Thursday, February 23, 2006

Fun with Brains


I want to change my field and be a brain researcher.

They get to do all the cool stuff. Like sticking the heads of five people into a machine (functional magnetic resonance, fMRI ) that scans their brains while they watch twenty commercials aired during the Super Bowl. The researchers’ intents were to gauge what type of a reaction they had, and the anatomical areas of the brain that were affected.

Commercials produced variable responses and in different areas of the brain. The so called ‘reward-centers’ (ventral striatum and the orbitofrontal cortex) in the brain showed activity during some ads. In response to other ads, the visual and auditory regions, or areas that contain “mirror neurons” were responsive. The latter are neurons that fire in an animal’s brain when it performs a task and also when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal like itself. They ‘mirror’ the other animal’s behavior and thus this activity is indicative of empathy.

Their qualification of a ‘good’ ad or a ‘bad’ ad was less objective and questionably interpretive. A ‘bad’ ad was interpreted by activity only in the visual and auditory areas, usually short-lived. On the other hand, ‘good’ ads were interpreted by responses of longer duration in the brain’s reward and empathy centers. However, I question the qualification of their terms ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

The complete analysis shows that the best ads are the Disney/NFL ad and the Sierra Mist ad,” Marco Lacoboni says, referring to the theme-park and soft-drink commercials. “In the Disney ad, NFL players ecstatically repeat ‘I am going to Disney’. I can see how this ad can elicit strong empathic responses.1

The scientists considered the Disney commercial a ‘good’ ad. Now I challenge you to find a handful of fathers in a sample pool of 100 that with sincerity and honesty admit they look forward to and love going to Disney, spending a month’s salary in a few days, fielding hundreds of screaming kids, and maneuvering the traffic and crowds. Perhaps the reward-centers and empathy were confused with internally muffled terror and anxiety of memories and anticipation of repeat visits. Is that really a ‘good’ ad, Docs?

Another commercial depicted a woman playing football with other women but that also somehow advertised beer. The fMRI revealed that the mirror neurons fired in the brain of a female subject, indicating empathy. I wonder if it was more related to woman player’s clothing, hair and physique than actual play moves (“OhmyGod, how could she wear that and get it dirty?”). The same commercial induced activity in the reward-centers of a male subject’s brain. That makes sense: beer and women. What better rewards than that?

Now here’s the best one: put a handful of men and women in the lab and turn them loose on erotic films. Then instruct them to masturbate or engage in intercourse to orgasm. Take blood samples and then give them a questionnaire to fill out. 2 I would love to be a fly on the wall in that lab or in the offices of the researchers and staff.

Although I could have predicted the rise in prolactin both after masturbation and intercourse, I was surprised at the degree of increase (400% !!) after intercourse compared to masturbation. What this means, fellas, is that you had best prepare for a long refractory period after intercourse. In other words, you’re done for awhile.

Dopamine is released during arousal (and foreplay), which intensifies erections – harder and for longer duration. Prolactin is a dopamine antagonist, it’s dopamine’s ‘yang’ so to speak. Typically, dopamine levels plummet right after orgasm, following the spike in prolactin. So you can see why prolactin and dopamine are a feedback loop for erections and orgasms. I suspect prolactin also is connected to the post-orgasm oxytocin release, the ‘bonding’ hormone. (Yes, guys, you have response that, too.)

But why the large disparity in prolactin levels after intercourse and masturbation? Perhaps the answer may lie in other sensory input: tactile stimulation, smell, increased anticipation, all the physical and psychological stimulation that accompanies intercourse between two humans (gender not withstanding). Perhaps examining changes in other hormones and neurotransmitters may shed a clue. I mean, if you’re going to bother them before and after by taking blood samples, you may as well make the most of the test samples and assay for a cocktail of chemicals.

Or scientists could just read the Kama Sutra for research insight. Although no blood samples were used to test hormone changes when it was written, the astute power of observation recorded many ‘tricks’ to prolong pleasure and achieve multiple orgasms. Though not properly ‘peer reviewed’ by today’s standards, I suspect the use of such techniques down the centuries provides valuable evidence.

