SCIENCE: The Chemistry of Addiction - a video by SciShow

Scientists say we are experiencing something of a Golden Age with regards to brain research. The human brain is arguably the most advanced piece of technology in the known universe, and better understanding it is the most exciting step towards better understanding who we are.

The Chemistry of Addiction is a well-presented video brought to us by SciShow – a channel that is quite addictive itself. This particular video about the human brain and brain chemistry offers great insight into why we behave the way we do.

The Chemistry of Addiction

I'm sure the above video is rewarding enough, but I provide a summary below just to reinforce my own understanding of The Chemistry of Addiction. I have also written similar articles such as I drink therefore I am and Web Addiction 2.0 if you're interested in brain chemistry, pharmacology and addiction in general.

The Chemistry of Addiction: A Summary

Learning what chemicals make us feel good (in terms of their affects on the human brain) has essentially lead us to inventing addiction. Eating, sex, gambling, smoking, drinking and even the Internet are all examples of behaviours that can become hugely addictive.

There are over 100 neurotransmitters in our brains that respond to new information by releasing chemicals. These are often in response to how we feel in particular situations. If a particular situation or behaviour is key to our survival (loosely speaking), our brain is likely to reinforce this by releasing 'feel good' chemicals or hormones so that we will repeat certain behaviours in the future.

Getting high on dopamine

Dopamine is the most powerful excitory neurotransmitter that is released whenever our brain believes that we should take strong note of our current behaviour in order to remember it. Eating, sexing and running away from danger are examples of dopamine-releasing situations. However, dopamine is also primarily what drives addiction.

Chasing 'artificial highs' via excessive substance use or excessive pornography viewing for example, may fool our brains into releasing excess amounts of dopamine; however, it will become desensitised over time as it continuously tries to restore balance. The result is that more of a particular substance or behaviour is required in order to feel the same effects recorded to memory from first use.

Why smoking is so addictive

Nicotine has the effect of releasing large amounts of dopamine in our brains. However, in order to leverage this effect, our brains also release a chemical (glutamate) which plays an important role in memory formation. This has the addictive effect of telling our brains to remember that smoking makes us 'feel good' and reinforces the habit.

The effect of alcohol on our brains

Alcohol interferes with the neurotransmitters that allow our bodies and brains to function as one. More alcohol results in slower communication between neurons, which is why we slur, crab-walk and often speak without thinking when we've had too much to drink.

There is a separate SciShow video dedicated to bath salts, which apparently contain an artificial stimulant that combines the effect of both cocaine and meth simultaneously! So think twice before you buy bath salts for your loved one this Christmas!

SciShow - The Chemistry of Addiction

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WATER: Can positive thoughts affect water molecules?

In last week’s column, A dummies guide to quantum physics, I put forward the main theories and ideas of quantum physicists. Of these were the theory that we all collectively play a role in creating reality, that our brains are only able to see what we believe is possible or have experience of, and the idea that thoughts can have real effects on physical reality.

A popular example of the latter was an experiment conducted by Japanese author Dr Masaru Emoto who published his findings in a book called Messages from Water. Emoto was studying the effects of music on water molecules. He found that water molecules seemed to take on different shapes depending on the music they were exposed to. This is interesting when we consider the effect of music on plant growth and the effect of Mozart on milk production in cows.

Emoto then began experimenting with the effects that words, prayer, thoughts and blessings might have on water molecules. Again, he claimed that the molecules took on different shapes depending on their labels and affirmations offered (see images). Some of the labels consisted of simple words or statements such as “thank you” and “peace”. Emoto’s published results indicated that water crystal formation was sensitive to these things and concluded that water molecules “are affected by our thoughts, words, and feelings”. The science that affects water­ molecules in this way is still unknown.

Water molecule formation (thoughts?)
Can thoughts affect water molecules?

Emoto’s work has, however, been met with controversy within the scientific community. It was found that he did not publish the entirety of his photographs­. It is also unknown whether or not he ruled out or ignored crystals that did not support his hypothesis. It is sadly something that cannot be soundly verified.

