Friday, February 23, 2007

A brief post on savants and the savant syndrome:
The other day my wife called me excitedly and told me to listen to a show on NPR about a man named Daniel Tammet and his amazing feats of memory (which included the recitation of irrational numbers - non-repeating non-terminating decimal numbers like pi to 22,000 places). I had not heard of him before this, but I knew that she was talking about a savant.

Although the formal meaning of the word is "a learned person or a scholar", it is more commonly engaged to refer to people who possess astonishing islands of ability, brilliance or talent (like exactly remembering the day of the week and the weather of any given day of their lives). In many cases it is manifested due to various beural developmental disorders, including autistic disorder.

It is one thing to read about stuff like this and be amazed, but I was astounded to run into the following documentary on the web that talks about this man abilities. If you have about an hour, please do not miss out on.

Excerpt from a book by Daniel Tammet:
I was born on January 31, 1979—a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing. I like my birth date, because of the way I’m able to visualize most of the numbers in it as smooth and round shapes, similar to pebbles on a beach. That’s because they are prime numbers: 31, 19, 197, 97, 79 and 1979 are all divisible only by themselves and 1. I can recognize every prime up to 9,973 by their “pebble-like” quality. It’s just the way my brain works. I have a rare condition known as savant syndrome, little known before its portrayal by actor Dustin Hoffman in the Oscar-winning 1988 film Rain Man.

Commonly the savant syndrome has been associated with people who have undergone some kind of a traumatic change in their brains (be it an epileptic seizure or a blow to certain parts of the cranium or in some cases be born with symptoms of synesthesia or autism), but it is also strongly argued by some researchers like Professor Alan Snyder at the Centre for the Mind in Sydney who state that it is not only savants who have these extraordinary abilities, but that everyone does. However, he suggests that in normal people it is suppressed by the other natural forces involved in the brain’s operation.

Snyder uses Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to try to recreate the same brain state in normal individuals that is observed in autistic savants and so stimulate the same type of creativity. (I am personally a little dubious, but whatever type of research it takes for us to understand this phenomenon better is fine with me).

It is still unclear on the exact neurobiology behind manifestations like this in individuals but people like Daniel offer modern day scientists a great opportunity to study the inner workings of our brains and how aberrations in the neural circuitry can positively effect our mental capabilities.

PS: There is a theory that some of this happens when there is damage to the left hemisphere at some stage in the individuals life that is compensated by right hemispheric activities coupled with damage to cognitive memory circuits compensated by larger takeup of circuits involved I the formation and manifestation of habit based memory (taken from “Islands of Genius” by Darold Treflert.

I found some very good research material on the web mainly in the form of papers and it might be worth taking a look at some of this if you wish to understand this phenomenon better

We are all savants – Diane Powell

The cognitive neuroscience of creativity Arne Dietrich American University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon

Savant-like numerosity skills revealed in normal people by magnetic pulses - Snyder et. al. Perception, 2006, volume 35, pages 837 ^ 845

Savant like skills exposed in normal people by suppressing the left fronto-temporal lobe - Snyder et. al. (Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, Vol 2, No. 2, 149-158 (2003))

The uncanny abilities of Idiot savants - Donald K. Snyder

Commentary on Michael Winkelman, ‘Shamanism and cognitive evolution’ Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 12, 91-3, 2002

Blue Nines and Red Words – Daniel Tammet

New Art City:
If you are not careful walking around in the city this weekend, chances of tripping and falling on an art fair are fairly high (and some good fairs at that). I could not resist scanning this collection of art fairs ongoing this weekend. Do visit some if you have the time (and the money)...
(Click on the image to make it readable)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

My post on Art and Perception:
Since I did not want to repost stuff that I had already posted on Art and Perception, here is a link to a one pager that I had written explaining the technique behind my artwork.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Painting Post: Of Bollywood and its denizens

This painting took quite some time to complete as I wanted to make sure that I captured the whimsical expression behind my intent in painting the same. Most of my paintings have a bit of a ‘significant intent’ behind the face that represents my intent. This painting portrays a random face among the multitude of young ladies who leave the suburbs with star crossed eyes hoping to make it big in Bollywood (India’s Hollywood). A very small percentage of them actually make it up the grinding road to stardom (sometimes to be knocked off the pedestal with their very next venture). A large percentage of them do not make it anywhere near the top instead languishing in the alleyways of Bombay as second hands and pass-me-downs. A lot of these ladies have the right ‘stuff’, but sadly they were not the right people at the right place at the right time – ingredients that go into making all of our careers a bit more successful in these random times.
This painting is 48 inches high and 36 inches wide and is titled ‘Bollywood Broodings’.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A most remarkable picture

