2013 top ten brain science studies

Neuroscience gives us fascinating insights into how our brains work and what incredibly flexible and miraculous, but also mysterious organs they are. An article in Forbes Magazine outlines the 2013 top ten brain science studies, with some of them having practical implications for our everyday lives. We outline the article here.


1. The brain takes toxins out of it while we sleep
During daytime, a lot of neurotoxins that are connected to diseases like Alzheimer’s assemble in our brain. Researchers now have found that while we sleep, so-called “hidden caves” in our brain open up and neurotoxins are flushed out by cerebrospinal fluid, a fluid found in the brain and spine. This study implies that our brain needs sleep to get rid of the waste it assembles during the daytime. Thus, lack of sleep is likely to be a brain killer.
The original article was published in the journal Science.


2. In our brain, we are closely connected to our friends
When we see that our friends are exposed to physical pain, the regions in our brain fire that are activated when we experience physical pain ourselves. This is not the case when we see strangers exposed to physical pain. This literally means that our loved ones become a part of ourselves.
The original article was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.


3. We can see even though we might not realise it
Many regions in the brain seem to be involved in vision. There is a primary area, the visual cortex, which enables us to see the way we are used to. Sometimes this area is destroyed so that people are unable to see although their eyes and optic nerves are fully functional. This is called cerebral blindness. Researchers found that in a patient with cortical blindness, other regions in the brain can still detect another person’s gaze. What implications this has cannot be said at the moment, but it shows us once more how complex the brain is and maybe the insight can one day be used for helping people with cerebral blindness and maybe even other impairments of vision get along better in our vision-oriented world.
The original article was published in the journal Neuroscience.


4. Stress is related to cancer
There is a lot of research out there linking stress to cancer, but the findings are controversial. Now a study found stress to accelerate prostate cancer and make it less responsive to cancer drugs. Researchers assume that the stress hormone epinephrine turns off the cell death programme that would otherwise prevent cancer cells from growing.
The original study was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.


5. Extravert or introvert? Maybe both.
A well-studied personality trait is extraversion-introversion, with the extravert being outgoing, sociable, and sensation seeking, while the introvert is rather quiet, conscientious, and careful. Often the notion is that you are either one or the other, but not both. Recent research now found that there is indeed something in between, called ambiverts, who can switch between the two extremes depending on the needs of the situation. The study found ambiverts to be the best salespersons because they are on the one hand outgoing and convincing enough to close the deal and on the other hand able to listen to their clients. By the way, the study also found introverts to be just as good salespersons as extraverts.
The original study was published in the journal Psychological Science.


6. Growing a mini-brain from stem cells
Researchers were able to grow a mini brains that have distinct regions from stem cells. They did so by first nourishing the stem cells by certain nutrients and then putting the tissue they had grown into a bioreactor containing oxygen and nutrients. The mini-brains that had been created this way contained firing neurons and brain regions like the retina and cerebral cortex. This is still very basic research, but maybe this can one day cure heal brain diseases or injuries.
There is an article on this study on the Reuters homepage.


7. Exercise benefits the brain
There is evidence that exercise helps grow new brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, the brain region associated with learning and memory, and particularly endurance exercise seems to foster neuron growth here. A recent study now taps into the mechanisms behind this effect and shows that exercise boosts the release of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BNDF) via a protein. BNDF in turn stimulates the growth of neurons and preserves them.
The original article was published in the journal Cell Metabolism.


8. Enhancing our self-control
Researchers found that the region in our brain that is associated with self-control, the prefrontal cortex, can be stimulated by weak electrical stimulation. When stimulated in this way, study participants were better able to control themselves. The findings might help cure diseases like Tourette Syndrome, but maybe it can eventually also help us in understanding how we can enhance our self-control when we are healthy, but slightly undisciplined persons.
The original study was published in the journal Neuroscience.


9. Measuring consciousness
A topic that is constantly under discussion and always on the media is the question when someone can be declared dead. Often in patients who have suffered severe brain injury this is difficult to tell. A new method now seems to be able to detect whether there is still consciousness in the brain that could predict the patient’s recovery. The procedure entails three steps: first, the brain is exposed to a magnetic pulse that is supposed to wake it up. Then brain wave activity as a response to the pulse is measured and finally the activity is further analysed using a certain formula that can classify the complexity of the brain activity. The tool is designed to shed light on the question whether or not a patient will recover from the injuries.
The original study was published in the journal Science.


10. Coffee reduces the risk of suicide
A meta-analysis of over 200,000 people found caffeine to reduce the risk of suicide. Two to four cups of coffee seemed to be enough for this. The mechanism behind this seems to be the fact that caffeine is similar to a chemical in the brain, adenosine, that blocks receptors in the nervous system that receive signals for decreasing energy expenditure. Thus, caffeine seems to prevent the reduction of energy and stimulate the brain.
The original article was published in The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry.
The full article is available on the Forbes Magazine website.


What sort of office is beneficial for performance?

What kind of office makes us most creative, enhances productivity, creates a great working atmosphere and a sense of cohesion amongst employees? For a long time, it has been thought that an open environment would be ideal because it enhances communication and idea flow. However, recent research questions this notion.


