Exercise clears the mind. It gets the blood pumping and more oxygen is delivered to the brain. This is familiar territory, but Dartmouth’s David Bucci thinks there is much more going on.
“In the last several years there have been data suggesting that neurobiological changes are happening — [there are] very brain-specific mechanisms at work here,” says Bucci, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
From his studies, Bucci and his collaborators have revealed important new findings:
The effects of exercise are different on memory as well as on the brain, depending on whether the exerciser is an adolescent or an adult.
A gene has been identified which seems to mediate the degree to which exercise has a beneficial effect. This has implications for the potential use of exercise as an intervention for mental illness.
Happy Friday! I read this article in the New York Times about Dr. Liz Spelke, at Harvard University, who studies the neuroscience of babies.
Dr. Spelke is a pioneer in the use of the infant gaze as a key to the infant mind — that is, identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet.
While the article primarily focused on what we can glean from babies about human cognition and knowledge, I couldn’t help but pick up on the author’s observations that the main thing the baby test subjects want to do, and the main thing that is enriching to them, is engage with the people around them (and how enriching it is for the grown-ups involved too):
The 15-pound research subject … tracked conversations, stared at newcomers and burned off adult corneas with the brilliance of her smile. Dr. Spelke, who first came to prominence by delineating how infants learn about objects, numbers, the lay of the land, shook her head in self-mocking astonishment.
“Why did it take me 30 years to start studying this?” she said. “All this time I’ve been giving infants objects to hold, or spinning them around in a room to see how they navigate, when what they really wanted to do was engage with other people!”
Babies are born with a desire to learn and engage in their world. They are pretty helpless, and so the only thing they have to defend themselves, as well as learn, is to engage with others and beg for help. As soon as they figure out who’s safe, they look for more people like that:
But, babies are also fascinated with the unknown, and will stare at new concepts and objects for much longer than the known items and individuals.
To me the really interesting thing is that what most interests the baby subjects is getting to know the researchers. As grown-ups we don’t have to lose that sense of wonder. Many people grow up to be researchers (like Dr. Spelke). We can continue to be fascinated by our surroundings and new people and always seek knowledge about what’s around us.
P.S.: Also, just if you’re curious, according to the Spelke lab here are some of the things that babies know, generally before the age of 1:
They know what an object is. They know that objects can’t go through solid boundaries or occupy the same position as other objects, and that objects generally travel through space in a continuous trajectory.
Babies can estimate quantities and distinguish between more and less. They also can perform a kind of addition and subtraction, anticipating the relative abundance of groups of dots that are being pushed together or pulled apart.
Infants and toddlers use geometric clues to orient themselves in three-dimensional space, navigate through rooms and locate hidden treasures.
Nice interview from Salon with scientist Shimon Edelman about how scientists are discovering neural patterns to the behaviors and activities that make humans happy; turns out the act of learning is often more rewarding than what we learn:
Shimon Edelman, a cognitive expert and professor of psychology at Cornell University, offers some insight in “The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life.” In his new book, Edelman walks the reader through the brain’s basic computational skills – its ability to compute information, perform statistical analysis and weigh value judgments in daily life – as a way to explain our relationship with happiness. Our capacity to retain memories and develop foresight allows us to plan for the future, says Edelman, by using a mental “personal space-time machine” that jumps between past, present and future. It’s through this process of motivation, perception, thinking, followed by motor movement, that we’re able not only to survive, but to feel happy. From Bayes’ theorem of probability to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Edelman offers a range of references and allegories to explain why a changing, growing self, constantly shaped by new experiences, is happier than the satisfaction any end goal can give us. It turns out the rewards we get for learning and understanding the workings of the world really make it the journey, not the destination, that matters most.
Several researchers have looked at the effects of nature on the brain, but usually look at wooded environments. But how does the ocean effect us? Some argue a lot.
One researcher, Wallace J. Nichols, is looking at the effect that the ocean has on our brains.
If the ocean has a direct, neurological impact on our brains, an awareness of this connection will change the way we treat it—and the policy implications could be profound. That’s the hope, at least, that motivated “neuro-conservationist” and turtle specialist Wallace J. Nichols to invite a group of neuroscientists, marine scientists, journalists and artists to start a conversation about our emotional connection with the sea.
Nichols thinks that our grey matter is actually uniquely tuned into the Big Blue. “When we think of the ocean—or hear the ocean, or see the ocean, or get in the ocean, even taste and smell the ocean, or all of those things at once,” Nichols said in an OnEarth interview, “we feel something different than before that happened. For most people, it’s generally good. It often makes us more open or contemplative. For many people, it reduces stress.”
