The Point of Pointing

Five years ago cognitive scientist Rafael Núñez found himself in the Upper Yupno Valley, a remote, mountainous region of Papua New Guinea. The area is home to some 5,000 indigenous people, and Núñez and his graduate student, Kensy Cooperrider, were studying their conceptions of time.

Most of you reading this post have a Western understanding of time, in which time has a spatial relationship with our own bodies. The past is behind us, the future ahead. I look forward to Christmas and reach back into my memories. But that particular cognitive framework is not universal. Núñez’s work has shown, for example, that the Aymara people of the Andes think about time in the opposite way; for them, the future is behind and the past lies ahead.

An anthropologist working in Papua New Guinea, Jürg Wassmann, suspected that the Yupno have yet another way of thinking about time, and invited Núñez and Cooperrider to come down and investigate. The Yupno have no electricity and no roads; getting to a city involves a several-day hike. They live in small thatch huts surrounded by green mountains. This rolling landscape, the researchers discovered, is what centers the the Yupno’s conception of time. For them, the past is downhill and the future uphill.

Núñez and Cooperrider figured this out by analyzing the way the Yupno point during natural speech. And in the midst of doing those experiments, the researchers stumbled onto something else unexpected: The Yupno don’t point like Westerners do.

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Only Human, September 2014.

Brain Zaps Boost Memory

Researchers who study memory have had a thrilling couple of years. Some have erased memories in people with electroshock therapy, for example. Others have figured out, in mice, how to create false memories and even turn bad memories into good ones.

Today, another “No way, really?!” study gets added to the list. Scientists have boosted memory skills in healthy volunteers by zapping their brains with weak electromagnetic pulses.

The memory gain was fairly small — not enough for most of us to notice in our everyday lives, the researchers say. But even a modest improvement could be meaningful for people with conditions that damage memory, such as a stroke, heart attack, traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer’s disease.

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Only Human, August 2014.

Peak Zone

In June 1958, 17-year-old Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, arrived in Stockholm with the rest of the Brazilian national football team to play against Sweden in the World Cup Finals. Just before the game, as the peppy marching beats of the Brazilian national anthem rang out, Pelé’s thoughts wandered. He thought of his mother back home, too nervous to listen to the game on the radio. Then the whistle blew and the men were off. Pelé and his teammates were shocked by the skill of the Swedes, who scored their first goal within four minutes. Only then, he writes in his 1977 autobiography, did Pelé get his head in the game:

…Suddenly I felt a strange calmness I hadn’t experienced in any of the other games. It was a type of euphoria; I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their team or all of them, that I could almost pass through them physically. I felt I could not be hurt. It was a very strange feeling and one I had never felt before.

I came across this passage, believe it or not, in a study published this week in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. In it, Janet Metcalfe of Columbia University and her colleagues used Pelé’s words to define a somewhat fuzzy psychological concept: the feeling of being “in the zone.” You’re probably familiar with the feeling, especially if you’re an athlete, musician, artist, writer, or video-game aficionado. It’s the mental state of being focused intently on a specific task, a complete absorption that allows you to forget any self-consciousness and lose all sense of time. For me, it’s the (all too elusive) feeling that makes writing fun.

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Only Human, August 2014.

To Infinity…and Beyond!

I don’t remember exactly when I learned the concept of infinity, but at some point in childhood I was using it as a trump card in arguments with my sister. We’d volley along the lines of:

“I have seven beads!”
“Well, I have twelve beads!”
“I have infinity beads!”
(Drops mic.)

Infinity seems like an abstract mathematical concept, and I suppose it is. But one application of infinity is integral to many aspects of everyday human cognition, including language, music, and problem solving. It’s called recursion, and children begin to grasp it around age 9, according to a fascinating study published in the October issue of Cognition. What’s more, a child’s understanding of recursion in pictures is tightly linked to her understanding of grammar.

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Only Human, August 2014.

Active or at Rest, Brain Conducts Similar Symphonies

Timing is everything, even when it comes to brain activity. Individual neurons fire all the time, but it’s the synchronous firing of many cells in many regions that seems to drive cognitive skills, such as language, decision-making and even consciousness.

This so-called ‘functional connectivity’ reveals which brain regions are most harmonious — ramping up or down at the same time — implying that they’re part of the same functional network. It’s a hot topic in autism research, with some studies suggesting that brain regions in people with the disorder are out of sync with each other.

Researchers generally measure functional connectivity by scanning volunteers’ brains either while they’re resting passively or while they’re engaged in a specific task. According to some studies, these two approaches activate distinct networks, because the brain uses one mode of connections for active tasks and switches into another mode for quiet reflection.

A study published 2 July in Neuron questions this premise. It argues that these two networks are more similar than previously thought.

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SFARI.org, August 2014.

The Chatty Hippocampus

The hippocampus, a skinny log of brain tissue tucked in deep above your ear, is the star of memory research. People with damaged hippocampi — such as the famous patient Henry Molaison, known as H.M. — can’t make new memories. And studies in rodents have shown that creating new memories drives robust connections between neurons in the hippocampus.

Despite getting all the attention, the hippocampus doesn’t act alone. Our memories are as good as they are only because of the way the hippocampus talks to the rest of the brain. A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences underscores the importance of hippocampal interactions with the prefrontal cortex, the outer layers of brain located behind your forehead.

“As a field we focus so much interest on the role of the hippocampus, and rightfully so. But it means we haven’t investigated thoroughly the role of the prefrontal cortex and other areas,” says Adam Bero, a postdoctoral fellow in Li-Huei Tsai’s lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who led the study.

