Category Archives: Health

Information and useful news to keep your brain and body in good health. Interesting articles about psychology, latest discoveries, brain health, interesting facts, nutrition, IQ, memory, etc. Different professionals and specialists help us understand health and how to take care of ourselves.

How Does Sleep Affect Cognitive Performance?

Sleep is one of the most important activities we do. We spend roughly a third of our lives asleep, and for many of us, we spend plenty of time while we’re awake THINKING about sleep.

How much sleep do we need?

The exact amount of sleep each person needs depends on a number of factors including age, physical health, and even genetics. We’ve all heard that we need about 8 hours of sleep every night to be ‘fully rested’ but the truth is, the recommended amount of sleep varies greatly as we age.

While adults and seniors typically require between 7 and 9 hours of sleep, school-aged children and teenagers require slightly more sleep, anywhere from 8 to 11 hours daily. The amount of sleep recommended is even higher for preschool-aged children and toddlers and can range from 10 to 15 hours per day. Newborn babies require the most sleep of any age group, with recommended sleeping times as high as 17 hours per day or more.

To understanding the exact amount of sleep you need each day you should evaluate your overall health, sleep patterns, and the types of activities you do each day.

If you feel that the amount of sleep you are getting isn’t enough to get through the day, you may want to spend a little more time sleeping. You may want to consider whether or not you are relying heavily on caffeinated drinks such as coffee to get through the day, as this can be a sign that you aren’t getting enough healthy sleep during the night.

How can sleep affect our brains?

What happens to the brain when we sleep?

When we fall asleep, we go through a number of sleep cycles consisting of a few distinct stages of sleep. These cycles typically last between 60 and 120 minutes each.

There are 4 stages of the sleep cycle, broken up into two groups: NREM and REM sleep. The first three stages are NREM, or Non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep, while the fourth stage is REM, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep.

When we first fall asleep and enter into the first stage of NREM sleep, our brain begins to slow down, and our body with it. We begin to breathe more slowly, our heart rate drops slightly, and our muscles begin to relax.

As we fall deeper into sleep, we move into the second stage of NREM sleep where our body becomes less aware of our surroundings and our core body temperature drops. In this stage, the brain begins to release rapid, rhythmic bursts of brain wave activity known as sleep spindles

The next stage we enter is the third and final stage of NREM sleep, but it is also the first stage of what is referred to as ‘deep sleep’. During this stage our body and muscles become completely relaxed, blood pressure continues to drop, and our breathing slows. It is during this stage that the body accelerates the physical repair processes throughout the body and increases memory consolidation in the brain.

When we continue further into the ‘deep sleep’ stages, we enter into the fourth and final stage of the sleep cycle: REM sleep. During REM sleep our muscles become completely immobilized, our breathing and heart rate begin to rise, and our eyes begin to move around quickly. It is during REM sleep that we really begin to dream. This is the time when the brain focused on saving and organizing information into long-term memory as well.

What happens when we don’t get enough sleep?

When we aren’t able to get enough healthy sleep, our body quickly begins to experience the effects of sleep deprivation. Whether we experience mild sleep deprivation from missing a few hours of shut-eye or more extreme sleep deprivation from habitually poor sleep, we will see adverse changes in cognitive and physical performance. First and foremost, extreme sleep deprivation impairs attention and working memory, but it also affects other functions, such as long-term memory and decision-making. In addition to this, even with mild sleep deprivation, we can begin to see effects on general cognitive functions such as attention.

What can we do to get more sleep?

Our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep can be affected by many things. Consuming stimulants such as caffeine or medications can cause us to have difficulty falling asleep, but consuming alcohol or other depressants can make it difficult for us to stay asleep or reach the regenerative deeper levels of sleep. All aspects of our diets can affect our sleep including chemicals such as tryptophan, melatonin, and even sugar.

Another aspect of our lives that greatly impacts the quantity and quality of our sleep is how active we are throughout the day. Spending more time doing activities such as playing sports, working out, or even walking can make it much easier to maintain a healthy sleep schedule, though doing these activities right before bedtime can make it difficult to fall asleep due to an increased heart rate and adrenaline.

In addition, setting and sticking to a schedule can help your body prepare for sleep better and wake up feeling more rested. Your body’s internal clock can help relax your body and prepare for sleep by releasing chemicals when it is ready for bed. When you have a set schedule your body can better predict when it is time to go into ‘sleep mode’ and waking up at the same time every day can help your body better schedule the sleep cycles so that you are in a lighter stage of sleep when your alarm goes off in the morning.

Benefits of Being Social

Imagine yourself sitting lonely in your apartment on a fine Sunday, feeling stressed about work and Monday and you get a call from your best friend inviting you for the dinner at your favorite restaurant? You’ll notice your mood swinging at 360 degrees! Well, this is the power of social life. Going out with friends, eating out, seeing a movie, going for a picnic or shopping might just be fun activities for you. But you don’t know how beneficial they are for your mental and physical wellbeing.

This article is all about how can your social life benefit you. What are the prominent benefits of being social and how does it adds to your health? So, let’s find out.

What are the benefits of being social? Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

Being social can prolong your life span

A research study claims that being social can add to the years of your life. Your social life influences how long you live. This study was conducted at Brigham-Young University and it says that isolation and loneliness have more negative impacts on your life span than obesity. And we all know that obesity is the mother of all diseases. Another study from the University of Chapel Hill North Carolina states that people with fewer social connections have a 50% chance of dying early. Also, Horstman in her book says that healthy friendship, no matter if long-distance, increases the chances of a long and healthy life.

Being social reduces the risk of stroke  

Many people think that spending a night out with friends, taking them on a long drive, eating out at a restaurant are unhealthier practices. You should instead be going to a gym, getting your things done in time, and sleep peacefully. But they don’t know that research says that people who spend time with their friends are at lower risk of developing hypertension and inflammation. Also, their likelihood of having a stroke or brain damage is much low. Research at Harvard School of Public Health states that people who engage with their friends more have a sense of enthusiasm which reduces their health risks notably.

Being social strengthens your immunity

John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, studies social isolation and its effects on the human brain and biology. He states that isolation is associated with both mental and physical illnesses. Also, research says that socially isolated people have lower immunity and are at a higher risk of getting sick. They can easily catch common infections like cold and flu. However, socially active people have good immunity and don’t fall sick easily. Also, it keeps stress and depression at bay.

Being social encourages good habits

When you are out with good people, you automatically catch their vibe and encourage yourself to do good. A good friend circle can help you quit unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking, etc. All you have to do is to make the right friends and see the good coming to you!  

Social life delays the onset of cognitive decline

Social activities keep your mind active. They engage your brain in something productive which benefits its growth and health. Psychology says that interacting with your friends is therapeutic for your brain, especially when your friends are young. The University of Arizona runs a clinical program where patients of Alzheimer’s disease are engaged with college-going students in exercise sessions. These sessions are proven to stabilize their mental decline and elevate their mood.  

Good social life relieves pain

 If you remember as a child having your mother stroke your fevered brow or kiss a skinned knee and feeling better, you’re not alone, and it wasn’t your imagination. Holding hands with someone you care about has been shown in studies to reduce pain perception as well as blood pressure. So, whether you hold hands, hug someone, or get a massage, it can help you feel better and reduce pain.

Social life has far more benefits than your imagination. It helps you keep going through life. Friends and family are your ultimate support in difficult times. Whenever you feel like giving up or feel like not doing anything, call your best friend or your parents. Talk to them about what is bothering you. Go out for lunch or drive. It will make you feel better. It is never advised to have a lot of friends. You can have your parents as your friends or siblings or that one friend from childhood is enough. Always remember, quality not quantity is what should be preferred.     

How Digital Cognitive Solutions Can Shape the Future of Education

Digital Cognitive Solutions? In the classroom? Do kids really need so much technology just to learn about reading, writing, and math? Many of us who are old enough to be parents ourselves likely remember going to school in the days of overhead projectors, typewriters, and *gasp* CHALKBOARDS!! And if we all turned out just fine without all this high-tech teaching equipment, is it really necessary for students today?

The pace of change has accelerated dramatically over the past half century. The technology of today would be almost unrecognizable to someone from even the early ‘90s.  And teachers and schools are doing everything they can to keep up and prepare their students for the ‘real world’ they will enter once they finish school. A world which likely will be much different than today.

While schools around the world are incorporating modern technologies into the classroom such as ‘smart boards,’ computers and tablets, and even fitness trackers, to help students become “technologically literate,” many educators are beginning to question how to prepare students for a future that will continue to change in unprecedented and unpredictable ways.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the answer to this problem will require a unique approach to education that not only uses modern technology and tools, but which also combines traditional education methods for teaching core subjects such as math, history, and literature, with inter-disciplinary teaching methods to help students develop skills that will help them succeed in the dynamic environments in which they will likely find themselves once they move beyond the classroom.

What is Inter-disciplinary Education?

Whereas many traditional methods of teaching focused on showing students how to solve specific problems such as how to find the circumference of a circle, or how to master a defined block of knowledge such as the literature of Shakespeare or the history of ancient Rome, an inter-disciplinary approach to education focuses on the skills that are needed for problem-solving, critical thinking, and cognitive flexibility.

By focusing on these skills, educators are able to help teach students how to solve problems for themselves, how to explore unique solutions, and how to uncover answers on their own.

Many pioneering schools have come up with unique methods for how to best meet this new challenge. Many have built on established education styles such as those found in Montessori schools, others have looked to completely redefine how a school should look and feel and the role school should play in the students’ lives.

Some schools have chosen to upend the traditional curriculum and incorporate subjects teaching students how to start a business, how to build robots, and even how to run a farm.

What Role do Digital Cognitive Tools Such as CogniFit have in this New Education Paradigm?

The core cognitive abilities trained by CogniFit solutions play a key role in many of the skills needed for a successful interdisciplinary education. Skills like short-term memory, focus, planning, shifting, and more are vital in helping an individual adapt to unique and novel situations. They help us to solve problems and overcome obstacles.

As we wrote about in a recent article, a study from earlier this year found that students who trained with CogniFit over an eight-week period had improved academic performance compared to the control group. While there is still plenty of research to be done, these findings point to how beneficial brain-based learning tools such as this can be for the modern classroom.

This platform provides an easy-to-use tool for teachers to help evaluate and train the cognitive abilities most important for their students’ success in school and beyond.

You can read about our Education Platform for Schools and Teachers to learn more about how CogniFit is creating digital cognitive solutions for the classroom.

Biohacking, Transhumanism, and Redefining the Meaning of Mental & Physical Health

The human journey towards improving themselves and their lifestyle has always been on a roller coaster. Ever since man is born, he is trying to do whatever it takes to improve himself. If you look back in history, the earliest humans use to live in Jungles, wear leaves, and hunt animals to eat. There was no concept of the present world we live in. Then how things came into being? How has the world changed from a jungle to a global hub? Well, all this is due to human efforts towards improvement.

This unstoppable path towards improvement has proven to be beneficial for humans mostly. They’ve created many facilities for themselves and life has become so easy nowadays. Especially, the advent of modern technology has pacified our lives to a great extent. We have a machine for almost everything. The world is at just one right click and whatnot! However, the human thirst for improvement is not satisfied yet and this time they’re thinking of something that can be both advantageous and equally dangerous!

You’ll get to know in the latter part of the essay what we are talking about.

What is Biohacking? Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

Transhumanism

Transhumanism is a social movement that was carried out to promote the idea of research for developing stronger technologies for human enhancement. These technologies are thought to elevate;

  1. Human sensory reception
  2. Cognitive capacity
  3. General well being
  4. Emotive ability
  5. Lifespan  

Yes, you read it right. The transhumanism movement says that humans should be allowed to do whatever it takes to enhance their life even if it demands the integration of biological and physical technologies into the human body.

The principal supporters of the movement have been Rayy Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Eric Drexler, James Hughes, and Nick Bostrom. All of them are either computer technologists, nanotechnologists, or philosophers from America. Transhumanism is primarily divided into supporters of two post-humanity visions:

  1. One in which technological and genetic advancements have resulted in a distinct species of radically enhanced humans.
  2. The other emerges with greater-than-human machine intelligence.

This movement has encouraged people to carry out procedures to enhance their human abilities. They are redefining the concept of mental and physical well-being. The prominent result of which is Biohacking; the DIY biology which is beneficial and equally dangerous as mentioned above!

Biohacking

Biohacking is a very broad and unstructured term covering a wide range of activities like experimenting with yeast and other living beings, tracking your sleeping and eating pattern, changing your biological features, fighting to age, and what not! 

Do you know scientists are pumping the blood of a younger individual in an older adult with a hope to fight to age? Yes, it is a proper technique called young blood transfusion and it is a gift of Biohacking!

People who are practicing Biohacking are called biohackers. They attempt to manipulate their bodies and brain for optimizing their physical and mental performance. According to these people, Biohacking is an art that involves the use of science and technology to modify both the external and internal environment. Biohackers believe that humans have full control over their own body and as long as they are not harming somebody or something else, they are right to change their biology. Many biohackers have stem cells injected into their body, they take dozens of self-formulated supplements, bathe in the infrared light, etc. And most of them do so to live a longer life without any health adversities. This is one of the major aims behind Biohacking that people want a better and longer life. They don’t want to fall sick and die.

Biohackers not only use technology but some of their techniques have been practiced for centuries. For example, intermittent fasting, Vipassana meditation, and ice bathing in the morning are a few of them. Supplements, another tool for biohackers, have an older history. However, the difference here is that supplements of the biohackers are self-formulated having smart drugs in them.  

Some other Biohacking practices include;

  1. Cryotherapy
  2.  Neuro-feedback
  3. Near-infrared saunas
  4. Virtual float tanks
  5. Computer chips insertion

The first one is where the biohackers make him/herself cold purposely. The second one is a training of oneself for regulating brain waves and infrared saunas are supposed to escape the stress from EM transmissions. Finally, virtual float tanks help with meditation via sensory deprivation and computer chips do more than you can even imagine! Chips implanted in the bodies can help individuals to do everything like opening doors without a fob, monitoring their level of glucose, blood pressure, heart rate, etc.  

Why are people Biohacking?

The basic reason behind people practicing such techniques is their desire to feel better. They don’t want to get sick and live longer. Some people want to become smart and strong. Some want enhanced cognitive abilities, some want better looks. Human goals towards betterment are always escalating which pushes them to do such stuff.

The expected outcomes of Biohacking include;

  1. Human bodies will be augmented with stronger and sharper skills.
  2. The human thought process will be faster and transferable
  3. Human productivity will increase due to gamification
  4. Business practices will shift noticeably

Is it legal?

The present laws don’t address Biohacking particularly. Regulations issued by FDA don’t state Biohacking as an illegal procedure but many allegations have been put forward according to which humans shall not be freely allowed to do whatever they want because this could be dangerous for the world. One strong stance in this regard is that since Biohacking is expensive, only a specific class can afford it. And they will try their best to inculcate elevated features then isn’t it injustice with people who can’t afford it. So, the technique is not stated fully legal or illegal yet and authorities are still working on this matter. However, regulations must be issued as soon as possible so that people know their limits!    

How Intermittent Fasting Affects the Brain

You may have come across many diet plans suggesting what to eat and in what amount. But have you ever thought, what is the best time to eat? Has any diet plan ever suggested that when to eat and when not to so that you can make the most of your food? If not, then we’re here with something very special for you! 

This article is about intermittent fasting and how it benefits the human body. We’ll be focusing on the effects of such fasting especially on the brain and cognitive working. You may be thinking that how can fasting be so beneficial, right? But this is something more than usual fasting and can do wonders for you! Let’s dig into the details of what happens and how!

What is intermittent fasting?

Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern that includes a planned schedule transiting between fasting and eating periods regularly. Where most of the diet plans focus on what to eat, intermittent fasting is all about when to eat. In this eating plan, you eat for a specific time and then fast for a fixed number of hours. You eat just one meal in a couple of days which helps your body burn extra fats.   

Many research studies prove intermittent fasting to be very effective against weight gain and many forms of diseases. According to the researchers at John Hopkins University, human bodies can go without food for hours and days. This concept can be traced back to prehistoric times when people didn’t know how to farm and lived upon hunting only. They could easily thrive for long periods without eating. The researchers also add that people in the past had lesser calories but worked more and thus the ratio for diseases was low. However, the present lifestyles are mostly sedentary and people are taking extra calories which gives rise to diseases like obesity, diabetes, etc. If people practice intermittent fasting, it can help them keep such diseases at bay.   

What happens during intermittent fasting?

On regular basis, people eat throughout their waking hours but in the case of intermittent fasting, you have to choose specific periods for eating and fasting. And you can’t break the cycle! For example, you can eat only for 8 hours every day and fast for the other 16 hours of the day. Also, you can choose to eat one meal during the day and skip the rest. After hours without eating, your body starts utilizing its stored reserves for the production of energy. It will start exhausting the sugars and fats referred to as metabolic switching.  

It is always recommended that you consult your doctor before starting with intermittent fasting. But the general pattern is; during the eating periods, you should eat normally. Avoid high-calorie junk food and fried items and opt for healthy fruits and vegetables. And during the fasting times, you can only drink water and beverages with zero calories.

Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting comes with a variety of both mental and physical health benefits. The metabolic switch during eating and fasting periods has proven to be great for the body and brain. Here are some quick general health benefits of intermittent fasting;

  1. Intermittent fasting improves your heart health by regulating your blood pressure and heart-related measurements.
  2. It causes significant weight loss due to the burning of fats and sugars. Also, the practice maintains muscle mass.
  3. Studies show that intermittent fasting can prevent diseases like obesity and diabetes.
  4. Studies show this type of eating and fasting to reduce tissue damage during surgeries.
  5. Intermittent fasting improves your mental wellbeing and cognitive abilities and here is how it does so.

Effect of intermittent fasting on the brain    

Going without food for a long time can have long-term effects on your brain. It can safeguard your brain’s function and improve its working potential. As mentioned above, fasting can trigger a metabolic shift where your body switches from glucose/sugars to ketones. Ketones are produced by the liver using fats. The increased use of ketones causes greater burning of fats and the consequent biological cascade boosts your brain function ensuring resilience and improved cognitive productivity. This is because your cranial cells enter the survival or repair stage during fasting and growth and regeneration when eating.

The five major advantages of intermittent fasting include;

  1. Slow aging of the brain
  2. Regeneration of cranial cells
  3. The flexibility of the brain toward the neurological condition
  4. Improved psychological condition
  5. Good mood, thinking, and memory

Many studies serve as pieces of evidence for all the mentioned benefits. For instance, a 2019 study states that mice, deprived of food for 12-16 hours, exhibit higher levels of protein markers as compared to others. These protein markers were specific to the production of new brain cells. When you’re fasting, your body produces ghrelin which spurs the creation of newer brain cells. A 2015 study also confirmed this statement where mice who ate every other 24 hours showed greater ghrelin production than others. Also, once you are adapted to intermittent fasting, your brain works quickly during the fasting hours. You are likely to feel fresh and elevated which keeps your mood happy. Also, people who fast intermittently are linked with good memory and critical thinking. 

The link between hydration, health, and happiness

All of us know how important it is to drink water. This is because water is the key to life. Every single cell, tissue, and organ of your body needs water for proper functioning. Water is necessary for your major corporal processes like metabolism of nutrients, regulation of temperature, lubrication of joints, better cognitive functioning, and many other.  If you aren’t drinking enough water, you may be risking your health badly. How? Let’s find out.

This article presents a comprehensive link between hydration and health. It enumerates that why it is important to stay hydrated and what could be the consequences if you don’t.  But before that let’s dig into what is hydration.

What is hydration?

The scientific definition of hydration is the process of causing something to absorb water. In simple terms, hydration refers to the absorption of the water, which you drink, within your body. For instance, you drink water daily, right? What do you think it is doing in your body? Well, it goes to each and every cell of your body and is being absorbed for proper functioning. This process is called hydration and if you are providing enough water to your body, you are said to be hydrated.    

Why it is important to stay hydrated?

It’s important to stay hydrated. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Hydration is something more than just drinking and absorption of water. It is crucial for the proper functioning of a living body. Majority of the biochemical processes occurring in our body require an aqueous medium to occur. So, water is necessary! Also, hydration is a must for the delivery of nutrients to the cells. Proper hydration keeps your body temperature right, strengthens your immune system, and improves cognitive functioning. If you are hydrated enough, you’ll be sleeping properly, have a good mood, not likely to catch many infections, etc.

Here is a little detail about how can staying hydrated transform your health.

Hydration ensure good heart health

The heart is one of the strongest muscles of living beings. It continuously pumps blood throughout the body and works 24/7 until you die. Many factors may contribute to the overworking of your heart and dehydration is one of them. If you don’t drink enough water, your blood volume is likely to lower. It causes your heart to work fast and harder thus making it prone to strokes, cardiac arrests, and other diseases. On the other hand, drinking an ample amount of water daily can save you from such cardiovascular risks. 

Hydration lubricates your joints for easy motion

If you are into sports or some intense physical activity, you must have noticed your doctor or trainer tell you to drink more and more water. This is because water helps to improve your muscles and joints so that they can respond well to physical activities. A lesser amount of water may cause dehydration followed by muscle cramps and stiffness of joints which is very painful. Well-lubricated joints and muscles make motion easy.    

Hydration cleanses your body

Do you that the food you eat, beverages you drink, and the environment you live in have a wide variety of contaminants in them. And these contaminants enter your body as toxins causing physical imbalances and making you feel tired and fatigued. Drinking enough water and staying hydrated cleanse your body. Water helps your kidneys with filtration of all types of waste and toxins from your blood and excrete them out. The more water you drink, the more waste will be excreted out and you’ll feel refreshed.

Hydration strengthens your immune system

Hydration can help you treat different illnesses because it strengthens your immunity. In fact, water is considered one of the safest and natural immune boosters. When you are sick, your body is fighting the germs that have entered to cause the disease. If you are taking in enough water, it becomes easy to get rid of these germs because water has an excellent cleansing effect. It provides an adequate environment for your immune cells to function and thus aiding a speedy recovery.   

Hydration causes weight loss

Drinking enough water can cause you to lose weight healthily. It keeps your stomach satisfied and thus prevents unnecessary and untimely food cravings.

How dehydration affects the brain and cognition?

As mentioned above, hydration is crucial for the working of all the cells in our body. Similarly, your brain cells need an adequate amount of water for proper working as well and dehydration can sometimes be very dangerous for cognitive functions. For instance, mild dehydration can disturb your mood, ability to concentrate, memory, and cause headache, anxiety, fatigue, etc. Even 1-3% loss of water can hamper your cognitive abilities.

Adults with a dehydrated brain exhibit signs of enhanced neuronal activation during cognitive tasks. It indicates that their brains have to work harder than normal to get the task done. This can possibly link dehydration with declined cognitive performance. Also, a meta-analysis of almost 33 studies links dehydration to impaired attention, poor motor coordination, and lessened cognitive functioning.