Nichols aims to tap into this emotional response to oceans—what he calls the Blue Mind—to help build support for responsible stewardship of the world’s marine ecosystems.
The brain is an amazing thing. It allows us to problem solve, combine ideas, and create out of seemingly thin air. But only if we let it.
As a play advocate, I run into a lot of people grumbling that play takes away from learning; but the fact of the matter is, play is ESSENTIAL to the learning process. More and more science is showing that the brain needs that down time to process what it’s learned, digest it a little bit, in order for us to use it for any useful purpose.
People who study creativity and innovation are aware of this all too well:
Current neuroscience research confirms what creatives intuitively know about being innovative: that it usually happens in the shower. After focusing intently on a project or problem, the brain needs to fully disengage and relax in order for a “Eureka!” moment to arise. It’s often the mundane activities like taking a shower, driving, or taking a walk that lure great ideas to the surface. Composer Steve Reich, for instance, would ride the subway around New York when he was stuck.Science journalist Jonah Lehrer, referencing a landmark neuroscience study on brain activity during innovation, writes:
“The relaxation phase is crucial. That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers. … One of the surprising lessons of this research is that trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight.”
It’s nice to see that science is finally taking relaxation and play seriously. I just wish the rest of the world, or at least our education system, would too. I know my work would benefit greatly if I took time to just relax and contemplate things more, to relax and let my brain explore a little bit. Hmmm, another exercise to try…
I have always been a HUGE proponent of physical exercise and play for health reasons and brain function, and now here’s more evidence of why physical play is sooooo important:
Animal studies had already established that, when given access to running wheels, baby rodents bulked up their brains, enlarging certain areas and subsequently outperforming sedentary pups on rodent intelligence tests. But studies of the effect of exercise on the actual shape and function of children’s brains had not yet been tried.
For budgetary and administrative reasons, school boards are curtailing physical education, while on their own, children grow increasingly sluggish. Recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that roughly a quarter of children participate in zero physical activity outside of school.
At the same time, evidence accumulates about the positive impact of even small amounts of aerobic activity. Past studies from the University of Illinois found that “just 20 minutes of walking” before a test raised children’s scores, even if the children were otherwise unfit or overweight, says Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology at the university and the senior author of many of the recent studies.
What part of the body do you listen with? The ear is the obvious answer, but it’s only part of the story – your skin is also involved. When we listen to someone else speaking, our brain combines the sounds that our ears pick up with the sight of the speaker’s lips and face, and subtle changes in air movements over our skin. Only by melding our senses of hearing, vision and touch do we get a full impression of what we’re listening to.
When we speak, many of the sounds we make (such as the English “p” or “t”) involve small puffs of air. These are known as “aspirations”. We can’t hear them, but they can greatly affect the sounds we perceive. For example, syllables like “ba” and “da” are simply versions of “pa” and “ta” without the aspirated puffs.
If you looked at the airflow produced by a puff, you’d see a distinctive pattern – a burst of high pressure at the start, followed by a short round of turbulence. This pressure signature is readily detected by our skin, and it can be easily faked by clever researchers like Bryan Gick and Donald Derrick from the University of British Columbia.
Gick and Derrick used an air compressor to blow small puffs of air, like those made during aspirated speech, onto the skin of blindfolded volunteers. At the same time, they heard recordings of different syllables – either “pa”, “ba”, “ta” or “da” – all of which had been standardised so they lasted the same time, were equally loud, and had the same frequency.
Gick and Derrick found that the fake puffs of air could fool the volunteers into “hearing” a different syllable to the one that was actually played. They were more likely to mishear “ba” as “pa”, and to think that a “da” was a “ta”. They were also more likely to correctly identify “pa” and “ta” sounds when they were paired with the inaudible puffs.
This is an older (from February) interview from Discover Magazine with Nobel laureate and neuroscientist Gerald Edelman. Edelman is interested in studying what makes each human mind so unique, and thinks he may have found the answer: natural selection of the brain!
“Neurons proliferate and form connections in infancy; then experience weeds out the useless from the useful, molding the adult brain in sync with its environment.” His latest book, which I have no read, is called Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge.
I think this is an interesting theory, but need to read more about it before I feel comfortable forming any opinions on it. After reading the interview, let me know what you think.
If I DID want to make friends, though, apparently learning magic tricks is just as effective as taking sociability courses, and sounds much more entertaining. It helped kids in the U.K., and that’s even with their parents being scaredy-parents and not trusting their kids (okay, the article is U.S. parents, but you get the idea).
If I wanted to cheer myself up, I would react differently to happy events depending on how old I am. Or I could just go dig in the dirt; they say it’s like prozac. In fact, I think I’ll go do that right now.