Chapter 14. Attention and Higher Cognition

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by Josh Wilbur Jake Haendel was a hard-partying chef from a sleepy region of Massachusetts. When he was 28, his heroin addiction resulted in catastrophic brain damage and very nearly killed him. In a matter of months, Jake’s existence became reduced to a voice in his head. Jake’s parents had divorced when he was young. He grew up between their two homes in a couple of small towns just beyond reach of Boston, little more than strip malls, ailing churches and half-empty sports bars. His mother died of breast cancer when he was 19. By then, he had already been selling marijuana and abusing OxyContin, an opioid, for years. “Like a lot of kids at my school, I fell in love with oxy. If I was out to dinner with my family at a restaurant, I would go to the bathroom just to get a fix,” he said. He started culinary school, where he continued to experiment with opioids and cocaine. He hid his drug use from family and friends behind a sociable, fun-loving front. Inside, he felt anxious and empty. “I numbed myself with partying,” he said. After culinary school, he took a job as a chef at a local country club. At 25, Jake tried heroin for the first time, with a co-worker (narcotics are notoriously prevalent in American kitchens). By the summer of 2013, Jake was struggling to find prescription opioids. For months, he had been fending off the symptoms of opioid withdrawal, which he likened to “a severe case of the flu with an added feeling of impending doom”. Heroin offered a euphoric high, staving off the intense nausea and shaking chills of withdrawal. Despite his worsening addiction, Jake married his girlfriend, Ellen, in late 2016. Early in their relationship, Ellen had asked him if he was using heroin. He had lied without hesitation, but she soon found out the truth, and within months, the marriage was falling apart. “I was out of control, selling lots of heroin, using even more, spending a ridiculous amount of money on drugs and alcohol,” he said. In May 2017, Ellen noticed that he was talking funnily, his words slurred and off-pitch. “What’s up with your voice?” she asked him repeatedly.

Keyword: Consciousness; Drug Abuse
Link ID: 27595 - Posted: 11.27.2020

By Kashmir Hill and Jeremy White There are now businesses that sell fake people. On the website Generated.Photos, you can buy a “unique, worry-free” fake person for $2.99, or 1,000 people for $1,000. If you just need a couple of fake people — for characters in a video game, or to make your company website appear more diverse — you can get their photos for free on ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com. Adjust their likeness as needed; make them old or young or the ethnicity of your choosing. If you want your fake person animated, a company called Rosebud.AI can do that and can even make them talk. These simulated people are starting to show up around the internet, used as masks by real people with nefarious intent: spies who don an attractive face in an effort to infiltrate the intelligence community; right-wing propagandists who hide behind fake profiles, photo and all; online harassers who troll their targets with a friendly visage. The A.I. system sees each face as a complex mathematical figure, a range of values that can be shifted. Choosing different values — like those that determine the size and shape of eyes — can alter the whole image. For other qualities, our system used a different approach. Instead of shifting values that determine specific parts of the image, the system first generated two images to establish starting and end points for all of the values, and then created images in between. The creation of these types of fake images only became possible in recent years thanks to a new type of artificial intelligence called a generative adversarial network. In essence, you feed a computer program a bunch of photos of real people. It studies them and tries to come up with its own photos of people, while another part of the system tries to detect which of those photos are fake. The back-and-forth makes the end product ever more indistinguishable from the real thing. The portraits in this story were created by The Times using GAN software that was made publicly available by the computer graphics company Nvidia. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 27589 - Posted: 11.21.2020

