Posts Tagged With: neuroscience

Sometimes Stops Being


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sometimes taxi dog’s blue.  sometimes stops being.
bees someone “else”.  lost somelongtime now.  fragmented, loozing hiz gripz.
Becoming…   …   …?
hard to describe.  looked for coincidences.  Serendipities.

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now, not describing, more being.
conclusion?  not yet.  not now.
but feelz goode…   …   …words flow, non-sensemaking, easzier.
all the betterer, all the meaning-er.

—–     —–     —–

Not for you?
i take’m as they are…   …   …out of analysis, out of form(alde)…   …   …hyding.
Will you see the strange reading
I’m sure, I think, for you.
For me; ecstasy!
A lopstuck piglet?
Who knows?

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What’s written is a manufractured, pro-ducttaped assemblage.  an un-naturaled axe.
Want “heard”!
Want Meant!
Allizz what I can write-right now.  Allizz is fragments.
writing fragments like the end.  ’til the end.  ’til I end.
‘Til I write in an ‘other’ way.

—– —– —–

brainworthy of worry?  scary to me.  How to know; lest you know.  tell me?
Maybe brained injured writers will be all the rage in the later parts of his decage (sic?).
Stick to the sictionary, TD.  browse the Classics. paleontology?  knew her sisters well:  Ellis and Anne?
The Brontesauruses?
Pun-machine hymning,
thanks God!

—– —– —–

I’m no eecummings.  and hezze no me.
Go nightnight  Go to my cell.

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Categories: Absurd, Arts & Letters, Death. And Life., Introspection, Katz!! Cohen & Koans, Mortality, Musings, Science, The Act of Writing, The Poem Club | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Science, Religion, And God

Due Nota Benes

  • Uno – Actually, I was looking for references to the “Foundations of American Political Conservatism” in order to make a post about what I believe will be an historic 2012 election.   At the same time, I’m preparing a lecture on the juxtapositions between science and religion.  Are they compatible, but different, belief systems?  Are they diametric opposites to explain everything?  Exciting discussions will evolve.

Along the way, I got a bit of peanut butter in my jelly jar, as it were.  And found a video about the demonstrators at historic Hyde Park, London.  Which I’ll write on next week.

  • Due – At first, the  report came to a sticky mess; from which I’m desperately to extricate myself.  Cerebrally, as it were.  Intellectually.   Gastronomically too!!  I am drawn to sweets…   …   …innocuous confections with little nutritional value.   Where’s Joy [Of Cooking] when you need her?  Should I be switching sieves?   Am I re-straining myself?  Thank God for Cinna-bon-mots!!

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Anyway, for a start, watch the following 20 minute movie, which lays out a path from biological science, through neuro-scientific research, to religious experiences, to consciousness.   Is this The Ultimate Truth?

View This Video Link; Here….

Peter Russell — Science and God

In this professionally video taped presentation, Peter Russell starts with the hard problem of consciousness – why do we have an inner world of experience? Diving into his eye, and into his mind, we enter a surreal world in which we discover that all we ever know directly are the forms and images arising in the mind. But, he asks, where does consciousness itself come from? Has conventional science got it wrong? Peter explores the mystery of consciousness from two perspectives – the mystery of its origins from matter, and the mystery of the “I”, the self. Shot in high-quality digital, this production utilizes animation and innovative post-production to create an exciting experience that takes the viewer to the heart of the emerging new paradigm on human consciousness.

Other discussions will follow to flesh out the report.   Keep tuned in.  Good advice in all situations.  Being “tuned in”, I mean!

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Related Wikipedia References

Categories: -- Bread, Enquiries & Speculations, Katz!! Cohen & Koans, Science | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

NeuroScience: A Cartoonist’s Take

Re-blogged fromNeuro – Therapy Tales #272

The cartoonist says:  “This one is inspired by an article I was reading on “neuropsychoanalysis”. Now I’m all for the integration of learning between neuroscience and psychotherapy (and have been a-shouting about this excellent book for years) but neurology and psychoanalysis..? Yes, I know Freud was a neurologist, but something so scientific, so evidence-based, combined with something so… well.. not. Despite what some would say and what Freud wanted, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis are more art than science. (And I don’t count CBT. Ever. ;) )”

Ooh, that sounded dangerously like an opinion. So, erm, yeah, whatever. I thought it was interesting. Or summink. Come kick my ass in the comments and tell me why I’m wrong.

