Author Archives: Alyssa Kim

Mon-ayyy I can see!

I’ve worn glasses ever since I was in second grade. Yes, I was unfortunately THAT Asian girl who wore her hair in a middle part, high ponytail every day and had blue plastic glasses. Ever since I got glasses, naturally, my vision has gotten worse and I currently stand at a -9.00 prescription for my contacts. As someone who has had bad vision for two-thirds of her life, I was particularly intrigued by our vision module during our “Arts on the Brain” class. We began to explore the world of sight and learned that many famous artists had some sort of visual impairment. Claude Monet, a French impressionist painter, had cataracts which are speculated to have aided him in trailblazing the Impressionist art style. Our class wrapped lab goggles in plastic wrap to mimic the effects of cataracts, and we were able to see the beautiful gardens in Giverny through Monet’s eyes. This led me to research more about the cognitive effects of having visual impairments, specifically cataracts, and what Monet’s cognitive state might have been like.

Left to Right: original photo, drawing, drawing with cataract glasses

First, what exactly are cataracts? A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye, which lies behind the iris and the pupil. Our lens is analogous to a camera lens, hence the name, and it refracts light rays to help focus on image on the retina. A clear lens lets us see a clear picture. The lens is made of water and protein that is arranged in a precise way to keep the lens clear and let light pass through it. However, as we age, some of the protein may clump together and start to cloud a small area of the lens. This is a cataract. Over time, the cataract may grow larger and cloud more of the lens, making it even harder to see (NEI, 2015). Usually, aging is the most commons cause for cataracts, but traumatic injuries, UV exposure, and certain medical problems can also lead to the development of cataracts (Boyd, 2018).

Normal eye vs. Eye with cataract

Monet was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes in 1912 at the age of 72, which aligns with what we would expect for age-induced cataracts. Monet was very reluctant to go through cataract surgery, and in the end, he only had restorative surgery in one eye. His left eye, clouded by a dense yellow cataract, could not see violets and blues, but his right eye could see these colors clearly. This distortion in color perception and acuity had an impact on his work where tones became muddier and darker and forms became less distinct. Monet apparently complained that “colors no longer had the same intensity for me” and that “reds had begun to look muddy”, and that “my painting was getting more and more darkened” (Gruener, 2015). Monet was audibly upset about his impairment, but I wonder if his mood or cognitive state would have been improved if he had gotten the surgery in both of his eyes.

Monet’s paintings of water lilies are impacted (Left 1889 vs. Right 1915)

Some studies have been conducted that look at the impact of cataract surgery on cognitive function in an aging population. A study by Jefferis et al. looked at the effect of cataract surgery on cognition, mood, and visual hallucinations in older adults who had bilateral cataracts. Participants, who were all 75 years of age or older, were assessed pre and post-operatively. The investigators measured visual acuity through logMAR, Addenbrooke’s Cognitive Examination (ACE-R), the 15-item Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS-15), and the North East Visual Hallucinations Inventory (NEVHI) (Jefferis et al., 2015). ACE-R evaluated six cognitive domains: orientation, attention, memory, verbal fluency, language, and visuospatial ability (Mioshi et al., 2006). Small but significant benefits in cognitive scores were seen 1 year after surgery, but there was no statistically significant difference in mood or hallucinations.

A different study by Fukuoka et al. in 2016 found that cataract surgery could improve cognition, although there was insufficient evidence for a definite conclusion (Fukuoka et al., 2016). A follow-up study in 2018 found that cataract surgery may play a role in reducing the risk of developing mild cognitive impairments independently of visual acuity, but not for dementia (Miyata et al., 2018). A loss of vision can be associated with loss of cognition. It is interesting to see how when the sensory input of sight is disturbed, there are cognitive effects that occur. The relationship between vision and cognition have not been explored extensively, but there are specific visual disorders that have been shown to share common pathogenic pathways with Alzheimer’s disease (Rogers & Langa, 2010). Some speculate that individuals with visual impairment allocate more attention resources to processing sensory information, leaving fewer resources for cognitive tasks (Lindenberger & Baltes, 1994). Additionally, there is a common factor to vision and cognition and that is the degeneration of central nervous function (Christensen et al., 2001. These studies provide great insight into how Monet or even people like our grandparents might be affected by declining vision.

