Have you ever lost something, yet had the feeling that you knew where it was?
Have you ever studied hours for an exam only to forget most of what you have learned?
I am sure you have had an experience in which you were frustrated by a spotty memory. Memory is an extremely complicated process. In a nutshell, it is the ability to store, connect, and retrieve information over time. The key stages are encoding, storage and retrieval. In the encoding phase, our minds process sensory information and convert it into enduring memories, a process that primarily occurs at the hippocampus. As its name suggest, the storage phase is maintenance of information in memory over time. Finally, retrieval is the process by which information is brought back to the consciousness from storage. There are various types of encoding, various types of memory storage, various retrieval cues, as well as many limitations to our memory process.
I think I’m funny. Some people say I’m funny. But when the moment presents itself where its my time to shine, all lights on me, this ‘one’ is going to be a knee slapper…nope, not so much. The first time I realized I wasn’t funny was in the eleventh grade in my calculus class. My teacher’s name was Mr. Butke and he easily is ranked in my top 3 ‘all-time’ of the math professors I’ve encountered in my lifetime. He had a mustache that covered his mouth and you never knew whether he was smiling, smirking, or grimacing at you. It kept you guessing, I liked that. He also presented stories of how he slayed cobras in Kenyan villages while pursuing a multi-purpose cure for malaria, encephalitis’ of sorts, and maybe AIDS. Bottom line, he was memorable and his stage presence resonated with my classmates and I.
Whereas the fields of psychology, sociology, and anthropology have extensively studied group dynamics and popularity, neuroscience is barely starting to scratch the surface. Although the role of power in social status has been well-investigated, research into popularity has been minimal. However, recent research by Kevin Ochsner of Columbia University is exploring how likability determines social status within a group. Using previously established social groups (specifically student organizations), Ochsner used individual ratings to determine which students were the most liked among each group. Then, using fMRI, Ochsner measured each students’ brain response to pictures of the other students in the group.
Ochsner found that how much the displayed student was liked correlated with the activity of two brain systems: the emotional evaluation and reward system centering on the ventral striatum, amygdala, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the social cognition system, centering on the temporopariatal junction, precuneus, and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. The activity of the former could be explained by the brain recognizing previous pleasure from interactions with those who are likable, and anticipating further rewards. The latter could come from the social awareness required to understand and be cognizant of the complexities of social interactions, and how they could be most advantageous.
Numbers. Those arithmetical values that allow us to analyze and measure our surroundings. Without them, our understanding of the world we live in would be far less interesting. But what may be even more interesting is the way we process those numbers and how closely related that process is to spatial reasoning. The connection between space and numbers, specifically how we materialize values in our heads through mental number lines has been studied over the years, revealing that spatial orientation is incredibly important to this hypothetical number line. One study led by cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene investigated how number magnitude is spatially organized in our minds and introduced the phenomenon of Spatial-Numerical Association of Response Codes, or the SNARC effect for short.
Philosophers since the time of Plato have considered the extent to which we can truly perceive the physical world, or the so called ‘mind independent’ universe. Modern science has given us further insight into the question, through experiments designed to understand the way in which our brain receives and manipulates sensory information. While it has been known for some time that human perception is subject to various priming effects and spatiotemporal biases, psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley have discovered that visual perception is also influenced by something called the ‘continuity field.’
To put it simply, the continuity field is what allows us to view our surrounding environment as a continuous perception. In his recent article in Nature Neuroscience, David Whitney and his colleagues have shown that our perception of the orientation of a certain object in our visual field is actually strongly biased towards the orientation of that object 10 seconds prior. This means that our brain ‘smoothes out’ small changes in the physical world so that we perceive a continuous image. Without the influence of this continuity field, we would be hypersensitive to the smallest changes in our visual field, and presumably have trouble determining which changes in our surroundings would be most relevant to our immediate needs.
Have you ever been interested in someone on a date yet could not figure out if you were truly attracted to them? Well, this is pretty much all up to your medial prefrontal cortex, located near the front of the brain. This area plays a major role in romantic decision-making, and is specifically responsible for judging physical attractiveness within milliseconds of seeing someone’s face. The medial prefrontal cortex helps you know intuitively whether the person in front of you is the one immediately after seeing them.
A study done in Ireland examined how the brain makes initial romantic judgments when participants took part in speed-dating. Before the dates, fMRI was used on half of the participants in order to record their brain activity while looking at pictures of the people they were going to meet. They were told to rank each person on the scale of 1 to 4 based on how much they would want to date them, how attracted they were to them, and how likeable they thought their dates would be. After the participants spent 5 minutes with each other on the speed dates, they filled out a form indicating who they would want to see again. About 63% of the participants were consistent with their initial level of interest based solely on the photographs, and held similar opinions after the date. 10 – 20% of these ended up seeing each other after the “blind” date.
For years, the brain of a child with autism has been a mystery. Doctors and parents wondered about the cause of autism, and it seemed that they would never get those answers. Autism is characterized on a spectrum with various expressions of difficulty with social interaction including difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication. Children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder, the official title of ‘autism’ after the May 2013 publication of the DSM-5) are associated with difficulties with motor coordination, attention, intellectual disabilities, and physical health problems like sleep and gastrointestinal problems. Autism is usually presented by age three and the process of diagnosing autism continues to change, according to the Autism Speaks foundation.
Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of NIMH at the NIH says that “while autism is generally considered a developmental brain disorder, research has not identified a consistent or causative lesion.” The newest reports show that the architecture of the autistic brain is “speckled with patches of abnormal neurons.” In the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, there is evidence that the brain irregularities of children with autism are due to abnormal prenatal development.
For years doctors have been able to detect the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease through scans, lumbar punctures, and genetic testing. While these methods can be painful or expensive, a new blood test has recently been discovered that can easily and accurately predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Doctor Howard J. Federoff of Georgetown University Medical Center conducted a research study in which he took blood samples from hundreds of healthy, elderly men and women over the age of 70. Over the next five years, some of these healthy individuals developed Mild Cognitive Impairment or Alzheimer’s Disease. Federoff then compared their blood samples to the samples of the healthy individuals. He found a group of ten lipids, or fats, that were present in lower amounts in the blood samples of the participants who had developed Alzheimer’s Disease.
We all know that sleep is one of the best ways to restore our body. For example, when we become sick, we just lie in bed and sleep all day; or after a long day bustling between class, the gym, meetings, and extracurricular activities, our body yearns to fall into a deep slumber to restore itself to its peak state. Recently, it was published that the reason sleep is so restorative is because while we sleep, cerebrospinal fluid flows more efficiently through the brain, essentially “clearing” the brain of any metabolic waste products that build up during the day (for more on this, refer to the December 9th blog post). However, just as we all understand that great feeling of satisfaction that comes after the so rarely obtained 8-9 hour sleep cycle (yes, young college-aged adults should ideally be getting 8-9 hours of sleep a night), we also can all relate to the groggy, confused, cognitively impaired state that comes after the all-night cramming and three hours of sleep, and before the double espresso from Starbucks. Until recently, this chronic state of unrest considered normal by college students, shift workers, and truck drivers, wasn’t thought to have any long lasting damage; it was considered common knowledge that catching up on sleep during weekends or vacations made up for the hours of sleep lost during finals week. However, a new study published on March 18th in the Journal of Neuroscience refutes this; the study, out of University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, shows that chronic sleep loss may be much more destructive than previously thought, leading to permanent cell damage and neuronal death.
How many times have you not completed the reading assignment for you systems physiology class because you ran out of time? How many times have you attempted to use speed reading techniques like not subvocalizing, or talking to yourself as you read? A new Boston-based start-up claims to have solved the ‘slow reader’ problem and promises 600 words per minute for all.
One must be skeptical when approaching the front line technologies, as it is easy to be convinced that people have invented what you desire. For instance, when Tony Hawk promotes a brand “hoverboard” technology, Back to the Future fans went berserk. However, Spritz is a bit more open about the actual science behind their product.