Music and Your Brain: The Impact

As you listen to music, your brain reacts in different ways. With PET and MRI images now capturing the action, you can see what you hear.

“Listen to this,” Daniel Levitin said. “What is it?” He hit a button on his computer keyboard and out came a half-second clip of music. It was just two notes blasted on a raspy electric guitar, but I could immediately identify it: the opening lick to the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.”

Then he played another, even shorter snippet: a single chord struck once on piano. Again I could instantly figure out what it was: the first note in Elton John’s live version of “Benny and the Jets.”

Dr. Levitin beamed. “You hear only one note, and you already know who it is,” he said. “So what I want to know is: How we do this? Why are we so good at recognizing music?”

This is not merely some whoa-dude epiphany that a music fan might have while listening to a radio contest. Dr. Levitin has devoted his career to exploring this question. He is a cognitive psychologist who runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal, perhaps the world’s leading lab in probing why music has such an intense effect on us.

“By the age of 5 we are all musical experts, so this stuff is clearly wired really deeply into us,” said Dr. Levitin, an eerily youthful-looking 49, surrounded by the pianos, guitars and enormous 16-track mixers that make his lab look more like a recording studio.

This summer he published “This Is Your Brain on Music” (Dutton), a layperson’s guide to the emerging neuroscience of music. Dr. Levitin is an unusually deft interpreter, full of striking scientific trivia. For example we learn that babies begin life with synesthesia, the trippy confusion that makes people experience sounds as smells or tastes as colors. Or that the cerebellum, a part of the brain that helps govern movement, is also wired to the ears and produces some of our emotional responses to music. His experiments have even suggested that watching a musician perform affects brain chemistry differently from listening to a recording.

Read more at the New York Times

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Music and Your Brain: The Impact

As you listen to music, your brain reacts in different ways. With PET and MRI images now capturing the action, you can see what you hear.

“Listen to this,” Daniel Levitin said. “What is it?” He hit a button on his computer keyboard and out came a half-second clip of music. It was just two notes blasted on a raspy electric guitar, but I could immediately identify it: the opening lick to the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.”

Then he played another, even shorter snippet: a single chord struck once on piano. Again I could instantly figure out what it was: the first note in Elton John’s live version of “Benny and the Jets.”

Dr. Levitin beamed. “You hear only one note, and you already know who it is,” he said. “So what I want to know is: How we do this? Why are we so good at recognizing music?”

This is not merely some whoa-dude epiphany that a music fan might have while listening to a radio contest. Dr. Levitin has devoted his career to exploring this question. He is a cognitive psychologist who runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal, perhaps the world’s leading lab in probing why music has such an intense effect on us.

“By the age of 5 we are all musical experts, so this stuff is clearly wired really deeply into us,” said Dr. Levitin, an eerily youthful-looking 49, surrounded by the pianos, guitars and enormous 16-track mixers that make his lab look more like a recording studio.

This summer he published “This Is Your Brain on Music” (Dutton), a layperson’s guide to the emerging neuroscience of music. Dr. Levitin is an unusually deft interpreter, full of striking scientific trivia. For example we learn that babies begin life with synesthesia, the trippy confusion that makes people experience sounds as smells or tastes as colors. Or that the cerebellum, a part of the brain that helps govern movement, is also wired to the ears and produces some of our emotional responses to music. His experiments have even suggested that watching a musician perform affects brain chemistry differently from listening to a recording.

Read more at the New York Times

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The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly

Tuco, a moment before Clint Eastwood shoots through the rope

In the news, Saddam Hussein moves on. He had literally been in the headlines since I graduated from college. In fact, that summer (1990) everything was held up while the world economy held its breath until it was clear that Mr. Hussein was content with moving into Kuwait and not taking a western detour into Saudi Arabia. Picture from the Good, the Bad, and Ugly.


Translate a Rock, Stop Alzheimer's

Recommended by 2 out of 3 neuroscientists for their own families! expecially if they chew gum.

Uh, Dude. My brain hurts, got anything easier?

Here ya go


The Invisible Hand

I am putting together a "top ten developments on the brain" for 2006, a retrospective on a year in which Cognitive Labs grew by almost Herculean proportions, as if by the studied, dispassionate efforts of an "invisible hand" of mythical sapience. But before we get to that...

The credit for the growth goes to you, dear reader, who have decided, time and again, to return to this humble stall for a sampling of the day's catch, intrigued and expectant of what might be found in the nets, laid out to dry in a Meditteranean sun.

Let us hope, you and I, as we journey into the sunset of this year together, a gentle wind at our back filling our sails, that we will find further discoveries in the coming year, enchanted isles where pieces of the puzzle that can be considered neuroscience are assembled with the care of an archaeologist resurrecting potsherds, gradually bringing us into a more holistic understanding of the world, nee the universe in which we live, gently floating on the majestic molecular breeze that fills the hallowed spaces between the stars.

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CETP W Gene may protect against Alzheimer's

A new study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine has linked a gene that helps people live longer to increased mental ability and delayed onset of Alzheimer's Disease.

