December 18, 2013

Why Does Time Fly as We Get Older?

Originally posted at Scientific American MIND.

Another year; another Christmas around the corner.

The conversation around the watercooler these days has evolved into the annual “where has the time gone?” discussion—how quickly the neighborhood kids have become high school graduates; how our hot July beach vacations seem like they were just yesterday; and how we haven’t baked cookies or sent cards or bought gifts yet because time has just been flying by.

It’s become a common complaint—almost a joke—that time seems to whiz by faster and faster as we get older.

Of course, aging doesn’t grant us the power to disrupt the space-time continuum, so it’s not a real problem. But why do we perceive it to be?

December 12, 2013

'Twas the Neural Pathway of Christmas

The following is an original and extraordinarily nerdy rendition of the classic Clement Clarke Moore poem adapted by yours truly, describing the basic pathway of happiness one feels when one sees a pleasant image—like Santa Claus!

Ornament by Neverland Jewelry.
'Twas the neural pathway of Christmas as my eyes do behold
A vision of St. Nicholas—red, so jolly, and bold.

His image burns into my retina, transmitting down optic nerve
Before the optic chiasm crosses in an unexpected swerve.

From optic tract to LGN—the sensory relay
Of six alternating layers; a complex neural highway.

Radiation to layer 4 of the visual cortex comes next—
But what follows leaves even the greatest minds perplexed.

For this vision becomes a signal, signal becomes a sense
Conversion of molecule to emotion—a feeling so intense.

Glutamatergic synapses fire onto the VTA—
A group of tiny neurons on the floor of the midbrain.

But wrong you are if you believe the brain to be tired,
For from VTA to nucleus accumbens dopamine is fired.

It is from this tiny region that glimpsing Santa brings such joy—
Pleasant emotional perception for every girl and boy.

So fleeting this emotion, as your auditory cortex hears,
 "A brainy Christmas to all—now, onward, reindeer!"

November 20, 2013

From Sacks to Suicidality: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and the NFL

Ah, football. The great American pastime.

The fresh cut grass and crisply-painted yard lines. The sound of helmets clashing in an epic stack of large men vying for a single ball. Stands packed high with thousands upon thousands of crazed, prideful, body-painted fanatics. The cheerleaders. The roar of the crowd. Chips, dip, and booze. Hilarious touchdown dances. Dementia, confusion, and depression.

Wait, what?

That last bit may not be present on game day, but for many football players, it's brewing all along—with every clash, tackle, and fall.

Cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, are only now beginning to unfold with postmortem diagnoses and early symptoms of memory loss, depression, confusion, and aggression being reported by former NFL players.

And with the recent settlement involving 4,500+ former footballers against the NFL, the topic of CTE has quickly shifted from being more than just a medical issue.

October 25, 2013

Alcohol, Sleep, and Why You Might Re-think that Nightcap

"Alcohol makes you sleepy."

We've all heard it. Many of us have experienced it. A few of us even swear by it—enough to ceremonially partake in a glass or two of wine before crawling into bed.

A nightcap.

In fact, a little booze has been experimentally (and anecdotally) demonstrated to help us fall asleep faster and increase slow-wave, or deep, sleep in the first half of the night.

But its effect on other aspects of sleep—notably, the second half of the night—leaves much to be desired.

What causes alcohol's strange and dichotomous effect on the sleeping brain? And the real question—do you accept the nightcap or not?

October 3, 2013

Sleep Cycle App: Precise, or Placebo?

Thanks to the Internet, it's the age of self-diagnosis. People like to learn about (and treat) themselves through technology.

Especially when pretty graphs are involved (see fancy screenshot at right).

As a sleep researcher, I was interested in my friends' use of sleep-tracking apps, and I received a pretty positive response when I prompted them for their thoughts:

"I'm a believer."

"When I use it right, I feel less groggy."

The website and smartphone apps like Sleep Cycle use the average human's sleep pattern to determine the best window of time that you should wake up. The idea is that interrupting the "wrong" sleep cycle stage, such as slow-wave ("deep") sleep or REM (rapid eye movement, when dreaming occurs), results in grogginess upon awakening, as many of us can attest. Sleep researchers call this phenomenon "sleep inertia."

It's such a big deal that, in the sleep laboratory, we as techs are instructed not to wake participants if they're in REM, even if the experimental recording time is over.

