Category Archives: Brain Health

Information, news, useful articles about brain health. Different professionals propose advice, tricks, and recommendations that may help keep your brain balanced

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.     

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.

Learn more about brain health:

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.

Learn more facts about the brain:

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.

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

If you or someone you know are interested in learning about your brain health, check out our cognitive assessments and brain training here.

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.

If you want to test your cognitive abilities, try CogniFit’s brain training programs!

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.

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

Consciousness: Find out about a variety of mental states

Consciousness is a highly contested subject within a variety of different fields, so it’s no surprise that there are multiple accepted definitions. Some consider consciousness as one simply being awake and aware of their surroundings, while others consider it an individualized awareness of one’s own, unique mind. Depending on the context it’s being used in, it can range from being limited to internal volition and introspection, to including all types of experiences and perceptions. It’s also hard to separate consciousness into respective types or forms, because consciousness is used in describing such a large variety of mental states, and the interdisciplinary debate has yet to reach any conclusion.

In psychology, Sigmund Freud is regarded highly in academia for his base theory of divided human consciousness, where it separates into three levels of awareness: the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious.

  • The conscious level consists of what we are aware of, our internal understanding of ourselves and our external understanding of our surroundings.
  • The preconscious consists of things that are below of threshold of immediate conscious awareness but are able to focus in on at our own will.
  • The unconscious consists of things that are outside of all conscious awareness and are unable to be achieved. The unconscious is typically concerned with memories, thoughts, and urges that we repress, but still influence our behavior outside of our own understanding. The preconscious is considered unconscious when it is not being recalled, but it differs with the unconscious because it can be easily retrieved and understood. 

Altered States of Consciousness 

Now more than ever, mindfulness practices are becoming staples in peoples’ wellness routines. Mindfulness as a concept is rooted in Buddhist meditative practices and includes maintaining full awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings with full acceptance. The goal is to be fully immersed in the present moment and separated from thoughts related to the past or the future. In addition to its use in meditation, mindfulness is often used therapeutically, in order to confront latent emotions without judging oneself for them. Mindfulness is often achieved through practice in relaxed environments, breathing techniques, and sensory exercises. 

Metacognition, also known as “cognition about cognition”, “thinking about thinking”, or “awareness of one’s awareness” is known as a higher-order cognitive function. Metacognitive behaviors are used most commonly by those in school and higher academia as a tool to revise and understand their own learning behaviors. It is divided into two types: metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive regulation. Metacognitive knowledge includes what learners know about their own preferred styles of learning, methods available for said learning, and the subjective ability to determine how best to approach a task. Metacognitive regulation involves planning, monitoring, evaluating, and reflecting upon a certain task. Those utilizing metacognitive regulation are able to recognize the task at hand, how it should be deliberately approached, and whether or not changes need to be made to optimize learning efficiency.

Many people report achieving spiritual awakenings or enlightenment, whether by religious practices, such as meditation and/or prayer, drug use, such as high doses of a psychoactive substance, or peak life experiences, such as a close brush with death or a thrilling rock climb. This is typically described as opening up one’s conscious awareness beyond the confines of their subjective reality, or their ego, and becoming aware of a higher sense of self. Humans are always driven by some sort of egoistic desire, whether it be hunger, thirst, success, self-confidence, etc… The mark of this higher state of being is that one is no longer driven by these basic human instincts but are instead able to simply exist. 

Freud, in conjunction with his consciousness studies, posits that the human psyche is divided into three essential components: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is primitive and instinctive and includes biological aspects, like libido and the need to eat, and is selfish and irrational in fulfilling their needs. Babies are said to be born with only their id, and the ego and superego are said to develop later on. The ego is developed to mediate the irrational requests of the id and reality.

The ego is rational, working out the objectively reasonable and unselfish way, willing to compromise to avoid societal consequences; however, is still concerned with pleasure-seeking. The superego incorporates values learned directly from one’s parents of society. Instead of simply realistic, the superego strives to become moralistic in goal setting. The superego exists between two stages: conscience and ideal self. The conscience encourages us, through guilt and other methods, to achieve our ideal self, or the version of self that meets our ultimate goal. When the ego dissipates, there is no concern outside of being, and letting the rest work itself out. 

Deep and dreamless sleep is considered an unconscious state, but the dream world opens an entirely new conscious reality, separate from any kind of wakeful consciousness. For the most part, we cannot control our dreams, but we are not entirely passive within them; we are most often the main actors. The idea of dreams contributes new evidence to resolve the mind-body problem since the brain initiates consciousness in the absence of any other external stimuli. Scientists are still looking to fully answer the question of how and why the brain creates dreams, aside from its strong association with REM sleep and contributions from the audiovisual region within the junction between the parietal and occipital lobe. 

We do know that there a variety of different dream states, however. Lucid dreaming, for example, is where one can control their dreams and have a conscious awareness that they are, in fact, in a dream. Essentially, the mind is awake when the body is asleep while in REM sleep, and while it can be accidental, it is oftentimes purposefully induced to meditate or practice mindfulness. An extension of this is a phenomenon called astral projection, an esoteric, intentional out-of-body experiences wherein users claim their consciousness is separated from their physical body and capable of traveling on its own. However, there are minimal scientific studies that prove the existence of astral projection as an objective experience, out of body, consciousness separating experiences are known to be induced by dissociative and psychoactive drugs, deliberate spiritual practice and suspension of belief, sensory deprivation, and more.

Disordered States of Consciousness 

Following severe brain injuries, such as those following a vegetative state or coma, it is common for people in healing to have a slow recovery of consciousness, and this period is known as being in a minimally conscious state. They are inconsistent in their abilities to be self-aware and aware of the world around them. It is common for these people to falter when trying to follow simple instructions, can only sometimes speak in a manner that is understandable, and change in their ability to focus on a specific thing for a sustained period of time. Since these actions are so inconsistent, it can be hard to distinguish a minimally conscious person from a vegetative person.

The main difference is that the vegetative person has no level of conscious awareness, while the minimally conscious person can fluctuate between not having conscious awareness and having some level. Further along in the recovery process than a minimally conscious person, is a person in a confusional state. They are much more adept in paying attention, recalling memories, and following instructions. However, it is common for them to regularly become disoriented, hallucinate or become delusional, and experience severely impaired responsiveness and cognition. From this state, it is extremely likely that the person will make a full recovery and one day achieve normal levels of consciousness.

Dissociative disorders are the involuntary disconnection between one’s identity, memory, and consciousness. There are multiple different types of dissociative disorders, most commonly considered as dissociative identity disorder (DID), depersonalization and derealization, and dissociative amnesia and/or dissociative fugue. DID is characterized by a person that has a lack of connection between their consciousness and true identity, which often results as the person appearing as though they take on different personalities. It is most likely caused by severe, repetitive physical, sexual, or emotional trauma in early childhood. In rare cases, certain dissociated states can be concurrently conscious and understand themselves as distinct identity. Some philosophers theorize that evidence of operationally different, yet concurrent consciousness experiences in the brain, suggests a universal consciousness that gives rise to these dissociated personalities. However, it is most common for the alternate states to exist entirely separated from the primary consciousness that exists in accord with the body. 

Depersonalization disorder is characterized by periods of feeling disconnected from or foreign to one’s body or thoughts. It is frequently described as feeling like you are an outside observer to your own body, and the distorted consciousness state is often referred to as being dreamlike. Derealization is a feeling that one’s perception of reality is false, and a fear that their external reality is fabricated by their own mind.  Derealization is similar to depersonalization in that there is a detached consciousness, but in derealization, the idea is that one’s bodily-influenced consciousness is deceiving them, and depersonalization is more thought of like the disconnect of one’s body and mind. Both depersonalization and derealization are often brought on by heavy substance abuse, more severe personality disorders, seizure disorders, and trauma.

Dissociative amnesia results in an inability to recall important information. It is different from basic memory loss, since it includes gaps in memory for extended periods of time and often erase memories associated with the traumatic event, and it is not typical amnesia, since it does not result from any physical brain injury or disease, but rather, the result of a deeply repressed traumatic event. Dissociative fugue is extreme dissociative amnesia, where a person completely loses their sense of identity and all past memories. These people may wander aimlessly away from their homes, or even take on a new identity, with no recollection of their previous one. This, like many other dissociative disorders, is linked to severe stress and/or prolonged trauma. 

Theories & Research

The Ancient Mayans are credited as being some of the first groups to formulate some form of hierarchical consciousness structure. Understanding consciousness incorporates both internal and external stimuli, they regarded it as the most basic form of existence. In the 17th century, John Locke was one of the first philosophers to begin to ponder the mystifying world of consciousness. He was the first to say that our identity is tied to our consciousness, but it is not tied to our physical bodies and can sustain once the physical body dies. Rene Descartes, another 17th-century philosopher, hypothesized Cartesian dualism, or the idea that the mind and body exist in different domains. 

Modern-day psychologists have evolved a lot, but not without expounding upon, as well as criticizing these past theories. Development psychologists see consciousness as exactly that: a developmental process with the potential for reaching higher levels. Social psychologists view consciousness as a product cultural influence, and not something that is necessarily intrinsic to an individual. 

Neuropsychologists see consciousness as being highly ingrained in our neural pathways and structures. They believe there is a correlation to be found through subjective experiences as reported by an individual, and brain activity. There is not a definitive neural correlates for consciousness states, but rather, it is possible that all subjective and perpetually changing states of consciousness have specific neural correlates. While this may seem impossible to derive useful data from, neuropsychologists believe that inducing activity in particular regions and/or networks will allow them to find common causes among these different correlates. Neurobiology takes a different approach, evaluating the body in greater detail than the mind, considering neural results of consciousness as the cause of certain bodily responses, where consciousness is regarded as a state-dependent portion of a different biological system. 

Brain imaging has also been a recent tool in consciousness studies. Researchers believe that different patterns in brain waves, recorded by an electroencephalograph (EEG) could indicate the production of different states of consciousness. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI scans) are also commonly used to measure physical activity in the brain, and how this activity may correlate with various consciousness states.

Additionally, there are multiple areas of the brain implicated in consciousness, the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe being the primary candidates for more in-depth study. The prefrontal cortex is considered pertinent in triggering visual awareness throughout other areas of the brain, and the temporal lobe is essential in auditory processing, object and facial recognition, and the ability to utilize language. Damage to the prefrontal cortex can lessen one’s capacity of compassion, guilt, and other social emotions, which is a massive component of consciousness. Damage to the temporal lobe can result is a disturbance in auditory, visual, and language perception, comprehension, and output, as well as a disturbance in selective attention abilities.

Brain Training: Discover the Benefits of Brain Exercises

Much has been said about physical exercise and the multiple benefits it to your body. However, what about brain exercises? Do we really know what benefits you can get from brain games? Discover what brain training is about and how cognitive stimulation can benefit us throughout our lives.

What is cognitive stimulation and how does it work?

Brain gym and cognitive rehabilitation are synonyms to refer to cognitive stimulation techniques. However, what is brain stimulation?

Cognitive stimulations are actions and activities where the main objective is to improve or maintain brain functions. It is about carrying out different exercises aimed at stimulating cognitive abilities such as attention, memory, language, executive functions, visuospatial functions, perception, etc.

When the brain is not stimulated it tends to get weaker and weaker. Our neurons which are responsible for receiving, processing and transmitting information through chemical signals, are the main engine of our brain. Therefore, when we exercise our brain, what we do is stimulate our neurons so that they regenerate, both anatomically and functionally, and form new connections.

At a scientific level, it has been shown that brain training regularly stimulates brain plasticity. Even if we don’t realize it, in our daily actions whether it’s reading a book, driving to work or cooking we exercise our neurons. However, our brain tends to stimulate the parts that it uses most but we stop stimulating very important parts. That’s why it’s important to do a proper brain training to train all the functions.

In order for brain training to be more effective, it must be adapted to the person who is doing it and look for the ideal moment when the brain is at its maximum level of activity.

To understand well what brain training and cognitive stimulation are about, we must learn and understand concepts such as brain plasticity.

Broadly speaking, according to recent research we can say that brain plasticity (or neuroplasticity) is “the ability of the nervous system to change its structure and functioning throughout its life, as a reaction to the diversity in the environment”.

In other words, brain plasticity allows the brain to adapt to new situations or even sometimes recover after suffering injuries or certain pathologies. In this way, brain training and cognitive stimulation aim to help the brain generate new connections between neurons thus promoting greater brain plasticity.

Brain Training

Brain training can (and should) be performed by everyone. Children in an early intervention during the first years of life, or adults when enhancing the skills required in different jobs, everyone can benefit. In people with cognitive impairments, cognitive stimulation is essential for the deterioration to be slower even though unfortunately, the impairment is irreversible.

People tend to associate cognitive stimulation only for people who have some alteration. It is true that cognitive stimulation is the most supported non-pharmacological intervention applied to people with mild cognitive impairment, mild dementia or even normal aging.

Brain Training- Neuroplasticity

Cognitive stimulation and brain training not only work on cognitive processes but they are perfect for anyone, with or without pathologies.

Brain Training for Children and Teenagers

The brain continues to develop since we are born. Childhood and adolescence are especially critical stages as they form brain crisis periods where the brain undergoes drastic changes. There are many differences between a brain and an adult brain.

Brain plasticity appears every time we learn something new, and it stays that way throughout life. Our brain is prepared to learn over the years, but we have to exercise it.

Neuroeducation or brain-based technology is now part of education. Brain training helps children relax and concentrate. Teachers can use puzzles, reading, crossword puzzles, etc.

Brain training results are visible in children over time. They understand reading better and solve problems and exercise better than children who have not trained. These children tend to develop their creativity and have better study habits which give them a better quality of life.

Among the most relevant cognitive abilities to train in children are planning, working memory, cognitive flexibility, reasoning and creativity among others.

Brain Stimulation in Healthy Adults

If we want our brains to age in a healthy way, we must stay active both physically and mentally.

Wanting is power and neuroscience is helping a lot. When we talk about staying mentally active, we think of spending hours and hours doing additions, subtractions, math problems… Wrong! It is clear that activities like these can help stimulate mental capacities but they are not the only ones, nor are they the best way to activate your brain.

There are traditional board games (cards, bingo, etc.), question and answer games and even digital leisure games (video games) that can bring us benefits. Discover brain games that can help train your mind.

Brain training traditional Games

Traditional games can bring us benefits such as:

  • Social interactions. They are extremely important for brain development and reduce loneliness.
  • Moods improve and motivation and self-esteem increase.
  • It increases self-efficacy, increases levels of satisfaction and coping capacity in stressful situations.
  • Exercising cognitive skills enhances sensory perception and improves the maintenance of healthy habits

the other hand, some video games can improve people’s executive processes.

Some researchers have wondered whether video games benefit brain functions that deteriorate over time and after several studies, they concluded that video games such as “Rise of Nations” improve cognitive abilities.

Brain training with video games

This particular video game (“Rise of Nations”) consists of “conquering the world” by building cities, expanding territories, maintaining armies and caring for citizens. Among the most significant cognitive improvements that have been found in Kramer’s team study are processing speed, updating, shifting, reasoning, spatial memory, etc

There are also pages where you can carry out personalized brain training.

By regular brain training, over time we retain more information and faster. The trick is to perform different activities to relax your mind and get better results.

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For example: When Einstein was exhausted he would play the violin to clear his head, thus solving his mathematical problems better. Apply it to yourself!

Among the benefits of cognitive stimulation in healthy adults we find:

  • Increased brain function.
  • Prevention of cognitive deficits.
  • Better brain plasticity and greater potential therefore, you will be more skillful.

Brain Training in Adults with Brain Injury

In people with some kind of impairment, cognitive stimulation is essential. It is the main non-pharmacological treatment used in cognitive impairment and dementias to slow evolution and preserve abilities.

  • Benefits of cognitive stimulation in adults with some impairment are:
  • Keep non-altered cognitive functions healthy.
  • Improve brain plasticity.
  • Increase in the quality of life and delay in the evolution of the disease.
  • The activities must always be adapted to the person and their degree of deterioration.

Some activities that can be carried out in adults with any type of brain injury, deterioration or dementia are:

  • Attention exercises: Counting
  • Language exercises: Ordering letters to form words, crosswords, word searches, completing words, etc.
  • Mobility exercises: You can use everyday tasks to make the person feel entertained and motivated.
  • Time estimation exercises: Keeping a calendar, a clock or anything that they can have as a reference.
  • Number exercises: Math problems, additions, subtractions, etc.
  • Creativity exercises: Drawings can be used to encourage people’s creativity and motivation.
  • Reading exercises: Newspapers, books, magazines adapted to the person’s tastes.

