The human brain is unique: Our remarkable cognitive capacity has allowed us to invent the wheel, build the pyramids and land on the moon. In fact, scientists sometimes refer to the human brain as the “crowning achievement of evolution.”
But what, exactly, makes our brains so special? Some leading arguments have been that our brains have more neurons and expend more energy than would be expected for our size, and that our cerebral cortex, which is responsible for higher cognition, is disproportionately large—accounting for over 80 percent of our total brain mass.
Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Biomedical Science in Rio de Janeiro, debunked these well-established beliefs in recent years when she discovered a novel way of counting neurons—dissolving brains into a homogenous mixture, or “brain soup.” Using this technique she found the number of neurons relative to brain size to be consistent with other primates, and that the cerebral cortex, the region responsible for higher cognition, only holds around 20 percent of all our brain’s neurons, a similar proportion found in other mammals. In light of these findings, she argues that the human brain is actually just a linearly scaled-up primate brain that grew in size as we started to consume more calories, thanks to the advent of cooked food.
A “robot revolution” will transform the global economy over the next 20 years, cutting the costs of doing business but exacerbating social inequality, as machines take over everything from caring for the elderly to flipping burgers, according to a new study.
As well as robots performing manual jobs, such as hoovering the living room or assembling machine parts, the development of artificial intelligence means computers are increasingly able to “think”, performing analytical tasks once seen as requiring human judgment.
Last month the World Bank published new global poverty estimates. They confirm that the last 25 years represent an auspicious moment in the annals of human progress. A target to cut the rate of extreme poverty in half over this period was achieved seven years ahead of schedule. Preliminary final accounts show a reduction of over 70 percent. A new goal to finish the job by eradicating extreme poverty over the next 15 years has now been endorsed by the UN. To understand how this might be achieved, we must first recognize that the lives of the poor are fundamentally changing: We’re witnessing the end of marginalization thanks to the connections made possible by digital networks.
Designer and architect Neri Oxman is leading the search for ways in which digital fabrication technologies can interact with the biological world. Working at the intersection of computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering and synthetic biology, her lab is pioneering a new age of symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, our products and even our buildings.
Imagine the hottest day you've ever experienced. Now imagine it's six, 10 or 12 degrees hotter. According to climate researcher Alice Bows-Larkin, that's the type of future in store for us if we don't significantly cut our greenhouse gas emissions now. She suggests that it's time we do things differently—a whole system change, in fact—and seriously consider trading economic growth for climate stability.
A team of neuroscientists has found new support for MIT linguist Noam Chomsky's decades-old theory that we possess an "internal grammar" that allows us to comprehend even nonsensical phrases.
"One of the foundational elements of Chomsky's work is that we have a grammar in our head, which underlies our processing of language," explains David Poeppel, the study's senior researcher and a professor in New York University's Department of Psychology. "Our neurophysiological findings support this theory: we make sense of strings of words because our brains combine words into constituents in a hierarchical manner—a process that reflects an 'internal grammar' mechanism."
The research, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, builds on Chomsky's 1957 work, Syntactic Structures (1957). It posited that we can recognize a phrase such as "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" as both nonsensical and grammatically correct because we have an abstract knowledge base that allows us to make such distinctions even though the statistical relations between words are non-existent.
Neuroscientists and psychologists predominantly reject this viewpoint, contending that our comprehension does not result from an internal grammar; rather, it is based on both statistical calculations between words and sound cues to structure. That is, we know from experience how sentences should be properly constructed—a reservoir of information we employ upon hearing words and phrases. Many linguists, in contrast, argue that hierarchical structure building is a central feature of language processing.
In an effort to illuminate this debate, the researchers explored whether and how linguistic units are represented in the brain during speech comprehension.
Global temperatures are set to rise more than one degree above pre-industrial levels according to the UK's Met Office.
Figures from January to September this year are already 1.02C above the average between 1850 and 1900.
If temperatures remain as predicted, 2015 will be the first year to breach this key threshold.
The world would then be half way towards 2C, the gateway to dangerous warming.
The new data is certain to add urgency to political negotiations in Paris later this month aimed at securing a new global climate treaty. Difficult to measure
For researchers, confusion about the true level of temperatures in the 1750s, when the industrial revolution began and fossil fuels became widely used, means that an accurate assessment of the amount the world has warmed since then is very difficult.
To get over this problem, the Met Office use an average of the temperatures recorded between 1850 and 1900, which they argue makes their analysis more accurate.
Their latest temperature information comes from a dataset jointly run by the Met Office and the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.
The HadCRUT database showed that in the first nine months of this year, the global mean temperature had just gone above 1C, hitting 1.02 with a error factor of plus or minus 0.11C.
Scientists say that the one degree mark will be broken in 2015 because of a combination of carbon emissions and the impact of the El Nino weather phenomenon.
"We have seen a strong El Nino develop in the Tropical Pacific this year and that will have had some impact on this year's global temperature," said Stephen Belcher, director of the Met Office Hadley Centre.
A baby girl with aggressive leukaemia has become the first in the world to be treated with designer immune cells that were genetically engineered to wipe out her cancer.
The one-year-old, Layla Richards, was given months to live after conventional treatments failed to eradicate the disease, but she is now cancer free and doing well, a response one doctor described as “almost a miracle”.
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