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Odd Brains
18 February

Before returning to academia for a Ph.D., Angus Hildreth spent a decade in the corporate world as a consultant and manager. "I had the great privilege early in my career to be exposed to very powerful individuals, executives of a multi-billion dollar organization," he says. Hildreth would sit in rooms and watch these executives, each essentially the CEO of his own unit, as they planned the future of the 150,000-person company.

"Perhaps naively, I assumed that you put the most capable, most effective people, who day-to-day make decisions that drive their organizations to success—you put all of these guys in the same room and you get this platonic idea of leadership," he says. "And I was, uh"—he pauses to laugh—"surprised, if you like, by how much these teams struggled to reach decisions."

They bickered, they withheld information, they digressed. Hildreth had some ideas why, which led him to think about researching the topic. "And I met Cameron Anderson"—a professor of organizational behavior at Berkeley—"who's world-renowned in the areas of power and status, and, day one, he said, 'Drop everything, we need to start studying this.'"

Anderson is now Hildreth's doctoral advisor, and the two have just published a paper, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showing that when teams contain several powerful people they actually become less effective—and it details why. The work is important for understanding the kinds of failures we see in everything from business and politics to sports teams and jury deliberations.

An all-star team may never shine

A similar pattern to what Hildreth observed has been shown in other recent research. Boris Groysberg and colleagues studied investment teams and found that their client-rated effectiveness peaked when groups contained only 65 percent "star analysts" (highlighted as top performers by Institutional Investor magazine); any more standouts hurt the teams. And when their expertise overlapped, even that many was too many cooks.

Roderick Swaab and colleagues found that people believe that more top talent in an organization or on a soccer team is always better. But looking at dozens of World Cup soccer teams and NBA squads, they found that the soccer teams performed best when only about 70 percent of players were stars (playing for elite club teams), and the basketball teams performed best when only about 50 percent were stars (playing in the top third of the league); any more stars hurt coordination and thus performance.

And Lindred Greer and colleagues studied work teams from a financial company in the Netherlands and found that the more power the team had in the organization, the worse they were at a decision-making task, thanks to internal conflict over who should do what. Power was not quite as harmful when members agreed with each other over how much control individuals had within the group.

Hildreth and Anderson hoped to build on this work by looking at what happens if they manipulated power by assigning people roles, rather than observing people who had obtained high-power roles in the real world and measuring correlations. They also set out to use larger samples in their study, to test additional tasks, and to look for mechanisms beyond conflict over group processes.

In the first experiment, college students performed a tower-building task in pairs. In some pairs, one student was told to assume control and make all decisions while the other was instructed to follow, an assignment supposedly based on a questionnaire they'd completed but actually by random selection. All pairs were then split and rearranged into triads for a creativity task. Each team had three high-power members (those given control in the tower task), or three low-power members, or three neutral members whose power hadn't been manipulated. They were videotaped inventing a new organization, and later judges rated the creativity of their idea as well as several aspects of their interaction. These factors included status conflict ("Members of the group competed for control over the group and its decisions"), task conflict ("The group had frequent disagreements about the tasks they were working on"), information sharing ("The group shared all of their information with each other"), and task focus ("Overall, how focused was the group on accomplishing the task?").

Although previous research had shown that power increases creativity in individuals when they work alone, the groups of powerful students were less creative than the other groups. Their failings resulted from increased status conflict, reduced information sharing, and reduced task focus. In other words, they spent their time fighting for control instead of doing their job. A companion study was similar except students did the creativity task alone, and here power increased creativity. So in the first study power hindered group processes, not individual ingenuity.

In another experiment, executives from an organization worked in groups of three or four to decide on hiring a hypothetical chief financial officer. The four most powerful execs worked together, and so on, down to the least powerful. The more powerful the group members, the more their arguments showed knowledge and expertise. And yet, the less likely they were to reach agreement. Their gridlock resulted, again, from increased status conflict, reduced information sharing, and reduced task focus, plus increased task conflict.

Is it all about coordination?

A final experiment resembled the first, except students did three creativity tasks, followed by a persistence task. Two creativity tasks didn't require coordination: Students individually jotted down unusual uses for a cardboard box and for a brick. In the third creativity task, the teams decided together on the most creative use for a cardboard box. Finally, teams were asked to solve four anagrams, the last two impossible, and the time they spent was recorded.

In the low-coordination tasks, power didn't affect quality of ideas and even led to producing more ideas. And in the anagram task, power increased persistence. Yet in the high-coordination task, powerful groups presented less creative ideas than did powerless groups. Individual mental horsepower doesn't matter when everyone's running in different directions, or butting heads.

Swaab and colleagues found a similar effect of coordination in their look at athletes. While too many stars hurt soccer and basketball teams, on baseball teams there was no such thing as too many stars. That's because, in the words of Barack Obama, basketball is "the quintessential team sport," whereas baseball, in the words of Bill Simmons, is "an individual sport masquerading as a team sport." Pitching and hitting are largely solitary endeavors.

The less-noticed cost of empowering

According to Greer, who performed the work on teams in the Netherlands and is now a business school professor at Stanford, "This line of work"—that she and Hildreth and others are pursuing—"is surprising, in that, for the longest time, social psychology brought forward findings that power was great for individuals—that it made individuals more creative, improved their executive functioning, enabled them to pursue their goals and take action, etc. It's a really interesting twist now to see that when you bring multiple high-power people together, such as in management teams or meetings of world-leaders, power can actually lead to negative outcomes at the team-level."

Why might there be status conflict when team members share the same level of power when that level is high, but not when it's low? It could be that while power enhances focus and creativity and persistence, it's also been shown to, in many cases, reduce empathy and politeness and humility, which can make it harder to get along with others. What's more, power and prestige often go hand in hand, and at last month's meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Greer presented findings suggesting that the more prestige someone has, the more that person craves additional prestige. This, too, could lead to battles over status at the top of the hierarchy.

The consequences can be severe. "I'm reminded of these issues every time I watch leaders of both parties in congress try to reach bipartisan agreement on issues of national importance," Hildreth says. In their paper, he and Anderson write that powerful people need to overcome differences "whether they are trying to build an international treaty to restrict greenhouse gases, generate a new strategy for their firm, or agree on a fiscal budget for their state."

Researchers have suggested fixes, however. Groups may benefit when everyone's status is made clear, or when decision processes are formalized, or when meeting time is more structured. During his time in the corporate world, Hildreth also found it helpful just to let fussy, power-drunk executives vent before getting down to business. "If day-to-day you're the 800-pound gorilla sitting at the top of your organizational chart, when you say 'Listen to me' people will listen," he says. "But when you come together with your peers it's more of an uncertain environment: What is your status in this group? I think part of this acting out is to reestablish: 'Yes I deserve to be here, I'm important, My voice counts.'" Whether you're at bottom of the food chain or the top, everyone just wants a little respect.

Odd Brains
09 February

While lots of people were happily celebrating the start of a new millennium in the early days of 2001, one 30-year-old woman was battling the feelings of sadness and despair. She had recently fallen for a man she felt deeply connected with, but the two went their separate ways because they were both in committed relationships at the time. After they stopped communicating, the woman could not get over her longing for the man — she could not sleep or eat, and she lost a lot of weight. As her emotional state worsened to the point she began feeling suicidal, the woman realized she needed help, so she fell to her knees and started praying to God. "I prayed from the sincerity of my heart and I knew he was there for me," the woman said, writing about her experience on "I have never prayed that way ever not once in my whole life, but pray I did."

Soon, the woman fell into a deep sleep. "All of a sudden, I am going through this tunnel of light," she recalled, adding she also started hearing beautiful music. She was struck by the experience and brought herself out of it. She sat up in her bed, thinking she was losing her mind. "I manage to fall asleep again and once again this beautiful light appears it is so wonderful, then I hear this voice. I do not want to repeat what was said to me because I feel that this message was from God to me," she said. "What gets me the most about all this is that I didn't know anything about mysticism at the time; had I known then what I know now, I would have embraced this light with all my heart and soul."

Experiences such as this one have been reported across cultures and throughout centuries, all sharing similar mystical elements. Some believe them to be encounters with a supernatural world or God, but our growing understanding of the brain and new evidence suggest they, in fact, originate in the brain. Still, the neural underpinnings that bring up such peculiar experiences have been unclear, with scientists suggesting two major hypotheses aimed at explaining them. According to the first one, mystical experiences could be linked with changes in the regions of the brain associated with emotion, abstract semantics and imagery, such as the temporal lobes. The other hypothesis suggests that the experiences could have something to do with decreased activity in the frontal parts brain associated with executive function, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC).

In a new study, published in December in Neuropsychologia, researchers looked at the occurrence of reported mystical experiences and their neural mechanisms in 116 Vietnam veterans with combat-related brain injury and 32 veterans without brain injury. The veterans in the study underwent neuropsychological testing and had their brains examined via CT scans. All the veterans in the study were evaluated at the same time, about 40 to 45 years after they fought in the war.

When the researchers examined the prevalence of mystical experiences among the veterans, they found that 50 of the 116 veterans with brain injury had mystical experiences; 23 had them during the war, right after being injured, and 27 had them after the war was over. In comparison, none of the 32 veterans without brain injury had such experiences during the war, and nine of them had them after the war was over.

Once the researchers looked at the locations of lesions in the brains of the veterans with brain injury, they found that lesions in the frontal and temporal cortices, including the dlPFC and middle/superior temporal cortex, seemed to be linked with the occurrence of reported mysticism.

The dlPFC is one of the areas that control the wide range of executive functions, such as working memory, planning and reasoning. The findings suggest that, through its involvement in executive functions, the dlPFC plays a role in determining whether a person interprets a certain sensorial experience as mystical or whether they provide a rational interpretation of the same experience.

As for the implication of the temporal cortex in the reported occurrence of mystical experiences, it is in line with previous research showing that, for instance, patients with temporal epilepsy, who experience seizures in their temporal lobes, often report mystical experiences. Taken together, the results suggest that the temporal lobe is important for generating an unusual brain activity pattern and the dIPFC has a role in interpreting them as mystical experiences, the researchers said.

Although the new research sheds light on the brain areas that underlie mystical experiences, it does not address the validation of beliefs that may contribute to such experiences. "That is, I can't tell you through personal experience, for example, that God exists," said study co-author Jordan Grafman, the director of Brain Injury Research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. "I can tell you about my beliefs, but I can't tell you that I have witnessed anything."

That's someplace researchers can't go, he said, adding that studies like this one can merely tell us what our brains can or can't do, and what may be going on during such experiences. "As a research subject, God has never called my lab, said 'I want to come in,'" Grafman told Braindecoder. "So far, no show, as far as I know," he added.

