With this month's theme being "Brain and Technology" we are delighted to inform you about this year's BCI & Neurotechnology Spring School. This 10-day virtual event is inviting everyone: students, researchers and anyone who is interested in BCI-related robotics, AR, VR, machine learning, computing, human-machine interface systems, control, signal processing, big data, rehabilitation, and similar areas. The Spring School 2023 offers a series of educational talks and insights from universities and companies about their cutting-edge brain-computer interface projects. As if this isn't already enough, there is a BR41N.IO Designers' Hackathon too, to top off this unique and highly valuable learning experience.
The spring school takes place online from April 17-23 and is free of charge.
Come see, come see, it’s all over the internet and it’s called pornography!
Ever since the widespread availability of pornography caused by the internet, its usage has skyrocketed. Estimations of porn consumption put it between a range of 50-99% in men and 30-86% in women. This indicates that many of us are familiar with pornographic content. While opinions on porn are divided, so are the research findings. After the legalization of porn in Denmark in 1969, there was a reduction in the reported sexual aggression. Thus, when looking at the advantages and disadvantages, one could argue that watching porn can be a safe recreational outlet which could even decrease sexual harassment or assault. However, there are also those who argue that consuming porn can lead to reduced relationship quality, sexual addiction or even could encourage sexual aggression. It’s just not all that simple when it comes to the effects of porn. As an example, researchers reported that for men, using porn would on average lead to reduced sexual intimacy, while for women the opposite was found. The researchers hypothesize that this finding could likely be explained by men tending to watch porn alone more, whereas women would be more likely to watch it in a shared experience. Furthermore, the kind of porn that men are attracted to on average lacks context, whereas women are on average more interested in softer forms with a storyline.
The research on pornography & our brain is having trouble getting started
The amount of research conducted on the effects of porn consumption on our brain is rather sparse, and I have to say that it’s hard to filter through the articles I encountered. One reason is, that from the limited number of publications, another reason is the limitations that many studies have, where one of the biggest is the small sample sizes used.
Consumption versus addiction
It’s important to state that there is a difference in the effects of porn based on the frequency it’s consumed at. A small subgroup of porn consumers watches porn on a daily basis and has a hard time kicking that habit. Men who suffer from porn addiction are more likely to withdraw emotionally from their relationship and are at an increased risk for developing depression. Since porn is watched by men to a much greater extent, the studies that focus on excessive use are often limited to samples with only men.
Our brain & porn
What happens in our brain when we watch pornographic content? For this part, I want to reintroduce the dopaminergic system. Dopamine is a hormone/neurotransmitter that has an important function in reward processing and evaluation. Certain activities or consumptions can increase our dopamine level, making it higher than baseline for a transient amount of time. When we eat chocolate, there will be a brief spike in dopamine, it spikes to an amount 50% higher than baseline. When we have sex, dopamine will rise to around twice the baseline level. We can imagine that if pornography lies close to this doubling of dopamine levels, the feeling of wanting to watch porn is then rooted in something very rewarding. The problem with repeatedly watching porn is that the high dopamine release will make it harder for different interactions (e.g. sex) to raise dopamine levels to equal or higher than the level caused by the porn consumption. This can potentially cause numbness to the dopaminergic response due to the inability of other factors to compete with or overthrow the effects of porn consumption. Therefore, excessive porn consumption may lead to difficulties in motivation and goal pursuit and affect daily-life romantic relationships or sexual interactions.
When we look at the brain of people who consume pornography excessively, impairments in executive functioning and working memory may be found, likely through altered activity in an area crucially involved in these functions: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. One way to obtain information about the brain exposed to pornography is to correlate hours of watching porn per week with gray matter volume. Researchers who investigated this for the caudate (among other functions, important for processing visual information, movement control, working memory and emotions and cognitive functions) and putamen (among other functions, involved in reward and addiction) saw a reduced volume in the right caudate and left putamen with increasing hours of porn watched weekly. Furthermore they used functional MRI (fMRI) to investigate the connectivity and revealed that higher consumption of pornography was associated with a reduced connectivity of the left putamen and right caudate to the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. As I mentioned earlier, such studies investigating the effects of pornography on the brain are still sparse, in need of reproduction and larger sample sizes to draw more solid conclusions.
Take away message:
While many of us consume porn without problems, some people develop addictive tendencies which can have a negative impact on their life. While the effects of consumption are still under investigation, it seems that porn can have a negative effect on our dopaminergic system when used at high frequency and/or intensity. Thus, if you like watching porn regularly, try alternating it a bit with some delicious dark chocolate or sex.
Author: Kobus Lampe Image created using DALL-E-2 open AI software
De Sousa, A., & Lodha, P. (2017). Neurobiology of Pornography Addiction–A clinical review. Telangana journal of psychiatry, 3(2), 66.
Hall, P. (2011). A biopsychosocial view of sex addiction. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 26(3), 217-228.
Kühn, S., & Gallinat, J. (2014). Brain structure and functional connectivity associated with pornography consumption: the brain on porn. JAMA psychiatry, 71(7), 827-834.
