Posts tagged ‘neuroscience’

Run like a rat

Researchers at Princeton University recently made a remarkable discovery about the brains of rats that exercise…

The “cells born from running,” the researchers concluded, appeared to have been “specifically buffered from exposure to a stressful experience.” The rats had created, through running, a brain that seemed biochemically, molecularly, calm.

From a great NYT story on “Why Exercise Makes You Less Anxious.”

November 20, 2009 at 5:49 am Leave a comment

Paul Bloom: First Person Plural

“An evolving appraoch to the science of pleasure suggests that each of us contains multiple selves — all with different desires, and all fighting for control. If this is right, the pursuit of happiness becomes even tricker. Can one self ‘bind’ another self if the two want different things? Are you always better off when a Good Self wins? And should outsiders, such as employers and policy makers, get into the fray?”

By Paul Bloom, from The Atlantic, November 2008:

August 22, 2009 at 5:31 pm Leave a comment

Attention Surfeit Hypoactivity Disorder and mindful Twittering: The paradoxical, Zenlike state of focused distraction

New York magazine recently published a fantastic piece by Sam Anderson titled, “In Defense of Distraction.”

Anderson plays the role of philosopher, historian, pop social scientist, and futurist as he ruminates about the influence of technology on the wiring of our brains, and on our abilities to engage in meaningful personal relationships. In the article, he imagines the personal computer as the perfect B.F. Skinner box, because of “the variable ratio schedule” of the Internet; shapes the morality debate among scientists about  use of neuroenhancers, and explains why some are worried about “species-typical upper bound limits” of cognition;  outlines the weaknesses of lifehacking; and, ultimately, explains how to “embrace the poverty of attention.” The science of neuroplasticity and meditation are also explored:

The most promising solution to our attention problem [may also be] the most ancient: meditation. Neuroscientists have become obsessed, in recent years, with Buddhists, whose attentional discipline can apparently confer all kinds of benefits even on non-Buddhists. (Some psychologists predict that, in the same way we go out for a jog now, in the future we’ll all do daily 20-to-30-minute “secular attentional workouts.”) Meditation can make your attention less “sticky,” able to notice images flashing by in such quick succession that regular brains would miss them. It has also been shown to elevate your mood, which can then recursively stoke your attention: Research shows that positive emotions cause your visual field to expand. The brains of Buddhist monks asked to meditate on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion” show instant and remarkable changes: Their left prefrontal cortices (responsible for positive emotions) go into overdrive, they produce gamma waves 30 times more powerful than novice meditators, and their wave activity is coordinated in a way often seen in patients under anesthesia.

Click here to read the article.

play, think…
J.R. Atwood

June 4, 2009 at 1:11 am Leave a comment

Registration Open: U.C. Berkeley School Psychology Annual Conference, Mindset and the Mechanisms Beneath Social and Emotional Intelligence

Registration is open for what promises to be a provocative conference. See below for details…

UC Berkeley School Psychology 42nd Annual Conference

Mindsight and the Mechanisms Beneath Social and Emotional Intelligence: What Neuroscience Teaches About the Interconnectedness of Development, Environment, and Happiness

Monday, April 20th, 2009
7:45am – 3:15pm
Clark Kerr Conference Center
UC Berkeley – Berkeley CA

Space is limited
More Information and Online Registration:

Dr. Dan Siegel
Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine

Dr. Dacher Keltner
Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California,

Panel: Decreasing Anxiety and Improving Student Behavior and with Simple
Mindfulness Techniques: Community Partnership for Mindfulness in Education
(CPME) of Park Day School – Laurie Grossman, Megan Cowan, Richard Shankman

Early Registration till March 15, 2009
Non-student Rate $85
Student Rate $35

This conference brought to you by the second year students of the UCB School
Psychology Program
Conference Mailing Address:
UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education
School Psychology Program
4511 Tolman Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-1670

February 7, 2009 at 10:52 am Leave a comment

Minding the News

Some of the more interesting general news items and articles related to psychology and the brain sciences…

** SharpBrains, which continues to publish a wide range of fascinating news and research related to brain fitness, has a provocative interview with chess champion Joshua Waitzkin. In the interview, Waitzkin reflects on his retirement from the game, his struggle to rekindle his passion for chess, what he learned about philosophy and psychology from Tai Chi, and his book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.

** “First Person Plural” by Paul Bloom of the Atlantic:

An evoloving approach to the science of pleasure suggests that each of us contains multiple selves — all with different desires, and all fighting for control. If this is right, the pursuit of happiness becomes even trickier. Can one “bind” another self if the two want different things? Are you always better off when a Good Self wins? And should outsiders, such as employers and policy makers, get into the fray?

** One of the reasons why I continue to subscribe to Newsweek is to read Sharon Begley’s “On Science” column, which distills and makes accessible some of the more interesting and important research in science. “When DNA is Not Destiny” explains how psychology, cognitive science, and genetics studies show that otherwise assumed inhereted aspects of our personhood, including intelligence and personality, are not immutable: “Experiences can silence genes or activitate them. Even shyness is like Silly Putty once life gets a hold of it.”

** Best Life magazine has a good general article about “Your Brain at 40,” seeking to explain the “recent breakthroughs in neuroscience that provide answers to questions on how the brain ages and how men can maintain a sharp cognitive edge.” Especially with the recent explosion of the brain-fitness market, I found the related post “Lobes of Steel” to be a handy cheat-sheet that evaluates the theories behind and evidence for some of the more popular computer-based mental-training programs, including Posit Science‘s Brain Fitness Program, Cogmed’s Working Memory Training, CogniFit’s Mindfit, and Lumos Labs’ Lumosity.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

February 3, 2009 at 3:06 am 1 comment

How money shapes the brain; weighty issues in America; and more

Roundup of news and such…

** Income affects brain development: In a soon-to-be-published article in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, researchers have shown that brain physiology patterns of kids from low-income backgrounds are similar to adults with brain damage. Kids from high-income backgrounds, on the other hand, have normal frontal lobe activity. 

“This is a wake-up call,” says Berkeley psychology professor Robert Knight. “It’s not just that these kids are poor and more likely to have health problems, but they might actually not be getting full brain development from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums.”

Adds Silvia Bunge, a colleague of Knight’s at Berkeley who is leading the intervention studies on prefrontal cortex development in youth using fMRI, “The study is suggestive and a little bit frightening that environmental conditions have such a strong impact on brain development.”

More information about this research can be found here.

**  Obese Americans now outweigh the merely overweight: 34 percent of American adults — more than 72 million people over the age of 18 —  are obese, another 33 percent are overweight, and 6 percent are morbidly obese. 

Earlier this year, it was reported that 32 percent of American children were overweight, 16 percent were obese, and 11 percent were morbidly obese.

Obesity and overweight are calculated using a formula called body mass index. BMI is equal to weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared. Someone with a BMI of 25 to 29 is classified as overweight, 30 to 40 counts as obese and people with BMIs of 40 or more are morbidly obese.

A person 5 feet 5 inches tall becomes overweight at 150 pounds (68 kg) and obese at 180 pounds (82 kg). The U.S. National Institutes of Health has an online BMI calculator at

** Sudoku over Seinfeld. Feeling antsy, restless, or overcome with anxiety? Don’t zone-out. Instead, actively engage the mind.

New research has found that “brain-sharpening activities – rather than mind-numbing ones – can rein in a restless psyche by activating the region of the brain that commands logical reasoning and concentration.” 

“If anything, hard tasks can keep anxious people from being sidetracked and can help them stay on task,” said Sonia Bishop, a UC Berkeley psychologist and lead author of the brain imaging study, published online by Nature Neuroscience yesterday on Dec. 14.

Bishop’s study shows that people who are overly anxious have a hard time concentrating on mundane tasks such as ironing and filing paperwork, even when they are not imagining worst-case scenarios. This is because, when distracted, anxious people struggle to activate the prefrontal region of the brain needed to focus on the task at hand.

These findings break new ground in understanding the brain circuitry of anxiety because previous anxiety investigations have focused on an overactive amygdala, or fight-or-flight reflex, which alerts the body to protect itself in times of danger. The new findings suggest that poor concentration in anxious people is as much due to a slow response in the prefrontal cortex when they are engaged in undemanding pastimes or chores. More info here.

** In Defense of Teasing.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood 

January 14, 2009 at 3:37 am Leave a comment

Conference on Neurocognitive Development

An intriguing conference…

U.C. Berkeley Conference on Neurocognitive Development

On July 12-14, 2009, UC Berkeley will host a conference on the developing mind and brain, with a focus on research in humans. Registration is open to all interested parties.

The field of developmental cognitive neuroscience focuses on the changes in brain function and behavior over the lifespan. This field has exploded over the last 10 years. It draws on the fields of 
developmental, cognitive, affective/social, and clinical psychology, as well as neuroscience, computer science, and physics. Increasingly, as we learn more about the developing brain, research in this area has implications for medicine, education, the law, public health and social welfare.As such, good research in developmental cognitive neuroscience requires extensive training and collaboration. 
The UC Berkeley Conference on Neurocognitive Development will provide researchers from UC Berkeley with the opportunity to learn from and interact with many of the top developmental cognitive neuroscientists from around the country. These speakers will present data on the changes in brain function and behavior from infancy through adolescence. This conference will provide the opportunity for communication and collaboration between scientists at various stages in their careers.

