Archive September 2012

Cute animal pictures are good for your work! aimee whitcroft Sep 28

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Workers! Throw off your shackles!  Be not afraid to be seen by your boss cooing over Cute Overload!

Hiroshi Nittono and colleagues, of Hiroshima University in Japan, have shown something most intriguing: that looking at ‘kawaii’ or cute images of baby animals improves focus and careful behaviour.

This picture TOTALLY just improved your focus and carefulness. Credit:

It is, perhaps, not surprising that the research originated in Japan where, as the researchers say in their paper, “Cute things are popular worldwide. In particular, Japan’s culture accepts and appreciates childishness at the social level”.

Previous research has shown that the faces of babies can elicit care-giving impulses in humans (not surprisingly**), and also suggested that cute images can encourage friendliness. However, these previous studies had not examined whether or not the positive feelings engendered by seeing something cute had a behavioural effect afterwards.

The experiment was conducted in 3 parts, each narrowing down the effect of seeing cute images, and its possible cause.

Experiment 1

48 college students between 18 and 22 (half female, half male) were asked to play something very like the game ‘Operation’, which tests fine motor control by having players use tweezers to pluck tiny bits of out of a “patient”. After a round, they were asked to look at one of two series of images: baby animals or adult animals (less cute)*. They were then asked to play something very like the game ‘Operation’, which tests fine motor control by having players use tweezers to pluck tiny bits of out of a “patient”.

Upon repeating the game, the people who had looked at the pictures of the baby animals showed improved performance and accuracy, but at a cost: it took them longer to complete the exercise.

Mean scores and times to complete the operation task (Experiment 1). Participants performed the task before and after viewing images of baby and adult animals (n = 24 each). The error bars indicate the standard errors of means.

According to the paper, this allowed more than one interpretation of the underlying mechanism. The first was that the improved performance could be due to a general slowing-down: it has been previously shown that people speak more slowly and clearly to babies than they do to adults. This slowing-down could then be passed onto any subsequent tasks, and would benefit any tasks requiring accuracy, but impair any requiring speed.

The second possibility was that the effect might not be specific to motor skills. Caring for babies, as the paper says: “not only involves tender treatments but also requires careful attention to the targets’ physical and mental states as well as vigilance against possible threats to the targets”. This would mean that performance in a non-motor, perceptual task would also improve.

Third, it could be caused by an increased interest in social interaction, which would mean that a task would be performed better if it could be seen as benefiting others in some way. On the other hand, a task without any social component wouldn’t be performed better at all.

And hence the second experiment, which was designed to test from amongst these options.

Experiment 2

48 participants (different people from Experiment 1, but again split half female, half male) between the ages of 18 and 20 took part this time.

In this, the experimentees were shown sheets on which 10 matrices had been printed. Each matrix showed 40 different, randomly arranged digits, and the participants were then asked to identify how many times a given number occurred in each matrix (a different number per matrix), with answers varying between two and six. In 3 minutes.

Otherwise, the experiment worked pretty much the same as Experiment 1, with one major addition: an additional series of images. Pleasant foods, in fact.

Once again, those who’d seen the baby animal photos outperformed the other groups. Interestingly, while women did far better on this visual search test than the men, the cute images didn’t affect this in any significant way.

The results from experiment 2, then, showed that looking at cute images improved fine motor control. It also showed that it improved carefulness “in the visual domain”. The researchers posited that this improvement in the ability to find a visual target could be because attentional focus was narrowed – attentional focus is the ability to focus on environmental cues which are relevant to the task at hand. Basically, participants were narrowing, and deepening, their attention and focus.

And so on to experiment 3, which was set up to see whether looking at cute images would affect this attentional focus.


Examples of task stimuli used in Experiments 2 (A) and 3 (B). A: Participants searched a matrix for the designated digit shown on the left side of each matrix and to state the number of counts vocally. The answers are 2 (upper) and 3 (bottom). B: Participants indicated whether a stimulus contained the letter H or the letter T by pressing the left or right key on a response pad. The upper is a global target stimulus and the bottom is a local target stimulus. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046362.g002

Experiment 3

As a general rule, researchers have found that people are better at seeing a ‘global’ than a local picture. For example, looking at a picture made up of other pictures, and finding it easier to see the composite rather than individual pictures.

