Kids who have a larger and better-connected hippocampus learn math better when tutored

This 2013 Stanford study of 24 eight- and nine-year-old children found that measurements of limbic system areas predicted how well the 11 boys and 13 girls would respond to 8 weeks of one-on-one math tutoring!

“Pretutoring hippocampal volume predicted performance improvements. Furthermore, pretutoring intrinsic functional connectivity of the hippocampus with dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortices and the basal ganglia also predicted performance improvements.

Brain regions associated with learning and memory, and not regions typically involved in arithmetic processing, are strong predictors of responsiveness to math tutoring in children. More generally, our study suggests that quantitative measures of brain structure and intrinsic brain organization can provide a more sensitive marker of skill acquisition than behavioral measures.”

None of the assessments, such as IQ and working memory tests, predicted how much benefit a child would receive from one-on-one math tutoring. The 16 children in the control group who didn’t receive one-on-one math tutoring didn’t improve their math performance over the 8-week period. Adults use different brain areas when solving math problems.

Much of the news coverage was from vested interests who dismissed the findings. A typical headline was “Your child’s brain on math: Don’t bother?”

The No Child Left Behind people were concerned that science could predict that some children were better suited to math tutoring than others. Psychiatrists and psychologists responded with general dismissals like small sample size, and the journalist let that stand without asking them how they disagreed with any of the specific P-, T- and other values found in the study’s supplementary material.

The researchers were careful to invoke a politically-correct meme of individual differences 19 times, including the study’s title!

“Individual differences” isn’t a causal explanation, however. The journalist whiffed and also gave a pass to the researchers on this uninformative-but-PC meme.

It certainly would have been within the scope of this study for the researchers to inquire further into causes for the findings. It possibly could have informed us of causal factors had the children’s test battery included emotional content, as did the subjects in the Early emotional experiences change our brains: Childhood maltreatment is associated with reduced volume in the hippocampus study. “Neural predictors of individual differences in response to math tutoring in primary-grade school children”

The critical period for some aspects of human sight can be extended past childhood

This 2013 human study provided further details of critical periods in human development. The study subjects were:

“11 children enrolled in a humanitarian and scientific effort in India that provides corrective surgery to children with treatable cataracts and subsequently studies their visual abilities.”

The researchers found:

“The human visual system can retain plasticity beyond critical periods, even after early and extended blindness.

We define “early-onset” blindness as occurring before 1 y of age. We define “extended” blindness as lasting at least until early childhood, when many visual abilities in normally developing children reach adult levels. Contrast sensitivity in particular develops until approximately age 7 in normally sighted humans.

Of the 11 children, five had no discernible improvement, whereas one child’s vision grew worse, probably because of post-surgical complications. Five of the patients showed remarkable enhancement, however, and of these, an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old showed 30-fold improvement in contrast sensitivity.

“The visual brain can be plastic for longer than we originally thought,” concludes Kalia. “Many of the kids dramatically improve their quality of life.” “Development of pattern vision following early and extended blindness”

A missed opportunity to research the oxytocin receptor gene and autism

This 2013 study:

“Examined whether genetic variants of the OXTR [oxytocin receptor] affect face recognition memory in families with an autistic child.

We investigated whether common polymorphisms in the genes encoding the oxytocin and vasopressin 1a receptors influence social memory for faces.”

I feel that the researchers missed an opportunity to improve their assessment of the autism-related genetic contribution to the study’s findings by separating the degree of environmental influence on the oxytocin receptor gene expression, as did the How epigenetic DNA methylation of the oxytocin receptor gene affects the perception of anger and fear study.

An assessment of epigenetic DNA methylation of the oxytocin receptor gene may have been even more compelling because the researchers genetically sampled one non-autistic sibling in each of the autistic children’s families. I hope the study’s samples are still available, because they may offer the possibility of evaluating the contribution of the autistic children’s historical environment with potential confirmation from their siblings.

Both studies gave their subjects similar facial emotion recognition tests, with the current one deriving from findings about autism, and the second from findings about the amygdala. The studies also had common references, such as a 2010 study, A common allele in the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) impacts prosocial temperament and human hypothalamic-limbic structure and function. “Common polymorphism in the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) is associated with human social recognition skills”

The prefrontal cortex develops more repressive function at puberty

This 2014 primate study found:

“The average magnitude of functional connections measured between neurons was lower overall in the prefrontal cortex of peripubertal [age when puberty starts] monkeys compared with adults. The difference resulted because negative functional connections (indicative of inhibitory interactions) were stronger and more prevalent in peripubertal compared with adult monkeys.”

