Category Archives: Synaptic Sunday

Synaptic Sunday #14: Military and Neuroscience

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For Memorial Day weekend, three pieces of neuroscience research relevant to the military (and with applications beyond it):

1) Navy seeks to map the mind

On brain-computer interface technology –

The true goal is to make a vehicle or a robot arm just another extension of the human body and brain.

2) PTSD Combat Veterans’ ‘Fear Circuitry’ In Brains Always On High Alert

Even when an individual with PTSD isn’t confronted by a threat or a relatively taxing mental activity, there’s still PTSD-related activity in certain areas of the brain. What does this mean?

3) Professor finds neuroscience provides insights into brains of complex and adaptive leaders

What do the brains of great leaders look like? Is there really a way to increase leadership strength via neuro-feedback?

Synaptic Sunday #13 – Neuroscience of Gratitude

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What is gratitude, and what is its impact on mental and physical health? What systems in the brain are associated with it? How can one cultivate gratitude? Why does it seem to be felt and expressed so much more easily in some people than in others?

Here are some of the ongoing efforts of neuroscientists and psychologists to better understand gratitude:

1) Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude

Recently scientists have begun to chart a course of research aimed at understanding gratitude and the circumstances in which it flourishes or diminishes. They’re finding that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits…

2) The Grateful Brain

3) From the Bottom of My Heart

Put yourself in the position of a Jew during World War II who escapes to France penniless and is forced to beg on the streets. A passerby gives you roasted peanuts — your first morsel of food in several days.

You are allergic to peanuts.

Do you feel grateful? Or bitter, anxious, awkward, sad — perhaps even happy?

Synaptic Sunday #12 – Developing resilience in the face of stressful circumstances

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Evacuation of patients from NYU Langone Medical Center during Hurricane Sandy

Before getting to these three good posts/articles on resilience, stress, and the human brain, please take some time to find a reputable charity to donate to in support of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Here are tips for finding a reputable charity and avoiding scams (the site, Charity Navigator, rates charities on a number of factors) – and here’s a recommended list of Hurricane Sandy charities from another site, Charity Watch, which also rates charities.

1) Summaries of talks on stress and resilience given during Day 2 of the Culture, Mind, and Brain Conference
I love how these talks highlight the interplay of genes and the biology of the human body with social and cultural factors. Some surprising findings (for instance read about the first talk on rat pups separated from their mothers for an 18 hour stretch, and how a simple change in the environment helped mother-pup relations proceed on normal terms afterwards, leading to no long-term negative consequences for the pup).

2) Can people learn to adapt better to highly stressful circumstances?
Some of the factors common to people who adjust better to life after a traumatic event include:
a) realistic optimism (knowing and accepting what you can change and what you can’t, and focusing all your efforts on what you can change)
b) social support
c) good regular health habits (e.g. eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking up meditation).

While there is a genetic component to resilience, Southwick said its influence is less important than one might expect.

“The biggest insight that we have realized is that many people are far more resilient that they think and have a far greater capacity to rise to the occasion,” he added.

3) 10 Tips for Developing Resilience
These suggestions have some overlap with what’s been discussed so far, and it’s a good list to start with if you’d like to change the way you react to adverse circumstances. Keep in mind that these tips refer to mental habits – they can be cultivated, but don’t produce instantaneous or 100% consistent results. They take time and patience to work on.

Synaptic Sunday #11 – Adolescence and Anxiety Edition

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Lab rodent

1) Learning to Overcome Fear is Difficult for Teens

Compared to younger and older individuals of their species, both adolescent humans and mice on average have a stronger tendency to keep exhibiting a fear response to a threat even when the danger is gone.

In the human experiment, the fear response was initially elicited by pairing a visual stimulus (one of a sequence of yellow or blue images on a computer screen) with a harsh startling sound; in subsequent trials the same images appeared without any startling noise – leading to an extinction of the fear response in children and adults, but not in the adolescents, who kept showing a fear response to whatever image had once been paired with the noise.

