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Wednesday
Aug282013

Your Brain On Buzz: Why Some Ideas Go Viral And Others Go Nowhere

Why do certain ideas go viral while others never make it past a second set of eyes (or ears, or lips)?  A new neuroscience study attempted to answer this question by finding out if our brains react differently to buzz-worthy ideas. The results suggest that we’re wired to pass along certain ideas from the moment we see or hear them – even before we realize that we will.

The study was conducted in two parts. In the first, a group of UCLA students were presented with 20 or so ideas for potential television shows (including a reality show about former beauty queen mothers coaching their daughters to become beauty queens, and one about contestants sent to brave harsh environments around the world), while they were hooked up to an fMRI (brain imaging) machine.  The students were told to evaluate the ideas as if they were television interns who would be pitching the best ideas to TV producers, and their assessments of the shows were videotaped.

A larger group of students were told that they were the TV producers and were asked to watch the first group’s videotaped assessments of the shows, and then make their own evaluations of which ideas were the best.

The researchers wanted to know if the brains of the “interns” who most effectively pitched the show ideas reacted differently than those who didn’t successfully persuade the “producers” to buy the ideas.  The results showed quite convincingly that they did.

Brains of the would-be interns who were most persuasive in passing along their ideas showed significantly more activity in a brain region known as the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) at the moment they were first exposed to their chosen pilot ideas. Brains of students who weren’t successful in pitching the ideas didn’t show the same TPJ activation. The researchers called this difference in activity the “salesperson effect.”

The fact that this activity was noted “at the moment” they heard the ideas is crucial, because it at least partially rules out the possibility that brains of more persuasive people simply have more active TPJs.  Instead, what this study seems to show is that once a buzz-worthy idea hits the brain—the very instant it hits—the brain’s buzz alarm goes off indicating that “this is something that needs to be passed along to more people!”

Once that happens, the recipient of the idea becomes a better evangelist for its replication, thus increasing the likelihood that the idea will become “contagious” for the next set of brains. What’s really intriguing is that the brain activity is evident even before a rational determination is made to pass along the idea. In other words, our brains are triggered to replicate certain ideas before we consciously decide to do so.

The TPJ is an important part of the brain’s mentalization network. In neuroscientific parlance, "mentalizing" is the ability to place ourselves inside the minds of others to think as they think.  We mentalize multiple times a day as a normal part of navigating interpersonal relationships. The ability to empathize hinges on mentalization, because we have to place ourselves in another person’s mental shoes to envision and feel what she or he is experiencing.

It makes sense that mentalization would be key to passing along buzz-worthy ideas, since what we’re really doing is envisioning how others will react to the ideas. This study suggests that our brains are subconsciously at the viral cusp well before we're consciously selling others on the ideas, and this subconscious priming makes us better sellers.

Will this study lead to more effective means of persuading people to buy into certain notions – providing neural high-octane gas for advertisers?  In the near term, I doubt it. But it does lift the lid on an effect that we know for certain is real, but haven’t known how or why our brains are triggered to pass along certain ideas while others immediately hit the cutting-room floor.  The study falls short of showing exactly why ideas with no evident persuasion-push behind them go viral (many YouTube sensations, for example), but the discovery that our brains seem wired to jump on potentially viral ideas sheds light on that dynamic as well.

Future research will delve more deeply into the connection between the brain’s mentalization network and idea contagions – and eventually we'll be talking about a "brain map" for buzz.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It will hit store shelves on November 12.

Sunday
Aug112013

Your Brain Sees Even When You Don't

The unconscious processing abilities of the human brain are estimated at roughly 11 million pieces of information per second. Compare that to the estimate for conscious processing: about 40 pieces per second.*

Our conscious processing capacity isn’t insignificant, but clearly it’s just a retention pond compared to the ocean of the unconscious. And more and more research is uncovering abilities of the unconscious that defy reason. Two recently published studies on how the brain “sees” illustrate the point--the first one is cool, the second borders on incredible.

The first, published in the journal Psychological Science, wanted to find out if the brain can track visual targets even when the eyes are duped into believing the targets aren’t there. Researchers at the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario exposed participants to an optical trick known as the “connectedness illusion” that causes viewers to underestimate the number of circles (targets) on a screen.

