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Singing Scientists Describe the Wonders of the Human Brain

The human mind

Musician John D. Boswell, known on YouTube as MelodySheep, has a unique and startlingly beautiful way of sharing his love of science: he takes video footage of some of the most brilliant modern scientists talking about the subjects they most love, uses Autotune to transform their speech into singing, composes symphonic pop-electronica pieces around the quotes, and offers the result freely on YouTube and for pay-what-you-please download.

Actually, he doesn’t only do it for science, although his love of science and natural philosophy drives most of the work he has on offer: he has also done pieces starring personalities like Mr. Rogers and Yoda. While I would recommend any of his compositions to you, though, the one strikes the closest to my area of fascination–understanding who we are, why we do what we do, and how to change for the better–is this one, on the human brain.

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The Debate Over Whether Willpower Tires Our Brains

The human mind

Kelly McGonigal mentioned recently on her Science of Willpower blog and her Twitter feed this interesting study about consumption of glucose in the brain. In case I started losing you at “consumption of glucose,” let me promise you that there is a great tussel forming up here! Here’s how it goes, although I’m oversimplifying it in order to be able to summarize the whole thing.

Some reputable researchers, including highly-regarded willpower researcher Dr. Roy Baumeister: Willpower is like a muscle. You use up energy when you use willpower, so you tend to get tired out and have less willpower for later. A little bit of sugar can help sometimes help keep willpower perky, though.

The New York Times blog: Willpower is like a muscle, say famous scientists. A little bit of sugar will give you a willpower boost, but don’t tire out your willpower.

Me: Hey, the New York Times and some reputable scientists are saying that willpower uses up energy in the brain and can get used up.

Me, later: Having done a lot more research and thinking, I’m not so sure about the “like a muscle” argument. An alternative hypothesis: maybe people just get annoyed at being asked to do things and get fed up. (Dr. McGonigal added via Twitter, “What gets exhausted is not the physical willpower energy but what I call ‘willingness.'”)

Dr. Robert Kurzban, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania (not responding to my post, but to the original studies): Actually, it doesn’t look as though the brain really does use much extra glucose when we’re exerting a lot of self-control.  “That is, if one were to use this aggressive estimate … the brains of subjects categorized as ‘depleted’ in this literature, have, relative to controls, used an additional amount of glucose equal to about 10% of a single Tic-Tac.” (Less than 1/5 of one calorie.)

There’s more to the discussion. For instance, more stressful mental situations can increase heart rate, which can lead to the rest of the body consuming more glucose. And I know that if I spend a long time working hard at mental tasks, I feel worn out afterward in the same way I do after exercise–although all that might well be from that heart rate effect, or some other effect. Based on Kurzban’s information, it’s very unlikely that I get tired out because my brain is using a lot of extra glucose.

Even if we don’t count the useful lesson that science is a series of attempts to explain things people have observed and that those attempts aren’t always right, this whole debate can be useful to us. For instance, we might observe that even if the glucose argument doesn’t hold, there are still ways in which self-control can be “used up.” For instance, in order to exert self-control that goes against our habits, we have to have attention and effort to spare, and those are limited resources. We also probably need some kind of willingness to tackle the challenge, and in some cases that might be something that we can’t use over and over without consequences.

However, there are other factors that make it easier to exert self-control again after exerting it once. One is a sense of accomplishment or control, a belief in the self. Another is encouragement from others, if we happen to get it. Another is that exerting self-control helps build a habit of self-control, although admittedly that habit is likely to pay off more in the long-term than the short. Another is that by exerting self-control in one area, we prove to ourselves that self-control is possible. Yet another is that having self-control often leaves us in better physical and mental condition than not having self-control, in that the kinds of things we tend to do when we don’t have self-control (like eating junk food, being inactive, and bottling up emotions) tend to wear us out or reduce our mental clarity, ability to focus, or physical strength for a while.

My conclusion from all this is that we don’t need to worry too much about using up our willpower: it makes more sense to be concerned about learning as many willpower-related skills as possible, practicing those skills, and focusing our attention and effort where it will do the most good.

Graphic by labguest


Do We Really Only Use 10% of Our Brains?

The human mind

At least since the 1930’s, and possibly earlier, it’s been common knowledge that we human beings only use 10% (or 11%, or 12%) of our brain. Einstein even said it, so it has to be true!

Except that it isn’t true. And despite urban legend, Einstein appears never to have said anything like that–not to mention that he wasn’t doing neuroscience work anyway. This is one of those pieces of fake knowledge that gets quoted all over the place (like the one that everyone needs 8 hours of sleep a night, or that it takes 21 days to form a habit) and that gives lots of people excuses to sell lots of things, but that was never based on any meaningful evidence. Brain scans using technologies like PET (positron emission tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) routinely show activity at differing levels all throughout the brain–even when the subject is sleeping!

