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Tag: cognitive

Weekend Video: VDay Special- Look Into Her Pupils

Pupils? Did I mean Look into her eyes? Well the title of this post is correct. According to Bruno Laeng, Pupillometry expert from University of Oslo, we need to look closer and deeper into the pupils of individuals in order to gauge their emotional responses. Pupillometry is basically the measurement of diameter of eye’s pupils. It has been shown during past 50 years of pupillomtery that pupils respond not only to changes in light from surroundings but also to other stimuli including thoughts, emotions and mental loading. Typically, in response to strong emotions or heavy mental loading, pupils dilate which indicates increase in attention of the individual. In other words, if pupils of your loved one increase listening to your Vday proposal, its indication that she has got your attention and that’s a good sign!

Video credit: Science Friday podcast

Pupillomtery article:  Pupillometry A Window to the Preconscious? Laeng et al. | doi: 10.1177/1745691611427305 Perspectives on Psychological Science January 2012 vol. 7 no. 1 18-27

Leave a Comment February 11, 2012

Walking In A Straight Line

Walking in a straight line, how difficult can it be? Well it can be really difficult walking in straight line if we are asked to do so in an unfamiliar terrain such as a jungle/desert. Even if the terrain is familiar but if we are blindfolded it’s really impossible for us to walk in a straight line, instead we tend to walk in circles or loops and this phenomena of walking in circles has been a puzzle for humans. The idea of walking in circles when lost in forest or desert have been there in the popular culture since a long time [Mark Twain in Roughing it ,1872; The Lord of the Rings, 1954; The Blair Witch Project, 1999 etc.] but no detailed scientific study has been conducted to understand it. That was until 2009, when Souman and group from Max Planck Institute of Biological Cybernetics in Germany decided to do some experiments to understand this mystery [published in Current Biology, 2009]. There have been several hypotheses as to why we tend to walk in circles instead of straight line. Two main hypotheses include 1)  hemispherical asymmetries in our brain can result in different amount of dopamine being released resulting in turning in a particular direction (directional bias), or 2) maybe different physical attributes or bio-mechanical asymmetries, such as difference in size or strength of left or right legs can add to a certan bias and lead us in a circle instead of straight line.

Soulman tested both the hypotheses and found no correlation. Subjects walked randomly towards left or right  but in a circle irrespective of their directional biases, showing that there was no constant bias favoring turning in a particular direction. For testing the second hypothesis of biomechanical assymetry, they glued additional soul in one of the boots, resulting in extra length of one of the legs but the result showed no correlation.

The subjects in this study were asked to walk in a straight line in a vast open forest and Sahara desert without any blindfolds. In one case the day was cloudy while in the other case it was sunny. the result was that on the cloudy day, the subjects started walking in a loop after travelling certain distance, even criss-crossing their earlier paths even without noticing it while on the sunny day, subjects did fairly well walking in a straight line. In the image below, the red dots mark the starting point of the walking tracks, the colored lines show the actual ways that the test persons covered. The test persons PS, KS and RF could not use the sun for orientation, whereas the sun started shining just after SM started his trial. [Source: Jan Souman,]

In second set of experiements, the researchers blindfolded the subjects and asked them to walk in a straight line, and ofcourse they failed. Interestingly, they walked in very tight loop of diamter smaller than 20 m and while doing this, the subjects always perceived that they were walking in a straight line.

Possible explanations can be that when walking in an unfamiliar terrain without proper external cues (such as sun) or walking blindfolded, we introduce small random errors in what we pereceive as “straight ahead”. These random errors keep on accumulating on our subjective perception of ” straight ahead” ultimately leading us to drift in different direction as compared to “true straight ahead”. If these accumulated random noises are small, we tend to walk in straight line, but if they grow large, we tend to move in circles or loops. Lack of proper external cues such as no sun, or lack of distinguishing trees in the forest, or distinctive landmarks in desert, or lack of any sort of visual cues when blindfolded can result into large accumulation of random errors. These random errors can possibly affect our Vestibular system comprised of inner parts of  ears and brain which can in turn affect our sensorimotor system. Panic or emergency situations (lost in forest) can cause individuals or groups to ignore even distinctive landmarks and can lead them to walk in circles.

Now you can go and try for yourself if you can walk in a straight line in an open parking lot or park if you are blindfolded and what’s the longest distance you wan walk in straight line before you start walking in a loop!

