Tag Archives: intelligence

The lingering wisps of memory, the subtle newness of a moment…


Hippocampus“Can the simple act of recognizing a face as you walk down the street change the way we think?” Thus opens a story posted on Science Daily. “Or can taking the time to notice something new on our way to work change what we remember about that walk?”

Intriguing questions. The act of recognition, the act of discovery; both can change how we both process information about an act, and how we create a memory of it.

This novel finding suggests that our memory system can adaptively bias its processing towards forming new memories or retrieving old ones based on recent experiences. For example, when you walk into a restaurant or for the first time, your memory system can both encode the details of this new environment as well as allow you to remember a similar one where you recently dined with a friend. The results of this study suggest that what you did right before walking into the restaurant can determine which process is more likely to occur.

Does this mean that we can train ourselves to remember an event or an activity better by planning to notice things? Or by actively looking for something familiar? But remembering and retrieving, while they are both controlled by the hippocampus, they are competitive processes.

Previous scholarship has demonstrated that both encoding new memories and retrieving old ones depend on the same specific brain region — the hippocampus. However, computational models suggest that encoding and retrieval occur under incompatible network processes. In other words, how can the same part of the brain perform two tasks that are at odds with each other?
At the heart of this paradox is distinction between encoding, or forming a new memory, and memory retrieval, or recalling old information. Specifically, encoding is thought to rely on pattern separation, a process that makes overlapping, or similar, representations more distinct, whereas retrieval is thought to depend on pattern completion, a process that increases overlap by reactivating related memory traces.

To take advantage of this would require people to be very alert and aware, all the time, not by accident or coincidentally – as in the recognition of a familiar face encountered in a walk. In his masterwork, Walden (Chapter Two), Henry David Thoreau wrote,

Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.

Why is it that seeing one thing can trigger your awareness so that you notice other things, often completely unrelated to the first item?

“We’ve all had the experience of seeing an unexpected familiar face as we walk down the street and much work has been done to understand how it is that we can come to recognize these unexpected events,” said Lila Davachi, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the study’s senior author. “However, what has never been appreciated is that simply seeing that face can have a substantial impact on your future state of mind and can allow you, for example, to notice the new café that just opened on the corner or the new flowers in the garden down the street.”

The same face, the same building, the same tree seen at different times can trigger different responses. One day it might be surprise, another nostalgia, another indifference, and another anger. Why? Perhaps it’s because your brain is busily storing and retrieving all sorts of data, and on the way in or out, the pattern triggers other neurons that activates the emotional activity.

But why or how did this trait evolve? Is it a defence mechanism; something we needed when we came out of the forests into the open plains of Africa? Or is it something older, something from our reptilian past?

Does the same mechanism for memory and awareness affect animals? Dogs and cats, for example, have memories. But can they consciously control their awareness (which raises the question about whether animals are self-aware, to which I reply, yes, but how much awareness they can manipulate remains open to debate).

Another researcher added:

“We spend most of our time surrounded by familiar people, places, and objects, each of which has the potential to cue memories,” added Katherine Duncan, the study’s first author who was an NYU doctoral student at the time of the study and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University. “So why does the same building sometimes trigger nostalgic reflection but other times can be passed without notice? Our findings suggest that one factor maybe whether your memory system has recently retrieved other, even unrelated, memories or if it was engaged in laying down new ones.”

I remain fascinated by the development of these models of consciousness and the inner workings of neuroscience.

The Decline of Information Quality


Huff Post 01I’ve been troubled the last year or so by the increasing amount of trivial crap that is being presented on media sites as news, rather than what it really is: shallow gossip, pseudoscience, trivia, anecdote, voyeurism and personal experience.

As titillating as some glitterati’s wardrobe malfunction might be, it is not front page news. In fact, it isn’t worthy of the description news even when relegated to a more appropriate location, buried deep inside the site. Gossip belongs with the horoscope, cartoons and word-search puzzles.

