Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

If you’re someone who loves music, is a musician, and/or just really likes to learn about the brain, then I highly recommend that you read Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. I originally chose this book because I love music to the point where I probably spend about 75% of my day with music playing in the background, and I wanted to learn more about how the brain processes music. That being said, I learned far more than I expected, and I was consistently blown away by how complex the brain is and the idiosyncratic ways it manages to function in spite of damage or deterioration. For a scientific field that didn’t really take hold until the 1980s, the amount of information that the neuroscience of music has uncovered is already impressive. Oliver Sacks is probably one of the more well-known science writers, and for good reason. He continually brings a poetic writing style to his books that grabs the imagination of the reader. Once he reels you in with that, he keeps your attention with how he writes about his patients and other medical anecdotes; always blending traditional observation with touches of personal experiences and empathy.

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Distinct Patterns of Brain Activity Mediate Perceptual and Motor and Autonomic Responses to Noxious Stimuli

experimental set-up showing that the scientists randomized the time between laser pulses and how strong the pulses were. Perception (how it felt), motor (reaction time), and autonomic (skin conductance) responses were measured after laser pulses.

Experimental design from Tiemann et al.

Today I learned: a group of scientists figured out that distinct brain responses are involved in mediating our response to pain (noxious stimulus) via motor (movement), perceptual (feeling), and autonomic (unconscious body reactions like signal conducting) responses. To figure out this stimulus-brain-outcome relationship they measured motor (reaction times), perceptual (pain rating 0-100), autonomic (skin conductance), and brain (brain waves) responses to a series of random laser pulses (varied in both the time between pulses and the intensity of the pulses). As expected, more intense laser pulses caused the participants to have a faster reaction time, a higher pain rating, and stronger skin conductance measurements. But what was really interesting about this study was that they found that of the four brain waves they measured, not all were responsible for every response. Rather, each brain wave was involved in mediating either only one or two of the responses to the laser pulses. And contrary to what most people would expect, the earliest brain waves were not involved in the perception response, which means that you don’t need to consciously perceive the painful stimulus in order to have a motor or autonomic response.

Reference: Tiemann, Laura, et al. “Distinct Patterns of Brain Activity Mediate Perceptual and Motor and Autonomic Responses to Noxious Stimuli.” Nature Communications, vol. 9, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1038/s41467-018-06875-x.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

a hand is holding Bonk by Mary Roach. Part of a silver laptop, glasses, and a blue and white bedspread are visible in the backgroundIf you’re looking for a book that will casually drop facts that will simultaneously make your mouth drop open in disbelief and make you want to share this factoid with everyone, then Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex is the perfect book. I don’t often outright laugh while reading a book, but my roommate can attest to the fact that every time I opened this book, there was something that had me laughing. Frank descriptions of the ‘sordid’ past of sex research, anecdotes from being a participant in a study, crazy stories that make you exclaim, and more, all come together to create her distinctive blunt, yet hilarious writing voice that entertains you and makes you invested in the story she is telling. Bonk is a wonderful showcase of the time and care Mary Roach routinely puts into the topics she researches. Continue reading…