In this experiment, which again used a 50/50 male/female split of 36 participants aged between 18 and 22, a reaction time test was undertaken.

After viewing either cute baby animal photos, adult photos of ‘neutral’ photos, the reaction time involved participants looking at a letter composed of smaller letters, and seeing whether the letter contained an H or a T. In some cases, the composite letter was an H or a T, and in others, the smaller letters included Hs or Ts. Before seeing the photos, as one would expect, people were better at identifying the global letters – this natural inclination towards the global is called the ‘global precedence effect’.

However, afterwards, those who had seen the cute baby animal photos showed a decrease in this effect – in other words, they became better at focusing on the local, rather than the global.

Mean reaction times in the global–local letter task (Experiment 3).
Participants performed the task in three blocks during which images of baby animals, adult animals, and neutral objects were presented every eight trials (N = 36). The error bars indicate the standard errors of means. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046362.g004













To wrap up

The paper, which is available to download free from PloS ONE (see reference below), then goes into some very interesting discussion about what the underlying mechanisms causing all this could be. It also points out, to its credit, its own limitations – these include the need for a better understanding of the psychological state which underlies the feeling of cuteness, and also the need to look at how different cultures might react to cuteness.

However, what it does show is very clear – that being shown pictures of ‘cute’ things, such as baby animals, and the positive emotions this triggers, improves attentional focus and behavioural carefulness.

Next steps? From the researchers themselves:

For future applications, cute objects may be used as an emotion elicitor to induce careful behavioral tendencies in specific situations, such as driving and office work.

So, there you have it. Back to those kitten pictures, all of you. And if your boss complains, show him this, and explain: it’s good for your work :)


Fun facts: cute and kawaii

From the paper itself (I found this fascinating):

Kawaii is an attributive adjective in modern Japanese and is often translated into English as ‘‘cute.’’ However, this word was originally an affective adjective derived from an ancient word, kawa-hayu-shi, which literally means face (kawa)- flushing (hayu-shi). The original meaning of ‘‘ashamed, can’t bear to see, feel pity’’ was changed to ‘‘can’t leave someone alone, care for’’ [4]. In the present paper, we call this affective feeling, typically elicited by babies, infants, and young animals, cute.



Nittono H, Fukushima M, Yano A, Moriya H (2012). The Power of Kawaii: Viewing Cute Images Promotes a Careful Behavior and Narrows Attentional Focus PLoS ONE : 10.1371/journal.pone.0046362


* In separate tasks, participants were asked to rate how cute the pictures being shown them were, so that the researchers could be sure that, for example, the cute pictures of the baby animals were, in fact, cuter than of the adult animals.

** I remember reading somewhere, years ago, a paper suggesting that humans and dogs had co-evolved, with dogs using our penchant for the cute (PUPPIES!!!) as a means of, well, domesticating us. It has a certain something to it, I think :)

UnderSkin, the Tube and schematic mapping aimee whitcroft Sep 26

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A beautiful piece of medical art has cropped up and being doing the rounds again the last few days.

Titled ‘UnderSkin’, and made in 2010 by illustrator/designer Sam Loman, UnderSkin shows the human anatomy in the style of the very famous London Underground map.


The original UnderSkin design by Sam Loman. Credit: Sam Loman. See to buy prints of the updated version. Click to enlarge.


I must say, it’s a beautiful piece of work, showing the locations of and linkages between our respiratory, arterial/venous, muscoloskeletal, lymphatic, digestive, nervous and other systems. And, should you want to put it on your wall, you can buy an updated print directly from Sam (go on! support great work!).

But while it looks, superficially, very much like that Tube map, there’s one, large difference. And it’s that this is far more accurate, at least in terms of where things are. Because, if nothing else, where things are is _important_ in anatomy.  One cannot have people simply carving randomly into bits. Things go badly.

The Tube map, first designed by Harry Beck in 1931 and continuously improved/worked on ever since, isn’t geographically accurate at all. Rather, it shows the _relative_ position of each of the stations along the line, and their connective relationships with each other and fare zones, rather than their geographical position. Which means, amongst other things, that you can’t trust it to tell you how far away something is, or quite, well, where.*


The London Underground map, 2012. Warnings: things are not quite where they appear. Click to enlarge.


