Category Archives: Cognition

Cognitive Monthly

I am pretty much on record that I would not pay for anything online (to be precise, to pay for content – I certainly use the Web for shopping). But with some caveats. I have been known to hit a PayPal button of people who provide content and information I find valuable. And I would presumably pay, though not being happy about it, if the information behind the pay wall is a) unique (i.e., not found anywhere else by any other means) and b) indispensable for my work (i.e., I would feel handicapped without it).
But I am not subscribed to, or paying for, anything right now and haven’t been in years. Not even Faculty of 1000 which, one can argue, is important for my work. If I need a reprint of a paper for personal use (or perhaps to consider blogging about) I get it from the author, or if that does not work, from a friend with access.
So, I am intrigued by the announcement of ‘Cognitive Monthly’, a $2 per issue publication by Dave and Greta Munger. I got the reviewer copy of the first issue. I read it. I loved it. Would I pay $2 for something like that every month? I had to think about it long and hard, but my final answer is, actually, Yes. Why?
This is not an easy question to answer. I think a big part of my decision is the fact that I know Dave and Greta very well, in person, so I am positively predisposed to help them in this endeavor.
I am also a long-time regular reader of ‘Cognitive Daily’ – I know from experience that their posts are interesting to me. I am personally very interested in cognitive psychology of sensory perception, human behavior in traffic (driving, biking, etc.), human behavior in respect to social norms, ideology and fashion, etc. Even in busiest weeks, I’ll read at least the Science Friday post (and often participate in their research polls). Thus, I am wondering if I would have said Yes if I was unaware of Cognitive Daily from before.
The first issue, about the way theatrical productions use various illusions (light, sound, etc.) to draw the audience in, so the audience gets transported into a different place and time, is absolutely fascinating. Also, the production level of the issue is much greater than any one of their blog posts – it is longer, has a great introduction to the historical context, lots of interesting information, is written really well – this is a full-blown article that could appear in any reputable (popular science or general interest) magazine. And yet they say that this one is just a trial and that the future issues will be even more thorough. So, it is definitely an extremely high quality product, not just a quick blog post that comes and goes.
So, this is definitely fulfilling my criterion a) – it is unique. But is it b) as well? I can function professionally just fine without it, so why would I buy this every month anyway? I don’t know. I just feel that the personal education and enrichment I got from reading this article was worth $2 to me. It is hard to be rational about this – I just liked reading it and it was worth it to me. And I can’t wait for the next issue. I am actually – gasp – excited about it.
Perhaps they can do a Science Friday poll and post about this – are you more likely to pay for something if you are told in advance to think about this question? I read a lot of stuff online and never think “would I pay for this?”. But I did this time because I was asked to keep that question in the back of my mind while reading it. Did this make me more predisposed to try to give the piece a monetary value and, in comparison to $2 they are asking the deal looked good?
Give it a try yourself – you can get their stuff at (here is the first issue) in color, or on Amazon for Kindle (first issue) in black and white. Take a look and decide for yourself.
I am going to be watching this experiment with interest. If someone as jaded as I am got excited and is willing to pay for more of that “fix”, I am wondering if that will work for others as well. What will be the numbers of buyers on any given month, what percentage of those will be return customers, how will the word-of-mouth affect sales of any given issue (e.g., if one of them gets a lot of play on Twitter etc., and another one not so much), etc.? Definitely an interesting experiment.

Animal Cognition

Thanks to John Wilkins, I want to point you to an excellent review on the current state of research (both scientific and philosophical) in Animal Cognition.

Clocks and Migratory Orientation in Monarch Butterflies

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

I had no time to read this in detail and write a really decent overview here, perhaps I will do it later, but for now, here are the links and key excerpts from a pair of exciting new papers in PLoS Biology and PLoS ONE, which describe the patterns of expression of a second type of cryptochrome gene in Monarch butterflies.
This cryptochrome (Cry) is more similar to the vertebrate Cry than the insect Cry, also present in this butterfly. The temporal and spatial patterns of expression of the two types of Cry suggest that they may be involved in the transfer of time-information from the circadian clock to the brain center involved in spatial orientation during long-distance migration.
The PLoS Biology paper looks at these patterns of expression, while the PLoS ONE paper identifies a whole host of genes potentially implicated in migratory behavior, including the Cry2. Here is the PLoS Biology paper:
Cryptochromes Define a Novel Circadian Clock Mechanism in Monarch Butterflies That May Underlie Sun Compass Navigation:

