Chapter 18. Attention and Higher Cognition
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to our mailing list, to receive news updates. Learn more.
By DAN HURLEY Two and a half millenniums ago, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama traveled to Bodh Gaya, India, and began to meditate beneath a tree. Forty-nine days of continuous meditation later, tradition tells us, he became the Buddha — the enlightened one. More recently, a psychologist named Amishi Jha traveled to Hawaii to train United States Marines to use the same technique for shorter sessions to achieve a much different purpose: mental resilience in a war zone. “We found that getting as little as 12 minutes of meditation practice a day helped the Marines to keep their attention and working memory — that is, the added ability to pay attention over time — stable,” said Jha, director of the University of Miami’s Contemplative Neuroscience, Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative. “If they practiced less than 12 minutes or not at all, they degraded in their functioning.” Jha, whose program has received a $1.7 million, four-year grant from the Department of Defense, described her results at a bastion of scientific conservatism, the New York Academy of Sciences, during a meeting on “The Science of Mindfulness.” Yet mindfulness hasn’t long been part of serious scientific discourse. She first heard another scientist mention the word “meditation” during a lecture in 2005. “I thought, I can’t believe he just used that word in this audience, because it wasn’t something I had ever heard someone utter in a scientific context,” Jha said. Although pioneers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, now emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, began teaching mindfulness meditation as a means of reducing stress as far back as the 1970s, all but a dozen or so of the nearly 100 randomized clinical trials have been published since 2005. And the most recent studies of mindfulness — the simple, nonjudgmental observation of a person’s breath, body or just about anything else — are taking the practice in directions that might have shocked the Buddha. In addition to military fitness, scientists are now testing brief stints of mindfulness training as a means to improve scores on standardized tests and lay down new connections between brain cells. © 2014 The New York Times Company
By Emilie Reas “Come on. Get out of the express checkout lane! That’s way more than twelve items, lady.” Without having to count, you can make a good guess at how many purchases the shopper in front of you is making. She may think she’s pulling a fast one, but thanks to the brain’s refined sense for quantity, she’s not fooling anyone. This ability to perceive numerosity – or number of items – does more than help prevent express lane fraud; it also builds the foundation for our arithmetic skills, the economic system and our concept of value. Until recently, it’s remained a puzzle how the brain allows us to so quickly and accurately judge quantity. Neuroscientists believe that neural representations of most high-level cognitive concepts – for example, those involved in memory, language or decision-making – are distributed, in a relatively disorganized manner, throughout the brain. In contrast, highly organized, specialized brain regions have been identified that represent most lower-level sensory information, such as sights, sounds, or physical touch. Such areas resemble maps, in that sensory information is arranged in a logical, systematic spatial layout. Notably, this type of neural topography has only previously been observed for the basic senses, but never for a high-level cognitive function. Researchers from the Netherlands may have discovered an exception to this rule, as reported in their recently published Science paper: a small brain area which represents numerosity along a continuous “map.” Just as we organize numbers along a mental “number line,” with one at the left, increasing in magnitude to the right, so is quantity mapped onto space in the brain. One side of this brain region responds to small numbers, the adjacent region to larger numbers, and so on, with numeric representations increasing to the far end. © 2014 Scientific American,
Link ID: 19135 - Posted: 01.15.2014
By Matt McGrath Environment correspondent, BBC News Taking substances to enhance the brain is more popular among amateur athletes than taking drugs to boost the body. Researchers in Germany found that 15% of recreational triathletes admitted to brain doping, using prescription medicines that increase attention. Some 13% of competitors reported using physical enhancers like steroids or human growth hormone. Brain doping is more popular say the scientists, because many of the substances aren't banned. The research has been published in the journal Plos One. Previous studies have shown that, among amateur competitors, the use of performance-enhancing substances is widespread. This new work used the responses of almost 3,000 triathletes taking part in events in Germany, to analyse the broader picture of physical and cognitive doping. Researchers believe that many so-called "smart drugs" are being widely used to enhance mental functions outside the patients groups they have been designed to help. They are also concerned that competitors in a variety of sports may be using these substances to gain an edge. In the study, participants were asked whether they had used physical or brain-enhancing substances in the past 12 months. Overall, 13% said they had taken drugs like EPO, steroids, or growth hormones. BBC © 2014
By Partha Mitra Leonardo Da Vinci, in his Treatise on Painting (Trattato della Pittura), advises painters to pay particular attention to the motions of the mind, moti mentali. “The movement which is depicted must be appropriate to the mental state of the figure,” he advises; otherwise the figure will be considered twice dead: “dead because it is a depiction, and dead yet again in not exhibiting motion either of the mind or of the body.” Francesco Melzi, student and friend to Da Vinci, compiled the Treatise posthumously from fragmented notes left to him. The vivid portrayal of emotions in the paintings from Leonardo’s school shows that his students learned to read the moti mentali of their subjects in exquisite detail. Associating an emotional expression of the face with a “motion of the mind” was an astonishing insight by Da Vinci and a surprisingly modern metaphor. Today we correlate specific patterns of electrochemical dynamics (i.e. “motions”) of the central nervous system, with emotional feelings. Consciousness, the substrate for any emotional feeling, is itself a “motion of the mind,” an ephemeral state characterized by certain dynamical patterns of electrical activity. Even if all the neurons, their constituent parts and neuronal circuitry remained structurally the same, a change in the dynamics can mean the difference between consciousness and unconsciousness. But what kind of motion is it? What are the patterns of electrical activity that correspond to our subjective state of being conscious, and why? Can they be measured and quantified? This is not only a theoretical or philosophical question but also one that is of vital interest to the anesthesiologist trying to regulate the level of consciousness during surgery, or for the neurologist trying to differentiate between different states of consciousness following brain trauma. © 2014 Scientific American
Link ID: 19112 - Posted: 01.08.2014
By JAMES GORMAN St. Louis — I knew I wouldn’t find my “self” in a brain scan. I also knew as I headed into the noisy torpedo tube of a souped-up M.R.I. machine at Washington University in St. Louis that unless there was something terribly wrong (“Igor, look! His head is filled with Bitcoins!”), I would receive no news of the particulars of how my brain was arranged. Even if I had been one of the 1,200 volunteers in the part of the Human Connectome Project being conducted there, I wouldn’t have gotten a report of my own personal connectome and what it meant. Once the 10 hours of scans and tests are finished, and 10 hours more of processing and analysis done, the data for each of the volunteers — all anonymous — becomes part of a database to help scientists develop tools so that one day such an individual report might be possible. Besides, I was just going through a portion of the process, to see what it was like. Even so, I do have this sense of myself as an individual, different from others in ways good, bad and inconsequential, and the pretty reasonable feeling that whatever a “self” is, it lies behind my eyes and between my ears. That’s where I feel that “I” live. So I couldn’t shake the sense that there would be something special in seeing my brain, even if I couldn’t actually spot where all the song lyrics I’ve memorized are stored, or locate my fondness for cooking and singing and my deep disappointment that I can’t carry a tune (though I can follow a recipe). So I climbed into the M.R.I. machine. I tried to hold my head perfectly still as I stared at a spot marked by a cross, tried to corral my fading memory to perform well on tests, curled my toes and moved my fingers so that muscle motion could be mapped, and wondered at the extraordinary noises M.R.I. machines make. © 2014 The New York Times Company
By NORIMITSU ONISHI SAN FRANCISCO — It started out as an operation to treat an increasingly common medical problem in America, childhood sleep apnea. It has become an anguished fight over the fate of a 13-year-old girl who, though pronounced legally dead by doctors, remains alive in the opinion of her religious parents. Sam Singer, a spokesman for Children’s Hospital, called the deal a victory for the hospital, which will release the girl to the Alameda County coroner. The girl, Jahi McMath, was declared brain-dead after complications from surgery on Dec. 9 at Children’s Hospital Oakland, which wanted to remove her from a ventilator. But her heart continues to beat, and her family protested the removal in court, so she has remained connected to the machine. On Friday, amid acrimonious battles in three courts, an Alameda County Superior Court judge mediated an agreement that could allow the child to be moved to another facility willing to take her, even though the hospital has declared her dead. As arguments in the courts continue, the girl will remain connected to the ventilator at least until Tuesday, under the judge’s order. In the meantime, family members are scrambling to identify a facility that will accept the girl and doctors willing to carry out procedures that will keep her heart beating during the transfer. Nailah Winkfield, the girl’s mother, said she was hopeful that Friday’s agreement would facilitate her daughter’s move. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 19096 - Posted: 01.04.2014