The study is published in the current issue of Neurology and was conducted by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in the Bronx, New York, and forms part of the Longevity Genes Project.

Dr Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and his team looked at 158 people who were aged 95 and over and descended from Ashkenazi Jews who originally came from Eastern Europe. They asked this group, and another group of people of the same age who were not of Ashkenazi descent to complete cognitive tests of mental ability.

The scientists found that those who completed the test successfully (by correctly answering 25 of thirty questions) were two to three times more likely to possess the W variant of the CETP gene than those who did not.

In a later study the researchers examined a group of 124 people also of Ashkenazi descent, aged between 75 and 85. In this study they found that the ones who did not develop dementia on follow up were five times more likely to have the CETP W gene than those who did not.

The researchers chose to look at Ashkenazi people because they came from a small number of ancestors, making it easier to detect the differences in the genetic make up of the individuals due to the more uniform nature of their genetic patterns compared to the public at large.

This research comes on top of earlier studies, also by Dr. Barzilai and his team where they first showed that CETP W helps people live longer and also pass this gene onto their descendants. This study suggested that CETP W changes the size of good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol molecules in the blood - which helps people live longer because the smaller ones get stuck in the blood vessels more easily, leading to clots.

The centenarians in that study were three times more likely to have the CETP W variant and also had the larger HDL and LDL cholesterol molecules in their blood.

This latest study suggests that the cholesterol changing properties of CETP W may be protecting mental function by preventing the build up of cholesterol in the brain's blood vessels, thus reducing strokes and heart attacks, or by some other means that is yet to be discovered.

“Without good brain function, living to age 100 is not an attractive proposition,” says Dr. Barzilai in a press release. “We’ve shown that the same gene variant that helps people live to exceptional ages has the added benefit of helping them think clearly for most of their long lives."

In the population at large, the chances of living to 100 is one in 10,000. The Ashkenazi population has a strong family history of longevity. Dr Barzilai pointed out that the odds of living much longer are much increased if you already have a centenarian in your family, and it is not necessarily lifestyle related. Many of the long living Ashkenazis are not vegetarian or athletic, and some of them have smoked for 90 years.

Cholesterol is an essential molecule for building cells. High levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol is thought to thicken artery walls (atherosclerosis) and increases risk of heart diseases. HDL cholesterol and the larger HDL in particular is thought to help remove cholesterol from thickened artery walls and high levels of HDL are linked to lower incidence of atherosclerosis and may even help to reverse the condition.

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New Levels of Intensity for Your Brain

With the Coming of the New Year, you'll now be able to test and train your brain a little bit, or a lot.

There are several completely new exercises and, in addition, on every test there is an intensity adjuster. Start low, at 5 or 10 repetitions - and increase to 30 or 40 repetitions as you get more proficient.

This might remind you of a routine at the gym.

As you increase your ability to concentrate and focus, you'll begin to change your brain for the better. As the experts have said, regular workouts for an extended period of time are the key. But even if you can only spend a few minutes a day, with the lower rep settings you can exercise your brain in just a few minutes - with a variety of exercises that focus on different memory and attention capacities - a much more concentrated form of exercise than suggestions to "read" or do "crossworld puzzles," and 2X to 3X more effective, in less time according to a recent JAMA article, with benefits measureable many years into the future.

While they may be fun, crosswords don't have a time element. Time-definite exercise trains your brain to be quicker through enhancement of "neural conduction velocity" which is the scientific term used for "brain speed."

These changes can make your brain act younger by stimulating neural connections and if you are young, increase the potential to learn, store, and recall information. The variety and depth insures that you get a balanced exercise.

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Video Games Help the Brain

A new McMaster University study shows that video gamers have better memory elasticity, handling of complexity, and faster brains (in milliseconds) than non gamers. The 45 millisecond difference in reaction time approximates Cognitive Labs' observations (conducted by Dr. Michael Addicott) on individuals playing Halo2, who then were tested on Cognitive Labs test 4. *Research conducted at a dedicated offsite facility in Los Angeles during E3. Halo2 gamers average score on this test was in the fastest 99th percentile, with 2 individuals achieving greater than 99.5%, a statistical 100%.

Here's the study.

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A brainteaster by Albert Einstein

This is courtesy of Neotorama... by the way Albert Einstein is going to play a bigger role on the site as we roll out a sheaf of new cognitive tests so that there will be a sequence of nine tests in a row to deliver an optimal brain exercise experience.

Here’s a puzzle from Coudal Partners, titled "Whose Fish?" supposedly created by Albert Einstein:

This brainteaser, reportedly written by Einstein is difficult and Einstein said that 98% of the people in the world could not figure it out. Which percentage are you in?

There are five houses in a row in different colors. In each house lives a person with a different nationality. The five owners drink a different drink, smoke a different brand of cigar and keep a different pet, one of which is a Walleye Pike.

The question is– who owns the fish?

