Tag Archives: neurology

If the brain were so simple…

Waterfall in Beacon, New York

Waterfall in Beacon, New York

“If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t” – Watson, Lyall

The Vegan Brain is Different After All!

Food or friend? Source: Public domain

Food or friend? Source: Public domain

I just found a very interesting new study which suggests that vegan and vegetarian brains do in fact work differently from the brains of omnivores when we observe the mouth gestures of closely related animals. According to San Raffaele University, Milan, Italy in, The “vegetarian brain”: chatting with monkeys and pigs?:

An array of brain regions in the fronto-parietal and temporal lobes cooperates to process observation and execution of actions performed by other individuals. Using functional MRI, we hypothesized that vegetarians and vegans might show brain responses to mouth actions performed by humans, monkeys, and pigs different from omnivores. We scanned 20 omnivores, 19 vegetarians, and 21 vegans while watching a series of silent videos, which presented a single mouth action performed by a human, a monkey, and a pig. Compared to omnivores, vegetarians and vegans have increased functional connectivity between regions of the fronto-parietal and temporal lobes versus the cerebellum during observation of mouth actions performed by humans and, to the same degree, animals. Vegans also had increased connectivity with the supplementary motor area. During human mouth actions, increased amygdala activity in vegetarians and vegans was found. More critically, vegetarians recruited the right middle frontal gyrus and insula, which are involved in social mirroring, whereas vegans activated the left inferior frontal gyrus and middle temporal gyrus, which are part of the mirror neuron system. Monkey mouth actions triggered language network activity in both groups, which might be due to the attempt to decode monkey mouth gesture, with an additional recruitment of associative temporo-occipital areas in vegans, whereas pig mouth actions activated empathy-related regions, including the anterior cingulum. These results support the role of the action observation-execution matching system in social cognition, which enables us to interact not only with our conspecifics but also with species in phylogenetic proximity to humans.

So next time you have trouble understanding the eating habits of omnivores, it could be due to our brains being wired differently. It seems we are more likely to feel empathy when seeing certain animals, and this may be hard-wired into our brains more so than in omnivores. Interestingly enough, vegan and vegetarian amygdalas(the emotional center of the brain) were more active than omnivore amygdalas when watching human mouth actions too. This means that our amydalas are more reactive in general, not just when it comes to empathizing with animals.

As an aside, it would be great if we could do brain scans of politicians, to see if their brains are very different from the brains of non-politicians. I have my suspicions. Most days, they seem like an entirely differently life-form!


IMG_0822Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which the senses become blended, from the Greek “syn”, meaning “together”, and “aisthesis”, meaning “sensation”. By calling it a “condition”, I don’t mean to imply it is a bad thing. In fact, it can be enthralling to some individuals, and if they are artists can help them be more creative.

In most people, the senses are separate and distinct. They hear, see, smell, taste, and feel. In a person with synesthesia, 2 or more senses can become blended, resulting in associating certain musical tones with certain colors, or associating certain smells with particular colors, or “tasting” music. There are various other interesting ways in which the senses are blended.

Here is some more background on synesthesia from Hubbard EM:

Synesthesia is an experience in which stimulation in one sensory or cognitive stream leads to associated experiences in a second, unstimulated stream. Although synesthesia is often referred to as a “neurological condition,” it is not listed in the DSM IV or the ICD classifications, as it generally does not interfere with normal daily functioning. However, its high prevalence rate (one in 23) means that synesthesia may be reported by patients who present with other psychiatric symptoms. In this review, I focus on recent research examining the neural basis of the two most intensively studied forms of synesthesia, grapheme –> color synesthesia and tone –> color synesthesia. These data suggest that these forms of synesthesia are elicited through anomalous activation of color-selective areas, perhaps in concert with hyperbinding mediated by the parietal cortex. I then turn to questions for future research and the implications of these models for other forms of synesthesia.

Since this is a very subjective experience, it is difficult to study. There is no way to officially “diagnose” it, and it’s not very common. I don’t believe I have it, but sometimes I think I experience very brief flashes of it or something similar. It’s certainly possible that synesthesia is a continuum phenomenon, meaning it may not be a simple matter of you have it or you don’t(similar to many mental illnesses, though again, synesthesia isn’t an illness). If this is the case, it means most people would fall somewhere in the continuum, with extreme synesthesia on one end and complete absence of it on the other.

It sounds like it can be a wonderful experience for some people, with many artists claiming to have it. But is it possible to become a synesthete(a person with synesthesia) with training? I don’t know for sure, but it looks like the answer is no.

This doesn’t mean we can’t improve our artistic abilities or our senses; synesthesia isn’t the same thing as artistic talent or artistic appreciation, but perhaps we can learn something from the experiences of synesthetes. Juggling makes me more appreciative of intricate movement and dance, but it doesn’t necessarily bring me closer to synesthesia.

Still, I strive to make my juggling both more artful(by singing, humming, using different color balls, or dancing while doing it) and more athletic. The synergism between the two makes the experience far more uplifting than if I was aiming at either one of the two alone. It’s fun trying to make music with the balls, sort of like I’m a wild symphony orchestra conductor, but using balls and my arms instead of a baton. Art and fitness always together, not alone.

Above all, there is so much beauty out there to appreciate, and beauty within us that needs to be expressed. Try releasing more of it next time you exercise and you may find yourself getting better results.

Experiencing ASMR

ASMR(autonomous sensory meridian response) is not a well-known phenomenon, but many people, including myself, claim to experience it on occasion.

What is ASMR? It is a strange, pleasurable tingling sensation that you feel mostly on the back of your head and neck, and sometimes along your spine. It usually happens in response to doing something you find very enjoyable. For some people it accompanies euphoria and is sometimes called a “braingasm” for this reason.

Since it is a very subjective experience, it is very difficult for science to study it. Indeed, this response wasn’t even known at all until many people who claim to experience it congregated over the Internet a few years ago and started websites and message boards devoted to exploring it.

Sometimes juggling brings about ASMR in me, especially if I finally figure out how to do a new trick. In fact, on long joggles I often experience it(it is related to, though not the same thing as “joggler’s high“), especially if I have beautiful music playing in my mind(I never listen to music from an mp3 player or anything during runs). It also helps if I am joggling through rocky, difficult terrain in a wooded area and have gorgeous untamed wilderness full of birdsong all around. It’s like merging into a divine symphony of nature, music, dance, and beauty all interwoven into one.

Music alone can also bring about this response in me, along with reading something inspiring, discovering something new, or a “eureka!” moment when I solve a complex problem. Sometimes finding bizarre links between completely unrelated subjects leads to this response. Certain types of sounds trigger it in many people, and there are even people who produce Youtube videos to help bring about this response in others. It feels sort of like a “bizarre euphoria”.

A good massage, certain aromas, or even exercising may also bring about ASMR. Dr Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale and head of the New England Skeptical Society suggests that ASMR may even be a pleasurable type of seizure:

Looking back as a neurologist I have wondered what they were. They could even have been little seizures. Seizures can be triggered by auditory stimuli. Perhaps ASMR is a type of seizure. Seizures can sometime be pleasurable, and can be triggered by these sorts of things.

You can read the rest of his post about ASMR here. His Neurologica blog is one of the best science blogs out there by the way, and I highly recommend it. As far as it being a type of seizure, I really have no clue, but I suppose it is possible and it vaguely feels like one.

Due to its subjective nature, many experts may even question if this response even exists. We’re all so different, so are all these different people who claim they are experiencing ASMR really experiencing ASMR? Will science figure out what this is all about?

Our peak experiences in life were likely accompanied by ASMR. Has anyone reading this experienced ASMR?

How juggling is very different from other forms of exercise

I hope everyone is having a good year so far. I am slowly improving my juggling technique and want to share my impressions of the road to getting to advanced juggling and the benefits of juggling.

One of the worst things about juggling is it is very unforgiving of poor technique and effort. But this is also one of the best things about juggling. Not giving it your all means you are much more likely to drop the balls. You can’t fool yourself into thinking you are putting in more effort than you really are.

