1. Rethinking the use of warnings with transcript and video evidence in trials

    March 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Liverpool press release:

    New research from the University of Liverpool examining the impact multiple forms of evidence has on juror perceptions during criminal trials has found the use of video material could be detrimental without the use of a judicial warning.

    Currently during criminal trials transcripts of audio recordings played during a trial may be provided to the jury to help them understand what is said in the recording.

    The decision to furnish jurors with copies of a transcript to assist them in listening to the audio recording is subject to the sound discretion of the trial judge.

    Judicial warnings

    In one case, according to the Court of Appeal in England and Wales, there had been no exceptional circumstances that justified a jury retiring with a transcript of the complainant’s interview.

    Research, led by Dr Jacqueline Wheatcroft from the University’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, examined the impact multiple evidence forms and use of a judicial warning has on juror evaluations of a witness.

    Judicial warnings focus juror attention on placing disproportionate weight on the evidence as opposed to their general impression of it.

    Perceptions of witness

    As part of the study sixty jury eligible adult participants were recruited from the general population, and across a range of occupations. The overall sample consisted of 20 males and 40 females aged between 18 and 55 years.

    They were presented with witness evidence in transcript, video, or transcript plus video format. Half the participants in each condition received the warning.

    All mock jurors completed a questionnaire which assessed perceptions of witness and task.

    Outcomes showed that transcript plus video evidence, when accompanied by a warning, did impact on mock jurors’ global assessments of the witness. The warning reduced ratings of witness reliability and how satisfactory the witness was deemed to be. The warning also made the task less clear for jurors and, in the video condition alone, led to higher ratings of how satisfactory and reliable the witness was.

    Findings support the provision of a judicial warning to jurors when video material is used and show some initial support for judiciary opposition to the provision of an additional transcript only when jurors are asked to make the more usual global witness assessments.

    The study has been published in The Journal of Psychology.

    Warnings needed in some circumstances

    Dr Jacqueline Wheatcroft, said: “The study showed mock jurors’ global assessments of a witness were significantly affected by the presentation of transcript + video evidence in conjunction with a judicial warning.

    “The findings also emphasize the importance of providing jurors with a warning should video evidence be presented alone.”

    “Finally, the judiciary might develop warnings to encourage jurors to consider how satisfactory and/or reliable they find witnesses.”


  2. Couples may miss cues that partner is hiding emotions, study suggests

    March 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Washington University in St. Louis press release:

    Even the most blissful of couples in long-running, exclusive relationships may be fairly clueless when it comes to spotting the ploys their partner uses to avoid dealing with emotional issues, suggests new research from psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis.

    Happier couples see their partners in a more positive light than do less happy couples,” said Lameese Eldesouky, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University. “They tend to underestimate how often a partner is suppressing emotions and to overestimate a partner’s ability to see the bright side of an issue that might otherwise spark negative emotions.”

    Titled “Love is Blind, but Not Completely: Emotion Regulation Trait Judgments in Romantic Relationships,” Eldesouky’s presentation of the study was offered Jan. 20 at the 2017 meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

    Published in the Journal of Personality, the study examines how accurate and biased dating couples are in judging personality characteristics that reflect ways of managing one’s emotions.

    It focuses on two coping mechanisms that can be difficult to spot due to the lack of related visual cues: expressive suppression (stoically hiding one’s emotions behind a calm and quiet poker face) and cognitive reappraisal (changing one’s perspective to see the silver lining behind a bad situation).

    Other findings include:

    • Couples generally are able to judge their partners’ emotion regulation patterns with some degree of accuracy, but are somewhat less accurate in judging reappraisal than suppression.
    • Women see their partners in a more positive light than do men, overestimating their partners’ ability to look on the bright side.
    • If someone is generally more emotional, their romantic partner thinks they are less likely to hide emotions.
    • If someone frequently expresses positive emotions, such as happiness, their romantic partner thinks they use reappraisal more than they actually do.

    Co-authored by Tammy English, assistant professor of psychology at Washington University, and James Gross, professor of psychology at Stanford University, the study is based on completed questionnaires and interviews with 120 heterosexual couples attending colleges in Northern California.

