June 21, 2013
For a long time, memories were thought of as the biochemical equivalent of 3 x 5 cards kept in a file cabinet. And the words on the cards were written in ink, scientists thought, because, once created and stored in the brain, a memory didn’t change. It might be vivid, but it was static, as fixed as a photograph of a remembered moment.
But in recent years, that theory has been flipped on its head. Now, leaders in memory research don’t think that’s the way the mind works at all. Instead, they’ve come to believe that memories actually are fluid things, subject to alteration every time they’re retrieved. When a long-term memory is recalled, it becomes temporarily fungible and goes through a rebuilding process known as reconsolidation. Which suggests that memories, even terrible ones, can be changed during that period when they’re once again unstable.
Several studies published last fall reinforced this notion. One, from researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden, found that a fear memory could be neutralized if the reconsolidation process is disrupted before the memory can solidify. Another, carried out by scientists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, concluded that even if a memory isn’t truly erased, it can be made to feel less personal or painful.
Changing the story
The latest evidence that memories can be manipulated came in a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Without using drugs, electroshock or any other invasive procedure, two researchers at Iowa State University, Jason Chan and Jessica LaPaglia were able to tamper with the memories of their study subjects.
Here’s how they did it. They asked those participating in the study to watch an episode of the old TV drama “24.” One of its more evocative scenes showed a terrorist on an airplane jabbing a flight attendant with a hypodermic needle to knock her out. A bit later, some of those in the study were given a quiz about what they had watched, the goal of which was to make them retrieve their memories of the show.
As their reconsolidation process began, however, they were asked to listen to an eight-minute audio recap of the program–except that several of the facts were inaccurate. For instance, they were told that the terrorist had used a stun gun, not a hypodermic needle to disable the flight attendant. When they were retested later, only 17 percent of the people in that group correctly identified the needle as the weapon of choice.
Meanwhile, 42 percent of another group got the weapon question right when they took the same test. They, too, had listened to the recap with the bogus information. But they hadn’t taken the first test the other group had; instead they played a computer game.
So why did people in the first group have such serious recall problems when they retook the test?
Chan and LaPaglia believe that by taking a test after watching the show, those subjects were forced to retrieve their memories of it, and it was during the rebuilding process that they heard the audio recap. And, the thinking goes, that’s what caused their temporarily vulnerable memories to muddle the story.
Chan noted that there are several key factors in reshaping memories. First, the disruption needs to happen soon after the memory is called up–for now, scientists seem to have settled on a six-hour window. Wait much longer and the changes don’t take. Also, any alterations need to fit into the context of the original memory. If they don’t make sense in the story that structures the memory, they’re not likely to have much effect in changing it.
This is a pretty dramatic shift from the old file cabinet notion. To appreciate how far thinking on the subject has evolved, consider the perspective of Daniela Schiller, one of the world’s leading memory researchers. “My conclusion,” she says, “is that memory is what you are now. Not in pictures, not in recordings.
“Your memory is who you are now.”
You must remember this
Here are more conclusions scientists have made about memories in the past few months:
- Side effects may include memories of bad breakups: According to a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, people who take the sleep drug Ambien are more likely to remember bad memories. The human brain is built to remember negative memories more clearly than pleasant ones, says University of California Riverside researcher Sara Mednick, and her study found that Ambien seemed to ratchet up this tendency.
- My memory told me about people like you: Scientists at Harvard have found more evidence that memories of the past play a big part in how we predict how other people will behave in the future. The study reinforces the belief that memory is closely linked with imagination and is a tool used by the brain to weave past experience into thoughts about the future. Which could explain why people with memory problems, such as amnesiacs or the elderly, often struggle to envision the future.
- Unfortunately, they also started leaving the toilet seat up: While one recent study supported the belief that women suffer some memory loss during menopause, another one, presented earlier this week at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in San Francisco, determined that postmenopausal women had sharper memories after they had a testosterone gel rubbed into their skin. This is potentially big news since there currently is no effective treatment to prevent memory loss in women, who are at higher risk of dementia than men.
- They even remember the blank look on men’s faces: Two more studies found that women overall have better memories than men. The first study, from McMaster University in Canada, found that women tend to focus on the eyes, nose and mouth of someone they just met and, as a result, are better at remembering faces than men. The second study, done at Cornell, concluded that women are also better at remembering past events than men. The key, according to the researchers, is that women focus more on relationships and social interactions when recording an event in their mind and that enables them to retrieve more details about it later.
- Don’t forget to brush your teeth: It turns out that the fewer teeth you have, the greater your chances of losing memory. So says a new study published in the European Journal of Oral Sciences, which offered a few possible explanations for the tooth loss/brain decline connection. One is that reduced sensory input from our teeth results in fewer signals to our brain. Another is that chewing increases blood flow to the brain, and if you can’t chew, you can’t get the flow going.
Video bonus: Daniela Schiller talks about her memory research and what her father’s refusal to talk about the Holocaust had to do with it.
Video bonus bonus: And a little slice of how Hollywood views memory-erasing: Jim Carrey turns to “science” to literally get Kate Winslett out of his mind in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
More from Smithsonian.com
June 14, 2013
I like Father’s Day as much as the next father, but face it–it is and always will be a Mother’s Day wannabe. Sure, everyone loves Dad, in that quick man-hug way, but they gush over Mom. Mother’s Day became an official U.S. holiday in 1914; it took almost another 50 years before we got around to formally celebrating that other parent.
Just a few weeks ago, there was much ado and even spasms of outcry over the Pew survey reporting that in 40 percent of American households, the mother is now the sole or primary breadwinner. Meanwhile, an earlier report that the number of stay-at-home dad has doubled in the past 10 years stirred nary a ripple. So it goes.
Fortunately, there are scientists out there who still consider fathers a subject meriting further investigation. Here are 10 studies of dads that have been published since last Father’s Day.
1) And just when you’d mastered “Cause I said so”: Recent research suggests that it’s a good idea for dads to ask for feedback on what kind of job they’re doing. The reason, says San Francisco State psychology professor Jeff Cookston, is that kids, particularly teenagers, can read a father’s actions differently than how it was meant. Explains Cookston: “You may think that you’re being a good parent by not being harsh on your kid, for instance, but your child may view that as ‘you’re not invested in me, you’re not trying.’” The study also found that girls tend to attribute a father’s good deeds to his “enduring aspects,” whereas boys are more likely to see them as being tied to specific situations.
2) Like father, like daughter: Dads who are open-minded about sexual roles are more likely to raise more ambitious daughters. So concludes a University of British Columbia study, which found that the fewer gender stereotypes a father holds, the more likely his daughters will want to develop professional careers.
3) Testosterone is so overrated: A Notre Dame study published last fall claimed to find a correlation between how close a father slept to his children and his testosterone level. It concluded that those dads who slept nearer to where his kids slept tended to have a lower testosterone level than those dads who slept farther away. Previous research has found that dads with higher testosterone levels tend to be less engaged with their kids.
4) My stress is your stress: It’s only been found to occur in mice so far, but scientists at the University of Pennsylvania say that stress that a father experiences during his lifetime, even in his youth, can be passed on to his children in a way that affects how they respond to stress. The father’s stressful experience apparently leaves a genetic marker in his sperm that can cause his children to have low reactivity to stress, which may sound like a good thing to inherit from the dear old dad, but actually can lead to emotional disorders.
5) Thanks Dad, you shouldn’t have: While we’re on the subject of mouse fathers, another study, this one from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, determined that mouse sons with less affectionate fathers tended to be equally distant from their own children, suggesting that paternal behavior can be passed from fathers to sons across multiple generations.
6) What a little shot of love can do: Not only does a little dose of oxytocin help fathers become more engaged with their babies, it also makes the kids more responsive. So contends a study at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, which reported that after the dads were given a hit of the so-called love hormone, they were more likely to touch and seek out the gaze of their child. And the baby’s own oxytocin level rose in response.
7) Ripple effects: Research at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom found that girls whose fathers weren’t around the first five years of their lives were more likely to struggle with depression when they were teenagers. Other studies have shown that the stronger negative impact of an absent father on the mental health of teenage girls could be because girls are more vulnerable to negative family events.
8) And now a word about happy teenagers: The more time teenagers spend alone with their dads, the higher their self-esteem, a 2012 Penn State study reported. It also concluded that the more time they spend with their fathers in a group setting, the better their social skills. The researchers didn’t see the same impact from one-on-one time with moms and speculated that it might be because fathers who choose to do things alone with their kids “go beyond social expectations to devote undivided attention to them.”
9) Everyone’s a winner: According to research at the University of Houston, fathers who are more physically engaged with their children—they play with them, they read to them–are less likely to be depressed or stressed. Which, according to the researchers, reinforces the notion that a father being active in his children’s lives isn’t just good for the kids.
10) Surely you don’t mean Homer Simpson: The portrayal of dads on TV and in books as “feckless,” and “incompetent” and little more than “sperm donors” is damaging children’s perceptions of fatherhood, says a study commissioned by the British parenting site, Netmums.com. Almost half of those surveyed agreed that cartoons, in particular, show dads as “lazy or stupid.” Said Netmums founder Siobhan Freegard: “The type of jokes aimed at dads would be banned if they were aimed at women, ethnic minorities or religious groups.”
So cut us a break. At least for a day.
Video bonus: Luke and Darth share a Lego’s Father’s Day.
Video bonus bonus: Dads as hip-hoppers get real about being fathers. Don’t call them feckless.
More from Smithsonian.com
May 22, 2013
As much time as we spend with our cell phones and laptops and tablets, it’s still pretty much a one-way relationship. We act, they respond. Sure, you can carry on a conversation with Siri on your iPhone, and while she is quick, it hardly qualifies as playful bantering. You ask questions, she gives answers.
But what if these devices could really read our emotions? What if they could interpret every little gesture, every facial cue so that they can gauge our feelings as well as–maybe better than–our best friends? And then they respond, not with information, but what might pass for empathy.
We’re not there yet, but we’re quickly moving in that direction, driven by a field of science known as affective computing. It’s built around software that can measure, interpret and react to human feelings. This might involve capturing your face on camera and then applying algorithms to every aspect of your expressions to try to make sense of each smirk and chin rub. Or it might involve reading your level of annoyance or pleasure by tracking how fast or with how much force you tap out a text or whether you use emoticons. And if you seem too agitated–or drunk–you could get a message suggesting that you might want to hold off pressing the send icon.
Seeing how difficult it is for us humans to make sense of other humans, this notion of programming machines to read our feelings is no small challenge. But it’s picking up speed, as scientists sharpen their focus on teaching devices emotional intelligence.
Every move you make
One of the better examples of how affective computing can work is the approach of a company called, appropriately, Affectiva. It records expressions and then, using proprietary algorithms, scrutinizes facial cues, tapping into a database of almost 300 million frames of elements of human faces. The software has been refined to the point where it can associate various combinations of those elements with different emotions.
When it was developed at M.I.T’s Media Lab by two scientists, Rosalind Picard and Rana el Kaliouby, the software, known as Affdex, was designed with the purpose of helping autistic children communicate better. But it clearly had loads of potential in the business world, and so M.I.T. spun the project off into a private company. It has since raised $21 million from investors.
So how is Affdex being used? Most often, it’s watching people watching commercials. it records people as they view ads on their computers–don’t worry, you need to opt in for this–and then, based on its database of facial cues, evaluates how the viewers feel about what they’ve seen. And the software doesn’t provide just an overall positive or negative verdict; it breaks down the viewers’ reactions second by second, which enables advertisers to identify, with more precision than ever before, what works in a commercial and what doesn’t.
It also is able to see that while people say one thing, their faces can say another. During an interview with the Huffington Post, el Kaliouby gave the example of the response to an ad for body lotion that aired in India. During the commercial, a husband playfully touches his wife’s exposed stomach. Afterwards, a number of women who had watched it said they found that scene offensive. But, according to el Kaliouby, the videos of the viewers showed that every one of the women responded to the scene with what she called an “enjoyment smile.”
She sees opportunities beyond the world of advertising. Smart TVs could be that much smarter about what kind of programs we like if they’re able to develop a memory bank of our facial expressions. And politicians would be able to get real-time reactions to each line they utter during a debate and be able to adapt their messages on the fly. Plus, says el Kaliouby, there could be health applications. She says it’s possible to read a person’s heart rate with a webcam by analyzing the blood flow in his or her face.
“Imagine having a camera on all the time monitoring your heart rate,” she told the Huffington Post, “so that it can tell you if something’s wrong, if you need to get more fit, or if you’re furrowing your brow all the time and need to relax.”
So what do you think, creepy or cool?
Here are five other ways machines are reacting to human emotions:
- And how was my day?: Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed an Android mobile app that monitors a person’s behavior throughout the day, using incoming calls and texts, plus social media posts to track their mood. The app, called “Emotion Sense,” is designed to create a “journey of discovery,” allowing users to have a digital record of the peaks and valleys of their daily lives. The data can be stored and used for therapy sessions.
- And this is me after the third cup of coffee: Then there’s Xpression, another mood-tracking app created by a British company called EI Technologies. Instead of relying on people in therapy to keep diaries of their mood shifts, the app listens for changes in a person’s voice to determine if they are in one of five emotional states: calm, happy, sad, angry or anxious/frightened. It then keeps a list of a person’s moods and when they change. And, if the person desires, this record can automatically be sent to a therapist at the end of every day.
- What if you just hate typing on a phone? : Scientists at Samsung are working on software that will gauge your frame of mind by how you type out your tweets on your smartphone. By analyzing how fast you type, how much the phone shakes, how often you backspace mistakes, and how many emoticons you use, the phone should be able to determine if you’re angry, surprised, happy, sad, fearful, or disgusted. And based on what conclusion it draws, it could include with your tweet the appropriate emoticon to tip off your followers to your state of mind.
- Just don’t invite your friends over to watch: Using a sensor worn on the wrist and a smartphone camera worn around the neck, researchers at M.I.T. have created a “lifelogging” system that collects images and data designed to show a person which events represented their emotional highs and lows. The system, called Inside-Out, includes a bio-sensor in a wristband that tracks heightened emotions through electrical charges in the skin while the smartphone tracks the person’s location and takes several photos a minute. Then, at the end of the day, the user can view their experiences, along with all the sensor data.
- Your brow says you have issues: This probably was inevitable. Researchers at the University of Southern California have created a robotic therapist that not only is programmed to encourage patients with well-timed “Uh-huhs,” but also is expert, using motion sensors and voice analysis, at interpreting a patient’s every gesture and voice inflection during a therapy session.
Video bonus: Want to see how bizarre this trend of devices reading human emotions can get? Check out this promotion of Tailly, a mechanical tail that picks up your level of excitement by tracking your heart rate and then wags appropriately.
More from Smithsonian.com
May 17, 2013
When art meets neuroscience, strange things happen.
Consider the Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art in Oregon which features rugs and knitting based on a brain scan motif. Or the neuroscientist at the University of Nevada-Reno who scanned the brain of a portrait artist while he drew a picture of a face.
And then there’s the ongoing war of words between scientists who think it’s possible to use analysis of brain activity to define beauty–or even art–and their critics who argue that it’s absurd to try to make sense of something so interpretive and contextual by tying it to biology and the behavior of neurons.
Beauty and the brain
On one side you have the likes of Semir Zeki, who heads a research center called the Institute of Neuroesthetics at London’s University College. A few years ago he started studying what happens in a person’s brain when they look at a painting or listen to a piece of music they find beautiful. He looked at the flip side, too–what goes on in there when something strikes us as ugly.
What he found is that when his study’s subjects experienced a piece of art or music they described as beautiful, their medial orbito-frontal cortex–the part of the brain just behind the eyes–”lit up” in brain scans. Art they found ugly stimulated their motor cortex instead. Zeki also discovered that whether the beauty came through their ears, in music, or their eyes, in art, the brain’s response was the same–it had increased blood flow to what’s known as its pleasure center. Beauty gave the brains a dopamine reward.
Zeki doesn’t go so far as to suggest that the essence of art can be captured in a brain scan. He insists his research really isn’t about explaining what art is, but rather what our neurons’ response to it can tell us about how brains work. But if, in the process, we learn about common characteristics in things our brains find beautiful, his thinking goes, what harm is there in that?
Beware of brain rules?
Plenty, potentially, responds the critics’ chorus. Writing recently in the journal Nature, Philip Ball makes the point that this line of research ultimately could lead to rule-making about beauty, to “creating criteria of right or wrong, either in the art itself or in individual reactions to it.” It conceivably could devolve to “scientific” formulas for beauty, guidelines for what, in music or art or literature, gets the dopamine flowing.
Although it is worth knowing that musical ‘chills’ are neurologically akin to the responses invoked by sex or drugs, an approach that cannot distinguish Bach from barbiturates is surely limited.
Others, such as University of California philosophy professor Alva Noe, suggest that to this point at least, brain science is too limiting in what it can reveal, that it focuses more on beauty as shaped by people’s preferences, as opposed to addressing the big questions, such as “Why does art move us?” and “Why does art matter?”
And he wonders if a science built around analyzing events in an individual’s brain can ever answer them. As he wrote in the New York Times:
…there can be nothing like a settled, once-and-for-all account of what art is, just as there can be no all-purpose account of what happens when people communicate or when they laugh together. Art, even for those who make it and love it, is always a question, a problem for itself. What is art? The question must arise, but it allows no definitive answer.
Fad or fortune?
So what of neuroaesthetics? Is it just another part of the “neuro” wave, where brain scans are being billed as neurological Rosetta Stones that proponents claim can explain or even predict behavior–from who’s likely to commit crimes to why people make financial decisions to who’s going to gain weight in the next six months.
More jaded souls have suggested that neuroaesthetics and its bulky cousin, neurohumanities, are attempts to capture enough scientific sheen to attract research money back to liberal arts. Alissa Quart, writing in The Nation earlier this month, cut to the chase:
Neurohumanities offers a way to tap the popular enthusiasm for science and, in part, gin up more funding for humanities. It may also be a bid to give more authority to disciplines that are more qualitative and thus are construed, in today’s scientized and digitalized world, as less desirable or powerful.
Samir Zeki, of course, believes this is about much more than research grants. He really isn’t sure where neuroaesthetics will lead, but he’s convinced that only by “understanding the neural laws,” as he puts it, can we begin to make sense of morality, religion and yes, art.
Here’s some of the latest news about brain scans:
- I see your pain: A study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that scientists were not only able to “see” pain on brain scans, but also could measure its intensity and tell if a drug was helping to ease it.
- Don’t blame me, it’s my brain that hates calculus: A research team at Stanford University School of Medicine concluded that the size and connectivity of a child’s hippocampus, a brain area that is important for memory, is the key factor in how quickly he or she can learn math.
- There lies madness Researchers at Cambridge University in the U.K. say they will scan the brains of 300 teenagers and track how their brains evolve as they age. One thing the scientists want to see is how the brain’s wiring changes as teenagers become less impulsive.
- Trouble brewing: Brain scans may even be able to help detect if a recovering alcoholic is about to fall off the wagon. A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry contends that alcoholics with abnormal activity in areas of the brain that control emotions and desires are eight times more likely to relapse and start drink heavily.
- Robots are people, too: And finally, German researchers say that based on their analysis of brain scans of subjects in a study, people reacted just as strongly to scenes of robots being treated kindly or being abused as they did to humans getting the same treatments.
Video bonus: Samir Zeki explains, in this TED talk, why he’s sure beauty is in the brain of the beholder.
Video bonus bonus: Brain scans can be funny, in a bizarre Japanese humor kind of way. And no, I have no idea why the men in this video are all dressed as female nurses.
More from Smithsonian.com
May 10, 2013
To be honest, I’ve never associated motherhood with science. I assume this has everything to do with the fact that I’m one of eight kids, and while I’m sure we were a study in chaos theory, my mother didn’t have much time to nail the concept and work it into bedtime stories.
That said, moms remain a subject of scientific inquiry because, no matter how constant they may seem to us, they’re always changing to keep up with the times.
Here then are 10 recent studies or surveys that give a bit more insight into the institution of 21st century moms.
1) Have I got a story for you: According to a study published recently in the journal Sex Roles, moms are better than dads at telling stories and reminiscing with their kids, and that helps children develop their emotional skills. The researchers observed that moms tended to include more emotional terms in their stories and were more likely to then explain them to their children.
2) But how many of the answers were “Because I said so”: A survey of 1,000 moms in the United Kingdom found that the typical mother answers up to 300 questions a day from their kids. Four-year-old girls are the most inquisitive, averaging a fresh question about every two minutes. The most questions are asked during meals–an average of 11–followed by shopping trips–10 questions–and bedtime–nine questions.
3) That magic touch: The skin-to-skin touch of a mother can make a big difference in helping preemies or other at-risk babies deal with the pain and stress of injections. Researchers determined that the touch of a father or an unrelated women can also help lower the stress of an at-risk baby, but neither had quite the soothing effect of physical contact with the child’s mother.
4) Even mom spit is special: A recent article in the journal Pediatrics recommended that mothers clean off their child’s pacifier by putting it in their own mouths. That’s right. What the researchers found is that infants whose mothers sucked on their pacifiers to clean them developed fewer allergies than children whose mothers rinsed or boiled the pacifiers. The children of moms who gave pacifiers a mouth rinse also had lower rates of eczema, fewer signs of asthma and smaller amounts of a type of white blood cell that rises in response to allergies and other disorders. The findings are in line with the growing evidence that some exposure to germs at a young age can be good for kids.
5) Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work I go: About 40 percent of working mothers in the U.S. now say the ideal situation for them would be to work full time. That’s according to the latest research on the matter from the Pew Research Center. It’s almost twice as many who felt that way in 2007, when 21 percent of the women surveyed said that would be their preference. The researchers speculated that this is probably a reflection of tough economic times. But working part time is still the top choice among working women, although the percentage of women who said that would be the best situation for them dropped from 60 percent in 2007 to 50 percent in the most recent survey.
6) Don’t do what I do: Just as moms generally can do more good for their kids than dads, they also apparently can do more harm. A 34-year study by the British think tank Demos found that the alcohol drinking habits of mothers can have the greatest impact on how their children consume alcohol. While at age 16, a child’s drinking behavior was greatly influenced by peers, the researchers found that that changed as children reached maturity. Then, the scientists more often discovered clear connections between alcohol consumption–particularly binge drinking–and childhood memories of how their mothers would drink.
7) Crouching tiger, failing children: So much for the power of Tiger Moms, the stereotypical demanding Asian mother depicted in the much-debated Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in 2011. A University of Texas professor named Su Yeong Kim, who had been following more than 300 Asian-American families for a decade, recently published her findings. What she observed didn’t quite match the stereotype. Children of parents whom Kim classified as “tiger” had lower academic achievement–and more psychological problems–than the kids of parents characterized as “supportive” or “easygoing.”
8) Even in utero we know to take a vowel: According to a joint study of newborns in Washington State and in Stockholm, babies start learning language from their moms even before they leave the womb. The scientists said their research showed that the infants began locking on to the vowel sounds of their mothers before they were born. How did they know that? They studied 40 infants, all about 30 hours old, and they found that the babies–who were played vowel sounds in foreign languages and the language of their mothers–consistently sucked longer on pacifiers when they heard sounds different from the ones they had heard in utero.
9) Sure, but you’d know nothing about Legos without us: Judging by a bit of research done in Finland, boys, at least in times past, could take almost nine months off a mother’s life, compared to girls. The Finnish scientists analyzed the post-childbirth survival rates of 11,166 mothers and 6,360 fathers in pre-industrial Finland, between the 17th and 20th centuries. And they found that a mother who bore six sons would live on average another 32.4 years after the youngest son’s birth, while a mother who gave birth to girls would live approximately 33.1 years after her youngest daughter came along. The shorter life expectancy was the same regardless of the mom’s social or financial status. The researchers surmised that not only was bearing boys more physically demanding for the mothers, but also that daughters were more likely to prolong their mothers’ lives by helping with household responsibilities.
10) Putting it in words: And finally…this probably shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but a study just published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that caveman didn’t just grunt, but actually had a decent little vocabulary that included the equivalent of words for ‘thou’, ‘you’, ‘we,’ ‘bark,’ ‘fire,’ ‘spit’ and yes, ‘mother.’
More from Smithsonian.com