Tag Archives: #thoughts

The Creation of Abstract Thoughts in the Brain (Neuroscience)

What do language, music and art have in common? These defining aspects of human intelligence are all the result of the faculty to ‘abstract’ – the unique ability of the human mind to organize information beyond the immediate sensory reality. As we constantly face billions of bits of information streaming in from our senses, our brain must recast this maelstrom into simpler structures. How does the brain do so? Research in artificial intelligence suggests that even the best of our current algorithms struggle to handle the complexity of everyday, real-life problems.

By using a combination of mathematical modeling, machine learning and brain imaging technology, researchers have discovered what happens in the brain when people use mental abstractions. In essence, the brain system that normally tracks economic value becomes very active and ‘talks’ to the system that processes visual information. These value signals, much decried as the basis for marketing strategies, actually serve a crucial aspect of our intelligence. Value is used by the brain to select information and create mental abstractions. The study, published in the journal eLife, could open the way to new advances in basic research, education and rehabilitation, the treatment of psychiatric disorders, as well as for the development of novel algorithms in artificial intelligence.

The international team tested people’s ability to solve decision problems presented on a computer screen, while inside an MR scanner. When participants responded correctly, they were given a small reward. The problems could be solved according to two strategies: an inefficient one based on all the information presented on the screen, and a better one that required mental abstractions. By analyzing the brain data with machine learning, the researchers found that when people used mental abstractions, this coincided with increased activity in the brain area that signals how valuable things are. In a second experiment the researchers used a novel neurofeedback technique to artificially change, directly in the brain, the value of some of the items used in the decision problems. After the manipulation, participants were more likely to use mental abstractions in those decision problems.

Dr. Aurelio Cortese, chief researcher at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, Kyoto, that led the team, said:

“This study is quite unique in its kind in that a high level, complex function like abstraction was studied with basic visual stimuli and simple decision problems. Yet, this simplicity led us directly to the underlying mechanism, helping resolve a long-standing question in the neuroscience literature: why do we see value signals in the brain literally all the time? Mental abstractions may be the key—we constantly need to think in abstract terms, since our world would be too complex otherwise.”

Dr. Mitsuo Kawato, director of the Computational Neuroscience Laboratories at ATR, Kyoto, was a co-author on the study, and explained the state-of-the-art neurofeedback manipulation: “With machine learning and advanced neuroimaging, we can now detect when, and if, a mental representation appears in the brain below the awareness threshold, in real time. When we do so—we give our participants a small reward. With time, that mental representation becomes paired with reward, or in terms of this experiment, with value. This way, we were able to ‘trick’ the brain into using these newly valuable mental representations to construct abstract thoughts.”

Dr. Benedetto De Martino, professor at University College London, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, was the senior author on the study and a leading expert in neuroeconomics: “The proposal that value—traditionally associated with its hedonic dimension (for example the value of a chocolate bar) – could be crucial for some aspects of our general intelligence is radical. Value may well be an abstraction in its own right. This research is part of our broader effort to understand the algorithmic nature of the human mind—and eventually translate this knowledge into new architectures in artificial intelligence, and lead to new treatments for psychiatric illnesses.”

Featured image: Learning task and behavioral results. (A) Task: participants learned the fruit preferences of pacman-like characters, which changed on each block. (B) Associations could form in three ways: color – stripe orientation, color – mouth direction, and stripe orientation – mouth direction. The left-out feature was irrelevant. Examples of the two types of fruit associations. The four combinations arising from two features with two levels were divided into symmetric (2×2) and asymmetric (3×1) cases. f1-3: features 1 to 3; fruit:rule refers to the fruit as being the association rule. Both block types were included to prevent participants from learning rules by simple deduction. If all blocks had symmetric association rules and participants knew this, they could simply learn one feature-fruit association (e.g. green-vertical), and from there deduce all other combinations. Both the relevant features and the association types varied on a block-by-block basis. (C), Trial-by-trial ratio-correct improved as a measure of within-block learning. Dots represent the mean across participants, while error bars indicate the SEM, and the shaded area represents the 95% CI (N = 33). Participant-level ratio correct was computed for each trial across all completed blocks. Source data is available in file Figure 1—source data 1. (D), Learning speed was positively correlated with time, among participants. Learning speed was computed as the inverse of the max-normalized number of trials taken to complete a block. Thin gray lines represent least square fits of individual participants, while the black line represents the group-average fit. The correlation was computed with group-averaged data points (N = 11). Average data points are plotted as colored circles, the error bars are the SEM. (E), Confidence judgements were positively correlated with learning speed, among participants. Each dot represents data from one participant, and the thick line indicates the regression fit (N = 31 [2 missing data]). The experiment was conducted once (n = 33 biologically independent samples), **p<0.01. Credit: DOI: 10.7554/eLife.68943


