Category Archives: Neurology

Researchers peer into the brain of birds as they’re singing their best song

Birds, just like artists or athletes, train and finesse their songs. When it’s crunch time, they’d better be ready to bust out their best song — or they may end up not having anyone to mate with. In a new study, researchers have zoomed in on the brains of birds practicing and

Zebra finches. Image via Pixabay.

Zebra finches are common birds in Australia. They’re loud and boisterous singers, and they spend a lot of time working on perfecting their songs. Male zebra finches will often go about their days practicing their courtship melodies, producing variations and trialing different versions of the song. But when they spot an attractive female zebra finch, they stop screwing around.

Researchers have observed that when the game is on, they always sing a singular, perfected version of their song — no more variations or experiments. Essentially, they produce the best song they can.

Researchers wanted to figure out how they do this and what happens inside their brain once they do, and thanks to a novel approach that allows them to monitor up to a hundred bird neurons at a time, they did.

“To figure out how to move, it needs to first try out many different movements, to try out different ways of accomplishing a goal of moving their body,” said Jonna Singh Alvarado, who led this project for his Ph.D. dissertation at Duke. “They need to learn, ‘If I think this, how am I about to move? How will that move my body?’ and it needs to do that in many variations.”

Credits: Alvarado et al. / Nature.

To the human ear, these differences are subtle and hard to detect, explains Richard Mooney, Alvarado’s thesis advisor. But female zebra finches are very receptive to these subtleties. They dislike practice songs, but a precise game-time song makes them intrigued and attentive.

When the males practice the not-serious song, neurons in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia (which is also responsible for controlling major movements) allow variation in the song. Various neuron circuitries are used, corresponding to different songs. But when it’s go-time, these alternative pathways are shut down by a squirt of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline in the basal ganglia.

“You’ve established this kind of brain-to-movement dictionary, where you’ve explored all these different ways that you can give commands and they can move your body,” said Alvarado, who is now a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard University. “And then, you can exploit the mapping you’ve created. ‘I’ve explored, I have this dictionary, let me grab the right words from this dictionary and perform exactly what I know I can perform, given what I know the female wants to hear.’ “

To keep this ‘best’ song in good shape, a lot of practice is required. Much like a human athlete or artist, birds practice a lot — and also just like in humans, practicing variations helps build a “dictionary” of workable notes that can then be used. The birds explore their vocal range and different musical combinations until they zoom in on the one they want to use. To Mooney, a self-described Jimi Hendrix fan, the males’ practice songs are a bit like Hendrix’s music.

“It kind of goes everywhere, there’s the kernel of one song, but then it sort of morphs. It’s like free jazz or something. And, you know, I think he was just really, really good at exploring when he was alone.”

Of course, tracking the neurons responsible for this is not an easy task. It took a lot of work from a lot of people working in different fields, Mooney explains.

“One of the things that’s been really hard in other animals is to figure out what the link is between the variability you’re producing, and the variability you want to produce,” said John Pearson, an assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics at Duke, who led the statistical analysis of the neurons. “This is the first time that people have gotten a real sizable population of these cells, and we can begin to try to link the variability in vocal performance to the variability in neural activity.”

In addition to understanding how birds do things, this type of study could also be useful from a human perspective. The basal ganglia are present in all vertebrates, and in humans, it’s linked to conditions such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease, and Tourette’s syndrome, among others. Understanding

But the work is important because insight into the bird’s basal ganglia has direct relevance to human movement disorders, including Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, Tourette’s syndrome, and others, Mooney said. Understanding how basal ganglia neurons function normally and what happens when they malfunction is paramount to understanding how these conditions take shape — and how they can be fixed.

Journal Reference: Alvarado et al, Neural dynamics underlying birdsong practice and performance, Nature (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04004-1

This new procedure could be a game-changer for epilepsy

PING could change the lives of those living with epilepsy. (Image: Pixabay)

Epilepsy is an odd beast. It can affect people of all ages and ethnicities. It can be caused by a variety of underlying issues, such as head trauma, or sometimes the person can just be a victim of hereditary happenstance. Sometimes, there is no apparent reason for it whatsoever. It’s just there.

Adding to that, there are many types of treatments from pharmaceuticals to electronic implants to brain surgery. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t — again, in a fashion that’s hard to predict. As a result, we now have a menagerie of treatments and drugs used to combat the illness, but none of them is perfect.

To add even more to this, people suffering from epilepsy are still stigmatized because of how bizarrely the disease sometimes manifests. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2015 3.4 million people in the United States (1.2% of the population) had epilepsy. Expand your search to the entire globe and the number jumps to 50 million. But a new, revolutionary procedure could bring big changes.

Deep inside the brain

While brain surgery was always considered a last resort, a treatment left in a doctor’s back pocket to use only when absolutely necessary, research out of the University of Virginia School of Medicine and Stanford University may have found a way to make the operation less intrusive and more effective.

A procedure called PING, currently in pre-clinical research, has been created to treat neurological diseases without the invasiveness of regular surgery. If successfully translated to the operating room, it could revolutionize the treatment of some of the most challenging and complex neurological diseases.

The approach uses low-intensity focused ultrasound waves combined with microbubbles to briefly penetrate the brain’s natural defenses and allow the targeted delivery of a neurotoxin. This neurotoxin kills the culprit brain cells while sparing other healthy cells and preserving the surrounding brain architecture.

“This novel surgical strategy has the potential to supplant existing neurosurgical procedures used for the treatment of neurological disorders that don’t respond to medication,” said researcher Kevin S. Lee, PhD, of UVA’s Departments of Neuroscience and Neurosurgery and the Center for Brain Immunology and Glia (BIG) in a statement. “This unique approach eliminates the diseased brain cells, spares adjacent healthy cells and achieves these outcomes without even having to cut into the scalp.”

Now, if a patient which does not respond to medications is at the end of the pharmaceutical rope (which happens in up to a third of those with epilepsy), the new procedure could provide a critical treatment without the angst and recovery time of normal brain surgery. In an email to ZMEScience, Lee explained that PING has recently been shown to reduce or eliminate seizures in two research models of temporal lobe epilepsy.

A key advantage of the approach is its incredible precision. PING utilizes the power of magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI) to let scientists peer inside the skull so that they can precisely guide sound waves to open the body’s natural blood-brain barrier exactly where needed. This barrier is designed to keep harmful cells and molecules out of the brain, but it also prevents the delivery of potentially beneficial treatments. Lee said that importantly, PING spares other non-target cells, such as glia, blood vessels and axons of passage, which are damaged with currently-available neurosurgical procedures.

“The hope for PING is that it will also be effective in reducing seizures, while reducing side effects that attend currently-available procedures,” Lee told ZME Science. “The operation requires a focused ultrasound (FUS) system that is combined with an MRI (which) allows accurate targeting of FUS to a brain area of interest. In current clinical practice, high-intensity FUS can be used to produce thermal lesions to treat essential tremor and Parkinson’s Disease. PING differs from that procedure because it uses low-intensity FUS to focally open the blood brain barrier to deliver a systemically-administered drug to destroy culprit neurons in a targeted area.”

Another huge advantage of PING is that it can be used on irregularly shaped targets in areas of the brain that would be almost impossible to reach through regular brain surgery. “If this strategy translates to the clinic,” the researchers write in their paper, which was published in the Journal of Neurosurgery, “the noninvasive nature and specificity of the procedure could positively influence both physician referrals for and patient confidence in surgery for medically intractable neurological disorders.”

The results could change the lives of millions of people around the world if its safety and efficiency are confirmed in larger trials.

Dissociative identity disorder.

Being multiple people: Diving into Dissociative Identity Disorder

If I could choose two personalities for myself, I’d go with Elon Musk and your friendly neighborhood SpiderMan but unfortunately, that’s not at all how Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) works.

Individuals who experience multiple personalities as a result of DID don’t have control over the kind of personalities they have to contend with. However, researchers have also noticed that some DID patients can use their different personalities as a mental shield against the traumatic memories of their past. 

A woman in makeup with two different facial expressions. Image credits: Elīna Arāja/pexels

DID stands as one of the most controversial psychological disorders, with some researchers even arguing that DID is a hoax without any scientific basis. However, a Harvard study busted this idea, along with other speculations on the legitimacy of DID as a mental illness. Although there is still a lot of debate about DID, researchers mostly don’t doubt its validity as a mental illness.

Apart from the cases documented scientifically (which are surprisingly scarce), numerous cases have been reported in different parts of the world, suggesting that the occurrence of multiple identities may be more common than once believed, and may be associated with mental health conditions. Which begs the question: what exactly is this condition?

What is dissociative identity disorder? 

When a person develops two or more identities of his own that often results in disconnected behavior involving memory gaps, he or she is said to be suffering from DID, which is also referred to as split personality or multiple-personality disorder (MPD). Unfortunately, 70% of patients who suffer from DID are prone to suicidal thoughts and self-harm. According to a relatively small study from the US, DID affects about 1.5% of the world population — which still makes it a relatively rare condition, but is much more common than some of the other syndromes reported in psychiatric literature.

Generally, each identity of a DID patient has a name, habits, liking, dislikings, age, and thought process. It is also possible that two identities of the same person may hate each other. The shift from one identity to another is called switching, and some DID patients can undergo switching multiple times in a single day. These changes may be associated with memory loss and confusion. PTSD is also not uncommon in patients.  

A DID patient has at least two distinct and relatively enduring personality states but can have multiple ones. These various personalities control the person’s behavior at different times and can be associated with memory loss, depression, or delusions.

Why do people have dissociative identity disorder? 

Sometimes, a person is unable to process any more mental stress so their brain may see dissociation as the only way of coping with all the trauma that they are experiencing. As a result of this, they create different personalities (as a psychological response), in order to dissociate the original identity from the traumatic experience. The occurrence of these multiple personalities eventually leads to DID.

People who go through painful life-threatening experiences, physical violence, emotional breakdown, or sexual abuse during their childhood (according to a shocking report, about 90% of DID patients have been victims of sexual abuse when they were kids), and those who suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are more likely to have Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Image credits: Charly Pn/Unsplash

Common symptoms of DID include episodes of disorientation and memory loss, depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, delusions, hallucinations, emotional detachment, substance abuse, etc. It has been observed that increased levels of stress and substance abuse can make the condition of DID patients worse.

Unfortunately, there’s no cure per se for DID, but its symptoms can be limited to some extent using different treatments (such as psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and adjunctive therapy) but in most cases, the patient has no option but to learn to adapt and live with the multiple personalities that he or she experiences. The effectiveness of DID treatment also depends on a patient’s mindset, family environment, early diagnosis, and awareness. Therapy is also important for this type of treatment, and with the right treatment and therapy, many people with DID can learn to cope and live normal lives.

