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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.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 10: Vision: From Eye to Brain
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 7: Vision: From Eye to Brain
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

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
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

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 27446 - Posted: 09.02.2020

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

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
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

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 17: Learning and Memory
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 13: Memory and Learning
Link ID: 27417 - Posted: 08.12.2020

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

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
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.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 10: Vision: From Eye to Brain
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 7: Vision: From Eye to Brain
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.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 27293 - Posted: 06.09.2020

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

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
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,

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 2: Functional Neuroanatomy: The Cells and Structure of the Nervous System
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 1: Cells and Structures: The Anatomy of the Nervous System
Link ID: 27184 - Posted: 04.13.2020

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.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 27145 - Posted: 03.27.2020

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.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 7: Life-Span Development of the Brain and Behavior
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 13: Memory and Learning
Link ID: 27116 - Posted: 03.14.2020

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.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 17: Learning and Memory
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 13: Memory and Learning
Link ID: 27102 - Posted: 03.07.2020

By Liz Langley It might be time to reconsider what it means to call someone a “rat.” Previous research has shown the much-maligned rodents assist comrades in need, as well as remember individual rats that have helped them—and return the favor. Now, a new study builds on this evidence of empathy, revealing that domestic rats will avoid harming other rats. In the study, published March 5 in the journal Current Biology, rats were trained to pull levers to get a tasty sugar pellet. If the lever delivered a mild shock to a neighbor, several of the rats stopped pulling that lever and switched to another. Harm aversion, as it's known, is a well-known human trait regulated by a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Further experiments showed the ACC controls this behavior in rats, too. This is the first time scientists have found the ACC is necessary for harm aversion in a non-human species. This likeness between human and rat brains is “super-exciting for two reasons,” says study co-author Christian Keysers, of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience. For one, it suggests that preventing harm to others is rooted deep in mammals' evolutionary history. (See what a rat looks like when it’s happy.) What’s more, the finding could have a real impact on people suffering from psychiatric disorders such as psychopathy and sociopathy, whose anterior cingulate cortexes are impaired. “We currently have no effective drugs to reduce violence in antisocial populations,” Keysers says, and figuring out how to increase such patients’ aversion to hurting others could be a powerful tool.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 27101 - Posted: 03.07.2020

Jordana Cepelewicz Decisions, decisions. All of us are constantly faced with conscious and unconscious choices. Not just about what to wear, what to eat or how to spend a weekend, but about which hand to use when picking up a pencil, or whether to shift our weight in a chair. To make even trivial decisions, our brains sift through a pile of “what ifs” and weigh the hypotheticals. Even for choices that seem automatic — jumping out of the way of a speeding car, for instance — the brain can very quickly extrapolate from past experiences to make predictions and guide behavior. In a paper published last month in Cell, a team of researchers in California peered into the brains of rats on the cusp of making a decision and watched their neurons rapidly play out the competing choices available to them. The mechanism they described might underlie not just decision-making, but also animals’ ability to envision more abstract possibilities — something akin to imagination. The group, led by the neuroscientist Loren Frank of the University of California, San Francisco, investigated the activity of cells in the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped brain region known to play crucial roles both in navigation and in the storage and retrieval of memories. They gave extra attention to neurons called place cells, nicknamed “the brain’s GPS” because they mentally map an animal’s location as it moves through space. Place cells have been shown to fire very rapidly in particular sequences as an animal moves through its environment. The activity corresponds to a sweep in position from just behind the animal to just ahead of it. (Studies have demonstrated that these forward sweeps also contain information about the locations of goals or rewards.) These patterns of neural activity, called theta cycles, repeat roughly eight times per second in rats and represent a constantly updated virtual trajectory for the animals. All Rights Reserved © 2020

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 3: Neurophysiology: The Generation, Transmission, and Integration of Neural Signals
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 2: Neurophysiology: The Generation, Transmission, and Integration of Neural Signals
Link ID: 27070 - Posted: 02.25.2020

