Monday, October 29, 2007

Fabulous New Computational Job!

Assistant Professor, Neuroscience and Cognitive Science Program -- University of
Maryland at College Park -- Maryland

The Neuroscience and Cognitive Science program (NACS) at the University of Maryland is seeking a new tenure-track faculty member, at the assistant professor level. Computational neuroscientists working in any areas including sensory and motor physiology, analysis of
control systems, and cognitive neuroscience [THIS INCLUDES SPEECH, LANGUAGE, FOLKS] will be considered. The successful candidate will hold a joint appointment in both the NACS
Program and an academic department. The department of tenure will depend on the research interests of the faculty member and may be in Biology, Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Hearing and Speech Sciences, Kinesiology, Linguistics, or Psychology. NACS is a tightly integrated community of scholars focused on aspects of neuroscience and
cognitive science. Many faculty also enjoy highly productive research collaborations with scientists at federal agencies in the Washington DC area such as the NIH. Responsibilities: Candidates will be expected to develop a vigorous extramurally-funded research program. Teaching duties will include a graduate-level course in computational neuroscience, as
well as undergraduate/graduate courses to be determined by the tenure-track department. Duties will also include student advising and administration as determined by the Director of NACS and the department of tenure.Qualifications: An earned doctorate in a discipline relevant to the candidate's field of teaching and research is required. Candidates who
integrate theoretical with experimental research are preferred. We seek candidates with demonstrated teaching and research excellence capable of maintaining an extramurally-funded research program. Details of the NACS program may be found at:
alary: Commensurate with qualifications and experience.Position available: Earliest starting date is the beginning of the fall semester 2008. Applications: For best consideration send, by December 15, 2007, a CV, names and addresses (including e-mails) of three possible references, and statements of both research interests (documenting any previous extramural funding) and teaching interests to NACS Search, Neuroscience and Cognitive Science
Program, 2131 Bio/Psyc Building, University of Maryland, College Park, MD

Interesting new neuroscience journal

There is a new **open access** neuroscience journal:

The people editing this are all terrific -- so the journal should be quite interesting.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More Mirror Neuron Mania

The current issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience has a Research Highlights piece on a new "mirror neuron" paper by Catmur, Walsh, & Hayes (2007, Curr. Biol., 17, 1527-1531). Although I've only read the highlight piece, the paper looks pretty interesting. The authors used TMS to induce motor evoked potentials in the abductor muscles of the hand. When subjects watched a video of a hand with the index finger moving the MEPs were greater in the subjects own index finger, whereas when the video showed movement of the little finger, MEPs were greater in the little finger of the observer. Standard "mirror" effect. Note that an action-based theory of perception would hold that this motor activity in the observer reflects the subject's "understanding" of the observed action by mapping the action onto his or her own motor system.

But there's more: the study authors then trained subjects to move in a manner incongruent with the hand in the video: move little finger when index finger movement is shown and vise versa. After training MEPs were greater in the little finger when index finger movement was observed, and vise versa. So "mirror" effects are easily trained simply by association. Nice result.

Question: does the subject now fail to correctly understand the movement of the hand in the video? If asked, would subjects report that index finger movement had taken place when in fact the pinky moved? Of course not. So this is another demonstration of a dissociation between "mirror neuron" activity and action comprehension. Conclusion: the "mirror system" reflects sensory-motor associations, NOT the neural foundation of action understanding.

Although I don't know what the study authors actually concluded about their experiment, the Nature Reviews Neuroscience piece concluded that, "These findings imply that insufficient social interactions and consequent inadequate sensory experience might affect the development of the mirror neuron system, for example in children with autism" (p. 737). Seriously? That's the logical equivalent of trying to leap across the Grand Canyon from a crumbly ledge. Hmm... I wonder if skull measurements might be able to detect this "mirror neuron" dysfunction in autism.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Post2 by Bill Idsardi: TalkingBrains: Going mobile

Last week TB East dispatched two undercover agents to MIT's "Whither Syntax?" mini-conference, and one of them (codename "Cookie Master") managed to sneak onto the discussion panel. The report back was that things were entirely too cordial, with pleasantries exchanged by both sides.

This week most of TB East heads out to Kansas for MALC The ideal paper this year would seem to be "MEG evidence for the emergence of Siouan grammatical morphemes" but that abstract was inadvertently classified as spam.

Next week TB East meets TB West at SfN

I forget what's next after that, and I can't think of a smart Pete Townshend reference either.

--Bill Idsardi

Post by Bill Idsardi: Music of the Hemispheres

Bill Idsardi (TalkingBrains East) says this:

On Monday's broadcast Bob Edwards interviewed Oliver Sacks (probably a well-known figure to TalkingBrains readers). Sacks has a new book out, Musicophilia, and on the show he speculated that musical rhythm, like language, is species specific and species uniform (also a well-worn concept for TB readers). In the book Sacks cites several of Aniruddh Patel's publications and concludes that language and music arose separately in humans. There's a clip from the interview (it's just under two minutes long):

[I need to figure out how to insert an audio file here -- blogger supports videos of various types but not this audio ... more on that soon. David]

The relevant passage of the new book is on pages 242-244, starting out, "[t]he fact that 'rhythm' ... appears spontaneously in human children, but not in any other primate, forces one to reflect on its phylogenetic origins." Sacks goes on to quote Patel (2006), and they both suggest that "[m]usical rhythm, with its regular pulse ... is very unlike the irregular stressed syllables of speech."

