Tag Archives: neuroscience

the sky is more than blue

“Why is the sky blue?” The question that children love to ask. Frankly, I want to know the answer too. Before tackling this question, we need to answer the question, “What color is the sky?” To me, the sky’s the limit (pun intended). Today on this beautiful and sunny day, the sky is blue, but when it is cloudy and gloomy, the sky is grey. At night the sky is black with the presence of stars that are spread throughout the galaxy. The sky can present itself as a spectrum of colors. During sunrise it is a refreshing mixture of yellow, orange, and blue. During sunset, the sky is a gorgeous blend of the rainbow from royal purples to warm, sultry reds. The colors of the sky can vary depending on your location on Earth. For example, during the northern lights, it is an array or colors that light up the sky. There are numerous answers to what the color of the sky actually is, but these are just examples of how I see the sky.

However, the perception of color is really at the core of this question. When we think about how we perceive the color of the sky, the answer to this simple question becomes quite complicated. There are many different ways that people see different ranges of color. This is quite special because these experiences and qualities allow for us to experience the world quite differently. People with “normal vision” will perceive the sky differently than others with something such as synesthesia.

Based on my thought process to answer this question, I really dove into different ways people with synesthesia are different in terms of how they perceive the world. Synesthesia is a phenomenon in which people experience unusual percepts elicited by the activation of a sensory modality that is unrelated or a cognitive process (Safran and Sanda, 2014). It is truly fascinating that people experience the world in such a distinct and unique way.

The literature provides great resources to better understand how people with synesthesia process many different stimuli in the world. In a study by Itoh et al. (2019), the experimenters performed a Stroop-like test in individual with synesthesia. The Stroop test is a neuropsychological test to test the ability to inhibit cognitive interference that happens when the processing of a specific feature of a stimulus disrupts the simultaneous processing of a different stimulus (Scarpina and Tagini, 2017).  For example, one must say the color of a word and not the actual word itself. When the color of the word and the word itself differ, this task seems to become increasingly difficult. The authors did this with people with synesthesia, except with an auditory stimulus because some people with synesthesia relate a color and sound together. This was done to test the automaticity of pitch class with relation to color. They did this by presenting pitch class names (e.g., do, re, and mi) in font colors that lined up with their color sensations. These results showed that people with synesthesia had decreased time in identifying font color when the color was incongruent with their associated pitch class names, concluding that pitch-class synesthesia is a genuine type of synesthesia (Itoh et al., 2019).

Stroop Test


Synesthetes have been implicated to have a cross activation of visual areas that processes shape and color, supporting how visual stimuli lead to their unique perceptions of the world (Amsel et al., 2017). A review by Safran and Sanda (2014) took a look into how people with color synesthesia have varying associations in regards to perceptions, emotions, and consciousness. For example, synesthetes showed improved digit identification because each number is represented by a color, making a specific digit stand out. Some synesthetes experience their emotions and understanding through color, as shown in the review. An example that was shown was how a painting called “Vision” showed how the synesthetic painter drew out the visual experience of a needle puncture during an acupuncture session (Safran and Sanda, 2014).

“Vision” (Safran and Sanda, 2014)


To me, I would interpret it as a red splotch that could be blood. Clearly, my interpretation is far less poetic and meaningful when compared to the synesthete’s perception. Even within this review, the authors explored and reviewed many different ways that people with synesthesia navigate the world around them.

It is genuinely mind-blowing how the person on my right can interpret the world completely differently than the person on my left. I never would have imagined how a simple question like, “What color is the sky,” could be such an intriguing conversation starter.



Amsel, B. D., Kutas, M., & Coulson, S. (2017). Projectors, associators, visual imagery, and the time course of visual processing in grapheme-color synesthesia. Cognitive Neuroscience, 8(4), 206–223. https://doi.org/10.1080/17588928.2017.1353492

Itoh, K., Sakata, H., Igarashi, H., & Nakada, T. (2019). Automaticity of pitch class-color synesthesia as revealed by a Stroop-like effect. Consciousness and Cognition, 71, 86–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2019.04.001

Safran, A. B., & Sanda, N. (2015). Color synesthesia. Insight into perception, emotion, and consciousness: Current Opinion in Neurology, 28(1), 36–44. https://doi.org/10.1097/WCO.0000000000000169

Scarpina, F., & Tagini, S. (2017). The Stroop Color and Word Test. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.   https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00557


Media Library



Let’s Van Go(gh) to Arles

Narrow streets, old buildings, and small shops were in sight as I walked with a group of my friends towards the renowned Vincent Van Gogh Café. We were in Arles, a city in the south of France where the Dutch painter Van Gogh lived for more than a year and created some of his best work. Once we reached the square, a yellow café was to our right, and in blue writing “Le Café La Nuit” and “Vincent Van Gogh Café” were spelled out.  Red couches and vases of yellow sunflowers lined the walls. People were rushing in and out, and tourists were taking pictures.

The image of Vincent Van Gogh Café in 2019 compared to Van Gogh’s painting in 1888.

This café, once a place where Van Gogh spent his time painting, now differed from the one depicted in his painting. Chairs were replaced by couches, empty stores fronts were changed to buzzing restaurants and hotels, a few circular tables were swapped for large rectangular tables. Intrigued, we did not stop there. Our next stop was the hospital ward courtyard, where Van Gogh was admitted twice, and created three known paintings.

The courtyard of the hospital ward in Arles (2019), with a replica of Van Gogh’s painting in the foreground.

You might be confused right now if you have not heard about Van Gogh’s story. Hospital ward? Twice? Van Gogh left Paris for Arles because of his mental health. However, after a few months in Arles, his mental health deteriorated. A razor covered with blood in hand, Van Gogh had maimed his ear, after arguing with his house guest (Khoshbin and Katz, 2015). At Hotel Dieu Hospital, Dr. Felix Rey treated Van Gogh, bandaged his ear, and diagnosed him with epilepsy. In a letter Dr. Rey wrote, there were times when Van Gogh “loses his train of thought and speaks nothing but disjointed words… he went to lie down in another patient’s bed and would not leave it… he chased the sister on duty… he went to wash in the coal-box” (Van Gogh Museum). He was then transferred to the asylum Saint-Remy-de-Provence, where Dr. Theophile Peyron, recorded Van Gogh’s medical condition as having “suffered an attack of acute mania with visual and auditory hallucinations that led him to mutilate himself by cutting off his ear” (Van Gogh Museum). So, was Van Gogh certainly epileptic? Or did he suffer from another neurological disorder?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that is defined by recurrent seizures and can affect people of all ages. Van Gogh was described by doctors as having seizures, which is the reason for the primary diagnosis of epilepsy. However, the best method for diagnosis is through the use of an electroencephalography (EEG), a machine that records the electrical activity of the brain (Guerreiro, 2016). Epileptic patients have unusual activity in their brain cells(neurons), which makes an EEG a good tool to detect epilepsy. However, in 1889, when Van Gogh was diagnosed, the EEG had not yet been discovered. Thus, with no scans to look at, this brings to question whether the diagnosis of Van Gogh was accurate.

