The Beautiful Brain

The Beautiful Mind is a spectacular online photo exhibition that features images of the brain taken by neuroscientists themselves. The site features a Flash display of the exhibit, with a useful roll-over feature where you can see the person who took the shot, where it was taken, and what anatomical feature is being displayed.

The online exhibit will become a traveling exhibition beginning in the new year, starting in London and then moving around Europe. The exhibition is being organized by CORTEX: Cooperation in Research and Training for European Excellence in the Neurosciences.

The hattip goes to Mind Hacks, who just featured the exhibit info in the post The Fire Within. Almost all The Beautiful Mind images use flourescence techniques, which we have shown before in Brainbows and More on Brainbow.

Below I feature some of the images. For more go for a visit to The Beautiful Mind.

Here are the photographers and their images:
-Carlos Barcia, Blood vessel, tumor, and infiltration of T cells
-Veronica Kurscha, Tranverse section of the spinal cord
-Matei Bolbora, Neural precursor cells from the embryonic striatum
-Jean-Marc Fritschy, Purkinje cell in the cerebellum


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Body Swapping

Do psychotherapists now have a new trick? Or is it all smoke and mirrors? The New York Times reports today on Standing in Someone Else’s Shoes, Almost for Real, where neuroscientists have shown that “the brain, when tricked by optical and sensory illusions, can quickly adopt any other human form, no matter how different, as its own.”

The article “If I Were You: Perceptual Illusion of Body Swapping” by the Swedish researchers Henrik Ehrsson and Valeria Petkova appears this week in PLoS ONE, and is ably summarized over at Neurophilosophy. You can also read Ehrsson’s previous article on the virtual arm illusion and his Science piece on the experimental induction of out-of-body experiences.
The approach in all of this research is rather simple. You can see the out-of-body experiment design pictured to the right. Body swapping adds another person with goggles.

A subject stands or sits opposite the scientist, as if engaged in an interview.. Both are wearing headsets, with special goggles, the scientist’s containing small film cameras. The goggles are rigged so the subject sees what the scientist sees: to the right and left are the scientist’s arms, and below is the scientist’s body. To add a physical element, the researchers have each person squeeze the other’s hand, as if in a handshake. Now the subject can see and “feel” the new body. In a matter of seconds, the illusion is complete.

This “switching” happens because the brain is literally embodied – after growing up with this particular body, it’s a fair assumption to assume that one’s eyes and one’s hand are getting feedback about the same interactive phenomenon. For a first-person view of this, see Karl Ritter’s AP article today on the body-swap illusion, which includes this photo of the two-goggle set-up.

Ehrsson is excited about being able to trick the brain in this way: “You can see the possibilities, putting a male in a female body, young in old, white in black and vice versa.” The NY Times article pushes the uses body swapping can have in therapy.

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Balance between cultures: equilibrium training

Way back in January, I posted ‘Equilibrium, modularity, and training the brain-body.‘ At the American Anthropology Association annual meeting, I presented my current version of this research, significantly updating it with ethnographic material from Brazil, a comparative discussion of different techniques for training balance, and a series of graphics that I hope help to make my points. The title of that paper was ‘Balancing Between Cultures: A Comparative Neuroanthropology of Equilibrium in Sports and Dance.’

I’ve decided to post a version of this paper here, with the caveat that it’s still a work-in-progress. I’d be delighted to read any feedback people are willing to offer.


Boca d' Rio does a bananeira
Boca d' Rio does a bananeira
As a cultural anthropologist interested in the effects of physical training and perceptual learning, I see ‘neuroanthropology’ as a continuation of the cognitive anthropology advocated by Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn (1997).

The new label, however, reflects engagement with a new generation of brain research, what Andy Clark (1997) refers to as ‘third wave’ cognitive science, or work on embodied cognition.1 Much of the ‘third wave’ does not focus strictly on what we normally refer to as ‘cognition,’ that is, consciousness, memory, or symbolic reasoning. Rather embodied cognition often highlights other brain activities, such as motor, perceptual and regulatory functions, and the influence of embodiment on thought itself; this is the reason I’m thrilled to have endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky as part of this panel, as his work is part of the expanded engagement of neuroanthropology with organic embodiment.2.

My own entry into neuroanthropology results from three influences: a phenomenological interest in cultural variation in human perception, anthropological study of embodiment, and apprenticeship-based ethnographic methods. This method posed an odd question during my field research on the Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance, capoeira. Simply put, as a devoted apprentice-observer, I failed to maintain hermeneutical agnosticism and started to ask, ‘Is what my teachers and peers report — and I too seem to be experiencing — plausible?’

