1. We buy what we grasp: How our hands lead us to choose certain products

    May 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Bocconi University press release:

    The things we touch while shopping can affect what we buy, according to studies by Bocconi Department of Marketing’s Zachary Estes and University of Innsbruck’s Mathias Streicher.

    In “Touch and Go: Merely Grasping a Product Facilitates Brand Perception and Choice,” published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, they conduct a series of experiments and show that blindfolded people induced to grasp familiar products (a bottle of Coke, for example) under the guise of a weight judgement task are then quicker in recognizing the brand name of the product when it slowly appears on a screen, include more frequently the product in a list of brands of the same category, and choose more often that product among others as a reward for having participated in the experiment.

    The authors suggest that tactile exposure to the object “activated the conceptual representation of that object, which then facilitated subsequent processing of the given object.

    In “Multisensory Interaction in Product Choice: Grasping a Product Affects Choice of Other Seen Products,” published in Journal of Consumer Psychology, via another series of experiments, Estes and Streicher demonstrate that grasping an object can facilitate visual processing and choice of other seen products of the same shape and size. “For instance,” explains Estes, “when you’re holding your mobile phone in your hand, you may be more likely to choose a KitKat than a Snickers, because the KitKat is shaped more like your phone. What we find is that consumers are significantly more likely to choose the product that is similar to the shape of whatever is in their hand. For instance, when confronted with a choice between a bottle of Coke and a can of Red Bull, participants who held a bottle of Fanta were more likely to choose a bottle of Coke, but those who held a can of Fanta more often chose the can of Red Bull. These studies show that our hands can lead us to choose certain products.”

    However, there are two caveats to this effect, one situational and one personal. The situational constraint has to do with visual density. That is, some product arrays are very sparse, with plenty of space between the products, whereas others are very dense, with many products placed right next to one another. It turns out that when the visual array is overcrowded the hands have an even larger influence on product choice. “As visual perception becomes less reliable,” the authors write, “tactile perception assumes a greater role in the recognition of object shape.”

    The second constraint is more personal: it depends on one’s “need for touch,” or how much people like to touch products while shopping. Some people really like to pick products up and feel them, and others don’t. As expected, the scholars find that the hands have much more influence on product choice among those consumers who really like to handle products.

    “These results have direct implications for product and package designers and marketing managers,” Estes concludes. “For one thing, distinctive product shapes like Coca-Cola’s iconic bottle design can provide a powerful source of brand identity and recognition. Second, consumers tend to choose products that are shaped like the things they often hold, like a mobile phone, a wallet, or a computer mouse when shopping online. Product designers could create packages that mimic those commonly held forms, and marketing managers can accentuate this effect of product touch by placing several products near one another, and by encouraging consumers to touch the products on display.”


  2. Study suggests experience of beauty requires one to think

    May 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Cell Press press release:

    Does the experience of beauty require a person to think? And can sensuous pleasures, like eating or sex, be beautiful? Such questions have long preoccupied philosophers, with Immanuel Kant making the famous claim that beauty requires thought, unlike sensuous pleasure, which, he said, can never be beautiful. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on May 11 who have put these philosophical notions to the test in a series of psychological experiments say that Kant was right on one count and wrong on the other.

    Their findings show that distractions do indeed detract from the experience of beauty. In other words, it takes thought to experience beauty when looking at a beautiful image. On the other hand, their evidence shows that sensuous pleasures also can be beautiful.

    “We find that beauty, when it happens, is strongly pleasurable, and that strong pleasure is always beautiful,” says Denis Pelli at New York University. “Strong pleasure and beauty both require thought.”

    To explore these philosophical theories in the new study, Pelli and Aenne Brielmann asked 62 people to indicate how much pleasure and beauty they felt while they saw an image, tasted a candy, or touched a soft teddy bear. The researchers showed each person many different images, some beautiful, some merely nice, and others neutral, like a chair in a furniture catalog. Participants then rated their experience of each object on a four-point beauty scale.