Diana Kwon It all began with a cough. Three years ago Tracey McNiven, a Scottish woman in her mid-30s, caught a bad chest infection that left her with a persistent cough that refused to subside, even after medication. A few months later strange symptoms started to appear. McNiven noticed numbness spreading through her legs and began to feel that their movement was out of her control. When she walked, she felt like a marionette, with someone else pulling the strings. Over the course of two weeks the odd loss of sensation progressively worsened. Then, one evening at home, McNiven's legs collapsed beneath her. “I was lying there, and I felt like I couldn't breathe,” she recalls. “I couldn't feel below my waist.” McNiven's mother rushed her to the hospital where she remained for more than half a year. During her first few weeks in the hospital, McNiven endured a barrage of tests as doctors tried to uncover the cause of her symptoms. It could be a progressive neurodegenerative condition such as motor neuron disease, they thought. Or maybe it was multiple sclerosis, a disease in which the body's own immune cells attack the nervous system. Bafflingly, however, the brain scans, blood tests, spinal taps and everything else came back normal. McNiven's predicament is not uncommon. According to one of the most comprehensive assessments of neurology clinics to date, roughly a third of patients have neurological symptoms that are deemed to be either partially or entirely unexplained. These may include tremor, seizures, blindness, deafness, pain, paralysis and coma and can parallel those of almost any neurological disease. In some patients, such complications can persist for years or even decades; some people require wheelchairs or cannot get out of bed. Although women are more often diagnosed than men, such seemingly inexplicable illness can be found in anyone and across the life span. © 2020 Scientific American

Keyword: Attention; Emotions
Link ID: 27586 - Posted: 11.18.2020

Linda Geddes Many of the side-effects attributed to statins could be down to the “nocebo effect”, which occurs when someone expects to experience negative symptoms – even if the drug is a placebo – a study suggests. Statins are one of the most widely prescribed drugs in the UK, taken by nearly eight million people to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering cholesterol levels. Yet, despite their effectiveness, up to a fifth of people stop taking them because of side-effects, such as fatigue, muscle aches, joint pain and nausea. Clinical studies have suggested, however, the incidence of side-effects is far lower. Researchers led by Frances Wood and Dr James Howard at Imperial College London recruited 60 patients who had been on statins, but stopped taking them owing to adverse effects. They were persuaded to resume treatment, and given four bottles containing atorvastatin, four bottles containing identical-looking placebo pills and four empty bottles, to be taken in a randomly prescribed order over the course of a year – including four months taking no pills. Each day, they recorded any side-effects on a smartphone, ranking their intensity from zero to 100. The researchers found 90% of symptoms experienced by the patients were present when they took placebo tablets. Also, 24 patients stopped taking tablets for at least one month of the trial, citing intolerable side-effects – amounting to 71 stoppages in total. Of these, 31 occurred during placebo months and 40 were during statin months. The results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine. © 2020 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Attention
Link ID: 27582 - Posted: 11.16.2020

Joel Frohlich Three years ago, I asked, “What the heck is a claustrum?” In that post, I described the mystery of this oddly shaped brain region, located just below the cerebral cortex. Because the claustrum is vanishingly thin in its cross section (think of a pancake shaped like North America), very few patients or lab animals have experienced lesions that specifically destroy the claustrum. For this reason, it’s difficult to pin down what happens when just this brain region (and not others) goes offline. But given its wealth of connections to other brain areas, neuroscientist Christof Koch speculated in 2017 that “the claustrum could be coordinating inputs and outputs across the brain to create consciousness.” This idea is supported by a report of a woman with epilepsy who lost consciousness after her claustrum was electrically stimulated, and perhaps also by the consciousness-transforming effects of Salvinorin A, a drug that binds to receptors that are abundant in the claustrum and alters body image. Could the claustrum, an enigma of the brain, also be the key to the conscious mind? Well, now we have the answer. Using a genetic engineering technique called optogenetics that enables neurons to fire impulses in response to blue light, a team at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan has discovered what the heck the claustrum actually does. During deep sleep when you’re not dreaming, your cerebral cortex shows slow waves of electrical activity. These waves are very synchronous, meaning they reflect the coordinated activity of many neurons, more so than the smaller, faster waves that are generally present when you are either awake or dreaming. How does the brain coordinate the activity of so many neurons? It turns out that the claustrum plays a key role. © 2020 Sussex Publishers, LLC

