Researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine and Cal Tech have used functional magnetic resonance imaging to locate the place in the brain that’s active when trust is being developed between two people, and to watch how that trust develops during an interaction. This research made use of a technique that synchronizes the scanning of two brains as the owners of the brains interact.
There are rare people whose circadian rhythms are way out of synch with the rest of the world; they fall asleep early in the evening and wake up well before dawn. Researchers have identified the gene responsible for this unusual pattern. Interestingly, when the gene is inserted into mice and flies, in mice it works the same as in humans, but in flies it produces behavior that is out of phase in the other direction, with flies staying up late and sleeping late.
Here’s an interesting essay by David Barash from The Chronicle of Higher Education about B.F. Skinner, free will, and the scientific understanding of human nature. It closes with a quote from a short story by Terry Bisson, which coincidentally (and wonderfully) uses the phrase “thinking meat”.
Elephants can learn to mimic some of the distinctly non-elephantine sounds around them, making them the first known terrestrial non-primate mammal to exhibit vocal learning. It’s possible that elephants use this capability to maintain their social relationships with each other.
No one really knows why Neanderthals went extinct and what role early modern humans might have played in their demise. A new paper from researchers at the University of Wyoming suggests that humans developed the concepts of division of labor and of trading economic resources with each other. The resulting exchange of ideas and innovations might have given humans the edge over Neanderthals. Thanks to my friend Doug for pointing me to this story.
Scientists study the way birds learn their songs as a way to get a handle on how humans learn language. A pair of papers from scientists at the Univerity of Washington call for study of a greater variety of songbirds; they’re not all alike, and what you learn depends on the species you pick to study. Some birds learn their songs early in life, for example, while others continue to learn throughout their lives.
Here’s an interview with a sociologist, Linda George, who has done research on social factors that affect longevity. Sociologists have found a link between religious belief and longevity, but have yet to explain exactly why those who practice a religion live longer. This is an interesting interview; I was especially intrigued by the idea of science as a religion (with a small “r”, to differentiate it from organized religions). I agree that science is a belief system that can offer meaning, but I’m not sure I like the use of the word “religion” to describe it. I was also a bit taken aback at the characterization of chaos theory as the belief that “everything in the universe is random and nothing we do makes a difference”. Chaos theory tries to find the order in systems so complicated that they look disordered. But that’s just my standard quibble at scientific theories being mis-characterized and mis-applied, which I suppose is one of the dangers of conceiving of science as a religion. There are some interesting things in this article; read it for yourself and see what you think.
I have long suspected that there’s internal warfare going on in my head from time to time. Now I find out that according to neuroeconomics, when I have to decide between buying goodies like chocolate (or books, my chief weakness) or saving money, my limbic system and my prefrontal cortex duke it out.
Economics has traditionally considered people as rational actors working to achieve their interests; neuroeconomists not only study the ways in which people behave emotionally in making financial decisions, but look at the brain activity that’s tied to emotional behavior. It’s still not clear how useful neuroeconomics will be, but it’s an interesting idea. Here’s an article about it from Business Week Online.