Some wasps have evolved to recognize and remember faces

A team of researchers at Cornell University recently published a new paper titled "Evolutionary dynamics of recent selection on cognitive abilities." But that's a mouthful that kind of buries the lede, which is the fact that Northern paper wasps are apparently much smarter than we had previously realized. From the abstract (emphasis added):

Cognitive abilities can vary dramatically among species. […] Here, we investigate recent selection related to cognition in the paper wasp Polistes fuscatus—a wasp that has uniquely evolved visual individual recognition abilities. We generate high quality de novo genome assemblies and population genomic resources for multiple species of paper wasps and use a population genomic framework to interrogate the probable mode and tempo of cognitive evolution. Recent, strong, hard selective sweeps in P. fuscatus contain loci annotated with functions in long-term memory formation, mushroom body development, and visual processing, traits which have recently evolved in association with individual recognition. […] These data provide unprecedented insight into some of the processes by which cognition evolves.

On the surface, this might sound terrifying. But according to the researchers, these wasps have only thus far evolved to recognize each other, rather than That Human Kid Who Keeps Coming Back And Messing With Their Nest. As Michael Sheehan, professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell, and senior author on the paper, told, "The really surprising conclusion here is that the most intense selection pressures in the recent history of these wasps has not been dealing with climate, catching food or parasites but getting better at dealing with each other. Read the rest

Using saccade-tracking to trick VR users into walking in circles, giving the illusion of "infinite walking"

"Saccades" are the phenomenon where your eyes flick momentarily from one place to another; during saccades, you don't consciously register visual input, creating tiny moments of blindness (AKA "saccadic suppression"). Read the rest

"Self-control" can be switched off with electromagnetic brain stimulation

University of Zurich researchers used transcranial magnetic stimulation, a noninvasive method of inhibiting activity in parts of the brain, to "turn off" people's ability to control their impulses. They focused on the temporoparietal junction, an area of the brain thought to play an important role in moral decisions, empathy, and other social interactions. They hope their research could help inform our understanding of addiction and self-discipline. From Scientific American:

In their study, subjects underwent 40 seconds of disruptive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)—in which a magnetic coil placed near the skull produced small electric currents in the brain that inhibited activity of the posterior TPJ—then spent 30 minutes completing a task. To rule out a placebo effect, a control group received TMS in a different area of the brain. In one task, subjects made a choice between a reward (ranging between 75 and 155 Swiss francs) for themselves or one that was shared equally between themselves and another person, who ranged from their closest confidante to a stranger on the street. In another task subjects were offered an immediate reward of between zero and 160 Swiss francs or a guarantee of 160 Swiss francs after waiting three to 18 months. In a final task, subjects were instructed to take the perspective of an avatar and indicate the number of red dots on a ball that the avatar would see.

Subjects with an inhibited TPJ were less likely to share the money and were more likely to take the money up front rather than delay gratification and wait for a larger prize.

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How scientists trick themselves (and how they can prevent it)

A smashing editorial in Nature catalogs the many ways in which scientists end up tricking themselves into seeing evidence that isn't there, resulting in publishing false positive. Many of these are familiar to people who follow behavioral economics (and readers of Predictably Irrational). But, significantly, the article advocates a series of evidence-supported techniques (some very simple, others a little more mostly/tricky) to counter them. Read the rest

We've evolved to disbelieve evolution

Experimental psychologists find that humans prefer explanations for events that have certainty and a sense of purpose over undirected randomness. Read the rest

The science of vaccine denial

The only real scientific mystery about vaccines is why so many people buy into the deadly pseudoscience of vaccine denial and put their kids -- and yours -- at risk of catching ancient, vanquished, deadly diseases. Read the rest

Cognition, categories and oppression

Our minds naturally group things in culturally specific categories -- for Americans, robins are more "bird" than albatrosses -- and we're better at categorizing more prototypical items than outliers -- but what does this mean when we group humans in categories like "real Americans"? Read the rest

Cognitive bias in software development considered harmful

Books like Predictably Irrational (and its sequel, Upside of Irrationality) painstaking document the ways that we fall victim to our own cognitive biases, tripping over our own brains. Read the rest

Science show on consciousness, with Alan Moore

BBC Radio 4 has kicked off a new season of the amazing science show The Infinite Monkey Cage, and the second episode of the series is a wonderful panel discussion on consciousness called Through the Doors of Perception. This episode is greatly enhanced by the presence of Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen, Lost Girls, From Hell, and many other standout comics. Moore's contributions on the relationship of art and magic to consciousness are the most interesting parts of the show -- though the whole thing is fascinating (Download the MP3).

(Image: Alan Moore, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from mbiddulph's photostream) Read the rest