    Participants, ranging in age from 18 to 25 years, were recruited as part of a larger study on emotion in close relationships. Each couple had been dating on an exclusive basis for more than six months, with some together as long as four years.

    In a previous study, English and Gross found that men are more likely than women to use suppression with their partners, and that the ongoing use of emotional suppression can be damaging to the long-term quality of a relationship.

    “Suppression is often considered a negative trait while reappraisal is considered a positive trait because of the differential impact these strategies have on emotional well-being and social relationships,” English said.

    “How well you are able to judge someone else’s personality depends on your personal skills, your relationship with the person you are judging and the particular trait you are trying to judge,” English added. “This study suggests that suppression might be easier to judge than reappraisal because suppression provides more external cues, such as appearing stoic.”


  3. Study notes how musical cues trigger different autobiographical memories

    March 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Springer press release:

    Happy memories spring to mind much faster than sad, scary or peaceful ones. Moreover, if you listen to happy or peaceful music, you recall positive memories, whereas if you listen to emotionally scary or sad music, you recall largely negative memories from your past. Those are two of the findings from an experiment in which study participants accessed autobiographical memories after listening to unknown pieces of music varying in intensity or emotional content. It was conducted by Signy Sheldon and Julia Donahue of McGill University in Canada, and is reported in the journal Memory & Cognition, published by Springer.

    The experiment tested how musical retrieval cues that differ on two dimensions of emotion — valence (positive and negative) and arousal (high and low) — influence the way that people recall autobiographical memories. A total of 48 participants had 30 seconds to listen to 32 newly composed piano pieces not known to them. The pieces were grouped into four retrieval cues of music: happy (positive, high arousal), peaceful (positive, low arousal), scary (negative, high arousal) and sad (negative, low arousal).

    Participants had to recall events in which they were personally involved, that were specific in place and time, and that lasted less than a day. As soon as a memory came to mind, participants pressed a computer key and typed in their accessed memory. The researchers noted how long it took participants to access a memory, how vivid it was, and the emotions associated with it. The type of event coming to mind was also considered, and whether for instance it was quite unique or connected with an energetic or social setting.

    Memories were found to be accessed most quickly based on musical cues that were highly arousing and positive in emotion, and could therefore be classified as happy. A relationship between the type of musical cue and whether it triggered the remembrance of a positive or a negative memory was also noted. The nature of the event recalled was influenced by whether the cue was positive or negative and whether it was high or low in arousal.

    “High cue arousal led to lower memory vividness and uniqueness ratings, but both high arousal and positive cues were associated with memories rated as more social and energetic,” explains Sheldon.

    During the experiment, the piano pieces were played to one half of the participants in no particular order, while for the rest the music was grouped together based on whether these were peaceful, happy, sad or scary pieces. This led to the finding that the way in which cues are presented influences how quickly and specifically memories are accessed. Cue valence also affects the vividness of a memory.

    More specifically, the researchers found that a greater proportion of clear memories were recalled when highly arousing positive cues were played in a blocked fashion. Positive cues also elicited more vivid memories than negative cues. In the randomized condition, negative cues were associated more vividly than positive cues.

    “It is possible that when cues were presented in a random fashion, the emotional content of the cue directed retrieval to a similar memory via shared emotional information,” notes Donahue.


  4. Conformity is not a universal indicator of intelligence in children

    March 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the UT Austin press release:

    Because innovation is part of the American culture, adults in the United States may be less likely to associate children’s conformity with intelligence than adults from other populations, according to research from developmental psychologists at The University of Texas at Austin.

    U.S. children are often encouraged to engage in non-conformist and creative behavior. But researchers say this stands in contrast to populations in which child socialization is based on fostering collective and cooperative values that emphasize social conformity.

    In a study appearing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, UT Austin researchers examined how adults view children’s behavioral conformity as an indication of their intelligence and good behavior, comparing the U.S. and Vanuatu, a Melanesian archipelago in the South Pacific.

    “Cross-cultural comparisons provide critical insight into variation in reasoning about intelligence. Examining variation in adults’ beliefs about children’s intelligence provides insight into the kinds of behavior adults value and encourage children to engage in,” said Cristine Legare, an associate professor of psychology at UT Austin.

