How does anxiety work?


We all deal with anxiety in some form day to day. But anxiety can be a much stronger, more fearsome force for many people — one that never goes away. What is anxiety exactly, and what’s going on in your mind (and your body) when anxiety strikes?

Anxiety itself is a natural human response that serves a purpose. Our goal shouldn’t be to dismiss it entirely but to make it a healthy, manageable part of our lives. Even if you don’t suffer from an anxiety-related disorder, anxiety is part of our world, the same way stress, sadness and happiness are.

What Anxiety Is, and How It Differs from Stress

What Anxiety Does to Your Brain and What You Can Do About It

Anxiety is a sense of fear and apprehension that puts you on alert. Biologically, it’s designed to put us in a heightened sense of awareness so we’re prepared for potential threats. Unfortunately, when we start to feel excessive anxiety, or we live in a constant state of anxiety, we’re in trouble. Our bodies never turn off our fight or flight response, and we live with the physical and emotional effects of anxiety on a day-to-day basis, even when there’s no reason or cause for them.

On its face, anxiety can look like stress; but the reality isn’t so simple. Anxiety can arise as a result of stress, but stress can manifest in other ways. Stressors can make a person sad, angry, worried or anxious, while anxiety is specifically that feeling of fear, dread and apprehension we mentioned. You may never even know what’s causing your anxiety, or, in some cases, it can manifest on its own, without any real “trigger” or cause. Stress is often caused by external influences, while anxiety is an internal response. That’s part of what makes anxiety intrinsically different than stress, and also what makes it so difficult to manage.

What’s Actually Happening In Your Brain When You Feel Anxious

What Anxiety Does to Your Brain and What You Can Do About It

You know the feeling: That tense sensation in your stomach, the heightened sense of awareness you have about everything going on around you, the slight fear or sense of dread — that’s anxiety. Before your body feels the effects however, your brain is already at work. The National Institute of Mental Health guide to anxiety disorders also offers this description of the neurological processes at work:

Several parts of the brain are key actors in the production of fear and anxiety. Using brain imaging technology and neurochemical techniques, scientists have discovered that the amygdala and the hippocampus play significant roles in most anxiety disorders.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is believed to be a communications hub between the parts of the brain that process incoming sensory signals and the parts that interpret these signals. It can alert the rest of the brain that a threat is present and trigger a fear or anxiety response. The emotional memories stored in the central part of the amygdala may play a role in anxiety disorders involving very distinct fears, such as fears of dogs, spiders or flying.

The hippocampus is the part of the brain that encodes threatening events into memories. Studies have shown that the hippocampus appears to be smaller in some people who were victims of child abuse or who served in military combat. Research will determine what causes this reduction in size and what role it plays in the flashbacks, deficits in explicit memory and fragmented memories of the traumatic event that are common in PTSD.

The feeling of anxiety is part of your body’s stress response. Your fight or flight response is triggered, and your system is flooded with norepinephrine and cortisol. Both are designed to give you a boost to perception, reflexes and speed in dangerous situations. They increase your heart rate, get more blood to your muscles, get more air into your lungs and get you ready to deal with whatever threat is present. Your body turns its full attention to survival. Ideally, it all shuts down when the threat passes and your body goes back to normal.

Where Anxiety Comes from and Where It All Goes Wrong

What Anxiety Does to Your Brain and What You Can Do About It

The effects of stress are well understood, but where does anxiety come from? How do we know that it’s time to be “anxious”, and where is the line between “feeling anxious” and “suffering from anxiety”? We sat down with clinical psychologist Jeffrey DeGroat, PhD, and Roger S. Gil, MAMFT, to find that line.

Dr DeGroat explained that there are a number of psychological theories as to why anxiety exists. There’s the neurological (which we mentioned above), and the psychoanalytical, which describes anxiety as battle between the id, ego and superego. In this battle, he explains that “anxiety serves as a danger signal to an individual’s ego and/or superego that an individual is at an elevated risk to act upon an unacceptable id impulse. In the face of this anxiety, an individual’s ego and/or superego respond by attempting to manage an individual’s id impulses through elevated means.” Essentially, anxiety is a warning sign that you’re about to do something you may not want to. There’s also the cognitive theory, which suggests that anxiety arises when a person’s cognitive distortions, or irrational thought patterns, make them see everything as a physical threat, whether it’s an actual physical danger, an annoying coworker or a police officer on the side of the road. In behavioural theory, anxiety is a learned response due to exposure to frightening or stressful situations.

Regardless of which theory you subscribe to, it’s unhealthy when those instincts are turned on constantly. Your body’s stress response is something designed to be engaged when needed and disengaged; and constant anxiety keeps us alert and on edge all the time. Persistent anxiety, however, is a problem.

