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Author Page for Sam McDougle

SAMUEL D. MCDOUGLE (Contributing Editor, Author of re:COGNITION) is a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University, studying the human motor system under Dr. Jordan Taylor. Sam holds a degree in Neuroscience and Behavior from Vassar College, where he focused his studies on cognitive neuroscience and psychology while dabbling in philosophy. He previously worked as a researcher in Dr. Javier Medina’s lab at UPenn investigating the neural basis of motor learning– specifically learned reflex timing– using tools from neuropsychology, in vivo neurophysiology and computational neuroscience. Sam’s musical credits include performances with his old bands, Tumbling Bones and The Powder Kegs, at various prominent festivals and clubs in Europe and the US (including a 2007 performance reaching millions of viewers worldwide on NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion), several full-length recorded albums, and competition ribbons in bluegrass fiddle and guitar. He also occasionally writes for Vice, and also loves nachos.

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Interesting New Autism Research

[ 12 ] November 7, 2013

A new research article, published online for the journal Nature, shows that infants who were later diagnosed with autism spent significantly less time focusing on people’s eyes than infants who were not later diagnosed. Warren R. Jones and Ami Klin, of Emory University, co-authored the paper. The New York Times recently ran a feature on the research, which discusses the implications for early brain development and improvements in autism diagnostics.

If you’d like to look at how this line of research potentially relates to some broader theory in the field of autism research, one book to check out is Mindblindness by Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, which connects autism to “theory of mind.” I imagine Baron-Cohen would make the case that reduced eye-directed gaze in autistic infants supports his theory, though, like all psychopathlogy, the mechanisms of autism are little understood and the theories are controversial.

Watch: Frans De Waal on Animal Morality

[ 0 ] April 13, 2012

The eminent primatologist Frans De Waal’s recent TED talk may be one of my favorite TEDs yet. De Waal presents compelling data on primate senses of fairness and empathy, buttressed by entertaining (and mesmerizing) videos of complex primate social behaviors (the Capuchin monkey experiment is my personal favorite). Oh yea, there are elephants too.

De Waal makes a strong case that empathy and fairness are not traits only seen in humans, and that they have older evolutionary roots.  Take a look and tell us what you think:


Bowerbird Architecture

[ 0 ] January 24, 2012

The New York Times recently covered some cool new research that shows that Australia’s Great Bowerbirds use techniques of illusion and perspective to make their mate-attracting constructions sexier. The researches explain:

Male great bowerbirds actively maintain size-distance gradients of objects on their bower courts that create forced-perspective illusions for females viewing their displays from within the bower avenue.

Bowerbird aesthetics offer an interesting angle on evolution and art itself — there are a variety of theories about the biology of art, which we explore here at The Beautiful Brain.  Some of the most striking theories are reductionist views: perhaps art sprung directly from sexual selection – the need to impress our mates – and it’s variety, constant change, and centrality to human life should be viewed through an evolutionary lens.  It’s an interesting thought, and certainly gets some support from the bowerbird arts collective.

Hooray For NMDA!

[ 0 ] January 5, 2012

NMDA receptors are neurological celebrities. They’ve been implicated in the most basic, neccasary forms of learning and synaptic plasticity, highlighted by their ability to activate only when certain conditions are met in both “pre” and “post” synaptic neurons.

The now-old neuroscience adage “those that fire together, wire together,” is a fundamental truism primarily because of the work of NMDARs.  So it isn’t surprising that a recent paper in Neuron, by Joe Tsien et al, argues that NMDA receptors play a vital role in habit formation.  Check out the video abstract above for more.

Who’s In Charge?

[ 2 ] November 30, 2011

“Free Will” is a tough topic in cognitive science.  The neuroscience research that goes into answering questions of agency and free will is complicated and can be interpreted in so many ways.

Legendary cognitive scientist, Michael Gazzaniga, argues in his new book “Who’s In Charge,” that we’re looking in the wrong place.

Surely our behaviors are the results of physical processes in the brain, and thus can, every one, ultimately be linked to a neurological root.  However, the shape and architecture of such “roots” is shaped by our world, and in the case of personal responsibility and ownership of actions, they’re shaped by our social world.  Gazzaniga believes we’re talking about free will the wrong way – ownership of our actions happens in our interactions with others, and is affected by those interactions.  Should be an interesting read.

The Evolution of Chalkboard Torture

[ 6 ] October 18, 2011

On the universal terribleness of fingernails scratching a chalkboard.

