Author Archives: James Jinsang Eun

Well that was embarrassing….

The Palais de la Decouverte is a science museum located at the Grand Palais and it was at this very spot I was put to shame. Our first destination was the insect exhibit which was located on the first floor. There, we saw glass casings full of ants, termites, and spiders and tons of information about their livelihood. Near the end of the insect exhibit, there was an apparatus with holes large enough to fit a hand. Curiosity got the best of me and I stuck my right hand through. As I was moving my arm farther into the hole, about elbow deep, something suddenly grabbed my hand and started shaking me. I shrieked… and as I jerked my body back, the straps of my computer bag snapped and fell to the floor. Before I knew what was going on, I heard a snicker. Out pops this 12-year-old French girl who points and laughs at me and then runs off. I didn’t know that on the opposite side of the apparatus was another hole where others could insert their hands. The little punk had bested me. I slowly grabbed my bag and walked away with my head down in shame.

Have you ever wondered why you feel embarrassed? It is defined as feeling awkward, self-conscious, or ashamed and it is a state of intense discomfort from a socially unacceptable act. In my situation, I should not have been so easily frightened by a 12-year-old girl. My broken bag is now strewn over my chair and acts as a constant reminder. Embarrassing situations occur frequently to me, or at least I feel more susceptible than the average person. I’m sure there was some traumatizing childhood moment, where I was so utterly embarrassed that now even the little voice cracks seems to embarrass me. Or maybe it’s from an enlarged right pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC). Probably a bit of both, but let’s focus on the later.

In a research study in 2012, Sturm et al. obtained 27 patients with behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD), a neurodegenerative disease that targets the pACC region and is known to decrease self-conscious reactivity. Do not confuse self-consciousness and self-conscious behavior, one being self-awareness and the latter social discomfort which this study is based on. The purpose of the experiment was to find evidence supporting the pACC region playing a role in self-conscious activity. Sturm et al. tested the hypothesis by comparing the bvFTD patients to 33 healthy patients through a self-conscious reactivity test and an MRI scan(Sturm et al., 2013).The patients were instructed to put on headphones and sing-along to “My Girl” by the Temptations without knowing they were being recorded. They were then hooked up to a machine, which measured self-conscious reactivity and shown a video of themselves singing without the music in the background. The machine specifically measured heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, etc., and a score was calculated from the data to determine self-conscious reactivity. Patients were also shown a sad clip to measure baseline activity. The data showed healthy patients scoring a higher self-conscious reactivity score than the bvFtD patients which supported the hypothesis. An MRI scan revealed a higher volume of the right pACC region correlating with a higher self-conscious reactivity score.

The study suggests if I had a larger right pACC region, I would be more susceptible to embarrassment every time I trip in public, or when someone posts an ugly picture of me online. So now that we have located a possible section of the brain that deals with self-consciousness, I am going to have mine removed to avoid feeling any embarrassing emotions in the future. No just kidding. There’s not an overwhelming amount of data associating pACC to self-conscious behavior and the pACC is involved in many brain processes. However, the study provides a deeper understanding of self-conscious behavior.

~James Eun


Sturm VE, Sollberger M, Seeley WW, Rankin KP, Ascher EA, Rosen HJ, Miller BL, Levenson RW (2013) Role of right pregenual anterior cingulate cortex in self-conscious emotional reactivity. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience 8:468-474.

Pay Attention, Brain

It’s 9:30 in the morning and I’m sitting in class listening to this old geezer talk about neuroscience. This is even more disheartening since I am in Paris over the summer break. As we touch upon genetic engineering, my mind takes this weird but quick neuronal pathway from genetic engineering to genes then jeans and finally shopping at the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. What a great time that was. We stopped by the Laduree and picked up some of the best macaroons in Paris. As I was falling deeper into the pleasures of my mind, I hear arguments over ethical reasons against pre-implantation genetic diagnosis from the other neuroscience students which quickly snaps me back to reality. I try to refocus my attention to the discussion at hand so I can put my two cents in for the day. As much as I love talking about enhancing the human race, my mind has the tendency to wander the streets of Paris.

The blue is the Accent center where my class is. The red is where my mind is, avenue des Champs-Elysees.

