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There are many choices for you in the tea aisle. I like to ask people, “How many different tea plants do you think exist?” Most people give me a pretty big number. But all tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant.

Any drinks that don’t come from that bushy plant are a tisane or herbal “tea” such as chamomile, mint, rooibos and others. It’s not tea. But let’s not be too snobby about it. Tisanes have their own value.

I drink coffee most mornings and switch over to lower caffeine teas after midday, and then to herbals in the evening.

White, Green, Oolong, Yellow, Black and Pu-erh teas all come from the varieties and cultivars of the camellia sinensis plant. The type and style of tea and its flavor comes from where it is grown (soil, climate) and how it is processed.

Tea has a caffeine in varying amounts depending on that processing. You would think that if a cup of tea could do something to your brain, a cup of strong coffee could do more. But it’s not the caffeine.

Tea contains L-theanine which is an amino acid that promotes mental acuity. That L-theanine along with caffeine creates a sense of “mindful awareness.”

Can we get L-theanine from other sources?  It turns out there are very few: a single species of mushroom, and guayusa (a holly species that is sometimes used as a tisane).

Researchers have found that shade-grown teas like the Japanese green tea Gyokuro have higher concentrations of L-theanine because the amino acid is not converted into polyphenols as much as tea leaves that are exposed to full sun.

Monk Hands

It is no surprise that monks have been drinking tea for thousands of years. They may not have known that it promoted awareness and alertness, but they probably learned that it helped them get through long periods of meditation.

The caffeine and L-theanine combo is a brain hack that is unique to a drink of tea.

What the L-theanine amino acid does is increase alpha brain wave activity. That promotes relaxation and caffeine is a stimulant. It is an interesting combination. The effects of caffeine are moderated by L-theanine.

Studies have also shown that there are added benefits to tea: increased creativity, increased performance under stress, improved learning and concentration, decreased anxiety, improved ability to multi-task and reduced task-induced fatigue.

That is a lot to get from a cup of tea.

skull400pixa

Everyone is interested in memory, though most of us don’t do research into it. We don’t fully understand how memory works, or why it fades, or how we can save it.

Another research question is why we have wrong memories or false memories. False memory is the psychological phenomenon in which a person recalls a memory that did not actually occur. It has been considered in many legal cases regarding childhood sexual abuse. But researchers are more concerned with how this phenomenon occurs. Current research shows that a particular area of the brain called the temporal pole is activated during false recall.

One term used  in these discussions is  “flashbulb memory.” This is when we have a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid memory of a moment. These memories are almost always centered on emotionally arousing event. But experiments have regularly shown that these memories are very likely to change over time. I still recall the day that President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. I was 10 years old and the news was given to me in school. I remember that my classmate, Alice, came back from the front office crying because she had heard the news. I recall going to my Cub Scout meeting after school and being sent home. But I don’t know how I would have told the story in 1963 or in the years that followed. I know hat now I only recall a few moments of that day and those are the ones I have repeated over the years. It is not a false memory, just a fading one – unless I was to find out that it was not Alice who told us or some other details were wrong.

You may have a similar experience with events like the Challenger explosion, the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech or New Town or 9/11.

An interesting other kind of memory is when we have an approximate recollection of something, often referred to as a gist memory. We retain an overall concept that you store in memory, but that concept that can lead us to build a false memory.

When false memories become a prevalent part of your life that it affects your day-to-day life, it is known as false memory syndrome. Having false memories doesn’t have to be that serious though.

“Humans have a vast store of concepts, and we’re exceptionally good at using those concepts to make generalisations that allow us to come up with solutions to new situations and problems,” writes Simon J. Makin.

“Creating the gist” can be helpful for retrieving true memories. Fuzzy-trace theory is a way of trying to understand why false memories occur.

And false memories can be manufactured deliberately. It sounds like science-fiction but scientists can implant false memories in the brains of research subjects. It can be done unwittingly when police,  lawyers or reporters deal with eyewitnesses to an event.

And sometimes, your brain will call up false memories all on its own.

 

island-pixa

This past week I saw on the local TV news the story of a 29-year-old New Jersey woman, Tirri, who is getting rid of all her high-tech gadgets for a year. She says it is so that she gets to spend more time with her children. Her Aha! moment came when she missed one of her 18-month-old twins’ first steps while she was checking on her phone.

Oddly, she says that she feels that she is part of “the last generation to have a childhood without technology.” I have two sons about her age and they hardly grew up without technology. It is probably more accurate to say that her parents in the mid-1980s did not have as many tech distractions while parenting her.

So, what do you mean by technology when you take a holiday from it?

Tirri is leaving behind her smartphone and computer and the email, Facebook, Instagram, videos and all that comes with the Net. But she will still use a touchtone landline phone, a record player, maybe the television too. Isn’t that technology? What about her microwave and her car, the home heating and cooling systems, her banking and bill paying and… Well, you get the point.

