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Neuroscience

Memories Of Child Abuse, Other Traumas Hide In The Brain; Changing Patient State Of Mind May Help Retrieve Them

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This is a reblog from medical daily. You can find the original text here: Medical daily

trauma
Scientists discover a brain process that explains why some fear-related memories may not be accessible to traumatized patients. TraumaAndDissociation, CC by 2.0

While some victims of trauma too easily remember what causes their pain, other victims suffer tremendous anxiety for no apparent reason whenever they’re in some innocuous-seeming place — a room in their grandparents’ house, for example. Some mysterious event clearly happened there, yet no memory exists. In a new study (conducted on mice), scientists discovered a brain process that explains why some fear-related memories may not be available.

“Distinct neurobiological mechanisms can explain why some trauma victims go on to remember and re-experience their trauma, whereas [other victims] develop dissociative amnesia (an inability to consciously access a stored memory),” Dr. Jelena Radulovic, principal investigator and a professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, toldMedical Daily in an email.

Scientists have long understood that there’s more than one pathway through the brain to the storage closet of memory. Now, Radulovic and her colleagues track a unique trail directly related to trauma. In fact, the microRNA-GABA pathway they describe in their new study may also indicate how susceptible each of us is to developing amnesia after a traumatic event.

They discovered this pathway by exploring a special phenomenon of learning.

What Influences Memory?

Learning is a state-dependent process, which means that when we learn something new in a particular situation or state of consciousness, we’re able to remember it best when we place ourselves back in the original circumstance or state of mind. Students, then, who learn information in one room will get higher scores if they are tested in the same room. Not only place, but time of day as well as common drugs also influence memory abilities. If students learn something while drinking coffee, for instance, they will remember it best when they return to their original caffeinated state.

Based on this phenomenon, various researchers have used drugs to try and access hidden memories. But while some pharmaceuticals may return the brain to the state of consciousness that occurred during encoding — the first step in memory storage — they haven’t done well in excavating traumatic memories. A drug targeting different processes in the brain, then, would be necessary for fear-based recall.

So, Radulovic and her colleagues focused on two amino acids in the brain: glutamate and GABA. These work in tandem to control levels of excitation and inhibition in the brain, and, under normal conditions, remain balanced. Hyper-arousal, however, which occurs when we are terrified, causes glutamate to surge.

Glutamate, is known as the excitable amino acid; it’s also the primary chemical that helps store memories across distributed brain networks. GABA, on the other hand, is calming and partly works by blocking glutamate and its excitable actions. Synaptic GABA receptors, in particular, will balance glutamate receptors in the presence of stress. Yet, extra-synaptic GABA receptors also exist. These work independently, responding to levels of a variety of neurochemicals, including sex hormones and micro RNAs.

Between the drugs amobarbital and diazepam, only amobarbital, which binds to all GABA receptors is able to stimulate memory recall — diazepam is ineffective, due to the fact it only binds to synaptic GABA receptors. Knowing this, Radulovic and her colleagues hypothesized the ability to remember stressful experiences might be mediated by the extra-synaptic GABA receptors.

For its experiment, the research team injected the mice with gaboxadol, a drug that stimulates extra-synaptic GABA receptors. Next, they placed the mice in a box and gave them an electric shock. When the mice returned to the same box the next day, they moved about freely and without fear. Clearly, the rodents did not remember the electric shock.

Then, the scientists injected the mice with the drug once again and returned them to the box. This time, the rodents froze in anticipation of another shock.

Rerouting Painful Memories

When extra-synaptic GABA receptors were activated by a drug, the researchers said, the brain used completely different molecular pathways and neuronal circuits to store the memory. The brain rerouted the memory so that it couldn’t be accessed. The researchers say their findings imply that in response to trauma, some people will not activate the glutamate system but instead the extra-synaptic GABA system.

This system is regulated by a small microRNA: miR-33. Some patients with psychiatric illnesses have different levels of miR-33 compared to healthy individuals.

The power of any memory lies, to a large extent, in the amount of processors within the cells creating a pathway through the brain, explained Dr. Vladimir Jovasevic, lead study author and a former postdoc in Radulovic’s lab.

“The role of microRNAs is to fine-tune the amount of the processors, so they can function at optimal level,” said Jovasevic, and “miR-33 sets the optimal amount of processors involved in state-dependent learning.” But when levels of miR-33 change, this “results in an increased predisposition to psychiatric disorders caused by improper processing of state-dependent memories.”

Evidence from the new study, Radulovic and Jovasevic said, may lead to new treatments for patients with psychiatric disorders who cannot recover unless they gain conscious access to the memory of what caused their trauma.

Source: Jovasevic V, Corcoran KA, Leaderbrand K, et al. GABAergic mechanisms regulated by miR-33 encode state-dependent fear. Nature Neuroscience. 2015.

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Memories of positive associations get written onto DNA

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Epigenetic changes in nerve cells keep memories in place.

Nerve cells communicate through short, fleeting pulses of electrical activity. Yet some memories stored in the brain can persist for decades. Research into how the nervous system bridges these two radically different time scales has been going on for decades, and a number of different ideas have picked up some experimental support.

For instance, based on their past activity, nerve cells can dictate which partners they make contact with or increase or decrease the strength of those connections—in essence, rewiring the brain as it develops and processes experiences. In addition, individual cells can make long-term changes in the genes that are active, locking specific behaviors in place. In a paper released by Nature Neuroscience, scientists have looked at the changes in gene expression associated with memories of positive associations and found that they are held in place by chemical modifications of the cells’ DNA.

These chemical modifications fall under the broad (and somewhat poorly defined) category of epigenetic changes. Genetic changes involve alterations of the DNA sequence itself. Epigenetic changes, in contrast, alter how that DNA is processed within cells. They can be inherited as the cell divides and matures and, in rare cases, they’re passed on to the next generation. In some cases, epigenetic changes simply involve how the DNA is packaged inside a cell, which controls how accessible it is to the enzymes that transcribe it for use in making proteins. But in other cases, the DNA itself is chemically modified. That changes how various proteins interact with it.

The most common of these chemical modifications is called methylation, where a single carbon atom is attached at a specific location on one of the DNA bases. A number of studies suggest that methylation changes accompany the formation of long-term memories, so the researchers decided to test this in a well characterized experimental system that dates back to Pavlov: teaching a mouse to associate a sound with having a sugary treat appear in its cage. (Controls included playing the tone in a way that it wasn’t associated with treats and simply providing the tone.)

It only takes mice three tries before they start sniffing around the locations where the treat appears, and by five iterations, the behavior is pretty much locked-in. Past work in other systems has identified areas of the brain that are involved in this process, as well as some of the genes that are required. So, the authors started looking at how these changes came about when the association between the tone and a treat was being formed.

The researchers were able to confirm that the genes identified in past studies were involved in the formation of associative memories, and changes in the gene activity were detectable by the third trial just as behavior started to change. They were also able to detect significant changes in the DNA methylation that occurred at the same time, although only at a specific subset of the areas known to be methylated in that area of the chromosome. They were even able to show that the enzymes responsible for modifying the DNA appeared at these sites at around the time of the third trial.

