Cranial Reflections

Earlier this week they moved a towering red crane onto a construction site on my walk to work, and as I strolled past one morning I saw the crane reflected in the glass windows of a neighboring building.  It looked like a piece of modern art, with color gradations from the background sky, the cubist boxes, and the red colors threading upward and across from bottom to top.

Interesting, isn’t it, how the human brain searches for pattern wherever and whatever it perceives sight or sound?  It may cause us to see creepy faces on wallpaper or presidential profiles on potato chips, but it’s also useful– and would cause most people to recognize this distorted image as a reflection of a crane.

On The Edge Of Slumber

I woke up at 3 a.m. to go to the bathroom.  (Hey, I’m a guy in his late 50s.  It happens.)  When I came back to bed I knew the next few moments would be the acid test — either I would promptly drift back into blissful sleep, or I’d start thinking about something and deal with an unwanted period of tossing and turning.

fotolia_42638075_full-moon2Unfortunately, it was the latter.  For me, the wakefulness always seems to start with a single concrete thought — whether it be about work, or a family issue, or something else — that acts to drive away the possibility of sleep.  Just as I feel as if I am on the edge of slumber, another point will arise, and suddenly I’m getting up because I remember something and need to leave myself a reminder for when I will get up for good.

The experts will tell you that sleep occurs when the conscious mind goes dormant and the unconscious mind takes over.  But how do you encourage that hard-working conscious mind that you needed to help you stumble to the bathroom in the dark to let go, already?

This morning, I really felt the battle between the two parts of the brain, with the conscious mind and its structured ideas trying to remain in control and the subconscious mind always lurking beneath, ready to pounce as soon as the conscious mind lets its guard down.  It’s an interesting, if frustrating, phenomenon, and when it happens I try to slow my breathing, gradually clear my mind of everything, and let those dreamlike notions that are cavorting out on the periphery to come on down to center stage.  Sometimes, if the conscious mind is really persistent, I’ll try to think of some obviously surreal situation that is like a dream.  If it works, as it did this time, the effect is instantaneous, and the next thing I know it’s 5:30 and time to begin the morning.

I’d prefer to sleep like a log every night, but I’m convinced that it’s just not possible for people with busy lives.  When those wakeful nights hit, you have to have a technique for dealing with it and letting you get back to the shuteye that we all need.

The Terror Of Typos

Wired recently published an interesting article about the bane of any writer’s existence:  typos.  Why do we make them in the first place, and once we do, why it is so darned difficult to see them so we can fix them?

The article contends that typos occur because the brain is occupied with the complex task of communicating concepts via the written word and operates on autopilot in performing the lower-level tasks of creating words and sentences.  And then, during the proofreading run after you’ve made the little mistake, your brain knows what you intended to convey and just assumes that it is there in all its glory.  That makes it hard to see the extra s or the extraneous word that you failed to delete.  Technology, too, plays a role.  When you are creating a document on a computer you are keyboarding, editing, cutting and pasting, and moving blocks of text here and there, and inevitably errors will occur.

And, just as people develop “chicken fatigue” after eating too much poultry, so the brain can develop “writing fatigue.”  Often you’ve read and re-read your piece so many times that your bored brain just skims the surface of the words, leaving you defenseless against the little, irritating errors.  That’s the way my brain works, so my typo-termination technique is to try to let time pass (overnight if possible) before making my proofreading run.  I want to see the work with fresher eyes and, I hope, catch things I didn’t catch before.

Given the prevalence of typos, and the human elements that inevitably produce them, you’d think that people would be more forgiving when they see them.  But we aren’t, of course.  Instead, we equate typos with carelessness and lack of attention to detail and allow their presence to undercut the high-level concepts that, according to the Wired piece, caused the writer’s brain to make the mistakes in the first place.  Perverse, isn’t it?  It’s why writers hate typos so much — and why anyone applying for a job would do well to enlist the services of a careful resume proofreader.

The Biology Of Conscience

Scientists at Oxford have made a fascinating discovery about the human brain. They have identified an area called the lateral frontal pole that focuses on considering alternative courses of action and comparing them to what we’ve actually done. Even more intriguing, their work shows that there is no similar area in the brains of monkeys.

The study used MRI scanning techniques to map neural pathways within the brain and determine which areas are connected to the ventrolateral frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain involved with language and cognitive flexibility. The studies allowed the scientists to identify the location and function of the lateral frontal pole, a bundle of neurons described as the size and shape of a Brussels sprout.

