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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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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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What did I just train my brain to do?

The human mind

It’s not true what they say: you can teach an old dog new tricks. Up until just a few years back, the scientific consensus was that adult brains more or less stop changing, but the newest research presents a strong case that our brains continue to form new connections and pathways throughout our lives. This idea that the brain changes its own structure over time, called “neural plasticity,” has a lot to do with forming and breaking habits, because a habit is a set of neural connections that makes it more or less automatic to do one thing instead of another.

How Habits Form and Are Broken
The way we break existing habits is to interrupt them–to use different conditions, distractions, or thinking to get ourselves to do something other than what we’re used to. The way we form habits is to do a certain thing consistently day after day, a few dozen to a few hundred times. Breaking a habit means weakening the neural pathways our brains have created to make that behavior easier and preferred, while building a new habit means forging new neural pathways that helps our brains highly efficient in the things we do repeatedly, so we’ll have more brain function available for the unusual and the unexpected.

As an embarrassing example, there was a period where I would jokingly use the word “groovy” to describe things. I used this particular joke so much that at a certain point, I found myself saying “groovy” without meaning to. Someone would say “Hey Luc, it turns out that car repair I had to get cost hardly anything!” and I’d reply “Wow, groovy!” Needless to say, I had to go out of my way to dismantle that particular habit, and it took some effort.

I had a similar problem at a certain point with the expression “jinkies!”, but I don’t want to talk about it.

Getting Used to Things
So we’re constantly training our brains in and out of different behaviors. When we start adding salt to our meals or eat a lot of prepackaged or restaurant foods (both of which tend to be very high in sodium), we may be training ourselves into needing salt for things to taste “good” to us. When we decide not to do the dishes right after dinner for once after being used to doing it, we’re taking the first step in getting rid of that dish-doing behavior. The effects even extend to sex: as Norman Doidge argues in The Brain That Changes Itself, anything novel that’s connected to a pleasurable experience tends to become directly associated with pleasure on its own. This isn’t so surprising, though, to anyone who’s taken Psychology 101 and heard of Pavlov’s dogs, who began salivating whenever they heard the bell Pavlov sounded at feeding time. In a sense, the dogs had developed a bell fetish.

Good Parenting for Brains
The thing we can take away from all this is that our day-to-day decisions count in what kind of people we become. I’ve heard people advocate that someone who’s trying to develop healthy eating habits every once in a while take a healthy eating vacation and eat whatever they like, and while it’s possible that this has benefits (though I’m not sure it does), what we know about habit formation tells us that this will do some real damage to the good eating habits that are beginning to form. In a sense we’re telling our brains “Wait! Maybe we don’t want that habit after all. Let’s dwindle that pathway down a little.”

Like kids, our brains seem to respond best to very consistent behavior on our part, to the point where eventually we don’t have to put any real effort into something we’ve done consistently for long enough.

Photo by Roger Smith

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On Clarkesworld: How Memory Works, Copying Brains, and More Science Fiction


My article “Future Brains: Neuroscience Fiction versus Neuroscience Fantasy” is just out from Clarkesworld magazine, online at The piece tackles science fiction subjects like mind control, mental telepathy, transferring consciousness, instant learning, and copying memories and tests them against what we now know about the human brain. What we find is that some of these feats really aren’t possible; some are a long way away; and a few are already happening.

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How emotions work

States of mind


From Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

How exactly do emotions work? From a scientific point of view the answers to this question are still in the works, but research over the last couple of decades has given us a much clearer sense of how they emerge. In her 2005 book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, Jenefer Robinson digs deep into various theories of emotions and into the neurological and psychological findings that can help us figure this question out and offers a model for understanding the important pieces. Her basic model, added to research and analysis from other sources, is what drives this post. There’s a lot of research still to be done, though, so consider the information here to be more of a glimpse at the best insights we currently have about emotion instead of something complete and set in stone. Even taking it tentatively, though, Robinson’s model gives us some seriously useful information.

The gut reaction
Emotions start (Robinson argues) with a gut reaction to something: a face, a sound, an idea, a conclusion, or even some change within our bodies. She calls these reactions “non-cognitive appraisals,” whereas I think for our purposes here, “gut reaction” works just as well, but it’s helpful to realize from that term that these reactions themselves aren’t anything we think through: they happen in hardly any time at all, automatically. That doesn’t mean the whole process of having an emotion is automatic, though, as we’ll see.

The high road and the low road
There are two paths our brain can take to get us to a gut reaction, the high road and the low road. The high road is about what you’d expect: we see or hear (or taste or feel or smell or think or remember) something, we figure out what it means to us, and then we react emotionally. For instance, while driving toward our house we might see blue lights up ahead, realize that they are probably coming  from a police car, and begin to feel worried that something bad has happened.


The low road is a bit more surprising (unless you’ve read my post How to overcome specific fears and anxieties or another source with some of the same information): it still starts with some kind of sensory information, like a sight or sound, but in this case the amygdalae (a primitive part of the brain that we have on both the left and right side) flag it as something that has been associated with a powerful emotion or traumatic event in the past and sets off our gut emotional reaction before we even recognize what the thing is. For instance, if a person has been in an explosion caused by natural gas, the person may experience terror when smelling gas even before realizing that it’s a smell, or what the smell might be. Our brains seem to have evolved this trick of firing up emergency systems first and asking question later in order to help get us away from life-threatening situations as quickly as possible.

Even though the gut reaction is immediate and automatic, it can come down the high road as the result of thinking. For instance, I might spend hours going over my small business’s accounts before having the sudden realization that my accountant is stealing from me. As soon as I’ve had that realization, I’m likely to have a gut reaction (for instance of anger at the accountant, or fear of what will happen to my business, or happiness that I have found the reason for the cash flow problems, or even a combination) that’s automatic in the sense of reacting immediately to a thought that has been a long time coming.

Emotion is a process, not an unchanging state
But if we have that gut reaction, that doesn’t mean that we’re stuck in the corresponding emotion: instead, it seems to make the most sense to think about the emotion being a process that develops in several different ways at once, started by that gut reaction but subject to all kinds of changes. An emotion develops through:

  • Body chemistry:An emotion will spur a physiological reaction through chemicals like dopamine (associated with pleasure), adrenaline (associated with fear and anger), seratonin (associated with serenity), oxytocin (associated with feelings of love), cortisol (associated with stress), and so on. These chemicals have a lot to do with the physical feelings emotions create, like butterflies in the stomach or a thrill of delight, and they also tend to sustain whatever emotion we’re having.
  • Thinking (cognition): Once we start having an emotion, we tend to think about it and monitor our surroundings. For instance, we might see flashing blue lights and initially feel anxiety, thinking they’re from police cars, then round a corner and discover that they’re lights from a party a neighbor is having on their lawn.
  • Body language: It won’t be news to you that happiness can make you smile and depression can make you slump, but it’s more surprising to realize that smiling can make you happy and slumping can make you more depressed. Fascinatingly, our own expressions, posture, and maybe even tone of voice can stimulate the same body chemistry that the corresponding emotion would create. Smiling can make us feel happier, and sitting up straight can help us feel more alert and positive.
  • Being ready for action: Certain emotions tend to prime our bodies to be ready in certain ways: to focus our attention in a certain way or to be ready to move quickly. An example of this is flinching away at a sudden loud noise: our body is ready to act before we can even come up with a plan of how to act.

Different emotions at the same time?
These pieces of the emotional puzzle all go forward when we’re experiencing an emotion, and while they can work at the same time and in similar directions, they can also be out of synch or in conflict with each other. When that happens, they begin to influence each other, so that they tend to converge over time. For instance, if I am thinking something about something that makes me happy and my body is putting out oxytocin, but I decide to frown and turn my attention to things that upset me, the oxytocin will be cut off and replaced with other chemicals, my brain will conjure up memories of things that upset me, and my body will more and more begin to reflect the bad mood I’m creating.

It can be especially confusing to experience emotions that are out of synch. In the blue lights example, once I realize that it’s a party and not a crime scene, I may immediately feel intellectually better about the situation but still be feeling anxiety beneath that, because our thinking can change directions more quickly than our body chemistry. Fortunately, if we keep our thinking in the channel of the new emotion, our body chemistry will soon catch up.

Simple words for complex feelings
To make sense of emotions, we have a wide variety of labels for different ones, especially in English: terror, awe, euphoria, ennui, indignation, fury, and so on. When trying to reflect on how we’re feeling now or how we felt a while back, we tend to try to characterize our emotions to fit these available labels (although we also have emotion-charged memories that may give us more detail), and therefore tend to talk about emotions in a simpler way than we experience them. For instance, in the blue lights example, we might say “I was worried when I saw blue lights, but when I saw it was just a party, I was relieved.” This doesn’t capture that temporary conflict of thinking and body chemistry, nor the subtle details–perhaps the initial worry was mixed with indignation that a crime was happening in our neighborhood or guilt at something we ourselves had done; maybe the relief that the blue lights meant just a party was mixed at different times with irritation at the likely amount of noise, excitement that we might be invited to the party, and/or surprise that the neighbors thought blue lights were decorative. To put it another way, our emotions are not simple, exclusive states, but instead an evolving process that can include parallel and conflicting pieces that are hard to easily summarize in words. Fortunately, we have poets, artists, musicians, and others to help us communicate about emotions without resorting to simple summaries.

How idea repair can help drive emotion
A last note: in posts on idea repair, I’ve talked about thinking causing emotions. In light of this article, that idea may seem oversimplified, but to put things in perspective, idea repair is the process of thinking and directing attention that begins immediately after we have that initial gut reaction. Idea repair can’t directly affect the gut reaction (although over time it might train habits that will change initial reactions), but modifying our thinking is probably the most powerful single thing we can do to turn an emotion in a positive direction once an emotional process begins.

Police lights photo by Sven Cipido.


How to Multitask, and When Not To

Strategies and goals


In my last post, “How to Get a  Lot of Different Things Done Without Going Crazy,” I mentioned molecular neurobiologist John Medina’s point that our brains are structured so that we can only focus on one thing at a time. In Medina’s book Brain Rules, he asserts, “the brain cannot multitask.” It’s a really important point, but he is making it in a confusing way, because Medina goes on to say he’s only referring to “the brain’s ability to pay attention.” As you know if you’ve ever driven the wrong way because your mind was on something else, doing a thing doesn’t always mean paying attention to it. Medina is telling us that we can’t multifocus. Multitasking is not only possible, it’s a terrific way to get dull things done without getting bored, if used in the right way.

But since we can’t focus on more than one thing at a time, that means that if we’re multitasking, we can have at most one thing tying up our attention at a time: past that first thing, anything else we do can’t be something requires attention: it has to be something we’ve done over and over the same way.

I like folding laundry, because I always use laundry folding time to watch a movie with my son. We dump all of the clean laundry in the middle of the living room, sit around the pile, and gradually transform the pile into neat stacks of folded clothing. We take our time, talk about the movie a little when we feel like it, and when we’re done we hardly feel like we’ve done any work. It’s my son’s favorite chore, and I count it more as leisure than work.

unicyclerBut it’s easier for me than for my son, because I’ve been folding clothes for decades, while my son has only been doing it for a few years. Several times every folding session, I’ll notice he’s stopped folding, his attention fully on the movie. Usually this happens with a trickier item of clothing or with a particularly gripping part of the movie. Not being as used to folding as me, he can’t do it entirely on automatic, so his brain needs some of his attention for the folding, and his attention is already taken up by the movie. Since he can’t pay attention to two things at once, the clothes folding just stops, and since he was doing it automatically, he may not even notice: he may just sit there holding the shirt, transfixed.

“Fold,” I remind him, and he takes the few seconds necessary to focus on the clothing and start folding it, at which point his brain can go back to the movie.

I can understand if you don’t think of watching a movie and folding clothes as multitasking (though since I write a lot of fiction and analyze movies for plot, character, pacing, and emotional impact as I watch, watching movies for me is fun work instead of just fun), but even using our attention for fun can make boring work enjoyable.

So multitasking is simple, but multitasking attempts are doomed to fail unless the extra tasks being done are near-automatic ones. In terms of prioritizing tasks if we want to get a lot done, this suggests that it’s helpful to save the really mindless ones for a time when we’re doing something else with our mind: planning, talking on a headset phone (they’re not expensive, and they’re a good way to get housework done painlessly for some people), or even relaxing with a movie. But since even automatic tasks require a little bit of attention from time to time, we generally can’t focus intensely on one thing while automatically doing another: for example, we can’t multitask and still expect to get into flow.

I’m not suggesting we need to fill every moment of our lives with as much productivity as possible, but when we have a lot of things in front of us to do, it can help to know that some of the dullest tasks can be done while our brains are elsewhere. While there are other good ways to accomplish boring tasks, there’s a certain satisfaction in getting two things done at once: it makes us feel organized and confident, and that feeling itself is a great motivator.

Replicated guy cleaning photo by waveking1
Photo of unicyclist Tom James by Elsie esq.


How to Get a Lot of Different Things Done Without Going Crazy

Strategies and goals

ducks_in_a_rowAs I write this it’s Saturday, the beginning of the first mostly-free weekend I’ve had in about a month. Because scheduled things take up almost all of my time during the week, I’ve amassed a list of about 30 tasks, large and small, that I’d like to get done this weekend. They probably won’t all get done, because there are only so many hours in the day, and that’s OK as long as I make good use of my time, enjoy the weekend, and get the most important ones taken care of. The question is, what’s the best way to do that?

I’ve gotten better and better at juggling multiple tasks over my lifetime, especially since I started intensively learning about the psychology of self-motivation, but it wasn’t until I came across a section on attention in molecular neurobiologist John Medina’s book Brain Rules that I understood why I’ve been getting better at managing a lot of tasks, and how to improve even more.

When Medina talks about attention, he describes how we change our focus from one thing to another: for each separate activity, we have to send a message throughout our brain telling it to first search out, then activate all the neural resources we have for that particular activity, letting the resources that have been active for whatever we were just doing go dormant. This is called “rule activation,” because as we learn, our brain developes specialized rules for how to act in different circumstances. Rule activation takes several tenths of a second, Medina says, and we can only activate rules for one task at a time. (What about multitasking? That’s a special case, and I go into it in more detail in the post coming up on Wednesday, “How to Multitask, and When Not To.”)

So why should this switchover matter? After all, if our brain can change modes in less than a second, we should be able to move from one thing to another with only a tiny hesitation. And that is possible–but only after we decide what we’re going to do and focus. Until we decide, until we’re certain about what we want to do and start to focus our attention on it, our brains don’t switch over: we’re in a holding pattern, still hanging onto the tools for the last thing we did and not sure what the next thing is. Just thinking about doing a thing is not the same as being ready to do that thing, even though we can very quickly move from thinking to committing if we try.

In other words, in order to get something done, we have to choose one and only one thing to concentrate on, discarding uncertainty and distractions. The problem with this is that our lives don’t present us with one and only one thing to do at a time: often we’ll have several things that need our attention, all of them important, with new ones coming in all the time. How do we reconcile our single-focus brain with a wide variety of tasks? We need to narrow our focus to only one thing at a time, and to do that we need to temporarily dismiss everything else. We also need to have an easy way to move on to the next thing once we’re done the current task.

We often don’t do this. Often we start one task, shift to another task, check e-mail, remember something we wanted to get out of a drawer, get up to get it, get involved in a conversation, forget what we got up to fetch … in other words, we let our attention shift from one thing to another, requiring a complete brain reorientation every time.

The discipline of getting a lot of different things done, then, is a discipline of choosing one thing and ignoring everything else. If you don’t know what the one thing to choose is, the answer is easy: focus your attention on prioritizing your next selection. Putting the extra attention in the choice makes it easier to focus once you move on to doing the thing you selected, because you’ve already had the chance to consider and reject all the other things that you could be doing for that moment.

To get an extra boost of productivity from there, it’s sometimes possible to keep a queue of maybe up to three or four things in your mind. As soon as you’re done the first one, focus fully on the next, and so on. This can be fluid: you can change the order before you start doing something, but once you start, try to stick with it to the end unless things change drastically. Once you get your focus on something else, it’s not always easy to bring it back, so each time you focus your attention, focus it completely and confidently, knowing that you’ve chosen the object of your attention carefully. The secret to doing a lot of different things is to not try to do them all at once.

This process of focusing isn’t just efficient: it’s relaxing. What’s stressful about having a thousand things to do is having to deal with all of them at once. By prioritizing, you really are dealing with all of them while still freeing yourself from having to think about all of them at once.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to schedule this post and put my attention in exactly one other, entirely different place.

Photo by Jonathan Caves

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