All of that indicates that methylation changes are associated with the learning process, but it doesn’t get at the issue of cause and effect. So, the team injected a chemical that blocks DNA methylation into the area of the brain that’s involved with this form of associative memory, and they found that it would leave existing memories intact while blocking the formation of new ones. The effect was also specific to injections in this area of the brain. Injecting the drug into a different area, one that is involved in forming the associations involved in addiction, did not affect this particular form of memory.

Overall, the study adds another example to the growing list of cases where epigenetic changes seem to be involved in the process of locking memories into place. This doesn’t mean that the memories are permanent, as there are enzymes that can eliminate methylation as well. Still, it should help maintain the status of the memories for long periods of time—far longer than a brief burst of activity.

But it’s important to note that this sort of methylation is very context dependent: it’s specific to a subset of cells in a single area of the brain. Different methylation patterns—or even the same methylation pattern in a different set of cells—will probably encode something very different.

Nature Neuroscience, 2013. DOI: 10.1038/nn.3504  (About DOIs).

This new method makes you smarter!

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Be brainy! Read this post and get smarter.

For the first time, it is empirically proven that cognition can be improved with brain training – according to Prof. Dr. Lindenberger, Director of the Max-Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

Only one year ago, Lindenberger was part of an academic group who published “Ageing in Berlin”, featuring a memorandum clearly stating brain training to not improve trainers everyday abilities. Now, however, Lindenberger and colleagues have published a study encouraging the use of brain training to improve cognition.

The Study

The COGITO study is the largest and probably most convincing study in the field of brain training. 101 young adults aged 20-31 years and 103 persons aged 65-80 years trained for 1 hour every 2-3 days, for a total of 100 sessions. A single training session was comprised of 12 exercises: 6 for comprehension and speed (similar to “Flash Glance”); 3 for working memory (“Dual 1-Back”); and 3 for information recall (similar to “Memo Pair”). The brain training exercises were adjusted at the beginning of the study to suit the participant’s performance, as indicated by the pre-tests.

brain training

 

The study was designed to test how effective brain training is at improving general cognitive abilities, and to see if age influences these improvements. In addition, the researchers wanted to evaluate if progress in brain training is transferrable to every day life.

The Results

Significant improvements in cognition were observed – especially for working memory. We need working memory to plan, understand complex topics, solve problems, and learn new things. All participants, regardless of age or sex, showed improvements in working memory capacity following the training. The researchers suspect that training positively altered and strengthened the neuronal connections between the two frontal lobes of the brain, hence participant’s progress in brain training could be observed in other areas of life


Professor Dr. med. Falkenstein:

„Many people are capable of improving specific cognitive functions with targeted cognitive training. NeuroNation consists of simple but motivating exercises.“

World memory champion Dr. Karsten:

„I know of no other program which is so intense and effective. Only when you reach your limit, you can really improve!“

Training Opportunities

You can benefit from the latest advancements in science by using NeuroNation brain training. We know that you perform better if you track the progress you’re making. For this reason, we have built in features to help you clearly monitor your results – comparing today’s results to yesterdays and tomorrows.

Our recommendation

Our new ‘MemoWork’ course specifically focuses on training your working memory, designed with the help of scientists from the Free University in Berlin. This intensive course includes personalized exercises tailored to your abilities, and requires 4- to 8-weeks of training to guide you to better cognition. The efficacy of the program has been extensively tested, and comes with a money-back guarantee – because we’re that confident you’ll like it! The course’s exercises have received much publicity for their effectiveness. We promise you’ll notice a difference!

 

More: Websites that will make you smarter

Multitasking by brain wave

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New findings in rats show how we can take in new information while tapping prior knowledge

By Andrea Anderson on January 27, 2016

©iStock.com

Although our bodies stay stubbornly stuck in real time, our minds can flit between the past and future and jump large stretches of time in just a moment. Such feats rely on the brain’s ability to continuously store information as it happens while also retrieving dramatically condensed versions of past events. Until now, scientists weren’t sure how the brain simultaneously handles these competing tasks.psychedelic_brain

Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin found evidence that in the brain’s spatial system this balancing act is accomplished via dueling electrical frequencies. Results from their study in rats suggest the hippocampus, an area crucial for memory formation, rapidly switches between the two frequencies to concurrently process the current surroundings and serve up orientation clues encoded in prior experiences. “The hippocampus has to have a way for keeping what’s actually happening and being encoded into new memory storage from interfering with recall or retrieval of previously stored memories,” explains U.T. Austin neuroscientist Laura Colgin, the study’s senior author. Her findings may have implications for the treatment of schizophrenia, and they also offer clues to another mental mystery—how the brain manages to replay a daylong memory in mere seconds.

Dueling brain waves
In the new study, published last week in the journal Neuron, Colgin’s team recorded electrical activity in a type of hippocampal cells called “place cells.” Place-cell activation corresponds to specific locations in space. As a rat navigates a maze, researchers can tell by which place cells are firing where the rat is in the maze—or what part of the maze the rat is thinking of.

Like all of the brain’s neurons, place cells produce electrical signals that oscillate in waves. In particular, past research suggests that when place cells encode and compress spatial memories they produce theta waves, which operate on a relatively slow, long-wave frequency. But these theta oscillations do not work alone. They also contain shorter and more frequent gamma rhythms nested within them like folded accordion bellows.

The gamma oscillations contribute to memory compression, explains Brandeis University neuroscientist John Lisman, an expert on the theta–gamma code who was not involved in the current study. As each wave of electrical activity pops up at the gamma frequency, it conveys new information nuggets to the interacting theta wave. One overarching theta wave sees several gamma–encoded memory cues, which effectively form a compressed highlights reel relative to the longer theta wave.

In a study published in Nature in 2009 Colgin and her colleagues described an additional level of complexity in these theta–gamma interactions in the rat hippocampus, demonstrating that the gamma waves oscillate at different frequencies depending on the task at hand. When the hippocampus communicated with a brain area that relays as-it-happens sensory information from the outside world, for example, the team saw theta signals supported by so-called “fast” gamma rhythms oscillating at 60 to 100 hertz frequencies. A second, previously unappreciated set of “slow” gamma rhythms—electrical waves in the 25 to 55 hertz range—seemed to be interacting with theta waves when the hippocampus swapped messages with another part of the brain that replays memories and plans movements through space and time, Colgin explains.

Those results hinted that fast gamma rhythms might be transmitting immediate information about the environment whereas slow gamma rhythms may shuttle information related to memory retrieval.

Clues from place cells
In their current analysis, Colgin and her colleagues found new, more robust evidence that fast gamma rhythms are indeed responsible for coding new information based on an animal’s current experiences. After recording electrical signals from hippocampal place cells in seven rats as they negotiated a short linear track over three 10-minute sessions each day, the team looked at how theta and gamma waves coincided with each rat’s actual position on the track.

When the place-cell activity matched a rat’s current location on the track, the researchers found that theta sequences interacted with the shorter wave, fast gamma signals already suspected of dealing with in-the-moment spatial information. But slow gamma waves replaced fast ones when place-cell activity represented locations ahead of the rat’s current position—perhaps reflecting the animal’s memory of the upcoming route and anticipation of the track ahead. “The idea is that the animal is actually retrieving the representation of that location before they get there,” Colgin explains.

