Papers paper papers

18 05 2016

Jamie‘s Developmental Psychobiology paper is out online today! Main finding: ‘play’ is a heterogeneous category in which social, object and locomotory types are influenced quite differently by time of day, animal age etc.

Jamie also recently submitted another paper on his play work (this on how early social play predicts later sexual behaviour), this time to Animal Behaviour, and boldly to their US office without any of the casting about for a European submitting author that I usually do (their UK office historically being the kinder of the two to applied ethology/animal welfare MSs).

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 7.52.56 AM

And a couple of days ago Maria also submitted a MS, this time to AABS, having been invited to contribute to a special edition based on the 2015 ISAE. This combined her two excellent ceiling height experiments. In one, she altered the heights mink could feed from, finding found that all of them chose to eat from the lowest height, which means they can do this with all four feet on the ground, and even sit (sometimes even lie!) as they dine. In the other in she raised and lowered the ceiling of their enrichment compartment to see how this affected use, with more complicated results. Females did not prefer the ceiling to be high, and a subset even preferred it to be low so that they could rest underneath a shaded part of it. However, some males — those who stand up on their hind legs a lot —  used the compartment more when its ceiling was high enough to let them use this posture.

Catering for individual differences is hard, but we suspect the mink industry is best served by designing cages that do so (since they probably need higher standards than other types of farming).

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 8.27.05 AM

200 million women

18 05 2016

New WHO guidelines are out for helping the victims of FGM. Incredible interview here too, at 18:22 — listen and weep.

Locked in, unable to move or speak

16 05 2016

The two weeks of Presentation2of May were packed with local meetings (I missed the OEEEC this time: just too much going on), including SONA which this year was at the University of Waterloo.

As for the Logic meeting, I pared my attendance down to just one plenary, but was so glad I made that. Adrian Owen (below) presented on his work with comatose patients (people in vegetative states and comas at one end of the range — where the lights really are off  — and locked-in syndrome at the other: fully conscious but unable to do a thing). It was one of the best talks I’ve ever seen in my life: it actually made me physically happy to be listening.

He opened by talking about some of their work trying to predict which of these patients will recover. Using fMRI, they look at which brain regions respond to what type of auditory probe: non-linguistic sounds, linguistic sounds that are nonsense, and linguistic sounds with meaning. All of these activate the auditory cortex, and that doesn’t predict a thing: those cellular responses just reflect that the sound has made its way in, but no more – they don’t require or anticipate consciousness. Linguistic sounds activate other cortical areas too (e.g. Wernicke’s area) in some subjects, and those in whom this occurs have a better prognosis. What I missed was whether responding to real speech has better predictive powers than jabberwocky, but I think so (need to read Davis et al. ’07 in PNAS, and Coleman et al. ’09 in Brain).

Since being able to follow an arbitrary commend (“Lift up your left hand and wiggle your fingers”, that type of thing) is use by clinicians to assess awareness, another body of their work used this approach in their patients. Of course these people cannot move, but some of them can imagine moving when asked to. And just as our hippocampus would ‘light up’ if we imagined moving around our house, so too can theirs; and just as our premotor cortex would ‘light up’ if we imagined making a tennis swing, so too can theirs. Patients who can do this have a good prognosis (and are fully aware – later, once recovered, they can describe how they felt taking part in this experiment). Interestingly though, as with all their techniques (he admitted) even this is prone to false negatives: some patients who later recover and can recount the whole experience, simply cannot pass this imagining task.

With the subset of patients who can do this, things now can get really clever. They can be asked to imagine walking round their house when the answer to a question is ‘no’, and playing tennis when the answer is ‘yes’. A few test questions are used to check they’ve got it and it’s working (“Does Margaret Thatcher run Canada?” “Are bananas yellow?” – that kind of thing). Once that’s been confirmed, then they can be asked questions the questioner does not know the answer to, such as “Are you in pain?”, and “We’ve been playing you your favourite album for seven months now: do you still like it?”. (Owen et al. ’06 in Science and Naci et al. ’14 PNAS look to be good follow-up reading)

Incredible, incredible stuff. Oh and Adrian Owen is a Brit, so of course I lerrrved his accent.


If insects are conscious, then what?

16 05 2016

Nice piece by Peter Singer in the Globe & Mail yesterday (with thanks to Ian). The PNAS article it’s based on, which I’ve not yet read of course, seems to argue that insects have an analog to the mammalian midbrain. But who thinks that the midbrain is the key to subjective experience?? No-one aside from Merker, I didn’t think. Looks like I’d better get reading.

Manta rays react to mirrors

15 05 2016

Manat rays prance about in front of mirrors, apparently. A ‘Behold! They have souls!!’ reaction here; a more measured account (which I’m going with, not least as this work was not published in the greatest journal [which it would be if this really showed self-awareness]), from New Scientist, here; and a cute video below:

Gary Varner’s visit

15 05 2016

Gary Varner visited in March, to give the last CSAW seminar of the year. This has taken me ages to write up as my group had a whole hour or two with him, and the answers to the questions we asked took some thinking to summarize. But it was a great meeting (and great overall visit): Gary’s lovely (as well as smart) and had already memorized everyone’s names which got us off to a nice start. Then everyone did me proud by asking very thoughtful, articulate questions.

So, does death really matter for an individual, as long as it’s painless? There is an argument, albeit not fashionable now, that death is not inherently bad for the individual who dies, because once dead, they cannot experience this as a harm. Gary really had no objections to this (yay), aside from preferring the view that there is something sad and bad about projects being cut short.

Some ‘deprivation accounts’ of the badness of death thus strongly emphasise the curtailing of this sort of plan or expectancy. But others emphasise something far less cognitive: the mere loss of net wellbeing. Why do philosophers differ in this, we wondered?  A lot depends on whether they want to advance ‘replaceability’ arguments, explained Gary: the well-being of one animal can simply be replaced by the well-being of another (such that six cows who each live a year are seen as the same as one cow who lives six), but individual-specific projects and plans, in contrast, are unique and irreplaceable. (This seems like a white male academic view to me  — “My book! The deep tragedy of it not being finished!!” — but luckily Gary thought that was funny).

As for what we call the ‘pseudo maths’ of utilitarianism, Gary of course had to admit they are imperfect, but did clear up one thing: that arguing for increased average happiness avoids some of the problems (e.g. the Repugnant Conclusion) created by arguing for increased total happiness.

Here is everyone pondering the Meaning of Life: left to right, Gary, Mike, Andrea, Maria, Misha and Jenna.


Learning by sensitive mimosa plants

15 05 2016


There are quite a few papers showing simple learning by plants, and here is a newish one.

So either they’re sentient, or you don’t need sentence for simple learning. I’m going with the latter.