This is a photo of me and my friends in the Loire Valley at the house of Leonardo Da Vinci. While Da Vinci has long been one of my favorite scientists and historical figures, seeing his work and life up close was inspiring. Especially with the knowledge that Da Vinci was a pioneering neuroanatomist, I was inspired by his work and even the slight opportunity to see into his mind. I have studied (in this program and outside of it) neuroanatomy that was first understood by Da Vinci, which was an incredible realization to have when standing in his workshop. I could tell just from looking at his sketches and models that he was on a higher level of creativity, invention, and innovation, and as an aspiring scientist, it was incredible to see.
This is a photo of me and a friend at the Gardens of Versailles (coincidentally, we went on the hottest day of the year, so please excuse any visible sweating). Typically, I associate Versailles, and most palaces, with art, history, and soft science. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that Louis XVI was actually quite dedicated to scientific pursuit and immersed himself in studies of physics and chemistry in his private libraries at Versailles! While I found no mention of neuroscience in my research on French royals and science, I can only imagine that the same basic types of discovery I engage in every day in my NBB classes were alive and well even in the days of Marie Antoinette.
This is the bakery I go to every morning before hopping on the Metro 1 line to go to school. The people here know me now, and they grab a pain au chocolat from the case right when I walk in. In a way, I would say that croissants (specifically ones from this bakery) have become my Paris comfort food. This feels funny to me, as the paper I presented in our NBB402W class was all about comfort food; having that context as I saw myself learning to reach for a pain au chocolate during every paper-writing session made me realize just how much I’ll miss my emotional support snacks when I go back home to the states. And I can tell you for a fact that understanding the neuroscience behind comfort and reward from food doesn’t make it any less effective!
This is a photo of me at the Eiffel Tower early in the program. We had gone to a farmers’ market by the Seine, and accidentally stumbled on this little street leading right up to the base of the tower. Something I never knew before this trip is that there are names of 72 scientists on the Eiffel Tower. This tribute to some of the most important scientific minds of France was incredible to see up close, and made the famous monument feel only that much more impactful. While I couldn’t find a neuroscientist specifically, it was incredible to see such a clear ode to scientific success. My one thought was that I didn’t notice any names of women in science, so I hope to see a monument with these names and figures in the future.
The Sacré-Cœur has always been one of my favorite places in Paris. The views from the steps, the immaculate architecture, and the walk through Montmartre to reach the church are breathtaking every time. So, after walking through the streets below the church and
browsing various fromageries, bakeries, and other food shops, I put my picnic supplies in a backpack and walked up the seemingly endless stairs to the basilica.
Once I finally reached the top of the steps, I was greeted with the most incredible view out over the city. Sitting on the steps of the basilica eating my assortment of Parisian snacks and drinking my new favorite wine (a French Chablis), I was truly amazed by the size and beauty of Paris.
Though I didn’t venture into the basilica on this visit, I’ve been in before. Walking around the grounds and looking at the intricate gargoyles and arching doorways, I was once again impressed with the architecture and attention to detail that had so clearly gone into the building.
After my visit, I began to be curious about the relationship between experiences like mine and neuroscience. As someone who would characterize themselves as loosely religious, I wondered about the neural basis of religion and religious belief. After all, religion and
spirituality, regardless of form, is something observed all over the world in the grand majority of cultures.
After some searching on PubMed, I found a collection of articles discussing the neural correlates of religion and spirituality (R/S). The article I felt most drawn to was a review article of many of these prior studies which discussed not only prior work and findings but also the implications of these findings. Specifically, the article concluded that the medial frontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and several other regions were particularly implicated in R/S beliefs and practice. The authors then postulated that these brain regions could lead to further effects on “mood, anxiety, psychotic, pain, and vertiginous disorders” (Rim et al, 2019). These findings, which were consistent across a variety of religions including Christianity and Buddhism, pose essential considerations for future research in this field. As religion is such a hot-button topic in our world today, understanding the way that it is based in peoples’ brains is vital and fascinating.
I honestly couldn’t tell you to what extent my frontal lobe was activated during my visit to
the Sacré-Cœur, I can tell you that the experience was breathtaking. I definitely think that the ability to experience and read about something that felt so much larger than myself was fascinating, and it is something I’ll continue to consider going forward.
Rim, J. I., Ojeda, J. C., Svob, C., Kayser, J., Drews, E., Kim, Y., Tenke, C. E., Skipper, J., & Weissman, M. M. (2019). Current Understanding of Religion, Spirituality, and Their Neurobiological Correlates. Harvard review of psychiatry, 27(5), 303–316. https://doi.org/10.1097/HRP.0000000000000232
Ballet: A Workout for Brain and Body
The last time I was in Paris, it was for ballet class when I was in the eighth grade. Through the language barrier and intimidation factor of taking a class in a new country, I loved my ballet studio here and the opportunity to connect with girls I couldn’t directly communicate with through an art form we all loved. So, this time when I touched down in Paris, I knew that I wanted to find a way to appreciate the thing that brought me here in the first place. After researching with my roommates, we discovered that we would be in Paris over the 250th anniversary of Marie Antoinette’s wedding and that it was being celebrated with a ballet at the Versailles Royal Opera House. So, on a rainy weekend day, we put on our most Versailles-appropriate dresses and made the hour and a half-long journey to the Opera House.
The ballet itself was incredible, with historical context provided on a screen above the stage and the dancers carefully telling the story of Marie Antoinette’s life, death, and antics on stage. Amidst the colorful costumes, contemporary take on classical ballet, and endless violin swells, I felt reconnected to my love for dance; the opportunity to experience that same passion in such a unique way was beyond incredible, and I know that the memory of that night is one I’ll cherish forever.