The Huberman Lab (2021) (deze podcast kan ik aanbevelen) https://hubermanlab.com/controlling-your-dopamine-for-motivation-focus-and-satisfaction/
Tolman, D. L., Diamond, L. M., Bauermeister, J. A., George, W. H., Pfaus, J. G., & Ward, L. (2014). APA handbook of sexuality and psychology, Vol. 2: Contextual approaches.
Weir, K. (2014). Is pornography addictive. Monitor on Psychology, 45(4), 46-50.
Free Will by Sam Harris - book
The belief that all the decisions we make as humans are completely based on our free will is a popular thought among most of us. However, Sam Harris, a well-known American neuroscientist, philosopher, podcast host, author, and founder of the ‘Waking up app’, tries to shed a different light on the endless debate if it can actually be true that we as humans do have free will.
In this book, Sam describes that even when it is difficult to imagine, the decisions in life about what you vote during the elections, who you want to marry or personal achievements are not the consequence of your own thoughts and actions. In fact, Sam argues that free will is an illusion that we create in our mind to explain our choices and actions. However, in reality, everything we decide, do, or say is the consequence of the activity in our brain. Therefore, unconsciously your brain had already decided that you were going to read this recommendation article. However, you only started to ‘consciously’ realize this a couple of seconds later, as well as giving the explanation that you were really interested in reading this article and therefore you have started reading it. Nonetheless, if you do or do not agree with Sam’s point of view, this enlightening book will encourage you to change your way of thinking about the most important questions in life.
Author: Joyce Burger
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K Dick
Now that you have brushed up on nearly all there is to know about how and why we sleep, why not unwind with a good book before bed? For the science-fiction inclined, this 1968 book is a must-read. The themes explored here on humanity and reality itself were the inspiration for the blockbuster Blade Runner franchise and continue to influence works of sci-fi to this day.
A successful podcaster and researcher, Dr Andrew Huberman is a neuroscientist at Stanford University with a long-running podcast that aims to inform listeners on a range of topics around the brain and healthy habits. Linked above are two episodes that cover healthy sleeping habits and the neuroscience behind them. Furthermore, Dr Huberman has interviewed Dr Matt Walker on his own show in episode 31 of the Huberman Lab series.
Author: Thomas von Rein
Dr. Matthew Walker – The Surprising Health Benefits of Dreaming
and his book…
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Dr. Matthew WalkerOne of the foremost researchers in the realm of sleep and dreaming, neuroscientist Dr Matt Walker has been outspoken for many years now about the impact of sleep on our brain and bodies, and how our modern habits effect our sleep. His 2018 book covers everything one would want to know about the science of sleep, but for those that are more inclined to listening over reading, not only is there an audiobook, but Dr Walker also has a podcast simply titled “The Matt Walker Podcast” that covers much of the information in the book including more up to date research.
Author: Thomas von Rein
Unnatural Selection - Netflix
The way our genes work can be influenced by our environment; this is called epigenetics. However, what if we could directly alter our genes? New technologies keep developing and step-by-step a sci-fi world in which we alter our own DNA becomes more realistic. Here, you’re probably thinking about ethical concerns, influence on society and the extremes. Unnatural selection is a Netflix series in the form of a documentary that shows some of the craziest developments in the field of bioengineering.
One of the main characters in the series is a biohacker who experiments with his own body. I think this is beyond crazy; he is very acquainted with bioengineering, but he wants to bring DIY-kits for genetic editing on the market (yes, for everyone). Keep in mind that the changes to your genetics could be even more than just influencing your life, they could be passed on to your offspring.
Without spoiling the series, some of the other parts of the documentary are about an American dog-breeder who tries to alter the DNA of his dogs to give them very odd characteristics. Another part is about using gene editing to stabilize nature, for example by taking out invasive animals or animal plagues. Make a guess which company invests heavily into research in this area? It’s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research and development agency of the United States Department of Defense. They are responsible for the development of innovative technologies to be used by the military. And yet another part is about using gene editing to treat (rare) diseases.
Picture of the dog breeder at work in his home-lab.
Central to this documentary is the usage of the new technique CRISPR-cas9. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, an important bacterial defense mechanism against viruses. CRISPR’s are short parts of our DNA, these short parts are repeated frequently. The power of this technique comes from pairing this with an enzyme called Cas9 which allows us to cut out a specific part of DNA and then replace it with another part we attach. This new part need not come from DNA of the same species; for example, you can inject DNA from a jellyfish into a plant, bacteria or human. Using this combination, we can insert a change in many of these short parts of the DNA, causing differences in expression. Using this technique, the possibilities are huge. Think of curing rare diseases related to these short DNA parts, to manipulating the yeast in beer to make it glow-in-the-dark.
All in all, I think this series shows some of the most ridiculous, concerning, perhaps promising but surely impactful applications of gene modification. Ready to be amazed? Then I recommend you check out the series on Netflix!