“Anyway”, he says, “enough seriousness. We’re about the giggles here. So I reduced this well-written, highly intelligent article to the question “how would a brain look on the couch?” and there you go.”

“What can I say.. it ain’t (rocket) science.”



Good Cartoons!

Categories: Cartoons, Practicing Psychotherapy | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

NeuroScience: Music and Brain

In this blog, University of Toronto students discuss  the course, Music and the Brain.  Posting permission is granted to present and past students in the course. The blog is moderated by Dr. Lee Bartel.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chapter 4-
Music on the Brain: Imagery and Imagination
Sacks, Oliver. 2007. “Music on the Brain: Imagery and Imagination.” In Musicophilia, Tales of Music and The Brain. Vintage Canada, Toronto: ON.
In this chapter of Sacks’ book Musicophilia, he discusses the concept of musical imagery, as it exists for individuals. Recalling the vivid internal musical symphonies that could be evoked in his father’s own mind, yet not for his mother, Sacks concluded that not everyone possesses an equal capacity for such mental imagery. Professional musicians, however, are remarkably skilled at this trait.
Sacks contemplates composers of past and present and the creative musical stimulus that occupies their minds.
While some composers rely on an instrument during their creative process, many are able to conceptualize and hear the music entirely in their head. In addition, he examines Beethoven’s deafness and its effect on him as a composer; contrary to a musical demise that some may have predicted, following his sudden loss of hearing, it would seem as though the music grew more intellectually complex. Could it be, perhaps, that through the loss of an input source of hearing that his internal musical imagery was intensified as his auditory cortex became increasingly sensitive. Since Beethoven could no longer perceive external music, he was forced to rely upon more abstract, imaginative powers of thought as he composed. Through these measures, his music was an undeniable success.
His own personal history with music has also influenced Sacks mental musical imagery. Although not heightened to the acuteness of his father’s, Sacks noted his ability to glance at a piece of music which he had learned several years prior, and instantly begin to feel as though he was playing that music: he could “see” his hands on the keyboard, and “hear” the music in his head. This mental rehearsal to which he refers is an extremely important tool for performers before and while they are learning new repertoire, and before performances. Research has provided proof to the effectiveness of imagined practice.
Through their study of music’s effect on the mind, Robert Zatorre and colleagues have discovered that imagining the sound of music stimulates the auditory cortex to almost the same degree as actually hearing the music. Imagining the act of playing has an equally stimulating effect on the motor cortex, which in turn, continues to stimulate the auditory cortex. This evidence is encouragement for performers to visualize and imagine playing new music before attempting it; this process initiates neural circuitry that will be formed during the actual learning, thus, making the physical attempt much more fluent, as if the musician had already learned the music. The pathways have already been created; half the work has been done.
He continues to describe the mind’s tendency to predict music that is familiar to us. Studies of individuals’ brain activity during familiar listening experiences, wherein audible music is removed, demonstrate how the mind will attempt to fill in the missing segments of music; according to MRI brain scans, although music may have been removed, the auditory control centers displayed greater activation these times than with non-familiar musical examples.
Research has also allowed investigators to learn of frontal cortex stimulation that occurs during deliberate, conscious and voluntary mental imagery, such as frequently relied upon by professional musicians. Those who do not depend on such musical imagery for their vocation, may find most of their imagery is the result of unconscious thought. Even when one is not aware of why a musical association is occurring, it is a continual occurrence. Some experiences of musical imagery can be predicated by repeated listening; a favourite song, for example, can become embedded into one’s subconscious and revisited unconsciously, for unexplained reasoning.
Verbal associations may also initiate musical imagery: lyrics from a song, similarities of a situation, a key word may all cause an involuntary lapse of music in one’s mind. Finally, repressed emotions may be another factor in musical imagery that seems to be cultivated out of the blue. Sacks draws upon personal experiences through which he can relate to each unexplained onset of musical imagery. Clearly music is always on his mind.
Having spent a great volume of my time as of late researching biofeedback and EEG neurofeedback training as it applies to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Sacks’ chapter speaks volumes to me. I am flooded with inquiry questions and ideas for future research into the discipline of brain therapy, and reading his insights with regards to musical imagery, I am curious as to the overlap that I see.
Studies and therapeutic applications involving neurofeedback are based upon the notion that one is able to consciously retrain the brain. Through monitoring EEG patterns in an individual and applying biofeedback therapy which functions through operant conditioning principles, the subject can change the produced brainwaves. Thus, successful biofeedback or retraining of brain activity.
Sacks describes the cognitive processes of visual imagery used by musicians before learning new music, and even when they are away from their instrument. According to brainwave MRI scans, activity occurs in the auditory and motor cortex during these sessions of imagining hearing and playing music. As well, if an individual deliberately, voluntarily imagines music, the frontal cortex is also involved. This knowledge could prove to be effective in the treatment of ADHD, which is shown to affect the frontal and motor cortex within individuals.
Whether through consciously invoked musical imagery of playing or simply hearing a melody that is familiar, benefits may be sought in the for patients. As well, evidence of auditory stimulation during familiar listening exercises could also prove to be beneficial to ADHD sufferers if implemented into therapeutic practices; if could offer individuals‘ increased spans of attention and focus, and help to engage concentration.
This chapter has left me with further areas of interest to explore and contemplate, in the field of music and brain research, and has given me new insight into the power of both music and the human mind.
Posted by at 1:29 PM


Sarah N said…
Concerning the issue of musical associations, I find this to be a very perplexing topic. It is always amazing to me how two similarly trained musicians can conjure up such opposite mental imagery about the same musical passage. But I think the same thing can happen with language. In rehearsals with my group I often try to explain what I want to convey with the music using words. I used to find that this didn’t work often enough to be helpful, and I wanted to understand why.
Probing deeper, I found that even words that seem to be the most simple and straightforward can have very different connotations for people based on personal experience, or education, or any number of reasons. For example, take the word ‘interesting’. I’ve worked with those who consider ‘interesting’ to be complimentary when referring to someone’s playing. It means that you have created interest, that your playing is not boring, it has ideas. But there are others that consider the word ‘interesting’ to be a very negative comment in regards to playing, often because certain teachers have used this word when they don’t think a student has played well but they don’t want to openly insult the student.
One of the hardest things about playing in an ensemble is developing a musical and verbal language that you all share and understand. Experiences like these make me think that mental associations, whether musical or otherwise, are always extremely personal, and one must always investigate to find out what someone really thinks or feels or hears.
December 20, 2011 7:52 PM
Categories: Enquiries & Speculations, Stroke and Its Aftermath | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

NeuroScience: CounterTransference In The Right Brain

Honest To A Fault


The two following articles broaden the scope of psycho- therapeutic research

Looking for Ground: Countertransference and the Problem of Value (Book Review)   —   Perhaps one of the most relevant controversies facing psychoanalysis is the issue of countertransference. Although there are many schools of thought regarding its value, utilization, and conceptualization, there are few works that thoroughly examine its history and theoretical development. Looking for Ground: Counter-transference and the Problem of Value in Psychoanalysis is an important book, not only because it provides a thorough history of counter-transference, but also because it allows the reader to decide for him/herself their position regarding its value   —
Transference & Counter-transference as Implicit Right Brain/Mind/Body Transactions  —  Advances in neuroscience now clearly suggest that the capacity to receive and express communications within the implicit realm is optimized when the clinician is in a state of right brain receptivity. Marcus ( 1997 ) observes, ‘‘The analyst, by means of reverie and intuition, listens with the right brain directly to the analysand’s right brain (p. 238).’’

This emphasis on the right brain systems that underlie attachment and develop-mental change has in turn forged deeper connections with clinical models of psycho-therapeutic change, all of which are consonant with psychoanalytic under-standings. Modern attachment theory can thus be incorporated into the core of social work theory, research, and practice.

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Neuroscience: Ego-Awareness-Self-Psychology

“Fair Observer is an internet magazine for sharing exceptional ideas, insights, and analysis with the global community.”  The four articles that follow show the depth and breadth of current brain/mind research.

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This is a series of musings about the inter-relatedness of the ego, awareness, sense of self, cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Science is trying to solve the deepest mysteries and Benoit Wolff and Vaughn Gray bring us the latest on this.

  1. The Chronicle of a Mystery: Delving into the Human Mind  — “It is in the center of our lives and yet fairly unknown: our self. At least from a scientific standpoint, the self remains a mystery that has lead to a never-ending scientific debate and countless pages of theory. Disciplines like philosophy, psychology, psychoanalysis and the neurosciences, to name only a few, have come up with a plethora of possible explanations concerning its nature and functioning.”  —

  2. Freud’s Ego:The I Before the I  —  Samuel Weber, an American philosopher and outstanding thinker across the disciplines of literary theory, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. He is the Paul de Man Chair at the European Graduate School (EGS) and the Avalon Professor of Humanities at Northwestern University.  —

  3. Disorders of the Self  —  MD board certified psychiatrist at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, Elmar is an expert in dementia research and early detection of patients with dementia. His research focuses on cerebrospinal fluid biomarkers for dementia, cerebral MRI and addictive disorders.  —

  4. Self Referential Thought: A Neuro-Scientific Perspective  —  Benjamin Maier investigates the thinking about ourselves, which takes place precisely when we are not perceiving, reasoning or making decisions.  —

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NeuroScience: The Decline of Civilization’s Right Brain

The Decline of Civilization’s Right Brain: Animated

October 24th, 2011

[In this new RSAnimate, renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist explains how our ‘divided brain’ has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society. Taken from a lecture given by Iain McGilchrist as part of the RSA’s free public events programme. To view the full lecture, go to



The mind, they say, is a house divided: The right hemisphere of the brain is predominantly intuitive; the left, predominantly rational.

In his recent book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, the British psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist looks at the evolution of Western Civilization through a neuropsychological prism. In McGilchrist’s view our left hemisphere has, over the past four centuries, progressively pushed aside our right hemisphere. “My belief,” McGilchrist told The Morning News last year, “is that it has now taken over our self-understanding, for a variety of reasons, and is leading us all down the road to ruin.”

McGilchrist is quick to point out that the old left-brain, right-brain clichés of the 1960s and 1970s were greatly oversimplified. Recent research has shown that both sides of the brain are deeply involved in functions such as reason and emotion. But the dichotomy is still useful, McGilchrist says, and should not be abandoned.

“The right hemisphere gives sustained, broad, open, vigilant alertness, whereas the left hemisphere gives narrow, sharply focused attention to detail,” McGilchrist says in a new RSA Animate feature (see above). “People who lose their right hemispheres have a pathological narrowing of the window of attention.”  McGilchrist sees this narrowing process occurring at the societal level. The left brain, he argues, conceives of the world as a set of decontextualized, static, material, abstract things, whereas the right brain holistically embraces a world of evolving, spiritual, empathic, concrete beings.

Both hemispheres are necessary, McGilchrist says in the Morning News interview, “but one is more fundamentally important than the other, and sees more than the other, even though there are some things that it must not get involved with, if it is to maintain its broader, more complete–in essence more truthful–vision. This is the right hemisphere, which, as I demonstrate from the neuropsychological literature, literally sees more, and grounds the understanding of the left hemisphere–an understanding which must ultimately be re-integreted with the right hemisphere, if it is not to lead to error. The left hemisphere is extraordinarily valuable as an intermediate, but not as a final authority.”

McGilchrist is not without his critics. The British philosopher A.C. Grayling writes in the Literary Review, “Unfortunately, if one accepts the logic of his argument that our Western civilisation has declined from a right-hemisphere to a left-hemisphere dispensation, we do not have to imagine what the former would be like, because history itself tells us: in it most of us would be superstitious and ignorant peasants working a strip farm that we would never leave from cradle to grave, under the thumb of slightly more left-hemispheric bullies in the form of the local baron and priest.”

After The Master and His Emissary was published, McGilchrist discovered a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein that he felt neatly supported his thesis. He uses this quote at the end of his RSA talk: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” But did Einstein actually say that? The Internet is awash with dubious Einstein quotations, and we were unable to locate the original source of this one. If any reader can verify its authenticity (by citing the original text, speech or conversation) please leave a note in our comments section. Meanwhile, you can watch McGilchrist’s entire half-hour RSA lecture here.

via Brain Pickings

The Taxi Dog asks:  The thirst for such information is astounding!  What “need” is this?

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NeuroScience: Another View Of Politics

Carole Jahme writes for The Guardian, and has a master’s degree in evolutionary psychology and is the author of Beauty and the Beast: Woman, Ape and Evolution. In 2004 she won the Wellcome Trust’s Award for Communication of Science to the Public. She is a fellow of the RSA


Socialists and conservatives may be born not made

What hope is there of rational debate if our political affiliations are biologically determined?Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons

Biological instincts come to the fore during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. Photograph: PA

About a year after being appointed speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow announced that he wanted to reform the traditionally abrasive weekly prime minister’s questions to foster more civilised debate. But new research from the University of Nebraska on the psychology of political persuasions suggests that confrontation between the political right and left is here to stay.

The research published online last week by the Royal Society indicates that where you put your cross on the ballot paper on polling day is, at least in part, instinctive. In other words, socialists and conservatives may be born not made.

Emotions in mammals are fuelled by the brain’s evolutionarily ancient “appetitive” (desire for food and attachment) and “aversive” (defensive) systems. The appetitive system promotes social cohesion whereas aversive mechanisms drive autonomous survival. These mechanisms can be categorised as approach or avoidant responses: we approach what gives us pleasure (such as food or social contact) and we avoid things we know will harm us (such as faeces or predators).

We are all found somewhere on the approach-avoidant spectrum. Highly social people enjoy novel experiences and meeting strangers and will have a higher than average approach score, whereas others may feel aggression, suspicion and anxiety when confronted with surprises and strangers.

The new research suggests that these physiological and cognitive variations are likely to correlate with political preference. The study found that people at the appetitive end of the spectrum are more likely to vote for left-wing parties and want money spent on free public art events, whereas those at the aversive end of the spectrum are more likely to vote conservative and want tighter border controls.

This research builds on earlier evidence of correlations between empathetic traits/moral values and political affiliation, and correlations between threat/disgust reflexes and political affiliation. Those scoring higher on disgust/threat indexes are more likely to score lower on empathy and vote conservative, whereas those scoring higher on maximising equality and minimising harm are more likely to score higher in empathy and be left wing.

Sex differences are also highlighted by these measures, with females (or males with higher than average levels of empathy) more likely than average males to overcome their feelings of disgust or threat and vote left wing.

The team at the University of Nebraska have undertaken several studies over the past few years examining the relationship between personality and political bias. In the latest study they tested whether right-wing participants experienced relatively increased skin conductance (they sweated more, a measure of psychological or physiological arousal) when viewing aversive images (an open wound, a toilet with faeces on it, someone held at gunpoint or a car accident). They also tested whether left wingers experienced increased relative skin conductance when exposed to appetitive images (a bunny rabbit, puppy, a sunset).

The results showed those with right-wing beliefs had a relatively increased response to disgust and threat, whereas those who vote left-of-centre had a relatively increased response to pleasurable images.

The research team hypothesised that if pictures of famous politicians (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Hilary Clinton and George W Bush) were shown to their subjects, those who were politically right-of-centre would exhibit a greater aversive reaction to ideologically dissimilar politicians, whereas those who were left-of-centre would exhibit a greater appetitive response (in relative terms) when viewing left-of-centre politicians. This was indeed the case.

This suggests that left-wing people are relatively more responsive to appetitive than aversive stimuli and that people who are right-of-centre are more responsive to aversive stimuli. Put another way, conservatives are more responsive to negative stimuli whereas those on the left are more responsive to positive stimuli.

The implication is that the same stimuli will evoke polarised responses depending on where you are on the aversive-appetitive spectrum. These different reactions to shared experiences will mean those of politically opposing viewpoints will automatically judge the other as wrong, and no amount of arguing in the House of Commons can change that.

