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Book Review- Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

Book Review- Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life
Emilie Wlodaver

Like Emily Dickinson, Steven Johnson relates many of the behaviors and emotions that people experience day after day to what is going on in the brain in his book Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. He provides compelling evidence through his recounting of experiences with neuroscientists and other advocates of the brain as the organ for behavior. He uses many of his personal experiences to create a perspective that is easier for the layperson to understand and in turn relate to. Often times, the topic of the brain can be intimidating, for it is one of those frontiers for which few, if any, really understand. That is why Johnson’s book is a good first step for those who wish to brave the mechanisms of the brain.

Many people are reluctant to rely on pure science and brain activity to describe behavior. They feel that it is reductionistic and oversimplified and does not account for the differences in personalities or creativity. In many peoples’ opinions, behavior, consciousness, and emotions should be left to the humanities to explain. How anyone could possibly suggest this is beyond me. The brain is one of the most complicated organs in the body. There are so many different things going on that it seems absurd to me that someone could suggest that, for example, philosophy gives a more comprehensive insight into behavior. This is not to say that psychology of sociology or philosophy don’t provide some interesting points, however, neuroscience seems to be more on the path to the truth than these other disciplines.

Johnson does a superb job at relating some of the current research of how the brain is related to behavior in a fashion that is easy to understand and plausible enough to make someone think twice about calling brain=behavior reductionistic. He introduces the reader to a population of avid advocates of brain imaging techniques such as fMRI and neurofeedback by testing their research proposals on himself. For example, he goes to Joy Hirsch, director of Columbia University’s Brain Imaging Group, to carry out his proposal to view the areas of the brain that are activated during moments of creative thought. What they discover through means of the fMRI scans is that indeed, certain areas of the brain are activated more during creative thought than when a person is reading or staring blankly at a checkerboard. One question remains unanswered, however. It doesn’t seem too hard to understand that certain areas of the brain are more activated during different activities. What is a difficult concept to grasp is if each of our brains posses similar mechanisms, what accounts for individuality and differences in opinion and ideas?

Many people are still reluctant to attribute all of their emotions and feelings to the idea that the brain is made up of different modules that all play a certain role in the creation of these behaviors. To this, Johnson writes, “To include biological perspectives in discussion of human society by no means eliminates the validity of other kinds of explanations. What people like E.O. Wilson have proposed is not biological determinism, but rather biological consilience: the connecting of different layers of experience, each with its own distinct vocabulary and expertise, but each also possessing links up and down the chain.” (Johnson, p.213) Each different perspective and discipline adds a new layer to the meaning of life. Understanding the functions of neurochemicals and hormones can only provide more insight into the vast unknown a potentially be of assistance to create a more coherent world and a better understanding of peoples’ actions.

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How deadly is sleep deprivation?

How Deadly is Sleep Deprivation?
Emilie Wlodaver

As I sit in front of the computer among this sea of studying women, I can’t help but wonder what kind of damage I am doing to myself and that these other women are doing to themselves from days of irregular sleeping interspersed with days of no sleeping.  It is notorious that college students are sleep deprived especially at this time of year when everyone is struggling to finish their work and cram for those final exams.  The conversations in the computer lab are all the same: “Oh yeah, I only have a 300 page paper on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a final exam in the meaning of life left.”  So what does sleep deprivation do to the brain and body?  I know that I have a headache of the most extreme dimension and it feels like someone has been sitting on my back and I can feel my fingers starting to tingle and my stomach is grumbling but I’m in such a trance of concentration that I can’t bring myself to go get something to eat.  Someone help me!  I guess I only have three more days left until I can sleep a full eight hours, so it’s all good.  I just have to be a trooper for these last few days.

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A Brief History of Psychosurgery

It is a rather frightening and rather unnerving thought that psychosurgical procedures can be traced back to Neolithic times, roughly 40,000 years ago (2, 6, 7).  Current psychosurgical techniques are by no way in a state of perfection so one can only imagine how crude and often fatal these ancient procedures were.  Modern psychosurgery can better be understood through a more recent historical investigation of the era of neuroscientific inquiries that was going on during the 19th century (2). 

The first indications of skull surgery come from the archeological unearthing of skulls with holes carbon dating back to 1500 BC (2).  Further study of the bone surrounding the hole, evidence of proper healing, and estimation of the individual’s lifespan indicate that the hole was in fact surgical in nature rather than some sort of head wound.  This ancient method is called trepanning and was more than likely used in order to release demons and evil spirits that were thought to be trapped in the skull and were linked with madness and brain disease.  In many cases the reasons for trepanning were completely bogus and purely based on religious and spiritual beliefs and therefore showed no benefit. However, in other sincere medical cases such as strong headaches, brain tumors, intracranial pressure due to hematomas, hydrocephalus, etc., this procedure potentially had some therapeutic effect and is actually a technique that is still being used to this day to relieve intracranial pressure.   This procedure was performed without any sort of anesthetic and took about 30 to 60 minutes to cut through the skull.  If the tool used to make the hole in the skull does not touch the brain itself, the patient had a relatively high chance of survival. 

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The Demonstration of the Rewarding Effects of Opiates on Rats

In order to examine if an opiate drug of abuse is actually rewarding to an animal, it is necessary to demonstrate that the drug will be self-administered through intracranial administration. In order to find the structure in the brain that acts as the reward producer, cannulae can be implanted into different areas of the brain and when self-administration is observed, one can assume that they have found the reward center. Post-mortem analysis of the brain tissue will allow the experimenter to determine where the site was. An alternative to self-administration is the place preference paradigm which will also help determine where the reward producing site is.

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