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Anil Seth

30-Second Brain

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the Obvious How We Pick Up a Cup
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Breathe. Shrink that amygdala, enhance that prefrontal cortex. There is no downside to meditation. Om.
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Meditation even reduces the need for sleep. Due to its stress-reducing properties, meditation is increasingly being used as a clinical tool, relieving symptoms of chronic pain, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and other conditions.
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Long-term meditators also appear somewhat protected from dementia, which makes sense given that meditation causes brain regions linked to complex thought and memory to grow instead of shrink.
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Unlike brain training, meditation is increasingly being shown to have profound effects on thought, emotions and the brain. For instance, long-term meditators have a shrunken amygdala, a brain region associated with anxiety or fear, and an enlarged prefrontal cortex, associated with our highest forms of cognitive processing and intelligence.
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For instance, when we make a movement, our brain predicts the sensory consequences of the movement so that we experience the movement, as self-caused. If these predictions go awry, the brain may falsely attribute control to some external source, leading to a ‘delusion of control’. Recently, the theory has been extended to explain perceptual hallucinations, using the idea that perceptions are also based on predictions. This implies that schizophrenics, unlike most, should be able to tickle themselves, which turns out to be true.
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Although certain brain regions decline faster than others, we lose on average approximately 10 per cent of our grey and white matter every decade of our adult lives. Mirroring this, our powers of reasoning, as measured by non-verbal IQ tests, peaks in our early 20s and declines steadily after this.
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One recent lab-based training paradigm that has shown some promise, however, involves the tricky task of keeping in mind two different streams of information simultaneously. Not only did performance increase dramatically over the weeks of training on this fiendish exercise, but so did IQ, particularly for those who started in the lower IQ range.
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The revelation came when one of the researchers reached for some of the raisins used as treats for the monkeys. To the scientists’ astonishment, they realized that the monkeys’ motor cells had fired, as if they had made the same movement as the researcher. In other words, these cells seemed to have mirror-like properties – they were activated during the execution of an action and by the sight of someone else performing that action.
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Feelings provide the basis for human reason – brain-damaged patients left devoid of emotion struggle to make the most elementary decisions.
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effective decision making is not possible without the motivation and meaning provided by emotional input. Consider Antonio Damasio’s patient, ‘Elliott’. Previously a successful businessman, Elliott underwent neurosurgery for a tumour and lost a part of his brain – the orbitofrontal cortex – that connects the frontal lobes with the emotions. He became a real-life Mr Spock, devoid of emotion. But instead of this making him perfectly rational, he became paralyzed by every decision in life.
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The first few years in life are critical for learning a first language. Feral children without exposure to language fail to develop full linguistic abilities. They can learn many words, but their syntax never reaches a normal level. Second languages learned during the critical period are processed in the same regions of Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area as the first language, while different regions of Broca’s area are used for a second language learned after puberty.
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Imagination is a powerful, particularly human, skill. But instead of having specialized neural hardware, it is entirely reliant on our existing sensory regions.
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We feel afraid because our body is preparing to act in a particular way, not vice versa. Although controversial, this idea has stood the test of time; it is now widely accepted that emotions are deeply dependent on how the brain and body respond to each other, and the search is now on for the brain mechanisms involved. One key region is the amygdala
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the medial temporal lobes (especially the hippocampus) turn short-term memories into permanent ones, with much of the rest of the temporal lobes acting as a long-term store. Even within these storage areas, there is further fragmentation, with semantic memories (such as what the capital of France is) located in a separate region (the temporal pole) from memories of past events (which are more widely distributed across the temporal cortex).
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There are multiple regions of the brain involved in producing actions. The primary motor cortex sends signals down the spinal cord to produce movements of the limbs. However, the primary motor cortex itself receives signals from other parts of the brain in the frontal lobes that shape and control our actions. Normally, these parts of the brain function together – our actions don’t feel alien because the parts of the brain that produce movements communicate with the parts of the brain that control and guide action. If our motor cortex becomes disconnected from these controlling regions, then movements are produced that are unexpected and, hence, ‘alien’.
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Locating a cup of coffee involves linking visual information with information about the current posture of the body, which involves highly specialized mechanisms in the brain.
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Alternative devices use sounds to convey vision – for instance, different pixels in an image are translated to different pitches and different points in time. After training, users (blind or sighted) come to recognize the sound waves as ‘shapes’, and the sounds activate parts of the brain normally dedicated to visual or tactile shape detection. The ability of the brain to adapt to these devices is a striking example of plasticity that, in some very real sense, creates a cyborg – a functioning entity that is part man, part machine.
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For people without synaesthesia, visualizing things often improves their memorability, and linking sequences to familiar routes can be used as a strategy for learning, say, the order of a pack of playing cards.
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In synaesthetes, the colour centre of the brain may be turned on not only by seeing colours but also by hearing words. The latter may happen because people with synaesthesia have unusual patterns of connectivity between regions of the brain that tend to be more segregated in others. This rewiring may be genetic (synaesthesia runs in families) but it is not a disorder. For instance, having synaesthesia may improve memory.
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