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July 29, 2015

When is the Best Time of Day to Keep a Diary?

Thinkstock
For over 15 years now, I’ve faithfully kept a diary. Every night, from age 11 until my senior year of college, I snuggled into my bedsheets and rehashed the day’s events before nodding off to sleep. Even though I’m more likely to scribble down my thoughts just once or twice a week nowadays, I’ve found that writing in a diary before bed is a fun way to capture my memories – no matter how frivolous – to enjoy again years down the road.

Now a new study, published recently in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggests that my nightly routine might help with something else: being able to recall a specific day’s events from memory weeks later.

Importantly, however, I may be at a greater advantage than some diarists because I typically write in my diary just before hitting the pillow, instead of waiting until the next morning.

Read more of my guest post with the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog here.

July 15, 2015

#BrainBits 2: "Why Do I Remember Certain Things in Certain Places?"

This is the second post in my new #BrainBits series, where I'll answer your burning neuroscience questions in 60 seconds or less. If you have a question you'd like me to answer, you can e-mail me, tweet me, or submit your questions anonymously here.

Man Vyi (Wikimedia Commons)
Why do I only remember certain things in certain places?  I'm glad you asked, because this happens to me all the time. I'll think about something, get off the couch and go to the kitchen to do whatever I told myself I needed to do, then completely lose my train of thought. Why did I come in here, anyway?

Funny enough, psychologists have actually studied this.

In a 2011 paper, Gabriel Radvansky and colleagues from the University of Notre Dame had participants play a computer game. In a virtual room, they were instructed to pick up an object from a table and take it to another table. The objects varied in color and shape. Importantly, as long as the participant was "carrying" the object, it was invisible to them.

Sometimes the participants' video game characters simply had to cross the room to put the object down. Other times, they had to walk through a virtual doorway to get to the table.

At random times throughout the experiment, participants were asked what object they were currently carrying. Interestingly, walking through a virtual doorway resulted in less accurate and slower responses than when they simply needed to cross a room.

MetroParent
But why? The authors suggest that we keep information in our working memory for as long as we consider it relevant. But when something related to the context of our memory changes — like the room we're in when we think about something — the memory must no longer be important enough for us to remember. Our brains probably think they're helping out by purging that memory for us. This is consistent with the hypothesis that, in general, recently-formed memories are extremely vulnerable to many interfering forces if they have not yet had a chance to consolidate.

To answer the broader question: we associate certain memories with certain places, and that's how we make sense of all the input flooding into our noggins. Our brains have incredible storage capacity, but they can only do so much. (Elephants* never forget, though.)

Do you forget more
When you walk through a door?
Let us know
In this anonymous poll!

Stay tuned for next week's #BrainBits: "Why do I get hangry (angry when I'm hungry)?"

July 8, 2015

The Psychology of Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News”

ABC/Jimmy Kimmel Live
If you’re not familiar with Jimmy Kimmel Live’s segment “Lie Witness News,” you’re missing out on a pretty fascinating (and pretty hilarious) psychology experiment.

The premise is this: Kimmel’s staff takes to the streets of L.A. as roving reporters, questioning pedestrians about recent stories in the news. These stories, however, are…not quite right, to say the least.

Take last Friday’s Independence Day-themed “Lie Witness News” (you can see the whole video at the end of the post) where a “reporter” asks a man if he’d be watching “President Obama’s planned 4th of July confederate flag burning with the last surviving Tuskegee Airman and the Wu Tang Clan.”

“I will,” the man replies with a straight face.
“Have you heard about that?”
“I have.”
“Are you excited for it?”
He replies, “A little.”

The reactions of the interviewees are fascinating. Without flinching, they always have an opinion on the matter, and apparently — somehow — they’ve always heard the story from another source beforehand.

But why aren’t people thinking twice about these ridiculous questions? Why does this segment work so well?

#BrainBits 1: "Why Does Coffee Make Me Poop?"

This is the first post in my new #BrainBits series, where I'll answer your burning neuroscience questions in 60 seconds or less. If you have a question you'd like me to answer, you can e-mail me, tweet me, or submit your questions anonymously here.

Free Stock Photos
Why does coffee make me poop?  Come on, fess up. It happens to the best of us. In fact, I just finished my morning mug, and...anyway, you get the picture.

If a cup of joe makes you go, you're not alone – 29% of people have the "desire to defecate" after drinking coffee, according to this 1990 paper published in the journal Gut. In addition to the survey, the study authors studied bowel motility in 14 subjects before and after drinking caffeinated coffee, decaffeinated coffee, or hot water using a manometry probe (fun!).

