Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Babies have logical reasoning before age one, study finds

Deductive problem solving was previously thought be be beyond the reach of babies, says Emory psychologist Stella Lourenco.

By Carol Clark

Human infants are capable of deductive problem solving as early as 10 months of age, a new study finds. The journal Developmental Science is publishing the research, showing that babies can make transitive inferences about a social hierarchy of dominance.

“We found that within the first year of life, children can engage in this type of logical reasoning, which was previously thought to be beyond their reach until the age of about four or five years,” says Stella Lourenco, the Emory University psychologist who led the study.

The researchers designed a non-verbal experiment using puppet characters. The experiment created scenarios among the puppets to test transitive inference, or the ability to deduce which character should dominate another character, even when the babies had not seen the two characters directly interact with one another. A majority of the babies in the experiment, who were ages 10 to 13 months, showed a pattern consistent with transitive inference.

“Everybody knows that babies learn rapidly, like little sponges that soak in incredible amounts of knowledge,” Lourenco says. “This finding tells us about how humans learn. If you can reason deductively, you can make generalizations without having to experience the world directly. This ability could be a crucial tool for making sense of the social relationships around us, and perhaps complex non-social interactions.”

During the 1960s, developmental psychologist Jean Piaget showed that children could solve transitive inference problems around the age of seven or eight. For example, if you know that Paul is taller than Mary, and that Mary is taller than Jack, then you can infer indirectly that Paul must be taller than Jack. You don’t need to see Paul and Jack standing side-by-side to draw this conclusion.

For years, the prevailing philosophy in cognitive psychology was that children younger than seven were mostly illogical and incapable of transitive inference. Then, during the late 1970s, researchers found that by reducing the complexity of transitive inference problems, children as young as four could solve them.

Lourenco, whose research has shown that babies have numerical reasoning and can understand relationships of magnitude, suspected that infants were also capable of transitive inference.

A screen shot of a video from one of the experiments shows a subject watching the puppets interact.

For the current study, Lourenco teamed up with co-authors Robert Hampton, an Emory psychologist whose lab at Yerkes National Primate Research Center has demonstrated that monkeys can engage in transitive inference, and Regina Paxton Gazes, a former graduate student in the Hampton lab and post-doctoral fellow at Zoo Atlanta. Gazes, who is now on the psychology faculty at Bucknell University, designed the non-verbal experiments for the human infants.

In the first experiment, the babies were shown a video of three puppets arranged in a row. The puppets – an elephant, a bear and a hippopotamus, were similar in size but arranged in a left to right social hierarchy. The elephant is holding a toy, but the bear reaches over and forcibly takes the toy from the elephant. Next, the hippopotamus takes the toy from the bear. These scenarios suggested that the bear is more dominant than the elephant, and the hippo is more dominant than the bear.

Finally, the babies were shown a scenario where the elephant takes the toy from the hippo. This scenario held the gaze of most the babies in the experiment for longer than the other scenarios.

“Dominance by the elephant violates the expected transitive-inference relationship, since the bear took the toy from the elephant and the hippo took the toy from the bear,” Lourenco explains. “The babies look longer and pay greater attention to the scenario that violates the transitive inference as they try to figure out why it is different from what they would have predicted.”

In a second experiment, the researchers introduced a fourth character, a giraffe, that had not yet interacted with the others in the familiarization phase. The giraffe was novel and had not previously displayed dominance behavior. The infants did not pay more attention to scenarios involving the giraffe, whether or not it displayed dominance.

The researchers also conducted control experiments with infants. For the controls, the hippo always displayed dominant behavior and the elephant always displayed subordinate behavior.

The data supported that the majority of the infants who were shown unexpected dominance behaviors, or 23 out of 32, were engaging in transitive inference when they gazed at scenarios of unexpected behavior by the puppets, compared to other scenarios. The researchers hypothesize that transitive inference for social dominance is evolutionarily important, so the mechanisms to support this type of logical reasoning are in place early.

“It’s remarkable that the infants could make these inferences about social dominance with minimal presentation,” Gazes says. “It suggests an early emerging, and perhaps evolutionary ancient ability, that is shared with other animals.”

In addition to exploring important science questions about how the mind develops, the findings could aid in determining whether infants are on track in the learning process. “Since a majority of babies show the ability to engage in this kind of logical problem solving, our paradigm could certainly become an important tool for assessing normative cognitive development,” Lourenco says.

How babies use numbers space and time

Top image: Thinkstockphoto

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Peachtree to Paris: Emory delegation headed to U.N. climate talks

On a recent Saturday, 30 students represented a country, or block of countries, to simulate the U.N. talks. Naomi Maisel, right, made the case for India. "You have to rethink your reality based on all the countries involved and figure out how to make it work," she says. (

By Carol Clark

More than 40,000 people from around the world are expected to descend on Paris, France, from November 30 to December 11, for what many see as the best chance yet for a universal climate agreement. The goal of the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) is to keep global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Everyone from President Obama to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed will be on the ground in Paris for high-stakes conversations about the fate of the planet. Ten Emory undergraduates and two faculty are also joining the historic event with the status of official U.N. observers.

“This is an unprecedented time,” says Taylor McNair, a senior majoring in environmental sciences and business. “People are coming into this conference with a mindset they have never had before. I’m optimistic that there will be some progress coming out of Paris, and that we will see some serious change during the next few years.”

McNair and three other Emory students will actually spend part of COP21 inside the main hall where delegates from 195 countries will negotiate reductions of their greenhouse gas emissions. And all 10 of the students will be gathering information from the milieu of related conferences, demonstrations, exhibits and informal discussions that will be humming around the main COP21 meeting.

The students will post photos and dispatches on a special web site they are creating for the event (, through the Emory Writing Program's Domain of One's Own. And they will use social media to further connect Emory and the Atlanta community to what’s happening in Paris, as it happens. You can follow their conversations on their Twitter handle @EmoryinParis, and via their hash tag: #PeachtreeToParis. Senior Tyler Stern is helping develop the team's social media platforms, which also include Instagram (EmoryParis15) and Snapchat (EmoryInParis).

After four hours of tense negotiations, students participating in simulated U.N. talks were only able to achieve caps on greenhouse gas emissions for a temperature rise of 3.5 degrees Celsius, short of the 2 degrees goal. 

“Climate change is not an issue that is coming in 100 years. It’s happening now,” says Naomi Maisel, a junior majoring in anthropology who will be making the trip. “We want to convey the sentiments of the people that we meet and give Emory students a sense of how the rest of the world is thinking about and dealing with climate change."

The students plan to also bring back lessons for what everyone can do to get involved. They will help organize an Emory “Climate Week” and a series of COP21 related events on campus in the Spring – including art exhibits, panel discussions and special lectures – in conjunction with the Climate@Emory initiative.

Debating the fate of the planet.
“I’m optimistic that some kind of meaningful deal will be reached in Paris,” says Mae Bowen, a senior majoring in environmental sciences and political science, who is headed for COP21. “But once a deal is made, that’s when the real work starts, making that deal come to fruition.”

The Paris trip is the capstone to a Coalition of the Liberal Arts (CoLA) course, aimed at integrating the liberal arts experience across the humanities and sciences. The course, “Paris is an Explanation: Understanding Climate Change at the 2015 United Nations Meeting in France,” was developed and taught by three faculty: Wesley Longhofer, an expert in organization and management at Goizueta Business School; Eri Saikawa, an expert in climate science in the department of environmental sciences and Rollins School of Public Health; and Sheila Tefft, senior lecturer in the Emory Writing Program. Bowen and another undergraduate, Adam Goldstein, also helped develop the course.

Both Longhofer and Saikawa will accompany the students on the trip to Paris.

Throughout the fall, the students are exploring climate change from environmental, business, media and political perspectives. Saikawa led discussions about the complex atmospheric science surrounding emissions. Longhofer organized mock UN negotiations so that the students could better understand perspectives of the various countries involved. Tefft focused on issues of communications and trained the students in journalistic techniques and technology, including podcasting and social media.

The Emory students have a range of research interests that they plan to hone in on as COP21 is underway. Below are brief bios, and a guide to their plans for Paris.
Taylor McNair

BUSINESS: Taylor McNair is a senior from West Port, Connecticut, majoring in business and environmental sciences. “I have a big interest in renewable energy,” he says. “I’ve had some work experience in that field and it’s helped shape what I think will be the defining challenge of the future: How will we switch from cheap fossil fuels and power our lives and economies with renewable energy?”