The new results are powerful evidence that the different frequency brain waves keep incoming information and memory retrieval separate—which has implications for human conditions. If the slow gamma frequency really does keep real or imagined remembrances from interfering with new information coding and vice versa, it is conceivable that the two brain frequencies may get mixed up in conditions such as schizophrenia, Colgin says. Indeed, researchers have detected diminished slow gamma synchrony between the hippocampus and other brain regions in an animal model of the disease, boosting that theory. Future therapies could try to help increase gamma synchrony and keep thoughts separate from new sensory information—although how such a feat could be accomplished remains unknown.

How memories are compressed
In the new study the researchers also made a second discovery, which may be a clue about how the brain compresses memories. Using place-cell patterns unraveled from the theta sequences, the researchers saw a jump in the amount of track being represented per millisecond when rats were using slow gamma rhythm, even though the such rhythm produces fewer new waves of electricity in any given stretch of time than the higher frequency fast gamma rhythm.

Based on how quickly the rats seemed to anticipate upcoming sections of track, the researchers speculate that a single slow gamma wave must contain more than one piece of information, implying another level of compression within an already compressed theta–gamma code. This additional degree of compression could explain how we are able to replay memories of minutes’ or hours’ worth of activity in mere seconds.

Lisman is unconvinced of the additional-compression interpretation, although he praised Colgin and her team for uncovering functional roles for the slow gamma frequency in the hippocampus. To accomplish the ultrafast coding necessary for each gamma wave to contain more than one piece of information, he explains, neurons would have to differentiate between bits of information appearing just a few milliseconds apart—faster than current biophysical estimates say is possible.

Loren Frank, a neuroscience researcher with the University of California, San Francisco, who studies spatial coding in the hippocampus but was not involved in the study, was less skeptical of the authors’ interpretation, saying it “makes a great deal of sense.”

“It says the things associated with memory may be going on very, very quickly,” he says, noting that the electrical signals making up each slow gamma signal could represent multiple levels of cellular organization capable of seriously speedy coding. “I was surprised to see the results,” Frank concedes, “but I don’t think there’s any reason to think the brain can’t do things like that.”

Multitasking by Brain Wave – Scientific American

The sound of pulsing rhytm. The secret of EMDR?

Mass suggestion: A way to save the world? 

Protected: The sound of souls singing in tune

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Mental health problems aren’t all in the brain

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This is a reblog from a guardian article about mental health.You find the original by following this link.

Brain being dissected
 ‘It seems to me that the decision of the BBC to portray mental health problems simply as brain disorders is a highly troubling one.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Written by: 

Aopen letter to the BBC written by a group of psychologists and other mental health professionals has attracted more than 1,000 signatures. The letter outlines concerns regarding the recent In the Mind season of programmes exploring mental health issues and, in particular, the almost total lack of any social perspective on mental health in the programmes. The psychologist, Richard Bentall also wrote about this in an excellent piece in the Guardian last week.

I share these concerns, though not because I believe that mental health problems have no biological basis, nor because I think environmental factors invariably play a role in mental ill health; I simply wouldn’t know. But because I do know from listening to the stories of dozens of fellow service users, that adverse life experience such as physical and sexual abuse, racism, bullying and neglect is depressingly common on a psychiatric ward, and understood by a great many patients to have played at least a significant role in the development of their problems. Moreover, it is striking how often problems with housing, for example, or the stress of being assessed for benefits (which are, ironically enough, supposed to support the most vulnerable) are understood by patients to be the trigger for a relapse.

In this context, it seems to me that the decision of the BBC to portray mental health problems simply as brain disorders is a highly troubling one. While some people do undoubtedly interpret their mental health in this way, there are many who do not, many indeed who would resist the attachment of any diagnostic label, who see their mental health difficulties as a natural, rational response to adverse experience. In failing to represent their perspective, the BBC has not only presented an extremely one-sided picture, it has broadcast a message to such individuals, and to society generally, that their experience doesn’t matter.

Of course, it would be rather convenient if it didn’t. It would be especially convenient for David Cameron. It would mean that when he talks about our need to “focus on mental health”, at the same time as bringing in benefit changes that have been found to have led to the suicide of at least one person and beenimplicated in the deaths of dozens of others, we might almost be able to take him seriously. It would mean that we wouldn’t have to worry about creating a more equal society. Mental health problems are repeatedly shown to be most prevalent in countries with the highest levels of financial and social inequality. What a relief to realise it doesn’t matter!

A purely biological view of mental ill health locates the problem firmly within the head of the individual, and as a society this is dangerous because it absolves us of the responsibility, the need, to examine ourselves. Imagine a lung cancer specialist who refuses to talk about the link between smoking and lung cancer. I’m sure the comparison is simplistic but I don’t believe it’s entirely inaccurate either. There is copious evidence to suggest that adverse events, especially in childhood, increase the likelihood of developing all sorts of mental health problems. Which is not to say that biology doesn’t play a part as well. But as a society there’s little we can do to tackle the causes of mental ill health on a biological level. Whereas, with adequate will and commitment, there is absolutely masses that could be done to create a mentally healthier environment for children and adults alike.

This is why mental health must be seen as an urgent political and social issue, as well as a biological and psychological one. And it’s not just a question of responding to the needs of people with mental health problems, though this is of course important, but of being prepared, as a society, to consider what we might do to reduce people’s risk of developing them in the first place. I’d like to see a programme on that.

Why do relationship breakups hurt so much?

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Love is like a drug, and withdrawal from addiction is disruptive and damaging. In this extract from his new book, Idiot Brain, neuroscientist Dean Burnett explains the chemical processes behind the heartbreakHave you ever found yourself in the foetal position on the sofa for days on end, curtains drawn, phone unanswered, moving only to haphazardly wipe the snot and tears from your face? All that has happened is you’ve been made aware that you won’t be seeing a person you had a lot of interaction with much any more. That’s it. So why does it leave you reeling for weeks, months, even for the rest of your life, in some cases?
Humans seem primed to seek out and form monogamous romantic relationships, and this is reflected in a number of weird things the brain does when we end up falling for someone. Attraction is governed by many factors. Many species develop secondary sex characteristics, which are features that occur during sexual maturity but that aren’t directly involved in the reproductive process; for instance, a moose’s antlers or a peacock’s tail. They are impressive and show how fit and healthy the individual creature is, but they don’t do much beyond that.

Humans are no different. As adults, we develop many features that are apparently largely for physically attracting others: the deep voice, enlarged frames and facial hair of men, or the protruding breasts and pronounced curves of women. None of these things are “essential”, but in the distant past, some of our ancestors decided that is what they wanted in a partner, and evolution took over from there. But then we end up with something of a chicken-and-egg scenario with regards to the brain, in that the human brain inherently finds certain features attractive because it has evolved to do so. Which came first, the attraction or the primitive brain’s recognition of it? Hard to say.

 

http://dailyreadlist.com/article/why-do-relationship-breakups-hurt-so-much-97
 
It is important, however, to differentiate between a desire for sex, AKA lust, and the deeper, more personal attraction and bonding we associate with romance and love, things more often sought and found with long-term relationships. People can (and frequently do) enjoy purely physical sexual interactions with others that they have no real “fondness” for apart from an appreciation for their appearance, and even that is not essential. Sex is a tricky thing to pin down with the brain, as it underlies much of our adult thinking and behaviour.

But this isn’t really about lust; we’re talking more about love, in the romantic sense, for one specific individual. There is a lot of evidence to suggest the brain processes love differently. Studies by Bartels and Zeki suggest that when individuals who describe themselves as in love are shown images of their romantic partners, there is raised activity (not seen in lust or more platonic relationships) in a network of brain regions including the medial insula, anterior cingulate cortex, caudate nucleus and putamen.

There is also lower activity in the posterior cingulate gyrus and in the amygdala. The posterior cingulate gyrus is often associated with painful emotion perception, so it makes sense that your loved one’s presence would shut this down a bit. The amygdala processes emotions and memory, but often for negative things such as fear and anger, so again, it makes sense that it’s not so active now. People in committed relationships can often seem more relaxed and less bothered about day-to-day annoyances, regularly coming across as “smug” to the independent observer.
One type of chemical often associated with attraction are pheromones, specific substances given off in sweat that other individuals detect and that alter their behaviour. While human pheromones are regularly referred to (you can seemingly buy sprays laced with them if you’re looking to increase your sexual appeal), there is currently no definitive evidence that humans have specific pheromones that influence attraction and arousal. The brain may often be an idiot, but it is not so easily manipulated.
However, being in love seems to elevate dopamine activity in the reward pathway, meaning we experience pleasure in our partner’s presence, almost like a drug. And oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone” or similar, which is a ridiculous oversimplification of a complex substance, but it does seem to be elevated in people in relationships, and it has been linked to feelings of trust and connection in humans.
The flexibility of the brain means that, in response to all this deep and intense stuff, it adapts to expect it. And then it ends. Consider everything the brain invests in sustaining a relationship, all the changes it undergoes, all the value it places on being in one. If you remove all this in one fell swoop, the brain is going to be seriously negatively affected. All the positive sensations it has grown to expect suddenly cease, which is incredibly distressing for an organ that doesn’t deal with uncertainty and ambiguity well at all. Studies have shown that a relationship breakup activates the same brain regions that process physical pain.
Addiction and withdrawal can be very disruptive and damaging to the brain, and a not dissimilar process is happening here. This isn’t to say the brain doesn’t have the ability to deal with a breakup. It can put everything back together eventually, even if it’s a slow process. Some experiments showed that specifically focusing on the positive outcomes of a breakup can cause more rapid recovery and growth. And, just sometimes, science and cliches match up, and things really do get better with time.

This is an edited extract from The Idiot Brain by Dean Burnett (Guardian Faber, £12.99). To order a copy for £7.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

The Brains Of Bipolar Disorder Patients Look Different

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By Nathan Collins

While people with Type I and the less-severe Type II bipolar disorder share some of the same symptoms, there are significant differences in the physical structure of their brains. Type I sufferers have somewhat smaller brain volume, researchers report in the Journal of Affective Disorders, while those with Type II appear to have less robust white matter.

As brain imaging technologies have advanced and matured over the past few decades, there’s been considerable interest in understanding whether and how there are differences between the brains of people with mental illness and those without. In particular, neuroscientists studying depression have been interested in structural variation, such as differences in total brain volume. Still, the various forms of bipolar disorder have received somewhat less attention than others, such as major depression, schizophrenia, or autism.

  
That led Jerome Maller and colleagues at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, to look into whether there were structural differences among the brains of people with different sorts of bipolar disorder. Using standard MRI scans—much the same as you would get if you’d had a concussion or bleeding in the brain—on 16 Type I and 15 Type II bipolar patients along with 31 healthy control subjects, the team examined whether there were differences in gray matter, white matter, and cerebrospinal fluid. The team also used a relatively new technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to measure the integrity of the brains’ white matter, the long nerves called axons that connect different brain regions to each other.

Overall, there was less total brain volume—gray and white matter volume added together—and more cerebrospinal fluid volume in bipolar patients than in healthy controls, consistent with other recent studies suggesting a connection between brain volume and depression. After controlling for total brain volume, however, Type II patients’ brains were essentially the same as controls’ brains, while Type I patients had relatively higher volume in the caudate nucleus and other areas associated with reward processing and decision making. DTI studies, meanwhile, revealed that while patients with Type I and II bipolar disorder had reduced white matter integrity relative to controls, the effect was stronger among those with Type II, particularly in the frontal and prefrontal cortex, suggesting that Type II bipolar disorder is in some way a cognitive dysfunction.

Though the results are intriguing, the authors point out that their study is just the start. The team didn’t have access to data on how long patients had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, let alone how long they’d actually had the disease, which often goes undiagnosed for years or even decades. In addition to addressing those issues in future studies, the researchers also hope to improve sample sizes and gather additional data about factors such as medications, family history, and genetics.

WHEN BRAIN DAMAGE UNLOCKS THE GENIUS WITHIN

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BRAIN DAMAGE HAS UNLEASHED EXTRAORDINARY TALENTS IN A SMALL GROUP OF OTHERWISE ORDINARY INDIVIDUALS. WILL SCIENCE FIND A WAY FOR EVERYONE TO TAP THEIR INNER VIRTUOSO?

The Genius Within

Paul Lachine and Graham Murdoch

Derek Amato stood above the shallow end of the swimming pool and called for his buddy in the Jacuzzi to toss him the football. Then he launched himself through the air, head first, arms outstretched. He figured he could roll onto one shoulder as he snagged the ball, then slide across the water. It was a grave miscalculation. The tips of Amato’s fingers brushed the pigskin—then his head slammed into the pool’s concrete floor with such bone-jarring force that it felt like an explosion. He pushed to the surface, clapping his hands to his head, convinced that the water streaming down his cheeks was blood gushing from his ears.

At the edge of the pool, Amato collapsed into the arms of his friends, Bill Peterson and Rick Sturm. It was 2006, and the 39-year-old sales trainer was visiting his hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, from Colorado, where he lived. As his two high-school buddies drove Amato to his mother’s home, he drifted in and out of consciousness, insisting that he was a professional baseball player late for spring training in Phoenix. Amato’s mother rushed him to the emergency room, where doctors diagnosed Amato with a severe concussion. They sent him home with instructions to be woken every few hours.

It would be weeks before the full impact of Amato’s head trauma became apparent: 35 percent hearing loss in one ear, headaches, memory loss. But the most dramatic consequence appeared just four days after his accident. Amato awoke hazy after near-continuous sleep and headed over to Sturm’s house. As the two pals sat chatting in Sturm’s makeshift music studio, Amato spotted a cheap electric keyboard.

Without thinking, he rose from his chair and sat in front of it. He had never played the piano—never had the slightest inclination to. Now his fingers seemed to find the keys by instinct and, to his astonishment, ripple across them. His right hand started low, climbing in lyrical chains of triads, skipping across melodic intervals and arpeggios, landing on the high notes, then starting low again and building back up. His left hand followed close behind, laying down bass, picking out harmony. Amato sped up, slowed down, let pensive tones hang in the air, then resolved them into rich chords as if he had been playing for years. When Amato finally looked up, Sturm’s eyes were filled with tears.

Music Man

Courtesy Derek Amato

An accident left Derek Amato with a severe concussion and a surprising ability to play the piano. One theory is that his brain reorganized, making accessible existing memories of music. Another is that his brain no longer filters sensory input, enabling him to hear individual notes rather than melodies.

Amato played for six hours, leaving Sturm’s house early the next morning with an unshakable feeling of wonder. He searched the Internet for an explanation, typing in words like gifted and head trauma. The results astonished him.

Amato searched the internet for an explanation, typing in words like gifted and head trauma. the results astonished him.

He read about Tony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon in upstate New York who was struck by lightning while talking to his mother from a telephone booth. Cicoria then became obsessed with classical piano and taught himself how to play and compose music. After being hit in the head with a baseball at age 10, Orlando Serrell could name the day of the week for any given date. A bad fall at age three left Alonzo Clemons with permanent cognitive impairment, Amato learned, and a talent for sculpting intricate replicas of animals.

Finally Amato found the name Darold Treffert, a world-recognized expert onsavant syndrome—a condition in which individuals who are typically mentally impaired demonstrate remarkable skills. Amato fired off an e-mail; soon he had answers. Treffert, now retired from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, diagnosed Amato with “acquired savant syndrome.” In the 30 or so known cases, ordinary people who suffer brain trauma suddenly develop almost-superhuman new abilities: artistic brilliance, mathematical mastery, photographic memory. One acquired savant, a high-school dropout brutally beaten by muggers, is the only known person in the world able to draw complex geometric patterns called fractals; he also claims to have discovered a mistake in pi. A stroke transformed another from a mild-mannered chiropractor into a celebrated visual artist whose work has appeared in publications like The New Yorker and in gallery shows, and sells for thousands of dollars.

The neurological causes of acquired savant syndrome are poorly understood. But the Internet has made it easier for people like Amato to connect with researchers who study savants, and improved brain-imaging techniques have enabled those scientists to begin to probe the unique neural mechanisms at work. Some have even begun to design experiments that investigate an intriguing possibility: genius lies in all of us, just waiting to be unleashed.

* * *

Pure Genius

Paul Lachine and Graham Murdoch

Bruce Miller directs the UCSF Memory and Aging Center in San Francisco, where as a behavioral neurologist he treats elderly people stricken withAlzheimer’s disease and late-life psychosis. One day in the mid-1990s, the son of a patient pointed out his father’s new obsession with painting. As his father’s symptoms worsened, the man said, his paintings improved. Soon, Miller began to identify other patients who displayed unexpected new talents as their neurological degeneration continued. As dementia laid waste to brain regions associated with language, higher-order processing, and social norms, their artistic abilities exploded.

Though these symptoms defied conventional wisdom on brain disease in the elderly—artists afflicted with Alzheimer’s typically lose artistic ability—Miller realized they were consistent with another population described in the literature: savants. That wasn’t the only similarity. Savants often display an obsessive compulsion to perform their special skill, and they exhibit deficits in social and language behaviors, defects present in dementia patients. Miller wondered if there might be neurological similarities too. Although the exact mechanisms at work in the brains of savants have never been identified and can vary from case to case, several studies dating back to at least the 1970s have found left-hemispheric damage in autistic savants with prodigious artistic, mathematical, and memory skills.

Sudden Sculptor

Courtesy Nancy Mason/Gifted Hands

After suffering a head injury as a toddler, Alonzo Clemons began to spontaneously sculpt animals with incredible accuracy and speed.

Miller decided to find out precisely where in the left hemisphere of regular savants—whose skills usually become apparent at a very young age—these defects existed. He read the brain scan of a five-year-old autistic savant able to reproduce intricate scenes from memory on an Etch-a-Sketch. Single-photon-emission computed tomography (SPECT) showed abnormal inactivity in the anterior temporal lobes of the left hemisphere—exactly the results he found in his dementia patients.

In most cases, scientists attribute enhanced brain activity to neuroplasticity, the organ’s ability to devote more cortical real estate to developing skills as they improve with practice. But Miller offered a wholly different hypothesis for the mechanisms at work in congenital and acquired savants. Savant skills, Miller argues, emerge because the areas ravaged by disease—those associated with logic, verbal communication, and comprehension—have actually been inhibiting latent artistic abilities present in those people all along. As the left brain goes dark, the circuits keeping the right brain in check disappear. The skills do not emerge as a result of newly acquired brain power; they emerge because for the first time, the areas of the right brain associated with creativity can operate unchecked.

Full Spectrum

Courtesy Nancy Mason/Gifted Hands

Savant skills lie on a spectrum of ability; Clemons is considered the rare prodigious savant—one whose talent would be exceptional even for a person not impaired in any way.

The theory fits with the work of other neurologists, who are increasingly finding cases in which brain damage has spontaneously, and seemingly counterintuitively, led to positive changes—eliminating stuttering, enhancing memory in monkeys and rats, even restoring lost eyesight in animals. In a healthy brain, the ability of different neural circuits to both excite and inhibit one another plays a critical role in efficient function. But in the brains of dementia patients and some autistic savants, the lack of inhibition in areas associated with creativity led to keen artistic expression and an almost compulsive urge to create.

* * *

In the weeks after his accident, Amato’s mind raced. And his fingers wanted to move. He found himself tapping out patterns, waking up from naps with his fingers drumming against his legs. He bought a keyboard. Without one, he felt anxious, overstimulated; once he was able to sit down and play, relief washed over him, followed by a deep sense of calm. He’d shut himself in, sometimes for as long as two to three days, just him and the piano, exploring his new talent, trying to understand it, letting the music pour out of him.

Amato experienced other symptoms, many of them not good. Black and white squares appeared in his vision, as if a transparent filter had synthesized before his eyes, and moved in a circular pattern. He was also plagued with headaches. The first one hit three weeks after his accident, but soon Amato was having as many as five a day. They made his head pound, and light and noise were excruciating. One day, he collapsed in his brother’s bathroom. On another, he almost passed out in Wal-Mart.

Still, Amato’s feelings were unambiguous. He felt certain he had been given a gift, and it wasn’t just the personal gratification of music: Amato’s new condition, he quickly realized, had vast commercial potential.

Tortured Artist

Liam King

Jon Sarkin says he saw things differently, more vividly­­, after suffering a brain hemorrhage and a stroke. And while the chiropractor had always dabbled in art, he suddenly became obsessed with creating it.

Cultural fascination with savants appears to date as far back as the condition itself. In the 19th century, “Blind Tom” Bethune became an international celebrity. A former slave who could reproduce any song on the piano, he played the White House at age 11, toured the world at 16, and over the course of his life earned well over $750,000—a fortune at the time. Dustin Hoffman introduced the savant to millions of theatergoers with his character in the 1988 movie Rain Man. Since then, prodigious savants have become staples of shows like 60 Minutes and Oprah. But acquired savants, especially, are perfect fodder for a society obsessed with self-improvement, reality television, and pop psychology.

Acquired savants are perfect fodder for a society obsessed with self-improvement, reality television, and pop psychology.

