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Scientists Reveal The Answer To Why People Who Drive And Read Maps Are Smarter

Scientists Reveal The Answer To Why People Who Drive And Read Maps Are Smarter

A scientific study has shown that navigating around a city street can enhance a person’s brain and it has also shown that the brain can change on a structural level as people learn.

The study, conducted by the University of Carnegie-Mellon, looked at 28 adults who played a driving video game. Half of the group, the control group, was asked to maneuver along 20 different routes for 45 minutes. The other group practiced maneuvering along a single route 20 times for 45 minutes.

Details of the study

The control group, by practicing 20 routes, was not able to practice enough to learn the details of all 20 routes in the time period. By contrast, the test group was able to maneuver along that route far faster. They were also able to do a better job drawing a two-dimensional picture of the route and were faster ordering a series of screenshots taken of that route.

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Now, this may seem incredibly obvious. If you practice driving alongside a single route, you will certainly get better at driving that route compared to someone who only practices that route one time out of 20. But the important part was that before and after the testing session, each participant underwent a brain scan using diffusion-weighted imagining (DWI), which measures water molecule activity in the brain.

Results of the brain scan

The brain scan found that those who practiced the one route repeatedly showed changes in the left posterior dentate gyrus. This area of the brain is part of the hippocampus, a region which controls memory and navigational ability. The hippocampus is a crucial region in understanding Alzheimer’s disease, as it is one of the first parts of the brain to be afflicted.

And these changes did not just stay in the hippocampus. The Carnegie researchers noticed that there were increases “in the synchronization of activity – or functional connectivity – between this region and other cortical areas in the network of brain regions responsible for spatial cognition.” Furthermore, this structural change could be correlated with how well the test group people performed at navigating the route.

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Implications for the rest of the brain

It had been known for years that taxi drivers, who have to navigate endless streets, have a larger hippocampus compared to others. But this study, appears to show that they develop this through their driving.

This has important implications beyond navigation. For example, the hippocampus also affects one’s memory. A recent study by Columbia University which analyzed the hippocampus in rats shows that their brain cells – and by implication, ours – are capable of tracking time and distance.

That is important due to the fact that we organize our memories through time, and that we link our sense of time with our sense of physical places. Scientists have understood that navigation and memory are linked in our brains for a long time.

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Hence, if it is possible to enhance one’s navigational ability, then perhaps this strategy could be used to improve one’s memory at the same time.

Plenty of work to be done

The Carnegie-Mellon researcher are understandably elated with what they have accomplished. As Marcel Just, the director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at the University observed, “We’re excited that these results show what re-wiring as a result of learning might refer to. We now know, at least for this type of spatial learning, which area changes its structure and how it changes its communication with the rest of the brain.”

But there remains a great deal of work to be done to see how this link between spatial learning, an enlarged hippocampus, and memory can be used. Still, perhaps taxi drivers can take some pride in knowing that their constant navigating has other positive health effects.

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Featured photo credit: Kaysha via flickr.com

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Last Updated on September 10, 2018

Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

We thought that the expression ‘broken heart’ was just a metaphor, but science is telling us that it is not: breakups and rejections do cause physical pain. When a group of psychologists asked research participants to look at images of their ex-partners who broke up with them, researchers found that the same brain areas that are activated by physical pain are also activated by looking at images of ex-partners. Looking at images of our ex is a painful experience, literally.[1].

Given that the effect of rejections and breakups is the same as the effect of physical pain, scientists have speculated on whether the practices that reduce physical pain could be used to reduce the emotional pain that follows from breakups and rejections. In a study on whether painkillers reduce the emotional pain caused by a breakup, researchers found that painkillers did help. Individuals who took painkillers were better able to deal with their breakup. Tamar Cohen wrote that “A simple dose of paracetamol could help ease the pain of a broken heart.”[2]

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Just like painkillers can be used to ease the pain of a broken heart, other practices that ease physical pain can also be used to ease the pain of rejections and breakups. Three of these scientifically validated practices are presented in this article.

Looking at images of loved ones

While images of ex-partners stimulate the pain neuro-circuitry in our brain, images of loved ones activate a different circuitry. Looking at images of people who care about us increases the release of oxytocin in our body. Oxytocin, or the “cuddle hormone,” is the hormone that our body relies on to induce in us a soothing feeling of tranquility, even when we are under high stress and pain.

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In fact, oxytocin was found to have a crucial role as a mother is giving birth to her baby. Despite the extreme pain that a mother has to endure during delivery, the high level of oxytocin secreted by her body transforms pain into pleasure. Mariem Melainine notes that, “Oxytocin levels are usually at their peak during delivery, which promotes a sense of euphoria in the mother and helps her develop a stronger bond with her baby.”[3]

Whenever you feel tempted to look at images of your ex-partner, log into your Facebook page and start browsing images of your loved ones. As Eva Ritvo, M.D. notes, “Facebook fools our brain into believing that loved ones surround us, which historically was essential to our survival. The human brain, because it evolved thousands of years before photography, fails on many levels to recognize the difference between pictures and people”[4]

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Exercise

Endorphins are neurotransmitters that reduce our perception of pain. When our body is high on endorphins, painful sensations are kept outside of conscious awareness. It was found that exercise causes endorphins to be secreted in the brain and as a result produce a feeling of power, as psychologist Alex Korb noted in his book: “Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that act on your neurons like opiates (such as morphine or Vicodin) by sending a neural signal to reduce pain and provide anxiety relief.”[5] By inhibiting pain from being transmitted to our brain, exercise acts as a powerful antidote to the pain caused by rejections and breakups.

Meditation

Jon Kabat Zinn, a doctor who pioneered the use of mindfulness meditation therapy for patients with chronic pain, has argued that it is not pain itself that is harmful to our mental health, rather, it is the way we react to pain. When we react to pain with irritation, frustration, and self-pity, more pain is generated, and we enter a never ending spiral of painful thoughts and sensations.

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In order to disrupt the domino effect caused by reacting to pain with pain, Kabat Zinn and other proponents of mindfulness meditation therapy have suggested reacting to pain through nonjudgmental contemplation and acceptance. By practicing meditation on a daily basis and getting used to the habit of paying attention to the sensations generated by our body (including the painful ones and by observing these sensations nonjudgmentally and with compassion) our brain develops the habit of reacting to pain with grace and patience.

When you find yourself thinking about a recent breakup or a recent rejection, close your eyes and pay attention to the sensations produced by your body. Take deep breaths and as you are feeling the sensations produced by your body, distance yourself from them, and observe them without judgment and with compassion. If your brain starts wandering and gets distracted, gently bring back your compassionate nonjudgmental attention to your body. Try to do this exercise for one minute and gradually increase its duration.

With consistent practice, nonjudgmental acceptance will become our default reaction to breakups, rejections, and other disappointments that we experience in life. Every rejection and every breakup teaches us great lessons about relationships and about ourselves.

Featured photo credit: condesign via pixabay.com

Reference

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