Uniquely Human

A Column by Heather Macomber

About The Column


This column will use recent discoveries in psychology, neuroscience, and sociology to tackle modern issues, unravel common misconceptions, and search for a scientific solution to uniquely human problems.

About The Author


Heather Macomber

Columnist

Heather is a senior in Columbia College, majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior. In addition to writing for the Lion, she is the Vice President Emeritus and Research Coordinator of the Columbia Neuroscience Society, researches perception using mouse models in the Bruno Lab, edits for the Columbia Science Review, and serves as a peer advisor for the Neuroscience major. She is passionate about making neuroscience accessible and mentoring the next generation of neuroscientists, and she hopes to spend her life unraveling the mysteries of the brain.

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Photo Courtesy of Columbia University.

Welcome back Columbia! From all of us at the Columbia Lion and from here at Uniquely Human, we hope all your summers were fruitful and relaxing. As we get back into the swing of classes, I wanted to write an update on the future of this column and what to expect going forward. First and foremost, Uniquely Human will be continuing its regular release schedule of every other Monday, starting today, so expect a new release two weeks from today.

As a neuroscience student here, I hear about all the impressive, exciting, and paradigm-shifting research coming out of Columbia labs. But no matter how interesting the research, many average Columbia students don’t know what’s coming out of their own institution. Scientists often only share their research in journals aimed solely at other scientists in their subfields. The most interesting conversations about neuroscience are ones that neuroscientists have with each other.

I want to change that.

This is your university, and this research is mostly paid for with your tax dollars. I think you have a right to understand what discoveries in neuroscience are coming out of Columbia, and how they may affect your lives in fascinating and surprising ways.

I believe the best kind of science happens when it’s in communication with the public. In these tumultuous times, now more than ever it’s critical that everyone knows what valuable contributions neuroscientists are making to how we understand ourselves. I think these kinds of conversations are most interesting when they’re had across disciplinary lines – with other scientists, with writers, philosophers, artists – and you, reader, have a worthy perspective to contribute.

So this semester we’ll be thematically shifting our focus away from our series on education and the brain. In its place, I’ll be reviewing the latest and greatest discoveries coming out of Columbia neuroscience using straightforward language, hopefully humorous analogies, and with an eye for the big picture implications. When possible, I’ll be interviewing researchers directly to get the best information directly from the researchers to you.

As always, the contents of this column are mostly dependent on what I want to write, which means not every column will be about Columbia neuroscience discoveries; there will be stories relating neuroscience to both campus and worldwide events.

As always I am happy to take requests. This is only a column in conversation when I can hear your voice. If you have questions that you want answered from a neuroscientific point of view, I’ll do my best to answer them. I can’t wait to share this amazing research with you all, and I hope to see you here next week for our first true installment in our series.

Uniquely Human is written by Heather Macomber and runs every other Monday. To submit a comment/question or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

Photo Courtesy of the Zuckerman Institute

The neuroscience major is not unlike many at Columbia in that it is co-sponsored by two departments, psychology and biology. In fact, a little over half of Columbia majors share this structure of co-sponsorship. Ideally, each department communicates with its counterpart to design a robust, cohesive course schedule that draws from the expertise of the individuals in both disciplines.

However, a majority of courses in the neuroscience major retain their specific psychological or biologic identities without fully integrating the other, thereby falling short of a true neuroscience curriculum. I would like to emphasize that I do not believe individual professors are at fault, and I have truly enjoyed my time as a neuroscience major. However, I do believe that heightened interdepartmental communication could help improve the experience dramatically.

Despite efforts to heighten cross-disciplinary conversations, departments at Columbia largely remain insulated from one another. As each individual professor teaches their course, they are largely unaware of what material the students are already familiar with when entering their classes. To take a closer look, let us examine the course of a typical student in the Neuroscience and Behavior “Despite efforts to heighten cross-disciplinary conversations, departments at Columbia largely remain insulated from one another.(N&B) major at Columbia.

