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What Do Snails Think About When Having Sex?

It starts with a light, soft touch, one tentacle gently reaching out, hesitant, hopeful, hanging lightly in the air. There’s a pause. Skin touches skin. One softly strokes the other and slides closer, and then, carefully, they wrap themselves together, stroking, probing, entwining. They glisten as they move, and because they are snails, everything happens very slowly. The rubbing, the rapture, the intensity of it all—snail sex is extraordinarily lovely to look at. (If you aren’t at your office desk or on a train where people can see your screen, I’ve got one about a garden snail named Chip who’s trying to lose his virginity, or take a quick peek—30 seconds will do—of this coupling in a garden.)

Lovely but So Dangerous

Garden snails make love in the open—on garden patios, in clearings on the forest floor—and they do it luxuriantly for one, two, three hours at a time, under the sky, where they can be seen by jays, orioles, frogs, snakes, shrews, mice, beetles, and other animals that might want to eat them. Snails can’t make quick getaways, so exposing themselves like this is dangerous, crazily dangerous. What’s going on? What’s making them so impervious, so deeply preoccupied with each other? Here’s one answer: Snail sex is very complicated. Snails have a lot to think about when they make love—because they’re hermaphrodites.

Unlike you, garden snails can produce sperm like males and carry eggs like females at the same time.

Drawing of a proud snail, with its hands on its shell hips
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Which is both an advantage and a problem. Professor David George Haskell, a Tennessee biologist, once squatted down on a patch of forest floor and watched what you just saw in that video—a snail couple going at it—except with a magnifying glass and only a few feet from the action. What he noticed was their mood. Hot as it was, he writes in his book The Forest Unseen, “Their extended courtship and copulation is choreographed like cautious diplomacy.” Snails don’t pounce, they circle. They “slowly edge into position, always ready to pull back or realign.” Their sex is tense, charged, on, off, then on again, “a prenuptial conference over the terms of the union.” What are they negotiating about?

In most animals, snails included, sperm is plentiful, cheap to produce, and fun to unload. So one presumes that both copulating snails are eager to get that part done.

A drawing of two snails, both looking at each other with thought bubble exclamation points above their heads
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Eggs, on the other hand, are limited and hard to produce—and therefore precious. You don’t let just anybody fertilize your egg sack. So, in Haskell’s imagination, if one of these snails picks up “a whiff of disease” on the other, it may be happy to poke but is not at all interested in being poked. No one wants its precious eggs fertilized by a sick dad, so the receiving snail might lock its partner out of its opening while also trying to penetrate it. This could produce feelings of frustration, confusion, and even unfairness in the other.

A drawing of two snails looking at each other, one with an exclamation mark thought bubble and one with an X through an exclamation mark thought bubble
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

“In hermaphrodites,” writes Haskell, “mating becomes fraught, with each individual being cautious about receiving sperm while simultaneously trying to inseminate its partner.” Sexually speaking, two snails with four minds—a foursome in a twosome—makes for complex fornication. That’s why snails are always on tiptoe, Haskell thought as he watched them on the forest floor: They have so much to figure out.

Picture of a brown snail peering its head around to the side
Photograph by © Tetra Images / Alamy
Photograph by © Tetra Images / Alamy

Hermaphrodite Abundance

So why be a hermaphrodite? Are there a lot of them? Well, here’s a surprise: They’re everywhere.

Eighty percent of the plant kingdom produces both seeds (pollen) and eggs (ovules) and can give or receive, making them hermaphroditic. They’ve learned that when the weather gets wet or cold, bees can’t be depended upon to buzz by and pollinate, so they have a we-can-do-this-ourselves backup plan.

Animals, generally speaking, are sexual, divided into male and female. But, writes Stanford biology professor Joan Roughgarden in her book The Genial Gene, if you subtract insects, which make up more than 75 percent of the animal kingdom and are not hermaphrodites, we are left, she calculates, “ … with a figure of 1/3 hermaphrodite species among all animal species.” That’s a hunk of hermaphrodites.

So Who’s a Hermaphrodite?

They’re not animals we pay much attention to (flukes, flatworms, killifish, parrot fish, moray eels, barnacles, slugs, earthworms, and tapeworms, among many others), but they are switch-hitters: They can either give or receive or switch sides during their lifetime. “All in all,” writes Roughgarden, “across all the plants and animals combined, the number of species that are hermaphroditic is more-or-less tied with the number who has separate males and females, and neither arrangement of sexual packaging can be viewed as the ‘norm.’”

Anyone who thinks that male/female is nature’s preference isn’t looking at nature, says Roughgarden. And she goes further.

