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Best for Last Series: Wrapping Our Heads Around Cosmic Inflation

Credit: Berkeley

Credit: Berkeley

Earlier this month, researchers of the BICEP2 collaboration made a groundbreaking announcement: The team detected B-mode polarizations in the Cosmic Microwave Background, "ancient light" or the leftover glow from the Big Bang. These twisty patterns in the Cosmic Microwave Background give us the first direct evidence for cosmic inflation, the beginning moments when the entire universe violently expanded from a near-zero hot spot into the expansive cosmos we know today.

Okay, wait. What the heck is inflation? Our planet is in a microwave? WHAT? And who cares??

We know. This is A LOT of information to take in, and even after reading the press release over and over again, it's still a mind bender. So, we've dedicated this month's Best for Last series to this momentous event because it is actually a really, really big deal. Below we've compiled five of the best long-form features, blog posts and videos that help explain cosmic inflation, the Cosmic Microwave Background and B-mode polarization in simpler terms.

 

1. NOVA, a PBS program, aired a four-part series featuring some of today's most pressing topics in cosmology. The fourth hour of this series includes a nice history on how the theory of cosmic inflation came to be, the pioneers behind this theory and the bewildering concepts that have emerged from it (read: multiverse theory).

2. Phil Plait is, hands down, one of our favorite bloggers. On his blog, "Bad Astronomy," Plait breaks down the BICEP2 announcement into digestible and easy-to-understand chunks of information, including short but stellar primers on cosmic inflation and gravitational waves in the Cosmic Microwave Background.

3. If you aren't already following Joe Hanson, PhD, and his blog "It's Okay to be Smart," you need to do that NOW. When the BICEP2 news broke, Hanson gave some awesome brain-tickling perspective:

"This has implications for everything from multiverse theory to the long search for dark energy and dark matter (and its origins) to why our universe is so flat and even at its observable edges to the quantum scale blips and fluctuations that gave rise to everything from stardust to galaxies."

4. And then there's this PhD Comics piece, written and drawn with help from one of the BICEP2 researchers! For those who need a visual aid, like me, this is incredibly helpful.

5. You can always count on MinutePhysics to give brief but helpful explanations to complex scientific questions, like "What is dark matter?" or "Why is the sky blue?" The channel's video on cosmic inflation, which has garnered more than 433,000 views, probably gives the best explanation of why light polarization plays such a crucial role in the BICEP2 discovery.

 

Are there any other news, long-form features, videos or infographics you've seen that helped you better understand the BICEP2 discovery? Share them in the comments below!

 

As a bonus feature, we are sharing this little gem. Stanford University Assistant Professor Chao-Lin Kuo, who is part of the BICEP2 team, surprised Professor Andrei Linde, the "founding father of inflation" with news about his team's discovery. This viral video is worth watching again and again.

 

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MOOC: Cutting-Edge Teaching Tool or Hopeless Endeavor?

Anant Agarwal of MOOC edX.org at TEDGlobal 2013.

Anant Agarwal of MOOC edX.org at TEDGlobal 2013.

Following the arrival of the World Wide Web, the dissemination of information has accelerated beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations: At the touch of a key, we can almost immediately access information on any topic we please. And it’s thanks to the Internet that open-source education, like Massive Open Online Courses, is gaining steam in today’s highly connected society.

First, a little bit of history

Although MOOCs are growing in popularity, the principal of open-source classrooms is actually not all that new. Before the internet came into being, there were correspondence courses, radio-broadcast courses and televised classes. Now, armed with modern-day web conference capabilities, academic institutions, including prominent Ivy League colleges like Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, are joining the MOOC bandwagon en masse in an effort to keep up with technological advances and virtual demands.

Why this is awesome

MOOCs' explosive popularity has led the New York Times to dub 2012 "the year of the MOOC" and for good reason. Researchers from Lindenwood University cite several benefits of MOOCs:

1.      MOOCs capitalize on global technology to boost access to high-quality education. With a simple internet connection, MOOCs remove barriers of time, space and language.

2.      These online classrooms are only limited by the size of the provider's bandwidth. Read: MOOCs can reach very large groups of learners.