For a first-year interested in the major, a potential N&B student will likely fulfill their introductory chemistry requirement and take Science of Psychology in their first year. Neither course is neuroscience-specific, and both are lecture-style. While perhaps not ideal, such sizeable and nonspecific courses are typical for first-year students.

As a sophomore, the repetition becomes more readily apparent. On the psychology side of the major, N&B students can either take Mind, Brain, Behavior (MBB) or Behavioral Neuroscience. While both courses technically fulfill the ‘intro’ neuroscience requirement from the psychology side, they are very different.

MBB is the less science-heavy of the courses and is commonly taken by non-science majors to fulfill their science requirement for the Core. The syllabus can vary based on the professor, but in any given year the course content for these two classes has almost 70% overlapping material, plus a good amount of overlap with Science of Psychology. Some refresher material is a good thing and is useful to better understand new material. However, for three courses in the same department, two of which are required for N&B majors, this high amount of re-teaching is somewhat unnecessary when it instead could be spent learning new information.

Material overlap continues to be a significant concern on both sides of the major. In the rigorous two semesters of Professor Mowshowitz’s Introductory Biology course, at least a month is dedicated to neural mechanisms. Meanwhile on the psychology side, in the series of psychology lecture courses a N&B student may choose to take, the first few weeks are spent covering the same introductory material that these students have now encountered at least three times.

Continuing along the biology side, N&B students wade their way through pre-requisites only to enter their first neuroscience class in the year-long Neurobiology I&II sequence. Between these sequential courses a good deal of overlap still remains, with systems-level information taught in the cellular level fall course and cellular mechanisms covered again to teach systems in the spring.

The remaining requirements for the major include a non-neuroscience specific statistics course and a non-neuroscience specific additional biology course — for which a neuro-themed variant has not been taught since Fall 2013.

Overall, a common experience among N&B majors is a feeling of disjointed repetition and lack of neuroscience-specific courses catered to their needs and/or interests. I do not believe such a feeling is limited to frustrated neuroscience students — I have heard the same complaint expressed again and again by friends in various joint majors throughout Columbia College.

So what can be done to fix the glaring issues in the design of the N&B major? Ideally, the whole major would be restructured from the ground up to create a fully-integrated design. Realistically, the bureaucracy necessary for such an overhaul is untenable. Instead, I have a few simple proposals to streamline and vastly improve the experience of N&B majors at Columbia.

The greatest concern, of course, is the overlap of course materials. Luckily, each professor has a fair amount of leeway in their syllabi. Because of this freedom, I suggest that professors, responsible for N&B courses on the biology and psychology sides of the major, set aside one full working day at the beginning of each semester to overview syllabi with an eye for overlap.

I believe a good deal of the issue in being taught the action potential seven times is well-intentioned, with each professor unsure if the students have covered this material before. Such a semesterly meeting would eliminate the interdepartmental uncertainty and go a long way towards eliminating unnecessary repetition in courses.

Additionally, I propose expanding and integrating voluntary courses between the two departments by allowing more cellular-heavy neuroscience majors to focus in neurobiology courses, and psychology-heavy majors to spend more time on the psychology side. Allowing these electives outside of the ‘core’ major courses to be taken in either department would enable a range of students to unify within a single major.

From a scheduling perspective, neuroscience courses at a higher than introductory level must be offered on a regular basis. Here, the psychology department far outstrips biology, offering a wide range of rotating seminars. While still skewing towards psychology, some neuroscience-heavy courses are at least offered each semester from the psychology department.

Overall, I put forward a recommendation that Science of Psychology no longer be mandated for N&B majors, and instead it should be replaced by a comprehensive Behavioral Neuroscience introductory course tailored for N&B majors. With this change, Mind Brain Behavior can more specifically and more accessibly target a non-major audience, and Behavioral Neuroscience can serve as the sole prerequisite for Neurobiology I&II, allowing majors to take this course in their sophomore or junior year and leave space for more seminar-style neuroscience electives as upperclassmen taught by professors in their regions of interest.