    The study combined methodologies from experimental psychology and comparative anthropology to examine the kinds of behaviors adults associated with intelligence in each population. Rather than describing what makes a child intelligent, participants watched videos of an adult demonstrating a task, followed by two videos: one of a child imitating the actions exactly as they had been demonstrated; and another of a child deviating from the modeled task. Participants then indicated which child was smartest and which child was most well-behaved.

    Ni-Vanuatu adults were more likely to identify the high-conforming child as both smart and well-behaved, particularly when the child was from the same population as them; whereas U.S. adults were less likely to endorse the high-conforming child as intelligent.

    “Conformity is interpreted in different ways in each population — adults from Vanuatu interpret conformity as evidence of children’s competency and adults from the U.S. interpret non-conformity as evidence of children’s creativity,” Legare said.

    Additionally, the researchers examined potential differences in adults’ judgments across socioeconomic status groups within the U.S. to determine the extent to which education level influenced U.S. adult’s judgments of children’s conformity. Results indicated that adults with no college experience were more likely to endorse the high-conforming child on both measures than adults with higher levels of education, but still less likely than Ni-Vanuatu adults to select the high-conforming child as intelligent.

    Children’s learning environments can differ significantly between high and low socioeconomic families, including parents’ beliefs about how children should behave and the extent to which children should be self-directed and independent,” said Jennifer Clegg, the study’s lead author and UT Austin psychology alumna who is now a post-doctoral researcher at Boston University. “Examining variation in adults’ beliefs about children’s intelligence provides insight into the kinds of behavior children are encouraged to engage in diverse populations with distinct childrearing goals and values.”


  5. Study reveals how eyewitness testimonies can go wrong

    by Ashley

    From the Florida Atlantic University press release:

    Eyewitnesses identify more than 75,000 suspects each year in the United States and their testimonies are one of the most compelling and powerful forms of evidence for a jury. But, it’s not foolproof — just ask the 242 individuals who were mistakenly identified by eyewitnesses and served years in prison for crimes they did not commit until they were exonerated thanks to the introduction of DNA testing.

    Research by psychologists at Florida Atlantic University gives new meaning to the notion of “guilt by association” and aims to test how memory in humans as well as police use of mugshots and subtle innuendo can contaminate eyewitness testimonies. Using a laboratory setting, they investigated the phenomenon of unconscious transference — when an eyewitness misidentifies a familiar but innocent person in a mugshot or lineup — and recently published their results in the journal Memory & Cognition. Police departments currently use a number of methods to identify the culprit of a crime, including individual mugshots, an array of mugshots, composite sketches and lineups. Often, eyewitnesses are exposed to one or more of these procedures coupled with feedback from law enforcement.

    “There are a number of ways that eyewitness testimony can be contaminated with misleading information and that’s why you have to treat memory like other forms of forensic evidence,” said Alan Kersten, Ph.D., co-author of the study and an associate professor of psychology in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. “If you handle it right you can often get useful information from it.”

    Kersten and collaborator Julie Earles, Ph.D., co-author and a professor of psychology in FAU’s Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, were looking for answers to a key question involving eyewitness testimonies and mugshots: “Does presenting a picture along with a question like ‘is this the person who did it?’ create an association between those two things that could then cause an eyewitness to later falsely remember seeing that person doing that action?”

    For the study, participants were broken into two age groups: a median age of around 19 years old and a median age of around 71 years old. Each participant was shown a series of snippet videos of actors doing simple actions and were then instructed to remember which person had performed each task. The researchers created 84 mugshots from these videos as well as a series of various scenarios of events. For each trial, study participants were shown two mugshots: one depicting an actor from one of the videos and the other depicting a new, random actor. Each mugshot was accompanied by a question about a particular action such as “which of these people did you see watering a plant?” After completing the mugshot trials, older adults and half of the younger adults were tested immediately for their recognition of the events they had seen, whereas the other younger adults returned about three weeks later.

    Results from the study confirm what the researchers have long suspected — viewing a mugshot along with a question like “is this the person who did it?” can lead to the creation of a specific association between the person and the queried action.

