November PsychNotes

If you lobes don't stop fighting I'll turn this brain around!Happy November! Sometimes it seems like everything is a competition. My own brain can’t even get along with itself. Here are some recent tidbits about our subtle inner tug-o-wars.

1) Your Immune System Is Manipulating You
Well, that may be overstated, but there is a growing body of research about immune-induced behavior changes. This study suggests that a sustained immune response leads to shunting of amino acids to greedy, greedy lymph nodes… which leads to reduced metabolism in other areas of the body… which may lead to chemical changes in the brain.

(If that doesn’t titillate, here’s a racy little piece I wrote concerning immune responses and increased sex drive.)

2) Your Brain Is Selfish (for Good Reason)
This study out of Cambridge says that when the body and the brain are forced to compete for resources (when we’re thinking fast and working hard) the brain claims a “preferential allocation of glucose.” The lead author says, “A well-fueled brain may have offered us better survival odds than well-fueled muscles when facing an environmental challenge.” It’s like my sensei always says: your most powerful weapon is between your ears, as is your most metabolically ravenous internal organ.

3) Switching Tasks Might Improve Discipline
From the University of Toronto, this study challenges previous studies that found self-control diminishes as we use it. “While people get tired doing one specific task over a period of time, we found no evidence that they had less motivation or ability to complete tasks throughout the day…. Our results are consistent with theories showing that people lose motivation within a specific task, but at odds with theories that argue self-control is a general resource that can be exhausted.”

4) Efficient Foraging May Have Created Creativity
Those who know me are aware that one of my favorite brain regions is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) with its wonderful abilities to override emotion and aid learning by comparing expectations to outcomes. It turns out that it’s counterpart, the shapely posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), expands our repertoire by helping us break out of behavioral ruts.

Says one of the researchers, “Imagine you’re picking berries in a tree. At first it’s easy, but after a while you have to climb farther and farther out on weaker branches… At some point it makes sense to take the time and energy to go to the next tree…. People who have more activity [in the PCC] have more mind-wandering, and they tend to be more creative.”

5) Brain Modularity vs. Brain Flexibility
Here’s another bit of internal competition. The brain is modular, meaning different regions do different things. The brain is also flexible, meaning some regions can share tasks with others. Brain modularity tends to function best for simple tasks, while flexibility works best with complex tasks.

Modularity and flexibility vary from person to person, from task to task, and from region to region. “It’s not just that having a modular brain is good, or having a flexible brain is good,” said one of the researchers. “We want to know what they’re good for and the timescales at which these variables have an impact.”

Finally, a bit of psychological memorabilia. If you’re a nerdy fan of The Office like I am, you might suspect Toby Flenderson of being the Scranton Strangler. This reddit article lays out a lengthy case against Toby. But alas, the argument is weak tea.

Reddit’s case against Toby is based on the outmoded “hydraulic” theory of mind, which says drives can build up in the mind like hydraulic pressure, causing a person to act out in destructive ways—like becoming the Scranton Strangler after the accumulation of constant disappointment.

That way of thinking died when psychologists gained a basic understanding of neurons. Neurons don’t accumulate pressure (though they compete to propagate their signals) and that undermined the hydraulic theory.

Regardless, I still think Toby is the strangler so let’s be careful out there. Until next time…