Understand Your Stress

I recently started writing for berkeleyByte, a student-run website on design, culture, and technology.

My most recent article discusses how stress can lead to depression and how you can prevent it.

http://www.berkeley byte.com/2013/12/12/understand-your-stress



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Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a life-threatening disorder that humans arguably brought upon themselves, but so little is known about this condition that it may be very difficult to reverse the effects and eliminate causes. An extreme concern about being overweight leads to the disorder’s leading characteristics of diet and excessive exercise. It is 10-20 times more common in females (especially young women) and is considered a mental disorder developed through heredity and / or societal pressure. However, this latter notion is the major flaw because there may be more to the problem than simply a voluntary desire to become deathly thin.

Take the famous 1946 Minnesota Semi-Starvation Experiment for example. The study modified the caloric intake of healthy men while observing the psychological and physical effects over a 60-week period. The first 12 weeks were a control period, in which each individual consumed 3200 calories per day in order to reach his supposedly ideal weight. The following 24 weeks consisted of the semi-starvation “diet.” The prescribed caloric intake was determined by the man’s ideal weight. Researchers aimed to bring each subject to 75% of his normal weight with two meals per day. For 12 weeks afterwards, each individual was administered a strict rehabilitation diet to re-nourish him back to health. In the final 8 weeks, caloric intake was unregulated but monitored.

In the physical context, we would expect the subjects to become tired due to the lack of nourishment. Their body temperature and breathing and heart rates would naturally be reduced because of the fewer nutrients. However, these semi-starved men displayed anorexia symptoms as well! Many subjects demonstrated psychological distress and depression. They developed rituals and obsessions over eating yet could not explain their actions.

Evidently, semi-starved individuals exhibit symptoms of anorexia, but more importantly, this finding proves that anorexics may be influenced at the neurochemical level (because starvation causes alterations in neurotransmitter secretion and hormonal balance).

Studies on anorexia show that, in the brain, levels of the neuropeptide Y (NPY) increase. This neurotransmitter is found among the neurons of the arcuate nucleus, which is located at the base of the hypothalamus. Normally, increased levels of NPY induce insulin secretion, lower the body temperature, and maintain the fat storage of triglyceride within cells. Most significantly, NPY increases appetite and consumption. But during starvation, higher quantities of NPY reportedly lead to increased physical activity. Thus, when seeing food, a semi-starved individual may actually feel less inclined to eat and more inclined to exercise. This trait is very similar to the exercise and diet preferences found in anorexics.

At the endocrinological level, studies* show that the joint effect of various hormones aids anorexia’s symptoms as well. Anorexics normally have lower levels of leptin, a hormone that increases metabolic activity and reduces food intake and NPY secretion. With less leptin, the metabolism is slower and increased NPY secretion discourages eating. In addition, patients’ insulin levels rise when they smell food. This activity is counterproductive because more insulin promotes the satiety sensation.

Altogether, along with starvation, prenatal and hereditary factors can also contribute to the onset of anorexia.

So far, I have not described any gender-discriminating causes behind anorexia. Society prefers thin women, but is this mindset substantial enough to make the disorder so much more common among females? A 2006 study on female and male high schoolers proves otherwise.

In the experiment, students attended a free buffet lunch in which each student’s total consumption was monitored. A week later, they returned to the free buffet for lunch. This time, however, they had not eaten since the previous midday’s meal. Surprisingly, the consumption results differed between the genders. The males ate more food at a faster rate when they were under starvation. This was expected because the boys were naturally hungry after a day of starvation. But the females, in converse, ate less food at a slower rate than they had done in the previous buffet.

This high school study’s conclusion implies that food-reduction diets affect females and males differently. Thus, a female’s diet meant to lose weight may cause physical or endocrinological changes that actually produce anorexia.

Because various degrees of anorexia have prevailed throughout centuries, it is important to fully comprehend the causes and effects. Misunderstanding such an influential disorder has created an unalterable mindset toward specific individuals in society. Future studies will hopefully unveil more certainties that will transform the perspectives of anorexic individuals and their communities in the process.

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Understanding Narcolepsy


This short video shows narcolepsy in canines. The disorder has been observed in research in mice, rats, dogs, and horses. Although these cases develop with slight deviations from the human form, they are instructive for better comprehending the overall causes, symptoms, and treatments.