Cute elderly couple with glasses

Cataracts and cognitive impairment are both age-related diseases. Especially with how the proportion of older adults are increasing in the world, it is important to see how we can improve their quality of life as they get older. These studies allowed us to gain more insight into how vision or sight for older populations may have an additional benefit of cognitive improvement.


Boyd K (2018) What Are Cataracts? American Academy of Ophthalmology

Fukuoka H, Sutu C, & Afshari NA (2016) The impact of cataract surgery on cognitive function in an aging population. Current Opinion in Ophthalmology 27:3-8

Gruener A (2015) The effect of cataracts and cataract surgery on Claude Monet. British Journal of General Practice 65:254-255

Jefferis JM, Clarke MP, & Taylor JP (2015) Effect of cataract surgery on cognition, mood, and visual hallucinations in older adults. J Cataract Refract Surg 41:1241-1247

Lindenberger U, Baltes PB. Sensory functioning and intelligence in old age: a strong connectionPsychol Aging 1994; 9:339–355

Miyata K, Yoshikawa T, Morikawa M, Mine M, Okamoto N, Kurumatani N, Ogata N (2018) Effect of cataract surgery on cognitive function in elderly: Results of Fujiwara-kyo Eye Study. PLoS One 13

National Eye Institute (2015) About Cataracts. National Eye Institute

Rogers MA & Langa KM (2010) Untreated poor vision: a contributing factor to late-life dementia. Am J Epidemiol 171:728-235

Tay T, Wang JJ, Kifley A, et al. Sensory and cognitive association in older persons: findings from an older Australian populationGerontology 2006; 52:386–394


At Giverny: My own


Monet, Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies (1889):

Monet, Water Lilies (1915):

Old people with glasses:

A freaking AWEsome game

You will never see a Korean father more excited than when South Korea is playing in the World Cup. In my family, I have a cousin who trained to be on the U-13 South Korean national soccer team (until he got injured, unfortunately) and a dad whose dream is to attend a World Cup game one day. Coming from this household, you can imagine my pure joy and excitement when we were entering the stadium to watch the Women’s World Cup match between the USA and Chile this past Sunday at Parc des Princes. Yes, my dad was extremely jealous. As soon as we entered the metro station, hundreds of people fashioned in red, white, and blue were jam packed into those cars. I could not stop smiling, and it was the best experience being surrounded by fans who love their country. For the U.S. fans, we were on cloud nine as the team was already leading 3-0 by halftime. But even we, the Americans, could not help but be amazed at Christiane Endler throughout the entire 90 minutes of the game.

The amazing view from our seats at Parc des Princes

Christiane Endler is the goalkeeper for the Chile team. Wearing her green Captain band proudly on her arm, Endler is the first woman to captain Chile at a World Cup. Endler played incredibly against the formidable US team, which attempted 26 shots at the goal starting from minute one. But after reading an NY Times article that our professor sent to us, I got chills. The story of this Chilean heroine who rose up and is leading a team that wasn’t even on the FIFA rankings three years ago was so moving and inspiring. Her story is awesome. I experienced goosebumps while reading this article, and I started to think about what goes on in the brain when we experience feelings of awe.

Christiane Endler being a beast (NY Times)

Awe is a unique emotion. It can be associated with both positive and negative experiences and can be triggered by a vast range of stimuli and events. Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt suggest that awe experiences can be characterized by two phenomena: “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation”. “Perceived vastness” meaning that we are experiencing something that seems greater than ourselves, and an experience that evokes a “need for accommodation” when it violates our normal understanding of the world (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). We experience awe when we hear the swell of a symphony, watch the climactic battle in “Avengers: Endgame” in an IMAX theater, or watching Endler save shot after shot at a Women’s World Cup game! To examine what goes on in the brain when people experience awe, a study by Guan et al. was conducted to assess the neural correlates of dispositional, or naturally induced, awe.