    They found that both younger and older participants were more likely to falsely recognize the test events if the actors appearing in those events also had appeared in the mugshots. However, the mechanisms underlying this effect were different for younger and older adults. With older adults, mugshot viewing led them to experience a feeling of familiarity when they saw the pictured actor performing a familiar action from one of the videos, even if it was a different action than the one that was suggested when they viewed the actor’s mugshot. This suggests that older adults recognized the familiar person but could not recall the source or reason for that familiarity. Younger adults, on the other hand, were more likely to falsely recognize a suspect if a mugshot of the actor was accompanied by a question about the action that the actor was now seen performing. This finding suggests that the young adults formed a specific association between the pictured actor and the queried action, causing them to later falsely recollect having seen that actor perform that action.

    “False recollection is really troubling from a legal perspective because this type of memory leads an eyewitness to put a face to a context of a crime scene, incorrectly linking the two together and leading to the conclusion that this person committed the crime,” said Earles. “And to complicate matters even more, since it can take years for a case to appear before a jury, memory also can be altered with the passage of time.”

    Kersten and Earles caution that this type of memory leads to a high level of confidence, especially in younger eyewitnesses, because they are convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt” that they saw the suspect committing the crime.

    “Eyewitnesses remember the crime itself and remember seeing a familiar person before but they may incorrectly visualize these two pieces of information together,” said Kersten. “Because they are able to place the familiar person in the context of the crime scene, this may lead them to confidently assert that they saw the person commit the crime.”


  6. Study suggests Mona Lisa’s smile less ambiguous than previously thought

    March 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Freiburg press release:

    It is perhaps the world’s most famous painting: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The ambiguous facial expression of Mona Lisa was long thought to be one of the main reasons for its great appeal: Is she happy or sad? Scientists at the Medical Center — University of Freiburg, the Institute of Psychology of the University of Freiburg and the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health (IGPP) in Freiburg have now published a study demonstrating that test subjects almost always perceive Mona Lisa as happy. They also determined that the emotional assessment of the image depends on which other versions of it are shown. The researchers presented the test participants with the original painting and eight image versions in which the corners of Mona Lisa’s mouth are slightly raised or lowered to create a sadder or happier facial expression. The study was published in the online journal Scientific Reports on 10 March 2017.

    “We were very surprised to find out that the original Mona Lisa is almost always seen as being happy. That calls the common opinion among art historians into question,” says PD Dr. Jürgen Kornmeier, a scientist at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg and at the Eye Center of the Medical Center — University of Freiburg.

    Happier Faces Are Identified More Quickly

    The team of scientists led by Dr. Kornmeier and his colleague Prof. Dr. Ludger Tebartz van Elst, chief senior physician at the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy of the Medical Center — University of Freiburg, began by creating eight versions of the Mona Lisa that differed only in gradual changes to the curvature of her mouth. The researchers then presented the original, four versions with a sadder face, and four with a happier face in random order. Their participants indicated for each version whether they perceived it as happy or sad by pressing a button and then rated how certain they were of their response. The responses were added up to form a percentage on a scale from sad to happy and a rating for the certainty of the responses.

    The original and all of the more positive versions were perceived as happy in nearly 100 percent of the cases. The participants identified happy faces more quickly and with a higher degree of certainty than sad faces. “It appears as if our brain is biased to positive facial expressions,” says Emanuela Liaci, Dr. Kornmeiers PhD student and first author of the publication.

    Sadness Is Relative

    In a second experiment, the researchers kept the image with the least mouth curvature as the saddest version, took the original Mona Lisa as the happiest version, and chose seven intermediate versions, three of them from the first experiment. The researchers were astonished to find that the participants tended to perceive the various versions of the image as sadder when the range of images they had been shown had overall sadder facial expressions. “The data show that our perception, for instance of whether something is sad or happy, is not absolute but adapts to the environment with astonishing speed,” says Dr. Kornmeier.