Nor is a cute animal in some anthropomorphic posture news. Kitten and bunny wrestling? Why is there a front page link to such inane pap? But there is was on the HuffPost.

Who a “reality” TV star marries, what she ate, the condition of her dress or how much cleavage she shows is not only not news, it is not important in any sense of the word. It is an insult to the readers’ intelligence to put it on the front page.

Huff Post 02It is, in the dietary sense, empty intellectual calories. It seems to fill a space, but it is empty, void of content, just wasting bandwidth. Like doughnuts, soda pop and candy bars, it fills without fulfilling. It provides no cerebral nutrition. In short, it is material for the hard of thinking.

I never thought I’d say this, but there are actually TV shows with more intelligence than this crap. Not, of course, many; some BBC, TVO, PBS and CBC shows – not the American Picker, Swamp People or Jersey Shores nonsense, mind you. Both History and Discovery channels have become broadcasters of excremental trivia, dropping documentary for mediocrity.

There is, of course, a place for gossip about the haberdashery and sex lives of the glitterati. Supermarkets have racks of such irrelevant tabloids for those who thrive in the shallows of the intellectual pond. But it does not belong on the front page of an allegedly national or international media publication (like the Huffington Post).

National PostNot that the HuffPost is alone in dumbing down its content for a less discriminatory, less intellectual audience, although it is arguably the worst, with more pure crap on its front page than any other news site I visited.

The National Post has a section called “arts” in which it places front page trivial pap about Lindsay Lohan in a car accident, a legal dispute between two actors and an “open letter from Elvis Presley.” Gossip and minor events in the lives of actors is not news and it isn’t anything to do with the arts. Car accidents may be entertainment for some twisted souls, but the majority does not see them as having any cultural or artistic merit.

Canoe 02Canoe, the Quebecor home site, opens with some minor news pieces, but uses a media player to move you quickly to trivia categories like showbiz, movies (why this is not in showbiz is a mystery), swimsuits (an entire category of stories!) and “tearjerkers” where dumbing down is elevated to a new standard. The front page has stories about garage sales and movie trivia. The main news story today is “Man killed in B.C. goft cart crash.” Yes, it says “goft” cart, not golf cart. You have to actually hunt for real news like the latest massacre in Syria.

None of this reduces my impression of Quebecor as the bottom of the intellectual barrel in the Canadian media industry, of course. Just reinforces it. My overall attitude is that QMI is the only news agency that makes the trashy Fox network look moderate, and the old News of The World look relevant.

Toronto Sun 02The Sun newspaper is, well, just what I expected from a newspaper that has more about sports, gossip and sex than it has news or anything important. I’ve never had a high opinion of the Sun ever since it started, mostly because of its uber-right editorial stand. But unlike most traditional media, it hasn’t gone downhill in its content. Of course, it hasn’t improved, either. The Toronto Sun’s website features several irrelevant front page “celebrity gossip” pieces, and more sports than news. Sports may be important to some, but it isn’t news and should not push out real stories.

Huffpost is, unlike the NatPost or the Sun, mainly a news aggregator, so it pulls stories from other sources, and doesn’t create much of its own (blogs are opinions, not news). In that, it can’t be blamed for the quality of the items, but simply for the choice. Similar aggregator sites like National Newswatch and Bourque exist, with varying amounts of crap pretending to be news. Midway down the National Newswatch page is a story in the “E-zone” (for e-diot?) is a fluff piece with the headline, “Stop everything: Selena Gomez is talking about Justin Bieber while wearing a bra,” followed by links to other, similar pap. To be fair, though, the site has a greater news-to-crap ratio than the HuffPost. Bourque sticks to the headlines and pushes the fluff way down to the bottom.

I’ve heard the argument that the media only provides what people want. That’s nonsense and one of the bulwarks the increasingly right wing, ideologically-fixed media depends on to continue its war on intellectuals and non-right thinkers. Media provides either what it THINKs the public wants, or what it thinks the public SHOULD want.