Reference: Aurelio Cortese et al, Value signals guide abstraction during learning, eLife (2021). DOI: 10.7554/eLife.68943


Provided by ATR Brain Information Communication Research Laboratory Group

New Studies Suggest Vaping Could Cloud Your Thoughts (Psychology)

Two new studies from the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) have uncovered an association between vaping and mental fog. Both adults and kids who vape were more likely to report difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions than their non-vaping, non-smoking peers. It also appeared that kids were more likely to experience mental fog if they started vaping before the age of 14.

© University of Rochester

While other studies have found an association between vaping and mental impairment in animals, the URMC team is the first to draw this connection in people. Led by Dongmei Li, Ph.D., associate professor in the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at URMC, the team mined data from two major national surveys.

“Our studies add to growing evidence that vaping should not be considered a safe alternative to tobacco smoking,” said study author Li.

The studies, published in the journals Tobacco Induced Diseases and Plos One, analyzed over 18,000 middle and high school student responses to the National Youth Tobacco Survey and more than 886,000 responses to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System phone survey from U.S. adults. Both surveys ask similar questions about smoking and vaping habits as well as issues with mental function.

Both studies show that people who smoke and vape – regardless of age – were most likely to report struggling with mental function. Behind that group, people who only vape or only smoke reported mental fog at similar rates, which were significantly higher than those reported by people who don’t smoke or vape.

The youth study also found that students who reported starting to vape early – between eight and 13 years of age – were more likely to report difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions than those who started vaping at 14 or older.

“With the recent rise in teen vaping, this is very concerning and suggests that we need to intervene even earlier,” said Li. “Prevention programs that start in middle or high school might actually be too late.”

Adolescence is a critical period for brain development, especially for higher-order mental function, which means tweens and teens may be more susceptible to nicotine-induced brain changes. While e-cigarettes lack many of the dangerous compounds found in tobacco cigarettes, they deliver the same amount – or possibly more – nicotine.

While the URMC studies clearly show an association between vaping and mental function, it’s not clear which causes which. It is possible that nicotine exposure through vaping causes difficulty with mental function. But it is equally possible that people who report mental fog are simply more likely to smoke or vape – possibly to self-medicate.

Li and her team say that further studies that follow kids and adults over time are needed to parse the cause and effect of vaping and mental fog.

In addition to Li, authors of the youth study include Catherine Xie, and Zidian Xie, Ph.D. For the adult study, Li was joined by co-authors Zidian Xie, Ph.D., Deborah J. Ossip, Ph.D. Irfan Rahman, Ph.D., and Richard J. O’Connor, Ph.D. Both studies were funded by the National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products.

Reference: Catherine Xie, Zidian Xie, Dongmei Li, “Association of electronic cigarette use with self-reported difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions in US youth”, Tob. Induc. Dis. 2020;18(December):106 http://dx.doi.org/10.18332/tid/130925 http://www.tobaccoinduceddiseases.org/Association-of-electronic-cigarette-use-with-self-reported-ndifficulty-concentrating,130925,0,2.html

Provided by University of Rochester Medical Center

How to Find The “Self”? (Philosophy)

Finding yourself is a journey worth embarking on. This is where to start.

There is a defined path to find the self “quickly,” though the process could still hardly be described as quick. Many people are swift to dismiss Eastern modalities as outdated, unusual, and unworkable. But the fact is that in terms of finding the self, Vedic philosophy occupies a distinct position of respect. To proceed with finding Self, you will need:

1. A silent and serene location
2. The ability to meditate on the heart chakra
3. The ability to severely restrict diet
4. The ability to leave behind all technology and distractions.

© Crushpixel

In many ways, it is simple and straightforward. Get to a silent location and meditate on loving the self. Restrict your diet, so you are not eating any meat, processed food, caffeine, or alcohol. Avoid technology and eliminate all mental, physical, and emotional distractions.

Though this can be difficult to do, the results will be immense. It is the ideal healing modality. About three to seven days is enough for significant changes to occur with the above protocol. It can be repeated as often as necessary, and while you won’t succeed the first or even the tenth time, it is enough to fully rejuvenate you from the stresses of modern living in a big way.

Ironically, the quickest way to find the self is to do absolutely nothing at all. Your body, mind, and soul will heal if you stop eating, thinking, and reading garbage all the time. You will be in a perfect state of health if you stop doing things that put you in a depressed mood and environment. The grand irony of it all is that people need to ‘do something’ to fix an illusory problem. This leads to fad diets, liposuction, gender changes, unhappy relationships, and unaffordable mortgages.

Vedic philosophy has by no means a monopoly on silent retreats and fasting. But it really cuts to the heart, emphasizing these things and its constant focus on finding the self. There are hundreds of other esoteric modalities such as crystal bowls, visualization, spinning, manifestation, lucid dreaming, chakra work, and many more. While they might bring many benefits and even some paranormal effects, they do not cut to the core of finding the self. This involves letting go of everything you have learned to step into new dimensions.

The pinnacle of self-esteem ultimately culminates in self-realization, a state of being discussed in practically every piece of spiritual literature of note. This state goes beyond the typical human experience to full-bodied bliss and understanding. However, self-realized people are still flesh and blood, live to tell their experiences, have written books, and can be found by those who actively search for them.

Other Methods to Help Find the Self

There are more ways to try and find who you really are. It is best likened to the peeling of an onion where only the true self is left. A good place to start is to review all of what has happened to you in this lifetime and the major events. The point is not to wallow in them or take pride in their achievements. Just draw a linear map of the major events that happened, their effect on you, and try to see the bigger picture. This will help to build a degree of objectivity.

In terms of finding self, you do not want to be dependent in any way. Look at all the ways you are emotionally, mentally, physically, or financially dependent on other people and things. Become as self-sufficient as possible. This could entail eliminating cigarettes or bad food and finding a new job where you work for yourself. It will be different for everybody.

Finding self is an individual process. Nobody has ever self-realized themselves together. It is just not the way that the universe works. Groupthink is the antithesis of individual empowerment. Because even in groups, solutions only come from one individual with one spark of inspiration. There is no way to share creativity or ingenuity because it comes from within. This means that when you find the self, the practices that you use, and the philosophy that you adopt will be yours alone. If you copy what others are doing, you are already disempowered and will never find yourself. Without making decisions of your own volition, you are not giving yourself any power.

This article is originally written by Sarah-Len Mutiwasekwa who is a mental health advocate whose efforts are invested in breaking the stigma around talking about mental health and increasing awareness of these issues in Africa. This article is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses

Clothes Make the Killer (Psychology)

Some killers dress the part, influencing thoughts, acts, and identity.

We’re aware of murder kits that some offenders prepare so they can more effectively carry out their crimes. We rarely consider their clothing. Yet some killers do consciously dress for murder. They even refer to certain outfits as their “kill” clothing. This “enclothed cognition” apparently helps them to feel more like a someone intent on taking a life.

Imagine Jack the Ripper getting ready for a fatal prowl. We don’t really know if JtR was a he, she, or they, but an image persists of a man stalking in an opera cloak, the better to hide his implements of death. This conveys the impression of a killer from the upper class, someone who could afford such a cloak, and enhances the secretive nature of the sinister man who slaughtered sex workers undetected.