Keyword: Consciousness
Link ID: 27579 - Posted: 11.14.2020

By Cheryl Maguire When my 15-year-old son was given a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at age 7, I was told that it was a lifelong chronic condition. So I felt a little bit hopeful when a study published last winter in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics said that “an estimated 30 percent to 60 percent of children diagnosed with A.D.H.D. no longer meet diagnostic criteria for this disorder by late adolescence.” Does that mean they outgrew it? There is no simple answer, said Thomas Power, director of the center for management of A.D.H.D. at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the senior author of the study. He was one of eight experts I consulted, and while they fell into different camps on whether someone can outgrow A.D.H.D., they all agreed that the answer is complicated. Some said there could be a genetic component to outgrowing A.D.H.D., while others told me that certain coping skills and job choices play a prominent role in lessening symptoms, which could make it seem that the person no longer has it. Russell Barkley, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, clarified that ceasing to meet the definition of A.D.H.D. in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the main resource that clinicians use to make a diagnosis, does not mean that the person no longer has the issues of A.D.H.D. “People are outgrowing the D.S.M. criteria but not outgrowing their disorder for the most part,” Dr. Barkley said. “Diagnosing A.D.H.D. is not like leukemia, where you do a blood test and you know definitively you have leukemia,” said Dr. William Barbaresi, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Boston, and professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. When a young child is given an A.D.H.D. diagnosis, doctors and clinicians rely on patient, parent and teacher feedback. But when a late adolescent or adult is assessed, it is normally based on self-reports only. “There are a lot of reasons to wonder how accurate that report is since it is difficult to evaluate yourself,” said Dr. Barbaresi. And Dr. Power noted, “Individuals with A.D.H.D. tend to underreport their symptoms.” © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: ADHD
Link ID: 27578 - Posted: 11.14.2020

By Benedict Carey Merriam-Webster’s defines a time warp as a “discontinuity, suspension or anomaly” in the otherwise normal passage of time; this year all three terms could apply. It seems like March happened 10 years ago; everyday may as well be Wednesday, and still, somehow, here come the holidays — fast, just like every year. Some bard or novelist may yet come forth to help explain the paradoxes of pandemic time, both its Groundhog Days and the blurs of stress and fear for those on the front lines, or who had infectious people in their household. But brain science also has something to say about the relationship between perceived time and the Greenwich Mean variety, and why the two may slip out of sync. In a new study, a research team based in Dallas reported the first strong evidence to date of so-called “time cells” in the human brain. The finding, posted by the journal PNAS, was not unexpected: In recent years, several research groups have isolated neurons in rodents that track time intervals. It’s where the scientists look for these cells, and how they identified them, that provide some insight into the subjective experiences of time. “The first thing to say is that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as ‘time cells’ in the brain,” said Gyorgy Buzsaki, a neuroscientist at New York University who was not involved in the new research. “There is no neural clock. What happens in the brain is neurons change in response to other neurons.” He added, “Having said that, it’s a useful concept to talk about how this neural substrate represents the passage of what we call time.” In the new study, a team led by Dr. Bradley Lega, a neurosurgeon at UT Southwestern Medical Center, analyzed the firing of cells in the medial temporal area, a region deep in the brain that is essential for memory formation and retrieval. It’s a natural place to look: Memories must be somehow “time-stamped” to retain some semblance of sequence, or chronological order. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 27576 - Posted: 11.10.2020

