Get Up And Get Out

When you exercise a release of endorphins occurs, and this is the “high” you feel after a good work out – a feeling of happiness and reward. This natural “high” has a positive effect on mental health and can reduce symptoms of depression and other mental health illnesses.

When exercising you also get an increase of something called neutrophils, white blood cells assisting the immune system, and monoamines, a neurotransmitter. These two are both linked to reducing symptoms of depression and mental health illnesses.

The World Health Organization estimates that, globally, 154 million people suffer from depression and mental health illnesses. A challenge in using exercise as a medicine for mental health, however, is that compliance is generally low. It’s though to motivate people to exercise when they suffer from symptoms of depression.

Good news is that a research has showed that just walking could significantly improve mental health. A study from the UK shows that the work-out does not necessarily need to be demanding. The researchers found that the duration of the activity was more important than the intensity.

So next time you are taking the bus or the car somewhere, why not do your body and brain a favour and take a walk instead?


The Brain Behind the Hollywood Smile

Take a random picture of a group of people, like a family picture on Christmas-eve. Is everyone smiling? Apart maybe from a grumpy granny and newborn nephew, the answer is probably yes. But are they really smiling, or are the corners of their mouths pointing upwards? Now cover the mouths of those in the photo and ask yourself again who is smiling. In fact, were you smiling on that picture?

Faking a smile is notoriously difficult. Models, actors and politicians, who smile for a living, know that curling up the corners of their mouth is not enough for a convincing transfer of emotion. But why? The answer can be found in the way our brain is wired. The brain areas controlling the voluntary movements of your face (used for fake smile(s)) are different from those generating facial expressions resulting from emotions. Real and fake smiles respectively activate different parts of the motor cortex (part of the outer layer of the brain, controlling our muscles). Christian Keysers, neuroscientist at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, defines the two distinct systems as the ‘cold’ and the ‘hot’ facial expression system.

In this distinction, the ‘hot’ motor system is the part of your brain that transforms the ‘heat’ of true emotions into observable facial expressions and body language. The cold motor system, on the other hand, is active in voluntary movements of the face, including chewing, arguably attractive duck-faces and forced smiles on never-flattering group-photos.

When faking a smile, we activate our cold motor system in order to deliberately mimic the sequence of facial muscles used when smiling. However, this only leads to a poor imitation of a real smile: it will never capture the countless subtle movements of the entire face form an expression of true joy.

The difference between the hot and the cold motor system used for facial expressions becomes even more evident when one of the two is damaged after a brain lesion. Patients with a defective ‘hot’ system are only able to deliberately produce facial expressions; their faces will not move when they experience emotions. Conversely, people with a defective ‘cold’ system are unable to deliberately move their facial muscles, meaning they cannot produce fake-smiles (maybe this would be a suitable lesion for all fake-smiling politicians).

According to neuroscience, the solution for a convincing smile during your next job-interview or Christmas-eve family reunion is simple. Remember the last time you laughed until you had tears of joy in your eyes. Forget about the Hollywood-smile. A beautiful smile is not in your whitening toothpaste, it’s in your head!

For further reading:

C. Keysers, The empathic brain . How the discovery of mirror neurons changes our understanding of human nature (2011). Smashwords Edition

Morecraft, R.J., Stilwell-Morecraft, K.S., and Rossing, W.R. (2004). The motor cortex and facial expression: new insights from neuroscience. Neurologist 10, 235-249.

Maybe It’s Time to Take That Language Course You Have Always Wanted?

Are you maintaining an active lifestyle in order to keep your body in shape? Maybe you go to the gym every week and try to avoid fast food. But what about our brain? Is it possible to take good care of and alter the way our brain develops as we get older, or is it already determined by our genes?

It has been known for some time that older adults who stay active by maintaining a social and active life delay the onset of dementia. However, research shows that being fluent in two languages – being bilingual – also has a positive effect on the brain. Bilinguals diagnosed with dementia reported the onset of their symptoms up to 5 years later than monolinguals.

But what does being bilingual actually mean? Being bilingual does not merely mean you can order beer in more than one language (then I would be quadrilingual). It means that you are able to speak two languages with the facility of a native speaker.

Bilinguals have two languages active in their brain at the same time, which require them to be skilled at activating the right language for the occasion, while suppressing the other language. For an English-Spanish bilingual who wants to say ‘thank you’, both ‘thank you’ and ‘gracias’ will pop up. In order to choose the appropriate alternative, the right language has to be activated while the other has to be suppressed. This cognitive flexibility, activating and suppressing, is something bilinguals are very good at.

When I’m abroad and speaking a language I haven’t spoken in a while, it happens that a word from my mother tongue suddenly slips into a sentence. “Dos cervezas, tack!”, I often surprise myself when this happens. This is an example of when I can’t suppress my mother tongue well enough, and instead both ‘gracias’ and ‘tack’ (please in Swedish) are activated.

In order to investigate how bilinguals and monolinguals differ from each other on tasks that don’t involve language, researchers compared bilingual and monolingual children on a card sorting task. They let the children sort a set of cards with symbols. First, they asked the children to sort the cards by one feature (color), then, they asked them to re-sort the same cards by another feature (shape). Interestingly, they found that bilingual children showed more cognitive flexibility, by being better in attending to the new rule (sorting by shape) and ignore the old rule (sorting by color). This finding has been replicated in several experiments, using different tasks. So, even on tasks that don’t involve language, bilinguals seem to have an advantage by showing greater cognitive flexibility.

Furthermore, when taking a look at the actual brain, researchers have discovered that bilinguals have increased density of brain cells in one of the brain’s language-areas.

If you are now thinking that it’s too late for you to learn a second language, I have some good news for you. Earlier this year, a Swedish-German research group found structural changes in the brain’s language areas in adults learning a second language, only after 3 months of training.

On the whole, speaking two languages does alter the brain, and affects cognitive capacities beyond language. Bilingualism seems to delay the onset of dementia, and bilinguals have increased density of brain cells in one of the brain’s language-areas. Mono- and bilinguals perform differently on tasks demanding cognitive flexibility, and only after 3 months of training structural changes in the brain occur in adults learning a new language.

All this tells us that it is not only our genes and age that determine the future of our brain, but also what we do with it. Our brain is a plastic organ. If you want to take good care of it, treat it like a thinking-muscle – a muscle that gets stronger when using it. Stay active and don’t be afraid of trying and learning new things. Maybe it’s time to challenge yourself and take that language course you have always wanted?



Bialystok, E. (2009). Biligualism: The good, the bad, and the indifferent. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 12 (1) 3–1.

Fergus, I.M. Craik,. Bialystok, E., Freedman, M. (2010). Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve. Neurology, 2009;75.

Mechelli, A., Crinion, J. T., Noppeney, U., O’Doherty, J., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S. & Price, C. J. (2004). Structural plasticity in the bilingual brain. Nature, 431, 757.

Mårtensson, J., Eriksson, J., Bodammer, N.C., Lindgren, M., Johansson, M., Nyberg. L., Lövdén, M., (2012). Growth of language – related brain areas after foreign language learning. NeuroImagem 63 (1): 240-244

Stern Y. Cognitive reserve. Neuropsychologia 2009(47): 2015–2028.

Illustration: Erica Lindstedt

The Past And Future of Human Brain Evolution: Are you ready for the release of the amygdalapp?

Congratulations! You are one of the 7.041 billion people currently breathing on this planet. You have about 1.3 kg of immensely complex and hard working brain tissue consuming 20-30% of your daily calorie intake. That is more than any other organ in your body.

