Splintered by Stress: The Good and Bad of Psychological Pressure (preview)

Image: Getty Images

Stress and Memory

Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol can either facilitate or impair memory, depending on when these hormones are released.

Stress hormones may affect memory by strengthening or weakening the connections between nerve cells in the brain.

Drugs that mimic cell-adhesion molecules, which bridge the gaps between nerve cells, may help restore memory in people with stress-induced cognitive disorders.

A needling twinge in the torso or a tense interaction with a boss is all you need to get your nerves on edge. The bills are piling up and—of course—your spouse is on your case about them. You feel as if an extra weight is pressing down on your mind.

The all too familiar sensation of stress can preoccupy your thoughts, narrowing attention to the sphere of your concerns. But its effects do not end there—stress also causes physical changes in the body. In a stressful situation, alarm systems in the brain trigger the release of hormones that prepare you to fight back or flee the scene. Among other results, these chemicals may boost blood pressure, speed up heart rate and make you breathe faster. They may also affect your ability to learn and remember things.

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The Pitfalls of Positive Thinking


From superstar athletes to self-help devotees, advocates of positive thinking—imagining yourself succeeding at something you want to happen—believe it is a surefire way to help you attain a goal. Past studies have backed that idea, too, but now researchers are refining the picture. Paint your fantasy in too rosy a hue, and you may be hurting your chances of success.

One possible explanation is that idealized thinking can sap motivation, as outlined in a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Researchers asked college student volunteers to think through a fantasy version of an experience (looking attractive in a pair of high-heeled shoes, winning an essay contest, or getting an A on a test) and then evaluated the fantasy’s effect on the subjects and on how things unfolded in reality. When participants envisioned the most positive outcome, their energy levels, as measured by blood pressure, dropped, and they reported having a worse experience with the actual event than those who had conjured more realistic or even negative visions. To assess subjects’ real-life experiences, the researchers compared lists of goals that subjects had set for themselves against what they had actually accomplished and also relied on self-reports. “When you fantasize about it—especially when you fantasize something very positive—it’s almost like you are actually living it,” says Heather Barry Kappes of New York University, one of the study’s co-authors. That tricks the mind into thinking the goal has been achieved, draining the incentive to “get energized to go and get it,” she explains.  Subjects may be better off imagining how to surmount obstacles instead of ignoring them.

The approach may also apply to sports. A report published in the July issue of Perspectives on Psychological Findings suggests that talking oneself through the fine details of an athletic task may work better than picturing an optimal outcome. “It’s positive thinking, plus instructions,” says lead author Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis of the University of Thessaly in Greece.

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Overeating Depends On Context

At a ballgame, you have a hot dog. And at a movie you have popcorn. And you may
keep working on that popcorn long after you realize that this batch really isn’t so
good. Why?

Scientists analyzed two groups of movie-goers, those who eat popcorn regularly at
theaters and those who don’t. The subjects were offered either fresh just-popped
popcorn or week-old popcorn. The ones who don’t usually eat popcorn ate much
less stale popcorn than fresh popcorn. But the habitual popcorn eaters gobbled just
as much stale stuff as fresh. The study is in the Personality and Social Psychology

Environmental cures might be a cause for this kind of overeating. Because when
offered the two kinds of popcorn in a meeting room, as opposed to the movie
theater, the popcorn eaters were picky, choosing fresh popcorn over stale.

And here’s a neat twist: the researchers had movie goers eat both fresh and stale
popcorn using their non-dominant hand. And suddenly the popcorn lovers did care
about the taste—they ate much less of the stale popcorn than the fresh popcorn. Yes,
eating with your other hand may be awkward. But it beats eating old food.

