The Situationist

Archive for the ‘Neuroscience’ Category

The Situational Effects of Dopamine

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 1, 2010

From Big Think: Drug addiction researcher Nora Volkow walks us through the singular chemical that drives substance abuse.

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To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Are Video Games Addictive?,” “The Situation of Gambling,” Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “The Science of Addiction, The Myth of Choice.”

To watch a related ABC News video, titled “New Science Offers Hope to Addicts,” click here.

 

 

 

Posted in Choice Myth, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Neuroscience and Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 7, 2009

Laura Sanders wrote an interesting article, titled “SPECIALIS REVELIO!  It’s not magic, it’s neuroscience,” in ScienceNews. Here are some excerpts.

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Skill in manipulating people’s perceptions has earned magicians a new group of spellbound fans: Scientists seeking to learn how the eyes and brain perceive — or don’t perceive — reality.

“The interest for magic has been there for a long time,” says Gustav Kuhn, a neuroscientist at Durham University in England and former performing magician. “What is new is that we have all these techniques to get a better idea of the inner workings of these principles.”

A recent brain imaging study by Kuhn and his colleagues revealed which regions of the brain are active when people watch a magician do something impossible, such as make a coin disappear. Another research group’s work on monkeys suggests that two separate kinds of brain cells are critical to visual attention. One group of cells enhances focus on what a person is paying attention to, and the other actively represses interest in everything else. A magician’s real trick, then, may lie in coaxing the suppressing brain cells so that a spectator ignores the performer’s actions precisely when and where required.

Using magic to understand attention and consciousness could have applications in education and medicine, including work on attention impairments.

Imaging the impossible

Kuhn and his collaborators performed brain scans while subjects watched videos of real magicians performing tricks, including coins that disappear and cigarettes that are torn and miraculously put back together.  Volunteers in a control group watched videos in which no magic happened (the cigarette remained torn), or in which something surprising, but not magical, took place (the magician used the cigarette to comb his hair). Including the surprise condition allows researchers to separate the effects of witnessing a magic trick from those of the unexpected.

In terms of brain activity patterns, watching a magic trick was clearly different from watching a surprising event. Researchers saw a “striking” level of activity solely in the left hemisphere only when participants watched a magic trick, Kuhn says. Such a clear hemisphere separation is unusual, he adds, and may represent the brain’s attempt to reconcile the conflict between what is witnessed and what is thought possible. The two brain regions activated in the left hemisphere — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex — are thought to be important for both detecting and resolving these types of conflicts.

Masters of suppression

Exactly how the brain attends to one thing and ignores another has been mysterious.  Jose-Manuel Alonso of the SUNY State College of Optometry in New York City thinks that the answer may lie in brain cells that actively suppress information deemed irrelevant by the brain. These cells are just as important, if not more so, than cells that enhance attention on a particular thing, says Alonso. “And that is a very new idea . . . . When you focus your attention very hard at a certain point to detect something, two things happen: Your attention to that thing increases, and your attention to everything else decreases.”

Alonso and his colleagues recently identified a select group of brain cells in monkeys that cause the brain to “freeze the world” by blocking out all irrelevant signals and allowing the brain to focus on one paramount task. Counter to what others had predicted, the team found that the brain cells that enhance attention are distinct from those that suppress attention. Published in the August 2008 Nature Neuroscience, the study showed that these brain cells can’t switch jobs depending on where the focus is — a finding Alonso calls “a total surprise.”

The work also shows that as a task gets more difficult, both the enhancement of essential information and suppression of nonessential information intensify. As a monkey tried to detect quicker, more subtle changes in the color of an object, both types of cells grew more active.

Alonso says magicians can “attract your attention with something very powerful, and create a huge suppression in regions to make you blind.” In the magic world, “the more interest [magicians] manage to draw, the stronger the suppression that they will get.”

Looking but not seeing

In the French Drop trick [see video below], a magician holds a coin in the left hand and pretends to pass the coin to the right hand, which remains empty. “What’s critical is that the magician looks at the empty hand. He pays riveted attention to the hand that is empty,” researcher Stephen Macknik says.

Several experiments have now shown that people can stare directly at something and not see it.  For a study published in Current Biology in 2006, Kuhn and his colleagues tracked where people gazed as they watched a magician throw a ball into the air several times. On the last throw, the magician only pretended to toss the ball. Still, spectators claimed to have seen the ball launch and then miraculously disappear in midair. But here’s the trick: In most cases, subjects kept their eyes on the magician’s face. Only when the ball was actually at the top part of the screen did participants look there. Yet the brain perceived the ball in the air, overriding the actual visual information.

Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his colleagues asked whether more perceptive people succumb less easily to inattentional blindness, which is when a person doesn’t perceive something because the mind, not the eyes, wanders. In a paper in the April Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, the researchers report that people who are very good at paying attention had no advantage in performing a visual task that required noticing something unexpected. Task difficulty was what mattered. Few participants could spot a more subtle change, while most could spot an easy one. The results suggest that magicians may be tapping in to some universal property of the human brain.

“We’re good at focusing attention,” says Simons. “It’s what the visual system was built to do.” Inattentional blindness, he says, is a by-product, a necessary consequence, of our visual system allowing us to focus intently on a scene.

Magical experiments

Martinez-Conde and Macknik plan to study the effects of laughter on attention. Magicians have the audience in stitches throughout a performance.  When the audience is laughing, the magician has the opportunity to act unnoticed.  Understanding how emotional states can affect perception and attention may lead to more effective ways to treat people who have attention problems.  “Scientifically, that can tell us a lot about the interaction between emotion and attention, of both the normally functioning brain and what happens in a diseased state,” says Martinez-Conde.

He expects that the study of consciousness and the mind will benefit enormously from teaming up with magicians. “We’re just at the beginning,” Macknik says. “It’s been very gratifying so far, but it’s only going to get better.”

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You can read the entire article here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “Brain Magic,” Magic is in the Mind,” and “The Situation of Illusion” or click here for a collection of posts on illusion.

Posted in Entertainment, Illusions, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Negotiation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 1, 2009

John F. McCarthy, Carl A. Scheraga, and Donald E. Gibson, recently posted their interesting paper, titled “Culture, Cognition and Conflict: How Neuroscience Can Help to Explain Cultural Differences in Negotiation and Conflict Management” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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In negotiation and conflict management situations, understanding cultural patterns and tendencies is critical to whether a negotiation will accomplish the goals of the involved parties. While differences in cultural norms have been identified in the current literature, what is needed is a more fine-grained approach that examines differences below the level of behavioral norms. Drawing on recent social neuroscience approaches, we argue that differing negotiating styles may not only be related to differing cultural norms, but to differences in underlying language processing strategies in the brain, suggesting that cultural difference may influence neuropsychological processes. If this is the case, we expect that individuals from different cultures will exhibit different neuropsychological tendencies. Consistent with our hypothesis, using EEG measured responses, native German-speaking German participants took significantly more time to indicate when they understood a sentence than did native English-speaking American participants. This result is consistent with the theory that individuals from different cultures develop unique language processing strategies that affect behavior. A deliberative cognitive style used by Germans could account for this difference in comprehension reaction time. This study demonstrates that social neuroscience may provide a new way of understanding micro-processes in cross-cultural negotiations and conflict resolution.

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You can download the paper for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Neuroscience and the Study of Racial Biases,” “Law & the Brain,” “The Situation of Risk Perceptions – Abstract,”and to review previous Situationist posts on cultural cognition, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Cultural Cognition, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Emotional Distress Claims

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 20, 2009

Betsy Grey has recently posted her intriguing paper, “Neuroscience and Emotional Harm in Tort Law: Rethinking the American Approach to Free-Standing Emotional Distress Claims” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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American tort law traditionally distinguishes between “physical” and “emotional” harm for purposes of liability, with emotional harm treated as a second class citizen. The customary view is that physical injury is more entitled to compensation because it is considered more objectively verifiable and perhaps more important. The current draft of the Restatement of the Law (Third) of Torts maintains this view. Even the name of the Restatement project itself – “Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm” – emphasizes this distinction. Advances in neuroscience suggest that the concern over verification may no longer be valid, and that the phenomena we call “emotional” harm has a physiological basis. Because of these early scientific advances, this may be an appropriate time to re-examine our assumptions about tort recovery for emotional harm.

Using studies of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as an example, this paper explores advances in neuroscience that have begun to shed light on the biological basis of the harm suffered when an individual is exposed to extreme stress. These advances underline the shrinking scientific distinction between physical and emotional harm. Drawing on these scientific developments, as well as on the British approach to emotional injury claims, the paper concludes that we should rethink the American treatment of emotional distress claims. In general, it proposes that we change our approach to account for advances in neuroscience, moving toward a more unified view of bodily and emotional injury. Two potential legal applications are advanced in this paper: (1) that science can provide empirical evidence of what it means to suffer emotional distress, thus helping to validate a claim that has always been subject to greater scrutiny; and (2) that this evidence may allow us to move away from the sharp distinction between how physical and emotional injuries are conceptualized, viewing both as valid types of harm with physiological origins.

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To download the paper for free, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “Placebo and the Situation of Healing,” “The Situation of Time and Mind,” “The Rubber Hand Illusion,” The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” “A (Situationist) Body of Thought,” and “A Closer Look at the Interior Situation.”

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Law, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Interior Situation of Honesty (and Dishonesty)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 4, 2009

PinocchioSeed magazine recently provided a terrific summary of fascinating research on the situation of honesty (here). Here are some excerpts.

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In a famous set of experiments in the 1970s, children were observed trick-or-treating in the suburbs. Some were asked their names and addresses upon arriving at a door, while some were asked nothing. All were instructed to take just one piece of candy from the bowl, but as soon as the owner of the home retreated into the kitchen, the children who hadn’t provided their names and addresses shoveled the candy into their bags, sometimes taking everything in the bowl. Psychologists posited that anonymity made the children feel safe from the repercussions of their actions, an effect they call deindividuation.

Moral psychologists have since constructed myriad experiments to probe the workings of human morality, studying how we decide to cheat or to play by the rules, to lie or to tell the truth. And the results can be surprising, even disturbing. For instance, we have based our society on the assumption that deciding to lie or to tell the truth is within our conscious control. But Harvard’s Joshua Greene and Joseph Paxton say this assumption may be flawed and are probing whether honesty may instead be the result of controlling a desire to lie (a conscious process) or of not feeling the temptation to lie in the first place (an automatic process). “When we are honest, are we honest because we actively force ourselves to be? Or are we honest because it flows naturally?” Greene asks.

Greene and Paxton have just published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that attempts to get at the subconscious underpinnings of morality by recording subjects’ brain activity as they make a decision to lie.

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[Using fMRI to examine the brain’s activity during lying and telling the truth, researchers Joshua Greene and Joseph Paxon] found that honesty is an automatic process—but only for some people.  Comparing scans from tests with and without the opportunity to cheat, the scientists found that for honest subjects, deciding to be honest took no extra brain activity. But for others, the dishonest group, both deciding to lie and deciding to tell the truth required extra activity in the areas of the brain associated with critical thinking and self-control.

Their findings—that honesty is automatic for some people—is part of a growing body of work that shows that many, if not most, of our daily actions are not under our conscious control. According to [Situationist Contributor] John Bargh, a Yale social psychologist who studies automaticity, even our higher mental processes are performed unconsciously in response to environmental cues.

“It could potentially be some of the most intriguing evidence for group selection,” Bargh speculates, adding that the results are reminiscent of the evolutionary idea that “cheaters” and “suckers” coexist in a specific ratio in the animal kingdom.

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To read the entire article, which is very interesting, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Trust,” The Situation of Lying,” “The Facial Obviousness of Lying,” “Denial,” Cheating Doesn’t Pay . . . So Why So Much of it?The Situation of Body Temperature,” Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “Unclean Hands,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry,” and The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Classic Experiments, Morality, Neuroscience, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Situationism in the News

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 17, 2009

situationism-in-the-news

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quote from some of the Situationist news over the last several weeks.

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From Reuters India: “Brain science starting to impact varied fields”

“[…] More and more, though, images showing neurons firing in different areas of the brain are gaining attention from experts in fields as varied as law, marketing, education, criminology, philosophy and ethics.  They want to know how teachers can teach better, business sell more products or prisons boost their success rates in rehabilitating criminals.  And they think that the patterns and links which cognitive neuroscience is finding can help them.” Read more . . .

From Seed Magazine: “Optical illusions may seem to deceive, but they actually reveal truths about how our brains construct reality”

“Are you sitting in a swivel office chair as you read this article? Would you like to see a remarkable visual illusion? Just push yourself back from your desk and spin around four or five times from right to left with your eyes open. Then look back at this screen. You’ll probably notice that now the onscreen text appears to be moving from left to right.” Read more . . .

From The New York Time: “The Young and the Neuro”

“When you go to an academic conference you expect to see some geeks, gravitas and graying professors giving lectures.  But the people who showed up at the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society’s conference in Lower Manhattan last weekend were so damned young, hip and attractive.  The leading figures at this conference were in their 30s, and most of the work was done by people in their 20s.  When you spoke with them, you felt yourself near the beginning of something long and important.” Read more . . .