Plus, her husband will still have his smartphone. Did he miss those first steps too? Possibly, but he might have been in another room or at work or talking outside to a neighbor or…  We are distracted by more than just technology.

She grew up with technology. She even grew up in her teen years with the Internet. My grandfather had technology – a different kind, but technology nonetheless.

People have been fascinated with and frightened by technology since probably Socrates feared that the written word would destroy our ability to think and remember. Movies, radio, comic books, television, video games and plenty of other technologies old and new were seen as dangerous distractions. “Go outside and get some fresh air and just play” has been in the parenting script for centuries.

I could go tech-free, if you put me on a deserted island without any devices.  I’m all for “tech holidays.” Take a night, a day, a weekend, an actual vacation week away from your devices. See if you feel happier, or feel punished.

More importantly, take notice of how all this digital technology changes us.

There are pro and cons to many of the changes that have been documented concerning media and new technology. Devices encourage us to multi-task. Being able to do more than one thing at a time (the classic walk and chew gum joke) is essential. Tech makes it easy to switch between tasks. But research also shows that when we do two things at once, like listen to a podcast and read a book, both suffer in understanding and retention. On a single task, the new information goes into the hippocampus, home of long-term knowledge. When multitasking, the information can go to the striatum. That is the area that stores new procedures and skills, but not facts and ideas. This means a kind of shallow storage that is less likely to be easily found in the future.

You might have read or heard of Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain.  The book’s title foreshadows Carr’s general feelings about the Net.

“It becomes much harder to sustain attention, to think about one thing for a long period of time, and to think deeply when new stimuli are pouring at you all day long. I argue that the price we pay for being constantly inundated with information is a loss of our ability to be contemplative and to engage in the kind of deep thinking that requires you to concentrate on one thing.”

Can you filter the important from the unimportant?

Carr included a study showing that the more distracted you are, the less able you are to experience empathy. Those kinds of deep emotions and thoughts are connected to the attentiveness that also forms deep connections with other people.

We also know that the digital world affects memory in good and bad ways. I am very happy to not memorize phone numbers, addresses, birthdays, shopping lists and other minutiae. But researchers tell me that cognitive offloading, that tendency to rely on digital memory rather than brain cells actually increases each time we use the digital alternative.

Does tech support and extend our memory, or does it decrease it?  We are deep into, and probably beyond, the Information Age, and information overload is a given.

It is still not clear that all this tech “hurts” our brains, even if it changes them.

Like older technologies, the general feeling is that the tech is also changing us in bigger and broader ways, like the way we think and our social and emotional cues.

One study I saw looked at reading on digital platforms and concluded that it seems to make us “more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly.” Not a conclusive finding.

The idea that heavy digital media use leads to a loss of cognitive control (our ability to control our mind and what we think about) is much more frightening. Are our brains becoming more attracted to what’s new rather than what’s important?

Do you get a nice rush of reward chemicals in your brain when you empty your inbox?  That is the “dumb, novelty-seeking portion of your brain feeling pleased, according to Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. So, keep clicking the Like button on Facebook and favoriting tweets and Instagram photos to give your online “friends” some happy juice.

I have read that too much time in front of screens (a nice way to encapsulate net, social and media time) increases depression, anxiety and aggression and a distancing from reality. This past summer, I was amused by the delight people found in people actually going outside to use Pokémon Go.

 

But I could also cite a Pew study that found that Facebook users have more  “close friends, more trust in people, feel more supported, and are more politically involved compared to non-social media users” or one that found that social media helps them to deepen their relationships with others.

 

I wish Tirri luck with her tech-free experiment, and I hope she has lots of good times with her kids. She says she will chronicle her days in a paper journal rather than online, and if she makes it for a year, she’ll write a book. Put me on that deserted island for a few months and I might get a book done too.

brain pixabay

More research shows that learning new things – novelty – helps ward off dementia. All those “brain games” that you hear advertised might have some positive impact.

Yes, doing those crossword puzzles and Sudoku is good, but more important is to have new experiences, as opposed to doing old ones over and over. Novel experiences strengthen the connections between parts of your brain. Most brain games improve a limited aspect of short-term memory, but new and more challenging activities – such as learning a new language – seem to strengthen entire networks in the brain.

Novelty also includes going to new places and meeting new people. Reading a book is a good thing, but even if it is about a new topic, the experience of reading is not new.  Reading about tennis is nowhere near as important to improving the brain as trying to learn how to actually play it.

discusSome other research verifies something people have believed for many years: another way to ward off memory loss is through exercise.

One study on the impact of exercise on the brain, found that 45 minutes of exercise three days a week actually increased the volume of the brain. This exercise “improves cognition and helps people perform better on things like planning, scheduling, multitasking and working memory.”

Memory is the part that interests my aging brain. When memories are encoded in the brain, it seems that this process involves neurons and their synapses. When we recall a memory, that reactivates those pathways connecting the memory neurons are reactivated. One analogy used is that encoding is like sculpting. We experience things and that demarks certain neurons and then we chisel specific connections between them.

