Chapter 14. Attention and Higher Cognition

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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

By Jillian Kramer We spend a substantial part of our days visually scanning an area for something we want—our keys or ketchup, for example. For scientists the way we do so “provides a window into how our minds sift through the information that arrives at our eyes,” says Jason Fischer, a cognitive neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University. Past research has focused on readily apparent visual characteristics such as color, shape and size. But an object's intrinsic physical properties—things we know from experience but cannot see, such as hardness—also come into play. “You may not be able to immediately see that a brick is heavier than a soda can and harder than a piece of cake, but you know it. And that knowledge guides how you act on a brick as compared with those other objects,” says Fischer, senior author on a new study led by graduate student Li Guo. “We asked whether that knowledge about objects' hidden physical properties is, in itself, something you can use to locate objects faster.” The study was published online in May in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Researchers asked study participants to pick out the image of an item in a grid of other objects as quickly as possible. Each grid was controlled for the color, size and shape of the objects presented, so participants could not use easy visual cues. For example, when they were asked to find a cutting board, the grid also included softer but similarly colored items such as a croissant and a bandage and similarly shaped items, among them a sponge, pillow and paper bag. © 2020 Scientific American

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 27423 - Posted: 08.18.2020

Alison Abbott Two years ago, Jennifer Li and Drew Robson were trawling through terabytes of data from a zebrafish-brain experiment when they came across a handful of cells that seemed to be psychic. The two neuroscientists had planned to map brain activity while zebrafish larvae were hunting for food, and to see how the neural chatter changed. It was their first major test of a technological platform they had built at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The platform allowed them to view every cell in the larvae’s brains while the creatures — barely the size of an eyelash — swam freely in a 35-millimetre-diameter dish of water, snacking on their microscopic prey. Out of the scientists’ mountain of data emerged a handful of neurons that predicted when a larva was next going to catch and swallow a morsel. Some of these neurons even became activated many seconds before the larva fixed its eyes on the prey1. Something else was strange. Looking in more detail at the data, the researchers realized that the ‘psychic’ cells were active for an unusually long time — not seconds, as is typical for most neurons, but many minutes. In fact, more or less the duration of the larvae’s hunting bouts. “It was spooky,” says Li. “None of it made sense.” Li and Robson turned to the literature and slowly realized that the cells must be setting an overall ‘brain state’ — a pattern of prolonged brain activity that primed the larvae to engage with the food in front of them. The pair learnt that, in the past few years, other scientists using various approaches and different species had also found internal brain states that alter how an animal behaves, even when nothing has changed in its external environment. © 2020 Springer Nature Limited

Keyword: Attention; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 27417 - Posted: 08.12.2020

By Laura Sanders When your brain stops working — completely and irreversibly — you’re dead. But drawing the line between life and brain death isn’t always easy. A new report attempts to clarify that distinction, perhaps helping to ease the anguish of family members with a loved one whose brain has died but whose heart still beats. Brain death has been a recognized concept in medicine for decades. But there’s a lot of variation in how people define it, says Gene Sung, a neurocritical care physician at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “Showing that there is some worldwide consensus, understanding and agreement at this time will hopefully help minimize misunderstanding of what brain death is,” Sung says. As part of the World Brain Death Project, Sung and his colleagues convened doctors from professional societies around the world to forge a consensus on how to identify brain death. This group, including experts in critical care, neurology and neurosurgery, reviewed the existing research on brain death (which was slim) and used their clinical expertise to write the recommendations, published August 3 in JAMA. In addition to the main guidelines, the final product included 17 supplements that address legal and religious aspects, provide checklists and flowcharts, and even trace the history of relevant medical advances. “Basically, we wrote a book,” Sung says. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020.

