Monday, June 30, 2014

Fruit Flies Help Scientists Uncover Genes Responsible for Human Communication

The evolution of language in humans continues to perplex scientists and linguists who study how humans learn to communicate. Considered by some as "operant learning," this multi-tiered trait involves many genes and modification of an individual's behavior by trial and error. Toddlers acquire communication skills by babbling until what they utter is rewarded; however, the genes involved in learning language skills are far from completely understood. Now, using a gene identified in fruit flies by a University of Missouri researcher, scientists involved in a global consortium have discovered a crucial component of the origin of language in humans. more

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Once Viewed as a Flaw, Variability Now Appears Critical to Learning

Though variability is often portrayed as a flaw to be overcome, a new study conducted by Maurice Smith, the Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Bioengineering, and Bence Ölveczky, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences, suggests that variability in motor function is a key feature of the nervous system that helps lead to better ways to perform a particular action. The study is described in a Jan. 12 paper published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. “I think this changes the paradigm of how we think about motor variability and performance,” Ölveczky said. “In human performance, variability is usually thought of as a consequence of noise in the nervous system — it’s something we’re trying to overcome. What we’re trying to understand is whether variability might be useful. The question is: Does the nervous system perhaps use that variability as a feature to improve learning?” more

Friday, June 20, 2014

I Don't Want to Be Right: Why Do People Persist in Believing Things That Just Aren't True?

Last month, Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth, published the results of a study that he and a team of pediatricians and political scientists had been working on for three years. They had followed a group of almost two thousand parents, all of whom had at least one child under the age of seventeen, to test a simple relationship: Could various pro-vaccination campaigns change parental attitudes toward vaccines? Each household received one of four messages: a leaflet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that there had been no evidence linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (M.M.R.) vaccine and autism; a leaflet from the Vaccine Information Statement on the dangers of the diseases that the M.M.R. vaccine prevents; photographs of children who had suffered from the diseases; and a dramatic story from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about an infant who almost died of measles. A control group did not receive any information at all. The goal was to test whether facts, science, emotions, or stories could make people change their minds. The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. None of the interventions worked. more

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Pavlovian Response and Drug Overdose

There are a limited amount of places where one can do drugs. Of those places, drug users select a certain few places where they prefer to do drugs, and then do drugs most often at a select number of places that are convenient. Essentially, a regular drug user will often have a regular place to take their drugs. After they've done drugs regularly in the same place, the connection is made. A bathroom, a bedroom, a certain club, will always be associated with drug use. People trying to quit drugs often talk about how they have to avoid their old haunts, because they feel a rush of anticipation. That rush is not just mental. Scientists learned that putting a dog in a certain injection booth every day and injecting it with adrenaline produced a dog with bradycardia - a dangerously slow heartbeat - when they put the dog in the same booth but only injected it with a placebo. The dog's body was compensating for the adrenaline it anticipated. It was trying to reduce the dangerous effects of the adrenaline by slowing down the dog's heartbeat. A drug user's body does the same. more

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

On Human Nurture

“I began really as a disciple of British empiricism,” Prinz says, espresso machine frothing in the background. His primary intellectual antecedent and inspiration is David Hume, a towering figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. For Prinz, one of Hume’s most persuasive arguments is that core human values are something we construct in society—“something that we need to invent as opposed to thinking of it as something that’s handed down by theological dictate,” he says. Prinz never suggests that genetic and biological considerations should be absent, but cautions against overreliance on such explanations. Near the end of his least technical book, Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind (W. W. Norton, 2012), he writes, “Every cultural trait is really a biocultural trait—every trait that we acquire through learning involves an interaction between biology and the environment.” But in chapters on human intelligence, language, gender, and more, Prinz makes the case that culture’s influence dwarfs that of biology. more

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Science, Trust And Psychology In Crisis

When I attended my first scientific conference at the tender age of 20, one of my mentors surprised me with the following bit of advice. Transcribed directly from memory: "You should be sure to attend the talk by so-and-so. You can always trust his results." This casual remark made a deep impression on me. What did trust have to do with anything? This was supposed to be science! Based on evidence! It shouldn't have mattered who performed the experiment, who delivered the talk or whose name was on the ensuing publication...This notion of trust didn't stem from fears of fraud or deception. When a result was approached with some skepticism, it wasn't that data fabrication was ever suspected, or that anyone assumed nefarious intent on the part of the scientists involved. So it took some personal experience conducting research and going through the publication process before I had a good sense for what was going on. And here's what I learned: There's a gap between what you get in a polished scientific presentation or publication and actual scientific practice — the minute details of what happens in the preparation, execution, analysis and reporting of every study. And that gap can be traversed with more or less diligence and care. The gap between practice and publication is one reason psychology is embroiled in what some are calling a "replication crisis" — a lack of confidence in the reality of many published psychological results. more

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Spatial Generalization in Operant Learning: Lessons from Professional Basketball

According to the law of effect, formulated a century ago by Edward Thorndike, actions which are rewarded in a particular situation are more likely to be executed when that same situation recurs. However, in natural settings the same situation never recurs and therefore, generalization from one state of the world to other states is an essential part of the process of learning. In this paper we utilize basketball statistics to study the computational principles underlying generalization in operant learning of professional basketball players. We show that players are more likely to attempt a field goal from the vicinity of a previously made shot than they are from the vicinity of a missed shot, as expected from the law of effect. However, the outcome of a shot can also affect the likelihood of attempting another shot at a different location. Using hierarchical clustering we characterize the spatial pattern of generalization and show that generalization is primarily determined by the type of shot, 3 pt vs. 2 pt. more

Thursday, June 05, 2014

App Paired with Sensor Measures Stress and Delivers Coping Advice in Real Time

Computer scientists at Microsoft Research and the University of California, San Diego have developed a system that combines a mobile application and sensor to detect stress in parents and delivers research-based strategies to help decrease that stress during emotionally charged interactions with their children. The system was initially tested on a small group of parents of children with ADHD. The system, called ParentGuardian, is the first to detect stress and present interventions in real-time—at the right time and in the right place. It combines a sensor worn on the wrist with a smart phone and tablet, as well as a server that analyses the data from the sensor. more

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Little Albert: The Search for Psychology's Lost Boy

The grainy, black-and-white footage, filmed in 1919 and 1920, documents what has become a classic psychology experiment, described again and again in articles and books. The idea is that the baby was conditioned to be afraid, instilled with a phobia of all things furry. The man in the tie is John Watson, the father of behaviorism, a foundational figure in psychology, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who rose from poverty to prominence only to watch his academic career cut short by scandal. When he’s remembered now, it’s often in connection with this experiment, his legacy forever entwined with the baby nicknamed Little Albert. The real identity of that baby has long intrigued students of psychology. Who was he? What happened to him? Did Watson really saddle the poor kid with a lifelong terror of animals? ... In 2009 the decades-old mystery of 'Little Albert' was finally solved. Or was it? more

Monday, June 02, 2014

"Free Choice" in Primates Altered Through Brain Stimulation

When electrical pulses are applied to the ventral tegmental area of their brain, macaques presented with two images change their preference from one image to the other. The study is the first to confirm a causal link between activity in the ventral tegmental area and choice behavior in primates...The study, which will be published online in the journal Current Biology on 16 June, is the first to confirm a causal link between activity in the ventral tegmental area and choice behaviour in primates. "In scans we found that electrically stimulating this tiny brain area activated the brain's entire reward system, just as it does spontaneously when a reward is received. more