Google “successful Thanksgiving” and you will get a lot of different recommendations. Most you’ve probably heard before: plan ahead, get help, follow certain recipes. But according to new research from Florida State University, enjoying your holiday also requires a key ingredient that few guests consider as they wait to dive face first into the turkey: a belief in free will. What does free will have to do with whether or not Aunt Sally leaves the table in a huff? These researchers argue that belief in free will is essential to experiencing the emotional state that makes Thanksgiving actually about giving thanks: gratitude. Previous research has shown that our level of gratitude for an act depends on three things: 1) the cost to the benefactor (in time, effort or money), 2) the value of the act to the beneficiary, and 3) the sincerity of the benefactor’s intentions. For example, last week my 4-year-old daughter gave me a drawing of our family. This act was costly (she spent time and effort), valuable (I love the way she draws herself bigger than everyone else in the family), and sincere (she drew it because she knew I would like it). But what if I thought that she drew it for a different reason? What if I thought that she was being coerced by my wife? Or if I thought that this was just an assignment at her pre-school? In other words, what if I thought she had no choice but to draw it? I wouldn’t have defiantly thrown it back in her face, but I surely would have felt differently about the sincerity of the action. It would have diminished my gratitude. © 2014 Scientific American
|By Christof Koch Point to any one organ in the body, and doctors can tell you something about what it does and what happens if that organ is injured by accident or disease or is removed by surgery—whether it be the pituitary gland, the kidney or the inner ear. Yet like the blank spots on maps of Central Africa from the mid-19th century, there are structures whose functions remain unknown despite whole-brain imaging, electroencephalographic recordings that monitor the brain's cacophony of electrical signals and other advanced tools of the 21st century. Consider the claustrum. It is a thin, irregular sheet of cells, tucked below the neocortex, the gray matter that allows us to see, hear, reason, think and remember. It is surrounded on all sides by white matter—the tracts, or wire bundles, that interconnect cortical regions with one another and with other brain regions. The claustra—for there are two of them, one on the left side of the brain and one on the right—lie below the general region of the insular cortex, underneath the temples, just above the ears. They assume a long, thin wisp of a shape that is easily overlooked when inspecting the topography of a brain image. Advanced brain-imaging techniques that look at the white matter fibers coursing to and from the claustrum reveal that it is a neural Grand Central Station. Almost every region of the cortex sends fibers to the claustrum. These connections are reciprocated by other fibers that extend back from the claustrum to the originating cortical region. Neuroanatomical studies in mice and rats reveal a unique asymmetry—each claustrum receives input from both cortical hemispheres but only projects back to the overlying cortex on the same side. Whether or not this is true in people is not known. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would have said. © 2014 Scientific American
Link ID: 20350 - Posted: 11.24.2014
Kate Szell “I once asked Clara who she was. It was so embarrassing, but she’d had a haircut, so how was I to know?” That’s Rachel, she’s 14 and counts Clara as one of her oldest and best friends. There’s nothing wrong with Rachel’s sight, yet she struggles to recognise others. Why? Rachel is face blind. Most of us take for granted the fact that we recognise someone after a quick glance at their face. We don’t realise we’re doing something very different when we look at a face compared with when we look at anything else. To get a feeling of how peculiar facial recognition is, try recognising people by looking at their hands, instead of their faces. Tricky? That’s exactly how Rachel feels – only she’s not looking at hands, she’s looking straight into someone’s eyes. Specific areas of the brain process facial information. Damage to those areas gives rise to prosopagnosia or “face blindness”: an inability or difficulty with recognising faces. While brain damage-induced prosopagnosia is rare, prosopagnosia itself is not. Studies suggest around 2% of the population could have some form of prosopagnosia. These “developmental” prosopagnosics seem to be born without the ability to recognise faces and don’t acquire it, relying instead on all manner of cues, from gait to hairstyles, to tell people apart. Kirsten Dalrymple from the University of Minnesota is one of a handful of researchers looking into developmental prosopagnosia. Her particular interest is in prosopagnosic children. “Some seem to cope without much of a problem but, for others, it’s a totally different story,” she says. “They can become very socially withdrawn and can also be at risk of walking off with strangers.” © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited o
Link ID: 20347 - Posted: 11.24.2014
