What I Don't Know Yet

Inside My Brain (column)

In Uncategorized on December 5, 2008 at 5:26 pm

I realized the other day that I’ve neglected to post any samples of the regular “Brain” column I write for Lee Magazine. Here are a couple of recent ones.

Your Lying Brain

It was a silly debate. Linda, who lived in New York City her entire life, and I, who had spent most of my life to that point in Cleveland, argued with two Michigan natives about the Michigan state flower. It was the kind of empty discussion you fall into around a campfire late at night when everyone is too content and relaxed to go to sleep like sensible people.

Linda and I insisted that trillium was the Michigan flower. I distinctly remembered a picture of it on the state map. We were so sure of our facts that we made a ridiculous bet requiring the losing side to embarrass itself in a loud and public admission of stupidity. The Michigan natives were happy to take the bet. The state flower, they assured us, was the apple blossom.
When the ferry from the island where we had been camping dropped us on the mainland, I headed straight to the car and popped the glove compartment to check my Michigan map. There was no trillium picture. But there was an image of the state flower: an apple blossom.

I am grateful that we never had to make good on our bet. I’m not at all certain I would have been so merciful had I been on the winning side.

So, how confident are you about the accuracy of your memory? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that, whatever your level of confidence, you might want to dial it down a notch.

We rely on memory for so many things that it’s easy to be deceived about it. If we think about memory at all, it’s to fret about the things we forget. But maybe we ought really worry about the things we remember. Memory is, in fact, wretchedly pliable, as study upon study demonstrates. …Read the rest of the story.

Testosterone! Rah!

My inner ten-year-old delights to discover the importance of spit in scientific research.So I was happy to uncover spit-based investigations in my quest to learn why, for twelve consecutive weekends, we are pleased — ecstatic even — to abandon everything but essential life support (and beer) and focus our attention and affections on the actions of a bunch of big guys few of us will ever meet.

I’ll get to the spit in a moment.

We don’t seem to question the rituals of sports. I spent my childhood knowing that life came to a halt on Sunday afternoons when the Browns took the field. It was like church in its elevated significance, but with more yelling. Just like during church, you did not speak or ask Daddy questions (although unlike the church I attended, it was OK to yell if you got your timing right). You wouldn’t get up during church and stand in front of the priest, and you wouldn’t walk in front of the television set either. You knew you should have deep faith in the people on the screen, like you had faith in God, and praying was acceptable, only you were not permitted to yell at God if he didn’t do what you liked, so I suppose the analogy breaks down pretty thoroughly right here.

Science has surely researched the subject of fandom, I thought. It’s such a big part of life, especially around here. What I found, though, was pretty discouraging. For instance, there was lots of speculative stuff about what’s going on in the brain of a Cubs fan. It has to do, they think, with the fact that you get more addicted to something if you receive unpredictable, intermittent reward from it. But I couldn’t find a word on why winners like the Tigers bring us back week after week.
A lot of research looked at the effect of testosterone on winning and losing. Like estrogen, testosterone is an important chemical in our brains, with a role in learning and memory. Research shows that members of a winning team have higher testosterone levels than losing team members. More …

Speak and Quell

Feel bad?

Why don’t you say so?

All those girls scribbling poetry in the hurricane of emotions that is middle school are onto something. An accumulation of scientific evidence suggests that we can increase our peace of mind by putting feelings into words.

A number of these studies come out of the UCLA laboratory of Matthew D. Lieberman. Taken together, they argue for the value of talk therapy. But they also may help get you through the day. Many of the studies go something like this: a person lies with his head inside a functional magnetic resonance imager and sees a series of pictures of sad, happy, angry, or neutral faces. While the fMRI bangs like mad monkeys clobbering metal barrels, it also records changes in blood flow as the brain perceives the faces.

These studies show that when we process emotion, an almond-shaped bit of brain tissue known as the amygdala goes to work. When you’re angry, your amygdala buzzes. When you see an angry face, again the amygdala lights up. Same thing for other emotions. …Read more here.

Your Brain on Creativity…

In a lifetime of writing I’ve tried to figure out why some days everything works and some days it lays right down and dies.
There are mornings I sit at the computer and the ideas flow by the bucketful: images, theories — I can literally see them. I can hear them. I type as fast as I can to keep up with it all. It’s a great feeling.

Then there are those other days. I’m at the keyboard and I just can’t get started. Everything stinks. I write a line. I delete a line. I check my email. I write a paragraph. I read it over. It’s dreadful. I make a phone call. I try to write again. Maybe I should review my notes. I nod off, drooling. I make coffee and start again. I write a few more sentences. The dog smells them in the next room and comes in to investigate. What happened to yesterday, that day the words poured out?

