Saturday, December 29, 2007

Testosterone Fuels Humor

I saw an interview with Jerry Seinfeld recently and he remarked that "crankiness is at the essence of all comedy". Seinfeld stated that all comedy is based in anger - not only that, but anger over things that didn't matter at all and that it was all about trying to express that anger in a way that convinced people. Well, according to a study published in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal, Jerry seems to be right on target. What Jerry may not understand is that it is testosterone that fuels the comedic anger.

Professor Sam Shuster recorded the responses of more than 400 people as he rode a unicycle through the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne. He noted that most people responded with a wave or a stare, and about half of them responded verbally. Men were more likely to respond verbally and in a more derisive way. Whereas women expressed admiration of his skill, encouragement or even fears for his safety, only 25% of men responded this way. 75% of men responded with comedic attempts, usually snide or combative. The male response changed with the age of the individual, and the reason Shuster says, is male hormones.

Responses became more verbal during the later teens, turning into disparaging 'jokes' or mocking songs. This then evolved into adult male humour -- characterized by repetitive, humorous verbal put-downs concealing a latent aggression. Young men in cars were particularly aggressive. Professor Shuster notes that this is the age when men are at the peak of their virility. The 'jokes' were lost with age as older men responded more neutrally and amicably with few attempts at a jovial put-down.

I am not convinced that it is true that all humor stems from aggression, for that would not necessarily cover more intellectual humor and it cannot all stem from male agression as one considers the number of female comics that have become part of the culture, but it may be a common human trait that we make fun of things that irk and annoy us. Perhaps comedy is a way to avoid real anger by diverting our anger over seemingly unimportant things into derisiveness which allows us to validate the aggression that something causes us while dismissing it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

For A Good Night's Sleep, Turn off the Computer

Everyone knows that getting sufficient and restful sleep is essential to good physical and mental health, but still we shortchange ourselves. Worse, some of us have difficulty sleeping even when we are willing to devote the necessary hours. According to the Edinburgh Sleep Center, there are 10 things you can do to help you get a good night's sleep:

1. Have and stick to a regular bedtime and wake up schedule
Try to go to bed and get up about the same time each night and morning.

2. Make sure the time that you set for your bedtime, is a time in which you are sleepy.
Do not go to bed too soon or you may have trouble falling asleep or your sleep may be restless.

3. Do not nap
Napping can disrupt normal sleep cycles. Try skipping your nap and see if your regular sleep patterns improve.

4. Make your bedroom a "quiet" room
Do not watch television in your bedroom. Use it for sleeping or quiet reading.

5. Establish relaxing before-bed routines
Take a bath, a glass of warn milk, or do some light reading before bedtime.

6. Develop relaxation techniques
Learn yoga, deep breathing, quiet mediation or listen to soft music while trying to fall asleep.

7. Avoid troubling news right before bed.
Violence in newspapers or on television may bother some people making it difficult to fall asleep. Try reading a book instead.

8. Avoid stimulants.
Do not use stimulants or drink things that contain caffeine(tea, coffee, cola etc.) 6 hours before bedtime.

9. Do not use alcohol or tobacco products close to bedtime.
Use of these products may calm you at the time of use, but they can have disrupting effects on your sleep during the night.

10. Exercise regularly.
Regular activity helps the body and mind healthy, but be sure to avoid vigorous exercise right before bedtime.

And according to Dr. Chris Idzikowski, director of the Edinburgh Sleep Center, as reported here, working at your computer or reading emails can also keep you awake. Apparently even the light from your computer can cause sleep difficulties.

"Work-related stress is a major factor causing a sleepless night; checking your work e-mails before bed on any electronic device is essentially the equivalent to drinking double espresso last thing," Idzikowski said. "We have shown that light from a laptop or Blackberry is concentrated enough to signal the brain to stop secreting melatonin, the natural hormone that produces sleep."

Dr. Idzikowski recommends that you spend at least an hour away from work-related activity before bedtime.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Rooting for the Underdog

In any contest, why are we more likely to support the person or team that is expected to lose? What makes the underdog more appealing, and the topdog less appealing? We cheered for Rocky Balboa, the boxer who should have had no chance to win, but wanted it so badly. Research conducted by Joseph A. Vandello, Nadav P. Goldschmied, and David A. R. Richards (of the University of South Florida) shows that it seems to be our sense of fair play and justice that causes us to root for the underdog.

The researchers used both political and sports examples to survey participants. For instance, in questioning participants on the Israel - Palestine conflict, those first shown a map with Israel appearing larger and light-colored, were more sympathetic to the Palestinians. Those who had been shown a map with Israel as smaller and surrounded by other Middle East countries, tended to be more sympathetic to Israel. The researchers also used sports examples, as in the Olympics. In every scenario, the majority of participants tended to support the contender they perceived as the underdog.

The only time that those expected to lose did not garner greater support and sympathy is when it was perceived that they had equal or greater resources, indicating that it is a sense of viewing the underdog as disadvantaged that gains our sympathy and support.

The abstract and full text of the article "The Appeal of the Underdog" can be found at Sage Publications

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Wired To Shiver

We know that the brain performs many functions that we are not consciously aware of. We don't have to remind our heart to beat or keep constant watch over blood pressure, nor do we forget to breathe. But while the brain controls these functions subconsciously, it is constantly taking readings on changes in other parts of our bodies.

Shivering is just another involuntary function that the brain controls, but when the brain decides to turn on your shivering is determined by information on changes in temperature that the brain gets from the skin.
Wiring in the brain allows us to be both consciously and subconsciously aware of the cold at the same time.