But one research tool in narcolepsy is particularly exciting because it could affect the clinical analysis of the disorder in the near future. Traditionally, narcolepsy is observed in animals and human patients by connecting electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes to the individual’s skull. Using a monitor, a researcher may examine the different brain waves and when they occur. On the EEG recordings, narcolepsy appears as long strands of rapid eye movement (REM) brain activity that is not preceded by deep slow-wave sleep. (Narcolepsy pertains to problems in REM sleep. A narcoleptic patient falls abruptly into REM sleep while he is awake.)

In animals, such as mice, observing narcolepsy can be time-consuming and difficult because of the tiny electrodes that must be implanted in the skull without damaging any of the disorder’s physiological manifestations. The process for classifying sleep stages is also laborious, especially since a researcher must manually read through the squiggly array of brain wave activity in order to correct any classification errors conducted by the computer software.

Fortunately, there may be a solution to these problems because the jagged REM brain waves are not the only way to ascertain a period of narcolepsy. The piezoelectric (PZT) system has long been known for its environment-promoting technology in converting vibrations into electrical energy. Recently, the sensory device has diversified its uses as researchers experiment with it for analyzing sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. Future endeavors pertaining to PZT may not only boost animal safety but even accelerate studies on sleep.

More specifically, because the PZT monitor discerns motion, it can potentially be used as a noninvasive method for observing cataplexy in narcoleptic experimental animals such as mice. Recent studies demonstrate the PZT’s ability to record the animal’s heart and respiration rates as it is lying down. The device consists of a metal platform with sensors. When a narcoleptic mouse has a bout of cataplexy, it collapses and lies flaccidly against the platform. The PZT sensors, aligned beneath the surface, then detect the mouse’s heart rate and record it. These sensors can potentially discern between a normal resting period and a real case of cataplexy within the mouse due to differentiations between the two heart rates. While the invasive EEG relies on brain activity and algorithms to classify the mouse’s sleep stages, the passive PZT may more accurately catalog instances of cataplexy, which could revolutionize research in narcolepsy for all mice, experimenters, and human patients (Sagawa et al.).

PZT is now only tested on mice and may help in animal experiments for trialing narcolepsy treatments in the future. However, it may soon replace the EEG methods of recording human brain activity. Perhaps someday, researchers will attach a small PZT monitor to the narcoleptic patient’s chest in a far simpler manner of observing the disorder in humans.

Despite recent advances, narcolepsy has only recently become a cutting-edge frontier in sleep research. It was first described in medical literature in 1877, and it now only appears in 0.05% of the world population. Therefore, it is no surprise that its causes and cures are still hazy (Mignot).

It is specifically a sleep disorder characterized by an individual’s distorted circadian rhythm and short bouts of paralysis and hallucinations. The patient displays excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) in the form of sleep attacks, in which he feels a strong urge to take a short nap during the day. Insomnia consequently occurs at night. As implied by the PZT experiments, cataplexy is also a common symptom of narcolepsy. It consists of abrupt periods of muscle weakness or paralysis effected by extreme feelings of positive emotions (such as excitement or surprise). Such periods of cataplexy may last anywhere from a few seconds to one minute (Montagna and Chokroverty 119).

Narcolepsy also has slighter symptoms that may be discerned only by the patient. A narcoleptic often has sleep paralysis, in which he may be paralyzed at the onset of sleep, during a short moment of wakefulness at night, or upon awakening in the morning. During these moments of paralysis, he may have extreme frightening hallucinations that will only terminate by some external stimulus. At the physiological level, narcoleptics may have a lower blood pressure and body temperature. They are almost always obese although they ingest less food than normal (Montagna and Chokroverty 121).

Evidently, at the neuronal level, there must be a multitude of dysfunctions for so many threatening symptoms to occur at once. Yet this point is also where narcolepsy faces resistance because of crucial knowledge that current researchers lack. Scientists know that the disorder revolves around the neurotransmitter orexin (also called hypocretin), which regulates feeding and sleep. Narcolepsy occurs when there are low or no levels of orexin being circulated through the brain (Mignot).

The orexinergic neurons based in the lateral hypothalamus deteriorate at some point during the narcoleptic individual’s life, which causes the onset of the disorder. Because of this abrupt neuronal apoptosis, narcolepsy is likely an autoimmune disease. However, more proof is required to confirm this belief. (Carlson 229).

Normally, the orexinergic neurons fire during an individual’s daytime period of wakefulness and vigilance. Such firing presumably promotes alertness. Thus, due to the fewer orexinergic neurons that fire in a narcoleptic brain, the patient feels less awake during the day. At night, although there is conclusively less stimulation promoting wakefulness, the orexinergic effects of wakefulness are produced. Further research is still required to fully comprehend the reasoning behind this phenomenon.

