From the Archives: Seeking to Stem Suicide

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Nearly 45,000 people in the US kill themselves each year (probably an underestimate, given the stigma still attaching to suicide), and there may be 25 attempts for each death, according to the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. A news story we published in January reported on a few of the many avenues of research trying to help doctors and caregivers predict who is at risk and how to better help them.

“Suicide is one of the few medical conditions in which the doctor and patient have different goals—the patient may be highly motivated not to reveal what he or she is thinking,” psychiatrist Maria Oquendo says in the story. “We need biological markers so we can identify those at risk.”

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#WSF18: What Causes Extremism in the Brain?

Why did the World Science Festival organize a talk about the roots of extremism as part of this year’s celebration? Moderator Maria Konnikova explained that, under the current US administration, it is very hard to escape political discussion. With extreme views on both sides, the question of whether we are becoming a more extreme society is something on everyone’s mind.

Where does extremism come from and are we becoming more extreme? Three psychologists and neuroscientists tried to answer these questions and others at “The Roots of Extremism: The Fundamentalist in Your Brain,” a program on the final day of the World Science Festival in New York City. Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Jay Van Bavel, associate professor of psychology & neural science at New York University, and Katherine Porterfield, clinical psychologist at the Bellevue/NYU program for Survivors of Torture, discussed extremism and fundamentalism, and how it relates to the brain.

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From left: Jonathan Haidt, Katherine Porterfield, Jay Van Bavel, and moderator Maria Konnikova. Photo: World Science Festival

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Sapolsky on the Biology of Good and Evil

Guest post by Carl Sherman

“We’re a miserably violent species,” said Dana Alliance member Robert M. Sapolsky. “But we’re also a profoundly empathic, compassionate species.”

“How do we make sense of this… how do we understand the biology of it?”

sapolsky 10-2006, Stanford News Services

Robert M. Sapolsky, Ph.D.

In his keynote lecture that launched the “Learning & the Brain” conference in New York City last week, Sapolsky, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences, neurology, and neurological sciences at Stanford University, led his audience on a whirlwind tour of the many-layered terrain from which human acts that include “the horrific, the wonderful, and everything in between” arise.

“We’ll get nowhere if we look for one part of the brain, or one gene, or one childhood experience” responsible for brutal murder and sublime self-sacrifice, he said. “Instead, we have to do something more complicated: to ask what went on in a person’s brain in the second before; also in the minutes, hours, days before; what hormones did to make that brain sensitive. We have to go back to adolescence, to childhood, to the cultures our ancestors invented, to ecosystems, all the way to evolution.”

In his talk, Sapolsky enlivened systematic explanations with intriguing details and quirky research findings.

Among its diverse role in regulating emotion, he pointed out, the insula cortex generates gustatory disgust; it activates if you taste spoiled food. “But it mediates moral disgust as well. When we hear of someone doing something appalling, we’re ‘sick to our stomach.’ It leaves ‘a bad taste in the mouth.’ The insula cortex can’t tell the difference between rotten food and unsavory behavior.” Continue reading

The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind

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Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum

On a recent night at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art, neuroscientist Barbara Lipska, Ph.D., sat down with journalist Jake Halpern as part of the museum’s annual Brainwave series. The discussion gave audience members the unique opportunity to hear a lucid perspective of what it’s like to experience psychosis. The interview was also particularly intimate because, in addition to his successful career as a writer, Halpern also happens to be Lipska’s son-in-law. His questions stemmed from firsthand experiences he shared with her as she battled malignant brain tumors that caused the psychotic episodes and nearly took her life.

As director of the Human Brain Collection Core at the National Institute of Mental Health, Lipska studies schizophrenia by analyzing postmortem brain dissections and observing the behavior of rats that have a disconnection between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. “They’re actually not as different as we would like to think,” she said of the rats. “They’re smaller, that’s for sure, and they don’t have this convoluted frontal cortex. But they are very intelligent animals, and they know what they have to do to get a reward.”

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Mindfulness for the Developing Brain

meriah dejosephOn Thursday, March 15th, Know Science, an organization that advocates the knowledge of new science and scientific research to the public, hosted the talk “Regulating the Brain: The Science of Mindfulness” at the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute in New York City. This was an event presented as part of Brain Awareness Week.

Meriah DeJoseph, the presenter for the evening, is a lab manager for the Neuroscience and Education Lab at New York University (NYU). She will be starting a PhD program in developmental psychology this fall to further investigate self-regulation and how mindfulness can affect the developing brain. Prior to NYU, she worked on a project at Teachers College, Columbia University studying brain activity of children from Girls Prep Bronx Elementary, who have a mindfulness class integrated in their curriculum.

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