Fourty-two university students were given a survey that was measured by the Dispositional Positive Emotion Scale (DPES), which assessed the extent to which the subjects experience emotions in their daily lives, one of which was awe. They would rank statements like “I often feel awe” on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The researchers also used voxel-based morphology or VBM. Although this sounds complicated, simply put, VBM is an analysis technique that uses neuroimaging scans of the brain and compares it to a baseline template and then across subjects. Researchers use this method to examine neuroanatomical differences in the volume of different brain structures. In this case, they were looking at regional gray matter volume (rGMV), which consists of the brain’s nerve cell bodies. From the DPES scores and the brain images they acquired through VBM, the results indicated that the dispositional awe score was correlated with rGMV in several different brain regions:

  1. The first correlation was between rGMV and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This part of the brain is critical for adapting to sudden changes in the environment, early learning, and conscious attention (Allman et al., 2001; Shiota et al., 2017). The association between dispositional awe and the ACC could indicate that awe has an increased tendency to embrace cognitive accommodation and new knowledge. Additionally, the experience of awe leads people to shift their awareness and attention from day-to-day problems and towards the bigger picture away from their own personal self.
  2. Next, there are correlations with the middle/posterior cingulate cortex (MCC/PCC). The MCC is involved with reward emotional processing (Bush et al., 2002) and the PCC is involved in assessing self-relevant information (Scherpiet et al., 2014). This correlation may indicate that dispositional awe is ultimately a reward-related emotional experience.
  3. Lastly, they found a correlation with the rGMV in the medial temporal gyrus (MTG). This area is widely involved in the detection of incongruity and socioemotional regulation (Bartolo et al., 2006). The MTG plays a crucial role in the detection and resolution of incongruity in the process of experiencing socioemotional awe.

These results suggest that individual differences in dispositional awe involve multiple brain regions related to attention, conscious self-regulation, cognitive control, and social emotion. This study is the first to provide evidence for the structural neural basis of individual differences in dispositional awe.

The brain areas that correlate with dispositional awe (Guan et al., 2018)

The authors could have strengthened their experiment by having a larger and more diverse sample size. Although the college student population is accessible, gaining data from a wider age range would make their findings more generalizable. However, the VBM method that the authors used was able to look at several different brain structures at once, which was able to provide a very comprehensive overview of which brain structures were affected and strengthened the researchers’ conclusion. Overall, it was fascinating to learn more about how our brain processes feelings of awe. It would be interesting to learn more about how our physiological responses, like goosebumps, also have a relationship to neural circuits in our brain, and if different external stimuli have different effects, i.e. our response to awe in music versus a sports match. Huge thank you to Dr. Frenzel who got us this opportunity to attend this AWEsome game. I cannot wait to experience more awe as we close out our final two weeks here in Paris!

Happy faces after the WIN!!!!


Allman, J. M., Hakeem, A., Erwin, J. M., Nimchinsky, E., and Hof, P. (2001). The anterior cingulate cortex. Ann. N Y Acad. Sci. 935, 107–117. doi: 10.1111/j. 1749-6632.2001.tb03476.x

Bartolo, A., Benuzzi, F., Nocetti, L., Baraldi, P., and Nichelli, P. (2006). Humor comprehension and appreciation: an FMRI study. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 18, 1789–1798. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2006.18.11.1789

Bush, G., Vogt, B. A., Holmes, J., Dale, A. M., Greve, D., Jenike, M. A., et al. (2002). Dorsal anterior cingulate cortex: a role in reward-based decision making. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U S A 99, 523–528. doi: 10.1073/pnas.012470999

Keltner, D. J., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 297–314.

Guan F, Xiang Y, Chen O, Wang W, Chen J (2018) Neural basis of dispositional awe. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 12:1-7

Scherpiet, S., Brühl, A. B., Opialla, S., Roth, L., Jäncke, L., and Herwig, U. (2014). Altered emotion processing circuits during the anticipation of emotional stimuli in women with borderline personality disorder. Eur. Arch. Psychiatry Clin. Neurosci. 264, 45–60. doi: 10.1007/s00406-013-0444-x

Shiota, M. N., Thrash, T. M., Danvers, A., and Dombrowski, J. T. (2017). Transcending the Self: Awe, Elevation and Inspiration. Available online at:

Smith R (2019) Chile Goalkeeper Equal to the Task, if Not to the Team. The New York TimesAvailable at:

Please don’t yell at me, I don’t understand

A couple days before I left for Paris, I started a new show called “The Good Place” (and finished about one season a day, but that’s not relevant to this blog post and I’m not proud of it). The premise of the show is that people who lived an honest and positive life helping the world end up in “The Good Place” after dying while the rest go to “The Bad Place”. In one episode, there was a particular line that stuck out to me:

“Plus, they’re all French, so they’re going to the Bad Place automatically.”This line got me scratching me head because I was about to live in France for five weeks! What’s so bad about the French?