Posted in Abstracts, Illusions, Neuroscience | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Social Neuroscience and the Study of Racial Biases

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 26, 2009

Social Neuroscience

From Eureka Alert:

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Overt expressions of bigotry are relatively infrequent, but current psychological research finds that racial biases often lurk in the unconscious mind, influencing behavior in subtle ways without one’s intent. Under a five-year, $834,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award, New York University Psychology Assistant Professor David Amodio is examining the dynamics of such unconscious, or “implicit,” racial associations, through research that aims to advance our basic understanding of how neural mechanisms of learning and memory function in social behavior. The award is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Amodio and his colleagues are conducting research that links emotional and conceptual (i.e., stereotyping) forms of implicit racial bias to different systems of learning and memory in the brain. By linking implicit bias to neural processes, he can apply knowledge from existing scholarship on how these systems learn and unlearn, and how they interact with mechanisms for cognition, emotion, and behavior, to obtain a novel perspective on the dynamics of racial prejudice.

Amodio’s research simultaneously addresses two critical sets of questions in cognitive neuroscience and social psychology: One, how are implicit associations in memory represented in the brain and expressed in social behavior?; and, two, how do non-conscious forms of prejudice and stereotyping operate in the mind and behavior, and how can their effects in society be reduced? The integration of ideas and methods from social psychology and cognitive neuroscience, exemplified in Amodio’s project, characterizes the emerging field of social neuroscience.

In conjunction with his research on the neural mechanisms of intergroup bias, Amodio’s award will support the development of a new program for training and research in social neuroscience at NYU, which will build on the university’s existing strengths in social psychology and neuroscience. As a young, but fast-growing field, this program will be among the first of its kind.

As part of the broader educational activities associated with the project, Amodio and his team will engage students and young researchers from underrepresented groups in science and discovery through school visits and opportunities for students to become involved in aspects of the research. The proposed work will capitalize on the vast diversity of New York City, which affords the unique opportunity to reach out to K-12 schools, colleges, and community groups in disadvantaged areas. As a whole, this integrated research and educational plan is designed to promote science and education while redressing racial discrimination.

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To visit the Social Neurosciene Lab webiste, click here.  To review other Situationist posts about neuroscience, click here, for those about implicit associations, click here.

Posted in Education, Emotions, Implicit Associations, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Placebo and the Situation of Healing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 18, 2009

placeboFrom Youtube:

Featuring members of the the Harvard Placebo Study Group, “Placebo: Cracking the Code” examines the power of belief in alleviating pain, curing disease, and the healing of injuries.

The placebo effect is a pervasive, albeit misunderstood, phenomenon in medicine. In the UK, over 60% of doctors surveyed said they had prescribed placebos in regular clinical practice. In a recent Time Magazine article, 96% of US physicians surveyed stated that they believe that placebo treatments have real therapeutic effects.

Work on the placebo effect received an intellectual boost when the Harvard Placebo Study Group was founded at the beginning of 2001. This group is part of the Mind-Brain-Behavior Initiative at Harvard University, and its main characteristic is the interdisciplinary approach to the placebo phenomenon. The group is made up of 8 members: Anne Harrington (Historian of Science at Harvard), Howard Fields (Neuroscientist at Univ. of California in San Francisco), Dan Moerman (Anthropologist at Univ. of Michigan), Nick Humphrey (Evolutionary Psychologist at London School of Economics), Dan Wegner (Psychologist at Harvard), Jamie Pennebaker (Psychologist at Univ. of Texas in Austin), Ginger Hoffman (Behavioral Geneticist at Harvard) and Fabrizio Benedetti (Neuroscientist at Univ. of Turin). The main objective of the group is two-fold: to devise new experiments that may shed light on the placebo phenomenon and to write papers in which the placebo effect is approached from different perspectives.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Dan Ariely on the Situation of Expectation,”The Situation of Perceptions,” “January Fools’ Day,” “Brainicize: The Situational Malleability of our Brains,” “A (Situationist) Body of Thought,” The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” and “Brainicize: The Situational Malleability of our Brains.”

Posted in Food and Drug Law, Illusions, Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Video | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Situationism and Other Interdisciplinary Approaches

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 17, 2009

Barbed Wire BoundaryInterdisciplinary research is on the rise and is itself increasingly a topic of discussion and study.  At this year’s Association for Psychological Science (APS) annual conference, for instance, Situationist Contributors Geoff Cohen and Jon Hanson participated in a symposium titled “Psychology as a Hub Science II: Navigating Early Career Interdisciplinary Collaboration.”

In the last issue of APS’s Observer, Eric Jaffe has a terrific article, titled “Crossing Boundaries: The Growing Enterprise of Interdisciplinary Research.” Here’s the introduction.

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Anyone who followed this past election season — and, considering the voter turnout records, that’s pretty much everyone — no doubt grew familiar with, and likely a bit tired of, each candidate’s avowed mission of “reaching across the aisle.” Almost immediately upon winning the presidency, Barack Obama set out to do just that, inviting a handful of Republicans to a Super Bowl party. Still he was able to rally only meager cross-party support for his historic stimulus bill, failing, in some eyes, to validate his call for a bipartisan era — which in turn prompted The New Yorker to point out that eight days in office was, after all, “a tight schedule for era-delivering.”

In the sciences, the era of interdisciplinary study has been delivering for some time. The past 50 years have seen researchers engaged in their own version of aisle reaching, extending a hand or a methodology or a graduate student across campus and, in some cases, across the globe, to advance some form of basic understanding. A recent National Academy of Sciences committee, charged with summarizing the state of scientific study across disciplines, reeled off an impressive list of achievements, from genome sequencing to neuroimaging to the Manhattan Project.

Psychologists have not been strangers to this trend. Rather, they have been in the vanguard, according to a paper published in Science (Wuchty, 2007). In the second half of the 20th century, the average size of a psychology research team increased 75 percent — the top rate of increase among social sciences.

As research teams have expanded, their composition has diversified. Economists and political scientists, in particular, have teamed with psychologists at a progressive rate, the Science authors found. More importantly, the citation impact of these larger teams seems to have increased with their added size and breadth. This heightened influence holds true even when adjusting for the increase in self-citation that comes with a greater number of researchers per study.

New fields have already begun to emerge from these meetings of minds—neuroscience, political psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology, to name a handful. Such instances distinguish true interdisciplinary work from multi-disciplinary efforts, which, as APS Past President John Cacioppo pointed out in a previous Observer column, require “only that one share an established procedure with an investigator in another field.” Ideally, interdisciplinary collaborations lead to more than a parlor game of pass the procedure. They don’t just shift eyes onto the question at hand; they ask completely new questions. The goal here, it would seem, is not to reach across the aisle, but rather to eliminate it.

Still, despite their head start over the Aisle Reacher-in-Chief, collaborative scientists also face many challenges when it comes to working outside their comfort zone. An additional workload, communication breakdowns, and tenure-track requirements are some the interdisciplinary scientist’s heaviest burdens. But most consider the evolution of psychology well worth the growing pains. “When psychology departments were forming, it was experimental, social, clinical, developmental — as if any one of these things can be studied independent of the other,” says APS Fellow and Past Board Member Elizabeth Phelps, who is part of the interdisciplinary Center for Neuroeconomics at New York University, of the way psychology operated up through the first half of the 20th century. “I think we had divided up how we understand human behavior. “I see a lot of those barriers starting to be broken.”

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Jaffe’s fascinating article is just getting warmed up.  To read it in its entirety and learn more about some of the triumphs and pitfalls of interdisciplinary research, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Quick Introduction to Experimental (Situationist?) Philosophy” and “Behavioral Economics and Policy.”

Posted in Education, Legal Theory, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Social Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Nancy Kanwisher on the Situation of our Brain

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 25, 2009

BrainFor Observer, publisehd by the Association for Psychological Science, Ann Conkle wrote a nice summary of Nancy Kanwisher‘s fascinating keynote address at this years APS Annual Convention in San Francisco.  Here are some excerpts of Conkle’s article, titled “Sharpening the Focus on Brain Function.”

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Is your brain like a Swiss Army knife? . . . Is it jam-packed with specialized tools that are unfolded only when a specific situation arises? Or is it more all-purpose, with a few parts that tackle many different situations? Convention Keynoter and APS Fellow Nancy Kanwisher (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) is attempting to find out.

Following centuries of debate about specialized brain regions — from the phrenologists to Broca — the development of fMRI technology has ushered in a new era of studying brain regions. By monitoring the blood flow necessary to support neural activity, fMRI has allowed researchers to track which regions of the brain are involved in processing specific stimuli. With this new weapon in her arsenal, Kanwisher performed a now-classic study published in 1997. In it, participants sat in an fMRI scanner while looking a series of faces and objects. She and her colleagues identified an area in the fusiform gyrus on the bottom surface of the temporal lobe that responded more strongly when the participants viewed faces than when they viewed objects. Dubbed the fusiform face area, this region seemed like it could be specialized for processing faces.

But the researchers could not yet be sure. What if the area responded to everything animate, or everything round? A decade of more detailed research confirmed their original hypothesis — the fusiform face area lived up to its name. At the same time, Kanwisher’s lab discovered two other specialized areas: the parahippocampal place area, which specializes in processing places, and the extrastriate body area, which specializes in processing images of the body.

These answers only lead to more questions. These areas are involved in processing certain categories, but do they merely process perceptual input or actually reflect conscious experience? What are the roles of genes and experience in wiring up these areas? And finally, how much of the brain is like this? Is our entire cortex broken up into small pieces, each with their own special domain? Kanwisher and her colleagues are tackling these questions head on.

Do these areas only engage in their respective categorical processing or do they perform other functions as well? For example, take the fusiform face area. It is most active when viewing faces, but it also shows lesser activity when the participant is looking at other visual stimuli, like objects. Something in the pattern of this lower activity could be crucial in processing input other than faces. Evidence against this idea comes from research on patients with neurological trauma, who sometimes lose face perception abilities without losing object perception. But, the low chance of finding subjects with a lesion in just the right spot make this research limited. Other researchers have turned to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a method that uses magnetic fields to transiently disrupt neural activity. The fusiform face area is too deep in the brain to be affected by TMS, but the extrastriate body area is closer to the scalp and susceptible to the TMS disruption. When the neural activity in this region is disturbed, participants are impaired in the ability to recognize bodies but have no difficulty recognizing faces or other objects. Although these specialized areas may collect information about other types of stimuli, it seems that they are only necessary for processing information of their specific type.

Are the functionally specific regions merely perceptual processers or do they reflect our conscious experience? To illustrate the difference between perception and experience, Kanwisher instructed the audience to pick up the 3-D glasses left on the seats. But, before we could put them on, she showed us two images, a red-tinted image of a face and a green-tinted image of a house. Then she superimposed the house on the face creating a red/green face/house jumble. But, when looking at this jumble through glasses with one red-tinted and one green-tinted lens, so that the house image goes to one eye and the face image to the other, you don’t experience a jumble — you experience a red face that fades to a green house and back and forth as your brain attempts to make sense of this new situation. Even though your experience of what you are seeing is changing, the image beamed to your retina is constant the whole time. Work from Kanwisher’s lab showed that in this situation, activity in the fusiform face area corresponds with one’s experience, not with the actual perceptual input.

Further, not only does the activity in specialized areas correspond with what we consciously see, it also corresponds with what we imagine. Kanwisher has put people in the fMRI machine and asked them to imagine familiar faces and places. The same areas are active when participants are imagining faces and places as when they are actually looking at faces and places. It’s not just what you are physically seeing, but what you are consciously aware of that is processed by this area.

So, where do these specialized areas come from? What role do genes and experience play in their construction?

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For answers to those questions and the rest of Conkle’s summary of Kanwisher’s talk, click here.

To watch a video of Kanwisher’s Keynote presentation, click on the video below.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, “Smart People Thinking about People Thinking about People Thinking” and ““The Grand Illusion” — Believing We See the Situation.”  To review a collection of Situationist posts on neuroscience, click here.

Posted in Classic Experiments, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 20, 2009

The good folks at Big Think interviewed Situationist friend Dan Gilbert and asked him about the future of psychology.  Among other things, Gilbert had this to say.

Surely the other big problem facing psychology is the problem facing any behavioral science in the United States of America, which is we have leaders who don’t much appreciate behavioral science. It’s an odd thing, given that virtually every problem you’re trying to solve is a problem of human behavior. These aren’t sciences that gather much respect. And as a result, they’re not sciences that are doing very well in terms of funding. It’s quite possible that psychology as we know it won’t exist as a science in 10 or 15 years if we follow the present course of funding in the U.S.A.

The video of his complete response is below.

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To review previous Situationist posts by or about Dan Gilbert’s work click here.

