This semester, I took an awesome class.
That alone should tell you how cool this class is. We sat in class day after day, teetering on the razor-sharp edge of scientific knowledge. Most of the time, we guessed about stuff, because the truth is, we know nothing about the three-pound mass of (mostly) water that is responsible for virtually EVERYTHING we think, say and do. While it's making sure were breathing, it's also judging how far away we are from the car speeding toward us or how undeniably in love we are with the person across from us.
In short, our brains are astoundingly complex and because they are doing things that we don't even notice, often the best way to study them is to pay attention when something goes wrong. So, we learned about the possible roots of schizophrenia and ADD and other disorders in our quest to find out what we can about ourselves. And we came out realizing, yet again, that we know so very little.
My final essay in this course was supposed to portray a complex brain process, and think about all the different functions that go into allowing us to do something like seeing or hearing. I chose one that's a bit out there: belief. You can read it below.
(Warning: due to the level of the class, there will be jargon in this essay. I'll provide definitions below so you can understand those parts!)
How do we believe?
They all start very similarly, with a two common denominators: God and the man he decided to talk to. The messenger of the gods, Narad, brought a story to Valmiki, who wrote the Ramayana. Moses listened to God and wrote the Torah. The angel Gabriel told Mohammad to write the Quran. The many authors of Christianity who wrote the Bible are said to be under the guidance of a higher power: “All scripture is inspired by God.” 2 Timothy 3:16
Usually when someone hears voices, it’s a cause for alarm. The stigma toward schizophrenics is strong: since the beginning of time people just don’t seem to understand, treating them with “hydrotherapy,” insulin-induced comas, electroshock therapy and (today) antipsychotics. So how is it that these men became the founders of belief systems followed by billions? What if they were just that – people with fewer dendritic spines due to a decrease in GABA in the prefrontal cortex? Perhaps, there is something about all religious individuals that gives them fewer spines in the PFC as well? Certainly not as few as a schizophrenic, but enough to override the reality center of their brain – to override the factual logic of the brain and believe truly and deeply in something greater (and unprovable).
Religious people, whether born and raised or “born again,” who reach the point of truly believing do so regardless of never having a conversation with God. There is a deeply-rooted emotional component to religious experience: it could come from dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens due to the reassurance from religion that something is greater or the social connection and love that says “you are not alone.” It could at the same time come from the amygdala’s fear response. “If you mess up, you’re going to hell.” Religion relies on our most deeply rooted, foundational emotional processing systems, which also could work to override our logic center in the PFC via inhibition and reallocation of processing power. The hippocampal memory component is the cherry on top for those who grew up with religion or find solace for a painful past. When these three areas come together to provide a powerfully ancient emotional experience, our brains are able to create something new. Maybe, like in synesthesia, there are sensory and emotional neurons in the brain of religious people that have more dendritic spines or more neuronal connections. People can create a connection to something that may or may not exist – a full relationship and trust in God.
In death, it is interesting to note the commonality in people’s near-death experiences. As described by neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, her stroke brought her to Nirvana. It was a place of light – a creation of her mind (hallucination) or a moment of clarity. Is it possible she saw the truth? It is impossible to say for sure if the Heaven of world religions exists, but it is true that billions believe it does. In the case of individuals with hemispheric neglect choosing the image of a house not on fire over one that was (despite not being able to see the half of the house with or without the fire), these people were processing the visual information without being able to explain what they saw. Savants do the opposite, their eyes take in no more than ours do, but they process so much more. It is known through the two aforementioned pathologies that the brain does not process everything it encounters. These processing and attentional components could also be involved in belief – perhaps the reason religion speaks to us is that it tells us what we cannot say or realize we see. Nirvana?
It all comes back to the odd universality of religious experience that requires the combination of attentional and emotional pathways, memory, the PFC’s logic and reasoning and social feedback. But there seems to be something more. Every religion also has its bad apples – the extremists. Along the lines of psychopathy, they kill in the name of God with no remorse. They make headlines and destroy lives. They are so much more common than the run-of-the-mill serial killer. They demonstrate, as the Stanford Prison Experiment did, our innate potential for psychopathy. It is possible that there is something about the strength of these combined processes that allows for belief so strong that the vmPFC is overridden. It’s not just ISIS, it’s the crusades, Hindu-Muslin riots in India, marauding Buddhist monks and the conversion of Native Americans. Belief enables every one of us to do unspeakable things in the name of something we cannot prove exists. Like Charles Bonnet, our minds create religion for good or bad reasons, unlike Charles Bonnet, many do not accept is that religion is an unprovable shout into the void – something our brain processes latched onto for reasons unknown. It gets at our most fundamental neurological processes. Believing doesn’t always require seeing. But it does, most astoundingly, drive our behavior and steer our lives, even though none of us can ever know what it was those men really heard.
