Neuroscience of Sports at AMNH

The American Museum of Natural History is hosting a five-session course, “The Neuroscience of Sports: Your Brain in Action.”  Here’s what to expect: “From the psychology of sports fans to the cognitive benefits of team sports to understanding the impact of repetitive brain injury, this course will give participants a practical understanding of the latest research in the neuroscience of sports.”

The first session is Monday, Sep. 16, from 6 to 8 p.m., and runs every Monday at that time until Oct. 21 (except for Columbus Day). Here are the five sessions:

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Big Dinosaurs, Small Brains

The Tyrannosaurus Rex has always gotten a bad rap. It is portrayed as a bully in the blockbuster film Jurassic Park, people joke about its short arms, and many assume it had a pea-sized brain inside its head.

It turns out that sauropods should be the butt of our jokes, at least the ones about brain size. Sauropods, as I learned at the American Museum of Natural History’s “World’s Largest Dinosaurs” exhibit, had tiny brains even relative to other dinosaurs. These giant dinosaurs (for the less nerdy readers, sauropods include brachiosaurus and other “really long-necked” dinos) had a gland responsible for secreting hormones relating to growth that made up as much as 10 percent of their brain volume. The gland certainly did its job, but it helps explain why the overall brain size wasn’t much larger than a dog’s brain, despite its massive body.

Sauropods, like stegosaurus and many other species, were herbivores. Simply put, they didn’t have to be very smart because their food wasn’t trying to escape (although greater intelligence probably would have helped them avoid becoming another dinosaur’s food). T. Rex, on the other hand, was a hunter. While research suggests it was not intelligent by any means—its powerful jaws were its greatest asset and took up a lot of head room—it did have a large olfactory lobe and a well developed inner ear. In other words, T. Rex’s sense of smell and hearing were probably strong.

Even so, large dinosaurs likely only had several billion neurons in their brains, while humans have 100 billion. Our minds are obviously capable of much higher levels of thought, but given what many carnivores like T. Rex had to compute while chasing prey, they needed more powerful brains than the sauropods. Now if you want to talk about arm size…

–Andrew Kahn

What neuroscience can tell us about morality

Last night, Dana Alliance member Patricia Churchland, UC San Diego, spoke to a standing room only audience about morality and the brain as part of the James Arthur lecture series, hosted by the American Museum of Natural History.

A pioneer of neurophilosphy, Churchland’s research combines neurobiology and philosophy to address questions such as where values, social behavior, and morality come from. In her talk, she guided her captivated audience through the evolutionary and biological factors that she believes has led to the formation of societal values.

Churchland attributed values in the deepest sense to the brainstem and limbic system, which are the emotional and motivation systems for homeostasis, survival, and well-being. But the majority of her lecture focused on oxytocin and vasopressin, neuropeptides linked to social behaviors, which are believed to play a critical role in the bonding between mammals.

According to Churchland, high levels of oxytocin in the brain decrease fear, increase trust, decrease arousal, and decrease stress. These feelings lead to attachment and trust, which set the stage for cooperation.

To illustrate her point, she referenced work done by Sue Carter on the montane and prairie voles. While similar in most respects, the montane vole is a promiscuous rodent, while the prairie vole mates for life and practices joint parenting. Compared with their cousins, prairie voles' brains have a high density of oxytocin and vasopressin in areas related to the reward system, noted Churchland.

As a population grows, benefits come from expanding trust relationships, said Churchland. In the human population, institutions that enforce trust-connections have emerged, such as laws and religion. “Society is largely about values,” she said, although people must be cognizant that different cultures can hold different value systems.

While most of her lecture stemmed from a biological base, Churchland warned the audience not to rush to attribute actions to innate nature. She explained that behavior can be changed a lot, depending on what else is going on. To emphasize her point, she ended her lecture with a painfully cute slide of an orangutan and a dog who became unlikely friends in a sanctuary. Although solitary by nature, this orangutan bonded with the dog and the two are now inseparable.

Dr. Churchland will be speaking on the same topic tonight at Columbia University.

–Ann Whitman

Meditative monks offer insight to brain researchers

Despite a foot of snow, New Yorkers filled an auditorium at the Kaufmann Theater of the American Museum of Natural History this past Thursday to hear speakers for the program “Tibetan Meditation, Brain, and the Arts.” The panel’s goal was to discuss how an obscure Himalayan religion’s approach to the nature of the mind and the brain could be explored by Western scientists. 

Bennett M. Shapiro, M.D., chairman and senior partner of PureTech Ventures, described Tibetan monks as Ph.D.’s three and four times over, since the monks had meditated for 20–30,000 hours. Researchers hope that the monks’ trained and focused minds can be scientifically measured, in a relatively new discipline he called “contemplative neuroscience.”  

Richard Davidson, Ph.D., of the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison described studies he was conducting with Tibetan monk meditators, whom he considers prototypes. Davidson also included novice meditators in his studies. As he was measuring their brains, Davidson asked all the meditators to cultivate compassion, concentrate on the suffering of others. The result in the expert meditators was gamma oscillations never seen for such a long period of time. The novices only displayed a few seconds of this activity. Imaging showed that, for the experts, blood flow increased in the anterior insula, described by Davidson as the empathic section of their brains. In the novices, no such increase was evident.

Finally, both experts and novices were told that they would be cued and, ten seconds later, zapped with heat pain. As soon as the novices were cued, their bodily responses reacted with measureable, increasing levels of anxiety. The experts’ bodily response levels barely rose; when the pain occurred, both groups responded to it at comparable levels.

The other two panelists were Kehn Rinpoche Geshe Kachen Lobzan Tsetan, Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastary in South India, and Joseph Loizzo, M.D., Ph.D., founder and director of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science. Kehn Rinpoche described three types of Tibetan meditation: Analytical Meditation (debate), Stabilization Meditation (contemplation) and Visualization (the arts). Dr. Loizzo described his practice as contemplative psychotherapy—how consciousness can take a gradual path to a peaceful neurosystem.

As a daily meditator who started18 years ago with the technique “The Relaxation Response,” I know from experience that meditation can keep you grounded and help with everyday stress. But with only 6,500 hours under my belt, I’m not an expert yet. These long-time “professional” meditators have so familiarized themselves with their consciousness, they can give expert reports from the mind. Such expertise could provide insight into unrealized human potential.      

–Rosemary Shields

Seeing stars

Astronomy and neuroscience are two of the most blogged-about sciences—and the American Museum of Natural History bridged the gap between the disciplines at an event on Tuesday about astronomy and vision.

As Emily Rice, a postdoctoral researcher in the museum’s astrophysics department, explained, when we look at the night sky (especially in areas without serious light pollution), we instantly recognize constellations. The brain is primed to recognize patterns, from the belt of Orion to a friend’s face. Astronomical patterns can be used to navigate the night sky; we can use stars in Ursa Major, for example, to find the North Star.

When we see things we don’t expect to see—like when a New York City resident leaves the bright lights and sees the Milky Way—we come up with more familiar explanations for what we are looking at, maybe thinking at first glance that the Milky Way is a cloud. Our brains are rational, making predictions based on previous experiences about what we will see and testing the predictions against the sensory input.

Every star in the sky—and there are more than 9,000 of them visible to the naked eye at a given time in the clearest conditions—has a color. Unaided, our eyes can make out the colors of only the brightest stars thanks to the workings of our two types of photoreceptors, rods and cones. Rods perceive brightness while cones make out colors, which is difficult in dim light. Our eyes evolved to perceive the relatively small range of wavelengths emitted by the sun. The same is true in the case of other animals, to interesting effect: As red light does not penetrate water, fish can only see blue light.

There are things in the night sky, like the Andromeda galaxy—a galaxy two times larger than the Milky Way and 2.5 million light years away—that are almost imperceptible to the naked eye. But if you use averted vision—looking to the side of the object rather than right at it—the light comes into clearer focus, as the rods are concentrated at the edge of our field of vision.

So when the night is clear and the stars are out, head outside, look up, and put your rods and cones to work.

–Johanna Goldberg

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