1. The Brit lives in the red house.
2. The Swede keeps dogs as pets.
3. The Dane drinks tea.
4. The green house is on the left of the white house.
5. The green house owner drinks coffee.
6. The person who smokes Pall Malls keeps birds.
7. The owner of the yellow house smokes Dunhills.
8. The man living in the house right in the center drinks milk.
9. The man who smokes Blends lives next to the one who keeps cats.
10. The Norwegian lives in the first house.
11. The man who keeps horses lives next to the one who smokes Dunhills.
12. The owner who smokes Bluemasters drinks beer.
13. The German smokes Princes.
14. The Norwegian lives next to the blue house.
15. The man who smokes Blends has a neighbor who drinks water.

There are no tricks, pure logic will get you the correct answer. And yes, there is enough information to arrive at the one and only correct answer.


Scientists: Speed of Processing Exercises Stave Off Mental Decline at Any Age - JAMA

If you know about Cognitive Labs tests, your already using the leading provider of speed-of-processing exercises, now shown to be far more effective than any other memory improvement strategy.

Short Mental Workouts May Slow Decline of Aging Minds, Study Finds

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ten sessions of exercises to boost reasoning skills, memory and mental processing speed staved off mental decline in middle-aged and elderly people in the
first definitive study to show that honing intellectual skills can bolster the mind in the same way that physical exercise protects and strengthens the body.

The researchers also showed that the benefits of the brain exercises extended well beyond the specific skills the volunteers learned. Older adults who did

the basic exercises followed by later sessions were three times as fast as those who got only the initial sessions when it came to activities of daily living, such as reacting to a road sign, looking up a number in a telephone book or checking the ingredients on a medicine bottle -- abilities that can spell the difference between living independently and needing help.

Experts said the federally funded study is a call to action for anyone who has ever worried about developing Alzheimer's, dementia and similar disorders. Americans spend billions of dollars each year on their physical well-being, but there are no comparable efforts to keep people mentally agile and strong.

If anything, the study suggests, there is a bigger payoff to mental exercise, because the brief training sessions seemed to confer enormous benefits as many
as five years later. That would be as if someone went to the gym Monday through Friday for the first two weeks of the new year, did no exercise for five
years, and still saw significant physical benefits in 2012.

The researchers divided the volunteers into four groups, including a control group that received no training. A second group was trained in reasoning skills
-- being asked to spot the pattern in the sequence "a, c, e, g, i," for example -- every other letter of the alphabet. A third group was taught memory
skills, which involved remembering word lists and using visualizations and associations as memory aids. A fourth group was given exercises to speed up mental
processing -- being asked to identify an object flashed briefly on a computer screen while fighting off distractions.

Each of the groups being trained had 10 sessions, each lasting an hour to 75 minutes, and each session presented progressively more challenging problems.
Compared with the control group, those who got memory training did 75 percent better on memory tasks five years later, those who got the reasoning training
did 40 percent better on reasoning tasks, and those who got the speed training did 300 percent better than the control group.

Researchers noted that mental skills can sometimes compensate for physical disabilities: Knowing how to figure out directions and find a new route on a map,
for example, could allow someone to retain mobility even after their night vision deteriorates to the point where driving on certain roads becomes difficult.

The study tracked 2,802 healthy adults from diverse backgrounds who were, on average, 73 years old. Although it did not examine the effects of mental
exercise on people who had begun to show signs of Alzheimer's or other brain disorders, previous studies have pointed toward the conclusion that anyone can

"People think education is for people who are already educated," said Michael Marsiske, one of the researchers. "This kind of training works no matter where
you are in society."

"If you think you have come to a time in your life when new learning is impossible and there are no benefits of continuing mental activity, the study shows
that for a large number of people that this is not true," added Marsiske, a clinical and health psychologist at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

The participants in the study ranged from age 65 to their early 90s, but Marsiske said the findings apply to people in their 50s or even younger. Mental
skills acquired earlier in life persist well into old age, he said.
"I don't like to play my son's video games, but I keep telling myself to challenge myself," said Marsiske, 41. "What I personally take away from the study
is, if you challenge yourself to do some new learning, something that isn't easy at the start, it can have dividends."

The study did not indicate that mental training can hold off all cognitive decline permanently. Rather, as is the case with physical exercise, strengthening
the mind appeared to slow decline.

Sherry L. Willis, the lead author of the study and a Pennsylvania State University professor of human development, said those who had the training also
reported greater confidence in their ability to solve everyday problems, and this was especially true of the group that got the reasoning training. In
performing daily functions, people who got the speed training along with a handful of follow-up sessions significantly outperformed those who did not get
such training.

The results, being published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, are heartening, but Willis and Marsiske cautioned that the biggest
challenge lies ahead, in getting people to apply the findings to their lives. Whether it is encouraging people to eat right or to exercise, they said, the
hardest part is not getting them to start doing the right things but getting them to keep doing the right things.

