Category: popular science

When meditation met MRI

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers ready a Buddhist monk for an fMRI scan during their Buddha’s brain project. Image from wisconline.com

Meditation really seems to work as a peacekeeper—even between itself and the seemingly opposite discipline that is scientific research.

Or at least, that’s the picture that came out of an April 25 talk given by CNS Managing Director Denise Clegg on the benefits of mindfulness. I’ve written on the burgeoning relationship between contemplative practice and neuroscience before. But as part of this year’s Philadelphia Science Festival, this talk gave a fresh look at the topic by unpacking what exactly scientific studies could have to say about meditation and related practices.

At first glance, the two fields seem to operate on different planes. Where one strives for objectivity, the other goes for heightened consciousness of subjective experiences. But Clegg and her colleague Ilene Wasserman broke right through that surface-level opposition with a plenty of findings from neuroscience that probe how meditation might change the brain, what level of impact it can have and on whom.

In one study Clegg mentioned, eight weeks of regular meditative practice was associated with greater activation in left-sided anterior brain regions that have been linked to positive emotions. This activation pattern also predicted a better response to flu vaccine in subjects who meditated. Looking at a group of especially stressed individuals, another study found an association between an eight-week mindfulness program and reduced gray matter density in the amygdala. This finding pointed to one way meditation might literally shape the brain.

Other studies took on clinical issues, like examining meditative practice as a potential treatment for ADHD. Another looked at the ways positive emotions, mediated by mindfulness, can promote healthy outcomes like a bolstered sense of purpose.

Whatever the topic, Clegg emphasized that these studies should be viewed as “promising, but preliminary.” Many had fairly small sample sizes, i.e. around two dozen subjects. And since meditation asks individuals to focus on their own bodies, many of its effects may be specialized. Within these limitations, what these studies really do is probe at a collaborative field that is relatively new — making it both speculative and exciting.

Clegg and Wasserman also kept the audience from losing sight of the heart of the field: meditative practice itself. Guided by Clegg, we tried breathing techniques, shifting our attention and the technique of loving kindness meditation. That gave us a flavor for the activities that may drive the positive outcomes we discussed. (Anyone interested in learning more about mindfulness practice can start here.)

Even practiced briefly, these techniques had a calming effect. And who knows—if you do them enough, they might, say, shrink your amygdala and your fear responses.

CNS to teach and play at Philly’s Science Festival

The CNS will participate in the third annual Philadelphia Science Festival, which runs April 18-28 and offers events for all ages. Image from philasciencefestival.org

Calling all fans of science, brains and brew: the Philadelphia Science Festival starts now! Tonight kicks off the ten-day celebration with a carnival, where you can check out laser shows, 3-D printing and more, all with a Pythagorean Beerum in hand. And the CNS is in on the fun — check out the events below. We’ll see you there.

Tackling Concussions
Monday, April 22, 6:00 p.m.
City Tap House, 3925 Walnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104
Concussions have become a hot topic in the sports world in recent years. How do concussions really occur and what are their short and long-term health implications? More importantly, what changes will new research bring to the games we love? Hosted by Douglas H. Smith, Director of Penn Center for Brain Injury and Repair.

This is Your Brain on Meditation: The Benefits of Mindfulness
Thursday, April 25, 6:00 p.m.
Franklin Square Park Pavilion, 200 N. 6th St., Philadelphia, PA 19106
Mindfulness Meditation has been associated with a wide range of mental and physical benefits. But what is it about mindfulness and meditation that foster well-being and buffers against the adverse effects of stress, anxiety, and depression? A discussion about the growing body of research on this topic will be followed by a short, guided session of mindfulness meditation with CNS Managing Director Denise Clegg and Ilene Wasserman, PhD.

Science for Sinners
Sunday, April 28, 6:00 p.m.
Frankford Hall, 1210 Frankford Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19125
Join this science spin on the seven deadly sins. Eat, drink, and be wary with talks and entertainment acts. Seven speakers will talk about the science behind the 7 sins, including Penn faculty Joseph Kable and Adrian Raine.

Beware a fast track to “better brains”

A personalized home page on Lumosity, a member of the growing community of companies to offer online brain training. (Yes,

A personalized home page on Lumosity, one of the growing number of companies that offer online brain training. 

