Archive for November 27, 2012

Nature: Self-organizing Dynamic System

Marvelous Denmark

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Fairness means treating people equitably, without bias. Fairness means treating people equitably, without bias or partiality. It means actively working to set aside self interest or group loyalty when rendering a judgment. In day to day life, fairness manifests itself in simple ways such as taking turns, listening intently, sharing, and not taking advantage of others based on their weaknesses. Impartiality is a key part of fairness. Being impartial doesn’t mean having no biases—rather it means knowing what those biases are, striving to set them aside, and requesting outside perspectives as needed. While inspired by the ideal of justice, fairness is not sameness or always following the letter of the law. Fairness makes room for us to generate solutions and compromises based on reason and circumstance.

We have to go forward beyond reason in order to discover that mind and nature are both simply different movements of one absolute Spirit, a Spirit that manifests itself in its own successive stages of unfoldment and enfoldment. As Hegel would put it, Spirit is not One apart from the Many, but the very process of the One expressing itself in successive unfolding in and through the Many – it is infinite activity expressing itself in and as the Finite process of development itself or evolution. The Absolute is thus both the Alpha and the Omega of development. Evolution does have a direction; Eros as Spirit-in-Action…evolution is not simply the drive toward spirit; it is the drive of Spirit toward Spirit, manifested in a series of increasing wholes and integrations that express increasing degrees of Spirit’s own self-realization or self-actualization. Eros is fully present at each and every stage in the process, as the very process itself. Each stage of development or evolution is thus Spirit’s knowledge of itself through the structures and limitations of that stage. Each stage is therefore a thesis that eventually runs into its own limitations, which triggers a self-transcendence to a new synthesis, which both negates and preserves its predecessor. This dialectic, of course, is Eros, Spirit-in-Action, and the drive of Spirit to unfold itself more fully and unify itself more fully.

Thus, Spirit tries to know itself first through sensation, then perception, then impulse. At this point Spirit is still un-self-conscious…Thus the whole of Nature Schelling refers to as ‘slumbering spirit’. Moreover, nature is not a mere inert and instrumental backdrop for mind. Rather, nature is a ‘self-organizing dynamic system’ that is ‘the objective manifestation of Spirit’- ‘nature as a unified, self-developing super-organism’- but now set developmentally or evolutionarily afloat.

Thus nature is most definitely not a static or deterministic machine; it is ‘God-in-the-making’. All life processes are manifestations of the Divine Life, unfolding in space and time. But it is, says Schelling, Spirit slumbering because Spirit has not yet become self-conscious, the Kosmos has not yet begun to consciously reflect on itself. With the emergence of mind, Spirit becomes self-conscious. Spirit seeks to know itself through symbols, concepts, and reason, and the result is that the universe begins to think about the universe, which produces the world of reason and, in particular, the world of conscious morals. Thus, says Schelling, where nature was objective Spirit, mind is subjective Spirit and it is here that the mind and nature can seem to drift apart, to be totally unrelated, to stare blankly and uncomprehendingly across the subject/object dualism at the alien beings on each side of the divide. These two ‘apparent absolutes’ are synthesized in the third great movement of Spirit, which is the transcendence of both nature and mind and thus their radical synthesis or union ‘in which these two absolutenesses (absolute subjectivity and objectivity) are again one absoluteness’. This is also the identity of subject and object in one timeless act of self-knowledge of Spirit directly knowing itself as Spirit, a direct mystical or contemplative intuition, says Schelling, that is not mediated through any forms, whether those forms be the feelings of objective nature or the thoughts of subjective mind. There is an unmistakable and profound glimpse of the formless and non-dual groundless Ground.

Spirit goes out of itself to produce objective nature, awakens to itself in subjective mind, and then recovers itself in pure Non-dual perception, where subject and object are one pure act of Non-dual awareness that unifies both nature and mind in realized Spirit. Spirit knows itself objectively as nature; knows itself subjectively as mind; and knows itself absolutely as Spirit – the Source, the Summit, and the Eros of the whole sequence. We would also recognize these three large movements as sub-conscious, self-conscious, and super-conscious; or bio-sphere, noo-sphere, and theo-sphere; or pre-personal, personal, and trans-personal. Each stage of ascent builds upon and incorporates its predecessors. What is lost is the narrowness of the predecessor, on its claim to be the Whole. Each stage incorporates its predecessor but negates its partiality.

