Testing Teenagers and Examining Stress

Headshot-BlakemoreExams can be nerve-wracking to even the most prepared. In England, a roller coaster of emotions has been on display as the nation’s series of grueling public exams, the General Certificate for Secondary Education (GCSE), were proctored earlier this summer. The highly anticipated test grades were finally made public last week, and while the unveiling of the results may have brought about much-needed relief for some, the pressure and preparation needed to do well for others branded the two-year journey with a relentless villain—stress.

The anxiety-inducing exam was the focus of a thought-provoking article in The Guardian that featured Dana Alliance member Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University College London and author of Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain. The self-described champion of teenagers touches on the rash timing and the dread of the exams endured by the 15- and 16-year-olds during a period that she says is critical in a developing brain. From the interview:

Continue reading

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

What We Can Learn from the Minds of Olympic Athletes: Q&A with John Krakauer, M.D.

Guest blog by Kayt Sukel

JohnKrakauer.jpg

The famed Olympic torch is now burning strong in Rio de Janeiro. The 2016 Summer Olympics are under way, and the best athletes in the world have come to represent their respective countries and compete for the gold. Time and time again, sports commentators regale us with stories about the necessity of a good “mental” game to find success in high profile events like the Olympics–and the scientific research, though limited, appears to back that view [See our paper: “Mental Preparation of High-Level Athletes”]. But what is it specifically about the brains of these athletes that allows them to reach these levels? John Krakauer, M.D., a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins University who studies human sensorimotor learning and performance, speaks with us about what we can learn from the minds of Olympic athletes, whether super athletes should be considered geniuses, and how those findings may one day inform rehabilitation after stroke or brain injury.

Continue reading

Procrastination: An Emotion-Focused Coping Strategy

“I’m very good at procrastination,” declared Courtney Act at Monday night’s Brainwave event on procrastination. Act, a semi-finalist on Australian Idol in 2003 and a top three finalist on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 6 (the best season!), joined psychiatrist Tim Pychyl on stage at New York’s Rubin Museum to discuss why we procrastinate and tools to help overcome it.

Procrastination1

Courtney Act and Tim Pychyl discuss procrastination at Brainwave’s final event of the year. Photo credit: Andrew Kist

The topic, suggested by Act, is tied to the Brainwave theme of emotion, and Pychyl was quick to congratulate her on recognizing that procrastination is indeed tied to emotion–it is not just a time-management issue or a product of laziness. Procrastination, he said, is an “emotion-focused coping strategy” that we use for short-term gratification.

Continue reading

Unraveling Individual Variability in Hormonal Mood Swings

Guest post by Brenda Patoine

The stereotype of women’s “inexplicable” mood swings has long provided fodder for comics and cartoonists, but for scientists trying to understand the underlying biology, hormonal depression is no joke.

Endocrine-related affective mood disorders show up in different forms in different phases of life, from premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) during otherwise normal menstrual cycling, to post-partum depression following childbirth, to mood disruptions around and after menopause. Yet these disorders don’t affect all women, and in fact, most women do not experience them.

“How is it that some women experience a change in affective state as a result of hormones whereas a majority of women do not?” Peter Schmidt, M.D. asked in a July 8 webinar sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). “That really is the million-dollar question.”

Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: