A prolific shoplifter was spared jailed for his 502nd offence after a court heard a brain injury caused his condition. (continue reading…)
Brain cancer survivor Scott Friedman wanted to help other people with the disease by blogging about his experiences on Facebook. But he was locked out of the social networking site after the condition he was writing about contributed to him failing security tests designed to prove he was a real person. (continue reading…)
On 13 May, Ars Technica showed up at a demo day for the
painful-to-read HAXLR8R (pronounced hack-celerator). It’s a
startup accelerator program that takes ten teams of
entrepreneurs, gives them $25,000 (£16,500), and flies them between
San Francisco and Shenzhen to work on a hardware-based product
of their design.
Most of the products were still in progress so many teams spent
demo day courting VC funders or imploring the crowd to visit their
Kickstarter campaign. But Foc.us, a company founded by mechanical
engineers Michael Oxley and Martin Skinner, actually had its
product launch that day. Their Foc.us headset is a device that’s
meant to shock your brain with electricity — and make you a better
gamer because of it.
By: Megan Geuss, Edited by: Kadhim Shubber
A headset that sends and receives electromagnetic signals has
been used to accurately identify oedemas and haematomas in brain
trauma patients, possibly paving the way for fast and cheap
diagnosis in rural areas.
A small trial was carried out of the Volumetric Electromagnetic
Phase Shift Spectroscopy (VEPS) headset in a military hospital in
Mexico, and was successful in picking up differences in the
structure of the brain caused by the presence of excess fluid or
blood (an oedema in the brain causes swelling due to excessive
fluid flooding the tissue, while brain haematomas can occur in
different pockets of the brain when blood accumulates there).
By: Liat Clark, Edited by: Ian Steadman
Adults have a few problems, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Some three out of four doctor visits are stress-related. A doctor in Wisconsin told me that 90 percent of her patients have depleted adrenal glands, the result of the stress response pouring out adrenaline around the clock. American businesses squander $344 billion a year on stress-related costs, according to data from Middle Tennessee State University (continue reading…)
The practice: See progress.
There are always things that are getting worse. For example, over the past year, you probably know someone who has become unemployed, ill or both, and there’s more carbon in the atmosphere inexorably heating up the planet.
But if you don’t recognize what’s improving in your own life, then you feel stagnant, or declining. This breeds what researchers call “learned helplessness” — a dangerously slippery slope: in the original experiments on dogs, whose motivational neural systems are like our own in important ways, it was very easy to train them in helplessness but very, very hard to teach them later that they could actually walk a few steps to escape from painful electric shock.
If you don’t recognize what’s getting better in the people around you, then you’ll continue to feel disappointed — and they’ll continue to feel criticized, not seen, and “why bother.”
If you don’t see the positive trends in our world over the past several decades — such as the end of the Cold War, improved medical care and access to information, and a growing middle class in many third world countries — then you’ll get swallowed up by all the bad news, and give up trying to make this world better.
It’s not that you’re supposed to look through rose-colored glasses (continue reading…)
Ever bought a book just so you could look at the title on your shelf because the title said it all? Try these two. Terry Cole Whittaker’s “What You Think of Me Is None of My Business” is a goodie. Wrap your head around that notion and you’ll see you have no control over what others think of you, and why should you care? Here’s another — one of my all-time favorites — a Sylvia book by Nicole Hollander, “My Weight Is Always Perfect for My Height — Which Varies.” Gotta love that one.
In a recent issue of The New York Times, there was an article titled “Well: How Meditation May Change the Brain.” I’ll be honest, I didn’t read the article, I skimmed it, but only after my first reaction — which was Duh.
Actually, duh, duh, duh. And what do you mean — May? May?! Of course it changes the brain (continue reading…)
In the off-season of 1920, Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee dealt an up-and-coming slugger named Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees to raise cash for a Broadway play he was backing. The Red Sox had dominated major league baseball for the first two decades of the century, but the World Series drought that began in 1918 lasted… and lasted, until 2004. Many Red Sox fans blamed the losing streak on the unpopular trade, which became known as the “Curse of the Bambino.” For years, whenever the Red Sox played at Yankee Stadium, home team fans would jeer: “1918! 1918!”
The curse may have been broken in 2004, but the fans haven’t let it go entirely (continue reading…)
You know who they are. You have probably even had them home to dinner. But they are different aren’t they?
I am of course, talking about the right-brained people.
Suite 101, a web site devoted to so-called right-brained thinkers, says: “Right brains don’t explain what they feel well and are misunderstood (continue reading…)
I recently finished coordinating the fifth NeuroLeadership Summit, which took place in Boston at the end of 2010. It was a tremendous experience to spend three days with a few hundred “positive change agents” from around the globe, people who are in charge of leadership development programs or who develop leaders themselves. (There’s an audio debrief on the event itself here and you can read about some of the sessions here.)
There were lots of amazing conversations, with research presented on important topics, like how to give feedback in line with how the brain changes, how to use technology to measure and improve leadership development programs, and how to design learning experiences that stick.
You can listen to the sessions and see slides of the full program: here. (The next event is in San Francisco, Nov (continue reading…)
Imagery is the language of the arts, the emotions, your deeper self, and the brain regions in which that ancient wisdom abides. It is the neurological “royal road” to reconnecting with the deep emotional and intuitive wisdom that has guided us to thrive, or at least survive, for hundreds of millions of years. When we aren’t sure what to do, when we have a problem that we can’t figure out, or when we have physical symptoms that defy medical understanding or treatment, imagery makes room for the silent, emotional, intuitive areas of our brains to express themselves and add their wisdom to our perspective.
Julie, a 46-year-old health professional, volunteered to be a demonstration subject in an imagery class I was teaching. She told me that she had been suffering severe pain in both forearms for over three years (continue reading…)
Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, Jeopardy’s two greatest champions, have brains packed with facts. In one Final Jeopardy, Rutter actually recalled that President James Garfield’s wife was named Lucretia. And he deduced from this that the Mediterranean island that shared a nickname with a 19th century First Lady was “Crete.”
You might think that IBM’s Jeopardy computer, which is taking on Rutter and Jennings next month, would “know” billions of facts. But in truth, Watson is sure of nothing (continue reading…)
The brain is not too different from the rest of your body. It needs to be well-nourished. All animals except humans know this instinctively; because the head is elevated whenever an animal moves, sleep is the best time to feed an animal’s brain the blood they need for brain nourishment. An animal is always in a prone position during sleep, and its head falls lower than the rest of its body (continue reading…)
This past week a wonderful article entitled “NFL is Head-Serious About Safety” written by noted sports columnist Rick Telander came out in the Chicago Sun Times. In this excellent call-to-action piece of press, he tells the story of the NFL becoming more attuned to the subtle yet substantial effects that a blow to the head can have on a football player’s health. As someone who has conducted hundreds and hundreds of neuropsychological evaluations, I can personally attest to the dramatic ways cortical damage or bruising of the brain can have on a wide array of aspects touching on emotional and physical health. It is about time that public awareness increased regarding this growing problem, and I applaud the NFL for organizing committees and various dialogues looking to make a radical culture change around all aspects of the game: from health history data to equipment modifications.
I invite readers to consider more closely the topic of brain development in professional athletes. What do I mean by this? For years, prior to today’s neuro “a-ha!” moment, we have seen peak performance questions limited to a realm mostly called “performance enhancement.” If you asked any elite athlete what word associations come to mind when you say this phrase you would get responses like:
– Mental health
– Winning at the mental game
– Psychological tools
– Harnessing the power of the mind
Doing a performance enhancement search for resources on Amazon.com shows a radical preference of thought towards mentalism: if you put the word “mind’ in front of “performance enchancement,” as opposed to “brain,” you get nearly four times as many hits to choose from. In my job as a neuroscience-based consultant working with high-performers worldwide, I can tell you that there is a huge paradigm shift in the making, and it has to do with the brain — not the mind – holding most of the secrets to mastery, both on and off the field/court. And here is the kicker: this is true with or without prior head injuries or concussions. When I conducted a random sampling nationally of psychologists, including sports psychologists, over 50% of these professionals commented that the brain was mostly influential in high impact situations, but that working with the “mental aspects” was something different, and highly generalizable to most athletic situations where behavior change or performance improvements were needed. It is as if a Descartes-like dualism is rearing its ugly head, ignoring neuroscience research that has shown time and time again consciousness is a matter of the brain. Consider the irony: sports psychology choosing to ignore the body, as though the brain were not as much a part of the body as are the muscles and bones of an athlete.
But this is not surprising. Most Ph.D. programs in psychology teach brain-based information only around psychiatric disorders, as if to imply the brain can not have impairments of thinking “under the 68% of the bell curve” where many “normals” find themselves. My work has confronted this myth head-on, and has focused on promoting innovative brain-based technologies for use in uncovering basic decisional illusions that most psychological performance enhancement work misses, and that when fixed could make “brain prevention and optimization” more of a standard phrase. Though I am glad that concern about head injuries is bringing brain impairments to the forefront of awareness, it is time to acknowledge the role of neuroscience in the brain’s decision-making even before a head injury. Without a brain-centric performance philosophy that addresses both sides of the continuum (optimization and impairment), we will be shuffling deck chairs on the neuro-Titanic: for the brain is wired to feel correct, not to be truly effective in its decision-making. This is hardwired and not necessarily impact-related. With a plot twist like that, you are destined to write many a harrowing athlete story, some of which we have seen in the headlines from Tiger to Zambrano to Roethlisberger. Even more of such stories remain imperceptible to us, expressed only in the thought bubbles above the heads of athletes: things that do not get spoken, yet create situations of ambivalence or “stuckness.” These athletes are shuffled around, ignored, or fall victim to rationalizations that their sheer willpower can fix their problems.
So, in the interests of blowing up the NFL brain even more, beyond the “good fire” that was started by Rick Telander’s recent article, here are 3 radical brain truths that professional sports cannot ignore any longer:
1.What got you here won’t get you there. This great statement I first heard from my executive coaching colleague, Marshall Goldsmith, in his brilliant book of the same name. In this brain dialogue, it holds much truth. Most transformational moments in people’s lives have an invisible train track switch that is tricky to flip because it is usually hidden under a half-truth that we buy into and has helped us solve many similar problems at other points in time. Effort, hard work, focus, or concentration all seem at these instances to do the opposite of what is needed. And many times working on visualizations and imagery won’t get you out of it. Most of us are walking around with imbalanced brains from emotional traumas and compulsive patterns that we have overcompensated for and called normal, in much the same way we pull our steering wheel to compensate for a car out of alignment. There are innovative brain-based procedures that help set that under-the-consciousness radar straight way before we use words and therapy to grow the change we desire.
2.Most of human behavior is predictably irrational without head injury complications. This is a critical point to understand, for it screams out the hidden assumption that brain issues are for those impaired; and that if you are not impaired then you must be normal; and if you are normal, then you are rational and logical. Most of the training I received in psychotherapy really followed this logic, as I was supposed to flag disorders that needed intervention and treatment, and then those outside that arena, well, we could get together each week in sessions and talk about strategies to change. Little did I know I was merely describing the water as they drowned and calling it “success,” as people would leave the office, do something different, make a rationalization the next time that reduced the dissonance, and we would start the circle all over again. Neuroscience and behavioral economics have helped us finally understand that the “deciding brain” is quite different than the brain that engages in supposed rational dialogues. New assessment tools have been designed in order to increase the meta-cognition that we use in my work to help close this gap.
3.There is another side to high performance that rarely gets acknowledged and worked with. Be careful what you wish for it may come true. Most performance enhancement interventions solve a problem linearly and do not include systems thinking. That is not a fault, per se, but it is an accurate perception, for that is what these people are hired to do. But many times, as systems thinkers have taught us, changing one wheel without working with the other 10, say, in a life system can cause some inadvertent consequences. The brain’s mechanisms and communications are a system following many laws of homeostasis. If you push down on an air bubble, it is going to even out and pop up somewhere else. High performance lifestyles/goals and decision-making grounded in sustainable, reality-based perceptions have grown oddly apart from each other, as we have seen in the headlines of derailed, at-risk athletes. Understanding the distinctions between pleasure and joy, and understanding the neurological curveballs thrown to the consciousness of an athlete, are issues rarely addressed in traditional treatment programs and talk therapy. Such understanding cannot be achieved without working with the undertow of the limbic system that is helping call the emotional shots.
Perhaps all brains are being called to grow to a higher level here: the athletes and the administrating bodies around them that both have to use their brains in order to conceptualize what is best for making lasting change and improvements in the self that is in and around the world of “the game.”
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Last week, a Chino Hills high school quarterback was taken to the hospital after being rendered unconscious from being hit while running with the ball. Fortunately, he woke up and was able to be discharged from the hospital without suffering major neurological damage. This is a reminder that football season is here, giving us the opportunity to watch the end zone antics, head butts … and a player suffering an occasional concussion. One of the biggest problems with concussions is a simple lack of respect for the gravity of the condition. A concussion is an injury to the brain caused by a sudden impact to, or spin of the head during which the brain (a soft organ) is shaken so hard that the buffering cerebral spinal fluid surrounding it can’t prevent it from banging against the hard skull. This trauma causes the brain to go into shock and temporarily stop working properly, affecting memory, judgment, coordination and other neurological functions.
The most common causes are motor vehicle accidents and contact sports, especially football, soccer, ice hockey and boxing. (In October, L.A. Kings defenseman Drew Doughty suffered a concussion that kept him off the ice for a few weeks.) Contrary to popular belief, a person does not have to lose consciousness to suffer a concussion. Concussions can often be incorrectly diagnosed, not diagnosed at all, or worse, even when they are diagnosed, can be dismissed with, “I just have a headache, it’ll go away,” or “I’m a little dizzy. No big deal.” It is a big deal. It’s a brain injury, and the effects can reach far beyond the next quarter, the next game or even the next decade. In fact, one study showed that former NFL players had a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions associated with cognitive impairment, and developed these problems at a younger age than the national average.
After one concussion, a patient can be four times more likely to suffer another concussion, and repeat injuries can be caused by less of a blow and will require more time to heal. Teenagers in particular are more susceptible to this second impact risk because teen brain tissue is less developed than adult brain tissue, and more easily damaged. This is why it’s so important for a teenager who’s received a concussion to heal completely before returning to any kind of intense physical activity. Since 1997, at least 50 football players, high school age or younger, in more than 20 states have been killed or have received serious head injuries on the field.
This also is why parents, coaches and trainers of kids engaged in any kind of sport are encouraged to learn the symptoms of concussion. These include headache, confusion, blurred vision, memory loss, nausea, vomiting, slurred speech, disorientation, personality changes and somnolence leading to frank coma. Emotional changes are as important to watch for as physical ones. A study of retired athletes showed that depression was three times more common in players who had experienced concussions than in players who had not.
Because concussions can have so many nuances, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) has established five grades of concussion, in ascending severity, from I to V. Symptoms range respectively from unconsciousness for varying amounts of time to confusion, disorientation and also loss of memory, either about events immediately before (antrograde amnesia) or immediately after (post-traumatic amnesia) the event. One high school athlete who had experienced a concussion went immediately back into play, but the next day had no memory of what had happened in the game after he was injured. This meant he was playing with at least a grade III injury.
Even if there are no symptoms right after an injury, there may be bleeding in the narrow space between the brain and the skull. Symptoms of such brain bleeding, known as a subdural hematoma, may not be present until several weeks afterward. During this “lucid interval” as the blood is broken down, it acts like a sponge drawing fluid into the closed space, causing the clot area to expand. As time goes on, pressure in the brain increases, and it can push tissue in ways that actually deform the brain and can cause more injury. This results in headaches of increasing intensity, vomiting, dizziness, confusion, pupils of unequal size, weakness on one side of the body, increased blood pressure and, if left untreated, seizures and death.
With concussions, there’s also a danger of post-concussion syndrome, in which the symptoms don’t resolve for weeks, months or even years, creating the potential for permanent long-term damage.
So when you hear teenage football players who are asked if they would tell their coach if they got a head injury, say, “No chance. You’ve got to sacrifice for the sake of the team. The only way I come out is on a stretcher!” it should give you pause.
If anyone close to you, especially your soccer-football-baseball-gymnastics or even chess-playing son or daughter, gets “dinged” in a game (or anywhere else), and is answering you more slowly than usual or can’t remember what you just told him (or her) to do, maybe it’s not the normal, “Whatever, Mom (or Dad)” reaction. Maybe something is wrong, and just this once it might be wise to “get into their head.”
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You get to work grumpy and ill-tempered and after a few surprised looks from your colleagues you tell them that you are sorry, that you are not yourself today. What do you really mean? You certainly do not mean to say that your identity has changed and that another personality has crept into your being. Had you slipped into another personality, you would not have recognized that something had changed and would not have apologized. All of a sudden you would have been a different character, known to that character’s self only, and not to your old self. Think of the Three Faces of Eve, one self giving way to another and then another, each markedly different and independent. Joanne Woodward had a field day making the three Eves distinctive and the transitions sharp. She got the Academy Award in return.
What you really mean is that you are not feeling, thinking and acting in line with what you regard as most typical of you (or perhaps with what you wish would be most typical of you). And the interesting question is, of course, why you deviate from the expected course and behave as if you were someone else, maybe even someone else you know. What is going on? First, the stray from your most typical personality is temporary. Second, you have just succeeded in demonstrating how complex the normal human self turns out to be. Your multilayered self has been multitasking. One task maintained your identity during the episode. Another monitored your thoughts and actions, and detected significant departures from their desirable course. You still have only one self and one identity. However, self, identity and personality are not things, they are not objects, and they certainly are not rigid. Instead, they are biological processes built within the brain from numerous interactive components, step by step, over a period of time. The building blocks of the construction are brain maps the basis for mental images and images can give rise to actions. Self, identity and personality are ongoing performances and as such they are subject to variation. In brief, the human self has many levels, as simple as the protoself and core self that we share with many non-human species, and as complex as the autobiographical self which has achieved an amazing development in humans.
This sounds complicated and it is, but let me break it down in digestible chunks. New research indicates that the protoself level corresponds to a gathering of information regarding the state of the body. It is constructed in the brain stem and it generates feelings that signify our existence. The protoself is the necessary foundation of the overall self, and in its absence one can not be conscious. The next level, the core self, is also indispensable for consciousness. It requires an interaction of the organism with an object. It is constructed in a dialogue between the brain stem and a few parts of the cerebral cortex. It yields a sense of the “here and now”, devoid of historical perspective. It gives us a consciousness of the moment. The third level, the autobiographical self, creates the more or less coherent picture of our history, a narrative with a lived past and an anticipated future. The narrative is culled from real events, from imaginary events, and from past interpretations and re-interpretations of events. Identity emerges from the autobiographical self.
Of necessity, the autobiographical self is not just about one individual but about all the others that an individual interacts with. Of necessity, it incorporates the culture in which the interactions took place. The autobiographical self does contain multitudes other people, other places. That the brain, drawing on a partnership between varied parts of the cerebral cortex and the brain stem, manages to put together, such a spectacular combination of images is nothing but astounding. But the other side of the complexity coin, of course, is the risk of inconsistency during the assemblage of this show, the result of which is the partial and temporary slippage into a “self” that is not our own.
Some of us, for better or worse, develop very stable, consistent, and largely predictable machineries of self. But in others, the self machinery is more flexible and more open to unexpected turns. Such flexibility comes in handy in the many areas of creativity that focus on human actions. Could one be a good actor without the ability to imagine other minds and act as such minds would? Could one write fiction or invent a successful business without such fluid self operations? Not really. And is one less dependable on the day to day when the imagination can run free and spill over in flighty behavior? Possibly so.
The poet Fernando Pessoa, who wrote under several aliases, each in an entirely different style, struggled with the tangled and abundant riches of his own self, by saying that each of us is “many”. Needless to say, even when he was writing as one of his “heteronyms”, as he called them, there was one single authorial self in charge of his original creations, the other authors being fictions. But when Pessoa said that “I do not know what instruments grind and play away inside of me, strings and harps, timbales and drums. I can only recognize myself as symphony”, his intuition was on target, as it glimpsed the astonishing complexity of a brain engaged in producing the symphonic results we call the conscious mind. The symphonic result is easily recognizable but the brain instruments behind it have been elusive and are only now being elucidated by neuroscience research.
Antonio Damasio is the Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles
This Blogger’s Books from
Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain
by Antonio Damasio
The most amazing thing about memory is how precisely we forget. Our brain retains only what it predicts will be important in the future and forgets the rest. There is no point in remembering where you parked your car at Wal-Mart last February — unless it was stolen. That would be unforgettable. Scientists have long known how the brain predicts which experiences to retain in long-term memory and which ones to let fade away. But now they have made a new discovery: why we often remember useless stuff.
The first rule of learning is repetition. Repeating something over and over, as you did to learn your multiplication tables, moves memory from temporary short-term storage into permanent long-term memory. This is because the brain views something that is encountered repeatedly as more likely to be important to the person (or animal) in the future.
The second way events get seared permanently into memory is if they are associated with extremely strong emotional reactions, as would happen if, upon emerging from Wal-Mart with your shopping goodies, you were to find your car gone. This is because, in evolutionary terms, an organism shouldn’t risk repeating a stressful, potentially life-threatening experience to remember it.
In the last 15 years, neuroscientists have determined the cellular and molecular mechanisms for how these two kinds of experiences are moved from short-term memory into long-term memory. But memory researcher Richard Morris of the University of Edinburgh noticed something about memory that is not explained by these well-accepted rules and molecular mechanisms of memory. Our minds are filled with scraps of completely irrelevant information. This includes snippets of experiences that were neither repeated nor associated with a traumatic event. Indeed, they are useless and would be better forgotten, but they persist nevertheless. How these remnants of trivial memories are retained cannot be explained by the detailed molecular mechanisms that have been carefully worked out in studies of memory in laboratory animals.
The answer is found in another factor that helps the brain predict whether or not an experience should be saved in long-term memory: novelty. When our daily routine is suddenly disrupted by an experience that is truly novel, the mind “perks up.” It makes good sense to activate the long-term memory mechanism in this case, because a new experience is likely to provide important new information that will be useful to an individual in the future, and so the experience should be added to the long-term memory store. In the brain, novelty is signaled by neurons that use the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine circuits do not code sensory perceptions; instead they rev up the level of activity broadly across neural networks in the brain.
In their experiments the researchers found that if they used an exciting, novel experience to disrupt a rat’s training to find a food reward, the rats remembered where the food was hidden, and this memory did not fade away as it did in other rats that had gone through the same rigorous training routine but without the novel interruption. The novel experience that the scientists used to interrupt the training session was simply treating the rat to an excursion to new cage. This, in contrast to the life of confinement in its home cage, was a thrilling expedition.
That novel experience had nothing to do with the skill the rat was learning in its training sessions, so why did the novel stimulus improve the rat’s performance in the maze? Studying the molecular changes in neural circuits storing memories, the researchers discovered that the molecular machinery known to store long-term memories had been switched on by the novel experience. The long-term memory mechanisms were activated by the surge in dopamine activity coding the experience as novel. That rat will never forget its stimulating exploration of the new environment. But, these changes inside the neurons that started the molecular machinery working were not yet idled by the time the rat was subjected to the next round of training in the maze. Thus, along with all the novel and unforgettable sights and smells and experiences of the novel outing, where the food was hidden in the maze was also permanently embossed in its long-term memory. The researchers found that the long-term memory storage mechanisms simply take a few hours to cool down.
The scientists found that the novel experience increased the rat’s memory of the maze even if it followed the training session, simply because the rat’s short-term memories from the training session were still being held in the brain temporarily while the animal was in the novel environment, so they too got stored permanently with all the other short-term memories before they faded.
This could explain how “useless” scraps of information in your mind might have gotten stuck there. They could have been surrounded by some truly novel experience that had nothing at all to do with the memory. But this new finding can also be put to advantage. While the ancient methods of repetition and punishment to drum information into a schoolkid’s mind can be effective, so too should breaking up the doldrums of a lesson with a fascinating new experience that is completely unrelated to the lesson. The student union might be as important to long-term learning as the campus library.
This unforgettable information is published in the Nov. 9 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, in a paper by Wang, Redondo, and Morris.
This Blogger’s Books from
The Other Brain
by R. Douglas, Ph.D. Fields
The Other Brain
by R. Douglas, Ph.D. Fields
Sebastian Seung is mapping a massively ambitious new model of the brain that focuses on the connections between each neuron. He calls it our “connectome,” and it’s as individual as our genome — and understanding it could open a new way to understand our brains and our minds.
In the brain, neurons are connected into a complex network. Sebastian Seung and his lab at MIT are inventing technologies for identifying and describing the connectome, the totality of connections between the brain’s neurons — think of it as the wiring diagram of the brain. We possess our entire genome at birth, but things like memories are not “stored” in the genome; they are acquired through life and accumulated in the brain. Seung’s hypothesis is that “we are our connectome,” that the connections among neurons is where memories and experiences get stored.
Seung and his collaborators, including Winfried Denk at the Max Planck Institute, are working on a plan to thin-slice a brain (probably starting with a mouse brain) and trace, from slice to slice, each neural pathway, exposing the wiring diagram of the brain and creating a powerful new way to visualize the workings of the mind. They’re not the first to attempt something like this — Sydney Brenner won a Nobel for mapping all the 7,000 connections in the nervous system of a tiny worm, C. elegans. But that took his team a dozen years, and the worm only had 302 nerve cells. One of Seung’s breakthroughs is in using advanced imagining and AI to handle the crushing amount of data that a mouse brain will yield and turn it into richly visual maps that show the passageways of thought and sensation.
Being dealt the initial blow of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is bad enough. Then comes the secondary trauma from having to face the stigma attached to the illness. During a series of nationwide town hall meetings with people with early stage dementia, the Alzheimer’s Association found:
Richard Taylor says it best:
Most of the research efforts and literature on Alzheimer’s, even from best intentioned sources, focus on the loss of brain functioning and best strategies to handle problematic behaviors. I find it very telling that interpretations of Alzheimer’s brain scans always point to the areas that are being negatively affected by the illness. Try to find out what is left that is still functioning in the Alzheimer’s brain, and you are in for a frustrating search. Such negativity can be traced back to the etymology of the word dementia itself: from Latin ‘demens’, de (out of) mens (mind).
This strikes me as a case of distorted collective thinking, worth examining. Obviously, Alzheimer’s is hitting a sensitive nerve not just in the individuals who are directly affected by the disease, but also in our whole society, notably the medical and scientific community. Alzheimer’s threatens our sense of selfhood and to protect ourselves, we distance ourselves from those afflicted by it.
Alzheimer’s also acts as a magnifying mirror for all our contemporary dysfunctions. The disease demands that we no longer do, and dwell in being instead. It requires that we be patient, and that we do not rush. It leaves us with those personal gifts we value the least, such as creativity, simple sensory experiences, and just plain love. It gets in the way of our drive for efficiency. It tosses aside our precarious sense of self, and demands that we reinvent ourselves moment to moment. It confronts us with the reality of death, slowly, relentlessly. It challenges our insistence on independence and forces us to rely on a community of care. It pushes us to explore our spiritual vacuum.
Knowing this, we have a choice. We can decide to turn towards those afflicted with Alzheimer’s and approach them as one would a welcome teacher. Or we can continue to turn the other way. The first option, while not easy, may be the only one worth taking, in the long run. Maybe we can follow Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle’s lead?
Olivia is the author of The Majesty of Your Loving: A Couple’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s.
What does Alzheimer’s bring up for you?
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In important international health news, BBC News Online’s Health division decided this week to cover an obscure article in an obscure academic journal which covers the important subject of the Arabic versus Hebrew language.
The findings? That Arabic is “hard for the brain” because the alphabet is so squiggly (or something scientific like that).
This begs the question not of why this article was accepted by an academic journal, or why the study was even carried out, but why BBC News online deemed it important enough to cover.
And who has taken on this hilarious scientific breakthrough? A popular online Japanese anime community. Why? Because, according to actual Japanese people, the various Japanese alphabets (there are several kinds including katakana, kanji and hiragana) are incredibly difficult to differentiate even for native Japanese readers. These Japanese anime enthusiasts want to know why their language wasn’t included in this study of alphabets that are hard for brains.