So yes. Enjoy.  And go buy a print from Sam. She deserves it, don’t you think?  Also, check out her other art (I especially like the Medical stuff, admittedly) :)


* I found this out myself, when living there. Something could seem like it was going to miles and miles on the tube, but upon getting out and walking I discovered that my destination was a couple of blocks away: something particularly common in the hive that is Central London.

Wash ALL the things! aimee whitcroft Sep 24


We all know that fresh water is going to become more and more of an issue over the coming decades.  Climate change and an ever-growing population will be placing ever more stress upon this most essential of resources, and so anything that helps to save water is, at least in my books, a Bloody Good Thinfg.

If combined with some awesome design, well, so much the better.

And so, allow me to introduce to you the Washit.

The idea behind this beautiful white box is that it washes both you and your clothing simultaneously. And it saves a bunch of water because it uses the grey water produced by your washing of yourself, to wash your clothing.

Apparently, we use 150 litres in a 15 minute shower, and 38 litres per wash cycle for a washing machine, so think of the savings over time!

It’s one of those ‘well, why didn’t _I_ think of that?’ moments :)

How does it work?

The Washit makes use of a closed plumbing system with two water pumps, three filters (organic, chemical and carbon), one heater, UV filters and a water storage unit.  While someone is having a shower, the grey water they produce is collected and passed through the filters and into the water storage unit. This water can then be used again, either for showering or for washing clothes.  The filters have indicators which show where they are intheir lifecycle.

In case of water loss, Washit can also replenish its water storage using mains water. Oh, and it’s even able to dry your clothes for you :)

Two different designs

The Washit will also come in two iterations: public and private. While essentially the same, the private Washit has the washing machine bit facing outwards, while the public version has it facing inwards, into the shower.

Now – when can I have one?

The Washit’s designers are four Turkish university students – Ahmet Burak Aktas, Salih Berk Ilhan, Adem Onalan, Burak Soylemez – and the product was begun as a university assignment, although it has since garnered the  iF Concept Design Award 2012: Hansgrohe Special Award. This year’s Hansgrohe topic was ‘my green shower pleasure’: some 150 different concepts reached the final round, and the 6 winners the prize, worth 5,000 Euros.

The IgNobel Prize winners 2012: speech jamming, dead salmon brain activity, green hair and more aimee whitcroft Sep 21

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And, ladies and gentlemen, it’s official!  The winner’s of this year’s IgNobel prizes have been announced and the webcast of the ceremony showed it to be as good-natured and cheerful an event as ever.


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2012 #IgNobel Awardees file out on stage… Credit: @eggheader


Physics: Keller, Goldstein, Warren and Ball for research into the forces that control the shape and movement of a ponytail

Neuroscience: Bennett, Baird, Miller and Wolford for using sophisticated brain scanning technology (fMRI scanners) to detect brain activity in dead salmon as a lesson in the multiple comparisons problem

Fluid dynamics: Krechetnikov and Mayer for research into why people spill coffee when walking around with it

Psychology: Eerland, Zwaan and Guidalupe for research showing that people guess the height of the Eiffel Tower incorrectly while leaning sideways (leaning to the left makes people think it looks smaller)

Chemistry: Petterson et al for solving the mystery of why people’s hair turned green in some houses in Anderslov, Sweden (spoiler: it’s from the dissolved copper in hot showers)

Medicine: Ben-Soussan and Antonietti research into how doctors doing colonoscopies can avoid igniting gases and making their patients explode

Literature: the U.S Government General Accountability Office for producing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports. For real.

Acoustics: Kurihara and Tsukada for the creation of the speechjammer, which can, literally, disrupt speech

Anatomy: de Waal and Pokorny research showing that chimpanzees can identify each other (individually!) from photographs of their backsides*

Peace:  Petrov for converting old military explosives into nanodiamonds which can later be used as light beacons for cancer treatments such as chemo.

A number of previous IgNobel winners, as well as Nobel winners, made appearances and gave prizes: I particularly loved the grins on the faces of the (now slightly aged) Featherstones, who garnered the 1996 IgNobel Art prize for the invention of the plastic pink flamingo :)

Lest anyone think this is being taken too seriously, the awards also featured two 30 second periods during which people were officially allowed to throw paper aeroplanes onto stage (accompanied by cries of ‘safety first!!’), with some brave soul standing thereon and wearing a bullseye.