Locations in Arles where Van Gogh based his paintings

Well, I’ve only been in Paris for about two weeks now, and I think I have a vague idea as to why the writers put that line into the show. The drivers are constantly honking up a symphony. Cashiers at the supermarket have no sympathy, and do not have a problem with letting you know that they’re upset with you if all you have is a 20€ bill. If you’re in someone’s way, people on the streets would rather walk right into you with a death glare rather than take one step to the right to avoid you. I’ve gotten pushed around, yelled at, and unfortunately, pick pocketed. The summation of my experiences the past two weeks has resulted in my interactions with the community members around me changing. And when an older French lady starts scolding you on the Metro, of course my mood changes from neutral to negative.

Van Gogh also seemed to have gone through a few mood changes during his time in France. During class this past week, we watched a couple of snippets from the movie “Lust for Life”, a biographical film on the life of Vincent Van Gogh. The famous Dutch painter moved to Arles, France to clear his head after living in Paris with his brother for over a year. However, it is in this place of isolation where he started to go insane. The movie illustrated that as time passed by, Van Gogh began to be less aware of his surroundings and the people around him, such as the bartender and the post man. And when his friend Paul Gauguin visited, he strongly expressed how lonely he had been. Van Gogh’s interactions with people began to shift, his mood changed, and he ultimately ended up cutting his ear off. This led me to learn more about the neuroscience of mood and interpersonal relationships.

Van Gogh’s self portrait with bandaged ear

Mood and emotions are tricky concepts as they are so subjective to each individual. One study was conducted on the neural mechanisms involving addition. It was found that withdrawal and aversive mood states may share a common pathway through the medial habenula (MHb) and interpeduncular nucleus (IPN) (McLaughlin et al., 2017). This pathway is associated with the medial forebrain bundle which is responsible for reward activation in the brain. Simply put, when something gives you pleasure, like drugs, the medial forebrain bundle is activated. When a patient that experiences drug abuse goes through withdrawal symptoms, they show aversive side effects and mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Another study was able to support this claim. A port-mortem study of sections from the brains of patients diagnosed with various mood disorders and depression showed significant reductions of the volume and area in the medial habenula (Ranft et al., 2010). The McLaughlin et al. study realized that the MHb-IPN circuit is where treatment should be targeted to treat drug abuse and mood-associated disorders. A partial explanation to Van Gogh’s mood swings and volatile interactions with others may be because of his addiction to drinking. Beyond simply the neural circuitry behind bad moods, neuroimaging investigations were also able to show that interpersonal emotions are associated with how we make sense of others’ state of mind. The anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex at the same time process one’s own bodily arousal during such interpersonal emotional experiences (Müller-Pinzler et al., 2017). Social neuroscience researchers are very interested in knowing how interpersonal relationships with the people around us affect our mental and physical state. The way that both Van Gogh and I have changed the way we interact with our communities can be explained through neural circuits in our ACC.

MHb-IPN pathway (McLaughlin et al., 2017)

Our mood can directly impact how we go about the rest of our day. It is interesting to know that how we interact with others has a direct effect on our brains and how we process our emotions. As I adjust the way I interact with fellow Parisians, I can’t wait to see how I adjust back when I go back to all-sunny-Southern-hospitality Atlanta!


McLaughlin I, Dani JA, & Biasi MD (2017) The medial habenula and interpeduncular neural circuitry is critical in addiction, anxiety, and mood regulation. Journal of Neurochemistry 142:130-143

Müller-Pinzler L, Krach S, Krämer UM, & Paulus FM (2017) The social neuroscience of interpersonal emotions. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences Springer 30:241-256

Ranft K, Dobrowolny H, Krell D, Bielau H, Bogerts B, Bernstein HG (2010) Evidence for structural abnormalities of the human habenular complex in affective disorders but not in schizophrenia. Psychol Med 50:557-567

Self-portrait with bandaged ear

The Good Place

Have you pharma-seen the Parisians?

Usually when I’m walking through the streets of Paris, I have my phone clutched in my hand with my eyes glued to Google Maps on my screen. Fortunately, now that over a week has passed and I actually know the route from the metro stop to our apartment, I am able to familiarize myself with the different stores and boutiques that we stroll past every day. One symbol that has caught my eye repeatedly is a green glowing cross. It signals a “pharmacie” here in Paris. During our ten-minute commute, we walk past not one, not two, but four pharmacies.

