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13 November 2015

For many, being a night owl can feel like a huge drag. Those of us who favor a later bedtime expend a Herculean effort each morning on prizing our eyes open long before we're ready, and continue to feel foggy when we should be energized for the day ahead.

Scientists call this social jetlag: the mismatch between the body's clock and the one society runs on. And night owls are particularly vulnerable to it. But while the timing of our daily schedules seems to favor larks, there are actually advantages to both chronotypes.

On the one hand, morning people are more proactive, as well as more resilient and optimistic. They may also be less prone to health problems like insomnia, mood disorders and addiction. As students, they tend to have better grades than those with very late chronotypes.

Yet, while early birds may have better grades, night owls are more likely to do well on tests of working memory, processing speed and cognitive ability. They may also be more creative. Night owls are also better at staying alert for longer after they've been roused.


So what's a sleep-deprived night owl to do? Unfortunately, there isn't much we can do to change our sleep preferences, which are likely decided by our genetics. Scientists have found that our chronotypes are reflected in differences in brain structure. For example, gray matter density in some brain regions seems to be linked with morningness-eveningness. Studies have also found differences in the brain's white matter. However, it's less clear whether night owls and larks start out with these differences, or their lifestyles mold their brains differently.

But night owls (and many others) can benefit from maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, limiting screen time late at night and getting lots of sunlight in the morning. And if that's too much of a hassle, evening types can also just sit tight and wait to get older. Chronotype varies a bit across the lifetime, with kids tending to be early rising, teens and young adults staying up late, and those over 50 sliding back towards morningness.

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27 October 2015

Put chili powder in your eyes, rest your hands in a bucket full of ice and wait to receive an electrical shock on your body, and you might just find out how much pain you can really take.

Or just watch Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, creators of the YouTube channel AsapSCIENCE, do all that to themselves in the first episode of "The Lab," a new series where viewers' questions are turned to actual experiments so we all can experience science first-hand. Kudos to whoever came up with this first question.

Pain is really a protective signal that alerts our nervous system to threats causing damage to our bodies. It all starts at the nociceptors, free nerve endings on the skin and throughout the body that respond to extreme heat and pressure, and relay a signal to the spinal cord and brain so that you remove your hand away from the hot stove before it burns completely.

These heat-sensing nociceptors also respond to chili peppers, sending signals to the brain about something hot and intense that should be avoided. That's why by sprinkling chili powder you can keep out the rats, or probably any other intruders. Humans may be the only animals in the world who voluntarily put hot pepper on their food, or eat a Carolina reaper, rated the world's hottest chili pepper by Guinness World Records, in the name of science:


But how much pain can a human really take if there were no fatal bodily damage involved? The ceiling seems to be pretty high—people had surgeries before the invention of anesthesia and in some traditional societies people still go through the most agonizing rites of passage, from getting deep skin cuts all over their bodies to having all their front teeth chiseled into incisors, while refusing pain medication that's now available. If you ever found yourself in such situations, research says swearing may help.

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27 October 2015

Science, technology and opposable thumbs have made us humans the masters of our world in a short time within the long history of this planet. With such a fast pace of progress, what's it all going to look like in 1000 years?


Well, OK maybe not that. But seriously, there are exciting things to look forward to. A new video by AsapSCIENCE discusses how the science of the future might transform humans and society in interesting ways.

One thing to look forward to is nanobots that can be integrated into our bodies, arming us with superhuman immune systems and the ability to better fight diseases like cancer.

In the more distant future, artificial selection will also let us modify our genes to get rid of diseases or cultivate desirable traits like strength or intelligence. Unfortunately, as the video points out, the resulting lack of genetic variation might also make us more vulnerable to being wiped out by a single disease.


Finally, we might one day be able to scan our brains into computers. Then we could travel in the blink of an eye, wouldn't need to eat and could replicate ourselves in just minutes. Whether these copies are actually us, however, is really a philosophical debate.

Along the way, our societies will change in many other ways in response to globalization and climate change, from many languages disappearing to darker skin becoming a protective advantage against UV radiation.

We aren't anywhere close to achieving all of these changes, either hard earned or incidental. But for the moment, we've invented brain-computer interfaces that help paralyzed people move robotic arms or even walk; we are using brain stimulation to ease the problems of neurological diseases and are testing brain implants to read memories. We may not be able to upload ourselves to the cloud yet, but step by step, we're paving the way for a future in which humans are much less limited by their bodies.

