This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

23Oct/10

A link between creativity and sadness?

Ever wonder why your aspirations at becoming a world-renowned poet seem to be the strongest when you're in the middle of a depressive phase in life?  While artistic genius and personal malaise have often been linked in history (one only needs to google "famous artist" to find a wide range of deranged and depressed creative masters), does this kind of effect carry on into us normal folk as well?

Here is an article by Jonah Lehr tackling this very issue.  Basically, he looks at an emerging body of scientific literature that suggests that depression not only bums us out, it also makes us more creative and sharpens some of our skills.

The studies used different methods to alter their participants' moods, employing things like gloomy music, testing on rainy days, and inducing feelings of negativity and self-doubt.  They then tested them on a number of different activities designed to assess attention, memory, and creativity.  What they found was that being in a depressed state tends to enhance certain aspects of our cognition, making us pay more attention to certain kinds of details and fixate on certain tasks more heavily.

Granted, these studies have a long ways to go before we can draw a strong causal link between being depressed and having an increased level of creativity.  For one, who know how effective their methods are at actually changing participants' moods.  However, I can't say that I'm surprised - when it comes to unleashing my own artistic potential, it seems that there's nothing like a good old-fashioned breakup.

via Wired Magazine

9Jul/10

How to Facilitate Motor Memory

I think this website, This Is Your Brain on Awesome, should be about getting your brain on awesome.  Almost like a how-to guide for squeezing the most out of your melon.  Usually, this would probably involve applying some sort of exogenous brain stimulation.  I'm partial to noninvasive electromagnetic stimulation myself, but to each his own.

With that in mind, here's a tip on how to get started getting your brain on awesome - shut down your prefrontal lobes when trying to learn new motor memories.

Two main categories of learning you'll often hear people refer to are declarative and procedural.  Declarative memories can be likened to facts you know about the world - for example, we all know that driving through the entire state of Kansas on I-70 is worse than Chinese water torture and the best parts of Kansas City are actually in the state of Missouri; procedural memories, on the other hand, tend to be more automated and motor in nature - like driving a car or tying your shoe.

A recent study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (Galea et al., 2009) demonstrated that using transcranial magnetic stimulation to inhibit the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex led to increased consolidation of procedural skills.  Put more simply, what this may mean is this: by temporarily shutting down a region of the brain important for higher order cognitive function directly after performing a motor memory type task, you will see an increase in the retention of that motor memory.  The group that published the paper suggests this effect may be caused by disrupting dorsolateral prefrontal cortical functioning, which eliminates or reduces it as a resource competitor in the brain, "leaving more resources to be recruited by the procedural memory system".  By what mechanism this works isn't exactly clear, as other lines of evidence dealing with the prefrontal cortex function suggest inhibiting the prefrontal cortex could be releasing an inhibitory control that derives from that area (called disinhibition).  Regardless, the main findings still stand and make sense in light of the consolidation competition hypothesis, which suggests that memory systems interact on a competitive level with each other, especially when it comes to the consolidation stage.

So, to start getting your brain on awesome, here's what you may want to do: pull out the old guitar that's sitting in its case collecting dust, hook up some excitatory brain stimulation over your motor cortices (there is evidence this is beneficial - I'll write about those later), and practice until your fingers can't take it anymore.  Then, immediately after, apply inhibitory brain stimulation over your prefrontal cortices for a little while.  With this approach, you may be maximizing plasticity in the motor regions of the brain during skill acquisition and minimizing interference from declarative memory systems during memory consolidation.

Consider your brain juiced!  You'll be shredding like Yngwie Malmsteen in no time... but you're on your own when it comes to finding the cool outfits and necessary jewelry.