By Sue Halpern During the 2016 Presidential primary, SPARK Neuro, a company that uses brain waves and other physiological signals to delve into the subliminal mind, decided to assess people’s reactions to the Democratic candidates. The company had not yet launched, but its C.E.O., Spencer Gerrol, was eager to refine its technology. In a test designed to uncover how people are actually feeling, as opposed to how they say they are feeling, SPARK Neuro observed, among other things, that the cadence of Bernie Sanders’s voice grabbed people’s attention, while Hillary Clinton’s measured tones were a bore. A few months later, Katz Media Group, a radio-and-television-ad representative firm, hired Gerrol’s group to study a cohort of undecided voters in Florida and Pennsylvania. The company’s chief marketing officer, Stacey Schulman, picked SPARK Neuro because its algorithm took into account an array of neurological and physiological signals. “Subconscious emotion underlies conscious decision-making, which is interesting for the marketing world but critically important in the political realm,” Schulman told me. “This measures how the body is responding, and it happens before you articulate it.” Neuromarketing—gauging consumers’ feelings and beliefs by observing and measuring spontaneous, unmediated physiological responses to an ad or a sales pitch—is not new. “For a while, using neuroscience to do marketing was something of a fad, but it has been applied to commerce for a good ten years now,” Schulman said. Nielsen, the storied media-insight company, has a neuromarketing division. Google has been promoting what it calls “emotion analytics” to advertisers. A company called Realeyes claims to have trained artificial intelligence to “read emotions” through Webcams; another called Affectiva says that it “provides deep insight into unfiltered and unbiased consumer emotional response to brand content” through what it calls “facial coding.” Similarly, ZimGo Polling, a South Korean company that operates in the United States, has paired facial-recognition technology with “automated emotion understanding” and natural language processing to give “insights into how people feel about real-time issues,” and “thereby enables a virtual 24/7 town hall meeting with citizens.” This is crucial, according to the C.E.O. of ZimGo’s parent company, because “people vote on emotion.” © 2020 Condé Nast

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 27017 - Posted: 02.04.2020

Roger E. Beaty, Ph.D. When we think about creativity, the arts often come to mind. Most people would agree that writers, painters, and actors are all creative. This is what psychologists who study the subject refer to as Big-C creativity: publicly-recognizable, professional-level performance. But what about creativity on a smaller scale? This is what researchers refer to as little-c creativity, and it is something that we all possess and express in our daily lives, from inventing new recipes to performing a do-it-yourself project to thinking of clever jokes to entertain the kids. One way psychologists measure creative thinking is by asking people to think of uncommon uses for common objects, such as a cup or a cardboard box. Their responses can be analyzed on different dimensions, such as fluency (the total number of ideas) and originality. Surprisingly, many people struggle with this seemingly simple task, only suggesting uses that closely resemble the typical uses for the object. The same happens in other tests that demand ideas that go beyond what we already know (i.e., “thinking outside the box”). Such innovation tasks assess just one aspect of creativity. Many new tests are being developed that tap into other creative skills, from visuospatial abilities essential for design (like drawing) to scientific abilities important for innovation and discovery. But where do creative ideas come from, and what makes some people more creative than others? Contrary to romantic notions of a purely spontaneous process, increasing evidence from psychology and neuroscience experiments indicates that creativity requires cognitive effort—in part, to overcome the distraction and “stickiness” of prior knowledge (remember how people think of common uses when asked to devise creative ones). In light of these findings, we can consider general creative thinking as a dynamic interplay between the brain’s memory and control systems. Without memory, our minds would be a blank slate—not conducive to creativity, which requires knowledge and expertise. But without mental control, we wouldn’t be able to push thinking in new directions and avoid getting stuck on what we already know. © 2020 The Dana Foundation

