Neuron Culture

This week’s Science is particularly rich in stories, it seems. These stories require a paid subscription, alas — but the write-ups here, in Science’s weekly mailing, make pretty good reading on their own for those without a subscription. My favorites:

From the Minds of Babes

I became fascinated with baby cognition when I did a story on Liz Spelke’s work with infants while also raising a couple. Spelke and others have focused on the wee’ns’s innate or very early powers of cognition, including numerosity and early logic and perception. Here, though, is an interesting study that proposes that at least one baby-logic error may occur not because baby’s logic is poor but because baby is so intensely focused on being led socially by his or her playmate/mentor/teacher. Given the power and primacy of social connections and trust (a subject I took interest in while writing about Williams syndrome, this seems a viable hypothesis and a wonderful notion: I’d love to see it explored some more.

From Science:

Human babies between 8 months and a year of age cannot perform certain cognitive tasks. In one of these, called the A-not-B error, an object is hidden under a container and the infant repeatedly reaches for it. Then the experimenter hides the object under a different container, in full view of the infant, but the baby still looks under the first container to find it. Topál et al. (p. 1831) propose a new explanation for this error, suggesting that the socially intense “teaching” interaction that usually accompanies the repeated hiding of the object under the first container ensures strong association of the object with that location. When the object is hidden without any communication between the experimenter and the infant, the baby’s error rate is reduced. Previous explanations for the phenomenon suggested that it was due to the immaturity of the infant’s executive motor control or his or her limited cognitive capacities.

The Agony of Defeat

Maurice Delgado, formerly a post-doc at Liz Phelp’s lab at NYU and now with his own at Rutgers, picks up one of the juicier fruits to fall from the neuroecon tree of late: the notion that people in auctions often bid less to experience the pleasure of winning (or owning) that to avoid the regret of losing.

From Science:

Auctioneers take advantage of human nature to increase the sale prices of items. But are they banking on the successful bidder’s enjoyment of winning, or are they instead relying on the bidder’s aversion to losing? Two sides of the same coin, one might say, but Delgado et al. (p. 1849; see the Perspective by Maskin) argue that it is the latter that drives the phenomenon known as overbidding. When participating in an auction, brain areas sensitive to loss became active. When the authors modified the ground rules of the auction so as to emphasize the potential for loss, without altering the basic possibility of winning, the tendency to overbid was magnified.

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/vol321/issue5897/twis.dtl

Modeling Ocean Circulation

I’ve loved ocean modeling since I spent way too much time looking at current models while writing The Great Gulf. A major challenge — and a major need for modeling fish population dynamics, like whether zillions of cod larvae will grow to fish on Georges Bank or be swept into the abyss just to the south — is modeling the currents in 3-D. Apparently someone has made progress on that front:

From Science:

Hydrothermal systems along ocean ridges help control the chemistry of the oceans and alter and hydrate the upper oceanic crust; this, in turn, returns water to the Earth’s mantle at subduction zones. Hydrothermal systems also foster deep ocean ecosystems. Observations seem to indicate that although ocean ridges are broadly linear, outflows are spaced out along them. Comou et al. (p. 1825) have developed a three-dimensional numerical model of this flow to help reveal the dynamics. Their model shows that optimizing heat transfer causes the flows to self-organize into narrow pipe-like upflows, spaced about 500 m apart, fed by zones of warm downflow that recirculate up to a quarter of the heat.
Figure 1

Figure 2

Finally, for the part of you that loves cell phones and pure geekery:

Working Together to Get the Job Done


Bob tries to make a call to Alice but finds that the line is too noisy. Picking up his second phone (he’s a very busy builder), he finds that line is also too noisy and so gives up trying to contact her. With two bad lines, Bob wouldn’t be able to make that phone call, at least using the classical communication channels of his provider. Had he had access to quantum communication channels, Smith and Yard (p. 1812, published online 21 August; see the Perspective by Oppenheim) show theoretically that the situation is quite different. Two quantum channels, each with zero capacity to transmit information independently, will allow information to be carried across them when used together. Not only of theoretical interest, this counterintuitive result may be of practical use in the design of quantum communication networks.

(Can’t be long before Clive Thompson is all over that one.)

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