Tag Archives: brain

Stop! Think for a moment with both your cognitive brain parts

Sometimes in life we are going too fast. We don’t know how to slow down and take a breather. It is like we are trying desperately to be one step ahead of everyone. What we don’t understand is that they are trying the same thing. We go at 100 miles an hour and yet, we are followed by others. The race to succeed never really goes away. You know that wonderful retirement stage where you envision yourself sitting on a rocking chair drinking a tall glass of iced tea looking at the scenery around you from the porch of your house while your great grand children play in the backyard? Well, let’s just say that will never happen.

When a car spins out of control a bystander can often tell how the car might spin but when a person spins out of control, you can never tell anything until the shit hitting the fan has finally had the chance to settle down on some part of the room.

This is what happened to me. No, I didn’t meet with an accident. But, I caught the flu. I was careless enough to play in a river all day long and uninhibitedly walked around in wet clothes. Add to that, a sick friend who exposed me to a possible influenza virus and I am a very sick man. Being sick and having someone fuss around you leaves two things for you to do: Sleep and think. I did the most rational thing a person can do. I slept for 24 hours in 2 days. Rest of the time, I thought about how difficult it must be for people who are invalid for the rest of their lives to deal with it and this brought to my mind a TED talk that I watched way back about a woman who suffered a stroke. Her name is Jill Bolte Taylor. She is quite famous for her book – My Stroke of Insight. She was also on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote her book.

If you haven’t listened to her TED talks or read her book, this is what she went through.

Jill Taylor was a neuroscientist who worked on schizophrenia (a kind of mental disorder – more on this later, I promise you). In 1996, a blood vessel in her brain exploded in the left half of her brain. It is important to understand that the left hemisphere is an integral part of everyday life. In fact, it is the dominant of the two hemispheres and is responsible for things such as walking, talking, reading, writing, recalling etc. Basically, without the left part of your brain, you will be an infant. That is not a nice thing, I assure you. Diapers and drool all day long!

So, why bring up Jill Taylor and her stroke. I wanted to talk to you about an exciting thing inside your brain. Wait! Make that two exciting things: The left and the right hemispheres. Before you get disappointed, let me assure you, this is one of the best things nature has created. Can you believe that the two parts of our brain process differently? They think about different things, care about different things and in fact come up with different solutions for a single problem. The two parts are connected in the middle through the corpus callosum and this is a medium for connection and contact with each other.

Jill Taylor thinks that the two parts of the brain have different personalities.

Let me give you a few things that the right and left hemispheres do. Our right hemisphere thinks in pictures. It understands different the situation kinaesthetically (smell, feel, hear) and makes a mosaic picture on where we are standing, what we are doing etc. In fact, it is concerned about the present. The “this moment” of my life is what right part understands and cares for.

On the other hand, the left side of the brain is more logical. It is linear in its thinking. It recalls the past, thinks about the future keeping the present mosaic that the right builds up as a base for its thought process. It is detail oriented (sounds like something you find on a CV. Next time you can write, my left part of the brain is my real boss. So, I am more interested in details, futures and not repeating past mistakes). More importantly, our left hemisphere contains the memory for words and language. So, it thinks in language and words (Again, a CV pointer. Are you noting it down somewhere?).

“Did you watch what she said? OMG” did a small voice inside your brain tell you this when you listened to someone on the TV or on the road? That small voice is a weapon created by the left part of the brain not only to give you sane advice but also to make your life miserable with guilt. But, it is also a distinguishing feature. Do you remember the day you recognized that small voice in your mind as yours? No? Because, it has been there always and it is responsible for your self – identification. “I am not like that. I am a better person than that. I am the way I am” all things that can be found on slogan T – shirts as well as the things that the left brain instils in you.

So, the next time you find yourself in a situation where you have that “Aha – moment” think about this: We are not just minions of the world who have opposing thumbs (dexterity, if you will), capacity to stand on two legs (Bipedal) and can feed ourselves. We are the ultimate creatures that nature created. We may not be the fastest or strongest or even the loudest but we are definitely the smartest. Case in point, we don’t have one but two cognitive minds. Power to choose our identity and lead our lives. Think about it: use both parts of the brain this time.