Image credit: First image- Flickr user Bods; Second image: Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics

Article: Walking Straight into Circles, J. Souman et al. Current Biology, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.053

3 Comments December 17, 2010

Meditate And Strengthen Your Brain in 11 Hours

While previous post was on muscles, lets move on to brain now. Meditation which has been practiced in East since ages, is known to relax the practitioner and help him/her have better control over emotions and stressful situations. But it’s also known that it’s not easy to achieve those benefits unless you practice meditation regularly and for sufficient amount of time. But if you practice a form of Chinese meditation called as Integrative-body mind training or IBMT, you might be able to achieve those benefits just after 11 hours of training. In recent study by Michael Posner and Y. Tang (PNAS, Jul 2010), it has been shown that just by 11 hours of IBMT training, positive structural changes were induced in a particular region of the brain which regulates and control our behavior. Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) is that part of the brain which is related to self-regulation and this zone in the brain gets more interconnected as we grow up. In the experiment, it was shown that by 11 hr IBMT training, white matter tract in the brain which connects ACC to other structures of the brain was enhanced resulting in improved efficiency which in turn can result in better self-regulation.

For the experiments, 22 students from Univ of Oregon were given 11 hr IBMT training while 23 students were given simple relaxation training and neuro-imaging technique (diffusion tensor imaging) was used to monitor the fiber connectivity before and after the training. The technique measured something called fractional anisotropy by measuring diffusion of water in the pathway which gives the measure of fiber inter connectivity. The results showed enhanced fiber connectivity in the white matter which increases efficiency of connection between ACC and other parts of the brain. Results from previous studies by the same researchers showed that just after 5 hours of IBMT training , behavioral changes in the form of enhanced attention by students was observed. Also, low stress level was observed. This study further strengthens the positive effects of IBMT meditation and that too achievable in short time of practicing IBMT.

Reference Article: Tang et al., Jul 27 2010, Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1011043107

Picture credit: Univ of Oregon Media Relations

Leave a Comment August 24, 2010

The Moral Life Of Babies

It’s just a coincidence that the titles of my three continuous posts are similar. But the title of this post has been taken exactly as the article in New York Times about a new study on babies. The study being conducted in Yale university, tries to answer the psychological as well as the philosophical question of morality, and whether the idea of being moral or being able to decide between good and bad is in our genes? Are we genetically coded to be moral right from birth or we acquire it during our development. To tackle this issue, psychologist Paul Bloom and his group designed a set of studies involving puppet shows where the toddlers or the “baby scientists” were shown some puppet shows which consisted of a “good” puppet and a “bad” puppet. You can watch the video below and see how they define good and bad puppets. When the baby has seen the show many times, he/she is asked to choose between the puppets, and as their results show, 80% of the babies choose the good puppet. You can read the complete NY Times article here.

As for me, I am a bit skeptic about this study. I am not sure if the experimental conditions provided cues to the babies to choose a a particular puppet, either due to color preferences or cued by parents or the experimenter. For me, when the baby is born, it is still assimilating huge amount of information from the world, and the idea of morality, which is defined by society, still takes time to sink in. Babies are smart, and they assimilate information much faster than we adults do, but being born with the idea of morality- it is difficult for me to digest. Make your own conclusions about this study and comment if you want.

Video: NY Times

Photo: Flickr user creativesam | used under Creative Commons License

Leave a Comment May 25, 2010

Learning While Sleeping- Infants Can Do That

How do infants learn so fast? When do they get time to gather all the new information from the surroundings when most of the time they are sleeping soundly? Well, the new study by researchers at Univ of Florida and Columbia University have found some answers to these questions. Newborns sleep 16-18 hours during the day but even when they are asleep, they keep gathering information from the surroundings semi-consciously and even keep learning from the new information- the new study suggests. So, while you think the baby is fast asleep, it’s learning too. Talk about multi-tasking!

“We found a basic form of learning in sleeping newborns, a type of learning that may not be seen in sleeping adults,” said Dana Byrd, a research affiliate in psychology at UF who collaborated with a team of scientists.“Sleeping newborns are better learners, better ‘data sponges’ than we knew,” she said. [UF News]

In the new study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dana Byrd and colleagues studied the learning behavior of sleeping infants. All the 26 infants in the study were 10-73 hours old. Researchers played simple tones/beeps followed by gentle puff of air on their eyelids. Infants responded to the puff of air by squeezing their eyes. After 20 minutes of repeated experiment, majority of the infants (24 out of 26) squeezed their eyes when the beep was introduced, even without the presence of air puff. This shows that the infants learnt to relate the beep with the air puff and responded to it in anticipation of the airpuff, and all this they learnt during the sleep, in just 20 minutes!! Also a change in brain activity was measured using EEG confirming the learning process. This new study can be useful in understanding and identifying developmental disorders  including autism and dyslexia.“This methodology opens up research areas into potentially detecting high risk populations, those who show abnormalities in the neural systems underlying this form of learning,” Byrd said. “These would include siblings of individuals with autism and siblings of those with dyslexia.”[UF News]. Here is abstract of the new study:

