Autonomous sensory meridian response - self-diagnosed neurological condition/superpower that makes you really enjoy whispering

In Tribes, this week's This American Life podcast, a woman with "Autonomous sensory meridian response" describes her curious neurological condition. When she hears boring, whispering voices, she experiences pleasurable, relaxing "brain shivers" that are so nice, she finds herself watching the Home Shopping Network for hours (and hours!) at a time. There's a whole YouTube subculture of ASMR videos in which (mostly) women whisper quietly as they narrate their jewelry condition, or role-play giving you a shave.

There's not much science on ASMR (yet), but a Sheffield university prof doesn't discount the possibility that it is real.

ASMR subculture feels like something out of a very good recent William Gibson novel, and it's apparently real.

The science of magic

The old cups-and-balls "shell game" trick so effectively exploits the human brain's ability to be deceived that, even when the cups are see-through, you can still get played.

The two parts of pain

TIL: That what we think of as "pain" is actually two different things. The most basic sense is called nociception — a non-subjective reflex that drives lots of animals to pull away from dangerous things. Pain — actual pain — is what happens after nociception, and different individuals perceive it differently under different situations. So, for example, nociception is why you jerk your hand away from a hot stove. Pain is the feeling that helps you learn not to touch hot stoves again. Oh, and also, crabs might be capable of feeling both.

New evidence of ‘chemo brain’ proves cognitive damage from cancer treatment isn't ‘all in your head’

Image: RSNA. The bright yellow and lime green in the left superior medial frontal gyrus sharply contrast the cool blue hues in the same region on the right. The brain uses glucose for energy; bright colors represent large decreases in glucose usage by the brain.

Cancer survivors everywhere are nodding in agreement today: "chemo brain" is real, as those of us who have experienced the cognitive damage associated with chemotherapy already know. Memory loss, problems with concentration and attention, speech and writing difficulties, even problems with everyday math or number identification are common during and long after chemo ends. But now, researchers understand a little more of the how and why.

As noted in my previous Boing Boing post, a new study presented this week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) used PET/CT scans to show physiological evidence of chemo brain, a common side effect in patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer treatment.

The team led by Dr. Rachel A. Lagos at the West Virginia University School of Medicine and West Virginia University Hospitals in Morgantown, W.V. sought to identify the effect of chemotherapy on brain function, rather its effect on the brain's appearance. By using PET/CT, they were able to assess changes to the brain's metabolism after chemotherapy, and found measurable physiological changes.

In a group of 128 breast cancer patients, neuroradiology analysis software was used to calculate brain metabolism within 63 brain regions. Results were clinically correlated with documented patient history, neurologic examinations, and chemotherapy regimens. In women treated for breast cancer, the scans demonstrate "statistically significant decreases in regional brain metabolism" that correlate to "chemotherapy regimen, neurological examination and symptoms of chemobrain phenomenon."

On NBC Nightly News, cancer survivor and advocate Jody Schoger, whom I met on Twitter during my treatment, speaks about her experience with chemo brain and what the news means to her. She's an eloquent, powerful voice for all of us who suffer through the long-term side effects of treatment, and the challenges of living with this disease. NBC's science correspondent Robert Bazell did a great job with the story. You really gotta see this piece.

Below, the piece that ran on NBC Nightly News last night, followed by a longer-form edit of Jody's observations on how we heal from chemobrain. In a word: gradually.

Read the rest

What it's like to wear a brain-stimulating "thinking cap"

Science writer Sally Adee provides some background on her New Scientist article describing her experience with a DARPA program that uses targeted electrical stimulation of the brain during training exercises to induce "flow states" and enhance learning. The "thinking cap" is something like the tasp of science fiction, and the experimental evidence for it as a learning enhancement tool is pretty good thus far -- and the experimental subjects report that the experience feels wonderful (Adee: "the thing I wanted most acutely for the weeks following my experience was to go back and strap on those electrodes.")

We don’t yet have a commercially available “thinking cap” but we will soon. So the research community has begun to ask: What are the ethics of battery-operated cognitive enhancement? Last week a group of Oxford University neuroscientists released a cautionary statement about the ethics of brain boosting, followed quickly by a report from the UK’s Royal Society that questioned the use of tDCS for military applications. Is brain boosting a fair addition to the cognitive enhancement arms race? Will it create a Morlock/Eloi-like social divide where the rich can afford to be smarter and leave everyone else behind? Will Tiger Moms force their lazy kids to strap on a zappity helmet during piano practice?

After trying it myself, I have different questions. To make you understand, I am going to tell you how it felt. The experience wasn’t simply about the easy pleasure of undeserved expertise. When the nice neuroscientists put the electrodes on me, the thing that made the earth drop out from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut the fuck up.

The experiment I underwent was accelerated marksmanship training on a simulation the military uses. I spent a few hours learning how to shoot a modified M4 close-range assault rifle, first without tDCS and then with. Without it I was terrible, and when you’re terrible at something, all you can do is obsess about how terrible you are. And how much you want to stop doing the thing you are terrible at.

Then this happened:

The 20 minutes I spent hitting targets while electricity coursed through my brain were far from transcendent. I only remember feeling like I had just had an excellent cup of coffee, but without the caffeine jitters. I felt clear-headed and like myself, just sharper. Calmer. Without fear and without doubt. From there on, I just spent the time waiting for a problem to appear so that I could solve it.

If you want to try the (obviously ill-advised) experiment of applying current directly to your brain, here's some HOWTOs. Remember, if you can't open it, you don't own it!

Better Living Through Electrochemistry (via JWZ)

Romance and autistic spectrum

Amy Harmon, who wrote in September about Justin Canha, an autistic high school student, has returned with another long, incisive, moving piece about young autistic adults striving to forge romantic relationships with one another:

From the beginning, their physical relationship was governed by the peculiar ways their respective brains processed sensory messages. Like many people with autism, each had uncomfortable sensitivities to types of touch or texture, and they came in different combinations.

Jack recoiled when Kirsten tried to give him a back massage, pushing deeply with her palms.

“Pet me,” he said, showing her, his fingers grazing her skin. But Kirsten, who had always hated the feeling of light touch, shrank from his caress.

“Only deep pressure,” she showed him, hugging herself.

He tried to kiss her, but it was hard for her to enjoy it, so obvious was his aversion. To him, kissing felt like what it was, he told her: mashing your face against someone else’s. Neither did he like the sweaty feeling of hand-holding, a sensation that seemed to dominate all others whenever they tried it.

“I’m sorry,” he said helplessly.

Navigating Love and Autism (Thanks, Scott!)