Chapter 18. Attention and Higher Cognition

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By Christof Koch Consider the following experiences: • You're headed toward a storm that's a couple of miles away, and you've got to get across a hill. You ask yourself: “How am I going to get over that, through that?” • You see little white dots on a black background, as if looking up at the stars at night. Advertisement • You look down at yourself lying in bed from above but see only your legs and lower trunk. These may seem like idiosyncratic events drawn from the vast universe of perceptions, sensations, memories, thoughts and dreams that make up our daily stream of consciousness. In fact, each one was evoked by directly stimulating the brain with an electrode. As American poet Walt Whitman intuited in his poem “I Sing the Body Electric,” these anecdotes illustrate the intimate relationship between the body and its animating soul. The brain and the conscious mind are as inexorably linked as the two sides of a coin. Recent clinical studies have uncovered some of the laws and regularities of conscious activity, findings that have occasionally proved to be paradoxical. They show that brain areas involved in conscious perception have little to do with thinking, planning and other higher cognitive functions. Neuroengineers are now working to turn these insights into technologies to replace lost cognitive function and, in the more distant future, to enhance sensory, cognitive or memory capacities. For example, a recent brain-machine interface provides completely blind people with limited abilities to perceive light. These tools, however, also reveal the difficulties of fully restoring sight or hearing. They underline even more the snags that stand in the way of sci-fi-like enhancements that would enable access to the brain as if it were a computer storage drive. © 2021 Scientific American,

Keyword: Consciousness
Link ID: 27865 - Posted: 06.19.2021

Christopher M. Filley One of the most enduring themes in human neuroscience is the association of higher brain functions with gray matter. In particular, the cerebral cortex—the gray matter of the brain's surface—has been the primary focus of decades of work aiming to understand the neurobiological basis of cognition and emotion. Yet, the cerebral cortex is only a few millimeters thick, so the relative neglect of the rest of the brain below the cortex has prompted the term “corticocentric myopia” (1). Other regions relevant to behavior include the deep gray matter of the basal ganglia and thalamus, the brainstem and cerebellum, and the white matter that interconnects all of these structures. On page 1304 of this issue, Zhao et al. (2) present compelling evidence for the importance of white matter by demonstrating genetic influences on structural connectivity that invoke a host of provocative clinical implications. Insight into the importance of white matter in human behavior begins with its anatomy (3–5) (see the figure). White matter occupies about half of the adult human brain, and some 135,000 km of myelinated axons course through a wide array of tracts to link gray matter regions into distributed neural networks that serve cognitive and emotional functions (3). The human brain is particularly well interconnected because white matter has expanded more in evolution than gray matter, which has endowed the brain of Homo sapiens with extensive structural connectivity (6). The myelin sheath, white matter's characteristic feature, appeared late in vertebrate evolution and greatly increased axonal conduction velocity. This development enhanced the efficiency of distributed neural networks, expanding the transfer of information throughout the brain (5). Information transfer serves to complement the information processing of gray matter, where neuronal cell bodies, synapses, and a variety of neurotransmitters are located (5). The result is a brain with prodigious numbers of both neurons and myelinated axons, which have evolved to subserve the domains of attention, memory, emotion, language, perception, visuospatial processing, executive function (5), and social cognition (7). © 2021 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Attention
Link ID: 27862 - Posted: 06.19.2021

Laura Sanders A new view of the human brain shows its cellular residents in all their wild and weird glory. The map, drawn from a tiny piece of a woman’s brain, charts the varied shapes of 50,000 cells and 130 million connections between them. This intricate map, named H01 for “human sample 1,” represents a milestone in scientists’ quest to provide ever more detailed descriptions of a brain (SN: 2/7/14). “It’s absolutely beautiful,” says neuroscientist Clay Reid at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. “In the best possible way, it’s the beginning of something very exciting.” Scientists at Harvard University, Google and elsewhere prepared and analyzed the brain tissue sample. Smaller than a sesame seed, the bit of brain was about a millionth of an entire brain’s volume. It came from the cortex — the brain’s outer layer responsible for complex thought — of a 45-year-old woman undergoing surgery for epilepsy. After it was removed, the brain sample was quickly preserved and stained with heavy metals that revealed cellular structures. The sample was then sliced into more than 5,000 wafer-thin pieces and imaged with powerful electron microscopes. Computational programs stitched the resulting images back together and artificial intelligence programs helped scientists analyze them. A short description of the resulting view was published as a preprint May 30 to The full dataset is freely available online. black background with green and purple nerve cells with lots of long tendrils These two neurons are mirror symmetrical. It’s unclear why these cells take these shapes. Lichtman Lab/Harvard University, Connectomics Team/Google For now, researchers are just beginning to see what’s there. “We have really just dipped our toe into this dataset,” says study coauthor Jeff Lichtman, a developmental neurobiologist at Harvard University. Lichtman compares the brain map to Google Earth: “There are gems in there to find, but no one can say they’ve looked at the whole thing.” © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2021.