This piece of information proves interesting because of narcolepsy’s apparent dissonance with the circadian rhythm’s traditional response to day and night. When we travel across the world, our circadian rhythms reset and adjust to the time zone. For example, if we are in China, which is about 12 hours ahead of America, the morning light acts as a zeitgeber to reset our physiological sense of time. But a narcoleptic, who has bouts of sleepiness during the day and insomnia at night in America’s time zones, will adjust to the new time setting but presumably continuing to have bouts of sleepiness in the day and insomnia at night.

So could there possibly be more at hand other than dysfunctions pertaining to the orexinergic neurons? Perhaps the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), the primary controller of the human biological clock located in the hypothalamus, is a contributing source to the problem. In a similar autoimmune disease, maybe the SCN fails as a cause or effect of the orexinergic neuronal deterioration.

Narcolepsy has encountered a variety of semi-effective treatments, but current research proves that there is great hope for the future. Currently, the most common treatment is modafinil, a wake-promoting stimulant that works against EDS. Altogether, researchers have been investigating antidepressant drugs that fight against the REM sleep problems of narcolepsy. Such drugs promote serotonin and norepinephrine activity in the brain and can reduce the dysfunctions behind cataplexy, sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic hallucinations (Carlson 219).

In recent years, narcolepsy treatments have branched beyond the scope of traditional drugs. One such undertaking is hypocretin replacement therapy, which—as the name suggests—would reduce sleepiness and cataplexy by increasing orexinergic levels in the brain. In the therapy, the patient would be administered orexin receptor agonists through cell or gene transplantation. The agonists would promote the orexinergic effects and thus increase physiological alertness. Testing for this therapy is currently taking place (Nishino et al. 217-8).

From its coinage in 1880 to its correlation with orexin deficiency in 2000, human understanding on narcolepsy has developed immensely in the past 150 years. The disorder initially faced many roadblocks due to its rareness and the researching world’s lack of knowledge on the subject. Fortunately, the latter half of the twentieth century has passed with an increased interest in narcolepsy along with a forefront of hypotheses and features to test and dissect in the future. The ensuing century will doubtlessly solve many of the questions behind narcolepsy, with more possibilities for preventing the disorder and learning more about the circadian rhythm in the process.

Carlson, Neil R. Foundations of Behavioral Neuroscience. 8th ed. 2006. Boston: Allyn & Bacon-Pearson, 2011. Print.

Mignot, Emmanuel. “History of Narcolepsy.” History – Center for Narcolepsy – Stanford University School of Medicine. Stanford School of Medicine, 2001. Web. 21 Apr. 2012. <http://med.stanford.edu/‌school/‌Psychiatry/‌narcolepsy/‌narcolepsyhistory.html&gt;.

Montagna, P, and S Chokroverty, eds. Handbook of Clinical Neurology. Vol. 99. 2011. N.p.: Elsevier B. V., 2011. Print. 3.

Nishino, S, et al. “Hypocretin /‌ orexin and narcolepsy: new basic and clinical insights.” Acta Physiologica 198 (2009): 209-22. PDF file.

Sagawa, Yohei, et al. “Noninvasive detection of sleep /‌ wake changes in orexin /‌ ataxin-3 transgenic mice across the disease onset.” N.d. Microsoft Office PowerPoint file.

Psychology: The Innovative Humanity-Turned-Science [Part 2]

(A continuation from the previous post.)


In 1879, Wundt’s increasing interest in the strength and extent of nerve stimulation plus his transference from his studies in Zurich to the University of Leipzig’s Institute of Psychology would be marked by a post ceding immediate rapid increase of scientific experimentation in psychology.[1] The credibility of Wundt’s experiments was bolstered as he accepted possibilities of statistical error, a concept borrowed from German psychophysicist Gustav Fechner. The primary basis for his original reaction-time investigation was his insistence that psychology imposed sustained reasoning because the study derived and explained complex physical processes through simpler means.[2]

In the ensuing decade, American psychologist William James supported the first formal psychology experiment through his greatest contribution, the publication in which he announced psychology as the “science of mental life” with regards to the study’s form and underlying aspects.[3]

Furthermore, James elucidated the complex process, which Wundt had compromised for experimental means, at the neuronal level.[4] He additionally professed there were two ways to viewing sensation, both of which were required in Wundt’s lab. People could physically perceive an attribute, such as through sight or touch, or they could dedicate thoughts to an attribute without maintaining a real relationship to it.[5] With respect to Wundt’s lab, these differing concepts ultimately and respectively referred to physically perceiving the stimulus versus awaiting it.


