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Hearing metaphors activates brain regions involved in sensory experience

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When a friend tells you she had a rough day, do you feel sandpaper under your fingers? The brain may be replaying sensory experiences to help understand common metaphors, new research suggests.

Linguists and psychologists have debated how much the parts of the brain that mediate direct sensory experience are involved in understanding metaphors. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their landmark work 'Metaphors we live by', pointed out that our daily language is full of metaphors, some of which are so familiar (like "rough day") that they may not seem especially novel or striking. They argued that metaphor comprehension is grounded in our sensory and motor experiences.

New brain imaging research reveals that a region of the brain important for sensing texture through touch, the parietal operculum, is also activated when someone listens to a sentence with a textural metaphor. The same region is not activated when a similar sentence expressing the meaning of the metaphor is heard.

The results were published online this week in the journal Brain & Language.

"We see that metaphors are engaging the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in sensory responses even though the metaphors are quite familiar," says senior author Krish Sathian, MD, PhD, professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine and psychology at Emory University. "This result illustrates how we draw upon sensory experiences to achieve understanding of metaphorical language."

Sathian is also medical director of the Center for Systems Imaging at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Rehabilitation R&D Center of Excellence at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Seven college students who volunteered for the study were asked to listen to sentences containing textural metaphors as well as sentences that were matched for meaning and structure, and to press a button as soon as they understood each sentence. Blood flow in their brains was monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging. On average, response to a sentence containing a metaphor took slightly longer (0.84 vs 0.63 seconds).
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The Price of Your Soul: How Your Brain Decides Whether to 'Sell Out'

Money vs Religion
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A neuro-imaging study shows that personal values that people refuse to disavow, even when offered cash to do so, are processed differently in the brain than those values that are willingly sold.

"Our experiment found that the realm of the sacred - whether it's a strong religious belief, a national identity or a code of ethics - is a distinct cognitive process," says Gregory Berns, director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University and lead author of the study. The results were published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Sacred values prompt greater activation of an area of the brain associated with rules-based, right-or-wrong thought processes, the study showed, as opposed to the regions linked to processing of costs-versus-benefits.

Berns headed a team that included Emory economist Monica Capra; Michael Prietula, a professor of information systems and operations management at Emory's Goizueta Business School; a psychologist from the New School for Social Research and anthropologists from the Institute Jean Nicod in Paris, France. (Click here to see the full list of names.) The research was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation.
Syringe

Brains of Addicts Are Inherently Abnormal

A drug addict smokes crack
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A drug addict smokes crack on the street in Brazil. Drug addicts have inherited abnormalities in some parts of the brain which interfere with impulse control, said a British study published in the United States on Thursday.
Drug addicts have inherited abnormalities in some parts of the brain which interfere with impulse control, said a British study published in the United States on Thursday.

Previous research has pointed to these differences, but it was unclear if they resulted from the ravages of addiction or if they were there beforehand to predispose a person to drug abuse.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge compared the brains of addicts to their non-addicted siblings as well as to healthy, unrelated volunteers and found that the siblings shared many of the same weaknesses in their brains.

That indicates that the brain vulnerabilities had a family origin, though somehow the siblings of addicts -- either due to environmental factors or other differences in brain structure -- were able to resist addiction.

"Presumably, the siblings must have some other resilience factors that counteract the familial vulnerability to drug dependence," said the study led by Karen Ersche of the University of Cambridge, published in the journal Science.

"An individual's predisposition to become addicted to stimulant drugs may be mediated by brain abnormalities linked to impaired self-control."
Eye 1

Think You Know How to Spot a Psychopath? Think Again

woman opening door
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We'd all like to think that we have some sort of sixth sense that will warn us when we're truly in danger, some animal instinct that raises the hair on the backs of our necks, gives us goose bumps and sends us running in the opposite direction.

Retired FBI profiler Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D., is here to tell us the truth about trusting our intuition in perilous situations. In Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us, she outlines how to protect yourself and your loved ones from bad people. Her tips are especially useful if you're thinking of doing some online dating, hiring a contractor/nanny/assistant, or letting your child's coach or another parent give him a ride home.

It's perilous out there, and you could just crawl under the covers (with your entire family) and never come out. Or you can learn from O'Toole's 28 years of experience as an FBI agent, 15 of them as a profiler with the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) - the work popularized by shows like CBS's Criminal Minds. O'Toole worked on such cases as the Green River Killer, the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping and the hunt for the Unabomber. This and other experience interrogating wrongdoers taught her how to read people.
Arrow Up

Groundhog Day: Phil's Myth Stretches Back Centuries

Punxsutawney Phil
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Punxsutawney Phil, the weather-predicting groundhog.

On Wednesday, a roly-poly rodent named Punxsutawney Phil will be hoisted from his burrow in front of TV cameras and cheering crowds and be called upon to predict the weather. If this famous groundhog casts a shadow, legend has it that winter is here to stay for six more weeks.

Weird tradition, huh?

In fact, relying on rodents as forecasters may date back to the early days of Christianity in Europe, when clear skies on Candlemas Day (Feb. 2) were said to herald cold weather ahead. In Germany, the tradition morphed into a myth that if the sun came out on Candlemas, a hedgehog would cast its shadow, predicting snow all the way into May. When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, they transferred the tradition onto local fauna, replacing hedgehogs with groundhogs.

