Brilliant Italian scientists successfully recombine work and pleasure

A study provides evidence that talking into a person’s right ear can affect behavior more effectively than talking into the left.

One of the best known asymmetries in humans is the right ear dominance for listening to verbal stimuli, which is believed to reflect the brain’s left hemisphere superiority for processing verbal information.

I heavily prefer my left ear for phone calls. So much so that I have trouble understanding people on the phone when I use my right ear. Should I be concerned that my brain seems to be inverted?

Read on and it becomes clear that going beyond perceptual psychology, the scientists are terrifically shrewd:

Tommasi and Marzoli’s three studies specifically observed ear preference during social interactions in noisy night club environments. In the first study, 286 clubbers were observed while they were talking, with loud music in the background. In total, 72 percent of interactions occurred on the right side of the listener. These results are consistent with the right ear preference found in both laboratory studies and questionnaires and they demonstrate that the side bias is spontaneously displayed outside the laboratory.

In the second study, the researchers approached 160 clubbers and mumbled an inaudible, meaningless utterance and waited for the subjects to turn their head and offer either their left of their right ear. They then asked them for a cigarette. Overall, 58 percent offered their right ear for listening and 42 percent their left. Only women showed a consistent right-ear preference. In this study, there was no link between the number of cigarettes obtained and the ear receiving the request.

In the third study, the researchers intentionally addressed 176 clubbers in either their right or their left ear when asking for a cigarette. They obtained significantly more cigarettes when they spoke to the clubbers’ right ear compared with their left.

I’m picturing the scientists using their grant money to pay cover at dance clubs and try to obtain as many cigarettes as possible – carefully collecting, then smoking, their data – with the added bonus that their experiment happens to require striking up conversation with clubbers of the opposite sex who are dancing alone. One assumes that, if the test subject happened to be attractive, once the cigarette was obtained (or not) the subject was invited out onto the terrace so the scientist could explain the experiment and his interesting line of work. Well played!

Learning nouns activates separate brain region from learning verbs

Another MRI study, this time investigating how we learn parts of speech:

The test consisted of working out the meaning of a new term based on the context provided in two sentences. For example, in the phrase “The girl got a jat for Christmas” and “The best man was so nervous he forgot the jat,” the noun jat means “ring.” Similarly, with “The student is nising noodles for breakfast” and “The man nised a delicious meal for her” the hidden verb is “cook.”

“This task simulates, at an experimental level, how we acquire part of our vocabulary over the course of our lives, by discovering the meaning of new words in written contexts,” explains Rodríguez-Fornells. “This kind of vocabulary acquisition based on verbal contexts is one of the most important mechanisms for learning new words during childhood and later as adults, because we are constantly learning new terms.”

The participants had to learn 80 new nouns and 80 new verbs. By doing this, the brain imaging showed that new nouns primarily activate the left fusiform gyrus (the underside of the temporal lobe associated with visual and object processing), while the new verbs activated part of the left posterior medial temporal gyrus (associated with semantic and conceptual aspects) and the left inferior frontal gyrus (involved in processing grammar).

This last bit was unexpected, at first. I would have guessed that verbs would be learned in regions of the brain associated with motor action. But according to this study, verbs seem to be learned only as grammatical concepts. In other words, knowledge of what it means to run is quite different than knowing how to run. Which makes sense if verb meaning is accessed by representational memory rather than declarative memory.

Skin receptors may contribute to emotion

Interoception, the perception of internal feelings, is a funny thing. From our point of view as feeling beings, it seems entirely distinct from exteroceptive channels (sight, hearing, and so on). Interoception is also thought to be how we feel emotions, in addition to bodily functions. When you feel either hungry or lovesick, you are perceiving the state of your internal body, organs, and metabolism. A few years ago it was discovered that there are neural pathways for interoception distinct from ones used to perceive the outside world.

Interesting new research suggests that mechanical skin disturbances caused by pulsating blood vessels may significantly contribute to your perception of your own heartbeat. This is important because it means that skin may play a larger role in emotion than has been previously thought.