As for the animal experiment, the article reports that the experimenters “used standard fear conditioning common in these types of animal studies.” (This is vaguely worded… did they use loud noises? Or pain?) The experimenters also measured neuronal activity in the mice:

… the research team found that the prelimbic region in the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that processes emotion, is activated during acquisition of fear, and the infralimbic prefrontal cortex is used to extinguish this fear association.

When compared to younger and older mice, adolescent mice didn’t exhibit the kinds of neuronal activity associated with fear extinction (this corresponded to their behavior – they continued to show a fear response over time, regardless of the fact that the danger/unpleasantness was no longer present). Even as they got older, the adolescent mice didn’t lose their fear response.

Related data from other studies with humans:

It is estimated that over 75 percent of adults with fear-related disorders can trace the roots of their anxiety to earlier ages.

It’s not clear how the persistent fear response in this experiment fits into the complex puzzle of excessive anxiety and its sources, people’s predispositions towards it, the reasons it persists (or doesn’t) into adulthood, and the ways in which it disrupts mental and physical functioning (also, adolescents with anxiety disorders have often reported that their symptoms started in childhood). And how do these results tie into other findings with teens that show a greater tendency for them to do something dangerous even if they understand the risks?

2) Anxiety Disorders in Children and Teens

An overview of different types of anxiety that can become excessive and interfere with daily life (e.g. social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.)

3) Blogging May Help Teens Deal With Social Distress

Most of the study participants were girls (though the experimenters reported that the results for the boys weren’t significantly different).

Maintaining a blog had a stronger positive effect on troubled students’ well-being than merely expressing their social anxieties and concerns in a private diary, according to the article published online in the APA journal Psychological Services. Opening the blog up to comments from the online community intensified those effects.

Maybe the effects were stronger for a public blog because the teens felt less isolated with their problems and felt relief that they could be heard; it turns out that when they opened the blogs up to comments, the response from other Internet users was almost always positive and encouraging (few to no trolls). I’m assuming the blogs were anonymous, making the teens less vulnerable to disruption in their lives offline and maybe helping them write more freely about their worries.

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Incidentally, the photo at the top of the post links to a relevant write-up on “stressed out lab rats” – how rats living in chronic stress tend to make decisions out of habit, as if their constant stress doesn’t allow them to be more mentally flexible. There are definitely parallels to stressed out humans.

Synaptic Sunday #10 – Mental Health and Life Expectancy

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A mental health issue isn’t “all in your mind.” The mind arises from the brain, and the brain is a part of your body that closely interacts with the rest of your body.

1) Even Mild Mental Health Problems Linked to Reduced Life Expectancy

This was from a study of 68,000 adults ages 35 and over in the U.K.:

Their results reveal that people who experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression had a lower life expectancy than those without any such symptoms.

Even people with minor symptoms of mental health problems seemed to have a higher risk of death from several major causes, including cardiovascular disease, according to the researchers.

And it’s not just a matter of poorer health behaviors. The researchers did try to control for factors like weight, eating habits, exercise, drinking, etc. and still found associations between these mental health symptoms and disease. (Granted they didn’t control for all possible factors, but they did try to account for some basic lifestyle choices that strongly impact health.)

Having poorer mental health doesn’t automatically doom you to a shorter life. No one can say what your individual outcome will be. What the study is showing is that on average people with poorer mental health have a shorter life expectancy compared to people with good mental health. As a preventative measure, to increase the odds in your favor that you’ll live longer and with a higher quality of life, don’t ignore your psychological distress or any other symptoms indicative of poor mental health. The effects ripple out to all areas of your life.

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2) Psychological distress linked to life expectancy- experts respond

Here’s a post with some comments from a few researchers and doctors on the study in the first link; the post includes some comments on potential weaknesses in the study and what can be researched next (for instance, what are the best interventions?). There are multiple ways that psychological distress can be linked to poorer health and shorter lifespan. Chronic stress damages the body and increases the chances of physical illnesses. People with poorer mental health might be more isolated and have less of a social support network. Maybe when they’re physically healthy they can get by, but when they come down with a physical illness they may neglect to get it treated. This is a fruitful area of research.

Synaptic Sunday #9 – Vivid Memory Edition

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1) Why Does a Vivid Memory ‘Feel So Real?’

Researchers found that vivid memory and real perceptual experience share “striking” similarities at the neural level, although they are not “pixel-perfect” brain pattern replications.

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“Our study has confirmed that complex, multi-featured memory involves a partial reinstatement of the whole pattern of brain activity that is evoked during initial perception of the experience. This helps to explain why vivid memory can feel so real.”

Are vivid memories more accurate than non-vivid memories? Less vulnerable to fabrication and distortion? A memory can feel quite vivid but could be made up in part. Maybe there are certain aspects of a scene that we remember more accurately and other parts that we fill-in, even for a memory that feels like a powerfully accurate recording playing in our minds.

As always, it’s important to distinguish between the accuracy of the memory and the confidence people have in the accuracy of the memory. Are we good judges of how accurately we’ve remembered something?

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2) Psychologists Link Emotion to Vividness of Perception and Creation of Vivid Memories

Have you ever wondered why you can remember things from long ago as if they happened yesterday, yet sometimes can’t recall what you ate for dinner last night?

Synaptic Sunday #8 – The Internet Anger edition

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1) A Scientific American article asks: Why is Everyone on the Internet so Angry?

Is everyone angry? Sure, there are regular “flame wars” online, but from what I’ve seen, all it takes is a relatively small number of very angry hateful people to leave a nasty taste in your mouth if you’re reading through a comment thread. Sometimes they pile on in greater numbers if they’re targeting someone (usually for political or religious reasons) or on certain sites that seem to welcome them or encourage their anger, but all it takes is one or two to derail a comment thread (and some of them don’t do so out of anger).

Anyway it usually isn’t anger alone that’s the problem; it’s anger channeled into an aim to attack and destroy. It’s anger that defies all attempts at reasoning or having a real conversation (which, as the article points out, is difficult enough to do on the internet). But there are many civil people too who can disagree without frothing at the mouth or inflicting deliberate hurt, and there are also quite a few people who rarely or never comment on sites or post anything of their own so it’s hard to tell what state of mind they’re in as they surf the web; people who comment regularly are only a part of the huge population of internet users.

The internet is great for letting people get on a soapbox and deliver an angry rant. Is this always psychologically destructive? I think it depends on the rant. Sometimes ranting can feel good and be beneficial to your health, especially if the anger is gotten over with quickly and you haven’t damaged anyone else with it. The question is – why are you ranting publicly where anyone can see you? Why do you need the audience?

I can see people doing it to get support or open up a real debate, without necessarily being nasty. But other times these angry rants are just vile foaming-at-the-mouth attacks on others, done to slander, demean and misinform. Some people take joy in spreading misery (and in knowing that they’re out of reach of people who’d want to sock them for it). Or for whatever reason they don’t care. Maybe they underestimate the impact of their words; people often don’t consider the ramifications of what they do, and you can publish anything on the internet, instantly, without pause for reconsideration.

I agree with the point in the article in how staying anonymous yourself and not interacting face-to-face with others is a situation that encourages more verbal abuse and less accountability. It’s also a great way to get attention: saying over-the-top things drives traffic to sites and generally gets people to respond to your comments more (including with nasty comments of their own). To some there’s the satisfaction of knowing they can say or do things they’d hesitate about in everyday life – and people will listen! It’s out there. You have a voice, even if it’s shrill and hateful and rude.

A lot of the angry hateful people behave abominably when coming up against people with viewpoints or lifestyles (or biological makeups) markedly different from theirs. Online and offline they might inhabit their own enclaves of like-minded people, but inevitably they come across others and, unlike strangers offline, they get exposed online to the thoughts and feelings of these “Others”; this can be threatening and upsetting, too much to take in and too much of a temptation not to try and crush. These ‘Others’ are the enemy and must be torn down; they must be schooled and scolded and screamed at and insulted to within an inch of their life.

Do you think people are ever completely different online than they are offline?

2) Here’s a related link, with a business angle:Why We Get So Angry Online and How to Deal with the Rage

There’s a standard saying online that time passes more quickly, a lot can happen in an Internet minute. Part of the issue with rage online is that it may pass very quickly for a person who is angry, but the effects of their actions may last longer.