The programme in the winter term 2020/21
September 17, 2020, 15.00:
Elizabeth Archie (University of Notre Dame): Long-term perspectives on gut microbiome dynamics and individual life histories in the Amboseli baboons
Many important questions in ecology and evolution can only be answered by observing processes that unfold over several decades. In this talk, I will discuss my recent research drawing on long-term, longitudinal data from the Amboseli baboon population in Kenya to learn: (i) whether gut microbiomes change in synchrony over time, and (ii) how female baboons respond to harsh conditions in early life. Building on our previous discovery that early adversity can reduce female lifespans by 10 years or more, we test whether females who grow up under adversity accelerate their reproductive schedules in response to shorter expected lifespans, and if females use social relationships to mitigate the negative effects of early life adversity. Together, our results show the power of long-term, individual- based research to understand ecological and evolutionary processes.
October 22, 2020, 15.00:
Michael Graziano (Princeton University): Why Brain-Machines Think They’re Conscious
Neuroscientists understand the basic principles of how the brain processes information. But how does it become subjectively aware of at least some of that information? What is consciousness? In my lab we are developing a theoretical and experimental approach to these questions that we call the Attention Schema theory (AST). The theory seeks to explain how an information-processing machine could act the way people do, insisting it has consciousness, describing consciousness in the ways that we do, and attributing similar properties to others. AST is a theory of how a machine insists it is more than a machine, even though it is not. The theory begins with attention, a mechanistic method of handling data. Some signals are enhanced at the expense of other signals and are more deeply processed. In the theory, the brain does more than just use attention. It also monitors attention. It constructs information – schematic information – about what attention is, what the consequences of attention are, and what its own attention is doing at any moment. Both descriptive and predictive, this “attention schema” is used to help control attention, much as the “body schema,” the brain’s internal model of the body, is used to help control the body. Based on the schematic information in this attention model, the brain concludes that it has a non-physical, subjective awareness. In AST, Awareness is a caricature of attention. Our data show that when you are not aware of item X, you can still attend to X, but your endogenous control over that attention is severely impared. Thus, awareness acts like the control model of attention. Our data also show that when we model the attention of others, we automatically model it in a schematic, magicalist way, as beams of mental energy emerging from people’s heads. Our deepest intuitions about consciousness as a hard problem, or a mystery essence, may stem from the brain’s sloppy models of attention.
November 5, 2020, 15.00:
Manuel Spitschan (Oxford University): What does the human eye tell the human circadian clock?
Light profoundly affects our physiology and behaviour by delaying and advancing our circadian clock and suppressing the production of endogenous hormones such as melatonin. These effects are largely mediated by a special class of so-called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs) expressing the short-wavelength sensitive photopigment melanopsin. The ipRGCs also receive synaptic input from the cones and rods, thereby integrating information from the canonical photoreceptors as well. This talk will give an overview of methods and recent results for understanding how the different photoreceptors in the retina contribute to the circadian and neuroendocrine physiology in humans.
Nov 12, 2020, 15.00:
Erin Westgate (University of Florida): Why boredom is interesting
What is boredom, and why do we experience it? Existing theories not only disagree, but offer conflicting predictions regarding its causes. I present a new model of state boredom as an affective indicator of unsuccessful attentional engagement in valued goal-congruent activity. According to the Meaning and Attentional Components (MAC) model, boredom is the result of (a) an attentional component (i.e., mismatches between cognitive demands and mental resources), and (b) a meaning component (i.e., mismatches between activities and valued goals). I show correlational and experimental evidence supporting the model’s basic premise that deficits in attention and meaning produce boredom independently of the other, do not interact, and are not highly correlated. In addition, people can be bored not only due to understimulation (ie when tasks are too easy) but due to overstimulation (ie when they are too hard) as well, and these different types of boredom have different consequences. This model explains not only when and why people become bored with external activities, but also when and why people become bored with their own thoughts (and why some cognitive activities may be more rewarding than others). Much like pain, boredom is neither good nor bad, but an important - if unpleasant - signal that we are not meaningfully engaged in what we are doing.
Jan 14, 2021, 15.00:
Colline Poirier (Newcastle University): Methodological development of behavioural and neuroimaging indicators of primate welfare
Objective methods are necessary to assess and improve the welfare of non-human primates used in biomedical research. In this talk, I will describe on-going work we have doing in my group to develop such tools, focusing on behavioural and neuroimaging approaches.
Jan 21, 2021, 13.00:
Nicola S Clayton (Cambridge University): Ways of Thinking. From Crows to Children and Back Again
This talk reviews some of the recent work on the remarkable cognitive capacities of food-caching corvids. The focus will be on their ability to think about other minds and other times, and tool-using tests of physical problem solving. Research on developmental cognition suggests that young children do not pass similar tests until they are at least four years of age in the case of the social cognition experiments, and eight years of age in the case of the tasks that tap into physical cognition. This developmental trajectory seems surprising. Intuitively, one might have thought that the social and planning tasks required more complex forms of cognitive process, namely Mental Time Travel and Theory of Mind. Future research will hope to identify these cognitive milestones by starting to develop tasks that might go some way towards understanding the mechanisms underlying these abilities in both children and corvids, to explore similarities and differences in their ways of thinking and how this might further our understanding of the evolution of cognition.