By Devin Buckley

A Portrait of Perception

September 16th, 2010 in Uncategorized 0 comments

Many a scientist has noted in the light of recent discovery that what has been scientifically elucidated has often been artistically intuited even hundreds of years before. Many phenomena of psychology or even physics have been illuminated first through the intuition and hypersensitive reflCenter of Gazeection of art. Illusions within the visual arts that modify perception of space and movement understand the psychology of perception without being themselves a science. Looking at a painting, one may begin to question why and how the painting gives us a sense of light or space. Neuroscientists at the University of Leicester are putting this principle to use in a scientific study, teaming up with a well-known international artist whose pieces specialize in manipulating human percepts. They hope to work with him towards a greater understanding of how the mind apprehends visual stimuli.

The neuroscientist, Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, attained renowned status after discovering a particular type of neuron that fired in an ‘abstract’ manner to pictures of different individuals, allowing for some predictive value of whom the person was looking at from a data of their neuronal firing. Fascinated with human perception, he teamed up with well-known Argentinean artist Mariano Molina to study the mind’s perception of art, particularly in juxtaposition to its perception of regular photos and individuals. Molina will spend five months working in the lab, learning about how perception works from a scientific viewpoint. In turn, Quiroga will get a look at perception through an artist’s frame.

Molina has discovered that many of his pieces of art intuit unconscious principles of perception that science had previously  identified. Consider one of Molina’s paintings: “The Center of Gaze.” Staring into it, one’s eyes are immediately drawn to the center. Center? How do I know that’s the center? At least, that would be the afterthought of one with a normal sense of perception. Upon further study, conscious reflection dwells on the “how” behind what the eye has intuited. This process that an individual feels within herself, the ex post facto rationalization of a quick and thoughtless, yet insightful, perception is akin to the methodology of the project itself.

Molina will complete a dozen pieces of art within a five month period, helping to draw insight into perceptual processes intuited by the artist. Molina believes that his artistic ability will also benefit from the scientific understanding of perception. Scheduled to begin in November, the project is hoped to bring scientific knowledge as well as an enriched appreciation for art, and encourage communication between the sciences and the arts that is of mutual benefit.

How Do We Perceive Art?  Artist in Residence to Work Alongside Neuroscience Research Lab -Univ. Leicester

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William’s Syndrome and Autism: Two Extremes on the Social Spectrum

August 23rd, 2010 in Uncategorized 0 comments

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Are you an extravert or an introvert? It is likely that if you have not been asked this directly, you have been tempted into the bi-categorical systemization in the privacy of your internal self-judgment. These two prototypes which show some truth in the extremes of human sociability are represented in the symptoms of William’s Syndrome and Autism. Recent studies focusing on the contrasting linguistic abilities associated with either disorder illumined a correlation between linguistic aptitude and sociability (consequently also drawing a correlation between linguistic ineptitude and unsociability).

The symptoms of the two disorders oppose one another all the way down the line. Meet Peter. Peter harbors no hostilities towards others. In fact, he feels quite indifferent around others, perhaps, moderately uncomfortable. He has little to say, unless the topic falls on one of his oddly specific hobbies. The conversation then bounces from one piece of chit chat, gossip, and light anecdote to another with erratic playfulness. Peter doesn’t disapprove of anything said; he simply finds no need to comment. He observes it with a disinterested blankness, so that the look on his face could not tell one way or another as to his affect or comprehension.

He sees a Rubik’s cube on a shelf nearby, which is of far more fascination to him. He observes people blankly, but objects illumine his eyes like one experiencing spiritual reverie. He finishes the puzzle in less than a minute. He perks up only when the conversation touches upon the esoteric topic of the impossible last problem on the physics exam, which he explains with enthusiasm on the spot, mostly looking at the room, rather than people’s faces. He mumbles as if  there were no audience. Peter exemplifies the Autistic persona. Characteristics vary on a spectrum, but key qualities are depreciated response to social cues, greater fascination with objects than people, standoffishness, high spatial or mathematical ability, and a tendency toward the literal, rather than the conceptual.

