Hacking the senses

An article in this month’s Wired looks at how new technology is being developed that crosses over sensory information from one mode to another, to compensate for impairment or disability – or even to extend the body to include completely new senses.

We humans get just the five. But why? Can our senses be modified? Expanded? Given the right prosthetics, could we feel electromagnetic fields or hear ultrasound? The answers to these questions, according to researchers at a handful of labs around the world, appear to be yes.

It turns out that the tricky bit isn’t the sensing. The world is full of gadgets that detect things humans cannot. The hard part is processing the input. Neuroscientists don’t know enough about how the brain interprets data. The science of plugging things directly into the brain ‚Äî artificial retinas or cochlear implants ‚Äî remains primitive.

So here’s the solution: Figure out how to change the sensory data you want ‚Äî the electromagnetic fields, the ultrasound, the infrared ‚Äî into something that the human brain is already wired to accept, like touch or sight. The brain, it turns out, is dramatically more flexible than anyone previously thought, as if we had unused sensory ports just waiting for the right plug-ins. Now it’s time to build them.

The article describes how researchers have built devices to provide pigeon-style magnetoreceptors, so the wearer feels where they are pointing in relation to north, and devices that translate visual information into touch sensation on the tongue.

We previously covered on Mind Hacks how some people have implanted magnets in their fingers to get a sense of touch for magnetic fields.

Link to Wired article ‘Mixed Feelings’.

2007-03-30 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

The New York Times asks whether multi-tasking is a myth and explores the psychology of divided attention.

Developing Intelligence highlights 10 important differences between brains and computers.

Body position may affect memory for events, according to a study reviewed by Cognitive Daily

Slate looks at current theories of why we sleep – with podcast.

The BPS Research Digest reports on research indicating that depression is linked to impaired spatial ability.

PsyBlog outlines seven ways in which music influences mood.

The experience of people just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is explored by the New York Times.

Seed Magazine takes a sceptical look at some popular brain fitness software and investigates another claiming a genuine scientific pedigree.

The Neurophilosopher examines research that induced temporary number difficulties using magnets to influence brain function.

Has AI finally arrived with Numenta’s new software release? An article from Read/Write Web investigates.

Neurofuture covers recent developments in retinal eye implants used to improve or restore vision.

Quirky little flames

Pat: I once heard a funny idea about what will happen when we eventually have intelligent machines. When we try to implant that intelligence into devices we’d like to control, their behaviour won’t be so predictable.

Sandy: They’d have a quirky little “flame” inside, maybe?

Pat: Maybe

Chris: So what’s so funny about that?

Pat: Well, think of military missiles. The more sophisticated their target-tracking computers get, according to this idea, the less predictable they will function. Eventually you’ll have missiles that will decide they are pacifists and will turn around and go home and land quietly without blowing up.

Characters in a whimsical coffee house conversation tackle the idea that artificial intelligence may actually make devices less, not more, reliable.

From p90 in Douglas Hofstadter’s chapter in The Mind’s I (ISBN 0465030912) by Hofstadter and Dennett.

Bedlam Clothing

The word ‘bedlam’ commonly refers to disorder or chaos, but it originally referred to Bethlem Royal Hospital – the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital, founded in 1247 and still operational today.

The modern day Bethlem is the only psychiatric hospital I’ve ever been to that has a souvenir shop, as it has an on-site museum and archives open to the public.

Sadly, they don’t do t-shirts, but it seems a company called Bedlam Clothing may have unintentionally filled the gap in the market.

They produce a range of t-shirts, some of which are just printed with the clothing label’s name and logo on.

They’re currently on sale for only $6 dollars, and they do two female versions and one in black for men.

So if your wardrobe is lacking in history of psychiatry memorabilia, look no further.

Link to Bedlam Clothing.
Link to Royal Bethlem Hospital Museum and Archives.

Looking into beauty, sport and AI

Jonathan Edwards was a physicist, turned Olympic triple-jumper, turned BBC science presenter, and his latest radio series has been distinctly psychological – investigating beauty, sports psychology and artificial intelligence.

The programmes are archived online and are generally a successful look at to the topics, taking an eclectic approach by interviewing philosophers, artists, engineers and sports people as well as psychologists and neuroscientists.

I particularly enjoyed the edition on artificial intelligence where Edwards goes to talk to some of the AI people at Edinburgh Uni that hosts a large and world leading research community.

They have a fantastic centre in a converted church which is well worth visiting if you get the chance.

One of the highlights is the Neuroinformatics Summer School, where students can attend for a week and be trained in creating simulations of neurobiological systems.

