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  • This is from the Mooney Lab ! Yaaaay :) 

    neurosciencestuff:

    Stop and Listen: Study Shows How Movement Affects Hearing

    When we want to listen carefully to someone, the first thing we do is stop talking. The second thing we do is stop moving altogether. This strategy helps us hear better by preventing unwanted sounds generated by our own movements.

    This interplay between movement and hearing also has a counterpart deep in the brain. Indeed, indirect evidence has long suggested that the brain’s motor cortex, which controls movement, somehow influences the auditory cortex, which gives rise to our conscious perception of sound.

    A new Duke study, appearing online August 27 in Nature, combines cutting-edge methods in electrophysiology, optogenetics and behavioral analysis to reveal exactly how the motor cortex, seemingly in anticipation of movement, can tweak the volume control in the auditory cortex.

    The new lab methods allowed the group to “get beyond a century’s worth of very powerful but largely correlative observations, and develop a new, and really a harder, causality-driven view of how the brain works,” said the study’s senior author Richard Mooney Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology at Duke University School of Medicine, and a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

    The findings contribute to the basic knowledge of how communication between the brain’s motor and auditory cortexes might affect hearing during speech or musical performance. Disruptions to the same circuitry may give rise to auditory hallucinations in people with schizophrenia.

    In 2013, researchers led by Mooney first characterized the connections between motor and auditory areas in mouse brain slices as well as in anesthetized mice. The new study answers the critical question of how those connections operate in an awake, moving mouse.

    "This is a major step forward in that we’ve now interrogated the system in an animal that’s freely behaving," said David Schneider, a postdoctoral associate in Mooney’s lab.

    Mooney suspects that the motor cortex learns how to mute responses in the auditory cortex to sounds that are expected to arise from one’s own movements while heightening sensitivity to other, unexpected sounds. The group is testing this idea.

    "Our first step will be to start making more realistic situations where the animal needs to ignore the sounds that its movements are making in order to detect things that are happening in the world," Schneider said.

    In the latest study, the team recorded electrical activity of individual neurons in the brain’s auditory cortex. Whenever the mice moved — walking, grooming, or making high-pitched squeaks — neurons in their auditory cortex were dampened in response to tones played to the animals, compared to when they were at rest.

    To find out whether movement was directly influencing the auditory cortex, researchers conducted a series of experiments in awake animals using optogenetics, a powerful method that uses light to control the activity of select populations of neurons that have been genetically sensitized to light. Like the game of telephone, sounds that enter the ear pass through six or more relays in the brain before reaching the auditory cortex.

    "Optogenetics can be used to activate a specific relay in the network, in this case the penultimate node that relays signals to the auditory cortex," Mooney said.

    About half of the suppression during movement was found to originate within the auditory cortex itself. “That says a lot of modulation is going on in the auditory cortex, and not just at earlier relays in the auditory system” Mooney said.

    More specifically, the team found that movement stimulates inhibitory neurons that in turn suppress the response of the auditory cortex to tones.

    The researchers then wondered what turns on the inhibitory neurons. The suspects were many. “The auditory cortex is like this giant switching station where all these different inputs come through and say, ‘Okay, I want to have access to these interneurons,’” Mooney said. “The question we wanted to answer is who gets access to them during movement?”

    The team knew from previous experiments that neuronal projections from the secondary motor cortex (M2) modulate the auditory cortex. But to isolate M2’s relative contribution — something not possible with traditional electrophysiology — the researchers again used optogenetics, this time to switch on and off the M2’s inputs to the inhibitory neurons.

    Turning on M2 inputs reproduced a sense of movement in the auditory cortex, even in mice that were resting, the group found. “We were sending a ‘Hey I’m moving’ signal to the auditory cortex,” Schneider said. Then the effect of playing a tone on the auditory cortex was much the same as if the animal had actually been moving — a result that confirmed the importance of M2 in modulating the auditory cortex. On the other hand, turning off M2 simulated rest in the auditory cortex, even when the animals were still moving.

    "I couldn’t contain my excitement when we first saw that result," said Anders Nelson, a neurobiology graduate student in Mooney’s group.

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  • neurosciencestuff:

    (Image caption: This image depicts the injection sites and the expression of the viral constructs in the two areas of the brain studied: the Dentate Gyrus of the hippocampus (middle) and the Basolateral Amygdala (bottom corners). Image courtesy of the researchers)

    Neuroscientists reverse memories’ emotional associations

    Most memories have some kind of emotion associated with them: Recalling the week you just spent at the beach probably makes you feel happy, while reflecting on being bullied provokes more negative feelings.

    A new study from MIT neuroscientists reveals the brain circuit that controls how memories become linked with positive or negative emotions. Furthermore, the researchers found that they could reverse the emotional association of specific memories by manipulating brain cells with optogenetics — a technique that uses light to control neuron activity.

    The findings, described in the Aug. 27 issue of Nature, demonstrated that a neuronal circuit connecting the hippocampus and the amygdala plays a critical role in associating emotion with memory. This circuit could offer a target for new drugs to help treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the researchers say.

    “In the future, one may be able to develop methods that help people to remember positive memories more strongly than negative ones,” says Susumu Tonegawa, the Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience, director of the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, and senior author of the paper.

    The paper’s lead authors are Roger Redondo, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute postdoc at MIT, and Joshua Kim, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Biology.

    Shifting memories

    Memories are made of many elements, which are stored in different parts of the brain. A memory’s context, including information about the location where the event took place, is stored in cells of the hippocampus, while emotions linked to that memory are found in the amygdala.

    Previous research has shown that many aspects of memory, including emotional associations, are malleable. Psychotherapists have taken advantage of this to help patients suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, but the neural circuitry underlying such malleability is not known.

    In this study, the researchers set out to explore that malleability with an experimental technique they recently devised that allows them to tag neurons that encode a specific memory, or engram. To achieve this, they label hippocampal cells that are turned on during memory formation with a light-sensitive protein called channelrhodopsin. From that point on, any time those cells are activated with light, the mice recall the memory encoded by that group of cells.

    Last year, Tonegawa’s lab used this technique to implant, or “incept,” false memories in mice by reactivating engrams while the mice were undergoing a different experience. In the new study, the researchers wanted to investigate how the context of a memory becomes linked to a particular emotion. First, they used their engram-labeling protocol to tag neurons associated with either a rewarding experience (for male mice, socializing with a female mouse) or an unpleasant experience (a mild electrical shock). In this first set of experiments, the researchers labeled memory cells in a part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus.

    Two days later, the mice were placed into a large rectangular arena. For three minutes, the researchers recorded which half of the arena the mice naturally preferred. Then, for mice that had received the fear conditioning, the researchers stimulated the labeled cells in the dentate gyrus with light whenever the mice went into the preferred side. The mice soon began avoiding that area, showing that the reactivation of the fear memory had been successful.

    The reward memory could also be reactivated: For mice that were reward-conditioned, the researchers stimulated them with light whenever they went into the less-preferred side, and they soon began to spend more time there, recalling the pleasant memory.

    A couple of days later, the researchers tried to reverse the mice’s emotional responses. For male mice that had originally received the fear conditioning, they activated the memory cells involved in the fear memory with light for 12 minutes while the mice spent time with female mice. For mice that had initially received the reward conditioning, memory cells were activated while they received mild electric shocks.

    Next, the researchers again put the mice in the large two-zone arena. This time, the mice that had originally been conditioned with fear and had avoided the side of the chamber where their hippocampal cells were activated by the laser now began to spend more time in that side when their hippocampal cells were activated, showing that a pleasant association had replaced the fearful one. This reversal also took place in mice that went from reward to fear conditioning.

    Altered connections

    The researchers then performed the same set of experiments but labeled memory cells in the basolateral amygdala, a region involved in processing emotions. This time, they could not induce a switch by reactivating those cells — the mice continued to behave as they had been conditioned when the memory cells were first labeled.

    This suggests that emotional associations, also called valences, are encoded somewhere in the neural circuitry that connects the dentate gyrus to the amygdala, the researchers say. A fearful experience strengthens the connections between the hippocampal engram and fear-encoding cells in the amygdala, but that connection can be weakened later on as new connections are formed between the hippocampus and amygdala cells that encode positive associations.

