“But how did I get here?”: The Rabbit Hole of Human Opinions

Neuroscience Explained, Neuroscience in the Media

Opinions: everyone’s got ‘em. This could not have been made more apparent after the recent result of the EU referendum in the UK. However, this is not intended to be a politically-charged post, nor a canvas for my own personal opinion. Because if recent events have made anything clear it’s that opinions are like the brains they’re made in: downright messy.

Divisive appears to be the most fitting word to describe the whole thing – and not just literally in terms of the outcome, which will now see the UK leave the EU. As the referendum campaigns unfolded, I couldn’t help being struck by how utterly chaotic and misleading the whole process seemed – even for politics. Political parties were split and unable to form their own cohesive standing points on the matter. In the aftermath of the result, I have watched people I know to be rational, intelligent humans, lose it in social media comment fights with people they don’t even know. So, in order to restore an ounce of normality to the world, I’ve decided to address this the only way I know best – talking about brains – and hope that normal service will resume soon…

So what has this got to do with the brain?
In a nutshell, the whole biological point of having a brain is that it allows you to receive information about all the stuff that’s going on around you, make some kind of sense out of it, and then translate this into appropriate actions and decisions which you then carry out. And, as brains go, humans do this pretty darn successfully: our domination of an entire planet being a case-in-point. But sometimes your brain is irrational in ways we’re blissfully unaware of as we bumble through life trying to make the right decisions in the face of quandaries such as: ‘how many consecutive episodes of New Girl is ‘too many’?’, ‘is this cheese really that far past edible?’, and ‘should our nation leave an international  union it’s belonged to for decades?’ Consciously, you might be the most rational and open-minded of people but unconsciously, your brain is still capable of implicit bias on the sly without you noticing, especially in response to things other humans say and do.

‘No, I’M the most opinionated!’
We all know at least one person who will loudly proclaim that they ‘don’t care what other people think’ when it comes to their life decisions. And this may well be the case…as far as they’re aware. However, as social animals, the human brain has evolved so that actually we are very much influenced by what other people think of us – to the extent that patterns of brain activity seen following social rejection are incredibly similar to those associated with physical pain. Our desire to be accepted by social groups has both good and bad sides, but mostly makes for a lot of weird and baffling things happening when a bunch of like-minded brains get together. One well-documented example of this is group polarisation. If you stick a group of people together with the same opinion on something (for example: ‘you should always put the milk in first*‘), rather than conform to the average view of the group (‘tea’s quite nice if you put the milk in first’), individuals’ viewpoints will actually become more extreme (‘the milk should go in first, and anyone who disagrees should be slowly and painfully drowned in a scalding vat of their own incorrectly-made tea, the heathens!’)

We identify most strongly with groups of people who are like us, and perceive those who are different, or outside the group, as a threat to its integrity. In keeping with this, there are lots of subtle ways that our brains can generate bias in our perceptions of people different to us. This might be people with different tea-drinking habits to you, or, more scarily, people of a different race to you. Implicit racial bias has been shown in several different types of study. For example, when a group of white American subjects were asked to pin-point when the expression in a gradually changing series of face images changed from ‘hostile’ to ‘happy’. It took them much longer to do this when the faces were black than when they were white, suggesting the possibility that anger was perceived in faces of a different race for a longer proportion of the ‘hostile-to-happy’ spectrum that subjects were shown. I’m sure you can see how this is not particularly great news.

Confidence: being flamboyantly wrong
We generally perceive people who are confident as being more convincing. This has been widely shown but particularly in studies mimicking witness testimonies in courtroom: witnesses who come across as confident when they speak are deemed to be more credible than those who appear hesitant. However, confidence does not always mean someone’s right (I know?!). In fact it’s been repeatedly shown that those who perform worse in a test or task tend to believe they’ve done better than they actually have: not only have they done badly, but they lack the ability to evaluate and recognise this. The reverse is seen in people who’ve done well in a task: they generally assume they’ve done worse than they have. This phenomenon is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. So there you have it, people who are wrong – they might be telling outright lies, or spouting incorrect statistics – can dazzle you with their confidence, all the while thinking that they’re doing a tip-top job of whatever it is they’re doing. A memory task in a lab. Trying to convince a nation how to vote in a referendum. Potayto-potahto.