Just as we take care of our bodies, we must remember that it is important to take care of our brain. Brain training is a great resource for strengthening our mental abilities. Remember that it is never too late to train your brain.

And what do you do to train your brain? ????

Cognitive Development: A Complex Process

The process a child makes between making little sounds to talking, from crying at everything to maturing is incredible. That process is known as cognitive development. What is cognitive development? What are the four big stages of cognitive development? What are the theories of cognitive development? What are the cultural influences and history of cognitive development? What are some tips to help parents with cognitive development during different stages of development?

Cognitive Development

What is cognitive development?

Cognitive development, also known as intellectual development, is defined as the construction of thought processes- this includes decision making, memory, and problem-solving, throughout life from childhood to adulthood. Cognitive development is the topic of scientific study of fields such as psychology and neuroscience. It focuses on one’s cognitive development throughout the growth process. For example, it takes a specific look at language learning, information processing, perceptual skills, and conceptual resources to other processes that develop more in an adult brain. Another example could be that how a child wakes up and the process of waking up for a child is different than that of an adult.

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What are the 4 big stages of cognitive development?

Sensorimotor: Birth – 18-24 months.

The sensorimotor stage is the stage that lasts from birth to two-years-old. In this stage, behaviors don’t have logic or make sense. For example, crying because a child can’t find their blanket. The behaviors move gradually from acting upon the inherited reflexes and behaviors to interacting with the surrounding environment more reasonably. The sensorimotor stage is commonly broken down into six mini-stages depending on the child’s age.

Cognitive Development

Birth to one-month-old: everybody is born with innate and inherited reflexes that they use to gain understanding and knowledge about their surroundings. For instance, sucking and grasping.

Between one and four-months-old: Children repeat behaviors that happen due to their reflexes. For example, their reflex is to grasp the raddle and then they simply repeat that gesture. Children try to create schemes, groups of similar actions or thoughts, to create assimilation and accommodation to adapt better to the world around them.

  • Assimilation means when a child responds to a new situation in a way that is already consistent with an existing scheme. For instance, when a child gets a new toy such as a teddy bear, they often suck or put the toy in their mouths. Sucking is an existing scheme that the child is applying to the new situation of having a teddy bear
  • means when a child modifies, changes, or creates an entirely new scheme to deal with a new situation. For instance, an infant opens its mouth wider than usual to make way to the paw of the teddy bear.

Between five and eight-months-old:- When a child has with external stimuli that they find pleasurable, they naturally try to reenact and recreate that experience. For example, when a child hits the mobile above them and it spins or makes noise, that’s pleasurable to the child and they repeat the action because the result is fun. This is the point in which habits are formed from general schemes. However, at this stage, children still can’t focus on multiple things at once.

From eight to twelve-months-old-: Behaviors happen for a reason rather than by chance. A child can begin to understand that an action causes a reaction. The child can also begin to understand object permanence. That is to say, if a baby is playing with a raddle and you put a blanket on top of the raddle, the baby begins to understand that the raddle is still there, under the blanket, rather than thinking the raddle completely disappeared.

From one-year-old to eighteen-months-old- At the stage, actions happen deliberately with a slight variation. For instance, a baby can drum on a pot of object with a wooden spoon but also drum on the table or on the floor.

From eighteen-months-old to two-years-old- children begin to pretend play and construct mental symbols. For example, a child is mixing together some ingredients but they lack a spoon. They find something else to use as a makeshift spoon. Infants begin to act with intelligence rather than habit.

Preoperational: Toddlers (18-24 months) -early childhood (age 7)

The preoperational stage begins once a child gains the mental ability to grasp reality and lasts from age 2 until ages 6 or 7. There are two ways to characterize this stage according to Piaget. In his earlier works, he described a child’s thought process in this stage as having egocentrism, animism, and the like in charge and governing the child. In other words, the child, being egocentric, acts in his own favor or sees a situation only in their point of view and doesn’t understand the perceptions of others. The child, being animistic, believes that inanimate objects are lifelike with human emotions, intentions, and thoughts which is why children love playing with dolls and adults often don’t. Children also often use symbols in this stage which can be seen when they play and pretend.  

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Concrete operational. Ages 7 to 12.

The Concrete Operational Stage lasts from ages 6/7 to ages 12/13 depending on the child. Within this stage, a child’s cognitive ambition is characterized by reality. According to Piaget, it’s the same principle that can actually be used to discern many behaviors. Another big achievement cognitively in this stage is conservation. For example, a child looks at two beakers filled with the same amount of liquid, but one beaker is shorter than the other. A child in the preoperational stage could probably say that the taller beaker has more liquid, but the concrete operational child could say that both beakers contain the same amount of liquid. The ability to reason also begins to develop in this stage because of the principle of conservation.

 Formal operational. Adolescence through adulthood.

In the Formal Operational Stage, which lasts from age 12/13 until adulthood, is when people advance from logical reasoning with concrete examples to logical reasoning with abstract examples. Young adults tend to view themselves more in the future rather than the “here and now”. Some scientists believe that this stage can be further broken down into the early formal operational stage in which thoughts are fantasies or the late formal operational stage in which life experiences change how realistic those fantasy thoughts are.

Theories of cognitive development

Piaget’s Theory

The founder of Piaget’s Theory, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) thought that people go through different stages of development that allowed them to think in more and new complex ways. These stages include the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the Formal Operational Stage. There is some criticism for Piaget’s theory many that his theory has fallen out of favor. For instance, Piaget said that a young child cannot conserve numbers. However, many parents know and many experiments have proven otherwise. Furthermore, Piaget’s stages end in young adulthood whereas there are further stages of adult cognitive development given by other scientists in the field such as Robert Kegan.

Neo-Piagetian theories

There are, of course, non-Piagetian theories concerning cognitive development which emphasize the roles of information processing systems and mechanisms such as the working memory and attention control. These scientists suggest that the Piagetian stages work more a strengthening of control mechanisms and amplifying the storage capacity of the working memory.

Core Systems of Cognition

There are several skills that are involved in and are necessary to the cognitive development of a brain. Empiricists study how these “advanced” skills are learned in such a little amount of time. There is a debate that they are learned either by domain-specific cognition or general cognition learning devices. These researchers have set a number of “core domains” that suggest children have an innate ability to develop these.

  • Space. Young children can have navigation skills. There is evidence that these navigation and directional skills are connected to language development skills between 3 and 5 years old.
  • Numbers. Infants have been shown to have two different mechanisms to confront numbers. One deals with the larger numbers in a more approximate way while the other system deals with smaller numbers, known as subitizing.
  • Essentialism. Young children think of animals, plants, and other biological entities in an essentialistic way. They expect these things to have certain traits which gives them a certain “essence”.
  • Language Acquisition. A widely studied field, the traditional way to view it is that language is developed due to the deterministic, human-only genetic make-up and processes. The other theories believe that social interaction and experience is what helps us develop language.
  • Visual Perception. There is evidence that a child who is only 72 hours old has a depth perception for complex things such as biological motion. However, the evidence isn’t clear as to whether the visual experience within the first 72 hours contributes to this ability to whether it’s already developed when the baby leaves the womb.

Whoft’s Hypothesis

Benjamin Whoft, who lived from 1897 until 1941, thought that a person’s thinking depended on the content and structure of their language. That is to say, Whoft hypothesized that language determines how we think and perceive things. For instance, it’s thought that the Egyptians who wrote right to left thought quite differently than the Greeks who wrote left to right even though the countries are not far from each other in geographical location. Whorf’s belief was so strict that he thought that if a word didn’t exist in a language, then that person had no idea of that object’s existence. This theory went so far as to play a role in Goerge Orwell’s famous book, Animal Farm when the pig leaders eliminated words from the citizen’s vocabulary in order to render them incapable of realizing what the citizens were missing. The criticism is that people can still be aware of a concept or object even if they don’t have the vocabulary to describe it.

Quine’s hypothesis

Willard Van Orman Quine, who lived from 1908 to 2000, believed that there are biases that are innate and conceptual which enable language acquisition, beliefs, and concepts. His theory goes by nativist philosophical traditions which other philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, also went by.

Cultural Influences of cognitive development

Cognitive Development

Culture shapes and changes everything including perspective, thoughts, and more. Culture can influence so far as to have an effect on brain structure which then influences our interpretation of culture. There is research that has previously shown that one’s level of independence differs on cultural context. For instance and in general, Eastern Asia cultures are more interdependent compared to Western cultures which are more independent generally. Another study compared the brain of Japanese-English bilingual to American-English monolingual brains and responses in children while the child tried to understand another’s intention through cartoon tasks and false-belief stories. The study found universal activation in the bilateral region of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The study concluded with the suggestion that the brain’s neural activities are culturally independent, not universal.

Tips on cognitive development

  • Sing songs and encourage the child to sing with you. This helps to create associations between images and words as well as promotes memory development.
  • Use the Alphabet Game. This involves cutting out alphabet pieces and taping them throughout the house. Have the child search for the alphabet pieces in order. Have them then tape up the alphabet while singing the song to associate image and word identification.
  • Shape Practice is using colorful, fun, or ball games which can help your child manipulate shares such as puzzles or playing with Legos.
  • Noise Identification helps teach a child to distinguish and identify sounds throughout the world- which differ greatly. It could be a tap running, birds singing, owl cooing, or a dishwasher grinding. Ask the child to identify which noise is what and then to relate them to actions in their daily environment.
  • The decision Game is all about making decisions. Ask the child if they prefer a burger or pizza for dinner; the brown sweater or green coat. By giving the child choices and enabling them to make decisions, they will feel more independent and this will facilitate their overall cognitive development as they grow.

History of cognitive development

The history of cognitive development goes a little something like this… Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, wrote On Education in 1762. Within the writing, he discusses childhood development as being three different stages. In the first stage, which goes from 0 to age 12, a child is guided by their impulses and emotions naturally. The second stage, which lasts from age 12 until age 15, is when the child’s reason begins to develop. Afterword, in stage three, which is from age 15 and up, a child begins to develop into an adult.

After Rousseau came along James Sully, an English psychologist, who wrote numerous books on childhood development. Two of these books, The Studies of Childhood and Children’s Way from 1897 used actual detailed studies he did himself.

After Sully comes Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist, came up with a theory known as “the zone of proximal development”, also known as ZPD, which says that a child’s main activity should be to play in order to develop their emotions and cognitive development.

After Vygotsky, Maria Montessori had her fundamental research published in her book, The Discovery of the Child in 1946. She discusses the Four Planes of Development: from birth to age 6, 6-12, 12-18, and 18-24. She developed the Montessori Method to help teach in each cognitive developmental stage.

After Montessori, Jean Piaget came along and tried to be the most successful in cognitive development. Piaget was the first psychologist to make a name for the scientific field of cognitive development. His biggest contribution to the field of study was his stage theory of child cognitive development. Sadly, he died in 1980.

Lawrence Kohlberg, who died shortly after Piaget, wrote the stages of moral development which took a look at Piaget’s findings and incorporated Kohlberg’s ideas, too. His notable works were Moral Stages and Moralization: The Cognitive-Development Approach (1976) and Essays on Moral Development (1981).

Let us know what you think in the comments below!

Cognitive Trauma: What you need to know

Cognitive trauma in relation to brain impairment is not something that is greatly known, due to its diminishing characteristics that create deep-rooted effects. However, in recent years there has been more and more research conducted that indeed reveals insight into this neuropsychological dilemma. This article, in particular, will outline the whole idea revolving around cognitive trauma in neuropsychology, what is cognitive trauma, effects of cognitive trauma, problems derived from cognitive trauma, tips on dealing with cognitive trauma.

Introduction to Cognitive Trauma

Cognitive Trauma: Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)

What is a Traumatic Brain Injury?

The neuropsychology field turns to be flooded with cognitive development in regards to traumatic brain injuries. As stated in the Cambridge University Press, “well-recovered individuals who had sustained a minor trauma more than half a decade ago continue to have long-term cognitive sequelae relevant for everyday social and professional life” (Konrad et al, 2011, p. 1197). Such concealed, and yet evident findings into cognitive trauma and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) help gain insight from various doctors and in return use it as a primary source to represent the development across the field. On the other hand, many doctors find the information revolving around cognitive trauma conditions to be minimal. As sometimes the determination of whether or not permanent brain withdrawal is present can be unsubstantial.

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There is a rising occurrence of TBI’s and cognitive trauma in military personnel, and they are also becoming more prominent in the war zone and terrorist attack victims too (Risdall & Menon, 2011). Traumatic brain injuries, in particular, are something that happens due to direct contact with the head, often causing some type of cognitive trauma. For instance, something such as an accident or explosion could result in a blow to the head developing the potential for cognitive trauma in an individual. This is particularly prevalent in military personnel within war zones due to the constant turmoil and upheaval occurring around them. However, it’s the symptoms that follow a TBI that can be particularly uncomfortable and challenging. When faced with this adversity certain things such as cognitive trauma conditions can start to play a part. The big question that many people often want to know now is whether traumatic brain injuries can directly cause cognitive trauma conditions? Without the slightest doubt, cognitive trauma conditions are quite prevalent in some cases specifically in military war conditions. “TBI is rarely an isolated finding in this setting, and persistent post-concussive symptoms are commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain, a constellation of findings that have been called the polytrauma clinical triad” (Risdall & Menon, 2011, p. 241).

Cognitive Trauma: Effects of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)

First and foremost, after a TBI instance occurs an individual needs to be checked out immediately by an appropriate professional health care provider to determine the course of treatment. This is something that many patients are unaware of, as a TBI requires additional treatment after the incident that most likely will be needed for the remainder of the patient’s lifetime. The typical approach for treatment post TBI involves a bold approach of ICP monitoring for serious cases, where it scientifically increases the overall result of recovery and diminishment of overall cognitive trauma (Stein, Georgoff, Meghan, Mirza & El Falaky, 2010). A brain injury and cognitive trauma coinciding is something that can really impact an individual for the rest of their life. Between managing the symptoms and dealing with treatment and recovery it can be a hard feat. Managing symptoms is a big task alongside treatment, which can become overwhelming with the numerous courses of rehabilitation. Yet, it’s the alternative treatments that are limited and need to be expanded upon through research. As research into new treatment methods can help provide more sound reasoning into the appropriate ways certain methods can make a difference in cognitive trauma and TBI’s.

Cognitive Trauma: Problems after Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)

The most prevalent problems associated with cognitive trauma and TBI consist of:

When an individual experiences a TBI there can often be cognitive problems that arise as a result, due to the injury. Initially one must understand what cognition is in order to explore further, cognition is often described as the thought of knowing. The different types of cognition that will be explored are areas such as, info processing, communication, reasoning, concentration, memory, and control.

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It is important to keep in mind that there are many different aspects of cognition, but for the sake of how TBI’s can affect cognition these will be specifically addressed. When an individual has a TBI it is often the after effects that cause the most issues, this is where info processing takes a hit. Following a TBI one’s potential to process something decreases substantially influencing reaction time and other similar avenues. Communication is another dilemma that is faced for victims of TBI’s creating adversity with all things in connection to asserting and comprehending the material.

On top of these two issues is also the halt in concentration making the need to focus a thing of the past. Control and reasoning are another plaguing problems often going hand in hand with one another. Where brash choices are made often due to the lack of being able to identify issues in the first place. It is important to note that not all these problems will occur for every individual that presents with a TBI. Nonetheless, when issues arise it is key to report them to a health care professional to ensure the appropriate treatment measures.

Cognitive Trauma: Current Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Studies

The research that has been done on cognitive trauma relating to TBI’s is relatively sparse and has left a great amount of room for improvement. Initially, a large amount of research that has already been conducted focuses more on cells and sham control for treatment on one end or MRI evaluation on the other.

There was a study conducted by a handful of doctors on cell study in TBI patients properly examined intracerebral effects while also delving into the intravenous application of bone marrow stromal cells (MSCs) with endogenous cellular proliferation following a TBI (Mahmood, Lu & Chopp, 2004). Following, the results that have been discovered are not always conclusive and tend to create some conflicting ideas. It was discovered that that through the proper study of rats this treatment of TBI proved to be successful. Successive TBI in rat subjects established that intracerebral and intravenous MSC dispensation improves endogenous cellular proliferation (Mahmood, Lu & Chopp, 2004, p. 1185).

However, other types of research done found that the results are not an immediate reaction but something that occurs only with the duration of time. In a six month investigative cycle, there was no instantaneous or slowed harmfulness affiliated with cell application. Additionally, not all studies deal with human patients, which makes for insufficient discoveries. Due to the fact that most of the studies conducted have for the most part been done on rat subjects and not all on human subjects, which creates room for error. Lastly, not all aspects of the matter regarding cell study in regards to TBI and cognitive trauma have been fully analyzed.