Odd Brains
04 February

An older man in Massachusetts had a truly nightmarish experience: a sneaky feline impostor found a way to take over the body of his beloved cat and inject its own personality into it. What's worse, the cunning impostor cat was conspiring against the man. And so was the FBI.

At least that's how the man saw it—this bizarre scenario, the alleged cat impostor and the FBI conspiracy were part of a delusion and a symptom of the man's disorder his doctors dubbed "Cat-gras"—a feline version of Capgras syndrome. People with Capgras syndrome become convinced that someone (in most cases, an actual human) they know had been replaced by an identical-looking impostor.

The mechanisms behind Capgras syndrome and related conditions collectively called delusional misidentification syndromes are a bit of a mystery. The syndrome is named after Joseph Capgras, a French psychiatrist who first described the condition in 1923 in a woman, "Madame M.," who thought impostors had taken the places of her husband and friends. Most commonly, Capgras delusion occurs in people who have schizophrenia, certain brain injuries or dementia.

Capgras delusions involving an animal impostor, as opposed to a human one, seem to be quite rare. There have been two other reported cases of delusions involving cats, two involving pet birds and one in a pet dog.

For the man described in the new report, problems started long before he began to think his cat had been replaced. A couple of years ago, at the age of 71, he went to a neurobehavioral clinic in Boston because of memory problems and overall decline in functioning. There, the doctors found he had a history of heavy alcohol use and repeated head traumas from playing professional hockey in the past, as well as sleep and heart problems. "He was a very complex individual," said Dr. R. Ryan Darby, at the time affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who treated the man and coauthored a report of his case, published recently in Neurocase.

About 15 years before coming to the clinic, the man had been forced to retire from his job due to his aggressive outbursts against coworkers. He eventually was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where his doctors diagnosed him with bipolar disorder. During the next 15 years, the man had episodes of manic behavior that included spending $40,000 in one month on golf-related paraphernalia and a car. The man also had a hoarding problem, which caused him to fill his spare bedroom with old magazines and electronics.

Six years before the man saw the doctors who described the case, he became extremely paranoid after he had stopped taking his psychiatric medications. He passed his wife written notes claiming that their house was being monitored and thought that random people in parking lots were really FBI agents. Finally, he started experiencing the cat impostor delusion.

At the time of the man's initial examination at the clinic, neuropsychological testing showed that he had confabulation and impairment in executive functions and memory retrieval. A CT scan revealed the man had experienced a loss of brain cells, softening of the brain tissue, and injuries in the frontal parts of the brain from past trauma.

The man's symptoms improved with medications and his delusions eventually subsided. Darby said the last time he spoke to the man's wife about six months ago, his condition had been stable and his delusions had not returned.

Most of the few other reported cases of Capgras involving pets occurred in people experiencing a psychotic episode and accompanied other paranoid delusions, like in the case of this patient. However, the new case is unique in some ways, the authors said. For one, the previously reported cases involving animal delusions occurred in people who were socially isolated from family and friends—something that was not the case for this patient. Moreover, the other cases have been reported only in psychiatric patients—but the current patient also had previous brain injury. Though it is not clear whether this injury actually contributed to the man's symptoms in any way, it is a possibility, the researchers said. "I think there is a decent chance that it did but I think it is hard to say that because of those other things that had been going on," such as the man's history of bipolar disorder, Darby said.

Although it's unclear what drives this peculiar delusion, some theories have been proposed over the years. Some researchers have suggested, for example, that damage to certain pathways involved in recognizing familiar faces could be involved. Others have suspected that a disconnection between areas involved in understanding mental states of others, as well as problems with emotional and memory processes might explain the bizarre symptoms.

Given this man's problem with retrieving memories, his doctors propose another theory; that the delusions may result from a problem with linking an object (such as a cat) a person can see with his memories of this object. In other words, if you can't properly retrieve your memories about a familiar object, you may think the object is new, but very similar to something you know, like a replica, or an impostor.

Odd Brains
11 January

From the Book: NeuroLogic by Eliezer J. Sternberg. Copyright © 2015 by Eliezer J. Sternberg, published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.

Kenneth Parks, twenty-three years old and living in Toronto, Ontario, had a steady job in the electronics business. He had been married for about two years and had a lovely five-month-old daughter. Parks also had a very close and warm relationship with his in-laws, feeling even closer to them than to his own parents. His mother-in-law affectionately called him "her gentle giant."

In the spring of 1987, Parks found himself overwhelmed by the consequences of some poor life decisions. He had become a heavy gambler, frequenting horse races and placing hefty wagers on long shots, the horses with the worst odds but highest potential payoff. After a number of failed bets, Parks began embezzling money from his job to conceal the losses from his wife. Going to work became a nightmare as he tried covering up evidence of the stolen funds. When his theft was inevitably discovered, Parks was fired from his job, and charges were brought against him. It became increasingly difficult to explain his gambling to his wife, especially once they were forced to put their house up for sale.

The weight of the debt Parks had accumulated often kept him up for entire nights. When he did manage to fall asleep, he often awoke in the middle of the night with pangs of anxiety in his chest. After attending a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous, Parks decided that the time had come to openly discuss his financial difficulties with his family and in-laws. The night before the meeting, he did not get a moment's sleep. Exhausted the next morning, he told his wife to push off the family meeting until the following day. At 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 23, Parks finally fell asleep on the couch.

The next thing Parks was able to recall was looking down at the terror on his mother-in-law's face as she collapsed on the floor in front of him. He then ran to his car, and as he reached for the steering wheel, he realized that he was holding a knife and it was dripping with blood. He threw it to the floor and drove straight to the police station, where he told the officers, "I think I have killed some people."

After many separate rounds of questioning, Parks's story was remarkably consistent. He remembered nothing from the time he fell asleep until the moment he saw his mother-in-law's face. But during this period that he could not recall, investigators learned, Parks had accomplished quite a bit. He had gotten off the couch, put on his shoes and jacket, walked outside, driven his car twenty-three kilometers (more than fourteen miles), stopping at up to three traffic lights, entered the home of his in-laws, fought with and strangled his father-in-law, and stabbed his mother-in-law to death. Yet he remembered none of it.

After a medical evaluation found no signs of physical illness or drug abuse, a team of four psychiatrists gathered to help shed light on the case. It was clear that Parks was horrified by what had happened, and there were no signs of premeditation. There was no clear motive, because he had nothing to gain from the murder. Parks also did not have any problem controlling aggression. He was of average intelligence and didn't suffer from delusions, hallucinations, or psychosis of any kind. Astonished by the absence of medical findings, the psychiatric evaluators had no answers.

Finally, with the help of a neurologist, it was suggested that a sleep disorder could have had something to do with it. Parks had a history of fragmented sleep as well as sleepwalking, as did many members of his family. His own sleepwalking traced back to when he was a child. Once his brothers had even caught him climbing out of a window while fast asleep, and together they had to drag him back to bed. He also had a history of nocturnal bed-wetting, night terrors, and talking while asleep, all of which are associated with sleepwalking. The neurologist called for a full sleep evaluation using a polysomnogram, a device that simultaneously measures brain waves, eye movements, heart rate, respiratory rate, and muscular movements during sleep. The readings demonstrated that Parks had unusually high levels of slow-wave sleep, a finding typical of chronic sleepwalkers. When all the evidence was finally compiled and brought to trial, the court concluded that Parks had assaulted his father-in-law and killed his mother-in-law while sleepwalking. He was found not guilty on both counts. As a judge stated on the ruling,

Although the word "automatism" made its way but lately to the legal stage, it is a basic principle that absence of volition in respect of the act involved is always a defense to a crime. A defense that the act is involuntary entitles the accused to a complete and unqualified acquittal . . . At common law, a person who engaged in what would otherwise have been criminal conduct was not guilty of a crime if he did so in a state of unconsciousness or semi-consciousness. Nor was he responsible if he was, by reason of disease of the mind or defect of reason, unable to appreciate the nature and quality of an act or that its commission was wrong. The fundamental precept of our criminal law is that a man is responsible only for his conscious, intentional acts.

To better understand what might have been going on in Kenneth Parks's brain on that terrible night, we need to think about the four stages of sleep. In stage 1, you are just barely falling asleep. It's pretty easy to wake up at this stage, and when you do, you might not even realize you've been sleeping. In stage 2, your muscles relax, though at times there may be spontaneous contractions. Your heart rate slows and body temperature cools as the body readies itself to enter deep sleep. Stage 3 is known as slow-wave sleep and is the deepest period of sleep in the cycle. It is during slow-wave sleep that people can have night terrors or nocturnal urination. It is also the part of the cycle in which people sleepwalk. Finally, during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, your muscles are completely paralyzed. This is the stage in which we experience our most vivid dreams. The muscle paralysis prevents us from acting out those dreams in reality. However, the same cannot be said for slow-wave sleep, which is, as I mentioned, the stage found to be unusually long in Kenneth Parks's case.

Sleepwalking is a mysterious example of how a person's behavior can be overtaken by automatic processes he can't control, and as we have just seen, it can lead to terrifying consequences. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has determined that incidents of sleepwalking share the following characteristics:

1. Difficulty to arouse the person during the episode 2. Mental confusion when awakened
3. Complete or partial amnesia for the episode
4. Potentially dangerous behaviors

Reports of sleepwalking have included everything from throwing heavy objects, jumping out of bedroom windows, and even sexual acts during sleep. Sexuality during sleep has even been given a name in scientific literature: "sexsomnia." It is just another frightening example of the complex behaviors people are capable of while fast asleep.

People who sleepwalk, and potentially commit dangerous acts, most often can't remember doing so. People tend to find out that they were sleepwalking when someone else, such as their spouse, tells them so. Some people figure it out by suddenly waking up and realizing that they are not situated in the same place in which they went to sleep. Why are sleepwalkers consistently unable to remember having sleepwalked? One might think that it's because their brains are not active and lack the ability to process what's going on around them. After all, they are sleeping. In fact, however, the mind is quite active during slow-wave sleep. People have simple dreams during slow-wave sleep, and because their muscles are not yet paralyzed, the brain can even activate muscle contractions and complex movements.

Alternatively, perhaps the reason people don't remember sleepwalk- ing is that the brain does not record these incidents in episodic memory. Sleepwalkers would therefore have something in common with the preoccupied driver. The preoccupied driver can't remember driving his route to work, because his mind is immersed in other thoughts, such as those about an upcoming presentation. The driver remembers those thoughts about the presentation but not the complex task of driving. So, what might be occupying the thoughts of sleepwalkers? Their dreams.

