Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tibetan monastics contemplate science

The New York Times covers
Emory-Tibet Science Initiative:

DHARAMSALA, India — Tibetan monks and nuns spend their lives studying the inner world of the mind rather than the physical world of matter. Yet for one month this spring a group of 91 monastics devoted themselves to the corporeal realm of science.

Instead of delving into Buddhist texts on karma and emptiness, they learned about Galileo’s law of accelerated motion, chromosomes, neurons and the Big Bang, among other far-ranging topics. To add to the challenge, some monastics have limited English and relied on Tibetan translators to absorb the four-week crash course in physics, biology, neuroscience and math and logic taught by teachers from Emory University in Atlanta.

Read the full article by Amy Yee

Related articles:
Emory's Little Tibet
Tibetan translator loves language quarks
Science book binds East and West

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Study gives clue to evolution of face recognition

Why does this image appear normal when viewed upside down, but clearly shows that it is distorted when right-side up? It's a phenomenon known as the Thatcher effect.

(Photo graphic by Ben Basile.)

Emory psychologists have shown for the first time that another species besides humans shares this face-recognition trait. The results of their study on rhesus monkeys, published in Current Biology, provides insight into the evolution of the critical human social skill of facial recognition.

"Face recognition is a fundamental part of human social life," says lead investigator Robert Hampton, from the department of psychology and Yerkes National Primate Research Center. "Our research indicates the ability to perform this skill probably evolved some 30 million or more years ago in an ancestor humans share with rhesus monkeys."

Dina Chou, second author of the study, assisted in the research as an undergraduate at Emory. Hampton's Laboratory of Comparative Primate Cognition offers many such cutting edge research opportunities for students. Take a virtual visit to the lab to see videotaped experiments of monkeys involved in tests of social cognition and memory – and take a test yourself.

Why are you looking at me like that?
Monkeys can recognize faces in photos
Chimps mirror emotion in cartoons

Mapping genomics of complex ant system

Emory researchers are tapping the latest-generation DNA sequencing technology to become the first explorers of the genomics of agricultural ant societies.

"This project is one of the first attempts to use genomics to understand a complex interacting system, rather than a single organism," says Nicole Gerardo, assistant professor of biology and lead investigator of the project. "If we can understand how these ants have evolved to process huge amounts of organic material over 50 million years, we might discover more efficient ways to process our own waste materials, produce bio-fuels, or improve our agricultural methods."

"We're entering completely new territory," says James Taylor, assistant professor of biology and math and computer science at Emory, and a co-investigator on the project. "DNA sequencing technology is becoming faster and cheaper, but this transition is just happening. The amount of data that this grant is providing us will likely be easily obtainable within five years, but right now we're among the first to explore co-evolution from a genomics perspective."

Read more.

Take a video tour of the world of fungus-growing ants.


Bug splatter study is data driven

Monday, June 22, 2009

Uncovering secrets of sound symbolism

Does the Japanese word "akurai" (ah-cure-eye) mean bright? Or does it mean catch?

When native English speakers who are unfamiliar with Japanese are taught the correct meaning – bright – they learn and remember the translation more easily than people who are taught a randomly chosen meaning, an Emory study has found. The study results, which included 21 Japanese words, were published recently by the journal Cognition.

"Our research provides one of the first demonstrations that learners can use sound symbolism to derive meaning during spoken language processing," said Lynne Nygaard, associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study.

"These results are part of the accumulating evidence challenging the arbitrariness of language," added Laura Namy, co-author of the study.

For years, Nygaard has explored the relationship between the way something is said and the meaning of words. Namy’s work has focused on how children learn language. The two scientists have combined their expertise to help pioneer the field of sound symbolism and language — an emerging domain in psychology.

While onomatopoeia is well known, new research is showing that a subtle class of sound symbolism may be more pervasive in language, extending across languages and cultures.

“Sound symbolism seems to be a basic property of how our brains map sound to meaning,” Nygaard says, noting that she and Namy have studied sound-symbolism traits in 14 different languages.

Their latest Emory study used a list of words recorded by a native speaker of Japanese. Groups of monolingual English speakers were either taught the correct meanings for the words, their antonyms, or randomly chosen meanings while listening to the recording.

When tested, those who learned the correct meaning responded faster, and had more accurate recall, than learners in the other two groups.

“People appear to be actively recruiting sound symbolism to understand and to learn language,” Namy says.

Emory, a leader in the field of grounded cognition, is one of a handful of universities that is exploring in depth the psychological and neurological aspects of sound symbolism in language. Nygaard and Namy are now beginning studies that use functional magnetic resonance imaging to track neural responses to the sounds of words.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

DNA is not destiny

Although DNA cannot be changed, its packaging can be, explains Biology Chair Victor Corces. Growing understanding of how histones guide genes offers hope for therapies to treat a range of disorders. Learn more in this video of the recent "Life of the Mind" lecture by Corces, a leading epigeneticist.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

How young mice phone home

Photo montage courtesy Jack Kearse and the Liu Lab

Study: Mothers' brains screen for baby calls

Emory researchers have identified a surprising mechanism in the brains of mother mice that focuses their awareness on the calls of baby mice. Their study, published June 11 in Neuron, found that the high-frequency sounds of mice pups stand out in a mother's auditory cortex by inhibiting the activity of neurons more attuned to lower frequency sounds.

"Previous research has focused on how the excitation of neurons can detect or interpret sounds, but this study shows the key role that inhibition may play in real situations," said Robert Liu, assistant professor of biology and senior author of the study.

Read more.

Watch a video of a mother mouse responding to a baby's call

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Psychologist reins in animal-therapy claims

From Connecticut's Record-Journal:

"It's clear that animals cheer people up and can engage people who have otherwise withdrawn, but some doubt the long-term benefits of animal therapy.

"Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta and columnist for Scientific American, said there isn't sufficient research to claim that animal therapy has a lasting therapeutic effect. He's not ruling out that possibility, but says more and better studies need to be done.

"'We often find a short-term activating effect,' he said. 'Lots of things will cheer people up in the short term.'"

Read more on a report Lilienfeld wrote with neuroscientist Lori Marino, "Dolphin Therapy is All Wet."

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

New thoughts on cognition

Psychology's Larry Barsalou, a leading researcher of grounded cognition, is interviewed by Science Watch:

"For the past 50 years, theories have assumed that the brain is an information processing device somewhat similar to a computer, and that the information processing properties of the brain are separate from the brain's systems for perception, action, and introspection. These new theories propose instead that the cognition is deeply grounded in these systems, relying heavily on simulations of perception and action, being grounded in the body, and being situated in the environment."

Barsalou's paper "Grounded Cognition" was just named a "fast-breaking paper" by Science Watch, due to its high number of citations. Read more.