The evolutionary psychology of war

Nothing too shocking here for students of evolutionary psychology but it’s always interesting to see real world examples of how our shared behavior. There is a new book by Sebastian Junger called War, in which he recounts how men do not fight for larger ideological goals (eg. “a safer Iraq”, “finding Bin Laden”) but instead they can overcome fears because “they’re more concerned about their brothers than what happens to themselves individually”. Here’s Junger on Good Morning America:

After the jump some more from Junger and a nice talk from Robert Sapolsky about similar behaviors in chimps.

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Henry Markram on TED – video online

We had read that Dr. Henry Markram of the Blue Brain project had given a talk at TED (technology, entertainment, design), but the video wasn’t released until this month.  This talk is geared towards a general audience, rather than getting into the specific details of the Blue Brain project, as he has before.  It is engaging and includes many suggestions towards the future of neuroscience and AI.

Watch it online at the TED website.

Frontiers in Neuroscience Journal

The journal, Frontiers in Neuroscience, edited by Idan Segev, has made it Volume 3, issue 1.  Launching last year at the Society for Neuroscience conference, its probably the newest Neuroscience-related journal.

I’m a fan of it because it is an open-access journal featuring a “tiered system” and more.  From their website:

The Frontiers Journal Series is not just another journal. It is a new approach to scientific publishing. As service to scientists, it is driven by researchers for researchers but it also serves the interests of the general public. Frontiers disseminates research in a tiered system that begins with original articles submitted to Specialty Journals. It evaluates research truly democratically and objectively based on the reading activity of the scientific communities and the public. And it drives the most outstanding and relevant research up to the next tier journals, the Field Journals.

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Evidence of similar linguistic capabilities in Neaderthals

Apparently, in a few years, we will be able to bring Neaderthals back to life with the complete Neaderthal genome [NYT]. Currently, there is good sequence data available over 63% of the genome. (I’m amazed that, given fragmented DNA from bone, Neanderthal sequence can be distinguished from human DNA contamination but perhaps this problem is solved by having high enough coverage/multiple fragments of the same region.)

Also, it looks like Neanderthals share the FOXP2 variant that humans have:

Archaeologists have long debated whether Neanderthals could speak, and they have eagerly awaited Dr. Pääbo’s analysis of the Neanderthal FOXP2, a gene essential for language. Modern humans have two changes in FOXP2 that are not found in chimpanzees, and that presumably evolved to make speech possible. Dr. Pääbo said Neanderthals had the same two changes in their version of the FOXP2 gene. But many other genes are involved in language, so it is too early to say whether Neanderthals could speak.

UPDATE: A few days ago, I heard Wolf Enard, one of Paabo’s postdocs, speak on a fascinating project, where human version of FOXP2 was knocked in to mice (replacing the endogenous mouse version). Although the phenotypic effects were subtle, the approach itself is quite revolutionary: Putting human versions of genes into model organisms to see how the subsequent evolution of the gene changes its function. I wonder what other genes might be amenable to this approach.

Neuroscience of voting

As the first presidential debate nears, there’s a lot of excitement (and worry) regarding the election. Today, Salon had an interesting piece on voter behavior and irrational attachment to ideologies and candidates. Recounting a recent psychology paper’s punchline:

The article’s conclusion should be posted as a caveat under every political speech of those seeking office. And it should serve as the epitaph for the Bush administration: “People who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. That is, the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be it their own or anyone else’s.”

Slate had a story (“Why is every neuropundit such a raging liberal?“) about how neuroscience and neuromarketing are changing political consulting (also here’s a link to a similar story in NYT last week):

According to a study of political psychology published last Thursday in Science, conservatives tend to be the jumpier lot.

The researchers called 46 political partisans into their laboratory at the University of Nebraska, affixed electrodes to their fingertips and eyelids, and measured sweat output and eye blinks in response to a series of startling stimuli. (Subjects were forced to endure images of bloody faces and maggot-infested wounds, as well as sudden blasts of white noise.) The results: Social conservatives—those who supported the death penalty, the Patriot Act, prayer in school, and the like—sweated more, and blinked more intensely, than the liberals.

The Slate and NYT articles in particular suggest something that I have long believed to be true. The Republican “story” is, from a neuroscience perspective, simply better because it tends to view the world in clear-cut terms with no middle ground and, thus, is more effective at rallying emotional processing areas of the brain (eg. limbic system). It is well-known in neuroscience that emotionally salient events that activate these limbic structures are better remembered than less charged memories. The Democratic “story” tends to be more complicated with shades of gray and therefore requires higher-level processing (eg. cortical areas involved in conflict resolution). Clearly, I’m oversimplifying things here a bit (see, I’m designing this post to appeal to your limbic system!) but I think that this hypothesis might have some legs.

Of course, if it’s true, why doesn’t everyone vote Republican if that story is the neurally more rewarding one? Or perhaps the more relevant question: Is it even possible for the Democrats to tap into the similar evolutionarily older limbic structures that seem to dominate the Republican story?

Also, although I prefer Neurodudes to stick with the science over any partisan politics, I must say I found this statistic interesting (from the Slate article):

in 2002, Daniel Klein and Andrew Western tallied the political affiliations of professors at Berkeley and Stanford and found that even in the hard sciences, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a factor of almost 8 to 1. Among professors of neurology and neuroscience, Klein and Western counted 68 registered Democrats against just six Republicans.

Plant neuroscience

Plants Found to Show Preferences for Their Relatives –

Two amazing things here:

  1. Plants missing photosynthetic enzymes of their own that migrate directionally toward “victim” plants. This behavior has an uncanny resemblance to axon guidance. Make sure to view the time-lapse video in the NYT article. Here’s an image from the PSU website:

  2. Plants capable of identifying kin and “being nice” to kin while going into a competitive mode of root growth with non-kin. Amazing.

It refreshing to see this kind of interesting behavior without any neurons involved. It makes me think (realize) that the idea of a neuron or a neural system has many components and there might not be any good reason to assume that a single cell must have all of those properties or none of them. Something like a neuron-like cell that’s not a neuron in the classical sense. Anyone know of other examples?