There’s No Brain in the World Like Yours

Guest post by Kayt Sukel 

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Image: Shutterstock

In the beloved children’s book, Happy Birthday to You!, Dr. Seuss writes, “Today you are YOU, that is TRUER than true. There is NO ONE alive who is YOUER than YOU.” Those who study the brain understand that the complex interplay of genetics and environment give rise to that “you-ness” of which Dr. Seuss spoke. And, as it turns out, it also makes for unique changes to brain anatomy—so much so that one can be uniquely identified by the brain, much like with fingerprints or the eye’s iris pattern.

Lutz Jäncke, a neuropsychologist at Switzerland’s University of Zurich, has spent his career studying individual differences. His work looking at brain differences in musicians, dancers, and chess players demonstrated that the human brain is profoundly shaped by experience.

“Thirty years ago, we didn’t anticipate that the human brain is so plastic,” he explains. “In learning that training and experience can have such a profound influence on the human brain, even in terms of anatomical and morphological aspects, we wondered if it was possible to identify individuals on the basis of anatomical features in the brain.”

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And All That Jazz: A Q&A with Michael Shadlen, M.D., Ph.D.

Guest post by Kayt Sukel 

Famed artist Barbara Januszkiewicz once said, “Jazz is the art of thinking out loud.” Is it any wonder then that jazz has made its way into a variety of neuroscience laboratories to help researchers investigate the neural underpinnings of creativity, communication, and timing?

In honor of International Jazz Day, a day designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to celebrate jazz’ ability to connect people from all over the globe, Michael Shadlen, M.D., Ph.D. , a neurologist at Columbia University (and jazz guitar player), shares his thoughts about jazz, timing, and the celebration of what our brains do each and every day in the service of cognition.

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Photo: Michael Shadlen

You are a jazz guitarist. What first got you interested in playing jazz music?

MS: I’ve always been interested in music. When I was younger, I played the violin. Later, I switched to guitar—mainly because my violin teacher wanted me to choose between basketball, girls, and violin. So I switched to guitar. I played in a rock band for a long time doing covers. We had the Bar Mitzvah circuit down!

But the drummer in our band was in the jazz band in high school. And he turned me on to it. We’d go to this amazing café called Amazing Grace in Evanston, Illinois. They had mostly folk music but also a lot of jazz acts. I remember seeing Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, and all kinds of amazing artists play there. It was pretty spectacular.

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The Romantic Brain

Guest post by Kayt Sukel

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Image: Seimi Rurup

Leading up to Valentine’s Day, you can’t help being inundated with advertisements for cards, chocolates and jewelry–those “perfect” gifts to show that one special person how much you love them. The world has love on the brain. But what are the latest findings regarding the brain in love?

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From the Archives: Valentine Reading List

Since talk of love is all the rage this week, let’s look back at a few of our past articles on love and attachment. First up is a Cerebrum essay by Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher that — after 15 years — is still on our Top 10 list of most-popular pages on dana.org.

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Image: Beatriz Gascon J/Shutterstock

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Can Brain Science Decipher Love?

Any day now, the stores will be awash in red decorations in preparation for Valentine’s Day. The day is more a clever marketing ploy than a holiday, but nevertheless, when faced with images of red hearts everywhere, people may well start to ponder the status of their relationships (or how to find a relationship) and the general notion of love.

What is love? Is it an intense attraction? A diamond necklace? The feeling parents have for their children? We know it when we feel it, but can we explain it? In her book, Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships, released earlier this week, science writer and frequent Dana Foundation contributor Kayt Sukel looks into the neuroscience behind our decisions of the heart.

Dirty Minds Cover

This is not a dry science textbook we’re talking about; with sections like “Hot Monkey Loving,” and “Sexy as a Boar’s Saliva,” you’ll be entertained as you learn about the inner workings of the brain. Written in a conversational tone, the language is easy to follow, and some personal anecdotes add humor and colorful imagery.

In the chapter “Neurobiology of Attraction,” Sukel weighs in on the debate surrounding the existence of human pheromones and how smell can contribute to attraction (something discussed in the 2009 Dana briefing paper, “The Chemistry of Love”). Despite what you may see in some perfume advertisements, scientists have yet to identify a single human chemical as a pheromone.

But certain mammals, such as the boar, are equipped with pheromones to attract mates, says Sukel. The male boar produces androstenone in its saliva, which is replicated in the spray, BOARMATE, used by farms to get female boars “in the mood.” In a funny moment in the book, Sukel describes a spur-of-the-moment experiment, in which she sprays her docile cat Boo Boo with BOARMATE to see if it promotes sexual behavior. It does not—after a few wide-eyed sniffs, the cat bolts.

What’s somewhat unbelievable is that some people actually use BOARMATE as a tool to attract the opposite sex. Even more incredible is that they discuss it openly on the Internet (I’m sorry, but if that was my secret weapon, I think I’d keep it to myself).

When all is said and done, smell can factor into human attraction, but don’t buy into gimmicks. Charles Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center tells Sukel,

We know there is some unconscious processing of human body odor. And there is some evidence to suggest body odor can help us identify individuals we know or perhaps attract us to others. But there is simply no good, reliable, experimental evidence to support the claim that some pheromone spray you buy on the Internet is going to help make you more attractive to others.

Boo Boo agrees.

If you’d like to learn more about Dirty Minds, several reviews of the book are available online and a trailer is posted on YouTube.

-Ann L. Whitman

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