Archive for July, 2008

If you didn’t go the HBM meeting this year you might be interested in hearing that the organizing committee now has put up most of the keynote presentations – for some reason, the talk by Michael Gazzaniga is missing – as well as all the talks from this year’s educational courses as podcasts. You can find them here.

The keynotes include talks by Mel Goodale, Mark D’Esposito (on the top-down modulation of FFA and PPA activation in visula perception), David van Essen (brain maps!, brain maps!), and Aina Puce (on social neuroscience). The educational workshops include talks on “Advanced fMRI”, “Basic fMRI/EEG”, “Diffusion Imaging and Tractography”, and “From Dynamic Modeling to Cognitive Neuroscience”. So, if you want to brush up your knowledge about neuroimaging methodology these podcasts offer a good opportunity.

By the way, I still plan to write a couple of posts about my impressions of the meeting. Stay tuned for that!



Read Full Post »

Here is a heads up for the upcoming Sedbergh Festival of Ideas. Martin is going over to bring our view on the neuroethics of consciousness science research. Unfortunately, I’m unable to attend, but Martin will cover our ideas very nicely.

The event Martin is talking at is “Event 4 — Varieties of consciousness“, together wih no other than Geraint Rees, Ilona Roth and Max Velmans. If you are in the vicinity, why not attend? I hope Martin is going to blog about this meeting, just as he will with his recent trip to the HBM conference.

UPDATE: Here is the program (I just received from Andi Chapple):

Session 1 – Science and Consciousness
10am – 1.30pm, Saturday 19 July
People’s Hall, Howgill Lane, Sedbergh, Cumbria LA10 5DE, England
£15 (£6 concessions) for the whole session, £6 (£2.50 concessions) for the discussion (introduced and moderated by Prof. Velmans) from 11.45am to 1.30pm.

Professor Geraint Rees, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL, London
Dr. Ilona Roth, Psychology in Science Group, Open University
Martin Skov, Danish Research Centre for Magnetic Resonance, Copenhagen
Professor Max Velmans, Goldsmiths College, London

Professor Tom Ormerod, University of Lancaster introduces the speakers.

Session 2 – Varieties of Consciousness
10am – 1.30pm, Sunday 20 July
People’s Hall, Howgill Lane, Sedbergh, Cumbria LA10 5DE, England
£12 (£5 concessions)

Speakers will lead short hands-on sessions so the audience can get personal experience of what they are talking about, then present their area of interest, and then there will be a general discussion.

Dr. Michael Daniels, Liverpool John Moores University (transpersonal
psychology and parapsychology)

Dr. David Scott (Zen and ‘Big Mind’ techniques)
Ian McPherson (t’ai chi and qi gong)


Read Full Post »

Who said evolution could not happen fast? Has it not been one of the main criticisms from evolution-critics that we cannot observe evolution taking place today? Well, here is just one recent example of evolution over a few generations only.

In case you have not heard this story before, a study published in the March issue of PNAS demonstrated that the Italian wall lizard (Podarcis sicula) had developed gross morphological changes in only a few decades. In particular, the story was that in the early 1970’s the lizard was introduced by humans to the island Pod Mrcaru in Croatia (from the neighboring island called Pod Kopiste).I’ve made a map just to show where that is:

A google map of the region can be found here

Five adult pairs introduced in 1971. During the Croatian war of independence, the lizards were long forgotten, not studied again until decades after their release. At that time, the researchers were not even sure whether there would be any lizards left. Imagine their surprise, then, when they discovered the species now dominates the island in great numbers, well over 10.000!

But as if this was not a big surprise itself, the researchers discovered that the Pod Mrcaru lizards had developed morphological differences, including larger heads, broader jaws and a harder bite. In addition, the lizards had developed a completely new gut structure. Why? Because the two islands differed in what the lizards could feed upon. In a great story about this exciting finding, National Geographics notes:

Pod Mrcaru, for example, had an abundance of plants for the primarily insect-eating lizards to munch on. Physically, however, the lizards were not built to digest a vegetarian diet.

Researchers found that the lizards developed cecal valves—muscles between the large and small intestine—that slowed down food digestion in fermenting chambers, which allowed their bodies to process the vegetation’s cellulose into volatile fatty acids.

“They evolved an expanded gut to allow them to process these leaves,” Irschick said, adding it was something that had not been documented before. “This was a brand-new structure.”

Can anything be more “wow” than this?