The confusion may have come from early experiments in which some of the first neuroscientists delivered electric shocks to parts of the brain to see if there was any physical response. Some parts, of course, have jobs like storing memory, putting together sentences, and processing visual information, so there wouldn’t be any physical response. These were labeled parts of the “silent cortex,” meaning not that they were necessarily useless, but that they didn’t have any immediate physical effects when shocked.

(Let’s both take a minute here to silently express our gratitude that we weren’t one of those scientists’ undergrads.)

Or people might be confused by the ventricles of the brain, areas in which cerebralspinal fluid is stored, which show up dark on scans. Saying that we’re not using our entire brain because we’re not doing anything with these areas is like saying a car isn’t using its entire engine because there are no moving parts in the radiator.

If you’re interested in a more detailed debunking, there’s a handy article on By the way, is also an ideal place to go if you receive an e-mail from someone and want to know if it’s a scam or a prank.

So how much of our brain do we really use? Pretty much all of it, actually. The point isn’t to find ways to use more of our brain: we’ve evolved to make very efficient use of that tissue, thank you very much. The point is to make better use of our brains. This is why it’s so helpful to find engage our minds in different ways, with both mental and physical activity–because remember that our brains have whole areas devoted to physical activity, too, and those can weaken with time just like the non-physical areas if they’re not used regularly. Brain stimulation is like exercise for muscles: anything we don’t use becomes weaker over time, and anything we do use tends to strengthen.

I’m grateful to the authors of Mind Hacks: Tips and Tricks for Using Your Brain for some of the information in this article.

PET scan images courtesy of Reigh LeBlanc

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How to Form a Habit: It’s Like Training a Friendly Idiot


Ah, brains: so mysterious, complicated, and powerful, and yet so inclined to tell us to sit on the couch and eat doughnuts instead of doing the dishes or working out. What’s with these things, anyway?

There’s a group of neurons deep in the heart of the brain called the basal ganglia, and they’re involved in some important functions like movement and habit formation. How does the habit formation part work? Kind of a like a big, stupid, friendly guy, who’s only too willing to help but needs to be shown what to do over and over. And over. And over again. You get the idea.

So if I’m out here wanting to develop a habit of remembering someone’s name the first time it’s said by always repeating it and using a mnemonic, and if I try that once or twice, the basal ganglia–our big friend–are going to be staring at me dully, wondering exactly what I’m getting at. But if I stay aware with post-it notes or constant vigilance or a string tied around my finger, and if I keep at it, eventually he’ll get a glimmer of understanding in his eye (though it obviously the basal ganglia don’t really have eyes–that would be creepy) and try to follow along, hesitantly and with some confusion. And if I keep introducing myself to enough new people (perhaps volunteering at the membership table of a stamp collecting convention, if that’s what it takes), and remember to always say the name over silently and come up with a mnemonic, then he begins to get in the groove and really starts to learn to do what I’m doing.

But then let’s say I’m tired after the stamp collecting convention. I go to a diner for a nice tomato sandwich, and when the waitress introduces herself as Evangeline, I’m just too tired to memorize her name. Suddenly the big guy lurches to a stop. He thought I was doing the thing with the repeating and the mnemonics, and now I’m doing the thing with the tomato sandwich, which is a little too many for him. So he waits for a clue.

Then five minutes later someone comes up and says “Hey, you were at the stamp convention! Did you get a load of those Cinderellas? Man!” He introduces himself as Larry.

This is it. I’ve already blown it with Evangeline, and Larry here is my Waterloo: the only question is whether I’m the guy who won at Waterloo or the guy who lost (yeah, I know their names, but if we get bogged down in details this article is going to run 1,500 words before we’re done, and nobody wants that).

So maybe I look at Larry and silently repeat the name “Larry” to myself, then think, “You know, he’s the kind of guy who looks like he would have a lair.” (Lair-Larry: that’s my mnemonic. And don’t give me that–I never said it had to be a clever mnemonic.) In this case the big dumb guy (the basal ganglia, not Larry: Larry’s like, 5’6″, not to mention he got a 1710 on his SAT’s) smiles angelically and lumbers forward again. He understands: this is a habit he and I are trying to form, and the thing with what’s-her-name the waitress, Angelina or Emmaline or whatever, was just a glitch. As long as there are very, very few glitches and lots of Larry experiences, the basal ganglia guy will put more and more of his massive strength behind reinforcing my name-remembering habit. And if I keep that habit up every day or very nearly every day, in just 18-254 days, give or take, it should be completely locked in! Now was that so hard?

OK, it was hard–for maybe two or three months (68 days on average, according to one study). But for the rest of my life, or until I start getting old and confused and calling everyone “Josephine,” I’ll be a champion name-rememberer, and people will look at me with awe and say “Boy, I wish I could remember names like that. I guess some people can just naturally do it and some people can’t.”

And even while I’m smacking my forehead in dismay at such people, the big dumb guy is happily shoving their names into long-term memory for me, unconfused and at peace.

Photo by Olivander

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