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 26979 - Posted: 01.22.2020

Matthew Schafer and Daniela Schiller How do animals, from rats to humans, intuit shortcuts when moving from one place to another? Scientists have discovered mental maps in the brain that help animals picture the best routes from an internalized model of their environments. Physical space is not all that is tracked by the brain's mapmaking capacities. Cognitive models of the environment may be vital to mental processes, including memory, imagination, making inferences and engaging in abstract reasoning. Most intriguing is the emerging evidence that maps may be involved in tracking the dynamics of social relationships: how distant or close individuals are to one another and where they reside within group hierarchies. We are often told that there are no shortcuts in life. But the brain—even the brain of a rat—is wired in a way that completely ignores this kind of advice. The organ, in fact, epitomizes a shortcut-finding machine. The first indication that the brain has a knack for finding alternative routes was described in 1948 by Edward Tolman of the University of California, Berkeley. Tolman performed a curious experiment in which a hungry rat ran across an unpainted circular table into a dark, narrow corridor. The rat turned left, then right, and then took another right and scurried to the far end of a well-lit narrow strip, where, finally, a cup of food awaited. There were no choices to be made. The rat had to follow the one available winding path, and so it did, time and time again, for four days. On the fifth day, as the rat once again ran straight across the table into the corridor, it hit a wall—the path was blocked. The animal went back to the table and started looking for alternatives. Overnight, the circular table had turned into a sunburst arena. Instead of one track, there were now 18 radial paths to explore, all branching off from the sides of the table. After venturing out a few inches on a few different paths, the rat finally chose to run all the way down path number six, the one leading directly to the food. © 2020 Scientific American,

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 26961 - Posted: 01.15.2020

By Sarah Bate Alice is six years old. She struggles to make friends at school and often sits alone in the playground. She loses her parents in the supermarket and approaches strangers at pickup. Once she became separated from her family on a trip to the zoo, and she now has an intense fear of crowded places. Alice has a condition called face blindness, also known as prosopagnosia. This difficulty in recognising facial identity affects 2 percent of the population. Like Alice, most of these people are born with the condition, although a small number acquire face-recognition difficulties after brain injury or illness. Unfortunately, face blindness seems largely resilient to improvement. Yet a very recent study offers more promising findings: children’s face-recognition skills substantially improved after they played a modified version of the game Guess Who?over a two-week period. In the traditional version of Guess Who?, two players see an array of 24 cartoon faces, and each selects a target. Both then take turns asking yes/no questions about the appearance of their opponent’s chosen face, typically inquiring about eye color, hairstyle and accessories such as hats or spectacles. The players use the answers to eliminate faces in the array; when only one remains, they can guess the identity of their opponent’s character. The experimental version of the game preserved this basic setup but used lifelike faces that differed only in the size or spacing of the eyes, nose or mouth. That is, the hairstyle and outer face shape were identical, and children had to read the faces solely on the basis of small differences between the inner features. This manipulation is thought to reflect a key processing strategy that underlies human face recognition: the ability to account not only for the size and shape of features but also the spacing between them. Evidence suggests this ability to process faces “holistically” is impaired in face blindness. The Guess Who? training program aimed to capitalize on this link. Children progressed through 10 levels of the game, with differences between the inner features becoming progressively less obvious. Children played for half an hour per day on any 10 days over a two-week period, advancing to the next level when they won the game on two consecutive rounds. © 2019 Scientific American

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 26921 - Posted: 12.27.2019

By Gretchen Reynolds Top athletes’ brains are not as noisy as yours and mine, according to a fascinating new study of elite competitors and how they process sound. The study finds that the brains of fit, young athletes dial down extraneous noise and attend to important sounds better than those of other young people, suggesting that playing sports may change brains in ways that alter how well people sense and respond to the world around them. For most of us with normal hearing, of course, listening to and processing sounds are such automatic mental activities that we take them for granted. But “making sense of sound is actually one of the most complex jobs we ask of our brains,” says Nina Kraus, a professor and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who oversaw the new study. Sound processing also can be a reflection of broader brain health, she says, since it involves so many interconnected areas of the brain that must coordinate to decide whether any given sound is familiar, what it means, if the body should respond and how a particular sound fits into the broader orchestration of other noises that constantly bombard us. For some time, Dr. Kraus and her collaborators have been studying whether some people’s brains perform this intricate task more effectively than others. By attaching electrodes to people’s scalps and then playing a simple sound, usually the spoken syllable “da,” at irregular intervals, they have measured and graphed electrical brain wave activity in people’s sound-processing centers. © 2019 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 11: Motor Control and Plasticity
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 5: The Sensorimotor System
Link ID: 26901 - Posted: 12.18.2019