Neural Correlates of Claustrofobia still a mystery

The neural correlates of claustrofobia are still unknown. A recent study tried unsuccessfully to map the neural responses to claustrophobic stimuli of participants in an fMRI scanner. Fifty severely claustrophobic participants were asked to lie motionless in a small, confined, dark, cramped space with a giant magnet surrounding their body and head, but the methods section of the conference abstract notes that “No participants were included in the final analysis”.

Team leader Randall Thompson is disappointed by the lack of results. “It’s a pity that all our participants ran away screaming before the first scan, because we didn’t even get to the experimental manipulation: Showing them videos of collapsing caves, the insides of coffins and stalled elevators. But I have good hopes for our new, improved protocol: We will be strapping the participants down very tightly so that they are nice and comfortable.”

Thompson says he is undeterred by his lack of success and is not considering using other neuroimaging techniques. “fMRI gives the clearest, nicest findings, so we are confident we are on the right track. We have future plans for many other important research questions, including studying the neural correlates of headbanging, ligyrophobia and fear of magnets.”

Mirror neurons-Mirror neurons discovered

A team of Chinese neuroscientists have discovered a small cluster of so-called ‘mirror neuron-mirror neurons’. According to group leader Liu Chuang, the group of neurons in the occipital cortex fire only “when a person sees someone else’s mirror neurons activate”.

The MNMN-cells were discovered when the team was scanning the brain of a patient suffering from epilepsy. “It was a stroke of luck. One of the experimental stimuli happened to be a picture of mirror neurons firing in a monkey. Almost immediately our intracranial electrodes picked up rapid firing from deep within the occipital cortex. We realized immediately this was something big”. Chuang and her collaborators quickly developed a unique novel experimental protocol. Her team had participants viewing single cell recordings of a monkey watching another monkey use a tool. The findings showed that MNMN’s fired only when participants saw firing mirror neurons in the intermediate monkey, but not the tool-using monkey, according to the press-release.

Chuang is currently applying for funding to find out whether there might be a neuron in the brain that only fires when people watch the firing mirror neuron-mirror neurons  of people who watch firing mirror neurons of monkeys looking at other monkeys using tools. “Finding this neuron, if it exists, might have implications for empathy, life the universe and everything” says an excited Chuang.

Giant woolly mammoth ‘not happy’ about attempts to bring it back from extinction

The Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus Primigenius) has complained about current scientific efforts to revive the species, claiming it went extinct ‘for good reasons’. Russian and Korean efforts to breed mammoths based on partial DNA samples salvaged from dead specimens found in the Siberian permafrost, have recently made headlines. But the new statements by the large furry animal in question have led researchers to put these efforts on hold.

“First of all, it’s much too warm now” a representative of the species has stated. “We used to spend our days on wide open barren taiga at temperatures below 20 Fahrenheit. Such circumstances are now rare in the Western hemisphere”. In addition, the political conditions are ‘not suitable’ the animal says. “Russian politics are a mess. Living under dictatorial circumstances does not suit mammoths at all. Instead, we much prefer the anarchosyndicalistic structure that was prevalent among hunter-gatherers.”

In contrast, another extinct animal, the thylacine, would be happy to be brought back to life. It has complained about the amount of attention going to mammoths and was overheard complaining about the fact that “people keep looking at this black and white video of us, instead of actually doing any useful genetic work.”

Animal rights activists have urged for the implementation of informed consent procedures for reviving extinct species. It is hoped that the improved oversight will also help the plight of species currently trying to go extinct, including as the Javan rhinoceros and the Himalayan sea cucumber. Instead of stubbornly keeping alive the last specimens of their kind proponents say, scientist should focus on “respectfully guiding the process of extinction.”

Researcher goes on accidental whirlwind tour of scientific literature

Daniel Senter, Associate Professor of Psychological Anthropology at Stony Brook University, recently went on an unintended whirlwind tour of the academic literature. The sequence of papers covered 24 articles in 17 disciplines and took over 9 hours to complete.

