Oxytocin: Bonding, Birth, and Trust

Heralded in the media as a molecular love guru, oxytocin has been publicized as the “hug hormone” and the “cuddle chemical” because of it’s reported roles in promoting positive social virtues like trust, empathy, intimacy, and generosity. While oxytocin may have a hand in these behaviors, the idea that this ancient molecule, originally discovered for it’s ability to safely induce labor, is the one-and-only factor affecting these higher order social attributes has become a widely accepted misconception. Read more in my latest Research and Discoveries piece with the Society for Neuroscience’s Brain Facts.org, here!

Photo credit: Valerie Everett (via Flickr)

The genius of cookie sales outside of legal marijuana shops

Thirteen-year old, Girl Scout Danielle Lei is making bank on cookie sales by setting up shop outside of a legal marijuana dispensary in San Francisco. Selling an astounding 117 boxes of cookies in 2 hours, Danielle and her mother had to restock supplies after just 45 minutes! While the Colorado Girl Scouts organization is frowning on this practice – issuing a statement last month effectively banning sales outside of pot shops – this mother-daughter duo’s entrepreneurial gumption is capitalizing on an effective business strategy that is backed up by scientific research on the munchies.

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Why We Are Not Getting Enough Sleep

Originally published at Scientific American MIND

Glorious, refreshing sleep is eluding the majority of Americans. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2013 International Bedroom Poll 56 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 55 get an insufficient amount of sleep on workdays. On non-workdays individuals are then more likely to oversleep. They spend an additional 45 minutes catching Z’s in an attempt to compensate for accrued workweek sleep debt. Why are we constantly playing sleep-catch up during free time?

As a society we are socially jet lagged. Social jet lag is the difference betweensleep patterns on work days and free days. These inconsistent sleeping habits result in sleep loss that is reminiscent of flying west across several time zones every Friday evening and traveling back East come Monday morning. The pattern reveals a critical disparity between society-imposed obligations, like work and family commitments, and our innate biological clock. Social jet lag might not sound like a big deal. What’s an hour or two of sleep lost here and there? But the chronic misalignment between our social and biological clocks is wreaking havoc on our health.

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Book Review: The Genius of Dogs

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods
The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

It’s no secret to those close to me that I’m completely crazy-for-coco-puffs in love with my 3 year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Sgt. Pepper.

Every now and then my cuddlebug does something goofy and I’m reminded of his tangerine-sized brain – e.g. barking ferociously out the window at a neighbors golden retriever out on a walk. Considering his pintsized stature these antics seem ridiculous, but he honestly thinks he’s the biggest, toughest dude around. Only dust bunnies would tremble at his mere presence, but who am I to burst his bubble by telling him he’s not a Rottweiler?

Other times Sarge proves be a furry little genius in his own right. He knows the names of all his toys, can recognize animals on a muted television screen, and seems to know when he is doing something naughty. His guilty look when he’s been caught red-pawed nomming the mulch on the restricted side of the house is truly a thing of pity!

So along with other dog owners, I have wondered whether my fur child is the Albert Einstein of dogs or am I wearing the rose-colored glasses of parenthood? How does Sarge’s canine mind work?

New York Times Bestseller, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think, is a fantastic read that tackles many of the grand mysteries behind canine intelligence. Brian Hare, Ph.D. – head of the Center for Dog Cognition at Duke University – and award-winning journalist Vanessa Woods offer remarkable insight into not only the minds of man’s most beloved companions but perspective on our own human intelligence.

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A secret to unlocking happiness? Practice gratitude.

My Buddha Doodles Gratitude Journal by Molly Hahn (Mollycules)! I love the art in this journal and there is plenty of space provided to write down positive experiences from each day.

Friends & family, puppies, Pittsburghese, rainy summer evenings, hugs, books, the brain…

…And the list goes on…

Lots of things make me happy – but few things feel as wonderful as showing appreciation for the kindness, love, or courtesy extended by another person.

Gratitude, originating from the Latin word gratus meaning ‘thankful’, is a powerful moral sentiment that psychologists have shown significantly influences overall happiness.  The simple act of being thankful does more than extend good will towards the thankee, it provides mental, social, and physical benefits for the thanker.

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New Year, New Scoop!

Hello Synaptic Scoopers! It’s almost time to ring in the new year! I have a number of exciting things in store for 2014 including: guest posts, book reviews, a new blog look, collaborations, and of course more neuroscience scoop!

Until then, if the mood strikes you, check out these posts I’ve recently written over at BeingHuman.org:

The New Science of Cuffing Season

Gene expression modifies monogamy

Too Old for Santa Claus?

How age affects imagination


Higher Status, Better Health

Social status alters gene expression

Have a very Happy New Year!

The neurobiology of “cuffing season” (How the brain influences monogamy)

Prairie Voles in LoveIt’s that time of year again – cuffing season! What’s cuffing season you ask? Well, according to UbranDictionary.com, cuffing season refers to the fall and winter months when normally promiscuous singles begin to look for serious relationships (becoming “cuffed” or tied down) due in part to colder weather and staying indoors. This seasonal phenomenon of pairing-up has inspired songs by John Mayer and Mumford and Sons, but why does it happen? Neurobiologists at Florida State University have identified some of the factors that may be responsible for “cuffing season” by studying prairie voles in love.

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Flavor is all in your head: An amalgamation of senses created in the brain, not a property of food

Most people don’t sit around and meditate deeply on the origin of potato chip flavor. But if you really begin to think about it, most of what we perceive as flavor is not mouth-derived but actually due to your sense of smell.

The Jelly Bean Experiment is a clever DIY test to help illustrate this point. All you need is a friend and a bag of jelly beans.

Got your supplies? Good.

Now close your eyes and have your friend select a bean for you. See if you can detect the flavor. Do this with a few different kinds of beans. Once you’ve established that you have a sense of taste (it’s not a test to see if you can become the next connoisseur of jelly beans, just that you can tell two flavors apart), with your eyes still closed, pinch your nose and have your friend hand you another bean. Can you tell what flavor it is? Probably not. You can most likely detect sweetness but your ability to distinguish the flavor of the bean is gone.

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Tricking taste buds but not the brain: Weekly consumption of artificial sweeteners changes the brain’s pleasure response to sweet treats

Originally published at Scientific American.

Do NOT EAT the chemicals. It is the #1 laboratory safety rule young scientists learn to never break and for good reason; it keeps lab citizens alive and unscathed. However, if it hadn’t been for the careless, rule-breaking habits of a few rowdy scientists ingesting their experiments, many artificial sweeteners may never have been discovered.

Perhaps the strangest anecdote for artificial sweetener discovery, among tales of inadvertent finger-licking and smoking, is that of graduate student Shashikant Phadnis who misheard instructions from his advisor to ‘test’ a compound and instead tasted it. Rather than keeling over, he identified the sweet taste of sucralose, the artificial sweetener commonly known today as Splenda.

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