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Love and tweets endure, April 10 – 17

April 17, 2010

I’m going to try something new on this blog. Every week I see so many exciting articles about new neuro research being published. 140 characters is not enough space to comment on them, and an entire blog post is often more than I want to do on each of the articles. So I’m compromising and experimenting with week-end recaps that highlight some of my favorite articles from the week, along with a few comments and thoughts on them.

Shyness may be rooted in brain processing

US News & World Reports picked up on a paper that was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. My first response to the USN article is, “Duh.” My bias, though, is that EVERYTHING related to personality is rooted in brain processing somehow or another. It’s kind of like saying, “Sickness may be rooted in body functions”–it’s a given.

While the specifics are interesting, I liked this article for the type of thinking it reflects, more than for the actual content. The way that diversity in epiphenomena like personality or cognition emerge from biological variation is fascinating, and probably one of the most provocative scientific themes for our society. Once you figure out how brain processing influences outward personality and behavior, do you modify it? If, for example, someone is shy because they have a hyperactive sensory integration network in their visual cortex, is it morally responsible to provide them with options for overcoming shyness by turning down the activity in the sensory integration pathways of their brain? This hearkens back to some of the themes that I discuss in my previous post on designer brains. While the discussion is certainly one that is complex, my primary guiding principles are personal choice and freedom of conscience. If someone wants to be less shy and we figure out a way to create a healthy neurological scaffolding conducive to their personal desire, then more power to them.

Alzheimer’s sufferers still feel for loved ones even if they have forgotten them

This article was very touching to me. As reported by the The Telegraph, Justin Feinstein and a team at the University of Iowa reported that even if patients who suffer Alzheimer’s disease have forgotten conscious memories about their loved ones, they still respond emotionally to them. The study underscores the mystery and the beauty of the human emotional system, and calls new light to the fascinating interplay between the information that we store in our mind, and the emotions that we feel bodily. Not having had a loved one who I am close to suffer from this horrible disease, I can only image the heart-wrenching pain I would experience at watching their memories slip away, especially when it means completely forgetting who I am to them. I hope that people who have loved ones suffering from this disease are able to find some degree of comfort, though, in knowing that in some way, even if the mind forgets, love still remembers.

Library of Congress to preserve Tweets for eternity

Okay, so this one isn’t directly “neuro” per se. But chalk this up in the “quirky and sweet” category for me. Sorry peeps, but I love this. The Library of Congress is going to record the complete history of Twitter. Every little detail of Music Monday and Follow Friday will be recorded and stored indefinitely in the official records of the United States of America. Honestly, if this were published on April 1st, I would think it was an April Fool’s Day gag. But I’m glad it’s not. I really think we’re going to ultimately be glad this move was made. When I posted this article on my Facebook wall, comments included, “Seems excessive and a waste of money.” My prediction, though, is that there are going to be future social scientists using this data-rich registry in extraordinarily clever ways to tell us things about our social habits and communication patterns that we will be totally delighted and fascinated to discover about ourselves. We’re such a gregarious species! I’m excited for the fodder to learn more about our nature, even if through the quirky medium of historical Tweet analysis.

All women worry about getting fat

This one goes in the category of “why people make fun of fMRI research.” When I first saw this article, I was intrigued (especially since the study came from my alma mater, Brigham Young University). However, as I read additional articles about the study design and data interpretation, I felt kind of embarrassed for the researchers that this study is garnering so much attention. Needless to say, it’s the provocative subject matter and not the quality of the experiment that is drawing attention. Basically, when thin women were asked to imagine themselves as fat, there was activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. The researchers concluded that this is evidence that all thin women are anxious about being fat. Wha’?? Maybe if there were activity in the insula or the limbic system or ANY brain region involved in anxiety or emotion then this MIGHT be more compelling data. As the Live Science summary of the article states, “The current study cannot distinguish whether the spike in brain activity was due to negative feelings about being overweight, or simply the fact that these normal-weight women needed to picture themselves in a different way when they were asked to imagine themselves as fat.” In other words, there might be more prefrontal cortical activity simply because the brain is working harder to imagine the body as something it is not. IMPORTANT DETAIL!!!

Dear world,

As an aspiring fMRI neuroscientist myself, please accept my sincere apologies for bogus publications that draw conclusions way beyond their data.

Sincerely,

me

Brain splits to handle two jobs at once

This one was pretty cool. As published in Science, Sylvain Charron and Etienne Koechlin led a team of Paris-based researchers to study the neural mechanisms underpinning multi-tasking. As it turns out, when two complex tasks are being performed simultaneously, the brain splits them up between the two hemispheres for autonomous dual execution of the tasks. Cool! When a third task was added to the mix, the error rate tripled, meaning that the two hemispheres didn’t hack it when asked to juggle three balls at once. The practical implications are real for designing job structures for implicit multi-taskers like air traffic controllers. Although the article doesn’t get into exotic evolutionary or futuristic theory, I think the study implications cut in both of those directions, as well. It makes me wonder whether the dual-lobe multi-tasking schema is related to the evolutionary pressures that formed our two-lobe system in the first place. Futuristically, it makes me think about ways in which artificial intelligences are going to completely outpace human beings in ultimate performance–human neurophysical limitations on complex multi-tasking being one small piece in the very interesting mosaic of emergent AI.

If you like these articles and want more, please follow me on Twitter: @positiveneuro. Thanks!

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5 Comments
  1. Thanks for bringing up moral responsibility in regards to new findings in neuroscience. That’s something I ponder too: if we know why we have certain traits, should we try to change them? Are we obligated to? Its in humanities best interest if we all try to be our best selves, & to use our knowledge to always be striving for improvements.

    I like this format — short commentary. @bakadesuyo does very short blogs, and @RyanSager does something similar many days on True/Slant.

  2. positiveneuro permalink

    Cool. Thanks for the feedback, Suzy. It gets a a little tough to say all you want to say in 140 characters (if only I were Tweeting in Mandarin). I think I’m going to go with this stylistic approach for a couple of weeks and see if it serves its purpose. If so, it’ll probably become a permanent installation.

    Again, thanks for your Tweets and comments. Viva la geek.

  3. Zach permalink

    That first article… I may be only a single example, but my shyness has been rooted in an entirely different thing: inhibition due to fear. As I overcame other fears, my occasional inability to speak to certain people vanished entirely. I’m not exactly gregarious, but at least I can hold a conversation with pretty much anyone at any time.

    Now if only I gave a flop about drinking, maybe I’d go to bars for more than the music… or maybe there are better ways to find a soulmate.

  4. I like the new format. Are you, by chance, a fan of the Singularity? Something you said in this post makes me think you probably are.

  5. positiveneuro permalink

    @Verilliance – Indeed. I’m actually helping organize a conference on transhumanism and spirituality in October 2010–stay tuned for forthcoming conference details. 😉

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