Brain food

The science of thinking

Apr 072010
 

Grad student Kathleen Bogart has Moebius syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes facial paralysis: no smiling, no blinking, no lateral eye movement.  A New York Times article, Seeking Emotional Clues Without Facial Cues, looked at her experience and that of others with Moebius.

When she tried working with refugees from Hurricane Katrina, Bogart often couldn’t connect with them.  They didn’t see sympathy or understanding in her face–because she can’t express those things facially.  People in conversations mirror and react to one another, and we’re usually very skilled at detecting and interpreting very small physical signals: a forced smile, a distracted glance.

This is a complicated area.  It’s not necessarily the case that people with similar paralysis can’t recognize emotion, but the inability to mimic is a barrier.  Some people cope through other channels: eye contact, for example, or voice.  The challenge has turned into a research field for Bogart.

I had no special interest in studying facial paralysis, even though I had it; there were many other things I could have done. But in college I looked to see what psychologists had to say about it, and there was nothing. Very, very little on facial paralysis at all. And I was just — well, I was angry.  Angry.  I thought, I might as well do it because certainly no one else is.

One result was a study of how people with Moebius recognize facial expressions (link is a PDF) of her study, demonstrating that the ability to mimic the expressions of others is not essential to recognizing their emotional state.  As the Times article suggests, if the strategies that people with Moebius use to understand emotion are “teachable,…they could help others with social awkwardness, whether because of anxiety, developmental problems like autism, or common causes of partial paralysis, like Bell’s palsy.”

The Times website has aslide show in which Bogart talks about having a face that can’t express emotion.

 

 

Jan 072010
 

You can thank my mother for this.  She gives me a subscription to National Geographic for my birthday.  Each year she asks if I’d still like to get it.  Here’s one reason I always answer “yes.”

The January 2010 issue includes A Better Life with Bionics.  Joel Fischman’s article  starts with Amanda Kitts (pictured at right ), who lost most of her left arm in an auto accident in 2006.  Kitts one of the people on the front lines of bionics because of her collaboration with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago‘s Todd Kuiken.

Traditional prosthetic arms, the article says, rely on cables: the individual presses a lever on a harness to make one of three movements of the pincer hand.  In Kitts’s case, Kuiken “rewired” nerves that used to go all the way down her arm.  That’s reinnervation (New York Times graphic).

The nerves started in Kitts’s brain…which holds a rough map of the body…. In an intricate operation, a surgeon rerouted those nerves to different regions of Kitts’s upper-arm muscles…

“By four months, I could actually feel different parts of my hand when I touched my upper arm.  I could touch it in different places and feel different fingers,” [says Kitts.]

That was the start.  Kitts then received a new bionic arm with electrodes that could pick up electrical signals from those muscles.  How does it know which signals?  Because Kitts also has a phantom arm–a set of electrodes controlling a virtual arm in a computer–that RIC’s Blair Lock uses to fine-turn the connection between muscle signal and the desired motion.

So, how does it do?  Here’s Kitts in the lab.  (Note: there’s no sound in this video.)

Related items:

Nov 182009
 

The World in Six SongsDaniel Levitin used to be a record producer and a professional musician.  His fascination with how we grasp music, emotionally and physically, led to a new career as a professor of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University.  He’s followed an earlier book, This is Your Brain on Music, with The World in Six Songs.

I’m not far into it, but it’s already a “hey, listen to this” experience.  (Want to see the first chapter?)

Levitin contends that music isn’t simply a distraction or a pastime, but “a core element of our identity as a species, an activity that paved the way for more complex behaviors such as language…”

The six songs of the title aren’t specific songs; they’re categories for how we fit music into our lives.  At the start, he says, he was trying to figure out what all the different forms of song–work songs, love songs, counting rhymes, nearly the entire work of Bobby McFerrin–had in common.

Anthropologist Jim Ferguson (no relation that I’m aware of) told Levitin that was the wrong question.

Quoting the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Jim persuaded me that the right question to ask, in trying to understand music’s universality, is not what all musics have in common, but how they differ….

it is in the particulars, the nuances, the overwhelming variety of ways we express ourselves that one can come to understand best what it means to be a musical human.

Levitin sees six types of songs as having shaped human nature: songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love.  Interestingly to me, his definition of “song” is “any music that people make, with or without melody, with or without lyrics.”

I like the inherent complexity (and possible paradox) in that.  “Without lyrics,” for example, opens the door for the effect that deliberate rhythm may have had on human behavior and the evolution of the brain.

I also like insights he includes from Pete Seeger.  Pete pointed out that not all music is intended to be popular.

“Among American Indians,” Seeger explained, “a young man got his eye on a girl and he would make a reed flute and compose a melody.  And when she came down to get a pail of water at the brook, he would hide in the weeds and play her his turn… It was her special tune.  A tune wasn’t thought of as being free for everybody.  It belonged to one person.  You might sing somebody’s song after they’re dead to recall them, but each person had a private song…”

In addition, Seeger says, the power of music comes from its combination of form, structure, and meaning.  “Ordinary speech doesn’t have quite that much organization….and this becomes intriguing, something you can remember.”

