Exercise Promotes Brain Plasticity (BSP 111)

John Ratey, MD
Click picture to hear interview

According to psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey the best way to improve brain plasticity is by exercise.  I spoke to him shortly after he published his best-seller Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008). He commented that even compared to drugs "Exercise is the champ."

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Since then Dr. Ratey has been traveling the world promoting the value of exercise for people of all ages, but his main focus has been on young people and on trying to restore and invigorate physical education programs in the schools. In Spark he provided some of the preliminary evidence that vigorous exercise promotes better academic performance, but that evidence had continued to mount.

Besides improving academic performance regular exercise also helps over all mental health. Exercise is especially effective for problems like depression and ADHD. Our brains rely on a complex mixture of neuroactive chemicals (neurotransmitters, etc.), but since our understanding of these is still very primitive, treatment with drugs can be unpredictable. Dr. Ratey feels that medications can be an important part of treating problems like ADHD, but that exercise should be included as an essential element.

Of course, even those of us who don't struggle with mental illnes are concerned with keeping our brains healthy as we age. Here again Dr. Ratey argues that exercise is essential. He speculates that exercise tricks your brain "into thinking that you're younger and that you still need to grow, as opposed to being stationary and having atrophy occur." Also, when you keep on learning (new things) your brain continues to respond and build new pathways. This is very similar to what Dr. Michael Merzenich (one of the pioneers of brain plasticity) told us in BSP 105.

Dr. Ratey is working on a new book that will be an update on the science that has been done since Spark was published, but his 2008 interview remains one of my favorites. That's why I just released an updated version of this interview as BSP 111. 

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References and Links

Related Episodes:

Announcements:

  • Reminder: The Brain Science Podcast mobile app is now FREE for iOS, Android and Windows Mobile. Click here to learn more.

  • This is the first time I have reposted an older episode. I need listener suggestions about what other older episodes you would like me to share with new listeners.

  • Don't forget to check out my other podcast Books and Ideas.

  • Please share your feedback about this episode by sending email to brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com or going to the Brain Science Podcast Discussion Forum at http://brainscienceforum.com. You can also post to our fan pages on Facebook or Google+.

John Ratey Returns

Richard Manning and John Ratey (click on photo to hear Dr. Ratey's interview)

Richard Manning and John Ratey (click on photo to hear Dr. Ratey's interview)

Back in 2008 I interviewed Dr. John Ratey twice: first about his then new book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (BSP 33) and then later about his work with ADHD (BSP 45). Dr. Ratey was one of my favorite guests so I was eager to interview him about his new book Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind. This latest book explores the science behind the current movement to embrace a more healthy lifestyle based on lessons learned from our hunter gatherer ancestors. Since the topic doesn't quite fit on the Brain Science Podcast I recorded Dr. Ratey's latest interview for my other show Books and Ideas, but I am including the mp3 as a free download in the BSP feed.

2013 Neuroscience Highlights (BSP 104)

Ginger Campbell with Rusty and Greta

Ginger Campbell with Rusty and Greta

Its time for the Brain Science Podcast's seventh annual review episode. In 2013 we had the chance to talk with ten scientists, including three returning guests. We also celebrated our 100th episode and passed 5 million downloads.

BSP 104 is a review of some of the key ideas we explored in 2013. I also announced the launch of a new Premium Subscription program. Beginning around December 30 the twenty-five most recent episodes will remain free while the rest of the 100+ podcasts and transcripts will be available either by subscription or for individual purchase. 

Click here to learn more about our new Premium Content.

How to get this episode:

  • FREE: audio mp3 (click to stream, right click to download)
  • Buy Transcript for $1.
  • Premium Subscribers now have unlimited access to all old episodes and transcripts.
  • The most recent 25 episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are still FREE. See the individual show notes for links the audio files.

2013 Episodes and Books

Announcements

Send feedback to Dr. Campbell at brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com.

