Friday, December 30, 2016

Personality Disorders and Brain Pain

The online Free Dictionary describes ‘empathy’ as the ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual and to comprehend and share another's emotional state. No surprise, some mental conditions such as antisocial personality disorder tend to be characterized by callousness, little if any remorse, manipulation of others, and lack of empathy. Can this be seen in brain scans? fMRI studies at the University of Chicago Department of Psychology revealed that the brains of individuals with antisocial personality disorder may be wired differently. fMRI results showed that these brains can be very sensitive to the thought of their own pain but the physical or social pain of others did not register as it did in the brains of individuals without this mental disorder. In addition, researchers found that when imagining others in physical or social pain, the brains of those with an antisocial personality disorder tended to show an increased response in a brain region known to be involved in the perception of pleasure. This is yet another reason to learn to recognize brain pathology as quickly as possible and take steps to protect yourself and be safe.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Brain Physical vs Social Pain

The question becomes, “Do all brains register physical pain when they observe physical or social pain in others?” The outcome of a study printed in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (“Familiarity Promotes the Blurring of Self and Other in the Neural Representation of Threat") suggests that the answer is no. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), James Coan PhD, a psychology professor in University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, found that the human brain tends to compartmentalize others, placing people who are in your social network and who you love and feel close to in one bucket and strangers in another. Dr. Coan says that those in the first bucket actually become linked with your sense of self at a neurobiological level. Whether your brain responds to the threat of pain to yourself or an empathic response to the threat of pain to someone you love, the posterior insular cortex tends to be activated. This region has been liked with the sensory processing of physical pain as well as emotion, self-awareness, and some aspects of cognitive function. (This response was less strong when study participants were observing the threat of pain to a stranger.) This may help to explain pathological behaviors observed in terrorism or in some types of mental illness. More tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Brain Pain Is Brain Pain

In a sense, as far as the brain is concerned, ‘pain is pain.’ You may have heard yourself or others describe experiences of social rejection as being painful. The question has been whether such descriptions are more metaphorical than physical. Researchers have been studying if there is something really ‘painful’ about social pain and the experience of rejection or exclusion. Accumulating evidence is showing that social pain—the painful emotional experience that tends to follow social rejection, exclusion, or loss—relies on some of the same neural circuitry that is involved in processing physical pain. Not only that, social pain activates portions of the same brain regions and circuits that are activated by physical pain. According to Tor Wagner PhD at the University of Colorado in Boulder and lead author of a study on physical pain versus social pain, “Of all the things I’ve observed in the brain, nothing is more similar to physical pain than social pain.” Discoveries in Italy by neuroscientists Dr. Giorgia Silani and colleagues have found that social pain activates the same brain regions as occurs with physical pain (a broken heart may register and hurt in the brain as much as a broken bone, and social pain can be felt again and again long after a physical pain has healed). Simply witnessing the social pain of another person activated a similar physical pain response of empathy in most study participants. More tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Brain and Social Pain

Holidays are a mixed bag; typically a combination of joy and pain. Some time ago brain researchers identified regions in the brain that appear to register physical pain. More recently, scientists have been studying social pain and its fingerprint in the brain. There are many different types of social pain, such as: being the recipient of bullying behaviors; illness or death of someone you care about deeply; a romantic break-up or a relational breach between you and someone you thought was a good friend; rejection due to gender, race, culture, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation; a sense of not fitting in for any number of reasons; separation due to serving in the armed forces, being excluded from social activities or connections you wanted to experience; and the distress of separation exhibited and experienced by the young (children as well as animals). No doubt you can think of other examples. Researchers have concluded from the study results that social pain activates similar brain circuits whether you are suffering the emotional pain personally or experiencing the pain as an empathetic response to another person's social pain. More tomorrow.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Boxing Day

It’s Boxing Day and all through my place, the boxes are gone, both crate and case. This year instead of celebrating boxing day on December 26th (it used to be a big deal during my childhood in Canada), I decided to vary that tradition by commemorating it in advance. I’ve never been particularly fixated on things, but since the 2014 earthquake I’m more aware than ever that things are just things. What I truly value most by far are my connections with the brains and hearts of others. On my death bed—I hope at the age of at least 122 years 165 days, since it would be fun to live a day longer than did Jeanne Louise Calment of Arles, France—I doubt I will be thinking about things I have owned, rather about the brains and hearts I have loved over a lifetime. You might want to make your own list of treasured individuals and take this opportunity to tell them how grateful you are that they are in your life and how much you love them. Do it on Boxing Day or choose a Gratitude Day at another time of year. Just do it. Life is uncertain and someday you may be very glad you did. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Sayings #1

A friend of mine sent me a collection of ‘sayings.’ My brain found many of them quite humorous so I’ll share some from time to time. Here are the first eight.

1.   I find it ironic that the colors red, white, and blue stand for freedom, until they're flashing behind you.
2.   Today a man knocked on my door and asked for a small donation towards the local community swimming pool, so I gave him a glass of water.
3.   If I had a dollar for every girl that found me unattractive, they'd eventually find me attractive.
4.   I changed my password to ‘incorrect’ so whenever I forget it the computer will say, "Your password is incorrect."
5.   Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity. Artificial intelligence is often fixable; stupidity is not.
6.   I'm great at multi-tasking; I can waste time, be unproductive, and procrastinate all at once.
7. You'd think in this day and age that Santa would be using an iPad, traveling by rocket, and unlocking a door with electronic gadgetry rather than risking a sooty chimney.
8.   If you can smile when things go wrong, you may have someone in mind to blame.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Unreliability and Creepiness

One of my top red flags for 'creepiness' is unreliability, and I pay attention. Genuine friendships tend to be reliable. That doesn’t mean that situations never crop up that require a change of plans. It does mean that those instances are rare and usually due to a good reason: your mother was just admitted to the hospital with a heart attack or your beloved pet just died or the plane is grounded somewhere in Canada due to a blizzard or your car has gone missing from a handicapped parking spot in broad daylight no less. By all means be open to developing new friendships but take your time and do so reflectively, deliberately, wisely, and judiciously. When in doubt, back off and observe for a while. Your brain is your greatest resource and interested ally—it really does want the best for both of you and tries to get your attention and give you information by triggering emotions. Meantime enjoy your connections with tried and true friends, who give your brain no red flags. By chance if you are the one exhibiting red-flag messages, take a long hard look at yourself and choose to develop healthier and more functional behaviors. The holiday season can be a great opportunity to practice and hone them.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Creepiness and Red-Flags

Providing you with red-flag cues that another person may be ‘creepy’ is a function of fear, one of the four core emotions. It is designed to alert you to the fact that you may be in danger, providing you with information to process as you consider whether or not you really want to get to know the individual better or choose to back away—perhaps sooner than later. Some behaviors seem to align with giving off an impression of ‘creepiness’ although your brain may try to alert you without your having directly witnessed overt negative behaviors. Poor hygiene can be a red flag; the person lacking good self-care or seeming uncaring about the impression they make on others. Then there is getting a dead-pan stare or not being looked at all. Inappropriate touching is another. Unpredictability can be another. One moment they are cheerful and pleasant and the next they are moody and silent. One minute they are all over you and the next you are completely ignored as if you have ceased to exist. One second you are chatting and the next they are phubbing you; checking out of the conversation in favor of checking in with their cell phone, just in case they might have a call. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Creepiness Signals

Being creeped out is something to pay attention to and analyze. It is likely the brain’s way of getting you to pay more attention to something that could turn out to be a threat. My work with women who had been dated-raped revealed that often they had some sense of dis-ease with the person or felts something was a bit ‘off’—and they ignored it or tried to rationalize it away. Never dismiss such reactions or responses out of hand. Pay attention even when you cannot specifically define the reason you are experiencing the sensation. Some even have described their reaction as “feeling momentarily cold, almost like having a chill.” The brain picks up millions of data points per second as it scans the background environment, as it were. You could not concentrate on anything if you were trying to decode and understand all those sensory stimuli. There can be many reasons for the brain perceiving that something is ‘off.’ When it does, however, the only way it can get your attention is by surfacing one of the core protective emotions in the hope that you ‘listen up.’ 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Creepiness and the Brain

The first empirical study on the common psychological experience of feeling creeped out (that I am aware of) was conducted by Francis T. McAndrew and Sara S. Koehnke of the Department of Psychology, Knox College, Galesburg, IL. The article On the Nature of Creepiness” was published in New Ideas in Psychology, March 2016. The researchers propose that creepy is a qualitatively different characteristic as compared with concepts such as being terrified or disgusted. In those situations the conclusions drawn about the person in question are much more clear-cut. Rather it may be related to the brain’s agency-detection mechanisms. Some study conclusions were:


  • Individuals perceived as creepy are more likely to be males
  • Some occupations and hobbies are more strongly linked with creepiness than others (with clowns leading the list)
  • Females are more likely to perceive sexual threat from an individual perceived as creepy
  • The trait of unpredictability is an important component of creepiness

Friday, December 16, 2016

Petrichor and the Brain

Can you tell by smell that rain is coming? Some brains can. If there is lightening, ozone may be present and may be carried down from the clouds. There are several scents associated with rainfall that many enjoy—if their brain can decode odors. As it falls, rain—being water—is odorless. But when it hits the earth, something happens. What people find pleasing about rain is due, at least in part, to something called petrichor. Actually, the word petrichor was coined by two Australian scientists in 1964 when they were studying the smells of wet weather. The word is a combination of the Greek word petra, meaning stone, and ichor, that comes from Greek mythology, the fluid that supposedly flowed in the veins of the gods. The odor known as petrichor tends to linger when rain comes after a long dry spell. The scientists found that an oil is released by some plants during dry periods and is absorbed by clay-based soils and rocks. When it rains, the oil is released into the air along with some other compounds. Interestingly, light rain tends to produce more aerosols.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Altering Odortype

What can alter your odortype? If you eat a great deal of garlic, it can impact your breath for 24-28 hours, and if you are sweating a lot, sometimes it can temporarily alter the odor of your sweat. Many people are familiar with stress-related odors. When you are stressed, you tend to secrete more apocrine from the apocrine sweat glands in your armpits. In combination with the bacteria on your skin, this milky fluid, most commonly secreted in the presence of emotional stress, can create a rather unpleasant odor. Drinking plenty of fluids, practicing good body hygiene, using appropriate deodorants, and taking appropriate steps to manage emotional stressors, can help reduce these stress-related odors. Some very rare conditions can impact one’s odortype, as well. For example, a genetic disorder known as trimethylaminuria (TMAU), which affects about 1 in 200,000 people. They don’t process trimethlamine efficiently and it tends to build up in the body, resulting in a fishy odor in urine, sweat, reproductive fluids, and breath.

[http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/trimethylaminuria/Pages/Introduction.aspx]

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Odortype-Perfume Link

Does your odortype impact how perfume and aftershave scents work on your body versus another’s body? The general consensus seems to be ‘yes,’ at some level, although with newer methods of preparation perhaps not as much as it used to be in the past. Nevertheless, a study by Andrew McDougall, a leading scientist, concluded that people pick their perfume not only for its fragrance but also for how it will interact with their underlying body odor. (http://www.cosmeticsdesign-europe.com/Formulation-Science/Body-odour-actually-complements-the-fragrance-you-wear). Many factors can impact how a specific fragrance smells in combination with your own chemical makeup, so selecting a fragrance by sniffing the bottle doesn’t tell you how that scent will smell on your skin. Factors may include the ambient temperature in the environment as well as your own body temperature, gender and race, medications you may be taking, what you eat, whether or not you are perspiring, if your skin is dry or normal or oily, and if you have used lotion prior to spraying on a fragrance or splashing on aftershave. And the scent tends to change over the course of time, too, meaning that the scent of the fragrance initially may be quite different from what you perceive a couple hours later. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Scents and Memories

An odor, scent, or fragrance involves one or more chemical compounds that become volatized, typically at a very low concentration, and that humans perceive by the sense of olfaction (or smell). Over time, different words have come to be associated with negative or positive scents. For example, in many parts of the world the word odor typically has a negative connotation, even indicating that something stinks or reeks. Scents or aromas typically refer to something pleasant. The term smell, when used as a noun, is used for both unpleasant as well as pleasant odors. Memories related to odors, scents, or fragrances can be very powerful. Olfactory receptors in the brain link directly with the limbic system or mammalian layer, the part of the brain where emotional impulses arise. Emotional memories that are connected with smells, therefore, can be very powerful—positively or negatively, depending on the situation and what you smelled at the time. A study led by C. Bushdid estimated that humans can discriminate among more than one trillion olfactory stimuli—nothing like the sensitivity exhibited by dogs such as bloodhounds and beagles, but pretty impressive nevertheless.

Your Unique Odortype

In the same way that your brain is unique—there has never been one just like it every before and there will never be another identical to it ever again—and you have unique fingerprints, you possess a unique odortype. According to researchers, your odortype, your genetically determined body odor, acts like an olfactory nametag. This helps to distinguish one person from another. It may even play a part you selecting a mate. Your odortype is determined in part by genes in a genomic region called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), which plays a role in the immune system. The type of food you eat can influence your body odor; garlic for example, especially if you eat a lot of it. Can you completely mask or alter your odortype by what you eat? Apparently not. Studies have shown that chemical analyses could still detect an underlying odortype. According to study author Gary Beauchamp, a behavioral biologist, this suggests that electric sensors can be developed to detect individual odortypes as well as body odor differences linked with diseases. These sensors potentially could assist with early detection and rapid diagnosis of conditions such as skin and lung cancers and perhaps some specific viral diseases.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Brain and Smell

The olfactory nerve or CN1, the first of 12 cranial nerves located within the head, is responsible for decoding sensory stimuli that result in the brain interpreting the data as ‘smells.’ Like the optical nerve, the olfactory nerve does not connect with the brain stem—the only two cranial nerves for which this is true. Apparently, smell exists only inside your own brain. Your sense of smell gives rise to the perception of odors. Millions of olfactory receptor neurons are found in a small patch of tissue (olfactory epithelium) located in back of the nasal cavity. The neurons function as sensory signaling cells. Each neuron has cilia (tiny hair-like projections) that are in direct contact with air. Airborne particles that enter the nasal cavity interact with these neuron receptors. Common odors that you are accustomed to, such as your own body odor, are less noticeable to you than external or uncommon odors due to habituation. The sense of smell tires quickly after continuous exposure to an odor but recovers rapidly after the odor stimulus is removed. Environmental conditions can impact the process of ‘smelling.’ For example, when the air is cool and dry, odors usually are more easily distinguishable by the brain. Blunt trauma damage to the olfactory nerve can lead to a reduced or even absent sense of smell. Nasal pain typically will still register in the brain, however, because pain is transmitted by the trigeminal nerve. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Brain and Taste, 5

How well you taste is also impacted by how well you smell. What you perceive as taste is a complex interaction of tongue-tasting and nose-smelling.  Chewing your food forces air up into your nose, which carries chemicals that trigger olfactory receptors. The olfactory receptors are distance chemoreceptors, meaning they do not have to make direct contact with the food itself. They pick up the chemical odors and translate them into electrical signals that travel to the brain via the nervous system. Together your taste buds and olfactory receptors notify the brain of what they are picking up and the sensation of ‘flavor’ is created. The gustatory cortex located near the back of the brain next to centers that control chewing and swallowing, decode taste. Estimates are that about 25% of the population are ‘supertasters.’ They have a heightened sense of taste, due in part to a higher density of taste buds and to subtle brain differences in how taste is decoded. As you enjoy your ability to smell and taste, thank the taste buds on your tongue, the olfactory receptors in your nose--and the decoding centers in your brain. Without them, your life would definitely be lacking in flavor.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Brain and Taste, 4