    The study is part of a larger project on perceptual processes Dr. Kornmeier and Prof. Tebartz van Elst are conducting at the Medical Center — University of Freiburg. “Our senses have only access to a limited part of the information from our environment, for instance because an object is partially hidden or poorly illuminated,” explains Dr. Kornmeier. “The brain then needs to use this restricted and often ambiguous sensory information to construct an image of the world that comes as close to reality as possible.” The Freiburg researchers are studying how healthy people perform this perceptual construction and whether this is different in people with autism and psychotic disorder.


  7. Frankly, we do give a damn: Study finds links between swearing and honesty

    January 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Cambridge media release:

    computer frustrationIt’s long been associated with anger and coarseness but profanity can have another, more positive connotation. Psychologists have learned that people who frequently curse are being more honest.

    Writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science a team of researchers from the Netherlands, the UK, the USA and Hong Kong report that people who use profanity are less likely to be associated with lying and deception.

    Profanity is obscene language which, in some social settings is considered inappropriate and unacceptable. It often refers to language that contains sexual references, blasphemy or other vulgar terms. It’s usually related to the expression of emotions such as anger, frustration or surprise. But profanity can also be used to entertain and win over audiences.

    There are conflicting attitudes to profanity and its social impact has changed over the decades. In 1939, Clark Gable uttering the memorable line “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” in the film Gone with the Wind, was enough to land the producers a $5,000 fine. Nowadays our movies, TV shows and books are peppered with profane words and, for the most part, we are more tolerant of them.

    As dishonesty and profanity are both considered deviant they are often viewed as evidence of low moral standards. On the other hand, profanity can be positively associated with honesty. It is often used to express unfiltered feelings and sincerity. The researchers cite the example of President-elect Donald Trump who used swear words in some of his speeches while campaigning in last year’s US election and was considered, by some, to be more genuine than his rivals.

    Dr David Stillwell, a lecturer in Big Data Analytics at the University of Cambridge, and a co-author on the paper, says: “The relationship between profanity and dishonesty is a tricky one. Swearing is often inappropriate but it can also be evidence that someone is telling you their honest opinion. Just as they aren’t filtering their language to be more palatable, they’re also not filtering their views. ”

    The international team of researchers set out to gauge people’s views about this sort of language in a series of questionnaires which included interactions with social media users.

    In the first questionnaire 276 participants were asked to list their most commonly used and favourite swear words. They were also asked to rate their reasons for using these words and then took part in a lie test to determine whether they were being truthful or simply responding in the way they thought was socially acceptable. Those who wrote down a higher number of curse words were less likely to be lying.

    A second survey involved collecting data from 75,000 Facebook users to measure their use of swear words in their online social interactions. The research found that those who used more profanity were also more likely to use language patterns that have been shown in previous research to be related to honesty, such as using pronouns like “I” and “me.” The Facebook users were recruited from across the United States and their responses highlight the differing views to profanity that exist between different geographical areas. For example, those in the north-eastern states (such as Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and New York) were more likely to swear whereas people were less likely to in the southern states (South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi).


  8. Losing sleep over discrimination? ‘everyday discrimination’ may contribute to sleep problems

    January 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Wolters Kluwer Health: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins media release:

    People who perceive more discrimination in daily life have higher rates of sleep problems, based on both subjective and objective measures, reports a study in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, the official journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. The journal is published by Wolters Kluwer.

    “Discrimination is an important factor associated with sleep measures in middle-aged adults,” according to the report by Sherry Owens, PhD, of West Virginia University, Morgantown, and colleagues. The results add to previous research suggesting that discrimination and chronic stress may lead to sleep difficulties and increased health risks.

    Discrimination Related to Both Objective and Subjective Sleep Problems

    The study included 441 adults from a nationwide study of health and well-being in middle age and beyond (the MIDUS Study). The participants’ average age was 47 years; about one-third were of non-white race/ethnicity. Complete data were available for 361 participants.

    Participants wore an activity monitor device for one week to gather data on objective sleep measures — for example, sleep efficiency, calculated as the percentage of time spent in bed that the person was asleep. They also completed subjective sleep ratings — for example, how often they had sleep problems.

    Perceived experiences of discrimination were assessed using a validated “Everyday Discrimination Scale.” For example, subjects were asked how often they were treated with less courtesy or respect than others, or how often they were insulted or harassed.