By the following decade, immediately after Wundt’s revolution, an unknowing opposition was already proliferating under the same notions of psychology. Austrian Sigmund Freud was crafting an authoritative new subcategory, psychoanalysis, which would come to defy and haze scientific psychology’s standards. Suddenly, defense mechanisms—from repression to regression—became common justifications for ambiguous actions whereas other concepts—such as parapraxis, the Oedipus complex, and hedonistic fixations—transformed the public’s view of human nature into a simplistic struggle solely based on desire.

In his own way, Freud was the Wilhelm Wundt of psychoanalysis. Yet by classifying his study as a metapsychology—an offspring of the parent study—his unintended reform hindered psychology’s further establishment as a discipline.[6] In one such example, Freud advocated that one’s characteristic guilt could be derived from a committed bad action or simply the proposed thought of committing such a deed. Although this subject correlated with emotions, the concept was indirectly supported by Wundt’s claims, which held conjectures with regards to thinking about perceiving a signal versus actually discerning it.[7]

A few decades later, Swiss analytic psychologist Carl Jung, a follower and expander off of Freud’s claims, also alienated scientific psychology when he asserted that humans would never fully understand themselves. He noted that the individual consciousness was an exception to statistical rules, and a result, valuable empirical data would never be obtainable.[8]

Above all, psychoanalysis’ largest role in psychology was the simplicity that it advocated in observing human nature. According to the Freudian psychoanalyst, humans’ memories, thoughts, and ideas were all structured from ponderings on sexuality. Although this statement was mainly Freud’s opinion, the idea proved so compelling at the time that it stuck and developed.[9] As a result, such philosophical input afflicted the pure science as the latter evolved and regained some of its pre-revolution shaky theoretical aspects.


As the 20th century further unraveled, scientific psychology proved somewhat resilient to the allegations that denied its viability. Although the discipline’s trunk still had some philosophical remains, newer branches provided unique studies that complied with the field’s empirical standards while promoting novel methods for the science’s application.

Forty years after the revolution, classical conditioning materialized into one of psychology’s most significant offshoots. Russian polymath Ivan Pavlov came center-stage with his experiments on animals in which he used their simple-minded associations to represent the macrocosmic complexity in humans. Yet contrary to Wundt’s experiment, Pavlov analyzed the speed of reflexes that could not be controlled. His experimentation greatly consisted of projecting an external stimulus at the same time that the animal produced its instinctive “reflex reaction” toward an ordinary stimulus. After several repetitions, the animal would unknowingly learn to automatically produce the instinctive reaction in response to the previously random stimulus as well.[10] This experimentation with animals demonstrated how the simplicity of human innateness could be applied to work in the utmost methodical manner.

Just years after classical conditioning’s incipience, American behaviorist B.F. Skinner emerged, among others, as the primary advocate of behaviorism. Although he viewed behaviorism to be a philosophy-subsidiary of behavioral science, the characteristics that he attributed to his study resembled many of those that were prominent in scientific psychology. Forms of empirical data were deemed valuable while natural selection and evolution fueled the study. Skinner enforced his study’s pedestal on the operant plane, in which various reinforcements—consequences for a specific behavior—could be manipulated to drive a person to act accordingly. While some radical thinkers—such as Skinner—placed behaviorism as an investigational field of only unemotional drives, others included the former with associated feelings, which altogether diversified the presiding science.[11] Psychology now included experimentation on conscious mental responses, which incidentally alluded to Descartes’ early theorizations on mind-body interactions.

Gestalt psychology provided another constructive branch-off—initiating circa 1910 and then developing in the following decades—through the combined efforts of founders German Kurt Koffka, German Wolfgang Kohler, and Czech Max Wertheimer. The study required for discerned movement to produce a sum of basic sensations in the human mind.[12] In the decades to come, the Gestalt model represented this foundation at the broader altitude of individuality. The primary goals for psychologists in Hitler’s regime reflected gestaltism’s notions while the study strengthened in Germany and then spread internationally and for America.[13]


Psychology’s revolution from a theorized humanity into an investigational science ultimately proved a success. Wundt’s essential Leipzig laboratory formally postulated human behavior and thought in a manner that had never before been pursued during the predecessors of biology, physiology, and philosophy. The elite innovators of Germany merged the three sciences into one discipline that consequently altered the international perception of the field. Then the open-minded America transformed into the forefront for the radical infant science, and novel subfields sprouted. While some swayed the science precariously, the overall result was a diverse school of thought with a marked finesse based on scientific investigation. Most importantly, whilst psychology delved into the mind’s processes at the microcosmic level, it also illuminated a macrocosmic humanity that otherwise would never have been explored without the key contribution of this crucial “science of mental life.”

