This week's fun papers

From: Anders Sandberg (
Date: Mon Apr 03 2000 - 18:42:43 MDT

* Warming up the brain
* Virtual reality against pain
* Focusing nothing
* Are people thinking less about trees?
* The cognitive science of religion

Localized Brain activation by selective tasks improves specific
cognitive functions in humans
Agnes S. Chan, Mei-Chun Cheung, Yim-Chi Ho, Wu Jing He
Neuroscience Letters 283 (2000) 162-164

Warming up is a good idea when doing a physical act; by priming the
muscles it becomes easier to make an effort. Does the same hold for
the brain? Apparently it does, according to this paper. The authors
tested giving test subjects a visual/memory task or a motor task, and
then tested at a memory or motor task. It turned out that by warming
up the performance was increased for the right kind of task.

Virtual reality as an adjunctive pain control during burn wound care
in adolescent patients
Hunter G. Hoffman, Jason N Doctor, David R Patterson, Gretchen
J. Carrougher, Thomas A. Furness III
Pain 85 (2000) 305-309

Pain can be mentally limited by associative (think about it but remove
the negative valence) and dissociative pain management (think about
something else). This paper describes two cases where virtual reality
was used to help patients with painful wounds. It was found that being
immersed in VR was much more effective at decreasing pain ratings than
playing a computer game; immersion has a dissociative effect that
seems to be quite strong. Not that many pain wards have a Silicon
Graphics Octane MXE standing around - yet.

Focusing Vacuum Fluctuations
L.H. Ford and N.F. Svaiter

The Casimir effect occurs when two conducting plates are placed close
to each other in vacuum. The vacuum energy between them will become
lower than outside, since the plates prevent long wavelength virtual
particles from occurring, and this creates an attractive force. This
paper looks at the effect of a parabolic mirror in vacuum. It turns
out that a similar effect will act to attract an atom to the focus of
the parabola. Nice to see that you can focus nothing.

Evolution and devolution of folkbiological knowledge
Philip Wolff, Douglas L. Medin and Connie Pankratz
Cognition 73 (1999) 177-204

As culture and society changes, the average person's knowledge base
changes. This article tests the hypothesis that general knowledge or
mental use of biological kinds has decreased since the industrial
revolution. The authors do this by examining the quotations from the
16th to the 20th century in the Oxford English Dictionary. They find
a quite strong decline in words referring various kinds of trees
starting in the 19th century, a decline not found in non-biological
categories (there has been a marked increase in book- and furniture
related-terms lately, for example). I'm not entirely convinced this
shows an erosion of knowledge, but it definitely shows we are not
thinking as much about trees as we once did.

Exploring the natural foundations of religion
Justin L. Barrett
Trends in Cognitive Science

A review describing the cognitive approach to religion. It doesn't
deal with the spectacular stuff like trances, meditation or visions,
but rather with the questions about how religious concepts are
acquired, maintained and used to motivate and direct actions. It seems
that god-concepts are not that different from ordinary concepts and
that normal cognition can lead to extraordinary thoughts. For example,
religious concepts are usually minimally counterintuitive - concepts
that are too counterintuitive (break category assumptions) are
simplified to more intuitive concepts, while a certain level of
counterntuition makes them more memorable. One hypothesis that may
underlie many religious ideas is the hyperactive agent-detection
device (HADD): we are predisposed to detect agency (which makes a lot
of evolutionary sense), so we tend to detect intentional agency even
when there is none and this makes us posit agents as explanations when
something happens (lightening strikes - who did that?).

Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!                  
GCS/M/S/O d++ -p+ c++++ !l u+ e++ m++ s+/+ n--- h+/* f+ g+ w++ t+ r+ !y

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