So, what do the killers say? When Edmund Kemper was arrested after killing his mother and her best friend in 1973, he admitted to the murders of six hitchhiking coeds. For hours, he described to detectives how he’d met the young women and what he’d done to them. He blamed his mother’s emotional abuse. A motorcycle accident had forced him back home with her, and her constant belittling had enraged him. After arguments, he’d cruise around to watch the college girls she said were too good for him. When they’d thumb for rides, he’d pick them up. Soon, he’d packed a murder kit with knives and bindings. He’d worn a special outfit, reserved for murder: a pair of dark jeans, a buckskin jacket, and a tan checkered shirt. They’d reminded him he meant business.

The idea that “clothing makes the man” is based on the psychology of impressions. People dress “up” to enhance their status and make others think they’re more economically successful than they are. They want to influence how others view them, as well as reinforce their own sense of confidence or power. The concept of enclothed cognition identifies how color, fabric, and fashion play a part in how we develop our identities.

One study proposed a two-prong effect of symbolic meaning and physical experience. The researchers put subjects into lab coats, a clothing item associated with focus. The subjects participated in tasks that involved attention. Compared to controls, the research group showed increased attention to detail, especially when the coat was described as a doctor’s lab coat versus a painter’s smock. The researchers concluded that, when there’s a specific context of meaning, clothing influences the wearer’s psychological processes.

Clothing communicates. We can play roles more easily in costume. Clothing might even help to present a persona that’s different from our everyday selves. The more we identify with a specific outfit, the more it can impact our self-esteem and behavior. Our outfits help us to rise to the occasion, as the imbued expectations convey goals. Whether you dress for business, medicine, sports, cooking, or art, there’s a uniform of some sort that helps you to feel the part.

For killers, there’s clothing for power, for terror, or for concealment. Fictional boogeymen often wear masks, and so did some real-life killers. In 1946 in Texarkana, the “Moonlight Murderer” targeted couples parked in lovers’ lanes. Five were killed and three injured. One couple that survived told police they’d seen a man in a white mask with holes cut for the eyes and mouth. California’s Zodiac Killer, too, wore a mask during at least one fatal assault. Between 1968 and 1969, he killed at least five people (he claimed more). Never identified, he seems to have approached one couple in a park wearing a black executioner-style hood.

Trench coats have become symbolically loaded for school shooters. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wore them during their suicidal assault on Columbine in 1999, but even three years before them, Barry Loukaitis dressed in a black duster like a Wild West gunslinger before he killed his teacher and two students in Moses Lake, Washington.  

Dennis Rader, the “BTK” killer in Wichita, Kansas between 1974 and 1991, used several different outfits to support a deadly ruse. In one, Rader wore an Air Force parka to make a military impression. For a different impression, he donned a tweed jacket and carried a briefcase. To approach his ninth victim, he glued a telephone company logo from a phone book to a hardhat to make her think he was there as a repairman. It worked, and a young woman died.

Clothing can enhance one’s sense of identity, and with it the motivation and confidence to play a role. Only a few killers have articulated what their murder clothes mean, but it’s safe to say that, for predators, how they dress is part of their preparation.

References: Adam, H. & Galinsky, A. D. (2012). Enclothed cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 48(4), 918-925.

This article is originally written by Katherine Ramsland, who is a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and the author of 60 books and is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses. To read original click here.

AI Helps Scientists Understand Brain Activity Behind Thoughts (Neuroscience)

A team led by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University has developed artificial intelligence models that help them better understand the brain computations that underlie thoughts. This is new, because until now there has been no method to measure thoughts.

Xaq Pitkow © Rice University

The researchers first developed a new model that can estimate thoughts by evaluating behavior, and then tested their model on a trained artificial brain where they found neural activity associated with those estimates of thoughts. The theoretical study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“For centuries, neuroscientists have studied how the brain works by relating brain activity to inputs and outputs,” said corresponding author Xaq Pitkow, assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor and of electrical and computer engineering at Rice. “For instance, when studying the neuroscience of movement, scientists measure muscle movements as well as neuronal activity and then relate those two measurements. To study cognition in the brain, however, we don’t have anything to compare the measured neural activity to.”

To understand how the brain gives rise to thought, researchers first need to measure a thought. They developed a method called “Inverse Rational Control” that looks at a behavior and infers the beliefs or thoughts that best explain that behavior.

