Category Archives: blogging

Art and Neuroscience, or Two Halves Tied

Hi, I’m Kat, and I spend a lot of time thinking about art and sociocognitive theory. I’ve been painting and drawing since I was very, very small. It used to be one of the first things people learned about me, but now it’s one of the last. I see art as intrinsically tied to science, which may be why I took so much of both in college. To me, understanding one helps you understand the other. I like making things that make people feel things. To me, the art in itself is the transmission of feeling the object elicits. Synapses firing gracefully, elevated, as your eyes cross the surface of the painting, studying the peaks and waves. The things I tend to make are a combination of elegant and visceral.  I think about why we’re driven to create things with little purpose except decoration, and perhaps narration. And why I, specifically, am driven to create, and can with some degree of proficiency.

I made this in high school. My professors liked to describe this style as “ugly beauty”.

So, as with everything, we can investigate these quandaries with some degree of modality. Four questions, four answers.

Causation – This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer. Whether talent is heritable is still up in the air amongst most people. It’s interesting, surely. Jeremy Summers of the Genetic Literacy Project postulates, from a few studies, that artistic ability can be linked to a few things. One is the release of serotonin, albeit not necessarily the inherent presence of it. Many artists have been famously depressed, the most famous probably being Vincent Van Gough. This is something else we share. My work, itself, improves when my mood does. Some of Van Gough’s greatest work was done during his stay in the Saint Paul-de-Mausole mental hospital, including Irises, and the one we all know, Starry Night.

Irises was one of the paintings Vincent van Gogh  depicting the grounds of the asylum in Saint-Rémy. See more pictures of van Gogh's paintings.

Image result for van gogh starry night hospital window

Another link to creativity  is, strangely, a shorter bundled strand of fibers in the corpus callosum. The theory here is that it allows for access to both sides of the brain through a shorter path, allowing for a faster and more effective flow of ideas.

Ontogeny– This one is easy enough to answer. As I grew older, I was better exposed to drawings. My mother is extremely creative, and would always shower our house with fresh flowers and coats of paint. She was the first person that taught me to draw. I have had many teachers in my life that have lended me advice and helped to increase my vocabulary of form.

Phylogeny– People make art for many reasons. They make it to hold record, as with Egyptian Hieroglyphics, to record their very presence in this world among many.  They make it to communicate ideas, and make others feel things- at least I do. Some of the oldest pieces of recorded art are hand stencils on the walls of caves in Spain.

Image result for caveman handprint

Handprints from the Cueva de las Manos, Spain.

Art has also been used as a plea to the gods, or a ritualistic object. Which brings me into the final question.

Adaptive Value – I couldn’t possibly talk about science and prehistoric art without mentioning Mr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, a Neuroscientist and Art Historian who speaks about a number of artistic principles in relation to human survival and chemistry. In artistic objects as early as the Venus of Willendorf, Ramachandran talks about a “peak shift”- a change in behavioral response through what is deemed necessary for a species’ survival.

Woman Venus of Willendorf

The venus is one of the earliest examples of art in existence, made around 30,000 BCE. Found in the icy mountain ranges of Austria, its exaggerated curvature suggests the ideal female form in an environment of scarce resource. This shift occurred precisely due to what was seen as fertile, and thereby idealized in this way. It was thought to hold importance as an object of fertility.

 

The same can be said for more modern art, as well. While not in the same realm of magical thinking, exactly, it does play on some sensory skill developed in early human society, such as grouping and perception. Whether an object of religious significance, cultural commentary, or pure, unadulterated aestheticism, I believe it’s important to create. For both audience and viewer. Humans have always created, and I hope they always continue to. Myself included.

 

Get Comfortable being Uncomfortable

Me, exploring the bald face of a mountain in South Carolina. I was on my way to my first backpacking trip with a friend. In the woods just the two of us for three days wasn’t easy, but we got an amazing spot for the solar eclipse this year!

