Have you ever felt tingles in the back of your head or neck while listening to the sound of salmon sizzling on a pan, while watching someone folding clothes, or while getting a haircut? If the answer is yes, then you might experience Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. The truth is, you are not alone. Although exactly how much of the general population experiences ASMR is unclear, a quick search for ASMR on YouTube now turns up more than 1.5 million videos. ASMR is a term used for an experience characterized by a variety of tingling physical sensations triggered by different acoustic, visual, and digital stimuli, from chopping to whispering, from washing to bubbling, etc. The most popular source of stimuli is video. For instance, the trendy Korean phenomenon known as mukbang, in which a vlogger eats surprisingly large quantities of food while chatting with the audience, has an ASMR spin on it: the audible eating sounds like chewing and crunching may evoke certain ASMR sensations in the brains of some viewers.
Stephen Smith, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg, says that only a handful of scientific studies have been done on ASMR since the name itself sounds unscientific. ASMR is considered a perceptual sensory phenomenon rather than a response or a mental disorder, according to Smith.
ASMR is also associated with specific personality traits. In Smith’s study, 290 individuals with ASMR and 290 matched controls completed the Big Five Personality Inventory (BFI; John et al., 1991); participants with ASMR also completed a questionnaire related to their ASMR phenomenology. Results showed that people who experience ASMR demonstrated significantly higher scores on Openness and Neuroticism, and significantly lower levels of Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness compared to matched controls. Hence, if you experience ASMR, you probably tend to be more creative, have a broad range of interests, and are more likely to experience sadness, anxiety, and mood swings. Being low in Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness means that you are more likely to dislike a set schedule, feel exhausted when socializing, and take little interest in others.
Writer: Zijing Sang
Editor: Sophia Hon
The concept of lucid dreaming has been around since the time of the ancient Greeks and even exists as part of enlightenment in Tibetan Buddhism, described as “dream Yoga.” The scientific research regarding dreams and sleep itself is steadily increasing, yet it is somewhat of a new science to many neuroscientists. There are countless articles, videos, and how-to’s on the internet regarding how to start lucid dreaming, yet the true underlying cause of lucid dreaming and what exactly it means is still an area of active research among scientists. Recently, more studies have been conducted and have given more insight as to how consciousness is biologically connected to dreams.
Lucid dreaming is the act of retaining or gaining consciousness while still asleep, usually during the dreaming phase of sleep – Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. While how-to’s and videos show how to lucid sleep, several research papers from Germany’s J.W. Goethe University and Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry have shed light to the various ways how scientists quantify instinctive and intuitive data from participants.
Goethe University has created the Lucidity & Consciousness in Dreams scale (LuCID) where participants who experienced lucid dreaming answered surveys regarding their lucid dreams. Researchers were able to quantify the survey’s data into the LuCID scale and concluded that those who lucid dream had greater control over their thoughts and actions within their dream, had the ability to think logically, and were better at accessing memories from their waking reality.
Max Planck Institute also quantified their data from surveys and concluded that there were varying differences in participant’s states of consciousness. While in lucid dream, participants experienced better “intention enactment” just as Goethe’s study showed that participants had greater control over their thoughts and actions in their dream. Lucid dreamers were not shown to have a better planning ability than while awake. Both of these institutes have shown through their work that dreams and the consciousness are quantifiable to a certain degree, but there are other ways to measure the biological capabilities of the brain while during sleep as opposed to relying on secondhand accounts that are subject to human error.
Various other institutes and universities have been able to use a range of devices like MRI scans and EEGs to eye movement signals. The studies that used EEG and MRI scans showed that lucid dreaming showed an increase activity in the frontal areas of the brain, which are correlated to higher order cognitive functions and an increase in gamma wave activity, brain wave activity that consolidates brain inputs and turns them into memories and such.
While there is a pioneering effort to come to conclusions with the human brain’s consciousness and sleep states, all the research conducted so far is out of reach from obtaining a conclusive answer to how our brain completely functions. That being said, these studies in their own right show that there are correlations that take us one step closer to understanding our consciousness.
Writer: Cindy Wu
Editor: Kawtar Bennani
Money. Fame. Power. These are all things that come to mind when the topic of high intelligence is brought up. It is often thought that possessing high intelligence is advantageous; however, there may also be some negative consequences to such a gift. According to a study by Karpinski et al., possessing high intelligence may lead to the individual having a “hyper body,” or a body that has altered immune and inflammatory responses. To test this, they surveyed 3,715 members of Mensa, whose IQ were 130 or higher. Questions that were asked fell along the lines of reporting their experiences with mood and anxiety disorders, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, as well as physiological diseases such as allergies or autoimmune diseases. The survey data was then compared against the national average for each disorder or disease. They found that the Mensa population had higher rates for all the diseases and that possessing a high IQ makes the chances of having a diagnosis 2 to 4 times more likely. This study explains that these effects may be due to the “overexcitabilities,” or intense behaviors that are psychomotor, sensual, emotional, intellectual, or imaginational, that are correlated with higher intelligence. Perhaps having a higher IQ means one’s entire body is more susceptible to the environment around them, leading to an increase in knowledge but also an increase in the risk factors as well.
Although high intelligence may lead to an increase in risk factors, it may also lead to an increase in life expectancy. Professor Deary and his colleagues at the University of Edinburgh carried out a study that compared the IQ of 11-year olds from 1932 and checked whether the cohort was alive at the age of 76. What they found was interesting: a 15-point IQ advantage led to a 21% greater survival rate. This shows that certain genes may link IQ and longevity, almost contradicting the previous study. More studies would need to be conducted in order to find the true correlation between IQ and health. Ultimately, having a high IQ can be seen as a double-edged sword: you may live a longer life, but you would also be more susceptible to risk factors throughout your life.
Writer: Albert Wang
Editor: Sophia Hon
Without a doubt, we all remember the dark, dreary days of high school: waking up at 6:00 in the morning, sitting on the bed, eyes still half-closed, while your mind drifts in and out of light dreams. After finally mustering enough energy to check your phone, it’s 6:30. Your mind snaps awake once you realize it’s only 15 minutes before the bell rings for the first period of class.
As schools get more competitive, many students end up overloading their classes and extracurricular activities, resulting in shorter sleeping times and poor sleep hygiene. Along with a rigorous schedule, there’s the burdensome amount of anxiety and pressure to succeed. As such, it wouldn’t be very far-fetched to assume that stress and anxiety would be major contributing factors to the increasing rates of anxiety disorders and depression among adolescents. According to census “in 2015, 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 had had at least one major depressive episode in the past year,” and 6.3 million teens experienced some form of anxiety disorder.
Jack S. Peltz, an assistant professor from Daemon College, conducted a recent study that correlates later school start times with improved mental health and reinforces the idea that good sleep hygiene is crucial to the functioning of adolescents during the day time. Data was collected from 197 different adolescents from the ages 14 to 17. The adolescents were separated into two groups, those who started school before 8:30 a.m. and those who started school after 8:30 a.m. Participants were instructed to keep a sleep journal that recorded both the quality and duration of their sleep, and any signs of depression or anxiety experienced during the day. Sleep hygiene was measured through a self-report survey, using the Adolescent Sleep Hygiene Scale which considers nine different factors that can inhibit sleep: “physiological, cognitive, emotional, sleep environment, daytime sleep, substance use, bedtime routine, sleep stability, and bedroom sharing”. Conceivably, students who maintained better sleep hygiene practices showed a lower number of anxiety and depression symptoms. However, this relationship between sleep hygiene and mental health was much stronger in students who started school after 8:30 a.m.
Although many studies, such as the one described above, demonstrate convincing evidence that longer sleeping times and better sleep quality have positive impact on mental illness in adolescents, only 14% of schools in the United States have changed their school starting times to later than 8:30 in the morning. Hopefully, schools will eventually recognize the increasing mental health problems in adolescents, and ultimately change the system to ensure longer sleeping times and to promote mental health.
Writer: Audrey Kim
Editor: Albert Wang
What makes an object beautiful? Is beauty inherent in the object itself or is it because people say the object is beautiful that we assume it is? A new study by Zhang et al. used fMRI to see what exactly goes on in our heads when we think of beauty. Using fMRI technology, they had 19 right-handed college students perform 2 tasks during the scan: they were asked to judge whether a pictograph or bone script character was beautiful or ugly and a baseline task where they were asked to judge the luminance of a square to see if it was high or low. They found that different brain regions became activated when judging beauty in either bone scripts or pictographs. When looking at beautiful judgements, areas of perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and reward processing were activated. Specifically, areas such as the orbitofrontal cortex and motor areas were found to be activated in beautiful judgements for pictographs. Beautiful judgements for bone scripts were activated by the putamen, showing a stronger beautiful experience when looking at the pictographs. For negative images or ugly images, only the visual areas of the brain were activated, which shows less involvement and integration of the stimuli. This demonstrates that the brain is not only selective about the type of stimuli it receives, preferring a pictograph over a bone script, but it also prefers positive and beautiful images over negative and ugly images.
Interestingly, according to this study, these processes seem to work differently in men and women. Using MEG, Cela-Conde et al. found that brain activity for processing beauty is bilateral for women, whereas for men, it is lateralized to the right hemisphere. The images used to test this were unknown paintings by artists in art school as well as more natural pictures depicting various landscapes. While the main activity was done by the parietal lobe, the localization was different for men and women. It has been suggested that this could be due to evolution, so the difference in spatial ability may be determined by the division of labor between hunting and gathering. It would be interesting to see whether these areas are still influenced by everyday life or if they can be localized bilaterally for both men and women. The question to dwell on is this: is it our psychology that activates these brain regions when perceiving something as beautiful or are these brain regions controlling the way we perceive beauty?
Writer: Albert Wang
Editor: Sophia Hon
The ability to picture things in our mind seems so natural, and yet certain people, as researchers have discovered, are unable to. Referred to as “aphantasia,” the condition describes an inability to form mental images. What is currently known about the condition comes mostly from the work of neurologist Adam Zeman.
In 2005, Dr. Zeman at the University of Exeter Medical School performed a minor surgical procedure on a patient referred to as “MX” who thereafter lost his ability to create mental images. Dr. Zeman failed to find any description of such condition in medical literature, so he gave MX a series of examinations. In addition to performing well in problem solving and semantic memory tests, MX could look at faces of famous people and name them; however, if only given their names, he could not be asked to picture their faces. Brain scans revealed that face-recognition regions that would active in normal brains in such a test were not active in MX’s brain.
Dr. Zeman and his colleagues more recently performed another study on several people believed to have the same condition. Their results found similar symptoms between each subject in that they could all perform general knowledge tasks like counting the windows in their house, but could not be asked to picture things like a sunrise. However, in their report, the scientists noted that many of the subjects did not become afflicted with aphantasia from an injury, but had it since birth. As a matter of fact, the condition is believed to affect as much as 2% of the population, but as of now, Dr. Zeman hopes to find more people with it in order to perform a bigger scanning study by comparing their brains with people who can form mental images and find out how common the condition really is.
Firefox co-creator Blake Ross described how it feels to have aphantasia since birth and his surprise at his discovery that other people can visualize things. “I can’t ‘see’ my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago,” he wrote on Facebook. “I thought ‘counting sheep’ was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind.”
Writer: Nathaniel Meshberg
Editor: Kawtar Bennani
Starting at conception, your genes lay out a neural map for the nervous system: your cells multiply and migrate to form the primitive beginnings of your brain. Much of what happens during this time is co-determined by your environment, which in turn is determined by that of the mother. Sometimes, this interplay, or even purely genetic factors, can result in congenital deafness. Upon birth, a baby who can hear nothing has no audio input traveling to the brain. But once out of the womb, neural development keeps going at a rapid pace, and your brain continues to shape itself. For deaf infants, this means it develops without any sound, likely facilitating the encroachment of other functioning areas upon the cortex traditionally reserved for auditory processing.
An interesting question is what this type of plasticity (the ability for the brain to change and adapt) means for language learning in children given cochlear implants. An Ohio State University Research team attempted to tease apart this issue by observing parent interactions with congenitally deaf children using cochlear implants. The parents presented new toys with unique names to the children and the researchers recorded the entire interaction at different angles and with eye trackers to see what strongly draws the child’s attention.
The official results have not yet been revealed, but there is hope that more studies such as this will help reveal why children with cochlear implants, even with implants from a very young age, have language delays and appear to learn language differently. In the video accompanying the study description, parents of one subject describe how narrating daily activities to their son has made a world of difference in their communication, a tip they learned from participating in the experiment. However, it’s possible that this has to with simply exposing the child to more language, or maybe even his developmental stage.
Once the results of this study, and others like it, are published, parents will hopefully be able to bridge the gap between themselves and their deaf children, better understanding the differences between being born with hearing and born without it.
Some peace and quiet might be nice, but too much may actually harm us. Humans are naturally social animals: we build communities, create teams, and all around like to be around others who share similar ideas with us. The aspect of interacting with others, discussing topics, or even criticizing others all are different forms of interaction that happen on a daily basis. What happens then when we are stripped away from all this? Research has shown that being in isolation damages people both neurologically and psychologically. In a study carried out by Dr. Heidbreder in Neuroscience, his team found that breeding rats in isolation caused them to have increased hyperactivity, startle response, and food hoarding behavior. Neurologically, these rats also experienced decreased dopamine and serotonin. Finally, they showed that these rats experienced chronic stress. All of this resulted from living in isolation. Without being able to interact with other rats, these rats grew stressed and were unable to get out of that stressed state. How would this look like in humans? Humans actually have something very similar to this: solitary confinement. At the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, there were a panel of neuroscientists who testified to the fact that isolation has a serious degenerative neurological effects. One of the specialists, Akil, attributed it to the stress hormones essentially “rewiring” the brain. The power of being able to interact with others allows one to get rid of the stress, and being deprived of it causes chronic stress for the individual. Isolation causes a cease in brain activity, as the stimulation of thought and action leads to the firing of more neurons in the brain. Without that, we are left with nothing but a state of stress. There has been a lack of further neurological data to show how and what mechanisms of the brain deteriorate, due to the inhumanity of doing such research. However, we know that human interaction is almost essential. In order to live, we need to interact so we can stimulate our brains to function. If you would like to learn more about this, there’s a great video on the subject of isolation that shows the real life effects of what isolation could do to a person.
~ Albert Wang
Over-used expressions like “on the same page” or “same wavelength” may actually have some physiological truth behind them. When two people are having a conversation or listening to the same story, it makes sense that they’d be using similar parts of their brain, but the question is just how similar this activation is. Drexel and Princeton Universities teamed up recently to further explore this issue using a newer technology, hoping to prove its efficacy.
Using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), a functional brain imaging technique, researchers sought to find out what happens when two people communicate and how to possibly improve face to face communication. In this study, experimental subjects wore an fNIRS headband which measured their neural activity while they engaged in conversation with one another. This in itself is pretty great as other imaging techniques like fMRI that measure blood flow to brain regions require people to lie down in a noisy machine, which is not at all conducive to personal conversation.
During the experiment, subjects listened to a story in their native language while their futuristic headbands measured activity in prefrontal and parietal areas. These regions were targeted because they’re largely responsible for higher order processing involved with relating to others, an important piece of any communicative effort. When they examined the recordings, the researchers saw that brain activity of the listener heavily resembled that of the speaker after a delay. This copy-cat effect, however, was not observed when subjects didn’t understand the communicator, for example when the speaker only communicated in Turkish but the listener was only fluent in English.
With the results from fNIRS, the experimenters found that the fNIRS recordings correlated quite closely with fMRI results of a similar experiment. This is a pretty big deal since it confirms that fNIRS is a legitimate functional imaging technique that could open the door to a brand new wave of experiments involving communication. fNIRS will prove a useful tool in the future, especially to decode the issue of “brain-synching” during conversation.
~ Jackie Rocheleau
Happiness, by definition, is often the feeling of contentment or pleasure in doing something you like. However, the formal definition of happiness and what it truly is may differ. In one study, the Harvard Department of Psychology tried to determine the role of morality in happiness. The participants were given an example of a hypothetical person named “Tom”, who rarely felt sad or lonely. This is because he felt satisfied by stealing from students and reselling the items he stole to buy alcohol. Most of the subjects agreed that Tom is satisfied, but not exactly happy. The way they attributed this was that one has to be good to be happy, and therefore morality plays a role in happiness. This was surprising because Tom was clearly happy with his decisions but was deemed unhappy by people who have never even known this hypothetical character. So what exactly makes us happy?
In another study conducted by Dr. Kringelbach and Dr. Berridge, they researched and found the exact neuroscience behind happiness and pleasure. They started by comparing the correlation between happiness and hedonia (pleasure) and the correlation between happiness and eudaimonia (a life well lived). Through this, they found that most people associated happiness more strongly with hedonia, which explains why Tom might feel happy about his actions. They then identified the hedonic hotspots in the brain, which include centers that produce “neurochemical modulators” and enhance a liking reaction. This pleasure that is experienced would then be translated into a motivational process that would lead to wanting, as it would increase dopamine (the neurochemical for pleasure) in the brain. By enhancing this connection between what makes you happy and the chemicals in your brain, you involuntarily strengthen actions that create pleasure through constant usage. An important note from this study is that “all pleasures seem to involve the same hedonic brain systems, even when linked to anticipation and memory.” This would lead individuals without certain “higher-order pleasures (such as monetary, artistic, musical, altruistic and transcendent pleasures)” to search for other ways to satisfy that biological need.
So how can we search for or create happiness? Dan Gilbert explains in a TED talk that happiness can be synthesized. He brings up the concept of a psychological immune system- a way for you to feel better about the world you live in. This may come in the form of morality, such as when the students from the initial study thought that the hypothetical person, Tom, could only be happy by being moral. It could also be the way Tom finds happiness through immoral actions. Gilbert explains that “the freedom of choice is an enemy to synthetic happiness.” Having a choice in what makes you happy creates a negative effect while being stuck with a choice makes you grow to like what you choose. Once the decision becomes a choice, the indecisiveness may become detrimental to your happiness. In order to be truly happy, you must simply stick to a choice and be happy about it.
If you have time, check out the TED talk below, as it is truly a great watch.
TED talk: What makes you happy?