—Christie Nicholson

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The Partner Paradox: Why Buddying Up to Achieve Goals May Backfire

Making a pact with your spouse to work out together may inspire you at first, but you could end up slacking off, relying on his or her nudge of encouragement to get moving. Image: Anthony Nagelmann Getty Images

My wife and I go to spinning class a couple of mornings a week. It is something we like to do together, and I feel that I benefit from having a regular workout partner. Some days I am just lazy or I do not want to venture out in the predawn cold, but having a supportive partner motivates me. She bolsters my self-discipline when it flags.

Or does she? Is it possible that having a supportive partner might create the opposite and paradoxical effect, actually undermining effort and commitment to health and fitness goals over the long haul? Perhaps we conserve our limited supply of self-control, “outsourcing” our effort when we know that a close friend or partner is in the wings, helping us achieve a goal.

Two psychological scientists have been exploring this novel idea in the laboratory. Gráinne M. Fitzsimons of Duke University and Eli J. Finkel of Northwest­ern University suspected that moral support might have a flip side: namely, emotional dependence. If we know someone has our back, perhaps we unconsciously rely on that support to encourage us to reach our goals—and thus slack off.

Honey, Help Me Exercise
Fitzsimons and Finkel recruited a group of women in their 30s, all of whom were in a romantic relationship, for an online experiment. The researchers gave half of them a tricky typing exercise intended to deplete them mentally, and the other half got an easy typing task. Then the scientists asked some of the women to think of an example where their partner had helped them achieve a current long-term health and fitness goal—such as picking up the slack at home or being a workout partner. (The researchers used women because past studies show most women have health and fitness goals that they care about—Fitzsimons and Finkel wanted to be sure the people in their study were thinking about goals that actually mattered to them.) The other group of women also thought about their partners’ support but not specifically in the area of health and fitness; these women served as controls. Then, finally, the scientists asked all the volunteers a series of questions about their commitment to health and fitness and how much time and effort they planned to spend on such objectives the following week.

The idea was to see if thinking of a partner’s support depleted personal effort and commitment—and that is just what the scientists found. Those who were aware of a partner’s helping hand planned to commit less time and effort to their health and fitness. What is more, this effect was strongest among those who had been mentally depleted, suggesting that the women were outsourcing the work when they had less self-discipline in reserve to draw on.

I’ll Do It Later
The scientists wanted to double-check these findings, and they did so in an interesting way. They recruited both male and female college students and asked some of them to think about how their romantic partners helped them achieve their academic goals. Other students thought about how their partners contributed to their recreational efforts, such as getting better at a sport, and still other students simply thought about something they liked about their partner.

Then the researchers gave the students the choice to either work on a tough academic exercise that they were told was designed to improve future test-taking skills or to procrastinate on an entertaining—but unproductive—puzzle. The results were consistent with the first experiment: the students who were aware that they had a reliable partner waiting in the wings procrastinated much more than  did the students who had focused on their partner’s likability. Knowing they had support seemed to make students less concerned about depleting their mental energy on mere entertainment.

A Combined Effort
These experiments make it sound as if having a wingman (or -woman) is a disadvantage. But not so fast. Fitzsimons and Finkel ran one more online experiment with a group of women in relationships, but in this one they also measured the volunteers’ level of commitment to their partner. As reported in the online version of the journal Psychological Science, the researchers found that the women who outsourced their health and fitness efforts to a significant other were more committed to that partner. In other words, relying on a partner for help with meeting a goal might diminish the personal effort we devote to that target—but doing so benefits the relationship overall.

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Stress Less


Time slowed to a crawl as my little Nissan Sentra approached the BMW in front of me. With a pronounced crunch, one bumper smashed into another. The green metal hood scooted back, folding into a sharp crease near the windshield. As freeway traffic blazed by on both sides, my mind went blank. What do I do now?

Fortunately, one of my passengers was already on the telephone, dialing 9-1-1 and instructing me to cautiously maneuver the vehicle to the shoulder. What a relief that not everyone in the car had panicked as I did. As Mathias V. Schmidt and Lars Schwabe write in “Splintered by Stress,” new research helps us predict when the flood of stress hormones will bolster our brains rather than block thought. Exactly when the brain turns on the chemical spigot makes a world of difference.

Although we cannot control those physiological responses directly, we can take steps to avoid triggering them in the first place, as Robert Epstein advises in “Fight the Frazzled Mind.” Many of us get walloped by stress simply because we fail to identify and avoid predictable trouble spots, such as rush-hour traffic.

Such minor adjustments can improve anyone’s quality of life, although not all cultures rate life satisfaction using the same metrics. In “The Many Faces of Happiness,” Suzann Pileggi Pawelski explores where we differ and dovetail in the pursuit of pleasure. For example, psychologists have found that feeling materialistic tends to correlate with darker moods.

That fact adds an intriguing dimension to “Passion for Possessions: Mine!” in which Bruce Hood explores our quirky love of objects. Although some animals assemble oddities to build nests and others may learn to trade bits of food, we humans are uniquely terrible at recognizing the market value of our beloved things.

But stress not. After feeling a few pangs of sorrow for my crumpled car, I quickly realized that, unlike my vehicle, I was unscathed, as were my companions. At that moment, nothing could have made me happier.

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MIND Reviews: The Compass of Pleasure

The Compass of Pleasure
by David J. Linden. Viking Press, 2011

The dog masturbating, the bird scouring for berries, the porcupine hunting for hallucinogenic plants, the human slamming quarter after quarter into a slot machine. Sure enough, animals are hardwired to seek pleasure. But when taken too far, this innate inclination can become an addiction.

In his book The Compass of Pleasure, David J. Linden draws on recent scientific findings to explain how pleasure manifests in the brain. Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, provides a primer on the brain’s pleasure circuit, walking the reader through examples of how highly addictive behaviors, such as gambling and doing drugs, as well as more mundane activities, such as exercising and playing video games, exploit reward pathways in the brain. In a strange twist of fate, the exact same brain circuits that allow us to enjoy life also fuel bad habits.

But addicts derive little pleasure from their vices. For them, Linden explains, it is the hunt for these experiences that becomes more pleasurable than the high itself. The intensity of the craving remodels those pleasure circuits, causing desire to outpace pleasure. The same experiences that most people seek out for happiness, addicts need to feel normal.

Overall, the book serves as a status check on the neuroscience of pleasure. Although Linden scatters anecdotes and humorous personal experiences throughout his book, at times it reads more like a textbook, delivering accurate yet overly detailed descriptions of the brain’s anatomy and biochemistry. His thoroughness has its perks, however—Linden does not shy away from pointing out the flaws or limitations in the research he presents.

Although recent boosts in techniques and technology have allowed scientists to look deeply into the brain for answers, Linden explains that the brain is endlessly complex and that we still have substantial ground to cover to fully understand pleasure and addiction. Our behavior will never be explained by one brain circuit—or one book, for that matter. But Linden has provided the first stalwart steps into this new frontier.

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Is California Eliminating Mental Illness Treatment?

By John M. Grohol, PsyD
Founder & Editor-in-Chief

Is California Eliminating Mental Illness Treatment?According to DJ Jaffe, co-founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center which advocates for mandated outpatient treatment laws, California is “eliminating mental illness treatment.”

This, of course, will be a surprise to the tens of thousands of mental health providers in California. Millions of Californians currently receive treatment for their mental disorders, both in the private and public sector.

In fact, Californians wanted to make up for past deficiencies in funding their mental health services, so they passed a law in 2004 that set aside new money specifically to help fund treatment.

Jaffe claims the money isn’t going to the programs it was intended to fund. Should we take his word for it?