[1] Wilhelm Max Wundt, Principles of Physiological Psychology, trans. Edward B. Titchener (New York: Macmillan, 1904), 75, accessed November 19, 2011, Google eBooks.

[2] Mandler, 55-60.

[3] James, 1.

[4] William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Dover Publications, 1950), 1:88, accessed January 29, 2012, Google eBooks.

[5] William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Dover Publications, 1950), 2:3.

[6] Dorian Feigenbaum, “Freud’s Latest Contribution,” The Nation, May 11, 1927, 537, accessed January 29, 2012, MAS Ultra – School Edition (13659575).

[7] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 84.

[8] Carl G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self with Symbols and the Interpretation of Dreams, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 25-7.

[9] Sigmund Freud, The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. A. A. Brill (New York: Random House, 1966), 62-6.

[10] Ivan P. Pavlov, Conditioned Reflexes, trans. Gleb V. Anrep (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2003), 5-7.

[11] B. F. Skinner, About Behaviorism (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), 46.

[12] Mandler, 10.

[13] Stanley M. Herman, “Toward a More Authentic Manager,” Training & Development Journal 25, no. 10 (October 1971): 10, accessed January 29, 2012, Professional Development Collection (8812404).

Psychology: The Innovative Humanity-Turned-Science [Part 1]

February 21, 2012 1 comment

[My report for a school history project. It is in the rough stages, but due to time restraints, I will make changes in the future.]

It was a bleak December day for the University of Leipzig, Germany, in 1879. In the confined room of a dilapidated building on campus, professor William Wundt and two assistants were constructing a device that would measure the reaction and response time for a person to hear a ball hit a surface and then press a key.[1] The experiment was simple, yet its implications were revolutionary. For the first time in history, scientific experimentation would be formally conducted in the field of psychology, thus marking the origin of psychology as a science. This first laboratory setting would represent the grand-scale sweeping advance from psychology’s traditionally humanistic approach toward the well-supported organization of scientific investigation.

The cumulative sequence of events that contributed to psychology’s ultimate transition into a science lasted several centuries. It started with 17th century European philosophers who demanded the necessity for scientific experimentation as they expounded upon the need for direct evidence to substantiate ideas. Following them were the slightly radical thinkers whose contrasting notions somewhat hindered psychology’s future development while simultaneously predicting downfalls in the science-to-be. By this point, an influx of diverse thinkers had accumulated in Prussia—soon to be Germany—as it pulled on the role as the principal producer in psychology.

In the decades immediately before the changeover, now-universal key terms, such as “survival of the fittest” and “nature versus nurture,” emerged as intelligence and personal capabilities became hot topics on the psychology platform. When Wundt alas directed the first formal experimental psychology procedure, he created a laboratory that eternally transformed psychology’s future development and character. Germany—and more specifically the University of Leipzig—became evermore the “Mecca” of psychology as studiers flocked from around the world to share their ideas in this extended symposium.[2] A decade later, the immature science made its definitional debut in print, incidentally in America, which formally established its position among other technical disciplines.

Into the 20th century, psychology diversified. Yet in the following decades, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler eradicated much of Germany’s contribution to the study as he narrowed psychology’s focus toward the holistic German experience.[3] Psychology consequently transferred toward a revitalized structure in America. Here, rigorous reformers implemented their schools of thought, each of which proved an advantage, hindrance, or both, with regards to the science’s progress.

The ensuing result was a versatile humanity-turned-science that clutched the potential to revolutionize the world’s perception of human mentality. With a systematic means for providing evidence and a batter of multifaceted theories to keep it evolving, psychology has molded into a science, one with a profound strength and innate competitiveness that will keep it in the stadium of technical disciplines.


