Tag Archives: stakeholder engagement

The Brain’s Clustered Plasticity

Tough title.  All it means is that neurons assist one another in processing information.  Traditional research has heretofor concluded that neurons communicate with one another simply by sending chemical bursts from one axonal ending to the next.  New research at Maryland’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute indicates that neighboring synapses also become more sensitized to assist.

“The traditional view was that each synapse functioned independently, and the strength of individual connections modulated memory storage,” said Mr. Harvey, a graduate student at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. “What we’ve shown is that neighboring synapses may function together, which leads to the idea that information is stored in a clustered manner, with related things concentrated in the same neighborhood.”

This period of sensitivity appears to be on the order of ten minutes or so, which squares with the pragmatic need for keeping information just long enough to accomplish a task without overwhelming the system with too much information.

Link:  New York Times

Culture Influences Brain Function

Been out for the holidays among other things but of interest on my return is a news release indicating that cultural bias can influence physiological brain function.  ScienceDaily, in this post, states that people from different cultures use their brains differently to solve the same visual perception tasks.  Using the binary cultural differentiation broadly characteristic of Eastern and Western cultures (emphasis upon the individual as opposed to emphasis upon the group), the study found that –

. . . the two groups showed different patterns of brain activation when performing these tasks. Americans, when making relative judgments that are typically harder for them, activated brain regions involved in attention-demanding mental tasks. They showed much less activation of these regions when making the more culturally familiar absolute judgments. East Asians showed the opposite tendency, engaging the brain’s attention system more for absolute judgments than for relative judgments.

Making judgments outside of one’s cultural comfort zone involves more brain processing activity.  As one of the study authors suggests –

“Everyone uses the same attention machinery for more difficult cognitive tasks, but they are trained to use it in different ways, and it’s the culture that does the training,” Gabrieli says. “It’s fascinating that the way in which the brain responds to these simple drawings reflects, in a predictable way, how the individual thinks about independent or interdependent social relationships.”

Of related interest is the impact of culture on the brain’s mirror neuron system, the system that operates both when we do something as well as when we merely observe someone doing something.  It is this observation aspect that is significant as neuroscientists presently think that this “mirroring” is the neural mechanism by which people are able to empathize with others.

A recent study indicates that mirror neuron activation increases when one is observing someone from one’s own cultural background as opposed to someone from a different cultural background, even when both are making the same culturally understood gestures.  “All in all, our research suggests that with mirror neurons our brain mirrors people, not simply actions,” this study’s author states.

And that has interesting implications for empathy, group dynamics, communication, and other issues.

This idea that culture not only trains and influences how we behave, but actually impacts the physiological ways in which we use our brains is an interesting springboard for further exploring how we relate to one another, and more importantly, how we can develop better communication and coaching tools for the building of community.

Speaking as Misunderstanding

Of all the many ways that we can misunderstand one another, how about the McGurk effect?  This is what happens when a person’s voice says one thing but the mouth says another.  As Uri Hassan of the University of Chicago’s Human Neuroscience Laboratory says –

“As an example, what would happen if a person’s voice says ‘pa,’ but the person’s lips mouth the word ‘ka”‘ One would think you might hear ‘pa’ because that is what was said. But in fact, with the conflicting verbal and visual signals, the brain is far more likely to hear ‘ta,’ an entirely new sound.”

So while we recognize words from the sounds that we hear, there is a more abstract process occurring in which the brain interprets speech using both sight and sounds.

Hassan’s study demonstrates that the Broca’s area of the brain is the region that is responsible for this type of abstract speech processing.  This speech production center of the ventroposterior region of the frontal lobe has long been known but this study adds a new dimension to that understanding.

From another perspective, it offers additional insight into why we so commonly misunderstand one another in our casual everyday conversations, evidencing yet again the complexity underlying our communications.

Link:  New Brain Mechanism Identified For Interpreting Speech

Belief, Disbelief and Uncertainty

Three distinct responses to new information. Do I accept it or throw it out? Or am I unsure? Our cumulative responses together build our mental models – our worldviews of everything around us.

A study conducted by Mark Cohen, Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Sam Harris, a graduate student in his lab, and Sameer Sheth of the Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests that physiological differences in processing belief and disbelief are independent of content or emotional associations. It appears that different physiological portions of the brain process belief and disbelief as well as uncertainty.

Taken together, these data offer insight into the way in which our brains work to form beliefs about the world. “What I find most interesting about our results,” said Harris, “is the suggestion that our view of the world must pass through a bottle-neck in regions of the brain generally understood to govern emotion, reward, and primal feelings like pain and disgust. While evaluating mathematical, ethical, or factual statements requires very different kinds of processing, accepting or rejecting these statements seems to rely upon a more primitive process that may be content-neutral. I think that it has long been assumed that believing that “two plus two equals four” and believing that “George Bush is President of the United States” have almost nothing in common as cognitive operations. But what they clearly have in common is that both representations of the world satisfy some process of truth-testing that we continually perform. I think this is yet another result, in a long line of results, that calls the popular opposition between reason and emotion into question.”

Of many items of interest in this study is the association of emotion with our truth-discerning processes and our personal convictions.

Link: Study Shows Brain Responds Differently to Belief and Disbelief

Stress as Pain Relief

Stress can alleviate pain – perhaps the only good thing about it most would suppose. This “stress-induced analgesia” shields the body from pain after a serious injury and acts as a protective mechanism. Long known to operate through a mechanism in which the body releases its own naturally occurring cannabinoids, recent research indicates the action of the stress hormone noradrenaline as an additional mechanism.