So when a friend told me that he only feels refreshed after (according to his sleep-tracking app) eight REM cycles, I got a little skeptical, given the average person will only experience four or five REM periods per night.

What's the verdict on sleep-tracking apps? How do they work, and how accurate are they? Is it all a big scam, or perhaps the placebo effect at work?

September 23, 2013

Prosopagnosia: Why Some are Blind to Faces

A few months ago, I had an hour-long conversation with Professor P in his office discussing his course that had just wrapped up. We veered off-topic toward the end of our talk, broaching the subjects of his grad school days, scuba diving hobby, and my blogging.

Less than an hour later, I was loitering around the college's entrance in my coat, ready to go home for the day. I spotted Dr. P locking up his office and gave him a wave.

He eyed me strangely and walked a couple steps closer before returning the greeting. "Oh, didn't recognize you in the coat. You were wearing green earlier. Have a good night, Jordan."

It would have been a puzzling encounter if I didn't already know about his strange afflication.

Dr. P has prosopagnosia, or the inability to recognize faces. "I only identified you by the blonde ponytail," he admitted, evidently blind to my appearance in his class everyday—much less from our extensive conversation just an hour prior.

August 29, 2013

Why do we cry when we're happy?

It's been awhile, braniacs. But I have an excuse! A good one, I swear!

I got married to the love of my life on August 10—who I, of course, met in a neuroscience lab a few years ago.

Something inexplicable has been plaguing me the past few months, though. Getting married, including the months of stressful planning and nightmares leading up to the big day, was the happiest time of my life.

I reveled in choosing dresses and shoes, booking vendors, and constructing centerpieces. I saw my family and friends a lot over the past few months. And, after all, I was celebrating one of the purest and most joyful things that can be celebrated in this crazy, mixed-up world: love.

But, for some reason, I found myself crying a lot more. Not out of sadness or frustration or hopelessness, though.

I mean, I couldn't even keep it together while walking down the aisle—something every girl, growing up, likes to daydream about...right? (See pathetic photo.)

Most of us have heard that crying, in essence, is good for us—that it relieves us when we're sad, releases stress and toxins, yadda yadda.

So what was with my sobbing on what was inarguably the happiest day of my life?

August 2, 2013

One reason airline food is so bad? Your own tastebuds

Hey, readers!

I'm over at NBC News Health today discussing why we perceive airline food to be so bad, even when it really isn't.

(Spoiler alert: changes in air pressure and humidity affect our sense of taste and smell.)

Check it out here!

July 22, 2013

Are we pushing pink on girls...or pushing boys away?

My brother got a remote-controlled race car for his 4th birthday. I, being the jealous big sister, begged and pleaded to play with the car at every opportunity. I should not have been shocked to get my very own remote-controlled car that Christmas.

But I was. The car was black and had a spider emblem on the side. "Santa must have written the wrong name," 6-year-old me declared, ruffling through the pile of balled-up wrapping paper to check. But indeed, the car was for me. The boy car.

Last week, The Conversation published a piece by Melissa Hines, Professor of Psychology at Cambridge University, addressing gender differences in toy preference. Towards the second half of the article, the focus shifts toward girls' preferences for pink and its implications on cognitive development in both males and females.

June 19, 2013

LEGO Faces are Getting Angrier; So What?

Transport yourselves back to sprawling across the living room floor—colored blocks scattered like confetti about the carpet—building the highest towers and fattest spaceships (without directions, of course), all the while ignoring your parents' yelps as they step on a rogue piece.

There's nothing quite like LEGO.

And certainly there's nothing quite like those ubiquitious yellow, blocky LEGO faces.

But a piece in The Daily Mail last week cites that "LEGO faces are getting angrier," and that this may, in turn, "be harming children's development."

Christopher Bartneck, of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, will be presenting his findings at the First International Conference on Human-Agent Interaction in Japan this August. The central theme of the conference will explore how humans interact with objects that represent different personalities.

Whoa whoa whoa...let's slow down a bit. Perhaps LEGO faces have indeed become angrier—and more disdainful, more fearful, more smug—since their 1975 debut. But is it actually affecting the emotional and mental well-being and learning of a developing child?

June 5, 2013

Tone deafness and the brain

Hiya, brainiacs!

I've been having a crazy, exhausting, educational, and whirlwind week in Baltimore for the SLEEP2013 annual conference. Check out the Twitter hashtag #sleep2013 for real-time updates. Wednesday is the final day!