The easiest way to see whether Jaffe’s claims hold up are to look at the text of Proposition 63 itself, the law that Californians passed to increase spending on mental health services in the state. You’ll see in the 7 pages, the Proposition refers repeatedly to things like prevention and early intervention programs (things Jaffe complains about in his article). In fact, in the introduction to the proposed law, the Proposition states:

A recent innovative approach, begun under Assembly Bill 34 in 1999, was recognized in 2003 as a model program by the President’s Commission on Mental Health. This program combines prevention services with a full range of integrated services to treat the whole person, with the goal of self-suf?ciency for those who may have otherwise faced homelessness or dependence on the state for years to come. Other innovations address services to other underserved populations such as traumatized youth and isolated seniors. These successful programs, including prevention, emphasize client-centered, family focused and community-based services that are culturally and linguistically competent and are provided in an integrated services system.

Suddenly, some of the programs Jaffe calls out in his article, such as developmentally challenged youth reading below grade level and giving troubled youth access to proven Wilderness programs seems right in line with what one might expect from the Proposition. It’s all right there, in stunning detail, in the Proposition itself.

But I think the primary confusion and distress by Jaffe comes because his definition of “severe mental illness” doesn’t jive with the State’s. This is not surprising, given that “severe mental illness” has no agreed-upon definition.

Historically, mental health professionals, social scientists and researchers consider “severity” of a disorder on a Likert-like scale for most mental disorders. For instance, you can have a Major Depressive Episode that is categorized as Mild, Moderate, Severe without Psychotic Features, or Severe with Psychotic Features.

Nowhere in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV (DSM-IV, the reference guide professionals and researchers use to classify and diagnose mental disorders) is a distinction made whether one type of mental disorder is more serious (or “severe”) than another. ADHD can be just as serious and debilitating to a person as schizophrenia can, and obsessive-compulsive disorder can be just as serious and debilitating to a person as bipolar disorder can. The DSM doesn’t make a distinction.

Researchers, advocacy organizations around the world, governments and professionals don’t have an agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a “severe mental illness” (SMI). The definition of SMI varies widely.

Rethink, a UK charity, suggests psychosis is the defining characteristic of a “severe mental illness:”

There is no universal understanding of what severe mental illness is, because it tends to be seen differently by the person experiencing it, their family and friends and doctors. The term usually refers to illnesses where psychosis occurs. Psychosis describes the loss of reality a person experiences so that they stop seeing and responding appropriately to the world they are used to.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) disagrees, and suggests that “serious mental illnesses” include even personality disorders:

[…] major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a U.S. government-sponsored project, defines “serious mental illness” even more broadly:

A mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders) Diagnosable currently or within the past year Of sufficient duration to meet diagnostic criteria specified within the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) Resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities

(Point 4 is redundant, since that is nearly always a requirement for a diagnosis to be given from the DSM-IV.)

The Center for Mental Health Services (a U.S. government agency under SAMHSA) defines severe mental illness (SMI) as:

[…] any psychiatric disorder present during the past year that seriously interfered with one or more aspects of a person’s daily life.

DJ Jaffe’s old organization, the Treatment Advocacy Center, doesn’t even define the term anywhere on its website. But they are certain that “[s]evere mental illness is a debilitating brain disease with devastating consequences for individuals who suffer from it, their families and society as a whole.” Brain disease? Really??

Now you can see why Jaffe is upset. He likely only considers a small handful of disorders to meet his definition for severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia and perhaps bipolar disorder. He believes that the other dozens of disorders listed in the DSM-IV are simply not worthy of anyone’s focus or funding.

I disagree. I think Proposition 63 funding is being used exactly as intended. In children, this means things like:

(d) The program shall emphasize strategies to reduce the following negative outcomes that may result from untreated mental illness:
(1) Suicide.
(2) Incarcerations.
(3) School failure or dropout.
(4) Unemployment.
(5) Prolonged suffering.
(6) Homelessness.
(7) Removal of children from their homes.

It’s all right there in the Proposition itself, so none of what the money is actually funding should come as a surprise to anyone who’s bothered to read the law.

So what’s happened to the money the law has generated? It’s going to a wide range of hundreds of programs and services in each county in California that help children, adults and seniors who have mental disorders. Exactly as was intended.

Read DJ Jaffe’s full article: California Eliminating Mental Illness Treatment

In the side rant about Laura’s Law, the so-called “assisted outpatient treatment” law in California, Jaffe decries the lack of adoption of the law across the state (it must be adopted individually by counties).

I might suggest that mandated treatment laws are simply not the will of the people of California. Perhaps they, like me, are wary of returning to the age when a person can’t refuse treatment even when they are not an immediate danger to themselves or others (you don’t have to be in order to be committed under Laura’s Law).

I’m all for helping people who need help, but not at the risk of any citizen’s basic civil liberties. We let go of strong commitment laws decades ago because the government and professionals clearly demonstrated they did not have the ability to uphold and apply these well-meaning laws. Even in many states where the new mandated treatment laws have passed, there is only lip service paid to checks and balances of a citizen’s Constitutional rights.

John Grohol, PsyDDr. John Grohol is the CEO and founder of Psych Central. He has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues, and the intersection of technology and psychology since 1992. Dr. Grohol also sits on the editorial board of the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 31 Aug 2011
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.

APA Reference
Grohol, J. Is California Eliminating Mental Illness Treatment?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 1, 2011, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/08/31/is-california-eliminating-mental-illness-treatment/

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Beliefs about Memory: Interview with Dan Simons

beliefs about memoryIn a recent survey of the U.S. population, researchers Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris assessed common beliefs about memory.  They found that common beliefs are often incongruent with scientific findings.  Recently I had an opportunity to ask Simons about some of the implications of the survey.

What motivated this survey on understanding memory?

Our goal in conducting the study was to supplement the research we had done for our book, The Invisible Gorilla. The book focuses on everyday illusions, cases in which people’s intuitive beliefs about how the mind works are faulty. In writing the book, we realized that nobody had ever conducted a national survey to measure how pervasive those beliefs are. Our PLoS One paper reports the results from a subset of the items in the survey, those most related to memory. We chose our items by drawing from a number of smaller-scale surveys that asked about the same sorts of principles, so we had good reason to suspect that these items would reveal a sizable discrepancy between public beliefs and the established science.

Many beliefs about memory run counter to scientific findings.  What are some of the key factors contributing to this misunderstanding?

I think illusions like this one, and the other ones we discuss in The Invisible Gorilla, are pervasive because they are based on our daily experiences. We rarely have the experience of having our beliefs countered. That’s one reason why the gorilla video makes such an effective demonstration — people are forced to confront a mistaken belief about what they will and won’t notice. For memory, we experience the vividness of our memories. We recall them fluently and with ease. And, with that feeling of fluency comes an unjustified sense of certainty. They feel right. And, we rarely encounter documentary evidence that our memories are wrong. If you think you know exactly where you were and what you were doing when you first heard about the attacks on 9/11, you will likely have little reason to doubt the accuracy of your memory. It’s only those rare cases when someone shows you the gorilla that you are forced to confront your own errors. That rarely happens in our daily life, so we have no reason to distrust our memories.

It seems that understanding the science of memory should be emphasized in jury trials.  How would you suggest jurors be made aware of the fallibility of memory, particularly the implications regarding eyewitness testimony?

A good first step would be to allow testimony by memory experts in cases for which the evidence hinges on the memories of eyewitnesses.  What this study shows is that jurors are likely to hold mistaken beliefs about the accuracy and completeness of memory and to trust confident witnesses more than they should. Expert testimony is sometimes disallowed on the grounds that what the experts have to say is just common sense. This survey provides some direct evidence against that assumption.

What are the broad implications of the findings from this line of research?

I think the broadest implication is the same one that we emphasize in The Invisible Gorilla — we think we know how our own minds work, but our intuitions about how we think, reason, see, and remember are often misguided. And, those mistaken intuitions have important implications for everything from law to driving to business.

Learn more about The Invisible Gorilla and the illusions of memory on the authors’ website.

Photo by Jacob Boetter, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Jamie Hale is a science writer, exercise & nutrition consultant, outdoor enthusiast, scientific data researcher, lecturer and founder of Knowledge Summit Research Group.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 29 Aug 2011
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.

APA Reference
Hale, J. Beliefs about Memory: Interview with Dan Simons. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 1, 2011, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/08/29/beliefs-about-memory-interview-with-dan-simons/

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3 Fascinating Facts About Our Brilliant Brains

3 Fascinating Facts About Our Brilliant BrainsOur brains do a lot of work behind the scenes to help us function and thrive. But we largely know this already.

What might surprise you are the details of this work. For instance, as neuroscientist David Eagleman writes in his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain:

Your brain is built of cells called neurons and glia—hundreds of billions of them. Each one of these cells is as complicated as a city. And each one contains the entire human genome and traffics billions of molecules in intricate economies. Each cell sends electrical pulses to other cells, up to hundred of times per second. If you represented each of these trillions and trillions of pulses in your brain by a single photon of light, the combined output would be blinding.

The cells are connected to one another in a network of such staggering complexity that it bankrupts human language and necessities new strains of mathematics. A typical neuron makes about ten thousand connections to neighboring neurons. Given the billions of neurons, this means there are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.

Below are several other interesting and surprising facts about our brains from Eagleman’s Incognito.

1. We’re notoriously poor observers of our environment.

But we have the false idea that we see things just as they are. Still, we can very easily miss stimuli that are right in front of our eyes if we’re not looking for them. Similarly, we don’t see just with our eyes. We see with our brains. The phenomenon of “change blindness” illustrates these points perfectly.

Consider the following experiment: Random people passing through a courtyard are asked for directions by an experimenter. During the conversation, workers carrying a door walk in between the person and experimenter. After the interruption, most of the people simply continue giving directions, picking up where they left off—even though they’re talking to a completely different person! That’s because another person involved with the experiment (known as a confederate) hid behind the door and switched places with the original experimenter.

Eagleman writes: “In other words, they [the participants] were only encoding small amounts of the information hitting their eyes. The rest was assumption.”

Another good example is magic tricks. Magicians’ “actions should give away the game—but they can rest assured that your brain processes only small bits of the visual scene, not everything that hits your retinas.”

To learn more about change blindness, check out this website, which is maintained by a psychologist, and this cool video.

2. Some people experience the world differently than most of us — and it’s totally normal.

Here, we’re not talking about debilitating disorders like schizophrenia, when a person’s brain produces visual, tactile or auditory hallucinations (or delusions). Rather, for some people, there are “magenta Tuesdays, tastes that have shapes and wavy green symphonies,” writes Eagleman. He says that one in 100 people experiences the world like this. And there’s a name for this not-so-uncommon condition: synesthesia.

Basically, people experience a mix of sensations simultaneously, and they do so automatically and regularly. They don’t just hear music; they might also taste it. Eagleman gave more examples in Incognito: “…the feel of sandpaper might evoke an F-sharp, the taste of chicken might be accompanied by a feeling of pinpoints on the fingertips, or a symphony might be experienced in blues and golds.”

One type of synesthesia is called “spatial sequence synesthesia.” These individuals have locations for time and any other numbers. For instance, “They can point to the spot where the number 32 is, where December floats or where the year 1966 lies.”

Surprising, right? What’s interesting is that these people are so used to experiencing the world this way that they’re surprised others don’t have this “joined sensation,” Eagleman explains. “The mere existence of synesthesia demonstrates that more than one kind of brain—and one kind of mind—is possible.”

You can find out if you’re a “synesthete” with this test.