Sara Reardon In Alysson Muotri’s laboratory, hundreds of miniature human brains, the size of sesame seeds, float in Petri dishes, sparking with electrical activity. These tiny structures, known as brain organoids, are grown from human stem cells and have become a familiar fixture in many labs that study the properties of the brain. Muotri, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), has found some unusual ways to deploy his. He has connected organoids to walking robots, modified their genomes with Neanderthal genes, launched them into orbit aboard the International Space Station, and used them as models to develop more human-like artificial-intelligence systems. Like many scientists, Muotri has temporarily pivoted to studying COVID-19, using brain organoids to test how drugs perform against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. But one experiment has drawn more scrutiny than the others. In August 2019, Muotri’s group published a paper in Cell Stem Cell reporting the creation of human brain organoids that produced coordinated waves of activity, resembling those seen in premature babies1. The waves continued for months before the team shut the experiment down. This type of brain-wide, coordinated electrical activity is one of the properties of a conscious brain. The team’s finding led ethicists and scientists to raise a host of moral and philosophical questions about whether organoids should be allowed to reach this level of advanced development, whether ‘conscious’ organoids might be entitled to special treatment and rights not afforded to other clumps of cells and the possibility that consciousness could be created from scratch. The idea of bodiless, self-aware brains was already on the minds of many neuroscientists and bioethicists. Just a few months earlier, a team at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, announced that it had at least partially restored life to the brains of pigs that had been killed hours earlier. By removing the brains from the pigs’ skulls and infusing them with a chemical cocktail, the researchers revived the neurons’ cellular functions and their ability to transmit electrical signals2.

Keyword: Consciousness; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 27552 - Posted: 10.28.2020

By Scott Barry Kaufman Do you get excited and energized by the possibility of learning something new and complex? Do you get turned on by nuance? Do you get really stimulated by new ideas and imaginative scenarios? If so, you may have an influx of dopamine in your synapses, but not where we traditionally think of this neurotransmitter flowing. In general, the potential for growth from disorder has been encoded deeply into our DNA. We didn’t only evolve the capacity to regulate our defensive and destructive impulses, but we also evolved the capacity to make sense of the unknown. Engaging in exploration allows us to integrate novel or unexpected events with existing knowledge and experiences, a process necessary for growth. Dopamine production is essential for growth. But there are so many misconceptions about the role of dopamine in cognition and behavior. Dopamine is often labeled the “feel-good molecule,” but this is a gross mischaracterization of this neurotransmitter. As personality neuroscientist Colin DeYoung (a close colleague of mine) notes, dopamine is actually the “neuromodulator of exploration.” Dopamine’s primary role is to make us want things, not necessarily like things. We get the biggest rush of dopamine coursing through our brains at the possibility of reward, but this rush is no guarantee that we’ll actually like or even enjoy the thing once we get it. Dopamine is a huge energizing force in our lives, driving our motivation to explore and facilitating the cognitive and behavioral processes that allow us to extract the most delights from the unknown. If dopamine is not all about feeling good, then why does the feel-good myth persist in the public imagination? I think it’s because so much research on dopamine has been conducted with regard to its role in motivating exploration toward our more primal “appetitive” rewards, such as chocolate, social attention, social status, sexual partners, gambling or drugs like cocaine. © 2020 Scientific American

Keyword: Attention; Drug Abuse
Link ID: 27549 - Posted: 10.26.2020

Shawna Williams In Greek mythology, Orpheus descends to the underworld and persuades Hades to allow him to take his dead wife, Eurydice, back to the realm of the living. Hades agrees, but tells Orpheus that he must not look back until he has exited the underworld. Despite the warning, Orpheus glances behind him on his way out to check whether Eurydice is indeed following him—and loses her forever. The story hints at a dark side to curiosity, a drive to seek certain kinds of knowledge even when doing so is risky—and even if the information serves no practical purpose at the time. In fact, the way people pursue information they’re curious about can resemble the drive to attain more tangible rewards such as food—a parallel that hasn’t been lost on scientists. To investigate the apparent similarity between curiosity and hunger, researchers led by Kou Murayama of the University of Reading in the UK recently devised an experiment to compare how the brain processes desires for food and knowledge, and the risks people are willing to take to satisfy those desires. Beginning in 2016, the team recruited 32 volunteers and instructed them not to eat for at least two hours before coming into the lab. After they arrived, the volunteers’ fingers were hooked up to electrodes that could deliver a weak current, and researchers calibrated the level of electricity to what each participant reported was uncomfortable, but not painful. Then, still hooked up to the electrodes, the volunteers were asked to gamble: they viewed either a photo of a food item or a video of a magician performing a trick, followed by a visual depiction of their odds of “winning” that round (which ranged from 1:6 to 5:6). © 1986–2020 The Scientist.