Common sense suggests that, like its stimulating effects on the brain, caffeine must also act on the muscles of the colon, resulting in peristalsis (coordinated contraction/relaxation of the GI tract that cause bowel movements). But the results suggested something else.
Peristalsis. Adrignola (Wikimedia Commons)
When asked, 6 subjects who drink coffee and 4 who drank decaf said they felt they could defecate afterward, compared to no subjects who had hot water.

Eight of the 14 subjects who had claimed that coffee typically induces the urge to purge showed increased bowel activity within four minutes of drinking coffee. This continued for at least 30 minutes. But interestingly, a similar increase was seen in those who drank decaf, suggesting that a compound in coffee other than caffeine may be responsible.

Interestingly, 63% of those who claimed that coffee makes them go were women, which may be supported by research suggesting that women are generally more sensitive to distention than men, and are more likely to suffer from irritable bowel syndrome.

What about you?
Does coffee make you wanna poo?
Let us know

(*The rhyming was not intended, but hey, it works.)

Stay tuned for next week's #BrainBits: "Why do I remember certain things only when I go certain places?"

July 3, 2015

Orange is the New Bleak: What the SHU Can Do to Your Brain

The inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary, the fictional setting for the Netflix TV series Orange is the New Black, are not shy women. 

They’ve landed in prison for murder, fraud, stalking, drug-smuggling, theft, and political activism. They do illegal activities behind the officers’ backs. They make their opinions known loud and clear to one another. And they’re not opposed to throwing a few punches, if duty calls.

But all will cease if you threaten to send them to the SHU. Why?


Netflix

The SHU (pronounced “shoe”), or “security housing unit,” is a separate prison facility designed to isolate inmates from any human contact. While sometimes used to protect the prisoner from harm by others or to themselves (to implement suicide watch, for example), it’s often used as punishment for violating prison regulations. At last count, it’s been estimated that over 80,000 prisoners in the U.S. are housed in the SHU – more than any other democratic country. And while inmates in minimum security may be held in the SHU for a few days at most, those in maximum security prisons can be in solitary for as long as five years.

June 29, 2015

#BrainBits: 60-Second Neuroscience - Submit Your Questions!

I've got a lot on my plate as a graduate student, as you may understand.

Although my goal is to blog at least every two weeks, sometimes that doesn't happen. (Case in point: my last blog was published two months ago.) But back in the day (A.K.A. before I joined a lab), I blogged WEEKLY. And I want to get back into that. So...

I'm introducing a new weekly segment, which will complement my regular posts, called Brain Bits!


My brain is not QUITE this itty-bitty, luckily. #BrainBits. SOCIALIsBETTER (Flickr)
I want to hear your burning neuroscience questions: everything from "Why do I hate the sound of my own voice?" to  "Why do I blush when I'm embarrassed?" My responses to these questions will be short and sweet; you should be able to read them in 60 seconds or less.

(To give you an idea, our first submission is, "Why does coffee make me poop?" Check back next week for the answer!)

You can e-mail me your questions, tweet me (@GainesOnBrains), or submit your questions anonymously here. And make sure you're subscribed to Gaines, on Brains (see sidebar on the right) to get my regular blogs, and the new Brain Bits segment, sent to your inbox.

Stay neuroscience-y!

April 27, 2015

Can Wearing Orange-Tinted Glasses before Bed Improve Sleep? Only One Way to Find Out...

I recently wrote about the terrible sleep habits of the characters in House of Cards. I disapproved of Frank Underwood’s late-night computer work in the Oval Office, his new midnight iPad gaming habit, and Claire taking her laptop to bed with her.

But I must confess my hypocrisy.

Despite my preaching – and despite being a sleep researcher myself – the last thing I do before I flip off the lights and snuggle into my bedsheets is play games on my iPhone.

I know, I’m bad – but I also know I’m not the only guilty person here.

Chhe (Wikimedia Commons)
Although evidence suggests that the blue light emanating from phones, tablets, laptops, televisions and e-readers can affect the quality of our sleep – in turn affecting our health and well-being – many of us can’t help logging in and tapping away when we should be winding down. A Time/Qualcomm poll of 5,000 people worldwide suggests that nearly a quarter of those between the ages of 18 and 24 generally don’t sleep as well because of technology. Even worse, 40-75% of folks across all age groups report keeping their phones within reach while they sleep at night.

But there might be a solution. Earlier this month, orange-tinted glasses, or “blue blockers,” were touted by the New York Times as a good option for those who simply can’t avoid technology before bed.

As a concerned scientist, I decided to do an experiment on myself. I hopped onto Amazon, bought an $8 pair of orange glasses, and formulated my research plan. Without changing any of my other habits, would wearing these glasses an hour before bed improve the quality of my sleep?