If a patient receives treatment soon after the traumatic experience that’s causing him to show DID symptoms, then the probability of him being able to control the disorder increases. Ironically, there is no particular test to diagnose DID and often its symptoms are either confused with other mental disorders or remain unnoticed until the patient becomes an adult. 

The behavior of parents, friends, and other people around a DID patient also affects the dissociative behavior. A good emotional support system can make the patient live happily and comfortably even with different identities, whereas a stressful environment can escalate the condition and even provoke a patient to cause self-harm. 

Some famous DID cases

Dissociative identity disorder is a rare but very unique psychological condition, and this is why many cases of DID in the past have grabbed a lot of media attention. Recently, in an interview with Economic Times, American actress AnnaLynne McCord also revealed that she has been diagnosed with DID. Here are some of the most high-profile cases of DID:

  • In his book Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder, American footballer Herschel Walker admits to having an alter ego named “Warrior” whom he believes is the reason behind his great sportsmanship abilities. He also talks about his other personality “Hero”, according to Walker, Hero has helped him manage his public image. The footballer won 1982’s Heisman Trophy but he claims that due to DID, he has no memory of winning the trophy.
  • A DID patient Kim Noble is believed to have over 100 personalities. She also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. However, according to Kim, it wasn’t her but mostly Patricia (her most dominant personality), who talked to Oprah during the show. In an interview with The Guardian, her alter identity Patricia also revealed that Kim goes through three to four switches every day.  
  • Psychiatrist Richard Baer claims that he has helped his patient Karen Overhill in overcoming the episodes from her 17 different identities. In his book, Switching Time: A Doctor’s Harrowing Story of Treating a Woman With 17 Personalities, Dr. Baer reveals that Karen had come to her as a patient of depression but during her treatment, he came across her different identities that resulted as a mental response to being herself abused by both her dad and grandfather during her childhood. The treatment process that involved hypnosis and various other psychological techniques ran for more than 20 years.

The bottom line

Ultimately, there is much we still don’t know about this condition. It appears to be more common than you’d expect and is often linked to trauma or other mental conditions. For some patients, DID can also be a defense mechanism through which their brain protects them from the overwhelming traumas and horrors that they had to face as a kid.   

Hopefully, as more research is coming, we can better understand and enable people suffering from it to live a normal, healthy life. At least two such trials are currently underway, and several others have been recently finished.

New brain stimulation technique cured 80% of major depression cases during trial run

We might soon have a reliable treatment for severe depression. New research at the Stanford University School of Medicine reports that a new type of magnetic brain stimulation was successful in treating almost 80% of participants with this condition.

Image via Pixabay.

The treatment approach is known as the Stanford Accelerated Intelligent Neuromodulation Therapy (SAINT), or Stanford neuromodulation therapy for short. It is an intensive, individualized transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy, and it shows great promise against severe depression — so far, in controlled trials. While effective, there are some side effects to this treatment: temporary fatigue and headaches.

All in all, the authors are confident that the benefits far outweigh the risks with SAINT, and they hope their work will pave the way towards new treatment options for many patients around the world.

A promising approach

“It works well, it works quickly and it’s noninvasive,” said Nolan Williams, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and senior author of the study. “It could be a game changer.”

The study included 29 participants with treatment-resistant depression. They ranged in age from 22 to 80, and had suffered from depression for an average of nine years at the time of the study. All of these cases have proven to be resistant to medication. Participants who were on medication during the study maintained their regular dosage, but those who weren’t did not start any course during the treatment period.

They were split into two groups, one of which received the SAINT treatment, with the other receiving a placebo procedure that mimicked it. Five days into the treatment, 78.6% of the participants in the SAINT group no longer qualified for depression as judged using several evaluation efforts. The effects were sustained over time after the treatment had ceased, the authors note.

Current transcranial magnetic stimulation options that carry the approval of the Food and Drug Administration require six weeks of daily sessions, the authors explain. It’s effective in about half the patients who undergo such treatments, and only about a third show remission from depression following the treatment.

SAINT builds on these approaches by first targeting the pulses in different areas tailored after each patient’s neurocircuitry, and by delivering a greater number of magnetic pulses at a higher frequency.

In order to determine the particularities of each patient’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — an area of the brain involved in regulating executive functions –, the authors performed an MRI analysis on each participant before the start of the study. Their goal was to find the exact subregion in the brain that had the strongest functional link to the subgenual cingulate. This structure has been documented to exhibit heightened levels of activity in people experiencing depression. The goal of the magnetic stimulation treatment is to strengthen the link between the two areas in order to allow the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to better control the activity in the subgenual cingulate.

The density of the pulses delivered in this trial was three times greater than that of currently-approved treatments: 1,800 per session compared to the regular number of 600. Finally, instead of providing one treatment session per day, the team gave their participants 10 10-minute treatments, with 50-minute breaks in between. The control group underwent ‘treatment’ with a magnetic coil that mimics the experience of the magnetic pulses.

Both groups wore noise-canceling earphones and received a topical ointment to dull sensation before each session.

Four weeks after the trial, 12 of the 14 participants in the experimental group showed improvements in their symptoms. According to FDA criteria for remission, 11 of them were officially cured of depression. In the control group, only 2 out of 15 patients met the criteria for remission.

The team is particularly interested in using SAINT to treat patients who are at a crisis point. Their study revealed that participants felt better and had attenuated symptoms within days of starting SAINT; this timeframe is much shorter than what is seen with medication, where improvements can take up to a month or more.

“We want to get this into emergency departments and psychiatric wards where we can treat people who are in a psychiatric emergency,” Williams said. “The period right after hospitalization is when there’s the highest risk of suicide.”

The paper “Stanford Neuromodulation Therapy (SNT): A Double-Blind Randomized Controlled Trial” has been published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Meet the people who literally feel no fear

Courage comes in all shapes and sizes. Running into a burning building to save a person, exposing corruption in a country whose leadership has a history of making journalists disappear, and confronting a bully are all acts that require conquering one’s fear, even when the potential consequences are life-threatening. But that doesn’t mean that these people don’t feel fear — they actually do just as much as you or me. It’s how they handle the fear they feel that sets them apart.

Oddly enough, though, there are people who literally feel no fear at all. For them, looking death in the eye is no more exciting than an oatmeal breakfast. This rare abnormal condition is either owed to disease or some brain damage following an accident that affected the brain circuitry associated with the fear response.

Jordy Cernik abseiled down a 418ft (128 m) tower. Credit: Jordy Cernik.

Take, for instance, the extraordinary case of Jordy Cernik. The British man first knew something was wrong with him when he went skydiving in 2013 and didn’t feel a rush. Since then, Cernik went through all sorts of stunts that would have most people scared beyond belief, including scaling down the edge of the 128-meter National Lift Tower in Northampton, but he found all of them uneventful.

It all started when Cernik was diagnosed with Cushing’s Syndrome in 2005, a medical condition that occurs when the body produces too much cortisol, the main hormone related to the body’s stress response. The excess steroids in the man’s blood made his body feel like it was under a relentless onslaught of imaginary threats. Cernik suffered from excessive weight gain, despite exercising daily and dieting, as well as excessive sweating.

The rare disease, which affects 10 to 15 people per million each year, is caused by a pituitary tumor secreting adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), a hormone that is usually produced by the pituitary gland.

“It’s not a nice one to have,” Cernik told SBS. “Sometimes it can be cured by scraping out the pituitary gland— so that was the brain surgery I had.”

“But mine was persistent and then they ended up having to take my adrenals out just to stop the connection altogether, but then that causes other problems along the way.”

These other problems are those that arise from living life with no fear — quite literally. When Cernik descended one of the tallest towers in the UK on a rope, he was fitted with bands by cognitive scientists that measured his body’s response. These instruments showed that the British man’s body did not react at all as it should have in a normal person.

Scientists believe Cernik’s condition is due to the removal of his adrenal glands during the brain surgery, for which the consequences go beyond just a fearless life. Without any adrenaline in his body, which acts as a sort of painkiller, even a slight injury can be really painful. Also, Cernik doesn’t just feel fear, he’s also devoid of just about any exciting emotion, which makes it incredibly challenging to keep himself motivated.

“It’s just like a switch in my brain that’s gone off and it’s not telling my body to react and its a strange feeling,” he says. 

Fear can be your worst enemy, but also your greatest ally

The amygdala in the brain. Credit: Life Science Databases/Wikimedia Commons.

Humans and just about every sentient creature on Earth feel fear for a good reason, playing a crucial role in our survival and, hence, our evolution. Fear is a primordial emotion that is involved in the brain’s “fight or flight” response. It’s the stimulus that keeps us away from predators or emboldens us to fight back when necessary. It’s such an ancient and instinctual emotion, shared with ancestors that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, that it partly explains why humans are still afraid of heights or insects.

Fear first starts in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which activates other brain areas involved in the fight or flight response and releases stress hormones. In response, the heart and breathing rates rise, blood vessels constrict, and adrenaline kicks in. In some cases, if the fear is extreme, the effects on the body can be so extreme that it is actually possible to be scared to death.

Besides the amygdala, another important region of the brain known as the hippocampus is also involved in the fear response. Closely connected to the almond-shaped amygdala, the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex — both heavily involved in higher-order thinking — help us to interpret whether the initially perceived threat is real or not. For instance, seeing a captive lion at the zoo is much less threatening than seeing the same animal untethered in the African savanna at a leaping distance. The hippocampus provides the explicit memory permitting one to define the context of the fear stimulus while the prefrontal cortex processes and tidies up all this information to establish whether or not you should flee, fight, or just chill since there’s an impenetrable barrier between you and the captive zoo creature.

Most people usually experience it in three stages: freeze (a reaction that is rooted in our evolutionary history to keep us hidden from predators), run (the instinct to move away from danger), and fight (when there’s no way to get away from the fear-triggering object, the ultimate response is to fight).

Fear is automatic, meaning you can’t help feeling it. The degree to which people experience fear and find the power to overcome, of course, varies among people. But not feeling any fear at all is extremely rare and it goes without saying that it is unnatural.