This is a truly stunning vision, a profound integration of Ego-mind and Eco-nature, of Spirit descending into even the lowest state and ascending back to itself, with Spirit nonetheless fully present at each and every stage as the process of its own self-realization and self-actualization, its own self-unfolding and self-enfolding development, a divine play of Spirit present in every single movement of the Kosmos, yet finding more and more of itself as its own Play proceeds, dancing fully and divine in every gesture of the universe, never really lost and never really found, but present from the start and all along, a wink and a nod from the radiant Abyss.”

Dancing Our Way to Death

Marvelous Denmark

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In our frantically driven, fast-paced, complex lifestyle, we suffer from fatigue, little margin, shallow relationships, fractured families, drifting marriages, painful loneliness, coping addictions, and neglected kids. The guilt and shame associated with pushing hard, passing your spouse like a ship in the night, and not giving your family the attention you know they need is a tough thing to face. Lecturing these highly educated, professional people would not produce positive results. They may have the same basic needs as the rest of us, but the perceived pressure and demands of the high-tech world is like watching busyness on steroids.

So All You Need Is Love. I want to plant the idea in people’s minds even before we started that “all you need is love.” You see, much of being driven, overextended, and always on an insane schedule is rooted in just the opposite of that song title. In fact, there’s a dance that goes by many names all over the world that explains our spiritual and physical exhaustion and emotional fatigue. I call it the Silicon Valley Shuffle because that’s where I live, but this dance is done in various forms from Omaha to Hong Kong. Regardless of the name you choose, there are four steps to this dance that accelerate in rhythm and beat with every measure. See if you can recognize these steps: bigger, better, faster, more.

These four words drive our lives, our schedules, our relationships, and even our souls. They define the American mind-set. The competitive businesses want to do things bigger, better, faster, and in greater quantity than their rivals. The competitive job market prompts us to put in a few more hours and then a few more on top of that, because if we don’t; well, anyone can be replaced. The consumer wants and needs drive us in the same direction. We’re never quite content with the status quo, so we’re constantly looking to acquire whatever is bigger, better, faster, and more. That’s how marketers appeal to us as consumers, and that’s how we survive in this competitive culture as innovators, entrepreneurs, and difference makers. We’re cutting-edge people in a world of opportunity.

Unfortunately, this mind-set spills over into our families too. If our kids are going to be really good at whatever we think they should be good at, then we’ve got to start them early. So we have three-year-olds playing in soccer leagues and sixth graders working with tutors to prepare for the Scholastic Aptitude Tests so they can get into the right college. The opportunities in America are great, but the pressure and demand to take advantage of these opportunities—as many as possible—are overwhelming. We’re constantly feeling pushed to be every – thing, do everything, and have everything; and as a result we live in a continual state of fatigue.

Our attempts to “be it all,” “do it all,” and “have it all” have created a complex world that moves too fast, delivers too little, and demands too much. We don’t actually say we have to be it all, do it all, and have it all, of course. We may not even be conscious that we’re chasing after these things. But our actions certainly reflect that pulsating drive and when we do this dance—intentionally or not—we create a very complex world for ourselves. It’s a world that moves too fast, delivers too little, and demands too much.

Think about that it moves too fast. Haven’t you ever wished the clock would just stop so you could catch up on your work or maybe just catch your breath? Do your days and weeks fly by and leave you in the dust? Have you ever wanted to jump off the merry-go-round of demands and activities but can’t because it won’t stop spinning? Those are very real symptoms that your world is moving too fast.

It delivers too little. Have you ever felt like you’re pouring out more than you’re taking in? That you’re spinning your wheels? That the results of all your efforts are high activity but low relational connectivity? In quiet moments, does life feel disappointing and leaving you pretty unsatisfied? Those are symptoms that your world isn’t delivering on its promises.

It demands too much. How many of us have crossed off everything on our to‑do list? Isn’t there unfinished business at the end of most days? Does your life seem like a cruel marathon—you see the finish line and keep running for it, but someone keeps moving it? Do you have trouble sleeping? Are you often anxious? Do you feel overwhelmed? These are symptoms of living in a world that demands too much—and that will suck the life out of you if you let it.