"It's just like physical exercise -- when we are approaching the new year we will buy a pass for the gym and go fervently in January and then slack off,"
Willis said. "Mental exercise is the same way. It has to be consistent, and it has to be challenging. Just like you have to keep increasing the weights at

the gym to make it challenging, you have to do the same with mental activity."
To reap the benefits, Willis said, people need to get outside their comfort zones. For someone who likes to solve crossword puzzles, it is important to make

sure the puzzles get harder with time -- or to start playing chess. Someone who hates to play games, she said, should find something else that stretches the
mind. Mental activities do not have to involve expensive toys; everyday life can offer a variety of mental challenges. Finding a friend who can join in a new
activity can be a powerful motivator, she added.

Sally Shumaker, a professor of public health science at Wake Forest University in North Carolina who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, said it
pointed the way to a future in which mental training is made widely available.

"I can imagine a situation in which facilities are available in community centers and libraries and aging centers, where people can play some games that are
specifically designed to improve cognitive ability," she said. "People are fearful of cognitive decline, and the idea that a small and simple intervention
can have an impact is pretty compelling."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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Two headed 'dragon' fossil in the news

Scientists have uncovered a fossilized lizard in China with 2 heads, courtesy of New Scientist.

A remarkably well-preserved fossil of a two-headed reptile has been discovered in the Early Cretaceous Yixian rock formation in northeast China.

The tiny skeleton of a hatchling choristodere – a group of extinct aquatic reptiles with long necks – has two heads and two necks, fused at their base. The 120-million-year-old specimen is thought to be the oldest example of a developmental anomaly known as axial bifurcation.

While rare, this type of malformation has been seen before in living snakes, crocodiles, lizards and turtles – some of which have survived for several years in captivity.

However, judging from the extreme juvenility of the fossilised skeleton – its proportionally large head and eye orbits – the tiny creature did not survive for long, say its finders Eric Buffetaut at National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, France, and colleagues.

As an adult, the reptile could measure up to 1 meter in length, though this hatchling is no more than 70 mm in length.

This reminds me of the two-headed calf I saw in North Dakota once. It was deceased, but this wonder of nature was visited by a taxidermist who turned it into a curio for visitors.


Robot Controlled by Thought Alone Premieres

In the future, you may be able to control a robot with just your brain. Researcher Rajesh Rao demonstrated his brain-powered robot at the Brain-Computer Interface Conference in Whistler, Canada last week.

A human operator is able to control the robot by looking through two 'eyes' affixed to the front of the robot which display the robot's field of view on a computer monitor. A specially wired electrode cap is worn by the operator, who then sends commands to the robot to perform specific activities simply by thinking them.

Currently, only high-level simple commands are recognized; however, Rao believes that with deeper integration into the brain of the operator, increasingly complex commands will be possible.

Right now, the "thought commands" are limited to a few basic instructions. A person can instruct the robot to move forward, choose one of two available objects, pick it up, and bring it to one of two locations. Preliminary results show 94 percent accuracy in choosing the correct object.

Objects available to be picked up are seen by the robot's camera and conveyed to the user's computer screen. Each object lights up randomly. When the person looks at the object that he or she wants to pick up and sees it suddenly brighten, the brain registers surprise. The computer detects this characteristic surprised pattern of brain activity and conveys the choice back to the robot, which then proceeds to pick up the selected object. A similar procedure is used to determine the user's choice of a destination once the object has been picked up.

"One of the important things about this demonstration is that we're using a 'noisy' brain signal to control the robot," Rao says. "The technique for picking up brain signals is non-invasive, but that means we can only obtain brain signals indirectly from sensors on the surface of the head, and not where they are generated deep in the brain. As a result, the user can only generate high-level commands such as indicating which object to pick up or which location to go to, and the robot needs to be autonomous enough to be able to execute such commands."

Rao's team has plans to extend the research to use more complex objects and equip the robot with skills such as avoiding obstacles in a room. This will require more complicated commands from the "master's" brain and more autonomy on the part of the robot.

Press release: University of Washington

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space bar 2000

Here's a variant on the 'tap test' used by psychologists. How many times can you press the space bar in 5 seconds, 10 seconds, or 15 seconds? From satori.org. Enjoyed at Ubisoft.

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Adult Brains Can Improve: Consider London Cab Drivers

Hippocampus Impacted by Repeat Use, More Grey Matter...

According to the Independent, when scientists compared the brains of taxi drivers with those of other drivers, they found the cabbies had more grey matter in the area of the brain associated with memory.

They believe that this part of the brain, the mid-posterior hippocampus, is where black-cab drivers store a mental map of London, including up to 25,000 street names and the location of all the major tourist attractions.

The research is the first to show that the brains of adults can grow in response to specialist use. It has been known that areas of children's brains can grow when they learn music or a language.

The scientists warn that increasingly widespread use of satellite navigation - expected to be one of the biggest-selling gifts this Christmas - could change all that.

"GPS [Global Positioning System] may have a big effect," says Dr Eleanor Maguire, who led the research at University College London.

"We very much hope they don't start using it. We believe this area of the brain increased in grey matter volume because of the huge amount or data they have to memorise.If they all start using GPS, that knowledge base will be less and possibly effect the brain changes we are seeing."

n the study, researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL's Institute of Neurology carried out scans on the brains of 35 cabbies and bus drivers, all men. Various psychological tests were also carried out.