Ramayan: One of the Hindu scriptures.
Hydrotherapy: spraying patients with different temperatures/pressures of water for hours on end to cure them of their psychosis
"with fewer dendritic spines due to a decrease in GABA in the prefrontal cortex": pretty much, there are fewer connections in the planning and judgement part of the brain - in schizophrenia, the part of the brain that is the "reality center". People with schizophrenia don't know their hallucinations are not real.
PFC: short for prefrontal cortex
dopamine: The "happiness" neurotransmitter/brain chemical
nucleus accumbens: The reward center in the brain
amygdala: emotion center, very primal emotions, mainly fear
synesthesia: experiencing two consistently linked sensory experiences > "every time I see blue, I hear the note C."
hemispheric neglect: You don't process the left side of the world or every object you see. You see it - the light goes in your eyes and your brain takes it in, but you don't realize that you see it and can't say what's there - you just neglect it.
house test: two houses shown to a patient with hemispheric neglect - one of which is on fire on the left (neglected) side. The patient says both houses are the same, but when you push them to pick one that they would pick the one not on fire 99% of the time.
savants: referencing one in particular that can read a page of text and memorize everything. no greater visual cue, just greater processing.
Charles Bonnet Syndrome: when a person loses all or part of their vision, their vision brain circuitry is still firing, so their brain actually creates (!) information, like a dancing cartoon in the black area. People with Charles Bonnet realize that their hallucinations are not real.
Call it catharsis, but it’s the reason I’m writing rather than studying for my media law exam tomorrow.
I really wish people would stop telling me not to swear.
I’m not that girl anymore except in that I am still stubborn when I take up a cause. I don’t exactly remember when or why I told goodie two shoes to “fuck off,” but at some point I must have. So now I’m 20, a junior in college, a year out from entering the real world and I still have people telling me I shouldn’t swear. It is because I’m little? Or I’m a woman and it’s not “lady-like?” Once someone told me it was just because “you’re Devi.” What does that even mean? Is it because those who are close to me consider me to be a nice person (that may or may not actually be true) and for some reason hearing me drop the f-bomb shatters that impression of me? I do not claim to know why, but for some reason countless people summon up their inner mother-spirit to give me a good dose of finger-waggin’ scolding.
It just makes me want to do it more. Now before I go too far, let me clarify: I don’t think people should be swearing all day, everyday (even though, admittedly, I do sometimes). I think that there is a time and place for everything. You just have to judge your audience. You probably shouldn’t be cussing up a storm in a job interview or while you are around young children. That’s just silly. But if you’re sitting there watching the game (or in my case the presidential debate), and you’re with people your age or with whom you are close, I say let it rip.
You may find yourself asking, “Why, Devi, are you trying to start a potty-mouth uprising?”
Well, I’m a an aspiring science writer, so let’s talk science for a second.
in the water for an average of 40 seconds longer than those who didn’t swear. The researchers think that the reason for this is that swearing is something that impacts us on a deep level of our brain, in a structure called the amygdala. The amygdala plays a role in emotional processing and, as a part of what is called the limbic system, it receives inputs from a lot of different brain areas. We know that it’s old (evolutionarily speaking) because it is deep in the brain, and as humans evolved to be smarter and more complex, our brains grew outward.
Researchers also believe that the amygdala plays a role in the primitive “fight or flight response.” That’s the thing that kept your ancestors from getting eaten by a predator even when they had gotten hurt and what keeps you from feeling the pain from running into something when you’re trying to catch a bus. Well, at least not too much pain. That’s because you’ve got that adrenaline pumping and your brain’s priority is to catch that bus (or not get eaten). The researchers in this study think that swearing might be activating that fight or flight response.
