27 April 2010

Why the good guys always win

Following our article entitled “Eyes in the back of your head” published earlier this month I received a link to an article from one of our readers.

The article was a ‘tong-in-cheek’ item that sought to explain why actors such as Clint Eastwood and John Wayne always won in gun fights. The reason, according to the article, is because they drew their guns second.

The more serious point the article was making is that the brain has two ways of seeing. The first is the cognitive one of passing the information from your eyes to the cerebral part of your brain where you then think about it before making a decision as to what actions you should take as a result. The second way of seeing is where information from your eyes is passed directly into the lower part of your brain, into your limbic system. This part of your brain is the seat of your emotions and instincts. Because there is no cognitive thinking taking place in this part of your brain information is processed much more quickly than in the cerebral part of the brain.

The argument put forward in the article therefore was that the person who draws their gun first is thinking about the situation and making a decision. They must therefore be using their cerebral brain and will therefore be processing information more slowly than the other person who is now reacting instinctively to save their own life and will therefore be processing information using their limbic brain.

There is truth in this theory but if you would like to prove it for yourself I would not recommend using guns. Instead you could try playing the game we used to call “hand-slap” (click here for instructions) and you will find that the speed with which the person reacting can move is often greater than the person attempting to slap the hand.

Click here to read the full article on the MyBrain website.

19 April 2010

How much sleep do you need?

In separate studies at the University of California, researchers have found that the human brain needs a certain amount of sleep every so often to effectively "recharge" itself but that too much sleep or too little sleep seems to be associated with a shortening of your life-expectancy. Click here to read more.

They also found that the brain needs to rest for a minimum amount of time on a regular basis. So going for several days at a time with minimal sleep and then having a lie-in is no solution.

Obviously the amount of sleep different people need varies so it would be interesting to know what your experiences are. For example, what happens to you when you get very tired? How do you feel if you have a big sleep after several short nights? Do you notice a difference in your alertness if you have been dreaming in your sleep?

Click here to read the full article on the MyBrain website.

Please add your comments below.

Intelligent women have better sex

Hats off to researchers at Kings College London. Not only did they manage to find and talk to 2,000 female twins, but they also persuaded them to talk to male scientists about their sex lives!

As a result of their exhaustive research, the scientists discovered that the most important erogenous zone on the female body is in fact the brain. Something that the novelist Isabel Allende alluded to many years ago when she said that the G-spot is located in a woman’s ears.

What they found was that women blessed with greater 'emotional intelligence' - the ability to express their feelings and read those of others - have up to twice as many orgasms as less intelligent women.

Psychologist Andrea Burri, one of the report’s authors said: 'Emotional intelligence seems to have a direct impact on women's sexual functioning by influencing her ability to communicate her sexual expectations and desires to her partner.'

She added that there was also a possible connection with a woman's ability to fantasise during sex or her feeling of control over the act.

Given the plethora of jokes that circulate the internet regarding the emotional sophistication of women and the emotional simplicity of men, it is a shame that the study did not include men for the sake of comparison.

Bullies' brains are different

Some alarming research from the University of Chicago last year found that the brains of bullies – kids who start fights, tell lies and break stuff with glee – may be wired to actually feel pleasure when watching others suffer pain. This is somewhat counter-intuitive as bullies would be expected to possess an emotional cold-ness that enables their behaviour, and therefore show no response when they witnessed pain in someone else.

Previous brain imaging studies had shown that when non-bullies saw others in pain, the same areas of the brain light up as when they experience pain themselves – a sign of empathy. This new research showed that these areas in the bullies’ brains were even more active than in the non-bullies and their empathetic response seemed to be warped in the amygdale and ventral striatum, regions of the brain associated with reward and pleasure. The researchers concluded that the bullies are getting positively reinforced each time they bully and are aggressive to others. The scans also showed that a portion of the brain that helps to regulate emotion is inactive in bullies – so they lack a process to keep themselves in check when something out of the ordinary happens – for instance if someone bumps into them unexpectedly.

Hopefully this on-going brain research is helping in this area, and will give rise to some positive actions to cut down on bullying.

