The trick to fatherhood has a lot to do with the brain — and how close a dad gets to his kids. At least that's the message from a mounting pile of research into the neurological and hormonal cues that translate into fatherly nurturing. And what better time to keep that message in mind than on Father's Day?
"Mothers have an advantage, in that the hormones of pregnancy give them a head start and get them primed to be nurturing," said James Rilling, an anthropologist at Emory University who specializes in studying the neurological basis of social behavior. "In particular, when women give birth, there's a big surge of oxytocin, and oxytocin is also released during breastfeeding. Fathers don't have that."
It turns out that fathers get many of the same rushes that mothers do from parenthood — but the payoff depends on proximity and interaction. For example, researchers see the effect if the child sleeps with the parents, if the father recognizes and responds to the baby's cries, if Dad plays with the kids. When that proximity isn't present, the fatherhood effect isn't as strong.
"There seems to be some kind of fundamental social-neurobiological framework that comes into play when fathers interact with their kids," said Lee Gettler, an anthropologist at Notre Dame who worked on the prolactin study.
Why is it that the mothers and fathers come to the same hormonal response through different paths? "It may be that the most parsimonious way to engineer a paternal brain would be to take the circuitry that was already in place for maternal care, and maybe tweak that," Rilling said. "That might be the reason why there's some overlap there."
James Swain et al. / U. of Michigan
This functional magnetic resonance image shows areas of heightened brain activity when a father hears his own child's cries. Notable areas of activity include the frontal cortex, insula putamen, thalamus and superior temporal cortex.
Or it may merely be that when it comes to parenting, familiarity breeds fatherhood. University of Michigan psychiatrist James Swain has been analyzing a huge data set of MRI snapshots to see how maternal and paternal brains respond to the cries of their own babies and the children of strangers. He and his colleagues have found that brain activity patterns don't change as quickly for fathers as they do for mothers.
"I joke that this may be the physiological basis for why a father can roll over in bed when the baby's crying at 3 weeks," Swain told NBC News.
However, by the 4-month mark, "the fathers seem to catch up," Swain said. And there's some indication that the brain patterns for stay-at-home dads are more similar to the changes that moms go through. Swain and his colleagues are still trying to figure out exactly how the parenthood effect works on the neurological level — and how moms and dads get to the same place by different hormonal paths.
Rilling said the study of the fatherhood effect is a "wide open frontier."
"Humans are an alloparental species, which means mothers get help," he said. "In some cultures it's the father, but in other cultures it's the grandmother, the aunts, the older children. Fathers seem to be particularly important in modern developed Western nations like the U.S., because there are so many people who are living in isolated nuclear families, largely separated from their extended family. That limits the number of potential helpers out there. ... It's really important that fathers step up."
This visualization shows the grid structure of major pathways of the human brain, as mapped by the NIH Blueprint Human Connectome Project. Click on the image for a Flash interactive exploring the brain.
BOSTON — The brain-mapping project that the Obama administration wants to facilitate isn't necessarily aimed at adding billions of dollars to the money already being spent on research, according to the scientists who inspired the idea. Instead, it's aimed at harnessing new technologies to uncover the secrets of neural function less expensively and more completely.
"We can bring down the cost and increase the quality of the technology," said Harvard geneticist George Church, one of the researchers who proposed the Brain Activity Map Project last year. "We are trying to work with current funding [levels] to bring down the cost."
The New York Times reported on Monday that the White House has embraced the idea of having the Office of Science and Technology Policy spearhead the project, with participation by the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies. The federal initiative is to be unveiled as early as next month, the Times quoted its sources as saying.
The roots of the project go back months if not years earlier: The goals of the BAM Project were outlined last June in a white paper appearing in the journal Neuron. The researchers proposed a 15-year international effort to map the functions of the brain's complex neural circuitry to an unprecedented degree — using traditional tools such as magnetic resonance imaging in combination with novel technologies such as nanosensors and wireless fiber-optic probes that can be implanted into the brain, and genetically engineered cells that can be linked up with brain cells to record their activity.