It’s an alluring promise: play some games and get smarter. That’s the idea behind brain training, which has piggybacked off neuroscience to become its own little commercial field. Groups like LearningRx and Lumosity — you may have seen ads for the latter — offer regimes of online games meant to improve aspects of cognition like memory, attention and speed.

Brain training was the subject of last week’s CNS Public Talk, given by University of Maryland professor and working memory researcher Susanne Jaeggi. Jaeggi became a media go-to on the topic after publishing a paper in 2008 suggesting that memory training can boost general intelligence, that hard-to-pin-down quality long associated with IQ scores. Unfortunately, I missed Jaeggi’s lecture. But I’ve been prompted by her appearance at Penn to look into brain training from both the academic and commercial sides. What I’ve begun to find is that the two sides sometimes get way too blurred, an outcome not all that surprising for a topic with so much popular appeal.

Brain training’s made waves in the press, and it’s not hard to see why. Most people I know, myself included, experience internal wars between our aspirational and lazy impulses. We like to get better at things, but what we really love is to see results after putting in the least work possible. On its surface, brain training answers both desires: it’s packaged as a way we can make ourselves smarter in half-hour long chunks a few times a week. It’s a time commitment that amounts to keeping up with a couple new TV shows, and an experience that amounts to playing basic computer games.

Slap the “neuroscience-supported” label on there and you’ve got a gold mine: a new approach to self-help, legitimized by the oft-misunderstood authority that is “science.”

OK, at this point I might be sounding too cynical. Yes, my inner curmudgeon balks at the idea of intelligence or smarts being stripped down to technical terms like “working memory,” at the neglect of traits like creativity and depth of thought. But on a basic level, I’m all for tools that can make lives better. It’d be great if brain training could genuinely help individuals with cognitive problems, young students, or really just anyone improve at everyday facets of thinking like juggling many pieces of information. Better still if these improvements translate to other aspects of thinking — say, problem solving and communicating — that may reflect broader intelligence.

And beyond the potential benefits, there is reason to at least study brain training in relation to neuroplasticity, or the brain’s capacity to change. After all, some nosing through the work of training supporters like Jaeggi shows that the relevant research doesn’t come from hacks.

My thing is, though, the most encouraging (if still controversial) work here has been behavioral. When it comes to endorsing these specific training methods, the support from neuroscience is largely indirect or speculative.  So as I explore my trial Lumosity account — where I can’t do much, since I won’t pay — it’s hard not to sigh when the site references “neurogenesis” to explain how these games will better my brain.

Isn’t it enough to tell me that if I keep playing the offered memory games, I might stop leaving my keys everywhere? Do these sites have to make dubious claims like they’re literally spurring the growth of new neurons in my brain? A more academic perspective says no: the most recent training-related paper on Jaeggi’s site concludes that more research is needed to say anything about how working memory training actually affects the brain.

So maybe the claims on sites like Lumosity should change. Brain training’s not so much “neuroscience-approved” — it’s got some behavioral support that’s still being interpreted. Any support from neuroscience is very much under construction.

Animal research: It’s about more than cute kittens

Protesters at Oxford defend animal testing, in a photo shown by Colin Blakemore during a recent talk at Penn. Image from scienceblogs.com

It’s not often that you get to hear a lecture from a scientist who’s braved death threats just to do his work. But Penn was treated to that unique perspective this past Thursday, when Colin Blakemore delivered this month’s installment of the CNS talk series. Living up to his reputation as one of science’s most influential communicators, Blakemore reviewed the controversial history of animal research and considered what this history says about science’s relationship with the public. He also pointed out lessons for the future of animal testing — what people on both sides of this issue should have learned by now, with years of nastiness behind them.

A physiologist and pioneer in cognitive neuroscience, Blakemore became a famed advocate for animal research sort of by accident.  In the ’60s and ’70s he conducted research on cortical plasticity, or the brain’s ability to reorganize its functions. His test subjects? Kittens, which most of us know as pets, adornments for Hallmark cards and the stars of fawning videos on YouTube. The experiments involved sewing up these little guys’ eyelids, in ways that proved informative for human vision and contributed to major breakthroughs in our understanding of plasticity. These academic achievements aside, it’s not shocking that the hostility kicked up soon after, in response to Blakemore’s use of precious creatures but also to his frank defense of animal research.