This woman visited the world’s scariest ‘haunted house’ and was held at knife-point. She never flinched

Clinical observations suggest that humans who’ve suffered amygdala damage have abnormal fear reactions and reduced experience of fear to the point that it is nonexistent. A 2011 study led by researchers at the University of Iowa describes the case of a patient, going by the initials S.M. to preserve her identity, who has focal bilateral amygdala lesions. Her brain damage is the result of a very rare inheritable disease known as Urbach-Wiethe disease, which is characterized by infiltration of hyaline-like material in the mucous membranes, internal organs, and the brain. In this particular case, calcium deposits on the amygdala caused lesions in the brain region, resulting in an inhibited sense of fear.

The scientists subjected SM to a battery of what were supposed to be nerve-wracking tests, such as exposing her to live snakes and spiders, a haunted house tour, and film clips of scary movies. However, the 44-year-old woman “repeatedly demonstrated an absence of overt fear manifestations and an overall impoverished experience of fear,” according to the researchers.

Although SM told the researchers she ‘hates’ snakes and ‘tries to avoid them’, when she was taken to an exotic pet store, she held one of the snakes for over three minutes during which she rubbed the reptile’s leathery scales, touched its flicking tongue, and closely watched its movements as it slithered through her hands. She also asked 15 different times if she could touch one of the larger snakes, despite the store clerk declining each time, repeatedly cautioning her that the snake in question was dangerous and could bite her.  When asked why she would want to touch something that she knows is dangerous and claims to hate, SM replied that she was overcome with “curiosity.”

During Halloween, the researchers took SM to the Waverly Hills Sanatorium, which regularly ranks as one of the “most haunted” places in the world. The haunted house at the sanatorium is specially designed to elicit fear with eerie scenes, scary music, loud music, and people dressed as monsters, ghosts, or murderers. SM was joined by a group of five women, all of whom were strangers. SM voluntarily led the group through the haunted house, showing no signs of hesitation. “This way guys, follow me!” she beckoned as other members lagged behind her. When monsters leaped out, she always laughed, approached and talked to them. On one occasion, SM frightened one of the supposed monsters by poking them in the head.

The scary movie clips also had the opposite effect. SM exhibited no fear response but she nonetheless found the films exciting and entertaining, inquiring during one particular case about the name of the movie so she could rent it back home. Interestingly, the 10 different fear-inducing films that the researchers selected aimed at inducing a variety of types of emotions, including disgust, anger, sadness, happiness, and surprise. SM exhibited behaviors compatible with all of these emotions — except fear.

Lastly, SM also shared her general experience of fear by completing a self-reported questionnaire and openly talking about events that would have induced trauma in most other people. For instance, she has been held up at knife-point and at gun-point, she was once physically accosted by a woman twice her size, she was nearly killed in an act of domestic violence, and on more than one occasion she has been explicitly threatened with death. However, on no occasion did SM act with desperation or urgency.

During one notably impressive feat, SM was walking alone through a small park in her town when a man beckoned her over a bench. As she approached, the stranger pulled her down and struck a knife to her throat, threatening her “I’m going to cut you, bitch!”. Hearing a church choir sing in the distance, she confidently said, “If you’re going to kill me, you’re gonna have to go through my God’s angels first.” The man let her go and SM confidently walked (not ran) away. The next day, she went back to the same park.

“When asked to recollect how she felt during the aforementioned situations, SM denied feeling fear, but did report feeling upset and angry about what had happened,” the researchers wrote.

Similar to SM, then 28-year-old Jody Smith received a complex brain surgery meant to cure his severe epilepsy which resulted in the removal of not only parts of the amygdala, but also the temporal lobe and hippocampus.

“Surgery was the only option to prevent the chance of the seizures getting worse, continuing to damage my brain, or potentially killing me,” he told VICE.

Smith underwent brain surgery to treat his severe epileptic seizures. In the process, part of his amygdala was removed which greatly diminished his fear response. Credit: Jody Smith/VICE.

Before his surgery, Smith regularly experienced bouts of panic and anxiety, which he attributed to past traumatic experiences from both his father and brother dying when he was very young. Two weeks after his operation, however, Smith no longer had panic attacks. He soon found out that he had an almost superhuman ability to be fearless.

According to Smith, however, his fearlessness can be described as nuanced. He claims he still intellectualizes the potential consequences of a threat and is aware of things that could harm him. It’s just that he doesn’t seem to get the fight or flight response.

“As an avid hiker, I frequently find myself near cliffs,” he said.

“The experience of fear near cliffs was clearly different. I still didn’t want to fall, and would still feel tense if I started to slip when scrambling, but I didn’t feel the fear part of that. That’s when I started to experiment a bit with my fear: by intentionally walking towards cliffs to see what my instincts would say.”

While out and about in Newark, New Jersey, Smith walked close to a group of men who, by all means, looked like they were about to mug him. But instead of panicking or even experiencing a seizure, as his former self would have, Smith simply and calmly passed through them, much to the men’s surprise who left him alone. “Apparently, my lack of fear struck them,” he said.

What acquired fearlessness may teach us about curing our own anxieties

Although a minimal to non-existent fear response may sound dangerous, we luckily live in a modern society where most of the threats and dangers humans have evolved to face are no longer part of the environment. In fact, one could argue that our natural fear response that could have saved our lives during our caveman days is actually a handicap in today’s society. Such irrational fears fuel anxiety, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, and depression.

Nearly one in four people experience a form of anxiety disorder during their lives, and nearly 8 percent experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

But superhuman-like cases such as SM, Smith, and Cernik could help scientists better understand mental health disorders that are due to an exaggerated fear response, such as generalized anxiety disorder.

Frank Herbert’s Dune teaches us that fear is the mind-killer. In the real world, though, fear can also be the life-saver. Like all things in life, a balance must be struck.

“Harmonic surprise”: the secret sauce of chart-topping music

Still from music video for Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars. Credit: Vevo.

Although writing music is first and foremost a creative endeavor, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t compositional formulas that can dramatically increase the odds of a song sticking in people’s ears. The same thing goes for writing, painting, photography, comedy, and cinematography. Coming back to music, a new study has demystified some aspects that make a song popular, showing that harmonic surprise is an important factor in predicting which piece of music will be perceived as pleasurable.

What’s more, this preference evolves over time as we become accustomed to certain musicalities. Yesterday’s fresh music can grow old, so common harmonies in popular music need to be constantly shifting to catch the listener by surprise.

To reach this conclusion, researchers at Drexel University, Georgetown University, and Loyola University Chicago looked at all the Billboard hits from 1958 to 2019, analyzing the harmonic content of each song. With each passing decade, the harmonic surprise of the top tunes has been increasing, a phenomenon which the researchers have dubbed “inflationary surprise”.

What to write a top pop song? Be different

Why do we like certain pieces of music and dislike others? One prevailing theory is that music evokes a pleasurable response in the human brain depending on the degree to which a song adheres or deviates from what a listener would expect. When we hear familiar songs that sound good to our ears, the brain stimulates a neural reward. This stimulation can equally occur when we hear certain novel types of songs that don’t necessarily adhere to the sound of what we usually listen to.

This notion explains why there is a great deal of variability in musical preferences or why we label some songs as retro and boring while others are fresh and hot. In other words, musical perception is partly based on cultural knowledge.

It follows that surprise in music is an important factor in predicting the popularity of a musical piece. Quantifying a song’s total amount of surprise is possible by analyzing its distinct components, such as harmonies, melody, rhythm, and timbre.

Music that is more likely to cause a pleasurable reaction to listeners tends to place higher on charts, which is why the researchers led by neuroscientist Scott Miles turned to the Billboard Hot 100 as an approximation of popularity and musical reward for their analysis of harmonic surprise.

Previously, in a different study, the researchers proposed two hypotheses as to how surprise affects musical perception. The Absolute-Surprise Hypothesis states that musical popularity is determined by the overall amount of surprise in a piece, based on the notion that dopamine (the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter) is associated with novelty. The Contrastive-Surprise Hypothesis is not dependent on the total amount of surprise in a song but rather on the contrast between high-surprise and low-surprise sections within a certain song.

In a 2017 study, Miles and colleagues had analyzed the Hot 100 songs, from Bee Gees’ How Deep Is Your Love to Mariah Carey’s We Belong Together, looking for patterns of sounds that may elicit a pleasurable response in the brain. They found that the most popular songs had a high level of harmonic surprise, including the use of rare chords in verse, following by a more conventional, catchy progression in the chorus. Later, the researchers also added other harmonic patterns to their scoring algorithm, including melody, timbre, lyrics, and rhythm, to devise software that can predict if a song will be well received by listeners.

However, this particular study assumed that the “expected” harmony of music was constant over the years across Western popular music — this turned out not to be the case. 

To be successful, a musician needs to be constantly innovating

 Per-song average surprise (in bits), relative to chord distribution of August 1958 to January 1975, of Q1 and Q4 separated into time bins. Error bars represent standard error. Per-song surprise rises faster in Q1 than in Q4. Credit: Frontiers in Neuroscience.

“This assumption, however, may not have been valid; it is entirely possible that the common harmonies which can be reasonably expected to occur in music may change from year to year,” the researchers wrote.

Instead, in this new research, Miles and colleagues went back to the drawing board and devised a more sophisticated model that analyzed how musical perception and preferences evolve over time along with surprising musical content.

They grouped Hot 100 songs into four time “bins” (each spanning about five years of release dates) and calculated the degree of harmonic surprise for each song. This analysis showed that harmonic surprise increases over time and is more pronounced in the most popular hit songs.

“Such dynamic harmonic expectations highlight the interactions between individual listeners and musicians with the culture around them. The Surprise-Inflation Hypothesis raised by the results presented here suggests that the brain’s craving for surprise causes continuous changes in harmonic distributions in popular music. A musician exposed to changes advanced by other musicians must innovate to be successful. It could be that musicians, learning from the success of high-surprise songs from one year, end up producing more high-surprise songs the next year. This could be an explicit strategy to improve on the part of musicians, rather than an implicit change in expectation on the part of the listeners. However, listeners’ preferences change as a result, forcing musicians to incorporate further changes. Hence, the inherent craving for surprise in each of us may push our entire culture in an endless evolution of musical preferences,” the researchers conclude in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Learning music changes how our brains process language, and vice-versa

Language and music seem to go hand-in-hand in the brain, according to new research. The team explains that music-related hobbies boost language skills by influencing how speech is processed in the brain. But flexing your language skills, by learning a new language, for example, also has an impact on how our brains process music, the authors explain.

Image credits Steve Buissinne.

The research, carried out at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences, in cooperation with researchers from the Beijing Normal University (BNU) and the University of Turku, shows that there is a strong neurological link between language acquisition and music processing in humans. Although the findings are somewhat limited due to the participant sample used, the authors are confident that further research will confirm their validity on a global scale.

