16 November 2009

Building rapport

If you have ever been on a selling, negotiating or coaching course, your tutor will probably have talked to you about mirroring the body language of the person you are speaking to in order to build rapport and create a greater sense of empathy.

While doing this deliberately may seem a little "false", mimicking the actions and expressions of other people is something that we all do anyway to a greater or lesser extent. For example, have you noticed how laughter is infectious? It is not just that everyone "gets the joke"; some people start to laugh before they even know why!

Some neuroscientists suggest that this is due to specialist brain cells they call "mirror neurons" which trigger similar physical traits in ourselves as in the people we are with. Because our physiology can affect our emotional state, these mirror neurons help us get a sense of what other people are feeling.

Although the theory is rather appealing it is not without its critics.  However, regardless of whether mirror neurons exist or not, the fact remains that the mirroring of actions and body shape can help create a similar emotional state than therefore enhance the degree that one person is able to empathise with another.

Can your personality change?

I have always been dismayed by personality tests that claim that a person’s personality is fixed for the duration of their adult life; as in my opinion, a person’s personality can and sometimes does change.

This view is supported by evidence from Brain Dominance profiles. Where people have completed the questionnaire more than once over a period of time, we do sometimes notice a change in their profile. When questioned as to why this might be, those people generally provide plausible explanations. For example, in one case a person’s profile had changed implying that their preference for “big picture thinking” had increased while their preference for detail had decreased. This took place over a three year period and coincided with promotion from a relatively “hands-on” job to a more managerial role.

Possibly the reason why some people claim that a person’s personality is fixed and stable comes from the mistaken belief that, since a person’s physical features do not change much beyond adolescence, neither will their brain. However, recent research suggests that the brain’s ability to “rewire” itself is much more extensive than previously thought.

In the past, research on “neural plasticity” (aka the brain’s ability to rewire itself) has centred on using slices of tissue taken from the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for short-term memory. Findings from these studies suggested that plasticity did occur but was limited. However, because the research used on a tiny portion of the brain, it was not possible to measure the impact of new learning on the whole of the brain.

Now, a team in Alicante in Spain have developed a means of inserting tiny electrodes into the brains of living rats. The electrodes stimulate certain neural pathways in much the same way as occurs when we experience new things. If the strength of the signals along those neural pathways increases over time, then the brain is “rewiring” itself.

As a result they have found that plasticity is not exclusive to the individual neurons and synapses concerned, but it has implications that are far more widespread than previously thought.

If the whole of the brain is capable of rewiring itself in the light of new experiences, it naturally follows that preferences and personality traits will also be capable of being modified through time.

No more counting sheep!

Did you know that the National Health Service spent more than £36 million on sleeping pills this year – and the cost is rising 20% each year?

There have been many remedies proposed to help beat insomnia, but according to the Daily Telegraph today a young inventor is now successfully marketing her "cure" through a major high street chemist. Kate Evans designed the LightSleeper to help tackle her sleepless nights whilst at Lancashire University.

Her invention is a small lamp which works by moving a soothing blue light across the ceiling in a darkened bedroom. The luminance of the light slowly rises and falls. As you watch the light your breathing will synchronise with the light as it becomes slower. The deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and causes a relaxation response. Blue light also helps to re-calibrate the circadian rhythm, the body’s sensitivity to day and night through specific receptors in the eye that interpret blue light as day light. When the brain sees the blue light fading away, it interprets it as "time to sleep".

Although it seems slightly paradoxical that something that requires you to have your eyes open for it to work can actually help you go to sleep, but sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley, who has tested it, said: "This could really help people who have difficulty relaxing."

Anything that helps reduce the amount of sleeping pills taken has to be a good thing, but for me, a good book, even though stimulating my brain is still the best way to nod off.

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.

09 September 2009

The Hare and the Tortoise

Researchers at the University of Glasgow have found that older people take longer than younger people to recognise a person’s face.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by this as it is consistent with the evidence from the rest of our bodies. For example, when we are older we can’t run as quickly as we could when we were younger, our physical strength deteriorates and our reaction times diminish.

However, what sets the brain apart from other parts of the human body is the way in which our accumulated wisdom compensates for the decline in speed and agility. We may not be as quick as we were, but sometimes speed is not what is required – it may be smartness over speed, brains over brawn!