11 February 2010

Sleeping Beauty Syndrome

If my children are anything to go by it is not uncommon for teenagers to sleep a lot, but 15 year old Louisa Ball from Worthing, West Sussex is exceptional. She suffers from a rare condition known as Kleine-Levin Syndrome (KLS), or Sleeping Beauty Syndrome as it is otherwise known, and can sleep for periods of up to two weeks at a time!

The cause of KLS is unknown although it does appear that the onset of the condition coincides in most cases with a cold or infection and that this affects the part of the brain that regulates sleep. In the case of Louisa, the prolonged sleeps began in 2008 when she was recovering from a bout of flu.

Although highly debilitating when it occurs, sufferers of KLS generally average six months between bouts, during which time their sleep patterns are perfectly normal.

However, the good news for Louisa is that in the vast majority of cases, the syndrome disappears in teenage sufferers by the time they reach their twenties.

Click here for more information on KLS.

26 January 2010

Can our Brains Cope?

The human brain is amazing, but does it have a finite capacity? A number of commentators have recently suggested that the sheer volume of information that bombards us in our media-rich 7x24 world is causing us to behave in different ways. Some believe it is causing us to lose focus and develop shorter attention spans, some even think that it is causing our brains to physically change.

The people who take this view often point to the TV and video-game culture of the young as being to blame – where inputs have instant results. Other suggest that the multi-tasking nature of computer system is causing us to behave in a similar way - not concentrating on one thing for any length of time and instead trying to do multiple things at once.

However, other commentators argue that the deluge of information is beneficial as it provides a constant stimulus and that our brains will respond by evolving even faster.

What is your view?

Click here to read the full article on the MyBrain website.

25 January 2010

Why Resolutions are Tempting Fate

Here we are – at that time of the year when so many of us set our goals for the year ahead. Why do we give up on so many of them? As well as the obvious reasons, such as unrealistic goals, too many, no real planning etc, we can now look to neurology and the way our minds work for other reasons.

I will never forget as a teenager meeting my French pen-friend for the first time. Her photos did not reveal the very yellow teeth she had. I ran the mantra in my mind “don’t mention her teeth, don’t mention her teeth” over and over, and what happened? Almost in the first sentence, I talked about yellow teeth. Where did this demon reside within me? This was 30 years ago and the memory is still vivid!

Now I understand that there is a reason this happens – Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner researches “ironic mental processes” – that result from occasional errors in our sophisticated systems of mental control.

It works something like this. If your resolution is to give up chocolate or alcohol, you want to block all thoughts of them. You do this by filling your conscious mind with distracting thoughts - anything but chocolate or your favourite tipple. At the same time, though, your unconscious mind remains alert for any signs of the unwanted thought, almost more than usual as it is alert to help you chase it away. "Some part of the mind has to know what it is we don't want to think about and to monitor for that," says Wegner. So ironically, you have to focus on cigarettes and alcohol in order to block those thoughts!

The old adage “Don’t mention the war” now has new meaning – literally don’t mention it! In order not to think of it, the brain has to create an image of it to then understand it shouldn’t think of it.

So to keep to your resolutions, keep them positive – they are much more easy to control than negative ones. Think health rather than “don’t drink”. The latter will guarantee a conscious search process to understand drinking, giving something specific to the ironic monitoring process making it more likely to act as a trigger for the very behaviour of drinking you are trying to avoid!

And remember, never mention yellow teeth!

08 January 2010

Good news for pregnant women!

It’s tough being pregnant – your hormones go awry, you have to carry extra weight and as if that weren’t bad enough, you’re not allowed to compensate with a few glasses of wine!

But good news is just in – researchers at the University of North Carolina have found that consuming large quantities of choline during pregnancy can actually ‘boost the baby’s brain’ by promoting growth in the parts of the brain associated with memory and memory recall.

Since choline is found in pork products and eggs, a good fry-up should be on the menu on a regular basis. As Dr Geraldine Weissmann, the editor-in-chief of the journal which published the research findings said; “we may never be able to call bacon a health food with a straight face, but similar studies are already making us rethink what we consider healthy and unhealthy.”

High levels of choline are also found in liver, milk, chicken and nuts – but I like the sound of bacon and eggs better!

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