Cute things are usually vulnerable, fragile and weak. But cuteness itself is mighty indeed. Morten L. Kringelbach and his colleagues at the University of Oxford recently described cuteness as ‘one of the most basic and powerful forces shaping our behavior.’ And yet, despite its elemental importance, cuteness might be a fluid, evolving concept and trait.Continue reading
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
Marine mammals, such as dolphins, whales, and porpoises, spend their entire lives at sea. Like us, they need to breathe, avoid danger, and care for their young. Like us, they need to sleep, which — for us — involves almost total unconsciousness and paralysis. So how do these marine mammals not drown when they sleep?Continue reading
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
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?
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
The jewel wasp’s venom is potent on two levels. Continue reading
Have you ever wondered if you experience the world like everyone else? We assume that our senses tell us what’s going on in the world, but they’re far from perfect. Synesthesia is a cool example of when our senses have a mind of their own.Continue reading
If you grew up with siblings, it is likely that you have heard the phrase, ”Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” However, it wasn’t until a groundbreaking finding in the 1990s that the neural correlate to imitation was discovered in a class of neurons called mirror neurons. Continue reading
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
Who hasn’t wanted to snap their fingers and dive into the pages of the gorgeous places featured in National Geographic? Caught in a miserable physics exam that you haven’t studied for? No problem, with teleportation you can be whisked away to an expedition to Mars or an Australian beach. Afraid of heights but curious about skydiving? Immersion into an artificial, computer-simulated environment can emulate the look and feel of the real thing without any danger or risk. Virtual reality enables the military to train pilots to fly planes without leaving the safety of the base. Virtual environments are almost limitless in scope, allowing researchers to study complex motor behaviors. These virtual environments are often experienced with a head mounted display that allows the participant to move freely within the perceived environment — be it a pre-historic landscape or a lunar landing.Continue reading
We all know too much sugar is bad for us. But did you know that having unfettered access to sugar might produce brain changes similar to highly stressful situations, such as neglect or abuse? A recent study published in Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience comparing the effects of unlimited sugar availability and the effects of early life stress in rats might suggest just that.Continue reading