By CLYDE HABERMAN The notion that a person might embody several personalities, each of them distinct, is hardly new. The ancient Romans had a sense of this and came up with Janus, a two-faced god. In the 1880s, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a novella that provided us with an enduring metaphor for good and evil corporeally bound. Modern comic books are awash in divided personalities like the Hulk and Two-Face in the Batman series. Even heroic Superman has his alternating personas. But few instances of the phenomenon captured Americans’ collective imagination quite like “Sybil,” the study of a woman said to have had not two, not three (like the troubled figure in the 1950s’ “Three Faces of Eve”), but 16 different personalities. Alters, psychiatrists call them, short for alternates. As a mass-market book published in 1973, “Sybil” sold in the millions. Tens of millions watched a 1976 television movie version. The story had enough juice left in it for still another television film in 2007. Sybil Dorsett, a pseudonym, became the paradigm of a psychiatric diagnosis once known as multiple personality disorder. These days, it goes by a more anodyne label: dissociative identity disorder. Either way, the strange case of the woman whose real name was Shirley Ardell Mason made itself felt in psychiatrists’ offices across the country. Pre-"Sybil,” the diagnosis was rare, with only about 100 cases ever having been reported in medical journals. Less than a decade after “Sybil” made its appearance, in 1980, the American Psychiatric Association formally recognized the disorder, and the numbers soared into the thousands. People went on television to tell the likes of Jerry Springer and Leeza Gibbons about their many alters. One woman insisted that she had more than 300 identities within her (enough, if you will, to fill the rosters of a dozen major-league baseball teams). Even “Eve,” whose real name is Chris Costner Sizemore, said in the mid-1970s that those famous three faces were surely an undercount. It was more like 22, she said. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 20346 - Posted: 11.24.2014
By MAX BEARAK MUMBAI, India — The young man sat cross-legged atop a cushioned divan on an ornately decorated stage, surrounded by other Jain monks draped in white cloth. His lip occasionally twitched, his hands lay limp in his lap, and for the most part his eyes were closed. An announcer repeatedly chastised the crowd for making even the slightest noise. From daybreak until midafternoon, members of the audience approached the stage, one at a time, to show the young monk a random object, pose a math problem, or speak a word or phrase in one of at least six different languages. He absorbed the miscellany silently, letting it slide into his mind, as onlookers in their seats jotted everything down on paper. After six hours, the 500th and last item was uttered — it was the number 100,008. An anxious hush descended over the crowd. And the monk opened his eyes and calmly recalled all 500 items, in order, detouring only once to fill in a blank he had momentarily set aside. When he was done, and the note-keepers in the audience had confirmed his achievement, the tense atmosphere dissolved and the announcer led the crowd in a series of triumphant chants. The opportunity to witness the feat of memory drew a capacity crowd of 6,000 to the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel stadium in Mumbai on Sunday. The exhibition was part of a campaign to encourage schoolchildren to use meditation to build brainpower, as Jain monks have done for centuries in India, a country drawn both toward ancient religious practices and more recent ambitions. But even by Jain standards, the young monk — Munishri Ajitchandrasagarji, 24 — is something special. His guru, P. P. Acharya Nayachandrasagarji, said no other monk in many years had come close to his ability. © 2014 The New York Times Company
James Gorman Evidence has been mounting for a while that birds and other animals can count, particularly when the things being counted are items of food. But most of the research is done under controlled conditions. In a recent experiment with New Zealand robins, Alexis Garland and Jason Low at Victoria University of Wellington tested the birds in a natural setting, giving them no training and no rewards, and showed that they knew perfectly well when a scientist had showed them two mealworms in a box, but then delivered only one. The researchers reported the work this fall in the journal Behavioural Processes. The experiment is intriguing to watch, partly because it looks like a child’s magic trick. The apparatus used is a wooden box that has a sliding drawer. After clearly showing a robin that she was dropping two mealworms in a circular well in the box, Dr. Garland would slide in the drawer. It covered the two worms with an identical-looking circular well containing only one worm. When the researcher moved away and the robin flew down and lifted off a cover, it would find only one worm. The robins pecked intensely at the box, behavior they didn’t show if they found the two worms they were expecting. Earlier experiments had also shown the birds to be good at counting, and Dr. Garland said that one reason might be that they are inveterate thieves. Mates, in particular, steal from one another’s food caches, where they hide perishable prey like worms or insects. “If you’ve got a mate that steals 50 or more percent of your food,” she said, you’d better learn how to keep track of how many mealworms you’ve got. © 2014 The New York Times Company