Even the Mythbusters heard about this one and they confirmed it. So it must be true. I’m kidding - it is important to be a skeptical reader of research. But regardless of whether or not these researchers have the right idea of the mechanism behind swearing alleviating pain, there must be something there. It’s when people get that paper cut or walk into that table that they find themselves instinctively dropping those expletives.
“Okay,” you say. “Blah blah science. But you shouldn’t be swearing consciously. That’s just plain rude.”
Sure. Maybe it is rude. But maybe I’m aiming to be rude. Maybe it makes you uncomfortable or gets your attention. Perhaps that’s what I was going for. As a communicator and as a writer, that’s the thing that I find so important. At some point, someone somewhere decided that there was not a good enough word to convey what they were thinking, so they said something bad. The versatility of swear words is amazing: some of them can function as any part of speech. You can put two together and make an entirely new word that says exactly what you want. You can even say the same word with a different tone and convey a world of emotions: happy, excited, amazed, angry, ashamed, disgusted – the list goes on and on.
I’m a resident assistant in a sophomore college dorm. Once when our building was flooding, I cussed while telling a group of students to evacuate. I was scared shitless. I didn’t know what was going on and I wanted them to leave, but they were trying to make a Snapchat video. So if my yelling “get out right fucking now” got those kids out of what I thought was a really dangerous situation – who cares that I said it? Maybe it was some version of fight or flight, but in that moment my word choice told them that I was not messing around. This was not a joke – they needed to leave.
I’m not saying that people who don’t want to swear should take it up. Or that if it makes you feel uncomfortable you should not say something. That is how people learn their limits. I just want people to stop telling me not to swear because they think it’s weird coming out of my mouth or because I need to be taught manners. There’s something bigger than manners at play here, and it’s this:
As a writer, I have an extreme respect for the power of words. I want to make a career out of crafting them, giving each one its weight and not giving up until every word in this chain says exactly what I want it to say to my reader. If the best word for me to describe my emotion or my world is an expletive, I’m going to use it because I’ve carefully chosen it and determined that it would get my point across best. There’s beauty in that moment when a word makes someone else stop. When I can exactly express my frustration or dismay or euphoria by saying a word. That’s the moment when the other person will hopefully think: “I can’t believe she said that," and then, "Why did she say that?”
That’s when I know you heard me. That moment is fucking amazing.
The stigma surrounding flu shots is frustrating to deal with. The more I work to clarify misconceptions about getting vaccinate, the more I run into people who make the same excuses.
"I've never gotten one and I've never gotten sick," they tell me. Or they think it will make them sick, or that the flu is just a government conspiracy and no one actually gets it. Okay, okay. So I have only heard that last one once.
Yet, the flu is a very real threat to the health of Americans. In fact, thousands die from the flu every year. Though it may not bother you personally, if you live spread it to young children, the elderly or other people who are at high risk, it very well could kill them.
To the people who are out there who are helpers and for those of you who have loved ones who may be at risk, think of your flu shot as your public service for the month. Getting a shot takes ten seconds. Not only will it protect you from the flu for the next six months, it will also protect those around you.
If you're sitting at home thinking about the fact that the vaccine only will protect you from a few strains, keep in mind two things. First, if you're getting the shot, it's a dead virus. As long as you don't have any severe immune system issues or allergies, you probably won't have any side effects besides the normal soreness (obviously, I'm not a doctor and you should talk to yours about any concerns you may have). So there's no harm in getting one. Second, there is a lot of thought and data that goes into choosing which strains are in each year's vaccine. The CDC is not just picking random viruses to put in.
So make your vaccination a priority. At the very least, you'll have wasted ten seconds and endured a little pinch for nothing. At the most, you'll have saved a life - be it your own or that of a total stranger.
To read my article about how Marquette is combating the flu on its campus, click here.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak with Marquette faculty members who are working to make the Marquette Visualization Lab (MARVL) to enhance research and education on campus.
The remarkable technology allows people to be transported to a new world, whether that is the center of a tiny protein or the universe itself. All it takes is an idea to start off the engineering students, who use the lab as a way to learn coding. Other disciplines across campus can use the lab to simulate a particular environment, look at something in close detail, or research the outcome of a certain technology.
The lab took a lot of patience and time to put together. Yet, in the few months it has been in use, it has brought together professionals and students from across campus and has created a new potential for teaching and research at Marquette.
To read my full report on the lab, click here.
Stress is often identified as one of the most prevalent health concerns on college campuses. At Marquette University, the Counseling Center has a new resource to address this issue appropriately called the "Zen Den". The room provides a quiet space for students to meditate, do yoga, play Wii Fit, sit with a light box, or try biofeedback technology.
When under stress or anxiety, the human body has many unconscious reactions, from tightening of muscles to increased perspiration/body temperature to faster breathing and heart rates. The responses are involuntary and, in many cases, so common that people do not even notice them happening.
Lynn O’Brien, a therapist in Marquette’s Counseling Center, explains that though such a physical response was advantageous when humans lived in caves and needed to defend themselves from predators, it is less advantageous in today’s world. In fact if it gets out of hand it can impede upon a person’s ability to function normally. Biofeedback is designed to address these reactions.
Biofeedback programs are used by therapists to teach clients how to control their body’s involuntary responses to anxiety and stress. The three sensors which measure heart rate and galvanic skin response (how much you are sweating), show the subject’s readings on a TV screen.
Some programs contain guided meditations which allow you to see exactly how your readings change as you relax your mind and body. Others teach the user to control their heat rate and energy level through games like “Rock Garden”, which requires the player to calm his/herself in order to balance rocks atop one another. Think of something stressful or do a high energy action (like laughing), and the rock goes flying off the screen. These visual interpretations of bio data are very helpful for therapists and clients.
“It’s one thing for me to have somebody in this room and to talk about ‘if you breathe you’ll feel better’ and ‘how do you feel when you feel stressed’ [and another] to actually see it on the screen. We hook them up and show them some of the programs, and I can say, ‘I want you to think about…something stressful.’ Then they can actually see the movement on [the screen]. That evidence is really powerful for people,” said Dr. Jodi Blahnik, a psychologist in the Counseling Center.
The advantageous part of biofeedback is that it can be used by individuals who are not formally seeing a therapist. Though biofeedback is considered by professionals to be an effective supplement to counseling or even a substitute to medication, those who simply want a way to deal with the daily stresses of life can also use the therapy to understand their reactions better.
Students or faculty can use the biofeedback programs by scheduling a 50-minute intake (training) session, after which they can reserve the Zen Den for half hour sessions. The center will also be hosting an open house and weekly “Mindful Minutes” meditation sessions (Wednesdays and Thursdays from 12:15 to 12:45). For more information, visit the Counseling Center’s website, call or walk-in during business hours.
Interested? Also read my article on the Marquette Wire.
From the Industrial Revolution to present day, humanity’s desires for energy have been primarily satiated through the burning of fossil fuels. Though apt in providing people with the energy they need to carry on their daily lives, the problem with the use of fossil fuels is the release of carbon dioxide gas (CO2) into the atmosphere.
The increase in the partial pressure of CO2 has resulted in more dissolved CO2 in the world’s oceans. When CO2 reacts with water, is interacts with a delicate balance of acids and bases in the water. CO2 and water come together to create bicarbonate, a base. However, to maintain a steady pH (a measure of acidity with 7.0 being neutral) in the water, bicarbonate will separate to create carbonic acid and free hydrogen ions. The more hydrogen ions in a solution, the lower the pH and the more acidic the water is (Hillis et al., 2010). This is precisely what is happening in the world’s oceans today.
The acidification of the world’s oceans poses a great problem for the animals and plants living in them. Shellfish are most affected by the acidic oceans because they have external skeletons. These exoskeletons are made of ingredients that create a strong, protective shell for the animal. These animals (clams, lobsters, shrimp, mussels, etc.) have a small space between their shell and the outside water called the calcifying space (Madin, 2010). In this space, the shellfish can combine calcium and carbonate to create calcium carbonate, the crystal that makes the shell. The problem arises when there are too many hydrogen ions in the water, because carbonate binds to them too (Madin, 2010).
The result: shellfish have to use more energy pumping extra hydrogen ions out of the calcification space so that they can build their shells (Madin, 2010). Shellfish that do not have strong enough pumps to get rid of the hydrogen are faced with the deterioration of their shells due to acid erosion and the inability to build faster than (or as fast as) it loses its shell.