Wounded US Marine returns home from Iraq to marry.
Finding out beforehand what the intentions in our brains are:
Every working day, we make decisions that guide us through our daily lives. Each of these decisions are the products of emotional, cognitive and motivational dispositions acting out their neural concerts in specified regions of our brain. Most (not all) of these decisions are carried out based on pre-planned intentions that may sometimes be voiced aloud and sometimes not. John-Dylan Haynes from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (in cooperation with researchers from London and Tokyo) were able to isolate how and where the brain stores these intentions (the full paper is online here). Most of our secret intentions remain hidden in our brains and in our thoughts until we actually decide to carry them out at which point it becomes an action.

The researchers using a combination of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and algorithms that inferred the intentions from patterns of neural activity obtained from the fMRI were able to decode the intention that the volunteers had in their heads without them uttering their inner thoughts. They also confirmed the long standing view that actions are not encoded in single neurons but in a whole spatial pattern of brain activity.

"They let subjects freely and covertly choose between two possible tasks - to either add or subtract two numbers. They were then asked to hold in mind their intention for a while until the relevant numbers were presented on a screen. The researchers were able to recognize the subjects intentions with 70% accuracy based alone on their brain activity - even before the participants had seen the numbers and had started to perform the calculation.
Participants made their choice covertly and initially did not know the two numbers they were supposed to add or subtract. Only a few seconds later the numbers appeared on a screen and the participants could perform the calculation. This ensured that the intention itself was being read out, rather than brain activity related to performing the calculation or pressing the buttons to indicate the response. "It has been previously assumed that freely selected plans might be stored in the middle regions of the prefrontal cortex, whereas plans following external instructions could be stored on the surface of the brain. We were able to confirm this theory in our experiments", Haynes explained.

The work of Haynes and his colleagues goes far beyond simply confirming previous theories. It has never before been possible to read out of brain activity how a person has decided to act in the future. The trick by which the invisible is made visible lies in a new method called "
multivariate pattern recognition". A computer is programmed to recognize characteristic activation patterns in the brain that typically occur in association with specific thoughts. Once this computer has been "trained" it can be used to predict the decisions of subjects from their brain activity alone. An important technical innovation also lies in combining information across extended regions of the brain to strongly increase sensitivity."

“Taken together, our results extend previous studies on the processing of goals in prefrontal cortex in several important ways. They reveal for the first time that spatial response patterns in medial and lateral prefrontal cortex encode a subject's covert intentions in a highly specific fashion. They also demonstrate a functional separation in
medial prefrontal cortex, where more anterior regions encode the intention prior to its execution and more posterior regions encode the intention during task execution. These findings have important implications not only for the neural models of executive control, but also for technical and clinical applications, such as the further development of brain-computer interfaces, that might now be able to decode intentions that go beyond simple movements and extend to high-level cognitive processes”

I am sure that this research will help improve the lives of paralyzed patients currently using brain computer interfaces (BMIs). Imagine a time when a BMI helping a paralyzed patient with motor deficiency would be able to read a complex intention like “I would like to go to the bedroom and rest awhile – robot can you make the bed for me?”…

I also remember reading somewhere (unfortunately I am not able to link to that paper, but will do so as soon as I ferret it out) that there is a time gap between the instant that an intention is formed in our brains and the time that we become consciously aware of the same. In fact I remember being a little perturbed by this fact. Imagine that neural patterns in the brain form an intention based on pre-existing dispositions that you have towards the subject and then you become aware of it - almost like a inner homunculus (albeit a diffuse one) making up decisions and revealing them to you later…

Papers of interest:

Reading hidden intentions in the human brain - John-Dylan Haynes et al.

