Want a Brain Boost? Try a Jog—or a Curry

Exercise: you know you should, and yet for many, vanity might not be enough to get you on the old treadmill first thing in the morning.

So if that isn’t getting you out of bed and into your sneakers, perhaps your brain might do it. No, not do your exercise, but rather, provide the best argument for working up a sweat.

It turns out that during strenuous physical activity, your brain produces a neural chemical called brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF for short.

In his book Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise, Harvard psychiatrist John J Ratey refers to BDNF as “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Why the fertilizer reference? BDNF strengthens the brain’s electrical connections by boosting their strength and vitality. This means that BDNF plays a vital role in the brain’s ability to rewire itself, often referred to as plasticity.

In an interesting study done in Germany, two groups faced off on treadmills. The first group supplemented their 45-minute exercise routine with two separate 3-minute intervals of intense sprinting. The control group didn’t include the high intensity sprinting intervals.

In subsequent memory tests, the sprinting group showed a 20% increase in word acquisition over the non-sprinters. Not surprisingly, the sprinters showed increased levels of BDNF, where the non-sprinters showed no difference.

Neuroscientist John Medina recommends in his book Brain Rules that we exercise 5 days a week for 30 minutes a day at an aerobic level. Recent Scottish studies support the German findings: extra bursts of brief, high-intensity exercise have a profound effect.

Memory improvement not convincing enough for you? How about kicking your mood up a notch? The neurotropic factor released during exercise appears to increase the output of dopamine and serotonin. Both are associated with well-being and enhanced mood.

Not into exercise? What about Indian food?

Another way to boost your BDNF is by consuming curcumin. It’s one of the main components of the spice tumeric, and according to Dr. Andrew Weil, it’s also “a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties.” You can find tumeric in most commercial curry powders, or on its own as a flavoring and a natural food dye.

So tomorrow morning, do your brain a favor and jump on the treadmill. Afterwards, sprinkle a healthy helping of turmeric on your Cheerios. Or better yet, treat yourself to a nice yellow curry at your favorite Indian haunt tomorrow evening. Or do both—your call.

The Experiencing Self, or, Why Present-You Hates Past-You

Unlike Calvin here, most of us will probably never get the opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation between our current selves and our 6:30 selves, so to speak. That is a shame, because as Daniel Kahneman discusses in Thinking, Fast and Slow, the two of them don’t necessarily know that much about each other.

In trying to understand how the brain registers emotion, Kahneman outlines the divide between what he calls the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.” The experiencing self, or “8:30 Calvin”, if you will, is you in the present. All it knows is whether or not you are having a good time in the moment. The remembering self, or “6:30 Calvin”, on the other hand, looks back and tries to to sum up your overall impressions of past events.

Which Calvin holds more sway in your judgements?  That prize goes to 6:30 Calvin. It makes a certain amount of sense. The trouble with living “in the now” is that every second is a different now. Your in-the-moment perceptions are in constant flux. Your remembering self, on the other hand, is a much more fixed point. Besides, the vast majority of the information in your head is not things you’re discovering in the moment; but feelings and data you’ve gradually built up over your whole life.

Unfortunately, 6:30 Calvin doesn’t always know what he’s talking about.

In the past, we’ve discussed the peak-end rule, where our take-home memory of an event puts way too much weight on the most extreme moment, and also on whatever happened at the very end. (Every stage actor knows that you have to bring your A-game to the final scene.) Our most recent recollection can color the rest of our information to a hilarious degree. In one study, people were asked to judge their own life satisfaction. But first, they had to make a photocopy. Half the participants then “discovered” a carefully planted dime in the photocopy room. The simple minor victory of having just gained a free ten cents had a noticeable impact on how they assessed the overall happiness of their lives.

Then, there’s duration neglect. 6:30 Calvin has no way to accurately record time.

To see these effects in action, we need look no further than Kahneman’s “cold hand” study.

First, experimenters asked people to plunge their hand into very cold water for 60 seconds. As you might imagine, this is not the most pleasant activity. (From an experiment design setup, it’s a good way to administer an easy-to-measure but harmless pain. From a “bored scientists hanging around the lab” setup, it’s probably also a decent dare.)

