Final Decision? Why the Brain Keeps on Changing its Mind

Benjamin Franklin once quipped: ‘There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know oneself.’ Every decision we make, from pinpointing the source of a faint sound to choosing a new job, comes with a degree of confidence that we have made the right call. If confidence is sufficiently low, we might change our minds and reverse our decision. Now scientists are using these choice reversals to study the first inklings of self-knowledge. Changes of mind, it turns out, reflect a precisely tuned process for monitoring our stream of thoughts.Continue reading

What the Heck is a Claustrum?

Given its subjective nature, consciousness is already a controversial topic in the world of brain science. While some neuroscientists doubt that consciousness can even be studied, others still endeavor towards identifying parts of the brain that support subjective awareness. At a gathering of neuroscientists February 15 in Bethesda, Maryland, an announcement has thrust the quest to understand consciousness into the spotlight once again. A team of neuroscientists lead by Christof Koch has identified neurons in a relatively obscure brain region known as the claustrum that send fibers far throughout the entire cerebral cortex, well beyond where they are expected to project. One neuron shown in the presentation engulfed the brain like a “crown of thorns” with its colossal fibers. According to Nature News, “Koch sees this as evidence that the claustrum could be coordinating inputs and outputs across the brain to create consciousness.”

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It’s Brain Awareness Week!

Every March, Brain Awareness Week (BAW, for short) unifies the world in celebration of the brain and mind! In order to raise awareness about how the brain works, what neuroscientists do, and how amazing new research is, scientists present interactive activities, host laboratory tours, and speak to audiences about brain-related topics.

This year, we put together a list of our favorite Knowing Neurons content that highlight how amazing the brain is! Check them out and share the awesomeness!Continue reading

The Epigenetic Legacy of Trauma

The evening of November 9th, 1938, began with typical fall solemnity for many Jews living across Germany: closing up their shops and businesses, returning home from school, and preparing family suppers. It would end with terror, as mobs ransacked storefronts, assaulted Jews on the street, and set fire to their homes. That terrible night would be known to history by the glittering debris of shattered windows lining the streets: “Kristallnacht.”

Kristallnacht, and the subsequent atrocities of Germany’s holocaust against the Jews, changed the world. Modernity had to forever acknowledge a surprising and abhorrent crime. Societies would undergo lasting changes, attempting to prevent such crimes, and the victims themselves, sadly, would suffer long-lasting impacts to their psyche.Continue reading

What Happens If You Stick Your Head in a Particle Accelerator?

What would happen if you stuck your body inside a particle accelerator? The scenario seems like the start of a bad Marvel comic, but it happens to shed light on our intuitions about radiation, the vulnerability of the human body, and the very nature of matter. Particle accelerators allow physicists to study subatomic particles by speeding them up in powerful magnetic fields and then tracing the interactions that result from collisions. By delving into the mysteries of the Universe, colliders have entered the Zeitgeist and tapped the wonders and fears of our age.Continue reading

OCD Stress Knowing Neurons

A “Little Bit” of OCD: When Words Trivialize a Disorder

Sheldon Cooper, a beloved character in a television series, knocks on a door exactly three times before his roommate opens it — and if the door is opened earlier, he still persists his triad of door knocks. He fixates on occupying the exact same spot on the sofa every single time calling it “his” spot. As an audience, we watch his actions and surmise, “He has a little bit of OCD.”

The reality is: there is no such thing as a “little bit” when it comes to obsessive-compulsive disorders.Continue reading

What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

Our thoughts are often mysterious to us. You probably don’t know why you suddenly think about a Komodo dragon while sitting in traffic or Citizen Kane while shopping for groceries. Such moments remind us that we are each the emergent property of an amazingly complex organ that never stops surprising us. Nonetheless, we usually feel in control of our thoughts. Even with the occasional unexpected thought, life continues as normal.Continue reading

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Why Mosquitoes Love Us

From that evil itch on your arm to torturous diseases such as malaria, Zika, dengue, and yellow fever, mosquito bites can have unpleasant consequences. But have you ever wondered why those skin-diving insects are so good at detecting humans? Not so surprisingly, the answer lies in neuroscience — in a special field called chemosensation, the sensing of chemical stimuli.Continue reading

The Consequences of Illusory Superiority

On January 6, 1995, a large five-foot-six 270-pound middle-aged man robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. He didn’t wear a mask or any sort of disguise. And he smiled at surveillance cameras before walking out of each bank.