Adam and Eve or AdamEve?

She wonders, Which came first, the hermaphrodite or the male/female? We have lived so long with the Adam and Eve story—Adam first, Adam alone, Adam seeking a mate, God providing Eve—that the question seems almost silly: Of course complex animals started with males and females.

Painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Eve is offering Adam an apple
Adam and Eve, 1537 (panel), Cranach, Lucas, the Elder (1472-1553) / Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria / Bridgeman Images
Adam and Eve, 1537 (panel), Cranach, Lucas, the Elder (1472-1553) / Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria / Bridgeman Images

But Roughgarden wonders if animals started as hermaphrodites …

Composite of Adam and Eve painting, creating one person
Composite image of Adam and Eve created by Becky Harlan from original paintings by Lucas Cranach © [Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : Guy Cussac, Brussels]
Composite image of Adam and Eve created by Becky Harlan from original paintings by Lucas Cranach © [Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : Guy Cussac, Brussels]

… and then “hermaphrodite bodies disarticulate[d] into separate male and female bodies?” How would that have happened? Roughgarden cites a paper she did with her colleague Priya Iyer.

They propose that maybe the earliest animals started out as both sperm and egg carriers, and a subgroup got especially good at inserting their penises into enclosures, aiming, and directing the sperm to its target (the authors call it “home delivery”). They did this so effectively that they needed fewer and fewer eggs and essentially became sperm sharpshooters or, as we call them now, “males.”

That development gave others a chance to give up sperm altogether to concentrate on chambering their eggs in nurturing nooks, thereby becoming “females,” and so more and more animals found it advantageous to be gendered.

Ayer and Roughgarden aren’t sure this happened. They say that, on available evidence, the story can go “in either direction.”

The alternate view is almost the story you know. It’s Adam and Eve, with a twist: In the beginning, early animals were gendered—except when it was inconvenient.

If, for example, you imagine a group of, well, let’s make them snails …

Drawing of a group of snails standing in front of a volcano erupting
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

… and something awful happens—there’s a terrible disease, an ice age, a new ferocious predator, or maybe a volcanic eruption…..

Drawing of a snail all alone after the fallout of a volcanic eruption, standing in front of a volcano puffing smoke
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

… so that we’re left looking at a lone individual, all by itself, looking around for a reproductive opportunity, crawling across the landscape, hoping to bump into somebody, anybody, to reproduce with, and after a long, long, anxious period, it finally sees what it’s been looking for. It crawls closer, closer, the excitement building.

Drawing of a snail in a vast and sunny landscape seeing another tiny snail in the distance
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

But as it gets within wooing range, it suddenly sees that—oh, no—it’s the same gender!

A drawing of two snails with moustaches
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

No possibility of babymaking here. And this happens half of the time. (Statistically, that’s the likelihood.) Now instead of being your friend, male/femaleness is your enemy. What wouldn’t you give for a hermaphrodite, a he/she snail that could, in a pinch, be whatever sex you need it to be. With a hermaphrodite, you can (again statistically) always make a baby. What a relief. So maybe that’s what happened. Gender difference disappears when gender no longer helps produce more babies (and when you don’t have to stick around and be a parent).

Which is the true story? We don’t know. Maybe the only story is that nature is flexible. When gender is useful, you get genders. When not, you don’t. What we forget, being humans, is that there are so many ways to flirt, to combine, to make babies—and the world is full of wildly different ways to woo. Tony Hoagland knows this. He’s not a scientist but a poet who lives in New Mexico, and in his poem entitled “Romantic Moment,” he imagines a boy on a date who sits next to his girl imagining … How shall I put this? … how the Other Guys do it.

Romantic Moment by Tony Hoagland

After the nature documentary we walk down,
into the plaza of art galleries and high end clothing stores

where the mock orange is fragrant in the summer night
and the smooth adobe walls glow fleshlike in the dark.

It is just our second date, and we sit down on a rock,
holding hands, not looking at each other,

and if I were a bull penguin right now I would lean over
and vomit softly into the mouth of my beloved

and if I were a peacock I’d flex my gluteal muscles to
erect and spread the quills of my cinemax tail.

If she were a female walkingstick bug she might
insert her hypodermic proboscis delicately into my neck

and inject me with a rich hormonal sedative
before attaching her egg sac to my thoracic undercarriage,

and if I were a young chimpanzee I would break off a nearby tree limb
and smash all the windows in the plaza jewelry stores.

And if she was a Brazilian leopard frog she would wrap her impressive
tongue three times around my right thigh and

pummel me lightly against the surface of our pond
and I would know her feelings were sincere.

