Scientists watch as mice mouse around an onscreen maze.
- Brain-machine interfaces allow humans—and mice—to interact with onscreen objects.
- Such interfaces may gain wide applications as they become more capable.
- Scientists want to better understand how they work, and are exploring how mice operate them.
Brain-machine interfaces, or BMIs, are fascinating. "Brain machine interfaces are devices that allow a person or animal to control a computer with their mind. In humans, that could be controlling a robotic arm to pick up a cup of water, or moving a cursor on a computer to type a message using the mind," says Kelly Clancy of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour (SWC). She's the co-author of a paper recently published in Neuron.
The potential of BMIs is obvious as tools for people with conditions that deprive them of the use of their limbs. Beyond that, BMIs may one day allow us to control and operate all sorts of devices using only our minds — it's easy to imagine, for example, surgeries performed by doctors interfacing directly with ultra-precise robotic appendages.
While there has already been some success with BMIs, there is a lot that's not yet known about how they work. Researchers at SWC have developed a BMI for mice that lets them track the manner in which it interacts with the mouse's brain as the subject moves an onscreen cursor using only its thoughts. It also gives them a peek into how those brains function.
Credit: Kurashova/Adobe Stock
According to co-author Tom Mrsic-Flogel, also of SWC, "Right now, BMIs tend to be difficult for humans to use and it takes a long time to learn how to control a robotic arm for example. Once we understand the neural circuits supporting how intentional control is learned, which this work is starting to elucidate, we will hopefully be able to make it easier for people to use BMIs."
In addition to understanding BMIs better, their use in research may help scientists unravel at least one mystery of the mind. Working out how objects are represented in the brain has been tricky. When tests subjects interact with objects, scans simultaneously show signals representing that interaction—a motor process—and thoughts about the object. It's hard to tell which is which. The motor signals are removed when interaction with an object is strictly virtual, as when using a BMI.
As mice mouse
Credit: Clancy, et al./Neuron
In the study, BMI were affixed to the skulls of seven female mice who were subsequently trained to use a mouse to move an onscreen cursor to a target location in order to receive a reward. The researchers' aim was to investigate intentionality.
As the mice moused, the researchers used wide field brain imaging to observe their entire dorsal cortexes. This provided an overview of the area that would allow the scientists to see which regions of the brain exhibited activity.
Not surprisingly, visual cortical areas were active. More of a surprise was the involvement of the anteromedial cortex, the rodent equivalent of the human parietal cortex that's associated with intention.
"Researchers have been studying the parietal cortex in humans for a long time," says Clancy. "However, we weren't necessarily expecting this area to pop out in our unbiased screen of the mouse brain. There seems to be something special about parietal cortex as it sits between sensory and motor areas in the brain and may act as a way station between them."
That "station" may enable a continual back-and-forth between the regions. Says the paper, "Thus, animals learning neuroprosthetic control of external objects must engage in continuous self-monitoring to assess the contingency between their neural activity and its outcome, preventing them from executing a habitual or fixed motor pattern, and encouraging animals to learn arbitrary new sensorimotor mappings on the fly."
The parietal cortex is an excellent candidate for this job, say the authors: "Parietal activity has been found to be involved in representing task rules, the value of competing actions, and visually guided real-time motor plan updating, both in humans and non-human primates."
Experts explain how lie detectors work, what happens in the brain when we tell lies and how accurate polygraph tests are.
- In a 2002 study, 60 percent of people were found to lie at least once during a 10-minute conversation, with most people telling an average of two or three lies. The polygraph, invented in the early 1920s, detects physiological responses to lying (such as elevated heart and respiratory rates as well as spikes in blood pressure.
- Three main areas of the brain are stimulated during deception: the frontal lobe, the limbic system, and the temporal lobe.
- According to the American Polygraph Association, the estimated accuracy of a polygraph can be up to 87 percent.
What happens in your brain when you lie?
Image by Shidlovski on Shutterstock
We all lie. Some might argue it's human nature. In a 2002 study, 60 percent of people were found to lie at least once during a 10-minute conversation, with most people telling an average of two or three lies. Some lies are small, some are bigger, some are done out of kindness, and some done out of malice. But a lie is a lie, and the way that your body reacts when you lie is the same.
Lying is an inherently stressful activity.
When you engage in a false narrative (or a lie), your respiratory and heart rate will increase and you may even start to sweat. While people may vary in the ability to tell a lie, most of the time your body will react in this same way. Exceptions to this rule are, for example, psychopaths, who lack empathy and therefore do not exhibit the typical physiological stress responses when telling a lie.
