Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

01 NOVEMBER, 2010

Portraits of the Mind: A Brief History of Visualizing the Brain

By:

Few projects embody the fertile cross-pollination of art and science more beautifully than Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century (public library) — a book that sources its material in science, roots its aesthetic in art, and reads like a literary anthology, is making us swoon in all kinds of ways. Author Carl Schoonover explores — in breathtaking visual detail — the evolution of humanity’s understanding of the brain, from Medieval sketches to Victorian medical engravings to today’s most sophisticated 3D neuroimaging.

Schoonover curates images that come from data laboratories around the world, many of which are revealed to the world for the first time, contextualized through essays by leading scientists.

Axon Scaffolding Proteins (Photomicrograph, 2008) | The arrangement of proteins forming the inner scaffolding of axons, captured thanks to genetically engineered antibodies that help researchers study the molecular components neurons like specific types of proteins

Image by Michael Hendricks and Suresh Jesuthasan

Phrenological Skull (Drawing on human skull, 19th century) | A quasi-medical artifact of phrenology, the 19th-century pseudo-science positing that bumps on the head reflect the underlying shape and functionality of the brain, dividing the skull into regions that control specific aspects of one's organs and personality

Photograph by Eszter Blahak/Semmelweis Museum

The foreword by Jonah Lehrer, one of our favorite science-distillers, only adds to the tome’s already irresistable allure.

Dog Olfactory Bulb (Drawing on paper, 1875) | A drawing of the first area in the brain that processes smells by physician and scientist Camillo Golgi, who invented a revolutionary technique for staining neurons still in use today

Drawing by Camillo Golgi. Courtesy of Dr. Paolo Mazzarello, University of Pavia

Hippocampus (Photomicrograph, 2005) | Genetically-encoded fluorescent proteins illuminate neurons in different colors in a modern version of the Golgi stain, a simple chemical coloring traditionally done with silver nitrate

Image by Tamily Weissman, Jeff Lichtman, and Joshua Sanes

While the history of brain research seems to be an extended exercise in Socratic the-more-we-learn-the-more-we-learn-how-little-we-know, Portraits of the Mind constructs a thrilling frame for hope in neuroscience by making the scientific understanding of the human brain both exciting and accessible, a digestible deluge of visual and intellectual fascination.

Images via The Atlantic

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

07 SEPTEMBER, 2010

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

By:

Primates, philosophers, and how subjectivity ensures the absolute truth of our existence.

What does it mean to be human? Centuries worth of scientific thought, artistic tradition and spiritual practice have attempted to answer this most fundamental question about our existence. And yet the diversity of views and opinions is so grand it has made that answer remarkably elusive. While we don’t necessarily believe such an “answer” — singular and conclusive by definition — even exists, today we make an effort to understand the wholeness of a human being without compartmentalizing humanity into siloed views of the brain, emotion, morality and so forth. So we look at this complex issue from three separate angles — evolutionary biology, philosophy and neuroscience — hoping weave together a somewhat more holistic understanding of the whole.

THE LEAKEY FOUNDATION ON HUMANNESS

From The Leakey Foundation, which aims to increase scientific knowledge and public understanding of human origins, evolution, behavior, and survival, comes What Makes Us Human? — a multifaceted exploration of who we are as a species and how we came to be that way. Barely 8 minutes long, the film features an astounding all-star cast of scientists — Jane Goodall, Robert Sapolsky, Richard Wrangham, Steven Pinker, Eugenie Scott and more — and tackles a number of complex concepts related to consciousness and the essence of being human.

There is a lot more biology to our behavior than we used to think.” ~ Richard Wrangham

Though the film is essentially an ad for The Leakey Foundation, that’s more than okay given that over the past half-century, the foundation has stepped up to the government’s consistent failure to properly fund scientific research and practically launched the careers of some of the greatest scientists of our time — Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas, Don Johanson, Richard Wrangham, Daniel Lieberman, and even Jane Goodall herself.

via

DAN DENNETT ON CONSCIOUSNESS

Dan Dennett is one of today’s most prominent and prolific philosophers. In this excellent 2003 TED talk, he exposes the flawed and often downright misleading way in which we (mis)understand our consciousness, perpetuated by the many tricks our brains play on us.

It’s very hard to change people’s minds about something like consciousness, and I finally figured out the reason for that. The reason for that is that everybody’s an expert on consciousness.” ~ Dan Dennett

For more of Dennett’s illuminating insight, take a look at The Crucible of Consciousness: An Integrated Theory of Mind and Brain, which builds on Dennett’s iconic — and must-read — 1992 book, Consciousness Explained.