Firing up old pathways – playing a game or reading a novel again – is a good thing. The pathways of memory reactivates some paths that have been unused. Perhaps, if we don’t use those paths for a very long time, it’s not possible to find them again.

Sculpting, creating new pathways, is even better. Might the new pathways cross with older ones creating complex connections? Might new pathways reconnect us with older ones that have been lost over the years? Despite lots of research, the brain is still holds so many unknowns – but what a wonderful adventure.

 

Clock

Without getting into anything in the realm of physics, would you concede that time is relative? Time passes, or seems to, faster or slower in some situations.

Einstein, in one of his less scientific moments, said “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

But as I enter “old age,” time seems to be speeding up. What causes this apparently common perception?

Digging around online, I found that one theory is that as we get older we become more familiar with our surroundings. Children, on the other hand, view the world as an unfamiliar place filled with new experiences and are constantly re-configuring their mental ideas of the outside world. According to this theory that childlike view appears to make time pass more slowly for children.

Here’s some curious research from 1996 that asked 25 people aged between 19 and 24, and 15 people
aged between 60 and 80, to estimate a 3-minute interval by counting “seconds”
using a “1, 1000, 2, 1000, …” technique. The younger adults were quite good. They averaged 3:03. But the older group perceived that 3 minutes had passed after 3:40.

The researcher speculates that the brain’s internal clock runs slower as we age. This is not the same as the circadian clock that we usually talk about which controls daily cycles of activity. That brain clock is located in the basal ganglia and substantia nigra and, as we age, brain cells that produce the chemical messenger dopamine, which regulates the clock, begin to deteriorate.

Many studies of human time perception show that age-related changes in the nervous system alter one’s sense of time. And with age, it does seem to move more quickly.

timefliesflickrLow dopamine levels can lead to lack of motivation, fatigue, addictive behavior, mood swings and memory loss. I wonder of increasing dopamine would also change your perception of time passing.

Of course, you could take dopamine supplements, but there are ways to increase it naturally too.

Tyrosine is the building block of dopamine, and some common foods that have this tyrosine protein. Maybe I’ll load up on almonds, avocados, bananas, beef, chicken, chocolate, coffee, eggs, green tea, milk, watermelon and yogurt.

Dopamine increases with discovering and doing new things, listening to music and exercising cause a boost. So does making things in a creative way and meditation.

I eat all those foods and do many of those activities, but I don’t feel like time is slowing down. And messing around with dopamine is probably not a great idea. This neurotransmitter helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, regulates movement and emotional responses. Dopamine deficiency results in Parkinson’s Disease and may make you more prone to addiction. The presence of a certain kind of dopamine receptor is also associated with sensation-seeking people, more commonly known as “risk takers.”

With all that in mind, maybe I’ll just let time fly and try harder to enjoy the view as it whizzes by.

pyramidal neurons in mouse cerebral cortex expressing green fluorescent protein

We often compare the human body to a machine. That metaphor is a product of the Industrial Age. Food becomes fuel, your digestive system is a kind of engine and so on. In this Information Age, we often compare our brain to a computer – memory, storage, files not found and so on.

We have also compared the way the brain makes decisions to forms of government for a much longer time. If you use that metaphor, then you have to ask if our brain is a democracy or dictatorship, or some form not as familiar to us.

The democracy or dictatorship of the brain is the topic of an article by Ari Berkowitz. He tells us that back in 1890, psychologist William James argued that in each of us “[t]here is… one central or pontifical [nerve cell] to which our consciousness is attached.” Then, in 1941, Sir Charles Sherrington argued against the idea of a single pontifical cell in charge. He suggested that the nervous system is “a million-fold democracy whose each unit is a cell.”

Berkowitz has a book, Governing Behavior, that covers experiments on “decision-making architectures in nervous systems” and they show forms from dictatorship, to oligarchy, to democracy. Yes, a single “dictator neuron” can take charge of complex behaviors, but not in all cases.

But there is always a danger in using and extending metaphors.

To answer the question of which form is most like our brain, you need to accept that the brain is not like the countries that cover our planet. Perhaps, our brain should be compared to Earth with multiple forms of government (or architectures) simultaneously, rather than to one country/government. Thank goodness we have some dictatorships in that gray matter that can act quickly without consulting others or (and this would be frightening) forming a committee to consider all the possibilities.

Many studies have been done on non-human brains, and it is also dangerous to extrapolate what happens in a monkey or mouse brain to our own. But that’s what scientists do, often out of necessity.  So, we know that more “democratic” circuits, such as the ones that control eye movements in monkeys, are compared to decisions determined by a tally of “votes” from a large “population” of neurons.

Nervous systems are not restricted to using one set of procedures at a time. Evolution allows them to use whichever ways are most effective and combine multiple forms of “government simultaneously.” I’m not sure we would say that the governments of the Earth have been able to operate with multiple governments in a similar harmony.

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