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 27858 - Posted: 06.16.2021

By Carl Zimmer Dr. Adam Zeman didn’t give much thought to the mind’s eye until he met someone who didn’t have one. In 2005, the British neurologist saw a patient who said that a minor surgical procedure had taken away his ability to conjure images. Over the 16 years since that first patient, Dr. Zeman and his colleagues have heard from more than 12,000 people who say they don’t have any such mental camera. The scientists estimate that tens of millions of people share the condition, which they’ve named aphantasia, and millions more experience extraordinarily strong mental imagery, called hyperphantasia. In their latest research, Dr. Zeman and his colleagues are gathering clues about how these two conditions arise through changes in the wiring of the brain that join the visual centers to other regions. And they’re beginning to explore how some of that circuitry may conjure other senses, such as sound, in the mind. Eventually, that research might even make it possible to strengthen the mind’s eye — or ear — with magnetic pulses. “This is not a disorder as far as I can see,” said Dr. Zeman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Exeter in Britain. “It’s an intriguing variation in human experience.” The patient who first made Dr. Zeman aware of aphantasia was a retired building surveyor who lost his mind’s eye after minor heart surgery. To protect the patient’s privacy, Dr. Zeman refers to him as M.X. When M.X. thought of people or objects, he did not see them. And yet his visual memories were intact. M.X. could answer factual questions such as whether former Prime Minister Tony Blair has light-colored eyes. (He does.) M.X. could even solve problems that required mentally rotating shapes, even though he could not see them. I came across M.X.’s case study in 2010 and wrote a column about it for Discover magazine. Afterward, I got emails from readers who had the same experience but who differed from M.X. in a remarkable way: They had never had a mind’s eye to begin with. © 2021 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Attention; Vision
Link ID: 27851 - Posted: 06.11.2021

By Ben Guarino and Frances Stead Sellers In the coronavirus pandemic’s early weeks, in neuropathology departments around the world, scientists wrestled with a question: Should they cut open the skulls of patients who died of covid-19 and extract their brains? Autopsy staff at Columbia University in New York were hesitant. Sawing into bone creates dust, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued a warning about the bodies of covid patients — airborne debris from autopsies could be an infectious hazard. But as more patients were admitted and more began to die, researchers decided to “make all the efforts we could to start collecting the brain tissue,” Columbia neuropathologist Peter D. Canoll said. In March 2020, in an insolation room, the Columbia team extracted a brain from a patient who had died of severe covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. During the next months, they would examine dozens more. Saw met skull elsewhere, too. In Germany, scientists autopsied brains — even though medical authorities recommended against doing that. Researchers were searching the brain for damage — and for the virus itself. At the pandemic’s start, understanding how the virus affected the nervous system was largely a mystery. S. Andrew Josephson, chair of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco and editor in chief of the academic journal JAMA Neurology, said, “We had hundreds of submissions of ‘I saw one case of X.’” It was difficult to understand whether single cases has any relationship to covid at all. Patients reported visual and auditory disturbances, vertigo and tingling sensations, among other perplexing symptoms. Some lost their sense of smell, or their vision became distorted. Weeks or months after the initial onset of symptoms, some remain convinced after even a mild bout of the coronavirus of persistent “brain fog.”