By Anna North Do you devour the latest neuroscience news, eager to learn more about how your brain works? Or do you click past it to something else, something more applicable to your life? If you’re in the latter camp, you may be in the majority. A new study suggests that many people just don’t pay that much attention to brain science, and its findings may raise a question: Is “neuro-literacy” really necessary? At Wired, Christian Jarrett writes, “It feels to me like interest in the brain has exploded.” He cites the prevalence of the word “brain” in headlines as well as “the emergence of new fields such as neuroleadership, neuroaesthetics and neuro-law.” But as a neuroscience writer, he notes, he may be “heavily biased” — and in fact, some research “suggests neuroscience has yet to make an impact on most people’s everyday lives.” For instance, he reports, Cliodhna O’Connor and Helene Joffe recently interviewed 48 Londoners about brain science for a paper published in the journal Science Communication. Anyone who thinks we live in an era of neuro-fixation may find the results a bit of a shock. Said one participant in the research: “Science of the brain? I haven’t a clue. Nothing at all. I’d be lying if I said there was.” Another: “Brain research I understand, an image of, I don’t know, a monkey or a dog with like the top of their head off and electrodes and stuff on their brain.” And another: “I might have seen it on the news or something, you know, some report of some description. But because they probably mentioned the word ‘science,’ or ‘We’re going to go now to our science correspondent Mr. Lala,’ that’s probably when I go, okay, it’s time for me to make a cup of tea.” According to the study authors, 71 percent of respondents “took pains to convey that neuroscience was not salient in their day-to-day life: it was ‘just not really on my radar.’” Some respondents associated brain research with scientists in white coats or with science classes (asked to free-associate about the term “brain research,” one respondent drew a mean-faced stick figure labeled “cross teacher”). And 42 percent saw science as something alien to them, removed from their own lives. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 20315 - Posted: 11.15.2014
By ALAN SCHWARZ CONCORD, Calif. — Every time Matthias is kicked out of a school or day camp for defying adults and clashing with other children, his mother, Joelle Kendle, inches closer to a decision she dreads. With each morning of arm-twisting and leg-flailing as she tries to get him dressed and out the door for first grade, the temptation intensifies. Ms. Kendle is torn over whether to have Matthias, just 6 and already taking the stimulant Adderall for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, go on a second and more potent medication: the antipsychotic Risperdal. Her dilemma is shared by a steadily rising number of American families who are using multiple psychotropic drugs — stimulants, antipsychotics, antidepressants and others — to temper their children’s troublesome behavior, even though many doctors who mix such medications acknowledge that little is known about the overall benefits and risks for children. In 2012 about one in 54 youngsters ages 6 through 17 covered by private insurance was taking at least two psychotropic medications — a rise of 44 percent in four years, according to Express Scripts, which processes prescriptions for 85 million Americans. Academic studies of children covered by Medicaid have also found higher rates and growth. Combined, the data suggest that about one million children are currently taking various combinations of psychotropics. Risks of antipsychotics alone, for example, are known to include substantial weight gain and diabetes. Stimulants can cause appetite suppression, insomnia and, far more infrequently, hallucinations. Some combinations of medication classes, like antipsychotics and antidepressants, have shown improved benefits (for psychotic depression) but also heightened risks (for heart rhythm disturbances). But this knowledge has been derived substantially from studies in adults — children are rarely studied because of concerns about safety and ethics — leaving many experts worried that the use of multiple psychotropics in youngsters has not been explored fully. There is also debate over whether the United States Food and Drug Administration’s database of patients’ adverse drug reactions reliably monitors the hazards of psychotropic drug combinations, primarily because only a small fraction of cases are ever reported. Some clinicians are left somewhat queasy about relying mostly on anecdotal reports of benefit and harm. © 2014 The New York Times Company