3.      MOOCs are conducive to more engaged and life-long learning, "allowing participants to pursue a particular interest or to continue their professional development."

A dose of cautionary optimism

Increased and affordable access to high-quality education and prominent professors? What’s not to love? Although proponents praise MOOCs for their potential to cultivate learning among the masses, there is an equally loud chorus of critics quick to list MOOCs' limitations. Among the chief criticisms:

1.      First and foremost, questions around MOOCs’ efficacy are largely unknown. Some studies have shown students very rarely complete an entire course. What’s more, study results also suggest MOOCs may not be reaching students in poor countries as they have long touted.
2.      We don’t really understand how cultural and social factors may impact participants’ success, one critic says. In that same vein, “digital literacy” is required to thrive as a MOOC participant.

3.      Another opponent goes as far as to say, MOOCs may endanger job security for those seeking PhDs.

Despite the skepticism, MOOCs are showing no sign of abating. Only time will tell whether the supporters or detractors will prevail in this controversial and divisive debate.

Have you participated in a MOOC before? What was your experience like, and have you chosen a side in this argument? Share your comments below!

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Selfies: A Healthy Dose of Narcissism

Photo credit: @TheEllenShow

Photo credit: @TheEllenShow

There it is: the selfie heard ‘round the world. At Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, beloved talk show host Ellen DeGeneres tweeted a selfie with some of today’s hottest A-list celebrities, including Lupita Nyong’o, Jennifer Lawrence and Brad Pitt. The image broke Twitter for a little bit and shattered the record for most retweets in history (sorry, Obama). We’re used to this kind of display. We are the digital generation, after all! But have you ever stopped to wonder: Why do we take selfies? And what do they say about us as individuals and as a society?

James Kilner, neuroscientist at University College London, suggests we are obsessed with selfies because we can exercise more control over the way we are perceived. In particular thanks to the advent of the forward-facing cell phone camera, we can take pictures of ourselves over and over and over until we are comfortable with revealing ourselves to the social networking world.

While some people might find the idea of selfies cringe-worthy, this self-expression might actually be good for us. As Kilner suggests, we are far less aware of our own appearance. Selfies give us an avenue to explore our unique physical and behavioral natures and how we might fit into the world around us.

“Self captured images allow young adults and teens to express their mood states and share important experiences,” says Dr. Andrea Letamendi, a clinical psychologist and research fellow at UCLA.

That’s not all. Vanessa Hill of Brain Craft (we’ve shared her work before) shows in this delightful video that a healthy dose of social media narcissism is actually good for us. And researchers at the University of Indiana suggest “selective self presentation” may even boost self-esteem and confidence in oneself:

The results revealed that, in contrast to previous work on OSA, becoming self-aware by viewing one’s own Facebook profile enhances self-esteem rather than diminishes it. Participants that updated their profiles and viewed their own profiles during the experiment also reported greater self-esteem … These findings suggest that selective self-presentation in digital media, which leads to intensified relationship formation, also influences impressions of the self.

But, as the saying goes, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. As Peggy Drexler, PhD, research psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College/Cornell University, outlines in her Psychology Today column, excessive narcissism can negatively affect our relationships with loved ones and work colleagues. In fact, a recent study, conducted by  the University of Birmingham, the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University, suggests individuals who frequently take and share selfies are more likely to report shallow relationships.

So next time you’re compelled to tweet a selfie or post one on your Facebook page, remember: Just a little bit goes a long, long way.

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Best for Last Series: STEM Education, What's The Big Deal?

Photo credit: MSU

Photo credit: MSU

First and foremost, we are so sorry there was no blog post last week!! To make it up to you, we crafted an especially informative blog post for this month's Best for Last series. Once in a while, we'll field questions from the public about our mission and why STEM education is so important. With the help of Visual.ly* and some other helpful resources, we've pooled together some helpful infographics that help paint a picture of the dire need to revamp STEM education in our nation.

This particularly sobering infographic shows how we are losing droves of potential innovators and pioneers in STEM: 75 percent of K-12 students talented in math and science decide not to pursue STEM as a field of study in college. What's worse, 43 percent of STEM college students choose not to work in the field after graduation, and more and more STEM experts are leaving their profession over time.

So what's holding back our youth? A survey of 16- to 25-year-olds around the U.S. breaks down some of the barriers keeping them from pursuing a career in STEM. Notably, nearly half (45 percent) of respondents don't think their education focused enough on innovation.

Complicating matters further, our long-term future demands greater innovation and output from STEM fields. The U.S. alone will have more than 1.2 million job openings in these areas. If our youth doesn't seeking these professions, who will fill these important positions?

And it's not just that we need more STEM professionals — we need more women and minorities represented in these fields, as well. According to this infographic, even though minority students report wanting a STEM career just as badly as their white and Asian counterparts, nearly three-quarters of all scientists and engineers are white. Another one shows women represent less than 25 percent of all STEM professionals.

But there's good news. The growing need for innovators has caught the attention of both the public and private sectors, and a growing number of nationwide initiatives are now aimed at investing greater time and energy into boosting STEM education. This infographic demonstrates the future demand of STEM professionals, including experts in computer sciences, engineering and physical sciences.

We hope these links are a helpful way to visualize the need for better and more widespread STEM education. Are there any insightful long-form features, infographics or videos you've seen that help highlight this important issue? Leave a comment or link below.

 

*If you couldn't tell already, all of us at The Think Tank love Visual.ly. For fun, we are throwing this in here: The Science of Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse.

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Part Five: Empathize – TTT’s Guide to a Better Brain

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And here it is, our fifth and final installment of The Think Tank’s Guide to a Better Brain. Most of us are taught from an early age that empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another — is good for us. Here at The Think Tank, it’s not enough for us to be told to do something. We have to know why!

 

 It feels good! Ever notice your day gets a little better every time you lend a true listening ear to a struggling friend, colleague or family member? Well, there’s real science behind that. Jordan Grafman, PhD, used imaging technology to see what happened in the brain when subjects were given an opportunity to give money to charity, keep the money for themselves or not give anything at all. Dr. Grafman and his team found giving to charity activated pleasure centers of the brain that fire up when we eat delicious food or have sex. Their findings showed that, contrary to the belief we are born with selfish urges, unselfishness may be a natural, hard-wired and pleasurable instinct for us. 

Numerous other studies show people reported feeling a lot better when they helped others or contributed to a cause they believe in. Elizabeth Dunn, PhD, conducted a study of 630 Americans to see how spending habits affected one’s happiness. Regardless of income level, results showed test subjects felt significantly happier when they spent money on others or charitable causes. Meanwhile, those who did spend money on themselves did not report any increased happiness at all.

 It’s good for our relationships. Last week, we wrote in length about why socialization is good, not just for our brains but for our relationships as well. In the same study described above, Dr. Grafman found a part of the frontal lobe was also activated when participants gave money to charity. This part of the brain houses receptors for oxytocin, which promotes socialization. It may seem common sense that empathy leads to deeper social networks, but science can now show a chemical reasoning behind it.

 It’s good for our bodies. By now we know an elevated sense of emotional well-being, driven in part by empathy and socialization, leads to a host of health benefits. As we exercise empathy and strengthen our social networks more and more in our daily lives, we reap the rewards physiologically. While at the University of Michigan, Stephanie Brown, PhD, found that caregiving behavior may actually be linked to decreased mortality. In addition, researchers from UCLA's Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the University of North Carolina found those with a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life showed very favorable gene-expression profiles in their immune cells. They had low levels of inflammatory gene expression and strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes.

It’s good for others. As if these aren’t good enough reasons to be more empathetic every day, a landmark study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that empathy may help reduce the emotional and psychological burdens of others. Researchers interviewed nearly 900 caregivers who care for terminally ill patients. The interviews revealed that caregivers who took care of patients with complex needs, such as transportation, nursing care and personal care, were less likely to be depressed when their doctors expressed empathy. The caregivers were also less likely to feel like their caregiving responsibilities interfered with their personal lives. Imagine the good you can do for others just by lending a listening ear!

 

So that’s it, folks. We all want a better functioning brain, which leads to healthier bodies, more fruitful relationships and a higher sense of well-being, and we hope these five blog posts helped you take another step toward that. Cheers!