EEG image of a normal (seizure-free) brain compared to an EEG image of the brain of an epileptic patient (Ebrahimpour et al. 2012).

Another study revealed that auras are important in diagnosing patients as epileptic (Liu et al., 2017). An aura consists of all the sensations that a patient experiences prior to a seizure. The type of aura the patient experiences conveys what part of the cerebral cortex, outermost region of the brain responsible for decision making and speech, is affected (Liu et al., 2017). Epileptic patients could have sensory (related to the senses) or cognitive auras (related to thoughts), as well as unspeakable feelings (Liu et al., 2017). These characteristics were evident in Van Gogh, since he had auditory and visual hallucinations and he was unable to express his thoughts. However, the findings do not explain the depressive symptoms and the urge to commit suicide that Van Gogh experienced.

The more I look at the symptoms described by the doctors, the more I realize that Van Gogh was more likely a schizophrenic. Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that encompasses hallucinations, delusional thinking and cognitive problems (Seidman and Mirsky, 2017). One study examined the effects of depression and cognitive impairment on adults with schizophrenia (Raykeer et al., 2019). Patients who had schizophrenia had increased depression and cognitive impairments, which they measured through “quality of life exams,” a common well-known method. Both depression and cognitive impairments were observed in Van Gogh, according to the medical records written by Dr. Peyron. Further, individuals with schizophrenia lack empathy, are unable to understand what other people are feeling based on gestures, and have poor problem-solving skills (Couture et al., 2006). All of these symptoms were manifested by Van Gogh. Therefore, it is likely that he may have been schizophrenic, although there is no conclusive evidence to determine his neurological condition.

Now, as I continue walking towards the river in Arles, I see a replica painting of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night, 1889,” outside a gallery. This was a painting he made through his window when he was institutionalized at Saint Remy Asylum. Some people say that it was a visual hallucination because Van Gogh’s room did not have a view of the city and the trees were not shaped like flames, nor did the stars whirl as they appear in his painting. So, what was Van Gogh’s medical condition? The question remains unanswered, but if you asked me, I would say all signs point to schizophrenia.

Image of Van Gogh’s Starry Night 1889 painting.



Couture, S. M., Penn, D. L., & Roberts, D. L. (2006). The functional significance of social cognition in schizophrenia: a review. Schizophrenia bulletin32(suppl_1), S44-S63.

Ebrahimpour, R., Babakhan, K., Arani, S. A. A. A., & Masoudnia, S. (2012). Epileptic seizure detection using a neural network ensemble method and wavelet transform. Neural Network World22(3), 291.

Guerreiro, C. (2016). Epilepsy: Is there hope? Indian Journal Of Medical Research144(5), 657.

Khoshbin, S., & Katz, J. (2015). Van Gogh’s Physician. Open Forum Infectious Diseases2(3), ofv088.

Liu, Y., Guo, X. M., Wu, X., Li, P., & Wang, W. W. (2017). Clinical Analysis of Partial Epilepsy with Auras. Chinese medical journal130(3), 318.

Pascal de Raykeer R, e. (2019). Effects of depression and cognitive impairment on quality of life in older adults with schizophrenia spectrum disorder: Results from a multicenter study. J Affect Disord. 256, 164-175.

 Seidman, L. J., & Mirsky, A. F. (2017). Evolving notions of schizophrenia as a developmental neurocognitive disorder. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society23(9-10), 881-892.

Van Gogh Museum. (2009, October). Vincent Van Gogh The Letters. Van Gogh Museum. Retrieved from http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters.html


Paintings from:

Van Gogh V. (1889). The Starry Night. Retrieved from


Van Gogh V. (1888). Café at Night. Retrieved from



vitamin G for green

After getting off of the train in Avignon and feeling the sun hit my un-sunscreened shoulders, my mood undeniably approved. It was a definite upgrade from the cold and drizzly weather we had just escaped from in Paris. Whether it was the sunshine induced drowsiness or the gelato produced lethargy, I seemed to move at a much slower and relaxed pace this weekend. I often find myself hustling to get from departure point to destination during the week, sighing impatiently at the slow walkers leisurely strolling on the sidewalk who have the audacity to slow me down.  In Provence, I didn’t feel the need to obsessively make schedules and instead just enjoyed the new surroundings.

The southern France, creek wading Irena is definitely much more carefree and relaxed than urban Paris, coffee chugging Irena.

I thought back to our journal topics about Van Gogh and his mental health and remembered how the film we watched had portrayed his mood. Van Gogh had written about the countryside in Arles and how it had improved his spirit (up until that whole ear incident). Van Gogh talked about how much time he was spending outside and how productive his work output was during the time he could paint en plein air. I think this is something that we can all relate to; the first day of being outside in the warmth and sunshine after weeks of winter stuck inside avoiding the Atlanta rain can make me feel like I escaped something just shy of seasonal affective disorder. Well besides you and me, it seems that others have been onto this phenomenon for a while now too. In fact, the term “ecotherapy” has been coined as “an umbrella term for a gathering of techniques and practices that lead to circles of mutual healing between the human mind and the natural world from which it evolved”  (Chalquist, 2009).

Courtyard garden in an Arles hospital where Van Gogh stayed briefly and his painting of it

It has been documented that merely looking at nature or natural elements can provide restoration from stress and mental fatigue while reducing feelings of anger, frustration and aggression. This has indicated that the “aesthetic experience of nature” can play a beneficial role in affecting mood (Groenewegen, van den Berg, de Vries, & Verheij, 2006). Some studies utilize the visual sensory system in order to test the effects of nature images on neural processing and well-being; however, the experience of nature cannot be reduced to singular modalities but rather is holistic and encompasses all the sensory systems in the body. Therefore, many of the studies that I looked at examined and quantified aspects of well-being that are harder to measure. A study of 57 people with serious and persistent mental illness was conducted where they participated in an outdoor adventure program involving weekly full day outings for 9 weeks. At the end of the study, there were statistically significant increases on the Generalized Self-Efficacy Scale (a 10-item psychometric scale that assesses optimistic self-beliefs to cope with a variety of difficult demands in life) in the experiment group compared to the control group that did not undergo outdoor exposure. The experimental group also showed significant reductions in scores on the Anxiety and Depression subscales of the Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI), a test that evaluates psychological distress and psychiatric disorders. Patients with affective or schizoaffective disorders, mental health disorders we discussed Van Gogh having the possibility of having, showed an increase in scores on the Trust and Cooperation Scale, and decreased BSI Hostility and Interpersonal Sensitivity (Kelley, Coursey, & Selby, 1997).

