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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MEMORY TECHNIQUE: A step by step guide for creating a memory palace

If there is one person whom I could meet in this world, it would be Derren Brown. The BBC recently broadcast a one-hour special to celebrate 10 years of the psychological illusionist’s work. I personally endeavour to watch everything ever made by Derren Brown and I’m currently­ immersed in his latest book Confessions of a Conjuror. Great read.

Although Derren Brown is something of a trickster — making use of suggestion and misdirection to manipulate people and accurately predict their behaviour — his skills are something to behold. His newer TV shows also seem to be about helping people in areas such as self-improvement and increasing self-confidence.

Thousands of ‘ordinary’ people apply to be on his shows where he teaches participants some of his psychological techniques. In a recent Trick or Treat episode, an applicant in his mid-40s claims to have a very bad memory (as many people of that age might advocate).

After teaching said participant to speed-read and passing on various memory techniques, Derren Brown enters the man in England’s top pub quiz. After just two weeks of preparation, the participant single-handedly earns second place.

One fantastically simple memory technique that is mentioned here is that of the memory palace. This creative approach is not only simple, but it is highly effective in committing long lists of information to memory that can then be recalled at will. It has been used since ancient Rome and goes something like this.

A Virtual Memory Palace

Virtual Memory Palace

The memory palace technique is based on the fact that we’re extremely good at remembering places we know (image: web.science.mq.edu.au)

Step 1: Creating a Memory Palace

The whole memory palace technique is based on the fact that we’re extremely good at remembering places we know. So, the first step is to create a memory palace of your choosing in your mind’s eye. A memory palace is essentially a physical location that you are very familiar­ with — such as your home or route to work. So long as you can clearly visualise each room or landmark within your memory palace, it will serve you well.

Step 2: Define a route

The second step is to trace a clearly defined route through your memory palace and visualise particular objects along the way. If you are considering your home for example, your route may start with your front door. You may enter into a hallway and notice a mirror hanging on the wall. Start with one object per room and follow an easy path (such as from left to right) until you are back at your starting point.

Practice following this route in your memory palace — making an effort to remember each specific object in order. This shouldn’t be hard to do if you choose a place deeply embedded within your mind; perhaps the house you grew up in. Each object is generally known as a “memory peg”.

Step 3: Peg it to memory

Now think of something that you’d like to remember, such as a shopping list or your agenda for the week ahead. Place items in a particular order and integrate each with a memory peg (object) within your memory palace. It helps to conceptualise objects as being bizarre or perhaps cartoon-like at this stage. Memory does, after all, perform best when operating in a strong, visual way.

For example: your week could start by going to the post office. If you have chosen your home as a memory palace, visualise a letter box spewing out envelopes. Perhaps your child is playing a school cricket match on Tuesday. Visualise a school cricket match happening inside the mirror in the hallway. Animate­ things as best you can and they’ll be sure to stick in your head. You could even add smells and sounds to things to remember.

Step 4: Remember to practice!

The memory palace has proven to be a powerful memory technique that anyone­ can use to awaken the memory they already have. Your imagination really is the limit. Also, remember that you can have more than one memory palace for dealing with different kinds of information. There is also always the option of upgrading your palaces once you’ve got the hang of it.

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TED TALK: Building a 3D Model of the Mammalian Brain

Here’s something that might blow your neo cortex. Neuroscientists are confident that within the next 10 years they will be able to construct an artificial human brain that functions very much like the real thing.

This is according to brain expert Henry Markram — director of Blue Brain, a supercomputing project that models components of the mammalian brain to precise cellular detail — and simulate their activity in 3D. Markram’s ultimate goal is to build a detailed, realistic­ computer model of the entire human brain.

Talk of neurology tends to be very scientific by nature, so I have attempted to dissect Markram’s work from a talk he gave at TED — a small non-profit organisation devoted to "ideas worth spreading". TED started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from the three worlds of technology, entertainment and design, and the talks given in these fields are simply fantastic.

Brain Builders: The Neocortical Column

The Neocortical Column - Brain Builders

The holy grail of neuroscience is understanding the design of the neo cortical column, which could inevitably help us better understand perception and reality (Photos: Blue Brain)

Brain Builders: Building a Brain

Understanding the human brain is a key step in evolution that will better equip human beings to understand one another and the societies in which they live. Being able to study and experiment with working models of the human brain will also do away with the need for animal experimentation.

In his talk, Markram pointed out that there are over two billion people on the planet today suffering from mental disorders. The drugs that are used to treat such disorders are largely empirical and far from conclusive. Understanding the human brain may lead to more concrete solutions to treating people with such disorders.

Henry Markram - Brain BuildersThere are many theories regarding how the brain works. One that is drawing the most attention according to Markram (pictured right) is one that theorises how the brain creates or builds a version of the universe and projects this around us. This particular theory has been part of philosophical debate for centuries. However, with brain simulation, this theory can finally be tested and explored further.

Markram highlights decisions as the main factor influencing our perceptual bubbles. Upon walking into a room for example, one has to immediately process all kinds of information regarding what you see. Decisions regarding the size of the room, its dimensions, the height to the roof, all the objects in the room etc. have to be made in an instant. Markram posits that 99% of what we see is not what enters through our eyeballs, but rather what we infer about that room.

Brain Builders: Our Brain in Evolution

If you are an evolutionist, you may know that it took the universe 11 billion years to develop the brain into what it is today. The exciting news is that this development has by no means slowed down. On the contrary, our brains are currently evolving faster than ever before. In fact, because of the restrictiveness of our skulls, we can already see how the growing brain has starting to fold in on itself to accommodate more grey matter.

Brain BuildersThe neo cortex is the latest evolutionary achievement. This is arranged in columns and is where all our more complex functions occur. The holy grail of neuroscience is understanding the design of the neocortical column, which could inevitably help us better understand perception and reality.

Neuroscientists have systematically dissected the neo cortex over the past 15 years. Understanding how the neo cortex works largely involves understanding how our neurons are arranged and communicate with each other.

The biggest design secret of the human brain, according to Markram, is diversity. Not only is every neuron different, but their arrangement differs too in each and every human being. What we do all share is the same fabric and chemistry, which is how we can all perceive and understand the same reality­. This is also believed to be species-specific, which might explain why we can’t communicate across species — more naturally at least.

To create a working model of the neo cortex of a rodent (consisting of 10 000 neurons), Markram and his team required an entire laptop to power a single­ neuron. A refrigerator-sized supercomputer was built (basically consisting of 10 000 laptops) and neuroscientists have began to gain the first glimpse of what happens in our brains when they receive a stimulus.

Stimulating stuff!

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