Eins, Zwei, Polizei

“The results demonstrated that both the music and the language programme had an impact on the neural processing of auditory signals,” says lead author Mari Tervaniemi, a Research Director at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences.

“A possible explanation for the finding is the language background of the children, as understanding Chinese, which is a tonal language, is largely based on the perception of pitch, which potentially equipped the study subjects with the ability to utilise precisely that trait when learning new things. That’s why attending the language training programme facilitated the early neural auditory processes more than the musical training.”

The team worked with Chinese elementary school pupils aged 8-11 whom they monitored, for the duration of one full school year. All of the participants were attending music training courses, or a similar programme to help them learn English. During this time, the authors measured and recorded the children’s brain responses to auditory stimuli, both before and after the conclusion of the school programmes. This was performed using electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings; at the start, 120 children were investigated using EEG, with 80 of them being recorded again one year after the programme.

During the music training classes, pupils were taught to sing from both hand signs and sheet music and, obviously, practised singing quite a lot. Language training classes combined exercises for both spoken and written English, as it relied on a different orthography (writing system) compared to Chinese. Both were carried out in one-hour-long sessions twice a week, either after school or during school hours, throughout the school year. Around 20 pupils and two teachers attended these sessions at a time.

All in all, the team reports that pupils who underwent the English training programme showed enhanced processing of musical sounds in their brains, particularly in regards to pitch.

“To our surprise, the language program facilitated the children’s early auditory predictive brain processes significantly more than did the music program. This facilitation was most evident in pitch encoding when the experimental paradigm was musically relevant,” they explain.

The results support the hypothesis that music and language processing are closely related functions in the brain, at least as far as young brains are concerned. The authors explain that both music and language practice help modulate our brain’s ability to perceive sounds since they both rely heavily on sound — but that being said, we can’t yet say for sure whether these two have the exact same effect on the developing brain, or if they would influence it differently.

At the same time, the study used a relatively small sample size, and all participants belonged to the same cultural and linguistic background. Whether or not children who are native speakers of other languages would show the same effect is still debatable, and up for future research to determine.

The paper “Improved Auditory Function Caused by Music Versus Foreign Language Training at School Age: Is There a Difference?” has been published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Neuroscientists find evolutionary origin of near-death experiences

Credit: Flickr, William Gibson Kiel.

Many people across different cultures and historical contexts have reported experiencing near-death experiences. When going through such singular life-threatening episodes, it’s common to experience things such as no pain, seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel, or detaching from one’s body and floating above it, and even flying off into space. This universality suggests that near-death experiences have some biological origin and purpose — and a new study seems to confirm this idea.

Evolution towards a bright light at the end of a tunnel

Despite several theories used to explain near-death experiences, no one’s really sure what causes them or why humans have them. Religious people believe near-death experiences provide evidence for life after death – in particular, the separation of the spirit from the body. Whereas scientific explanations for near-death experiences include depersonalization, which is a sense of being detached from your body. Scientific author Carl Sagan even suggested that the stress of death produces a remembrance of birth, suggesting the “tunnel” people see is a reimagining of the birth canal.

According to researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and the University of Liège in Belgium near-death experiences in humans may be the result of evolutionary mechanisms. Their investigations suggest that these harrowing episodes have arisen as a result of thanatosis — a defense mechanism in which animals feign their death to improve their odds of survival.

It’s widely believed that thanatosis exploited predators’ tendencies to avoid dead prey. Thanatosis is characterized by a number of different features: catalepsy, immobility with a prone but stiff posture maintained by pronounced tonic muscular activity; ‘waxy flexibility’ of the limbs, which if moved by an external force maintain the newly imposed position for long periods; and unresponsiveness to external stimuli, while remaining fully aware of the environment.

Thanatosis is of widespread occurrence in arthropods and in all classes of vertebrates, possibly including humans (hence the phrase ‘scared stiff’).

 “As a survival strategy thanatosis is probably as old as the fight-or-flight response,” Daniel Kondziella, a neurologist at the Copenhagen University Hospital, said in a statement.

The researchers found that thanatosis, or tonic immobility, occurs in insects, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Their investigations also showed that humans can experience both thanatosis and near-death experiences when threatened by an imminent life-threatening attack such as an encounter with a grizzly bear, going through a severe traffic accident, or an assault from another human.

 “We show that the phenomenology and the effects of thanatosis and near-death experiences overlap,” said Charlotte Martial, a neuropsychologist from the Coma Science Group at the University of Liège.

Kondziella and Martial conclude that the acquisition of language caused humans to transform death-feigning into the much more elaborate and rich perceptions that characterize near-death experiences, which can extend to non-predatory situations. For instance, about one in ten patients with cardiac arrest in a hospital setting undergo such an episode. 

“Of note, the proposed cerebral mechanisms behind death-feigning are not unlike those that have been suggested to induce near-death experiences, including intrusion of rapid eye movement sleep into wakefulness,” Daniel Kondziella explains.

“This further strengthens the idea that evolutionary mechanisms are an important piece of information needed to develop a complete biological framework for near-death experiences.”

The notion that near-death experiences are the product of an inherent biological need to survive makes sense. However, this is far from the last word on the subject. Near-death experiences are not readily amenable to well-controlled laboratory experimentation, which greatly limits research, although this may change perhaps using pharmacological means.

The findings were reported in the journal Brain Communications.

A window to the brain? Pupil size linked to intelligence

The pupil is the central opening of the iris on the inside of the eye through which light passes before reaching the lens and being focused onto the retina. Credit: Pixabay.

Humans are hardwired to read emotional cues in a person’s facial expressions, including micro-expressions of the eye. In fact, research suggests that if you want to read a person’s true emotional state, stay away from the mouth (fake smiles, anyone?) and pay attention to the eyes, whose sensitive involuntary muscle contractions are much more difficult to conceal. Now, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology claim that it may be possible to even gauge a person’s intellect from the eyes, after finding a correlation between pupil size and differences in intelligence between individuals.

The larger the pupil, the higher a person’s fluid intelligence may be

According to the study, which involved more than 500 people aged 18 to 35 from Atlanta, larger pupils were associated with higher intelligence, as measured by standard tests meant to gauge reasoning, memory, and attention.

This relationship is so pronounced that a person should be able to predict with relative confidence who scored the highest or the lowest on an intelligence test just by looking at their pupils with the naked eye, no additional instruments required.

Each subject’s pupil size was assessed using eye trackers that detect light reflecting from the pupil and cornea. Over lengthier eye-tracking, the researchers were able to compute each participants’ average pupil size.

The human pupil is between two and eight millimeters in diameter. However, they’re never fixed. They get bigger or smaller, depending on the amount of light they experience. In low light, your pupils open up or dilate, to let in more light. When it’s bright, they get smaller or constrict, to let in less light.

To normalize pupil measurements, the researchers made sure to assess the pupil at rest when the participants were staring at a blank screen for a couple of minutes. Each participant also went through a barrage of tests that scored them on their ability to solve new problems, remember things over time, and keep focus even when distracted. These combined abilities are often referred to as fluid intelligence.

Pupil size is also known to diminish with age. But after the researchers corrected for age, the pupil size and intelligence link still held up.

The researchers are careful to stress that their association is a correlation and they do not have evidence of a causal link between pupil size and differences in intelligence. That being said, it wouldn’t be that crazy if pupil size did indeed reliably indicate a propensity for scoring high on metrics for intelligence.

Previously, researchers noticed that the pupil is influenced by the locus coeruleus (from the Latin for ‘blue spot’), which communicates closely with the amygdala. Neurons in this region are the main source of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline (norepinephrine), an excitatory chemical that is released in response to pain or stress, stimulating what is referred to as the ‘fight-or-flight’ mechanism.

According to the authors of the new study published in the journal Cognition, the locus coeruleus is heavily involved in organizing brain activity and coordinating distant regions of the brain to work together and accomplish different tasks. Loss of function in this critical brain region is linked to  Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology speculate that a person’s pupils may be larger due to greater regulation of activity by the locus coeruleus, which may lead to better cognitive performance.

“Additional research is needed to explore this possibility and determine why larger pupils are associated with higher fluid intelligence and attention control. But it’s clear that there is more happening than meets the eye,” Jason S. Tsukahara, Ph.D. student at the Georgia Institute of Technology and lead-author of the study, wrote in an article for Scientific American.

But since pupil size varies so much with the time of day, it might not be a good idea to stare someone dead in the eyes simply to assess whether they’re worth talking to. 

That ‘memory palace’ thing? It actually works, a new study finds

In the hazy times of the pandemic, days may seem to blend in with each other. But if you want to keep your memory sharp and reliable, there are ways to do so. According to a new study, the ‘memory palace’ technique really works — and not just for memory athletes, but for regular people as well.

Building a memory palace really does help. Image credits: Diogo Nunes.

Ancient hacks, new evidence

The idea of a ‘memory palace’ sounds complex and weird, but it’s actually quite straightforward. The idea is to associate one memory with visualizations of familiar places to enhance your ability to recall that information. A common variation called the “memory palace” involves creating an imaginary location (a palace), and “storing” information in those rooms.

The technique (properly called the ‘loci technique’) was recently popularized by series such as Sherlock or The Mentalist, but it was actually developed much longer ago. The Roman statesman Cicero described it in one of his works more than two thousand years ago. In more modern times, it has been discussed by psychologists, with one seminal study noting that the hippocampus can be used as a sort of cognitive map.

But does it really work? For those who truly have an exceptional memory, it clearly does. Many memory contest champions advocate this technique to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. But does it work for regular people? A new study says so.

In the study, researchers led by Isabella Wagner, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Vienna, carried out two trials. The first one was conducted with 17 memory athletes and a control group of 16 people. The control group didn’t use the loci technique but had good memory, as gauged by initial IQ scores. Meanwhile, the second trial was based on 17 people who learned the loci technique over 20 hours, and two control groups.

In both cases, those who used the memory palace approach scored better than the control groups. For instance, before the training session, the control group of regular people performed better than the memory palace training group, recalling 30 words on average (compared to 25 for the training group). But after the control group received general memory training and the other group received memory palace training, things shifted. The former improved to 41.7 words, whereas the latter improved to a whopping 56 words — more than doubling their initial performance. Although these are small groups, the results strongly indicate that memory palace training can improve people’s memory.

Participants of all groups also had fMRI images taken of their brains. Remarkably, after these brief memory training sessions, normal participants’ brains started to look much like memory athletes, suggesting that it’s fairly easy to grasp the technique.

