Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Evolving Insight

Coming 30 years after publication of Richard Byrne's seminal book, "The Thinking Ape," "Evolving Insight" develops a new theory of the evolutionary origins of human abilities to understand the world of objects and other people. Defining mental representation and computation as 'insight', it reviews the evidence for insight in the cognition of animals.

The book proposes that the understanding of causality and intentionality evolved twice in human ancestry: the "pretty good" understanding given by behaviour parsing, shared with other apes and related to cerebellar expansion; and the deeper understanding which requires language to model and is unique to humans. However, Ape-type insight may underlie non-verbal tests of intentionality and causal understanding, and much everyday human action.

by Richard W. Byrne
Oxford University Press, 2016
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Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Once you learn what kind of animal you are, you can more effectively approach a task. If you're a bird and want to dig, you use your beak and claws and realize that you would be very effective on an archaeological site but less effective if you wanted to dig a den. If you're a bear, you should know that heavy digging is your thing - so if you want to dig, digging large holes is what you do best. And if you're a rabbit, you should know that running fast is what you do well - but if you want to fly, best to get on an airplane. In other words, do what you can do well, and if you don't have an affinity to do what you need for a certain situation, seek someone who can collaborate with you.

Surprising Insights into How You Think
by Stephen M. Kosslyn and G. Wayne Miller
Simon & Schuster, 2013

Artwork: Spirit Animals by Cameron Limbrick
Outrider Reading Group
The Nature Pages

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


"Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life" is an ontology of vegetal life, advocating a view of plants not as individual entities but as "a collective being" worthy of consideration. It deconstructs the mechanical metaphysics rigidly confining non-human life to narrow definitions.

Whether it be a satire on post-structuralist philosophy or a serious dialectic on the nature of plants, this is a thought-provoking analysis of how we think of plants, regardless of their cognizance.

Re-thinking our understanding of plants, of course, begs the ethical question of whether it is right to consume them, to which the author replies:

"If you wish to eat ethically, eat like a plant! Eating like a plant does not entail consuming only inorganic minerals but welcoming the other, forming a rhizome with it, and turning oneself into the passage for the other without violating or dominating it, without endeavoring to swallow up its very otherness in one's corporeal and psychic interiority."

A Philosophy of Vegetal Life
by Michael Marder
Columbia University Press, 2013

Artwork: Girl Studying Plant Life
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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How We Think We Think

The notion that the left and right hemispheres of the human brain have different tendencies and that people favor one side over than the other the way they do with handedness goes back over 50 years to the early 1960s. That's when renowned neuroscientist Roger Sperry began his pioneering work with epileptics that demonstrated that the two sides of the brain play measurably different roles in cognitive functioning.

Sperry's research, which won him the Nobel Prize in 1981, confirmed that the two halves of the brain have distinct cognitive capabilities, such as attending to overall shape rather than details during perception. But he cautioned that "experimentally observed polarity in right-left cognitive styles is an idea in general" and that "it is important to remember that the two hemispheres in the normal intact brain tend regularly to function closely together as a unit."

The popular press, however, became enthralled with the idea that "We Are Left-Brained or Right-Brained," as the New York Times Sunday Magazine announced. And few noticed that Sperry's work was done on abnormal brains and that the left brain/right brain has no solid basis in science. The brain doesn't work one part at a time, but rather as a single interactive system, with all parts contributing in concert, as neuroscientists have long known.

In "Top Brain, Bottom Brain: Surprising Insights into How You Think" Stephen M. Kosslyn and G. Wayne Miller propose a way of thinking about the brain in which the bottom part of the brain primarily processes input from the senses while the top part devises and carries out plans of action.

"We have argued that a person's habitual way of thinking does arise from the workings of two protions of the brain, the top and the bottom," they explain. "And we have argiued that simple dichotomies cannot adequately explain what these portions do: They must be viewed as systems - and systems that work together."

Top Brain, Bottom Brain
Surprising Insights into How You Think
by Stephen M. Kosslyn and G. Wayne Miller
Simon & Schuster, 2013

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Artwork: Brain by Mark Allen Miller

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Top Brain, Bottom Brain

Neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn, founding dean of the Minerva Schools higher education project in San Francisco, proposes a new theory of how the brain functions suggesting a top/bottom rather than a right/left model of thinking.

The Theory of Cognitive Modes, as he calls it, suggests that the bottom part of the brain primarily processes input from the senses while the top part devises and carries out plans of action. While we use both parts of the brain at all times, most of us rely on one brain system more often than the other.

"The degree to which you tend to use each system will affect your thoughts, feelings, and behavior in profound ways," Kosslyn explains.

Together with co-author G. Wayne Mille, Kosslyn debunks the dominant left-brain/right-brain theory of cognition that's been popular for half a century and introduces this new hypothesis in chapters that explain its scientific foundations and detail the four basic cognitive modes - Mover, Perceiver, Stimulator, Adaptor - that appear to underlie our thoughts and behaviors.

Surprising Insights into How You Think
by Stephen M. Kosslyn and G. Wayne Miller
Simon & Schuster, 2013

Second Nature
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Science Writing

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Welcome Stranger

In focusing on attributes that we identify as masculine, we blind ourselves not only to how else we might live, but to other aspects of our nature: that a human from almost any part of the planet can travel to another culture and integrate. We have given little study to the wonder of our cooperative nature, of our ability to accept strangers or to be included, to adapt and, despite the risks, live among people with different histories and values.
The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation Go Viral
by Deni Bechard
Milkweed Editions, 2013

Artwork: Barber Shop
Outrider Reading Group
The Nature Pages

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Your Brain on Fiction

Most of us have read a novel or heard a story that changed our life. Neuroscientists have now detected biological changes in the brain caused by fiction that linger, at least for a few days.

“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically," says Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person. We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it."

Neurobiological research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has begun to identify brain networks associated with reading stories. Most previous studies have focused on the cognitive processes involved in short stories, while subjects are actually reading them as they are in the fMRI

In a recent experiment, Emory researchers focused on the lingering neural effects of reading a narrative. They had Emory undergraduate students read the novel, Pompeii, a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris that is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy. The novel was chosen for its strong narrative and page-turning plot.

The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano. He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.

“It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns says. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

For five days, the experiment's participants came in each morning for a base-line fMRI scan of their brains in a resting state. Then they were given nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each, over a nine-day period. They were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning.

After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent an fMRI scan of their brain in a non-reading, resting state.  After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments.

“Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says.

The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.

“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Berns says. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

Artwork: Human Brain
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