Arguably therefore, the brain is the one part of the body where the tortoise really can beat the hare!

27 July 2009

Reptiles and relationships?!

My daughter told me a story this morning about her friend’s brother and his pet python. Evidently his mother insisted he get rid of the python as it kept turning on him and biting his chest. The snake breeder who had sold it to him said that he wasn’t handling it enough and therefore hadn’t had time to build up a relationship.

As humans, we share the brain of snakes and lizards, but have evolved to a higher state, capable of cognitive thought, choices and decisions. In the 1960s, neurologist Paul MacLean proposed that our skull holds not one brain, but three, each representing a distinct phase of evolutionary development. He called his theory the "triune brain."  MacLean says that three brains operate like "three interconnected biological computers, each with its own special intelligence, its own subjectivity, its own sense of time and space and its own memory. He refers to these three brains as the neocortex or neo-mammalian brain, the limbic or mammalian system, and the reptilian brain, the brainstem and cerebellum. Each of the three brains is connected by nerves to the other two, but each seems to operate as its own brain system with distinct capacities.  Innermost in our brain is the reptilian brain, its oldest and most primitive part. The reptilian brain appears to be largely unchanged by evolution and we share it with all other animals which have a backbone. This reptilian brain controls body functions required for sustaining life such as breathing and body temperature. At this level of evolution, behaviour relating to survival of the species, such as sexual behaviour and catching prey is instinctive and responses are automatic. Territory is acquired by force and defended. Might is right. The python is wired to survive and will attack if threatened or seeking prey. In the wild, reptiles are independent immediately from birth fully adapted to their environment from the offset.  I am not a snake breeder, but from a brain perspective, I am pretty sure the python wasn’t sulking as there was no effort at a relationship. I am also convinced that a tank in the corner of a boy’s bedroom in west London isn’t the most natural environment. I am however very interested in human survival instincts and use of our reptilian brain so would appreciate any thoughts.

26 July 2009


It often happens, I boil the kettle, make a cup of tea and then forget to drink it. However, I am not alone, according to research carried out by The National-Lottery, every day exactly the same thing happens to around 15 million of us while a similar number of us will forget where they put their car keys. Apparently, the average Briton forgets three such things each and every day, with the most worrying (according to the research) being to buy a lottery ticket!

Obviously the purpose of the research was to promote the National Lottery, but it raises an interesting question: Since our brains are so amazing at remembering vast amounts of information, why do we forget simple things?

Some scientists believe that the answer lies in the differences between your short-term working memory and your long-term memory. It is known that the two are different and that your short-term memory is somewhat transient. This is why some brain-damaged patients can suffer from a condition where they are unable to create any new memories. In these cases their memory will be intact up to the time when the brain injury took place, but they will have no memories from that time onwards.

Another theory is that our memory works on associations. For example, if you show people pictures of a part of an object, such as the end of a settee, they generally have no difficulty in identifying what the object is. Scientists have discovered that we remember the details of literally thousands of objects when shown part pictures in this way because our memory works on associations – by being shown a bit of an object, our brain instantly recalls all the rest of the information necessary to reconstruct the whole object. However, although the brain contains detailed representations of lots of different events and objects, our memory performs much less well when we attempt to remember things spontaneously. The reason is that it doesn’t have the associations to work from. If you want to remember where you put your keys, you therefore need to be consciously aware of them when you put them down – easier said than done!

This brings me on to the last reason why we might forget small things – it is because we were not really aware of them in the first place. Some months ago I lost our home telephone. I tried paging it and I searched high and low, all to no avail, and I ended up having to buy a new one. Some months later I found it – in the garage! I must have been in the middle of something with the phone in my hand when I needed my hand for something else. My brain helpfully would have known that I could not hold two things at once so it subconsciously instructed my hand to put it down.

Because our brains can only consciously process around seven pieces of information at any one time, they have become brilliant at dealing with everything else subconsciously. For example, most of us will have had the experience of not being able to remember the journey home from work even though we managed to drive perfectly safely.

The reason we forget trivial things therefore is because our brains prioritise. I forget to drink my tea because I am concentrating on something else, I lost the phone because I was trying to do too many things at once and I forget the journey home from work because I know the route so well that I don’t have to think about it.

Brilliant things brains!

What are the things you forget?