I got the itch to write this post, not so much in reaction to the result of the referendum, but rather as some food for thought in reaction to the bewildering lack of rationality that, for me, seemed to characterise the whole event. I’ve had conversations with people voting both ways, and been amazed that in several cases they’ve been unable to explain to me in what I consider to be meaningful words, the evidence or even the thought processes which lead them to their decision. And so I hope this post serves to highlight something which I think, given recent political events (and future ones, what with the US Presidential Election coming up), we as humans would perhaps all do well to remember: your brain is biased and irrational. Sometimes without you even realising, and especially in the context of groups of people, and especially in the context of groups of people who are different to you. So when it comes to making decisions, no matter what your opinion on a matter is, we owe it to ourselves to first ask: ‘but why do I think that?’
Because opinions can be quite a rabbit hole, with your brain subtly and implicitly pulling the strings. Sometimes, it pays to look for this before you leap.

*I don’t drink tea. Calm down and go and put the kettle on for the mob you’ve just assembled. (Or, on second thoughts, might be safer if you don’t.)

Stroke of Genius: From Sci-Fi to Future Stroke Treatment

Neuroscience Explained

To finish off the final year of our neuroscience degree by doing something amazing, on the 17th July, 3 fellow neuroscientists and I will be running a marathon split between us as a team, to raise money for The Stroke AssociationNo team is complete without a spectacularly witty team name, and so, in the name of brains everywhere, we shall be running as ‘The Action Potentials‘ (and if that burst of pun-spiration alone is not worthy of sponsorship, then I don’t know what is). As we dash, sweaty and tomato-faced, around various parts of London (including the Oylmpic Stadium!) at some point we’ll probably find ourselves thinking ‘why on earth did I agree to do this?!’ And if we’re asking ourselves this, then it seems pretty likely that you might also be pondering this, as either:
a) someone who has already generously sponsored us (thank you!), or
b) someone whom we have yet to cheekily hound for sponsorship,
So it seems only fair that this question be answered – the people need to know! (And if you’re a ‘b’ let’s see if I can’t convince you it’s worth your while to sponsor us. You’d think after 3 years of learning about the brain I know enough to have achieved basic mind control.)


Stroke, in a nutshell. 
Brains are incredibly busy. Even if you’re doing nothing more taxing than lying in bed in the middle of a Netflix binge, your body’s not going to run itself. Luckily the brain has something of a monopoly on the energy supply carried in the bloodstream. Roughly 25% of your blood supply is being guzzled by your brain at any one time. Unsurprisingly, if this supply is cut off in any part of the brain for any reason, things start to go wrong pretty quickly. This, in a nutshell, is what a stroke is. And they can have several direct causes, for example, a blockage in a blood vessel cutting off blood supply, or a weakened blood vessel in the brain bursting.

‘OK, sounds awful, but why should I care? ‘
Stroke is the 4th largest single cause of death in the UK (and 2nd largest in the world). Every year in the UK stroke occurs approximately 152,000 times: that’s roughly one every 3 mins 27 secs (Stroke Association statistics, 2016). Furthermore, many survivors are left with severe disability or neurological impairment. There are some scary-sounding statistics for you, now for 2 questions: 1) do you own a brain? 2) Is said brain connected to a circulatory system? If you answered ‘yes’ to both, then a stroke could quite feasibly happen to you. Bit gloom-and-doom I know, sorry, won’t happen again. (Fun fact: if you’re a fruit fly then the answer to question 2 is ‘nope’, and you’re quite safe. Actually, I could behead you and you’d still get up and walk away. Although you would eventually die from dehydration.) But my point here is that, if I can convince you to part with even £1 towards stroke research and rehabilitation for stroke survivors, then it’s an investment well spent from your point of view as a brain-owner. We’ve still got a long way to go to develop an ideal, fast-acting treatment for strokes (one of the problems with stroke is that by the time you, or someone else has realised you’re having one and decided you need to get to hospital asap, damage has already been done). But, as promised, it’s not all gloom-and-doom! The upside is that it’s prompted research into ambitious new technology, which would have once sounded like science fiction. As well as directly helping stroke survivors, you could also be funding some pretty cool new science. Here are just a few examples…

(Hydro)Jelly On The Brain jellybrain

Image: Scott

There’s been a lot of recent interest in developing hydrogels, which can be injected into the damaged cavity left at the site of a stroke. The hope with this is that the gel will be able to transport drugs and chemical factors promoting repair of damaged cells, or even deliver replacement neurons, to the site of damage. A bit like a rather squishy Trojan horse (which you have to agree sounds far more fun than the wooden original). And, once in place, the gel may also act as a sort of scaffold while growth and repair is going on. This has already shown some promise in mice and rats but has yet to be trialled on humans.

