Author Archives: Mayur Patel

Going Green–Literally.

Paris is unique in its ability to blend modernity and antiquity. In the heart of Paris, buildings are decades if not centuries old, with intricate designs and rows of windows, all neatly laced in criss-crossing streets and alleyways. It’s a dizzying sight, but one that sparks all of my imaginations and Google searches of the city view. In the peripheral regions of the city are giant skyscrapers, metal behemoths proving that Paris is not just an old city, but still vibrant and thriving well in the 21st century.

Square trees--welcome to Paris?

Amidst all of this man-made wonder, still I feel that something is amiss—greenery. Sure there are parks, and trees carefully planted in rows along the streets, but I can’t help but miss that part of home. I grew up in the suburbs of metro-Atlanta, where trees grew haphazardly and buildings were constructed around them. Nature is one of the reasons for which I am excited to return home–to get my hands messy with dirt and tree sap instead of congesting my lungs with cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes. I guess that’s to be expected in the city, but that is the reason why I would not feel ‘at home’ here. When I do find some odd time, I like to venture into the park across Cite U. It’s huge, with rolling hills, monstrous trees, and a laidback atmosphere with people hoping to escape the hustle and bustle of Paris—if only for a moment.

A map of Parc Montsouris

The freshness of nature is what draws me to the great outdoors. It’s rejuvenating, like taking a nice hot shower on a cold day. I feel connected to Mother Earth, and free of the dusty rooms and buildings that seem to trap more than shelter. Though I have come to appreciate the emotional (and even spiritual) boost I receive when taking nature walks, I began to wonder if there are more tangible benefits to walking in the woods. As luck would have it, research has shown the possibility of improving cognition by surrounding oneself in nature.

Parc Montsouris

A study by Berman et al. focused on understanding how nature can affect individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD) (2012). This disorder affects working memory and is characterized by a constant negative mood.  Nature may help these people improve cognitively, or conversely cause them to ruminate and thus worsen their mood. The researchers used 20 participants diagnosed with MDD. Before starting the nature walks, the participants’ short term memory span and mood were measured using the BDS task and PANAS, respectively. BDS (backward digit span) task involves patients repeating a number auditorily presented each second. PANAS (positive and negative affect schedule) is a questionnaire in which participants rate in terms of intensity a list of emotions (both positive and negative) that they may be feeling. Lastly, the participants were asked to ruminate on a negative event in their life, to see if nature walks would alleviate or aggravate the ruminations.

A park near the Bastille, on an archway above the busy streets below

Participants walked on a designated path for about 50 minutes (2.8 miles) in either a secluded park or traffic-heavy downtown area. Upon returning, they again completed the BDS task and PANAS. The researchers also asked the patients what they thought about during their walks, to roughly see if ruminations persisted on the walk. The experiment was repeated a week later, with the participants walking along the path they had not walked in the first session. Results show that the participants had relatively similar BDS score before the tests, but those in the nature walk had higher scores (i.e. a larger memory capacity) than those in the city walk. In terms of mood, the participants scored higher on more positive emotions and lower on negative emotions after the nature walk than after the urban walk. Lastly, participants in either walk ruminated on the negative event to the relatively same degree.

Garden in the Chateau de Villandry

Garden in the Chateau de Villandry

These results of the study are interesting because they suggest that perhaps one can improve memory and mood simply through walking through nature. Even though the ruminations didn’t differ during either walk, still the participants demonstrated better short term memory and mood, indicating that just avoiding those negative thoughts is not why they scored higher on the tests. Maybe environment does play a stronger role in our cognition than previously thought.

Still, I was curious to learn more about the root of cognitive improvement through these nature walks. After some research, I found data that blew my mind. A study investigated the role of a bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae in mice behavior and learning (Matthews and Jenks, 2013). These bacteria are found in soil, water, and plants, i.e. the basic ingredients of a nature walk. Previous research has studied the symbiotic (both parties benefiting) relationship between microbes and animal hosts, and the possible brain-gut connection through these animals improve cognitive abilities after ingesting the bacteria.

Lopsided tree, perfect for climbing

Skipping the gory details, mice were tested for anxiety-related behaviors and speed of completion of maze navigation. Those fed the bacteria had reduced anxiety-related behaviors and completed the maze twice as quickly as mice not given the bacteria. The level of activity did not differ between the experimental and control mice, since both groups used the running wheel a similar amount of time. The results are astonishing because they show that by simply ingesting certain bacteria, mice can improve learning and reduce their anxiety.

If we can somehow test this in humans, and ascertain to what degree the Mycobacterium vaccae bacteria exist in our environment and our bodies, maybe we can come to similar conclusions. These data could potentially show that walking in nature does not only give a psychological boost—we may be actually replenishing our stock of that bacteria, becoming cognitively stronger without even realizing it. Though we may be far from truly understanding this effect in humans, I will take these results as a cue to continue my nature walks. If not for the healthy boost of bacteria, at least I can leave the crowded, polluted city for fresh air, green trees, and a glimpse of untouched beauty.