By Paula Span A few days after I wrote about conditions that can mimic dementia, reader Sue Murray emailed me from Westchester County. Her subject line: “Have you heard of Charles Bonnet Syndrome?” I hadn’t, and until about six months ago, neither had Ms. Murray. Her mother Elizabeth, who is 91, has glaucoma and macular degeneration, and has been gradually losing her vision, Ms. Murray explained. So at first, her family was excited when Elizabeth seemed to be seeing things more clearly. Maybe, they thought, her vision was returning. But the things she was seeing — patterns and colors, strangers, a green man — weren’t there. She insisted that “there were people in the cellar, people on the porch, people in the house,” Ms. Murray said. “She’d point and say, ‘Don’t you see them?’ And she’d get mad when we didn’t.” Elizabeth and her husband Victor, 95, live in Connecticut, in a house they bought 50 years ago. For a while, the Green Man, as Elizabeth began calling him, seemed to have moved in, too. “She’d start hiding things in the closet so the Green Man wouldn’t take them,” Ms. Murray said. “There wasn’t any real fear; it was just, ‘Look at that!’” Elizabeth’s ophthalmologist promptly supplied the name for this condition: Charles Bonnet Syndrome, named for a Swiss philosopher who described such visual hallucinations in the 18th century. “We were relieved,” said Ms. Murray. What they feared, of course, was mental illness or dementia. “To have an eye doctor say, ‘I’m familiar with this,’ it’s still jarring but it’s not so terrible.” Bonnet Syndrome (pronounced Boh-NAY) isn’t terribly rare, it turns out. Oliver Sacks described several cases in his 2012 book, “Hallucinations.” Dr. Abdhish Bhavsar, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and a retina specialist in Minneapolis, estimates that he has probably seen about 200 patients with the syndrome over 17 years of practice. © 2014 The New York Times Company
By Meeri Kim Patients suffering from pagophagia compulsively crave and chomp on ice, even scraping buildup off freezer walls for a fix. The disorder appears to be caused by an iron deficiency, and supplements of the mineral tend to ease the cravings. But what is it about ice that makes it so irresistible? A new study proposes that, like a strong cup of coffee, ice may give those with insufficient iron a much-needed mental boost. Fatigue is the most common symptom of iron-deficiency anemia, which occurs when the body can’t produce enough oxygen-carrying hemoglobin because of low iron. “I had a friend who was suffering from iron-deficiency anemia who was just crunching through massive amounts of ice a day,” said study author Melissa Hunt, a clinical psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “She said: ‘It’s like a cup of coffee. I don’t feel awake until I have a cup of ice in my hand.’ ” Hunt and her colleagues had both anemic and healthy subjects complete a standardized, 22-minute attention test commonly used to diagnose attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Just before the test, participants were given either a cup of ice or lukewarm water to consume. Iron-deficient subjects who had sipped on water performed far more slugglishly on the test than controls, as expected. But those who ate ice beforehand did just as well as their healthy counterparts. For healthy subjects, having a cup of ice instead of water appeared to make no difference in test performance. “It’s not like craving a dessert. It’s more like needing a cup of coffee or that cigarette,” Hunt said.
Link ID: 20296 - Posted: 11.10.2014
By Katy Waldman How much control do you have over how much control you think you have? The researchers Michael R. Ent and Roy F. Baumeister have been studying what makes a person more or less likely to believe in free will. Is it a deep connection to the philosophy of David Hume? An abiding faith in divine omnipotence? Try a really, really full bladder. In an online survey, 81 adults ages 18 to 70 reported the extent to which they felt hungry, tired, desirous of sex, and desirous of a toilet. They then rated the extent to which they considered themselves in command of their destinies. People experiencing intense physical needs were less likely to say they believed in free will. People who were not inexplicably taking an online survey while desperately holding in their pee (or starving, or wanting sex, or trying to stay awake) mostly claimed that the universe had handed them the keys to their lives. Also, people who brought their laptops with them into the bathroom to fill out the survey reported that they were God. (I kid on that last part.) Ent and Baumeister also used a survey to take the free will temperature of 23 people with panic disorder, 16 people with epilepsy, and 35 healthy controls. Those suffering from the two conditions—both of which can unpredictably plunge the mind into chaos—tended to put less stock in the notion of mental autonomy. There was a third experiment, too. I said earlier that people not taking an online survey while jonesing for various creature comforts mostly claimed that they wore the metaphysical pants. However, despite robust results for horniness, fatigue, and needing-to-go-ness, Ent and Baumeister didn’t initially see much correlation between people’s philosophical visions and their hunger levels. So they re-administered the survey to 112 new volunteers, some of whom were dieting and some of whom were not. © 2014 The Slate Group LLC.
