Back for More: Thoughts from 3 Regular Attendees on the International Forum on Consciousness

The International Forum on Consciousness offers a lively two days of information sharing and discussion regarding important—and often challenging—topics. Over the years, we have been guided through a range of topics, including creativity, near death, entheogens, intelligence in nature, business evolution and the effects of sensory inputs.  This year, we’re tackling Means and Metrics for Detecting and Measuring Consciousness.  You can find out more here: https://www.btci.org/events-symposia-2018/international-forum-on-consciousness/ .

As we work on the final details for this year and registrations flow in, I took a moment to pause and reflect on the fact that several of the registrants have joined us for many, if not all, of our past events. It’s gratifying to see that they are taking time out of their normal routines to make their way to the Promega campus again this spring.  So, I asked a few of them to share their thoughts for this post and this is what they had to say: Continue reading

Counting Crows: Evidence for Hard-Wired, Inborn Ability to Detect Numerical Sets

“The Great Book of Nature is written in mathematical language” –Galileo Galilei (1)

carrion crow (corvus corone) headshot portrait against a blue background

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

If mathematics is the language of the universe, might we find the ability to do math hard-wired in species?

Research in primates has demonstrated that even without training, humans and monkeys possess numerosity, the ability to assess the number of items in a set (2,3).

A paper in Current Biology from Wagener and colleagues provides evidence that crows are born with a subset of neurons that are “hard wired” to perceive the number of items in a set (4). This work provides yet more evidence supporting a hypothesis of an innate “number sense” that is provided by a specific group of “preprogrammed” neurons.

In this study, Wagener’s group measured the responses of single neurons in two “numerically naïve” crows to color dot arrays. They measured neurons in the endbrain region known as the niopallium caudolaterale (NCL), which is thought to be the avian analog of the primate prefrontal cortex. They found that 12% of the neurons in NCL specifically responded to numbers and that specific neurons responded to specific numbers of items with greater or lesser activity.

This is the first such study to investigate the idea of an innate “sense of number” in untrained vertebrates that are not primates, and as such it suggests that a hard-wired, innate “sense of number” is not a special feature of the complex cerebral cortex of the primate brain but is an adaptive property that evolved independently in the differently structured and evolved end brains of birds.

Many questions remain. Are there similarities in the actual neurons involved? What does learning do on a physiological level to these neurons: Increase their number, increase connections to them?  What other vertebrates have similar innate mechanisms for assessing numbers of items? What about other members of the animal kingdom that need to have a sense of number for social or foraging behavior? How is it accomplished?

And finally, one last burning question, if birds are dinosaurs, does that mean that dinosaurs perished because they didn’t do their math homework? Asking for an eleven-year-old I know.

  1. Tyson, Peter. (2001) Describing Nature with math. NOVA  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/describing-nature-math.html 
  2. Izard, V. et al. (2009) Newborn infants perceive abstract numbers PNAS USA 106, 10382–85.
  3. Viswanahtan, P. and Neider, A. (2013) Neuronal correlates of a visual “sense of number” in primate parietal and prefrontal cortices. PNAS USA 110, 1118–95.
  4. Wagnener, L. et al. (2018) Neurons in the endbrain of numerically naïve crows spontaneously encode visual numerosity Cur. Biol. 28, 1–5.

Explore the World through All of Your Senses at the 2017 Forum on Consciousness

2017 forumThe 16th International Forum on Consciousness, Conscious Evolution: Awakening Through the Senses, in Madison, WI, May 18-19, will bring together a diverse group of presenters including Diane Ackerman (Best-selling Author, The Zookeeper’s Wife and A Natural History of the Senses),  Rebecca Alban Hoffberger (Founder and Director, American Visionary Art Museum), Louie Schwartzberg (Cinematographer, Director and Producer) and Andrea Stevenson Won (Director of the Virtual Embodiment Lab and Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, Cornell University), among others.

This year’s forum focuses on the senses, and explores how altering awareness of sensory inputs might change perceptions of reality and expand consciousness in positive directions for self and others.  In addition to presentations, attendees will have opportunities to engage in direct sensory experience through virtual reality, movement, sound and visuals, as well as tastes and aromas. Find more information at www.btci.org/consciousness.

The forum is open to the general public, but participation is limited to 300 people, and advanced registration is required. The registration fee is $250.00 (US), and scholarship opportunities are available. Registrants will have the opportunity to join a presenter for a small-group discussion over dinner on Thursday, evening, May 18, for an additional $85.00 (US).

About BTC Institute

The BTC Institute is a not-for-profit organization operated exclusively for educational, scientific and cultural purposes. Learn more about its K–12 programs, scientific course offerings, and annual educational forums and symposia at www.btci.org/.

Pack a Little Science into Your Summer with Advanced Courses from BTCI

This new cGMP facility was built to have the least effect on the natural environment as possible--surrounded by rain gardens and native plantings, using grey water for flushing toilets--sustainable growth was the goal.

Summer on the Prairie at Promega–Study science surrounded by birds, bees, flowers and amazing prairie.

Summer, a much-looked forward to season. We typically pack in the activities and make the most of the daylight. We work hard and we play hard.  This summer will be no exception, and at the BTC Institute, we are already getting set to host as many students as we can. We will see middle and high schoolers, K-12 teachers, college students, graduate students, college and university faculty and staff, and professionals in the biotech community under our roof at some point. You may want to join us too!