The scientists' idea was to start with mice and work their way up to primates. "We do not exclude the extension of the BAM Project to humans, and if this project is to be applicable to clinical research or practice, its special challenges are worth addressing early," they wrote.
The discoveries generated by the effort could point to new strategies for dealing with brain-centered maladies such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, autism and schizophrenia.
Church and his colleagues compared the BAM Project's potential impact to the effects of the $3.8 billion Human Genome Project, a 13-year-long effort that analysts say generated $796 billion in economic activity. "After the genome project, we brought the cost [of whole-genome sequencing] down by a million-fold," Church said. Advanced technologies for studying brain activity could bring savings on the same scale, he said.
In this month's State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama made a similar point: "Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar. Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer's. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs; devising new material to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race."
Debate over the dollars The Times' report on the project quoted scientists familiar with the BAM Project as saying they hoped it would receive as much support as the Human Genome Project did, which amounted to more than $300 million a year. That was widely interpreted as implying that more than $3 billion would be shifted over to the effort from other federally supported research over the next decade – a prospect that rankled some observers.
"If there is money for frivolities like the Billion Dollar Brain Project, doesn't it show that NIH has too much money?" evolutionary geneticist Detlef Weigel of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology wrote in a Twitter comment.
Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, pointed to a blog posting in which he said grand projects in biology such as Project ENCODE for DNA analysis were emerging as the "greatest threat" to individual discovery-driven science because they crowded out less costly, smaller-scale studies.
"It's one thing to fund neuroscience, another to have a centralized 10-year project to 'solve the brain,'" Eisen wrote in a Twitter update.
Emphasis on existing funds Church said he couldn't speak for the federal government, and he didn't rule out the possibility that the project would receive new funding. But he noted that the concept outlined last year emphasized better coordination of existing publicly and privately supported brain research efforts, which already receive hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
"We want to use existing funds," he told NBC News.
"Our own work over the last 10 years has shown that large-scale brain research and sharing vast data sets and tools publicly for use by scientists around the world accelerate progress and catalyze important research advances across the field," Jones said in a statement emailed to NBC News. "In early 2012, we launched our large-scale initiative to understand brain activity, creating a foundation for other related projects."
The Allen Institute helped organize a workshop that gave rise to last year's white paper proposing the BAM Project, and it is also a partner in the Human Brain Project. Jones said such efforts "complement our work at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and hold promise for helping to bring on new discoveries about the human brain and bring us ever closer to much needed advances in medicine."
Is your dog an Einstein or a Charmer? For $60 (woof!!), a new business venture called Dognition will help you put your pooch through a series of fun playtime activities to find out how your dog thinks. The metrics generated by those experiments … I mean, fun playtime activities … are being fed into a research project that could for the first time determine how the cognitive traits of various breeds differ.
"Dognition.com is ultimately about people's dogs, and finding out about your dog," Duke University neuroscientist Brian Hare, one of the venture's co-founders, told NBC News. "That's what you're paying for. I buy fancy dog food for my dog, and just like I want to take care of his stomach, I want to take care of his mind, too. Skip the next couple of chew toys, and your dog and you will really enjoy doing something a little different."
The business venture builds on Hare's work as the director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center and an associate professor in evolutionary anthropology at Duke's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. It also meshes with a newly published book by Hare and his wife, Vanessa Woods, titled "The Genius of Dogs."
How smart are dogs? Don't expect Dognition's cognitive assessment to measure your pet's IQ: Hare says a dog's intelligence can't be described with a single number. (Come to think of it, the same caveat should apply to humans.)
"Because we use standardized testing in all walks of life, it leads you to believe that there's just one measure of intelligence, and there's a number, and that's it," Hare said. "But when you start studying cognitive science, and look at other species, that all starts to crumble."
It's also fruitless to try calculating whether dogs are smarter than cats, or chimps, or bonobos. "That's like trying to answer the question, 'Is a hammer better than a screwdriver?'" Hare said. Instead, he and his colleagues look at how dogs and other species address problem-solving challenges and communicate with humans. It turns out that dogs are geniuses when it comes to figuring out what humans are trying to tell them — which suggests that our world is truly going to the dogs.