19 July 2009

Optimists see more

People often assume that when we see things it is a bit like an image from the eyes being projected onto the brain. In reality, the process is nowhere near as simple as this.

What actually happens is that the information from the eyes is directed to a form of processing centre in the brain where it is added to information from our other senses and memories of our past experiences. Once all this information has been assembled our brain jumps to a conclusion as to what it is we are looking at.

It therefore stands to reason that factors such as our mood, tiredness or health might affect our ability to process all this information. In fact, this is the conclusion of researchers at the University of Toronto who have found that our mood can affect our sight.

Their findings, which were published in the Journal of Neuroscience, were that people in a positive mood saw while those who were more down in the dumps suffered from tunnel vision. While being cheerful is generally seen as a good thing, Taylor Schmitz, one of the researchers, commented; “this can lead to distractions on critical tasks that require narrow focus, such as operating dangerous machinery or airport screening of baggage.”

The conclusion therefore seems to be that if you need to do something that requires you to focus your vision in a concentrated way; rose tinted spectacles can be dangerous!

14 July 2009

Eat curry to prevent Alzheimer’s

Research at the University of North Carolina has discovered that curcumin, from which the spice Turmeric is made, can act as an agent to bloc the development of Alzheimer’s.

One of the conditions associated with Alzheimer’s is a build up of amyloid protein plaques in the brain. It is thought that this interrupts the transmission of electrical signals between brain cells, resulting in the symptoms of dementia. Scientists have found that brain plaques in mice have been shown to dissolve when the mice were given high doses of curcumin and that in younger mice the spice appears to prevent the plaques from forming in the first place. The research is supported by evidence from India where, according to Dr Susanne Sorensen of the Alzheimer's Society, "communities that regularly eat curcumin have a surprisingly low incidence of Alzheimer's”. However, to have any impact, you would need to eat a curry meal two to three times a week, making it difficult to fit in all the other things we are supposed to eat as part of a healthy diet. Luckily they are working an a “curry pill” as an alternative. Click here to see related comments from the Alzheimer's Society.
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06 July 2009

Envy thy neighbour - it's good for you!

Darwin taught us that we are the way we are as a result of natural selection. But scientists have often puzzled over why our brains have become so highly developed as our mental capability is vastly in excess of anything that would be necessary to keep us at the top of the food chain.

However, according to a report in the journal “Human Nature” the reason the human brain has tripled in size over the past two million years is because we became envious of our neighbours.
In other words, once we no longer needed to compete with other animals we started competing with each other. Scientists at the University of Missouri came to this conclusion as they have uncovered evidence to suggest that the brains of our ancestors who lived in larger communities grew faster than the brains of those living in smaller communities.

Their conclusion is that competing against other people is the biggest factor in the brain’s development.

So there you have it, science has established that one of the Deadly Sins delivers beneficial effects – just six more to go!

17 June 2009

Addicted to gambling?

I am off to Ascot tomorrow and asked a friend what I would need to do to place a bet. 10 minutes later, having learned about odds and betting “each way” or betting to lose, she admitted she had an online account with a betting agency and regularly nips into a well known high street betting shop. She said it was the thrill of the win that kept her going back and it got me thinking about addiction to gambling.
 There is mounting evidence from brain studies that behavioural addictions are very similar to chemical ones. According to addiction specialist Eric Nestler of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical centre in Dallas, drug addictions and “natural” addictions seem to involve shared pathways in the brain. The brains of sex or gambling addicts all show the same responses and reactions to the abuse of drugs. Addictive drugs cause dopamine release in the brain, triggering a desire to keep taking them and it is now known that some behaviours such as gambling act on the same reward system. When addicted, gamblers keep gambling and the occasional dopamine rush of winning overrides their conscious knowledge that they will lose in the long run.  I guess that behavioural addictions will only increase in the next few years – not everyone will try an illegal drug or have a flutter on the horses, but most of us use computers and many more people are playing interactive games or gambling online. People in today’s society have lots of opportunities and abundance but of course this is completely different from the scarcity in which our reward systems evolved. According to Peter Whybrow, author of American Mania, we are putting these systems into overload – and the only thing that stops us is self constraint. He offers a powerful quote “if politicians and leaders understood how the brain works, they would not be building society as they are doing”.
I will try to keep that top of mind as I experiment with a little flutter tomorrow, whilst exercising self constraint of course.