ANTONIO DAMASIO ON CONSCIOUSNESS

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio is among the world’s leading researchers on the neurobiology of mind and behavior, focusing more specifically on emotion, memory, decision-making, communication and creativity. In this compelling BigThink interview, Damasio gives a basic definition of “consciousness”

Consciousness is the special quality of mind, the special features that exist in your mind, that permit us to know, for example, that we ourselves exist and that things exist around us. And that is something more than just your mind. Mind allows us to portray in different sensory modalities — visual, auditory, olfactory, you name it — what we are like and what the world is like, but this very, very important quality of subjectivity is the quality that allows us to take a distant view and say, ‘I am.'” ~ Antonio Damasio

Damasio’s new book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, comes out in November but is already available for pre-order — which we highly recommend, since it’s an absolute must-read.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

11 JUNE, 2010

This Is Your Brain on Love

By:

Why love is not an emotion and how obsessive thinking begets romantic joy.

Love is a complicated beast. And despite the ownership with which centuries of literature and art and music have claimed romance, there’s actually quite a bit of science of in it. Love, in fact, is as much a product of the heart as it is of the brain — a combination of neurochemistry and storytelling, the hormones and neurotransmitters that make us feel certain emotions, and the stories we choose to tell ourselves about those emotions.

Today, we turn to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies the evolution of human emotions and the intricacies of the brain in — and on — love. Fisher explores the science of love without losing a sense of romance, shedding light on some of the complex ways in which the brain and the heart diverge.

If you can stomach the geekines, there’s actually a wealth of insight in this talk Dr. Fisher gave at the American Psychiatric Association’s Sex, Sexuality and Serotonin conference in 2004, brilliantly synthesized here, in which she argues — with solid scientific evidence and from a rich interdisciplinary perspective — that antidepressants may jeopardize romantic love.

Why? Love, Fisher points out, is not an emotion — it’s “a motivation system, it’s a drive, it’s part of the reward system of the brain.” It’s typically characterized by high dopamine and norepinephrine, but also by low serotonin, which is responsible for the obsessive thinking attached to romantic love — something Fisher confirmed in her fMRI studies. But serotonin-enhancing antidepressants blunt the emotions, including that precious elation of romance that is necessary to the growth and perseverance of romantic love.

Serotonin-enhancing antidepressants also suppress obsessive thinking, which is a very central component of romantic love.” ~ Helen Fisher

Dr. Fisher offers three key components of love, involving different but connected brain systems:

  • Lust — driven by androgens and estrogens, the craving for sexual gratification
  • Attraction — driven by high dopamine and norepinephrine levels and low serotonin, romantic or passionate love, characterized by euphoria when things are going well, terrible mood swings when they’re not, focused attention, obsessive thinking, and intense craving for the individual
  • Attachment — driven by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, the sense of calm, peace, and stability one feels with a long-term partner

She goes on to point out that serotonin-enhancing antidepressants also inhibit other evolutionary adaptive mechanisms for mate selection, such as orgasm.

With orgasm, one of the main things that happens is that levels of oxytocin and vasopressin go up enormously in the brain. These are feel-good chemicals. They’re associated with social bonding, pair formation, and pair maintenance. So when men and women take serotonin-enhancing medications and fail to achieve orgasm, they can fail to stimulate not only themselves, but their partners as well. This neural mechanism, associated with partner attachment, becomes a failed trigger.” ~ Helen Fisher

Fisher cites a case study of a 35-year-old married woman who had recurrent depression and anxiety disorder. When on serotonin-enhancing medication, she found her libido diminished, which made her unable to orgasm. Incapable to think critically, she made an emotional leap to assume that this meant she no longer loved her husband, deciding to divorce him. When cycled off the medication, the woman slowly regained her normal sex drive and her ability to connect with her husband, leaving behind not him but the idea of the divorce.

Like drugs that blur your vision, serotonin-enhancing medications can potentially blur a woman’s ability to evaluate mating partners, to fall in love, and to sustain an enduring partnership.” ~ Helen Fisher

To be sure, Fisher is careful to point out that she is not discouraging serotonin-enhancing medication for severely depressed patients who are a threat to their own lives. But she does point to a cost-benefit ratio that skews in disfavor of love in all but the most severe of cases — the few cases in which the choice is between love and life itself.

I’m going to say it again: we are not recommending that patients who are seriously psychologically ill refrain from taking serotonin-enhancing antidepressants. What we’re trying to say is that these medications affect the threshold of other biologic mechanisms and at times can jeopardize unconscious evolutionary mechanisms for mate selection, for romantic love, and for attachment.” ~ Helen Fisher

The irony, of course, is that in our quest to manage pain, we often end up denying ourselves joy, medicating away the unsettling and in the process washing away the very aliveness in which love lives. Which begs the question, if love is not really what our brain dictates or our body demands, then what is it?

For more fascinating insight on the subject, we highly recommend two of Fisher’s books: Anatomy of Love and Why We Love.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.