It’s still not entirely clear why this technique words but Wagner suspects that the memory palace could serve as a sort of solid scaffolding on which it’s easier to build memories, both short-term and long-term. Speaking to Inverse, she says she likes to imagine chickens running around her memory palace when she needs to buy eggs, and it works.

The scans also reveal that those who practice this technique show reduced activity in the left lateral prefrontal cortex, suggesting that the approach could help the brain use resources more efficiently when storing information. At the same time, they exhibited higher levels of connectivity between the hippocampus and the cortex, which hints at long-term memory formation.

“Behaviorally, memory training enhanced durable, longer-lasting memories,” the study authors note.

The results are consistent with a 2017 study which found that memory training can reshape brain networks to support memory formation. In that study, it also took a relatively short period (four months) to make participants’ brain connections resemble those of memory athletes.

While the study focused on word memorization, researchers say it can be used on pretty much any type of memory.

Remarkably, this ancient memory enhancement technique really seems to work. For those of us who sometimes struggle to recall things, it’s definitely worth looking into.

The study has been published in Science Advances.

Stress, lack of sleep might be contributing to concussion-like symptoms

Lack of sleep and stress can lead to symptoms like those of post-concussion syndrome (PCS), a new paper reports. While it found that between 11% and 27% of the student athletes questioned had such symptoms, the overall percentage is likely higher in the general population due to lower overall fitness levels.

Image via Pixabay.

The findings suggest that a lot of us might unknowingly be bumbling our way through life with concussion-like symptoms, which can’t be good for us. The paper adds that the most reliable predictors of PCS-like symptoms were lack of sleep, pre-existing mental health problems, and stress. All in all, the authors say these findings suggest we need a more individualized treatment approach for athletes recovering from brain injury. It probably also means we should all get more sleep.

Hit in the head

“The numbers were high, and were consistent with previous research in this area, but it is quite shocking,” said study lead author Jaclyn Caccese, assistant professor in The Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

“These are elite athletes who are physically fit, and they are experiencing that many symptoms commonly reported following a concussion. So looking across the general population, they’d probably have even more.”

The participants were healthy college athletes (with no recent history of concussions at the time of the study) from four U.S. military service academies and students who competed in NCAA sports at 26 U.S. higher education institutions. The study was conducted by the Concussion Assessment, Research, and Education (CARE) Consortium.

Between 11% and 27% of 31,000 participants reported combinations of symptoms that meet the official definition of post-concussion syndrome (PCS). Between 50% and 75% further reported one or more symptoms commonly seen in post-concussion individuals, including fatigue or low energy and drowsiness.

Now, the symptoms by themselves aren’t conclusive proof of anything — several things can cause them. Student athlete post-concussion care aims to determine those symptoms caused by injury through a variety of means, including knowing the medical history and baseline symptom status of each individual.

“When a patient comes into a clinic and they are a month or more out from their most recent concussion, we need to know what symptoms they were experiencing before their concussion to know if their symptoms are attributable to their concussion or something else. Then we can start treating the concussion-related symptoms to hopefully help people recover more quickly,” Caccese said.

Post-concussion syndrome is a persistent condition following a concussion with symptoms ranging from persistent headaches, dizziness, and fatigue to anxiety, insomnia, and loss of concentration and memory. Although we know it’s associated with concussion, we don’t understand why these symptoms appear.

The research was aimed at bettering our knowledge of concussion effects and recovery among student athletes at colleges, universities, and military service academies. But the findings may be more broadly applicable than the team hoped.

Statistical analyses of the data showed that some of the factors in participants’ medical histories were also more likely to be associated with reported symptoms indicative of PCS. Among military cadets, 17.8% of men and 27.6% of women reported symptom groups that met PCS criteria. Among NCAA athletes, 11.4% of men and 20% of women reported the same.

Sleep problems, particularly getting insufficient sleep the night before the trial, and psychiatric disorders were the most reliable predictors of these symptoms. A history of migraines also contributed to symptoms that met PCS criteria. For cadets, being a first-year student and experiencing academic difficulties were tied to an increased chance of meeting PCS criteria, while for NCAA athletes history of ADHD or depression did the same.

One limiting factor of the study is that it relied on self-reported data, which is notoriously unreliable as it’s subjective. At the same time, some symptoms may be more closely tied to a concussion while others could be due to a variety of causes.

“Perhaps we can create a battery of symptoms more specific to concussion,” said study lead author Jaclyn Caccese, assistant professor in The Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

“This hopefully not only shows clinicians that we need to consider how people would have presented before injury, but also provides some normative data so they can interpret other patients’ data. We really don’t know a lot about why people have persistent symptoms, and it seems to be very variable. So we’re trying to understand this better to help predict who will have a prolonged recovery, and who will not.”

The paper “Factors Associated with Symptom Reporting in U.S. Service Academy Cadets and NCAA Student Athletes without Concussion: Findings from the CARE Consortium” has been published in the journal Sports Medicine.

Are the brains of atheists different to those of religious people?

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin. Credit: Pixabay.

The cognitive study of religion has recently reached a new, unknown land: the minds of unbelievers. Do atheists think differently from religious people? Is there something special about how their brains work? To illustrate what they’ve found, I will focus on three key snapshots.

The first one, from 2003, is probably the most photogenic moment of “neuro-atheism”. Biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins travelled to the lab of Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger in the hope of having a religious experience. In this BBC Horizon film, God on the Brain, a retro science-fiction helmet was placed on Dawkins head. This “god helmet” generated weak magnetic fields, applied to the temporal lobes.

Persinger had previously shown that this kind of stimulation triggered a wide range of religious phenomena – from sensing the presence of someone invisible to prompting out-of-body experiences. With Dawkins, though, the experiment failed. As it turned out, Persinger explained, Dawkins’ temporal lobe sensitivity was “much, much lower” than is common in most people.

The idea that the temporal lobes may be the seat of religious experience has been around since the 1960s. But this was the first time that the hypothesis was extended to explain the lack of religious experience based on the lower sensitivity of a brain region. Despite the exciting possibility of testing this hypothesis with a larger sample of atheists, it remains to be done.

The second snapshot takes us to 2012. Three articles published by labs in the USA and Canada presented the first evidence linking an analytical, logical thinking style to unbelief. Psychologists have been theorising about different ways that brains process information for a long time: conscious versus unconscious, reflective versus experiential, analytical versus intuitive. These are linked to activity in certain brain areas, and can be triggered by stimuli including art. The researchers asked participants to contemplate Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Thinker, and then assessed their analytical thinking and disbelief in god. They found that those who had viewed the sculpture performed better on the analytical thinking task and reported less belief in god than people who hadn’t seen the image.

In the same year, a Finnish lab published the results of a study where their scientists tried to provoke atheists into thinking supernaturally by presenting them with a series of short stories and asking if the punchline was a “sign of the universe” (interpreting something as a “sign” is more supernatural than interpreting something as, for example, a coincidence). They did this while scanning their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The more the participants suppressed supernatural thinking, the stronger the activation of the right inferior frontal gyrus was. We know this area is involved in cognitive inhibition, an ability to refrain from certain thoughts and behaviours.

Together, these studies suggest that atheists have a propensity to engage more in analytical or reflective thinking. If believing in gods is intuitive, then this intuition can be overridden by more careful thinking. This finding certainly raised the possibility that the minds of atheists are simply different from those of believers.

Replication crisis

So how robust are the findings? In 2015, a “replication crisis” hit the field of psychology. It turned out that the results of many classic studies couldn’t be achieved when running them again. The psychology of religion and atheism was no exception.

The experiment with Rodin’s Thinker was the first to be investigated. Three new studies were conducted with larger samples than the original — and they all failed to replicate the original results. With one sample, they found the very opposite: contemplating the Thinker increased religious belief.

One possible limitation with the original studies is that they had all been undertaken in the USA. Could culture act in such a decisive way that the analytical cognitive style associated with atheism in one country might be nonexistent elsewhere? The author of the original Rodin study attempted to answer this in a new study which included individuals from 13 countries. The results confirmed that a cognitive analytical style was only linked to atheism in three countries: Australia, Singapore and the USA.

In 2017, a double-blind study was carried out to test in a more robust way the link between unbelief and cognitive inhibition. Instead of using brain imaging to see which area lit up, they used a brain stimulation technique to directly stimulate the area responsible for cognitive inhibition: the right inferior frontal gyrus. Half of the participants, however were given a fake stimulus. The results showed that the brain stimulation worked: participants who had it achieved better in a cognitive inhibition task. However, this had no effect on decreasing supernatural belief.

The complexity of atheism

The third snapshot is this one: a man is standing against a background which looks like a church. He appears to be doing the sign of the cross with his right hand while his left hand rests on his heart. He is a priest – but not of any church that believes in gods: he presides over the Positivist Temple of Humanity, a church for atheists and agnostics created by August Comte in the 19th century. This priest is not doing the sign of cross but the Positivist blessing.

Together with photographer Aubrey Wade, I stumbled upon this active temple in the south of Brazil, while collecting data for a large ongoing project involving over 20 labs across the world: Understanding Unbelief.

Finding an active church of unbelievers dedicated to the love of humanity — its golden principle being “live for others” — ruptured how I thought of atheists and the boundary separating them from the religious. And this has implications for how we develop studies in this area. When doing experiments with believers we can use multiple stimuli, from religious images to music, to trigger a religious effect or cognition in the lab. But finding an equivalent for unbelievers has proved hard.

One brain imaging study conducted at Oxford University compared an image of the Virgin Mary with that of a regular woman, both painted in the same period. Researchers found that when Roman Catholics concentrated on the Virgin Mary while being subjected to electric shocks, this alleviated their perception of pain compared to looking at the other woman. This decrease in pain was associated with an engagement of the right ventro-lateral prefrontal cortex, a region known to drive pain inhibitory circuits.

No similar effect was found for the unbelievers, although they rated the secular image as more pleasant than the religious one. But what if the unbelievers being tested were members of the Positivist Temple and were instead shown an image of their goddess of humanity — would this have alleviated pain in a similar way to that experienced by the religious individuals?

The future cognitive science of atheism will have to think hard about how to move forward. It needs to develop models that account for cultural variations as well as consider the implications of atheists engaging with rituals that celebrate humanity.The Conversation

Miguel Farias, Associate Professor in Experimental Psychology, Coventry University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Researchers identify a protein that may be the link between anxiety and depression

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden report on a new protein that could tie stress to depression and anxiety.

A 3D-printed human brain. Image via Flickr / NIH Image Gallery.