Keyword: Consciousness; Brain imaging
Link ID: 27413 - Posted: 08.11.2020

Can a video game help children struggling with ADHD? That question inspired hopeful headlines last month after the Food and Drug Administration permitted marketing of the first digital game that may be prescribed to treat children ages 8 to 12 who have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In EndeavorRx, designed for iPhones and iPads, children guide an avatar surfing through molten lava and an icy river, dodging fires and icebergs while grabbing flying objects. The game is not yet available for purchase, nor has a price been released, but its Boston-based developer, Akili Interactive Labs, may now feature its unique status in ads and pursue coverage by insurance plans. No trip to the pharmacy is needed: Doctors and nurses will be able to prescribe the game by giving parents a code to download an app. Akili’s website touts its digital approach as “the future of medicine.” But some critics say: Not so fast. “It’s a marketing ploy,” said clinical psychologist and researcher Russell Barkley, author of several books on ADHD. Barkley and three other ADHD experts who reviewed Akili’s research said the firm was overpromising by implying that EndeavorRx can provide meaningful help for children struggling in school and at home with the sometimes-debilitating neurodevelopmental disorder, whose symptoms include distraction, forgetfulness and impulsivity. “I’m a little shocked and more perplexed about why the FDA would approve this and allow it to be paid for by insurance,” said Mark Rapport, head of the Children’s Learning Clinic at the University of Central Florida, who has published extensive research on other brain-training programs making similar claims. “I abhor seeing desperate parents spend money based on empty promises. . . . On moral grounds, I think it’s wrong to tell people to get their doctors to prescribe this when it does nothing of real-world importance.”

Keyword: ADHD
Link ID: 27384 - Posted: 07.27.2020

By Serena Puang When I was in elementary school, I occasionally had trouble falling asleep, and people would tell me to count sheep. I had seen the activity graphically depicted in cartoons, but when I tried it, I never saw anything — just black. I’ve been counting silently into the darkness for years. There were other puzzling comments about visualizing things. My dad would poke fun at my bad sense of direction and reference a “mental map” of the city that he used for navigation. I thought he had superhuman powers. But then, in my freshman year of college, I was struggling through Chinese, while my friend Shayley found it easy. I asked her how she did it, and she told me she was just “visualizing the characters.” That’s when I discovered I had aphantasia, the inability to conjure mental images. Little is known about the condition, but its impact on my education led me to wonder about how it might be impacting others. Aphantasia was first described by Sir Francis Galton in 1880 but remained largely neglected until Dr. Adam Zeman, a cognitive neurologist at the University of Exeter in England, began his work in the early 2000s and coined the name from the Greek word “phantasia,” which means “imagination.” “My interest in it was sparked by a patient who had lost the ability to visualize following a cardiac procedure,” Dr. Zeman said. “He gave a very compelling account. His dreams became avisual; he ceased to enter a visual world when he read a novel.” Dr. Zeman wrote about the case, calling the patient MX, and in 2010, the science journalist Carl Zimmer wrote about it in Discover magazine, and later, in The Times. Hundreds of people started contacting Dr. Zeman, saying they were just like MX, except that they had never had the ability to visualize. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 27371 - Posted: 07.16.2020

By Courtney Linder Perception is certainly not always reality. Some people might think this image is a rabbit, for example, while others see it as a raven: But what if your brain just stopped recognizing numbers one day? That's precisely the basis for a recent Johns Hopkins University study about a man with a rare brain anomaly that prevents him from seeing certain numbers. Instead, the man told doctors, he sees squiggles that look like spaghetti, like in this video: And it's not just a matter of perception for him—not an optical illusion, nor something a Rorschach test could psychoanalyze away. It's actually proof that our brains can processes the world around us, and yet we could have no awareness of those sights. "We present neurophysiological evidence of complex cognitive processing in the absence of awareness, raising questions about the conditions necessary for visual awareness," the scientists note in a new paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. RFS—the name researchers use to refer to the man in the study—has been diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain disease that has led to extensive atrophy in his cortex and basal ganglia. Atrophy is basically a loss of neurons and connective tissue, so you can think of it as the brain shrinking, in a sense. The cortex is the gray matter in your brain that controls things like attention, perception, awareness, and consciousness, while the basal ganglia are responsible for motor learning, executive functions, and emotional behaviors. ©2020 Hearst Magazine Media, Inc.