Groundhog Day is now kept alive by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, whose members care for Punxsutawney Phil year-round. (Phil lives in an enclosure in the Punxsutawney Memorial Library along with several other groundhogs.) Every year, the Groundhog Club rises early with their charge and takes him to a local hillside, Gobbler's Knob, for the weather-prediction ceremony.
Candle

Near-Death Researcher Believes the Mind Survives Death

Robert Mays has studied near-death experiences for years, and has reached some conclusions.

One is that the mind is "an energetic entity" that separates from the body as people are dying.

"We believe a strong case can be made that the mind survives death," Mays said. "If we take what the near-death experiencers are saying, the mind will go to a place which is very positive. It's what everybody would call heaven."

Mays is a board member of the International Association For Near Death Studies, a nonprofit research organization based in Durham. It has about 850 members worldwide, and its stated purpose is to promote responsible, multi-disciplinary exploration of near-death and similar experiences.

An MIT graduate and retired software engineer at IBM, Mays has been interested in accounts of near-death experiences since he and his wife read Raymond Moody's book, Life After Life, in 1976, and George Ritchie's book, Return From Tomorrow.
Attention

Inside Your Mind, Scientist Can Eavesdrop on What You Hear

Auditory Brain
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By analyzing the brain, scientists can tell what words a person has just heard, research now reveals.

Such work could one day allow scientists to eavesdrop on the internal monologues that run through our minds, or hear the imagined speech of those unable to speak.

"This is huge for patients who have damage to their speech mechanisms because of a stroke or Lou Gehrig's disease and can't speak," said researcher Robert Knight at the University of California at Berkeley. "If you could eventually reconstruct imagined conversations from brain activity, thousands of people could benefit."

Recent studies have shown that scientists could tell what number a person has just seen by carefully analyzing brain activity. They similarly could figure out how many dots a person was presented with.

To see if they could do the same for sound, researchers focused on decoding electrical activity in a region of the human auditory system called the superior temporal gyrus, or STG. The 15 volunteers in the study were patients undergoing neurosurgery for epilepsy or brain tumor - as such, researchers could directly access the STG with electrodes and see how it responded to words in normal conversation that volunteers listened to.
Pills

Are We Ready for a 'Morality Pill'?

morality pill
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Last October, in Foshan, China, a 2-year-old girl was run over by a van. The driver did not stop. Over the next seven minutes, more than a dozen people walked or bicycled past the injured child. A second truck ran over her. Eventually, a woman pulled her to the side, and her mother arrived. The child died in a hospital. The entire scene was captured on video and caused an uproar when it was shown by a television station and posted online. A similar event occurred in London in 2004, as have others, far from the lens of a video camera.

Yet people can, and often do, behave in very different ways.

A news search for the words "hero saves" will routinely turn up stories of bystanders braving oncoming trains, swift currents and raging fires to save strangers from harm. Acts of extreme kindness, responsibility and compassion are, like their opposites, nearly universal.

Why are some people prepared to risk their lives to help a stranger when others won't even stop to dial an emergency number?
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How a Mother's Love Changes a Child's Brain

Mum and Kid
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Nurturing a child early in life may help him or her develop a larger hippocampus, the brain region important for learning, memory and stress responses, a new study shows.

Previous animal research showed that early maternal support has a positive effect on a young rat's hippocampal growth, production of brain cells and ability to deal with stress. Studies in human children, on the other hand, found a connection between early social experiences and the volume of the amygdala, which helps regulate the processing and memory of emotional reactions. Numerous studies also have found that children raised in a nurturing environment typically do better in school and are more emotionally developed than their non-nurtured peers.

Brain images have now revealed that a mother's love physically affects the volume of her child's hippocampus. In the study, children of nurturing mothers had hippocampal volumes 10 percent larger than children whose mothers were not as nurturing. Research has suggested a link between a larger hippocampus and better memory.

"We can now say with confidence that the psychosocial environment has a material impact on the way the human brain develops," said Dr. Joan Luby, the study's lead researcher and a psychiatrist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo. "It puts a very strong wind behind the sail of the idea that early nurturing of children positively affects their development."
Einstein

FYI: Will Listening to Mozart Really Make Me Smarter?

Mozart
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Mozart

Yes, but no more than listening to Justin Bieber. The misconception that there's something unique about Mozart's ability to increase brainpower began in 1993, with a paper in Nature. Neurobiologists Gordon Shaw, Frances Rauscher and Katherine Ky of the University of California at Irvine found that students who listened to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata demonstrated a temporary increase in spatial-temporal reasoning, as measured by an IQ test.

The public seized on the romantic idea that listening to Mozart would make them smarter, and Don Campbell, a teacher and music educator from Texas, capitalized on the notion with an international bestseller, The Mozart Effect.

But Glenn Schellenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, says that there is no Mozart effect. Any number of experiences besides listening to music might improve cognition. Most people find the music of Mozart pleasant to listen to, and it might increase dopamine levels in the brain, which is generally thought to improve cognition. But "eating chocolate might have the same effect," Schellenberg says.
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