    In another round of the same experiment, participants were asked to repeat what they’d done earlier, this time while they were distracted with a secondary task. In that task, participants heard a series of letters and were asked to press a button any time they heard the same letter they’d heard two letters before.

    The researchers found that the experience of non-beautiful objects wasn’t changed by the distraction. But, distraction took away from the experience of beauty when a person was shown an image earlier deemed beautiful. In other words, Kant was right. Beauty does require thought.

    However, contrary to Kant’s proposal that sensual pleasures can never be beautiful, about 30 percent of participants said they’d definitely experienced beauty after sucking on a candy or touching a soft teddy bear.

    Surprised by that, the researchers decided to follow up. They asked some participants who had responded “definitely yes” for beauty on candy trials what they’d meant. As Brielmann and Pelli report, “most of them remarked that sucking candy had personal meaning for them, like a fond childhood memory. One participant replied, ‘Of course, anything can be beautiful.'”

    “Our findings show that many other things besides art can be beautiful — even candy,” Brielmann says. “But for maximum pleasure, nothing beats undistracted beauty.”

    The findings highlight the fact that beauty, subjective and ephemeral as it is, can still be measured and mathematically modelled, the researchers say. Such scientific explorations of beauty have practical application as well.

    “These are important insights for people who want to create beauty, such as artists or museum curators,” Brielmann adds. “You should, for example, not distract people in museums if you want them to find beauty in the art.”

    The researchers plan to continue this line of investigation in hopes to answer questions about the role of beauty in our lives. For instance, they ask, “Are there people who cannot experience beauty? What role does beauty play in decision making? Is a sense of beauty necessary for creativity? And, is ugliness the opposite of beauty or is it a separate dimension?”


  3. Study suggests human sense of smell is stronger than we think

    May 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Rutgers University press release:

    When it comes to our sense of smell, we have been led to believe that animals win out over humans: No way can we compete with dogs and rodents, some of the best sniffers in the animal kingdom.

    But guess what? It’s a big myth. One that has survived for the last 150 years with no scientific proof, according to Rutgers University-New Brunswick neuroscientist John McGann, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, School of Arts and Sciences, in a paper published on May 12 in Science.

    McGann, who has been studying the olfactory system, or sense of smell, for the past 14 years, spent part of the last year reviewing existing research, examining data and delving into the historical writings that helped create the long-held misconception that human sense of smell was inferior because of the size of the olfactory bulb.

    “For so long people failed to stop and question this claim, even people who study the sense of smell for a living,” says McGann, who studies how the brain understands sensory stimuli using information gleaned from prior experience.

    “The fact is the sense of smell is just as good in humans as in other mammals, like rodents and dogs.” Humans can discriminate maybe one trillion different odors, he says, which is far more, than the claim by “folk wisdom and poorly sourced introductory psychology textbooks,” that insist humans could only detect about 10,000 different odors.

    McGann points to Paul Broca, a 19th century brain surgeon and anthropologist as the culprit for the falsehood that humans have an impoverished olfactory system — an assertion that, McGann says, even influenced Sigmund Freud to insist that this deficiency made humans susceptible to mental illness.

    “It has been a long cultural belief that in order to be a reasonable or rational person you could not be dominated by a sense of smell,” says McGann. “Smell was linked to earthly animalistic tendencies.” The truth about smell, McGann says, is that the human olfactory bulb, which sends signals to other areas of a very powerful human brain to help identify scents, is quite large and similar in the number of neurons to other mammals.

    The olfactory receptor neurons in the nose work by making physical contact with the molecules composing the odor, and they send this information back to that region of the brain.

    “We can detect and discriminate an extraordinary range of odors; we are more sensitive than rodents and dogs for some odors; we are capable of tracking odor trails; and our behavioral and affective states are influenced by our sense of smell,” McGann writes in Science.

    In Broco’s 1879 writings, he claimed that the smaller volume of the olfactory area compared to the rest of the brain meant that humans had free will and didn’t have to rely on smell to survive and stay alive like dogs and other mammals.

    In reality, McGann says, there is no support for the notion that a larger olfactory bulb increases sense of smell based solely on size and insists that the human sense of smell is just as good and that of animals.

