The Beautiful Brain explores the latest findings from the ever-growing field of neuroscience through monthly long-form essays, reviews, galleries, short-form blog posts and more, with particular attention to the dialogue between the arts and sciences.
PET scan technology, or positron emission tomography, is an extremely important tool in neuroscience. Aside from their use in medicine for the detection of neurological disease, tumors, and stroke, PET scans – like fMRI scans – can measure molecular activity in specific regions of the brain and answer important questions about neurophysiology. Until now, PET scans have been limited to humans. A research group from Brookhaven National Laboratory recently published an article in Naturedetailing a customized PET for rodents.
Unlike the human PET, which requires subjects to be immobilized, the rodent PET scan allows the animal to move freely while its brain is scanned. This seemingly small detail has immense consequences for neuroscience research; the behavioral tests that have been used on rodents for the last century (i.e. mazes, wheels, tests of eating behavior, addiction studies, etc etc) can now be accompanied by visual representations of regional brain activity.
I assume scientifically inclined gerbil owners eagerly await a custom gerbil-fitted PET scan…if not for home experiments, they can at least make sure their furry pets have clean bills of health.
It’s important to take fMRI studies with a dose of skepticism. These are any of the studies that tell you “the brain lights up” when you do or think of X. Really, this “lighting up” is an fMRI scanner detecting changes in bloodflow to certain regions of the brain, assumed to correlate with increases in neuronal electrochemical activity in that region. These studies are certainly helpful with localizing function in the brain, and showing us what healthy versus diseased function looks like. But in mainstream media, it shouldn’t surprise us so much anymore that certain regions of the brain light up when we do or think anything at all. They better!
Charles Limb playing keys in the scanner.
That being said, here’s one of the coolest fMRI studies I’ve seen. Charles Limb studies the neural correlates of creativity– what happens in the brain when we play a piece of music that’s memorized versus when we improvise a solo? What happens in the brain when we “trade fours,” a classic improvisation technique in jazz? This 17-minute TEDxMidAtlantic talk is a must watch for anyone interested in creativity and the brain. See what Limb does that makes the audience burst into spontaneous applause, and all the great footage of jazz piano playing (and rap freestyling!) while in an fMRI scanner.
While yesterday we BBBlogged about Facebook’s role in boosting self-esteem, some other recent psychology research argues the opposite. Though Stanford’s Alex Jordan, et al, agree that Facebook allows for the posting of primarily positive things (i.e. self-esteem boosting pictures and quotes or smart profile additions), they argue that constantly seeing images of your peers expressing joy can amplify depressive or negative feelings about oneself. Slate‘s Libby Copeland wrote on the report:
By showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people’s lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers, Facebook appears to exploit an Achilles’ heel of human nature. And women—an especially unhappy bunch of late—may be especially vulnerable to keeping up with what they imagine is the happiness of the Joneses.
The “happiness of the Joneses” is an important idea; how “relative” is happiness? Does seeing others in a fixed state of joy, as we often see them on Facebook, make us feel that we are alone with our problems? Or does our ability to craft a see-what-we-want, joyful, flattering Facebook persona make us happy?
(read the rest of Copeland’s nice Slate piece here)
A new research article in the interestingly-titled journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, argues that facebook is a self-esteem booster. In the study, one group of subjects were allowed to spend several minutes tinkering with their facebook profiles, while subjects in the other group sat and looked in the mirror for the same period of time. Using some well-trod, in-depth self-esteem tests, the subjects’ perceived self-esteem levels were measured.
The lead researcher, Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell, argues that the reason for the Facebook boost is the overall “positive” nature of Facebook content; One can post mainly flattering pictures of them self and update their status with primarily witty comments, and the majority of social interactions on the site are positive. These factors have an obvious correlation with high self-esteem:
The results revealed that… becoming self-aware by viewing one’s own Facebook profile enhances self-esteem rather than diminishes it. These findings suggest that selective self-presentation in digital media, which leads to intensified relationship formation, also influences impressions of the self…By providing multiple opportunities for selective self-presentation—through photos, personal details, and witty comments—social-networking sites exemplify how modern technology sometimes forces us to reconsider previously understood psychological processes.
The moral of the story…close this window and go Facebook for a few hours, I guess. Weird…
A new article out of article out of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm released last week, entitled “The Illusion of Owning a Third Arm,” details an ingenious set of experiments that actually convinced individuals that a prosthetic “third limb” was of their own flesh. While the traditional “phantom limb” experiments used mirrors to trick people into thinking a prosthetic arm was their own, this experiment put the fake one right out on the table next to the real thing.
The neuroscience behind the illusion is intriguing. How does the brain “make room” for the ownership, albeit illusory, of an extra limb? How far can this little trick go? Can the brain also be tricked into amplified physical states? Three eyes? Four legs? Two selves?
Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington gave a TED talk late last year and it is now live on their site. Kuhl has done some interesting work on the sheer complexity of language learning during infancy, and dicusses the complexities of the integrated brain systems that support language. From TED:
Patricia Kuhl shares astonishing findings about how babies learn one language over another — by listening to the humans around them and “taking statistics” on the sounds they need to know. Clever lab experiments (and brain scans) show how 6-month-old babies use sophisticated reasoning to understand their world.