A newsletter of research on Consciousness, Mind and Life

by piero scaruffi

Researchers are welcome to submit news and articles about breakthroughs and events in the areas of cognitive science, artificial intelligence, neurobiology, artificial life, linguistics, neural networks, connectionism, cognitive psychology, mind, philosophy, psychology, consciousness. Email the editor at this Email address. Readers who would like to receive periodic news and updates on cognitive science, philosophy of mind, neurobiology, artificial intelligence, etc, are invited to register to my mailing list.

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December 2019
  • Since Koch and Crick published the article "What is the function of the claustrum?" in 2005, that region of the brain has become a candidate for the source of consciousness. However, Josef Parvizi's student Stephan Bickel at Stanford University show that electrical stimulation of the claustrum has no effect on consciousness (paper). However, Samuel Krimmel at the University of Maryland has shown that the claustrum is activated at the beginning of complex cognitive activities but not during the rest of the activity (paper). It looks like the claustrum does play a role in consciousness after all.

November 2019

October 2019
  • The physicist Eric De Giuli at Ryerson University in Toronto, who normally studies Statistical physics of complex systems, speculates that babies learn language in a manner similar to how water freezes. He equates a context-free grammar to the distribution of states in a physical system: the grammar defines the probability that a certain word comes after another word (some combinations of words are more likely than others). Learning a language consists in moving from a "hot" state of randomness (in which the combinations of words are meaningless) to a "cold" state of order (in which the combination of words carries information), and therefore the emergence of deep structure in the language is a process similar to the freezing of water ("Random Language Model").

September 2019
  • The US neuroscientist Aaron Schurger carried out new experiments that disprove the widely quoted experiments of the 1960s, according to which consciousness of an action follows (not precedes) the action (paper). Based on the 1964 experiments on "Bereitschaftspotential" or readiness potential carried out in Germany by Hans-Helmut Kornhuber and his student Lueder Deecke, in 1965 the US physiologist Benjamin Libet hinted that we may become aware of our actions only "after the fact" ("Cortical Activation in Conscious and Unconscious Experience", 1965). Libet's finding has been used for 50 years by philosophers and psychologists to discuss free will. Schurger had already showed in 2012 that Libet's experiment lends itself to an alternative explanation ("An accumulator model for spontaneous neural activity prior to self-initiated movement", 2012) and the new experiment reinforces this alternative explanation. We may have free will, after all.

August 2019
  • Deborah Talmi of the University of Manchester, Lynn Lohnas of New York University, Nathaniel Daw of Princeton University have developed a mathematical model of how emotion enhances episodic memory (we remember emotional memories in detail even after a long time, while ordinary memories are lost quickly). (paper) Their computer model is based on a theory of memory recall called the temporal context model (TCM), originally presented by Marc Howard and Michael Kahana of Brandeis University ("A Distributed Representation of Temporal Context", 2002), later expanded in the Context Maintenance and Retrieval Model.

July 2019
  • It is generally assumed that the brain uses expectation to make sense of the world. Most of the brain's activity is stimulated by other brain activity, not by sensory input. The activity in the visual cortex of an animal in complete darkness and the activity of the visual cortex of the same animal moving in daylight are not very different. The brain mostly creates expectations. Only a small part of its activity is about actually reproducing the sensory input. Alfredo Fontanini and Giancarlo La Camera at Stony Brook University have developed a model of how expectation works in the brain (at least as far as the gustatory cortex works), a clustered network (paper).

June 2019
  • Matteo DeMarco and Annalena Venneri at the University of Sheffield have discovered that blood types influence the substance of the brain. For example, people with an `O' blood type have more "grey matter" in brain, and are therefore less vulnerable to cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer's. (paper).