The four pharmacies we pass by every day

French pharmacies are a bit different than the usual CVS that we go to in America. Similar to the states, pharmacies are the place Parisians go to when they need to get some over-the-counter drugs, medicine, or antibiotics. But one can also visit a pharmacie when they need high quality cosmetics, hygiene, and beauty products. The shelves are lined with expensive-sounding brands in beautiful glass bottles, yet the prices for most products are around the same cost as my lunch. As a self-proclaimed “skincare junkie”, I was in absolute awe at not only the affordability of the products, but also at the wide variety and novelty of it all. By our fourth day in Paris, my skin had already started breaking out, and I set out to buy some new items to add to my skincare routine.

Left: the inside of a parapharmacie; Right: my personal purchases, 10/10 recommend

Based on the high prevalence of pharmacie locations, it is no surprise that the French value their skincare. The French standard of beauty seems like it is not the same as Americans, illustrated by a simple search on Youtube on “French versus American makeup”. It is evident by the thumbnails that the French embrace an aesthetic that is much more natural, understated, and effortlessly chic. In order to achieve that, they focus on a flawless base achieved by skincare. Just after a few days of observation, my fellow female classmates and I have all shared the same sentiment: “How do the French have such nice skin? How are French girls so pretty?” As I have made it my personal goal to get even an inch closer to the unattainable “French-girl beauty”, I started to think about how the brain perceives beauty and attractiveness in human faces.

Youtube search results of “French versus American beauty”

Human faces are one of the most interesting visual stimuli that we perceive on a daily basis. Each unique face can convey information about a person, including their age, sex, and emotional state. The ability of our brain to take this information and process it within milliseconds plays a critical role in our day-to-day social interactions. There is evidence that supports the face-specificity hypothesis, which states that humans have specialized cognitive and neural mechanisms that are dedicated to the perception of faces (Kanwisher & Yovel, 2006). Previous studies have shown that the brain uses at least three cognitive domains in deciding the value of attractiveness: the occipital and temporal lobe to process face views, the inferior occipital gyri which perceives facial features, and the fusiform face area (FFA) which receives that information and plays a key role in facial recognition (Yarosh, 2019).

A meta-analysis study conducted by Bzdok et al. gathered multiple studies that investigated the neural correlates of evaluating facial attractiveness. When analyzing the fMRI experiments on attractiveness judgments, it was seen that facial beauty might be evaluated in the orbitofrontal cortex, which in a nutshell is responsible for cognitive decision-making, according to reward value. Additionally, it was found that the amygdala detects the socio-emotional value, or the “beauty”, of the sensory stimuli that we come across visually and aurally. The combination of these results suggests that there is a general role of the reward circuitry in social judgments. (Bzdok et al., 2011). Essentially, this study was able to show that the assessment of beauty in our brains deals with reward stimulation, and that attractiveness is a social marker of long-evolutionary success, a.k.a. having more kids. Having a lot of children holds high socio-emotional value.

Unsurprisingly, the judgement of attractiveness across men and women is quite similar. A study that covered 919 studies and over 15,000 observers reported that people agree, both within cultures and across cultures, who is attractive and who is not (Langlois, et al. 2000). Six-month-old infants even gaze longer at faces judged by adults as “attractive” and spent less time looking at faces that were judged as not attractive (Ramsey, et al. 2004). This data suggests that judgments of physical attractiveness are somehow hard-wired in human genetics, and the actual neural circuitry that takes place within the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala back up those claims. Hopefully, with a bit of luck and some extra French skincare, six-month-old infants will take a longer look at me. In the meantime, here are some locations where YOU can pick up from quality skincare products! Just look at how many locations there are!


Bzdok, D, Langner R, Caspers S, Kurth F, Habel U, Zilles K, Laird A, Eickhoff SB (2011) ALE meta-analysis on facial judgments of trust-worthiness and attractiveness. Brain Struct. Funct 215: 209–2231

Kanwisher N, Yovel G (2006) The fusiform face area: A cortical region specialized for the perception of faces. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B 361:2109–2128

Langlois J, Rubenstein A, Larson A, Hallam M, Smoot M (2000) Maxim or Myths of Beauty? A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychol. Bull 126: 390–423

Ramsey J, Langlois J, Hoss R, Rubenstein A, Griffin A (2004) Origins of a stereotype: Categorization of facial attractiveness by 6-month-old infants. Dev. Sci 7: 201–211.

Yarosh, DB (2019) Perception and Deception: Human Beauty and the Brain. Behavioral sciences 9: 34