When I was 15, I took the bus from Stavanger to Bergen after saying goodbye to my boyfriend. The last thing I wanted, was to talk with anyone. I struggled to keep my tears back and wanted to have time to think about everything we did and he said (like a typical teenager). But to my horror, an old woman sat next to me and I knew immediately that she was a talker. Little did I know that this would be one of the very conversations I remember from that year. We talked about everything, and soon started on a philosophical journey together. I told her about my boyfriend, and how hard it was to live so far apart from him (over 10 hours with a car or bus). She responded by saying how healthy it is to meet people who live in a different place than where you grew up. Because they probably see the world a little bit different than you, and that means you might end up learning something new.
This woman was so wise, and I learnt something new too: By opening up to all kinds off people, even strangers, you might change the way you think and see the world. I was reminded of this event when I listened to “an organized mind” by Daniel Levitin in my car. He described a study where the researchers asked people if they thought they would prefer sitting alone or talk with a stranger on the bus. They were quite sure about what they would like the most, but it seems like we don`t always know how much we crave connections with others. The study is described below, and I hope you enjoy it as much as me. Maybe the next time you`r filled with dread, hoping that somebody won`t disturb you on a bus, plane or train, you might look at the commute as an opportunity instead of fear.
Talking to the stranger in seat 4B on a cross-country flight is often considered one of the torments of air travel, to be avoided at all costs. But new research suggests people are deeply wrong about the misery of striking up conversations on public transit.
Contrary to expectations, people are happier after a conversation with a stranger, the study revealed.
“At least in some cases, people don’t seem to be social enough for their own well-being,” said study researcher Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “They think that sitting in solitude will be more pleasant than engaging in conversation, when, in fact, the opposite is true.” [7 Thoughts That Are Bad For You]
Talking to strangers
Epley, author of the book “Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Feel, Believe and Want” (Knopf, 2014), studies social connection. Humans are social animals, he said, to the extent that having more and stronger friends and family connections is linked with a healthier life.
But in waiting rooms, trains, planes and other public spots, people fail to show their social stripes, Epley told Live Science. During his own commute in Chicago, he sees “highly social animals getting on the train every morning and being remarkably anti-social … They might as well be sitting next to a rock.”
Perhaps people know that interacting with a stranger is likely to be less pleasant than sitting in silence, so they choose the latter, Epley said.
Or maybe, just maybe, everybody is wrong about talking to strangers. Maybe it’s actually fun.
To find out which is true, Epley and his colleagues recruited real-life commuters at Chicago train stations. They also conducted a series of experiments with bus riders. In some of these experiments, they simply asked people to imagine striking up a conversation on the bus or train. Would it be pleasant? Would they feel happy afterward?
By and large, people said “no,” it wouldn’t be pleasant, and that such an interaction wouldn’t result in a happiness boost. In addition, people guessed, on average, that fewer than half of strangers would be interested in chatting. They expected to be rebuffed.
In other experiments, the researchers actually asked the commuters to go through with the conversations. At random, some participants were assigned to start a conversation. Others were asked to sit silently, and a third group was told to go about their normal commute routine (which involved silence for some and speaking to a friend for others). The participants were given sealed surveys to complete and mail in after their commute.
The results? People had a more pleasant time when they talked to a stranger versus when they stayed silent. Incredibly, the findings held even when the researchers controlled for personality traits, like extraversion and introversion.
Does the finding that talking to strangers makes people happier make you more likely to strike up conversations in public more often?
No way. You couldn’t pay me enough.
Maybe. I can see the upsides.
Definitely. I’d like to meet new people.
No – but only because I already chat with strangers.
“Everyone seems happier and has a more pleasant interaction when they connect versus sit in isolation,” Epley said.
Perhaps even more surprising, their conversation partners seemed to welcome the connection, too.
“Nobody was rejected in any of our studies, as far as I can tell,” Epley said. “Everybody who tried to talk to somebody was able to.”
In another study, the researchers set up participants in a waiting room, so they could test the happiness of both the conversation starter and their target. Again, everyone was happier after chatting — even the person who hadn’t started the conversation. Pairs of strangers deep in conversation also reported that the wait seemed shorter.