3. Our brains make up stories in order to make sense of what we do.

We thrive on patterns and try to make sense of our world. We do the same thing when it comes to our own behaviors. According to Eagleman, “We have ways of retrospectively telling stories about our actions as though the actions were always our idea.”

Take the example of patients who’ve had split-brain surgery (when the corpus callosum is severed to help patients with epilepsy). In a 1978 experiment of patients who had this kind of surgery, researchers showed an image of a chicken claw to a patient’s left hemisphere and an image of a snow-filled winter scene to the right hemisphere. When asked to pick the image that symbolized what they’d seen, the patient’s right hand chose a card with a chicken, and their left hand chose one with a snow shovel. As Eagleman writes:

The experimenters asked him why he was pointing to the shovel. Recall that his left hemisphere (the one with the capacity for language) had information only about a chicken, and nothing else. But the left hemisphere, without missing a beat, fabricated a story: “Oh, that’s simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.” When one part of the brain makes a choice, other parts can quickly invent a story to explain why.

This rationalization also occurs when patients are given a command. Eagleman continues:

If you show the command “Walk” to the right hemisphere (the one without language), the patient will get up and start walking. If you stop him and ask why he’s leaving, his left hemisphere, cooking up an answer, will say something like “I was going to get a drink of water.”

But this doesn’t happen just to split-brain patients, Eagleman says. We all do it. Participants instructed to hold a pencil in between their teeth while reading a passage found it funnier. That’s because their brains tried to account for the smiles. Sitting up straight also made others happier because the brain again assumed that this meant they were feeling good.

Other experiments have shown the same thing: that our brains love to spin a story. Eagleman recounts an experiment he and a colleague devised in the mid-1990s. Their goal was to test simple decision-making. Participants were asked to pick between two cards on a computer screen: A and B. There was no indication of which was the better choice, so participants picked the cards at random. But they did receive a small monetary reward after each one. In the next phase, the cards were reset and they had to pick between A and B yet again. But the rewards were now different. What the participants didn’t know was that the researchers created a formula to determine the reward, which was too difficult for the participants to detect. This formula factored in the participants’ card choices.

After the experiment, participants were asked why they picked the cards they did, and they gave a variety of explanations. According to Eagleman:

I was surprised to hear all types of baroque explanations, such as “The computer liked it when I switched back and forth” and “The computer was trying to punish me, so I switched my game plan.” In reality, the players’ descriptions of their own strategies did not match what they had actually done, which turned out to be highly predictable. Nor did their descriptions match the computer’s behavior, which was purely formulaic. Instead, their conscious minds, unable to assign the task to a well-oiled zombie system, desperately sought a narrative. The participants weren’t lying; they were giving the best explanation they could­—just like the split-brain patients…”

By the way, if you enjoy learning about the brain and brain disorders, check out neuropsychologist Paul Broks’s columns in Prospect magazine. According to the excellent blog Mind Hacks:

The ‘Out of Mind’ column ran for the best part of five years. Alternately whimsical, profound and poetic, it recounted ephemeral scenes from meetings with brain altered individuals and spun them into reflections on the science and philosophy of human nature.

And be sure to check out our blog Neuroscience & Relationships by Athena Staik for tons of interesting insight!

Margarita TartakovskyMargarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor at Psych Central and blogs regularly about eating and self-image issues on her own blog, Weightless.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 31 Aug 2011
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.

APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. 3 Fascinating Facts About Our Brilliant Brains. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 1, 2011, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/08/31/3-fascinating-facts-about-our-brilliant-brains/

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Localizing Language in the Brain

ScienceDaily (Aug. 30, 2011) — New research from MIT suggests that there are parts of our brain dedicated to language and only language, a finding that marks a major advance in the search for brain regions specialized for sophisticated mental functions.

Functional specificity, as it’s known to cognitive scientists, refers to the idea that discrete parts of the brain handle distinct tasks. Scientists have long known that functional specificity exists in certain domains: In the motor system, for example, there is one patch of neurons that controls the fingers of your left hand, and another that controls your tongue. But what about more complex functions such as recognizing faces, using language or doing math? Are there special brain regions for those activities, or do they use general-purpose areas that serve whatever task is at hand?