Synapse Evolution with Seth Grant (BSP 101)

Seth Grant (click photo to hear interview)

Seth Grant (click photo to hear interview)

Early in his career Seth Grant helped develop the transgenic mice that Eric Kandel used in his studies of how memory works. Since then he has combined his skill in genetics with his work on isolating the proteins that form the functional components of the synapse. (The synapse is a key component in the nervous systems of all multi-cellular animals.) When we last talked back in BSP 51 I was particularly struck by how many of these proteins actually evolved with single celled life--long before the arrival of nervous systems.

Recently Grant's work has focused on the discovery that the vertebrate synapse is actually much more complex than the one present in invertebrates. For BSP 101 we got together to talk about two papers he and his collegues recently published in Nature Neuroscience. These papers explore how small changes in the synapse proteins effect learning in measurable ways.

Grant has a special gift for making complex ideas clear, which means that this interview can be enjoyed by all listeners, even those who are new to the Brain Science Podcast and neuroscience. 

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How to get this episode:

  • FREE: audio mp3 (click to stream, right click to download)
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  • Premium Subscribers now have unlimited access to all old episodes and transcripts.
  • The most recent 25 episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are still FREE. See the individual show notes for links the audio files.

References: 

  • S.G.N. Grant, T. J. O'Dell, K. A. Karl, P. L. Stein, P. Soriano, and E. R. Kandel, "Impaired long-term potentiation, spatial learning, and hippocampal development in fyn mutant mice." Science 258 (1992):1903-10.
  • Emes RD, Pocklington AJ, Anderson CN, Bayes A, Collins MO, Vickers CA, Croning MD, Malik BR, Choudhary JS, Armstrong JD, Grant SG, "Evolutionary expansion and anatomical specialization of synapse proteome complexity." Nature Neuroscience 11 (2008) 799-806.
  • Nithianantharajah, J., Komiyama, N., McKechanie, A., Johnstone, M., Blackwood, D. H., Clair, D. S., Emes, R. D., van de Lagemaat, L. N., Saksida, L. M., Bussey, T. J. & Grant, S. G. N. “Synaptic scaffold evolution generated components of vertebrate cognitive complexity.” Nature Neuroscience 16 (2013) 16-24. doi:10.1038/nn.3276
  • Ryan, T. J., Kopanitsa, M. V., Indersmitten, T., Nithianantharajah, J., Afinowi, N. O., Pettit, C., Stanford, L. E., Sprengel, R., Saksida, L. M., Bussey, T. J., O'Dell, T. J., Grant, S. G. N. Komiyama, N. “Evolution of GluN2A/B cytoplasmic domains diversified vertebrate synaptic plasticity and behavior.” Nature Neuroscience 16 (2013) 25-32. doi:10.1038/nn.3277 
  • List of research papers by Seth Grant
  • See FREE transcript for more links and references
  • More episodes about brain evolution: BSP 47, BSP 48, and BSP 51

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Leave feedback here or visit the Brain Science Podcast discussion group at Goodreads.com, our Fan Page on Facebook or our page on Google+.

Neuroanthropolgy: What Is It and WHY Should You Care? (BSP 97)

You may be tired of seeing the prefix "neuro" used to describe every new fad, but The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology [2012] edited by Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey makes an impassioned argument for why neuroscience and anthropology should be working together to unravel the ongoing mystery of how our brains make us who we are.  The latest Brain Science Podcast  (BSP 97) is a thought-provoking conversation with Downey and Lende.  After explaining that anthropology can offer neuroscience field data about "brains in the wild," we explore two case studies that demonstrate the promise of this new partnership.

How to get this episode:

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  • The most recent 25 episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are still FREE. See the individual show notes for links the audio files

Subscribe to the Brain Science Podcast or listen on the BSP Mobile app.

References and Links:

Announcements:

  • he Brain Science Podcast is nearing episode 100! I want to include listener comments. Send your emails and mp3 files to brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com or click here to learn more.
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The Origin of Emotions with Jaak Panksepp (BSP 91)

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Dr. Jaak Panksepp

In his new book, The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human EmotionsJaak Panksepp set out to make his life's work more accessible to a general audience.  To be honest, reading this book requires a significant commitment, but I think he does a wonderful job of updating his classic textbook, Affective Neuroscience.  Anyone who is interested in this field will definitely want this book as a reference.

