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Don’t forget to remember this – The Irish Times – Wed, Mar 30, 2011

March 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Don’t forget to remember this – The Irish Times – Wed, Mar 30, 2011.

How does our memory work? What’s the difference between remembering how to ride a bike and recalling people’s names? Is it possible to improve your memory? An exhibition in the Science Gallery is looking for the answers, writes BRIAN O’CONNELL

REMEMBER A NAME but can’t match it with a face? Good with numbers but useless at childhood recollections? Led by Prof Shane O’Mara of Trinity College, Memory Lab is a month-long experience at Science Gallery in Trinity College, which invites the public to take part in a range of scientific experiments aimed at examining how our memory works.

Brainpower: a rational guide to the myths – The Irish Times – Thu, Mar 24, 2011

March 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Brainpower: a rational guide to the myths – The Irish Times – Thu, Mar 24, 2011.

In the new Hollywood thriller, ‘Limitless’, Bradley Cooper plays a failing writer who uses a top-secret ‘smart drug’ to unlock his brain’s potential. SYLVIA LEATHAM asks TCD neuroscientist Prof Shane O’Mara for a reality check on how the brain works.

YouTube – MEMORY LAB: HIGHLIGHTS

March 21, 2011 Leave a comment

YouTube – MEMORY LAB: HIGHLIGHTS.

Have we met before? Check out the highlights from the launch of our current exhibition MEMORY LAB.

COMING SOON: MEMORY LAB IN THE SCIENCE GALLERY

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m curating my first ever ‘lab in the gallery’ – details below. Dr Joanne Feeney, a postdoc in my group has been absolutely central to making this even happen, as has the great and creative team in the Science Gallery – Michael John, Rob, Maria, Lynn, Anja, Ian, Derek, Rosa (and John for superb computer programming).

So, think you have a good memory? Are you brave enough to put it to the test at Science Gallery’s MEMORY LAB this March?

FIRE, GOAT, PLUM, SUMP, VANE, HAIR, FARM... How come you can recall your first day at school vividly but won’t remember this list of words when you get to the bottom of this paragraph? Why are some of us memory champions while others have a heads like sieves? Is our ability to remember nature or nurture?

MEMORY LAB, a month-long LAB IN THE GALLERY experience at Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin, invites the public to take part in a range of real, scientific experiments into how we remember or why we forget.

Eight separate experiments will investigate a range of aspects of functional memory from how good your short-term memory is to how and why we evolved memory in the first place. Be prepared for a barrage of information you will have to recall including numbers, letters, faces and even smells! We’re also inviting people to come and record their earliest ever memory as MEMORY LAB seeks to amass the largest database of earliest memories in the world.

The experimentation begins at Science Gallery on March 11th and continues until April 8th 2011. MEMORY LAB will also contain a rich events programme to allow you explore memory deeper – including a talk by former US Memory Champion and author of “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” Joshua Foer. Events also include special recruitment event on how to make yourself memorable and Science Gallery’s first ever table quiz where you can put your ability to recall to the test.

MEMORY LAB opens to the public on March 11th and runs until April 8th. The experiments run Tuesday-Friday 12:00-20:00 and Saturday-Sunday 12:00-18:00. Admission free with a suggested donation of €5. You can be the first to experience MEMORY LAB by going to the exclusive preview party on March 10th. All Science Gallery MEMBERS+ go for free (sign up today here) or buy your tickets here.

Where did it all go so badly wrong? (Part III: Empathy, mirror neurons)

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

[This is the third in a series of posts relevant to the all-consuming topic in Ireland at the moment: the fall of the Fianna Fail/Green Party Coalition Government, and the resulting general election to take place on the 25 February 2011. My title approximates a question/comment posed by a guest (I think it was Jim Glennon, the former FF TD) on George Hook’s programme on Newstalk].

(III)

Theory of mind’ is the name given to our ability to see the world as others might see it (‘other-centred perspective-taking’). It is central to our social behaviour and capacity for empathy. Recent studies have disclosed a brain area (the mirror neurons of pre- and supplementary cortex, if you must know) that allows you to simulate what others are likely to be thinking by mirroring their behaviour. Being able to take the perspective of others is vital for preventing catastrophic errors of social judgement by understanding what others will make of your decisions and actions. It is unlikely that Brian Cowen would have attempted to ‘refresh’ his Cabinet via the bizarre attempt to parachute in a bunch of new ministers if he had first tried to imagine himself into the shoes of his Government partners, or indeed, the public at large to imagine what they would have thought of this stratagem.

A brain systems visualisation tool

January 4, 2011 Leave a comment

brainSCANr.