 

*Up for a challenge? Researchers believe there’s much more good that can be done if we take empathy one step further and show compassion. For more information on the difference between empathy and compassion and how we can cultivate compassion every single day, read on!

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PART FOUR: SOCIALIZE - TTT’S GUIDE TO A BETTER BRAIN

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We’ve all experienced the “winter blues” at one point. The winter season is especially harsh this year, so many of us are holed up in our homes, wrapped under layers of warm blankets and clothing and away from the rest of society. We’re cold and utterly miserable. There’s a reason why we long for warmer weather, and science shows our need for socialization might be one reason for that.

In evolutionary terms, our ancestors fared better when they lived and worked together. In greater numbers, they had a better chance of obtaining the resources they needed to survive and to protect the group from danger. As we’ve evolved over millions of years, our need to socialize became a permanent fixture in the blueprint of our brains.

Thanks to the hard work of researchers, we have a growing body of evidence that shows how our relationships with others (or lack thereof) affect us in physical and emotional ways, giving greater insight into our deep-seated need for socialization:

1. Cognitive function. A study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests social interactions boost cognitive performance, like memory. Researchers assessed the social interactions of 3,610 individuals and then tested their general knowledge (ie, Who is the president of the United States?) and memory. The researchers found that more socially active participants demonstrated higher cognitive abilities. This outcome was similar across all age groups.

2. Physical well-being. In addition to cognitive function, the presence or absence of a social network may even have implications on our physical health. There are a myriad of health studies that show social isolation weakens our body's ability to fight off disease, potentially leading to diabetes, heart disease, sleep dysfunction and even early mortality.

3. Emotional well-being. So having a social network is good for our brains and bodies. What about our emotional well-being? Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago studied changes in brain activity of socially isolated mice. They found that the brain chemicals needed to manage and reduce stress fell nearly 50 percent. Their finding suggests social isolation may trigger negative emotions or behaviors, including anxiety, stress and aggression.

While the effects of social networks or social isolation are obviously felt on an individual basis, what does this mean for society as a whole? John T. Cacioppo, Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, eloquently writes about the devastating effects of social isolation, particularly for marginalized groups like the elderly and minorities:

Given the projections of health care costs and the looming budget deficits, there is a critical need not only for theory and research to determine the mechanisms by which social isolation gets under the skin to affect morbidity and mortality, but for a national health care plan that both supports palliative care and promotes preventive medicine, health behavior, and healthy lifestyles to address the rising incidence of chronic disease; that recognizes and deals with stress-related physical and psychological disorders as a means of increasing physiological resilience; and that recognizes the importance of connecting lives and family.

So the next time you feel a rush of euphoria after an intimate dinner party with friends or night out with a significant other, remember all the good you’re doing for your well-being and the well-being of others.

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Best for Last Series: Science on Screen

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Hello, Think Tankers! We are kicking off a monthly series on this here blog, where at the end of every month we’ll highlight a handful of awesome STEM or STEMed-related links that we didn’t get around to sharing sooner. As the saying goes, we save the best for last in this series, and the links below will give you a taste of what’s to come! This month’s blog post is dedicated to all our science filmmakers, both of the big screen and computer screen variety!

1. Bluebrain is a 10-part documentary about the Blue Brain Project, the brainchild of Henry Markram, PhD, who announced in 2009 his work to “reverse-engineer a human brain with digital simulations of all the physical properties of every neuron, powered by IBM Blue Gene supercomputers by 2020.” The project will film over 14 years, with the final installment projected for release in 2019. Here are parts one, two, three and four.

2. Our winos will appreciate this one. One of our favorite science blogs, It’s Okay to be Smart, recently posted this amazing video tribute to the great Richard Feynman, PhD, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. This short video features an audio clip of Dr. Feynman reciting his poem, "The Universe in a Glass of Wine.” The video is all at once clever, smart and beautiful.

3. Here’s another poetic tribute. This time, famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, PhD, recites Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” The audio is paired with gorgeous animations of the universe, and the resulting video is absolutely mesmerizing. A heart-felt shout out goes to the American Museum of Natural History for this gem.

4. What happens after a whale dies? Sweet Fern Productions shows how ocean life is intimately connected in a playful yet refreshingly informative way. We especially love how they used creative paper models to animate this story.

5. Everyone’s resolution is to exercise more in the New Year. We all know that routine exercise offers a wide range of health benefits, but BrainCraft delivers a crafty and educational video about the benefits of exercise on memory, surely a practical tip we could all use. +1 for the listed references to the video’s cited research!

6. New York-based filmmaker Jacob LaMendeloa produced Anosmia, a 9-minute documentary about people who live with the inability to smell. With powerfully vivid imagery, LaMendeloa (who has anosmia himself) does a fantastic job telling the mini-stories of these individuals, who will never know the smell of things we take for granted everyday: the scent of babies, a single rose or a slice of fresh-baked apple pie.

7. Set for release this summer, NEURODOME utilizes modern-day imaging and other technologies to explore how our brain, with its intricate highway system of neural networks, innately wires us to explore and discover new mysteries in the universe. The team behind NEURODOME gives us a hint for what's to come with two teasers for this summer's upcoming movie.

We hope you’ve enjoyed these links as much as we did. If you know of any other awesome science films, tweet at us or get in touch on Facebook!

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STEAM Brings New Dimension to STEM

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While the subject of STEM education has attracted nationwide attention, another new and innovative concept has quickly emerged from this movement: STEAM education. This model builds on what we already understand about STEM by incorporating "Art+Design" to produce creative solutions to everyday problems.

STEAM education blends the arts and sciences, which historically have been taught as separate and almost dueling fields, in an integrated fashion. Why? Early adopters and pioneers of STEAM education see art and design education as the anchor future innovators need to succeed in evolving fields, including engineering, architecture, healthcare and technology. Apple, maker of the ever-popular iPhone, is a gleaming example of finding success at the cross-section between art and science.

Don't buy it? An oft-cited study, published in the Journal of the Psychology of Science and Technology in 2008, suggests artistic capabilities may be associated with scientific success.

Various investigators have proposed that “scientific geniuses” are polymaths. To test this hypothesis, auto­ biographies, biographies, and obituary notices of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, members of the Royal Society, and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences were read and adult arts and crafts avocations tabulated. Data were compared with a 1936 avocation survey of Sigma Xi members and a 1982 survey of arts avocations among the U.S. public. Nobel laureates were significantly more likely to engage in arts and crafts avocations than Royal Society and National Academy of Sciences members, who were in turn significantly more likely than Sigma Xi members and the U.S. public. Scientists and their biographers often commented on the utility of their avocations as stimuli for their science. The utility of arts and crafts training for scientists may have important public policy and educational implications in light of the marginalization of these subjects in most curricula.

Although little more is known about the connection between artistic capabilities and scientific achievement (read: "correlation does not imply causation"), the potential for such a symbiotic relationship can't be ignored. Just look at some of history's greatest scientists: Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Hildegard von Bingen.

Schools are buying into this concept in increasing numbers. Rhode Island School of Design has been at the forefront of the "STEM to STEAM" movement, and other schools are taking RISD's lead. (See here, here and here.) 

STEAM has also gained traction beyond classroom walls. Last year, Congress formed the Congressional STEAM Caucus, which "will host briefings and advocate for policy changes that will encourage educators to integrate arts, broadly defined, with traditional Science, Technology, Engineering and Math curriculum."

Many non-profit groups and inspired individuals are also dedicated to elevating the discourse around art+science. Imagine Science Films seeks to bridge the gap between science and film, “ultimately making science accessible and stimulating to a broader audience.” Since its inception in 2008, ISF has hosted an annual film festival that celebrates some of the best science communication and film projects. Similarly, ArtLab, founded by PhD candidate Maryam Zaringhalam, provides a platform for scientists and artists to collaborate and converse in physical and virtual spaces. And here on campus, UChicago boasts its own Arts|Science Initiative. The program allows graduate students and faculty across disciplines to collaborate on projects, such as “The Chromochord,” a musical biosensor that allows viewers to hear and see proteins reacting to light, and “An Artistic Collision,” a series of paintings depicting the collision of subatomic particles.

All of this is super exciting and inspiring, and we can’t wait to see how STEAM will impact students and their communities over the long term. Have you seen any examples of stellar STEAM projects or curricula? Share in the comments below!

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The Purpose of Education, According to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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“I have a dream…” These are some of the most famous words in American history, proclaimed by the most prominent figure of the Civil Rights Movement: Martin Luther King, Jr. Indeed, his leadership and nonviolent protests against racial discrimination helped propel the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned “discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin.”

Today, on Dr. King’s birthday, we want to honor his memory and highlight one of his reflections — “The Purpose of Education.” This powerfully worded piece, penned by Dr. King in 1947, was published in The Maroon Tiger, the campus newspaper at the Morehouse College where he completed his undergraduate studies in sociology.

The piece is full of universal truths and perhaps most critically reminds us all of the function of education as the linchpin of social justice. We encourage everyone to read through this compelling and insightful piece in its entirety here. But if you absolutely cannot, at least take away this:

A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.

Nearly 60 years after it was published, this piece still resonates very deeply with all of us here at The Think Tank. We believe youths across all ethnic, socioeconomic, religious and sexual identities should have ready access to high-quality education, one that equips them with the critical-thinking skills to objectively navigate their curiosities, change their communities in positive and sustainable ways and inspire generations after them to do the same. Our cities will be better for it.

So we want to say happy birthday and thank you to the man who kicked it all off and still serves as a resounding example of social justice and integrity 45 years after his assassination. We hope you, our supporters, are just as inspired by his example as we are.

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Mapping the Human Brain to Understand the Human Mind

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The Human Connectome Project and Brain Mapping

The pace at which technology has advanced in the past several decades is staggering. This is none more evident than in the field of medical imaging, which has paved the way to a new understanding of the human body, allowing healthcare professionals to deliver novel and cutting-edge therapies every day.

The Human Connectome Project, the first of its kind, seeks to use this kind of leading-edge technology to map the brain structure and its connectivity to superfine detail. Researchers hope this kind of brain mapping will help scientists answer the question: How do parts of the brain work together to produce human behaviors?

The project is a monumental undertaking. Backed by tens of millions of dollars, the project pulls together some of the brightest minds from leading institutions, including Harvard University, UCLA, Washington University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Oxford. Using state-of-the-art imaging technology and borrowing the time of some 1,200 volunteers, the researchers hope a map of the brain structure and its connectivity will lead them one step closer to understanding how these neural highways influence individual human behavior, intelligence and emotion.

Emerging Discoveries About the Human Brain

Okay, so we can all probably agree The Human Connectome Project and other neuroscience initiatives like it are cool. But what does it all mean? What implications do such expensive and time-intensive brain mapping projects have on our future? First of all, The Human Connectome Project will be open for public use, meaning clinicians, neuroscientists and other researchers the world over can use this treasure trove of information to exponentially propel our understanding of brain function and human behavior.

“One of the things we’re hoping comes out of this is to understand early indicators of when people might be starting to have having difficulties with brain connectivity,” Deanna Barch, PhD, said in an interview with The New York Times. “Some of it is basic science — trying to understand how the brain works and how the brain contributes to how we behave — but a lot of it has clinical application.”

This is huge. Think mild traumatic brain injuries, epilepsy, depression and other brain and psychological disorders and how we can intervene earlier.

 Simulating the Brain

Brain mapping and other neuroscience-specific ventures like The Human Connectome Project are revealing tons of new possibilities outside of the clinical world, too. The mainstream media is teeming with new and exciting developments that take advantage of our evolving understanding of the brain to enhance human capabilities. Check out some of the developments that have been recently exciting us here and here.

Although The Human Connectome Project is not yet complete, we’re excited to see how the fruits of this labor will advance neuroscience for years to come. Have you read about any other projects, studies or technologies that rely on a deeper understanding of the human brain? Comment below!

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2013-14: A Celebration of The Past & A Toast to The Future

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2013 was an exciting year, especially for all of us at The Think Tank. For the last blog post ever for 2013, we wanted to bring everyone up to speed on what we’ve been up to and what we have to look forward to in 2014.