Posted in Neuroscience, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Brain Sciences and Criminal Law – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 9, 2009

Brain PuzzleTheodore Blumoff, recently posted his paper, “The Brain Sciences and Criminal Law Norms” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Although neuroscience and the tools of brain imaging are sufficiently well developed to provide evidence of our neurobiological processing at a level of detail unimaginable until even decade ago (roughly the size of a grain of rice), they are not yet sufficiently developed to be consistently useful in the guilt phase of most criminal trials. Given the advances in imaging and behavioral genetics, however, neuroscience is sufficiently mature today to effect some global procedural and substantive changes in our criminal law jurisprudence based on our advanced understanding of behavioral norms – e.g., changes in the definitions of, and burdens of proof on the issue of competency. In this work, I survey many of the presuppositions that guide work in a jurisprudence grounded in neuroscience and behavioral genetics and suggest how the findings in these areas could useful in effecting real change.

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You can download the paper for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Michael Gazzaniga on Brains and Gavels,” “Greely on Law and Neuroscience,” “Jurors, Brain Imaging, and the Allure of Pretty Pictures,” “Neurosciences and Criminal Law,” “Neurolaw Sampler,” “Neuroscience and the Law,” and “Law & the Brain.”

Posted in Abstracts, Law, Neuroscience | 2 Comments »

Michael Gazzaniga on Brains and Gavels

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 8, 2009

Brains and Gavels

In the 66-minute video below, Carl Zimmer interviews Michael S. Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology, University of California at Santa Barbara & Director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Law & Neuroscience Project. It’s worth watching.

Here is the video’s table of contents provided by Bloggingheads:

Mike’s project to connect law with neuroscience (13:59)
Why normal people sometimes make horrible choices (07:54)
How to be morally responsible—and causally determined (11:49)
Becoming your future self (06:48)
Poverty as a neurotoxin (12:51)
Left-brain, right-brain, split-brain (11:28)

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Greely on Law and Neuroscience,” Jurors, Brain Imaging, and the Allure of Pretty Pictures,” “Neurolaw Sampler,” Law & the Brain,” “The Split Brain and the Interior Situation of Theories of the Self,” “Our Interior Situations – The Human Brain,”and Your Brain and Morality.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Law, Legal Theory, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 1, 2009

From Googlevideo: “John A. Bargh, Ph.D., professor at Yale University [and Situationist Contributor], speaks during a symposium at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Convention in Tampa, FL. This special keynote session was titled “What Social Psychology can Tell Us about the ‘Free Will’ Question.”

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From Googlevideo: Roy Baumeister of Florida State University speaks at the same event about the usefulness and complexity of consciousness and human culture.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Death of Free Will and the Rise of Cheating,” “Interview of Eric Kandel,” and “Coalition of the Will-less.”

Posted in Experimental Philosophy, Morality, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Greely on Law and Neuroscience

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 28, 2009

From LBNstudio: “The degree to which brain scans will be admissible in court remains unclear, but experts already are pointing to precedent-setting cases and warning that neuroscience could alter the law, creating new methods and new visual evidence to determine criminal intent and criminal responsibility. Scott Drake talks with Stanford law Professor Hank Greely.”

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Jurors, Brain Imaging, and the Allure of Pretty Pictures,” “Neurolaw Sampler,” Law & the Brain,” and Your Brain and Morality.”

Posted in Law, Legal Theory, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Opening Black Boxes – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 28, 2009

Black BoxJulie Seaman has posted another terrific article, “Black Boxes,” on SSRN (published in 58 Emory Law Journal 428 (2008).  Here’s the abstract.

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The metaphor of the black box has often been used to describe the qualities of the human mind; likewise, the jury box is frequently referred to as a black box. In both contexts, the metaphor is apt because of the inscrutability of the process that gives rise to the outputs that emanate from each. Recent advances in brain imaging techniques have now begun to crack open the black box that is the human mind by illuminating the physical manifestations – the “neural correlates” – of a wide range cognitive processes. In particular, research into the neural correlates of deception presents the genuine prospect of a reliable, forensically practicable lie detector within the foreseeable future. Here, I proceed in the nature of a thought experiment to explore the ramifications for the jury system of a highly reliable lie detection technique. In particular, I suggest that opening the black box of the mind would have the effect of opening the black box of the jury room.

Conventional wisdom has it that the jury’s primary – if not singular – function is to determine the historical facts of the case. Yet it is clear that in addition to finding facts, juries also operate in the much more controversial realm of making law. At its extreme, this law-making role may result in jury nullification, whereby the jury issues a verdict intentionally contrary to the law as instructed by the court applied to the facts as found by the jury. Whereas the jury’s power to nullify is well-settled, its right to nullify is highly contested. Thus, much of the scholarly and judicial discussion has focused on the issue of whether the jury may or must be instructed that it has the ability to return a verdict contrary to the applicable law. Though scholars are divided, courts have uniformly held that juries should not be told of their power to nullify.

To the extent that brain imaging lie detection techniques (along with other technological advances in forensics) diminish the need for jury fact-finding, the jury’s law-making role would become more transparent to the public and, perhaps more important, to the jury itself. In cases where the facts were clear, the possibility and the actuality of nullification also would become clear. Thus would arise the questions: Is the black box quality of jury decision-making integral to the nature of the jury system itself? Would opening the black box destroy it? Should even highly accurate lie-detection evidence be excluded in order to preserve the black box nature of jury decision-making? This Article offers a framework within which to begin to think about these questions.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Hate Speech – Abstract,” “Jurors, Brain Imaging, and the Allure of Pretty Pictures,” “The Legal Brain,” and “Jury Selection.”

Posted in Abstracts, Law, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Neuroscience and Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 4, 2009

magicLaura Sanders recently wrote an interesting article, titled “SPECIALIS REVELIO!  It’s not magic, it’s neuroscience,” in ScienceNews. Here are some excerpts.

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Skill in manipulating people’s perceptions has earned magicians a new group of spellbound fans: Scientists seeking to learn how the eyes and brain perceive — or don’t perceive — reality.

“The interest for magic has been there for a long time,” says Gustav Kuhn, a neuroscientist at Durham University in England and former performing magician. “What is new is that we have all these techniques to get a better idea of the inner workings of these principles.”

A recent brain imaging study by Kuhn and his colleagues revealed which regions of the brain are active when people watch a magician do something impossible, such as make a coin disappear. Another research group’s work on monkeys suggests that two separate kinds of brain cells are critical to visual attention. One group of cells enhances focus on what a person is paying attention to, and the other actively represses interest in everything else. A magician’s real trick, then, may lie in coaxing the suppressing brain cells so that a spectator ignores the performer’s actions precisely when and where required.

Using magic to understand attention and consciousness could have applications in education and medicine, including work on attention impairments.

Imaging the impossible

Kuhn and his collaborators performed brain scans while subjects watched videos of real magicians performing tricks, including coins that disappear and cigarettes that are torn and miraculously put back together.  Volunteers in a control group watched videos in which no magic happened (the cigarette remained torn), or in which something surprising, but not magical, took place (the magician used the cigarette to comb his hair). Including the surprise condition allows researchers to separate the effects of witnessing a magic trick from those of the unexpected.

