People with OCD may get relief from watching others perform the compulsive behavior

People with certain kinds of obsessive-compulsive disorder feel a need to repeatedly perform certain physical rituals or routines, such as washing their hands, to gain relief from obsessional thoughts. Now research suggests that when we see someone else perform an action, it triggers the same regions of our brains as when we do the action ourselves.

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San Francisco Giants are zapping their brains to improve performance

Members of the San Francisco Giants are using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in an effort to improve their performance on the field. According to SF Giants sports scientist Geoff Head (real name!), "some big-name players" are using the Halo Sport device, resembling Beats headphones, to deliver a small amount of current to the wearer's motor cortex. From KQED:

Head decided to try the headset, called Halo Sport, during spring training last year—he gave them to some minor leaguers to wear as they sprinted 20-yard dashes. After two weeks, Head analyzed the results and found that the players who wore the equipment had shaved off a few one-hundredths of a second compared to a control group....

Even though a lot of the data is conflicting, the most positive results do support using tDCS to improve motor control. Hence the slew of startups targeting athletes.

The Giants’ Head says even a tiny advantage can help win games at the major league level. An improvement of two-hundredths of a second can be “the difference between safe and out sometimes,” he says.

"The SF Giants Are Zapping Their Brains With Electricity. Will It Help?" (KQED) Read the rest

Teller on how magicians "alter your perceptions"

Teller, the silent half of the Penn & Teller magic act, explains seven cognitive biases that magicians exploit in order to "alter the perceptions" of their audiences and achieve impossible-seeming feats. Read the rest

Your perception of reality may really be a hallucination

Philosophy and Predictive Processing is a new online research compendium in which neuroscientists, psychiatrists, philosophers-of-mind, and other big thinkers explore the theory that we're always hallucinating. Our brains aren't just processing information from your senses so we can perceive reality, the authors argue, but also constantly predicting what we'll encounter, presenting that to us as what's actually happening, and then doing error connection. From New Scientist:

...Predictive processing argues that perception, action and cognition are the outcome of computations in the brain involving both bottom-up and top-down processing – in which prior knowledge about the world and our own cognitive and emotional state influence perception.

In a nutshell, the brain builds models of the environment and the body, which it uses to make hypotheses about the source of sensations. The hypothesis that is deemed most likely becomes a perception of external reality. Of course, the prediction could be accurate or awry, and it is the brain’s job to correct for any errors – after making a mistake it can modify its models to account better for similar situations in the future.

But some models cannot be changed willy-nilly, for example, those of our internal organs. Our body needs to remain in a narrow temperature range around 37°C, so predictive processing achieves such control by predicting that, say, the sensations on our skin should be in line with normal body temperature. When the sensations deviate, the brain doesn’t change its internal model, but rather forces us to move towards warmth or cold, so that the predictions fall in line with the required physiological state.

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Open source interface to connect your brain to your computer

Most of us need a computer interface implanted in our brains like we need a hole in our head. That said, there are benefits to bridging the gap between mind and machine. Joel Murphy is the founder of OpenBCI, an inexpensive, and non-invasive, brain-computer interface (BCI) platform. People have used OpenBCI to control robots, compose music by thinking about it, develop games, and help individuals who are "locked in" and can't control their bodies communicate with the outside world. Mark Frauenfelder and I interviewed Joel about open source, DIY neurotech in this episode of For Future Reference, a new podcast from Institute for the Future:

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Examining the ancient technique of "memory palaces" with brain-imaging

A small (51 men aged 24 +/- 3 years) study published in Neuron tasked experimental subjects with practicing the ancient Greek mnemonic technique of "memory palaces" and then scanned their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging, comparing the scans to scans from competitive "memory athletes" and also measuring their performance on memorization tasks. Read the rest

Brain activity recorded as much as 10 minutes after death

University of Western Ontario researchers examined the electrical activity in several patients before and after their life support was turned off and they were declared clinically dead, when the heart had stopped beating. In one patient, brain waves, in the form of single delta wave bursts, continued for minutes after death.

"It is difficult to posit a physiological basis for this EEG activity given that it occurs after a prolonged loss of circulation," the researchers write in their scientific paper. "These waveform bursts could, therefore, be artefactual in nature, although an artefactual source could not be identified."

This kind of research in the niche field of necroneuroscience is relevant to ethical discussions around organ donation and how the moment of death is defined.

(Neuroskeptic via Daily Grail)

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Can you "hear" flashes of light? Do you have synesthesia? Take a test.

Can you "hear" motion or light flashes? If so, according to new research from City University London, you may be experiencing a not-so-rare form of synaesthesia. Synesthesia is the fascinating neurological phenomenon whereby stimulation of one sense involuntarily triggers another sensory pathway. For example, a synesthete might taste sounds or hear colors. (In this study, 8 out of 40 participants, a very high percentage, were considered to have hearing-motion synaesthesia.) Here is their test for you to take yourself. From The Guardian:

(This new study) suggests that many more of us experience a less intrusive version of (synesthesia) in which visual movements or flashes are accompanied by an internal soundtrack of hums, buzzes or swooshes. Since movements are very frequently accompanied by sounds in everyday life, the effect is likely to be barely discernible.

