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…In a neuroscientist?

James Fallon, a neuroscientist for the University of California – Irvine, ran a PET scan on his brain after finding out that his family had a history of serial killers (including Lizzie Borden).  He found that his brain demonstrated the exact same patterns as those of many serial killers.  Check out the article below for an interesting perspective on nature vs nurture:

NPR: A Neuroscientist Discovers a Dark Secret

A recent study put out by Emory University looked at brain development for adolescents who engaged in risky behaviors.  In spite of previously assumed theories issuing that risky behaviors were associated with the underdeveloped adolescent brain, researchers found that from a structural standpoint, adolescents who engaged in risky behaviors actually showed more highly developed white matter.  Researchers suppose that this may be due to the increasing complexity of performing adult like behaviors and the extended adolescence American culture employs throughout the college years.  Erik Erikson believed the primary conflict of adolescence was Identity vs. Role Confusion.  As opposed to 100 years ago, when adolescents were expected to be married and raising families by their 20th birthday, 20 year olds are typically college sophmores, just deciding a major and generally figuring out what it is that they want to do with their lives.  That task of sophmore year, and the college years in general, fits in well with Erikson’s postulate on adolescence.  Because of extended adolescence, teens’ brains may mature before they have the wisdom and life experience to make healthy decisions or engage in safer risk taking (as opposed to anti-social or delinquent behaviors).

If you could have any sort of kitchen utensil for a hand, what would it be?  I would pick the tongs because they imitate the action of thumbs better than any other kitchen utensil and you could probably continue to use them for nearly anything else in the kitchen as well.  That being said, I would generally prefer to stick with the hands I currently have in my body schema.

A schema is a form for organizing ideas or concepts.  Everyone has different schemas for different things.  Recent research in Current Biology took a look at how people’s body concepts or schemas change when they use tools and found that people incorporate the tools into their body schema.  When people describe driving a car as feeling like “they were a part of it” that may not be so far from the actual fact.   This may explain why humans were so adept evolutionarily at developing and using tools.  I wonder if research would find similar results for other primates.

Cell Press (2009, June 24). Brain Represents Tools As Temporary Body Parts, Study Confirms. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 27, 2009, from­ /releases/2009/06/090622121232.htm

The two periods of life when the brain grows most quickly are infancy and adolescence.  While during infancy, the brain’s growth is towards sensation and perception, during adolescence, the brain is growing towards using logic and abstract thought.  It does this by developing links with the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for decision making and sentience.  This brain area also plays a large role in interpreting reality.  For teens, this area of the brain is largely underdeveloped.

The yellow area is the prefrontal cortex

The yellow area is the prefrontal cortex

Because of the underdeveloped nature of the prefrontal cortex, other areas of the brain take over.  Namely, the hypothalamus ends up playing a large role in emotional management and decision making.  This primative part of the brain, home of the fight or flight responses is what responds when teens are faced with emotionally-charged or challenging situations.  They are learning to use their more throughtful prefrontal cortexes, but they are not fully operational yet.  That is part of the reason why a teenager may go from calm to explosive quickly with a disproportionate trigger.*

The underdevelopment of the prefrontal cortex has also often been blamed for adolescent impulsivity.  Biologically, it is more difficult for teens to regulate some of their decisions.  However, a recent study put out by the Society for Research in Child Development found that some of the decisions teens make are more related to sensation seeking than a lack of self control or impulsivity.

One conclusion I come to from this study is the importance of having opportunities for teens to engage in “safe risk.”  Some possible opportunities that come to mind include: rock climbing, service projects in a different environment and wilderness camping.  Those activities in particular serve a dual purpose of not only using adolescent sensation seeking for positive experiences, but also building self esteem and self reliance.  What do you conclude from the role that sensation seeking plays in seemingly impulsive behaviors?

*Note: The underdeveloped nature of the prefrontal cortex does not justify violent or abusive behavior.  If you know a teen who consistantly demonstrates disproportationate and aggressive responses, please seek help from a professional.

Society for Research in Child Development (2009, February 6). Young Teens Really Are Shortsighted, But Don’t Blame Impulsivity. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 7, 2009, from­ /releases/2009/02/090206081312.htm

A recent study put out by the University of Missouri looked at the brain while people were having spiritual experiences. The researchers described a spiritual experience as one in which the participant felt as if they were focused entirely on what they were seeing, touching and experiencing, as opposed to cognitive concerns or even aches and pains. In a nutshell, researchers described as a feeling of “selflessness.”  While the participants were having that spiritual experience, the right parietal lobe lite up. In participants who had experienced injury to that particular lobe, spiritual experiences seemed to occur more frequently.

The yellow area is the parietal lobe.

There is some controversy surrounding this study, primarly around the defination of “spiritual experience.”  Some people would argue that awareness of the surrounding world cannot be defined as a spiritual experience.  In fact, it should be awareness of a god/gods outside our experience that defines spirtual experience.  Additionally, there is some hesitancy regarding the role selflessness should play in mental health.  The argument is that when people are experiencing mental health concerns, their focus should be on self-care.

What role do you think selflessness plays in mental health?  What do you think defines a spiritual experience?

American Psychological Association (2009, January 4).  Spirituality: Is it all in your head? PsychPort. Retrieved February 9, 2009, from

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