Brain imaging studies have shown what really happens in the brain when you tell a lie.
Lying generally involves more effort than telling the truth, and because of this, it involves the prefrontal cortex. A 2001 study by late neuroscientist Sean Spence (University of Sheffield in England) explored fMRI images of the brain while lying. Participants answered questions about their daily routine by pressing a yes or no button on a screen. Depending on the color of the writing, they were to answer either truthfully or with a lie.
The results showed participants needed more time to formulate a dishonest answer than an honest one, and certain parts of the prefrontal cortex were more active when they were lying.
Further research explains that three main areas of the brain are stimulated during deception - the frontal lobe works to suppress the truth, the limbic system activates due to the anxiety that comes from lying, and the temporal lobe activates in response to retrieving memories and creating mental imagery (fabricating a believable lie).
Research also suggests lying becomes easier the more you do it.
In a 2016 study, Duke psychologist Dan Ariely and his colleagues showed how dishonesty can alter your brain, making it easier to tell lies in the future. When people told lies, the scientists noticed a burst of activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain involved in fear, anxiety, and emotional responses. When the scientists had their subject play a game in which they won money by deceiving their partner, they noticed the negative signals from the amygdala begin to decrease.
"Lying, in fact, desensitized your brain to the fear of getting caught of hurting others, making lying for your own benefit down the road much easier," wrote Jessica Stillman for INC.
How do lie detectors work?
The polygraph will be able to detect if someone is telling the truth 87 percent of the time.
Image by OllivsArt on Shutterstock
In 1921, a California-based police officer and physiologist John A. Larson created an apparatus that simultaneously measures continuous changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration rate to aid in the detection of deception. This was the invention of the polygraph, which is commonly referred to as a lie detector.
Seven years before this, in 1914, an Italian psychologist (Vittorio Benussi) published findings on "the respiratory symptoms of a lie," and in 1915, an American psychologist and lawyer (William M. Marston) invented a blood pressure test for the detection of deception.
The accuracy of polygraph tests has been called into question for nearly as long as they've existed. These machines detect typical stress responses to telling a lie. This means increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate. Some people are naturally good liars, or become better with controlling these stress responses, and can manage to stay calm during a lie detector test.
According to the American Polygraph Association (made up largely of polygraph examiners), the estimated accuracy of a polygraph can be up to 87 percent. That means that in 87 out of 100 cases, the polygraph will be able to detect if someone is telling the truth.
If the person lies but doesn't have the stress symptoms of telling that lie, they will pass the test. Similarly, innocent people may fail the test due to being anxious about taking it to begin with and therefore emitting the elevated heart, respiratory, and blood pressure rates that can be detected.
Examining the differences between anxiety and COVID-19 symptoms and discussing the possibility of IAD (illness anxiety disorder) during a global pandemic.
- Anxiety can cause symptoms that may mimic (or have you worried about) coronavirus symptoms.
- There are several symptoms of anxiety that are also symptoms of COVID-19, however, there are also key differences in the symptoms of both.
- IAD (illness anxiety disorder) may also lead to some confusion about symptoms. The World Health Organization offers guidelines for when to seek medical attention.
It's important to note the differences in symptoms of anxiety and COVID-19, although some may overlap.
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During the coronavirus pandemic, many people may be overwhelmed and experiencing higher levels of anxiety. Anxiety can cause symptoms that may mimic (or have you worried about) coronavirus symptoms.
Additionally, some people may experience illness anxiety disorder (IAD), which is commonly referred to as health anxiety and previously referred to as hypochondria.
Common symptoms of anxiety:
- Chest pain
- Feeling faint/dizzy
- Dry mouth
- Hot flashes and/or sweating
- Fatigue and/or mental exhaustion
- Muscle aches due to tension/stress
- Shortness of breath
Symptoms of COVID-19:
- Fever and/or chills
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle aches
- Loss of taste and/or smell
- Nausea and/or vomiting
The symptoms that could present in both cases include shortness of breath/difficulty breathing, chest pain, nausea/vomiting, head or muscle aches, fatigue, and chills.
When examining the difference between anxiety symptoms and COVID-19, it's important to note the symptoms of COVID-19 that are not present in anxiety attacks.