‘I’m not entirely sure what happened actually…..’, Senter reports. “I was looking for a paper on ceremonial clothing traditions in Sulawesi. First, I found an excellent review paper that contained a reference to a paper on historic volcanic activity in Indonesia, and its influence on in cultural practices. So I read that paper, which in turn cited a paper on the dynamics of energy release during volcanic eruptions. Fascinating material. That led me to a Wikipedia entry on mass-energy equivalence, and its relation to quantum mechanics, leading to another, fascinating paper discussing the sociological dynamics of early 20th century physics and the role of the Wiener Kreis. Did you know that Ernst Mach, a prominent member of the Wiener Kreis, wrote on the sense of balance, and developed a novel visual illusion? I just couldn’t stop reading.”

After detours into ornithology, statistics, computational biology and Chinese poetry, Senter discovered that Mach’s work had inspired B.F. Skinner. Senter: “And Skinner in turn wrote the utopian novel Walden Two. It turned out that Skinner’s speculations on community governance and the influence of the environment on sociocultural behaviors were exactly what I needed for my paper on ceremonial clothing. Finally.”

Herd of p-values spotted approaching significance

A group of field biologists in Tanzania have observed a herd of p-values approaching significance. It is the first recorded sighting of this mysterious behavior, that has previously only been speculated to occur in the wild. Lead investigator Bruce Rosen is still excited about the sighting. “It was amazing! The  α-male, a majestic 0.06, was seen slowly but surely approaching significance, followed closely by a small group of marginal p-values. First, the p-values formed a uniform formation, possibly as a distraction. But shortly after that, the herd slowly but steadily approached significance.”

Blood samples of the elusive creatures  shed light on possible genetic mechanisms underlying the behavior. Rosen explains a surprising finding: “Some of the herd had a deleterious mutation causing them to have two tails. Interestingly, these specimens were twice as slow in approaching significance as the specimens with one tail.”

Rosen is hoping to extend his expeditions in the near future. “This is just the beginning. After seeing p-values approaching significance, what we really want to observe is p-values retreating from significance. But that kind of behavior as never been reported, even by the natives.”

New version SPSS will include ‘celebratory fireworks’ for significant results

An official press release has confirmed that the newest release of SPSS will be equipped with ‘performance-rewarding features’. The new installment of the popular data-analysis package will light up with song, dance and fireworks whenever a statistical test is significant. ‘We want to provide a package that is in line with the day-to-day experiences of researchers. We understand the pressure the publish, and the relief that is felt by many when those Stars of Significance appear in the results table. ’

The level of significance will determine the abundance of the celebrations. If the p-value is below 0.05, researchers will automatically hear what is described as ‘a cheerful tone’, according to a company spokesman. “But if your p-value is below 0.01, the software package will play a series of congratulatory videos, complimenting your experimental design and choice of analysis. And if it is very highly  significant, or below 0.001, your extra order of magnitude is rewarded by a lavish display of fireworks, clinking of champagne glasses and a showtune that plays ‘Tenure is here to stay’.

Dr. Hellst from the University of Ontario thinks it is a logical step: “Research is hard work. It can take months, sometimes even years, to collect the data. It’s such an anticlimax when are in your office, you run the analysis, the results are significant and the computer is completely and utterly silent. As if it doesn’t even care that my three-way ANOVA came out exactly the way I predicted. I’m so glad that the new edition of SPSS captures my feelings of elation in a suitable, yet professional, manner.”

Statisticians compute ‘X-factor’

After ten years, an international project on ‘generalized factor analysis’ has finally yielded its first results. Based on measurements on 2500 variables in 4 million subjects, the largest factor analysis ever was completed. The calculations, which took two weeks to run, have yielded some surprising results. According to the project leader, Hans Birgman, reality consists of ‘approximately three factors, of which one is really big and important’.

The first factor, dubbed ‘The X-factor’ by researchers, accounted for 62% of the variability in all the variables they measured. ‘It’s a monster, that’s for sure! Just look at that eigenvalue!’ said one of the researchers. Among the variables loading highly on the X-factor are ‘favorite weathertype’, ‘political preference’, ‘mood’, ‘metabolic efficiency’, ‘opinions concerning gravity’ and ‘toilet-roll orientation preference’. Follow up studies have shown that the X-factor is heritable, is associated with increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and correlates approximately .23 with all known psychological constructs.