Brain Tech Goes Wireless 
Elsewhere, recent work has developed biodegradable wireless sensors which can be implanted into the brain to monitor factors such as temperature and pressure*. The sensors, made out of silicon and smaller than a rice grain, are designed to work over a course of weeks before being completely dissolved by the fluid circulating around the brain and spinal cord, which is pretty neat. Having been successfully tested in rats, these bio-compatible sensors could prove to be a useful, and safer way of monitoring brain health after numerous types of damage, including traumatic brain injury and stroke, in humans. (*don’t expect it to make you capable of sniffing out a good WiFi connection like some sort of human antenna just yet)

Flicking the Light Switch on Stroke Rehabilitation
Optogenetics – a technique which, in short, allows specific neurons to be activated by shining light on them – has recently revolutionised the study of the brain, and it seems that stroke research is no exception when it comes to neuroscience’s shiny new toy. A recent study, used optogentics in stroke mice for the first time, where light was used over a course of 6 days to activate neurons known to control movement. Following this, mice showed improvement in impaired limb movement. Additionally, communication between neurons and blood vessels in the region of brain damaged by stroke, also appeared to improve. It’s early days yet (put your torch down, don’t get carried away), but this casts light on potential future research to aid stroke rehabilitation.

Stroke Association
Stroke research has a long way to go (you could say the same for us, having a marathon to run between the 4 of us, and all…) but there’s already a lot of pretty impressive work going on, making what was once the realm of science fiction, a future reality for stroke treatment. So, if you have as little as £1 to spare you’ll really be making a huge difference and we’d appreciate your support so much: everybody wins! Plus, we promise to make it worth your while in embarrassing sweaty-faced photos of us running, most likely decorated in suitably neuro-nerdy attire, for you to laugh at and spread far and wide across the internet (covering all my bases here and appealing to those of you with an evil side!)

Visit our JustGiving Page here: we currently stand at £243 (thanks to an incredibly generous bunch of people) and with JUST 1 MONTH TO GO, we’d love to make it to the big 3-0-0 by race day. It’s the small donations that all add up, and if you can’t donate we’d love it if you can support us by sharing this blog post and the link to our page by whatever means you like (social media, carrier pigeon, shouting really loud…)
Thank you!

Lights, Camera, Action (Potential)!

Neuroscience in the Media
Image: arianta

So, it turns out that writing up your lab report dissertation and revising for final year exams takes up a lot of time, energy and sanity. Who knew? However, if you can excuse that, some good has come out of the recent months of radio silence in which this blog has been gathering a fair bit of Internet dust and resident tumbleweeds. Because, as any student knows, with great obligation comes procrastination, and if you live in a house of neuroscientists this apparently means watching as many films as you can find which are at least sort-of neuroscience-related (because ‘it’s not really procrastinating if it’s got brains in it, is it?’)  What with the human brain being so baffling and in many aspects not completely understood, there’s a lot of room to get creative. Unsurprisingly, this means there are a lot of films out there with various takes on what’s going on up there: from more personal and historical stories of neurological disease to playing around with the endless sci-fi ‘what-if’ scenarios the brain provides.  So, without further ado, here are a selection of the weird and wonderful movies we unearthed over the last couple of months in Revision Cave, which I thought I’d share. And of course it goes without saying, feel free to leave any recommendations and suggestions of your own…my next blog post isn’t going to procrastinate itself!