Shivering is just a defense against cold and is actually heat production in skeletal muscles. Because it takes a good deal of energy, it is one of the last strategies the body will use to maintain its temperature. The brain has other strategies, such as reducing heat loss by restricting blood flow to the skin.

Research conducted with rats allowed scientists to trace the shivering sensory pathway from the skin to specialized cells in a the lateral parabrachial nucleus in the brain. This information is then transmitted to the preoptic area of the brain, which is the part of the brain that decides when the body should start shivering.

"This research is a fundamental science discovery that furthers our knowledge about one of the many functions that our brains are constantly monitoring, responding to and adjusting to keep us alive and healthy," explained Morrison. "It is noteworthy, however, that there are conditions, such as hypothermia and hyperthermia, in which thermal sensory pathways come into play and knowledge of the brain's wiring can provide important clues to locating dysfunction in patients with abnormal thermal sensation. In addition, our ability to sense and respond to temperature changes degrades as we age."

Shivering: Body's Wiring For Sensing, Responding To Cold Explained

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Neurology of Belief

Is truth beauty and beauty, truth? Do we have feelings of disgust over a lie or false statement? Researchers Sam Harris, Mark Cohen and Sameer Sheth have recently conducted studies using fMRI which show that different regions of the brain are involed in belief, disbelief and uncertainty.

Volunteers were asked to rate a series of statements as true, false or undecidable. The reserachers studied the areas of the brain involved in belief, disbelief and uncertainty. When belief and disbelief were compared, the investigators saw differences principally in a region known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), near the front of the brain, along its midline.

"The involvement of the VMPFC in belief processing suggests an anatomical link between the purely cognitive aspects of belief and human emotion and reward," the authors said. "The fact that ethical belief showed a similar pattern of activation to mathematical belief suggests that the physiological difference between belief and disbelief may be independent of content or emotional associations."

The areas especially engaged in disbelief included the limbic system's cingulate areas and the anterior insula, a brain region known to report visceral sensations such as pain and disgust and to be involved largely in negative appraisals of sensations like taste and smell.

"Our results appear to make sense of the emotional tone of disbelief, placing it on a continuum with other modes of stimulus appraisal and rejection," the authors said. "False propositions might actually disgust us."

Uncertainty produced increased signal in a different portion of the cingulate cortex. The anterior cingulate cortex shows up in studies of conflict monitoring. Uncertainty also showed a decreased signal in the caudate, which plays a role in motor action.

"What I find most interesting about our results is the suggestion that our view of the world must pass through a bottleneck in regions of the brain generally understood to govern emotion, reward and primal feelings like pain and disgust," Harris said. "While evaluating mathematical, ethical or factual statements requires very different kinds of processing, accepting or rejecting these statements seems to rely upon a more primitive process that may be content-neutral. I think that it has long been assumed that believing that two plus two equals four and believing that George Bush is President of the United States have almost nothing in common as cognitive operations. But what they clearly have in common is that both representations of the world satisfy some process of truth-testing that we continually perform. I think this is yet another result, in a long line of results, that calls the popular opposition between reason and emotion into question."

Wiley InterScience

Sunday, December 9, 2007

How The Brain Interprets the Scene

The picture below is a fairly well-known one. It's an example of an optical illusion or rather, it is two pictures. One is a beautiful young woman, but if you change your focus, it appears to be an old woman. How does the brain decide how to interpret this drawing and why does it choose to see it one way or the other?

According to a study at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at John's Hopkins University, it all comes down to a region in the brain called V2. By studying activity in nerve cells in the V2 region of macaques, neuroscientist Rudiger von der Heydt, was able to determine that the V2 region assigns foreground and background.

"Because of their complexity, images of natural scenes generally have many possible interpretations, not just two, like in Escher's drawings," he said. "In most cases, they contain a variety of cues that could be used to identify fore- and background, but oftentimes, these cues contradict each other. The V2 mechanism combines these cues efficiently and provides us immediately with a rough sketch of the scene."

According to von der Heydt, our conscious mind can command the brain to switch perspective and view the scene a different way. That is why we can switch between interpretations of the old woman/young woman drawing.

Discovering and understanding how this visual system works could eventually lead to understanding and treating visual disorders such as dyslexia.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Viewing Violence Causes Brain Changes

Researchers at Columbia University have found a direct correlation between watching violent television shows and movies and actual violent behavior in real life.

The study, using fMRI, showed that watching violence caused a decrease in activity in the region of the brain responsible for suppressing aggressive behavior.

The right lateral orbitofrontal cortex, or right ltOFC, and the amygdala became less active after subjects watched violent clips. Additionally, the researchers found that after repeated viewings of violence, an area of the brain responsible for planning behaviors became more active. According to researchers, this supports the theory that exposure to violence diminishes the brain's ability to inhibit behavior-related processing.

“Depictions of violent acts have become very common in the popular media,” said Christopher Kelly, the first author on the paper and a current CUMC medical student. “Our findings demonstrate for the first time that watching media depictions of violence does influence processing in parts of the brain that control behaviors like aggression. This is an important finding, and further research should examine very closely how these changes affect real-life behavior.”

Monday, December 3, 2007

Do I Have Your Attention?

We usually think we can tell if we have someone's attention by watching their eyes. But research published in Nature Neuroscience shows that "covert orienting" of our attention may allow someone to shift their attention without moving their eyes. Dr. Brian Corneil, of the Centre for Brain and Mind at The University of Western Ontario in London, Canada has found a way of actually measuring covert attention.

Dr. Cornell's research indicates that neck muscles are recruited in covert orienting, without there being a gaze shift.

So if you think that someone is listening just because they are looking at you, you could be wrong, they may have already shifted their attention elsewhere.