Cognitive Trauma: The incidence of Cognitive Trauma and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)

The overall incidence of cognitive trauma and TBI is only multiplying year after year (Dulac, Lassonde & Sarnat, 2013,p. 891). As behavioral limitations evolve it creates something that all individuals suffering from TBI’s and cognitive trauma misjudge. People that have TBI or cognitive trauma at first don’t always evaluate their situation entirely which creates instances where social situations involving emotions and interactions are turned for a loop. The main cause of this particular issue is due to the alterations that have occurred in “hippocampal, prefrontal cortical, and limbic region function because of alterations in synaptogenesis, dendritic remodeling, and neurogenesis” (Kaplan, Vasterling & Vedak, 2010, p. 427). After a brain injury has occurred various behavioral disorders such as self-awareness become quite prominent. If the frontal lobes of the brain are the source of the TBI a relation between behavioral changes is usually relevant.

Cognitive Trauma: Necessary Development of Research

The various accounts of information that were the result of studies conducted provided some very good insight into the matter. Such concealed, and yet evident findings in traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and also cognitive trauma help gain insight from various doctors and in return use it as a primary source to represent the development across the field. Contrary to all the information that was a gained, the way that individual deals with the instance of a TBI or cognitive trauma are going to be different for each individual.

This research and more and more research adventures down the road are going to open new doors into this field and create a whole new amount of knowledge. Disappointing conclusions are due to the absence of accurate result amounts mingled with the heterogeneity of TBI (Yue et al, 2013). Despite the various efforts over the years to help people with TBI’s and cognitive trauma, more research is without a doubt needed. Over the course of the past 30 years, existing methods into the classification of condition seriousness have yet to evolve (Yue et al, 2013). That being so it creates a necessity to develop new studies so that research can be advanced in a positive direction. This will ultimately help individuals with the strongest effects of TBI and cognitive trauma to help ease the fallbacks of current treatment methods.

Cognitive Trauma Tips

Tips for Dealing with Cognitive Trauma

Learning to live with cognitive trauma is not an easy feat, and hopefully, through useful methods, individuals can cope. One of the most important things that anyone who is suffering from cognitive trauma can do for themselves is seeking out the care of a professional. Through this different types of treatment methods can be discussed leading towards a positive recovery approach. When someone is suffering from cognitive trauma,  one of the most common therapy approaches is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Through CBT there are beneficial approaches that can be made to help treat an individual who suffers from cognitive trauma.

 

References

Dulac, O., Lassonde, M., & Sarnat, H. B. (2013). Traumatic brain injury. Pediatric Neurology, 112, 891.

Kaplan, G. B., Vasterling, J. J., & Vedak, P. C. (2010). Brain-derived neurotrophic factor in traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and their comorbid conditions: role in pathogenesis and treatment. Behavioural pharmacology, 21(5-6), 427-437.

Konrad, C., Geburek, A. J., Rist, F., Blumenroth, H., Fischer, B., Husstedt, I., … &  Lohmann, H. (2011). Long-term cognitive and emotional consequences of mild traumatic brain injury. Psychological medicine, 41(6), 1197-1211.       

Mahmood, A., Lu, D., & Chopp, M. (2004). Marrow stromal cell transplantation after traumatic brain injury promotes cellular proliferation within the brain. Neurosurgery, 55(5), 1185-1193.

Parker, R. S. (2012). Traumatic brain injury and neuropsychological impairment: Sensorimotor, cognitive, emotional, and adaptive problems of children and adults. Springer Science & Business Media.

Risdall, J. E., & Menon, D. K. (2011). Traumatic brain injury. Philosophical Transactions of the  Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 366(1562), 241-250.

Stein, S. C., Georgoff, P., Meghan, S., Mirza, K. L., & El Falaky, O. M. (2010). Relationship of aggressive monitoring and treatment to improved outcomes in severe traumatic brain injury. Journal of neurosurgery, 112(5), 1105-1112.

Yue, J. K., Vassar, M. J., Lingsma, H. F., Cooper, S. R., Okonkwo, D. O., Valadka, A. B., … & Puccio, A. M. (2013). Transforming research and clinical knowledge in traumatic brain injury pilot: multicenter implementation of the common data elements for traumatic brain injury. Journal of neurotrauma, 30(22), 1831-1844.

Zhang, Z. X., Guan, L. X., Zhang, K., Zhang, Q., & Dai, L. J. (2008). A combined procedure to deliver autologous mesenchymal stromal cells to patients with traumatic brain injury. Cytotherapy, 10(2), 134-139.

Stages of Sleep: Discover what happens when you sleep

Stages of Sleep. Everyone needs sleep and although the overall reason as to why is still a mystery, science is finding out more and more daily about the phenomena that teenagers love and adults don’t get enough of. Did you know that newborns spend 80% of their time sleeping in a stage that adults only spend 20-30% in? What are the stages of sleep? What is the difference between REM sleep and non-REM sleep? Why do we sleep in stages and in which stage do we dream? What happens to the brain and the body throughout the stages of sleep? What are some tips to get a better night’s rest?

Stages of sleep- we have 4 official stages of sleep- Stage 1, 2, 3 (N3), and REM (Rapid Eye Movement). 

Stages of sleep

As we sleep, we go through different stages of sleep- 1, 2, 3, 4, and REM sleep. Our bodies start at Stage 1 and then progress until they reach REM- a process that takes between 90 and 110 minutes. Then, the process starts all over again until the person wakes up. When we wake up groggy to our alarm, a phenomenon known as sleep inertia, it’s because we were awoken from a deep sleep in Stage 3, Stage 4, or our REM stages of sleep.

The stages of sleep were first discovered in the 1930s when a scientist, Loomis, and his teammates began to do overnight electroencephalography (EEG) recordings of people sleeping. In the late 1960s, it became possible to be able to identify and specify reliably each sleep stage as well as their role in the sleeping process. Back when we didn’t know much about sleep and before the time of EEGs, it was believed that our brains shut down while we are asleep in order to rest and recover. However, we now know that it’s quite the opposite and our brains are incredibly active while we sleep.

What are the stages of sleep?

Each person spends a different amount of time in each sleep cycle. Infants and adults differ, too. Adults spend about 50% of their total time asleep in Stage 2, 30% in Stages 1, 3, and 4, and 20% in REM. Infants spend about 50% of their total time asleep in REM. Newborn babies spend about 80% of their time in REM sleep.

Stages of sleep: Stage 1

Stage 1 is a form of light sleep and the stage where we drift in and out of sleep and can be awakened easily. Our eyes, under our closed eyelids, move slowly and our muscles begin to have lower activity. It’s during this first stage that people can feel the sensation of falling due to muscle contractions. The point of Stage 1 is to be a transition between Stage 2 and waking up. It makes up about 3% of our total sleep time. It occurs only twice during a full night’s rest (without an alarm)- when we fall asleep and when we wake up.

Stages of sleep: Stage 2

Stage 2 is a form of light sleep and the stage where our eye movement stops completely and our brain waves slow down exponentially. However, there is the occasional rush of rapid brain waves. Our body temperatures drop a bit and our hearts slow down as the body tries to prepare itself to fall into a deeper sleep. People who are awoken during Stage 2 often claim they were awake or deny they were asleep.

Stages of sleep: Stage 3

Stage 3 is a form of sleep and is the stage of sleep when incredibly slow brain waves, known as delta waves, are scattered and combined with smaller, yet quicker, brain waves. It’s within the Stage 3 that people can go through parasomnias– wetting the bed, talking in one’s sleep, sleepwalking and night terrors. These parasomnias happen because the body is in transition between non-REM sleep and REM sleep.

Stages of sleep: Stage 4 (N3)

Stage 4 is a form of deep sleep and is the stage where the brain produces almost 100% delta waves. When awoken from Stage 4, people are groggy and disoriented for a short period of time.

In 2008, some sleep medical specialists eliminated the use of Stage 4 in their research and combined Stages 3 and 4 which are now considered to be Stage 3 or N3. Mostly due to the fact that science has been unable to show any true difference between the two stages. However, some places around the world still use the term Stage 4.

Stages of sleep: REM

REM, the fifth stage of sleep, stands for Rapid Eye Movement and occurs when our brain waves mimic and repeat the activity that happens while we are awake. Although our eyes are closed, our eyes move from side-to-side due to brain activity such as dreams.

Stages of sleep: REM vs. non-REM sleep

Our sleep cycle can be split into two categories: non-REM and REM. The non-REM stages of sleep, also known as NREM, are the stages 1-4 and are considered to be the slow wave sleep stages which happen for the first half of the night. REM sleep, the rapid eye movement stage, happens for the second half of the night. The first REM cycle happens after all the other stages of sleep have happened (about 90 minutes after falling asleep) and last roughly 10 minutes. Within a healthy sleep cycle, people will have three to five cycles of REM sleep a  night- each cycle lasting longer with the final REM cycle lasting up to an hour.

REM sleep is incredibly important, as is non-REM, but was only recently discovered in 1953 when machines were developed to monitor brain activity. Before that, scientists believed that our brain activity stopped while we were sleeping- but, oh, it’s quite the opposite.

Stages of sleep- everyone goes through the same stages of sleep, but each person differs in how much time they spend in each stage.

Why do we sleep in stages?

We sleep in stages because our bodies need it. All of the stages of sleep have a specific purpose for the body. Stages 1-N3 (4) are meant to have a regenerative effect on numerous processes in the body. REM sleep is necessary to process our memories from the previous day. Our brain takes all of the information we took in during the day (memories, impressions, feelings, etc.) and puts them into our long-term memory. A good night’s sleep and subsequent good sleep cycle is essential for our mental capacity. Some studies even suggest that sleep cleans up and removes toxins that built up in the brain while we were awake.

Stages of sleep: In what stage do we dream?

REM is the stage of sleep that dreams can occur. This is because it’s the stage in which the brain is most active. A French study found that everyone dreams between four to six times a night. However, not everyone remembers their dreams. If someone is woken up during their REM stage, they can remember the dream. During REM sleep, our bodies have a non-permanent muscle paralysis which helps prevent us from injuring ourselves while trying to act out our dreams while asleep. Another study found that it’s possible to dream while in the non-REM stages of sleep, but it occurs most often in the morning hours which happens to be the time with the highest occurrence of REM sleep, too.

What happens to the brain in each stage of sleep

According to Harvard Medical School, the brain is more active asleep than awake. The stage of sleep someone is in affects how active their brain and body are.

Non-REM sleep. During Stage 1, our brain waves slow down, but our brains stay connected and alert. During Stage 2, the brain waves slow down even more. During the Stage 3/N3, the brain becomes less responsive to external stimuli which is what makes it difficult to wake someone up when they are in an N3 stage. Scientists have found that during non-REM sleep, the slow brain wave activity leads to less blood flow into the prefrontal cortex- the part of the brain that is involved with social behavior, cognitive behavior, decision making, and personal expression.

REM sleep. During REM sleep, our brain becomes more active than it is while we are awake. The brain processes information from the previous day and stores it in our long-term memory- a fact backed by numerous studies. This transfer of memories from short-term to long-term memory happens due to the sharp brain wave ripples in the hippocampus (the part of the brain that forms part of our limbic system) and within the cortex (the outer layer of the cerebrum). Episodic memory that was acquired during our awake state and is stored in the hippocampus. These brain waves take the memories from the hippocampus to the cortex to be stored as long-term memory- all this while you’re blissfully asleep. The amygdala, the part of the brain in charge of emotions, also becomes increasingly active during REM sleep.

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What happens to the body in the different stages of sleep

Not only does our brain change within the stages of sleep, but our bodies do, too.

During Stage 1, our heart rate and breathing begin to slow down as well as our eye movements. Our body temperature decreases slightly. Our muscles begin to relax during this stage which is why people experience sleep starts or hypnic jerks– the feeling of falling even when you’re lying down in the middle of the bed. During Stage 2, our heart rate slows down, even more, our muscles relax further (although the sleep inertia/jerky movements aren’t going to happen as often) and our eye movement stops. During Stage 3/N3, the heart rate slows down to its lowest level during the stages of sleep, as does our breathing. Our blood pressure falls, not dangerously, and our body temperatures become even lower. Our muscle activity almost decreases and our eye movement stops entirely. This is when sleepwalking and sleeptalking happen. During the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage, our eyes, of course, move rapidly back and forth. The heart rate and blood pressure begin to increase slightly (especially compared to Stage 1). However, our body temperature falls to the lowest point during sleep. Our breathing turns into fast and shallow. The muscles in our arms and legs are so deeply relaxed that the body becomes almost unable to move.

Stages of sleep- try reading a book before bed and skipping out on the afternoon coffee break with friends to help get a better night’s sleep.

Stages of sleep: Tips to get a better night’s rest

  • When taking a nap because you’re tired, try to nap for only 15-20 minutes-even just 5 minutes can be beneficial- because the further along you are in the stages of sleep and their cycle, the harder it is to wake up. However, taking a 90-minute nap (the equivalent of a full sleep cycle) has been scientifically proven to help you retain things you just learned (one study says by 5 times more!). People who take 10-minute naps while on the night shift have been discovered to wake up better, be more alert, and have an easier time to stay awake than someone who takes a 30-minute nap.
  • Try not to nap after 3 PM and make sure that the naps are short.
  • Try going to bed and waking up at the same time daily. That way, your body (and its sleep cycles) become used to its schedule and can wake up easier in the mornings as well as fall asleep easier at night.
  • Avoid caffeine –some types of caffeine can take up to eight hours to wear off according to Harvard Health.
  • If you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed, get up to find something relaxing to do until you feel sleepy again.
  • Try reading. Not only does reading take you to a different place, but it’s proven to reduce stress levels by 68% and help you fall asleep.
  • Avoid large meals before bed because they are difficult to digest.

Let us know what you think in the comments below!

Empathy: Can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes?

You’ve probably talked or heard about it, but do you really know the implications of empathy and its meaning? Empathy is much more than putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.  Find out everything you need to know about empathy: What is empathy, definition, and concept, characteristics of empathetic people, types of empathy, differences between empathy and assertiveness, its benefits, how to improve or practice it and much more. If you want to share your experience or ask us any questions please leave your comment below.

Empathy

What is empathy? Definition and Concept

The term “empathy” comes from the Greek ἐμπάθεια: empátheia. Dictionaries define it as a feeling of identification with something or someone. The Oxford dictionary defines it as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

The first description of empathy is the one we usually use and refers to the emotional aspect. The second is the cause of the first since it would be impossible for us to feel if our cognition and thoughts didn’t allow it.

Therefore, we could say that empathy is the ability to put oneself in the other’s place, both emotionally and intellectually. Thus, the verb “empathize” appeals to the action of understanding other’s reality, including cognitively and emotionally.

The art of understanding emotions is more complex than it may seem. A study done by the University of Amsterdam indicates that empathy is bidirectional. This means that empathic interaction is significant for both individuals, for the one that is empathic and the one who feels comprehended.  It is easy to see that we are not empathic to the same extent everybody in the same way.

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Empathy: Characteristics of empathic people

People who feel empathy share a number of personality traits or behavioral patterns among themselves that foster the development of empathic capacity. Take a look at the following list to know the main characteristics of empathic people:

  • They are highly sensitive. Empathetic men and women are good listeners, open-minded to new experiences, kind and selfless. They are usually attentive to the needs of others and do not hesitate to lend a hand. It is not surprising, then, that they have a fascinating ability to transmit good feelings while interacting with others. However, the negative side of being highly sensitive is that people are more susceptible to feeling more empathy, more than they can handle. Therefore, any offense or ugly gesture they may receive hurts them more.
  • They capture people’s emotionality. As if it were a sponge, someone empathic is capable of absorbing the emotions of others. The mood of the other person has a significant influence on that of a person with a high level of empathy so that their emotionality is intensely adapted to both negative and positive feelings. Thus, it is difficult for them not to feel overwhelmed if they meet someone who is going through a time of anxiety and stress, or not to catch the joy of a happy person.
  • Your kindness can affect your own well-being. Having a big heart and caring sincerely for others are indisputable virtues. The disadvantage of this is that empathic people become more dedicated to other people’s problems than to their own, which often leads to frustration, stress, and difficulties in managing their lives.
  • They are careful with their language. Communication is essential to demonstrate empathic skills. When we empathize with others, we review our words twice before we say them because we are aware of the impact language can have on the other person’s well-being, for better or for worse.
  • They avoid extremes. People with empathy prefer the middle ground. They avoid extreme thinking. Therefore, when they surround themselves with someone who is extremist, they are able to teach them that not everything is black or white, but that there are many colors from which to perceive things and the most appropriate thing is to be open to that diversity that life offers us.
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Types of empathy

There are different types of empathy among which are:

Affective empathy: also called emotional empathy, it consists of three differentiated elements. To begin with, you need to feel the same emotion as the other person. Then, a distressing component appears as a natural reaction to vividly perceiving the feelings of the other. Finally, this leads to compassion.

Cognitive empathy: refers to the intellectual potential to perceive and understand the emotions of others. It could be said that cognitive empathy is the previous step to feeling affective empathy. It is necessary to learn to recognize emotions and then to understand their repercussion on one’s state of mind.

Unconscious empathy: Unconscious empathy implies a high level of involvement. Excessive involvement can lead to confusion caused by emotional contagion. Unconsciously empathetic people become so involved in others’ emotions they end up making them theirs. Consequently, controlling, and managing one’s emotions becomes tremendously complex.

Conscious empathy: This kind of empathy involves less emotional involvement. Conscious empathy allows you to observe the other person from an objective perspective and distance, which is essential to encourage emotional self-regulation and allow for a better understanding of the other person’s needs. A person who consciously empathizes is more effective in helping others because they support others without being overwhelmed with their feelings. This is the healthiest way to empathize because in this way you don’t carry the weight of the emotions that don’t correspond to yours and you can offer your best self.

Intercultural empathy

From empathy, one learns to respect and value the decisions of others, and also to understand the concerns and aspirations of others. And this process occurs in the same way across cultures. To empathize with other cultures means to know and understand the importance that each person gives to their customs, traditions and artistic productions.

To recognize multiculturalism is to accept human diversity because not all people are equal and have not grown up in the same environment. There are many cultures, languages, religions, professions, ways of thinking, skin tones, etc. and they are all equally valid.

Intercultural Empathy

It is essential to teach this kind of empathy in school, as children educated in the diversity of ethnic groups will develop a much healthier and more open way of thinking. Moreover, learning to accept the differences and not confront them will avoid numerous social problems in the future.

Empathy and assertiveness

It is important to make the distinction between empathy and assertiveness, given the confusion that both terms can cause.

To begin with, the similarities observed indicate that both empathy and assertiveness are considered to be potentially developable social skills in all human beings, since both can be learned in different contexts intentionally, by chance or due to daily life experiences.

Both skills need respect to be put into practice: respect for others (because the last thing you want is to hurt others’ feelings or hurt them) and respect for yourself (because you are defending the rights of another human being). In addition, other qualities such as honesty, integrity, and consistency are important.

The differences are more noticeable. While assertiveness implies a more personal aspect where there is a concern for not attacking others with words while allowing others to express their thoughts and opinions. Empathy doesn’t restrict or concern itself about feelings or others opinions when it needs to be expressed. Assertiveness defends the words that are pronounced, and empathy understands the words that others pronounce.

In conclusion, when we have the capacity to say what we think without hurting someone else’s feelings, and we also have the capacity to understand others by giving them the opportunity to speak, and express what they think, an enriching dialogue is established. This allows both parties to learn from each other, and communication flows clearly towards the goal that has been established.

These are two very useful skills for learning and communicating that complement each other. Both of these skills need to be learned to develop excellent communication and listening abilities.

Benefits of empathy

Empathy has many benefits. Let’s look at some examples:

1 – Helps emotional harmony:

Empathic people connect quickly with others, making the vast majority feel comfortable and making interpersonal relationships seem easier.

2- Helps to be objective and fair:

The best way to gain the respect of others is to show it to ourselves, even if we may differ in opinions.

3- It improves self-esteem and stimulates our learning:

Feeling that we have a positive effect on others works as a powerful personal enhancer. Furthermore, the empathic exercise allows us to learn from other’s, enriching the prism of reality with different perspectives.

4- It transmits generosity:

Those who demonstrate empathy are collaborative and more successful. It helps them act as brilliant catalysts for change by influencing others to achieve common goals

5- Strengthens professional relationships and maintains them over time:

Working empathically increases the strength of the bonds. This aspect is great in negotiation as well as in those cases in which it is necessary to seal agreements based on trust.

6- It helps show our most peaceful and constructive side:

There is numerous scientific evidence to corroborate that empathy and violence are, neuropsychologically, incompatible with each other. As our understanding increases, our inclination to belligerence decreases and the way we are perceived socially improves.

Keys to practicing empathy

Like all skills, empathy can be trained. Here are some tips for practicing empathy:

  • Listen with an open mind and without prejudice. Be respectful of others.
  • Pay attention and show interest in what they are telling you because it is not enough to know what the other person feels, but we have to show them you care.
  • Do not interrupt while being talked to and avoid becoming experts at giving advice, rather than trying to feel what the other person feels.
  • Learn to discover, recognize and reward the qualities and achievements of others. This will not only contribute to building their capacities but will also reveal our concern and interest in them.
  • When we have to give our opinion on what we are being told, it is very important to do so constructively, to be honest, and not to hurt anyone.
  • Be willing to accept differences with others, be tolerant and patient with those around you and with yourself.

The Male Brain: Demystifying the Divinely Devised Differences

Male Brain. While women don’t often understand or agree, men have—since the dawn of time—had different instincts, emotions, and approaches to situations. Although these approaches can (arguably) be questionable, the varying innate reactions are simply different than those of women: not better, not worse. While both sexes come with their own strengths and weaknesses, we have to wonder: what biological structures underlie the instincts and actions of the male brain? Why are there differences between the male brain and the female brain? And how do the neurophysiological structures within the male brain attribute to the behavior we see in everyday life? Find out more below. 

Male Brain

The Male Brain

Historically, social differences between men and women centralized around physical characteristics and social constructs that defined each gender. As our modern society has progressed to challenge the social roles and labels that have, for centuries, defined men and women, research over the past twenty years has zeroed in on sex-based differences that classify neurological differences between the sexes. While the emerging biological discoveries underline the strengths and weaknesses of both the male and female brain, the overarching goal of research aims to emphasize the divine differences that distinguish sexes—rather than imply inferiority—to better understand how anatomical differences influence behavioral differences between sexes.

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While the natural behavioral tendencies of both males and females seem to be unpredictable and bewildering, understanding the neurophysiological dissimilarities between sexes links behavioral differences to a structural root. Although, at times, it seems as though the men and women are from two entirely different planets—as the saying goes:

“men are from Mars, women are from Venus”

Understanding the male brain is fundamental for discovering the neurological and behavioral differences that distinguish the innate tendencies people have based on their biology.

The Male Brain: How It All Started

As a trailblazer in the investigation of behavioral differences between sexes, Nirao Shah, spearheaded research to biological differences in 1998 as he began his postdoctoral fellowship.  While Shah observed the behaviors essential for the survival of each sex, he investigated how this innate behavior is biologically wired in the brain. He hoped to find the root of behaviors by identifying neuronal circuitry unique to each sex, he has since inspired researchers to unearth the inherent differences that distinguish the male brain from its female counterpart.

The Male Brain: Structural and Functional Differences

A Question of Grey Matter and White Matter in the Male Brain

The most obvious difference between the male and female brain is the distinctly larger crania of males. Due to the proportionally larger body size of males, larger craniums allow for a larger brain to develop amongst male brains. While the presence of a larger brains lacks correlation for heightened intelligence, a fundamental size difference is present between the male and female brain.

As research has found that the male and female brain are wired differently, it has been determined that the male brain operates on intrahemispheric communication, contrasting that of the female brain which optimally operates through inter-hemispheric communication. This insinuates that the male brain has stronger connections within a single region of the brain, whereas females have stronger connections between the left and right hemispheres. While this puzzling difference seems to be without reason, the cellular composition of brain tissue accounts for the wiring that makes the male brain unique.

As a result of an MRI study at the University of Pennsylvania, it has been confirmed that male brains have higher percentages of white matter. Found within the cerebellum, which is split into the right and left hemisphere, two types of tissue of the central nervous system are found: grey matter and white matter. The outer layer of the cerebellum, composed of grey matter folds, is made up of tightly packed dendrites, cell bodies, and axon terminals.

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These tightly folded regions are specialized to regulate memory, language, perceptual awareness, and attention—ultimately containing the synapses that communicate messages. White matter, in contrast, is made up of axons—connecting grey matter to one another—creating a fast communication network, like a metro system. White matter makes up important structures, like the thalamus and hypothalamus, which ultimately relay information from the body to the cerebellum.

Together, these tissues work to allow the white matter to communicate between grey matter areas, and for the grey matter to communicate with the rest of the body. While the researchers at the University of Pennsylvania speculated that the higher volumes of white matter are found amongst larger brains because of the further distance for information transference, the research team concluded that the greater amounts of grey matter amongst the female brain facilitates inter-hemispherical computation of information in a smaller amount of space (e.g. a smaller brain).

During development, the male brain is structured to increase activity and connectivity within each hemisphere by creating communication networks that are modular and direct. While this within-hemispheric processing allows linkage of perception to action along the posterior tract of the cerebellum, it also allows the mediation of motor action ipsilaterally. By way of strong within-hemispheric processing and connectivity, the divinely designed male brain allows for strong coordination of actions in males.

As research and functional imaging have suggested, white matter tracts are activated while working memory is in use. Because of the high percentage of white matter within the male brain, it comes as no surprise that men are better equipped to juggle items within their working memory.

The Male Brain and the Corpus Callosum

The Bridge of the Brain

Extending from the University of Pennsylvania study in 2014, the corpus callosum—a white matter cable that connects the right and left hemisphere—is smaller in the male brain. This also led to the observation of heightened bilateral symmetry amongst the brain in females compared to males: as communication between hemispheres increases, greater symmetry in muscle tissue arises. From these observations, the larger corpus callosum in the female brain can account for the greater inter-hemispherical communication observed in females, and why, biologically, the male brain tends to reflect the success of intrahemispheric communication. This anatomical explanation helps debunk why men are easily frustrated when asked to multitask: because the female brain allows multiple tasks and an abundance of information to flow simultaneously, the smaller corpus callosum in men inhibits the same task juggling ability that the female brain facilitates.

The Male Brain and the Limbic System

The Emotions of a Man

Areas of the Brain

Comprised of the hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, and various other surrounding areas, the limbic system is heavily involved in emotional regulation. In an issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, which was solely dedicated to sex differences within the nervous system, Larry Cahill discussed how the amygdala in the male brain—which experiences and recalls emotional events—is larger than the amygdala in the female brain. Even as infants, MRI research shows that the male brain has higher activity within the limbic system than the female brain. While men are often stereotyped as “unemotional creatures,” this natural, anatomical difference supports the idea that men are, in fact, more emotional than women, but nurture leads to the masking of emotional expression.

Thought to attribute to learning differences between sexes, neurochemical and anatomical differences between the hippocampi of men and women have also been discovered. Contrasting the left hippocampus activation in females, the right hippocampus has increased activation in the male brain; these findings suggest that when presented tasks that require cognitive thinking, males use fewer verbal strategies than women.

Additionally, despite the stereotype that men think about sex more than women, the limbic system— specifically, the hypothalamus—is responsible for this biological drive for sexual pursuit. While the hypothalamus within the male brain is nearly two and a half times larger than the female brain’s hypothalamus, testosterone fertilizing the Y gene (aka the male gene) attributes to this size discrepancy. This is why males report thinking about sex three times more often than females. While this research serves as a biological basis of male behavior, it does not negate an ability to learn to be civil and controlled. (Just because a man has an urge to act, it doesn’t mean he can’t control it!)

The Male Brain and Visuospatial Skills

The male brain tends to surpass the skills of the female brain when it comes to visuospatial skills that allow them to analyze and mentally manipulate objects. Seen from early stages of development, the superior visuospatial abilities of the male brain exceeds the female brain’s ability when it comes time to track moving objects, aim projectiles at targets, and visualize the rotation of two- or three-dimensional objects. While females exceed at other tasks, such as recalling word lists, the differing brain development between sexes explains the heightened accuracy of males in certain skills, such as spatial tasks and motor skills. In everyday life, these surpassing abilities can be seen in navigational skills: males better calculate their position by direction and relative distance traveled, whereas the female brain relies on landmarks to distinguish location.

The Male Brain and Chemical Differences

While we often attribute the prominence of aggression amongst males with their increased levels of testosterone, there are a variety of uses of testosterone throughout the body. Notably, testosterone, in the male brain, impairs impulse-control and ignites libido. While so many questions where they stand with their partner when they see him checking out the supermodel walking by, rest assure that it is just biology at play! Because of the dampened impulse control and revved libido, it makes it harder for men to suppress their impulse to scope the gorgeous woman walking by.

Questionably unfaithful behavior can also be attributed to the presence of the hormone vasopressin. In a study of mole rats, a species containing the vasopressin gene were more monogamous and committed than their cousin species: the cousin species of mole rats that lacked the vasopressin gene were more promiscuous. When the vasopressin gene was injected into the brain of the promiscuous mole rat, the transient tendencies subsided and the mole rats became monogamous. While we are not claiming that men are (always) like rats, a higher presence of vasopressin in the male brain is attributed to more committed, faithful relationships.

While it often seems that male behavior is dominated by their natural abundance of testosterone, the male brain changes when they become a dad-to-be. Similar to the changing chemicals of an expecting mother’s brain, the male brain decreases testosterone and increases bonding hormones, such as prolactin and oxytocin, ultimately equipping them with more bonding hormones to make them better dads.

In terms of stressful situations, male brains have a unique increase of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine in the basolateral amygdala, while female brains don’t. In the onset of stress exposure, chemical levels change within the male brain, particularly influencing the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, which are associated with spatial and nonspatial memory. This helps to explain why the onset of stressful situations impairs the male brain’s ability of object recognition.

The Male Brain is Different From the Female Brain: Why?

Biologically speaking, the male brain has different sex-steroid hormones than women’s. While females have high levels of estrogen and progesterone, males are dominated by testosterone and androgens. During in-utero development, the male brain becomes heavily influenced by the high levels of testosterone, which are responsible for their masculine body plan; while this naturally attributes to physical characteristics, the surging testosterone naturally shapes the brain, too. Regions, like the amygdala and hippocampus, have an abundance of receptors specific for sex hormones, explaining why these regions differ in size between the male brain and the female brain.

In terms of evolution, researchers break down the neural differences as a result of adaptation to the actions of neurotransmitters and hormones that appease our sense organs and brain. As the female brain has adapted to childbearing and education, the female brain is better adapted for verbal sharing and communication. Evolutionarily, the male brain, in contrast, is adapted for hunting and fighting; as men roamed the land for hunting, their silent pursuits and navigational skills required heightened visuospatial skills and a decreased need for verbal sharing.

Although some behaviors of men are confusing and, at times, unforgivable, nature has equipped men with biological predispositions that are simply different from those of females. Debunking the differences between the biological structures of the male and female brain helps to understand what motivates behaviors. Although testosterone fuels the male brain to strive for sexual pursuit, differing structures between the male and female brain attribute to functional and behavioral differences. While subtle deviations are seen anatomically between the male and female brain, the emerging research of sex-based neurological differences attempts to explain how the male brain approaches life.

Consider checking out an in-depth look at the female brain and how the structural differences result in different behaviors.

Feel free to comment below!

References

Madhura, l., Alex, S., Drew, P., Theodore D., S., Mark A., E., Kosha, R., & … Ragini, V. (2014). Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, (2), 823.

Goldman, Bruce, and Gérard DuBois. “Two Minds: How Men’s and Women’s Brains Are Different.” Stanford Medicine, stanmed.stanford.edu/2017spring/how-mens-and-women’s-brains-are-different.html.

Fear: Everything you need to know about being scared

In the famous words of Franklin Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!”,  but what exactly is fear, what does it look like, and how does it work? What are the different kinds? Can you actually be scared to death? What happens to our bodies and brains when we feel scared and how can it be managed? What are some tips to deal with being scared?

Fear

What is fear?

Fear is the response to something dangerous- whether emotionally or physically. Defined by the Cambridge dictionary as:

“an unpleasant emotion or thought that you have when you are frightened or worried by something dangerous, painful, or bad that is happening or might happen.”

It’s essential for us to feel it because if we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t be protected against potential threats. It is adaptative. Fear stems from our fight-or-flight mode which comes from our sympathetic nervous system. Fear should be distinguished from anxiety– the response that occurs when a threat seems unavoidable or uncontrollable.

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What does fear mean?

Traits and behaviors of fear

Fear can make us do just about anything… buy that hotel room online because “6 other people are looking at this room right now”, buy that home security system that has everything included, or inspecting a dark attic while holding a baseball bat because your wife heard a noise. Humans are wired to feel fear and behave accordingly.

The tell-tale signs of fear are what put our body into its flight-or-flight mode. The signs include hyperventilation (a higher heart rate), the constriction of peripheral blood vessels, dilation of the central blood vessels (this causes blushing), piloerection (making a cold person warmer, making a scared animal look more impressive), muscle tension increases (this causes goosebumps), sweating, hyperglycemia (increased blood sugar levels), dyspepsia (the feeling of butterflies in the stomach), and increased serum calcium. When all of these functions happen, our brain realizes that there is danger, and the result is fear.

Can you die from fear?

Yep, it’s possible to be scared to death! When people feel quite scared, their fight-or-flight mode turns on giving them a large rush of adrenaline. This increased level of adrenaline can be damaging to the heart and triggers calcium channels in the heart to open up. When calcium goes into the heart cells, the heart muscles contract forcefully.

Essentially, the calcium doesn’t stop because the adrenaline doesn’t stop, and the heart muscles can’t relax. This can lead to the development of a heart arrhythmia known as ventricular fibrillation– when the heartbeat isn’t regular. This arrhythmia leads to a drop in blood pressure which, if strong enough, cause the brain to cease blood flow and consciousness is lost.

Causes of fear

Fear can be learned, cultural, natural, and evolutionary. If a kid has a bad experience with clowns, he might have a phobia of them later on in life. Culturally, different cultures it different phenomena. Fear is embedded into our nature- we can’t survive without it. Scientists believe that the phobia of heights is something embedded in us and that came out during the Mesozoic period of time. Since then, most of us evolved to have a slight phobia of tall heights.

Fear is characterized by rational or appropriate and inappropriate or irrational. An irrational fear is also called a phobia. It’s a twist of the normal response to fear. “Phobia” is the Greek stem for “fear of”. Some of the most common phobias are public speaking, heights, needles, spiders, snakes, ghosts, tight/enclosed spaces, and rejection.

People who suffer from a fear of fear, also known as anxiety sensitivity, are likely to have a personality or identity issue to begin with which is what helps the fear phobia develop. Many people also develop an affect phobia– a phobia of negative feelings. It’s not uncommon for those with anxiety disorders to develop a fear of phobia. This is because they perceive a fear response as negative and will do everything in their power to avoid that response. Phonophobia is the technical term for the fear of phobias.

Fear

Psychological theories of fear

Some psychologists have suggested that there are only a small set of innate and basic emotions that the rest of our emotions stem from. Of those include anger, angst, acute stress reaction, anxiety, horror, fright, panic, happiness, sadness, and fear. They believe that fear comes from a behavioral response and has been preserved through evolution.

Others suggest that the feeling of being scared isn’t only dependent on the nature of a person, but by their social and cultural interactions which help guide them to know what is scary. For example, being scared of the monster under the bed or having a parent look in the closet for the Boogeyman.

The psychoanalytic theory of fear comes from Sigmund Freud. He believes that the scary object/idea is not the original subject of fear. For instance, while I may be scared of clowns, it’s because when I was smaller, I was bitten by a dog while watching a clown.

The learning theory combines cognitive theory and behaviorism. This theory means that a phobia develops when the fear response is punished or reinforced- in either a positive or negative way.

There is also the option of a biological basis with the focus mainly on neuropsychology- mental disorders are caused by physiological factors. Neuropsychologists have found that there are some genetic factors that could play a role in phobia development. They’ve also found that certain medications that affect brain chemistry are useful in helping to treat phobias- mainly medication that raises serotonin levels.

How does fear affect the brain?

Fear neurocircuits in mammals

When fright is felt (via any of the five the senses), three main areas of the brain are affected. First, the thalamus collects the data from the senses. Second, the sensory cortex takes the data from the thalamus and begins to process and interpret it. After, the sensory cortex takes the processed information and spreads it throughout the two amygdalae (fear), hypothalamus (fight-or-flight), and the hippocampus (memory). However, it has also been found that when people are presented with a scary face, the occipital cerebellar regions of the brain are activated. Those include the fusiform gyrus, inferior parietal, and the superior temporal gyri. People who have damage to their amygdala might be unable to experience feeling scared.

The response to fear is automatic and we won’t know it’s going on until it’s over and has run its course. The main part of the brain where the feeling of scared is really felt is in the amygdala. It’s essential for our adaptation to emotional learning memory and stress. Our brain has two amygdalae and each one forms a part of our circuitry of fear learning. When we feel a threat, our fight-or-flight response begins. Essentially, this means that the amygdalae produce a secretion of hormones that influence both feeling scared and aggression.

Once the feeling of fear or aggression has started, the amygdala release hormones into the body in order to keep the human alert so they may be ready to run, fight, and move at any moment. Some of these hormones include norepinephrine (increases heart rate, blood flow, and glucose release for energy), epinephrine (regulates heart rate and metabolism, dilates air passages and blood vessels), and cortisol (increases blood sugar and the feeling of stress). Once the threat and reason for terror has subsided, the amygdala sends this information to the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) in order to have it stored for the future. This is known as memory consolidation and happens through a process known as synaptic plasticity.

This synaptic plasticity occurs because the amygdalae and the hippocampus work together to create memories surrounding the situation. Stimulation of the hippocampus causes the person to remember specific details about the scary situation. Neuron stimulation in the amygdalae generates memory formation and plasticity. When this process occurs frequently, known as fear conditioning, it can lead to having a phobia or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some MRI scans have shown that the amygdalae in people who have been diagnosed with panic disorders or bipolar disorder are larger overall and more wired to have a higher level of fright.

Fear pheromones

As mammals, like other birds, reptiles, insects, and aquatic organisms, we release an odor called pheromones. Also known as alarm substances, fear pheromones are signals that are chemical and meant to defend oneself from danger. For example, think of a skunk or a stink bug. When they feel scared, they release an odor- their pheromone- to try and make the danger go away via the foul smell. In many animals, the release of the pheromones is meant to let other members of the species around them know that there is danger. This pheromone-alarm can lead to a change such as defensive behavior, dispersion, or freezing depending on the species and situation. For example, it’s been found that rats can release pheromones that cause the rats around them to move away from the rat releasing pheromones.

Humans work slightly differently than animals in that respect. When we feel scared, other humans naturally react differently than how the rats acted in the scenario above. Unlike in animals, humans’ alarm-pheromones haven’t been chemically isolated yet- but we know they exist. Androstadienone is a steroid in the form of an odor that comes from deep within the human body and is found in human sweat, hair, and plasma. Androstenone is another related steroid that is used to communicate dominance, competition, or aggression. One study found that terror responses may be gender specific.

Fear

Is fear contagious?

Can it be contagious, though? An interesting study found that it’s possible to smell the difference between human exercise-induced sweat and human feeling scared/nervous/anxiety-induced sweat. This means that we can literally smell terror and that, yes, it can be contagious. When someone is scared, the other people around them can feel it. If those other people are sensitive enough, they might begin to feel it as well. This is a simple survival instinct. When one member of the gazelle herd feels scared because of a lion running towards them, the other members should, too. Unlike animals who use smell to communicate, humans usually communicate by language, both verbal and body. However, humans are able to communicate some emotions via smell and fear is one of them.

Fear isn’t just contagious via smell, but also via genetics. One study showed that a generation of lab rats who were trained to associate cherry blossoms with electric shock had children and grandchildren who were all nervous about the cherry blossom even though the younger generations had never experienced any shock association with cherry blossoms. In their brains, the areas known for smell were bigger- likely to be able to smell the cherry blossom and avoid what their ancestors were wary of. Known as epigenetics, the genetic code gets modified and turns off/activates certain genes.

Fear within society

According to a Gallup Poll done in 2015, within the U.S., the top 10 fears people have (not in any order) are:

  • Terrorist attacks
  • War
  • Gang violence
  • Criminal violence
  • Failure
  • Death
  • Spiders
  • Being alone
  • Nuclear war
  • The future

In 2008, one author analyzed the top words on the internet that followed the phrase “fear of…” and found that the top ten were:

  • Snakes
  • Failure
  • Clowns
  • Flying
  • Death
  • Heights
  • Intimacy
  • Driving
  • People
  • Rejection

Management and treatment

Pharmaceutically, fear conditioning (PTSD, phobias) has been proven to be manageable using glucocorticoids. This is because the glucocorticoids prevent the fear-conditioned behavior. Psychologically, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is successful to help people overcome what they’re scared of.

CBT is useful through exposure therapy because people are able to confront what they are scared of in a safe way that helps them learn how to suppress the fear-triggering stimulus or memory. One study has shown that up to 90% of people who try exposure therapy for phobias are able to decrease the phobias overtime. Another study showed that our brains can overwrite bad, scary memories with stimulation of the amygdala.

True facts about fear

  • Fear is contagious and we can smell it! A group of women who smelled the shirts of men- half with anxiety induced sweat and half with exercise-induced sweat- could smell the difference between the two types of sweat.
  • We remember being scared. When we are scared, our brains save the situation in our memory so we can remember not to repeat the situation.
  • Our brains can overwrite fear!
  • It’s possible to be scared to death. When our bodies produce to much adrenaline, our hearts become overworked and we can collapse unconscious.
  • Fear is genetic! Epigenetics is real and our genetic makeup can warn us to be scared and wary of something.
  • The fear gene, known as stathmin, is stored in the amygdala and is what groups us into people who can jump off cliffs and those who can’t get near one.
Fear

Tips to overcome fear

  • Be aware that you’re feeling scared. You can’t fix what you don’t know. You aren’t what you’re scared of- you’re the awareness that is experiencing it.
  • Identify what’s making you scared.
  • Find the root of it.
  • Therapy. Cognitive Behavior Therapy and exposure therapy are both forms of therapy that are helpful in overcoming phobias.
  • Hypnosis is a common method to help people overcome some phobias.
  • Yoga can help release any bad energy and anxiety in the body. By releasing some negative energy, the scared feelings can become less powerful.
  • Read books or watch movies on your phobia. Sometimes you’ll find helpful hints or interesting facts about your phobia that will help alleviate it.
  • Be grateful. Rather than being scared about having to speak publicly, think about what a great opportunity it is to be able to share what you’re going to say. Switch the situation around.

Let us know what you think in the comments below!

Photographic Memory: What is this Interesting Phenomenon, How Does it Work, and is it Even Real?

Is having a photographic memory real? A photographic memory is usually used to describe when someone has the remarkable ability to recall visual information in great detail. Pop culture today portrays geniuses as those with photographic memories, but do our brains actually hold onto memories with inner photos or videos? Many times, television sitcoms, movies, and novels show a “genius” character as one who can look at a page in a book for two minutes and then repeat verbatim what was written. Are there actual people in the world today who can do this too? Read more to discover if a photographic memory is real!

Is photographic memory real?

Is Photographic Memory Real?

Photographic memory, also known as eidetic imagery in the neuroscience world, is the ability to remember an unlimited amount of visual information in great detail. Just like a camera can freeze a moment in time in the form of a photograph, someone with a photographic memory is supposed to be able to take mental snapshots and then later recall these snapshots without error.

However, according to the University of Chicago, San Diego Professor Larry Squire, who specializes in Psychiatry, Neuroscience, and Psychology, the brain simply does not work this way. In Professor Squire’s lab, he has asked people who think they have photographic memories to read two or three lines of text and then report the text in reverse order. The notion is that if memory works like a photograph, then these people should be able to accomplish the task with ease. However, none of the participants could do this successfully.

For Professor Squire, “Memory is more like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle than a photograph. To recollect a past event, we piece together various remembered elements and typically forget parts of what happened (examples: the color of the wall, the picture in the background, the exact words that were said)…We are good at remembering the gist of what happened and less good at remembering (photographically) all the elements of a past scene.” And this works to our advantage as our brains sift through what is important for us to remember and holds onto it while throwing away the superfluous, unneeded details.

To show that photographic memory is non-existent among most people, cognitive psychologist Adriaan de Groot did an experiment with expert chess players to test their memory functioning. The players were first shown a chessboard with pieces on it for a brief period (about 15 seconds) and then asked to reconstruct what they had seen on a new chessboard.

The expert chess players succeeded at this task with higher efficiency than novice players. De Groot hypothesized that the experts had developed an enhanced ability to memorize visual information. However, in another experiment, the expert chess players were asked to do the same thing, but this time, they were shown boards with pieces arranged in ways that would never occur in a game of chess. Not only did their ability to remember the positions go down, but it dropped to the level of the novice players. De Groot concluded from this experiment that the original, enhanced performance of the chess players at remembering the positions came from their ability to mentally organize the information they had observed, not from any ability to “photograph” the visual scene.

How to Explain Cases of Photographic Memory

Is photographic memory real?

There have been a few well-documented cases of such remarkable photographic recall, such as “S,” the subject of Alexander Luria’s book, The Mind of a Mnemonist, who could memorize anything from the books on Luria’s office shelves to complex math formulas. Luria also documents a woman named “Elizabeth,” who could mentally project images composed of thousands of tiny dots onto a black canvas. Both also had the ability to reproduce poetry in languages they could not understand years after seeing it written. This type of recall seems to be correlated with the phenomenon of flashbulb memory, where, in highly emotional situations, people tend to remember events so vividly that the memories take on a photographic quality. Until recently, such memories were thought to be permanent, always strong in quality. However, recent studies have indicated that over time, people’s memories of such events will inevitably fade away.

However, it should be kept in mind that people vary in their ability to remember the past. In the article How to Improve Your Short-Term Memory: Study Tips to Remember Everything, we go over how pieces of information go through series of stages before they are retained in your long-term memory: first, the information is sent as a sensory input to your visual system, then it is received by the visual cortex, then it is processed by your short-term memory, and finally, it is stored in your long-term memory.

How well we remember things largely depends on how well we pay attention when information is presented to us. Also, the extent to which we replay material in our minds and connect it to what we already know affects our memory as well.

Since there are only isolated examples of people with eidetic memory throughout the study of neuroscience, many have concluded that there isn’t any explanation for how this phenomenon works neurologically. It is thought that for the rare cases of people with photographic memories, visual information gets stored as an actual image in the sensory input/reception stage. Since photographic memory involves seeing visual images, it must be on the very basic sensory level that eidetic memory functions.

The Neuroscience Behind Photographic Memory

Neuroscience researchers hypothesize that photographic memory involves something in the brain being wired incorrectly in patients like “S” and “Elizabeth” that has caused sensory stimuli to last in the memory for longer durations than most people. Memory is thought to be facilitated by changes at the neuronal level due to long-term potentiation. This means that over time, the synapses that work to hold onto our memories are strengthened through repeated usage, producing long-term memories. Normally, this induction takes many rounds of stimulation to start working so our brain can hold onto memories for long periods of time (which could be a reason why we don’t remember many events of our childhood and why we have virtually no recollection of the first two years of our lives).

Neuroscientists assume that people with photographic memories have a genetic mutation that lowers their threshold for long-term potentiation to hold onto memories. This then results in more visual images being stored as sensory memories and then long-term memories in the brain. Multiple stimulations do not seem to be necessary to retain the visual images; rather, one brief presentation of a stimulus would be sufficient.

Future Research on Photographic Memory

So, is photographic memory real? Photographic memory may be so rare that it appears to be almost fictional because it could be the result of an uncommon genetic mutation or an unlikely combination of environmental and genetic factors. Advancing the study of photographic memory requires scientists to find more subjects with unusual memory abilities. One recent case is that of “AJ,” a woman who seems to remember every detail about even the most trivial events during her lifetime. Neurological testing may yield a greater understanding of the location of memory in the brain and what causes such clear and detailed memories to form. With neuroscience technology increasing and the hope that more people with exceptional memories will come forward, it is possible that more research can be done to answer interesting questions about photographic memory.

Do you have any questions or comments? Leave me a message below! 🙂

What is Epilepsy: A complete guide to this chronic disorder

We’ve all heard of people who can’t be around flashing lights because of their epilepsy, but what is epilepsy? In this article, we will look at what is epilepsy, the symptoms, causes, types, and treatments of epilepsy as well as how it affects our body.

What is Epilepsy

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a chronic disorder that means the same thing as seizure disorders. It’s known for its unpredictable and unprovoked seizures. It comes in a wide range of types and varies from person to person. The word epilepsy itself doesn’t indicate anything about the cause or severity of someone’s seizures. Epilepsy is found in more than 50 million people worldwide. Of those 50 million, 80% live in developing countries and 6-10 million with epilepsy live in India.

General Cognitive Assessment Battery from CogniFit: Study brain function and complete a comprehensive online screening. Precisely evaluate a wide range of abilities and detect cognitive well-being (high-moderate-low). Identify strengths and weaknesses in the areas of memory, concentration/attention, executive functions, planning, and coordination.

Epilepsy can be traced back to Assyrian texts in 2,000 B.C. However, there are multiple references to epileptic-like happenings throughout many ancient texts, especially in ancient Greek medical texts. Hippocrates, a famous Greek physician, includes tons of neurological things within his book On Sacred Disease. For example, he included the first known neurosurgery procedure that refers that the craniotomy should be performed on the opposite side of the brain as the seizures in order to spare the patients from the “phlegma” that in theory caused the disease.

In the 18th and 19th centuries is when medicine began to make important advances and did more research on epilepsy. At the beginning of the 18th century, the belief that epilepsy was an idiopathic disease that derived from the brain and other organs became to come into view. William Cullen and Samuel A Tissot set out to accurately describe the various types of epilepsies. However, many people from The Church had religious superstitions and believed that epilepsy was a divine punishment or possession- the Grand Mal Seizures are the classic example of “possession”. The 19th century carries with it many advances in epilepsy form the French medical school. The 20th century is marked by the inventions of electroencephalography (EEG) and anti-epileptic drugs, advancement in neurosurgery, and the outline of underlying pathophysiological mechanisms. The most recent epileptic advances involve advanced imaging techniques, the development of microsurgery, and research connecting the genetic factors and epileptic seizures.

What is epilepsy: disease or disorder?

Epilepsy is a disorder due to the disturbance that is caused by neurons sending wrong messages to the brain. Unlike a disease, epilepsy can’t be caught.

What is epilepsy: symptoms

Epileptic seizures can affect any process your brain can coordinate and do. The symptoms will vary depending on the type of seizure. However, an epileptic person tends to have the same type of seizures every time so the symptoms will be similar to each epileptic episode. Some signs of seizures and symptoms can include:

  • Temporary confusión
  • Loss of consciousness and/or awareness
  • A staring spell
  • Psychic symptoms like anxiety, fear, or déjà vu
  • Uncontrollable and jerking movements in the arms and legs

What is epilepsy: causes

Epilepsy has no known cause for about half of the people who suffer from it. However, the other half of the people can trace their epilepsy to several factors, including:

  • Genetic influence. Sometimes epilepsy runs in the family. Researchers have linked some specific types of epilepsy to specific familiar genes. Other genes may make someone more sensitive to certain environmental conditions that can cause seizures.
  • Brain conditions. Conditions such as a brain tumor, dementia, or stroke can cause epilepsy. The leading cause of epilepsy in people over the age of 35 is a stroke.
  • Developmental disorders like autism or neurofibromatosis– a condition where tumors grow on the nervous system. About 3 in 10 kids with autism also have epilepsy.
  • Head trauma. Something like a traumatic brain injury can easily cause epilepsy.
  • Prenatal injury. Before we are born, we are incredibly sensitive to brain damage by things like infection, poor nutrition, or oxygen deficiencies. This brain damage may cause epilepsy or cerebral palsy.
  • Infectious diseases like meningitis, viral encephalitis, and AIDS can cause epilepsy.

What is epilepsy: types

Based on how the abnormal brain activity begins, doctors will classify the seizures into two groups: focal or generalized.

Focal seizures show up when there is just one area of your brain with abnormal activity. Sometimes they are called partial seizures. Without a thorough examination, sometimes the symptoms of focal seizures are confused with other neurological disorders like narcolepsy or migraines. There are two types of focal seizures:

  • Focal seizures without loss of consciousness, previously known as simple partial seizures, means that some senses are altered. For example, emotions and the way things look, smell, taste, sound, or feel may change. There can also be some involuntary jolting of a body part, like a leg or an arm, with sensory symptoms like tingling, flashing lights, or dizziness.
  • Focal seizures with impaired awareness, once known as complex partial seizures,  means that there is a change or loss of consciousness and/or awareness. Someone having a focal seizure with impaired awareness may stare into space and not respond normally to their environment. They may also use repetitive movements like chewing, swallowing, hand rubbing, or walking in circles.

Generalized seizures appear in all area of the brain. There are six types known today: absence, tonic, tonic, clonic, myoclonic, and tonic-clonic.

  • Absence seizures, previously known as petit mal seizures, mean that the person stares into space or uses subtle movements like lip smacking and eye blinking. It can cause a brief loss of awareness. This type of seizure often occurs in children and can occur in clusters.
  • Tonic seizures affect the muscles in your back, arms, and legs and can cause you to fall to the ground due to the stiffening of your muscles.
  • Atonic seizures, also known as drop seizures, cause you to suddenly fall down due to a loss of muscle control.
  • Clonic seizures affect the arms, neck, and face. They show up by repeated jerking muscle movements.
  • Myoclonic seizures are little sudden twitches in your legs and arms.
  • Tonic-Clonic seizures, also known as grand mal seizures, are the most dramatic type of epileptic seizure a person can have. They can cause immediate and abrupt loss of consciousness, stiffening and shaking of the whole body, and sometimes a lack of bladder control and tongue biting.

What is epilepsy: how epilepsy affects the brain

Neurons are nerve cells that control the way we feel, think and move. Our neurons typically communicate using chemical and electrical signs, signals, and messages to each other that cause depolarization. When the signals are disrupted, damaged, or there are too many messages sent at once, is when a seizure begins.

Sometimes these neurons send out abnormal messages. If only a single neuron acts abnormal and sends out an unusual message, nothing will happen. But if lots of neurons, from the same area of the brain, being to send out unusual and abnormal messages together, for example, to have a seizure, then seizures can happen. There are three requirements for the unusual message to cause a seizure. First, each neuron has to be excited. Second, the message must be long enough to cause the other neurons to act in an identical way. Third, all of the neurons must be connected to other neurons within a few synapses. Once these conditions are met, the unusual seizure message spreads quickly. If the unusual message causes disrupted activity, this affects only a part of the brain which makes it a focal seizure. If the disrupted activity speaks to the whole brain, it becomes a generalized seizure. The part of the brain where the disruption (the neurons giving unusual messages) begins is known as the epileptic focus and is what doctors look for when finding out the causes of the seizures.

Because our brain has many different functions- such as memory, movement, moods, and all of our senses, a seizure can temporarily or seriously affect each and every one of these.

What is epilepsy: how epilepsy affects the body

Epilepsy doesn’t just affect our brain, but also our body and organs. Some examples include:

  • The heart is affected by an abnormal heartbeat. With enough seizures over time, people can develop regular abnormal heartbeats. Some doctors believe that sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP)  is actually caused by an irregular heartbeat.
  • The lungs don’t always know how to keep rhythm and the breathing may become disrupted and labored. This is because the autonomic nervous system regulates our breathing. However, seizures disrupt this system and cause our breath to temporarily stop.
  • The reproductive system. Those with epilepsy commonly have up to two to three times more reproductive problems than those without epilepsy.
  • While epilepsy itself doesn’t weaken bones, the drugs many people take for epilepsy will weaken the skeletal system.
  • The effects seizures on the digestive system can involve abdominal pain or irritable bowels as well as loss of bowel control.
  • The entire muscular system can be affected because some seizures cause our muscles to tighten suddenly while others cause our muscles to go completely limp.

What is epilepsy: diagnosis of epilepsy

A person is diagnosed as epileptic when they have two unprovoked seizures that were not caused by a known and reversible medical condition like low blood sugar or alcohol withdrawal. Common ways a doctor diagnosis epilepsy after reviewing the symptoms and medical history is to run some tests. This may include:

  • Blood tests to check for infections and genetic conditions.
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) is a needle that is placed into the lower back and spinal cord. The cerebral spinal fluid- the fluid that bathes the spinal cord and brain- that is removed is looked at for infections or any other problems.
  • A neurological exam to test behavior, mental function, motor skills, and be able to diagnose and determine the type of epilepsy.
  • Neuropsychological tests are tests given by doctors to look at your thinking, speech, and memory skills to see what areas of the brain are affected.
  • An electroencephalography (EEG) is the most common test for diagnosing epilepsy because it records the electrical activity in our brains. The EEG is able to see the changes in our normal brain wave pattern.
  • High-density EEG to see more precisely which areas of the brain are being affected by the seizures. A high-density EEG is the same as an EEG, but the electrodes are closer together, about half a centimeter apart than a normal EEG.
  • Computerized tomography scan (CT scan) which uses X-rays to look at the cross-sectional images of the brain. It can show brain abnormalities that could be causing the seizures like tumors or cysts.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses powerful magnets and radio waves to show a highly detailed view of the brain. An MRI can detect brain lesions or abnormalities that could be the root cause of the seizures.
  • Functional MRI (fMRI) involves measuring the blood flow to specific parts of the brain when they are working. For example, looking at the areas of speech and movement before surgery so doctors can avoid injuring those places of the brain while operating.
  • Curry analysis takes the EEG data and puts it into an MRI of the brain to show where the seizures are taking place.
  • Positron emission tomography scan (PET Scan) injects a small amount of low-dose radioactive material into a vein to help see the active areas of the brain and be able to see abnormalities.
  • Single-photon emission computerized tomography scan (SPECT Scan) is used if the MRI and the EEG didn’t show the brain location where the seizures are originating. Like the PET Scan, it injects radioactive material into a vein to create a 3D map of the activity of the blood flow during seizures.
  • Statistical parametric mapping (SPM) compares the areas of the brain that have an increased metabolism during seizures. This can tell doctors where seizures began, in theory.
  • Magnetoencephalography (MEG) measures the magnetic fields that are produced by brain activity to help show possible areas of where the seizures start.

What is epilepsy: treatments

Typically, doctors begin to treat epilepsy with medication. If that doesn’t work, then they may try to fix epilepsy with surgery or therapy.

Many people can become one seizure-free by taking an anti-seizure/antiepileptic medication. Other people can have a decreased frequency or intensity of seizures by taking a combination of medications.

Epilepsy surgery involves removing the area of the brain that’s causing the seizures. Doctors will only perform the surgery if the area of the brain is small and well-defined, and if it doesn’t interfere with functions that we need every day like language, speech, motor, hearing, or vision. Even with surgery, many people will still need to take some sort of medication to prevent the seizures after a successful surgery.

There are some therapies that seem to work for some people, as well. The vagus nerve stimulation is like a little pacemaker that goes underneath the skin of the chest. The wires from the stimulator are connected to the vagus nerve in the neck. The idea is that it sends bursts of energy to our brain via the vagus nerve. Although it’s not clear how it stops seizures, it can usually reduce seizures by 20%-40%. Some younger people with epilepsy may be able to use the Ketogenic diet in order to reduce their seizures. It is a strict diet low in carbohydrates and high in fats.

What is epilepsy: Prognosis

Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder. However, the prognosis of it depends on each person and their seizures. Around 80% of people with epilepsy require ongoing treatment to prevent further seizures. Age, family history, infections, and other present disorders will affect how likely it is that the seizures will get better or even stop.

What is epilepsy: Social Stigma

What is the social stigma around epilepsy? Some people with epilepsy feel a social stigma, almost a shame, for having epilepsy because it leaves them out of certain things. Sometimes a child with epilepsy will be told they can’t participate in a school activity (which is illegal) or not invited to a birthday party. Furthermore, many healthcare and car insurance providers may not like to take on someone with epilepsy because they may not have the proper coverage, but they also pose a big risk factor. For example, there is a high risk of someone with epilepsy and frequent seizures crashing their car. However, that does not mean that they are a less safe driver than someone without epileptic seizures.

What is epilepsy

How to support someone with epilepsy

Make sure that someone with epilepsy:

  • Takes their medication correctly.
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Exercising
  • Wearing a medical alert bracelet in order to be treated correctly by medical personnel in case of emergency.
  • Let them live as independently as possible. For example, continuing to work.
  • Become educated about epilepsy!
  • Find a doctor that everyone likes
  • Find an epilepsy support group for both yourself and them.

Have you or anyone you know had epilepsy? How did they handle it? Let us know in the comments below!

Development of Cognitive Skills; Piaget’s theory.

Crawl before you walk, walk before you run! When it comes to development, this phrase is certainly true. Before children learn to talk and are taught to problem solve at school, right from birth, they begin to develop novel ways of communicating and exploring the world around them. They cry to tell you they’re hungry, and go through a stage where it seems they’re trying to eat everything (I’m sure the parents reading this can relate)! These practices enable babies to make sense of the world. As they get older, their way of exploring rapidly evolves. As well as developing the ability to walk and talk, our development of cognitive skills (memory, attention, language, reading comprehension, fine motor and gross motor skills) are developed throughout our childhood.

French Psychologist Jean Piaget, proposed the development of cognitive skills during childhood occurs in 4 distinct stages. Each stage builds upon the previous one. Piaget’s theory was ground breaking at the time, as it was previously thought that children didn’t develop cognitive skills until they began to acquire language. Piaget challenged this, as he found that children explore the world around them before they acquire language by using their different senses. This is known as the sensorimotor stage, which is one of four stages that classify a child’s learning stages. The other three stages are known as the pre-operational stage, concrete operational stage and the formal operational stage. During each stage, children acquire new cognitive skills, whilst developing skills they have acquired in previous stages.

Cognitive development

Development of Cognitive Skills: Sensorimotor stage

This stage lasts from birth to 2 years.

In this stage, children learn about the world using their senses and manipulating objects. Here a child’s intelligence is based on their motor and sensory knowledge. During this stage, children learn of object permanence, i.e. although a toy is out of sight, it still exists. This information is extremely important as it prepares children to be able to name objects.

3 months– Infants are able to recognise faces and imitate facial expressions (above).

6 months– Infants can imitate sounds, recognise their parents and display fear towards strangers. They understand the difference between animate and inanimate objects. Between four and seven months, children begin to recognise their own name.

9 months– Infants imitate gestures and actions. The understand simple words like ‘no’ and begin to test their parents’ response to their behaviour.

12 months– Infants can follow moving objects. They can speak between two to four simple words like ‘mama’ and ‘dada’. They can imitate animal sounds and begin to display attachments to objects such as a toy or blanket. At this age, they will also begin to display separation anxiety.

18 months– Vocabulary increases to around 50 words. Children begin to identify body parts and display sense of ownership. They can follow simple instructions (e.g. picking up toys and putting them in the box). They begin to show an understanding of discipline and have knowledge of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour.

Development of Cognitive Skills: Pre-operational stage

This stage lasts from 2 – 7 years.

A child’s vocabulary is around 150 words. Around this time, children learn around 10 new words a day, and begin to understand emotions such as love, trust and fear. Children also begin to learn through pretend play, or “make believe”. However, their view of others and logic isn’t well understood, and children have a self-centered view of the world. In this stage, children begin to use their imaginary and memory skills, and begin to develop their social interaction skills and play cooperatively with children their own age. They will begin to develop their cognitive abilities. Children learn to read, develop routines and display an increased attention span. At the beginning of this stage, children develop their attention, long term and short term memory. As children get older, they learn to control their attention and use their cognitive abilities to help them solve problems and achieve their goals. Also during this stage of development, auditory processing is further refined. This is highly important in improving reading skills.

Imaginative play

Development of Cognitive Skills: Concrete operational stage

This stage is from 7-11 years.

During this stage, children learn to be less egocentric and self centered. They begin to think about the thoughts and feelings of others, and they are more aware of their own thoughts and feelings and the rules around sharing them with others. Children are also able to think in a more logic manner and see the world from the view of others. However, at this stage, a child’s thought is often rigid, therefore they tend to struggle with abstract concepts. Here children learn that things, such as volume and weight, can stay the same despite changes in the appearance of objects. For example, two different glasses can hold the same volume of water. Also, at this stage, children’s attention span begins to increase with age. At the age of six, the child may be able to focus on a task for around 15 minutes. At the age of nine, children can focus on a task for around an hour.

Concrete operational stage

Development of Cognitive Skills: Formal operational stage

This stage is from 11 years and upwards.

Children are able to better understand logic and abstract ideas. They will start to reason and think about abstract ideas, and implement these ideas into their lives. They are also able to see multiple solutions to problems, and begin to look at the world in a scientific manner. During this stage, Adolescents display independent problem-solving skills, and are able to understand abstract ideas such puns, proverbs, metaphors, analogies, philosophy and maths. Children also learn to apply general information to specific situations. During adolescence we undergo cognitive transition, which means that the way we think becomes more advanced, more efficient, and more complex. Thought is no longer limited to what is real, it is expanded to include the hypothetical. During this stage we begin thinking about the process of thinking, known as metacognition. Thought becomes multidimensional; we are able to look at multiple outcomes to a specific problem, which allows us to think rationally and analyze the problem. This will hopefully help us to make well-informed decisions.

Every child will progress through each stage in order, but it’s important to remember that each child is different, so that manner or time that it take a child to develop these skills may vary- and that’s OK! Progression through the 4 stages of development can occur at different rates; some faster than others. We all have a unique cognitive profile, some cognitive skills can be weaker than others. A cognitive assessment can help us to identify which of our cognitive skills are weaker. This enables us to tailor our cognitive training, and improve our weaker skills. If you are looking to strengthen your cognitive skills, why not try some brain games! If you are concerned that about your cognitive abilities or the development of a child, it is important to seek professional advice.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, get in touch below! 🙂

What is a Realist? How to Tell if You Have a Realist Personality

What is a realist? Do you think you might be one? A realist is someone who can look at things as they are in life and deal with them in a practical manner. Many artists or philosophers who like to see life in its crude, original form can be classified as realists. Do you wonder if maybe you have the characteristic traits to be a realist? Read more to find out if you show the classical signs of realistic personality!

