341 posts tagged Brain
For a Better Brain, Learn Another Language
The cognitive benefits of multilingualism
There’s a certain sinking feeling one gets when thinking of the perfect thing to say just a moment too late. Perhaps a witty parting word could have made all the difference. There is no English word to express this feeling, but the French have the term l’esprit de l’escalier—translated, “stairwell wit”—for this very phenomenon. Nor is there an English word to describe the binge eating that follows an emotional blow, but the Germans have kummerspeck—“grief-bacon”—to do just that. If we had the Swedish word lagom—which means something is just right—the English explanation of Goldilocks’ perfectly temperate soup could have been a lot more succinct. Or the term koi no yokan, a poetic Japanese turn of phrase that expresses the feeling of knowing that you will soon fall in love with the person you have just met. It’s not love at first sight so much as an understanding that love is inevitable. Keats and Byron could have really used a word like that. There are many words that English speakers don’t have. Sometimes Anglophones take from other languages, but often, we have to explain our way around a specific feeling or emotion that doesn’t have its own word, never quite touching on it exactly. “The reason why we borrow words like savoir faire from French is because it’s not part of the culture [in the United States] and therefore that word did not evolve as part of our language,” says George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. (via For a Better Brain, Learn Another Language - The Atlantic)
Google makes us all dumber: The neuroscience of search engines
As search engines get better, we become lazier. We’re hooked on easy answers and undervalue asking good questions
In 1964, Pablo Picasso was asked by an interviewer about the new electronic calculating machines, soon to become known as computers. He replied, “But they are useless. They can only give you answers.”
We live in the age of answers. The ancient library at Alexandria was believed to hold the world’s entire store of knowledge. Today, there is enough information in the world for every person alive to be given three times as much as was held in Alexandria’s entire collection —and nearly all of it is available to anyone with an internet connection. This library accompanies us everywhere, and Google, chief librarian, fields our inquiries with stunning efficiency. Dinner table disputes are resolved by smartphone; undergraduates stitch together a patchwork of Wikipedia entries into an essay. In a remarkably short period of time, we have become habituated to an endless supply of easy answers. You might even say dependent. Google is known as a search engine, yet there is barely any searching involved anymore. The gap between a question crystallizing in your mind and an answer appearing at the top of your screen is shrinking all the time. As a consequence, our ability to ask questions is atrophying. Google’s head of search, Amit Singhal, asked if people are getting better at articulating their search queries, sighed and said: “The more accurate the machine gets, the lazier the questions become.” Google’s strategy for dealing with our slapdash questioning is to make the question superfluous. Singhal is focused on eliminating “every possible friction point between [users], their thoughts and the information they want to find.” Larry Page has talked of a day when a Google search chip is implanted in people’s brains: “When you think about something you don’t really know much about, you will automatically get information.” One day, the gap between question and answer will disappear. I believe we should strive to keep it open. That gap is where our curiosity lives. We undervalue it at our peril.
go read this..
OF the three most fundamental scientific questions about the human condition, two have been answered. First, what is our relationship to the rest of the universe? Copernicus answered that one. We’re not at the center. We’re a speck in a large place. Second, what is our relationship to the diversity of life? Darwin answered that one. Biologically speaking, we’re not a special act of creation. We’re a twig on the tree of evolution. Third, what is the relationship between our minds and the physical world? Here, we don’t have a settled answer. We know something about the body and brain, but what about the subjective life inside? Consider that a computer, if hooked up to a camera, can process information about the wavelength of light and determine that grass is green. But we humans also experience the greenness. We have an awareness of information we process. What is this mysterious aspect of ourselves?
This year’s Nobel Prize in medicine recognises work on “cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.” Those cells are found in the hippocampus. It is just one tiny part of the brain, but this structure gets at least its fair share of research attention. The hippocampus is located in the middle of the brain in a region known as the medial temporal lobe. Imagine travelling inward from your ear toward the centre of your head. It resembles a seahorse, with the name derived from the Greek words “hippo” for horse and “kampos” for sea. Its appearance and cellular arrangement are similar in all mammals, ranging from humans to rodents. The hippocampus has been called the “neural Rosetta stone” since the discovery in the 1950s that removing it in patients suffering from epilepsy prevented new memory formation. Damage to the hippocampus leads to trouble forming new memories of the time or location of an event. Impaired blood flow and the ensuing lack of oxygen, as occurs in a stroke, is one way the hippocampus can be damaged. It is also one of the first regions of the brain to degenerate in Alzheimer’s disease. Patients cannot recognise their surroundings and lose the ability to navigate from one place to another. Among the crucial cells are the so-called place cells. These cells – now famous due to this year’s Nobel prize – help determine spatial location and allow navigation from one place to another. They contain information about direction and distance. Place cells allow an animal to construct a map of the environment and its location within it. The hippocampus thus allows an animal to make decisions on the basis of distance and direction towards desired goals, such as food, or away from undesirable objects, such as a predator. Brain scans have shown that London taxi drivers have an enlarged hippocampus compared to non-taxi driver colleagues, thanks to the spatial abilities necessary to do their job.
Nancy Kanwisher: A neural portrait of the human mind
Brain imaging pioneer Nancy Kanwisher, who uses fMRI scans to see activity in brain regions (often her own), shares what she and her colleagues have learned: The brain is made up of both highly specialized components and general-purpose “machinery.” Another surprise: There’s so much left to learn.
Belief in Free Will Not Threatened by Neuroscience
A key finding from neuroscience research over the last few decades is that non-conscious preparatory brain activity appears to precede the subjective feeling of making a decision. Some neuroscientists, like Sam Harris, have argued that this shows our sense of free will is an illusion, and that lay people would realize this too if they were given a vivid demonstration of the implications of the science (see below). Books have even started to appear with titles like My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility by Eliezer J. Sternberg. However, in a new paper, a team led by Eddy Nahmias counter such claims. They believe that Harris and others (who they dub “willusionists”) make several unfounded assumptions about the basis of most people’s sense of free will. Using a series of vivid hypothetical scenarios based on Harris’ own writings, Nahmias and his colleagues tested whether people’s belief in free will really is challenged by “neuroprediction” – the idea of neuroscientists using brain activity to predict a person’s choices – and by the related notion that mental activity is no more than brain activity. The research involved hundreds of undergrads at Georgia State University in Atlanta. They were told about a piece of wearable brain imaging technology – a cap – available in the future that would allow neuroscientists to predict a person’s decisions before they made them. They also read a story about a woman named Jill who wore the cap for a month, and how scientists predicted her every choice, including her votes in elections.
Most of the students (80 per cent) agreed that this future technology was plausible, but they didn’t think it undermined Jill’s free will. Most of them only felt her free will was threatened if they were told that the neuroscientists manipulated Jill’s brain activity to alter her decisions. Similar results were found in a follow-up study in which the scenario descriptions made clear that “all human mental activity just is brain activity”, and in another that swapped the power of brain imaging technology for the mind reading skills of a psychic. In each case, students only felt that free will was threatened if Jill’s decisions were manipulated, not if they were merely predicted via her brain activity or via her mind and soul (by the psychic).
Nahmias and their team said their results showed that most people have a “theory-lite” view of free will – they aren’t bothered by claims about mental activity being reduced to neural activity, nor by the idea that such activity precedes conscious decision-making and is readable by scientists. “Most people recognise that just because ‘my brain made me do it,’ that does not mean that I didn’t do it of my own free will,” the researchers said.
As neuroscience evidence increasingly enters the courtroom, these new findings have important implications for understanding how such evidence might influence legal verdicts about culpability. An obvious limitation of the research is its dependence on students in Atlanta. It will be interesting to see if the same findings apply in other cultures.