Posts tagged neuroscience.


Brain diseases affecting more people and starting earlier than ever before

Professor Colin Pritchard’s latest research published in Public Health Journal has found that the sharp rise of dementia and other neurological deaths in people under 74 cannot be put down to the fact that we are living longer – the rise is because a higher proportion of old people are being affected by such conditions, and what is really alarming, it is starting earlier and affecting people under 55 years.

Of the 10 biggest Western countries the USA had the worst increase in all neurological deaths, men up 66% and women 92% between 1979-2010. The UK was 4th highest, men up 32% and women 48%. In terms of numbers of deaths, in the UK, it was 4,500 and now 6,500, in the USA it was 14,500 now more than 28,500 deaths!

Professor Pritchard of Bournemouth University says: “These statistics are about real people and families, and we need to recognise that there is an ‘epidemic’ that clearly is influenced by environmental and societal changes.”

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In a twist straight out of the movie Inception, a duo of developers from Brooklyn, New York, have built a sleeping mask designed to allow people to have lucid dreams that they can control. While it may look like a standard sleeping mask, Remee has been billed as a special REM (Rapid Eye Movement) enhancing device that is supposed to help steer the sleeper into lucid dreaming by making the brain aware that it is dreaming. The goal of the product is to allow people to have the dreams of their choice, from driving a race car to flying to having lunch with Abraham Lincoln.

The inside of the sleeping mask features a series of six red LED lights that are too faint to wake the sleeper up, but visible enough for the brain to register them. The lights can be programed to produce a sequence designed by the user.

Sleep stages are divided into two main categories: non-REM and REM. People go back and forth between these stages throughout the night, with REM stages, where most dreaming occurs, lasting the longest towards morning.

Remee apparently notices these longer REM stages and ‘enters’ the dream via the flashing lights. The device will wait for four to five hours for the sleeper to get into the heavy REM stages before the red lights turn on.

The idea is simple: you are playing a perfect round of golf in a dream, and you see a pattern of red lights flashing in the distance.

Because the pattern is in a particular sequence, it would signal to you that you are dreaming, not unlike the totem object in Inception.

Once you realize you are in a dream, you can then decide what happens next, whether it be a quick trip to Antarctica or time travel.

Rather than encumbering the mask with buttons and controls, its inventors set up a website called where users can adjust the setups, such as when to start the light sequence and when to repeat it. The intensity of the lights can also be changed.


Memory Myths

As a lifelong user of human memory, you probably feel you’ve got a good idea of how it works, right? To test your understanding of memory, we compare several commonplace conceptions with insights from psychology.

by Christian Jarrett

Memory acts like a video recorder

In a US survey published in 2011, 63% of 1,838 respondents said they believed “strongly” or “mostly” that memory works like a video camera, “accurately recording events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later”. Memory is, in fact, a creative, fallible process, highly prone to suggestion and other distorting influences.

Some people have photographic memories

An extension to the memory as video recorder myth is the idea that some people have a “photographic memory”; that they can take a snap shot of a scene or a page in a book, and then bring it to mind whenever they want to.

It’s tempting to invoke such an ability to explain the achievements of celebrated memory champions such as Lu Chao. In 2005, he set a new world record (as recognised by the Guinness World Records) by reciting the first 67,890 digits of pi entirely from memory. However, studies of memory champions reveal that they depend on mnemonic devices and thousands of hours of practice.

A related concept is eidetic imagery, in which a person claims to “see” a detailed visual scene that is no longer visible. However, tests of “eidetikers” find their memory of images to be no more accurate than control participants. It seems they just feel as though the image is vivid and still “out there” rather than in their heads.

Forgetting occurs gradually

Some memory misconceptions have serious consequences for the way eye- (and ear-) witness testimony is treated in court. For example, many people, including psychologists (according to a recent Norwegian survey), believe that forgetting occurs gradually, as if memories decay like an ageing reel of film. In fact, most forgetting occurs immediately after an event.