Keyword: Attention; Obesity
Link ID: 27535 - Posted: 10.21.2020

By Cathleen O’Grady Tinnitus—a constant ringing or buzzing in the ears that affects about 15% of people—is difficult to understand and even harder to treat. Now, scientists have shown shocking the tongue—combined with a carefully designed sound program—can reduce symptoms of the disorder, not just while patients are being treated, but up to 1 year later. It’s “really important” work, says Christopher Cederroth, a neurobiologist at the University of Nottingham, University Park, who was not involved with the study. The finding, he says, joins other research that has shown “bimodal” stimulation—which uses sound alongside some kind of gentle electrical shock—can help the brain discipline misbehaving neurons. Hubert Lim, a biomedical engineer at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, hit on the role of the tongue in tinnitus by accident. A few years ago, he experimented with using a technique called deep brain stimulation to restore his patients’ hearing. When he inserted a pencil-size rod covered in electrodes directly into the brains of five patients, some of those electrodes landed slightly outside the target zone—a common problem with deep brain stimulation, Lim says. Later, when he started up the device to map out its effects on the brain, a patient who had been bothered by ringing ears for many years, said, “Oh, my tinnitus! I can’t hear my tinnitus,” Lim recalls. With certain kinds of tinnitus, people hear real sounds. For instance, there might be repeated muscular contractions in the ear, Lim says. But for many people, it’s the brain that’s to blame, perceiving sounds that aren’t there. One potential explanation for the effect is that hearing loss causes the brain to overcompensate for the frequencies it can no longer hear. © 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Hearing; Attention
Link ID: 27517 - Posted: 10.10.2020

Adrian Owen DR. ADRIAN OWEN: Imagine this scenario. You've unfortunately had a terrible accident. You're lying in a hospital bed and you're aware—you're aware but you're unable to respond, but the doctors and your relatives don't know that. You have to lie there, listening to them deciding whether to let you live or die. I can think of nothing more terrifying. Communication is at the very heart of what makes us human. It's the basis of everything. What we're doing is we're returning the ability to communicate to some patients who seem to have lost that forever. The vegetative state is often referred to as a state of wakefulness without awareness. Patients open their eyes, they'll just gaze around the room. They'll have sleeping and waking cycles, but they never show any evidence of having any awareness. So, typically, the way that we assess consciousness is through command following. We ask somebody to do something, say, squeeze our hand, and if they do it, you know that they're conscious. The problem in the vegetative state is that these patients by definition can produce no movements. And the question I asked is, well, could somebody command follow with their brain? It was that idea that pushed us into a new realm of understanding this patient population. When a part of your brain is involved in generating a thought or performing an action, it burns energy in the form of glucose, and it's replenished through blood flow. As blood flows to that part of the brain, we're able to see that with the FMRI scanner. I think one of the key insights was the realization that we could simply get somebody to lie in the scanner and imagine something and, based on the pattern of brain activity, we will be able to work out what it is they were thinking. We had to find something that produces really a quite distinct pattern of activity that was more or less the same for everybody. So, we came up with two tasks. One task, imagine playing tennis, produces activity in the premotor cortex in almost every healthy person we tried this in. A different task, thinking about moving from room to room in your house, produces an entirely different pattern of brain activity; particularly, it involves a part of the brain known as the parahippocampal gyrus. And again, it's very consistent across different people.