Maybe I really need to move on from investigating skeletal muscle proteins……..

  1. “Brain scans reveal power of Super Bowl adverts.” news service, 07 February 2006.
  2. “Sex with a partner is 400% better”. From New Scientist Print Edition. 22 February 2006. Also, Biological Psychology, vol 71, p 312.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Music Movies

Putting my headphones on, I listen to Jeff Beck’s “Angel (Footsteps)” from his Who Else! CD, and all of a sudden………..

The road unfolds before and under me as I ride my motorcycle. I smell and taste the changes of scents in the air, the dry grass, the tarmac and the volatile phenols of the roadside shrubs, moisture from the creeks. Changes in temperature as I ride through shadows and sun influence the smells and pressure. The wide reaching horizon continuously opens and beckons me on, broken infrequently by mesa table tops. The straight road is interrupted only by the continuous changes in life on both sides of me as if I was a movie film. I can feel the road rolling under me and I am a living projectile on a trail of notes and rhythm of turning tires.

Then I see outside the window a large and perfectly formed globe, partially lit by a hidden gargantuan ball of seething fire. Moisture-laden white clouds swirl and hover over sections and barely discernable continents surrounded by crystal blue. As I float free from gravity and gaze out the window I watch solar panels expand outside like unfolding wings against the deep blackness bespeckled with unexplored planets and moons. The wings are lit and reflect the blinding brightness of the sun’s light

I am immersed in cool blue-green water breathing canned air and surrounded by fish of all sizes and unimaginable shimmering colors. I am a visitor in this world of water, surreal color, fins and gills, waving green plant life, a human off land visiting the progeny of my old ancestors. My air bubbles follow the gentle rocking movement of the water and I undulate like a fish as I swim and cavort with them, like a fetus in amniotic fluid.

My brain pulls back, changing momentum and tone with Beck’s “Suspension” from the You Had it Coming CD……

I feel the strong back of my horse under me and between my legs as we canter in the field, darting around the trees. The united rocking movement of both our bodies rhythmically covers the ground, feeling each hoof strike as a part of us both yet feeling as if we were suspended momentarily in air. Both exhilarated at the freedom of the canter and the silent physical communication and trust between our bodies.

I am back on the bike, riding through hills and limestone outcrops. The rumble of the engine as it climbs the hills and maneuvers the turns and matches the thump of the heart beat in my chest. I can taste the damp evening air and feel the coolness on my skin. And the giant red orb of the sun dips into the western sky, flanked by painted clouds of pink and lavender. Into the west horizon I ride on a sting of fading notes……..

Sunday, February 12, 2006

I Am a Lizard

I realized I am a lizard, a dog, a rabbit, a human, and a monkey, not necessarily in that order. What do all these vertebrates have in common? Parts of our brain that function the same and associated behaviors.

An audible alarm on my computer announces incoming email. After months of email correspondence with a long-distance lover, with emails arriving throughout the day, I discovered that I was Pavlov’s dog. I became so conditioned to that email notification alarm that it would elicit an instant response of excited and pleasurable anticipation. I found myself smiling at the sound of it; our emails, encompassing a myriad of topics beyond personal matters, were interesting, enjoyable and sometimes playful. I even woke from a sound sleep upon hearing the alarm. There I was, Pavlov’s dog salivating and wagging my tail in the anticipation of his emails every time I heard the alarm emit from my computer.

Named after a Russian psychologist, Pavlovian conditioning is an example of procedural memory, or a memory that is not consciously perceived. For example, Pavlov’s famous dog was repeatedly shown food and soon started to salivate in anticipation of eating. Pavlov then rang a bell before he showed the dog his food, and repeated this sequence numerous times. Eventually the dog started salivating when the bell rang before the food appeared, and even in the absence of food. The dog was conditioned to associate the bell ring with the probable arrival of food. This conditioning does not require a subject to make a conscious association between the two stimuli.

After a traumatic and emotional termination of the relationship and emails from him ceased, that email alarm elicited a very different response. Emails from other sources continued to arrive with the email alarms sounding loud and clear in the house. My immediate reaction the first time was that old Pavlovian conditioning strongly overlaid with a stress response: fight-or-flight. My heart raced, my skin broke into a sweat, muscles tensed and my gut clenched. I froze in the kitchen ready to cry, fight or flee. For a nanosecond in time I was a dog and a lizard. Then my conscious awareness saved me from running out of the house.

What occurred was an automatic reaction to conditioned memories and memories of emotions. The Pavlovian pleasurable anticipation was replaced immediately by an overwhelming stress response consisting of physical manifestations and emotions. The extent of that second response kicked my conscious awareness in enough to comprehend what had just happened. After that realization and an exclamation of “Holy shit!” I knew I needed to change the audible alarm of my email notification.

Perhaps the curse of a scientist is knowing the course or cause and effect of even the most mundane occurrences around us, but unable to stop or avoid many of them. I recognized immediately after my entire brain processed this course of reactions that my lizard brain was stronger than I thought. I laughed with an image of my tongue flicking out to catch a fly. And then shut off the audible email notification on my computer.

What did occur here? A signal from the environment activated different parts of my brain that are prepared to respond according to preset or unconscious schema. The immediate emotions and feelings were a response to innate and preconditioned processing by parts of my brain, whereas the awareness of the feelings resulted from another part of the brain that modulates the former. But where’s the lizard?

Before I continue, I will address a few terms here. Emotions are a collection of responses. They are automatic physiological manifestations, such as spontaneous facial expressions, changes in heart rate, and a queasy stomach. They are unconscious or pre-conscious and programmed in our brains. Feelings go beyond the emotions because they are complex interpretations that image the emotions or responses. Only when the core consciousness is aware of the entire set of the afore phenomena can we know the emotions: feel the feelings. Consciousness is not needed for the early responses, but to know that I have a feeling the process of consciousness is required in the aftermath of the processes of the emotions and feelings.

Lizards and humans

Certain behaviors are pervasive across all vertebrate species. Fear is a perfect example; it helps us stay alive. The way our body responds is similar to the way other animals act when they are afraid. We have an evolutionary fear system that detects danger and responds to it in an autonomic way. When an animal senses danger, the fight-or-flight response is automatic: it automatically startles or freezes. Other physiological responses occur, such as changes in blood pressure and heart rate, blood rushes to the skin, sweat, breathing quickens, and nerves in the stomach cause the gut to constrict. This is the classic stress response experienced when a mouse sees a cat or we see a snake. It is a process of unconscious emotional reactions; they can be innate or pre-conditioned.

Let’s take a look at the pathway involved here in evolutionary terms. In the early 1970’s, neurologist Paul MacLean proposed three evolutionary levels of anatomical and functional brain development. The core of our brain –the brain stem and cerebellum- is the oldest of the three areas. MacLean coined it the ‘reptilian’ brain, first appearing in fish nearly 500 million years ago. It developed in amphibians and advanced in reptiles ~250 million years ago. The reptilian brain controls vital body functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. It reacts aggressively and autonomically in the interests of self-preservation.

The next layer is the early mammalian brain (paleomammalian) and contains most of the limbic system. First appearing in small mammals about 150 million years ago, this region includes the olfactory portions, the hippocampus, hypothalamus and the amygdala. The latter is an important component of the limbic system and is a central axis in the emotional circuitry of the brain. It records memories of behaviors and their consequences (emotional memory). Thus reactions are more complex and varied than those of the reptilian brain.

The most advanced portion of the brain is the neocortex (neomammalian) which began its expansion in primates ~2-3 million years ago. It is the large convoluted bulk of the cortex and mediates the emotion of both the reptilian and the paleomammalian limbic system by cognitive functions. The dual hemispheres of the neocortex are responsible for the development of human language, abstract thought, imagination and consciousness. Its flexibility has almost infinite potential for learning abilities. It is also the ‘hungriest’ part of our brain, requiring a large portion of our daily circulating glucose for full function.

Although these three parts of the brain do not operate independently of each other and have numerous interconnections through which they influence each other, sometimes the quick and dirty system of the reptilian and limbic parts of the brain allow us to act first and think later. Evolution and conditioning do the thinking for us, sometimes freezing first, then run, fight, jump or hold still. The neocortex also processes the stimulus, but it takes a bit longer. Its not needed for some of the emotional learning, such as that involved in the fear system. So we can have emotional reactions to something without knowing what we are responding to. This is the unconscious processing of emotions. But we need the neocortex for the higher-level perception that distinguishes and rationalizes the feelings about the emotions.

Recent studies with humans subjects conditioned with sound and mild shock showed that the human brain operates basically the same way as the rat brain, or the brains in dogs, rabbits, cats, primates, birds and lizards. To quote neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux*:

In this sense, we are emotional lizards. We’re running around with an amygdala that’s designed to detect danger and respond to it. Obviously that’s not all there is to an emotional reaction, but it’s the way the emotional reactions get triggered. This system is very efficient, and it hasn’t changed much in terms of how it works. What has changed, of course, are the kinds of things that will turn it on, the things that humans have learned to respond to that have the same effect on us that seeing a cat has on a rat.”

What occurred in my kitchen that day was a complex series of emotions and feelings. The sound of the email notification triggered a conditioned response based on emotional memories (pleasurable anticipation) but were immediately followed and overwhelmed by more recent conscious (memories about the emotional memories) and unconscious emotional memories associated with shock and stress. This triggered my autonomic and endocrine systems which caused me to freeze, my heart rate to race, my body to break out in a sweat and to gasp. Then my neocortex kicked in and processed all this with a resounding self-aware “Holy shit!” as I realized the intensity and complexity of my responses and feelings. I laughed at the magnitude and quickness of this process, exclaiming outloud “I am a lizard!” and decided to change the email notification sound on my computer.

* LeDoux, J. 1996. The Emotional Brain: the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Full Face Helmets and Gills

I'm going riding this weekend. Dragged out the gear (where's my gloves?!?), shoved Left Big Foot into a boot (horse riding boot; won't fit into anything else) to test fit, made sure I can still fit into my HFD overpants (they're looser on me now than when I bought them), brushed off the leather jacket, and...... ohmygod: my helmet. I have a full face modular helmet. I'll be hypoxiated!!

So I have decided to dip into my primordial DNA, pull out some methylated gc regions and tweak some expression. I'm going to grow gills. Well, fresh air gills.

If a full face helmet aphyxiates me* with my own CO2, I can either choose to not wear a helmet or grow plants inside my helmet, which would use the CO2 for photosynthesis and export O2 for my use. I could try and grow stomata on my skin, the little openings on the surface cells of plants that allow gases and water to pass. But then I have openings for that already. And I think I'm a bit too removed on the evolutionary tree.

Thus I will attempt to reverse recapitulation that occurs in early embryonic development (within the first couple days/week) and grow gills to their full development. I'll have to ask a frog.

"Excuse me, Mr. Frog. When you were young, you had gills. Then as you left the larval stage and turned into a frog, you switched to using your lungs. Would you mind telling me how you did that so I can reverse the process? And don't tell me someone kissed you....."

Mr. Frog: "No one kisses me; they think I'll give them warts. Now, to answer your question, human; I suggest you catch a few of them there toddelerpoles and ask them. I just wake up breathing with these danged mucus sacks."

Hmmm......somewhere there is a molecular switch that causes metamorphosis, when toddlerpole gills are replaced with lungs, and when the gill slits of a human embryo dissapear. Now if I can reverse that switch, I can regrow those gill slits, hopefully below the bottom of my helmet, and breathe from those. Thus avoiding hypoxia or aphyxiation in my helmet which covers both my nose and mouth.

On the other hand, hypoxia makes for great hallucinations.

So, y'all have a great weekend, enjoy the road and the sun, and wear your helmets.

* "From the Land of the Obviously Stupid" Canyon Chasers website.