14 June 2009

Curvy hips are a sign of intelligence

Researchers at the Universities of Pittsburg and California, Santa Barbara have found that women with an hourglass figure are likely to have a higher IQ than their leaner counterparts and that their children are likely to be more intelligent also.

They also found that men found women with an hourglass figure more attractive. (Who pays for this research? Ed.)

So by adding 2 and 2 and getting 5, the researchers concluded that men are attracted to shapely women because they are more likely to have intelligent offspring!

On a more serious note, the research was actually looking at the fatty acids that aid the development of the brain and found that the fat around a woman’s hips and thighs hold higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain growth during pregnancy, whereas the fat around the waist contains higher levels of omega 6 fatty acids, which can actually have a negative effect on brain development. Women with wide hips and narrow waists are therefore better suited to producing babies with better developed brains.

Click here to read a longer article on the subject on the MyBrain website.

Do we need more women in business?

The business environment is changing. We are moving away from the left-brained logic of the past towards an environment in which organisations need to connect with their customers, employees and shareholders at an emotional level.
Customers are increasing the emphasis they place on the aesthetic qualities of products, shareholders are enquiring about a company’s ethical policies before purchasing shares and employees want to be engaged, not simply employed. Business is therefore becoming more right-brained.
According to the Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, an expert in the differences between male and female brains, “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” Since both of these qualities are important, is there not an argument for companies appointing more women to senior positions, not for reasons of fairness or equality, but because it makes good business sense? However, even today, men outnumber women in senior management and board positions by a ratio of roughly 10 to 1.
In her article Do Women Make Better Managers Joanna Krotz links the increasing need for right-brain thinking to the increasing success of women in business. Gregg Dyke, the former Director General of the BBC made a similar point when interviewed on Radio 4 in 2006; he said that right-brained thinking was becoming increasingly important and that of the people in the BBC he regarded as most suitable for promotion to senior management positions, 80% of them were women.
What do you think? Please add your comments to the blog.

01 June 2009

Learning to remember

Like many parents over half term, I have spent a lot of time nagging the kids about their revision, particularly my teenage son, who, although traditionally “clever”, seems to lack any semblance of motivation!

This weekend I read an article in the Daily Mail on how to beat forgetfulness, by eight-times world memory champion Dominic O'Brien. I decided to try a couple of his memory enhancing techniques for helping my son remember some of his science facts. O’Brian talks about the journey method, where you place things at different stages of a familiar route. He cites professional golfers who are able to recall step by step details of their games, what clubs they used, when, where and the result. If you think about it they are recalling a huge amount of complex numerical data and they do this by forming a mental route consisting of 18 stages around the course. At each stage, they have stationed specific facts about their game. When they mentally retrace their steps, the golfers recall, by association, the details stored along their journey.

My son is a good golfer and regularly plays on a local 9 hole course. The number 9 made sense to me as research shows that the human brain can only consciously process up to 9 pieces of information at one time before going into overwhelm. So we mentally walked around the course together, discussing his biology - enzymes, plant cells, photosynthesis, respiration etc on different tees, greens and parts of the course. He recalled the information so well, that when we moved on to his RS, we used the same method for the parables of the Lost Son, the Good Samaritan, The moment of enlightenment for Buddha and the Gurus within the Sikh faith to name a few.

He actually seemed to enjoy the process and wasn’t bored, but I did wake up with a start last night wondering if he would mix up the subjects as they are “lodged” in the same location on the golf course - and the same location in his brain! Only time will tell…..

11 May 2009

Don’t think, just do it!

A research team at St Andrews University in Scotland have now proved what many of us have thought to be true for a long time – namely, that over-analysing something will impair your performance.

To conduct their research the asked 80 novice and skilled golfers to practice a putting stroke until they got it right 3 times in a row. They then asked half the golfers to spend 5 minutes describing what they did while others took a break and did something completely unrelated to golf.

What they found was that the golfers who talked about what they were doing took roughly twice as many attempts to repeat the task as the golfers who had been doing something else.

The researchers claim that the loss of performance is due to an effect called “verbal overshadowing” which makes the brain focus more on language centres than on the systems that support the skill in question.

Interestingly, this same effect has been shown to adversely impact the ability of a person to recognise faces. So if the police ask a witness to describe the face and appearance of a suspect before showing them photographs of likely suspects, they will actually reduce the likelihood of them identifying the correct person. Intuitively, you’d think this would be to the other way round.

04 May 2009

God in the brain

In 1997 researchers at the University of California reported that they had found the “God module”, an area of the brain that appears to be responsible for religious belief.

Current thinking paints a far more complex picture, with religious belief being linked to the evolutionary process of the brain, to the development of language and to the specialisation of the left and right hemispheres.

While some will see these scientific findings an explanation for the irrationality of belief, others will see it is as a logical aspect of God’s grand design.

Please click here to read the full article before adding your comments.

21 April 2009

Chocolate is good for your brain

I never cease to be amazed by how many studies there are that prove that chocolate is good for you – I guess it goes to show that if you believe in something and work hard enough, eventually you will find the evidence to prove yourself right!

In this study, led by Professor David Kennedy of Northumbria University, 30 students were asked to count backwards in groups of 3 from a random number between 800 and 999. The study found that the students performed better if they had first had a large mug of cocoa, they also got less tired.

Interestingly the effects of the cocoa seemed less pronounced when the task was made more difficult.

The reason for the improvement is down to compounds found in chocolate called flavonols which cause the blood supply to the brain to increase – hence the improvement in performance and reduction in tiredness.

It should be noted that flavonols also occur naturally in fruit and vegetables, although conducting experiments using fruit and vegetables would be nowhere near as interesting!

Click here to read the full report in Confectionary News.

17 April 2009


Scientists believe that they are a step closer to finding a cure for jetlag after discovering what it is that causes the body’s internal clock to become confused.

They have found that moving between different time zones disrupts the two main sleep patterns in different ways. It appears that the neurons (brain cells) that govern deep sleep can reset themselves in a matter of a couple of days, but that the neurons that govern the period of sleep known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) can take up to a week to adjust.

Jetlag is therefore caused by one set of neurons telling your body you are in one time zone while another set are telling it you are in another; the greater that difference, the greater the problem.
Since the issue is resolved when the neurons come back into synch, biologists believe it will be possible to create a drug that effectively resets your body clock.

If you’re up for a somewhat scientific read, you can click here view the full research paper on the “Current Biology” web site.

13 April 2009

Why we like to brush our hair

Professor Francis McGlone, of food and beauty firm Unilever, whose team discovered the C-fibres, said hugging and grooming such as brushing our hair, all play an important part in making us feel good.
The C-fibres are instrumental in transmitting both pain and pleasure from our skin to the brain, but they only transmit pleasure to the brain if the skin is stroked at a slow rate of around 4 centimetres per second.

It is believed that this is why brushing your hair can be pleasurable and why a massage is only pleasurable if it is done slowly.

Professor McGlone also believes that these “pleasure nerves” may be instrumental in helping develop the brain and the immune system in babies. He said: “We've known for many years that preterm infants, if they're not handled every day, stroked and cuddled, their immune systems don't develop effectively and their birth weight doesn't increase significantly. And the only mediation that increases that infant's health is touch.”

Click here an interview with Professor McGlone.

08 April 2009

The first flush of love

I was looking through some back issues of Psychologies Magazine and was interested in a reference to the brain’s activity in the first flush of love. We can all probably remember the lovely “butterflies in the tummy” and almost breathless infatuated feelings of romantic love, which settle down after some time into more established, stable love.

Early in a relationship, the pleasure centres of the brain work overtime as increasing levels of neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine boost our moods, libido and motivation. This helps the bonding process and makes couples open to new experiences and sharing together. When our brain chemistry settles down to pre-infatuation levels, we are less open to try new activities. When people experience novelty again, the pleasure centres kick back into action and they fall in love all over again – a holiday to a new destination is a great example.  Scientists at UCL have identified specific areas of the brain showing activity when people see their loved ones, most notably the medial insula which is associated with “gut feelings” and part of the anteria cinguate which is known to respond to euphoria inducing drugs. Researchers at the University of Pavia suggest that the first flush of love is likely to last for a maximum of a year – so I guess the trick to keeping those initial fluttery feelings is to always to keep doing novel things together.

22 March 2009

Drugs for smart brains?

