What’s your face, I mean, name, again?

December 5th, 2010 by Michelle Wang

Imagine this. You are at the reception after a science forum at school and over some finger food, you begin excitedly talking to someone who looks to be a professor (at least by his scholarly attire and air) about the incredible lectures and readings you have been doing for one of your classes. A smile appears on the professor’s face and you are mortified when he introduces himself as the head lecturer of the class you have been lauding. While you have had your head buried in the books, somehow you weren’t able to remember your professor’s face. However, don’t feel too badly: according to a new brain-scan study, your reading skills may to be blame for your blunder!

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Emotional States in Music

November 23rd, 2010 by Mandy Nagy

The ability to detect emotional states through speech is one of the most crucial aspects of human social relationships.  A phrase as simple as “it’s okay” can indicate a number of things about the speaker’s mood—and people, for the most part, are extremely adept at picking up on those cues.  The same is true in music.  Even the most untrained ear can differentiate between a ‘sad’ piece of music and a ‘happy’ one, regardless of the presence of lyrics.  Although factors such as tempo and dynamics also play into this determination, the key (either major or minor) contributes heavily to the perceived emotion of a piece of music.  For what may appear to be arbitrary reasons, composers have traditionally chosen to write songs that are connected with positive emotions in major keys and songs that suggest a higher degree of pathos in minor.

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From Smelling Light to Tasting the Rainbow?

November 23rd, 2010 by Chelsea Link

Neuroscience research can get pretty mind-bending.  People have been trying for ages to wrap their mind around the idea of qualia, or differences in conscious sensory experiences.  For example, we can use the word “blue” to describe everyone’s experience of a particular wavelength of light, but how can we know that my subjective experience of blueness is identical to yours?

The answer: we can’t.

Just to make things more complicated, neuroscientists here at Harvard and at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory have recently created transgenic mice who can smell light.  Now, in addition to wondering what blue light looks like to other people (or other animals), we can try to guess what blueness smells like.

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Friends with (cognitive) benefits: the secret to acing your exams?

November 19th, 2010 by Jillian Jordan

Stressed out by midterms? Before your next exam, instead of reading over your notes one last time, consider having a pleasant social interaction instead.

A recent study from the University of Michigan demonstrates that social interactions, especially those that require taking the perspective of another individual, boost executive functioning more than doing brainteasers like crossword puzzles. Executive functioning, defined as your ability to juggle tasks within working memory, inhibit responses, and display mental control, is considered central to intelligence and generally static.  However, short-term social interactions were found to boost executive functioning—when the interaction was in a cooperative setting, not a competitive one.  So make sure your pre-test chat is friendly.

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The Music in Language

November 16th, 2010 by Umaima Ahmad

Music is capable of doing many things, and is used for almost every event that is significant in people’s lives. Think of funerals, and birthdays, and even Sundays at the church. At each of these events, there is a certain type of music that is found. But would happen if a funeral march was played on your twentieth birthday? Or if “Happy Birthday” were sung at the funeral of a relative? It is clear from these examples that music has a direct relationship to emotion.

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Better Math Through Electrical Stimulation

November 16th, 2010 by Jen Gong

We all remember learning and dreading math: from addition and subtraction to our times tables, fractions, and more, math seems to follow us everywhere. We learned algebra and calculus, and silently rebelled against the number crunching and plugging in to equations. Every one of us has struggled at some point in our mathematical education but for those with dyscalculia (a particular learning disability in math) find even the idea of numbers and basic mathematical operations hard to grasp.

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Cat brains offer insight to supercomputer design

April 18th, 2010 by Bay McCulloch

Researchers at the University of Michigan are studying feline brain cells as a model for a new generation of supercomputers that can process and recognize information in a similar way as humans. Such brainy computers will hopefully be able to accomplish more simultaneous processing and complex decision making. Microchips in conventional computers usually rely on transistors that switch on and off to represent data in binary code. The new technology that is being developed at the Univeristy of Michigan instead use "memristors," which are circuit elements that can actually remember information. For example, when you turn the voltage off to the device, memristors retain information about how much voltage had been applied and for how long. A parallel can be drawn between memristors and the synapses beween brain cells (neurons) because they too 'remember' information about the strength and timing of electrical signals from the neurons.

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Why do we like whom we like?

April 4th, 2010 by Giaynel Cordero-Taveras

Along with blooming flowers, comes the promise of new relationships. When spring arrives, new couples can be seen holding hands while strolling under the beautiful emerging sun. But, what is love and how does it happen? In Annie Reed’s words from Sleepless in Seattle “love is like magic.” But what makes us fall in love with that one person, or moreover, why are we attracted to one person giving us that unique feeling of magic.

Many theories have been proposed on the science of falling in love, but most share a common theme that love is comprised of intimacy, compassion, attraction, and attachment. How these feelings develop is often described in three stages. The first is lust or physical attraction driven by sexual hormones in men and women. The second stage is attraction, but not the sexual kind, rather the “crush” kind. Adrenaline is responsible for those sweats and rapid heart beats you experience when someone you are attracted to approaches and dopamine is responsible for that feeling of pleasure and energy you get when thinking about or being with your crush. The third and final stage is attachment. This stage is usually due to oxytocin and vasopressin both hormones which lead to a feeling of attachment and intimacy with your partner.

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Dumbledore’s Pensieve: Fiction or Reality?

March 29th, 2010 by Nisha Deolalikar

Neuroscientists and lay people alike have always been intrigued by the human brain’s extraordinary capacity for long-term memory. Very often we find ourselves going about our day-to-day lives when we suddenly encounter a stimulus that jolts us back to an earlier time and place – such an application of long-term memory can easily send us back months or even decades. Yet, this instantaneous form of recall is very often unexpected as well as involuntary. A number of comparisons have informally been drawn between the human brain and an indefinitely large filing cabinet, but a pressing question remains: how do we locate the files (memories) that we need exactly when we need them?

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Cultural Neuroscience: An Intersection between Anthropology and Neurobiology

March 2nd, 2010 by Nisha Deolalikar

As we go about our day to day lives, it’s often easy to notice that people from different backgrounds think differently (an example would be the stereotypical Asian kid who has seemingly no difficulty in tackling math problems). However, it’s a bit harder to figure out exactly why these differences exist – and whether they are biologically or culturally based. Is there a “math gene” present in some people and not in others? Or is one’s intrinsic ability at a discipline the result of family values and upbringing?

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Asides

IQ v. Intelligence

If George Bush is so smart (IQ 120), why is he so stupid?   Intelligence quotient (IQ)  tests claim to measure intelligence, but is there more to critical thinking than raw reasoning ability? Michael Bond in New Scientist:  Think of our minds as searchlights. IQ measures the brightness of the searchlight, but where we point it also matters.

Through the Looking Glass

MIT Technology Review has a set of stunning images of the brain. The slideshow traces the ways we have visualized neurons from Santiago Ramón y Cajal's 19th century sketches to Brainbow to MRI. To find out more about how some of these techniques work, check out "Project BrainSTORM" in our last issue.

Dopamine? Dope!

The same week the New York Times ran Natalie Angier's excellent article on dopamine neurons, we discussed Nature papers on dopamine in my neurobiology class. Classically, the neurotransmitter dopamine has been associated with pleasure and reward, but recent research suggests that dopamine neuron firing is more closely related to drive and motivation. Is this a real difference, or as one student asked, is this just a matter of semantics? Quipped another,  "Just look at half the kids at Harvard — they’re driven but far from happy." Yikes, maybe.

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What happens when you put a dead salmon in a fMRI machine?

A lot, surprisingly. Dead salmon can evaluate the emotional content of photographs. Or not....a cautionary tale of using the right statistic tools in fMRI, which has got quite a bit of voodoo heat recently. Prefrontal.org has the whole story. We promise it's the funniest science poster you'll read all year.

Spring 2009 Issue Release

We've published our new Spring 2009 issue! Check out our new featured articles, and flip through our interactive online issue!

Bioethics at Harvard

The National Undergraduate Bioethics Conference is coming to Harvard March 13–14, and The Harvard Brain is a proud sponsor! The Harvard Undergraduate Bioethics Society hosts the conference this year and they have a lot of interesting lectures and discussions lined up. For more information, please see http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/bioethics/nubc2009. There will sure to be plenty of food for thought to hold you over until the 2009 Brain comes out at the end of April!

Welcome to our new site!

We hope you enjoy it! On the left side of our homepage, you can read some featured articles from last year's issue of The Harvard Brain. To read the full edition, please see the archives page. Stay tuned for the 2009 edition, debuting at the end of April. We have many exciting features planned, including an interview with Will Wright, creator of The Sims and Spore, a book review of Prof. Wrangham's latest book How Cooking Made Us Human, and an article by renowned bioethicist and Princeton Professor Peter Singer.

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