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3 Fascinating Facts About Our Brilliant Brains

Our brains do a lot of work behind the scenes to help us function and thrive. But we largely know this already.

What might surprise you are the details of this work. For instance, as neuroscientist David Eagleman writes in his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain:

Your brain is built of cells called neurons and glia—hundreds of billions of them. Each one of these cells is as complicated as a city. And each one contains the entire human genome and traffics billions of molecules in intricate economies. Each cell sends electrical pulses to other cells, up to hundred of times per second. If you represented each of these trillions and trillions of pulses in your brain by a single photon of light, the combined output would be blinding.

The cells are connected to one another in a network of such staggering complexity that it bankrupts human language and necessities new strains of mathematics. A typical neuron makes about ten thousand connections to neighboring neurons. Given the billions of neurons, this means there are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.

Below are several other interesting and surprising facts about our brains from Eagleman’s Incognito.

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Brain and Behavior

Is it Really Mind Over Matter? The Mind and Body Are One

You have probably heard the phrase mind over matter, which implies the mind and matter are separable.  Or maybe you have heard it’s all in your head, or it’s mental.  Both of these phrases imply the separation of mind and brain (or body).

So to explore this issue, I'd like to share some videos that discuss the unity of mind-body.  They can help us better understand how inseparable the mind and brain (body) really are.

Mind vs. Brain: In the above video, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom says, "The mind is a product of the brain.  The mind is what the brain does."

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Brain and Behavior

I Am So NOT Sorry: An Exercise in Exposure Therapy

One form of cognitive behavioral therapy is exposure therapy, where your brain is supposed to form new connections and rewrite the language of your amygdala (fear center), so that it doesn’t associate every dog with the pit bull who took a bite out of your thigh in the fourth grade. By doing the exact thing that you most fear, you are, essentially, telling the old neurons in your brain to take a hike so that new ones, who don’t know anything about the pit bull, can now live inside your brain and tell you that everything is peachy.

Yeah, well, that’s the theory.

So you jump into a pit bull fight and say, “Here, doggie, doggie, you want a treat?” If he doesn’t take your leg off, you are good to go!

If he does take your leg off, you have much more exposure therapy ahead of you... For which you might want to wear a padded suit.

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Brain and Behavior

Ever Had Such an Intense Interest in a Subject That Learning Was Easy?

As I’ve noted here before, I’ve recently become obsessed with the sense of smell -- which has been an interesting experience, for several reasons.

One reason: this obsession has reminded me about the nature of learning. I’ve been struck by how much I’ve learned in the last few weeks. I went from knowing almost nothing about the scent of smell to knowing... well, quite a bit more. And without any effort, any drilling, any assignments on my part. Quite the contrary. I’m gulping down books, jumping around websites, eager to learn more, more, more.

The same thing happened when I was working on my Churchill biography. In college, I’d taken classes that covered World War II, and I had to force myself to do the reading, and I struggled to memorize the facts. But through the lens of my limitless fascination with Churchill, I couldn’t get enough of these materials, and I remembered facts easily.

And what’s strange -- for me, at least -- is that this interest clicks in so suddenly.

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Is Anyone Normal Today?

Take a minute and answer this question: Is anyone really normal today?

I mean, even those who claim they are normal may, in fact, be the most neurotic among us, swimming with a nice pair of scuba fins down the river of Denial. Having my psychiatric file published online and in print for public viewing, I get to hear my share of dirty secrets—weird obsessions, family dysfunction, or disguised addiction—that are kept concealed from everyone but a self-professed neurotic and maybe a shrink.

“Why are there so many disorders today?” Those seven words, or a variation of them, surface a few times a week. And my take on this query is so complex that, to avoid sounding like my grad school professors making an erudite case that fails to communicate anything to average folks like me, I often shrug my shoulders and move on to a conversation about dessert. Now that I can talk about all day.

Here’s the abridged edition of my guess as to why we mark up more pages of the DSM-IV today than, say, a century ago (even though the DSM-IV had yet to be born).

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Brain and Behavior

Better By Mistake: An Interview with Alina Tugend

Afraid to make a mistake? Don’t be.

According to author Alina Tugend, the best way to become an expert in your field is by making mistakes, lots of them, but to cooperate with the brain on learning from them. In her new book, Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, explains the science of making mistakes and why learning from them is vital in a culture of perfectionism. Tugend has been a journalist for nearly 30 years and for the past six has written the ShortCuts column for the New York Times business section. She has written about education, environmentalism, and consumer culture for numerous publications, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, and Parents and is a Huffington Post contributor. I have the honor of conducting an exclusive interview with her for Psych Central.

1. I was very intrigued by the research and physiological components behind making mistakes? Could you briefly describe why dopamine is an important contributor to learning from mistakes?