This view of rhythm seems somewhat naïve, both as ethnomusicology (what about polyrhythms?) and as linguistic typology (what about syllable-timed languages like French?, see Grabe and Low 2002). Talking Brains is trying to track some of this down, building on Luo and Poeppel (2007). Stay tuned.

• Grabe E, Low EL. 2002. Acoustic correlates of rhythm class. Laboratory Phonology 7: 515-546. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
• Luo H, Poeppel D. 2007. Phase patterns of neuronal responses reliably discriminate speech in human auditory cortex.
Neuron 54: 1001-10. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2007.06.004
• Patel AD. 2006. Musical rhythm, linguistic rhythm, and human evolution.
Music Perception 24(1): 99-104.
• Patel AD. 2007. Music, Language and the Brain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
• Sacks O. 2007. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Knopf.

Episodes of the Bob Edwards show are available at

Southern California Fire Update

For those of you who don't know where UC Irvine is (home of Talking Brains West), we are on the coast right in the middle of the So. Cal. inferno, between L.A. (~40 miles north) and San Diego (~80 miles south). Some friends and colleagues have been contacting me about the fires, so I thought I would provide an update. The City of Irvine is currently not directly threatened. However, one of the fires is in the foothills of Orange County not too far away. As you can see from the satellite image taken yesterday afternoon , the brunt of the fire storm is to our north and south, but there is still plenty of smoke in the air with ash falling like a light snow dusting. It feels pretty severe here today. I can't imagine what it must be like in some of the more severely affected areas. A current (10/24) message regarding the state of the campus from UCI's chancellor can be found here.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

"Avoid Boring People" - JD Watson

OK, this is not relevant to Talking Brains, but I figure it's a public service announcement ... I just bought a book based on its title.

James Watson just wrote a biography, and I thought the title was really good, in all its ambiguity: Avoid Boring People. As a professor and someone who lectures occasionally, I realize that nothing is worse than boring people. And as a human being, few things are more irritating than having to hang out with boring people. So, Watson's title is pretty good, and it promised to be an interesting read.

Fatal flaw: this book is boring. He bored me, and showed himself as boorish. The book is an endless series of anecdotes about his stations in academia, what a lovely guy he is, how many Radcliffe undergrads he dated, how many people's careers he helped, and so on. This might be riveting, if you're in a circle of people who already know everyone here, but otherwise it's just plain boring. So he committed the cardinal sin of boring me. This is disappointing, because his snarkiness and directness promised to make for some amusing stuff--but I guess he just turns out to be another old fart who needs to recycle old files in his cabinet.

Possibly the most annoying part of the book isn't the boring anecdotes or the boorish remarks on his relationships with women, but the pretentious "remembered lessons" at the end of each chapter. These are supposed to be life lessons that give interesting insights into how to do science and be a big deal, but they end up being comments at the level of "work with a teammate who is your intellectual equal." Gee, thanks, JD. That's real good. Who woulda thunk it. Never occurred to anyone.

So while I love the title and I absolutely agree with its message, in all its ambiguity, this book is really weak.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Ask the Talking Brains

Check out the current issue of Scientific American Mind -- on newsstands now! -- to see an "Ask The Brains" feature co-authored by Greg Hickok and Carol Padden on the topic of whether deaf people talk to themselves in sign language. Short answer: Of course they do! For a slightly longer answer you can view the article itself for the ridiculously low price of only $4.95. Act now and you not only get the Ask The Brains piece, but you will also receive attractive mug shots of Dr. Padden and yours truly. But wait, there's more! The good folks at SciAm will throw in the entire Oct/Nov issue for that low, low price, which includes what looks to be an interesting article by Eric Kandel, among others.

Seriously though, the question of whether deaf people talk to themselves connects with a burgeoning literature on the nature of neural/cognitive representations of "inner sign" vs. "inner speech" which, of course, if typically studied under the guise of linguistic (verbal) working memory. I say "under the guise" because our own view (see Hickok & Poeppel, 2000/2004 & Hickok et al. 2003) is that verbal working memory is not its own encapsulated cognitive system, but instead falls out of the operations of the dorsal-stream auditory-motor integration circuit that we have been promoting for several years now. The relevance of sign language to the question of neural representations of such inner linguistic abilities (whether we call them verbal working memory or sensory-motor integration) should be obvious: it allows us to assess whether the representations involved are tied to specific sensory-motor modalities, or whether they involve more abstract amodal processes. Short answer to this question: a little bit of both. More on this in future blog entries.

Btw, if YOU have a brain/language question you'd like answered, send us an email with the heading "Ask the Talking Brains." If the question is halfway coherent and/or we can think of something halfway coherent to say about it, we'll post your question and our response in a blog entry. :-)


Hickok, G., Buchsbaum, B., Humphries, C., & Muftuler, T. (2003). Auditory-motor interaction revealed by fMRI: Speech, music, and working memory in area Spt. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15, 673-682

Hickok, G. & Poeppel, D. (2000). Towards a functional neuroanatomy of speech perception. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, 131-138

Hickok, G. & Poeppel, D. (2004). Dorsal and ventral streams: A framework for understanding aspects of the functional anatomy of language. Cognition, 92, 67-99.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

It's Job Season

Faculty positions
Tufts Psychology- Linguistics and psycholinguistics
Georgetown Psychology- Cognitive neuroscience of language
UMass Amherst Psychology - Language processing is one area
U Kansas Speech, Language, Hearing - Speech/sciences and disorders
Penn State Psychology - Neuroscience of language is one area

Postdoc positions
Univ of Pittsburgh - LRDC Reading and Language
UC Irvine - Hickok lab for Cognitive Brain Research

Happy hunting!