How Fancy Labels Fool Us: The Neuroscience Behind Bias

Neuroscience

By: Caitlin Millett, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

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Image credit: Neesa Rhajbhandari (Wikimedia Commons)

The holiday season is fast approaching, and that means it’s time for gift buying. With each passing season, finding the perfect gift for loved ones seems to become more and more difficulta phenomenon not unrelated to the seemingly exponential growth in buying options each year.

So how do we do it? Many of us would like to believe that our decision-making is based in logic and objectivity. Clearly you’ve chosen the coolest plaid neckerchief for your hipster cousin—you got the thing at an Urban Outfitters! Neuroscience reveals that deciding what we prefer based on a few options is not always based on inherent qualities, but rather is highly biased based on expectations.

Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder: People who get SAD in the Summer

Neuroscience

By: Lina Jamis, 2nd year student in the Anatomy Graduate Program

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Summertime sadness. (Image credit: Pixabay)

Snow-lovers rejoice—winter is coming!

And no, this isn’t an allusion to Game of Thrones. With the end of Daylight Savings, the days are becoming darker earlier, which for some can mean the onset of the winter blues. The medical term for this is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition caused by a mélange of changes in our biological clocks, serotonin levels, and melatonin production, all of which affect our mood.

While many of us are familiar with SAD, there are, in fact, people that get SAD in reverse. For a small group of people, the dark days of winter don’t elicit depression, but renewed vigor and improved mood.

Why Does Hershey’s New Logo Look Like the Poo Emoji? Neuroscience Explains.

Neuroscience

By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 4th year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

Penn State College of Medicine is located in Hershey, the “Sweetest Place on Earth.” We’re surrounded by references to chocolate everyday—from the smell of it in the air to Kiss-shaped streetlamps to chocolate-brown paved roads. It’s a pretty sweet life.

So when The Hershey Company unveiled their new logo last month, I didn’t find anything unusual about it.

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Credit: The Hershey Co.

That is, of course, until the Internet began comparing it to the poo emoji, popularized by Apple.  Even after seeing the comparison, I still didn’t know what the big stink was about, so to speak.

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Poo Emoji (WonderHowTo)

Why did some people immediately see a big, steaming turd when, obviously, it’s supposed to be a drop of chocolate topped with the iconic Kiss flag? Actually, understanding the cognitive processes behind visual recognition can explain everything from Hershey Kiss poop emojis to why we perceive animals in clouds and Mother Mary’s face in a piece of toast.

Why You Should Care about Auditory Myosin

Neuroscience

By: Lina Jamis, 2nd year student in the Anatomy Graduate Program

Earrr

Wikimedia Commons

As much as we may enjoy denying it, our hearing is slowly, but surely, leaving us. In fact, considering how we often may follow the adage  “louder is better,” we’re probably headed for hearing aids sooner than we think. (That goes doubly for you, Skillrex fans).

…which is why we must thank our stereocilia and the proteins that are tasked with maintaining them.

I’d like to introduce you to myosin: the protein responsible for muscle contraction, force generation, maintenance of posture, the beating of our hearts, and oh hey, busting a move on the dance floor. Myosin proteins were originally thought to be restricted to muscle cells (hence, myo, meaning “originating in muscle”), but research has revealed that not all myosins are created equal. In fact, there is a large superfamily of myosins that, while sharing the same basic properties, are distributed in other tissue.

Smells Ring Bells: How Smells Can Trigger Emotions and Memories

Neuroscience

By: Amanda White, Research Technologist in the Department of Psychiatry

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A day in the life.

Autumn has arrived, bringing with it some of my favorite scents:  bonfire smoke, pumpkin spice (DON’T JUDGE!), and, most of all, crisp autumn air. Stepping outside on an October morning and breathing instantly transports me back in time.

I’m at Penn State. It’s a cool, crisp morning and there’s not a cloud in the sky as I walk up Shortlidge Road. I’m a freshman on my way to class and I’m a little nervous, but overall I’m excited to be in a new place on my own and for the future.

That complex emotion and memory can be triggered by a simple sensory cue:  the smell of autumn air. How do smells trigger such strong emotions and memories?

War on Cancer: Tumors as Ecological Systems

Biomedical Sciences

By: Ross Keller, 4th year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

Creative Commons

Cancerous cells. (Creative Commons)

The War on Cancer series has so far covered: How Can We Win?, Targeted Therapy, and Tumor Relapse.

In this fourth part of the War on Cancer, I will discuss a phenomenon that has only recently been pushed to the forefront of cancer biology, and it both complicates and opens new doors to treatment strategies. That concept is “tumor heterogeneity”—a tumor that is comprised of multiple types of transformed cells.

The traditional view of tumor formation is simple: DNA within a single cell is damaged, causing it to escape biological constraints and proliferate unchecked. Many tumors do behave like this. However, it has recently come to light that tumors can also be much more complicated. They can be populated by not just a single cell population, but a multitude of cell populations, causing some tumors to behave more like complex ecological systems rather than simple out of control cell divisions.  In fact, some very basic ecology concepts you’ve learned in high school biology may be surprisingly similar to how researchers are beginning to view tumors today.

Why Graduate Students Should Meditate

Neuroscience

By: Caitlin Millett, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
― Aristotle

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Moyan Brenn (Flickr)

Meditation is an ancient practice dating back at least three millennia. It’s a fundamental component of many Eastern religious traditions and belief systems including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism, to name just a few.

The term meditation refers to a broad variety of practices meant to clear the mind and build compassion and kindness. It may also ease some health issues, such as high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and stress. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a component of the National Institutes of Health, notes that:

“Meditation may be practiced for many reasons, such as to increase calmness and physical relaxation, to improve psychological balance, to cope with illness, or to enhance overall health and well-being.”

Due to its purported benefits, recent decades have seen increased interest and additional funding for research on meditation and mindfulness. Moreover, mindfulness has reached an almost fad-like status in the Western world due to its potential positive effects on health.

In December, Penn State Hershey Medical Center offered a free seven-week class to learn meditation. Similarly, the Penn State Hershey University Fitness Center recently held their first ever meditation sessions. But for most of us, especially those of us in the sciences, the question still lingers- is there data supporting the benefits of meditation?

NFL Players Sue over Painkillers—Because They’re Addicted

Neuroscience
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Image credit: John Martinez Pavliga (Flickr)

By: Andrew Huhn, 4th year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

America loves football. Brutal, high-flying, smash-mouth football.

The players seem like gladiators from another era. Chiseled out of stone, they feel no pain as they run, jump, and catch with a grace that appears super-human.

The reality is, however, that they do feel pain—and often are playing injured. As news of the most recent lawsuit against the National Football League unfolds,  the realities of America’s favorite sport are slowly being revealed–retired players are claiming that the NFL got them addicted to painkillers.

There are several legal factors to consider in such a claim: did the NFL act recklessly, negligently, or maliciously? Did they create a culture that encouraged drug abuse? Were players informed of side effects and drug interactions?

Most of the drugs mentioned in this case (Oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin) are prescription opioids, which have a long history of abuse and addiction. These drugs act on opioid receptors of the central nervous system relieving pain and causing feelings of euphoria.

While the legalities of this particular claim will likely be argued for a long time, the question remains: why are prescription opioids used so often for pain relief, and why are they so addictive?

A Prosthesis to Fix Broken Memories

Neuroscience

By: Daniel Hass, 2nd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

ibm_human_brainThe Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been a major funding source for the development of unique and innovative technologies under its motto of “driving technological surprise.”  Some of DARPA’s current projects include designing bullets that can adjust their course in-flight, novel techniques to investigate brain function (see my previous post on CLARITY), and brain-controlled prosthetic limbs.

As if the line between reality and science fiction was not blurred enough, aid is now being given to researchers for the development of a prosthetic device that will improve the recall and formation of long-term memories.

Did Harry Potter Have Psychosocial Short Stature?

Neuroscience
Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 4th year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

“Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age…[he] had a thin face, knobbly knees…and wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose.”

And so we are introduced to The Boy Who Lived, the Chosen One—the famous Harry Potter. His seven books have been translated into 73 different languages and sold over 450 million copies worldwide.

But readers wouldn’t guess, after author J.K. Rowling’s introduction of Harry in Chapter 2, that the orphaned boy would be the one to defeat the powerful and devastating Dark Lord Voldemort. Snubbed by his only remaining family, bullied by his cousin and classmates, and residing in the cupboard under the stairs, Harry is short, skinny, and totally non-threatening.

And it’s clear to us why. His Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and cousin Dudley Dursley—to whom he was passed as an infant after the death of his parents— ensure that he’s properly malnourished at all times. After spending a day cleaning the Dursleys’ entire house and doing yardwork in the blazing July heat (on his 12th birthday, no less), Aunt Petunia prepares for Harry “two slices of bread and a lump of cheese” before sending him off to hide during their dinner party with the Masons. It’s no wonder he’s so small for his age.

But perhaps something other than the physical abuse held back his growth, too. Beyond the malnourishment, it’s possible that Harry Potter suffered from what is known as psychosocial short stature.