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Neuroscientist debunks one of the most popular myths about the brain

March 16, 2015 Leave a comment

At some point in your life, you’ve probably been labeled a “right-brain thinker” (you’re so creative!) or a “left-brain thinker” (you’re so logical). Maybe this has shaped the way you see yourself or view the world.

Well, either way it’s bogus science, says Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a University College London professor of cognitive science, in the latest episode of the Freakonomics Radio Podcast.

“This is an idea that makes no physiological sense,” she says.

The popular “right brain-left brain” theory for explaining people’s personalities is not actually backed by science.

Blakemore believes that the concept of “logical, analytical, and accurate” thinkers favoring their left hemisphere and “creative, intuitive, and emotional” thinkers favoring their right hemisphere is the misinterpretation of valuable science. She thinks it entered pop culture because it makes for snappy self-help books. And of course people love categorizing themselves.

In the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the renowned cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga led breakthrough studies on how the brain works. He studied patients who — and here’s the key — lacked a corpus callosum, the tract that connect the brain’s hemispheres. During this time doctors had experimented on patients suffering from constant seizures due to intractable epilepsy by disconnecting the hemispheres.

Gazzaniga could thus determine the origins in the brain of certain cognitive and motor functions by monitoring the brains of these patients.

He found, for example, that a part of the left brain he dubbed “The Interpreter” handled the process of explaining actions that may have begun in the right brain.

He discovered “that each hemisphere played a role in different tasks and different cognitive functions, and that normally one hemisphere dominated over the other,” Blakemore explains.

This was breakthrough research on how parts of the brain worked. But in a normal human being, the corpus callosum is constantly transmitting information between both halves. It’s physically impossible to favor one side.

Blakemore thinks that this misinterpretation of the research is actually harmful, because the dichotomous labels convince people that their way of thinking is genetically fixed on a large scale.

“I mean, there are huge individual differences in cognitive strengths,” Blakemore says. “Some people are more creative; others are more analytical than others. But the idea that this has something to do with being left-brained or right-brained is completely untrue and needs to be retired.”

You can listen to Blakemore and many other experts taking down their least favorite ideas in the Freakonomics Radio episode “This Idea Must Die,” hosted by “Freakonomics” co-author Stephen J. Dubner.

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by BusinessInsider.

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Right hand or left? How the brain solves a perceptual puzzle

February 7, 2012 Leave a comment

When you see a picture of a hand, how do you know whether it’s a right or left hand? This “hand laterality” problem may seem obscure, but it reveals a lot about how the brain sorts out confusing perceptions. Now, a study which will be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science, challenges the long-held consensus about how we solve this problem. “For decades, the theory was that you use your motor imagination,” says Shivakumar Viswanathan, who conducted the study with University of California Santa Barbara colleagues Courtney Fritz and Scott T. Grafton. Judging from response times, psychologists thought we imagine flipping a mental image of each of our own hands to find the one matching the picture. These imagined movements were thought to recruit the same brain processes used to command muscles to move—a high-level cognitive feat.

The study, however, finds that the brain is adept at decoding a left or right hand without these mental gymnastics. Judging laterality is “a low-level sensory problem that uses processes that bring different senses into register”— a process called binding, says  Viswanathan. Seeing a hand of unknown laterality leads the brain to bind the seen hand to the correct felt hand. If they are still out of register because of their conflicting positions, an illusory movement arises from the brain’s attempt to bring the seen and felt hand into the same position. But “this feeling of moving only comes after you already know which hand it is.”

In the study, participants couldn’t see their own hands, which were held palm down. They saw hand shapes tilted at different angles, with a colored dot on them indicating a palm-up or down posture. One group of participants saw the shape first and then the dot; and the other, the dot first. Participants in both groups put the shape and dot together mentally and indicated which hand it was by pushing a button with that hand. However, when the shape and dot were shown simultaneously, participants in the first group felt movements of their right hands when seeing a left hand and vice versa; the other group always felt a movement of the correct hand. This behavioral difference (which experimenters gleaned from response time) was due to differences in participants’ perception of the seen hand—establishing that an earlier sensory process made the decision.

In a second experiment, participants were told which hand it was and had to judge whether its palm was down or up, indicating their answer with one hand only. This time, the illusory hand-movement occurred only when the seen hand-shape matched that of the participant’s own palm-down responding hand, but not otherwise. Even though no right/left judgments were required, the response was dominated by an automatic binding of the seen and felt hands, and the illusory movement followed, says Viswanathan.

The study helps us understand the experience of amputees, who sometimes sense an uncontrollable itch or clenching in the “phantom” body part. Showing the opposite hand or leg in a mirror allows the patient to “feel” the absent limb and mentally relieve the discomfort—a “binding” of vision and feeling.

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The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by Association for Psychological Science (news : web).

Right or Left? Brain Stimulation Can Change Which Hand You Favor

October 6, 2011 Leave a comment

When the left posterior parietal cortex of the brain received magnetic stimulation, right-handed volunteers were more likely to use their left hand to perform simple one-handed tasks, UC Berkeley research shows. (left; Credit: Image courtesy of Flavio Oliveira)

 

Each time we perform a simple task, like pushing an elevator button or reaching for a cup of coffee, the brain races to decide whether the left or right hand will do the job. But the left hand is more likely to win if a certain region of the brain receives magnetic stimulation, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley.

UC Berkeley researchers applied transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to the posterior parietal cortex region of the brain in 33 right-handed volunteers and found that stimulating the left side spurred an increase in their use of the left hand.

The left hemisphere of the brain controls the motor skills of the right side of the body and vice versa. By stimulating the parietal cortex, which plays a key role in processing spatial relationships and planning movement, the neurons that govern motor skills were disrupted.

“You’re handicapping the right hand in this competition, and giving the left hand a better chance of winning,” said Flavio Oliveira, a UC Berkeley postdoctoral researcher in psychology and neuroscience and lead author of the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study’s findings challenge previous assumptions about how we make decisions, revealing a competitive process, at least in the case of manual tasks. Moreover, it shows that TMS can manipulate the brain to change plans for which hand to use, paving the way for clinical advances in the rehabilitation of victims of stroke and other brain injuries.

“By understanding this process, we hope to be able to develop methods to overcome learned limb disuse,” said Richard Ivry, UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience and co-author of the study.

At least 80 percent of the people in the world are right-handed, but most people are ambidextrous when it comes to performing one-handed tasks that do not require fine motor skills.

“Alien hand syndrome,” a neurological disorder in which victims report the involuntary use of their hands, inspired researchers to investigate whether the brain initiates several action plans, setting in motion a competitive process before arriving at a decision.

While the study does not offer an explanation for why there is a competition involved in this type of decision-making, researchers say it makes sense that we adjust which hand we use based on changing situations. “In the middle of the decision process, things can change, so we need to change track,” Oliveira said.

In TMS, magnetic pulses alter electrical activity in the brain, disrupting the neurons in the underlying brain tissue. While the current findings are limited to hand choice, TMS could, in theory, influence other decisions, such as whether to choose an apple or an orange, or even which movie to see, Ivry said.

With sensors on their fingertips, the study’s participants were instructed to reach for various targets on a virtual tabletop while a 3-D motion-tracking system followed the movements of their hands. When the left posterior parietal cortex was stimulated, and the target was located in a spot where they could use either hand, there was a significant increase of the use of the left hand, Oliveira said.

Other coauthors of the study are Jörn Diedrichsen from University College London, Timothy Gerstner from the University of Pittsburg and Julie Duque from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium.

The study was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Belgian American Educational Foundation.

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The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by University of California — Berkeley.

Journal Reference:

Flavio T. P. Oliveira, Jörn Diedrichsen, Timothy Verstynen, Julie Duque, Richard B. Ivry. Transcranial magnetic stimulation of posterior parietal cortex affects decisions of hand choice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1006223107