Understanding Hierarchy

Understanding hierarchy by Wendy IngorvaiaNew research is now starting to explain why so many biological networks, including the human brain, exhibit a hierarchical structure, which will help improve attempts to create artificial intelligence.  This is demonstrated by showing that the evolution of hierarchy, or a simple system of ranking, in biological networks may arise due to the costs associated with network connections.  Like large businesses, many biological networks are organized hierarchically, such as gene, protein, neural and metabolic networks.  This means that they have seaparate units that can be divided and made even smaller.

Yet why is it that so many biological networks evolve to be hierarchical?  The results of this study suggest that it evolves because hierarchically wired networks have fewer connections; biological networks are expensive, so there’s an evolutionary pressure to reduce the number of connections.  As well as shedding light on the emergence of hierarchy, these findings could also accelerate future research into evolving more complex, intelligent computational brains in AI and robotics.  The researchers, from the University of Wyoming and INRIA, stimulated the evolution of computational brain models both with and without a cost for network connections, and discovered that hierarchical structures emerge much more frequently when a cost for connections is present.

For over a decade, the authors say, they have been working to understand why it is that networks evolve to have the properties of modularity, hierarchy and regularity, and with these results they’ve since uncovered evolutionary drivers for each of these properties.  These findings not only explain why biological networks are hierarchical, but also why many human-made systems such as the road and Internet are as well.  

The next step, the researchers say, is to harness and combine this knowledge in an effort to evolve large-scale, structurally organized networks to create better artificial intelligence and increase their understanding of the evolution of animal intelligence.  

If you’d like to learn more, you can click here!

Psychological Effects and Finance

Psychological effects and finance by Wendy IngorvaiaHumans are emotional creatures that are often drawn to ugly actions, even when we know they’re bad for us and we should be doing something else.  A large part of becoming a better person and managing your own life (as well as your finances) involves reducing this emotional behavior.  The first step to doing that is to understand your blind spots and recognize those tendencies that could be hurting you.  There are various behavioral phenomena you should be aware of to more effectively control your actions and protect yourself from those that might try and exploit you.  I recently came across an article that shares some ways you can overcome these challenges, listed below:

The Diderot effect: When you buy a new house, you often have the urge to spend money on it: more furniture, a new paint job, etc, since your old items don’t seem to measure up anymore.  This can also occur when you buy a new shirt and feel the need to buy new shoes as well to create an outfit.  This is known as the Diderot effect, where the introduction of a new possession can result in buying more.  To stop this, develop a responsible plan to pay yourself first and save for emergencies.  This will create a positive environment of “forced security” that can stop you from wasting money.

The Zeigarnik effect: The Zeigarnik effect is a psychological tendency to dwell on an uncompleted task rather than one that’s been completed.  This can be tied into your financial life  as well; there are many issues that need to be addressed, but people often fail to set up a basic financial plan, leading to a huge amount of stress that can paralyze you into inactivity.  As unpleasant as addressing these issues with loved ones can be, it will ultimately offer you more relief.  However, it does take effort to address basic financial issues proactively.
The Pareto principle: Also known as the 80/20 rule, about 20 percent of things are vital, and 80 percent are trivial.  For example, just 80 percent of a company’s revenue could be coming from just 20 percent of its customers.  This can also relate to many areas of your personal and financial life.  Think about how you apply your energy and financial resources; the typical person could set themselves up for a successful retirement if they could allocate just 20 percent of their income to saving for the future.  

Remembering to Forget

Remembering to Forget by Wendy IngorvaiaContext plays a huge part in our memories, whether those are good or bad.  For some people,a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs can remind them of their grandmother’s home cooking, while for others it can remind them of when their boyfriend took them to an Italian restaurant to break up with them.  However, a recent brain scanning study led by Dartmouth and Princeton has shown that people can intentionally forget past experiences by changing how they think about the context of those memories.  These findings have a range of potential applications centered on enhancing memories, such as developing new educational tools and treating PTSD.

As long ago as ancient Greece, memory theorists have known that we use context to organize and retrieve our memories.  Yet this team wanted to know whether and how people can intentionally forget past experiences.  To do this, they designed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment to specifically track thoughts related to the contexts of memories and put a new twist on the old research technique of having subjects memorize and recall a list of unrelated words.  In this new study, researchers showed participants images of outdoor scenes as they studied two lists of random words, manipulating whether they were told to forget or remember the first list before studying the second list.  The researchers hoped that the scene images would bias the contextual thoughts people had as they studied the words to include scene-related thoughts.  fMRI allowed them to track how much people were thinking of scene-related things at each moment during the experiment.

