Archive for May, 2008

Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

Captain America, Steroids

Opening in select cities this weekend and expanding to more cities throughout the month, Bigger, Stronger, Faster* looks to be a must-watch documentary that explores America’s (sometimes tragic) sporting ethos of winning… at all costs. The movie’s summary:

In America, we define ourselves in the superlative: we are the biggest, strongest, fastest country in the world. We reward speed, size and above all else: winning – at sport, at business and at war. Metaphorically we are a nation on steroids. Is it any wonder that so many of our heroes are on performance enhancing drugs?

From the producers of Bowling For Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 comes a new film that unflinchingly explores our win-at-all-cost culture through the lens of a personal journey. Blending comedy and pathos, BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER* is a collision of pop culture, animated sequences and first-person narrative, with a diverse cast including US Congressmen, professional athletes, medical experts and everyday gym rats.

At its heart, this is the story of director Christopher Bell and his two brothers, who grew up idolizing muscular giants like Hulk Hogan, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and who went on to become members of the steroid-subculture in an effort to realize their American dream. When you discover that your heroes have all broken the rules, do you follow the rules, or do you follow your heroes?

Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (BSF*) promises to elevate the level of discussion about steroids and has a 100% Fresh rating on Some select quotes from the critics:

“Easily one of the best documentaries of the year.”

“Bell’s film is not only captivating and entertaining, it takes an American subculture and turns our general understanding of it on its head.”

“…manages to be two films at once: One is an informative portrait of a power-hungry society; the other is an intensely gripping narrative of personal growth.”

“Bell’s debut feature addresses its subject with both humor and intelligence, approaching the issue of performance enhancement from every conceivable angle.” [Source.]

An excerpt from Stephen Holden’s review in the NYT:

How do you reconcile the imperative drilled into children by parents, teachers and the news media that winning is everything with the increasingly quaint moral injunctions to play fair, exercise good sportsmanship and do the right thing? If your childhood idols are preening supermen like Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who preached clean living but revealed their own reliance on steroids, which path are you likely to follow?

The movie ponders the question of what constitutes cheating when you look objectively at the role of medicine in competitive sport. Is it cheating for a bicycle racer to pump more oxygen into his system by sleeping in a high-altitude chamber? Has Tiger Woods’s Lasik eye surgery given him an unfair competitive advantage? The lines between cheating and fair play, the movie suggests, are hazy to the point of being arbitrary. Pharmaceutical enhancement extends even to the sedate world of classical music, in which musicians susceptible to stage fright consume beta blockers to keep them calm.

American culture’s embrace of steroids, or at least benign neglect about responding to the proliferation of cheating and use of performance enhancing drugs in sport, is a curious phenomenon. It was not all that long ago when we looked to the doped-up Soviet athletes in the Olympics from the 1950s to early ’80s with indignation and smug pride. They were products of science, freaks, machines. Our athletes were natural. Real. Steroids were un-American, as Senator Joseph Biden is heard to say in BSF*.

Or, asks Stephen Holden, “are [steroids] as American as apple pie?” Is it cheating if everybody does it?

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood 

May 30, 2008 at 5:31 pm 1 comment

Computers that can “read” your mind

Brain activity

Big news today. Best to go straight to the Reuters article:

A computer has been trained to “read” people’s minds by looking at scans of their brains as they thought about specific words, researchers from the Machine Learning Department at Carnegie Mellon University announced today.

They hope their study, published in the journal Science, might lead to better understanding of how and where the brain stores information.

How’s it work? Volunteers were asked to think of 58 different words while researchers recorded their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging. The researchers were able to create an “average image” of each word based on the brain activity of each volunteer.

The computer was then trained to recognize the “subtle differences” among the brain images that corresponded to one of the 58 words.

Then the computer was given two new words that it had not yet seen — celery and airplane – and “was asked to choose which brain image corresponded with which word.” 

By comparing the new brain images to the brain images of the 58 words that the computer did know,

The computer passed the test, predicting when a brain image was taken when a person thought about the word “celery” and when the assigned word was “airplane.”

