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
May 3, 2013
It may have been the word retrieval adventure I had the other night when I couldn’t remember the name of thinly sliced cured ham. (I nailed the “p,” but didn’t come close to conjuring up “prosciutto.”) Or it could have been the annoying pain I feel in a knuckle on my right hand these days. Probably both.
All I know is that when I read about a recent study in which scientists were able to slow down the aging process in mice, I was more than a little intrigued.
According to the researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, the key to stalling the harsh march of aging is likely deep inside your brain, specifically the almond-size section called the hypothalamus.
It has long been associated with our sense of hunger and thirst, our body temperature and feelings of fatigue. But the scientists, in the study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, say they found that by deactivating a molecule found in the hypothalamus called NF-kB, they were able to get mice to live 20 percent longer, and also show fewer physical signs of aging.
More specifically, when they blocked the substance from the hypothalamus, the animals lived up to 1,100 days, about 100 days longer than the normal limit for mice. But when they gave other mice more NF-kB, they all died within 900 days. The mice without NF-kB also had more muscle and bone, healthier skin and were better at learning.
During the study, the researchers also determined that NF-kB lowered levels of a hormone called GnRH. And when they gave the mice a daily treatment of that hormone, it too helped to extend the animals’ lives and even caused new neurons to develop in their brains.
This is where I need to raise the caveat about research with mice, namely that what works with them often doesn’t carry over to humans. Or as io9 noted, “comparing the aging processes of mice to humans is a precarious proposition at best.”
That said, the lead scientist for the study, Dongsheng Cai, says he’s excited by what the research suggests. “It supports the idea that aging is more than a passive deterioriation of different tissues,” he told The Guardian in an interview. “It is under control and can be manipulated.”
Thanks for my memory
Then there is Theodore Berger. He’s a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and he believes that one day in the not too distant future, it may be possible to use electrical implants in the brain to help people retrieve long-term memories.
So far, Berger and his research team have been able to show how a silicon chip externally connected to rat and monkey brains by electrodes can process information as actual neurons do. And last fall, the researchers demonstrated that they could help monkeys bring back long-term memories.
They focused on the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that retrieves the memories created by the hippocampus. The scientists placed electrodes in the monkeys’ brains to capture the neuron code formed in the prefrontal cortex that, the researchers believed, allowed the animals to remember an image they had been shown earlier. Then they drugged the monkeys with cocaine, which impaired activity in that part of their brains. Next they used the implanted electrodes to send electrical pulses carrying the captured code to the monkeys’ prefrontal cortex, and that, according to Berger, significantly improved the animals’ performance on a memory test.
Of course, the more you study the brain, the more complex it gets. And it’s quite possible that Berger hadn’t captured a code for how all memories are stored, but rather a code related only to the specific task of recalling an image. He says that within the next two years, he and his colleagues plan to implant a memory chip in animals, one that should, once and for all, determine if they have indeed cracked the code of creating long-term memories of many different situations and behaviors.
As he told M.I.T.’s Technology Review, ““I never thought I’d see this go into humans, and now our discussions are about when and how. I never thought I’d live to see the day, but now I think I will.”
The ticking clock
Here’s other recent research on aging and memory:
- Be still, my heart: After tracking more than 5,000 men for 40 years, Danish scientists concluded that those with high resting heart rates–above 80 beats per minute–were considerably more likely to die at a younger age, even if they were considered healthy.
- Not to mention it was a lot safer than actually having them drive: According to a study at the University of Iowa, elderly people who played a video game called “Road Tour” for as little as 10 hours, were able to measurably sharpen their cognitive skills.
- And throw in a side of olive oil: More kudos for the Mediterranean diet. A study published in the journal Neurology earlier this week found that people who followed the diet, built around eating fish, olive oil and vegetables and very little meat, were 19 percent less likely to suffer memory problems or cognitive decay.
- Although now they only dream in pink: And then there’s this report from German scientists: By having people listen to “pink noise” sounds that matched their brain wave oscillations as they slept, researchers were able to help them remember things they had learned the previous day.
- Dead and famous: Research by Australian scientists based on obituaries published in the New York Times over a two-year period found that people who were famous were more likely to die younger, particularly performers and athletes. The study also determined that performers were at a particularly high greatest risk of dying of lung cancer.
- We’re gonna need more fists: And finally, scientists at Montclair State University in New Jersey say their research shows that by clenching your right fist before memorizing something, and then your left when you want to remember it, you have a better chance of your memory coming through for you.
Video bonus: Here’s a short tutorial on why we age, told through the magic of whiteboard and markers:
Video bonus bonus: And a little visual proof that no one ages quite like a rock star.