 A special issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience will be assembled based on research presented at the conference. Each of the speakers will be asked to contribute a review paper summarizing work covered in their talk. Other participants will be encouraged to submit manuscripts. Dr. Robert Knight is the Editor-in-Chief of this journal, and Dr. Silvia Bunge is the Associate Editor who will coordinate this issue of the journal.

To register online or to learn more, please visit:

For more information about the cutting-edge Frontiers journal series, including Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, please visit:

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood 

January 12, 2009 at 2:18 am Leave a comment

Brain bucket

brain art

So. Much. Good. Stuff.

*** Can We Play?,” by Dr. David Elkind and published on the SharpBrains blog, is a summary of the “research [that] confirms the value of play.” It makes for an interesting, science-rooted companion to a book that deserves a deep and thorough re-read every year, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, by Thomist philosopher and Christian theologian Josef Pieper, who makes a compelling case that purposeless activity is the most purposeful activity that we can and should engage in!

*** What is the best way to boost cognitive functioning? By exercising the body or by exercising the mind? What about the use of nutrition supplements and the practice of meditation? Jeremy at PsyBlog explores these questions in, Brain Health: Physical or Mental Exercise?, also republished on the SharpBrains blog. (If you regularly peruse only one or two sites about the brain sciences, SharpBrains is the best.)

*** Light reading: Boris Johnson, the recently-elected Mayor of London, analogizes bike riding with and without a helmet to the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” sharp elbow game of politics in Get a bike helmet to get ahead – or maybe not, an opinion piece in Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

*** To listen to: NPR’s Talk of the Nation has an audio archive of today’s discussion with Alan Schwartz of the NYT about his front-page profile of Kendall Bailey, a “6-foot-6-inch 19 year-old”  diagnosed with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and autism, but who also happens to be one the fastest disabled swimmers in the world. Kendall is so fast that he is favored to win gold, if not set a world record in the breastroke, at this summer’s 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. That is, if he is allowed to compete. Officials of the event have been slow to confirm whether Kendall, because of his intellectual and mental handicaps, would be allowed to compete alongside physically disabled athletes. The politics of sport and the heart of a champion. Read Schwartz’s article here.

*** Another provocative read: This story about how the government of Japan is responding to its own national obesity epidemic (it seems everyone, everywhere — not just those of us in the U.S. — is getting fatter) by imposing limits to the size of its citizens’ bellies. (!) If you are a male, it is against the law for your waist to exceed 33.5 inches; for women, the government says your waist can be no bigger than 35.4 inches. If you eat too much and are too plump around the mid-section, you can be fined and forced to attend health education courses. Too much government intervention, or a necessary public policy?

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

June 18, 2008 at 8:16 pm Leave a comment

The Gay Brain? Neuroscientists find evidence that homosexuality is hard-wired

the gay brain?

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published an interesting article in today’s journal that examines the physical structure of brains in heterosexual and homosexual study participants.

The best summary of the article, PET and MRI show differences in cerebral asymmetry and functional connectivity between homo- and heterosexual subjects, authored by lead researchers Ivanka Savic and Per Linstrom of the Stockholm Brain Institute in Sweden, is provided by Richard Monastersky on the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s News Blog:

Is There a Gay Brain? Imagine Study Finds Anatomical Clues

[Neuroscience researchers] found that the brains of homosexual men and heterosexual women were more symmetrical than the brains of heterosexual men and homosexual women. A similar difference emerged when the researchers looked in particular at the amygdala, a brain region associated with emotional reactions. Heterosexual women and homosexual men had more connections between their right and left amygdala and more connections with other brain regions than did homosexual women and heterosexual men.

Scientists have spent decades looking for brain differences between homosexual and heterosexual people and since the early 1990s have been finding anatomical distinctions in regions associated with sexual behavior. The new study suggests broader brain differences between homosexual and heterosexual men and women, even in regions not linked to sexual attraction.

The BBC article where I first read of this study can be found here.

In 2005, Dr. Savic was the lead researcher on another neuroscientific investigation about the “gay brain.” The title of that article, also published by PNAS, is Brain response to putative phermones in homosexual men.

In this 2005 study, it was discovered — as the title of the article says — that “the brains of homosexual men respond more like those of women when reacting to a chemical derived from the male sex hormone.” [Source]



These two studies lend evidence to the debate over whether sexual orientation is a biologically-determined trait.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

June 17, 2008 at 10:48 pm 10 comments

Your Brain on Obama

My Amygdala, My Self,” by Jeffrey Goldberg, is a fun and fascinating article in this summer’s Ideas Issue of The Atlantic:

Intrigued (and alarmed) by the new science of “neuromarketing,” our correspondent peers into his own brain via an MRI machine and learns what he really thinks about Jimmy Carter, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bruce Springsteen, and Eddie Falco.


Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

June 14, 2008 at 6:12 am Leave a comment

Brain Scan

Brain Image

Some of the better recent resources related to the brain sciences…

  • The TImes of London, voted the best news website of the year, has a great interactive gallery of brain training resources and puzzles at Surprise Yourself.
  • As part of its Author Speaker Series, the fantastic people over at SharpBrains (my favorite resource for brain science news and information) invited John Medina, biologist and author of the new book Brain Rules, to provide a “good, non-technical, summary of the implications of recent brain science in our daily lives.” Check out the post at Brain Rules: science and practice
Finish your browsing by groaning and chuckling at some of these brain jokes.
Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

June 11, 2008 at 5:15 am 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

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

Solo Running Bad for Brain?!

Solo runnerFrom researchers at Princeton University: Running by yourself could be bad for your brain. Or at least, not as good as running with a group.

According to an article in the journal Nature Neuroscience, as reported by the BBC, exercise can have “negative effects on activity in the brain… Running is known to increase levels of stress hormone corticosterone, which can reduce the creation of new brain cells – a process known as neurogenesis.”

But wait, right?! Isn’t exercise good for the brain? Doesn’t physical activity promote neurogenesis?

Here’s where things can get a bit complicated.

Yes, exercise “has been found to increase spatial awareness and to boost communication between neurons.”

But… Only (or at least, especially) if exercise is done with others. Or if done for a really long time. Here’s the rundown on this study (no pun intended):

The researchers at Princeton looked at rats that ran in groups and rats that ran in social isolation. In both groups, “running caused similar elevations of the stress hormone, which can impair neuron generation.”

However, “running was found to increase neuron generation when rats were housed in groups. In rats that ran in social isolation, neurogenesis was suppressed.”

So even though running increased stress on the brain, which can impair neuron generation, group running “increase[d] spatial awareness and boost[ed] communication between neurons.” Running is stressful for the brain, but the social aspect of group running produced more good things for the brain than it hurts.

The rats that ran in isolation, however, experienced no such gain. “Only animals that ran alone were vulnerable to its negative influence. They also had higher levels of the hormone compared to group runners.”

So running alone could be bad for the brain. Unless…

Unless you go for a really long run. “When isolated rats ran for a long time, they did see the same benefits as their short-term runner peers [who ran in groups] – but only when they had been running for a much longer period.”

The Princeton research team was led by Dr. Elizabeth Gould. In their article, “Social isolation delays the positive effects of running on adult neurogenesis” (aka “The Stress of Running Alone” article), in the journal Nature Neuroscience, she explained, “In the absence of social interaction, a normally beneficial experience can exert a potentially deleterious influence on the brain.”

So what to do? Grab a friend and hit the trails. Or, if going solo, go long. Real long.

Fascinating research. It’s enough to make you…

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

April 28, 2008 at 5:25 am 2 comments

The Runner’s High, Part 2


For a little more science to today’s earlier post about the runner’s high, check out “Yes, Running Can Make You High” in the NYT.

Some notes and quotes:

The runner’s high: Every athlete has heard of it, most seem to believe in it and many say they have experienced it. But for years scientists have reserved judgment because no rigorous test confirmed its existence.

Yes, some people reported that they felt so good when they exercised that it was as if they had taken mood-altering drugs. But was that feeling real or just a delusion? And even if it was real, what was the feeling supposed to be, and what caused it?

It turns out, the runner’s high is real — it’s not just in your head. Rather, it is in your head: Exercise increases the number of endorphins that you body produces, which gather in the brain and can lead to substantial mood changes. But it is “not just a New Agey excuse [of athletes] for their claims of feeling good after a hard workout.”

The study, done by neuroscience researchers in Germany and published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, “offers [athletes] a sort of vindication” — we aren’t crazy when we say running makes us feel good! Further:

The results are opening a new chapter in exercise science. They show that it is possible to define and measure the runner’s high and that it should be possible to figure out what brings it on. They even offer hope for those who do not enjoy exercise but do it anyway. These exercisers might learn techniques to elicit a feeling that makes working out positively addictive.

Get your endorphin-on!

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

March 28, 2008 at 5:33 pm Leave a comment

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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