Nerve cells communicate through short, fleeting pulses of electrical activity. Yet some memories stored in the brain can persist for decades. Research into how the nervous system bridges these two radically different time scales has been going on for decades, and a number of different ideas have picked up some experimental support.
For instance, based on their past activity, nerve cells can dictate which partners they make contact with or increase or decrease the strength of those connections—in essence, rewiring the brain as it develops and processes experiences. In addition, individual cells can make long-term changes in the genes that are active, locking specific behaviors in place. In a paper released by Nature Neuroscience, scientists have looked at the changes in gene expression associated with memories of positive associations and found that they are held in place by chemical modifications of the cells’ DNA.
These chemical modifications fall under the broad (and somewhat poorly defined) category of epigenetic changes. Genetic changes involve alterations of the DNA sequence itself. Epigenetic changes, in contrast, alter how that DNA is processed within cells. They can be inherited as the cell divides and matures and, in rare cases, they’re passed on to the next generation. In some cases, epigenetic changes simply involve how the DNA is packaged inside a cell, which controls how accessible it is to the enzymes that transcribe it for use in making proteins. But in other cases, the DNA itself is chemically modified. That changes how various proteins interact with it.
The most common of these chemical modifications is called methylation, where a single carbon atom is attached at a specific location on one of the DNA bases. A number of studies suggest that methylation changes accompany the formation of long-term memories, so the researchers decided to test this in a well characterized experimental system that dates back to Pavlov: teaching a mouse to associate a sound with having a sugary treat appear in its cage. (Controls included playing the tone in a way that it wasn’t associated with treats and simply providing the tone.)
It only takes mice three tries before they start sniffing around the locations where the treat appears, and by five iterations, the behavior is pretty much locked-in. Past work in other systems has identified areas of the brain that are involved in this process, as well as some of the genes that are required. So, the authors started looking at how these changes came about when the association between the tone and a treat was being formed.
The researchers were able to confirm that the genes identified in past studies were involved in the formation of associative memories, and changes in the gene activity were detectable by the third trial just as behavior started to change. They were also able to detect significant changes in the DNA methylation that occurred at the same time, although only at a specific subset of the areas known to be methylated in that area of the chromosome. They were even able to show that the enzymes responsible for modifying the DNA appeared at these sites at around the time of the third trial.
All of that indicates that methylation changes are associated with the learning process, but it doesn’t get at the issue of cause and effect. So, the team injected a chemical that blocks DNA methylation into the area of the brain that’s involved with this form of associative memory, and they found that it would leave existing memories intact while blocking the formation of new ones. The effect was also specific to injections in this area of the brain. Injecting the drug into a different area, one that is involved in forming the associations involved in addiction, did not affect this particular form of memory.
Overall, the study adds another example to the growing list of cases where epigenetic changes seem to be involved in the process of locking memories into place. This doesn’t mean that the memories are permanent, as there are enzymes that can eliminate methylation as well. Still, it should help maintain the status of the memories for long periods of time—far longer than a brief burst of activity.
But it’s important to note that this sort of methylation is very context dependent: it’s specific to a subset of cells in a single area of the brain. Different methylation patterns—or even the same methylation pattern in a different set of cells—will probably encode something very different.