Sometimes we remember our dreams, but it seems that equally often we don't. Research shows that it depends on the stage of sleep we are in. If the dream occurs during REM sleep, we remember it about 75 percent of the time. In contrast, if the dream takes place during slow-wave sleep, the stage in which sleepwalking occurs, we remember it just under 60 percent of the time. The reasons for this difference are unknown. During slow-wave sleep, our dreams are shorter than those during REM sleep and are usually described as being more like interrelated thoughts than actual dreams. If normal slow-wave sleep presents short, choppy dreams that we recall little more than half the time, how does sleepwalking affect our dreams and how we remember them? A 2009 study of sleepwalkers investigated this very question.

The forty-six participants in the study, who had been followed by sleep specialists for at least two years, were asked to describe any thoughts or dreams they could remember having during their episodes of sleepwalking. The research team then compiled the data on whether the subjects remembered dreaming and, if so, what they dreamed about. What they found was that 71 percent of them remembered at least part of the dreams that were linked to their episodes of sleepwalking. Of those who could remember their dreams, most of them (84 percent) described them as being frightening or similarly unpleasant. The table below shows some of the dreams they reported, as well as what they did while sleepwalking.

Content of dream

Behavior, as observed by bed partner or reported by dreamer
A truck was bearing down on her and she was about to get run over. She jumped out of bed and out of the mezzanine.
Her baby was in danger.
She grabbed her baby and ran out of the room.
Spiders were crawling toward her and she wanted to drown them.
She started spitting on the bed.
People were following him.
He climbed onto the roof of his house.
His girlfriend was in danger and he had to save her.
He grabbed his girlfriend and pulled her out of bed.

People often remember the dreams they had around the time they were sleepwalking but don't remember the sleepwalking itself or the things they did during the episode. All they can do is piece together what happened after the fact. When conscious analysis is not applied to our behavior, whether because it is damaged or simply preoccupied with other endeavors, our automated system takes over. Looking at the table above, there is a clear parallel between dream content and sleepwalking behavior. During the episodes of sleepwalking, with the mind engrossed in an internal fantasy, the body runs on autopilot. It's as if sleepwalkers are automatons acting out their dreams.

Kenneth Parks did not sleep well. He was under incredible pressure, at his psychological breaking point, as he prepared to face his in-laws and come clean about the lies and recklessness that had brought his family to ruin. In his fragile mental state, it's possible that a fantasy crept into his mind during that night. Perhaps he dreamed of a way to avoid the confrontation. If only his in-laws were dead before he had to meet with them. Parks would never have committed murder, it seems, if he were awake and consciously reflecting on his own behavior. But in dreams, a person can imagine anything.

There's a good chance that Kenneth Parks's mind was preoccupied by a terrible dream that night. Without his conscious faculties to monitor his actions, his automated system took over. He became a most deadly preoccupied driver as he traveled more than fourteen miles in his car and committed murder—all on autopilot. Evidently, zombies do exist, and they're capable of committing atrocious acts.

We are wired with an automatic system that can control our behavior. The fact that this system is capable of acting against our best interest, whether by leading a mouse down the wrong arm of a maze or by causing a man to commit murder, raises an obvious question: Why does this system exist? Presumably, natural selection kept it around because it has some usefulness. So, what advantage do we gain from having such a system?

Read more about the brain's automatic system in the book Neurologic, coming out January 12.


Odd Brains
04 January

Several years ago, a man came to a Canadian hospital seeking help for an odd affliction: whenever he stares at a tree, he sees faces. The faces materialize among the leaves and branches within a few seconds of focusing his gaze, he explained at the hospital, and disappear when he looks away. They do not belong to anyone he knows and they don't talk, but they may have slightly different expressions. Sometimes, he said, the same thing happens when he stares at walls—except the wall faces almost always have stoic expressions. This has been going on for nearly 30 years, he said—ever since he was 21 and experimenting with LSD on a weekly basis.

The man's condition is known as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), a chronic malady affecting visual perception and associated with the use of hallucinogenic drugs including LSD, MDMA, psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline and, in some cases, cannabis. Unlike the man in Canada, most people with HPPD don't see specifically identifiable visuals like faces. Instead, "trails"—discontinuous, stationary images that appear behind a moving object—are the most common, followed by vivid "floaters"—small moving spots or worm-shaped distortions. Others may see geometric shapes or dots similar to the static on a television, referred to as visual snow.

"These people get visual information like everyone else, but they can't shut off the noise," says Henry Abraham, a psychiatrist who has studied the disorder since the 1970s. "Ordinarily, our visual system filters all of this stuff out, but theirs has a problem with disinhibition—and it makes them miserable."

Few studies have investigated the underlying biological mechanisms that might be driving the prolonged hallucinations. Abraham used electrophysiology to map the condition to the occipital cortex, a region in the back of the brain that processes visual information. Another group of researchers implicated the lingual gyrus, a structure located within the occipital cortex, in an MRI study of people who experience visual snow. "If the visual signal from the retina to the brain is disturbed then the result could be that the occipital visual cortex will start to overcompensate by asking for more signals," says Gerard Alderliefste, a physician in addiction medicine at the Brijder Addiction Care Center in the Netherlands. "But instead of receiving more signals that are diminished in quality, it will receive more noise."

The Canadian researchers who examined the man who sees faces in trees also found that their patient's brain activity patterns differed depending on whether or not he hallucinated faces when shown images of trees. These changes in activity were found in regions associated with recognizing faces and objects, including the frontal areas and left parahippocampal cortex.

"There are also people experiencing these symptoms without ever having used illegal drugs," Alderliefste adds. "So there will probably be a common pathway in which drugs can trigger the symptoms."

Likewise, little is known about why one person but not another may develop HPPD. "I've looked for years but have not been successful at uncovering the risk factors," Abraham says. "I've hypothesized that they're genetic, but there's no real evidence for that." HPPD does seem to be significantly associated with anxiety disorders, however, especially panic attacks. In a sample of 20 patients, Abraham found that half had a history of panic disorders, and medications used to treat those conditions also sometimes reduce the occurrence of HPPD. Alderliefste has additionally found that a number of people with HPPD also suffer from migraines or have relatives that do.

Contrary to what might be expected, HPPD's onset doesn't correlate with the amount of drugs a user takes. Instead, the dose response curve seems to have three bumps: those who are affected after just one or a handful of trips; those who are affected after about 50 trips; and those who are "real acid heads," tripping hundreds of times, Abraham says. He suspects the three groups may reflect three distinct phenotypes related to a recessive gene, but that hypothesis remains untested.

Abraham began working on the disorder in 1971 and over the years has been contacted by about 2,000 people who have experienced it. But because HPPD is triggered by illegal drug use, it's difficult to estimate its prevalence. A web-based questionnaire of around 2,700 hallucinogen-users indicated that about 60 percent of respondents experienced recurring, drug-free visuals at one point or another, with 24 percent saying it happened constantly or near-constantly. Of those, however, only four percent said the symptoms were distressing enough for them to seek help.

There is no surefire treatment for those with HPPD. For about half of Abraham's patients, it seems to go away on its own after about five years; for the others, however, it can linger much longer. "The lucky ones have it a day or a week," Alderliefste says. "The unlucky ones can have it for life."

Researchers and doctors who have tested different medications on individual patients have found that some pharmaceuticals—including the anti-epileptic drug lamotrigine or Keppra, anti-migraines, anti-hypertension drugs and anti-panic medications like benzodiazepines—seem to reduce the intensity of HPPD symptoms for some people, but they're not curative. Alcohol also tends to provide temporary relief, likely because it quiets down visual information processing, but as a result people with HPPD are more likely to abuse that intoxicant and become alcoholics.

The best method Abraham has found for treating the disorder is training patients to mentally block out its symptoms. "If you don't allow yourself to be distracted by it, you can do ok," he says. "Those who have gotten well say the single best thing is not to focus on it." Because stress and anxiety can trigger HPPD episodes, exercise and meditation can also be useful for controlling the condition.

Alderliefste additionally finds that education goes a long way toward bringing relief— when their symptoms first appeared, some of the 650 or so people who have contacted him over the past seven years feared that they were suffering from a tumor or experiencing the onset of multiple sclerosis. "It is still relatively unknown, with the consequence that sufferers will often only find information about HPPD on internet forums," he says. "To have a diagnosis and good knowledge of this syndrome is half the treatment."

For now, however, the people who care most about furthering our understanding of HPPD and finding a cure are oftentimes the victims themselves. "This is an orphan disease," Abraham says. "No one likes it; no one really cares about drug abusers; and it's rare."

Odd Brains
16 December 2015

In 2011, journalist and author Brett Martin made an embarrassing public confession via the radio show This American Life: the 2002 rom-com Sweet Home Alabama had made him cry. As he watched Reese Witherspoon throw down at a country wedding, "something began to happen to me," Martin recalls. "My face got hot and constricted. A softball rose in my throat that required a surprisingly loud snort to choke back. In short, I lost it—and started to cry."

Critically, the crying episode took place neither in a theater nor in Martin's home. Instead, he was on a plane at 30,000 feet. This wasn't the first time such an incident had occurred, he admits on the show. When watching movies on planes—and only on planes—he cries "not sometimes, always" and "not [during] some movies, all movies."

Martin does not seem to be alone in this peculiarity. He interviewed several friends who attested to their own plane crying issues, and since his show aired other reporters have chimed in with additional stories. The phenomenon seems to extend beyond movies, too; television shows, books or even exceptionally touching commercials can also summon tears on planes.

But significant unknowns remain, including what is causing some people to experience what seems to be heightened emotional vulnerability on planes. Even more pressing a question, however, is whether or not the phenomenon truly exists at all. While anecdotal evidence attests to it, no one has ever taken the time to carry out a systematic scientific study.

For now, the closest thing we have to data is a survey that Virgin Atlantic supposedly ran several months after Martin came out about his regular bouts of plane crying. Depending on the reference material, Virgin's survey was either conducted on a volunteer-basis on Facebook or commissioned to include 3,000 U.K. respondents. Reportedly, 55 percent of participants said they experience heightened emotions when flying, and 41 percent of men admitted to hiding tears when watching a movie on a plane. Based on those findings, the airline said it would start issuing "weep warnings" before high-risk tearjerkers such as Toy Story 3, The Blind Side and Eat Pray Love.

We have introduced an emotional health warning on films that have potential to be the biggest tearjerkers on board. Let us know what other films you think should carry our “weepy warning.”
Posted by Virgin Atlantic on Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Yet while many news organizations reported on Virgin's findings, the survey itself—if it ever existed at all—seems to have disappeared. Even an academic article on the subject—"Crying While Flying"—cites a Guardian story rather than the original Virgin source material.

