Intelligence is classically thought of as an immutable characteristic of each individual, pre-determined by genetics and permanent for a person’s entire life. But what if this is not true? It is an appealing idea to think that somehow, one can voluntarily, and naturally, boost his or her level of cognitive performance. Research has already shown that the brain is more plastic than originally thought. Parts of the hippocampus, a subcortical brain structure implicated in tasks of memory and other cognitive control functions, as well as the olfactory bulb (smell center) have been shown to generate new neurons after initial neurogenesis in the mammalian brain. These findings play into the idea that there is a way to somehow become smarter, even though you aren’t necessarily born with such cognitive gifts.
There are now apps and other computer programs that claim to improve brain function with excessive use. One of the bigger names in this field, Lumosity, runs advertisements that their brain-training program is backed by research and is “based on neuroscience.” The purpose here is not to discredit such apps like Lumosity and Brain Fit, but to take a closer look at the legitimacy of these claims of cognitive improvement, examine some actual research being done, and encourage a critical approach to a topic that popular culture REALLY wants to be true.
Do you remember telling a lie at 2, 3, or 4? Well, feel guilty no more! Lying is actually a reliable sign of higher cognitive functioning. It was previously accepted that children were able to start lying at 3.5 years and no earlier. However, a recent study by psychologist Angela Evans found that 25% of two-year olds, 50% of three-year olds, and 80% of four-year olds were capable of lies.
A research team led by Laura Matzen at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuqurque, NM has demonstrated that it is possible to predict how well people will remember information by monitoring their brain activity while studying. Matzen’s team monitored test volunteers with electroencephalography (EEG) sensors to make accurate predictions. Why bother making a prediction if the result will show how well someone remembered the information anyways? Matzen brought up this example, ”if you had someone learning new material and you were recording the EEG, you might be able to tell them, ‘You’re going to forget this, you should study this again,’ or tell them, ‘OK, you got it and go on to the next thing.” Essentially providing a real-time performance metric, the applications of which many students would appreciate. 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 all know that we should hit the gym so we can look good, marry a rich dude, and not need to do science anymore. But can dragging yourself to the gym improve your cognitive assets as well?
Recent studies show that even in normal, healthy brains, that forced exercise has effects. Rats who ran voluntarily on a wheel placed on a cage were compared with those who forced to run on a treadmill. Even though the rats who ran voluntarily ran faster, those who were forced to run on a treadmill showed more proliferation in the dentate gyrus and performed better on cognitive tests. More
Why is it wrong to kill babies? Why is it wrong to take advantage of mentally retarded people? To lie with the intention of cheating someone? To steal, especially from poor people? Is it possible that Medieval European society was wrong to burn women suspected of witchcraft? Or did they save mankind from impending doom by doing so? Is it wrong to kick rocks when you’re in a bad mood?
Questions of right and wrong, such as these, have for millenia been answered by religious authorities who refer to the Bible for guidance. While the vast majority of people still turn to Abrahamic religious texts for moral guidance, there are some other options for developing a moral code. Bibles aside, we can use our “natural” sense of what’s right and wrong to guide our actions; a code based on the natural sense would come from empirical studies on what most people consider to be right or wrong. Ignoring the logistics of creating such as code, we should note that the rules in this code would not have any reasoning behind them other than “we should do this because this is what comes naturally.” How does that sound? Pretty stupid.
The other option is to develop a moral code based on some subjective metaphysical ideas, with a heavy backing of empirical facts. “Subjective” means these ideas won’t have an undeniability to them; they are what they are and that’s it. Take as an example the rule such as “we should not kill babies.” There is no objective, scientific reason why we shouldn’t kill babies. Wait!, you say, killing babies is wrong because it harms the proliferation of our species and inflicts pain on the mothers and the babies themselves! But why should we care about the proliferation of our species? About hurting some mother or her baby? While no one will deny that we should care about these, there is nothing scientific that will explain why. Science may give us a neurological reason why we care about species proliferation (it will go something like, “there is a brain region that makes us care about proliferation of our species.”), but why should we be limited to what our brains tend to make us think or do?
