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How mirror neurons allow us to send other people ‘good vibes’
Mirror neurons bounce smiles from one person to the next.
- Mirror neurons fire when we observe an action performed by another person, mentally simulating that action for ourselves.
- Because of these mirror neurons, studies show that smiling is, in a sense, neurologically contagious — and so are the good feelings associated with them.
- Low-functioning mirror neurons might underly a number of mental disorders, such as autism.
Social interactions can elicit a wide range of emotions. One of the most important components to have in interpersonal relationships is empathy — the ability to understand and feel what another person is experiencing. Humans are dynamic social animals, and the ability to mirror others emotions is neurologically embedded into our brain.
Mirror neurons were first discovered in the 1980s while experimenting with monkeys. Motor neurons fire when you do something, and during the study, researchers found that a primate's neurons for action or movement were also actively set off simply by just looking at another monkey doing something. In a literal sense — monkey see, monkey do.
There are a lot of interesting implications to this fact, and scientists are still researching how this works with people.
Mirror neurons might be crucial to fundamental components of our speech, interaction, and empathy, and their lack may also influence autism. If mirror neurons are at play for dynamic human interactions, it might bring a whole new meaning to the saying "smile, and the world smiles with you."
Mirror neurons activate when you smile
Scientists have looked at areas of the brain that are activated when somebody else smiles. Using fMRI brain imaging, scientists found that the standard areas of visual perception lit up. But they also found that other interesting areas of the brain lit up as well.
"The results show that perceiving and expressing pleasant facial affect share a common neural basis in areas concerned with motor as well as somato- and limbic-sensory processing," the researchers write.
In other words, in the premotor cortex, our muscles for forming a smile were activated. Our brain activity fired off in both the physical and emotional state of smiling, which shows that when someone smiles, our mirror neurons simulate our own state of smiling.This may show that simulation in our mind may contribute to helping us understand what another person is feeling.
There seems to be a unique psychological and physiological interplay relationship here as well. An experimental study in 2007 had subjects view photographs of people's faces and asked them to evaluate their expressions. During some of the trials, the participants had to bite down on a pen while viewing the photos. It was found that when biting down, which limited the facial muscles from moving and stopped them from smiling, the participants were less likely to recognize happy expressions in the photographs.
What we can garner from this is that the inability to smile brought about an empathetic lapse in recognizing another person's happiness.Psychologist Paul Ekman found this out in the 1980s. He noticed that when he was studying faces that signaled sadness and distress, he felt terrible afterwards. Ekman and his colleagues began to monitor the way their body changed and found markers that showed the sad expressions had changed their autonomic nervous system as if they were actually sad themselves.
Smiling can lift your mood
When we smile or see another person smile, we mentally simulate that action and feel happier. Just the simple act of smiling triggers a rush of positive neurological activity. You can count on lowering stress and having a new, uplifted mood.
Smiles usually stem from happiness. But it turns out, the opposite is true as well. The act of smiling can boost our dopamine and increase our feeling of happiness.
Neurologist Dr. Isha Gupta confirms that smiling sparks a chemical change in the brain. She states, "Dopamine increases our feelings of happiness. Serotonin release is associated with reduced stress. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and aggression."
On a surface level, we're more prone to reciprocate what we see around ourselves and mirror that internally. The reduction of mirror neuron activity may contribute to autism, as those with the condition are often unable to interact socially.
Autism and mirror neurons
In 2006, neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni published a paper in Nature Neuroscience linking mirror neuron dysfunction to autism. His research found that mirror neurons are not only an important element of social cognition, but defects in them may underlie a number of mental disorders.
In an interview with Scientific American, Iacoboni explained that
"Reduced mirror neuron activity obviously weakens the ability of these patients to experience immediately and effortlessly what other people are experiencing, thus making social interactions particularly difficult for these patients. Patients with autism have also often motor problems and language problems. It turns out that a deficit in mirror neurons can in principle explain also these other major symptoms."
The majority of people without mirror neuron dysfunction seamlessly understand social cues and empathetically experience a feeling without thought.
"When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don't need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly (in a milder form, of course) what you are experiencing," Iacoboni states.
Mirror neurons are the only types of brain cells known to code the actions of others in tandem with activating our own. They hold a special importance in social interactions.
While we'll never be able to truly feel what it's like to be someone else, our mirror neuron system gives us the ability to mentally simulate another person's actions fluidly.
A smile goes a long way after all.
- Mirror neurons in rats reveal a capacity for empathy - Big Think ›
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A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A new paper reveals that the Voyager 1 spacecraft detected a constant hum coming from outside our Solar System.
Voyager 1, humanity's most faraway spacecraft, has detected an unusual "hum" coming from outside our solar system. Fourteen billion miles away from Earth, the Voyager's instruments picked up a droning sound that may be caused by plasma (ionized gas) in the vast emptiness of interstellar space.
Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe — along with its twin Voyager 2 — has been traveling farther and farther into space for over 44 years. It has now breached the edge of our solar system, exiting the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space influenced by the sun. Now, the spacecraft is moving through the "interstellar medium," where it recorded the peculiar sound.
Stella Koch Ocker, a doctoral student in astronomy at Cornell University, discovered the sound in the data from the Voyager's Plasma Wave System (PWS), which measures electron density. Ocker called the drone coming from plasma shock waves "very faint and monotone," likely due to the narrow bandwidth of its frequency.