Traditionally, researchers in this field have worked with the idea that animals solve tasks optimally, behaving in a way that maximizes their net benefits. But when scientists study animal behavior, they find that this is not always the case.

“Sometimes animals have ‘wrong’ beliefs or assumptions about what’s going on in their environment, but still they try to find the best long-term outcomes for their task, given what they believe is going on around them,” said Pitkow, who also is a McNair Scholar at Baylor, co-director of Baylor’s Center for Neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence and member of the Rice Neuroengineering Initiative. “This could account for why animals seem to behave suboptimally.”

For example, consider an animal that is hunting and hears many noises it associates with prey. If one potential prey is making all the noises, the optimal behavior for the hunter is to consistently target its movements to a single noise. If the hunter mistakenly believes the noises are coming from many different animals, it may choose a suboptimal behavior, like constantly scanning its surroundings to try and pinpoint one of them. By acting according to its belief or assumption that there are many potential prey nearby, the hunter is behaving in a way that is simultaneously rational and suboptimal.

An illustration of the method for inferring thoughts within patterns of brain activity, based on observing behavior. In an experiment, an animal tried to determine if fruit was ripe (red) or not (green). All fruit were unripe (box, lower left), but the animal behaved as if it thought some were ripe (blue thought bubble). The blue 3D cube (middle) represents all possible patterns of brain activity an animal exhibits in any situation, the 2D grey ribbon represents all patterns that follow one specific sequence of thoughts, and the 1D white line represents one particular pattern of brain activity consistent with that sequence. Researchers can use this geometric structure to understand which thoughts produced specific behaviors, even when the animal is acting on mistaken beliefs like thinking the fruit is ripe. (Illustration by Xaq Pitkow/Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University)

In the second part of the work, Pitkow and his colleagues developed a model to relate thoughts that were identified using the Inverse Rational Control method to brain activity.

“We can look at the dynamics of the modeled thoughts and at the dynamics of the brain’s representations of those thoughts,” Pitkow said. “If those dynamics run parallel to each other, then we have confidence that we are capturing the aspects of the brain computations involved in those thoughts. By providing methods to estimate thoughts and interpret neural activity associated with them, this study can help scientists understand how the brain produces complex behavior and provide new perspectives on neurological conditions.”

Other contributors to this work include Zhengwei Wu of both Baylor College of Medicine and Rice; Minhae Kwon of Soongsil University in South Korea and formerly of Rice and Baylor College of Medicine; Rice alumnus Saurabh Daptardar ’18 of Google Maps; and Paul Schrater of the University of Minnesota.

This work was supported in part by in part by a BRAIN Initiative grant from the National Institutes of Health (NS094368), the McNair Foundation, the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain (324143) and the National Science Foundation (1450923, 1552868).

References: Zhengwei Wu, Minhae Kwon, Saurabh Daptardar, Paul Schrater, Xaq Pitkow, “Rational thoughts in neural codes”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Nov 2020, 117 (47) 29311-29320; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1912336117

Provided by Rice University

You Have a Beautiful, Powerful Mind (Psychology)

Our thoughts are so powerful that they actually do shape our reality.

Did you happen to see the movie A Beautiful Mind? It was released in 2001 to great critical success, and it won four Academy Awards, including best picture.

The main character of the film, played by Russell Crowe, is John Nash, a real-life mathematician who actually won the Nobel prize, as the movie depicts, and also suffered from schizophrenia, as Crowe masterfully interprets.

Source: Sasha Lebedeva/ Unsplash

Schizophrenia is a terrible mental illness that involves hearing and seeing things that aren’t actually there. People with schizophrenia believe that what they are seeing and hearing is real. Typically, these hallucinations are extremely negative ones that center on the person with the illness. Nash, for example, heard voices in his head that told him constantly that he was a failure. Even though the world saw him as a great success, Nash could not believe that this was true because of his schizophrenia. Not even distinguished positions at some of the world’s greatest universities or accolades as high as the Nobel Prize could convince him otherwise. Part of Nash’s hallucination was that he was a failure, even as he was admired throughout the world.

