Wednesday Round Up #32


Anterior cingulate inputs to nucleus accumbens control the social transfer of pain and analgesia

Distinct Anterior Cingulate neural circuits mediating the social transfer of pain/analgesia & fear: “Abstract: In mice, both pain and fear can be transferred by short social contact from one animal to a bystander. Neurons in a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex in the bystander animal mediate these transfers. However, the specific anterior cingulate projections involved in such empathy-related behaviors are unknown. Smith et al. found that projections from the anterior cingulate cortex to the nucleus accumbens are necessary for the social transfer of pain in mice (see the Perspective by Klein and Gogolla). Fear, however, was mediated by projections from the anterior cingulate cortex to the basolateral amygdala. Interestingly, in animals with pain, analgesia can also be transferred socially.”

Food for thought? French bean plants show signs of intent, say scientists

Intrigued by the ability of climbing beans to sense structures such as garden canes and grow up them, he devised an experiment to investigate whether they deliberately aim for the cane, or simply bump into such structures as they grow, and then turn them to their advantage. “The question is, are they showing goal-directed behaviours consistent with anticipation and fine-scaled tweaking of their movements, as they approach?” Calvo said.

Together with Vicente Raja at the Rotman Institute of Philosophy in London, Canada, they used time-lapse photography to document the behaviour of 20 potted bean plants, grown either in the vicinity of a support pole or without one, until the tip of the shoot made contact with the pole. Using this footage, they analysed the dynamics of the shoots’ growth, finding that their approach was more controlled and predictable when a pole was present. The difference was analogous to sending a blindfolded person into a room containing an obstacle, and either telling them about it or letting them stumble into it.

Home Grown Humans podcast

Jamie Wheal’s new podcast, HomeGrown Humans, combines neuroanthropology and culture architecture to help us create a better future.

Perspectives and the Truth: Another Case for Diversity and Inclusion

Consider cognitive dissonance as an example. Dissonance involves a cognitive conflict and negative feelings associated with it. Imagine you experience dissonance after telling a lie to somebody. What do you feel? There are two possibilities. First, you might be angry at yourself or feel guilty for the unethical act you committed. This way of feeling is in line with the original formulation of dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957). The best evidence for it is that dissonance is most robust when the choice to act unethically (by telling a lie, in this example) is made in private (Cooper & Fazio, 1984). Hidden behind this feeling of dissonance is a cultural belief that behavior is driven and guided by the internal attributes of the self. Dissonance occurs when those internal attributes (say, honesty or integrity) are called into question.

Second, however, you might feel afraid that the unethical act could become public, which would produce intense shame. I suspect that this way of feeling is less common in Western contexts. However, my colleagues and I concluded that it probably is the best description of how Japanese and other East Asians feel under such circumstances. The best evidence for it is that dissonance is stronger for these individuals when the choice to act unethically is made in public (Kitayama et al., 2004). Hidden behind this second feeling of dissonance is a cultural belief that behavior is a matter of managing social honor or “face.” Dissonance occurs when this social honor is called into question.

Are the two cultural beliefs merely alternative interpretive frames that are applied to a psychological behavior (the feeling of dissonance in this case) only after the behavior is observed? This example shows that they are much more than that. They are part and parcel of the psychology that produces the feeling of dissonance. This psychology is shaped by the environment—in this case, the cultural environment.

Longevity Linked to Proteins That Calm Overexcited Neurons

Recently in Nature, Bruce Yankner, a professor of genetics and neurology at Harvard Medical School, and his colleagues reported on a previously overlooked controller of life span: the activity level of neurons in the brain. In a series of experiments on roundworms, mice and human brain tissue, they found that a protein called REST, which controls the expression of many genes related to neural firing, also controls life span. They also showed that boosting the levels of the equivalent of REST in worms lengthens their lives by making their neurons fire more quietly and with more control. How exactly overexcitation of neurons might shorten life span remains to be seen, but the effect is real and its discovery suggests new avenues for understanding the aging process.

Evolution’s engineers and Niche construction

Earthworms also build houses to stack the evolutionary odds in their favour. There are more than 6,000 species of earthworms, which differ considerably in their ecology and behaviour. However, most are not just wandering nomads, roving the soil in search of food and leaving displaced earth behind. Rather, earthworms can construct semi-permanent burrows, which commonly last substantially longer than a lifetime. Charles Darwin himself noted that earthworm burrows aren’t simple excavations, but rather robust vertical tunnels, sometimes more than a metre deep, which he described as ‘lined with cement’. Earthworm ‘cement’ arises from the compaction of secretions and castings produced by the resident worm, and creates a distinctive burrow lining up to a centimetre in thickness, known as a ‘drilosphere’. Each earthworm burrow – the living quarters – opens up on the soil surface with a midden, a kind of compost heap that serves as both kitchen and toilet, comprising a mound of litter collected as food together with earthworm casts. Earthworms are even known to excavate side-burrow nurseries in which cocoons are laid. From the safety of their homes, many earthworms scavenge in the dark on the surface for food and mates, often leaving their tail ends safely attached to the burrow.

How Our Brains Work: A Reading List for Non-Scientists

For more non-jargony insights into the way our weird, wonderful brains work, Dr. Barrett shared 10 Pocket-ready links to essays, videos, profiles–plus one delicious chicken pot pie recipe (you’ll see why).

A Shift in American Family Values Is Fueling Estrangement

Both sides often fail to recognize how profoundly the rules of family life have changed over the past half century. “Never before have family relationships been seen as so interwoven with the search for personal growth, the pursuit of happiness, and the need to confront and overcome psychological obstacles,” the historian Stephanie Coontz, the director of education and research for the Council on Contemporary Families, told me in an email. “For most of history, family relationships were based on mutual obligations rather than on mutual understanding. Parents or children might reproach the other for failing to honor/acknowledge their duty, but the idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honor/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible.”

The historian Steven Mintz, the author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, made a similar observation in an email: “Families in the past fought over tangible resources—land, inheritances, family property. They still do, but all this is aggravated and intensified by a mindset that does seem to be distinctive to our time. Our conflicts are often psychological rather than material—and therefore even harder to resolve.”

The 2,000-year-old Wonder Women who inspired the comic

While the story of a race of warrior women first appeared in Greek mythology, excavations across the north and east of the Black Sea region have revealed that warrior women like the Amazons existed in real life. In December 2019, the graves of four female warriors from the 4th Century BC Sarmatian region were found in the village of Devitsa, in what is now Western Russia. The Sarmatians were a people of Iranian heritage, with men and women skilled in horsemanship and battle. Excavations within the modern borders of Iran have revealed the existence of female warriors. In the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz, 109 warrior graves were unearthed. Archaeologist Alireza Hejebri-Nobari confirmed in a 2004 interview that the DNA found in one belonged to a woman. DNA testing was due to take place on other warrior graves, 38 of which are still intact, but according to Mayor’s contacts in Iran, that DNA research was halted in August 2020 due to a lack of resources.

The great rivalries of the ancient Greeks and Persians are well documented in Greek art, history and mythology, so much so that historians of Ancient Persia rely on the Greek interpretation of the region to unlock its history. Experts have identified depictions of the women in battle with Greek men on vases and other ceramics as dressed in Persian-style clothing: the Kandys cloak, the Anaxyrides trousers, the Persikay shoes. By the 470s, the Greeks began to refer to portrayals of the Persians as the Amazons, turning their real-life adversaries into mythological folklore. Even the word “Amazon”, meaning “warrior”, is likely rooted in the Iranian language.

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