Reading: The Brain’s Best Hijacker

What are you doing right now? I’m no psychic, but I can say for certain one thing that you’re doing: reading. You’re reading this sentence, word by word, and extracting meaning from little black lines of orthography, a fancy term for the rules of written language. If you really think about it, what you’re doing right now is quite difficult. What are the neural processes that enable us to read?

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Bite-size Science: Epigenetics help protect the aging brain

Epigenetics change which genes are active and which are inactive. Research over the past few years has shown that these changes are important for protecting the brain from neurodegeneration and injury. A review paper came out on May 18th in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience that summarizes this research. Check out the infographic for a description of the review paper.

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The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part II: 2001: A Space Odyssey

In our previous post, we considered the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in the context of a thought experiment: a thinking tool used by scientists and philosophers to reframe an unintuitive problem in a new, more familiar context.

Another great thought experiment of the 1960s is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Developed in parallel as both a novel by Arthur C. Clarke and a film by Stanley Kubrick, Space Odyssey is a story about the evolution of humanity and intelligence. Beginning with the invention of tool use in Africa, the story asks how intelligence might continue to evolve after humans develop sophisticated technology. Both the novel and the film follow astronaut Dave Bowman on his journey to the Outer Solar System guided by HAL 9000, an artificial intelligence (AI) that controls the spaceship and is responsible for the well being of the crew.

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The Departure of Skill Memories from Motor Cortex: Deeper Directions for Neuroscience

You probably have certain skills that I don’t.  Each of us, having spent enough time practicing something new, can become an expert.  A simple, ubiquitous example is driving a car with a manual transmission.  The precise sequence and timing of controlling the clutch, giving gas, and shifting the gears are challenging to coordinate when initially learning to drive a stick shift.  But eventually, the precision with which we can perform these sequences of movements is impressive.  Specifically, the errors we make when learning, indicated by gear grinding and stalling, are reduced with repeated practice.  Skill learning is relatively easy to train both in humans and in animals.  It therefore serves as a great way to study how the brain forms memories and uses those memories in the future.Continue reading

Blondes or Brunettes: It’s All About Conditioning

Like it or not, we all have preferences in choosing romantic partners.  Piercings, freckles, hair color, eye color, body physique – through adolescence and into adulthood, we begin to develop sexual preferences to help guide our choice in whom to talk to, whom to date, and whom to marry.  While it’s tempting to attribute these tendencies to hormonal activity, much of our mate preference is due to classical conditioning.  Much like aversion (which has already been thoroughly studied in the context of fear conditioning), sexual preferences may also be an example of classical conditioning.Continue reading