On October 18th, 2017 we learned about

STEM students can, and probably should, do a bit of dancing

When my wife was a graduate student, she helped run a dance troupe, took ballet classes, and performed and help produce a campus-wide dance show. The program ran over an hour, featuring everything from hula to ballroom, lyrical to… something approximating hip-hop. These performers probably weren’t going to give up their day jobs, but they all looked pretty amazing considering their day jobs had them working in some of the world’s most prestigious research labs across a huge range of fields. Nobody questioned the value of dance in these scientists’ lives, and the school community was very supportive of the show each year. A more formalized study from North Carolina State University has come to similar, if more specific conclusions. Even top-notch biochemists benefit from time on the dance floor.

Finding balance with ballet or ballroom

The study was framed against the multitude of calls for more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the United States. As technology continues to shape our economies and capabilities, STEM proponents feel that students need to be more thoroughly prepared to have an active role in those fields, or else risk falling behind. However, focus shouldn’t mean ignoring other activities, and it seems that students from all disciplines, including STEM, can improve their lives by participating in creative arts like a dance troupe or class.

The pattern that emerged through surveys and interviews was that dance was both complementary and supplementary to academic work. Rehearsing a specific dance for a class or possible performance requires, and reinforces, self-discipline that is crucial for any form of research. Students reported dance helped them work with larger groups, and it was easier to incorporate multiple viewpoints into their thinking. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that dance can be fun, allowing for personal expression and a sense of community, all without the need for a keg of beer. Researchers hope to follow up with a more quantifiable study, looking at how participating in dance affects work performance and personal health.

Mental challenges of choreographed movement

Beyond proving the value of dance in STEM-oriented environments, many previous studies have looked at how dance can benefit individual brains. The rhythmic movement has been found to trigger reward centers, which are further boosted by the accompanying music during a performance. Coordinated efforts in choreographed and spontaneous dance have been found to increase activity in the motor cortex, somatosensory cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum, all in order to handle planning, control and movement of the body. Some of this is likely true for other physical activities as well, but in a 2003 study, only dance classes were found to help lower participants’ risk of developing dementia. This is thought to be tied to some of the social aspects of dance that isn’t replicated in a game of golf, for instance.

Where does all this lead us? To Dance Your PhD, of course.

Source: How Dance Can Help Students in STEM Disciplines by Fay Cobb Payton and Matt Shipman, NC State News

On October 5th, 2017 we learned about

Mindfulness exercises prove effective when they aim to relieve specific stresses

If watching a hockey game, on television from the comfort of your own home, can nearly double your body’s stress levels, it seems reasonable to assume that you can calm down by basically doing the opposite. Sitting calmly, meditation and sometimes vaguely defined “mindfulness” are being touted as cures for stress, but researchers wanted to figure out exactly what mechanisms might be making a difference. “Stress” on it’s own is such a broad term that three separate experiments were devised to more specifically measure what mindfulness might be doing for your brain.

Attention to self-awareness

The first exercise focused on self-awareness, or mindfulness. The idea was that paying attention to your own breathing, hunger and heart rate would eventually train your brain to be better at focusing and dealing with external distractions. After three months of practice, participants were tested in a variety of scenarios, having their brain activity measured as well to try and find a specific change in the brain that might account for the feelings of self-improvement reported by people who may have unconsciously been trying to justify sitting in silence for three hours each week.

In fact, there was measurable changes, both in participant’s test results and brain scans. People did better on tasks testing their attention spans, and showed more activity in their medial prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with executive decision-making. This meditation practice wasn’t a cure-all though, as these exercises didn’t seem to change how people handled other stresses, like dealing with difficult social interactions.

Specific exercises for social stress

This wasn’t a huge surprise to researchers. Just as you wouldn’t expect bicep curls to tone your calves, practicing certain mental challenges don’t necessarily change your whole brain at once. Further supporting this slightly departmentalized model, researchers had people flex other parts of their thinking processes. One exercise asked people to share brief personal stories with a partner, including both positive and negative aspects of earlier experiences. A third exercise had them talk with a partner from a particular, internal point of view, like one’s inner child, then ask your partner to guess what perspective was being shared.

As with the first mindfulness exercises, practicing sharing and listening with another person was found to make a difference, specifically when challenged by emotional social encounters. So sharing feelings about a story didn’t improve one’s concentration, but it did make giving a giving a short presentation in front of an audience easier, lowering heart rates and boosting activity in a brain region called the insula.

On one hand, these tests poke holes in claims that one practice can improve every aspect of one’s mental life, which fits with what we’ve known about physical training for ages. On the other hand, it means that just like you can focus on specific exercises at the gym, you can also give extra attention to areas of your emotional life you want to improve on. Like being aware of your heart rate during a hockey game.

Source: Mental Training Exercises Can Alter Your Brain and Reduce Stress by Lucy Jordan, Seeker

On September 26th, 2017 we learned about

Densely-packed pigeon brains out-perform humans at task-switching tests

Mammals have incredible, complicated, calorie-hungry brains. Portions of gray matter specialize in everything from counting to memory to detecting what may or may not be a spider in our visual field. Even with all this specialization, our brains are also quite flexible, taking on new tasks if other cells are somehow unable to do their original job. There’s a lot to be proud of in that skull of yours, especially since it’s almost a quick as what you find in pigeons.

Simplicity vs. sophistication?

Now, pigeons and other birds don’t have all the complex structures you find in mammal cortex, but it hardly seems to slow them down. Crows, for instance, are known to lack the neocortex that mammals like humans use to count objects, but they still handle quantities better than many other animals. This was of interest to researchers, who wanted to figure out exactly how well bird brains measured up to a human’s six layers of cortical tissue.

The head-to-head test specifically looked at how well pigeons and people could multitask. In one round of tests, participants had to quickly switch from one task to another. In this case, the goal was to transition as smoothly and immediately as possible, to the point that one mental process literally took place at the same time as the other. Both humans and pigeons showed some slowdown with this challenge, since brains were juggling twice the amount of work they were comfortable with. The second round of tests was similar, but included an intentional break in the middle of the switch-over to allow brains to end one process before starting the other. Changing focus like that probably doesn’t feel too messy, but requires a bit of back-and-forth coordination between neurons to work correctly.

Neuronal density and distances

This is where the pigeon brains really shined. The period of mental coordination to fully switch over to a new task was 250 milliseconds shorter in the birds, meaning their brains were somehow handling this process faster than our more complex noggins. That may not sound like an impressive margin, but considering your brain only needs 600 milliseconds to think of and pronounce a word with proper declension, 250 milliseconds is nothing to scoff at.

Researchers suspect that the pigeons edge boils down to something as simple as proximity. Bird brains have been found to be around twice as dense as mammal brains, meaning they have twice the neurons per cubic inch of gray matter that we do. This is probably how birds are able to pull of their cognitive feats without all our brain structures, and as the pigeons demonstrated, do some of them faster. In the case of task switching, the densely-packed neurons would be closer together, and so each synaptic transmission would need to cover less distance. In aggregate, that would add up to a speedier transit time per thought, letting pigeons shift their focus faster than we can.

Source: Pigeons better at multitasking than humans, EurekAlert!

On September 14th, 2017 we learned about

Bilingual brains work more on math when it’s presented in a second language

If you’re reading this website, there’s a good chance you do your math in English. As concepts, numbers can obviously exist in any language, but research has shown that dealing with quantities over four require parts of our brains normally reserved for language. For monolingual people, this isn’t a concern, but a study has now found how math can get harder if it’s not in your mother tongue.

The study took students from Luxembourg who went to primary school speaking German, but attended secondary school in French. They were all considered to have a high degree of proficiency in both languages, hopefully eliminating any kind of basic comprehension as a variable. The participants were then asked to do math presented in either German or French so that their time, accuracy and brain activity could be observed in either scenario.

Spotting the right brain structures

It had been previously established that people tend to make more mistakes and take longer to complete math problems that require their second language. These test participants followed that trend, having an easier time with math problems they read in German than French. These tests were conducted in an fMRI machine, so that researchers could also monitor what regions of the brain were activated for each task, hopefully giving insight as to why these differences in performance exist.

When doing math in a first language, a small language-oriented region in the left temporal lobe was seen supplementing efforts to solve the quantitative task. When things got trickier in French, the brains showed activity in new regions that weren’t directly related to either language or numbers, specifically visual centers associated with figurative identification. Interestingly, there were no signs that the test subjects were trying to translate problems back to their first language- they were instead relying on more abstract cognition to help work through tasks complicated by less ingrained grammar and vocabulary. This all may seem very intuitive, but the study aims to help us understand and measure the effects of making calculations in a second language in a time when more and more people are expected to do just that.

Source: The Bilingual Brain Calculates Differently Depending On The Language Used, Scienmag

On August 31st, 2017 we learned about

The positive side of purging minutiae from your memory

I may owe my kids an apology. When asked what they did each day, it’s not uncommon to hear “I dunno,” or “I forget,” which I took as some sort proto-teenage, anti-social attempt to avoid talking with their parents. According to research in memory transience, or forgetfulness, I should probably cut them some slack. Not only is there evidence that young kids may have a harder time managing their memories, but that it’s also part of how our brains stay healthy and functional.

The mechanism that may be rendering my children speechless at dinner (as far as polite conversation goes) is that their brains are actually being disrupted by growing bigger. New neurons in the hippocampus, where a lot of memory management takes place, may be growing at a rate that connections between existing memories get altered or overwritten. As circuits of information are remodeled, it’s just harder to recall what they used to be encoding.

Forgetting not as a bug, but a feature

When new cells aren’t popping up, there’s still a good chance your brain is letting go of various details about your experiences. Synaptic connections between neurons, especially those that aren’t used on a regular basis, are routinely weakened or eliminated as we live our life. This kind of transience can feel annoying when you become aware missing a specific idea, but researchers believe that it’s a benefit in the long run. Without dropping some details from our memories, there’s a good chance that we’d have a harder time navigating the world and making decisions about what to do next.

The kind of memories that end up being preserved are those that fit bigger patterns. Smaller moments that only occur once get sort of smoothed over in this process, unless they’re somehow reinforced to build towards a bigger framework. It may seem problematic to forget certain details, but survival doesn’t necessarily need a mental log of every moment of your life. Instead, certain memories are brought into focus, and patterns can be used to predict new outcomes in order to help us make successful choices on a daily basis. I may want to know exactly what art project my four-year-old did at preschool, but his brain is probably more concerned with remembering the cutting, gluing and painting skills it took to make it.

Source: Forgetting Can Make You Smarter by Eva Voinigescu, Canadian Institute For Advanced Research

On August 28th, 2017 we learned about

Like humans, rhesus monkeys fixate on finding false faces in photos

In a time when people have a hard time seeing eye-to-eye, it may be comforting to know that we basically see the same world monkeys do. Studies of various monkeys’ perception have found that our fellow primates react to visual stimuli similarly to humans, even making the same mistakes we do. For instance, both humans and rhesus monkeys might confuse images of large, gray animals like elephants and rhinos, even though the monkeys lack contextual information to relate those creatures to each other. The visuals were perceived along the same underlying neural pathways, making an individual response from a monkey nearly indistinguishable from that of a human.

Now researchers have found a new shared “mistake” between rhesus monkeys and humans, which is called pareidolia, or seeing patterns like faces that aren’t really there. Monkeys were shown photos of inanimate objects that they’d have no real understanding of, such as coffee cups, purses and appliances. Photos that happened to have that critical two-dots-over-a-line pattern of a simple face held monkeys’ attention much longer than versions that didn’t. Based on previous data showing monkeys prefer to look at faces over non-faces, plus eye-tracking data that indicates the monkeys were examining objects’ “eyes” and “mouths” most of all, researchers are confident the monkeys are noting faces the same way we do. In fact, the when given the choice between a photo of a monkey’s face and an object’s faux-face, the object actually seemed to be the more interesting option for most test subjects.

Inherited interests

This fascination with faces isn’t surprising. Separate studies of macaque monkeys have found that the old world primates have the same functionality in their brain’s fusiform face area that we do. In that study, the monkeys recognized human faces as faces, despite our being a different species. Now that we know rhesus monkeys extend this activity to pareidolia like humans do, it’s increasingly likely that these socially-oriented specializations evolved in a distant, shared ancestor. Our interest in finding faces may not be a human trait after all, instead being shared among many primates that make a point to look into each other’s eyes.

Source: Rhesus monkeys found to see faces in inanimate objects too by Bob Yirka, Phys.org

On August 28th, 2017 we learned about

Social influences set expectations, and opinions, of smells before we sample a scent

What smells do you like? Vanilla extract maybe? The air before a rainstorm? Fresh coffee grounds?

Are you sure about that?

Smells can trigger powerful responses in us, and have can trigger strong, specific memories in a way that other sensory information doesn’t. It would seem like these connections would make our sense of smell somewhat immutable, but it turns out that they can’t stand up to social pressure. If we see that other people are happy or disgusted right before we sniff something, we adjust our opinions to match theirs, even if those people are only seen in photographs. Even if you like the smell of vanilla, seeing a disgusted face might make it a bit less pleasant than you usually think.

Opinions before odors

Previous research had made a link between social influences and our opinions of smells, but this new research actually pieced together the timeline of how this all works. Participants viewed photos of people with happy, neutral or disgusted expressions on their faces while their brain activity was tracked in an fMRI machine. After seeing the face, they were exposed to a smell like lemon or sweat, and asked to rate how pleasant they found that smell. Activity was detected in the piriform cortex, which makes sense as it plays a role in how we perceive smells. The catch was that this activity started before participants smelled anything— the photos apparently created expectations about the smell, and that strongly shaped what they actually perceived.

So your peers’ reactions to the smells in your world may be changing how much you enjoy the scent of onions or cut grass, but this influence does have its limits. Even if everyone around you smiles their hardest, one smell that your brain isn’t going to let you like is feces. Presumably other biologically hazardous items like vomit retain their repulsion, since there’s basically no save way for peer pressure to convince us to like the smell of poop.

Source: How The Emotions Of Others Influence Our Olfactory Sense, Scienmag

On August 24th, 2017 we learned about

Holding someone’s hand can convince your brain to relax your cognitive load

I like holding my kids’ hands when we go places. My third grader is starting to assert some independence, and won’t casually hold hands as much as she used to, a fact that reminds me to appreciate my four-year-old’s tiny grip all the more. Scientists are finding that holding hands isn’t just a small pleasantry though, as it seems to trigger changes in participants’ brains that affect stress levels, cognition and even pain perception. In fact, it’s possible that part of my enjoyment in holding my child’s hand is that I’m offloading cognitive duties to them, leaving me with an easier stroll down the street.

Dr. Jim Coan has been investigating the effects of holding hands on the brain for years. Experiments generally involved pairs of people, one of which was in an fMRI machine to monitor brain activity. In each round of the experiment, the subjects would see either a red “X” or a blue “O” displayed on a screen, the former of which warned of a 20 percent chance of the person being scanned receiving a small electric shock 12 seconds later. During the 12 seconds after seeing a red “X,” most people’s brains showed a flurry of activity, from increases in stress to paying attention to the site of the possible pain. The big variable in all this was the partner’s touch.

Hands that help vs. those that hurt

Throughout these experiments, people would be asked to either hold hands or sit near each other. Holding hands with a trusted companion was found to make a huge difference in people’s reactions— there were fewer signs of stress, agitation and even pain all over the brain. In some cases, hypothalamus activity changed enough that it’s suspected to be part of the mechanism that makes people with social connections generally have better health than people who live alone.  A variation on the study had children with anxiety disorders hold the hands of their mothers while reading scary words like “monster” instead of receiving shocks, and that small bit of physical contact was soothing enough for the kids to behave as if anxiety wasn’t an issue.

This isn’t to say that holding hands is a cure-all. The above effects were only seen in cases where a person’s partner was someone they trusted and were connected to, such as a spouse, friend or reliable roommate. In variations where people being shocked while holding a stranger’s hand, the positive effects were nearly absent. For people who lived in areas with higher crime rates, strangers actually made things worse, strongly indicating that the physical contact of hand-holding isn’t as important as the social relationship between the people involved.

Social support as a starting point

This may seem intuitive, but that doesn’t explain why any of this happens. When researchers looked at areas of the brain like the prefrontal cortex, they expected to see that holding hands inhibited activity, like the comforting touch of a partner helped the brain tamp down worry and pain. They were wrong though, as no such “self control” could be detected. One clue to help reformulate their model for hand-holding was a variation on the shock experiments that found that threats to shock a partner triggered activity in the “safe” person’s brain as if they were in danger. In other other words, the brain treated a trusted partner almost like an extension of itself.

The new model for all this activity is that as highly social animals, humans actually treat having social contacts as our baseline, rather than a modifier. It’s not that holding hands is better than normal, it’s that sharing experiences with other people is normal, and suffering alone is the more difficult alternative. (In fact, people who have stronger preferences to work alone have also been found to have higher resting glucose levels, meaning they’ve got more energy of their own to expend on daily tasks.)

Shared safety net

So having a spouse or friend with you helps you basically relax a bit, sharing responsibility for well-being with that other person, a state accentuated when you’re physically connected. Why worry about every detail of a possible threat when your friend is there to assist you? In the case of my kids, I’m hopefully not offloading too much responsibility for our safety onto a four-year-old, although knowing that the kid is safe next to me certainly does help lower my stress levels in a parking lot. I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

Source: Holding Hands is More Important Than You Think by Maximus Thaler, The Evolution Institute

On August 14th, 2017 we learned about

Higher prices can have a positive effect on our perceptions

Think of the tastiest candy you’ve ever eaten. Think of the wrapper it came in, how it was presented, and importantly, the price you paid for it. It turns out, that candy could have tasted even better if you thought it was worth more money. Brain scans of people assessing wines have found that this preference for higher-prices isn’t just some kind of post-hoc rationalization to justify spending. Higher prices can trigger more activity in the brain’s reward centers, meaning your that candy that you bought for $1.00 would have been even sweeter if you thought it was worth a $1.50.

How to value vino

Candy prices are kind of predictable though, and unless a specialty shop is involved, it’s hard to be convinced that one Milky Way bar is all that different from another. Wine, however, is sold under many labels at varying prices, and so it was a great way to test how much prices influence people’s perception of quality. Volunteers then sipped wine through a tube while their brains were scanned in an fMRI so that their reactions to both fictional prices and real wine could be tracked. Unknown to the participants, the wines were identical in each round of sips, and the prices were randomly assigned, ensuring that the wine’s “actual” value was not the main factor in people’s perceptions.

As people sipped, they generally favored what they thought were the more expensive wines. This was true whether they thought they’d be paying for wine or being given it for free, indicating that a concern over their resources was not what made something tasty. People weren’t making the most of their available resources— they were instead enhancing the flavor of the wine with a price-based placebo effect.

Believing it’s better

Placebos are usually discussed in terms of health treatments, but the same underlying concept applies were. If a person thinks a pill will make them healthy, that can be enough to convince their body to recover. In the context of wine prices, the so-called “placebo marketing effect” was found to trigger physiological differences in people’s brains. Sipping pricier versions of a wine lead to more activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex and the ventral striatum, the former being tied to price-comparisons and the latter being involved in reward and motivation systems. As far as these people’s brains were concerned, pricier wine was honestly better.

There are limits to this, of course. Putting a $100 price tag on vinegar isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. But for wines, or candies, or anything else that we expect to have variable prices and quality, this can make a difference. It’s something to keep in mind when you make up your mind about a food or experience before you’ve tried it— like a four-year-old who doesn’t want to try a vegetable, you really can convince your brain that something you don’t want will be miserable to have in your mouth.

“So which would you rather have, a new kind of chocolate in a plain wrapper or one in a fancy box?”

“Is it a box I could keep?” asked my third-grader, “because if was going to be thrown away I’d take the smaller wrapper to make less trash.”

After many hypotheticals, I did eventually get her to pick the theoretically pricier chocolate over something cheaper, but the exchange felt like another reason this study was done with adults sipping wine.

Source: Why Expensive Wine Appears To Taste Better, Scienmag

On August 10th, 2017 we learned about

For a healthier hippocampus, consider playing more Mario

Is Mario better than Call of Duty? By and large, yes, but beyond the likely enjoyment of playing these games, researchers are finding that that Mario games, or at least the “3D platforming” games like Super Mario 64, may be better for the health of your hippocampus. You want a robust hippocampus for a variety reasons, starting with its role in managing your long-term memory and processing emotional information. As it turns out, exploring complex maps found in these platformers seems to boost the hippocampus, while twitchier action games like Call of Duty or Killzone seem to have the exact opposite effect, reducing the hippocampus in favor of other brain structures.

Learning styles matter

This study started with MRI brain scans of regular gamers, sorted by what kind of game they usually play. Test participants were also asked to navigate a virtual maze to see what kind of learning styles they generally adopted. This stage of testing found a correlation between people who predominantly played high-speed action games and response learning types. In the maze, this meant that these participants were more likely to navigate by memorizing and reproducing patterns of movement, even when those patterns become very repetitive. On the other hand, people who spent more time playing 3D platform games were more likely to be spatial learners, building more of mental map by noting landmarks and spatial relationships.

Researchers then wondered if there was some self-selection going on here. Maybe people who were naturally better at playing out wrote patterns liked the games that rewarded those skills more, and vice versa. To check, a second set of test subjects with less gaming experience were asked to play 90 hours of one type of game or the other, with brain scans being taken before and after to see if any structural changes took place as a result. Indeed, there was a change, but the exact change seemed to depend on just what kind of learner a player was to begin with.

Gameplay that reshapes the brain

Response learners showed a marked reduction in their hippocampus after 90 hours of Call of Duty, but an increase in their caudate nucleus. The caudate nucleus is a separate brain structure that’s associated with reward systems, impulse control processing environmental feedback. Researchers suspect that these action games require very little spatial processing but instead exercise functions found in this second brain structure. That would be fine, except the accompanying loss of gray matter in the hippocampus is slightly concerning, at least for response learners.

Spatial learners may play these first-person shooters very differently, as their brains didn’t show the same shift in resources from the hippocampus to caudate nucleus. Somehow they got a boost in their hippocampus playing both action games and 3D platformers. Response learners’ hippocampi also benefited from some time collecting stars and shines with Mario, making those games the safer option for both player types. So if your memory struggles with complex spatial relationships, Super Mario 64 may help (but the twitch-oriented Super Mario Run probably won’t.)

My third grader asked: What about Minecraft?

While not mentioned in this study, it would seem like the slow pace and sprawling, unmarked world of Minecraft would really give your hippocampus a workout. The paper didn’t list every game they compared, but Call of Duty is somewhat infamous for its linear maps that require very little thought to navigate, and so anything that you can actually get lost in is probably giving the gray matter outside your caudate nucleus a bit more stimulation.

Source: Why ‘Super Mario’ May Be Good for Your Brain, But ‘Call of Duty’ Isn’t by Dave Roos, Seeker