Confidence is a reliable indicator of memory accuracy

While it’s true that accuracy and confidence can correlate within a single person’s repertoire of recollections, confidence is a poor marker of accuracy when judging a single act of recollection or when comparing across witnesses. One reason is that some factors, such as repeated questioning, can boost confidence without increasing accuracy. Also, we all vary in our baseline levels of memory confidence. So when judging a single witness, we don’t know if their confidence is high by their standards. In the legal system, when convicted people are exonerated by DNA evidence, confident testimony from an eye witness is the most common reason they were originally found guilty.

A related myth is that emotional events lead to more ingrained, accurate memories. Memories for dramatic events often feel more vivid and people feel more confident in these memories, but, in fact, they are just as prone to being forgotten as ordinary memories. Furthermore, if an event is stressful, this is likely to interfere with remembering details of that event.

Traumatic memories can be repressed and “recovered” years after they occurred

While subscribing to the erroneous idea that memories of emotive events are highly accurate, many people also often hold the somewhat paradoxical belief that traumatic memories, such as of abuse in childhood, are prone to repression. A related belief is that such memories can be “recovered” later in life, dug out with the help of a skilled therapist, or perhaps a hypnotist.

In fact, studies of child abuse victims suggest strongly that they usually do not forget their experiences. Moreover, research has shown that memories of abuse “recovered” in therapy are far less likely to be corroborated by third parties, or other evidence, than abuse memories recalled later in life outside of therapy, or never-forgotten abuse memories.

The consensus of the American Psychological Association on child abuse memories says that “most people who were sexually abused as children remember all or part of what happened to them, although they may not fully understand or disclose it”.

Hypnosis can be used to retrieve forgotten memories

Many people believe that hypnosis can be used to unearth not only past traumas but all manner of long-forgotten memories, including recollections way back to the womb or even to past lives.

In a way, it is a belief that is consistent with the “memory as a video recorder” myth; the mistaken rationale being that because everything we experience is stored, we just need to find a way to reach it. In fact, nearly all the evidence suggests that hypnosis fails to aid recall, but instead has the potentially harmful effect of increasing people’s faith in their memories, whether or not they are accurate recollections of events.

Amnesiacs forget who they are

A persistent myth is the idea that people suffering from amnesia have lost their long-term memory, including any recollection of their identity. In fact, amnesia caused by illness or brain damage typically manifests as an inability to lay down new memories. Specifically what is broken is the ability to convert short-term memories into long-term memories. An amnesiac will usually be able to tell you who they are and share stories about their earlier lives, but they won’t be able to tell you what they had for breakfast.

• Dr Christian Jarrett is author of The Rough Guide to Psychology. He blogs for the British Psychological Society at and is currently writing Great Myths of the Brain (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter at @Psych_Writer

• This article was corrected on 16 January 2012 because it said Hideaki Tomoyori set a new world record for reciting the first 67,890 digits of pi entirely from memory. Lu Chao set this record.

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Scientists Construct First Detailed Map of How the Brain Organizes Everything We See ›


Brain Facts

The diameter of a neuron is so small it is said you could fit 30,000 neurons on the head of a pin. 

Why Listening Is So Much More Than Hearing ›


The fascinating neurological differences between listening and hearing, how our bodies automatically filter the surprising or important from the background, and what our modern digital age may mean for our listening abilities. Fascinating stuff from the NY Times:

This is because hearing has evolved as our alarm system — it operates out of line of sight and works even while you are asleep. And because there is no place in the universe that is totally silent, your auditory system has evolved a complex and automatic “volume control,” fine-tuned by development and experience, to keep most sounds off your cognitive radar unless they might be of use as a signal that something dangerous or wonderful is somewhere within the kilometer or so that your ears can detect.

This is where attention kicks in.

Take a moment and listen to your surroundings. Coworkers talking, machines whirring, air conditioning humming, printer printing, dogs barking … you can voluntarily pick out any number of sounds when you focus on that input.

The real mindbender is that your brain is always listening to those noises, but it doesn’t trigger you to consciously hear unless it is startling or out of the ordinary. Chew on that for a while … the idea that we are always listening but rarely hearing is pretty freakin’ cool.