The difference in symptoms
A person with anxiety may experience heart palpitations, trembling, tingling, or sweating (without a fever). These are all common anxiety symptoms, but not symptoms often associated with COVID-19.
Meanwhile, a person with COVID may experience symptoms that will not be present in anxiety cases, such as a sore throat, loss of taste/smell, a dry cough, and congestion.
It's not uncommon for people to experience symptoms (or assume they are experiencing symptoms) of a virus that has reached the level of a global pandemic. This is why it's important to distinguish the differences in the symptoms you're feeling and the actual symptoms of the COVID-19 virus.
Chest pain, for example, can be felt in both anxiety and coronavirus patients, but there are some key differences in how that chest pain presents. outlines the differences between a panic attack (commonly associated with high anxiety levels) and COVID-19 symptoms. If you're having a panic attack, according to Medical News Today, your chest pain may last anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour and feel like sharp, stabbing pains. This is often accompanied by mental symptoms such as negative thoughts and emotions.
COVID-19 chest pain is slightly different. It will be persistent and feel like more of a pressure than sharp pains. These pains may be accompanied by other flu-like symptoms, such as a cough.
What is illness anxiety disorder (IAD) and how common is it?
What is IAD (illness anxiety disorder) and how does it impact you?
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Illness anxiety disorder is the fear or worry that you are, or may become, seriously ill. You may have no physical symptoms, or you may worry that normal sensations or minor symptoms are signs of severe illness.
How common is illness anxiety disorder (IAD)?
IAD is a relatively new disorder, having only been added to the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) in 2013. It has replaced the now-obsolete "hypochondria disorder."
According to research, among the patients who were previously diagnosed with hypochondriasis, about 25 percent of them will meet the criteria for IAD. Patients with IAD typically remain dissatisfied with negative evaluations from health practitioners and may attempt to consult multiple hospitals or doctors for the same medical problem.
IAD and COVID-19: When should I seek coronavirus testing?
Knowing the difference between anxiety-related symptoms and the general fear and anxiety surrounding COVID-19 and its symptoms can be difficult, so how do you know when you should seek medical attention?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 6 people experience serious symptoms of COVID-19. If a person is struggling with minor symptoms (such as a cough or fever), the WHO suggests they self-isolate and monitor their symptoms carefully. If their symptoms progress or become more serious, they should seek medical attention.
If a person believes they have serious symptoms of COVID-19, they should call their doctor to discuss appropriate next steps and testing for the virus. If you have been cleared from the virus through testing and still seem to be struggling with anxiety caused by the global pandemic, your doctor can offer alternate treatment plans.
Consult the WHO's coronavirus page on their website here.
Estonia has combined a belief in learning with equal-access technology to create one of world's best education systems.
- Estonia became a top performer in the most recent PISA, a worldwide study of 15-year-old students' capabilities in math, reading, and science.
- PISA data showed that Estonia has done remarkably well in reducing the gap between a student's socioeconomic background and their access to quality education.
- The country's push toward providing equal-access to learning technology is a modern example of the culture's dedication to equity in education.
As I performed my interviews for this article, one fact was made abundantly clear: Estonians aren't ones to engage in lavish praise and pat-on-the-back congratulations. A far more self-critical culture, they find comfort forgoing the small talk, getting to work, and honing in on areas to improve. But one area where Estonians will simply have to grit and bare the praise is in discussing their education system. Smaller than West Virginia and with a population of 1.3 million, this Baltic state has developed one of the world's best education systems as assessed by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results.
PISA is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) triennial study that measures the reading, mathematics, and science abilities of 15-year-olds across the world. Talks of PISA tend to focus on educational powerhouses such as Finland, Singapore, and Korea, but those looking closely have been noticing Estonia's ascent throughout the years. It began in 2006, and despite a small dip in 2009, the country's scores continued upward in 2012 and 2015.
By 2018, the most recent PISA study, Estonia became Europe's number one performing country and one of the best in the world. Its students placed fifth in reading, eighth in math, and fourth in science, with mean scores in each that were well above the mean. The only education departments to outperform Estonia's were Singapore and a few of China's distinct economic areas, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Macau.
Such a cohort may make the reason for such scores obvious. Like Singapore and Shanghai, Estonia is both small and relatively affluent; such education departments simply spread out their resources across fewer students. But PISA's data doesn't support this reasoning. While socioeconomic background is an important predictor of academic success, it doesn't play out that more money equals better education. In fact, according to PISA data, Estonia's per student expenditure was 30 percent lower than the OECD average. Conversely, the United States handily outspends many other countries but receives middling PISA scores for its investment.
Then what explains Estonia's ascent? That's an answer that requires untangling a myriad of cultural, social, and historical factors that interconnect in ways difficult to untangle. But one factor stands out. A cultural mindset centered only on excellence in education but the drive to give students equal access to that education.
Estonia's cultural heirloom
A chart showing student performance scores in reading for the 2018 PISA study.
The belief in education's value is ingrained within Estonian culture. As Mailis Reps, the Estonian Minister of Education and Research, told me in an interview, it's an ethos handed down generation to generation, like a cultural heirloom.
"Many generations have had to start from zero all over again. Let it be the war, the regimes, economic reforms, people being deported, people losing their families, or changes to the system," Reps said. "So, education was something that was always given, generation to generation. There's a very strong cultural belief that education is the only thing you cannot take away from a person."
Because education is a constitutional right, Reps informed me, state and local governments ensure that primary education is available to everyone. Lunches, textbooks, transportation, and study materials are provided gratis, with extracurricular activities subsidized so fees remain low. Local municipalities also subsidize pre-primary education. They maintain a social allowance so fees are tied on a parent's financial situation. Parents enduring economic hardships or temporary setbacks can send their little ones to preschool free of charge, while more financial stable families pay a small fee. And even that fee remains small—Reps says it is no more than €91 (about $107).
Under such a comprehensive system, many children start their education careers young, as early as 15 months old. Because pre-primary isn't compulsory, parents have more latitude over how their children attend school: half days, a few days a week, etc. By kindergarten, Estonia has a 91 percent attendance rate. Primary attendance is close to universal.
That system may sound expensive, and like any education system, it takes its share of GDP. But as mentioned, it's not simply a matter of dollars spent. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016 the United States spent $13,600 per full-time-equivalent student in elementary and secondary education. The OECD average that same year was $9,800. Estonia spent $7,400.
"In many countries, the school's socioeconomic context influences the kind of education children are acquiring, and the quality of schooling can shape the socioeconomic contexts of schools," Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's director for the Directorate of Education and Skills, writes in his assessment of PISA 2018's data. "The result is that in most countries, differences in education outcomes related to social inequalities are stubbornly persistent, and too much talent remains latent."
But despite relatively modest spending, that's less true in Estonia. According Schleicher's assessment, 20 percent of disadvantaged boys did not attain minimum proficiency in reading in all countries except three. Estonia was one of those three. It stood as one of 14 countries in which disadvantaged students have at least a one-in-five chance of having high-achieving schoolmates, a ratio that corresponds to reduced social segregation. And the country joined Australia, Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom in having more than 13 percent of its disadvantaged students demonstrate academic resilience, a metric that measures proficient educational outcomes in the face of adversity.
These data point to a weak relationship between student performance and socioeconomic background, a sign that Estonia has lessened the gap between a student's personal situation and their access to quality education.
A Tiger Leap forward
Fourth-grade students learn computer skills in elementary school.
A crucial example of Estonia's dedication to equity can be seen in how it wove digital technology into the learning fabric. In the last two decades, Silicon Valley has had a commanding influence in how we approach and access education, but for many countries, the push toward always-accessible, always-on education hasn't ameliorated many systemic inequalities.
Consider the United States. The U.S. finances schools through local property taxes or federal grants tied to test scores and attendance rates. This leaves schools in well-to-do districts with a lion share of funding and resources. Such lopsided endowments, as noted a 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, "harm students subject to them" and are "fundamentally inconsistent with the American ideal of public education operating as a means to equalize life opportunity." An inconsistency that the Supreme Court has defended as perfectly in keeping with the U.S. Constitution.
This legacy inequality left many low-income neighborhoods facing another disadvantage at the turn of the century: a lack of access to technology. That reality became starkly apparent in the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that as schools closed, "1 in 10 of the poorest children in the U.S. has little or no access to technology" for learning. For children being raised in a household earning less than $25,000 a year, roughly ten percent have no access to the internet or digital learning devices.
Conversely, Estonia has made internet access available to all students. In the late 1990s, after its independence from Russia, Estonia initiated Tiger Leap. The program invested heavily in building and developing infrastructure for the e-revolution. The push moved many social programs online, such as taxes, voting, and health records, and schools were updated for internet access, computer labs, and the then-latest technologies.