He notes that major companies like Google and Facebook have already announced they will be moving toward renewable energy sources for their datasets.

“We need more market-based solutions for addressing climate change,” he says. “It’s beginning to make economic sense to make investments in energy efficiency and renewable fuel sources. I think more people are waking up to the fact that this transition can not only be beneficial from an environmental and health aspect, but also from a financial aspect.”

POLICYMAKING: Mae Bowen is a senior majoring in environmental sciences and political science. Bowen, who is from Panama City, Florida, personally experienced the social and ecological impacts of hurricanes and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Even after the beaches near her home were cleaned and declared safe following the spill, tourists did not return for years due to public perceptions and media coverage.
Mae Bowen

“I was fascinated and frustrated by that,” Bowen says. “I’ve been thinking about the best ways to communicate environmental issues ever since.”

Bowen’s other passion is policymaking. She is a member of the Emory International Relations Association – a team of students that travels to universities across the country to participate in simulations of U.N. negotiations, based on real-world situations and research. While these exercises help Bowen see the challenges of policymaking, they have not made her cynical. “The fact that we have people from different countries and cultures coming together to try and solve a global problem like climate change – that’s kind of awesome,” she says. “I’m just so excited to go to COP21 and get to hear the actual deliberations over the issue I care most about.”

The Paris talks may not achieve the goal of reducing emissions to reach the goal of 2 degrees, “but it’s going to take us forward,” Bowen says. “I’m a big picture person. I would rather have a deal that goes part of the way than to have nothing at all. You have to take things one step at a time.”

Savannah Miller
EMORY AND ATLANTA: Savannah Miller, a senior majoring in environmental sciences and creative writing is focused on climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts at the local level. She is currently an intern for the city of Atlanta, working with the team developing a major climate action plan. “Emory was an early supporter of the Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge,” Miller says. “The university has been a leader in sustainability for years and our efforts keep gaining momentum.”

While at the Paris talks, she will be researching how other communities from around the world are implementing adaptive technologies and strategies for increasing energy efficiency. “One of our biggest goals is to bring back information about environmental policies and communicate them in a way that reaches our generation,” Miller says.

In addition to contributing to the Emory group web site for COP21, Miller has developed her own site,, for communicating environmental issues. Her first post looked at the connections between climate change and recent historic flooding in her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.
Naomi Maisel

AGRICULTURE: Naomi Maisel, a junior majoring in anthropology, is researching the impact of climate change on agriculture and food security. “Farmers are starting to see effects faster and more intensely, especially in the developing world,” Maiesel says. “We don’t know if a lot of food systems can withstand more or less rainfall, more or less heat, and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide.”

Maisel contacted a farmer outside of Paris who has agreed to give the students a tour of his farm and explain his experience of climate change.

While growing up in San Diego, Maisel recalls that many discussions about climate change were debates about whether it was happening. “Now, most of the conversations I’m hearing revolve around questions like, how bad is it going to be and what are we doing about it,” she says. “People are finally starting to take it seriously. And they realize that it is not just a science problem. It’s an economic issue, a security issue and a public health issue. Everybody is going to be affected, so everybody needs to be involved.”

Clara Perez, a junior majoring in sociology and sustainability, is focused on how climate change will disproportionately impact lower socio-economic groups.

Caiwei Huang (a junior majoring in interdisciplinary studies and political science) and Siyue Zong (a senior environmental sciences major) both want to follow the crucial negotiations of the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters: The United States and China. (Huang is developing a web site to introduce students to the fundamentals of Chinese politics:

Samuel Budnyk, a junior majoring in comparative literature and music, is especially interested in communicating to the general public and hopes to write a post a day for the Emory Wheel during the talks.

Adam Goldstein and Mark Leone (both seniors majoring in business) will be focused on gathering information about climate finance – the move toward investing in low-carbon and more resilient economies.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lionfish study explores idea of eating an ecological problem

"Some areas where lionfish have taken over reefs show a marked decrease in biodiversity," says Emory fisheries expert Tracy Yandle.

By Carol Clark

The lionfish is a ferocious ocean carnivore with a flamboyant “mane” of venomous spines. This exotic maroon-and-white creature, native to the Indo-Pacific, made its way west through the aquarium trade. During recent years, however, wild lionfish became established in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic. Releases of lionfish and their eggs from aquariums have been blamed for this invasion.

While the long-term impact of the lionfish is unknown, fisheries experts are worried. The lionfish, from the Pterois genus of venomous marine fish, reproduces rapidly and has few natural enemies outside of the Indo-Pacific to keep its population in check. Meanwhile, lionfish are devouring small crustaceans and the young of commercial fish species like snapper and grouper, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

“Some areas where lionfish have taken over reefs show a marked decrease in bio-diversity,” says Tracy Yandle, an associate professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences. Yandle studies issues around the regulation of the fishing industry and the governance of natural resources.

Luckily, the invasive lionfish is not just ecologically “evil.” It is also tasty. Many describe lionfish meat as a mildly flavored, nicely textured white fish, similar to snapper.

Yandle recently received a $300,000 grant from the NMFS to research the opportunities and challenges of creating a market for lionfish as food in the U.S. Virgin Islands, one area where the invader is proliferating. Co-investigators on the grant include Emory post-doctoral associate Jennifer Tookes, Emory environmental sciences lecturer Michael Page and Sherry Larkin from the University of Florida.

About 30 percent of people in the USVI live below the poverty line and food can be expensive in the islands. The fishing industry is also a traditional part of the USVI’s economy, as well as its cultural heritage, so finding ways to control the lionfish population is especially critical.

“The traditional goal of fisheries regulation is to try to avoid overfishing and to preserve a species,” Yandle says. “In the case of the lionfish in the USVI, the lionfish is invasive, so the concept of over-fishing doesn’t really apply.”

Some people in the Caribbean have already acquired a taste for lionfish and are experimenting with ways to prepare the invader. Photo by Scott Crosson.

As part of the project, Emory undergraduates will spend classroom time next spring learning about fisheries management, research methods and the culture of the USVI. They will then travel to the islands to work in the field.

The students will survey seafood consumers at local markets. and the tourists who often patronize restaurants, to help access the social and economic viability of the lionfish as a food fish. A graduate student from the Masters in Development Practice program will spend a summer practicum in the USVI coordinating efforts between this research project and The Nature Conservancy’s reef preservation efforts.

“Lots of great natural science work has already been done on lionfish,” Yandle says. “This is a human project. We want to talk with the local people and understand how they think about lionfish and whether they are interested in fishing and eating them.”

Lionfish have already started popping up as an “eco-chic” option on a few select U.S. coastal restaurant menus, from Miami to Maine, and in parts of the Caribbean.

“There’s the sustainability factor,” Michael Schwartz of Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink in Miami, told Garden and Gun Magazine, “but also just that the meat tastes good. We make a great lionfish sandwich.”

So what’s the catch?

Lionfish, which grow to about 15 inches, are rarely reeled in by hook and line. They are most often taken by more labor-intensive methods, such as a spear or a hand-held net, or as bycatch in trap fisheries.

Then, there are the long, venomous spines jutting out from every lionfish. Special care must be taken during their handling because these spines can cause painful injuries.

The good news is that the flesh of a lionfish is not poisonous.

The bad news: It does not have much flesh compared to other species like grouper. “Lionfish are bony and the yield rate is about 30 percent, which is less meat than some species,” Yandle says. 

The project will analyze whether there are viable ways to deal with these challenges in the local context of the USVI and create a new market for sustainable seafood.

In addition to consumers, the research team will also survey local fishermen. The fishermen will be asked their knowledge of where lionfish are most prevalent in the local waters, and whether those areas overlap with sites known for ciguatera. Ciguatera is a naturally occurring toxin found in Caribbean waters that can accumulate in coral, algae and seaweed, contaminating fish stocks and leading to food-borne illness.

Page, an expert in geo-spatial analysis, will combine the information from the surveys of the fishermen with previous data gathered by scientists to create maps of the safest and best places to harvest lionfish. The local fishermen will be given books of these maps, as well as a kit with tools to assist fishing for lionfish, at the end of the project.

