In honor of Brain Awareness Week and Brainwave 2016: Emotions, we conducted a Q&A on Twitter with neuroscientists Moran Cerf and Heather Berlin. The experts taught us a few things about our brains and how they process our everyday lives and emotions.
Check out their responses to a few questions below:
1) How active is the brain when we are sleeping?
Moran Cerf: Interestingly. When you are asleep your brain is very awake. It is not only active, but actually, some parts of it are MORE active than during waking hours. It processes and consolidates your memories, it reorganizes connections in your brain, and it calibrates a lot of your body for the coming day.
2) What is happening in the brain when we are agonizing over a decision?
Heather Berlin: The field of neuroeconomics is exploring this issue. The short answer is that the prefrontal cortex is involved in decision-making and it’s interacting with areas in the brain involved in emotional processing, like the insula and amygdala, and in reward processing, like the nucleus accumbens. You are basically weighing the risks and rewards of taking, or not taking, a particular course of action. And much of what’s happening in your brain when you’re making a decision is happening unconsciously. The conscious self is often the last to know.
3) What part of the brain controls emotions?
Moran Cerf: Some emotions are more basic and they are shared among us and many other animals; those are emotions like: fear, anger, disgust, or surprise. Other emotions are more complex and evolved in animals with bigger and more mature brains. Emotions like happiness or sadness seem to fall into that category, though scientists debate their exact definition. Finally, some emotions are so complex that they require the mixing of multiple brain systems and may exist only in adult humans (although some animals seem to look like they are experiencing them as well, so it’s always hard to know where the threshold actually is). Those emotions (which include jealousy, awe, and embarrassment) have physiological and cognitive aspects and are challenging to study as they can manifest differently from person to person.
4) Why do you feel certain emotions in your gut?
Heather Berlin: We actually have what’s called the enteric nervous system in our gut and it’s often referred to as our “second brain”. It consists of about 500 million neurons and there are hundreds of million of neurons connecting the brain to the enteric nervous system, which controls the gastrointestinal system. Interestingly our gut microbiome can influence the body’s level of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is involved in regulating our emotions.
5) What’s your take on humor and resolving incongruity?
Moran Cerf: Humor is an interesting situation. It is a cognitive process (we have to understand the joke to find it funny) but it also is an emotion (a burst of uncontrollable laughter that seems to emerge from us without us really ‘making it happen’). One of the leading theories is that it’s the brain resolving a conflict internally that was not expressed explicitly and then resolving this conflict with a release of the uncomfortable fact that you just said internally something ‘bad’. For example: if you take a joke and look at its punch-line, you’ll often see that there’s a hidden statement there that your brain has to resolve on its own.
Example: Say someone asks me, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” The chicken actually wants to be on the other side of the street, but chickens don’t even know that humans call this black asphalt thing a ‘street.’ Chickens are thinking like humans here, but that’s impossible! The person that said the joke didn’t say, “the chicken is thinking like a human,” it was my brain that said that internally, and it’s uncomfortable (and maybe stupid) to think that—it wasn’t something that I was going to say out loud. So there’s this strange unresolved thing happening in my mind right now. That’s new. That’s funny. Let’s laugh it out!
6) Pop music is generally liked by most people. Is there a universal neuron that stimulates this similarity?
Heather Berlin: Pop music usually contains patterns that the brain likes. We get innate pleasure from pattern recognition. When the brain solves a puzzle, it gets a hit of dopamine, and that’s an adaptive response. And with music our minds track the patterns and listen for the way the melody “resolves”, which has the root word “solve”, like the music is a puzzle that delivers its answer at the end of each phrase. Pop music usually contains “catchy” patterns that our brains like. And pop songs also usually involve a lot of repetition, which may be why those songs are hard to get out of our heads and we get earworms.
Learn more about your brain at an upcoming Brainwave talk.
Moran Cerf is a professor of neuroscience (LIJ) and business (Kellogg School of Management). His research uses methods from neuroscience to understand the underlying mechanisms of our psychology. He has published works that address questions such as: “How can we control our emotions?” and “Which brain mechanisms determine if we find content interesting?”. Recently his focus has been on the neural mechanisms that underlie decision-making, thereby offering a new perspective on predicting future choices and investigating how much free will we have in our decisions. He holds multiple patents and his works have been published in wide-circulation journals such as Nature and Science, as well as Scientific American Mind and leading neuroscience journals.
Heather Berlin is a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She explores interactions of the human brain and mind with the goal of contributing to improved treatment of impulsive and compulsive psychiatric disorders.Berlin is a committee member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange, host of the CUNY TV/PBS series Science Goes to the Movies, and the Discovery Channel series Superhuman Showdown. She’s been in two critically acclaimed shows on the neuroscience of improvisation at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has made numerous media appearances on the BBC, History Channel,StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, One World with Deepak Chopra, and TEDx.
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