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New Doc: “Project Nim”

[ 0 ] July 23, 2011

For those who haven’t seen the 2008 documentary “Man On Wire,” which is about a record-breaking feat of high altitude tightrope walking, I “highly” recommend it (sorry, that was awful).  Director James Marsh’s new documentary, “Project Nim,” is an in-depth look at one of the most educational, tragic, monumental, flawed studies in the history of modern psychology research. In the 1970s, an experimental chimp subject, Nim Chimpsky, was reared and taught as if he was human, and the researchers hypothesized that he would be able to learn human language (through signing).

While Nim learned many signs, the results were cloudy, and researchers spent years analyzing his behavior to see what was really going on.  His moniker came from a play on “Noam Chomsky,” who argued that humans were specifically wired for language and other apes were not.  Though the results of the Nim Chimpsky study were heavily disputed, and, ultimately, found to be flawed, questions about the origin of language and the cognitive abilities of our primate cousins remain unanswered.

Check out “Project Nim” for a nicely made look at this multi-layered story of the crossroads between curiosity, intellectual arrogance,  scientific discovery, and self-discovery.

Lackluster Retention of Random Information

[ 2 ] July 20, 2011

I remember one chemistry teacher in high school who said spending time to memorize the entire periodic table was a waste of time. I always did like him.

In a recent New York Times article, Patricia Cohen reports that there is a new line of research looking into the effects of online databases and search engines on our memory. Dr Betsy Sparrow, Daniel Wegner, and Jenny Liu conducted a few memory experiments, revealing that people do not make an effort to retain information when they believe it will be easily retrievable.

Huh. Maybe this explains why I don’t remember Bon Jovi’s birthday or the atomic mass of osmium. The internet is right there, just waiting for me to ask these important questions. (Bon Jovi was born on March 2nd, 1962 and osmium has an atomic mass of 76 atomic mass units. Thank you, Google.)

It’s no doubt that internet databases and search engines are a boon to researchers, students, cheating crossword players. That’s the thing, it’s ok to forget something until you need it–my chemistry teacher knew that in the real world, we could look up an element. But what if you don’t know when you’ll need a bit of information. There are little things like, oh I don’t know, critical thinking, decision making, and problem solving that at least in part depend on your ability to recall bits of knowledge from memory. (In theory, this is one reason why we memorize things in college.) So, how will our 21st century lackluster retention of random information affect these essential mental faculties?

The 2011 Brain Art Competition

[ 0 ] July 9, 2011

I recently served as a judge for the 2011 Brain Art Competition. It’s a brand new initiative organized by a group called The Neuro Bureau, who state that they support “open neuroscience,” and aim to support creative collaborations between the disciplines.

The results of the competition were announced in late June at the 2011 Human Brain Mapping conference in Montreal. My personal favorite entry to the competition is below: “The Brain Tree,” by Silje Soeviknes of Norway.

A To Chimpanzee

[ 0 ] July 3, 2011


Humans hear and understand language through a staggering number of filters – language is heard coming out of the unique voice boxes and accents of millions of our peers, compressed by cell phones, radios, televisions, and computers, and mumbled in rock songs, yet we still manage to understand it through all the noise.

One of many defenses of the theory that spoken language is, essentially, a “human-specific” adaptation, rather than a more subtle evolution of earlier mamallian precursors, points to our ability to understand language in such a multitude of different situations; after it is mangled, processed, and distorted. How else can we explain these feats than by assuming that we’re specialized for spoken language?

Some interesting new research by Lisa Heimbauer and her team at Georgia State University challenges this argument.  They’ve shown that chimpanzees raised hearing and responding to a vocabulary (albeit, a small one) of human language are able to understand words even after they scarcely resemble their natural, human intonations. [ The chimps were said to "understand" words and sentences because they could correctly point to corresponding lexigrams when they heard spoken sentences - the main chimp subject, Panzee, has a vocabulary of 128 English words].



Using two techniques that drastically reduced the natural, human-like acoustics of the chimps’ lexicon (hear an example here), the researchers were able to test the chimpanzees’ ability to understand low-fi English.  Incredibly, the chimps correctly distinguished the distorted words at a rate comparable to humans.

There are some important limits of this study: The subjects have a relatively tiny vocabulary when compared to that of humans (128 vs. 40,000), they can not necessarily be said to “understand” the words in the same textured way as humans, and the work only refers to rigorously trained individuals rather than wild chimps.  However, the research does show that chimps do have the necessary neural architecture to generalize the sounds of spoken words and adapt to the many ways a single word can sound, and that’s an impressive skill.

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Discover Cajal

[ 1 ] June 28, 2011

A new gallery at Discover Magazine online features images and text revealing the life and work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the “father of neuroscience.”  Cajal discovered neurons, which he called “butterflies of the soul,” and once remarked that “only true artists are attracted to science.”  Check the essay on this site “Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Artist” for the story of Cajal’s youth and coming of age as an anatomical investigator.

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.

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