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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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Can Too Much Happiness be Dangerous?

Greater Good online magazine has an intriguing piece that investigates the downside of being "too happy." Reviewing recent research, the author determines that our nonstop drive to find the holy grail of happiness comes at a cost.  From the piece:

Happiness, it turns out, has a cost when experienced too intensely.

For instance, we often are told that happiness can open up our minds to foster more creative thinking and help us tackle problems or puzzles. This is the case when we experience moderate levels of happiness. But according to Mark Alan Davis’s 2008 meta-analysis of the relationship between mood and creativity, when people experience intense and perhaps overwhelming amounts of happiness, they no longer experience the same creativity boost. And in extreme cases like mania, people lose the ability to tap into and channel their inner creative resources. What’s more, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has found that too much positive emotion—and too little negative emotion—makes people inflexible in the face of new challenges.

Not only does excessive happiness sometimes wipe out its benefits for us—it may actually lead to psychological harm. Why? The answer may lie in the purpose and function of happiness. When we experience happiness, our attention turns toward exciting and positive things in our lives to help sustain the good feeling. When feeling happy, we also tend to feel less inhibited and more likely to explore new possibilities and take risks.

Read the entire piece at Greater Good


New Smartphone App Tracks Your Nervous Response 

New Scientist reports on a fascinating new app called Shimmer that will measure your nervous response to stimuli and serve up more stimuli (in, say, a horror movie) that will amplify your response. From the article:

Getting really sweaty is not normally a good thing. But imagine if doing so could make the film you're watching more exciting - or even change what happens next. Technology firm Sensum is launching a smartphone app that will use your sweat to make life far more entertaining.

Sensum pairs a wrist-mounted galvanic skin response (GSR) sensor, made by Dublin companyShimmer Research, via Bluetooth to a smartphone with the Sensum app installed. The sensor measures how much you sweat while watching different videos, and sends the data to the smartphone which then uploads the data to the Sensum website. Then you can play back the video overlaid with a graph that shows just what made you jump.

Read the entire article at New Scientist

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