In the meantime, I'm over at NBC's The Body Odd blog today exploring a recent study on the neuroanatomical differences between amusics (tone-deaf individuals) and normal controls.

The authors found differences in short-term memory, electrical currents, and white-to-gray matter ratios in the two groups.

Check it out here!

June 2, 2013

Sound it out: Do you "see" or "hear" words you have to spell?

I have an extraordinarily intelligent friend. Halfway through veterinary school, she's a hard worker, an avid reader, and scores highly on standardized and academic exams. She excels at what she does, and I've met few other people in life with her brand of outstanding dedication and commitment.

But there is one feature about her that is so strangely unexpected—so strikingly opposite her accomplishments—to the point where it's just comical.

She can't spell to save her life.

Now don't get me wrong. The spellcheck has saved me more times than not, and while I'm no Arvind Mahankali (13-year-old New York native who just won Thursday night's 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee; seen above competing in 2011), I never had too much difficulty remembering how to spell words that I'd read. What do we know about spelling, and why are some of our most brilliant peers some of the greatest misspellers out there?

May 27, 2013

Study says chilling out—literally—may help us see eye to eye with others

I'm over at NBC's The Body Odd blog today discussing a study in the June 2013 issue of Acta Psychologica.

According to the study, cooler temperatures were shown to reduce something called "egocentric anchoring," or remaining rooted in one's opinion about in issue.

In other words, they were more likely to take another's point of view.

Check out the article here!

May 16, 2013

Misophonia: enraged by everyday sounds

Very soon, I'll be joining forces with Scitable, a network developed by Nature Publishing Group.

(Don't worry—you won't miss any of my writing if you follow Gaines, on Brains!)

In preparation, I've got a piece on the Scitable Student Voices blog today about misophonia, or hatred of certain sounds.

Check it out here!

April 27, 2013

How stores trick our senses to make us buy more (Part 4 of 5: Smell)

(Read the previous posts in this series: tastesight, and touch).

Grocery shopping is a real chore (at least, in my mind).

It takes planning, list-making, and coupon clipping. One spends an hour ambling up and down twenty aisles, eventually shelling out a hundred dollars or so. Then there are heavy bags to carry into the house, in pairs—and then these items have to be put away. Phew.

For many, this is a weekly, repetitive torture. But for me, there is one upside. Regardless of whether I'm in the meat department, perusing the dairy, or contemplating my pickle options, I can smell it: the enticing aroma of the bakery, pumped sneakily through the air conditioning system. More often than not, I'll check out with a cookie or two (or twenty).

Not only is the ability to smell one of humans' most primitive senses, but it is also closely tied to memory and emotion. How do stores take advantage of our sense of smell to tempt us to buy more than we bargained for?

April 19, 2013

Fool yourself out of your fear of public speaking

Hey, braniacs!

Once again, I'm over at NBC's The Body Odd blog today. This time, I'm covering a cool new study about how understanding our bodies' stress responses can actually reduce the response itself. In this case, researchers focused on the fear of public speaking, something that is estimated to affect 75% of us.

Check it out here!

April 17, 2013

How stores trick our senses to make us buy more (Part 3 of 5: Touch)

(Read the previous posts in this series: taste and sight.)

There are few things more satisfying than running your hand over a rack full of cashmere sweaters, right?

My dad teases my mom and I when we're out shopping, asking why we must touch and comment on every garment's texture within arm's reach.

I mean, it just feels good. And many a Christmas has passed where my mom has received an especially fluffy sweater from yours truly, her partner in petting.

Sure, a company can do its job to create an attractive, pleasurable product for us consumers. But—you guessed it—the store does its own part in tricking us, ensuring that the phrase "you touch it, you buy it" often holds true.

April 10, 2013

Why do we sigh?

I sigh. A lot.

And, I realize, it's only when I feel discontent.

I sigh when I'm frustrated by statistics and can't make sense of the code on my computer screen. When I sit in class for three hours and daydream of all the productive things I could be doing. When I'm confused by the competing research literature on the desk in front of me. When I'm disgruntled by somebody's ignorant comments.

But why do I do it? Does it help regulate my breathing when I'm stressed? Is it a subconscious action I do to express to those around me that I'm anxious or upset? Perhaps a mental reset button, so to speak?

In fact, it may be a combination of all three.