"Dogs are bizarrely successful," Hare said. "They have more jobs than ever in this age of the Internet and the International Space Station."
Researchers have even argued that humans and dogs are locked in a co-evolutionary embrace that began tens of thousands of years ago. Last month, for example, one research team determined that canine digestive systems have adapted to the relatively starchy diet served up by modern humans.
How it works Hare's research into dog cognition began back in 1995, with studies of how dogs looked for hidden treats when humans tried giving them hints. Those experiments, which are done using simple household items such as plastic cups (plus tons of treats), are laid out in Dognition's Canine Assessment Toolkit.
After you plunk your money down, Dognition's website takes you through a personality questionnaire about your dog: For example, how excited does your dog get around other dogs, grown-ups, children? Do fireworks scare your pup? Then, Dognition guides you through a battery of tests that are as fun as playing fetch, or hide-and-seek. The results are uploaded to Dognition HQ, and you get back a detailed profile of your dog's mental habits, based on where Fido's performance ends up on a chart of independent vs. social problem-solving skills.
Different areas of the chart are associated with nine different canine archetypes: Ace, Stargazer, Maverick, Charmer, Socialite, Protodog, Einstein, Expert or Renaissance Dog. That can give you something to brag about on Dognition's Facebook page, but it also can shed new light on why dogs do the things they do, or how you can get through to them better. "We've got a bunch of really fantastic trainers who have signed up to help," Hare said.
Researchers get a reward as well: The data from hundreds of Canine Assessment Tests can be correlated with breed, age and other factors. "To collect the amount of data we've taken in during our month-long beta program would have taken us a couple of years," Hare said.
Eventually, Hare and his colleagues hope to map out the substantive cognitive differences between dog breeds — differences that have not yet been studied scientifically. "The reason we don't know anything about breed differences is that we currently don't have the tools available to look at the number of dogs that would allow us to answer the interesting questions," Hare said.
Dognition could fix that. And it also could open up new possibilities for some of humanity's best friends.
"One of the things we're hoping to do is, suppose there's that dog that may not be the most attractive dog physically, but the dog is wonderfully behaved," Hare said. "What Dognition.com can do is help people understand more about what's inside that dog, and not just its physical appearance — and see that, wow, this dog is amazing."
Revelations about the solar system's icy frontier, carbon-based nanostructures and the neurological basis of perception and decision have brought global recognition to seven researchers who are sharing in this year's three $1 million Kavli Prizes.
The prizes have been awarded every other year since 2008 for pioneering work in three areas of research: astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. The program is a partnership involving the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Kavli Foundation and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.
The Norwegian academy receives nominations from their colleagues in other countries and forwards them on to prize committees who recommend the winners. Much of the money for the awards is put up by the foundation, created by Norwegian-born industrialist/philanthropist Fred Kavli.
Here are the winners of this year's prizes, announced on Thursday:
Astrophysics Planetary scientists David Jewitt, Jane Luu and Mike Brown share the $1 million astrophysics prize "for discovering and characterizing the Kuiper Belt and its largest members, work that led to a major advance in the understanding of the history of our planetary system." The Kuiper Belt is an icy ring of material on the outskirts of the solar system, between 30 and 50 AU. (One AU, or astronomical unit, equals the distance from Earth to the sun.) UCLA's Jewitt and MIT's Luu found the first Kuiper Belt object beyond Pluto in 1992. Caltech's Brown led a team that found numerous large Kuiper Belt objects, including one that's more massive than Pluto. Brown's discovery of the world now known as Eris led to Pluto's reclassification as a dwarf planet in 2006, but I don't hold that against him.
Winners of the Kavli Prize for Astrophysics: UCLA's David Jewitt, MIT's Jane Luu, Caltech's Mike Brown.
