"Part of what I want to understand and part of what the people I’m working with want to understand is what are the conditions that lead to collective intelligence rather than collective stupidity".
Wonderful article on attention, intention and everyday awareness
A moving article on emotional intelligence education for children.
Image:Credited to Alex Schlegel, Dartmouth College
New insights into ‘mental workspace’ may help advance artificial intelligence
Philosophers and scientists have long puzzled over where human imagination comes from. In other words, what makes humans able to create art, invent tools, think scientifically and perform other incredibly diverse behaviors?
The answer, Dartmouth researchers conclude in a new study, lies in a widespread neural network — the brain’s “mental workspace” — that consciously manipulates images, symbols, ideas and theories and gives humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems and come up with new ideas.
Their findings, titled “Network structure and dynamics of the mental workspace,” appear the week of Sept. 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Our findings move us closer to understanding how the organization of our brains sets us apart from other species and provides such a rich internal playground for us to think freely and creatively," says lead author Alex Schlegel, a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "Understanding these differences will give us insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines."
Scholars theorize that human imagination requires a widespread neural network in the brain, but evidence for such a “mental workspace” has been difficult to produce with techniques that mainly study brain activity in isolation. Dartmouth researchers addressed the issue by asking: How does the brain allow us to manipulate mental imagery? For instance, imagining a bumblebee with the head of a bull, a seemingly effortless task but one that requires the brain to construct a totally new image and make it appear in our mind’s eye.
In the study, 15 participants were asked to imagine specific abstract visual shapes and then to mentally combine them into new more complex figures or to mentally dismantle them into their separate parts. Researchers measured the participants’ brain activity with functional MRI and found a cortical and subcortical network over a large part of the brain was responsible for their imagery manipulations. The network closely resembles the “mental workspace” that scholars have theorized might be responsible for much of human conscious experience and for the flexible cognitive abilities that humans have evolved.
Do our dreams dream us?!
Where Do Dreams Come From?
Dreamland might not require so much imagination after all.
When we close our eyes and drift off to sleep, something in our mind spins us fanciful tales of teeth falling out, bouncing around in giant marshmallows in the sky, failing midterms in classes we’ve never taken, taking a walk in the park down the street that’s also a spaceship. Common as they are, there’s not a lot of definitive science on how we dream.
Are dreams the work of the imagination, or the work of some reflex in the brain? A team of French researchers suggest at its most basic, dreaming is generated by the brainstem, the part of the brain that connects to the spinal cord and plays a role in regulating sleep—a “bottom-up” process rather than a result of the brain’s higher functions.
The study looked at patients with auto-activation deficit, a syndrome characterized by extreme apathy. People with auto-activation deficit lose the ability to spontaneously activate any cognitive or emotional processes. They report that they don’t have any thoughts at all, called “mental emptiness.” They often sit quietly in the same place all day without speaking or moving. If someone prompts them, they can answer questions and recall memories, but left to their own devices, their minds remain blank. So if these patients don’t have spontaneous thoughts, do they dream?
The 13 auto-activation deficit subjects and 13 healthy control subjects were asked to keep a dream diary, which the researchers then “analyzed for length, complexity and bizarreness.” Not all the auto-activation deficit patients reported dreaming, but some did. Those who reported dreaming (only four out of the 13) had shorter, less bizarre dreams than the control group’s, dream about normal scenarios like walking or shaving, according to the LA Times. Not sitting on a park bench watching a lady’s hat turn into a wolf.
That patients who don’t have spontaneous thoughts during the day can do so when asleep suggests that dreaming might be a bottom-down process, essentially a reflex. But the simplicity and lack of emotional resonance of their dreams suggest that higher-order processes are required to create the strange scenarios most people find in their dreams.
The full study was published in Brain this week.
Children should be allowed to get bored so they can develop their innate ability to be creative, an education expert says.
Dr Teresa Belton told the BBC cultural expectations that children should be constantly active could hamper the development of their imagination
She quizzed author Meera Syal and artist Grayson Perry about how boredom had aided their creativity as children.