Subjective rules like these must therefore be agreed upon with the understanding that they are subject to change. Interestingly, some argue that science can answer moral questions because it can show us what “well-being” is, how we can get it, etc. But the scientific reason why we should care about well-being is nowhere to be found. The result is that we can use science to answer moral questions, but we have to first agree (subjectively) that we want well-being. Science by itself cannot answer moral questions because it shows us what is rather than what ought to be. (Actually, Sam Harris is the only one to argue that science can be an authority on moral issues; his technical faux-pas is an embarrassment to those who advocate “reason” in conduct).
But more on the idea of metaphysically constructed moral codes. What properties should this code have, and how should we go about synthesizing it? Having one fixed/rigid source as an authority for moral guidance is dangerous. Make no mistake: there must be some authority on moral questions, but it must be flexible, and adaptable; it must be able to stand the test of time on the one hand, but to be able to adjust to novel conditions on the other. This sounds a lot like the constitution of the U.S. But even with such a document as The Constitution, which has provided unity and civil progress since the country’s founding, there are some who take its words literally and allow no further interpretation; if it’s not written in the constitution, it can’t be in the law, they argue (see Strict Constructionism versus Judicial Activism). These folks also tend to be rather religious (read: they spend a lot of time listening to stories from the Bible; not to be confused with “spiritual” or of religions other than the Abrahamic ones). So while we must have a moral code, it must be flexible (i.e. change with time) and we must seek a balance between literal and imaginative interpretations, just as we do with the US Constitution.
Why and how is a rigid moral authority dangerous? Our authority must change with time because new developments in our understanding of the world must update how we interact with others. For example, if science finds tomorrow that most animals have a brain part that allows them to feel emotional pain in the same way that humans do, we will have to treat them with more empathy; research on dolphin cognition has recently produced an effort by scientists to have dolphins be considered and treated as nonhuman persons. Furthermore, if we don’t explain why we do certain things, we won’t understand why we do them and therefore won’t know why violating them is bad. This unquestionability aspect of God as moral authority or the Strict Constructionists as law-makers is what makes them particularly dangerous and leads to prejudice and ignorance. Our moral code must therefore be based on empirical research, with every rule being subject to intense scrutiny (think of two-year-olds who keep asking, “but why?”).
But why should we have a moral code in the first place? Perhaps if everyone followed a moral code of some sort, the world would have fewer injustices and atrocities. Getting people to follow a moral code of any kind is a completely different issue.
If I told you that a theater company and a medical school collaborated to produce one of the best plays of the year, would you believe me?
Probably not, because this is not the case. However, this unlikely partnership of industries did produce a substantial therapeutic program for people who are currently suffering the cognitive deficits associated with dementia.
Based on the theory of cognitive reserve - or the brain’s resilience to neuropathological damage – it is widely hypothesized that creative and interactive activities, such as painting, singing, and acting, would help patients maintain their cognitive functions for as long as possible.
With this hypothesis and the guidance of the Lookingglass Theater Company, the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University formed the first-ever “Memory Ensemble.” The cast included six elderly patients suffering from early stages of memory loss, a common symptom attributable to various types of dementia.
Quoted as “one of the first-of-its-kind,” the directors of this production sought to design a program that would improve the quality of life for these patients by setting up a safe and supportive environment. With the serene scene set, patients were encouraged to express every emotion and/or words associated with their neurological deficits to help them alleviate any pains or questions of uncertainty accompanied by these disorders.
As a part of a seven week pilot study, the ensemble would meet and participate in various cognitive activities, including an impromptu-style of acting that actively engaged the patients both physically and mentally. As a baseline measure, metaphor-based warm-up exercises prompted the patients to choose a color that symbolizes their current emotional state. Prior to their regularly scheduled regime, the patient’s reports ranged from a happy sunny yellow to a melancholy blue. Nevertheless, after a stretching routine, body-sculpting exercises portraying various feelings, and an active discussion of the hardships involved with their disorders, all of the patients were quick to describe their emotional state at the end of the workshop as a happy yellow.