The team has identified a protein in the brains of mice that regulates the release of both serotonin and cortisol, which are the feel-good hormone and stress hormone, respectively. This protein, p11, was previously discovered by the same team, who showed that it plays a key role in the functioning of serotonin. The present study showed that mice lacking p11 show depression- and anxiety-like behaviour, which was treatable in part with antidepressants.

The findings could help us better understand the biochemical mechanisms behind depression and anxiety, and to develop new medicine to treat them.

P11 giveth, p11 taketh away

“We know that an abnormal stress response can precipitate or worsen a depression and cause anxiety disorder and cardiovascular disease,” says first author Vasco Sousa, researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet. “Therefore, it is important to find out whether the link between p11 deficiency and stress response that we see in mice can also be seen in patients.”

Individuals that have experienced trauma or episodes of very severe stress are known to sometimes develop an abnormal (i.e. excessive) response to stress in the future. Those who also suffer from anxiety or depression are more likely to show such responses. However, in order to find out how to help them, we must first understand how our bodies create and regulate stress.

The authors report previously observing that depressed patients and suicide victims tend to have lower-than-average levels of the p11 protein in their brains. In order to find if there’s a link there, they engineered lab mice to produce low levels of p11. Further testing confirmed that these animals showed behavior consistent with depression and anxiety.

Mice with p11 deficiency also showed a stronger reaction to stress, exhibiting higher heart rates and more anxiety-related behavior when presented with a stressful situation, than unaltered mice.

The protein is directly involved in the initial release of cortisol in mice, the team explains, as it dictates the activity of neurons in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain heavily involved in controlling hormone levels in the body. It also — through its activity in a completely separate pathway in the brainstem — dictates the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline (also known as epinephrine and norepinephrine), two other hormones involved in the stress response.

Keeping p11 levels in the brain in check could thus be a promising avenue to treat patients suffering from depression, anxiety, and those who are struggling with chronic anxiety and stress from past experiences. This is especially heartening news as many such patients report that currently-available antidepressants are not effective in managing or treating their conditions.

“One promising approach involves administration of agents that enhance localised p11 expression, and several experiments are already being conducted in animal models of depression,” says Per Svenningsson, professor at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, who led the study.

“Another interesting approach which needs further investigation involves developing drugs that block the initiation of the stress hormone response in the brain.”

The paper “P11 deficiency increases stress reactivity along with HPA axis and autonomic hyperresponsiveness” has been published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

There are likely two types of Parkinson’s, a new study cautions

Parkinson’s disease is more likely Parkinson’s diseases, according to a new study.

A human brain, preserved in formadehide, with its outer membrane (dura mater) removed. Image credits Flickr / EUSKALANATO.

Researchers from the Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital, Denmark, have found evidence that Parkinson’s disease is actually two conditions with very similar symptoms but different sources. The findings could help explain why patients can show widely different evolutions of Parkinson’s, and could help improve our ability to treat the condition in the future.

Treatments tailored for each individual patient and their particular symptoms are likely the way forward, the authors note.

Two in one

“With the help of advanced scanning techniques, we’ve shown that Parkinson’s disease can be divided into two variants, which start in different places in the body,” says lead author Professor Per Borghammer. “For some patients, the disease starts in the intestines and spreads from there to the brain through neural connections. For others, the disease starts in the brain and spreads to the intestines and other organs such as the heart.”

Parkinson’s involves the slow degradation of the brain due to a build-up of alpha-synuclein proteins — which negatively impact nerve cells at high levels. The end result is a decline in the brain’s ability to control our bodies’ movements, leading to stiffness, difficulty maintaining balance, with walking, and eventually to uncontrollable shaking. Symptoms almost universally start off as mild and slowly worsen over time.

In order to understand its biological roots, the team used PET and MRI imaging techniques to examine patients with Parkinson’s at various points of the disease’s progression. The team also examined people who had not yet been diagnosed with Parkinson’s but were at high risk of developing the disease (the paper explains that people diagnosed with REM sleep behaviour syndrome have an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s).

Some of the patients showed damage in their dopamine pathways before their heart or intestines were affected. Others, however, showed damage to nerve pathways in their intestines and heart first, without any sign of trouble in their brains. These findings show that our current understanding of how the condition arises and how it develops is faulty, the authors explain.

“Until now, many people have viewed the disease as relatively homogeneous and defined it based on the classical movement disorders. But at the same time, we’ve been puzzled about why there was such a big difference between patient symptoms. With this new knowledge, the different symptoms make more sense and this is also the perspective in which future research should be viewed,” says Borghammer.

The researchers refer to the two types of Parkinson’s disease as body-first and brain-first. They suggest that studying the composition of bacteria in our intestines (our ‘microflora’) could help us better understand the roots of the ‘body-first’ cases. Studying the ‘brain-first’ one would be “a bigger challenge”, they admit, as it starts off “relatively symptom-free”, making it hard to impossible to identify in its early stages.

The study “Brain-first versus body-first Parkinson’s disease: a multimodal imaging case-control study” has been published in the journal Brain.

Very young children use both sides of the brain to process language, while adults only use half

New research could uncover why children recover more easily from neural injury compared to adults.

Examples of individual activation maps in each of the age groups in the study.
Image credits Elissa Newport.

Very young human brains use both their hemispheres to process language , a new paper reports. The study focused on computer imaging to see which parts of infants’ and young children’s brains handle such tasks. According to the findings, the whole brain pitches in, rather than a single hemisphere as is the case for adults.

Whole-brain experience

“Use of both hemispheres provides a mechanism to compensate after a neural injury,” says lead author Elissa Newport, Ph.D, a neurology professor at Georgetown University. “For example, if the left hemisphere is damaged from a perinatal stroke—one that occurs right after birth—a child will learn language using the right hemisphere. A child born with cerebral palsy that damages only one hemisphere can develop needed cognitive abilities in the other hemisphere. Our study demonstrates how that is possible.”

Human adults almost universally process language in their left hemisphere, a process known as ‘lateralization’. This has been shown by previous studies using brain imaging as well as from observing patients who suffered a stroke in their left hemispheres (and lost the ability to do so).

Very young children, however, don’t seem to do the same. Damage to either hemisphere of their brains is unlikely to result in language deficits, and they have been noted to recover language even after heavy damage to their left hemispheres. Why this happened, however, was unclear.

“It was unclear whether strong left dominance for language is present at birth or appears gradually during development,” explains Newport.

The team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that adult lateralization patterns aren’t established during our early days. Specific brain networks which cause lateralization are only complete at around 10 or 11 years of age, Newport adds.

The team worked with 39 children aged 4 through to 13, and 14 adults (aged 18-29). They were given a sentence comprehension task and researchers examined their patterns of brain activation as they worked. The fMRI data was recorded for each individual’s hemispheres separately and was then compared between four age groups: : 4-6, 7-9, 10-13, and 18-29. The team also carried out a whole-brain analysis for all participants to see which areas were activated during language comprehension across ages.

As an overall group, the team reports, even young children showed left lateralization of the process. However, a large number of them also showed heavy activation in the right hemisphere, which was not seen in adults. This area of the brain is involved in processing the emotional content of conversation in adults, the team notes.

Newport says that “higher levels of right hemisphere activation in a sentence processing task and the slow decline in this activation over development are reflections of changes in the neural distribution of language functions and not merely developmental changes in sentence comprehension strategies.”

The authors believe that younger children would show even greater involvement of their right hemisphere in comprehending speech. They plan to further their research by studying the same processes in teenagers and young adults who had a major left hemisphere stroke at birth.

The paper “The neural basis of language development: Changes in lateralization over age” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Social touching can “synchronize” our brain activity, a study on couples suggests

Ahh, social contact. I can almost remember what it feels like.

Activation patterns observed during the study (z-score/ colored pixels indicate brain activity).
Image credits Ville Renvall et al., (2020), Frontiers.

While we’re all hunkering down and keeping our distance from each other, researchers are investigating how our brains perceive and react to touch as a form of social interaction. The results show a surprising “synchronizing” of cerebral activity in the brains of couples engaged in physical contact.

The good touch

“This is an excellent start for the study of natural interaction. People don’t just react to external stimuli, but adjust their actions moment-by-moment based on what they expect to happen next,” says Riitta Hari, professor emeritus at Aalto University and co-author of the study.

The study was carried out by a team of researchers from the Aalto University and the Turku PET Centre (both in Finland), who have developed a method that allows them to simultaneously record the brain activity of two people. They used their method to scan the brains of 10 couples who were asked to spend 45 minutes inside an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner while in physical contact with each other. Sounds quite pleasant as far as research goes, doesn’t it?

MRI can ordinarily be used to scan just one subject at a time, but the team tweaked the head coil used in the process and divided it into two separate coils. As long as both participants fit inside the scanner (and can stay close enough to each other), this approach allows for both to be monitored at the same.

During the study, the participants were placed face-to-face inside the scanner so close they were “almost hugging each other”, the authors explain. They were instructed to wait for a signal from the researchers, at which point the participants took turns in tapping each other’s lips. Their motor and sensory brain areas were analyzed during this time.

The experimental setup.
Image credits Ville Renvall et al., (2020), Frontiers.

“During social interaction, people’s brains are literally synchronised,” says Professor Lauri Nummenmaa from Turku PET Centre, corresponding author of the study.

“The associated mental imitation of other people’s movements is probably one of the basic mechanisms of social interaction. The new technology now developed will provide totally new opportunities for studying the brain mechanisms of social interaction.”

The team reports that voice cues during the experiment resulted in similar levels of activation in the auditory cortex of both participants, while the touching task itself “resulted in differential activation patterns in the somatosensory and motor cortices depending on whether the subject was tapping or receiving taps”.

The team further adds that “during a conversation or problem solving, people’s brain functions become flexibly linked with each other” but that we do not yet understand how this process arises if we can’t monitor the neural activity of the people involved at the same time — which their research now allows.

The paper “Imaging Real-Time Tactile Interaction With Two-Person Dual-Coil fMRI” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.

New magnetic brain stimulation technique relieved depression in 90% of the participants in a small-scale study

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have developed a form of magnetic brain stimulation that could ‘rapidly’ relieve symptoms of severe depression in 90% of participants in a small study.

Image via Pxhere.

Although the findings are limited by the small sample size so far, the team is working on a larger, double-blind trial to test the approach; in this trial, half of the patients will receive similar electromagnetic stimulation, while the other half will receive fake treatment. In this second trial, the team hopes to prove that their approach will be effective in treating people whose conditions are resistant to medication, talk therapy, or other forms of electromagnetic stimulation.

The real positive vibes

“There’s never been a therapy for treatment-resistant depression that’s broken 55% remission rates in open-label testing,” said Nolan Williams, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a senior author of the study. “Electroconvulsive therapy is thought to be the gold standard, but it has only an average 48% remission rate in treatment-resistant depression. No one expected these kinds of results.”

The method was christened Stanford Accelerated Intelligent Neuromodulation Therapy, or SAINT, and is a form of transcranial magnetic stimulation, an approach currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment for depression. Transcranial magnetic stimulation involves the use of a magnetic coil placed on the scalp to excite a region of the brain — in this case, those involved in depression.

Compared to other similar approaches, the SAINT method uses more magnetic pulses (1,800 pulses per session instead of the traditional 600), which helps speed up the pace of treatment, and focuses them depending on each patient’s particular neural architecture. Study participants underwent an accelerated treatment program compared to similar treatment approaches, 10 sessions per day of 10-minute treatments, with 50-minute breaks in between.

In their trial study, the team worked with 21 participants with severe depression — as determined by several diagnostic tests — which proved resistant to medication, FDA-approved transcranial magnetic stimulation, or electroconvulsive therapy. After receiving treatment, 19 of them scored within the nondepressed range, the team explains. All of the participants reported having suicidal thoughts before treatment, but none of them reported such thoughts afterward.

“There was a constant chattering in my brain: It was my own voice talking about depression, agony, hopelessness,” explains Deirdre Lehman, 60, one of the participants of the study. “I told my husband, ‘I’m going down and I’m heading toward suicide.’ There seemed to be no other option.”

There were some side effects of this treatment, but they were relatively minor: fatigue and some physical discomfort during treatment.

“By the third round, the chatter started to ease,” she said. “By lunch, I could look my husband in the eye. With each session, the chatter got less and less until it was completely quiet.”

“That was the most peace there’s been in my brain since I was 16 and started down the path to bipolar disorder.”

Although Lehman’s scores indicated that she was no longer depressed after a single day of therapy, it took up to five days for other participants to see the same results. Postdoctoral researcher Eleanor Cole, Ph.D., a lead author of the study, says that the “less treatment-resistant participants are, the longer the treatment lasts”.

The team evaluated each participant’s cognitive functions before and after treatment to ensure safety, and found no negative effects. One month after the therapy, 60% of participants were still in remission from depression. Follow-up studies are underway to determine the duration of the antidepressant effects, the team adds.

The researchers plan to study the effectiveness of SAINT on other conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, and autism spectrum disorders.

The paper “Stanford Accelerated Intelligent Neuromodulation Therapy for Treatment-Resistant Depression” has been published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Honeybee brains could be a good model to study human brains on

New research from the University of Otago and the University of Heidelberg found that bee and human brains have some surprising similarities.

A bumblebee looking epic.
Image credits Harry Strauss.

Both human and honey bee brains generate alpha oscillations (the cyclic patterns of electrical activity neurons generate, also known as ‘waves’) with surprisingly similar properties, the study reports. The findings could help us better understand brain functions such as attention, memory, and consciousness, and point to a novel way of studying the human brain.


“Experiments on humans are expensive, logistically difficult, and time consuming. Moreover, recordings from individual identified neurons are not possible in human brains. By studying the brains of bees we can overcome these limitations and apply that knowledge to research, and eventually perhaps even to treatment, of human brains,” explains Paul Szyszka, Lecturer in the University of Otago’s Department of Zoology and the paper’s second author.

Szyszka collaborated with Dr. Tzvetan Popov of the University of Heidelberg in Germany, the study’s lead author, to study the brains of regular honey bees living in outdoor hives. The duo took bees into the lab, implanted microscopic electrodes into their brains to record patterns of neural activity, and then set about stimulating them with various odors. The team would also feed these bees a sucrose solution (i.e. sugar water) from a pipette while they were exposed to certain odors.

In the end, the duo found that bees can learn to associate odors with food in a similar way to humans and other primates. They further found that the process elicited similar changes in alpha waves in the bees’ brains as have been observed under similar conditions in humans and other primates. As such, they say the findings “suggest a common role of alpha oscillations across phyla and provide an unprecedented new venue for causal studies on the relationship between neuronal spikes, brain oscillations, and cognition.”

“What we want to do now is examine how these alpha oscillations change in different situations. As a neuroethologist, I’m interested in how bees’ alpha oscillations change during natural behaviors, for example when a bee forages or sleeps,” Szyszka says.

Szyszka is now looking for Zoology or Neuroscience master students to collaborate with on continuing this research. He is particularly interested in studying the relationship between brain waves, learning, and memory.

The paper “Alpha oscillations govern interhemispheric spike timing coordination in the honey bee brain” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

What is happiness?

For all our efforts, we still don’t have a clear idea of what happiness is, or how it’s best attained.

Dogs seem to be really good at it, tho.
Image via Pixabay.

“Happiness” is used as a shorthand for a constellation of emotional and mental states. At its simplest, it refers to feelings of contentment or joy. The most expansive use of the word touches upon concepts such as subjective well-being, life satisfaction, and affluence.

Some common trends do seem to arise around the subject, and researchers have been putting great effort into understanding them. I feel that the point of life is to enjoy ourselves as much as we can, to be happy, and to help others be as well, so let’s take a look at what we know about happiness and how we may best lure it into our lives.

First off, what is it, actually?

People are complex creatures with unique views on life — only bold statements here on ZME Science — and happiness is a very subjective experience. In that light, we may never know what happiness is, only what it means to a certain individual in a certain situation.

Happiness isn’t an emotion like fear, excitement, or anger, which are short-lived reactions to outside events. It’s also not just an internal state, as happiness is in large part derived from external factors. It flows from the interplay of internal (endogenic) and external (exogenic) factors and can be seen as being an overall appreciation or contentedness with one’s current experiences or life as a whole.

The roots and function of happiness are likely similar for everyone, but what exactly will cause it — and how we experience it — no doubt varies from person to person.

The juices in our brains

Image via Piqsels.

“Existence of significant differences in temperament and happiness of infants is an indicator of biological influences,” explains a paper (Dfarhud, Malmir, Khanahmadi; 2014) published in the Iranian Journal of Public Health.

“Therefore […] it can be said that biological and health factors are critical in underlying happiness and its role in happiness is undeniable,” the authors conclude.

Happiness is complicated, and it’s definitely shaped by more than just biology. But the same way the hardware in your laptop dictates what video games you can play, biology has a great impact on our ability to feel happy. The study above cites previous literature which “indicated an average effectiveness of [genetic factors] of about 35-50% on happiness,” although we’ve yet to pinpoint certain genes that rule happiness. Apart from genetics, the study further distinguishes four sub-groups of biological factors that can be involved in creating feelings of happiness: brain and neurotransmitters, endocrinology and hormones, physical health, morphology and physical attractiveness.

Certain areas of our brains (such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and limbic system) and types of neurotransmitters (for example dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and endorphins) modulate emotions and are directly involved in our experience of happiness. This is especially true for the structures and compounds involved in the reward pathways, which generate pleasure, a feeling that’s closely associated with happiness.

According to the paper, “increasing in metabolism of the limbic system leads to depression in individuals,” while levels of dopamine and serotonin mediate our overall mood. Positive moods are associated with increases in dopamine levels in the brain (although not necessarily caused by them), the paper explains, and some of the changes in cognition associated with positive mood are driven by increases in dopamine levels. Serotonin, which is associated with satisfaction, happiness, and optimism obviously has a part to play as well, as does norepinephrine; some modern antidepressants (serotonin reuptake inhibitors and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) artificially raise levels of these neurotransmitters.

Whichever way you cut it, our brains and bodies are the linchpins in our ability to feel happy or unhappy. I think we all have an intuitive understanding of how health, physical attractiveness, and morphology (i.e. the form and structure of your body) factor into our happiness, so we won’t go too much into them. Finally, hormones and the endocrine system underpin our health and help regulate our moods and emotions.

Culturally-correct happiness

Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world drawn with 2017 data.
Image credits World Values Survey.

“When people learn about the psychology of happiness, and also especially of efforts to make people happy — interventions to help improve well-being — one of the skepticisms that people have is that everybody defines happiness in their own way,” William Tov, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology and Lee Kong Chian Fellow at the Singapore Management University explained for the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley.

“You can’t have one definition of happiness. I think that’s an assumption that needs to be tested.”

Biology gives us a shared framework for happiness. The next layer that shapes our understanding of this state, however, is a bit more divergent: culture. Different cultural groups can have different concepts of what makes one happy, and these concepts shape our personal access to it.

If biology is the hardware in the laptop of happiness, culture would correspond to the software and apps available for download — it forms the context and avenues through which it can be achieved.

Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Tsai et al., 2006, took a look at how culture and happiness interact. The theory they explored is that our ideal affect — the way we want or are ‘supposed’ to feel — is different from our actual affect, and that culture influences the former much more than the latter. Over two studies in which they controlled for actual affect, the team found European Americans (EA) and Asian Americans (AA) value positive, high-arousal feelings (i.e. excitement) more than Hong Kong Chinese (CH) do. At the same time, AA and CH participants put more value on low-arousal positive feelings (i.e. states of calm) than EA participants.

This already shows how our background can influence our ideal affect (which works as a cultural roadmap towards happiness) both in the context of a single community and between different groups. The study also found that for all participants, regardless of their cultural affiliation, the difference between ideal and actual affects correlates to depression. In other words, when people don’t feel the way the tribe tells them they should feel, they get sad. Which is quite cute. It also highlights the ‘external’ component of happiness.

But, while the weight of tradition and social norms can spoil our fun, culture also goes a long way to show how people conceive of happiness, and how that view changed over time.

“In every Indo-European language, without exception, going all the way back to ancient Greek, the word for happiness is a cognate with the word for luck,” explained Darrin McMahon, the Mary Brinsmead Wheelock Professor of History at Dartmouth University in his 2006 book Happiness: A History.

Hap is the Old Norse and Old English root of happiness, and it just means ‘luck’ or ‘chance’, as did the Old French heur, giving us bonheur, ‘good fortune’ or ‘happiness’. German gives us the word Gluck, which to this day means both ‘happiness’ and ‘chance'”.

It’s quite a fascinating read. For the ancient Greeks, McMahon explains, happiness was synonymous with virtue; Romans, on the other hand, considered those who were prosperous and favored by the gods as being happy. The Christian view of happiness was similar but involved only closeness to God, not wealth. Buddhism sees it as closely related to the concept of piti — meaning deep tranquility or rapture — the mental discipline of separating attachment and desire from happiness.

One of the most interesting shifts in the zeitgeist that McMahon points out is that while humans have always strived to be happy, it was considered a desirable ‘maybe’ and not a requirement for life up until two hundred years or so ago; today, achieving happiness is almost seen as an obligation. I can’t help but wonder whether this shift actually makes happiness more unattainable as we’re ‘supposed’ to be happy today, furthering the distance between our ideal and actual affect.

Before we wrap up on the cultural chapter, let’s take a look at the academic thinking around happiness. At the simplest, most bare-bone level, psychologists lump it in two overarching ‘types’ (both of which, you won’t be surprised to hear, we inherited from Greek philosophers):

Hedonic happiness: an ethical school of thought first embraced by Democritus and Aristippus. In essence, hedonists see happiness (and the ultimate goal of life) as experiencing more pleasure while limiting pain, more positive emotions while limiting negative ones, and drawing as much pleasure from one’s life as possible. The main criticism leveled at hedonists is that this mindset focuses on instant gratification — that it’s short-sighted, selfish, and promotes excess. A hedonist might reply that pleasure is the only true moral good and that humans always act to increase their pleasure and limit pain in all facets of life, no matter what we tell ourselves to sleep better at night.

Eudaimonic happiness: for the ancient Greeks, a ‘daimon’ or demon is a spirit bearing wisdom or inspiration. This school of thought arose with Aristotle and placed itself squarely opposite of hedonism. It holds that true happiness can only be achieved as we try to better ourselves, pursue our life’s purpose, and work towards our potential. Happiness, then, lies in the pursuit of perfection and the fulfillment of our abilities. Critics might point out the sheer dreariness of this process, and that perfection is unattainable. An eudaimonic might retort that hedonistic pleasure is frivolous, hollow, basically a distraction from true happiness, and that pleasure delayed is pleasure increased.

Happiness and the self

The Big Five personality traits.
Image credits Anna Tunikova.

In keeping with the laptop analogy, this would be a programming language. We’re the user, and we want the laptop to produce some happiness. So we take it and tap away like mad trying to get it to do just that. Very few of us are lucky enough to be shown how to code; we each use a different programming language, too, since our personalities are pretty much unique.

So, this is probably the most muddied part of the whole discussion. People are complex, they’re complicated, and they’re constantly changing. Factor in that most of us are very, very bad at understanding and observing ourselves critically, and it becomes almost impossible to talk in absolutes. Like those days when you’re on edge for no reason or those times when you’re hungry but don’t like anything on the menu, what people want often is a mystery. Even to themselves.

But from what we’ve seen so far, we’re happy when our internal chemistry is just right. Fulfilling external expectations also tends to make us happy. A pint of ice-cream or a college degree both hold the promise of bliss and satisfaction. So far, at least, we have some rough guidelines as to what constitutes happiness.

Our self — in the sense of and all those details that make each of us, us, our individual consciousness, personality, world-view, socioeconomic standing — is the secret spice in the pursuit of happiness. Two people may enjoy the same ice-cream equally but draw different levels of happiness from it. Two people may draw the same sense of happiness from the same ice-cream while enjoying it to different extents.

Statistically speaking, certain personality traits seem to go hand-in-hand with happiness. One study (Steel, Schmidt, Schultz, 2008) found that the Big Five personality traits can account for anywhere between 39% to 63% of the variation in well-being and happiness among people. At the same time, a paper by Sun, Kaufman, Smillie in 2016 reported that breaking down each of the Big Five into two separate “aspects”, for example slicing “extraversion” into “assertiveness” and “enthusiasm”, allows for even better prediction of happiness levels when using just one aspect in each pair. In other words, while participants higher on extraversion in both groups reported higher levels of life satisfaction, in the second study only those who scored higher on enthusiasm did the same (higher life satisfaction, more positive emotions, and better relationships). Those high in assertiveness didn’t report significantly different levels of satisfaction than the mean.

Merdin-Uygur et al., 2018, further weighs in with the relationship between self-concept clarity (SCC) and happiness. SCC denotes the “extent to which beliefs about the self are clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and stable over time” and in very broad lines it fits what we call being ‘self-confident’.

“High-SCC individuals anticipate and experience more happiness than low-SCC individuals when they share a social setting with friends and anticipate and experience less happiness than low-SCC individuals when they share a social setting with strangers and this is because of perceived interpersonal distance,” the paper reads.

“Self-concept clarity is positively related to enactment of meaningful identity choices, whereas it is negatively related to identity crises driven by reconsidering and discarding current commitments,” explain Elisabetta Crocetti and Marloes P.A. Van Dijk in the Encyclopedia of Adolescence. “Self-concept clarity is intertwined with healthy identity development.”

I’ve presented these three together without commenting because I think they help provide context to each other and for the wider discussion we’re having. Which brings us to:

Happiness and myself

Up to now, I’ve written to you as professional-me, the science journalist; now I’d want to join the discussion as just me (so don’t quote me from here on out).

In his 1956 book Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology, philosopher and composer Leonard Meyer proposed that music can instill an emotional response in humans by toying with our expectations. His view is a further development of the belief-desire-intention model, which holds that emotions arise from our desires (and a desire can lead to an expectation). Under this model, negative emotions are the result of the inability to satisfy some desire; positive emotions are produced by us successfully getting what we want. Happiness, if you follow that logic, means getting what you want.

If happiness hinges on getting what you want, then it would obviously be the case that personality traits which help you achieve your goals would lead to happiness. But we didn’t see greater life satisfaction (which is a rough indicator for happiness) with the assertive (i.e. the achievers’) group: we saw it in the enthusiasts’ group. In the same study, high compassion was a strong indicator for positive relationships, industriousness tied in with accomplishment, and intellect with personal growth.

Does that invalidate the whole line of thought? I don’t think so; I think it’s simply a matter of how you attack the issue. Statistics look at trends and produce broad truths. Happiness involves individuals and is deeply subjective.

I agree with the premise that certain personality traits are indicative of greater life satisfaction. In broad lines, I even agree with the idea that those personality traits are statistically more conducive to happiness. But for the whole picture, you have to consider the ‘type’ of happiness an individual wants and how well they’re able to derive it from the traits they possess. An absolute hedonist will probably get little happiness from good grades (being industrious in school) because that’s not what makes them tick — but they’ll likely be very happy cooking a 10-course meal (being industrious in the kitchen) and then eating to their heart’s content.

The first step towards being happy is sitting down and deciding what that looks like for you — this gives you the ‘what you want’ part in ‘getting what you want’. Then you do your best to get there. Don’t worry if you don’t have the best tools at your disposal, as personality can be and is shaped by behavior. Culture will try to sway you, and you decide to what extent you let it. Biology is harder to resist, but there are researchers working on that.

In my eyes, happiness is that state you’re in when everything is just right. There are no predators around, dinner is taken care of, the kids aren’t doing anything too stupid, and nobody caught the coronavirus. That’s it. No dreams of being CEO. It sounds simple on paper, but there’s still a lot of work ahead of me to get there, so I’ll get some eudaimonic happiness. And I definitely plan on enjoying some hedonistic happiness on my way, too.

Predators can change their prey’s brains

Killifish in Trinidad that live with predators in their environment grow more brain cells than their less-stressed peers, a new paper found.

Spotfin killifish (Fundulus luciae).
Image credits Scott Smith / ncfishes.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger — but it seems they also make you brainier. New research suggests that animals living in predator-heavy environments grow more brain cells than animals that face little to no predation. The findings were made using a group of killifish in a river in Trinidad that is separated into individual populations by waterfalls. These waterfalls block predators from swimming upstream.

Outsmarting the competition

“The killifish living downstream live among predatory fish, while the fish upstream do not,” Josh Corbo, Cancer Research Training Award (CRTA) Fellow at the National Cancer Institute and co-author of the study, told Andrew Concatelli. “Our central question was: how does negative stimuli—predation—in the environment affect the rate of brain cell proliferation?”

“The implication of our research reaches much farther than the Northern Mountain Range of Trinidad. The topic of how the environment we live in affects our health concerns many disciplines, from public health to sociology. Our research draws more attention to our understanding of the relationship we as organisms have with our environment.”

The team writes that while environmental factors are known to influence brain cell proliferation, contributing to brain plasticity and a greater ability to adapt to these factors, there is no research to date on whether environmental factors trump genetic ones in this regard. In other words, on whether the conditions we live in can shape our brain more than our genetics.

To find out, they examined free-living populations of Trinidadian killifish (Rivulus hartii) exposed to very different environmental conditions. Together with Margarita Vergara, now earning a master’s in clinical embryology at the University of Oxford, Corbo sectioned brain tissues used a procedure known as immunohistochemistry to quantify the formation of new brain cells in these animals. The research was carried out while both authors were majoring at Trinity College, Connecticut.

The fish that lived in predatory-heavy areas showed higher rates of brain cell proliferation (roughly twofold higher) and faster brain growth relative to body size than their peers. “Cell proliferation differs among brain regions but is correlated across brain regions,” the authors note, showing that this effect is brain-wide but not necessarily uniform. However, wild-caught fish from predator-heavy areas also had a smaller relative brain size in their early adulthood.

In order to check whether the effect was genetic or environmental in nature, the team also reared a new generation of fish from members in both (predatory-heavy and predatory-free) environments in uniform lab conditions for between 54 and 82 days.

Animals descended from predation-heavy environments also showed a higher rate of brain cell proliferation and faster brain growth compared to those descended from predator-free areas. Furthermore, they found that wild-caught fish had greater cell proliferation in the forebrain than laboratory-reared fish, but very similar everywhere else. This, they explain, suggests that the effect is environmental, not genetic.

“However, both populations showed similar patterns of divergence in the wild and in captivity, indicating that the predator environment per se does not contribute to the enhancement of cell proliferation by the natural habitat,” the team writes.

“The differences in cell proliferation observed across the brain in both the field and [laboratory] studies indicate that the differences are probably genetically based and are mediated by evolutionary shifts in overall brain growth and life-history traits.”

The team says that the observed changes among the two populations could be explained through several different mechanisms. Either individuals are increasing the rate at which they generate new brain cells as a response to predators, or we could be seeing the effects of natural selection at work — in essence, that brainy fish go on to reproduce while the rest get eaten. Alternatively, the presence of predatory fish could improve conditions for the killifish that evade capture, for example by making food more readily available to them through lower competition, which could lead to changes in brain cell proliferation.

The paper “Predation drives the evolution of brain cell proliferation and brain allometry in male Trinidadian killifish, Rivulus hartii” has been published in the journal Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.