More from Smithsonian.com
April 26, 2013
I have good news and bad news for anyone who will be looking for a job in the coming years. The good news is that some time in the future, job interviews may go away. Okay, maybe some companies will still do them for the sake of tradition, but they won’t matter all that much.
Which leads me to the bad news–Big Data is more likely to determine if you get a job. Your dazzling smile, charming personality and awesome resume may count for something, but it’s algorithms and predictive analysis that will probably seal your fate.
Here’s why. Enormously powerful computers are beginning to make sense of the massive amounts of data the world now produces, and that allows almost any kind of behavior to be quantified and correlated with other data. Statistics might show, for instance, that people who live 15 miles from work are more likely to quit their jobs within five years. Or that employees with musical skills are particularly well-suited for jobs requiring them to be multilingual. I’m making those up, but they’re not so far-fetched.
Some human resources departments have already started using companies that mine deep reserves of information to shape their hiring decisions. And they’re discovering that when computers mix and match data, conventional wisdom about what kind of person is good in a job doesn’t always hold true.
Run the numbers
Consider the findings of Evolv, a San Francisco company that’s making a name for itself through its data-driven insights. It contends, for instance, that people who fill out online job applications using a browser that they installed themselves on their PCs, such as Chrome or Firefox, perform their jobs better and change jobs less often. You might speculate that this is because the kind of person who downloads a browser other than the one that came with his or her computer, is more proactive, more resourceful.
But Evolv doesn’t speculate. It simply points out that this is what data from more than 30,000 employees strongly suggests. There’s nothing anecdotal about it; it’s based on info gleaned from ten of thousands of workers. And that’s what gives it weight.
“The heart of science is measurement,” Erik Brynjolfsson, of the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., pointed out in a recent New York Times article on what’s become known as work-force science. “We’re seeing a revolution in measurement, and it will revolutionize organizational economics and personnel economics.”
Evolv, which largely has focused its research on hourly employees, has spun from data other strands of of H.R. gold, such as:
- People who have been unemployed for a long time are, once they’re hired again, just as capable and stay on their jobs just as long as people who haven’t been out of work.
- A criminal record has long been a thick black mark for someone in the job market, but Evolv says their statistics show that a criminal background has no bearing on how an employee performs or how long they stick with a job. In fact, it has found that ex-criminals actually make better employees in call centers.
- Based on employee surveys, call center workers who are creative stay around. Those who are inquisitive don’t.
- The most reliable call center employees live near the job, have reliable transportation and use one or more social networks, but not more than four.
- Honesty matters. Data shows that people who prove to be honest on personality tests tend to stay on the job 20 to 30 percent longer than those who don’t.
And how do they gauge honesty? One technique is to ask people if they know simple keyboard shortcuts, such as control-V, which allows you to paste text. Later they’ll be asked to cut and paste text using only the keyboard to see if they were telling the truth.
It’s getting creepy
Data-driven hiring has its flaws, of course. One is that it could result in unintended discrimination against minority or older employees. Minority workers, for example, tend to travel farther to their jobs. And that could create legal problems for a company that steers clear of long-distance employees because statistics show they don’t stay in jobs as long.
Then there’s the matter of what lengths a company will go to gather data on its workers. Where will it draw the line when it comes to tracking employees’ behavior in the name of accumulating data?
“The data-gathering technology, to be sure, raises questions about the limits of worker surveillance,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The New York Times. “The larger problem here is that all these workplace metrics are being collected when you as a worker are essentially behind a one-way mirror.”
That’s a serious issue, but it’s not likely to slow the trend of replacing a boss’ gut reaction with the perceived wisdom of algorithms.
Case in point: Earlier this year eHarmony, the company that’s made its mark in online matchmaking, announced plans to tweak its algorithms and get into the business of hooking up employees and companies.
Big Data is watching
Here are other ways Big Data is having an impact:
- The roads less traveled: Delivery companies like Fedex and UPS are starting to see significant savings by using data analysis to guide drivers to less congested roads to avoid idling in traffic.
- Have phone, will travel: Scientists in Africa are using data gathered from cell phone usage to track the spread of diseases like malaria by seeing where people travel.
- Big C, meet Big D: The American Society of Clinical Oncology has launched a project to create a massive database of electronic records of cancer cases so doctors can apply analytics to determine how to best treat patients.
Video bonus: Still don’t get the whole Big Data thing. Photographer Rick Smolan shares his epiphany about it.
More from Smithsonian.com
April 15, 2013
Last fall, shoppers outside a Macy’s store in Boston were given a chance to test drive a robot. They were invited, compliments of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, to sit at a console and move the machine’s arm the same way surgeons would in an operating room.
And why not? What says cutting-edge medicine more than robotic surgery? Who wouldn’t be impressed with a hospital where robot arms, with all their precision, replace surgeons’ hands?
The surgeons, of course, control the robots on computers where everything is magnified in 3D, but the actual cutting is done by machines. And that means smaller incisions, fewer complications and faster recoveries.
But earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began surveying doctors who use the operating room robots known as the da Vinci Surgical System. The investigation was sparked by a jump in incidents involving da Vinci robots, up to 500 in 2012.
The California company that makes the da Vinci, Intuitive Surgical, says the spike has to do with a change in how incidents are reported, as opposed to problems with its robots. It’s also true that robot surgery is being done a lot more frequently–almost 370,000 procedures were done in the U.S. last year, which is three and a half times as many as in 2008.
And the procedures are getting more complicated. At first, the robots were used primarily for prostate surgeries, then for hysterectomies. Now they’re removing gall bladders, repairing heart valves, shrinking stomachs during weight loss surgery, even handling organ transplants.
Not surprisingly, FDA survey has stirred up a swirl of questions about machine medicine. Have hospitals, in their need to justify the expense of a $1.5 million robot, ratcheted up their use unnecessarily? Has Intuitive Surgical placed enough emphasis on doctors getting supervised training on the machines? And how much training is enough?
It’s not an uncommon scenario for technological innovation. A new product gets marketed aggressively to companies–in this case hospitals–and they respond enthusiastically, at least in part because they don’t want to miss out on the next big thing.
But is newer always better? A study published recently in The Journal of the American Medical Association, compared outcomes in 264,758 women who had either laparoscopic or robotically assisted hysterectomies at 441 different hospitals between 2007 and 2010. Neither method is invasive.
But the researchers found no overall difference in complication rates between the two methods, and no difference in the rates of blood transfusion. The only big difference between the two is the cost–the robotic surgery costs one-third more than laparoscopic surgery.
Then there’s the matter of loosening training standards. When the FDA allowed the da Vinci system to be sold back in 2000, it was under a process called “premarket notification.” By claiming that new devices are similar to others already on the market, manufacturers can be exempted from rigorous trials and tough requirements. In this case, Intuitive Surgical was not formally required to offer training programs for surgeons.
The company did tell the FDA that it planned to require a 70-item exam and a three-day training session for doctors. But, as a recent New York Times article noted, Intuitive changed its policy just two years later. Instead it required surgeons to pass a 10-question online quiz and spend only a day in hands-on training.
So ultimately it’s up to the hospitals to set training standards. But in their rush to embrace the future, they can be tempted to avoid being too demanding. In one 2008 case that has resulted in a lawsuit against Intuitive, a patient suffered serious complications, including impotence and incontinence, while having his prostate gland removed. The surgeon, it turned out, had never done robotic surgery without supervision before.
A researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. Martin Makary, who has previously criticized hospitals for overhyping robotic surgery on their websites, has another study coming out soon that suggests that the problems involving da Vinci robots are underreported. “The rapid adoption of robotic surgery,” he contends, “has been done, by and large, without the proper evaluation.”
Dr. David Samadi, Chief of Robotics and Minimally Invasive Surgery at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, has a different way of looking at robotic surgery: “A good driver in a Lamborghini is going to win NASCAR. But someone’s who not a a good driver in a Lamborghini…he’s going to flip the car and maybe kill himself.”
Here are some other ways robots are being used in hospitals:
- Down go the mean old germs: Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore have turned to robots to take on the superbugs that have become such a threat of spreading dangerous infections among patients. After a hospital room is sealed, the robots spend the next half hour spraying a mist of hydrogen peroxide over every surface. Other hospitals are taking a a different approach in dealing with nasty bacteria–they’re using robots that zap germs with beams of ultraviolet light.
- And you’ll be able to see your face in the scalpel: GE is developing a robot that will keep the tools of the operating room sterile and organized. Instead of relying on humans doing this by hand–clearly not the most efficient process–the robot, by recognizing unique coding on each piece of equipment, will be able to sort scalpels from clamps from scissors, sterilize them and then deliver everything to the operating room.
- Bedside manner, without the bedside part: Earlier this year the FDA approved a medical robot called RP-VITA, which was developed by iRobot and InTouch Health. The machine moves around the hospital to rooms of patients identified by the doctor. Once in a room, it connects the doctor to the patient or hospital staff through the robot’s video screen.
- The buddy system: Researchers at Columbia University found that the pain ratings of hospitalized children dropped significantly when they interacted with “therapeutic robot companions.”
Video bonus: When da Vinci is good, it’s very, very good. Here’s a video of a surgeon using one to peel a grape.
Video bonus bonus: Okay, admittedly this has nothing to do with robotic surgery, but it’s the hottest robot video on the Web right now–an impressive, yet somewhat creepy demo of Boston Dynamics’ “Petman” in camo gear.
More from Smithsonian.com