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Testosterone and the seasonal regulation of sex-steroids

Testosterone has a crucial, if poorly understood, effect on male behaviour. It contributes to aggressivenes, libido, tumescence and sexual performance. Some scientists believe that the ratio of index finger length to ring finger length indicates how much testosterone we were exposed to in our mother’s womb. This has led some Palm reader’s to use clues from the ‘index finger:ring finger’ ratio to deduce gendered behavioural characteristics of a client… hmmmm???


Concretely, what we do know is that Testosterone levels in early brain development, among many interesting things, can influence laterality, playing a role in handedness and the degree of linguistic lateralisation.  In males, testosterone has many direct effects on the anatomy and metabolism. Male humans are characterised by strong bones, increased muscle mass and a deeper voice (although the aging elderly male voice actually rises in pitch). Testosterone stimulates the growth of the genitals at puberty and is responsible for sperm production throughout adult life. Testosterone, arguably also plays a role in male intelligence–(or lack thereof)! 😛


Testosterone might put hairs on your chest, but it can also contribute to male-pattern baldness and prostate disease. It is a funny little hormone that influences cholesterol metabolism, the production of red blood cells by bone marrow, secondary sex characteristics, musculature, weight, accessory organs, mortality and injury rates. It is sometimes over-popularised for what are actually poorly understood processes, but in recent research, testosterone may be an important factor in understanding plasticity in the brain!!! In this exciting discovery, researchers are beginning to understand a pivotal role testosterone is playing in neurochemical plasticity!

So, the time has come, (as the Walrus said to the Carpenter), to draw your attention to this recent publication which looks at testosterone with respect to environmental influences (the light-dark/sleep-wake cycle) and it’s effects within the brain of a seasonal mammal, the Djungarian hamster (Phodopus sungorus)
                                             *SIGH* Ah, the beauty! A study of the brain in context!!!
                                                                                                                While many researchers are looking at how to regenerate neurons (which could potentially help stroke victims, paraplegics and alzheimers patients etc), a small group of researchers at the Laboratoire de Neurobiologie des Rythmes, Universite Louis Pasteur, are looking at the role of testosterone in neurochemical plasticity. It is a significant step towards understanding how to guide freshly generated neurons! Regenerating neurons is only part of the journey for accident-recovery patients, guiding these neurons might be tricky and Testosterone may be an important key!  Continue reading “Testosterone and the seasonal regulation of sex-steroids”

Studying Sin

By Daniel Lende

“You study sin,” my dinner companion said with a smile at a recent conference. I reached for my wine, and after a modest sip (really!), replied, “Vicio. In Colombia it’s called vicio. Vices.”

In Colombia vicio covers a whole range of activities—video games, playing pool, and yes, drugs. Even better, when vicio becomes the adjective “enviciador,” favorite snacks and sweets come into the picture. People start to eat, and it’s hard to stop until every piece of candy is gone.

I like the Colombian category of vicio, because I see something common in the way people get hooked on things, the way they want and crave this or that. I have seen it with food, with sex, with gambling and smoking cigarettes in both the United States and Colombia. But I have seen “getting hooked” best with drugs.

In today’s world drugs stand in for sin pretty well. Just in April Pope Benedict XVI declared drug use a deadly sin. In the United States drug users are often seen as moral degenerates. In this moral model of addiction, people lack willpower. As the tagline to a recent HBO series on addiction went, Why can’t they just stop?

But with addiction, the disease model has slowly come to the fore, highlighted by Alan Leshner, the then-head of the National Institute of Drugs Abuse, declaring in Science that “Addiction Is a Brain Disease, and It Matters.”

Morals versus brains. Or culture versus biology. Just yesterday in a talk someone asked about gender, “So is this biology or is this culture?”

How can we escape this constricting dichotomy? As I discussed in an interview with Jonah Lehrer over at Scientific American’s Mind Matters, I think a focus on concrete problems is the way to go. Specifics will help get us to where we need to go, not theories based on old ideas.

Indeed, grand pronouncements of consilience or some over-arching theory forget about Newton and his very concrete apple. As the poet Lord Byron wrote:

When Newton saw an apple fall, he found
In that slight startle from his contemplation –
‘Tis said (for I’ll not answer above ground
For any sage’s creed or calculation) –
A mode of proving that the earth turn’d round
In a most natural whirl, called “gravitation;”
And this is the sole mortal who could grapple,
Since Adam, with a fall or with an apple.