Regardless of whether Virgin's data do or do not exist, as a survey-based questionnaire carried out by an airline company that never published its results in a peer-reviewed journal, those findings would not be considered scientifically valid, which, unfortunately, doesn't leave us with much to go on. "As far as I know, there was just that survey," says Ad Vingerhoets, a professor of clinical psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, and author of Why Only Humans Weep: Unraveling the Mystery of Tears. "So yeah, well, that's it I'm afraid."

As Vingerhoets points out, without real data it's impossible to say whether or not the phenomenon actually exists. If pushed, though, he and others do have a few hypothetical speculations about what could be driving such an effect. For starters, turbulence can increase anxiety, lowering the threshold to cry, as can any underlying fear of flying. Elaine Iljon Foreman, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treatment of fear of flying, found that anxiety in anticipation of a possible loss of control—either of oneself or of the plane—is the primary driver behind plane-induced terror, while Vingerhoets has found that powerlessness is a key factor for why adults cry in general.

"On an airplane, you're herded on and off; you're told when to do this and that; you're not in control of the environment," Iljon Foreman says. "You're also away from the safety of familiar places and people." The ultimate feeling of powerlessness, however, likely comes from the knowledge that if something goes seriously wrong, your odds are not good—and there's nothing you can do to change that.

On the other hand, plane crying could have more biological roots—a product of the unfortunate realities of flying and the toll they take on bodies and brains. Sleep deprivation and stress are both common symptoms of air travel and could heighten the propensity to cry. One key player in processing emotions in the brain is the amygdala. A number of other brain areas keep those responses in check. But one study found that as we become more tired, the inhibitory influence of the medial prefrontal cortex over the amygdala weakens, resulting in an amplified response by the amygdala to negative emotional triggers.

In addition, on-board drinking—a common form of self-medication for stress and exhaustion—might only exasperate a person's emotional state. Just like sleep deprivation, alcohol meddles with the processes that regulate emotions.

"If it's about time zones and fatigue, I can easily understand that such things may happen," Vingerhoets says. An experiment testing whether travelers are more prone to cry on overnight or long haul flights, or when drinking or not drinking, could begin to investigate such hypotheses, but for now, "we simply do not have that information," he says.

Finally, it could be that being trapped on a plane just produces a level of focus that is otherwise lacking on the ground. Disconnected from devices, floating through unstructured time, our attention turns entirely to the screen or pages in front of us. "Your mind has more time to wander, and therefore you're more able to experience your feelings because you're not so activity-driven as you are in everyday life," Iljon Foreman says.

Until systematic studies are conducted, we won't know what's fueling heightened emotion on planes, or even if such a phenomenon exists at all. But Martin and others who regularly well up at cruising altitude suspect that it does. As he puts it on the show: "Something happens up there, in that weird hanging state between where you're going and where you've left . . . Some strange overhead compartment of the heart opens up, and critical judgment grabs its floatational seat cushion and follows the lighted pathway to the big yellow slide."

Odd Brains
09 December 2015

If you're the type who spends parties hovering by the chip bowl, counting the minutes until you can leave and trying not to make eye contact with anyone, it can be easy to envy extraverts. These people come off as the life of the party, outgoing and comfortable in social settings. Some studies have suggested that they are actually happier, make better impressions on people, and activate reward-related brain structures more when they see happy faces.

Most of us are not extraverts; the most common social type might actually be ambiverts, who fall between the two poles. Can the rest of us harness the skills of those who seem to connect with others so easily?

The formula for extraverts' success might actually be very simple. Extraverts mimic others more than introverts do, researchers from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina report. In an experiment that paired college students with undercover researchers, extraverts mirrored the conspirator's behavior when their goal was to make a connection—but not otherwise, suggesting their social adeptness depends on motivation.

This finding may explain the longstanding mystery of how extraverts become better than others at building affiliations with other people. Older studies had found that extraverts are faster and more energetic talkers, but there's no evidence that this builds fellowship. In theory, extraverts would also be more likely to smile and nod at others than introverts, but research hasn't found this to be the case.

The Duke team wanted to find out what their secret was. "Is it possible that extraverts engage in a subtler form of affiliation that generally goes undetected—a behavior that occurs automatically and nonconsciously when they are motivated to affiliate?" they wrote.

Previous research has already shown that mimicking others' behavior boosts liking and smooths interactions. To find out whether it's also characteristic of extraverts, the researchers gave several dozen college students tasks where they took turns with a partner describing pictures and brainstorming words in different categories. Unknown to the students, their partners were in league with the researchers, and made a point of constantly touching their hair and faces.

At the end of the study, the participants completed an assessment of their extraversion. As the researchers had suspected, extraverts were more likely to be chameleons than the introverts, touching their face and hair to match their partner. This behavior seems to happen automatically and without people realizing they are doing it.

So practicing mimicry might make you better at mingling. True, it won't necessarily make you want to, but that's okay—even extraverts don't do it all the time. In the experiment, extraverts only imitated the confederate more than introverts when they were told that the task they were about complete had best results when both people got along well.

"Extraverts mimic more when they want to get along with another person," wrote the researchers, who published the findings September 25 in the journal Psychological Science. "Thus, extraverts are not always more socially skillful than introverts—they are more skillful only when they are motivated to be."

The researchers didn't use that many people, and suggest that future experiments testing this idea could cast a wider net. But for now, if you want to emulate extraverts' social advantage, it can't hurt to subtly mimic your fellow partygoers. At least it will give you something to do when the dip runs out.

Odd Brains
08 December 2015

They don't call it a winning attitude for nothing. Politicians and salespeople alike are known for scheming speaking tactics that can coax wide-eyed audiences to say things like, "Well, I guess I never thought of it that way?"

But for a politician like Donald Trump, it may not all be a scheme.

Certainly, it takes an inordinate number of factors to explain Trump's strange success (he's still leading the 2016 Republican Presidential Nominee polls). For one, Trump stands by the core Republican agenda stronger than any other candidate. But there's also something else that fuels his rise, something which he shares with previous office seekers like Bill Clinton and Theodore Roosevelt: a deep-rooted propensity for energy, confidence, drive, aggressiveness, impulsivity, and arrogance.

These characteristics are what psychologist John Gartner from Johns Hopkins University Medical School collectively calls "a hypomanic temperament."

This is the more "functional, more commonly expressed form of mania," Gartner says. Hypomanics are people that Gartner describes as being very passionate, very certain, and very unrelenting: "all things that can persuade people," he says. (If you doubt that this personality type, genetically linked to bipolar disorder, is expressed in Trump, please redirect over to Politico's "The 199 Most Donald Trump Things Donald Trump Has Ever Said.")

Though words spoken by hypomanics may not be the truest ( nor not true at all), this does not prevent their message from spreading. "These are the people that without a doubt make the best salesman, whether they're selling religion or whatever," Gartner says. "They are the people that, without a doubt, are the most manipulative."

But how exactly does a hypomanic effectively sway a crowd? To find out, we should shift our focus from the speaker to the listener—understanding how the brain processes what it hears. Scientists have been studying this from several angles over the years, and it turns out that the answer is a complicated one, of course, composed of many interacting factors.

What and how

Our brains process a message from two main angles. One is the actual content of a message, such as the words, their syntactic organization and semantic relationships—or the "what" of a message, says New York University cognitive neuroscientist David Poeppel. How our brains process the "what" is separated from how we process the "how," which is a speaker's voice and intonation, among other things. "You can combine these information types more or less independently, which is why a given string of words, say 'this'll be a great day', can be said slightly differently and then interpreted as an utterance that is sincere, ironic, cynical, sarcastic, a question, a command, etc." Poeppel says.

In 2004, a study led by neuroscientist Sophie Scott from the University College London revealed that when someone is speaking English, the words they say get processed by the left side of the listener's brain, where language areas are typically located. But the sound of their voice—the melody and rhythm that gives away identity and mood— is primarily processed over on the right. This independent processing means that neutral, or even slightly offensive, words can gain a positive spin by a simple boost of inflection. Vice versa, a string of words that would otherwise be upbeat—"this'll be a great day"—can come off as cynical and insincere depending on your lilt.

Can you be more like Trump or Clinton?

To even out the playing field, non-hypomanics alike can employ a few persuasive tricks themselves. One sneaky debate strategy, for example, involves slipping in the most vital, and often controversial, bit of information into a place in the sentence where people are less likely to notice it. You can also raise a new issue beneath the cloak of another or just throw in unnecessary complexity. ("It's always good to do things nice and complicated so that nobody can figure it out," as Trump told the New Yorker back in '97).

The Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics highlights how using positive words in place of their less-shiny, negative synonyms is a popular way to sway your audience into a confused cloud of thinking what you're saying is in fact, a good thing.

Using metaphors—words that can connect and compare two typically unrelated things—has a similar influence. In 2011, two Stanford psychologists wanted to know how metaphors alter the way people think about social issues, so they presented the crime rates of a made-up city of Addison to two different study groups. For the first group, crime was described using the metaphor of a wild beast ("preying," "lurking," and "ravaging"). For the other group, the metaphor was more like a virus that was "infecting" and "plaguing" the city. Once each group was asked how Addison's crime should be solved, people familiar with the beast metaphor were more likely to say that criminals should be "captured"—caught and jailed. Likewise, those who now thought of Addison's crime as being viral said that it should be "diagnosed," "treated," and "inoculated"—falling into the study's category of "social reform," or looking for the root cause of the crime rather than immediately punishing it.

Being exposed "to even a single metaphor" can lead to "substantial differences in opinion about how to solve social problems," the authors conclude in the PLOS ONE study. A word's primary meaning sticks in the brain, thus transforming the entire gist of your message, as well as the reaction that follows.

These findings on manipulative word choice are well reflected in a new analysis by The New York Times that looked at 95,000 words said publicly by Trump over this past week. Trump employs "constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery that American presidents rarely use," The Times found. Their analysis also revealed Trump's use of analogy: "He has a particular habit of saying 'you' and 'we' as he inveighs against a dangerous 'them' or unnamed other," which usually refers to outsiders like illegal immigrants ("they're pouring in"), Syrian migrants, Mexicans, as well as leaders of both political parties.

Of course, it's not all about word choice. As the previous research has shown, the brain also cares about what these words sound like. In addition, there are a myriad of social factors that determine if you'll successfully be duped by a speaker. "Whether you like how the person looks, what your prior beliefs are on whatever topic, on whether you are more or less empathic, how old you are, your socioeconomic status..." will all influence if you fall for someone's words, Poeppel says. "Processing of speech has tremendous internal complexity," he says.