Connecting this experience back to neuroscience, though, was equally as interesting. Having grown up dancing my whole life, I knew there were lessons I’d learned and habits I’d built that stick with me even today (I still find myself measuring eight-counts in music and counting steps as I walk across a room). But, in light of the courses we’re taking here, I thought it would be interesting to explore the connection between dance and the brain. Through my research, I found an interesting study which explored the relationship between dance and neural plasticity. Specifically, researchers observed structural changes in the hippocampal and grey-matter volume of dancers, as well as heightened levels of white-matter function. These physical differences then led to functional improvements in memory, body balance, and several other realms. The researchers thus concluded that dance can, in fact, improve neuroplasticity by integrating brain regions (Teixera-Machado et al, 2019).
Overall, I think that the opportunity to connect the purposes behind both my visits to Paris was so special, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to find a way to bring my time here full circle. I know that being here has confirmed my love for both neuroscience and dance, and I am already researching dance studios at home to continue exploring my passions from an ever-increasingly interdisciplinary perspective.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved chocolate. The evidence of this is immortalized in my house’s hallways where there is more than one framed photo of me with chocolate frosting or ice-cream smeared all over my face. So, when I heard that one of our excursions on this program was a chocolate-making workshop, I knew that it was my time to shine.
On our trip to the chocolate museum, we had the opportunity to create and decorate multiple kinds of candies and chocolate bars to get a hands-on experience before exploring the museum full of chocolate facts. Though my work might not have been the prettiest in the room, I had fun exploring and trying new techniques in the process. In fact, I felt like six-year-old me all over again by the end of the workshop, with melted chocolate on my hands, face, and all over my apron.
Later in the museum, though, my friends and I found an interactive exhibit that explained chocolate’s effects on the body. The information detailed the effects of chocolate on the skin, bones, digestive system, mood, and multiple other bodily systems. Naturally, as a product of the fact that I’ve been thinking a lot about neuroscience lately, this made me wonder about the effects of chocolate on the brain. I had read literature regarding chocolate’s effect on mood and cognition but was curious as to whether or not it could have a more direct physical effect on brain structure and function.
One paper I found explored the relationship between methylxanthines found specifically in chocolate, such as caffeine and theobromines, on neuronal plasticity. This study did acknowledge that in research, animal models exposed to higher levels of methylxanthines
can protect neurons from dysfunction and even death in the case of a stroke. This work eventually could potentially be translated to neurodegenerative disease, which is a fascinating real-world implication. This effect can also be translated to other methylxanthine-rich foods and beverages, such as tea and coffee. As someone who is an avid coffee and chocolate fan, I can’t complain about the findings of this paper.
While we’re on the topics of chocolate, Paris, and chocolate in Paris, I figured I would leave you with an insider tip: the best hot cocoa in Paris is undoubtedly at Cafe De Flor. So, if you want to protect your neurons while also having a delicious drink break, head over to the 6th arrondissement and pick up a cup.
Camandola, S., Plick, N., & Mattson, M. P. (2019). Impact of Coffee and Cacao Purine Metabolites on Neuroplasticity and Neurodegenerative Disease. Neurochemical research, 44(1), 214–227. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11064-018-2492-0
Walking out the front door of my Parisian apartment and taking a slight left to get to the Metro station always leads me to a tall, ornate wall. Though I’ve passed it probably 50 times
by now, it never fails to take my breath away. This wall is one end of the sprawling Louvre museum, a palace converted into potentially the most famous art museum in the world. Naturally, living so close to the museum, it felt only fitting to spend our first full day in Paris exploring the vast halls of artwork.
The Louvre is undoubtedly intimidating, with multiple floors of multiple halls containing multiple galleries each. In fact, our tour guide on the riverboat tour the first day we were here told us that if you were to spend three seconds looking at every piece in the museum, your visit would take you approximately three months. So, naturally, we picked an arbitrary floor and began exploring.
Over the several hours we spent in the museum, we got lost in hallways of renaissance paintings, ancient sculptures, French apartments, and everything in between. The sheer amount of art in the museum was awe-inspiring, and made me consider the role of art and creativity in everyday French culture; from the carefully designed Metro stations to the presence of artifacts and sculptures throughout the city, it feels as though Paris is a kind of
museum in and of itself. I have seen art museums before and will occasionally spend rainy days in Atlanta in the High museum, but the appreciation of historical art pieces in Paris gives me an entirely different impression. The museum itself contains art from across world history, but there is definitely an emphasis placed on French culture and history. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a museum that was so focused on national identity in the U.S., and this was definitely one of the features of the Louvre that I appreciated the most.
In the context of our classes here, though, I began to consider the role of art in neuroscience and more specifically mental health. In doing my research, I found a 2021 paper that highlights the effect of cultural engagement, such as visiting art museums, on mental health. Overall, the paper demonstrated a degree of improvement in the happiness of individuals who engaged with art and similar cultural elements. To quote from the article, researchers found more specifically that “cultural participation of museums and galleries affected life satisfaction not only directly but also indirectly through interpersonal relationships” (Lee et al, 2021).
While I can’t say whether or not my Saturday visit to the Louvre definitively affected my life satisfaction, I can say that it is an experience I will hold fondly in my memory and recall each time I leave my apartment for the next four weeks.
Lee, C. W., Lin, L. C., & Hung, H. C. (2021). Art and Cultural Participation and Life Satisfaction in Adults: The Role of Physical Health, Mental Health, and Interpersonal Relationships. Frontiers in public health, 8, 582342. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2020.582342