More details about the prize winners and their inspiration can be seen in articles from The Guardian and the Washington Post.

One of my favourite elements, apart from the oft-shouted ‘Please stop! I’m bored’ chorus of this year’s _two_ Miss Sweetie Poos, is the 24/7 lectures.

In these, a top researcher is asked to explain their subject twice: first, a completel technical description in 24 seconds (they very seldom get to complete their abstract). And second, a clear summary, understandable by anyone, in just seven words.

Some of this year’s:
Mass spectrometry? “It weighs the bits in your junk”.
The research last year about bacteria living on arsenic? “Only arseholes believe arsenic can support life”.
Why the universe keeps us enrapt? “Because it’s the only one we’ve got”.

There was also a very funny, if odd, opera in three parts titled “The Intelligent Designer and The Universe”. It featured dress-making :)

And keep an eye out on the IgNobel website, where they’ll post the screencast and the full list of winners :)


Related posts:

The IgNobels 2012 live! Now!

Quiet! I was talking!

IgNobel banter

The teapot effect, end of (one of my favourites)


* The link points to the New Scientist article about it because the paper itself is behind a paywall, and costs $113 US PLUS TAX!!!!


The IgNobels 2012 live! Now! aimee whitcroft Sep 21

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A very brief post, just to alert y’all that the IgNobels are starting in less than 45 minutes.  And you can watch them live in the video below!

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

Also, Scientific  American blogger Scicurious will be live tweeting from the awards.  Look for the hashtag #ignobel :)

For those who’re not sure why I’m so excited, the IgNobels are an annual ceremony which sees itself as the foil, or complement, or something, to the Nobel Prizes. Their aim is to

honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.

Previous winners have included a bra the cups of which can be turned into a protective facemask, a wasabi-based alarm, discovering that australian stubbies (beer bottles) make a certain type of beetle horny, and more!

There’s also a magazine you can subscribe to, called the Annals of Improbable Research, and it’s free in its PDF form!.



Crows join humans in the ability to infer hidden causal agents aimee whitcroft Sep 20

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New Caledonian crows – smarter every time we look at them.

A fascinating new piece of research was published a couple of days ago in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (or PNAS for short).

New Caledonian crow. Credit: University of Auckland


It shows that New Caledonian crows are capable of a cognitive feat previously only thought to be doable by human beings – the ability to reason about a hidden causal agent (in this case someone behind a sheet). Inference, in other words.





As the (open access/free) paper explains in its opening sentences:

The ability to make inferences about hidden causal mechanisms underpins scientific and religious thought. It also facilitates the understanding of social interactions and the production of sophisticated tool-using behaviors. However, although animals can reason about the outcomes of accidental interventions, only humans have been shown to make inferences about hidden causal mechanisms.

Alex Taylor of the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology (hooray NZ!) and colleagues have shown, however, that we’re NOT the only creatures capable of doing it.

They took eight Caledonian crows – very clever birds, admittedly, who’ve previously been shown to be capable of making and using tools – and showed two series of events. Before the events, the crows had been given some experience with extracting food from a box using a tool.

Both events involved a sheet, and a stick which moved.

The first set of events: the Hidden Causal Agent (HCA)

In the first set of events, the crows were able to watch as a person (of the human sort) walked behind a blue sheet that was hanging up near to a box containing food. The box had been set up so that the crows had to turn their heads away from watching the sheet in order to get their food out.

Once the human had walked behind the sheet, the crows saw the stick poking out from behind it move, making motions towards the food box, and then they saw the human leave again.  ’Meh’, one could imagine the crows thinking, ‘makes total sense. Fudz om nom nom.’

And that’s what they did – they came down to the food box, picked up a tool and extracted their food, giving nary a glance towards the sheet.

Ah, yes. There was also a second person who came into the room with the first, stood in the corner 1.5m from the sheet with closed eyes and hands held crossed in front of their body. This second person did nothing, and then left with the first person.

The second event: the Unknown Causal Agent (UCA)

In the second set of events, they saw the stick move in the same way without someone walking behind, or walking away from, the sheet. A ghost stick!*

As in the first event, there was also a second person who did nothing at all and then left.