The researchers found that, in addition to a pathway involving the insular cortex of the brain — the target of most recent research on interoception — an additional pathway contributing to feeling your own heartbeat exists. The second pathway goes from fibers in the skin to most likely the somatosensory cortex, a part of the brain involved in mapping the outside of the body and the sense of posture.

This sounds surprising at first, but it makes perfect sense. There have been other instances where the functionality of perceptual systems overlap. For example, it’s been found that skin receptors contribute to kinesthesia: as the joints bend, sensations of skin stretch are used to perceive of joint angles. This was also somewhat surprising at the time, because it was thought that perception of one’s joint angles arose out of the receptors in the joints themselves, exclusively. The same phenomenon, of skin movement being incidentally involved in some other primary action, is at work here. We might be able to say that any time the skin is moved perceptibly, cutaneous signals are bound up with the percept itself.

In fact, I think this may be a good object lesson in how words about feelings can be very confusing. A few years ago, before the recent considerable progress in mapping the neural signature of interoception, the word ‘interoception’ was used to describe a class of perceptions—ones whose object was the perceiver. Interoception meant the perception of bodily processes: heartbeat, metabolic functioning, and so on. When scientists discovered a neural pathway that serves only this purpose, the word suddenly began to refer not to the perceptual modality, but exclusively to that neural pathway. Now that multiple pathways have been identified, the word will go back to its original meaning: a class of percepts, rather than a particular neural conduit.

Gestures and words are neurologically similar

Two types of gestures were considered for the study: pantomimes, which mimic objects or actions, such as unscrewing a jar or juggling balls, and emblems, which are commonly used in social interactions and which signify abstract, usually more emotionally charged concepts than pantomimes. Examples include a hand sweeping across the forehead to indicate “it’s hot in here!” or a finger to the lips to signify “be quiet.”

Current thinking in the study of language is that, like a smart search engine that pops up the most suitable Web site at the top of its search results, the posterior temporal region serves as a storehouse of words from which the inferior frontal gyrus selects the most appropriate match. The researchers suggest that, rather than being limited to deciphering words alone, these regions may be able to apply meaning to any incoming symbols, be they words, gestures, images, sounds, or objects.

It doesn’t surprise me that a widely held theory of language is based on our understanding of how search engines work, because we tend to conceptualize our world with metaphors based on technology. But this suggests that many of our abstract theories might be pinned to planned obsolescence schedules, which is kind of amusing.

"The modified modifier"

I recently found a mysterious and intriguing blog called Art Is Dead Long Live Art. The author, Erin Voth, explores transmutations of hand and touch.

IMG_6164

Hands are the chief organs for physically manipulating the environment. The fingertips contain some of the densest areas of nerve endings in the human body, creating the richest source of tactile feedback to the brain. The image of a human hand is automatically associated with the scene [sic] of touch. So what happens when an image of a human hand is manipulated, sliced up and rearranged?

The modified modifier invokes images of self mutilation, alteration and airbrushing.

The somatosensory system is a widespread and diverse sensory system comprising of the receptors and processing centres to produce the sensory modalities touch, temperature, body position, and pain. The sensory receptors cover the skin and epithelia, skeletal muscles, bones and joints, internal organs, and the cardiovascular system. While touch is considered one of the five traditional senses the impression of touch is formed from several modalities.

The system reacts to diverse stimuli using different receptors: temperature, mechanical and chemical. Transmission of information from the receptors passes via sensory nerves through tracts in the spinal cord and into the brain. Processing primarily occurs in the primary somatosensory area in the parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex.

At its simplest, the system works when a sensory neuron is triggered by a specific stimulus such as heat; this neuron passes to an area in the brain uniquely attributed to that area on the body—this allows the processed stimulus to be felt at the correct location. The mapping of the body surfaces in the brain is called a homunculus and is essential in the creation of a body image.