Processes that mediate the emotional and stress-related aspects of pain originate in the amygdala and are controlled by neurons that originate in the brainstem and are regulated by noradrenaline. Noradrenaline appears to modulate pain inputs in the amygdala by limiting neuro transmissions (the mechanism by which one neuron triggers a nerve impulse in another) from the brainstem.

This protective response is akin to other amygdala and brainstem-mediated survival responses – sleep deprivation and increase in emotional response, handling surprise, and the focus of attention on emotion among many. It is useful.

To reiterate a point – understanding of our brain’s physiological processes allows us to manage behaviours without reducing their protective effectiveness. For example, anger has survival benefits. Yet anger also flairs at inappropriate times and in inappropriate ways. A mistaken run up the ladder of inference produces a threat response where none is warranted. It is times like these when the brain’s physiological responses are appropriate but the situation that prompted them is not. And it is this cognitive management without the loss of emotional richness and survival protection that is one ongoing aspect of coaching TED.

Link: How Stress Alleviates Pain

Where is Visual Beauty?


In the brain of the beholder? 

A study in which art criticism-challenged subjects (most of us) were asked to view sculptures in which the classic Golden Ratio parameters were tweaked suggests that our perception of visual beauty is partly instinctive and partly learned.  Test subjects showed more activity in the brain’s limbic insular cortex, part of our emotion mediation system, when viewing sculpture that has been deemed classically beautiful over the ages.

As summed up nicely in Wired – “Thankfully, the researchers did not reach too far in their conclusions. The results, they said, merely suggest that beauty is mediated by separate but overlapping processes. One is learned, the other instinctive — and therein lies the power of art to speak across ages, long after its makers and their world have disappeared.”

Perhaps, as people, we share more in common across cultures than we sometimes admit.

Link: Wired

A Biological Clue to Paying Attention

Acetylcholine (ACh) increases the activity of neurons to detect stimuli that would be typically below an attention threshold. As such it enhances visual processing through signal amplification and may represent the biological basis underlying the process that our minds undergo in focusing attention upon something.

“That’s what attention does–it strengthens the signal you’re interested in and that strengthening helps you filter out other things” said Anita Disney of NYU, “Our findings show that acetylcholine has the ability to turn up the volume on visual activity, just like attention does.”

See also here.

Link: ScienceDaily

Men and Women Cope Differently under Stress

How do you deal with stress?  University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researcher Dr. J. J. Wang, Assistant Professor or Radiology and Neurology, reports that the brains of men and women respond differently to performance stressors.

In men, it was found that stress was associated with increased cerebral blood flow in the right prefrontal cortex and reduction of cerebral blood flow in the left orbitofrontal cortex. In women, the limbic system — a part of the brain primarily involved in emotion — was activated when they were under stress.  Men had increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, as opposed to women.
In simpler terms, men exhibited typical “fight or flight” responses while women were found to exhibit a more nurturing “tend and befriend” type of behaviour.  One potential from the study –

“Women have twice the rate of depression and anxiety disorders compared to men,” notes Dr. Wang. “Knowing that women respond to stress by increasing activity in brain regions involved with emotion, and that these changes last longer than in men, may help us begin to explain the gender differences in the incidence of mood disorders.”

As to coaching – factoring this difference into personal coaching is congruent with a variety of techniques in team dynamics and other interpersonal situations.

Link: ScienceDaily

Tagore, Delight, my Brain – and Memory

On a personal note, Tagore’s early letters have been a delight of late. Something moves me in his early, reflective writing – the discovery by youth of something of the mystery of self, perception and the world around it. On an extended, lazy river trip he writes –

There must have been some sudden excitement in the night which sent the current racing away. I rose and sat by the window. A hazy kind of light made the turbulent river look madder than ever. The sky was spotted with clouds. The reflection of a great big star quivered on the waters in a long streak, like a burning gash of pain. Both banks were vague with the dimness of slumber, and between them was this wild, sleepless unrest, running and running regardless of consequences.

To watch a scene like this in the middle of the night makes one feel altogether a different person, and the daylight life an illusion. Then again, this morning that midnight world faded away into some dreamland, and vanished into thin air. The two are so different, yet both are true for man. Shelidah, 10th August 1894.

Many other things move me as well of course. And of many things that they have in common, a piquant poignancy is one important thread among many – a poignancy that not only occurs “in the moment” of the actual event, but is brought forth again and heightened by the simple act of remembering.

Memory is a tricky thing – that which we remember is but one approximation of the actuality – colored by who we are and what we’ve experienced. Events often becomes more pleasant in memory than the actual event itself. Our brains are pretty good storage instruments in many regards – not so much of data perhaps, but of information (data interpreted) and experience (data acted upon). But they act more effectively as interpreters than storage instruments. (Check here and here for the drier explanation if you like.)

And that is significant. For us as individuals data alone is fairly irrelevant. But data that is interpreted, experienced and colored by the complex emotional components that spring from our brains is the stuff of which our memories are made.

I think that’s why experiments such as Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits, while important, and even useful as tools, ultimately remain only that – tools of recall for our brains and minds. The data is just data. Its significance lies in the act of recollection.

And so Tagore’s words move me in my memory some 100 years after they were written. It isn’t merely the data that he left behind – but what those words cause to resonate within me. And it is that resonance that causes me delight – even as it reminds me of the limitations of my mind.

Birth of a Brain Cell

As adults we continue to create new brain cells. This is good news both for future disease treatments as well as for maintaining a healthy brain as we age (so keep mentally active). Until now researchers had not been able to visualize this process.

Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, assistant professor of neurology at Stony Brook University in New York State, has developed a method utilizing a chemical marker that successfully allows scientists to see the birth of these new neurons. While the make-up of the marker remains unknown, Maletic-Savatic speculates that it is a blend of fatty acids in a lipid (fat) or lipid protein.

Link: Scientific American