Signs and symptoms of dehydration

As dehydration poses significant harm to human health, it is necessary to recognize and treat it at its earliest. Common symptoms that signify the likelihood of dehydration include;

  1. Dry mouth
  2. Lightheadedness
  3. Nausea and vomiting
  4. Weakness
  5. Muscle cramps
  6. Dark yellow urine 
  7. Sleepiness and fatigue
  8. Headache and confusion
  9. Feelings of drinking more and more water
  10. Little or no tears when crying

If you are experiencing most of these symptoms, you’re most probably dehydrating. It is time that you start drinking enough water to avoid major complications. 

Ways to stay hydrated

Simple ways to stay hydrated. Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

There are many simple ways of staying healthy and hydrated. Doctors and nutritionists recommend that;

  1. Men should drink 13 cups of water daily
  2. Women should drink nine cups of water daily
  3. Children and teens must have 6-8 cups of water every day

You don’t need to drink plain water only. You can fulfill your water content by eating a good portion of fresh fruits and vegetables daily. Google out some hydrating food and include them in your diet. You can also make juices and smoothies. You can also add a slice of lemon or lime to your drinking water. Carry a water bottle with you everywhere and drink as much water as you can. Just like your everyday meal schedule, make your water schedule as well and follow it strictly. You will start noticing the wonders of water in no time! 

The Big Question: Uncovering the link between ‘general cultural knowledge’ and IQ

We all like to believe that we are smart, or at the very least, have a level of intelligence that is above average. Intelligence is an important part of how we, as a society, value individuals. Intelligence, or the appearance of it, is often a key criterion that schools look for when admitting students; colleges and universities rely on it to give scholarships, grants, and awards; and employers look for signs of intelligence when selecting the best candidate for a job.

The important role that intelligence plays in society means that it is important to understand how we measure ‘intelligence’ and, more importantly, how these measurements can be improved.

IQ as a measure of intelligence

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

One of the most basic ways we measure intelligence is by testing an individual’s IQ, or intelligence quotient. This score is typically found by presenting the individual with a series of tests to determine their ‘mental age’, then dividing their mental age by their ‘chronological age’.

This system is designed to determine not only an individual’s critical thinking and reasoning abilities but also to provide a simple way to compare multiple individuals of varying ages and mental abilities.

And while for many practical applications the IQ system provides a reasonable, flexible, and simple solution, it is not without its flaws.

Our understanding of intelligence has evolved

As we learn more about the human brain and cognitive abilities, we are beginning to understand that there are multiple types of intelligence and that intelligence can be affected by things such as culture, education background, and even our environment.

It is often said that IQ scores are great at testing a ‘specific type of intelligence in a specific type of person in a specific type of culture’. Much of the tests, science, and research that underpin the IQ scoring system was developed, implemented, and reviewed by scientists who are predominantly Western, educated, white, and male—an issue that is common throughout many areas of psychology and cognitive science.

The problem arises when we try to test the intelligence of individuals who may not have had the same background. Individuals who were not educated at ‘western’ schools or universities; individuals whose life experience may be so completely different from those who designed the tests that their intelligence cannot be properly understood through traditional IQ tests.

Photo by Bestbe Models from Pexels
Photo by Jamal Yahya from Pexels
Photo by Teddy Joseph from Pexels

How can the cultural background and knowledge of these individuals affect their outcomes on intelligence tests?

Exploring the link between knowledge and intelligence

If an IQ test were to ask individuals to name the 50 states in the USA, its results would quite probably be skewed to show that Americans were smarter than the rest of the world. If the test, however, asked questions about how to calculate the score of a Cricket match, those very same Americans might be labeled as ‘underperformers.’

While these are intentionally silly examples, it is easy to see how the general knowledge that an individual has due to their location, culture, and past experience can affect their scores—and, importantly, how important it is to create measures of intelligence which as unbiased, culturally-neutral, and universally relevant.

It was with this in mind that Scientists in Spain have developed a research project known as ‘The Big Question’ (in Spanish, ‘La Gran Pregunta’) to investigate the role that ‘general cultural knowledge’ has on intelligence scores, and how location affected the population’s average scores in cultural knowledge.

 What is ‘The Big Question’?

The Big Question is a research project devised and coordinated by Jon Andoni Duñabeitia, director of the Cognitive Science Center (Centro de Ciencias Cognitivas, or C3, in Spanish)  of  Nebrija University, with participation from teams of researchers from the Complutense University of Madrid and the  Rovira i Virgili University designed to study the variations in the cultural knowledge of the people living in the various Autonomous Communities in Spain.

Thanks to the data collected in the project, the research teams will be able to draw a scientifically sound map of shared knowledge that will serve as a baseline of general culture knowledge in Spain.

The project is presented as a quiz containing general knowledge questions about different categories in which each player tests their level of general cultural knowledge.

There are 37 different categories that address thematic areas such as zoology, astronomy, inventions and discoveries, architecture, or mythology and folklore, among others. The platform is fed by a list of 1,300 questions, and, after completing a short questionnaire on basic sociodemographic data, each player is presented with a random selection of 60 questions each time they enter to play a game.

In the first two weeks that the platform was live, more than 36,000 games were completed, with players from all the autonomous communities. At the moment, the average score on the test at the national level is 60%, with some differences between communities.

Average scores per autonomous community. The Big Question.

Once the data cleansing procedure has been applied, the provisional data show an unequal distribution between territories, even though these differences never exceed 5%.

The average of correct answers per Autonomous Community ranges from 57% to 62%. Above the average we find Galicia, Castile and León, Principality of Asturias, La Rioja, Aragon, Community of Madrid, Basque Country, Cantabria and Valencian Community. The communities that scored below the average were Extremadura, Region of Murcia, Balearic Islands, Autonomous Community of Navarre, Andalusia, Castilla-La Mancha, Canary Islands, and Catalonia.

The science and questions of the quiz

The history of databases on general culture is still quite recent and more scarce than some might think. In the early 80s, Nelson and Narens found that there was no database that defined which facts were likely to be considered general culture, nor whether there was data more difficult to remember than others.

They themselves compiled a list of 300 questions they obtained from books, atlases, colleagues, friends, and other sources of information they considered relevant. Students from two U.S. universities answered these questions and collected different cognitive and metacognitive measures. Over the following decades, these questions were used in countless research in cognitive science.

However, and as is normal, with the passage of time this compendium of facts and data that were very relevant or important in the 80s were changing. Society advances and changes, and with it cultural knowledge relevant to each historical context.

This led a group of scientists in 2013 to review the original set of questions and see how it had evolved over the past three decades.

They administered the questions with some changes to almost 700 students from different universities and, although there were some changes between the general knowledge demonstrated in both experiments (for example, in 1980 only 7% of the sample knew that Baghdad was the capital of Iraq, and in 2013 this value increased to 47%), the authors concluded that the set was still valid.

More recently, and in order to explore whether the results of the North American tests could be generalized to Spain, a team of Spanish scientists decided to test the knowledge of almost 300 participants from two universities. When they analyzed the consistency in the answers given to the same questions by students from different countries, they found a very high correlation between the two groups, which would indicate great intercultural stability.

However, differences were also found in some aspects of knowledge between Americans and Spaniards (for example, 97% of the Spanish sample knew that Venice is the name of the Italian city best known for its canals, compared to 46% of the North American sample).

All these studies, and similar ones in various countries, have involved a very limited number of questions. In addition, these studies have generally focused on the university population of young adults, who can hardly be representative of the whole society.

But today, thanks to new technologies and the use of the Internet, and following in the wake of large projects that have allowed to collect data from hundreds of thousands of people, ‘The Big Question’ is allowing scientists to create the most current and complete database on data and facts of general culture, thus creating a Trivial Pursuit of national dimensions and with a scientific foundation.

General knowledge and intelligence

There is no scientific consensus on questions such as whether general knowledge is part of a type of intelligence, or whether it is an indicator or a measure of it.

Some intelligence tests have sections of general knowledge, and many authors claim that this knowledge would be equivalent or belong to crystallized intelligence, that is, to what we already know (the facts, data, and experiences acquired and memorized over the years).

Others argue that their relationship is greater with reasoning and working memory, these aspects are more related to fluid intelligence, which refers to the mental ability to apply reasoning and logic to various new situations that will lead us to acquire new knowledge.

Be that as it may, it should be noted that there are authors who suggest that the results of a possible test of general knowledge sufficiently updated, relevant to the participants, and properly psychometrized, could be considered as a fairly reasonable representative value of intelligence.

General knowledge is highly relevant and informative in view of the expectations of the future of work and society. It is absolutely necessary to arrive at a clear description of what this general knowledge is, what aspects it covers, and what variables are the ones that modulate it.

In a changing world with a strong global and intercultural character, advances will come hand in hand with projects that promote knowledge, culture, and scientific collaboration. With that philosophy was born “The Big Question”.

Could Cognitive Stimulation Help You Learn a New Language?

The cognitive functions trained by CogniFit’s brain training tools—including Focus, Naming, Short-term Memory, and more—are essential in human development and play a key role in learning and using language.

The more researchers investigate how we acquire and process language, the clearer the relationship between our executive functions and language acquisition becomes.

Links between cognitive abilities and language-acquisition skills can be found throughout the Neuroscientific literature, including links between lexical-semantic processing and cognitive abilities such as Inhibition (Khanna and Boland, 2010), Working Memory and Updating (Weiland et al., 2014); links between syntactic processing and Inhibition, Shifting, and Updating (Novick et al., 2005Roberts et al., 2007); and links between both sentence comprehension (Daneman and Carpenter, 1980) and sentence production (Slevc, 2011) and the cognitive ability for Updating, to name a few.

Based on this growing body of scientific work in this area, scientists in the field see the potential of cognitive stimulation focused on specific executive functions and cognitive abilities for increasing and strengthening the neural networks underlying more general domains such as language skills.

But how can cognitive stimulation activities, such as those offered by CogniFit, improve our ability to learn a language? First, we have to understand the history and science behind cognitive stimulation techniques.

The Growth of Cognitive Stimulation

Cognitive stimulation—which includes techniques and strategies that aim to improve the cognitive functioning of different capacities and cognitive functions such as attention, reasoning, memory, perception, abstraction, or language skills—has been an important area of interest among the scientific community since at least the 1970s when researchers began designing clinical intervention programs focused on the restoration of damaged cognitive functions in cognitive domains such as attention, executive functions, working memory, processing speed, and reasoning.

As the processes underlying cognitive stimulation began to mature, therapists began to use cognitive stimulation as a path to neuropsychological rehabilitation for patients with brain injury (Sohlberg and Mateer, 1987), depression (Zeiss et al., 1979), cognitive impairment (Labouvie-Vief and Gonda, 1976), hyperactivity (Douglas et al., 1976), or schizophrenia (Olbrich and Mussgay, 1990).

Over the years, cognitive stimulation has grown as a scientific tool. It has been used in a wide variety of areas, such as learning and education, psychological disorders, brain damage, or neurodegenerative disorders, with users reporting improvements in overall cognition and in specific cognitive domains in both healthy and unhealthy samples.

While early research into the effectiveness of cognitive stimulation interventions was focused mainly on how interventions affected the specific cognitive ability being trained, known as near transfer effects (van Heugten et al., 2016), more recent research has been looking into how cognitive stimulation can benefit more general cognitive domains and skills, known as far transfer effects (Dahlin et al. (2008)Hardy et al. (2015); Au et al. (2015)).

The scientific community is beginning to uncover the benefits and far transfer effects of cognitive stimulation beyond the training’s specific cognitive abilities. As this is happening, they have started exploring new ways to leverage cognitive stimulation tools for more generalized applications such as language acquisition.

Optimizing Cognitive Stimulation Programs to Achieve Far Transfer Effects

Based on this concept of near and far transfer effects, we can see the potential for cognitive stimulation tools, like those developed by CogniFit, in generalized domains such as language. But what does a cognitive stimulation intervention need in order to achieve these far transfer effects?

From what is shown in the scientific literature, there are three aspects of cognitive stimulation programs that may be at the center of achieving the beneficial far transfer effects. These include the validity of intervention activities, the timing of the training, and the adaptation of the training to the individual’s cognitive state at each stage of the intervention.

The validity of the intervention requires not only that the intervention trains the specific cognitive ability but also that it is engaging and motivates the user to adhere to and become invested in the intervention.

The timing of a cognitive stimulation intervention is critical. Cognitive stimulation activities activate specific neural activation patterns in the brain. Frequent, repeated training can help create new synapses and reorganize neural circuits. The more frequently that a user trains a specific cognitive ability, the stronger the neural circuits become.

Graphic projection of neural networks after 3 weeks.

The final aspect of cognitive stimulation programs may be the most important for achieving the desired far transfer effects. Adapting the level of difficulty of the cognitive stimulation tasks throughout the intervention is key to achieving the highest possible benefit. However, simply increasing the difficulty from one activity to the next may not be adequate for every situation. Natural variations in performance throughout the length of the intervention mean that each session should be scaled to the user. Dynamic adaptation, such as with CogniFit’s patented algorithms, is an “essential requisite to foster not only maximization of the benefits of the training, but also adherence to it.

Applying New Cognitive Stimulation Technologies to Language Acquisition

New technologies have made it possible to create engaging, interactive, practical, and dynamic cognitive stimulation training tools. In addition. the ability to collect and analyze massive amounts of data allows for the development of powerful algorithms which can create personalized training recommendations with dynamically adjusted difficulty. Taken together, these two massive advances in cognitive stimulation programs mean the potential to produce benefits in more general domains such as language is higher than ever.

While research into how training non-linguistic cognitive skills affects language learning, linguistic skills, and language control (Liu et al. 20162019) is still in its earliest stages, some studies are already seeing hopeful outcomes (Hayashi, 2019Karousou and Nerantzaki, 2020).

As our world becomes more interconnected and we interact more than ever before with people from different countries and cultures in our work, school, and travel, the importance of language learning will continue to increase.

Thankfully, it seems cognitive stimulation programs like CogniFit may make it easier for current and future multilinguals to acquire a new language.

A Healthy Brain: 4 Ways Brain Plasticity Helps Our Brain Stay Healthy

Brain plasticity or neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to grow and change with age, be it for better or worse. It does so by organizing neurons and synaptic connections. As per neuroscientists, neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to make and reorganize synaptic connections in response to learning experiences and injuries. This flexible growth of the brain plays an incredible role in its development and shapes distinct human personalities.

The brain has a very complex composition and set up. It has a gray matter that can either thicken or shrink, it has sensory and motor signals working in parallel, its neural connections can refine or weaken, etc. However, all these physical changes in the brain are very important for the individual abilities of a person.

Every time you learn something new, it reflects a physical change in your brain. The brain makes new neural pathways that tell your body to carry out what you’ve learned. Moreover, every time you forget something, it too is a reflection of a physical brain change; your neural wires and pathways may have degraded or severed. This exceptional ability of the brain to modify its existing neural connections and wire-and-rewire itself is what is called brain plasticity. Without it, no brain can develop from childhood to adulthood and recover from injuries or traumas. 

How does brain plasticity help your brain grow and heal?

The basic brain structure is defined by your genes before birth. However, the continuous development of the brain heavily relies on developmental plasticity. It is characterized by the developmental processes that change the synaptic connections and neurons in the brain.

When your brain is immature, neuroplasticity aids its growth by;

  1. Making or losing synapses
  2. Migration of neurons throughout the brain
  3. Sprouting and rerouting of neurons

As the brain grows, neurons mature. They send out carious branches like axons and dendrites from transmitting and receiving information. Also, they increase the number of synaptic contacts. With age, when you learn new languages, activities, and skills, neuroplasticity helps the brain to devise neural connections that help you to remember the stuff in the long-run. It promotes structural and biochemical changes at the synaptic level which eventually helps the brain to grow strong with memory.

In the mature brain, there are few parts where neurons are formed e.g. the dentate gyrus in the hippocampus which controls emotions, and the sub-ventricular zone in the lateral ventricle. Neurons generate here and migrate through the olfactory bulb which processes the sense of smell. The information stored in the nascent neurons contributes to the brain to recover from damage. As we grow old, our brain starts losing cells and neural connections leading to mental decline. Neuroplasticity helps the damaged area of the brain to recover by forming new neural connections and encouraging sensory and motor stimulations.

Can brain plasticity cause our brain to shrink or become weaker?

Until now must have been considering neuroplasticity as a hero but neural changes are not good always. When neuroplasticity affects your brain negatively, it is called negative brain plasticity. The effects of negative plasticity can lead to destructive addictions, undesirable habits, and negative self-talk which are potentially hard to change. For example, improper synaptic changes and connections due to negative plasticity cause learning and behavioral disorders.

In the case of negative plasticity, synapses grow weak and the small spine structures supporting them grow small. This leads to a breakdown of the structure and function of the brain. It might cause your brain to shrink. One such example of negative plasticity causing a shrink in the brain size is the domestication of animals. A domesticated animal reportedly has a smaller brain as compared to the wild ones. For example, when it comes to hunting food, why are wild wolves considered smarter than domesticated dogs even when the dog is trained enough to read humans?

This is because domesticated dogs have lost their brainpower required for hunting and their brains have grown smaller. If your neural connections aren’t formed properly or if you are not using your certain neural powers, you will start losing your brain chunk by chunk.      

How can we use brain plasticity to our advantage?

Brain plasticity can widely be used for a variety of advantages. There are many ways in which brain plasticity benefits your physical and mental wellbeing. Some of the most important benefits, brain plasticity can be used for, are listed below.

Recovery from strokes

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is cut off. It deprives the brain cells of oxygen and nutrients and if prolonged it can cause the cells to die, seizing the brain function. Neuroplasticity can help the brain to recover the damage due to stroke. It works around the dead cells and helps to construct new neural pathways triggering the rehabilitation process.

Recovery from mental illnesses

Mental illnesses occur due to affected neural networks. They hamper the signaling of the brain and deteriorate its neural connections. Neuroplasticity helps to repair these neural networks resuming proper signaling and restoring healthy synaptic connections. In this way, it potentially helps with the recovery from mental illnesses.  

Strengthened senses

Neuroplasticity has the incredible benefit of strengthening senses. If a certain area of the brain controlling a particular sense is damaged, the brain can rewire the function and some other area might pick it up. Also, losing function in one area enhances the functions in the other areas. For instance, if you’ve lost a sense, neuroplasticity may heighten the others. This is the possible reason for why do blind people have exceptional hearing. They may not have the sense to see but have a high hearing ability.

Enhanced memory and learning

As mentioned above, whenever you learn or memorize something new, your brain undergoes physical changes to retain it. For example, if you’ve learned a new language, your brain will start making new pathways and trigger synaptic connections that will help your body know how to do it well. Every new lesson that you will learn will potentially connect new neurons and change the default mode of your brain’s operation. It is likely to enhance your memory and learning abilities. The healthier the neural connections, the greater will be your cognitive abilities enhancing memory, learning, and other mental abilities.   

Does brain plasticity decrease as we get older?

A simple answer to this is yes, it does. As an individual ages, the brain grows but the rate of neuroplastic changes declines. However, it is never likely to stop because neurons keep appearing in different parts of the brain until death. 

The younger brains i.e. from birth to two or three years display maximum brain plasticity. There is a huge increase in the number of neurons and synaptic Stromectol online connections in this age. This is because, the child is learning the basic functions and skills of life like eating, walking, talking, etc. Toddlers are expected to have twice the synapses of an adult. Later, the number of synaptic connections is likely to reduce by half till adolescence. During youth and adulthood, the human brain undergoes pruning which is the reduction of neurons and synapses formed during an early age. This reduction is mainly influenced by the life experiences of an individual.     

Brain plasticity might decrease with age but never halts. It continues in adulthood or older age because people keep learning and experiencing new stuff which causes the brain to elevate the synaptic count. Healthcare experts recommend certain tips that can help to augment brain plasticity. A few of them are as follow;

  1. Get enough sleep
  2. Practice brain-stimulating exercises
  3. Continue learning new things to challenge your brain
  4. Read as much as you can and enhance your vocabulary
  5. Play challenging games that demand brainwork  
Staying mentally and physically active can promote healthy brain plasticity. Photo by Gabby K from Pexels

Conclusion

Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity is an exceptional phenomenon where your brain organizes neural connections for enhanced working. It happens as a result of two situations; either you are learning something new or your brain has encountered an injury or trauma. In both the cases, the brain works to wire and re-wire its neural pathways by potential synaptic connections.

This ability of the brain to form new connections is necessary for its healthy growth and development. As it enhances the cognitive abilities of an individual and eases mental and emotional unrest. Most importantly, it offers greater healing effects against injuries like stroke and various mental disorders. There are chances that the brain might fall short of its neuroplastic abilities but the situation can be improved by simple self-help techniques mentioned above. Considering the wide effects of brain plasticity, people are recommended that they should help their brain continue with this super power by adopting a healthy lifestyle and keeping their brain active.     

Nutritional Psychology Answers Why Diet Impacts How We Think and Feel

The waitress of the fast food joint asks, “Would you like fries with that?” The customer quickly requests a super-sized meal, while the woman at the neighboring orders a grilled chicken salad. Whichever dietary choice resembles your own, nutrition has a vast impact on how we think, feel, and behave. Why? Nutritional psychology explains how nutrition determines cognitive skills, mood disorders, and intelligence.

Nutritional Psychology can help us understand how—and why—we eat the way we do

What is Nutritional Psychology?

Nutritional psychology is the study of nutrition and how it pertains to mood, behavior, and mental health. The foods we eat influence psychological, behavioral, cognitive, perceptual, sensory, and psychosocial patterns. This area of study has the goal to implement education and nutrition to connect diet with mental health.

Nutritional Psychology: The Enteric Nervous System

The nervous system is known to describe the brain and spinal cord; however, most are surprised to learn that a large portion of the nervous system is in our gastrointestinal tracts. From chewing food to absorption and even elimination, the gut is home to millions of nerve cells, hormones, and enzymes that perform a variety of functions. This is why it is commonly referred to as our second brain. Together, the gastrointestinal tract and all it entails is called the enteric nervous system.

Nutritional Psychology: Hormones

Gut bacteria line the stomach and intestines to facilitate digestion. These bacteria manufacture neurotransmitters not only to regulate digestion, but to control key cognitive processes like memory, mood, and learning. Serotonin is a particular prominent neurotransmitter in the gut. Bacteria create nearly 95 percent of the body’s serotonin—a neurotransmitter imperative to stabilize mood and trigger peristalsis (i.e. contractions of the stomach and intestines to digest food).

When serotonin is off, it can cause symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and constipation. But serotonin is not the sole neurotransmitter, GABA and dopamine are also relevant. Studies have allowed experts to document observations like mood changes in the presence of functional gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome. It was once thought that emotions and disorders like anxiety and depression result in bowel symptoms, but scholars at John Hopkins now believe that an unhealthy gastrointestinal tract leads to anxiety and depression.

Nutritional Psychology: Food and Brain Structure

The food we consume literally has the power to alter brain structure. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience reveals an increased volume of grey matter in the prefrontal cortex shown on brain imagine in patients who made food choices based on whether a food item is healthy rather than on taste or indulgence. Judging grey matter volume in these areas is a helpful predictor of various eating disorders including obesity and anorexia nervosa.