Nanoscience MIT physicist Mildred Dresselhaus will receive the nanoscience prize "for her pioneering contributions to the study of phonons, electron-phonon interactions, and thermal transport in nanostructures." Over the course of five decades, Dresselhaus has come up with a steady stream of insights revealing how the properties of materials at the nanometer scale can be radically different from their properties at larger scales. Her early work on carbon fibers and materials known as graphite intercalation compounds laid the foundation for later discoveries relating to buckyballs, carbon nanotubes and graphene. (Graphene was the focus of a Nobel Prize awarded in 2010.)
The 2012 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience goes to Rockefeller University's Cornelia Bargmann, Winfried Denk of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research and MIT's Ann Graybiel.
Neuroscience Cornelia Bargmann, Winfried Denk and Ann Graybiel share the neuroscience prize "for elucidating basic neuronal mechanisms underlying perception and decision." Rockefeller University's Bargmann used nematode worms to study the molecular controls for animal behavior, including the role of odorant receptors, sensory neurons and the neurotransmitters involved in behavioral adaptation following experience. Denk, a resercher at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, developed two techniques for studing how information is transmitted from the eye to the brain. MIT's Graybiel traced neural loops connecting the outer brain with an inner region known as the striatum. Such loops form the basis for linking sensory cues to actions involved in habitual behaviors.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman's latest book, "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain," suggests that our brain's wiring dictates most of what we do, rather than any transcendent self. That goes for crime as well ... which leads him to suggest that the criminal mind is merely an outgrowth of a criminally structured brain.
Does that mean murderers or rapists can beat the rap by pleading that they had no choice but to do evil? Far from it. You are still responsible for your deeds, even if much of what you do happens on an unconscious level. But Eagleman argues that a better understanding of neuroscience should change our approach to crime and punishment, and perhaps even governance in general.
The founding fathers may have declared that all men are created equal, but science shows that all brains are not. And in Eagleman's view, we don't control the brain. The brain controls us ... whatever "us" means.
Eagleman is used to seeing things in a different light: His lab job at the Baylor College of Medicine focuses on how vision works, how our senses overlap each other to create the effect known as synesthesia, and how we perceive time. He's written works on a wide range of deep-think subjects, including "Sum," a series of fables about alternate afterlives.
You could also call Eagleman the prophet of possibilianism, a philosophy that advocates taking an open, inquisitive approach toward cosmic possibilities. "I think it's important, because it represents the scientific temperament: active exploration of different hypotheses without pretending we know what the right answer is in advance," he told me.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman talks about the message of "Incognito."
"Incognito" delves into the weird workings of our brain, including lighthearted explanations for visual and perceptual illusions (which are another of Eagleman's interests). But it's Eagleman's heavyweight discussion of neuroscience's social and philosophical implications that has attracted the most attention — and elevates "Incognito" above the usual gee-whiz fare.
That was the focus of my recent telephone interview with the author. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:
Cosmic Log: Do people really need to think of themselves and their brains in a different way? Or is this just a case of understanding what’s really going on all the time, and we shouldn’t change our lives because of what we read in "Incognito"?
David Eagleman: Well, I don’t know if people will change their lives, but I think that throughout history, there’s been a goal to know ourselves better, and I feel like in some sense, we are at a point in our history where we can understand ourselves at a much deeper level than we were able to previously, because now we’re looking inside the skull, at this alien totally foreign computational fabric that we call the brain, and it is … us. We can understand ourselves so much better by looking at the operations that are running under the hood, most of which have been inaccessible to us.
Q: Some people talk about the view that we have a "zombie brain," the unconscious part of the brain that takes care of everything that's done when you drive home along a familiar route, for example. A lot of the activity that we undertake day to day really is part of that zombie brain. Does that get us in trouble, to have so much going on in our brain that's below the level of consciousness?
A: I don't think it gets us in trouble so much as that it is the thing that "drives the boat." Almost everything that we think and do, act and believe is generated by these systems under the hood that we don’t have access to — whether it’s lifting a cup of coffee to your lips, or recognizing someone’s face, or falling in love.
"Incognito" delves into the frontiers of neuroscience and implications for society.
I wouldn’t say these systems get us in trouble. Your conscious mind, the part of you that switches on the light when you get up in the morning — that is the smallest bit of what’s happening in the brain. The analogy that I use is that the conscious mind is like a stowaway on a transatlantic steamship who is taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.
Q: One of the themes that comes out in the book is the idea about "who’s really to blame" for bad behavior. If there’s a criminal mind out there, it’s really more the brain’s fault, under the hood, than it is the conscious mind’s fault. What kind of reaction have you been getting to that idea?
A: The whole last half of the book is about what all this means for social policy. I argue that blameworthiness is the wrong question to ask. Brain development is the result of genes, and environment, and their very complicated interaction with one another. The important point is that you don’t choose your genes, and you don’t choose your childhood environment. And so for the kind of brain that you have in the end, it doesn’t really make sense to blame people or credit people, just as you wouldn’t take credit for having color vision or blame for having colorblindness.
The end result is that we have a big variety of brains in our culture. In the book, I say that brains are like fingerprints: They aren’t the same from person to person. So what we have in society is some numbers of people who are breaking laws. The issue really isn’t blameworthiness. It’s not a useful concept. That doesn’t forgive anybody. It doesn’t mean we’ll be putting criminals on the street. What it does mean is that with a biologically compatible system of jurisprudence, we could do customized sentencing, and customized rehabilitation, instead of turning to incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution.
Q: So would someone with a brain that really isn’t suited to society get a break out of this?
A: Nobody "gets a break." A rabid dog doesn’t get a break. It’s not the rabid dog’s fault that it’s rabid, but we don’t give it a break as a result of that. It’s the same thing with crime. But as we get a better understanding of the brain and behavior, that allows us to predicate sentencing on rational factors — for example, the probability of recidivism. Some people are really dangerous, some people are rabid dogs, and some people aren't. Right now we treat all these things equally, but we need to understand what’s different about different brains.
The other thing we should do is understand better what happens in rehabilitation. Lots of people in prison undergo behavioral changes because they have something wrong with their brain. We’ve never even measured that stuff. The main issue that our prison system has become our de facto mental health care system. Thirty percent of our incarcerated population has mental illness. This is not only inhumane, but it’s not cost-effective. It’s criminogenic, which means it causes more crime. When you put people in prison, they end up going back to prison, because you’ve broken their social circle and limited their employment opportunities.
Q: Does neuroscience suggest that the solution is to warehouse people who are those "rabid dogs" of society? Are there particular therapies or strategies that are suggested for dealing with bad behavior?
A: Yeah, the idea is that wherever we can bring rehabilitative strategies to the table, we should be doing that. Sometimes you can't — for example, with people who are psychopaths. There is no rehabilitative strategy for psychopathy at the moment, so unfortunately, we just have to warehouse them if they’ve proven themselves to be violent criminals. Right now that’s our last resort. But in cases where we are able to help people, that’s what we should be doing.
Q: We should talk about the fun side of the book as well. You bring up some experiments that illustrate how weird our perceptive capabilities can be. In one experiment, a person started asking someone for directions, and while workers carried a door between the two people, a completely different person took the place of the questioner. And yet the direction-giver resumed giving directions without missing a beat, as if nothing had changed. Are there any mental exercises folks can do at home to discover the weirdness in themselves?
A: Well, all vision is an illusion, for example. It’s a construction in the brain. The brain is ensconced in darkness and silence in the vault of your skull. And yet you think you see light. Inside, internally, it’s all electrical and chemical signals. The book is full of visual illusions that demonstrate this sort of thing.
Q: Are there any other themes you want to emphasize from the book?
A: One of the frameworks that I synthesize in the book that’s really important is the fact that you are not one thing. The only way to understand the brain is as a neural parliament, where you have different political parties battling it out to control your behavior. This can now be measured in the brain with neural imaging. We can see that there are all these competing subpopulations in the brain that are always battling it out. You can call this a "team of rivals," and I think that’s a much more nuanced view of ourselves. You can get a real understanding how it is you can argue with yourself and cajole yourself. When you stop to think about it, you might ask yourself, which "you" is you? It’s all you.