Jon Sarkin, the chiropractor turned artist, became the subject of profiles in GQand Vanity Fair, a biography, and TV documentaries. Tom Cruise purchased the rights to his life story. “To be honest, I don’t even mention it to my wife anymore when the media calls,” Sarkin says. “It’s part of life.” Jason Padgett, the savant who can draw fractals, inked a book deal after he was featured onNightline and in magazine and newspaper articles. Reached by phone, he complained that his agent no longer allowed him to give interviews. “It’s very frustrating,” he said. “I want to speak to you, but they won’t let me.”

To Amato, acquired savantism looked like the opportunity he’d been waiting for his entire life. Amato’s mother had always told him he was extraordinary, that he was put on the planet to do great things. Yet a series of uninspiring jobs had followed high school—selling cars, delivering mail, doing public relations. He’d reached for the brass ring, to be sure, but it had always eluded him. He’d auditioned for the television show American Gladiators and failed the pull-up test. He’d opened a sports-management company, handling marketing and endorsements for mixed-martial-arts fighters; it went bust in 2001. Now he had a new path.

From Chiropractor To Painter

Liam King

“Eight years ago, I didn’t draw for a while and I found out what happened,” Sarkin says. “I had a nervous breakdown. And I have been drawing pretty much constantly ever since.”

Amato began planning a marketing campaign. He wanted to be more than an artist, musician, and performer. He wanted to tell his story and inspire people. Amato also had another ambition, a goal lingering from his life before virtuosity, back when he had only his competitive drive. He wanted, more than anything, to be on Survivor. So when that first interviewer called from a local radio station, Amato was ready to talk.

* * *

Few people have followed the emergence of acquired savants with more interest than Allan Snyder, a neuroscientist at the University of Sydney in Australia. Since 1999, Snyder has focused his research on studying how their brains function. He’s also pressed further into speculative territory than most neuroscientists feel comfortable: He is attempting to produce the same outstanding abilities in people with undamaged brains.

Last spring, Snyder published what many consider to be his most substantive work. He and his colleagues gave 28 volunteers a geometric puzzle that has stumped laboratory subjects for more than 50 years. The challenge: Connect nine dots, arrayed in three rows of three, using four straight lines without retracing a line or lifting the pen. None of the subjects could solve the problem. Then Snyder and his colleagues used a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to temporarily immobilize the same area of the brain destroyed by dementia in Miller’s acquired savants. The noninvasive technique, which is commonly used to evaluate brain damage in stroke patients, delivers a weak electrical current to the scalp through electrodes, depolarizing or hyperpolarizing neural circuits until they have slowed to a crawl. After tDCS, more than 40 percent of the participants in Snyder’s experiment solved the problem. (None of those in a control group given placebo tDCS identified the solution.)

Sarkin’s Art

Liam King

The experiment, Snyder argues, supports the hypothesis that the abilities observed in acquired savants emerge once brain areas normally held in check have become unfettered. The crucial role of the left temporal lobe, he believes, is to filter what would otherwise be a dizzying flood of sensory stimuli, sorting them into previously learned concepts. These concepts, or what Snyder calls mind-sets, allow humans to see a tree instead of all its individual leaves and to recognize words instead of just the letters. “How could we possibly deal with the world if we had to analyze, to completely fathom, every new snapshot?” he says.

Savants can access raw sensory information, normally off-limits to the conscious mind, because the brain’s perceptual region isn’t functioning. To solve the nine-dot puzzle, one must extend the lines beyond the square formed by the dots, which requires casting aside preconceived notions of the parameters. “Our whole brain is geared to making predictions so we can function rapidly in this world,” Snyder says. “If something naturally helps you get around the filters of these mind-sets, that is pretty powerful.”

Sudden Savant

Paul Lachine and Graham Murdoch

Treffert, for one, finds the results of the experiment compelling. “I was a little dubious of Snyder’s earlier work, which often involved asking his subjects to draw pictures,” he says. “It just seemed pretty subjective: How do you evaluate the change in them? But his recent study is useful.”

Snyder thinks Amato’s musical prodigy adds to mounting evidence that untapped human potential lies in everyone, accessible with the right tools. When the non-musician hears music, he perceives the big picture, melodies. Amato, Snyder says, has a “literal” experience of music—he hears individual notes. Miller’s dementia patients have technical artistic skill because they are drawing what they see: details.

Berit Brogaard believes the left-brain, right-brain idea is an oversimplification. Brogaard is a neuroscientist and philosophy professor at the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. She has another theory: When brain cells die, they release a barrage of neurotransmitters, and this deluge of potent chemicals may actually rewire parts of the brain, opening up new neural pathways into areas previously unavailable.

“Our hypothesis is that we have abilities that we cannot access,” Brogaard says. “Because they are not conscious to us, we cannot manipulate them. Some reorganization takes place that makes it possible to consciously access information that was there, lying dormant.”

In August, Brogaard published a paper exploring the implications of a battery of tests her lab ran on Jason Padgett. It revealed damage in the visual-cortex areas involved in detecting motion and boundaries. Areas of the parietal cortex associated with novel visual images, mathematics, and action planning were abnormally active. In Padgett’s case, she says, the areas that have become supercharged are next to those that sustained the damage—placing them in the path of the neurotransmitters likely unleashed by the death of so many brain cells.

In Amato’s case, she says, he learned bar chords on a guitar in high school and even played in a garage band. “Obviously he had some interest in music before, and his brain probably recoded some music unconsciously,” she says. “He stored memories of music in his brain, but he didn’t access them.” Somehow the accident provoked a reorganization of neurons that brought them into his conscious mind, Brogaard speculates. It’s a theory she hopes to explore with him in the lab.

* * *

On a beautiful Los Angeles day last October, I accompanied Amato and his agent, Melody Pinkerton, up to the penthouse roof deck of Santa Monica’s Shangri-La Hotel. Far below us, a pier jutted into the ocean and the Pacific Coast Highway hugged the coastline. Pinkerton settled next to Amato on a couch, nodding warmly and blinking at him with a doe-eyed smile as three men with handheld cameras circled. They were gathering footage for the pilot of a reality-TV series about women trying to make it in Hollywood. Pinkerton is a former contestant on the VH1 reality show Frank the Entertainer and has posed for Playboy; if the series is green-lit, Amato will make regular appearances as one of her clients.

“My whole life has changed,” Amato told her. “I’ve slowed down, even though I’m racing and producing at a pace that not many people understand, you know? If Beethoven scored 500 songs a year back in the day and was considered a pretty brilliant mind, and the doctors tell me I’m scoring 2,500 pieces a year, you can see that I’m a little busy.”

Amato seemed comfortable with the cameras, despite the pressure. A spot on a reality show would represent a step forward in his career, but not a huge leap. Over the past six years, Amato has been featured in newspapers and television shows around the world. He was one of eight savants featured on a Discovery Channel special in 2010 called Ingenious Minds, and he was on PBS’s NOVA this fall. He recently appeared on a talk show hosted by his idol, Jeff Probst, also the host of Survivor. In June, Amato appeared on the Todayshow.

Many savants exhibit exquisite computational or artistic capacities, but almost always at the expense of other things the brain does.