Neurons, nerve cells in the brain, are also affected by food. Diets with a high fat and sugar content have fewer synapses in the brain’s hippocampus—the connections that transmit signals to other cells in the body. The brain is less efficient at neuroplasticity. It cannot adapt as quickly. Instead, the hippocampus becomes inflamed as the cells respond to harm.

Nutritional Psychology: Obesity

The term obesity is described as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater. There are more than 400 million obese adults worldwide. Being overweight has a vast impact on the body. Although someone who is obese is prone to developing heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension, the brain is particularly effected. Scientists have attributed multiple cases of cognitive impairment with obesity.   

The brain of obese individuals is vulnerable to cerebral atrophy. The brain literally shrinks. As the brain volume decreases in size, the likelihood of memory impairment increases with age. A lack of brain volume makes it difficult to refrain from excessive eating, which fuels the cycle.

Nutritional Psychology: Caloric Intake

The first line of defense against the obesity epidemic is to adopt a healthy diet and lifestyle. Diet and exercise are key to shedding the extra pounds because it burns more calories than one expends. However, restricting caloric intake is potentially detrimental to psychological health.

Studies show that caloric restriction is linked to depression—a mental health disorder characterized by feeling unexplained sadness, anxiety, loss of interest, low motivation, and interrupted sleeping and eating patterns for more than 2-weeks. Male subjects went from consuming 3,200 calories to 1,600 calories of foods such as potatoes, turnips macaroni, milk, bread, chicken, and rutabagas. These men reported a multitude of symptoms: dizziness, cold intolerance, fatigue, muscle aches, edema, reduced sex drive, low attention spans, poor concentration, and psychological distress. Some were even sent to a psychiatric hospital for self-mutualization and suicide attempts.

Contrarily, other studies conclude that the risk for dementia and cognitive decline is lessened by a lower caloric intake. The combination of studies supports that the quality of food choices are important. For our brains to thrive, we require a range of foods from all food groups to avoid nutritional deficiencies.

Nutritional Psychology: Carbohydrates and Cognition

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel. As carbs are consumed, the body breaks the carbohydrates down into glucose. The nerve cells utilize the glucose in the bloodstream for energy. Restricting carbohydrates, like so many of modern day dieters do, is depriving the body of its main source of fuel. Thus, cognitive skills are affected. Researchers at Tufts University tested this hypothesis. Women were placed into groups based on “low-carb” and “low calorie” diets. Their cognitive skills were tested before the study, during, and after. Those on low carbohydrate diets presented with poor memory performance within a week of their diet.

In the average Western diet, the type of carbohydrates has an impact too. Refined, processed carbohydrates result in repeated spikes in blood glucose levels which triggers the rapid release of stress hormones that increase anxiety and mood disorders.

Nutritional Psychology: Fatty Acids and Cognition

70 percent of the human brain is comprised of fat. Fats are critical for brain development. When the body does not have sufficient carbohydrates available, it uses fat to perform necessary functions. Psychiatrists at Harvard University discovered that the amount of fat an individual consumes has little impact on brain function; however, the form of fat does.

Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial dietary fats. They are found in fish, walnuts, and chia seeds. Other fats, like saturated fats, are good in moderation and come from meat, coconut, and dairy products. Hydrogenated fats (i.e. trans fats) are best avoided in foods that are processed or deep-fried.

Nutritional Psychology: Vitamins and Minerals and Cognition

Vitamins and minerals are also related to brain function. The body is exposed to free radicals. Free radicals are unstable cells that damage healthy cells. The result is disease, aging, and illness. Vitamins and minerals contain radical fighting substances known as antioxidants.

The following vitamins and minerals are essential:

  • Iron—Adults and children who are anemic score lower on cognitive tests.
  • B Vitamins—B vitamins for the brain include B12, B6, and B9 (folate). When B vitamins are lacking, the body cannot convert homocysteine into protein. As homocysteine accumulates, cognitive performance suffers.  
  • Vitamin C—Vitamin C aids in iron absorption, but it does affect the brain directly. It is responsible for building the myelin sheath that allows the nerves to communicate. Vitamin C partakes in manufacturing neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
  • Vitamin D—Vitamin D is absorbed from both dietary sources and sunlight. Similar to vitamin C, vitamin D facilitates nerve growth. Experts claim vitamin D activates certain enzymes to produce neurotransmitters and reduce inflammation.
  • Vitamin E—Vitamin E is the main vitamin that combats neurodegeneration in the brain by reducing oxidative stress. When compounded with other vitamins, it improves memory and cognitive thinking processes.
  • Zinc—Deficiencies in zinc reflect issues with language and numbers. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease tend to have a zinc deficiency, which provides evidence that zinc aids in cognitive function.
  • Magnesium—Unrefined grains (i.e. buckwheat), green leafy vegetables, and nuts (i.e. almonds, cashews) are sources of magnesium. This deficiency is common in third-world countries and vegetarians.

Dietary Psychology: Can Your Diet Lower Your Risk of Dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term for neurodegenerative illnesses that cause impaired cognitive skills. Those with dementia experience memory loss, confusion, difficulties with language, and problem-solving abilities that inhibit normal daily functioning. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.

Published in April 2020’s edition of American Academy of Neurology, people who primarily eat snack foods (i.e. cookies, cakes), processed meats, and starchy foods such as potatoes have a higher risk of dementia than individuals who consume foods from a diverse range of food groups. Additionally, previous studies confirm that greater caloric intake is associated with Alzheimer’s.  

Abiding by dietary guidelines proposed by the Alzheimer’s Association is actually a treatment for the condition. Patients have an increase in memory and an overall reduction in the progression of the disease. Two diets are recommended to fight dementia:

  • DASH Diet—DASH stands for The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. It promotes a diet to lower blood pressure, which reduces stress on the nervous system. Someone following the DASH diet is encouraged to reduce their intake of excessive amounts of sodium, fats, red meats, full-fat dairy products, sweets, sugary beverages and to consume lean meats (i.e. poultry, fish), whole grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.
  • The Mediterranean Diet—The Mediterranean diet limits red meat, replaces butter with healthy alternatives and focuses on a diet of fruits, fresh vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. Fish and poultry are eaten twice weekly and spices replace salt.

Nutritional Psychology: Foods That Are Harmful To Your Brain

Much like a diet of fruits, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, nuts, and seeds are healthy for the brain, there are many foods that have the opposite effect. The chemicals in the foods we eat are stored throughout the body, including the brain and nervous system.

Soft Drinks

Sugary soft drinks include high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup is 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose. The inflammatory substance incorporated into our favorite beverages is known to impair memory. For example, high fructose corn syrup affects brain function because of it leads to insulin resistance. When the body is unable to bring blood glucose levels to normal ranges, the increase levels are damaging to the brain.

Refined Carbohydrates

Refined carbohydrates are processed grains like white flour. They have a high glycemic index in which the body responds with a spike in blood sugar levels. Studies of the elderly population proved that the risk of dementia and mild cognitive impairment is nearly doubled in the population who received over half of their dietary caloric intake from unhealthy carbohydrates. Whole, unrefined grains, fruits, and vegetables are healthier alternatives.

Trans Fats

While naturally occurring trans fats in meat and dairy products are not dangerous in controlled amounts, hydrogenated vegetable oil, margarine, pre-packaged desserts, frosting, and shortening are foods hiding the brain’s silent killer. Synthetic trans fats are harmful to cognitive function, as well as cardiac health. It advances inflammation.

Artificial Sweeteners

“Sugar free” is not always the healthier option. Aspartame and artificial sweeteners are in sugar free products. Aspartame is made from the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine. If aspartame is consumed, the body breaks it down into methanol which is toxic in large amounts.

Studies show artificial sweeteners provoke behavioral changes, depression, and learning difficulties. Participants consumed 11 mg of aspartame for every pound of body weight. After eight days, they scored lower on cognitive tests, were irritable, and had increased rates of depression in comparison to control subjects.

Alcohol

Alcohol impairs the way in which the brain communicates and decreases brain volume. Those who frequently consume alcohol typically develop a B vitamin deficiency, which is connected to poor cognitive transparent pharmacy functioning. While the majority of detrimental effects stem from episodes of binge drinking, it is recommended that young people avid alcohol because it interferes with brain development. Teenagers who drink are susceptible to risky behaviors and alcohol dependence into adulthood.

Nutritional Psychology: Which Diet Is Best For Your Brain?

So, what diet is best for your brain? Low carb, high carb, high fat, low fat, calorie restriction? Optimal eating habits are not any single diet. It is learning to be intuitive with your body’s nutritional needs, consuming a diet as colorful as the rainbow, and incorporating a variety of foods from all food groups. It is about establishing a balance that allows your body and brain to thrive.

References

American Academy of Neurology. (2020, April 22). Which foods do you eat together? How you combine them may raise dementia risk: Study finds ‘food networks’ centered on processed meats, starches may raise risk. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 22, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/04/200422214038.htm

Harvard University. Protect your brain with “good fat.” Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/protect-your-brain-with-good-fat

The Definitive Guide to the Human Brain

THE ANATOMY OF THE HUMAN BRAIN

The brain is a powerful and vital organ that is essential to being alive. With that said, it would not hurt to have knowledge of the main parts of the brain and their functions. Basically, the brain has 3 parts: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem. Each of these parts provides different functions for the brain, and we cannot survive without them.

The anatomy of the brain

The Cerebrum:

Also known as the cortex, the Cerebrum is by far the largest portion of the brain and weighs about two pounds. For the record, the entire brain weighs three pounds. The cerebrum is home to billions and billions of neurons. These neurons control virtually everything we do. It controls our movements, thoughts and even our senses. Since the cerebrum has so many functions, if it’s damaged, there are many different consequences.

The cerebrum consists of four different lobes that control all of our movements. The four lobes include: the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, and the occipital lobe.

The Frontal Lobe

The biggest lobe in the cortex. It is located in the front, right behind the forehead. It extends from the anterior to the central sulcus. It is the control center of your brain. The frontal lobe is involved in planning, reasoning, problem solving, judgement, and impulse control, as well as in the regulation of emotions, like empathy, generosity, and behavior. It is linked to executive functions.

The Parietal Lobe

It’s located between the central sulcus and the parietal-occipital sulcus. This part of the brain helps to process pain and tactile sensation. It is also involved in cognition.

The Temporal Lobe

It is separated from the frontal and parietal lobe by the lateral sulcus and the limits of the Occipital lobe. It is used in auditory and language processing and is also used in memory functions and managing emotions.

The Occipital Lobe

It is delimited by the posterior limits of the parietal and temporal lobes. It is involved in visual sensation and processing. It processes and interprets everything that we see. The Occipital lobe analyzes aspects like shape, color, and movement to interpret and make conclusions about visual images.

Finally, the cerebrum consists of two layers: the cerebral cortex, which controls our coordination and personality, and the white matter of the brain, which allows the brain to communicate.

The Cerebral Cortex

A thin layer of gray matter that grooves around itself, forming a type of protuberance, called convolutions, that give the characteristic wrinkled look to the brain. The convolutions are delimited by grooves or cerebral sulci and those that are especially are deep are called fissures.

The cortex is divided into two hemispheres, right and left, and they are separated by the interhemispheric fissure and joined by a structure called the corpus callosum which allows transmission between the two. Each hemisphere controls a side of the body, but this control is inversed: the left hemisphere controls the right side, and the right hemisphere controls the left side. This phenomenon is called brain lateralization.

White Matter

White matter is the subway of the brain. It connects the different parts of gray matter in the cerebrum to another. Like a subway/metro, this type of matter remains underneath it all (the surface in life, gray matter in the brain) and this underneath part is filled with different passages, links, and paths to take- each one with a different destination and purpose.

It’s known to be white because this type of matter is myelin rich. Myelin is a fatty-rich substance that causes the matter to appear white. In reality, the matter is a pinkish-white. In adults, the matter is about 1.7-3.6% blood and takes up about 60% of the brain!

The Limbic System:

Your limbic system functions range from regulating your emotions to storing your memories to even helping you to learn new information. Your limbic system is one of the most essential parts of the brain that help you live your daily life. The primary structures that work together in your limbic system are the amygdala, the hippocampus, the thalamus and hypothalamus, the cingulate gyrus, and the basal ganglia. All these parts help you to be active in society, engage in social relationships, and be a well-rounded person. To learn more about the interesting ways your limbic system impacts your life, sit back and get in-tuned with all of its hard-working employees!

The Amygdala

Shaped like a small almond, the amygdala is located in each of the left and right temporal lobes. It’s known as  “the emotional center of the brain,” because it is involved in evaluating the emotional intake of different situations or emotional intelligence (for example, when you feel happy because you received an awesome grade on your math exam or when you might be frustrated because the heavy traffic is making you late for work).

The amygdala is what makes the brain recognize potential threats (like if you are hiking in the lone woods and suddenly you hear the loud footsteps of a bear coming toward you). It helps your body prepare for fight-or-flight reactions by increasing your heart and breathing rate. The amygdala is also responsible for understanding rewards or punishments, a psychological concept known as reinforcement coined by the classical and operant conditioning experiments of Ivan Pavlov.

The Hippocampus

The Hippocampus is a small subcortical seahorse shaped structure that plays an especially important role in the formation of memory, both in classification and long-term memory. Among its main functions are the mental processes related to memory consolidation and the learning process. As well as processes associated with the regulation and production of emotional states and spatial perception.

The Thalamus

It is similar to the re-transmission station of the brain: it transmits the majority of perceived sensory information (auditory, visual, and tactile), and allows them to be processed in other parts of the brain. It is also used in motor control.

The Hypothalamus

It is a gland located in the center area of the base of the brain that has an especially important role in the regulation of emotions and many other corporal functions like appetite, thirst, and sleep. The functions of the Hypothalamus are essential to our daily life. It is responsible for maintaining the body’s systems, including body temperature, body weight, sleep, mating, levels of aggression and even emotional regulation. Most of these functions are regulated by a chain of hormones that inhibit or release between themselves.

The Cingulate Gyrus

This part is located in the middle of your brain next to the corpus callosum. Not much is known about the cingulate gyrus, but researchers suggest that this is the area that links smell and sight with pleasurable memories of previous experiences and emotions because it provides a pathway from the thalamus to the hippocampus. This area is involved with your emotional reaction to pain and how well you regulate aggressive behavior.

The Basal Ganglia

This area is an entire system within itself located deep in the frontal lobes. It organizes motor behavior by controlling your physical movements and inhibiting your potential movements until it gets the instructions to carry them out, based on the circumstances that you are in. The basal ganglia also participate in rule-based habit learning; choosing from a list of potential actions; stopping yourself from undesired movements and permitting acceptable ones; sequencing; motor planning; prediction of future movements; working memory; and attention. It is made up of a few structures, such as:

The Caudate Nucleus

The caudate nucleus sends messages to your frontal lobe, specifically to your orbital cortex (just above the eyes) which alerts you that something is not quite right with the physical situation you are in (usually during tense or anxious moments), so you should take action to fix your uneasiness.

The Putamen

The putamen lies directly underneath the caudate and controls your coordinated automatic behaviors, like riding a bike, driving a car, working on an assembly line, and any other task that doesn’t really involve upper-level thinking.

The Nucleus Accumbens

The nucleus accumbens is a brain part involved in functions such as motivation, reward, or positive behavioral reinforcement. The role of nucleus accumbens is to integrate motivation along with the motor action. Its function is to transfer relevant motivational information to the motor cells in order to obtain a certain reward or satisfaction. An imbalance is related to many psychiatric and neurological disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disorder, obesity and drug abuse.

The Cerebellum:

From Latin, meaning “little brain,” the cerebellum is a two-hemisphere structure located just below the rear part of the cerebrum, right behind the brain stem. Representing about 11 percent of the brain’s weight, it is a deeply folded and highly organized structure containing more neurons than all of the rest of the brain put together. The surface area of the entire cerebellum is about the same as that of one of the cerebral hemispheres.

The cerebellum is the second largest part of the brain, and it plays a significant role for our motor skills. It is located at the base of the brain, and damage to it can lead to decline in your motor skills. Besides motor control, the cerebellum has other different functions. One function that it has is to maintain our balance and posture. Another major function of the cerebellum is that it helps control the timing and force of various muscles.

Motor learning is another function of the cerebellum, and it has the biggest impact on skills that require trial and error. Even though it is mostly associated with motor control, the cerebellum has some control of our cognitive functions, such as language.

The Brain Stem:

Even though the brainstem is small, it controls many important functions in our bodies. Some functions of the brainstem include breathing, arousal, awareness, blood pressure, heart rate and digestion. It also controls our sleep patterns, body temperature, heart rhythms and even our hunger and thirst. In addition, it regulates the central nervous system.

The brain stem is the oldest and deepest area of the brain. It is often referred to as the reptilian brain because it resembles the entire brain of a reptile. The brainstem is also the smallest part of the brain and sits beneath your cerebrum in front of your cerebellum—and it connects the cerebrum to the spinal cord. Parts of the brainstem include: the midbrain, medulla oblongata and the pons.

The Midbrain

It is the structure that joins the posterior and anterior brain, driving motor and sensory impulses. Its proper functioning is a pre-requisite for the conscious experience. Damages to this part of the brain are responsible for some movement problems, like tremors, stiffness, strange movements, etc.

The Medulla Oblongata

It helps control our automatic functions, like breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, etc.

The Pons

The Pons, also known as the Annular Protuberance, is the portion of the base of the encephalon that is located between the medulla oblongata and midbrain. It connects the spinal cord and the medulla oblongata to the superior structures in the hemispheres of the cerebral cortex and/or the cerebellum. It is used in controlling the brain’s automatic functions and it has an important role in the awake-state levels and consciousness and sleep regulation.

The Spinal Cord:

The Spinal Cord is a long, whitish cord that is located in the vertebral canal and connects the encephalon to the rest of the body. It acts as a type of information highway between the encephalon and the body, transmitting all of the information provided by the brain to the rest of the body.

Learn more about the anatomy of our brain:

THE CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM: NERVES, NEURONS, & NEUROTRANSMITTERS

Have you ever stopped to think about how the Nervous System works? How is your body organized? How does it really work? What structures make up the Nervous System?  We are full of tracks that come and go loaded with data, electrical currents, chemicals, etc. at different rates and for different purposes.

The nervous system and the brain

Cranial Nerves:

12 pairs of cranial nerves enable us to perform our daily routine in a comfortable and efficient way, as they take part of the information of our senses to the brain and the brain to some of our muscles and viscera. Here is a small guide to know a little more about what are the cranial nerves, their anatomy, their classification, and their function.

As shown in the image above, the 12 pairs of cranial nerves have an associated Roman numeral. These numbers range from 1 to 12 corresponding in each case to the pair in question.

Each cranial nerve has a specific function. The next image shows how this person’s head is portrayed through numbers according to the cranial nerve functions.  Would you dare to say what function each cranial pair has according to its number in the drawing?

Before starting, it’s important to point out the order that this explanation will have will be according to the corresponding Roman number assigned to the cranial nerve.

The Olfactory Nerve (I)

It’s the first of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves. It’s a sensory nerve, in charge of transmitting olfactory stimuli from the nose to the brain. Its actual origin is given by the cells of the olfactory bulb. It is the shortest cranial pair of all.

The Optic Nerve (II)

This cranial pair is the second of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves and it is responsible for conducting visual stimuli from the eye to the brain. It is made of axons from the ganglion cells of the retina, that take the information of the photoreceptors to the brain, where later it will be integrated and interpreted. It emerges in the diencephalon.

The Oculomotor Nerve (III)

This cranial nerve is also known as the common ocular motor nerve. It is the third of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves. It controls eye movement and is also responsible for pupil size. It originates in the midbrain.

The Trochlear Nerve (IV)

This nerve has a motor and somatic functions that are connected to the superior oblique muscle of the eye, being able to make the eyeballs move and rotate. Its nucleus also originates in the mesencephalon as well as the oculomotor nerve. It is the fourth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Trigeminal Nerve (V)

It is a mixed cranial nerve (sensitive, sensory and motor), being the largest of all cranial nerves, it is the fifth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves. Its function is to carry sensitive information to the face, to convey information for the chewing process. The sensory fibers convey sensations of touch, pain, and temperature from the front of the head including the mouth and also from the meninges.

The Abducent Nerve (VI)

It is also known as the external ocular motor cranial nerve and it is the sixth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves. It is a cranial motor pair, responsible for transmitting the motor stimuli to the external rectus muscle of the eye and therefore allowing the eye to move to the opposite side from where we have the nose.

The Facial or Intermediate Nerves (VII)

This is another mixed cranial pair since it consists of several nerve fibers that perform different functions, like ordering the muscles of the face to create facial expressions and also send signals to the salivary and lacrimal glands. On the other hand, it collects taste information through the tongue. It is the seventh of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Vestibulo-Cochlear Nerve (VIII)

It is a sensory cranial nerve. It is also known as the auditory and vestibular nerve, thus forming vestibulocochlear. He is responsible for balance and orientation in space and auditory function. It is the eighth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Glossopharyngeal Nerve (IX)

It is a nerve whose influence lies in the tongue and pharynx. It collects information from the taste buds (tongue) and sensory information from the pharynx. It leads orders to the salivary gland and various neck muscles that help with swallowing. It also monitors blood pressure. It is the ninth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Vagus Nerve  (X)

This nerve is also known as pneumogastric. It emerges from the medulla oblongata and supplies nerves to the pharynx, esophagus, larynx, trachea, bronchi, heart, stomach and liver. Like the previous nerve, it influences the action of swallowing but also in sending and transmitting signals to our autonomous system, to help the regulate activation and control stress levels or send signals directly to our sympathetic system. It is the tenth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Accessory Nerve (XI)

This cranial pair is named the spinal nerve. It is a motor nerve and could be understood as one of the “purest”. It governs movements of the head and shoulders by supplying the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles in the (anterior and posterior) regions of the neck.  The spinal nerve also allows us to throw our heads back. Thus, we would say that it intervenes in the movements of the head and the shoulders. It is the eleventh of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Hypoglossal Nerve (XII)

It is a motor nerve which, like the vagus and glossopharyngeal, is involved in tongue muscles, swallowing and speech. It is the twelfth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

What are Nerves Made From:

Neurons are the building blocks of the central nervous system. A neuron’s primary role is to communicate information. It communicates via electrical impulses or using specific chemicals such as neurotransmitters (what are the different types of neurotransmitters?). The neuron has 3 distinct parts. The dendrites, the cell body and the axon. Each structure plays a specific role in ensuring neurons are able to send and receive signals and connect with other neurons.

The dendrites are connected to the cell body. They conduct messages from axon of other neurons and pass the message onto the cell body. The cell body sits between the dendrites and the axon. It determines the strength of the message it receives from the dendrites. If it is strong enough, it will send the message down the axon. The axon is connected to the cell body. It conducts the message from the cell body and passes it on to other neurons.

The Dendrites

Dendrites are branch-like structures structures surrounding the cell body. They receive electrical and chemical messages from other neurons, which are collected in the cell body. These messages are either inhibitory or excitatory in nature. If the message is inhibitory, the cell body will not transmit the message to the axon. However, if the message is excitatory in nature, then the cell body will send the message down the axon and pass it to other neurons.

