Archive for the ‘neuroscience’ Category

Today we find a well written article on research into the conflict between the front and middle brain:

It was only in 2000 that two London scientists selected 70 people, all in the early sizzle of love, and rolled them into the giant cylinder of a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, or fMRI. The images they got are thought to be science’s first pictures of the brain in love.

A story mixing science with passion is popular in the press, so here are a few more which track the release of research results over the past 7 years:

All of these news items quote Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University. In addition to  self-archiving her articles, she has given a presentation to TED|Talks. (Co-author Lucy Brown has a presentation at the NY Times.)

Where’s the neurolaw? Well, family lawyers might take an interest in this…

And criminal lawyers might like this…

Of course, it’s not all happening in the brain, which led to this unusual MRI study:


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Not much, apparently

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All 134 chapters of Neuropsychopharmacology: The Fifth Generation of Progress have been made available for download. Two of them concern legal and ethical issues:

The American College of Neuropsychopharmacology also includes in their archive of publications Psychopharmacology – The Fourth Generation of Progress. It has a piece by Lisa S. Parker and Elizabeth Gettig on Ethical Issues in Genetic Screening and Testing, Gene Therapy, and Scientific Conduct.

Kudos to the College and the authors for giving open access to this tremendous resource.

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In two posts today, I have asked: Can neuroscience explain the appeals of mysticism? And lo, there was a review article in Science! How timely.

Sorry, a dinosaur publisher has locked it behind a subscription, but a modified version is available through a publication that needs a significant redesign (and RSS feeds): Why do some people resist science?

It points out that Americans’ resistance to evolution is specific to their culture, which allows childhood intuitions to lasted longer than their best-before date.

[R]esistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy.

This should sound familiar, though it doesn’t mention the category mistakes referred to in this paper…

For further reading, Chris at Mixing Memory has excellent and topical commentary in his post, Thinking About Evolution (Slight Reprise).

Hat tip goes to Corpus Callosum, who worries this research could be used to discredit science. I fail to see how, but perhaps I’m suffering from a poverty of the imagination.

Update: Denialism now has a post on this, and Pure Pedantry mines it for some criticisms.  Adventures in Ethics and Science offers a parent’s perspective.

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Once again, hat tip to Science and Consciousness Review for mention of an article that opens with an astonishing claim:

More than 40% of American people believe in devils, ghosts, and spiritual healing.

The authors then ask two questions:

  1. Why do otherwise educated people have these irrational beliefs?
  2. What is the difference between superstitious or magical beliefs and other unfounded beliefs?

Their answer is that superstitious, magical and paranormal beliefs are based on category mistakes involving intuitions about physics, psychology and biology – intuitions that have their psychological origins in the “core knowledge” used during childhood.

In the past, researchers have expected these beliefs to be the result of ’emotional instability’ and ‘low rational thinking’ (i.e. stupidity). Lindeman and Aarnio designed their study to test this against their claim that mismanaged intuitions are the real cause. Their results:

[T]he best measures to distinguish believers from skeptics were ontological confusions, and secondarily intuitive thinking. Neither analytical thinking nor emotional stability could discriminate the groups from each other.

This is in agreement with their earlier work involving gender differences. That research showed women’s thinking – which they say is less analytical and more intuitive than men’s – contributed to women’s adherence to paranormal beliefs.

How fascinating. Innate intuitions are vulnerable to category mistakes that lead people to accept false beliefs.

All this leads me to ask…

  1. Why do some people confuse intuitive categories while others do not?
  2. Why are the mistaken intuitions so powerful?
  3. Is there a way to appeal to other intuitions to defeat the category mistakes?
  4. Are religious beliefs also the result of category mistakes?
  5. Is there an evolutionary advantage to making such a category mistake?
  6. Why don’t researchers make use of the wealth of philosophical literature about the demarcation between science and pseudoscience? None of it makes an appearance in the bibliography of the paper.

In fairness, the researchers are concerned with the psychology of crazy beliefs – my characterization, not theirs. However, they are presenting their work as a theoretical synthesis, and such a construction demands awareness of the relevant philosophy of science.

If I had ‘low rational thinking’, I might believe this omission comes from a disciplinary gestalt among psychologists – who are bitter that their work has often been the target of criticisms that it isn’t genuine science…

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I don’t know if it was divine intervention, or the kinship of all living things, but I tell you, Jerry, at that moment…I was a marine biologist!

There’s a debate underway between two schools of marine biologists. The received wisdom is that the brains of whales and dolphins evolved to promote cognitive advantages. The challenging hypothesis is that cetacean brains evolved to prevent heat loss due to changes in water temperatures, and their size cannot be taken as evidence of complex cognition.

Here’s the paper that started the controversy:

It’s governing logic is simple. Absent evidence for complex cetacean cognition, parsimony in scientific explanation – whether you call it simplicity or Occam’s razor – demands a more minimal hypothesis.

However, this is a politically and emotionally loaded issue, so it’s only to be expected that a challenge to whales’ cognitive ability will provoke a response. That’s what happened with the publication of a recent paper in PLoS Biology, just in time for the meeting next week of the International Whaling Commission. The paper has a clear, declarative title:

Their’s is a two part argument, and it attacks the premise of Manger’s argument from parsimony: cetacean neuroanatomy is indeed complex enough to support cognition like that of terrestrial mammals, and cetaceans do indeed demonstrate complex cognitive behaviour.

Perhaps I’m missing something, because Manger’s attempt to exclude the possibility of complex cetacean cognition seems to be a red herring. We can have it both ways: complex cognition and temperature regulation do not need to be mutually exclusive evolutionary developments.

Note: I’ve tagged this with ‘neurolaw’ because this has implications for international law governing the whale hunt. It’s a good reminder that neurolaw isn’t just about humans.

(Hat tip to Science and Consciousness Review for mention of the PLoS article.)

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Quirks and Quarks is the CBC’s science show, a hackneyed beast with a tendency towards covering dinosaurs, animal sex, and the occasional environmental hot potato. It’s popular science journalism but not science news – it can take weeks before a science story appears in their line-up, although they were among the first to talk about the weirdness of ducks’ reproductive organs.

Whatever complaints I might have about their programming, they get it right when it comes to putting their shows online. Live broadcast, archived shows, podcast, it’s all there for download – in mp3 and ogg format, no less – and provides off-site links to researchers’ websites and publications.

Other shows on Canada’s public broadcaster should have open access programming like this, and not just because it lets me link to the following show, broadcast today but already archived on their website:

Neuroscience and the Law has interviews with Marc Hauser on moral decisions and Frank Tong on ‘mind reading’ applications which might detect lies and object recognition. These are bracketed by comments from law and biology professor Owen Jones and Canadian neuroscientist Lesley Fellows.

Despite the corny ‘you are the jury’ presentation, this series of interviews has an advantage over the New York Times’ article, Brain on the Stand: the researchers have more time to talk about their work and its implications. It also helps that the host, Bob McDonald, is an excellent interviewer and can walk a general audience through complicated science.

It’s worth a listen, even if you’ve never wondered about the pronunciation of ventromedial prefrontal portex, so click through to the audio archive…

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