December 20, 2011

Bad Christmas gifts: A neuroscientific gifting guide

This article can now be found over at Brain Blogger as of today (12/25), so please check it out there. Merry Christmas, neuroscient-astic readers!

December 5, 2011

Why yawning is contagious

Check out the woman on the right and try not to yawn. Go on, give her a good ten seconds of your time. In the spirit of A Christmas Story, I triple-dog dare you. Really—try your absolute hardest not think about yawning as you read this post! C'mon, you know you can do it—you've been dared before, and you always fail miserably. NO YAWNING!

Chances are you've already let out an extended, eye-moistening, feel-good yawn or two at this point. I've personally counted six of my own since starting this post.

We've all heard that "yawning is contagious"—but why? In this busy world, we don't sleep as much as we should. Gallup Polls in recent years have found that 56% of Americans report drowsiness as a daytime problem, and 34% of us are "dangerously sleepy." Does seeing someone yawn remind us that we, too, are exhausted are must follow suit?

That may be part of it, but the true reason may go much deeper. As it turns out, yawning may have ancient roots in social bonding.

November 28, 2011

The neuroscience of "Christmas Shoes"

Sir, I wanna buy these shoes for my mama, please. It's Christmas Eve and these shoes are just her size. Could you hurry, sir? Daddy says there's not much time...

This little gem by New Song permeates the airwaves each year around this time, igniting tears and snickers alike in its listeners.

We all know why the man agrees to buy the shoes for the boy—I mean, "his clothes were worn and old, he was dirty from head to toe." But how much would he be willing to part with for this anonymous child—$20? $30? $100?

According to a study, the sadder the man, the more he would be willing to pay.

November 17, 2011

Lunacy by the full moon-acy: Is it real?

When I was in elementary school, my teacher told my class that the full moon makes people crazy.

She said it was caused by the gravitational tug of the moon on the Earth—the same forces that cause high and low tides—the argument being that our bodies are more than 60% water.

I was impressionable and fascinated by weird science—who isn't at that age?—and have long since stored that "fact"oid in my ever-developing hippocampus. The full moon last week (which, not to mention, was GINORMOUS—did anyone else notice?) reminded me of this theory and made me want to do a little research of my own.

Does the full moon really do something to our brains?

November 15, 2011

Mirror mirror on the wall, relieve me of pain once and for all

A very exciting event is happening as I type this: Neuroscience 2011, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

This nerd-tastic event attracts a bevy (over 30,000, to be more precise) of the best and brightest in brain research under one roof once a year. This year's meeting is in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately for me, I am not in attendance; but fortunately for myself and, hopefully, my readers, new research radiating from this meeting gives me some great material to share.

On Saturday, the first day of the meeting, a new study was described that involves tricking arthritis sufferers with mirrors to alleviate their pain. Wait—what? Mirrors?

November 5, 2011

Hippocampus (or should I say, elephant-campus)

I am always in awe of "unlikely animal friends," and there are plenty of these videos on YouTube from which to enjoy. This CBS Evening News Assignment America particularly interested me:

Steve Hartman has reported two follow-ups since this 2009 feature about an unlikely friendship between Tarra the elephant and Bella the dog. The latest, which I caught when aired two nights ago, was heartbreaking, but extraordinarily fascinating. Sadly, Bella was killed by what appeared to be a coyote attack on October 26. When the location of the attack was pinpointed, the blood on Tarra's trunk made it evident that the elephant had carried her friend a mile back to the house. Tarra is now showing all the signs of depression—her fellow elephant friends at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, TN have been reaching out to her, spending more time with her and offering her their food. Nothing short of amazing, right?

November 3, 2011

Goodbye, sun. Hello, confused suprachiasmatic nucleus!

In my book, Ben Franklin is the man. An expert swimmer, self-taught pentaglot, and inventor of the "glass harmonica," he was also among the first to suggest the notion of Daylight Savings Time. A 1784 essay by Franklin suggested that an extra hour of daylight in the evening would save on candles.