Hi, I’m Lauren and I’m always trying to push my own limits. I’m a senior working towards a B.S. in Psychology with minors in music and philosophy with a mind and brain concentration. My whole life is dedicated to making myself uncomfortable, because that’s how we grow as people. In high school, I was really shy and awkward and trying to blend in as much as possible. Really nothing special and really ok with it. But one day my band director (the whole shy and awkward thing definitely lends itself to being a band nerd, trust me) bestowed on all of us some wisdom that I will abide by for the rest of my awkward and extraordinary life: Get comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure he was talking about becoming a better soloist or something at least semi-music related– but that’s not how I heard it. It came at a time my senior year when I was deciding what college to go to– in-state or out-of-state, big school or small school, public or private. And I needed to hear something that would help me make this decision that I knew would help shape the rest of my life. Which brought me to The University of Alabama! And this mantra has been going through my head since I stepped foot onto campus back in August of 2014.

Me, circa 2013. Marching down Broadway in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Can you tell which one I am? Exactly.
“Get comfortable being uncomfortable” –Alfred Watkins (above)

Mechanism

These words of wisdom grant me a cause to push myself. It’s the only way I’ve figured out to be my best self, to stay busy,  and to reach my full potential. There’s always more that I can do and I like to be able to prove that to myself. It probably comes from my competitive nature– I always like to “win”, and if winning is doing something different than I did yesterday then that’s cause enough for me to try it!

These uncomfortable behaviors produce stress in my system. Cortisol flows through my veins probably way more than the normal person; I’m sure my immune system has been compromised and my memory is getting worse by the minute. That’s why I’m constantly writing everything down and my planner is my most valuable possession. Source

 

Ontogeny

Pushing myself like this is definitely a learned behavior. It’s something I work towards every single day. Whether it’s pushing myself to set up a one on one meeting with a professor (which gives me incredible amounts of anxiety), starting an independent research project, or running for club president, I’m definitely not predisposed to do any of these things. But day after day I find myself pushing to make something happen.

I’ve learned to overcome the butterflies in my stomach before every lab meeting and test review. I’ve retrained myself to embrace the jitters that come along with submitting a research proposal. Some argue that this feeling is an evolutionary mechanism designed to make you run away. I’ve retrained myself to run towards it.

 

Adaptive Value

This behavior definitely has allllll kinds of adaptive value. I mean, I’m always adapting to the new adventures I throw myself into. Spring semester of freshman year I tried out to be a coxswain for the Alabama Crew Club. No big deal, right? anyone can sit in the back of a boat and steer it. WRONG. I was so wrong. When I showed up (at 5 am), expecting to be one of several people hoping to make the team. Turns out, I was trying out to be a coxswain of the men’s team. And crew=rowing (something I only had a slight idea of when I showed up). But I was there. I sat in the boat and steered it down and back up the river. And at the end of practice (the sun had just risen because it was still only 7 am) they told me to read up about what I was doing and they’d see me the following morning! I had to adapt to be more social, to gain confidence, and to fill a leadership role overnight. And I’m sure that increasing the males around me by 400% definitely has the chance to increase reproductive success, statistically at least.

Alabama Crew Club Men’s 8+ after winning bronze at a regatta in Gainesville, GA this spring.

Phylogeny

I don’t think this kind of behavior is an evolutionary trait– I think it’s a socially developed trait. Maybe there are some people who can push themselves naturally all the time (maybe they’re called extroverts?), but I am not like that. Maybe that truly is how some people get ahead and become CEOs or Senators or other models of “successful people”. But in my personal experience, this is a trait that derives from necessity, not from actual innate drive.

Me, standing in front of an Atlas V rocket just hours before launch. I got to watch this rocket launch the OSIRIS-REx payload into space. Ask me about it some time.
Although it might have been a “safe” start, freshman year I was in the Million Dollar Band to make new friends– here we are at the SEC Championship (2014)

It’s really strange to think about yourself in terms of evolutionary adaptations. As a psychology major with a focus on brain studies, it’s something I’ve never had to do before. It’s definitely beneficial to examine yourself in terms of how you go about daily life. As a psych major we’re always told things like, “now don’t try to analyze yourself in this way, you’ll just think you’re a psychopath!” and other ridiculous things about the parallels we may start to see in ourselves and our friends to the disorders we learn about in abnormal psych classes. I think this gives a really nice reflective perspective to how we see ourselves in the context of our classmates and in a broader context, too.

 

Playing With Play-Doh: The Reemergence of a Childhood Pastime

Hello, my name is Abbie, and I’m a senior at UA. I’m majoring in Biology and Spanish with a minor in Anthropology. My hobbies tend to lean more towards the arts: playing flute, painting, drawing, and perhaps the least popular amongst our age group, sculpting with Play-Doh.

Commonly thought of as an easy arts and crafts activity for young children, using play-doh has quickly become a valuable hobby as I’ve grown older. Opposite to most, I seem to have grown into this habit instead of abandoning it with age. I find that it has stress-relieving and relaxing properties and provides a creative outlet to relieve any frustrations or anxieties.

Juxtaposition of my Play-Doh nature with real nature.

This particular hobby had a fairly uneventful beginning. Walking through a Target store one day, I walked by a display of Play-Doh and spontaneously decided to purchase a few tubs, recalling how much I enjoyed it as a kid. That night happened to be in the middle of midterm exams, and it was particularly stressful as I had several exams that week. During a study break, I picked up one of the tubs and just began rolling the dough around, not making any intentional shapes, instead using it as “stress ball” of sorts.

This became a habit of mine while on study breaks to help relieve stress about upcoming exams. Eventually, I began using it while studying, much like the fidget cubes that many individuals use today, using it not only to eliminate anxiety but also to better my focus. It quickly became a more frequent pastime, not only using it as a stress ball, but also beginning to make pictures and shapes (though unrecognizable to others). I began carrying Play-Doh around with me in my back-pack, on short trips, and even on a summer long vacation out of state. I now use it almost daily to rid myself of any of the frustrations induced by the day’s events. It has rather quickly evolved into one of my most relaxing and beneficial hobbies, and my Play-Doh collection has grown significantly since its beginning.

It’s no Pyramid of Giza, but it is a work in progress.

Humans have utilized sculpture as an art form for centuries, though, most did it for different reasons than my own, citing religion and mythology as a common influence and model for their creations. Many also used it as a form of recreation, and this habit seems to have been passed down through generations. Though our prehistoric ancestors likely weren’t using brightly colored salt dough, sculpture as a hobby is not a new concept.

A more time consuming creation made during a Harry Potter movie marathon.

Though not directly responsible for increased survival chance, playing with Play-Doh does provide a group of advantageous traits that could be useful in a survival circumstance. Playing with Play-Doh not only reduces my stress levels, but also has increased my creativity and imagination. Creativity could prove useful as a potential problem-solving trait, which could potentially improve my overall ‘fitness’ as an individual. It can even be used to improve fine motor skills, depending on how detailed one’s creations become.

Monika Wanis – Why I like extreme sports!

2010 Skydive with “Tree Man” in Middletown, Ohio

Hi! My name is Monika Wanis, I am a second year Biocultural Medical anthropology graduate student. I am originally from Cairo, Egypt but have lived in Columbus, Ohio for the past 20 years. I attended The Ohio State University for my undergraduate degree in Anthropology, Psychology, Integrative Medicine and Neuroscience. I speak Arabic, English, Spanish, and Russian. I am also currently a TA for 2 sections of Cultural Anthropology. My favorite hobby is doing any extreme sport. I went skydiving on August 27th of this year for the second time for my birthday! According to Tinbergen’s 4 Questions Why, here is why I like extreme sports:

Proximate Causes

  • Mechanism – Physiologically, extreme sports often involve behaviors that increase your heart rate and produce a surge in hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and dopamine. These substances may cause feelings of happiness and euphoria, therefore providing positive feedback for the extreme behavior and potentially creating a feedback loop.
  • Ontogeny – My interest in extreme sports has developed over a lifetime. I don’t think I was born with an innate desire to jump out of airplanes. I may have been born with a slight bias towards risky behaviors but then through interactions with people who are involved with extreme sports, I became attracted to the hobby and over time, began experiencing and enjoying them more.

Ultimate Causes

  • Adaptive Value – While extreme sports may appear to be in contrast to increasing my reproductive fitness, it actually may contribute to it! If I were to die doing an extreme sport then obviously it does not contribute to my reproductive fitness. However, doing extreme sports and surviving may be a mechanism of sexual signaling to onlookers that indicates that although I engage in these risky behaviors, I am strong/smart/clever/etc. enough to survive, thus, increasing my my mating and reproductive potential because those are characteristics that increase my chances of survival.
  • Phylogeny – This interest in extreme sports may have evolved to set myself apart from the rest. Due to an increase in education levels, income, competition in the job market, an interest in extreme sports could be an evolution due to these selective pressures. Practicing extreme sports is a behavior that is different from what is traditionally seen as a desirable characteristic in a mate, therefore, it may have evolved as an additional characteristic that may be seen as desirable.