Keyword: Attention; Vision
Link ID: 27338 - Posted: 07.01.2020

Béatrice Pudelko Fear, anxiety, worry, lack of motivation and difficulty concentrating — students cite all sorts of reasons for opposing distance learning. But are these excuses or real concerns? What does science say? At the beginning of the pandemic, when universities and CEGEPs, Québec’s junior colleges, were putting in place scenarios to continue teaching at a distance, students expressed their opposition by noting that the context was “not conducive to learning.” Teachers also felt that the students were “simply not willing to continue learning in such conditions.” A variety of negative emotions were reported in opinion columns, letters and surveys. A petition was even circulated calling for a suspension of the winter session, which Education Minister Jean-François Roberge refused. Students are not the only ones who have difficulty concentrating on intellectual tasks. In a column published in La Presse, Chantal Guy says that like many of her colleagues, she can’t devote herself to in-depth reading. “After a few pages, my mind wanders and just wants to go check out Dr. Arruda’s damn curve,” Guy wrote, referring to Horacio Arruda, the province’s public health director. In short: “It’s not the time that’s lacking in reading, it’s the concentration,” she said. “People don’t have the head for that.” Why do students feel they don’t have the ability for studies? Recent advances in cognitive science provide insights into the links between negative emotions and cognition in tasks that require sustained intellectual investment. © 2010–2020, The Conversation US, Inc.

Keyword: Attention; Stress
Link ID: 27293 - Posted: 06.09.2020

Burcin Ikiz About five years ago, researchers from the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle received a special donation: a piece of a live, rare brain tissue. It came from a very deep part of the brain neuroscientists usually can’t access. The donated tissue contained a rare and mysterious type of brain cells called von Economo neurons (VENs) that are thought to be linked to social intelligence and several neurological diseases. The tissue was a byproduct of a surgery to remove a brain tumor from a patient in her 60s. The location of the tissue turned out to be in one of the deepest layers of the frontoinsular cortex, which is one of the few places where these rare neurons are found in the human brain. “This was one of the extremely rare chances that we received this tissue from a donor that had a tumor being removed from quite a deep [brain] structure,” said Rebecca Hodge, who is the co-first author of the study, published in Nature Communications on March 3rd. Hodge and her colleagues became the first scientists to record electrical spikes from these neurons. Further studies they did on these cells gave them clues about the VENs’ identity and function in the human brain. VENs are large, spindle-shaped neurons. They were first identified by the Ukrainian scientist Vladimir Betz more than a century ago. They were later named after the anatomist Constantin von Economo, who described their shape and distribution through the human cortex. Only humans and especially social animals with large brains, such as great apes, whales, dolphins, and elephants have VENs. It is hypothesized that the cells evolved independently in these animals. Since common lab animals with smaller brains, like mice and rats, don’t have VENs, it is difficult to study them in a lab environment. © 2017 – 2019 Massive Science Inc.

Keyword: Consciousness
Link ID: 27291 - Posted: 06.08.2020

By Katherine Ellison After a lifetime of arriving late, missing deadlines and having friends call her a ditz, Leslie Crawford wanted to know whether her chronic distraction meant she had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, ADHD. And, if that were true, could medication help? Over three visits with her managed-care plan doctor in San Francisco, Crawford, 57, a busy mother of two and professional editor, complied with urine and blood tests some doctors require to rule out drug abuse, and was checked for any preexisting heart condition that might make stimulants too risky. Then came the last step: a telephone interview. “What kind of student were you in elementary school?” she remembers the psychiatrist asking. “I was an A student,” Crawford answered. “I’m sorry,” he said, as Crawford recalled. “You don’t meet the qualification for ADHD and we can’t give you medication.” AD “I couldn’t believe it,” Crawford said later. Two private therapists had already told her she had ADHD, she said. But her plan’s psychiatrist said it was company policy to deny diagnosis and medication if a patient had done well in school as a child. This left Crawford with the option of paying several hundred dollars for a private psychiatrist’s evaluation, plus recurring costs for new prescriptions over time. For now, she’s not pursuing that. After her three appointments, “I just felt exhausted,” she said. ADHD affects more than 16 million U.S. children and adults. Despite decades of research involving thousands of studies, it remains one of the most perplexing of mental health diagnoses, susceptible to confusion and controversy even among doctors who treat it. The muddle can be particularly damaging to girls and women, who like Crawford may miss early treatment that could have spared them years of shame, anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide attempts.