The study’s participants were told to either forget or remember the random words presented to them interspersed between scene images.  Right after they were told to forget, the fMRI showed they had “flushed out” the scene-related activity from their brains.  Yet when researchers told participants to remember the studied list rather than forget it, this didn’t occur, and the amount that people flushed out predicted how many of the studied words they would remember later, revealing that the process is effective at facilitating forgetting.

Most memory studies are often more concerned with how we remember than how we forget.  While forgetting is typically viewed as a “failure”, it can also be beneficial.  It can help with overcoming PTSD or getting old information out of our heads to focus on learning new things.

If you’d like to learn more, you can click here!

Understanding Cravings

Dartmouth researchers studying rats have recently discovered that activating designer A big ole pile of donutsneural receptors can suppress cravings in a brain region that’s involved in triggering those same cravings.  This study is the first to systematically show how designer brain receptors and designer drugs work together to change how cues for food stimulate motivation.  These findings, which could help scientists fight unhealthy habitual behavior in humans.

Humans are bombarded in our everyday life with cues that garner our attention and trigger us into buying products, or rewards.  For example, the golden arches of McDonald’s can produce cravings for fast food even if you aren’t hungry.  Scientists study this phenomenon with sign-tracking, also known as autoshaping, which is an experimental conditioning in which the reward is given regardless of how the subject behaves.  For their study, the researchers were mostly interested in whether or not the ventral pallidum, a brain region implicated in processing reward, is also involved in sign-tracking.  It’s previously been impossible to repeatedly activate brain areas like this one and temporarily study how cues become valuable in themselves.  Yet thanks to a new technology called DREADDs, that’s all changed.  DREADDs are engineered receptors that are introduced into neurons using viruses, which shut down neurons as a sort of remote control.

The DREADDs technology allowed Dartmouth researchers to inactivate the ventral pallidum repeatedly and temporarily during tests where a lever was inserted into the experimental chamber for 10 seconds, which was then followed by a food pellet reward when the lever was withdrawn.  Even if the food was delivered regardless of how the rat behaved, they pressed and bit the lever as if it were the reward itself.  These results showed that activating DREADDs in the ventral pallidum before each training session blocked this behavior, and recordings of individual neurons in the ventral pallidum after DREADD activation revealed that ventral pallidum activity can become suppressed or excited to various speeds and amounts.

The results of this test are the first to show that the ventral pallidum is necessary for attributing value to cues that are paired with rewards, which the researchers say is surprising, since the ventral pallidum was historically considered to just be an area for expressing motivations in behavior.  If you’d like to learn more about this study, you can click here!

The Psychology of Gun Ownership

Open carry in a bakeryTragedy struck last week as there was yet another mass shooting in the US.  The disturbing frequency of such events paints an interesting picture about the current state of the US.  The aftermath has included endless scapegoating, political posturing and analysis, as one side looks to tighten gun restrictions while another side is terrified about the thought of losing their guns.  Those who are opposed to gun control cite the second amendment, which grants US citizens the right to bear arms.  Yet what is it that makes so many people want to own guns?  I recently came across an article that explores the psychology behind gun ownership.

The diversity of gun owners means that there can’t be any comprehensive or obvious answer as to why so many people want to own guns.  Yet a few scientific explanations do shed some light onto the situation.  According to a 2005 gallup poll, protection is the most common reason for gun ownership.  Some argue that this is a cop-out that gun owners use to sound moral and credible, and indeed, “protection” is the most common answer given by juveniles who commit gun-related crimes.  All life forms are obsessed with self-preservation and anticipating worst-case scenarios.  So if you’re surrounded by people with guns, you’re going to feel like you need one too.  While this doesn’t address why guns became so widespread to begin with, yet it would explain why the gun situation continues.  So if self-preservation is why you have a gun in the first place, you’d never want to lose it.

Many gun owners have confessed that they feel vulnerable without their guns, which isn’t too surprising; owning a gun gives you plenty of power over people.  If you feel small or weak, then dealing with others leads to a great amount of social anxiety, so having a gun would provide one easy way where you can have advantage over other people, even if this is only occurring on a subconscious level.  In a culture where guns are common, guns provide a high social status, making somebody want to own one.  Yet when everybody else has a gun as well, they’re not so useful as a status symbol, so you need more and bigger guns.  While associating gun ownership with mental health issues is dangerous scapegoating, there’s some evidence that gun ownership is tied with tendencies towards anger and impulsivity.

There are plenty of other factors that could result in somebody wanting a gun.  Gun ownership is typically more common among those with right-wing views, so a stronger sense of self-interest and mistrust of other groups could make a gun feel like a more essential item.  In action movies, there’s no shortage of guns, and countless films feature shoot-outs.  And the making and selling of guns is a very lucrative industry, so gunmakers will be inclined to promote the benefits of gun ownership.  And the sad truth is that people are going to acquire guns to harm other people.  An understanding of why people would want to own guns is important to understanding how to handle the current controversy around guns, regardless of your political leanings.

