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Where is the "I" Inside the "Me"? 

I've just launched a companion website to The Daily Brain called The PopScience Review, where I'll be posting reviews of the latest popular science and technology books and occasional movies.  The first review is of Bruce Hood's new book, The Self Illusion. Check it out here


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Can You Chew Yourself a Better Brain?

Would you believe that while standing in line to pay for your groceries, you are but an arm's length away from a potent neurochemical catalyst that costs less than a single pill of any antidepressant?

Yes, gum -- wonderful, flavorful, get-your-jaws-moving gum -- is an unlikely object of  cognitive science research that turns out to possess qualities Mr. Wrigley would never have guessed.

Gum has been studied for its beneficial effects on memory, alertness, anxiety reduction, appetite suppression, mood and learning.  Attributes of gum that have gone under the microscope include its flavor, texture and density, to name a few.

The hunch that spawned gum studies was that chewing gum might increase blood flow to the brain, and that may in turn spark other important effects. Studies like this one out of Cardiff University in the UK take a comprehensive view of gum's potential across multiple areas: learning, mood, memory and intelligence. The findings in this case were that both alertness and intellectual performance were increased in gum-chewing subjects, while memory showed no significant improvements.

Other studies, like the one highlighted in this New Scientist article, have found that some aspects of memory seem to be improved by chewing gum, particularly immediate and delayed word recall, while others are not.

An especially significant 2011 study, reported on by Live Science,  found that chewing gum before taking a test improved performance, but chewing gum throughout the test did not. The possible reason for this result is that chewing gum may warm-up the brain, something gum researchers refer to as "mastication-induced arousal."  In fact, chewing gum for about 20 minutes is on par with mild exercise in terms of sending more blood to the brain. Continuing to chew after the warm-up period seems to have required too much jaw-work, and burning more energy negated the benefits.

Studies have also found gum to be an effective anxiety buster, though the reasons why are anything but clear.  This 2009 study, for instance, found that under laboratory conditions chewing gum resulted in reduced cortisol levels (cortisol is frequently called the  "stress hormone") and a reduction in overall anxiety.

And it may also be true that prescription antidepressants have a far cheaper rival wrapped in foil just waiting to be chewed.  Studies like this one conducted in Tokyo suggest that prolonged gum chewing activates part of the brain (the ventral part of the prefrontal cortex) that in turns sets off a cascade of effects resulting in fewer feelings of depression. In fact, chewing gum seems to induce suppression of "nociceptive responses" in general-- a bit of jargon loosely translated as 'pain in the brain'.

True enough, the reasons for these effects are still speculative, but the wealth of research pointing to benefits of gum chewing can't be ignored. We may not yet know why it benefits the brain, but few things are simpler or cheaper or less risky than tossing a stick in your mouth for a good chew.

David DiSalvo, Copyright 2012

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What Drove the Evolution of the Human Brain?

At his Gaurdian(UK) blog, Neurophilosophy, writer Mo Costandi discusses new research that explores how the human brain evolved, and why it is significantly different in size, among other features, than the brains of our predecessors. From the post:

One of the things that makes our species unique is our exceptionally large brain relative to body size. Brain size more than tripled during the course of human evolution, and this size increase was accompanied by a significant reorganization of the cerebral cortex, the prominent convoluted structure responsible for complex mental functions, which accounts for something like 85% of total brain volume.

What evolutionary forces drove this dramatic increase in brain size? Many theories have been put forward over the years, a popular one being that our ancestors' brains expanded to accommodate the faculty of language. A fossilized skull fragment belonging to a human ancestor that lived several million years ago provides yet more clues. A new analysis of the skull suggests that human brain evolution may have been shaped by changes in the female reproductive system that occurred when our ancestors stood upright. 

Read the entire post at Neurophilosophy

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What Causes Our Legs and Arms to Jerk When We're Asleep?

Mind Hacks has an intriguing piece on "Hypnic Jerks" -- the erratic movement of our legs and arms when we are asleep.  The piece suggests that these are more than simply random muscle movements, but rather the result of a "battle in our brains". From the piece:

Normally we are paralysed while we sleep. Even during the most vivid dreams our muscles stay relaxed and still, showing little sign of our internal excitement. Events in the outside world usually get ignored: not that I’d recommend doing this but experiments have shown that even if you sleep with your eyes taped open and someone flashes a light at you it is unlikely that it will affect your dreams.

But the door between the dreamer and the outside world is not completely closed. Two kinds of movements escape the dreaming brain, and they each have a different story to tell.

Read the entire piece at Mind Hacks

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How Sleeplessness Causes Our Mental Circuits to Overheat 

We intuitively know that sleep is important, and a great deal of research on the health effects of sleeplessness backs up this belief.  But what exactly is going on in our brains when we don’t get enough shuteye?

Researchers tackled this question in a new study that suggests our brains become bundles of hyper-reactive nerve cells as the sleepless hours tick by.   In a sense, our noggins overheat when we deprive them of necessary down time--bad news for those of us who work into the wee hours.

The research team, led by Marcello Massimini of the University of Milan, delivered a stout magnetic current to study participants’ brains that set off a cascade of electrical responses throughout their nerve cells. The team then measured the strength of this electrical response in the frontal cortex, a brain region that’s involved in making executive decisions, using nodes attached to participants' scalps.  This procedure was completed a day before a night of sleep deprivation and repeated afterward.

The results: participants’ electrical responses were significantly stronger after a night of sleep deprivation than they were the previous day. The effect was corrected by one good night’s sleep.

Writing in Science News, Laura Sanders points out that the results reinforce the most widely held theory of why we sleep:

During waking hours, the brain accumulates connections between nerve cells as new things are learned. Sleep, the theory says, sweeps the brain of extraneous clutter, leaving behind only the most important connections.

The study is published in the journal, Cerebral Cortex.

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