Clearly, word choice and speaking manners can't completely override the content of the message. As Poeppel explains, effective persuasion has a lot to do with what we already believe—making Trump's success in the polls seem like a bizarre reflection of America's own psyche rather than Trump's personality and debate tactics alone.

Odd Brains
07 December 2015

Most of us know what it's like to encounter an earworm, one of those songs that you just can't get out of your head. But as hard as it is to quell the echo of these songs in our minds, we aren't really hearing them. For some people who just can't stop the beat, though, the music playing in their minds is indistinguishable from reality—and sometimes very specific in genre.

In a recent review published in the journal Brain, researchers set out to figure out who has musical hallucinations and what conditions are most likely behind the phenomenon. The team combed through past reports of patients with musical hallucinations who were evaluated at the Mayo Clinic from 1996 to 2003 and found that musical hallucinations don't just crop up in connection to a bunch of different illnesses—they actually sound different depending on what condition is causing them. People with neurodegenerative diseases or hearing loss tend to hear religious or patriotic music, while those with brain damage hear modern music and people with psychiatric disorders hear different flavors of music depending on what mood they are in.

Music in the head

It's actually not uncommon to experience some kind of auditory hallucinations that involve simple sounds, like in tinnitus. Musical hallucinations on the other hand, are made of complex, well-developed sounds and are more rare; one study detected them in 0.16 percent of people admitted to the psychiatric departments of two hospitals.

Musical hallucinations have been linked to psychiatric and neurologic diseases, damage in the brain, drugs and hearing impairment. But sometimes people who hallucinate music have no known cognitive or psychiatric condition that could explain the phenomenon.

Because it's common for people who experience musical hallucinations to also have hearing loss, one explanation is that they are the auditory version of Charles Bonnet syndrome, in which the brains of people who have lost vision start to supply sights that are not there. Most people with deafness don't end up having musical hallucinations, though.

These hallucinations often take the form of tunes that are familiar to the person experiencing them, but people have reported hearing new or unfamiliar melodies. In these cases, though, it's possible that the person has heard the melody before and just does not consciously remember it anymore.

Different playlists

In the new paper, the researchers examined reports of 393 people who'd hallucinated music, 65 percent of whom were women. The average age that hallucinations started was 56 years, but people ranged in age from 18 to 98.

The researchers found that about one quarter of these people had a neurologic illness, about 1 in 10 had damage to brain structures, nearly 40 percent had psychiatric illnesses and twelve percent were on drugs. The remaining 15 percent didn't fit into any of these clusters (here referred to by "not otherwise classifiable," or NOC). Hearing loss was common across the groups, but not universal.

(image)Golden and Josephs (2015). "Psychiatric disease represented the most commonly associated condition; however, neurological disease and focal brain lesions together accounted for over a third of the patients."

The groups tended to differ in the kind of music that they experienced. People with neurodegenerative diseases heard religious or patriotic music that was "reminiscent of childhood," the researchers wrote; this was also the case for the people who didn't fit into any of the other groups, who tended to be elderly. In the group with brain lesions, which were typically caused by tumors, surgery or blood vessel anomalies, genres like country and rock cropped up.

"This difference may in part be related to musical preferences with age, with older individuals favoring religious or traditional songs," the researchers wrote. "However, the traditional songs heard by the neurodegenerative and NOC groups are distinguished by their relatively high frequency throughout a lifetime and relationship to emotionally-charged situations. Thus, they may be more vulnerable to manifesting as hallucinations in the presence of hearing impairment or neurodegenerative disease."


Several of the people on drugs heard Christmas carols, while another heard elevator music and one heard "radio through vent." People with psychiatric disorders tended to hear music that depended on their mood and was typically sad or "scary." In one case someone believed the singer was a person who'd passed away, while another person heard their late husband's favorite songs.

"Musical hallucinations can occur in a wide variety of disease states," concluded the researchers, adding that hearing impairment likely increases a patient's chance to experience the phenomenon. In future, they wrote, the relationship between neurological disease and musical hallucinations could be better illuminated by studying people currently experiencing them.

Odd Brains
30 November 2015

"I'm running through a forest, and a group of people is following me closely. I suddenly see flying faces coming towards me. I find it strange, confusing, impossible... it makes me question it all and I tell myself, as usual, that I must be dreaming…The faces have their mouths open and pass me by, brushing up against me. I try to touch them with my hand but I can't, then I try to touch the branches along the edge of the path and can't touch them either. My hand goes straight through. Everything goes through me."

This is how one of the bizarre and memorable dreams of a young man named Michel Chesi started. As he continued to run in the forest, he was suddenly stopped by a dark figure blocking his way. He felt like he had run into an invisible wall and fallen to the ground. He was terrified, thinking the figure was an embodiment of evil. He wanted to get out of the scene and, with a snap of the fingers, he found himself surrounded with total darkness. Then, a series of small illuminated letters appeared to him, hovering in the dark, spelling out the word "XANTIAZIZ." He tried to remember the letters to write them down in his diary, and that's when he seemed to wake up. Trying to grab a flashlight and a pen, he found there was nothing on his nightstand. The room was empty of any other furniture. Soon the dark figure started to permeate him.

He then woke up, this time for real, realizing that his previous "awakening" was part of a lucid dream. Chesi, now a 39-year-old resident of Marin-Epagnier in Switzerland, had such dreams from time to time when he was between 18 and 37 years old. The dreams were often accompanied by other bizarre experiences during which he had the sensation of leaving his body. Sometimes, Chesi would even experience "walking" in his neighborhood without physically leaving his bed.

Chesi's strange nightly experiences coincided with other symptoms such as vertigo attacks, dizziness, floating sensations while walking, and nausea, all of which suggested he might have a problem with his body's balance system.

"Over the years, I developed problems with my balance that were getting worse and worse and that's why I consulted a doctor," Chesi told Braindecoder.

The doctor, Dr. Dominique Vibert, a specialist for neurological disorders of the ear, examined Chesi and determined that his symptoms were due to damage to his right inner ear (a diagnosis called vestibulopathy), probably caused by a viral infection. The inner ear is one part of the vestibular system in the body that plays a crucial role in maintaining our sense of balance.

During the course of treatment for his vestibular symptoms, Chesi told Vibert about his out-of-body experiences (OBEs) and lucid dreams that he had been having. His OBEs occurred about three to four times a year, and lucid dreams occurred several times a month.

Curious to learn more about the mechanisms of these bizarre phenomena, Vibert and her colleagues decided to study Chesi's case, which they described in a recent report published in Multisensory Research. Based on their observations and the results of several experiments, the researchers attributed his experiences to a faulty multisensory integration, linked to his inner ear problem.

Combining senses

People normally rely on a combination of visual, vestibular, somatosensory and proprioceptive information in order to accurately position their bodies in space, and to position themselves in their bodies, explained study co-author Mariia Kaliuzhna of Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

To see whether Chesi could properly integrate signals coming from his vestibular system and visual system, the researchers did a series of experiments. In one, they put him in a centrifuge cockpit-style chair, which rotated his whole body. A computer monitor was positioned in front of his face, showing a 3D pattern of dots that simulated his self-rotation.

Then Chesi was rotated in the same direction twice and his task was to judge whether the second rotation was bigger or smaller than the first one. In one condition, the screen in front of him was blank and he could only perform the task based on his vestibular information. In another condition, the chair remained stationary, and only the movement of the dots induced the feeling of rotation, meaning that he could only perform the task based on visual information. Then, in the last condition, the chair and the dots moved together and he had to base his judgment on both of these stimuli.

(image)Schematic view of the experimental setup.M. Kaliuzhna et al. / Multisensory Research 28 (2015) 613–635

For healthy people, who properly combine the vestibular signals from body rotation and the visual signals from the moving dots, it's easier to give correct answers when the two types of information are present, like in the last condition, than when only one type, vestibular or visual, is available.

But this wasn't the case for Chesi. He actually performed worse on the test when the dots moved too.

"We show for the first time that somebody having OBE does not integrate visual and vestibular cues, that is, he does not combine information from these two sources in an appropriate way," Kaliuzhna told Braindecoder.

The researchers think the Chesi might also process somatosensory information in an altered way. In a second experiment, the team conducted an augmented version of the Rubber Arm illusion, called the Full Body illusion. They had Chesi lay down in a darkened room on a robotic device designed to gently stroke his back, while wearing a head-mounted display to watch an image of a male body seen from the back. The touch of the robotic device was represented in the display as a red dot, moving along the back of the body. The researchers then tested what would happen in two conditions: in the first, synchronous condition, the robotic device and the red dot moved together in the same way. In the second, asynchronous condition, a delay was introduced between the dot and the robotic device, as a result of which the dot was seen in a different location than the one where touch was being felt. It has been shown that, in the synchronous condition, participants think they are closer to the virtual body than they actually are and identify themselves more with this body, Kaliuzhna said.

"The interesting result this manipulation produced in the patient is the strong feeling to float in the air, as well as a tingling sensation in his legs and lower back, which was reminiscent to him of the sensation he has during this OBE," she said. "Our control subjects did not report such sensations."

Nocturnal voyages

Chesi believes his experiences actually started long time ago when he was very young, but in the form of night terrors. "I started to overcome these night terrors towards the end of my adolescence," he said. Instead, he tried to enjoy the bizarre world of his dreams.

During a typical OBE episode, Chesi would first wake up at night and look at the clock, close his eyes and fall asleep again. But then he would experience the sensation of falling in complete darkness. The sensation would stop and he would experience the feeling of floating in the air. At that point he would hear a crackling sound inside his head, open his eyes and experience the sensation of leaving his body and the bed. He would then be turned around 180 degrees to see himself lying on the bed. During most of his out-of-body experiences, he felt he was positioned under the ceiling of his bedroom or next to his bed. But from time to time he also experienced so-called distant disembodiment, and felt that he was walking around the neighborhood.

These episodes typically lasted about two to three minutes. When he woke up, he felt a tingling sensation across his body for a couple of minutes, and then felt invigorated.

These out-of-body experiences started out in lucid dreams, in which Chesi suddenly became conscious about his dreaming and felt that he could control the content of the dreams. He often tried to interact with the environment while dreaming — he tried to touch things, pass through walls or talk to people.

"In my experiences, I often tried to explore the dream environment in terms of sensations, especially touch, and the transition between lucid dreaming and disembodiment," Chesi said. "I believe that the transition from one to the other is caused by the brain that puts itself in an "alert" mode: the lucid dream is a reality that visually resembles the reality that the dreaming person knows in his daily life and his brain cannot tell the difference."

