Posts Tagged ‘John O’Keefe’

A Mapping Mind

October 13, 2019

This post is based on “The Genius of Birds”, a book by Jennifer Ackerman. The Arctic tern, a bird who lives by his love of long daylight and bent for high mileage, circles the world in orbit with the seasons. It flies from its nesting grounds in Greenland and Iceland to its wintering grounds off the coast of Antartica. This is a round-trip of almost 44 thousand miles. So in an average 30 year lifetime a tern may fly the equivalent of 3 trips to the moon and back.

Pigeons are famous for their ability to navigate. Homing pigeons can be taken far distances from their homes and still find their way back. Indeed there are competitions among pigeons, or rather pigeon owners, to see how quickly and well their birds manage to return.

In a variety of areas, nest building for example, pigeons do not do well and may even appear dim-witted. But they are handy with numbers, capable not only of counting but also of grasping the arithmetic loss and gain and learning abstract rules about number, abilities Ms. Ackerman notes, on a par with primates. They can put images picturing to nine objects in proper order from lowest to highest number. They can also determine relative probability.

Pigeons are better than most people—and even better than some mathematicians—at solving certain statistical problems. One example is their ability to solve the Monty Hall Dilemma. Monty was the host of the televised game show Let’s Make a Deal. In the show a contestant would be asked to guess which of three doors concealed a grand prize, such as a car. The other two doors harbored a booby prize, such as a goat. After the player chose a door, one of the remaining doors was opened, revealing no prize. The contestants are then given the option of staying with the initial choice or switching to the other unopened door. The correct choice here is to switch. This very point has been argued among statisticians, but switching the choice doubles the chances of winning. An explanation of why this is so can be found online, as well as simulations that will demonstrate that this is so. Just enter Monty Hall Dilemma into the search box of your browser. Better yet, go to the Wikipedia.

During both world wars, pigeons were used for the quick conveyance of intelligence. Pigeons were suited up with ciphered papers and sent across enemy lines to relay news of troop movements or to communicate with resistance workers in occupied countries. At its peak in WW II, the U.S. Pigeon service possessed 54,000 birds. The most celebrated of these messengers was called G.I. Joe. Dispatched by the British to abort a scheduled bombing of a German-held town because a brigade of a thousand or more British troops was already occupying it, Joe made the 20 mile flight in 20 minutes, halting the bombers just as they were warming up for takeoff. Jungle Joe, a gallant four-month old bronze cock flew 225 miles against strong wind currents and over some of the highest mountains in Asia to deliver a message that led to the capture of large parts of Burma by Allied troops.

Officials in Cuba still use birds to transmit election results from remote mountainous areas, and the Chinese have recently built a force of 10,000 messenger pigeons to deliver military communications between troops stationed along their borders, in case of “electromagnetic interference or a collapse in our signals,” as explained by the officer in charge of the pigeon army.

In the 1940 the psychologist Edward proposed that mammals might possess a “cognitive map” of their spatial environment. Humans, being mammals, are also included here. Birds can also be included as it is clear that they are using a complex of cues, some of which we can imagine with the addition of electromagnetic fields to accomplish astonishing feats of navigation.

What structure in a bird brain could be critical to navigation? The same one that humans use, the hippocampus. This has been discussed in previous healthy memory blog posts including the anatomist John O’Keefe who won the 2014 Nobel Prized for demonstrating how this structure is used to navigate.

Not surprisingly, homing pigeons have a heftier hippocampus than other pigeon strains bred for their fancy features, such as fantails, pouters,, and strafers. This hippocampus prowess is not genetic, it is developed through learning. This has also been confirmed in humans with studies done of London cab drivers with The Knowledge, the memorization of all streets and notable places in London.

The Disoriented Ape

December 15, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the first part of a title by Emma Young in the Features section of the 15 Dec. 18 issue of the New Scientist. The second half of the title is “Why clever people can be terrible navigators.” Apart from technology, which does little, if anything, to develop an individual’s ability to navigate. It is likely that a heavy reliance on these devices could reduce or destroy any abilities we might have.

There are two main approaches we use to navigate. Route-based navigation involves remembering landmarks on a particular journey: turn left at the church and then right at the park, and so on. This works pretty well in familiar towns or on regular journey, but what do you do if you are forced to take another route?

Mental mapping involves creating, consciously or unconsciously, a mental map of the environment. This approach is sometimes considered superior because it is more flexible and allows one to take shortcuts when appropriate. But it is more cognitively demanding.

Mary Hegarty of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s (UCSB) Spatial Thinking Lab says that most of us use both strategies, the trick being to get the balance right. “Good navigators probably select the best strategy for the job automatically.

Hegarty and colleagues put 140 UCSB students in a virtual reality maze. The maze contained 12 objects, including a chair and a duck, placed at various junctions. After being taught a route through the maze, the volunteers were started off at one object and asked to navigate to another. Sometimes the learned route was the shortest path and at other times it was quicker to take a novel route. Women were more likely to follow learned routes and to wander. Men showed a greater preference for trying to work out shortcuts, which call for mental mapping. On average, males were faster and covered less ground in reaching their target.

