Chapter 14. Attention and Higher Cognition

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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

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