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.
I know what you’re going through. Graduation is fast approaching. Between the parties, there are the laughs, tears, bittersweet moments of utter satisfaction with life. It’s a joyous time riddled with optimism, self-doubt, and uncertainty, all at the same time. Maybe our beloved neuroscience can help us out?
In an article by Tali Sharot in the New York Times, optimism itself is briefly reviewed. The bottom line? Optimism is good. It helps us heal faster, live longer, and it motivates us. But drink this spirit in moderation and be sure to accompany it with a safety net.
Richard Wiseman’s book, 59 Seconds adds to this by siting studies that suggest envisioning your perfect future can actually be detrimental to your success. People can waste time dwelling in fantasy, and when things don’t go as planned, it can hurt a lot more when you’ve been envisioning the perfect situation for months or years.
So, chin up. Look on the bright side of things and expect the best. Your body will thank you. But don’t get drunk with optimism; the hangover from this binge can be devastating.
I have to return to my friends, taking a moment to smell the air before I return to life. Maybe you should do the same.
Primatologist Frans de Waal has written a terrific essay for the New York Times’ Opinionator blog about our moral instincts. Do we need a “God” in order to do “good?” No, de Waal argues:
“According to most philosophers, we reason ourselves towards a moral position. Even if we do not invoke God, it is still a top-down process of us formulating the principles and then imposing those on human conduct. But would it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination to be so? Would it make sense to appeal to fairness and justice in the absence of powerful reactions to their absence? Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took needed to be vetted against handed-down principles. Instead, I am a firm believer in the Humean position that reason is the slave of the passions. We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.”
A new study in the journal Cognition, by Judith Kroll and her team at Penn State, suggests that deaf individuals fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) with English as their second language can read words and internally visualize signs at the same time. Like non-deaf bilinguals, ASL users engage their knowledge of both languages simultaneously, though in the case of the deaf, that means they aren’t merely thinking of two words, they’re thinking of both a word and a mental representation of positioned human hands.
Deaf individuals were told to decide whether two sample English words were related or unrelated in meaning as fast as they could (i.e. ‘bird’ and ‘duck’ would be related, ‘movie’ and ‘paper’ would be unrelated). If the related words also had ASL hand signs that were simlar to each other in their shape and motion, the deaf participants recorded significantly faster translation times for the task.
In other words, if two signs are physically similar, they speed up language translation. There is clearly some kind of “vocabulary of the hands” in ASL speakers that may make two similar hand shapes analogous to two similar words, like “drive” and “dive” or “sun” and “sunk.”
These data further support the idea that ASL is very cognitively similar to spoken language, likely uses some of the same neural pathways, and is learned in the same way. The latter idea is strongly supported by the touching history of Nicaraguan Sign Language, which was created by an isolated population of genetically deaf children in Nicaragua in the 1970s.
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.