by Helen Thomson DRAW a line across a page, then write on it what you had for dinner yesterday and what you plan to eat tomorrow. If you are a native English speaker, or hail from pretty much any European country, you no doubt wrote last night's meal to the left of tomorrow night's. That's because we construct mental timelines to represent and reason about time, and most people in the West think of the past as on the left, and the future as on the right. Arnaud Saj at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and his colleagues wondered whether the ability to conjure up a mental timeline is a necessary part of reasoning about events in time. To investigate, they recruited seven Europeans with what's called left hemispatial neglect. That means they have damage to parts of the right side of their brain, limiting their ability to detect, identify and interact with objects in the left-hand side of space. They may eat from only the right side of a plate, shave just the right side of their face, and ignore numbers on the left side of a clock. The team also recruited seven volunteers who had damage to the right side of their brain but didn't have hemispatial neglect, and seven people with undamaged brains. All the volunteers took part in a variety of memory tests. First, they learned about a fictional man called David. They were shown pictures of what David liked to eat 10 years ago, and what he might like to eat in 10 years' time. Participants were then shown drawings of 10 of David's favourite foods, plus four food items they hadn't seen before. Participants had to say whether it was a food that David liked in the past or might like in future. The tests were repeated with items in David's apartment, and his favourite clothes. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 19095 - Posted: 01.04.2014
The maker of a type of sleeping pill is lowering the dose to minimize the risk of next-day drowsiness. The drug, Sublinox, has been associated in the past with abnormal sleep behaviours. In late 2011, Meda Valeant Pharma Canada warned that some people taking the drug had reported getting out of bed while not fully awake and performing activities they were unaware of doing. Those activities including driving a car, eating and making phone calls The drug company has lowered the recommended initial dose to five milligrams for women and either five or 10 milligrams for men. The drug company says Sublinox should be taken immediately before bedtime, when the user will have the opportunity to get at least seven or eight hours of sleep. People aged 65 and older should use the five-milligram dose, regardless of gender, the company says. Meda Valeant Pharma Canada issued the new advice in conjunction with Health Canada. Long-term use not recommended The advisory says women metabolize the drug more slowly than men, and therefore have a higher chance of experiencing next-day drowsiness. Sublinox — the brand name for the drug zolpidem — is a hypnotic. As with all drugs of this class, long-term use is not recommended. It should not be taken in the middle of the night or at any time other than bedtime, the statement says. © CBC 2014
Associated Press A sophisticated, real-world study confirms that dialing, texting or reaching for a cell phone while driving raises the risk of a crash or near-miss, especially for younger drivers. But the research also produced a surprise: Simply talking on the phone did not prove dangerous, as it has in other studies. This one did not distinguish between handheld and hands-free devices - a major weakness. And even though talking doesn't require drivers to take their eyes off the road, it's hard to talk on a phone without first reaching for it or dialing a number - things that raise the risk of a crash, researchers note. Earlier work with simulators, test tracks and cell phone records suggests that risky driving increases when people are on cell phones, especially teens. The 15- to 20-year-old age group accounts for 6 percent of all drivers but 10 percent of traffic deaths and 14 percent of police-reported crashes with injuries. For the new study, researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute installed video cameras, global positioning systems, lane trackers, gadgets to measure speed and acceleration, and other sensors in the cars of 42 newly licensed drivers 16 or 17 years old, and 109 adults with an average of 20 years behind the wheel. © 2014 Hearst Communications, Inc.
