Most of us have heard about them but only a few appreciate the power of them. It was more than 20 years ago that scientists discovered the fascinating mirror neurons. It was at the University of Parma, Italy where the first glimpse of mirror neurons occurred. The study’s focus was actually to examine motor neurons involved in hand and mouth actions in macaque monkeys. The basic procedure of the experiment involved monkeys reaching for food while researchers recorded firing in particular neurons. What these researchers found was that some neurons actually fired even when the monkey was not moving but was just watching someone else perform an action. So, one may easily deduce that mirror neurons are neurons that fire both when an animal performs an action and when an animal observes someone else perform an action. Nearly 20 years after the initial macaque monkey experiment mirror neurons studies are still generating fascinating results. The reason for this fascination is that mirror neurons are at the base of extremely important functions such as socialization, empathy and teaching.
More recent discoveries have shown that mirror neurons are critical in the interpretation of both facial expressions and body language. Moreover mirror neurons enable us to understand, empathize and socialize with others. As studies have shown, autistic individuals have trouble understanding other people´s intentions and feelings. Autistic individuals cannot understand the intentions of others while observing their actions. This is believed, at least in part, because autistic individuals have a malfunctioning mirror neuron system. This malfunctioning system disables these individuals’ ability to even try and comprehend someone else’s actions based on observation. In contrast to autistic individuals, people with well functioning mirror neuron system have no problem understanding other people’s intentions, which makes mirror neurons so important.
Before reading this post, I want you to take a look at the website of Bryan Lewis Saunders, specifically the portion that describes his escapade through drugs and self-image. It can be found at http://www.bryanlewissaunders.org/drugs/.
As a brief summary, Saunders took one drug a day for several weeks straight, and drew a self-portrait during the experience of each. Eventually, he changed to more sporadic use due to exhaustion and brain damage issues, but he did continue for quite a while. Saunders ranges the gamut from commonly known drugs such as Adderal, bath salts, and cocaine to more obscure Risperdol and Klonopin. The approach was clearly unscientific, it does delve into some interesting questions concerning our self-image, at least once you go past the initial, “this guy is crazy” response. Although I certainly won’t delve into all of them, I think it’s important to sometimes take a moment and ask them.
First of all, it’s interesting to see how much our self-perception can be altered by something so seemingly trivial as a drug. We consider our image to be an integral part of us, yet it is easily changed. For those who study neuroscience, this is probably unsurprising, as we know that drugs change the chemistry of our body and brain, and are thus likely to alter self-image. However, the extent is quite amazing, if Saunder’s pseudo-experiment is any indication.
“Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons….In fact there was only one species on the planet more intelligent than dolphins, and they spent a lot of their time in behavioural research laboratories running round inside wheels and conducting frighteningly elegant and subtle experiments on man. The fact that once again man completely misinterpreted this relationship was entirely according to these creatures’ plans.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
As tempting as it may be to believe the science fiction version of the intelligence rankings, real-life science has spoken and suggests (much to my displeasure) that humans may actually be the highest on the intelligence scale.
Scientists from Duke University and Brazil claim wires connecting one rodent to another can allow communication spanning continents via the internet. Professor Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, led a team of researchers who demonstrated that it is possible to transmit instructions from one animal to another by brain-to-brain communication, a process akin to telepathy.
Brain-to-brain communication could be the start of organic-based computing based on networks of interconnected brains. Pairs of laboratory rats were able to communicate with each other using microscopic electrodes implanted into their brains. This occurred as part of an experiment where the two rats had to work together in order to receive a reward (see video at source).
We have many different types of neurons within our peripheral somatosensory system. In addition to basic mechanoreceptors, we have neurons corresponding to pain sensations, and channels that are temperature sensitive. However, one phenomenon that was not explained at the neuronal level until recently, is the sensation of stroking. On the behavioral level, we know that stroking or grooming is pleasurable in such phenomenon as maternal care. But how is this transduced at the molecular level?