So not only did the study demonstrate the ability of only a few number of lizards to survive and thrive in a relatively new habitat. The study also demonstrates just how fast evolutionary preassures can lead to adaptions in a much faster time than what we normally think of.

This, of course, is supportive evidence for the thought about fast evolutionary changes even in humans, as we have previously blogged about (see here, here, here, here and here).


Read Full Post »

Poster from the 14th Human Brain Mapping conference in Melbourne. Sorry about the bad photograph. The title of the poster reads: “EEG Default Mode Network: Olympic Hymn”.


Read Full Post »

After writing this weekend’s post on music (below) I got thinking that maybe I should consider updating my wildly popular post on bioaesthetics books – i.e. books looking at aesthetic phenomena from the point of view of biology. A couple of new titles have come out since I wrote that post back in 2006 so an update might be in order. While I ponder which books to include here’s a couple of snippets of news from the wacky world of neuroaesthetics.

Fist of all, it should be noted that Semir Zeki, a well-known neurophysiologist, recently was appointed the world’s first ever professor of neuroaesthetics. As far as I know this institutional break-through for neuroaesthetic came as a result of Zeki receiving, together with Ray Dolan, a Wellcome Trust “strategic award” of 1 million £ to search for “the neural and biological basis for creativity, beauty and love”. (See the press release at the Wellcome Trust’s homepage.) The cool one mil also means that Zeki is now hiring a research associate to work on neuroaesthetics. To celebrate his new position (or so I imagine!), in November he will publish his new book, entitled Splendour and Miseries of the Brain.

However, if you can’t wait until November you might want to visit Zeki’s new blog. Here, among other things you can read about recent neuroaesthetics events that Zeki has participated in, including a meeting in Berlin at May 8 inaugurating something called the Association of Neuroaesthetics (AoN). The AoN is the brainchild of Alexander Abbushi, a neurosurgeon at Berlin’s Charité Hospital. According to its mission statement,

It is the aim of the Association of Neuroesthetics, a European initiative originating at the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin to bring together both the knowledge acquired and the methods employed by contemporary artists and neuroscientists in order to work towards a shared language. It is the Association’s hope that new artistic projects and new approaches in research and the arts may emerge that speak this new language.

Two symposia are planned for the years 2009 and 2010. As a new platform they are intended to allow artists, art historians, scholars in cultural studies, curators and neuroscientists to begin a productive dialogue. The following themes have been envisaged: “Color, Form and Light“, “Temporality, Ambiguity and Uncertainty” and “Subjective Mental States.” The results of these endeavours will be artistic projects, research publications and conference proceedings, all accessible to the public.

Apart from these two prospective meetings it is not clear from the homepage what AoN more precisely plans to do, although it seems very promising that they are already advertising for future Ph.D. students. That could indicate that the Charité intends to host more basic neuroaesthetics research. Let’s hope so.

Both Zeki’s professorship (and Wellcome’s funding) and the organizational initiative of AoN are great news. But what the field of neuroaesthetics is perhaps most in need of is a more institutionalized setting for disseminating and debating research. Of course, people working on empirically understanding the neural underpinnings of aesthetic behavior will attempt to publish their work in the most prestigeous neuroscience journals possible. However, it would be greatly beneficial to have a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to reviewing and discussing theories and new results. Also, at the moment many neuroaesthetics conferences put a premium on inviting big names to give the field some needed credibility, even when these researchers have no track history of actually conducting neuroaesthetic research. It would be enourmously helpful to the increasing maturation of neuroaesthetics as a bona fide research field if somebody were to host an annual or bi-annual conference focusing on the presentation of new data – with an open call for papers.

With these words let me as a final news flash be self-centered enough to mention an up-comming book simply entitled Neuroaesthetics, edited by yours truly together with my good friend Oshin Vartanian. Beside contributions by Oshin and myself it includes chapters by Thomas Jacobsen; Steven Brown and Ellen Dissanayake; Tecumseh Fitch, Antje von Graevenitz and Eric Nicolas; Marcos Nadal, Miquel Capó, Enric Munar, Gisèle Marty & Camilo José Cela-Conde; Anjan Chatterjee; Dahlia Zaidel; Nicholas Wade;Mari Tervaniemi; David Miall; Torben Grodal and Troy Chenier and Piotr Winkielman. In editing this book Oshin and I have attempted two things: First of all to present neuroaesthetics as a broad field incorporating all the arts and all questions of possible aesthetical interest. Secondly, we wanted to distinguish the most most pressing porblems facing the field in the hope of promoting new empirical research.

