Monthly Archives: August 2008

Neuro Spooks

The National Research Council has produced a report for the US Defense Intelligence Agency entiled  “Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies” that gives a sneak peek into how neuroscience may eventually yield new tools for spies, and new weapons.  The New Scientist has a piece about the report.  While most of the technology implications appear to be well into the future, the more immediate effects may come from rapid advances in cognitive imaging and new drugs designed to degrade brain performance and extract information.  From the article:

Drug development could be a wild card as our models of brain function improve, especially if nanotechnology leads to drugs that bypass the blood-brain barrier. The promise is more precise delivery of drugs and ways to improve human brainpower. But the report also warns of chilling perils in what it calls the “degradation market” – drugs that impair rather than enhance thought processes. Instead of firing bullets at the enemy, troops could spray them with a drug that would slow their reaction times or dull their thoughts. “The concept of torture could also be altered,” the report says, if “there could be technique developed to extract information from a prisoner that does not have any lasting side effects”.

Update:  Wired Science has also posted an article on this topic here.


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Red for Victory

NPR is reporting on a study from the University of Durham in England that suggests athletes wearing red in the Olympics win more often. Researchers apparently studied results across several sports and concluded that red wearers consistently won 55 percent of the time. 

Which brings up a few questions. What about athletes wearing partial red? Does the percentage of red in their uniforms versus other colors influence scores? What about in competitions where no team is wearing red exclusively, but more than one team has red in their uniforms? And, of course, couldn’t this all just be a statistical fluke? 

Maybe, maybe not. Red is, after all, the color of power.

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Filtering Your Brain Spam

The New York Times online posted a brief but worthwhile article on the science of boredom, summarizing recent research that suggests short term bouts of boredom are necessary to filter out unecessary elements from consciousness.  Most boredom research is focused on its link with depression, or what you might call long-term boredom. This research, rather, is focused on brief periods of disengagement. We’re accustomed to think that those periods are just passive lulls in awareness, but apparently not so…

Boredom as a temporary state is another matter, and in part reflects the obvious: that the brain has concluded there is nothing new or useful it can learn from an environment, a person, an event, a paragraph. But it is far from a passive neural shrug. Using brain-imaging technology, neuroscientists have found that the brain is highly active when disengaged, consuming only about 5 percent less energy in its resting “default state” than when involved in routine tasks, according to Dr. Mark Mintun, a professor of radiology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Problem is that time experienced in this slightly less active state is restless time that seems to go by slower, so short-term boredom eventually needs relief; when this relief comes, the brain is ready again to be constructive. In effect, boredom puts pressure on our brains to be constructive and creative to relieve the restlessness.  Which means, after listening to five minutes of this guy, you’ll be ready for something like this.

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Blind to Trust

The New Scientist is reporting on a study about borderline personality disorder’s link to misapprehension of trust and distrust. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract:

“We recruited 55 individuals afflicted with borderline personality disorder (BPD) to play a multiround economic exchange game with healthy partners. Behaviorally, individuals with BPD showed a profound incapacity to maintain cooperation, and were impaired in their ability to repair broken cooperation on the basis of a quantitative measure of coaxing. Neurally, activity in the anterior insula, a region known to respond to norm violations across affective, interoceptive, economic, and social dimensions, strongly differentiated healthy participants from individuals with BPD….These neural and behavioral data suggest that norms used in perception of social gestures are pathologically perturbed or missing altogether among individuals with BPD. “

So, if this study is correct, it seems that people with BPD have an incapacity to trust, and an incapacity to repair broken “trust bridges” or acknowledge repair attempts by others.  The normal social gestures most people consider healthy methods of initiating and maintaining trust evidently don’t resonate in the BPD brain.  Another excellent example of a neurobiological reality happening all the time (around us and/or in us) that we are unaware of, while our social interpretations are based instead solely on our perceptions of “normal” social constructs.  If only normal was that simple.

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Multitasking – Myth of the Mind?

The current issue of The New Atlantis has a great article on The Myth of Multitasking. Researchers at the NIH have used fMRI to detect which areas of the brain are activated during multitasking–called “task switching” in the study–and discovered that the flow of blood increases to the area of the frontal cortex known as Broadmann area 10, about which little is understood, though it seems that there’s a sort of “brain delay” in this area when task switching that actually takes more time than would be spent focusing attention on one task. Other research suggests that the brain employs an “adaptive executive control” that forces attention by prioritizing tasks in order of importance or serial order (which I take to mean the order of when they came in).

The most intriguing part of the article deals with the effects of task swtiching on how we learn. One of the researchers, Russell Poldrack at UCLA, is quoted from a recent NPR story: “We have to be aware that there is a cost to the way that our society is changing, that humans are not built to work this way. We’re really built to focus. And when we sort of force ourselves to multitask, we’re driving ourselves to perhaps be less efficient in the long run even though it sometimes feels like we’re being more efficient.”

Others seem more optimistic that the brain’s plasticity will allow for the changes in learning that are required to multitask. Maybe we have a case of evolutionary change in our midst, if indeed our brains are aquiring new methods of dealing with huge amounts of information–most especially the rise in population density that has created massive urban centers yielding exponentially increasing stuff, media, data. Maybe, as the author of this article says, we have developed what William James called “acquired inattention” (and he meant that remark to be pejorative).  In any case, we’re likely a long way from knowing for sure.

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Filed under About Neuroscience, About Perception

Secrets of Storytelling

Scientific American online has an interesting article entitled The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn that does a nice job of summarizing some of the current thinking concerning the link between universal themes in literature and theories of mind. One of the challenges researchers in this field have faced, as the article describes, is simply defining what constitutes a story.  With so many narrative forms, that’s not as easy as it sounds. The author of this article explains that researchers have typically relied more on the contrasts between narrative forms than the similarities, but in the end it’s a “know it when you feel it” conclusion that seems to prevail. From the article: “Whether fiction or nonfiction, a narrative engages its audience through psychological realism–recognizable emotions and believable interactions among characters.”

In my opinion, that’s a bit too general a conclusion; seems to me that no matter the sort of narrative, the psychological dynamic is immersion. And in fariness, the article explores this area as well — addressing the state of mind dubbed “narrative transport” and the recent research that has launched from identifying this foundational aspect of why storytelling has the power it does.   

Another area investigated in this piece is what narrative reveals about the social roots of the human mind, and what this has to do with the dynamics of persuasion and influence. The author cites the funny but true statistics concerning the drop in Merlot sales after the movie Sideways came out (Paul Giamati’s wine-savvy character gave Merlot a black eye by saying he refused to drink it – evidently enough to make several thousand people also refuse to buy it).  Not incidentally, sales of California Pinot (the Giamati character’s favorite wine) went through the roof at the same time.  There’s ample evidence to suggest that when immersed in a story (in “story mode”), people are more open to persuasion than when they are thinking analytically. Not exactly new news, but finally being born out evidentially in research.

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