What is a realist?

What is a Realist?

When you are a realist, you see the world “as it is,” and you have the natural inclination to view all sides of an issue from an objective stance. Realists are not as swayed by unconscious bias or idealistic aims that easily move most people. Rather, they see the truth and prefer it to be unvarnished.

What is a realist? Realists pay particular attention to the action and movement going on around them. Often, they like to tell stories about things that happened to them, which might not necessarily be funny or have a point – just that they happened. They are concerned with the behaviors and activities of other people. Usually conventional people who conform to social norms and institutions, they like to be up-to-date on the latest popular trends and fashions.

Known Traits of Realists:

Some positive characteristics of realists are that they are clear-headed, grounded, non-judgmental, objective, and can sort out fact from fiction. They have a great sense of perception. Events in life seem transparent to these people because they are able to predict the outcome of various situations. Since they tell things exactly as they are, their vision is not distorted by a need to interpret things otherwise. They regard the world as a continually interesting series of events with unending variety and they approve of it. For realists, their mode of seeing is primarily through action as it occurs. Meanings or moods within an action are not as important as the bare event itself.

What is a realist?

Possible Signs That You May be a Realist Thinker:

1. You Know How to Plan Wisely

When it comes to planning trips, dinner dates, outings with friends and family, and any other type of major event, your peers make sure you’re the one in charge. You know how to plan with both responsibility and wisdom. This means that you are practical in what you think you and your friends will be able to accomplish for any specific event, in terms of time, money, and social satisfaction. You cater to the needs of everyone and you know where to draw the line of compromise for entertaining activities. Plus, you’re prepared for the difficult scenarios when Plan A doesn’t work, so you always have a backup plan for action so that everyone is happy.

2. Your Handbag Has Everything Needed for Any Situation

Like Mary Poppin’s purse, you take your handbag packing to the next level. Equipped with everything you and friends and family might need, you are prepared for any spurious situation. Pens, napkins, hand sanitizer, mid-afternoon snacks, bandages, water, baby wipes, you name it! You have all the necessities needed so that everything runs smoothly and everyone is happy no matter what situation you are in.

What is a realist?

3. You Occasionally are Seen as Pessimistic

Optimistic, happy-go-lucky people tend to feel bummed out and annoyed by you because they think that you might be pessimistic, sarcastic, and mellow. However, you’re just able to see situations and the real world for what they really are, so you might not always have positive things to say. You see through people, events, and important moments for what they really are, and when you know something won’t work out or is not practical, you are not afraid to speak your mind.

4. You Constantly Fight the Urge to Say, “I Told You So.”

When things don’t go as planned or when people don’t listen to your advice, you take it with respect and ease. However, when situations turn around for your peers and go in the way that you planned but they didn’t see, you have to make an effort to keep yourself from saying, “I told you so.” Many times, people don’t want to hear the practical, real advice that you give, but it often comes to sting them when they don’t listen to you. However, you know how to keep your calm, so instead of saying “I told you so,” you are there to give your friend comfort and compassion when things don’t go as planned.

5. You Generally are an Easy-Going Person

Because you have a very practical and realistic perspective of life, you are prepared for any situation. You take things easy because you know the future can bring sudden hurdles you need to jump over. Rather than stressing or feeling anxious about what the future might offer, you live in the present and try to enjoy every moment that you can. You understand that drama can take place, so you’re always ready to deal with difficulties. Patience, tolerance, and forbearance are qualities you embody and live by.

6. When People Want to Hear the Truth, They Come to You

If your friends are trying on new clothes, asking about potential career opportunities, or need advice concerning their love lives, they know to come to you for your realist perspective and communications skills. You don’t shy away from the truth, and you are not afraid to tell things like they are, especially if they can prevent extreme pain in the future. Although your advice might not always be what people want to hear, you give needed feedback that will help improve future situations or prevent unwanted skirmishes.

7. Although You Are a Realist, You Are Not Brutal

You approach every situation and you speak to everyone with wisdom. Being a realist doesn’t mean you are brutal in how you interact with others. You understand that people have feelings, so you are careful to give them your opinion in a gentle way without being hurtful. Even when you have to give a dirty truth, you do so with care and concern for how the other person may respond to your statements. Therefore, people know they can come to you not just for the honest truth, but also for care, comfort, and support during rough times.

8. You Are Usually the Mediator in Conflicts

When your friends or colleagues are at opposite stances and need someone to come in-between, you are called upon to play the role. People know that you will look at both sides in an objective, rational fashion, where you will hear both sides of a story and then judge. They know they can count on you to be fair in how you approach tough, divisive situations so they look to you for support.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

Brain Gym: 16 Activities That Will Help Your Brain Stay Younger

Brain Gym for a healthy mind. A few years ago, we started to learn about the importance of training our brains. Today we know that in order to enjoy life to the fullest, our brain needs to be in shape as well. Find out the 16 brain gym exercises that will help your brain health.

Life expectancy has risen, and as we age, our brain starts deteriorating. A few good habits can help slow down cognitive aging and help keep the human brain in shape. In this article, we’ll talk to you about different brain gym strategies that will help you build new neural connections and boost your cognitive reserve. Lifestyle and our habits play an important role in the physical changes that our brains undergo. The sooner you start training your brain, the longer it will stay in shape. Sign up for your brain gym!

CogniFit Cognitive Brain Training adapts to your specific cognitive needs. Train your cognitive skills with this popular tool.

Is it really possible to improve a specific cognitive skill by training with a brain gym routine? Sometimes you may find yourself wondering if a brain gym routine will actually make it possible to improve our memory, planning, spatial orientation, processing speed, reasoning, creativity, etc. While there isn’t any magic recipe to keep cognitive aging at bay, you can start some exercises to slow it down and improve cognitive reserve. Take your brain seriously and try some of the brain gym exercises that we have below.

Brain Gym can your brain plasticity. The brain has the amazing ability to adapt and change depending on our experiences. Brain plasticity is what makes this adaptation easy, and is what allows us to help mold and adapt our brains to different circumstances or surroundings.

There is one notable type of brain plasticity, called functional compensatory plasticity, that causes a small group of elderly people to achieve almost the same amount or higher cognitive activity than their younger counterparts, despite their age. If we think of the average aging individual, we can expect their cognition to slowly decline as they age. However, in the case of functional compensatory plasticity, the brain actually compensates for the lack of cognitive activity, ultimately activating more brain parts than others of their own age or supposed cognitive state.

Brain gyms help the brain adapt, which we have shown is an essential part to brain health, especially as we age. Changing some simple habits and practicing mentally stimulating activities can help keep the brain active which makes it easier for the brain to create neurons and connections. Take a look at our suggestions and put them into action.

Brain Gym: 10 ways to keep your brain sharp

Exercising these powerful cognitive skills helps regenerate neural connections. Brain gyms can help slow down cognitive decline, which can delay the effects of neurodegenerative effects.

1. Brain gym while you Travel

Travelling stimulates our brains, exposes to new cultures and languages, and helps us learn about the history of a new place. According to a study, having contact with different cultures gives us the ability to learn about different cultures, which helps improve creativity and has important cognitive benefits.

Brain Gym: If you have the resources to travel, do it! Visit new places, emerge yourself in the culture, and learn from the natives. If you can’t travel, make an effort to surround yourself with different cultures and people, and visit new places right in your own city.

2. Brain gym while you Listen to music

Listening to music can be a great activity because music is a powerful stimulus for our brains. Certain studies have shown how listening to music activates the transmission of information between neurons, our ability to learn, and our memory. Listening to music can also slow neurodegenerative processes (this effect was only present in those who were familiar with music).

Listening to music can also positively affect our mood and activate almost all of our brain, which makes it a great way to stimulate the brain.

Brain Gym: You can add music to so many parts of your day. Turn on the radio when you’re cooking or driving in the car. Play your favorite “cardio” or “pump-up” playlist when you’re at the gym… and remember, it’s never too late to learn how to play an instrument! There are tons of video tutorials on YouTube that can help you get started.

3. Brain gym while enjoying nature

The best gym is being in nature. It helps us disconnect from our daily routines and obligations, and reduces stress and anxiety. According to this study, being in nature, whether it be out at a park or seeing trees from the window, helps reduce attentional fatigue. Living in areas with gardens or trees improves attention and inhibits our impulses. Being in nature also gets us moving and helps us increase the amount of physical exercise we do.

Brain Gym: Being in nature is good for our health and well-being. You don’t need to go live in the countryside to get these benefits- talking away in green areas, or even hanging some pictures of nature, can give us some of these benefits. Try to get away on the weekend and go to the mountain or beach. Find a great hiking route and make it a weekend activity. You’ll get some exercise and it’s a great brain gym!

4. Write things by hand and train your brain

Take handwritten notes rather than typing on a computer or tablet. Writing by hand is a brain gym exercise because it helps boost memory and learning, according to this study. Writing also helps us process and integrate learned information.

Brain Gym: Leave your laptop at home and get yourself a notebook. You can also think about getting a tablet that allows you to write and later turns your words into text.

5. Brain gym: Physical exercise

According to many studies like this one, doing and enjoying exercise created new neurons within our brain, improves learning, cognitive performance, and boosts neuroplasticity. A recent study established that starting physical exercise when there are already signs of dementia might not be that a beneficiary as starting while being completely healthy. Therefore, you should start exercising as soon as possible.

Brain Gym: According to studies, aerobic exercise is the best for us. Get out and run, dance, swim, skate, or even just walk around. Getting started can be difficult, but just think about the pay-off!

Brain gym and exercise

6. Brain gym: Keep your work area clean and organized

A recent study has shown that doing work that doesn’t challenge your brain, as well as working in an untidy environment, can actually cause damage to your brain health in the long-run.

Brain Gym: A clean work environment makes us feel calm, which allows our brain to work better. Throw out papers and things that you don’t need. Clean up your desk and the space around you.

7. Learn a language and exercise your brain

According to a study, speaking two or more languages helps protect from cognitive deterioration. The study discovered that bilingual people had a higher IQ and received higher points in the cognitive tests compared to others in their age group. This can happen even after learning a language as an adult.

Brain Gym: Sign up for a class in French or Spanish or Portuguese or any other language you’ve ever thought about learning! Try to watch movies in their original languages (with or without subtitles), you’ll start to pick up the sounds and your brain will get a great workout. Today, we have access to great resources online, all it takes is a little searching!

8. Brain gym: Sleep

According to a study, sleeping too much or too little is associated with cognitive aging. As an adult, it has been shown that less than 6 or more than 8 hours of sleep leads to worse cognitive scores as a consequence of premature aging in the brain.

The right amount of sleep is vital for the proper function of our bodies, as well as our well-being. Both sleeping too little and sleeping too much can have negative effects on cognitive performance, response time, recognizing errors, and attention.

Brain Gym: Try to keep an adequate sleep schedule by creating a routine. Try to go to sleep and wake up everyday at the same time. If your one of those people who tends to sleep too little, try going to bed a little earlier over time. Put your phone, TV, computer, etc. away at least 30 minutes before bedtime to reduce any symptoms of technological insomnia. Make sure your room is a comfortable temperature, there’s not too much light or sound coming in, and that your room is clean and ready to be slept in. Doing this can even help you become a morning person!

9. Brain Gym: Read

People who don’t read a lot have been shown to have lower cognitive performance compared to avid readers, according to a study. Those who don’t read often receive lower scores in processing speed, attention, language, and abstract processing.

According to researchers, this low performance in subjects who read little affects their brain’s ability to adapt after suffering from brain damage. More highly educated people use their brain’s resources to compensate for the cognitive deterioration due to aging. In others words, they have a higher level of functional compensatory plasticity, as we mentioned before. This can be applied the same was for people who read often.

Brain Gym: If you like to read, you’ve got it pretty easy. If you don’t like reading and it doesn’t appeal to do, don’t worry! There are tons of different genres to try out. You’ll find that some things are easier to read, like graphic novels. You can read magazines, newspapers, etc. about anything you like, and you’ll still get all the benefits of reading. It’s just a matter of keeping your brain active.

10. Brain gym: Practice yoga and meditation

Meditation can have long-term changes in your brain, according to this study. People who have been meditating for years have more gyri in the (ridges in the brain that are used in quickly processing information). This is also another proof of neuroplasticity, as our brain can adapt and change depending on our experiences.

According to another study, practicing yoga for 20 minutes improves speed and precision in working memory and inhibitory control (the ability to inhibit behavior when it’s necessary) tests. These measurements are associated with the ability to pay attention, and hold on to and use new information.

Yoga and meditation help us use our mental resources more efficiently, and helps us reduce stress and anxiety, which improves our performance.

Brain Gym: Meditation and yoga are “in” right now, so it shouldn’t be hard to find classes and get started. If you don’t want to go to a class, there are tons of instructors on YouTube to show you how to meditate and do yoga, without having to leave the house.

11. Brain gym: Eat well and avoid drugs

What we eat affects our brains. Eating well helps keep our brains young and prevents cognitive decline. We already know that there are “superfoods” can work together to help keep our bodies healthy. However, a diet of varied fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, and few processed foods, can also greatly improve our overall health. A healthy diet doesn’t only help prevent a large number of diseases caused by diet, but it also helps slow down physical and cognitive aging. Brain Gym comes also from the consumption of different nutrients. Watch below to discover how food affects your brain.

Alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs all contribute to an increased risk of suffering from different types of diseases and contributes to premature aging.

Brain Gym: If you want to learn how to eat well, you should talk to a nutritionist or doctor who can best guide you to the best diet for you. Don’t trust “miracle diets”, they don’t work and can be dangerous for your health. Choose fruits and vegetables over sweets and whole grains over white bread. Keep an eye on how much sugar and fat your eating, and cut out as much alcohol as possible. It can be hard to get started, but ask for stop smoking tips if you need it!

12. Brain Gym: Control your stress levels!

Take care of your mental health! Mental health issues and constantly thinking negatively affects our overall well-being. However, this study has shown that it also affects our brain in the long-term. Having suffered from depression or anxiety disorders increases the risk of having dementia.

Brain Gym: Control your stress levels with some relaxation techniques. Listening to relaxing music helps relieve stress, and practicing yoga or meditation can also help keep stress at bay. If you’re not sure if you have a mental health issue, get in touch with a mental health specialist.

13. Brain Gym: Try new things

New studies have shown that immersing yourself in new hobbies that require some kind of mental challenge helps improve and maintain cognitive function and can help prevent cognitive deterioration.

Brain Gym: Take the time to try to learn new things. It doesn’t matter if you’re good at them or not! The important thing is that you have fun and you challenge your brain. Try learning how to play chess, how to sew, take on a DIY project, draw, write, learn how to play an instrument, etc.

14. Brain Gym: Spend time with your family and friends

Social relationships stimulate our brains, which helps keep it active and younger for longer. Socializing also helps reduce stress and improves our mood, which helps with our overall mental health.

Brain Gym: Spend more time with your loved ones (especially those who transmit positivity), meet new people, make new groups of friends, etc.

15. Brain Gym: Use your brain whenever you can

“Use it or lose it”, kind of. The best way to make sure your brain keeps working the best that it can is to constantly use and challenge it. We have access to new technology, which makes our lives easier, but it also makes our brain lazy. Before, we had to make an effort to learn and remember something. Now, many tasks have become computerized, which makes our brains go on autopilot. Try to give your brain the chance to work before reaching for the calculator or the GPS or Google.

Brain Gym: Try to solve math problems without a calculator, limit how often you use your GPS, and try to remember information on your own.

Memorize a list of words. For example, try to memorize your grocery list before leaving the house and time how long it takes you to remember it.

In the following video, you’ll see how you can help your brain work well and stay young. We can help our brains create new neurons, even as adults. Sandrine Thuret explains how we can help create new neurons.

This post was originally written in Spanish by CogniFit psychologist Andrea Garcia Cerdan

Not Sure If You Should Take The Leap? Cognitive Benefits of Learning Foreign Languages

We may not look back on our foreign language classes at school with much fondness.However, after reading about the following benefits of learning foreign languages, we may all be searching for our Spanish or French class notes.

Learning a foreign language can be difficult. The older you are, the more challenging it can be. Nevertheless, learning a new language can have a range of cognitive, health and cultural benefits.

Cognitive Benefits of Learning Foreign Languages

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Beneficial for traveling, learning and communicating

Learning a foreign language means you can explore a whole new culture, country, or continent through the native tongue. Learning a foreign language also allows us to communicate with individuals who do not speak our mother tongue.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Stay young and stave off disease

Research has found that bilingualism can help counteract cognitive decline. In fact, it was noted that bilingual older adults had better memory than monolingual older adults. Furthermore, there has been links between bilingualism and Alzheimer’s, showing the correlation to speaking more than one language and preventing Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, Evy Woumans and colleagues have found that in older adults diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the rate of progression is slower in bilingual patients compared to monolingual patients.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Be more creative

A review into the cognitive correlates of bilingualism, by Olusola Adesope and colleagues found that bilingualism has been associated with enhanced creativity and abstract thinking. Essentially, being proficient in a foreign language can make you more creative and can help you think outside the box.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Improved problem-solving skills

Bilinguals tend to have better problem-solving skills than monolinguals. In addition, bilinguals tend to perform better on tasks like the Stroop test, which requires an element of conflict management. Being fluent in a foreign language has been linked to enhanced inhibitory control ability. This means that bilinguals are better at ignoring information that interferes with their ability to complete a task. The message here seems to be that learning a foreign language can help us to solve problems faster and help us to ignore irrelevant information.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Better cognitive control

Researchers Viorica Marion and Anthony Shook tested bilinguals in experiments of task switching. Participants were required to switch between sorting objects based on colour and by shape. Compared to monolinguals, bilinguals displayed high levels of cognitive control. They find it easier to switch between tasks compared to monolinguals. Essentially, learning a foreign language may improve our task switching ability. Researchers propose enhanced cognitive control is due to the ability to balance two languages. Bilingual language processing networks for both languages are active at the same time. As both languages are activated, the individual responds in the correct language by learning to inhibit one language over the other. By doing this, bilinguals improve their inhibitory control mechanism, to the point where when processing language, the process of inhibiting the language that isn’t needed at a particular time becomes second nature. Wondering how you can train your brain and cognitive skills? Try some fun brain games!

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Changes brain structure

Bilingualism has been found to increase neuroplasticity. Researcher Rosanna Olsen and colleagues investigated structural brain differences in monolinguals and bilinguals using fMRI. Scans revealed that bilinguals display increased activation in the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC plays an important role in tasks which require control). This part of the brain is associated with attention and inhibition. The researchers found that the hippocampus and the left superior temporal gyrus are more malleable in bilinguals (The hippocampus is associated with memory and the superior temporal gyrus is associated with sound processing). Furthermore, these structures as well as the frontal lobe are thicker in bilingual individuals (The frontal lobes are associated with executive functions such as problem solving and executive control-need some exercises to improve executive functions?). Increased volumes of white matter have been noted in frontal and temporal lobes. According to researcher Christos Pilatsikas and colleagues, when learning a second language age doesn’t matter, as adults who have learnt a foreign language have shown increase white matter. Being proficient in a foreign language can improve connections of brain regions that control our memory, executive functioning, attention and inhibition processes.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Improves attention and attention control

Studies have shown that on tasks of attention control, bilinguals tend to perform better than monolinguals. Also bilinguals tend to have a higher attention capacity. Bilinguals are better at filtering out unwanted information and find it easier to focus on more relevant information.

Improves ability to process information– Benefits of learning foreign languages

Being bilingual can benefit sensory and information processing. Jennifer Krizman and colleagues present participants with target sounds embedded in background noise. Compared to monolinguals, bilinguals found it easier to filter out background noise. The researchers found bilingualism enhances sound processing and sustained attention. The study found that bilinguals process sound similarly to musicians. This means that one of the benefits of learning a foreign language is being able to improve the efficiency of the brain’s auditory system, and enhance our ability to distinguish between similar sounds.

Benefits of learning foreign languages

Enhances working memory– Benefits of learning foreign languages

Managing two languages puts increased pressure our working memory. To ease the pressure, bilinguals become more efficient at information processing. Combining this with their enhanced inhibitory control ability, a bilingual’s working memory capacity and efficiency us greater than monolinguals.

Learning multiple foreign languages

We have already established that being fluent in a foreign language can improve our information processing abilities and enhance our sustained attention. As a result of these enhanced processes, bilinguals find it easier to learn a third or even fourth foreign language.

Learning a foreign language can have numerous benefits on our cognitive functions. It improves executive functions, cognitive control, attention, and memory. In addition, neuroimaging studies have revealed that learning a foreign language in later life can actually grow the brain and improve the connections between different brain regions. What is even more interesting is that learning a foreign language can counteract cognitive decline and slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Regardless of the age at which we learn a foreign language, it is still beneficial for our brains to do so. So, although it may be a little more difficult, it is clearly never too late to reap the benefits of learning foreign languages! Encouraging young children to learn a foreign language may benefit them in later life, so schools should look at making learning a foreign language a compulsory part of the curriculum. Aside from the benefits to cognition and the brain, for all of us who have the travelling bug and want to explore new cultures, learning the lingo is obviously the best place to start!

Do you have any questions or comments? Leave me a note below! 🙂

References

Adesope, O. O., Lavin, T., Thompson, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2010). A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism. Review of Educational Research80(2), 207-245.

Krizman, J., Marian, V., Shook, A., Skoe, E., & Kraus, N. (2012). Subcortical encoding of sound is enhanced in bilinguals and relates to executive function advantages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(20), 7877-7881.

Mårtensson, J., Eriksson, J., Bodammer, N. C., Lindgren, M., Johansson, M., Nyberg, L., & Lövdén, M. (2012). Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning. NeuroImage63(1), 240-244.

Marian, V., & Shook, A. (2012, September). The cognitive benefits of being bilingual. In Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science (Vol. 2012). Dana Foundation.

Pliatsikas, C., Moschopoulou, E., & Saddy, J. D. (2015). The effects of bilingualism on the white matter structure of the brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences112(5), 1334-1337.

Woumans, E., Santens, P., Sieben, A., Versijpt, J., Stevens, M., & Duyck, W. (2015). Bilingualism delays clinical manifestation of Alzheimer's disease.Bilingualism: Language and Cognition18(03), 568-574.

Costa, A., & Sebastián-Gallés, N. (2014). How does the bilingual experience sculpt the brain?. Nature Reviews Neuroscience15(5), 336-345.

Olsen, R. K., Pangelinan, M. M., Bogulski, C., Chakravarty, M. M., Luk, G., Grady, C. L., & Bialystok, E. (2015). The effect of lifelong bilingualism on regional grey and white matter volume. Brain research1612, 128-139.

Saidi, L. G., & Ansaldo, A. I. (2015). Can a Second Language Help You in More Ways Than One?. AIMS neurosci1, 52-57.

Emotional memories: How emotions help you remember

Have you ever wondered why are there situations you can remember better and more vividly than others? How you might even experience an intense emotion just by remembering an important event in your life? And on the contrary, why are there situations we can’t remember so easily or we can’t remember at all? Emotional memories remain longer and are experienced more intensely when remembered. Let’s discuss how your brain processes them.

Emotions help you remember

We all have been surprised about how our memory works and the amount of information we are able to remember. For instance, faces, names, events in the past and in the future, and even how an object smells, tastes or feels like. Though having a bad memory is very often a complain, its capacity is similar to the one of a computer’s and is even more flexible and easier to use. (Read more on false memories)

Identity formation is also our memory’s responsibility. How? By being conscious of the experiences we’ve been through: our thoughts, emotions and reactions to those events. This is called the autobiographical memory. This type of memory is in charge of remembering everything that’s related to you and your relationships with the world.

Emotional Memories 

Emotions and feelings are present in our daily life, enriching our reality. From a person we meet, an object we possess, a trip we take, or even just appreciating nature, emotions are always making experiences richer. The role these moods play in recalling events is an interesting topic to learn about in order to understand ourselves better.

There are always certain situations that are easier to remember than others. And although many factors influence your memory’s performance, a crucial one is emotion. Giving importance or paying attention to a situation, person, object, event or idea, improves our memory’s storage process.

On this matter, memory is selective. It will register and give value to the information that is more relevant to you. This value might be established according to how something makes you feel, the emotions it evokes on you (either pleasant or unpleasant), or even by the mood you’re in. This is why you might be able to remember better if you ran into someone you hadn’t seen for many years two weeks ago, rather than what you had for lunch last Friday. This means that interest and relevance to you are main factors in emotional memories.

Emotional Memories: Our brains 

The limbic system is a part of the brain that regulates emotions and memory (read more on the functions of your limbic system). Amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, cingulate gyrus are only some of them. When an emotional event is taking place, the amygdala is activated. Afterward, the cerebral cortex processes the information. Some of the cortex involved are the prefrontal cortex, cingulate, cerebellum and somatosensory cortex. Also, as the hippocampus is in charge of storing information, it will also play an important role in the process. When these brain regions are activated, a “print” or “mark” will remain for our brains to recognize this information in the future. As a result, our brain will pay more attention to the event whenever it’s repeated in the future.

Brain anatomy

Here’s an example: a friend of yours gives you some shocking news. Immediately, an emotional reaction follows this information. In this case, the activation of the amygdala, hippocampus and cerebral cortex will store this as a memory. Consequently, the amygdala orders to liberate adrenaline and glucocorticoid hormones to the blood stream. These hormones have an impact on how you experience a situation, how it makes you feel physically. This is how emotional memories have a physical response as well.

By all this, involving stronger emotions in an event activates more the amygdala. Therefore, emotions not only help you remember better but also to have more vivid memories filled with details. It’s probable that whenever you think about the shocking news your friend gave you, you might even feel sad, remember exactly what you were doing and where you were in that moment. Time will pass by and you’ll still have those fresh details with you. When recalling this event and emotion, your brain will activate the same areas as if you were experiencing it in that same moment.

Emotional Memories: Pleasant and unpleasant 

We all experience emotional events in different ways. Someone might consider a situation annoying, while it might be funny for another one. Hence, our reaction to a situation, person, object or idea, varies depending on our past experiences and our personality.

Our brain encodes pleasant and unpleasant situations differently. According to different studies, positive emotional memories are full of significant contextual details. Negative or unpleasant ones, on the other hand, are less specific. Some emotional events can be so impressive and intense that they boost brain activity. Thus, liberating hormones excessively, causing harm to your cardiovascular and immunologic system as well. As a consequence, you see damage in the neurons located in the hippocampus.

With this in mind, whenever a person goes through a traumatic situation (i.e. being a crime victim or a war veteran), there’s a hyper stimulation on some parts of the brain, like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Along with the hormones liberated, the event will be more memorable and terrifying, harming health and memory.

In other cases, psychogenic amnesia may occur when forgetting strongly traumatic experiences. The stress of an emotional memory can provoke amnesia. Sometimes, not only does this person forget the particular disturbing event, but also a global or temporary loss of personal memory may happen. At the other hand, some persons can repress or block a stressing event and remembering years later. It must be taken into account that brain damage is not responsible for memory loss. In any case, psychotherapy must be specially recommended.

Emotional Memories: improve your memory

Why do we forget? Some factors involved can be age, time, stress and anxiety. In any case, what can help you enhance your memory? There are many factors, techniques, and tools: as mentioned above, attention, interest, and motivation are very important to assign a value to a situation and make it more memorable. Together with this, using techniques and tools are always helpful. Mnemotechnics are brain strategies to help you remember information better, using mental images or verbal keys, relating them to previous knowledge (like the world we live in or past experiences). You may also try Cognifit, a training program that uses brain games to strengthen the user’s weakest cognitive skills according to their needs.

To summarize, emotionally charged events help remembering better and more vividly than neutral ones. Being aware of the present moment and experiencing all emotions truly, will surely make you have more meaningful memories.

Live life fully

Sex differences in the brain: Is there a male and a female brain?

For many years, science has tried to explain how women and men are different beyond sexual traits. On this matter, research continues on how sex differences in the brain extend to more internal biology, including our brain (how well do you know your brain?). Some studies support the relationship between human brain structure and behavior, personality, cognition, attitudes and gender characteristics. Maybe because of this, there are theories categorizing it into two forms: male-brain and female-brain. Nevertheless, more recent studies cannot confirm the existence of this sexual dimorphic view of human brains.

Sex differences in the brain

Anatomical Sex Differences in the Brain

As mentioned before, everything we are, from behavior, cognition and attitudes to gender expression, have a base on the brain. But it’s important to note that factors influencing brain development in both males and females include, not only biology, but also the environment. By this, we must then consider that culture, and social constructions have an important role in how we build relationships with the world. Let’s see what we know about the biology of sex differences.

Structure and Function

Research related to gender differences in the brain shows us some general differences on brain structure and function in men and women:

  • Sex differences in the brain begin as early as the fetal development. The hormone testosterone plays a role on the “masculinization” of the brain. Although this hormone is present in both men and women, males have it in a bigger proportion.
  • Males, on average, have larger total brain volume than women. Nevertheless, the volume and tissue density differs depending on the region:
    • Men have higher volume in bilateral limbic areas and left posterior cingulate gyrus. Whereas women have larger volume in the right hemisphere of the brain related to language and the limbic structures. (More on the functions of your limbic system)
    • In relation to tissue density, men have higher proportion in the left side of the limbic system, while women’s tissue density is higher in the frontal lobe.
  • Both sexes share the circuitry needed to generate male or female typical behaviors. Nevertheless, it depends on the activation or repression of these circuits, as well as the strategies our brain uses to generate them.
  • Scientists have also studied sex differences in the structure of the brain related to psychopathological conditions. In general, ADHD, autism, conduct disorders, specific language impairment, Tourette’s syndrome and dyslexia prevale on males. Women, on the other hand, prevale on suffering from depression, anxiety and anorexia nervosa.

The Environment

Without doubt, different characteristics need to be analyzed in both genders. Some brain regions are smaller or with higher tissue density in men or women, while others are bigger or have lower density. Of course this may explain why women and men have different skills and may have typical behavior according to gender.

However, it’s very important to understand that this doesn’t make it a rule. These traits are not to be present in every man or woman. Moreover, male’s or female’s typical behavior might also be constructed by society and the environment.

Thanks to neuroplasticity, the brain’s connections can change throughout our lives. This means that, the more we stimulate different areas of the brain, the more connections we’ll generate. If both sexes have the same structures and functions in the brain, it will depend on how often a person puts them in practice. For this reason, the brain’s “use it or lose it” approach is important for cognitive maintenance.

But how to activate your brain? There are many brain gym activities that can help. As you may know, there are many benefits of exercise on the brain, as well as benefits of learning foreign languages. But more importantly: get enrolled in new and challenging activities for you. The brain gets more active when doing tasks you’re not used to. It “forces” the brain to learn new pathways and create more connections between different regions. When performing a certain task, your brain learns the pathway, making it easier to achieve it over time. Brain games can also be a great way to improve neural connections, and luckily there are some programs dedicated to improving brain connections and brain areas ;).

The Brain Mosaic: A new Theory

Considering all this information, professor at Tel-Aviv University, Daphna Joel (2015), has different findings on sex differences on the brain. Her study, along with other scientists, consisted on analyzing the MRIs of 1.400 people’s brains. They observed the differences on the distribution of the gray matter, white matter and connectivity. And what did they find?

  1. Brains cannot be categorized as male or female. They are “comprised of unique ‘mosaics’ of features. Some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females. Some more common in both females and males” (Daphna et al., 2015).
  2. Brains with features belonging to the “maleness-femaleness” continuum are not common. They found low or limited amount of brains considered or categorized as “full male/full female”. The great majority have both “male-female” features.
  3. Variability prevales on these features, rather than consistency. “The forms that are evident in most females, are also the ones evident in most males”. The general characteristics of each sexes’ brain vary greatly, making a classification uncertain as they both share these features.
  4. Quantifying instead of qualifying. “It’s more appropriate and informative to refer to measures of the brain in quantitative ways, rather than in qualitative ways (e.g. “male” or “female” form)”. Describing the size, the density, the amount of connections, etc. of each brain makes it more accurate. At the end, we all have different traits beyond our sex/gender.
  5. These findings open debates about sex/gender differentiation at a social level. Are there tasks that are only appropriate for men or for women? Should education be single-sex?

Watch the following video to find out more about her study, or read her full article here.

Does it really matter?

We might as well ask ourselves whether or not categorizing the human brain is useful. All in all, categories help us understand the world we live in as well as understand ourselves. In medicine, for instance, it’s useful to categorize diseases and disorders in order to treat them. But after all, not everything can be classified and limited: human beings are far more complicated than that. Being so different from one another and expressing our uniqueness is part of idiosyncrasy. Finally, accepting gender as a social construction and not considering behavior as “male-or-female-typical”, can make us more tolerant and open to idiosyncrasy.