The Soma (or Cell Body)

Also known as the soma, the cell body is a ball-like structure. It contains the control center of the neuron, also known as the nucleus. Together, the cell body and the nucleus control the functions of the nerve cell. To be able to do this, the cell body contains organelles or really tiny organs in the nucleus.

Each organelle has a unique job. First and foremost, the most important organelle, the nucleus, regulates all cell functions. It also contains the cell’s DNA, which is essentially the neuron’s blueprint. The nucleus is another organelle that serves a vital purpose to the functioning of the neuron. It nucleolus produces ribosomes, which are essential to protein production. The cell body is also home to the endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, and mitochondria. The mitochondria is the neuron’s fuel source, it produces all the energy needed for the nerve cell to function properly.

The endoplasmic reticulum and the Golgi apparatus, work together, with the rest of the organelles in the nucleus to produce and transport protein. The protein produced by the cell body, are the key ingredients, to build new dendrites. Building new dendrites enable the neuron to make new connections with other neurons. As well as making proteins, the cell body is also responsible for making chemicals, also known as neurotransmitters, which neurons use as signals. Neurotransmitters can serve and inhibitory or excitatory function to the neuron.

The Axon

The axon is long and slender, and it projects electrical impulses away from the cell body. The axon communicates with other neurons. When the electrical or chemical message reaches the axon terminal (end of the axon), The axon terminal release neurotransmitters into the synapse (small junction between two neurons). The neuron uses the synapse to communicate and send messages to other nerve cells.

How Nerves Communicate:

How does the brain communicate?

A synapse is the space between two neurons which allows for neural communication, or synaptic transmission. Synapses are found throughout the body, not just located in the brain. They project onto muscles to allow muscle contraction, as well as enable a multitude of other functions that the nervous system covers.

As a synapse is the gap in between two neurons, we need to establish which neuron sends out the signals and which neuron receives those signals.

The Presynaptic Neuron

The presynaptic neuron is the neuron that initiates the signal. At many synapses in the body, presynaptic neurons are vesicles filled with neurotransmitters. When the presynaptic neuron is excited by an action potential, the electrical signal propagates along its axon towards the axon terminal. This excitation signals the vesicles in the presynaptic neuron, filled with neurotransmitters, to fuse with the membrane of the axon terminal. This fusion allows for the neurotransmitters to be dumped into the synaptic cleft.

The Postsynaptic Neuron

The postsynaptic neuron is the neuron that receives the signal. These signals are received by the neuron’s dendrites. When there are neurotransmitters present in the synapse, they travel across the gap in order to bind to receptors on the postsynaptic neuron. When a neurotransmitter binds to a receptor on the postsynaptic neuron’s dendrite, it can trigger an action potential. That action potential can then be propagated and influence further communication.

In the nervous system there are two main types of synapses: chemical synapses and electrical synapses. Thus far, for simplicity and understanding the basics of how a synapse functions only chemical synapses have been discussed. This poses the question: why does the nervous system need two types of synapses?

Chemical Synapses

Chemical synapses are any type of synapse that uses neurotransmitters in order to conduct an impulse over the small gap in between the presynaptic and postsynaptic neurons. These types of synapses are not in physical contact with each other. Since the transmission of a signal depends on the release of chemicals, a signal can only flow in one direction. This direction is downward from presynaptic to the postsynaptic neuron.

As previously stated, these types of neurons are widely spread throughout the body. The chemicals released in these types of synapses ways excite the following neuron. The neurotransmitters can bind to the receptors on the postsynaptic neuron and have an inhibitory effect as well. When inhibition occurs, signal propagation is prevented from traveling to other neurons.

Chemical synapses are the most abundant type of synapse in the body. This is because various neurotransmitters and receptors are able to interpret signals in a large combination. For instance, a neurotransmitter and receptor combination may inhibit a signal on one postsynaptic neuron but excite a large amount of other postsynaptic neurons.

Chemical synapses allow for flexibility of signaling that makes it possible for humans to engage in high-level tasks. However, this flexibility comes at a cost. Chemical synapses have a delay due to the need for the neurotransmitter to diffuse across the synapse and bind to the postsynaptic neuron. This delay is very small but still is an important point when comparing the two types of synapses.

Electrical Synapses

Electrical synapses are types of synapses that use electricity to conduct impulses from one neuron to the other. These synapses are in direct contact with each other through gap junctions. Gap junctions are low resistance bridges that make it possible for the continuation of an action potential to travel from a presynaptic neuron to a postsynaptic neuron. Due to their physical contact, electrical synapses are able to send signals in both directions, unlike chemical synapses. Their physical contact and the use of sole electricity make it possible for electrical synapses to work extremely fast.

Transmission is also simple and efficient at electrical synapses because the signal does not need to be converted. Another key difference between chemical and electrical synapses is that electrical synapses can only be excitatory. Being excitatory means that an electrical synapse can only increase a neuron’s probability of firing an action potential. As opposed to being inhibitory, which means that it decreases a neuron’s probability of firing an action potential. This can only be done by neurotransmitters. Despite being extremely fast, these types of excitatory signals cannot be carried over great lengths.

Electrical synapses are mainly concentrated in specialized brain areas where there is a need for very fast action. The best example of this is the large amount of electrical synapses in the retina, the part of the eye that receives light. Vision and visual perception are our dominant senses, and our eyes are constantly receiving visual sensory information. This information also runs on a feedback loop when we interact with our environment, which means that we receive information from our surroundings and immediately create an appropriate response to it. This is why it makes sense that electrical synapses are seen in a large concentration here. The fast action, multiple directions, and efficiently all allow for prime functionality.

How Nerves Communicate – Neurotransmitters:

You’ve probably heard of how dopamine plays a role in feelings of pleasure, or how serotonin levels influence depression. But neurotransmitters do so much more than make us feel happy or sad. Not only do they influence our mood, but they also influence how our hearts beat, how our lungs breathe, and how our stomachs digest the food we eat.

Neurotransmitters interact with receptors on the dendrites of the neuron, much like how a lock and key work. The neurotransmitters have specific shapes that fit into a receptor that can accommodate that shape. Once the neurotransmitter and the receptor are connected, the neurotransmitter sends information to the next neuron to either fire an action potential, or to inhibit firing. If the neuron gets the signal to fire, then the whole process starts over again along the chain of neurons.

Here are some of the most important neurotransmitters:

Dopamine

Dopamine plays many different roles in the brain, depending on the location. In the frontal cortex, dopamine acts as a traffic officer by controlling the flow of information to other areas of the brain. It also plays a role in attention, problem-solving, and memory. And you’ve probably heard how dopamine plays a role in things that give us pleasure. So, if you were to eat a piece of chocolate, dopamine would be released in some areas of the brain, allowing you to feel enjoyment, motivating you to eat more chocolate.

Serotonin

Serotonin is known as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it doesn’t give the next neuron the signal to fire. Serotonin is involved with mood, as well as your sleep cycle, pain control, and digestion. In fact, the majority of serotonin in the body can be found in the gastrointestinal tract, and only about 10% is located in the brain. Aside from aiding in digestion, serotonin can also help with forming blood clots and increasing sex drive.

Acetylcholine

Acetylcholine (ACh) plays a major role in the formation of memories, verbal and logical reasoning, and concentration. ACh has also shown to help with synaptogenesis or the production of new and healthy synapses throughout the brain. Acetylcholine comes from the chemical known as choline, which can be found in foods such as eggs, seafood, and nuts.

Acetylcholine also plays a significant role in movement. A nerve cell can release ACh into a neuromuscular junction, which is a synaptic connection between a muscle fiber and a nerve cell. When ACh is released, it causes a series of mechanical and chemical reactions that result in the contraction of muscles. When there is a lack of ACh in the neuromuscular junction, the reactions stop, and the muscle relaxes.

GABA

GABA is also an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps to balance any neurons that might be over-firing. This inhibitory ability becomes especially helpful when it comes to anxiety or fear because the release of GABA helps to calm you down. In fact, caffeine actually works to inhibit GABA from being released, so that there is more stimulation in the brain.

GABA also plays a role in vision and motor control. Some drugs work to increase the levels of GABA in the brain. This increase helps with epilepsy and helps to treat the trembling found in patients with Huntington’s disease.

Noradrenaline (norepinephrine)

These might sound like two big and confusing words because you’ve probably heard about adrenaline (epinephrine) before. Before we go any further, let’s define these terms. Another name for adrenaline is epinephrine. Epinephrine is a hormone that is secreted by the adrenal gland, which is a gland that rests on top of the kidneys. Hormones are molecules that are released into the bloodstream. Noradrenaline is also known as norepinephrine.

Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter, meaning that it is used for interactions between neurons. Noradrenaline is an excitatory neurotransmitter that helps to activate the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your “fight or flight” response to a stressor. Norepinephrine also plays a role in attention, emotion, sleeping and dreaming, and learning. When it is released into the bloodstreams, it helps to increase heart rate, release glucose energy stores, and increase blood flow to the muscles.

Learn more about our nerves, neurons, and neurotransmitters:

BRAIN SCANS & RESEARCH

The human brain is an incredibly complex feat of nature. Capable of creating complex social structures, languages, culture, art, and science. Our brains allow us to explore and understand the universe better than any other animal on the planet ever has. But even with all of this knowledge, we are only just beginning to understand the human brain itself.

Brain scans can tell us a lot about how our brains work

Types of Brain Scans & Imaging Tools:

Today we still do not have a clear-cut picture of the whole brain in itself. Not every network has been mapped, but we have moved forward a substantial amount. The development of non-invasive and invasive neuroimaging methods and their use for research and medical purposes was a definite breakthrough.

We have methods that can view the cortical areas of the brain. Other techniques look at cortical columns and different layers. We have methods that can record a single cell by itself. Going even further, we can look at the soma of the neuron, the dendrite and, separately the axons. We can even look at the synaptic connections between the two neurons.

Here are some of the most common types of brain imaging tools:

PET Scan

Positron emission tomography (PET) scans are used to show which parts of the brain are active at a given moment. By injecting a tracer substance into the brain and detecting radioactive isotopes in the tracer, we can see what parts of the brain are actively using glucose, a sign of brain activity. As a specific brain region becomes active, it fills with blood, which delivers oxygen and glucose, providing fuel for that region.

These areas become visible in the PET scan, thanks to the tracer substance, and allow us to create images of which areas of the brain are active during a given activity. The PET scan can only locate generalized brain areas, not specific clusters of neurons. In addition, PET scans are considered invasive and costly to perform.

CT Scan

Computed tomography (CT) scans are used to create images of the brain by recording the levels of X-ray absorption. Subjects lay on a flat table, which is connected to a large cylindrical tube-shaped apparatus. Inside the tube is a ring that holds an X-ray emitter. As the X-ray emitter moves along the tube, sensors on the opposite side of the ring detect the amount of X-rays that pass through. Since different materials–such as skin, bone, water, or air–absorb X-rays at different rates, the CT scan can create a rough map of the features of the brain.

MRI Scan

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans are imaging tools used widely in the field of psychology. Using a strong magnetic field, MRIs create alignment within the nuclei of atoms within the tissues of the body and brain. By measuring the changes as the nuclei return to their base states, the MRI is able to create a picture of the brain’s structure.

As a non-invasive procedure, with little risk to health, MRI scans can be performed on a broad range of subjects, including infants, the elderly, or pregnant mothers. Because of this, they can also be used multiple times on a single individual to map changes over time. The main difference between MRI and fMRI is that while basic MRI scans are used to image the structure of the brain, fMRI are used to map our the activity within the brain structures.

fMRI Scan

An upgrade from the MRI – Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging detects the blood-oxygen-level dependent contrast imaging (BOLD) levels in the brain which are the changes in the blood flow and it not only gives the anatomical structures but the functions as well. Various colors will change depending on which part of the brain is active.

The big drawback with this technique is the fact that it does not directly measure brain activity, but BOLD signal so we cannot for sure say that the activity that we find via fMRI studies is fully accurate and is produced by neurons.

DTI Scan

Diffusion Tensor Imaging, a technique based on MRI and it measures the way the water can travel through the white matter in the brain. It can show the activity as the colored area on the image. It’s particularly good in detecting concussions so can be used in clinical applications which is a huge advantage. Again, it does not measure direct brain activity which is a huge disadvantage and sometimes it also distorts the images. DTI has a quite low spatial resolution.

EEG Scan

Electroencephalography (EEG) allows us to measure brain activity by placing electrodes on the scalp of a subject which sense electrical activity. EEG scans are non-invasive and allow researchers to record changes in brain activity down to the millisecond, making it one of the best options for understanding changes in the brain as they occur.

MEG Scan

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) is a method of imaging the electrical activity in the brain through the use of magnetic fields. Extremely sensitive devices known as SQUIDs capture the activity in the brain, allowing researchers, doctors, or other professionals to understand which areas of the brain are responsible for various brain functions, or to determine the location of a pathology.

NIRS Scan

Near-infrared spectroscopy is a brain imaging technique that uses infrared light to measure oxygen levels in the brain. By shooting infrared light through the skull and measuring the light on the other side, NIRS scans can detect brain activity in a non-invasive, though indirect, way.

TMS Scan

The electric field that TMS, or Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, is able to generate is able to interfere with the action potentials that are happening in the brain. It’s a highly invasive technique and is able to be used in research applications for the workings of many diseases and pathologies. What we do know is that repetitive TMS is able to produce seizures so, obviously, it has some sort of side effects and needs to be used with caution.

Learn more about how doctors and researchers see our brains:

BRAIN HEALTH & FUNCTION

Once upon a time, researchers and scientist theorized that the brain stops developing within the first few years of life. The connections the brain makes during the ‘critical period’ are fixed for life. However, there is mounting evidence, from human and animal studies, that this view underestimates the brain. The brain has a remarkable ability to continually make new connections throughout our life, it has an extraordinary ability to compensate for injury and disease by ‘rewiring’ itself. Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, refers to this ability to form new connections, reorganize already established neural networks and compensate for injury and disease.

The brain is a complex organ that continues to change over time

Brain Plasticity:

There are many types of brain plasticity. Positive brain plasticity, which enhances healthy functioning of the brain. Negative brain plasticity, which promotes unhealthy functioning of the brain. Synaptic plasticity occurs between neurons, whereas non-synaptic plasticity occurs within the neuron. Developmental plasticity occurs during early life and is important for developing our ability to function. Injury induced plasticity is the brain’s way of adapting to trauma.

Positive Neuroplasticity

Positive brain plasticity involves changes to structures and functions of the brain, which results in beneficial outcomes. For example, improving the efficiency of neural networks responsible for higher cognitive functions such as attention, memory, mood.

There are many ways in which we can promote neuroplastic change. Positive brain plasticity is when the brain becomes more efficient and organized. For example, if we repeatedly practice our times tables, eventually, the connections between different parts of the brain become stronger. We make less errors and can recite them faster.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, meditation, and mindfulness can all promote brain plasticity. These practices improve neural function, strengthen connections between neurons.

Negative Brain Plasticity

Negative brain plasticity causes changes to the neural connections in the brain, which can be harmful to us. For example, negative thoughts can promote neural changes and connections associated with conditions such as depression, and anxiety. Also overuse of drugs and alcohol enhances negative plasticity by rewiring our reward system and memories.

Synaptic Plasticity

Synaptic plasticity is the basis for learning and memory. Furthermore, it also alters the number of receptors on each synapse (synapses are the connections between neurons that transmit chemical messages). When we learn new information and skills, these ‘connections’ get stronger. There are two types of synaptic plasticity, short-term and long-term. Both types can go in two different directions, enhancement/excitation, and depression. Enhancement strengthens the connection, whereas depression weakens it.

Short-term synaptic plasticity usually lasts tens of milliseconds. Short-term excitation is a result of an increased level of certain types of neurotransmitters available at the synapse. Whereas short-term depression is a result of a decreased level of neurotransmitters, long-term synaptic plasticity lasts for hours.

Long-term excitation strengthens synaptic connections, whereas long-term depression weakens these connections. As synaptic plasticity is responsible for our learning ability, information retention, forming and maintaining neural connections, when this process goes wrong, it can have negative consequences. For example, synaptic plasticity plays a key role in addiction. Drugs hi-jack the synaptic plasticity mechanisms by creating long-lasting memories of the drug experience.

Non-Synaptic Plasticity

This type of plasticity occurs away from the synapse. Non-synaptic plasticity makes changes to the way in which the structures in the axon and cell body carry out their functions. The mechanisms of this types of plasticity are not yet well understood.

Developmental Plasticity

In the first few years of life, our brains change rapidly. This is also known as developmental plasticity. Although it is most prominent during our formative years, it occurs throughout our lives. Developmental plasticity means our neural connections are constantly undergoing change in response to our childhood experiences and our environment. Our processing of sensory information informs the neural changes. Synaptogenesis, synaptic pruning, neural migration, and myelination are the main processes through which development plasticity occurs.

Synaptogenesis

Rapid expansion in formation of synapses so that the brain can successfully process the high volume of incoming sensory stimuli. This process is controlled by our genetics.

Synaptic Pruning

Reduction of synaptic connections to enable the brain to function more efficiently. Essentially, connections that aren’t used or aren’t efficient are ‘pruned’ or ‘disconnected’.

Neural Migration

this process occurs whilst we are still in the womb. Between 8 and 29 weeks of gestation, neurons ‘migrate’ to different parts of the brain.

Myelination

This process starts during fetal development and continues until adolescence. Myelination is when neurons are protected and insulated a myelin sheath. Myelination improves the transmission of messages down the neuron’s axon.

Injury-Induced Plasticity

Following injury, the brain has demonstrated the extraordinary ability to take over a given function that the damaged part of the brain was responsible for. This ability has been noted in many case studies of brain injury and brain abnormalities. Some stroke sufferers have displayed remarkable feats of recovering functions lost due to brain damage.

Neurogenesis:

You may have heard at some point in your life that you cannot grow new brain cells. You may have been taught that from the moment you are born to when you die you can only lose brain cells. It is believed that this is due to hits to the head, consuming alcohol and narcotics, and from lack of cognitive stimulation. Well do not despair because your brain is not in danger, you can in fact “grow” new brain cells in a process called neurogenesis.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University‘s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging (CCBI) have used a new combination of neural imaging methods to discover exactly how the human brain adapts to injury.

When one brain area loses functionality, a “back-up” team of secondary brain parts immediately activates, replacing not only the unavailable area but also its confederates (connected areas), the research shows.

The research found that as the brain function in the Wernicke area decreased following the application of rTMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), a “back-up” team of secondary brain areas immediately became activated and coordinated, allowing the individual’s thought process to continue with no decrease in comprehension performance.

The Brain-Body Connection:

The human brain is a marvel of evolution, capable of creating breathtaking works of art and music, developing complex systems of culture, language, and society, and uncovering mysteries of the universe through science, technology, and mathematics. But even a healthy brain couldn’t do any of these things without a healthy body to support it.

Anyone who has had to perform on stage or give a speech in front of a large group of people knows that the stress and anxiety, supposedly mental phenomenon, can manifest in physical discomforts such as “Butterflies” in our stomachs, sweaty palms, and increased heart rate.

Similarly, when we find ourselves receiving praise or affection, the feelings of happiness and euphoria we experience are readily apparent when our cheeks blush, our eyes dilate, and in extreme cases, we can even begin to cry from joy.

By taking care of our bodies, we can help to ensure our brains are functioning at their best. Although there is no single exercise or diet that is right for everyone – each person should speak to their nutrition or health professional to understand the best regimen for themselves – there are specific general rules of thumb for exercise and diet that can help just about anyone improve their brain health.

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BRAIN VARIATIONS

Each person’s brain is unique

Every person thinks and acts a little differently than the other 7 billion on the planet. Scientists now say that variations in brain connections account for much of this individuality, and they’ve narrowed it down to a few specific regions of the brain. This might help us better understand the evolution of the human brain as well as its development in individuals.

Each human brain has a unique connectome – the network of neural pathways that tie all of its parts together. Like a fingerprint, every person’s connectome is unique. Researchers found very little variation in the areas of the participants’ brains responsible for basic senses and motor skills.

The real variety arose in the parts of the brain associated with personality, like the frontoparietal lobe. This multipurpose area in the brain curates sensory data into complex thoughts, feelings or actions and allows us to interpret the things we sense.

Brain Differences Based on Gender

There are some differences found in the brains of males and females, however it’s important to note that factors influencing brain development in both males and females include, not only biology, but also the environment. We must keep in mind that culture, and social constructions have an important role in how our brains develop.

In 1989,  the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) initiated a large-scale longitudinal study of typical brain development, which to date has acquired data regarding brain development and function from over 1000 children (including twins and siblings) scanned 1-7 times at approximately two-year intervals. This study has provided much of the information we know today about the differences between the developing male and female brain.

Studies utilizing this data have found that the peak brain size in females occurs around 10.5 years, while the peak occurs around 14.5 years in males. The other areas most frequently reported as being different are the hippocampus and amygdala, with the larger size or more rapid growth of the hippocampus is typically reported in females, and the amygdala is larger or grows more rapidly in males. The hippocampus controls emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system, and the amygdala is responsible for instinctual reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. Because of the larger hippocampus, girls and women tend to input or absorb more sensory and emotive information than males do.

Brain Differences Based on Handedness

The brain has two hemispheres, that each specialize to govern specific tasks. The right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body and is associated with mainly spatial perception tasks, face recognition, and understanding music. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body and is associated with more computational tasks such as math and logic. The specialization of each side of the brain is important because it allows for maximizing neural processing.

Handedness can correlate to what function each hemisphere specializes in, which allows the brain to be almost anatomically symmetrical, but functionally asymmetrical. Functional asymmetry, or lateralization, allows for each hemisphere to work in tandem when processing the world around us.

Brain Differences Based on Age

We often forget we were once teenagers ourselves. Their angst, impulsivity, and the crazy desire to live for fun makes them seem as if they are from another world. These characteristics are due to the teenage brain. The teenage brain undergoes a series of changes during cognitive development and is easily influenced by a number of factors. Physically, an adult and a teenager are near the same size.

But when it comes to the brain, there are vast differences. The teenage brain relies on the amygdala. The amygdala is reactive, stimulating a strong emotional response. When making decisions and problem solving, a teenager relies mainly on emotions. An adult’s cognitive processes are carried out using the developed prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain that causes us to think prior to behaving. Thoughts and decisions of an adult are less reactive and more logical and rational.

Learn more about how the brain can vary between people:

BRAIN & DRUGS

Consuming drugs affects the brain’s limbic system. This brain structure is in charge of awarding the satisfaction of our vital needs with a pleasant sensation or pleasure (when we are hungry and we eat, we feel pleasure). When we consume drugs, we feel a similar sensation based off of artificial pleasure, which is what leads to the start of a drug addiction.

Drugs happen to be chemical substances and they are able to affect the brain in various ways. They usually do so by interfering with how neurons communicate with one another. They can either enhance or diminish the sending, receiving and processing information functions. In the normal functioning after the neuron sends the information onto the next neuron and the neurotransmitters or chemical messengers are not needed website anymore, they are re-uptaked back or ‘cleaned’ up. Some drugs will block this re-uptake, therefore, leaving an enormous amount of these neurotransmitters in the synaptic cleft which causes the message to be enhanced and disrupts further communication. Amphetamine and cocaine do that.

Other drugs like heroin and marijuana are able to mimic a neurotransmitter by attaching themselves to the post-synaptic receptors. Therefore, they can activate other neurons but not in the same way as a neurotransmitter would. Because of that, they will send different messages along the pathways of the network, therefore, altering its normal functioning.

How Drugs Affect the Brain

When people use drugs continuously for a very long period of time their brain becomes used to this much amount of dopamine. The brain will start to compensate by naturally either making a smaller amount of dopamine and decreasing the receptors where dopamine binds in an attempt to regulate things back into homeostasis. Dopamine will therefore not be able to produce as much pleasure anymore, for any activities. That’s why it’s so difficult for a person who abuses drugs to get back into normal life – the pleasure they used to feel from regular activities diminishes.

How Cocaine Affects the Brain

Although there are many neurotransmitters, dopamine and GABA are the two altered from cocaine use. The neurotransmitter, dopamine, oversees the body’s pleasure and reward system. Cocaine acts on dopamine by signaling a sudden release of dopamine in the area between neurons (synapses) and tricking the brain’s pleasure response. The abundance of dopamine is why users feel euphoria upon exposure. Normally a second neurotransmitter known as GABA counteracts the raised dopamine levels. However, the process is unsuccessful because cocaine blocks its release. Continual use of cocaine overwhelms the nervous system. Eventually, neurons in the brain can no longer communicate when the drug induces a rush of dopamine. The dopamine receptors are damaged. 

How Marijuana Affects the Brain

The endocannabinoid system is a biological system to maintain homeostasis. For the body to function properly, its conditions require balance. The heart rate must be within normal limits, temperature cannot be too hot or cold, and more. Cells in the body naturally produce endocannabinoids, which communicate with the nervous system and perform this role. Endocannabinoids attach to cannabinoid receptors on the surface of cells and are eventually destroyed by metabolic enzymes.

Marijuana, however, interferes with the endocannabinoid system. Cannabinoids from marijuana like THC bind to cannabinoid receptors, overloading the system and preventing naturally produced endocannabinoids from their regular tasks. The reward system consists of a series of brain structures from the ventral tegmental area to the hypothalamus that mediates reward. Neurons in these brain areas release dopamine upon pleasurable behaviors such as food or sex. Marijuana acts on the brain’s reward system.

As the THC attaches to cannabinoid receptors, the reward system is activated, and the user no longer responds as strongly to other pleasurable experiences. This is evidence of the addictive nature of marijuana. Scientists have taken a recent interest in how marijuana interacts with the brain’s reward system. Published in the journal, Human Brain Mapping, long-term marijuana users had more activity in the reward system on magnetic resonance imaging when shown marijuana related objects than non-users, and they had a reduction of brain stimulation when given alternative cues like their favorite fruit.

How Prescription Stimulant Use Affects the Brain

Scientists have discovered college-aged individuals who occasionally use stimulant drugs, such as cocaine, amphetamines and prescription drugs such as Adderall, display brain changes that may put them at higher risk for developing a serious addiction later in life.

A study from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that occasional users have slightly faster reaction times, suggesting a tendency toward impulsivity. The most striking difference, however, occurred during the “stop” trials. Here, the occasional users made more mistakes, and their performance worsened, relative to the control group, as the task became harder. The brain images of the occasional users showed consistent patterns of diminished neuronal activity in the parts of the brain associated with anticipatory functioning and updating anticipation based on past trials.

Learn more about the effect drugs can have on our brains:

BRAIN FACTS

The Human Brain is (relatively) BIG:

Relative to size, human brains are much bigger than other mammals. In fact, our brains are over three times bigger than mammal’s brains similar in size. As you can imagine, there is no correlations between the animals’ absolute brain sizes and cognitive abilities. Cows, for example, have larger brains than just about any species of monkey, but unless they are very, very good at hiding it, cows are almost certainly less cognitively capable than most, if not all, “lesser-brained” primates.

The Human Brain is Inverted:

The right side of the brain interacts with the left side of our bodies, and the left side of the braininteracts with the right side of our bodies. Both sides of the brain have specific functions, but sometimes the two sides of the brain interact and work together. The right brain focuses on the expression and reading of emotions, understanding metaphors, and reading faces while the left brain is far more logical, focusing on language skills, analytical time sequence processing and skilled movement.

Size Doesn’t Always Mean Power:

Having a bigger brain does not mean you are more intelligent. Clearly, there is more to intelligence than brain size, or Albert Einstein, one of the smartest people who ever lived, who had an average brain size, would have been out of luck! It is important to take into consideration how to actually define intelligence.

The Human Brain is Full of Fat:

The brain is composed nearly 60% by fat, because without it, we could not live. People who eat a diet low in omega 3 fatty acids are more likely to suffer accelerated wear and tear on the brain. The brain is regarded as the fattest organ in our entire bodies. It has the highest concentration of fat present in a single organ in a healthy human being.

The Electrical Activity Produced by The Brain Forms A Pattern of Brain Waves:

This electrical activity of the brain changes depending on the activity that is being done. For example, the brainwaves of a sleeping person are very different from the brainwaves of someone that is awake.

The Texture of The Brain Is Similar To Tofu:

Experts say our brain has a consistency similar to that of tofu or gelatin. Fatty tissues, blood vessels, and water found in the brain give it that same consistency.

The Brain Feels No Pain:

Since there are no pain receptors in the brain, it is incapable of feeling pain. This feature explains why neurosurgeons can operate on brain tissue without causing a patient discomfort, and, in some cases, can even perform surgery while the patient is awake, as we saw before.

Emotions Are Found in The Primitive Structure of Your Brain:

The limbic system is composed of a set of cerebral structures that are considered very primitive in evolutionary terms, being placed in the superior part of the brainstem, below the cortex. These structures are fundamentally involved in the development of many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those related to survival such as fear, anger, and emotions linked to sexual behavior.

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Sleeping Well Improves Memory: Advantages of Being Well-Rested

Sleeping well improves memory? Who hasn’t had problems concentrating at work after a poor night’s sleep? In 2013, a study showed that this common complaint among those who slept poorly wasn’t subjective, but a true reality: People who don’t get the reparative sleep at night that they need and those who suffer from some type of insomnia show memory and concentration problems. So, is it true that sleeping well improves memory?

Illnesses that cause memory loss or memory problems like Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia tend to be accompanied by sleep disorders or insomnia. Scientists continue to argue about if sleep deprivation is related memory problems. What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Recovery sleep has turned into one of the main recommendations for maintaining and enjoying good memory. In the last few years, more and more people have begun to talk about the benefits that a good night’s sleep can offer us. Some of the conclusions of these studies have been:

1. Sleeping well improves concentration.

2. It can help you get better grades.

3. Sleeping well helps you be more creative.

4. It combats depression

5. It helps you maintain a healthy weight.

6. It facilitated the oxygenation of the cells because breathing slows down while we sleep.

7. It protects the heart.

8. Sleeping well strengthens the immune system

9. Increases life span.

How sleeping well improves memory

There’s no doubt that a good rest is important, but we still don’t know the mechanisms behind this phenomenon. A few days ago, a team of researchers at Bristol’s Center for Synaptic Plasticity at the University of Bristol have brought to light new evidence about the mechanisms that explain why sleeping well improves memory. The basic research study provides new keys to understanding how and why we are able to learn while we sleep.

In the investigation, the team lead by Dr. Mellor saw how some of the brain activity patterns that were produced during the day repeat themselves faster at night. This repetition takes place in the hippocampus (the brain structure related to memory), which strengthens neural connections between active nerve cells, which is essential for consolidating new memories and skills. The study also looked at the repeated diurnal patterns of brain activity during sleep depended on the emotional state that the subject had while they were learning.

According to the investigators, this is very important and may have practical implications for the design. For example, new teaching strategies that keep the student’s emotional state in mind to facilitate learning and memory.

Hopefully, this study brings to light why there is a relationship between sleep and memory. Now it’s our turn to make sure we get a good night’s sleep.

Tips For Sleeping Better and Improving Memory

1. Exercise. You don’t need to spend all day at the gym, but doing some type of exercise, like walking or jogging for 20-30 minutes a day. With a little bit of exercise, we’ll fall asleep quicker and sleep better.

2. Keep a routine. It’s important to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day.

3. Don’t overdo caffeinated beverages during the day. Try to avoid coffee and soda in the afternoon. Try some decaffeinated tea.

4. Drink less alcohol. Alcohol doesn’t help us sleep well. Even though it helps us fall asleep by depressing our nervous system, it also makes us wake up more at night. Summary: We sleep poorly.

5. Only use the bed for sleeping (or sex). We should try to avoid doing anything else in our beds, like reading, watching movies, playing on our phones or tablets… All of these things disturb our sleep patterns.

References

Sharp-Wave Ripples Orchestrate the Induction of Synaptic Plasticity during Reactivation of Place Cell Firing Patterns in the Hippocampus” by Sadowski, JHLP, Jones, MW and Mellor, JR in Cell Reports. Published online January 19 2016 doi:10.1016/j.celrep.2016.01.061

Memory trace replay: the shaping of memory consolidation by neuromodulation by Atherton, LA, Dupret, D & Mellor, JR (2015) in Trends in Neuroscience. 38, 560-70.

Reading VS. Television: Why Books Are Better For The Brain

Would you prefer to watch TV or read a book? The vast majority would likely choose the first option as their preferred entertainment. However, my fellow Netflix watchers are about to be sorely disappointment. Binge watching your favorite series may not be as healthy for the brain. Documented research favors reading to watching television, as it encourages brain neuroplasticity, enhances cognitive skills, and even strengthens cardiac function which encourages blood flow to the brain.

Photo by Min An from Pexels

Reading VS. Television: Brain Neuroplasticity

The human brain has over 80 billion brain cells called neurons. Neurons have dendrites, which are branches that leading to synapses that connect them to other neurons.  With these specialized brain cells, the brain is able to communicate signals to the body. The area of the brain dedicated to reading is the cortex.  As we learn new skills like reading, the connection between neurons become stronger. This is especially true for children. Brain imaging research shows exposure to reading and phonics encourage brain plasticity—growth and reorganization of vital neural networks in the brain.

Reading VS. Television:  Sensory Processing

Sensory skills are skills involving the receiving of information. For example, vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and proprioception are sensory processing skills. Both watching television and reading are sensory experiences but differ greatly. Reading does not overload visual processing like the flashing colors of a television screen. Along with strengthening brain connection, reading is important for the somatosensory cortex, which is responsible for responding to sensory information such as movement and pain. Readers think about the events depicted in books. Thus, reading a book about riding a bike activates the same brain area as physically riding a bike. Books offer a multitude of experiences causing the reader to deeply contemplate and connect a story.

Reading VS. Television: Verbal Communication

There are many forms of communication: verbal, written, listening, visual, and non-verbal (i.e. gestures, signing, eye contact, etc.). Research correlates lower verbal test scores with increased hours spent watching television. The frontal lobes of individuals who watch television are thicker, which is associated with lower verbal reasoning.  

This is because reading provides all aspects of communication that are not included in books. Through words, readers are exposed to verbal dialogue, writing, interpreting character gestures, and more. Television does not portray as many details. Reading goes further into depth about what characters think, feel, and how they react. Readers must concentrate to think about the themes of the book and make inferences about the material.

Reading VS. Television: Vocabulary and Language

Although television is made of mostly dialogue, reading develops vocabulary. The words written in books are, on average, twice as complex than words spoken through television characters. Reading forces a person to look at unknown words and interpret their meaning through context clues. The increased vocabulary is not only helpful for writing, but for expression in everyday conversation. Books provide repeated exposure to known words, which tests knowledge and understanding.

Even listening to a book via audio or read aloud has better results on vocabulary than watching television. However, experts have found that the effect television has on vocabulary is neutral. As long as the time spent reading is not sacrificed for television watching, it does not reduce vocabulary.

Reading VS. Television: Attention Span

Whether a series or a lengthy movie, television condenses a story. The scenes are rapidly changing with shifts in camera angles. The plot is broken up for advertisement breaks. Most people are preoccupied with other tasks simultaneously such as doing homework, browsing the computer, sending text messages, or are engaged in a craft. The act of watching television does not involve equal levels of thinking in comparison to reading.

Reading requires constant attention. When reading, readers are often engrossed in the story and are not completing other tasks at the same time. They can process the material at their own pace instead of attempting to keep up with rapidly changing television scenes.

Reading VS. Television: Emotional Intelligence

The term emotional intelligence describes the awareness and the ability to control emotions. Expert psychologist’s at York University and Emory University found that literary fiction is related to a greater capacity for empathy, as readers imagine what it would be like if they were in the character’s shoes.

During the process of reading, we are uncovering the emotions of various characters and predicting their actions in response to those emotions. This translates to interactions in daily life. Readers are more apt to understand the actions and intentions of others because they are trained to do so from character perspectives. Readers observe interactions between characters and compare them to their lives. It is a key aspect of functional relationships.

 Reading VS. Television: Imagery

Can you recall a movie or television series that is better than the book in which it is based? Probably not. This is due to imagery. Reading is far superior to television as it pertains to imagery. Television provides complete visual and auditory images. There is little left to viewers to imagine. Reading, however, is up to the discretion of the individual. No two interpretation is identical. One reader’s vision may be entirely different than what another perceives.

Reading VS. Television: Memory

Memory, comprised of short-term, long-term, and working memory, is a cognitive process the brain relies on to store and retrieve information. The mind is a muscle and functions optimally with practice. Reading is an exercise for memory. It presents information that readers can go back and review as many times as necessary to form their conclusions, recall words and their meanings, and processing letters.  It leads to enhanced memory for situations outside of written language like the working memory involved in memorizing a phone number to call a friend.

Cognitive skills such as memory decline with age. Reading is known to prevent cognitive decline with age, as well as that associated with the development of dementia. Studies report that avid readers have lower levels of beta-amyloid—a protein deficient in Alzheimer’s patients.

Reading VS. Television: Behavior

Evidence that excessive TV watching impacts behavior is obvious through studies with child subjects. Children and adolescents are impressionable. They learn by modeling those in their environment. This includes the television and media they are exposed to like the presence of risky behaviors (i.e.  violence, sexual situations, etc.) depicted in their favorite television series. Studies prove the violent behavior persists into adulthood.

Similarly, reading also has an effect on behavior. Readers adopt characters’ experiences. For example, a study including 82 undergraduate college students reading stories about the 2008 presidential election had startling results! The students who read first-person stories were over twice as likely to vote simply because reading influenced their behavior.

Photo by John-Mark Smith from Pexels

Reading VS. Television: Stress Reduction

The hustle and bustle of life is stressful. Juggling work, school, health, and relationships can be overwhelming. When your brain is running one-hundred miles a minute, reading lessens stress by 68 percent. The act is a distraction from stressful events, allowing us to live in the world of characters. It is truly an escape from reality. The brain reroutes energy to concentrating on the story instead of fueling the harsh effects of stress on the body.

Reading VS. Television: Improves Cardiac Function

Just 6 minutes of reading has amazing benefits for physical functioning. As the body relaxes, the muscles are not as tense. In addition to relaxation, reading lowers heart rate and blood pressure. Cardiac function is connected to the brain. Poor heart health is frequently seen with higher cholesterol levels, which causes injury to the brain’s white matter. However, reading improves blood flow and circulation to the brain.

Does Genre Alter the Benefits? 

Similar to how watching an educational television series has an opposite effect on the brain as a drama, different genres of books do change the effect reading has on the brain. A wide variety of genres is optimal, as it broadens the experiences readers submerse themselves into and that strengthens the brain’s neurons. For example, biographies tend to evoke effects on emotions, whereas classic literary fiction focuses on vocabulary and thrillers are an exciting distraction to shift perspective and to reduce stress. To receive all of the benefits of reading, pick books you enjoy!

References

Ennemoser, M. & Schneider, W. (2007). Relations of television viewing and reading: Findings from a 4-year longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2):349-368. DOI: 10.1037/0022-0663.99.2.349

Goldman, C. (2012). This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes. Retrieved from https://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/september/austen-reading-fmri-090712.html

Psychologist of the Month: Why Elizabeth Loftus is Out to Change Your Mind About What You Remember

Elizabeth Loftus. Photo from Wikipedia

When we think about famous psychologists, we often think of older men from long ago who did experiments with pigeons or who talked about peoples’ relationships with their mothers. But, like any scientific discipline, psychology is a continually evolving field full of dedicated clinicians, researchers, and academics who are searching for new truths to uncover and new ways to prove or disprove the beliefs we have held for so long.

One of the most exciting areas of modern psychologic research is in the field of memory and recall, and there are few psychologists more important to this field than Elizabeth Loftus.

Early Work on Memory & Recall

Dr. Loftus, who currently holds the position of affiliate professor of psychology and law at the University of Washington, has been at the forefront of research on human memory and recall for nearly 50 years, studying how memories are formed and how recall of these memories can be affected over time.

Her research in this area has led to a number of awards and honors, as well as a place as the highest-ranked female on the list of 100 most influential psychological researchers of the 20th century from the Review of General Psychology.

After receiving her Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1970, Loftus went on to begin her first academic appointment at the New School for Social Research in New York City, studying the semantic information in long-term memory.

Dr. Loftus quickly realized that research in memory and recall could have a much more significant social impact in other areas, and in 1973 accepted a position as an assistant professor at the University of Washington and began researching how memory affects real-world situations.

One of her earliest studies focused on understanding whether eyewitness memory can be altered after the fact by information supplied by outside sources. This study built on previous research which had established that memories were constructions created using past experiences and other external manipulations, and not entirely accurate representations of events. These early studies provided clues that the way in which questions are presented, including the wording of questions, can affect how a person recalls events.

Building on these findings, Elizabeth Loftus began looking at what other ways misinformation could be presented to a person, the effect this misinformation has on recall, and how this erroneous recall can have serious, real-world consequences. This research led to the development of the paradigm known as the Misinformation Effect.

The Misinformation Effect & Eyewitness Testimony

Through her research, Elizabeth Loftus has demonstrated the pliability of human memory and recall. She has shown how memories can be affected by exposure to incorrect information, leading questions, or any number of sources of false information.

The Misinformation Effect is an example of what is known as retroactive interference, a phenomenon where the information presented in the present or future can affect the ability of a person to retain previously learned information correctly. An example of retroactive interference is when you have a telephone number for a long time. When you switch to a new number, after memorizing the new number, it becomes much more difficult to remember the older number.

Her research, and that of her colleagues in the field of memory and recall, has changed our understanding of how memory works and how long-term memories are not fixed, unchanging ideas stored forever in a frozen state waiting to be remembered, but are, in fact, mental constructs based not only on what happened at the time, but what we have learned and experienced in the time since the event has passed.

Our memories are affected by what we learn from others who recount their versions, by the expectations of those who want to hear what we remember, and from our own mind filling in gaps in our memory with information we received after the fact.

How Elizabeth Loftus’ Work Continues to Impact the World

Elizabeth Loftus’ work has a huge effect on the legal field. Photo by Saúl Bucio on Unsplash

The Misinformation Effect has powerful and dangerous implications for many areas of society and has generated hundreds of additional studies exploring the phenomenon.

There is likely no area where memory and recall, and the ways in which the Misinformation Effect can alter those memories, play a more critical role than in the legal field in general, and in eyewitness testimony in particular.

Much of how our modern legal systems around the world function is based on the testimony of witnesses who experienced the events. The fact that trials and questioning can happen months or even years after the events occurred can leave witnesses open to significant alterations in how they recall the events. And the fact that there are multiple sides invested in specific outcomes, there is plenty of opportunity for incorrect or incomplete information to seep into the recollections of eyewitnesses, whether they intend to or not.

One way this misinformation can have an unintended effect is when the witness identifies a suspect. When presented with a series of photographs, or a lineup of individuals, an eyewitness may read body language and other subtle clues from the interviewer and select the response the questioner is hoping for. This is similar to Hanz, the horse that could do math. Though the horse could not actually do math, when asked to add two numbers, he would tap his hoof to count, stopping once he reached the correct answer. He did this by reacting to the expressions of the questioner, who would likely show signs of excitement as the horse got close to the correct answer.

In this same way, the eyewitness, who may only remember vague details such as the color of the clothes, the hairstyle, and other generic information, may look at the lineup of potential suspects and unconsciously select the person for whom they receive the strongest body-language reaction from the questioner.

Similarly, the way questions are presented in questioning can affect the recall of witnesses. For example, a neutrally-worded question such as “what was the person who robbed the store wearing that day?” will not get the same information as a leading question such as “Other witnesses have told us that the person robbing the store was wearing a red sweater and blue pants, is that what you remember?” The second of these questions is potentially providing incorrect information, which may lead the witness to misremember the events based on both the expectations of the questioner and the supposed recollections of other witnesses.

Conclusion

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus has spent her entire career studying the way memory and recall works and has been a crusader for ensuring the misinformation effect is understood within the legal community. Her research has changed what we know about memory and continues to play a role in understanding the complex systems humans use to understand and remember their world.

How Does Your Brain Tell Time (And Why Does It Seem to Go So Slow Sometimes)

How does our brain tell time? Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Time flies when you’re having fun…and seems to stand completely still while you’re waiting for your food to cook in the microwave. We know that (complex metaphysical theories aside) time always moves at the same speed. We can look at our watch and see that a minute lasts just as long when you’re out with your friends as it does when you’re sitting in a dull office meeting about the new rules for how to use the printer.

So why is it that our body clock tells time in wildly different ways depending on what we’re doing and how we are feeling?

How Does the Brain Keep Track of Time?

Our brains are actually managing not one, but two separate systems for measuring time.

We have one system which our body uses to track our temporal location throughout the day and night cycle. This clock, which is responsible for controlling our regular daily cycles for things like eating, sleeping, digestion, and even our immune system, is known as our circadian rhythm.

This system—though controlled internally through the continuous production and breaking-down of proteins in our cells in 24-hour-long cycles—is highly reliant on external stimuli such as the light and dark cycles due to the rotation of the earth (which is why looking at the bright screen on your phone right before bed makes it so hard to sleep, because the light is causing your brain to mistakenly think it is morning and time to stay awake). This is the same system that tells nocturnal animals to go out at night and that tells sunflowers to change position throughout the day.

In addition to this internal clock responsible for synchronizing our body’s many systems and functions, our brain also is able to track time in the moment, allowing us to keep track of how much time has passed in a specific moment and to create mental estimates of temporal durations. For example, this tracking clock is what allows us to perform activities in a normal amount of time, it allows us to know whether the amount of time we have been waiting for something to happen is appropriate, and it is what is responsible for allowing us to estimate how quickly to react to something such as when waiting to catching a ball.

This clock processes time in a much different way than our circadian system. Dean Buonomano, associate professor of neurobiology and psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the university’s Brain Research Institute believes that whenever the brain processes sensory information “it triggers a cascade of reactions between brain cells and their connections. Each reaction leaves a signature that enables the brain-cell network to encode time.”