    Discrimination scores were analyzed for association with the objective and subjective sleep measures. Objective measures indicated that about one-third of participants had poor sleep efficiency. Subjectively, one-half of subjects rated themselves as having poor sleep quality.

    Participants who perceived more discrimination had increased sleep problems, after adjustment for demographic, lifestyle, and health factors. Higher discrimination scores were associated with 12 percent higher odds of poor sleep efficiency and a nine percent increase in the odds of poor sleep quality. Discrimination was also related to (objective) time spent awake after falling asleep and (subjective) overall sleep difficulties.

    Non-white subjects had nearly four times the odds of poor sleep efficiency. Otherwise, all differences in sleep measures between white and non-white subjects were related to discrimination.

    Older participants and men were more likely to have some types of sleep problems. Age, sex, and mental/physical health factors explained only a small proportion of the effects of discrimination.

    Previous studies have suggested that racial/ethnic minorities have worse sleep quality. Inadequate sleep is associated with adverse health outcomes, including increased cardiovascular risks and increased mortality. These consequences of poor sleep may account for some of racial/ethnic variation in health outcomes — possibly reflecting inadequate recovery from chronic daily stressors.

    While poor sleep has previously been linked to higher perceived discrimination, the new study is the first to look at how discrimination affects both objective and subjective sleep measures. “The findings support the model that discrimination acts as a stressor than can disrupt subjective and objective sleep,” Dr. Owens and coauthors write.

    The researchers call for further study to confirm and clarify the implications of their findings. Meanwhile, they believe the study adds a “finer resolution” to previous knowledge the relationship between discrimination and sleep — and suggests a possible “causal pathway” connecting chronic discrimination to sleep problems, and thus to increased health risks.


  9. Missed connections: As people age, memory-related brain activity loses cohesion

    November 28, 2016 by Ashley

    From the PLOS media release:

    brain scansGroups of brain regions that synchronize their activity during memory tasks become smaller and more numerous as people age, according to a study published in PLOS Computational Biology.

    Typically, research on brain activity relies on average brain measurements across entire groups of people. In a new study, Elizabeth Davison of Princeton University, New Jersey, and colleagues describe a novel method to characterize and compare the brain dynamics of individual people.

    The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record healthy people’s brain activity during memory tasks, attention tasks, and at rest. For each person, fMRI data was recast as a network composed of brain regions and the connections between them. The scientists then use this network to measure how closely different groups of connections changed together over time.

    They found that, regardless of whether a person is using memory, directing attention, or resting, the number of synchronous groups of connections within one brain is consistent for that person. However, between people, these numbers vary dramatically.

    During memory specifically, variations between people are closely linked to age. Younger participants have only a few large synchronous groups that link nearly the entire brain in coordinated activity, while older participants show progressively more and smaller groups of connections, indicating loss of cohesive brain activity — even in the absence of memory impairment.

    “This method elegantly captures important differences between individual brains, which are often complex and difficult to describe,” Davison says. “The resulting tools show promise for understanding how different brain characteristics are related to behavior, health, and disease.

    Future work will investigate how to use individual brain signatures to differentiate between healthily aging brains and brains with age-related impairments.


  10. Our brains have a basic algorithm that enables our intelligence

    November 23, 2016 by Ashley

    From the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University media release:

    family_mealOur brains have a basic algorithm that enables us to not just recognize a traditional Thanksgiving meal, but the intelligence to ponder the broader implications of a bountiful harvest as well as good family and friends.

    A relatively simple mathematical logic underlies our complex brain computations,” said Dr. Joe Z. Tsien, neuroscientist at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, co-director of the Augusta University Brain and Behavior Discovery Institute and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Cognitive and Systems Neurobiology.

    Tsien is talking about his Theory of Connectivity, a fundamental principle for how our billions of neurons assemble and align not just to acquire knowledge, but to generalize and draw conclusions from it.