 

A new website

We’ve launched a new and improved version of our website, replete with new information on our Street Science, School Science and Fellowship programs, which are the bread and butter of our mission. By bringing science to the streets and schools of Chicago, we hope to inspire change among all youth to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, particularly underrepresented minorities and girls. Our vision — to diversify the perspectives and insights in the scientific community and affect greater and positive change in the world at large — will come alive in these programs.

Visit our website again for more developments. As our programs get off the ground in the New Year, we will do a better job of keeping everyone up-to-date on The Think Tank’s activities and other cool STEM news. Scout’s honor!

 

A new truck

In case you missed all the buzz on our social media channels, the much-anticipated truck is finally here!

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We are ready to take this baby to the road and bring greater exposure to our cause. The truck is a critical component to The Think Tank’s mission. By taking science to the streets, we hope to engage the public audience — students, teachers, school administrators, parents — and inspire them to discover more about themselves and their communities through scientific inquiry.

We will be outfitting our new whip with some sweet tools and gadgets. We’ll post new pictures and updates as soon as we are able!

 

A new brain trust

We recently recruited two new members to The Think Tank’s team. We are pumped to finally introduce Stephanie Levi, our trusty Community Programs Manager, who has already played a vital role in forging new relationships with key stakeholders and organizations. There’s also Jaimie Oh, the spunky Communications Manager, who will be posting regular updates and news items on our social pages and this blog!  If you aren’t already, follow The Think Tank on Facebook and Twitter and check back here for weekly blog posts! You can learn more about our two leading ladies on our website!

We are thrilled to see what 2014 has in store for us. We want to send a huge shout out to everyone who has supported us along the way and to all our new friends who are just joining the party. Before we sign off today, we wanted to share our co-founders New Year’s resolutions. Have any resolutions that you’d like to share?* Post them in the comments below!

 

Daniel Casasanto, PhD: My resolution is to make more regular blog posts on The Malleable Mind, a monthly blog on Psychology Today!  

Tyler Alterman: My New Years resolution will be to get back to meditation, especially given all the amazing new science showing its profound benefits. There's work being churned out at a rapid pace revealing meditation's positive effects on mood, attention, stress, and more. One plan is to use mindfulness to end my chocolate addiction. Another will be to bend spoons using only my prefrontal cortex. Ommmmmmmmm....

Happy New Year, folks! See you next week!

 

*Research shows sharing your goals may actually make you less likely to act on those convictions. Buuuuut, sharing is caring (and way more fun).

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Part Three: Meditate - TTT’s Guide to a Better Brain

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Part Three: Meditate - TTT’s Guide to a Better Brain

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A neuroscientist and the Dalai Lama walk into a room

This is not the beginning of a joke. Rather, it was the beginning of a friendship. In 1992, His Holiness invited neuroscientist Richard Davidson to his home in India. An unlikely partnership arose--one which has sparked a new wave of investigation into a practice once thought by many Westerners to be esoteric or wishy-washy.

Before starting the rest of this post, stop. Take a breath. As you breathe in, pay attention to the coolness in your nostrils, and nothing else. As you breathe out, feel the warmth of the air exiting. You’ve just taken a bench press for the brain. That is, you’ve just had a small sample of meditation. It’s a practice that neuroscience, of all disciplines, has helped push into the mainstream thanks to neuroscientists like Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Today, it has become increasingly common to find even business-suited professionals like Rupert Murdoch in a cross-legged lotus pose. Why the hype?

Meditation as brain-training

Several forms of meditation appear to be particularly effective for brain-training. Brain-training for what, you might ask? Here’s a diverse list of things meditation may positively benefit:

I myself have made a new years resolution to get back on the meditation bandwagon as new results continue to astonish. My personal preference is for mindfulness meditation because of its attentional benefits. (In fact, I practiced mindfulness immediately prior to this post.)

