Wednesday Round Up #50

Play vocalisations and human laughter: a comparative review

Complex social play is well-documented across many animals. During play, animals often use signals that facilitate beneficial interactions and reduce potential costs, such as escalation to aggression. Although greater focus has been given to visual play signals, here we demonstrate that vocalisations constitute a widespread mode of play signalling across species.

Our review indicates that vocal play signals are usually inconspicuous, although loud vocalisations, which suggest a broadcast function, are present in humans and some other species. Spontaneous laughter in humans shares acoustic and functional characteristics with play vocalisations across many species, but most notably with other great apes. Play vocalisations in primates and other mammals often include sounds of panting, supporting the theory that human laughter evolved from an auditory cue of laboured breathing during play.

Human social complexity allowed laughter to evolve from a play-specific vocalisation into a sophisticated pragmatic signal that interacts with a large suite of other multimodal social behaviours in both intragroup and intergroup contexts. This review provides a foundation for detailed comparative analyses of play vocalisations across diverse taxa, which can shed light on the form and function of human laughter and, in turn, help us better understand the evolution of human social interaction.

Madalina Vlasceanu PhD defense, Princeton University

Cognitive Processes Shaping Individual and Collective Belief Systems, a PhD defense in the Departments of Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University

The Power and Pitfalls of Gamification

Technology companies like Cisco, Microsoft, and SAP, for instance, found ways to gamify everything from learning social media skills, to verifying language translations, to boosting sales performance.

Today, thanks to science, we know a lot more about when gamification really works, and what its boundaries seem to be. Beyond the gamified apps and software we use to learn new skills, companies like Amazon and Uber now deploy it to boost worker productivity. But to get the results we seek, in our own lives and in the workplace, it’s important to understand when gamification will work—and when it will only make matters worse…

My colleagues argue that their study highlights a common mistake companies make with gamification: Gamification is unhelpful and can even be harmful if people feel that their employer is forcing them to participate in “mandatory fun.” Another issue is that if a game is a dud, it doesn’t do anyone any good. Gamification can be a miraculous way to boost engagement with monotonous tasks at work and beyond, or an over-hyped strategy doomed to fail. What matters most is how the people playing the game feel about it…

At its best, gamification seems to work when it helps people achieve the goals they want to reach anyway by making the process of goal achievement more exciting. When people fully buy into a game, the results can be impressive, durably improving volunteers’ productivity, boosting worker morale, and even, as seen in one recent study, robustly helping families increase their step counts. But gamification can tank when players don’t buy in. If a game is mandatory and designed to encourage people to do something they don’t particularly care to do (like achieving an outstanding record of attendance at school), or if it feels manipulative, it can backfire.

Big Blue Lotus Brain – original watercolor painting – neuroscience art

This painting draws together images from neuroscience (neural connections in the brain) and Buddhism (the lotus), to express the blissful aura of the well-meditated brain. Recent scientific research indicates that the practice of meditation produces physical changes in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. Although it’s highly unlikely that meditating on the truth in the lotus will actually cause your neurons to look like this, it’s a fun idea to express artistically. In soft but vivid shades of blue, from cerulean to indigo.

The Reincarnated

The scientist prodded his Burmese interview subject, whose name was Ma Tin Aung Myo, for details about the Japanese soldier she described dying near that spot many years earlier, years before Ma Tin was born. She proceeded to tell the scientist from America facts about the dead man’s life she shouldn’t have known. Her claim was outrageous and dangerous, and yet, as she unfolded the dead man’s story, she was unequivocal: She was that soldier, the reincarnation of a man cut down in his prime by enemy bullets.

Professor Ian Stevenson leaned into his questions, pressing her, daring her. He needed a breakthrough, with his credibility and standing at his university on the brink. His life’s work might not recover otherwise. Ma Tin Aung Myo, the young woman with the short haircut and baggy clothes answered his questions gamely. Then her demeanor changed. Looking the scientist square in the eyes, she issued a shocking request in Burmese.

What cats’ love of boxes and squares can tell us about their visual perception

The paper was inspired in part by a 2017 viral Twitter hashtag, #CatSquares, in which users posted pictures of their cats sitting inside squares marked out on the floor with tape—kind of a virtual box. The following year, lead author Gabriella Smith, a graduate student at Hunter College (CUNY) in New York City, attended a lecture by co-author Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere, who heads the Thinking Dog Center at Hunter. Byosiere studies canine behavior and cognition, and she spoke about dogs’ susceptibility to visual illusions. While playing with her roommate’s cat later that evening, Smith recalled the Twitter hashtag and wondered if she could find a visual illusion that looked like a square to test on cats.

Smith found it in the work of the late Italian psychologist and artist Gaetano Kanizsa, who was interested in illusory (subjective) contours that visually evoke the sense of an edge in the brain even if there isn’t really a line or edge there. The Kanizsa square consists of four objects shaped like Pac-Man, oriented with the “mouth” facing inward to form the four corners of a square. Even better, there was a 1988 study that used the Kanizsa square to investigate the susceptibility of two young female cats to illusory contours. The study concluded that, yes, cats are susceptible to the Kanizsa square illusion, suggesting that they perceive subjective contours much like humans.

Scan Once, Analyse Many: Using Large Open-Access Neuroimaging Datasets to Understand the Brain

We are now in a time of readily available brain imaging data. Not only are researchers now sharing data more than ever before, but additionally large-scale data collecting initiatives are underway with the vision that many future researchers will use the data for secondary analyses. Here I provide an overview of available datasets and some example use cases. Example use cases include examining individual differences, more robust findings, reproducibility–both in public input data and availability as a replication sample, and methods development. I further discuss a variety of considerations associated with using existing data and the opportunities associated with large datasets. Suggestions for further readings on general neuroimaging and topic-specific discussions are also provided.

The Biology of Coffee, One of the World’s Most Popular Drinks

Coffee won’t cure cancer, but it may help to prevent it and possibly other diseases as well. Part of answering the question of coffee’s connection to cancer lies in asking another: what is cancer? At its simplest, cancer is uncontrolled cell growth, which is fundamentally about regulating when genes are, or are not, actively expressed.

My research group studies gene regulation and I can tell you that even a good cup of coffee, or boost of caffeine, won’t cause genes that are turned off or on at the wrong time to suddenly start playing by the rules.

The antioxidants in coffee may actually have a cancer-fighting effect. Remember that antioxidants fight cellular damage. One type of damage that they may help reduce is mutations to DNA, and cancer is caused by mutations that lead to the misregulation of genes.

Dances with whales: the ethereal underwater vistas of an elite freediving team

One Breath Around the World is the latest aquatic spectacle from the French freediving champion Guillaume Néry, and his partner, the French freediver, underwater filmmaker and dancer Julie Gautier. Without the aid of supplied air, Néry plunges into the ocean’s hidden depths, revealing remarkable views of marine geology and wildlife around the globe. Seamlessly transitioning between a range of underwater realms, the video gives the impression that Néry’s journey is taken in a single breath. With stunning camerawork by Gautier, who also held her breath while filming, the duo prove themselves expert explorers of not only water, but space and perspective as well, making these grand underwater landscapes appear almost alien.

Tooth plaque from ancient skeleton offers new insight into human evolution

Their most significant finding is one group of bacteria present in both modern humans and Neanderthals is specifically adapted to consume starch. This suggests starchy foods such as roots, tubers and seeds became important in the human diet long before the introduction of farming. Some researchers believe the transition to eating these starchy foods, which are rich in energy, may have enabled humans to grow the large brains that characterize our species.

“Understanding the role that food played in the evolutionary development of human uniqueness is complicated because many types of food remains — especially plants — are poorly preserved in the fossil record,” said John Yellen, director of the National Science Foundation’s archaeology and archaeometry program, which supported the research. “This innovative study of ancient bacteria preserved in fossil plaque provides a new and powerful way to understand the evolution of humans and our social and ecological history.”

This Is Your Brain on Exercise

Your brain becomes much more active during exercise, “perhaps more active than at any other time,” says Maddock. One way neurons communicate is with electrical pulses, and sometimes entire networks of neurons fire in unison, like a group of soccer fans chanting together at a game. These synchronized pulses are known colloquially as brain waves. Different kinds of brain waves, characterized by the number of times they oscillate in a single second, are linked to one’s mental state and mood. Lower-frequency waves occur when we’re running on autopilot: brushing our teeth, driving, or sleeping, for example. Higher-frequency waves, known as beta waves, occur when we’re awake and mentally engaged and are associated with attention, memory, and information processing.

Using tools like an electroencephalogram (EEG), which pick up on these electrical pulses, researchers have found that aerobic exercise causes a shift in the amplitude and frequency of brain waves. More beta waves, in other words, means that exercisers may be in a more alert state. “The brain is in a different gear when the human being is in motion,” Maddock says.

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