Link ID: 19091 - Posted: 01.04.2014
By Christof Koch I grew up in a devout and practicing Roman Catholic family with Purzel, a fearless and high-energy dachshund. He, as with all the other, much larger dogs that subsequently accompanied me through life, showed plenty of affection, curiosity, playfulness, aggression, anger, shame and fear. Yet my church teaches that whereas animals, as God's creatures, ought to be treated well, they do not possess an immortal soul. Only humans do. Even as a child, to me this belief felt intuitively wrong. These gorgeous creatures had feelings, just like I did. Why deny them? Why would God resurrect people but not dogs? This core Christian belief in human exceptionalism did not make any sense to me. Whatever consciousness and mind are and no matter how they relate to the brain and the rest of the body, I felt that the same principle must hold for people and dogs and, by extension, for other animals as well. It was only later, at university, that I became acquainted with Buddhism and its emphasis on the universal nature of mind. Indeed, when I spent a week with His Holiness the Dalai Lama earlier in 2013 [see “The Brain of Buddha,” Consciousness Redux; Scientific American Mind, July/August 2013], I noted how often he talked about the need to reduce the suffering of “all living beings” and not just “all people.” My readings in philosophy brought me to panpsychism, the view that mind (psyche) is found everywhere (pan). Panpsychism is one of the oldest of all philosophical doctrines extant and was put forth by the ancient Greeks, in particular Thales of Miletus and Plato. Philosopher Baruch Spinoza and mathematician and universal genius Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who laid down the intellectual foundations for the Age of Enlightenment, argued for panpsychism, as did philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, father of American psychology William James, and Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. It declined in popularity with the rise of positivism in the 20th century. © 2014 Scientific American,
Link ID: 19087 - Posted: 01.02.2014
Tomas Jivanda Being pulled into the world of a gripping novel can trigger actual, measurable changes in the brain that linger for at least five days after reading, scientists have said. The new research, carried out at Emory University in the US, found that reading a good book may cause heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist in a similar way to muscle memory. The changes were registered in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, as well as the the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with tricking the mind into thinking it is doing something it is not, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition - for example, just thinking about running, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running. “The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, lead author of the study. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.” 21 students took part in the study, with all participants reading the same book - Pompeii, a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris, which was chosen for its page turning plot. “The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” said Prof Berns. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way. It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.” © independent.co.uk
By Christian Jarrett Christmas is over and the start of the movie awards season is only weeks away! This is my excuse for a post about cinema and the brain. Over the years I’ve been keeping note of actors who studied neuroscience and other similar factoids and now I have the chance to share them with you. So here, in no particular order, are 10 surprising links between the worlds of Hollywood and brain research: 1. Actress Mayim Bialik is a neuroscientist. Bialik currently plays the character of neuroscientist Amy Fowler in the Big Bang Theory, which is neat because Bialik herself has a PhD in neuroscience. Her PhD thesis, completed at UCLA in 2007, has the title: “Hypothalamic regulation in relation to maladaptive, obsessive-compulsive, affiliative, and satiety behaviors in Prader-Willi syndrome.” “I don’t try and rub my neuroscience brain in people’s face[s],” Bialik says, “but when we have lab scenes … I have had to say that’s not where the tectum would be, we need it down here … or I’ve actually carved the fourth ventricle into slices … ’cause you know, why not have me do it.” Among her other acting roles, Bialik also featured in the short film for Michael Jackson’s Liberian Girl and she played the child version of Bette Midler’s character in Beaches (1988). 2. Natalie Portman is a neuroscientist. Perform a Google Scholar search on her name and you won’t get very far. But under her original name of Natalie Hershlag, the Oscar-winning actress co-authored a paper in 2002 on the role of the frontal lobes in infants’ understanding of “object permanence” – recognizing that things still exist even when you can’t see them. According to the Mind Hacks blog, Ms. Portman contributed to this research while working as a research assistant at Harvard University. Her paper has now been cited in the literature over 100 times. © 2013 Condé Nast.