 

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

The Amstel river that runs through the city of Amsterdam.

I feel a little silly writing a personal post about travel- like the typical millennial blog about why you should travel to every country before you turn 30 (if you are blessed with money and time). Honestly, I’m not sure I would even call traveling a hobby and I don’t think I would consider myself a “wandering soul” or someone with the “travel bug.” I am perfectly happy nesting in my bed during my vacations.

Most of the hobbies I consider essential to how I define myself are personal, and, usually, things that no body knows about me. That’s what makes them special. However, I do think traveling has had some impact on the person that I’ve become and the way that I view things. Plus, it’s the only thing I have original images of so….

Historically: Ancestrally, I suppose humans have always been nomadic before civilization evolved; although, I don’t think early homo sapiens traveled for the same reasons that I did. Their reasons were purely pragmatic and had nothing to do with the existential crises that people my age seem to face. Nomads went where the food was. Come to think of it… so did I.

In more recent history, traveling (at least, internationally) has not been a theme in my family, aside from my father and I. My mother’s

The Hohenzollern Bridge that goes over the Rhine river in Cologne, Germany. It’s filled with locks, much like Pont des Arts in Paris.

family were all born and raised (and stayed) in Alabama. My mother, by coincidence, has a crippling anxiety of planes, so she never traveled- ironic since my father is a pilot. I guess both of my sisters just never really had the desire to. They’re home bodies, like me, but I never like to say no to an opportunity.

Proximally: If my father weren’t a pilot, I probably would have never left the country, or at least not in my twenties. Traveling is expensive if your airline tickets and hotels aren’t free- I’m privileged in that regard. It started with me just meeting my dad on trips. He flies cargo so his job is basically to fly a plane full of boxes to one location, wait a couple of days, and then fly it back. He flies the Asia route, so his typical destinations are places like Dubai, China, India, ect.. but every now and then they do half way stops in European countries, like Germany. For my father, traveling at this point is more of a job than an adventure, so when he gets bored, he asks us to fly out and visit him. I’m usually the only one who says yes, so I’ve become accustomed to traveling solo.

But flying non-reservation to distant lands isn’t as romantic as it sounds. Flying as the dependent of a cargo pilot has its pros and cons. Pro- I can fly any airline I want. Most dependents of airline pilots only get free tickets on the airline they’re associated with. Cons- Depending on the airline, my name is always the last on the list. Planes are notorious for over selling their tickets. But just as an extra precaution, they allow a list of stand by passengers to sit around and wait to see if the plane fills up. If it doesn’t, that’s where the list comes in. First, goes the people who work for the airline, then the dependents of those people, then me. Sometimes I’ll spend all day in an airport trying to catch a flight with an empty seat. If I’m lucky, they will only have first class seats available and I’ll get the seat for free.

Pretty much the only photo I took in Iceland before my camera ran out of storage.

Getting to my desired destination can be like a game of planes, trains, and automobiles. Sometimes it amounts to more time in the air than on the actual ground. The first time I visited him in Germany, I took a 9 hour flight to Amsterdam (although first class so I’m not complaining), then an hour bus ride to a train station, then a three hour train ride to Cologne where my dad was. I was in Cologne for less than 24 hours before I had to go back. I honestly don’t mind the traveling. Sometimes it can be more adventurous than the destination.

Developmental: I don’t want to say that traveling is developmentally essential in your 20s. It’s a luxury in more ways than one. I know you’ll see a million blog posts about how to travel on a budget and how it can be affordable for anybody, but really that’s only one part of the equation. Traveling takes time. Not everyone has the luxury to drop whatever they’re doing and leave the country or take breaks from school or work. More than that, it takes support. There are a lot of factors to international travel.- customs you have to adhere to, languages you have to take into consideration, along with currency differences and travel restrictions. You can always wing it like I did, but I wouldn’t advise it. I may have traveled alone, but I was never really alone. When I lost my wallet in Shanghai, I was able to call my mom while I had my mini panic attack, and when I got on a train going the wrong direction in Amsterdam, I had a friend to call who spoke fluent Dutch and was able to get me back in the right direction. It’s the little things you don’t think of that really make traveling a privilege, not just the money.

