week 6

Chemical Control of the Brain and Behaviour (personal thoughts)

I find the connection between the biological bodily mechanisms and behaviour intriguing. We’ve found out that hormones, neurotransmitters and even the diet play a part in behaviour and the body, but everything from outside influences to inside reactions brings about behaviour. If we didn’t eat foods high in dietary amino acid tryptophan, for example, the body wouldn’t be able to synthesise serotonin, thus leading to depression, lack of sleep and craving for carbohydrates. And if we see a bear right in front of us in the forest don’t we get the “fight and flight” response from the nervous system. So both the outside world, as well as, the inner workings of the brain affect our behaviour, but what came first? Was it learned or was it biological? I think this was talked about in the introduction chapter of the book (nurture or nature), but while the answer eludes us it does make one think.

When it comes to human behaviour and the understanding of it we can only rely on averages of the population. These statistics are used in a variety of fields from marketing to technology. Coming from a design field I recently wrote about the relationship between neuroscience perspective on behaviour and human centered design. It is said that human centered design (HCD) and neuroscience are two disciplines as far from each other as any two subjects and generally not to be discussed in the same breath. But they actually have a lot in common, since both study humans and their behaviours in relation to the world around them. HCD emphasizes producing reliable solutions for services and products focusing on the understanding human actions and behaviour in relation to a design problem. I strongly believe that neuroscience could give new tools that would allow for innovative design solutions. HCD “is a framework of processes in which usability goals, user characteristics, environment, tasks and workflow of a product, service or process are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process.” [1] To this endeavor advancement in discoveries within neuroscience that link behavioral disorders to biology could be used to design better in all stages of the design process in order to make human friendlier designs.

Examples of designing better using neuroscience knowledge, for example, is the serotonin regulation in the body. Low levels are believed to cause depression and even weight gain, but the estimated levels of serotonin are possible to measure from blood samples with a new MIP-based biomimetic sensor [2]. This could one day be used in products or alongside other design tools to give a deeper understand during different prototype testing phases, probing exercises or workshops. New transdermal optical imaging (TOI) technology that assesses basal stress by mapping facial blood flow it is possible to see changes with a common digital video camera, revealing bluffing and other emotions [3]. This reaction is beyond our conscious control and is not visible to the naked eye of the observer. The method reveals high anxiety and can give clues on level of difficulty and understanding. These revelations from sensors might be substantial depending on the design task and questions presented and in relation to the design problem being solved.

The field of human centered design has always taken inspiration from other fields and should now also take from neuroscience. It’s been seen that design research, design practice has taken from social sciences and humanities. Human computer interaction has taken from computer science. Experience driven design uses knowledge from psychology and even Mattelmäki, Vaajakallio and Koskinen agree that “during the past few years, the researchers interest has been in finding methods for envisioning increasingly radical design vistas” and has always had a role in design” [4]. The combination of HCD and neuroscience allows for this radical experimentation and could possibly produce some useful offspring to design practice because design has always been fascinated to understand design choices, solve design problems by analyzing emotions, thoughts and behavior.

1. Wikipedia contributors. (2018, October 24). User-centered design. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 09:10, November 2, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User-centered_design&oldid=865523045

2. Peeters, M., Troost, F. J., van Grinsven, B., Horemans, F., Alenus, J., Murib, M. S., … & Wagner, P. (2012). MIP-based biomimetic sensor for the electronic detection of serotonin in human blood plasma. Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical, 171, 602-610.

3. Lee, K. (2016, February). Kang Lee: Can you really tell if a kid is lying? | TED Talk [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/kang_lee_can_you_real ly_tell_if_a_kid_is_lying

4. Mattelmäki, T., Vaajakallio, K., & Koskinen, I. (2014). What happened to empathic design?. Design issues, 30(1), 67-77.

Week 5

As partly distinct from the rest of the brain, the optic system seems to be a relatively clearly perceived entity. Far from simple in functioning, its outlines can be categorized into the eye and its structure, the cells of the retina, the optic nerve pathways and the brain areas which the optic nerves lead to. Many structures can already be explained in remarkable detail, however, the current challenge lies in explaining the way images form from the signals initiated by the retinal cells.

Most of the axons from the optic tract innervate the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) of the dorsal thalamus, where the information is passed onward to cortical areas of the occipital, temporal and parietal lobes. Around two dozen cortical areas have been identified to be part of visual information processing, many of which functions are still largely unclear. However, it seems different parts manage different aspects of the processing. E.g. from the two large-scale cortical streams involved, the dorsal stream appears to analyse visual motion and visual control of action, while the ventral stream is thought to be involved in building a perception of the visual world and recognition of objects.

For me, the most devouring question lies in how in the world are the initial electrical signals transformed into a subjective experience of seeing? Where in the brain does the image of the visual field reside?

Apparently, the current hypothesis of perception is that certain groups of neurons, receptive fields, are activated according to different objects of the physical world (e.g. the face of my clamorous nocturnal neighbor which occasionally resembles a punching bag). Yet, this approach opens up more questions than it answers: concepts of objects are also utilized in the act of thinking. How do thoughts utilize the concepts built by the visual system? How do initial concepts form? Which was first: the concept or the visual? Where do thoughts come from and who does the thinking? How did this text come into being, and is it understood by anyone?

week 4

Neurotransmitter Systems and week 4

This post is a little late, but the reason is quite understandable as the weeks topic was one of the hardest to comprehend and digest. Putting it plainly, chemistry has never been my strongest subject so the amount of effort in googling and note taking of chapters 5 (last weeks chapter, but required for this weeks understanding) & 6 took some time. It took three times of reading the chapters through to be exact. No joke!

From neurotransmitter systems to neurotransmitter chemistry the exact mechanisms that allow for pre- & postsynaptic neurons to relay messages fast through transmitted-gated channels and slower through g-protein-coupled receptors opened my eyes to the complexity and thereby the weaknesses of our neural system. I’ve always been fascinated about how our brain can ignite memories, emotions and movement coordination with such precision. To top this, it’s amazing that there are only three types of neurotransmitters that do all of it – amino acids, amine and peptides. What creates differences is where these messages are being sent (PNS or CNS), the type of presynaptic neuron sending the neurotransmitter and the postsynaptic neuron receiving. Even the thought of the multitude of different combinations and arrangements of subunits of receptors gives rise to numerous outcomes of what happens in signaling. As said in the book:

“The immense chemical complexity of synaptic transmission makes it especially susceptible to the medical corollary of Murphy’s law, which states that if a physiological process can go wrong, it will go wrong.” – chapter 6, page 131

But again it was interesting to read on all the things that could go wrong! The most interesting being about cell death and how easily it can happen. And mammalian brain cells don’t regenerate so we are stuck with what we have. Glutamate the most abundant neurotransmitter is also a neuron killer when blood flow ceases. Within a few minutes permanent damage is done. With the production of ATP stopped membranes depolarize, and Ca2+ leaks into cells causing rapid depolarization of neurons. This overexciting of neurons is called excitotoxity and is equivalent to neurons digesting themselves.

What are my thoughts on all of this? Well I came to thinking about migraines. I’ve suffered from them almost my entire life and it would be interesting to find an answer to what causes them. Its said to be a chemical imbalance in the brain involving the nerves and blood vessels, but what exactly causes them is still unknown. Could it be an underlying problem with a neurotransmitter or receptor? Or a neuro transporter issue?

I don’t have any more enlightening thoughts, but hope the following weeks readings won’t be as hard to digest 😀