Using bus drivers meant that any brain differences found could not be explained by driving stress, or dealing with passengers and traffic in London. The one big difference between the two is that bus drivers stick to routes, while cabbies have to learn the layout of streets and the locations of thousands of places of interest to get an operating licence.

The results of the scans show that the mid-posterior hippocampus of all the cabbies was bigger and that they had more grey matter than the bus drivers.

Dr Maguire said: "We are now looking at the brains of taxi-drivers before they start training, and at those of retired cabbies to see whether that area of the brain gets smaller when it is not used."

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Babies Brains Protected at Birth by Mom's Hormones

Surging hormones ocurring in natural childbirth may offer protection and a boost to baby's brain, according to new research.

The massive surge in the maternal hormone oxytocin that occurs during delivery might help protect newborns against brain damage, a new study involving rats suggests.

Researchers say the findings should encourage scientists to investigate whether elective caesarean sections, which lack this oxytocin surge, disrupt normal brain development.

Yehezkel Ben-Ari, a neuroscientist at the Mediterranean Institute of Neurobiology in Marseille, France, and colleagues compared brain tissue samples from rat pups born naturally or by caesarean section. Brain cells from the naturally born pups did not fire in response to the nerve signalling chemical GABA, the researchers found.

read more at New Scientist

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Laugh to Light Up Your Brain

Tip Seven in our recent series on suggestions for staying mentally sharp was to laugh more and be lighthearted. After all, you have one life, you might as well enjoy it and look on the bright side. And now, British scientists are reporting that just the sound of laughter can make you smile and laugh.

"It seems that it's absolutely true that 'laugh and the whole world laughs with you,'" Sophie Scott, PhD, says in a news release. Scott is a professor at University College London's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Scott's team says when people hear the sound of laughter, their brain areas that control smiling and laughing become active.

The researchers played the sounds of laughter through headphones to 20 healthy people with good hearing (average age: 32).

While listening to laughter, participants got brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The brain scans showed activity in brain areas that control facial muscles used in smiling and laughing.

In short, the sound of laughter spurred the brain to get ready to laugh and smile.

Participants' brain scans showed similar activity upon hearing tapes of people cheering, but not after hearing cries of fear or disgust.

The findings may explain how the brain mirrors other people's positive emotions.

"We usually encounter positive emotions, such as laughter or cheering, in group situations, whether watching a comedy program with family or a football game with friends," Scott says.

"This response in the brain, automatically priming us to smile or laugh, provides a way of mirroring the behavior of others, something which helps us to interact socially," she says.

"It could play an important role in building strong bonds between individuals in a group," Scott adds.

The study is due for publication in today's Journal of Neuroscience

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A Cybernetic Social Holiday Revolution

Meet-ups are being organized for cyberenthusiasts who are as focused on optimizing the mind as the body. The link refers to a social forum for the exchange of bio-enabled gadgets, such as an MP3 player that is psynched with biofeedback. (This feature exists in some audio software packages)

What does it all mean? Fuzzier lines between human and machine. It is our belief (really, your belief) that the adoption of socially-oriented technology, which is reminiscent of some of the earliest popular websites which, not surprisingly, tended to be community-driven, will become further fused with mind and body.

There was a recent observation that instant messaging appeared to be "speeding up the brain" of users. Certainly we've seen those effects here when a meme starts spreading through IM (instant messaging) with lightning speed.

In a manner of seconds different groups or 'colonies' on the planet have formed their own opinion based on their unique grok.

Thinking back 10 or 20 years, you'll recall that communications did not work that way - when the phone was the major force in distance-based human dialog. This purposeful and not entirely random cognitive stimulus will possibly speed up the pace of evolution. It is exactly the kind of transformation that has ocurred in the distant past when environment and ecology intruded into human development, forcing an evolutionary response. Let's see where it takes us.

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The Brain Follows the 80/20 Rule

The Brain Works Constantly on Hidden, System-Tray Tasks...

Our cognitive processes keep working at a furious pace even when there is no visual stimuli. The implications for cognitive treatment, education, and entertainment could be staggering.

Researchers at the University of Rochester have found in reality that 80 percent of our cognitive power is cranking away on tasks completely unknown to us. Curiously, this clandestine activity does not exist in the youngest brains, leading scientists to assert that the mysterious functions that absorb the majority of our mindpower are dedicated to subconscious reprocessing our initial thoughts and experiences. The research, which has possible profound implications for our understanding of reality, appeared in a recent issue of the journal Nature.

"We found neural activity that frankly surprised us," says Michael Weliky, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester. “Adult ferrets had neural patterns in their visual cortex that correlated very well with images they viewed, but that correlation didn't exist at all in very young ferrets, suggesting the very basis of comprehending vision may be a very different task for young brains versus old brains.”

A second surprise was in store for Weliky. Placing the ferrets in a darkened room revealed that older ferrets' brains were still humming along at 80 percent as if they were processing visual information. Since this activity was absent in the youngsters, Weliky and his colleagues were left to wonder: What is the visual cortex so busy processing when there's no image to process?