The findings of the study will be shared in local meetings and added to the online lionfish portal of the Gulf and Caribbean Research Institute, so that the public may benefit.

“At the end of the project, we will figure out if there can be a viable market for the lionfish, and if so, we will provide guidance for how the market could be developed,” Yandle says.

The case of the golden crabs: Cracking mysteries of how fishermen stay afloat
Fishing for a living comes with a catch

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Hope your Halloween is a 'real' scream

Janet Leigh belts one out during the famous shower scene in "Psycho."

Ben Guarino writes about the mysteries of screaming for Inverse. Below is an excerpt:

"We scream when we're excited or happy; we scream when we're fearful or in pain; we scream when we are exasperated; we scream when we're charging into battle; we scream during sex. But we rarely stop to wonder what those screams, even the ones that erupt from us, signify or if they can be differentiated. Emory University psychologist Harold Gouzoules thinks in those terms, but despite being probably the world's foremost expert on screaming, he doesn't speak in absolutes. For decades, Gouzoules studied screams in macaques and other nonhuman primates. He's only worked with Homo sapiens for three years and answers to even the most basic research questions remain elusive."

Read Guarino's interview with Gouzoules in Inverse.

Many species scream, but humans are the masters of the craft, notes Alistair Gee in the New Yorker. Gouzoules "speculates that this is because we humans are more sophisticated communicators in general: if our brains can grasp the fifteen or so cases in the Finnish language, high-level screaming ought to be a breeze."

Read the New Yorker story here.

The psychology of screams

Thursday, October 29, 2015

BRAIN Initiative grant to fund study of sensory-motor circuitry

"We hope that our project will lead to an algorithm for basal ganglia and motor control circuits involved in movement control," says Emory neuroscientist Dieter Jaeger. (Emory Photo/Video)

To move or not to move. That is the question the brain grapples with routinely as it receives a stimulus, decides whether to direct the body to respond with an action, then sends the appropriate signals to control the behavior. It is a common and fundamental process, but we know little about how the brain actually does it.

“New technology allows us to monitor brain activity at high spatial and temporal resolution, and do so over long periods of time,” says Dieter Jaeger, a neuroscientist in Emory University’s Department of Biology. “This technology is finally opening the door to address questions related to the circuits involved in coordinating the relationship between neural sensing and physical action.”

Jaeger recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health BRAIN Initiative to explore these questions about neural circuitry. He shares the $1.7 million award with Garrett Stanley, a neuroscientist in the Emory-Georgia Tech Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME). The BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) was launched by President Obama in 2014 as part of a widespread effort to gain fundamental insights for treating a range of brain disorders.

Areas of the brain involved in sensory input and movement include the basal ganglia, the thalamus and the cortex. What’s less clear is how neural activity flows through these areas, connecting a sensation to a decision to make a movement. Debilitating and difficult to treat neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and dystonia are caused by dysfunction of this circuitry.

The Stanley lab specializes in tactile sensing and information processing, while the Jaeger lab is focused on motor and muscle coordination and control.

Image from the cover of the NIH brochure, "The BRAIN Initiative."

For their BRAIN project, Stanley and Jaeger are combining their two areas of expertise and experimenting with a mouse model. Techniques such as genetic voltage sensing will allow them to gain images of cortical electrical activity, with millisecond precision.

“We understand a lot about the biology of the brain,” Jaeger says. “The challenge now is to move beyond biology to algorithm. We hope that our project will lead to an algorithm for basal ganglia and motor cortical circuits involved in movement control.”

Such an algorithm could generate a computer program to simulate activity of the brain. “We could use this computer program to make predictions and run simulations,” Jaeger says. “It would be a great tool to test our understanding and compare against data. It’s important, because without such a tool, many clinical approaches to brain malfunction are groping in the dark.”

“Gaining basic insights into motor circuit function may reveal new possibilities for the treatment of neural diseases, as well as a better understanding of deep brain stimulation treatments already in use,” adds Stanley.

The project grew out of another collaboration between Jaeger and Stanley. They are also co-principal investigators of an NIH-sponsored training grant in computational neuroscience, which targets a new generation of scientists bound together through questions about how the brain computes.

 “Through this interaction, Dieter and I got to know each other better, started to talk more science, and eventually came up with this project,” Stanley says.