“There is perhaps no psychological skill more fundamental than resisting impulse. It is the root of all emotional self-control, since all emotions, by their very nature, led to one or another impulse to act.”Daniel Goleman
It soars through you like a wave. The impulse to do something you will regret later. The urge is so irresistible, that you feel there is no other way. You just have to do it. Have another drink, although it is way beyond bedtime. A cigarette after managing to not smoke for three days. The ice-cream dripping with chocolate sause that you kept in the fridge. Just in case you get visitors. We know these impulses so well, and despair when we cannot do anything to stop them. Walter Mischel found in his famous Marshmallow experiment, that children who managed to postpone having a marshmallow and get two later if they waited, had better results at school and success later in life. Unbelievable, isn`t it? That just one experiment like this, can predict what happens years later? For some this might even lead to a feeling of despair: Especially if you struggle time and time again with resisting those impulses. Is it really impossible to stop the urge when it threatens to take over? Sometimes it honestly is. When you are stressed, have too many things to think about, have no time to think through what you do during a day or feel tired, you might slip on some of your promises to yourself. Studies show that choosing and resisting alternatives, drains mental energy. In the evening you might be so exhausted that willpower simply vanishes. BUT: We can trick our gratification searching brain. First: Prepare for the fight. Do not keep what you are trying to avoid, around you. Don`t buy that chocolate bar. To avoid doing so when you are stressed, plan to go shopping when you are not hungry. Shop everything you need so you don`t need to pop into the store later. If you feel bad from not having your usual way of regulating those difficult emotions or cravings, find alternative positive activities. Talk to yourself a LOT: I am strong. I can do this. I am actually doing it already by trying to resist. Good work! And if you manage to resist the impulse, for just one or ten minutes, be sure to tell yourself what accomplishment it is. Because you have just rode on the wave instead of letting it sweep you away. Even without a surf-board. Because who actually learn how to resist impulses? If we haven`t had good role models, like many of us haven`t (especially today when everything happened two minutes ago), how could we have learnt to resist? Luckily, the marshmallow experiment showed that if the experimenter learnt the children how to resist impulses, for example by distracting them (having interesting toys in the room, asking them to close their eyes) they managed to do so in the future too. Every time you find creative ways to resist your urges, your willpower grows. It is hard work, and sometimes it feels like it`s all for nothing. But just think about how happy people who have really tried to change, often are. Why might that be? I think you already have the answer: Because it is immensely gratifying to doing what we know in our hearts are right.
But, we have to balance resistance with acceptance. Sometimes we push the brakes to often, leading to us stopping impulses that are healthy and bring life to us.
From the blog feed your soul: My concern, however, is the squashing of the other impulses, the ones that guide us to life-enhancing decisions. The impulse to express a truth even if it is unpopular. The impulse to say no, when social mores would have us say yes. The impulse to radically change a life that looks perfectly fine from the outside but feels like death on the inside. I am afraid that we will begin to live only in extremes, much like the stratification of our socioeconomic classes. We become like the addict, powerless over any whim or desire, or we become the ascetic who deems any impulse evil, and the control over our desires the mark of superiority.
Is it possible to live in the middle ground, where our impulses can go through a highly developed discernment filter and we honor all ways?
I love those thoughts from the blog. And in my opinion, it is possible to find that balance. But first we must learn the skills to stop impulses first, and then we must learn to let go. Finding the balance can`t be done if we lack the knowledge and experience necessary to either resist or let go. So if you want to resist more, can it harm to try?
An encounter at a party changed Gay Hendricks forever. A stranger asked him to imagine himself on his deathbed and to consider this question:
“Was your life a complete success?” If not, then “What would be the things you’d wish had happened that would have made it a success?” Hendricks said his deepest wish was for a loving, lasting relationship with a woman. The stranger said, “turn that wish into a goal, and put it in the present tense.” On the spot, Hendricks came up with this goal, “I enjoy a happy marriage with a woman I adore and who adores me. I enjoy a lifelong blossoming of passion and creativity with her.” This goal helped him create his marriage to Kathlyn, the date he’d taken to the party, and during the past 27 years they’ve become well-known relationship experts and co-authors of 9 books together. This short, focused book shows readers how to discover their own five wishes for a fulfilled life.
Five wishes is a wonderful book. Books CAN change lives, and this one did that for me. Today I sat down to think about what my five wishes are. I am still not completely sure what they should be, but I am starting to get an idea:
For the first time, it is empirically proven that cognition can be improved with brain training – according to Prof. Dr. Lindenberger, Director of the Max-Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.
Only one year ago, Lindenberger was part of an academic group who published “Ageing in Berlin”, featuring a memorandum clearly stating brain training to not improve trainers everyday abilities. Now, however, Lindenberger and colleagues have published a study encouraging the use of brain training to improve cognition.
