Category Archives: The Brain

Total recall: The people who never forget

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie reports for The Guardian:

Related image[…] She had always had a talent for remembering. She had also always dreaded change. Knowing that after they left New Jersey, nothing could ever be the same, Price tried to commit to memory the world she was being ripped away from. She made lists, took pictures, kept every artefact, every passed note and ticket stub. If this was a conscious effort to train her memory, it worked, perhaps better than she ever imagined.

Jill Price was the first person ever to be diagnosed with what is now known as highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM, a condition she shares with around 60 other known people. She can remember most of the days of her life as clearly as the rest of us remember the recent past, with a mixture of broad strokes and sharp detail. Now 51, Price remembers the day of the week for every date since 1980; she remembers what she was doing, who she was with, where she was on each of these days. She can actively recall a memory of 20 years ago as easily as a memory of two days ago, but her memories are also triggered involuntarily.

It is, she says, like living with a split screen: on the left side is the present, on the right is a constantly rolling reel of memories, each one sparked by the appearance of present-day stimuli. With so many memories always at the ready, Price says, it can be maddening: virtually anything she sees or hears can be a potential trigger.

Before Price, HSAM was a completely unknown condition. So what about the day she sent an email to a Dr James McGaugh at University of California, Irvine? That was 8 June 2000, a Thursday. Price was 34 years and five months old.

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Are We All Becoming Pavlov’s Dogs?

Larry Rosen Ph.D. writes for Psychology Today:

MIT Press[…] I do a lot of people watching and I have noticed that we are now spending more time with our faces staring at our phone than we spend with our faces looking around the world or looking directly at another person.

In a recent study colleagues and I asked 216 undergraduate students to use an app called Instant Quantified Self that tallied the number of times the student unlocked his/her phone during the day and how many minutes it remained unlocked. Strikingly, the average student (and our students are typically older, averaging about 25 years old instead of the usual 20-year-old college student) unlocked his/her phone roughly 60 times a day for about 4 minutes each time. In all, the phone was in use 4 hours! And this does not count time spent on a laptop, tablet, or any other device.

What are they doing on their phones? Mostly accessing social connections including text messaging, reading or posting on social media, dealing with email or any app that involves connecting with another human being.

Pavlov paired food with a bell; we seem to be pairing our human connection with our phone. We may not salivate but our brain is certainly responding to those internal and external alerts.

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The Happiness Industry: How Corporations Are Obsessed With Making Us ‘Happy’

An excerpt of The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being by William Davies recently appeared at Alternet:

Since the World Economic Forum (WEF) was founded in 1971, its annual meeting in Davos has served as a useful indicator of the global economic zeitgeist. These conferences, which last a few days in late January, bring together corporate executives, senior politicians, representatives of NGOs and a sprinkling of concerned celebrities to address the main issues confronting the global economy and the decision-makers tasked with looking after it.

In the 1970s, when the WEF was still known as the ‘European Management Forum’, its main concern was slumping productivity growth in Europe. In the 1980s, it became preoccupied with market deregulation. In the 1990s, innovation and the internet came to the fore, and by the early 2000s, with the global economy humming, it began to admit a range of more ‘social’ concerns, alongside the obvious post-9/11 security anxiety. For the five years after the banking meltdown of 2008, Davos meetings were primarily concerned with how to get the old show back on the road.

At the 2014 meeting, rubbing shoulders with the billionaires, pop stars and presidents was a less likely attendee: a Buddhist monk. Every morning, before the conference proceedings began, delegates had the opportunity to meditate with the monk and learn relaxation techniques. ‘You are not the slave of your thoughts’, the man in red and yellow robes, clutching an iPad, informed his audience. ‘One way is to just gaze at them . . . like a shepherd sitting above a meadow watching the sheep’. A few hundred thoughts of stock portfolios and illicit gifts for secretaries back home most likely meandered their way across the mental pastures of his audience.

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Poverty’s most insidious damage is to a child’s brain

Science Daily reports:

An alarming 22 percent of U.S. children live in poverty, which can have long-lasting negative consequences on brain development, emotional health and academic achievement. A new study, published July 20 in JAMA Pediatrics, provides even more compelling evidence that growing up in poverty has detrimental effects on the brain.

In an accompanying editorial, child psychiatrist Joan L. Luby, MD, at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, writes that “early childhood interventions to support a nurturing environment for these children must now become our top public health priority for the good of all.”

In her own research in young children living in poverty, Luby and her colleagues have identified changes in the brain’s architecture that can lead to lifelong problems with depression, learning difficulties and limitations in the ability to cope with stress.’

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DARPA Working on Computer Vision

Sputnik reports:

DARPA cortical modem augmented realityThe United States military’s research and development agency is designing a brain interface to inject images directly into the human visual cortex via a “cortical modem” chip implanted in the brain. Think: Terminator vision.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced the project at the Biology Is Technology conference in Silicon Valley last week.

DARPA, which h+ Magazine described as a “friendly, but somewhat crazy, rich uncle,” wants to build a device that could display images over a user’s natural vision without the need for glasses or similar technology.’

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Why Animals Eat Psychoactive Plants

Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, recently published an excerpt from his book at Boing Boing:

‘The United Nations says the drug war’s rationale is to build “a drug-free world — we can do it!” U.S. government officials agree, stressing that “there is no such thing as recreational drug use.” So this isn’t a war to stop addiction, like that in my family, or teenage drug use. It is a war to stop drug use among all humans, everywhere. All these prohibited chemicals need to be rounded up and removed from the earth. That is what we are fighting for.

I began to see this goal differently after I learned the story of the drunk elephants, the stoned water buffalo, and the grieving mongoose. They were all taught to me by a remarkable scientist in Los Angeles named Professor Ronald K. Siegel.’

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Why We Need to Abolish Competition and Embrace Arguments: Interview with Margaret Heffernan

Abby Martin interviews Margaret Heffernan, author of ‘Willful Blindness’ and ‘A Bigger Prize’, about the destructive impact of competition and alternative models of incentivizing people to work together for the greater good.’ (Breaking the Set)

Why the modern world is bad for your brain

Daniel J. Levitin has an excerpt from his latest book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, featured in The Guardian: 

Daniel J Levitan‘Our brains are busier than ever before. We’re assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumour, all posing as information. Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting. At the same time, we are all doing more. Thirty years ago, travel agents made our airline and rail reservations, salespeople helped us find what we were looking for in shops, and professional typists or secretaries helped busy people with their correspondence. Now we do most of those things ourselves. We are doing the jobs of 10 different people while still trying to keep up with our lives, our children and parents, our friends, our careers, our hobbies, and our favourite TV shows.

Our smartphones have become Swiss army knife–like appliances that include a dictionary, calculator, web browser, email, Game Boy, appointment calendar, voice recorder, guitar tuner, weather forecaster, GPS, texter, tweeter, Facebook updater, and flashlight. They’re more powerful and do more things than the most advanced computer at IBM corporate headquarters 30 years ago. And we use them all the time, part of a 21st-century mania for cramming everything we do into every single spare moment of downtime. We text while we’re walking across the street, catch up on email while standing in a queue – and while having lunch with friends, we surreptitiously check to see what our other friends are doing. At the kitchen counter, cosy and secure in our domicile, we write our shopping lists on smartphones while we are listening to that wonderfully informative podcast on urban beekeeping.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this is a powerful and diabolical illusion. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world experts on divided attention, says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” So we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute. Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient.’

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Why reading paper books is better for your mind

Naomi S. Baron writes for The Washington Post:

‘[…] Over 92 percent of those I surveyed said they concentrate best when reading a hard copy. The explanation is hardly rocket science. When a digital device has an Internet connection, it’s hard to resist the temptation to jump ship: I’ll just respond to that text I heard come in, check the headlines, order those boots that are on sale.

Readers are human. If you dangle distractions in front of us (or if we know they are just a click or swipe away), it’s hard not to take the bait.’

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Noam Chomsky: The Other Side of Technology

Algal virus found in humans, slows brain activity

Algal viruses attach, enter, and infect green alga (seen in series here).‘The virus, called ATCV-1, showed up in human brain tissue several years ago, but at the time researchers could not be sure whether it had entered the tissue before or after the people died. Then, it showed up again in a survey of microbes and viruses in the throats of people with psychiatric disease. Pediatric infectious disease expert Robert Yolken from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, and his colleagues were trying to see if pathogens play a role in these conditions. At first, they didn’t know what ATCV-1 was, but a database search revealed its identity as a virus that typically infects a species of green algae found in lakes and rivers.’

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‘Soccer moms’ to sue FIFA over concussion risk to children playing football

Ian Johnston reports for The Independent:

‘A group of American families is suing football’s governing body Fifa for putting children who head the ball at risk of concussion, according to a report. The lawsuit, filed in California, accuses the sport’s administrators of acting “carelessly and negligently”.

It is not seeking financial compensation, but wants to see a limit on the number of times young players are allowed to head the ball among a number of other rules designed to protect children, according to The Daily Telegraph. Ben Pepper, a personal injury lawyer at Bolt Burdon Kemp, said the case might prompt people in the UK to consider legal action.’

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Even the Gorillas and Bears in Our Zoos Are Hooked on Prozac

Laurel Braitman, author of Animal Madness, featured excerpts from her book in Wired:

Excerpted from Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves‘One of the first nonhumans to be given psychopharmaceuticals as a patient (and not as a test subject) was a western lowland gorilla named Willie B., who was famous in Atlanta, Georgia. He was captured in Congo as an infant in the 1960s and sent to Zoo Atlanta, where he lived for 39 years, 27 of them alone in an indoor cage with a tire swing and a television. According to Mel Richardson, who was working as a veterinarian at Zoo Atlanta at the time, Willie broke a glass window in his enclosure in the winter of 1970–71 and had to be transferred to a much smaller cage for six months while the glass was replaced with heavy metal bars.

“He weighed around 400 pounds, and the cage was way too small for him,” said Mel. “If he stood up and stretched each arm all the way out he could almost touch both sides of the cage at once.” The vet staff decided to medicate him so that the six months would be more bearable. They put Thorazine in the Coca-Cola he drank in the morning. According to Mel, Willie responded to the drug as many institutionalized humans do: He shuffled back and forth across his cage with dulled eyes. “It was a little like watching the men in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Mel said.

Dolphins, whales, sea lions, walruses, and other marine creatures in parks like SeaWorld have also been given psychotropic drugs for what their vets see as depression, anxiety, compulsive regurgitation, flank sucking, or other distressing behaviors. Two marine mammal veterinarians who have spent decades on staff or consulting for American animal-display facilities and the military’s marine mammal program told me that antidepressants and antipsychotics are commonly used but that “no one was going to talk to [me] about it.” Even they wouldn’t speak about the subject on the record.’

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Could your brain be reprogrammed to work better?

Science Daily reports:

‘Researchers from The University of Western Australia have shown that electromagnetic stimulation can alter brain organisation, which may make your brain work better.

In results from a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from The University of Western Australia and the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in France demonstrated that weak sequential electromagnetic pulses (repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation — or rTMS) on mice can shift abnormal neural connections to more normal locations.

The discovery has important implications for treatment of many nervous system disorders related to abnormal brain organisation such as depression, epilepsy and tinnitus.’

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Study shows link between TV and children’s learning and development

Heather Spangler reports for Iowa Now:

two children playing in front of a television screenParents, turn off the television when your children are with you. And when you do let them watch, make sure the programs stimulate their interest in learning.

That’s the advice arising from University of Iowa researchers who examined the impact of television and parenting on children’s social and emotional development. The researchers found that background television—when the TV is on in a room where a child is doing something other than watching—can divert a child’s attention from play and learning. It also found that noneducational programs can negatively affect children’s cognitive development.’

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Lithium-water test in suicide study

From the Press Association:

‘Adding lithium to drinking water supplies could help to reduce suicide rates, according to a team of psychiatrists. Naturally-occurring levels of the chemical are to be measured in supplies in Scotland and compared with suicide rates in the population it serves. It follows similar studies in the US and Japan which found that suicide rates are higher in areas where there are low levels of lithium in the drinking water.

The chemical is a common treatment for bipolar disorder but is found in many water supplies. The project was announced at the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ International Congress in London. Lithium levels will be measured by postcode and compared with Scottish Health Survey and NHS statistics. The team will also test the impact of adding lithium to water supplies just as fluoride is added to prevent tooth decay.’

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Association found between maternal exposure to agricultural pesticides and autism

From Science Daily:

‘Pregnant women who lived in close proximity to fields and farms where chemical pesticides were applied experienced a two-thirds increased risk of having a child with autism spectrum disorder or other developmental delay, a study by researchers with the UC Davis MIND Institute has found. The associations were stronger when the exposures occurred during the second and third trimesters of the women’s pregnancies. The large, multisite California-based study examined associations between specific classes of pesticides, including organophosphates, pyrethroids and carbamates, applied during the study participants’ pregnancies and later diagnoses of autism and developmental delay in their offspring. It is published online in Environmental Health Perspectives.’

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US Military Plans To Test Brain Implants To Fight Mental Disorders

Jon Hamilton reports for NPR:

‘The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is launching a $70 million program to help military personnel with psychiatric disorders using electronic devices implanted in the brain. The goal of the five-year program is to develop new ways of treating problems including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which are common among service members who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“We’ve seen far too many times where military personnel have neuropsychiatric disorders and there’s very few options,” says Justin Sanchez, a program manager at DARPA. DARPA is known for taking on big technological challenges, from missile defense to creating a business plan for interstellar travel. In 2013, the agency announced it would play a big role in President Obama’s initiative to explore the human brain.’

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Gulf War illness: New report lauds treatment research, confirms toxic causes

From Science Daily:

‘Progress has been made toward understanding the physiological mechanisms that underlie Gulf War illness and identifying possible treatments, according to a report released Monday by a Congressionally mandated panel of scientific experts and veterans. Treatment research has increased significantly since 2008, and “early results provide encouraging signs that the treatment goals identified in the 2010 Institute of Medicine report are achievable,” the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses (RAC) said in a report presented Monday to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki by the Committee’s scientific director, Roberta White, chair of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health.

The Institute, part of the National Academies of Sciences, had forecast that “treatments, cures, and hopefully preventions” could likely be found with the right research. The RAC report updates scientific research published since the Committee’s landmark report in 2008, which established that Gulf War illness was a real condition, affecting as many as 250,000 veterans of the 1990-91 Gulf War. The conclusions of the 2008 RAC report had a substantial impact on scientific and clinical thinking about Gulf War illness, as well as the public acceptance of this disorder,” said White. The earlier report documented a number of studies that found evidence linking the illness to exposure to pesticides and pyridostigmine bromide (found in anti-nerve gas pills given to troops), as well as other toxic sources.’

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The average American thinks they are smarter than the average American

Christopher Hooten reports for The Independent:

‘A fascinating study into self-perception has found that 55 percent of Americans think they are more intelligent than the average American, a sort of self-defeating statistic that in other words means the average American thinks they are smarter than the average American.

The poll by research organisation YouGov also found that just 34 percent of US citizens thought they were of equal smarts as everyone else, while a brutally honest 4 percent said they felt less intelligent than most people.

Looking at how perceptions of one’s own intelligence is affected by gender, the study also showed that men are 24 percent more likely than women (15 percent) to say they are “much more intelligent” than most Americans, as are white people compared to hispanic and black people.

There are interesting disparities when wealth is taken into account too. When asked about US citizens collectively, people who make less than $40,000 a year are more likely to say Americans are intelligent, while those who make over $100,000 are much more likely to say they are unintelligent.

The National Journal notes that past research has shown that western cultures have a habit of inflating their self-worth, and the opinions expressed in the study may have more to do with pride than actual brainpower.’

Why ADHD is Not a Disorder: Interview with Thom Hartmann

Abby Martin speaks with Thom Hartmann, host of ‘The Big Picture’ and author of ‘Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception’ about the enormous rise of diagnoses of ADHD among American children, and his research into the origin of the perceived disorder as an evolutionary adaption instead of a disorder.’ (Breaking the Set)

Scientists have built an ‘off switch’ for the brain

Heather Saul reports for The Independent: ‘Scientists have developed an “off-switch” for the brain to effectively shut down neural activity using light pulses. In 2005, Stanford scientist Karl Deisseroth discovered how to switch individual brain cells on and off by using light in a technique he dubbed ’optogenetics’. Research teams around the world have since used this technique to study brain cells, heart cells, stem cells and others regulated by electrical signals. However, light-sensitive proteins were efficient at switching cells on but proved less effective at turning them off. Now, after almost a decade of research, scientists have been able to shut down the neurons as well as activate them.’ READ MORE…

Is Social Media Dependence a Mental Health Issue?