With a graduating class of 65 majors last year, N&B is the eighth largest program within Columbia College, and has rapidly grown over the last few years. With the opening of the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, Columbia will only continue to attract the best and brightest neuroscience undergraduates. I believe that professors and administrators want to provide the best education possible to the student body — and that many of the problems within the N&B major can be solved by increased communication between the biology and psychology departments and some simple restructuring.

Image courtesy of freshNYC

How would you describe yourself?

Most people can immediately come up with at least a few adjectives to summarize their personalities, and when these people are asked how well they know themselves on a scale of 1-10, the answers are overwhelmingly above 8. When asked to estimate if their ‘core’ personalities have remained consistent over time, the majority agree that while they have indeed changed, certain fundamental aspects of themselves remain the same.

People make important decisions based on the idea that personality continuity often underlies individual growth. You believe that person you choose to marry has essential qualities  which will remain good, that criminals have essential qualities which will remain bad, and that the people in your life all have dependable qualities. When attributing the incredible successes or failures of CEOs, celebrities, or pro-athletes, most tend to credit or blame their personalities.

While this convincing story pervades our culture, modern research indicates that this idea of an individual’s consistent personality is just a myth. A few months ago, the longest-running study on personality was published. Begun in 1947, teachers were asked to rate their fourteen-year old students on six personality traits. Sixty-three years later, researchers tracked down as many of the original participants as they could and analyzed their personalities.

Upon analysis, none of the six traits showed any significant stability across the time-span. While ideas about personality and experimental methods have changed drastically in the intervening decades, more modern neuroscientific research backs up these sorts of long-running surveys with fMRI studies of the changing brain.

While many ‘tests’ of personality exist on the internet, almost none of them hold any neuropsychological weight. This includes the famed Myers-Briggs model, which sorts individuals into sixteen distinct personalities according to four to five traits, each with a corresponding letter. If you have ever had someone tell you they are an ENFP, or INTJ, that’s the model they’re referring to. Though certainly entertaining, such tests have long-been discredited for being too myopic and binning people into binary categorizations.

Although many scientists disagree, the generally-accepted model of personality these days is the Big-Five, which gives individuals a rating from 1-100 on five distinct traits — Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. If you are interested, this is the best way to take it online.

Recently, neuroscientists have begun to examine how high scores on various factors in the Big Five might map onto brain structure. Using structural MRI, one team examined brain volume as it varies with brain region size, finding that extroverts had a larger medial orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region which processes reward. This area is heavily implicated in response to social reward, so it is  possible that extroverts enjoy social interactions because they supply them with a ‘hit’ of dopamine.

Increased scores on neuroticism correlate with bigger brain regions associated with threat, punishment, and negative behavior. It is possible that neurotic people feel the potential threat of a negative event more powerfully than those with smaller cingulate cortices, and therefore are more concerned over potentially troubling events.

Agreeableness correlated with a larger lateral prefrontal cortex, a region that loosely corresponds with planning and higher-order processing. Though they did not find a significant association with Openness, neuroscientists found some possible correlations with parts of the parietal cortex associated with integrating sensory stimuli.

While this study did not use functional MRI to tell us what regions are activated when exhibiting behaviors associated with these traits, there does appear to be some association between the sizes of these brain regions and an individual’s personality.

If psychology research tells us personality changes drastically over time, and neuroscience research indicates that our brains reflect our personalities, what underlying mechanisms in our brains are underlying these changes?

Some potential clues lie in memory research. A large body of evidence tells us that each time a memory is ‘accessed’, it is altered, sometimes dramatically, before going back into storage. As experiences pile up in our lifetimes, the memories we make are incorporated into the ways we face new information, and change the ways we make decisions.

The other massive factor in our decision-making comes from our surroundings — specifically, our social surroundings. The cultural norms which permeate a place can strongly influence how a personality changes over time, as new experiences permeate the neural wiring. With that in mind, it’s hard to think of a more distinct social environment in the U.S. than our home, New York City itself.