Instead we sit awhile in silence, until
she remarks that in the relative context of tortoises and iguanas,

human males seem to be actually rather expressive.
And I say that female crocodiles really don’t receive

enough credit for their gentleness.
Then she suggests that it is time for us to go

to get some ice cream cones and eat them.

Thanks to the poet Thomas Dooley for suggesting Tony Hoagland’s poem, and to Mr. Hoagland for giving us permission to print it here in full. Reading “Romantic Moment” I giggled a little to think of eating ice cream on a sugar cone as a homo sapien mating ritual—but thinking back, I think he’s onto something. The poem can be found in Tony Hoagland’s collection Hard Rain.

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Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head: A Mosquito’s Lament

This, in case you were wondering, is a mosquito.

Picture of a drawing of a mosquito
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

This is a raindrop.

Picture of a drawing of a blue raindrop
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

And here’s a puzzle. Raindrops aren’t mosquito friendly. If you’re a mosquito darting about on a rainy day, those drops zinging down at you can be, first of all, as big as you are, and, more dangerously, they’re denser. Water is heavy, so a single raindrop might have 50 times your mass, which means that if one hits you smack where it hurts (between your wings) …

Picture of a mosquito being hit by a drop of water
Photograph by Tim Nowack
Photograph by Tim Nowack

… you should flatten like a pancake. A study says a mosquito being hit by a raindrop is roughly the equivalent of a human being whacked by a school bus, the typical bus being about 50 times the mass of a person. And worse, when it’s raining hard, each mosquito should expect to get smacked, grazed, or shoved by a raindrop every 25 seconds. So rain should be dangerous to a mosquito. And yet (you probably haven’t looked, but trust me), when it’s raining those little pains in the neck are happily darting about in the air, getting banged—and they don’t seem to care. Raindrops, for some reason, don’t bother them.

Picture of a drawing of mosquitos flying through the air, dodging large blue raindrops
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Why not? Why aren’t the mosquitoes getting smooshed?

How Mosquitoes Survive Raindrops

Well, in 2012 David Hu, a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, became interested in this problem and decided to pelt some airborne laboratory mosquitoes with water droplets while filming them with a high-speed camera—4,000 to 6,000 frames a second instead of the usual 24. That way he could watch them in super slow motion and figure out what they’re doing when they’re out in the rain. He published his findings in a 2012 paper that I’m going to describe here in “executive summary” form. (His video, by the way, is waiting for you below, so you can see what he saw for yourself.)

What he found is that most of the time anopheles mosquitoes don’t play dodgeball with the raindrops. They do get hit but usually off center, on their long gangly legs, which splay out in six directions. The raindrop can set them rolling and pitching, but they recover quickly—within a hundredth of a second. But even in the worst case, where the mosquito gets slammed right between the wings—a dead-on collision, because the mosquito is so light compared to the heavy raindrop …

Picture of a drawing of a mosquito clinging onto a falling raindrop as it descends through the air
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

… it doesn’t offer much resistance, and the raindrop just barrels along with the mosquito suddenly on board as a passenger. Had the raindrop slammed into a bigger, slightly heavier animal, like a dragonfly, the raindrop would “feel” the collision and lose momentum. The raindrop might even break apart because of the impact, and force would transfer from the raindrop to the insect’s exoskeleton, rattling the animal to death.

But because our mosquito is oh-so-light, the raindrop moves on, unimpeded, and hardly any force is transferred. All that happens is that our mosquito is suddenly scooped up by the raindrop and finds itself hurtling toward the ground at a velocity of roughly nine meters per second, an acceleration which can’t be very comfortable, because it puts enormous pressure on the insect’s body, up to 300 gravities worth, says professor Hu.

Picture of a drawing of a mosquito inside a raindrop, falling through the air
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

300 Gs is a crazy amount of pressure. Eric Olsen, at his blog at Scientific American, says a jet pilot accelerating out of a loop-de-loop experiences “only about nine gravities (88/m/squared).” One imagines his cheeks all splayed, his face squishy, but hey, that’s a soft-skinned human. We’ve got mosquitoes here. Their heads are harder. They have exoskeletons. Sudden accelerations don’t hurt as much, but what mosquitoes should fear, what they do fear, are crash landings. The ground is a lot harder than a mosquito.

Picture of a drawing of a mosquito being squished by a large blue raindrop
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

So what a mosquito has to do is get off that raindrop as quickly as possible. And here comes the best part: In most direct hits, Hu and colleagues write, the insect is carried five to 20 body lengths downward, and then, rather gracefully—maybe helped by a dense layer of wax-coated, water-repellent hairs—gets up and “walks” to the side, then steps off into the air, almost like a schoolchild getting off of a bus (albeit a fast-moving bus hurtling toward its doom). It does this almost matter-of-factly, like it’s no big deal. A mosquito, Hu writes, “is always able to laterally separate itself from the drop and recover its flight.” Always. (Unless the raindrop hits them too close to the ground.) If you want to see this for yourself, take a look at Hu’s video.

Video by David Hu and Andrew Dickerson

The moral here, should we need one, is that if you’re a mosquito on a rainy day, the place to be is high off the ground, and if you’re a human who worries about mosquito safety (not a big group, I know), you can move on. They solved this one roughly 90 million years ago.

Picture of a drawing of a mosquito with its arm around a raindrop, as though they were friends
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
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How acquiring The Knowledge changes the brains of London cab drivers

London is not a good place for fans of right angles. People who like the methodical grid system of Manhattan will whimper and cry at the baffling knot of streets of England’s capital. In this bewildering network, it’s entirely possible to take two right turns and end up in the same place. Or in Narnia. Even with a map, some people manage to get lost. And yet, there are thousands of Londoners who have committed the city’s entire layout to memory – cab drivers.

Piloting London’s distinctive black cabs (taxis to everyone else) is no easy feat. To earn the privilege, drivers have to pass an intense intellectual ordeal, known charmingly as The Knowledge. Ever since 1865, they’ve had to memorise the location of every street within six miles of Charing Cross – all 25,000 of the capital’s arteries, veins and capillaries. They also need to know the locations of 20,000 landmarks – museums, police stations, theatres, clubs, and more – and 320 routes that connect everything up.

It can take two to four years to learn everything. To prove their skills, prospective drivers make “appearances” at the licencing office, where they have to recite the best route between any two points. The only map they can use is the one in their head. They even have to narrate the details of their journey, complete with passed landmarks, road names, junctions, turns and maybe even traffic lights. Only after successfully doing this, several times over, can they earn a cab driver’s licence.

Given how hard it is, it shouldn’t be surprising that The Knowledge changes the brains of those who acquire it. And for the last 11 years, Eleanor Maguire from University College London has been studying those changes.


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Brain-training games get a D at brain-training tests

Braintrain.jpgYou don’t have to look very far to find a multi-million pound industry supported by the scantiest of scientific evidence. Take “brain-training”, for example. This fledgling market purports to improve the brain’s abilities through the medium of number problems, Sudoku, anagrams and the like. The idea seems plausible and it has certainly made bestsellers out of games like Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training and Big Brain Academy. But a new study by Adrian Owen from Cambridge University casts doubt on the claims that these games can boost general mental abilities.

Owen recruited 11,430 volunteers through a popular science programme on the BBC called “Bang Goes the Theory”. He asked them to play several online games intended to improve an individual skill, be it reasoning, memory, planning, attention or spatial awareness. After six weeks, with each player training their brains on the games several times per week, Owen found that the games improved performance in the specific task, but not in any others.

That may seem like a victory but it’s a very shallow one. You would naturally expect people who repeatedly practice the same types of tests to eventually become whizzes at them. Indeed, previous studies have found that such improvements do happen. But becoming the Yoda of Sudoku doesn’t necessarily translate into better all-round mental agility and that’s exactly the sort of boost that the brain-training industry purports to provide. According to Owen’s research, it fails.

All of his recruits sat through a quartet of “benchmarking” tests to assess their overall mental skills before the experiment began. The recruits were then split into three groups who spent the next six weeks doing different brain-training tests on the BBC Lab UK website, for at least 10 minutes a day, three times a week. For any UK readers, the results of this study will be shown on BBC One tomorrow night (21 April) on Can You Train Your Brain?


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Travels with dopamine – the chemical that affects how much pleasure we expect

How would you fancy a holiday to Greece or Thailand? Would you like to buy an iPhone or a new pair of shoes? Would you be keen to accept that enticing job offer? Our lives are riddled with choices that force us to imagine our future state of mind. The decisions we make hinge upon this act of time travel and a new study suggests that our mental simulations of our future happiness are strongly affected by the chemical dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that carries signals within the brain. Among its many duties is a crucial role in signalling the feelings of enjoyment we get out of life’s pleasures. We need it to learn which experiences are rewarding and to actively seek them out. And it seems that we also depend on it when we imagine the future.

Tali Sharot from University College London found that if volunteers had more dopamine in their brains as they thought about events in their future, they would imagine those events to be more gratifying. It’s the first direct evidence that dopamine influences how happy we expect ourselves to be.


When we learn about new experiences, neurons that secrete dopamine seem to record the difference between the rewards we expect and the ones we actually receive. In encoding the gap between hope and experience, these neurons help us to repeat rewarding actions.

This was clearly demonstrated in 2006, when Mathias Passiglione showed that people’s ability to learn about rewards could be improved by giving them a drug called L-DOPA. It’s a precursor to dopamine, a sort of parent molecule that can increase the concentrations of its offspring. Passiglione asked volunteers to learn links between different symbols and different financial rewards. He found that under the influence of L-DOPA, they were better at picking the symbols that earned them the most cash.

Passiglione’s study was important, but his volunteers were forced to make a fairly artificial choice between two virtual symbols in a constrained lab setting. What happens in real life, when choices are complex and our decisions hinge on our ability to think about the future?

To answer that, Sharot recruited 61 volunteers and asked them to say how happy they’d feel if they visited one of 80 holiday destinations, from Greece to Thailand. All of the recruits were given a vitamin C supplement as a placebo and 40 minutes later, they had to imagine themselves on holiday at half of the possible locations. After this bout of fanciful daydreaming, they had to take another pill but this time, half of them were given L-DOPA instead of the placebo. Again, they had to imagine themselves in various holiday spots.

The next day, Sharot brought the volunteers back. By this time, they would have broken down all the L-DOPA in their system. She asked them to choose which of two destinations they’d like to go to, from the set that they had thought about the day before. Finally, they rated each destination again.

By the end of the experiments, they perceived their imaginary holidays to be more enjoyable if they had previously thought about the locations under the influence of L-DOPA (while vitamin C, as predicted, had no effect). The implication is clear: think about the future with more dopamine in the noggin and you’ll imagine that you have a better time.

Critically, this wasn’t because they were feeling happier in the actual moment. All the recruits filled in questionnaires about their emotional state every time they took a pill and these revealed that the dopamine boost didn’t actually affect the present state of mind. All it did was change their predictions of their future state of mind. These happier predictions affected their choices too – more often than not, they chose to travel to destinations that they had envisioned through dopamine-tinted goggles.

How dopamine has its way is unclear. Sharot suggests that it could boost how much we want something when we imagine it. Its effects could also tie into its role in learning. When we imagine the future, this chemical strengthens the link between what we think about and any feelings of enjoyment we might gain from it. This model fits with the fact that some neurons in the striatum become more active the more pleasure we expect from an experience.

Either way, it’s clear that our knowledge of dopamine’s myriad roles is just beginning. Broadening that knowledge is important for understanding our own behaviour, which, as Sharot says, “is largely driven by estimations of future pleasure and pain”.


Reference: Current Biology 10.1016/j.cub.2009.10.025

More on Sharot’s work and dopamine: 




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Guerrilla reading – what former revolutionaries tell us about the neuroscience of literacy

In the 1990s, Colombia reintegrated five left-wing guerrilla groups back into mainstream society after decades of conflict. Education was a big priority – many of the guerrillas had spent their entire lives fighting and were more familiar with the grasp of a gun than a pencil. Reintegration offered them the chance to learn to read and write for the first time in their lives, but it also offered Manuel Carreiras a chance to study what happens in the human brain as we become literate.

FARC.jpgOf course, millions of people – children – learn to read every year but this new skill arrives in the context of many others. Their brains grow quickly, they learn at a tremendous pace, and there’s generally so much going on that their developing are next to useless for understanding the changes wrought by literacy. Such a quest would be like looking for a snowflake on a glacier. Far better to study what happens when fully-grown adults, whose brains have gone past those hectic days of development, learn to read.

To that end, Carreiras scanned the brains of 42 adult ex-guerrillas, 20 of whom had just completed a literacy programme in Spanish. The other 22, who had shared similar ages, backgrounds and mental abilities, had yet to start the course. The scans revealed a neural signature of literacy, changes in the brain that are exclusive to reading.

These changes affected both the white matter – the brain’s wiring system consisting of the long arms of nerve cells, and the grey matter, consisting of the nerve cells’ central bodies. Compared to their illiterate peers, the newly literate guerrillas had more grey matter in five regions towards the back of their brains, such as their angular gyri. Some are thought to help us process the things we see, others help to recognise words and others process the sounds of language.

The late-literate group also had more white matter in the splenium. This part of the brain is frequently damaged in patients with alexia, who have excellent language skills marred only by a specific inability to read.

All of these areas are connected. Using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging that measures the connections between different parts of the brain, Carreiras showed that the grey matter areas on both sides of the brain (particularly the angular gyri and dorsal occipital gyri) are linked to one another via the splenium.

Learning to read involves strengthening these connections. Carreiras demonstrated this by comparing the brain activity of 20 literate adults as they either read the names of various objects or named the objects from pictures. The study showed that reading, compared to simple object-naming, involved stronger connections between the five gray matter areas identified in the former guerrillas, particularly the dorsal occipital gyri (DOCC, involved in processing images) and the supramarginal gyri (SMG, involved in processing sounds).

 Meanwhile, the angular gyrus, which deals with the meanings of words, exerts a degree of executive control over the other areas. Learning to read also involves more cross-talk between the angular gyri on both sides of the brain, and Carreiras suggests that this crucial area helps us to discriminate between words that look similar (such as chain or chair), based on their context.

These changes are a neural signature of literacy. Carreiras’s evidence is particularly strong because he homed in on the same part of the brain using three different types of brain-scanning techniques, and because he worked with people who learned to read as adults and as children.

The lessons from this study should be a boon to researchers working on dyslexia.  Many other studies have shown that dyslexics have less grey matter in key regions at the back of their brain, and less white matter in the splenium connecting these areas. But this insights gained from the Colombians suggests that these deficits aren’t the cause of reading difficulties, they are a result of them.

Reference: Nature 10.1038/nature08461

Image: By Sgiraldoa

More on language


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Doctors repress their responses to their patients’ pain

This article is reposted from the old WordPress incarnation of Not Exactly Rocket Science. The blog is on holiday until the start of October, when I’ll return with fresh material.

Many patients would like their doctors to be more sensitive to their needs. That may be a reasonable request but at a neurological level, we should be glad of a certain amount of detachment.

In some doctors, being detached can be a good thing.Humans are programmed, quite literally, to feel each others’ pain. The neural circuit in our brains that registers pain also fires when we see someone else getting hurt; it’s why we automatically wince.

This empathy makes evolutionary sense – it teaches us to avoid potential dangers that our peers have helpfully pointed out to us. But it can be liability for people like doctors, who see pain on a daily basis and are sometimes forced to inflict it in order to help their patients.

Clearly, not all doctors are wincing wrecks, so they must develop some means of keeping this automatic response at bay. That’s exactly what Yawei Chang from Taipei City Hospital and Jean Decety from University of Chicago found when they compared the brains of 14 acupuncturists with at least 2 years of experience to control group of 14 people with none at all.

They scanned the participants’ brains while they watched videos of people being pricked by needles in their mouths, hands and feet, or being prodded with harmless cotton swabs. Sure enough, the two groups showed very different patterns of brain activity when they watched the needle videos, but not the cotton swab ones.


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Your brain on Oprah and Saddam (and what that says about Halle Berry and your grandmother)

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchFrom the scientists who brought you the infamous ‘Halle Berry neuron’ and the ‘Jennifer Aniston neuron’ come the ‘Oprah Winfrey neuron’ and the ‘Saddam Hussein neuron’.

Four years ago, Rodrigo Quian Quiroga from Leicester University showed that single neurons in the brain react selectively to the faces of specific people, including celebrities like Halle Berry, Jennifer Aniston and Bill Clinton. Now, he’s back, describing single neurons that respond selectively to the concept of Saddam Hussein or Oprah Winfrey. This time, Quiroga has found that these neurons work across different senses, firing to images of Oprah or Saddam as well as their written and spoken names.

In one of his volunteers, Quiroga even found a neuron that selectively responded to photos of himself! Before the study began, he had never met the volunteers in the study, which shows that these representations form very quickly, at least within a day or so.

In his original experiments, Quiroga used electrodes to study the activity of individual neurons, in the brains of patients undergoing surgery for epilepsy. As the volunteers saw photos of celebrities, animals and other objects, some of their neurons seemed to be unusually selective. One responded to several different photos of Halle Berry (even when she was wearing a Catwoman mask), as well as a drawing of her, or her name in print. Other neurons responded in similarly specific ways to Jennifer Aniston or to landmarks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The results were surprising, not least because they seemed to support the “grandmother cell theory“, a paradox proposed by biologist Jerry Lettvin. As Jake Young (now at Neurotopia) beautifully explains, Lettvin was trying to argue against oversimplifying the way the brain stores information. Lettvin illustrated the pitfalls of doing so with a hypothetical neuron – the grandmother cell – that represents your grandmother and is only active when you think or see her. He ridiculed that if such cells existed, the brain would not only run out of neurons, but losing individual cells would be catastrophic (at least for your poor forgotten grandmother).

The grandmother cell concept was espoused by headlines like “One face, one neuron” from Scientific American, but these read too much in Quiroga’s work. It certainly seemed like one particular neuron was responding to the concept of Halle Berry. But there was nothing in Quiroga’s research to show that this cell was the only one to respond to Halle Berry, nor that Halle Berry was the only thing that activated the cell. As Jake Young wrote, “The purpose of the neuron is not to encode Halle Berry.”

Instead, our brains encode objects through patterns of activity, distributed over a group of neurons, which allows our large but finite set of brain cells to cope with significantly more concepts. The solution to Lettvin’s paradox is that the job of encoding specific objects falls not to single neurons, but to groups of them.


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Why information is its own reward – same neurons signal thirst for water, knowledge

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchTo me, and I suspect many readers, the quest for information can be an intensely rewarding experience. Discovering a previously elusive fact or soaking up a finely crafted argument can be as pleasurable as eating a fine meal when hungry or dousing a thirst with drink. This isn’t just a fanciful analogy – a new study suggests that the same neurons that process the primitive physical rewards of food and water also signal the more abstract mental rewards of information.

Humans generally don’t like being held in suspense when a big prize is on the horizon. If we get wind of a raise or a new job, we like to get advance information about what’s in store. It turns out that monkeys feel the same way and like us, they find that information about a reward is rewarding in itself.

Ethan Bromberg-Martin and Okihide Hikosaka trained two thirsty rhesus monkeys to choose between two targets on a screen with a flick of their eyes; in return, they randomly received either a large drink or a small one after a few seconds. Their choice of target didn’t affect which drink they received, but it did affect whether they got prior information about the size of their reward. One target brought up another symbol that told them how much water they would get, while the other brought up a random symbol.

After a few days of training, the monkeys almost always looked at the target that would give them advance intel, even though it never actually affected how much water they were given. They wanted knowledge for its own sake. What’s more, even though the gap between picking a target and sipping some water was very small, the monkeys still wanted to know what was in store for them mere seconds later. To them, ignorance is far from bliss.


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Babies’ gestures partly explain link between wealth and vocabulary

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchBabies can say volume without saying a single word. They can wave good-bye, point at things to indicate an interest or shake their heads to mean “No”. These gestures may be very simple, but they are a sign of things to come. Year-old toddlers who use more gestures tend to have more expansive vocabularies several years later. And this link between early gesturing and future linguistic ability may partially explain by children from poorer families tend to have smaller vocabularies than those from richer ones.

Vocabulary size tallies strongly with a child’s academic success, so it’s striking that the lexical gap between rich and poor appears when children are still toddlers and can continue throughout their school life. What is it about a family’s socioeconomic status that so strongly affects their child’s linguistic fate at such an early age?

Obviously, spoken words are a factor. Affluent parents tend to spend more time talking to their kids and use more complicated sentences with a wider range of words. But Meredith Rowe and Susan Goldin-Meadow from the University of Chicago found that actions count too.

Children gesture before they learn to speak and previous studies have shown that even among children with similar spoken skills, those who gesture more frequently during early life tend to know more words later on. Rowe and Goldin-Meadow have shown that differences in gesturing can partly explain the social gradient in vocabulary size.


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Teaching scientific knowledge doesn’t improve scientific reasoning

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchOn Tuesday, I wrote a short essay on the rightful place of science in our society. As part of it, I argued that scientific knowledge is distinct from the scientific method – the latter gives people the tools with which to acquire the former. I also briefly argued that modern science education (at least in the UK) focuses too much on the knowledge and too little on the method. It is so blindsided by checklists of facts that it fails to instil the inquisitiveness, scepticism, critical thinking and respect for evidence that good science entails. Simply inhaling pieces of information won’t get the job done.

This assertion is beautifully supported by a simple new study that compared the performance of physics students in the USA and China. It was led by Lei Bao from Ohio State University who wanted to see if a student’s scientific reasoning skills were affected by their degree of scientific knowledge. Does filling young heads with facts and figures lead to a matching growth in their critical faculties?

Fortunately for Bao and his team of international researchers, a ready-made natural experiment had already been set up for them, in the education systems of China and the US. Both countries have very different science curricula leading to different levels of knowledge, but neither one explicitly teaches scientific reasoning in its schools. If greater knowledge leads to sharper reasoning, students from one country should have the edge in both areas. But that wasn’t the case.


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Faulty connections responsible for inherited face-blindness

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchHave you ever seen someone that you’re sure you recognise but whose face you just can’t seem to place? It’s a common enough occurrence, but for some people, problems with recognising faces are a part of their daily lives. They have a condition called prosopagnosia, or face blindness, which makes them incredibly bad at recognising faces, despite their normal eyesight, memory, intelligence, and ability to recognise other objects.

Edface.jpgProsopagnosia can be caused by accidents that damage parts of the brain like the fusiform gyrus – the core part of a broad network of regions involved in processing images of faces. That seems straightforward enough, but some people are born with the condition and their background is very different. They lack any obvious brain damage and indeed, brain-scanning studies have found that the core face-processing areas of their brains are of normal size and show normal activity.

But these studies were looking in the wrong place – the core regions aren’t the problem, it’s the connections between them that are faulty. Different parts of the brain are connected by tracts of ‘white matter‘ – bundles of nerve cell stalks that transmit messages between distant regions. They are the equivalent of cables that link a network of computers together and in people born with prosopagnosia, these neural cables are shredded or missing, even though the individual machines work just fine.


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Cuttlefish learn from watching potential prey even before they are born

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchFor humans, sight is the most important of senses but only after we are born. Within the womb, surrounded by fluid, muscle and darkness, vision is of limited use and our eyes remain closed. But not all animals are similarly kept in the dark.

Untitled-1.jpgCuttlefish develop inside eggs that are initially stained black with ink, but as the embryo grows and the egg swells, the outer layer slowly becomes transparent. By this time, the developing cuttlefish’s eyes are fully formed and we now know that even before they are born, they can use visual information from the outside world to shape their adult behaviour. 


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Single memory training task improves overall problem-solving intelligence

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Forget ‘smart drugs’ or brain-training video games. According to new research, a deceptively simple memory task can do what no drug or game has done before – it can boost your ‘fluid intelligence‘, your ability to adapt your powers of reasoning to new challenges. Fluid intelligence doesn’t rely on previous knowledge, skills or experience. It’s at work when we solve new problems or puzzles, when we draw inferences and spot patterns, and when we test ideas and design experiments. To see what I mean, try testing yours.

Braintrain.jpg Fluid intelligence appears to be strongly influenced by inherited genetic factors and is closely related to success in both the classroom and the workplace. The ability plays such a central role in our lives that it begs an obvious question: is there any way of improving your fluid intelligence through training?

Video game manufacturers would like you to think so. Games like Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training and Big Brain Academy are suggestively marketed as ways of improving your brain’s abilities through the medium of number problems, Sudoku and word puzzles. As a result, your brain will allegedly become younger. And look, Nicole Kidman likes them. The pitch is certainly a successful one – these games are bestsellers and are increasingly joined by a swarm of imitators. Last year, the worth of the US brain-training market alone was estimated at about $80 million.

Whether these products actually work is open to debate but there is certainly no strong evidence that they do anything beyond improving performance at specific tasks. That seems fairly obvious – people who repeatedly practice the same types of tests, such as number sequences, will become better at them over time but may not improve in other areas, like memory or spatial awareness. But acquiring Jedi-levels skills in one specific task is a far cry from increasing your overall fluid intelligence; it’d be like saying that you’re a better musician because your scales are second-to-none.

Nonetheless, Susanne Jaeggi from the University of Michigan has developed a training programme involving a challenging memory task, which does appears to improve overall fluid intelligence. The trainees do better in intelligence tests that have nothing to do with the training task itself and the more training they receive, the higher their scores.


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When learning maths, abstract symbols work better than real-world examples

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchYou all know the score. A train leaves one city travelling at 35 miles per hour and another races toward it at 25 miles an hour from a city 60 miles away. How long do they take to meet in the middle? Leaving aside the actual answer of 4 hours (factoring in signalling problems, leaves on the line and a pile-up outside Clapham Junction), these sorts of real-world scenarios are often used as teaching tools to make dreary maths “come alive” in the classroom.

Twotrains.jpgExcept they don’t really work. A new study shows that far from easily grasping mathematical concepts, students who are fed a diet of real-world problems fail to apply their knowledge to new situations. Instead, and against all expectations, they were much more likely to transfer their skills if they were taught with abstract rules and symbols.

The use of concrete, real-world examples is a deeply ingrained part of the maths classroom. Its advantages have never really been tested properly, for they appear to be straightforward. Maths is difficult because it is a largely abstract field and is both difficult to learn and to apply in new situations. The solution seems obvious: present students with many familiar examples that illustrate the concepts in question and they can make connections between their existing knowledge and the more difficult concepts they are trying to pick up.

The train problem is a classic example. Another is the teaching of probability with rolls of a die, or by asking people to pick red marbles from a bag containing both blue and red ones. The idea is that, armed with these examples, students will recognise similar problems and apply what they have learned. It’s a technique deeply rooted in common sense, which is probably as good an indicator as any that it might be totally wrong.