Love it or loathe it, Forrest Gump has now gone way beyond introducing “Life is like a box of chocolates” and “Run, Forrest! Run!” into our vernacular. It’s been used to do something truly remarkable: to reveal the location of a map of emotions in the human brain.
An estimated one quarter to one half of adolescents will at some point either be a victim of bullying, or engage in it — or both. Whether you’re on the receiving end, or dealing it out, there are all kinds of associated negative implications for mental health and well-being, including distress, depression and anxiety. “This highlights an important need to understand the predictors of bullying and victimisation, in order to identify ways to reduce these experiences in adolescents,” write the researchers behind a new study, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. And this research has revealed one such factor: both bullies and victims show differences in the brain’s response to angry and fearful faces.
How well do you know your best friend? New research led by Robert Chavez at the University of Oregon suggests that scans of both your brains might provide the answer. The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, reveals that the brain activity patterns of people asked to think about what a mutual friend is like can be remarkably similar to those observed in that friend when they think about themselves.
How did you sleep last night? If the answer is “badly” followed by an uninvited pang of anxiety, look no further for an explanation than a study published this month in Nature Human Behaviour.
A lack of sleep is known to lead to feelings of anxiety, even among healthy people. But the new paper reveals that the amount of “deep” or slow-wave sleep is most pertinent to this relationship. That, the authors conclude, is because slow-wave brain oscillations offer an “ameliorating, anxiolytic benefit” on brain networks associated with emotional regulation.
You see a pedestrian about to step out in front of an oncoming car. Is it better to calmly call out a warning, or to scream?
Of course, it’s better to scream — but not just because a scream is loud. Car alarms, police sirens and smoke alarms are all loud, too. But, like screams, they also feature fast but perceptible fluctuations in loudness, usually at frequencies of between 40 and 80 Hz, making them acoustically “rough”. Quite why such sounds should be so attention-grabbing, and even unbearable, hasn’t been clear. Now a team led by Luc Arnal at the University of Geneva has found that this type of sound triggers activity in brain areas related not just to hearing but also to aversion and to pain. This makes them impossible to ignore.
In an era of TED talks, podcasts, and audiobooks, it’s easy to choose to listen to factual information or fiction, rather than to read it. But is that a good thing? Are there any differences in the way the brain processes the meaning of words that are heard rather than read? According to the researchers behind a thorough new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the answer to this last question is “no”. But it may still be too soon to conclude that listening to an audiobook is effectively the same as reading it.
In a world made for right-handed people, life can sometimes be frustrating if you are among the 10% or so who are “adextral” — that is, left-handed or ambidextrous. Now a new grievance can be added to the list. Brain imaging researchers are systematically excluding adextrals from participating in their studies, according to an analysis of recent research papers published in top neuroimaging journals. Yet there’s no good reason to exclude this population, say the authors — and in fact, the practice could be detrimental to research.
Hearing voices that don’t exist in the outside world is the most common form of hallucination experienced by people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia or related conditions and it can be very distressing. However, there is a growing recognition that hearing voices is not always pathological. Many mentally well people hear voices (or “auditory verbal hallucinations”) – in fact, around 6-7 per cent of adults in the general population report having had such experiences at some point in their lives.
This has led some experts to propose a “continuum model” in which the same fundamental underlying mechanism leads to hearing voices in healthy people and in patients with a clinical diagnosis, but that for various reasons, such as a traumatic past, the experience is more troublesome and distressing for the patients. However, a new open-access paper in Schizophrenia Bulletin challenges the continuum model, finding an important brain difference between patients who hear voices and voice-hearing healthy controls.
If you have healthy vision, there will be a specific region of your brain (in the visual cortex) that responds most strongly whenever you look at faces, and similar regions that are especially responsive to the sight of words or natural scenes. What’s more, in any two people, these face, word and scene regions are located in pretty much the same spot in the brain. However, there is not a specific region for every possible category of visible stimulus – there are no “car” or “shoe” regions, for example (at least, not that have been identified to date). Is that because childhood experience is critical for training the visual cortex – we spend a lot of time looking at faces, say, but not cars? And, if so, in theory, could a lot of childhood time spent looking at a different type of object generate its own dedicated, individual category region?
The answer is “yes”, at least according to an ingenious study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, of people who played a Pokémon game for years of their childhood.
Picture in your mind a futuristic, technologically enhanced human. Perhaps you imagined them with a subcutaneous device in their arm for phone calls and browsing the internet. Maybe they are wearing smart glasses for augmented reality. What I’d wager you didn’t think of is the presence of an artificial sixth digit attached to each hand. However, a breakthrough open-access study in Nature Communications – the first to study the physiology and sensorimotor mechanics of polydactyly volunteers (people born with extra fingers) – shows the feasibility and practical advantages that would be gained from such an extra appendage. The results also have implications for the medical treatment of polydactyl people, who often have their extra finger removed at birth on the presumption that it will be of no benefit to them.