While they think the persistent background hum may be coming from interstellar gas, the researchers don't yet know what exactly is causing it. It might be produced by "thermally excited plasma oscillations and quasi-thermal noise."
The new paper from Ocker and her colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Iowa, published in Nature Astronomy, also proposes that this is not the last we'll hear of the strange noise. The scientists write that "the emission's persistence suggests that Voyager 1 may be able to continue tracking the interstellar plasma density in the absence of shock-generated plasma oscillation events."
Voyager Captures Sounds of Interstellar Space www.youtube.com
The researchers think the droning sound may hold clues to how interstellar space and the heliopause, which can be thought of as the solar's system border, may be affecting each other. When it first entered interstellar space, the PWS instrument reported disturbances in the gas caused by the sun. But in between such eruptions is where the researchers spotted the steady signature made by the near-vacuum.
Senior author James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell, compared the interstellar medium to "a quiet or gentle rain," adding that "in the case of a solar outburst, it's like detecting a lightning burst in a thunderstorm and then it's back to a gentle rain."
More data from Voyager over the next few years may hold crucial information to the origins of the hum. The findings are already remarkable considering the space probe is functioning on technology from the mid-1970s. The craft has about 70 kilobytes of computer memory. It also carries a Golden Record created by a committee chaired by the late Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell University. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disk record is essentially a time capsule, meant to tell the story of Earthlings to extraterrestrials. It contains sounds and images that showcase the diversity of Earth's life and culture.
A team of scientists managed to install onto a smartphone a spectrometer that's capable of identifying specific molecules — with cheap parts you can buy online.
- Spectroscopy provides a non-invasive way to study the chemical composition of matter.
- These techniques analyze the unique ways light interacts with certain materials.
- If spectrometers become a common feature of smartphones, it could someday potentially allow anyone to identify pathogens, detect impurities in food, and verify the authenticity of valuable minerals.
The quality of smartphone cameras has increased exponentially over the past decade. Today's smartphone cameras can not only capture photos that rival those of stand-alone camera systems but also offer practical applications, like heart-rate measurement, foreign-text translation, and augmented reality.
What's the next major functionality of smartphone cameras? It could be the ability to identify chemicals, drugs, and biological molecules, according to a new study published in the Review of Scientific Instruments.
The study describes how a team of scientists at Texas A&M turned a common smartphone into a "pocket-sized" Raman and emission spectral detector by modifying it with just $50 worth of extra equipment. With the added hardware, the smartphone was able to identify chemicals in the field within minutes.
The technology could have a wide range of applications, including diagnosing certain diseases, detecting the presence of pathogens and dangerous chemicals, identifying impurities in food, and verifying the authenticity of valuable artwork and minerals.
Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy
Raman and fluorescence spectroscopies are techniques for discerning the chemical composition of materials. Both strategies exploit the fact that light interacts with certain types of matter in unique ways. But there are some differences between the two techniques.
As the name suggests, fluorescence spectroscopy measures the fluorescence — that is, the light emitted by a substance when it absorbs light or other electromagnetic radiation — of a given material. It works by shining light on a material, which excites the electrons within the molecules of the material. The electrons then emit fluorescent light toward a filter that measures fluorescence.
The particular spectra of fluorescent light that's emitted can help scientists detect small concentrations of particular types of biological molecules within a material. But some biomolecules, such as RNA and DNA, don't emit fluorescent light, or they only do so at extremely low levels. That's where Raman spectroscopy comes into play.
Raman spectroscopy involves shooting a laser at a sample and observing how the light scatters. When light hits molecules, the atoms within the molecules vibrate and photons get scattered. Most of the scattered light is of the same wavelength and color as the original light, so it provides no information. But a tiny fraction of the light gets scattered differently; that is, the wavelength and color are different. Known as Raman scattering, this is extremely useful because it provides highly precise information about the chemical composition of the molecule. In other words, all molecules have a unique Raman "fingerprint."
Creating an affordable, pocket-sized spectrometer
To build the spectrometer, the researchers connected a smartphone to a laser and a series of plastic lenses. The smartphone camera was placed facing a transmission diffraction grating, which splits incoming light into its constituent wavelengths and colors. After a laser is fired into a sample, the scattered light is diffracted through this grating, and the smartphone camera analyzes the light on the other side.
Schematic diagram of the designed system.Credit: Dhankhar et al.
To test the spectrometer, the researchers analyzed a range of sample materials, including carrots and bacteria. The laser used in the spectrometer emits a wavelength that's readily absorbed by the pigments in carrots and bacteria, which is why these materials were chosen.
The results showed that the smartphone spectrometer was able to correctly identify the materials, but it wasn't quite as effective as the best commercially available Raman spectrometers. The researchers noted that their system might be improved by using specific High Dynamic Range (HDR) smartphone camera applications.
Ultimately, the study highlights how improving the fundamentals of a technology, like smartphone cameras, can lead to a surprisingly wide range of useful applications.
"This inexpensive yet accurate recording pocket Raman system has the potential of being an integral part of ubiquitous cell phones that will make it possible to identify chemical impurities and pathogens, in situ within minutes," the researchers concluded.