Thursday, February 28, 2013

Songbirds' Brains Coordinate Singing With Intricate Timing

As a bird sings, some neurons in its brain prepare to make the next sounds while others are synchronized with the current notes—a coordination of physical actions and brain activity that is needed to produce complex movements, new research at the University of Chicago shows. In an article in the current issue of Nature, neuroscientist Daniel Margoliash and colleagues show, for the first time, how the brain is organized to govern skilled performance—a finding that may lead to new ways of understanding human speech production. . . . "One fascinating observation we made really surprised us: that the forebrain neurons fire precisely at the time a sound transition is being produced," Margoliash explained. "But it takes far too much time for the activity in the forebrain to influence the bird's sound box in the periphery," Margoliash continued. The neurons that the team investigated are tracking and encoding particular moments in song but are not directly controlling them. "Lower levels of the brain are controlling the sound output, but the timing of these neurons suggest that they are helping to evaluate feedback from the produced sound." more

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Roots of Language in Human and Bird Biology

The genes activated for human speech are similar to the ones used by singing songbirds, new experiments suggest. These results, which are not yet published, show that gene products produced for speech in the cortical and basal ganglia regions of the human brain correspond to similar molecules in the vocal communication areas of the brains of zebra finches and budgerigars. But these molecules aren't found in the brains of doves and quails -- vocal birds that do not learn their sounds. "The results suggest that similar behavior and neural connectivity for a convergent complex trait like speech and song are associated with many similar genetic changes," said Duke neurobiologist Erich Jarvis, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. more

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Game Changer: Gaming in Healthcare

[G]aming can affect health, from improving lifestyle habits and behaviour modification, to self-management, through to motivating and supporting physical activity. Games are also increasingly used to train healthcare professionals in methods for diagnosis, medical procedures, patient monitoring, as well as for responding to epidemics and natural disasters. In 2009, Rich Hilleman, chief creative officer of Electronic Arts, said: "I would like to be in a business where my game is prescribed by doctors – like Bayer Aspirin was to my dad after his stroke."...Game mechanics have been a successful teaching aid for many years, from flight-training simulations to a three-dimensional anatomy programmes. Gaming strategies are increasingly relevant to the way in which brands can influence consumer behaviour across health education, physical therapy, disease management, rehab, training and nutrition. more

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Five Examples of How the Languages We Speak Can Affect the Way We Think

Economist Keith Chen starts today’s talk with an observation: to say, “This is my uncle,” in Chinese, you have no choice but to encode more information about said uncle. The language requires that you denote the side the uncle is on, whether he’s related by marriage or birth and, if it’s your father’s brother, whether he’s older or younger. “All of this information is obligatory. Chinese doesn’t let me ignore it,” says Chen. “In fact, if I want to speak correctly, Chinese forces me to constantly think about it.” This got Chen wondering: Is there a connection between language and how we think and behave? In particular, Chen wanted to know: does our language affect our economic decisions?
Chen designed a study...to look at how language might affect individual’s ability to save for the future. According to his results, it does — big time. more

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Love of Musical Harmony Is Not Nature but Nurture

Our love of music and appreciation of musical harmony is learnt and not based on natural ability, a new study by University of Melbourne researchers has found.Associate Professor Neil McLachlan from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences said previous theories about how we appreciate music were based on the physical properties of sound, the ear itself and an innate ability to hear harmony. "Our study shows that musical harmony can be learnt and it is a matter of training the brain to hear the sounds," Associate Professor McLachlan said. "What we found was that people needed to be familiar with sounds created by combinations of notes before they could hear the individual notes. If they couldn't find the notes they found the sound dissonant or unpleasant," he said. more

Monday, February 18, 2013

NPR on The Science of Consequences

In the course of a day you make lots of decisions and each one has a consequence.  Sometimes very trivial, other times the consequence may be profound.  Today on Central Standard, we look into the subject of the science of consequences with Susan Schneider, author of The Science of Consequences: How They Affect Genes, Change the Brain, and Impact Our WorldWe look at negative and positive outcomes to our behavior and see how “enriched  environments” may be able to reverse damage to the brain. Find out how our gene pool isn’t unlike that of a yeast, a single cell amoeba, mice or even a banana.  We also learn about how the consequences relate parenting, marriage, work relationships and addiction among other things. more

Friday, February 15, 2013

Dog Spots the Dog: Dogs Recognize the Dog Species Among Several Other Species On a Computer Screen

Dogs pick out faces of other dogs, irrespective of breeds, among human and other domestic and wild animal faces and can group them into a category of their own. They do that using visual cues alone, according to new research by Dr. Dominique Autier-Dérian from the LEEC and National Veterinary School in Lyon in France and colleagues...Nine pet dogs were successfully trained through instrumental conditioning using a clicker and food rewards to choose a rewarded image, S+, out of two images displayed on computer screens. The generalization step consisted in the presentation of a large sample of paired images of heads of dogs from different breeds and cross-breeds with those of other mammal species, included humans. A reversal phase followed the generalization step. Each of the nine subjects was able to group all the images of dogs within the same category. Thus, the dogs have the capacity of species discrimination despite their great phenotypic variability, based only on visual images of heads. more

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Placebo Phenomenon

Two weeks into Ted Kaptchuk’s first randomized clinical drug trial, nearly a third of his 270 subjects complained of awful side effects. All the patients had joined the study hoping to alleviate severe arm pain: carpal tunnel, tendinitis, chronic pain in the elbow, shoulder, wrist. In one part of the study, half the subjects received pain-reducing pills; the others were offered acupuncture treatments. And in both cases, people began to call in, saying they couldn’t get out of bed. The pills were making them sluggish, the needles caused swelling and redness; some patients’ pain ballooned to nightmarish levels. “The side effects were simply amazing,” Kaptchuk explains; curiously, they were exactly what patients had been warned their treatment might produce. But even more astounding, most of the other patients reported real relief, and those who received acupuncture felt even better than those on the anti-pain pill. These were exceptional findings: no one had ever proven that acupuncture worked better than painkillers. But Kaptchuk’s study didn’t prove it, either. The pills his team had given patients were actually made of cornstarch; the “acupuncture” needles were retractable shams that never pierced the skin. The study wasn’t aimed at comparing two treatments. It was designed to compare two fakes. more

