December 6, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

News on the Mind

Here are a dozen recent stories dealing with brains, the mind, perception, motivation and other aspects of psychology and neuroscience.

  1. Nature and nurture:  PhysOrg claims that scientists at SMU have resolved the nature vs nurture debate with a hybrid approach.  Whether it satisfies critics remains to be seen.  Perhaps they are still thinking inside the box by overlooking factors outside those two.
  2. Profit motive:  A Caltech neuroscientist wrote in PNAS that removing financial incentives demotivates the brain.1  He commented on a paper by Murayama et al. that indicates that “extrinsic incentives (e.g., pay) can undermine intrinsic incentives (e.g., fun).”  He cautioned, “Increased incentives should be applied carefully, because removing them might damage or destroy a preexisting intrinsic incentive.”
  3. Aspire to be Neanderthal:  My, how anthropology has changed its view of Neanderthal Man.  “They were technologically savvy, creative and cultured,” began an article on New Scientist.  “So maybe it’s time we accepted that Neanderthals were people just like us.”
  4. Believing is seeing:  Science Daily reported on work by the Wellcome Trust that indicates our perception of the world is a function of the size of our visual cortex.  Since the size of that part of the brain can differ by a factor of three from one individual to the next, we may each see the world differently to some extent.  An optical illusion accompanies the article.  “Optical illusions mystify and inspire our imagination, but in truth they show us that how we see the world is not necessarily physically accurate, but rather depends a lot on our brains.”
  5. False witness:  Americans exaggerate about church attendance, an article on PhysOrg claims.  A U of Michigan researcher said, “In the U.S., and to a lesser extent in Canada, the gap between what we say and what we do is substantial, and has been so for the last several decades.”  Some people may claim church attendance more as a statement of identity and self-concept than behavior.
  6. Walk for life:  Taking walks may stave off Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline, radiologists said in Science Daily.
  7. Color me blue:  Matt Crump, a cognitive psychologist at Vanderbilt, was interviewed by Live Science.  He talked about his work on learning, attention, memory, and learning to play the blues.
  8. Easy cheating:  Science Daily talked about game experiments by U of Toronto psychologists that made it easy to cheat, and headlined, “Why Do People Behave Badly?  Maybe It’s Just Too Easy.”  The article made no mention of conscience.
  9. Rapid aural convergence coding:  “Coding” is a word becoming more frequent in papers about sense perception.  Researchers at the University of Wisconsin analyzed how rapidly listeners can correlate acoustic inputs.  The abstract in PNAS stated,2 

    Natural sounds are complex, typically changing along multiple acoustic dimensions that covary in accord with physical laws governing sound-producing sources.  We report that, after passive exposure to novel complex sounds, highly correlated features initially collapse onto a single perceptual dimension, capturing covariance at the expense of unitary stimulus dimensions.  Discriminability of sounds respecting the correlation is maintained, but is temporarily lost for sounds orthogonal or oblique to experienced covariation.  Following extended experience, perception of variance not captured by the correlation is restored, but weighted only in proportion to total experienced covariance….  Predictions from the principal components analysis model also match evolving listener performance in two discrimination tasks absent passive listening.  These demonstrations of adaptation to correlated attributes provide direct behavioral evidence for efficient coding.

  10. Hunting for nature:  Why do hunters hunt?  At least in Wisconsin, connecting to nature is one top motivation, reported PhysOrg.
  11. The speaking brain:  Language cannot be isolated to just one region of the brain.  Researchers found “rich connections throughout the brain that have not traditionally been associated with language, but are now found to tie together key areas important for understanding language,” said Science Daily about work by the Society for Neuroscience.  “The results revealed a far more extensive network for language functions than current models would predict.
  12. Spider eyes:  They’re not just for magical potions any more.  Elizabeth Jakob at the University of Massachusetts is tracking the eye movements of spiders to learn about how their brains process sensory information.  According to Science Daily, she shows videos to jumping spiders and monitors their eye movements.  “It’s like having a window into a spider’s brain,” she said.
        “Densely packed with photoreceptors, the retina gives the spider high-resolution vision rivaling that of primates,” the article said – only jumping spiders have eight eyes, each equipped with muscles that allow them to focus on objects like aiming a flashlight beam.  Their vision is very effective, too: “they need to quickly sift all sorts of visual information and decide whether they are seeing a threat, a potential mate or a delicious treat,” the article continued; “This sorting through incoming stimuli is the same problem other animals face, including humans.”  They do all this with a brain that could fit on the head of a pin.

1.  Colin F. Camerer, “Removing financial incentives demotivates the brain,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online before print November 29, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1016108107.
2.  Stilp, Rogers and Kluender, “Rapid efficient coding of correlated complex acoustic properties,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online before print November 22, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1009020107.

We can use our brains to study the brain, just as we can study the eye using the eye, or think about thinking.  But to think about where thinking came from, we need to think outside the materialistic box.  Then, the brain, the eye, and the senses make sense, and are seen for the designed wonders they are.

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