Facial Cues and the Brain

snap judgments.jpg
As human beings, we can tend to be a little judgmental–sometimes without even realizing it. When we first meet someone, our brains are busy processing facial features, body language, personality traits, etc., within milliseconds of just saying “hello.” So what characteristics make us assume certain things about people we just meet, and can these unconscious first impressions really change the way we perceive someone?

Expanding on this topic, neuroscientist Jon Freeman, Ph.D., spoke to a room crowded with eager listeners as the featured guest in the latest event from the Secret Science Club. As director of the Social Cognitive & Neural Sciences lab at New York University, Freeman devotes all of his research to understanding “split-second social perception”—that is, how our brains use subtle facial cues, personality traits, and emotion to instantly categorize others into social groups. With the help of brain imaging technology (fMRI), electrophysiology (EEG and ERP), and real-time behavioral techniques, Freeman is able to study activity within the brain in hopes of learning more about the phenomena of snap judgments.

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A Ghostly Presence

Walking through New York City’s Chelsea Market Wednesday evening, it was hard not to notice the macabre graveyard scenery, hanging ghosts, and appendages crawling out of the walls. There was even an installed pipe coming out of the ceiling that had a torrent of “red water” falling into a sinkhole with zombie mannequins creeping out. It was entertaining, to say the least, and visitors were loving it.

But what is it about Halloween that gets people so worked up? Surely, it can’t be just the candy—that can be found on store shelves all year round. For a brief moment, the month of October allows us to unearth our fascination with morbid ideas such as vampires, haunted houses, and ghosts. Beyond the grisly decorations, there are varying superstitions about apparitions and the otherworldly in cultures throughout the world; but how do we explain the unintentional occurrences that spook us into believing in ghosts?

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

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From the Archives: Neurofeedback

One of our recent news stories discusses the promise of neurofeedback in the form of real time fMRI. A quick search of our files shows that we’ve touted the promise of neurofeedback—in the form of EEG—for at least the past 13 years. Have researchers finally hit pay dirt?

The latest story, “The Promise of Neurofeedback” by Carl Sherman, reports on research suggesting that people in a functional magnetic resonance imager, shown real-time images of their brain’s activity, can alter it, dampening or enhancing a target area. In one study, people with depression who used replays of pleasant memories to bump activity in certain areas also showed improvement on measures of their depressive symptoms. According to one of the researchers, David E. J. Linden of Cardiff University:

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Mind reading leads to mind writing

People with spinal cord injuries or disorders such as Lou
Gehrig’s disease may one day benefit from the findings of a new study at the
Mayo Clinic campus in Jacksonville, Fla. Researchers there were able to predict
(with almost 100 percent accuracy) and post on a computer screen the letters
that patients were thinking of.

Most prior studies of such brain-machine interfaces had used
electroencephalography, which involves collecting data from electrodes placed on
the scalp. But neurologist Jerry Shih, who led the new work, recognized he
could get far better results with electrocorticography—the recording of
information from electrodes implanted directly on the brain. He had this option
because his patients suffered from epilepsy; their seizures were already being
monitored with “on the brain” electrodes.

Study participants were presented a large grid of letters. Letters
within the grid began flashing, and a computer recorded the patients’ brain
activity as each new letter became highlighted; then the participants were
asked to concentrate on specific letters within the grid. With this
information, the computer calibrated itself to each person’s specific brain
waves and could ultimately produce the letter a patient was focusing on.

Such a high accuracy rate has been achieved before, but this
approach is potentially faster and more localized. “Our goal is to find a way
to effectively and consistently use a patient’s brain waves to perform certain
tasks,” Shih said in a statement
released last Sunday
. These tasks could include something like moving a
prosthetic arm.

Although Shih noted this study was just a “baby step”
towards reaching such a goal—especially as it involves brain surgery—he also
said the progress was “very encouraging.”

-Andrew Kahn

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