The researchers found more inhibitory functional connections at the onset of puberty than during adulthood. This repressive functionality presumably develops at puberty because that’s when it’s relatively more needed:

“The bias toward increased inhibitory connectivity we report here for young monkeys might also be an intrinsic feature of human prefrontal cortex at a comparable stage of development.”

One hypothesis of Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy is that repression is an important function that the prefrontal cortex evolved. “Age-dependent changes in prefrontal intrinsic connectivity”

Wasting public science funds on voodoo dolls

This 2014 Ohio State human study found:

“Low glucose levels might be one factor that contributes to intimate partner violence.”

The study used pins stuck in voodoo dolls and noise blasts to measure aggression towards the subjects’ spouses. These measures had neither been correlated with “intimate partner violence” nor standardized, though.

The experimental data led to some fun-with-number associations:

“Lower evening glucose levels related to blasting one’s spouse with more intense and prolonged noise.

Lower levels of evening glucose were more aggressive in part because they also had greater aggressive impulses.”

Both the study’s design and implementation were such that they couldn’t provide evidence for causes of the effects. The expert opinion here expressed:

“Concerns to which extent this particular study is helpful in explaining the role of self-control (or lack thereof) in the etiology of intimate partner violence.”

and pointed out several methodological and statistical lacks.

National Science Foundation Grant BCS1104118 was a waste of public money while deserving areas of research go begging. “Low glucose relates to greater aggression in married couples”

Agenda-driven research on emotional memories

I curated this 2013 study because one of the authors has made a career out of denying that people accurately remember and re-experience emotional memories. I’ll show how this viewpoint created problems with the study.

For background, one relevant hypothesis of Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy is that there are differences in the levels of consciousness of: (1) an emotional memory; (2) the recall of an emotional memory; and (3) a verbal description of the recall of an emotional memory.

  1. The retrieval and re-experiencing of an emotional memory can engage our lower-level brain areas without our higher-level brain areas’ participation.
  2. The recall of 1 above is a product of our cerebrum in response to input from limbic system and lower brain areas.
  3. The verbal description of 2 above is a product of our brain’s language areas in response to input from the cerebral areas that recalled the emotional memory.

Clinical principles of Primal Therapy that follow are:

  • A patient won’t re-experience an emotional memory when they only just recall it.
  • It’s another level of consciousness even further removed from an emotional memory when someone describes their recall of the memory.

The researchers asserted that they studied emotional memories in one part of this study. Their method was to ask the subjects to recall and verbally describe the emotions they felt the week after 9/11/2001.

The researchers introduced factors to try to confuse the subjects about their recall of their emotions, and their verbal descriptions of their recall. The researchers were very sure that confusing the subjects’ cerebral recalls and descriptions produced evidence that the subjects’ emotional memories were changed and falsified.

Can you see how far removed the researchers were from studying emotional memories? They didn’t demonstrate that they understood how emotional memories were stored because they didn’t attempt to engage the subjects’ limbic system and lower brain areas.

Let’s illustrate the study’s inappropriate characterizations with an example. I burned my left index fingertip last week while toasting bread on an infrared oven grill. The pain is still stored with my emotional memory, and is probably why my memory is very clear.

I can recall the visual details of the grill, how my fingertip looked, the pain I initially felt, and the relief I felt when I held my finger under running cold water. I can retrieve and re-experience my emotional memory in a calm environment such as lying in bed with no aural or visual distractions.

Let’s imagine that the researchers analogously studied my burned fingertip accident. They would deny that I can accurately retrieve and re-experience my emotional memory of the accident if they could create problems with my verbal descriptions of my recall. For example, if I initially said that I pushed the kitchen faucet handle all the way in the cold direction, then after repeated questioning, I said that I wasn’t sure that the handle was pushed all the way over to Cold.

The researchers intentionally conflated the falsifiability of emotional memories with a strawman definition of false emotional memories.

They purposely misidentified both:

  • The subjects’ recalls of post-9/11 emotions; and
  • The subjects’ descriptions of their recalls

as emotional memories.

The study was designed to be lawyering, not science. The researchers DETRACTED from science.

Maybe their purposeful error could be overlooked if it was confined to this study. But it isn’t.

Imagine the damage this viewpoint creates when mental health professionals deny the reality of their patients’ feelings, experiences, and emotional memories! “False memories in highly superior autobiographical memory individuals”

Who benefits when research promotes a meme of self-sacrifice?

The main purpose of this 2014 Illinois human study was to make findings directed toward high school students that:

“Well-being may depend on attending to higher values related to family, culture, and morality, rather than to immediate, selfish pleasure.”

The study’s messages to young people and to those who control young people were:

  • You have to give up trying to live your own life if you want to be happy.
  • For your own “well-being” just follow the “higher values” where other people tell you what to do and think.
  • Other people know how you should live your life better than you do. Science says so.