General mechanisms to explain relationships between green space and health, well-being, and social safety

In a 2010 meta-analysis (a statistical procedure for combining data from multiple studies) that analyzed 10 UK studies of environment and health that involved over 1252 participants, every green environment improved both self-esteem and mood with the presence of water generating greater effects. Outcomes were identified through a subgroup analyses, and dose-responses were assessed for exercise intensity and exposure duration. Based on this meta-analysis, the mentally ill showed one of the greatest self-esteem improvements based on exposure to green environments and nature (Barton & Pretty, 2010).

The number of participants, activity types, environments, and cohorts from each study from the meta-analysis  

Ecotherapy studies have also begun a foray into a crossover intervention with art therapy, as both approaches have research supporting their success in the reduction of physiological and psychological symptoms associated with a variety of diagnoses in numerous settings. While a statistically significant correlation between ecotherapy and art therapy has not yet been found, there are many qualitative and case-study research designs that demonstrate the effectiveness of art and eco-therapy interventions (Bessone, 2019).

This weekend in Arles, we saw the various locations around town that Van Gogh drew inspiration from for his paintings, making it quite evident that he was closely connected with his environment. While eco/art therapy are no substitutes for comprehensive mental health care, I hope that Van Gogh was able to find temporary reprieve in his artistic work and the natural beauty of southern France during his time there.

Landscape picture of Arles, France



Barton, J. & Pretty, J. (2010) What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving

Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis. Environmental Science & Technology, 44, 3947-3955.

Bessone, E. (2019) Implications and Applications of Eco-Therapy on Art Therapy. Expressive Therapies Capstone Theses. 155.

Chalquist, C. (2009) A Look at the Ecotherapy Research Evidence. Ecopsychology, 1, 64-74.

Groenewegen, P.P., van den Berg, A.E., de Vries, S. & Verheij, R.A. (2006) Vitamin G: effects of green space on health, well-being, and social safety. BMC Public Health, 6, 149.

Kelley, M. P., Coursey, R. D., & Selby, P. M. (1997). Therapeutic adventures outdoors: A demonstration of benefits for people with mental illness. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 20(4), 61-73.

Image 1: my own picture

Image 2: from https://www.marvellous-provence.com/arles/what-to-see/in-the-footsteps-of-van-gogh

Image 3: from Groenewegen, van den Berg, de Vries, & Verheij, 2006.

Image 4: from Barton & Pretty, 2010

Image 5: from https://steemit.com/landscapephotography/@schmidthappens/landscape-photography-the-inspiring-arles-france


Lust for Answers

This past weekend, our group went to Provence, a province in southeast France, and visited the city of Arles where Vincent van Gogh lived for two years painting some of his most famous works such as Yellow House, Starry Night Over the Rhone, and Bedroom in Arles.

A map of some of the locations in Arles where van Gogh painted some of his most famous works.

Before going there, we saw in class the movie, Lust for Life, a 1950’s biographical movie about Vincent van Gogh’s life highlighting his interactions with other painters, his family, and his surroundings (Lust for Life – Trailer, n.d.). The movie touches on Van Gogh’s lifelong mental strife showing that while we revere him as an artistic genius now, very few people understood him including himself.

It seemed the depression that Van Gogh experienced subsided according to his letters to his family and friends, but in the movie, they show the manic way he painted constantly covered in paint and obsessed with catching the light to paint landscapes and field laborers. When the fall and winter came around, he could not go outside expressing how he felt trapped. His condition worsened where outside painting did not work anymore leading up to him to cut off his ear with a variety of possible reasons that no one could confirm. He eventually was admitted to a hospital where his hallucinations continued with blocks of time missing from his memory and his alcohol abuse addressed. He still continued to paint famous pieces such as The Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles 1889 that are preserved to this day.

A picture at the hospital courtyard where van Gogh was attempted to after cutting off his ear.

We looked at his doctor’s notes categorizing his condition as epilepsy because of his ongoing non-lucid episodes, so we started looking into different mental conditions that related back to the ones we know today as major depression disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and more. This eventually led us to see what type of treatments would be available for the people with dementia praecox: a term coined by Emil Kraepelin to describe lesions in the cerebral cortex that mild dementia (Adityanjee et al., 1999). I couldn’t find much in terms of treatment, but it got me thinking about what we have today to help alleviate the effects of mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression. As well as my interest being piqued through exploring Van Gogh’s life, there is a high probability I will see these novel practices implemented in the future.

The School of Nursing at Emory does a good job of teaching us the evidence-based practices that we follow for patient safety and comfort, but the patients have the autonomy in most cases to deny treatment, do something different than recommended to treat their ailments , or ask about new upcoming treatments. Because of this, it is important to know recent research about various types of treatment practices to be better support the patients.

van Gogh’s self portrait fading away during the Atelier des Lumieres of all of his works.

One that was really interesting to find out was the possible implementation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) to help treat neurodegenerative diseases as well as mental health disorders. It is a growth factor that is used in neurogenesis or the formation of new neurons which is not common for adults; in most of the brain, there are no new neurons created from the ones at birth, but there are some brain areas that still have new neurons created which is where growth factors like BDNF are used those new neurons (Bathina and Das, 2015). This is also used for synaptic plasticity in which there is a consistently strong or diminished communication between the neurons depending on how strength and importance of the signal is between the two neurons (“What Is Synaptic Plasticity?”). There is also evidence that a depleted amount of the class of factors BNDF belongs to can possibly be an indicator for neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disorder and Alzheimer’s (Bathina and Das, 2015). While BNDF has the ability for synaptic plasticity, a study done with mice found that inhibition of one of the receptors BNDF can bind to shows a decrease in long term depressive behaviors without affecting its synaptic plasticity function in other brain areas (Woo et al., 2005). Researchers also theorize that people with reduced BDNF levels might have a decreased synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus which prevents the body from going back to homeostasis taking them out of their stress related depressive states (Phillips, 2017). The second type of receptors that BDNF does the opposite effect by producing synaptic plasticity; this receptors’ activation and an BDNF increase is seen in the presence of certain antidepressive pharmacologic therapies (Phillips, 2017).This is now being used as an indicator for future drug therapies as a measure of effectiveness.

A watercolor painting I did in class depicting the sensory neurons in the eye.