The other strength of Archeology of Mind is its evolutionary approach.  The primary emotional processes that Panksepp has spent his career studying have their origins in the ancient parts of the brain that are shared by all mammals.  This contradicts longstanding assumptions in neuroscience, but it has important implications for both humans and other animals.

In Episode 91 of the Brain Science Podcast, Dr. Panksepp and I talked about some of the new information contained in Archaeology of Mind, with a particular focus on FEAR, which, contrary to what many researchers claim, does NOT begin in the amygdala, but begins much lower.  We do talk briefly about the experimental evidence, but this was covered in more detail during Dr. Panksepp's previous appearance on the Brain Science Podcast in BSP 65.

How to get this episode:

  • FREE: audio mp3 (click to stream, right click to download)
  • Buy Transcript for $1.
  • Premium Subscribers now have unlimited access to all old episodes and transcripts.
  • The most recent 25 episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are still FREE. See the individual show notes for links the audio files.

References:

Related Episodes:

Announcements:

NMX - I'll Be There

The earliest episodes of the Brain Science Podcast  are now disappearing from iTunes but they remain freely available here.  They are also available within the Brain Science Podcast  app for mobile devices.  By the way, the mobile app has been updated, and I need users to post new reviews.

Don't forget to get your copy of my eBook, Are You Sure? The Unconscious Origins of Certaintyfrom Amazon.com.  You can also buy the PDF version HERE.

The Brain Science Podcast is supported by listener Donations.  It also relies on your word of mouth, so don't forget to share it with others.

Next month's Brain Science Podcast  will be our annual review episode. Meanwhile don't forget to check out my other podcast, Books and Ideas.  The most recent episode is an interview with Emily Reese from Minnesota Classical Radio.

Join the Brain Science Podcast Fan Page on Facebook, Google+, and share your thoughts in our Discussion Forum on Goodreads.  Of course, you can also send me email at gincampbell at mac dot com.

To get show notes automatically and never miss an episode of the Brain Science Podcast sign up for the BSP Newsletter.

Review of "Self Comes to Mind" by Antonio Damasio (BSP 90)

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Episode 90 of the Brain Science Podcast is a discussion of Self Comes To Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, by Antonio Damasio. Damasio's book focuses on the answer to two key questions: How does the brain generate the Mind? and, How does the Brain generate Consciousness? His approach is unusual because many scientists and writers treat the Mind and Consciousness as identical. In contrast, Damasio argues that Mind precedes Consciousness. Listen to this podcast to learn how the Mind becomes Conscious.

ow to get this episode:

  • FREE: audio mp3 (click to stream, right click to download)
  • Buy Transcript for $1.
  • Premium Subscribers now have unlimited access to all old episodes and transcripts.
  • The most recent 25 episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are still FREE. See the individual show notes for links the audio files.

References:

Related Episodes of the Brain Science Podcast: 

  • BSP 21 and BSP 23 How the Brain Creates Maps of the Body
  • BSP 65: Jaak Panksepp talks about the subcortical origins of emotions
  • BSP 89: Evan Thompson talks about his book, Mind in Life

Announcements:

  • Next month's Brain Science Podcast will be a return interview with Jaak Panksepp to talk about his new book, The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions.
  • Please check out my other podcast, Books and Ideas.
  • The earliest episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are no longer available from iTunes but you can get them here or by buying the Brain Science Podcast  app, which is available for iPhone, iPad, and Android.
  • Get my eBook, Are You Sure? The Unconscious Origins of Certainty, from Amazon.com for only $3.99.
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Send me feedback at brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter (@docartemis).

"Mind in Life" with Evan Thompson (BSP 89)

Evan-crop.jpg

Evan Thompson, PhD

Embodied Cognition is a movement within cognitive science that argues that the mind is inseparable from the fact that the brain is embedded in a physical body. This means that everything that the brain does, from the simplest perception to complex decision-making, relies on the interaction of the body with its environment.  Evan Thompson's book, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, is an in-depth look at what he calls the "enactive" approach to embodied cognition. The enactive approach was pioneered by Thompson's mentor Francisco Varela, and it emphasizes the importance of the body's active engagement with its environment.

