Category Archives: Neuroscience

NEWSWEEK on the ‘new (neuro)science of feelings’

NEWSWEEK reports on new neuroscience research into human emotion, which appears to be more closely linked to cognition than was thought to be the case just a couple of decades ago:

From the earliest days of brain mapping—determining which regions are responsible for which functions—neuroscientists traced feelings and thoughts to structures that were barely within hailing distance of each other. The limbic system deep in the brain, including the amygdala and hippocampus, seemed to be the brain’s holy terror of a 2-year-old, the site of anger, fear, and anxiety, as well as positive emotions. The frontal cortex, just behind the forehead, was the exalted thinker, where forethought and judgment, reason and volition, attention and cognition came from. As recently as the 1980s, neuroscientists focused almost exclusively on cognition and the other functions of the frontal cortex; emotions were deemed of so little interest that neuroscience left them to psychology…

[Subsequent research has found that] both prefrontal-cortex activity and the number of pathways sending calming signals to the amygdala determine just how easily a person will bounce back from adversity. Through these two mechanisms, our “thinking brain” is able to calm our “feeling” self, enabling the brain to plan and act effectively without being distracted by negative emotion.

Use of multiple computer monitors raises questions about cognition and productivity

The New York Times reports:

Workers in the digital era can feel at times as if they are playing a video game, battling the barrage of e-mails and instant messages, juggling documents, Web sites and online calendars. To cope, people have become swift with the mouse, toggling among dozens of overlapping windows on a single monitor.

But there is a growing new tactic for countering the data assault: the addition of a second computer screen. Or a third…

David E. Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan whose research has found that multitasking can take a serious toll on productivity… Warned that productivity can suffer when people keep interrupting their thoughts by scanning multiple screens rather than focusing on one task.

The relationship between technology use and cognition

At least as far back as Lev Vygotsky, psychological scientists and others interested in human cognition have considered the relationship between humans’ technology use and cognition. Vygotsky, for example, saw humans’ mediation of ‘tools and signs’ (i.e., technological innovations, both concrete and abstract) as a key part of the learning process, while psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that using technology has a recursive relationship with cognition – as we use tools to accomplish some task, our thinking about the task itself can change.

In this article from The Atlantic, writer Ross Anderson examines the growing body of technologies and methods explicitly designed for ‘cognitive enhancement:’

It could be that we are on the verge of a great deluge of cognitive enhancement. Or it’s possible that new brain-enhancing drugs and technologies will be nothing compared to how we’ve transformed our minds in the past. If it seems that making ourselves “artificially” smarter is somehow inhuman, it may be that similar activities are actually what made us human.

New York Times on “the hormone surge of middle childhood”

The New York Times reports:

Said to begin around 5 or 6, when toddlerhood has ended and even the most protractedly breast-fed children have been weaned, and to end when the teen years commence, middle childhood certainly lacks the physical flamboyance of the epochs fore and aft: no gotcha cuteness of babydom, no secondary sexual billboards of pubescence.

Yet as new findings from neuroscience, evolutionary biology, paleontology and anthropology make clear, middle childhood is anything but a bland placeholder. To the contrary, it is a time of great cognitive creativity and ambition, when the brain has pretty much reached its adult size and can focus on threading together its private intranet service — on forging, organizing, amplifying and annotating the tens of billions of synaptic connections that allow brain cells and brain domains to communicate.

Cause of bird behavior dramatized in Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ was food poisoning, scientists claim

USA Today reports:

A final mystery surrounding the work of film legend Alfred Hitchcock— what triggered the crazed bird flocks that helped inspire his 1963 thriller The Birds— appears solved by scientists.

Dying and disoriented seabirds rammed themselves into homes across California’s Monterey Bay in the summer of 1961, sparking a long-standing mystery about the cause among marine biologists. The avian incidents sparked local visitor Hitchcock’s interest, along with a story about spooky bird behavior by British writer Daphne du Maurier.

“I am pretty convinced that the birds were poisoned,” says ocean environmentalist Sibel Bargu of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She led a team finding that naturally occurring toxins appear to have been the culprit.

Call it the Case of the Poisoned Plankton. Looking at the stomach contents of turtles and seabirds gathered in 1961 Monterey Bay ship surveys, Bargu and colleagues have now found toxin-making algae were present in 79% of the plankton that the creatures ate. In particular, the team finds in the current Nature Geoscience journal that the leading toxin inside the plankton was a nerve-damaging acid, which causes confusion, seizures and death in birds.

Retrieval failure: Cognitive neuroscientists interpret Rick Perry’s debate ‘brain freeze’

The Washington Post reports:

To neuroscientists, what happened to Texas Gov. Rick Perry Wednesday night looked like something very ordinary, exacerbated by stress: a “retrieval failure.”

It happens more often as we age. But the brain scientists say it shouldn’t be seen as evidence of an intellectual deficit or some medical problem. Instead, they say, retrieval failures offer a glimpse into how the brain does and doesn’t work, not just in the skulls of presidential candidates but for everyone else, too.

New science of bilingualism offers fresh insights into language acquisition, learning

The New York Times reports:

Once, experts feared that young children exposed to more than one language would suffer “language confusion,” which might delay their speech development. Today, parents often are urged to capitalize on that early knack for acquiring language…

But there is more and more research to draw on, reaching back to infancy and even to the womb. As the relatively new science of bilingualism pushes back to the origins of speech and language, scientists are teasing out the earliest differences between brains exposed to one language and brains exposed to two.