Hugo Spiers of University College London conducted a massive study that surveyed people’s navigational abilities using a mobile-phone-based game called Sea Hero Quest. In an analysis of more than 500,000 people from 57 countries, the best performers were living in nations with greater gender equality and greater economic wealth, which is associated with higher levels of education, which improves abstract problem solving. The presence of four Nordic countries in the top 10 has led Spiers to speculate that there may have been selection for good navigational abilities in their Viking and seafaring past. It might also help to have a culture of participating sports requiring navigation, such as orienteering,

Half of the Nobel Prize in 2014 went to John O’Keefe at University College London for discovering place cells in the hippocampus of rats. Each of these cells fired in a specific location at the animal moved around its enclosure. So by remembering patterns of place cell activity, a rat could effectively map its environment. The other half of the prize went to May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology for their discover of grid cells. Located near the hippocampus, they fire in groups, each making a discrete hexagonal region of ground as an animal moves across it. It is though that, by essentially unfurling a grid map over a two-dimensional space as it goes, the rat gets precise information about the distance between objects within it, including itself.

Place cells and grid cells have been found in human brains, as have a variety of other neurons specialized for navigation. Head direction cells encode the orientation of your head, providing a reference point for grid and place cells. Border cells fire when you get close to a boundary, such as a wall. Spatial view cells become active when you look at a place, even if you don’t actually go there.

What is the Key to LeBron James Phenomenal Performance?

May 24, 2018

And the answer is his superior memory. Sally Jenkins captured this in her article, “How is LeBron James always one move ahead? Let’s ask the scientists” in the 18 May 2018 issue of the Washington Post. She begins, “Much as his brute-strength shoulders and legs define LeBron James, it’s the stuff in his head that elevates him.”

Ms. Jenkins continues, “Much has been made of James show-offy display of memory in his postgame analysis of Game 1. Replay it and notice not just the accuracy but the detail: in narrating six sequences in proper order, he noted the time on the shot clock, who took each shot and missed what, where the ball was inbounded from, and Jayson Tatum’s use of a Euro-step and right hand on a layup. When he was done, listeners broke into applause.

Zach Hambrick, a cognition-performance expert at Michigan State said, “It’s remarkable, but not surprising.” It is not surprising because there is a strong connection between cognitive science and human performance. Hambrick said, “This is one of the bedrock findings in research on human expertise: that experts have superior memory for information within their domain.”

Research has shown what seems to be “photographic memory” is really extrapolation based on habit-worn paths of knowledge, the vestiges and traces left in the brain by experience.

Adriaan de Groot conducted a famous study of chess players in the 1960s. Pieces were shown on a board for five seconds and then removed. The players were asked to recall what they had seen. Novices remembered poorly. The more expert the players, the more pieces they could recall, and the locations of the pieces. An important point in this study, which is frequently not mentioned, is that the superior recall of the experts only occurred when they pieces on the board were placed in a meaningful manner as would be found in a game between experts. If pieces were arranged in a random, nonsensical manner, the masters’ performance differed little from the novices. If so arranged in a meaningful manner, grandmasters could recall virtually everything.

Masters of games don’t just build static memories, but have a remarkable ability to intuit. Ms. Jenkins writes, “James’s anticipation is inseparable from his memory. Ericsson cited a study of elite soccer players where they were shown a game and the screen was halted at an unpredictable point. The best players remembered not only who was where but also predicted where they would go next.

Ms. Jenkins writes, “Think about the processes involved as James scans the court while moving down the floor. The optic nerves absorb and transmit small peripheral details, then shift to a sudden zoom focus as he throws a glancing no-look bounce pass that hits Kevin Love in the hands mid-stride. Then his attention broadens again stereoscopically to capture the whole floor. The cognitive flexibility to go in and out of those states fluidly is highly learned. And yet little short of magic.”

In 2014 researchers John O’Keefe, Maybritt Moser, and Edvard Moser won the Nobel Prize for explaining how the brain navigates. They answered the questions: How do we perceive position, know where we are, find the way home? O’Keefe found a specific cell in the hippocampus that throws off a signal to mark a specific place. The Mosers found that neurons in the entorhinal cortex fire in fields with regularity. When they drew lines corresponding to the neuronal activity they saw a grid. So LeBron James has a geometric projection in his brain that acts as a computation coordinate system. And so do we, but LeBron makes a much more effective use of this system.

There still is the question as to how James’s brain discriminates among multiple similar memories. Andre Fenton has published a possible answer to this question in the journal “Neuron.” The answer is that the “place” signaling is not so much a constant remapping. Actually it is highly synchronized. Think of the neurons in James’s head as birds. Starlings, “Like a flock of starling that takes on different formations while still maintaining cohesion as a flock,” Fenton said. “He’s not recording like a videotape. He’s not rebuilding. He doesn’t rebuild a picture of what is going on. He watches it evolve continuously and fluidly. There is a flock, and it’s moving down the court, and everybody has a place. All these birds form a structure, and the structure is important. We call it a flock. He calls it a play.”

Fenton says that this is actually what all human beings do. HM would add that this is also what many infra human species do. Our brains learn a series of models over our lives and is constantly making predictions.

Phenoms like James are masters of assessing the likelihoods of things. With an amazingly good set of models and expectations—of opponents, of teammates and of how the ball will move, it can look like total omniscience.