Tag Archives | Neuroscience

Hacking the Brain to Get Smarter

Want to get smarter? There are ways… The Atlantic investigates brain hacking:

The perfectibility of the human mind is a theme that has captured our imagination for centuries—the notion that, with the right tools, the right approach, the right attitude, we might become better, smarter versions of ourselves. We cling to myths like “the 10 percent brain”—which holds that the vast majority of our thinking power remains untapped—in part because we hope the minds of the future will be stronger than those of today. It’s as much a personal hope as a hope for civilization: If we’re already running at full capacity, we’re stuck, but what if we’re using only a small fraction of our potential? Well, then the sky’s the limit.


Credit: TZA (CC)


But this dream has a dark side: The possibility of a dystopia where an individual’s fate is determined wholly by his or her access to cognition-enhancing technology.

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Neuroscientists Can Read Minds

Former neuroscientist Sharon Darwish believes that neuroscientists can already read minds, which is a bit of a stretch IMO, but here’s her reasoning at the Guardian:

As a former neuroscientist, a question I am often asked is, “Do you think neuroscientists will ever be able to read people’s minds?”.


My initial reaction to this question to this used to be along the lines of, “Never – our minds are far too complex for any technology to even begin to decode our thoughts,” but upon further research, I would now say that neuroscientists are already reading minds.

In recent years, a fast growing understanding of how our nervous system works has enabled a fusion between man and machine, once only envisioned in science fiction, to become a reality. Bionic limbs have been built into amputees, scientists are beginning to restore a sense of touch to these patients, and we are on our way to restoring vision in the blind.

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The Electric Mood-Control Acid Test

We recently ran a post about brain-altering devices like Zen Vibez and Thync. MIT Technology Review dives deep on the latter:

I’m working on a story that’s almost due. It’s going well. I’m almost finished. But then everything falls apart. I get an angry e-mail from a researcher who’s upset about another article. My stomach knots up. My heart pounds. I reply with a defensive e-mail and afterward can’t stop mentally rehashing my response. Taking deep breaths and a short walk don’t help. I can’t focus on finishing my story, and as the deadline approaches, that makes me more uptight and it gets even harder to write.

brain power

But then I apply electrodes to my head and neck, power up a small electronic device, and shock myself. Within a few minutes I calm down. I can focus on my story. I meet the deadline.

The device, which you’ll be able to buy later this year for a price that has yet to be disclosed, was developed by a team of neuroscientists and engineers at the startup Thync.

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Network theory sheds new light on origins of consciousness

The black dots correspond to the 264 areas of the cerebral cortex that the researchers probed, and the lines correspond to the increased strength of the functional connections between each of these brain areas when subjects consciously perceive the target. The "hotter" colors are associated with stronger connections. This figure illustrates that awareness of the target corresponds to widespread increase in the strength of functional connections (Credit: Marois / Godwin).

The black dots correspond to the 264 areas of the cerebral cortex that the researchers probed, and the lines correspond to the increased strength of the functional connections between each of these brain areas when subjects consciously perceive the target. The “hotter” colors are associated with stronger connections. This figure illustrates that awareness of the target corresponds to widespread increase in the strength of functional connections (Credit: Marois / Godwin).

Melanie Moran Via Medical Express:

Where in your brain do you exist? Is your awareness of the world around you and of yourself as an individual the result of specific, focused changes in your brain, or does that awareness come from a broad network of neural activity? How does your brain produce awareness?

Vanderbilt University researchers took a significant step toward answering these longstanding questions with a recent imaging study, in which they discovered global changes in how brain areas communicate with one another during awareness.

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Anandamide: The Feel-Good Gene

Emperor Traianus Decius (Mary Harrsch).jpg If you’re lucky you have a genetic mutation that produces high levels of  anandamide, which Richard A. Friedman refers to as “the so-called bliss molecule and our own natural marijuana.” He describes the latest neuroscience research in the New York Times:

Chances are that everyone on this planet has experienced anxiety, that distinct sense of unease and foreboding.

Most of us probably assume that anxiety always has a psychological trigger.

Yet clinicians have long known that there are plenty of people who experience anxiety in the absence of any danger or stress and haven’t a clue why they feel distressed. Despite years of psychotherapy, many experience little or no relief. It’s as if they suffer from a mental state that has no psychological origin or meaning, a notion that would seem heretical to many therapists, particularly psychoanalysts.

Recent neuroscience research explains why, in part, this may be the case. For the first time, scientists have demonstrated that a genetic variation in the brain makes some people inherently less anxious, and more able to forget fearful and unpleasant experiences.

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Brain-Altering Devices Now Available

Imagine this: you can change your mood without drugs, meditation, or any of the other more or less undesirable techniques now in use for mood alteration. How? With brain-altering devices now coming to market, reports the Daily Dot:

It feels like a long time since the Quantified Self movement caught us in its clutches. The first fitness bands and their corresponding apps sucked us in; the ability to monitor self-defined statistics made us feel more in control of ourselves. It’s part narcissism, part hypervigilance.

(C) Zen Vibez

(C) Zen Vibez


But the most significant roadblock has been taking all the information we’re self-quantifying and acting on it. You know you’re taking 1,000 too few steps a day, eating 500 more calories than you should, and getting only a fraction of the outside time you need; actually doing something with the data is the hard part.

Motivation and habit change are hard, and no heart-monitoring bracelet is going to magically solve that problem.

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Warning: Thoughts Can Kill

To die, sometimes you need only believe you are ill, and as David Robson discovers at BBC Future, we can unwittingly ‘catch’ such fears, often with terrifying consequences:

Beware the scaremongers. Like a witch doctor’s spell, their words might be spreading modern plagues.


We have long known that expectations of a malady can be as dangerous as a virus. In the same way that voodoo shamans could harm their victims through the power of suggestion, priming someone to think they are ill can often produce the actual symptoms of a disease. Vomiting, dizziness, headaches, and even death, could be triggered through belief alone. It’s called the “nocebo effect”.

But it is now becoming clear just how easily those dangerous beliefs can spread through gossip and hearsay – with potent effect. It may be the reason why certain houses seem cursed with illness, and why people living near wind turbines report puzzling outbreaks of dizziness, insomnia and vomiting.

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Jim Fallon: Exploring the Mind of a Killer

Psychopathic killers are the basis for some must-watch TV, but what really makes them tick? Neuroscientist Jim Fallon talks about brain scans and genetic analysis that may uncover the rotten wiring in the nature (and nurture) of murderers. In a too-strange-for-fiction twist, he shares a fascinating family history that makes his work chillingly personal.

You can view an interactive transcript here.

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‘Brain Drinks’ Might Make You Less Smart

neurosonicCognitive neuroscientist Christian Jarrett debunks the ambitious claims of Neuro “brain drinks” at Wired:

Like pretty much everyone else, drink companies are jumping on the neuroscience bandwagon. These widely available “brain branded” beverages make promises that should raise any skeptic’s eyebrows. Today I want to focus on NeuroSonic, which its manufacturers claim is carefully designed to “deliver sustained focus and revitalized energy”.

The curvy, colorful bottle depicts a human head with a sciencey waveform running through it, the strapline “mental performance in every bottle”, and on the back, the promise that you will “stay energized, focused, alert … with modern science’s greatest blend of natural mental performance enhancers. Get smart, DRINK NEURO.”

Founded by Bosnian émigré Sanela Diana Jenkins, NeuroSonic is just one of a portfolio of brain drinks offered by her company Neuro, with others promising to boost sleep, relaxation and other states of mind.

NeuroSonic’s “proprietary blend” includes caffeine and l-theanine (an amino acid found in green tea).

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Why Can’t the World’s Greatest Minds Solve the Mystery of Consciousness?

Consciousness. What is it? No one knows, but many intelligent people have tried to explain it. Here’s the Guardian‘s take (note, it’s a long, #longread):

One spring morning in Tucson, Arizona, in 1994, an unknown philosopher named David Chalmers got up to give a talk on consciousness, by which he meant the feeling of being inside your head, looking out – or, to use the kind of language that might give a neuroscientist an aneurysm, of having a soul. Though he didn’t realise it at the time, the young Australian academic was about to ignite a war between philosophers and scientists, by drawing attention to a central mystery of human life – perhaps the central mystery of human life – and revealing how embarrassingly far they were from solving it.

The scholars gathered at the University of Arizona – for what would later go down as a landmark conference on the subject – knew they were doing something edgy: in many quarters, consciousness was still taboo, too weird and new agey to take seriously, and some of the scientists in the audience were risking their reputations by attending.

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