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For a long time, I have wanted to expand my lab facilities to be able to record not only behavioural data at millisecond resolution, but also to expand with neuroimaging such as EEG. Although I am already doing neuroimaging using functional and structural MRI at the DRCMR, I have had an interest in trying other modalities such as the EEG. The EEG, despite it’s well-known lack of spatial resolution and mainly cortical focus, other factors are notable, including

  • a less artificial environment compared to fMRI and PET imaging
  • no noise, less intrusions on the subject
  • fewer constraints on experiment design, such as the need for several iterations of typified situations as used in fMRI
  • high temporal resolution
  • better integration with other modalities such as eye-tracking
  • recent advances in mobility that allows for studies with better ecological validity

Now, I’m expanding my lab facilities to include both high resolution eye-tracking and stationary/mobile EEG, and it’s on the cheap! In this blog post series, I will present the work we’re doing to employ these methods in the lab, as well as outside in the “real world”.

For starters, I have chosen to go with the Emotiv 14-channel system, purchasing the SDK version for $799. As a stand-alone product this seems to work very nicely for obtaining electrical signals, and has both metrics for signal value and accelerometers for head movements. We have now made two solutions for use of this equipment: one for stationary testing, which also includes eye-tracking, and one for mobile settings:

The stationary set-up

In close collaboration with iMotions, we have developed a nice interface for obtaining the EEG signals, through their Attention Tool®, and been part of developing this and other features for their Sensor Sync module. Through this module we’re not only able to integrate EEG but also any other suitable module that provides an SDK, so there will be more to come.

In out stationary set-up, we’re running a Tobii eye tracker and running the Attention Tool, which now has a nice integration of the EEG signal, as can be seen in the picture below:

Screen shot of Attention Tool® Setup with the Emotiv EEG integration (bottom middle).

As can be seen from the colour of the electrodes, the signal for the current session was not optimal

The mobile setup

For the mobile setup, we have acquired a Nokia N900, which our collaborators have integrated with the Emotiv system (see my prior blog post on this):

Mobile Emotiv setup: the Nokia N900, the Emotiv system, saline water and the electrode containment box

And here is how it looks when one of my graduate students, Dalia Bagdziunaite, wears the system and watches her own brain activation – yes mobile biofeedback it is!

Alpha band activation is projected on to a 3D brain model, here showing increased bilateral prefrontal activation.

What is still needed is a better mode of determining what subjects are looking at. One intermediate solution for us has been to obtain a pair of HD video glasses from SpyTech, which we are currently waiting for, and which will be integrated and synched with the Nokia setup. All solutions still at low cost. Right now, we will use this to grossly know what a person is looking at, but of course, we want to expand this with more sophisticated tools, such as Tobii’s new glasses.

So, in coming blog posts, I will describe some of the work, challenges and solutions we have for working with this system, and in which contexts we will be using it, including in-store purchase, gambling, art exhibits, psychiatric disorders, and neurofeedback.

-Thomas

For those of you interested in neuromarketing, neuroeconomics, consumer neuroscience, decision neuroscience (…) look here. TOgether with Hilke Plassmann and Milos Milosavljevic, I have an article in press at the Journal of Consumer Psychology, on the brain bases of branding.

In this piece, we have focused on the different steps in which brands make their impact on consumers’ brains and behaviours. We demonstrate how brands impact on the levels of attention, reward expectation and experience, and memory. We also provide a critical take on the different aspects of more commercial uses of neuroscience tools in marketing, and we provide some guidelines and future directions for this agenda.

If you want a preprint version of the article, please download it from here (PDF file). By clicking this link you confirm that you have asked me for a preprint copy. For the full version, please download it from the journal website (remember, they also need subscriptions to keep the wheels turning)

-Thomas

Neuroscience Boot Camp

Here’s something to become aware of (and for me to start blogging again J)

Neuroscience is increasingly relevant to a number of professions and academic disciplines beyond its traditional medical applications. Lawyers, educators, economists and businesspeople, as well as scholars of sociology, philosophy, applied ethics and policy, are incorporating the concepts and methods of neuroscience into their work. Indeed, for any field in which it is important to understand, predict or influence human behavior, neuroscience will play an increasing role. The Penn Neuroscience Boot Camp is designed to give participants a basic foundation in cognitive and affective neuroscience and to equip them to be informed consumers of neuroscience research.