During their spectacular fall migration, eastern North American monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) use a time-compensated sun compass to help them navigate to their overwintering sites in central Mexico. The circadian clock plays a critical role in monarch butterfly migration by providing the timing component to time-compensated sun compass orientation. Here we characterize a novel molecular clock mechanism in monarchs by focusing on the functions of two CRYPTOCHROME (CRY) proteins. In the monarch clock, CRY1, a Drosophila-like protein, functions as a blue-light photoreceptor for photic entrainment, whereas CRY2, a vertebrate-like protein, functions within the clockwork as the major transcriptional repressor of the self-sustaining feedback loop. An oscillating CRY2-positive neural pathway was also discovered in the monarch brain that may communicate circadian information directly from the circadian clock to the central complex, which is the likely site of the sun compass. The monarch clock may be the prototype of a clock mechanism shared by other invertebrates that express both CRY proteins, and its elucidation will help crack the code of sun compass orientation.

Here is the editorial synopsis:
In Monarchs, Cry2 Is King of the Clock:

Back in the brain, the authors showed that Cry2 was also found in a few dozen cells in brain regions previously linked to time-keeping in the butterfly, and this Cry2 underwent circadian oscillation in these cells, but not in many other cells that were not involved in time keeping. By taking samples periodically over many hours, they found that nuclear localization of Cry2 coincided with maximal transcriptional repression of the clockwork, in keeping with its central role of regulating the feedback cycle. This is a novel demonstration of nuclear translocation of a clock protein outside flies.
Finally, the authors investigated Cry2’s activity in the central complex, the brain structure that is believed to house the navigational compass of the monarch. Monarchs integrate information on the position of the sun and the direction of polarized light to find their way from all over North America to the Mexican highlands, where they spend the winter. Cry2, but not the other clock proteins, was detected in parts of the central complex where it undergoes strong circadian cycling. Some cells containing Cry2 linked up with the clock cells, while others projected toward the optic lobe and elsewhere in the brain.
Along with highlighting the central importance of Cry2 in the inner workings of the monarch’s clock, the results in this study suggest that part of the remarkable navigational ability of the butterfly relies on its ability to integrate temporal information from the clock with spatial information from its visual system. This allows the monarch to correct its course as light shifts across the sky over the course of the day. Other cues used for charting its path remain to be elucidated.

This is the PLoS ONE paper:
Chasing Migration Genes: A Brain Expressed Sequence Tag Resource for Summer and Migratory Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus):

North American monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) undergo a spectacular fall migration. In contrast to summer butterflies, migrants are juvenile hormone (JH) deficient, which leads to reproductive diapause and increased longevity. Migrants also utilize time-compensated sun compass orientation to help them navigate to their overwintering grounds. Here, we describe a brain expressed sequence tag (EST) resource to identify genes involved in migratory behaviors. A brain EST library was constructed from summer and migrating butterflies. Of 9,484 unique sequences, 6068 had positive hits with the non-redundant protein database; the EST database likely represents ~52% of the gene-encoding potential of the monarch genome. The brain transcriptome was cataloged using Gene Ontology and compared to Drosophila. Monarch genes were well represented, including those implicated in behavior. Three genes involved in increased JH activity (allatotropin, juvenile hormone acid methyltransfersase, and takeout) were upregulated in summer butterflies, compared to migrants. The locomotion-relevant turtle gene was marginally upregulated in migrants, while the foraging and single-minded genes were not differentially regulated. Many of the genes important for the monarch circadian clock mechanism (involved in sun compass orientation) were in the EST resource, including the newly identified cryptochrome 2. The EST database also revealed a novel Na+/K+ ATPase allele predicted to be more resistant to the toxic effects of milkweed than that reported previously. Potential genetic markers were identified from 3,486 EST contigs and included 1599 double-hit single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and 98 microsatellite polymorphisms. These data provide a template of the brain transcriptome for the monarch butterfly. Our “snap-shot” analysis of the differential regulation of candidate genes between summer and migratory butterflies suggests that unbiased, comprehensive transcriptional profiling will inform the molecular basis of migration. The identified SNPs and microsatellite polymorphisms can be used as genetic markers to address questions of population and subspecies structure.