Researchers hope their work “might lead to better treatments for language disorders and learning disabilities.”

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood 

May 29, 2008 at 9:37 pm Leave a comment

Spin Rage, Update

Bike Rage

Back in September, on a now-no-longer-updated-blog, I made note of a story about a Wall Street broker who assaulted a fellow member in a spinning class at a gym in New York City:

I can understand driving rage. Maybe even “Ben & Jerry’s free cone day” rage. (That Cherry Garcia is mm-mm-good. If someone cuts in front of me at free cone day — which should really be a national holiday, don’tchathink? — watch out! I am liable to get freaky on the line-cutter.)

But this… Spin rage (?!) Wow.

According to the article: “Christopher Carter, 44, a broker at Maxim Investments Group, was at Equinox gym taking a spin class, a high-impact workout using stationary bikes. He apparently became so fed up by member Stuart Sugarman’s hooting and grunting during the workout that he picked up Sugarman and his bike and hurled them into a wall.”

Be careful out there, kiddos. Even at the gym. And watch out for those middle-aged Wall Street broker types wearing $150 bike kits to spinning class at the YMCA. They just really, really need to spin.

Well, almost nine months after the Spin Rage incident, the case heads to court. Details of the courtroom drama are provided by the NY Post:

He just can’t help the grunting.

Nor can he help shouting “Woo-woo!” or “Great song!” or “Good burn,” or – inexplicably, “You go, girl!”

That’s what a spin-class workout is all about, hedge-fund manager Stuart Sugarman testified today, taking the stand as the victim in the bizarre case of an Upper East Side gym assault.

“These are words that would get me charged up and really come out automatically,” Sugarman, 48, told a jury, describing the prologue to a brutal spin-class smackdown that jangled his vertebrae and landed him in the hospital for 10 days.

“I try to get into the zone,” he explained of what both sides called his “vocalizations.”

To read more, check out “Grunt and Center. Stomped gym guy: my noise all part of spin-class culture.” (Love those NY Post headlines.)

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

May 29, 2008 at 6:27 pm 1 comment

Monkey Brain

Monkey brain, robot arm

Monkeys… Sitting in a chair… Using an arm-like machine to grab marshmallows… And controlling this machine with their brains.


Scientists have made a quantum-leap in brain-machine interface technology, according to a new article in the the journal Nature. In “Cortical control of a prosthetic arm for self-feeding,” researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University built an arm-like machine, complete with “shoulder joints, an elbow and a grasping claw with two mechanical fingers” and then gave two macaques joysticks that could control the mechanical arm.

Then, as explained by Benedict Carey, in a great article for the International Herald Tribune:

Just beneath the monkeys’ skulls, the scientists implanted a grid about the size of a large freckle. It sat on the motor cortex, over a patch of cells known to signal arm and hand movements. The grid held 100 tiny electrodes, each connecting to a single neuron, its wires running out of the brain and to a computer.

The computer was programmed to analyze the collective firing of these 100 motor neurons, translate that sum into an electronic command and send it instantaneously to the arm, which was mounted flush with the left shoulder.

The scientists used the computer to help the monkeys move the arm at first, essentially teaching them with biofeedback.

After several days, the monkeys needed no help. They sat stationary in a chair, repeatedly manipulating the arm with their brain to reach out and grab grapes, marshmallows and other nuggets dangled in front of them. The snacks reached the mouths about two-thirds of the time — an impressive rate, compared with earlier work.

The monkeys learned to hold the grip open on approaching the food, close it just enough to hold the food and gradually loosen the grip when feeding.

On several occasions, a monkey kept its claw open on the way back, with the food stuck to one finger. At other times, a monkey moved the arm to lick the fingers clean or to push a bit of food into its mouth while ignoring a newly presented morsel.

The animals were apparently freelancing, discovering new uses for the arm, showing “displays of embodiment that would never be seen in a virtual environment,” the researchers wrote.