Keyword: Consciousness; Brain imaging
Link ID: 27513 - Posted: 10.07.2020

Jon Hamilton Mental illness can run in families. And Dr. Kafui Dzirasa grew up in one of these families. His close relatives include people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. As a medical student, he learned about the ones who'd been committed to psychiatric hospitals or who "went missing" and were discovered in alleyways. Dzirasa decided to dedicate his career to "figuring out how to make science relevant to ultimately help my own family." He became a psychiatrist and researcher at Duke University and began to study the links between genes and brain disorders. Then Dzirasa realized something: "I was studying genes that were specifically related to illness in folks of European ancestry." His family had migrated from West Africa, which meant anything he discovered might not apply to them. Dzirasa also realized that people with his ancestry were missing not only from genetics research but from the entire field of brain science. "It was a really crushing moment for me," he says. So when a group in Baltimore asked Dzirasa to help do something about the problem, he said yes. The group is the African Ancestry Neuroscience Research Initiative. It's a partnership between community leaders and the Lieber Institute for Brain Development, an independent, nonprofit research organization on the medical campus of Johns Hopkins University. © 2020 npr

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 27491 - Posted: 09.28.2020

Jordana Cepelewicz Our sense of time may be the scaffolding for all of our experience and behavior, but it is an unsteady and subjective one, expanding and contracting like an accordion. Emotions, music, events in our surroundings and shifts in our attention all have the power to speed time up for us or slow it down. When presented with images on a screen, we perceive angry faces as lasting longer than neutral ones, spiders as lasting longer than butterflies, and the color red as lasting longer than blue. The watched pot never boils, and time flies when we’re having fun. Last month in Nature Neuroscience, a trio of researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel presented some important new insights into what stretches and compresses our experience of time. They found evidence for a long-suspected connection between time perception and the mechanism that helps us learn through rewards and punishments. They also demonstrated that the perception of time is wedded to our brain’s constantly updated expectations about what will happen next. “Everyone knows the saying that ‘time flies when you’re having fun,’” said Sam Gershman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard University who was not involved in the study. “But the full story might be more nuanced: Time flies when you’re having more fun than you expected.” “Time” doesn’t mean just one thing to the brain. Different brain regions rely on varied neural mechanisms to track its passage, and the mechanisms that govern our experience seem to change from one situation to the next. All Rights Reserved © 2020

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 27488 - Posted: 09.25.2020

By John Horgan I interviewed psychologist Susan Blackmore 20 years ago while doing research for my book Rational Mysticism. Here, lightly edited, is my description of her: “Her hair was dyed orange, red, and yellow, dark-rooted, cut short as a boy’s, with sideburns plunging like daggers past each multi-ringed ear. Words spewed from her pell-mell, accompanied by equally vigorous hand signals and facial expressions. She was keen on onomatopoeic sound effects: Ahhhhh (to express her pleasure at finding other smart people when she entered Oxford); DUN da la DUN da la DUN (the galloping noise she heard as she sped down a tree-lined tunnel in her first out-of-body experience); Zzzzzzt (the sound of reality dissolving after her second toke of the psychedelic dimethyltryptamine). We were talking in the dining room of the inn where she was staying, and twice we had to move to a quieter spot when employees or patrons of the inn started talking near us. One side effect of her spiritual practice, she explained, is that she has a hard time ignoring stimuli. ‘I think it is one of the bad effects of practicing mindfulness. I'm so aware of everything all the time.’” Blackmore began her career as a parapsychologist, intent on finding evidence for astral projection and extrasensory perception. Her investigations transformed her into a materialist and Darwinian (one of her best-known books describes humans as “meme machines”) who doesn’t believe in ESP, God or free will. And yet she is a mystic, too, who explores consciousness via meditation and psychedelics. In other words, Blackmore pulls off the trick of being both a hard-nosed skeptic and an open-minded adventurer. What more can one ask of a mind scientist? Curious about how her thinking has evolved in our mind-boggling era, I e-mailed her a few questions. An edited transcript of the interview follows. © 2020 Scientific American