Language, a cognitive skill that is both unique to humans and universal to all human cultures, “seems like one of the first places one would look” for this kind of specificity, says Evelina Fedorenko, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and first author of the new study. But data from neuroimaging — especially functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity associated with cognitive tasks — has been frustratingly inconclusive. Though studies have largely converged on several areas important for language, it’s been hard to say whether those areas are exclusive to language. Many experiments have found that non-language tasks seemingly activate the same areas: Arithmetic, working memory and music are some of the most common culprits.

But according to Fedorenko and her co-authors — Nancy Kanwisher, the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, and undergraduate student Michael Behr — this apparent overlap may simply be due to flaws in methodology, i.e., how fMRI data is traditionally gathered and analyzed. In their new study, published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they used an innovative technique they’ve been developing over the past few years; the new method yielded evidence that there are, in fact, bits of the brain that do language and nothing else.

Forget the forest, it’s all in the trees

fMRI studies of language are typically done by group analysis, meaning that researchers test 10, 20 or even 50 subjects, then average data together onto a common brain space to search for regions that are active across brains.

But Fedorenko says this is not an ideal way to do things, mainly because the fine-grained anatomical differences between brains can cause data “smearing,” making it look as if one region is active in two different tasks when in reality, the tasks activate two neighboring — but not overlapping — regions in each individual subject.

By way of analogy, she says, imagine taking pictures of 10 people’s faces and overlaying them, one on top of another, to achieve some sort of average face. While the resulting image would certainly look like a face, when you compared it back to the original pictures, it would not line up perfectly with any of them. That’s because there is natural variation in our features — the size of our foreheads, the width of our noses, the distance between our eyes.

It’s the same way for brains. “Brains are different in their folding patterns, and where exactly the different functional areas fall relative to these patterns,” Fedorenko says. “The general layout is similar, but there isn’t fine-grained matching.” So, she says, analyzing data by “aligning brains in some common space … is just never going to be quite right.”

Ideally, then, data would be analyzed for each subject individually; that is, patterns of activity in one brain would only ever be compared to patterns of activity from that same brain. To do this, the researchers spend the first 10 to 15 minutes of each fMRI scan having their subject do a fairly sophisticated language task while tracking brain activity. This way, they establish where the language areas lie in that individual subject, so that later, when the subject performs other cognitive tasks, they can compare those activation patterns to the ones elicited by language.

A linguistic game of ‘Where’s Waldo?’

This methodology is exactly what allows Fedorenko, Behr and Kanwisher to see if there are areas truly specific to language. After having their subjects perform the initial language task, which they call a “functional localizer,” they had each one do a subset of seven other experiments: one on exact arithmetic, two on working memory, three on cognitive control and one on music, since these are the functions “most commonly argued to share neural machinery with language,” Fedorenko says.

Out of the nine regions they analyzed — four in the left frontal lobe, including the region known as Broca’s area, and five further back in the left hemisphere — eight uniquely supported language, showing no significant activation for any of the seven other tasks. These findings indicate a “striking degree of functional specificity for language,” as the researchers report in their paper.

Future studies will test the newly identified language areas with even more non-language tasks to see if their functional specificity holds up; the researchers also plan to delve deeper into these areas to discover which particular linguistic jobs each is responsible for.

Fedorenko says the results don’t imply that every cognitive function has its own dedicated piece of cortex; after all, we’re able to learn new skills, so there must be some parts of the brain that are both high-level and functionally flexible. Still, she says, the results give hope to researchers looking to draw some distinctions within in the human cortex: “Brain regions that do related things may be nearby … [but] it’s not just all one big mushy multifunctional thing in there.”

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The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The original article was written by Emily Finn.

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