Neurosciences behind Ecstasy

For a long time, I have been a shy person, an introvert (to be exact). I preferred to keep my thoughts to myself and never expressed an opinion on anything!

Then, I slowly developed this whole new image of the “wild child”. Not exactly drugs and booze, just that I am open to talk and experience a whole lot of things that aren’t necessarily conventional. No, I am not talking about sneaking a cigarette or drowning a bottle of Tequila. I am talking about things like expressing my views on any topic that are considered to be taboo in India.

Recently, I was talking to my friends about this blog that I wanted to write. About human sexual activities and love (you can read about love here). Not in the adult film kind of way, but the neurosciences behind it. I know most of you started reading this blog post with a certain image in mind. I won’t be pasting pictures of naked women and men. I think there are enough sites to see that. Here I am going to write about the neurosciences and psychology behind that ultimate experience humans go through – Orgasm.

case study published by a team of Taiwanese neurologists reported a most unusual set of circumstances.

One of their 41 year-old female patients, diagnosed with epilepsy, had a seizure every time she brushed her teeth. Seizures in response to external stimulation are not unusual – flashing lights are a well known source – and other sorts of stimulation are not uncommon triggers. A recent case-report even involved seizures induced by vacuum cleaner use.

So the unusual aspect for the Taiwanese case was not the trigger, but the effect of the seizure. The woman had seizures when she brushed her teeth, and had an orgasm every time she had a seizure, shortly before losing consciousness.

Although probably doing wonders for her dental health, the condition has left neurologists rather puzzled. Because so little is known about sex and the brain, her doctors had very little to go on when they tried to explain what was happening.

Ecstasy? Agony? Euphoria? Surprisingly little is known about what happens in the brain at the very peak of our sexual experience. A Dutch team have done the unthinkable and scanned the brains of men and women during orgasm.

Neuroscientists trying to untangle the riddle of desire and sexual pleasure in the brain have discovered something that turns conventional wisdom on its head. During orgasm, men experience heightened activity in the emotion-processing centres of the brain. But women’s brains, say researchers, are shut down in emotion-processing regions during arousal and orgasm.

Physiologist Dr Gemma O’Brian from the School of Biological, Biomedical and Molecular Sciences at the University of New England also has a keen interest in the neurobiology of the orgasm, as fleeting an experience as it can be sometimes.

Gemma O’Brien: And this is one of the problems with trying to look inside the brain during something like orgasm. Orgasm’s a fairly brief event. We enjoy the response for an extended period of time, the resolution phase, but the actual brain changes are fairly brief so finding a technique that can see what’s happening in the brain.

The whole orgasm process is divided into three stages by Masters and Johnson: stage of arousal plateau, sexual climax and resolution. And it’s the sexual climax part that many people use the word ‘orgasm’ for.

So, is it all chemicals or is it all in the brain?

In men who have a high spinal cord injury may have ongoing capacity to use the reproductive tract so they can manually stimulate or tactilely stimulate to erection and all the way through to ejaculation but not detect anything by brain, not orgasm. They have to actually look or feel by hand to see whether anything happened. But they don’t actually have the sensations of euphoria that come with it.

Both male and female sexual reward releases beta-endorphin (Dictionary of Pharmaceutical Medicine, Springer Vienna, 2009) in the brain, which in experiments caused tremor.

[Looking at the brains of orgasming men using a PET scanner] scientists also saw heightened activity in brain regions involved in memory-related imagery and in vision itself, perhaps because the volunteers used visual imagery to hasten orgasm. The anterior part of the cerebellum also switched into high gear. The cerebellum has long been labeled the coordinator of motor behaviors but has more recently revealed its role in emotional processing. Thus, the cerebellum could be the seat of the emotional components of orgasm in men, perhaps helping to coordinate those emotions with planned behaviors. The amygdala, the brain’s center of vigilance and sometimes fear, showed a decline in activity at ejaculation, meaning, men are oblivious to their surroundings during an orgasm.

To find out whether orgasm looks similar in the female brain, [neuroscientist Gert] Holstege’s team asked the male partners of 12 women to stimulate their partner’s clitoris—the site whose excitation most easily leads to orgasm—until she climaxed, again inside a PET scanner. Not surprisingly, the team reported in 2006, clitoral stimulation by itself led to activation in areas of the brain involved in receiving and perceiving sensory signals from that part of the body and in describing a body sensation—for instance, labeling it “sexual.”

But when a woman reached orgasm, something unexpected happened: much of her brain went silent. Some of the most muted neurons sat in the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which may govern self-control over basic desires such as sex. Decreased activity there, the researchers suggest, might correspond to a release of tension and inhibition. The scientists also saw a dip in excitation in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which has an apparent role in moral reasoning and social judgment—a change that may be tied to a suspension of judgment and reflection.

Brain activity fell in the amygdala, too, suggesting a depression of vigilance similar to that seen in men, who generally showed far less deactivation in their brain during orgasm than their female counterparts did. “Fear and anxiety need to be avoided at all costs if a woman wishes to have an orgasm; we knew that, but now we can see it happening in the depths of the brain,” Holstege says. He went so far as to declare at the 2005 meeting of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Development: “At the moment of orgasm, women do not have any emotional feelings.”

You cannot basically conclude that these parts of the brains are shutting down because of the intense experience that the body is going through. It is like a busy road, it maybe because there is a sale in the local supermarket, or there might be a circus performance, or there might be a cat fight going on. Come on, you are interested to see two cats fight viciously right?

Brain scanning just finds associations, but to find out whether an area is causally involved in a particular function or whether it is necessary for the function, research with brain injured patients is one of the most powerful methods.

For example, if you think a brain area is necessary for orgasm, or a certain component of orgasm, a person with damage to that area should not experience what you’ve predicted.

Sexual neuroscience is one of the most under-researched areas in the human sciences. A quick search of PubMed (the international database of medical research) shows that we know more about the neuroscience of hiccups than we do about orgasm.

Part of the problem is practical. fMRI scanners, some of the most useful and popular tools in cognitive neuroscience, involve lying in a tube while scanning takes place and need the head to be completely still. Add the fact that you’re being watched by neuroscientists and none of this makes for relaxed coupling, or even self-stimulation.

So, if you have a way of testing people going through this, then tell me. Maybe I can do some mind boggling errr research. (I solemnly swear I am up to only good)



Exciting world of neurosciences

Hello everybody,

Today, I am going to write something about a subject that is very dear to me. I am fascinated by this subject so I hope a little of my fascination rubs on to you. I am new to this subject, so I am not an expert. I hope that you will learn and come to appreciate this subject just as I have.

The subject that I am going to talk about is THE BRAIN. Yes, I know. There are a million different things that can be said about this one “master organ”. It is a 3 pound jelly (you can hold it in the palm of your hand!), made of 100 billion neurons. Neurons are a class of cells which make up the brain and nerves. The brain is such a wonderful organ that is can contemplate the vastness of the universe, contemplate the meaning of infinity, God… In fact, it can even contemplate itself contemplating the meaning of infinity. Self – awareness, according to me is the holy grail of neurosciences.

All these neurons together constitute the spectrum of human activities. To understand how the brain works, there are several different methods. One such method is to study the brain which has been damaged. If the damage is confined to a small region of the brain (either due to genetic change or a physical damage), then the brain itself doesn’t stop working altogether. There is no reduction in the cognitive ability on the whole. Instead, there is a highly selective loss of one function while other functions are preserved intact. This makes it easy to map the function onto the structure and understand how the structure contributes for the overall activity.

Here are a few examples which help you understand this process:

Example number 1: Capgras Syndrome

According to wiki, the Capgras delusion theory (or Capgras syndrome) is a disorder in which a person holds a delusion that a friend, spouse, parent, or other close family members have been replaced by identical-looking impostors. This is due to the damage to a very specific part of the brain called fusiform gyrus. It is also called discontinuous occipitotemporal gyrus. In layman terms, it can be called the face area of the brain. If there is damage to this particular part of brain you can no longer recognise people just by seeing their face. Mind you, you can still recognise them by hearing them. In fact, you won’t be able to recognise yourself in a mirror. Of course, you know it is you because it imitates your actions.

In this rare syndrome, the person will be completely lucid but still will not be able to recognise his own friends and family members. In the olden psychiatry textbooks, this can be explained by a Freudian principle – Oedipus complex in men and Electra complex in Women. According to this explanation, young children will have a strong sexual attraction to their parents (“father-fixated” and “mother-fixated”). As they grow up, the cortex develops and inhibits these latent sexual feelings. If there is a damage to the part of the brain which suppresses these feelings then the sexual arousal returns.

You have to understand that I don’t necessarily believe in this principle. It just happens to be one of the explanations that could successfully resolve the capgras delusion. But, this principle cannot explain why a person with capgras delusion has difficulty recognising his own pet. The whole Freudian explanation (Oedipus and Electra) don’t really work for pets, do they?

To explain it, scientists looked at visual areas in the brain (all 30 of them). The object is processed and sent to a small structure in the brain called fusiform gyrus where faces are perceived. From this structure, the message cascades into another structure called amygdala in the limbic system which is involved in gauging the emotional significance of the object that has been visualised.

The patient (With Capgras delusion) might  have a problem in the area where the neurons connect the fusiform gyrus with the amygdala. So, he recognises his friends, parents etc, but the emotional significance of it is lost. So, the patient starts thinking of his own friends and family as imposters. (Scientists determined this based on galvanic skin response)

You can read more about this methodology here.

How is this complex neural circuitry set-up in the brain? What is the reason for it? Is it nature, nurture or genes?

Example number 2: Phantom Limb

                Recently, an uncle of mine had an amputation done on his leg (above the knee) because the doctors found giant cell tumours below his knee cap. I started reading up about this peculiar feeling that he had post surgery. It was a vivid compelling experience for him. Of course, I knew what a phantom limb was but I never appreciated the severity of the situation. He was bed ridden for several months before the operation and experienced severe pain (due to a fracture to the same leg). His brain sent signals to his leg to move but it gets back visual feedback saying “NO”. This is called learned paralysis because it gets wired into the brain that even after sending a command, there is no appropriate result.

Even after the operation, he continued to feel that pain in the same place. He knew his limb was amputated. He could see it, but still he felt the pain. The learned paralysis allowed him to feel the pain. The phantom limb also behaves like a paralysed limb. The only way of dealing with this is to allow the brain to see that the phantom limb is moving according to the command. This can be done using a mirror box. A simple but ingenious creation by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. You can read more about this here.

Example number 3: Synaesthesia

                Synaesthesia is a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. In short, it is mingling of the senses.         

In one common form of synaesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently coloured. 5 is red, 3 is green, 1 is white, 2 is blue so and so forth. These people are completely normal in other ways. Sometimes, sound and colour gets mixed up. C sharp is yellow, perhaps?

Did you know that synaesthesia is 8 times more common in artists, poets, novelists and other creative people?

In the brain, the “colour area” and the “number area” are next to each other. In people with synaesthesia, there is a crosslink between these two areas. This is because the gene which causes the changes in interneuronal connection. Usually, artists have a way of perceiving seemingly mundane things in a different way. (Her lips were like a volcano that’s hot – Elvis Presley). There is a link between these things. You can read more about this here.

Just a few more things to say: Each neuron makes 1000 – 10,000 contacts with other neurons in the brain. That is a lot! This blog is not a review of any one particular paper. I will leave that to someone who is an expert in that particular field. What I want to achieve by posting this blog is to create an interest in neurosciences amongst budding scientists. There are a lot of things being done in this particular area and yet, we have only taken baby steps in our understanding of the brain and its functions. If we join this research, then we will surely be able to understand more about ourselves and our behaviour.