In Justin Bieber’s 2010 smash hit ‘U Smile’ he addresses the idea that when “You smile I smile”, obviously deriving his inspiration from recent work by V.S. Ramachandran on the human mirror neuron system. Over 50 years before Justin Bieber’s efforts to bring Ramachandran’s research to the forefront of the media, Dale Carnegie noted in his 1936 masterpiece, How To Win Friends And Influence People, the undeniable positive effects of smiling on the people around you. Carnegie goes on to explain how smiling can actually have a positive affect on the smiler as well. He notes a passage written by the great psychologist William James: More
Why is it wrong to kill babies? Why is it wrong to take advantage of mentally retarded people? To lie with the intention of cheating someone? To steal, especially from poor people? Is it possible that Medieval European society was wrong to burn women suspected of witchcraft? Or did they save mankind from impending doom by doing so? Is it wrong to kick rocks when you’re in a bad mood?
Questions of right and wrong, such as these, have for millenia been answered by religious authorities who refer to the Bible for guidance. While the vast majority of people still turn to Abrahamic religious texts for moral guidance, there are some other options for developing a moral code. Bibles aside, we can use our “natural” sense of what’s right and wrong to guide our actions; a code based on the natural sense would come from empirical studies on what most people consider to be right or wrong. Ignoring the logistics of creating such as code, we should note that the rules in this code would not have any reasoning behind them other than “we should do this because this is what comes naturally.” How does that sound? Pretty stupid.
The other option is to develop a moral code based on some subjective metaphysical ideas, with a heavy backing of empirical facts. “Subjective” means these ideas won’t have an undeniability to them; they are what they are and that’s it. Take as an example the rule such as “we should not kill babies.” There is no objective, scientific reason why we shouldn’t kill babies. Wait!, you say, killing babies is wrong because it harms the proliferation of our species and inflicts pain on the mothers and the babies themselves! But why should we care about the proliferation of our species? About hurting some mother or her baby? While no one will deny that we should care about these, there is nothing scientific that will explain why. Science may give us a neurological reason why we care about species proliferation (it will go something like, “there is a brain region that makes us care about proliferation of our species.”), but why should we be limited to what our brains tend to make us think or do?
Subjective rules like these must therefore be agreed upon with the understanding that they are subject to change. Interestingly, some argue that science can answer moral questions because it can show us what “well-being” is, how we can get it, etc. But the scientific reason why we should care about well-being is nowhere to be found. The result is that we can use science to answer moral questions, but we have to first agree (subjectively) that we want well-being. Science by itself cannot answer moral questions because it shows us what is rather than what ought to be. (Actually, Sam Harris is the only one to argue that science can be an authority on moral issues; his technical faux-pas is an embarrassment to those who advocate “reason” in conduct).
But more on the idea of metaphysically constructed moral codes. What properties should this code have, and how should we go about synthesizing it? Having one fixed/rigid source as an authority for moral guidance is dangerous. Make no mistake: there must be some authority on moral questions, but it must be flexible, and adaptable; it must be able to stand the test of time on the one hand, but to be able to adjust to novel conditions on the other. This sounds a lot like the constitution of the U.S. But even with such a document as The Constitution, which has provided unity and civil progress since the country’s founding, there are some who take its words literally and allow no further interpretation; if it’s not written in the constitution, it can’t be in the law, they argue (see Strict Constructionism versus Judicial Activism). These folks also tend to be rather religious (read: they spend a lot of time listening to stories from the Bible; not to be confused with “spiritual” or of religions other than the Abrahamic ones). So while we must have a moral code, it must be flexible (i.e. change with time) and we must seek a balance between literal and imaginative interpretations, just as we do with the US Constitution.