It turns out that while Arabic is apparently “hard for the brain,” Japanese is even harder. It also turns out that the BBC will cover just about anything, as long as it isn’t bigoted, invalid, or generally ridiculous.
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When Outside the Box Isnt Outside Enough PseudoCreativity and the Brains Love of Washington DC Politics
Beware. What is about to follow has nothing to do with being a Republican or a Democrat and yet has everything to do with the reality of Washington D.C. and the world as we know it.
That is, the brain’s reality of information processing, especially when we are hard pressed for creative solutions to perplexing problems, like the urgency for economic revival. And believe it or not, being an Independent does not make any difference either. We are all susceptible to illusions around our decision making, no matter the party designation. So what follows is an exploration of the limitations of creative brainstorming that lies outside party politics and has the brain laughing that it has effectively diverted the attention off to the warring parties.
As Obama unveiled his $50 billion dollar infrastructure plan, with opponents saying that it is unrealistic and too late of a spark, I am left thinking more about the conversations “behind the scenes” when solutions were being brainstormed. What kinds of options were discussed? How did the team know they were on to some great ideas? What were the reactions like to all the ideas posed? Was groupthink present or were there more insidious elements lurking in that room? As an executive coach and facilitator I have assisted many a group to go beyond the illusions of the brain and seek TRUE creative solutions — but what usually stops us isn’t external (like the data the parties throw around on the rival-loving political shows): it is internal. A virus to creativity that many don’t know about. Let me share more.
If you are like me, you can surf the net and find many a perspective on how to “build a creative team” around any issue; those that think outside the box. Don’t you just love this phrase? I mean, we seem so hellbent on getting outside the box all the time that no one knows the “properties of the box” itself. All we know is we want out. Such naivete can lead to something I call “pseudo-creativity,” a state of being where the purposeful seeking of contrarian knowledge at all costs can lead to only the feeling of being creative. Many times this emotional reality is really the bottom line, functionally speaking, in business or politics while language of bottom line (financial) is merely verbally noted. Why? We haven’t linked knowledge of the verbal world with the neuro-level of processing laws that are actually running the show.
So how do we transcend the feeling of being creative in critical meetings such as the one that likely prompted Obama’s new plan?
For one, it is critical to understand the role of language/culture and how it influences the free association-type process of ideas. The brain is highly influenced unconsciously by patterns, things that are known reliably by what it commonly sees in its environment. So even if you consciously set up a brainstorming meeting to get outside this box we have grown so passionately to hate (poor box, eh?) we rarely get what we think we get.
Dr. Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at UC-Berkeley did some fascinating research on how we can bust through this neurological tendency. When subjects were shown colors on a slide the people simply had to name them. Easy enough, right? These folks then had to do some free association tasks with the colors. Another group had the same task, but in this condition the lab assistant yelled out wrong names of colors sporadically before the subjects responded. So if a yellow slide was shown, they would hear “Red!” These folks then had to free associate on the colors shown them. What was most interesting was in the first group, the free associations were “standard” — blue would bring up “sky” and green would bring up “grass.” But in the second group, where flat out wrong answers were given, they actually free associated a standard deviation or two, shall we say, beyond what we call the normal or safe realm of creative responses. Here, we started hearing responses like “Miles Davis” in response to “blue.”
The implications of this experiment on the thought leadership assumptions around presidential strategy is beyond far-reaching. Is it possible to increase dissenting beliefs without triggering the self-protecting beliefs that that dissensions are merely “political rhetoric” known to the “other side?” Are all the creative responses within both parties akin to “sky”-level answers when given a “blue”-question? Do we reward the “wingmen” of brilliant ideas that likely said something flat out wrong right before the eureka? These questions actually transcend the pseudo-creative solution of “joining two parties.” For without this neuroscience information in your pocket you are left with a Kumbaya-effect that numbs you to the truth that something greater than this is called for.
This is why the brain loves Washington D.C. — it willingly bows down to the pseudo-creative answer of “bipartisan politics” that it lets you think you came up with brilliantly, all the while it rolled a smoke bomb into your consciousness and it scurries away, nowhere to be found when you come to. But when you do shake it off, no need to worry. There will always be another answer equally wrong to make right by your own illusions.