Archives for Brain Function
Elisha Goldstein’s book, The Now Effect, has sent my brain spinning in yet another direction. The anecdote: A professor stood before a philosophy class holding an empty jar. As the students took their seats, she began filling the jar with golf balls. When they reached the top, she asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was. The professor then took a bag of pebbles and poured them into the jar, and they made their way between the spaces of the golf balls. Again she asked the students if the jar was full, and they agreed that it was. But the professor had another trick up her sleeve. She brought out a bag of sand and proceeded to pour the grains into the jar, filling up more of the remaining space. Again the question came: “It’s full now, correct?” The answer was a resounding “Yes.” The professor then took a sip of her coffee and dumped the rest into the jar, filling up spaces that no one thought was there. The thought: how does our brain process negative space?
I’ve only just started reading the new book by fellow PyschCentral blogger Elisha Goldstein, and I’ve already found something useful. Goldstein is a psychologist in private practice, and his excellent blog is about mindfulness. His book, The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life, is a manual for learning mindfulness. The book is short, quick-read chapters that leave you with lots to think about and try. “See, Touch, Go” is the chapter that twanged a note in my brain--one image, in particular. Goldstein describes the See, Touch, Go method in an anecdote, through the words of a dog trainer trying to help a family frustrated by their rambunctious rescue dog. "‘See, touch, go.’ When your mind begins to wander off onto all your worries and frustrations with this dog, see that your mind has wandered, touch the thought like you might softly touch your reflection in a pond, and then gently go back to focusing on the training we’ve discussed." OK, so the dog trainer is beside the point. What got me is this: Touch the thought like you might softly touch your reflection in a pond.
This blog celebrated its first anniversary on January 1, so I am therefore compelled (it's the law) to reflect on the past year. Writing Real World Research has been fun and also a lot of work. I read a lot more research than I end up writing about. Academic writing is no easy read and I am eternally grateful to those researchers who manage to slip a little joke in here and there. Some papers are so dense that even if the topic is compelling, my eyes cross and I can’t hack my way through them. I have no one to blame but myself---I decided to focus this blog on research. Sometimes I hate myself for choosing a theme that so often forces me in way over my head. Still, one of the perks of being a writer is that I get paid for finding out stuff I want to know. Reading and writing about research has taught me all kinds of useful things which, as the blog title suggests, I can take into the real world. So to reflect on the past year, here is some of the stuff I learned writing Real World Research in 2011 that has been most useful to me.
New research finds a small but significant correlation between social anxiety and ability to recognize faces. Yes. Oh yes. I don’t have severe social anxiety, but I do have some, and this gave me an aha! moment about it. I have a terrible time remembering faces. Even famous people. I recognize George Clooney, easy. Matt Damon? Not so much. Meryl Streep, easy. Charlize Theron? Not so much. Put me in a large party and I spend a lot of time pretending I remember people who remember me. People tend to be hurt and offended when you don’t remember meeting them and I don’t blame them. If you remind me where or how we met, I might remember (although my memory is crappy in many ways so maybe not). Every party is a minefield of not recognizing people I don't know well. And this is not just a problem at parties. I didn’t recognize a neighbor the other day and what’s worse, I took a guess and was wrong. Ugh, ugh, ugh. I never made the connection between my anxiety about parties and facial recognition, but this information fits with the satisfying click of a puzzle piece set in place.
The other day I learned that I’ve been walking around for the better part of a decade with a dislocated toe. I knew something was wrong. I’d had it X-rayed and the doctor said it looked like I’d jammed my toe somehow (true) and had developed some form of arthritis. I can’t remember the name. He gave me a prescription I never filled. I was not ready for a lifelong commitment, and figured such is age. You get arthritis, you learn to live with it. I don’t know how painful arthritis is, but this was extremely painful. I got rid of shoes that hurt too much, and was more than once brought to tears in the aisle of DSW just from trying on a shoe that hit my toe wrong. I often had near-blinding stabs of pain randomly, when I was lying in bed. The weight of the bedclothes could be painful. I’ve recently developed plantar fasciitis from walking wrong. Then, the other night, I turned in the kitchen and had a sudden stab of pain in my toe. But even as I was still staggering dizzily while it throbbed, my first thought was: It’s fixed.
