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November 27, 2019

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December 2, 2011

Online NRSC 2100- Is it a Good Idea?


Over the last semester we have all participated in a class with a very different learning format from that which we are used to. Whether we signed up for an online class or not, almost all of the educational content of this class has been presented online. Independent, online learning, presents a very different learning experience than the traditional university course. Rather than seeing and hearing a professor lecture and discussing our learning in a social, classroom setting we have obtained most of our information through online textbooks, tutorials and videos and have discussed it using Facebook, Hootcourse and this blog. The question is: Is this new form of education that does not revolve around the face-to-face social experience between a teacher and a classroom bring the same benefits? Is social interaction important for learning? Do the social capabilities of the internet (i.e. Facebook) sufficiently replace in-person communication?
In her article, "The Developing Social Brain: Implications for Education, (http://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(10)00173-X )" Sarah-Jayne Blakemore explores the research that has been done on the role of social interaction in learning. Humans have a social brain; we are capable of intuitively knowing what certain facial expressions and body language mean. Babies developing language skills depend on social interaction for learning. Blakemore highlights a study (Kuhl et al., 2003 ) in which American babies are exposed to Chinese Mandarin through three different methods: 1) social interaction (reading and playing) with a native speaker, 2) videos of that same speaker or 3) audio recording of that same speaker. The only group that displayed the learned ability to distinguish between Chinese sounds was the group that experienced social interaction. The benefits of social interaction in learning are not yet understood. It could be that the infants are more motivated by social interaction or that the adult speaker is able to tailor their behavior to the child's needs in a social experience.
This doesn't necessarily point to the absolute necessity of social interaction for academic learning; language acquisition is different from the type of learning done in a university classroom and the age of the participants and their brain development is significantly different from that of the typical student enrolled in this class. Blakemore explores one of these issues by examining the difference in brain activity in adults and adolescents. The brain undergoes significant changes in Medial Prefrontal Activation during adolescence. This area is active in social cognition tasks. Research suggests that the development of social learning skills is still taking place late into adolescence and that continuing to learn and have real-life social interactions during this period is crucial for the development of the brain.
She concludes her exploration with more questions and an analysis of implications of this research for education. It is clear that some types of learning do require social interaction and that this is true even into late adolescence (and perhaps beyond?). For now, the question as to whether classes such as this one are as educationally valuable for the human brain is waiting on more research . For now, we get to be the judges of that.
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December 1, 2011

Neocortex: Why We are Better


The neocortex is the outer layer of the cerebral hemispheres, where in humans, is believed to be involved in higher functions such as language, conscious thought, sensory perceptions, etc. There has been a high volume of interest and debate among developmental neurobiologists regarding the molecular mechanisms/molecules involved in differentiation and development of the neocortex. But to start with, the question is, why specifically this region of the brain?

The neocortex is not known to be present throughout the animal kingdom, but is presumed to be specific to mammals. For example, we, humans, are able to perform particular functions and have a higher order of thinking due to the mechanisms/processes of the neocortex. Therefore, the unknown entities and development of the neocortex is a highly talked about subject within this field because it can help explain the evolution of human behavior and the known generates high interest as many researchers seek answers about the development of mankind.

Therefore, within the past 20 years, there has been significant progress in identifying certain patterning of the neocortex through state-of-the-art molecular approaches, however, we are still very far from knowing the complete truth. For example, we now know that the anterior-posterior orientation has a genetic impact that if altered, can lead to diseases such as smooth brain syndrome. In this case it is the alterations of the concentration gradients of two molecules, DCX anteriorly and LIS1 posteriorly. Additionally, there is now pertinent evidence of genetic patterning that is symmetric between the two hemispheres, that if altered, can also lead to severe phenotypes. Another concept at large debate is whether the differentiation and development of the neocortex is more dependent on intrinsic or extrinsic mechanisms, in which informs our understanding on the developmental plasticity phenomena, critiquing the importance of critical and sensitive periods. In other words, how much is the regionalization of areas in the neocortex affected by varying the levels of essential transcription factors?

Besides the uses of molecular techniques, Chen and his colleagues are investigating these questions through a combination of twin studies and structural MRI to demonstrate the relative contributions of genetic and environmental factors in regionalization of the cerebral cortex. Therefore, they have concluded that although "genetic factors may have a boisterous influence in the establishment of regionalization of the cortex, functional areas do not seem to be influenced by the same factors," implementing that those environmental factors can also play a significant role in neuro-development.

With the newly employed combination of these analytical studies and ultimate hype on the development of the neocortex, this marks an exciting new chapter on the study of human brain development, where we can hopefully determine the genetic and environmental factors that determine the higher order functions of human/mammalian brain. Furthermore, with this marked data and more advanced research on the human brain development to come, we may one day find more genetic or environmental patterning of the brain that can lead to cures of diseases that are defined as incurable today.

Schlagger, B. "Mapping Genetic Influences On Cortical Regionalization." Neuron. Volume 74, Issue 4. Pg. 499-501. 17 November 2011.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627311009597

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Posted on Sun, 4 Dec 2011 4:09 PM MST by Christina U.

October 23, 2011

In the eye of the beholder


Optic illusions are fascinating. Sparking curiosity, intrigue and doubt in minds gazing at the impossibilities spawned by them. Most people have been exposed to a variation of the famous "which object is bigger" illusion. If you don't know what I'm talking about, there are two objects of equal size physically, surrounded by various contextual components. These various components give the viewer a false sense of subjectivity in which one object appears larger than the other, even though both objects are identical. It turns out neuroscientists want to better understand the cause behind these false perceptions and even predict human subjectivity in object size.

Your brain contains a primary visual cortex, let's call this thing V1. The size and surface area of V1 has a large range of variability from person to person. Scientists have correlated the surface area of V1 to the subjectivity in object size. Experimentation took place during September 2010 with 30 subjects with the hypothesize correlating V1 surface area and conscious perception differences via FMRI technology. Subjects viewed a "Ebbinghaus" illusion as well as a "Ponzo" illusion. Both are forms of physically identical objects appearing different sizes due to contextual differences surrounding the objects. The Ebbinghaus illusion appears larger due to different size circles surrounding the center circle. While the Ponzo illusion appears larger due to the 3-D context surrounding the images. The resulting data showed a strong and negative correlation between V1 surface area and subjective object size. Meaning: The less V1 surface area, the bigger the difference between the identical objects perceived by subjects. It should be noted that the Ebbinghaus illusion yielded better data for relation than the Ponzo illusion. "The ability to judge fine visual differences in physical stimuli (Vernier acuity) is correlated with the degree of cortical magnification in primary visual cortex".

The article also addressed V1 surface area and brain size do not have a direct relationship. Meaning a bigger brain doesn't constitute greater V1 surface area. Therefore having a larger brain doesn't mean a person is better at correctly determining visual stimuli. V1 actually tended to be smaller in larger brains.

Consider the possibilities of predicting human behavior, opinions and subjectivities by knowing who is more susceptible to illusions and visual stimuli based on brain structure. Knowing exactly how well people can perform certain tasks depending on their brain structure may be far off in the future but it's roots seem to have a firm plantation in the field of research.

Most people like to believe they are in total control of their thoughts, subjectivities and opinions. Yet in this experiment, it showed that people having less surface area of the V1, perceptions of object size were distorted. Your perspective and opinions may not be as genuine as you original believed them to be. Rather just by products of the human brain analyzing stimuli. As neuroscience continues to unravel the mysteries of the human mind ideas such as free will, consciousness and perception may need to be redefined.

(All information was taken from http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v14/n1/full/nn.2706.html)
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Technology: Virtue or Vice to Our Brains?


It is undeniable that our daily lives are inundated with technology. Our society and this world work hand in hand with technology on a close, almost dependent level. It is only in the last few decades that we have become so co oriented with technology, and it is becoming a more pressing issue than ever that we question the effects of this change. As humans, who we are is shaped by our experiences, and knowing and acknowledging this fact means we have to question both the pros and cons of such a new and close relationship with technology. When looking at this relationship it is not a question of whether or not humans are being affected by technology but how technology is affecting us.

Technology includes a multitude of different things and cannot be considered one single entity. Because it is so multidimensional it is not necessarily a good or a bad thing; a greater breakdown is necessary to determine potentially harmful technology from proven positive facets of technology. It is verified that technology as a whole has the ability to manipulate mood and arousal. It has also been proven that attention, and vision and motor skills can be enhanced while using technology. These improvements are highly dependent based on the type of technology being used and whether or not there is active or passive interaction.

Television has been around for more than sixty years but it's relevance to everyday lives and learning has never been so great. There are learning benefits to technology but three reoccurring traits have surfaced in accordance with being wired. Studies have shown that people are more likely to be violent, exhibit addictive behavior, and get distracted easier. Once again the context of the technology must be taken in to consideration. Influences of technology are starting at earlier and earlier ages these days. In children the television show Telletubbies, research showed a decrease in language proficiency in children who watched this show. However, there was a language proficiency increase seen in children who watched Dora the Explorer.

These numerous concerns and detrimental findings in research also have a flip side. New research shows indications that playing video games is associated with a number of improvements in attention, cognition, vision, and motor control. Playing video games heightens ability to pinpoint small details in chaotic scenes. Playing video games and improving these skills has shown to help people in careers such as pilots or surgeons.
Part of making technology more beneficial than detrimental is learning how to use it and how to allow it to challenge and improve our brains as opposed to letting it become a route to mindlessness. We are seeing that the attractive features of video games such as emotional context, arousing experiences, and richly structured scenarios are what boost our intellectual brain and educational technology tends to exploit the repetitive nature of practice makes perfect. Making moves to shift educational technology toward the more interactive nature of technology could only improve our relationship with technology. It is difficult to study the ways that technology affects the human brain but considering the growing reliability and interaction humans have with it, research in this field is both necessary and critical to society.