A random hammock i found in Ambergris Caye, which is an island off the coast of Belize.

I suppose that it is most common for people to want to travel in their 20s. It’s typically a time in your life when you have minimal responsibilities and attachments, which is ideal when you’re leaving the country. I do, however, think that it’s just as acceptable, maybe even more so, to do it later on in life. At that point, you have more financial accessibility, life experience, etc. but I do understand the “seize the day” attitude people have and the appeal and romanticism of traveling when you’re young. It’s a common theme that traveling is something that changes you forever. You hear stories about someone climbing to the top of the Eiffel tower or studying abroad in Italy and becoming a “new person.” I think that’s kind of absurd. These are just places; they aren’t magic. Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonderful experience to have and it can have a lasting impact, but not being able to travel doesn’t mean you aren’t developing as a person and being able to travel doesn’t mean you will become a new one.

The coast of San Juan, PR. Right next to Fort San Cristobal.

Functional: Well, one thing that isn’t compatible with international travel, I’ve learned, is a crippling fear of planes, so you have to be able to physically get yourself to your destination. A big part is just mobility. That’s another luxury. Not everyone can travel easily and at a fast past. There are a lot of physical factors that can limit that.

Social support

One of the main problems I encountered when brainstorming about my proposal was determining a way to measure social support.

Luckily I found an article describing the Social Support Questionnare (SSQ) which provides quantitative data about the amount and perceived quality of support received. The questionnaire asks about the number of people on whom one could receive support from in a variety of situations. It also asks participants to rank their satisfaction with this support. The numbers are then averaged to provide a singular score.

 

Sarason, I. G., Sarason, B. R., Shearin, E. N., & Pierce, G. R. (1987). A brief measure of social support: Practical and theoretical implications. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 4(4), 497-510.

Anxiety, A Normal Stress Reaction

To get a basic feel for the psychological issues behind anxiety, The National Institute for Mental Health helped with the background information and a start into the neurological reasonings behind why we react the way we do to stress.  “Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. It is used as a coping mechanism, for memories, fear, or dealing with stress and pressure.” These symptoms allows one to get into the mind and visualize what an athlete is experiencing and further my investigation into the SNS and ANS systems.

 

National Institute for Mental Health

2014. Anxiety. Electronic Document. <http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety- disorders/index.shtml>

Cognitive Anxiety and Somatic Anxiety in a Negative Relationship

Since a person reacted to stress both somatically and cognitively Martens article on the Multi-dimensional Anxiety Theory adds another idea to the mix. Research has found a relationship between cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety within a person creates a negative linear relationship. Meaning that somatic anxiety will create the inverted-U as stated before, but as cognitive anxiety increases, performance in the individual will decrease (Martens 1990). 

Martens, R. et al.

1990. The Development of the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 (CSAI-2). Human Kinetics

Anxiety Arousal and Performance Issues

This article helped greatly in understanding the different levels of stress. Yerkes gave a detailed breakdown on the Inverted-U Hypothesis on the relationship between anxiety and performance. This hypothesis indicated that as arousal increases, then performance also increases and improves but only up to a certain point. If the individuals arousal is pushed beyond the max point then performance will have the inverted affect and diminishes, creating an inverted U shape.

Yerkes and Dodson

1908. The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of of Neurological Psychology

 

LGB familial support.

This article doesn’t exactly relate to my topic, but it deals with stress and social support for those in a minority group. I had some reservations about using this article, because negative social effects of being a vegan are hardly comparable to the struggles faced by the LGBTQ community. Once I read another one of my articles, I was able to find a connection between familial support that, while it is not quite the same, it can be compared as both groups can rejected by their families.

I found this interesting because it discovered that close, familial support meant more in reducing stress levels than peer support or overall satisfaction with the support.

This has slight implications in how social support for vegans might differ from non-vegans.

 

Burton, C. L., Bonanno, G. A., & Hatzenbuehler, M. L. (2014). Familial social support predicts a reduced cortisol response to stress in sexual minority young adults. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 47(0), 241-245. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.05.013