Newborn infants must rapidly adjust their physiology and behavior to the specific demands of the novel postnatal environment. This adaptation depends, at least in part, on the infant’s ability to learn from experiences. We report here that infants exhibit learning even while asleep. Bioelectrical activity from face and scalp electrodes was recorded from neonates during an eye movement conditioning procedure in which a tone was followed by a puff of air to the eye. Sleeping newborns rapidly learned the predictive relationship between the tone and the puff. Additionally, in the latter part of training, these infants exhibited a frontally maximum positive EEG slow wave possibly reflecting memory updating. As newborns spend most of their time sleeping, the ability to learn about external stimuli in the postnatal environment during nonawake states may be crucial for rapid adaptation and infant survival. Furthermore, because eyelid conditioning reflects functional cerebellar circuitry, this method potentially offers a unique approach for early identification of infants at risk for a range of developmental disorders including autism and dyslexia.

Fifer et al.

Also thanks to Flickr user peasap for this awesome picture of his daughter and allowing it to be used under Creative Commons License.

Leave a Comment May 19, 2010

Washing Away Your Guilt

You can literally wash away with the guilt feeling after you have made some decisions with which you are not comfortable with by washing your hands with a soap! If the washing doesn’t totally get rid you of the guilt feeling or relieve you of the stress, it can atleast lessen it. Isn’t that great, just wash away the germs and cleanse your conscience in one shot. In various cultures bodily cleanliness has been related to moral cleanliness as well, example being quotes such as “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. Few recent studies have shown that bodily cleanliness or environmental cleanliness might have some influence on how one handles cognitive dissonance after one has taken some stressful decision (which can be a simple everyday decision or a huge life changing decision) and ultimately affect his/her moral conduct. Psychologists describe this effect as “Macbeth Effect” with reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth hallucinates blood stain on her hand and desperately tries to wash the hands in an effort to clear her conscience and saying “Out, damned spot!”

In one of such studies published in Science in 2006, researchers asked subjects to think about some ethical or unethical act and then asked them to fill in the incomplete words like like W_ _H and SH_ _ER. They found out that majority of subjects who thought of unethical act, completed the word as WASH and SHOWER while the rest filled in variety of words such as WISH, SHAKER and so on. The study claimed that any threat to one’s moral impurity induces a need to cleanse oneself and makes one more accessible to thoughts of cleansing related concepts and that shows up in the words WASH and SHOWER in this experiment. In another experiment in same study,  the subjects were offered to choose between a pencil or a wipe after thinking of the act and 3/4th of the subjects with unethical thoughts chose wipes as compared to “ethical” subjects- only 1/3rd of these subjects chose wipes. In order to test how washing hands affects future actions of the subjects, researchers asked the subjects to think about an unethical act and type the description on the computer. Half of them were asked to wash hands after they were done typing by telling them the keyboard was dirty. Now comes the next task, all the subjects were asked if they would help out some researchers in their experiments as unpaid subjects. Guess the results– those who washed their hands where 50% less likely to help out the researcher and explanation being that the act of washing their hands had absolved them of any immoral feeling, kind of reduced any threat to their moral self-image, so they didn’t feel much need to help out.

Building upon these results, Spike Lee at University of Michigan conducted  further experiments which was published in this week’s Science issue. In this study, they showed that washing hands can ease people’s mind and help them getting over past stressful concerns or negative emotions (not just limited to moral implications) and start fresh, also termed as ‘clean slate’ effect. In order to test the effect of hand washing on past negative emotions researchers had to develop some kind of event or act which can lead to developing negative emotions in subjects. In order to do that, researchers made subjects choose one option from two very attractive options. This will in turn lead to a bad feeling in subjects as picking one option makes one feel that they have lost the other. Often, when people make decisions—no matter how big or small—they tend to justify them, rationalizing often beyond reason that their choice was by far the best.

To see if hand washing could ease people’s tension and do away with the need for this after-the-fact justification, the researchers gave some subjects some mock “consumer surveys.”In this study, 40 subjects were asked to pick 10 CDs from a set of 30 and then they had to rank the CDs from 1 to 10 depending on which one they liked. Then they were given as token appreciation the choice to pick and take home either 5th or 6th choice from their list. In an unrelated task, half of these subjects were asked to wash their hands, while others were just asked to take a look at the soap or just sniff it. Later on these subjects were asked to rank the 10 CDs again. And guess what was the effect of washing hands on the new ranking of CDs. The subjects who did not wash their hands ranked the CDs as expected by after-the-fact justification i.e. they ranked their choice of take-home CDs higher than previous time as they tend to justify their earlier decision. While the subjects who washed their hands ranked the CDs about the same as last time showing that they did not feel the need to justify their decision, or in other words washing hands had a clean slate effect washing their mental turmoils. As compared to previous 2006 study, these result show that washing hands can reduce influence of your past behavior and decisions even when the acts have no moral implications.

So now hand washing soaps can have new advertisement tag lines– washing hands by soap not only cleans you of germs but also cleans your conscience and gives you a clean slate to start fresh– well maybe not the best of the taglines, its too long. But nevertheless, it’s an interesting study. How long these washing effects last? Maybe we will be able to get this answer in next study. So guys, wash your hands well!!

You can listen to  Spike Lee talk about his results here (NPR interview):

2 Comments May 9, 2010

Wait For It… Wait For It

Patience pays, Don’t give in to temptations, Have Self-control: we have been told since our childhood. Well, depending on how much self control or patience we have, determines our success in life. To study these effects and what mental processes lead to self control or delayed gratification, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a very famous Marshmallow experiment with a group of few 4 year old kids in Stanford in 1960. The idea was that these kids were given a marshmallow and were asked to wait for another 20 minutes without eating it. If they can wait, they will be given an additional marshmallow, but if they want to eat the given one, they can just ring the bell and the experimenter will be there and will let her eat the given marshmallow.  For 4-year old kids, this is a very hot temptation and to wait for another 20 minutes was tough. Majority of them rang the bell within few seconds, while some didn’t even ring the bell and started eating it. While there were few who were able to resist the temptation by diverting their attention in various ways, such as playing hide and seek with the marshmallow, or singing a song, or looking in  different direction and so on. Basically, they developed a technique to divert their attention and thus developed a mental diversion. Some other kids too tried to work on such kind of mental plays, by focusing on the marshmallow, but that was a wrong approach and ultimately couldn’t resist.

While, the test was very simple, but it’s results has been studied and discussed a lot. Mischel followed the progress of these kids who participated in the test and found a correlation between the kids’ delayed gratification results to their later on success/failure in life. He found out that kids who waited longer for full 20 minutes for another marshmallow, were doing good in life with no behavioural and social problems, better SAT scores, and more successful in general as compared to kids who couldn’t wait.  Mischel argues that intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework. “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control,” Mischel says. “It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.” [From the New Yorker ]

So the patience does pay, one has to just learn the mental techniques to get away from temptations and just focus on goals. The above video is a repeat of similar experiment filmed by Steve. (might not be the exact experimental conditions as 1960 experiment; the age of kids doesnt look same to me, some of them are very young)

Source: The New Yorker, Vimeo

2 Comments May 4, 2010

Are You Smart Enough to Have Hundreds of Friends?

You might be very friendly, good natured person, have  a very appealing smile and willing to make more and more friends (in real world or virtual via Facebook, Orkut, Twitter) but are you smart enough to handle all those relationships. Well, it turns out that our brain can handle only a certain number of relationships at a time which includes kins, friends, foes, and romantic relationships and this upper limit turns out to be ~150 also popularly referred to as Dunbar Number, the idea which British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested in 1992 and became more popular after it was included in one of the chapters of the book Tipping Point. He studied various non-human primates and correlated their group size with their neocortex size in the brain and found a good correlation, the larger the size of neocortex, the bigger was their social interaction group. So, while chimps have a group size of 40-50, humans with a neocortex ratio (CR) of 4.1 have a mean group size of 150. Interestingly, this number has shown up in many studies and many group formations, and have been applied unknowingly in many group settings such as military units and size of villages and tribes in many cultures. So while you might be boasting of having 1000 friends in your facebook profile, your cognitive limits can only process a certain number of friends. Dunbar is already doing a study on Facebook networking and his results will be public anytime this year.

The limit as explained by Dunbar is not due to data storage limitations in the brain, rather the amount of energy and efforts required to groom the relationships. These numbers pertain to the primitive settings where the sole purpose of the group was survival, but the current world where it’s not only a matter of survival but also achieving and getting things done, this requires more amount of energy input into relationships and thus the upper limit on number of stable friendships you can have might even be lowered. We also share part of our lives in virtual world, where we dont meet people and just communicate through mails and messages, maintaining such long distance relationships demand even more cognitive energy and thus will further reduce the number.  Our neocortext part of the brain, I guess, works like a zero-sum system, like a tumbler filled with water upto the brim and so if you add any additional drop of water, equivalent drop will fall off. So when we keep adding more friends, people who are on the fringe of our network (like those whom we dont meet often) might fall off our cognitive conscience. So, while you might think you are smart enough to handle all those friend requests on your facebook profile, in reality you truly interact with only few of them on regular basis and can remember only few of them. It’s not your fault, that’s your cognitive limit and you have to live with it.


Leave a Comment May 3, 2010

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