2011 Sharp Brains Summit

Registration is now open for the 2011 Sharp Brains Summit (full disclosure – I am a speaker this year). Sharp Brains is an organization that follows the business of brain fitness software and is primarily dedicated to promoting the business model of selling software.  At the same time, Alvaro and his team are quite serious about highlighting the best ways that we can improve our brains (non-pharmacologically, that is), and the information that Sharp Brains provides is not only intriguing but often practical. If you are at all interested in the latest and greatest in this rapidly growing field, by all means attend.

Even better, you don’t have to go anywhere!!  This is a virtual conference, so all that you need is a computer (you need to be  able to run Flash, but if you can watch YouTube videos, you are all set) to attend from the comfort of your own home or office.  I attended the 2010 Summit, and it was remarkably effective – not only did it save travel expenses and time for me (not to mention that it was environmentally responsible), but it turned out that the virtual conference had an advantage over in-person conferences in one way. Most people have had the experience that some of the most valuable discussions at conferences occur not from the podium but in the hallway. The virtual conference software allows for hallway conversations, but the bulk of that conversation occurs as a public comment stream. Getting to hear what many people are saying in the ‘hallway’ is much better than hearing only one person, and if you like what they say, you can send them a note and continue your conversation as a private one.

For the full list of speakers, go here.

For a brief intro to virtual conferences, go here.

Hyperlinks

In July 1945, Vannevar Bush (pictured) published a landmark essay in The Atlantic entitled As We May Think.  In his article, Bush put forward his vision of the future of information technology, most famously describing something that he called a ‘memex’ machine which brought together information from a wide variety of sources and was the intellectual predecessor of the world wide web.  The essay turned out to be influential in numerous ways, and has been acknowledged by Doug Englebart as having contributed to his development of hypertext.  Fast forward 55 years and hyperlinks are ubiquitous.  Hat’s off to Bush: it is a rare insight that blossoms for decades after being conceived, and even rarer to have it thrive as something that is used by millions of people worldwide each and every day.  And, if you are like me, you really like them.

But as with candy, there is the possibility that too much of it will leave you with a belly ache.  Well, perhaps not a belly ache.  But there is the very real possibility that hyperlinks will affect your physiology with undesirable consequences. Continue reading

Massive study finds no support for generalizability of benefit from brain training software

In a powerhouse of a publication, Adrian Owen and his colleagues have taken a broadside at the field of brain fitness software.  Together with the BBC popular science program Bang Goes the Test, they recruited 11,430 people who completed an average of twenty-four 10 minute training sessions over the six weeks that the experiment was run.  All of these individuals underwent cognitive testing before and after brain training, and the results were pretty clear: brain training provided no benefit other than improvement on the task that people trained with.  In their words:

In our view these results provide no evidence to support the widely held belief that the regular use of computerized brain trainers improves general cognitive functioning in healthy participants beyond those tasks that are actually being trained.

There will be much debate about this study in the days and weeks to come, much of it focused on the details, which, as we all know, is where the devil habitually resides.   In particular, it will be very important for experts to examine the specific tests being employed and compare them to what has been previously published, especially for those brain training regimes that have reported improvements in fluid intelligence.  One thing is clear: the numbers of participants make it difficult to refute Owen et al.’s findings, and certain make replication a challenge.

Personally, I see Owen et al.’s study as a healthy development, indicating that the field is moving from adolescence into early adulthood.  Indeed, with pharmaceuticals of all stripes we are quite accustomed to optimistic early results only to find in later, larger trials (especially after the drugs are released into use by the general population) that a subtle effect is seen which was not observed in earlier clinical trials.  Moreover, it is likely to spur further investigation, which again can only be healthy. The results, and our interpretation of those results, are likely to change over time.

I will admit to being among those who had hoped that brain training would produce impressive effects.  But in the end, I am a slave to data.   Anything less would be wishful thinking.

For more about the study, see the following video from the Nature Video.

Image source: Nature Publishing Group and Rex Features

Hat tip to Sofia Lombera for alerting me to the video

How is the internet changing the way that you think?

Edge is an organization that “promotes inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society.” Every year, they ask their brain trust to address one big question, and this year it is this: How is the internet changing the way that you think?  Regular readers will recognize that we have occasionally touched on this topic before, most recently when we reviewed some issues related to the effects of multitasking on the brain.  But the respondents at Edge came up with a host of interesting comments, and I recommend reading the entire set of them if you have the time.  Below the fold, I have exerpted a few of the comments that I found most relevant to issues in neuroethics.

From my perspective, I think that the two major effects of the internet as we use it today is that it decreases the need for wetware memory and degrades our ability to pay attention.  The memory issue is good – I don’t have to remember as much as I used to because a tremendous amount of information is available at a moment’s notice.  But flip side of the internet in general and hyperlinking in particular is that they are unbelievably distracting, and Nicholas Carr famously described his experiences in this regard in his article in the Atlantic entitled,Is Google Making us Stupid?“.  I tend to think quite a bit about the effects of normal aging on memory, and one of the things that we have learned in the last few years is that as we age, it is not so much our ability to remember things as to avoid being distracted by irrelevant stimuli which impedes our ability to perform cognitive tasks.  The data is not yet convincing, but I suspect that this loss of cognitive control is substantially further degraded by regular internet use.  The impact that this may have on the aging of today’s young brains, developing so critically in an environment which promotes distractibility, is unknown.

Well, that’s my two cents worth.  If you see other comments on the Edge site that you like – or don’t like – by all means let us know.  And, of course, if you have an opinion on the subject, feel free to comment. Continue reading

Does multitasking change your brain?

There has been quite a bit of interest in multitasking of late, most recently with a series of posts over at the Britannica Blog with contributions from Maggie Jackson, Howard Rheingold, Heather Gold, and Nicholas Carr.  The posts are quite interesting, and dovetail nicely with the thoughtful presentation by Frank Schirrmacher over at Edge entitled “The Age of the Informavore.”  I highly recommend the entire set to get an idea of what popular thinking is about multitasking.

From our perspective here at the Core, the real question is one that Schirrmacher addresses in his talk: is multitasking changing our brains?  Nicholas Carr’s infamous Atlantic piece “Is Google Making us Stupid” really set the stage, and it bears repeating that everything that we do affects the way that our brains work.  Especially so when we have something like multitasking that is inherently rewarding.  But the unanswered question is whether it is good for you.  The science is unresolved. Continue reading

Don’t throw the evolutionary psychology baby out with the bathwater

Evolutionary psychology is under attack again.  Leading the charge is Sharon Begley who has an incendiary piece in Newsweek entitled, “Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?”.  Sharon is a very insightful science writer, but her arguments seem to be driven as much by outrage as by data.

It has always been a weakness of the field of evolutionary psychology that the bulk of the research has consisted of hypotheses (some would say just-so stories) rather than data.  More controversially, some of the conclusions which followed have been politically uncomfortable to consider. But the real question is not whether they are uncomfortable but whether they reveal something meaningful about the human condition.  The proper way to arrive at that conclusion is to sharpen our thinking and carry out experiments to test these hypotheses.  Indeed, in recent years the field has moved to more rigorous forms of inquiry and data is beginning to emerge which serves to test some of the hypotheses that have been put forward.  As with any field of science, some of the hypotheses that have been put forward have been found wanting.  There is nothing really new about that.  What makes Sharon’s piece newsworthy (but at the same time a bit slanted) is that at least some of the hypotheses that have fallen were those very ones that were viewed as uncomfortable.

But frankly, these are arguments over details, the sort of thing that scientists hash out in the Q&A sessions that are the staple of scientific meetings. The bigger criticism for evolutionary psychology (evident in Sharon’s piece but much more so in the commentary by David Brooks in the New York Times) is that our brains do not consist of pre-programmed modules that were set in stone during the Pleistocene. Rather, it seems that the adaptation which has allowed us to flourish as a species is the fluidity with which we use our neural apparatus to the task at hand, whatever it may be.  This plasticity is why my brain, whose genetic programming most certainly derives from my evolutionary history, is able to master such a modern task as typing. By presenting the brain as a series of modules with fixed functions, evolutionary psychology painted itself into a corner.  The challenge for the field is really to understand something much more nuanced: how plasticity interacts with innate neural networks to produce modern behavior.

[For those interested in further commentary, some of it quite detailed with respect to the individual arguments put forward by Begley, I recommend you go hereand here and here.]

Dana Press Blog Features Brain Awareness Week Neuroethics Roundup

The Dana Press Blog recently featured an entry by the Core’s Dr. Judy Illes on the recent Brain Awareness Week Neuroethics Lecture by Dr. Bruce Wexler at the University of British Columbia.

Dr. Wexler discussed the interface among neuroplasticity, the impact of the environment on neurodevelopment, and the interaction between internal schema (how we see the world) and external stimuli through the aging process.