What might be shocking is the intensity of the backlash. Blakemore and his family received bomb threats and letters concealing razor blades, and he has been personally assaulted by masked aggressors. All this drove Blakemore to secure police protection for his children for over a decade. Clearly he doesn’t agree with these tactics, or with the opinion that animal testing is just plain wrong. But Blakemore does believe the testing should be openly discussed. In particular, he said, we’ve got to ask: How should scientists and ethicists assess animal experiments? What levels of scientific and medical progress can justify their use? How do we deal with animal suffering? What alternatives have we not yet considered?

These questions overlap with issues of public opinion, as it is often individuals outside science who raise the most pointed (if sometimes ill-informed) critiques. On this note, Blakemore called upon scientists to figure out the most effective ways to engage with the public. This is no easy task, given the many contradictions in the public opinion surveys Blakemore reviewed. At least in Britain, people trust scientists much more than they trust the media, and yet they find themselves relying on the media for most of their information about science. Moreover, while they report being impressed by findings from science, they are often suspicious of its motives. Thus part of the challenge lies in educating people without imposing, or even seeming to impose, an aggressive agenda.

There has been progress: death threats and grave digging by animal rights extremists appear to have ceased. These days, Blakemore is more apt to be caught off guard by protest signs like one he spotted with the declaration, “Vegetarians for animal research.” If that slogan is a sign of the times, then views on animal research have gained some nuance. But of course, in the world of science and ethics, there’s always more work to be done.

Read this, it’s fascinating

Now that I’ve got your attention with my headline, I can get into today’s topic: headlines. Or more specifically, why it’s so hard to write good headlines for articles on neuroscience.

I started thinking about this after spotting a recent CNN article about optogenetics and controlling individual neurons, rather forebodingly called “How to ‘take over’ a brain.” Even with quotes around “take over,” that headline jars. The article itself is not quite so sensationalized. It mostly just explains how pulses of light can be used to influence the activity of genetically engineered neurons, a technique that has already proven to be a useful research tool in psychiatry and neuroscience. But if someone glances over the headline — the way most of us read news online — she could easily register some incorrect, SciFi-worthy implications: “Scientists can take over brains?? Yikes. Should I tinfoil my head when I’m near neuro labs?”

This misleading brain headline is one among many, all embedded in the brain porn issue I’ve mentioned in past posts. Brain porn often oversimplifies points in a play for attention. That means headlines like “The End of Evil? Neuroscientists suggest there is no such thing,” or subheads like “Why Psychologists Reject Science” (a truly odd choice, given that the article in question describes divides within the field of psychology). Other headlines have more insidious problems, like anything on the theme of: “The Science of [Insert Interesting Phenomenon like Cheating or Morality Here].” Aside from seeming a bit lazy, “the science of” labels can imply a definitive science behind the phenomenon which probably does not exist.

The main argument for dramatic or glib headlines is one of lesser evils: sure, they can be deceptive, but at least they get people reading. In today’s media, a million things compete for your attention every moment, especially online. Articles have to sell themselves. This is true for most journalism, but it’s pronounced for writings on science, what with science being a fundamentally unsexy topic. So it’s understandable when editors want to exaggerate the sexier sides of neuroscience with notions like mind-control and the death of evil. As long as the articles themselves are sound, you could view “bad science” headlines as dressing up what may been viewed as lame academia, as the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

The problem with that? It doesn’t seem necessary. Plenty of good headlines build intrigue without suggesting something untrue. The Atlantic, for example, titled an article about using neuroscience in courtrooms “The Brain on Trial.” That kind of headline avoids concrete claims and so is not misleading. At the same time, it invokes an image that I suspect made plenty of readers curious enough to click on the piece.

Of course, I don’t have hard stats on page views. And some stories are always going to be tougher to title than others. But I can’t think of a reason we shouldn’t rise to those occasions by, well, trying harder. Better headlines are among my goals this year, and I’ll want feedback. If my page views go down, I’ll just have to start titling every post “Neuroscience Discovers the Secret Meaning of Everything.”

