Viewing entries in
The Latest Discoveries

1 Comment

“Climb a Tree! Really, It Will Help Your Brain!”

Image courtesy of BodyTribe Fitness

Image courtesy of BodyTribe Fitness

Are you always losing your phone or your keys? Do you have trouble remembering directions? Maybe climbing that tree in your backyard would help! According to a study published in Perceptual and Motor Skills by University of North Florida psychologists, Drs. Ross and Tracy Alloway, engaging in proprioceptively dynamic activities for just a few hours can dramatically improve your brain’s cognitive performance.

Alloway and Alloway broke new ground with their experiment, focusing on the relationship between proprioceptively dynamic activities and working memory for the first time. Participants included adults across a wide age range, divided into one experimental group and two control groups. The experimental group had their baseline working memory tested, and then completed two sessions of proprioceptively dynamic activities with breaks for working memory tests after each session. These activities included climbing trees, balancing on a beam, moving while paying attention to posture, running barefoot, navigating obstacles, and lifting and carrying objects. In contrast, the other participants did not get to have nearly as much fun trying to improve their working memory… The first control group sat in a lecture hall and listened to new information for two hours, and the second practiced Kripalu yoga – a type of yoga focused on posture and bodily awareness.

The researchers found that the participants who balanced on beams, ran, climbed, and did other proprioceptively dynamic activities significantly improved their working memory performance. Meanwhile, the control participants did not show significant working memory benefits from their tasks. Alloway and Alloway explained these results in terms of how quickly the brain needs to adapt to an ever-shifting environment during a proprioceptively dynamic activity like balancing on a beam. While the participants who practiced Kripalu yoga were learning to be aware of their bodies, the researchers suggested that they were not moving quickly enough to use – and strengthen - their working memory.

Alloway and Alloway designed their experiment based on prior research examining the relationship between exercise and the brain (Take a look at this great cartoon!), including a previous study that showed how a neuromuscular and proprioceptive training program could reduce injury in soccer players, and another that indicated the physical and cognitive benefits of proprioceptively demanding activities for elderly people. In the future, Alloway and Alloway would like to determine which forms of proprioceptively dynamic activities are most beneficial for improving working memory. Until they know which ones are best, though, just have fun! Climb a tree at lunch, and then walk along a curb on your way home… Your brain will thank you!

References:

Alloway, T., & Alloway, R. (2015a). Climb a Tree for Working Memory: Part 2.  Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tracy-alloway-phd-and-ross-alloway-phd/climb-a-tree-for-working-_1_b_7944200.html

Alloway, R. G., & Alloway, T. P. (2015b). The Working Memory Benefits of

Proprioceptively Demanding Training: A Pilot Study. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 120(3), 766-775.

Bergland, C. (2015). Want to Improve Your Cognitive Abilities? Go Climb a Tree!  

Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201507/want-improve-your-cognitive-abilities-go-climb-tree

Godwin, D., & Cham, J. (2015). Exercise Gets the Brain in Shape.   Retrieved from

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/exercise-gets-the-brain-in-shape/

Heffner, C. L. (Ed.) (2015) AllPsych. PsychCentral.

Mandelbaum, B. R., Silvers, H. J., Watanabe, D. S., Knarr, J. F., Thomas, S. D., Griffin, L.

Y., . . . Garrett Jr., W. (2005). Effectiveness of a neuromuscular and proprioceptive training program in preventing anterior cruciate ligament injuries in female athletes. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 33(7), 1003-1010.

ScienceDaily. (2015). Climbing a tree can improve cognitive skills, researchers say.   

Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150729102407.htm

Shubert, T. E., McCulloch, K., Hartman, M., & Giuliani, C. A. (2010). The Effect of an

Exercise-Based Intervention on Physical and Cognitive Performance for Older Adults: A Pilot Study. Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy, 33(4), 157-164.

1 Comment

1 Comment

Your Paper Brain: How The Mammalian Brain Got All of its Folds and Wrinkles

Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison, University Communications

Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison, University Communications

 

That’s a cool picture, right? It’s a neuroscientist holding a real human brain! Now, pick up a piece of paper, and crumple it into a ball. Do you see any similarities…? You should!