In a recent interview (BSP 89) I talked with Thompson about some of the key ideas in Mind in Life. Unlike most episodes of the Brain Science Podcast, this is not really a stand-alone episode. It is part of my ongoing exploration of both embodied cognition and the controversial topic of emergence. It is also intended as a follow-up to my recent interview with Terrence Deacon.

How to get this episode:

  • FREE: audio mp3 (click to stream, right click to download)
  • Buy Transcript for $1.
  • Premium Subscribers now have unlimited access to all old episodes and transcripts.
  • The most recent 25 episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are still FREE. See the individual show notes for links the audio files.

 

References:

Related Episodes: 

  • BSP 5: A bried introduction to philosphy of mind
  • BSP 25: Embodied Intelligence with Rolf Pfeifer
  • BSP 36: Art Glenberg on Embodied Cognition
  • BSP 53: Discussion of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? (emergence and free will)
  • BSP 62: Warren Brown, co-author of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?
  • BSP 73: Lawrence Shapiro, author of Embodied Cognition.
  • Books and Ideas #47: Terrence Deacon, author of Incomplete Nature.

Announcements:

  • Continuing education credit is now available for selected episodes of the Brain Science Podcast. Click here to learn more.
  • I will be in Philadelphia, PA October 16-21 to attend the annual meeting of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Please contact me if you would like to get together.
  • My eBook Are You Sure? The Unconscious Origins of Certainty is on sale for only $2.99. Please post your review.
  • Next month's Brain Science Podcast will be a discussion of Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio. Self Comes to Mind is also available from our sponsor Audible.com.
  • Please visit the Brain Science Podcast on Facebook or Google+, or join the BSP  Discussion Forum at Goodreads.com.
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How Mind Emerges from Brain (BSP 82)

bookjacket-gazzaniga.jpg

In his latest book, Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain, respected neuroscientist, Michael S. Gazzaniga, explores how the discoveries of neuroscience impact how we see ourselves as human beings.  After providing a brief review of 20th century neuroscience, and even some of the work from the past decade, Dr. Gazzaniga concludes that nothing neuroscience has discovered changes the fact that "we are personally responsible agents and are to be held accountable for our actions."

Gazzaniga's position contrasts with those who think that recent discoveries show that the brain creates the mind in solely "upwardly causal" way, and who argue that since much of what our brain does is outside our conscious awareness or control, we should not be held responsible for our actions.  Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain presents what I think is a convincing argument against this common position.

In the latest episode of the Brain Science Podcast (BSP 82) I present a detailed discussion of Dr. Gazzaniga's book.

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References:

Related Episodes:

  • Links to episodes of the Brain Science Podcast that are mentioned in BSP 82.
  • BSP 81: Interview with Patricia Churchland about the brain and morality.
  • BSP 53: Discussion of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will by Nancey Murphy, Warren S. Brown.  (Also BSP 62)
  • BSP 35: Discussion of Mirror Neurons.
  • BSP 66: For more on scrub jays.
  • BSP 3: Memory and the use of animal models.
  • BSP 38: Interview with Jeff Hawkins.
  • BSP 47: Brain Evolution.
  • BSP 74: "Small world architecture" in brain networks (Olaf Sporns).
  • BSP 75: Interview with David Eagleman (arguments for legal reform).
  • BSP 76: "Choking" with Dr. Sian Beilock.
  • BSP 56: Interview with Eve Marder (implications of muliple realizability in neuronal circuits).

Announcements:

Send feedback to brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com.

"Why Neuroscience Matters"

Ginger_0197-crop.jpg

On May 11, 2011 I gave a talk entitled "Why Neuroscience Matters" at the London Skeptics in the Pub.  Episode 42 of Books and Ideas is an edited version of that talk, including the lively Q and A with the audience.

References

From the Brain Science Podcast

Announcements:

  • Dr. Campbell will be a speaker at The Amazing Meeting 9, which is coming up in Las Vegas, Nevada July 14-17.

Please send your feedback to Dr. Campbell at gincampbel at mac dot com, or post a comment on the Facebook Fan Page.

Don't forget to sign up for Ginger Campbell's Newsletter so you can get show notes for every podcast.