No one wakes up in the morning thinking they want to get more stupid. Media corporations provide this trivia not to meet demand, but to create it. Ideologues don’t want informed, intelligent consumers. Informed people make better choices than uninformed ones and are not as likely to follow the script. The right’s entire argument about Medicare in the US has been phrased in terms that make it a hate crime to reason, to think critically and to question the “authority” of the right’s pundits who decry providing public medical services instead of holding people hostage for basic medical care.

Information diabetes. That’s what the right-leaning media has, and wants us all to contract through an obesity of irrelevancy. To be fair, there are well-informed people on the right, but not as many as there are on the left. That’s because of the basic difference in how each political stripe sees information. The left sees it as something to share and exchange. The right sees it as proprietary, private and secret.

A recent Gallup poll highlighted the effect of dumbing down media with tripe: only 15% of Americans believe in the evolution, but 46% believe in some form of creationism. That would not happen with a better-informed public. People are not usually intentionally so stupid, but there are those in power who intentionally try to make people stupid. Rather pointedly, the vast majority of creationists also side with the right, while those on the side of science and fact are mostly on the left.

Dumbing down is done through the media by replacing content with fluff, by pushing pseudoscience and superstition, gossip and salaciousness to the front page instead of science and research, or instead of hard news and empirical data.

Who will pay attention to climate change, the oil sands, or the civil war in Syria when the front page has voyeuristic shots of some almost-dressed starlet showing cleavage, or something salacious about a TV wannabe with a childish name like Snookie? Who will turn to images of civilians being shot or streams awash in toxic oil spills, when you can look at a star in a bathing suit? Thinking people, of course will, but the point of this dumbing down is to hide the real content under a torrent of irrelevant pap, deep enough that the average person – with an attention span conditioned by TV watching to be shorter than a gnat’s – won’t bother looking that deep.

As Johnson writes in The Information Diet, there’s no such thing as information overload; it’s more like an imbalance of information quality. The good data is in shorter supply than the dreck. In the same manner, obese people get that way not necessarily because of the quantity of food they consume; rather it’s the result of the quality of the food-like substances they eat.

Newspapers aren’t alone, of course; it started with TV. Channels like Discover and History promised content only to quickly become broadcasters of unbelievably stupid and anti-intellectual content. Just a look at the crap that TV dishes out daily can give anyone with an IQ over 80 a headache: Natural Born Dealers, Canada’s Worst Driver, Cash Cab, Believe It or Not, Storage Wars, Cake Boss, What Not to Wear, Pawn Stars, Canadian Pickers, Jersey Shore… just a few of literally hundreds of TV shows meant to dumb down the audience and keep people in an uninformed stupor. There are so many truly inexorably bad TV shows like these that I can’t even begin to list them all, let alone comment on how bad TV has become. I’ll have to leave that for another post.

But is there a cure for information obesity? Yes: focus, stop wasting time on crap, turn off the TV, exercise your mind and go back to reading books.

What is your dog thinking?


Dog thoughtsA story on Science Daily News says scientists are using an MRI scanner to look into the thought processes of dogs. As the article notes, “The researchers aim to decode the mental processes of dogs by recording which areas of their brains are activated by various stimuli. Ultimately, they hope to get at questions like: Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when their owners are happy or sad? How much language do they really understand?”

I don’t need an MRI scanner to figure this out: food. More food. When do we eat? Can I have some of that? What’s for dinner? Are you going to eat it ALL? Are those scraps for me? What else is for breakfast? Is that food I smell? Don’t mind my drool, I’m just starving. Hey, don’t waste it, I’ll eat it! Can you open the fridge again so I can sniff it? Say, is that bacon? Sure I’ll eat banana if you’ll just give me some. Hey, I’m hungry. Would it hurt you to give me a little? Just let me lick the plate after you’re done. I know there’s ice cream in your bowl. Can I have some? When do we eat? Is there any spare food around? When’s dinner?

