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.

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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.

New research describes “pathological altruism”

The New York Times reports:

The author of “On Being Certain” and the coming “A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind,” Dr. [Robert A.] Burton is a contributor to a scholarly yet surprisingly sprightly volume called “Pathological Altruism,” to be published this fall by Oxford University Press. And he says his colleague’s behavior is a good example of that catchily contradictory term, just beginning to make the rounds through the psychological sciences.

As the new book makes clear, pathological altruism is not limited to showcase acts of self-sacrifice, like donating a kidney or a part of one’s liver to a total stranger. The book is the first comprehensive treatment of the idea that when ostensibly generous “how can I help you?” behavior is taken to extremes, misapplied or stridently rhapsodized, it can become unhelpful, unproductive and even destructive.

Researchers identify blood-borne substances that cause aging in lab mice

Medical Xpress reports:

In a study to be published Sept. 1 in Nature, Stanford University School of Medicine scientists have found substances in the blood of old mice that makes young brains act older. These substances, whose levels rise with increasing age, appear to inhibit the brain’s ability to produce new nerve cells critical to memory and learning.

The findings raise the question of whether it might be possible to shield the brain from aging by eliminating or mitigating the effects of these apparently detrimental blood-borne substances, or perhaps by identifying other blood-borne substances that exert rejuvenating effects on the brain but whose levels decline with age…

The Nature article is available here (free preview, subscription required for full paper).

Are automated flight controls causing airline pilots to lose some of their flying skills?

The Associated Press (via the Huffington Post) reports:

As planes become ever more reliant on automation to navigate crowded skies, safety officials worry there will be more deadly accidents traced to pilots who have lost their hands-on instincts in the air.

Pilots use automated systems to fly airliners for all but about three minutes of a flight: the takeoff and landing. Most of the time pilots are programming navigation directions into computers rather than using their hands on controls to fly the plane. They have few opportunities to maintain their skills by flying manually…