It is often too easy to fool yourself with other forms of exercise, while walking or even running, on certain exercises machines, or doing martial arts or dance aerobics, etc. In this way, jumping rope is similar to juggling in that you can’t get away with poor technique – the rope will eventually catch your leg if you do it wrong. This is one of the reasons I sometimes recommend jumping rope as a prerequisite to fitness juggling. The rope won’t lie to you. In juggling, the balls won’t lie to you either. A good juggling form is a thing of beauty, and in beauty there is truth.

This makes juggling balls one of the best, most accurate feedback mechanisms when it comes to fitness. They are an excellent teacher for so many different exercisers, even if juggling or joggling isn’t their main form of exercise. This would probably make joggling one of the best forms of cross-training for running – since joggling is less forgiving of bad posture than running, it would be a good idea to use your joggler’s posture while running, to ensure good form. Screenshot-MVI_0579.AVI-2

Good form and coordination requires you to pay attention, to use your brain. Juggling is one of the very few exercises outside of playing some sports that targets your brain. Studies even show brain growth in parts of the brain that control movement. Think of the brain like a muscle – use it or lose it. It would require a whole series of posts or even a dissertation to explain why juggling is so neglected in the fitness world, and how to overcome this.

Blueberries the brain and synergy


Source: Wikipedia

Blueberries may be one of the best foods for keeping your brain healthy. According to research at Tufts university, Blueberry supplementation enhances signaling and prevents behavioral deficits in an Alzheimer disease model. This sounds very promising, although this study used rats instead of humans.

A study using humans at the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center showed “The findings of this preliminary study suggest that moderate-term blueberry supplementation can confer neurocognitive benefit and establish a basis for more comprehensive human trials to study preventive potential and neuronal mechanisms.” Basically, blueberry consumption improved memory, and according to the same study “there were trends suggesting reduced depressive symptoms”.

This is quite impressive for something that often grows in bogs in the northern U.S. Blueberries tend to get a lot of attention due to their antioxidant power – if antioxidants were like muscle power, blueberries would consistently knock out all the other fruits and vegetables and be the antioxidant heavy weight champion(the only fruits that scored higher were dried so their antioxidant power became more concentrated). This antioxidant power comes from its very high amount of anthocyanins, the reddish, purplish, blueish pigments that gives it its distinctive color. However, the antioxidant effects of anthocyanins only partially explains their neuro-protective effects and other health benefits. There is so much else going on, with anthocyanins also having possible anti-carcinogenic effects. Cranberries, which are in the same genus as blueberries, have similar benefits. The bilberry is the European cousin of the North American blueberry – in Spanish however they are both called “arándano”.


Public domain image from BrainSource.com

All these studies cited(even from previous posts) only focus on one particular substance or therapy. Imagine combining them. Imagine the synergistic effects on the brain of blueberry consumption combined with exercise and juggling on patients with cognitive problems – can it also enhance brain function in people who are young and healthy? Obviously, more research needs to be done, but what we do know suggests strongly we should be eating more fruits and vegetables, especially the dark, richly colored ones.

There is so much you can do to keep your brain young, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Related articles:

Juggle to prevent dementia

It is so secret that by far the best way to prevent dementia is exercise. It is almost a truism – active people tend to age more slowly than couch potatoes. Just like muscle, “use it or lose it” applies to your brain and its 86 billion or so neurons(if you have counted your neurons recently and discover you have a little less, don’t worry!). 

The second best way to prevent a decline in neurological function is to engage in brain-stimulating activities, like doing puzzles, or learning new skills. Playing chess is excellent brain stimulation.

She won't be coming down with dementia any time soon.

She won’t be coming down with dementia any time soon.

Also, generally speaking, the more educated a person is, the lower their risk for dementia or alzheimers. 

This is why fitness juggling is such powerful preventive medicine. It’s the ultimate all-in-one exercise/brain stimulating activity. Joggling would be even better, so long as you don’t bump into any trees or people. Or you can simply move around a lot or dance while juggling at home to make it even more fun and challenging if you can’t run. Why should fitness be boring?

Your brain is an amazing natural wonder. It is your greatest asset and deserves to be protected and stimulated. Love your brain and it will love you back.

Have fun juggling!