Introversion

Now meet William. When presented with Peter’s Rubik cube he strains with it for a few moments before abandoning it completely to study Peter’s face. He watches with delight as Peter’s eyes move to the floor to avoid his gaze, but William stares with unbreakable solidity at Peter’s eyes. William could hardly begin to solve the physics problem Peter was just explaining, but he narrates the events of the test day with incredible fluidity. He rejoices at his ready audience and speaks unrestrainedly as one would only to a friend, though they are all total strangers.

William exemplifies the syndrome he is named after in his lack of social reservation, high responsiveness to facial emotionality, linguistic capability, and low spatial intelligence going hand in hand with his poor IQ test performance. Approximately one in 10,000 people have this disorder, which is the result of a genetic deletion leading to an altered amygdala structure (an area of the brain highly involved in social and emotional processes). Those with William’s syndrome demonstrate higher than normal reactions on brain scans to happy facial expressions and lower than normal ones to unhappy ones, suggesting a cause for their extreme extroversion. Those with autism express a lower than normal reaction to positive facial expression. However, William’s syndrome is attributable to a particular genetic deletion, while autism exhibits more variance.

The extreme contrast between these two disorders led to an investigation in the differing mechanisms of language processing in the brains of individuals with either disorder to find a correlation between linguistic aptness and sociability. Inna Fishman and Debra Mills focused on the so named N400 pattern of electrical brain activity, measured through electrodes on the scalp. The N400 is part of a normal brain response to words and meaningful stimuli that peaks 400 milliseconds after the stimulus. Participants were given odd sentences such as “I take my coffee with sugar and shoes.” Those with WS had an abnormally high response in comparison to the control, while those with autism did not show such negativity, demonstrating an inability to integrate lexical information into an overall conceptual context. This demonstrates that those with autism have difficulty with non-literal or conceptual meaning.

Comparing with preliminary data, there was a direct correlation between level of sociability and N400 response. The study revealed a connection between the degree of social aptitude and linguistic ability. It seems likely that depreciated language ability would be related to social ineptitude. However, the complexity of what makes one socially apt and what makes one withdrawn reaches a greater level of depth than the exposed correlation. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of these two social extremes is a fascination in itself, and study often wins merit not by grasping truth in its entirety, but by probing it.

Language as a Window into Sociability
Science Daily Article
Sociability Traced to Particular Region of Brain Science Daily on William’s Syndrome

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In Love With Love

August 1st, 2010 in Uncategorized 4 comments

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Whether from real life, opera, books, or pop songs, we are all familiar with the act of falling in love. We have, perhaps, laughed at those who perform nonsensical or self-destructive acts in the name of love not even requited. It’s no wonder it’s been called insanity or even a disease. Neuroscientists at Stony Brook University are elucidating the chemistry of Cupid’s poisoned arrowhead.

Chicken Love

A recent study published in The Journal of Neurophysiology indicates that the feeling of love, and the person who elicits it, activate brain areas similar to that of drug addicts. The feeling also triggers dopamine release related to motivation and reward. It seems that love is a goal-oriented motivation instead of merely a feeling.

A study conducted at Stony Brook University included 15 heterosexual female and male individuals who had recently broken up with a loved one but claimed to still be deeply “in love” with that person. They experienced what they described as constant pain and anguish, and they were particularly miserable when reminded of that person. The anguish bears many similarities to withdrawal. Extreme behaviors such as suicide, stalking, and homicide represent extreme cases of seeking recompense for the lost addictive object; these behaviors mimic those exemplified in of cocaine addicts. Furthermore, stimuli reminiscent of the lost lover, such as photos, exacerbate a craving similar to that of addicts longing for a return of their opiate.

The fMRIs possibly confirmed what was qualitatively observed. Participants were first shown a photo of the loved one, then asked to complete a math exercise to distract them, and then finally shown a picture of a neutral individual. Several significant areas lit up further when shown the picture of the loved one as opposed to the neutral individual. One of the areas more strongly activated was the ventral-tegmental area in the midbrain, which controls motivation and reward, and has been continuously correlated with feelings of romantic love. Other areas were the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, areas both associated with craving and addiction, particularly the dopaminergic reward system activated in cocaine addiction. Also activated were the insular cortex and anterior cingulate, centers involved in physical pain and distress.