According to a study published in Science last July by Brazilian scientists Bruno Mota and Suzana Herculano-Houzel, the mammalian brain grows and folds just like a sheet of paper, following the same mathematical pattern. Now, the researchers’ results may end centuries of debate about how the mammalian brain became so wrinkled.

To retrace the steps leading to Mota and Herculano-Houzel’s findings, the surface of the human brain – along with the brains of some other large mammals - is covered by an intricate pattern of gyri (ridges) and sulci (valleys), making it quite lumpy compared to most animals’ brains. As with many other biological traits, the reason for our folded brain lies in evolution. With folds, each part of the brain is closer together, so sending information-carrying signals from one region to another requires less distance and time, making the process more efficient.

 

Although neuroscientists knew that gyri and sulci develop in the human brain during the third trimester of pregnancy, the precise forces behind their formation were controversial among brain researchers, according to an article in Scientific American describing Mota and Herculano-Houzel’s study. The first hypothesis was based on brain size. Essentially, some researchers thought that the larger the brain, the more folds it would have. However, this did not explain mammalian brains like the manatees’, which is much smoother than the similarly-sized brain of the baboon. Other mammals, like the dolphin, also had brains that seemed “too wrinkled” for their size. The second hypothesis was based on the number of neurons, claiming that more folded brains contained more neurons. However, neuroscientists found exceptions to this claim, too. For example, the wrinkled cortex (outer layer) of the human brain has three times as many neurons as elephant cortex, but human brains are only half the size with less folding. Until Mota and Herculano-Houzel, this variability led scientists to believe that the processes underlying brain folding were unique to every animal.

However, Mota and Herculano-Houzel’s “eureka moment” came when they realized that the mathematics responsible for crumpled paper and a crumpled brain are exactly the same! Both objects are exposed to environmental forces that cause them to take the most stable form possible. For paper and brains, these forces are controlled by two factors: Thickness and surface area. A thicker piece of paper – and a thicker brain – each have fewer folds with less material hidden inside each wrinkle. By contrast, pieces of paper - and brains - with greater surface areas have more folds due to their larger size.

To understand how brains become folded, it is important to remember that they are subject to forces from all directions during development. First, gravity pushes down on the growing brain, just as fluid within the brain is pushing outwards. Each new cell in the brain also applies its own outward force as the entire organ expands. These forces combine with the properties of thickness and surface area to create the amazing network of folds in the human brain, and those of other large mammals like the dolphin.

Moving forward, Mota and Herculano-Houzel suggest that their “crumpled paper” model will impact the work of many other neuroscientists. They predict that their results will be especially important for researchers who study the cells that produce neurons and those who are working to understand structural disorders of the brain where the folds do not form correctly.

 

References:

Chudler, E. H. (2015a). Cells of the Nervous System.   Retrieved from https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/cells.html

Chudler, E. H. (2015b). Glossary of Neuroscience Words.   Retrieved from https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/gloss.html

Henderson, T. (2015). The Meaning of Force.   Retrieved from http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/Lesson-2/The-Meaning-of-Force

Imbler, S. (2015). Developing Brains Fold Like Crumpled Paper to Get Their Convolutions. Scientific American.  Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/developing-brains-fold-like-crumpled-paper-to-get-their-convolutions1/

Mota, B., & Herculano-Houzel, S. (2015). Cortical folding scales universally with surface area and thickness, not number of neurons. Science, 349(6243), 74-77.

1 Comment

Comment

World Cup 2014: Which Ball is the Fairest of Them All?

Photo courtesy: FIFA

Photo courtesy: FIFA

For those of you who’ve been living under a rock, that epic global sporting event has graced our lives once more — the FIFA World Cup 2014. While we’ve all been busy rallying and cheering on our favorite teams (maybe?), there’s another hero that has quietly entered the stadium — the Brazuca soccer ball. There’s a real science that goes into designing a soccer ball fit for the world stage, and it turns out Brazuca is a real work of art. Who knew?

Fierce outcry from players of the 2010 World Cup had Adidas, the official World Cup ball supplier since 1970, rethink its soccer ball design. The official 2010 ball, dubbed Jabulani, veered off or dipped suddenly midflight, making its unpredictable flight tendencies a nightmare for world-class goalkeepers. Well, is it true that a ball’s design could impact its “ flight performance”? To answer this question, Sungchan Hong and Takeshi Asai, physicists from Japan’s University of Tsukuba, tested the aerodynamics of five balls, each with a unique set of characteristics, such as number of panels and texture:

  • Adidas’ TeamGeist 2 (used in the 2008 Euro Cup)
  • Adidas’ Jabulani (used in the 2010 World Cup)
  • Adidas’ Cafusa (used in the 2013 Confereations Cup)
  • Adidas’ Brazuca (in use in the 2014 World Cup)
  • Conventional Molten Vantaggio ball
Infographic courtesy: Kyle Kim/LA Times

Infographic courtesy: Kyle Kim/LA Times

The scientists utilized several wind tunnel tests and a “kick robot” to measure and compare the flight characteristics of each ball. And it seems the complaints of those 2010 World Cup footballers might hold some truth: The physicists found the Jabulani ball performed the worst, while the Brazuca ball performed the best. So what exactly is it about the Brazuca ball that makes it so special?

  • Deeper seams, which reduces “drag” and stabilizes its flight predictability.
  • Six panels bonded with glue, which evens the weight and shape of the ball.
  • Tiny “nubs,” which minimize the “knuckling” effect that causes erratic flight. (It was the lack of this type of design in the smooth Jabulani ball that caused its unpredictable flight.)
Infographic courtesy: Kyle Kim/LA Times

Infographic courtesy: Kyle Kim/LA Times

Suddenly, we have a much, much deeper appreciation of soccer ball engineering! Check out these other interesting links on the design and manufacturing of Brazuca:

  • Karen Kaplan at LA Times and Brian Palmer of the Washington Post each produced wonderful long-form news pieces on the physics behind building the perfect soccer ball.
  • NASA conducted its own series of tests and found that, yes, the Brazuca soccer ball reigns supreme in the test of aerodynamics.
  • Check out how Adidas took extra measures to make sure Brazuca would meet the needs and expectations of footballers.
  • And this is random but fun: Brazuca has its own Twitter. And now you know!

Comment

Comment

Music and Memory: It’s All in Our Brains

Courtesy: Northwestern University

Courtesy: Northwestern University

Last week in Boston, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society hosted its annual meeting, bringing together some of the brightest minds in academia to share exciting new research in the field of cognitive neuroscience. Poster presentations and symposia sessions were as wide and varied as the field itself, with topics ranging from our developing understanding of language processing to the dynamic role of functional neuroimaging to the complexity of sleep and its impact on the brain and our lives.

One particularly interesting poster presentation caught our eyes (and the eyes of the meeting attendees — it was a People’s Choice Award winner!). Ever wonder why a certain song evokes a strong emotional reaction within you? Think: songs from graduation ceremonies, weddings, break ups. You get the picture. Well, there’s a neurobiological reason for that! There is a part of our brain — the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) — that has been understood to be the center that interweaves music with memory and emotion.

So what happens when this region of the brain is damaged? Researchers from the University of Iowa recruited volunteers with no brain damage, damage to other parts of the brain and damage to the mPFC. The researchers exposed each participant to a musical stimulus (popular music from when they were 15-30 years old) or visual stimulus (facial images of prominent people during those same years). The participants were then asked to describe what memories came to mind.

The investigators found that volunteers with no brain damage or damage to other areas of the brain recalled music-evoked memories with much, much more detail then facial-evoked memories. On the other hand, volunteers with mPFC damage recalled fewer vivid music-evoked memories, and any music-evoked memories they could describe were not any more detailed or vivid than facial-evoked memories. Their findings suggest the powerful ability to recall detailed memories from songs comes from this 3-pound jelly-like organ inside our heads!

