Cognition


The following are bits of writing from many sources such as personal correspondence, posts to on-line discussion groups, notes, and occasionally even some journaling. All of this is informal in nature, but contains some interesting and/or useful information.

Choking
I remember a demonstration about 15 years ago where they set up an EEG on an Olympic archer while he set up his bow, aimed, and fired. They found that, contrary to expectations, his brain was least active when he went into his routine. Pretty much all else shut down because he defaulted to a narrow set of well-practiced (i.e., powerfully connected) circuits. There wasn't a lot of "thinking" or conscious thought going on, much like when we're driving and don't realize we've gone several miles because it's so second-nature to us.
In fact, thinking or, as we more commonly call it, "second-guessing" tends to get in the way when specific, well-rehearsed behaviors are called for. We need to tell our brains to "shut up" if we're going to get anything accomplished. If we don't, we "choke" in situations where performance is required from a practiced set of routines (e.g., in sports, music, drama, etc.). If you're interested, Malcolm Gladwell has a great article on the underlying science here.

Mind-blindness
There's a section in "Blink" where he meets a psychologist who works with a guy with autism. He's high-functioning, but has trouble because of what the chapter talks about: "Mind-blindness." Autistic people have trouble reading another person's mind in terms of their intentions, likes, dislikes, etc. There's a lot I could go into here that are interesting examples of this, but one consequence is that autistic people are fascinated by mechanical/electrical objects (The subject of the chapter was drawn to light switches). They don't have to read their minds to see how these things work.

You put your left brain in...
>I wonder if the processing of a piece of music migrates to the language side as it takes on more "meaning."
Maybe so. On a more macroscopic level, I remember moving from the (typically) right- to left-brained listener of music somewhere in high school. At first I heard everything as a big wad of sound. However, around that time I start getting into Pink Floyd (who are famous for their studio mixing magic), and I started pulling out individual instruments. I realized I was hearing something more complex, something with multiple parts. I can recall similar experiences with other prog-rock bands like Yes and Rush as well as U2's effects-rich middle-period albums.
Like you say, at that point things acquire meaning the way you go from watching a foreign film purely by the subtitles to being able to pick out individual words and phrases to (with much help other than watching Bravo all day) actually understanding the language directly. I'm sure much music that similarly comes across as "gibberish" could acquire meaning upon closer inspection. I'm sure you can think of examples in your own experience.

Multi-tasking
People have to start multi-tasking based on what different activities demand from their mental faculties. For example, I listen to audio books (or text-to-speech versions) while I'm doing routine labor like putting away the dishes or regrouting the bathroom, but if I'm doing anything that requires mental abilities beyond procedural recall, I have to hit "pause" or I know I'm going to either mess something up or just miss what I'm listening to. There have been times where I've accidentally gone back and re-listened to a section only to find that I had missed a considerable portion while I was busy. I could definitely tell where I had tuned in and out on the material (i.e., there were distinct gaps), but if I hadn't gone back and revisited it, I would have said I absorbed it all on the first pass. It isn't a surprise that people delude themselves into believing they're doing two things at once really well since they were too distracted to know what they've missed!
There has been some research into listening to music while people (especially students) work. There is sort of a conflict in the literature as to whether music increases productivity or is a distraction. One study helped to clarify the contradiction by finding that it was important to distinguish between instrumental music vs. music with vocals (i.e., a linguistic component). If you're listening to lyrics (even if you aren't actively paying attention to them) while you're trying to, say, read a book, then your language circuitry will be divided among two tasks.
Of course, another important consideration is that trained musicians process music (even as listeners, not just while performing) in the language areas (or at least the hemisphere associated with language... which isn't the same for everyone, particularly among us lefties). Any study that looks at the effects of music ought to take this into consideration. Similarly, some personality tests will inquire about attitudes toward music and rank strong responses in that area as indications of an emotional personality type when, in fact, among trained musicians this is typically tempered by mathematical/logical reasoning to a greater degree.
Personally, I've found I can't even answer what I want for supper while I'm play the space combat levels of Star Wars Battlefront II as I'm trying to shoot out the gun turrets on the droid army star cruiser in my Jedi starfighter while John Williams' soundtrack is trumpeting along with every action. Any wonder why these things are so addictive?