Gil explained that whether it’s caused by genetics or being brought up in an environment conducive to anxiety (as in, loud environments or parents and teachers who yell all the time), the problem emerges when your body and brain become “wired” to be on the lookout for potential threats that could come from any direction at any time, real or imagined. Anything that could cause an undesirable emotion, he explained, whether it’s fear, frustration, or doubt, could be a trigger for anxiety — and once you develop thinking patterns that reinforce every event in your life as a threat, it becomes a never-ending cycle.

Both gentlemen agreed that it’s an issue when you recognise that your anxiety doesn’t seem to go away, and you’re living with it on a daily basis. This is easier for some people than others though — if you’ve been suffering from anxiety for so long that it’s just part of your personal norm, you may not even recognise that it’s an issue, as Gil explains:

Many people have lived in an anxious state for so long that they don’t know any other feeling so they are unaware that they are suffering from persistent anxiety. Recognising anxiety isn’t easy in these types of situations however identifying its red flags is a good way to start. Are you pessimistic about the most innocuous situations to the point where it keeps you from taking risks? Do you find your mind racing to what possible negative outcomes there could be? Do you immediately attribute some external circumstance to a positive outcome that could be seen as the result of your efforts? If your answer is ‘yes’ to these questions, then you may suffer from persistent anxiety.

For some people, anxiety is situational. It’s normal to feel nervous at the prospect of having to speak in public. It’s not normal to feel anxiety about having a mundane conversation with your barista. Situational anxiety is one of those things that we can only overcome by confronting it. Generalised anxiety is something that can only be coped with by trying to rewrite the pattern of thinking that elicits it.

Regardless of whether you’re living with anxiety or suffering from an anxiety related condition, there are ways to deal with and lessen anxiety’s impact. It starts with recognising the effects of anxiety, and then learning the right ways to cope.

Dr Jeffrey DeGroat, PhD, is a clinical psychologist.

Photos by oliveromg (Shutterstock), sanguineseasFod TzellosQuinn DombrowskiM. DollyKarenAfrica Studio (Shutterstock), Supermac1961.

Brain accidents and injuries can occasionally unleash amazing new talents.


Being knocked unconscious might change any one of us. It might affect us physically, causing double vision or headaches, or mentally, making us fearful or even grumpy. But few could dream of the altered state Jason Padgett found himself in after just such an injury – caused in his case by a blow to the head during a late-night mugging outside a karaoke bar in 2002.

For Padgett, a father of one from Tacoma in Washington state, the effect of his injury was remarkable, very rare, and strangely fortunate. From college drop-out with a dodgy haircut – interested in little more than drinking, racing cars and going to the gym – Padgett, now 43, woke up the day after he was attacked with an extraordinary ability in mathematics and geometry.

His vision had changed: it was somehow sharper and more comprehensive than before. Jason recalls turning on the bathroom tap and noticing ”lines emanating out perpendicularly from the flow”.

Brain accidents and injuries can occasionally unleash amazing new talents.

”At first, I was startled, and worried for myself, but it was so beautiful that I just stood in my slippers and stared,” he told the New York Post. When the visuals continued over the next few days, he became ”obsessed with every shape in my house, from rectangles of the windows to the curvature of a spoon”.

In the following years, Padgett stopped going to work and spent all of his time studying maths and physics, focusing on fractals (repeated geometric patterns), which he found he could draw in extraordinary detail.

But he realised he was not alone when he saw a BBC documentary about Daniel Tammet, a young Londoner with savant syndrome – the condition in which a person with a mental disability (in Tammet’s case, autism, a condition shared by 50 per cent of savants) shows prodigious abilities in memory and art, maths and music, far in excess of what is considered normal.

”That’s it! That’s what’s going on with me. Oh, my god! Someone else can see what I see!” Padgett thought, as he recalls in his new book Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel. He contacted Dr Darold Treffert, a Wisconsin-based psychiatrist and the leading expert on savantism, who diagnosed ”acquired savant syndrome”.

According to Treffert, there are three levels of savant ability (which is more common in men than women, with male savants outnumbering females six to one). ”First, there’s something called splinter skills – this would be a case with someone who has a talent for memorisation above the norm, for example,” he says.

”Then there’s something called a talented savant (someone who has a marked talent in one area) and finally, there’s something called the prodigious savant – someone with truly extraordinary gifts. There are fewer than 100 known prodigious savants living, worldwide.”

Even Padgett would fall into the merely ”talented” sub-group.

Probably the most famous savant is fictional: Raymond, Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1988 film Rain Man. Raymond was, however, based on a real-life savant called Kim Peek who, despite having an IQ measuring just 72 (below normal), had a stunning memory and ability to read and recall information.

Unlike Raymond, Peek was not autistic but had suffered brain and possible chromosomal damage before birth. He did, though, exhibit similarly astonishing abilities, described as being able to recall information from 12,000 books, speed-reading through them at about an hour per book.

While Peek was known in the US, affectionately, as ”Kimputer”, all savants boast a very deep memory, Treffert has reported. For example, on March 14, 2004, Daniel Tammet publicly recited, from memory, pi to 22,514 decimal places. It took him five hours and nine minutes. He explained how he had committed the sequence to memory in his book Thinking in Numbers. ”Printed out on crisp, letter-sized sheets of paper, 1000 digits to a page, I gazed on them as a painter gazes on a favourite landscape.” Sometimes called ”Brainman”, Tammet has also taught himself 11 languages (including Icelandic in just a week).

But savants’ powers extend far beyond mere recall. Treffert has identified the most significant areas of savant skill – what he calls ”islands of ability” – as taking in art, music, calendar calculation, maths and spatial skills. For instance, Leslie Lemke, from Wisconsin, born with such severe birth defects that doctors had to remove both his eyes, was put up for adoption and could not stand unaided until he was 12. Four years later, his adopted mother woke up one night to hear him playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Lemke, who had no classical music training, was playing the piece flawlessly after hearing it just once earlier on television. His remarkable ability to play by ear saw him performing and recording until ill-health finally scuppered his talent.

Padgett, however, is arguably still more special, in that he has acquired his savant syndrome – rather than being born with it. He is not alone. After a head injury as a toddler, Alonso Clemons of Boulder, Colorado, now in his 50s, discovered an ability to sculpt animals to a remarkably life-like degree just using his hands and fingernails. Orlando Serrell could tell the day of the week of any given date after being struck by a baseball at the age of 10 in 1979. Anthony Cicoria, a 62-year-old orthopaedic surgeon from Oneonta, New York, could play the piano to concert standard following a lightning strike in 1994.

Meanwhile, Pip Taylor, a 49-year-old woman from Birkenhead, north-west England, recently discovered a talent as an artist after hitting her head falling down the stairs. She is now being commissioned to produce portraits.

So what lies behind these astonishing brain boosts? Some neurologists believe that it is the brain’s ability to bend and rewire itself, its neuroplasticity, which leads to the development of extraordinary new skills. Behavioural neurologist Dr Bruce Miller, of the UCSF Memory and Ageing Centre in San Francisco, however, has come up with a new theory to explain the phenomenon.

He believes the talents of a savant emerge when the areas damaged – those associated with logic, verbal communication, and comprehension – have inhibited latent artistic abilities already present. According to this theory, these hyper skills, such as great proficiency in music, manifest themselves as the areas of the right brain associated with creativity operate unchecked for the first time.

Luke Griggs, a spokesman for Headway, the brain injury association, says that the process by which these new abilities are acquired remains uncharted.

”Jason Padgett’s case is extremely rare,” he says. ”We don’t understand the exact mechanisms by which such dramatic new abilities can suddenly appear.

”Different parts of the brain are massively interconnected and it is possible that inhibition in one part of the brain following injury can lead to increased activity in other areas, which can sometimes result in surprising and unexpected effects.

”However, it is important to remember that brain injury almost always impairs rather than enhances people.”

Indeed, despite Padgett’s new savant status, he too has spoken about the toll his injury has exacted. While he was once outgoing, the shock of discovering his new skills made him introverted, and he started to spend all of his time at home, covering up his windows with blankets and refusing visitors. He became obsessed with bacteria and would scrub his hands until they were red. He would not even hug his own daughter until she had washed her hands.

It is crucial to remember, after all, that behind a sudden savant’s eye-catching new powers are real human stories – a point Treffert reminded the medical community in 2009, as he summarised his life’s work for the Royal Society journal Philosophical Transactions B.

While he was relieved to note that the derogatory term idiot savant had fallen from favour (as being blatantly untrue), he pointed out: ”No model of brain function, including memory, will be complete until it can account for, and fully incorporate, the rare but spectacular condition of savant syndrome.

”There is more to savant syndrome than genes, circuitry and the brain’s marvellous intricacy. Human potential consists of more than neurons and synapses. It also comprises, and is propelled along by, the vital forces of encouragement and reinforcement that flow from the unconditional love, belief, support and determination of those families and friends who not only care for the savant, but care about him or her as well.”

In the process of understanding sudden savants, he said, ”we can also learn more about ourselves, explore the ‘challenge to our capabilities’ and uncover the hidden potential – the little Rain Man – that resides, perhaps, within us all”.

Telegraph, London

Read more:

The Top Ten Brain Science And Psychology Studies Of 2013

The traditional functions of the two halves of the brain

The traditional functions of the two halves of the brain

From David DiSalvo at

Putting it mildly, 2013 was an eventful year for brain science. This Top 10 list isn’t meant to be exhaustive (given how many studies are published each year, it never could be), but it’s a sturdy sampling of incredible work being conducted around the world, moving us closer to solving some extremely vexing puzzles about brains and behavior.

1. How the Brain Takes Out Its Trash While We Sleep

In 2013, layers were peeled back from two interrelated mysteries: the function of sleep, and how the brain removes its waste byproducts.

While it’s been known for some time that the brain doesn’t directly use the body’s lymphatic system (our body-wide filtering and waste removal system) to dump its toxic waste, the mechanism that it does use wasn’t identified until 2012. The research team that made this discovery was led by University of Rochester neurosurgeon, Maiken Nedergaard, who dubbed the brain’s waste-removal mechanism the “glymphatic system.”

The glymphatic system relies on cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to flush out neurotoxins via pathways separate from the lymphatic system. Among the toxins that are flushed isbeta amyloid, a protein that’s found in clumps in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers.

In 2013, Nedergaard’s research team followed up on this discovery by identifying “hidden caves” that open in the brain while we sleep, allowing cerebrospinal fluid to flush out neurotoxins through the spinal column.

The implications of this research can’t be overstated:  failing to get enough sleep isn’t just a bad idea for all of the reasons we already know, but over time it could also lead to neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s.  If the study’s findings are accurate, our brains need sleep to remove waste byproducts like beta amyloid  that eventually become brain killers.

The study was published in the journal, Science.

2. To Your Brain, Me is We

A 2013 study from University of Virginia researchers supports a finding that’s been gaining science-fueled momentum in recent years: the human brain is wired to connect with others so strongly that it experiences what they experience as if it’s happening to us.

The researchers had participants undergo fMRI brain scans while threatening to give them electrical shocks, or to give shocks to a stranger or a friend.  Results showed that regions of the brain responsible for threat response – the anterior insula, putamen and supramarginal gyrus – became active under threat of shock to the self; that much was expected.

When researchers threatened to shock a stranger, those same brain regions showed virtually no activity. But when they threatened to shock a friend, the brain regions showed activity nearly identical to that displayed when the participant was threatened.

“The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar,” said James Coan, a psychology professor in U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences who co-authored the study. “The finding shows the brain’s remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real.”

The study was published in the journal, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

3. Your Brain Sees Even When You Don’t

A 2013 study published in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests that the brain can “see” someone else’s actions even when the ability to visually see has been destroyed.

Cortical blindness refers to the loss of vision that occurs when the primary visual cortex no longer functions, generally as the result of injury. There’s no longer an ability to visually perceive the world in the sense with which we’re most familiar (even though the eyes still technically work), but that doesn’t necessarily mean the brain no longer sees.

In this study a patient with full cortical blindness could still react to another person’s gaze. While in an fMRI machine, the patient was exposed to gazes directed at him and gazes directed away from him. On the face of it, neither should matter — his visual cortex couldn’t perceive any sort of gaze. But the brain scan indicated that another part of his brain definitely could.

The patient’s amygdala, the brain area associated with figuring out whether external stimuli is a threat, showed a distinctly different activation pattern when the gaze was directed at the patient than when directed away from him.

In other words, it didn’t matter that his visual cortex couldn’t catch the gaze—another part of his brain did regardless, and that’s quite incredible.

4. Yes, Stress Really Does Feed Cancer

For years we’ve heard that there’s a mind-body connection between stress and cancer. The claim is anecdotal, but has a certain horse sense that appeals to reason – stress is hard on the body, causing hormonal reactions that can potentially influence the development of cancerous cells.

A 2013 study didn’t quite prove the claim, but did indicate that once cancer has taken hold, stress biochemically feeds its growth.  The study, by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, focused on the effects of stress on prostate cancer, and found that stress can both reduce the effectiveness of prostate cancer drugs and accelerate the development of the cancer.

The study team, headed by George Kulik, D.V.M., Ph.D., associate professor of cancer biology, tested the effects of behavioral stress in two different mouse models of prostate cancer.

One model used mice that were implanted with human prostate cancer cells and treated with a drug that is currently in clinical trial for prostate cancer treatment. When the mice were kept calm and free of stress, the drug destroyed prostate cancer cells and inhibited tumor growth. However, when the mice were stressed, the cancer cells didn’t die and the drug did not inhibit tumor growth.

In the second model, mice genetically modified to develop prostate cancer were used. When these mice were repeatedly stressed, the size of prostate tumors increased. When the mice were treated with bicalutamide, a drug currently used to treat prostate cancer, their prostate tumors decreased in size. However, if mice were subjected to repeated stress, the prostate tumors didn’t respond as well to the drug.

After analyzing the data, researchers identified the cell signaling pathway by which epinephrine, a hormone also known as adrenaline–triggered at high levels during times of stress–sets off the cellular chain reaction that controls cell death.

“Considering that prostate cancer diagnosis increases stress and anxiety levels, stress-induced activation of the signaling pathway that turns off the cell death process may lead to a vicious cycle of stress and cancer progression,” Kulik said.

The findings were published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

5. Move Over Extroverts and Introverts, Here Come the Ambiverts

In the psychology of personality category, a 2013 study overturned yet another personality stereotype that’s gone virtually unquestioned for decades: that extroverts are inherently better sellers than everyone else.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, indicates that not only is that stereotype wrong, but there’s an entirely different personality type that stands well above the others in sales prowess.

The study was conducted by researcher Adam Grant of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, also author of the book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. Grant predicted that extroverts, contrary to popular lore, would not bury other personality types when it came to closing sales — but rather, ambiverts, people who are more or less equal parts extroverted and introverted, would perform best.

Grant conducted a personality survey and collected three-months of sales records for more than 300 salespeople, both men and women. As he predicted, people whose scores put them in between extreme extroversion and introversion turned out to be the best salespeople. In a three-month period, they made 24% more in sales revenue than introverts, and 32% more in revenue than extroverts.

Perhaps even more surprising, Grant found that the two extreme personality types pulled in roughly the same percentage of sales.  Being highly extroverted wasn’t even a plus when compared against the personality type we generally think of as the worst candidate for high-performance sales.

Because ambiverts embody traits from both sides of the personality spectrum—in a sense, they have a built in ‘governor’ that regulates their exuberance–they don’t trip over the obstacles that handicap their more extroverted counterparts.

“The ambivert advantage stems from the tendency to be assertive and enthusiastic enough to persuade and close, but at the same time, listening carefully to customers and avoiding the appearance of being overly confident or excited,” Grant said.

6. Mini Brains Created With Stem Cells

This past year also saw some groundbreaking news in the stem-cell category of neuroscience: for the first time, scientists grew miniature human brains from stem cells, reported Reuters Health. The implications of this development are massive, not the least of which is eventually understanding the inner workings of severe neurological disorders and how to defeat them.

The researchers started with human stem cells—the often-controversial, undifferentiated (or “blank”) human cells that are capable of giving rise to a host of differentiated cells—and cultured them into “cerebral organoids” (more simply, “mini brains”).  Stem cells have been used to grow a variety of organ tissue—including a liver and a trachea—but never before has brain tissue with multiple, distinct parts been created in a lab.

According to the Reuters report, Juergen Knoblish and Madeline Lancaster at Austria’s Institute of Molecular Biotechnology and fellow researchers at Britain’s Edinburgh University of Human Genetics cultured the stem cells with a cocktail of nutrients, and grew tissue called neuroectoderm – a layer of cells in the embryo from which all parts of the brain and nervous system develop.

This tissue was then placed into a spinning bioreactor that circulates oxygen and nutrients, catalyzing the eventual growth of cerebral organoids.  After one month, the tissue had organized itself into basic developing brain regions, including the retina and cerebral cortex. At two months, the tiny organoids—about 4 millimeters long—contained firing neurons and identifiably different types of neural tissue. The scientists had created tiny, primitive human brains.

To demonstrate the usefulness of their discovery, the researchers used the organoids to model the development of a rare neurological condition called microcephaly—in which patients develop an abnormally small head. By modeling the condition in a lab, researchers can reverse engineer it and find out why it develops.

The research team acknowledged that they had not created a full-scale, fully functioning human brain, and that doing so is a long way off, but they said they had accomplished their initial goal—to “analyze the development of human brain tissue and generate a model system…to transfer knowledge from animal models to a human setting.”

Source: Scientists Grow “Mini Human Brains” From Stem Cells; Reuters.

7. How Exercise Makes Your Brain Grow

Research into “neurogenesis”—the ability of certain brain areas to grow new brain cells—took an exciting turn in 2013. A study published in the journal Cell Metabolismsuggests that not only can we foster new brain cell growth through exercise, but it may eventually be possible to “bottle” that benefit in prescription medication.

The hippocampus, a brain area closely linked to learning and memory, is especially receptive to new neuron growth in response to endurance exercise. Exactly how and why this happens wasn’t well understood until recently. Research has discovered that exercise stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5 that is released into the bloodstream while we’re breaking a sweat. Over time, FNDC5 stimulates the production of another protein in the brain called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which in turns stimulates the growth of new nerves and synapses – the connection points between nerves – and also preserves the survival of existing brain cells.

What this boils down to in practice is that regular endurance exercise, like jogging, strengthens and grows your brain. In particular, your memory and ability to learn get a boost from hitting the pavement.  Along with the other well-established benefits of endurance exercise, such as improved heart health, this is a pretty good reason to get moving. If jogging isn’t your thing, there’s a multitude of other ways to trigger the endurance effect – even brisk walking on a regular basis yields brain benefits.

Researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School (HMS) have also discovered that it may be possible to capture these benefits in a pill.  The same protein that stimulates brain growth via exercise could potentially be bottled and given to patients experiencing cognitive decline, including those in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“What is exciting is that a natural substance can be given in the bloodstream that can mimic some of the effects of endurance exercise on the brain,” said Bruce Spiegelman, PhD, of Dana-Farber and HMS and co-senior author of the research report with Michael E. Greenberg, PhD, chair of neurobiology at HMS.

8. Electrical Stimulation Helps the Brain Put On the Brakes

In the “exciting but frightening” category, research published in the The Journal of Neuroscience showed that harmless electrical stimulation can boost self-control by amplifying the human brain’s “brakes.”

Researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) and the University of California, San Diego asked study participants to perform simple tasks in which they had to exert self-control to slow down their behavior. While doing so, the team used brain imaging to identify the areas of the participants’ prefrontal cortex (sometimes called the brain’s “command and control center”) associated with the behavior—allowing them to pinpoint the specific brain area that would need a boost to make each participant’s “braking” ability more effective.

They then placed electrodes on the surface of the participants’ brains associated with the prefrontal cortex areas linked with the behavior.  With an imperceptible, computer-controlled electrical charge, researchers were able to enhance self-control at the exact time the participants needed it.

“There is a circuit in the brain for inhibiting or braking responses,” said Nitin Tandon, M.D., the study’s senior author and associate professor in The Vivian L. Smith Department of Neurosurgery at the UTHealth Medical School. “We believe we are the first to show that we can enhance this braking system with brain stimulation.”

Though this research conjures a few frightening visions, you can relax knowing that we’re a long way from externally controlling peoples’ behavior. The true value of this study is to demonstrate that the brain’s self-control circuit can be amplified, at least under certain conditions–and eventually that could be good news for sufferers of behavioral disorders like OCD and Tourette Syndrome.

9. Tool That Seeks Consciousness in the Brain

An experimental tool designed in 2013 to “peek” into a patient’s brain and find signs of consciousness could eventually give doctors a way to more accurately judge chances of recovery from serious brain trauma – and in the process change the nature of end-of-life decisions.

Until now, doctors don’t have many methods available to gauge the consciousness of a patient unable to respond verbally or in other subtle ways in response to simple questions–such as blinking an eye, squeezing a hand, or raising a finger. In these cases, typically when a patient has suffered a severe brain injury, there’s ample guesswork that goes into determining whether consciousness is still lingering under the surface.

The best clinical method available to get closer to an answer involves placing the patient in an MRI machine and scanning the brain while telling the patient to envision an action like throwing a ball or running through a field. By tracking activity patterns in the patient’s brain, it’s theoretically possible to tell if the person is able to unconsciously acknowledge and process the request. If it appears that the patient’s brain can respond even though the patient can’t verbalize the response, the person is said to suffer from “locked-in syndrome”.

The problem with this method is that it’s far from clear what the brain activity is actually revealing about consciousness. Significant brain activity is possible even in a vegetative state, and isn’t necessarily a clue that recovery is possible.

Since consciousness is spread across multiple brain regions, it’s possible for one part of the brain to respond while others are entirely unresponsive.  One way to think about this is the starter on a damaged car engine still working even though gas can’t reach the engine; a minimal “signal” from the starter is produced by turning the key, even though the engine can’t run.

The new tool, developed by researchers from Italy’s University of Milan, could provide doctors with a more objective method that gauges the complexity of a patient’s consciousness. The tool combines three steps: first a magnetic pulse is sent through a coil into the brain designed to “wake it up,” and then an EEG machine measures brain wave activity produced by neurons firing in response to the pulse. Finally, the activity is measured via a formula that puts a finer point on the nature of the patient’s consciousness.

That final step is the secret ingredient that makes this tool different: instead of simply trying to identify brain activity (something MRI machines can already do) it produces a measure of the complexity of consciousness–what the researchers call the perturbational complexity index (PCI).  “Consciousness can grow and shrink,” said Dr. Marcello Massimini, a neurophysiologist who led the research, in an AP report about the experimental tool.  By figuring out the level of “growing” or “shrinking”, doctors can more objectively gauge whether a patient is exhibiting an adequate level of consciousness to recover.

The researchers emphasized that the tool is far from becoming a bedside medical option, but the research opens the door to measuring levels of consciousness  that correlate with recovery from serious brain injury. This knowledge could potentially change the way end-of-life decisions are made by providing doctors and loved ones with a firmer means to evaluate whether a patient has the capacity to recover.

The study was published in the journal, Science Translational Medicine.

10. The Antidepressant Sweet Spot for Coffee Drinkers

Coffee research is a crap shoot at best – every year new studies come out suggesting benefits and drawbacks of our favorite morning companion.  But in 2013, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health made an especially significant contribution to coffee research that found a correlation between drinking 2-4 cups of caffeinated coffee each day and lower suicide risk among adults.

The study, published in The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, was a meta-review of three extensive U.S. health studies that included a total of 43,599 men and 164,825 women.  Consumption of caffeine (from tea, soda and chocolate), coffee and decaffeinated coffee was evaluated among study participants every four years via questionnaire. Across all three studies, coffee accounted for the majority of caffeine consumed at 71% of the total.

Causes of death were tracked during the study period by reviewing death certificates; 277 deaths were the result of suicide.

The analysis showed that the risk of suicide among adults drinking 2-4 cups of coffee (the equivalent of about 400 mg of caffeine) a day was 50% less than the risk for adults who drank decaffeinated coffee or one cup or less of caffeinated coffee. Drinking more than 4 cups of coffee wasn’t associated with lower suicide risk.