Last night, my yoga and meditation teacher mentioned her surprise at how much easier meditation gets over time. She no longer has to work nearly as hard as she once did, she said, to reach a meditative state. And, she said, it's much easier than it once was to keep intrusive thoughts and daydreams at bay while she meditated. “I don’t know why,” she concluded, with some wonder in her voice. Coincidentally, I’d just spent much of the day reading about this very thing, in order to write this post. People who study the brain talk about something called the default-mode network (DMN), which is where our brain tends to go when we’re not making it do something else. The DMN correlates with the parts of the brain that activate when we’re thinking about ourselves—the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices, if you want to get technical about it. And our DMN does not always have our best interests at heart.
New research from Penn State and the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging finds that caregivers of people with dementia are not listening to what the people they care for want. The researchers interviewed 256 pairs of people. In each pair, one person had mild to moderate dementia, the other was the caregiver. From a press release from Penn State: The researchers interviewed members of the pairs separately, asking questions related to how much value they place on five core values: autonomy, burden, control, family and safety. For example, one question focused on the level of importance a dementia patient gave to the ability to spend his or her own money in the way he or she wants. "Our results demonstrate that adult children underestimate the importance that their relatives with dementia placed on all five core values," said [lead researcher Steven] Zarit. "For example, the person with dementia might think it is very important to continue to be part of family celebrations, but his or her caregiver might not." So the caregivers/decision makers aren't taking into account what the person with dementia values. That's really sad.
My brain is tired. My work as a freelance writer requires a lot of thinking. Not only a lot of thinking, but a lot of thinking about a lot of different subjects. Research too. And then, after I’ve thought and researched and thought some more, I have to string together words to explain all that thinking and research in a way that might be interesting to other people. I’ve cranked out a lot of work in the past few weeks, on topics ranging from authors to canoeing, psychology to Dolly Parton. My jobs range from blog posts (I contribute to four) to writing books to editing reports. I’m not complaining. I enjoy my work and I’m lucky to have so much, and so much that is interesting. But I am wondering: What actually happens when your brain gets tired? Is it physiological or…what?
Dilbert lives. The socially awkward engineer is turning up in research labs—and not only as the guy in the lab coat. Research out of Cornell University and published in the journal of the International Society for Autism Research found that in male university students, systemizing (the skills of math and science) and empathizing (including such social skills as reading nonverbal signals) are on one scale: if they’re good at systemizing they’re not so good at empathizing. (Standard disclaimer: This does not apply to all engineer/science-type men.) Women, on the other hand, could be good at both systematizing and empathizing; the two are on separate scales. Actually, the researchers also checked digit (finger) ratios, a way of measuring the amount of androgens, such as testosterone, people were exposed to in utero. They found that women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) were likely to have a masculine digit ratio. So Dilberta lives, too. (Dilbertina?)
I’m a big fan of scientific and behavioral research. It’s interesting and useful and fun to read (well, not fun fun) and I believe it usually matters even when it doesn’t seem to. Even so, sometimes I read a study and think, “Yeah, and….?” Like this research on fear, in which researchers used a computational model of a rodent amygdala, taught fear to their model (I don’t know, maybe showed it really scary equations), and caused so-called “fear neurons” to fire with conditioned stimulus. Retraining the amygdala not to fear the stimulus caused “extinction neurons” to spring into action and overwhelm the fear neurons. The conclusion of the research: We don’t overcome fear, we just suppress it, and neural activity reflects that. In addition, the fear can return under other circumstances; context matters. (And other stuff. Read the original paper here, if you can. I tried and tried but it made my eyeballs spin.)