Friday, June 28, 2013

Does Life Have a Purpose?

One of my favorite dinosaurs is the Stegosaurus, a monster from the late Jurassic (150 million years ago), noteworthy because of the diamond-like plates all the way down its back. Since this animal was discovered in the late 1870s in Wyoming, huge amounts of ink have been spilt trying to puzzle out the reason for the plates...But this essay is not concerned with dinosaurs themselves, rather with the kind of thinking biologists use when they wonder how dinosaur bodies worked. They are asking what was the purpose of the plates? What end did the plates serve? Were they for fighting? Were they for attracting mates? Were they for heat control? This kind of language is ‘teleological’ — from telos, the Greek for ‘end’. It is language about the purpose or goal of things, what Aristotle called their ‘final causes’, and it is something that the physical sciences have decisively rejected. There’s no sense for most scientists that a star is for anything, or that a molecule serves an end. But when we come to talk about living things, it seems very hard to shake off the idea that they have purposes and goals, which are served by the ways they have evolved. more

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Computer-Enabled Socks Help Track Your Personal Fitness

If you are a fitness buff and just have this constant urge to exercise, then this may be for you. This latest wearable technology claims to beat the current top of the line wrist fitness trackers with improved accuracy and convenience. Heapsylon is a small start up company located in Redmond, Washington with special focus on body sensing devices for the human foot...So what exactly is their product? Their product is called the "senSoria" which is a computer embedded in socks to track even the slightest movements. Equipped with the proper software analysis technology, every movement can produce valuable data detailing the ways you use your body. Furthermore, this can help to better understand how one can improve and improve on their performance and goals. more

DIY Money-Shredding Alarm Clock Motivates You to Wake Up

You've tried waking up with loud noises and multiple alarm clocks, but you just can't get out of bed in the morning. If you're looking for some motivation, this DIY alarm clock will slowly shred money until you get out of bed to stop it...As of right now, it looks like the clock is just a concept, and we can't find the original designer. However, if you're feeling desperate for motivation in the morning, we realized you could hack one together yourself with a paper shredder and an indoor outlet timer. Just set the timer to turn on at your designated wake-up time, stick a bill in the shredder, and haul your ass out of bed when it goes off in the morning. more

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lifestyle Gamification With The Basis B1 Fitness Tracker

Starting a new routine is easy, maintaining it is hard. The Basis B1 is perfectly aware of this problem. They know that there’s a gap between when we initiate new exercise habits and when we actually start seeing results. Most of us quit in this gap. Our desire for instant gratification is more easily satiated by one of those trendy all-natural artisan fast-food joints that keep popping up in urban centers...Luckily, keeping you on track is where the B1 shines. The idea is that because the web interface shows your progress, you will sustain motivation in the difficult beginning phase. You get bonus points for consistency and those points can be used to unlock–or level-up–to your next achievement. See, the Basis B1 is built around habits. You select physical behaviors using the web (and forthcoming mobile apps) and after you’ve made them habits, you can unlock more. In this way, the Basis B1 stands apart from the other fitness wristbands and clips on the market. It is truly designed as a gamifying and motivating product, not just a fitness tracker. more

Monday, June 24, 2013

Trust in Science Would be Improved by Study Pre-Registration

In an ideal world, scientific discoveries would be independent of what scientists wanted to discover. A good researcher would begin with an idea, devise a method to test the idea, run the study as planned, and then decide based on the evidence whether the idea had been supported. Following this approach would lead us step-by-step toward a better understanding of nature. Unfortunately, the life sciences are becoming increasingly estranged from this way of thinking...This publishing culture is toxic to science. Recent studies have shown how intense career pressures encourage life scientists to engage in a range of questionable practices to generate publications – behaviours such as cherry-picking data or analyses that allow clear narratives to be presented, reinventing the aims of a study after it has finished to "predict" unexpected findings, and failing to ensure adequate statistical power. These are not the actions of a small minority; they are common, and result from the environment and incentive structures that most scientists work within. more