Starring: Robert De Niro & Robin Williams (1990) awakenings1

If, like many people (including me) you thought Eddie Redmayne did an incredible job of portraying Stephen Hawking in 2014’s The Theory of Everything, then Robert De Niro is comparatively outstanding here. Awakenings is an adaptation of late and great neurologist Oliver Sacks’ written account of his time working with ‘catatonic’ encephalitis epidemic victims at the Beth Abraham Hospital, New York in the 1960s. De Niro is initially unrecognisable as Leonard: wheelchair-bound, mute and – like the rest of the patients consigned to the bluntly-named ‘garden ward’ –  unable to move, frozen in a Parkinson’s disease-like state. The transformation from living statue to being fully mobile and dancing, thanks to receiving Parkinson’s disease drug L-DOPA, is remarkable (this might just be me and my own general ignorance, but I genuinely didn’t realise it was De Niro until this point!) Awakenings’ account of individuals being brought back to life after being given up on is an honest and unexpectedly funny film definitely worth checking out, but be warned: the laughs and light-hearted recovering-patient-montages only last as long as it takes for the L-DOPA to wear off…

The Science of Sleep 
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal & Charlotte Gainsbourg (2006) scienceofsleep

The phrase ‘there are no words’ springs to mind, however, I’ve decided to think of some to describe what is possibly one of the most bizarre films I’ve seen. Ever. The Science of Sleep ostensibly is the story of Stéphane Miroux (Gael Garcia Bernal), who moves to his mother’s apartment block in Paris after his father’s death, and takes a shine to the quirky, arty girl next door (Charlotte Gainsbourg). So far so cliché, I’m sure you’re thinking. However, the major draw-back here is that, like Stéphane, we’re never quite sure if what’s happening is a dream or reality. The opening scene: a TV studio constructed entirely from cardboard (even the cameras) from which Stéphane presents ‘StéphaneTV’, pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the film from the off. Although it later transpires that this cardboard studio cleverly represents the inner workings of Stéphane’s brain reacting to unfolding  events (imagine Inside Out but with cardboard and a strange middle-aged French guy and you’re not far off). The rest of the film unfolds in a mix of French, English and occasional Spanish (because why not?!) accompanied by creative, but disorientating, stop-motion and visual effects intruding just when you thought you’d found a scene that was ‘definitely really happening.’ Overall, this is definitely a Marmite kind of film, which has a lot of fun playing around with dreams vs. reality: think Inception on a tight budget. However in its defence, The Science of Sleep did successfully lure me into watching the entire thing, in the bewildered hope that at some point – the next bit, surely – I would figure out what exactly I was watching. Of course, this never happened. So the best way to describe this film, I feel is: ‘just watch it and see?!’

The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Starring: Kate Winslet, Jim Carey, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst (2004) eternalsunshine1

Possibly a bit late to the party with this movie, as it’s probably one of the more well-known ones on this list. Nonetheless, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a fun foray down the rabbit-hole of human memory. In a nutshell: boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl likes boy, they inevitably break up and decide to erase the memory of each other from their brains. However, as opposed to listening to copious amounts of Adele and drinking yourself into oblivion, they decide to achieve this via a conveniently-available medical procedure. Whilst reliving his memories as they’re being demolished, Joel (Jim Carey) changes his mind and decides that actually he doesn’t want to forget Clementine (Kate Winslet), and so a frenzied dash through fragmented memories ensues, as he attempts to wake himself up. Whilst it’s got a lot of odd quirks, what’s interesting about Eternal Sunshine is the way it plays around with memory and how, quite often, what we remember is not necessarily always exactly an accurate representation of events. At the beginning things are somewhat hectic, jumping back and forth between past and present, eventually the story pieces together and allows you to figure out just what on earth is going on. Overall, it’s a cleverly back-to-front kind of film, which you’ll either find satisfying or frustrating, depending on who you are – but either way, it’s worth a watch.

The Music Never Stopped
Starring: J.K. Simmonds, Lou Taylor Pucci, Cara Seymour (2011) musicneverstopped1

This is yet another, more recent, adaptation of the writing of Oliver Sacks – this time of the case study: The Last Hippie. The story follows a young man who, due to a brain tumour, suffers anterograde amnesia and is unable to remember anything after the late 1960s or form new long-term memories. However, by focusing on music, and the memories certain songs are strongly tied to and able to evoke, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci) is gradually able to connect with his estranged family. The Music Never Stopped is a sincere, heartfelt film which highlights just how far we still have to go to understand how human memory works (the music therapist in the film has some debatable ideas, but then most of what we understand about memory is debatable and the film is set in the 80s…). Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable watch – if only for the great soundtrack – with plenty of laughs along the way.