Here is an article written after the press release, which, as such articles usually do, greatly overstates the extent of the findings:
Clocking monarch migration:

In previous work, Reppert and his team showed that pigment-producing genes in the monarch eye communicate with the butterfly’s circadian clock. As part of the new study, Reppert and his team also found, in an area of the monarch brain called the central complex, a definitive molecular and cellular link between the circadian clock and the monarch’s ability to navigate using the sun. Briscoe said that Reppert’s study was “really going to overturn a lot of views we had about the specific components of circadian clocks.”

The spatial and temporal patterns of expression make Cry2 the most serious candidate for the connection between the clock and the Sun-compass orientation mechanism. Much work, both at the molecular and at higher levels of organization needs to be done to figure out the exact mechanism by which this animal, during migration, compensates for the Sun’s movement across the sky during the day, and thus does not stray off course. Cry2 appears to be a good molecular “handle” for such studies.
For background, see my older post on the initial discovery of Cry2 in Monarch butterflies by the same team.

How to talk about Health Care

Rockridge Institute published a set of articles (and a video ad) that I found quite interesting about the way to frame health care. See for yourself:
Introduction to Rockridge’s Health Care Campaign:

Framing for Rockridge is about the honest expression of the progressive moral view based upon empathy and responsibility for oneself and others. It is about recognizing government’s role to protect and empower citizens. In other words, we want to communicate our moral view as directly as possible. We want to make sure the moral view is not lost in the fog of complex policy proposals.

The Logic of the Health Care Debate:

Most health care reports advocate a policy, describe it, and argue for it. We take a different approach. In this paper, we describe the logic of the overall debate over the U.S. health care system –the assumptions, the arguments, who makes them, and why. We do come out of this process with recommendations, but not of the usual sort.

Don’t Think of a Sick Child:

George W. Bush doesn’t want you to think of a sick child. Not Graeme Frost. Not Gemma Frost. Not Bethany Wilkerson. Not any of the real children affected. He wants you straining your eyes on the fine print of policies, puzzling over the nuances of coverage — whether you can afford premiums for basic, catastrophic, comprehensive or limited health insurance.

Don’t Think of a Sick Child: The Framing of the Rockridge Institute’s Health Care Security Ad:

The initial web ad in the Rockridge Institute’s campaign for health care security is intended to make a simple, emotional point: today’s profit-first, private, insurance-based health care system forces Americans to choose to exclude millions of Americans from adequate health care.

Could You Explain a Vote Against Children’s Health to the Children?:

For those in U.S. House or Senate inclined to sustain a presidential veto of a bill that will provide basic health care to more than 3 million additional American children, ask yourselves this question: Are you willing to explain your decision to a schoolroom of fragile young children who cannot afford treatment for whooping cough or measles, leukemia or juvenile diabetes? Are you willing to explain this to them, human to human?

Who’s Afraid of Sick Kids?:

When is a twelve-year-old boy with brain damage a threat? When he exemplifies the good a government program can do when it provides health security to middle-class Americans.

SCHIP and the Rigged Health Insurance Game:

The House on Thursday passed a modified version of the SCHIP bill, with a vote that was seven votes shy of a veto-proof majority. There were 142 members of Congress who voted against extending health care to more poor children. Behind their rhetoric, their intentions are clear: they want to protect the health insurance market and the huge profits that go with it.

Ask Rockridge: The Importance of Mental Health:

A Rockridge Nation member recently asked how we can reframe mental health as being necessary for health. We explore a key cognitive bias in how health is conceptualized to pave the way toward an effective alternative.

Ask Rockridge: The Meaning of Socialized Medicine:

Rockridge Nation members recently asked about the phrase “socialized medicine” and raised the deeper question of how to overcome resistance to an expanded government role in funding healthcare, prompting our response here.

You may not agree with the Lakoffian analysis, but reading these articles SHOULD make you think about the way you talk about health care.

A kick-ass Conference: Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity

Unfortunately, due to the Murphy’s Law of conference dates, I will have to miss this fantastic meeting, because I will at the time be at another fantastic meeting, but if you can come, please do – registration will be open online in a few days.

Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity

The conference theme is about bringing scientists and humanities scholars to talk about ways that science is changing human life.

November 8th, 9th, and 10th, the National Humanities Center will host the second ASC conference.

And the program features a Who’s Who list:

Thursday, November 8th
Frans de Waal
Martha Nussbaum
Friday, November 9th
Dan Batson
Margaret Boden
Joseph Carroll
Frans de Waal
Evelyn Fox Keller
David Krakauer
William Lycan
Martha Nussbaum
Steven Pinker
Paul Rabinow
Margery Safir
Robert Sapolsky
Saturday, November 10th
Terrence Deacon
Daniel Dennett
Alex Rosenberg
Mark Turner

Of those, I have seen Sapolsky, Fox Keller and Deacon speak before, and I know Alex Rosenberg, and for each one of them alone, it is worth showing up!

More than just Resistance to Science

In the May 18th issue of Science there is a revew paper by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg. An expanded version of it also appeared recently in Edge and many science bloggers are discussing it these days.
Enrique has the best one-sentence summary of the article:

The main source of resistance to scientific ideas concerns what children know prior to their exposure to science.

The article divides that “what children know prior to their exposure to science” into two categories: the intuitive grasp of the world (i.e., conclusions they come up with on their own) and the learned understanding of the world (i.e., conclusions they absorb from the adults around them):

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Curse Words

Last week’s Casual Friday study on Cognitive Daily tried to look at the way various curse words are used and perceived by their blog readers.
Today, the results are in and, though not surprising, they are quite interesting. The sample is probably skewed towards well-educated folks interested in cognitive science, as well as towards the US readers (or at least English-speaking readers), but they had a large enough sample this time to get significant differences between sexes, if not races.
Do you find “bitch” less offensive if you are a dog breeder? Or if you are a regular reader of Bitch, PhD blog?

But do they stop to ask for directions?

Sex And Prenatal Hormone Exposure Affect Cognitive Performance:

Yerkes researchers are using their findings to better understand sex differences in cognitive performance, which may lead to increased understanding of the difference in neuropsychological disorders men and women experience.
In one of the first research studies to assess sex differences in cognitive performance in nonhuman primates, researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center have found the tendency to use landmarks for navigation is typical only of females.
This finding, which corroborates findings in rodents and humans and is available in the online edition of Hormones and Behavior, suggests there is not just a difference in how well females and males solve spatial problems, but also in which types of cues they use to solve such problems. Researchers are applying this knowledge to gain a better understanding of how the brain develops and functions.