Our brain’s clock for tracking and estimating the passage is a complex system which requires not only that we measure the time as it passes, but also that we are constantly recording the amount of time that has passed.

Why Does it Feel Like Sometimes Time Flies and Others it Seems to Stand Still?

How do you tell time? Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash

Recent research published in the Journal of Neuroscience may explain what causes the sensation that time sometimes seems to go faster, and other times seems to drag on, and on, and on…

The study found that neurons in a part of the brain called the supramarginal gyrus (SMG) fire at specific intervals in response to external stimuli. When we are exposed to repeated stimuli that cause these neurons to continually fire over long periods of time the supramarginal gyrus becomes fatigued and the firing of neurons begins to slow down slightly. Because the other systems in our brain continue to fire at their normal speed, the relative change between the system that measures time and the other systems makes us experience time as moving more slowly.

How Did Researchers Study Our Perception of Time?

The researchers, Hayashi and Ivry, studied the brain activity of healthy human subjects using fMRI. While the brain activity study participants was being measured, the researchers gave them tasks involving comparing time intervals.

To begin with, the participants we shown a fixed-duration visual stimulus (a grey circle) 30 times in a row. After the patients viewed the repeated stimulus, they were then shown a test stimulus and asked to estimate the duration of the test stimulus.

The researchers found that when the initial stimulus was short, participants tended to overestimate the length of the test stimulus, whereas when the initial stimulus was longer, participants underestimated the length of time.

When viewing the brain activity of the subjects, the researchers found a strong correlation between how accurately a subject perceived time and the activity in the SMG region, as SMG activity decreased participant’s estimates became less accurate.

How Does This Finding Affect Our Understanding of How We Tell Time?

In the past, one prevailing idea was that a region of the brain called the striatum was responsible for nearly all of our body’s inner timekeeping duties. This new study, combined with others showing the importance of the hippocampus in determining and remembering long periods of time, are showing that we may actually use much more of our brain to keep track of time than previously thought.

Emotional Connection to Human Lookalikes: What Is the Uncanny Valley and What Can It Tell Us About How We Connect To Each Other?

What is the Uncanny Valley? Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash

Pixar, the company behind some of the most successful animated films of all time, released its first film, Toy Story, all the way back in 1995. Toy Story was the first film in the history of cinema to be created entirely using computer-generated graphics. In the time since then, technology has inarguably advanced in leaps and bounds, our ability to develop digitally-animated feature films, Saturday morning cartoons, and even short films has grown exponentially—giving rise to some truly unique stories.

But have you ever wondered why even when these studios are able to create almost lifelike representations of plants and animals and even minute details such as beautifully curly hair, individual blades of grass, and nearly perfect recreations of the real world environments we interact with every day…why do they almost always create the characters as if they were traditional cartoon caricatures? And why when they try to create lifelike human characters, they just look so darn strange?

What is the Uncanny Valley?

The Uncanny Valley is a theory that came from Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist who worked in the fields of robotics and automation. When he came up with the idea in 1970, he had noticed that there is a positive correlation between the way humans develop a greater connection and affinity for artificial humans as they become more realistic, but that at a certain point, when these artificial humans become almost perfect, there is a steep drop in our affinity with them as we begin to see them a human but begin to notice slight differences that cause a disconnect between the realness of the artificial human and our expectation of a true human form.

The Uncanny Valley – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

For example, when we look at an industrial robot that looks nothing like a human, we feel little to no connection to this robot. But when we interact with a cute child’s toy that looks like a humanoid robot, we may feel basic emotions and form shallow bonds with this humanlike toy.

If we were to interact with a robot like the famed C-3PO from the Star Wars films, we may even begin to build what could be described as a friendship with this robot due to its humanlike personality traits and humanlike form.

But if we were to see a robot that looked exactly like a human but who was unable to move their eyebrows or form familiar facial expressions when speaking, we would feel strange interacting with this robot because we would expect a ‘human’ to be able to do these things. When our expectations were not met, we feel a discomforting disconnect.

Examples of Human Lookalikes: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly…

There are plenty of examples of human lookalikes—from movies and television to robots that help provide services such as serving food or patrolling shopping centers alongside other law-enforcement agents—and each one evokes a slightly different reaction from the public.  

Here are some examples of human lookalikes from all across the spectrum, from feel-good friends to utterly cringeworthy.

The Good: Human Lookalikes that Make Us Feel an Emotional Connection

As mentioned above, Pixar has a special way of creating unique animated characters with just enough human traits to help us form strong emotional connections, but cartoony enough to keep them well away from falling into the Uncanny Valley.

One of my favorite examples of this is the animated film Up. The first five to ten minutes of this film create one of the most emotional experiences in all of modern cinema. But, how does Pixar create these characters in a way they makes them so easy to connect to?

Part of what makes them so relatable without becoming off-putting is the over-exaggeration of facial and body features such as large noses and eyes, overly squared or rounded facial structures, or head-to-body ratios that are cartoonishly inaccurate.

By creating these characters in this way, they allow us to view them as non-humans doing humanlike things, which we often find appealing, similar to how we often anthropomorphize animals or objects that look or act in ways we typically understand as ‘human.’

The Bad: Human Lookalikes that Tried Too Hard and Didn’t Quite Make it

But not all examples of human lookalikes are found in film and pop culture. There is a growing trend of trying to create humanlike robots that can be used in offices and other public spaces to interact with humans.

One example of this is the Actroid robot created by the Japanese firm Kokoro Company Ltd.

As you can see, this android is aiming to be humanlike, with typical body ratios, natural-looking facial structure, and clothing that would be appropriate for a human to be wearing in a similar situation.

And while this is obviously aiming to be as humanlike as possible, it is quite evident that it is a robot and doesn’t quite elicit the uncomfortable feelings we might experience from the Uncanny Valley.

The Ugly: Human Lookalikes that Made us Cringe

Actor Tom Hanks is no newbie when it comes to voicing animated characters in films, but not all of his animated films have received the same warm welcome from critics and fans.

One such film is the 2004 animated Christmas movie The Polar Express.

Though this movie was given high praise for its overall visual appeal and unique story, many who saw the film left with an uneasy feeling brought on by the strange, waxy emotions of the human characters.

This is a perfect example of how a human lookalike being too authentic-looking can cause us to feel uncomfortable.

Since we saw what looked like humans, we expected to see human actions and movements, especially those small micro-movements in the eyes and face. When we don’t see those, we feel a disconnect between what we expect and what we actually see.

Why Do We React So Strongly to Human Lookalikes?

When humans interact with each other, we don’t merely interact using spoken words. We also read each other’s body language and facial expressions for additional clues and context about what is being said.

For example, if someone says, “I am so excited,” this could mean several things based on the context. We could understand it as authentic excitement if the person says it with a slightly high-pitched tone and with raised eyebrows and a slight flush in the cheeks. But if the same person says the same thing with a deeper, slower tone, slight downward turn at the corners of the mouth, and a slight slouch in their spine, it might be a sign that what they are saying is sarcastic.

When we interact with human-lookalikes that are cartoonish, we can expect to skip the micro-movements and subtle clues and read into the more obvious things like tone. Still, when we interact with an almost lifelike human lookalike, and we don’t receive these same micro-clues we expect from a human, it seems strange.

Does Everyone Experience the Uncanny Valley Effect the Same?  

As demographics change across the globe and the average age of populations continues to increase, especially in industrialized nations, there is an increasing interest in using robots to provide services and act as caretakers to the older generation, freeing up more of the younger generation to enter into the workforce.

With this push comes interesting questions about how the Uncanny Valley affects people from different age groups.

At least one research project has found that while the Uncanny Valley Effect is prevalent among younger and middle-aged adults, adults in the older cohorts did not show the same negative reaction to humanlike robots—in fact, they actually preferred interacting with robots that appeared more human.

Conclusion

How does the Uncanny Valley Affect How We Connect to Human Lookalikes? Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

The idea of having robots to help us throughout our lives is not a new one. Cartoons such as The Jetsons, which aired for the first time in 1962, were already toying with the idea of robot helpers to do all manner of tasks around the house.

Today we are closer than ever to fulfilling this dream. We have digital assistants in the form of Siri and Alexa, we have cars that can drive themselves (at least under specific circumstances), and we even have robotic security guards.

But as these digital helpers become more advanced, we are starting to enter into the realm of the Uncanny Valley, and we must tread carefully if we want people to feel comfortable with these new additions to public life.

B. F. Skinner: 4 Interesting Experiments from the Father of Operant Conditioning

B. F. Skinner Sure Did Love His Pigeons Photo by sanjiv nayak on Unsplash

There are few names in psychology more well-known than B. F. Skinner. First-year psychology students scribble notes as their professors introduce him and his work to the class, and doctoral candidates cite his work in their dissertations as they test whether rat’s behavior can be used to predict behavior in humans.

Skinner is one of the most well-known psychologists of our time. Still, like many larger-than-life figures, for many, he has become little more than a meme of himself, reduced to the two-paragraphs of notes dedicated to him in the notebooks of those bright-eyed freshmen. “Oh, yes. The father of operant conditioning!” we say at dinner parties, hoping the topic changes before our limited knowledge becomes apparent.

But how did he become such a central figure of these Intro to Psych courses, and how did he develop the theories and methodologies cited by those sleep-deprived Ph.D. students?

B. F. Skinner’s Famous Works & Contributions to Psychology

Skinner, born in Pennsylvania in 1904, spent his life studying the way we behave and act, and how this behavior can be modified.

Viewing the classical model of behavioral conditioning championed by Ivan Pavlov, another mainstay of modern psychological study, as being too simplistic a solution to fully explain the complexities of human (and animal) behavior and learning, B. F. Skinner began looking for a better way to explain why we do what we do.

Basing his early work on Edward Thorndike’s 1989 Law of Effect, Skinner went on to expand on the idea that the prevalence of a given behavior is directly related to the consequences which follow said behavior. His expanded model of behavioral learning, known as operant conditioning, is centered around the concepts of behaviors, the actions an organism exhibits, and operants, the environmental response directly following the behavior.

These responses, often referred to as consequences—though this is somewhat misleading due in part to the fact that there need not be a causal relationship between the behavior and the operant—can either come in three forms. The first is reinforcers, which present the organism with a desirable stimulus and serve to increase the frequency of the behavior. On the other end of the spectrum are punishers or environmental responses that present an undesirable stimulus and serve to reduce the frequency of the behavior. Finally, there are neutral operants which, as the name suggests, present stimuli that neither increase nor decrease the prevalence of the behavior in question.

Throughout his long and storied career, Skinner performed a number of strange experiments trying to test the limits of how punishment and reinforcement affect behavior.

4 Interesting Experiments from B. F. Skinner

Though Skinner was a professional through and through, he was also quite a quirky person… and his unique ways of thinking are readily apparent in the strange and interesting experiments he performed while researching the properties of operant conditioning.

Here are four of the most famous experiments from throughout his career:

Experiment #1: The Operant Conditioning Chamber

The Operant Conditioning Chamber, better known as the Skinner Box, is a device that B.F. Skinner used in many of his experiments. At its most basic, the Skinner Box is a chamber where a test subject, such as a rat or a pigeon, can be placed and must ‘learn’ the desired behavior through trial and error.

B.F. Skinner used this device for several different experiments. One such experiment involves placing a hungry rat into a chamber with a lever and a slot where food is dispensed when the lever is pressed. Another variation involves placing a rat into an enclosure, which is wired with a slight electric current in the floor. When the current is turned on, the rat must turn a wheel in order to turn off the current.  

Though this is the most basic experiment in operant conditioning research, there is an infinite number of variations that can be created based on this simple idea.


Experiment #2: A Pigeon That Can Read

Building on the basic ideas from his work with the Operant Conditioning Chamber, B. F. Skinner eventually began designing more and more complex experiments.

One of these experiments involved teaching a pigeon to read words presented to it in order to receive food. Skinner began by teaching the pigeon a simple task, namely, pecking a colored disk, in order to receive a reward. He then began adding additional environmental cues (in this case, they were words), which were paired with a specific behavior that was required in order to receive the reward.

Through this evolving process, Skinner was able to teach the pigeon to ‘read’ and respond to several unique commands.

Though the pigeon can’t actually read English, the fact that he was able to teach a bird multiple behaviors, each one linked to a specific stimulus, by using operant conditioning shows us that this form of behavioral learning can be a powerful tool for teaching both animals and humans complex behaviors based on environmental cues.


Experiment #3: Pigeon Ping-Pong

But Skinner wasn’t only concerned with teaching pigeons how to read. It seems he also made sure they had time to play games as well. In one of his more whimsical experiments, B. F. Skinner taught a pair of common pigeons how to play a simplified version of table tennis.

The pigeons in this experiment were placed on either side of a box and were taught to peck the ball to the other bird’s side. If a pigeon was able to peck the ball across the table and past their opponent, they were rewarded with a small amount of food. This reward served to reinforce the behavior of pecking the ball past their opponent.

Though this may seem like a silly task to teach a bird, the ping-pong experiment shows that operant conditioning can be used not only for a specific, robot-like action but also to teach dynamic, goal-based behaviors.


Experiment #4: Pigeon-Guided Missiles

Thought pigeons playing ping-pong was as strange as things could get? Skinner pushed the envelope even further with his work on pigeon-guided missiles.

While this may sound like the crazy experiment of a deluded mad scientist, B. F. Skinner did actually do work to train pigeons to control the flight paths of missiles for the U.S. Army during the second world war.

Skinner began by training the pigeons to peck at shapes on a screen. Once the pigeons reliably tracked these shapes, Skinner was able to use sensors to track whether the pigeon’s beak was in the center of the screen, to one side or the other, or towards the top or bottom of the screen. Based on the relative location of the pigeon’s beak, the tracking system could direct the missile towards the target location.

Though the system was never used in the field due in part to advances in other scientific areas, it highlights the unique applications that can be created using operant training for animal behaviors.


How B. F. Skinner’s Work Continues to Impact Psychology and Beyond

B. F. Skinner is one of the most recognizable names in modern psychology, and with good reason. Though many of his experiments seem outlandish, the science behind them continues to impact us in ways we rarely think about.

The most prominent example is in the way we train animals for tasks such as search and rescue, companion services for the blind and disabled, and even how  we train our furry friends at home—but the benefits of his research go far beyond teaching Fido how to roll over.

Operant conditioning research has found its way into the way schools motivate and discipline students, how prisons rehabilitate inmates, and even in how governments handle geopolitical relationships.

Decision Making: 7 Incredible Ways Our Brains Process Information To Make Better Choices

How many decisions have you made today? Not just the big ones, like what job you want or where you want to go to university… Not just the important daily ones, like what clothes to wear or what to eat for lunch… But all of them. Decision making is part of everything we do. How many times has your brain encountered a set of choices and had to decide which was the best of the possible outcomes?

We are constantly making decisions, as many as 2,000 per hour. Deciding whether to go to Jenny’s party or Billie’s.  Deciding whether we want the chicken or the fish. Deciding whether to check the notification we just received. Deciding whether we should scratch our nose. Deciding if we want to keep reading a blog.

We are constantly making decisions, large and small, and much of the time we don’t even realize it. So how do we handle so many choices without going crazy?

How our brains process information

Part of the reason we are able to make so many decisions is that our brains are incredibly efficient at absorbing and processing information. We gather details about our world from our eyes and ears and skin and a wide range of sensory organs and almost instantaneously process the information based on our entire life history. Almost without even noticing, we decide that we do want another sip of coffee after all.

Our brains use several cognitive abilities to make these split-second decisions, and we follow a similar process for more significant decisions as well.

Information Processing in the Brain

  • Starting with input from the sensory organs, we use our attention, perception, and short-term memory to access the information and pass it on to the part of our brain which processes the information.
  • Using our ability to focus our attention, we filter out irrelevant information and—using cognitive processes such as working memory and reasoning—we evaluate the information against past experiences held in long-term memory.
  • Once our brains have accessed, filtered, and evaluated the information, we rely on our executive functions to decide the best choice.

Our brains are incredibly efficient at evaluating and making decisions and have several tricks to make decisions faster and require less energy. Mental ‘shortcuts’ help us to avoid decision overload and allow us to reserve energy and processing power for more critical tasks. However, sometimes shortcuts can cause us a bit of trouble as well.

3 types of shortcuts for decision making

There are several shortcuts, known as heuristics that we use to make decisions which help us to make decisions more efficiently:

  • Availability – The availability heuristic is the brain’s way of using readily-available information to speed up a decision. The more examples of something in your memory, the more likely it is to be relevant. Imagine a hunter-gatherer going out to look for food when they come upon a fork in the road. They remember several times they saw a saber-toothed tiger when going down one of the paths and quickly decide to choose the alternate route.
  • Representative – We use the representativeness heuristic to make quick decisions based on a ‘representative’ mental model of the situation. If you go outside and see that it is cloudy, the sky is dark, and the wind has started to pick up, you may choose to grab an umbrella because—in your mental models, at least—when these things happen together, they are also accompanied by rain.
  • Affect – The third shortcut is known as the affect heuristic. This is our way of using the emotions we feel to speed up decision making. When we are feeling happy, we are more likely to take risks and try new things, whereas when we are feeling down, we may avoid these things, opting for more comfortable or familiar choices.

These heuristics are powerful ways that we speed up and automate the thousands of choices we are faced with each day. Still, it is important to understand the downside of mental shortcuts, as they can lead to unintended consequences and cause harm to ourselves and others.

4 biases that can affect decision making

How can something that speeds up decision making and makes our cognitive processes more efficient end up being a bad thing? The problem stems from the fact that we think we know the answer to something before we take the time to learn all the facts.

Some of the most common biases that affect decision making are:

  • Confirmation BiasConfirmation Bias happens when we are making a choice and find information that confirms our existing beliefs. We may take this information as proof that our initial thoughts we correct and stop looking for more details or ignore mountains of evidence to the contrary.
  • Anchoring – Anchoring, also known as ‘first impression’ bias, is the tendency to judge new information based on the first information received. An example of this is when you go to a restaurant, and they offer the first bottle of wine for $100 and a second for $15; the second sounds much more attractive than if the first bottle had been $2.
  • Conformity BiasConformity Bias is the tendency to agree with the group even if your own initial opinion was different. Sometimes called ‘herd mentality,’ this can stifle innovation and lead to group-think.
  • False Causality Bias – Attributing events in a series as being caused by the first is known as the false causality bias. Roosters always crow after the sun comes up, but that doesn’t mean the sun caused the roosters to crow.  Though this example is quite silly, false causality bias can have serious consequences. For example, someone might look at an immigrant neighborhood with high rates of crime and assume that the crime is due to the immigrants who live in the community. Had they taken the time to investigate further, they could have seen that, in reality, it could be due to any number of socioeconomic root causes and has nothing to do with where the residents come from.

There are many other ways our decision-making processes can be negatively affected by mental biases. So it is essential to stay mindful and always try to double-check whether your choices are the result of informed cognitive processes or biases.

How a healthy brain is better at making decisions

Staying healthy is one of the best ways to improve our decision-making capabilities. As anyone who has ever gone grocery shopping while they were hungry knows, things like hunger, stress, or how tired we are can have a significant effect on the decisions we make.

Just like someone who eats healthy food before heading to the grocery store is more likely to choose healthy foods, a person who has plenty of sleep, well-managed stress, and maintains a healthy exercise routine will be better equipped to make better decisions in all parts of their lives.

Conclusion

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A Picture of (Brain) Health: Powerful Brain Scans and Assessment Batteries We Use to Understand Our Most Complex Organ

The human brain is an incredibly complex feat of nature. Capable of creating complex social structures, languages, culture, art, and science. Our brains allow us to explore and understand the universe better than any other animal on the planet ever has. But even with all of this knowledge, we are only just beginning to understand the human brain itself.

Scientists, biologists, and medical professionals are on a neverending quest to learn about the brain, and thanks to innovative brain scan technologies, we are closer than ever to unlocking the mysteries of how the brain works.

But why is it so difficult to understand how our brains function?

Brain Anatomy

The human brain is made up of billions of neurons, or brain cells, each connected in a web of synapses so dense there are more connections in a single human brain than there are stars in the observable universe.

If we zoom out a little and take a holistic view of the brain, we see that the neurons are grouped into three main parts: the brainstem, the cerebellum, and the cerebrum. Each of these parts plays a unique role in how our brains function and how we think, act, and perceive the world.

The Human Brain, in Three Parts:

  • Brainstem – The brainstem is located at the bottom of the brain and connects the brain and the spinal cord. Many of the automatic tasks our body performs–such as breathing, heart rate, digestion, vomiting, and more–are controlled by the brain stem.
  • Cerebellum – The cerebellum is located near the bottom of the brain as well, behind the brain stem. This region of the brain is responsible for coordinating sensory input–such as what we hear, see, and smell–with our muscle movements so that we are able to understand our location within our surroundings and are able to maintain balance and posture.
  • Cerebrum – The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain, covered in greyish wrinkles and folds, and is what we typically think of when we think of a ‘brain.’ Tasked with many of our higher-level brain functions, the cerebrum is responsible for interpreting what we see, hear, and gather from our various senses, as well as learning, reasoning, speaking, and emotion. Many of our fine motor movements, such as the movements required to play a musical instrument, are also controlled by this region of the brain.

Major Zones of the Cerebrum:

Each of the hemispheres of the Cerebrum is further divided into four distinct zones called lobes.

  • Frontal Lobe – The frontal lobe is found on the top, forwardmost part of the brain. Many of our executive functions, such as planning, organizing, and problem-solving, are linked to this region. The frontal lobe also plays a role in short-term memory, creativity, and critical thinking.
  • Parietal Lobe – The parietal lobe, found on the top of the brain, behind the frontal lobe, is responsible for helping us interpret sensory information such as taste, touch, and temperature.
  • Occipital Lobe – The occipital lobe, found near the back of the brain, helps us to interpret visual information from our eyes and combine this information with past memories and experiences.
  • Temporal Lobe – The temporal lobe, which can be found on the side of the brain under the frontal and parietal lobes, helps us process smells, tastes, and sound information. This part of the brain is also involved in the storage of memories.

What Tools Do We Use To Understand the Human Brain?

Though we still have a long way to go to unlock all the secrets of the human brain, new technologies, methods, and tools such as brain scans allow us to understand more about the human brain than ever before.

Brain Scans & Imaging Tools:

Photo by Robina Weermeijer
  • PET Scan – Positron emission tomography (PET) scans are used to show which parts of the brain are active at a given moment. By injecting a tracer substance into the brain and detecting radioactive isotopes in the tracer, we can see what parts of the brain are actively using glucose, a sign of brain activity. As a specific brain region becomes active, it fills with blood, which delivers oxygen and glucose, providing fuel for that region. These areas become visible in the PET scan, thanks to the tracer substance, and allow us to create images of which areas of the brain are active during a given activity. The PET scan can only locate generalized brain areas, not specific clusters of neurons. In addition, PET scans are considered invasive and costly to perform.
  • CT Scan – Computed tomography (CT) scans are used to create images of the brain by recording the levels of X-ray absorption. Subjects lay on a flat table, which is connected to a large cylindrical tube-shaped apparatus. Inside the tube is a ring that holds an X-ray emitter. As the X-ray emitter moves along the tube, sensors on the opposite side of the ring detect the amount of X-rays that pass through. Since different materials–such as skin, bone, water, or air–absorb X-rays at different rates, the CT scan can create a rough map of the features of the brain.
  • MRI Scan – Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans are imaging tools used widely in the field of psychology. Using a strong magnetic field, MRIs create alignment within the nuclei of atoms within the tissues of the body and brain. By measuring the changes as the nuclei return to their base states, the MRI is able to create a picture of the brain’s structure. As a non-invasive procedure, with little risk to health, MRI scans can be performed on a broad range of subjects, including infants, the elderly, or pregnant mothers. Because of this, they can also be used multiple times on a single individual to map changes over time. The main difference between MRI and fMRI is that while basic MRI scans are used to image the structure of the brain, fMRI are used to map our the activity within the brain structures.
  • EEG Scan – Electroencephalography (EEG) allows us to measure brain activity by placing electrodes on the scalp of a subject which sense electrical activity. EEG scans are non-invasive and allow researchers to record changes in brain activity down to the millisecond, making it one of the best options for understanding changes in the brain as they occur.
  • MEG Scan – Magnetoencephalography (MEG) is a method of imaging the electrical activity in the brain through the use of magnetic fields. Extremely sensitive devices known as SQUIDs capture the activity in the brain, allowing researchers, doctors, or other professionals to understand which areas of the brain are responsible for various brain functions, or to determine the location of a pathology.
  • NIRS Scan – Near-infrared spectroscopy is a brain imaging technique that uses infrared light to measure oxygen levels in the brain. By shooting infrared light through the skull and measuring the light on the other side, NIRS scans can detect brain activity in a non-invasive, though indirect, way.

Other Tools & Methods:

Though we have new tools and technology to aid us in understanding the human brain, that doesn’t mean that brain scans are the only tools we have at our disposal. Some of the best methods for understanding our brains don’t require any medical equipment at all.

Photo by cottonbro
  • Interviews – When a patient suffers brain damage, doctors and psychologists will often perform interviews with the subject to understand how the damage to the brain affects behavior, memory, senses, or other aspects of our mental capacity.  Since we already know what areas of the brain are affected by brain damage, any changes in mental ability, personality, or other brain functions may be good areas to perform additional research.
  • Assessments – One of the best ways to study brain development or functioning is to have subjects complete tests or assessments. There are many assessments available for a variety of brain functions. Some of the most significant advantages to these types of evaluations are their low cost, the fact that they can be administered in nearly any setting (so you don’t have to go to a research lab or hospital) and they can be performed multiple times with no adverse effects on the health of participants. Because of this, many researchers use assessments to record changes in brain function across years of study.

Conclusion

As we continue to unlock new mysteries of the brain and create more and more powerful tools for exploring the human mind, we will continue to grow our ability to treat patients and improve the lives of people all over the world. Brain scans allow us to peak into one of the most complex systems we have ever seen. Still, it is essential to remember that it is the tool that gives us the answers, but the researchers and medical professional who interpret the results.

Healthy Food, Healthy Brain: Exploring the Link Between Healthy Eating and Brain Health.

The human brain is a marvel of evolution, capable of creating breathtaking works of art and music, developing complex systems of culture, language, and society, and uncovering mysteries of the universe through science, technology, and mathematics. But even a healthy brain couldn’t do any of these things without a healthy body to support it.

Our brains and bodies are inextricably linked through a variety of systems, working in parallel. When these systems are working at their peak performance, our brains also are able to reach their full potential.

When our body’s systems slow down or begin to function poorly and become unhealthy, our minds struggle to perform. They can suffer from fatigue, stress, or any number of adverse mental consequences.

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How Are the Body and Mind Connected?

Anyone who has had to perform on stage or give a speech in front of a large group of people knows that the stress and anxiety, supposedly mental phenomenon, can manifest in physical discomforts such as “Butterflies” in our stomachs, sweaty palms, and increased heart rate.

Similarly, when we find ourselves receiving praise or affection, the feelings of happiness and euphoria we experience are readily apparent when our cheeks blush, our eyes dilate, and in extreme cases, we can even begin to cry from joy.

But just as our brain can affect our body, so too can our bodies have a powerful effect on how our brains function.

A cup of coffee in the morning helps us focus and feel more alert. A glass of alcohol can give us a euphoric feeling, reduce social inhibitions, and drastically slow down our ability to react to stimuli.

While these are extreme examples of the brain-body connection, the interconnectedness of our mental and physical selves means that nearly everything we do to our body, from taking medications, running a marathon, or sitting on a couch all day playing video games, to something as simple as drinking a glass of water can have an effect on how we feel and how well our brains perform.

Exercise and Eating Right Help Keep A Healthy Brain

By taking care of our bodies, we can help to ensure our brains are functioning at their best. Although there is no single exercise or diet that is right for everyone – each person should speak to their nutrition or health professional to understand the best regimen for themselves – there are specific general rules of thumb for exercise and diet that can help just about anyone improve their brain health.

Exercises for a healthy brain:

  • Aerobic Exercise – Exercises that increase your heart rate and breathing are great ways to improve your overall health. These are great for maintaining a healthy body mass, toning muscles, and improving cardiovascular function, which in turn means your body becomes more efficient at delivering oxygen to your body and brain.
  • Anaerobic ExerciseAnaerobic exercises include activities such as High-Intensity Interval Training, strength training, or calisthenics. These activities are a great way to keep your body toned and build muscle. As these exercises burn stored energy from your body, they are an excellent choice for managing fat and weight loss.
  • Mind/Body Exercise – Not all exercises require you to run long distances or lift heavy weights to have a substantial positive impact on your physical wellbeing. Activities such as yoga, Pilates, or many martial arts – Which combine physical stamina, balance, and flexibility with mental focus and concentration – can be a great way to keep your body and mind in tip-top shape.

Essential Nutrients for a healthy brain:

  • Proteins – Our body needs plenty of protein to function correctly. It helps us repair cells, it is integral in building and maintaining muscle, it promotes growth in children and adolescents, and it provides many of the building blocks our cells need to keep us healthy.
  • Fats – Though fats have a bad reputation, they aren’t inherently bad for us. In fact, our bodies need a certain amount of fats to function properly. Fats can provide certain amino acids our bodies need to work and can help with absorbing nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin D, and Vitamin E. It is essential, however, to be careful, as any fat that our body doesn’t break down for these essential tasks can be converted to stored energy in the form of body fat.  
  • Carbohydrates – Carbohydrates, like fats, get a bad rap. But just like fats, our bodies actually need a certain amount of these nutrients to function properly. Carbohydrates are the fuel that our body uses to power our internal organs and keep us healthy. Certain carbohydrates also have additional benefits, such as fiber, which helps us to feel fuller for longer.
  • Vitamins – Vitamins are a group of micronutrients our bodies require in order to perform a variety of functions. Vitamins can help maintain healthy skin, strengthen bones and teeth, and much more. There are a total of 13 essential vitamins which we can get by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.  
  • Minerals – Similar to vitamins, our body needs a variety of minerals to maintain proper functions, maintain bone and heart health, regulate levels of water, salt, and Ph in our bodies, and more. Minerals are typically divided into two categories: Macrominerals and trace minerals. Macrominerals are far more prevalent in our bodies and include minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, and sulfur. Trace minerals are less prevalent and include minerals such as iron or sulfide.

What Are Some Healthy Foods to Eat for a Healthy Brain?

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel

Eating healthy and providing your body and brain with all the essential nutrients doesn’t mean you have to give up the foods you love. Plenty of delicious foods provide fuel for brain health!

  • Avocados – These fantastically fresh-tasting vegetables are a great source of healthy fats and vitamins. Place them on whole-grain toast for some additional fiber as well as some lean, sliced turkey breast for some protein, and you have a healthy breakfast option to start your day off with plenty of energy for a healthy brain!
  • Blueberries – These powerful little berries pack a tremendous amount of nutrients such as antioxidants that promote brain health and are an excellent choice for a mid-morning snack, especially combined with a handful of healthy nuts such as almonds.
  • Fish – Seafood can be an excellent choice for a light yet filling lunch. Delicious fish such as salmon, anchovies, or trout provide plenty of healthy fats and omega-3s to boost brain function. Pair a baked filet with some broccoli, another food filled with healthy nutrients, and your body and mind will still be going strong even as your coworkers begin to feel tired and grumpy as they enter the afternoon slump.
  • Dark chocolate – If you are looking for a sweet snack to make it through until dinner, dark chocolate may be the right choice for you. Cacao, the main ingredient in chocolate, is packed full of a special type of antioxidant known as flavonoids, which excel at boosting brain health. Pair a small amount of dark chocolate with a cup of your favorite coffee (just go light on the cream and sugar), and you have a great snack to keep your mind sharp throughout the afternoon.
  •  Tomatoes – These versatile fruits are packed with healthy nutrients, including lycopene, which promotes a healthy brain and can help keep our minds sharp as we age. Pair these with fresh leafy greens such as spinach, a dash of olive oil, some healthy nuts such as walnuts, and lean white meat and you have a tasty dinner salad that is perfect for any day of the week.

If you are looking for a healthy, natural way to boost your brain health, speak with a trained nutritionist or medical professional and learn more about how a healthy diet and exercise can keep your mind sharp.

Memory Exercises: Help strengthen your memory

Memory—it’s tied to everything that forms our person. The vivid images in our minds are how we recall our favorite moments, communicate with those we love, learn new information, and even perform routine behaviors. With memory involved in daily life, this cognitive skill is highly beneficial. There are many memory exercises to strengthen and improve all types of memory.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

What is Memory?

Memory is a cognitive process. When applied, it is how the brain encodes, stores, and then recalls or retrieves information from the environment and previous experiences. Encoding is taking in information through the senses, learning it, and relating it to past knowledge. In the memory process, storing memory is retaining that information over time until retrieval, which is accessing the information as it is needed. Without memory, language, behavior, and personal identity are impossible because we would have no concept of recalling past events.

Types of Memory

There are three types of memory that can be divided into subcategories and improved in various ways!

  1. Sensory Memory—Information is taken in through the sense (i.e. sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell), processed by the nervous system, and is stored for mere seconds after the initial stimuli are no longer present before being transferred to short term memory

  2. Short Term Memory—The ability to hold or store current information for a limited time (between 15 and 30 seconds) and capacity, meaning only several items can be held until they are forgotten or moved to long term memory
    • Working Memory—The process of temporarily storing current information and then manipulating it for use
  3. Long Term Memory—The unlimited capacity to store any information occurring over a few minutes ago for an extended period of time; information is encoded and manipulated  
    • Explicit—Memory that is easily recalled unconsciously and unknowingly influences thoughts and behavior
    • Implicit—Memory that is remembered intentionally with work like recalling a phone number
    • Declarative—Recalling factual information like dates, events, concepts, faces, or words
    • Procedural—How to perform a skill, action, or behavior
    • Episodic—Remembering personal experiences and events
    • Semantic—Remembering general facts

Why Should We Use Memory Exercises To Improve Memory?

Memory is involved in every facet of our lives. Essentially, it makes us who we are. So, to become the fullest version of ourselves, it is important to use memory exercises to prove memory. Memory naturally declines with age as the number of neural synapses (nerve cells and their connections) decreases. While genetics and environmental factors do play a role, practicing memory exercises can potentially prevent such a drastic reduction in memory skills.

Concrete or Abstract Memory Exercises: Which is Best?

Concrete and abstract are two types of thinking. Concrete thinking includes concepts derived from information taken in through the senses. It is literally and focused on the physical world as facts, objects, and definitions. Contrarily, abstract thinking is ideas that are not tangibly related to the physical world. It is a more complex manner of thinking that allows us to understand and make connections about the information processed through concrete thinking. Examples of abstract thinking are concepts such as freedom, love, and metaphorical language.

A combination of both forms of thinking is useful for memory exercises. However, concrete exercises are beneficial because they target specific goals. Abstract thinking cannot occur without real, physical experiences of the concrete.

Memory Exercises: Learn A Language

Memory is an integral component of learning. Learning a new skill is a memory exercise because it challenges the brain to recall information. It utilizes the brain’s neuroplasticity to do so, which is how the brain forms neurons (nerve cells), strengthens the connections between those cells, and repairs damage. One study of bilingual participants with Alzheimer’s disease demonstrates how learning multiple languages delays symptom onset like that of memory loss by up to 4.5 years.

Memory Exercises: Visualization

Visualizing is the act of creating images in your mind. The sense of sight is incredibly powerful—lingering in the memory more so than hearing, smelling, tasting, or the sensation of touch. Visualization trains short term memory by enhancing the encoding process. When visualizing, including information from all of the senses ensures the clearest, most vivid image. That also increases the likelihood of remembering. Visualization exercises can range from trying to reproduce a picture you previously observed, an object, a person, or a location. Begin by looking at the image you wish to recreate in your mind for one minute.  

Memory Exercises: Numeracy Games

Numbers games foster logical thinking. Doing math, especially without pencil and paper, requires you to repeat and rehearse numbers in your head. That heavily relies on memory and is considered a memory exercise because of the amount of information held in short term memory necessary to complete the math problem. Examples of numeracy games are Sudoku or simply performing math equations such as choosing a number and adding or subtracting digits from that number multiple times to arrive at the correct answer.

Ex: 3(46 x 7 – 18)

Memory Exercises: Repeat and Recall

Repeat and recall may seem to be a simple practice, but it is an extremely effective memory exercise. This is one reason why you repeat a phone number in your mind to dial it later. The repetition of the repeat and recall process commits it to long term memory because short term memory can only hold the phone number for merely seconds. To train the brain, repeat and recall conversations, numbers, song lyrics, poems, or even books read. In conversations, repeat and recall exercises are beneficial for listening skills. Listening skills are often lacking, and repeating a conversation makes the main idea of the conversation more clearly.

Memory Exercises: Physical Exercise

Physical exercise does not solely exercise the body. It works out the brain too! Aerobic exercises are particularly helpful for memory. Firstly, the body’s physiological response to exercise serves as a protection against memory loss. As one exercises, the blood flow increases the amount of oxygen available to the brain. When the brain has more oxygen, the body is less susceptible to cardiovascular disease and various forms of dementia which both impair memory. According to leading neurologists at Harvard University, exercise also boosts neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers in the brain. Studies suggest that those who avidly exercise have more volume in the regions of the brain that control memory and cognition.

Memory Exercises: Teach A Skill

They say practice makes perfect! The same concept applies to memory. Teaching a skill is a memory exercise because it gives the opportunity to practice the skill being taught. As a teacher, you have to refine your own technique as you are explaining it to somebody else. This repetition trains the memory.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Memory Exercises: Change Your Routine

The brain needs diversity. Sticking to the same routine day after day does not challenge the brain. Altering your routine, however, does. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that stores long term memories. Changing your routine in any way, like working out in the morning instead of the evening, going out for lunch rather than staying at the office, or taking a new route to class stimulates the hippocampus to improve memory.

Memory Exercises: Observe Details

Details are in everything—the people we surround ourselves with, the places we go, the movies we watch. Observing these details can be an effective memory exercise. For the observation exercise, intentionally observe and note at least four details of a stimulus in your environment. For example, committing to memory that the restaurant you are dining in has checkered floors, red walls, six tables, and a green jukebox in the corner. Later, try to recall those details. This is referred to as passive memory training. It trains the memory not only to retain information but to easier access the details stored in memory.

Memory Exercises: Social Connections

Humans are social creatures. Research analyzing the social connection patterns of patients with Alzheimer’s disease establishes a connection between patients with active social lives and those who remain more isolated. Published in the American Journal of Public Health, “women with the larger social networks were 26 percent less likely to develop dementia than those with smaller social networks” (Crooks et al., 2011). Daily connection is key, as the chance of developing dementia is then lowered by nearly half. This is because the brain is stimulated as we respond to others. Additionally, group activities that bring about socialization (i.e. exercise) encourage healthy behaviors and lend emotional support during times of trial. A contented emotional state is imperative for building strong brain connections for cognitive skills such as memory.

Memory Exercises: Eat Breakfast

Diet is linked to memory function. Starting the day with a healthy breakfast is the first step to successful memory exercise. To retain information, pay attention, and perform other cognitive skills related to memory, the brain requires a balance of protein, carbohydrates, and antioxidants. It cannot function optimally without energy to do so. Foods with high levels of vitamin E are also essential to building memory function. These include nuts and seeds, eggs, and green leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli. The typical breakfast foods like sugary cereals, processed meats, and pastries do not provide the brain with enough nutrition for optimal brain function.

Memory Exercises: Read

Reading is a memory exercise most beneficial in old age. It stimulates the occipital and parietal lobes, which are the areas of the brain associated with visual information and reading comprehension. As the occipital and parietal lobes are “exercised,” the brain can more effectively process visual information of other stimuli in the environment that we store to memory.  

Neurobic Exercise = Memory Exercise

Each of these memory exercises is known as neurobic exercises—the idea that cognitive skills like memory can be maintained and enhanced through exercising the brain. They reflect how actions like reading a book, taking up a hobby or having a conversation potentially train the brain with minimal effort.

References

Crooks, V.C., Lubben, J. Petitti, D.B., Little, D., & Chiu, V. (2011). Social Network, Cognitive Function, and Dementia Incidence Among Elderly Women. American Journal of Public Health, 98(7). DOI: https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2007.115923

Diament, M. (2008). Friends Make You Smart. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-11-2008/friends-are-good-for-your-brain.html

Harvard Health Publishing. (N.d.). Exercise can boost your memory and thinking skills. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-can-boost-your-memory-and-thinking-skills

Cognitive Health: What is its meaning and how to improve it.

Do you forget things lately? Have you lost the skills you used to have? Many people worry about memory loss and skills as they get older, and feel a decline in their cognitive function.

In this article we will talk about what are the causes of this decline, what is cognitive health and steps to strengthen it. Read this article to keep your brain healthy as you get older.

Cognitive health: definition and meaning

How can we define Cognitive health? What is its meaning? Cognitive health refers mainly to thinking, learning, and memory. It also can include other components as the motor function (how the person controls movements), emotional function (how a person can manage their emotions) and sensory function (how a person feels and respond to sensations as pressure, pain, temperature, etc). A person with good cognitive health is a person who can think, learn and remember.

Therefore, “Cognition” is an important element of the brain health, and to have good cognitive health means that the brain is fit and ready to carry out life and work demands. In conclusion, cognitive health is related to brain health and its complete function. It includes areas such as memory, language, learning, emotional function, sensory function, motor function, etc.

Cognitive health and cognitive reserve: definition and difference

Now that we have defined what is cognitive health, it is important to mention a crucial concept to the understanding of cognitive health: cognitive reserve.

Cognitive reserve is your capacity of developing several thinking abilities during your life. It is also known as the ability of the brain to improvise and find other ways of completing a job. People with good cognitive reserve are more protected against memory losses and the decline of their mental skills. Cognitive reserve is developed throughout a life of education and curiosity, which helps your brain to cope with any deterioration that has to deal with. Cognitive reserve is the mind’s defense to brain damage.

The cognitive reserve is based on using the brain networks that we have in a more efficient way or on a greater capacity.

Considering all the information above, it is important to keep in mind that cognitive reserve is very important to protect people against losses and damage that can occur through aging. It could be said that cognitive reserve is a tool that helps people to develop resilience and to have more reserve to call on an older age.

Cognitive health: issues and meaning

Everyone forgets something sometimes, like misplacing your keys or blanking out on a name. That is completely normal, but if these episodes become recurrent or interfere with daily life, you may need to pay attention to your cognitive health and go to a specialized professional. If that happens to you, you may have Mild Cognitive Impairment or MCI, which is an intermediate state between normal aging and dementia.

What is Mild Cognitive Impairment?

We can say that Mild Cognitive Impairment is something between the usual cognitive decline expected with aging and the first signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 10% to 20% of adults older than 65 have Mild Cognitive Impairment, but it is difficult to detect.

Mild Cognitive Impairment could be categorized in two different types:

Amnestic mild cognitive impairment. It refers to problems with memory (for example forgetting recent information and details of conversations, or misplacing personal items).

Non-amnestic mild cognitive impairment. It refers to problems with other areas instead of memory, such as attention and concentration. It also can include difficulties in planning and decision making, language skills (for example, difficult to find or choosing words), etc. Although recognizing Mild Cognitive Impairment could be difficult, it is essential because it is the first step to identify it before it can get worse.

Cognitive Health: What are Cognitive disorders?

Related that we explained before, cognitive disorders or neurocognitive disorders are a group of mental health disorders that affect cognitive abilities such as learning, memory, perception, problem-solving, etc. In other words, cognitive disorders are a group of mental health disorders that affects some cognitive abilities. Cognitive disorders can also be defined as any disorder that affects cognitive function in a way that prevents a person from living a normal life.

The most common type of cognitive disorders are:

  • Dementia
  • Developmental disorders
  • Motor skill disorders
  • Amnesia
  • Alzheimer’s disease

To shed light on the question of what causes cognitive disorders, we need to think about a variety of factors. Some scientific studies point to hormonal imbalances in the womb, genetic predisposition, environmental factors during vulnerable stages of cognitive development, particularly during infancy, or substance abuse and physical injury.

What about the symptoms?

Cognitive disorder symptoms could vary depending on the particular disorder, but some of the most common symptoms are present in most disorders. Some of them include:

  • Confusion. The affected person may appear dazed too.
  • Problems with motor coordination. The affected person may have a lack of balance and normal posture.
  • Loss of memory. This could include a lack of coordination and other signs as forgetting names and significant faces.
  • Identity confusion. About who he is and his own identity.
  • Emotional symptoms. As suffering cognitive issues is frustrating, some people suffering from it react with emotional explosion. Other people with cognitive issues react with apathy.

Cognitive Health: What is the difference between Mild Cognitive Impairment and Cognitive disorders?

Although there are similar features between Mild Cognitive Impairment and Cognitive disorders, they are not the same: The symptoms developed in mild cognitive impairment do not cause any interference with normal daily life activities. On the other hand, cognitive disorders symptoms interfere with a person’s normal daily life.

If, after reading this, you believe that you or one of your loved ones may be suffering from Mild Cognitive Impairment or Cognitive disorders, you may need to contact a mental health professional who can evaluate your case.

How can you strengthen your cognitive health?: Cognitive health exercises and some advice.

Not everything is negative! The good news is cognitive issues can be prevented or delayed putting your brain in shape. People can maintain their brains fit through activities that are destined to improve cognitive functioning: attention, memory and concentration exercises, problem-solving, planning, etc.

So, what can you do to stimulate your brain and have a good cognitive health? Different researches and studies aimed that there are some different advice to follow:

1. Eat Healthy foods: a plant-based diet.

Different studies show that a diet based on high amounts of plant-based foods like fruits (especially berries), green leafy vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and olive oil is associated with slower mental decline in older adults. It is important to drink enough water and other fluids too.