“These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals,” Berns says. “And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system.”

There’s a good article with more detail about this research on Wired.com.

Dogs have terrific senses. They have the uncanny ability to hear the sound of a banana being peeled from 100 feet away. They know when a fridge door is opened, and can differentiate between the sound of the drawers which hold the flatware and which hold the can opener. They can smell toast a block away and bacon miles way.

Okay, yo be fair, my dog also has other thoughts: can we go out now? Why am I inside? Is it time for a walk? I’m bored. Let me out. I have squirrels to chase. I need to go sniff something. Get off your ass and talk me for a walk. Are you going out yet? Can I come? When are we leaving? Why are you just sitting there? Let’s get going. Walkies! Out! Go out and take me along.

But while doing a little research into dog intelligence and behaviour this morning, I came across this story on Science News titled, “Breeding Is Changing Dog Brains, Scientists Find.” This is a very bizarre but intriguing line of study:

For the first time, scientists have shown that selective breeding of domestic dogs is not only dramatically changing the way animals look but is also driving major changes in the canine brain.
“As a dog’s head or skull shape becomes flatter — more pug-like — the brain rotates forward and the smell centre of the brain drifts further down to the lowest position in the skull,” Dr Valenzuela said.
No other animal has enjoyed the level of human affection and companionship like the dog, nor undergone such a systemic and deliberate intervention in its biology through breeding, the authors note. The diversity suggests a unique level of plasticity in the canine genome.
“Canines seem to be incredibly responsive to human intervention through breeding. It’s amazing that a dog’s brain can accommodate such large differences in skull shape through these kinds of changes — it’s something that hasn’t been documented in other species,” Dr Valenzuela said.
Co-author Associate Professor Paul McGreevy from the University of Sydney noted: “We think of dogs living in a world of smell — but this finding strongly suggests that one dog’s world of smell may be very different from another’s.”

Digging deeper into the effects of breeding on canine behaviour, this story noted,

“Canine behavioural traits are highly heritable, so in theory at least, we can genetically fix desirable characteristics in dog breeds. Just as we have previously produced dogs able to herd sheep or pull sleds, so we should be able to breed dogs better suited to their role as companions,” Dr Bennett said.

Smart dogActually I’ve known about the inheritability of traits for decades, since I first started reading about canine breeds and behaviours. But anyone who has ever worked closely with dogs knows that breeds have general characteristics.

This is why I have serious reservations around dogs bred for violence – the pit bull and its ilk, cane corso, dogo de Argentina and others. Even intense socializing may not eliminate inherited behaviour. Perhaps if we started a program of breeding these dogs with less aggressive breeds, it might make a better, more sociable dog.

But maybe not – Sophie was attacked this winter by a very aggressive dog allegedly a cross between a cane corso and a Lab (but looked 100% pit pull). So interbreeding (if that was actually true) didn’t make it a calmer, less aggressive dog. Maybe aggression is a dominant gene and cannot be easily sublimated.

In this story, titled, “Dogs’ Intelligence On Par With Two-Year-Old Human, Canine Researcher Says”, scientists found dogs can count, as well as understand words (any dog owner knows that). But they can also appear Machiavellian:

They can also understand more than 150 words and intentionally deceive other dogs and people to get treats, according to psychologist and leading canine researcher Stanley Coren, PhD, of the University of British Columbia. He spoke Saturday on the topic “How Dogs Think” at the American Psychological Association’s 117th Annual Convention.

During play, dogs are capable of deliberately trying to deceive other dogs and people in order to get rewards, said Coren. “And they are nearly as successful in deceiving humans as humans are in deceiving dogs.”

Fascinating stuff. I want to spend an evening or two reading more about dogs and how they learn and apply their intelligence, but I think it would be better spent playing with my own dog.