May 17, 2013
When art meets neuroscience, strange things happen.
Consider the Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art in Oregon which features rugs and knitting based on a brain scan motif. Or the neuroscientist at the University of Nevada-Reno who scanned the brain of a portrait artist while he drew a picture of a face.
And then there’s the ongoing war of words between scientists who think it’s possible to use analysis of brain activity to define beauty–or even art–and their critics who argue that it’s absurd to try to make sense of something so interpretive and contextual by tying it to biology and the behavior of neurons.
Beauty and the brain
On one side you have the likes of Semir Zeki, who heads a research center called the Institute of Neuroesthetics at London’s University College. A few years ago he started studying what happens in a person’s brain when they look at a painting or listen to a piece of music they find beautiful. He looked at the flip side, too–what goes on in there when something strikes us as ugly.
What he found is that when his study’s subjects experienced a piece of art or music they described as beautiful, their medial orbito-frontal cortex–the part of the brain just behind the eyes–”lit up” in brain scans. Art they found ugly stimulated their motor cortex instead. Zeki also discovered that whether the beauty came through their ears, in music, or their eyes, in art, the brain’s response was the same–it had increased blood flow to what’s known as its pleasure center. Beauty gave the brains a dopamine reward.
Zeki doesn’t go so far as to suggest that the essence of art can be captured in a brain scan. He insists his research really isn’t about explaining what art is, but rather what our neurons’ response to it can tell us about how brains work. But if, in the process, we learn about common characteristics in things our brains find beautiful, his thinking goes, what harm is there in that?
Beware of brain rules?
Plenty, potentially, responds the critics’ chorus. Writing recently in the journal Nature, Philip Ball makes the point that this line of research ultimately could lead to rule-making about beauty, to “creating criteria of right or wrong, either in the art itself or in individual reactions to it.” It conceivably could devolve to “scientific” formulas for beauty, guidelines for what, in music or art or literature, gets the dopamine flowing.
Although it is worth knowing that musical ‘chills’ are neurologically akin to the responses invoked by sex or drugs, an approach that cannot distinguish Bach from barbiturates is surely limited.
Others, such as University of California philosophy professor Alva Noe, suggest that to this point at least, brain science is too limiting in what it can reveal, that it focuses more on beauty as shaped by people’s preferences, as opposed to addressing the big questions, such as “Why does art move us?” and “Why does art matter?”
And he wonders if a science built around analyzing events in an individual’s brain can ever answer them. As he wrote in the New York Times:
…there can be nothing like a settled, once-and-for-all account of what art is, just as there can be no all-purpose account of what happens when people communicate or when they laugh together. Art, even for those who make it and love it, is always a question, a problem for itself. What is art? The question must arise, but it allows no definitive answer.
Fad or fortune?
So what of neuroaesthetics? Is it just another part of the “neuro” wave, where brain scans are being billed as neurological Rosetta Stones that proponents claim can explain or even predict behavior–from who’s likely to commit crimes to why people make financial decisions to who’s going to gain weight in the next six months.
More jaded souls have suggested that neuroaesthetics and its bulky cousin, neurohumanities, are attempts to capture enough scientific sheen to attract research money back to liberal arts. Alissa Quart, writing in The Nation earlier this month, cut to the chase:
Neurohumanities offers a way to tap the popular enthusiasm for science and, in part, gin up more funding for humanities. It may also be a bid to give more authority to disciplines that are more qualitative and thus are construed, in today’s scientized and digitalized world, as less desirable or powerful.
Samir Zeki, of course, believes this is about much more than research grants. He really isn’t sure where neuroaesthetics will lead, but he’s convinced that only by “understanding the neural laws,” as he puts it, can we begin to make sense of morality, religion and yes, art.
Here’s some of the latest news about brain scans:
- I see your pain: A study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that scientists were not only able to “see” pain on brain scans, but also could measure its intensity and tell if a drug was helping to ease it.
- Don’t blame me, it’s my brain that hates calculus: A research team at Stanford University School of Medicine concluded that the size and connectivity of a child’s hippocampus, a brain area that is important for memory, is the key factor in how quickly he or she can learn math.