The neurochemistry behind the finding makes sense. As discussed in a previous article, caffeine acts as an expert mimic of a chemical called adenosine in the brain and other parts of the body. Adenosine is a sort of checks-and-balances chemical produced by neurons as they fire throughout the day; the more adenosine is produced, the more the nervous system ratchets down activity, until we eventually fall asleep and reboot the process.

By mimicking adenosine, caffeine blocks receptors in the nervous system from receiving the signals to decrease energy expenditure. When that happens, levels of the brain’s homegrown neuro-stimulants—dopamine and glutamate—increase, and we experience the brain stimulating effects associated with drinking a big cup of java. Those effects may be a potent counterbalance to depression for a segment of the coffee-drinking population.

Here’s What Happens When You Black Out: ‘Transient Amnesia’ Blocks Short-Term Memory Formation

The science of blacking out. Not a loss of consciousness so much as failure to form memories. - by F. Kaskais

sobo brain By John Ericson

Hyperbole in the 2010s comes in clinical terms: Today, we are paranoid about bills, addicted to espresso, and schizophrenic about life choices.

Usually, this usage is a sure way of telling that the person talking does not suffer from any of these afflictions. The hallmark of paranoia, after all, is a refusal to acknowledge that one is being, well, paranoid. But there is one instance that appears to be just as commonplace as the rhetoric would have you believe.

Blacking Out

People say they black out all the time: at parties, during arguments, while taking tests, and under distress in general. Some blame alcohol. Others claim to be overcome by something they cannot quite pin down. Either way, it raises the question: What really happens?

For your reference, here’s a picture of the human brain. We’ll be talking quite a bit about it, so make sure you…

View original post 188 more words

10 weird ways your brain is tricking you.


Our brain decides how we perceive everything around us. It informs our decisions, guiding us carefully through the fog that is the world around us . . . except for when it lies to us. You see, our brains are fickle friends and love to play games. Often, what we think is true is actually just our brains messing with us.

10 Semantic Satiation


Have you ever repeated a word several times and found that, after a while, it started to lose meaning? If you have, you needn’t worry—scientists have studied this phenomenon and call it semantic satiation. Studies found that as you repeat a word, your brain becomes satiated and you start to get confused about what the word even means. You see, normally when you say a word (e.g., “pen”), your brain finds the semantic information for a pen and connects the two things together. However, counter-intuitively, if you repeat the word a number of times in quick succession, your brain becomes less able to connect it with that semantic information each time.

Researchers have found practical uses for this information beyond just amusing themselves with how easily we trick ourselves—by using semantic satiation in a controlled environment, they have been able to help those who stutter, and in one case were able to help someone with coprolalia, the uncontrollable cursing sometimes associated with Tourette’s syndrome, by having him repeat his favorite curse words over and over.

9 Peripheral Theory Of Emotion


Let’s say you finally get to go on that camping trip you’ve been putting off for a long time. You enjoy a long day of hiking, fishing, and other activities, then go to your tent to get some rest for the next day. When you wake up in the morning, you realize that something is horribly wrong—to be more precise, there is a bear in your tent. You might imagine that the first thing you’d feel is fear, which would result in a rapid heartbeat. But, once again, your brain is deceiving you.

According to James Lange’s theory of emotion, it actually works the other way around. His peripheral theory states that when you see the bear, your heart starts to beat faster, and only then does your brain start to think it must be afraid and send out fear signals. Those who study emotion have not been able to disprove the theory thus far, although some believe emotional responses are more of a loop.

8 Earworms


Have you ever had something incredibly terrible yet catchy stuck in your head for days at a time? Well, now you have a name for this horrible phenomenon, which scientists have dubbed an “earworm.” The explanation some scientists give basically involves your brain getting stuck in a loop. You probably remember one verse of whatever catchy song you are stuck with almost perfectly, but don’t know the rest of the song as well. After singing the first verse, your brain tries to move on to the next, but doesn’t know the rest of the song. Because your brain likes to go back to unfinished thoughts, it gets stuck in a loop, continually trying to start again and finish the song. After presumably struggling to get the Spice Girls out of their heads, a group of scientists were determined to find out how to break this spell. After a lot of study, their advice is a sort of Goldilocks philosophy—you need to focus on a cognitive activity that isn’t too easy or too hard. They suggest solving anagrams or reading a novel.

7 Moral Dumbfounding


Most of us have strong opinions on issues like cannibalism and incest, with the majority of us considering them to be morally wrong. However, researchers have found that, when asked about these issues, most people’s brains sit there sluggishly, unable to come up with an appropriate response, even though the behaviors in question are considered taboo by most modern societies. This phenomenon is termed moral dumbfounding—quite simply, the subjects were “struck dumb” and unable to properly explain why they felt so strongly about an issue.

One of the scenarios described someone working with a body that was going to be cremated anyway and taking a small chunk of flesh home with her to eat. She made sure to cook it thoroughly to remove any diseases. Another told of an adult brother and sister who were on vacation and decided to get freaky, making sure they used protection. The participants were asked if what these people had done was wrong, then asked to explain why. The researchers found that people felt very strongly that these behaviors were morally wrong, but struggled mightily to verbalize their reasoning. Research has not yet explained why this response occurs. It may be that society’s taboos are simply ingrained into our consciousness so deeply that we feel a powerful moral drive against them even though we cannot logically explain why.

6 The GPS Effect


Do you rely on your GPS to get everywhere? Do you even use it to navigate to familiar places? If so, perhaps you might want to consider using it less. It turns out that using GPS is an easy way to lull ourselves into a false sense of security and lose our sense of direction—too much use of GPS actually makes it harder for us to create spatial maps. Even worse, some researchers believe that if we don’t use our spatial abilities regularly, it could lead to a higher risk of early-onset dementia. The researchers suggest that we use GPS only when we don’t know the route, and use it more as a tool than a crutch.

On a more positive note, it turns out that constantly using our spatial abilities makes our brains stronger. London cabbies have to go through an extremely rigorous process to learn their routes, which only cover a 9.5-kilometer (6 mi) radius but include 25,000 streets with 320 separate routes and about 20,000 different points of interest. Researchers studying London cabbies found that not only seasoned veterans but also those who had only just taken the training had an increase in grey matter in the brain. Scientists believe the more important implication of this study is that it shows the human brain is extremely good at adapting well into adulthood.

5 Sensory Deprivation


You probably won’t often end up in a situation where you are temporarily deprived of sensory input. However, if that does happen and you start to see things that don’t make sense or hear strange noises, don’t be too alarmed—it’s just another example of your brain playing tricks on you. Researchers put test subjects in something called an anechoic room, a chamber designed to block out noise and light. The goal of this particular experiment was to see whether people hallucinated when deprived of sensory input.

People reported seeing shapes and faces, and some even had olfactory hallucinations. Even weirder, some thought that something evil was in the room with them and that something “important” had happened while they were in there. According to researchers, the explanation is that our brain gets confused when it is deprived of sensory input, so it creates some to fill the void. The result is that we can’t tell what is real and what is just inside our heads.

4 Sympathetic Pain


Have you ever heard seen someone slam their foot in the door and winced in pain even though nothing happened to you? Or just heard a story of someone getting hurt and had the same experience? That’s sympathetic pain. The researchers who studied this used MRI machines to test how subjects’ brains reacted when looking at faces with certain expressions, and when making those expressions. What they found is that the brain displays the same activity in either case. The part of the brain responsible for this is called the “mirror area” and scientists believe we have something called “mirror neurons,” which are responsible for creating a sympathetic response. Essentially, humans are hardwired to think we are feeling the same things as other people—essentially a very strong version of instinctive empathy.

3 False Memories

False memory

Most of us are very sure of our recollections, and why shouldn’t we be? In a strange and ever-changing world that often doesn’t make sense, our experiences can be one of the few things that ground us in reality. However, scientists have conducted experiments on memory and found that it is incredibly easy to plant false memories. According to one researcher, the reason we are so easily fooled is because our minds try to take in everything in our surroundings but inevitably fail, which leads to gaps in memory. To deal with these gaps, our minds automatically plant whatever false memories they think make sense based on our current knowledge and experience.

But it gets even worse. In one experiment, researchers convinced a woman that she had been lost in a mall when she was young. Not only did she believe them, but she started making up details about an old woman who had helped her and talked about looking at puppies. The researchers were able to convince her so well that when they told her the memory was false and it had all been an experiment, she didn’t believe them until she had called her parents to confirm that she hadn’t been lost in the mall.

2 Sleep Drunkenness

tired driver

Most people probably know that if you go for long enough without sleep, the results can be quite similar to being drunk. However, what you might not know is that too much sleep can have a similar effect. Have you ever slept longer than usual, woken up feeling groggy, and wondered why you should feel bad when you got plenty of sleep? It should stand to reason that you can never sleep too much—sleep is, after all, how we recharge, and many of us are constantly trying to catch up.

When you sleep for too long, your brain can get confused and leave you in a state that is halfway between sleeping and waking. This is dangerous, because many who are sleep-drunk are unlikely to realize how much of a hazard they are on the road. One doctor tells of a patient who was so groggy from sleep drunkenness that his wife thought he was having a stroke.

1 Hypnagogia

Frightened Woman in Bed

Many of us are under the impression that only those under the influence of drugs are likely to experience hallucinations, but nothing could be further from the truth. Hypnagogic hallucinations occur in that span of time when you are falling asleep but not actually asleep, whereas hypnapompic hallucinations occur when you are waking up. Both forms of hallucination can be either auditory or visual in nature. They are distinct from dreaming—research has shown that your brain can cause you to hallucinate when you are still partially conscious. While those who are especially tired or have previously existing mental conditions are slightly more likely to have these experiences, they are very common in healthy individuals as well. And our brains are not satisfied with their games only when we are sleeping or in that twilight state between worlds—neurologically normal people can have auditory hallucinations even when wide awake.