The Beautiful Brain explores the latest findings from the ever-growing field of neuroscience through monthly long-form essays, reviews, galleries, short-form blog posts and more, with particular attention to the dialogue between the arts and sciences.
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.
Arguably, science is the gradual process by which the cognitive parts of our brains discover the profound inaccuracies in our deeper, evolutionarily built-in models of the world.
Neuroscientist Michael Graziano’s work highlights consciousness as, to put it simply, the brain’s construction of a model of itself. In Graziano’s view, this model is quick, imprecise, and just good enough to get the job done:
The consciousness we describe is non-physical, confusing, irreducible, and unexplainable, because that packet of information in the brain is incoherent. It’s a quick sketch.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.