Concerning the study, Dr. Arthur Aron states that “it shows that intense romantic love seems to function much like an addiction… But that does not tell us one way or the other whether the desire to be in love in general is an addiction.” However, it seems likely to me, that so long as we are drawn to the pleasurable, we can develop an addiction to it. Many of us have witnessed, I’m sure, certain individuals tending toward frequent infatuation or crushing. Those who seem to be in love with love.

Dr. Aron believes the study will not only bring insight into the enigma that is love, but help to treat those with addiction later. The study also brought consolation to its participants, revealing the aphorism “time heals all wounds” to be scientifically warranted. As time passed, an area of the brain associated with attachment, known as the right ventral putamen/pallidum, reacted less and less over time to a photo of the loved one.

Love, of course, is a many faceted diamond. Infatuation is but one of its angles, though it is the most sparkly and attractive, and it is usually what first catches the eye. Relationships involve an intricacy of emotions and motivations that are never static. However, the study seems to illustrate a truth concerning the self’s pleasure or reward that defines one of the key aspects of this poetic feeling.

Anguish of Rejection May Be Linked to Stimulation of Areas of Brain Related to Motivation, Reward and Addiction – ScienceDaily
Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated With Rejection in Love – Journal of Neurophysiology

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Cognitive Literature?

June 28th, 2010 in Uncategorized 1 comment

                As the academic fields, particularly if not exclusively, those in the sciences appear to multiply and narrow, many people strain for a return to the interdisciplinary. The mind and brain sciences move into categories formerly considered only by literature, philosophy, or more generally, the liberal arts. Consequently the crossover of science into the mysteries of the human mind has charged a debate concerning the future of the humanities. Many schools are withdrawing funds from liberal arts departments. The University of Louisiana, Lafayette ended its philosophy major and Michigan State University eliminated its major in American studies and classics. The question now is has the conceptualization of human nature shifted from ambiguous poetic ponderings to the seemingly quantifiable and consequently more practical sciences? Or is a modification of the humanities, not necessarily a replacement, in progress? Many humanists and scientists search for what they refer to as “the next big thing,” or the integration of liberal arts and the sciences, partly out of a desire to preserve as well as to progress. Many have found a solution in the interpretation of literature through the neuroscientific lens.

                Many subjects of neuroscience studies have concerned the evolutionary basis of the arts and the cognitive faculties involved in reaction to them. Elaine Scarry, a professor of English at Harvard University is amongst the searchers for the NBT or “next big thing,” hosting a seminar on cognitive theory and the arts. Visual cortex studies have provided insight into how an impressionist painting makes its “impression,” for example, how painting techniques create the effect of shimmering water. Magnetic Resonance Imaging studies test the reactions of different brain areas during the reading process in hopes of answering the bigger questions science has for literature, namely, why do we read, how do we form attachments to imaginary characters, and what are the underlying, fundamental mechanisms of such?

            Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at University of Kentucky, who specializes in 18th century British literature, hopes to interpret literature from an evolutionary psychologists’ and cognitive scientist’s perspective. Zunshine is currently working on a joint project with cognitive psychologists to investigate the neurological basis of reading. She hopes to test using MRI how the process of reading differs with the complexity of the material read from the Daily News to Marcel Proust. One of the studies concerned an individual’s ability to track multiple sources, or follow a chain of relationships such as he said she said he said…etc. One of the difficulties of reading Virginia Woolf, for example, is that she often asks readers to keep track of six different chains of thought or “levels of intentionality.” The normal human capacity is about three. Zunshine also claims that the narrative “free indirect style,” which mingles the character’s voice with the narrators, enables readers to follow multiple levels of intentionality. According to her, it also stemmed from an evolutionarily selected desire to investigate into other people’s lives or mental sets. Many schools that sense losing interest in the liberal arts are following Zunshine’s angle and implementing cognitive literature courses. The exact influence of the quantifiable brain sciences on the liberal arts and vice versa is still uncertain. Ultimately, the issue at heart concerns the nature of truth, whether it must be quantifiable and whether one lens of interpretation is one of many perspectives or singularly objective. One needs be skeptical at the call of absolute truth, particularly if it be simple. As the territory the quantifiable sciences may settle on expands, are the liberal arts to occupy historically reverential reservations or is there to be cultural integration?

-Devyn Buckley

Original Articles: 

http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/05/can-neuro-lit-crit-save-the-humanities/

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/01/books/01lit.html?pagewanted=2