The researchers embedded many assertions into the study, most of which weren’t supported by the study’s data. The researchers’ main assertion was:

“Optimal well-being may be achieved through eudaimonic activities.”

The researchers repeated this assertion multiple times in multiple ways, such as citing philosophy and other research. The short version of the term “eudaimonic” was defined as: “Meaning and purpose, a life well-lived.”

The study’s ONLY measurement of “eudaimonic” activities was the subjects’

“Neural activation when making a donation to the family that involves self-sacrifice.”

The study’s main finding involving this SOLE measurement was:

“Eudaimonic decisions predicted longitudinal declines in depressive symptoms.”

Depressive symptoms were determined by “a self-report measure” where the subjects, 47 adolescents aged 15-17:

  • “Completed the internalizing symptoms subscale of the Youth Self-Report form of the Child Behavior Checklist
  • Underwent a brain scan during which they completed a family donation task and a risk-taking task.”

39 of the subjects returned one year later to reanswer the checklist.

I wonder what bases the reviewer used to approve the researchers’ methods.

1. In the study’s verbiage the researchers extrapolated the significance of the sole measurement of eudaimonic activities – the initial fMRI scan – many times past what it actually measured. One-time measurements of the blood flow in the ventral striatum of a few Los Angeles teenagers can’t validly be assigned as the bases for all of what the researchers went on and on about to glorify “prosocial eudaimonic decisions.”

2. No method checked the subjects’ personal impact of the experiments’ monetary rewards and donations. The subjects didn’t scale their personal relative importance of the monetary rewards and donations.

Consider the relative importance of a dime for a kid whose parents gave them a BMW to drive to high school. Compare that with a kid who searched the sidewalk for dropped coins as they walked to high school.

Absent subjective scaling, the monetary rewards and donations data couldn’t be used as the basis to produce informative results.

3. The balloon test used in this study to measure “risky hedonic decisions” was the same as in the Who benefits when research with no practical application becomes a politically correct meme? study. The same objection applies here: a video game task of popping balloons that engages the cerebrum was NOT informative to the cause-and-effect of the emotions and instincts and impulses from limbic system and lower brain areas that predominantly drive risky behavior.

Scientific justification for memes like the self-sacrifice promoted by this study helps rush people past what really happened in their lives. A popular cultural meme is to “live in the present” and purposefully overlook how we arrived at our present lives.

I wonder how we would evaluate the “higher values related to family, culture, and morality” if we felt and honestly understood our real history.

Do you feel that young people benefit when they sacrifice their lives in the name of “family, culture, and morality?” Who benefits when people don’t pause to reflect on how their history impacts what’s going on now with their lives? “Neural sensitivity to eudaimonic and hedonic rewards differentially predict adolescent depressive symptoms over time”

Problematic research on suppressing unwanted memories

This 2014 French/UK human study found:

“Motivated forgetting mechanisms, known to disrupt conscious retention, also reduce unconscious expressions of memory, pointing to a neurobiological model of this process.”

There were multiple problems with this study.

1. The researchers excluded emotional content, although the study involved areas of the brain involved in processing emotions:


How could the study’s findings apply to:

“The distressing intrusions that accompany posttraumatic stress disorder

when emotional memories were excluded? It was an unsupported assertion for one of the researchers to state:

“The better understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying this process arising from this study may help to better explain differences in how well people adapt to intrusive memories after a trauma.”

2. The term “unconscious” was used 27 times, including in the title, without defining it. The cited studies defined “unconscious” several meaningfully different ways. How could the findings achieve validity when they contained an undefined term?

3. The experiments involved short-term memories and visual perception, and the subjects took longer to visually perceive objects that they had been directed to suppress than those that they had been directed to think about. However, the researchers didn’t show that these experimental results could be extrapolated into findings about long-term unconscious memories.

4. Data manipulation:

  • The researchers noted:

    “We did not observe less hippocampal activation during no-think than think trials.”

  • This data didn’t fit what they wanted to find, so they:

    “Restricted the search volume to anatomically defined regions of interest.”

  • They still couldn’t make their predetermined finding, so they discarded:

    “An outlier which compromised the significance of this effect.”

The above process didn’t support the statement that immediately followed:

“Thus, suppression robustly engaged the brain regions associated with memory control, and this was accompanied by reduced activation in the hippocampus.”

Didn’t the reviewer have something to say about these four problem areas?

It was a letdown to read the details of the study when its title held out such promise for informing us about the unconscious influence of memories. Per the Scientific evidence page, it would really help a person as a first step to become somewhat aware of their unconscious memories and feelings, especially when these are expressed through behavior. “Suppressing unwanted memories reduces their unconscious influence via targeted cortical inhibition”