Musical renown (and a payday) has yet to follow. He released his first album in 2007. In 2008, he played in front of several thousand people in New Orleans with the famed jazz-fusion guitarist Stanley Jordan. He was asked to write the score for an independent Japanese documentary. But while Amato’s musical prowess never fails to elicit amazement in the media, reviews of his music are mixed. “Some of the reaction is good, some of it’s fair, some of it’s not so good,” he says. “I wouldn’t say any of it’s great. What I think’s going to be great is working with other musicians now.”

Still, as we strolled down Santa Monica Boulevard to a sushi restaurant after the filming, he hardly could have seemed happier. At the table, Amato smiled broadly, gestured manically with meaty forearms tattooed with musical notes, and poked the air with his chopsticks for emphasis.

“There’s book stuff, there are appearances, performances, charity organizations,” he said. “There are TV people, film people, commercial people, background stuff. Shoot, I know I missed about another half dozen. It’s like I’m on a plane doing about 972 miles an hour! I’m enjoying every second of the ride!”

Amato hasn’t exactly been coy about his desire for fame, mailing packets of material to reporters, sending Facebook requests to fellow acquired savants, and continuously updating his fan page—behavior that has raised some doubts among experts.

Rex Jung, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico, grew suspicious of Amato after reading about his history as an ultimate-fight promoter. “I couldn’t be more skeptical,” he says. Jung studies creativity and traumatic brain injuries, and he has spent time with Alonzo Clemons, the savant who sculpts animals. He believes acquired savantism is a legitimate condition. But he notes Amato does not display other symptoms one would expect.

Many savants, Jung says, exhibit “exquisite” computational or artistic capacities, but “almost always at the expense of other things the brain does.” Clemons, for example, has severe developmental disabilities. “I am highly skeptical of savants that are able to tie their shoes and update their Facebook pages and do strong marketing campaigns to highlight their savant abilities all at the same time.”

Overnight Artist

Paul Lachine and Graham Murdoch

There is no way to definitively prove or disprove Amato’s claims, but a number of credible scientists are willing to vouch for his authenticity. Andrew Reeves, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, conducted MRI scans of Amato’s brain for Ingenious Minds. The tests revealed several white spots, which Reeves acknowledges could have been caused by previous concussions.

“We knew going in that it was unlikely to show any sort of signature change,” Reeves says. But Amato’s description of what he experiences “fits too well with how the brain is wired, in terms of what parts are adjacent to what parts, for him to have concocted it, in my opinion.” Reeves believes the black and white squares in Amato’s field of vision somehow connect to his motor system, indicating an atypical link between the visual and auditory regions of his brain.

As I drove through the streets of L.A. with Amato last fall, it seemed to me that there was something undeniably American about his efforts to seize on his accident—which struck when he was close to 40, staring into the abyss of middle-age mediocrity—and transform himself from an anonymous sales trainer into a commercial product, an inspirational symbol of human possibility for the legions of potential fans dreaming of grander things. Treffert, Snyder, and Brogaard all spoke enthusiastically about unraveling the phenomenon of acquired savantism, in order to one day enable everyone to explore their hidden talents. The Derek Amatos of the world provide a glimpse of that goal.

After parking on Sunset Boulevard, a few blocks from the storied rock-and-roll shrines of the Roxy and the Viper Room, Amato and I headed into the Standard Hotel and followed a bedraggled hipster with an Australian accent through the lobby to a dimly lit bar. In the center of the room sat a grand piano, its ivory keys gleaming. The chairs had been flipped upside down on the tables, and dishes clinked in a nearby kitchen. The club, closed to customers, was all ours. As Amato sat down, the tension seemed to drain from his shoulders.

He closed his eyes, placed his foot on one of the pedals, and began to play. The music that gushed forth was loungy, full of flowery trills, swelling and sweeping up and down the keys in waves of cascading notes—a sticky, emotional kind of music more appropriate for the romantic climax of a movie like From Here to Eternity than a gloomy nightclub down the street from the heart of the Sunset Strip. It seemed strangely out of character for a man whose sartorial choices bring to mind ’80s hair-band icon Bret Michaels. Amato didn’t strike me as prodigious, the kind of rare savant, like Blind Tom Bethune, whose skills would be impressive even in someone with years of training.

But it didn’t seem to matter. There was expression, melody, and skill. And if they could emerge spontaneously in Amato, who’s to say what spectacular abilities might lie dormant in the rest of us?

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of the magzine.

But it didn’t seem to matter. There was expression, melody, and skill. And if they could emerge spontaneously in Amato, who’s to say what spectacular abilities might lie dormant in the rest of us?

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of the magazine.

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How to hack your brain

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How to Hack Your Brain

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How to Hack Your Brain

You are not who you think you are. Your personality and identity is significantly more malleable than you realize. With a few simple tricks, you can exploit your brain’s innate functionality to change just about anything about yourself. Here’s how.

You Are Not Necessarily the Person You Think You Are

How to Hack Your Brain

You are not who you are, but rather the product of many influences. The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” exists for a reason: the longer you’ve been the person you think you are, the harder it becomes to change. The thing is, you can dramatically change who you are. It’s actually not so much that it’s difficult to change, but that you’ve developed patterns and habits that make it easier to do things the way you do them. Trying something in a new way can feel very awkward, it will be generally less efficient by virtue of being something new to you, and it often lacks excitement for you when it involves giving up the comfort associated with your way.

That’s not to say you aren’t born with some inherent abilities, but most of what you consider part of your identity is a product of influence. While we don’t know the exact ratio of nature to nurture, there is undoubtedly a combination of both that makes us who we are. We have a tendency to think that change is difficult, but it’s really just a matter of changing your influence. You’re probably familiar with Stockholm syndrome-the term used to describe how hostage victims tend to develop positive feelings towards their captors. Stockholm syndrome isn’t a kind of brainwashing by the captor; instead, the victim adapts to the poor situation he or she is in. If most people can adapt to something as awful as being kidnapped, most people can adapt to smaller positive changes in their own lives. You can even make enormous changes if you’re willing to put in the work and you provide yourself with the proper influences. We’re going to look at how to do that on high and low levels, from priming your brain to manipulating your own emotions, and also look at how your environment and the people you know shape your life.

Most of these methods won’t make you feel comfortable, and, at times, they may sound a bit crazy, but it is possible to “hack” your own brain. Here are just a few ways to do it.

Priming Your Brain

How to Hack Your Brain

Priming is a ridiculously simple technique because all it involves is talking to yourself. On the dull end of the spectrum, it’s similar to self-affirmation. On the crazier end of the spectrum, it bears some similarities with neuro-linguistic programming. Priming your brain involves reciting a given set of words that are designed to alter your mindset. It is not brainwashing and it cannot make you do anything you don’t want to do. What it can accomplish, however, is putting you into a state of mind that will be more useful to you with a given situation or task.

How to Hack Your Brain

Before we get into the specifics of how to prime your brain, let’s talk about how and why it works. If you were to say the word mustard out loud, and then you were to see a portion of the word later, you’d be reminded of mustard. For example, if you were to say “I must have this” you might be reminded of mustard because of the word must. If you were hungry and liked mustard, you may even want some. It’s the same phenomenon that compels you to buy a particular brand of shampoo that you saw on television even if you 1) don’t remember seeing the commercial, and 2) couldn’t care less what kind of shampoo you use. This is essentially how priming works, and it’s all thanks to your memory.

While you’re not going to remember everything you say, that doesn’t mean what you say is gone forever. While everything stored in your recent memory may not be immediately accessible, all you really need to bring something up is a trigger word. This is conceptually similar to using acronyms as a memory tool (e.g. Roy G. Biv) but isn’t designed to help you actually remember anything. Instead, the goal is to place common words that, when apart, have no real specific value, but when together, have an associative value that make you think of happy things, sad things, specific people, or ambition. If any of those common words come up again later in the day, you’ll immediately associate that word with the associative value of the group. Here’s an example:

  • drive
  • do
  • go
  • make
  • objective
  • important
  • create
  • commitment
  • purpose
  • enthusiasm
  • eager
  • motivation

This is a list of words synonymous with or related to ambition. It’s designed to be read aloud to put you in a more ambitious mindset, focusing your thoughts and priming your brain to react ambitiously when these words, or portions of these words, come up later in your day.

Another exercise involves taking a shorter list of priming words and making a sentence with it. Here’s an example:

  • the
  • smiled
  • looked
  • girl
  • and

These words can form the sentence “the girl looked and smiled,” which should bring to mind pleasant associations for most people. Constructing sentences out of word lists (which you can create yourself) can help put you in the right mindset.

These two methods can be used to prime your brain. They are not magic tricks that will instantly make you feel happy, ambitious, or whatever, but they can help to provide you with the mindset you need to better accomplish your daily tasks.

For more reading on priming, and a look at some really interesting studies, don’t forget to check out the references for this article.

Using Your Emotions

How to Hack Your Brain

If you’ve ever found yourself making out-of-character decisions based on your emotional state—such as binging on ice cream after a breakup—you know how easily your feelings can overtake your actions. Rather than letting your emotions lead you towards poor judgment and irrational behavior, however, you can learn to compensate for different emotional states and to fabricate emotions to alter your mood. In order to do that you need to, simply put, get in touch with your feelings. The idea isn’t so much to cry into a pillow about your wasted childhood, but understand what you’re feeling when you’re feeling it, what the root cause is, and what you can do about it. We’re going to take a look at how you can dissect your emotional state to use it to your advantage, and also look at how you can fabricate emotion to change how you’re feeling.

Take an Acting Class

How to Hack Your Brain

You can’t really control your emotions if you don’t understand them, and one of the best ways to understand them is to take an acting class. To some this may sound fun, and to others this may sound like hell. Love it or hate it, acting lessons are one of the best ways to explore how and why you feel certain things. Your goal should be to find a class that will make you uncomfortable every time you go. In my experience, any class teaching the Meisner technique is very effective if you put a lot of effort into the exercises. It can be slow, tedious, and uncomfortable, but it’s capable of bringing out emotion you might not realize you had.

Make Yourself Uncomfortable

How to Hack Your Brain

Your emotions aren’t in full force if you’re not really doing anything, so you need to put yourself in uncomfortable situations in order to bring them out. This doesn’t mean you should make yourself feel horrible, but that you should go out and do things that you might resist because you’re worried about the downsides. Meeting new people is something that makes most people uncomfortable, and it’s a great place to start, especially if it’s a first date. Try new things that scare you. If you notice you’re glued to the couch and don’t want to get up, do the opposite. Spend time with people you don’t like. Go to a movie you’re sure you’ll hate. Your experiences won’t always be pleasant, but they should incite emotion that you can later analyze and better understand.

Keep Track of How You Feel

How to Hack Your Brain

Like an abbreviated diary, every time you have an emotional reaction to something, write it down. You don’t need much detail, but just a sentence or two noting the emotion you’re experiencing and the (possible) cause. For example, I get extremely irritable when I’m hungry. I will lose my temper far more easily when I’m hungry, so whenever I notice myself thinking irrational (and sometimes hateful) things, I always remind myself that I’m just hungry, I’ll eat in a minute, and the “asshole” who accidentally missed the garbage can and didn’t notice is mostly a result of my frustrated stomach. Until I started to pay attention, I never really noticed that I was a jerk whenever I was hungry. Instead, I just thought I was a jerk. This is a simple example, but the point is this: pay attention to how you feel and the other issues currently present, and you’ll find it much easier to manage your negative emotions.

Emote in Front of the Mirror

How to Hack Your Brain

Fabricating emotion is difficult. Once you understand your emotions you’ll find it a bit easier, but it helps to be able to recall how it feels, physically, to emote. We all know how to smile, for example, but you can probably count more fake smiles in family photographs than you can real ones. If you don’t know how to create an authentic smile (also known as the Duchenne smile), it will be very obvious to everyone around you.

The easiest way to learn to fake expressions is to practice them in the mirror. You can try them out to see what you look like and you’ll immediately know if they’re passable or not. You’ll also note that it feels physically different to create an authentic-looking emotion than it does to create a fake-looking emotion. For example, an authentic smile shows more in the eyes than it does in your mouth. When someone smiles a true smile, their eyes wrinkle (creating “crows feet”) because a new musicle—the orbicularis oculi muscle—is used. You’ll come to remember this feeling and be able to replicate it away from the mirror after a little practice.

It’s not necessarily easy to emote in front of the mirror, but that’s not as hard as you think. If your goal is simply to learn to smile better, you’ll get there if you just stare at yourself for awhile. Eventually it will get so ridiculous that you’ll have to laugh. If you’re less patient, you can try to make yourself laugh by making strange faces or just being ridiculous. If you’re comfortable, have a friend over to help. For other emotions, you simply need to find a source of that emotion and bring it into play in front of the mirror. If you’ve employed any of the previously discussed techniques, you may already have a reserve. Alternatively, watch a movie that makes you laugh or cry and do it by the mirror. (Yes, this is absolutely a strange thing to do, but it’ll work.) If you’re interested in anger, you should have no problem getting there by just complaining to yourself or to a friend on the phone.

Emoting in front of the mirror is going to be strange and awkward at first, but after a few tries you’ll get the hang of it and be able to create authentic expressions on demand. These expressions do surface from genuine emotion, so repeating them can actually make you feel happier/sadder/angrier/etc. through repetition. If you need to change your mood and your mindset, the ability to fake it ‘til you make it is very, very useful.

Consider Your Health

How to Hack Your Brain

Anything you do is much easier if you’re healthy—and that goes for mental as well as physical health. These methods won’t be terribly helpful if you’re seriously depressed. If you’re not sleeping, eating well, and/or getting a reasonable amount of physical activity in each day, you’re going to find them difficult as well. You can do pretty much everything better if you take care of your mind and your body, so don’t look at anything you’ve read here as a panacea for the problems in your life. Everything here assumes that you take reasonably good care of yourself and generally start your day in a good place. If you’re not feeling good on most days, you need to take care of those problems before you decide to start playing mind tricks with yourself. Always be healthy first.

You can contact Adam Dachis, the author of this post, at adachis@lifehacker.com. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Personal Blog of Muhammad Asif Mansha

Healing Self

An easier way to live with acceptance, compassion, and transformational self healing.

Debatably Dateable

But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for

BlueMonkey

Mind too spins on its own axis between the day and night. There's no wrong or right side.

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