Affective Neuroscience with Jaak Panksepp (BSP 65)

Episode 65 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with Jaak Panksepp, PhD, author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.   Dr. Panksepp has done pioneering work on the neural origins of emotions.   In this interview, we discuss how his work challenges some of the common assumptions about emotions and some of the important implications of his discoveries.  New listeners may want to go back and listen to Episode 11 for an introduction to the neuroscience of emotion.

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Scientists Mentioned in this Episode:

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Does the Limbic System Exist?

A few days ago I received an email from a listener asking me: Does the Limbic System Exist?

The term limbic system was made popular in the late 1970's by Carl Sagan's Pulitzer Prize winning book,The Dragons of Eden; but in recent years, many neuroscientists have come to regard the term as misleading, or worse.  In this essay I will provide a brief historical overview and discuss the scientific objections to the term limbic system.

History

The highly regarded textbook, Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain (3rd edition, edited by Bear, et. al.) provides a brief overview of the history of the "limbic system concept."  It notes that the term "limbic lobe" was introduced back in 1878 by the French neurologist Paul Broca.  Broca was describing the area of the medial brain that surrounds the brain stem and corpus callosum.  By the 1930's, the evidence suggested that many of the structures in this region were involved in emotion.  One expression of this hypothesis was the so-called "Papez circuit" (named after neurologist James Papez).  In 1952, James Maclean introduced the term "limbic system," and in 1973, he proposed his famous "triune theory" of brain evolution, which was later popularized in The Dragons of Eden.

In 1998, Jaak Panksepp made extensive use of the "triune brain" model in his groundbreaking book, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.  Panksepp emphasized that primates (including humans) share similar emotional circuitry.  This principle has inspired much valuable research into the role of emotion in our mental lives, so that we now recognize that proper functioning of our emotional circuitry is essential to our health.

Thus, the term "limbic system" actually includes two main ideas: the idea that there is a discrete part of the brain that generates mammalian emotions, and the idea that this area evolved as a separate area only in mammals.  In the triune theory of brain evolution, primates (including humans) are seen as having inherited three successive brain structures: the reptilian brain, the limbic system, and the neocortex.

Objections

In Neuroscience, the authors observe that, although the evidence certainly supports the the fact that some of the structures in this region are involved in emotion, the Papez circuit is no longer seen as an accurate description.  More importantly, they state "The critical point seems to be conceptual, concerning the definition of an emotional system.  Given the diversity of emotions we experience, there is no compelling reason to think that only one system--rather than several--is involved.  Conversely, solid evidence indicates that some structures involved in emotions are also involved in other functions..." (page 571).  Thus, they question applying the term limbic system to the emotional system, because it can not accurately be described as a discrete system of components, such as one would describe the visual system.

The second objection to the term limbic system is that it represents a model of primate brain evolution that has largely been discarded.  In Principles of Brain Evolution, Georg Striedter observed that Maclean's "triune brain" theory was "clearly derived" from the work of Ludwig Edinger (1908), who observed that that the forebrain of various vertebrates seemed to differ dramatically, while the lower brain structures appeared to be highly conserved.  The key underlying assumption of the "triune brain" theory is that major brain areas were added on as mammals evolved, but this essentially 19th century viewpoint has been supplanted by modern work in neuroanatomy.

Striedter explains how the idea that "brains evolved by the sequential addition of parts was toppled."   He concludes "By the 1990's, most comparative neuroanatomists believed that all vertebrate brains are built according to a common plan that varies only in its details."  His textbook describes the evidence in support of this "conservative revolution" in great detail. (Streitder, page 35)  Note: Striedter's book was discussed in Episode 47.

Conclusions

The term "limbic system" is clearly falling into disuse among neuroscientists, but seems destined to live on the popular imagination.  The "triune brain" popularized by Sagan and Maclean has an undeniable appeal, partly because it presents a clear and understandable model that corresponds to our intuitive sense of our place in the world.  The problem is that it represents an oversimplified, and possibly misleading picture.  Our brains are much more like those of other mammals than this model suggests.  Also, the emotional system is much more complex and deeply integrated into the other systems of the brain.