May 2019
  • Eleanor Maguire at University College London studied the brain regions involved in imagining a scene, notably how the hippocampus is influenced by the centromedial prefrontal cortex. (papers)
  • Alfredo Fontanini's team at Stony Brook University in New York has developed a metastable model based on a clustered architecture to explain how the brain perceives the world and generates action based on expectation (more than on what is actually out there). The brain's context and expectation influence what animals perceive and how they process such sensory information. This metastable model explains why, for example, the activity in the visual cortex appears to be very similar whether the animal is kept in complete darkness or is walking around in broad daylight: much of the brain's activity, at least within the sensory regions, is generated within those regions themselves rather than driven by the stimuli received by those regions from the outside world (paper).

April 2019
  • A team led by Nenad Sestan of the Yale School of Medicine was able to restore neural activity in the brains of dead pigs (paper).
  • Robert Reinhart and John Nguyen at Boston University are using electricity to stimulate brain regions in the theta-wave range. The electrical stimulation (called "transcranial alternating current stimulation") ensures the kind of rhytmic coupling between the frontal and temporal cortex that is necessary for retrieving memories. The result is an increase within and between frontotemporal regions which corresponds to an increase in the performance of working memory, but the effect lasted only about 50 minutes. (paper)

March 2019
  • The Science of Meditation (Elysium Health)
  • A team led by Athena Demertzi and Enzo Tagliazucchi at the Brain and Spine Institute in France (who in 2012 at the University of Buenos Aires had discovered how to use fMRI for this kind of research) analyzed the different patterns of brain activity in people who are conscious and people who are unconscious (under general anesthesia) and discovered that the brain activity of unconscious states is limited to neighboring regions, whereas the brain activity of conscious states spans distant unconnected regions (paper). Their conclusion is "that consciousness rests on the brainís ability to sustain rich brain dynamics". Tagliazucchi (in 2016 at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience) also studied the effects of LSD on increasing global connectivity within brain regions (paper) and also (in 2015 at the Goethe University in Germany) applied the theory of phase transitions in complex systems to the brain transition from unconscious to conscious states (paper).

February 2019
  • Alcino Silva's team at UC Los Angeles discovered that a CCR5-based therapy regularly used on HIV patients, which basically consists in deletion of the CCR5 gene, helps the brain of mice recover motor control after a stroke or after traumatic brain injury. It also seems to make mice generally "smarter", more capable of learning new things. Incidentally, this happens to be the same gene that in 2018 Jiankui He of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen CRISPR-edited in the world's first CRISPR-edited babies (paper).

January 2019
  • A dogma of biology is that every cell of a body has the same DNA. In reality, many cells contain variations on that DNA. Our body contains many genomes, a fact referred to as "somatic mosaicism". In particular, twenty years ago, Jerold Chun's team at UC San Diego provided the empirical evidence that not all neurons are genetically alike: some neurons have genomes that have undergone this kind of mutations, in particular copy-number variations ("Chromosomal variation in neurons of the developing and adult mammalian nervous system", 2001). Then his former student Michael McConnell, now at the Salk Institute, showed that between 13% and 41% of the frontal cortex neurons have copy-number variations ("Mosaic copy number variation in human neurons", 2013). Now McConnell's team at Virginia University, working in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University, found another oddity. If mosaicism increased with age, then mutations would accumulate over time. Surprisingly, just the opposite happens: mosaicism is more prominent in younger people than in older people. The simplest explanation is that these "genetically-altered" neurons are the most prone to dying so that they are no longer present in older brains ("Neurons with Complex Karyotypes Are Rare in Aged Human Neocortex", 2019).
  • Alexander Panchin's team at the Russian Academy of Sciences has proposed that transmissible cancers (a rare form of cancer) may evolve into independent species. For example, myxosporeans could be the descendants of tumors of cnidarian species (paper)
  • Emma Threadgold in Linden Ball's laboratory at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain has conducted experiments on people listening to music while performing Compound Remote Associate Tasks (CRATs). The results seem to show that listening to music actually decreases the level of creativity, contradicting the popular belief that listening to music boosts creativity (paper).

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