Syal said boredom made her write, while Perry said it was a “creative state”.
The senior researcher at the University of East Anglia’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning interviewed a number of authors, artists and scientists in her exploration of the effects of boredom.
She heard Syal’s memories of the small mining village, with few distractions, where she grew up.
Dr Belton said: “Lack of things to do spurred her to talk to people she would not otherwise have engaged with and to try activities she would not, under other circumstances, have experienced, such as talking to elderly neighbours and learning to bake cakes.
“Boredom is often associated with solitude and Syal spent hours of her early life staring out of the window across fields and woods, watching the changing weather and seasons.
IST Austria Professor Jozsef Csicsvari together with collaborators succeeds in uncovering processes in which the formation of spatial memory is manifested in a map representation • Researchers investigate timescale of map formation • Inhibitory interneurons possibly involved in selection of map
During learning, novel information is transformed into memory through the processing and encoding of information in neural circuits. In a recent publication in Neuron, IST Austria Professor Jozsef Csicsvari, together with his collaborator David Dupret at the University of Oxford, and Joseph O’Neill, postdoc in Csicsvari’s group, uncovered a novel role for inhibitory interneurons in the rat hippocampus during the formation of spatial memory.
During spatial learning, space is represented in the hippocampus through plastic changes in the connections between neurons. Jozsef Csicsvari and his collaborators investigate spatial learning in rats using the cheeseboard maze apparatus. This apparatus contains many holes, some of which are selected to hide food in order to test spatial memory. During learning trials, animals learn where the rewards are located, and after a period sleep, the researchers test whether the animal can recall these reward locations. In previous work, they and others have shown that memory of space is encoded in the hippocampus through changes in the firing of excitatory pyramidal cells, the so-called “place cells”. A place cell fires when the animal arrives at a particular location. Normally, place cells always fire at the same place in an environment; however, during spatial learning the place of their firing can change to encode where the reward is found, forming memory maps.
In their new publication, the researchers investigated the timescale of map formation, showing that during spatial learning, pyramidal neuron maps representing previous and new reward locations “flicker”, with both firing patterns occurring. At first, old maps and new maps fluctuate, as the animal is unsure whether the location change is transient or long-lasting. At a later stage, the new map and so the relevant new information dominates.
The scientists also investigated the contribution of inhibitory interneuron circuits to learning. They show that these interneurons, which are extensively interconnected with pyramidal cells, change their firing rates during map formation and flickering: some interneurons fire more often when the new pyramidal map fires, while others fire less often with the new map. These changes in interneuron firing were only observed during learning, not during sleep or recall. The scientists also show that the changes in firing rate are due to map-specific changes in the connections between pyramidal cells and interneurons. When a pyramidal cell is part of a new map, the strengthening of a connection with an interneuron causes an increase in the firing of this interneuron. Conversely, when a pyramidal cell is not part of a new map, the weakening of the connection with the interneuron causes a decrease in interneuron firing rate. Both, the increase and the decrease in firing rate can be beneficial for learning, allowing the regulation of plasticity between pyramidal cells and controlling the timing in their firing.
The new research therefore shows that not only excitatory neurons modify their behaviour and exhibit plastic connection changes during learning, but also the inhibitory interneuron circuits. The researchers suggest that inhibitory interneurons could be involved in map selection – helping one map dominate and take over during learning, so that the relevant information is encoded.
Brain organization, not overall size, may be the key evolutionary difference between primate brains, and the key to what gives humans their smarts, new research suggests.
In the study, researchers looked at 17 species that span 40 million years of evolutionary time, finding changes in the relative size of specific brain regions, rather than changes in brain size, accounted for three-quarters of brain evolution over that time. The study, published today (March 26) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, also revealed that massive increases in the brain’s prefrontal cortex played a critical role in great ape evolution.
“For the first time, we can really identify what is so special about great ape brain organization,” said study co-author Jeroen Smaers, an evolutionary biologist at the University College London.
Is bigger better?
Traditionally, scientists have thought humans’ superior intelligence derived mostly from the fact that our brains are three times bigger than our nearest living relatives, chimpanzees.