April 2, 2013

Why we hate the sound of our own voice

Why don't we recognize our own voices when we hear a recording?

Most importantly, why don't we like what we hear?

I'm over at's The Body Odd blog today explaining why.

Check it out here!

March 31, 2013

My Neuron (an original sonnet)

If I should think of all things in the world,
A tiny neuron in my brain is you.
Your axon weaves throughout my cortex, twirled—
About my thalamus your dendrites grew.
When not around, chloride ions invade
And inhibit my action potential,
Obstructing second-messenger cascade
And making sodium less substantial.
Occipital lobe neural synapses
Fire when you enter my field of view—
My nervous system instead collapses
As neurites shrug and declare, “I am through.”

For when you're here my whole body goes numb—
My brain can't function—I am so very dumb.

March 18, 2013

Why that echoey phone feedback drives us nuts

Hey, braniacs!

I'm over at's The Body Odd blog this week talking about delayed auditory feedback (DAF) and why it makes for such a difficult time speaking...

...and, strangely, why DAF can be used to improve fluency in those who stutter.

Check it out here!

March 3, 2013

Sleep studies: What's all that stuff they put on me?!

The following is a post written for the upcoming blog run by graduate students at Penn State College of Medicine. The blog will be aimed at high school students and residents of the community. I'll use these posts to introduce you to the research I'm conducting as a graduate student in neuroscience.

Have you ever had a sleep study done?

Perhaps you or a loved one has been referred to a sleep clinic for insomnia, apnea, narcolepsy, or restless legs syndrome. Maybe you’ve participated in a sleep research study—and if you’re in central Pennsylvania, you may even be part of our laboratory’s adult or child general population cohorts!

The hallmark of getting a sleep study done is—well, looking something like this: 

Looks rather scary, right? Fear not—each component has a very simple purpose.

February 17, 2013

Fainting at the sight of blood

I remember the day so well because the circumstances were so ridiculous.

It was my freshman year of high school, the Friday before homecoming weekend. Football players and cheerleaders wore their respective uniforms to class, I had a blue pawprint painted on my face, and everyone in class was antsy in anticipation of the pep rally at the end of the day.

Our health teacher put on some Red Cross first aid video to appease our restlessness. Halfway through the video, an actor began "bleeding" profusely from the arm. Just as his friend ripped off a bit of his t-shirt to staunch the blood, I saw a flash of blue jersey out of the corner of my eye.

One of the star football players in my class—a pretty massive beast of a human being—slumped down his chair then lay flat on the floor. He was passed out cold.

Do you get woozy when you see blood? It seems like an oddly dramatic physiological response for just seeing a little red liquid, right? As it turns out, fainting at the sight of blood may be a primitive reflex buried deep in our brain.

January 28, 2013

Smell and memory: Old feelings in a new place

My friend texted me something today that she thought I'd find interesting.

She had a meeting for work in an office she'd never entered before. Immediately as she entered the room, conflicting feelings of happiness and awkwardness washed over her.

The smell. It wasn't necessarily good or bad—just distinctive. And it didn't smell like anything in particular. All she knew was that it had an odor exactly like her boyfriend's dorm room when she was a freshman in college—something she hasn't experienced in five years—bringing back the paired feelings of excitement and nervousness that come with new relationships. And those of, well, being in a boy's stinky dorm room.

We've all experienced this at one time or another: a familiar perfume, a family recipe in the oven, the scent of a bonfire—they all bring back a flood of memories, momentarily whisking us away to re-live our past. But why does this happen?

January 3, 2013

How stores trick our senses to make us buy more (Part 2 of 5: Sight)

The weekend before Christmas, I was sucked into a giant, enticing vortex of craving and desire, stuck for hours with the inability to leave—my only limitation being my wallet.

In other words, I went to Target.

And—again, in other words—I was like a bull in a China shop.

Back in 2009, Target introduced new gigantic, plastic, Playskool-esque shopping carts. Maneuvering the aisles is like passing a car on a one-lane country road in a Hummer.

Of course they're ridiculously cumbersome, but it's all a trick on the Target executives' part—the bigger your cart, the more you can fit in there. You'll look silly hauling around a couple packages of pens and a box of tissues to the checkout counter, after all. Better head to the appliance section and fill it with a microwave or plasma TV.

In this second installment, we'll explore how stores betray our sense of sight, tricking us to buy stuff we really don't want or need.