Keyword: ADHD; Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 27252 - Posted: 05.18.2020

by Laura Dattaro / Autistic people have atypical activity in a part of the brain that regulates attention, according to a new study1. The researchers measured pupil responses as a proxy for brain activity in a brain region known as the locus ceruleus. Located in the brain stem, the region plays a key role in modulating activity throughout the brain, in part by controlling attention. It can broaden and narrow pupils to adjust how much visual information a person receives, for example. Because of this, researchers can use pupil size to infer activity in the region and gauge a person’s focus on a task; a wider pupil indicates increased focus. The locus ceruleus may also be key to regulating the balance between excitatory and inhibitory brain signals. Some research indicates this equilibrium is disrupted in autism, suggesting the region plays a role in the condition’s underlying biology. In the new study, researchers compared autistic and typical people’s pupil responses when performing a task with and without a distracting sound. Typical people’s pupils grew larger when hearing the sound, suggesting a boost in focus directed by the locus ceruleus. By contrast, the pupils of autistic people did not widen, indicating they do not modulate their attention in the same way. This might have profound consequences for autistic people’s sensory experience, the researchers say. © 2020 Simons Foundation

Keyword: Autism; Attention
Link ID: 27231 - Posted: 05.05.2020

By Benjamin Powers On the 10th floor of a nondescript building at Columbia University, test subjects with electrodes attached to their heads watch a driver’s view of a car going down a street through a virtual reality headset. All the while, images of pianos and sailboats pop up to the left and right of each test subject’s field of vision, drawing their attention. The experiment, headed by Paul Sajda, a biomedical engineer and the director of Columbia’s Laboratory for Intelligent Imaging and Neural Computing, monitors the subjects’ brain activity through electroencephalography technology (EEG), while the VR headset tracks their eye movement to see where they’re looking — a setup in which a computer interacts directly with brain waves, called a brain computer interface (BCI). In the Columbia experiment, the goal is to use the information from the brain to train artificial intelligence in self-driving cars, so they can monitor when, or if, drivers are paying attention. BCIs are popping up in a range of fields, from soldiers piloting a swarm of drones at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to a Chinese school monitoring students’ attention. The devices are also used in medicine, including versions that let people who have been paralyzed operate a tablet with their mind or that give epileptic patients advance warning of a seizure. And in July 2019, Elon Musk, the CEO and founder of Tesla and other technology companies, showed off the work of his venture Neuralink, which could implant BCIs in people’s brains to achieve “a symbiosis with artificial intelligence.”

Keyword: Robotics; Brain imaging
Link ID: 27209 - Posted: 04.22.2020

by Laura Dattaro Children with autistic older siblings have bigger neural responses than controls do in the brain networks that process faces, according to a new study1. The researchers followed these children from infancy to age 7, looking for relationships between neural signals and the children’s face-processing abilities that remained consistent during this period of development. The work is the first to track face processing in so-called ‘baby sibs’ — children who have autistic older siblings. Baby sibs are 20 times as likely to be diagnosed with autism as typical children are, and they often show autism traits early in life. For this reason, researchers frequently study them to get new clues about autism’s underlying biology. The new study shows the importance of monitoring neural activity and behavior over time to better understand autism, says lead investigator Tony Charman, chair of clinical child psychology at King’s College London in the United Kingdom. “If you measure both the neurocognitive abilities and the behaviors at multiple time points, maybe you get a better handle on the causal mechanisms,” Charman says. “If you understand the mechanisms, you’ve got at least a basis for talking about mechanistic-based interventions” — targeted therapies that might help ease autism traits. The team used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain’s responses to faces and objects. One distinctive response, called the P1, occurs about 100 milliseconds after seeing any visual stimulus and is usually larger and faster when looking at a face. The N170 follows about 70 milliseconds later, mostly in the brain’s right hemisphere. This response is thought to mark the moment when the brain distinguishes a face from an object, or one face from another. In autistic children, the N170 is slower than in typical children2. © 2020 Simons Foundation

Keyword: Autism; Attention
Link ID: 27204 - Posted: 04.17.2020

Brenda Patoine Can the key to consciousness be found in the folds of the cerebrum? Can the simple unfettered state of “being conscious” be localized in the brain, its properties deconstructed to precisely timed patterns of neural firing? Finding the answers is the goal of a $20 million international research program to search for the neural footprints of consciousness. The broad, multi-year initiative—termed Accelerating Research in Consciousness (ARC)—is being funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation. In the first phase, representing $5 million, two leading brain theories of consciousness with diametrically opposed assumptions will face off to test their hypotheses. ARC pits the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) and the Global Neuronal Workplace (GNW) theory directly against one another, in what Templeton calls “adversarial collaboration,” to settle some fundamental questions about how, when, and where the brain processes subjective awareness of ourselves and the world around us. The two theoretical models are in stark contrast to one another: their definitions and assumptions of what constitutes consciousness differ and their whole approach to the subject is fundamentally different. What they have in common is that they both study the neural correlates of consciousness. IIT is the brainchild of Giulio Tononi, a professor and director of the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin. GNW has been elaborated by Stanislas Dehaene of INSERM/Unicog, in concert with Lionel Naccache of Sorbonne/INSERM, Jean-Pierre Changeux of Institut Pasteur, and others. These two theories were selected by Christof Koch, a leading consciousness researcher who is serving as an advisor to the Templeton project, because each has an established following among scientists and a “preponderance of evidence” backing them, says Koch, who now heads the Allen Institute for Brain Science. © 2020 The Dana Foundation.

Keyword: Consciousness
Link ID: 27201 - Posted: 04.16.2020

Rebecca Schiller When behavioural scientist Dr Pragya Agarwal moved from Delhi to York more than 20 years ago, her first priority was to blend in. As a single parent, a woman of colour and an academic, she worked hard to “water down” the things that made her different from those around her. Yet the more she tried to fit in, the more Agarwal began to ask herself why humans appear programmed to create “in groups” and distrust those on the outside. “Unconscious bias has become a buzzword in recent years,” explains Agarwal. “We are all biased and, though some biases can be harmless, many aren’t.” These are the issues she unravels in her book Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, and she confronts some uncomfortable truths along the way. Advertisement Agarwal argues that humans aren’t naturally rational creatures, and with our brains constantly bombarded with information, we rely on cognitive short cuts: patterns of learned thinking based on what has worked for us in the past, the messages we receive from others and our evolutionary programming. “Cognitive short cuts evolved to help us survive,” she says. “The problem is that we still have these responses and they don’t work well in the modern world.” In our tribal past, the consequences of wrongly assuming that an outsider was peaceful or free from disease could be so damaging that being overcautious became a human evolutionary strategy. The result is the tendency to generalise: speedily assigning those around us to groups based on race, academic status, social class or gender and ignoring details that contradict our existing beliefs. Once we’ve placed a person in a box, Agarwal suggests we are more inclined to choose the dehumanising and dangerous approach of treating them according to the stereotypes we associate with that box rather than as an individual. It’s an experience the author has had herself. © 2020 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 27186 - Posted: 04.14.2020