Framing and Truth

Truth, All the Truth, and Nothing but the Truth.
You are all familiar with the phrase. It actually figures prominently (though unspoken until now) in this whole discussion about framing science.
Nobody – absolutely nobody – ever suggests that anything but The Truth should be used when communicating science or communicating about science.
The wisdom of framing is that ‘All the Truth’ can be omitted, as too much information puts off the target audience in some cases, and is thus counterproductive.
The self-styled Defenders Of The Truth insist that a) ‘All The Truth’ should never be omitted, and b) that ‘framers’ want to omit ‘nothing but the Truth”, i.e. to advocate lying. Nothing is further from the Truth.
The important issues of the day – evolution, global warming, stem cell reseach – are too contentious and politically hot. Thus, to illustrate how omitting “All The Truth” does not mean lying, I’ll use the examples from my own reasearh, as far from political (or even politicizable) as can be.
For instance, this is the way some of our data are presented to the peers in the field. Compare that to this treatment of the very same data intended for a different audience – readers of a science blog (some scientists, some interested lay-people, no chronobiologists). There is more background, more explanation of the basics, a more casual English language, and almost no numbers/statistics in the latter. Both contain the Truth and Nothing but the Truth, but the latter is not “All the Truth” as some less relevant information has been omitted. Does it turn it into lying? Not at all. Does it make more comprehensible and interested to a non-expert? Yes. The published paper was read by the dozens, the blog post by the hundreds at least – hundreds who probably could not have understood the published paper anyway and who don’t need all the nitty-gritty details in order to understand it.
Or, how about this example: here is the actual paper, and here is the blog post about it. Not just does the blogpost explain in an easy language what the paper is about, but it also adds the wisdom of several intervening years of research and thinking, i.e., puts the paper in a historical perspective. It also has a slightly different emphasis on what was really important in the paper – something we learned only in hindsight. So, which of the two is The Truth? The paper has all the details and statistics that the blog-post lacks. The blog-post has the post-hoc insights that the paper lacks. Are they, thus, both Lies? No. They are both true, framed for different audiences at different times in history.
How about this one: here is the paper and here is the blog-post. The blog-post puts the data from the paper in a much, MUCH broader context, including data from a number of other papers by other people, and ends with new data that never saw the light of day previously, followed by a novel testable hypothesis that was never included in the original paper. Which one is The Truth? Both, of course. Just framed differently.
Another example: here is the published paper while here and here are two different blog treatments of the same data. The first post explains the data in the paper (sans boring details and numbers) and puts the paper into a historical perspective. It adds some of the background thinking that was not included in the paper – about my motivations for doing the work, about expectations how the data would turn out, the way we responded when the data did not turn out the way we predicted, and the way to see the data from the lens of what we know now seven years later. The second post also describes the data in simple English, yet goes further – by placing the data into a different context (ecological instead of physiological) it ends up proposing a novel hypothesis to be tested in the future. Which of the three treatments are the Truth? All three, of course, but each framed differently.
OK, that was my MS stuff. I am not allowed to tell you the details of my PhD work, but there is a way to frame it so you can understand what it was all about without revealing any specifics.
For instance, if asked by a person (professional or lay-person) interested in evolution, I would describe my PhD work along these lines: “I am interested in evolutionary implications of sex, strain and individual differences in circadian and photoperiodic time measurement in Japanese quail, with potential insight into group selection”.
If asked by a physiologist of some sort, I would describe it like this: “I did studies in the way exposure to sex steroid hormones by embryos and adults affects the way bird brains measure time of day and time of year”.
If asked by someone whose primary interest are humans, I’d say something like this: “I use an avian model to study the way circadian system is altered during adolescence”.
If I were young and single and talking up a girl in a bar where loud music makes language economy an imperative, I’d say “I am a brain surgeon”.
And you know what? All four statements are True. Nothing but the Truth. But obviously not All the Truth. Each emphasizes a different aspect of my work. Each neglects to say that the work is already done and that I have not set foot in the lab for a while. And each is framed for its target audience. The first reflects my real #1 interest and can help bond with a like-minded fellow. The second is my #2 interest, but that is what my Dissertation is supposed to be about and this is the way most people in the field (including my advisor) would like to hear about it. The third is good for selling my work to NIH, but also good for giving a polite answer to a non-scientist friend who asked the question out of being polite him/herself. The fourth emphasizes one of the methods in my toolkit and has a different goal in mind.
Each of the four is framed differently because the audience is different, the question (“What is your research about”) was asked for different reasons, and my goal is different (though establishing my expertise and staking my turf are a common thread to all four): bonding, teaching, persuading, or self-aggrandizing, respectively. And I never inserted a single lie anywhere. Oh, and without knowing any details, you now have a pretty decent idea of my rresearch interests, don’t you?
That is what framing is about. Knowing what your goals is. Knowing what to omit when. And knowing what style of language to use with which audience. No need to ever be dishonest. Leave that to Creationists and Republicans.
But, what really is The Truth in science and in journalism? Oh, do click on that link, I know you want to and it is worth it.
Framing Science – the Dialogue of the Deaf
Framing ‘framing’
Did I frame that wrong?
Framing and Truth
Just a quick update on ‘framing science’
Joshua Bell and Framing Science
Framers are NOT appeasers!
Framing Politics (based on science, of course)
Everybody Must Get Framed

Mind of a Raven

When my ‘Scientific American’ arrived the other day, I was excited to read the article about ravens by Bernd Heinrich, as I loved his book Mind of a Raven. I was also glad to see that new cool experiments have been done since the book came out. But I wondering how to blog about an article that is behind the subscription wall, so in the end, I abandoned the idea.
Now, Grrrlscientist comes to the rescues with an excellent summary of the article, that is well worth your time.

Feldman Skewered

It appears that scientists are not the only ones who do not grok framing. Jeffrey Feldman’s book got blasted by some ninkompoop in NY Times yesterday. Jeff responds:

Indeed, when I read that passage I wondered if the reviewer had given up on reading my book just after glancing through the table of contents. It seems that, instead of writing about my book, Fairbanks popped in a DVD of “The Matrix,” or maybe “A Clockwork Orange,” and then churned out a piece of creative non-fiction reacting to those other works of sci-fi.

Update: More about the “fairbanksing” of Feldman here, here and here.

Framing Science – the Dialogue of the Deaf

Blog%20Against%20Theocracy.jpgMy SciBlings Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet just published an article in ‘Science’ (which, considering its topic is, ironically, behind the subscription wall, but you can check the short press release) about “Framing Science”
Carl Zimmer, PZ Myers, Mike Dunford (also check the comments here), John Fleck, Larry Moran, Dietram Scheufele, Kristina Chew, Randy Olson, James Hrynyshyn, Paul Sunstone and Alan Boyle have, so far, responded and their responses (and the comment threads) are worth your time to read. Chris and Matt respond to some of them. Matt has more in-depth explanations here, here and here (pdf) that are worth reading before firing off a response to the whole debate.
This is not a simple topic, but I will try to organize my thoughts in some way….