The COGITO study is the largest and probably most convincing study in the field of brain training. 101 young adults aged 20-31 years and 103 persons aged 65-80 years trained for 1 hour every 2-3 days, for a total of 100 sessions. A single training session was comprised of 12 exercises: 6 for comprehension and speed (similar to “Flash Glance”); 3 for working memory (“Dual 1-Back”); and 3 for information recall (similar to “Memo Pair”). The brain training exercises were adjusted at the beginning of the study to suit the participant’s performance, as indicated by the pre-tests.
The study was designed to test how effective brain training is at improving general cognitive abilities, and to see if age influences these improvements. In addition, the researchers wanted to evaluate if progress in brain training is transferrable to every day life.
Significant improvements in cognition were observed – especially for working memory. We need working memory to plan, understand complex topics, solve problems, and learn new things. All participants, regardless of age or sex, showed improvements in working memory capacity following the training. The researchers suspect that training positively altered and strengthened the neuronal connections between the two frontal lobes of the brain, hence participant’s progress in brain training could be observed in other areas of life
Professor Dr. med. Falkenstein:
„Many people are capable of improving specific cognitive functions with targeted cognitive training. NeuroNation consists of simple but motivating exercises.“
World memory champion Dr. Karsten:
„I know of no other program which is so intense and effective. Only when you reach your limit, you can really improve!“
You can benefit from the latest advancements in science by using NeuroNation brain training. We know that you perform better if you track the progress you’re making. For this reason, we have built in features to help you clearly monitor your results – comparing today’s results to yesterdays and tomorrows.
Our new ‘MemoWork’ course specifically focuses on training your working memory, designed with the help of scientists from the Free University in Berlin. This intensive course includes personalized exercises tailored to your abilities, and requires 4- to 8-weeks of training to guide you to better cognition. The efficacy of the program has been extensively tested, and comes with a money-back guarantee – because we’re that confident you’ll like it! The course’s exercises have received much publicity for their effectiveness. We promise you’ll notice a difference!
I have two phobias: Trypohobia and blood phobia. What follows is a description of my first and most severe phobia.
Trypophobia is relatively unknown peculiar phenomenon that affects thousands of people. The term ‘trypophobia’ itself was only coined in 2005. It is not recognised as a phobia technically, but it does seem to be a uncontrolled reaction or response (typically fear, anxiety, revulsion and/or self-defense) of a kind of pattern of holes or bumps. It seems to affect all kinds of people young and old and across different cultural barriers which suggests it is not a culturally learned response. Often, a trypophobe will not know that anyone else suffers from the same experiences that they do.
For a long time I wondered why do certain patterns give me goosebumps? As long as I can remember since I was a kid I had this reaction, and there was very little information about it on the Internet that I could find. I wanted to add my knowledge on it.
What triggers it and what doesn’t?
The effect of a triggering image on any individual trypophobe can vary from no response to a severe reaction, but many trypophobes will agree that certain images are triggering. Generally speaking, any kind of cluster (of say at least 7) of holes or bumps (and in some cases, lesions) may cause discomfort. For me, asymmetric/non-uniform patterns are worse. Others have said that the texture of the holes (in the sense of touch) matters. Some repetitive patterns like honeycomb, clusters of bubbles on the surface of water, the texture of crumpets and the bumps in your skin on your knees when you kneel in carpet for too long can also be triggering.
You can do a Google search for “trypophobia” and many of the images that turn up will illustrate the concept.
To know more about triggers, we must explore why trypophobes have this reaction.
Why do trypophobes have this reaction?
There is not much research data on trypophobia to conclusively explain this reaction. From what I’ve read, and what I’ve experienced, my best guess is that certain kinds of clusters are similar in nature (visually) to some degenerative diseases, pox, infections/infestations, swarms, etc., which one would do well to avoid. You could bring some kind of evolutionary hypothesis into this, the revulsion and therefore aversion of anything that looks like this would be beneficial for survival.
For most, when the clusters/pattern is on something natural/biological such as skin, the reaction is worse. Perfectly symmetrical patterns like the holes in a cheese grater may not be triggering at all (like in my case) due to its visual uniformity (man-made appearance.) But again, different people are sensitive to different things.
As it is, trypophobes are not generally aware of any particular reason they have a reaction. It is like getting goosebumps when it gets cold; it is a reaction one cannot typically prevent.
I have done some small experimentation with this since I am affected by trypophobia, and it is very interesting to me (I’m sort of a scientist at heart.) In my case, the visual scale of holes makes a big difference. For example, looking at something from a certain distance may have no affect on me, but viewing it from further back may trigger a response. It doesn’t seem to depend so much on the “understood” scale (compared relative to other objects around it) as the visual scale – how many of the holes can be seen, how much detail, how big they are, the spaces in between them, etc.
What are the reactions to triggering images?
Reactions vary from person to person. Speaking only from my own experience, the first and most noticeable reaction I get is goosebumps. I always get goosebumps when I am triggered, and my hairs stand on end. It will continue until I am no longer triggered. I believe this is part of some kind of overall self-defense/self-preservation mechanism. At the same time, I feel anxious. I feel as though there is possibly some kind of danger. My mind starts analysing the image and for long exposure, it is all I can think about. Heart rate increases. It can have such a strong presence in the mind that it affects your ability to focus on a task. To that extreme level, it is a little bit debilitating.
The worst, though, is having the triggering images flash into your head. Continuously, more and more, until you start to feel panicky and feverish. In my opinion it is a very unpleasant experience to have a war with your mind, in trying “not” to think about something, which is slowly driving you crazy. After extended exposure, I got more sensitive to trypo triggers. I started to get reactions from simple everyday things like the shower head, bubbles of oil in the frying pan, and even the texture of toilet paper.
Others have said their reactions include things like anger (possibly aggression which can be linked to self-preservation), a desire to destroy the clusters, as well as wanting to cry (a natural reaction after being scared.) One thing that trypophobes all have in common is a very strong revulsion. Most will physically move further away (subconsciously) or look away from the image with disgust. Other common reactions include itching, skin crawling, and being sick to the stomach.
How can I get rid of it?
It takes a lot of mental solidarity to reduce your sensitivity to trypophobic triggers. I don’t believe you will be able to get rid of any reaction altogether, especially to the more severe triggers, but being able to control your reaction and curb the effect it has on you is a good start.
Firstly, I don’t recommend take the exposure/desensitizing route if you already experience any of the reactions above. Being exposed to a lot of triggers in a short amount of time can make you panicky. A lot of the images aren’t real and just created for shock value. Some people have said desensitizing works, and it can, depending on how you do it. Don’t go on a binge looking at triggers until you’re sick. If you’re out and about and see a trigger you can take the time to share your phobia with someone close to you. Being able to explain it and share it can turn it into a good experience and help condition you to associate less negativity with triggers.
Accept that you are not in control of the physical reaction your body has, and know that it is natural. Just like goosebumps, or getting hungry, these are natural feelings and it isn’t something to worry about. What you are in control of is how you deal with it.
If you need to, remind yourself that you are not in any danger.
Do not reinforce yourself into a corner of fear. The more you label trypophobia as something scary, the more it is scary, to you. It is uncomfortable and unpleasant, but do not encourage it by saying things like “This is going to give me nightmares,” and “I’m so afraid to click on this link.” Just forget those thoughts. Own it, don’t be a prisoner to it.
Finally, do not expose yourself more than you have to. I know there is a deathly curiosity that comes along with trypophobia. It takes a lot of willpower to pass up an opportunity to freak yourself out. But once you are able to say, “No, I don’t want to see that,” and go on to do other things, you will be one step closer to feeling more at ease.
By doing these, over time, your reactions to trypo images should decrease.
What are some of the worst triggers?
Here is a list of well-known trypophobia triggers. You will know immediately if you have trypophobia if you experience anxiety in response to these stimuli.
Lotus seed pod, lotus breast, lotus seeds photoshopped onto skin (there are many of these), etc.,
Surinam toad giving birth
Tafoni (rock formation)
The “frozen peas” image, most likely also photoshopped
Although our bodies stay stubbornly stuck in real time, our minds can flit between the past and future and jump large stretches of time in just a moment. Such feats rely on the brain’s ability to continuously store information as it happens while also retrieving dramatically condensed versions of past events. Until now, scientists weren’t sure how the brain simultaneously handles these competing tasks.
Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin found evidence that in the brain’s spatial system this balancing act is accomplished via dueling electrical frequencies. Results from their study in rats suggest the hippocampus, an area crucial for memory formation, rapidly switches between the two frequencies to concurrently process the current surroundings and serve up orientation clues encoded in prior experiences. “The hippocampus has to have a way for keeping what’s actually happening and being encoded into new memory storage from interfering with recall or retrieval of previously stored memories,” explains U.T. Austin neuroscientist Laura Colgin, the study’s senior author. Her findings may have implications for the treatment of schizophrenia, and they also offer clues to another mental mystery—how the brain manages to replay a daylong memory in mere seconds.
Dueling brain waves
In the new study, published last week in the journal Neuron, Colgin’s team recorded electrical activity in a type of hippocampal cells called “place cells.” Place-cell activation corresponds to specific locations in space. As a rat navigates a maze, researchers can tell by which place cells are firing where the rat is in the maze—or what part of the maze the rat is thinking of.
Like all of the brain’s neurons, place cells produce electrical signals that oscillate in waves. In particular, past research suggests that when place cells encode and compress spatial memories they produce theta waves, which operate on a relatively slow, long-wave frequency. But these theta oscillations do not work alone. They also contain shorter and more frequent gamma rhythms nested within them like folded accordion bellows.
The gamma oscillations contribute to memory compression, explains Brandeis University neuroscientist John Lisman, an expert on the theta–gamma code who was not involved in the current study. As each wave of electrical activity pops up at the gamma frequency, it conveys new information nuggets to the interacting theta wave. One overarching theta wave sees several gamma–encoded memory cues, which effectively form a compressed highlights reel relative to the longer theta wave.
In a study published in Nature in 2009 Colgin and her colleagues described an additional level of complexity in these theta–gamma interactions in the rat hippocampus, demonstrating that the gamma waves oscillate at different frequencies depending on the task at hand. When the hippocampus communicated with a brain area that relays as-it-happens sensory information from the outside world, for example, the team saw theta signals supported by so-called “fast” gamma rhythms oscillating at 60 to 100 hertz frequencies. A second, previously unappreciated set of “slow” gamma rhythms—electrical waves in the 25 to 55 hertz range—seemed to be interacting with theta waves when the hippocampus swapped messages with another part of the brain that replays memories and plans movements through space and time, Colgin explains.
Those results hinted that fast gamma rhythms might be transmitting immediate information about the environment whereas slow gamma rhythms may shuttle information related to memory retrieval.
Clues from place cells
In their current analysis, Colgin and her colleagues found new, more robust evidence that fast gamma rhythms are indeed responsible for coding new information based on an animal’s current experiences. After recording electrical signals from hippocampal place cells in seven rats as they negotiated a short linear track over three 10-minute sessions each day, the team looked at how theta and gamma waves coincided with each rat’s actual position on the track.
When the place-cell activity matched a rat’s current location on the track, the researchers found that theta sequences interacted with the shorter wave, fast gamma signals already suspected of dealing with in-the-moment spatial information. But slow gamma waves replaced fast ones when place-cell activity represented locations ahead of the rat’s current position—perhaps reflecting the animal’s memory of the upcoming route and anticipation of the track ahead. “The idea is that the animal is actually retrieving the representation of that location before they get there,” Colgin explains.
The new results are powerful evidence that the different frequency brain waves keep incoming information and memory retrieval separate—which has implications for human conditions. If the slow gamma frequency really does keep real or imagined remembrances from interfering with new information coding and vice versa, it is conceivable that the two brain frequencies may get mixed up in conditions such as schizophrenia, Colgin says. Indeed, researchers have detected diminished slow gamma synchrony between the hippocampus and other brain regions in an animal model of the disease, boosting that theory. Future therapies could try to help increase gamma synchrony and keep thoughts separate from new sensory information—although how such a feat could be accomplished remains unknown.
How memories are compressed
In the new study the researchers also made a second discovery, which may be a clue about how the brain compresses memories. Using place-cell patterns unraveled from the theta sequences, the researchers saw a jump in the amount of track being represented per millisecond when rats were using slow gamma rhythm, even though the such rhythm produces fewer new waves of electricity in any given stretch of time than the higher frequency fast gamma rhythm.
Based on how quickly the rats seemed to anticipate upcoming sections of track, the researchers speculate that a single slow gamma wave must contain more than one piece of information, implying another level of compression within an already compressed theta–gamma code. This additional degree of compression could explain how we are able to replay memories of minutes’ or hours’ worth of activity in mere seconds.
Lisman is unconvinced of the additional-compression interpretation, although he praised Colgin and her team for uncovering functional roles for the slow gamma frequency in the hippocampus. To accomplish the ultrafast coding necessary for each gamma wave to contain more than one piece of information, he explains, neurons would have to differentiate between bits of information appearing just a few milliseconds apart—faster than current biophysical estimates say is possible.
Loren Frank, a neuroscience researcher with the University of California, San Francisco, who studies spatial coding in the hippocampus but was not involved in the study, was less skeptical of the authors’ interpretation, saying it “makes a great deal of sense.”
“It says the things associated with memory may be going on very, very quickly,” he says, noting that the electrical signals making up each slow gamma signal could represent multiple levels of cellular organization capable of seriously speedy coding. “I was surprised to see the results,” Frank concedes, “but I don’t think there’s any reason to think the brain can’t do things like that.”
Love is like a drug, and withdrawal from addiction is disruptive and damaging. In this extract from his new book, Idiot Brain, neuroscientist Dean Burnett explains the chemical processes behind the heartbreakHave you ever found yourself in the foetal position on the sofa for days on end, curtains drawn, phone unanswered, moving only to haphazardly wipe the snot and tears from your face? All that has happened is you’ve been made aware that you won’t be seeing a person you had a lot of interaction with much any more. That’s it. So why does it leave you reeling for weeks, months, even for the rest of your life, in some cases?
Humans seem primed to seek out and form monogamous romantic relationships, and this is reflected in a number of weird things the brain does when we end up falling for someone. Attraction is governed by many factors. Many species develop secondary sex characteristics, which are features that occur during sexual maturity but that aren’t directly involved in the reproductive process; for instance, a moose’s antlers or a peacock’s tail. They are impressive and show how fit and healthy the individual creature is, but they don’t do much beyond that.
Humans are no different. As adults, we develop many features that are apparently largely for physically attracting others: the deep voice, enlarged frames and facial hair of men, or the protruding breasts and pronounced curves of women. None of these things are “essential”, but in the distant past, some of our ancestors decided that is what they wanted in a partner, and evolution took over from there. But then we end up with something of a chicken-and-egg scenario with regards to the brain, in that the human brain inherently finds certain features attractive because it has evolved to do so. Which came first, the attraction or the primitive brain’s recognition of it? Hard to say.
It is important, however, to differentiate between a desire for sex, AKA lust, and the deeper, more personal attraction and bonding we associate with romance and love, things more often sought and found with long-term relationships. People can (and frequently do) enjoy purely physical sexual interactions with others that they have no real “fondness” for apart from an appreciation for their appearance, and even that is not essential. Sex is a tricky thing to pin down with the brain, as it underlies much of our adult thinking and behaviour.
But this isn’t really about lust; we’re talking more about love, in the romantic sense, for one specific individual. There is a lot of evidence to suggest the brain processes love differently. Studies by Bartels and Zeki suggest that when individuals who describe themselves as in love are shown images of their romantic partners, there is raised activity (not seen in lust or more platonic relationships) in a network of brain regions including the medial insula, anterior cingulate cortex, caudate nucleus and putamen.
There is also lower activity in the posterior cingulate gyrus and in the amygdala. The posterior cingulate gyrus is often associated with painful emotion perception, so it makes sense that your loved one’s presence would shut this down a bit. The amygdala processes emotions and memory, but often for negative things such as fear and anger, so again, it makes sense that it’s not so active now. People in committed relationships can often seem more relaxed and less bothered about day-to-day annoyances, regularly coming across as “smug” to the independent observer.