The Phenomenon of Aphantasia

Some people have reported a significant impact on their lives when they’re unable to visualizeAphantasia blank though bubble memories of their partners or departed relatives.  Others say that they find descriptive writing pointless, or that they can’t work in the field of design or architecture because they couldn’t visualize the final product.  While this phenomenon, also known as aphantasia, was first identified in 1880, and a 20th century survey suggested that this afflicts 2.5% of the population, it hasn’t been fully explored until recently through the work of cognitive neurologist Professor Adam Zeman from the University of Exeter’s Medical School.

Visualization is the result of activity in a network of regions widely distributed across the brain that work together to enable us to generate images on the basis of our memory of how things look.  These regions include areas in the frontal and parietal lobes, which “organize” visualization, together with areas in the temporal and occipital lobes that represent the items we wish to call to the mind’s eye, putting the “visual” in “visualization”.  An inability to visualize could result from an alteration of function at several points in this network, a problem that’s been described following major brain damage and in the context of mood disorder.  Yet now Zeman and his team describe these patients’ experience in a recently-published paper in the journal Cortex.

One example illustrated in the report was of Tom Ebeyer from Canada, who spoke of the “serious emotional impact” that not being able to visualize things had on him.  It’s caused all of Tom’s senses to be affected: he can’t conjure up any sound, texture, smell, taste, emotion or any other type of imagery.  Another example, Niel Kenmuir of the UK, is an avid reader, whose reading involves going through the motion of reading the words without any image coming to mind.  When he comes across a visual description passage in a book, he finds himself going back and re-reading it several times.

Zeman is currently pursuing the study of aphantasia through an interdisciplinary project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), The Eye’s Mind.  The project studies the neural basis of visual imagination and its role in culture.  If you want to find out more, then feel free to click here!

ADHD On The Rise

According to US government experts, the number of American children with ADHD has ADHD picturebeen steadily rising, meaning that it’s now more important than ever for the disorder to be recognized and treated.  Untreated ADHD can cause serious problems for children, such as falling behind in school, difficulty making friends and having conflicts with parents.  Children with untreated ADHD have more emergency room visits, and are more likely to have self-inflicted injuries.  And teens with untreated ADHD are more likely to take such risks as drinking and driving, and have twice as many traffic crashes as those who receive treatment.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the number of American children between the ages of 4 and 17 diagnosed with ADHD rose from about 8 percent in 2003 to 11 percent in 2011.  The disorder typically appears between the ages of 3 and 6, and can continue through the teen years and into adulthood.  Parents who think that a child has ADHD should consult their family doctor or pediatrician.

There are two types of medications approved by the FDA to treat children with ADHD: stimulants and non-stimulants.  Behavioral therapy can also benefit children with ADHD; parents should therefore contact their child’s school and community support groups for information and advice on how they should cope with a child’s ADHD-related behavior.

However, children aren’t the only ones who are dealing with ADHD, as adults can have the disorder too.  The FDA has estimated that about 4 percent of American adults have ADHD.  In adults, the disorder can cause such problems as poor time-management skills, restlessness and a difficulty with multitasking and activities that require sustained concentration.

Violent Video Games

Wendy Ingorvaia angry gamerAccording to a recent study, the prevalence of violence in video games are able to improve your mood and reduce stress, but also could increase aggression.  The study, authored by graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, looked at how video games could be used to manage emotions.  More specifically, they looked to see whether playing these games was able to improve peoples’ moods.  Participants in the study included 82 undergraduate communication students, most of whom had little experience with video games.

For the experiment, half of the subjects were asked to play a frustrating video game, designed to be nearly impossible to complete.  However, the subjects were led to believe that they should be able to get through all of the levels in 10 minutes.  The other half of students skipped the frustrating game and went directly to the next phase of the study.  The frustrated and unfrustrated students were then given a PlayStation 3 game, either a nonviolent one called “LittleBigPlanet 2”, or a violent one called “Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage”.  They were allowed to play for 18 minutes, and then filled out a questionnaire about their emotions and feelings about the game.

Investigators discovered that frustrated players were motivated to progress further in the games, which decreased their frustration and boosted their feelings of competency, increasing their enjoyment of both games.  However, those players who enjoyed the violent game also tended to perceive the world in a more hostile way than those who played the nonviolent game.  These findings suggest that video games can be used to manage negative emotions, but doing so with more violent games could prove problematic.  The authors of the study have recommended that if somebody wants to use video games for emotional release, then potential players should look for nonviolent games.