Two groups of circles are presented, one group on the left side of a screen and one on the right.  The circles in one group are connected to tiny lines, but the circles aren’t connected to each other. In the other group, the circles are connected to each other via the lines.  What consistently happens is that our eyes perceive fewer circles in the connected group than in the disconnected group, even though the number of circles in both groups is exactly the same.

The connectedness illusion is a proven way to trick the eyes, and it worked like a charm in this study: participants didn’t see all of the connected circles. But when they were given a task to “act” on the targets, researchers found that participants shifted from visual “seeing” to what you might call brain-sight. They were able to strategically plan actions that included all of the targets even though they didn’t visually perceive them.

The reason seems to be that visual processing operates along two paths. The first is the one we’re most familiar with—how we visually perceive the world. The second is what our brains are unconsciously up to while we’re focused on merely “seeing."

Said lead researcher Jennifer Milne, a PhD student at the University of Western Ontario:   "It's as though we have a semi-autonomous robot in our brain that plans and executes actions on our behalf with only the broadest of instructions from us."

That was cool, but the next study--published in The Journal of Neuroscience--flirts with the incredible. Researchers wanted to know if the brain can “see” someone else's actions even when the ability to visually see has been destroyed.

Cortical blindness refers to the loss of vision that occurs when the primary visual cortex no longer functions, generally as the result of injury. There’s no longer an ability to visually perceive the world in the sense with which we’re most familiar (even though the eyes still technically work), but that doesn’t necessarily mean the brain no longer sees.

In this study a patient with full cortical blindness could still react to another person's gaze. While in an fMRI machine, the patient was exposed to gazes directed at him and gazes directed away from him. On the face of it, neither should matter. His visual cortex couldn’t perceive any sort of gaze. But the brain scan indicated that another part of his brain definitely could.

The patient’s amygdala, the brain area associated with figuring out whether external stimuli is a threat, showed a distinctly different activation pattern when the gaze was directed at the patient than when directed away from him.

In other words, it didn't matter that his visual cortex couldn't catch the gaze—another part of his brain did regardless.

Exactly what's going on here isn't known, but there's a certain intuitive sense about the reaction even as it defies conscious reason. Our brains are adaptive marvels, and adapting around impediments to survival is essentially what our magical cranial clay does. If one system goes down, in this case external visual processing, it makes adaptive sense that another system would fill the gap (how that happens--well, that's the question).

We are only touching the jagged frozen tip of the iceberg with studies like these, and the second one in particular shows just how much we don't know about the brain's unconscious mojo. But we're learning more all the time, and piece by quixotic piece, the puzzle is only getting more intriguing.

*For more on conscious versus unconscious brain processing power, check out Timothy Wilson's excellent book, Strangers to Ourselves.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It will hit store shelves on November 12.

Thursday
Jul042013

Breathing And Your Brain: Five Reasons To Grab The Controls 

The advice to “just breathe” when you’re stressed may be a cliché of Godzilla-sized proportions, but that doesn't make it untrue. The substance behind the saying is research-tested—and not only to manage stress.

Breathing is an unusual bodily function in that it is both involuntary and voluntary. Other major functions—take digestion and blood flow, for example—occur without conscious influence, and for the most part we couldn’t influence them if we tried. They are involuntarily managed in the vast processing system of the unconscious mind.

Breathing is also managed in the unconscious, but at any moment we can grab the controls and consciously change how we breathe. We can make our breathing shallow or deep, fast or slow, or we can choose to stop breathing altogether (until we pass out and the unconscious takes over again).

Since we are breathing all the time, the oddness of this dual-control system doesn’t usually dawn on us—but it’s this control flexibility that makes breathing especially worthy of attention. We can change how we breathe, and to an extent change how breathing affects our bodies.

Controlled breathing, also known as “paced respiration,” “diaphragmatic breathing” and “deep breathing,” has long been a feature of Eastern health practices. It became more visible in the West after Dr. Herbert Benson’s book, “The Relaxation Response”, hit shelves in the mid 1970s. Whatever you choose to call controlled breathing, the dynamic at work is full oxygen exchange: more oxygen enters the body and more carbon dioxide exits.

The basic mechanics of controlled breathing differ a bit depending on who is describing them, but they usually include three parts: (1) inhaling deeply through the nose for a count of five or so, making sure that the abdomen expands, (2) holding the breath for a moment, and (3) exhaling completely through the mouth for a count longer than the inhalation.

Benson argued that controlling breathing in this way triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to come online and counter our sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response to daily stresses. In effect, the relaxation response is the anti-fight or flight response. Subsequent research has backed up and expanded Benson’s argument.

What follows are five science-based reasons for paying more attention to an ability most of us aren't maximizing.

1. Managing Stress.

This is the most direct application of controlled breathing and the one we hear about most. Our brains are routinely on high alert for threats in our environment—we’re wired to react defensively to anything that hints of imperiling us physically or psychologically.

Controlled breathing may be the most potent tool we have to prevent our brains from keeping us in a state of stress, and preventing subsequent damage caused by high stress levels.  The relaxation response is a built-in way to keep stress in check.

2. Managing Anxiety.

The means by which controlled breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system is linked to stimulation of the vagus nerve—a nerve running from the base of the brain to the abdomen, responsible for mediating nervous system responses and lowering heart rate, among other things.

The vagus nerve releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that catalyzes increased focus and calmness. A direct benefit of more acetylcholine is a decrease in feelings of anxiety. Stimulating the vagus nerve may also play a role in treating depression, even in people who are resistant to anti-depressant medications.

3. Lowering Blood Pressure and Heart Rate.

Research suggests that when practiced consistently, controlled breathing will result in lower blood pressure and heart rate, which in turn results in less wear and tear on blood vessels.  As described above, the vagus nerve plays a key role in this response.

Over time, using controlled breathing to lower blood pressure and heart rate can help prevent stroke and lower risk of cerebral aneurysm.

4. Sparking Brain Growth.

One of the more intriguing research developments involving controlled breathing is that when it’s used to facilitate meditation, the result can be an actual increase in brain size. Specifically, the brain experiences growth in areas associated with attention and processing of sensory input.

The effect seems to be more noticeable in older people, which is especially good news because it’s the reverse of what typically happens as we age—gray matter usually becomes thinner.  The result is consistent with other research showing an increase in thickness of music areas of the brain in musicians and visual-motor areas in the brains of jugglers. As in those cases, the key is consistent practice over time.

5. Changing Gene Expression.

Another unexpected research finding is that controlled breathing can alter the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion. The study uncovering this finding was co-authored by none other than Herbert Benson himself, some 40 years after he brought controlled breathing into the spotlight with his book.

And this isn’t the first study linking controlled breathing to changes in genetic expression. Benson was also involved in a 2008 study indicating that long-term practice of the relaxation response results in changes to the expression of genes associated with how the body reacts to stress.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It will hit store shelves on November 12.

Friday
Jun282013

To Get More Sleep, Get More Sunlight 

The struggle to get more and better sleep seems never-ending for many of us, and increasingly the sleep-deprived are opting for chemical relief. In 2012, 60 million Americans filled prescriptions for sleeping pills, up from 46 million in 2006 (as reported in The New York Times).

But considering the potential dangers of taking sleep meds, natural alternatives are definitely worth considering. A recent study suggests that one of these alternatives—perhaps one of the best we can get—is available just outside your window. Sunlight could be the cure for what ails millions of insomniacs.

The study focused on the sleep quality of 49 day-shift office workers (27 in windowless workplaces and 22 in workplaces with windows). Researchers wanted to find out if more natural light exposure during the day resulted in more restful sleep at night. Using an evaluation tool called the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) and a monitoring technique known as “actigraphy,” they were able to determine if office workers with windows fared better in dreamland than their walled-off counterparts.

The results showed that they did. Compared to workers in windowless offices, those with windows received 173 percent more natural white light exposure during work hours and slept an average of 46 minutes more per night.

Workers who get more sunlight also tend to be more physically active according to this study. And an additional analysis of overall quality of life suggests that they’re generally happier, too. Office workers without windows reported more physical ailments and lower vitality, along with lower sleep quality.

The difficulty with studies like this, of course, is that many people aren’t just without windows, they’re without options. If you work in an office dungeon designed without sunlight in mind—perhaps sequestered in a cube farm—you're likely limited to getting outside during breaks and maybe working in a few daily strolls by perimeter offices that do have windows (at least the offices of folks who don’t keep their doors shut).