Link ID: 19079 - Posted: 12.31.2013
By John Horgan New Year’s Day is approaching, a time when we—by which I mean I–brood over past failures and vow to improve ourselves: I will be less judgmental with my kids and more romantic with my girlfriend. I will stop binging on cookies and bad TV. (Why, oh why, do I keep watching Blacklist?) I will not assume that people who disagree with me are stupid or evil. Every time you choose one path over another, you are exercising your free will. Humanity has more freedom of choice now--and hence more free will--than in any previous era. At this time of year, I like to hearten my fellow Resolutionaries by defending the concept of free will, which has been attacked by various scientific pundits (who are just misguided, not stupid or evil). After all, how can you believe in resolutions unless you believe in free will? Below is an edited version of an essay that I originally wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education. I never really thought about free will—or rather, I just took it for granted—until 1991, when I interviewed the late, great Francis Crick, who had switched from cracking the genetic code to solving the riddle of consciousness. With unnerving cheerfulness, Crick informed me that brain research is contradicting the notion of free will. Picking up a pen from his desk, he noted that even this simple act is underpinned and preceded by complex biochemical processes taking place below the level of consciousness. “What you’re aware of is a decision, but you’re not aware of what makes you do the decision,” Crick said. “It seems free to you, but it’s the result of things you’re not aware of.” I frowned, and Crick chuckled at my distress. © 2013 Scientific American,
Link ID: 19077 - Posted: 12.28.2013
By Elijah Wolfson Of the many ills that can befall the human body, brain damage is one of the most devastating – and confusing. When a person suffers from a traumatic brain injury that leaves him or her in an uncommunicative state, doctors and loved ones face one of medical science’s most confounding questions: How do we know when a person is still there? When is a body just a body? Those question only get more complicated with the startling news that the brains of some patients in a vegetative state appear to recognize familiar faces. The implications are mind-boggling. Brain death – when there is zero brain function – is both a medical and legal term, and it is, quite literally, death. But when there is some brain function left, the lines blur rather quickly. A brain-damaged patient may live for months and even years, in limbo: her eyes may open and she may sleep and wake up in what appears to be a normal cycle, but she has no meaningful interactions and shows no awareness of her surroundings – or herself. She is in what the medical community calls a “persistent vegetative state,” awake but unaware. It’s unlikely that she will ever recover, and if she does, she will probably face severe physical and neurological impairments. Not what most of us call living. Someone in a vegetative state raises an essential moral and ethical question and an often bitter debate: How much should we do to keep a body on autopilot going? The debate has intensified in recent years, as a few studies have found striking examples of vegetative patients who seem to be able, on some level, to communicate. “With changing paradigms of imaging and other techniques,” Dr. Karen Hirsch, a neurologist and neurosurgeon at the Stanford University Medical Center, told Newsweek, “we are learning that maybe some of these people do have some awareness.” © 2013 IBT MEDIA INC
Link ID: 19063 - Posted: 12.23.2013
By Deborah Kotz / Globe Staff Anyone who hears about the tragic death of a 13-year-old California girl after a routine tonsil-removal surgery has to feel for the grieving parents who don’t want her removed from life support. The McMaths refuse to believe that their daughter Jahi, who was declared brain dead more than a week ago, is truly dead because machines are keeping her other organs alive. “How could you not let me have my kid for Christmas?” said Nailah Winkfield, McMath’s mother, in an interview with local reporters. “And this is Children’s Hospital, supposed to be so compassionate, so loving, and I asked, can my daughter just live a few more days? Because she is living.” McMath was declared brain dead more than a week ago, and her family has been fighting with hospital staff at Children’s Hospital & Research Center in Oakland to keep her body in a viable state and have her provided with nutrition via a feeding tube. “To me, it just looks like she’s at peace and she’s resting,” said Jahi’s uncle Omari Sealey, “and when she’s done going through the traumatic stuff that her body’s going through right now, and she feels well enough, she’ll wake up.” But McMath is dead—as horrible as that is for her family to fathom—and leaving her body attached to machines is akin to allowing a corpse remain in a hospital bed without a proper burial. Perhaps hospitals should stop calling such care “life support” since it’s not actually supporting any living person, just a body. “This case is so sad it is almost beyond description,” wrote Arthur Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center in a blog he posted Thursday on the NBC News website. “But that fact should not be a reason to take the view that we don’t know what to do when someone is pronounced brain dead. Brain dead is dead.” © 2013 Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC
Link ID: 19057 - Posted: 12.21.2013
By Greg Miller John McCluskey killed a vacationing couple in eastern New Mexico in 2010, set their camper trailer on fire with their bodies inside, and took off with their truck. In sentencing hearings held after his conviction, McCluskey’s lawyers argued that he should be spared the death penalty because abnormalities in his brain had made him impulsive and unable to control his behavior. Last week, a jury declared it had been unable to reach the unanimous decision required to sentence him to death. It’s not known if the brain scans and other scientific evidence played a role in McCluskey escaping the death penalty. And it’s not the first time such evidence has been introduced when the death penalty was on the line. In fact, neuroscience is making increasingly regular courtroom appearances. “It’s amazing the extent to which judges, attorneys, and juries are taking this in stride,” said Owen Jones, a legal scholar at Vanderbilt University who observed a few hours of testimony in McCluskey’s case. “Just a few generations ago, this was beyond the realm of science fiction,” Jones said. But now, “you watch the jurors and they reflect no outward manifestation of what an extraordinary thing it is to look inside another person’s brain.” ‘It’s amazing the extent to which judges, attorneys, and juries are taking this in stride.’ Nita Farahany, a bioethicist at Duke University has been tracking the rise of legal cases involving neuroscience evidence in the U.S. The number of judicial opinions mentioning neuroscience evidence tripled between 2005 and 2011, from roughly 100 to more than 300. “It’s more prevalent than my numbers show,” Farahany said. That’s because most cases involving neuroscience evidence do not result in a written judicial opinion, and those that don’t are exceedingly difficult to find. © 2013 Condé Nast.
By Suzanne Allard Levingston, Chris Ecarius had so much difficulty filling out his Social Security application online that the 62-year-old went to a doctor to find out why his brain didn’t seem to work properly. Over the years, he’d seen other doctors about similar struggles. He’d been told that he was depressed, but he didn’t feel depressed. This time, Ecarius got a different diagnosis: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a conclusion that seemed more appropriate for a child in grade school than an adult in retirement. When Ecarius, who lives in Houghton Lake, Mich., was young, he had trouble paying attention. He’d dropped out of school and left several jobs, had several traffic accidents and had never quite gotten on track. “I could have been a doctor,” he said. “I could have been a pharmacist, I could have been anything I wanted to be,” had someone diagnosed his ADHD when he was a child. With the help of his wife, Ecarius was able to settle into a skilled trade job with General Motors, a position he held until age 58, when, he says, he became overwhelmed by the computers at work. Ecarius is not alone. While ADHD — a condition marked by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity — is one of the most common brain disorders in children, it also occurs in approximately one in 20 adults, according to a 2006 study. A 2012 study based on interviews with almost 1,500 people by researchers in the Netherlands found that 2.8 percent of adults older than 60 have ADHD, with 4.2 percent of people in that age group reporting several ADHD symptoms and some impairment. But just being forgetful or scatterbrained doesn’t mean you have ADHD. Of course, many people, especially those older than 60, have these problems, but they could be a sign of something else — or nothing at all. © 1996-2013 The Washington Post
Link ID: 19042 - Posted: 12.17.2013
By ALAN SCHWARZ After more than 50 years leading the fight to legitimize attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Keith Conners could be celebrating. Severely hyperactive and impulsive children, once shunned as bad seeds, are now recognized as having a real neurological problem. Doctors and parents have largely accepted drugs like Adderall and Concerta to temper the traits of classic A.D.H.D., helping youngsters succeed in school and beyond. But Dr. Conners did not feel triumphant this fall as he addressed a group of fellow A.D.H.D. specialists in Washington. He noted that recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the diagnosis had been made in 15 percent of high school-age children, and that the number of children on medication for the