-Mayur Patel

Relaxing on a giant branch

Relaxing on a giant branch


Berman M, Kross E, Krpan K, Askren M, Burson A, Deldin P, Kaplan S, Sherdell L, Gotlib I, Jonides J (2012) Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of Affective Disorders 140: 300-305

Matthews D, Jenks S (2013) Ingestion of Mycobacterium vaccae decreases anxiety-related behavior and improves learning in mice. Behavioral Processes 96: 27-35

Enter the Abyss

Let’s take a little adventure into the dark unknown. You pass through a doorway on the streets of Paris and see a tiny spiral staircase up ahead. The steps hold no more than one person, and are smoothed over and slippery. You make your way down, ever wondering when the dizzying staircase will end. Finally you stumble into a long, dim hallway. The air is moist, and water drips from the ceiling forming dirty, shallow puddles on the stone. You can see into the tunnel, but not where it ends. The eerie yellow light is your only guide into the deep.

The hallways stretch on and on, twisting and turning until you’ve lost all sense of direction, as you cling to the path that will bring you to safety. Suddenly, you enter a larger room with round, stony pillars, and a doorway straight ahead. The sign above the door reads “Stop. This is the Empire of the Dead.” At last, you enter the infamous repository of 6 million people across French history, the Catacombs.

As a child, I loved watching and reading about spooky things. From my first taste of the supernatural watching “Goosebumps” and “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” on television, I developed a complicated interest in all things scary. Though I could only watch these shows in broad daylight and would have nightmares about them at night, still I wished to see how the stories would unfold for the unsuspecting characters in every plotline. Eventually I stumbled onto the Catacombs, which surprisingly was one of the first things I learned about Paris (apart from the Eiffel Tower of course). The Catacombs are the resting place for French civilians when the cemeteries became overcrowded. Rather than finding land elsewhere, the bones of already interred people were shoved deep underground, in an abandoned mine. The depressing history and unsettling feeling of displeased spirits in the Catacombs was more than enough to convince me to visit, if I can muster up the courage that is.

Map to help locate the Catacombs


When I entered the Empire of the Dead, my brain was already on full alert. Dark, suffocating passageways deep underground are enough to send my brain into overdrive, but the thought of crossing paths with millions of skeletons added another element of fear. When I laid eyes on the first wall of bones, I had a mild panic attack. Internally of course, I couldn’t show the rest of the group the fear. Still, the sight was beyond creepy, on so many levels.

Every side of the wall was covered in rows upon rows of human bones, with skulls laid halfway up and at the very top of the walls. It wasn’t so much the bones themselves as the thought that someone physically did this. Someone separated the bones of a skeleton from each other, and created the walls out of human remains. I wonder what those spirits would say, if they were to say anything at all.

These pictures don’t do justice to the atmosphere of the dark, gloomy corridors, filled with the bones of people of long ago.

As I climbed up another dizzying spiral staircase and took a lungful of fresh air, I began to see just how silly my fear of the catacombs were. In all reality, it wasn’t that scary. However, I anticipated a scary scene, and so my fear mode was already fully engaged by the time I actually saw the skulls and bones. What caused this anticipated fear-event fear response, so to speak? I found my answer when I began reading an article about different versions of a gene that can cause an enhanced fear and anxiety responses (Glotzbach-Schoon et al., 2013). Reading the experiment has helped me understand why I reacted the way I did, learning something a little more about my brain and fear responses in general.

This study examined the role of variants of 2 genes, 5HTT  and NPSR1. Previous research has shown that the 5HTT gene is involved in anxiety disorders, while the NPSR1 gene has an important role in anxiety and fear responses. The researchers studied two forms of each gene, entitled either S+ or LL for the 5HTT gene and T+ or AA for the NPSR1 gene. The patients had a combination of each copy, with 4 different combinations in total. They used a virtual reality simulator to test for fear conditioning (developing a fear for something). When conditioning the fear response, patients in one virtual office room were given an unpredictable, mildly painful electric shock. Those in another virtual office room did not have the same electric stimulus. The researchers examined fear and anxiety responses with the behavioral technique fear conditioned startle reflex, which studies the increase in startle response when in the fear state. They measured the startle response with Eyeblink Electromyogram (EMG), a fancy name for tool to measure eye blinking.

Results of the study indicate that patients who had both S+ and T+ variants of the genes exhibited a higher startle response when in the electric shock office room. However, patients that had the AA variant regardless of the forms for the 5HTT gene were more anxious in the experiments. The results are interesting because they not only show that different forms of the same gene can influence our behavior, but also they demonstrate possible gene interaction for the startle response, whereas only one form of the gene affects anxiety.

Maybe I have the double S+/T+ combo because I had a higher startle response when seeing the bones than I had expected. Or maybe I just have the AA gene and was more anxious to see the human remains when entering the deep. In either case, though I knew what was coming at the end of the long, dark tunnels, still I couldn’t control my fear when I finally entered the Empire of the Dead. Despite my weird love for the fear state, I don’t think I will disturb these bones again–the Catacombs is one place that I wouldn’t mind skipping on my return to Paris. At least I can cross this frightful experience off of my bucket list. Check mark.