However you can do it, the results of this admittedly small study indicate that you should get as much natural light exposure during the day as possible given the confines of your workplace. You can also try getting more sunlight first thing in the morning before you arrive at work; research suggests that morning sunlight exposure is linked to sounder sleep (more on that at this Discovery Health article).

The research findings were presented at the 27th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC, and were published in an online supplement to the journal Sleep.

Monday
Jun102013

Think Fast, Are We Really Getting Dumber? 

new study suggests that people living today are considerably less intelligent than people living a couple centuries ago, to the tune of 14 fewer IQ points on average.

The metric evaluated to reach this conclusion isn't one most would guess. Rather than comprehensive IQ test scores declining over time, researchers focused on declining reaction times--a metric that correlates with general intelligence for reasons that aren't entirely clear.

In psychological parlance, the study of reaction times is called mental chronometry. If you participated in a mental chronometry study, you would be presented with a stimulus (let's say an intermittently flashing blue light on a monitor) and asked to react to the stimulus as quickly as possible (in this example by pushing a button when the blue light flashes).  How quickly you react is thought to be a measure of your brain's processing speed.

General intelligence (also called the "g factor") is comprised of multiple parts, mental processing speed among them. And it's this speed that researchers analyzed using psychometric data from the Victorian era beginning in 1884, up through 2004, culled from 14 intelligence studies conducted during that span (the handy thing about reaction time is that it's testable with several different methods, and older methods are still considered valid).  The results aren't flattering to us moderns: IQ, as measured by reaction time, dropped 1.23 points per decade, for a total of 14 points in the hole.

Before I throw a little devilish advocacy at this troubling conclusion, it's first worth asking what could possibly be the cause of declining intelligence if the finding is accurate?  Researchers who conducted this study believe the drop is related to "dysgenic fertility" -- murky jargon for the theory that smarter people have fewer kids.

The theory goes something like this: smart people are more creative and industrious than the masses, and their energy—consumed by productive pursuits—is less available for bringing children into the world. Kids are, after all, energy and time intensive, and the richest brains don’t have the energy or time to raise a brood.  As the years pass, this proclivity for productivity results in the genetic selection of less intelligent people emerging on the scene generation after generation.

Whether or not that argument is airtight is a topic for another day; suffice to say for now that it has many supporters who believe it’s the tidiest way to account for a snowballing decline in general intelligence. And it’s also what makes the Victorian era, noted for its geyser of prodigious innovation, such a strong starting point for this research.

Having said that, let’s now toss a couple wrenches into the works.

First, the study results run counter to a well-studied phenomenon known as the “Flynn effect.”  Named after James Flynn, a political scientist who first discovered it in the mid-1980s, the Flynn effect is the surprising trend of increasing intelligence over time.

Flynn found that IQ increases about 3 points every 10 years, based on results of well-established tests of intelligence including the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children and its adult counterpart. That’s nearly a 10-point increase per generation. Rather than accounting for one aspect of intelligence, like processing speed measured by reaction time, the Flynn effect considers a range of factors cutting-across verbal and mathematical aptitudes—and in general it evidences a clear advantage for the modern mind.

The reasons for the Flynn effect are likely many, but the biggest one is that ever since the industrial revolution we’ve been the beneficiaries of more education, more technology, and more opportunities for sharpening our minds than our pre-industrial ancestors. In other words, the Flynn effect shows undeniably strong societal and cultural influences on intelligence.

The takeaway from the Flynn effect is not that our forebearers were stupid, but rather that as time passes we'd do well to recalibrate what “general intelligence” really means. Comparing your intelligence with that of someone living half a century before the industrial revolution isn’t apples-to-apples; at best, it’s a comparison of apples grown in radically different soils and climates.

The second wrench to fling (not nearly as significant as the Flynn effect) is that reaction time appears to be changeable. Research suggests that it may in fact be changeable by doing something as simple as chewing gum.

If reaction time is so easily altered, we might ask if it’s such a sturdy indicator of general intelligence after all. At the very least, we might ask if sweeping arguments about the advancing dumbnification of the Western world should be built on something that gnawing a few sticks of Big Red can tweak.

At any rate, it would seem that rumors of our stupidity have been somewhat exaggerated. We may or may not be significantly smarter than those who came before, but the evidence isn’t pointing to us being alarmingly denser. It's even possible, if not probable, that we’re right where we should be.