On Brain Rumors: an hour with Neuroskeptic

NSkeptic

Neuroskeptic’s popular anonymous blog

In the world of science blogging, Neuroskeptic is kind of like our James Dean: talented, famous and mysterious. His site gets an average of 1500 to 2000 hits a day — not too shabby for someone who covers such alluring topics as statistical methods and ways to improve neuroscience.

Making a rare public appearance, Neuroskeptic came to Penn last week as part of the CNS Talk Series, delivering a lecture Thursday night called “Brain Rumors: Public (Mis)understanding of Neuroscience and Why it Matters.” His main point was simple: Neuroscience matters because people take it seriously, perhaps too seriously.

Before the lecture, I got to chat with him blogger to (much more famous) blogger. We talked about everything from what makes good science writing to why hotter people may not be any nicer. Read on.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

What motivated you to start your blog?

So about four years ago, I was doing my PhD and using fMRI, and I kind of felt like I and other people in that area had been given the job of using these fMRI analyses, these really complicated and amazing techniques, without really being aware of how to use them properly. Looking around, I realized that this might have been a widespread problem — that we in neuroscience had all these really useful techniques, but people just sort of dived in to use them without thinking about whether they should be [applying them to] particular questions, or how to use them best. So I started the blog as a way of educating myself — to help myself, really, but also as a way of starting a conversation on this issue. Then other things caught my eye, and it kind of snowballed.

You recently posted about a psych study questioning the tendency to “judge a book by its cover,” or judge personality by attractiveness. You said something interesting about how debunking these kinds of everyday misconceptions is what psychology should do — what did you mean by that, and why? 

I don’t think that’s all psychology should do, cover what the public finds interesting. But I think with psychology in particular, there’s a kind of disdain for things which are everyday and mundane. I think psychology has often tried to come up with novel ideas and novel experiments, which is great — like looking at things that people haven’t looked at before, and that’s fine. But that’s by its nature sort of arcane, and I think we shouldn’t overlook things like “judging a book by its cover,” which everyone is kind of interested in. That’s directly relevant to people’s lives and has actual consequences. Whereas I think if you’re looking at, I don’t know, the effect of the color of a room on people’s mood — I guess that could be relevant, if you then start painting everyone’s room, but it’s not part of people’s lives already. Whereas other things are, and I think we need to pay more attention to those.

So you think the sort of “basic science” research like the room color stuff should be balanced out by “everyday” questions.

Yeah. I think there’s a tendency for psychologists to think, well, if everyone sort of knows how this works, then there’s not much interesting there for me as a psychologist. But I don’t think that’s true. Very often people think they know how something works, but they don’t, like in this “judging a book by its cover” thing, where everyone’s got an opinion — but they might be wrong. And there might be a really interesting scientific story behind why even a wrong belief is there.

For something like judging personality by attractiveness, though, why would we even need scientific studies? Can’t we rely on our folk psychology to tell us that a “better-looking” person won’t necessarily have a better personality?

Well in that case, it isn’t obvious that there’s isn’t a correlation — there could have been one. And there are other studies suggesting that there is. Folk psychology is great in its place, but I think this is one of those cases where it doesn’t work. Folk psychology is fine for understanding individual people and actions and motivations. But it really doesn’t work for things like correlations, because the average person knows, well, maybe a few dozen people, a few hundred people at best. And that’s not big enough to make a correlation, especially because the vast majority of people only know a very restricted kind of person.

So if you want to know, say, if nationality is associated with personality, as just an average person you’re never going to be able to know that. Because most of your friends will be of one nationality, probably. For anything where you’re looking beyond what happens in an individual person’s head to the influences and associations across the whole population, [folk psychology] is not going to work.

Regarding your opinions on what science can and cannot do — as in the “Neuroscience Under Attack” articleyou’ve been portrayed as being especially critical of neuroscience. Can you talk about what you actually are trying to do in relation to the field of neuroscience? 

So there was that New York Times article, and there was one in the New Yorker as well…[those articles] were fundamentally fine. They covered important issues like methodology and the interpretation of neuroscience. But they kind of left it there, without acknowledging that those criticisms themselves can be subject to criticisms. And they only apply to particular things. I see myself as criticizing the problems with neuroscience, but also celebrating all the good stuff. I think those kinds of articles simplify what I and other bloggers like me are trying to do, which is to identify the problems so that neuroscience can advance better.

[Note: You can read his blog response to these articles here.] 

There’s a sense of [back-and-forth] in neuroscience, where everyone in the media’s kind of done with liking neuroscience, so now it’s time to switch it. You just have to remember that it’s not black and white at all. Just as in the past neuroscience was getting really enthusiastic and over-stretching interpretations, when studies that really didn’t show anything dramatic were being presented as the best thing ever — now there’s a danger that we’ll do the opposite thing.

I think it many ways, [this backlash] has just started. I predict it will get bigger, probably. But on the other hand, in my experience probably the great majority of journalists working in this area are actually pretty good and know that there’s more caveats. I just think that all journalists kind of suffer from this [problem], where they can’t write from their full range of knowledge because it won’t make a good article.

When you write a post, how do you balance accessibility with not compromising content?

I’d say that’s one of the hardest things in writing, actually, and I didn’t used to be able to do it nearly as well as I can now. I think to make something accessible while being accurate — I really believe you can do that to almost anything. There’s nothing so inherently complicated that you can’t explain it, except mathematics, which may be impossible to explain without using mathematical terms. But certainly in biology and neuroscience, there’s nothing you can’t explain. I think the trick is, you’ve got to know it inside out so you can explain it in simple terms.

You mentioned needing a solid background in a topic to write about it well. But realistically, a lot of journalism comes down to being assigned to write quickly about something you’re not an expert on. Do you think that sort of framework for journalism has to be changed in order for people to write properly about science? 

I used to think, yeah, that it’s just like a broken model and it’s not going to work. But since I’ve been blogging, I’ve come into contact with more journalists, and I think actually it can work. The funny thing is, in an awful lot of these cases where scientific things look complicated, they are a lot simpler than they seem. And once you understand one of these issues inside out, you sort of see all the parallels with the next one. My advice would be, find one thing that really interests you and figure out exactly how it’s working, and where all the different players are coming from. Because scientists in particular, what they do is in many ways very predictable. In any given story, you’re going to have the guy who proposes a radical new idea, the guy who comes along and says “that’s bad” because he has a big idea of his own, and then you have people who don’t care either way but criticize the methods. And then the press release will come along and distort all of this in particular ways.

Once you learn that, it helps you to see through all the details. Most of neuroscience, it differs hugely in the details but once you look beneath that it’s kind of like — there’s this theory that all fiction covers one of seven basic plots, and I don’t know if that’s true, but I think in nonfiction it is true. I almost want to say, any given piece of science is a lot less innovative than it first appears. It sort of follows a basic pattern. And obviously there are new results coming out of that pattern, but the pattern is the same. It depends on the field of science, but in neuroscience there are maybe three or four basic patterns.

What are those three or four basic patterns?

So in neuroscience, you have the “this part of the brain is responsible for this major function” pattern. You’ve got the “factor causes outcome,” pattern, like drinking shrinks your brain, or infection with flu during pregnancy causes schizophrenia. Or smoking causes psychosis. And those studies always have the same criticisms as well, like, did you adjust for confounding factors, that kind of thing. And then there’s the more conceptual kind of work, where you’re asking how are we best to talk about particular mental/brain function. And that sounds quite abstract, but usually it’s a similar process, where people are asking whether we should lump two things together as a single thing with the same causes and the same mechanism. People may say, for example, should we lump together decision making and emotion, do they say the same basic thing? Or in autism, people say, should we cast facial emotion recognition and social skills as part of the same theory of mind?

And there are more patterns than that, but I’d have to spend some time thinking about it so I can enumerate them all. It’s kind of like, you know them when you see them.

One last question – why the vigilant anonymity for your blog? 

There are a couple different reasons. When I started out, blogging in neuroscience was much less accepted than it is today. There weren’t very many bloggers around and they weren’t respected, really, by anyone. So I felt like that could be a problem. But I also find it really helpful to be able to keep my blogging and my real work separate, because otherwise there’s a conflict of interest. And I do that by not blogging about my own work. I feel it would be much harder to remain impartial writing under my own name, because it would influence how I blogged about things, even if it wasn’t stuff that I wasn’t working on in the moment but that I could be working on in the future. It’s mainly a case of trying to maintain integrity.

But there are lots of people who blog under their own name and they’ve got integrity, so it’s kind of a personal choice, really. To be honest, it’s more of a habit now. I’ve been doing it for four years, and it’s kind of like my brand.

Let’s talk about brain porn

Over the past few days, an op-ed from The New York Times Sunday Review has been causing a stir among anyone with an interest in the public role of neuroscience. In her piece, Alissa Quart — who has published books on gifted children and marketing to teenagers — celebrates the recent backlash against popular neuroscience. Otherwise known as “brain porn,” many popular works on neuroscience have claimed dubious links between the brain and everything from encounters with heaven to ways we should think about vaginas (whatever that means). The backlash has been bolstered by journalists like Quart, by writers who are also practicing scientists like the blogger Neuroskeptic*, and by straight-up research neuroscientists, as in the Neuron paper Quart mentions. Like most stories, this one’s got more than one side. And even beyond what it means for neuroscience and the media, an examination of this tit-for-tat should caution us against the reactionary approaches that can mark these kinds of debates.

Let’s start with the angrier camp, consisting of what Quart has dubbed the “neurodoubters.” In their broad criticism of neuroscience’s public role, neurodoubters make valuable points. They are right to demand quality and accuracy in the presentation of neuroscientific findings, standards that sometimes get lost in the appeal of self-help tinged popular headlines like “Tired of Feeling Bad? The New Science of Feelings Can Help.” It’s perfectly understandable to feel skepticism when faced with the growing cadre of “neuro-isms,” like neuroeducation, neuropolitics, neurosecurity, neuroeconomics and so on. These can paint a compelling (though incomplete) picture of neuroscience as a pushy discipline that sometimes worms its way into other fields without paying its dues. And Quart is right to note that it may be especially easy for the public to overestimate the value of neuroscience compared to other fields, since findings on the brain alter our views of the mind, which in turn touch on our most precious notions of human identity.

But the neurodoubting also gets some of the picture wrong. For one thing, Quart conflates all the brain porn out there with “mainstream neuroscience discourse,” when those two arenas of literature clearly differ. The Neuron article referenced in Quart’s op-ed criticizes media articles on neuroscience, not articles published in peer-reviewed journals like Neuron itself. This isn’t to say that all academic neuroscience discourse is equally credible and all popular articles equally shoddy. The key here is that the scientific field devoted to studying the brain should not be equated with media coverage of that field, which is what this intense backlash seems to be doing. If it’s overly simplistic to view neuroscience as the potential solution to every problem and a necessary complement to other fields, it’s equally simplistic to scold all neuroscience as misguided.

In other words, there’s just no reason to convey neuroscience in black-and-white terms as either a revelatory savior or a scientific demon come to pollute our newspapers and bookshelves primarily with crap. This sounds like an obvious point, but the vehemence of this backlash shows how easy it is to overlook the value of balance in such discussions. Public discourse on different disciplines, customs and other aspects of life tied to choice too often go like this: something (like neuroscience) becomes a trend, and then it becomes a trend to indiscriminately bash that trend. The cycle is easy to fall into, and it really doesn’t do much good.

So let’s recognize that when it comes to the public role of neuroscience, we can and should have it both ways. For every sketchy bit of brain porn we should criticize, there’s a line of research we should consider seriously, like Adrian Raine drawing connections between neurobiology and criminal behavior; like Martha Farah probing the relationship between childhood, brain development and our adult selves; like Anjan Chatterjee linking brain processes to aesthetics and language. Those examples might shamelessly promote CNS researchers, but I’ll defend that promotion with two points. One, unlike many popular publications, the work of these researchers undergoes rigorous scrutiny to confirm that it deserves the recognition. Two, I’m just highlighting the CNS as one group (which I happen to know better than others) that supports high-quality work connecting neuroscience to societal issues — while also remaining critical of ways the science can be misused.

In a funny way, all this fuss over neuroscience misses one of the points it’s trying to make: neuroscience is not necessarily that special. Like any field it’s got some good and some bad, and it’s up to anyone with a stake in it to separate the one from the other.

*Note: The elusive Neuroskeptic will be speaking at Penn next Thursday. See the CNS Talk Series page for details.