a, Science & Technology

Research Briefs—March 31, 2015


  • A visual dictionary

    Recent research published in The Journal of Neuroscience by researchers from Georgetown University has preseanted the mechanism underlying how humans read. The researchers found that instead of breaking down words into sounds and meanings, our brains visually imagine the word first. The collaboration of scientists conducting this study believe a small part of the brain called the visual word form area (VWFA) in the left occipitotemporal lobe stores how a whole word looks, allowing for quick recall while reading.

    To demonstrate this hypothesis, subjects were trained to recognize ‘pseudo-words,’ or words that had no meaning. The volunteers then had an fMRI, a type of brain scan, taken of them while reading texts which contained both real and pseudo-words. What the researchers found was that before training there was poor response tunings in the VWFA, while real words exhibited strong responses. After the training, the pseudowords began to elicit similar responses to real words, suggesting that word learning increases neuron specificity in the VWFA, which creates a picture of the word and saves it in a type of visual dictionary.

    This research adds to the ever-growing pile of evidence supporting the hypothesis that our brains do not have a direct mechanism for reading. This is because expression in the form of writing is so evolutionarily young that our brains have instead created new, alternate, mechanisms for reading. The study has wide implications in the field of learning and reading, especially when considering new strategies to visual word processing for those with learning disabilities.

  • Maintaining fidelity

    McGill University researcher John Lydon and Johan Karremans from Radbond University may have figured out why some people in relationships have a wandering eye and others don’t. Their recently published review, Relationship regulation in the face of eye candy: A motivated cognition framework for understanding response to attractive alternatives, explores how couples in committed relationships resist other attractive individuals.

    According to Lydon and Karremans, the difference between a cheater and a faithful partner is tied to the ability to exert self-control in all areas of their lives—this includes resisting fattening foods or binge watching Netflix. In one study they presented, brain activation when neglecting self-control also correlated to a higher degree of responsiveness to attractive individuals, regardless of the relationship status. So it would seem that those who are more likely to succumb to their vices are more likely to succumb to infidelity as well. Conditions that decrease inhibition, such as being tired, stressed, or under the influence of alcohol, are also conducive to cheating.

    When evaluating faithfulness, psychological drives of motivation play an enormous role. However, fidelity runs beyond one’s personal ability to stay motivated, and is also tied to the amount by which one identifies with his or her partner. Basically, resisting ‘eye candy’ is a lot easier to do if a person is more invested. On the other hand, if the chemistry is missing, the tendency to explore alternative, more attractive individuals, increases.

  • Doping with dopamine

    Human actions have been portrayed as being impossible to predict. Scientists from UC Berkley and UC San Francisco are showing that this might not necessarily be the case. In their study Dopamine Modulates Egalitarian Behaviour in Humans, the researchers show that pro-social behaviour can be modulated with drugs. The evidence suggests that by stimulating dopamine production, we can increase equality-seeking behaviours.

    The study was originally conducted to investigate the chemical imbalances in mental disorders such as addiction or bipolarism. The scientists performed a double-blind experiment in which subjects were given the drug Tolcapone, which is used in the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease by increasing dopamine levels in the prefrontal cortex. Participants were then asked to play a simple game that involved splitting money between participants. The results showed that when under the influence of Tolcapone, subjects were more likely to split the money equally amongst the strangers. By increasing dopamine levels, the researchers increased generosity.

    It may be difficult to consider personality traits as being controllable, but if egalitarian behaviour can be subject to manipulation, what else can?

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