What really makes us human? One essential characteristic is comparing what we actually did to what we could have done — and then pondering endlessly about what we should have done. The concept of choice, and the identification, evaluation, and comparison of choices by the lateral frontal pole, lies at the root of many of the higher attributes of humans, because the concept of choice and causation leads inevitably to the concept of right and wrong. Philosophy, morals, ethics, and religious beliefs all argue about which choices are right and which are wrong and what considerations should go into how we make those choices. Should we pursue individual pleasure? Should we always try to act in furtherance of the greatest societal good?

These notions are all wrapped up in what we broadly call a conscience — which apparently lurks in the lateral frontal pole. It’s what makes us feel guilty and second-guess ourselves. It’s why Scrooge dreamed of Marley’s ghost. And it’s fascinating that monkeys, which have brains that are generally similar to the human brain, lack the section of the brain that engages in such activity. They apparently can steal a piece of fruit, happily gobble it down, and sleep soundly that night without a second thought or pang of guilt.

The next time you toss and turn at night, unable to sleep because you wonder whether you did the right thing, you can be sure the neurons in your lateral frontal pole are firing and churning away. We’ve got choice, and the lateral frontal pole ensures that we must live with the consequences.

Searching For A Scientific Explanation Of Near-Death Experiences

If you’ve ever heard someone recount a near-death experience, you know it can be chilling.  They speak with absolute conviction about the sensation of rising out of their body, seeing their surroundings from above, and then moving rapidly to a bright yet soothing light — among other common themes.

IMG_0770Is there a scientific explanation for the fact that so many people who have gone to the brink have the same perceptions?  This week researchers reported on studies of rats that showed a huge surge in brain activity after the heart stops beating.  The study found a spike in high frequency brainwaves called gamma oscillations, to even higher levels than exist in alive, awake rats.  The brain activity was consistent with perception of visual activity, conscious processing, and heightened communication among different parts of the brain.  Then, of course, the rats die and brain activity ceases.

The study has provoked a lot of speculation about whether the rat experience is replicated in humans, and whether it could explain the vivid encounters reported by those who have had a close brush with death.  The theory is that the surge in brain activity after the oxygen flow stops produces the sharp visual sensations and altered sense of time that are reported by many survivors.  As the Washington Post reports, however, there is skepticism and dispute within the scientific community about whether the rat study can tell us much about the human experience and can explain the uncanny similarity of the experiences reported by people of different cultures and religious faiths.

We know that there are many people who have had a near-death experience and who believe that what they saw and felt was real, deeply meaningful, and had an intensely spiritual, even cosmic significance.  Entire websites are devoted to discussing such experiences and large conventions are held so that survivors can share their perceptions.  Many people, including those who have just lost a loved one, find great comfort in hearing about these experiences.

What really happens when we die?  It is the eternal question, and one that science probably cannot answer. We’ll just have to find out when it happens to us.

Harnessing The Power Of Thought

Every day, it seems, there is some dazzling new advancement in science and technology.  Consider the video above, which demonstrates how researchers are able to use brain waves to guide and control a helicopter.  It’s amazing stuff, and you can read about some of the science behind the thought control device here.

You can imagine the enormous value of this kind of technology as it relates to helping disabled people to control their environment, achieve greater self-sufficiency, and use their brainpower to make up for their disability-related losses.  For those who are wheelchair-bound but unable to speak due to injury or debilitating disease, for example, imagine the joy of being able to use your brain to communicate with the outside world once more.  That day can’t get here fast enough.

My Overnight Brain

This morning, when I awoke, the Billy Joel song Honesty was firmly lodged in my brain — so firmly lodged that it kept playing and playing until I put on the iPod headphones and focused my brain instead on Television’s Marquee Moon.

Why did I wake up to Billy Joel’s plaintive anthem to forthright relationships?  I don’t have the slightest idea.  It’s not one of my all-time favorite songs.  I wasn’t humming it when I went to bed last night.  My best guess is that I heard it at some point over the last week or so, and while I slept my brain was simply shuffling through its catalog of recent stimuli, trying to figure out what to remember and what to discard.  It was just my good fortune to awaken when it was The Piano Man’s turn on the recently heard playlist.

I know my brain works hard while I sleep.  When I wake up, there often is a song, thought, or image at the forefront of my mind.  It’s not unusual for my overnight brain to help me with work issues.  If I am wrestling with how to structure an argument, I may hit the sack with the issue in mind and wake up with a carefully considered approach, down to the point of specific phrases or fully formed sentences that I can jot down and use.  On other occasions, I’ll open my eyes and immediately be confronted by a list of reminders and to-do items.  It’s as if the slumber of my conscious self frees my inner brain to grind away undisturbed, like a conscientious employee who is constantly distracted by a talkative boss and becomes truly productive only when the boss blessedly returns to his office.

I like the fact that my brain continues to work while I sleep.  I wouldn’t necessarily choose Billy Joel as my wake-up music, but it’s a small price to pay.

Patterns In The World Around Us

IMG_3024Studies show that the human brain is geared to recognizing patterns.  We see faces in the random dots on wallpaper, or Jesus’s head in the rust stains on an oil tank, because that’s just the way we’re wired.

Our brains reject disorder and crave order — so when you get a chance to feed that craving, as occurs when you look at the delicately latticed, carefully ordered, vaulted interior ceiling of the Hyatt Arcade in Cleveland, your brain is most appreciative.

Mommy’s Brain

A new study published in Behavioral Neuroscience suggests that giving birth causes the brains of mothers to grow in certain areas.  The study compared brain size soon after birth with brain size months later and concluded that the gray matter of the brain increased by a significant amount.  The specific areas of the brain that were affected deal with maternal motivation, reward and emotion processing, sensory integration, and reasoning and judgment.  All of these areas are relevant to child-rearing (although you could make a case that every area of the brain is related in some fashion to child-rearing).

It shouldn’t be surprising that the female brain reacts to giving birth and caring for a child.  After birth, females are flooded with hormones like estrogen, oxytocin and prolactin, and first-time mothers are learning an entirely new set of skills, including surviving on little sleep, coming bolt awake at the first murmurings of a waking infant, and mastering the interpretation of baby cries to determine whether a child is starving, dealing with a poop-filled diaper, or just lonely for Mom’s smiling face.

Not surprisingly, the study did not include the impact of having a child on the brains of new fathers.  My guess would be that any such study would conclude that the birth of a child does nothing to divert the male brain from its long, gradual slide to eventual senility.  While maternal brains respond energetically to new stimuli, sluggish paternal brains just hope to get some sleep.

Roll On, Big O

The human brain is weird — or at least, mine is.  I may have trouble remembering the name of a person I met last week, but I can recall with crystalline clarity the lyrics to The Beverly Hillbillies theme song.

Today as I was driving home, for some unknown reason, I thought of the ’60s advertising jingle Roll On, Big O, which was sung in commercials for Lawson’s Stores in northeast Ohio.  Talk about obscure!  Yet there it is, firmly implanted in my brain, never to be dislodged.  Of course, the Big O was a pretty cool commercial.  It was about Lawson’s truck drivers who drove a truck called the Big O from Florida up to Ohio, non-stop, in order to deliver a fresh load of Florida orange juice to Lawson’s stores.  The part I remember is as follows:

Roll on, Big O

Get that juice up to Lawson’s in 40 hours

Now one man sleeps while the other man drives

On that non-stop Lawson’s run

And the cold, cold juice in the tank truck caboose

Stays as fresh as the Florida sun

Roll on, Big O

Get that juice up to Lawson’s in 40 hours

Of course, 40 hours now seems like a long time for a drive from Florida to Ohio, but this apparently was in the days before interstate superhighways blanketed the nation.  And it also was in the innocent days before “Big O” had another connotation that makes running a Google search for “Big O” these days an interesting exercise.

In any case, I am pleased to see that the indispensable Youtube has preserved the commercial for all to enjoy:

Our Fascinating, Flexible Brain

The BBC today has an interesting story on experiments concerning the operation of the brain.  The experiments tracked signals between different parts of the brains of rats.  They showed that different parts of the brain were unexpectedly communicating with each other and that information looped back rather than proceeding in rigid lines of communication. The BBC story notes that the study and the apparently interconnected nature of the brain “could prove to be a powerful tool in analysing how the brain processes information.”

I wonder, however, whether the study has significantly broader implications.  Recently I read a fascinating book called The Brain That Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge.  The basic concept underlying that book is called neuroplasticity, and it posits that the brain is not “hard-wired” like the motherboard of a computer, but rather is a flexible collection of cells that can serve different functions.  The encouraging message of neuroplasticity is that people who suffer brain dysfunction due to strokes, blunt trauma, or other forms of injury are not inevitably doomed to live the rest of their lives unable to walk or talk.  Instead, the book reports on instances where, through carefully planned tasks, repetitive actions, and determination, people have been able to reroute their brain functions through healthy cells and regain their lost powers of speech and movement.  The study that is the subject of the BBC reports, by demonstrating that the brain does not function in a rigid “top-down” fashion, seems to further confirm the accuracy of the concept of neuroplasticity.

What does it mean for those of us who haven’t suffered brain dysfunction?  The lesson is that you can work to enhance mental acuity and balance as you age by taking steps to make sure that the brain and nerve connections stay sharp.  Do a crossword puzzle or a math problem.  Try to learn a new foreign language.  Walk barefoot around your yard and neighborhood.  And if you feel yourself slipping, don’t accept it with a sigh of resignation.  Instead, view it is a challenge to be overcome — because that is exactly what it is.