This looks like a fantastic visualisation tool – but one that should prove useful as a research tool.

The Brain Systems, Connections, Associations, and Network Relationships (a phrase with more words than strictly necessary in order to bootstrap a good acronym) assumes that somewhere in all the chaos and noise of the more than 20 million papers on PubMed, there must be some order and rationality.

To that end, we have created a dictionary of hundreds of brain region names, cognitive and behavioral functions, and diseases (and their synonyms!) to find how often any two phrases co-occur in the scientific literature. We assume that the more often two terms occur together (at the exclusion of those words by themselves, without each other), the more likely they are to be associated.

Are there problems with this assumption? Yes, but we think you’ll like the results anyway. Obviously the database is limited to the words and phrases with which we have populated it. We also assume that when words co-occur in a paper, that relationship is a positive one (i.e., brain areas A and B are connected, as opposed to not connected). Luckily, there is a positive publication bias in the peer-reviewed biomedical sciences that we can leverage to our benefit (hooray biases)! Furthermore, we cannot dissociate English homographs; thus, a search for the phrase “rhythm” (to ascertain the brain regions associated with musical rhythm) gives the strongest association with the suprachiasmatic nucleus (that is, for circadian rhythms!)

Despite these limitations, we believe we have created a powerful visualization tool that will speed research and education, and hopefully allow for the discovery of new, previously unforeseen connections between brain, behavior, and disease.

H/T: Marsha Lucas

Three Views of Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist – tagline ‘ideas having sex’!

December 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Three Views of Matt Ridley.

Posted by David Boaz

Matt Ridley’s new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, is garnering rave reviews. Ridley, science writer and popularizer of evolutionary psychology, shows how it was trade and specialization of labor–and the resulting massive growth in technological sophistication–that hauled humanity from its impoverished past to its comparatively rich present. These trends will continue, he argues, and will solve many of today’s most pressing problems, from the spread of disease to the threat of climate change.

The Cato Institute has now presented three different looks at the book, with a review in the Cato Journal, another in Regulation, and an event at Cato with Matt Ridley himself.

FWIW, it is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year, and a great counter to the pervasive misery-mongering rife. The tagline ‘ideas having sex’ is a great metaphor for the advancement of knowledge. Here is his TED talk – well worth watching.

Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience Strategic Plan 2010-2016

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Blogging has been light recently because of the usual term-time stuff. However, we have launched our Institute of Neuroscience Strategic Plan (also available via google docs).

See here for the Trinity press release and TCIN Strategic Plan Nov 2010 Final for the summary presentation pdf.

The graphics are fantastic, and the plan itself is short and sweet.

A quote:

Our animating ethos rests on the belief that major and fundamental research problems are best solved by combining research strengths across disciplines and levels of analysis.

Combining our strengths in this way will allow us to deliver major scientific discoveries of great consequence for human health, welfare and knowledge.

Table of Contents:

  1. Why Explore the Brain? [Our short, simple answer: ‘Understanding the structure and functions of our brains brings us a good way along the path of understanding ourselves as humans. Progress in understanding the nervous system materially benefits human health, welfare and knowledge.‘]
  2. Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience Mission
  3. Transformative Neuroscience
  4. Context
  5. Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience Today
  6. Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience Tomorrow
  7. Research Focus 1: Synapses, Cognition and Behaviour
  8. Research Focus 2: Neuropsychiatry and Neurodevelopmental Disorders
  9. Research Focus 3: Neurodegeneration, Neuroprotection and Neuroplasticity
  10. Platform Technologies: Imaging and Neural Engineering
  11. Innovation
  12. Education
  13. Contribution to Society and Outreach
  14. Future Opportunities
  15. Measuring Impact: Hard and Soft Metrics
  16. Final Thoughts

Read it!

Some Nerve – The Scientist – Magazine of the Life Sciences – An interview and profile of Rodolfo Llinas

September 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Some Nerve – The Scientist – Magazine of the Life Sciences.

Llinas is one of the great integrative neurophysiologists – this is a fantastic interview and profile.

A quote:

“My interest in science came from basic curiosity,” says Rodolfo Llinás of the New York University School of Medicine. “My interest in the nervous system came from my grandfather.” As a precocious preschooler, Llinás lived with his paterfamilias, a psychiatrist who ran his practice from home. There, the young boy encountered individuals with a cavalcade of psychiatric and neurological conditions, including one patient who experienced an epileptic seizure in the waiting room.

“I remember being amazed,” says Llinás, who asked his grandfather why the man would behave that way. “‘He didn’t want to do it. He couldn’t help it. His brain did it,’” his grandfather explained. For Llinás, the idea that the brain had a mind of its own was eye opening. “And the more I talked to the old man about these things,” he says, “the more I came to see that everything we do, everything we understand, everything we are, is focused on the brain.”

