Weekly Neuroscience Update

Researchers propose forgetting memories or things we have learned may be a functional feature in the brain and actually an additional form of learning.

Scientists have developed a device for recording brain activity that is more compact and affordable than the solutions currently on the market. With its high signal quality and customizable configuration, the device could help people with restricted mobility regain control of their limbs or provide advance warnings of an impending seizure to patients with epilepsy. The article presenting the device and testing results came out in Experimental Brain Research.

A new, large-scale study led by scientists at the Yale School of Public Health has established a robust link between long-term ozone exposure and an increased risk of cognitive impairment in older adults.

A new study found that frailty was a strong risk factor for dementia, even among people who are at a high genetic risk for dementia, and that it might be modified through a healthy lifestyle.

A systematic review published in the scientific journal Addiction has found that cannabis use leads to acute cognitive impairments that may continue beyond the period of intoxication.

Neuroscientists have identified a specific signal that young children and even babies use to determine whether two people have a strong relationship and a mutual obligation to help each other.

Finally this week a new study reveals how the body produces different health-promoting signaling molecules in an organ-specific manner following exercise at different points during the day.

Is Social Media Damaging Your Brain?

Last month, I contributed to an Irish Times article on the question of how, or indeed if, the internet is damaging our brain.

It’s an interesting question.

I view the answer not in terms of damage, but of manipulation. What most people want is not truth but validation.

What the internet companies do is take advantage of our need for nurturing – our need to be liked and to like others.

This manipulation can be disorientating as the human brain was never designed to cater for 10,000 likes from 10,000 individuals, especially not [for] a 13-year-old.

We are not designed for this avalanche of nurturing that comes through social media – this attention.

The dopamine is always on call, and you can be elated or let down at any minute depending on what the latest news is.

Neurogeneticist, Kevin Mitchell, an active Twitter user, is of a similar mind when it comes to framing the question in terms of damage.

“I don’t think we should say that our ‘brains have been rewired’, but our habits and modes of thinking and conceptual metaphors have certainly changed, ” he says. “I think social media, with its very different dynamics and rules, has changed the way we interact with other people, and the way we define our selves, through interactions with others.”

Mitchell believes that our ways of thinking have changed, but this is probably not a new thing. “Our ways of thinking have probably been continually changing over time, with every new technological development – think of Plato decrying the invention of writing and what it would do to young minds.”

I would certainly agree with this.

Brain plasticity is a defining feature of the brain. There is no point in your life when your brain is settled as ‘you’.

This question of personal identity feeds into a long-running philosophical debate about where exactly consciousness lies.

Under the ‘extended mind theory’, consciousness does not reside exclusively in the brain but rather straddles it and the environment.

Philosophers supporting this hypothesis have suggested that the tools which we use to upload information – a notebook, for example, or a search engine – are indistinguishable from the mind itself.

If the extended mind theory is true then it would mean our minds are literally being altered each time Facebook or Google change their algorithm.

But is it true?

Or does it just feel like it’s true because our heads are in such a tizzy from staring at our smartphones?

Before the advent of modern neuroscience, the idea that minds can exist independently from the body was not so farfetched. That belief opened up a niche for people to market all kinds of beliefs about unobservable entities including Gods, messiahs, spirits, souls, angels, devils and so on. These beliefs are for the most part benign if they do not involve making sacrifices that are ultimately irrational or being manipulated by others.

The idea of the mind being separate from the body goes back to Aristotle, but the body and the mind are one and the same thing.

As for theories that place the mind – or part of the mind – outside the brain, supernatural philosophy can be neither proved nor disproved.

Whatever about the internet literally colonising our minds, there’s no denying Big Tech has a profound influence on our thinking.

And if you think about it, there are only two industries that call their customers users: the illegal drugs industry and the software industry.

It’s too simple to say that we love the way social media connects us to the wider world, because it can isolate us too.  It offers us freedom, but only within a closed garden where Big Tech holds the key. To reconcile this contradiction we have to look into ourselves. We need to stop and ask ourselves what we are doing when we buy into social media and what is the full nature of this magical and intimate transaction.

Why do we have brains?

Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert starts from a surprising premise: the brain evolved, not to think or feel, but to control movement. In this entertaining, data-rich talk he gives us a glimpse into how the brain creates the grace and agility of human motion.

Where is your brain taking you?

Let me take you on a little trip..a trip to the future.

As we enter the 21st Century we need a compelling vision for the human race including our spiritual and mental evolution as understood by the evolution of our brains.  The following insights may strike you as free ranging, radical or even abstract but I believe that the question of human evolution connects perfectly with what many of us are beginning to ask of ourselves and how we might fit into a ‘bigger picture’.

Self-refection IS evolution 

Modern evolutionary theory needs to switch focus to the human mind – not just the physical brain. It is not enough to work out that we evolved from the apes – we now need to focus on how the human psyche is evolving and where it is taking us. Evidence from a branch of science called evolutionary biology shows that the size and shape of the human brain has not changed radically in thousands of years despite huge technological advances. Why is this so? Evidence is mounting that once humans learned to think in a different way by living in a state of reflectiveness our progress was inevitable. By discovering how to harness the full power of the brain – human beings did not just survive but started to enjoy an ‘ultra’ life.

The past is the key to the future

Until recently, the task of applying evolutionary science to the bigger question of human destiny has been avoided by scientists  too wary of speculation. However the emergence of the new discipline of neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system – is helping us to bridge this gap by providing new ways to answer old questions.  Neuroscientists have recently discovered that the same brain regions are involved in the processing of memory and in creative thought suggesting that the more we learn and remember the better we can predict the future. 

Science and true science

The great paradox of science is that while its strength is the deep analysis it uses to solve a problem – it can only really come of age when it goes beyond seeing man only in terms of the physical body. True science will see man in his wholeness and as part of a coherent picture of the world. The fact is that neither the sciences nor the humanities have yet to properly explain what it is to be human. True science will probably need to take into account all the challenges, achievements and events of human history as if they were all part of one continuum. This will require a new type of analysis – the origins of which may be seen in the new disciplines called informatics and systems analysis.

Ticket to where?

Humankind is a very young concept – only coined in the last 100 years. It is based on the recognition of unity within the human race – despite all the wars, division of wealth and racism. Contrary to what some people like to think – humankind is not the centre of the world but rather a very actively growing branch of the evolutionary tree. We are not destined to ‘lift ourselves above nature’- but rather to dramatically raise the intelligence and complexity of this thing we call ‘life’ through our intellectual and spiritual evolution. In fact, the more complex and intelligent we become the more we will free ourselves from our physical surroundings (the physical universe).

Personality equals evolution – neurolution

Just as our physical universe – space, the stars and galaxies – is expanding outwards, the same universe can – under the right conditions – also just as naturally ‘focus inwards’ from the simple to the increasingly complex and it is according to this ‘law’ that the human mind also develops.  Is there an end point to us becoming more human or the fulfilment of its potential? The evidence suggests that for us humans – personality equals evolution. 

The neuroscience of US

Every single human being on the planet is unique because they posses a uniquely complex brain. In fact, the brain is so complex that in all of human history no two brains were the same.  Furthermore this unique combination of about 100 trillion tiny connections grows and changes through life – a work in progress from conception to death. In this way we each evolve as we journey through life.

All hands on deck for human evolution

The evolution of the human race is not going to proceed by trying to transcend it – rather we will move forward as a race by making room for everyone to express their personalities to the full.  In this way the evolution of the human race has everything to do with our own personal development. Yet evolution does not happen at an even speed so don’t be alarmed when your subconscious asks you to take that leap; change job, pick a partner or just follow your dream. These great leaps of faith are part of your evolution in your journey through life and following a period of self refection just assure yourself it’s all happening for your own good (and the good of your species!) and go to the next level.

In a series of future blogs I will explore these ideas further including how mental and spiritual evolution is nourished by the network society.


Weekly Round-Up

Your brain is more responsive to your friends than to strangers

Researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center have described for the first time how the brain’s memory center repairs itself following severe trauma – a process that may explain why it is harder to bounce back after multiple head injuries.

People with autism use their brains differently from other people, which may explain why some have extraordinary abilities to remember and draw objects in detail, according to new research from the University of Montreal.

Five more genes which increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease have been identified, according to research published in Nature Genetics. This takes the number of identified genes linked to Alzheimer’s to 10 – the new genes affect three bodily processes and could become targets for treatment. If the effects of all 10 could be eliminated the risk of developing the disease would be cut by 60%, although new treatments could be 15 years away.

The sudden understanding or grasp of a concept is often described as an “Aha” moment and now researchers from New York University are using a functional MRI (fMRI) scanner to study how these moments of insight are captured and stored in our brain.

Mark Changizi is asking the question how do we have reading areas for a brain that didn’t evolve to read?

In order to develop new medications for alcoholism, researchers need to understand how alcohol acts on the brain’s reward system. A previously unknown mechanism has been shown to block the rewarding effects of alcohol on the brain, reveals a thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Researchers from the University of Valencia (UV)  investigating the brain structures involved with empathy have concluded that the brain circuits responsible are in part the same as those involved with violence.

And finally…your brain is more responsive to your friends than to strangers, even if those strangers have more in common with you, says a new study. Researchers looked at the brain areas associated with social information. The results of the study show that social connections override similar interests.

Weekly Round Up



Is the internet changing the way we think?

In this week’s round-up of the latest discoveries in the field of neuroscience – the evolutionary nature of the brain, how blind people see with their ears, the neuroscience of humour, and how the internet is changing the way we think.

Interesting post on the evolutionary nature of the brain here

Scientists say they have discovered a “maintenance” protein that helps keep nerve fibres that transmit messages in the brain operating smoothly. The University of Edinburgh team says the finding could improve understanding of disorders such as epilepsy, dementia, MS and stroke.

Neuropsychologist, Dr. Olivier Collignon has proved that some blind people can “see” with their ears.  He compared the brain activity of people who can see and people who were born blind, and discovered that the part of the brain that normally works with our eyes to process vision and space perception can actually rewire itself to process sound information instead.

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that we have much more control over our minds, personalities and personal illnesses than was ever believed to exist before, and it is all occurring at the same time that a flood of other research is exposing the benefits of humor on brain functioning. Nichole Force has written  a post in Psych Central on Humor, Neuroplasticity and the Power To Change Your Mind.

And finally, is the internet changing the way we think? American writer Nicholas Carr believes so and his claims that the internet is not only shaping our lives but physically altering our brains has sparked a debate in the Guardian.