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Attention
Link ID: 27845 - Posted: 06.08.2021

By Jason S. Tsukahara, Alexander P. Burgoyne, Randall W. Engle It has been said that “the eyes are the window to the soul,” but new research suggests that they may be a window to the brain as well. Our pupils respond to more than just the light. They indicate arousal, interest or mental exhaustion. Pupil dilation is even used by the FBI to detect deception. Now work conducted in our laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology suggests that baseline pupil size is closely related to individual differences in intelligence. The larger the pupils, the higher the intelligence, as measured by tests of reasoning, attention and memory. In fact, across three studies, we found that the difference in baseline pupil size between people who scored the highest on the cognitive tests and those who scored the lowest was large enough to be detected by the unaided eye. We first uncovered this surprising relationship while studying differences in the amount of mental effort people used to complete memory tasks. We used pupil dilations as an indicator of effort, a technique psychologist Daniel Kahneman popularized in the 1960s and 1970s. When we discovered a relationship between baseline pupil size and intelligence, we weren’t sure if it was real or what it meant. Advertisement Intrigued, we conducted several large-scale studies in which we recruited more than 500 people aged 18 to 35 from the Atlanta community. We measured participants’ pupil size using an eye tracker, a device that captures the reflection of light off the pupil and cornea using a high-powered camera and computer. We measured participants’ pupils at rest while they stared at a blank computer screen for up to four minutes. All the while, the eye tracker was recording. Using the tracker, we then calculated each participant’s average pupil size. © 2021 Scientific American

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Vision
Link ID: 27844 - Posted: 06.08.2021

By Veronique Greenwood The coin is in the illusionist’s left hand, now it’s in the right — or is it? Sleight of hand tricks are old standbys for magicians, street performers and people who’ve had a little too much to drink at parties. Sign up for Science Times: Get stories that capture the wonders of nature, the cosmos and the human body. On humans, the deceptions work pretty well. But it turns out that birds don’t always fall for the same illusions. Researchers in a small study published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported on Eurasian jays, birds whose intelligence has long been studied by comparative psychologists. The jays were not fooled, at least by tricks that rely on the viewer having certain expectations about how human hands work. However, they were fooled by another kind of trick, perhaps because of how their visual system is built. Magic tricks often play on viewers’ expectations, said Elias Garcia-Pelegrin, a graduate student at the University of Cambridge who is an author of the study. That magic can reveal the viewers’ assumptions suggests that tricks can be a way into understanding how other creatures see the world, he and his colleagues reasoned. Eurasian jays are not newcomers to subterfuge: To thwart thieves while they’re storing food, jays will perform something very like sleight of hand — sleight of beak, if you will — if another jay is watching. They’ll pretend to drop the food in a number of places, so its real location is concealed. © 2021 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Attention; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 27843 - Posted: 06.02.2021

By Nayef Al-Rodhan o In Chile, the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research has begun to debate a “neurorights” bill to be written into the country’s constitution. The world, and most importantly the OECD, UNESCO and the United Nations, should be watching closely. The Chilean bill sets out to protect the right to personal identity, free will, mental privacy, equitable access to technologies that augment human capacities, and the right to protection against bias and discrimination. The landmark bill would be the first of its kind to pioneer a regulatory framework which protects human rights from the manipulation of brain activity. The relatively nascent concept of neurorights follows a number of recent medical innovations, most notably brain-computer interface technology (BCI), which has the potential to revolutionize the field of neuroscience. BCI-based therapy may be useful for poststroke motor rehabilitation and may be a potential method for the accurate detection and treatment of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Advocates claim there is therefore a moral imperative to use the technology, given the benefits it could bring; others worry about its ethical, moral and societal consequences. Many (mistakenly) see this process as being potentially undermined by premature governance restrictions, or accuse any mention of brake mechanisms as an exaggerated reaction to an unlikely science-fiction scenario. © 2021 Scientific American

Keyword: Robotics; Consciousness
Link ID: 27841 - Posted: 06.02.2021

By Jackie Rocheleau It’s an attractive idea: By playing online problem-solving, matching and other games for a few minutes a day, people can improve such mental abilities as reasoning, verbal skills and memory. But whether these games deliver on those promises is up for debate. “For every study that finds some evidence, there’s an equal number of papers that find no evidence,” says Bobby Stojanoski, a cognitive neuroscientist at Western University in Ontario (SN: 3/8/17; SN: 5/9/17). Now, in perhaps the biggest real-world test of these programs, Stojanoski and colleagues pitted more than 1,000 people who regularly use brain trainers against around 7,500 people who don’t do the mini brain workouts. There was little difference between how both groups performed on a series of tests of their thinking abilities, suggesting that brain training doesn’t live up to its name, the scientists report in the April Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. “They put brain training to the test,” says Elizabeth Stine-Morrow, a cognitive aging scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While the study doesn’t show why brain trainers aren’t seeing benefits, it does show there is no link “between the amount of time spent with the brain training programs and cognition,” Stine-Morrow says. “That was pretty cool.” © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2021

Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 27830 - Posted: 05.27.2021

By Nicholas Bakalar Long-term exposure to air pollution has many health consequences, including accelerating brain aging and increasing the risk for dementia. Now new research suggests that short-term exposure to polluted air, even at levels generally considered “acceptable,” may impair mental ability in the elderly. Scientists studied 954 men, average age 69, living in the greater Boston area. The men were tested at the start of the study and several times over the next 28 days using the Mini-Mental State Examination, or MMSE, a widely used test of cognitive ability. The test includes simple questions like “What year is this?” and “What season is it?,” and requires tasks like counting backward by sevens from 100. Correctly answering fewer than 25 of its 30 questions suggests mild dementia. Over the month, the researchers measured air levels of what’s known as PM 2.5, particles of soot and other fine particulate matter with a diameter of up to 2.5 microns, small enough to enter the lungs and move into bloodstream. There is no safe level of PM 2.5, but the Environmental Protection Agency considers air acceptable when it is under 12 micrograms per cubic meter. During the testing period, PM 2.5 levels in Boston averaged 10.77. Higher PM 2.5 was consistently associated with lower test scores. In weeks with the highest levels of air pollution, the men were 63 percent more likely to score below 25 on the MMSE than in weeks with the lowest levels. The study, in Nature Aging, adjusted for age, B.M.I., coronary heart disease, diabetes, alcohol consumption, smoking, high blood pressure and other factors. Dr. Andrea A. Baccarelli, the senior author and a professor of environmental science at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, said that these short-term effects may be reversible. “When air pollution goes down,” he said, “the brain reboots and goes back to normal. However, if repeated, these episodes produce long-term damage to the brain.” © 2021 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Neurotoxins
Link ID: 27823 - Posted: 05.19.2021

Johnjoe McFadden Some 2,700 years ago in the ancient city of Sam’al, in what is now modern Turkey, an elderly servant of the king sits in a corner of his house and contemplates the nature of his soul. His name is Katumuwa. He stares at a basalt stele made for him, featuring his own graven portrait together with an inscription in ancient Aramaic. It instructs his family, when he dies, to celebrate ‘a feast at this chamber: a bull for Hadad harpatalli and a ram for Nik-arawas of the hunters and a ram for Shamash, and a ram for Hadad of the vineyards, and a ram for Kubaba, and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.’ Katumuwa believed that he had built a durable stone receptacle for his soul after death. This stele might be one of the earliest written records of dualism: the belief that our conscious mind is located in an immaterial soul or spirit, distinct from the matter of the body. More than 2 millennia later, I was also contemplating the nature of the soul, as my son lay propped up on a hospital gurney. He was undertaking an electroencephalogram (EEG), a test that detects electrical activity in the brain, for a condition that fortunately turned out to be benign. As I watched the irregular wavy lines march across the screen, with spikes provoked by his perceptions of events such as the banging of a door, I wondered at the nature of the consciousness that generated those signals. Just how do the atoms and molecules that make up the neurons in our brain – not so different to the bits of matter in Katumwa’s inert stele or the steel barriers on my son’s hospital bed – manage to generate human awareness and the power of thought? In answering that longstanding question, most neurobiologists today would point to the information-processing performed by brain neurons. For both Katumuwa and my son, this would begin as soon as light and sound reached their eyes and ears, stimulating their neurons to fire in response to different aspects of their environment. For Katumuwa, perhaps, this might have been the pinecone or comb that his likeness was holding on the stele; for my son, the beeps from the machine or the movement of the clock on the wall. © Aeon Media Group Ltd. 2012-2021

Keyword: Consciousness; Attention
Link ID: 27782 - Posted: 04.21.2021

Neuroskeptic A new paper published in Nature Medicine reveals the wide variety of emotional experiences that can be triggered by electrical stimulation of the brain. Authors Katherine W. Scangos and colleagues tell how they implanted a single patient with 10 electrodes in different parts of the limbic system. The patient, a 36-year-old woman, had a history of severe depression, and was currently suffering a depressive episode which had not responded to any treatments. So, she agreed to undergo experimental deep brain stimulation (DBS). Over the course of 10 days, Scangos et al. tried many different stimulation parameters across the 10 electrodes, while the patient reported what she felt. Here's the full map of the emotional responses: Stimulation could evoke a gamut of emotions, from joy and relaxation to fear and darkness. For instance, stimulation of the left amygdala produced "a good feeling, more alert", but when it came to the right amygdala, stimulation instead caused feelings of "doom and gloom, very scary". The patient reported a feeling of "apathy" leading her to comment that "a lot of idiots must live like this", following right orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) stimulation. Interestingly, stimulation of certain sites could be either pleasant or unpleasant, depending on the patient's mood at the time. For example, OFC stimulation was "positive and calming if delivered during a high/neutral arousal state, but worsened mood if delivered during a low arousal state, causing the patient to feel excessively drowsy." © 2021 Kalmbach Media Co.

Keyword: Emotions; Attention
Link ID: 27730 - Posted: 03.13.2021

By Branko van Hulst, Sander Werkhoven, Sarah Dursto “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It is an often-used quote, and for good reason. Juliet tragically underestimated the impact of the Montague surname. She was not the first, nor the last, to underestimate the power of the names we give. In psychiatry, handbooks determine which names (or classifications) we give to the difficulties that people face. We use them so that when we say ADHD, schizophrenia or depression, people have a more or less consistent idea of what we mean. Moreover, it enables us to study groups of people with the same classification and learn about treatments and prognostics. However, a severe and often overlooked side effect of this practice is that these names implicitly suggest causality. The classificatory terms we use all refer to disorders that cause symptoms, and therefore suggest that we understand the causes of the problems. Which we do not. At the very least, the term disorder suggests a common causal structure, which goes against all our current knowledge on causal heterogeneity in psychiatry. Moreover, these classifications are applied to individuals and therefore suggest that causes lie mainly with the affected individual. The most common psychiatric handbooks (DSM-5 and ICD-11) are clear on the status of their classifications: they are purely descriptive and are not based on underlying causes. Still, in practice, we say things like “he is inattentive at school because he has ADHD.” It is a circular statement: a child is inattentive because of his inattentiveness. When we say that someone has an attention deficit, we are inclined to look for the cause of the problem. But when we say someone has an attention deficit disorder, we might wrongly assume we have already found the cause. Or, in a milder version, assume the cause to be located somewhere in the (brain of the) individual. © 2021 Scientific American,

Keyword: ADHD; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 27725 - Posted: 03.11.2021

By Thomas Nail What are you thinking about right now? Have you ever wondered why it's so hard to answer this simple question when someone asks? There is a reason. 95 percent of your brain's activity is entirely unconscious. Of the remaining 5 percent of brain activity, only around half is intentionally directed. The vast majority of what goes on in our heads is unknown and unintentional. Neuroscientists call these activities "spontaneous fluctuations," because they are unpredictable and seemingly unconnected to any specific behavior. No wonder it's so hard to say what we are thinking or feeling and why. We like to think of ourselves as CEOs of our own minds, but we are much more like ships tossed at sea. What does this reveal about the nature of consciousness? Why is our brain, a mere 2 percent of our body mass, using 20 percent of our energy to produce what many scientists still call "background noise?" Neuroscientists have known about these "random" fluctuations in electrical brain activity since the 1930s, but have not known what to make of them until relatively recently. Many brain studies of consciousness still look only at brain activity that responds to external stimuli and triggers a mental state. The rest of the "noise" is "averaged out" of the data. This is still the prevailing approach in most contemporary neuroscience, and yields a "computational" input-output model of consciousness. In this neuroscientific model, so-called "information" transfers from our senses to our brains. Yet the pioneering French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene considers this view "deeply wrong." "Spontaneous activity is one of the most frequently overlooked features" of consciousness, he writes. Unlike engineers who design digital transistors with discrete voltages for 0s and 1s to resist background noise, neurons in the brain work differently.

Keyword: Consciousness; Attention
Link ID: 27702 - Posted: 02.23.2021

By Sofia Moutinho In the movie Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio enters into other people’s dreams to interact with them and steal secrets from their subconscious. Now, it seems this science fiction plot is one baby step closer to reality. For the first time, researchers have had “conversations” involving novel questions and math problems with lucid dreamers—people who are aware that they are dreaming. The findings, from four labs and 36 participants, suggest people can receive and process complex external information while sleeping. “This work challenges the foundational definitions of sleep,” says cognitive neuroscientist Benjamin Baird of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who studies sleep and dreams but was not part of the study. Traditionally, he says, sleep has been defined as a state in which the brain is disconnected and unaware of the outside world. Lucid dreaming got one of its first mentions in the writings of Greek philosopher Aristotle in the fourth century B.C.E., and scientists have observed it since the 1970s in experiments about the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, when most dreaming occurs. One in every two people has had at least one lucid dream, about 10% of people experience them once a month or more. Although rare, this ability to recognize you are in a dream—and even control some aspects of it—can be enhanced with training. A few studies have tried to communicate with lucid dreamers using stimuli such as lights, shocks, and sounds to “enter” people’s dreams. But these recorded only minimal responses from the sleepers and did not involve complex transmission of information. © 2021 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Sleep; Attention
Link ID: 27700 - Posted: 02.19.2021

By Diana Kwon Dreams are full of possibilities; by drifting into the world beyond our waking realities, we can visit magical lands, travel through time and interact with long-lost family and friends. The notion of communicating in real time with someone outside of our dreamscapes, however, sounds like science fiction. A new study demonstrates that, to some extent, this seeming fantasy can be made real. Scientists already knew that one-way contact is attainable. Previous studies have demonstrated that people can process external cues, such as sounds and smells, while asleep. There is also evidence that people are able to send messages in the other direction: Lucid dreamers—those who can become aware they are in a dream—can be trained to signal, using eye movements, that they are in the midst of a dream. Two-way communication, however, is more complex. It requires a person who is asleep to actually understand what they hear from the outside and think about it logically enough to generate an answer, explains Ken Paller, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University. “We believed that it was going to be possible—but until we actually demonstrated it, we weren’t sure.” For this study, Paller and his colleagues recruited volunteers who said they remembered at least one dream per week and provided them with guidance on how to lucid dream. They were also trained to respond to simple math problems by moving their eyes back and forth—for example, the correct answer to “eight minus six,” would be moving your eyes to the left and right twice. While the participants slept, electrodes attached to their faces picked up their eye movements and electroencephalography (EEG)—a method of monitoring brain activity—kept track of what stage of sleep they were in. © 2021 Scientific American

Keyword: Sleep; Attention
Link ID: 27699 - Posted: 02.19.2021

By Isobel Whitcomb It began with a pulled muscle. Each day after school, as the sun sank dusky purple over the hills of my hometown, I’d run with my track teammates. Even on our easy days, I’d bound ahead, leaving them behind. It wasn’t that I thought myself better than them—it’s that when I ran fast, and focused on nothing but the cold air burning my lungs and my feet pounding, my normally anxious thoughts turned to white noise. Until, one day, something popped in my leg. I stopped. I limped a little, and then tried running again: sharp, hot pain radiated down my thigh. Panic flooded me, as I imagined weeks without running: weeks without a predictable break from my own thoughts, weeks immersed in adolescent loneliness. I was 14. Pain was about to define a decade of my life. Advertisement First, I took a break from the sport—five months of stretching, icing, and waiting for the leg to heal. I returned to running, but soon after, I developed a throbbing pain in my back. The cycle repeated. Less than a year later, the pain showed up again, this time in my foot. My focus on healing my body became singular: I tried physical therapy and massage and acupuncture. I researched conditions that could lead to repeat injury. Maybe I had a rare soft-tissue disorder, I thought, or maybe early-onset rheumatoid arthritis. I let an osteopath stick a giant needle into my spinal ligaments, and inject me with sugar water, which is just as painful as it sounds. After a chiropractor recommended an anti-inflammatory diet, I subsisted on only meat and vegetables. I’d get a few good months—a joyful summer, a successful cross-country season. Then the pain would return again. As I prepared to leave home for college, my knees and ankles throbbed. For several months, my hip hurt so badly I dreaded even walking to the dining hall. Then, while scrambling to finish my senior thesis, neck spasms prevented me from leaving my bed for days. When I saw doctors, I hoped that they would discover something terribly wrong. They never did. “Have you tried psychotherapy?” one asked me. I had. I’d been in therapy for years. © 2021 The Slate Group LLC.

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Attention
Link ID: 27693 - Posted: 02.15.2021

Elizabeth Landau At a sleep research symposium in January 2020, Janna Lendner presented findings that hint at a way to look at people’s brain activity for signs of the boundary between wakefulness and unconsciousness. For patients who are comatose or under anesthesia, it can be all-important that physicians make that distinction correctly. Doing so is trickier than it might sound, however, because when someone is in the dreaming state of rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, their brain produces the same familiar, smoothly oscillating brain waves as when they are awake. Lendner argued, though, that the answer isn’t in the regular brain waves, but rather in an aspect of neural activity that scientists might normally ignore: the erratic background noise. Some researchers seemed incredulous. “They said, ‘So, you’re telling me that there’s, like, information in the noise?’” said Lendner, an anesthesiology resident at the University Medical Center in Tübingen, Germany, who recently completed a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley. “I said, ‘Yes. Someone’s noise is another one’s signal.’” Lendner is one of a growing number of neuroscientists energized by the idea that noise in the brain’s electrical activity could hold new clues to its inner workings. What was once seen as the neurological equivalent of annoying television static may have profound implications for how scientists study the brain. All Rights Reserved © 2021

Keyword: Sleep; Attention
Link ID: 27684 - Posted: 02.13.2021

Bevil R. Conway Danny Garside Is the red I see the same as the red you see? At first, the question seems confusing. Color is an inherent part of visual experience, as fundamental as gravity. So how could anyone see color differently than you do? To dispense with the seemingly silly question, you can point to different objects and ask, “What color is that?” The initial consensus apparently settles the issue. But then you might uncover troubling variability. A rug that some people call green, others call blue. A photo of a dress that some people call blue and black, others say is white and gold. You’re confronted with an unsettling possibility. Even if we agree on the label, maybe your experience of red is different from mine and – shudder – could it correspond to my experience of green? How would we know? Neuroscientists, including us, have tackled this age-old puzzle and are starting to come up with some answers to these questions. One thing that is becoming clear is the reason individual differences in color are so disconcerting in the first place. Scientists often explain why people have color vision in cold, analytic terms: Color is for object recognition. And this is certainly true, but it’s not the whole story. The color statistics of objects are not arbitrary. The parts of scenes that people choose to label (“ball,” “apple,” “tiger”) are not any random color: They are more likely to be warm colors (oranges, yellows, reds), and less likely to be cool colors (blues, greens). This is true even for artificial objects that could have been made any color. © 2010–2021, The Conversation US, Inc.

Keyword: Vision; Attention
Link ID: 27682 - Posted: 02.08.2021

By Veronique Greenwood Last spring, robins living on an Illinois tree farm sat on some unusual eggs. Alongside the customary brilliant blue ovoids they had laid were some unusually shaped objects. Although they had the same color, some were long and thin, stretched into pills. Others were decidedly pointy — so angular, in fact, that they bore little resemblance to eggs at all. If robins played Dungeons and Dragons, they might have thought, “Why do I have an eight-sided die in my nest?” The answer: Evolutionary biologists were gauging how birds decide what belongs in their nests, and what is an invasive piece of detritus that they need to throw out. Thanks to the results of this study, published Wednesday in Royal Society Open Science, we now know what the robins thought of the eggs, which were made of plastic and had been 3-D printed by the lab of Mark Hauber, a professor of animal behavior at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and a fellow at Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg in Delmenhorst, Germany. He and his colleagues reported that the thinner the fake eggs got, the more likely the birds were to remove them from the nest. But curiously, the robins were more cautious about throwing out the pointy objects like that eight-sided die, which were closer in width to their own eggs. Birds, the results suggest, are using rules of thumb that are not intuitive to humans when they decide what is detritus and what is precious cargo. It’s not as uncommon as you’d think for robins to find foreign objects in their nests. They play host to cowbirds, a parasitic species that lays eggs in other birds’ nests, where they hatch and compete with the robins’ own offspring for nourishment. Confronted with a cowbird egg, which is beige and squatter than its blue ovals, parent robins will often push the parasite’s eggs out. That makes the species a good candidate for testing exactly what matters when it comes to telling their own eggs apart from other objects, Dr. Hauber said. © 2021 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Attention; Evolution
Link ID: 27669 - Posted: 01.30.2021