Why the human brain grew large enough to let you read this, and wonder where this is all leading to, is a puzzle keeping more than one evolutionary biologist awake. To be intelligent is nice, to some extent, but do we really need the capacity to reflect about the meaning of life in order to propagate our genes and maintain the human species? In terms of bodily energy expenses, a brain is costly to produce and expensive to run. Wouldn’t life be better with a smaller brain?

Illustration by Erica Lindstedt

There is a species of sea-squirt that uses its brain to find a suitable rock to cling to; once found, there is no need for a brain any more, and the brain is absorbed back into the rest of the body as fuel. In other words: brainfood. So what has happened to us during human brain evolution? About 2 million years ago, the brains of our hominid ancestors underwent a rapid expansion. The size of our brain started to increase faster than the size of our body. By now, compared to the relation between body volume and brain size, our brains are at least seven times larger than expected for a mammal of our size. In comparison, imagine a mouse with the head about as big as a tennis ball!

But why all these brains? Where other species adapted to their environment by physical adaptation, primates specialized by developing their cognitive skills. Several theories address the question why primates are – according to our human measures of intelligence – more intelligent than other mammals. A popular theory is that group-living requires considerable mental skill and complexity, with which I can heartily agree.

Recently, at a party, I introduced myself to the same girl three times. Obviously, the third time, the girl seemed a bit grumpy: “Yes. I know. You have told me two times already.” With embarrassment and blushing cheeks, I tried to convince her that she should not take it personal and that I always have trouble remembering new faces. Luckily, a friend of mine who understood what was going on, helped me out by confirming that this was indeed the case, “She always forget the faces of people she have met”, he said. With this confirmation the girl now seemed to accept my explanation and apology, and started a more neutral topic of conversation.

This is only one of the many situations demonstrating that our brain-capacity is crucial for our everyday lives. We don’t just sit on a rock like that sea-squirt: our memory, tactfulness, strategic and empathic skills are all essential cognitive ingredients, allowing us to live as successful social human beings in a social society.

But has the evolution of the human brain stopped? Alternatively, will our brains grow bigger in order to cope with a world that is rapidly expanding on a social, economical and technological level? Or will technological progress allow an artificial form of evolution?

In our modern world of overwhelmingly clever technology, where we are surrounded by ubiquitous artificial intelligence such as robots and computers, I am wondering when the limit between human intelligence and artificial intelligence will fade away. When will the first hybrid robot-human, the first cyborg, be born? And when will the first chip, replacing a part of the human brain, be implanted?

Imagine replacing your amygdala – a part of the brain that plays a key role in our emotional life – with an ingenious chip producing exactly the same feelings and behavior as the real amygdala. Are you still human? Intuitively, I would say ‘yes’. Now, imagine replacing your brain, part by part, until your brain is entirely electronic, while still letting you act, think and feel exactly the same as you did before any brainpart was replaced. Would you still call yourself human? What distinguishes you from a robot? At what point do you cross the line between being human and robot, and what does the line consist of?

Currently, a dominating view in neuroscience is the idea that ‘we are our brains’. In this view, every single aspect of our behavior, every single thought or emotion, results from a chemical, mechanical, physical process. If this is the case, if all the processes in our brain could at some point be perfectly understood and replicated, couldn’t the brain be replaced, like an artificial leg?

Due to brain-computer interface research it is already possible for people (often paralyzed patients) to control technology such as computers or a robot arm with their own mind. Only time will tell (us) what this technological progress will mean for the evolution of the human brain and our definition of a human. What does being human mean to you? Will you update your prefrontal cortex and download the first ‘amygdala-app’ when the iPhone 384 will be on the market? Brainfood, I’d say..

If you crave for more food for thought:

Evolution and human behavior, Darwinian perspective on human nature, 2nd edition, John Cartwright, 2008, A Bradford Book, MIT Press.

Shulman RG, Rothman DL, Behar KL, Hyder F. (2004) Energetic basis of brain activity: implications for neuroimaging.

To read more about brain-computer interface research:

Illustration: Erica Lindstedt