Although these patients verbally reported an improvement in their quality of life within the given time period, it was noted that this qualitative research study could not quantitatively provide evidence in support of their hypothesis. Thus, a lack of evidence from this study could be detrimental to implementing this therapeutic program in hospitals across the US simply because of the lack of funding.
Though not discussed in this article, pre- and post-study fMRI scans and intermittent neuropsychological tests could provide quantitative insight on whether or not such a therapeutic program significantly contributes to the patient’s cognitive reserve. Pre- and post-study fMRI scans of the patients performing these neuropsychological tests can be compared to control subjects, as well as across-patients and within-patients, in order to identify the statistical differences between the patterns of activity associated with each task. Other measures, such as reaction time, can also be recorded to correlate with the patients behavioral performance to provide more information and insight on whether or not this is an effective prevention program.
Despite this predicament, I must say that I am very impressed and optimistic about this new style of therapy because it helps the patient positively cope with such a disastrous and unfortunate mental disorder. In the future, I hope that quantitative measures, as discussed before, will be implemented to help facilitate and disambiguate the uncertainty pertaining to dementia-related research.
Cognitive Reserve – Dr. Yaakov Stern (2009) - Neuropsychologia (PDF)
As my good friend Cobb once told me, “Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”
OK, fine, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from Inception isn’t real, but he does make a valid point. Oneirologists, those who study dreams, have traditionally viewed dreams as uncontrollable streams of sounds and images with the ability to induce a tremendous spectrum of emotion. However, the idea of lucid dreaming has caused the conventional understanding of dreams to collapse. A “lucid dream,” terminology coined by the Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden, is one in which the sleeper is aware that he or she is dreaming. This example of dissociation is wonderfully paradoxical in that it exhibits components of both waking and dreaming consciousness.
An American psychiatrist and dream researcher named Allan Hobson specializes in the quantification of mental events and their corresponding brain activities. Although he vehemently dismisses the idea of hidden meanings in dreams, he has embarked on a search along with other neurobiologists and cognitive scientists to decipher the neurological basis of consciousness. Hobson hypothesizes that subjects may learn to become lucid, self-awaken, and regulate plot control by intercalating voluntary decisions into the involuntary nature of the dream.
The validation of this idea would imply that the mind is capable of experiencing a waking and a dreaming state at the same time. Consequently, Hobson states, “…it may be possible to measure the physiological correlates of three conscious states, waking, non-lucid dreaming, and lucid dreaming in the laboratory.” If there is a psychological distinction between the three, there should also be a physiological difference.
The advent of lucid dreaming experimentation has not only benefitted Hollywood, but it has also provided possible treatment options for those hindered by frequent nightmares or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Methodologically speaking, the study of lucid dreaming presents a formidable challenge, but it is becoming an important component of the cognitive neurosciences.
Josefin Gavie and Antti Revonsuo have built on Hobson’s theories by proposing a technique termed lucid dreaming treatment (LDT). The key to this treatment is that the subject learns how to identify cues that facilitate lucidity during a dream, and the subject learns to manipulate the environment once lucidity is attained. The phenomenon of lucidity may prove to be a useful device in that it offers the sleeper a method to control components of the dream – altering and diminishing any threatening situation. Although the investigation of LDT is extremely new and incontestably controversial, it has shown promising preliminary results in its ability to lower the frequency of nightmares in the selected subjects.
The premise of the film Inception may be wildly hypothetical, but it has expertly amplified the current research on lucid dreams. However, researchers in the field should take a word of advice from the character of Eames: “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”
The Neurobiology of Consciousness: Lucid Dreaming Wakes Up – J. Allan Hobson
The Future of Lucid Dreaming Treatment (PDF) – Josefin Gavie and Antti Revonsuo