Friday’s 5 cognitive curiosities journal club

A weekly trail mix of thought-provoking essays and research.

1. The madness of mindfulness

From The Financial Times

Lately, there’s been more and more of a backlash against mindfulness. It’s only natural given the rate it is growing at and the unscrupulous many who try to earn some cash riding this wave and promising mindfulness as the true path to the moon and the stars.

An understandably overwhelmed mother standing amidst Lego pieces gets a push notification on her phone that it is time to be mindful. This seems to have been the straw that broke the camels back. She goes on a rant about the appful pursuit of happiness. Caustically, she remarks on the passive aggressive nature of the simplicity of the mindfulness proposition and the real-life difficulties of its application. Of course, the article isn’t about mindfulness, it is about the cult of commoditised mindfulness and its many apps. It is quite overwhelming indeed – if you are the kind easily gets swayed by trends.

2. Time will show – and only time

From N.N. Taleb

N.N. Taleb, the closest thing we have to a popular philosopher today, brings some seemingly obvious, yet profound, insights:

…Actors gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted, say one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. The heuristic became known as the Lindy Effect. The Lindy effect is one of the most useful, robust, and universal heuristics I know…

Being reviewed or assessed by others matters if and only if one is subjected to the judgment by future –not just present — others

Academia can become a ritualistic publishing game

3. Music works the same way as heroin

From Nature Scientific Reports

Music’s universality and its ability to deeply affect emotions suggest an evolutionary origin. The research shows that endogenous opioids are critical to experiencing both positive and negative emotions in music, and that music uses the same reward pathways as food, drug and sexual pleasure. Our findings add to the growing body of evidence for the evolutionary biological substrates of music.

4. The internet and our brains are more similar than we think

From Neural Computation

The Internet relies on not being overloaded in order to work. The solution involves controlling information flow such that routes are neither clogged nor underutilised. To accomplish this, the Internet employs an algorithm called “additive increase, multiplicative decrease” (AIMD) in which your computer sends a packet of data and then listens for an acknowledgement from the receiver. If the packet is promptly acknowledged, the network is not overloaded and your data can be transmitted through the network at a higher rate. With each successive successful packet, your computer knows it’s safe to increase its speed by one unit, which is the additive increase part. This process is quite similar to our brain’s long term potentiation, i.e. memory formation. But if an acknowledgement is delayed or lost your computer knows that there is congestion and slows down by a large amount, such as by half, which is the multiplicative decrease part. This is called long-term depression (nothing to do with clinical depression).

5. The “bouba-kiki”effect: words sound sharp or soft on a subconscious level

From Psychological Science

The “bouba-kiki” effect, originally reported over 85 years ago and replicated many times since, shows that people consistently pair the soft-sounding nonsense word “bouba” with soft-looking, round shapes and they typically pair the sharp-sounding nonsense word “kiki” with spiky-looking, angular shapes.One may argue this is good old onomatopoeia, however, the researchers did a series of curious visual experiments showing people the nonsense word in a congruent (bouba-circle) or non-congruent (bouba-angular) shape. The images were shown in one eye, while the other eye was shown flashy distracting images. The congruent pair was noticed first, indicating that participants perceived and processed the relationship between word and shape before they were consciously aware of the stimuli.

Have a great weekend everyone.

Friday’s 5 cognitive curiosities journal club

1. Thinking Fast and Slow: 2 different networks

From eLife

University of Oxford researchers studied the speed/accuracy trade-off involved in making decisions. They explored the networks that determine how quickly we choose an option, and how much information we need to make that choice. These findings indicate that distinct neural mechanisms determine whether a decision will be made in haste or with caution. They found that participants made much faster decisions when the task was easier and when asked for a quick decision. As expected, study participants made significantly more errors during tests where they spent more time making a decision and were instructed to focus on accuracy.

2. Are some people born depressed?

From The Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Alterations in the normal development of the functional connectivity within the amygdala have been associated with atypical emotional processes and psychopathology. This study examined term and preterm neonates who were then followed up at 2 years of age. Most interestingly, the researchers noted that various connection patterns between the amygdala and other structures – like the insula, involved in consciousness and emotion, and the medial prefrontal cortex, which plays roles in planning and decision making – affect the risk of early symptoms related to depression and anxiety.

3. AI to decode conversation tone to help people with social anxiety and ASD

From MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL)

The system captures audio data and text transcripts to analyse the speaker’s tone, pitch, energy, and vocabulary. It’s not ready for widespread use, but the algorithms are training as this is written.

4. You pop that gum one more time…

From Current Biology

While nobody really likes repetitive sounds like chewing or pen clicking, some people are known to get particularly distressed by them. It’s called misophobia. This study reveals that this is due to a physical difference in the myelination of the grey matter of ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).

5. A seminal paper on mindfulness in medicine


I am currently talking to one of the medical mindfulness pioneers, Prof Ronald Epstein. Now a professor, then a third-year Harvard medical student, he was moved by the experience of watching an surgeon fail to notice that his 18-year-old patient’s kidney had turned blue. This set Epstein on a path of studying what makes doctors present and how it benefits their practice. He argues that as a link between relationship-centered care and evidence-based medicine, mindfulness should be considered a characteristic of good clinical practice.

cognitive curiosities top 5 this week

Exercise and thinking

I recently chanced upon a study showing that aerobic exercise can be beneficial in mild cognitive impairment. It literally increases the size of the brain. The fact that we can now image brains in a way that detects this is exciting. Nobody is really quite sure what it means, but the fact that it is so tangible and obvious is really gratifying – and hard to argue with. Interestingly, mindfulness also changes brain structure on imaging.

There have been plenty of studies of this sort – including on healthy people. They show that exercise benefits one’s mood and working memory, enhanced cognitive strategies, hippocampal neuroplasticity – in short, exercise helps your brain do its thing. I wish this message was easier to spread. Exercise for a functional brain.

In my own subjective n=1 experience, exercise makes a huge difference to how I feel emotionally. It’s like a shield that keeps irrelevant noise out – and it was quite hard to believe how well it works until I tried it. At this point, I’ve been non-stop at it for over 3 years. My main motivator to stay going with exercise is how it makes me feel. Not immediately, not right after a gym session, but on average. Having said that, isn’t our motivation nearly always how it makes us feel? How I got into it was the classic monkey-see-monkey-do dynamic. Some like to call it having a role model. During my masters, I was surrounded by a bunch of health-freaks: they were all from continental Europe, wore fancy running shoes, drank a lot of coffee and read the Economist. The enthusiasm with which they discussed running routes for their new city, whether or not a Fitbit is worth the investment – and so on, rubbed off on me. I had to try this, ze fitness. I never stopped.

exercise benefits depression

I’ve experimented with running, spinning, HIIT, swimming, weights – pretty much anything that is solitary and non-competitive is good. During a particularly busy stint at the hospital, I injured a joint – meaning I couldn’t properly weight bear. I could barely get around the seemingly endless corridors of a large Dublin hospital with nobody to cover for me on call. Exercise was not on the menu. About a week into this state of affairs, I noticed that I was starting to get sad for no reason at all. It took some introspection to figure out that it was likely down to the fact that I wasn’t exercising. The biochemistry shifted, the chemicals released during exercise wore off – and now I was feeling down. I took corrective action: so I cannot weight bear. Time for abs of steel! As if. In any case, the change in my mood from a week of significantly diminished physical activity was stark.

This experience is echoed in the story of a patient I once saw in a psychiatric hospital. He was a young guy who exercised a lot: 20 miles on a bike every day, marathons, the works. For about a year and a half he attended a cardiologist about a chest pain. He had virtually every conceivable test done – none of these tests detected any abnormalities. By the time he saw me, he had had a few attacks of this chest pain in the space of a few days – and a very low mood. The week before two things happened: he twisted his ankle and his girlfriend had just broken up with him. Long story short, the man’s chest pain was psychosomatic. He had a perfectly healthy heart. The stress of his girlfriend breaking up with him, superimposed on not being able to exercise due to a twisted ankle, led to the mood collapse as well as the chest pains.

Clearly, exercise is addictive. This is part of the reason why people keep exercising despite pain. Before I discovered the absolute must that is a foam-roller, I caused a repetitive strain injury in my calf from running too much. I couldn’t really stop: I was so into it, I just gobbled down two Nurofen and off I went. If, six months previously, someone told me that I would be like this, I would never have believed them. My buzz was all about cuddling up with a book and drinking hot chocolate – not hopping around with a painful calf in the permeating Dublin rain.

Once a psychiatry professor came to talk to us during lunch. His opening question was: “What is the single most effective intervention for both physical and mental health?” Some annoying know-it-all raised their hand and said: “Exercise.” (Okay, okay, it was me). I would still say it though.

I think it is the perfect example of the 80/20 rule, or even a 99/1 version of it. Exercise takes up very little time – if you’re clever about it – and delivers unbelievable results. In short, exercise is definitely on the to-do list of anyone who is interested in having a clear head. It’s surprisingly easy to get carried away into fitness-junkie territory, however, it is definitely worth the risk. In any confusing situation, it’s mindfulness and exercise.

exercise for healthy brain and good mood