Levitin suggests that before there was language, the human brain didn’t have the full capacity to learn langauge.  That capacity emerged as the brain worked with sounds and verbalizations.  The new structure, he says, made possible three cognitive abilities:

  • Perspective-taking: we could think about our own thoughts, and could realize that others have thoughts different from our own.
  • Representation: we could think and talk about things that aren’t present.
  • Rearrangement: we can “combine, recombine, and impose hierarchical order” on things in the world around us.

I’ve got a number of music- or language-related thoughts circulating.  This post is the first verse.

Sep 232009
 

I collect rules-of-thumb the way some people collect fantasy sports-league players.  (Willy Pareto? Economist out of Turino Tech.)  But I’m cautious when the rule seems too broad or the numbers too specific.  After all, it wasn’t Vilfredo himself but Joseph Juran who suggested that the 80/20 rule be called the Pareto principle.

Lately I’ve been trying to change some everyday behavior, and so this PsyBlog post, How Long to Form a Habit?, pulled me in.

(Disclaimer: when someone asks, from a training viewpoint, “How long does it take to develop [whatever]?” I habitually ask myself, “How long is a rope?”)

The PsyBlog post says participants in a study (working on new habits like eating fruit with lunch or running 15 minutes per day) on average hit a plateau in about 66 days.  As the chart (from the post) shows, you get to your “drink more water” goal much fasts than your “do 50 sit-ups” goal.

The post links to an abstract for the actual study, which notes that of the original 96 participants, 82 had enough data for the study, 62 fit the statistical model, and 39 had “a good fit.”    And the range to automaticity varied–from 18 to 254 days.

I got curious and found some other items on habit, which Wikipedia defines as a routine of behavior, repeated regularly, that tends to occur subconsciously.

Under that definition,  I have a habit of carrying my wallet in my left front pocket; this is an oddity, I realize, but it’s behavior of longstanding, such that I feel strange to have the wallet anywhere else.

Habits are learned behaviors, and a 2005 article on CNET News cites an MIT study looking at how old (presumably bad) habits reassert themselves.  It claims habit gets established in the basal ganglia (site of, among other things, procedural learning and addictive behavior).

Backsliding is easier, then, and to counteract it, we may need to be conscious not only of the former habit but of the presumably better behavior we want to make as automatic as possible.

I found lots of silliness–21 days to establish a habit, or 99, or 60, and one guy who said he could establish one in a day.  (Maybe if you’re establishing the habit of having maple syrup on vanilla ice cream.)

If it’s not currently part of your standard behavior, then to establish a habit, you’re got to exert some effort.  Initially you’re likely dealing with a lack of immediate, enjoyable payback.  And almost by definition, you’re disturbing of your behavioral routine.

I found a 2007 Psychological Review article by Wendy Wood and David T. Neil, A New Look at Habits and the Habit-Goal Interface (21-page PDF).

Habits are learned dispositions to repeat past responses. They are triggered by features of the context that have covaried frequently with past performance, including performance locations, preceding actions in a sequence, and particular people. Contexts activate habitual responses directly, without the mediation of goal states.

In other words, acquiring a habit means you’re likely to repeat a given action.  Settings that invite that action do so directly–you don’t think about losing weight (a goal) as you do about eating fruit rather than a bag of chips.

Wood and Neil propose three principles:

  • Habits are cued by context. You can learn to associate a context; after a while, the context can do its own triggering.  (This explains the advice to insomniacs about not watching TV, reading too much, or tossing and turning for long times in bed.  They’re working to create an association between bed and sleep.)
  • Over time, the goal fades but the habit remains. ( “Habit context-response associations are not mediated by goals.” )This explains why my dad continued to buy kid-friendly cereal years after all of us were grown and married.  He’d done the grocery shopping for 20 years; his choices were a habit.  He didn’t eat the cereal himself, and my mother’s…feedback, let’s call it…took a long time to have any impact.
  • Habits interact with goals. Initially, goals direct habits; over time, habits and goals influence each other.

It seems to me, then, that when we talk about acquiring good habits, we’re likely not only adding to our current repertory of activity; we’re likely replacing something seen as less helpful.

The Wood & Neal article discusses that at more length than I have space in this post.  Also, I haven’t fully established the habit of reading 21-page journal articles on the screen.  So I’m printing the PDF, and I’ll have a future post on habits, goals, and how they might get me to the gym more often while surfing online a bit less.

Sep 212009
 

It’s a new week.  For some people, it’s a new year.  The equinox, as Wodehouse said of Christmas, is at our throats again.  What better way to clear your brain than considering the pentatonic scale?


(Note:  I’ve switched the video to the version on YouTube; the original one seemed to perform poorly when embedded here.  You can find that original,  Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale at the World Science Festival on Vimeo.)

I’ll bet a pretest would have indicated that not many of these people could read music and that not many of them are prone to sing in public.  Pay attention to how little McFerrin instructs and how much he proposes.

I wasn’t much surprised to find that one panelist is Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music (mentioned a time or two here on the Whiteboard).  You’ll find the entire Notes and Neurons discussion in five videos (lengths vary; about 75 minutes in all) at the World Science Festival website.

Is our response to music hard-wired or culturally determined? Is the reaction to rhythm and melody universal or influenced by environment? Join host John Schaefer, Jamshed Barucha, scientist Daniel Levitin, Professor Lawrence Parsons and musical artist Bobby McFerrin for live performances and cross cultural demonstrations to illustrate music’s note-worthy interaction with the brain and our emotions.

What more invitation do you need?