PsychNews: Sep. 5 – 11

1. The Labyrinthe of Inception

    “It’s easy to why the movie [Inception] has attracted neuroscience fans, including a brain-based review in this week’s Nature. It’s a science fiction film, the dream entry device presumably alters the brain, and director Christopher Nolan’s previous film Memento was carefully drawn from a detailed reading of the science of brain injury and memory loss.

    Inception itself, however, contains so little direct reference to the brain (I counted about three lines) that you have to do some pretty flexible interpretation to draw firm parallels with brain science. Perhaps, most tellingly, for a film supposedly about neuroscience, the dream entry devices don’t even connect to the brain and nothing is made of how they achieve their interface.

    But for those familiar with the theories of Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst and dissenter from Freud’s circle, the film is rich with both implicit and explicit references to his work.”

2. How To Have More Insights

    “Mark Beeman is one of the eminent neuroscientists studying the ‘aha’ moment. As he said in a paper in the first NeuroLeadership Journal, “…variables that improve the ability to detect weak associations may improve insight solving.” In short, insights tend to involve connections between small numbers of neurons. An insight is often a long forgotten memory or a combination of memories. These memories don’t have a lot of neurons involved in holding them together. The trouble is, we only notice signals above whatever our base line of noise is. Everyday thought, like wondering what to have for lunch, might involve millions of neurons speaking to each other. An insight might involve only a few tens of thousands of neurons speaking to each other. Just as it’s hard to hear a quiet cell phone at a loud party, it’s hard to notice signals that have less energy than the general energy level already present in the brain. Hence, we tend to notice insights when our overall activity level in the brain is low. This happens when we’re not putting in a lot of mental effort, when we’re focusing on something repetitive, or just generally more relaxed like as we wake up. Insights require a quiet mind, because they themselves are quiet.”

3. You Must Remember This: What Makes Something Memorable? by Christof Koch, California Institute of Technology

    “Nerve cells do not generally operate in lockstep. They typically send out pulses irregularly, whenever their excitation levels exceed a threshold. What the Caltech team found, however, is that neuronal rhythms can be highly orchestrated at times—and that this synchrony helps people form lasting memories. Think about a freestyle swimmer. She regularly turns her head to the side to breathe within the triangle formed by her upper and lower arm and the waterline. If she takes a breath during a different phase of the crawl, she most likely will swallow water and lose her rhythm. And so it seems to be for these memory-forming neurons.

    During the learning phase, the team found, if a picture flashed on the screen at a moment when neuronal spikes in the hippocampus and the amygdala lined up with the local theta clock, patients were more likely to remember the image and feel confident that their recollection was accurate. When people were viewing images that they would later fail to recognize, this coordination between individual memory-encoding neurons and overall brain activity was much reduced.

    This research reveals an extra factor besides attention, novelty and emotional impact in determining what makes something memorable: timing. Neurons always spike in response to new images and experiences. But when the spikes happen to coincide with the theta rhythm, this coordinated electrical activity alters the brain’s synapses, those specialized molecular machines between neurons, enabling memories to form.”

4. Hallucinogen Can Safely Ease Anxiety in Advanced-Stage Cancer Patients, Study Suggests

    “In the first human study of its kind to be published in more than 35 years, researchers found psilocybin, an hallucinogen which occurs naturally in ‘magic mushrooms,’ can safely improve the moods of patients with advanced-stage cancer and anxiety, according to an article published online September 6 in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

    Patients enrolled in the study at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center (LA BioMed) demonstrated improvement of mood and reduction of anxiety up to six months after undergoing treatment, with significance reached at the six-month point on the ‘Beck Depression Inventory’ and at one and three months on the ‘State-Trait Anxiety Inventory.’ A third screening tool, the ‘Profile of Mood States,’ identified mood improvement after treatment that approached but did not reach significance.”

5. A Stranger In Half Your Body

    “An amazing study has just been published online in Consciousness and Cognition about a patient with epilepsy who felt the left half of his body was being “invaded by a stranger” when he had a seizure. As a result, he felt he existed in one side of his body only.

    The research is from the same Swiss team who made headlines with their study that used virtual reality to make participants feel they were in someone else’s body, and one where brain stimulation triggered the sensation of having an offset ‘shadow body’ in patients undergoing neurosurgery.

    The researchers suggest that having an integrated sense of our own bodies involves three types of perception: self-location – the area where we experience the self to be located; first-person perspective – the perceived centre of the conscious experience; and self-identification – the degree to which we identify sensations with our own bodies.”

6. What Calms Distress And Causes Growth?

    “What causes personal growth? Memories and memories alone (I’ll explain later). Start the process by remembering something horrible. Feel your pot stirring? A slight frown? A faster heart beat? What happens next?

    That fresh experience is a command to calm the distress we now feel. With this memory, we have started a process, however unconscious, designed to accommodate, resolve and integrate the upsetting memory.

    How do we calm our stirred pot and resolve the painful memory? To find the answer, it’s helpful to have separation and perspective from the distress, which is hard when it’s our own. We get too emotionally involved.

    We can find separation and perspective when we follow someone else’s horrible thing. For the example below, I use a section from Isabel Gillies’ book Happens Every Day: An All Too True Story. We can track our experience of her story.”

7. Designing your own workspace improves health, happiness, and productivity.

    “Employees who have control over the design and layout of their workspace are not only happier and healthier — they’re also up to 32% more productive, according to new research from the University of Exeter in the UK.

    Studies by the University’s School of Psychology have revealed the potential for remarkable improvements in workers’ attitudes to their jobs by allowing them to personalise their offices.

    The findings challenge the conventional approach taken by most companies, where managers often create a ‘lean’ working environment that reflects a standardized corporate identity.”

8. Consumers pay more for goods they can touch.

    “Investigations into how subjects assign value to consumer goods — and how those values depend on the way in which those goods are presented — are being published in the September issue of the American Economic Review.

    The question they address is at the heart of economics and marketing: Does the form in which an item is presented to consumers affect their willingness to pay for it?

    Put more simply, says Antonio Rangel, professor of neuroscience and economics at Caltech, ‘At a restaurant, does it matter whether they simply list the name of the dessert, show a picture of the dessert, or bring the dessert cart around?'”

9. Meditation And “Drugs” by Jay Michaelson

    “[One] point of similarity between drug use and meditation is that both lead to states of consciousness that are different from the ordinary. Enjoying these seems to be a matter of taste. A lot of people like to take vacations in foreign countries. Some like exotic foods. And many others like vacations from their ordinary modes of consciousness into a different ‘mind-space’ where new insights can occur and even ordinary stimuli (and even without the sensual enhancement above) can be experienced in a whole new way.

    Many people deeply fear altered states of consciousness, I think because they are overly afraid of their own non-rational minds. Subscribing to a worldview in which ‘rational’ rules of decency, propriety, etc., govern every aspect of life means relying on our capacities of rational judgment for every important decision. And so, mind-states which relegate such faculties to a subordinate or even invisible role is scary. Now, of course, I’m all for rational judgment making most decisions in the world, and certainly all of those which seriously affect other people. But is it a rational judgment to dance? To let go of the self in orgasm? To fall in love? Some of our most transcendent moments come when the rational mind is quieted and something else takes its place. In some aspects of life, being in touch with the nonrational is essential to being human.”

10. Derek Silver: Keep Your Goals To Yourself

11. Revenge of the Introvert

    “Solitude, quite literally, allows introverts to hear themselves think. In a classic series of studies, researchers mapped brain electrical activity in introverts and extraverts. The introverts all had higher levels of electrical activity—indicating greater cortical arousal—whether in a resting state or engaged in challenging cognitive tasks. The researchers proposed that given their higher level of brain activity and reactivity, introverts limit input from the environment in order to maintain an optimal level of arousal. Extraverts, on the other hand, seek out external stimulation to get their brain juices flowing.

    Neuroimaging studies measuring cerebral blood flow reveal that among introverts, the activation is centered in the frontal cortex, responsible for remembering, planning, decision making, and problem solving—the kinds of activities that require inward focus and attention. Introverts’ brains also show increased blood flow in Broca’s area, a region associated with speech production—likely reflecting the capacity for self-talk.”

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