- There lies madness Researchers at Cambridge University in the U.K. say they will scan the brains of 300 teenagers and track how their brains evolve as they age. One thing the scientists want to see is how the brain’s wiring changes as teenagers become less impulsive.
- Trouble brewing: Brain scans may even be able to help detect if a recovering alcoholic is about to fall off the wagon. A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry contends that alcoholics with abnormal activity in areas of the brain that control emotions and desires are eight times more likely to relapse and start drink heavily.
- Robots are people, too: And finally, German researchers say that based on their analysis of brain scans of subjects in a study, people reacted just as strongly to scenes of robots being treated kindly or being abused as they did to humans getting the same treatments.
Video bonus: Samir Zeki explains, in this TED talk, why he’s sure beauty is in the brain of the beholder.
Video bonus bonus: Brain scans can be funny, in a bizarre Japanese humor kind of way. And no, I have no idea why the men in this video are all dressed as female nurses.
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May 10, 2013
To be honest, I’ve never associated motherhood with science. I assume this has everything to do with the fact that I’m one of eight kids, and while I’m sure we were a study in chaos theory, my mother didn’t have much time to nail the concept and work it into bedtime stories.
That said, moms remain a subject of scientific inquiry because, no matter how constant they may seem to us, they’re always changing to keep up with the times.
Here then are 10 recent studies or surveys that give a bit more insight into the institution of 21st century moms.
1) Have I got a story for you: According to a study published recently in the journal Sex Roles, moms are better than dads at telling stories and reminiscing with their kids, and that helps children develop their emotional skills. The researchers observed that moms tended to include more emotional terms in their stories and were more likely to then explain them to their children.
2) But how many of the answers were “Because I said so”: A survey of 1,000 moms in the United Kingdom found that the typical mother answers up to 300 questions a day from their kids. Four-year-old girls are the most inquisitive, averaging a fresh question about every two minutes. The most questions are asked during meals–an average of 11–followed by shopping trips–10 questions–and bedtime–nine questions.
3) That magic touch: The skin-to-skin touch of a mother can make a big difference in helping preemies or other at-risk babies deal with the pain and stress of injections. Researchers determined that the touch of a father or an unrelated women can also help lower the stress of an at-risk baby, but neither had quite the soothing effect of physical contact with the child’s mother.
4) Even mom spit is special: A recent article in the journal Pediatrics recommended that mothers clean off their child’s pacifier by putting it in their own mouths. That’s right. What the researchers found is that infants whose mothers sucked on their pacifiers to clean them developed fewer allergies than children whose mothers rinsed or boiled the pacifiers. The children of moms who gave pacifiers a mouth rinse also had lower rates of eczema, fewer signs of asthma and smaller amounts of a type of white blood cell that rises in response to allergies and other disorders. The findings are in line with the growing evidence that some exposure to germs at a young age can be good for kids.
5) Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work I go: About 40 percent of working mothers in the U.S. now say the ideal situation for them would be to work full time. That’s according to the latest research on the matter from the Pew Research Center. It’s almost twice as many who felt that way in 2007, when 21 percent of the women surveyed said that would be their preference. The researchers speculated that this is probably a reflection of tough economic times. But working part time is still the top choice among working women, although the percentage of women who said that would be the best situation for them dropped from 60 percent in 2007 to 50 percent in the most recent survey.
6) Don’t do what I do: Just as moms generally can do more good for their kids than dads, they also apparently can do more harm. A 34-year study by the British think tank Demos found that the alcohol drinking habits of mothers can have the greatest impact on how their children consume alcohol. While at age 16, a child’s drinking behavior was greatly influenced by peers, the researchers found that that changed as children reached maturity. Then, the scientists more often discovered clear connections between alcohol consumption–particularly binge drinking–and childhood memories of how their mothers would drink.
7) Crouching tiger, failing children: So much for the power of Tiger Moms, the stereotypical demanding Asian mother depicted in the much-debated Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in 2011. A University of Texas professor named Su Yeong Kim, who had been following more than 300 Asian-American families for a decade, recently published her findings. What she observed didn’t quite match the stereotype. Children of parents whom Kim classified as “tiger” had lower academic achievement–and more psychological problems–than the kids of parents characterized as “supportive” or “easygoing.”
8) Even in utero we know to take a vowel: According to a joint study of newborns in Washington State and in Stockholm, babies start learning language from their moms even before they leave the womb. The scientists said their research showed that the infants began locking on to the vowel sounds of their mothers before they were born. How did they know that? They studied 40 infants, all about 30 hours old, and they found that the babies–who were played vowel sounds in foreign languages and the language of their mothers–consistently sucked longer on pacifiers when they heard sounds different from the ones they had heard in utero.
9) Sure, but you’d know nothing about Legos without us: Judging by a bit of research done in Finland, boys, at least in times past, could take almost nine months off a mother’s life, compared to girls. The Finnish scientists analyzed the post-childbirth survival rates of 11,166 mothers and 6,360 fathers in pre-industrial Finland, between the 17th and 20th centuries. And they found that a mother who bore six sons would live on average another 32.4 years after the youngest son’s birth, while a mother who gave birth to girls would live approximately 33.1 years after her youngest daughter came along. The shorter life expectancy was the same regardless of the mom’s social or financial status. The researchers surmised that not only was bearing boys more physically demanding for the mothers, but also that daughters were more likely to prolong their mothers’ lives by helping with household responsibilities.
10) Putting it in words: And finally…this probably shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but a study just published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that caveman didn’t just grunt, but actually had a decent little vocabulary that included the equivalent of words for ‘thou’, ‘you’, ‘we,’ ‘bark,’ ‘fire,’ ‘spit’ and yes, ‘mother.’
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May 3, 2013
It may have been the word retrieval adventure I had the other night when I couldn’t remember the name of thinly sliced cured ham. (I nailed the “p,” but didn’t come close to conjuring up “prosciutto.”) Or it could have been the annoying pain I feel in a knuckle on my right hand these days. Probably both.
All I know is that when I read about a recent study in which scientists were able to slow down the aging process in mice, I was more than a little intrigued.
According to the researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, the key to stalling the harsh march of aging is likely deep inside your brain, specifically the almond-size section called the hypothalamus.
It has long been associated with our sense of hunger and thirst, our body temperature and feelings of fatigue. But the scientists, in the study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, say they found that by deactivating a molecule found in the hypothalamus called NF-kB, they were able to get mice to live 20 percent longer, and also show fewer physical signs of aging.
More specifically, when they blocked the substance from the hypothalamus, the animals lived up to 1,100 days, about 100 days longer than the normal limit for mice. But when they gave other mice more NF-kB, they all died within 900 days. The mice without NF-kB also had more muscle and bone, healthier skin and were better at learning.
During the study, the researchers also determined that NF-kB lowered levels of a hormone called GnRH. And when they gave the mice a daily treatment of that hormone, it too helped to extend the animals’ lives and even caused new neurons to develop in their brains.
This is where I need to raise the caveat about research with mice, namely that what works with them often doesn’t carry over to humans. Or as io9 noted, “comparing the aging processes of mice to humans is a precarious proposition at best.”
That said, the lead scientist for the study, Dongsheng Cai, says he’s excited by what the research suggests. “It supports the idea that aging is more than a passive deterioriation of different tissues,” he told The Guardian in an interview. “It is under control and can be manipulated.”
Thanks for my memory
Then there is Theodore Berger. He’s a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and he believes that one day in the not too distant future, it may be possible to use electrical implants in the brain to help people retrieve long-term memories.
So far, Berger and his research team have been able to show how a silicon chip externally connected to rat and monkey brains by electrodes can process information as actual neurons do. And last fall, the researchers demonstrated that they could help monkeys bring back long-term memories.
They focused on the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that retrieves the memories created by the hippocampus. The scientists placed electrodes in the monkeys’ brains to capture the neuron code formed in the prefrontal cortex that, the researchers believed, allowed the animals to remember an image they had been shown earlier. Then they drugged the monkeys with cocaine, which impaired activity in that part of their brains. Next they used the implanted electrodes to send electrical pulses carrying the captured code to the monkeys’ prefrontal cortex, and that, according to Berger, significantly improved the animals’ performance on a memory test.
Of course, the more you study the brain, the more complex it gets. And it’s quite possible that Berger hadn’t captured a code for how all memories are stored, but rather a code related only to the specific task of recalling an image. He says that within the next two years, he and his colleagues plan to implant a memory chip in animals, one that should, once and for all, determine if they have indeed cracked the code of creating long-term memories of many different situations and behaviors.
As he told M.I.T.’s Technology Review, ““I never thought I’d see this go into humans, and now our discussions are about when and how. I never thought I’d live to see the day, but now I think I will.”
The ticking clock
Here’s other recent research on aging and memory:
- Be still, my heart: After tracking more than 5,000 men for 40 years, Danish scientists concluded that those with high resting heart rates–above 80 beats per minute–were considerably more likely to die at a younger age, even if they were considered healthy.
- Not to mention it was a lot safer than actually having them drive: According to a study at the University of Iowa, elderly people who played a video game called “Road Tour” for as little as 10 hours, were able to measurably sharpen their cognitive skills.
- And throw in a side of olive oil: More kudos for the Mediterranean diet. A study published in the journal Neurology earlier this week found that people who followed the diet, built around eating fish, olive oil and vegetables and very little meat, were 19 percent less likely to suffer memory problems or cognitive decay.
- Although now they only dream in pink: And then there’s this report from German scientists: By having people listen to “pink noise” sounds that matched their brain wave oscillations as they slept, researchers were able to help them remember things they had learned the previous day.
- Dead and famous: Research by Australian scientists based on obituaries published in the New York Times over a two-year period found that people who were famous were more likely to die younger, particularly performers and athletes. The study also determined that performers were at a particularly high greatest risk of dying of lung cancer.
- We’re gonna need more fists: And finally, scientists at Montclair State University in New Jersey say their research shows that by clenching your right fist before memorizing something, and then your left when you want to remember it, you have a better chance of your memory coming through for you.
Video bonus: Here’s a short tutorial on why we age, told through the magic of whiteboard and markers:
Video bonus bonus: And a little visual proof that no one ages quite like a rock star.
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April 24, 2013
In one those strange twists of modern life, we were reminded last week of the power of music–at a hockey game.
It was at Boston’s TD Garden, two days after the explosions that contorted so many lives, and as singer Rene Rancourt began the Star Spangled Banner before the game between the hometown Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres, he noticed that many in the crowd were joining in. Rancourt got only as far as …”what so proudly we hailed” before he pulled the microphone away from his mouth and motioned to those in the stands to carry on. They did, in full voice, building to a stirring finish.
Yes, it would have been a powerful moment had those 17,000 people stood and cheered in unison. But they sang together, without restraint, and that moved us in a way we can’t fully comprehend.
Welcome to the pleasure center
Why is it that music can affect us in such profound ways? “Because it does” seems like a pretty good answer to me, but scientists aren’t that easy. They’ve been wrestling with this for a long time, yet it was not that long ago that two researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre, came up with an explanation, at least a physiological one.
Based on MRI scans, they found that when people listened to music they liked, the limbic and paralimbic regions of the brain became more active. They’re the areas linked to euphoric reward responses, the same ones that bring the dopamine rush associated with food, sex and drugs. (Right, so throw in rock and roll.)
Okay, but why? Why should a collection of sounds cause the brain to reward itself? That remains a bit of a mystery, but a favorite theory, proposed almost 60 years ago, posits that it’s about fulfilled expectations. Put simply, music sets up patterns that causes us to predict what will come next and when we’re right, we get a reward. Some have suggested this has its roots in primitive times when guessing wrong about animal sounds was a matter of life or death. What was needed was a quick emotional response to save our skin, rather than taking a time to think things through.
And so, the theory goes, our response to sound became a gut reaction.
And the beat goes on
The truth is we’re learning new things about music all the time. Here are eight studies published in just the past few months.
1) But can you dance to it?: Toronto researcher Valorie Salimpoor wanted to know if our strong emotional response to a song we like is due to the music itself or some personal attachment we have to it. So she had a group of people listen to 30-second samples of songs they’d never heard before, then asked them how much they’d be willing to pay for each track. And she did MRI scans of their brains while they listened. The result? When the nucleus accumbens region became active–it’s a part of the brain associated with pleasant surprises or what neuroscientists call “positive prediction errors”–they were more willing to spend money. In other words, if a song turned out better than they had expected, based on pattern recognition, they wanted more of it.
2) Drum solos not included: Two McGill University psychologists in Montreal say that soothing music can actually be more effective than Valium when it comes to relaxing people before surgery.
3) Unless their favorite song is by Metallica: And it helps even the tiniest of babies. A study at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York found that when parents turned their favorite songs into lullabies and sang or played them on an instrument, it reduced stress levels in the infants and stabilized their vital signs.
4) The ultimate mind meld: Back to brain scans. Stanford neuroscientist Daniel Abrams determined that when different people listened to the same piece of music–in this case a little known symphony–their brains reflected similar patterns of activity. And those similarities were observed not just in areas of the brain linked with sound processing, but also in regions responsible for attention, memory and movement.
5) You know you love “Gangnam Style”…Ooops, sorry about that: Yes, scientists are even doing research on earworms or as most of us know them, songs that get stuck in our heads. And the latest study found that contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s usually not awful songs that we can’t seem to get rid of. Most often, it’s songs we actually like, even if we don’t want to admit it. Researcher Ira Hyman also has suggestions for how to get rid of an earworm–you need to engage in a task that requires the auditory and verbal components of your working memory–say, reading a good book.
6) No language barrier here: Previous research has shown that people with a musical background are more likely to be able to learn a second language, and now a new study suggests that people who speak a language that’s tonal, such as Cantonese, may be better suited to learning music. Understanding Cantonese requires a person to master six different tones, each of which can change the meaning of words. On musical tests taken by non-musicians as part of the study, those who spoke Cantonese scored 20 percent higher than English-speaking participants who didn’t play music.
7) Some day you’ll thank me for this, kid: A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that musical training before the age of seven can have a major effect on brain development. Those who learned how to play chords at an early age tend to have stronger connections between the motor regions of their brains.
8) Say what?: So loud music may not ruin your hearing after all. At least that’s the conclusion of New South Wales scientist Gary Houseley, who says his research showed that loud music causes hearing to diminish for only about 12 hours. His study was able to demonstrate that when sound levels rise, the inner ear releases a hormone which reduces the amount of sound transmitted by the ear hair’s cells. That reduces our hearing sensitivity for a while, but it also keeps our ears from being permanently damaged.
Video bonus: Then there are the people who can improvise music. Researcher Charles Limb took a look inside their brains.
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March 8, 2013
This weekend, most of us Americans will lose an hour of sleep when we push the clocks ahead to swing into Daylight Saving Time.
That may not seem like much–the Academy Awards were three and a half times that long–but research suggests our bodies wouldn’t agree. A recent study by two Michigan hospitals found that they treated almost twice as many heart attack victims on the first day of Daylight Saving than on a typical Sunday. And if past behavior holds true, there will be a bump in traffic accidents on Monday because, as researchers have suggested, more people take “microsleeps” that day, due to the disruption of their body clocks.
Clearly sleep, or lack thereof, is a key component of psychic and physiological balance, although it wasn’t all that long ago that most scientists felt it wasn’t worth a lot of attention because frankly, it didn’t seem like all that much was going on. Now we know better–there’s a lot happening inside our brains and, apparently, our bodies, too when we’re snoozing.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t made us act much smarter when it comes to our sleeping habits. We’ve been hearing for years that our bodies need a good eight hours a night, but, according to a Centers for Disease Control report released last year, almost a third of working adults in America get only six.