Going away from the pharmacological side, I started to think about Van Gogh and how his art was a source of peace and strife for him. At some point, painting couldn’t help in him in the way it did before. This is not to discredit the effects that art and other alternative therapies have on supporting those with symptoms similar to his; a study had 58 patients diagnosed with schizophrenia do art therapy twice a week for twelve weeks (Montag et al., 2014). They found that those who had committed to the program had less negative symptoms which include a loss of interest and a lower affect as well as less positive symptoms of schizophrenia such as auditory hallucinations compared to the control group who did not receive the art therapy (Montag et al., 2014)  (“Symptoms,” 2017). This support the idea that Van Gogh’s art was a therapeutic event for him up until everything became too much. It’s fascinating to how we reverie Van Gogh’s coping mechanism after his death with his few family and friends supporting his ability to paint. It makes you think about those that we have forgotten about who are tucked away in our society creating the next artistic masterpiece of our time.




Adityanjee, Aderibigbe, Y. A., Theodoridis, D., & Vieweg, W. V. R. (1999). Dementia praecox to schizophrenia: The first 100 years. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 53(4), 437–448. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1440-1819.1999.00584.x

Bathina, S., & Das, U. N. (2015). Brain-derived neurotrophic factor and its clinical implications. Archives of Medical Science: AMS, 11(6), 1164–1178. https://doi.org/10.5114/aoms.2015.56342

Lust for Life – Trailer. (n.d.). Lust for Life – Trailer. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUHL0h_kQ6s

Montag, C., Haase, L., Seidel, D., Bayerl, M., Gallinat, J., Herrmann, U., & Dannecker, K. (2014). A Pilot RCT of Psychodynamic Group Art Therapy for Patients in Acute Psychotic Episodes: Feasibility, Impact on Symptoms and Mentalising Capacity. PLoS ONE, 9(11). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0112348

Phillips, C. (2017). Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, Depression, and Physical Activity: Making the Neuroplastic Connection. Neural Plasticity, 2017.https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/7260130

Symptoms. (2017, October 23). Retrieved June 10, 2019, from nhs.uk website: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/schizophrenia/symptoms/

What is synaptic plasticity? (2016, November 22). Retrieved June 9, 2019, from https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain-basics/brain/brain-physiology/what-synaptic-plasticity

Woo, N. H., Teng, H. K., Siao, C.-J., Chiaruttini, C., Pang, P. T., Milner, T. A., … Lu, B. (2005). Activation of p75NTR by proBDNF facilitates hippocampal long-term depression. Nature Neuroscience, 8(8), 1069–1077. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn1510

Picture #1: [Screenshot of the walking tour of Van Gogh’s art in Arles]. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=1014-AkOjbBzXEQQLcxz8NGxa10Oo1bGN

Picture #2 and #3: Taken by me

Picture #4: Painted and picture taken by me

Georgia On My Mind

White earplugs hang from the ears of every person in my view. Surrounded by people from all sides, I heard a mixture of different songs, different artists, and different genres echo in the quiet metro. Every day, at 8:55 AM I  got on the metro at La Motte-Picquet- Grenelle and 16 stops later, I  got off at Ledru-Rollin, where my classes are. Even though I  saw different people rushing in and out of the metro, I never failed to spot the white earphones or ear pods in people’s ears.

The Metro line M8 taken from La Motte-Picquet- Grenelle station and the 16 stops before arriving to Ledru-Rollin station (the start and stop are identified by the red boxes).

On the streets of Paris, people of various ages walked to the beat of their songs pumping in their ears. So why are Parisians infatuated with music?

A picture of a Parisian on the metro listening to music.

It turns out that our brain interprets music as a pleasant and rewarding experience (Ferreri et al., 2019). In scientific terms, a well-known neurotransmitter, dopamine, is a chemical substance that is released by neurons when we experience pleasure. An experiment performed by Ferreri et al., 2019 studied the role of dopamine on feelings of pleasure and motivation to listen to music. They did that by  having volunteer participants receive orally either a chemical that enhances dopamine, prevents dopamine, or does not affect dopamine in their brains while they listen to music. The results show that the participants who  take the dopamine enhancer  have increased feelings of pleasure and motivation to listen to music, while the opposite effects are seen for individuals who  take the dopamine inhibitor. So, people like Parisians who listen to music experience a rush of pleasure. A simple analogy is that an individual’s brain reacts similarly when listening to music as it does if that individual takes potent drugs, such as cocaine.

The one thing that is constantly surrounding us anywhere in the world is music, whether we are at a supermarket, a café, or a mall. We are constantly being stimulated by music as it is becoming an integral part of every culture. Not only does it touch our mood and emotions, but also it influences our thoughts. Have you ever listened to a song and started to think about all your future life decisions? Of a memory with your friends? Of the challenges you have been through?

Well, researchers show that stronger emotions are experienced when we involve our personal memories  while listening to music whether we find it pleasant or unpleasant (Maksimainen et al., 2018). When we enjoy a song, our memories of certain events heighten our emotional response. This is why when we listen to our favorite song, we start remembering things that happened to us and we feel like we are experiencing these emotions again. But wait, there’s more…music affects parts of the brain that are involved in processing information that go beyond our emotions.  One study examines a circuit of 3 main networks in the brain of preterm compared to full term newborns (Lordier et al., 2019). The findings revealed that preterm infants who are introduced to music in the intensive care unit at the hospital have significantly more connections in the orange and blue networks compared to preterm infants who were not exposed to music. The brain regions involved in the orange network are the superior frontal gyrus, the auditory cortex, and the sensorimotor area, which are involved in cognitive control, auditory processing and motor control, respectively. The brain regions involved in the blue network are the thalamus, precuneus, and parahippocampal gyrus, which are involved in processing information from our senses, recall of memories and encoding and retrieval of memories, respectively. The important take away is that preterm infants who are exposed to music have brain networks that develop more similarly to full term newborns. This means that music plays a role in enhancing our brain networks, which indirectly affects higher cognitive functions.

An image of the brain that shows the networks of interest in the Lordier et al. (2019) study.

Now, as I stand in the metro unlike my first day in Paris, I am the one with the white earphones hanging from my ears. As I listen to country and pop songs, I enjoy every moment of my metro ride instead of counting the minutes  till I reach my destination. I am relaxed, experiencing my own rush of pleasure. Each song evokes in me a different memory, a different feeling than the last. Listening to Ray Charles, Georgia on my mind, I reminisce about my experiences in Atlanta.  Music, a part of our daily lives that we often disregard, actually has a strong influence on our brain network and emotional experiences.

An image of me on the metro with my earphones in, listening to music after spending 2 weeks in Paris.


Lordier, L., Meskaldji, D., Grouiller, F., Pittet, M., Vollenweider, A., & Vasung, L. et al. (2019). Music in premature infants enhances high-level cognitive brain networks. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 201817536. doi:10.1073/pnas.1817536116

Ferreri, L., Mas-Herrero, E., Zatorre, R., Ripollés, P., Gomez-Andres, A., & Alicart, H. et al. (2019). Dopamine modulates the reward experiences elicited by music. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences116(9), 3793-3798. doi:10.1073/pnas.1811878116

 Maksimainen, J., Wikgren, J., Eerola, T., & Saarikallio, S. (2018). The Effect of Memory in Inducing Pleasant Emotions with Musical and Pictorial Stimuli. Scientific Reports8(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-018-35899-y

Where is the Spicy Food in Paris?

On every street in Paris, there are three things you are certain to find: a boulangerie (or two or three), some sort of bistro/brasserie/café, and a Franprix (my personal favorite, a small-scale grocery store). Clearly, cuisine is central to Parisian life. And often, the options boil down to baguettes, wine, and cheese.

a typical boulangerie (“Savouries Counter – La Renaissance Patisserie” by avlxyz is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

As a lover of spicy foods, I was at a bit of a loss. After about a week into my stay in Paris, I was ready to reintroduce some of the essential components of my normal diet—mainly, I’m referring to chili paste and other spices. Perusing the Franprix directly below my apartment, I was shocked to see that there was only one option for hot sauce. Not only this, but every café and restaurant I had been to showed no promise of the tongue-scorching, eye-watering foods I love. So I had some questions: why do I enjoy spicy foods so much? How are they registered in my brain? Is there a certain part of my brain—specifically for processing spicy taste sensations–that is more active for me than for a French person?

my chili paste from Franprix (Personal Image)

Before attempting to tackle any of these questions, let’s first explore how our brains perceive sensory information from the world around us.
The five basic senses–sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch–all have particular areas of the brain (in the bumpy outer layer called the cortex) devoted to receiving signals from our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin, respectively. The area of the brain that registers taste is called the gustatory cortex.

Basic taste perception  (Image from Frontiers for Young Minds)

Nestled in taste buds scattered about the surface of the tongue, special receptor cells interpret chemical stimuli as sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. From there, signals are sent to sensory neurons and into the brain through cranial nerves (Breslin and Spector, 2008). Spicy foods are detected a bit differently than other tastes, since these signals involve pain receptors (Immke and Gavva, 2006). But, recent neuroscience research has been determined that these signals still activate the gustatory cortex, so they count as a legitimate tastes (Rudenga et al., 2010)! Therefore, it seems that French cuisine is indeed missing an entire taste sensation, and it happens to be the one that is my favorite.

Taste bud (Image from LumenLearning.com)

Now that we’ve legitimized these piquant flavor sensations, let’s dive deeper into the neuroscience behind them.

While scientists still don’t understand exactly how taste perception works, it is clear that capsaicin (the chemical responsible for the spicy qualities of many of my favorite foods) actually results in unique brain responses. Unlike the other tastes, spicy sensations are often accompanied by the release of endorphins (explaining how they can be perceived as pleasurable) and activation of the autonomic nervous system. This unconscious system of bodily regulation is responsible for the perspiration, higher body temperature, and a faster heart rate associated with “hot” foods (McCorry, 2007).

In a 2015 study entitled “The Brain Mechanisms Underlying the Perception of the Pungent Taste of Capsaicin and the Subsequent Autonomic Responses,” Kawakami et al. (2015) investigated how these bodily responses happen after someone eats spicy food. The authors knew that the gustatory cortex (consisting of the middle and posterior short gyri, or M/PSG, of the insular cortex) must somehow be in communication with the brain area controlling autonomic system responses (the anterior gyrus of the insular cortex, or ASG). But, it wasn’t clear how this communication was happening.

In order to test this, the researchers administered three different taste solutions (spicy, salty, and neutral) to twenty human study participants. As the subjects tasted the solutions, the researchers took a look at their brain activity.
The method they used to analyze brain activity is called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This produces high-resolution images of the brain while it is in action. Blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) signals show where oxygenated blood is being used, indicating which regions are using up the most resources (Logothetis, 2003).

The ASG and M/PSG (Image from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal, Kawakami et al., 2015)

After performing this test, the researchers compared the brain images from the subjects. Their main findings were that there was coordination between the activity of the M/PSG and the ASG when people eat spicy foods. This could mean that these two brain areas are syncing up in order to produce symptoms like sweating and a quickened heartbeat after spicy food is consumed. Moreover, these results support the findings of another study done with mice, which concluded that cells in the ASG and M/PSG synchronize their activity patterns when capsaicin is tasted (Saito et al., 2012).
Kawakami et al. (2015) also found that the ASG was even more active than the M/PSG in response to capsaicin. Not only that, but both brain regions were significantly more active in response to capsaicin compared to the other solutions!

In sum, this study and previous work has helped to explain how the brain registers the taste of “hot” foods in the gustatory cortex and coordinates it with autonomic nervous system activation. However, the researchers only tested three taste sensations, and clearly, there is still much to be discovered about how the neuroscience behind gustation. Future work will likely take a closer look at the connection between the ASG and the M/PSG, possibly providing more insight into why some people (like me) find these mildly painful sensations more enjoyable than others.

   Baguettes are a staple in the                   Parisian diet (“Bag It” by Very Quiet is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the meantime, perhaps knowing that eating spicy foods more fully engages the brain will inspire the French to literally “spice up” their diets and rethink that bland baguette, or at least offer more options in their grocery stores. That would make this hot sauce-lover very happy, and it would add a whole new dimension to French cuisine!



Breslin, P.A., Spector, A.C. (2008). Mammalian taste perception. Current Biology. 18:R148-155. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.12.017.

Immke, D.C., Gavva, N.R. (2006). The TRPV1 receptor and nociception. Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology. 17:852-591. doi: 10.1016/j.semcdb.2006.09.004.

Kawakami, S., Sato, H., Sasaki, A.T., Tanabe, H.C., Yoshida, Y., Saito, M., Toyoda, H., Sadato, N., Kang, Y. (2015). The brain mechanisms underlying the perception of pungent taste of capsaicin and the subsequent autonomic response. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 9:720. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00720.

Logothetis, N.K. (2003). The underpinnings of the BOLD functional magnetic resonance imaging signal. Journal of Neuroscience. 23:3963-3971. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.23-10-03963.2003.

McCorry, L.K. (2007). Physiology of the Autonomic Nervous System. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 71:78.

Rudenga K., Green B., Nachtigal D., Small D.M. (2010). Evidence for an integrated oral sensory module in the human anterior ventral insula. Chemical Senses. 35:693–703. doi: 10.1093/chemse/bjq068.

Saito, M., Toyoda, H., Kawakami, S., Sato, H., Bae, Y.C., Kang, Y. (2012) Capsaicin induces theta-band synchronization between gustatory and autonomic insular cortices. Journal of Neuroscience. 32:13470-13487. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5906-11.2012.

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Hyperlinked Videos/Sites:




Puis-je prendre votre commande?

Puis-je prendre votre commande? – Can I take your order?

In the nearly two weeks that I have been in Paris, I have eaten many local cuisines. Baguettes. Croissants. Cheese. Baguettes. Macarons. Pasta. Pizza. And yes, more Baguettes. Conveniently for me, I live right above Le Fils de Boulanger which means most mornings I get a croissant and apple juice on my way to class. For lunch, I usually stop in the first boulangerie that catches my attention and order a baguette sandwich. Dinner is usually a toss-up, meaning it could be anything from another sandwich from a nearby café, pizza from the nearest Italian restaurant, or a quick grab dinner from Franprix. While I do love the food that Paris has to offer, every now and then I have a craving for food from home, whether it’s a burger and fries, a tex-mex burrito, or a steak dinner on occasion. It wasn’t necessarily because I was sick of the pasta, cheese, or bread (especially since it would take a lot for me to get sick of bread), it felt more like I just wanted something that was familiar to me. Don’t get me wrong, France is a beautiful and amazing country with great food, it just sometimes feels exhausting being submerged in a culture that is not your own. From the language barrier to the different social norms to the different food experience, I realized that the reason that I was craving food from home wasn’t that I desperately wanted a McDonald’s cheeseburger, it was just that I wanted a moment of familiarity in an environment that is highly unfamiliar.

My go-to breakfast place, Le Fils de Boulanger, in the 15th Arrondissement

The few times that I have eaten American food since being abroad, I noticed that I became more relaxed than I was previously. This may be due to the fact while I am in a new environment abroad, I have a slight amount of natural stress that comes with being abroad, not to mention also taking classes for my major at the same time. This stress can cause changes within a person’s prefrontal cortex, specifically, stress can cause dendritic expansion into one’s orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is involved in saliency of a reward or punishment (B. McEwen, 2012). Since a person’s saliency of reward is affected when the individual is stressed out, it is possible to see how a rewarding experience, such as eating familiar foods, may cause an increased pleasurable effect on emotion. Stress can also cause activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis. When a person feels stressed, neurons in the hypothalamus release corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), which leads to the stimulation of the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol (M. Stephens and G. Wand, 2012). Additionally, another recent study determined that comfort food can dampen the activity of the HPA axis (A. Tomiyama et al., 2011). The HPA axis usually increases activity in stressful environments, meaning that by eating foods that are of a familiar comfort can decrease the activity of the HPA, leading to decrease in any feelings of stress. This finding makes my observation that after eating American food that is familiar to me, I feel more relaxed, makes biological sense as I am impacting the activity of my HPA axis.

Outline of the HPA axis and how it acts in regards to stress.

Back home in Alabama, I am rarely inclined to stop at a McDonald’s for lunch and only during exam weeks do I ever crave a 10-piece McNugget. So why would I choose to eat at one of the most popular fast food chains in the U.S. while spending only six weeks in Paris, France, surrounded by local restaurants that may only be experienced here? While eating this fast food isn’t necessarily an overly pleasurable memory back home, it certainly evokes familiar emotions that remind me of late night runs with friends to get food on the way back from studying in the library or to take back dinner for a movie night in my apartment. According to a study by B. Ford and M. Tamir, if there is any quality to a familiar emotion that makes it desirable, then the familiarity of those emotions would be positively associated with wanting to experience those emotions (2014). So looking back at me and my craving for familiar food, it now seems that one of the reasons I indulged in American food abroad is to elicit familiar emotions that would ease the stress of being in a new environment. Moral of the story: enjoy the food that Paris has to offer, but don’t feel guilty for eating foods that are still found at home, it’s just one way to have familiarity in an unfamiliar environment.

The multiple McDonald’s locations in Paris, France.

Works Cited:

Ford, B. Q., & Tamir, M. (2014). Preferring familiar emotions: as you want (and like) it?. Cognition & emotion28(2), 311–324. doi:10.1080/02699931.2013.823381

McEwen, B. S. (2012). Brain on stress: how the social environment gets under the skin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(Supplement 2), 17180-17185.

Stephens, M. A., & Wand, G. (2012). Stress and the HPA axis: role of glucocorticoids in alcohol dependence. Alcohol research : current reviews34(4), 468–483.

Tomiyama, A. J., Dallman, M. F., & Epel, E. S. (2011). Comfort food is comforting to those most stressed: evidence of the chronic stress response network in high stress women. Psychoneuroendocrinology36(10), 1513-1519.

Image 1 – Le Fils de Boulanger, taken from tripadvisor.com

Image 2 – HPA axis (2017), taken from https://everfit.co.nz/articles/hpa-axis-dysfunction

Image 3 – screenshot of google maps


It Starts with Love Universal scoring vocab to any tennis fan. I grew up watching all types of sports, and tennis was not the exception. I heard names like Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Sharapova, and Serena Williams(QUEEN!). The main tournaments in the tennis world are the Gland Slams. They happen 4 times a year, and during that time, you can bet that I’m constantly checking my phone for scores or watching it on television. Prior to coming to Paris, I knew that Roland Garros would take place while I was here. Never in a million years did I imagine that I would get the opportunity to attend and be able to sit and watch a match with a couple of friends. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Roland Garros Round 2 Peterson vs. Vekic

I will admit that while I was sitting, watching this tennis match at the Open, I did not wonder how the players were able to accurately hit the ball every single time. But after reflecting on my experience, I decided I wanted to do further research since I was in such awe at how beautiful and graceful they were.

Expertise Brain Regions

Do you ever wonder how a tennis player can return a ball smoothly when it’s coming at them at 92MPH? It’s almost as if they have an instinct for it. One study in particular aimed to test whether or not there was a difference in brain activation depending on the level of expertise (Balser et. al., 2014). For this study, they recruited 15 tennis experts and 16 volleyball experts chosen from a pool of professionals. They acted as the novice participants for whatever sport they were not an expert in. They were then shown videos of both volleyball and tennis players and were asked to predict where the ball would go simply based on early movement from the serve player. While this was going on, they measured the level of activation, through fMRI for three major brain areas: the Supplementary Motor Area commonly involved in the control of movement, the Superior Parietal Lobule reflecting the spatial orientation, and the cerebellum which uses a predictive internal model to solve a task. They found that the tennis player watching the tennis player serve had higher levels of activation in all 3 brain regions. This suggests that the experts will rely more on fine-tuned perceptual-motor representations than non-experts; the information has been made into a reflexive memory. This means that although the tennis players were not actively returning the serve, their brain was activated when watching the videos as if they were!

Another study looked at how people determined when an object reached the target point. Chang and Jazayeri sought to test whether people used mathematical concepts or temporal cues when engaging with dynamic stimuli and deciding the time to contact (2018). They had people look at an object moving across their visual field in 3 categories. In the first, their view of the object was obstructed, and they had the subjects guess when the object would reach a certain point. The other group never lost sight of the object. The third group was shown the object at the fixation point in the middle of the screen. Results show that when people were not able to see the object (Group 1), they based when the object had arrived on just temporal cues such as time, but when they were exposed to the object (Group 2 or 3), they still relied on both mathematical and temporal cues. In the world of tennis, this is significant because not only does the athlete calculate how quick the ball is coming at them, but they also contextualize the ball with their environment as well as listen to when the ball hits the court in order to have the most optimal response. So, it’s not just the arithmetic-side of the brain, there are also sensory inputs that go into decision-making.

I hope that the next time you’re watching a tennis match your brain does not attempt to analyze every single serve, if so, then I apologize. I know that the next time I’m watching Roger Federer (my favorite!) play for his 21st Grand Slam title hopefully here in Paris, I’ll be thinking about his tremendous ability to return a serve partly thanks to the brain. Oh, and I’ll be wearing my newly purchased Panama hat!

my Panama hat!



Balser N, Lorey B, Pilgramm S, Naumann T, Kindermann S, Stark R, et al. (2014) The influence of expertise on brain activation of the action observation network during anticipation of tennis and volleyball serves. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8:568.

Bilalić, Merim. “Introduction to Research on Expertise (Chapter One) – The Neuroscience of Expertise.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 2017, www.cambridge.org/core/books/neuroscience-of-expertise/introduction-to-research-on-expertise/FCA452C4751357765F8A81CA8580834A.

Image 1: taken by me

Image 2: Chang CJ, Jazayeri M (2018) Integration of speed and time for estimating time to contact. PNAS 115 (12) E2879-E2887.

Image 3: taken by me

Louis XIV’s Crib Was Cool, But Those Flowers Though

Now coming up on two weeks into my stay in Paris, I’m amazed at how much art seeing (and walking!) opportunities there are across the city. I went to the Palace of Versailles  this past weekend and learned a little bit more about myself in the process. The overall aesthetics of some of the rooms, like the Hall of Mirrors, were breathtaking. Throughout my time in France, the distinct architecture of everything still astonishes me. The fact that people could see a vision that combined order and beauty is a testament of the human ability. However, even though the palace exemplified all of these things with the added adventure of getting around, I still found myself more at peace and grounded in the presence of flowers. In a larger than life palace with years of French history intertwined in it, it was nothing compared to the gardens, random buildings’ intricate flower arrangements across town, and especially the unique paintings of gorgeous flower bouquet and sceneries that truly made me stop and smell the roses.

A random but greatly appreciated restaurant I came across while walking the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in the 5th Arrondissement of Paris.

I couldn’t imagine why the Palace didn’t resonance with me as much as moving through a museum did; it was kind of a museum in some respects. My sister was shocked to learn I didn’t have plans to go to the Palace before this past weekend. It had been one of her favorite places in France, and she expected me to have the same experience. Surprisingly, I didn’t get that overwhelming feeling of wonder and disbelief at the magnitude  that she and some of the people at the palace had. So, I started to research why do people have different aspects artistic expression that resonances with them more than others and came across the world of neuroaesthetics.

A map of the extensive grounds in the Palace of Versailles.

Neuroaesthetics is this field in neuroscience where researchers are trying to figure out what neural connections activate and interact while someone is having an aesthetic experience that causes joy or disgust (Belfi et al., 2019). The greater question of this field is exactly the question I was trying to answer: what makes something more appealing to one person opposed to another? The field has a large reach with questions like why humans  chose the mates that we do, why we decide on one consumer product over the other, and perception’s effect on how we communicate (Chatterjee and Vartanian, 2014).

Neuroaesthetics continues to shine light on subjects such as what neural networks are involved when we view visual art. One study did this looking at how perception paintings as aesthetically pleasing or not affected what brain networks and structures were activate or deactivated (Belfi et al., 2019). Previous research found that the default mode network (DMN) was active when the person viewed artwork they thought was more moving, so the study recorded the DMN with fMRI processing as participants examined 90 paintings at various time lengths (Vessel et al., 2012) (Belfi et al., 2019). They found more DMN activation while the participants viewed a painting they thought was aesthetically pleasing compared to non-aesthetically pleasing works (Belfi et al., 2019). More DMN activation could lead brain system to associate a pleasing reward to the stimulus leading to a strong emotional response (Belfi et al., 2019).

So, while the Palace was objectively amazing to witness in real life, my perception of the art was not as high as the ones in the Musee D’Orsay leading me to some conclusions that my DMN could have been less active.

The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. My favorite part of the entire experience with the sunlight glittering on the chandeliers.

The museum experience is also a big determinate when viewing art as well. One study had a group of people examine art in a museum in Vienna and in a computer program to see if the way in which people received art would change their perception of it and their memory of the art (Brieber, Nadal, and Leder, 2015). Those that experienced the art through the museum had better recall of the art they saw and found the art to be more “arousing and pleasing” (Briber, Nadal, and Leder, 2015). So, there is the possibility that, in addition to a pretty weak DMN response, actually being in a museum where I expected to see this great art colored my perception of the paintings there compared to the palace’s paintings. The palace’s paintings I saw was great, but the palace did not support the type of art enjoying experience that a museum did. The participants in the study could stop and absorb a work as much as they wanted to much like my experience in the Musee D’Orsay: wandering around not knowing which work would capture me (Briber, Nadal, and Leder, 2015). This might have made the difference in my perception of the Palace as a whole.

It is pretty cool that even though we have the same brain systems activated with the aesthetically pleasuring figures, our internal states as well as the manner in which we consume art affects what we consider to be life changing pieces of art. I didn’t expect to stumble upon a whole section of neuroscience that I never encountered before to understand why Louis XVI’s chambers did not stimulate my DMN as much as Monet’s 1878 Chrysanthemums painting could.

Monet’s Chrysanthemums painting done in 1878. One of my many favorites by my favorite artist.

If you want to learn more about the neuroaesthetics, Anjan Chatterjee is a cognitive neuroscientist that specializes in neuroaesthetics with research on how “certain configurations of line, color, and form” affect what humans consider to be beautiful (“Anjan Chatterjee: How your brain decides what is beautiful | TED Talk,” n.d.) . He talks all about his study in this 2016 Ted Talk.

