Excerpts from the 21 February 2014 article
The bacteria in our guts can influence the working of the mind, says Frank Swain. So could they be upgraded to enhance brainpower?
I have some startling news: you are not human. At least, by some counts. While you are indeed made up of billions of human cells working in remarkable concert, these are easily outnumbered by the bacterial cells that live on and in you – your microbiome. There are ten of them for every one of your own cells, and they add an extra two kilograms (4.4lbs) to your body.
Far from being freeloading passengers, many of these microbes actively help digest food and prevent infection. And now evidence is emerging that these tiny organisms may also have a profound impact on the brain too. They are a living augmentation of your body – and like any enhancement, this means they could, in principle, be upgraded. So, could you hack your microbiome to make yourself healthier, happier, and smarter too?
“Diet is perhaps the biggest factor in shaping the composition of the microbiome,” he says. A study by University College Cork researcherspublished in Nature in 2012 followed 200 elderly people over the course of two years, as they transitioned into different environments such as nursing homes. The researchers found that their subjects’ health – frailty, cognition, and immune system – all correlated with their microbiome. From bacterial population alone, researchers could tell if a patient was a long-stay patient in a nursing home, or short-stay, or living in the general community. These changes were a direct reflection of their diet in these different environments. “A diverse diet gives you a diverse microbiome that gives you a better health outcome,” says Cryan.
Beyond a healthy and varied diet, though, it still remains to be discovered whether certain food combinations could alter the microbiome to produce a cognitive boost. In fact, Cryan recommends that claims from probiotic supplements of brain-boosting ought to be taken with a pinch of salt for now. “Unless the studies have been done, one can assume they’re not going to have any effect on mental health,” he says. Still, he’s optimistic about the future. “The field right now is evolving very strongly and quickly. There’s a lot of important research to be done. It’s still early days.”
‘How reading in a second language protects your heart’
Psychologists at Bangor University believe that they have glimpsed for the first time, a process that takes place deep within our unconscious brain, where primal reactions interact with higher mental processes. Writing in the Journal of Neuroscience (May 9, 2012 • 32(19):6485– 6489 • 6485), they identify a reaction to negative language inputs which shuts down unconscious processing.
For the last quarter of a century, psychologists have been aware of, and fascinated by the fact that our brain can process high-level information such as meaning outside consciousness. What the psychologists at Bangor University have discovered is the reverse- that our brain can unconsciously ‘decide’ to withhold information by preventing access to certain forms of knowledge.
The psychologists extrapolate this from their most recent findings working with bilingual people. Building on their previous discovery that bilinguals subconsciously access their first language when reading in their second language; the psychologists at the School of Psychology and Centre for Research on Bilingualism have now made the surprising discovery that our brain shuts down that same unconscious access to the native language when faced with a negative word such as war, discomfort, inconvenience, and unfortunate.
They believe that this provides the first proven insight to a hither-to unproven process in which our unconscious mind blocks information from our conscious mind or higher mental processes.
This finding breaks new ground in our understanding of the interaction between emotion and thought in the brain. Previous work on emotion and cognition has already shown that emotion affects basic brain functions such as attention, memory, vision and motor control, but never at such a high processing level as language and understanding….
- Emotion Can Shut Down High-Level Mental Processes Without Our Knowledge (sott.net)
- Psychologists reveal how emotion can shut down high-level mental processes without our knowledge (medicalxpress.com)
- Bilingual Study Reveals How Emotion Can Shut Down High-Level Mental Processes Without Our Knowledge (medicalnewstoday.com)
- Emotion can shut down high-level mental processes without our knowledge, in our native language (sciencedaily.com)
- Brain Represses Bad Words for Bilingual Readers (sott.net)
- Our Unconscious and Social “Reality” (psychologytoday.com)