The tongue appears not to be divided into taste sections as originally believed. Put a bit of sugar or salt on different sections of your tongue and your taste buds can pick up their chemicals anywhere. What can impact your taste? Colds, flu, allergies, or anything that makes your nose stuffy, which reduces the flow of chemicals to your olfactory receptors. Smoking can reduce the number of taste buds you have on your tongue, which can reduce taste intensity. So can the aging process. As you grow older your taste buds may not get replaced properly. An older person may only have 5,000 working taste buds instead of 8,000-10,000, which can impact the intensity of flavors. Loss of smell is one of the initial symptoms in degenerative neurological diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. More tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Brain and Taste, 3

Taste buds are able to sense five distinct tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami or savory. Each on is linked to specific chemicals in foods. Generally, most human beings find salty, sweet, and umami foods quite pleasant. Sour and bitter tastes may register as being rather unpleasant. Three cranial nerves are responsible for carrying the chemicals that your taste buds pick up from food to the brain. Taste is ultimately decoded as flavor in the brain (not in the taste buds):

·         The facial nerve carries signals from the front two-thirds of the tongue
·         The glossopharyngeal nerve transmits signals from the back portion of the tongue
·         The vagus nerve conveys signals from the soft palate and epiglottis


More tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Brain and Taste, 2

Each taste bud, formed from a group of 50–150 receptor cells, is embedded in the surface of the tongue and makes contact with what you eat and drink via a taste pore. Different tongues have differing numbers of taste buds, ranging from 8,000-10,000 on average. Some individuals may have only a few hundred taste buds per square centimeter on the tip of their tongue, while others may have a thousand. Taste sensations produced within an individual taste bud also vary, since each taste bud typically contains receptor cells that respond to distinct chemical stimuli. This means that differing tastes are diverse in a single taste bud. Taste buds have sensitive microscopic hairs called microvilli that are direct chemoreceptors. They must come into contact with food and then they translate chemical signals in food into electrical signals that travel to the brain via the nervous system. Taste buds replace themselves every 10-14 days so if you decide to start eating healthier foods you can get accustomed to them quite quickly. More tomorrow.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Brain and Taste

Recently I overheard a group of people complaining about the aging of their brains and bodies. Yes, everyone alive is aging. Your brain and body is absolutely amazing, however, although it can be easy to lose sight of everything it does for you on a daily basis. As one person put it, there are miracles going on in your brain and body every second of your life—and you might want to thank them for everything they make possible. As you look ahead to the holidays, anticipation of familiar foods may come to mind. Taste and smell are two senses that not only are quite complex but also have a major impact on behavior, perception, obesity, dementia, depression, overall health, memories, and some chronic illnesses. No surprise, they also influence your enjoyment of a great many things including the romantic impact of your partner along with the pleasure you receive from foods and beverages. Taste and smell work together hand-in-hand to create flavors in the brain. More tomorrow.


Friday, December 2, 2016

Zeigarnik Effect

Have you gotten stuck with a song replaying itself over and over in your head? A Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik (1900-1988) reportedly first described what is now known as the Zeigarnik Effect in her doctoral thesis in 2917, which may help to explain that. It is a tendency for the brain to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than those that have been completed. In a similar way, you may have found yourself thinking again and again about some task that is only partly done and you know you need to finish it. Back to the song replaying endlessly inside your head. What can you do? If you know the song well enough, repeat or sing or hum the last verse or the last chorus and immediately choose to think about something else. This sends a signal to your brain that the song (the task) is finished and it is time to move on to something else. There have been times I had to repeat this action two or three times but it usually works—my brain moves on to something else.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Superman Stance and Cortisol

By now there have been enough studies to show that there is a link between your behaviors and how your feel. For example, just curving your lips into a smile alters your brain’s neurochemistry. In a similar way, some believe that the Superman Stance can positively impact the immune system. What does that look like? Stand with your feet flat on the floor about 12 inches apart. Place your hands on your hips, pull your shoulders back, and hold your head up high. Hold this pose for 1 minutes while brain breathing (inhale through your nose for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 12, breathe out through pursed lips for a count of 8). Reportedly this may drop your cortisol levels by 20-30%. Whenever I feel tense for some reason, using the Superman Stance accompanied by 10-15 brain breaths is immensely helpful—for me.