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Daphne Koller: What We're Learning From Online Education

Daphne Koller is enticing top universities to put their most intriguing courses online for free -- not just as a service, but as a way to research how people learn. With Coursera (cofounded by Andrew Ng), each keystroke, quiz, peer-to-peer discussion and self-graded assignment builds an unprecedented pool of data on how knowledge is processed. With Coursera, Daphne Koller and co-founder Andrew Ng are bringing courses from top colleges online, free, for anyone who wants to take them. more

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pressing the Bar: How Technology Has Hijacked Our Brains

As an undergraduate at Harvard in the 1960s, I was fascinated by my visits to psychologist B.F. Skinner's laboratory...One of Skinner's seminal insights: The way to inspire the most persistent bar-pressing was to give the rats an intermittent reward...Fast-forward 50 years. Each day as I travel through downtown Tucson, I am amazed at how quickly the most ancient of human behaviors have changed. For as long as there have been Homo sapiens -- roughly 200,000 years -- people have filled their lives principally with two activities: talking directly -- with other people, and doing physical things. Both of these required -- and cultivated -- physical effort and an ability to defer reward, but they ultimately led to lives that people usually found fulfilling. Now, in coffee shops, at bus stops, sitting in parked cars, I find it increasingly common that people hardly speak to those in their immediate vicinity, and barely seem to move. Entire groups sit motionless, stare, and tap, tap, tap at their phones. more

Friday, February 08, 2013

For Dung Beetles, Milky Way is Guiding Light

When humans gaze up at the night sky, they may view the fuzzy streak of the Milky Way and contemplate their place in the universe. When dung beetles see the Milky Way, their thoughts turn to keeping their food source away from other insects. Scientists have found that these inch-long creatures use the glowing edge of the galaxy to guide them as they roll their balls of dung across the African landscape. The report, published online Thursday by the journal Current Biology, provides the first documentation of animals using the Milky Way for navigation. more

Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Most Sadistic Apps That Force You to Get Stuff Done

Sometimes willpower is hard to muster up without a little poking from exterior sources. Thankfully, if you prefer a little masochism or negative reinforcement from your apps, you have plenty of options for getting into shape, waking up, and breaking bad habits. While we certainly prefer a more non-sadistic approach to getting things done, that doesn't work for everyone. Sometimes, the best way to get yourself into a good habit it is to do it publicly, with a little shame on top. If you prefer a slap on the wrist to a high-five, here are the apps that'll give it to you. more

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Power of Suggestion...or Deception?

Psychology may be simultaneously at the highest and lowest point in its history. Right now its niftiest findings are routinely simplified and repackaged for a mass audience; if you wish to publish a best seller sans bloodsucking or light bondage, you would be well advised to match a few dozen psychological papers with relatable anecdotes and a grabby, one-word title. That isn't true across the board. Researchers engaged in more technical work on, say, the role of grapheme units in word recognition must comfort themselves with the knowledge that science is, by its nature, incremental. But a social psychologist with a sexy theory has star potential...At the same time, psychology has been beset with scandal and doubt. Formerly high-flying researchers like Diederik Stapel, Marc Hauser, and Dirk Smeesters saw their careers implode after allegations that they had cooked their results and managed to slip them past the supposedly watchful eyes of peer reviewers. Psychology isn't the only field with fakers, but it has its share. Plus there's the so-called file-drawer problem, that is, the tendency for researchers to publish their singular successes and ignore their multiple failures, making a fluke look like a breakthrough. Fairly or not, social psychologists are perceived to be less rigorous in their methods, generally not replicating their own or one another's work, instead pressing on toward the next headline-making outcome. more

Monday, February 04, 2013

Rats, Like Humans, Return to Drinking Once Punishment is Removed

"The better our animal models fit human alcoholism, the more our animal research will help us to understand the complexity of the human disorder and to develop new treatments," commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. Currently, the most commonly employed techniques to achieve alcohol abstinence in animal work are forced abstinence and/or extinction training, where a lever press that used to consistently deliver alcohol no longer does so. These models of relapse are limited because they do not incorporate behaviors that mimic a human's desire to avoid negative consequences of drinking. To address this divergence between animal models and the human condition, Nathan Marchant and colleagues developed a rat relapse model in which voluntary alcohol intake is suppressed by punishment in an environment that is different from the original alcohol intake environment. They showed that when rats were re-exposed to the original alcohol self-administration environment, after suppression of alcohol intake in a different environment by punishment, they immediately relapsed to alcohol seeking. more

Friday, February 01, 2013

Modifying Game Player Behavior Using Positive Reinforcement

What does a game developer do when its players have a bit of a reputation for being insufferable jerks? It hires a team of psychologists to tackle complex behavior modification problems with one of the oldest tricks in the book...I recently learned about efforts by Riot Games, makers of League of Legends, aimed at improving player behavior. Riot actually has a "Player Behavior Team" consisting of psychologists, human factors specialists, statisticians, and similarly educated folks who stand around in lab coats and experiment with ways to make League of Legends players act with greater sportsmanship. It's a hugely complex problem, but Riot seems to be using a simple behavior modification trick straight out of Psych 101 to tackle it: operant conditioning through positive reinforcement of desirable behavior. more