Afterparty is a new, excellent science fiction novel by Daryl Gregory, about drugs, God, sanity, morals, and organized crime. Its protagonist, Lyda Rose is a disgraced neuroscientist who once helped develop a drug that rewired its users' brains so that they continuously hallucinated the presence of living, embodied Godhead. Now Lyda is in a mental institution, where she is attempting to win over the therapists who oversee her -- as well as the angelic doctor that manifests only in her mind.
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A growing body of evidence, dating back to the late 1960s, suggests that we can lessen the emotional blow of negative memories (and even get rid of them altogether) months and years after those memories originally formed. The key is that memories seem to be vulnerable to manipulation and erasure as you're recalling them, not just at the time of creation. The newest research — and some of the most convincing to date — used electroconvulsive therapy to effectively remove the details of traumatizing stories from the minds of healthy volunteers. Virginia Hughes has a story about the newest study at her blog:
Schiller’s experiments have also bolstered the reconsolidation hypothesis. She has shown, for example, that if people recall a fearful memory and then go through ‘extinction learning’ — meaning that they’re shown the fearful stimulus over and over again without any pain — they can erase the emotional sting of the memory. Other groups have shown something similar by giving people propranolol, a beta-blocker, immediately after recalling a memory.
The new study adds ECT to the list. There are still a lot of questions. For example, it’s not clear how ECT is disrupting reconsolidation. Or if it’s doing it at all: The effect could be partly or wholly due to anesthesia, though the researchers say this is unlikely. Most importantly, no one knows whether the procedure would work with old, real memories, as opposed to those artificially created in the lab.
A couple years ago, I read Jack El-Hai's brilliant book
about lobotomy popularizer Walter Freeman
— the man who lobotomized Rosemary Kennedy and traveled the country lobotomizing thousands of Americans with an ice pick. Now, at the Wall Street Journal, Michael Phillips has a big feature about Freeman and the influence he had on mental healthcare in the Veterans Administration
. It's a chilling and important long read.
There's a new paper out suggesting that ladies' brains are different from mens' (in ways that support Western stereotypes of gender behavior, natch). It's pretty flawed
and has been heavily critiqued
, but one critique surprised me — turns out, there's evidence that men tend to move more than women do when you put them in an MRI machine, something that could throw off any attempt to compare MRI data
between men and women.
Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience is a smart and sometimes devastating critique of "neurobollocks" -- the propensity for using brain-science (and, particularly, brain imaging) to reductively explain human motivation. The authors, Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld, are a psychiatrist and a psychologist (respectively) and so it's hard not to suspect that there's a little professional rivalry at play here, but they present a compelling argument nonetheless -- a picture of promising science oversold in the name of winning grants, winning court cases, and, at the worst, duping the gullible.
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This video was made by the University of Utah Brain Institute to teach medical students about what a brain looks and feels like before it gets preserved in formalin and takes on the texture of a hard rubber ball.
The big takeaway message: Your brain is seriously squishy. So squishy, in fact, that a finger can dent it. As professor Suzanne Stensaas explains, this is one of the reasons why cerebrospinal fluid is so important. Your brain has to float in that fluid. If it didn't, it would come to rest against the side of your hard skull and quickly end up deformed.
Seriously, this is a fascinating (if extremely graphic) video. (Hilariously, given that fact, it opens with an image of a student eating.) Definitely worth watching!
The first of four studies on a poorly-understood link between sleep quality and depression indicates that when antidepressant medication and insomnia therapy are used together
, recovery from depression is more thorough, and faster. (Thanks, Miles O'Brien)
This seems like it has the potential to be pretty cool. Frontiers in Neuroscience for Young Minds
is a new scientific journal that will have kids — ages 8 to 18 — on the editorial review board. The goal: Mentor kids in the process of how science works while simultaneously engaging scientists with questions and comments by the people who are the subject of their research, questions they might not ever hear otherwise.
Researchers at the University of Washington scanned the brains of volunteers listening to one of several simple songs. Based on the neural activity they saw, the scientists were able to identify what song the subjects were hearing. Psychology professor Geoff Boynton presented the results of their study at this week's Neuroscience 2013 conference. (via New Scientist)
Photograph via National Geographic, by Graeme Shannon
A recent study investigated the impact of culling and relocation on elephant decision-making and cognition decades later. African elephants are highly intelligent and social creatures, and rely on their sophisticated communication skills to survive in the wild. How does the trauma of being separated from "loved ones" and their native terrain change how orphaned elephants think, and cope?
From a recent National Geographic article by Christy Ullrich Barcus:
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Across the United States, politicians are passing laws limiting abortion that are based on the idea that a fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks gestation. But the science underlying this assertion is a lot more complex than it's made out to be
. Most scientists don't think fetuses have the neural circuitry to experience pain until later. And the scientists whose research is most often cited as evidence of fetal pain at 20 weeks don't think their work is saying what anti-abortion activists think it does.
EDW Lynch of Laughing Squid says: "Sleight-of-hand artist and master pickpocket Apollo Robbins demonstrates the art of misdirection on an unlucky volunteer in this entertaining TED talk from TEDGlobal 2013."
If somebody tells you an ostensible fact about human behavior or human thought and shows you a picture of an fMRI at the same time, are you more likely to believe what you've just been told
? There's a debate within science right now about whether people are more easily lead astray by brain imaging, or whether those rainbow pictures of the mind affect our thinking much at all. Some studies show one result. Some show another. At Scientific American Mind, Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer explain why both sides might be right in this fight. It's a neat reminder that answers aren't always binary.
The artificial sweetener Splenda was discovered
when a chemistry grad student misunderstood his advisor's instructions to "test" a compound and tasted it, instead. (This piece at Scientific American focuses on how the brain responds to, and is changed by, sweeteners.)
If you look at this wheel out of your peripheral vision, you should see it flicker or strobe a bit. (To me, it almost looks like a fast pulsating motion, coming from the center of the wheel.) And that's neat. Optical illusions are usually pretty neat.
But, as the blogger Neuroskeptic writes, there's some reason to think that what you're seeing might be something even more awesome than just your brain being misled. A study published this month in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests that the flickering is actually a visual representation of the rhythmic alpha waves that are constantly pulsating through your brain.
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Creativity is actually more than one thing, it happens in many different parts of your brain, and it is DEFINITELY NOT confined to the brain's right hemisphere. At Beautiful Minds, Scott Barry Kaufman talks about the complex processes that get glossed over in our pop-sci understanding of creative thinking
. It's a good companion to the story I wrote here last week
about why the idea of "fear" is also more complex than we give it credit for.
Moheb Costandi has written two amazing profiles
on psychologist Elizabeth Loftus
, a researcher who has challenged the way we rely on memory in the courtroom and fought against attempts to legitimize "recovered" memories. Hugely controversial — she's received death threats from people who blame her for setting criminals free — Loftus' story isn't purely about science vs. emotion. In fact, Costandi writes, in her efforts make our concept of memory more evidence based, Loftus might be glossing over the rare and the weird-but-real.