    “Intelligence is really about dealing with uncertainty and infinite possibilities,” Tsien said. It appears to be enabled when a group of similar neurons form a variety of cliques to handle each basic like recognizing food, shelter, friends and foes. Groups of cliques then cluster into functional connectivity motifs, or FCMs, to handle every possibility in each of these basics like extrapolating that rice is part of an important food group that might be a good side dish at your meaningful Thanksgiving gathering. The more complex the thought, the more cliques join in.

    That means, for example, we cannot only recognize an office chair, but an office when we see one and know that the chair is where we sit in that office.

    “You know an office is an office whether it’s at your house or the White House,” Tsien said of the ability to conceptualize knowledge, one of many things that distinguishes us from computers.

    Tsien first published his theory in a 1,000-word essay in October 2015 in the journal Trends in Neuroscience. Now he and his colleagues have documented the algorithm at work in seven different brain regions involved with those basics like food and fear in mice and hamsters. Their documentation is published in the journal Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience.

    “For it to be a universal principle, it needs to be operating in many neural circuits, so we selected seven different brain regions and, surprisingly, we indeed saw this principle operating in all these regions,” he said.

    Intricate organization seems plausible, even essential, in a human brain, which has about 86 billion neurons and where each neuron can have tens of thousands of synapses, putting potential connections and communications between neurons into the trillions. On top of the seemingly endless connections is the reality of the infinite things each of us can presumably experience and learn.

    Neuroscientists as well as computer experts have long been curious about how the brain is able to not only hold specific information, like a computer, but — unlike even the most sophisticated technology — to also categorize and generalize the information into abstract knowledge and concepts.

    “Many people have long speculated that there has to be a basic design principle from which intelligence originates and the brain evolves, like how the double helix of DNA and genetic codes are universal for every organism,” Tsien said. “We present evidence that the brain may operate on an amazingly simple mathematical logic.

    “In my view, Joe Tsien proposes an interesting idea that proposes a simple organizational principle of the brain, and that is supported by intriguing and suggestive evidence,” said Dr. Thomas C. Südhof, Avram Goldstein Professor in the Stanford University School of Medicine, neuroscientist studying synapse formation and function and a winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

    “This idea is very much worth testing further,” said Südhof, a sentiment echoed by Tsien and his colleagues and needed in additional neural circuits as well as other animal species and artificial intelligence systems.

    At the heart of Tsien’s Theory of Connectivity is the algorithm, n=2i-1, which defines how many cliques are needed for an FCM and which enabled the scientists to predict the number of cliques needed to recognize food options, for example, in their testing of the theory.

    N is the number of neural cliques connected in different possible ways; 2 means the neurons in those cliques are receiving the input or not; i is the information they are receiving; and -1 is just part of the math that enables you to account for all possibilities, Tsien explained.

    To test the theory, they placed electrodes in the areas of the brain so they could “listen” to the response of neurons, or their action potential, and examine the unique waveforms resulting from each.

    They gave the animals, for example, different combinations of four different foods, such as usual rodent biscuits as well as sugar pellets, rice and milk, and as the Theory of Connectivity would predict, the scientists could identify all 15 different cliques, or groupings of neurons, that responded to the potential variety of food combinations.

    The neuronal cliques appear prewired during brain development because they showed up immediately when the food choices did. The fundamental mathematical rule even remained largely intact when the NMDA receptor, a master switch for learning and memory, was disabled after the brain matured.

    The scientists also learnefd that size does mostly matter, because while the human and animal brain both have a six-layered cerebral cortex — the lumpy outer layer of the brain that plays a key role in higher brain functions like learning and memory — the extra longitudinal length of the human cortex provides more room for cliques and FCMs, Tsien said. And while the overall girth of the elephant brain is definitely larger than the human brain, for example, most of its neurons reside in the cerebellum with far less in their super-sized cerebral cortex. The cerebellum is more involved in muscle coordination, which may help explain the agility of the huge mammal, particularly its trunk.

    Tsien noted exceptions to the brain’s mathematical rule, such as in the reward circuits where the dopamine neurons reside. These cells tend to be more binary where we judge, for example, something as either good or bad, Tsien said.

    The project grew out of Tsien’s early work in the creation of smart mouse Doogie 17 years ago while on faculty at Princeton University, in studying how changes in neuronal connections lay down memories in the brain.