When my mind wanders, it isn’t a conscious choice (at least for the most part). It feels like sudden jolt of random associations till I get a sustained daydream or I realize I am wandering and stop. The default network is the culprit here. It is a network of brain regions that is known to become active during wakeful rest which is associated with mind wandering. In a default network study, subjects were trained to meditate by focusing on their breathing. They were then placed into an fMRI machine that measures brain activity via changes in blood flow. As soon as the subjects noticed their mind wandering away, they pressed a button and drew their attention back to their breathing. During the wandering stage, the fMRI revealed activity in the default network such as the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), which is known to integrate all sorts of sensory information. Another part of the default network is the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) which is known to attribute mental states such as desires to oneself and others (theory of the mind) (Hasenkamp et al., 2012). As the subjects drew attention back to their breaths, the default network shuts off and a cluster in the dorsolateral prefrontal region remains active. This region is responsible for high cognitive processes such as organization, planning, etc…. It makes sense that your dorsolateral prefrontal region turns off when your mind wanders since there is no need for the higher processes when you’re not actively thinking.

Thus during the first 10 minutes of every morning lecture, my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is highly active and maintained. Then, perhaps due to fatigue or boredom, my dorsolateral prefrontal activity starts to wane and my default network kicks in. I am now suddenly at the top of the Eiffel tower, taking in the beautiful scenery. At some point I realize I’m in class and my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex reactivates and my default network becomes quiet again. Whether the activity of the default network causes one to wander or vice versa is unknown. However I personally believe that the over activation of my default network is what causes me to lose crucial participation points in my class.

~James Eun

Hasenkamp W, Wilson-Mendenhall CD, Duncan E, Barsalou LW (2012) Mind wandering and attention during focused meditation: a fine-grained temporal analysis of fluctuating cognitive states. NeuroImage 59:750-760.

Sorbet, what have you done to me?

Who would have ever thought that the garden of Versailles harbored the frozen ambrosia of the Gods? Perhaps it was also the very spot where the Garden of Eden was cultured. Whoever brought this gift from heaven, in the form of a sorbet, must have had compassion comparable to Mother Teresa. In simpler words, the sorbet I bought for 2.50 Euros was absolutely delicious. With its pleasing bright red color and slightly tart but not too tart aroma made my day. I had to buy another one as soon as I finished because of how empty my life felt. How did this simple sorbet bring such strong sensation to my taste buds?

Well we know there are molecules in food that code for sweet taste. Imagine the molecule as a baseball and the protein receptor as a catcher’s glove. When these molecules hit specific protein receptors, they attach to a specific type of cell (type 2) on your taste buds and cause a series of reactions called a signaling cascade. The end result of this cascade is the creation of a signal, called action potential, which causes a release of specific molecules called neurotransmitters.In this case, ATP was the neurotransmitter that was released. ATP then attaches to protein receptors on another cell that is a part of the pathway to the brain where the information of sweet taste is passed along. That pathway is referred to as the afferent gustatory neural pathway. Finally, the information is sent to the gustatory cortex, a part of the brain that finally tells you that the pastries shown below are sweet.

So that’s how the brain processes the sweetness of these macaroons. But that doesn’t explain why it was so good. Sweetness is only one aspect of the desert. There is also the bright colors, the sweet smell, and other combinations of tastes that make up the macaroons that I ordered. It is proposed that certain aspects of the sorbet become integrated at different parts of the brain. In the anterior insula, things like taste, smell, and texture of the food are integrated (Small, 2012). This information is then sent to the lateral hypothalamus, where you process how much you like the food (Li et al., 2013). This information is also sent to the thalamus to be enriched with detail such as the temperature. It is truly amazing how the brain is able to receive all of this information, process it in different areas of the brain, and combine it to form our perception of the world.

Now here’s something interesting to think about. Do you think your sweet tooth is indicative of social behavior? A novel study was done showing social behavior of rats that have been bred for low sweet intake versus rats that have been bred for high sweet intake. Results show that rats bred for high sweet intake show a more dominant personality via “king of the milk” competitions (Eaton et al., 2012). Could loving your sweets mean that you’re a more dominant person or could it cause some sort of behavioral change (epigenetics?) that causes you to act more dominant?

When I was eating these , I felt alive. Perhaps those were just pleasure receptors in my brain activating. But perhaps throughout the years, the amount of sweets that I have consumed has caused not only a physical change in me, but also a behavioral one.

~James Eun


Eaton JM, Dess NK, Chapman CD (2012) Sweet success, bitter defeat: a taste phenotype predicts social status in selectively bred rats. PloS one 7:e46606.

Li JX, Yoshida T, Monk KJ, Katz DB (2013) Lateral hypothalamus contains two types of palatability-related taste responses with distinct dynamics. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience 33:9462-9473.

Small DM (2012) Flavor is in the brain. Physiology & behavior 107:540-552.