When tested under laboratory conditions, the “hearing motion” effect appeared to enhance a person’s ability to interpret fine visual movements, but also interfered with the ability to hear real sounds when visual and audio signals were mis-matched.

“These internal sounds seem to be perceptually real enough to interfere with the detection of externally-generated sounds,” said Freeman. “The finding that this ‘hearing-motion’ phenomenon seems to be much more prevalent compared to other synaesthesias might occur due to the strength of the natural connection between sound and vision.”

In a separate study, the team tested for the phenomenon in trained musicians and found that it was much more common in the group. It is not clear if this is due to a natural disposition to link sounds and visual cues or whether thousands of hours of training might have strengthened the neural circuitry behind the effect.

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McGill Neurology will no longer patent researchers' findings, instead everything will be open access

The Neurological Institute at Montreal's McGill University is host to the "Tanenbaum Open Science Institute," endowed by a $20M contribution; since last spring, the unit has pursued an ambitious open science agenda that includes open access publication of all research data and findings, and an end to the practice of patenting the university's findings. Instead, they will all be patent-free and usable by anyone. Read the rest

Gamers blindly navigate a digital maze with input only from brain stimulation

In a new experiment at the University of Washington, test subjects navigated a virtual maze without seeing it. The only input they had were cues delivered in the form of magnetic zaps to the backs of their heads, stimulating particular regions of their brains. From UW Today:

The subjects had to navigate 21 different mazes, with two choices to move forward or down based on whether they sensed a visual stimulation artifact called a phosphene, which are perceived as blobs or bars of light. To signal which direction to move, the researchers generated a phosphene through transcranial magnetic stimulation, a well-known technique that uses a magnetic coil placed near the skull to directly and noninvasively stimulate a specific area of the brain.

“The way virtual reality is done these days is through displays, headsets and goggles, but ultimately your brain is what creates your reality,” said senior author Rajesh Rao, UW professor of Computer Science & Engineering and director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering.

“The fundamental question we wanted to answer was: Can the brain make use of artificial information that it’s never seen before that is delivered directly to the brain to navigate a virtual world or do useful tasks without other sensory input? And the answer is yes.”

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Zapping the brain with magnetic pulses boosts libido

In a curious study, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles showed that transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) -- altering brain activity by zapping specific regions with magnetic pulses -- can apparently increase people's libido, at least briefly. Neuroscientist Nicole Prause and her colleagues targeted the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (at the left temple), a region involved in reward-seeking. New Scientist explains the curious protocol used by the researchers:

...A vibrator was either connected to a sheath that the penis goes in or a small hood that fits over the clitoris. Electrodes on each participant’s head measured the strength of their brain’s alpha waves, which are weaker when people are more sexually aroused.

During the experiment, 20 people were given TMS for about two minutes, designed to either excite or inhibit the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Next, each volunteer was taken to a room where the EEG electrodes were placed on their head. They were then left to attach the vibrator themselves.

Finally, each participant carried out a task that involved pressing a button as fast as possible when shapes appeared on a screen. Depending on how quick they were, they were given a genital buzz lasting between half a second and five seconds – but only after a pause.

Their brainwaves were recorded during this waiting period. “They know they’re about to be sexually stimulated, but it hasn’t actually happened yet,” says Prause. It is the closest analogue for measuring desire in the lab, she adds.

As predicted, after excitatory TMS, participants’ alpha waves were weaker – suggesting they were more sexually aroused – than after inhibitory TMS.

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What people with "calendar synesthesia" reveal about how our minds deal with time

Synesthesia is the fascinating neurological phenomenon whereby stimulation of one sense involuntarily triggers another sensory pathway. A synesthete might taste sounds or hear colors. Now, leading synesthesia researcher VS Rakmachandran at the University of California, San Diego is studying "calendar synesthetes" who see very clear images of calendars in their mind's eye when they think about months that have passed or are in the future. For example, according to New Scientist, one participant in the research "sees her months as occupying an asymmetrical “V” shape. Along this V, she sees each month written in Helvetica font." From New Scientist:

The idea that calendars are literally laid out in space for some people suggests that we are all hardwired to some extent to map time in space.

The concepts of time and numbers are something we acquired relatively recently in our evolutionary history, says Ramachandran, but the brain wouldn’t have had time to evolve a specific area to deal with it.

“Given the opportunistic nature of evolution, perhaps the most convenient way to represent the abstract idea of sequences of numbers and time might have been to map them onto a preexisting map of visual space, already present in the brain,” he says.