But bigger isn’t always better. Bigger brains take much more energy to power, so scientists have hypothesized that brain reorganization could be a smarter strategy to evolve mental abilities.
To see how brain organization evolved throughout primates, Smaers and his colleague Christophe Soligo analyzed post-mortem slices of brains from 17 different primates, then mapped changes in brain size onto an evolutionary tree.
Over evolutionary time, several key brain regions increased in size relative to other regions. Great apes (especially humans) saw a rise in white matter in the prefrontal cortex, which contributes to social cognition, moral judgments, introspection and goal-directed planning.
“The prefrontal cortex is a little bit like the CEO of the brain,” Smaers told LiveScience. “It takes information from other brain areas and it synthesizes them.”
When great apes diverged from old-world monkeys about 20 million years ago, brain regions tied to motor planning also increased in relative size. That could have helped them orchestrate the complex movements needed to manipulate tools — possibly to get at different food sources, Smaers said.
Gibbons and howler monkeys showed a different pattern. Even though their bodies and their brains got smaller over time, the hippocampus, which plays a role in spatial tasks, tended to increase in size in relation to the rest of the brain. That may have allowed these monkeys to be spatially adept and inhabit a more diverse range of environments.
The study shows that specific parts of the brain can selectively scale up to meet the demands of new environments, said Chet Sherwood, an anthropologist at George Washington University, who was not involved in the study.
The finding also drives home the importance of the prefrontal cortex, he said.
“It’s very suggestive that connectivity of prefrontal cortex has been a particularly strong driving force in ape and human brains,” Sherwood told LiveScience.
Once rhesus monkeys learn to associate a picture with a reward, the reward by itself becomes enough to alter the activity in the monkeys’ visual cortex. This finding was made by neurophysiologists Wim Vanduffel and John Arsenault (KU Leuven and Harvard Medical School) and American colleagues using functional brain scans and was published recently in the leading journal Neuron.
Our visual perception is not determined solely by retinal activity. Other factors also influence the processing of visual signals in the brain. “Selective attention is one such factor,” says Professor Wim Vanduffel. “The more attention you pay to a stimulus, the better your visual perception is and the more effective your visual cortex is at processing that stimulus. Another factor is the reward value of a stimulus: when a visual signal becomes associated with a reward, it affects our processing of that visual signal. In this study, we wanted to investigate how a reward influences activity in the visual cortex.”
To do this, the researchers used a variant of Pavlov’s well-known conditioning experiment: “Think of Pavlov giving a dog a treat after ringing a bell. The bell is the stimulus and the food is the reward. Eventually the dogs learned to associate the bell with the food and salivated at the sound of the bell alone. Essentially, Pavlov removed the reward but kept the stimulus. In this study, we removed the stimulus but kept the reward.”
In the study, the rhesus monkeys first encountered images projected on a screen followed by a juice reward (classical conditioning). Later, the monkeys received juice rewards while viewing a blank screen. fMRI brain scans taken during this experiment showed that the visual cortex of the monkeys was activated by being rewarded in the absence of any image.
Importantly, these activations were not spread throughout the whole visual system but were instead confined to the specific brain regions responsible for processing the exact stimulus used earlier during conditioning. This result shows that information about rewards is being sent to the visual cortex to indicate which stimuli have been associated with rewards.
Equally surprising, these reward-only trials were found to strengthen the cue-reward associations. This is more or less the equivalent to giving Pavlov’s dog an extra treat after a conditioning session and noticing the next day that he salivates twice as much as before. More generally, this result suggests that rewards can be associated with stimuli over longer time scales than previously thought.
Why does the visual cortex react selectively in the absence of a visual stimulus on the retina? One potential explanation is dopamine. “Dopamine is a signalling chemical (neurotransmitter) in nerve cells and plays an important role in processing rewards, motivation, and motor functions. Dopamine’s role in reward signalling is the reason some Parkinson’s patients fall into gambling addiction after taking dopamine-increasing drugs. Aware of dopamine’s role in reward, we re-ran our experiments after giving the monkeys a small dose of a drug that blocks dopamine signalling. We found that the activations in the visual cortex were reduced by the dopamine blocker. What’s likely happening here is that a reward signal is being sent to the visual cortex via dopamine,” says Professor Vanduffel.
