Changes in the Brain!!

How often do you read a headline declaring that “such-and-such changes the brain”? Observed brain differences have been ascribed to everything from video games to cocaine to meditation. Here are some examples:

Motherhood Can Cause Permanent Changes to the Brain 

Study finds brain changes in young marijuana users

Playing violent video games leads to brain changes, researchers find

 Mindfulness can literally change your brain

Statements like these bother me for three reasons. First, they assume that the thing-in-question has caused brain changes, when, frequently, the study can make no such claim. The fact that people who engage in some activity—say, playing video games—have brain differences when compared to others does not mean that the activity is responsible for those differences. It is equally likely that the pre-existing brain differences lead certain people to enjoy the video games more, for instance. Most of the cited studies that investigate brain differences are not longitudinal studies—they compare the brains of two groups of people, rather than actual changes over time, so it is impossible to tell whether the thing-in-question caused the changes observed. And even longitudinal studies do not prove causation, since it is almost always impossible to control for all other lifestyle factors.

One area of discussion in which this point is especially relevant is drug addiction. Brain scans of addicts unquestionably differ from those of non-addicts. However, the fact that only a small percentage of drug users actually develop an addiction suggests that there might be something already different about this particular population. Simply blaming the drug—“cocaine changes the brain!!”—overlooks this possibility, and does nothing to elucidate the actual nature of addiction.

Second, these statements assume that the observations have some relevance to health or society; usually, they make a judgment call as to whether the brain-changing thing is good or bad, precisely because of the changes it supposedly induces. In reality, the observation of brain changes does not necessitate concern or enthusiasm, yet it is frequently met with such reactions. “Because using the Internet changes the brain, we should worry more about kids spending so much time online” or “if meditation actually changes the brain, maybe it really would solve my problems”. These reactions in themselves already depend on preconceptions regarding the thing-in-question. Does the brain-changing power of video games make children more violent, or does it improve their working memory or coordination? Indeed, more than likely, the brain changes will not even have any noticeable behavioral effect.

Third, such headlines imply that the thing-in-question warrants unique attention because of its brain-changing power. Yet, the idea that something-or-other causes changes in the brain is meaningless, hardly interesting. Of course it changes the brain, because the brain is always changing, and every single experience induces some measurable change. So, that statement of “cocaine changes the brain!!” is of no scientific interest on its own; on the contrary, it would be more surprising to find a drug or experience that has no effect whatsoever on the brain. The mere observation that something “changes the brain” doesn’t reveal anything about the brain-changing thing.

With our collective knowledge of the brain so rapidly increasing, I understand the temptation to use neuroscience as evidence to support our claims. I would be thrilled if we could pinpoint the neural basis of every action, every thought, and explain how each experience molds the development of our minds. However, we have to be careful, lest we see monsters where there are none.

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A week of cheese and ice cream—and some nature

I’ve been in grad school now exactly one year. Now, I’m not sure that means I deserved a vacation: I’ve only just chosen a lab, haven’t even come up with a thesis project yet, and in any case, this year has been far less stressful than any of my three years at Cambridge. I’ve even had a “winter break” for the first time, and finally learned what it feels like to look forward to a relaxing weekend. Nonetheless, when my parents proposed a short trip to Quebec (flying to Norway was too expensive), I couldn’t refuse.

On the way, my parents warned me that the week ahead would involve copious quantities of food. That was perfectly fine with me. Our very first meal of the trip (lunch in Montreal), consisted of ice cream. While I usually maintain that ice cream is never a bad idea, this time, it was. The ice cream was tasty, but far from the best I’d had—and far from the best I would have during the remainder of the vacation. (And afterwards, my stomach rebelled against the entire meal of sugar.)

The rest of the vacation made up for this one slip-up—our meals ranged from bread-and-cheese picnics to the wild mushrooms my dad could not resist gathering to beautifully arranged dishes at fancy restaurants. Food-wise, I couldn’t ask for more.

Between meals, we found time for a 10km hike up a mountain, whale-watching (both from land and from a boat), and, well, scavenging for nature-food. On every trail, we were met with wild blueberries, raspberries, lingonberries, gooseberries, all of which I shoveled into my mouth, ignoring the thorns and mosquitoes that tried to deter me. Of course, as I already mentioned, there were also fields of mushrooms. My dad was even more interested in these than in the berries—I have to admit, they made a pretty fantastic dinner, but when it comes to nature-food, I prefer the instant gratification of a berry plucked from a bush.

Anyways, below are some pictures of the more memorable moments—views from the hikes, beluga whale sightings, and of course, some nature-food!

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On self-analysis and the meaning of sanity

How does one know if he is insane? I used to joke that the main symptom of insanity was insisting on one’s own sanity—it turns out that psychiatrists don’t disagree. Traditionally, “insight” into one’s own mental illness is considered an important step on the way to recovery. Regardless of the merits and flaws of this view, there obviously have to be other markers (unless we want to conclude that the only truly sane people are those who admit their insanity); whether its effects are helpful or detrimental, insight does not erase a disorder.

(Note, here, I will avoid politically correct terms such as “mental illness” for multiple reasons.  The root causes of different disorders remain unknown; additionally, it is unclear if “mental illness” includes “temporary insanity” or mind disturbances associated with an identifiably physical illness, such as the delirium of fever).

So how do we distinguish a “sane” from a disordered mind? It seems the answer is so difficult to identify that we may begin to question whether “sanity” as a concept is meaningful.