Today we’ve got the physics of an apple down, and we are turning back to the problem facing Adam. The tree of knowledge is both tempting and sweet. So just how are we to understand the apple of my eye?


My concrete problem has been craving, that compulsive desire drug users can experience and which plays such a powerful role in relapse in excessive use and relapse. In both the popular accounts and scientific literature on addiction, dopamine often takes the blame for addiction. In understanding dopamine function, two prominent ways have been developed over the past decade – one focused on incentives and motivation, and the other on computation and learning. With addiction, the incentives and motivation approach has gained more traction, largely through the “incentive salience” work of Terry Robinson and Kent Berridge. Robinson and Berridge have often glossed dopamine function as “wanting” – and wanting just needs a little push to get to craving.

Their elegant work and sophisticated hypothesis testing have helped tease out a particularly thorny problem around addiction, that of pleasure versus desire. Earlier behaviorist theories largely assumed that pleasure was the ultimate reinforcer; no other mechanism was necessary to account for why animals went towards something rewarding. The work by Robinson and Berridge helped separate “wanting” versus “liking,” or as I explain to my students, the difference between that late-night craving for pizza, just a phone dial away, and that first exquisite bite of cheese and sauce and dough.

So the leap from lab to real life can be perilous. It’s a leap that I think anthropologists are better equipped to make than most. For my research on compulsive wanting and craving, what really made the difference was the combination of two strange bedfellows – evolution and ethnography. While for many that combination would be sinful in itself, the two helped take research on dopamine function and translate it into something I could use.

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Craving and Compulsive Involvement Scales

By Daniel Lende

In the previous post Wanting to Craving: Understanding Compulsive Involvement with Drugs, I wrote:

Different domains of subjective involvement can be linked to dopamine [function] – wanting more and more, the sense of an urge or push to use (often not a conscious desire), and the heightened focus on places and actions and times that lead to using. The scale I developed showed good internal consistency, adding support that these three senses of compulsive involvement are linked. If you want to know more about the scale, I have done a separate post detailing the compulsive involvement scale in both Spanish and English versions.

So this post gives you those scales! But first a little information. The scale in Spanish consists of eight items and shows good consistency. For the English version I have not fullly tested the scale, and have deliberately included more items there (a total of 13). One aim of future research (collaboration, anyone?) would be to test the items and hopefully winnow the size down.

So without further ado, here are the scales themselves:

Lende Craving-Salience General

Lende Deseo-Salience en Espanol

If you don’t want to click on any version, some typical statements in English include: (a) At times I have started to use and use without thinking about anything else; (b) At times I have felt a powerful impulse or urge to go use; and (c) At times using feels like you want more and more.

If you do want to use these scales, please contact me (Daniel Lende) at I’d like to hear more!

Results with the Spanish version originally appeared in my 2005 article Wanting and Drug Use: A Biocultural Approach to Addiction (Lende Wanting pdf). Here are excerpts from that article that relate directly to creating the original scale and its use in my study:

Construction of the Incentive Salience Scale
Ethnographic Results
The incentive salience scale was created by drawing on the results of the questionnaire and the first interview. The first step in this process was identifying the common dimensions related to wanting and seeking drugs in the adolescents’ descriptions. One important thing that emerged early in this review process was that the dimensions of wanting, shifts in attention, and behavioral engagement applied to more than just anticipating and seeking out drugs, the main focus of Robinson & Berridge’s theory. The dimensions of incentive salience applied to both seeking out and using drugs, leading to a wider focus on how drugs and drug use were salient to users.

Based on this wider view of salience, six common elements were then identified in the adolescents’ descriptions. First, one of the most typical ways of describing addictive experiences in Colombia was “querer más y más,” to want more and more drugs. During my ethnographic research, this emphasis on wanting—the Colombian’s summary description of what addiction was—took on more relevance as I realized the diversity in positive appraisals and “rewards” from substance use, ranging from “forgetting everything” to riding a skateboard better. Other ways used to describe this experience included “deseo” and “sentir ganas,” to feel a desire to consume drugs. Overall, the emphasis on wanting and desire provided a clear indication of the relevance of the incentive salience approach to understanding drug abuse in this population.

Continue reading “Craving and Compulsive Involvement Scales”