Author: Kobus Lampe
The Mountain in the Sea
Ray Nayler’s recent science-fiction novel “The Mountain in the Sea” is an imaginative dive into the depths of neuroscientific theories on consciousness, language development and the human condition. Daunting as these bold subject matters appear, the reader is guided through them in such a way that they are not only well explained, but further encourage the reader to ask questions of these ideas as well as themselves. This is achieved by asking questions as opposed to always answering them, however (much like with novels such as Richard Powers’ “The Overstory”) this style does not create a feeling of dissatisfying ambiguity at the end, but rather a motivation and desire to understand the world around us more profoundly.
A brief synopsis of the novel is as follows: “Humankind discovers intelligent life in an octopus species with its own language and culture, and sets off a high-stakes global competition to dominate the future.” - Goodreads. At the heart of this book is a story about connection with another earthly species and our failure as self-appointed caretakers of the planet. The book is set in an unspecified time in the future, where the world and its powers look quite different to how we recognise them today. The novel echoes a cyberpunk aesthetic like that of William Gibson’s “The Neuromancer”, wherein both works allow the reader to feel immersed in the world by minimising gratuitous exposition. Facts of the world are only explained when it is for a character’s sake and not the readers, creating further intrigue and leaving the details to the reader’s imagination and preconceptions. But, unlike recent explorations of the cyberpunk genre (especially in the video game scene), this world does not feel fantastical or far-futuristic. It is grounded, a touch brutal and feels very attainable in a horrifying way.
Guiding this plot and inhabiting this uncanny-valley world are the characters, with whom the reader journeys throughout the novel, flicking back and forth between perspectives. Yet the reader is never left feeling disoriented or cut off, as few of the chapters are ended on frustrating cliff hangers, instead relying on true, well executed suspense. One plot-line follows researchers on the island of Con Dao, a protected environmental reserve off the coast of Vietnam; another, a slave worked to the bone on a boat with no captain that chases profits at all cost in a lawless ocean; the last, a genius in artificial intelligence who is given his hardest job to date. Each plot-line is a tool, which explores the concept of the so-called hard problem of consciousness through different approaches. What does it mean to be homo sapiens? Can we truly replicate that which we cannot understand? And even, how we as beings that claim to be self-aware can fail to extend that awareness to the destruction we work on the environment and each other.
I heartily recommend this impactful short read to anyone who has an interest in consciousness, human empathy and development, and environmental or marine biology. It is thought-provoking and can elicit a philosophical curiosity with anyone, regardless of background.
Author: Thomas von Rein
The mind, Explained - Netflix series
Besides ‘How to Change Your Mind’, another relatively new Netflix series called ‘The Mind explained’ consists of short episodes of approximately 20 minutes each. Each episode talks about a different psychological concept in an easy and understandable way and tries to answer a different question such as: ‘What does it mean to be brainwashed’. Or: ‘Why do we dream?’ With the help of outstanding animations switched up with interviews of patients, these concepts are introduced in a graspable manner, so everyone is able to follow. Currently there are two seasons of each 5 episodes published, however I will not be surprised if new seasons will be made in the future.
Author: Joyce Burger
Atomic habits by James Clear - book
We all have habits we would like to change; drink less alcohol, cut down our mobile phone usage, and go to the gym more often. In this book, James Clear gives you hands-on tools which are inspired by psychological theories on how to break bad habits and build healthy ones in a stepwise manner. It is such an easy read and accessible for anyone. Besides that, some of his tips regarding mobile phone use, such as putting your phone in another room than the room you are studying in to increase the effort to grab your mobile phone is an example which I still use in my current student life.
Author: Joyce Burger
Why we sleep by Mathew Walker - book
In this book, the famous sleep researcher Matthew Walker tries to unravel all the neuroscientific research on sleep and dreams currently available. In an understandable and easy written way he walks you through how sleep impacts your physical as well as mental well-being. Hereby he sheds light on different topics such as Alzheimer’s disease, memory, aging, and how this is all related to sleep. Besides that, he provides the reader with hands-on tips which you can easily incorporate in your daily routine to improve your sleep hygiene as for example not eating just before bedtime. With the 24-hour economy we are currently living in, cutting down your sleep is quite common to do. However, even for me as someone who already has some prior knowledge of this topic, it was still confronting to read that not prioritizing sleep can have so many diverse negative consequences. I would like to point out one quotation in his book which conveys this message in one sentence: “Wakefulness is low-level brain damage, while sleep is neurological sanitation”.
Author: Joyce Burger
How to change your mind - Netflix series
While discussing the potential of psychedelics in treating psychological disorders during the course ‘Neuropsychopharmacology’, one of my peers brought up this Netflix documentary series called ‘How To Change Your Mind’. This Netflix series is based on a book published by Michael Pollan called ‘How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence’. This documentary covers four different psychedelic drugs just as in the book; LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and mescaline. This Netflix documentary is a real game changer regarding the advantages of these drugs in treatment of psychological disorders. Moreover, it clears up some of the toxic myths surrounding these psychedelics and literally opens the mind towards the potential ability for these drugs to treat for example anxiety or depression. Since it consists of only four episodes of approximately 55 minutes each, it is an easy watch during a rainy weekend!
Author: Joyce Burger
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