So as David Randall, author of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, noted in a Wall Street Journal column, we’re seeing a boom in sleep aids, energy drinks, expensive mattresses designed to help us find our right “sleep number”, sleep-tracking devices and “fatigue management consultants.” That’s right, fatigue management consultants. A lot of Fortune 500 companies are now using them to track how sleep habits are affecting employee performance and safety records.
When cells go bad
Most of us are painfully aware of the mental and emotional costs of cheating ourselves of sleep. Who among us hasn’t felt the stupidness of fuzzy brain? The physical effects, though, are harder to distinguish. There’s plenty of research now that links poor sleeping habits to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. But they develop over time–which would seem to suggest that it would take years of bad sleeping to damage our health.
Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. A study just published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that getting too little little sleep just a few nights in a row can disrupt hundreds of genes, including those tied to stress and fighting diseases.
Scientists at the Surrey University Sleep Research Center in England subjected 26 volunteers–men and women between the ages of 23 and 31–to two very different weeks of sleeping. One week they were permitted to stay in bed only six hours each night. The other week they were allowed to sleep as long as 10 hours every night. Then the researchers analyzed cells in the volunteers’ blood, focusing on changes in RNA, the molecule that carries out DNA instructions through the body.
What they found surprised them. They discovered that not getting enough sleep changed the patterns in the way genes turned on and off. Overall, 711 genes were expressed differently when people were sleep-deprived: 444 genes were suppressed, 267 were stirred up. And the ones that became more active were genes involved in inflammation, immunity and protein damage.
Plus, when sleeping time was limited to six hours, the genes that govern the body clocks of the volunteers changed dramatically. Almost 400 genes stopped cycling in a circadian rhythm altogether, a disruption that could throw sleep patterns even more out of whack.
Not even Derk-Jan Dijk, the director of the Surrey sleep center, expected to see that. “The surprise for us,” he said, “was that a relatively modest difference in sleep duration leads to these kinds of changes. It’s an indication that sleep disruption or sleep restriction is doing more than just making you tired.”
You snooze, you don’t lose
In honor of National Sleep Awareness Week, which ends Sunday, here are six other recent sleep studies of which you might want to be aware:
- One man’s pizza is another man’s slice: A study at Uppsala University in Sweden determined that men who were sleep-deprived invariably chose larger portions of food than they did when they had a good night’s sleep.
- So that’s why my pillow hurts my head: According to research at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, not getting enough sleep can lower your tolerance for pain. Volunteers who were allowed to sleep nine hours a night for four nights were able to hold their fingers to a source of heat 25 percent longer than study participants who weren’t permitted to sleep more than seven hours.
- Now that’s a vicious cycle: Meanwhile, at the University of California, Berkeley, scientists said they’ve found a clear link between aging brains, the poor sleep of elderly people and memory loss. After comparing the brains and memory skills of young study participants and older ones, the researchers determined that age-related brain deterioration contributes to poor sleep and that leads to memory problems.
- But wait, there’s more bad news: And in Norway, analysis of the medical histories of more than 50,000 people showed that people who said they had trouble falling asleep or remaining asleep were three times more likely to develop heart failure than those who reported no trouble sleeping.
- If only they could sleep right through it: Research from Harvard Medical School suggests that nursing home residents who take sleep aids, such as Ambien, are more likely to fall and break a hip than residents who aren’t taking any meds for insomnia.
- Did I mention that it makes you stupid about food?: Finally, two studies last year showed why sleep deprivation can lead to excess pounds. One discovered that lack of sleep can prompt bad decisions about what food to eat. The other study found that when subjects were permitted to sleep for only four hours, the reward section of their brains became more active when they were shown pictures of pizza and candy.
Video bonus: Here’s a recent ABC News piece on why bad sleep leads to bad memory.
Video bonus bonus: Okay, after all this grim science news, the least I can do is share an oldie-but-goodie stop motion clip of real fun in bed. Sleep tight.
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