I love that extra hour. As a kid during the summertime, it meant my brother and I could play our aptly-named "Kick the Ball" game in the yard after dinner. Nowadays, it means I can see where I'm going when I walk home from an afternoon in lab.

The end of Daylight Savings Time (which occurs at 2 a.m. this Sunday) means an end to all that, and the beginning of—well, winter. And winter is...cold. So very cold...

For most of us, changing our clocks back an hour is no big deal—in fact, it has its perks over "spring forward" in that we get an extra hour of sleep. But for others, changing the time can have a big impact on our circadian rhythm.

October 23, 2011

Big friend list = big brain?

You know what they say about people with big brains...

Big Facebook friends lists.

That's not entirely true.

But a new study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B has neuroscience junkies abuzz this week: the number of Facebook friends we have may be linked to certain brain structures.

October 16, 2011

Why do we like to associate with what's familiar to us?

Firstly: apologies for the creepy pic. My posting begged a photo of twins, and this (from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining) was Halloween-appropriate.

Now I can't stop thinking about that God-awful bathtub scene. Onward...

When you walk into a room full of strangers—new class, a job orientation, the doctor's waiting room—what is your criteria for choosing next to whom you will sit?

According to a study published this past summer in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, chances are that you may find yourself subconsciously sitting next to someone who physically resembles you in some manner. ("Come play with us," your doppleganger may appear to beckon [okay, I'm done with that ridiculous movie now]).

October 8, 2011

Head-to-head competition: It really is mind over matter

Plain and simple, I miss rowing.

I miss everything about it—the power, the swing, hearing all eight oars click at once, the passion in your coxswain's voice, eating breakfast with forty wet and exhausted friends, the sunrises, maintaining the boats, and even traipsing down to the river at 5 in the morning (once I could get my butt out of bed—yeah, I even miss that part).

But perhaps the part I miss the most is pushing my body to the limit, both in racing and erging.

October 3, 2011

At face value: The amygdala recognizes the whole, not parts

Yesterday I was scanning through my iPhoto library when I came across some photos I had taken of my friends' eyes—just their eyes—from my freshman year of undergrad (it was finals week, and we were playing pool.

I can't claim the best study habits, but I got into grad school, alright?).

I turned to my boyfriend and had him identify whose eyes they were. To my surprise, he didn't get all of them correct, and he hesitated on most.

Aren't a person's eyes their most identifying feature?

September 23, 2011

Rituals, overeating, and...stale popcorn?

Baseball game = hot dog.

Carnival = cotton candy.

Birthday = cake.

And, of course, movie theater = popcorn.

Our culture dictates these rituals, and we are happy to comply. But does this sense of ritual subconsciously force us to continue eating, even if a particular serving isn't quite so yummy?

September 15, 2011

BAM BAM! Shooting down video game myths

To my gaming readers: chances are that you aren't a gamer because you want to boost your cognitive abilities.

You have likely, however, been reassured by scientific evidence in the past decade suggesting that video games can do just that.

August 31, 2011

Misdiagnosis, misinformation, and the psychology of acceptance

Dutch psychologists examined the case of a 58-year old woman misdiagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

The woman sought a neurologist during a particularly stressful time in her life, revealing that her mother suffered from the disease.

Her brain scan revealed hypofrontality (reduced activity) in her forebrain, and performance on a cognitive impairment exam was estimated as "poor," without having actually taken the exam.

The woman's condition deteriorated significantly, wherein she became permanently confused and, eventually, suicidal.

August 13, 2011

Welcome to "Gaines, on Brains"

Welcome to my new blog!

My name is Jordan, and I'm a 22-year old graduate student beginning the pursuit of my Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Penn State. I'm not entirely certain what I'd like to do with my degree yet. I just know that I want a Ph.D., something I've wanted since 8th grade before I even knew what "neuroscience" really was. That could be me wanting to seriously pursue the scientific endeavor with all of my heart and soul, or me wanting to prefix my name with "Dr." without the daunting responsibility of treating patients.