 

Here are some other mind-tickling poster presentations that caught our eyes:

1. Even though the right hemisphere of our brains is thought to be more strongly associated with music perception, aphasic individuals (language dysfunction) with damage to the left hemisphere also suffer from amusia (music perception disorder).

2. Deep brain stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus caused study participants to make less risky financial decisions. Know anyone who might benefit from this?

3. Women are much better at perceiving the color red than men. Principal investigators give their two cents on why this could be. *Cue Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red.

4. A patient who feels like he or she has more in common with a doctor will report less pain than those who didn’t feel that way, regardless of ethnic differences.

5. Gray matter volume in the amygdala could influence how accurately we determine trustworthiness in people.

 

And there’s more where that came from. Head over to the Cognitive Neuroscience Society's page to read through more fascinating poster presentations!

 

Bonus video. We'll leave this right here.

Comment

Comment

The Science of Team Performance

Courtesy: CNN

Courtesy: CNN

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors had to work as one cooperative and cohesive unit, hunting and gathering for the good and survival of the entire group. Things have changed since then. The group mentality is no longer the rule of the land, and society promotes an “every man for himself” attitude. Despite our individualistic culture, there is still a need to cooperate in our every day lives.

There are basic keys every collaboration needs to thrive, such as effective communication, listening, respect and the resources to work together in the first place. But what foundation must every team build in order to perform at an optimal level?

 

1. First and foremost, put the right leadership in place. Every team needs a leader, but what characteristics are key to successful leadership?  Researchers from Harvard, University of Michigan and Duke University found that leaders too focused on their own power and superiority may be detrimental to a group's success because they tend to override contributions from the collective group.

 2. Bring in the right team members. Proper and successful recruitment is just as, if not more, important than finding the right leadership. When it comes to bringing in the right team members, there are several things to keep in mind. Recruitment 101: Ensure team members bring in the skill sets and resources to get the job done. Also, consider whether the team members are the right cultural fit. Researchers at Princeton University say team members’ individual motivations, more than incentives or sanctions, will make or break the success of the overall team.

"These internal motivations develop from attitudes and values, such as feelings about the legitimacy of group authorities or about commitment to the group. These attitudes and values provide people with personal reasons for acting cooperatively, as opposed to extrinsic reasons like the possibility of gaining rewards or the risk of being punished."

3. Operate as one unit. Cognitive psychology research has shown that synchronous activity — performing timed tasks or actions as a group — can strengthen social cohesion among team members, leading to better cooperation and performance. Researchers at Stanford University even say these timed tasks or actions don't even have to be joyful experiences! Behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk, PhD, offers up some helpful tips on this.

4. Define the goals well. Edwin Locke is renowned for his goal setting theory, which states that individuals perform at a higher level if the task at hand is specific and difficult rather than vague and easy. It’s easier to visualize and achieve "I want to save $500 this month" versus "I want to save money soon." Also, "higher" or more difficult goals lead us to action because we gain a higher sense of satisfaction once the goal has been met. This model, Locke argues, is contingent upon a system of feedback and the assumption that the participator accepts the goal in the first place.

"Feelings of success in the workplace occur to the extent that people see that they are able to grow and meet job challenges by pursuing and attaining goals that are important and meaningful."

 5. Plan early and often. According to organizational psychology, individuals tend to underestimate the time and resources necessary to complete a task. Also known as the planning fallacy, individuals are prone to this type of behavior even if they might have experienced similar time and resource miscalculations in the past. We’re all guilty of this — We’re willing to bet you’re scrambling to file your taxes again this year. Researchers peg this type of behavior on optimistic attitudes or wishful thinking.

 

Behavioral and organizational psychologists are discovering new and critical ideas around team performance, like how cultural factors play into collaboration and performance, all the time. Extensive research in the field of psychology shows the five tenets above will help lay the groundwork to more effective collaboration and team work. We hope the next time you have to work on a team project, whether related to your job, school or social life, you’ll consider their ideas!

Comment

1 Comment

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.

 

1 Comment

1 Comment

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.

1 Comment