Alina: Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we process errors. Dopamine neurons generate patterns based on experiment -- if this happens, that will follow. The Iowa Gambling Task, developed by neuroscientists helps prove this point. A player is given four decks of cards and $2,000 of play money. Each card tells the player whether he won or lost money, and the object is to win as much money as possible.

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Brain and Behavior

The Stupid Complex

Nowhere in the DSM-IV does it mention “the stupid complex,” but I’m telling you it’s an epidemic these days. I used to suffer in silence. But ever since I’ve come out of the closet, I swear I find a fellow sufferer every day.

At my last therapy session, I was telling her how scared I was that everyone was going to find out that I was inherently stupid. She laughed out loud and said, “Do you know how many times I hear that a day?”

Oh. Good. Then it’s not just me.

I don’t know when it started. It could be a result of being a twin, and needing to form a sense of identity separate from my sister. Since she stole “tomboy” early on, I became “the brain,” except that mine didn't work, but no one really knew that but me. And I was able to keep it a secret all through my childhood and adolescence.

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Anxiety and Panic

Conquering Performance Anxiety: A Primer for All Phobias

Public speaking is the king of phobias. That’s according to Taylor Clark, author of the insightful book, Nerve. He writes:
According to a 2001 poll, more than 40 percent of Americans confess to a dread of appearing before spectators. (In some surveys, fear of public speaking even outranks fear of death, a fact that inspired Jerry Seinfeld’s famous observation that at a funeral, this means the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.)
To get to the solution of this phobia -- which can help us with all our other phobias -- Clark tells the story of cellist Zoe Keating. Today her music is featured everywhere from National Public Radio to film scores to European ballets. Clark attended one of her performances and comments, “Keating seemed entirely oblivious to the hundreds of eyes watching her. She played as though she were in the midst of a dream, eyes closed, swaying languidly with her cello, utterly immersed in her performance.”

But it was a long way getting there.

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Who Knew? No Networking on the Social “Networking” Site Facebook

Silly me. I was thinking that the social networking site currently named Facebook could prove to be an effective networking tool. I humbly admit that I am one of those media whores who friends New York Times journalists not so much so that I can get to know them and eventually invite them over to my home for a nice meal my husband can whip up, but so that I can pitch them a story via Facebook mail and save myself and the technology company for whom I do some publicity about four grand a year, the average cost of a sophisticated media database and press release distribution service.

I'm cheap and I'm tacky. Yes I am. Proud of it!

Is that why I've been placed on probation?

Yes. A two-day probation. Like the kind I used to get in Catholic grade school when I couldn't stop giggling in church or cheated on a test because I was too embarrassed to confess to my teacher that I couldn't read.

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Brain and Behavior

Taming Our Brain’s Amygdala

In The Emotional Brain, Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience at New York University, explains the "fear system" in laboratory animals -- such as monkeys -- and humans.

The almond-shaped clump of tissue called the amygdala can be a real troublemaker. Whenever you sense potential danger (26 voice-mails on your cell phone coming to life like the Nutcracker), the amygdala triggers an "oh, crap!" reaction, pumping adrenaline and other (not so great) hormones...
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Suffering: The Irritant That Produces the Pearl

Writing a Commencement speech is like writing your eulogy: You have to nail down in 10 minutes or less a succinct message that represents your entire life. It’s best to capture all the sweat and tears, the laughter and sorrow, life’s drama in a few tight, coherent paragraphs.

Having been asked to give one in May to my alma mater, Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana, I have been studying Commencement addresses of the pros: J.K. Rowling, Anna Quindlen, Oprah Winfrey, and Steve Jobs. And here’s what all of them had in common: suffering.

Yep. The primary theme in each of these essays is that suffering is the rubble on which success is built. I’m sure that you can bypass suffering altogether, but then you’d have a rather boring Commencement speech. I’ve read some of those too.

It’s the First Noble Truth of Buddhism: “Life is suffering.”

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7 Steps to Closure When a Friend Dumps You

I think we've all been dissed by a friend at least once in our lifetime, right?

Recently I've had two people remove me as a friend on Facebook. Like that feels good. Was it my annoying status updates? The singing video that I uploaded ("A Few of My Favorite Things" ... check it out )? I know I was off-key. Oh, the picture of the old lady that I posted and said it was me. You are that old lady? Geez... Sorry.

Frankly I don't know what's worse: the e-mails and the phone calls that aren't returned, or the letter (or really painful conversation) explaining why the friendship is toxic and needs to be terminated. It all feels the same: REJECTION. Like you're back in the sixth grade again, with bad acne, and the boys want to date your pretty and popular twin sister (that's when my self-esteem issues started).

At any rate, there are ways you can get closure even when you don't know why you've been dumped. Here are a few I try (every time I'm removed from someone's friend list on Facebook).

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