This is radical research, leading to technology that will “allow people with spinal cord injuries and other paralyzing conditions to gain more control over their lives. Brain-controlled prosthetics are technically within reach.”

Click here to view a video of a monkey controlling a robot arm with using its brain activity.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood 

May 29, 2008 at 3:17 pm 2 comments

Mario Math?

Nintendo DS Brain TrainingA story out of the United Kingdom provides an interesting complement to my most recent post about Nintendo’s Wii Fit…

A pilot study was conducted at a primary school in Scotland to investigate the potential value of utilizing video games in the classroom — video games that are specifically designed to improve memory, spatial reasoning, and other abstract brain functioning skills.

In the study, students were given a Nintendo DS, which is a handheld video game console, and played Dr. Kawashima’s More Brain Training video game at the beginning of every school day, for 20 minutes a day, for 10 consecutive weeks.

At the end of the trial period, the average math scores of students that played with the brain training video games increased by 10 percent (compared to their scores from a pre-intervention assessment). The time it took these students to complete the tests decreased from 17 minutes to 13 minutes.

Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) is the lead organization for curriculum development in the country; Derek Robertson is the development officer of games-based learning for LTS. In the Telegraph article, “Pupils to start day with Nintendo Brain Training,” Robertson said the initial pilot project of Nintendo’s brain training video games produced “fascinating results.”

Not only was there a marked significant improvement in mental maths, but there was also an improvement in concentration levels, behavior, and self-regulation in the learning process.

LTS is so intrigued by the potential of brain training video games that it is expanding its study to include 32 schools — at 16 schools, students will start their day by playing brain training video games; 16 other schools will serve as a control group.

If the results from this larger study are promising, maybe playing video games will become mandatory homework for students.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

May 27, 2008 at 2:34 am Leave a comment

“And one, and two, and Wii…”

Wii Fit

With the launch of Nintendo’s Wii Fit, parents and health experts can no longer claim that video games make our kids fat.

Or can they? Just what kind of workout can you get from balancing on an expensive piece of plastic? Does a cartoon avatar offer the same kind of coaching as a personal trainer?

Doesn’t it feel a bit weird to stand shirtless, wearing Spandex shorts, in front of our favorite animated plumber Mario, who encourages you with a cheerful “Mama Mia!” every time you do a push-up?

(Just for the record, I do not know if Mario — or even Super Mario — make an appearance in Wii Fit. But the possibility of the above scenario makes me want to dust off my old Game Genie and connect it to Wii Fit to see if maybe, just maybe, there’s a hidden gym where I can virtually workout with Mario, Luigi, Toad, and the Princess.

I came across two interesting stories this morning about the hottest video game — er, exergame? — on the market: “Gaming Your Way to Fitness,” which aired on NPR, and the NYT’s “O.K., Avatar, Work With Me.”

In each story, a couple of volunteers ran through the various exercises of the game. The verdict?

Wii Fit won’t, nor should, nor aims to put your neighborhood gym out of business. You still need to get outside to walk or run around throughout the day; you still need to eat right and get plenty of rest; you still need to stretch and strengthen your muscles by doing more than a few balance moves in front of your TV.

But for people who might be uncomfortable in a locker room, want to engage in physical activity with their families, or simply enjoy the interactive nature of video games, Wii Fit can provide you with a mild aerobic workout.

For an ever-growing number of us, with ever-growing waistlines, it’s enough to make you say, “Mama Mia!

Bonus clip: Game Genie TV commercial.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

May 16, 2008 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

Human Identity’s Brain Drain

It reads like the voice-over script for a doomsday-is-eminent-until-Will-Smith-saves-humanity Hollywood produced summer blockbuster:

Human identity, the idea that defines each and every one of us, could be facing an unprecedented crisis.

It is a crisis that would threaten long-held notions of who we are, what we do and how we behave. It goes right to the heart – or the head – of us all.

This crisis could reshape how we interact with each other, alter what makes us happy, and modify our capacity for reaching our full potential as individuals.

And it’s caused by one simple fact: the human brain, that most sensitive of organs, is under threat from the modern world.

So when does the movie come out? I’m hooked!

Uh, not so fast.

This is the intro to recent article by Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist and researcher at Oxford University. In “The REAL Brain Drain: Modern technology is changing the way our brains work,” published by the UK’s Daily Mail, Greenfield provides a crash-course about the science of brain plasticity; poses some important ethical questions about the technical and medical advances that allow us to perfect our psychological, genetic, and physical make-up; and ruminates about the unintended consequences of a hyper digital world on our neurological functioning.

Our brains are under the influence of an ever- expanding world of new technology: multichannel television, video games, MP3 players, the internet, wireless networks, Bluetooth links – the list goes on and on.

But our modern brains are also having to adapt to other 21st century intrusions, some of which, such as prescribed drugs like Ritalin and Prozac, are supposed to be of benefit, and some of which, such as widely available illegal drugs like cannabis and heroin, are not.

Electronic devices and pharmaceutical drugs all have an impact on the micro- cellular structure and complex biochemistry of our brains. And that, in turn, affects our personality, our behaviour and our characteristics. In short, the modern world could well be altering our human identity.

Nothing less than our unique self-identities are under threat, says Dr. Greenfield

Her article is a rich and thoughtful written “what if” inquiry about science, technology, psychology, society, and identity. In addition to questions about the search for value and meaning in our hedonistic culture, Dr. Greenfield warns us not to be surprised when the effects of violent video games literally reshape the brains of the younger “games-driven generation.”

Coinciding with the moment when technology and pharmaceutical companies are finding ever more ways to have a direct influence on the human brain, pleasure is becoming the sole be-all and end-all of many lives, especially among the young.

We could be raising a hedonistic generation who live only in the thrill of the computer-generated moment, and are in distinct danger of detaching themselves from what the rest of us would consider the real world.

Throw in circumstantial evidence that links a sharp rise in diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and the associated three-fold increase in Ritalin prescriptions over the past ten years with the boom in computer games and you have an immensely worrying scenario.

We are not doomed to become vapid body sacks, however, absent of any original thought, emotion, spirit, soul, meaning, purpose, or passion. More human than human is not (yet) our collective motto. There are significant reasons to worry about the way scientific, medical, and technological stimuli mold our brains, but so long as we are aware of these concerns and engage in the ethical and moral debates surrounding progress in these fields, Dr. Greenfield is hopeful about our individual and collective futures.

I think it possible that we might one day be able to harness outside stimuli in such a way that creativity – surely the ultimate expression of individuality – is actually boosted rather than diminished.

I am optimistic and excited by what future research will reveal into the workings of the human brain, and the extraordinary process by which it is translated into a uniquely individual mind.

For now, though, it’s probably best to drop the video-game controller and head towards the public library to reserve a copy of Dr. Greenfield’s soon-to-be-published book, ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century. Leave your iPod at home.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

May 10, 2008 at 4:32 am 5 comments

Three’s a Crowd


Friday is turning into excerpt-from-Gina-Kolata day. Her Personal Best column in the New York Times consistently produces some of the most thoughtful, interesting, and well-written articles on exercise, health, and fitness. This week’s piece explores the sport of triathlon, generally, and the difficulty of excelling at multiple disciplines — swimming, cycling, running — specifically.

Excerpts and notes from “For Peak Performance, 3 Is Not Better Than 1“, which looks to answer the question, “Is it possible to peak in more than one sport at once?”:

In the article we meet Joel Friel, a triathlon coach and author of 10 books, including the bible of the multi-sport world — literally. I did not feel comfortable calling myself a triathlete, even as an accomplished athlete in the sport, until reading and underlining what turned out to be nearly ever-other-sentence in Friel’s best-selling training guide, The Triathlete’s Training Bible.

Friel says many of his athletes sometimes feel frustrated that they aren’t running as fast as they think they can and should. His advice? “[I talk with them and ask] do you really want to be a triathlete? If you want to run faster you have to give up swimming and cycling.”

There’s a reason it’s hard to excel in three sports at once, physiologists say. The training necessary to do your best in one sport is likely to counteract what is needed to be good at another.

When you are training, said Gary Krahenbuhl, an exercise physiologist and emeritus professor at Arizona State University, improvement depends on physical and biochemical changes in muscle cells and in nerve-firing patterns. And those changes are very sport-specific, he added. The result, Dr. Krahenbuhl said, is that “changes that facilitate performance for one event may actually undermine performance in another event.

“To think that you could train in such a way as to have your greatest performance in all the sports is impossible,” he added.

Even body musculature can trip up triathletes. Swimmers need large muscles in their backs and shoulders. Runners and cyclists want small, light upper bodies. Cyclists need large quadriceps muscles. Runners don’t, and in fact they don’t want any extra muscle weight on their legs.

A woman named Anne Gordon is profiled in the article. She’s a “51-year-old triathlete [who] has never gotten a personal record in each leg of a triathlon on the same day.”

But, she said, that is part of what draws her to triathlons.

“What I love best about this sport is the training, the sense that the goal of hitting a perfect 10 for all three sports will take a lifetime.” And that, she added, “is O.K. by me.”

As noted, I participated in the sport of triathlon for a few years before leaving for a host of issues that I’ll explain in another post. But the elusiveness of perfection that Ms. Gordon refers… This is what intrigued me about triathlon. There are so many variables in a race — the swim, bike, and run, of course, but also the transitions, hydration and nutrition management, and gear and technical issues — that I never executed anything close to a perfect performance.

But it is that frustration — I had a great swim and run, but I got two flats on the bike section, or I didn’t grab my special-needs bag out of T2 and utterly bonked on the run — and that hope — Next time, baby. Next time – that kept me racing. I couldn’t quit until I mastered the sport and conquered at least one race.

It’s an ultimately futile chase for perfection, I realized. But an exciting and inspiring one. Says Ms. Gordon:

“The simple act of working hard at three things requires a diversity and balance in my life that is rewarding in and of itself. It is good for my spirit to know that I have to work hard and be patient to achieve mastery.”

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

May 9, 2008 at 5:28 am Leave a comment

The Magic Bullet


More great stuff from the NYT: “You Name It, and Exercise Helps It” by Jane Brody.

“The single thing that comes close to a magic bullet, in terms of its strong and universal benefits, is exercise,” reports Frank Hu, epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health.

I have written often about the protective roles of exercise. It can lower the risk of heart attack, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, dementia, osteoporosis, gallstones, diverticulitis, falls, erectile dysfunction, peripheral vascular disease, and 12 kinds of cancer.

But what if you already have one of these conditions? Or an ailment like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, congestive heart failure, or osteoarthritis? How can you exercise if you’re always tired or in pain or have trouble breathing? Can exercise really help?

You bet it can.

“The data show that regular moderate exercise increases your ability to battle the effects of disease,” says Dr. Marilyn Moffat, a professor of physical therapy at New York University. “It has a positive effect on both physical and mental well-being. The goal is to do as much physical activity as your body lets you do, and rest when you need to rest.”

“With regular exercise, the body seeks to continue staying active,” wrote Dr. Tsai, an assistant professor of neurosciences at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

So get out there, no matter how you feel, and…

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

May 6, 2008 at 4:20 am 4 comments

Train Your Brain. Really.

Fluid intelligenceFluid intelligence (abbreviated Gf) is the ability to understand novel situations and to solve otherwise new-to-you problems by drawing relationships from concepts. In short, it is abstract reasoning — the ability to think and to do without relying on past experience.

Until recently, many psychologists believed that fluid intelligence was a genetic trait. Everyone has some level of fluid intelligence, but just how much is pre-determined by one’s biology.

A fascinating new study, however, hints at the promise that we can increase our fluid intelligence.

Published this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), “Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory,” is an article that: (1) explores the relationship between working memory and Gf, and (2) details how improving working memory can increase one’s fluid intelligence.

(What is working memory? Good question. It’s a kind of short-term memory process that allows for the temporary storing and manipulation of information. Just how short-term? Think seconds-long. For example, it’s the kind of memory we use when asking a gas station attendant for directions. We remember “turn left at the third light, stay straight for two blocks, then make a right at the intersection of Jones and Geary” just long enough to process it. But these details do not enter our long-term memory.)

The NYT has a great summary of this exciting research. In “Memory Training Shown to Turn Up Brainpower,” Nicholas Bakalar summarizes and offers highlights from the NPAS journal article:

First they measured the fluid intelligence of four groups of volunteers using standard tests. Then they trained each in a complicated memory task, an elaborate variation on Concentration, the child’s card game, in which they memorized simultaneously presented auditory and visual stimuli that they had to recall later.

The game was set up so that as the participants succeeded, the tasks became harder, and as they failed, the tasks became easier. This assured a high level of difficulty, adjusted individually for each participant, but not so high as to destroy motivation to keep working. The four groups underwent a half-hour of training daily for 8, 12, 17 and 19 days, respectively. At the end of each training, researchers tested the participants’ fluid intelligence again. To make sure they were not just improving their test-taking skills, the researchers compared them with control groups that took the tests without the training.

The results were striking. Although the control groups also made gains, presumably because they had practice with the fluid intelligence tests, improvement in the trained groups was substantially greater. Moreover, the longer they trained, the higher their scores were. All performers, from the weakest to the strongest, showed significant improvement.

“Intelligence has always been considered principally an immutable inherited trait,” said Susanne M. Jaeggi, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Michigan and a co-author of the paper. “Our results show you can increase your intelligence with appropriate training.”

Why did the training work? The authors suggest several aspects of the exercise relevant to solving new problems: ignoring irrelevant items, monitoring ongoing performance, managing two tasks simultaneously and connecting related items to one another in space and time.

This is the abstract from the NPAS journal article:

Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory
Susanne M. Jaeggi, Martin Buschkuehl, John Jonides, and Walter J. Perrig


Fluid intelligence (Gf) refers to the ability to reason and to solve new problems independently of previously acquired knowledge. Gf is critical for a wide variety of cognitive tasks, and it is considered one of the most important factors in learning. Moreover, Gf is closely related to professional and education success, especially in complex and demanding environments. Although performance on tests of Gf can be improved through direct practice on the tests themselves, there is no evidence that training on any other regiment yields increased Gf in adults. Furthermore, there is a long history of research into cognitive training showing that, although performance in trained tasks can increase dramatically, transfer of this learning to other tasks remains poor. Here, we present evidence for transfer from training on a demanding working memory task to measures of Gf. This transfer results even though the trained task is entirely different from the intelligence test itself. Furthermore, we demonstrate that the extent of gain in intelligence critically depends on the amount of training: the more training, the more improvement in Gf. That is, the training effect is dosage-dependent. Thus, in contrast to many previous studies, we conclude that it is possible to improve Gf without practicing the testing tasks themselves, opening a wide range of applications.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

May 5, 2008 at 12:52 am 2 comments

Being Fit Isn’t Enough

Over the last few years, a growing body of research (but by no means widely accepted) has found that it is possible to be both fit and fat. [Source]

Wishful thinking, says a new Harvard study of 39,000 women. It’s findings:

“Compared with normal-weight active women, the risk for developing heart disease was 54 percent higher in overweight active women and 87 percent higher in obese active women. By contrast, it was 88 percent higher in overweight inactive women; and 2 1/2 times greater in obese inactive women.” (Emphasis mine.)

“Physical activity really does make an impact,” said lead author Dr. Amy Weinstein of Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

But, as stressed by Dr. Martha Gulati, a heart specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, while being physically active is important, “Weight still matters.”

This point is underscored by Dr. Weinstein: “If you’re overweight or obese, you can’t really get back to that lower risk entirely with just physical activity alone.”

No dessert for me, tonight.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

May 2, 2008 at 5:05 am 2 comments

Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

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