Chapter 14. Attention and Consciousness

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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

By Pragya Agarwal If you have seen the documentary Free Solo, you will be familiar with Alex Honnold. He ascends without protective equipment of any kind in treacherous landscapes where, above about 15 meters, any slip is generally lethal. Even just watching him pressed against the rock with barely any handholds makes me nauseous. In a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) test with Honnold, neurobiologist Jane Joseph found there was near zero activation in his amygdala. This is a highly unusual brain reaction and may explain why Alex feels no threat in free solo climbs that others wouldn’t dare attempt. But this also shows how our amygdala activates in that split second to warn us, and why it plays an important role in our unconscious biases. Having spent many years researching unconscious bias for my book, I have realized that it remains problematic to pinpoint as it is hidden and is often in complete contrast to what are our expected beliefs. Neuroimaging research is beginning to give us more insight into the formation of our unconscious biases. Recent fMRI neuroscience studies demonstrate that people use different areas of the brain when reasoning about familiar and unfamiliar situations. The neural zones that respond to stereotypes primarily include the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate and the anterior temporal cortex, and that they are described as all “lighting up like a Christmas tree” when stereotypes are activated (certain parts of the brain become more activated than others during certain tasks). People also use different areas of the brain when reasoning about familiar and unfamiliar situations. When we meet someone new, we are not merely focusing on our verbal interaction. © 2020 Scientific American,

Keyword: Attention; Brain imaging
Link ID: 27184 - Posted: 04.13.2020

Anne Trafton | MIT News Office Imagine you are meeting a friend for dinner at a new restaurant. You may try dishes you haven’t had before, and your surroundings will be completely new to you. However, your brain knows that you have had similar experiences — perusing a menu, ordering appetizers, and splurging on dessert are all things that you have probably done when dining out. MIT neuroscientists have now identified populations of cells that encode each of these distinctive segments of an overall experience. These chunks of memory, stored in the hippocampus, are activated whenever a similar type of experience takes place, and are distinct from the neural code that stores detailed memories of a specific location. The researchers believe that this kind of “event code,” which they discovered in a study of mice, may help the brain interpret novel situations and learn new information by using the same cells to represent similar experiences. “When you encounter something new, there are some really new and notable stimuli, but you already know quite a bit about that particular experience, because it’s a similar kind of experience to what you have already had before,” says Susumu Tonegawa, a professor of biology and neuroscience at the RIKEN-MIT Laboratory of Neural Circuit Genetics at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. Tonegawa is the senior author of the study, which appears today in Nature Neuroscience. Chen Sun, an MIT graduate student, is the lead author of the paper. New York University graduate student Wannan Yang and Picower Institute technical associate Jared Martin are also authors of the paper.

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Attention
Link ID: 27174 - Posted: 04.07.2020

Oliver Wainwright Some whisper gently into the microphone, while tapping their nails along the spine of a book. Others take a bar of soap and slice it methodically into tiny cubes, letting the pieces clatter into a plastic tray. There are those who dress up as doctors and pretend to perform a cranial nerve exam, and the ones who eat food as noisily as they can, recording every crunch and slurp in 3D stereo sound. To an outsider, the world of ASMR videos can be a baffling, kooky place. In a fast-growing corner of the internet, millions of people are watching each other tap, rattle, stroke and whisper their way through hours of homemade videos, with the aim of being lulled to sleep, or in the hope of experiencing “the tingles” – AKA, the autonomous sensory meridian response. “It feels like a rush of champagne bubbles at the top of your head,” says curator James Taylor-Foster. “There’s a mild sense of euphoria and a feeling of deep calm.” Taylor-Foster has spent many hours trawling the weirdest depths of YouTube in preparation for a new exhibition, Weird Sensation Feels Good, at ArkDes, Sweden’s national centre for architecture and design, on what he sees as one of the most important creative movements to emerge from the internet. (Though the museum has been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the show will be available to view online.) It will be the first major exhibition about ASMR, a term that was coined a decade ago when cybersecurity expert Jennifer Allen was looking for a word to describe the warm effervescence she felt in response to certain triggers. She had tried searching the internet for things like “tingling head and spine” or “brain orgasm”. In 2009, she hit upon a post on a health message board titled WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD. © 2020 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: Hearing; Attention
Link ID: 27169 - Posted: 04.04.2020

Stephanie Preston The media is replete with COVID-19 stories about people clearing supermarket shelves – and the backlash against them. Have people gone mad? How can one individual be overfilling his own cart, while shaming others who are doing the same? As a behavioral neuroscientist who has studied hoarding behavior for 25 years, I can tell you that this is all normal and expected. People are acting the way evolution has wired them. The word “hoarding” might bring to mind relatives or neighbors whose houses are overfilled with junk. A small percentage of people do suffer from what psychologists call “hoarding disorder,” keeping excessive goods to the point of distress and impairment. But hoarding is actually a totally normal and adaptive behavior that kicks in any time there is an uneven supply of resources. Everyone hoards, even during the best of times, without even thinking about it. People like to have beans in the pantry, money in savings and chocolates hidden from the children. These are all hoards. Most Americans have had so much, for so long. People forget that, not so long ago, survival often depended on working tirelessly all year to fill root cellars so a family could last through a long, cold winter – and still many died. Similarly, squirrels work all fall to hide nuts to eat for the rest of the year. Kangaroo rats in the desert hide seeds the few times it rains and then remember where they put them to dig them back up later. A Clark’s nutcracker can hoard over 10,000 pine seeds per fall – and even remember where it put them. © 2010–2020, The Conversation US, Inc.

Keyword: Obesity; Attention
Link ID: 27149 - Posted: 03.30.2020

By Douglas Starr When Jennifer Eberhardt appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in April 2019, she had a hard time keeping a straight face. But some of the laughs were painful. Discussing unconscious racial bias, which she has studied for years, the Stanford University psychologist mentioned the “other-race effect,” in which people have trouble recognizing faces of other racial groups. Criminals have learned to exploit the effect, she told Noah. In Oakland, California, a gang of black teenagers caused a mini–crime wave of purse snatchings among middle-aged women in Chinatown. When police asked the teens why they targeted that neighborhood, they said the Asian women, when faced with a lineup, “couldn’t tell the brothers apart.” “That is one of the most horrible, fantastic stories ever!” said Noah, a black South African. But it was true. Eberhardt has written that the phrase “they all look alike,” long the province of the bigot, “is actually a function of biology and exposure.” There’s no doubt plenty of overt bigotry exists, Eberhardt says; but she has found that most of us also harbor bias without knowing it. It stems from our brain’s tendency to categorize things—a useful function in a world of infinite stimuli, but one that can lead to discrimination, baseless assumptions, and worse, particularly in times of hurry or stress. Over the decades, Eberhardt and her Stanford team have explored the roots and ramifications of unconscious bias, from the level of the neuron to that of society. In cleverly designed experiments, she has shown how social conditions can interact with the workings of our brain to determine our responses to other people, especially in the context of race. Eberhardt’s studies are “strong methodologically and also super real-world relevant,” says Dolly Chugh of New York University’s Stern School of Business, a psychologist who studies decision-making. © 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Attention; Emotions
Link ID: 27145 - Posted: 03.27.2020

By Scott Barry Kaufman Who are you and how did you become interested in free will? I am an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Iona College where I also serve as a faculty member for the Iona Neuroscience program. I have previously worked in the Scientific and Philosophical Studies of Mind program at Franklin and Marshall College as well as previous appointments as a Lecturer at King’s College London and University of Alabama. My recent and forthcoming publications focus on issues of autonomy in terms of philosophical accounts of free will as well as how it intersects with neuroscience and psychiatry. One of the main questions I investigate is what neuroscience can tell us about meaningful agency (see here for my recent review of the topic as part of an extended review of research on agency, freedom, and responsibility for the John Templeton Foundation). I became interested in free will via an interdisciplinary route. As an undergraduate at Grinnell College, I majored in psychology with a strong emphasis on experimental psychology and clinical psychology. During my senior year at Grinnell I realized that I was fascinated by the theoretical issues operating in the background of the psychological studies that we read and conducted, especially issues of how the mind is related to the brain, prospects for the scientific study of consciousness, and how humans as agents fit into a natural picture of the world. So I followed these interests to the study of philosophy of psychology and eventually found my way to the perfect fusion of these topics: the neuroscience of free will. What is free will? Free will seems to be a familiar feature of our everyday lives — most of us believe that (at least at times) what we do is up to us to some extent. For instance, that I freely decided to take my job or that I am acting freely when I decide to go for a run this afternoon. Free will is not just that I move about in the world to achieve a goal, but that I exercise meaningful control over what I decide to do. My decisions and actions are up to me in the sense that they are mine — a product of my values, desires, beliefs, and intentions. I decided to take this job because I valued the institution’s mission or I believed that this job would be enriching or a good fit for me. Correspondingly, it seems to me that at least at times I could have decided to and done something else than what I did. I decided to go for a run this afternoon, but no one made me and I wasn’t subject to any compulsion; I could have gone for a coffee instead, at least it seems to me. Philosophers take these starting points and work to construct plausible accounts of free will. Broadly speaking, there is a lot of disagreement as to the right view of free will, but most philosophers believe that a person has free will if they have the ability to act freely, and that this kind of control is linked to whether it would be appropriate to hold that person responsible (e.g., blame or praise them) for what they do. For instance, we don’t typically hold people responsible for what they do if they were acting under severe threat or inner compulsion. © 2020 Scientific American