An article in the New Yorker summarises research on open office environments and comes to a clear conclusion: this kind of setting enhances neither creativity nor productivity. For example, researchers followed up on a transition from a classical office to an open environment and found job performance, satisfaction with physical environment, and interpersonal relationships to deteriorate, while stress level rose. Moreover, a meta-analysis of over a hundred studies on open environments revealed that this setting is harmful for attention span, productivity, creative thinking, and job satisfaction. Finally, one study also found people who work in an open environment to be on sick leave more often than people working in smaller offices.

The results found are in line with research on what is beneficial for concentration, performance and team cohesion. For example, one big issue with open space offices is noise, which in turn is known to have a negative impact on concentration. Even worse, it is harmful for health because it raises the level of stress hormones. Furthermore, a sense of privacy is related to job performance, while feeling in control of your environment is beneficial for team cohesion and satisfaction. This sense of control includes for example adjusting temperature and lighting in a room, but also the way in which meetings are conducted.

There also seems to be an effect of age: younger individuals do not seem to be as affected by the detrimental effects of an open environment as older ones are. This might be due to the fact that they are more used to things like multi-tasking and dealing with distraction. However, their work performance is also affected by working in an open environment: those who are good at multi-tasking (i.e. those who are usually the ones that deal well with an open space office) are more susceptible to distractions than those who are not.

Generally, interruptions seem to be very detrimental to concentration and performance. We reported on this before. In consequence, for getting things done, it is important to be able to stick with them for elongated periods of time. The risk of being interrupted is greater in an open space office than in smaller ones.

Thus, to sum up the research mentioned: open space offices are detrimental for performance, team cohesion, and health and therefore whenever there is the choice, smaller offices should be preferred.

If I was rich…

If you were a rich person, would you behave differently from the way you behave now? How would you treat others around you? By contrast, what would change if you were poor? Not much, you think? Social psychologists are likely to disagree based on findings from a number of studies – they say your financial situation has a huge impact on your behaviour towards others.

Social psychologist Paul K. Piff from University of California at Berkeley was interested in the question how the experience of being a privileged player in a rigged game changes the way that people think about themselves and regard the other player. He conducted an experiment with 100 pairs of players in which he let them play the game of Monopoly. One of them was assigned a rich and the other a poor person’s role – randomly by flipping a coin. Dr. Piff was interested to see how their behaviour would change. The rich player began to move around the board louder and showed more signs of dominance while becoming ruder and less sensitive towards the other player. Finally, they became more demonstrative of their success and even ate more of the snack provided than the poor players. When rich players reflected upon why they had inevitably won this rigged game afterwards, they talked about what they had done to earn their success of the game. They ignored the features of the situation like the flipped coin that put them into the situation.

For some reason, blogger does not allow us to embed the TED Talk today, therefore we give you the link to Paul Piff’s TED Talk here: Paul Piff: Does money make you mean?
Being wealthy seems to considerably change people’s behaviour. Other experiments showed that richer people are less likely to share money they are given by the experimenter with a stranger and more likely to cheat in a game for winning a prize. Participants who were rich took two times as much candy from a jar that had been declared to be exclusively reserved for kids. Being wealthy seems to lead to more feelings of entitlement and higher self-interest, which may lead to outcomes like rule-breaking e.g. in traffic or unethical behaviour in work contexts.

However, this does not mean that rich people are bad people. Rather, it is more evidence for the fact that it is not only personality that determines our behaviour, but just as much the situations we are in. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo showed this in a very imposing manner in his famous Stanford prison experiment: people like you and me were randomly assigned either the role of a prisoner or of a guard. Within no time, the guards showed such brutal behaviour that the experiment needed to be stopped. Thus, apparently it does not require much for turning from a normal into an “evil” person. He identifies certain critical aspects of a situation that make counterproductive work behaviours more likely to appear: (1) Distraction: the individual is faced with many temptations; (2) Ambiguity: there are no clear rules; (3) Boredom: there is little variety; (4) Indifference: there is no cooperation; (5) Opportunism: the individual does not have his or her own opinions; (6) Superficiality: the individual does not think through the situation, behaviour and consequences.

On the other hand, there are interindividual differences in how likely people are to fall for the temptations of a situation and there are attributes that determine an individual’s susceptibility to the above mentioned critical aspects of situations (Zimbardo, 2007). These attributes can be summarized in two categories: impulse control and ethical awareness.

We could transfer this whole idea back to the context of work and ask: what makes an employee display unethical or risky behaviours? Based on Prof. Zimbardo’s findings, we can assess to what extent employees are prone to showing such behaviours in certain situations. This is e.g. what cut-e’s questionnaire squares does. It measures how likely someone is to fall for the cues of certain situations and show risky or unethical behaviour.

The good news about these findings is: the mechanism also works the other way round. For example, Paul Piffs points out that small psychological interventions can restore egalitarianism and empathy. Stressing values like cooperation, community, and compassion, and making rich people aware of the needs of others around them can considerably change their behaviour. Similarly, one can assume that a lot of counterproductive work behaviours can be changed by simply making people aware of the issues, of the consequences of their behaviour and of others’ needs.