Full article can be found at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627310006781
Posted by      Bethany B. at 9:41 PM MDT
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August 1, 2011

Upgrading your brain: A critique of Transhumanism


Have you ever wanted to be smarter or have a better memory, say, in the middle of taking an exam? For most of us, these desires seem unrealistic and we accept that our mental abilities have set limits that can?t be changed. However, there are some people who believe in Transhumanism, a philosophy that advocates the use of technology to enhance mental ability. In Future Minds: Transhumanism, Cognitive Enhancement and the Nature of Persons, Susan Schneider, a philosopher at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses the bioethics of the Transhumanist position. In particular, she examines whether mental enhancement is desirable from the viewpoint of personal identity. She believes that given the possibility that radical enhancement of an individual could result in the creation of a new entity that is no longer the same person, enhancement would not be ethical.
The basic tenets of Transhumanism are laid out in the Transhumanist Declaration that was written by members of the World Transhumanist Association. The tenets include:
(1) Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the
feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the
inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.
and
(4) Transhumanists advocate the moral right for those who so wish to use technology to
extend their mental and physical (including reproductive) capacities and to improve their control over their own lives. We seek personal growth beyond our current biological limitations.
Dr. Schneider believes that Transhumanism should be taken seriously given that many of the technologies that would allow for radical enhancement are in early development now. She provides a possible future scenario hoped for by many Transhumanists. In 2025, people become cyborgs by receiving eye implants connected to the internet and brain implants to improve memory. Life extension through nanotechnology becomes available by 2040. Human beings continue to modify themselves until they become posthumans by 2060. The Transhumanist Frequently Asked Questions by Nick Bostrom describes a posthuman as a being ?whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards?. In this scenario, there is no difference between radically modified human beings and super-intelligent artificial intelligences by 2600 other than origin.
Philosophers have long debated the nature of the person and find many of the scenarios envisioned by Transhumanist to be metaphysically problematic in regards to the continuity of identity. Dr. Schneider argues that the enhancements endorsed by Transhumanism could lead to undesirable results because someone who undergoes more and more mental enhancements would eventually cease to exist. In that light, radical mental enhancement would be unethical being a form of suicide. She then examines the viewpoint on this issue held by many Transhumanists, that of Patternism in which ?enhancements can alter the material substrate but must preserve your memories and your overall psychological configuration.? Several case studies are given which indicate that Transhumanists have a lot of work to do to show that identity can be preserved after mental enhancement.
This article is of interest because it raises the possibility that mental enhancement could be a form of suicide. However, the issue was discussed only in terms of philosophy and did not include much of our current understanding of the brain. Any future brain enhancements would arise from basic neuroscience research and debates of this nature must include specifics regarding the structure of the brain. Hopefully, this article will challenge neuroscientists to address issues regarding identity brought about by radical brain enhancement.
Posted by      David J. at 12:00 AM MDT

July 31, 2011

Taking A Brake: Making Driving Easier/Safer Through Neuroscience


It appears as though we're going back to the future, again, through the help of neuroscience. This time around, there is no time travel involved...just brain waves. A group of German researchers have recently used drivers' brain signals to assist in automated car braking, resulting in quicker reaction times and a potential solution to prevent thousands upon thousands of car accidents each year caused by human error.

The braking system is actually quite simple: through an EEG connected to the scalp and with modern traffic sensors equipped in most luxury cars today, the scientists could detect a driver's intention to break nearly 130 milliseconds faster than they would manually braking themselves. This 130-millisecond difference is phenomenal in that it nearly circumvents all the 'thinking' a human has to do to perform the same braking action.

Crunching Numbers: At 100 km/h, this means that the automated braking system would spare the average driver approximately 12 feet in space compared to manual breaking, which is just about the size of a standard compact vehicle. The twelve feet of distance gained by the driver could be the difference between a minor fender bender and a fatal car crash, or even no car accident at all.

But, this arising technology certainly isn't foolproof. For this reason, the scientists at Berlin Institute for Technology added a second component to their braking system: EMG. Instead of relying on brain signals for car braking, they also use human leg muscles for the same purpose. The scientists measure leg muscle tension associated with braking and are able to sense when a person is going to brake before their legs even reach the brake pedal. Thus, adding another safety dynamic to the overall automatic braking system.

Unfortunately, this technology is still new and undergoing initial testing. Most trials are conducted through simulations and computer programs and haven't been integrated into real working vehicles.

According to the lead author of the study: "We are now considering to test the system online in a real car however if such a technology would ever enter a commercial product, it would certainly be used to complement other assistive technology to avoid the consequences of false alarms that could be both annoying and dangerous." I think it is important to note that under no circumstances are the scientists trying to replace human function, they are only trying to strengthen and improve it.

The thought of automated braking and driving is actually kind of frightening. Where should we draw the line in terms of technology replacing what we do as humans? Are there any caveats that we simply can't predict with this automated driving technology?

As far as I'm concerned, I would love for this technology to gain funding and respect in the scientific community. But until we actually know what we're doing with it, I'd prefer for it to remain on computer simulations until I know I can trust my life or other people's lives with it.

Sources: http://iopscience.iop.org/1741-2552/8/5/056001/ (Full Text PDF Available on Website)
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