I think this gives us a much more nuanced view of others' behavior as well. We don’t have to fall into this simplistic path of asking, "What are this person’s true colors? Is this person a racist or not a racist?" For better or worse, it’s perfectly possible that there are racist parts of your brain and non-racist parts. You get a much better understanding when you understand that, as Walt Whitman correctly surmised, "I am large, I contain multitudes."
He had the spirit of that exactly right. Freud had a similar idea with the concepts of id, ego and superego. What’s different now is that we can actually measure and understand the processes going on under the hood.
A mnemonic device shows the transition between a picture depicting strength and the Mandarin character for strength. Such devices help us remember words, according to the founders of Memrise, a website that teaches you words of a foreign language.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
For adults, learning a new language is often a long, frustrating process that inevitably ends up in failure. A memory expert and a neuroscientist hope to change that with a new online software package designed to make learning the vocabulary of a foreign language fast, fun and rewarding.
"Really good successful learning needs to be vivid, imaginative and creative. It needs to be active. And if you can make it a bit social, that's great," Greg Detre, a neuroscientist and co-founder of Memrise, the online destination to learn foreign words quickly, told me today.
The website is built on the metaphor that our minds are gardens where memories are either flourishing or wilting. When users learn a new word, they get a seed that they tend and grow into a healthy plant by correctly passing well-timed tests that force the users to recall the word.
To help users learn the word, the site offers up mnemonic devices. When learning the word man in Mandarin, for example, Memrise transforms the character for man into a cartoon of a man. Users are also encouraged to come up with their own devices. These devices, the founders say, make the words stick in your mind and enriches the recall experience.
To help plant and tend the memory, the site uses an algorithm that tests you on the word when the memory of it is most likely fading your mind.
"It is trying to teach you how your memories work," Detre explained. "If you don't nurture them on a scientific schedule, they die just like flowers. But we are also at the same time trying to make your learning visible and social and useful."
The fun part hinges on choreography behind the scenes that props the tests at the time and a level of difficulty where you have to work a bit to get the answer, but that you will likely get it right. In other words, the tests make you feel like a genius, which feels good, so you keep on learning. If the tests were too hard or too easy, you might quit, Detre noted.
The site also lets you play along with friends and strangers. Comparing your garden with others fires up the competitive spirit, for example. Users can also share mnemonic devices and encourage each other to learn new words, fostering a sense of community.
Memrise bills itself as teacher of words in a foreign language. "That's only a small part of learning a language," Luis Von Alm, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and co-creator of another online learning website, Duolingo, told Technology Review.
Detre agrees that Memrise alone will not teach you a new language, but, in his opinion, is the "best way to learn the words of a new language." And learning vocabulary, he added, is "the right way for the brain to kick itself into learning a new language."
Functional MRI brain scans show activation in an area of the brain known as the precuneus, as exhibited here by a professional shogi player when presented with a board game pattern.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
If you have a knack for knowing just the right move to make — in a board game or in other walks of life — it might be because your brain has built up a special kind of connection.
Researchers at Japan's RIKEN Brain Science Institute report evidence that the professional players of a chesslike board game from Japan, known as shogi, have brains that crackle with activity in two areas that are less active in amateurs. Their findings are published in this week's issue of the journal Science.
The activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, while professionals and amateurs were shown pictures of shogi board patterns. Shogi is regarded as a game as cerebral and as tricky to master as chess — perhaps even more tricky, because players can add pieces captured from an opponent to their own side. The professionals were more adept at intuitively recognizing the "next best move" for a given pattern, but the really interesting part of this game had to do with what went on in their brains.
Wan et al. / Science / AAAS
This fMRI scan highlights activity in the caudate nucleus of a professional shogi player.
The pros' brains showed more activity in the precuneus region of the parietal lobe, which has been linked to pattern recognition, as well as in the head of the caudate nucleus, deep within the brain. The caudate nucleus has been previously linked with cognitive functions, and game-playing in particular In fact, a different team of researchers reported last year that people who showed an aptitude for arcade games tended to have a bigger caudate nucleus (along with other structures) than less skilled players.
The research team found that the precuneus-caudate connection showed up consistently when professionals were asked to come up with a rapid-fire choice of moves, but not as much for the amateurs. "These results suggest that the precuneus-caudate circuit implements the automatic, yet complicated, processes of board-pattern perception and next-move generation in board game experts," the researchers reported.
Does this mean good gamers are born, not made? And do these results apply only to shogi players? In an e-mail interview, I asked one of the leaders of the research team, Keiji Tanaka, to discuss the findings in greater depth. Here's an edited Q&A:
Shogi is a chesslike board game that is commonly played in Japan.
Cosmic Log: Last year, I wrote about research from a team led by the University of Pittsburgh's Kirk Erickson that indicated a correlation between skill in playing an arcade-type video game and the relative volume of the caudate nucleus and putamen. This study seems to confirm the idea that structure of the caudate nucleus plays a role in game-playing proficiency … would you agree?
Keiji Tanaka: Firstly, we measured the volume of caudate nucleus and compared the measure between professional and amateur players. There was no difference. Secondly, the game of Erickson et al. is largely sensory-motor, whereas board games are purely cognitive. There is thus little commonality between the two "games," although they are both called games. Thirdly, the learning examined in Erickson et al. took place within 24 hours. In our case, even the amateur players have spent many years learning the play, although their training is less extensive than that of professional players. The extent of learning is many orders different between our case and Erickson et al. Therefore, our results are not at all related to those of Erickson et al.
Q: You and your colleagues suggest that expert players take advantage of neural connections between the precuneus and the caudate nucleus to recognize a game pattern quickly and intuitively arrive at a "next best move." Did you see evidence of a temporal progression, or was the experiment not designed to chart the flow of neural impulses in that way? Did you arrive at this hypothesis merely by considering the roles traditionally assigned to those areas of the brain
A: There was significantly stronger positive correlation between precuneus activations and caudate activations during the quick-generation task in professional players, compared with correlations during other tasks in professional players, and compared with correlations during the quick generation task in amateur players. This is the evidence from our own experiments.
Our results do not indicate the direction of signal flow (from the precuneus to the caudate or opposite). The previous anatomical studies (in monkeys) showed that there are direct projections from the precuneus to the part of the caudate nucleus. Also, it has been shown that the precuneus has projections from the visual cortical areas in the occipital cortex, but the caudate nucleus does not have projections from the visual cortical areas. Based on these previous findings, we suggest that the signal flows from the precuneus to the caudate.
Q: What further experiments are you planning to follow up on the suggestions raised in this paper?
A: We are conducting a few follow-up experiments, but we would like to introduce them after we get results.
Q: Are there implications for neuroscience beyond game-playing? For example, will learning about this particular process with Shogi shed light on the way in which experts in other fields (business, for example) make seemingly instinctual snap decisions about successful strategies in other scenarios?
A: We assume that the same circuit (precuneus to caudate) is essential for other types of cognitive expertise — for example, chess, MRI reading by radiologists, solving troubles in computer networks, and auditing. However, we have no direct evidence. The research was supported by Fujitsu, which is one of the biggest computer companies in Japan. They want to get hints from our study about the best ways to educate system engineers who solve the troubles in computer networks. The engineers largely depend on intuition.
Q: Are expert shogi-players born or made? Do your results suggest that proficiency at determining the "next best move" is an innate faculty, hard-wired into the brains of experts? Or could it be that experts have strengthened the neural connections for instinctive play through practice? Some of your results point to a correlation between caudate activity in amateurs and the speed with which they select the best move, which might suggest that some brains are naturally built to play shogi better. What’s your view on this "nature vs. nurture" aspect of game-playing proficiency?
A: Our results do not give a direct answer to the nature-vs.-nurture question. However, previous psychological studies have shown that the expertise is specific to the domain. Chess players are super only in chess, MRI-reading experts are super only in MRI reading, and so on. Also, the psychological studies have shown that the development of expertise requires a long period of training, more than 10 years. These characteristics — domain specificity and the long period of learning that's required — are more consistent with the nurture idea: Expertise is the result of long, serious training.
If that's not food for thought, I don't know what is. Feel free to cogitate over this research and add your comments below.