When I did my finals at university, I must admit to taking “pro-plus” pills as a boost to keep me going – each giving a caffeine boost, the equivalent of multiple cups of coffee, but without the jitters. I am not sure they made me smarter, but they did keep me awake and enable me to get through a huge amount of last minute work.

So called smart drugs or cognitive enhancers such as Modafinil, Ritalin and Aricept, originally designed to treat medical conditions are now routinely taken without prescription in the US according to this month’s Zest magazine. In the UK they are still regarded as class B drugs although there is interest in their use here – for instance the British Armed Forces are testing them for use during combat. Smart drugs target specific parts of the brain, changing the balance of chemical neurotransmitters to improve memory recall, attention, focus, speed of decision making. But more work needs to be done on side effects – such as depression or enhancing traumatic memories. Drugs that boost memory could also fill our brains with clutter – we may find it difficult to prioritise what to discard. 25 years on from my finals, “pro-plus” pills long gone from my medicine cabinet, until we know more about side effects, I think I will just stick to exercise and sleep to boost my brain power.

21 March 2009

Equity vs efficiency

Imagine for a moment that you are in charge of allocating food rations to orphans in a Ugandan refugee camp. Unfortunately there is never enough food for everyone, but if you let one child go hungry with no food, the rest would have sufficient. What would you do, refuse one child food altogether so that the rest had sufficient or share the food out amongst everyone even though that means that no one has sufficient food?

This was the question put to people taking part in a study at the University of Illinois. While considering the question the subjects had their brains scanned to see which parts of the brain were being used in dealing with this moral dilemma. The question being asked was designed to pit logic against emotion. Logically it would be more efficient to let one child starve as you could then save the rest; but emotionally, “we’re all in this together” and, even if you wanted to deny one child food, how could chose which one? The study found that the two area of the brain involved in attempting to resolve this dilemma were the “insula” and the “putamen”. The insula is part of the limbic system and is associated with fairness and emotion and the putamen is part of the cerebral system and is involved in reason and logic.In the majority of cases, the candidates being studied chose to allocate the food evenly. Perhaps our hearts really do rule our heads.

20 March 2009

Optical illusions

You may have seen the recent “Give Motorcyclists a Second Thought” TV advertising campaign, commissioned by Transport for London. The ad uses an optical illusion which uses footage of vans, cars and motorcycles approaching at identical speeds. Drivers typically believe the larger vehicles will reach them quicker than the smaller motorcycles.

Psychologists call this the “size arrival effect” which has been demonstrated in a number of different studies. It also draws on the Italian psychologist Ponzo’s work back in 1913. Two same length lines are drawn between a pair of converging lines resembling railroad tracks going off into the distance. The upper line appears much larger because it spans a greater apparent distance between the rails which our minds assume are parallel. Ponzo suggested that our brains judge an object’s size based on its background.

The world we live in of course is 3D, but our eyes provide flat images. The ad says our brains make up the complete story and sometimes we get it wrong.

A recent study at the Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto showed that when people view illusions, it is not their imagination as we previously thought which makes them perceive movement, but part of the brain from the visual cortex, particularly the part related to physical movement detection which became active during the experiment. This finding may help designers to create better products that don’t confuse people through over elaborate design – particularly important in items such as surgical equipment, extreme sport kit and vehicles I would suggest!

For a good overview of optical illusions go to Wikepedia here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optical_illusion

I am interested in any input you have around optical illusions and tricking our brains.

19 March 2009

Doodle but don’t daydream

Researchers at the University of Plymouth have discovered that doodling can aid memory. The researchers played a dull 2.5 minute recording to people and then asked them to recall the names of the people named during the recording. Half of the group were asked to simply sit and listen while the other half were asked to shade in some boxes with a pencil while listening.

On average the doodlers recalled 7.5 names compared to the non-doodlers who recalled just 5.8.
The researchers concluded that the effects were caused by the doodling preventing the subjects from day-dreaming, which is far more detrimental to the effective working of your memory.

Professor Anchade, whose findings are published in Applied Cognitive Psychology said “Daydreaming distracts people from the task, resulting in poorer performance. A simple task like doodling may be sufficient to stop daydreaming without affecting performance on the main task?”

Far from distracting us, doodling may therefore be a rational way of improving concentration.

Do you doodle?

18 March 2009

Brains are precious - it only takes a little knock

What a sad day for the Redgrave acting dynasty. Different newspapers report a different degree of injury for actress Natasha Richardson after her skiing fall, but whether she is “brain dead” or sedated with “brain swelling”, she is in a critical condition and her family are gathering by her bedside today. Evidently she fell down in a lesson on a relatively flat ski slope, felt fine, was checked out by ski patrol and started to feel headaches an hour later.

Despite having a hard skull, when you bump your head your brain can suffer as a result and be damaged on impact – moving inside the skull, knocking against the sides. It may bleed, swell or develop bruising either immediately following the impact or some hours later. If there is swelling, there is nowhere for it to go, pressure can build causing further damage. Headaches are obvious warning signs to be taken seriously, as are blacking out, nausea, dizzy or drowsy feelings. The message from the neuroscience community is clear – go and check it out – quickly – and have a brain scan. Surgery can alleviate the pressure so the swelling has somewhere to go and a full recovery is possible.

Particularly poignant for me about this story is that our family also skied last year in the same resort Natasha Richardson’s accident happened – Mont Tremblant, and I vividly recall the debate my husband and I had about buying adult helmets so the kids wouldn’t feel so “silly”. Looking back now, it was the conversation that was silly – we will definitely buy helmets when we ski again.

17 March 2009

Are we producing narcissistic kids?

I am interested in children learning in different ways at different ages and yesterday came across an article in the Daily Mail.
 A prominent psychologist Dr Carol Craig, speaking at a conference for head teachers said that adults are now too afraid to correct children’s mistakes in case it upset them – a "dire consequence of the constant drive to build self esteem", part of the government’s wellbeing agenda. She believes that this can turn into a blame mentality, children believing that someone else must be wrong, rather than them. Wrapping children up in cotton wool could be turning them into narcissists – a personality “type” that end up with relationship and interpersonal problems – and we are wrong to limit criticism in the learning process. Surely learning from mistakes is a natural part of progress?

In Holland, Dr Eveline Crone and colleagues have discovered areas in the cerebral part of the brain that respond differently to positive and negative feedback. In 8 and 9 year olds, it appears that the brain reacts strongly to praise and positive feedback and scarcely at all to negative feedback. But in children of 12 and 13 and in adults, the opposite is the case, so these age groups have different learning strategies. This does back up the wellbeing agenda – that children respond better to reward than punishment, but only for the younger years. This must provide some food for thought for parents and teachers?

Click here to view the Daily Mail article.

15 March 2009

Is "Baby Brain" all in the mind?

It is not uncommon for pregnant women to complain that they cannot think straight, that they have become more forgetful and that the symptoms persist for months after the baby has been born. The condition is sometimes referred to as “Baby Brain”, “Preg Head” or “Nappy Brain”.

In one example, celebrity mother Myleene Klass claimed she "couldn't remember the way home, let alone a sonata". At MyBrain we compared the findings of three separate studies into the phenomenon to see if there was any evidence to either prove or disprove whether the condition really exists. Interestingly, the three studies all appear to contradict one another – or do they? Click here to read the complete article on the MyBrain website.

Could Facebook be a risk to your mental health?

During a recent interview the eminent neurologist Baroness Susan Greenfield expressed her concern that excessive use of social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter could be damaging our children’s mental health and actually “rewiring” their brains.

Several psychologists have expressed similar concern in suggesting that modern technologies are making people more short-termist and limiting their development of their verbal communication and social skills.

Click here to view the full article on the MyBrain web site.

05 March 2009

Sleep - set your alarm for 7 hours exactly

I have been reading about the effect of sleep on brain health. There has been some interesting research conducted at Warwick University Medical School that shows that 7 hours seems to be about the right amount for most adults. Consistently less sleep results in memory loss and a slow down in our brain's ability to process information. Our minds go through all the information we learn in the day and saves the important stuff. Sleep allows that process to happen and provides recuperation - so if we don't have enough of it, how can we retain the learning from each day's events?
Interestingly, according to the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, too much sleep is as harmful as too little with some startling statistics on mortality - men who sleep for longer than eight hours a night are 24 per cent more likely to die early, and women who sleep longer were 17 per cent more likely to die early. What a sobering thought - probably won't be able to sleep knowing that!
What else can you add about the the effects of sleep on the brain?