Brain signals, interrupted

The findings of the new study are in line with previous research that has linked a faulty integration of vestibular signals and sensory information with various illusory body perceptions such as feelings of depersonalization, illusory self-motion, room-tilt illusions and disembodiment. In one such study, scientists were actually able to disrupt this integration by electrically stimulating a brain region and induce OBE in a person.

In Chesi's case, it seems that a problem with the balance organs of the inner ear may have interfered with relaying body-related cues to the brain. This could occur at the level of the brainstem, and lead to a faulty integration of signals further up in the brain, such as in the temporo-parietal junction, Kaliuzhna said.

"Interestingly, one of the first relays that processes vestibular information is at the level of the brainstem; regions in the brainstem also regulate the sleep cycle and dream activity," she said.

As Chesi underwent treatment for his vestibular symptoms of vertigo and dizziness, the frequency of his lucid dreams and out-of-body experiences decreased. Although the dreams had started out as frightening experiences, over the years he had come to enjoy them. "In that world, everything is possible, the only limit is our imagination. It is a world where emotions are at least ten times more intense than in our reality and our engine to move around and to create is our thoughts." These days, he doesn't have them anymore, he said."I am not relieved to have my lucid dreams and OBE disappear... actually, I miss it a lot today."

The interview with Michel Chesi was conducted in French and Translated to English.

Odd Brains
23 November 2015

Up to four in 10 people suffer from sleep paralysis at some point in their lives. This terror-inducing experience occurs when a person on the border between wakefulness and sleep gains partial consciousness. The dreamer may perceive that a menacing, oftentimes-otherworldly intruder is in their room or bed, yet they are incapable of moving or screaming—even as the creature begins choking, crushing, raping or attacking them. Scientists believe it's all a hallucination, but in the throes of an attack, sleep paralysis' demons can be deeply convincing.

Baland Jalal, a psychiatry researcher at the University of Cambridge, who has written here about the neuroscience of sleep paralysis, finds the phenomenon "one of the most interesting in medicine."

"Sleeping is such a basic thing, yet while sleeping you might end up questioning your self and world," he says. "You might wonder, 'Do we have a soul? Who am I? Are there outsiders from other plants here? Have I been visited by a supernatural being—a ghost or a demon?'"

Accounts of nocturnal visits from menacing creatures date back time immemorial across virtually all cultures and found in many literary works. But it wasn't until the late 1800s when Silas Weir Mitchell, a surgeon who aided Civil War soldiers, provided some of the first formal descriptions of the condition. Research substantially picked up in the late 1980s, however, when scientists began investigating the neurological, psychological and cultural aspects of the phenomenon. Sleep paralysis, they found, occurs during REM stage of sleep, when most vivid dreaming occurs, and most of the body is temporarily paralyzed (perhaps to prevent us from acting out dreams). If some anomaly occurs in the REM mechanisms and we actually wake up before this sleep phase is complete, then sleep paralysis can ensue.

"It's a pretty troubling event for at least a portion of the people who have the disorder," says Allan Cheyne, a retired cognitive psychologist, formerly at the University of Waterloo. "They might think it was demonic possession or alien abduction, the beginnings of a stroke, incipient psychosis that's going to get worse or that they're never going to come out of the paralysis."

Why the phenomenon occurs in some people but not others—or why someone who has gone their entire life free from sleep paralysis suddenly starts experiencing it—is a cloudier question. "I had two graduate student who both had their first sleep paralysis experiences after beginning their research on that subject, so it seems like it is something that can be primed," Cheyne says. "I suspect that almost anyone can have this experience if conditions are right."

Previous research has found that trauma or depression and sleep paralysis tend to go hand-in-hand, likely because anxiety causes general disruption to sleep, which heightens the chances that something will go wrong in that process and trigger a sleep paralysis event. On the other hand, however, researchers wonder if extreme fear of sleep paralysis itself—either suffered by an individual or an entire culture—might also feed into a vicious cycle of episodes.

Jalal is investigating this hypothesis in cultures around the world. In his latest study, described in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, he and co-author Devon Hinton of Harvard Medical School focused on a group of 100 college students in Cairo. In Egypt, up to 71 percent of the population that experiences sleep paralysis attributes the experience to supernatural forces, nearly half of which believe the Jinn — evil creatures with roots in Islamic mythology—are to blame. Many also believe that such nocturnal attacks can be fatal.

Jalal and Hinton asked the students about their experience with sleep paralysis as well as whether they suffered from symptoms of anxiety, extensive worrying or post-traumatic stress disorder. Forty-three percent of the students—86 percent of them women—said they had experienced sleep paralysis at least once, and of that group 24 percent said they had experienced four or more episodes over the previous year.

Those who experienced sleep paralysis, and especially those who experienced hallucinations, the researchers found, were more likely to suffer from symptoms of PTSD, anxiety or worry. The findings were correlational, however, so for now it's impossible to tease out whether trauma, worry and anxiety cause sleep paralysis, or the other way around—or perhaps a bit of both. Other researchers have uncovered similar relationships, however, including one study that reported 49 out of 100 Cambodian refugees visiting a psychiatric clinic had had a sleep paralysis event in the past year, and that those with PTSD suffered from such attacks most often.

"The fact that experiencing hallucinations during sleep paralysis was associated with higher symptoms of anxiety, trauma and worry may possibly suggest that such hallucinations may drive these symptoms or perhaps even cause them," Jalal says. "But we cannot infer causality from this study."

Interestingly, though, only 11 percent of the Egyptian students said they believed a Jinn was responsible for the attacks. Jalal points out, however, that university attendees might feel embarrassed admitting they believed in such things (likewise, the heavy sex ratio, with more women reporting the condition than men, might also be a reporting bias). And regardless of personal beliefs, he adds, the socio-cultural framework of a person's country—in this case, one that strongly supports the notion of evil spirits—can still exert quite a strong influence. When Cheyne was in the grips of his early sleep paralysis experiences, for example, his first thought was of the supernatural, a connection his brain likely made because of the overriding influence of North American culture. "People in Western societies immediately make the connection to something demonic," he says. "I certainly did, even though I have absolutely no religious sensibilities."

This isn't the first time Jalal has found evidence of such "cultural priming," which can seemingly work for or against sleep paralysis. In Denmark, for example, belief in religion and the supernatural is exceptionally low. In a study published in Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, Jalal and Hinton found that Danish people were significantly less likely to experience sleep paralysis than Egyptians, who reported three times as many episodes as the Danes. Egyptians also suffered from longer periods of sleep paralysis-induced immobility and a greater fear of dying during the episode, which was in turn strengthened by a person's belief in a supernatural cause.

The studies' findings tie into the idea that culture can create a fearful landscape ripe for sleep paralysis. "If your grandmother tells you that when you go to sleep you might be attacked and strangled by a demon, you're more likely to ruminate about this creature," Jalal says. "That only makes you more likely to have anxiety that causes you to have more hallucinations and episodes. It's a positive feedback loop."

Odd Brains
12 November 2015

When we're very young, wishing is more than just a feeling of strong hope or longing. In our earliest years, when we wish for more cookies or a trip to the zoo or to meet a dragon, some part of us thinks we can make our heart's desire materialize.

For little kids, "wishing is seen not as an ordinary desire but rather as an act with magical properties that can affect physical reality," say Stéphane Bernard, Fabrice Clément and Hugo Mercier, researchers at the Cognitive Science Center of Neuchâtel in Switzerland.

Scientists have had trouble agreeing on what causes this whimsical take on wanting. In a new paper, Bernard and colleagues propose that it's an early, powerful version of the wishful thinking we indulge in as adults. They showed preschoolers ages 3-5 two hollow eggs with trinkets stashed inside and asked them to make predictions about which of the two a researcher would pick up. Knowing that they would get to keep whatever was inside made the kids more likely to predict the egg with a bigger stash would get picked up. This suggests that, before we learn to dampen our expectations based on reality, we really do think that wanting something is enough to make it happen.

One example of how our desires bleed into what we believe as adults is that most people think they are cleverer than average, Bernard says. But despite this tendency in adults, some scientists have suggested that what kids do isn't genuine wishful thinking, but rather a failure to separate effort from ability.

In previous studies where kids have made overly optimistic predictions of their abilities, they also needed to expend some effort. In one experiment, 4-year-olds forecasted that they would send twice as many balls through a basket as they actually managed (even after a practice run that should have given the kids a more realistic idea of their skills).

Bernard and his team wanted to see if kids would still expect outcomes they wanted even when they could absolutely do nothing to make them happen. For the experiment, preschoolers watched a researcher draw one of two plastic eggs from a bucket eight times. The kids knew that one egg would contain a single toy, the other three toys. It was their job to predict which one the researcher would grab.

During four of the draws, the kids were told that they wouldn't get to keep whatever was in the egg. In these cases, they were equally likely to predict that the egg with one toy or the egg with three toys would be drawn.

In the other four draws, the children got to keep the egg's contents. Here they were more likely to predict that the egg with three toys would be grabbed. The kids badly wanted to pocket the toys and this influenced their guess.

There was one group of kids who remained unswayed by the enticement of more toys. A few of the five-year-olds predicted that half of the draws would yield one toy and half three toys, whether or not they got to keep them.

"It seems that at this age they start having a representation of what randomness is supposed to look like," says Bernard, who published the findings in August in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. "They think that a random draw between two options is supposed to contain as many of one options than the other—when in fact it is much more variable."

The five-year-olds' idea of randomness and their hunches about probability, constrains wishful thinking in a similar way to what eventually happens in adults. "Most say they are smarter than the median, but that's because they can bend the definition of smart to make this true," Bernard says. But short people don't generally assume that they are taller than the median because they can't define height in a way that suits them. "People might try to embellish the way they present themselves, but they do so within strong reality constraints."

Odd Brains
05 November 2015

After Hurricane Sandy battered the Mid-Atlantic in 2012, most of the streets in my hometown were roped off. The patches of forest that cradled our neighborhood had been thinned as trees, ripped from the earth roots and all, collapsed on roads, roofs and cars.

Outside my bedroom windows, two of the pine trees that had stood guard for my entire life snapped in half. We were lucky that the tops did not hit my parents' house, but the jagged spikes of trunk left behind were doomed. Those trees were sawed off at the base, leaving shallow stumps behind.

Whenever I am home I feel a sharp pang of sorrow when I pass the sites where trees once grew or look out the window and see only empty space.

This was just one small change in my habitat. But alterations in one's direct environment leave a mark, whether caused by human actions or the whims of nature. They can mount until the landscape you call home is made unrecognizable, stirring up feelings of loss, helplessness and depression.