They even have bursaries available, so if you’re a postgraduate student in cognitive science, check the webpage and think about applying. The deadline for this year is June 6th.

Link to BBC Radio 4 webpage for ‘Jonathan Edwards looks into…’
Link to Edinburgh Neuroinformatics Summer School info.

Single people subject to negative stereotypes

A recent Time magazine article on why marriage is viewed so positively despite the divorce statistics, suggested that single people are the subject of negative stereotyping and discrimination.

The conclusions come from the work of psychologist Prof Bella DePaulo who recently summarised her research in a review paper for the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Unfortunately, the full text isn’t available online, but the abstract makes for interesting reading:

A widespread form of bias has slipped under our cultural and academic radar. People who are single are targets of singlism: negative stereotypes and discrimination. Compared to married or coupled people, who are often described in very positive terms, singles are assumed to be immature, maladjusted, and self-centered. Although the perceived differences between people who have and have not married are large, the actual differences are not. Moreover, there is currently scant recognition that singlism exists, and when singlism is acknowledged, it is often accepted as legitimate.

The article itself reviews research which has uncovered these negative stereotypes as well we suggesting why they occur.

DePaulo proposes that the prejudice may arise from an evolutionary tendency to identify unpaired people – making them stand out – and from the fact that happy single people implicitly challenge cultural beliefs about the necessity of marriage.

DePaulo also challenges the assumption that married people are generally happier and healthier than singles, as the effect is seemingly small and is drawn from correlational studies.

In other words, it is not clear whether this small effect exists solely because happier and healthier people are more likely to get married.

DePaulo has also written a book on the subject called Singled Out (ISBN 0312340818) which tackles these issues in more detail and argues that we should recognise and address this form of ‘hidden’ discrimination.

Link to Time article ‘Americans Love Marriage. But Why?’
Link to abstract of DePaulo’s review paper on ‘singlism’.
Link to DePaulo’s website.

SciAm on happiness and moral decision-making

April’s issue of Scientific American has a couple of concise articles that are freely available online: one on the neuroscience of moral decisions, and the second on the science of lasting happiness.

In the first article, author Michael Shermer argues that moral decision-making is implemented in the brain in a similar way to most other forms of decision-making, and is likely a long-standing evolutionary trait.

The second article focusses on the work of psychologist Prof Sonja Lyubomirsky who has spent the best part of a decade studying lasting happiness.

The previous decade has seen an increased interest in ‘positive psychology‘ although many studies have focused on short-term happiness and satisfaction.

Lyubomirsky seems to be following a slightly different tack by looking at what influences long-term contentment.

Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and another psychologist, David A. Schkade of the University of California, San Diego, put the existing findings together into a simple pie chart showing what determines happiness. Half the pie is the genetic set point. The smallest slice is circumstances, which explain only about 10 percent of people’s differences in happiness. So what is the remaining 40 percent? “Because nobody had put it together before, that’s unexplained,” Lyubomirsky says. But she believes that when you take away genes and circumstances, what is left besides error must be “intentional activity,” mental and behavioral strategies to counteract adaptation’s downward pull.

Lyubomirsky has been studying these activities in hopes of finding out whether and how people can stay above their set point. In theory, that is possible in much the same way regular diet and exercise can keep athletes’ weight below their genetic set points.

Link to article ‘Free to Choose’.
Link to article ‘The Science of Lasting Happiness’.

Delirium Tremens – the beer

Delirium Tremens is the name of the life-threatening alcohol withdrawal syndrome that can cause seizures and hallucinations – it is also the name of a strong Beligian beer.

I’m not entirely sure about the wisdom of naming an alcholic drink after a severe neurological syndrome caused by alcohol intoxication.

It’s a bit like naming a motorbike ‘traumatic brain injury’ or a boating company ‘drowned passengers’.

Apparently, it’s an excellent beer, as it won Best Beer in the World at the World Beer Championships.

Probably best drunk in moderation though, for irony’s sake.

Link to information on the alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
Link to information on the beer.

Single gene gives mice new sense of colour

The journal Science reports a study showing that mice given a single gene can develop full colour vision. Mice, like most mammals except primates, are normally colourblind. The implanted gene, which is found in humans, is responsible for making a photopigment, a light-sensitive protein in the photoreceptors of the eye. The researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute validated their findings with cell recording and with behavioural tests, demonstrating pretty conclusively that the mice really can see in colour, being able to make discriminations normal mice cannot, and this is because their photoreceptors are sensitive to long wavelength red light.

