Sunday, June 30, 2013

Lessons From Mother #4

Every once in a while, often when at an airport, I will hear a parental comment similar to similar to those my mother used to make. Just last week, for example, I heard two comments that took me right back to my childhood. Here they are with a few more tongue-in-cheek comments.

• My mother taught me about foresight: “Be sure to put on clean underwear. You never know when you’ll be in an accident!”

• My mother taught me about irony: “Well, well. Look what the cat dragged in!”

• My mother taught me about cause and effect: “Keep crying and I’m going to give you something to cry about!”

• My mother taught me about receiving: “As soon as we get home you are really going to get it!”

• My mother taught me about compartmentalization: “What part of ‘I am not buying that’ do you not get?”



Saturday, June 29, 2013

Humor and the Brain

Humor starts in the brain. Every brain is different. No surprise, it’s different strokes for different folks and that includes humor. Different people tend to find different things humorous. Your mission (should you choose to accept it) could be to increase the number of things or the types of things your brain finds funny. For example, female brains tend to find things that appeal to the left hemisphere funny (e.g., oxymorons, Limericks, word-play, situational comedy as in “I Love Lucy”); male brains tend to find things that appeal to the right hemisphere funny (e.g., slapstick, Laurel and Hardy, practical jokes, jokes in general). Humor can change with age, as well. A senior adult sense of humor tends to be more subtle, more tolerant, and less judgmental about differences among people. Whatever it takes, remember that very happy people laugh between 100 and 400 times per day.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Any Acadian Phrases?

Do you have any Acadian phrases to share?  I'm wanting to expand my file (if not my vocabulary!). A dear friend of mine currently living in Boston is also a descendent of the Acadians (French-speaking individuals who lived in Nova Scotia in Canada). He has been collecting examples of Acadian phrases that have been passed down through the generations. I find them so interesting, especially in terms of grammar differences compared to either French or English. Here are a few of my favorites.


• Hey there! Throw me out the window there my shirt!

• I’ll have two eggs, side by each.

• What for is that gonna do any good?

• I want to talk something to you.

If you have additional examples, send them my way!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Adrenalin vs Epinephrine

It started when a young man told me that epinephrine kept him going on a daily basis. When I asked if his brain had become an “adrenalin junkie” he replied, “No, no. I’m talking about epinephrine,” and stalked off. Apparently he didn’t realize that adrenalin and epinephrine are names for the same substance. Epinephrine was coined reportedly by an American biochemist who isolated the substance and adrenalin was the label assigned by a Japanese chemist who also discovered the substance about the same time. Confusing, I know. Regardless of its name, this substance, secreted by the adrenal glands, plays a key role in the fight-flight stress response. It is so powerful that people can become addicted to their own endogenous adrenalin and the energy it provides. A “high" can be triggered by self-inducing fight-flight, choosing to be angry, or engaging in stressful or risky behavior. There is usually a downside to most benefits, however, especially when overused or out of balance. Hyper secretion of adrenalin can exhaust the adrenal glands. The end result is diminished health.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"Noisy" Brains

Is your brain “noisy?” Apparently, a noisy brain is a healthy brain. “Noisy” is defined as random brain activity that is not important to mental function. The notion that brain noise quiets down as human beings mature into adults appears to have been overturned by Canadian scientists. The study involved 79 participants (children aged eight to 15 and young adults aged 20 to 33). The participants completed a series of face memory tasks to measure their ability to recall faces with accuracy. The researchers collected the participants’ electroencephalography (EEG) recordings to measure their brain signal activity, while they were performing the task. They found the young adults scored better on the face recognition tasks compared to the children, which was an indication of more stable and accurate cognitive behavior. The young adults' brain signal variability actually increased and became noisier. Lead author Dr. Randy McIntosh, a senior scientist with the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest said: "What we discovered is that brain maturation not only leads to more stable and accurate behavior in the performance of a memory task, but correlates with increased brain signal variability. This doesn't mean the brain is working less efficiently. It's showing greater functional variability, which is indicative of enhanced neural complexity. So there you have it: random activity that is thought of as noise may actually be a central component of normal brain function.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mirthful Laughter

Studies suggest that many people fail to take humor seriously enough and would do well to hone their sense of humor and use it to trigger mirthful laughter. Studies have shown many benefits to the brain from mirthful laughter, including:


• Improved brain function

• Enhanced mood

• Release of feelings of anger or hurt

• Reduced tension and anxiety

• Increased energy

• Enhanced creativity

How much mirthful laughter is recommended? Thirty (30) laughs per day. Unfortunately, some studies estimate that the average American manages only 6-15 laughs per day. Put this together with the statistic that very happy people laugh 100-400 times a day, and the implication is some people are not laughing at all! Laughter is a choice. Start laughing for your health!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Your Brain "On Steroids"

No doubt you've heard on the news about ongoing allegations, controversies, and assigned penalties related to the use of exogenous (from the outside) steroids by sports figures. Truth be told, your brain is “on steroids” all the time. Endogenous (produced inside the brain-body) steroids—often referred to as hormones—are critical to daily optimum brain function and include testosterone, cortisol, and estrogen, to name just a few. No surprise, there can be adverse consequences when steroids (endogenous or exogenous) put the brain-body system out of balance. Competition can dramatically increase testosterone levels, primarily in males. Severe or prolonged stress can negatively impact cortisol production, secreted in response to stress. Woman can experience symptoms related to an excess of estrogen, although inadequate levels of estrogen are more common; and hormonal fluctuations are part and parcel of menstruation to say nothing of PMS and menopause. And all of this impacts brain function. Oh, yes. Your brain is on steroids your whole life . . .  

Sunday, June 23, 2013

BCI: Brain-Computer Interface

It may happen sooner than later, the ability to learn to move one's limbs just by thinking. Researchers at the University of Washington have demonstrated that small electrodes placed on or inside the brain allow patients to interact with computers or control robotic limbs simply by thinking about how to execute those actions. When humans use brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, the brain acts much like it does when completing simple motor skills such as kicking a ball, typing, or waving a hand. So learning to control a robotic arm or a prosthetic limb could become second nature for people who are paralyzed. According to the researchers, “The majority of subjects who attempt to learn control of a brain–computer interface (BCI) can do so with adequate training. Much like learning to type or ride a bicycle, BCI users report transitioning from a deliberate, cognitively focused mindset to near automatic control as training progresses.” Potentially, this technology could improve communication and daily life for a person who is paralyzed or has lost the ability to speak from a stroke or neurodegenerative disease.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Elephant Brains, Part 2


Brain development in elephants is somewhat similar to that of humans. Both elephant and human offspring require considerable parental care and training. As the mass of the brain increases, so does the learning ability of both children and elephant calves. As with humans, the brains of female elephants are slightly smaller than that of bull elephants. However, size appears unrelated to intelligence (e.g., overall intelligence between males and females—elephants or humans—is at least equal). A plethora of observational stories point to the fact that elephants not only possess high levels of intelligence and good memories, but also can be very empathetic. They have “heart.” (An elephant’s heart is about five times as large as a human heart and at least 50 times as heavy.) The temporal lobes proportionately larger in the elephant brain than in any other mammal. Typically temporal lobes are related to hearing in mammals and speech in humans. Studies have shown that African elephants can make at least 25 different calls, each with a specific meaning and, well-trained, may know as many as 40 voice commands. The Nature Institute has some comparison drawings of human and elephant brains, showing these larger temporal lobes: http://natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic5/elephant.htm

Friday, June 21, 2013

Elephant Brains, Part 1


As more and more is becoming known about brains in general, I find it interesting to note reported differences as well as similarities between human brains and those of other creatures. Along with apes and sperm whales, the elephant has a large brain relative to body size. According to Katy Payne, “Brain size provides a rough measure of mental flexibility—some say intelligence—and large mammalian brains are associated with complex sociality.” Elephant brains, located at the back of the scull well away from the forehead, elephant brains are the largest in size of all land mammals. By comparison the human brain is larger in proportion to body size and is right behind the forehead. A new-born elephant’s brain is 35% of the mass of an adult brain; a new-born human’s brain is 26%. In adulthood, the weight of an elephant’s brain averages between nine and twelve pounds and makes up about 0.08% of total body weight. The human adult brain weighs three to four pounds and makes up 2.0% of total body weight. The elephant’s cerebellum is larger than that in the human brain. There is some speculation that the cerebellum's high degree of development may be related to the highly coordinated trunk movements. Indeed, the elephant uses its trunk as human’s use a hand. The trunk is able to carry a 600-pound log or pick up an object as small as a coin. Part 2 tomorrow.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Electronic Tattoos

Electronic tattoos? You bet. Turns out they may be very exciting and could make electronic telepathy possible. Temporary electronic tattoos, as they are called, are about as thick as the average diameter of a human hair (e.g., 100 microns). They involve circuitry that is embedded in a rubbery polyester that allows them to bend and stretch. Think of electronic tattoos as foldable, stretchable electrode arrays that can non-invasively measure neural (EEG) signals without the need for any type of gel. When placed on the skin, these tattoos are barely visible, but they can detect electrical signals linked with brain waves and incorporate solar cells for power and antennas that allow them to communicate wirelessly, and can contain thermal sensors to monitor skin temperature along with light detectors to analyze blood oxygen levels. Researchers at UC, San Diego, are working on optimizing the placement of the electrodes to pick up more complex brainwaves. This could help monitor fetal heart rates during pregnancy or depression and Alzheimer's disease in adults, each of which have characteristic patterns of neural activity. The research team is also working to modify the tattoo to transmit data wirelessly to a smartphone. Eventually, scientists hope the device could identify other complex patterns of brain activity, such as those that might be used to control a prosthetic limb.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Your Hypothalamus and Aging


Have you ever wondered whether a specific part of the brain controls your rate of aging? Turns out the answer may be “yes,” at least in mice. According to scientists at Yeshiva University, the hypothalamus of mice controls aging through the body. The speculation is that this may be true for humans, as well. The researchers were able to alter signaling within the hypothalamus to slow down the aging process and increase longevity of the mice. So again, this might also be able to be accomplished in humans. Dr. Cai and his group demonstrated that blocking the pathway for a protein complex called NF-κB (involved with inflammatory processes) in the hypothalamus of mouse brains slowed aging and increased median longevity by about 20 percent, compared to controls. This study was supported by grants from the National Institute on Aging (AG031774) and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (DK078750), both part of the National Institutes of Health, as well as the American Diabetes Association (1-12-BS-20).

Guo Zhang et al., Hypothalamic programming of systemic ageing involving IKK-β, NF-κB and GnRH, Nature, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/nature12143

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Charisma and the Brain, Part 2

Studies in Denmark have shown the power of perceived charisma. The study recipients’ assumptions about senders’ charismatic abilities had important effects on their executive network.” Perceived charisma in intercessory prayer inhibited the frontal executive network of Christian study volunteers. Brain areas responsible for vigilance and skepticism become less active when a Christian falls under the spell of a charismatic figure (especially a figure that the individual believes has divinely inspired powers of healing, wisdom, and prophecy). Neuroresearchers say this explains the reason some specific individuals can gain influence over others, their ability to do so depending heavily on preconceived notions of their authority and trustworthiness by the listeners. According to the study abstract, these observations “point to an important mechanism of authority that may facilitate charismatic influence, a mechanism which is likely to be present in other interpersonal interactions as well.” Researchers speculate that brain regions may be deactivated in a similar way in response to doctors, parents, and politicians (a potentially staggering implication).

Monday, June 17, 2013

Charisma and the Brain, Part 1

Researchers in the Department of the Study of Religion, Aarhus University in Denmark, released findings of a fMRI study of 40 participants: 20 Pentecostal Christians (who believe that some individuals have divinely inspired powers of healing, wisdom, and prophecy) and 20 non-believers. Researchers scanned the participant’s brains while playing recorded prayers, all read by an ordinary Christian, although participants were told that six of the prayers were read by a non-Christian, six by an ordinary Christian, and six by a “healer.” Results showed that monitored brain activity changed in response to prayers only in the brains of Pentecostal volunteers. Portions of the brain’s prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices (areas that play key roles in vigilance and skepticism when judging the truth and importance of what people say) were deactivated when the participants listened to the supposed healer. They also showed diminished activity (to a lesser extent than deactivation) when the speaker was supposedly a normal Christian. Part 2 tomorrow.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day

It lagged a bit behind Mother's Day, at least in the United States.  I remember celebrating Father's Day during my childhood although it wasn't an "official holiday." According to some historical sources, there were multiple attempts to declare an official Father's Day Holiday, all of which failed for one reason or another. Reportedly it was Margaret Chase Smith who accused Congress (in 1957) of ignoring fathers for 40 years while honoring mothers, thus honoring "out just one of our two parents." Some of you may recall that President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 issued the first presidential proclamation honoring fathers, designating the third Sunday in June as Father's Day. Finally, six years later, a permanent national holiday was created when President Richard Nixson signed legislation. Recently I read a news blurb mentioning that "International Men's Day is celebrated in many countries on November 19 for men and boys who are not fathers." I thought about that. In a global sense, there are many ways to "father" a person. Donating sperm may be the least of which.  Today, in addition to  honoring the memory of my biological father, I also recall the many males who have encouraged and affirmed me personally and professionally, sometimes smoothed the way for me, sometimes provided wise counsel, sometimes taught me valuable lessons through their functional (or dysfunctional) behaviors, and often made me laugh uproriously with their fabulous sense of humor.  Ah, yes. There are many ways to "father."  I'm grateful for mine!


Saturday, June 15, 2013

D-Wave Quantum Computing

Catherine McGeoch, the Beitzel Professor in Technology and Society (Computer Science) at Amherst and author of A Guide to Experimental Algorithmics (Cambridge University Press, 2012), recently announced experiments to test the speed of a D-wave quantum computing system against conventional computing methods. To McGeoch’s knowledge, her experiment was the first to compare the quantum approach to conventional methods using the same set of problems, comparable in difficulty to the so-called “traveling salesperson” problem that’s been a foundation of theoretical computing for decades. Briefly, the problem asks: Given a list of cities and the distances between each pair of cities, what is the shortest possible route that visits each city exactly once and returns to the original city? Problems of this type apply to shipping logistics, flight scheduling, search optimization, DNA analysis and encryption, and so on. According to McGeoch, D-wave computation is not intended for surfing the net but may have great potential in solving this narrow band of problems fairly quickly. (Fortunately, my brain hasn’t been called upon to solve any of these types of problems . . . Smile.)

Friday, June 14, 2013

The "Feel Better" Chemical

Earlier I wrote a blog on Serotonin or the “Feel Good” brain chemical. Dopamine, another brain chemical, has been dubbed the “Feel-Better” brain chemical. In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger that helps in the transmission of signals between neurons and other cells. It plays a major role in the brain system that is responsible for reward-motivated behavior. Every type of reward that has been studied increases the level of dopamine in the brain in some way or other. A variety of addictive drugs, including stimulants such as amphetamine, methamphetamine, and cocaine have been found to amplify the effects of dopamine. PET Scan studies by Dr. Debra Johnson have shown that the dominant pathway in the Extraverted brain is fueled by dopamine. This may be one reason that Extraverted brains appear at higher risk for engaging in behaviors (e.g., many addictive-type behaviors) that trigger the release of dopamine). These types of brains have been linked to higher sensitivity to rewarding stimuli in the dopamine system. It is important to understand that dopamine doesn’t necessarily make a person feel “good” but it can help the individual to “feel better” than his/her current state, whatever that may be. Several important conditions of the nervous system are associated with dysfunctions of the dopamine system.  These include Parkinson’s disease, Schizophrenia, ADHD, and RLS or restless legs syndrome.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Cramming and Learning

Many individuals have found that cramming for an exam doesn’t work all that well, which seemed contradictory to a commonly accepted theory that learning is cumulative, with synapses starting very small and then getting larger and stronger. Recent study results at Carnegie Mellon University may have provided a possible explanation. It is fairly well established that brain connections between neurons and other cells (synapses) that allow for the transmission of information, grow when they’re exposed to a stimulus. Research by Professor of Biological Sciences, Alison L. Barth, has not only confirmed this but also revealed that synapses get even stronger than previously thought. However, it also showed that synapses quickly go through a transitional phase where they weaken. The neuroscientists identified three distinct phases that synapses go through on the first day of learning:

1. Initiation phase (e.g., over the next 12 hours or so) - the synapses get stronger and stronger.

2. Labile phase – as the stimulus is repeated, the synapses weaken.

3. Stabilization phase – after a few hours of weakening, the synapses maintain their residual strength.

“Based on our data, it seems like synapses that have recently been strengthened are peculiarly vulnerable—more stimulation can actually wipe out the effects of learning,” said Barth. Because of this synaptic fragility right after plasticity, more training is actually counterproductive. For long-lasting memory, spaced training (e.g., studying for your classes after every lecture, all semester long) is superior to cramming all night before the exam.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Your Brain's GPS

The other day someone asked about the study of London Taxi Drivers’ brains and what it really showed. The short answer is that the brain appears to contain a GPS (Global Positioning System) located in the hippocampi (two of them), part of the brain’s limbic system or second functional layer. The hippocampi contain built-in maps, compasses, grids and so on. Researchers used structural MRIs of the brains of humans with extensive navigation experience (e.g., licensed London taxi drivers), then analyzed and compared them with those of control subjects who did not drive taxis. The posterior hippocampi of taxi drivers were significantly larger relative to those of control subjects. One conclusions was that currently, London taxi drivers, who have to know their way around hundreds of thousands of winding streets, are believed to have the most refined and powerful brain GPS yet identified, strengthened from years of experience.  (see link below).

http://www.pnas.org/content/97/8/4398.long

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"Feel Good" Brain Chemical

Dubbed Mother Nature’s “feel good” chemical, serotonin is a natural body chemical messenger believed to perform most of its functions in the brain. Of all the brain chemicals, appropriate serotonin levels are probably the most important for maintaining an overall sensation of well-being. Serotonin is present in incredibly small amounts in the body and yet can create large numbers of problems when it is out of balance. It certainly impacts a host of functions, especially when there is a serotonin imbalance. Both males and females may experience serotonin deficiency although the edge here goes to females. Studies in Sweden have shown that while female brains have a greater number of the most common serotonin receptors (as compared with males), woman also have lower levels of the protein that transports serotonin back to the nerve cells that secrete it. The serotonin system in healthy woman, so called, also appears to differ from that in women with serious premenstrual mental symptoms (e.g., they don’t seem to respond as flexibly to the hormone swings of the menstrual cycle). Different types of serotonin receptors appear to be present in the brain, as well. Some are associated with migraine headaches, others with the motility of food in the intestines. Some researchers say that when sunlight enters the eyes a signal is sent from the eye to the brain to make more serotonin, which helps explain the reason people sometimes feel gloomy when the weather is cloudy and rainy. Pretty impressive little chemical, serotonin.

Monday, June 10, 2013

"Stop" and "Options"

The word “stop” can often be used very effectively in place of “no” or “don’t.” Don’t run into the street,” can be rephrased to “Stop at the curb and look both ways.” There are times when especially when “yes” (even with a qualifier) may not be an option. When you must deny or prohibit a specific request, provide two options—and only two options at a time—because you only have two brain hemispheres. If you give the brain three or more options it tends to consider only two and drops off the rest. Here are examples.

Child: “I want to go to Disneyland right now.”
Parent: “Yes, I know you do and that would be fun. Disneyland takes planning ahead. Right now you may go swimming in the pool or invite a friend over to play (or whatever options you choose to provide).
Child: “But I want to go to Disneyland right now.”
Parent: “Yes, I know. Disneyland takes planning. Right now you may go swimming in the pool or invite a friend over to play (or whatever options you choose to provide). If you say, “You can’t go to Disneyland and I don’t want to hear any more about it,” a picture of Disneyland moved into working memory and the brain wants it even more. If you provide two “right now” options, those will go into working memory and the brain will start thinking about one of them.

You: “I want a bowl of ice cream right now. I know you do and I remember that it tasted good in the past. Right now I choose to have either an apple or a fruit smoothie. Both taste good and are healthy choices. I’ll choose the fruit smoothie.” If you say, “You can’t have ice cream,” a picture of ice cream goes into working memory and your brain fixates on that. When you say, “I am having an apple or a fruit smoothie,” those pictures go into working memory. You still need to make the decision and use willpower to follow through on the choice.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Brain Pictures

Your thoughts, words, and what you read or hear create internal mental pictures in working memory. In essence you can think of pictures a brain language. It thinks in pictures. The subconscious brain layers don’t use language – they do perceive the pictures placed in working memory and tend to follow them. When the brain hears, “Don’t touch the stove,” the first picture is that of touching the stove. “Don’t” is supposed to notify the brain that the desired behavior is opposite from the first picture. Negatives require a two-step process and some brains totally miss the “don’t” while others hear the word but have difficulty reversing the picture (e.g., if you aren’t supposed to touch the stove what are you supposed to do?). An adult might say, “Duh,” to that question but it isn’t so simple in a developing brain (and it isn’t even so simple in some supposedly “mature” brains). I find it much more effective to always say what behavior you want (e.g., “Keep Your hands away from the stove.” Although speaking in positives, a one-step process, is generally more effective, the problem is that most people grew up hearing negatives. “Don’t forget your homework,” “Don’t be late for work,” “Don’t argue with me!” and so on. It is a personal journey to alter your speech style and it can be done. More tomorrow about “stop” instead of “no.”

Saturday, June 8, 2013

No, Yes, and the Brain Hemispheres


Heard, spoken, and written language is a left-hemisphere function for most brains. The left hemisphere hears, reads, and spells the word “no” along understanding what it signifies. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is all about possibilities. For it, the word “no” is a limitation of possibilities and the right brain tends to miss or ignore the word. The right hemisphere is interested in getting a “yes” and can be creative and tenacious in an attempt to do so. When presented it with a “no,” the right hemisphere may immediately begin sifting through options that can get the “no” turned into the desired “yes.” When it hears a “yes,” however, even if there is a qualifier, its goal has been achieved and there is less of an immediate attempt to launch into argumentative options designed to obtain a reversal. For example, a parent chooses to avoid providing cookies as a between-meal snack for the child(ren) in favor of healthier options. Picture this at 4:30 pm one afternoon.

Child: “Can I have a cookie?”
Adult: “Yes, at dinner.”
Child: “Do I have to wait until dinner ‘cause I’m hungry now!”
Adult.  "Yes, you may have cookies at dinner. Right now you may have an apple or a banana.”
Child: “If I eat an apple now can I have two cookies at dinner?”
Adult: "Yes."
Child: “Can I have three cookies?”
Adult: “Yes, you may have two cookies a dinner and a third cookie tomorrow.” And just repeat it again if there continue to be questions.

Over time, as the child’s brain begins to hear “yes” instead of “no,” the exchanges rarely escalate into an argument because it’s difficult to argue with a “yes,” even when there is a qualifier. More tomorrow about language and internal mental picturing.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Say "Yes" to the Brain Whenever Possible

Did you catch a recent news item about the mother who decided to stop saying “no” to her child? Although response comments were mixed, my brain’s opinion is that this woman must be either aware of current brain-function information or is very intuitive or both. Her new perspective does dovetail with what neuroscientists report about how the brain works best. Most adult brains dislike hearing the word “no,” to say nothing of developing brains who are trying to differentiate and for whom a “no” signifies interference with that process. How can a person stop saying “no” to the brain (their own as well as the brains of others)? It begins with thoughtful preplanning, your personal mindset, and your own behavioral choices. Reminds me of a bumper sticker that read “Never say no if you can say yes.” I’ve rephrased it from a more positive position: “Always say yes even if you need to use a qualifier.” A qualifier could be, “Yes and . . .” or “Yes when . . .” or “Yes if . . .” More about this tomorrow.

Note: After extensive research, it appears the option to automatically link my daily blog to Facebook no longer exists. I am committed to manually posting my daily blog to Facebook. When this is impossible, however, remember that you can access my Brain Blogs (and even send automatically to your own email address) from my website homepage: www.arlenetaylor.org

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Sensory Integration

Multiple studies have shown that objects and events can often be deteced by more than one sensory system. In addition, interactions between sensory systems (sometimes referred to as recruitment) have been found to increase the accuracy and completeness of one's perception. Common wisdom has said that some people actually hear speech sounds better when looking directly at the speaker's face. Indeed, there are clear benefits from visual cues (seeing the speaker's face) when trying to communicate with another person, especially in a noisy environment. Studies by Jacobs et all involving visual-auditory interactions have shown some perceptual advantages of combining information from these two modalities. In some instances a 60% improvement in word recognition can be achieved in a noisy environment when visual cues are added compared with presentation of the audio information alone. This work is being applied to develop and evaluate a new signal processing approach where audio and visual information are fused together to ultimately improve speech intelligibility in noisy environments for Veterans who suffer from dual-sensory hearing and vision loss as well as those who suffer from hearing loss alone.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Hard Wired to be Helpful

Studies by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello have led them to believe that some level of altruism may be hard wired into the human brain. Children as young as 14 months of age were observed helping another altruistically. For example, without any encouragement or praise, these little kids picked up an object that someone accidentally dropped and handed it back to them. Sometimes they did this even when the children themselves needed to stop an activity that they enjoyed doing. Children as young as 12 months old also were willing to share information freely. If someone was looking for an object and the children knew where it was, they pointed to it. Interestingly and perhaps unfortunately in some situations, these innate altruistic behaviors appear to be influenced by social experience and cultural transmission. By the age of three, some children begin to show signs of inhibiting some of this natural altruistic behavior, becoming more discriminating about whom they will help (not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself), tending to share more often with those who have shared with them in the past.

Note:  After extensive research, it appears the option to automatically link blogs to Facebook no longer exists. I am committed to manually posting my daily blog to Facebook. When this is impossible, however, remember that you can access my Brain Blogs (and even send automatically to your own email address) from my website homepage: www.arlenetaylor.org

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Hard Wired for Social Interactions

There have been entire books written on how to enhance skills needed for successful social interactions. No doubt many adults can use the help. It turns out, however, that the human brain is hardwired for many social abilities. This means those abilities can function immediately and don’t have to be taught (although that’s not to say that many times they could be enhanced through learning). Studies by Hamlin, Wynn, and Bloom showed that infants ages 6-10 months were able to evaluate the observed behaviors of others and figure out who was being helpful and who was not. This is, of course, would be an obvious advantage to tiny human beings who require years of personalized care just to survive. The infants were shown a video in which an animated triangle with eyes attempts to make it up a hill. In the video, the triangle is either helped by a push from a circle or impeded by a push from a square. After the video, the infants were given a choice of a circle or a square offered on a tray. They grabbed the “helper” circle. More tomorrow.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Super Bowl and Listening

Conventional wisdom (and often your own observations) says that one person’s behavior can impact another person’s behavior. For example, some studies have shown that within three years you have a high likelihood of picking up and exhibiting behaviors of the people with whom you hang out. (Many parents have cautioned their offspring about the type of friends they were choosing.) Turns out that studies of vocalization in humans have shown not only is there a dynamic relationship going on that involves different portions of the brain, but there is also a dynamic relationship with the brain that is being listened to. As reported by Gazzaniga in his book “Who’s In Charge?” fMRI studies by Uri Hasson at Princeton University measured the brain activity of two individuals who were conversing. The listener’s brain activity mirrored the speaker’s brain activity. Some areas of the listener’s brain even showed predictive anticipatory responses. When such anticipatory responses were present, there seemed to be greater understanding. Of course one needs to be really “listening” to the other brain. There are times when this may be relatively impossible. For example, I never try to talk to or get a male brain to listen to me when that male brain is watching the Super Bowl.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Implantable Devices and Rejection

As you probably already know, a problem with implantable devices can involve rejection by the immune system because it is not “self.” The foreign-body reaction occurs in response to implants made of many materials, including teflon, polyurethane, silicone rubber, polyethylene, poly(methyl methacrylate), poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG), Dacron, gold, titanium and alumina, including other hydrogels, such as poly(2-hydroxyethyl methacrylate) (PHEMA). Engineers at the University of Washington recently reported being successful in using a synthetic hydrogel biomaterial. These zwitterionic hydrogels fully resisted the body’s natural attack response to foreign objects for at least 3 months after subcutaneous implantation in mice and promoted angiogenesis in surrounding tissue. The UW researchers plan to test this material in humans, likely by working with manufacturers to coat an implantable device with the polymer, then measuring its ability to ward off protein build-up.

Lei Zhang et al., Zwitterionic hydrogels implanted in mice resist the foreign-body reaction, Nature Biotechnology, 2013, DOI: 10.1038/nbt.2580

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Reading Your Mind

Okay, conventional brain-function wisdom has been that no one can read another person’s mind. According to Kurzweil News, Google (at its recent developers conference) announced a new set of tools designed to change that. For example, if you ask Google some specific types of questions, it will now try to predict your follow-up questions and answer them, as well. Do you want to know the population of India? Ask for that data and you will also receive information on the population of China and the United States, because Google knows those are the most common follow-up questions. Reportedly, this is an attempt to become the omnipotent, human-like “Star Trek” search engine that Google executives say they want it to be. I wonder how Google would handle questions such as:  “Shall I have one more for the road?” or “Is this internet acquaintance safe to date?” or “How will spending 30 minutes a day doing brain aerobic exercises impact my risk of aging?”