Today, Estonia has made digital literacy a key competency required in its educational outcomes. Learning materials, such as textbooks and assessments, must be available for free in a digital format (known as the e-schoolbag). Even schools in remote areas enjoy access to high-speed internet.
That may sound concerning to parents worried that today's technology has reduced learning to the solitude of screens and mental cubicles. But the Estonian government only provides access to the tools and ensures they work. Schools and teachers have broad autonomy in determining when and how to use them. That is, after all, their expertise.
"We have never forced our teachers to use it, but we have celebrated if they do so," Reps said. "This is one of the things that I advocate a lot. Provide them the possibility, build them the infrastructure, the quality needs to be there. Because if you start downloading and it doesn't work, no young person accepts it."
Teachers of young students, for example, may forgo technological solutions in favor of more analog approaches to develop motor and social skills. Meanwhile, secondary education may lean heavier on online assessments to prepare students for a tech-focused workforce.
Unlike Silicon Valley's push into the U.S. education system—a seeming bid to capitalize as much on student's learning time as their free time—Estonia prefers a more Goldilocks strategy. As Gunda Tire, Estonia's PISA National Project Manager, told me in an interview: "If you look at PISA data about education systems that use a lot of technology, if they use it very extensively, they have lower scores. If they don't use it at all, they also have lower scores. The big challenge is to find the balance."
As we've learned during the pandemic, that's a balance that shifts with circumstance, but by distributing the tools and infrastructure broadly, Estonia has been able to keep its footing. Reps estimates that before the COVID-19 shutdowns, approximately 14 percent of schools regularly used the available digital textbooks. Most preferred the physical counterpart.
But because the digital option was available for ever school, they were able to quickly pivot to a 100-percent use rate. Additionally, years of prioritizing computer literacy development helped teachers gain competency in digital learning tools, and a civil social push identified at-need children to equip them with the devices necessary to learn remotely. As Mart Laidmets, Estonia's secretary general of the Ministry of Education and Research, said in a roundtable on the subject, it looked as though the country had "been preparing for such a crisis for 25 years."
What can we learn from Estonia's success?
While Estonia may not spend as much on a dollar-to-dollar basis, the country has created immense valuable in its system by spreading the educational wealth. Part of that achievement stems from removing barriers to primary education and fostering equal-access to learning technology; however, those are simply examples of the principle of equity at work. Others include well-educated teachers, even at the pre-primary level; granting schools broad autonomy to adapt the national curriculum to suit local and cultural needs; and maintaining at-school support centers so students have access to mentors, psychologists, special needs teachers, and anti-bullying resources. The list goes on.
"The success of any system is sort of like a puzzle," Tire said. "You have to have many pieces and fit them in properly, or you won't see the whole picture."
Is there room for improvement? Of course! Just ask any Estonian. Tire told me that recent PISA data showed a discrepancy in the results between the country's Estonian-speaking students and its Russian-speaking ones. They are looking into the reason for that gap and how to raise scores across the board. When asked the same question, Reps pointed to improving the country's vocational-track education, the integration of practical skills into gymnasium, and research into personalized learning.
When asked what other countries could takeaway from Estonia's example, my interviewees were more cautious. As Reps rightly points out, "Education is so culturally and historically tied. It's very difficult to copy something, and I would be careful to tell any country to copy the Estonian model."
She did offer some facets for consideration, though. She recommends that systems never look at a child as a problem to solve. Instead, it should look to ameliorate issues in their background or experiences. Even though education systems can be expensive, they should always be child-friendly and dedicated toward their growth. Digital technology doesn't create equality de facto; it must be accessible to all. And trust your teachers. "They are amazing human beings. They come to teach; they want to give their best; they want to help their pupils."
In my own research into Estonia's education system, its history, and its successes, I would humbly add one more: Foster a culture that values education and assures its available to everyone.
How students apply what they've learned is more important than a letter or number grade.
- Schools are places where learning happens, but how much of what students learn there matters? "Almost all of our learning happens through experience and very little of it actually happens in these kinds of organized, contrived, constrained environments," argues Will Richardson, co-founder of The Big Questions Institute and one of the world's leading edupreneurs.
- There is a shift starting, Richardson says, in terms of how we look at grading and assessments and how they have traditionally dictated students' futures. Consortiums like Mastery.com are pushing back on the idea that what students know can be reflected in numbers and letter grades.
- One of the crucial steps in changing how things are done is first changing the narratives. Students should be assessed on how they can apply what they've learned, not scored based on what they know.