disorder had soared to 3.5 million from 600,000 in 1990. He questioned the rising rates of diagnosis and called them “a national disaster of dangerous proportions.” “The numbers make it look like an epidemic. Well, it’s not. It’s preposterous,” Dr. Conners, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Duke University, said in a subsequent interview. “This is a concoction to justify the giving out of medication at unprecedented and unjustifiable levels.” The rise of A.D.H.D. diagnoses and prescriptions for stimulants over the years coincided with a remarkably successful two-decade campaign by pharmaceutical companies to publicize the syndrome and promote the pills to doctors, educators and parents. With the children’s market booming, the industry is now employing similar marketing techniques as it focuses on adult A.D.H.D., which could become even more profitable. Few dispute that classic A.D.H.D., historically estimated to affect 5 percent of children, is a legitimate disability that impedes success at school, work and personal life. Medication often assuages the severe impulsiveness and inability to concentrate, allowing a person’s underlying drive and intelligence to emerge. © 2013 The New York Times Company
Oliver Burkeman As we stumble again into the season of overindulgence – that sacred time of year when wine, carbs and sofas replace brisk walks for all but the most virtuous – a headline in the (excellent) new online science magazine Nautilus catches my eye: "What If Obesity Is Nobody's Fault?" The article describes new research on mice: a genetic alteration, it appears, can make them obese, despite eating no more than others. "Many of us unfortunately have had an attitude towards obese people [as] having a lack of willpower or self-control," one Harvard researcher is quoted as saying. "It's clearly something beyond that." No doubt. But that headline embodies an assumption that's rarely questioned. Suppose, hypothetically, obesity were solely a matter of willpower: laying off the crisps, exercising and generally bucking your ideas up. What makes us so certain that obesity would be the fault of the obese even then? This sounds like the worst kind of bleeding-heart liberalism, a condition from which I probably suffer (I blame my genes). But it's a real philosophical puzzle, with implications reaching far beyond obesity to laziness in all contexts, from politicians' obsession with "hardworking families" to the way people beat themselves up for not following through on their plans. We don't blame people for most physical limitations (if you broke your leg, it wouldn't be a moral failing to cancel your skydiving trip), nor for many other impediments: it's hardly your fault if you're born into educational or economic disadvantage. Yet almost everyone treats laziness and weakness of will as exceptions. If you can't be bothered to try, you've only yourself to blame. It's a rule some apply most harshly to themselves, mounting epic campaigns of self-chastisement for procrastinating, failing to exercise and so on. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited
By MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER More than a decade ago, a 43-year-old woman went to a surgeon for a hysterectomy. She was put under, and everything seemed to be going according to plan, until, for a horrible interval, her anesthesia stopped working. She couldn’t open her eyes or move her fingers. She tried to breathe, but even that most basic reflex didn’t seem to work; a tube was lodged in her throat. She was awake and aware on the operating table, but frozen and unable to tell anyone what was happening. Studies of anesthesia awareness are full of such horror stories, because administering anesthesia is a tightrope walk. Too much can kill. But too little can leave a patient aware of the procedure and unable to communicate that awareness. For every 1,000 people who undergo general anesthesia, there will be one or two who are not as unconscious as they seem — people who remember their doctors talking, and who are aware of the surgeon’s knife, even while their bodies remain catatonic and passive. For the unlucky 0.13 percent for whom anesthesia goes awry, there’s not really a good preventive. That’s because successful anesthetization requires complete unconsciousness, and consciousness isn’t something we can measure. There are tools that anesthesiologists use to get a pretty good idea of how well their drugs are working, but these systems are imperfect. For most patients receiving inhaled anesthesia, they’re no better at spotting awareness than dosing metrics developed half a century ago, says George Mashour, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Michigan Medical School. There are two intertwined mysteries at work, Mashour told me: First, we don’t totally understand how anesthetics work, at least not on a neurological basis. Second, we really don’t understand consciousness — how the brain creates it, or even what, exactly, it is. © 2013 The New York Times Company