Read more: Some Nerve – The Scientist – Magazine of the Life Sciences http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/57650/#ixzz0zWaAE2f2

Loss aversion and ‘thinking’ about the house price collapse (in Ireland and further afield)

September 4, 2010 Leave a comment

There has been a dramatic collapse in house prices in many parts of the world, including Ireland, which has seen prices come down by 40% or so on average since the peak a few years ago (and more to come, according to some economists). The market is now very slow-moving, and probably as bad as it ever has been. And given past patterns, will probably take a decade to recover. Jonah Lehrer has a fantastic post on the pervasive phenomenon of loss aversion in human cognition which must underpin at least some of the problems in the market, because of the aversion and indeed pain caused by recognising losses quickly.

Key quote: “The pain of a loss was approximately twice as potent as the pleasure generated by a gain. Furthermore, our decisions seemed to be determined by these feelings. As Kahneman and Tversky put it, “In human decision making, losses loom larger than gains.”

[Blog reproduced in full]

The Real Estate Collapse By Jonah Lehrer

The news on the housing front is bleak and getting bleaker. The New York Times posts a graph that captures the trend:

Obviously, a stew of forces are at work here. There is the end of the federal tax credit, and the crappy employment news, and the shadow inventory of foreclosed homes. But I think the dismal housing data also reflects a systematic human bias: loss aversion. The phenomenon was first identified by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the mid-70s, after they gave their students at Hebrew University a simple survey asking them whether or not they’d accept a variety of different bets. The psychologists noticed that, when people were offered a gamble on the toss of a coin in which they might lose $20, they demanded an average payoff of at least $40 if they won. The pain of a loss was approximately twice as potent as the pleasure generated by a gain. Furthermore, our decisions seemed to be determined by these feelings. As Kahneman and Tversky put it, “In human decision making, losses loom larger than gains.”

Consider this scenario:

The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved. Which of the two programs would you favor?

When this question was put to a large sample of physicians, 72 percent chose option A, the safe-and-sure strategy, and only 28 percent chose program B, the risky strategy. In other words, physicians would rather save a certain number of people for sure than risk the possibility that everyone might die. But what about this scenario:

The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If program C is adopted, 400 people will die. If program D is adopted, there is a one-third probability that nobody will dies and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die. Which of the two programs would you favor?

When the scenario was described in terms of deaths instead of survivors, physicians reversed their previous decision. Only 22 percent voted for option C, while 78 percent of them opted for option D, the risky strategy. Most doctors were now acting just like Frank: they were rejecting a guaranteed gain in order to partake in a questionable gamble.

Of course, this is a ridiculous shift in preference. The two different questions examine identical dilemmas; saving one third of the population is the same as losing two thirds. And yet, doctors reacted very differently depending on how the question was framed. When the possible outcomes were stated in terms of deaths – this is the “loss frame” – physicians were suddenly eager to take chances. They were so determined to avoid any alternative associated with a loss that they were willing to risk losing everything.

The same irrational quirk is now playing out in the U.S. housing market. Look, for instance, a 2001 paper by the economists Christopher Mayer and  David Genesove. They studied the Boston condominium market of the early 1990s, which was one of the most spectacular real estate busts in recent decades. Between 1989 and 1992, Boston condo prices fell by nearly 40 percent. This meant that, for the vast majority of condo owners, they could only sell their home at a steep loss.

Classical economics assumes that people will adjust to the new reality. They’ll realize that the market has changed, and that they made a costly mistake. But that’s not what happened. In their paper, “Loss Aversion and Seller Behavior: Evidence From the Housing Market,” Mayer and Genesove found that, for essentially identical condos, people who had bought at the peak of the market (between 1989-1992) listed their properties for nearly 35 percent more than those who had bought after the collapse. Why? Because they couldn’t bear to take a loss.

The end result, of course, is that these overpriced properties just sat there, piling up like unwanted inventory. According to the economists, less than 25 percent of the properties bought during the condo bubble sold in less than 180 days.

I’d argue that the same thing is happening right now, except on a nationwide scale. The housing market will only recover when we get over our collective bias, and realize that home prices have fallen and aren’t coming back (at least not anytime soon). Our irrationality got us into this mess – we binged on credit cards and took out unreasonable loans and mistook a bubble for a boom – and the only way we’re going to get out of it is to see through a new set of irrational quirks, which prevent us from fully equilibrating to our new financial reality. Sometimes, the wisest thing to do is cut our losses and run.

More at Wired.