November 4, 2019

The Importance of the Daily "Brain Shower" aka Sleep

The Wired’s Sara Harrison breaks down the results of a study by Dr. Laura Lewis on the importance of sleep (as if you needed another reminder). Lewis and her team at Boston University Lab have revealed how our body clears toxins out of our brains as we sleep.

The Study

The study aimed to test the role of non-REM (deep) sleep in removing toxins in the brain by examining sleep cycles that were as realistic as possible. Here’s how they did that:

  • Late nights: to ensure the sleep cycles were as realistic as possible, subjects were instructed to stay up late the night before so that they could drift off easily at midnight, when the tests were run.
  • Non-invasive: Participants had to lie down and fall asleep inside an MRI machine and were fitted with an EEG cap to measure the currents flowing through their brains. The test was as non-invasive as possible, even forgoing the use of injected dye commonly used for mapping out the body during MRIs.
  • Isolating Metrics: the MRI measured the levels of oxygen and cerebrospinal fluid — the clear liquid found in the brain and spinal cord — in the brain. This was to better understand their relationship during sleep.

Harrison notes how Dr. Lewis sacrificed her own sleep for science to conduct the late night study, running tests until 3am before sleeping in the next day: “It’s this great irony of sleep research,” Lewis says. “You’re constrained by when people sleep.”

The Findings

Lewis found that during non-REM sleep (also known as deep sleep), the following took place:

  • Neurons synchronize:These specialized cells that transmit impulses start to switch on and off at the same time.
  • Blood flow decreases: When they switch off or “go quiet” they have less need for oxygen and as a result, blood flow to the brain decreases.
  • CSF fills in:  When this happens, cerebrospinal fluid rushes into the added space and washes over the brain in large slow waves.

The results builds off of a previous 2013 study led by neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard that showed toxins like beta amyloid, a potential contributor to Alzheimer’s disease, was cleared out in mice during sleep. Suffice to say sleep is as important for humans as it is for mice.  “[The paper is] telling you sleep is not just to relax,” says Nedergaard. “Sleep is actually a very distinct function.”

The Implications

Harrison notes that this study only focused on non-REM sleep in healthy young adults and not on other sleep cycles and in older people, which means more research is needed. Still, the findings might help improve treatment for conditions such as Alzheimer’s: where previous medications just focused on targeting certain molecules like beta amyloid, understanding the important role cerebrospinal fluid plays means a new path towards other treatments. For one, Nedergaard says, future treatments might emphasize increasing the amount of cerebrospinal fluid washing over the brain.

Where we’re going with this

Even if we don’t have Alzheimer’s, we can’t ignore the important relationship between sleep, healthy brain function and mental health, issues of which are exacerbated by sleep problems especially in those with pre-existing conditions. To add to that, workers in our creative industry are more susceptible to certain issues such as depression.

Even for those who don’t suffer from said issues, it’s unlikely we’ll hear the conclusive end of the debate on how much sleep is good for creativity, with some arguments broadly praising the benefits of less sleep and others suggesting it depends on the type of creative. For that reason, we’re not going to flat-out suggest you get more sleep than you need to feel good nor will we be penning an Analysis titled “Why You Don’t Actually Need to Sleep That Much” anytime soon.

Rather, we take this study as proof of the overall importance of a good night’s sleep, which now that we see how cerebrospinal fluid is involved, could be affectionately (and accurately) called our daily “brain shower.” Just like a real shower, the exact length varies by the individual and you take as long as you need to start/end your day feeling clean, refreshed and creative.

May 23, 2019

Breaking down the science of beauty and how it influences creativity


In his 2013 book, The Aesthetic Brain, neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee discusses our brain’s ability to have aesthetic experiences—those deep “magical” moments that leave us in awe. While these responses have evolved out of the same chemical and emotional pathway that helped us survive, they now help us understand why we like the things we like.

What makes an experience aesthetic?

According to Chatterjee, there are certain configurations of sensations and of objects in the world that produce an experience that is qualitatively different than just straight perception.

