Tag Archives | Cognition

Fear is the Mind Killer: Stress and Depression Shrinks the Brain

The low-grade existential despair inflicted by your day-to-day cubicle farm existence may actually be making you dumber: A team of Yale scientists have discovered that stress and depression can actually cause your brain to atrophy.
The research team analyzed tissue of depressed and non-depressed patients donated from a brain bank and looked for different patterns of gene activation. The brains of patients who had been depressed exhibited lower levels of expression in genes that are required for the function and structure of brain synapses. Lead author and postdoctoral researcher H.J. Kang discovered that at least five of these genes could be regulated by a single transcription factor called GATA1. When the transcription factor was activated, rodents exhibited depressive-like symptoms, suggesting GATA1 plays a role not only in the loss of connections between neurons but also in symptoms of depression.
Maybe the makers of Joe vs. The Volcano were on to something:
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Analytical Thinking Erodes Belief in God

The ThinkerDebora MacKenzie writes on New Scientist:

Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein famously did not believe in a supernatural God, and neither do some scientists today. It now appears there may be a good reason for this: thinking analytically dims supernatural beliefs, apparently by opposing the intuitive thought processes that underpin them.

The vast majority of people believe in a supernatural god or gods, says social psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of atheists and agnostics who do not. While scientists have begun to study the psychology of belief, we know little about what causes disbelief.

Humans use two separate cognitive systems for processing information: one that is fast, emotional and intuitive, and another that is slower and more analytical.

The first system innately imputes purpose, personality or mental states to objects, leading to supernatural beliefs. People who rely more on intuitive thinking are more likely to be believers, while the more analytical are less likely.

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Talking to Yourself Makes You Smarter

Taxi DriverJamie Condliffe writes on Gizmodo:

Talking to yourself is the preserve of mad men, right? Not according to a new study, which reveals that the seemingly irrational act of chatting to oneself actually improves cognitive function.

The research, carried out by Gary Lupyan and Daniel Swingley, was inspired the pair’s experiences of seeing people audibly muttering to themselves when trying to find items on supermarket shelves. To test whether speaking to oneself was actually beneficial, Lupyan and Swingley devised a set of experiments.

In one experiment, volunteers were shown 20 pictures of everyday objects of the same kind and asked to search out a specific one. Initially participants were shown a piece of text telling them which object to find and left to complete the task in silence. Then, in subsequent tests involving different objects, the participants were asked to repeatedly say the name of the object they were searching for.

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Left-Handed? You May Be Truly Different …

Via ScienceDaily:
We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, absorbing information, weighing it carefully, and making thoughtful decisions. But, as it turns out, we're kidding ourselves. Over the past few decades, scientists have shown there are many different internal and external factors influencing how we think, feel, communicate, and make decisions at any given moment. One particularly powerful influence may be our own bodies, according to new research reviewed in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Cognitive scientist Daniel Casasanto, of The New School for Social Research, has shown that quirks of our bodies affect our thinking in predictable ways, across many different areas of life, from language to mental imagery to emotion ...
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Inside The Octopus Mind

octoWho can think? Who can feel? Via Orion, the revelation that octopi — boneless creatures with brains the size of a walnut — seem to have immense intelligence, feelings, and personalities is challenging our understanding of what consciousness means and where it comes from:

I have always loved octopuses. No sci-fi alien is so startlingly strange. Here is someone who, even if she grows to one hundred pounds and stretches more than eight feet long, could still squeeze her body through an opening the size of an orange; an animal whose eight arms are covered with thousands of suckers that taste as well as feel; a mollusk with a beak like a parrot and venom like a snake and a tongue covered with teeth; a creature who can shape-shift, change color, and squirt ink. But most intriguing of all, recent research indicates that octopuses are remarkably intelligent.

Many times I have stood mesmerized by an aquarium tank, wondering, as I stared into the horizontal pupils of an octopus’s large, prominent eyes, if she was staring back at me—and if so, what was she thinking?

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Should All Human Beings Pop the (Theoretical) ‘Limitless’ Pill?

LimitlessYes, a pop culture way to ask a “Brave New World” question. Rahul Parikh poses on Salon:

The film’s “miracle” drug may seem far-fetched, but it’s based in a medical reality: Taking certain medications, specifically those developed to treat psychiatric and neurological disorders, can boost cognitive performance in otherwise healthy people.

Many of us instinctively recoil from such an idea for moral reasons. Sculpting our brains, unlike, say, sculpting our noses, seems like cheating. But consider this: 7 percent of surveyed college students (and some 25 percent of those on elite campuses) have taken an unprescribed Ritalin — or a similar drug used to treat attention deficit disorder — to boost their performance on an exam.

And the phenomenon is not restricted to college students trying to raise their grade point averages: The military has a history of encouraging — and sometimes even ordering — soldiers to take Ritalin or Provigil, a drug that boosts alertness.

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Secret of NIMH? Memory Implant Boosts Brain Function in Rats

Secret of NIMHThis article reminds me a bit of The Secret of NIMH. Yes, my first awareness of animal experimentation was likely from a(n) Disney animated movie. Benedict Carey writes in the New York Times:

Though still a long way from being tested in humans, the implant demonstrates for the first time that a cognitive function can be improved with a device that mimics the firing patterns of neurons. In recent years neuroscientists have developed implants that allow paralyzed people to move prosthetic limbs or a computer cursor, using their thoughts to activate the machines.

In the new work, being published Friday, researchers at Wake Forest University and the University of Southern California used some of the same techniques to read neural activity. But they translated those signals internally, to improve brain function rather than to activate outside appendages.

“It’s technically very impressive to pull something like this off, given our current level of technology,” said Daryl Kipke, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the experiment.

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Amazonian Tribe Understands ‘Time’ Unlike The Rest of the World

StopwatchI thought Pink Floyd had a good idea but these Amondawa folks are on the Money. Jason Palmer reports for BBC News:
The Amondawa lacks the linguistic structures that relate time and space — as in our idea of, for example, "working through the night". The study, in Language and Cognition, shows that while the Amondawa recognise events occuring in time, it does not exist as a separate concept. The idea is a controversial one, and further study will bear out if it is also true among other Amazon languages. The Amondawa were first contacted by the outside world in 1986, and now researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the Federal University of Rondonia in Brazil have begun to analyse the idea of time as it appears in Amondawa language. "We're really not saying these are a 'people without time' or 'outside time'," said Chris Sinha, a professor of psychology of language at the University of Portsmouth. "Amondawa people, like any other people, can talk about events and sequences of events," he told BBC News.
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The Science Of Why We Don’t Believe Science

scopeWondering how evolution developed us into creatures who don’t believe in evolution? Mother Jones explains why large numbers of people tend to believe things that make no sense, and why the human brain is averse to evidence and reasoning:

An array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president (PDF), and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience (PDF): Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”).

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Scientists Develop Better Methods To Match Police Sketches To Mug Shots

Sketch To Mug ShotReports Michigan State University:
EAST LANSING, Mich. — The long-time practice of using police facial sketches to nab criminals has been, at best, an inexact art. But the process may soon be a little more exact thanks to the work of some Michigan State University researchers. A team led by MSU University Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Anil Jain and doctoral student Brendan Klare has developed a set of algorithms and created software that will automatically match hand-drawn facial sketches to mug shots that are stored in law enforcement databases. Once in use, Klare said, the implications are huge. “We’re dealing with the worst of the worst here,” he said. “Police sketch artists aren’t called in because someone stole a pack of gum. A lot of time is spent generating these facial sketches so it only makes sense that they are matched with the available technology to catch these criminals.”
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