-Mayur Patel



Glotzbach-Schoon E, Andreatta M, Reif A, Ewald H, Troger C, Baumann C, Deckert J, Muhlberger A, Pauli P (2013) Contextual fear conditioning in virtual reality is affected by 5HTTLPR and NPSRI polymorphisms: effects on fear-potentiated startle. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 7:31

Creative Commons map image:


Music at Notre Dame

Before coming to Paris, there was one trip I knew I absolutely wanted to make: a visit Notre Dame. I spent the previous spring semester reading a few pages every night of Victor Hugo’s unabridged Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I was hooked. Of course the hunchbacked madly-in-love Quasimodo didn’t exist, nor did the dashing dusky beauty Esmeralda or the creepily obsessive Frollo, but still the book stirred a deep interest in visiting the ancient cathedral. I yearned to visit the chiseled stone, to see the spires where Quasimodo was fabled to have climbed, to roam the streets that Esmeralda looked down upon from her cage in the towers. Notre Dame had a fairy tale appeal, except unlike in fantasies, this one is real, and it was waiting for me.
Unfortunately the church wasn’t on our list of scheduled sites, so I just had to go visit it on my own. After class one day, a few friends and I took the metro over to bask in the ambience of Notre Dame. It’s in the heart of Paris, situated on a small island called Île de la Cité, or ‘Island of the City,’ surrounded by the river Seine. A screenshot of Google Maps below will help draw the picture (‘A’ is Notre Dame):
Crossing the river, my jaw dropped as my eyes flew up—I could finally see the renowned towers with my very own eyes!

The building was enormous, and of course stunning. Above and around the ornate doors were statues representing biblical images in breathtaking detail.

The line to enter was extremely long, and we had plans later that evening, so we decided to take a stroll around the church instead. Just as we turned the corner, we saw a young man walk up the sidewalk with a giant instrument case. He sat on a folding stool and pulled out stringed instrument resembling a cross between a lyre and a guitar. What happened next blew me away: he began plucking his instrument, and melodious music filled with the regality and crispness of the Renaissance period flooded the street.

Hopefully the link below works…it may take a second to load.

Click here to watch him perform!

I felt a wave of relief pass over me, like nothing in this world could deter my peace at that moment. All of my worries and problems seemed to melt away in the little time I stood there, listening to him play music from the past. Overhead loomed the elegant spires of Notre Dame, and the combination of church and music was unreal. I couldn’t leave without giving him some change, knowing all too well that the amount I spared can never match the amount of joy he gave.

Researching our body’s response to music, I realized why I felt so much happiness just standing there listening to the musician. A study by Salimpoor et al. focused on dopamine, a chemical sent between nerve cells in the brain that is involved with experiencing pleasure (2011). Previous research has shown that dopamine is released in a region of the brain called the mesolimbic system, which is involved in motivation and feelings of reward (Schott et al., 2008). Humans gain pleasure not only from eating food and social interaction, things necessary for survival of prehistoric mankind, but also from “abstract stimuli, such as music and art” (Salimpoor et al., 2011).
This study tried to determine the role of dopamine released during “moments of extreme pleasure,” in this case listening to music. The downside is that pleasure is hard to quantify. To overcome this issue, the researchers looked at the bodily changes accompanying pleasurable sensations, like the “chills” that people feel when listening to certain types of music. The good kind of course, not the creepy kind. To get these chills, participants in the experiment listened to music that they liked. Chills can elicit changes in heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature. By studying these changes, researchers can thus use an objective phenomenon (chills) to describe a subjective experience (pleasure). Lastly, to record dopamine release, the researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) scans, a lab technique that basically images the brain using radiographic tracers.
Enough of the background stuff, let’s get into the real experiment. Participants either listened to neutral music, or music they liked. They also gave subjective responses to their chills, like the number of times they occurred and how intense they felt.  Compared to those that listened to neutral music, the participants that listened to music they liked felt more pleasure, and thus had more chills. The chills were also shown by bodily changes, including an increase in heart rate and breathing rate and a drop in body temperature. The PET scans depict an increase in the amount of dopamine sent between cells in the mesolimbic system. Thus, Salimpoor’s research concludes that dopamine release is associated with the pleasurable sensation of listening to music, which causes a feeling of pleasure and chills.
Now I see why I felt those chills when I stood there at Notre Dame that day. The music caused a release of dopamine in my brain, giving me the sensation of pleasure so that I could enjoy the experience for as long as I was there. The chills are just the byproduct of that pleasure, so that I realize just how much I like the music. Hopefully I can go visit Notre Dame again one day. If I do, I hope that the musician is there again—I’m ready for some more dopamine release with the sound of his out-of-this-world music!
-Mayur Patel

Salimpoor V, Benovoy M, Larcher K, Dagher A, Zatorre R (2011) Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience 14: 257-262
Schott B, Minuzzi L, Krebs R, Elmenhorst D, Lang M, Winz O, Seidenbecher C, Coenen H, Heinze H, Zilles K, Duzel E, Bauer A (2008) Mesolimbic Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Activations during Reward Anticipation Correlate with Reward-Related Ventral Striatal Dopamine Release. The Journal of Neuroscience 28: 14211-14319