Monthly Archives: August 2008

IBM introduces new software for data visualization

I’ve long been interested in the various way in which data is visualized, from charts and graphs to dynamic interfaces like Web sites.  The NY Times reports on a new Web-based software tool that allows users to visualize data in exciting new ways.

For those interested in data visualization and especially user interface design, I recommend the works of Ben Shneiderman (quoted in the Times article), Edward Tufty and Jakob Nielsen.


Subliminal learning and the human brain

Medical News Daily reports:

Although the idea that instrumental learning can occur subconsciously has been around for nearly a century, it had not been unequivocally demonstrated. Now, a new study published by Cell Press in the August 28 issue of the journal Neuron used sophisticated perceptual masking, computational modeling, and neuroimaging to show that instrumental learning can occur in the human brain without conscious processing of contextual cues.

The study’s abstract reads as follows:

How the brain uses success and failure to optimize future decisions is a long-standing question in neuroscience. One computational solution involves updating the values of context-action associations in proportion to a reward prediction error. Previous evidence suggests that such computations are expressed in the striatum and, as they are cognitively impenetrable, represent an unconscious learning mechanism. Here, we formally test this by studying instrumental conditioning in a situation where we masked contextual cues, such that they were not consciously perceived. Behavioral data showed that subjects nonetheless developed a significant propensity to choose cues associated with monetary rewards relative to punishments. Functional neuroimaging revealed that during conditioning cue values and prediction errors, generated from a computational model, both correlated with activity in ventral striatum. We conclude that, even without conscious processing of contextual cues, our brain can learn their reward value and use them to provide a bias on decision making.

Amazon tribe “shakes foundations of modern linguistics”

Wired reports:

According to Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories, humans have evolved to possess an innate, biological set of grammatical “building blocks” of which recursion — the ability to insert one phrase inside another — is perhaps the most fundamental. But an isolated Amazon tribe speaks a language without recursion, and they are, in the words of cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, “a bomb thrown into the party” of modern linguistics.

Babies and the science of ‘mama’ and ‘dada’

Live Science (via MSNBC) reports on research suggesting that ‘baby-fied’ versions of the words for mother and father (such as mama and dada in English) often are the first words a baby speaks not simply because babies spend so much time around their parents, but also because many languages have mother-words and father-words that are ‘baby friendly.’

‘Perfect pitch’ more common than previously thought, study finds

From Science Daily:

Researchers at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences have developed a unique test for perfect pitch, and have found surprising results.

Their research shows that perfect pitch—the ability to recognize and remember a tone without a reference—is apparently much more common in non-musicians than scientists had expected. Previous tests have overlooked these people because without extensive musical training it’s very difficult for someone to identify a pitch by name, the method traditionally used for identifying those with perfect pitch. The new test can be used on non-musicians, and is based on a technique to discern how infants recognize words in a language they’re learning.

The inability to learn from one’s mistakes may be genetic

From Newsweek:

If there is one thing experts on child development agree on, it is that kids learn best when they are allowed to make mistakes and feel the consequences. So Mom and Dad hold back as their toddler tries again and again to cram a round peg into a square hole. They feel her pain as playmates shun her for being pushy, hoping she’ll learn to back off. They let their teen stay up too late before a test, hoping a dismal grade will teach her to get a good night’s sleep but believing that ordering her to get to bed right now will not: kids who experience setbacks rather than having them short-circuited by a controlling parent learn not to repeat the dumb behavior.

But not, it seems, all kids. In about 30 percent, the coils of their DNA carry a glitch, one that leaves their brains with few dopamine receptors, molecules that act as docking ports for one of the neurochemicals that carry our thoughts and emotions. A paucity of dopamine receptors is linked to an inability to avoid self-destructive behavior such as illicit drug use. But the effects spill beyond such extremes. Children with the genetic variant are unable to learn from mistakes. No matter how many tests they blow by partying the night before, the lesson just doesn’t sink in.

Counting not dependent on the concept of number, study suggests

Science Daily reports:

Knowing the words for numbers is not necessary to be able to count, according to a new study of aboriginal children by UCL (University College London) and the University of Melbourne. The study of the aboriginal children – from two communities which do not have words or gestures for numbers – found that they were able to copy and perform number-related tasks.