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Brain and cognitive sciences

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IFL Science

MIT researchers have discovered how propofol, a commonly used anesthetic, works on the brain, reports Francesca Benson for IFL Science. The research studied “the differences between an awake brain and one under anesthesia by looking at the stability of the brain’s activity,” writes Bensen. 

Gizmodo

MIT scientists have discovered how propofol, a commonly used anesthetic, induces unconsciousness, reports Adam Kovac for Gizmodo. “The new research indicates that [propofol] works by interfering with a brain’s ‘dynamic stability’ – a state where neurons can respond to input, but the brain is able to keep them from getting too excited,” explains Kovac. 

New York Times

Prof. David Rand speaks with New York Times reporters Tiffany Hsu and Stuart A. Thompson about the challenges of stopping the spread of misinformation. “It seems like an easy enough problem: there’s the true stuff and there’s the false stuff, and if the platforms cared about it, they would just get rid of the false stuff,” says Rand. “Then we started working on it and it was like, ‘Oh God.’ It’s actually way more complicated.”

Popular Science

MIT scientists studying parrots have discovered higher intelligence than previously thought, with some birds besting five-year-old children at logic games. With a tablet computer, parrots “have even figured out how to communicate using modern video conferencing technology,” writes Mack DeGeurin for Popular Science. When shown pictures of other parrots they had previously chatted with, “the parrots repeatedly requested to chat with their long-distance friends.”

The New York Times

Prof. Evelina Fedorenko has uncovered evidence that the human brain uses language for communicating, not reasoning, writes Carl Zimmer for The New York Times. “Other regions in the brain are working really hard when you’re doing all these forms of thinking, but it became clear that none of those things seem to engage language circuits,” she says. 

Forbes

Prof. Sara Seager, Prof. Robert Langer and Prof. Nancy Kanwisher have been awarded the 2024 Kavli Prize for their work in the three award categories: astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience, respectively, reports Michael T. Nietzel for Forbes. According to the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, this award honors scientists with outstanding research “that has broadened our understanding of the big, the small and the complex,” writes Nietzel. 

The Washington Post

Washington Post reporter Carolyn Johnson spotlights how Prof. Laura Schulz and her colleagues have been exploring why ChatGPT-4  performs well on conversation and cognitive tests, but flunks reasoning tests that are easy for young children. Schulz makes the case that to understand intelligence and create it, childhood learning processes should not be discounted. “That’s the kind of intelligence that really might give us a big picture,” Schulz explains. “The kind of intelligence that starts not as a blank slate, but with a lot of rich, structured knowledge — and goes on to not only understand everything we have ever understood, across the species, but everything we will ever understand.”

Science

Postdoctoral researchers Marin and Lukas Vogelsang speak with Science reporter Christie Wilcox about their recent work finding “the poor color vision that newborns normally have actually helps them develop well-rounded vision overall.” “The question that really drove this study is why we are so good at recognizing faces and objects in black and white photos and movies,” explains Marin Vogelsang. “And we found an answer to this when studying children in India who were born blind and were treated for their blindness as a part of Project Prakash.”

CBS

Ara Mahar, a technical associate at the McGovern Institute, speaks with CBS News about what inspired their interest in kimonos – a traditional Japanese garment. “Mahar became so enamored [with the kimono] they moved to Japan to formally study it in 2016,” explains CBS. “Mahar became an expert, and moved back to Boston two years later. Mahar now gives demonstrations and lectures throughout the area.” 

Popular Mechanics

Researchers at CSAIL have created three “libraries of abstraction” – a collection of abstractions within natural language that highlight the importance of everyday words in providing context and better reasoning for large language models, reports Darren Orf for Popular Mechanics. “The researchers focused on household tasks and command-based video games, and developed a language model that proposes abstractions from a dataset,” explains Orf. “When implemented with existing LLM platforms, such as GPT-4, AI actions like ‘placing chilled wine in a cabinet' or ‘craft a bed’ (in the Minecraft sense) saw a big increase in task accuracy at 59 to 89 percent, respectively.”

The New York Times

Researchers from MIT and elsewhere have used quantitative and computational methods to analyze animal communication, reports Emily Anthes for The New York Times.

Popular Science

Researchers at MIT and elsewhere have investigated “how several species of parrots interacted when placed on brief video calls with one another,” reports Mack Degeurin for Popular Science. “The results were shocking,” explains Degeurin. “In almost all cases, the birds’ caretakers claim the video calls improved their well-being. Some of the birds even appeared to learn new skills, like foraging or improved flight, after observing other birds doing so.”

CBS News

Prof. Earl K. Miller speaks with CBS News host Susan Spencer about  multitasking, fear of laziness, and the importance of downtime. “A lot of times some of your best thoughts come to you when your conscious mind is out of the way, when you allow the unconscious thoughts to bubble up,” says Miller. “And sometimes it’s good to be lazy – not lazy, but to tune out a bit and let these thoughts bubble up.” 

MIT Technology Review

Writing for MIT Technology Review, Georgina Gustin chronicles the research journey of Polina Anikeeva, the MIT scientist and engineer who developed flexible brain probes to stimulate neurons and potentially treat neurological disorders. In 2017, Anikeeva became fascinated by the hypothesis that Parkinson’s might be linked to pathogens in the digestive system. Today she and her team use specialized devices to explore the brain-gut connection. “This is a new frontier,” Anikeeva says. 

Bloomberg

Bloomberg Opinion columnist Parmy Olson spotlights a new study by MIT researchers that finds AI chatbots can be highly persuasive when reinforced with facts and could potentially be used to help tackle conspiracy theories. “The scientists invited more than 2,000 people who believed in different conspiracy theories to summarize their positions to a chatbot — powered by OpenAI’s latest publicly available language model — and briefly debate them with the bot,” Olson writes. “On average, participants subsequently described themselves as 20% less confident in the conspiracy theory; their views remained softened even two months later.”