I once read a study about models. Some of the most beautiful people in the world are models, yet when asked if they consider themselves beautiful, this research revealed the surprising fact that most did not. Most models felt they were average, and most reported being dissatisfied with some noticeable flaw to their appearance. Gracing the covers of magazines and walking the world’s most elite runways didn’t shake these models’ views that they were ordinary, or even less than ordinary.

It’s possible that you’re reading these examples, and you’re wondering what these words have to do with you. You may be thinking, “I’m not a supermodel or a brilliant mathematician. I’m just an average Joe.” I won’t try to convince you otherwise, because the bottom line is that you’re absolutely right. We are always right, and whatever we think about ourselves is true and correct.

Whatever we are feeding our minds, that’s what we are. Our thoughts are so powerful that they actually do shape our reality. Never mind the fact that they may have nothing to do with what’s true or apparent to others. What we feed our minds is what we believe, and what we believe is our truth.

If we feel we do not have enough, we suffer. This is true, even if in the world’s eyes we have everything we could possibly need. The root cause of our suffering is not what we have or don’t have, or what we’ve accomplished or not accomplished. At the base of our suffering is our thoughts about our lives.

What we are feeding our minds throughout the day will be our reality. This is true even if our reality is madness. What we are feeding our minds matters.

The first thing we have to do is discover what it is that we are thinking about all day long. This involves a straightforward assessment without judgment. We must take a walk past the metaphorical mirror and take a look. Maybe we are saying, “I’m bad, “I’m ugly,” or “I’m stupid.” Do we like these feelings? Probably not. So let’s focus on something else.

John Nash could still see his hallucinations, but he made the remarkable choice to focus on what was real. If our thoughts are hurting us, we should focus on other things. If our thoughts about ourselves are negative, they will only lead to suffering. If we are to live happy lives—and obviously that is our goal, since we are meeting here in the space—we need to take control of the thoughts that hurt us.

The thoughts we experience have to do with all parts of our lives. Maybe we focus our attention on our looks, our success, our health, or even where we live. All of these things have the ability to cause us to suffer if we allow them to, or if we go on wishing our lives were different.

I live and work in Southern California. Public transportation here is not the best, and most of us get around by car. When we get a car, usually we love the feeling. We can get ourselves around from place to place and be productive while doing what we enjoy. But then we get on the road, and we can’t help but notice that others have nicer cars than we do. We might think, “My car is ugly” or “I hate it.” These are the sorts of thoughts we create all day long. But we have a choice in the thoughts we express or believe.

One final step we can take is a hard one, but so worthwhile. I talk about it often, so it may sound familiar, but it is this: Stop paying attention to your thoughts. Instead, just be. Instead of shifting your attention to positive things, just live in the now, and really savor each moment and each breath. We don’t need to label everything as good or bad. Rather, we can choose to experience each new breath with wonder as if we are experiencing it for the first time. If we think about the car analogy, perhaps we can stop thinking about whether our car is pretty or nice or fast, and instead we can experience it as if it is brand new and we are driving for the very first time. We can say, “Wow! I have a car!” And we can exhilarate in the feeling of the wind whipping through the windows and the speed with which we get from here to there.

Sometimes the world seems to think highly of us. Other times, it does not. But I’m making the choice just to suck the marrow out of life. When we need to shift our thoughts to something else, we can—or we can just enjoy the presence and stillness of living life one moment at a time.

This article is republished here from psychology today. Author of this article is Robert Puff.

NIH Scientists Reveal How The Brain May Fuel Intense Neural Communication (Neuroscience)

Results suggest retrieval of cellular powerplants via an energy feedback loop sustains communication.

Our thoughts, feelings, and movements are controlled by billions of neurons talking to each other at trillions of specialized communication points called synapses. In an in-depth study of neurons grown in laboratory petri dishes, National Institutes of Health researchers discovered how the chattiest of some synapses find the energy to support intense conversations thought to underlie learning and memory. Their results, published in Nature Metabolism, suggest that a series of chemical reactions control a feedback loop that senses the need for more energy and replenishes it by recruiting cellular powerplants, called mitochondria, to the synapses. The experiments were performed by researchers in a lab led by Zu-Hang Sheng, Ph.D., at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

NIH scientists discovered that intense neural conversations thought to underlie learning and memory may be fueled by an energy-sensing feedback loop. Here scientist monitored energy levels in the form of ATP as neurons talked to each other. ©Courtesy of Sheng lab NINDS/NIH.