Inspection rate across conditions. Final habituation trial before testing is indicated by 20cm hab. (Upper Left ) Diagram of the HCA condition. (Upper Right) Diagram of the UCA condition. In the HCA condition, one human walked into the hide and one stood in the corner of the room. A wooden stick was then probed from the hide. The agent then exited the hide. Both humans then left the room. In the UCA condition, one human entered the cage and stood in the corner. The tool was then probed through the hole. The human then left. (Taylor, A.H. et al, 2012)


And so?

The experiment had been designed so that this stick stimulus would be a new experience for the crows, and so probably something they’d intrinsically distrust (or not like, at the very least)**.

Also, they were unlikely to like the stick movement, as it was waggling in the space where they’d put their heads when extracting food from the box. When they were extracting food, it’d mean they couldn’t monitor whether the stick was moving, because it would be behind them.

Which would mean they’d need to minimise as far as possible the perceived risk of being smacked upside the head by said stick while they were getting their food.

There were two ways to do this:

1. Be very cautious about the stick after seeing it move in the HCA condition.

This caution would then recede a little each time the crows extracted their food without being hit by the stick (which would obviously never actually happen, as researchers are not apt to hit research animals with sticks***).


2. Predict the stick’s movement by reasoning why it was moving in the first place. 

If the crows made the causal link in the first event between human behind sheet and moving stick, then they’d infer that, with no human going behind said sheet, no stick would move.

In the UCA condition, however, such causal reasoning would lead them to the conclusion that the stick could move on its own, and that they’d best be careful even with no person in the room.

Which is what one would see if they were following the second means of minimising their chance of stick-related head injury.

Caution, in this experiment, was measured by seeing how many times the crows inspected the sheet rather and abandoned probing for food (leaving the tool inserted) from the box.


Well, I’ve rather given it away but yes, the crows were far more cautious after the UCA condition than they were after the HCA.  In the UCA condition (each event was repeated three times, I should mention), at least half of the crows abandoned probing for food in favour of exploring the sheet – something they didn’t do for HCA condition, even on the first time when they wouldn’t have seen a wobbling stick before.

And what may _we_ infer from this?

According to the paper,

Darwin himself speculated that a dog barking at a parasol
moving slightly in a breeze might be because the dog reasoned
that “movement without any apparent cause indicated the presence
of some strange living agent”

They go on to say that there is evidence that crows react differently to the presence of hunters who stay in, as opposed to leave, hides.

The scientists reason that their results suggest that complex cognition may underpin such behaviour, and that the ability to infer why an inanimate object is moving could be highly adaptive in many conditions. They make the example of understanding why a part of the treetop canopy is moving – is it leaves themselves, or something else (other than the wind) which is moving them?

Which might mean that the ability to infer is far more widely-spread amongst members of the animal kingdom than we had thought. Given that there had been no previous research which sought to test this by recreating possible ecological situations, we cannot be sure that the lack of evidence that animals can’t do it hasn’t been because we simply weren’t doing the right sorts of experiments.

On the other hand, point out the paper’s authors, it could be that additional selective pressures are needed to ‘scaffold’ the development of this ability, such as tool use, tool manufacture, extractive foraging and complex social interactions.

So next step?  Try this sort of experiment with other sorts of animals who engage in different sorts of social behaviour, tool use and experience different types of predation. It will certainly help understanding how the ability to infer evolved.

I’d like to see how Kea stack up :)

The Kea – a very, very smart parrot endemic to New Zealand.


Did you know:

Inference is something that human babies generally start showing at 7-10 months of age, when they show surprise at a bean bag which is thrown from behind a screen, after which the screen is lifted to show that there is just an inert object behind it rather than a causal agent (such as a hand).

* In reality, the stick was moved by a string pulled on by one of the experimenters. Said string could be pulled on from someone behind the sheet, or from someone outside the room.  See? Ghost stories generally have plausible explanations :)

** Neophobia

*** I can just _imagine_ the ethics board meeting on that one…



Taylor, A. H. et al (2012). New Caledonian crows reason about hidden causal agents Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1208724109. The article is open access.

Why DID the chicken cross the road?! aimee whitcroft Sep 18

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Why did the chicken cross the road?

No, despite what some think, it’s neither the oldest* nor the worst joke of all time. Hell, it’s not even a joke – it’s an anti-joke.


YouTube Preview Image


In this awesome video, YouTube Channel VSauce’s** Michael Stevens looks at the world’s most famous anti-joke, explaining WHY it’s so interesting.

Featuring anti-joke cat, ancient Sumerian fart jokes and Death Clocks, amongst other things.

Also featuring a computational theory of humour. And Bill Nye, for some or other reason.***


* Watch the vid to find out what is…

** VSauce is a channel devoted to “Amazing Facts & The Best of the Internet”. It has some 239 videos, over a million subscribers and over 200 million video views.

*** Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the man’s, especially after his recent comments about creationism. I’m just not sure why people are thanking Bill Nye for a video in which he asked a question. Perhaps his people produced it?



An excellent example of the joke (thanks, Dave!):

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?

A: Deregulation of the chicken’s side of the road was threatening its dominant market position. The chicken was faced with significant challenges to create and develop the competencies required for the newly competitive market. Accenture, in a partnering relationship with the client, helped the chicken by rethinking its physical distribution strategy and implementation processes. Using the Poultry Integration Model (PIM), Accenture helped the chicken use its skills, methodologies, knowledge, capital and experiences to align the chicken’s people, processes, and technology in support of its overall strategy within a Program Management framework. Accenture convened a diverse cross-spectrum of road analysts and best chickens along with Accenture consultants with deep skills in the transportation industry to engage in a two-day itinerary of meetings in order to leverage their personal knowledge capital, both tacit and explicit, and to enable them to synergize with each other in order to achieve the implicit goals of delivering and successfully architecting and implementing an enterprise-wide value framework across the continuum of poultry cross-median processes. The meeting was held in a park-like setting, enabling and creating an impactful environment which was strategically based, industry-focused, and built upon a consistent, clear, and unified market message and aligned with the chicken’s mission, vision, and core values. This was conducive towards the creation of a total business integration solution. Accenture helped the chicken change to become more successful.

This is your brain on implants (spoiler: it’s better) aimee whitcroft Sep 14

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Today, the Journal of Neural Engineering published rather an interesting paper. In it, they showed that they had been able to restore (and in some cases, improve) decision-making ability in primates through the use of an implanted prosthetic.

Sounds like something out of science fiction, doesn’t it?


The location of the PFC. Credit: Wikipedia


The region of the brain responsible for decision-making and complex cognition is called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Damage or disease which disrupts the very precise neural firing necessary for proper function in this area can lead to a range of problems with attention, decision-making and movement selection.

And that doesn’t just mean people aren’t sure what kind of cooldrink they want for lunch, or get distracted easily.  These are also known as the ‘executive functions’ – being able to think about the future consequences of one’s actions, for example, or the ability to differentiate between good and bad, or knowing how to behave in a way that’s socially acceptable. Decisions which, if made poorly, can lead to unpleasant outcomes.

Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have taken a step forward towards being able to treat this sort of damage in people.

They were able to use an electronic prosthetic system to tap into the PFC of their test subjects – 5 rhesus macaques – and restore or, in some cases, improve neural function in this area.

Diagram of NHP brain showing PFC recording locations (accessing cortical areas 46, 8, 6). Hampson et al, 2012

For the study, the scientists trained their subjects to match multiple images on a screen until they were correct most – 70-75% – of the time on the easiest trials. A screen would show the monkeys an image, and then go blank for up to two minutes before the monkey was then shown a range of images, and had to choose the image which matched the original.



While the monkeys were conducting the exercise, a prosthetic neural implant recorded the firing patterns of a number of the neurons in the PFC. More precisely, the implant recorded the neural impulses only when the monkeys had made a correct match. The details for the mathematical model used – a multi-input multi-output nonlinear (MIMO) model – are available in the paper.

Then, the monkeys were given a potent drug which is known to disrupt cognitive activity.  And, I must admit, this is where I giggled a bit – they gave the monkeys cocaine :P * snort *



It worked, though – the monkeys’ ability to correctly match images decreased by some 13%. Which is where that implant comes in – when it detected that the monkeys were likely to make a ‘wrong’ decision, and ‘played’ back the neural recording taken when the animals were choosing correctly.

Let’s be clear about that – the implant ‘played’ its recording BACK into the neurons whose activity it recorded. And ye gods, but it worked.  In fact, not only did it restore the cognitive function that those naughty, naughty lines had taken away, but it actually _improved_ cognitive function by about 10% above normal. Even when the schnarf was still in the monkeys’ system!

According to the paper, it’s “the first successful application of neuroprosthesis in the primate brain designed specifically to restore or repair the disrupted cognitive function.”

So, next steps?

The study’s lead author, Dr Robert E. Hampson, says “based on the findings of this study, we hope in the future to develop an implantable neuroprosthesis that could help people recover from cognitive deficiencies due to brain injuries,”

As with anything of this sort, there’s always the caveat that it worked in the animal model, and has not yet been tried on humans. But still, it seems promising!

The full paper is available, free, online, at


Hampson, Robert E. (2012-09-13) Facilitation and restoration of cognitive function in primate prefrontal cortex by a neuroprosthesis that utilizes minicolumn-specific neural firing. Journal of Neural Engineering, 9(5), 056012. DOI: 10.1088/1741-2560/9/5/056012

Tim Minchin explains ENCODE aimee whitcroft Sep 13


Well, here’s a fun little treat for your 10:30 teatime today.

Anybody following the science news in the last week or two will have heard of the ENCODE results. Basically, we’re just taken a big step towards understanding the complexity of the human genome, and how it all works.  Which is good for a bunch of things, including disease treatment.

What is this big step?  Well, thanks to ENCODE, we now have a much better idea of how our genes are _controlled_ (or regulated, if you want to use the proper term).  It’s all quite complicated, but very interesting.

And now, brilliant comedian Tim Minchin* has produced a video, with nature, called ‘The Story of You: ENCODE and the human genome ‘. Watch and enjoy :)

Related posts:

Peter Dearden explains the ENCODE results over on Southern Genes.

You can also download your copy of the ENCODE poster over on Grant Jacobs’ blog Code for Life.


* If you don’t know who he is, you should. I guess the first place to start would be to watch Storm, but he’s done a bunch of other, brilliant stuff too. Huzzah mad gingers!

Give your two cents on electric vehicles in NZ aimee whitcroft Sep 12


No doubt, some of you care (in some way or other) about electric cars, the technol9ogy on which they’re built, their useage and their future.


If one of those people is you, you could do worse than hieing* yourself over to the brand new – as in started yesterday – EV Supporters community.

So far, there are 12 different ideas on which people are commenting and voting, including ‘EV Parts Supply’ to ‘Government Involvement in EV Infrastructure’ and ‘Alternative methods for funding EVs’. And there are at _least_ 20 people already actively engaged.


EV Supporter community already, just a day after it started


EV Supporters was started by APEV NZ – the Association for the Promotion of Electric Vehicles. As Executive Director of APEV NZ Rob McEwen (who set up the EV Supporters community himself) says:

We started this as a means of giving those who care a voice – a way to share their ideas, comment and vote on the ideas of others, with an ultimate view (pending sufficient commentary) of using it to help inform and add credence to our voice with government and to help focus our own strategic priorities. We believe that electricity is NZ’s clean, secure, underutilised, domestically produced transportation fuel and we exist to fast forward its use in that regard.


Association for the Promotion of Electric Vehicles


Now, there are already many, many forums through which people can talk about EV technology and related issues. What I think is useful about this approach, though, is the platform in which it’s been built, which allows different ideas, proposals and thoughts to be given weight.

The community’s built on the IdeaScale Community platform – apparently used by companies such as Intel, Xerox and Subaru – which is built as a means of readily proposing and testing ideas.

Essentially, users submit ideas. Other users comment and vote on these ideas. The best (most upvoted) ideas rise to the top.  The company or organisation running the community (for example) then knows what to focus on, and what its stakeholders want.

Kinda like Reddit for Research, and very clever :)

To my mind, it is very similar qualitative market research (MR), but it removes all that tiresome researcher bias (or, judging by some of the unbelievably poor MR** I’ve seen since coming to New Zealand, sheer incompetence), and all the others problems which can plague MR.


You can also find APEV NZ on Facebook:


* A real word, I promise.

** I used to work in this industry, so I have some idea of what I’m talking about :P


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