In the 1600’s, psychology’s leading thinkers provided the basis on which the science would evolve. One of the first was French philosopher René Descartes, who introduced a chain of proposals that would be construed into the structure for modern scientific investigation.[4] Soon after, he formulated theories on the interactions between the mind and body, which foreshadowed psychology experimentation with regards to the brain’s relationship with the body.[5] This interaction was the foundation for psychology, although the concept proved difficult to analyze because neither the mind nor the body could be perceived individually.

English thinker John Locke substantiated Descartes’ proclamations through the former’s comparisons of the mind as a blank paper. From this empiricism viewpoint, Locke believed that knowledge regarding oneself and others was derived from sensory observation, which was accordingly analyzed and reflected in the mind.[6] Through this approach, Locke introduced the concept of acquiring knowledge via examination.

While individualistic perception was still evolving, psychology’s future development was greatly shaped by Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant during the ensuing century. In varying scenarios, Kant supported both empiricism and rationalism, which advocated human’s innate ability to reason. Yet Kant’s cumulative philosophies arguably vilified the soon-to-be science as he projected his ideas on human morality. The thinker asserted that one’s sense of morality was based on logic and reason as opposed to sentiment. He believed that humans experienced sensations exteriorly, which exposed their ethical conduct to fluctuation.[7] Kant’s widely acclaimed views plus his insistence that scientific psychology was impossible additionally wounded psychology’s reputation at the time. Because of the study’s inability to be mathematically expressed, Kant disaffirmed its viability as a science.[8] By slandering it, the theorist would compel some thinkers to stray away from psychology while simultaneously requiring future psychologists to rethink their notions.


Into the 1800’s—the century of the revolution—philosophy encountered biology in a smoothly concocted medley that would quickly pave way for scientific psychology’s debut. Optimistically contributing to the eventual science was English naturalist Charles Darwin, whose publications on evolution and animal thinking supplied the subsequent decades with novel ideas. His evaluations brought forth the general speculation on differences in traits and abilities within the human species.[9] In relation to psychology, these findings implied nature’s role in molding individuality.

One of Darwin’s most driving assertions was the evolutionary belief that all species were derived from a single primitive predecessor.[10] English polymath Francis Galton further developed this claim on evolution by analyzing how the single human species could result with so many disparities. In this manner, he procured the world-renowned controversy of the nature-versus-nurture debate that would soon become the fundamental force in psychology and the basis for virtually all investigations. The dispute questioned the amount that nature—one’s genetic make-up and characteristics from birth—shaped an individual in comparison to that of nurture—all surrounding conditions and situations after birth.[11] The debate instantly secured its grip as thinkers from the humanities and sciences volunteered their opinions on the subject. The question was consequently coined a psychology term as it strengthened the durability and flexibility of the burgeoning field.

An appendage to his foremost and most famous pondering was also Galton’s attempt to classify people based on their natural abilities. He noted the extensive variations of intelligence capacity and ability among individuals and accordingly observed case studies to further gauge the extent to which intellect could vary.[12] In the near future, human intelligence would become a chief point of interest in psychology due to its role in linking the brain’s doings with those of the body.

[1] David G. Myers, Psychology, 8th ed. (New York: Worth Publishers, 2007), 3.

[2] Myers, 8.

[3] George Mandler, A History Modern Experimental Psychology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 128, Amazon Kindle e-book.

[4] René Descartes, Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 160.

[5] Descartes, 182.

[6] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser (New York: Dover Publications, 1959), 1:121-4.

[7] Michael Rohlf, “Immanuel Kant,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed November 19, 2011, last modified May 20, 2010, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant/.

[8] Alan Kim, “Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed November 19, 2011, last modified June 20, 2006, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wilhelm-wundt/.

[9] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, ed. Wordsworth Editions Limited (Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1998), 103.

[10] Frederick Burkhardt, Samantha Evans, and Alison Pearn, eds. Evolution: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin 1860-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 3.

[11] Francis Galton, English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture (New York: D. Appleton, 1890), 7-9, accessed November 19, 2011, Google eBooks.

[12] Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius (New York: D. Appleton, 2006), 11, accessed November 11, 2011, Google eBooks.

[To be continued.]

A Look at Transgender Brains

January 4, 2012 5 comments

In a culture where transgender individuals seem misunderstood or misrepresented, 14-year-old Nicole Maines has broken societal restraints in her burgeoning journey as a transgender. Born as Wyatt Maines, Nicole and her identical twin brother Jonas were reportedly “different” from the start of their youth. As a younger boy, Nicole had expressed interests in girlish activities, such as wearing heels and playing Barbies, while Jonas had always favored sports and action. The twins’ growing differences persisted as their parents tried to evaluate the seriousness and possible consequences of Nicole’s girlish tastes. By the end of elementary school, Nicole changed her name from Wyatt and grew out her hair. Finally, the family discovered the Children’s Hospital Gender Management Services Clinic, a center that uses hormone treatment to gradually alter an individual into the opposite gender.

