Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Talking Plants

'The Happening' is possibly the worse film, I have ever seen at the cinema. The story-line, without giving away too many plot spoilers, is that the trees,decide that they have had enough of humankind pushing them around and destroying the ecosystem, so they decide to fight back. This fight back involves the releasing of a neurotoxin that induces people to immediately commit suicide, so long periods of the film involve people running away from trees. It is dross. But what about the science behind this idea, that plants can identify humans as guilty of crimes against the environment and so pass sentence on them, that too is dross. But the notion that plants communicate with one another and release chemicals, that does hold some truth. The issue though, is that if this could be considered sufficient to say that the plants are intelligent?

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Quantum Soul

It has long been thought that in order for a belief in the distinction between mind and matter, it necessitates a belief in spirituality or religion as well. How the brain produces consciousness remains unknown, but the quantum soul hypothesis offers a rational and scientific explanation. 

There is yet a multitude that is unknown to us, and quantum physics is probably the best example of this. In the words of Richard Feynman "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics".

Friday, 11 April 2014

Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are neurons that fire in response to observing an action being performed by another. Although this action is not performed by the individual themselves, activity is provoked in such a way that mimics the activity that would be required to produce the observed action. These neurons have principally been linked to brain regions associated with the motor behaviour including the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area as well as the somatosensory cortex. The key characteristic of mirror neurons is their activation during the execution of a specific behaviour as well as during observation. As the majority of neurons do not appear to respond to both this makes them somewhat unique. 

Since the initial studies on mirror neurons, the mirror neuron system has been attributed to underlying a plethora of social behaviours. Among these are empathy, imitation, theory of mind as well as different forms of social learning. Some proponents take these claims a step further. Ramachandran asserts that the mirror neuron system is a highly evolved neural network that developed contemporaneous to man's first use of tools. In this manner, he posits that the development of this network laid the foundation for the emergence of sophisticated human culture.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

That Smile Ain't Fooling Anyone

Most definitely not a new area of research, but an interesting one at that, many studies in the last few years have looked at the different patterns of activity in the brain when presented with both genuine and fake or forced laughter.  Many studies have been conducted in order to demonstrate and prove this clear distinction.

A recent study, which was conducted by the Royal Holloway University of London, asked participants to choose which they found funny from a series of YouTube clips and subsequently measured their brain activation as they watched the clips and partook in genuine laughter. These were then compared to when the participant was partaking in fake or forced laughter. Two different patterns of ctivation were very apparent.

This and various other studies have found that fake laughter results in higher activity in the medial prefrontal cortex which is an area associated with problem-solving. This may be due to the fact that when we ourselves produce or when we hear fake laughter, we in turn try to figure out why the person (or ourselves) is doing it. It causes some confusion, or perhaps even one could say a disruption to our sense making.
On the other hand however, genuine laughter activates mainly the temporal lobe, the auditory areas and of course is then again linked to dopamine receptors.

So next time you are on the phone, attempting to keep calm and politely laugh as the old woman on the other end of the line asks you how to change the source on her new 42” flat screen TV for the 50th time (true story), you would want to make sure she’s not hooked up to an MRI scanner, her brain activation will lay bare all of your deceitfulness.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Killer whales, dead seals and an active social life.

What makes humans special? This question at one point had a number of distinct answers, tool-making, language, emotions, sense of self, and so served as the perfect opening-line into many an article on the distinctive nature of humans, but they more we learn about our animal brethren, the less clear this distinction becomes. Is it that we are the only species that would think of such a question?

The encroaching realization that our uniqueness wasn't as unique as we had envisaged, was not taken as that disappointing by all, as some saw this as an opportunity to better understand what it is to be human. But the more we learn about animals, specifically mammals, the more we learn about how their isn't just one way of being, to which all other animals are striving towards, all less successfully than us, but that there are many ways to exist in this world. Some of which, could be viewed as superior to the human approach. And this evidence doesn't always have to come from primates, which are somewhat boring from an evolutionary perspective, given their linear narrative. Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are much more interesting from an evolutionary perspective, having come from the sea, lived on land and returned to the sea but it is the Orca, or to use it’s more appropriate name, The Killer Whale, that can provide some fascinating insight on social interaction.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Free Will and the Cognitive Revoltuion

One of the more hotly debated topics among philosophers, especially in modern times, is whether or not we possess the much coveted thing commonly labelled 'free will'. This concept is usually described as the ability to make choices which are to some extent (this factor being decided by what side of the philosophical fence you stand on) unconstrained, and can in this way be said to be freely chosen. The existence of this somewhat elusive quality is pertinent not only to meta-physicians and abstracted philosophers, but bleeds into many areas of life, both in an academic sense and at a very personal level for each of us. As regards the former, the question of whether people make choices in a free or determined manner has huge consequences for scientific areas such as biology, sociology and especially psychology (behaviorism representing the deterministic side of things in this case), and for the entire area of law and ethics in general. Regarding the latter, as a living breathing human being, it is of huge concern to me and I would hope most of you whether or not our actions are at least in some sense our own. Religious concerns are obviously heavily invested in this topic also, with many of our friendly Western monotheistic religions taking a more deterministic view of things.

Within the area of cognitive psychology, both new and old, I have rarely seen mention of this issue, but it has always seemed to me to be one of the more important aspects which the study of us as cognitive agents touches upon and must eventually deal with in order to fully describe and explore the experience of a living organism.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

A Little Bit of Empathy

The debate on Autism has traditionally centred to a large degree on Empathy. At the core of understanding of the was that suffers lacked empathy - there was a substantial amount of baggage that would come along with accepting a fact like that.

The interpretation is rather crude, to a large degree inaccurate and puts narrow constraints around what empathy is, various types of empathy and how empathy may be presented. It situations where it has been demonstrated that people with autistic disorders can show very clear empathy, it is often argued that there is a difference between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy.