This is your brain on Disney

If a dream is a wish your heart makes, then your brain must be doing something right.

Recent research published in the International Journal of Tourism Anthropology examines the effect that Disney has on neurological development.  The paper, written by University of Missouri professor Craig T. Palmer, refutes a previous hypothesis of the neurological development of creativity, storytelling, humor, and fantasy within the human brain.  Deemed the mating mind hypothesis, it suggested that our minds developed these artistic centers as a way to attract and court the opposite sex. (Sounds pretty reasonable to me.)  Courting leads to reproduction, which then leads to stabilizing evolution providing for larger centers in the brain relating to those traits.

To refute this statement, Palmer used the concrete example of Disneyland to compare it to.   Now I don’t know if Palmer actually wanted to refute the hypothesis or just find some sort of research that would allow him to spend an ample amount of his time in the park, but this guy knows how to pick a thesis. Palmer said that the development of these sections in the brain were actually more related to the parenting strategies used to tweak the behavior of their children.  The characteristics are seen as more of a transmission of culture rather than as a means for natural selection.  It would just so happen to be that those that were wittier and had a love for all things Disney would reproduce (giving hope to Disney fanatics everywhere).

So what does this mean in the long run?  It means that if you want your kids to listen to you and grow up to be respectable adults, looks like you’re heading to Disneyland.  So when you’re trying to find that new parenting technique to discipline an unruly child, just listen to Pinocchio and, “always let your conscience be your guide.”


The Motherlobe: A Mom’s View on Neuroscience

I’m excited to announce my first guest blogger for Mindless Science: My Mom!  Sammi King is a freelance writer for the Daily Herald, my hometown newspaper.  She usually writes about people and events within the community so we agreed that she would make a perfect guest blogger as a neuro novice.  Here’s my mom with a mother’s take on neuroscience:

My only contact with the brain was years ago when I tried in vain to excise the tiny body part with metal probes from the poor man in the game, “Operation.”  I now have a son at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is a neuroscience major, so when given the opportunity I decided to check out a brain at a recent trip to a museum.

The brain before me was real, not a plastic model, like the ones we studied in my high school biology class. Unlike the tiny hard brain that I tried to extract from “Operation” this one was big and wormlike.  Although I couldn’t touch this brain, to see if it felt like the ground meat used as simulations for Halloween, I knew it was real.  It formerly belonged to a Chinese man from the traveling exhibit called “Bodies, the Exhibition” at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois.

It is amazing how the red mass of mush can be such an amazing circuitry.  Think about it.  This extraordinary machine works 24 hours a day without a coffee break, a paid vacation or 10 paid holidays.  it doesn’t get any sick days, not even any mental health days.  It is a working machine of enormous magnitude, in constant operation, from the moment we take our first breath till the time the last breath leaves our body.

Unlike a machine, the brain doesn’t get a lot of oil, unless the its caretaker is heavily committed to the Mediterranean diet.  Grease?  Not happening in this day and age.

In fact, the brain gets very low maintenance.  How many machines can do that?  Even robotic brains need a battery recharge every now and then.

Having just finished a story for the Daily Herald (a Chicago/ suburban newspaper with a circulation of 750,000) on the benefits of laughter yoga, I was interested in the part of the brain that produces laughter—the comedy circuit.  is it a smoke filled area where one liners fly as high as the bar tabs?  Is it a sit-com type of circuitry that runs in short half hour stints with limited commercial breaks?  Is it a humor haven filled with jokes, jests and sarcasm?

And where in the brain is the parental lobe, that portion of the brain in your offspring that emits guilt when the drinks flow too freely and the party goes too long on on your son’s college campus.  Is that part of the brain always working?  Even late into the night?

Why isn’t there a switch that flips on automatically and conveys the message, “Mama says”  or “Have you called your mother today?”  rather than the all familiar “This is the captain speaking, please fasten your seat belt you are in for life’s bumpy ride.”

There may be a place in the brain for laughter but I am pretty sure that there is no “motherlobe”  That undoubtedly is saved for the heart.

And while science is still working on discovering areas of the brain associated with ‘sarcasm’ or ‘guilt’, I know that my brain has Brodmann’s Area PS always active (Proud Son).

Great blog, mom!

Synaptic Symphony

I really don’t have much to say, except that I would be doing a dishonor to neuroscience by not posting this to my blog:

Laughter part II: Laughing Hyenas

Why didn’t the nasal retina cross the road?  Because it already crossed at the optic chiasm!