When asked what made a person a New Yorker, former mayor Edward Koch put it most succinctly: “you have to live here for six months, and if at the end of the six months you find you walk faster, talk faster, think faster, you’re a New Yorker.”  I have certainly found that a few years here have changed me in more ways than knowledge gained in the classroom — parts of my personality seem fundamentally altered by my time living in Columbia and in adapting to the the unique social norms such a city carries.

In a place as hectic, stressful, and sometimes isolating as New York City, the unconscious effect of environment likely affects us all. Combined with a student population of high-achieving and hard-working Columbians, it’s possible our particularly potent stress culture might be drawing heavily from the city itself for fuel. While we often talk about the culture-shock of NYC on many of our students during orientation weeks, we rarely take the time to analyze how exactly our city might be changing us.

Maybe the pressures of Columbian sub-culture paired with tough-it-out mentality of the city makes us feel busier and more focused, and therefore primes to think faster and act smarter. Maybe some of these changes are positive, learning how to ‘tough it out’ certainly has its benefits. But I’m more worried about the negatives, about how a city so known for indifference may be affecting our compassion and human integrity.

Luckily, any negative characteristics our brains may be picking up from the city aren’t permanent. The same neuroplasticity which hardened us can prioritize compassion again, if we make a conscious effort to make others as important as our busy schedules. We have the ability to change our own culture of Columbia and only let the positive aspects of the city in.

Do you belong here?

It’s a loaded question, and one I believe that many Columbia students encounter during their time here — commonly in the first or second year. The feeling that while your classmates are smart, talented, and generally have their lives together, you are dumb, untalented, and merely pretending that you are not falling apart.

This feeling, labeled Impostor Syndrome from its first characterization in 1978, is thought to be common in high-pressure cognitive environments — by some estimates affecting as high as 70% of the population in these environments. The psychologists who first discovered the phenomenon, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, described it as “a feeling of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

While not recognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (more commonly known as the DSM), Impostor Syndrome can have real effects on the way people interact with the world, especially among college students in elite universities.

Terrified of being outed, the ‘impostor’ avoids taking on extra challenges, hesitates before  applying to high-level internships or fellowships, studies excessively to make up for their perceived cognitive deficit, or correspondingly, procrastinates out of fear that they’ll never finish it all.

When something bad happens, whether it be a below average grade, a failed audition, a rejected submission, or merely a fight with a friend, the ‘impostor’ does not see it as merely a small setback in an otherwise well-lived life. They see it as a confirmation of what they’ve known all along — that they do not belong at a school like Columbia, and that they are doomed to fail.

In particular, certain populations are more susceptible to Impostor Syndrome — for instance, those which have been underrepresented or disadvantaged. This group predominantly includes women, people of color, and first-generation students, and these identities can negatively impact student performance in a significant way.

When primed with their identities, each member of these groups did dramatically worse on tests of logic or mathematics, in some studies underperforming by 10-20% than those who were not reminded that they were “different.”

Why do so many high-achieving students ignore all evidence to the contrary and believe they are inferior? How can this belief so negatively impact their performance? While Impostor Syndrome has not yet been studied neuroscientifically, some clues from related fields of study can help shed some light on possible neural mechanisms underlying Impostor Syndrome.

One possible explanation comes from the perceived inadequacy causing an activation of stress-systems in the brain. As I have discussed before, when your brain is flooded with stress hormones the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and the insula all light up. Activation in these brain regions is known to induce anxiety and fear, as well as a host of other deleterious effects on student health.

Correspondingly, induced stress can inactivate your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and inferior temporal cortex — reducing working memory load, the ability to form new memories, and the ability to recall stored knowledge. In effect, if you constantly believe that you are not good enough to succeed, your success might ironically decrease.

Far from just a cognitive nuisance, if Impostor Syndrome is left unchecked it can cause extreme risk-aversion and contribute to generalized anxiety disorder. So what can be done about it? Some evidence points to fact-exposure as a good treatment — remind yourself of all the times you have in fact succeeded.

When failures inevitably occur, take the time to analyze how much was truly your fault, and how much can be chalked up to bad luck. Perhaps most importantly, talk to the people you trust about the feelings of fraud you might be experiencing. Whether that is your parents, friends, or a therapist, talking through those fears and having them invalidated can often be cathartic in combating Impostor Syndrome.

In an environment of brilliant and hyper-competitive peers, it can be easy to compare your inner self to your classmates outer selves without stopping to think that the vast majority of your fellow students are struggling with the very same issue. And if nothing else, I can answer the question I asked at the beginning of this article for you — yes, you do belong at Columbia.

 

As the new semester begins, The Lion will be spending some time in Uniquely Human on other people — how we interact with them, how they interact with us, and how those interactions shape our personality. This is the first column in our new series.

Columbia students spend a lot of time in elevators. Imagine – you step into an empty elevator on the top floor of a building. As you descend, one, two, even three people walk into the elevator, an experience so typical you hardly notice. But this time as they enter, something curious happens.

After walking in the elevator, each person faces the back instead of turning around to face the front doors. While one person doing this may go unnoticed, after two or three people perform this strange action you too turn around to face the back.

Although your instinct may be to resist that ending to the story, from its origin on Candid Camera in the 1950s, through multiple scientific studies the result is always the same — the majority of people will adopt the new social norm.

This action of changing your behavior to adapt to those around you is called social referencing, and for decades, its powerful sway over social activities has been confirmed in sociological and psychological studies. That people would adapt their behavior to their social situations is not itself revolutionary, although the extent to which people adopt ‘non-logical’ behaviors to fit in a new social norm can often be humorous.

The truly controversial idea is a much newer one, and comes out of modern neuroscience: not only do you change your external behaviors to adjust to a new social environment, your core personality adjusts to fit with a new social reality.

This brain re-wiring can perhaps paradoxically be best illustrated by when the system goes wrong. Have you ever flinched when you have seen someone get hit in a particularly painful location, or felt warm when you have seen two people hug? Now imagine if instead of experiencing a vague sense of those feelings, you physically felt every sensation you saw in someone else. Every touch is replicated on your arm, with every swallow you see you feel the food slither down your throat, and the pain of another sharply becomes your own.

This condition is called mirror-touch synesthesia, and it is one of the most common synesthesias –  an estimated 1.5% of the population experiences the world this way. While the physical aspects of this disorder are fascinating and deserve their own column, where it really gets interesting is in how synesthetes experience emotional reactions.

In a number of mirror-touch synesthetes, the act of seeing someone respond emotionally causes a mirrored emotional response. Because they can acutely feel the happiness, sadness, anguish of the people around them, it can become incredibly difficult for mirror-touch synesthetes to distinguish their own emotions from the emotions of those around them. They find themselves disappearing into others.

As is common in neuroscience, observing such an extreme example of a system going wrong teaches us about how the system should work under normal circumstances. One possible explanation comes from mirror neurons. Discovered a little over a decade ago in monkeys and recently in humans, mirror neurons are cells located in parts of the brain corresponding to sensation and motor activity.

Unlike other cells nearby, these special mirror neurons fire identically both when they are performing an activity, like processing touch or moving your arm, and when observing someone else do the same task. While the purpose of these neurons is still speculative, there is evidence of their role in subconscious mimicry, empathy, self-awareness, and even theory of mind.

Of course, when a typical human observes other people, they don’t acutely feel those external sensations in the same way. That is because there are other inhibitory neurons ‘downstream’ of the mirror neurons, which stop you from acting on their firing. It’s likely that in mirror-touch synesthetes, that ‘turn off’ signal does not get sent, or the original signal from mirror neurons is so strong that it cannot be turned off.

So while mirror neurons might allow us all to understand each other at low levels of activity, cranking their response up causes people to in some ways become other people. Mirror touch synesthetes brings a normally subconscious process to the surface, and they raise some interesting questions in the process.

If we’re somehow experiencing the actions and emotions of other people within our own minds on a subconscious level, do these ‘outside’ factors become a part of us? Do we correspondingly change parts of our core personalities in response? We will seek to explore these very questions in the next column.