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Our Brains May Respond to Art We Love in the Same Way, Small Study Suggests

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Participating in artistic experiences—either as a producer or a consumer—has been a universal human activity throughout history. We all consume or participate in art through one medium or another. And while there's no accounting for taste (yet), a new, small study found that however wildly divergent its participants' individual aesthetic preferences were, their brains reacted to art that moves them in a similar way.

Scientists at NYU recruited 16 observers to view and rate 109 images from the Catalog of Art Museum Images Online database ranging in style and origin. While an fMRI machine took scans of their brains, participants were asked to rate each of the artworks on a scale from 1 to 4 based on the following prompt:

Imagine that the images you see are of paintings that may be acquired by a museum of fine art. The curator needs to know which paintings are the most aesthetically pleasing based on how strongly you as an individual respond to them. Your job is to give your gut-level response, based on how much you find the painting beautiful, compelling, or powerful. Note: The paintings may cover the entire range from “beautiful” to “strange” or even “ugly.” Respond on the basis of how much this image “moves” you. What is most important is for you to indicate what works you find powerful, pleasing, or profound.

The participants were also asked to rate the same works of art on a scale of 1 to 7 for how strongly it elicited in them each of the following emotions: joy, pleasure, sadness, confusion, awe, fear, disgust, beauty, and the sublime. Researchers classified a strong response to any emotion—positive or negative—as a participant having been "moved" by a work of art.

Although preferences for which works of art were moving varied wildly among the participants, their mental activity, as reflected by whole-brain maps, was similar for works of art they had an intense reaction to. This activity appeared among "a set of posterior, anterior, and subcortical brain regions that were correlated with observers' aesthetic recommendations," the team writes in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

In participants' brains, the most moving artworks led to a selective activation of central nodes of the default mode network (DMN), a specific set of brain regions that are active when the brain is at wakeful rest. The DMN is associated with inward contemplation and self-assessment.

"The most moving artworks also activate a number of other frontal and subcortical regions, including several which reflect the evaluative and emotional dimensions of aesthetic experiences," the researchers write.

Scientists are now eager to learn more about what caused humans to evolve this propensity to experience an emotional reaction to art and which characteristics of aesthetic experience move us.

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Scientists Identify Cells in the Brain That Control Anxiety
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People plagued with the uncomfortable thoughts and sensations characteristic of anxiety disorders may have a small group of cells in the brain to blame, according to a new study. As NPR reports, a team of researchers has identified a class of brain cells that regulates anxiety levels in mice.

The paper, published in the journal Neuron, is based on experiments conducted on a group of lab mice. As is the case with human brains, the hippocampus in mouse brains is associated with fear and anxiety. But until now, researchers didn't know which neurons in the hippocampus were responsible for feelings of worry and impending danger.

To pinpoint the cells at work, scientists from Columbia University, the University of California, San Francisco, and other institutions placed mice in a maze with routes leading to open areas. Mice tend to feel anxious in spacious environments, so researchers monitored activity in the hippocampus when they entered these parts of the maze. What the researchers saw was a specialized group of cells lighting up when the mice entered spaces meant to provoke anxiety.

To test if anxiety was really the driving factor behind the response, they next used a technique called optogenetics to control these cells. When they lowered the cells' activity, the mice seemed to relax and wanted to explore the maze. But as they powered the cells back up, the mice grew scared and didn't venture too far from where they were.

Anxiety is an evolutionary mechanism everyone experiences from time to time, but for a growing portion of the population, anxiety levels are debilitating. Generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder can stem from a combination of factors, but most experts agree that overactive brain chemistry plays a part. Previous studies have connected anxiety disorders to several parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which governs memory as well as fear and worry.

By uncovering not just how the brain produces symptoms of anxiety but the individual cells behind them, scientists hope to get closer to a better treatment. There's more work to be done before that becomes a possibility. The anxiety cells in mice aren't necessarily a perfect indicator of which cells regulate anxiety in humans, and if a new treatment does eventually come from the discovery, it will be one of many options rather than a cure-all for every patient with the disorder.

[h/t NPR]

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Medicine
Wilder Penfield: The Pioneering Brain Surgeon Who Operated on Conscious Patients
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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For centuries, epilepsy was a source of mystery to scientists. Seizures were thought to be caused by everything from masturbation to demonic possession, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that a neurosurgeon showed the condition could sometimes be boiled down to specific spots in the brain. To do it, he had to open up patients’ heads and electrocute their brain tissue—while they were still conscious.

Wilder Penfield, the subject of today’s Google Doodle, was born on January 26, 1891 in Spokane, Washington. According to Vox, the Canadian-American doctor revolutionized the way we think about and treat epilepsy when he pioneered the Montreal Procedure. The operation required him to remove portions of the skulls of epilepsy sufferers to access their brains. He believed seizures were connected to small areas of brain tissue that were somehow damaged, and by removing the affected regions he could cure the epilepsy. His theory was based on the fact that people with epilepsy often experience “auras” before a seizure: vivid recollections of random scents, tastes, or thoughts.

To pinpoint the damaged brain tissue, he would have to locate the part of the brain tied to his patient’s aura. This meant that the patient would need to be awake to tell him when he struck upon the right sensation. Penfield stimulated the exposed brain tissue with an electrode, causing the patient to either feel numbness in certain limbs, experience certain smells, or recall certain memories depending on what part of the brain he touched. A local anesthetic reduced pain in the head; shocking the brain didn’t cause any pain because the organ doesn’t contain pain receptors.

During one of his surgeries, a patient famously cried, “I smell burnt toast!” That was the same scent that visited her before each seizure, and after Penfield removed the part of her brain associated with the sensation, her epilepsy went away.

Brain surgery isn’t a cure-all for every type of epilepsy, but treatments similar to the one Penfield developed are still used today. In some cases, as much as half of the brain is removed with positive results.

[h/t Vox]

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