The clinic’s process consists of hormone suppressers that the youth takes in order to counteract the hormones released from the gender he or she was born as. These chemicals’ effects are reversible; if the patient stops consumption, he or she can undo the major consequences. Upon reaching adolescence, if the person still feels inclined to continue the process, he or she receives the unalterable treatment for the hormones of the opposite gender. The final step in the process, occurring after age 18, is the gender reassignment surgery, in which the individual comes to physically be the opposite gender.

Because she was an identical twin, Nicole offers a unique case study for the transgender population. Her circumstances allude to the longstanding debate on nature versus nurture. But while environmental and psychosocial factors may have influenced Nicole to favor the opposite gender’s tastes, it seems more likely that her state has arisen from the “nature” perspective because of the early onset of her transgender preferences.

Various studies have supported the “nature” theory of transgender alignment through observations and comparisons within the brain. In specific examples, prior post-mortem studies have demonstrated the similarities in the brains of male-to-female (MtF) transgenders and those of control females. The overall brain sizes from both of these groups are relatively smaller than that of the average male. Furthermore, particular brain structures, such as the anterior hypothalamic nucleus, have displayed greater likenesses in female and MtF brains than with males’ brains with regards to structural volume and density. (Nonetheless, such post-mortem results are ambiguous because of these MtF individuals’ estrogen-consumption that may have influenced specific brain masses either during or after the brain’s primary growth and development. In this case, the brain differences may be due to either pure “nature,” the effects of estrogen treatment, or both.)

A recent study has solved the inaccuracy caused by the estrogen-consumption of MtF transgenders. In this study, the researchers found 24 MtF transgenders who planned on taking hormone treatment in the future. The individuals qualified for the experiment if they had the sex-determining region Y (SRY) gene, which is unique to males. The brains of these 24 people were compared to the brains of female and male control groups. Because the transgenders had not received any treatment in the past, the experiment’s outcome was reliable and noteworthy.

Generally speaking, studies state that female brains—although relatively smaller than male brains—have less gray matter and more white matter due to the extra folds (fissures and sulci) in their brains. (Gray matter is the softer outer region of the brain; white matter is the slightly harder inner mass.) However, several specific structures in female brains have a greater gray matter volume than corresponding structures in male brains. The study used these particular structures in their experiment as they compared the size of each of these masses throughout the three groups. The ultimate question was whether transgender brains would show greater similarities with the brains of the initial gender (which, in this case, was male) or with the brains of the preferred gender (female).

The study revealed that all three groups had different gray matter volumes for the specified brain structures. While females had greater gray matter volume for these brain structures than those of males, transgender individuals displayed unique average gray matter volumes that correlated with neither those of the males nor females. Their gray matter volumes were generally slightly greater than the structural volumes of the control males; volumes were also more similar to the males’ than they were to the females’ structural volumes.

The main exception to this finding was the putamen, a round brain mass located near the center of the brain. The putamen, part of the basal ganglia structure, performs functions relating to motor movements and learning. The structure’s average gray matter volume in transgender individuals was far closer to the females’ average volume than the males’. As the researchers concluded, the transgenders’ putamen was one of the few structures to be so “feminized.”

The experiment was altogether interesting because it demonstrated unique differences in transgender brains that evidently occurred only by “nature,” since none of the MtF individuals had previously engaged in hormone treatment. The results proved that these transgenders’ brains were structurally similar and distinct.

Nonetheless, more must be at hand than simply “nature” superseding “nurture.” After all, Nicole Maines is a transgender, but her identical twin brother is not. Despite their matching DNA, there were probably biological, physiological, or mental differences between the twins that caused Nicole to make her decision.

Their situation thus leads us to epigenetics, a new flourishing subject in psychology and neuroscience that may explain transgender characteristics and why they might occur in only one identical twin despite their prevalently “nature” quality.

The field might explain why Nicole chose to be female before she could have had any environmental or psychosocial influence.

In the medical world, epigenetics could potentially help understand many disorders that seemingly occur by “nature.”

[To be continued.]