In terms of brain activity patterns, watching a magic trick was clearly different from watching a surprising event. Researchers saw a “striking” level of activity solely in the left hemisphere only when participants watched a magic trick, Kuhn says. Such a clear hemisphere separation is unusual, he adds, and may represent the brain’s attempt to reconcile the conflict between what is witnessed and what is thought possible. The two brain regions activated in the left hemisphere — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex — are thought to be important for both detecting and resolving these types of conflicts.

Masters of suppression

Exactly how the brain attends to one thing and ignores another has been mysterious.  Jose-Manuel Alonso of the SUNY State College of Optometry in New York City thinks that the answer may lie in brain cells that actively suppress information deemed irrelevant by the brain. These cells are just as important, if not more so, than cells that enhance attention on a particular thing, says Alonso. “And that is a very new idea . . . . When you focus your attention very hard at a certain point to detect something, two things happen: Your attention to that thing increases, and your attention to everything else decreases.”

Alonso and his colleagues recently identified a select group of brain cells in monkeys that cause the brain to “freeze the world” by blocking out all irrelevant signals and allowing the brain to focus on one paramount task. Counter to what others had predicted, the team found that the brain cells that enhance attention are distinct from those that suppress attention. Published in the August 2008 Nature Neuroscience, the study showed that these brain cells can’t switch jobs depending on where the focus is — a finding Alonso calls “a total surprise.”

The work also shows that as a task gets more difficult, both the enhancement of essential information and suppression of nonessential information intensify. As a monkey tried to detect quicker, more subtle changes in the color of an object, both types of cells grew more active.

Alonso says magicians can “attract your attention with something very powerful, and create a huge suppression in regions to make you blind.” In the magic world, “the more interest [magicians] manage to draw, the stronger the suppression that they will get.”

Looking but not seeing

In the French Drop trick [see video below], a magician holds a coin in the left hand and pretends to pass the coin to the right hand, which remains empty. “What’s critical is that the magician looks at the empty hand. He pays riveted attention to the hand that is empty,” researcher Stephen Macknik says.

Several experiments have now shown that people can stare directly at something and not see it.  For a study published in Current Biology in 2006, Kuhn and his colleagues tracked where people gazed as they watched a magician throw a ball into the air several times. On the last throw, the magician only pretended to toss the ball. Still, spectators claimed to have seen the ball launch and then miraculously disappear in midair. But here’s the trick: In most cases, subjects kept their eyes on the magician’s face. Only when the ball was actually at the top part of the screen did participants look there. Yet the brain perceived the ball in the air, overriding the actual visual information.

Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his colleagues asked whether more perceptive people succumb less easily to inattentional blindness, which is when a person doesn’t perceive something because the mind, not the eyes, wanders. In a paper in the April Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, the researchers report that people who are very good at paying attention had no advantage in performing a visual task that required noticing something unexpected. Task difficulty was what mattered. Few participants could spot a more subtle change, while most could spot an easy one. The results suggest that magicians may be tapping in to some universal property of the human brain.

“We’re good at focusing attention,” says Simons. “It’s what the visual system was built to do.” Inattentional blindness, he says, is a by-product, a necessary consequence, of our visual system allowing us to focus intently on a scene.

Magical experiments

Martinez-Conde and Macknik plan to study the effects of laughter on attention. Magicians have the audience in stitches throughout a performance.  When the audience is laughing, the magician has the opportunity to act unnoticed.  Understanding how emotional states can affect perception and attention may lead to more effective ways to treat people who have attention problems.  “Scientifically, that can tell us a lot about the interaction between emotion and attention, of both the normally functioning brain and what happens in a diseased state,” says Martinez-Conde.

He expects that the study of consciousness and the mind will benefit enormously from teaming up with magicians. “We’re just at the beginning,” Macknik says. “It’s been very gratifying so far, but it’s only going to get better.”

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You can read the entire article here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “Brain Magic,” Magic is in the Mind,” and “The Situation of Illusion” or click here for a collection of posts on illusion.

Posted in Entertainment, Illusions, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

The Situation of Confabulation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 13, 2009

El Alma del EbroHelen Philips had a nice article  titled “Mind fiction: Why your brain tells tall tales,” in the October 2006 issue of New Scientist.  Here are some excerpts.

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The kind of storytelling my grandmother did after a series of strokes . . . [n]eurologists call . . . confabulation. It isn’t fibbing, as there is no intent to deceive and people seem to believe what they are saying. Until fairly recently it was seen simply as a neurological deficiency – a sign of something gone wrong. Now, however, it has become apparent that healthy people confabulate too.

Confabulation is clearly far more than a result of a deficit in our memory, says William Hirstein, a neurologist and philosopher at Elmhurst College in Chicago and author of a book on the subject entitled Brain Fiction . . . . Children and many adults confabulate when pressed to talk about something they have no knowledge of, and people do it during and after hypnosis. . . . In fact, we may all confabulate routinely as we try to rationalise decisions or justify opinions. Why do you love me? Why did you buy that outfit? Why did you choose that career? At the extreme, some experts argue that we can never be sure about what is actually real and so must confabulate all the time to try to make sense of the world around us.

Confabulation was first mentioned in the medical literature in the late 1880s, applied to patients of the Russian psychiatrist Sergei Korsakoff. He described a distinctive type of memory deficit in people who had abused alcohol for many years. These people had no recollection of recent events, yet filled in the blanks spontaneously with sometimes fantastical and impossible stories.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York wrote about a man with Korsakoff’s syndrome in his 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Mr Thompson had no memory from moment to moment about where he was or why, or to whom he was speaking, but would invent elaborate explanations for the situations he found himself in. If someone entered the room, he might greet them as a customer of the shop he used to own. A doctor wearing a white coat might become the local butcher. To Mr Thompson, these fictions seemed plausible and he never seemed to notice that they kept changing. He behaved as though his improvised world was a perfectly normal and stable place.

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So confabulation can result from an inability to recognise whether or not memories are relevant, real and current. But that’s not the only time people make up stories, says Hirstein. He has found that those with delusions or false beliefs about their illnesses are among the most common confabulators. He thinks these cases reveal how we build up and interpret knowledge about ourselves and other people.

It is surprisingly common for stroke patients with paralysed limbs or even blindness to deny they have anything wrong with them, even if only for a couple of days after the event. They often make up elaborate tales to explain away their problems. One of Hirstein’s patients, for example, had a paralysed arm, but believed it was normal, telling him that the dead arm lying in the bed beside her was not in fact her own. When he pointed out her wedding ring, she said with horror that someone had taken it. When asked to prove her arm was fine, by moving it, she made up an excuse about her arthritis being painful. It seems amazing that she could believe such an impossible story. Yet when Vilayanur Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, offered cash to patients with this kind of delusion, promising higher rewards for tasks they couldn’t possibly do – such as clapping or changing a light bulb – and lower rewards for tasks they could, they would always attempt the high pay-off task, as if they genuinely had no idea they would fail.

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What all these conditions have in common is an apparent discrepancy between the patient’s internal knowledge or feelings and the external information they are getting from what they see. In all these cases “confabulation is a knowledge problem”, says Hirstein. Whether it is a lost memory, emotional response or body image, if the knowledge isn’t there, something fills the gap.

Helping to plug that gap may well be a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, which lies in the frontal lobes behind the eye sockets. The OFC is best known as part of the brain’s reward system, which guides us to do pleasurable things or seek what we need, but Hirstein . . . suggest that the system has an even more basic role. It and other frontal brain regions are busy monitoring all the information generated by our senses, memory and imagination, suppressing what is not needed and sorting out what is real and relevant. According to Morten Kringelbach, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford who studies pleasure, reward and the role of the OFC, this tracking of ongoing reality allows us to rate everything subjectively to help us work out our priorities and preferences.

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Kringelbach goes even further. He suspects that confabulation is not just something people do when the system goes wrong. We may all do it routinely. Children need little encouragement to make up stories when asked to talk about something they know little about. Adults, too, can be persuaded to confabulate, as [Situationist contributor] Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and his colleague Richard Nisbett have shown. They laid out a display of four identical items of clothing and asked people to pick which they thought was the best quality. It is known that people tend to subconsciously prefer the rightmost object in a sequence if given no other choice criteria, and sure enough about four out of five participants did favour the garment on the right. Yet when asked why they made the choice they did, nobody gave position as a reason. It was always about the fineness of the weave, richer colour or superior texture. This suggests that while we may make our decisions subconsciously, we rationalise them in our consciousness, and the way we do so may be pure fiction, or confabulation.

More recent experiments by philosopher Lars Hall of Lund University in Sweden develop this idea further. People were shown pairs of cards with pictures of faces on them and asked to choose the most attractive. Unbeknown to the subject, the person showing the cards was a magician and routinely swapped the chosen card for the rejected one. The subject was then asked why they picked this face. Often the swap went completely unnoticed, and the subjects came up with elaborate explanations about hair colour, the look of the eyes or the assumed personality of the substituted face. Clearly people routinely confabulate under conditions where they cannot know why they made a particular choice. Might confabulation be as routine in justifying our everyday choices?

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Even when we think we are making rational choices and decisions, this may be illusory too. The intriguing possibility is that we simply do not have access to all of the unconscious information on which we base our decisions, so we create fictions upon which to rationalise them, says Kringelbach. That may well be a good thing, he adds. If we were aware of how we made every choice we would never get anything done – we cannot hold that much information in our consciousness. Wilson backs up this idea with some numbers: he says our senses may take in more than 11 million pieces of information each second, whereas even the most liberal estimates suggest that we are conscious of just 40 of these.

Nevertheless it is an unsettling thought that perhaps all our conscious mind ever does is dream up stories in an attempt to make sense of our world. “The possibility is left open that in the most extreme case all of the people may confabulate all of the time,” says Hall.

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To read the entire article, including a discussion of the problem of relying on eyewitnesses, click here. To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings,” “Magic is in the Mind,” “John Darley on “Justice as Intuitions” – Video,” “The Split Brain and the Interior Situation of Theories of the Self,” “Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning,” and “Vilayanur Ramachandran On Your Mind.”

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Illusions, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Magic is in the Mind

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 28, 2009

Magician Thurston by libraryimages.netRobyn Kim and Ladan Shams have a nice article, titled “What Can Magicians Teach Us about the Brain?,” in Scientific American.  Here are some excerpts.

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. . . . Magicians . . . are masters of exploiting nuances of human perception, attention, and awareness. In light of this, a recent Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper, coauthored by a combination of neuroscientists (Stephen L. Macknik, Susana Martinez-Conde, both at the Barrows Neurological Institute) and magicians (Mac King, James Randi, Apollo Robbins, Teller, John Thompson), describes various ways magicians manipulate our perceptions, and proposes that these methods should inform and aid the neuroscientific study of attention and awareness.

Magicians Secrets Revealed

The underlying concept of using quirks in human perception to learn about how the mind works is an old one. Visual, auditory and multisensory illusions, in which people’s perceptions contradict the physical properties of the stimuli, have long been used by psychologists to study the mechanisms of sensory processing. Magicians use such sensory illusions in their tricks, but they also heavily use cognitive illusions, manipulating people’s attention, trains of logic and even memory. Although magicians probably haven’t studied these phenomena with the scientific method—they don’t do controlled experiments—their techniques have been tested over time, perfected by practice and performed under conditions of high scrutiny by skeptical audiences looking to spot the trick.

An example of a visual illusion used by magicians is spoon bending, in which a rigid horizontal spoon appears flexible when shaken up and down at a certain rate. This effect occurs because of how different parts of objects (in this case, the spoon) are represented in the brain. Certain neurons are responsive to the ends/corners of the object, whereas others respond to the bars/edges; the end-responsive neurons respond differently to motion than do the bar-responsive neurons, such that the ends and the center of the spoon seem misaligned when in motion.

Attention can greatly affect what we see—this fact has been demonstrated in psychological studies of inattentional blindness. To misdirect people’s attention and create this effect, magicians have an arsenal of methods ranging from grand gestures (such as releasing a dove in the theater to distract attention), to more subtle techniques (for instance, using social miscues). An example of the latter can be found in the Vanishing Ball Illusion . . . .

At the last toss, the magician does not actually release the ball from his or her hand. Crucially, however, the magician’s gaze follows the trajectory the ball would have made had it been tossed. The magician’s eye and head movement serves as a subtle social cue that (falsely) suggests a trajectory the audience then also expects. A recent study examining what factors produced this effect suggests that the miscuing of the attentional spotlight is the primary factor, and not the motion of the eyes. In fact, the eyes aren’t fooled by this trick—they don’t follow the illusory trajectory! Interestingly, comedy is also an important tool used by magicians to manipulate attention in time. In addition to adding to the entertainment value of the show, bouts of laughter can diffuse attention at critical time points.

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Magic’s Role in Neuroscience

Cognitive neuroscience can explain many magic techniques; this article proposes, however, that neuroscientists should use magicians’ knowledge to inform their research. . . .