Indeed, imaging scans show connections between areas of the brain involved in numbers and those involved with mapping the world, memories and our sense of self. The team suggest that when these areas act together, they enable us to navigate mentally through space and time, while being firmly anchored in the present.

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Johns Hopkins psychedelics research keeps finding medical uses

Johns Hopkins is among several institutions challenging a key tenet of outlawing psychedelics: that they have "no medicinal use." Baltimore Magazine examines the progress made by key researchers Roland Griffiths and Bill Richards. Read the rest

Science behind sleeping while you're awake

You may think you're awake but there's a good chance that part of your brain is asleep. And that can cause real problems, especially since you may not even be aware of it. In fact, indivisual neurons and groups of neurons in the cerebral cortex can be independently offline while others are awake. In Scientific American, Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, explores the counter-intuitive reality of "Sleeping While Awake:"

A case in point for sleep intruding into wakefulness involves brief episodes of sleep known as microsleep. These intervals can occur during any monotonous task, whether driving long distances across the country, listening to a speaker droning on or attending yet another never-ending departmental meeting. You're drowsy, your eyes get droopy, the eyelids close, your head repeatedly nods up and down and then snaps up: your consciousness lapses....

Perniciously, subjects typically believe themselves to be alert all the time during microsleep without recalling any period of unconsciousness. This misapprehension can be perilous to someone in the driver's seat. Microsleep can be fatal when driving or operating machinery such as trains or airplanes, hour after tedious hour. During a microsleep episode, the entire brain briefly falls asleep, raising the question of whether bits and pieces of the brain can go to sleep by themselves, without the entire organ succumbing to slumber.

Indeed, Italian-born neuroscientists Chiara Cirelli and Giulio Tononi, who study sleep and consciousness at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, discovered “sleepy neurons” in experimental animals that showed no behavioral manifestation of sleep...

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"Self-control" can be switched off with electromagnetic brain stimulation

University of Zurich researchers used transcranial magnetic stimulation, a noninvasive method of inhibiting activity in parts of the brain, to "turn off" people's ability to control their impulses. They focused on the temporoparietal junction, an area of the brain thought to play an important role in moral decisions, empathy, and other social interactions. They hope their research could help inform our understanding of addiction and self-discipline. From Scientific American:

In their study, subjects underwent 40 seconds of disruptive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)—in which a magnetic coil placed near the skull produced small electric currents in the brain that inhibited activity of the posterior TPJ—then spent 30 minutes completing a task. To rule out a placebo effect, a control group received TMS in a different area of the brain. In one task, subjects made a choice between a reward (ranging between 75 and 155 Swiss francs) for themselves or one that was shared equally between themselves and another person, who ranged from their closest confidante to a stranger on the street. In another task subjects were offered an immediate reward of between zero and 160 Swiss francs or a guarantee of 160 Swiss francs after waiting three to 18 months. In a final task, subjects were instructed to take the perspective of an avatar and indicate the number of red dots on a ball that the avatar would see.

Subjects with an inhibited TPJ were less likely to share the money and were more likely to take the money up front rather than delay gratification and wait for a larger prize.

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The coming fight over "nonlethal neuroweapons"

The Chemical Weapons Convention has a giant loophole in that it allows for the stockpiling and use of chemical agents in law-enforcement; with the Eighth Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) coming up next month, there's an urgent question about whether "neuroweapons" (chemical agents intended to pacify or disperse people) will become tools of law-enforcement and "defensive warfare." Read the rest

What's going on in the brains of people who don't need much sleep?

Many people claim that they don't need much sleep, insisting that even five hours a night is enough shuteye for them to feel rested. According to new scientific research, "habitual short sleepers" may actually be handling the brain tasks that most of us deal with during the night, like memory consolidation. From Medical Xpress:

Both groups of short sleepers exhibited connectivity patterns more typical of sleep than wakefulness while in the MRI scanner. (University of Utah radiologist Jeff) Anderson says that although people are instructed to stay awake while in the scanner, some short sleepers may have briefly drifted off, even those who denied dysfunction. "People are notoriously poor at knowing whether they've fallen asleep for a minute or two," he says. For the short sleepers who deny dysfunction, one hypothesis is that their wake-up brain systems are perpetually in over-drive. "This leaves open the possibility that, in a boring fMRI scanner they have nothing to do to keep them awake and thus fall asleep," says (Utah neurologist Chirstopher) Jones. This hypothesis has public safety implications, according to Curtis. "Other boring situations, like driving an automobile at night without adequate visual or auditory stimulation, may also put short sleepers at risk of drowsiness or even falling asleep behind the wheel," he says.

Looking specifically at differences in connectivity between brain regions, the researchers found that short sleepers who denied dysfunction showed enhanced connectivity between sensory cortices, which process external sensory information, and the hippocampus, a region associated with memory. "That's tantalizing because it suggests that maybe one of the things the short sleepers are doing in the scanner is performing memory consolidation more efficiently than non-short sleepers," Anderson says.

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