Archive for March, 2007

New cognitive neuroscience book

cogbrain170×100.gifThere is a new textbook in cognitive neuroscience coming in June, called Cognition, Brain and Consciousness. The book is edited by Bernard J. Baars and Nicole Gage, who have done a tremendous job with this book.

I would know, because I’m co-author on two of the chapters. The book is richly illustrated and written in a clear and concise manner all through. In addition, an accompanying CD contains supplementary material such as movies and animations.

From the advertisement one can read:

A wave of new research is transforming our understanding of the human mind and brain. Many educational fields now require a basic understanding of the new topic of cognitive neuroscience. Cognition, Brain and Consciousness is a groundbreaking new textbook that bridges the disciplines of neuroscience and psychology to provide students with a clear and simple path to understand the latest findings in this emerging field.

It adopts an easy-to-understand thematic approach, building on widely understood concepts in psychology, such as working memory, selective attention, and social cognition. The brain is introduced in a step-by-step, readable style. Hundreds of color graphics have been carefully selected from the vast Elsevier archives including Gray’s Anatomy and Fundamental Neuroscience. Beautiful, clear artist’s drawings are used to “build a brain” from top to bottom, simplifying the layout of the brain. Drawing exercises at the end of each chapter are provided to strengthen the students’ understanding.

Indeed, what I like about this book overall is that it discusses consciousness up front. In standard cognitive neuroscience textbooks, consciousness is an add-on topic, i.e. it is discussed only later in a book. The treatment of sentience as “something else” than regular cognition is a categorical error. After all, many cognitive functions can operate at both conscious and unconscious levels. The new textbook explicitly addresses consciousness from page one.

– baarsgage.jpgThomas

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humphrey.JPGIt was twenty years ago today. Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.

Actually, last year it was 30 years ago that Nicholas Humphrey published his seminal paper “The social function of intellect” (pdf). Many people see this paper as the impetus to later work on the social brain hypothesis (pdf) and Theory of Mind. Humphrey suggested that, rather than the need for technology, it was in fact the need for advanced cognitive mechanisms for keeping track of conspecifics and interacting with other members of their social group that drove the expansion of brain and intelligence in hominids. This idea has provoked research into the role of cooperation and collaboration as well as deception and competition in primate social behaviour. It has prompted research into the importance of conspecifics being able to attend to a shared mental content. (Shared attention appears crucial to the transfer of knowledge in a social group, and is therefore probably a prerequisite for the establishment of cultural traditions.) Finally, it has been instrumental in getting neuroscientists interested in the neurobiological underpinnings of social cognition, including research into Theory of Mind and mirror neurons.

To commemorate Humphrey’s paper and track the above-mentioned ensuing research, the Royal Society of London staged a Dicussion Meeting last year. The papers presented at that meeting have now been published in the latest issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. It is a veritable smorgardsbord of big names: There’s papers on social intelligence in birds, hyenas, dolphins and apes by, inter alia, Nathan Emery, Nicola Clayton, Kay Holekamp, and Richard Connor. Richard Byrne and Andrew Whiten discuss the animal cultures hypothesis. There’s papers by Michael Tomasello and Daniel Povinelli on ToM in primates. Vittorio Gallese explains the importance of mirror neurons, Chris Frith reviews what we know about the social brain, and Steven Mithen speculates that farming may have arisen from a misapplication of social intelligence. Naturally, Humphrey is also given the opportunity to revisit his 1976 paper.

If you are at all interested in the question of what makes some species social beings you will want to check out this issue.


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trends.jpgI am a sucker for lists, so please bear with me: In a forthcoming editorial, Shbana Rahman, the editor of the great journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, is celebrating the ten years anniversary of TICS by printing short reflections on what has been the most “exciting discovery or theory of the past ten years” by a number of fat cats in the cognitive neurosciences: John Anderson, Nick Chater, Jon Driver, Jerry Fodor, Marc Hauser, Phil Johnson-Laird, Steven Kosslyn, Jay McClelland, George A. Miller, Lynn Nadel, Steven Pinker, Zenon Pylyshyn, Trevor Robbins, and Vincent Walsh. Naturally, there are as many different answers as people asked: the shift from computational models to probalistic models (Chater), Gergely and Csibra’s experiments on rational imitation in infants (Hauser), research on how intuitions determine judgments (Johnson-Laird), mirror neurons (Nadel), etc., etc. The funniest entry by far is Fodor’s:

What with brain imaging and neural nets, it will be a hard ten years to forget. But I’m working on it. Hopes
for the future: (i) the further erosion of attempts to apply the adaptationist paradigm to the evolution of
cognitive and linguistic phenotypes; concurrently, its replacement by an account that stresses the ‘‘hidden’’
constraints on phylogeny imposed by neurology, genetics, biochemistry, ontogeny and so forth; (ii)
the development of a serious referential/causal semantics for mental representations.

My own suggestions, just of the top of my head, would be:

(1) The rapidly growing understanding of the role played by emotions in various forms of “higher” cognition.

(2) Research on on the interplay between genes, brain processes and the environment in producing behaviour – especially development. Hopefully outdated words such as “innate” will soon dissapear from the vocabulary of cognitive neuroscientists.

(3) Decision-making. By which I mean research on making a judgment, forming preferences for possible choices, neuroeconomics, neuromarketing, and neuroethics.

What would be your choices?


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eyes2.jpgResearch on the role of oxytocin, a neuropeptide, in social cognition has generated much interest during the last few years. We have earlier written about oxytocin’s role in social attachment; together with vasopressin, another neuropeptide, oxytocin is thought to be critical for linking social signals to structures in the mesolimbic part of the brain responsible for forming social attachment and pair bonding. In a study published in Nature Ernst Fehr and his group demonstrated that injecting people with a spray of oxytocin increases trust.

Now, in a pretty remarkable new study published in Biological Psychiatry, German researchers show that injecting subjects with a whiff of oxytocin will also improve be ability to infer, based just on eye cues, what a person is thinking about. Here’s the abstract:


The ability to “read the mind” of other individuals, that is, to infer their mental state by interpreting subtle social cues, is indispensable in human social interaction. The neuropeptide oxytocin plays a central role in social approach behavior in nonhuman mammals.


In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subject design, 30 healthy male volunteers were tested for their ability to infer the affective mental state of others using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET) after intranasal administration of 24 IU oxytocin.


Oxytocin improved performance on the RMET compared with placebo. This effect was pronounced for difficult compared with easy items.


Our data suggest that oxytocin improves the ability to infer the mental state of others from social cues of the eye region. Oxytocin might play a role in the pathogenesis of autism spectrum disorder, which is characterized by severe social impairment.

Clearly, this suggests that oxytocin not only modulates mesolimbic brain structures. Earlier studies have implicated the fusiform face area and superior temporal sulcus in extracting social information from facial perception. May oxytocin also impact on these structures? Whatever turns out to be the case, I imagine that no politician or CEO will ever sit down at the negotiation table again without their trusty bottle of oxytocin.


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calvino.jpgI’ve just received a copy of Image, Eye and Art in Calvino, a new book on “the relationship between the visual and the textual” in Italo Calvino, edited by Birgitte Grundtvig, Martin McLaughlin, and Lene Waage Petersen. Together with Frederik Stjernfelt and Olaf B. Paulson I wrote a chapter for the book on the neurobiology of poetic imagination. A quick glance at the book reveals it to be full of other interesting papers as well!

On a somewhat different note, yesterday’s NY Times Magazine had a long article by Jeffrey Rosen on the relation between neuroscience and the law, a recurrent theme here on the blog. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but I will be back later this week with some comments.


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kandel150.jpgThis year’s annual question at Edge was, “What are you optimistic about?”. Now, Brockman has asked Eric Kandel to outline the four neuroscience breakthroughs made in 2006 that makes him optimistic about our future possibility of understanding the brain. The first breakthrough is research into the role of microRNAs in the formation of synapses. The second is research into the encoding of external space in the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex. Kandel’s third choice is research into social interaction, including Rebecca Saxe’s imaging studies of Theory of Mind, and Barry Dickson’s discovery that if the male form of the protein fruitless is expressed in female Drosophila, the females will display male courship behaviour. And his fourth is the possibility, through neuroimaging and other new techniques, of understanding the effects of psychotherapy on psychiatric diseases.

All four advances are clearly great causes for optimism. But maybe there are other breakthroughs worth mentioning? What about research into decision-making, or comparative genetic studies casting light on the evolution of the hominid brain? I bet that you readers have your own suggestions. Please share them with us in the comments section.


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old-flute.jpgBack in September I briefly mentioned two recent papers in Music Perception on the evolution of music: Justus & Hutsler and McDermott & Hauser. As Darwin famously noted in The Descent of Man, from an evolutionary standpoint our ability to make music is “among the most mysterious with which [man] is endowed”. It is clear enough why being able to communicate through language would be an evolutionary benefit, but music? What adaptive purpose could the ability to produce and appreciate music possibly serve? Well, Justus & Hutsler and McDermott & Hauser are only a few of a surge of researchers to recently take a crack at Darwin’s old mystery. (For a great introduction to the field, see The Origins of Music, an anthology edited by Nils Wallin, Björn Merker, and Steven Brown.) However, I just now became aware that Music Perception has since published a string of very interesting commentaries to these two papers, including comments by Ian Cross, Björn Merker, Tecumseh Fitch, and Anirrudh Patel. There’s even a reply to the commentaries by McDermott and Hauser. I highly recommend taking a look at them all.


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