The Stupor Bowl

Deservedly or not, jocks have a reputation for being less cerebral than beaker jockeys and bookworms. But when it comes to American football, brain damage can be all in a day’s work. On The Pump Handle, Liz Borkowski highlights a recent article by Ben McGrath in the New Yorker, addressing “the effects of repeated brain trauma, which football players often experience during games and practice alike.” Even if a player walks off the field, repeated brain-rattlings can lead to dementia and other long-term health problems. But thanks to journalists like Ben, the NFL is starting to pay attention to the impact of concussions. And on Dean’s Corner, Jeffrey Toney takes a look at 417 hits to the head of an actual football player, modelled in 3-D by National Geographic.


The Bright Side of the Blues

i-58dd0e11c26815241d6f451a39005412-moodbuzz.jpgOn The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer explores the cognitive consequences of depression and happiness, explaining that the way we feel has a huge impact on the way we think. First, Jonah shares an article he wrote for the New York Times Magazine, in which he says the blues can be “a clarifying force, focusing the mind on its most essential problems.” For the notoriously down-in-the-dumps Charles Darwin, depression “may actually have accelerated the pace of his research, allowing him to withdraw from the world and concentrate entirely on his work.” Jonah answers critiques of his article, writing that “since 1980, the diagnosis of depression has been rapidly increasing across every segment of the population.” Jonah also weighs studies which show depressed people are prone to cognitive deficits, explaining that it’s hard to concentrate on “some artificial lab task” when the mind is wracked with painful thoughts. Finally, Jonah looks at the bright side, writing “while negative moods might promote focused attention and rigorous analysis, there’s good evidence that happiness promotes a more freewheeling kind of information processing.” So chin up, or chin down, keep the wheels turning.

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Belief and the Brain

i-907fe0116cff667203a484dbeb974018-brainbuzz.jpgYou don’t have to be brain-damaged to feel the presence of God, but it just might help. On Neurophilosophy, Mo analyzes a recent study into feelings of “self-transcendence” among individuals afflicted with brain lesions. Those with tumors in the posterior regions of the brain were more likely to identify as religious, and feelings of “creative self-forgetfulness,” “transpersonal identification” and “spiritual acceptance” increased after surgical removal of “the left inferior parietal lobule and the right angular gyrus.” The posterior regions of the brain are strongly associated with religious feeling, as earlier work has shown that “the mystical experiences of Tibetan Buddhist monks and Carmelite nuns are associated with altered parietal lobe activity.” Razib Khan covers the same study on Gene Expression, writing “drugs, deprivation (e.g., fasting) and traumatic personal events seem to push people toward this state of ‘self-transcendence’ quite often.” And on Pharyngula, PZ Myers offers a glimpse into the head of a true believer.

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Synthetic Voices & Musical Notes

i-6195c85f63555b1b552519f6d90d6e79-musicbuzz.jpgOn Oscillator, Christina Agapakis lays out some of the history of synthetic biology. While in the last century this field has employed molecular and informational toolkits, in centuries past inventors relied on grosser modes of simulation. Such was the case with eighteenth century wetware, which aspired “to make machines look and feel more like living things—soft, flexible, moist.” One of the grails of early synthetic biology was the simulation of the human voice, and to this end we see such terrors as a fake face attached to a phonetic keyboard, which allowed “an operator to play a ‘human’ voice like a piano.” In the age of computation, such machines soon gave way to the IBM 7094 crooning “Daisy Bell.” Also of musical note, Dave Munger on Cognitive Daily explains bitonality and challenges us to hear the difference compared to monotonal samples. And on The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer investigates how music affects neural activity, as we enjoy and anticipate patterns but revel at the surprising pitch. Finally, don’t miss a perfect excuse to listen to Hall & Oates on Greg Laden’s Blog, in a video where students learned to lip-sync (and walk) backwards so they could later reverse the footage.

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High in the Sky

i-e2cb1b9adcafb5f0ec9a54a94624e2bf-skybuzz.jpgIt’s Friday, time to kick back and let ScienceBlogs do your homework for you. On Cognitive Daily, Dave Munger wonders how outfielders are so good at running to the right spot to catch a fly ball—are they calculating trajectories in their heads, or making optical deductions? To answer this question, researchers put virtual reality helmets on skilled ball players, then made the virtual balls break the laws of physics as the players tried to “catch” them. On Built On Facts, Matt Springer calculates the energy required to raise the mass of the world’s tallest building into the sky, all so “you can park your desk and do paperwork in what used to be blank air a thousand feet above the ground.” 3.4 trillion joules is a lot, but costs next to nothing compared to the rest of the building. And on Starts With A Bang!, Ethan Siegel sets the stage for the greatest story ever told, filling black holes in our understanding of the universe with explorations of what might have happened before the big bang. Now stick around and enjoy your weekend before Monday brings you back down to Earth.

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Assessing Avatar

i-61f411434dffb8a58312bc9b17b2b544-avabuzz.jpgScienceBloggers liked Avatar, but that hasn’t stopped them from picking the science apart from the science fiction. On The Scientific Indian, Selva wonders how communication between the humans and their avatars could take place inside the “vortex,” when all other kinds of transmission are disrupted. PZ Myers on Pharyngula lauds the detailed flora and fauna imagined for Pandora, but laments that the natives ended up looking so safely human in an otherwise alien world. On Greg Laden’s Blog, Greg turns a critical eye to the film’s anthropological undercurrents, comparing the representation of the Native American-like Na’vi to the Westernized military-industrial villains. And on The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer discusses the real-life brain activity of film viewers, explaining that auditory and visual immersion inhibits the logical faculties of the prefrontal cortex in favor of pure sensorimotor processing. For this reason, Lehrer holds Avatar to be a paragon of the cinematic medium.

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