We know so much more about our brains than we once did. Some would suggest too much.
Because neuroscience, once a subject confined to academia and research labs, now belongs to all of us. Every day, it seems, there’s a story in the mainstream media about a study providing fresh insights on how our brain functions or what we do to make it perform better or worse. Scientists can caution all they want that this is a maddeningly complex subject, but in our search to understand why we do the things we do, we more often look for overly simple answers deep inside our heads.
So we tend to take quite seriously any neurological evidence that would seem to explain behavior. Just yesterday, in fact, the journal Science published a study which found that judges–not juries, but judges–presented with a hypothetical case gave lighter sentences to a man convicted of a vicious beating if his file included a statement from a neurobiologist that he had a genetic predisposition to violent behavior.
Most neuroscientists aren’t happy that brain scans are now routinely used to help convicted murderers try to avoid death sentences. The science isn’t that clearcut, they’ll argue. And they’re right.
But the more we learn about the brain, the more captivated we become. This is where science gets personal, where it helps us make sense of ourselves. These days you don’t hear many people say, “The devil made me do it.” More likely they’ll blame their amygdala.
To get a sense of how much brain science is weaving into our daily lives, here are 10 studies published in just the past month:
1) Never gonna give you up: A new study suggests that hoarding is a brain disorder all its own. It long had been characterized as a variant of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). But no more. When hoarders in the study were asked to keep or destroy an object belonging to them–in this case junk mail–the region of their brains associated with decision-making became unusually active. That’s a different part of the brain than what’s usually activated with OCD.
2) Send grandpa a vat of chocolate: Here’s yet another reason chocolate is awesome. Italian researchers have found that a cocoa drink rich in flavanols–the antidioxidants found in chocolate–can help sharpen the brains of people with memory problems. The antidioxidants are believed to protect brain cells and improve blood flow.
3) But make sure he lays off the microwave popcorn: According to another study, this one at the University of Minnesota, the chemical that provides the fake butter taste in microwave popcorn may actually speed up the mental decline of Alzheimer’s disease. The chemical, diacetyl, can lead to the same kind of clumping of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain that causes Alzheimer’s.
4) Why the nose is king of the face: When you have a bad head cold or allergy and your nose is stuffed up, your brain kicks into gear to make sure your sense of smell snaps back to normal as soon as your health does. The brain isn’t able to do that with other senses–when sight is lost temporarily, for instance, it takes much longer for it to be restored.
5) Teenage wasteland: New research concludes brain scans may help predict if a teenager will become a problem drinker. Experts say the findings suggest that heavy drinking may affect young people’s brains right at the time when they need to be working efficiently.
6) And while we’re on the bottle: Alcoholism apparently affects women’s brains differently than it does men’s. A team of researchers in Boston found that heavy drinking over a number of years destroys white brain matter in a different part of the brain for women than it does for men. They also found that women’s brains recover more quickly when they quit drinking than men’s do.
7) Pep talk is cheap: No matter how good your intentions may be, you won’t necessarily help someone by giving him or her encouragement before they make a big decision. In fact, according to a study at Queen Mary University in London, when people received either positive or negative feedback about their performance on complex decision-making tasks, they made worse decisions. Put simply, it’s too much information for their brain to process under stress. So just keep quiet.
8) Thinking small: New research has confirmed that stress and depression actually makes your brain smaller. Yale scientists found that deactivation of a single genetic switch can instigate a cascading loss of brain connections and that’s more likely to happen in brains of depressed people.
9) At last, something good about migraines: As painful and debilitating as they can be, migraines do not cause the kind of cognitive decline that often leads to dementia or Alzheimer’s. That’s according to a new study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, which gathered data gathered from more than 6,300 women.
10) Who knew brains packed a punch?: And finally, research suggests that the punching power of karate black belts has more to do with how their brain functions than how strong their bodies are. The key, says scientists at Imperial College London, is the fine tuning of neural connections in the cerebellum, allowing them to synchronize their arm and trunk movements more precisely.
Video bonus: Dr. Charles Limb is a surgeon. He’s also a musician. So it probably was inevitable that he wanted to find out how the brain works during improvisation. He shares what he learned about the science of creativity in this TED talk.
More on Smithsonian.com