2. Be physically active: exercise regularly.

It is important to do at least 30 minutes to an hour of moderate-intensity exercise three to five times a week. We know that the benefit of exercising regularly is incredible to prevent or delay heart disease, diabetes and other diseases. Studies also show that physical activity has benefits for the brain too. Some studies have shown that exercise can help to improve learning and spatial memory. It is also important to take care of your health limiting the use of alcohol and quit smoking.

3. Get enough sleep.

Generally, experts recommend sleeping seven or eight hours each night. When you sleep, the functions of your brain are still active, processing information. It is important to have good quality and enough quantity of sleep as your brain can go through the five different stages of sleep. That helps you to process new information.

4. Manage your stress

Neurologists say that the best ally could be laughter. It is important to have a positive attitude towards life and avoiding or manage stress to take care of your brain.

5. Stay connected with social activities and contacts.

It is essential to visit family and friends and to join programs in your community. Participating in social activities may lower the risk of some brain decline and other health problems. Be connecting with other people through social activities and programs keep your brain active and also help you to feel part of a community and less isolated. This is essential to improve your well-being and to keep your brain safe.

6. Keep your mind active and continue to challenge your brain.

Many people who participate in volunteer programs or have hobbies claim that they feel happy and healthy. It is important to be intellectually engaged to fit and benefit your brain. Some ideas of activities that can keep your mind active: reading books or magazines, taking classes about something new, playing games, and, as we mentioned above, learning a new skill or hobby, volunteering…

All of these activities can benefit your brain, moreover: they can be fun! Now that you know all the steps to take care of your brain, start putting them into practice!

We don’t know for sure yet if these actions can prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease, but some of them have been associated with reduced risk of developing cognitive impairment and dementia.

If you have been diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment, that doesn’t mean that you are going to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s for sure, it changes from case to case. While there is no method for preventing or slowing Mild Cognitive Impairment, some studies have found that people can reduce their risk of cognitive decline by applying the steps described above.

Cognitive health in older adults

Although cognitive health is a concern, it is important to know that serious decline is not imminent, even at old age, we can prevent it and slow it down. The brain is an organ that ages like the rest of the body. The aging process and how it affects one’s daily life differs from one person to another, but we know that some cognitive abilities, like memory, decrease with age. However, other mental abilities, such as knowledge and wisdom, tend to increase.

There are some recent studies about when cognitive decline reaches its peak, but it was found a considerable variability in the age at which cognitive abilities decline throughout life. In general, we can say that the areas that experiment some decrease:

  • Attention. Age interfere with attention, especially when it is necessary to multitask. It could be a challenge to pay attention to multiple traffic lanes while driving, for example.
  • Memory. It declines for many people over time, but again, differences have been found for each person.
  • Language skills. They are well retained during adulthood in general, but it could be a challenge to a person more than seventy years old to recall a particular word during a conversation.

However, as we say before, this process is not the same for everyone, and older people experience an improvement in other areas:

  • Knowledge. Strengthened by experience.
  • Vocabulary continues to improve into middle age and well retained throughout the life cycle. According to recent studies, adults can improve their cognitive health in older age by raising their fitness level. Cognitive health in old age is also influenced by other factors as “cognitive reserve.” This means that people who were more intelligent when they were younger or had better cognitive maintenance through education, occupation, or stimulating activities, maintain cognitive health better than people who were not.

Finally, some studies suggest that it is very important for the cognitive health of older people not to be alone. These studies indicate that it is essential to have an extensive social network and feel part of a group.

Bibliography

  • Anderson, L. A., & McConnell, S. R. (2007). Cognitive health: an emerging public health issue. Alzheimer’s & dementia: the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association ​ , ​3 ​ (2), S70-S73.
  • Everything ages, even your brain. Don’t worry so much. It’s probably not Alzheimer’s, Lenny Brillstein, The Washington Post, April 14, 2015. Recovered from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2015/04/14/everything-ages-even-your-braindont-worry-so-much-its-probably-not-alzheimers/
  • Hillman, C. H., Belopolsky, A. V., Snook, E. M., Kramer, A. F., & McAuley, E. (2004). Physical activity and executive control: implications for increased cognitive health during older adulthood. ​Research quarterly for exercise and sport ​ , ​75 ​ (2), 176-185.
  • Jedrziewski, M. K., Lee, V. M. Y., & Trojanowski, J. Q. (2007). Physical activity and cognitive health. Alzheimer’s & Dementia ​ , ​3 ​ (2), 98-108.
  • Laditka, J. N., Beard, R. L., Bryant, L. L., Fetterman, D., Hunter, R., Ivey, S., … & Wu, B. (2009). Promoting cognitive health: a formative research collaboration of the Healthy Aging Research Network. ​The Gerontologist ​ , ​49 ​ (S1), S12-S17.
  • Parletta, N., Milte, C. M., & Meyer, B. J. (2013). Nutritional modulation of cognitive function and mental health. ​The Journal of nutritional biochemistry ​ , ​24 ​ (5), 725-743.
  • Sperling, R. A., Aisen, P. S., Beckett, L. A., Bennett, D. A., Craft, S., Fagan, A. M., … & Park, D. C. (2011). Toward defining the preclinical stages of Alzheimer’s disease: Recommendations from the National Institute on Aging-Alzheimer’s Association workgroups on diagnostic guidelines for Alzheimer’s disease. ​Alzheimer’s & dementia ​ , ​7 ​ (3), 280-292.
  • Stern, Y. (2009). Cognitive reserve. Neuropsychologia, 47(10), 2015-2028.

Social Media and the Brain: Is Social Media Healthy For the Brain?

Modern-day society is immersed in technology. Glued to smartphones and other devices, there is an app for everything—including socialization. Human connection has been reduced to words and photos on a screen rather than face-to-face communication with accounts like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Although fun and convenient, the positive and negative effects are enough to make one question: is social media healthy for the brain?

Social Media and the Brain: What is Social Media?

Social media is a broad term describing computer-based technologies that allow the sharing of ideas, communication, and interactive virtual communities. This includes email, instant messaging, and accounts like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat. We are surrounded by social media on a day-to-day basis. Communicating with others via computerized technology connects us with loved ones we may not otherwise have contact with.

Consisting of key platforms for marketing, social media is also beneficial for work and academics. Scholars easily share articles and reports with recent findings. Consumers purchase products because of social media marketing strategies applied by businesses, which furthers the economy. With the prevalence of social media, there’s no doubt its presence in our lives produces both positive and negative effects on the brain.

Positive Effects of Social Media on the Brain

Social media receives a negative stigma when judging its effects on the brain. Of course, there are countless pitfalls of technology-based social platforms, but social media is a positive presence in the lives of many. Brain activity in multiple areas of the brain responds to the stimuli by multiplying productivity, boosting mood, and expanding the learning of some key cognitive skills.

Enhanced Communication

Social media platforms foster open communication. The hustle and bustle of daily life do not leave as much time for face-to-face social interactions. Social media is a solution. Individuals can connect across distances and networks are formed with people who would otherwise be inaccessible. The increased connections with social networks also provide the opportunity to learn social and communication skills. Aspects of mental health are enhanced as the strengthened relationships contribute to “social capital and subjective well-being” (Bekalu et al., 2019).

Creativity

Creativity is the capacity to generate original ideas, techniques, or possibilities in useful ways. It is related to divergent thinking in which the ideas generated occur from a non-linear, free-flowing thought process by employing the brain’s executive functions. Social media is an outlet for creativity with its photos, text posts, GIFs, and videos. It is a resource to explore new ideas and to build upon information—all while receiving constructive input from others.

Improved Memory

Memory is a brain function that encodes, stores, and recalls information as needed to complete a task or perform a behavior. The process of memory recall—the ability to retrieve memories previously stored from the past by replaying neural activity—is made easier with the use of social media. One study of 66 students from Cornell University highlights how social media improves the brain’s memory. Each of the students was directed to document their experiences, rate them on emotional intensity, and were then asked about which of those experiences they shared on social media. After taking two quizzes a week apart, students better remembered the experiences they had shared online regardless of the emotional intensity rating.

Feelings of Happiness

Although social media can be a source of depression when users endlessly scroll through posts and compare their lives, physical appearance, or occupations to their friends, social media can provoke happiness. Feelings of happiness from social media use originate from social connections. Michigan State University conducted a study of Facebook users. Users who provided empathetic support through engaging in social media posts had an increase in well-being and self-esteem, whereas the passive users did not. Dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that send chemical messages to nerve cells in the brain, are present when experiencing this social connection. The neurotransmitter release is associated with feelings of happiness and reward.

Emotional Support

Social media creates a sense of belonging. The aspect of emotional support is protective against mental illness. It brings together groups of people with similar struggles, missions, and goals. Additionally, people update about their lives on social media. The awareness of the lives of others creates the perception of emotional support even when there is no direct communication occurring. With emotional bonding, the pituitary gland at the base of the brain releases the stress hormone oxytocin that produces feelings of protection.

Negative Effects of Social Media on the Brain

On average, a person spends 144 minutes per day checking social media accounts. Although 81% say social media has a positive influence on their life, frequent use of social media has negative effects on the brain and nervous system that they do not realize. Social media users are at risk for mental health disorders, declines in cognitive skills like attention, and physical ailments.

Photo by Tracy Le Blanc from Pexels

Reduced Attention Span

Scrolling through Facebook while watching TV and writing a paper may appear like multi-tasking at its finest, but what effect does it have on the brain?

There are four types of attention.

  1. Sustained—the ability to focus on one stimulus for a prolonged period of time
  2. Selective—the ability to select which stimuli to focus on
  3. Alternating—the ability to switch between tasks with differing cognitive stimuli
  4. Divided—the ability to complete multiple tasks at the same time

Sustained attention was once the most essential skill, but excessive social media users, display marked declines in sustained attention and an increase in alternating and divided attention. Enhanced multi-tasking probably seems like a positive aspect of social media; however, the increase does not apply to settings outside of social media.

The Technical University of Denmark performed a study that concluded social media is rewiring the attention process in the brain and reducing gray matter responsible for inhibitory control, memory, speech, and sensory perception (Lorenz-Spreen et al., 2019). The changes are similar to that of the brain of someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by inattention, hyperactive behavior, and impulsivity.

Vision Problems

On average, we blink approximately 15 times per minute. When exposed to electronics, that number is cut in half. Vision is regulated by the nervous system. It helps us focus on images in the environment as the brain processes visual information. Studies claim that the human brain processes images that the eyes see in 13 milliseconds. As the number of hours spent on social media increases, along with the visual content posted via social media sites, the result is blurred vision, eyes that burn, and headaches from straining the eyes. In fact, these vision problems are so common there is now a diagnosis for its symptoms—Computer Vision Syndrome.

Altered Sleep Patterns

The sleep-wake cycle is controlled by a hormone known as melatonin. Located in the brain, the pineal gland is triggered by darkness to release melatonin into the bloodstream. The light from social media technology inhibits the production of melatonin, leading to poor sleep quality. Further, scrolling through Facebook or Instagram before bedtime stimulates the brain. It prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, as it drives to physiological and emotional arousal.

Low Self-esteem

People are impressionable. Low self-esteem is common in adults, teens, and children who feel self-conscious and inferior as they seek to fit in with peers or make a good first impression at work or school. Social media compounds those harmful emotions because its media is centered around creating a presence. A 2012 study conducted by The Center For Eating Disorders found that over 30% of Facebook users feel sad when comparing themselves to photos of their friends posted on social media. One can edit photos for their Facebook account, but when face-to-face in the world, that is not an option.

Cyberbullying

Bullying is not limited to face-to-face interaction. Cyberbullying is a type of bullying through electronic communication. The threatening behaviors conducted while cyberbullying include not only the sending of threatening messages like rumors, sexual threats, and derogatory remarks but the sharing of personal information and photos intended to cause humiliation. With constant access to social media, cyberbullying is difficult to avoid. The information shared is likely permanent, having a significant impact on the individual’s reputation. The stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and even suicide.

Aside from the mental health effects, studies show bullying decreases brain volume in the putamen and the caudate—two parts of the brain responsible for how memories are influenced future behavior.

Mental Health Disorders

Social media sites, particularly Facebook, have been associated with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and narcissistic personality. A variety of factors tie into the relation of psychiatric disorders and social media—bullying, a sense of inferiority, isolation. One study of teens and adolescents who visited social media platforms at least 58 times a week were found to be three times as more socially isolated because in-person interactions are made impersonal through social media. In a second study, 435 Utah college graduates reported feeling “life is not fair” after viewing Facebook posts of other users. The basic assumption that others are happier based solely on social media posts contributes to depression.

Social Media and the Brain: Childhood Development

A child’s brain is still developing. As a result, social media impacts them differently than an adult or adolescent. Childhood is the prime stage for developing brain architecture. This means the brain is growing new cells and connections necessary for cognition. More than a million neural connections are formed every second.

Interactions and experiences shape the developing brain—including social media. The frontal lobe of the brain is responsible for attention, inhibition, problem-solving, and memory. Social media particularly influences those functions. While their attention spans are quicker at multi-tasking due to social media, they take longer to complete single tasks. Their cognitive skills show a decline rather than following the normal developmental patterns.

Interestingly, a study of 9 and 10-year-old children by the National Institutes of Health found that the type of social media does matter. Children who primarily used Instagram and text messaging experienced positive effects from social media such as less conflict, increased physical activity, and strong social skills, but the children exposed to general media via the internet and television were prone to sleep disturbances and increased family conflict.

Social Media and the Brain: Teenagers and Adolescents

With an emphasis on a strong desire for peer connection, teenagers use social media more frequently than any other age group. The prefrontal cortex of a teenager is last to fully develop. Since that area controls motivation and reward, it explains why teenagers are infamous for impulsive behaviors. They seek instant gratification. Social media provides them with the instant gratification they crave because they are able to access socialization at any hour.

The teenage brain also responds to environmental stimuli more quickly, leaving them prone to mental illnesses often exacerbated by social media (i.e. depression, anxiety, and eating disorders). However, the likelihood of mental illness is dependent on how the teen uses social media. According to adolescent psychologist Paul Weigle, M.D., social media can actually increase self-esteem and the risk of mental illness such as depression is relatively low if the teen has a strong social support system. They use social media to engage positively with their peers. Contrarily, teenagers without a support system are at risk for mental illness because they are not actively engaged in positive social media posts.

References

Bekalu, M.A., McCloud, R.F., & Viswanath, K. (2019). Association of Social Media Use With Social Well-Being, Positive Mental Health, and Self-Rated Health: Disentangling Routine Use From Emotional Connection to Use. Health Education and Behavior, 46(2). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198119863768

Chou, H.T., & Edge, N. (2012). “They are happier and having better lives than I am”: the impact of using Facebook on perceptions of others’ lives. Cyberpsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, 15:117–121.

Lorenz-Spreen, P., Mønsted, B.M., & Hövel, P. et al. (2019). Accelerating dynamics of collective attention. Nat Commun 10, 1759. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09311-w

Talking to yourself: is it good for you?

Have you ever been caught absent-mindedly talking to yourself in public? It can be really embarrassing. Unless you have the quick wits to pretend that you’re wearing an ear-piece and talking to someone on the phone, people will probably assume that you’re crazy. But don’t worry, talking to yourself is quite normal. What’s more, it can even be good for you. Let’s take a look at some of the surprising benefits of self-talk

Is talking to yourself normal?

There is nothing strange about talking to yourself. It’s actually very common. We all do it, although most of the time, instead of saying things out loud, we talk to ourselves in our heads. 

There are two kinds of self-talk that people regularly engage in: internal and external self-talk. 

Internal self-talk refers to your internal monologue, your inner voice, which provides a constant flow of thought whenever you are awake. This type of self-talk is very healthy and plays an important role in organizing your thoughts, planning, consolidating memories and processing emotions. Our inner discourse – sometimes referred to metaphorically as a stream of consciousness – is vital because it improves our ability to control our actions and behavior. 

External self-talk, on the other hand, can be a vocal manifestation of this inner voice. When we talk to ourselves out loud, it’s usually because we’re experiencing an intense emotion like surprise, anger, sadness, nervousness, or heightened focus. This is what happens when you stub your toe and exclaim out loud even though no one else is around, or when you mutter under your breath before an important public speaking engagement.  

We also engage in self-talk when we’re facing a stressful decision, or trying to cope with difficult emotions. 

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Benefits of talking to yourself

Not only is talking to yourself perfectly normal, but it can also have a whole host of benefits. Research suggests that both inner speech and having a conversation with yourself out loud can have a positive effect on your cognitive performance.

Talking to ourselves isn’t just something that we do occasionally when we let our guard down – it actually plays an important role in human development. Children learn by repeating things they hear to themselves, and one study has shown that pre-schoolers do better on motor tasks when talking to themselves. (1)

 Here are some of the scientifically proven ways that self-talk can be beneficial for the brain

Talking to yourself boosts confidence

Feeling nervous about a test or an important meeting? Maybe you just need a motivational pep talk – from yourself. Talking to yourself has been linked to increased confidence – but only when it’s done in a specific way. 

In a compelling study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that it makes a difference what pronouns you use when talking to yourself in your head. (2)

Subjects were asked to participate in a public speaking challenge. When they referred to themselves in the second or third person during introspection, they experienced less anxiety attacks and performed better.

According to the researchers, this is because self-distancing – thinking about yourself as though you were someone else, from an observer’s point of view – increases self-regulation. When you change the language that you use to refer to yourself and move away from the egocentric, first-person point of view, you can look at your situation from a more objective, emotionally neutral place. This way, you are able to better control your thoughts, feelings and behavior, even in stressful situations. 

These findings are important because they confirm that motivational self-talk, if done right, can be an effective tool to boost confidence, personal growth and performance.

Can talking to yourself help you perform better at sports?

Motivational self-talk has been extensively studied in sports psychology. Research on the connection between sports performance and talking to yourself shows that self-talk can be intentionally used to focus attention, increase confidence, regulate effort, self-control emotions and ultimately enhance performance. (3)

Both overt and covert (external and internal) self-talk have been found to use similar brain structures, and they are thought to serve the same self-regulatory functions. 

Positive self-talk, in particular, appears to have benefits for sports performance (although it may not work for everyone, especially some people with low-self esteem). 

Self-talk is so powerful that it can have an impact on an athlete’s motor skills. A study conducted among basketball players with the aim of evaluating the effects of instructional and motivational self-talk on speed and accuracy found that participants who engaged in self-talk performed better at passing and shooting. (4)

So next time you take part in a sporting event, why not try to give yourself a verbal pat on the back? 

Talking to yourself improves control over goal-oriented tasks

In certain cases, saying something out loud works better than thinking the same thing to yourself. 

A study published in Acta Psychologica showed that verbal instructions improve control over goal-oriented tasks more than inner speech. (5) Participants were given a set of written instructions and asked to read them either silently or out loud. When the subjects read the instructions out loud, both their concentration and their performance improved. 

Much of this benefit appears to come from simply hearing oneself, as auditory commands seem to be better controllers of behaviour than written ones,” says Paloma Mari-Beffa, one of the study’s authors in an article published on The Conversation. (6)

Talking to yourself may seem strange, but as this study proves, it can help you focus on tasks and carry them out more efficiently

Talking to yourself improves search performance

So, if you were to deliberately use self-talk as a tool to focus your attention and make your brain work more efficiently, what else could you use it for?

Surprisingly, talking to yourself out loud can be very helpful when trying to find something, for example, your favorite shirt in a pile of other clothes or a specific fruit at the supermarket. As long as you can visualize what you’re looking for, saying the name of the object out loud may help you find it quicker. 

A study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology showed increased visual search performance when subjects said the name of the object they were searching for out loud. (7) 

The participants were asked to find a picture of a specific object (the target) – an airplane, a butterfly, an umbrella – among pictures of other objects (the distractors), and they were able to pinpoint it faster when they said the name of the object out loud. The researchers concluded that instructional self-talk appears to speed up cognitive processes and helps to improve search performance.

Talking to yourself: mental illness

In rare cases, talking to yourself may be associated with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. However, this type of self-talk is very different from the healthy internal or external speech that everyone experiences. 

What disorder causes someone to talk to themselves?

Schizophrenic auditory hallucinations cause patients to perceive their self-talk as if it were coming from an external source, from a different person. This may lead them to engage in conversations with people who are not there. In reality, they are talking to the voices inside their heads. This is a sign of a very serious mental disorder that requires medical treatment. 

Mindfulness and talking to yourself

Positive thinking and positive self-talk are often associated with mindfulness, the psychological process of bringing awareness to our thoughts and focusing on the present moment through techniques such as meditation. 

Mindfulness coaches often hail positive self-talk as the key to reducing stress. (8)

According to them, paying attention to your inner monologue can help you discern forms of negative self-talk, such as magnifying the negative aspects of a situation, blaming yourself for things you can’t control, anticipating the worst and seeing everything as either good or bad, with no middle ground. These negative thought patterns may lead to unnecessary stress. 

On the other hand, practicing positive self-talk and gratefulness may lead to better psychological wellbeing.

So is it OK to talk to yourself out loud?

Talking to yourself out loud is perfectly fine. You may get a few glances from strangers, but the truth is, it can help you rev up your brain and give your confidence a boost.

As we’ve seen above, there’s research to suggest that the language you use to speak to yourself in your head can influence your feelings, your behavior and your anxiety levels. Saying things out loud can help you perform better at certain tasks, like finding what you’re looking for in an assortment of objects. For athletes, self-directed verbal cues are especially beneficial, as they can boost sports performance. 

So, if you want to reap the cognitive benefits, don’t shy away from talking to yourself. 

References

https://www.sciencedaily.com/
https://www.doi.org/
https://oxfordre.com/
https://theconversation.com/
https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/

(1) George Mason University (2008, March 29). Preschool Kids Do Better When They Talk To Themselves, Research Shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 9, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080328124554.htm
(2) Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., Bremner, R., Moser, J., & Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 304–324. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035173
(3) Judy L. Van Raalte, Andrew Vincent (2017). Self-Talk in Sport and Performance. Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Retrieved March 9, 2020 from https://oxfordre.com/psychology/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.001.0001/acrefore-9780190236557-e-157
(4) Shahzad Tahmasebi, Boroujeni Mehdi Shahbazi (2011). The Effect of Instructional and Motivational Self-Talk on Performance of Basketball’s Motor Skill. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 15, 3113-3117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.04.255
(5) Alexander James Kirkham, Julian Michael Breeze, Paloma Marί-Beffa (2012). The impact of verbal instructions on goal-directed behaviour. Acta Psychologica, 139(1), 212-219. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2011.09.016
(6) Paloma Marί-Beffa (2017, May 3). Is talking to yourself a sign of mental illness? An expert delivers her verdict. The Conversation. Retrieved March 9, 2020 from https://theconversation.com/is-talking-to-yourself-a-sign-of-mental-illness-an-expert-delivers-her-verdict-77058
(7) Gary Lupyan, Daniel Swingley (2011). Self-directed speech affects visual search performance. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(6), 1068-1085. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2011.647039
(8) Dana Sparks (2018, September 26). Mayo Mindfulness: Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress. Mayo Clinic News Network. Retrieved March 9, 2020 from https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-mindfulness-stop-negative-self-talk-to-reduce-stress/