Initially, Weliky's research was aimed at studying whether visual processing bore any resemblance to the way real-world images appear. This finding may help lead to a better understanding of how neurons decode our world and how our perception of reality is shaped.

Weliky, in a bit of irony, set 12 ferrets watching the reality-stretching film The Matrix. He recorded how their brains responded to the film, as well as to a null pattern like enlarged television static, and a darkened room. Movies capture the visual elements that are present in the real world. For instance, as Keanu's hand moves across the screen for a karate chop, the image of the hand and all the lines and color it represents moves across a viewer's visual realm essentially the same way it would in real life. By contrast, the enlarged static-blocks of random black and white-has no such motion. Weliky was able to graph the movie-motion statistically, showing essentially how objects move in the visual field.

The test was then to see if there was any relationship between the statistical motion of the movie and the way visual neurons in the ferrets fired. Each visual neuron is keyed to respond to certain visual elements, such as a vertical line, that appears in a specific area of the ferret's vision. A great number of these cells combine to process an image of many lines, colors, etc. By watching the patterns of how these cells fired while watching The Matrix, Weliky could describe the pattern statistically, and match those statistics of how the ferret responded to the film with the statistics of the actual visual aspects of the film.

Weliky found two surprises. First, while the neurons of adult ferrets statistically seemed to respond similarly to the statistics of the film itself, younger ferrets had almost no relationship. This suggests that though the young ferrets are taking in and processing visual stimuli, they're not processing the stimuli in a way that reflects reality.

"You might think of this as a sort of dyslexia," explains Weliky. "It may be that in very young brains, the processing takes place in a way that's not necessarily disordered, but not analogous to how we understand reality to be. It's thought that dyslexia works somewhat like this-that some parts of the brain process written words in an unusual way and seem to make beginnings of words appear at their ends and vice versa. Infant brains may see the entire world the same way, as a mass of disparate scenes and sounds." Weliky is quick to point out that whatever way infant brains may interpret the world, just because they're different from an adult pattern of perception does not mean the infants have the wrong perception. After all, an adult interpreted the visual aspects of the film with our adult brains, so it shouldn't be such a surprise that other adult brains simply interpret the visual aspects the same way. If an infant drew up the statistics, it might very well match the neural patterns of other infants.

The second, and more surprising, result of the study came directly from the fact that Weliky's research is among the first to test these visual neurons while the subject is awake and watching something. In the past, researchers would perhaps shine a light at an unconscious ferret and note which areas of the brain responded, but while that method narrowed the focus to how a single cell responds, it eliminated the chance to understand how the neural network of a conscious animal would respond. Accepting all the neural traffic of a conscious brain as part of the equation let Weliky get a better idea of the actual processing going on. As it turned out, one of his control tests yielded insight into neural activity no one expected.

When the ferrets were in a darkened room, Weliky expected their visual neurons to lack any kind of activity that correlated with visual reality. Neurologists have long known that there is substantial activity in the brain, even in darkness, but the pattern of that activity hadn't been investigated. Weliky discovered that while young ferrets displayed almost no patterns that correlated with visual reality, the adult ferrets' brains were humming along, producing the patterns even though there was nothing to see. When watching the film, the adult ferrets' neurons increased their patterned activity by about 20 percent.

"This means that in adults, there is a tremendous amount of real-world processing going on-80 percent-when there is nothing to process," says Weliky. "We think that if you've got your eyes closed, your visual processing is pretty much at zero, and that when you open them, you're running at 100 percent. This suggests that with your eyes closed, your visual processing is already running at 80 percent, and that opening your eyes only adds the last 20 percent. The big question here is what is the brain doing when it's idling, because it's obviously doing something important."

Since the young ferrets do not display similar patterns, the 'idling' isn't necessary for life or consciousness, but since it's present in the adults even without stimulus, Weliky suggests it may be what gives subjects an understanding of reality. The eye takes in an image and the brain processes the image, but 80 percent of the activity may be a representation of the world replicated inside the ferret's brain.

"The basic findings are exciting enough, but you can't help but speculate on what they might mean in a deeper context," says Weliky. "It's one thing to say a ferret's understanding of reality is being reproduced inside his brain, but there's nothing to say that our understanding of the world is accurate. In a way, our neural structure imposes a certain rubric on the outside world, and all we know is that at least one other mammalian brain seems to impose the same structure. Either that or The Matrix freaked out the ferrets the way it did everyone else."

This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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Early Pics of (I'm Going to) Disneyland

Ever wonder what Disneyland looked like before opening. Here are some pictures, from the monkeysugar site.

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Johns Hopkins Study: Psychedelics Work

Tune In, Drop Out...Get a Dose of Seritonin...

Volunteers who tried the hallucinogenic ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms during a controlled study funded by the U.S. government had "mystical" experiences, and many of them still felt unusually happy months later.

The aims of the Johns Hopkins researchers were simple: to explore the neurological mechanisms and effects of the compound, as well as its potential as a therapeutic agent.

Although psilocybin -- the hallucinogenic agent in the Psilocybe family of mushrooms -- first gained notoriety more than 40 years ago, it has rarely been studied because of the controversy surrounding its use.

This latest finding, which sprang from a rigorously designed trial, moves the hallucinogen's effect closer to the hazy border separating hard science and religious mysticism.

"More than 60 percent of the volunteers reported effects of their psilocybin session that met the criteria for a 'full mystical experience' as measured by well-established psychological scales," said lead researcher Roland Griffiths, a professor in the departments of neuroscience, psychiatry and behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

What's more, most of the 36 adult participants -- none of whom had taken psilocybin before -- counted their experience while under the influence of the drug as "among the most meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives," Griffiths said. Most said they became better, kinder, happier people in the weeks after the psilocybin session -- a fact corroborated by family and friends.

The researchers also noted no permanent brain damage or negative long-term effects stemming from use of psilocybin.

But the study, published in a recent issue of Psychopharmacology, did not neglect the hallucinogen's "dark side."

Even though the candidates for the landmark study were carefully screened to reduce their vulnerability and closely monitored during the trial, "We still had 30 percent of them reporting periods of very significant fear or anxiety which could easily escalate into panic and dangerous behavior if this were given in any other kind of circumstances," Griffiths said.

"We simply don't know what causes a 'bad trip,' " he added, "and we can't forecast who'll have a difficult time and who won't."

Still, many experts hailed the research, which was funded by the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse and the Council on Spiritual Practices, as long overdue.

No less than Dr. Herbert Kleber -- former deputy director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy under former President George H.W. Bush -- said these types of studies "could shed light on various kinds of brain activity and lead to therapeutic uses for these categories of drugs." He authored a commentary on the Hopkins study.

"Over time, with appropriate research, maybe we can figure out ways to decrease [illicit drugs'] bad effects," while retaining those effects beneficial to medical science, Kleber said.

Scientific research into the effects of illegal, Schedule 1 drugs such as psilocybin are allowed by federal law. But the stigma surrounding their use has kept this type of research to a minimum. The taboo surrounding drugs such as psilocybin "has some wisdom to it," Griffiths said, but "it's unfortunate that as a culture we so demonized these drugs that we stopped doing research on them."

Psilocybin appears to work primarily on the brain's serotonin receptors to alter states of consciousness. In their study, the Baltimore team sought to determine the exact nature of psilocybin's effects on humans, under strictly controlled conditions.

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Seminoles Buy the Hard Rock Cafe

The Seminoles have just bought out the Hard Rock Cafe and Casino chain in what is believed to be the first leveraged buyout led by an Indian tribe.

It is unknown if they will make a Michael Eisner-like grab for "synergy" between various brands.

Like, giving away coupons for the Hard Rock Cafe at all Florida State Seminole football games in Tallahassee.

Next on the buyout list....the Blackfoot tribe in Idaho leads a leverage buyout of J.R. Simplot's potato empire and therewith, becomes the nation's largest provider of Freedom Fries.

Gordon Gekko would be proud.

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Interview with Gene Merrill, Pearl Harbor Survivor, Recounts his Experience

Interview with Gene Merrill, a veteran of Pearl Harbor...courtesy of Archive.org.

B.E.(Gene) Merrill was a signalman on the USS West Virginia (BB-48) during the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Gene also served on the USS Whipple (DD-217), USS Mahan (DD-364), and USS C.K. Bronson (DD-668).

December 7, 1941 - FDR's speech to Congress

December 7, 1941...a day which will live in infamy.

(listen to FDR's speech in toto...impressive rhetorical performance)

Firefox vs. IE game - 1 Million Plays!

The free spread firefox game I developed around Halloween just reached 1 million plays!

I think part of the popularity has to do with the catchy design of Firefox and the timeless quality of the "e" logo for Internet Explorer, don't you think? That suggestion is due to graphicsguru.com, which if you can believe it is repsonsible for the cool, clean design and branding behind Firefox.

Plus, it works your mind :-)

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Brain Gym Catching On

Waking up the brain through a series of specially designed exercises is catching on, according to a story from Bangor, Maine Daily News.

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Hawking gets 2nd Offer

Stephen Hawking, who asked Richard Branson for a ride to the stars (or at least near-earth orbit) now has a second offer from Zero-gravity Corp., which operates 727's that let experiencers enjoy 30 seconds of weightlessness. He's considering the offer, according to Cosmic Log.

He also will be among the notables who get their DNA sequenced in the Genomics X-prize. For now, take this test, combining some recent pics of Hawking with a memory algorithm that tests your mental acuity, that is whether you can acknowledge something you have just seen. To signify that, you will need to press the spacebar. In the meantime, here is what Dr. Hawking says - as this is a "talking" memory test

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So You Want to Improve Your Brain? 7 Tips

So you want to improve your brain? After spending a long time listening to people knowledgeable on this topic, asking questions, and reviewing all of the most recent literature (try Google scholar to speed-read primary sources) here are some of the takeaways.

1. Drink plenty of water. 8-12 servings of water per day keep the brain and its protective tissues hydrated.

2. Exercise, improving your breathing and bloodflow. An action as simple as walking pumps blood into your upper body and head more efficiently than when you are at rest.

3. Maintain a 'Mediterranean' diet with whole grains, legumes, and olive oils

4. Use spices such as cumin, curcumin, and corriander (ingredients in curry) that have a known antioxidant effect, as well as dark berries such as blueberries.

5. Stay engaged with education, work that requires intellectual focus and concentration and socialization

6. Exercise your brain with demanding tasks or games that require a "shift" in attention and quick reaction, that can be increased in intensity, forcing your brain to adapt and rely on different neuronal arrays. Taking up programming or learning languages is an excellent way to supplement this.

7. Stimulate and unleash your right-brain by learning a new instrument, drawing, painting, or writing (blogging, even)


These simple tips, combined with regular laughter and joy, can help you stay focused and sharp for your whole life.

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cognitive games from cognitivelabs.com: 'more addicting than myspace'

A coglabs user - how about another term: [experiencer] called us "more addicting than myspace" - this is a myspace fan, not a journalist or cognoscenti.

thanks for the positive vibes across the net

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Chemotherapy Shrinks brain and Impacts cognitive ability

Researchers have linked chemotherapy with short-term structural changes in cognitive areas of the brain, according to a new study. Published in the January 1, 2007 issue of CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, the study reveals that within 12 months of receiving adjuvant chemotherapy, significant regions of the brain associated with memory, analysis and other cognitive functions were significantly smaller in breast cancer patients who received chemotherapy than those who did not. Within four years after treatment, however, there were no differences in these same regions of the brain.

While the development of chemotherapy has had substantial and beneficial impact on cancer survival rates, it is also linked to significant short- and long-term adverse effects. Gastrointestinal complaints, immunosuppression, and painful mucositis, for example, are the immediate risks of the treatment.

Patients receiving chemotherapy have also long complained of problems with memory, problem-solving and other cognitive abilities. Although chemotherapy was thought not to affect brain cells due to the blood-brain barrier, recent clinical studies have confirmed declines in cognitive functions in patients receiving chemotherapy. Animal studies have shown physical changes in the brain and in neurons caused by chemotherapy drugs. In human studies, however, the little data that is available is only available through imaging and is not consistent in the long-term. In addition, lack of controls in studies makes it difficult discern cancer- versus drug-effects.

Led by Masatoshi Inagaki, M.D., Ph.D., of the Breast Cancer Survivors' Brain MRI Database Group in Japan, researchers used MRI to take high-resolution images and measure volumes in specific areas of the brain of breast cancer patients who received chemotherapy and those who did not one-year after surgery and three-years after surgery. In addition, they compared brains of cancer survivors one-year after surgery and three-years after surgery with healthy subjects.

They found that at one-year, patients treated with chemotherapy had smaller volumes in cognitively sensitive areas, such as the prefrontal, parahippocampal and cingulate gyri, and precuneus regions. However, at three-years post-surgery there was no volume differences. That there were no differences between cancer patients and healthy controls at any time point demonstrates that there is no observable cancer-effect in cognitive deficits.

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Secret Radio Signal from North American Air Defense Command Disrupts 50 Million Garage Doors

DENVER (AP)- What do remote-control garage door openers have to do with national security? A secretive Air Force facility in Colorado Springs tested a radio frequency this past week that it would use to communicate with first responders in the event of a homeland security threat. But the frequency also controls an estimated 50 million garage door openers, and hundreds of residents in the area found that theirs had suddenly stopped working.

"It would have been nice not to have to get out of the car and open the door manually," said Dewey Rinehard, pointing out that the outage happened during the first cold snap of the year, with lows in the teens.

Capt. Tracy Giles of the 21st Space Wing said Air Force officials were trying to figure out how to resolve the problem of their signal overpowering garage door remotes.

"They have turned it off to be good neighbors," he said.

The signals were coming from Cheyenne Mountain Air Station, home to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a joint U.S. and Canadian operation set up during the Cold War to monitor Soviet missile and bomber threats.

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Practice your reaction and perceptual skills

Practice your reaction and perception skills with this great game we call vectorball. Imagine playing tennis in an elevator shaft - that's the experience of this game. You need to be quick and coordinated in this one.

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How a Science Teacher Cut His Energy Bill by 2/3

How can you use your brain to help the environment? Since the U.S. is the largest contributor of greenhouse gases - individual Americans, by changing their lifestyle slightly, can make the most difference.

If you want to learn more, read about how a science teacher in Massachusetts cut his energy bill by 2/3 through simple household changes. Slight changes, since they are easy to carry out, can make a greater difference than major initiatives requiring civic, regional, or national legislation (also, no need for bureaucratic ennui).

In the last 100 years since temperatures have been measured, five of the hottest ten years on record have occurred in this past decade.

Some of the simple things you can do to "cool down" the earth, including what the wise teacher did, are listed in this article. Small actions, like aggregate 'cooling' due to the air circulation from the beating wings of a 100 million butterflies, just might make the difference in reversing environmental change.

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