Link ID: 20294 - Posted: 11.10.2014
By Greg Miller This robot causes people to experience the illusory sensation of someone standing behind them. © Alain Herzog/EPFL People who’ve stared death in the face and lived to tell about it—mountain climbers who’ve made a harrowing descent, say, or survivors of the World Trade Center attacks—sometimes report that just when their situation seemed impossible, a ghostly presence appeared. People with schizophrenia and certain types of neurological damage sometimes report similar experiences, which scientists call, aptly, “feeling of presence.” Now a team of neuroscientists says it has identified a set of brain regions that seems to be involved in generating this illusion. Better yet, they’ve built a robot that can cause ordinary people to experience it in the lab. The team was led by Olaf Blanke, a neurologist and neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Blanke has a long-standing interest in creepy illusions of bodily perception. Studying these bizarre phenomena, he says, could point to clues about the biology of mental illness and the mechanisms of human consciousness. In 2006, for example, Blanke and colleagues published a paper in Nature that had one of the best titles you’ll ever see in a scientific journal: “Induction of an illusory shadow person.” In that study, they stimulated the brain of a young woman who was awaiting brain surgery for severe epilepsy. Surgeons had implanted electrodes on the surface of her brain to monitor her seizures, and when the researchers passed a mild current through the electrodes, stimulating a small region at the intersection of the temporal and parietal lobes of her brain, she experienced what she described as a shadowy presence lurking nearby, mimicking her own posture. Colored areas indicate regions of overlap in the lesions of neurological patients who experienced feeling of presence illusions. © 2014 Condé Nast.
By Dwayne Godwin and Jorge Cham © 2014 Scientific American
|By Lindsey Konkel and Environmental Health News New York City children exposed in the womb to high levels of pollutants in vehicle exhaust had a five times higher risk of attention problems at age 9, according to research by Columbia University scientists published Wednesday. The study adds to earlier evidence that mothers' exposures to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are emitted by the burning of fossil fuels and other organic materials, are linked to children's behavioral problems associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). “Our research suggests that environmental factors may be contributing to attention problems in a significant way,” said Frederica Perera, an environmental health scientist at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health who was the study's lead author. About one in 10 U.S. kids is diagnosed with ADHD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children with ADHD are at greater risk of poor academic performance, risky behaviors and lower earnings in adulthood, the researchers wrote. “Air pollution has been linked to adverse effects on attention span, behavior and cognitive functioning in research from around the globe. There is little question that air pollutants may pose a variety of potential health risks to children of all ages, possibly beginning in the womb,” said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York. He did not participate in the new study. © 2014 Scientific American
by Helen Thomson A MAN with the delusional belief that an impostor has taken his wife's place is helping shed light on how we recognise loved ones. Capgras syndrome is a rare condition in which a person insists that a person they are close to – most commonly a spouse – has been replaced by an impostor. Sometimes they even believe that a much-loved pet has also been replaced by a lookalike. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people with Capgras only misidentify the people that they are closest to. Chris Fiacconi at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada, and his team wanted to explore this. They performed recognition tests and brain scans on two male volunteers with dementia – one who had Capgras, and one who didn't – and compared the results with those of 10 healthy men of a similar age. For months, the man with Capgras believed that his wife had been replaced by an impostor and was resistant to any counterargument, often asking his son why he was so convinced that the woman was his mother. First the team tested whether or not the volunteers could recognise celebrities they would have been familiar with throughout their lifetime, such as Marilyn Monroe. Volunteers were presented with celebrities' names, voices or pictures, and asked if they recognised them and, if so, how much information they could recall about that person. The man with Capgras was more likely to misidentify the celebrities by face or voice compared with the volunteer without Capgras, or the 10 healthy men. None of the volunteers had problems identifying celebrities by name (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, doi.org/wrw). © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.