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The Science Of Driving And Traffic – the importance of breaking the rules

Let me state up front that this is not a topic I know anything about, but I have always had a curiosity for it, so let me just throw some thoughts out into the Internets and see if commenters or other bloggers can enlighten me or point me to the most informative sources on the topic. This is really a smorgarsbord of seemingly disparate topics that I always felt had more in common with each other than just the fact that they have something or other to do with traffic. I am trying to put those things together and I hope you can help me (under the fold).

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Elephants pass the mirror test

Humans do it, great apes do it, dolphins do it, now elephants (also here) have also been shown to do it – recognize themselves in the mirror, i.e., realize that the image in the mirror is the image of themselves and not a strange animal. That’s a biggie in the world of cognitive science and the study of evolution of consciousness:

When the mirror was unveiled in their yard, they immediately walked over and began poking and prodding and inspecting and playing. They used their trunks to inspect it and then themselves. Two got on their hind legs to look on top of the mirror. One got on the ground to inspect the bottom of it. They opened their mouths, exploring an area of their body they were familiar with but had never seen. They even brought their food over to eat in front of the mirror.
“All three of the elephants demonstrated this self-directed behavior,” said Joshua Plotnik, a co-author of the study and a graduate student at Emory. And like children inspecting their own bodies, the elephants put their eyes right up to the mirror, seemingly to figure out what it was and how it worked, he said. Then they investigated parts of their bodies they had never seen. They grabbed one of their ears and pulled it towards the mirror for inspection. “These are behaviors that they don’t normally do,” he added.
The scientists used a non-toxic paint to mark a small spot on one side of each animal’s forehead, which would be visible when it looked in the mirror. They also marked an identical spot on the other side of the forehead, but invisible paint was used to test whether the animals were seeing rather than feeling the mark.
Happy was the only one of the three who noticed the spot and used her trunk to examine it — over and over again. She did not go after the invisible spot on the other side of her forehead.


You can read and LISTEN TO the 45th Edition of the Skeptic’s Circle at The Inoculated Mind

Monkey see, monkey do

Chimpanzees Can Transmit Cultural Behavior To Multiple ‘Generations’:

Transferring knowledge through a chain of generations is a behavior not exclusive to humans, according to new findings by researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. For the first time, researchers have shown chimpanzees exhibit generational learning behavior similar to that in humans. Unlike previous findings that indicated chimpanzees simply conform to the social norms of the group, this study shows behavior and traditions can be passed along a chain of individual chimpanzees. These findings, based upon behavioral data gathered at the Yerkes Field Station in Lawrenceville, Ga., will publish online in the August 28 early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“The chimpanzees in this study continued using only the technique they observed rather than an alternative method,” said Horner. “This finding is particularly remarkable considering the chimpanzees in the control group were able to discover both methods through individual exploration. Clearly, observing one exclusive technique from a previous chimpanzee was sufficient for transmission of behavior along multiple cultural generations.”

Dolphins Are Intelligent!

Where does one start with debunking fallacies in this little article? Oy vey!

Dolphins and whales are dumber than goldfish and don’t have the know-how to match a rat, new research from South Africa shows. For years, humans have assumed the large brains of dolphins meant the mammals were highly intelligent.

No, we knew dolphins were smart millenia before we ever looked at their brains. The ancient Chinese knew it. Aristotle knew it. And the idea that brain size has anything to do with intelligence is, like, sooo 19th century.

Paul Manger from Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, however, says it is not intelligence that created the dolphin super-brain — it’s the cold. To survive underwater, these warm-blooded animals developed brains that have a lot of insulating material — called glia — but not too many neurons, the gray stuff that counts for reasoned thinking.

Wow! Since when are glia “insulating material”? A few years ago, for my Neuroscience class, I had to remember at least 10 functions of glia – not one of them having anything to do with insulation, or even structural support. It’s all about function – neurons and glia work together to process information. Anyway, I will blame this on the stupidity of the reporter as I doubt that anyone with such archaic ideas would ever be allowed to dissect a dolphin and publish a study in a decent journal.

Yet while dolphins aren’t as smart as people tend to think, they are as happy as they seem. Manger said dolphins have a ”huge amount” of serotonin in their brains, which is what he described as ”the happy drug.”

Sure, if you get your science from Cosmo and Glamour. Do I really have to start listing all the functions of serotonin now? Or try to define “happiness” in such simplistic terms that it can be explained with a single chemical?
It is not quite clear, but it appears that Alon Levy agrees with the study. But Lindsay is having none of it. She cites the self-recognition paper as well as some personal testimony of the researcher who did that study. When that paper came out I was teaching a “Readings in Behavioral Biology” graduate seminar and all the neuro faculty showed up for class and tried valiantly to destroy the paper – with no avail. It is good.
Dolphins are darn smart. They play (check this pdf). They have complex communication and complex social interactions.
So, how does this kind of argument ever show up? Because of anthropocentrism. Two types of anthropocentrism, to be precise.
First, the concept of “intelligence” is often defined in human-like terms. If an animal can do stuff we do, it is deeemed smart. If it can be easily trained like our immature offspring can, it is smart. If it can talk, it is smart. If it builds structures, it is smart. BS. Intelligence has to be defined from the vantage point of that species: what makes ecological and evolutionary sense for that species to be able to do. Bees are smarter than ants because they have a more sophisticated ability to orient in space and time, not because they speak English, French and Chinese.
Now, don’t get me wrong now. Since we are intelligent, looking for intelligence in other animals may benefit from comparison to humans. The trouble is, people go for specifics of human capabilities, instead of a general idea what intelligence is.
Writing “Hamlet” is an ecologically relevant ability for humans. It kept old Will fed and clothed for a few months, after which he wrote the next play. Why would an insect need to write theater plays? It is not ecologically relevant to it. It does not aid survival and/or reproduction.
Intelligence is the ability to learn fast and learn a lot of pieces of information relevant to one’s ecology. It is the ability to hold many of those pieces in one’s mind simultaneously, to juggle them and analyse them and notice patterns. It is the ability to play with that information, to get new ideas and test them, to note and remember the results of those tests. It is the ability to use this novel informaiton to invent novel behaviors – doing different stuff at different places at different times. In short, intelligence is the ability to do science! Behavioral flexibility is the hallmark of intelligence – not the specific types of behaviors.
The second anthoropomorphism considers the underlying anatomy. Why should unrelated species of high intelligence have brains similar to us? They evolved their high intelligence at different times, in a different lineage, with different raw materials to work with, and under different ecological pressures, for different purposes.
Many birds are very intelligent – but in their own way. Clarke’s Nutcrackers, African Grey Parrots, pigeons, and most corvids (ravens, crows, jays) are highly intelligent creatures with huge capabilities for episodic memory (remembering spatial and temporal aspects of personal experiences), play, problem-solving, spatial orientation and perhaps even insight (planning for the future). And their brains look nothing like ours.
Octopus is a very smart animal. Its brain looks nothing like ours.
Macs and PCs can do all the same stuff (roughly), but look nothing like each other under the hood. Many kinds of harware can run the same kinds of software and do same kinds of things, so why should brains have to be all built the same way in order to make an animal “intelligent”?
So, leave the dolphins alone, at least until the Startide Rising.
Addendum: I forgot to note that glia are not white matter. Axons are white matter while neuronal bodies are grey matter. Glia surround both. It is the color of Schwann cells (a type of glia) that makes axons look whitish.
Thus, more grey matter means more neurons. More white matters means more connections. What is more important: gazillions of scattered cells, or the complexity of their connections? I’d say connections.
Addendum II: Dave Munger wrote a valid criticism of what I wrote here (and somehow I missed his earlier post on this subject):

I agree that intelligence is tremendously difficult to define, but I’d suggest that the perspective of an individual species is a poor place to start. Based on that notion, every organism can be said to be intelligent, because every organism is highly adapted to its environment. When we say an animal is “intelligent,” we’re defining intelligence from our own perspective: the point is to identify animals that are similar to ourselves.

I’m not sure that the point is to identify animals that are similar to ourselves, but even if it is, similar in what way? The general mental capabilities (that we still need to define) or specific capabilities (which I argued here against)?
As for looking at each species individually, I agree that it is impossible to do it in isolation, but eahc species can be compared with other species in its own group, e.g., birds with birds, insects with insect, and then broader, all with all. If we define, provisionally, intelligence as fast learning, high processing power and flexibility of behavior, then we can compare species without looking at specific items that are learned, specific informaiton that is processed and specific behaviors that are flexible. For some species, being inflexible is a great adaptive trait – doing everything by the pre-programed schedule can work wonderfully for a long period of time. Other species evolve flexibility which allows them to spread on a broader spatial range and perhaps allow them to survive a longer geological time.