    “That plasticity of the connection between the hippocampus and the amygdala plays a crucial role in the switching of the valence of the memory,” Tonegawa says.

    These results indicate that while dentate gyrus cells are neutral with respect to emotion, individual amygdala cells are precommitted to encode fear or reward memory. The researchers are now trying to discover molecular signatures of these two types of amygdala cells. They are also investigating whether reactivating pleasant memories has any effect on depression, in hopes of identifying new targets for drugs to treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

    David Anderson, a professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology, says the study makes an important contribution to neuroscientists’ fundamental understanding of the brain and also has potential implications for treating mental illness.

    “This is a tour de force of modern molecular-biology-based methods for analyzing processes, such as learning and memory, at the neural-circuitry level. It’s one of the most sophisticated studies of this type that I’ve seen,” he says.

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  • (via andbamnan)

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  • neurosciencestuff:

    Children’s drawings indicate later intelligence

    How 4-year old children draw pictures of a child is an indicator of intelligence at age 14, according to a study by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, published today in Psychological Science.

    The researchers studied 7,752 pairs of identical and non-identical twins (a total of 15,504 children) from the Medical Research Council (MRC) funded Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), and found that the link between drawing and later intelligence was influenced by genes.

    At the age of 4, children were asked by their parents to complete a ‘Draw-a-Child’ test, i.e. draw a picture of a child. Each figure was scored between 0 and 12 depending on the presence and correct quantity of features such as head, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair, body, arms etc. For example, a drawing with two legs, two arms, a body and head, but no facial features, would score 4. The children were also given verbal and non-verbal intelligence tests at ages 4 and 14.

    The researchers found that higher scores on the Draw-a-Child test were moderately associated with higher scores of intelligence at ages 4 and 14. The correlation between drawing and intelligence was moderate at ages 4 (0.33) and 14 (0.20).

    Dr Rosalind Arden, lead author of the paper from the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, says: “The Draw-a-Child test was devised in the 1920’s to assess children’s intelligence, so the fact that the test correlated with intelligence at age 4 was expected.What surprised us was that it correlated with intelligence a decade later.”

    “The correlation is moderate, so our findings are interesting, but it does not mean that parents should worry if their child draws badly. Drawing ability does not determine intelligence, there are countless factors, both genetic and environmental, which affect intelligence in later life.”

    The researchers also measured the heritability of figure drawing. Identical twins share all their genes, whereas non-identical twins only share about 50 percent, but each pair will have a similar upbringing, family environment and access to the same materials.

    Overall, at age 4, drawings from identical twins pairs were more similar to one another than drawings from non-identical twin pairs. Therefore, the researchers concluded that differences in children’s drawings have an important genetic link. They also found that drawing at age 4 and intelligence at age 14 had a strong genetic link.

    Dr Arden explains: “This does not mean that there is a drawing gene – a child’s ability to draw stems from many other abilities, such as observing, holding a pencil etc. We are a long way off understanding how genes influence all these different types of behaviour.”

    Dr Arden adds: “Drawing is an ancient behaviour, dating back beyond 15,000 years ago. Through drawing, we are attempting to show someone else what’s in our mind. This capacity to reproduce figures is a uniquely human ability and a sign of cognitive ability, in a similar way to writing, which transformed the human species’ ability to store information, and build a civilisation.”

    (via artneuroscience)

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  • neurosciencestuff:

    Children’s drawings indicate later intelligence

    How 4-year old children draw pictures of a child is an indicator of intelligence at age 14, according to a study by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, published today in Psychological Science.

    The researchers studied 7,752 pairs of identical and non-identical twins (a total of 15,504 children) from the Medical Research Council (MRC) funded Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), and found that the link between drawing and later intelligence was influenced by genes.

    At the age of 4, children were asked by their parents to complete a ‘Draw-a-Child’ test, i.e. draw a picture of a child. Each figure was scored between 0 and 12 depending on the presence and correct quantity of features such as head, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair, body, arms etc. For example, a drawing with two legs, two arms, a body and head, but no facial features, would score 4. The children were also given verbal and non-verbal intelligence tests at ages 4 and 14.

    The researchers found that higher scores on the Draw-a-Child test were moderately associated with higher scores of intelligence at ages 4 and 14. The correlation between drawing and intelligence was moderate at ages 4 (0.33) and 14 (0.20).

    Dr Rosalind Arden, lead author of the paper from the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, says: “The Draw-a-Child test was devised in the 1920’s to assess children’s intelligence, so the fact that the test correlated with intelligence at age 4 was expected.What surprised us was that it correlated with intelligence a decade later.”

    “The correlation is moderate, so our findings are interesting, but it does not mean that parents should worry if their child draws badly. Drawing ability does not determine intelligence, there are countless factors, both genetic and environmental, which affect intelligence in later life.”

    The researchers also measured the heritability of figure drawing. Identical twins share all their genes, whereas non-identical twins only share about 50 percent, but each pair will have a similar upbringing, family environment and access to the same materials.

    Overall, at age 4, drawings from identical twins pairs were more similar to one another than drawings from non-identical twin pairs. Therefore, the researchers concluded that differences in children’s drawings have an important genetic link. They also found that drawing at age 4 and intelligence at age 14 had a strong genetic link.

    Dr Arden explains: “This does not mean that there is a drawing gene – a child’s ability to draw stems from many other abilities, such as observing, holding a pencil etc. We are a long way off understanding how genes influence all these different types of behaviour.”

    Dr Arden adds: “Drawing is an ancient behaviour, dating back beyond 15,000 years ago. Through drawing, we are attempting to show someone else what’s in our mind. This capacity to reproduce figures is a uniquely human ability and a sign of cognitive ability, in a similar way to writing, which transformed the human species’ ability to store information, and build a civilisation.”

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  • The study, titled “Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain: A Voxel-Based Morphometry Analysis Of Observational Drawing,” included 44 graduate and post-grad art students and non-art students who were asked to complete various drawing tasks. The completed tasks were measured and scored, and that data was compared to “regional grey and white matter volume in the cortical and subcortical structures” of the brain using a scanning method called voxel-based morphometry. An increase in grey matter density on the left anterior cerebellum and the right medial frontal gyrus were observed in relation to drawing skills.

    The scans depicted that the artist group had more grey matter in the area of the brain called the precuneus in the parietal lobe. That region is involved with many skills, but could possibly be linked to controlling your mind’s eye for visual creativity.

    Lead author Rebecca Chamberlain from KU Leuven, Belgium noted, "The people who are better at drawing really seem to have more developed structures in regions of the brain that control for fine motor performance and what we call procedural memory." 

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  • neurosciencestuff:

    Bats bolster brain hypothesis, maybe technology, too

    Amid a neuroscience debate about how people and animals focus on distinct objects within cluttered scenes, some of the newest and best evidence comes from the way bats “see” with their ears, according to a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology. In fact, the perception process in question could improve sonar and radar technology.

    Bats demonstrate remarkable skill in tracking targets such as bugs through the trees in the dark of night. James Simmons, professor of neuroscience at Brown University, the review paper’s author, has long sought to explain how they do that.

    It turns out that experiments in Simmons’ lab point to the “temporal binding hypothesis” as an explanation. The hypothesis proposes that people and animals focus on objects versus the background when a set of neurons in the brain attuned to features of an object all respond in synchrony, as if shouting in unison, “Yes, look at that!” When the neurons do not respond together to an object, the hypothesis predicts, an object is relegated to the perceptual background.

    Because bats have an especially acute need to track prey through crowded scenes, albeit with echolocation rather than vision, they have evolved to become an ideal testbed for the hypothesis.

    “Sometimes the most critical questions about systems in biology that relate to humans are best approached by using an animal species whose lifestyle requires that the system in question be exaggerated in some functional sense so its qualities are more obvious,” said Simmons, who plans to discuss the research at the 2014 Cold Spring Harbor Asia Conference the week of September 15 in Suzhou, China.

    A focus of frequencies

    Here’s how he’s determined over the years that temporal binding works in a bat. As the bat flies it emits two spectra of sound frequencies — one high and one low — into a wide cone of space ahead of it. Within the spectra are harmonic pairs of high and low frequencies, for example 33 kilohertz and 66 kilohertz. These harmonic pairs reflect off of objects and back to the bat’s ears, triggering a response from neurons in its brain. Objects that reflect these harmonic pairs in perfect synchrony are the ones that stand out clearly for the bat.

    Of course it’s more complicated than just that. Many things could reflect the same frequency pairs back at the same time. The real question is how a target object would stand out. The answer, Simmons writes, comes from the physics of the echolocation sound waves and how bat brains have evolved to process their signal. Those factors conspire to ensure that whatever the bat keeps front-and-center in its echolocation cone will stand out from surrounding interference.

    The higher frequency sounds in the bat’s spectrum weaken in transit through the air more than lower frequency sounds. The bat also sends out the lower frequencies to a wider span of angles than the high frequencies. So for any given harmonic pair, the farther away or more peripheral a reflecting object is, the weaker the higher frequency reflection in the harmonic pair will be. In the brain, Simmons writes, the bat converts this difference in signal strength into a delay in time (about 15 microseconds per decibel) so that harmonic pairs with wide differences in signal strength end up being perceived as way out of synchrony in time. The temporal binding hypothesis predicts that the distant or peripheral objects with these out-of-synch signals will be perceived as the background while front-and-center objects that reflect back both harmonics with equal strength will rise above their desynchronized competitors.

    With support from sources including the U.S. Navy, Simmons’s research group has experimentally verified this. In key experiments (some dating back 40 years) they have sat big brown bats at the base of a Y-shaped platform with a pair of objects – one a target with a food reward and the other a distractor – on the tines of the Y. When the objects are at different distances, the bat can tell them apart and accurately crawl to the target. When the objects are equidistant, the bat becomes confused. Crucially, when the experimenters artificially weaken the high-pitched harmonic from the distracting object, even when it remains equidistant, the bat’s acumen to find the target is restored.

    In further experiments in 2010 and 2011, Simmons’ team showed that if they shifted the distractor object’s weakened high-frequency signal by the right amount of time (15 microseconds per decibel) they could restore the distractor’s ability to interfere with the target object by restoring the synchrony of the distractor’s harmonics. In other words, they used the specific predictions of the hypothesis and their understanding of how it works in bats to jam the bat’s echolocation ability.

    If targeting and jamming sound like words associated with radar and sonar, that’s no coincidence. Simmons works with the U.S. Navy on applications of bat echolocation to navigation technology. He recently began a new research grant from the Office of Naval Research that involves bat sonar work in collaboration with researcher Jason Gaudette at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I.

    Simmons said he believes the evidence he has gathered about the neuroscience of bats not only supports the temporal binding hypothesis, but also can inspire new technology.

    “This is a better way to design a radar or sonar system if you need it to perform well in real-time for a small vehicle in complicated tasks,” he said.

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  • houseofmind:

    Measuring nurture: Study shows how “good mothering” hardwires the infant brain

    By carefully watching nearly a hundred hours of video showing mother rats protecting, warming, and feeding their young pups, and then matching up what they saw to real-time electrical readings from the pups’ brains, researchers have found that the mother’s presence and social interactions -— her nurturing role -— directly molds the early neural activity and growth of her offsprings’ brain.

    For the study, a half-dozen rat mothers and their litters, of usually a dozen pups, were watched and videotaped from infancy for preset times during the day as they naturally developed. One pup from each litter was outfitted with a miniature wireless transmitter, invisibly placed under the skin and next to the brain to record its electrical patterns.

    Specifically, study results showed that when rat mothers left their pups alone in the nest, infant cortical brain electrical activity, measured as local field potentials, jumped 50 percent to 100 percent, and brain wave patterns became more erratic, or desynchronous. Researchers point out that such periodic desynchronization is key to healthy brain growth and communication across different brain regions.

    During nursing, infant rat pups calmed down after attaching themselves to their mother’s nipple. Brain activity also slowed and became more synchronous, with clearly identifiable electrical patterns.

    However, these brain surges progressively declined during weaning, as infant pups gained independence from their mothers, leaving the nest and seeking food on their own as they grew past two weeks of age.

    Additional experiments with a neural-signaling blocking agent, propranolol, confirmed that maternal effects were controlled in part by secretion of norepinephrine, a key neurotransmitter and hormone involved in most basic brain and body functions, including regulation of heart rate and cognition. Noradrenergic blocking in infant rats mostly dampened all previously observed effects induced by their mothers.

    More work coming out of the lab :) Click on the title for link to ScienceDaily write-up. 

    Source: 

    Sarro, Wilson and Sullivan (2014). Maternal Regulation of Infant Brain State. Current Biology 24 (14): 1664-9. 

    (via neuromorphogenesis)

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  • neurosciencestuff:

    Our brains judge a face’s trustworthiness - Even when we can’t see it

    Our brains are able to judge the trustworthiness of a face even when we cannot consciously see it, a team of scientists has found. Their findings, which appear in the Journal of Neuroscience, shed new light on how we form snap judgments of others.

    “Our findings suggest that the brain automatically responds to a face’s trustworthiness before it is even consciously perceived,” explains Jonathan Freeman, an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and the study’s senior author.

    “The results are consistent with an extensive body of research suggesting that we form spontaneous judgments of other people that can be largely outside awareness,” adds Freeman, who conducted the study as a faculty member at Dartmouth College.

    The study’s other authors included Ryan Stolier, an NYU doctoral candidate, Zachary Ingbretsen, a research scientist who previously worked with Freeman and is now at Harvard University, and Eric Hehman, a post-doctoral researcher at NYU.

    The researchers focused on the workings of the brain’s amygdala, a structure that is important for humans’ social and emotional behavior. Previous studies have shown this structure to be active in judging the trustworthiness of faces. However, it had not been known if the amygdala is capable of responding to a complex social signal like a face’s trustworthiness without that signal reaching perceptual awareness.

    To gauge this part of the brain’s role in making such assessments, the study’s authors conducted a pair of experiments in which they monitored the activity of subjects’ amygdala while the subjects were exposed to a series of facial images.

    These images included both standardized photographs of actual strangers’ faces as well as artificially generated faces whose trustworthiness cues could be manipulated while all other facial cues were controlled. The artificially generated faces were computer synthesized based on previous research showing that cues such as higher inner eyebrows and pronounced cheekbones are seen as trustworthy and lower inner eyebrows and shallower cheekbones are seen as untrustworthy.

    Prior to the start of these experiments, a separate group of subjects examined all the real and computer-generated faces and rated how trustworthy or untrustworthy they appeared. As previous studies have shown, subjects strongly agreed on the level of trustworthiness conveyed by each given face.

    In the experiments, a new set of subjects viewed these same faces inside a brain scanner, but were exposed to the faces very briefly—for only a matter of milliseconds. This rapid exposure, together with another feature known as “backward masking,” prevented subjects from consciously seeing the faces. Backward masking works by presenting subjects with an irrelevant “mask” image that immediately follows an extremely brief exposure to a face, which is thought to terminate the brain’s ability to further process the face and prevent it from reaching awareness. In the first experiment, the researchers examined amygdala activity in response to three levels of a face’s trustworthiness: low, medium, and high. In the second experiment, they assessed amygdala activity in response to a fully continuous spectrum of trustworthiness.

    Across the two experiments, the researchers found that specific regions inside the amygdala exhibited activity tracking how untrustworthy a face appeared, and other regions inside the amygdala exhibited activity tracking the overall strength of the trustworthiness signal (whether untrustworthy or trustworthy)—even though subjects could not consciously see any of the faces.

    “These findings provide evidence that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously understood,” observes Freeman. “The amygdala is able to assess how trustworthy another person’s face appears without it being consciously perceived.”

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  • neuromorphogenesis:

    How playing an instrument benefits your brain

    Recent research about the mental benefits of playing music has many applications, such as music therapy for people with emotional problems, or helping to treat the symptoms of stroke survivors and Alzheimer’s patients. But it is perhaps even more significant in how much it advances our understanding of mental function, revealing the inner rhythms and complex interplay that make up the amazing orchestra of our brain.
    Did you know that every time musicians pick up their instruments, there are fireworks going off all over their brain? On the outside they may look calm and focused, reading the music and making the precise and practiced movements required. But inside their brains, there’s a party going on.

    From the TED-Ed lesson How playing an instrument benefits your brain - Anita Collins

    Animation by Sharon Colman Graham

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  • neurosciencestuff:

    How we form habits and change existing ones

    Much of our daily lives are taken up by habits that we’ve formed over our lifetime. An important characteristic of a habit is that it’s automatic— we don’t always recognize habits in our own behavior. Studies show that about 40 percent of people’s daily activities are performed each day in almost the same situations. Habits emerge through associative learning. “We find patterns of behavior that allow us to reach goals. We repeat what works, and when actions are repeated in a stable context, we form associations between cues and response,” Wendy Wood explains in her session at the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention.

    What are habits?

    Wood calls attention to the neurology of habits, and how they have a recognizable neural signature. When you are learning a response you engage your associative basal ganglia, which involves the prefrontal cortex and supports working memory so you can make decisions. As you repeat the behavior in the same context, the information is reorganized in your brain. It shifts to the sensory motor loop that supports representations of cue response associations, and no longer retains information on the goal or outcome. This shift from goal directed to context cue response helps to explain why our habits are rigid behaviors.

    There is a dual mind at play, Wood explains. When our intentional mind is engaged, we act in ways that meet an outcome we desire and typically we’re aware of our intentions. Intentions can change quickly because we can make conscious decisions about what we want to do in the future that may be different from the past. However, when the habitual mind is engaged, our habits function largely outside of awareness. We can’t easily articulate how we do our habits or why we do them, and they change slowly through repeated experience. “Our minds don’t always integrate in the best way possible. Even when you know the right answer, you can’t make yourself change the habitual behavior,” Wood says.

    Participants in a study were asked to taste popcorn, and as expected, fresh popcorn was preferable to stale. But when participants were given popcorn in a movie theater, people who have a habit of eating popcorn at the movies ate just as much stale popcorn as participants in the fresh popcorn group. “The thoughtful intentional mind is easily derailed and people tend to fall back on habitual behaviors. Forty percent of the time we’re not thinking about what we’re doing,” Wood interjects. “Habits allow us to focus on other things…Willpower is a limited resource, and when it runs out you fall back on habits.”

    How can we change our habits?

    Public service announcements, educational programs, community workshops, and weight-loss programs are all geared toward improving your day-to-day habits. But are they really effective? These standard interventions are very successful at increasing motivation and desire. You will almost always leave feeling like you can change and that you want to change. The programs give you knowledge and goal-setting strategies for implementation, but these programs only address the intentional mind.

    In a study on the “Take 5” program, 35 percent of people polled came away believing they should eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day. Looking at that result, it appears that the national program was effective at teaching people that it’s important to have 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. But the data changes when you ask what people are actually eating. Only 11 percent of people reported that they met this goal. The program changed people’s intentions, but it did not overrule habitual behavior.

    According to Wood, there are three main principles to consider when effectively changing habitual behavior. First, you must derail existing habits and create a window of opportunity to act on new intentions. Someone who moves to a new city or changes jobs has the perfect scenario to disrupt old cues and create new habits. When the cues for existing habits are removed, it’s easier to form a new behavior. If you can’t alter your entire environment by switching cities— make small changes. For instance, if weight-loss or healthy eating is your goal, try moving unhealthy foods to a top shelf out of reach, or to the back of the freezer instead of in front.

    The second principle is remembering that repetition is key. Studies have shown it can take anywhere from 15 days to 254 days to truly form a new habit. “There’s no easy formula for how long it takes,” Wood says. Lastly, there must be stable context cues available in order to trigger a new pattern. “It’s easier to maintain the behavior if it’s repeated in a specific context,” Wood emphasizes. Flossing after you brush your teeth allows the act of brushing to be the cue to remember to floss. Reversing the two behaviors is not as successful at creating a new flossing habit. Having an initial cue is a crucial component.

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  • neuromorphogenesis:

    The Science of Happiness: What data & biology reveal about our mood

    While true happiness may have a different definition to each of us, science can give us a glimpse at the underlying biological factors behind happiness. From the food we eat to room temperature, there are thousands of factors that play a role in how our brains work and the moods that we are in. Understanding these factors can be helpful in achieving lasting happiness.

    Infographic by Webpage FX

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