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Blaming the Right Person

[ 0 ] June 20, 2011

David Eagleman discusses in his recent article for The Atlantic the increasingly fuzzy line between nature and nurture and how it will play into our judicial system.

In recent years, it has become clear that who we are is dictated by both our genes and our experiences. Though our genes were granted to us at birth, their expressions are adjusted throughout our lives according to changing needs, stresses, and other exterior influences. A natural flow from a conversation of nature vs. nurture is to free will–do we or do we not have it? Eagleman applies this question to the judicial system, where it has real consequences:

As our understanding of the human brain improves, juries are increasingly challenged with these sorts of questions. When a criminal stands in front of the judge’s bench today, the legal system wants to know whether he is blameworthy.

It may sound ridiculous to blame a criminal’s actions on his or her genes. But, as Eagleman points out, there have already been cases where advances in science helped to prove that the perpetrator was not in control of his actions. As the years go on, science will only continues to progress, our ability to see the relationship between biology and behavior will improve, and culpability will shift. Eagleman writes,

This puts us in a strange situation. After all, a just legal system cannot define culpability simply by the limitations of current technology….A legal system that declares a person culpable at the beginning of a decade and not culpable at the end is one in which culpability carries no clear meaning.

It is interesting to witness how the progress of technology and science is changing our definitions and perceptions outside of labs and hospitals. In my experience of talking to neuroscience students, one thing that draws them to this discipline is how it borrows from a wide range of studies, from computer engineering to physics, biochemistry to 3D animation. At this point in history, it is clearer than ever that neuroscience not only requires a wide range of disciplinary input, but also extends its influence throughout various facets of our world.

Read the full article at The Atlantic.

Hearing Taste

[ 1 ] June 7, 2011


We all know that satisfying sound of biting into a perfectly seasoned, fresh potato chip (or, “crisp” for our British friends). And then there are those times someone left the chips out too long. The crunch isn’t quite there. It’s just not the same, is it?

Zampini and Spence (2005) revealed just how much the sound of a food can affect your perception. They had subjects bite into a potato chip with their front teeth. Then, in subsequent trials, they raised either the amplitude or frequency of the noise the subjects heard while biting into the chip. The researchers found that raising either of these variables would make the subject perceived the chip as being fresher.

The whole experience of food and drink is a multisensory formulation. Color and viscosity will affect your perception of flavor of a juice. The primary sensation attributed to carbonated beverages is the irritation caused by chemical excitation of oral nociceptors. Your perception of moistness of a food is partly determined by mastication noises. These are only a few of the numerous factors that play into your daily experience of food and drink.

Tasty? Sure. Pepsi? Not quite.

Do you remember Crystal Pepsi? Pepsi did extensive research to create this clean-looking Pepsi, and it did well in test markets. But when it was released nationwide, the product flopped. One theory of its failure is that after taking the caramel color out of Pepsi, people’s perception of taste was muddled. It should be Pepsi, but it doesn’t “taste” like Pepsi. The end result was a Frankenstein beverage that people couldn’t embrace.

[ 0 ] May 16, 2011

Dear graduating senior,

I know what you’re going through. Graduation is fast approaching. Between the parties, there are the laughs, tears, bittersweet moments of utter satisfaction with life. It’s a joyous time riddled with optimism, self-doubt, and uncertainty, all at the same time. Maybe our beloved neuroscience can help us out?

In an article by Tali Sharot in the New York Times, optimism itself is briefly reviewed. The bottom line? Optimism is good. It helps us heal faster, live longer, and it motivates us. But drink this spirit in moderation and be sure to accompany it with a safety net.

Richard Wiseman’s book, 59 Seconds adds to this by siting studies that suggest envisioning your perfect future can actually be detrimental to your success. People can waste time dwelling in fantasy, and when things don’t go as planned, it can hurt a lot more when you’ve been envisioning the perfect situation for months or years.

So, chin up. Look on the bright side of things and expect the best. Your body will thank you. But don’t get drunk with optimism; the hangover from this binge can be devastating.

I have to return to my friends, taking a moment to smell the air before I return to life. Maybe you should do the same.


Amorphous is the mind

[ 4 ] May 1, 2011

Amorphous is the mind; its quality

Is in its fibre, not its form;

If it desire to fly it puts on wings,

Awkwardly, not like a bird

At first (though later); the rustle of a thing half-heard

Can twist it as iron at times is twisted by a wind-storm or word

after word

Can pummel it for hours yet leave it like a leaf on a still day


But a man’s habit clings

And he will wear tomorrow what today he wears.

The mind is happy in the air, happy to be up there with

Learning feathers, but the man loathes it.

The mind cries “Up! Oh, up! Oh, let me try to fly!

Look! I can lift you!” but he smothers its cry;

Out of thrift, and fear of next year’s feathers, he clothes it in

last year’s things

And tries his best to button across a keel-shaped breast a coat

knobbed out by new wings.

-Edna St. Vincent Millay

Helping Hands

[ 0 ] April 16, 2011

Chimpanzees make-up after a fight

Primatologist Frans de Waal has written a terrific essay for the New York Times’ Opinionator blog about our moral instincts.  Do we need a “God” in order to do “good?”  No, de Waal argues:

“According to most philosophers, we reason ourselves towards a moral position. Even if we do not invoke God, it is still a top-down process of us formulating the principles and then imposing those on human conduct. But would it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination to be so? Would it make sense to appeal to fairness and justice in the absence of powerful reactions to their absence? Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took needed to be vetted against handed-down principles. Instead, I am a firm believer in the Humean position that reason is the slave of the passions. We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.”

Snapshots and Words

[ 0 ] March 22, 2011

A new study in the journal Cognition, by Judith Kroll and her team at Penn State, suggests that deaf individuals fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) with English as their second language can read words and internally visualize signs at the same time.  Like non-deaf bilinguals, ASL users engage their knowledge of both languages simultaneously, though in the case of the deaf, that means they aren’t merely thinking of two words, they’re thinking of both a word and a mental representation of positioned human hands.

Deaf individuals were told to decide whether two sample English words were related or unrelated in meaning as fast as they could (i.e. ‘bird’ and ‘duck’ would be related, ‘movie’ and ‘paper’ would be unrelated).  If the related words also had ASL hand signs that were simlar to each other in their shape and motion, the deaf participants recorded significantly faster translation times for the task.

In other words, if two signs are physically similar, they speed up language translation.  There is clearly some kind of “vocabulary of the hands” in ASL speakers that may make two similar hand shapes analogous to two similar words, like “drive” and “dive” or “sun” and “sunk.”

These data further support the idea that ASL is very cognitively similar to spoken language, likely uses some of the same neural pathways, and is learned in the same way.  The latter idea is strongly supported by the touching history of Nicaraguan Sign Language, which was created by an isolated population of genetically deaf children in Nicaragua in the 1970s.