Psychologists have a name for this distress: solastalgia.

The term was coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht. While working at the University of Newcastle in Australia, he was contacted by people upset about how mining and power stations were degrading their environment. He could sense their distress—the feeling that resembles homesickness for a place that can't be returned to.

"It is tied to the violation of a person's sense of place at all scales, from the local to the global," Albrecht says.

Some of the most powerful solastalgia is ignited when natural disasters wipe out homes and farmlands, destroying people's livelihood, sense of community and the legacy they'd intended for their children. This is especially painful when people must continue to live in an area that has revealed itself to be prone to dangerous upheavals. People touched by natural disasters are more likely to have symptoms of PTSD and depression if their homes were marred or obliterated, studies have found.

For those affected by events like volcanic eruptions, "The land around them no longer resembles the home they knew and loved," wrote one group of researchers in Queensland, Australia. "Survivors might suffer from the complicated grief of multiple losses; solastalgia compounds this negative experience…People in such situations may believe there is nothing they can do to overcome their problems."

As climate change makes weather worldwide more volatile, solastalgia, while still a new idea, may become an increasingly common experience.

"It might not be possible to emotionally prepare ourselves for severe and rapid climate change because such change is beyond our cultural and evolutionary experience," Albrecht says.

But we can repair the land around us so it once again brings us solace. "Such restoration does not need to be backward looking," Albrecht says. "It can be future orientated so that a new set of biophysical circumstances returns a deep love of place and sense of identity."

Odd Brains
04 November 2015

When a crisis unfolds, you can well imagine how someone like James Bond, Indiana Jones or Lara Croft would react. They barely flinch. They are superhumanly good at keeping their cool. Our brains are wired to react immediately to life-threatening situations, causing us behave in ways that are the exact opposite of calm and cool. So how is it that some people are just so well put-together, and can we become more like them?

Staying as unflappable as James Bond might be a tall order, but new research published in the journal NeuroImage suggests that you actually can train yourself to at least dampen your brain's frantic response to frightening images.

One of the main areas in the brain responsible for processing emotions and responding to fearful stimuli is the amygdala. The researchers wanted to see if they could train the brain's executive control areas to regulate the activity of the amygdala, using a computer task with no emotional relevance.

They rounded up 36 people and took fMRI scans of their brains both before and during a test where people had to identify the color of a flashing square on the screen. The test was sometimes intercepted with images and when the square came after a threatening image, like a growling dog or explosion, people were less quick in recording its color.

The participants then trained themselves for six days on a task meant to help them filter out unhelpful information. In a set of five arrows, they had to quickly figure out which way the middle arrow was facing while disregarding the direction of the four others it was sandwiched between. For example:

→→→→→ Or →→←→→

One group of participants had easier training sessions, where only 20 percent of the arrows faced a different direction from their surrounding fellows. People in the other group were faced with arrows that diverged from those on either side 80 percent of the time.

After all this training, the participants repeated the square test and the researchers scanned their brains once more. Those who had trained on the harder level of the arrow task responded a little differently than they had initially. For them, the alarming images were now less distracting, and caused a lower rise in the activity of the amygdala.

The researchers also noticed an increase in the simultaneous activity of the amygdala and the inferior frontal gyrus, a part of the brain's frontal lobe associated with inhibition. This could mean that this region is inhibiting the amygdala from overreacting to fearful stimuli.

It's not clear how long such training effect would last, but the findings suggest that we can become better at getting our brain areas for higher thinking and control to work with more primal parts and help us be more put-together.

Odd Brains
29 October 2015

Are you petrified of snakes? Terrified of tornadoes? Scared of the sight of blood?

The extreme, irrational fears that make up phobias can take many forms, from small animals to the forces of nature. Many are built upon experiences that most people are wary of to begin with (does anybody like being stuck in a crowded elevator?). To be considered a phobia, a fear must be marked and long-lasting, sticking around for six months or more.

About one in ten people will feel the overpowering terror that characterizes phobias sometime in adulthood or during childhood and adolescence. Specific phobias and the nature of phobic fear vary across life span. For example, children are more likely to be scared of concepts like monsters and ghosts, but later on their fears will involve more realistic themes such as scary animals. Here's a break-down of phobias:


Hopefully, none of the fears we mentioned above rang a bell. But if you do suffer from a phobia, the good news is that there are effective treatments. The bad news is that you're going to be seeing a lot more of your least favorite thing before you're done. Though specific phobias might have different causes or varied affects on the brain, they are typically treated with either exposure therapy, which involves forcing a person to gradually become desensitized to whatever they are afraid of in real life, or cognitive behavioral therapy, which aims to change the way a person thinks of their feared situation.

Though some phobias are forged from frightening experiences like almost drowning or being in a car accident, others are more difficult to explain. People seem to have similar phobias as their parents. This implies that genetics may play a role, or that people learn to fear what their caretakers do. Many people who have phobias also have anxiety disorders.

The manual for psychiatric diagnosis, DSM V, groups phobias into five types, which are very similar to the types of situations that children most dread. Each type affects people a little differently.

Animal phobias can prompt people to flee and panic. Blood, needles and other medical-related fears can make people's heart rate and blood pressure rise and then drop, which can lead to fainting. Fears related to situations like flying or being trapped in an enclosed space make people want to escape and feel like they are suffocating, leading them to become frantic and lose control. Phobias that stem from certain surroundings, like heights or lightening, can make people dizzy or overly preoccupied about what dangers the fear will bring.

Many different regions in the brain across multiple lobes have been linked to phobias. The amygdala seems to be particularly important, with the lateral amygdala picking up on the emotional significance attached to a phobia. Another region in the amygdala, the central nucleus, marshals preparations for defensive actions that range from freezing to making a break for it, depending on how close the phobia comes.

A few studies have investigated whether phobias can actually cause different signatures of abnormal brain activity. One examined people with dental or snake phobias, and saw on fMRI scans that slightly different brain areas were activated by the fears. The snake phobia was primarily guided by structures in the limbic system, which controls basic emotions and drives. But when people with dental phobia had to evaluate their fear, structures in the frontal lobe became active.

Odd Brains
29 October 2015

There's a small field next to the train tracks in my hometown. Sometimes when I walk home on summer evenings, I am lucky enough to catch a glimpse of bats swooping overhead, hunting for dinner above the grass. Without the streetlamp's glow I would be lost, alone with the darkness and the sound of crickets. But the bats, of course, are swift and decisive, utterly in their element.

Bats navigate with such effortlessness that it's easy to forget just how difficult their task is. "Bats face some of the most difficult neurobiological challenges of any mammal…and solve them with apparent ease and grace," scientists wrote in one review. Bats, these researchers are finding, have a number of adaptations in their nervous systems for navigating their dark, bug-filled world.


Rousettus aegyptiacus/Egyptian fruit bats. Image: Will Kirk.

When foraging for insects, a bat produces intense, high frequency calls that travel over about 3 to 5 meters. Each of these sounds will result in echoes bouncing back from not just the tasty insect, but everything around it, like houses or leaves or people strolling below.

"The bat's sonar system has to separate out all those echoes and accurately localize this moving, often evasive prey," said Cynthia Moss, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who studies several species including the big brown bat and Egyptian fruit bats.

And if other bats are about, the animal must also sort out the echoes from its own signals and those of other bats. "We sometimes refer to this as the cocktail party nightmare," said Moss. "So it's a huge challenge that the bat faces, but we see in recordings of its natural behavior…it seems to have no problem with this very difficult task which our human-made [sonar] machines might have difficulty doing."

Bats have a few adaptations to handle the demands of echolocation. "Bats…have all the basic structures that you find in other mammals, but perhaps a larger percentage of neurons in these structures are responsive to sound," said Moss.

Many bats can also adjust their calls when it hones in on an insect. "As [the bat] begins to fly toward that target it begins to increase the repetition rate of its calls, it will decrease the duration, it will make some adjustments in the frequency of the calls," said Moss. "This sort of sensorimotor feedback loop is very important for how the brain processes the echo information from selected targets relative to…other objects."

Moss and her colleagues study the brain regions that bats rely on to hunt. One of these is the superior colliculus. "The specializations in the superior colliculus will reflect an animal's orienting behavior," she said. In monkeys, activating the neurons in this brain region leads to eye movements.

"But for the bat it's orienting largely to echolocation so we see that there are specializations for the production of sound," Moss said. Activating neurons in the bat brain evokes echolocation signals. "We also see neurons that respond to sound and specifically sound from a particular direction, and even coming from a particular distance."

Moss and her team also study how bats use their hippocampus for spatial navigation. "We're finding that when the bat makes echolocation calls at a higher rate—which it does when it's inspecting objects—the neurons that are involved in encoding where the animal is in space become a little more tightly tuned," she said. In other words, they become responsive to a smaller area. "We think this may be important for how the animal represents space."


Eptesicus fuscus/Big brown bat. Image: Jessica Nelson.

The bat nervous system has other adaptations. Scientists have found certain microRNAs (compounds that help control whether or not genes get expressed) expressed in greater horseshoe bats' brains during hibernation, a time when metabolism is altered and neurons should be vulnerable to damage. And yet, researchers wrote, "The body temperature, metabolic rate, heart beats, and oxygen consumption of some small hibernators are remarkably reduced during hibernation, however no neural damage is observed in the brain of hibernators after arousal from torpor."

They think that the microRNAs are involved in protecting nerve cells during hibernation, and that finding more about how bats fortify their neurons may one day lead to insights that scientists can use to combat neurodegenerative diseases in humans.

And, while bats may have a reputation for being, well, blind as bats, some of them can do something humans can't: see in ultraviolet. In one study, scientists investigated UV vision in four different types of bats. Among insect-eating bats, a species that echolocates at a constant frequency could not see in UV, while one that adjusted its frequency could. Among fruit bats, a cave-roosting species also had lost UV vision, while another that lived in trees had not.

The insect-eating bats that retained their ability to see short wavelengths "can augment their acoustic 'image' with UV vision," the authors speculate. And in tree-living fruit bats, this ability could come in handy for aiding their visual surveillance for predators while they roost out in the daylight.

Finally, common vampire bats have another sense that humans lack; they are the only mammal known to have heat-sensing organs. The three nasal pits these bats use are cooler than the reset of their face, and sense body heat wafting from their warm-blood prey.

To pick up on these infrared waves, bats use nerve cells that are similar in some respects to the ones some species of snake use to detect their quarry. But how the bat brain makes sense of this information is not clear. "I don't think there's any work on how this is integrated in the central nervous system," Moss said.

Scientists are teasing out the machinery that makes echolocation possible, but heat sensing and bats' other sensory skills are still mostly a mystery.

Odd Brains
21 October 2015

An alpine accident has had some strange lingering effects for a man in Germany; playing the number game Sudoku can send him into seizures.

Dominik Erich, then a 25-year-old physical education student, had been buried by an avalanche while skiing. During the 15 minutes he was under snow, he didn't get enough oxygen. At the time, he developed jerky contraction in his legs and mouth caused by walking and talking.

Weeks later at the hospital, Erich tried to solve Sudoku puzzles and began to experience seizures that affected his left arm, and then developed into bigger seizures, Erich told MedPage Today. "I fell out of my wheelchair…I couldn't move, I couldn't talk or shout for help, so I was on the floor for some time."

As soon as he stopped trying to solve the puzzle—which he imagined in three dimensions—the spasms stopped. His physicians, who reported his case October 19 in the journal JAMA Neurology, discovered that other visual-spatial tasks like sorting random numbers could also bring the seizures on. This makes his condition similar to reflexive epilepsy, in which people experience seizures triggered by an action or outside occurrence like reading, calculating, noise or taking a warm bath.

Feddersen et al.

The doctors think that the seizures can be blamed on those 15 minutes that Erich's brain was starved of oxygen after the avalanche. The lack of oxygen probably caused diffuse, widespread damage, they wrote.

The doctors also used fMRI to scan Erich's brain while he was solving a Sudoku puzzle, and found abnormally high levels of activity in the right central parietal cortex, the brain region that interprets sensory information. Using another imaging method, DTI, which tracks connections between neurons, the doctors found a complete loss of inhibitory fibers in the same region.

Known as U fibers, these small fibers are arranged in a loop under the brain's surface and inhibit activity of other regions, coauthor Berend Feddersen of the University of Munich in Germany explained to Braindecoder. As a result, when Erich activates this region to play Sudoku it becomes hyper-excited, resulting in seizures.

Fortunately, there's a simple way for him to avoid the experience: "Our patient stopped solving Sudoku puzzles and has been seizure free for more than 5 years," the doctors said.

Odd Brains
19 October 2015

For a newborn baby emerging from the cosy womb, the outside world is much bigger, much colder and quite a different kind of place. At birth, the way newborn babies sense their environment changes dramatically. How do they make sense of all the new sounds, sights, smells and sensations?

Our new research has focused on the way babies experience touch, such as tickling. We've found that young infants of four months old, unlike older infants, are pretty accurate at locating where they've been tickled, even with their limbs crossed.

In the womb there is a constant chain of tactile sensations occurring for the fetus to feel, but those touches might be experienced as rather lonely events, unrelated to the low-resolution sights, and the gurgling low-frequency noises of the womb.

In the outside world, the environment becomes much more multisensory. The tactile feeling of being picked up is likely to accompanied by sights such as a parent's face or hands, and the sounds of voices. We don't fully understand yet how infants link these kinds of sensory stimuli, and how long it takes them to figure out the way what they feel and what they see or hear fits together.

Where's that coming from?

Our research at the Goldsmiths InfantLab has been investigating the early development of tactile perception for some time, looking particularly at the early development of how babies perceive where a touch is coming from in space.

Typically, we present little tactile buzzes to babies' hands, one hand at a time, and in a random order so that the baby does not know where to expect them. The touches – which are like a little tickle – are delivered by what we call voice-coil tactors, small vibrating boxes which we wrap into the palms of the babies' hands. When a buzz is presented there is nothing going on visually to indicate which hand received the touch. Any noises made by the tactors are masked so that the infants cannot tell where they are coming from.

In order to figure out what the babies can do, we look at video records of the infants' movements. We measure whether they can accurately localize those buzzes, by moving their hands or moving their eyes towards the location of the tactile stimulus.

One of our most striking early findings was that babies do not often look towards touches. Comparing six-month-old and ten-month-old babies, we found that whereas the older infants made eye and head movements quite quickly and accurately to the hand where they had felt a touch, the younger ones tended to make many fewer and less of such movements. It was as if they did not yet know how the visual world matched up to the tactile world of the body.

Figuring out the outside world

Our most recent findings have looked in more detail at the question of whether babies perceive where a touch might be, not just on their body but in the outside world. One signature of this ability is a tendency, demonstrated by both young children and adults, to become confused about the location of a touch when our limbs are crossed over.

As we grow up, we learn from experience that our bodies and limbs tend to rest in particular places. For instance, we come to expect that our left hand is usually in our left field of vision, and our right hand is usually in the right field of vision. We also expect touches to our right hand to have originated from events to the right of us. However, if our hands are crossed, our left hand and the touches it feels are in right space, and our right hand and the touches it feels are in left space. This therefore confounds our expectations leading us into errors.

But if young infants haven't learnt to localize touches in the outside world yet, they should make fewer mistakes than older infants when their hands are crossed. We tested this in four- and six-month-old babies – this time placing buzzes on babies' feet rather than their hands. (Four month olds seemed quite unwilling to cross their hands over.)

The six month olds were quite good at localizing touches when their feet were uncrossed. About 70 percent of the time, they moved the foot which had been touched. When their legs were crossed, their performance dropped to 51 percent – chance. But the young four month olds got the correct foot about 70 percent of the time – both when their legs were crossed and uncrossed. They did not seem to care which side of their bodies their feet were, simply responding to a tactile location on the body, and at a good level of accuracy to boot.

On the basis of this we argue that before six months of age, when a baby feels a touch on their foot or their hand, they don't relate the touch to an object or event outside of themselves. They just feel the touch as a touch on their body and that's all. We're calling this "tactile solipsism." To me this idea of what it would be like to be a baby feeling a touch is quite strikingly different to our own realities – if we're right – it must be strange being a newborn baby.

This article first appeared on The Conversation and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Odd Brains
16 October 2015

Imagine placing a raisin in your hand. You examine it closely, visualizing it in grape-form, growing plump on the vine. You take in the color, texture and scent as you resist the urge to pop it in your mouth. At last, you nibble the raisin, pausing to consider its flavor before chewing and swallowing.

Meditative exercises like this one might make you more aware of things happening around you, a new experiment shows—even things that you'd normally miss, thanks to a phenomenon called inattentional blindness.

Inattentional blindness, which reflects our miserably limited attentional resources, is best shown in a classic experiment in which half of the people watching a simple ball passing video failed to notice a person in a gorilla suit walking across the stage. That and many other similar experiments that followed have shown that no matter how hard we try to absorb everything around us, there's always something we miss, and sometimes that thing can be as dangerous as a fast approaching car. So, raisins could potentially save your life.

In the study, published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, researchers gave 800 people either a 7-minute mindfulness exercise with raisins or a non-meditative recording of general facts about raisins. Then the participants were faced with a computer screen and had to count the number of times black and white letters bounced off the edge.

Focusing on such a task requires enough mental resources to turn people blind to everything else. Just like in the gorilla experiment, half of the people would fail to see anything else popping up on the screen.

But it turned out that those participants who had done the raisin meditation were more likely than the rest to notice an unexpected red cross hovering among the numbers. This finding is in line with the idea that mindfulness encourages people to monitor their environment more thoroughly, but it has to be replicated in future studies, the researchers said.

It's also unclear how mindfulness may be lowering inattentional blindness, the researchers said. Mindfulness is a mental state in which people let themselves become aware of whatever feelings, observations and experiences they have in the moment, accepting them without judgment. Perhaps, during a rigid task of focused counting, mindfulness prevents the rules of the task from being the sole guides of attention, giving a better chance for other events like the hovering red cross symbol to win some attentional resources.

Odd Brains
14 October 2015

Bonobos are famous among great apes for their peaceful, lustful societies. Chimps, on the other hand, have a reputation for more warlike tendencies.

But whatever their differences, it turns out that bonobos have personality dimensions pretty close to chimpanzees—and to humans, according to new research.

After surveying more than 150 captive bonobos, scientists found that the apes have six major dimensions to their personality. Four of these are shared with people, indicating that all three species are broadly similar in terms of how their personality traits cluster together, but have a few key differences.

Bonobos and chimpanzees are humans' closest living relatives, and shared a common ancestor around 1 million years ago. Bonobos are less aggressive and more risk averse than chimpanzees, so researchers in Europe and Japan wanted to find out how else they differ.

Psychologists have come up with five broad domains that human personality traits fall into: openness to experience, neuroticism, conscientiousness, extraversion and agreeableness. This means that many individual attributes—such as gregariousness—are associated with others that are grouped within the same domain. So a person who is gregarious is more likely to also be warm or assertive, or have other traits linked with extraversion.

"These things correlate, but not with other things. That suggests there's an underlying personality dimension responsible for these items," said coauthor Alexander Weiss, a comparative psychologist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.

Previously, researchers have applied this test to chimpanzees and found that their personality traits sort into the famous Big Five dimensions, too, except that chimps have an extra dimension: dominance, which includes traits related to competitive prowess.

In the current study, Weiss and his colleagues sent questionnaires to zoos and other captive facilities where bonobos live. Their keepers ranked the apes on 54 different traits such as fearfulness, cautiousness, persistence, innovation and playfulness. They managed to reach 154 apes, about 80 percent of captive bonobos in Europe and the United States.

As in chimpanzees, bonobo personality traits sort themselves into six clusters: conscientiousness, assertiveness, openness, agreeableness, attentiveness and extraversion.

Assertiveness in bonobos resembled chimpanzee dominance. Bonobos high in assertiveness were more independent and confident, and more prone to bullying or stealing food from others. The bonobo form of conscientiousness was also similar to that of chimpanzees, and linked to less aggressive, more predictable behavior.

Attentiveness referred to qualities that made the apes focused and persistent. "In chimpanzees and people, attentiveness is part of conscientiousness, along with low aggression and predictability," Weiss said. "In bonobos that attentiveness aspect is broken off, it forms a separate factor."

The results indicate that we share four personality dimensions with bonobos, compared with the five we have in common with chimpanzees. "We're more like chimpanzees in terms of our personality than bonobos—at least in terms of what dimensions we find," Weiss said. "I think the likelihood is that the ancestral personality dimensions were probably something like what we find in chimpanzees."

If so, then the common ancestor of all three species, which lived about 6 million years ago, might have had a more chimp-like personality structure that the other species moved away from. "Over evolutionary time bonobos have diverged from that in terms of the attentiveness aspect of contentiousness splitting off," said Weiss, who published the findings in July in the journal Psychological Science. "Humans have also diverged from the chimpanzee pattern in that we don't have this very strong dominance dimension."