From what I’ve learned in my research, your surroundings have just as much to do how you perceive the beauty as your brain networks do. Appreciation of art is never linear, so even if something doesn’t elicit a strong DMN engagement, it’s can still be a great experience, nonetheless.

Next stop, fingers crossed, the Catacombs!


Anjan Chatterjee: How your brain decides what is beautiful | TED Talk. (n.d.). Retrieved June 4, 2019, from https://www.ted.com/talks/anjan_chatterjee_how_your_brain_decides_what_is_beautiful

Belfi, A. M., Vessel, E. A., Brielmann, A., Isik, A. I., Chatterjee, A., Leder, H., … Starr, G. G. (2019). Dynamics of aesthetic experience are reflected in the default-mode network. NeuroImage, 188, 584–597. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.12.017

Brieber, D., Nadal, M., & Leder, H. (2015). In the white cube: Museum context enhances the valuation and memory of art. Acta Psychologica, 154, 36–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2014.11.004

Chatterjee, A., & Vartanian, O. (2014). Neuroaesthetics. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(7), 370–375. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2014.03.003

Vessel, E. A., Starr, G. G., & Rubin, N. (2012). The brain on art: intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00066

Image #2: [Screenshot of the grounds at the Palace of Versailles]. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/maps/place/Palace+of+Versailles/@48.8047375,2.1106368,15z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x538fcc15f59ce8f!8m2!3d48.8048649!4d2.1203554

Image #1, #3, and #4 were taken by me

Speaking Without Words

Hello family and friends,

As my time in Paris comes to a close, I look back on everything I have learned during these speedy four weeks. From analyzing primary articles to visiting the libraries of famous French neurologists, it has truly been an enlightening experience. Nevertheless, one of the hardest aspects of studying abroad has been the language barrier. Knowing only a handful of French phrases, I have had to use alternative methods of communication in a variety of social contexts. After spending ample time interacting with Parisians, I find myself growing less anxious in my daily exchanges with non-English speakers. Instead, I take comfort in the fact that nonverbal communication can be as effective, if not more effective, than verbal communication. Interested in the broad category of nonverbal communication, I took it upon myself to do a little more research. As it turns out, what I found relates to the grand field of neuroscience.

First off, let me start by asking what you think of when you hear the phrase “nonverbal communication”. Personally, I imagine someone using a simple combination of facial expressions and bodily gestures to convey meaning. However, after reading a new study on the phenomenon, I realize that the cognitive processes involved in nonverbal exchanges are quite complex. Let me explain.

In a study led by Alexandra Georgescu from the University Hospital of Cologne in Germany, researchers delved into two types of perceived human motion, movement fluency and movement contingency, and their relationship to nonverbal interactions (Georgescu et al., 2014). For reference, movement fluency is the quality of one’s motions. Movement contingency is coordinated patterns of movement between two people. Thus, fluency deals more with the individual while contingency depends on the interactive dynamic between two people. What is the importance of these terms? Well, through their experimental design, Georgescu et al. found that manipulating movement fluency and contingency changes our perception of the “naturalness” of a nonverbal social interaction. Looking into the neural correlates involved with this perception, Georgescu et al. hoped to learn more about the processes occurring in the brain during nonverbal social interactions.

Figure 1. The four experimental video conditions.

In order to study movement fluency and contingency in the context of nonverbal social interactions, researchers measured the brain activity of study participants as they watched virtual dyadic interactions, or interactions between a pair. By virtual, I mean experimenters presented a silent video showing two mannequins interacting with one another (Figure 1). The goal here was to evaluate the brain’s response to natural and unnatural movements committed by the mannequins during their interactions. By doing this, researchers hoped to determine the neural networks involved in perceiving motion during nonverbal exchanges. Two kinds of motional manipulations were used during presentation of videos. The first targeted motion fluency by altering the smoothness of each mannequin’s movements. Here, alterations resulted in mannequins making rigid, robot-like movements. The second targeted motion contingency by eliminating one of the mannequins and having a mirror image of the remaining mannequin take its place. Here, Georgescu et al. reasoned that mirrored movements of the one mannequin would be interactively meaningless and thus non-contingent. Four 10-second videos were used, each presenting a different combination of manipulated and non-manipulated movements (refer back to Figure 1). Participants watched the videos while their brain activity was monitored by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. After presentation of each video, participants were instructed to quickly rate the “naturalness” of the clip on a scale from 1 to 4, 1 being “very unnatural” and 4 being “very natural”. Georgescu et al. ran many trials with 28 participants to gather sufficient data.

So… what were the results?

Figure 2. AON activation in response to visualizing contingent movement patterns.

Georgescu et al. found that participants were sensitive to changes in both movement contingency and fluency, and that participants considered the interactions to be most “natural” when movement was both contingent and fluid. From the imaging results, researchers concluded that visualizing movement contingency engages a network known as the “action observation network”, or AON (Figure 2). The AON includes several brain regions including bilateral posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), the inferior parietal lobe (IPL), the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), the adjacent ventral as well as dorsal premotor cortices (PMv, PMd), and the supplementary motor area (Wow, those are pretty overwhelming names!). In contrast, visualizing rigid movements (manipulated movement fluency) activated a different network known as the “social neural network”, or SNN (Figure 3). The SNN comprises of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), and the adjacent pSTS (I promise there are no more scary words). Thus, these results suggest that the AON may be a key neural network in the understanding of social interactions. Meanwhile, the SNN might play a role in interpreting incongruences during social interactions. Relating back to my daily experiences here in Paris, it would seem that my AON is activated as I coordinate my movements with a French speaker in a nonverbal exchange. If he or she makes a movement I fail to interpret, my SNN most likely activates as I try to sort out the ambiguity. Voila! Science.

Figure 3. SNN activation in response to visualizing rigid movement fluency.

Although I had difficulty interpreting the study’s imaging data due to poorly labeled figures, I found this article to be extremely interesting. It considered the processes of nonverbal communication in a novel fashion while providing solid evidence for the differential roles of the AON and SNN in nonverbal social exchanges. It would be exciting to perform similar experiments using videos displaying specific social contexts. That way, we might learn if social context leads to differential brain activity.


Always a pleasure,




Georgescu AL, Kuzmanovic B, Santos NS, Tepest R, Bente G, Tittgemeyer M, Vogeley K (2014) Perceiving nonverbal behavior: neural correlates of processing movement fluency and contingency in dyadic interactions. Hum Brain Mapp.35(4):1362-78

Figures 1-3 are from Georgescu et al., 2014.

“Welcome” image was obtained using a Creative Commons search: