26 October 2009

Making sense out of nonsense?

At last I have permission to talk nonsense! According to a study from psychologists at the University of British Columbia, reading nonsense books or surreal books that don’t follow a logical pattern boosts our learning.

New research suggests that exposure to bizarre, surreal storylines such as Kafka's "The Country Doctor" can improve learning. Apparently, when your brain is presented with total absurdity or nonsense, it will work extra hard to find structure elsewhere. In the study subjects took a test where they had to identify patterns in strings of letters in Kafta’s work. They performed much better than the control group. People who read the nonsensical story checked off more letters and were more accurate than those who read the more “normal” version of the story. They seemed to learn the pattern better than the other group.

In a second study, the results were similar among people who were felt alienated about themselves as they considered how their past actions were often contradictory. People feel uncomfortable when their expected associations are violated, and that creates an unconscious desire to make sense of their surroundings. That feeling of discomfort may come from a surreal story, or from contemplating their own contradictory behaviours, but either way, people want to get rid of it. So they're motivated to learn new patterns and find some sort of meaning.

23 October 2009

Does your brain slow down as you get older?

People often say that your brain slows down as you get older, but is this true and if so why?

Adam Gazzaley of the University of California ran tests where he asked two groups of people, one aged 19 to 33 years and the other group aged 60 to 72, to perform memory tasks while wired up to an electrocephalogram machine.

What they found was that the speed of the brains in older and younger people was similar, but that the older participants performed less well on the memory tests because their brains were not as good at blocking irrelevant information. They experienced more distractions in the early part of each test and it was this delay that caused them to perform less well.

However, when the older participants were divided into the better performers and those who did less well, the results from the better performers were comparable with those of the younger people. This slowing of the brain is therefore not something that happens to everyone, but the tendency for it to happen does increase with age.

The next step in the research is to find out why it happens and what can be done about it.

On the other hand, I think I quite like my ability to be distracted!

21 October 2009

Clown? What clown?

Did you know that your brain is only capable of consciously processing around 7 pieces of information at the same time?

When your brain reaches this threshold, it automatically discards the additional information, which is why we can sometimes miss obvious things like an announcement at the airport when we are stressed and trying to control the children, or the no entry signs at the entrance to a one-way street when we are late for a meeting in an unfamiliar part of town.

In a recent piece of research into the distracting effects of mobile phones, researchers at the Western Washington University observed hundreds of people as they walked across the university campus.

To make the research more interesting, they employed a clown complete with red nose, purple shirt and oversized shoes to ride around the campus on a unicycle. Not only did two-thirds of the people using mobile phones fail to notice the clown, they found that the phone-users tended to meander rather then walk in straight lines.

Psychologists call this phenomenon "inattentional blindness" and it is something magicians and illusionists use extensively in their acts. Click here to see an example on YouTube where the illusionist Derren Brown stops people in the street to ask for directions. While they are talking to him a person carrying a large painting passes between them, at which point the person asking for directions is switched. In the original experiment, roughly half of the people failed to notice that the person asking for directions had changed.

Makes you wonder what you might have missed today!

17 October 2009

Chocolate really does make things better!

Tomorrow is the end of National Chocolate week, which in my house has been a wonderful excuse to indulge in the most delicious of temptations. And now according to an article in the journal of neuroscience, nibbling on food and drink can act as a painkiller. Researchers at Chicago University have found that eating or drinking for pleasure, as distinct from hunger or thirst, acts as a natural painkiller.

Dr Peggy Mason led the Chicago team that found that rats were less bothered by pain if they were eating or drinking. Previous studies indicated that only sugary food and drink would protect against pain however this one found that it made no difference whether the rats were eating chocolate or drinking water. What this suggests is that the calorie consumption doesn’t matter – water has no calories, saccharine has no sugar but both have the same effect as a chocolate chip. Dr Mason was quoted in a daily mail interview this week as saying “it is really shocking!”

The researchers say a part of the brain called the raphe magnus - helps blunt pain when eating or drinking. The same area evidently eases pain while sleeping or going to the lavatory.
This is bad news for kids going to the doctors for their jabs. Past studies have shown that babies suffer less pain if they are given a sugary drink while having an injection. Dr Mason confirms that while ingestion is a painkiller we don’t need the sugar to ease the pain. I’m not sure I would have got away with a glass of water as a bribe with my kids when having their boosters! Click here for further information.
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