An owner’s manual for the brain

So when did Discover magazine get so good? They’ve got an excellent ‘Mind and Brain’ section with a long list of feature articles freely available online.

Actually, what I wanted to feature was a one off magazine called ‘Discover presents The Brain: An Owner’s Manual’, which I found on the shelves of my local newsagent.

It’s labelled ‘Spring 07’, so is obviously current, but I can’t find anything about it on Discover’s website.

Check it out if you get the chance though. It’s solely dedicated to psychology and neuroscience and has some fantastic articles, but also includes some beautiful photos of intricate brain structures and has some neuropsychological tests to try.

Also, there are interviews with psychologist, author and diagnosed bipolar patient Kay Redfield Jamison, and Nobel prize-winning biologist and consciousness researcher Gerald Edelman.

Why this special issue isn’t mentioned on their website is something of a mystery though.

Link to Discover magazine ‘Mind and Brain’ section.

Getting emotional about cognitive science

The Boston Globe has a well-researched article on how emotion has become increasingly important in scientific models of the mind.

Only two decades ago, cognitive psychology rarely discussed emotion and was largely about the supposedly ‘cold’ computational aspects of mind: memory, attention, problem solving, language and so on.

It is now being recognised that emotion plays an important role in all of these aspects of mental life, largely because of developments in neuroscience.

This new science of emotion has brought a new conception of what it means to think, and, in some sense, a rediscovery of the unconscious. In the five decades since the cognitive revolution began, scientists have developed ways of measuring the brain that could not have been imagined at the time. Researchers can make maps of the brain at work, and literally monitor emotions as they unfold, measuring the interplay of feeling and thinking in colorful snapshots. Although we aren’t aware of this mental activity — much of it occurs unconsciously — it plays a crucial role in governing all aspects of thought. The black box of the mind has been flung wide open.

As an aside, the author of the piece is science writer Jonah Lehrer, who also writes neuroscience blog Frontal Cortex.

Link to Boston Globe article ‘Hearts and Minds’.

Science of hypnosis

Hypnosis and Suggestion is a fantastic website created by Dr Matt Whalley, an academic hypnosis researcher who gives a level-headed and detailed account of what is known about the science of hypnotic states and suggestion.

Hypnosis is a well researched psychological phenomenon and, increasingly, it is being investigated by cognitive neuroscientists.

What we know is that some people are more susceptible to hypnotic suggestions than others.

Research has shown that the level of hypnotic susceptibility is known to be stable across the life span and related to genetics.

A twin study shown that hypnotisability is likely to be heritable and recent molecular genetics studies have shown that it may be influenced by a gene known as COMT.

Interest has recently begin to focus on what makes some people highly hypnotisable compared to others.

A recent study looking at brain structure found that the front part of the corpus callosum was almost a third bigger in highly hypnotisable people.

This matches up with other neuroimaging studies which have suggested that highly hypnotisable people show differences in the function of frontal lobes, particularly the anterior cingulate cortex.

These differences are likely to be linked to an ability to become very ‘absorbed’ in things, with a simultaneous reduction in conflict and distraction when highly focused.

This might explain why hypnotic suggestions seem to have their effect on highly hypnotisable people, as they become absorbed in what the hypnotist says and can voluntarily ‘switch off’ the need to constantly self-monitor and evaluate their own reactions.

Interestingly, research suggests that we aren’t very good at working out how hypnotisable we are.

Matt Whalley’s site is a fantastic introduction to what is known about the science of hypnosis, including a list of frequently asked questions, an overview of the current theories of hypnosis, its history and its use by legitmate clinicians.

A fascinating read and well worth investigating if you’re curious about this intriguing human phenomenon.

Link to Hypnosis and Suggestion website.