Keyword: Consciousness
Link ID: 27128 - Posted: 03.17.2020

As we get older, we become more easily distracted, but it isn't always a disadvantage, according to researchers. Tarek Amer, a psychology postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University, says that although our ability to focus our attention on specific things worsens as we get older, our ability to take in broad swaths of information remains strong. So in general, older adults are able to retain information that a more focused person could not. For the last few years, Amer's research has focused mainly on cognitive control, a loose term that describes one's ability to focus their attention. His work at the University of Toronto, where he received his PhD in 2018, looked specifically at older adults aged 60 to 80. Amer joined Spark host Nora Young to discuss his research and how it could be implemented in practical ways. What happens to our ability to concentrate as we get older? There's a lot of research that shows as we get older, this ability tends to decline or is reduced with age. So essentially, what we see is that relative to younger adults, older adults have a harder time focusing on one thing while ignoring distractions. This distraction can be from the external world. This can also be internally based distractions, such as our own thoughts, which are usually not related to the task at hand. With respect to mind wandering specifically, the literature is ... mixed. [The] typical finding is that older adults tend to, at least in lab-based tasks, mind wander less. So I know that you've been looking, in your own research, at concentration and memory formation. So what exactly are you studying? One of the things I was interested in is whether this [decline in the ability to concentrate] could be associated with any benefits in old age. For example, one thing that we showed is that when older and younger adults perform a task that includes both task-relevant as well as task-irrelevant information, older adults are actually processing both types of information. So if we give them a memory task at the end that actually is testing memory for the irrelevant information … we see that older adults actually outperform younger adults. ©2020 CBC/Radio-Canada.

Keyword: Attention; Alzheimers
Link ID: 27116 - Posted: 03.14.2020

By Susana Martinez-Conde Parents tend to be just a bit biased about their children’s looks (not me though—my kids are objectively beautiful), but as it turns out, this type of self-deception is not as benign as one might think. According to recent research, many parents appear to suffer from a sort of denial concerning their kids’ weights, which poses a considerable obstacle to remediating childhood obesity by way of promoting healthy eating habits at home. The latest of such studies was published last month in the American Journal of Human Biology, and conducted by a team of scientists at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. Daniela Rodrigues and her collaborators, Aristides Machado-Rodrigues and Cristina Padez, recruited hundreds of parents and children for their research. All the participating children were between 6 and 10 years old and attended elementary school in Portugal. A total of 834 parents completed questionnaires that included a variety of questions, such as whether they thought that their children’s weight was a bit too little, a bit too much, way too much, or just fine. In turn, the team collected the weights and heights of the 793 participating children, at their respective schools. The results were in line with the researchers’ predictions, but nonetheless remarkable. Of the 33% parents who misperceived their children’s weight, 93% underestimated it. Moreover, parents who underestimated their kids’ weights were 10 to 20 times more likely to have an obese child. Several factors were associated with the parental weight underestimation, including a higher BMI (body mass index) for the mothers, younger ages for the children, lower household income (for girls) and urban living (for boys). However, such associations did not explain why parents underestimated their children’s weights to begin with. © 2020 Scientific American

Keyword: Obesity; Attention
Link ID: 27106 - Posted: 03.09.2020

Dori Grijseels In 2016, three neuroscientists wrote a commentary article arguing that, to truly understand the brain, neuroscience needed to change. From that paper, the International Brain Laboratory (IBL) was born. The IBL, now a collaboration between 22 labs across the world, is unique in biology. The IBL is modeled on physics collaborations, like the ATLAS experiment at CERN, where thousands of scientists work together on a common problem, sharing data and resources during the process. This was in response to the main criticism that the paper’s authors, Zachary Mainen, Michael Häusser and Alexandre Pouget, had about existing neuroscience collaborations: labs came together to discuss generalities, but all the experiments were done separately. They wanted to create a collaboration in which scientists worked together throughout the process, even though their labs may be distributed all over the globe. The IBL decided to focus on one brain function only: decision-making. Decision-making engages the whole brain, since it requires using both input from the senses and information about previous experiences. If someone is thinking about bringing a sweater when they go out, they will use their senses to determine whether it looks and feels cold outside, but they might also remember that, yesterday, they were cold without a sweater. For its first published (in pre-print form) experiment, seven labs of the 22 collaborating in the IBL tested 101 mice on their decision-making ability. The mice saw a black and white grating either to their right or to their left. They then had to twist a little Lego wheel to move the grating to the middle. By rewarding them with sugary water whenever they did the task correctly, the mice gradually learned. It is easy for them to decide which way to twist the wheel if the grating has a high contrast, because it stands out compared to the background of their visual field. However, the mice were also presented with a more ambiguously-patterned grating not easily distinguishable from the background, so the decision of which way to turn the wheel was more difficult. In some cases, the grating was even indistinguishable from the background. Between all seven labs –which were spread across three countries – the mice completed this task three million times. © 2017 – 2019 Massive Science Inc.

Keyword: Attention; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 27102 - Posted: 03.07.2020