Another time-scale in insect brains

Bumble Bees Can Estimate Time Intervals:

In a finding that broadens our understanding of time perception in the animal kingdom, researchers have discovered that an insect pollinator, the bumble bee, can estimate the duration of time intervals. Although many insects show daily and annual rhythms of behavior, the more sophisticated ability to estimate the duration of shorter time intervals had previously been known only in humans and other vertebrates.
Bees and other insects make a variety of decisions that appear to require the ability to estimate elapsed durations. Insect pollinators feed on floral nectar that depletes and renews with the passage of time, and insect communication and navigation may also require the ability to estimate the duration of time intervals.
In the new work, the researchers investigated bumble bees’ ability to time the interval between successive nectar rewards. Using a specially designed chamber in which bumble bees extended their proboscis to obtain sucrose rewards, the researchers observed that bees adjusted the timing of proboscis extensions so that most were made near the end of the programmed interval between rewards. When nectar was delivered after either of two different intervals, bees could often time both intervals simultaneously. This research shows that the biological foundations of time perception may be found in animals with relatively simple neural systems.

On Horowitz

Apart From Being An Idiot, Horowitz Is Also An Unwiped Anal Orifice With Hemorrhoids This – “Apart From Being An Idiot, Horowitz Is Also An Unwiped Anal Orifice With Hemorrhoids” – is the worst and nastiest blog-post title I ever used. But I was furious. See why…. (first posted here on March 05, 2005, then republished here on December 10, 2005):

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The Perils of Polls

Survey questions themselves may affect behavior:

Simply asking college students who are inclined to take drugs about their illegal-drug use in a survey may increase the behavior, according to a study that’s making researchers understandably nervous.
“We ask people questions, and that does change behavior,” study co-author Gavan Fitzsimons, a marketing professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, said Thursday. The provocative effect, he added, can be “much greater than most of us would like to believe.”

Read the rest, it is quite interesting. My first thought – can frequent polling during the election year, using, of course, conservative frames, influence the outcome of the election?

Sex On The Brain (of the science reporters)

Sex On The Brain (of the science reporters)

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

This post was a response to a decent (though not too exciting) study and the horrible media reporting on it. As the blogosphere focused on the press releases, I decided to look at the paper itself and see what it really says. It was first posted on August 09, 2005. Under the fold…

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Obligatory Reading of the Day

Bush Is Not Incompetent by George Lakoff:

Progressives have fallen into a trap. Emboldened by President Bush’s plummeting approval ratings, progressives increasingly point to Bush’s “failures” and label him and his administration as incompetent. Self-satisfying as this criticism may be, it misses the bigger point. Bush’s disasters — Katrina, the Iraq War, the budget deficit — are not so much a testament to his incompetence or a failure of execution. Rather, they are the natural, even inevitable result of his conservative governing philosophy. It is conservatism itself, carried out according to plan, that is at fault.

The article is long and elaborate, but the core idea is exactly what I wrote back in September 2005: Stop Beating on Bush!

The Synapse

The Synapse, new carnival of neuroscience – from molecules to cognition and everything in-between – is the first carnival that originated here on SEED Today, the first edition saw the light of day, so you should go over to Pure Pedantry to check it out. The homepage of the carnival, with archives, instructions for submission, etc., can be found here.
In two weeks, on July 9th, 2006, the carnival will be held here, on A Blog Around The Clock. Please send your entries to me by July 8th at midnight (Eastern Time). You can send your entries to: the DOT synapse DOT carnival AT gmail, or straight to me at: Coturnix1 AT aol DOT com, or you can use the automatic submission form over on

Time is on my side…or behind me…or in front of me…or whatever!

Yes, I know that I am supposed to be the resident expert on all things temporal (check the name of this blog, after all), and I am actually very interested in the topic of subjective perception of time (in humans, among others), but I did not say anything about the latest study on the Aymara language in which the space-time metaphors are reversed in comparison to most/all (is it not all or is it really all?) other known languages. SEED just released an article on the topic as well.
Blogosphere covered the story quite a lot, but I was waiting for the real experts on this to chime in, and they delivered with gusto! Dave and Greta have written not one, but two posts on the topic (so far?).
Now Chris (of Mixing Memory blog) has written a post as well, as I just knew he would – how could he resist. After all, this is something that is up his alley and he has written two excellent posts on the topic before – I urge you to check them out here and here.