Who hasn’t known this strange ebb and flow? Kind of makes you wonder what goes on in the brain during creative work. Charles J. Limb of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has an idea. Limb used functional magnetic resonance imaging to see what happens inside the skulls of jazz musicians while they improvise. Limb is a researcher of unusual credentials. Not only is he in the Hopkins Department of Otolaryngology, he also has an appointment at the Johns Hopkins Peabody Conservatory of Music. And he plays the saxophone and composes music in his spare time.Read the rest here…

The Wonder Years…

First you were a little kid. You didn’t know much. Wondrous things ran through your brain, but few of them were facts. You examined a dragonfly. You smashed an anthill. You hit someone because they hit you. As you got older, you acquired some facts: F-A-R-T spelled the funniest word on Earth. Dogs will sit under the table and help you eat nasty foods. Look before you cross the street. Don’t hit someone even if they hit you.

Eventually — our model of childhood dictated — you learned enough facts and gained enough experience to execute ever-more-competent judgments: You keep an eye on your little brother so he doesn’t climb the ladder your dad is using. You stay off the ladder yourself even though no one is outside to stop you.

It all made sense: A continuum of learning, the gathering of facts and experience and their gradual translation into wise and well-considered action.

But the logical progression comes to a screeching halt at the very moment everything should be coming together. Adolescence happens. Now your parents are stupid and don’t understand anything. You can’t help it that they get you so mad you scream and cry and throw yourself in your closet and sit among the shoes with snot running down your face. Your class is full of ridiculously lame people. You hate them. That girl you used to play Barbies with is a total embarrassment. And don’t tell anybody, but you and this new friend stole some cigarettes from her mom and you keep them in your closet and every once in awhile you practice smoking.

Even the tamest teen, the one who doesn’t break the rules, often leaves adolescence with a sense that something very strange just happened. In fact, a mounting number of studies suggest that there’s more to adolescence than hormones. The teen years are a singular period in brain development, and hormones are just one of the things changing the brain. Read more…

Your Mother Should Thank You

While out shopping for that perfect Mother’s Day gift, remember this: Your mom is lucky to have you. It’s growing ever clearer that if it wasn’t for you, she wouldn’t be nearly so smart. When you were born, you gave your mother a fabulous gift, far better than that lame perfume you’re about to buy. You gave her brain power. Childbirth and child rearing, it turns out, may be the most mentally enriching experiences a woman can have. Are you adopted? Don’t worry; mom still isn’t off the hook. Just letting mom hold you, nuzzle your little tummy, and fall in love with that mysterious scent from the swirl of hair at the top of your head did her a big favor. Maybe mom should buy a little something for you. The heck with the cheap perfume. Go borrow her credit card.

So far, human studies lag behind rat research — which is not to say that rats are doing the research; they’re actually poor researchers, prone to lying about their findings. There are just more data on rat motherhood than human. But even with this gap, there’s ample evidence that maternity is power-lifting for the brain. Craig Kinsley at the University of Richmond is one of the leaders in this field, and his research shows that pregnancy, birth, and childcare produce profound changes in the brain. The alterations begin with the bath of hormones that accompany pregnancy, and wind up with the entwining of mom and infant — or in the case of his research, rat and pups. This nurturing releases other hormones in the mother’s brain — especially oxytocin, the cuddle hormone — which induce even more changes. All this makes pregnancy a major milestone in brain development. Brain remodeling during pregnancy “rivals what happens during other developmental stages, like sexual differentiation and puberty. Read the rest…

Brain boost

You can have a face lift if you look old. (Not that you do, darling.) You can have your tummy tucked, your butt boosted, and your pecs pumped. Hey, have a full-body PET scan! A colon inspection! And squeeze through a mammogram! Eat better. Sleep eight hours. Eschew smoking and keep alcohol to one healthful glass of red wine a day. Take your cholesterol-lowering meds, your blood-pressure meds, your osteoporosis meds, and whatever else the doctor orders. Do it all, but no matter what you do to hold off the effects of aging, so far there is no iron-clad formula to fend off the one many fear most: the loss of brain power that accompanies aging.

A study published in The Lancet last January suggested that perhaps there is a way to keep the brain clicking along efficiently: folate, 800 micrograms, every day. The report was one of many that sent worried consumers to the health supplement aisle. But folate’s miraculous power to save brain function was never a sure thing, and research trickling in over the last year shows us, once again, that the only clear thing here is an absolute lack of clarity. Abandon hope, all seekers of easy answers. Anyone who offers you one is very probably lying. Or deluded. The Lancet folate study is an impressive one, and if we’re lucky a lot of other well-designed studies will duplicate its findings, demonstrating that our brain power need not dribble away. Read the rest here…

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