Emotions versus Logic


Five of your distant relatives are in a room when, suddenly, the fuse of a bomb is accidentally lit. You are on the second floor of the building, directly above your relatives’ first-story room, and you have full control in maneuvering the bomb. You may either transfer the bomb into the neighboring room of the first floor or let the bomb explode and kill those five individuals. What would you do?

Naturally, you would transfer the bomb into the neighboring room. After all, no lives are lost. Your prefrontal cortex activates as you make the simple instinctive decision to move the bomb. Specifically on the rostral side of your brain, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is triggered as your moral judgment respond to this situation.

But what if your lover were sitting in that neighboring room? Would you let five relatives die in order to save just one special individual?

Now your brain is a mess. The prefrontal cortex does not know what plan to execute because of the different brain masses that have activated in response. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex may influence you to transfer the bomb to your lover’s room. Viewing the situation logically and morally, it makes sense to kill one in order to save five. But the amygdalae—the two small portions at the middle base of the brain—ignite as they stream emotions through your brain. The fear and love muddle the prefrontal cortex’s organization and systematic thinking. The angular cingulated cortex—an elongated region on the frontal inside of the brain—magnifies the distressed emotions and activates from the moral confusion, as well. To make thinking even more difficult, your autonomic functions rise out of control from the increased stress. The medulla oblongata—located at the brainstem—quickens your breathing rate and heartbeat. You feel nauseous as digestion is momentarily halted. The reticular formation—the tissue mass at the center of the brain stem—augments your alertness as you attempt to sort through your thoughts.

With so many brain structures activated at once, it is a wonder that you are able to make the final decision at all. Yet as similar studies have shown, most people in your situation would leave the bomb as is.

In such cases, it seems that emotion trumps logic. When a student is distraught by a devastating situation and he has a test the next day, he most likely does not study. If he attempts to, he is distracted by the emotional turmoil. If a mother’s child is in the hospital, she cannot go to work. Although it may be logical (because she would otherwise just be standing around in the hospital), her love and fear for her child overpower the practicality.

With all noted, why would emotion trump logic? Is it possible that some brain tissue and regions have a stronger impact over us than other regions? Or perhaps there is more brain tissue correlating to emotion than tissue that correlates to behavior.

Why do our minds choose emotion over logic by seeming instinct? As a second thought, our minds sometimes switch to the logical option, but the emotional option inherently is the first thought in the mind. From the evolutionary standpoint, emotions are the basic characters in animals, while logic is unique to humans. Emotion is more rooted in our minds than logic is because our species has been acquiring logic over time, according to the evolutionary clock. On the other hand, emotion was established long before. This concept is physically visible too; brain tissue related to emotion is closer to the base or center of the brain while logic-pertaining tissue is generally in the outer layers, specifically in the caudal area. During humans’ biological and physiological development, this prefrontal cortex area was the last region to develop. (Ergo, since evolution is constant, this tissue related to logic may still be developing and growing.)

In any case, the forces that compel us to favor emotion over logic are very strong. They are the causes of our rash behavior and mistakes.

The seemingly careless conduct of teenagers can be explained by the differences in emotion and logic in the brain. Upon reaching the adolescence stage, an individual’s brain is almost fully developed. The main exception is the development of the prefrontal cortex, which pertains to proper judgment and decisional actions. This frontal region of the brain continues developing into the mid-20’s of an individual’s life. The cortex’s ongoing development explains why teenagers often seem rash or reckless despite their other aspects of maturity. Although their capacity of intelligence and moral values may have reached a peak, their process of decision-making is still not perfected.

The prefrontal cortex’s ongoing development in a teenager may explain why teenagers are so prone to car accidents or misuse of alcohol. Although they may feel as capable as adults, their manner of thinking often times does not reach the adult standard. Such inabilities thus bring up the age issues regarding driving and drinking. Are 16-year-olds mature enough to be driving alone if their process of thinking has not reached its peak? Alcohol brings forth an especially important concern because, by age 21, the average human brain is not fully developed. As studies have shown, alcohol could affect the post-teenage brain, as well, because of its development in progress. As a result, should the drinking age be extended to the mid-20’s? While this may be better for the brain’s development, many people may argue that, with the current drinking age, society has still produced intelligent beings. This evidence demonstrates that alcohol’s fatal mental effects during the brain’s final growth stages are not so visible.

The brain is constantly developing, whether it be through evolutionary or developmental means. The battle between emotion and logic is an enduring one; although emotion may always triumph, its unique relationship with logic has yet to be entirely unearthed.