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?
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