The Neuroscience of Everyday Life isn’t a book, but a lecture series issued by the great courses. You can go online and watch the lecture, or find strictly the audio from the lectures available in places like Audible.com. The Great Courses brings in renowned professors to give 30 minute lectures on a topic. In a series like this one often one professor will to multiple lectures, and often multiple lecturers throughout the series, depending on their relative specialty. Here are 10 things I learned from
1) MSG is a common neurotransmitter.
MSG stands for mono-sodium glutamate, which many people freak out as a food additive. As it turns out, not only does it occur naturally in your body, but it is by far the most abundant neurotransmitter in your brain. Your body and brain make and use a large quantity of it every day. Why is MSG the same as glutamate even though there’s an extra sodium atom there? That’s because the sodium separates from the glutamate when it dissolves in water, i.e. when you eat it.
2) Most neurons only make one neurotransmitter but a few make more.
Oddly enough however I just looked this up. It appears that more neurons are being discovered that make at least two neurotransmitters.
3) Neurons not for muscles often fire many times to no effect.
While it sounds like wasted energy to me, it is advantageous that neurons in the brain are not particularly sensitive to the firings of any individual neuron, that only when several fire in tandem does that cross the threshold for causing the next one in the chain to fire. However, when you’re going into the peripheral nervous sytem (the nerves going to your muscles, arms, fingers and toes) there is one path for the nerve signal to travel, and it is important that the next neuron carry that exact signal the first time it’s sent, so the central and peripheral nervous systems work differently in this way.
4) Epilepsy in low oxygen environments makes one susceptible to hallucinations.
This is something mountain climbers are acutely aware of, as it is not entirely uncommon for extreme climbers to see people and hear voices between altitudes of many thousands of feet and the extreme physical exertion, fewer activities place a greater strain on one’s oxygen supply. It is worth noting that many of the supernatural visions and encounters depicted in the Bible (such as the burning bush, the formation of the ten commandments) as well as many other religions take place high up in mountains, or in the desert which for lack of plants can also have a low oxygen level.
5) Many haunted houses were hallucinations due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
There are stories where multiple people in a house are seeing phantom women in the hallway, hearing footsteps from upstairs (or the other room) and checking only to find no one there, or even sounds of fires or alarms only to rush outside to an empty, quiet street. In the case to which I am referring, an investigator was sent to the premise, and found that the wood-burning stove in the basement, used for keeping the house warm, wasn’t built properly, and was thus leaking fumes into the house. In fact, the number of reports of haunted houses dropped precipitously when people switched over to electricity.
6) Oxytocin is key to pair bonding, it makes one more trusting and is released both during sex and during childbirth.
In games done where you lend fictional money to strangers, people on average were likely to lend more if they had been given a whiff of oxytocin first. For that name it is called the “trust drug.” It is also called the “love drug” as it is produced naturally in the brain and secretes during sex, bonding you and reinforcing your love for your partner. The most oxytocin at any one time is secreted during childbirth for the woman, which not only helps as a natural anaesthetic, but also floods the mother with love for her baby and rewires her brain to make her a mother, mentally. Oxytocin does the same thing to a man, but he feels it when he first holds the baby. While this isn’t the only reason parents need to spend a lot of time with their infants, it is certainly one of them.
7) Near-death experiences consist of the entire brain lighting up at once
The massive amount of brain lighting up is what causes the experience of “life flashing before your eyes” as you experience all your memories at once. It is most likely caused by an electrical gradient that occurs between the neurons and the blood when the blood reaches dangerously low levels of oxygen. Scientists have found a way to induce “Near death experiences” without actually putting someone in danger. You can do this by shoving someone in the NASA astronaut training facility, there is a machine to experience high levels of gravity, and then use it to spin your victim (er, i mean, subject) around really really fast. One astronaut claimed to have had 27 near-death experiences on that machine. I didn’t learn that from this series though, it was from the TV show “Bullshit” by Penn and Teller.
8) Stress hormones during play don’t have the same physiological/medical impact that stress from normal life causes.
Chronic stress is known to have a number of deleterious effects on one’s health. While I’m sure no one is surprised to hear that playing games doesn’t give children chronic stress symptoms, the fact that they both use the same hormones does make it odd. I wonder if “stressful” games help to desensitize the individual to stressful situations in life.
9) Testosterone can improve women’s spatial reasoning.
For those people who say “there are no cognitive differences between men and women”, I say “Bull.” There are plenty of cognitive differences between men and women. Women have more white matter, men have more grey matter, men tend to have better spatial reasoning (they do better at puzzles that involve turning around a box in your mind) and women do better on verbal memory and verbal skills. Women also tend to be more empathetic and more adept at subtle social cues. And for those feminists that imply that society somehow imposed this on women, giving women testosterone changes their score on the spatial reasoning test. Or is it society’s fault for not forcing women to take testosterone? Sometimes I can’t understand feminists.
10) Testosterone in utero correlates to children’s preferences in the systematizing/empathizing scale. Girls with sex disorders where they have high testosterone levels exhibit masculine interests.
This builds on the previous point, adding that not only do sex differences affect specific abilities between men and women, but also their interests and personality. For those who are not familiar with the systematizing / empathizing scale, it was developed by the scientist Simon Barron-Cohen (cousin of Sasha Barron-Cohen) in analyzing people’s interests, and how far they lean between being interested in things vs being interested in people. The lowest is 1, which is a near total fascination with objects and patterns, and no interest in people nor capacity for empathy. It essentially is autism. The highest score is 7, which is incredibly empathizing, but no capacity for things whatsoever. On average men score a 3, whereas women average a 4. However, the slight difference in average leads to a stronger difference at the extremes, and unsurprisingly there is a proportionately larger number of boys who are autistic vs girls. This difference also reflects itself in career choices, but that was not covered by the lectures.
Anyway, I do recommend you give them a listen when you have the time.