Why and how is a rigid moral authority dangerous? Our authority must change with time because new developments in our understanding of the world must update how we interact with others. For example, if science finds tomorrow that most animals have a brain part that allows them to feel emotional pain in the same way that humans do, we will have to treat them with more empathy; research on dolphin cognition has recently produced an effort by scientists to have dolphins be considered and treated as nonhuman persons. Furthermore, if we don’t explain why we do certain things, we won’t understand why we do them and therefore won’t know why violating them is bad. This unquestionability aspect of God as moral authority or the Strict Constructionists as law-makers is what makes them particularly dangerous and leads to prejudice and ignorance. Our moral code must therefore be based on empirical research, with every rule being subject to intense scrutiny (think of two-year-olds who keep asking, “but why?”).
But why should we have a moral code in the first place? Perhaps if everyone followed a moral code of some sort, the world would have fewer injustices and atrocities. Getting people to follow a moral code of any kind is a completely different issue.
“We were hardwired to eat and eat—and particularly to eat fatty foods because we didn’t get them often,” says Sharman Russell, author of Hunger: An Unnatural History. So if you’re among the 200 million Americans who have surpassed their target weight, don’t feel so bad. Somewhere in your brain, there is a circuit for food.
While eating is vital to life, it’s a voluntary action. But nature has made eating irresistible. So what is the science behind this irresistibility? Over the course of a year, the average adult male consumes about 900,000 calories, yet his weight doesn’t fluctuate by more than a pound. It takes a lot of effort from your internal systems to keep this balance, and an important substance behind this is a hormone called ghrelin.
Ghrelin, identified in 1999, is produced in the gut in response to meal schedules. Its purpose is to give the empty feeling we know as the need to eat. When ghrelin hits the brain, it affects three specific areas: the hindbrain, the hypothalamus, and the mesolimbic reward center. The hindbrain controls the body’s automatic and unconscious processes. It is responsible for the sensation of hunger. For the purposes of eating and digesting, the hypothalamus governs the rates of metabolism. And at the center of the midbrain lies the mesolimbic reward center, where the feelings of pleasure and satisfaction are processed. This is what motivates us to eat and keep eating.
Of course, other substances in our body govern our appetite as well as ghrelin. Even as ghrelin continues to arouse our appetite, other systems are standing by to slow down the process. The most basic such step occurs in the stomach and intestines. Distension sends a signal to the brain to stop eating. That message is then reinforced by a peptide called cholecystokinin (CCK) and two hormones called PYY and GLP-1. They all send complex chemical messages that literally tell the brain to stop eating. And, in the case that food consumption continues, the body has a last resort appetite-supressing hormone called leptin. Discovered in 1994, leptin affects the hypothalamus where it inhibits a pair of neuropeptides known to stimulate appetite.
So with all these measures in place to stop the body from eating, why do we overeat? Studies have shown that ghrelin hits the mesolimbic reward region very powerfully. It has been shown that this part of obese people’s brains activate very similarly to how the brains of drug addicts activate when exposed to their preferred substance. While the causes of over eating are very obvious, the real question is: how can we control it? Diet and exercise are often the recommendations (and should be followed), but the minds who discovered leptin, ghrelin, and all the other appetite-related peptides and hormones are also looking for ways to harness the power so we can take better control of it on our own.
Hunger: An Unnatural History – Sharman Russell
- Are you aging and senile?
- Do you find yourself frequently forgetting facts and misplacing objects?
- Are you simply dissatisfied with your cognitive strength?
The Posit Science Brain Fitness Program might be right for you!
As we age, our brains age with us, slowly deteriorating over time. For the fast-paced lives we now lead however, having mediocre cognitive abilities just doesn’t cut it. Famed neuroscientist, brain-plasticity connoisseur, and new businessman Michael Merzenich has engineered a series of “brain fitness” activities that are claimed to help individuals keep their minds in tip-top shape.
Merzenich’s Posit Science program is based on neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to reorganize itself. While cortical reorganization is a remarkable asset of the brain to adapt to change, it may also be detrimental when the brain is not utilized to its full potential. Dr. Merzenich asserts that in order to maintain neurological skill throughout adulthood, individuals must continue to train the various cognitive-sensory facets of the mind.
The clinically supported Posit Science program offers a multi-modal, total brain training package composed of both an auditory skill and a visual skill program. This training includes a series of six computer-based programs specifically designed to improve the brain’s auditory-visual processing and perceptive abilities.
Currently, Posit Science is looking to broaden the applicability of its products by venturing into the world of social networking. The company has recently developed and launched a networking site called “Brain Odyssey,” through which individuals can work together to solve mysteries and virtually explore cities throughout the world, all while collaborating on cognitive training tasks.
In addition to offering a mental fitness program, the company website also features several brain games as well as a few “brain tests” as an informal way of testing one’s cognitive prowess, free of charge.
Click here to get your cognitive fitness on today!
A “better brains” collective launches to improve cognition of the masses – Scientific American
Any dog lovers out there? Have you ever wanted to refute someone who claimed “dogs can’t really understand you?” PBS program Dogs Decoded: NOVA asserts the idea that dogs are able to communicate with and understand humans better than any other animal that we know of.
When humans express an emotion, the right and left sides of their face show very different pictures. The right half is more expressive than the left when displaying all emotions, from happiness to anger to guilt. Therefore, humans have developed something called a “natural left gaze.” This means whenever we are presented with a face, we automatically look to our left to view the right side of their face to see a better display of their emotion. Recent studies with dogs have shown that they use this same mechanism when presented with a human’s face. Yet, when presented with a picture of another dog’s face, Fido treats it as if it is a picture of an object and randomly assesses the picture with no determined natural gaze. Dogs are the only animals known to display a natural left gaze when presented with a human face, suggesting that they have evolved to understand our facial expressions. Scientists are becoming more convinced that dogs are able to interpret our emotions better than many people think.
There are a few unique communication tools that only humans possess, such as eye gaze. Humans have almond-shaped eyes with white sclera surrounding the pupil so others are able to follow the direction of one’s gaze. We also use pointing as another communication tool that many other species are not able to utilize or comprehend. Cognitive psychologist Dr. Juliane Kaminski has been performing experiments with both chimps and dogs studying these two communication tactics. When a chimp is presented with two cups upside down and Kaminski points at the cup containing a reinforcer (such as a food treat), the chimp is not able follow her point nor gaze to pick up the correct cup. Instead, Kaminski notes that chimps tend to make a decision before she even points, supporting the idea that they are not wired to comprehend human gestures. Yet Kaminski performs this same task with dogs and they are able to follow to where her finger is pointing and retrieve a reinforcer. Even when presented with only a gaze at the correct cup, dogs are often able to determine which one Kaminski is urging them to choose.
It’s interesting to think that dogs have evolved to advance the way they communicate with the species that has domesticated them.
Dogs Decoded: Nova – PBS special via Netflix
The Global Positioning System (GPS) has revolutionized the way we travel. We are able to “find ourselves” when we get lost and also get directions to anywhere we want to go. However, a recent study suggests that depending too heavily on a GPS can have a negative effect on your brain.
Researchers at McGill University conducted three studies that confirm that there is a link between being an avid GPS user and having difficulty in memory-related tasks. Instead of using spatial-navigation strategies consisting of building cognitive maps to know where you’re going, GPS users may depend on a stimulus-response strategy which determines where to turn based on repetition instead of any external stimulus.
The fMRI images of younger subjects who used the spatial-navigation strategy when compared to older subjects who preferred the stimulus-response strategy when navigating through a virtual maze showed to have increased activity in the hippocampus, the structure in the brain responsible for memory and spatial navigation. Moreover, older adults that preferred spatial-navigation strategies had more gray matter in their hippocampal region than those who preferred the stimulus-response strategy. They also scored higher on standardized cognition tests.
Although these tests do not confirm causality, it is very possible that the lack of hippocampal activity in the brains of GPS users may lead to atrophy of the hippocampus as they age, which puts them at greater risk for diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The researchers do not suggest getting rid of the GPS all together. However, they recommend that although it might be necessary when going to a new place, it wouldn’t hurt to turn your GPS off in a familiar neighborhood. Although building a cognitive map may take some time, it is well worth it.
GPS addict? It may be eroding your brain – Mental Health on MSNBC
Study: GPS Units Cause Memory and Spatial Problems – Daily Tech
Parkinson’s disease is one of the most infamous neurological disorders known to medicine and has afflicted many, including Muhammed Ali and Michael J. Fox. Described by it’s characteristic tremors and shaking, the disease induces loss of control of motor function as a result of neuronal death in dopamine-releasing (dopaminergic) neurons in a midbrain structure called the substantia nigra. In the pathology of Parkinson’s Disease, this localized population of dopaminergic neurons start to die, while other neurons in the substantia nigra and other local dopaminergic neurons remain healthy and functional. This has puzzled researchers extensively, but a recent letter to Nature provides some breakthroughs in understanding what is happening in these degenerative neurons.
Recent research into Parkinson’s suggests that the problems are localized to the mitochondria of the suspect neurons, leading to the conclusion that the disease is related to problems with metabolism. The mitochondria are the machines of cell metabolism and the stage for the Kreb’s Cycle and the Electron Transport Chain (ETC), which are the two major energy producing processes of the cell. The metabolism occurring in the mitochondria produces large amounts of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is used as energy currency in all cells of the body, and also lead to the production of water to be used elsewhere by the cell. Oxidative stress in the water producing portion of the metabolic pathway can lead to the production of oxygen free radicals, which are highly reactive as a result of a single free electron (free radicals have implications in other degenerative disorders and cancer). Scientists now suspect that these free radicals are contributing to the neurodegenerative consequences of Parkinson’s Disease.
In the Nature study, scientists tagged the mitochondria of the Parkinson’s suspect neurons with fluorescent protein that would allow them to observe oxidation states of the cells in rats. They found that Parkinson’s cells were in fact under a high level of oxidative stress and showed stress patterns at regular intervals, concluding that the cells function rhythmically when releasing dopamine. This rhythmic function is associated with ATP driven increases of calcium levels in the neurons, and the study suggests that this rhythmic calcium fluctuation is the instigator of the oxidative stress associated with Parkinson’s disease. In further experimentation, the researchers blocked these calcium influxes with drugs, which led to a decrease in Parkinson’s-like oxidative stress in mouse models of early-onset Parkinson’s disease. These drugs are known to be tolerated by humans well, and provide a legitimate option for medicinal therapy in the disease.
…Well, it’s not exactly Atkins, but the ketogenic (or “keto,” for short) diet is now being prescribed as a treatment for drug-resistant pediatric epilepsy. This low-carb, high-fat diet involves eggs, cheese, yogurt, and cream all to a seemingly unreasonable and unhealthy extent. Patients require supplements to stay healthy and grow, and must drink enough fluids to avoid kidney stones. As crazy as it sounds, it works.
Dr. Elizabeth Thiele, a pediatric neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, has compiled clinical data showing 7 out of 10 patients reducing their seizure count by more than ninety percent on this diet. It appears that the diet has few lingering health effects after it is stopped and does not seem to stunt growth, and doctors have been using it since the early twentieth century. But how does fat prevent the electrical surges in brain activity that constitute epilepsy?
The current theory is that ingesting large amounts of fat forces the body to mimic starvation mode and burn fat for energy rather than carbohydrates. The ketone bodies that result from the breakdown of fats seem to have certain unique properties that help to protect the brain. All kinds of applications for these ketone bodies are being studied, including their ability to promote the slowing of tumor growth, and their potential use for the treatment of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. How the ketone bodies are doing this has yet to be discovered so drug development is limited. Fortunately, the studies demonstrating the effectiveness of the diet in pediatric cases is opening the door for further research funding.
Original article: Epilepsy’s Big, Fat Miracle – The New York Times
Additional reading: The ketogenic diet in childhood epilepsy – where are we now? – Archives of Disease in Childhood
Lets face it, coaching is just a part of our everyday lives. Whether or not we accept the advice or let our alter-egos consume us with pride remains in question, but ultimately learning is the number one goal. A major topic of research at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management since 1990, coaching has withstood the test of time as research continues to be conducted to prove “effective coaching can lead to smoothly functioning organizations, better productivity and potentially more profit.”
However, there is still little understanding as to what kind of interactions can contribute to or detract from coaching’s effectiveness. Ways of coaching can and do vary widely, due to a lack of understanding of the psycho-physiological mechanisms which react to positive or negative stimulus. Internal Research done by the university has since compared varying coaching styles, from the kind and compassionate vs. the rugged and raw. The results can then be used to reveal the psychological methods by which learning can be enhanced or reduced, depending on the style of coaching in question. ”We’re trying to activate the parts of the brain that would lead a person to consider possibilities,” said Richard Boyatzis, distinguished university professor, and professor of organizational behavior, cognitive science and psychology. “We believe that would lead to more learning. By considering these possibilities we facilitate learning.”
Boyatzi believes that coaches attempt to arouse a Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA), which causes positive emotion and arouses neuroendocrine systems that stimulate better cognitive functioning and increased perceptual accuracy and openness in the person being coached, taught or advised. On the flip side, emphasizing negativity through weaknesses and flaws, yields an opposite result. “You would activate the Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA), which causes people to defend themselves, and as a result they close down,” Boyatzis says. “One of the major reasons people work is for the chance to learn and grow. So at every managerial relationship, and every boss-subordinate relationship, people are more willing to use their talents if they feel they have an opportunity to learn and grow.”
Boyatzi demonstrated his ideas, when two academic coaches with contrasting styles were each assigned to a volunteer undergraduate student. Following a series of questions, Boyatzi found that “people respond much better to a coach they find inspiring and who shows compassion for them, rather than one who they perceive to be judging them. Sure enough, we found a trend in the same direction even for the neutral questions. Students tended to activate the areas associated with visioning more with the compassionate coach, even when the topics they were thinking about weren’t so positive,” Jack said (Boyatzi’s assistant).
All and all, everyone has a few weaknesses whether the’yre willing to admit it or not, but often the focus is so much on the bottom line that we worry ourselves into the ground. Rather it is more important to focus on what gets you going in the morning and gets you wanting to work hard and stay late that truly embodies ones character.
Coaching With Compassion Can ‘Light Up’ Human Thoughts – Science Daily
Most of us are probably not strangers to the recent hub-bub in the media regarding the effects of video gaming on the brain. From whinny mothers and senators complaining that graphic video games predispose our youth to violence and damage their minds, to the claims that daily “brain training” video game exercises can improve your overall mental well-being, it can be hard to determine just how video games are actually affecting our brains. While the jury is still out as to whether or not violent video games overload the amygdala or if playing Brain Age everyday on your Nintendo DS can boost your memory and cognitive abilities, several studies produced in the last year or so have made some very interesting discoveries regarding the effects of gaming on the brain. Though many of us may want to hear that playing StarCraft all day will predispose us to being strategic wizards and give us an edge at the next chess match, such is not the case. The actually findings, however, may still surprise you.
When you think of mentally stimulating activity in the realm of video games, you probably wouldn’t think of something like Call of Duty or the Prince of Persia as a game that would really get synaptic efficacy churning. One would probably be more inclined to attribute that to electronic chess, or puzzle games like Tetris or Bejeweled, or even a tactical strategy game like Command and Conquer. According to most independent studies into video gaming, however, it actually has been shown that fast paced, action gaming (and more commonly first person shooter games) just like Call of Duty are the only types of video games that provide any beneficial effects on the brain. That’s right, your annoying roommate and all his obnoxious friends playing Halo at 3 am while you are trying to devise the perfect battle plan in WarCraft are doing something more mentally constructive than you! How exactly though do video games provide any benefit (karma, magic, summoned magical demons!?) and what areas of the brain do they act upon?
By testing the reaction times of groups of patients both with and without extensive video gaming experience, researchers C. Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier seem to have provided evidence that playing video games can substantially boost one’s overall attentional skills. Unlike subjects without any experience playing video games, Green and Bavelier observed that gamers exhibited a much stronger ability to fixate upon specific visual and spatial cues while filtering out superfluous ones. Subjects with gaming experience also displayed much faster reaction times in the spatial localization and object recognition tests that Green and Bavelier administered to them. Even more interesting was that the researchers observed that these attentional abilities were not just specific to the test paradigms themselves, and could be applied to multiple other tests and situations with similarly above average results.
When you consider the circumstances of the kind of video games that these subjects are used to performing under, these results seem to make sense. The action and pace of the games are fast and sporadic, with stimuli randomly popping up all over the place. The gamers are constantly conditioned and trained to respond quickly to certain stimuli, while filtering other unimportant stimuli out (and of course, they are rewarded for proper responses by either advancing further in the game or winning in general). Another important aspect of these games that Bavelier points to is the fact that there is no set of right/wrong answers or a specific learning paradigm in them due to how random the games are. For this reason, and due to the fast pace such gameplay demands, Bavelier and Green also speculate that action video gaming benefits the decision making skills of gamers as well by, again, forcing them to think and react accurately and quickly to specific stimuli while ignoring/rejecting others that would lead to a mistake in the game (a skill that the two have coined as probabilistic interference). This goes strongly against all that admonishment your mother would give you back in the day about rotting your brain away in front of the Super Nintendo. In actuality, you could have been sharpening it!
Enhanced spatial attention and quick decision making are apparently not the only unexpected benefit of video gaming; according to a research team in Toronto, Canada, extensive gaming can also improve hand-eye coordinative tasks and overall visuomotor abilities. Through performing fMRI analysis on several test subject both with extensive gaming experience (or week long game training) and no video game experience while they conducted different visuomotor tasks (navigating a maze with joysticks, pointing in one direction while facing the other, etc.), it was found that those with gaming experience performed leagues better than those without. Even more curious, however, was that it the gamers seemed to perform so much better and quicker than the non-gamers because they utilized a completely different neural network than the non-gamers to process the test data! While non-gamers primarily employed their parietal lobes in the visuomotor tasks, the gamers utilized the prefrontal, premotor, primary sensorimotor and a larger portion of their parietal regions to process and respond to the tasks.
This shift in processing channels, however, did not result from viewing test information differently, or processing it differently in the retina; instead it came through a complete reorganization of the visuomotor pathways in the brain, developing a more efficient and effective pathway! Much like Bavelier and Green, the Canadian research team seems to attribute these changes to the fast pace of action gaming and the high attention to detail that said games demand of the players. Not only must the players translate the movements they desire for their in-game character onto the screen itself (and memorize multiple button patterns to do so), but they must constantly react as quickly and accurately as possible if they want to be able to keep playing. The researchers even joke at one point that with all the training such games offer to the players in speed, precision and accuracy with hand-eye coordinative movements, many of them could be potential candidates for surgeons someday!
Despite the fact that video games may not give us amazing deductive powers by playing puzzle games or promote superhuman prefrontal abilities through strategy gaming, they can help us respond faster and develop different processing pathways for visuomotor tasks (a prospect that could prove to be very beneficial for Alzheimer’s patients who are highly impaired in parietal visuospatial performance). While we know that joystick and button-pad gaming can foster such benefits, it would be interesting to see if any of the new “motion controlled” types of video games could increase the development of such skills by forcing the player to move the controller in the actual direction of movement or action in the game (as pioneered by Nintendo’s Wii and the Playstation’s Move). This would be most interesting to study in Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect console, a system that translates real time motion captured movements into the game itself, so a player can use his/her arms, legs and entire body as the controllers! Could this foster enhanced visuomotor skills as well, or only serve to make you look silly as you prance around in front of the TV screen?
Sources and Related Reading:
Neuroscience News – Gamers Have Advantage in Performing Visuomotor Tasks
Medical News Today – Sharpening Decision-Making Skills Through Action Video Game Play
Nature Neuroscience – Carrot Sticks or Joysticks: Video Games Improve Vision
Cortex – Extensive Video Game Experience Alters Cortical Networks for Complex Visuospatial Transformations
PubMed Central – Effects of Action Video Games on the Spatial Distribution of Visuospatial Attention