Wednesday Round Up #49

The Challenges of Animal Translation: Artificial intelligence may help us decode animalese. But how much will we really be able to understand?

Magnasco doesn’t think that anyone has achieved a basic understanding of dolphish. “I’m not yet confident that I know what is the signal, what is the variation, what is the intention,” he said. “You need an extremely large body of data to do that, and it’s unclear that we have enough yet.” Still, there are hints that it might be possible. In 2013, Herzing and her team at the Wild Dolphin Project used a machine-learning algorithm called Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT), designed to identify meaningful signals in dolphin whistles. The algorithm picked out a sound within a dolphin pod that the researchers had earlier trained the dolphins to associate with sargassum seaweed—a clumpy, floaty plant that dolphins sometimes play with. The dolphins may have assimilated the new “word,” and begun using it in the wild.

And yet, in an important sense, dolphish may be more than a language. Dolphins don’t just make whistles—they also employ body language and a variety of sounds, including clicks, which they use for sonar echolocation. From the acoustic reflections created by the clicks, a dolphin can form a mental picture of an object’s size, shape, and density. Dolphins can interpret one another’s sonar signals. “They are able to see shapes of things when they passively eavesdrop on someone else’s clicks,” Magnasco said. Using sound alone, they can see what another sees…

Britt Selvitelle, a computer scientist who worked on the team that created Twitter, is a founding member of the Earth Species Project, an organization founded in San Francisco that is developing A.I. approaches like this to animal communication. “We’re working on decoding the first nonhuman language,” he said, at the M.I.T. workshop—a goal that he thinks can be reached in five to ten years. In theory, a machine-learning system is particularly well suited to the problem of translating animalese. The loose correspondences between human and animal words and concepts may not matter to an A.I.; neither will the fact that animal ideas may be expressed not as vocalizations but as gestures, sequences of movements, or changes in skin texture. A neural network makes no assumptions about the nature of the input data; as long as there is some aspect of an animal’s behavioral repertoire that represents or expresses something that our languages can also express—a type of species, a warning, a spatial direction—then the algorithm has a chance of spotting it. “We’re really asking people to remove their human glasses, as much as possible,” Selvitelle said. One Earth Species Project collaboration, called Whale-X, aims to collect and analyze all communications among a pod of whales over an entire season.

2021 USF WLP Faculty Excellence Award Recipients
Heather O’Leary on her work on water, agency, and gender

Brain size and neuron numbers drive differences in yawn duration across mammals and birds

Recent studies indicate that yawning evolved as a brain cooling mechanism. Given that larger brains have greater thermolytic needs and brain temperature is determined in part by heat production from neuronal activity, it was hypothesized that animals with larger brains and more neurons would yawn longer to produce comparable cooling effects. To test this, we performed the largest study on yawning ever conducted, analyzing 1291 yawns from 101 species (55 mammals; 46 birds). Phylogenetically controlled analyses revealed robust positive correlations between yawn duration and (1) brain mass, (2) total neuron number, and (3) cortical/pallial neuron number in both mammals and birds, which cannot be attributed solely to allometric scaling rules. These relationships were similar across clades, though mammals exhibited considerably longer yawns than birds of comparable brain and body mass. These findings provide further evidence suggesting that yawning is a thermoregulatory adaptation that has been conserved across amniote evolution.

The Brain–Cognitive Behavior Problem: A Retrospective

In 2001, I was invited to write a review for a prominent journal. I thought that the best way to exploit this opportunity was to write an essay about my problems with ill-defined scientific terms and question whether the dominant framework in neuroscience is on the right track. My main argument was that many terms in neuroscience are inherited from folk psychology and are often used in two ambiguous ways: both as the thing-to-be-explained (explanandum) and the thing-that-explains (explanans; e.g., “we have memory because we remember,” “we remember because we have memory”). These postulated terms are assumed to be entities with definable boundaries, and within this framework, the goal of neuroscience is to find homes and mechanisms for these terms in the brain with corresponding boundaries (I called this “the correlational approach”). I warned that a framework dictated by human-centric introspection might not be the right roadmap for neuroscience and argued that there should be another way of carving up the brain’s “natural kinds.”

The Smartest Way To Get Lean In 2021 (Shredding Science Explained)
The first part on the “fat loss fundamentals” is solid. “You need to be in an energy deficit…”

In this video I’m asking 5 diet experts about the most effective science-based strategies for losing fat and keeping muscle.

The harmful ableist language you unknowingly use

This kind of ‘ableist’ language is omnipresent in conversation: making a “dumb” choice, turning a “blind eye” to a problem, acting “crazy”, calling a boss “psychopathic”, having a “bipolar” day. And, for the most part, people who utter these phrases aren’t intending to hurt anyone – more commonly, they don’t have any idea they’re engaging in anything hurtful at all.

However, for disabled people like me, these common words can be micro-assaults. For instance, “falling on deaf ears” provides evidence that most people associate deafness with wilful ignorance (even if they consciously may not). But much more than individual slights, expressions like these can do real, lasting harm to the people whom these words and phrases undermine – and even the people who use them in daily conversation, too…

No, You Are Not Addicted to Your Digital Device, But You May Have a Habit You Want to Break

It’s a mistake, however, to equate frequent social media use with addiction. Just the label carries stigma – a personal failing or pathology that has significant negative outcomes to the user and their family, such as lost jobs and destroyed relationships.

As researchers who study habits and social media use, we have found that excessive social media use can be a very strong habit. But that doesn’t make it an addiction.

Featured article: Yvan Prkachin on the origins of neuroscience

GREEN: Your essay focuses on brain science unification efforts at the Montreal Neurological Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Could you briefly describe what drew you to this history and your process for finding relevant archival sources?

PRKACHIN: I had, for quite some time, been fascinated by the character of Wilder Penfield, the neurosurgeon who launched the MNI in the 1930s. (I grew up in Canada, and Penfield was a fairly well-known historical figure among my generation, thanks largely to a series of “Heritage Minute” short films commissioned by the Canadian government in the 1990s.) When I began working on my Ph.D. at Harvard in 2012, I knew that I was interested in Penfield and his institute, but I wasn’t quite sure what was most historically relevant about it, or where to place it in the broader history of the modern biomedical sciences. I was lucky enough to get a small grant in 2014 and spent nearly a year in Montreal rummaging through Penfield’s papers, and those of his collaborators; the men and women who worked at the MNI seemed to throw almost nothing away, so the records at the Osler Library for the History of Medicine and the McGill University Archives are incredibly rich.

Hasson Lab: The Hasson Lab attempts to develop complementary paradigms to study the neural activity that drives human behavior under natural and realistic conditions.

Our research shows that during continuous natural input, memory of past events influences online cortical activity. We call this type of influence “process memory,” defined as active traces of past information that are used by a neural circuit to process incoming information in the present moment (Hasson et al., TiCS 2015). Neural processes are defined as dynamic changes of the underlying brain states necessary for synthesizing information to guide behavior. Process memory has a clear hierarchical organization, in which its timescales gradually increase from early sensory areas that integrate over tens to hundreds of milliseconds to higher-order areas that integrate over many seconds to minutes.

Project Ecosystem: Mapping the Global Mental Health Research Funding System

To support the coordination of mental health research, RAND Europe mapped the research funding ‘ecosystem’. Researchers explored who the major funders are, what kinds of research they support, and how their strategies relate to one another.

The field of mental health research is large and growing, and opportunities include increasing collaboration, developing shared definitions, capitalising on government priorities, developing a key role for non-governmental funders and the advance of technology.

Why should you love squirrels? Here are six reasons

2. They are nature’s gardeners.

Squirrels have an important ecological role, especially in forest ecosystems, McCleery said.

“Their biggest contribution to the forest is in shaping plant composition. They have a peculiar habit of taking seeds, which are their main source of nutrients, and burying them. They bury them throughout the environment, and often, when they go back and look for them, they forget where they are. When that happens, they are effectively planting seeds,” McCleery said.

Over time, this behavior, called caching, changes the composition of a forest.

“They will expand forests and change the types of trees that are there,” he said. In Florida, for example, they have an important role of maintaining the native long-leaf pine ecosystem, McCleery said.

How to Turn Off Harmful Stress Like a Switch
Written in a popular style, but covers some of the basics well. And I don’t personally like the switch metaphor, but it makes for a catchy title (that ends up being really misleading…)

A classic study of two rats (journal article by D.L Helmreich et al) reveals an important insight about the role control plays in the experience of stress. The two rats are in separate cages connected to the same electrical circuit. The circuit administers random shocks through the metal floor of their cage. One rat has a lever in its cage that enables it to turn off the shocks while the other rat does not.

The rat with the lever in its cage is called “the executive rat,” because it has control. It has the power to turn off the electric current flowing through the cage. The rat with no control is called the “subordinate rat.”

When the experiment begins, both the executive rat and the subordinate rat show signs of stress, indicated by a sudden surge of the stress hormone, cortisol. Then, something interesting happens. The executive rat’s stress levels drop back to normal, while the subordinate rat’s stress remains high. Why? In a word, control.

‘It’s a Superpower’: How Walking Makes Us Healthier, Happier and Brainier

We are wandering the streets of Dublin discussing O’Mara’s book, In Praise of Walking, a backstage tour of what happens in our brains while we perambulate. Our jaunt begins at the grand old gates of his workplace, Trinity College, and takes in the Irish famine memorial at St Stephen’s Green, the Georgian mile, the birthplace of Francis Bacon, the site of Facebook’s new European mega-HQ and the salubrious seaside dwellings of Sandymount.

O’Mara, 53, is in his element striding through urban landscapes – from epic hikes across London’s sprawl to more sedate ambles in Oxford, where he received his DPhil – and waxing lyrical about science, nature, architecture and literature. He favours what he calls a “motor-centric” view of the brain – that it evolved to support movement and, therefore, if we stop moving about, it won’t work as well.

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