Friday, June 21, 2013

By Trying It All, Predatory Sea Slug Learns What Not to Eat

Researchers have found that a type of predatory sea slug that usually isn't picky when it comes to what it eats has more complex cognitive abilities than previously thought, allowing it to learn the warning cues of dangerous prey and thereby avoid them in the future. The research appears in the Journal of Experimental Biology..."I had a Pleurobranchaea in a small aquarium that we were about to do a physiological experiment with, and my supplier from Monterey had just sent me these beautiful Spanish shawls," Gillette said. "So I said to the visitor, 'Would you like to see Pleurobranchaea eat another animal?'" Gillette placed the Spanish shawl into the aquarium. The Pleurobranchaea approached, smelled, and bit the purple and orange newcomer. However, the Flabellina's cerata stung the Pleurobranchaea, the Spanish shawl was rejected and left to do its typical "flamenco dance of escape," and Pleurobranchaea also managed to escape with an avoidance turn. Some minutes later, his curiosity piqued, Gillette placed the Spanish shawl back into the aquarium with the Pleurobranchaea. Rather than try to eat the Spanish shawl a second time, the Pleurobranchaea immediately started its avoidance turn. "I had never seen that before! We began testing them and found that they were learning the odor of the Spanish shawl very specifically and selectively," Gillette said. more

Thursday, June 20, 2013

New Tasks Become as Simple as Waving a Hand with Brain-Computer Interfaces

Small electrodes placed on or inside the brain allow patients to interact with computers or control robotic limbs simply by thinking about how to execute those actions. This technology could improve communication and daily life for a person who is paralyzed or has lost the ability to speak from a stroke or neurodegenerative disease. Now, University of Washington researchers have demonstrated that when humans use this technology – called a brain-computer interface – the brain behaves much like it does when completing simple motor skills such as kicking a ball, typing or waving a hand. Learning to control a robotic arm or a prosthetic limb could become second nature for people who are paralyzed. more

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Classical Conditioning, Phobias, and Drug Tolerance? Scientists Identify Neurons That Control Feeding Behavior in Drosophila

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School have developed a novel transgenic system which allows them to remotely activate individual brain cells in the model organism Drosophila using ambient temperature. This powerful new tool for identifying and characterizing neural circuitry has lead to the identification of a pair of neurons -- now called Fdg neurons -- in the fruit fly that decide when to eat and initiate the subsequent feeding action. Discovery of these neurons may help neurobiologists better understand how the brain uses memory and stimuli to produce classically conditioned responses, such as those often associated with phobias or drug tolerance. The study appears in the journal Nature. more

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Problem With Psychiatry, the "DSM," and the Way We Study Mental Illness

Psychiatry is under attack for not being scientific enough, but the real problem is its blindness to culture. When it comes to mental illness, we wear the disorders that come off the rack...The DSM determines which mental disorders are worthy of insurance reimbursement, legal standing, and serious discussion in American life. That its diagnoses are not more scientific is, according to several prominent critics, a scandal. In a major blow to the APA’s dominance over mental-health diagnoses, Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, recently declared that his organization would no longer rely on the DSM as a guide to funding research. “The weakness is its lack of validity,” he wrote. “Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure. In the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever.” more

Monday, June 17, 2013

Automated "Coach" Could Help with Social Interactions

Social phobias affect about 15 million adults in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and surveys show that public speaking is high on the list of such phobias. For some people, these fears of social situations can be especially acute: For example, individuals with Asperger’s syndrome often have difficulty making eye contact and reacting appropriately to social cues. But with appropriate training, such difficulties can often be overcome. Now, new software developed at MIT can be used to help people practice their interpersonal skills until they feel more comfortable with situations such as a job interview or a first date. The software, called MACH (short for My Automated Conversation coacH), uses a computer-generated onscreen face, along with facial, speech, and behavior analysis and synthesis software, to simulate face-to-face conversations. It then provides users with feedback on their interactions. more

Friday, June 14, 2013

Apes, Toddler Show That Language May Have Evolved From Gestures

What do a chimpanzee, a bonobo and a toddler all have in common? They all use gestures to communicate. By studying hours of video of a female chimp named Panpanzee, a female bonobo named Panbanisha and a little girl with the initials GN, a team of psychologists hope to gain some insight into how spoken language evolved in humans...“This is one line of evidence for the gestural foundation of human language evolution,” the wrote...“The most basic finding … is the similarity of gestures among bonobo, chimpanzee, and human child at comparable periods of development,” the research team wrote. For all three species, these gestures were most often considered “communicative” because they were paired with eye contact, a vocalization or persistence. The biggest difference was the GN was far more likely to combine her gestures with some type of vocalization. more

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Do Antidepressants Impair the Ability to Extinguish Fear?

An interesting new report of animal research published in Biological Psychiatry suggests that common antidepressant medications may impair a form of learning that is important clinically. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, commonly called SSRIs, are a class of antidepressant widely used to treat depression, as well as a range of anxiety disorders, but the effects of these drugs on learning and memory are poorly understood. In a previous study, Nesha Burghardt, then a graduate student at New York University, and her colleagues demonstrated that long-term SSRI treatment impairs fear conditioning in rats. As a follow-up, they have now tested the effects of antidepressant treatment on extinction learning in rats using auditory fear conditioning, a model of fear learning that involves the amygdala. The amygdala is a region of the brain vitally important for processing memory and emotion. They found that long-term, but not short-term, SSRI treatment impairs extinction learning, which is the ability to learn that a conditioned stimulus no longer predicts an aversive event. more

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Personality Is the Result of Nurture, Not Nature, Suggests Study (on Birds)

Personality is not inherited from birth parents says new research on zebra finches. External factors are likely to play a bigger part in developing the personality of an individual than the genes it inherits from its parents, suggests the study. Researchers at the University of Exeter and the University of Hamburg investigated how personality is transferred between generations. They found that foster parents have a greater influence on the personalities of fostered offspring than the genes inherited from birth parents. more

Latest Issue of "Operants: A Newsletter from the B. F. Skinner Foundation"

The latest issue (second quarter, 2013) of Operants: A Newsletter from the B. F. Skinner Foundation is now available online. more

Monday, June 10, 2013

Skinner Marketing: We're the Rats, and Facebook Likes Are the Reward

One of the most popular announcements at Google's recent developers conference was the new version of Google Maps, which has a lot of spiffy new bells and whistles, to be sure. But there's an ominous side note here: The new Google Maps for mobile devices allows marketers to offer products and deals based on the consumer's physical location. We're entering the age of Skinnerian Marketing. Future applications making use of big data, location, maps, tracking of a browser's interests, and data streams coming from mobile and wearable devices, promise to usher in the era of unprecedented power in the hands of marketers, who are no longer merely appealing to our innate desires, but programming our behaviors. And the new Google Maps is just the start. Google, Facebook, Twitter, retailers, and thousands of application developers are now positioned to keep users engaged on Web sites and program behaviors. That is, to operant condition them. more

Adaptive Behavior of Golden Mantled Squirrels

Arranged and photographed by Lester F. Beck, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon. Beck also wrote the script for Human Growth, the first sex education film shown in Oregon schools in 1948. Filmed in part at Crater Lake, OR. Shows golden-mantled ground squirrels (which resemble, but are not, chipmunks) first at play in the wild, and then learning increasingly complicated tasks in a lab (coerced by nuts). Silent short full of unintentional humor and pathos. Was the basis for the popular educational film Squeak the Squirrel (1957). more

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Behavioral Economics and the Psychology of Energy Savings

“For the past five years we’ve been running the largest behavioral science experiment in the world,” says Alex Laskey in today’s TED Talk, given at this year’s 2013 conference in Long Beach. “And, it’s working.” Laskey’s company Opower partners with utility companies to deliver personalized home energy reports, all based off the insight that people are more inclined to take action on an issue when they think other people are doing better than they are. People’s energy consumption changes for the better after receiving these reports — either in the mail or through their app and website — and the effects appear to be long-lasting. This year, Laskey says, Opower expects to inspire 2 terawatt hours (TWh) in saved electricity. That’s enough to power a city of more than a quarter million people for a year. This idea was sparked by a study run a decade ago by Arizona State University psychology professor, Robert Cialdini, who conducted an experiment to see what might make people turn off their air conditioner, and turn on their fan. Might money persuade them? Or an appeal to their better selves? Or the thought of saving the planet? Nope, nope and nope. Turns out, the one surefire way to get people to do something was to tell them their neighbors were already doing it. more

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Center for the History of Psychology "Book of the Month": The Behavior of Organisms

The Behavior of Organisms, Skinner’s first book, was a landmark publication in the field of psychology. In this work, Skinner laid out his novel ideas about operant behavior and the study of behavior change. These ideas would eventually impact not only psychology, but also education, industry, animal training, and other fields of work. more

Monday, June 03, 2013

High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society

Carl Hart wants drug policy to go where science takes it. The rest of us may not be so ready.
The 46-year-old associate professor at Columbia University is out next month with a new book called High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. That long title covers the two sides of Hart's claim to special insight on drugs: his early life growing up in the roughest neighborhoods of Miami, and his remarkable transformation into a researcher upending long-received wisdoms about substance use and abuse. Everything we've been told about drugs is wrong, Hart says. The vast majority of drug users never become addicted. Cops, politicians and the media have consistently told us scare stories overstating the effects of drugs, misinterpreting the science around them in the process. Hart's own research is notable for focusing on drugs administered to humans, not rats, in a lab. It has cut against the prevailing conventional wisdom that, for example, crack-cocaine users don't respond to economic alternatives. more