Brain Candy
08 October 2015

Politicians: Your faces matter. After the second Republican debate in September, Donald Trump's visage dominated both social and traditional media. CNN put up a huge banner of his more extreme facial expressions. Other politicians have experienced this sort of expression scrutiny, too, getting judged by the faces they make. House Speaker John Boehner, for example, has a reputation for getting teary-eyed. After Pope Francis visited Washington, D.C., GIFs of Boehner's attempts to control his emotions went viral. "The pope brought out John Boehner's best cry face," Mashable declared.

But a facial expression doesn't have to be over-the-top to communicate a great deal, as an analysis of 2012 Republican primary candidates reveals.

The smallest muscle movements can differentiate between a smile voters find appealing and those they find off-putting, according to an article in the spring issue of the journal Politics and the Life Sciences. Voters can tell a posed smile from one that communicates true enjoyment — and, unsurprisingly, they prefer the latter.

Studying politicians' expressions goes back to at least the 1980s. Back then, facial expressions were categorized as happy/reassuring, angry/threatening or fearful/evasive, for the most part. But tiny details in these expressions have become ever-more important in a world of high-definition video and looping online GIFs. And the new study examines some of the intricacies of the "happy" face by looking at individual types of smiles.

Using the at-the-time ongoing Republican primary as a test case, University of Arkansas psychologist Patrick Stewart and his colleagues gathered video from the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where candidates had gathered to woo primary voters. They chose short video clips of each candidate smiling and analyzed them frame-by-frame to determine the anatomy of each grin. They then asked 91 participants to identify the emotions in each smile in order to determine the different smile types on display. We've broken down the smile types below; get a mirror and play along for the full effect. (Or you can watch the video clips Stewart provided.)

Type of Smile Description
Posed Lip corners pulled up and at an angle.
Enjoyment ("true smile") Lip corners up and muscles around the eyes contracted.
Amusement Lip corners up, eye muscles contracted and jaw dropped to reveal teeth.
Controlled Lip corners up, eyes contracted, jaw dropped and lip corners tightened and pulled downwards to stifle the smile somewhat.
Contempt Lip corner on only one side pulled up at an angle and tightened.

The results revealed that there were very few "true" enjoyment smiles happening at CPAC. In fact, Stewart and his team identified only one, by then-Texas governor Rick Perry. This doesn't mean the candidates weren't having fun, Stewart said — instead, they conveyed their happiness with open-mouthed amusement smiles, which were displayed by candidates Michelle Bachman, Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty (twice!), Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich.

Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Gary Johnson, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum all displayed controlled smiles, mostly in response to audience applause — it's likely that they wished to show pleasure but not look too smug in response to praise, the researchers wrote. Herman Cain and Mitt Romney each showed contempt smiles.

Of all of the varieties on display, participants rated posed smiles as the least happy. They singled out Newt Gingrich's posed smiles are particularly unconvincing, but believed that Jon Huntsman's were the most genuine. The amusement smiles and Rick Perry's enjoyment smile were viewed most positively, while controlled smiles were seen as less happy and more negative.

Finding contempt smiles at all was a surprise, Stewart said, because it's an odd "two-faced," sort of expression: Half disdain, half affection, usually reserved for a member of our own group who has disgusted us.


Unfortunately for candidates, attempting to control one's facial expressions usually ends with strange and stilted looks, Stewart said. But voters, on the other hand, can take home a useful message from the research.

"We have evolved to make important decisions based upon paying attention to other people's nonverbal behavior," he said. "And when we have to rely on leaders who will deal with unpredictable situations, understanding their personality through their nonverbal behavior might be a more accurate approach than choosing based upon policy positions or political party identification."

Brain Candy
05 October 2015

What would you do if you were marooned on Mars like the fictional astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian? All alone, with little chance of ever getting out of there alive, would you start to panic? Would you eat all your food and overdose on painkillers as an easy way out? After all, you are presumed dead by all members of your species. Or would you choose to see the little drops left in the empty glass and enjoy the gorgeous Martian scenery?

And if you did go for the brave, optimistic attitude, opting to science your way of an uninhabitable planet, what would those months of pure solitude in an austere environment do to your brain and mind?

Watney's brain and body is outside the Earth's protective magnetic field and therefore exposed to cosmic rays. Scientists don't know the extent and type of damage that this radiation could cause in long term but recently a study in mice pointed to disfigured neurons and cognitive deficits. What would happen to Watney psychologically is better studied. Isolation can take many different forms, from solitary confinement in prisons to long space flights, but the effects of solitude on the highly social mind of humans are indisputable. For example, studies on prisoners have linked isolation with anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and anger. Studies in rodents have found isolation can harm basic social skills and memory. And reports going back to early 1800s have found high rates of mental illness and susceptibility to hallucinations and distorted sensations among confined people.

But Watney is shielded from many of these threats thanks to his personality traits. As Vanessa Hill explains in a new episode of BrainCraft (a web series from PBS Digital Studios), Watney exhibits exactly the key personality traits that are looked for in astronauts. For example, he is resilient in the face of many setbacks to his survival plan. Or, he keeps his sense of humor, managing to make up a joke no matter how dire the situation is. Watch the video to learn more about these and other personality traits that can come in handy for the rest of us on Earth as well:


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01 April 2015

It's still a long way before building a virtual human brain, but scientists at the Human Brain Project have been able to build a simplified virtual mouse brain and implant it inside a virtual body.

A mouse brain has about 75 million neurons, but the digital model contains only 200,000 of them. However, it replicates sensory input and motor output by mapping out how the neurons connect to different parts of the mouse body, such as the spinal cord, whiskers, eyes and skin.

"A comprehensive model is a detailed model that not only contains the neurons and their connection but also places the brain into its natural environment, the body," said Marc-Oliver Gewaltig, a neuroscientist at HBP. "If you touch the whiskers of the mouse you will see the activity in the mouse brain in the right places."


Gewaltig and his team used data about the positions and connections of the mouse brain's 75 million neurons, collected by the Allen Brain Institute in Seattle and the Biomedical Informatics Research Network in San Diego. They then combined this information with data on the shapes, sizes and connectivity of specific types of neurons collected by the Blue Brain Project in Geneva.

The researchers hope to grow the virtual brain as new data sets come in. Once the virtual mouse brain is a better replica of the real thing, scientists can use it for experiments that are difficult to do in a real animal, while having access to every bit of the data from each single neuron.

25 March 2015

Disembodied brains of fruit flies, kept alive for six days in a petri dish, reveal a real-time view of what happens in the brain during jet lag.

In a new study, Todd C. Holmes, professor of physiology and biophysics at the UC Irvine School of Medicine, and his colleagues extracted the brains of fruit flies to record the activity of the neurons that make up the circadian clock circuit, and determine how the circuit responds to light cues.


In these genetically engineered fruit flies, the neurons literally light up when they are active. The brain on the left is kept in darkness, and the brain on the right receives a 15-minute light pulse (shown in the video as a white flash) two hours ahead of its normal circadian schedule. Credit: University of California, Irvine Logan Roberts and Dr. Todd C. Holmes

In most organisms, including fruit flies and humans, the brain's circadian clock keeps a rhythm of 24-hour cycles and constantly adjusts to the changing signals from the environment, mainly daylight and darkness. But when such signals change suddenly and dramatically, for example, when someone flies to a different time zone where daylight begins couple of hours earlier, the brain's clock falls out of synch, and jet lag happens.

In the new study, the researchers showed how in response to an untimely light pulse (the lab equivalent of jet lag for fruit flies), the circadian neurons rapidly lose synchrony. They fire out of rhythm and lose normal communication within their network. After some time, however, the neurons gradually retune and the network returns to a state of synchrony. The findings were published March 5 in Current Biology.

"The way you feel while jet-lagged exactly reflects what your nervous system is experiencing: a profound loss of synchrony," Holmes said.

However, this lack of synchrony and the weakened communication among the neurons may actually allow the network to adapt to the new schedule more rapidly, the researchers said. This insight might come in handy for travelers, who often suffer days of jet lag before their brain adjusts to a new time zone. It may be possible to use light therapy before traveling to induce an early de-synchronization among the circadian neurons and speed up the whole process of adaptation to a new circadian rhythm, the researchers said.