Our programs for advanced learners, geared toward the graduate student or biotech professional, offer much more than just a rigorous immersion in molecular biology theory and practice. Held at the BTC Institute at Promega Headquarters, they are taught by highly knowledgeable scientists, coming from both industry and academia. These instructors offer a wealth of information and share their expertise as well as life experiences with students. Informal discussions about career trajectories and access to industry are important added benefits to attending these off-campus workshops. Continue reading

Neuroscience Explains Harry Potter’s Appeal

BookWithGlassesCurling up with a good book is one of life’s greatest pleasures, whether you’re reading on a tropical beach while on vacation or nestled into your favorite chair at home. As your eyes skim over the words, your mind conjures up images of the events unfolding on the page. Books can take us to fantastic places, real and imaginary, that we will never visit in our lifetime. And while there is some pleasure to be gained from nonfictional books, my favorite books all seem to fall in the realm of fiction. I am not alone. The science fiction and fantasy genre of literature continues to be one of the most popular. Why do so many readers find these types of books so enticing and engaging?

It all comes down to science, specifically neuroscience.

Continue reading

The Road Not Taken: Rodents Rue Bad Decisions

Two rats eatingThe past weekend I switched lines in the grocery store only to regret it a few seconds later when another shopper with an enormous cart got there before me and I had to wait an additional 20 minutes for the cashier to fix a problem with the register. Sound familiar? As far as I know rodents do not shop in the stores that I do but it seems that a rat might have felt the same in my place. Or so say a team of scientists from the University of Minnesota out to study decision-making abilities in rats. 1
Continue reading

Not Music to Everyone’s Ears

iStock_000016543302SmallWhen my son was about 2 years old, he commented that the jingles “Twinkle twinkle little star” and “alphabet song” had the same musical notation. While I do not think I am tone deaf and I do appreciate music, I had not made the connection in all these years.  Music appreciation is perhaps one of the most subjective and controversial topics. For some people, appreciating music involves understanding the technical nuances and critically evaluating artist’s mastery over the art, and for some of us, it is about simply enjoying the patterns and rhythms. While one might claim that they enjoy all kinds of music, for most of us, only certain kinds of music elicit a deeper appreciation, emotive experience and pleasure. Our music preferences are molded by exposure, cultural diversities and to some extent, mood. Music is extremely varied, and listing the kinds of music could fill pages. Arguing one kind of music is better than other is as like saying one color is better than the other.

So, what biological purpose does music serve? Continue reading

A Clean Brain Is a Healthy Brain

College student sleeping instead of studying

Can you sleep your way to a “cleaner” brain?

It is hard to undermine the role of cleanliness in disease prevention, both internally and externally. Within our body, the lymphatic system plays an important role in clearing the intercellular passages of large and potentially harmful toxic molecules and recirculate back into the blood stream. This enables the transport of these molecules to liver for inactivation and subsequent removal from the body. Therefore, lymphatic system prevents build-up of soluble proteins in the interstitial space. Typically, more metabolically active a cell is, more intricate is the lymphatic vasculature around it. This observation was in contrast to our scientific knowledge a few years ago, when we believed that due to the presence of the blood-brain barrier, there was no lymphatic system active in the brain. The brain, as we know, is highly active metabolically and the removal of harmful solutes and proteins from the neuronal vicinity is of utmost urgency. For a long time it was believed that cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), while coursing through the brain also removed cellular metabolite by products, apart from carrying nutrients to brain tissue, through a process known as diffusion. This is a rather slow process and it did not very well explain how large molecules such as proteins were removed from the interstitial place.

Recently, using two-photon imaging technique in live mice, scientists at Rochester discovered (1) that there is another vasculature functioning in the brain which circulates CSF to every corner of the brain much more efficiently, through bulk flow or convection. Continue reading

Synaesthesia Revealed (or Why that Word is Yellow)

"The Handbook of Synaesthesia", cover, featuring an image I particularly enjoy.

“The Handbook of Synaesthesia”, cover, featuring an image I particularly enjoy.

A number of years ago I had the good fortune to hear Mr. Sonny Rollins play saxophone in Madison, WI. Rollins, then in his seventh decade, played with an intensity that was unbelievable. The music was amazing, the crowd appreciative. In fact, the entire experience was moving to the point that I saw Rollins, blowing into his saxophone, come out the other end of the horn. That’s right: Rollins appeared to pour into the saxophone, coming out the bell, along with the music.

The experience was ‘a gas’, entirely unaided by alcohol or elicit substance. Of course it was somewhat unsettling as well. And I couldn’t tell anyone about it. That is not until recently, when I met Dr. Edward Hubbard.

Dr. Hubbard is an educational psychology researcher at the University of WI-Madison. In 2001 Hubbard and V.S. Ramachandran introduced the cross-activation model of grapheme-colour synaesthesia in two publications: “Psychophysical investigations into the neural basis of synaethesia” (1) and “Synaesthesia: A window into perception, thought and language” (2). Continue reading

Music and the Brain: A Fun Friday Find

Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus is a great discussion from World Science Fair 2009. Have you ever been driving along listening to the radio and suddenly a song plays and transports you to a different time or place? Have you ever wondered at the way music stirs your memories and emotion? Or have you ever stopped to think about how music, in its admittedly different forms, has been an integral part human of culture for as far back as we can study? Does music speak a particular primordial language that we all understand?

In this presentation Bobby McFerrin and three neuroscientists discuss the way the brain gets involved in music–the listening, physicality, participation and emotion. Essentially, music is a “whole nervous system activity”, involving many parts of the central nervous system that function nearly simultaneously. At one point in the talk pitch, tambre and rhythm defined and demonstrated. The researchers point out that certain intervals in music such as the minor third are prevalent in speech associated with negative emotions, but that no positive emotions are associated universally with a particular pitch.

The link to the full length presentation is here:Notes and Neurons.

But for fun today, get your whole brain involved and join Bobby McFerrin in this demonstration of the universality of the pentatonic scale.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ne6tB2KiZuk&w=560&h=315]