More concretely, the use of cognitive illusions—for example, during brain imaging—could serve to identify neural circuits underlying specific cognitive processes. They could also be used to map neural correlates of consciousness (the areas of the brain that are active when we are processing a given aspect of consciousness) by dissociating activity corresponding to processing of actual physical events from the activity corresponding to the conscious processing.

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The entire aritcle is here.  To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Illusion” or click here for a collection of posts on illusion.

Posted in Illusions, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Jurors, Brain Imaging, and the Allure of Pretty Pictures

Posted by Thomas Nadelhoffer on March 10, 2009

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the saying goes. But is it possible for a picture to say more than it should? On the surface, this seems like a silly question. However, in the case of brain imaging and the law, there is gathering evidence that suggests that introducing neuroimaging into the courtroom could perhaps do more damage than good. A series of recent studies suggest that whatever legally probative value brain imaging might have may be outstripped by the tendency of these data to bias the intuitions of the people who are exposed to them. But before examining the results of some of the salient studies, it is worth spending a few moments discussing the legal standards that govern the admissibility of scientific evidence in the courtroom more generally.

The two most salient legal rules in this context are the Federal Rules of Evidence 401 & 403:

· 401: “Relevant evidence” means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.

· 403: Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.

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In light of these two rules, the question is: Does the potential probative value of imaging data outweigh whatever potential costs could be associated with their introduction into the courtroom? To see why there may be problems lurking the mist, consider the following four studies:

1. Bright & Goodman-Delahunty (2006): In a series of studies, participants read the verdicts of fictional criminal cases. Some of the participants saw no photographs whereas others either saw neutral photographs (e.g., scratches on a door) or gruesome photographs (e.g., bodily injury). The researchers found that the conviction rate with neutral and gruesome photographs were markedly higher than the conviction rate with no photographs (38%, 41%, and 8.8%, respectively) even though the photos did not add any additional relevant information with respect to the guilt of the alleged perpetrator. These results suggest that photographs could have a biasing effect on jurors’ judgments even when the content of the photographs is not relevant to the task at hand.

2. Gurley and Marcus (2008): Participants were presented with descriptions of violent crimes and asked to determine whether the perpetrators should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. Some participants simply received a description of the crime along with expert testimony that the perpetrator was psychopathic.  Other participants received the description of the crime plus one of the following (a) evidence that the perpetrator has a history of brain trauma, or (b) brain images suggesting damage to the frontal lobes.  Once again, it appears that brain images made a significant difference.  The results suggest that the percentage of participants who judged that the perpetrator was not guilty by reason of insanity was higher when accompanied by a brain image (37%), by testimony concerning brain injury (43%), or by both (50%), than they were when participants received neither (22%).

3. McCabe and Castel (2008): Participants were first presented with articles that included bad arguments—e.g., “watching TV helps with math ability because both activate the temporal lobe.” Whereas some participants received nothing more than the bad arguments, others received the arguments plus either brain images or bar graphs. The results of this study are in line with the results of the two aforementioned studies. Participants who received the supplementary brain images thought the arguments made more sense than the participants who received either supplementary bar graphs or no supplementary images or information (2.9 vs. 2.7 and 2.7, respectively).

4. Weisberg et al. (2008): In a series of studies, participants were asked to distinguish good explanations from bad explanations. In one study, for instance, participants read the following:

Researchers created a list of facts that about 50% of people knew. Subjects in this experiment read the list of facts and had to say which ones they knew. They then had to judge what percentage of other people would know those facts. Researchers found that the subjects responded differently about other people’s knowledge of a fact when the subject themselves knew that fact. If the subjects did know a fact, they said that an inaccurately large percentage of others would know it, too…the researchers call this finding “the curse of knowledge.

After reading this prompt, some participants received an explanation that involved no neuroscience—for instance:

The researches claim this curse happens because subjects make more mistakes when they have to judge the knowledge of others. People are much better at judging what they themselves know.

Other participants, however, received the same explanation in addition to being presented with the following kind of pseudo-neuroscientific information:

Brain scans indicate that this curse happens because the frontal lobe brain circuitry known to be involved in self-knowledge. Subjects make more mistakes when they have to judge the knowledge of others. People are much better at judging what they themselves know.

Despite the fact that this pseudo-neuroscientific information does not add anything to the explanation, participants who were provided with this information found the information more explanatorily satisfying than participants who did not receive this additional information (means = 0.16 and 0.2 and means = -0.73 and -1.1, respectively).

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Now is neither the time nor the place to flesh out the results of these interesting studies in detail. My goal is simply to point out some of the evidence which suggests that introducing brain imaging into the courtroom may bias the moral and legal intuitions of judges and jurors—a problem that is further magnified by the fact that laypersons mistakenly assume that fMRI images provide photographs of the brain rather than merely providing complex visually reconstructed statistical correlations.

In light of these worries, we ought to proceed with extreme caution when it comes to the drive to introduce brain imaging into the courtroom. If nothing else, it is clear that steps need to be taken to make sure that the human fondness for pretty pictures doesn’t cloud the ability of judges and jurors to take imaging data at face value.

For more about these studies and the introduction of brain imaging into the courtroom, see:

  1. Aharoni, E., C. Funk, W. Sinnott-Armstrong, & M. Gazzaniga. 2008. Can neurological evidence help courts assess criminal responsibility? Lessons from law and neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: 1-16.
  2. Bright, D.A. & J. Goodman-Delahunty. 2006. Gruesome evidence and emotion: Anger, blame, and jury decision-making. Law and Human Behavior 30: 183-202.
  3. Bufkin, J.L. & V.R. Luttrell. 2005. Neuro-imaging studies of aggressive and violent behavior: Current findings and implications for criminology and criminal justice. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse 6: 176-191.
  4. Feigenson, N. 2006. Brain imaging and courtroom evidence: On the admissibility and persuasiveness of fMRI. International Journal of Law in Context 2: 233-255.
  5. Gurley, J.R. & D.K. Marcus. 2008. The effects of neuroimaging and brain injury on insanity defenses. Behavioral Sciences and the Law. 26: 85-97.
  6. McCabe, D.P. & A.D. Castel. 2008. Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition 107: 343-352.
  7. Roskies, A. I. 2007. Are neuroimages like photographs of the brain? Philosophy of Science 74: 860-872.
  8. _____. 2008. Neuroimaging and inferential distance. Neuroethics 1: 19-30.
  9. Sinnott-Armstrong, W., A. Roskies, T. Brown, & E. Murphy. 2008. Brain images as legal evidence. Episteme: 359-373.
  10. Weisberg, D.S., F.C. Keil, J. Goodstein, E. Rawson, & J.R. Gray. 2008. The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20: 470-477.

Posted in Law, Morality, Neuroscience, Social Psychology | 3 Comments »

 
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