The impact of highly driven, fast-paced, complex lifestyle ends up with fatigue, little margin, shallow relationships, fractured families, drifting marriages, painful loneliness, coping addictions, neglected kids, and generally hurting people. If you think I’m exaggerating, let me share a not-so-atypical story of a young girl in a highly driven family. Her parents were convinced that education was the key to her success in life. So for four to five hours after school each day, she was required to do extra homework. Beginning in sixth grade, they hired a tutor to spend six hours with her every Saturday to prepare for her Scholastic Aptitude Test and American College Test exams. Their motives were to help their daughter, yet the competitive dance of bigger, better, faster, and more resulted in educational success and relational tragedy. She made perfect scores on both the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the American College Test was awarded a full scholarship at an Ivy League school. Sounds like a great story, right? Wrong. Upon graduation, she changed her address and phone number three times to eliminate any contact with her parents. “Success” did a lot of relational damage. All of their “doing” didn’t translate into “loving”—at least not in her eyes. In small and big ways, our drive for bigger-better-faster-more has taken over our lives.

As a result, our souls have a dis-ease. I don’t mean a disease, as in a physical illness. I mean a dis-ease—a lack of ease, nagging discomfort and a constant underlying stress. This race we’re running in order to get bigger, better, faster, and more is completely destroying our peace. We’re losing our grounding. We don’t know where we are or where we’re going, or even how to go at a reasonable pace. Pretty soon, we realize that our relationships are coming unglued. We work mountains of hours, often for the sake of people we love, but end up with superficial relationships with those very same people because we’ve spent so much time working that we haven’t invested in them. We’ve exchanged real, down-to-earth, quality relationships for money-bought privileges and perks. We’ve squeezed out the necessary time for friendships, marriage, children and even God. There’s little authenticity or depth left just enough to maintain our relationships superficially.

“I’ll do that as soon as” is the classic line of the overcommitted person. We’ll catch up on those relationships when this business deal is done or when we finish this project or when the kids get out of diapers and don’t demand so much attention or when . . . But “when” never happens. Pretty soon, the kids are teenagers or leaving for college, you’ve forgotten how to have an in‑depth conversation with your spouse, and your friends have all found other people to share their interests. Our “someday” thinking never really works out. Someday doesn’t come unless we stop and decide to simplify our lives.

Neural Correlates of Consciousness in Humans

Marvelous Denmark

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The directness and vivid quality of conscious experience belies the complexity of the underlying neural mechanisms, which remain incompletely understood. Recent work has focused on identifying the brain structures and patterns of neural activity within the primate visual system that are correlated with the content of visual consciousness. Functional neuroimaging in humans and electrophysiology in awake monkeys indicate that there are important differences between striate and extrastriate visual cortex in how well neural activity correlates with consciousness. Moreover, recent neuroimaging studies indicate that, in addition to these ventral areas of visual cortex, dorsal prefrontal and parietal areas might contribute to conscious visual experience.

When we are thinking, thoughts flicker in and out of our minds. What does that mean on the level of the brain? Recent research, conducted by researchers at MIT and Boston University, suggests that when thoughts are in our minds, corresponding groups of neurons are oscillating in synchrony in a high frequency range, around 30 or higher, whereas thoughts that are no longer in our minds oscillate at lower frequencies. When several, distinct thoughts are held in mind simultaneously, several oscillating bundles are out of sync with each other.

The normal waken brain has brain activity that fluctuates between 8 and 100 Hz. An alert and active brain will tend to have neural oscillations, roughly, in the 40 Hz range in at least some parts of the brain. These brain waves are also known as gamma waves. Alpha waves—oscillations in the 8 to 12 Hz frequency range—and beta waves—oscillations in the 12 to 30 Hz range—become more prominent when you are inactive, for example, when you are passively watching television brain dead people and coma patients can have oscillations that approach zero. In seizure patients the brain oscillates even faster and more regions of the brain vacillate in the same frequency range. Large areas of brain flickers in synchrony at extremely high frequencies during grand mal seizures.

To find out how neurons oscillate when we think or perform tasks, the research team, led by Earl Miller, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, first identified two groups of neurons in monkeys that encode specific behavioral rules by oscillating in synchrony with each other. The research animals were trained to respond to objects based on either their color or orientation. When the animals switched between the tasks encoded by the rues, the researcher measured brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, where working memory is located. The researchers found that the neurons associated with orientation oscillated in synchrony at higher frequencies when the monkeys were completing the orientation task, whereas the neurons associated with the color took over when the animals switched from thinking about orientation to thinking about color.

The team also found that the brain uses lower-frequency brain waves to inhibit neurons when they are not needed. For example, when the monkeys engaged in the color task, the neuron group corresponding to the orientation task would oscillate at a lower frequency, in the lower alpha range. This would inhibit these neurons sufficiently to enable the monkeys to engage consciously in the color task.

It appears, then, that consciousness associated with working memory, the ability to keep a few pieces of information in mind at a time, correlates with groups of neurons oscillating at a high frequency but out of sync with each other. It’s the brain’s ability to keep bundles of neurons simultaneously oscillating at 40 Hz that determines how much information you can hold in mind at any given time.

The findings, published in the November 2012 issue of Neuron, are consistent with the so-called 40 Hz theory of consciousness. British molecular biologist and neuroscientist Francis Crick, better known for his co-discovery of the structure of DNA, argued that consciousness arises when certain brain regions fire in synchrony in the 40 Hz frequency range. The researchers didn’t locate gamma-range activity in the monkeys during task completion, but this could be because different frequencies are required for consciousness in humans and monkeys.

This 40 Hz theory of consciousness explains some of our findings in the St. Louis Syn Lab. In this lab, scientists worked with several people who developed special abilities as well as obsession as a result of traumatic brain injury. Traumatic brain injury occurs when the brain is injured by an external force. Traumatic brain injury can occur either as a result of blunt force trauma or shock waves from a blast. In both situations, the inside of the accelerated skull comes into contact with one side of the brain, generating a secondary shock wave throughout the soft tissue. If the force is strong enough, it can cause the brain to “bounce” off the other side of the skull, resulting in another shock wave. The waves emanating through the brain twist and pull on the connections between neurons, tearing them apart, causing damage to different areas. Depending on the severity of the shock wave, traumatic brain injury can be very extensive, and multiple traumatic brain injury incidents can have compounding effects. It is a particularly devastating problem for soldiers who repeatedly sustain mortar shell attacks at close to mid range. Many of them report memory coordination problems years later.

Physical force to the head triggers a centralization of brain activity in local areas, causing a concussion. During a concussion the nerve function of several distinct brain regions become paralyzed as a result of the brain bumping into the skull as it shakes inside the head. When this happens, positively charged potassium ions inside the nerve cells rush outside the nerve cells and calcium ions replace them inside the cells. This shuts down the neuron’s internal engine preventing the nerve cells from burning energy sources (primarily glucose) and giving rise to huge uncontrolled release of neurotransmitters, which bombard neighboring neurons. This neuronal bombarding causes the affected neurons to die off, leading to scar tissue, whereas other affected neurons gradually regain normal function.

Though we don’t yet fully know the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury, it is possible that the uncontrolled release of neurotransmitters from dying neurons massively enhances brain activity in neighboring brain regions, giving rise to synchronized brain oscillations in the gamma frequency range, and that the brain activity in these regions remains abnormally high on a more permanent basis.

Visual imagery is far the most common way for the brain to represent the world. So it is unsurprising if brain waves in the high frequency range were to yield visual images corresponding to the hyperactivity. After being beaten up Jason Padgett (The Fractal Maker) experienced visual images of complex mathematical patterns, and Derek Amato (musical genius who never had music lesson in his life) experienced visual images of black and white musical notes after the impact with the pool floor. The visual images appear to make it possible for the two unschooled geniuses to act on excessive brain activity in ways that would not otherwise be possible.

Jason Padgett-The Fractal Maker

Gender Unfairness

Marvelous Denmark

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Although gender bias in the corporate workplace has garnered much attention from the media in recent years, the problem is pervasive throughout many other places. Many women in scientific academia will tell you they have observed or been subject to gender bias. This is particularly tragic, since the body of academic researchers is supposed to consist of those so interested in doing good work, they are willing to forgo larger industry paychecks and work late nights and long weekends from a desk in some tiny university in rural Indiana.

Naysayers often construct several arguments thought to undermine the credibility of what they believe to be anecdotal evidence for gender bias. One argument is that because the push to include more women in scientific research is only recent, there has not been enough time for hardworking academic women to rise to the top and gaining publicity for it. Many believe that we are likely to see the number of female invited speakers increase over the next few years when women have had a little more time to make more breakthroughs. Another argument is that, due to psychological difference that supervene on gender, women are less likely to be assertive and therefore simply don’t make their voices heard loud enough so that all of the men in the room listen up.

However, a new study from the University of California Davis shows that gender bias is much more concrete than often thought. Looking at the gender of academics accepted to conferences, Isbell found that gender might still play a large role in the selection process. Most research on this problem has focused on how women have been represented in academic journals, finding that women tend to be less published than men. One might respond with one of the two arguments above or with an even stronger one: the selection process of most academic journals requires that the person who determines whether the article will make it through the review process is blind to the authorship of the paper. How can there be any gender bias if the reviewer doesn’t know the gender of the author? Many academics report the review process is often not as blind as it’s purported to be. Some really famous authors get published all the time despite the fact that some of their papers are uninteresting, sloppy or both.

Researchers found that women gave significantly more poster presentations than oral talks, while men gave more oral talks than poster presentations. Poster presentations are often considered to be less prestigious than oral talks. Because authors must choose whether to submit an oral talk or poster presentation, this might be a self-selective problem: perhaps women submit more posters while men submit more oral talks. Researchers then looked at symposia, events where the speaker is invited to speak on the topic of their expertise by a panel of other academics. Because symposia involve invitations, the authors ensured that the genders of the invitees were known. Those who are invited to symposia are often the best experts a conference can get, these events are representative of what the panels consider to be authors of the best work. They studied the field of primatology (scientific study of primates; typically having flexible hands and feet with opposable first digits, good eyesight, and, in the higher apes, a highly developed brain: includes lemurs, lorises, monkeys, apes, and man), one that has consisted of mostly women for a very long time, avoiding the objection that women have just not had enough time to publish much yet.

When conference panels were made up of all women, there was no statistical difference between the percentage of female symposia speakers and the percentage of women in the field of primatology overall. In other words, the number of female speakers matched what we would expect them to be given the number of women in primatology. However, when conference panels were mixed in gender, the percentage of female invited speakers dropped slightly, and then the panels consisted completely of men, the percentage of invited speakers dropped dramatically.

The tendency for men to invite other men might be the result of homophily; where men find it easier to conduct business with men due to having similar personalities, it remains a problem nonetheless. Not only does the unfairness of gender bias greatly affect both its victims and perpetrators, it can undermine the quality of work that is produced. How would our understanding of radiation be different if Marie Curie had been rejected at the time merely because she was a woman? If we truly desire the highest quality of research, we work to actively undermine gender biases in order to allow more intelligent individuals to contribute to our growing body of knowledge.

Godsend Help To Paralyzed Patients

Marvelous Denmark

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Locked-in syndrome is a condition in which a patient is consciously aware, yet cannot move most voluntary muscle groups. In some cases, these patients are unable to communicate leading to a poor quality of life. Other potentially less inhibiting conditions such as quadriplegia or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis still leave patients with the inability to enjoy the freedom they once had. Quadriplegia, typically the result of injury to the spinal cord, leaves patients with partial or total loss of control to all four limbs and the torso. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a neuron degenerative disease that causes loss of control and atrophy of voluntary muscles. The disease progresses until the patient can no longer breathe without the use of a ventilator.

Research in prosthesis has led to the development of many devices aimed at improving the quality of life for many individuals that suffer from the above irreversible conditions. The first advanced computerized speech generation software, called Equalizer, was developed by Walter Woltosz for theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking in the mid 80’s. Hawking operates the device through a tedious process of choosing among a rolling list of options by clicking a single button with his hand. The software has allowed Hawking to continue making the contributions to theoretical physics that has made him famous. But many patients are not lucky to have even limited use of their hands. Research has turned to the development of assistive devices that communicate directly with the brain, bypassing faulty or degenerating neural systems.

Regions of the whole brain are constantly buzzing with activity while they do everything from regulating heartbeat to performing abstract mathematical calculations. In order to translate brain activity into movement, assistive devices use an algorithm that “filters” out the parts of the signals necessary to understand intended motor movement. One such algorithm is called the Kalman FILTER, originally developed for spacecraft navigation. The filter is particularly useful to model system states that can only be indirectly observed by the system itself. Kalman Filters are the most promising method of decoding signals for motor movement because they minimize error better than any other type of noise filter.

Currently, the best method of recording brain signals uses and array of electrodes surgically implanted into the brain. Due to the risks involved with experimental brain implantation, much of the research has been done on monkeys trained to complete a specific task in anticipation of a reward. In the case of prosthetic training, monkeys are first trained to move a hand to a specific location indicated on a screen while their neural activity is recorded. Information about the task along with neural activity is integrated to estimate the intentions for movement represented by the neural activity. Although many helpful prosthetic devices use this method, they do a very poor job of replicating natural movement. The reason for this is that very little is understood about exactly how the brain commands muscles to move.

Up until now, the most successful algorithms attempted only to understand the intended velocity of the motor movement (Velocity-Kalman Filter). However, researchers have recently shown that the actual location of the moving object, such as a cursor, is very important in estimating intended action. Vikash Gilja describes a new type of Kalmin Filter called Recalibrated Feedback Intention-Trained Kalman Filter (ReFIT-KF), which uses a two-step training method. Because real-time visual feedback of the moving object’s location is very important for successful natural motor movement, the scientists added this information to the Velocity- Kalman filter algorithm. Before performing the above training task, the monkeys watched cursors that autonomously moved toward a series of targets while their neural signals were recorded. The information from this first training session was thought to represent the location of the cursor as it moved toward the target. The results obtained after integrating the cursor’s actual location are very promising. For Recalibrated Feedback Intention-Trained Kalman Filter, not only was the recorded cursor movements straighter, targets were successfully acquired in half the time as Velocity- Kalman Filter.

The prosthetic benefits provided by intracortical implants are not without risks. Researchers are still evaluating the long-term effects of placing electrodes directly into brain tissue. Even if the devices are shown to be safe, patients still are under risk of common surgical complications such as infection or adverse reactions to anesthesia. As our understanding of brain signaling improves, electroencephalography might provide the information suitable to prosthesis. Electroencephalography uses a series of tiny electrodes that rest on the top of the head to read different patters of brain activity. Currently, while intracortical arrays can be implanted to measure activity deep within the brain, the detail provided by electroencephalography is limited by surface placement of the electrodes. The skull the separates the brain and electroencephalography electrodes causes dispersion of the signals, making them very difficult to decode. But non-invasive methods such as electroencephalography appear to be just around the corner. The U.S. Army recently invested $6.3 million into electroencephalography research with the intent of developing a device for communication through the imagining of words, also known as synthetic telepathy. Gerwin Shalk of the Wadsworth Center found that it is possible to discriminate the vowels and consonants of speech through the use of a modified electroencephalography in which electrodes are placed directly on the surface of the brain.

As we learn more about how different regions of the brain talk to one another, it is likely that scientists will develop algorithms that correct for signal distortion caused by the skull, allowing for the use of non-invasive electroencephalography. Not only could this enhance the functioning of prosthesis, it could make the whole processes a lot smoother for the patient.

Inattentional Blindness

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Inattentional Blindness

Inattentional blindness; phenomena that occurs when one does not notice a stimulus within plain sight. Inattentional blindness has been shown to occur in many different settings. In one study, researchers showed that subjects asked to perform a counting test while watching a video consistently fail to notice a gorilla walking across the screen; try it out on your friends. Other studies have shown that subjects often have trouble noticing changes to a scene even if the change occurs to an object of focus within the previous scene.

A study recruited students, faculty and staff who worked in the University of California Los Angeles Psychology Department, located in a building with six fire extinguishers per floor, with no office located further than 25 feet from the nearest fire extinguisher. Participants were asked to describe the location of the fire extinguisher closest to their offices within the department. Participants were also asked to rate their level of confidence in providing a correct answer. While 39% could give the location of at least one fire extinguisher within the building, only 24% of participants knew the location of the nearest one. Confidence levels were very low across the board. However, 92% of participants could find the nearest fire extinguisher within five seconds of leaving their office.

There is no correlation between years worked in the department and ability to recall fire extinguisher location. It appears that people who potentially had passed the conspicuous red objects literally hundreds of times formed no better memories of the fire extinguishers than those who had many less opportunities to do so. This phenomenon is an example of inattentional blindness, which occurs when a view does not notice a stimulus within plain sight.

This study brings to light an important distinction between seeing an object and noticing an object. While many objects might cross into a subject’s field of vision where it is seen, the same subject may not notice it. In the fire extinguisher study, 22% of participants reported seeing the location before but couldn’t remember the object being there. However, once participants noticed the fire extinguishers, they were able to remember the location later on. Two months later participants were again asked to describe the location of the previously located fire extinguisher. This time, all participants could recall the location of the nearest one.

Other studies on inattentional blindness indicate that merely seeing or hearing something doesn’t enhance memory. Many of the participants who answered correctly reported specific memories of the fire extinguishers due to some event that related to them; having completed a safety course or having viewed them many times. This case is particularly interesting because many other participants managed to avoid having their attention captured by a highly conspicuous object; after all, fire extinguishers are painted red because the color is thought to stick out.

These findings have important implications for how we understand memory, particularly of objects that may be of great importance to us later on. Subjects were very good at finding the fire extinguisher when instructed to search for it, indicating that the devices are conspicuous enough to capture attention in goal-directed action. But finding a fire extinguisher during a fire could be much more difficult. While participants in this task benefitted from clear lines of sight to the fire extinguishers, the ability to find the fire extinguisher could be very different in a smoke-filled room. Individuals therefore may need to recall the location of fire extinguishers from memory in the event of an actual fire. The study indicates that and object’s location can be recalled from memory for at least two months after initial recognition. Further research could focus on the best method of getting the average subject to store object location for longer periods of time.

Why Repeated Medical Testing?

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Medical Testing

Many Medicare patients undergo some kind of repeat medical testing, a new study finds. But it’s unclear whether giving the same test twice protects recipients’ health or just piles on costs to an already overburdened system. There is a substantial amount of retesting says Kevin Hayes, a policy analyst at the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission in Washington, D.C. There are also limited practice guidelines to help physicians understand when it’s a good idea to repeat a test and when it’s not. That depends who is familiar with the study findings. There is retesting for good reasons and there is retesting for bad reasons.

Good reasons for retesting include when test results are botched, tests to check the effectiveness of a treatment and to monitor an ongoing condition. But other factors that lead to possibly unneeded testing are patient demand and fear of being sued for malpractice. The new report was published in the Nov. 19 online edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers looked at testing in a random sample of 5 % of Medicare patients from January 2004 through December 2006. They focused on the tests most often repeated in the 50 largest U.S. cities.

For six common tests, one-third to one-half was repeated during the three-year period. This finding raises the question whether some physicians are routinely repeating diagnostic tests? 55% of patients who underwent a heart test called an echocardiogram had a second such test. In addition, 44 % of those who had an imaging stress test had another within three years.

The pattern continued for 49 % of those who had a lung function test and 46 % of those who had a chest CT scan, 41% of those who had a bladder test called cystoscopy and 35 % of patients who had an endoscopy of their digestive tracts had these exams more than once.

The testings varied by geography. For example, patients in Miami tended to have more echocardiograms, while patients in Portland, Ore., had the fewest. Diagnostic tests are frequently repeated among Medicare beneficiaries. This has important implications not only for the capacity to serve new patients and the ability to contain costs but also for the health of the population. While the tests themselves pose little immediate risk, repeat testing is a major risk factor for incidental detection and over-diagnosis. In an accompanying journal editorial, Dr. Jerome Kassirer at Tufts University and Dr. Arnold Milstein at Stanford University wrote that "it is discouraging to contemplate fresh evidence of our failure to curb waste of health care resources." The editorialists recommend new and better physician guidelines and the end of payment incentives tied to services performed such as tests.

Fitterman agreed. "The 800-pound gorilla in the room is that we live in a fee-for-services world; there are financial incentives to do repeat testing," he said. Part of the answer is to move away from fee-for-service and replace it with practice-redesign using evidence-based guidelines, Fitterman added. He suggested limiting malpractice liability when doctors follow these guidelines. Kassirer and Milstein concluded: "No matter what future payment system is implemented, some intercession in clinical decision making will be required to protect patients from too many tests and from too few tests. We have not come close to getting it right."

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