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It’s not the stress that counts, it’s whether you can control it | The Scicurious Brain, Scientific American Blog Network ›


Stress is generally not a good thing. Most of us who live stressful lives (which, I suppose, would be all of us), are well aware of this. We try to reduce our stress, or even stress about how stressed we are. Traumatic stress increases the risk for all sorts of psychiatric disorders, including major depressive disorder, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder. But not all stresses are created equal, even the traumatic ones. And it turns out that it’s not the stress itself that is important…it’s whether or not you have any control over it. Varela et al. “Control over Stress, But Not Stress Per Se Increases Prefrontal Cortical Pyramidal Neuron Excitability” Journal of Neuroscience, 2012.

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Neuroscience: Survival reflex sparks male perception bias, study finds ›


You glimpse a stranger standing in the street. The light is hazy and the person’s face and clothing are indistinct. Who is it? Chances are you will think it is a man—and the reason for this is a survival reflex, according to an unusual study published on Wednesday.

Psychologists at the…

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A psychologist at a girl’s college asked the members of his class to compliment any girl wearing red. Within a week the cafeteria was a blaze of red. None of the girls were aware of being influenced, although they did notice that the atmosphere was more friendly. A class at the University of Minnesota is reported to have conditioned their psychology professor a week after he told them about learning without awareness. Every time he moved toward the right side of the room, they paid more attention and laughed more uproariously at his jokes, until apparently they were able to condition him right out the door.

W. Lambert Gardiner, Psychology: A Story of a Search, 1970 (via time-field)

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How Do You Raise a Prodigy? - ›

Neuroscience: How does the brain measure time? ›


Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR) have found a small population of neurons that is involved in measuring time, which is a process that has traditionally been difficult to study in the lab.

In the study, which…

Your personality is revealed in the way you speak, according to new research. Introverts tend to use more concrete words and are more precise, in contrast to extraverts, whose words are more abstract and vague.

The researchers said their results have far-reaching implications because we know based on past research that the contrasting speech styles are interpreted differently. For instance, they said behaviour described in abstract terms, in the style of an extravert (e.g. Camiel is unfriendly), is usually attributed to personality, as opposed to the situation, and therefore interpreted as enduring, more likely to occur again, yet harder to verify. By contrast, behaviour described in more concrete terms, in the characteristic style of an introvert (e.g. Camiel yells at Martin), tends to be interpreted as situation-specific, and as more believable.

“Thus an introvert’s linguistic style would induce more situational attributions and a higher perception of trustworthiness than an extravert’s style,” the researchers said.

The findings also complement past research showing how conversations between two introverts usually involve discussing one topic in more depth whereas two extraverts dance around more topics in less detail.

Researchers from UCL have found that lonely people have less grey matter in a part of the brain associated with decoding eye gaze and other social cues. Published in the journal of Current Biology, the study also suggests that through training people might be able to improve their social perception and become less lonely. “What we’ve found is the neurobiological basis for loneliness,” said lead author Dr Ryota Kanai (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience). “Before conducting the research we might have expected to find a link between lonely people and the part of the brain related to emotions and anxiety, but instead we found a link between loneliness and the amount of grey matter in the part of the brain involved in basic social perception.”

When looking at full brain scans they saw that lonely individuals have less greymatter in the left posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS)—an area implicated in basic social perception, confirming that loneliness was associated with difficulty in processing social cues. “The pSTS plays a really important role in social perception, as it’s the initial step of understanding other people,” said Dr Kanai. “Therefore the fact that lonely people have less grey matter in their pSTS is likely to be the reason why they have poorer perception skills.”

In order to gauge social perception, participants were presented with three different faces on a screen and asked to judge which face had misaligned eyes and whether they were looking either right or left. Lonely people found it much harder to identify which way the eyes were looking, confirming the link between loneliness, the size of the pSTS and the perception of eye gaze. “From the study we can’t tell if loneliness is something hardwired or environmental,” said co-author Dr Bahador Bahrami (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience). “But one possibility is that people who are poor at reading social cues may experience difficulty in developing social relationships, leading to social isolation and loneliness.” One way to counter this loneliness could be through social perception training with a smartphone app.


5 Bizarre Ways Brain Scans Can Predict the Future

Research Shows That the Smarter People Are, the More Susceptible They Are to Cognitive Bias ›


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Here’s a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)

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