The subjects were allowed to briefly warm and dry their hands with a towel, and to presumably take a moment to ponder the sacrifices we all make for scientific knowledge, and whether or not it’s worth it to hurt yourself on purpose while some schmuck or schmuckette stands over you with a clipboard.

Then, it was back into the cold water. This time, the subjects got 60 seconds just as before, but immediately followed by 30 seconds in water that was exactly one degree warmer.

Told they had to undergo one more dunking, the subjects then had to decide: did they want to relive Option A or Option B?

Keep in mind: Option B is just Option A with 30 extra seconds of slightly less-painful pain. (A total of 90 seconds in cold water.) So surely it will come as no surprise to know that people overwhelmingly chose…Option B. They were swayed by the recollection of the pain lessening of the last 30 seconds (hello, peak-end rule), and while each second in the cold water had probably felt like an eternity as it was happening, the remembering self couldn’t make the distinction.

The remembering self doesn’t care about 60 seconds vs 90 seconds. “What’s the difference to me?” says the remembering self. “I’m talking to you from the past, and in the vast scheme of your life, 30 seconds are nothing.” Sure, it means a little extra pain in the moment, but the remembering self doesn’t worry about the moment. “Not my department,” says the remembering self with a shrug, passing the buck in a scene familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in a company with multiple employees. “It’s someone else’s problem.”

Unfortunately for you, that “someone else” is…your experiencing self.

If you’ve read the classic Calvin and Hobbes strip above, you know that what follows is a whole lot of arguing. Just one more peril of time travel…



Are You Smarter Than a Mouse?

Are you smarter than a mouse? This was one of the intriguing topics presented at 2013’s Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, on research done by J.F. Gysner, M. Manglani, N. Escalona, R. Hamilton, M. Taylor, J. Paffman, E. Johnson, and L.A. Gabel, all based out of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

If you are a lab mouse, then you are undoubtedly familiar with mazes. Specifically, you’ve probably logged some time in a Hebb-Williams maze. For decades, it’s been the go-to research model: a spacial-visual maze that centers on twelve standard problems, which differ based on the learning/memory task researchers have assigned to you and your rodent buddies.

But the Hebb-Williams maze is not solely reserved for our tiny rodent friends. Its friendly confines have also been used to test the mettle of ‘rats, cats, rabbits, ferrets, mice, and monkeys.’

The Lafayette College team had a few questions on their minds. Would it alter test results to use a virtual model instead? And if not, could they run humans through the simulation and compare their performances against mice?

Clearly, a virtual maze is far more desirable in terms of space and construction costs. Also, it’s not nearly as problematic as shrinking humans down to fit into a mouse maze. (Which, for one thing, opens itself up to all manner of tired movie plots.)

Ninety-eight humans, both male and female, participated in the experiment. The study focused on two age groups: children aged 8-12, and young adults aged 18-21. The participants were screened and evaluated on their video game knowledge to eliminate any pre-trial skill biases.

In order to ensure that chocolate pellets would be enough of an incentive to run the maze, researchers skimped on the food until the mice reached 85% body weight. (Apparently the humans needed no coercion to run the virtual maze for chocolate pellets.)

Ultimately, when it came to the final showdown, humans from both age groups were faster and less prone to mistakes than their small furry counterparts. However, taking controls for species into account, the humans and mice performed “similarly”, suggesting their performance could be compared in future experiments.

Additionally, it turns out that using a computer-generated maze on humans did not alter their results. This was particularly good news for the Lafayette researchers, but perhaps not such a boon for the would-be producers of Honey I Shrunk the Kids 3.

So lucky for your self-esteem, it turns out you are smarter than a mouse, at least where maze-running is concerned. That is, until the playing field is leveled and then, well, say hello to your new competitors, the irrepressible Mickey and Minnie.

Are You Brainwashed? Hopefully Yes.

When you think of brainwashing, the name Patty Hearst might come to mind. Daughter of the late newspaper tycoon Randolph Hearst, in 1974, the then nineteen-year-old was kidnapped by a fringe terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Several months later, she resurfaced, calling herself Tania and wielding a gun for the SLA during an attempted bank robbery. In September 1975, the local police and the FBI apprehended Hearst in an apartment in San Francisco, along with another SLA member. That January, she was tried for her involvement in the robbery.

The Hearst family’s legal team claimed Patty had been operating under a “classic case” of Stockholm Syndrome. They argued that after weeks of rape, torment, and imprisonment in a closet, she could no longer withstand an SLA indoctrinement.

The prosecution argued that she had willfully decided to aid the SLA, given some circumstantial evidence and her refusal to name names or turn anyone else in. The jury agreed. She served two years of a 35-year jail term before President Carter commuted her sentence. Twenty four years after that, President Clinton issued a full pardon — one of his last official actions in the Oval Office.

The strange case of Patty Hearst, and indeed, the very concept of brainwashing, is still hotly debated. That said, as a clinical diagnosis, it has yet to gain a foothold in the psychological community.

Yet recently the idea of brainwashing has resurfaced with a whole new twist — minus the terrorists, kidnapped heiresses, or attempted bank heists. Still, if you’re a neuroscience buff, you might find this case even more exciting. It concerns the dreaded brain disease known as Alzheimer’s.

According to a story by John Hamilton entitled Brains Sweep Themselves Clean of Toxins During Sleep, researchers discovered that brain cells shrink during sleep. This makes room for cerebral spinal fluid to circulate around the cell walls. It’s theorized that this circulation flushes out harmful proteins, the waste product of extracting energy from the blood’s glucose.

“It’s like a dishwasher,” says Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester and author of study in Science magazine.

This buildup of toxic proteins, sometimes referred to as ‘brain plaque’, has long been associated with Alzheimer’s. According to Nedergaard, a variety of sleep disorders might interfere with the cleansing — leading to some substantial problems later.

Why does this mental rinse cycle only happen during sleep? Since the process uses a lot of resources, she theorizes it’s an energy- saving strategy.

Furthermore, says Nedergaard, it could “explain why we don’t think clearly after a sleepless night and why a prolonged lack of sleep can actually kill an animal or a person.”

Nedergaard’s team first observed the process in laboratory rats, and since then it’s been observed in baboons. Scientists haven’t detected it yet in humans, but Nedergaard believes it’s only a matter of time.

This kind of brainwashing might not have the headline appeal of a kidnapped newspaper heiress gone rogue, but its implications extend to millions of people who may be suffering from plaque-related brain disorders.

If Nedergaard is right, it might turn out that brainwashing is something each and every one of us will be glad we are a party to.

General Custer, Bath Mats, and Moths

When General George Armstrong Custer made the ill-fated decision to charge his 700 troops into the heart of the Lakota Nation on June 25th 1876, it represented a pretty steep learning curve for the General—steep and deadly.

Neuroscientists know that extreme events that end in failure will create memories that tend to stick with us. Since your brain is built to keep you alive, it recruits your hippocampus and amygdala to remember those moments that put you at risk in the hope that you will recognize the same pattern and avoid it in the future. That is, of course, if you manage to live through the situation the first time around.

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Getting Smart About Intelligence

So what is intelligence, or more importantly, how does it work? The U.S. federal government recently announced it has budgeted some 3 billion dollars to mapping the human brain in hopes of answering these kinds of questions. (I would be happy to know why I struggle with driving directions.)

The larger question for the scientific world is: how does the brain make sense of the trillions of data bits thrown at it everyday? Continue reading

Your Brain on Bias

Last year, roughly 40,000 people died in automobile crashes on America’s highways. This is a tragic number, but it has been much worse in the past. Thanks to seatbelts and more crash-resistant vehicles, highway fatalities continue to creep downwards.

It is estimated that around 17 people die each year from getting crushed by heavy furniture, including TVs. This is also a tragic number, for many reasons–if nothing else, no one imagines being betrayed by their flatscreen.

In 2010 and 2011, not counting war zones, 17 American civilians were killed each year in terrorist attacks on foreign soil.

Yes: the same number that fell victim to toppled credenzas and/or falling televisions.

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What Dreams are Made Of

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it, and so do humans. I’m talking, of course, about sleep.  We spend roughly 33% of our time on earth in semi- hibernation, with our bodies partially paralyzed and although we can’t live without it, we are still somewhat in the dark (too obvious to be intentional) about how the whole process works.

If you ask most people, they will equate sleep with rest, a recharging of the ol’ battery. If you ask neuroscientists about sleep, they will tell you that it’s some of the brain’s most important working hours, when memory is consolidated and strengthened.

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