Patchwork brain

signaling (animated) med from devocgneuro1

This is one of my favourite visual metaphors for brain function. It may take a few moments for the animation to become apparent. If it stops working, refresh the page or use the link below to Genista’s original & scroll down to the smaller version on his Flickr page. ENJOY!
  • Image source (CC BY-SA 20.0): signaling (animated)  in Flickr Creative Commons – Attribution by Kai Schreiber (aka Genista), Apr. 2009,  at genista/343298796.


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Willpower, free will, and New Year’s resolutions

Henry Ford Quote from schlueter7
(in Flickr CC, April 20011)

I’m not a great pronouncer of New Year’s resolutions, but it’s impossible for me not to see Jan. 1 as a date for turning over several new, healthier leaves. I usually decide to use this date like a starting gun signalling the beginning of a marathon

to try to lose weight, walk every day, stop procrastinating, and clean up a host of unfinished tasks. Invariably, I end up finding that just thinking about these things makes me too tired to follow through when the time comes. In past I put this down to poor self-control. I gave up after a couple of weeks, but vowed to try again in the spring.

This year I’ve discovered some good news about my failure to persevere: it’s not me!!! Well it is, but it’s not due to some character deficiency. It’s the way my brain is hardwired. There’s neuroscience research to explain my repeated failures in the willpower department.  Apparently, the very act of trying to stick to my resolutions sets up the conditions for failure.

Pie Extravagnaza from robstephaustralia (in Flickr CC Attribution 2009)

First, it seems that exerting willpower sucks up a lot of glucose.

From Dr. Kelly McGonigal at Stanford (2012)

“The mind-body response of exerting willpower literally fatigues us (Tice et al. 2007). … Trying to control one’s thoughts decreases muscle endurance (Bray et al. 2008).

… Simple acts of self-control both require and lower blood glucose levels.” If asked to perform 2 successive tasks requiring self control, participants performed significantly worse on the second one unless “given a sugary drink between tasks (replenishing their blood glucose levels).”

So it seems that if I even think about making myself get up and go for a walk, I’ll need a glucose-restoring sugary snack to help me better resist the next urge to eat something that is not in my healthy meal plan. Arghhhh!!!! All good advice to the contrary, if any of the tips and tricks to help me stick to my resolutions involve exerting self-control, scientifically I’m  doomed.

Apple Cider Donuts from manda_wong (in Flickr CC Attribution Oct. 2010)

Jonah Lehrer (The Science Behind Failed Resolutions, 2009) cites an interesting study which suggests that part of the problem is that trying to break too many bad habits at once places too great a burden on my pre-frontal cortex (brain region responsible for willpower). The result is “cognitive overload“:

“In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

… The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. … This research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited, and that our January promises fail in large part because the brain wasn’t built for [this kind of] success.”

Lehrer cites another study (Baumeister 2007) which also relates the limited attention span of the prefrontal cortex and the resulting lack of self-discipline to glucose deficiency. The best way to keep my willpower in peak condition is to feed it real sugar. Interestingly, the brain can tell the difference between the real stuff and diet substitutes which are of no use whatsoever.

The final bit of research I have to offer is in the form of this fascinating video from Marcus Du Sautoy, Prof. of Mathematics at the University of Oxford (see article).


So if (1) my brain is making the decision to blow my resolutions 7 seconds before I consciously make the choice, and (2) it’s also driving me to consume sugary snacks to replenish the glucose I expend when exerting any sort of self-control, I guess the whole process is doomed from the outset and I’d be better off trying to figure out how to stop thinking of New Year’s as a time of self-renewal.

Is there no hope? Read the next instalment to see what I discover.

2 sleeps ’til Christmas

Merry Christmas

I don’t want to be a “Debbie Downer” at this time of year, but a search of ‘neuroscience + Christmas’ which I expected would direct me to research into why we enjoy feelings of ‘comfort and joy’ or ‘peace and goodwill’ especially at this time of year, instead returned these 4 studies:

  • Sadness, in this case induced by watching a heart-wrenching video, can make us desperate to buy! buy! buy!

~from The Neuroscience of Christmas Shoes

“The authors (2008 Psychological Science study) reason the sad clip caused participants to devalue both their sense of self and current possessions, making them willing to pay more for new material possessions. Presumably, this could re-enhance their sense of self.”

  • Deep loneliness can lead to chronic Grinch syndrome.

~from Neuroscience Explains Why the Grinch Stole Christmas

“People with an acute sense of social isolation appear to have a reduced response to things that make most people happy, and a heightened response to human conflict. … The Grinch is easier to understand given these findings. … Watching [the citizens of Whoville} surround themselves with happy things like ornaments and gifts and food ticks him off, so he determines to inject some strife into the festivities and watch the fallout.”

  • Companies are exploiting neuroscience research into obsession and games to induce us to join, befriend, and play.

~from Exploiting the neuroscience of Internet Addition

“Companies now openly discuss compulsion loops. The goal is to [get us to] gather thousands of friends on Facebook [or] followers on Twitter. In the past, society has been able to put physical barriers in place to make it more difficult to satisfy unhealthy obsessions. Today smartphones and portable electronic devices travel with us in our pockets.”

  • Especially good news for those of us who live in the northern latitudes, our ‘little grey cells’ in for a sort of ‘perfect storm’ of neuro-chemical havoc at this time of year.

~ from What does Christmas do to your brain?

External conditions and behavioural choices at this time of year can lead to changes in brain/body chemistry including: SADD, chronic inflammation, “brain hyperexcitability,” ” low-alpha state resulting in attention-span issues and an inability to concentrate when you return to work,” stress-induced cortisol overload which impairs your memory and ability to multi-task.

Aren’t any brain scientists out there interested happiness, joy, fulfillment, or contentment? If you know of any research into why Christmas is such a wonderful time of year, please send it my way.

Meanwhile, my Christmas wish for you is to take some time to have fun and (even better) to enjoy a good Santa-like laugh that makes you shake all over like a bowl full of jelly. According to Neuroscience for Kids, laughter has been shown to cause positive changes in the autonomic nervous system, to provide a boost to the immune system, and to reduce levels of stress hormones and neurotransmitters including: cortisol, growth hormone, and catecholamines (dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine). I guess Reader’s Digest did have it right: laugher is the best medicine.

Sebastian Seung: EyeWire launches this weekend

Image links to  EYEWIRE website of Sebastian Seung

EyeWire is a crowd-sourced, game-based learning project created by Sebastian Seung and a team at MIT with “the conviction that anyone, anywhere, should be able to participate in the greatest adventure of our time: exploring the brain.” By playing the game you contribute to neuroscience research.

The project has been running online unofficially for some time, but it launches officially on December 10th — J Day. Until now, the information collected has helped them perfect the game. Now the data will be used “to map the connections of the J cell, a particular type of retinal neuron. The larger and more active the community, the faster they’ll complete the mapping and make exciting discoveries about how the retina functions in visual perception.”

So .. who is Sebastian Seung? He’s the connectome guy. His “hypothesis [is] that personality traits, memories, mental disorders, and other aspects of personal identity are encoded in the pattern of connections between the brain’s neurons.

In preparation for J Day, Seung and his team ask that you to:

  • Get 3 friends to register as EyeWire members.
  • Share this fun 1 minute trailer video over email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. The new social sharing buttons on the site will also come in handy.
  • Make sure to complete the tutorial before J Day on December 10th.

P.S. —–>>>>>> You’re also invited to the pre-launch Google+ Hangout on Saturday, December 8th at noon EST. More details will follow by email when you register. You can also check out the EyeWire Blog and join the conversation on Facebook.

‘Heady’ science

My step-dad has Dementia with Lewy bodies. You’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s the second most common type of what may be this century’s most rapidly growing threat to adults’ health — dementia. This year, about 23, 000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer; 1 in 29 of them will  die. More than 10 times that number of Canadians have dementia, and it will kill them all. It was reported in the Globe and Mail (2010) that in 17 years  the number of dementia sufferers worldwide is expected to double. In Canada the prediction is that number will more than double in just 8 years. If that’s not alarming enough, what used to be thought of as a disease of the very old is now hitting people in their 60s.


(my step-dad in Australia)

My step-dad’s brain can no longer make meaning out of sensory input or lose memories. Unless subdued by drugs, he’s beset by hallucinations and delusions, sometimes coupled with uncontrollable frustration and anger. The Lewy bodies — tiny, pernicious lumps of protein forming in the neurons of his brain — act like a clog plugging a drain.

Image Image

They inhibit the flow of neurotransmitters which normally create the electro-chamical signals associated with information processing and relaying of data.  LBD victims don’t tolerate drugs very well, so the prognosis for my step-dad is that the symptoms will worsen until the Lewy bodies finally invade the part of his brain that governs the autonomic nervous system and he reaches what he called, in the months while he could still process what was happening to him, ‘the final solution’.

If dementia were a disease like bird flu it would be considered a pandemic — perhaps one with a slow fuse because deaths come slowly after as much as a decade or more of suffering depending on the age of onset — but one that’s equally relentless and horribly costly in every awful way you can imagine. That’s why the work of neuroscientists such as the speakers who are coming to BDL 2013 this summer is so important. Now that they have evidence that neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, and synaptogenesis are lifelong processes, they are working on interventions that will strengthen existing and grow new neural architecture. Their hope is that the onset of dementia can be delayed and even prevented. With new technology these scientists no longer have to make guesses about the effectiveness of their programs, they can see real results in real time.

Here, then. to introduce you to these revolutionary findings is a 4 part, 2008 documentary by Canada’s David Suzuki  — The Brain that Changes Itself — based on the book by Dr. Norman Doidge.

In the weeks that come, I’ll introduce you to some of the speakers who you’ll hear at BDL13 and to others I’ve encountered on my own journey to learn more about cognitive sciences. I’ll also tell you more about my step-dad and our experiences together during the 6 months I spent with him in Australia earlier this year. My writing in this blog is dedicated to him.