22 February 2009


Prompted by two events there has been a lot in the media about dementia during the past week. The first event was when the former newsreader John Suchet described in an interview how his wife Bonnie is suffering from the illness and the second was the knighthood given to novelist Terry Pratchett for his work in highlighting the needs of dementia sufferers.

Dementia affects 5% of people over 65 and 20% of people over 80. Given that average life expectancy is increasing the probability of you and me suffering from this awful disease at some stage in our lives is increasing, yet it is easier to get Viagra on the NHS than it is to get drugs that slow the progress of dementia.

Hopefully the publicity that people like Suchet and Pratchett can bring to the condition will reduce the stigma of dementia and help move it up the priority list for research and treatment funding.

Use the following links for more information:

Pratchett demands increased funding

Understanding dementia - NHS web site

What is dementia? - The Alzheimer's Society

19 February 2009

The male-female brain debate

I took my kids to the science museum last weekend and they were very interested in the differences in their brains. The exhibit in the museum told us that male and female brains appear to wire up in different ways - a result of different hormones acting on the growing embryo. Some of these differences are apparent right from birth such as baby girls preferring to watch faces whereas baby boys watch everything equally. By school age, boys tend to be better at spacial skills, whereas girls are better at language skills. However no abilities are just male or female.
This started a fascinating debate on the tube on the way home. My 12 year old son announced that this made sense as his sisters are soft and sappy, and they couldn't make things work. My 10 and 6 year old girls responded as all siblings do, and I think very cleverly, that they make friendships work and people work together! Interesting perspective "out of the mouths of babes"
What do you think?

13 February 2009

Alcohol and the brain

During a recent training event we got into a discussion on the effects of alcohol on our mental processes - which parts of the brain were affected and in what order?

It brought to mind cases of people who through brain damage have lost the use of the cerebral parts on their brain. While they cannot remember anything for more than a few seconds, they are still able to dress themselves, walk, eat and communicate. This is not entirely unlike a person who has too much to drink and cannot remember getting home, yet wakes up in bed wearing their pyjamas with the house securely locked.

It therefore strikes me that alcohol affects the cerebral brain first and the limbic brain second. In the case of the limbic system we do know that when people die from alcohol poisoning it is because the part of the brain responsible for consciousness and respiration closes down. The person therefore lapses into a coma, stops breathing and dies.

The early signs are possibly when the limbic systems priorities take over. These are often described as; fighting, fleeing, feeding and reproduction. Perhaps this is why people are more flirtatious in pubs, why arguments and fights are often fuelled by alcohol and why people have an urge to raid the fridge when they get back from the pub.

What do you think?

06 February 2009

How to subscribe to the Brain Blog

The purpose of this entry is to explain the different ways in which you can be alerted to new entries and updates to the Brain Blog.

Email alerts

The best way to make sure that you are notified of updates is to add your email address to the notification list. This is a service provided by an organisation called FeedBurner, which is now owned by Google.

Once you have entered your email address in the subscription panel on the right hand side of the blog and clicked on the submit button you will directed to a conformation page where you will be asked to enter the wobbly text characters to complete your subscription.

You will then receive an email from FeedBurner with a link you will need to click on to complete the process.

Once you have done all of this you will then receive a maximum of one email per day with details of the latest entries. If there were no new entries in the previous 24 hours you will not receive an email.

If you want to stop the emails at any time you simply need to click on the unsubscribe link that appears at the bottom of each email.

Feed readers

An alternative is to display all blog updates on your browser home page. I use Google although I am sure that alternatives such as Yahoo are also very good.

Using this approach means that you are not bothered by yet more emails but you get to see any updates the instant you load your internet browser. If you subscribe to multiple bloggs it also has the advantage of enabling you to monitor all of them at once. For example, on my home page I also have feeds from the BBC and a feed from Twitter that monitors references to “brain dominance”.

If you do not currently have a service like this set up as your home page here’s how to set it up.

Begin by right clicking here and select the option “Open link in new window”. That way you will be able to jump back and forth between these instructions and the web page.

Select the service you would like to use from the drop-down box and then click on the subscribe button.

This will take you to your new (or existing if you already use this service) home page.

While you are on that page select the “Tools” option in your browser menu and use the option to set the current page to be your “Home page”.

From now on this page will appear whenever you start your Internet browser.

I hope this was helpful.

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