    “Dogs may be better than humans at discriminating the urines on a fire hydrant and humans may be better than dogs at discriminating the odors of fine wine, but few such comparisons have actual experimental support,” McGann writes in Science.

    The idea that humans don’t have the same sense of smell abilities as animals flourished over the years based on some genetic studies which discovered that rats and mice have genes for about 1000 different kinds of receptors that are activated by odors, compared to humans, who only have about 400.

    “I think it has been too easy to get caught up in numbers,” says McGann. “We’ve created a confirmation bias by working off a held belief that humans have a poor sense of smell because of these lower numbers of receptors, which in reality is still an awful lot.”

    The problem with this continuing myth, McGann says, is that smell is much more important than we think. It strongly influences human behavior, elicits memories and emotions, and shapes perceptions.

    Our sense of smell plays a major, sometimes unconscious, role in how we perceive and interact with others, select a mate, and helps us decide what we like to eat. And when it comes to handling traumatic experiences, smell can be a trigger in activating PTSD.

    While smell can begin to deteriorate as part of the aging process, McGann says, physicians should be more concerned when a patient begins to lose the ability to detect odors and not just retreat back to the misconception that humans’ sense of smell is inferior.

    “Some research suggests that losing the sense of smell may be the start of memory problems and diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” says McGann. “One hope is that the medical world will begin to understand the importance of smell and that losing it is a big deal.”


  4. Study suggests giving partner a massage can help relieve stress

    May 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the British Psychological Society press release:

    Giving your partner a massage can improve both their wellbeing and yours.

    That is the key finding of research by Sayuri Naruse and Dr Mark Moss from Northumbria University that is being presented at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference in Brighton.

    Ms Naruse, the lead researcher, commented, “The benefits of receiving a massage from a professional are well documented, but this research shows how a similar outcome can be obtained by couples with little prior training and experience of the activity.”

    A total of 38 participants completed a three-week massage course, assessing their wellbeing via questionnaires before and after massage sessions across eight areas of physical and mental wellbeing, stress, coping and relationship satisfaction.

    The couples’ wellbeing, perceived stress and coping was positively impacted by the massage course, with none of these effects having significantly decreased at a follow up three weeks after the end of the reporting period.

    Couples also found that their physical and emotional wellbeing had significantly improved following the completion of each massage session.

    Crucially, this was equally apparent whether the participant was giving or receiving the massage.

    Of the couples who took part in the study, 91 per cent said that they would recommend mutual massage to their friends and family.

    With past research having shown that couples tend to operate as a pair when coping with stress, giving each other a massage may also help to ensure relationship stability.

    Ms Naruse added, “These findings show that massage can be a simple and effective way for couples to improve their physical and mental wellbeing whilst showing affection for one another.

    “Our data also suggests that these positive effects of a short massage course may be long lasting, as is reflected in 74 per cent of the sample continuing to use massage after the course had finished.

    “Massage is a cost effective and pleasant intervention that isn’t just for a therapeutic setting but can be easily incorporated into a healthy couple’s daily routine.”


  5. Innovative model for the study of vision

    April 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati press release:

    New approaches to the study of vision both from the neurobiological perspective and with a view to the technological development of artificial vision systems: that is the key result of the research project conducted by SISSA (The International School for Advanced Studies) in collaboration with the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) of Rovereto and published in the science journal eLife. Specifically, the study shows for the first time that the progressive processing of the visual signal underlying human object recognition is similarly implemented in the rat brain, thus extending the range of experimental techniques (from genetics to molecular biology and electrophysiology) that can be applied to the study of vision.

    Humans can recognise a face or an object in a few tens of milliseconds, despite the fact that they may appear on our retina in an infinite number of ways, due to variations in brightness, size, orientation and position within the visual field. This capacity, known as invariant visual object recognition, is one of the fundamental properties of high-level vision and is due to the progressive processing of the visual signal through a specific sequence of cortical visual areas” explained Davide Zoccolan, director of the SISSA visual neuroscience laboratory and head of the research project. “In our study, we have demonstrated the existence of a similar processing mechanism in rodents, which opens up the possibility of studying the underlying neural circuits using a wide range of experimental techniques: molecular, genetic, electrophysiological, and so on, already used in these animals.”

    Zoccolan’s laboratory had already shown in a series of behavioural studies that rodents are able to carry out high-level visual object recognition tasks. “In this new study, we recorded the activity of hundreds of neurons belonging to four different visual cortical areas, from primary visual cortex to the deepest visual area in temporal cortex, during a precise sequence of visual stimuli” the neuroscientist continued. “These stimuli consisted of a sequence of 380 images obtained by presenting 10 different objects in 38 different ways, with variations in brightness, orientation or size. The objects were chosen in order to span a broad spectrum of visual properties. Some of them were digital reproductions of real objects, such as a face or a telephone, while others were abstract objects used in previous behavioural studies. Each image was presented for 250 milliseconds, more than enough for visual object recognition.”

    The recorded signals are complex and difficult to analyse, which is why it was essential the collaboration with Stefano Panzeri, director of the ITT neural computation laboratory in Rovereto and one of the leading experts in the development of algorithms for understanding the neural code using information theory and machine learning.

    “We have observed that, as we move from the primary visual cortex to the deepest area in temporal cortex, information regarding light and contrast is lost, while the signal becomes increasingly invariant for transformations of single objects and increasingly discriminant of the identity of the objects, in the same way as occurs in primates” Zoccolan concluded. “It is a significant finding — as shown by the commentary article published by the journal eLife alongside our work — which opens up new pathways for the study of high-level vision and its development, as it does for the evolution of artificial vision systems.”


  6. Ability to smell well linked to social life in older women

    March 31, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Monell Chemical Senses Center press release:

    A new study of older U.S. adults conducted by researchers from the Monell Center and collaborating institutions reports that a woman’s social life is associated with how well her sense of smell functions. The study found that older women who do less well on a smell identification task also tend to have fewer social connections.

    “Our findings confirm that the sense of smell is a key aspect of overall health in the aging population,” said Johan Lundström, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist and senior Monell author on the study. “More than 20 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 50 has a reduced sense of smell. We need to better understand how olfaction is linked to social behavior in order to improve quality of life as we age.”

    In the study, published online in the open access journal Scientific Reports, the researchers analyzed data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project (NSLHP), a population-based study of health and social factors in the United States. Collected in 2005 and 2006 from a nationally-representative sample of 3,005 American adults between the ages of 57 and 85, the NSHAP data include odor identification test scores as well as information about participants’ social lives.

    The researchers compared each NSHAP participant’s odor identification score, an established measure of olfactory function, with an aggregated “overall social life” score, which included measures such as participants’ number of friends and close relatives, and how often they socialized. The data were adjusted to control for possible confounding variables, including education level, tobacco use, and physical and mental health status.

    The findings revealed a clear link between an older woman’s olfactory ability and her overall social life score: women with good olfactory ability tended to have more active social lives while those with diminished olfactory function were associated with a poorer social life score.

    “We know that social interactions are closely linked to health status, so older women who have a poor sense of smell may want to focus on maintaining a vital social life to help improve their overall mental and physical health,” said study lead author Sanne Boesveldt, PhD, a sensory neuroscientist.

    The researchers did not find the same association between olfactory function and social life in older men.

    “This intriguing sex difference could suggest that smell training, which has been shown to improve a reduced sense of smell in both men and women, may have an additional beneficial function in older women by helping to restore both the sense of smell and, by extension, social well-being,” said Lundström.

    While the study establishes a link between the sense of smell and social life, it is not yet clear exactly how the two are connected or if the same relationship also exists in younger women. Moving forward, longitudinal studies following the same subjects over time could help clarify whether olfactory loss directly influences social life and potentially allow the researchers to identify the mechanisms involved.

    Even so, knowing that olfactory status is related to social activity could already be valuable to those affected by olfactory disorders.

    “You hear anecdotal accounts from women who have lost their sense of smell about having fewer friends than they had previously,” said Lundström. “We hope our findings can help reassure them that they are not alone in feeling that way.”


  7. Study shows how brain combines subtle sensory signals to take notice

    March 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Brown University press release:

    A new study describes a key mechanism in the brain that allows animals to recognize and react when subtle sensory signals that might not seem important on their own occur simultaneously. Such “multisensory integration” (MSI) is a vital skill for young brains to develop, said the authors of the paper in eLife, because it shapes how effectively animals can make sense of their surroundings.

    For a mouse, that ability can make the difference between life and death. Neither a faint screech nor a tiny black speck in the sky might trigger any worry, but the two together strongly suggest a hawk is in the air. It matters in daily human life, too. An incoming call on a cell phone can be more noticeable when it is signaled visually and with sound, for example.

    “It’s really important to understand how all of our senses interact to give us a whole picture of the world,” said study lead author Torrey Truszkowski, a neuroscience doctoral student at Brown University. “If something is super salient in the visual system — a bright flash of light — you don’t need the multisensory mechanism. If there is only a small change in light levels, you might ignore it — but if in the same area of visual space you also have a piece of auditory information coming in, then you are more likely to notice that and decide if you need to do something about that.”

    To understand how that happens, Truszkowski and her team performed the new study in tadpoles. The juvenile frogs turn out to be a very convenient model of a developing MSI architecture that has a direct analog in the brains of mammals including humans.

    Neuroscientists call the key property the tadpoles modeled in this study, the ability of brain cells and circuits to sometimes respond strongly to faint signals, “inverse effectiveness.” Study senior author Carlos Aizenman, associate professor of neuroscience and member of the Brown Institute for Brain Science, said the new paper represents, “the first cellular-level explanation of inverse effectiveness, a property of MSI that allows the brain to selectively amplify weak sensory inputs from single sources and that represent multiple sensory modalities.”

    Tadpole trials

    To achieve that explanation at the level of cells and proteins, the researchers started with behavior. Tadpoles swimming in a laboratory dish will speed up — as if startled — when they detect a strong and sudden sensory stimulus, such as a pattern of stripes projected from beneath or a loud clicking sound. In their first experiment, the researchers measured changes in swimming speed when they provided strong stimuli, then weaker stimuli, and finally weaker stimuli in combination.

    What they found is that more subtle versions of the stimuli — for example, stripes with only 25 percent of maximum contrast — barely affected swim speed when presented alone. But when such subtle stripes were presented simultaneously with subtle clicks, they produced a startle response as great as when full-contrast stripes were projected on the dish.

    To understand how that works in the brain, the researchers conducted further experiments where they made measurements in a region called the optic tectum where tadpoles process sensory information. In mammals such as humans, the same function is performed by cells in the superior colliculus. The tadpole optic tectum sits right at the top of the brain. Given that fortuitous position and the animals’ transparent skin, scientists can easily observe the activity of cells and networks in living, behaving tadpoles using biochemistry to make different cells light up when they are active.

    In many individual cells and across networks in the optic tectum, the researchers found that neural activity barely budged when tadpoles saw, heard or felt a subtle stimulus individually, but it jumped tremendously when subtle stimuli were simultaneous. The “inverse effectiveness” apparent in the swim speed behavior had a clear correlate in the response of brain cells and networks that process the senses.

    The key question was how that inverse effectiveness works. The team had two molecular suspects in mind: a receptor for the neurotransmitter GABA or a specific type of glutamate receptor called NMDA. In experiments, they used chemicals to block receptors for either. They found the blocking GABA didn’t affect inverse effectiveness but that blocking NMDA made a significant difference.

    NMDA’s role makes sense because it is already known to matter in detecting coincidence, for instance when the spiny dendrites of a neuron receive simultaneous signals from other neurons. Truszkowski said the study shows that NMDA is crucial for inverse effectiveness in MSI, though it might not be the only receptor at work.

    Developing the senses

    The research is part of a larger study of multisensory integration in Aizenman’s lab. Last year, as part of the same investigation, the researchers found that developing tadpole brains refine their judgment of whether stimuli are truly simultaneous as they progressively change the balance of excitation and inhibition among neurons in the optic tectum.

    Aizenman’s lab seeks to understand how perception develops early in life, not only as a matter of basic science but also because it could provide insights into human disorders in which sensory processing develops abnormally, as in some forms of autism.

    The lab has an autism model in tadpoles. Truszkowski said an interesting next step could be to conduct these experiments with those tadpoles.


  8. Illusion reveals that the brain fills in peripheral vision

    December 13, 2016 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science media release:

    vision_eyesightWhat we see in the periphery, just outside the direct focus of the eye, may sometimes be a visual illusion, according to new findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

    The findings suggest that even though our peripheral vision is less accurate and detailed than what we see in the center of the visual field, we may not notice a qualitative difference because our visual processing system actually fills in some of what we “see” in the periphery.

    “Our findings show that, under the right circumstances, a large part of the periphery may become a visual illusion,” says psychology researcher Marte Otten from the University of Amsterdam, lead author on the new research. “This effect seems to hold for many basic visual features, indicating that this ‘filling in’ is a general, and fundamental, perceptual mechanism.”

    As we go about daily life, we generally operate under the assumption that our perception of the world directly and accurately represents the outside world. But visual illusions of various kinds show us that this isn’t always the case. As the brain processes incoming information about an external stimulus, we come to learn, it creates a representation of the outside world that can diverge from reality in noticeable ways.

    Otten and colleagues wondered whether this same process might explain why we usually feel as though our peripheral vision is detailed and robust when it isn’t.

    Perhaps our brain fills in what we see when the physical stimulus is not rich enough,” she explains. “The brain represents peripheral vision with less detail, and these representations degrade faster than central vision. Therefore, we expected that peripheral vision should be very susceptible to illusory visual experiences, for many stimuli and large parts of the visual field.”

    Over a series of experiments, the researchers presented a total of 20 participants with a series of images. The participants focused on the center of the screen — a central image appeared and then a different peripheral image gradually faded in. Participants were supposed to click the mouse as soon as the difference between the central patch and the periphery disappeared and the entire screen appeared to be uniform.

    Otten and colleagues changed the defining characteristic of the central image in different experiments, varying its shape, orientation, luminance, shade, or motion.

    The results showed that all of these characteristics were vulnerable to a uniformity illusion — that is, participants incorrectly reported seeing a uniform image when the center and periphery were actually different.

    The illusion was less likely to occur when the difference between the center and periphery was large; when the illusion did occur on these trials, it took longer to emerge.

    Participants indicated that they felt roughly equally sure about their experience of uniformity when it actually did exist as when it was illusory. This suggests that the illusory experiences are similar to a visual experience based on a physical visual stimulus.

    “The fun thing about this illusion is that you can to test this out for yourself,” Otten says. “If you look up the illusion on http://www.uniformillusion.com you can find out just how real the illusory experience feels for you.”

    “The most surprising is that we found a new class of visual illusions with such a wide breadth, affecting many different types of stimuli and large parts of the visual field,” Otten adds. “We hope to use this illusion as a tool to uncover why peripheral vision seems so rich and detailed, and more generally, to understand how the brain creates our visual perceptual experiences.”


  9. Increased UVB exposure associated with reduced risk of nearsightedness, particularly in teens, young

    by Ashley

    From the The JAMA Network Journals media release:

    children playgroundHigher ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation exposure, directly related to time outdoors and sunlight exposure, was associated with reduced odds of myopia (nearsightedness), and exposure to UVB between ages 14 and 29 years was associated with the highest reduction in odds of adult myopia, according to a study published online by JAMA Ophthalmology.

    Myopia is a complex trait influenced by numerous environmental and genetic factors and is becoming more common worldwide, most dramatically in urban Asia, but rises in prevalence have also been identified in the United States and Europe. This has major implications, both visually and financially, for the global burden from this potentially sight-threatening condition.

    Astrid E. Fletcher, Ph.D., of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and colleagues examined the association of myopia with UVB radiation, serum vitamin D concentrations and vitamin D pathway genetic variants, adjusting for years in education. The study included a random sample of participants 65 years and older from 6 study centers from the European Eye Study. Of 4,187 participants, 4,166 attended an eye examination including refraction, gave a blood sample, and were interviewed by trained fieldworkers using a structured questionnaire. After exclusion for various factors, the final study group included 371 participants with myopia and 2,797 without.

    The researchers found that an increase in UVB exposure at age 14 to 19 years and 20 to 39 years was associated with reduced odds of myopia; those in the highest tertile (group) of years of education had twice the odds of myopia. No independent associations between myopia and serum vitamin D3 concentrations or variants in genes associated with vitamin D metabolism were found. An unexpected finding was that the highest quintile (group) of plasma lutein concentrations was associated with reduced odds of myopia.

    The association between UVB, education, and myopia remained even after respective adjustment. This suggests that the high rate of myopia associated with educational attainment is not solely mediated by lack of time outdoors,” the authors write.

    “As the protective effect of time spent outdoors is increasingly used in clinical interventions, a greater understanding of the mechanisms and life stages at which benefit is conferred is warranted.”


  10. How human brains do language: One system, two channels

    November 8, 2016 by Ashley

    From the Northeastern University College of Science media release:

    raised hand, 2d:4dContrary to popular belief, language is not limited to speech. In a recent study published in the journal PNAS, Northeastern University Prof. Iris Berent reveals that people also apply the rules of their spoken language to sign language.

    Language is not simply about hearing sounds or moving our mouths. When our brain is “doing language,” it projects abstract structure. The modality (speech or sign) is secondary. “There is a misconception in the general public that sign language is not really a language,” said Berent. “Part of our mandate, through the support of the NSF, is to reveal the complex structure of sign language, and in so doing, disabuse the public of this notion.”

    The Experiment

    To come to this conclusion, Berent’s lab studied words (and signs) that shared the same general structure. She found that people reacted to this structure in the same way, irrespective of whether they were presented with speech or signs.

    In the study, Berent studied words and signs with doubling (e.g., slaflaf) — ones that show full or partial repetition. She found that responses to these forms shift, depending on their linguistic context.

    When a word is presented by itself (or as a name for just one object), people avoid doubling. For example, they rate slaflaf (with doubling) worse than slafmak (with no doubling). But when doubling signaled a systematic change in meaning (e.g., slaf=singular, slaflaf=plural), participants now preferred it.

    Next, Berent asked what happens when people see doubling in signs (signs with two identical syllables). The subjects were English speakers who had no knowledge of a sign language. To Berent’s surprise, these subjects responded to signs in the same way they responded to the words. They disliked doubling for singular objects, but they systematically preferred it if (and only if) doubling signaled plurality. Hebrew speakers showed this preference when doubling signaled a diminutive, in line with the structure of their language. “It’s not about the stimulus, it’s really about the mind, and specifically about the language system,” said Berent. “These results suggest that our knowledge of language is abstract and amodal. Human brains can grasp the structure of language regardless of whether it is presented in speech or in sign.”

    Sign Language is Language

    Currently there is a debate as to what role sign language has played in language evolution, and whether the structure of sign language share similarities with spoken language. Berent’s lab shows that our brain detects some deep similarities between speech and sign language. This allows for English speakers, for example, to extend their knowledge of language to sign language. “Sign language has a structure, and even if you examine it at the phonological level, where you would expect it to be completely different from spoken language, you can still find similarities. What’s even more remarkable is that our brain can extract some of this structure even when we have no knowledge of sign language. We can apply some of the rules of our spoken language phonology to signs,” said Berent.

    Berent says these findings show that our brains are built to deal with very different types of linguistic inputs. The results from this paper confirm what some scientists have long thought, but hasn’t truly been grasped by the general public — language is language no matter what format it takes. “This is a significant finding for the deaf community because sign language is their legacy. It defines their identity, and we should all recognize its value. It’s also significant to our human identity, generally, because language is what defines us as a species ”

    To help further support these findings, Berent and her lab intend to examine how these rules apply to other languages. The present study focused on English and Hebrew.