Keyword: Consciousness; Drug Abuse
Link ID: 27475 - Posted: 09.16.2020

By John Horgan It is a central dilemma of human life—more urgent, arguably, than the inevitability of suffering and death. I have been brooding and ranting to my students about it for years. It surely troubles us more than ever during this plague-ridden era. Philosophers call it the problem of other minds. I prefer to call it the solipsism problem. Solipsism, technically, is an extreme form of skepticism, at once utterly nuts and irrefutable. It holds that you are the only conscious being in existence. The cosmos sprang into existence when you became sentient, and it will vanish when you die. As crazy as this proposition seems, it rests on a brute fact: each of us is sealed in an impermeable prison cell of subjective awareness. Even our most intimate exchanges might as well be carried out via Zoom. You experience your own mind every waking second, but you can only infer the existence of other minds through indirect means. Other people seem to possess conscious perceptions, emotions, memories, intentions, just as you do, but you can’t be sure they do. You can guess how the world looks to me, based on my behavior and utterances, including these words you are reading, but you have no first-hand access to my inner life. For all you know, I might be a mindless bot. Natural selection instilled in us the capacity for a so-called theory of mind—a talent for intuiting others’ emotions and intentions. But we have a countertendency to deceive each other, and to fear we are being deceived. The ultimate deception would be pretending you’re conscious when you’re not. The solipsism problem thwarts efforts to explain consciousness. Scientists and philosophers have proposed countless contradictory hypotheses about what consciousness is and how it arises. Panpsychists contend that all creatures and even inanimate matter—even a single proton!—possess consciousness. Hard-core materialists insist, conversely (and perversely), that not even humans are all that conscious. © 2020 Scientific American

Keyword: Consciousness
Link ID: 27468 - Posted: 09.12.2020

Neuroskeptic Why do particular brain areas tend to adopt particular roles? Is the brain "wired" by genetics to organize itself in a certain way, or does brain organization emerge from experience? One part of the brain has been the focus of a great deal of nature-vs-nurture debate. It's called the fusiform face area (FFA) and, as the name suggests, it seems to be most active during perception of faces. It's broadly accepted that the FFA responds most strongly to faces in most people, but there's controversy over why this is. Is the FFA somehow innately devoted to faces, or does its face specialization arise through experience? In the latest contribution to this debate, a new study argues that the FFA doesn't need any kind of visual experience to be face selective. The researchers, N. Apurva Ratan Murty et al., show that the FFA activates in response to touching faces, even in people who were born blind and have never seen a face. Murty et al. designed an experiment in which participants — 15 sighted and 15 congenitally blind people — could touch objects while their brain activity was recorded with fMRI. A 3D printer was used to create models of faces and other objects, and the participants could explore these with their hands, thanks to a rotating turntable. The key result was that touching the faces produced a similar pattern of activity in both the blind and sighted people, and this activity was also similar to when sighted people viewed faces visually: In a follow-up experiment with n=7 of the congenitally blind participants, Murty et al. found that the same face-selective areas in these individuals also responded to "face-related" sounds, such as laughing or chewing sounds, more than other sounds. (This replicates earlier work.) © 2020 Kalmbach Media Co.

Keyword: Attention; Vision
Link ID: 27459 - Posted: 09.07.2020

Katherine May Sunday morning. I walk down to the beach with the dog straining at her lead. I’m already on high alert. It’s the moment in the week when people are most likely to be wandering along the seafront, feeling chatty. I’m mentally priming myself, sorting through the categories I might encounter: parents from the schoolyard (hopefully with their children), people I’ve worked with (increasingly hopeless), neighbours from the surrounding streets (no chance). I should have gone to the woods today. It’s too risky. I cross the road and hear, “Katherine! Hello!” I wonder if I can get away with pretending I didn’t notice. I’m wearing earbuds, which is usually a good precaution, but this woman is determined. She crosses the road diagonally, waving. “How the hell are you?” she says. Straight hair, mousy blonde. No glasses, no tattoos. Jeans, a grey sweatshirt. For God’s sake, why are these people so studiedly ordinary? I fidget with my phone, trying to buy time. Her face is plain. I don’t mean plain as in “ugly”. I mean plain as in vanilla: bland, unremarkable. There’s nothing here that I might have stored in words. Her nose is straight. Her eyes are blue. Her teeth are orderly. And she knows me. “Hi!” I say, as warmly as possible. “How are you?” This can sometimes elicit clues. Not today. One of the many side-effects of being face-blind is that you become uncomfortably aware of the ordinariness of most interactions. We have stopped in the street to say absolutely nothing to each other. And only one of us knows the context. The dog lunges to her feet and pulls in the direction of the sea. “Looks like she’s desperate to get going!” I say, laughing, “So sorry! Lovely to see you!” And I’m off at a gallop before this woman, whoever the hell she is, can think about joining me. I didn’t always know I was face-blind. I grew up thinking that I just didn’t remember people. This, as a friend once told me, seemed a lot like arrogance – an aloof lack of interest in others. But that’s not how it felt on the inside. © 2020 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 27447 - Posted: 09.02.2020