Later that night, police arrested a surprised McArthur Wheeler. When they showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in disbelief. “But I wore the juice,” he mumbled.Continue reading

The Slippery Slope of Dishonesty

A kid stealing candy in a convenience store grows up to be a convicted criminal. A husband who flirts with a coworker ends up as a serial cheater. A politician telling a few “white lies” to his or her constituents is eventually convicted of fraud. These are all extreme — but plausible — scenarios where dishonesty might escalate over time, resulting in dramatic and life-changing consequences. But how far does this slippery slope actually go? How can science help us answer this question?Continue reading

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Science Careers: An Interview with Dr. Rachel Bernstein

The pursuit of science is challenging. It is where new knowledge is born. In their path towards the unknown, scientists, too, face their fair share of insecurity. When experiments fail, grants evade, confidence dwindles and the clock strikes midnight, many researchers find themselves immersed in questions to which Google may not have an answer. What should I do after I graduate? Is there a glass ceiling for women? Is academia right for me? What other options are out there? Can I really get my act together for a work-life balance, like, ever? Sigh, these investment bankers make so much more money. What am I doing with my life? Maybe I should sleep now?Continue reading

Weird Animal Brain: Octopus

The octopus almost reaches alien status when it comes to its brain and nervous system.  And yet, the differences can help us understand more about the human brain as well as unique solutions nature has come up with for difficult problems like camouflage.  Octopuses can see polarized light, but cannot see color.  However, their skin changes both color and texture to camouflage with the surroundings.Continue reading

Stimulating Neural Circuits with Magnetism

Brain stimulation might sound like some Frankensteinian demonstration from a Victorian science fair. But in reality, it is a contemporary technique making a huge impact in neuroscience by addressing a longstanding limitation of traditional methods for investigating human brain function. Such techniques, like EEG and fMRI, can only be used to infer the effects of a stimulus or task on brain activity, and not vice versa. For example, a scientist might use EEG to study the effect of a task like arm movement on brain activity, but how can one study the effect of brain activity on arm movement?Continue reading

Weird Animal Brain: Manta Ray

Last month, on the big island of Hawaii, I swam with giant, beautiful aliens.  Or at least that’s what it felt like.  I went night snorkeling with manta rays and had the privilege of seeing 10 or 11 graceful behemoths.  Some had a wingspan of over 10 feet long.  Before our group got in the water, to prepare us for what we were about to see, our guide reassured us that manta rays are like sharks, but only the good parts, none of the scary parts.  They don’t have teeth, they only eat plankton, and they have no stinger like their sting ray counterparts.Continue reading

A Grand Vision: A Conversation with Lynne Kiorpes

When babies are born, they cannot see very well, but their vision vastly improves as they continue to develop.  Sometimes, the eyes don’t communicate well with the brain, and vision disorders like amblyopia result.  What are the neural mechanisms that allow normal visual development?  What happens when things go amiss?  And how can these disorders be prevented and treated?  These are the questions that get Professor Lynne Kiorpes up in the morning!  Listen to her passion as she explains her research and life as a neuroscientist:Continue reading

Mental Health is a Part of Health: A Conversation with Shekhar Saxena

In a recent presidential town hall, President Obama looked directly into the camera and made a powerful statement about mental health. “If something inside you feels like it’s wounded, it’s just like a physical injury. You’ve got to go get help,” said the leader of the free world.

Buried under the weight of a massive social stigma, seeking help or even acknowledging a mental illness can be an excruciating task. How, then, can we help ourselves and our loved ones achieve emotional and mental well-being?Continue reading

We won an award!

We are excited to announce that we received the Society for Neuroscience 2016 Next Generation Award. This award recognizes SfN chapter members who have made outstanding contributions to public communication, outreach, and education about neuroscience. To celebrate the award reflecting our dedication to neuroscience education, we, the team members of Knowing Neurons, reminisce over some of their favorite moments in the past year.Continue reading

How a mother’s voice shapes her baby’s developing brain

It is no surprise that a child prefers its mother’s voice to those of strangers.  Beginning in the womb, a fetus’s developing auditory pathways sense the sounds and vibrations of its mother.  Soon after birth, a child can identify its mother’s voice and will work to hear her voice better over unfamiliar female voices.  A 2014 study of preterm infants showed that playing a recording of the mother’s voice when babies sucked on a pacifier was enough to improve development of oral feeding skills and shorten their hospital stay.  A mother’s voice can soothe a child in stressful situations, reducing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and increasing levels of oxytocin, the social bonding hormone.  Scientists have even traced the power of a mother’s voice to infants’ brains: a mother’s voice activates the anterior prefrontal cortex and the left posterior temporal region more strongly than an unfamiliar voice, priming the infant for the specialized task of speech processing.

While it makes intuitive sense that a mother’s voice has special power over infants and toddlers, what happens as children grow up?  Continue reading

This is Your Brain on Starbucks

My father often jokes that hundreds of years from now, future anthropologists will speak of the cult of the Seattle goddess, her shrine adorning every airport, shopping mall, and train station in America.  The worshippers partake in a holy communion of coffee, tea, and espresso.  In fact, anthropologists today tell us that in some indigenous American cultures, drinking psychoactive peyote tea is an important part of religious ceremony.  And yet, the very phrase psychoactive tea is somewhat redundant.  All tea and coffee, unless decaffeinated, is psychoactive, albeit usually not to the same extent as peyote, a cactus native to the American Southwest that contains a hallucinogenic alkaloid called mescaline.Continue reading

When the blind can see again: A critical question of perception

Our sense of sight is arguably our most important sense.  Imagine how different your life would be if soon after birth, you lost the ability to see.  For over 1.4 million children worldwide, that is their life.  Being blind in developing countries like India has a costly impact: over 90% of blind children do not go to school, less than 50% make it to adulthood, and for those that do, only 20% are employed. But the real tragedy is that many of these cases of childhood blindness are completely avoidable and even treatable.

Why do they go untreated?

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Copy Number Variants: A Window into Psychiatric Illness

The human genome consists of nearly 25,000 protein-coding genes – and a mutation in just one of these can have dramatic effects on our brains.  Remarkably, one tiny change in our genes (which can be as small as 0.000000025 cm!) can lead to visible changes in our behavior.  Schizophrenia, autism, bipolar disorder, and ADHD have all been linked to variations in our DNA.  But how do changes in our genetic code result in these complex psychiatric disorders?Continue reading

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, A Review

Responding to the assertion that computers lack intuition, the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett once (counter-intuitively) argued that computers must have intuition. Ask a computer to calculate the square root of 54357.029. How did the computer get the answer? Lacking awareness, the computer doesn’t know. The answer wasn’t the result of deep thinking or concentration. It was intuition.Continue reading

Idiot Brain: What Your Head is Really Up To, A Review

Your brain is the most remarkable thing about you because it makes you you.  So, when Dean Burnett, Ph.D. chose to describe all that the brain does to make you amazing, he did it in a uniquely humane and entertaining way.  His popular science book Idiot Brain: What Your Head is Really Up To is well-researched, well-written, and highly recommended for anyone interested in learning about how the brain works, fails to work, and even works against you.Continue reading

Learning from Disorder: The Paradox of Information in the Brain

In Dante’s Inferno, the fifth circle of Hell is a place where the wrathful fight each other for eternity.  Similarly, I often consider YouTube comments to be an extracanonical circle of Hell where the trolls fight each other for eternity.  You might, then, imagine my surprise when I found many thoughtful comments expressing wonder and intrigue on a YouTube video of brain activity in a zebrafish.  Continue reading

Jupiter and Beyond! The Unsung Friendship between Neuroscience and Space Exploration

This weekend, I attended a special event at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, CA to celebrate the Juno spacecraft’s July 4th arrival at the planet Jupiter.  Planetary scientists study outer space, while neuroscientists such as myself study inner space.  But as my visit to JPL revealed, the goals and challenges of each discipline are far more similar than you might think.  So, what is Juno, and how does its mission mirror that of many neuroscientists?Continue reading

Hacking your Brain with Smart Drugs

What if you could take a pill to enhance your cognitive abilities?  What if this pill could help you ace a test, get more work done efficiently, and truly multitask?  For entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and executives on Wall Street, the answer to these questions is a resounding “Yes!”  In these high stake environments, the use of nootropics, or “smart drugs,” by normal healthy people has become commonplace.  But what exactly are the compounds that are claimed to improve brain function?  And are they safe?Continue reading

Brain Waves and Beta Buzz: The Wild Story of Neural Oscillations

What are brain waves?  It’s no wonder the term sounds like science fiction.  In the 1920s, a German psychiatrist embarked on a highly personal quest to discover the supposed medium of telepathy.  By placing electrodes on the human scalp, Hans Berger found waves of electrical brain activity using a tool called electroencephalography, or EEG.  Physicists had recently shown that electromagnetic waves could propagate through space to carry information.  If the brain had its own waves, could they transmit thoughts to others like a radio broadcast?Continue reading