However, Emoto’s experiments still hold interest when we consider that the human body (as well as plants and other animals) are almost entirely made of water. I’m sure we all also know of someone who says they’ve experienced spiritual or alternative healing. We could also consider how we heal faster or get sick less frequently with a positive state of mind, or how subjective pain is. All these secrets may lie in the molecular make-up of water.

What’s more is that water is one of the most complex and unique compounds known to science and chemistry. It may just be a simple combination of hydrogen and oxygen, but the intricacies of water are far more complex. It is not only the most receptive element, but also the only one that can be in all known states (e.g. solid, liquid, gas).

Can thoughts affect water molecules?We can take things a step further and consider how the human brain is almost entirely water and may then too be subjected to thoughts or emotional conditioning in profound ways. The brain is a vast system of neural networks which communicate with each other electrically and chemically. They respond to stimuli picked up from our environment by our sense organs and proceed to send chemicals from the brain throughout the body. Each cell is covered in receptors which absorb chemical combinations (called peptides) and respond accordingly. It can be said the behaviour of our watery cells change depending on the peptides they receive.

Following this process we all build up models of how we see the world outside of us. These are refined according to the information we have or receive. This is how we each form our own personal world view or ideology. However, any new information we pick up from the environment is always coloured by previous experiences that we’ve had as well as the emotions associated with those experiences. People may think of love very differently, for example, if their associations and experiences of love differ.

However, what quantum physics and biology have shown, is that these neural networks are able to rearrange themselves according to the emotions we feel and experiences we have on a daily basis. If we experience anger and despair often, our neural networks will adapt to provide more of the chemicals that cause these emotions. Similarly, if we manage to control our thoughts and maintain more of a positive outlook on a daily basis, more favourable arrangements will be made. And that is something that science does agree with.

Do you believe thoughts can affect water molecules?

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QUANTUM PHYSICS: An introduction ...

I RECENTLY began a love affair with quantum physics. The field is at the cutting edge of science; the height of evolutionary thought, and is truly fascinating to wrap your head around. It has also become clear to me that people’s desire to answer the bigger questions in life (where do we come from? Why are we here? etc.) stems from understanding the smaller things, specifically the sub-atomic world.

The AtomIt’s an astonishing thought that 99.9% of what an atom is, is nothing. In other words, one of the smallest units that collectively make up solid matter is almost entirely a vacuum or empty space. Ergo, we are mostly nothing, and the universe is mostly nothing. If all this empty space were to be removed from a person, they would be the size of a grain of salt (which would still weigh the same as the person did before being deflated). This radical realisation leads physicists to thinking of atoms as tendencies rather than as things.

To illustrate, if we were to liken the dense nucleus of an atom to a pin-head, the electrons that orbit the nucleus would be roughly a kilometer away. Another comparison is that of a fly buzzing in an empty cathedral.

What’s more is that the electrons and nuclei of atoms seem to pop in and out of existence all the time. This gives credence to the idea that thoughts can have some sort of physical effect on the world, that reality is not necessarily what we perceive it to be, and that ideas of alternative universes or spiritual plains are highly possible.

Reality and the Observer

More exciting from a quantum physics perspective is the realisation that will live in a universe of infinite possibilities. Every conscious being is one of those instances and possess the power to make desirable possibilities a reality. In other words, human beings especially, have the power to change their external world from within.

What’s frustrating is that the tendency is to believe that the world already exists “out there” – independent of our experience. According to quantum physics, this is not the case at all. Rather, everything is a possibility of consciousness that requires our input to manifest into experience. In other words, the observer, or rather consciousness itself, must play a significant part in creating reality.

The most esteemed quantum physicists readily admit that they know what an observer does, but have no idea what it is. Yet we all have a shared experience of being an observer. Scientists have scrupulously searched all regions of the brain for something they can confidently call an observer, and have found nothing. As a result the observer is often referred to as “the ghost in the machine”.