Brain reading” with fMRI: Decoding of conscious and unconscious information processing
John-Dylan Haynes

Predicting the orientation of invisible stimuli from activity in the human primary visual cortex - Geraint Rees and John-Dylan Haynes; Nature neuroscience Volume 8 Number 5, May 2005

Predicting the Stream of Consciousness from Activity in Human Visual Cortex - Geraint Rees and John-Dylan Haynes; Current Biology, Vol. 15, 1301–1307, July 26, 2005

The cognitive neuroscience of individual differences - new perspectives

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Art and Perception has a guest post by me:
Art and Perception (coordinated primarily by Karl Zipser) is a site that brings together some very talented artists who write and discuss art criticism, art technique, and dialectics on other interesting artistic expressions (like photography for instance). Many of the posts tend more towards being artistic essays than regular blog-type posts... Not too sure how many noticed, but this site has remained a permanent fixture on my 'Links of Interest' for some time now. I have been a regular visitor for some time and a commenter for a little while now. Karl asked me to write a guest post about my artistic tendencies and I was happy to write one out for the site. Here is a link to the same. Hope you like it. Of course, if you are bored by my post, fret not, be sure to check out some great posts by other gifted artists on this.

PS: In addition to being an artist, Karl also has an interest in neuroscience and has a doctorate in the neural sciences from MIT.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

'Feeling alone' as opposed to 'being alone' and the increased risk for Alzheimers in the former.

In a study published in the February issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, Dr. Robert S. Wilson and his colleagues have found evidence from an experimental study that loneliness is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Little is actually known about feeling alone rather than being alone - like between a person who could feel ‘alone’ even when surrounded by lots of people around as opposed to ‘being alone’ experienced by a lot of older age individuals who have lost their significant others.

Humans are very social creatures. We need healthy interactions with others to maintain our health,” said Wilson. “The results of our study suggest that people who are persistently lonely may be more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of age-related neuropathology.”
If loneliness is causing changes in the brain, it is quite possible that medications or changes in behavior could lessen the effects of these negative emotions and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Wilson.

They analyzed the association between loneliness and Alzheimer’s disease in 823 older adults over a four year period and included questionnaires to assess loneliness, classifications of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and testing of their thinking, learning and memory abilities. Loneliness was measured on a scale of one to five, with higher scores indicating more loneliness.
Risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease increased approximately 51 percent for each point on the loneliness score, so that a person with a high loneliness score (3.2) had about double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than a person with a low score (1.4).

Previous studies have shown the effects of social isolation and the risk for dementia and cognitive decline (like that suffered by prisoners undergoing long term incarceration), but this study was one of the first to focus on the effects of emotional isolation when the person has it in their minds that they FEEL alone. A very instructive study and I will be eager to find out more on this as and when additional results come out of this group.

Loneliness and Risk of Alzheimer Disease by Robert S. Wilson, PhD et. al - Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007;64:234-240

Supermax Prisons: Their Rise, Current Practices, and Effect on Inmates Jesenia Pizarro and Vanja M. K. Stenius; Rutgers University

Women in Prison: A Fact Sheet The Issue: Sexual Assault and Misconduct Against Women in Prison

Monday, February 05, 2007

Stress and its pernicious effects on our lives...

I was reading an excellent book by Joseph LeDoux (Synaptic Self – How our brains become who we are) and came across a remarkably succinct definition of stress and stress related damage on our brains and thought that I should draw a diagram to better understand it. I posted it here so that we could later refer to some of the flows involved (I plan to write a follow up post on some of the latest discoveries regarding stress). Please click on the image for a detailed view.
What is fascinating is that a behavior (stress response) that was evolved and fine tuned by our ancestors for use in one-off occasions to protect ourselves from impending attacks of wild beasts is now being experienced by all of us on a regular basis because of the pace of lives that we live out (the effects of this on our brains is far removed than what evolution had planned).

Well, there is clear evidence that the stress related changes in our bodies could directly effect our capacity to remember things and to a larger extent, have long term destructive effects on some of the most important structures within our brains. I hope you find this diagram useful. It is not as dense as it looks…

Some relevant definitions:
Hormone: Is a chemical messenger from one cell (or group of cells) to another. Hormones are produced by nearly every organ system and tissue type in an animal body. Hormone molecules are secreted (released) directly into the bloodstream.
Amygdala: It is a set of subcortical mass of neuronal cells that is important for perceiving in others and having in oneself emotional or affective behaviors and feelings (e.g. fear, anger). It got its name from its shape - like an 'almond'.
Peptides: Family of short molecules formed from the linking, in a defined order, of various amino acids (similar to proteins). Used for signalling among a host of other functions. Hormones are made of protein/peptides.
Hippocampus: Part of the brain located inside the temporal lobe (humans and other mammals have two hippocampi, one in each side of the brain). It plays a major part in memory and spatial navigation. The name derives from its curved shape in coronal sections of the brain, which resembles a seahorse (Greek: hippos = horse, kampi = curve).