This brain balancing act allows consciousness
Two types of thinking have a time-sharing deal going on in your brain.
- Your DMN and DAT neural networks cooperate by staying out of each other's way.
- FMRI scans reveal a surprising temporal dance.
- When both systems are at the same activity level, boom, you're unconscious.
While consciousness remains "the hard problem" — as in what exactly is it? Where is it? — a new study published in Science Advances sheds surprising light on how the brain switches us from conscious to unconscious states and vice versa. It has something to do with an imbalance between two neural systems. In fact, consciousness requires that imbalance.
Imagine you and a friend want to go out to dinner but you want Chinese food and your friend wants pizza. If both of your preferences carry equal weight, nobody gets to eat. Let's say that's like unconsciousness. But when one of you gives in, yum: Consciousness.
According to lead author Zirui Huang of University of Michigan Medical School, "Studies have shown that the anti-correlation of the two networks is vital for maintaining ongoing interaction between self and the environment, [and] that contributes to consciousness."
Image source: Gearstd/Shutterstock/Big Think
The two neural networks are the default mode network (DMN) and the dorsal attention network (DAT).
The DMN is an internally directed neural system that exhibits electrical activity in fMRI scans when you're awake and the brain is comparatively at rest and not at work performing a specific task. Maybe you're spacing out, or reflecting on something, or maybe you're enjoying a memory of some sort.
The DAT lights up when your brain is actively directed externally toward accomplishing a specific task; it's sometimes called the "task -positive system."
The scientific term for their relationship is that they're "anti-correlated," and the maintenance of their opposite states is a consistent thing, so some kind of temporal relationship seems implicit.
Image source: Hakaba/Shutterstock
The implied temporal relationship has not previously been definitively shown to impact consciousness. Huang's study, however, tests the idea that this anti-correlation is a requisite for consciousness, or maybe it's the other way around: Absent consciousness, the anti-correlation breaks down.
To test their hypothesis, Huang and his colleagues analyzed resting-state fMRI scans from 98 participants in varying states of responsiveness, located in Shanghai and Wisconsin. (Because participants were given task in various states, the researchers chose to grade their level of unresponsiveness instead of unconsciousness." In addition to a DAT-mode control group, scans were performed on participants who were in unresponsive states from anesthesia, either propofol or ketamine, or from unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, or UWS. Ultimately, the researchers developed four data sets: propofol-Shanghai, propofol-Wisconsin, ketamine, and neuropathological patients.
They found being unresponsive correlated consistently with scans in which the DAT and DMN systems were at equilibrium. No Chinese food or pizza for them.
For confirmation, a second study was performed with scans from 248 subjects published in the OpenfMRI database. The cohort consisted of healthy individuals, as well as individuals with psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Various states of responsiveness in the available scans were identified, and once again, when DAT and DMN activation was equal, participants were in an unresponsive state.
Part of a larger mystery
Image source: John Graner/Wikimedia
Of course, this study doesn't get us much further along regarding the hard problem, but we do now know a little bit more about how consciousness appears to work at least. The DMN and DAT neural networks together account for a lot of what goes on it consciousness. Just, please, not at the same time.
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Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
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