But what differentiates “aesthetic experiences” from pleasurable ones such as having a good meal or seeing something or someone attractive?

He believes one way aesthetic experiences distinguish themselves is by being self-contained: the experience doesn’t go beyond your own immersion and engagement with experience and it doesn’t come with an impulse to act such as a desire to purchase an object or show it to a friend.

Liking over wanting

Neuroscientist Kent Berridge refers to two systems that work together as part of our brain’s reward system: that of liking and that of wanting. In short, we tend to like the things we want and we want the things we like. Chemically and anatomically, however, they work differently in our brains.

Dopamine’s role in learning is key to helping us get what we want, whereas the “liking” system is purely about pleasure and is mediated by our opioid and cannabinoid receptors. These two systems can be disassociated, however, as in the case of addiction where we want something we don’t necessarily like anymore.

As far as aesthetic experiences go, the liking aspect takes precedence over the wanting aspect; we like for the sake of liking.

The aesthetic triad

Chatterjee and his contemporaries involved in neuroaesthetics believe that there are three means in the brain through which we can have an aesthetic experience and can help understand how our brain is being engaged.

  • Sensor motor circuitry: traditional beauty and scientific sense of “pleasing” aesthetics
  • Emotional and reward circuitry: the wanting and liking system
  • Semantic conceptual circuitry: refers to messages, cultural background, and contextual knowledge

This means that someone could have an aesthetic experience with a piece of art that is not necessarily “beautiful” in the traditional sense but by means of their knowledge of the nuances and concepts behind it and vice versa.

Context and culture

What we consider art and even what is likable to us changes with time and context. Despite our brains having remained largely the same for 150 years, our perceptions of objects that could move us toward an aesthetic experience are fluid and susceptible to influence.

In one Danish study, people were shown abstract images and in one condition, they were told the images were computer-generated with an algorithm. In another, they were told the exact objects were hanging in a gallery. Both the subjects’ verbal responses and imaging of their brain activity suggested they liked the images they thought were in a gallery more.

Our thoughts

Chatterjee’s view of creativity is essentially reconfiguring the problem and seeing it in a different way. He says our current culture emphasizes productivity and a brute force analytic approach to creative solutions without allowing for unstructured downtime—periods of low arousal such as showering or winding down before bed—for organic creative insights to emerge.

For creative people, our perceptions can become our references and our aesthetic experiences our inspirations. But because they can both be shaped and triggered by external contexts, our creativity—that is, our internally derived original thoughts—may very well depend on allocating more of our lives to said downtime. Otherwise, we risk investing more in consuming prevailing narratives instead of writing them ourselves.

April 4, 2019

Instantly Forgotten — How Social Media is Ruining Our Memories

Girl with fragmented memory.

When we record moments in our lives for the sole purpose of publishing on social media, we risk ruining our memories—the moments themselves and the mental faculty—in the process.

By this point, we’ve seen how social media, with the addicting allure of instant gratification, has ruined social gatherings: the dozens of dinner spread photos before chowing down, live concerts viewed and streamed through a tiny screen, and random annoying disruptions from someone staging a moment for the gram.

But while commemorating life and social moments has always been a part of our desire to record, document and pass down our stories, the way we’re doing it now is not just ruining our memories, the moments, but also our memories, the mental faculty.

The scientific explanation

Neuroscientist James L. McGaugh noted in his 2013 paper “Making Lasting Memories: Remembering the Significant,” that emotional arousal during an experience stimulates your amygdala, the part of your brain that controls emotions, survival instincts, and memory, to release stress hormones that make it more likely for those experiences to be encoded as longer term memories.

Building on that understanding, researchers at the University of California Julia Soares and Benjamin Storm released research last March that suggests that people disengage from the moment when taking photos on camera phones. Their groundbreaking paper, “Forget in a Flash: A Further Investigation of the Photo-Taking Impairment Effect,” compared participants’ memory in three scenarios:

  • after pure observation
  • documentation on the Camera app
  • documentation in a condition when their photos wouldn’t be saved, like on Snapchat.

Now, previous research had already established that by recording memories through things such as a camera would hinder people’s memory—a phenomenon dubbed the “photo-taking impairment effect.”

Where researchers had previously associated this effect with “cognitive offloading,” the process by which people store memories onto an external memory source instead of personally retaining them, Soares and her team went one step further by testing if this offloading was the true cause.

It actually wasn’t. Soares’ new hypothesis, dubbed “attentional disengagement,” suggests using a camera or camera phone takes people out of the present moment and impairs memory formation even after they put the device down.

What’s more, participants using Snapchat were found to have even greater memory impairment than in photo-taking alone, possibly because of all the other distractions like filters and other effects.

The bro science explanation

Even if you don’t care much for the science, there’s a very real threat to our memories that should be concerning if not alarming. By now, we’re no strangers to the idea that we have never been more distracted from our lives at any time in history. If we were to just take something as seemingly innocent as the selfie:

  • you’re finding the right angle for yourself and seeing what you want in the background. I guess you could call that ‘composition.’
  • you’re concerned with nailing your shout-out, gesture or pose; performing the best your life could be.
  • you’re then occupied with editing, polishing and publishing that moment to be experienced a certain way by someone else.

Obviously, it’s not just that we’re missing out on great moments because we’re pulled in another direction (the agenda that is curating the best version of ourselves)—it’s that this distraction is combined with our tendency to not consciously smell, touch and feel things.

It’s like how we take uncompressed RAW camera files or WAV audio and convert them into lossy jpeg or mp3s that have less information in them.

In short, by capturing what could otherwise be our life’s greatest moments into a few seconds of compressed video with crap audio that is then obscured by filters and other add-ons, we’re converting those precious seconds full of densely-coded images, sounds, emotions, scents, tactile sensation and connections into something comparatively devoid of meaning. Something utterly forgettable.

February 19, 2019

Is the world running out of people? This duo believes we might

People aligned wearing yellow teeshirts

No, the title is not a typo: we might get there sooner than you think. That’s if you ask Canadian journalist John Ibbitson and political scientist Darrell Bricker, who believe world population will decline in the next few decades. The two writers, promoting their new book “Empty Planet” during the interview, conclude that within 30 years we’ll begin to a long term demographic shift. Both men believe that once the population decline kicks in, it’ll never stop, challenging assumptions that are held by many people across the world.

What’s really going on?

The book challenges existing UN population models through new studies and number crunching. Unlike the UN which estimates the number to reach 11 billion by 2100, the authors believe old assumptions no longer apply due to tech’s growing impact. In fact, tech impacts people in many different ways, including population growth. Because tech can alleviate certain pain points, fertility rates in some developing countries don’t need to be as high. As the authors outlined:

  • Every woman living within an Indian slum had a smartphone
  • This gave them access to unlimited knowledge via the Internet
  • For context, India is one of the world’s largest countries, with a population well above 1 billion people.

As many economists will attest, economic growth is turbocharged through women’s education as women are often caretakers of future generations. More educated women mean smarter kids, and ultimately better underlying economics for a nation and its population.


Who gets the final say?

Although prior forecasts were fairly accurate, the past 100 years won’t be good predictors of our future. The advent of technology and its capabilities change the dynamics of our world, as well as its people and demographics. Perhaps the counter-analysis will be correct, but the fact remains that we are depleting our planet at alarming rates. Smaller populations don’t necessarily mean that this will stop, but harnessing technology properly can help amend these problems. The hard thing for us is to bite the bullet for future generations to thrive.

February 4, 2019

Turns out the science saying screen time is bad isn’t accurate science

A paper by Oxford scientists Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski questions the quality of the science used to determine whether or not screen time is good or bad for us.

Their concern was that the large data sets and statistical methods employed by researchers looking into the question—for example, thousands and thousands of survey responses interacting with weeks of tracking data for each respondent—allowed for anomalies or false positives to be claimed as significant conclusions.

So what’s wrong with the science being used?

Suppose there was a study on a group of kids that concluded kids who use Instagram for more than two hours a day were three times as likely to suffer depressive episodes or suicidal ideations. The problem is that (made-up) study doesn’t point out that the bottom quartile is far more likely to suffer from ADHD or that the top five percent reported feeling they had a strong support network.

In short, the methods being questioned by the Oxford paper don’t bring up and compare all the statistically significant results that come from those studies. Similar to the danger of “correlation equals causation,” some slight links in the data set might be put forth as the most significant and as the main conclusion of the study, ignoring all other links.

The key takeaway

The Oxford study examined a few example behaviors that have more or less of an effect on well-being. It found was that there is no consistent good or bad effect and that the slightly negative effect of technology use wasn’t as bad as say, having a single parent or needing to wear glasses.

The point is that we often take conclusions of studies, especially those based on flawed methods that exaggerate certain results, and we might use them as throwaway ammunition to win arguments and influence other people. An example could be a parent citing such a study to convince their teenager that technology is

The reality is researchers need to point out all the significant links in the data set—whether or not they support the initial hypothesis—to show they haven’t missed any glaring details in the studies. We, in turn, need to acknowledge that science is a work in progress and that we should think critically about findings before rushing to an application.

September 27, 2018

Jan Boelen talks through the hopeful future of plastic and how design using recycled plastic is "bullshit"

Jan Boelen, the curator of the Istanbul Design Biennial, suggested that using recycled plastic is not a solution to our environmental struggles, Boelen claims that the rising trend for making products out of reclaimed plastic is “bullshit.” Huge systems are in place to recycle plastic and Boelen believes this is great for business but simply perpetuates the problem of plastics. His suggestion? Make new materials.

The New Materials
Scientists Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros showed a new material innovation at this year’s Istanbul Design Biennial. The material is a bioplastic derived from algae, created in the hopes of replacing traditional plastics. Algae is mixed with starch to create this biodegradable material.

  • Algae is abundant, there are more than 100,000 species of it around almost every corner of the world.
  • It grows extremely quickly.
  • It shows promise in its versatility, the material can be used in injection molding and 3-D printing.

The Obstacles
Many biomaterials like that of Klarenbeek and Dros are being exhibited, but do not fit the traditional industrial manufacturing system. On top of this, laws and certifications stand in the way of these biomaterials flourishing. Boelen goes as far as saying that the certifying industry is rigged against innovative new materials.

What Does It All Mean?
Marcus Fairs leaves us with a striking quotation from Boelen: “The plastic soup won’t go away by recycling plastic, we need materials that are nearer to nature, that are in dialogue with nature. That’s where the solution is.” The idea that using recycled plastics may not be helping as much as we like to think is a reality check, one that we need. It’s always easy to mistake a short-term remedy with a long-term answer, but we need to look past this. There are teams around the world producing innovative and exciting new solutions to our problems every day, this should fill us with optimism; whether these solutions will reach us any time soon thanks to conservative and profit-oriented laws may stand in the way of our optimism.

May 8, 2018

Professor proves drunk people are better at creative problem solving*

Professor Andrew Jarosz of Mississippi State University’s research proves drunk people are better at creative problem solving (well, at least one task).

The Remote Associates Test
To test the credibility of the idea that alcohol enhanced the creativity of great writers, artists, and composers, Professor Jarosz gave 20 male subjects 15 questions from a creative problem-solving assessment called the Remote Associates Test (RAT). This is basically a technical term for a game of Tribond where, for example, the correct answer to “what do ‘duck,’ ‘dollar,’ ‘fold’ have in common,”is “bill.”

This is of course after he and his colleagues served vodka-cranberries to those subjects until their blood alcohol neared legal intoxication. His findings? They not only gave more correct answers than the sober control group that did the same task, but also came to solutions more quickly.

The Results Explained Before…
You start slipping whisky into your morning coffee, here’s why the results came out the way they did: Loss of focus—a key effect of drunkenness—is a good thing for this particular task.

With RAT, alcohol prevents you from staying fixated on your first thought. The drunks reported solving problems through spontaneous insight (as opposed to strategic thinking) on 10% more problems than the sober participants.