The study used fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans to visualise brain activity. fMRI scans map functional activity in the brain by detecting changes in blood flow. The oxygen content and the amount of blood in a given brain area vary according to the brain activity associated with a given task. In this way, task-specific activity can be tracked.
Eric R. Kandel, Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist.scipsy)
This image represents what your brain looks like while working.
More precisely: it’s a visual chart of neural signals firing over time, a representation of how thoughts work in the brain. Compared to a computer, this type of representation resembles that of a digital signal, with 0 and 1…
Most people aspire to be creative and have an original insight which makes them stand out from the crowd.
But is creativity a random process or is it something that can be nurtured and triggered using a variety of techniques? Scientists around the world are exploring what happens in the brain preceding that ‘eureka’ moment.
Their research suggests these five things could help you unleash your creative side.
Here are the five suggestions. Read the article for more details.
Do things differently
If you want to come up with innovative solutions to a problem which is bothering you, then doing something as simple as changing aspects of your daily routine could lead to a creative insight. […]
[J]ust before [a eureka moment], there is a burst of alpha waves - which are associated with relaxation - in the back of the head.
People take in a lot of information visually but these alpha waves allow the brain to take a slight break - much like what happens when you blink your eyes.
This then allows this very faint idea to bubble up to the surface as an insight.
Work on mundane tasks
Another activity to help you trigger your creative brain waves could be to work on something that requires minimal thought. […]
“If you are stumped, take a break. Allow the unconscious processes to take hold. But rather than just sitting there, you might want to take a walk or a shower or do something like gardening.”
Don’t be afraid to improvise and take risks
“If people think about their daily behaviour - most of it is unscripted. Most of it is improvised. They don’t actually plan every second what they are going to do,” he says.
Just let your mind wander
When there is less activity in the frontal lobes, it is more likely that you can come up with an original idea. […]
He says it is possible to trigger this temporary brain state by meditating or taking a long run.
[source: BBC Science]
This is a cartoon illustrating the idea that at a cocktail party the brain activity synchronizes to that of an attended speaker, effectively putting them on the same wavelength. Credit: Neuron, Zion-Golumbic et al.
In the din of a crowded room, paying attention to just one speaker’s voice can be challenging. Research in the March 6 issue of the Cell Press journal Neuron demonstrates how the brain hones in on one speaker to solve this “Cocktail Party Problem.”
Researchers discovered that brain waves are shaped so that the brain can selectively track the sound patterns from the speaker of interest and at the same time exclude competing sounds from other speakers. The findings could have important implications for helping individuals with a range of deficits such as those associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, and aging.
“In hearing, there is no way to ‘close your ear,’ so all the sounds in the environment are represented in the brain, at least at the sensory level,” explains senior author Dr. Charles Schroeder, of Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry. “While confirming this, we also provide the first clear evidence that there may be brain locations in which there is exclusive representation of an attended speech segment, with ignored conversations apparently filtered out.” In this way, when concentrating hard on such an “attended” speaker, one is barely, if at all, aware of ignored speakers. (via Solving the ‘Cocktail Party Problem’: How we can focus on 1 speaker in noisy crowds)
Music, dance, painting and other forms of art have shown to have an incredibly significant and positive effect on both children and adults. Art therapy has been used to awaken the senses of underprivileged children through both the viewing and creating of art. Through their artistic endeavors, they subconsciously associate themselves with their past. The memories come more freely since they are not elicited by direct objects, but indirect thought instead.
Due to many past experiences many children begin to develop nervousness, anxiety, sleeping excessive or too little, a lack of verbal, social and language skills. Many times depending on the color within a piece, or may be some other quality of the artwork, different emotions can be evoked by the observer unknowingly. Awakening of the senses through experimentation with the different types of art these children experience an untapped emotional world within themselves and with this association with their own inner being, they are able to show increased abilities in their cognitive, motor and social skills.