A further, significant finding from this research is that right-wing people give over more time and increased attention to things they find aversive, in spite of their greater physiological response to those stimuli. For example, a far-right wing person may find homosexuality disgusting and may become angered by the notion of same-sex relationships, but they may devote time to pursuing their object of disgust. This new research suggests the rigidity and intolerance of right-wing people to nonconformity might be vehemently expressed because these people are obsessively intolerant of things they find different and aversive.

High scores in aversive behaviour also correlate with autistic spectrum disorders, narcissism and socio- and psychopathologies. People with a diagnosis along these lines also suffer increased perceptions of threat and sensations of disgust when compared to the average. More men than women exhibit these pathologies.

It should be noted that the research only included participants with ideological convictions – it did not measure the behaviour of floating voters.

The research team hope that a greater social tolerance will emerge from public acceptance that our political outlook is in part biologically determined. Because if our individual cognitive and physiological systems mean we experience the world in fundamentally different ways, this helps to explain why people support different political parties when facing the same social problems.

But this research also suggests that when David Cameron and his ministers sit in the House of Commons and look over at the faces of the opposition they are more likely to experience a sense of threat and disgust than their political rivals do when looking back at them. It is going to be far harder for conservatives to bury the hatchet and cooperate for the good of the country than it is for the exasperated socialists on the other side of the chamber.

Categories: Circuses, Enquiries & Speculations | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

NeuroScience: Synaesthesia

Here’s the second article



Smells like Beethoven

Using the word “note” to describe an odour may be more than just metaphor

Feb 4th 2012 | from the print edition

What do you hear?

THAT some people make weird associations between the senses has been acknowledged for over a century. The condition has even been given a name: synaesthesia. Odd as it may seem to those not so gifted, synaesthetes insist that spoken sounds and the symbols which represent them give rise to specific colours or that individual musical notes have their own hues.

Yet there may be a little of this cross-modal association in everyone. Most people agree that loud sounds are “brighter” than soft ones. Likewise, low-pitched sounds are reminiscent of large objects and high-pitched ones evoke smallness. Anne-Sylvie Crisinel and Charles Spence of Oxford University think something similar is true between sound and smell.

In this section

Ms Crisinel and Dr Spence wanted to know whether an odour sniffed from a bottle could be linked to a specific pitch, and even a specific instrument. To find out, they asked 30 people to inhale 20 smells—ranging from apple to violet and wood smoke—which came from a teaching kit for wine-tasting. After giving each sample a good sniff, volunteers had to click their way through 52 sounds of varying pitches, played by piano, woodwind, string or brass, and identify which best matched the smell. The results of this study, to be published later this month in Chemical Senses, are intriguing.

The researchers’ first finding was that the volunteers did not think their request utterly ridiculous. It rather made sense, they told them afterwards. The second was that there was significant agreement between volunteers. Sweet and sour smells were rated as higher-pitched, smoky and woody ones as lower-pitched. Blackberry and raspberry were very piano. Vanilla had elements of both piano and woodwind. Musk was strongly brass.

It is not immediately clear why people employ their musical senses in this way to help their assessment of a smell. But gone are the days when science assumed each sense worked in isolation. People live, say Dr Spence and Ms Crisinel, in a multisensory world and their brains tirelessly combine information from all sources to make sense, as it were, of what is going on around them. Nor is this response restricted to humans. Studies of the brains of mice show that regions involved in olfaction also react to sound.

Taste, too, seems linked to hearing. Ms Crisinel and Dr Spence have previously established that sweet and sour tastes, like smells, are linked to high pitch, while bitter tastes bring lower pitches to mind. Now they have gone further. In a study that will be published later this year they and their colleagues show how altering the pitch and instruments used in background music can alter the way food tastes.

In this experiment, each volunteer was given four pieces of toffee. While they were eating two of them, a sombre, low-pitched piece of music played on brass instruments filled the air. They consumed the other two, however, to the accompaniment of a higher-pitched piano piece. Volunteers rated the toffee eaten during low-pitched music as more bitter than that consumed during the high-pitched rendition. The toffee was, of course, identical. It was the sound that tasted different.

Categories: Enquiries & Speculations | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

NeuroScience: The Nature of Humanity

The Economist is a great news magazine.  The current issue contains two articles of note.  Here’s the first:


The nature of humanity

What’s a man?

Studies of brain genetics are starting to reveal what makes humans human

Feb 4th 2012 | from the print edition

THE problem with understanding human uniqueness is precisely that it is unique. Though the proper study of mankind may be man, that study will yield little if there is no reference point to compare man with.

That, at least, is the philosophy of Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig. Dr Paabo, whose work on fossil DNA was the inspiration for “Jurassic Park”, has since become interested in human evolution. To this end, he and his colleagues have sequenced the DNA of both Neanderthal man and an Asian species of prehistoric human, the Denisovians, which Dr Paabo’s own work identified.

Now he has turned his attentions to modern Homo sapiens. In collaboration with a team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Dr Paabo and his colleague Philipp Khaitovich have compared genetic activity over the course of a lifetime in the brains of humans, chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys. They have then matched what they found with what is known of Neanderthals, and think they have thus discovered at least part of the genetic difference between Homo sapiens and the others that creates human uniqueness.

Dr Paabo and his colleagues focused their examination, just published in Genome Research, on two parts of the brain. One was the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of abstract reasoning and social behaviour—things that humans are particularly good at. The other was the lateral cerebellar cortex, which is more to do with manual abilities. They extracted cells, post mortem, from people, chimps and monkeys of many ages, and looked at which genes had been active in these cells when the owners were alive.

The vortex of the cortex

They did this by examining the RNA in the cells. RNA molecules are single-stranded copies of the double-helical DNA genes in the cell nucleus. Their job is to carry instructions from the genes to a cell’s protein-making machinery. Most primate genes have now been identified, so it is possible to make chips covered with complementary strands to the RNA messengers, to which these messengers will uniquely stick, and which thus act as probes for particular messenger molecules.

Using such chips, Dr Khaitovich and Dr Paabo were able to find out when, during the course of life, particular genes were active, by working out how much RNA from each gene cells from particular parts of the brains of individuals of different ages contained. Their results fell into six categories.

First, they found some genes whose expression patterns over a lifetime were uniquely human (ie, were the same in chimpanzees and monkeys, but different in people) and others that were uniquely chimpanzee (ie, the same in people and monkeys, but different in chimpanzees). Second, they discovered that there were more uniquely human expression patterns than uniquely chimp ones. Third, unique human expression patterns were more common in the prefrontal cortex than in the cerebellum. Fourth, though these uniquely expressed genes were most active in the young of all species, their period of activity was several years longer in humans than in the others. Fifth, the activities of a lot of the uniquely active genes seemed to be correlated: the researchers identified seven groups of genes (five in the prefrontal cortex and two in the cerebellum) which each seemed to be working as a module. And sixth, these modular genes seem to be involved in the crucial job of linking nerve cells together through junctions called synapses.

To summarise, human beings have suites of genes that probably cause their brains to be “plastic” and thus receptive to change far longer (to the age of about five) than is true for chimps or monkeys (whose brains are plastic for less than a year after birth). Moreover, Dr Khaitovich was able to work out how the expression of these modules of genes was co-ordinated, by looking at the switches, known as transcription factors, that turn them on and off.

Indeed, by comparing modern genomes with their discoveries about Neanderthals Dr Paabo’s group has found that the regulatory process for one of the modules came into existence after the modern human and Neanderthal lines separated from one another, about 300,000 years ago. Unfortunately, it is not possible to look at the expression pattern of genes in Neanderthals, and it probably never will be. But it might be possible, as knowledge advances, to reconstruct part of it from a better understanding of that extinct species’s DNA. “Pleistocene Park”, anybody?


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the creative process of a chill go-getter

synthetic zero

“Light for some time to come will have to be called darkness.” – Nietzsche


children's author

James Radcliffe, Musician. Music, Blog, Pictures, Live, News...

dark ecologies

the literate edge of desire

Theosophy Watch

"Ancient Thought in Modern Dress"


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