Split brain
sINA wrote:
>...As a result [of split-brain surgery] opposing commands can be given selectively to each hemisphere.
Actually one of the interesting things about these patients is that in the weeks following the surgery, they tend to be "of two minds" in a very literal sense. Since the left and right hemispheres have different "personalities" (i.e., interests, preferred modes of thinking, operating, etc.), they operate under different and sometimes competing agendas.
For example, a woman who had the surgery was dressing for work one morning. She reached for a work-appropriate outfit with her left hand, but her right hand simultaneously reached for a more sultry dress with which she might seem more attractive to her coworkers. One side of her brain was conscious of the rules and tried to follow them while the other hemisphere thought in largely emotional terms.
A similar example is of a patient reading a book. He happened to be holding it in his right hand at the time and he found his left hand taking the book and putting it down *unconsciously* even though he was actively reading at the time. The left side of his brain controlled the right hand. That hemisphere is usually the one in charge of language, so it was interested in the book. However, the left hand/right brain team looked at the book as an illiterate might: an uninteresting collection of black squiggles on a chunk of white paper. It was bored and so acted accordingly (if inappropriately).
Another but separate example along the lines of those above can be found among stroke victims who lose consciousness of their paralyzed limb(s). For example, my cousin had this immediately following a stroke that damaged mobility on his left side, particularly in his arm. Oddly enough, he wasn't aware of the problem initially and actively denied he was paralyzed. His doctor then asked him to draw a picture of himself. When he indicated he was finished, the doctored pointed out to him that he failed to draw in his left arm. Somehow not merely his sensory/motor abilities of the arm were gone, his awareness was also.
A more extreme example of this is lateral neglect syndrome* in which a patient will actively deny the existence of an entire side of his/her body. They will continue to treat the opposing side normally, but the neglect is extreme on the other. The person will simply not believe that the neglected side exists, that it should be shaved, washed, etc.
*It goes by other terms as well. See this article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemispatial_neglect
Of course, I don't know if any of the above gets at consciousness or just a sensory blindness, so I guess we're back to that. Any thoughts?

Metabolism
>I also get really REALLY hungry when I work on math or on my computer for long periods of time.
I forgot the statistic, but your brain is something like 2% of your body mass, but it uses 20% of your metabolism. I know I can find myself sweating when I'm writing something really fast or playing guitar. And it's not like I'm the type to go jumping around the room. I just sit in front of the computer and click on mp3s to play along with.
>Your *brain* uses 20% of your metabolism? Really? That's bizarre.
Well, neurons are highly energetically demanding because they're always having to reset their resting potentials. Also, they're spontaneously active. It isn't like a muscle that will only activate when triggered. Brains always have a certain level of baseline activity unless you're in a coma (and even then the activity is just reduced, not actually shut down). And there are a lot of neurons packed into a small area with lots of long, thin axons, so you're talking about a lot of surface area (read: membrane) to fill with Na+ and K+ channels.

Concussions
[Posted to the neuroscience group on MySpace.com]
I honestly don't know very much about the neuroscience underlying concussions, but there was an interesting report on ABC News several years ago on the subject. Perhaps they were playing up these results for a more interesting story, but they showed fMRIs taken up to three months after a serious concussion among athletes (e.g., one featured in the piece was a hockey player if I remember correctly).
The surprising thing was that even at this late stage, when one would have expected the brain to have recovered, the level of activity was still severely reduced. This was in spite of the fact that the patients were now quite mobile and seemed to have recovered by outward indications. The fMRI itself following the concussion was also disturbingly similar to patients in a coma in that the level of activity was very, very low (i.e., mostly blue on the standard color/intensity scale).
Of course, I saw this piece well before I started grad school, so I really wasn't in a position to evaluate it authoritatively. If anyone can follow up on this, I'm sure we would all appreciate it.

Processing
In psychology and the neurosciences, there is a lot of work in trying to determine the nature of intelligence and mental processing in general. Some people think it is the processes that are the most difficult that require the most computation (e.g., doing differential equations) while others think that simple tasks (e.g., walking, etc.) require tremendous processing power that we simply aren't aware of. I'm inclined to think that intuition is a different manifestation of intellect, and it happens to be my primary mode. Yes, I do ruminate on things, but I'm more likely to shoot first and ask questions later. Part of that is impulsivity and part of it is that it is just easier for me to approach a problem that way than reading the manual before I reach for the screw driver.

Language and velocity
Why is it I can read faster than I can understand verbally (i.e., through audio)?
Hypothesis: Accustomed to reading since birth, whereas faster audio has never been available until on computers
*However*: Why has the rate of human speech never increased dramatically (recall "Pushing Tin" air traffic controllers)




Copyright Alexplorer.

Back to the index