Having grown up in New York City in the mid-nineties, I was spareth’d the rod of classroom corporal punishment.  Wrist slapping, spankings, canings – these were methods of discipline I saw in movies and read about in books, often inflicted on slight, well-meaning cockney schoolboys.  But when my old French teacher, Madame G, launched her fingernails-on-the-chalkboard assault, French class became third-period waterboarding.  Far worse than the occasional verbal scolding, “time out,” or shameful walk to the principal’s office, there was something to be said for the gripping discomfort caused by the hellish timbre of keratin on slate.

Loud, high-pitched noises are good at cutting through the low rumble of background noise – that’s why our alarms aren’t baselines, violins play lead, and it’s impossible to ignore the aspirant opera singer among the 2 a.m. karaoke dregs.  But the sound of fingernails on the chalkboard isn’t your run-of-the-mill bothersome high-pitched noise. It’s unique in its cross-culture universality, an annoyance that only the most masochistic of us enjoy hearing, and only the most malicious enjoy producing.  Why is it that so?  One theory says it has something to do with the distress calls of chimpanzees.

Not all sounds are created equal – our brains have evolved to attribute special significance to certain ones.  For instance, we all experience a particularly strong emotional response to the sound of a crying baby. The sound arouses our instinct to care for the young, telling us that a helpless little whelp needs something, and we can’t help but empathize (unless you’re on a bus and it’s not yours).  The evolutionary roots of this response are clear: If humans innately treated a baby’s cry as they did, say, a bird’s chirp, our species, having left its babies unattended and undernourished, surely wouldn’t have survived long enough to be the successful, world-raping genius race it has become.

In addition to crying, screaming and yelling have a special place too.  They communicate distress – someone needs help, someone is angry, or danger is close by.  Cries, screams, and yells aren’t elements of language, they’re more basic, they’re unlearned;  you are born crying and screaming, and you never forget how to.  Such unlearned shouts primarily exist to communicate a simple though important message (i.e. “danger!”) and trigger an appropriate emotional response in the listener (i.e. “fear”).  They’re nature’s expletives.

Most vertebrates have their own expletives, like when your neighbor’s pit bull barks “f*** you intruder!” at you while you innocently trot by his fenced yard, or when your surly cat meows “feed me you lazy failure!” while you watch the Weather Channel in your underpants.  Intriguingly, we are able to sense the emotions of other animals when they exclaim – our innate response to human cries of pain and threatening screams also generalizes to other species.  We obviously didn’t adapt to understand when gerbils are frightened, but we know it when we hear it.

So, with all that in mind, could the enigmatically universal response to the sound of fingernails on the chalkboard have something to do with our innate response to distressed yells?  Maybe.  Randolph Blake, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University has showed that the nail-on-chalkboard sound is remarkably similar acoustically to the distress calls of our cousins, the chimpanzees.  According to Blake, we cringe at chalkboard torture because ancient parts of our brains think a chimpanzee is screaming.

But why would we fear a chimpanzee’s scream?  Well, 6.5 million years ago we diverged from the chimps, and during the vast majority of that time we evolved alongside them in the East African savannah.  Though chimps mainly stuck to the trees while human ancestors moved to the ground, they shared predators (lions, cheetahs, big birds of prey, etc). Chimps, along with other apes and several species of monkey, have notoriously loud distress calls.  When a chimp sees danger – say, a skulking lion – she lets out a piercing high-pitched screech, like a knife through the jungle.  These screeches would surely have been heard by our ancestors, and, because we don’t speak chimp, it would take generations of natural selection for humans to develop an innate fear-response to the sound and, ultimately, for that response to generalize to similar sounds, like the ones that come out of French teachers’ nails scraping chalkboards.  Et Voilà – the chalkboard scratch is uniquely abhorrent because it mimics the once-familiar distress call of a threatened chimp neighbor, an auditory relic of our perilous evolutionary past.

A fair objection to the tidy little story above is that humans could merely learn, through experience, that when chimps scream, trouble is about.  What evidence do we have that it is an innate response rather than a learned one?  Well, not much.  But here’s a brief experiment –  take a listen to this chimp distress call. Goosebumps? Cringing?  Wet your pants?  I would venture a guess that you’ve never heard a chimp distress call until now, and I would also guess you reacted to it with fear and surprise.  No, there isn’t a lion near you (though you should check), but something in your viscera is telling you this sound bodes badly.

It’s generally impossible to prove that a modern human eccentricity is the result of an ancient adaptation because we can’t go back in time, but if a theory makes sense it should be entertained.  It’s funny to think that my French teacher may have been unknowingly mimicking a chimpanzee when she tortured us with the chalkboard maneuver.  I should be thankful she didn’t take the imitation a step further and throw her feces at me.

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