The story of Columbus' ships and collective meditation

What I find most appealing about theories of quantum physics is how they spill over into other fields of thought and practice. Biology, psychology, history, chemistry and even several self-help ideas are all integrated. A good example to illustrate this is the idea that we are only able to see what we believe in, or what we believe is possible.

For example, it is believed that when Columbus first reached the Caribbean islands the native peoples were unable to see his ships on the horizon. The tribal chief was only able to see ripples on the water and assumed that something must be causing them. After days of observation the ships eventually took form in the minds-eye of the chief, who was then able to describe them to others also once blind to the ships’ presence. Urban legend or not, we are all subject to the same limitations, which may suggest why we are unable to see UFOs if they appear in a form unfamiliar to us.

In 1993 an experiment which may also be hard to believe, was undertaken in Washington DC to reduce violent crime. Four thousand people from a hundred different countries were brought together to collectively meditate for extended periods of time to prove the theory that thoughts have substance and effect. Several prior studies had already been undertaken on smaller scales, but it is reported that this particular exercise yielded a drop in crime (as defined by the FBI) of 25%.

There is a further fascinating experiment which shows the effects that thoughts or blessings can have on water molecules, but that will have to wait until next time…

  • If this has spurred an interest into quantum physics a great introductory documentary that explains all the above is What the Bleep do we Know? The short film is also where you’ll find the references to the Washington experiment and the Columbus story. Another great BBC series I would recommend is The Atom.

Main Theories of Quantum Physics

At the moment there is about one new interpretation of quantum physics every three months, but most of them fit into one of the following categories (taken from www.higgo.com):

  • Your consciousness affects the behaviour of subatomic particles
  • The universe is interconnected with faster-than-light transfers of information
  • Particles move backwards as well as forwards in time and appear in all possible places at once
  • The universe is splitting, every Planck-time (10 E-43 seconds) into billions of parallel universes
  • Beef or chicken

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TECHNOLOGY: How it may be rewiring our brains

THE Internet is not just changing the way people live but altering the way our brains work with a neuroscientist arguing that this is an evolutionary change which will put the tech-savvy at the top of the new social order.

Gary Small, a neuroscientist at UCLA in California who specialises in brain function, has found through studies that Internet searching and text messaging has made brains more adept at filtering information and making snap decisions.

But while technology can accelerate learning and boost creativity it can have drawbacks as it can create Internet addicts whose only friends are virtual and has sparked a dramatic rise in Attention Deficit Disorder diagnoses.

Small, however, argues that the people who will come out on top in the next generation will be those with a mixture of technological and social skills.

"We're seeing an evolutionary change. The people in the next generation who are really going to have the edge are the ones who master the technological skills and also face-to-face skills"
– Gary Small

In his newly released fourth book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, Small looks at how technology has altered the way young minds develop, function and interpret information. In his book Small explains that the brain is very sensitive to changes in the environment such as those brought by technology.

A study of 24 adults using the Web revealed that experienced Internet users showed double the activity in areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning as Internet beginners did.

"The brain is very specialized in its circuitry and if you repeat mental tasks over and over it will strengthen certain neural circuits and ignore others," said Small.

"The environment is changing. The average young person now spends nine hours a day exposing their brain to technology. Evolution is an advancement from moment to moment and what we are seeing is technology affecting our evolution."

Small said this multi-tasking could cause problems as the tech-savvy generation, whom he calls "digital natives," are always scanning for the next bit of new information which can create stress and even damage neural networks.

"There is also the big problem of neglecting human contact skills and losing the ability to read emotional expressions and body language," he said.

"But you can take steps to address this. It means taking time to cut back on technology, like having a family dinner, to find a balance. It is important to understand how technology is affecting our lives and our brains and take control of it.”

•Gary Small is the director of the Memory & Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior and the Center on Aging at UCLA.

- original copy supplied by Reuters

Related posts:
Web Addiction 2.0
Is technology rewiring out brains?

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