The book is still in production but it is already possible to go to the publisher’s homepage and order it now at a considerable discount. When I know more about the publication date I will get back to you with further details.


Read Full Post »

Since May 8 Nature has published nine essays – one per week – on contemporary music research. Reflecting the recent extraordinary advances made in our understanding of how the brain perceives music many of the essays focus on results coming out of neuroscience labs (although they also mention workbased on anthropology, acustics, statistics, as well as other disciplines). Among the authors are some of today’s preeminent musicologists, including David Huron, Laurel Trainor, Aniruddh Patel, and John Sloboda. Together, the nine essays touch upon a number of music research’s hardest and most intriguing questions such as the question of why we prefer some combination of pitches and rhythms to other, or the question of whether or not any of the processing mechanisms underlying the experience of music are shared with other cognitive abilities, expecially language.

With the publication of the last essay Nature has made all nine essays available for free. Go to this site where it is also possible to download a special edition of the Nature Podcast containing interviews with two of the authors, Philip Ball and John Sloboda.

I spend the morning reading all nine essays, and while they are all highly engaging I couldn’t help thinking that we still deperately need a comprehensive review of the whole range of neuroscience research on music conducted in the last five or ten years. The only book even attemting to introduce this body of work in a popular form is Daniel Levitin‘s This is Your Brain on Music, and I think it is fair to say that this book only manages to cover but a fraction of the many, many exiting results currently being published. Could this be a job for the incomparable Carl Zimmer?


The photo shows some 70.000 people convening at the Roskilde Festival here in Denmark to enjoy four days of music. Why?

Read Full Post »

OK, here we go again. Remember the fuzz about the Iacoboni lab at UCLA, where they used fMRI to probe into voters likes and dislikes of politicians? Now,a good article in the Atlantic.com gives us a 1st person story about the trip through the fMRI experiment, the thoughts and results following this scientific un-rigourous and invalid approach. Jeffrey Goldberg reports in a funny and entertaining manner how it all goes about.

As with the previously mentioned NY Times article by the Iacoboni team, Goldberg is scanned while watching different famous people, including politicians, actors and musicians. After a few days, the imaging results come in and are presented and discussed with Iacoboni. To me, the dialoguoes could be referring to tea-leaf reading, astrology or ___ (put in your preferred method). As here:

(…) what happened when I saw a picture of my wife. This had me concerned, but Iacoboni explained: “The dorso-lateral prefrontal-cortex activity means you’re trying to exercise cognitive control, that you’re trying to protect the privacy of your relationship with your wife. I interpret this positively because there’s also medial orbito-frontal cortex activity, which is a region associated with positive emotion.” Iacoboni could not explain one other response to my wife’s photograph: “You have weird auditory-cortex activity, almost like you’re hearing her voice, even though we just showed you her picture without sound.”

OK, so give me some (peak) activation in the brain, and I’ll try to interpret it. I’m the Rorschach inkblot master, just bring it on! Actually, thes best thing with this article is the humorous angle that Goldberg puts to it. Just following the above citation, he notes:

When I told my wife about this, she asked me how it could be that I hear her when she’s not speaking, but don’t hear her when she is speaking. I said that this was a question well beyond the capacity of neuroscience to answer.

To newcomers and outsiders, it is crucial to understand that there is a substantial difference between studying brain activation related to specific behaviours and/or tasks, and to go the other way and interpret mental states or behaviour from brain activation patterns. The brain is much more than a collection of highly specialized regions, and there is considerable redundancy and degeneracy in the brain. This means that one structure can be involved in many different functions, and one function or state is often served by many different regions at any one time. So whether your brain responds with the amygdala to a particular face, compared to other faces, may not even mean that you fear or are concerned with this person. The amygdala may be involved in positive emotions, or even novelty processing. Brain-reading is a fascinating topic, but we should steer away from the absolute claims that one can sometimes see today.

One good example, in the present article, of what this approach may lead to is the finding that the author showed ventral striatal activation to the Iranian political leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So ventral striatrum is related to (expectation of) reward, right. And previously, activation in that region to other famous people was interpreted as a liking-effect, right. Now what? Does Goldberg like Ahmadinejad? Will the NSA knock on Goldberg’s door in the near future? Is it illegal or suspicious for his brain to respond favourably to Ahmadinejad?

This, and more puzzles are definitely going to come up in the near future, as Iacobini and other researchers are concinuing this flaky path of BS science. I’m a great fan of Iacoboni’s academic work, but I am nevertheless terribly dissapointed with his uncritical turn towards entertainment with fMRI.


Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts