Friday, January 31, 2014

Breathing and Anxiety

Some human beings struggle with anxiety more than do others. Sometimes they require medication to help them relax. On thing they might want to try is breathing differently.  Studies have shown that your heart beats faster when you inhale and beats shower when you exhale. That's likely the reason most relaxation techniques encourage participants to exhale slowly. That slows heart rate and calms the entire body. When done on a regular basis, it has been shown to increase both heart and brain health. In order to exhale slowly, you really have to think about it. Continuously. A beneficial side-effect is that if you are thinking about your breathing with each exhalation is really is difficult to continue being anxious about ruminating thoughts. On the rare occasion when I have difficulty falling asleep, I pay attention and exhale slowly. Works every time.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Time Travel Research

Recently I received several questions in a relatively short period of time asking my opinion on time travel. Before I had time to really cogitate on those requests, I stumbled across a report on time-travel research. According to the abstract:" Time travel has captured the public imagination for much of the past century, but little has been done to actually search for time travelers. Here, three implementations of Internet searches for time travelers are described, all seeking a prescient mention of information not previously available. The first search covered prescient content placed on the Internet, highlighted by a comprehensive search for specific terms in tweets on Twitter. The second search examined prescient inquiries submitted to a search engine  , highlighted by a comprehensive search for specific search terms submitted to a popular astronomy web site. The third search involved a request for a direct Internet communication, either by email or tweet, pre-dating to the time of the inquiry. Given practical verifiability concerns, only time travelers from the future were investigated. No time travelers were discovered. Although these negative results do not disprove time travel, given the great reach of the Internet, this search is perhaps the most comprehensive to date."

• Robert J. Nemiroff, Teresa Wilson, Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers, arXiv, 2013,

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Your Time and Energy Perception

How does your brain perceive the passing of time? Does it seem to go by slowly or at the speed of light? Your perception of time often has to do with what you are doing at the moment. Is it an activity that you enjoy and find stimulating and energizing versus an activity you would procrastinate or avoid doing altogether if you believed you really had that option. And often you do have that option. It’s just that your family script or your subconsciously absorbed beliefs, attitudes, and expectations have led you to think you do not. It’s true that during childhood you may have been refused breakfast until your bed was made. In adulthood, however, you choose whether you want to make your bed (often I leave mine unmade and open to the air) and when you want to eat breakfast (sometimes I eat mine in the evening . . .) Part of conscious awareness involves the skill of paying immediate attention to how time is passing. Ask yourself: “As I do this specific task, does time seem to be passing relatively quickly or slowly or pretty much in sync with the clock?” Go through the same process and ask yourself: “How is my energy level as I do this specific task: high, drained, or fairly neutral?” It’s sometimes surprising what your brain tells you . . .

Monday, January 27, 2014

Would You Be Aware of Your Own Poor Performance?

.Accurate self-evaluation is tough at best. Many fall off the "I did a fabulous job" side of the road while others slip over the bank of "I did an absolutely horrible job." Harvard Business Review recently sent out a blurb entitled "If You Were a Poor Performer, You Wouldn’t Be Aware of It." It reported on research by Thomas Schlösser of the University of Cologne in Germany. The Daily Stat put it this way: “People who lack the skill to perform well also tend to lack the ability to judge performance (their own or others’); because of this “dual curse,” they fail to recognize how incompetent they truly are. But skills aren’t set in stone: Teaching poor performers to solve logic problems causes them to see their own errors and reduce their previous estimates of their performance.” [Journal of Economic Psychology Volume 39, December 2013, Pages 85–100] The good news, of course, is that a person can learn to become more accurate at self-evaluation . . .

Friday, January 24, 2014

Melatonin and the Brain

 Melatonin, a hormone, is secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. Your body clock controls how much melatonin your body makes, which impacts your wake cycles and sleep cycles. Typically, melatonin levels rise in the evening and drop in the morning. As you probably already know, light impacts melatonin production. This means that during shorter days in the year, the pineal gland may produce melatonin earlier or later than usual, which (in some cases) may contribute to winter depression or lead to symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). In addition, natural melatonin levels fall as the brain ages. You may have heard advertisements on the radio related to sleep problems in some individuals related to lack of vision and an inability to see light. Melatonin is being studied to see if it can be used to treat this condition. Are you having difficulty sleeping, especially after all the hype of the holiday season? Melatonin might be impacting that. According to NSASA, some medications interfere with melatonin production (e.g., Ibuprofin, Beta Blockers). Turns out, so do tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine. You may want to check with your doctor.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Connectomes and Map Reading?

So do the connectome studies related to pathway connection differences in male versus female brains support stereotypes related to gender abilities for map reading and direction finding? My brain’s opinion is at least “not yet.” Some of observed differences likely relate to innate giftedness and some to environmental opportunities and experiences. For example, studies have shown that one’s sense of direction comes from grid cells in the human brain along with human hippocampal 'place cells,' which fire at single locations and assist with knowing where one is. In addition, practice (known as field independence) can develop functions within the brain and hone one’s skills. Studies on native Alaskans concluded that direction-finding abilities in that population were equal in adult males and females, ostensibly because both genders have equal opportunities for environmental exploration and practice. So based on a whole constellation of contributors, some male brains are great at reading maps and finding directions—and so are some female brains. Further research may indicate a difference in percentages of males and females for which this is true—maybe not.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Connectomes and Male-Female Brains #2

According to Ragini Verma, a University of Pennsylvania biomedical imaging analyst and lead author of the connectome-study report, in the upper parts of the brain, males had greater connectivity within hemispheres, while women had greater connection between the two cerebral hemispheres. This doesn’t mean that one or the other gender lacks the connectivity altogether, it's just that one appears to be stronger than the other. What does this mean in terms of practical every-day living? No one is sure. There has been some speculation . . . These types of studies will likely continue and eventually may be more definitive, especially as brain imaging equipment becomes more refined and sophisticated. For now,  I find the connectome drawings interesting. You may want to take a look at them yourself!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Connectomes and Male-Female Brains #1

Have you been following the news items about Connectomes and the human brain? A connectome is a comprehensive map of neural connections in the brain. Using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a tool that can indirectly outline the path of myelinated axons that facilitate long-range conduction of electrochemical signals and are part of the brain's white matter, researchers have established the level of connectivity between nearly 100 regions of the brain.

The results of connectome studies by Madhura Ingalhalikar and colleagues were published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the title of “Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain.”

It established “that male brains are optimized for intrahemispheric communication and female brains for interhemispheric communication. The developmental trajectories of males and females separate at a young age, demonstrating wide differences during adolescence and adulthood. The observations suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.”

Monday, January 20, 2014

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Today is earmarked for people to remember Martin Luther King Jr., an American who is perhaps best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using the technique of nonviolent civil disobedience. In 1986 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was designated a federal holiday in America.  In 1964 King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to combat racial inequality through nonviolence. Who knows the number of streets in the United States that have been named for King or renamed in his honor. In 2011 a memorial statue on the National Mall was opened to the public. Reportedly, he was named Michael King at birth, but his father renamed him in honor of the German reformer Martin Luther. I've often wondered if or how his name impacted King's mindset. His life does give one pause. Have you ever felt so strongly about something that you were willing to march for it? King was willing to die for what he believed. The tragedy is that he had to do so . . .

Friday, January 17, 2014

Compulsion and the Brain #2

According to Dodes (MD professor emeritus at Harvard and author of Breaking Addiction), the best approach for managing compulsions is to think ahead, rather than trying to handle them only when they arise. Think ahead and figure out what actions you can take to prevent feeling helpless or overwhelmed or whatever. This may mean changing future plans or reframing (developing a new perspective) about what is approaching. These types of strategies are much easier to implement ahead of time, in advance of the teetering-on-the-edge moment as, Dodes puts it. Spending time focusing on the precipitating contributors to the times you went ahead with the compulsion or addictive behavior is much more likely to help you solve and better handle the emotional issues that typically precede each action you take. “Planning ahead is how we deal with most challenges in life. But you have to know what to look for—not only the specific triggers but the reasons for feeling so helpless in those situations.”