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Only Human, July 2014.

The Sexual Politics of Autism

Imagine you walked down the street and asked random people what autism is. What would they say? My guess: They’d talk about social skills, and the rising prevalence, and probably the vaccine nonsense. And they’d almost certainly mention that it happens to boys.

The idea that autism is a mostly male disorder is pervasive in the news, pop culture, and scientific circles. And it’s not just an academic curiosity. Last year a popular fertility clinic in Sydney, Australia, reported that about five percent of couples went through in vitro fertilization just so they could select a female embryo and thus lower the kid’s risk of developing autism.

The sex skew in autism is real: A diagnosis of autism is almost five times more common in 8-year-old boys than in 8-year-old girls, according to the latest statistics from the CDC.

But it’s not that simple. Most people don’t realize, for example, that autism’s sex bias changes dramatically depending on the severity of the disorder, with so-called high-functioning autism (a problematic term that usually means having an IQ above 70 or 80) showing a ratio more skewed towards boys. The ratio also varies wildly depending on who’s calculating it.

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Only Human, July 2014.

Genes Drive Half of Chimp Intelligence, Study Finds

Chimpanzees and other great apes are known for their intelligence: They can learn words, play with objects, and even seem to mourn the deaths of their friends. But just as for humans, cognitive abilities vary from one animal to the next.

Now, in one of the largest studies ever conducted on chimp cognition, researchers report that those individual differences are due in no small part to genetic makeup. The study appears Thursday in Current Biology.

Genes determine about half of the variability in chimp intelligence and environmental factors the other half, according to primatologist William Hopkins, of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, and colleagues.

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National Geographic News, July 2014.

Why Do Some Teens Become Binge Drinkers? Algorithms Answer.

The first time I got drunk I was 15. It was in a hotel room in Paris, on a trip with my high school French Club, drinking vodka and Orangina from a plastic bottle. I remember looking at my blurry reflection in the bathroom mirror and thinking, So this is what being drunk is. I didn’t hate it. I drank a few more times that year, and then pretty steadily for the next two. I had one blackout night in a friend’s basement. Then came college, where everything escalated. It honestly makes me queasy right now to think about what I put my body through.

But it was fun. And it didn’t lead to anything horrible. I did well academically, went to grad school, found (mostly) gainful employment. I’m 30 now and, knock on wood, don’t have any health problems.

My story is typical. “We tend not to want to say this out loud to teenagers, but most people who tried drugs don’t get addicted,” says Hugh Garavan, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Vermont. “Most kids have tried alcohol by age 14, and most kids don’t develop a problem. Same with cigarettes and same with cocaine. But there’s a certain subset who do, and we don’t have a clue what it is about them.”

Scientists have pinpointed lots of factors that increase the risk of alcohol misuse — a bit. Adolescents who are anxious or impulsive, for example, tend to be at higher risk. Same for those who carry certain genetic variants (dubbed ‘SNPs’) in their genome, and for kids who are abused or neglected. But most studies haven’t looked at enough factors, or at enough kids, to make predictions with much oomph. “It’s hard to look at all of it, but we have this luxury,” Garavan says.

In today’s issue of Nature, Garavan and his colleagues present a new predictive model based on an enormous amount of data—brain scans, genetic screens, personality trait tests, and family and medical histories—from 2,400 teenagers in Europe. The model isn’t by any means a crystal ball, but it can guess which 14-year-olds will become binge drinkers by age 16 with odds far better than chance.

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Only Human, July 2014.

My Walk in the Woods

Last weekend I went for a walk in the woods. It’s not something I do often, but I was with friends who wanted to do it, so alright. We hiked for about four miles. It was not strenuous. It was warm, but not too warm, with a light breeze. The trees protected us from the sun. The canopy was intensely green, and the sky, peeking through, was cornflower blue.

While my friends walked along merrily, ostensibly enjoying their surroundings, I spent much of the hike wondering why anybody would bother with this kind of activity. I find hikes repetitious and boring. My mind goes idle (other than its constant scanning for beetles, ticks, rocks, and face-slapping branches). I look at my feet more the trees, and when I do look up, everything looks the same, a wash of brown and green. I try to think of it as good exercise, but the inefficiency! The same 90 minutes at the gym would be far more helpful.

It’s odd, when you think about it: My friends and I were all absorbing the same sights, sounds, smells and touches. We’re all about the same age and live in big cities. But they seemed to like it very much and I didn’t like it much at all.After reading an article on WoodPursuits.com i realized why i didn´t like it so much.

Wilhelm Wundt, known by some as the father of psychology, pondered this very conundrum more than a century ago. In his 1896 book, Outlines of Psychology, Wundt wrote that our experiences can be broken into two elements: objective sensations and subjective affect. For instance, if you put your hand under hot water, you’ll feel a sensation of the heat. That’s the objective part. It’s hot, not cold. But then there’s the affect, the way the sensation affects you. For some people, the hot water will be excruciating, for others it will be rapturous. The sensation and the affect are inseparable, and both are crucial to perception, Wundt wrote: “The actual contents of psychical experience always consist of various combinations of sensational and affective elements.” Our experience, he added, “depends for the most part not on the nature of these elements so much as on their union.”

Wundt’s ideas have been difficult to prove empirically, but new evidence comes from a paper published Sunday in Nature NeuroscienceAdam Anderson, a cognitive psychologist at Cornell University, and his colleagues used brain scanners to show that our brains use different codes to represent these objective and subjective aspects of an experience.

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Only Human, June 2014.