By Elizabeth Preston We’re all getting used to face masks, either wearing them or figuring out who we’re looking at. They can even trip up those of us who are experts in faces. “Actually, I just had an experience today,” said Marlene Behrmann, a cognitive neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University who has spent decades studying the science of facial recognition. She went to meet a colleague outside the hospital where they collaborate, and didn’t realize the person was sitting right in front of her, wearing a mask. In fairness, “She’s cut her hair very short,” Dr. Behrmann said. Scientists have some ideas about why masks make recognizing others’ faces difficult, based on studying the brains of average people, as well as people who struggle to recognize anyone at all. But even when everyone around us is incognito, we still have ways to find each other. “We use face recognition in every aspect of our social interaction,” said Erez Freud, a psychologist with the Centre for Vision Research at York University in Toronto. In the faces of others, we find clues about their personality, gender and emotions. “This is something very fundamental to our perception. And suddenly, faces do not look the same,” Dr. Freud said. That’s why Dr. Freud and co-authors decided to study how masks impair people’s facial recognition skills. They recruited nearly 500 adults to complete a common face memory task online. Participants viewed unfamiliar faces and then tried to recognize them under increasingly difficult conditions. Half the participants saw faces with surgical-style masks covering their mouths and noses. People scored substantially worse on the test when faces were masked. The authors posted their findings, which have not yet completed peer review, online last month. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 27446 - Posted: 09.02.2020

By Benedict Carey For a couple of minutes on Thursday, the sprawling, virtual Democratic National Convention seemed to hold its collective breath as 13-year-old Brayden Harrington of Concord, N.H., addressed the nation from his bedroom, occasionally stumbling on his words. “I’m a regular kid,” he said into a home camera, and a recent meeting with the candidate “made me feel confident about something that has bothered me my whole life.” Joe Biden and Mr. Harrington have had to manage stuttering, and the sight of the teenager openly balking on several words, including “stutter,” was a striking reminder of how the speech disorder can play havoc with sociability, relationships, even identity. Movies like “The King’s Speech,” and books like Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” explore how consequential managing the disorder can be, just as Mr. Biden’s own story does. How many people stutter? The basic numbers are known: About one in 10 children will exhibit some evidence of a stutter — it usually starts between ages 2 and 7 — and 90 percent of them will grow out of it before adulthood. Around 1 percent of the population carries the speech problem for much of their lives. For reasons not understood, boys are twice as likely to stutter, and nearly four times as likely to continue doing so into adulthood. And it is often anxiety that triggers bursts of verbal stumbling — which, in turn, create a flood of self-conscious stress. When Mr. Harrington got stuck for a couple of seconds on the “s” in “stutter,” he turned his head and his eyes fluttered — an embodiment of physical and mental effort — before saying, “It is really amazing that someone like me could get advice from” a presidential candidate. About half of children who stutter are related to someone else who does, but it is impossible to predict who will develop the speech disorder. There are no genes for stuttering; and scientists do not know what might happen after conception, during development, that predisposes children to struggle with speaking in this way. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Language; Attention
Link ID: 27431 - Posted: 08.22.2020