Because only a single new gene has this effect, the study is reported as demonstrating that primate colour vision could have evolved very suddenly. However, this angle is perhaps less suprising if we consider that colour vision is phylogenetically ancient – primate colour vision doesn’t represent the first time it has evolved, rather primate colour vision is more of a recovery of the function which is found in many non-mammal species such as reptiles. The structural correspondence of this is that the appropriate apparatus for colour vision is extant in mammals – it is just that non-primate mammals lack the appropriate variety in their photopigments. The study is is another demonstration of the amazing ability of the brain to adapt to and take advantage of whatever sensory input is available to it (related to this, see this article on human tetrachromacy, via Slashdot)

Liars, Lovers and Heroes

Of course what makes Paris such a wonderful city is how all the parts fit together, and the same is true of the brain. Indeed a more apt use of the Parisian brain metaphor might be to think of the prefontal cortex as the Pompidou Center, a piece of modern architecture in the heart of the old city. As we shall see. at the heart of who you are is a complex blend of old and new regions, Picasso-like prefrontal cortex grounded in the old masters of more ancient brain structurs, some of them so old that humans share them with insects

This is a quote from Quartz & Sejnowski’s (2002) ‘Liars, Lovers and Heros’. It’s an excellent book, rallying an impressive range of biological and sociological material to give a nuanced opinion on ‘what the new brain science reveals about how we become who we are are’ (the book’s subtitle). The quote isn’t particularly representative, but I enjoyed ‘the Parisian Brain metaphor’ so much I thought I’d share it!

Sonic Seniors

The Young@Heart Chorus are a choir of senior citizens from a sheltered housing project. They do awesome covers of classic rock tracks, seemingly chosen to ironically challenge stereotypes of the elderly (e.g. Coldplay’s Fix You).

YouTube has a video of them doing a cover of Sonic Youth’s Schizophrenia.

The audience looks a bit taken aback but the choir is gutsy and the version inspired.

They’ve got a live gig on April 17th at Dartmouth College. Don’t miss it if you get the chance.

Link to video of Schizophrenia cover (via FS).
Link to Young@Heart Chorus website.

The military applications of augmented cognition

Wired has an article on the increasing military excitement about augmented cognition (AugCog for short) – technology which reads and responds to cognitive states to allow devices to be used more efficiently.

As has been noted recently, augmented cognition is becoming a hot topic, especially since the millions of dollars investment by US military research agency, DARPA, are starting to result in some finished products.

Indeed, military research centres have been heavily focusing on the technology for the last few years, hoping it can increase the efficiency of military personnel especially when in high-stress situations.

The article includes a cautious comment from Zack Lynch (who you might know via his blog, Brain Waves), and an interesting aside about the possible commercial applications of the research:

Zack Lynch, executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization, says he’s a bit suspicious of the claims because the improvements sound almost too dramatic. But “all in all, there are clearly tremendous advances” being made under the AugCog program, he notes in an e-mail. “(That progress) will bring benefits well outside the defense community,” he says. “All you have to do is imagine what Wall Street will do when they get their hands on technology that can increase trading performance.”

Link to Wired article ‘Pentagon Preps Mind Fields’.
Link to good post on AugCog from Neurophilosopher.

Brain simulation project – the early years

Almost two years ago we covered the launch of the Blue Brain Project an ambitious research programme to create the largest computer simulation of the brain yet created.

Now, Spiegel has an in-depth article looking at how the project is progressing.

The simulation runs on an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer and aims to simulate enough individual neurons to create virtual brain networks.

Brain researchers can use it to reproduce functions from the real organ and test their theories. As they build in new processes, the model grows ever more detailed — a sort of wiki project of the mind. It also offers an important advantage over a natural brain, since it lets researchers monitor each and every (simulated) mental activity in the machine.

But — has there been mental activity?

The newborn “Blue Brain” surprised the designers with its willfulness from the very first day. It had hardly been fed electrical impulses before strange patterns began to appear on the screen with the lightning-like flashes produced by cells that scientists recognize from actual thought processes. Groups of neurons started becoming attuned to one another until they were firing in rhythm. “It happened entirely on its own,” says Markram. “Spontaneously.”

The project has is limitations of course. Single neurons are frighteningly complex, and neuroscientists are still some way from understanding their neurochemistry in sufficient detail to create an adequate working model.

Much computer simulation of the brain (a field known as neuroinformatics) only attempts to simulate approximates of the total complexity, yet has provided some fascinating insights into how mental processes might emerge from the interaction of networks of individual neuron-like units.

Link to Spiegel article ‘Growing a Brain in Switzerland’.
Link to Blue Brain website.