[James] Gibson and others emphasized the close link between haptic perception and body movement: haptic perception is active exploration. The concept of haptic perception is related to the concept of extended physiological proprioception according to which, when using a tool such as a stick, perceptual experience is transparently transferred to the end of the tool.

Put yourself in my position

…so you can understand how I feel:

“Our language is full of spatial metaphors, particularly when we attempt to explain or understand how other people think or feel. We often talk about putting ourselves in others’ shoes, seeing something from someone else’s point of view, or figuratively looking over someone’s shoulder,” Sohee Park, report co-author and professor of psychology, said. “Although future work is needed to elucidate the nature of the relationship between empathy, spatial abilities and their potentially overlapping neural underpinnings, this work provides initial evidence that empathy might be, in part, spatially represented.”

“We use spatial manipulations of mental representations all the time as we move through the physical world. As a result, we have readily available cognitive resources to deploy in our attempts to understand what we see. This may extend to our understanding of others’ mental states,” Katharine N. Thakkar, a psychology graduate student at Vanderbilt and the report’s lead author, said. “Separate lines of neuroimaging research have noted involvement of the same brain area, the parietal cortex, during tasks involving visuo-spatial processes and empathy.”

The Hand

0679740473The Hand by Frank Wilson is a rare treat. It runs the gamut from anthropology (both the cultural and evolutionary varieties), to psychology, to biography. Wilson interviews an auto mechanic, a pupeteer, a surgeon, a physical therapist, a rock climber, a magician, and others—all with the goal of understanding the extent to which the human hand defines humanness.

Wilson is a neurologist who works with musicians who have been afflicted with debilitating chronic hand pain. As he writes about his many interviews, a few themes emerge that are especially relevant to our interests here.

Incorporation
Incorporation is the phenomenon of internalizing external objects; it’s the feeling that we all get that a tool has become one with our body.

The idea of “becoming one” with a backhoe is no more exotic than the idea of a rider becoming one with a horse or a carpenter becoming one with a hammer, and this phenomenon itself may take its origin from countless monkeys who spent countless eons becoming one with tree branches. The mystical feel comes from the combination of a good mechanical marriage and something in the nervous system that can make an object external to the body feel as if it had sprouted from the hand, foot, or (rarely) some other place on the body where your skin makes contact with it…

The contexts in which this bonding occurs are so varied that there is no single word that adequately conveys either the process or the many variants of its final form. One term that might qualify is “incorporation”—bringing something into, or making it part of, the body. It is a commonplace experience, familiar to anyone who has ever played a musical instrument, eaten with a fork or chopsticks, ridden a bicycle, or driven a car. (p. 63)

Projection
Projection is the ability to use the hand as a bridge for projecting consciousness from one location to another. (Wilson did not use the word “projection” in the book.) In some ways, projection can be seen as the opposite of incorporation. Master puppeteer Anton Bachleitner:

It takes at least three years of work to say you are a puppeteer. The most difficult job technically is to be able to feel the foot contact the floor as it actually happens. The only way to make the puppet look as though it is actually walking is by feeling what is happening through your hands. The other thing which I think you cannot really train for, but only can discover with very long practice and experience, is a change in your own vision.

The best puppeteer after some years will actually see what is happening on the stage as if he himself was located in the head of the puppet, looking out through the puppet’s eyes—he must learn to be in the puppet. This is true not only in the traditional actor’s sense, but in an unusual perceptual sense. The puppeteer stands two meters above the puppet and must be able to see what is on the stage and to move from the puppet’s perspective. Moving is a special problem because of this distance, because the puppet does not move at the same time your hand does. Also, there can be several puppets on the stage at the same time, and to appear realistic they must react to each other as they would in real life. So again the puppeteer must himself be mentally on the stage and able to react as a stage actor would react. This is something I cannot explain, but it is very imprortant for a puppeteer to be able to do this. (pp. 92–93)

Serge Percelly, professional juggler:

[An act is successful] not because you put something in the act that’s really difficult, but because you put something in the act in exactly the right way—in a way that makes it more interesting, not only for me but for the audience as well. I’m just trying somehow to do the act that I would have loved to see. (p. 111)

Skill
Wilson is a musician and a doctor to musicians, so he has special insight into the neurology of musical skill—which he recognizes as special case of manual skill that involves gesture, communication, and emotion.

Musical skill provides the clearest example and the cleanest proof of the existence of a whole class of self-defined, personally distinctive motor skills with an extended training and experience base, strong ties to the individual’s emotional and cognitive development, strong communicative intent, and very high performance standards. Musical skill, in other words, is more than simply praxis, ordinary manual dexterity, or expertness in pantomime. (p. 207)

The upper-limb (or “output”) requirements for an instrumentalist are not unique either; they depend upon the possession of arms, fingers, and thumbs, specific but idiosyncratic limits on the rage of motion at the shoulder, elbow, wrist, hand, and finger joints, variable abilities to achieve repetition rates and forces with specific digital configurations in sequence at multiple contact points on a sound-making device, and so on. Peculiarities in the physical configuration and movement capabisities of the musician’s limbs can be an advantage or disadvantage but are reflected in (and in adverse cases can be overcome through) instrument design: How wide can you make the neck of a guitar? How far apart should the keys be on a piano? Where should the keys be placed on a flute—in general? and for Susan and Peter? (p. 225)

Awareness
Touch experience can be a gateway to awareness, which can in turn heal both the mind and the body. Moshe Feldenkrais invented a form of physical therapy that focuses on stimulating an awareness of touch and movement sensations in order to relieve pain.

Most people slouch, tilt, shuffle, twist, stumble, and hobble along. Why should that be? Was there something wrong with their brains? After considering what dancers and musicians go through to improve control of their movements, [Feldenkrais] guessed that people must either be ignorant of the possibilities or refuse to act on them. So they just heave themselves around, lurching from parking place to office to parking place, utterly oblivious to what they are doing, to their appearance, and even to the sensations that arise from bodily movement. He suspected that people just lose contact with their own bodies. If and when they do notice, it is because they are so stiff that they can’t get out of bed or are in so much pain that they can barely get out of a chair. Then they start noticing…

What [Feldenkrais] was doing did not seem complicated. The goal of the guided movements was not to learn how to move, in the sense of learning to do a new dance step. The goal was not to stretch ligaments or muscles. It was not to increase strength. The goal, as he saw it, was to get the messages moving again and to encourage the brain to pay attention to them. (p. 244)

And his student, Anat Baniel, on the deep psychological roots of movement disorders:

I think working with children has given me this idea, which isn’t often discussed in medicine: a lot of disease—medical disease and emotional “dis-ease”—is an outcome of a lack of full development. It’s not something we can get to just by removing a psychological block…

Of course there are problems due to traumatic events in childhood, or disease—you name it. Feldenkrais said that ideal development would happen if the child was not opposed by a force too big for its strength. When you say to a small child, “Don’t touch that, it’s dangerous!” you create such a forceful inhibition that you actually distort the child’s movement, and growth, in a certain way.

Feldenkrais taught us to look for what isn’t there. Why doesn’t movement happen in the way that it should, given gravity, given the structure of the body, given the brain? For all of us there is a sort of sphere, or range, of movement that should be possible. Some people get only five or ten percent of that sphere, and you have to ask, “What explains the difference between those who get very little and those who get a lot?” Feldenkrais said that the difference is that in the process of development, the body encountered forces that were disproportionate to what the nervous system could absorb without becoming overinhibited—or overly excited, which is a manifestation of the same thing. (p. 252)

Feldenkrais’s approach is fascinating, but there is scant discussion in Wilson’s book about the role of the therapist’s hand in this process. After all, this kind of therapy is wholly reliant on an accidental discovery: that the patient can be made aware of her own body through an external, expert hand radiating pressure and heat. How is this possible? The topic isn’t explored.

There are many, many wonderful things to learn from this book for anyone with an interest in biology, art, music, history, or sports. You can find Frank Wilson on the web at Handoc.com