Alright, so that really wasn’t funny.  But let’s keep going with our conversation of laughter.   Some have said that laughter is one of the only characteristics that are specific to humans, but can this be true?  We’ve all seen the laughing hyenas in the Lion King, but what’s so funny?  Have you ever seen a dog’s face while scratching their belly?  If that’s not laughter, I don’t know what is.

Researchers have started to believe that animals also share this human like quality of laughter.  But then why can’t we hear it?  It’s similar to why we can’t hear bats use sonar to locate prey in the night.  Animals are producing this ‘laughter’ at such a high frequencies that we are unable to hear it with our puny human ears.  Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Bowling Green State University, examines this phenomenon a little more closely by tickling rats.  Yes, I said it: tickling rats.

Seems pretty strange, right?  Panksepp has been studying joy, along with numerous other emotions, in rats and he’s found that we’re really not too different from our animal counterparts.  It seems like everything that once made us human can now be applied to the animal world.  My prediction?  This will encourage researchers to look at communication with animals in a new light, try new ways to form a connection.  Just don’t be expecting me to try my jokes out on my rats anytime soon.  They’re a tough crowd.

Neurological Development of Laughter

I was watching this youtube video the other day and it got me thinking.

Why was this baby laughing so much and then so scared?  I mean, I understand that kids can be afraid of the boogey monster, but I thought this might have been taking it a little far.  There is a look of shear terror on this child’s face.  When was the last time that you’ve been that scared?  Or for that matter, been that happy?  This apparent range of emotions was intriguing.

So what’s actually going on?  According to Discovery Health, researches have already used an EEG to measure the brain waves stimulated during laughter.  They reported:

  • The left side of the cortex (the layer of cells that covers the entire surface of the forebrain) analyzed the words and structure of the joke.
  • The brain’s large frontal lobe, which is involved in social emotional responses, became very active.
  • The right hemisphere of the cortex carried out the intellectual analysis required to “get” the joke.
  • Brainwave activity then spread to the sensory processing area of the occipital lobe (the area on the back of the head that contains the cells that process visual signals).
  • Stimulation of the motor sections evoked physical responses to the joke.
  • They Hypothalamus (what I do my pain research on) has been seen as the major contributor to loud, uncontrollable laughter.

Lawrence Kutner, a psychologist teaching at Harvard Medical School, explains that the humor that this baby might be experiencing can be compared to the developmental problems that the baby is currently facing.  Like when kids are learning how to move onto “big-boy” underwear and they still find jokes about the toilet so funny they wet their pants.

Even if we don’t know the exact mechanism as to why we might find blowing someones nose extremely scary or belly-splitting funny, we can all agree on one thing: that baby is darn cute.

I am neuroscience. And you can, too!

What does it mean to be a neuroscientist?  Does it mean you perform brain surgery on a day by day basis?  Does it mean that you can diagnose every aspect associated with the brain?  Does it mean that people will believe that you’re most likely the smartest person alive?

All the answers to these questions are no (except the last one, but I mean, you don’t have any control over what other people think of you…).  Neuroscience is so much more than McDreamys and Frankensteins. In fact, neuroscience is more than just the brain.

When I tell people that I’m a neuroscientist, the most common reaction is, “Wow, you must be really smart.”  And although the compliment is extremely flattering, neuroscience is just like any other profession that people can specialize in.  I’m just lucky that I find the nervous system really interesting.

Neuroscience is everything related to the nervous system.  That means your eyes,your ears, your mouth and nose (where have I heard that before?)   Anything with perception or feeling can be traced back to neuroscience.  Really, anything and everything can be traced back to neuroscience.

When you take a look at it, everyone experiences neuroscience on a daily basis.  So, I guess we’re all neuroscience experts!  (And then everyone can have puppies and world peace.)

I wish this blog were more interesting…

I know, I know.  That’s exactly what I’ve been saying the whole time.  I’m right there with ya!

So what do you want to see?  Make sure to comment and tell me what you want to learn more about.  Here are some of the next few blog posts coming up:

1. This is your brain on Disney

2.  The neurological origin of laughter

3. Telecommunication: Will we ever understand Twitter?

4. What’s that Lassie, Benny just read Mindless Science? Animal Communication and Neuroscience

5. The creation of the super-awesome-mind-controlled-mega robot.

Stay tuned for new blog posts!