Why we sleep

Virtually all animals sleep, but scientists have had a hard time figuring out why that is.  New research has apparently uncovered a major reason why our brains need to go out of consciousness on a regular basis:  While we are asleep, toxins that build up in the brain get flushed out.  Experiments with mice show that their brain cells actually shrink  so that there is 60% more space between them, allowing fluid to wash them more effectively, sweeping out dead cells and Alzheimer’s-causing plaque, as well as chemical toxic wastes.

How lucky we are that so many random mutations came together to make this happen so as to allow us to sleep!  I feel bad, though, about the animals that must have lived for millions of years before one of them, completely by chance, gained this survival advantage and spread it to all other species.  Before they could sleep, living organisms must have been really grumpy.

After the jump, details about the discovery. [Read more...]

An Aurora victim whose life was spared

A former student wrote me after the Aurora shootings saying that a friend of his was in the theater and had been shot.  He said she was from an active homeschooling family, a leader in the Colorado homeschool debate league, and a committed Christian, very much like our other students.  He was distraught about it, and the parallels with our other students made the shootings disturbingly real to me.

A few days later, my student updated me about how his friend’s life was providentially, if not miraculously, spared.  I’ll let NBC News tell the story:

Petra Anderson, one of 58 people injured in the Aurora movie theater attack, is lucky to be alive.

Anderson, a 22-year-old aspiring music professor, was hit by a shotgun blast during the assault that killed 12 people. Three pellets struck her arm and one rocketed through her head, but it missed the brain’s many blood vessels and key sections controlling vital functions, according to her doctor.

“If the pellet had wavered a millimeter, really in any direction from what it actually took, then she would have likely either died or been severely injured,” said Dr. Michael Rauzzino, a neurosurgeon at The Medical Center of Aurora who operated on Anderson to remove the pellet. “I would say this is definitely a miracle,” he said, while showing an MRI of Anderson’s brain.

The MRI reveals a faint trace of the pellet’s path after it entered the left side of Petra’s nose, broke through the front of her skull, and passed through her brain, before lodging in the back of her head. . . .

“It would be hard to create a path similar to this where it goes all the way from the front to the back and misses every single blood vessel, doesn’t bother any of the major structures, and leaves her able to talk and move everything and not be paralyzed or dead,” he added. “Never in my entire career have I seen a case where a bullet has traversed the entire brain like this and not caused severe damage or death.”

via Shotgun pellet’s ‘miracle’ path spared Aurora victim’s life – U.S. News.

At first the report was that she was saved by a birth defect–a channel in her brain that the pellet exactly followed–but the doctor says now that this was not the case.  The pellet just went through her brain missing every blood vessel and vital structures.  That’s miraculous enough.   I know it’s hard to talk about such things, given the people who were not spared, but still, this is remarkable.

The most relaxing–and most boring–music ever

Scientists measuring brain waves have discovered the most relaxing piece of music ever, an artificially composed tune called “Weightless.”  It’s so relaxing that they are warning people not to drive while listening to it.  To say it’s relaxing is  another way of saying that it’s the most boring tune ever.  You can listen to it, below, if you dare.

British band and a group of scientists have made the most relaxing tune in the history of man, an Mp3 of which is at the bottom of this article.

Sound therapists and Manchester band Marconi Union compiled the song. Scientists played it to 40 women and found it to be more effective at helping them relax than songs by Enya, Mozart and Coldplay.

“Weightless” works by using specific rhythms, tones, frequencies and intervals to relax the listener. A continuous rhythm of 60 BPM causes the brainwaves and heart rate to synchronise with the rhythm: a process known as ‘entrainment’. Low underlying bass tones relax the listener and a low whooshing sound with a trance-like quality takes the listener into an even deeper state of calm.

Dr David Lewis, one of the UK’s leading stress specialists said: “‘Weightless’ induced the greatest relaxation – higher than any of the other music tested. Brain imaging studies have shown that music works at a very deep level within the brain, stimulating not only those regions responsible for processing sound but also ones associated with emotions.”

The study – commissioned by bubble bath and shower gel firm Radox Spa – found the song was even more relaxing than a massage, walk or cup of tea. So relaxing is the tune, apparently, that people are being Rex advised against listening to it while driving.

via Scientists discover most relaxing tune ever – Music – ShortList Magazine.

First of all, music or any art form is not supposed to be relaxing!  On the contrary, it’s supposed to seize and focus your attention!  It is not a good thing when music puts you to sleep.  I defy you to listen to “Weightless”–an appropriate name, since the music indeed is weightless–all the way through (beware:  it’s 8 minutes, which is part of what makes it so tedious, I mean, relaxing):

Marconi Union – Weightless

HT:  Joe Carter

The universe is big; the mind is bigger

A baby’s mind is bigger!  So says David Brooks, citing a Caltech scientist,  at the conclusion of a long, discursive essay in the New Yorker:

We have a hundred billion neurons in the brain; infants create as many as 1.8 million neural connections per second; a mere sixty neurons are capable of making ten to the eighty-first possible connections, which is a number ten times as large as the number of particles in the observable universe;

via What the science of human nature can teach us : The New Yorker.

HT: Martin Marty

Fearfully and wonderfully made

From an article on the human brain:

A typical, healthy one houses some 200 billion nerve cells, which are connected to one another via hundreds of trillions of synapses. Each synapse functions like a microprocessor, and tens of thousands of them can connect a single neuron to other nerve cells. In the cerebral cortex alone, there are roughly 125 trillion synapses, which is about how many stars fill 1,500 Milky Way galaxies.

via Human brain has more switches than all computers on Earth | Health Tech – CNET News.

HT:  First Thoughts

How the internet affects the brain

More on the prospect that the internet makes us dumber.  In this case, by rewiring our brains:

Nicholas Carr, a veteran writer about technology, is not sanguine about what he learned about his own Internet-infused brain, much less my brain.

“What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work?” he asks. His answer, iterated throughout this often repetitive but otherwise excellent book: “The news is even more disturbing than I had suspected. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just like it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.”

Carr cites numerous studies to delineate not only the impact on the brain, but also the alterations in brain biology that lead to the impact. It turns out the human brain is a shape shifter, the technical term being “neuroplasticity.” The phenomenon is not easy to explain, but Carr is adept at explaining with as little jargon as possible. “As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit.”

It is not enough for Carr to explain the contemporary brain alterations linked to regular Internet use. He puts neuroplasticity into historical context. He explains how the evolution of a written alphabet, accompanied by development of a standardized syntax (the order of words within a phrase or sentence) altered the human brain. A big difference exists neurologically, it seems, between hearing a story and reading a story on a page.

Reading became more efficient. Readers became more attentive. “To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to ‘lose oneself’ in the pages of a book,” according to Carr. Developing that sort of discipline evolved slowly. Because of the Internet, that evolution is halting and apparently reversing.

Sure, Internet users are literate, and highly developed literacy will not disappear. But, Carr notes, in meshing hard science with his personal experience circa 2010, “The world of the screen … is a very different place from the world of the page. A new intellectual ethic is taking hold. The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted.”

via ‘The Shallows’ by Nicholas Carr: The Internet warps you – USATODAY.com.

The book cites numerous scientific studies to back up the thesis.  I know some of you think I am too dismissive of the findings of modern science, being skeptical of a lot of the climate change alarmism, among other things.  I find myself skeptical of this claim also.  Are you?  If so, what basis do you have for your opinion?  If not, should we ban the internet, at least for young people with their developing brains?


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