The team studied synapses that use the neurotransmitter glutamate to communicate. Communication happens when a packet of glutamate is released from presynaptic boutons which are tiny protrusions that stick out, like beads on a string, of long, wiry parts of neurons called axons. Previously, Dr. Sheng’s team showed that synaptic communication is an energy-demanding process and that mitochondria traveling along axons can control signals sent by boutons. Boutons that had mitochondria sent stronger and more consistent signals than those that were missing powerplants. The difference was due to higher energy levels produced by the mitochondria in the form of ATP.

In this study, led by Sunan Li, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow at NINDS, the team investigated what happens when boutons undergo intense communication thought to underlie learning and memory. They found that this type of signaling quickly dropped energy levels at boutons. These changes triggered a series of chemical reactions controlled by an energy sensor called AMP-activated protein kinases (AMPK) that ultimately led to the rapid recruitment of mitochondria to the boutons. Genetically blocking or chemically interfering with this feedback loop prevented the delivery of mitochondria to boutons and lowered energy levels. This, in turn, reduced synaptic responses during intense communication more than seen in control cells and slowed the recovery of the responses after the bursts ended. The researchers concluded that this feedback loop may normally play a critical role in providing the energy needed to sustain synaptic communication throughout a healthy nervous system. For example, they cite studies which implied that problems with this system may occur in some cases of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders.

References: Li, S. et al. The crosstalk of energy sensing and mitochondrial anchoring sustains synaptic efficacy by maintaining presynaptic metabolism; October 5, 2020, Nature Metabolism; DOI: 10.1038/s42255-020-00289-0

Provided by National Institute Of Neurological Disorders And Stroke

Your Mind Wanders Half The Time You’re Awake (Neuroscience)

Try this: Clear your mind. Think of absolutely nothing. Take the next minute or so to try it; we’ll wait. Done? Great. What went through your head? If it was something like, “Why is this article telling me what to do? Don’t forget to swing by the grocery store later. I’m hungry. Can a ghost and a zombie come from the same person?” then good news: You’re completely normal. Mind-wandering is your brain’s default mode. That doesn’t mean you need to accept it, though — learning to focus your mind has a lot of benefits.

When we say mind-wandering is the brain’s default mode, that’s not a metaphor. The part of the brain that starts its engines the minute you stop trying to think is called the default mode network, or just the default network. The discovery of this network happened by accident: Neuroscientists in the mid-20th century noticed that brain activity in certain areas spiked when their subjects were asked to rest, even though that rest was included as the scientific control for experiments looking into other brain regions. The brain was supposed to be quiet, but for some reason, it started chattering.

It wasn’t until the 1970s when someone actually looked into this odd activity spike. The Swedish brain physiologist David Ingvar took scans of the brain’s blood flow during rest and noticed that this spike happened in specific areas, most noticeably in the frontal lobe — the center of memory, learning, and cognition. In the early 2000s, a group of researchers used more advanced imaging to identify the responsible regions even more specifically and named this web of brain areas the “default mode network.”

In essence, the default mode network makes up the parts of the brain that take a break when we’re paying attention, but jump into action when we’re not focusing on anything. It’s what leads you to daydream about the future, obsess over your fears, and reminisce about the past. It’s the jingle that pops in your head and the random fact you suddenly remember. In fact, memory is a big one: a 2012 study suggests that greater mind wandering is associated with a higher capacity for working (short-term) memory.

A wandering mind is perfectly, utterly normal. But that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.

Studies have shown that wandering minds aren’t as happy as focused minds, but which direction that goes is in question. A 2010 study in the journal Science found that mind wandering leads to negative moods, but not the opposite; a 2017 study found that fantasizing about the future specifically can lead to depressive symptoms over time. Other studies, however, found that the opposite is true: a bad mood leads to a wandering mind, not vice versa. If the former is true, it could mean mind wandering is making you miserable; if the latter is true, it could mean that it’s just a way to cope when you’re feeling blue.

Of course, there are other, more obvious drawbacks to a wandering mind. When you’re not focused, your thinking suffers: Your reading comprehension, memory, and overall cognitive control decrease. When you need to think creatively, daydreaming can be a powerful tool, but when you need to get down to business, focus is best.

So how do you sharpen your focus? That’s where meditation comes in. For a 2012 study, neuroscientist Wendy Hasenkamp and her team had people sit in an MRI brain scanner while they performed “focused attention meditation” — the kind where you focus your attention on one thing, like the sensation of breathing — and had them push a button every time they noticed their minds wandering. The scans showed that, sure enough, the brain’s default mode network activated during mind wandering. But when the meditators noticed it, it only took 12 seconds for them to redirect their attention and let the attention-focused executive brain network take over. Experienced meditators did this even more quickly.

“This might explain how it feels easier to ‘drop’ thoughts as you become more experienced in meditation — and thus better able to focus,” Hasenkamp writes in Greater Good Magazine. “Thoughts become less sticky because your brain gets re-wired to be better at recognizing and disengaging from mind-wandering.” This makes sense; meditation makes you practice focusing your attention, and practice makes perfect. The next time your mind wanders, realize that it’s just your brain’s default. Then redirect your attention to the task at hand.

Neuroscience Study Finds ‘Hidden’ Thoughts In Visual Part Of Brain (Neuroscience)

How much control do you have over your thoughts? What if you were specifically told not to think of something—like a pink elephant?

Participants used the left side of their brains to come up with the thought, and the right side to try and suppress it.

A recent study led by UNSW psychologists has mapped what happens in the brain when a person tries to suppress a thought. The neuroscientists managed to ‘decode’ the complex brain activity using functional brain imaging (called fMRI) and an imaging algorithm.

Their findings suggest that even when a person succeeds in ignoring a thought, like the pink elephant, it can still exist in another part of the brain—without them being aware of it.

In their study they tracked the brain activity in 15 participants as they completed several visualizations and thought suppression exercises. Participants were given a written prompt—either green broccoli or a red apple—and challenged not to think of it. To make this task even harder, they were asked to not replace the image with another thought.

After 12 seconds, participants confirmed whether they were able to successfully suppress the image or if the thought suppression failed. Eight people were confident they’d successfully suppressed the images—but their brain scans told a different story. They found that visual cortex—the part of the brain responsible for mental imagery—seemed to be producing thoughts without their awareness.

Brain neurons fired and then pulled oxygen into the blood each time a thought took place. This movement of oxygen, which was measured by the fMRI machine, created particular spatial patterns in the brain.

The researchers decoded these spatial patterns using an algorithm called multivoxel pattern analysis (MVPA). MVPA is a type of decoding algorithm based in machine learning that allows us to read thoughts. The algorithm could distinguish brain patterns caused by the vegetable/fruit prompts.

Eight study participants were confident they’d successfully suppressed the images of the red apple or green broccoli, but their brain scans suggested otherwise. Credit: Shutterstock

The scans showed that participants used the left side of their brains to come up with the thought, and the right side to try and suppress it. Prof. Pearson hopes this functional brain mapping will help future researchers know which areas of the brain to target for potential intrusive thought therapies. This study can help explain why forcefully trying not to think about something always fails. For example, for someone trying to quit smoking, trying not to think about having a cigarette is a very bad strategy.

These findings build on a behavioral study Prof. Pearson’s team at UNSW Science’s Future Minds Lab conducted last year, which tested how suppressed thoughts can influence perception.

They know that you can have conscious and unconscious perception in your visual cortex—for example, they can show someone an image of a spider, make the image invisible, but their brain will still process it. But until now, they didn’t know this also worked with thoughts.

Both studies point towards the elusive world of the “unconscious,” which Prof. Pearson plans to explore in his future work.

They’re interested in this idea that imagination can be unconscious—that these thoughts can appear and influence our behavior, without us even noticing. More evidence is starting to suggest unconscious thoughts do occur, and they can decode them.

References: Roger Koenig-Robert et al. Decoding Nonconscious Thought Representations during Successful Thought Suppression, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (2020). DOI: 10.1162/jocn_a_01617