Scientists have a strong preference for precise language.  Thus, as described above, the limbic system does not exist, because there is no one clearly defined emotional system in the human brain.  Many neuroscientists (especially those involved in comparative neuroanatomy) also avoid the term because of its association with an outmoded view of vertebrate brain evolution.
 

References

Neurophilosophy with Patricia Churchland (BSP 55)

pchurcland

Episode 55 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with highly respected philosopher Patricia Churchland.  Churchland is the author of Neurophilosophy and Brain-Wise.  She is currently on the faculty of the University of California at San Diego, and she was a featured speaker at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2008.

In this interview, we talked about neurophilosophy, which is an approach to philosophy of mind that gives high priority to incorporating the empiric findings of neuroscience.   We also talk about the evolving relationship between philosophy and neuroscience.   Churchland shares her enthusiasm for how the discoveries of neuroscience are changing the way we see ourselves as human beings.  We also talked a little about the issues of reductionism that I first brought up in Episode 53.

How to get this episode:

Recommended Reading:

Related Episodes of the Brain Science Podcast

  • Episode 5: Introduction to philosophy of mind and the question of consciousnes.
  • Episode 22: Interview with Christof Koch about consciousness.
  • Episode 53: Discussion of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? a defense of free will.

Review: "Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?" (BSP 53)

 Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?

Episode 53 of the Brain Science Podcast is a discussion of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will, by Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown.  This book challenges the widespread fear that neuroscience is revealing an explanation of the human mind that concludes that moral responsibility and free will are illusions created by our brains.

Instead, the authors argue that the problem is the assumption that a physicalistic/materialistic model of the mind must also be reductionist (a viewpoint that all causes are bottom-up).  In this podcast I discuss their arguments against causal reductionism and for a dynamic systems model.  We also discuss why we need to avoid brain-body dualism and recognize that our mind is more than just what our brain does. The key to preserving our intuitive sense of our selves as free agents capable of reason, moral responsibility, and free will is that the dynamic systems approach allows top-down causation, without resorting to any supernatural causes or breaking any of the know laws of the physical universe.  This is a complex topic, but I present a concise overview of the book's key ideas.

How to get this episode:

 

Additional Show Notes

 

References:

  • Books and Ideas #12 ("The Myth of Free Will")
  • Alice Juarrero, Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System.
  • Terence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain.
  • Terrence Deacon, "Three Levels of Emergent PHenomena," in Nancy Murphy and William R. Stoeger (eds.) Evolution, and Emergence: Systems, Organisms, Persons (OUP 2007) ch 4.
  • Alwyn Scott, "The Development of Nonlinear Science", Revista del Nuovo Cimento, 27/10-11 (2004) 1-115.
  • Roger W. Sperry, "Psychology's Mentalist Paradigm and the Religion/Science Tension," American Psychologist, 43/8 (1988), 607-13.
  • Donald T. Campbell, "'Downward Causation' in Hierarchically Organized Biological Systems." in F. J. Ayala and T. Dobzhansky (eds.) Studies in the Philosophy of Biology 179-186.
  • Steven Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
  • Robert Van Gulick, "Who's in Charge Here? And Whose Doing All the Work?"In Heil and Mele (eds.) Mental Causation, 233-56.
  • George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought.
  • Ludwig Wiggenstein, Philosophical Investigations.

Other scientists mentioned in the episode:

  • Antonio Damasio: Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.
  • Arthur Glenberg: interviewed in Episode 36.
  • Rolf Pfeifer: interviewed in Episode 25.
  • Leslie Brothers, Friday's Footprint: How Society Shapes the Human Mind.
  • Raymond Gibbs, Embodiment and Cognitive Science.
  • Andy Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again.
  • Gerald M.Edelmanand Guilo Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination.

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Send email feedback to Ginger Campbell, MD at brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com

Review of Year 2 of the Brain Science Podcast (BSP 52)

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Brain Science Podcast #52 is our Second Annual Review Episode.  We review some of the highlights from 2008.  I also discuss the various other on-line resources that I have created for listeners.  Then we look ahead to what I have planned for 2009. This episode is aimed at all listeners, including those who are new to the show.

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Highlights from 2008:

Early in the year (#30) I discussed language evolution.  My criticism of Noam Chomsky's claim that human language results from a Universal Grammar Module generated quite a bit of discussion.  My main purpose was to emphasize that current neuroscience does not support this hypothesis.  I discussed Chomsky's work in follow-up interviews with Dr. Michael Arbib (BSP 39) and linguist Alice Gaby (BSP 41).

It is my impression that, at least to some extent, this debate comes back to the age-old "nature versus nurture" controversy, which I discussed more explicitly way back in Episode 4.  The evidence seems to be mounting that human intelligence is a product of  both processes.

There is no doubt that the capacity for language is inherited, but brain plasticity appears to be equally important.  One piece of evidence for this is that the changes in the brain that occur when people learn to read are different between languages like English and German and those like Chinese and Japanese. (Episode 24 and Episode 29)

We had 17 guests on the Brain Science Podcast in 2008, so I can't mention them all here.

  • John Ratey, MD: In Episode 33 we talked about exercise and the brain, while in Episode 45 we talked about ADD.
  • Robert Burton, MD:  In Episode 43 talked about the implications of the discovery that our sense of knowing (feeling certain) is generated by parts of the brain that are outside our conscious control!
  • John Medina, PhD: In Episode 37 we considered the practical implications of neuroscience, such as the importance of getting enough sleep and why true multi-tasking is actually impossible.
  • Dr. Brenda Milner: In Episode 49 this pioneering neuroscientist shared highlights from her long career.

Another highlight was our first live podcast, which was recorded at Dragon*Con in Atlanta, Georgia on August 31.

In the fall I returned to the subject of evolution with a three part series on the evolution of the brain.

  • Episode 47, Episode 48, and Episode 51.
  • Episode 51 is an outstanding interview with Dr. Seth Grant in which we discuss the surprising discovery that synapse complexity seems to have evolved BEFORE larger more complex brains.

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Send email feedback to Ginger Campbell, MD at brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com

 

Surprising Discoveries about Synapse Evolution with Seth Grant (BSP 51)

Episode 51 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with Dr. Seth Grant from Cambridge University, UK.  Dr. Grant's work focuses on the proteins that make up the receptors within synapses.  (Synapses are the key structures by which neurons send and receive signals.)  By comparing the proteins that are present in the synapses in different species, Dr. Grant has come to some surprising conclusions about the evolution of the synapse and the evolution of the brain.

In this interview, Dr. Grant explains how his research team has uncovered the identity of  synapse proteins in a variety of species including yeast, fruit flies, and mice.  Our discussion is centered on the paper he published in Nature Neuroscience in June 2008.  Dr. Grant's team has made several surprising discoveries.  First, he has discovered that some proteins associated with neuron signaling are actually found in primitive unicellular organisms like yeast. He has also discovered that the protein structure of the synapse becomes more complex as one moves from invertebrates like fruit flies to vertebrates like mice, but that most of the complexity seems to have arisen early on in vertebrates.

According to Dr. Grant:

The origins of the brain appear to be in a protosynapse, or ancient set of proteins found in unicellular animals; and when unicellular animals evolved into metazoans, or multicellular animals, their protosynaptic architecture was co-opted and embelished by the addition of new proteins onto that ancient protosynaptic set; and that set of new molecules was inserted into the junctions of the first neurons, or the synapse between the first neurons in simple invertebrate animals.  When invertebrates evolved into vertebrates, around a billion years ago, there was a further addition, or enhancement of the number of these synaptic molecules, and that has been conserved throughout vertebrate evolution, where they have much larger numbers of synaptic molecules.  The large complex synapses evolved before large anatomically complex brains.

The discovery that there are significant differences between the synapses in vertebrates and non-vertebrates is significant, because it has long been assumed that synapses were essentially identical between species, and that brain and behavioral complexity was based on having more neurons and bigger brains.  Instead, Dr. Grant proposes an alternative hypothesis:

The first part of the brain to ever evolve was the protosynapse. In other words, synapses came first.
When this big synapse evolved, what the vertebrate brain then did, as it grew bigger and evolved afterwards; it exploited the new proteins that had evolved into making new types of neurons in new types of regions of the brain. In other words, we would like to put forward the view that the synapse evolution has allowed brain specialization, regionalization, to occur.