The Caveat
While Jarosz suggests a few happy-hour drinks or a martini at lunch could be beneficial, moderation is obviously key. If you push yourself beyond the legal limit of .08, you will see immense diminishing returns as you also lose the ability to screen out bad to downright awful ideas such as posting drunken IG stories on the company account.

March 8, 2018

Research finds the adult brain might not actually be able to regenerate

New research is suggesting that the adult brain might not be able to naturally renew itself after all and changes after its teenage years. The study, which was published recently in Naturelooked at samples of the hippocampus taken from 59 people ranging from prenatal to adulthood. The hippocampus is a region of the brain that plays a large role in memory.

What they were looking for
They were looking for signs of new neurons in the dentate gyrus, a part of the hippocampus. That part is well known to have higher rates of neurogenesis in other mammals like rodents and is speculated to happen in people too. The goal was to observe the number of new neurons created in the brain based on one’s age.

What they found
They found lots of new neurons in samples taken from fetuses and newborns, but a sharp drop in children and nearly undetectable levels in adults. This finding adds one more point to the side that holds that our brains cells don’t renew themselves past a certain age. The question of whether they do or not has continued to generate discussion and a market of products or services that claim to rejuvenate brain cells.

The caveat
This study only covers one part of the brain and is by no means the final word on other parts. Further, as has been noted in past research, our ability to stay sharp in adulthood doesn’t rely solely on the number of neurons we have. According to the study’s lead author, Shawn Sorrells:“ [O]ther forms of plasticity, such as changes in synaptic transmission or remodeling of existing neurons, might be much more important,” he said.

So just like the debunked idea that bigger brains mean smarter people, the idea of fewer neurons translating to decreased mental ability shouldn’t alarm us, but it should remind us that our acuity isn’t permanent and we should take care of the one brain we have.

March 1, 2018

Behaviorism and how companies game the human mind

Today, companies are constantly competing for our attention. And as competition increases, they will inevitably game the human mind through techniques rooted in behaviorism to ensure we remain fixated on a given thing. Below are several techniques used.

1. The Virtual Slot Machine (Variable rewards)
In an experiment with rats where they learned to push a lever in exchange for food, B.F. Skinner discovered that they learned to push the lever when they were hungry, but only if they got the same reward. If the reward varied from nothing to a lot, the rats would just push the lever all day long. In the case of modern humans, replace the lever with a swipe, scroll or tap, and the food with new notifications.

2. Framed Will (Choice determination)
Thanks to filters and our innate tendency to choose the path of least resistance, we often don’t take the time to think about alternate options closer to what we actually need. Apps can oversimplify our interactions with the real world by filtering based solely on proximity, popularity or our previous activity.

3. The Love Crave (Social approval)
Because we have an inherent need for social belonging and recognition, algorithms and machine learning can artificially meet that by recognizing and tagging our faces automatically. Platforms like Facebook can “reach out” to us in more personalized ways as if to value us and our actions.

4. Autoplay & infinite scrolls (The Force-Fed treat)
If you don’t proactively click “stop” most online experiences are infinite feeds of content that try to dissuade you from leaving a given platform. Like many similar mechanics, the human effort is shifted from “how to get more” to “how to stop it.”

5. The Power of Defaults (Artificial Friction): 
Similar to #4, our tendency to take as many shortcuts as possible means we sometimes won’t resist decisions made for us such as pre-checked boxes on online forms. Conversely, if they choose to, sites can reduce engagement by forcing users to see the FAQ and book a chat slot in advance, increasing the effort.

6. “Read” receipts, typing & activity indicators (The Social Ambush)
Any sign of activity such as the “seen” message or typing indicators (activated by default, of course) forces us to answer quickly and continue to remain on the platform for a stretched out interaction.

Knowing is half the battle. In the past, we all learned to recognize when our emotions were being played with such as with advertising and the wonders of Photoshop. Just as with reclaiming our attention, the first big step is to catch ourselves in the act and question whether we’re about to make a conscious decisionFurther, it’s equally important to recognize which of our “emotional buttons” are being pushed and how we could get that in healthier ways.

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