Researchers in David Anderson’s lab at Caltech recently discovered a class of neurons that selectively responds to “massage-like” stimulations. Experiments were performed in-vivo to directly measure the effect of certain stimulations. Calcium imaging, a type of imaging designed to study activity of neurons, was used in the spinal cord, where the cell bodies of neurons projecting to the periphery are located. After mice were pinched, poked, and light-touch stroked on their paws, the researchers found that a subset of neurons was selectively activated to only the light-touch stimulus.
One of the things people have not been able to understand, both morally and biologically, is what drives criminal behavior. When people hear about shootings on the news, such as the one in Colorado at the movie premier of The Dark Night Rises, a question that commonly runs through people’s minds, is “Why on earth would someone do that?” People seem to ask this question with the assumption that the person is at fault for what they have done. However, can we certainly blame the individual for what they did? David Eagleman, author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain and neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, attempts to unveil the mysteries that surround this question. More
The parting words of Ken Jennings in last year’s Jeopardy match against Watson, a computer seemingly able to decipher and process language, are a milestone for robotic innovations. Advancements in neuroscience and robotics have focused on giving robots human-like intelligence and processing skills. This concept has been depicted numerous times in popular culture, many times in terms of robotic rebellion, for example in movies such as I, Robot or WALL-E.
Recent robotics research leaves us with a couple of questions. Are really focusing on the right aspects of advancing in robotic technologies? Instead of perfecting intelligence and processing, why not instead focus on perfecting human emotion? More
In this post, I attempt to present two major metaphysical accounts of space by Kant and Leibniz, then present some recent findings from cognitive neuroscience about the neural basis of spatial cognition in an attempt to understand more about the nature of space and the possible connection of philosophical theories to empirical observations.
Immanuel Kant’s account of space in his Prolegomena serves as a cornerstone for his thought and comes about in a discussion of the transcendental principles of mathematics that precedes remarks on the possibility of natural science and metaphysics. Kant begins his inquiry concerning the possibility of ‘pure’ mathematics with an appeal to the nature of mathematical knowledge, asserting that it rests upon no empirical basis, and thus is a purely synthetic product of pure reason (§6). He also argues that mathematical knowledge (pure mathematics) has the unique feature of first exhibiting its concepts in a priori intuition which in turn makes judgments in mathematics ‘intuitive’ (§7.281). For Kant, intuition is prior to our sensibility and the activity of reason since the former does not grasp ‘things in themselves,’ but rather only the things that can be perceived by the senses. Thus, what we can perceive is based on the form of our a priori intuition (§9). As such, we are only able to intuit and perceive things in the world within the framework naturally provided by the capabilities and character (literally the under–standing) of our understanding. Kant then takes our intuitions of space (and time) as concepts integral to pure mathematics and as necessary components of our intuition (§10.91). More
We’ve all seen it happen, marveled at the constancy, and even blamed the friends around us for our own personal breathing. Does this sound strange? I am talking of course about contagious yawning; this is the phenomenon that seeing someone yawn will cause you to immediately do the same. But why, and for that matter, why even yawn in the first place? More
Zombies are terrifying creatures. The most panic-inducing aspect of their completely factual existence among us is that they have a taste for human blood and they will do anything to get to it. Recently, the Zombie Research Society (ZRS) has been attempting to scan (with some difficulty due to the fact that zombies aren’t huge fans of staying still in MRIs) and create a map of the zombie brain. A leading researcher in ZRS, Dr. Bradley Voytek, lectured about these terrors at Nerd Night SF. In his presentation he gives a medical term to describe the zombie condition: “consciousness deficit hypoactivity disorder (CDHD)- the loss of rational voluntary and conscious behavior replaced by delusional/impulsive aggression, stimulus-driven attention, and the inability to coordinate motor or linguistic behaviors.” So with those messy scans and some preliminary facts we know about the living dead, researchers such as Dr. Voytek have been able to come up with multiple images of what a real zombie brain must look like. More