One type of chemical often associated with attraction are pheromones, specific substances given off in sweat that other individuals detect and that alter their behaviour. While human pheromones are regularly referred to (you can seemingly buy sprays laced with them if you’re looking to increase your sexual appeal), there is currently no definitive evidence that humans have specific pheromones that influence attraction and arousal. The brain may often be an idiot, but it is not so easily manipulated.
However, being in love seems to elevate dopamine activity in the reward pathway, meaning we experience pleasure in our partner’s presence, almost like a drug. And oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone” or similar, which is a ridiculous oversimplification of a complex substance, but it does seem to be elevated in people in relationships, and it has been linked to feelings of trust and connection in humans.
The flexibility of the brain means that, in response to all this deep and intense stuff, it adapts to expect it. And then it ends. Consider everything the brain invests in sustaining a relationship, all the changes it undergoes, all the value it places on being in one. If you remove all this in one fell swoop, the brain is going to be seriously negatively affected. All the positive sensations it has grown to expect suddenly cease, which is incredibly distressing for an organ that doesn’t deal with uncertainty and ambiguity well at all. Studies have shown that a relationship breakup activates the same brain regions that process physical pain.
Addiction and withdrawal can be very disruptive and damaging to the brain, and a not dissimilar process is happening here. This isn’t to say the brain doesn’t have the ability to deal with a breakup. It can put everything back together eventually, even if it’s a slow process. Some experiments showed that specifically focusing on the positive outcomes of a breakup can cause more rapid recovery and growth. And, just sometimes, science and cliches match up, and things really do get better with time.
This is an edited extract from The Idiot Brain by Dean Burnett (Guardian Faber, £12.99). To order a copy for £7.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Have you noticed the fact that many of the most famous songs, are about circles. A song is actually the same: A wheel turning, back to the chorus like a boomerang. Have you heard “spinning around” by Kylie Minogue? “Round round” by Sugababes, “Circles” by christina aguilera? “Circle the drain” by Katy Perry? Or why not roll through the river, sit down on a burning ring of fire, while what goes around, comes around? Or do you just sit there, waiting for the circle full of life?
Life is a cycle. From one period of time, the wheel turns. We are born, grow up and die. Our bodies sink into the earth, where we are transformed to something else. The universe turns around itself, creating new worlds and stars. It expands and creates at the same time as it collides and destroys. We have spiral galaxies, with forces that hold the parts furthest away, in their place. In that way, you can be turned and twisted and still stand safe in one place. You can be in the eye of the storm, and look up at the sun and moon that turns around you, showing you how everything continues even when you feel it has all stopped.
In our lives, we repeat patterns, afraid of getting stuck or getting into something that hurts. But what we don`t see, is that even if things go around and around, even when it feels like nothing changes, we bring things with us everytime we go around in circles. We find objects that can catapult us forward, that can bend the neverending rollercoster and let us travel in a safe line. We learn to fly, to soar and look down at where we are and where we need to go. We meet people on our way going through the same recycling pattern, but in the other direction, showing us that it is possible to go back and forth. That there is so much we can see around us even when we feel everything is the same.
Every time another cycle begins, there are slight changes. Animals and nature changes through evolution, until something new and stronger is created.
Dropping a stone in a calm pool of water will simultaneously raise waves and lower troughs between them, andthis alternation of high and low points in the water will radiate outward until the movement dissipates and the pool is calm once more. Yin and yang thus are always opposite and equal qualities. Further, whenever one quality reaches its peak, it will naturally begin to transform into the opposite quality: for example, grain that reaches its full height in summer (fully yang) will produce seeds and die back in winter (fully yin) in an endless cycle.
Sometimes the natural cycle is completely halted as a mutation or catastrophe in the environment change the direction, that smooth turning of the wheel. When this happens, adaption is necessary. It is a chance to create something new, to put a new vehicle on the wheel, making it go faster and further than before.
These thought keep going around in my mind. Spinning before they stop on the same idea that has been circling in my mind for three years now. What if we started a new cycle? What if we all tried to set a date to do one good thing for another human being and see where the cycle leads us? What if we jump unto the wheel all of us, using the force of many to drive forward?