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Addition Show Notes and Links

References:

Blog posts and other links:

Learn more about Dr. Grant's work:

Send email feedback to Ginger Campbell, MD at brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com.

Brain Evolution with Gary Lynch, PhD (BSP 48)

Gary Lynch

Gary Lynch

Episode 48 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with Gary Lynch, PhD, co-author (with Richard Granger) of Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence.  Dr. Lynch has spent decades studying memory at the level of the synapse.  His work with computer simulations based on how the brain really works led him to a fascination with the question of how our brains got so large.  Are humans smart because we have big brains or because are brains are different?

Dr. Lynch argues that the unique features of the human brain are a natural result of increased brain size.  He also argues against the conventional view that increasing brain size resulted from selection pressures during the millions of years of primate evolution that proceeded the emergence of homo sapiens.  We talk about the evidence supporting this radical position during the interview.

We also talk about another radical theory that Dr. Lynch has proposed, which is the idea that the olfactory cortex formed the template for the evolution of the cortex in mammals and primates.  This intriguing theory brings a new perspective to the fact that the olfactory system has unique access to important brain systems including the frontal lobes, the amygdala (which is involve in emotion), and the hippocampus (which is essential to long-term memory.

In addition to discussing the evidence that led him to his controversial theories, Dr. Lynch discusses the challenges facing scientists interested in pursuing research questions about brain evolution.

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The figure below is used with the permission of the author and the artist (Cheryl Cotman).

Send email feedback to Ginger Campbell, MD at brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com

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Review: "Principles of Brain Evolution" (BSP 47)

Episode 47 of the Brain Science Podcast is a discussion of Principles of Brain Evolution by Georg F. Striedter.  My goal is to highlight the main ideas of this complicated and often controversial subject.  Understanding the principles of brain evolution is an important element in our multidisciplinary attempt to understand how our brains make us who we are.

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Important terms:

  • homologues: characteristics with shared ancestry.
  • neurocladistics: a rigorous method for classifying neural structures based on their ancestry.
  • small-world network: a mathematical graph where most nodes connect to nearby nodes but almost any two can be connect in relatively small number of steps (the famous six-degrees of separation).
  • Boskop man: an extinct hominid that is thought to have had a larger brain than modern humans.

People and scientists discussed:

Announcements:

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Send email feedback to Ginger Campbell, MD at brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com

What Do We Know about the Evolution of Human Thought?

In a recent blog post I objected to Richard Lewontin's claim that we know nothing about the evolution of the human brain.  Apparently my reaction was shared by quite a few researchers in the field.  Michael Balter describes their reaction at an interdisciplinary panel that was also held at this year's AAAS annual meeting.

One thing that seems to drive some of these discussions is a difference of opinion about whether their is an insurmountable gap between human intelligence and what other animals can do.  This connects with the ongoing debate about the importance of genetic factors.  But there seems to be no doubt that this is an extremely fruitful area of research.

"How Human Intelligence Evolved--Is It Science or 'Paleofantasy'?" by Michael Balter. Science 22 February 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5866, p. 1028

Lewontin Claims We Know Nothing About Brain Evolution

Episode 30 of the Brain Science Podcast was devoted to the subject of language evolution.  In that episode, I mentioned Steven Jay Gould's claim that language was a spandrel, an incidental by-product of evolution.  Gould's co-author on his famous 1970's paper about spandrels was Richard Lewontin, who is well-known for disagreeing with prevailing opinions in evolution.  At the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he reportedly gave a talk that discounted all the current theories about brain evolution.

I have not read the transcript of his lecture, but I just finished reading Georg Striedter's comprehensive textbook, Principles of Brain Evolution  (2005).  This text is highly regarded by leaders in neuroscience research like Michael S Gazzaniga.  It does an excellent job of describing both the challenges and progress in the field, as well as exploring the pros and cons of alternative theories.  I can't help wondering what Lewontin's comments contribute to the field.  Of course, it is reasonable to point out how limited our knowledge is, but to  dismiss the work of so many scientists seems rather arrogant. If anyone has access to the transcript I would like to read it.