Even well-defined symptoms like hallucinations occur in the “healthy” population—occasionally to a greater extent than those associated with psychosis. Other symptoms are even more vague, harder to define. When does introversion become indicative of depression? Where does a “good mood” fall on the spectrum from mere cheerfulness to full-blown mania?

Some psychologists only consider a trait pathological if it significantly affects the sufferer’s ability to function. But here too, the line between normal and impaired function is often blurred. Everyone has different coping mechanisms—likely some work better than others; some are more societally acceptable, whereas others carry stigma. One person may reach for a cigarette, another for a razor blade. Which of the two has the “greater ability to function”? Should we base diagnosis on the shape of someone’s crutch?

And what about self-analysis? How useful is it really to dissect one’s own feelings and reactions, to scrutinize the mind? Perhaps if we suspect that our excitement and restlessness might be symptomatic of hypomania, we may be more careful to ensure that our actions arise from rational decision-making, rather than from impulse. On the other hand, why waste the excess energy self-analyzing? If the urge to paint strikes in the middle of a sleepless night, why brush it off as a symptom of disorder, when you can just do it.insanity

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Five years in under five hours

Let’s see… what has happened in the last 5 years? For almost anyone, quite a bit. In my case, I’ve  learned a lot (and managed to get a degree in the process), experienced life on opposite sides of an ocean, met some of the most interesting people in the world (some of whom I’m fortunate enough to call my friends), and… well, I’d be lying if I said I grew up to be a responsible adult (still haven’t quite gotten the concept of taking-out-the-trash), but I did become an irresponsible grad student.

When you see someone for the first time in five years, you don’t know where to start. So much has happened, but is there anything worth saying? And yet, sometimes, the conversation is effortless. Yesterday afternoon, I reunited with a friend I met at a conference, years ago, when we were just getting our first taste of science research. And now, strolling through Central Park, watching turtles in a pond, we reminisced out loud, sharing stories, gliding through time. It wasn’t as if our half-decade apart had been erased; rather, we brought each other into the past, so we could share it.

Anyway, after our five-hour reunion, we could have easily kept talking; hopefully the next time we meet will be sooner than five years.

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Trial and Error

The key to trial and error, when it comes to figuring out what will and won’t kill you, is to not make mistakes.

I’ve been doing a pretty good job of that so far (seeing as though I’m still alive), despite numerous warnings regarding the risks of my inclination for foraging.

On my three-mile walk between my apartment and lab, I’ve identified a number of mulberry trees; since then, I’ve been stopping at every tree, to grab a few berries. Even if I don’t have time for breakfast before leaving for lab, I’m usually full by the time I finish my walk!

Now, I found a new type of berry. I’d passed the small decorative-looking trees every day, but hadn’t previously paid attention to the little round purple berries hanging from the branches. Then, one morning, I remembered a few weeks ago, seeing a woman standing under one of the trees with her dog, picking the fruits. So I approached one of the trees, pulled off a dark blue berry. It looked and felt much like a blueberry, but the tree looked nothing like a blueberry bush.

I decided to investigate further, gingerly biting into the fruit to taste the juice. It was sweet. So I was 95% sure it was safe to eat. After all we have far more taste receptors for bitter than for sweet tastes, because almost all poisons are bitter. So the fact that this berry was sweet, with not a hint of bitterness, suggested it was edible. So I ate the rest of that one berry, and continued my walk.

The next morning, having survived the previous day’s experiment, I ate a dozen or two of the berries—still suffering no ill effects. By now, I’ve added these berries (which have turned out to be juneberries—I think…) to my foraging repertoire.

I’d like to think I’d survive pretty well alone in a forest, having to subsist on berries and mushrooms and lichens. But then, as a city dweller with a fridge full of food, I can’t even imagine the high-stakes trial-and-error foraging where one has to weigh caution against hunger. So I think I’ll stick to my roadside berries, merely pretending to risk my life with every taste.

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But I don’t want to grow up

When is it no longer appropriate to consider yourself a kid? Or, what exactly signifies “adulthood”? The little things add up. I remember how strange it felt when my school-mates first started to drive—stranger yet when I got my own license. By now, I feel at ease behind the wheel, and even prefer to be the driver rather than the passenger.

Then there’s the legal drinking. As a student in the UK, my alcohol consumption was never clandestine, and I celebrated my 21st birthday without much fanfare. (That’s not to say I didn’t get drunk, of course—just that it wasn’t a big transition for me.) Until I came back to the US. It’s only when I’m asked to show my ID that it hits me—I’m doing grown-up things! I mean, what do we do for fun these days? We get together to eat, to drink, to talk. We can sit at a table for hours! I remember when the minimum requirement for a party was a patch of grass with just enough space to run around and play. These days, our parties are fueled by alcohol.

Oh, and let’s not forget money: as a grad student (notice I’m putting off being a “real person”, an adult) I actually get paid. Real money. Not that I’ve learned what to do with it. (Uh… what are taxes, again?)

And now, here I am, suitcase at my side, waiting for the (delayed) flight to take me home to my family—if only for a weekend visit. I sit alone, in an armchair, sipping red wine, typing. How must I look to the ten-year-old who just ordered coca-cola from the bar? Could it be I look like… an adult?

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Subway Sketches

Lately, I began to realize how much I miss art. On days when I’m in lab all day, there’s not much time to paint when I get home, or if there is, I’m usually too worn out to muster up any creativity. But even on these days, I spend 20 or so minutes in the subway in each direction–time I normally spend staring into space, or, on early mornings, allowing my eyelids to succumb to gravity, if not sleep.

But recently–when there are seats available, and I’m not too anxious about an experiment–I’ve started to take the opportunity to sketch.

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