Through a combination of lectures, break-out groups, panel discussions and laboratory visits, participants will gain an understanding of the methods of neuroscience and key findings on the cognitive and social-emotional functions of the brain, lifespan development and disorders of brain function.

Each lecture will be followed by extensive Q&A. Break-out groups will allow participants to delve more deeply into topics of relevance to their fields. Laboratory visits will include trips to an MRI scanner, an EEG/ERP lab, and a transcranial magnetic stimulation lab. Participants will also have access to an extensive online library of copyrighted materials, including classic and review articles and textbook chapters in cognitive and affective neuroscience.

-Thomas

What happens in our brains as we get older? We probably all know what happens at the behavioral level. Most notable is the changes in memory, and the ability to couple information together. Remembering a name, or mixing names on people is a frequent effect. Forgetting what happened when and who did what are well-known memory problems of aging.

But what causes these problems? And are they caused at the stage of learning or retention? Or may the changes even occur during preparation or rehearsal?

In a study now in press in Neurobiology of Aging (download PDF copy here), we studied the effects of healthy aging on how the brain processes different kinds of visual information. Based on prior work showing that visual attention towards objects predominantly recruited regions of the medial temporal lobe (MTL), compared to attention towards positions, we tested whether this specialization would wither with increasing age.

Basically, we tested the level of brain specialization by comparing the BOLD fMRI signal directly between object processing and position processing. We looked at each MTL structure individually by analyzing the results in each individual brain (native space) rather than relying on spatial normalization of brains, which is known to induce random and systematic distortions in MTL structures (see here and here for PDF of conference presentations I’ve had on this).

Running the test with functional MRI, we found that several regions showed a change in specialization. During encoding, the right amygdala and parahippocampal cortex, and tentatively other surrounding MTL regions, showed such decreases in specialization.

During preparation and rehearsal, no changes reached significance.

However, during the stage of recognition, more or less the entire MTL region demonstrated detrimental changes with age. That is, with increasing age, those regions that tend to show a strong response to object processing compared to spatial processing, now dwindle in this effect. At higher ages, such as 75+, the ability of the brain to differentiate between object and spatial content is gone in many crucial MTL structures.

This suggests that at least one important change with increasing age is its ability to differentiate between different kinds of content. If your brain is unable to selectively focus on one kind of information (and possibly inhibit processing of other aspects of the information), then neither learning or memory can operate successfully.

One important feature of this study is that it provides a new means to study age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease. It is well known that this disorder initiates in the MTL region, most likely the trans-entorhinal region, and it does so long before the clinical symptoms of Alzheimers or even its predecessor, Mild Cognitive Impairment. Hence, the search for ways to assess changes in this region has become a growing field of interest. One possibility could be to employ the methods developed in this project to assess early functional and morphological changes in the MTL region, and possibly improve early detection of Alzheimer’s and related disorders.

Another interesting option would be to explore to what extent healthy aging is related to changes in everyday functions, such as shopping behavior, learning and remembering movie contents and other complex kinds of information.

-Thomas

In the sci-fi movie “Strange days“, Ralph Fiennes plays a petty pusher dealing with (illegal) recorded memories. The secret technology of this movie was based on so-called SQUIDs, making it possible to record any sensory input and even feeling and mood a person is in.

Today, I was alerted about the success of the work of Jack Gallant in reconstructing visual perception from brain images. The movie below displays the results.

Of course, these images are crude, but they nevertheless are a tell-tale sign of the future being brought much closer.

Here is the abstract from the paper presented in Current Biology:

Quantitative modeling of human brain activity can provide crucial insights about cortical representations [1,2] and can form the basis for brain decoding devices [3,4,5]. Recent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have modeled brain activity elicited by static visual patterns and have reconstructed these patterns from brain activity [6,7,8]. However, blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) signals measured via fMRI are very slow [9], so it has been difficult to model brain activity elicited by dynamic stimuli such as natural movies. Here we present a new motion-energy [10,11] encoding model that largely overcomes this limitation. The model describes fast visual information and slow hemodynamics by separate components. We recorded BOLD signals in occipitotemporal visual cortex of human subjects who watched natural movies and fit the model separately to individual voxels. Visualization of the fit models reveals how early visual areas represent the information in movies. To demonstrate the power of our approach, we also constructed a Bayesian decoder [8] by combining estimated encoding models with a sampled natural movie prior. The decoder provides remarkable reconstructions of the viewed movies. These results demonstrate that dynamic brain activity measured under naturalistic conditions can be decoded using current fMRI technology.

So what is next? Translating these images to one’s own cerebrum?

-Thomas

This is it! We’re beginning our trials using the ultra-cool new tool developed by the Danish Technological University people.

Yesterday we started testing a single person walking around a shopping mall and buying things. First, from a planned purchase list, and then random and unplanned decisions.

At the same time, the session was filmed by the Danish National Broadcast company (Danmarks Radio), for a program on consumer choice.

The really interesting thing here is, of course, the different uses one can have for this. Although the really neat feature is that the data can be recorded and used for subsequent analyses, the really neat thing is that the same data can be streamed directly to a more powerful computer, analyzed and sent back to the smartphone within a fraction of a second. This then can be used for display purposes, or for more sophisticated uses, including alerting about inattention, risky decisions, emotional state or maybe drowsiness during driving?

The video below is from the DTU’s own lab.

-Thomas

A recent news item tells us about a report that the gustatory system in mammals has been shown to have a “gustatory map”. Just in the same way that we already know that our visual and sensory-motor systems show nice and almost 1:1 mapping between sense and it’s neural representation.

It is groundbreaking work, as attested by the Science publications itself. It demonstrates clearly that even our taste system has a clear and distinct representation of different tastes. It could just as well be opposite. Taste could have been represented as different network configurations within basically the same network.

What strikes me most is the claim stated by Nicholas Ryba of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, who was coauthor on the new study. He states in an interview:

“What is a taste, really? It’s the firing of a set of neurons in the brain, and that’s what we want to understand.”

I guess many researchers in psychology will see the shortcoming of this statement. It is a simplified claim of brain-mind relationships, and a reductionism one should handle with care. One clear shortcoming of this study is that it focuses on studying the organism – rats – from a systems neuroscience approach, paying no heed to the role of experience.

As any researcher of the mind knows, there is an explanatory gap between knowing how the brain works and to what extent any of the processes uncovered relate to overt sensory experience. Put differently, although our early visual system is neatly organised according to the visual space, this is not reflected in our experience of the world. We do not experience the world as spatially distributed pixels on a sheet. Rather, we experience the world around us as objects, context, movement etc.

Similarly, taste experience still needs to be explained. I am not sure that Ryba’s claim should be taken literary, but it reflects a notion seen every so often in the interpretation of neurobiology.

One pertinent next question, and a low hanging fruit, is to couple this to studies of preference and liking. In several studies one finds that contextual information can lead to alteration in people’s experience of a product. This includes coca-cola, wine and even art. Recently, a study suggested that subjects’ taste experiences were directly influenced by information: if told  that a ber contained drops of lemon, subjects would often report sensing the whiff of lemon.

The obvious question is now: at what level can one detect this change in taste? Here, at least two possibilities are available. On the one hand, it is possible that attentional mechanisms increase the effect of one particular sensation, e.g. sourness. On the other hand, it might be that these changes only at a higher representational level. Nevertheless, the current results provide hints pf new ways to study such effects, and to increase the likelihood that we may learn more about sensation, our pleasure of this, and how contextual cues can affect our experiences.

Thus, the recent finding of a gustatory map provides wonderful clues to the basic mechanisms of taste, but we still need to explain why the coffee I’m now drinking has such a distinct taste to me.

-Thomas

Can we ever understand the environmental crisis? Can our limited minds ever get around to do “the right thing”?

I am currently appearing the Huffington Post, in an interview on the human mind and the environmental crisis. From a recent report (PDF), it is suggested that humans lack the true ability to both comprehend the abstract features and overall picture of global warming. In addition, we seem to lack the ability to plan ahead properly and cat “rationally”. In particular, three factors come into play:

  • Climate change has a very long time-scale – we are talking decades and centuries when it comes to alterations and consequences caused by global warming.
  • Climate change is abstract and indefinite – we do not know the exact consequences and extent.
  • Climate change has a very high level of complexity – we are faced with endless lines of statistics and scientific data documenting the reality of climate change
I think the interview went well, and that I’m properly cited. However I have a concern regarding the Huff Post. It is well known to be featuring articles of lesser quality, and to lend voices to pseudoscientific claims. Indeed, it is frequently featured on the top ten list of skeptical sites‘ most criticized sources.
So, although I do think that this particular interview went well, my concern is that this could be used as a way to boost credibility for the HP, giving all the more prominence and credit to their other and non-science based articles. I’ve tried to ask some of the more prominent skeptics whether the HP is a good or a bad idea, but no responses thus far.
-Thomas

As part of this coming year’s course in neuromarketing, I have prepared a list of essential readings in neuromarketing. The list is made available on our BrainEthics site, with direct links to PDF files, if applicable.

The list is intended to provide a gross overview of some of the topics in this field, as well as some pointers to articles that “everybody” should know.

Some selections were made:

  • I decided to go for academic papers throughout. The CBS elective is an academic course indeed, although we do touch upon relevant business aspects in this course.
  • Related to this, my focus has been not so much on the mind reading aspect (i.e. how well we can apply neuroimaging to predict choice etc.) but rather to display the added value to our understanding of consumer behaviour and marketing
  • I chose to use not only articles using neural measures, but works that employ the derived knowledge from cognitive neuroscience. This means that many articles are purely behavioural, but still most relevant to a perspective emphasizing the biological aspects of consumption

If you think that articles of utmost importance are missing, please notify me at tzramsoy AT gmail DOT com.

-Thomas

Do the gory warning pictures put on cigarette packages work? Do  disgusting images work as intended?

Health warnings are indeed a hot issue these days, and one particular theme on the use of gory images of health related diseases and disorders that stem from smoking. One can understand the basic intention of such warnings: scare smokers (or wannabes) to avoid smoking. For example, tips for quitting safely can be found here.

In a recent blog post, Roger Dooley gives his take on the reason he thinks that these warnings will not work:

I don’t think these images will actually increase the desirability of smoking, and perhaps a few non-addicts will be dissuaded from starting. As repulsive as we find the images, though, we shouldn’t expect them to have much impact on long-time smokers.

I’d love to have Dooley go a bit more in depth about his take on this. I do believe that he is indeed on the right track, and I believe that I can explain why it is so.

And let me be right up front and remind you that the explanation offered by Martin Lindström is really not tenable. Rather, it is a prime example of pseudoscientific babble stemming from a misuse and misunderstanding of neuroimaging results.

Let’s first look at the basics: The main assumption in these warning ads is that when seeing these images, smokers (and non-smokers alike) will be motivated to avoid smoking. In some way, smoking will be associated with bad health, and motivate us to stop smoking, or never start smoking. Another possible assumption is that this relies on a very overt and rational process. We have to connect the bad outcome to smoking, and consciously make the decision to avoid smoking. Alternatively, one may wish to prime smoking to bad health (and disgust).

It strikes me that several years ago, a study by one of my colleagues, Maurice Ptito, reported that these warning labels did not work at all. In fact, when studying smokers’ behaviour, they realised that smokers did not pay much attention to the warnings at all. Interestingly, instead of using the packages, smokers had their own packages where they put the cigarettes. The original package with the warnings was thrown away.

Why? Here’s the interesting story… and let me start by asking you to look at this image…please try as much as you can:

Want to look away? Did you even go beyond this image to read on? Scrolled past the image? How did you feel when you looked at it?

Sorry to put you through it. But I felt it crucial for you to understand my point – to feel it yourself.

Here’s what happens: disgusting images have a primary motivating force on us: it makes us want to look away. Indeed, several studies have now demonstrated a role of the insula in disgust (see review). Disgusting images recruit this region involved in processing and producing visceral responses. It is also involved in our ability to understand facial expressions of disgust in others.

Indeed, in the study by Ptito et al, it was found that the disgusting warnings recruited the insula. The role of the insula has also been shown to be related to motivating behaviours. One example is the study by Knutson et al. who demonstrated that increasing product prices were related to increased engagement of the insula, and a lower likelihood in purchasing that particular product.

In other words, disgusting images of all kinds makes us want to look away. We are primarily motivated to avoid that situation. We look away, walk away, close our eyes. Indeed, this primary motivation is the reason that the warnings do not work. First, they lead to reduced attention to the information. Second, the primary and direct motivation to avoid the information/picture never becomes connected to the cigarette packages themselves. Warnings of this kind could only work if they were so disgusting that people would not even touch them…

So what could work instead? Positive and direct motivation! Some opportunities would be to say that quitting smoking makes things better for you. This could include better skin, body odour and oral hygiene; improved health and so on. The more one can get at direct motivating factors, the better. The image on the right side may be in the right direction, but not quite there…

-Thomas

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