Neuroscience

People who meditate seem to be able 'switch off' areas of the brain associated with daydreaming as well as psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, according to a new brain imaging study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Meditation's ability to help people stay focused on the moment has been associated with increased happiness levels, said Judson A. Brewer, assistant professor of psychiatry and lead author of the study. To find out more, the
team conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on both experienced and novice meditators as they practiced three different meditation techniques.

A computer that can learn?  There hasn't been meaningful improvement in robotics in 40 years and no AI improvements in 25, just faster chips doing things the old way, but researchers may have gotten a little closer with a a computer chip that mimics how the brain's neurons adapt in response to new information. This plasticity underlies many brain functions, including learning and memory.

Researchers from the University of Minho in Portugal have discovered that rats exposed before birth to glucocorticoids (GC) not only show several brain abnormalities similar to those found in addicts, but become themselves susceptible to addiction (the glucorticoids, which are stress hormones, were used to mimic pre-natal stress).  But even more remarkable, Ana João Rodrigues, Nuno Sousa and colleagues were able to reverse all the abnormalities  (including the addictive behavior) by giving the animals dopamine (a neurotransmitter/ brain chemical). 
The phylogeny of the nervous system has been very well understood by evolutionary neuroscience. Since the first self-defense reactions (irritability) of the unicelular organisms, going through the procceses of centralization, cephalization, and tele-encephalization, the goal of the system is to survive by catching the changes of energy of the enviroment (stimulus) and give and adequate suvirval response to it.

The evolutive instruction of the nervous system is to survive and the diversity of responses increases with the incorporation of new structures.

'Lucid' dreamers are people who claim they are aware that they are dreaming and can deliberately control their actions in dreams. When people dream that they are performing a particular action, a portion of the brain involved in the planning and execution of movement lights up with activity. 

This learned skill presents an opportunity for researchers who are studying the neural underpinnings of our dreams and their findings in Current Biology, made by scanning the brains of lucid dreamers while they slept, give us a glimpse into non-waking consciousness and perhaps create a waypoint toward true "dream reading." 

Social networks on the internet have grown greatly in the past few years. None more than the near ubiquitous Facebook, with over 800 million active users, half of which log in on any given day. Yet, there is great variability in the size of the online social networks of individual people. Is this correlated with the real-world networks of people? Does this have a neural basis? It are exactly these questions that were investigated in a new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

By collecting MRI scans of 125 healthy volunteers (independently replicating the experiments in a second dataset of 40 people) and having these people fill in a questionnaire, the researchers that authored the study had a look at both aforementioned questions. 

The issue at hand: a student with Asperger's Syndrome feels the teacher withholds recess breaks at a whim; the teacher feels that withholding recess is reinforcing the consequences of the student's actions.  From their personal viewpoints, each of them is correct.  Clearly, there is bad communication or signaling going on here.

Note I use the shorthand 'Aspie' for 'someone with Asperger's syndrome', itself either a form of high-functioning autism, or a related pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), and the term 'neurotypical' to describe someone who does not have Asperger's.

On Rules Processing
Brain fatigue

Brain fatigue

Oct 18 2011 | 2 comment(s)

Recently, I read an article in the New York Times entitled

Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?


which presents neurological work showing contrary effects in people trying to exercise will power:
more activity in the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s reward center, and a corresponding decrease in the amygdala, which ordinarily helps control impulses.
Glucose levels in the different parts of the brain are implicated here.  This is particularly bad for dieters, because
1. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower.
With the recent report that iPhone users may literally be in love with their iPhone, it got me thinking.
Why do people spend so much time plugged into their electronic devices and the Internet?

Human beings don't do things repeatedly for no reason. If trained to expect chocolate every time after going on Facebook (FB), then the mere sight of our computer or the FB symbol might having us drooling more than Pavlov's dog. 

But of course there is no chocolate reward for FB so why do tens of millions of people go on FB so often?

I'd wager that it is a case of love.
"[W]ho you are depends on the sum total of your neurobiology." --David Eagleman


Modern neuroscience is making advances in knowledge that our society is not keeping up with, may not be able to keep up with. David Eagleman explores these new inroads in what we know about the brain, the conscious mind, and free will in the interesting (and at times frustrating) Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.