Emma Stein writes for The Fix:

Shutterstock

With the recent traumatic news of Danny Bowman, the 19-year-old UK resident who attempted suicide after being obsessed with taking ‘selfies,’ the general public has vocalized strong opinions on both sides of the social media debate. It’s no question that we are developing a dependence on the technological advance that unifies billions of people, but are we addicted? The Fix spoke with four different leaders in the field to uncover the growing obsession with status updates, and what this means for our psychological well-being.’

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Study: You’re 60% more creative when walking

Science Alert reports:

Image: Lightspring/Shutterstock‘Researchers at Stanford University in the US have compared creativity levels while walking and sitting, and found people are more likely to think outside of the box while taking a walk and shortly after they sit back down.

It’s not a surprising result – most of you have probably experienced inspiration after taking a break and heading out for a walk – but the research could finally be a step towards finding out why. Interestingly, the study found that it was the act of walking, rather than the environment, that was the key factor in creative output. ‘

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Is The Internet Addictive?

Mind-reading breakthrough can recreate the faces you see in your brain

Graham Templeton writes for Geek:

mri faces headA team of Yale researchers, led by a then-undergraduate student, have made an astonishing step forward in brain science. The (perhaps unsettling) breakthrough allows scientists to use a medical imaging machine and a well-trained algorithm to visually reconstruct faces seen by test subjects. As seen below, their technique returns some results with a truly astonishing level of accuracy. Oddly, their results seem to have been possible specifically because the brain processes faces in such a unique and distributed way. This study takes the field’s greatest and most intractable problem and leverages it to truly impressive effect.

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Lost sleep leads to loss of brain cells, study suggests

Helen Briggs reports for BBC News:

Could prolonged sleep loss be killing our brain cells?Sleep loss may be more serious than previously thought, causing a permanent loss of brain cells, research suggests.

In mice, prolonged lack of sleep led to 25% of certain brain cells dying, according to a study in The Journal of Neuroscience.

If the same is true in humans, it may be futile to try to catch up on missed sleep, say US scientists.

They think it may one day be possible to develop a drug to protect the brain from the side-effects of lost sleep.

The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, looked at lab mice that were kept awake to replicate the kind of sleep loss common in modern life, through night shifts or long hours in the office.

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“Negropodamus” disses Internet of Things, predicts knowledge pills

Ken Fisher reports for Ars Technica:

Credit: Jim Whiteley

TED’s 30th anniversary kicked off with MIT MediaLab founder Nicholas Negroponte, who took the stage to recount his 40-plus years of experience as a technology experimenter and visionary. You might say he was making the case to be Negropodamus. Indeed, his talk was appropriate, as Negroponte was one of the first presenters at the very first TED in 1984. He has a habit of making predictions—many of which do come true.

…In 30 years, Negroponte said, we’re going to be able to literally ingest information. Once information is in your bloodstream, some kind of mechanism could deposit the information in the brain. You could take a pill and learn English or the works of Shakespeare. He said little else on the subject, but Negroponte assured the audience that the idea is not as ridiculous as it seems.

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Alex & Allyson Grey Break the Set on Psychedelics, Transcendentalism and Visionary Art

‘Abby Martin speaks with Alex & Allyson Grey, the most prolific psychedelic artists in the world, discussing the role of transcendentalism, spirituality and entheogenic drugs have played in their art and personal lives, as well as their work on the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors.’ (Breaking the Set)

Prisoners ‘could serve 1,000 year sentence in eight hours’

Rhiannon Williams reports for The Telegraph:

Ms Roache said drugs could be developed to distort prisoners' minds into thinking time was passing more slowlyFuture biotechnology could be used to trick a prisoner’s mind into thinking they have served a 1,000 year sentence, a group of scientists have claimed.

Philosopher Rebecca Roache is in charge of a team of scholars focused upon the ways futuristic technologies might transform punishment. Dr Roache claims the prison sentence of serious criminals could be made worse by extending their lives.

Speaking to Aeon magazine, Dr Roache said drugs could be developed to distort prisoners’ minds into thinking time was passing more slowly.

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