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Your brain is all squishy: An anatomical demonstration

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!

Create false memories at home for fun and profit!

Science journalist Stephen Ross Pomeroy uses real research to explain how you can trick your friends and loved ones into "remembering" events that never actually happened. Key tips: Don't get too intricate with the details (your mark will fill those in for themselves) and do focus on false memories that would have a strong emotional component. Maggie

The history (and future) of psychedelic science

Back in 2010, the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience published an article looking at the neurobiology of psychedelic drugs and why researchers were returning to this field after 40 years of stagnation. As part of that, they commissioned four of the best neuroscience bloggers on the Internet to write posts about the history of psychedelic psychiatry and the possible ways we could use these drugs to help people. I stumbled across this collection recently, and thought you all might enjoy it. Maggie

Why technology might not make children stupid, after all

All this newfangled technology is going to make young people stupid.

This is a very old argument, dating back (at least) to 370-ish BC, when Plato wrote the The Phaedrus. Like the better-known Republic, Phaedrus is written as a conversation between the character of Socrates and other people. At one point, Socrates tells a legend of an Egyptian god who invents writing and tries to give the gift of the written word to a wise king. The king is ... less than enthused.

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Basically, all these damn books are going to make the kids dumb. This is usually my go-to story that I bring up whenever somebody is fretting too much about how the Internet will totally make kids stupid. But journalist Annie Murphy Paul has found an even better argument against techno-fear. At her blog, she quotes an interview with Jay Giedd, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health:

Read the rest

How science turned into science fiction

Moran Cerf is a neuroscientist. In the video above, which Cory posted on Friday, he tells the story of how a paper he published in the journal Nature ended up getting him phone calls from Apple and invitations to appear with Christopher Nolan on the publicity tour for Inception. The problem: Nolan, Apple, and a lot of other people thought Cerf had figured out a way to record dreams. He hadn't. Not even close.

Cory's piece, and a link that Xeni sent me to the video, got me reading up on this case and I wanted to provide more of the scientific background—so you can see clearly what Cerf's research was really about and how the media got wrong. Back in 2010, Cerf and his colleagues were trying to figure out how humans look at a world cluttered with different faces, objects, smells, and sounds and manage to filter out the specific things we're interested in. What happens when I look at a messy desk and immediately focus in on one piece of paper? If there are two objects on the desk that are familiar to me, but only one of them really matters, how does my brain resolve the conflict and direct my attention in a single direction?

Turns out, at least under laboratory conditions, humans can filter out the important stuff by consciously controlling the firing of neurons in their own brains. Here's how Alison Abbott at Nature News described the research at the time:

In the last six years or so they have shown that single neurons can fire when subjects recognise — or even imagine — just one particular person or object. They propose that activity in these neurons reflect the choices the brain is making about what sensory information it will consider further and what information it will neglect.

In this experiment, the scientists flashed a series of 110 familiar images — such as pictures of Marilyn Monroe or Michael Jackson — on a screen in front of each of the 12 patients and identified individual neurons which uniquely and reliably responded to one of the images. They selected four images for which they had found responsive neurons in different parts of a subject's MTL. Then they showed the subject two images superimposed on each other. Each was 50% faded out.

The subjects were told to think about one of the images and enhance it.

Read the rest

The neurobiology and psychology that connect summer vacation with your morning run

Time is relative. Remember how each day in grade school (especially summer days) seemed to last for an eternity? Ever notice how it seems to take forever to travel a new route on your bike, while the return trip along the same path is done in the blink of an eye?

Turns out, both of those things are connected and they have important implications for the nature of memory. There's a great summary of the science on this up at The Irish Times. It's written by William Reville, emeritus professor of biochemistry at University College Cork.

The key issue, according to Reville, is that the amount of information your brain can store during a given time period isn't really dependent on the length of that time period. You could store up a lot of new information during 10 minutes of a really interesting lecture. You might store only a little new information during 10 minutes of walking your dog along a path you know very well.

The higher the intensity, the longer the duration seems to be. In a classic experiment, participants were asked to memorise either a simple [a circle] or complex figure . Although the clock-time allocated to each task was identical, participants later estimated the duration of memorising the complex shape to be significantly longer than for the simple shape.

... [H]ere is a “guaranteed” way to lengthen your life. Childhood holidays seem to last forever, but as you grow older time seems to accelerate. “Time” is related to how much information you are taking in – information stretches time. A child’s day from 9am to 3.30pm is like a 20-hour day for an adult. Children experience many new things every day and time passes slowly, but as people get older they have fewer new experiences and time is less stretched by information. So, you can “lengthen” your life by minimising routine and making sure your life is full of new active experiences – travel to new places, take on new interests, and spend more time living in the present.

I think this also has some implications for my exercise routine. I am well aware that my ability to run any distance at all is heavily dependent on psychological factors. I am not one of those people who likes to go running in new places, along unfamiliar trails, because it has always made me feel like the distance was much, much longer — and, consequently, leads me to stop running and start walking sooner than I actually have to. I've had a lot more luck running on tracks and elliptical machines—situations where it seems to be easier for me to get into a zone and lose track of time. When I run that way, it's my physical limitations that matter, not my psychological ones.

Of course, I know a lot of people who feel exactly the opposite. Maybe, for those people, running in a routine situation, like a track, makes them start to think more about their day or what's going on around them, and processing all that information makes the workout seem longer. I'm not sure. But this is awfully interesting.

Read the rest of William Reville's piece at The Irish Times

Via Graham Farmelo

Image: RUN Hills Pullover in action!, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from lululemonathletica's photostream