The three results of this problem in clams, which have trouble building their shells fast enough, are smaller clams, less clams and clams with brittle shells. Clams have started to grow smaller because they expend a lot more energy in acidic oceans trying to pump out hydrogen ions. Their energy resources are tied up in trying to maximize the production of calcium carbonate so they do not grow as large.
They also cannot produce large shells because of the ocean's increased acidity. Ocean acidification also results in fewer clams because many simply don’t survive. However, there are some that may be more efficient in pumping out the hydrogen and those clams would flourish with less competition, but that would also result in less diversity.
Finally, their shells are brittle because the acidity of the ocean weakens and dissolves them, and most clams are unable to build their shells as fast as they lose them. This is a result in lower levels of calcium carbonate (aragonite) in the oceans that the shellfish need to make their shells. These levels are significantly reduced from years past, especially pre-Industrial Era and from 2010; the majority of the aragonite has been lost (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2007).
Though clams, scallops, and snails are suffering due to ocean acidification, the future for shrimp, lobster, and mussels does not look quite as dim. A recent study conducted by Justin Ries, Anne Cohen and Dan McCorkle of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution tested many crustaceans (lobsters and shrimp), mussels, snails and other shellfish in different levels of acidity due to CO2 levels. The results were shocking: animals with more protective covering on their shells grew stronger and larger shells rather than deteriorating (Madin, 2010). A proposed theory behind this result is that these animals and plants (crustaceans, temperate urchins, mussels, and some age) have stronger pumps to push out hydrogen and can make their shells faster than they lose them. It turns out that more CO2 actually makes those organisms grow larger.
Ecologists agree that the acidification of the world's oceans is a threat to the stability of the Earth as a whole. Such a large drop in calcifying organisms will undoubtedly have a detrimental effect on the fragile oceanic ecosystem and many other major ecosystems. Economically, the hit on the fishing industry that coastal areas rely so heavily upon will cause them to suffer greatly.
With so many programs claiming to be the solution to weight loss, it can be very difficult to cut through the excess information and hone in on what people really need to do to maintain a healthy body weight. The problem has been created by the uncertainty of scientists who continue to discover that nutrients have interconnected purposes in the body. The complexities are leaving scientists with more questions than answers and are leaving the average person even more confused. At the same time, the commercialization of the food industry allows companies to present nutritional information in skewed ways that add to the lack of clarity about healthy living.
Yet, one thing is certain – all animals must eat. Eating is the only way in which the body can replenish the energy used throughout the day. The foods people eat provide them with glucose for energy, macronutrients, micronutrients, vitamins and minerals. Glucose, in the form of carbohydrates, is broken down by the body to create energy necessary for the body to function.
There are also many nutrients that humans need that our bodies cannot create themselves. Nutrients that our bodies need large amounts of are called macronutrients and those we need smaller amounts of are called micronutrients. These nutrients can come in the form of amino acids: our bodies cannot produce eight amino acids that are essential to our survival and essential lipids (fats) that are used to create other important molecules (Hillis, 2010). Minerals (chemical elements needed in a human diet) and vitamins (micronutrients that are rich in carbon) are also important molecules that the body cannot create itself (Hillis, 2010). Eating is required by the body so it can function properly, so the key to keeping a healthy body weight never lies in forgoing food.
The best way to maintain a healthy body is to be careful of portion sizes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture details the portion sizes that allow a person to consume a 2,000 calorie diet. It is important to use these resources, such as ChooseMyPlate.gov (the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion) and nih.gov (the National Institutes of Health) to research and monitor the amount you eat.
The simplest recommendations are to eat less and to get active (Nestle, 2007). The five food groups (vegetables, dairy, fruits, protein foods and grains) are the foods people should eat more of while trying to aviod too many fats and oils, sugars, salts, and processed items. It is also important to remember that some foods in these groups may be healthier than others. This is a problem created by the world’s food industry. In order to sell an item, an item may have a lot of vitamins but it may also have far too many calories (Nestle, 2007).
It is important to know which foods are healthy in more ways than one, for they will provide the greatest benefits. When eating grains, whole grains are better than refined ones. Dark green vegetables and beans are foods like celery, which has fewer nutrients. Lean meats and fat-free dairy items can provide the same nutrients and less fat (MyPlate, 2011).
Portion control, knowing what to eat and regular exercise are the simplest ways to stay healthy. No weight loss miracles required.
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