Synaptic Sunday #6 – The Dog’s Mind and fMRI Edition

1) How do you train a dog to get into an fMRI scanner and stay there without resorting to restraints and drugs?

2) More importantly, why would you want to get a dog into an fMRI scanner?

Scientists Use Brain Scans to Peek at What Dogs Are Thinking

From the link:

The researchers aim to decode the mental processes of dogs by recording which areas of their brains are activated by various stimuli. Ultimately, they hope to get at questions like: Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when their owners are happy or sad? How much language do they really understand?

An fMRI scan doesn’t give us mind-reading abilities; it shows blood-flow to different areas of the brain (oxygen-rich as compared to deoxygenated blood), and researchers infer brain activity from that. When the dogs were given a signal for “treat,” for instance, there appeared to be increased activity in a part of the brain that in people is associated with rewards. But can we get a real understanding of what the dog is experiencing? If you look at questions of empathy, what is empathy to a dog? Maybe we’d see increased activity in certain parts of the brain that in humans is associated with empathy, which could be interesting, but what does that tell us more deeply about the dog’s mind and subjective experiences? If they know when their owners are happy or sad, what kind of knowledge is this: a reading of facial and behavioral cues, or something deeper than that? This is a limitation of fMRI when it’s used on people as well, though with people we can try to supplement the fMRI scan findings with other measures – various cognitive tasks, including those that ask for verbal input (“woof, woof”).

3) Overall, fMRI studies can be quite problematic, for dogs or humans (or dead salmon) – as detailed in this recent article: Controversial science of brain imaging.

Synaptic Sunday #5

Psychology/neuroscience link roundup centered on a particular topic – this week, some links on what makes people productive.

1) Would this work for anyone? (If something like it has worked for you, speak up):

Helen Oyeyemi advises writers to download the Write or Die app onto their computer (or does she write on an iPhone?). In ‘kamikaze mode’, if you stop writing for more than 45 seconds it starts deleting the words you have already written.

That sounds like a nightmare to me. Whenever I’d stop to think (or to just sit quietly for a little bit, staring out the window and letting my brain do whatever it does when I appear to be unproductive), I’d be too busy watching the clock to let my brain work.

2) It can be good to let your mind wander! (As long as you’ve put in some focused mental effort beforehand.)

3) When our thoughts and attention wander, the brain isn’t as passive as we imagine it to be: …an interesting study published in a 2009 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that daydreaming also activates parts of our brain associated with ‘high-level, complex problem-solving’ including the lateral pre-frontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.”

I don’t think day-dreaming, and its potential creative benefits, can be forced (then you’re too self-conscious – attending too much to your own thoughts); it also isn’t beneficial when done excessively. But to dismiss it as wasted time is a mistake. And to chain productive and creative thinking to strict time intervals strikes me as useless (and horrifying).

Synaptic Sunday #3

This Sunday, some links on addiction and control:

1) The Fallacy of the Hijacked Brain

An op-ed from the NY Times:

A little logic is helpful here, since the “choice or disease” question rests on a false dilemma. This fallacy posits that only two options exist. Since there are only two options, they must be mutually exclusive. If we think, however, of addiction as involving both choice and disease, our outlook is likely to become more nuanced. For instance, the progression of many medical diseases is affected by the choices that individuals make.

2) Disease and Choice

One blogger’s response to the above op-ed.

The hijacked brain metaphor may be flawed, but it’s attempting to communicate that the addiction uses the addict’s own self-preservation instincts, desires and will to maintain addiction.

3) Addicts’ Brains May Be Wired At Birth For Less Self-Control

A study in Science finds that cocaine addicts have abnormalities in areas of the brain involved in self-control. And these abnormalities appear to predate any drug abuse.

Cocaine addicted people were studied alongside siblings who didn’t have a drug abuse history. What’s interesting is that the siblings also showed poorer self-control during the study’s task, and had atypical brain scan findings as well. So what led to one sibling abusing drugs, while the other didn’t? How do personal choices and environment come into play? Having a brain that might be more susceptible to poor impulse control or addictive behaviors doesn’t doom you to drug addiction. And, as in other studies, were there individuals whose results differed from the group as a whole? (e.g. a cocaine-addicted person who didn’t have the pre-existing abnormalities in the brain).

Synaptic Sunday #2

This Sunday, a few links on excessive anxiety.

1) Anxiety May Hinder Your Sense of Danger

The result implies that worriers are less aware of potential danger—challeng­ing the common theory that anxious individuals are hypervigilant. Frenkel be­lieves that worrywarts’ low sensitivity to external warning signs causes them to be startled frequently by the seemingly sudden appearance of threats, which leaves them in a state of chronic stress.

Further study is needed, but it’s an interesting example of how the brain might work against itself. High anxiety and stress are not meant to be chronic states of being, but reactions to specific situations.

2) Anxious Girls’ Brains Work Harder

A young woman could be intelligent, competent and knowledgeable, but if she has problems with anxiety her brain might not be functioning as efficiently as possible.

“Anxious girls’ brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries,” Moser said. “As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much, which might set them up for difficulties in school. We already know that anxious kids — and especially anxious girls — have a harder time in some academic subjects such as math.”

Initially the article points out that high brain activity was observed in the more anxious women when they detected an error in their performance on a task (had they not been able to tell when they were making a mistake, would the results have been different?) At least part of the problem could involve fixating on errors: worrying that you’ll repeat them, that you’re no good at this… and any other self-defeating thoughts. But I haven’t seen the original paper, just the write-up at the Sciencedaily link.

3) New Study Suggests Depression May Increase Vulnerability to Anxiety

Depressive disorders and anxiety disorders often go hand-in-hand. Why that is, is not 100% clear at this point. They might have similar neurological underpinnings and can both arise (and interact with each other) as a reaction to adverse circumstances in life. One kind of disorder might also make you more vulnerable to the other (as this study suggests, speculating about depression paving the way for anxiety). Anxiety could possibly make you more vulnerable to depression as well. If someone for example suffers from severe social anxiety, and in consequence experiences poor academic performance, difficulty securing a job, and personal relationships that are strained or nonexistent, depression could set in.

Don’t neglect any problems you have with anxiety. Even if you don’t have a formal diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, you might still be worrying too much and experiencing more stress than is good for you; excessive worrying can hinder cognitive performance and have other adverse effects on your mental activity and physical health. Finding healthy ways to manage anxiety is one of the best things you can do for yourself (here’s one set of suggestions, also making the important point that people with anxiety disorders often have more difficulty coping with life’s uncertainties; here’s another interesting discussion about worrying, with tips to cut down on it and further links to relaxation techniques).

Synaptic Sunday #1

Synaptic Sunday is a weekly collection of thought-provoking links related by similar topics:

1. If we remember more, can we read deeper–and create better? Part I.

In the very process of memorizing, remembering—and faltering—we don’t just learn more about what we are reading. We also learn more about how we are reading, how we are reacting to the material—and, in a way (or, at least, after we’ve stopped to ponder our mistakes in the manner Cooke suggests we do) why we are reacting to it as we do.

Interesting discussion on memorization, and what the process can show us about our minds and how we analyze whatever it is we’re memorizing (the example in the article is literary work). Also starts off with an interesting description of a memorization technique using the body’s movements, which can serve as cues for later recall.

2. Another post on the unreliability and malleability of memory

Elizabeth Loftus has produced a body of work showing that our memories aren’t strictly accurate recordings of what we’ve taken in through the senses, but that we can unintentionally shape, elaborate on, and outright fabricate them, and are influenced by suggestive remarks made by others (her work has had an enormous impact on cognitive psychology and also the legal field – how witness testimony is solicited and handled). At the link you’ll find further links to an interview with Loftus, and also to an article from Time Magazine on the faultiness of memory.

3. Memory Training Unlikely to Help in Treating ADHD, Boosting IQ

Overall, working memory training improved performance on tasks related to the training itself but did not have an impact on more general cognitive performance such as verbal skills, attention, reading or arithmetic.

I’m not sure what the working memory training tasks are; I’ve never participated in such a program (one example of a training task is mentioned at the link). Different kinds of memory processes may be related to and interact with other cognitive processes, but there needs to be caution about the claims made by people selling these programs. If they’re telling you that an intensive program of memory tasks will boost your cognitive ability more broadly, you have to ask yourself if this is really the case. Can they give you proof, linking training in certain memory tasks or series of tasks with measurable improvements in other areas of cognition and in academic success?

Maybe their whole approach of “loading up the brain with training exercises” is the wrong one to take to begin with, if they really want to use these tasks as a means of strengthening cognitive abilities more generally and not only your performance on those specific memory tasks. Maybe the problem with the training exercises is that they’re dry, rote short-term memory tasks, which don’t call on other areas of cognition as much as other kinds of memory tasks would.

4. Memories are Crucial for Imagining the Future

The past and future may seem like different worlds, yet the two are intimately intertwined in our minds. In recent studies on mental time travel, neuroscientists found that we use many of the same regions of the brain to remember the past as we do to envision our future lives.

Fascinating article.

Assessing total cognitive burden

Here’s an interesting post to read about assessing and possibly reducing your risk of age-related cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia.

Some questions posed there:

Do you have ongoing stress in your life, or have experienced significant amounts of stress at some period during middle-age?

Do you rarely engage in exercise?

Do you spend most evenings blobbed out in front of the TV?

Reading through the possible risk factors you see some that you can’t control, such as genes and family history and your early childhood circumstances (for instance if you grew up in a very stressful home), but the list also emphasizes modifiable risk factors: amount of exercise, drinking habits, sleep habits, mental stimulation, etc. How all of those interact is still an open question. But when you think about it there never seems to be one trick, one magic way (or magic pill), that improves your long-term cognitive and physical health (which are closely intertwined). Instead it’s about making your life as healthy as possible all around, in multiple areas.

Becoming a genius the hard way

There’s an interesting article in The Atlantic on people who develop a certain genius or talent after getting a head injury or while suffering from some kinds of neurodegenerative disease. They’re called “acquired savants.”

It happens rarely, though now scientists are trying to replicate these instances by using technologies that temporarily mimic (in some ways) the effects of brain injury.

Returning to the point that it happens rarely – why does it happen to some (very few) people and not to others? One suggestion is that among people with degenerative brain disease it occurs when the damage to the brain is relatively contained, as with frontotemporal dementia, and not spread throughout the brain as it is with Alzheimer’s for example. What about when it happens after head injuries? A guy hits his head on the bottom of a swimming pool and becomes a gifted pianist in spite of no musical training. Why him? What happened in his brain that doesn’t happen in so many other cases of head injury? Does it depend in part on how contained the damage is?

Researchers suggest that as other parts of the brain try to compensate for the injured area, sometimes these abilities arise. Maybe other parts of the brain try to “take over” for the damaged area and in consequence start to function in new, possibly unexpected ways. Maybe the brain can’t regain any of the lost function from the damaged area but tries to make better use of what remains, resulting in these isolated and highly specialized abilities.

A steep price can be paid for these enhanced talents. The article links to a bio of Alonzo Clemens:

Alonzo Clemons can’t read, write or drive a car, but there is one thing he can do like no one else: he can see an animal and, in less than an hour, turn a lump of clay into an incredibly accurate three dimensional sculpture.

Clemens suffered a brain injury at a very young age and has strong cognitive disabilities. But he has this gift too. Would the gift have developed to that extent without the severe injury? What a price to pay, though at least he has that gift; others in his circumstances have the severe cognitive impairments without the brilliant talent at sculpting.

It’s fascinating how unpredictable our brains can be. Usually people anticipate only negative changes after a brain injury. The textbook head injury case that probably every psychology and neuroscience student has come across is Phineas Gage, a railway worker who suffered a brain injury when a pipe blasted through his brain. He survived the immediate injury, but his personality reportedly changed – he became wild, reckless, more uninhibited and irresponsible. But there’s a debate regarding the extent of his wild behavior and for how long it persisted, with some evidence suggesting that he improved with time and was able to regain some equilibrium. That in and of itself is an amazing feat – to survive and keep functioning after such a trauma, and to be able to cope with radical changes to personality. We don’t fully understand how that happens, and why some people can survive and more or less function, while others never regain function and still others decline immediately and die. Gage himself died about twelve years after his accident, after suffering terrible convulsions. In any case he didn’t start composing operas. He didn’t develop any special previously undemonstrated talents. Just living after what happened to him was amazing enough.

The brain is powerful and delicate; incredibly fragile but also resilient to varying extents depending on the individual and the circumstances. What happens after brain damage can depend on where the brain has been damaged, but it also has to do with the way that all the parts of the brain are connected. No two brains are alike. Disturbing that web of connections can yield predictable (usually tragic) results, and other times can also give rise to something unexpected.

[There’s some good discussion in the comments section of the Atlantic article on how acquired savants might suddenly have the knowledge to sculpt or play piano when they weren’t trained before or didn’t necessarily exhibit those talents before. The article brings up the idea of “genetic memory” and that’s what the commenters are picking over.]