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Compulsions and the Brain #1

Dr. Lance Dodes in his article in the November/December 2013 issue of Psychology Today discussed the misunderstandings that people have related to addictive behaviors. He says, “Addictions are neither more nor less than compulsions, behaviors most people have to some degree.” So how did you fare during the holidays? Did you have a compulsion to eat or drink or spend more than was healthy or advisable? Did you follow through on the compulsion or make a different choice? Many people did, exhibiting those behaviors because they felt helpless or vulnerable in some specific situation and using them as a way to supposedly take control against those feelings. Instead of taking action in an area of their lives that isn’t working for them (e.g., stressors at work, an unhappy relationship), they use those compulsive behaviors as a substitute action. In general, society has misunderstood the psychology behind addictive behavior, which not surprisingly has led to most treatment failures.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Genius and the Brain #2

The book Mindset: the new psychology of success; how we can learn to fulfill our potential by Carol S. Dweck, PhD, is all about (no surprise) mindset. She talks about two: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset—and how the view you adopt profoundly impacts the way you lead your life and its ultimate outcome. “This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.” Mindset plus the practice described by David Shenk may be what separates genius from the rest of the herd; especially for those who subscribe to the belief that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. It’s the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives. And, let’s face it, life is challenging.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Genius and the Brain #1

A book by David Shenk entitled The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent and IQ has revealed several interesting points. Practice is one of them. Rather than being the result of genetics or inherent genius, truly outstanding skill in any domain is rarely achieved with less than ten thousand hours of practice over ten years' time. Interestingly, a number of separate studies have turned up the same common number, concluding that truly outstanding skill in any domain is rarely achieved in less than ten thousand hours of practice over ten years' time (which comes to an average of three hours per day). From sublime pianists to unusually profound physicists, researchers have been very hard-pressed to find any examples of truly extraordinary performers in any field who reached the top of their game before that ten-thousand-hour mark. Some might be discouraged by this; others will be energized. It will depend on their mindset.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Illusions and Your Senses (and your brain, of course)

What is an illusion? It involves some distortion of the senses, some distortion of reality. How do you know it's an illusion? Because it would be impossible to actually have the illusion occur in real life. It describes a misinterpretation of a something decoded by the senses (as opposed to a hallucination, which involves a distortion in the absence of this type of stimulus). There are many different kinds, visual, auditory, kinesthetic, cognitive, physical, etc. Mimes, for example, are often gifted at creating illusions by physical movements such as coming up against a wall, climbing stairs, pulling or pushing and so on. I watched a mime at Pier 39 in San Francisco not long ago. It was very clear to me that there was no “wall” on the stage, and yet the mime’s physical actions were so well-matched to what one might see a person do when confronted by a real “wall” that my brain had no difficulty imagining what was happening. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Empathy and the Brain #4

According to Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, a now estimated 4% of the population in America may fall into the category of sociopath. Studies have shown that sociopathy is more than just the absence of conscience. It involves an inability to process emotional experiences including caring and loving, except when such an experience can be calculated as a coldly intellectual tasks. The sociopathic brain responds to emotionally charged words no differently from neutral words, which is unlike the non-sociopathic population. Moreover, single photon emission computed tomography showed increased blood flow to the temporal lobes when the sociopathic brain was given a decisional task that involved emotional words. Such a task would be almost neurologically instantaneous for normal brains. The sociopathic brains were functions as if they had been asked to work out an algebra problem. The research concluded that sociopathy involves an altered level of processing of emotional stimuli at the level of the cerebral cortex—as compared to non-sociopathic brains—although the reason for this is not yet clear. It is possible that this may be the result of a heritable neurodevelopmental difference that can be slightly compensated for, or made worse, by cultural, environmental, or child-rearing factors. This potential certainly shines a new light on the importance of healthy, functional, parenting.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Empathy and the Brain #3

According to the authors of Ghosts from the Nursery, excessive shame results in hypoarousal of the brain, the opposite of excitement and playfulness. This can impact the development of empathy. If the synapses in the brain are never built in childhood due to neglect, or if they are destroyed by neurochemicals resulting from chronic stress, the individual may be left with the ability to connect, trust, or experience empathy. Extreme instances may result in the development of sociopathy. This was enlarged upon by the authors of Liars, Lovers, and Heroes, who estimated that sociopaths form about 20% of the prison population while only represented in a small fraction of the general population. Many of these individuals appear insensitive to the threat of punishment. Also, many were abused as children and never learned to empathize with the pain and suffering of others. Brain scans showed an 11% reduction in gray matter volume in the prefrontal area of the brain (compared with a control group).

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Empathy and the brain #2

Some difference in empathy based on gender have been noted by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen in his book The Science of Evil. Studies showed that both males and females tended to activate portions of the brain that register aspects of empathy when they saw someone in pain whom they liked and regarded as fair. Interestingly enough, studies also showed that males found it easier to switch off their empathy for someone with whom they had no vested interest in remaining in a relationship, or who might be competitors of theirs, or who they judged to be out of line. Knowing information such as this may allow an individual to make a more informed choice. There may also be a connection between emotional intelligence and empathy. Building emotional intelligence happens only with sincere desire and concerted effort. It requires more effort to strengthen an ability such as empathy (compared to risk analysis) because the limbic brain may learn more slowly and require more practice than the cortex.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Empathy and the Brain #1

Recently there have been references to empathy in the news, especially in relation to pain. Empathy is believed to active some, but not all of the brain’s pain-processing regions. If you pick up a hot spoon handle, pain shoots through nerves into temperature receptors on your skin. It goes up your spine and into your brain. Some brain regions process where the pain comes from and how really hot the spoon was. Other regions process how unpleasant you perceived the pain to be. Therefore, how much the burn hurts and how bothersome this pain is differs for each situation and for each individual. It depends partly on what else is going on in your brain and in the environment. Knowing that someone you love is in pain automatically activates the subjective pain-processing regions of your brain, which leads to empathy. But the areas involved in processing the exact location of the pain in your body as well as the objective intensity of the pain appear to be involved only when you experience pain in yourself.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Twins Born in Different Years . . .

I started my career as a nurse―and although I worked a lot of shifts in labor and delivery, I never participated in a delivery where one twin was born at the end of one year and the other twin  at the beginning of the next year. I can only imagine the interesting consequences that may crop up for them over the coming years . . . One father of a pair of these unique twins said they'd probably celebrate both birthdays on New Year's Day but each child would have their own cake.  And it wasn't just one set of twins that pulled off this trick in 2013-2014! There have been at least two sets reported in North America. If you've not read the article, check it out . . .

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Five Blogs a Week . . .

My goal for 2014 is to post a new blog, something related to the brain and brain function, every weekday throughout the year. This way if you happen to miss one, you'll have the weekend to catch up! Please know that I'm very willing to blog on a topic that interests you, as long as it relates to the brain in some way. Send me an email and I'll see what I can come up with:  Meantime, Happy Brain Year!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Tail-Wagging and Brain Function

Typically, I enjoy reading studies that report on comparison functions of the human brain with those of creatures on this planet. According to a study published in a recent issue of Current Biology, the way a dog wags its tail (assuming it has one) is a consequence of what is going on in their canine brain. When dogs are feeling stressed they tend to wag their tails to the left; when they are feeling good, they tend to wag their tails to the right. According to lead author, Giorgio Vallortigara of the University of Trento in Italy, tail wagging sends a message to other dogs. Dogs who see another dog wagging to the left experience anxiety and elevated heart rates, whereas dogs who see another dog tail-wagging to the right remain relaxed. Left-brain activity in dogs resulting in tail wagging to the right means they are having a positive response that invites another dog to approach. Right-brain activation suggests a negative withdrawal response. Interestingly, there has been some brain imaging conclusions about the human brain: when the person is feeling happy, the left cerebral hemisphere lights up; when the person is experiencing one of the protective emotions, the right cerebral hemisphere lights up. No tail-wagging clues for others to pick up, however . . .


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, whether you're already into Day One or will be in a few hours.  January 1st has been the first day of the next year, at least in some countries, since about 45 BC. That's supposedly when Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar and fixed January 1st as the first day of the new year. Of course, the new year moves progressively around the globe as the start of the day ushers in the New Year. That's due to the division of the globe into time zones, which has something to do with "jet lag" in some brains. The first time zone to usher in the New Year is just west of the International Date Line. At that time the time zone to the east of the Date Line is 23 hours behind, still in the previous day. The central Pacific Ocean island nation of Kiribati claims that its easternmost landmass, uninhabited Caroline Island, is the first to usher in the New Year. My style doesn't include a list of New Year's resolutions, although I typically have a goal or two in mind for the coming year. My goal for 2013 was to retire from health care. Check. My goal for 2014 is to get at least two of the manuscripts I've been working on published. Oh, and to spend a bit more time challenging my brain with Lumosity brain aerobic exercises.  Do you have a goal for 2014? Whatever it is (or isn't), I wish you a happy, healthy, and successful year.