How to get started

Starting a meditation practice can be a challenge, with all those thoughts zipping around in your head. Luckily, there are some fantastic resources for those wishing to pick up the habit. Here are three of my favorites:

1. Meditation via iPhone

The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center provides a free series of guided audio meditations, some of which are specialized for beginners. I’ve used these to meditate on New York City and Chicago subways during commutes. All you need is a pair of headphones and an audio player. I particularly dig their “Body Scan for Sleep” podcast for enabling one of The Think Tank’s other recommended brain-boosters. Another great iPhone resource is the Calm.com app, covered here by Lifehacker.

2. Free meditation centers

Almost every city I’ve ever visited has a place you can dock for free or donation-based meditation sessions. Often these sessions are guided by an experienced expert, which is especially helpful if you’re a beginner. You can find meditation centers to suit almost every disposition: I’ve seen guided sessions held at religious institutions like the Jewish Community Center, hardcore gyms like UChicago’s Ratner Athletics Center, and just about everything in between.  

3. Brian Eno

Brian Eno’s 1978 Ambient 1: Music for Airports is hands-down the greatest soundtrack for meditation (Amazon link). Want to fight about it? Tweet us at @UCThinkTank or MEET ME OUTSIDE IN FIVE MIN--ehem--ommmmmmm….

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TTT ♥s Cyborg Music

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TTT ♥s Cyborg Music

THE ELASTRO SERIES AND THE THINK TANK PRESENT:

FOUR SOLO DUOS FOR HANDS, MUSCLES, & BRAINS

Friday, 10/25, 9:30pm | Elastic, 2830 N Milwaukee Ave Chicago, IL 60618

Solo duet: a contradiction? Not when you party with The Think Tank and the Elastro Electro-Acoustic Series. This Friday, come jive to some of Chicago's top musicians accompanied by their own brainwaves, muscle vibrations, and phototropic-freaking-proteins. The best part? The first 30 Think Tankers get in FREE. 

>>> RSVP ON FACEBOOK FOR YOUR FREE TICKET (Limited supply)

Don't have Facebook? RSVP here

 

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Part Two: Exercise - TTT's Guide to a Better Brain

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You already knew that exercise will give you those washboard abs. But did you know that it will also give you a washboa--ehem--quick-witted brain?

In 2004, neuroscientist Taeko Harada and colleagues asked whether there might be a direct link between aerobic exercise and cognitive functioning. So, they recruited a bunch of 27-year olds, and randomly assigned half to jog for 12 weeks while the other half did not jog. Then they were given tests of cognitive ability.

Not only did the joggers do better than the non-joggers, but cognitive performance in the joggers fell two weeks after they were asked to quit their jogging routine. Since then, a giant body of literature has emerged, linking aerobic exercise to all sorts of mental benefits, from problem-solving and attention, to stress relief and a reduced risk of Alzheimer's and dementia.

But don't just take my word for it, check out two great books on the amazing mental benefits of exercise: John Medina's Brain Rules and--for a more in-depth look--John Ratey's Spark.

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Part One: Sleep - TTT's Guide to a Better Brain

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Sleep is for the weak. So goes the popular myth, especially here in New York.

But according to a wave of research, nothing could be further from the truth. I, personally, have been so convinced by this research that I've become famous amongst friends as being "he who does not sacrifice sleep." 

Imagine that you could take a vitamin that would boost your thinking ability, your emotional stability, your productivity, your willpower, your ability to learn, and your grades in school while lowering your anxiety and forgetfulness. That vitamin is sleep.

Given that getting the wrong amount of sleep is also linked to weight gainincreased chance of strokedisease risk, and even attractiveness, start making sleep a priority today! An article from ScienceBlog has some great tips to help you get to bed on time.

Three of my personal bizarro tricks for getting to sleep by 12pm (not based on any science I know of):

  1. Watch South Park.
  2. Listen to the New Yorker Fiction podcast.
  3. Ice bath!

Stay tuned tomorrow for cog sci tip no. 2.

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The Think Tank Guide to a Better Brain

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The Think Tank Guide to a Better Brain

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Part of The Think Tank's mission will be to democratize brain and behavioral research, to make it relevant even to folks without a scientific background. In that vein, I've created a list of the top five ways cognitive science can improve just about anyone's life. Each day next week, I'll be releasing a post about a cog sci tip to live by. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, be sure to reserve your spot for our upcoming gala.

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