Crows Outperform Pigeons and Primates in Learning a Basic Concept

24 Feb

A paper just published in Psychological Science:

Corvids (birds of the family Corvidae) display intelligent behavior previously ascribed only to primates, but such feats are not directly comparable across species. To make direct species comparisons, we used a same/different task in the laboratory to assess abstract-concept learning in black-billed magpies (Pica hudsonia). Concept learning was tested with novel pictures after training. Concept learning improved with training-set size, and test accuracy eventually matched training accuracy—full concept learning—with a 128-picture set; this magpie performance was equivalent to that of Clark’s nutcrackers (a species of corvid) and monkeys (rhesus, capuchin) and better than that of pigeons. Even with an initial 8-item picture set, both corvid species showed partial concept learning, outperforming both monkeys and pigeons. Similar corvid performance refutes the hypothesis that nutcrackers’ prolific cache-location memory accounts for their superior concept learning, because magpies rely less on caching. That corvids with “primitive” neural architectures evolved to equal primates in full concept learning and even to outperform them on the initial 8-item picture test is a testament to the shared (convergent) survival importance of abstract-concept learning.

The article’s conclusion contains this passage:

So, how did the apparently primitive bird brain that evolved from dinosaurs become competitive with, and even initially outperform, the abilities of what has been considered a more elaborate primate brain to perform abstract-concept learning, which involves thoughts and processes considered to be of the highest cognitive order? The answer most certainly lies in evolution itself, a multimillion-year process. Environmental pressures (social and otherwise) undoubtedly selected for and shaped these different neural architectures to successfully accomplish many of the same essential and intelligent behaviors for survival, an example of convergent evolution in which organisms not closely related (i.e., not monophyletic) independently evolved similar traits or functions as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches. But the example of convergent evolution presented in the current study is comparatively novel and unique because its identification required special tests of the cognitive ability (trait) for the cognitive function of fully learning a same/different abstract concept to be revealed. Other examples of convergent evolution have been based on some obvious physical trait, such as wings, which typically can be identified from fossil records and have an obvious function of flying (some insects, birds, and bats).

Using a memory palace to learn a chapter of Moby Dick

22 Feb

A good example of how to use a memory palace:

Sleep deprived judges hand out longer sentences

20 Feb

This study just appeared in the journal Psychological Science:

The degree of punishment assigned to criminals is of pivotal importance for the maintenance of social order and cooperation. Nonetheless, the amount of punishment assigned to transgressors can be affected by factors other than the content of the transgressions. We propose that sleep deprivation in judges increases the severity of their sentences. We took advantage of the natural quasi-manipulation of sleep deprivation during the shift to daylight saving time in the spring and analyzed archival data from judicial punishment handed out in the U.S. federal courts. The results supported our hypothesis: Judges doled out longer sentences when they were sleep deprived.

The Monday after the shift to day light savings time is associated with about 40 minutes of lost sleep. Other studies have found an increased number of car accidents on that day. The authors of this study report that sentences are 5% longer than those on comparison Mondays.

An interesting result, although I do have some skepticism about how well confounding variables can be controlled statistically.

Henry David Thoreau, United States environmentalist author bicentenary

19 Feb

July 12 will be the bicentenary of Henry David Thoreau’s birth.

Dear Kitty. Some blog

Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an essayist, poet, philosopher, opponent of slavery, naturalist, and historian from the USA.

This video from the USA says about him:

31 May 2009

Henry David Thoreau sought the simple life in 1845 when he moved to the woods outside Boston to live on Walden Pond. We visit the remains of his home. …

In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in 1851 at a time when he was one of the few thinking about environmental conservation. Six years previous he had embarked on a now-famous experiment in simple living. He’d gone to the woods outside Boston to live in a 150-square-foot cabin to avoid living “what was not life”. …

He spent two years, two months and two days in his cabin at Walden Pond and in 1854, he…

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105 amateur cyclist is more aerobically fit than most 50-year-olds

17 Feb

Another amazing story from The New York Times about the capacities of an aging athlete:

At the age of 105, the French amateur cyclist and world-record holder Robert Marchand is more aerobically fit than most 50-year-olds — and appears to be getting even fitter as he ages, according to a revelatory new study of his physiology.

You can read the research paper here.

Atypical neural oscillation as a cause of dyslexia?

15 Feb

Neural oscillation refers to the rhythmic activity of large numbers of the brains neurons. It is these oscillations that produce the brain waves that are measured on a EEG. Here’s a recent paper suggesting that dyslexia may be caused by abnormal neural oscillation in parts of the brain related to auditory and visual processing. Here is the abstract:

It has been proposed that atypical neural oscillations in both the auditory and the visual modalities could explain why some individuals fail to learn to read and suffer from developmental dyslexia. However, the role of specific oscillatory mechanisms in reading acquisition is still under debate. In this article, we take a cross-linguistic approach and argue that both the phonological and orthographic specifics of a language (e.g., linguistic rhythm, orthographic depth) shape the oscillatory activity thought to contribute to reading development. The proposed theoretical framework should allow future research to test cross-linguistic hypotheses that will shed light on the heterogeneity of auditory and visual disorders and their underlying brain dysfunction(s) in developmental dyslexia, and inform clinical practice by helping us to diagnose dyslexia across languages.


Raymond Smullyan

13 Feb

I am surrounded by the books of Raymond Smullyan and I was very sad to read of his death at age 97 in today’s New York Times. When time allows, I have been been very slowly working my way through his Set Theory and the Continuum Problem (co-authored with Melvin Fitting). For a more gentle introduction to his thought try Who Knows?: A Study of Religious Consciousness or his autobiography Some Interesting Memories: A Paradoxical Life.

Here is piece composed by Jeanell Carrigan in honor of Smullyan:

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