About this author
Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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Brain Waves

Monthly Archives

April 30, 2003

Stretch Now!

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Get up from your computer.  Really.  This blog is less important than your physical well-being.

Get up...take a deep breath in, stretch your hands to the sky, slowly bringing your hands down and breath out.  Breathe in again and stretch slowly to the floor.  Breathe out as your come back to standing.  Repeat 3 times. 

Remember, your brain will only last as long as your body.  Take care of it and stretch Now!

Comments (0) | Category: X-tra

April 29, 2003

In Sedona, Believing is Believing

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Hiking in the warm sun, soaking in a steam room, taking a mountain bike ride or absorbing a deeply therapeutic massage are just a few of the things one can do in Sedona, Arizona.  My wife and I have spent the past few days connecting with Sedona's beauty, reminding us what an incredible rejuvenator, both mentally and physically, the world around us will always be.

"New Agers" travel from across the world to experience Sedona's many "vortex" energy centers. We spent some time hiking around the Boynton Canyon vortex, and regardless of whether or not there is actually any harmonic energy emanating around this physical spot, one thing is for sure, if you believe hard enough that there is, then that may be all that really matters. Because in Sedona, believing really is believing.

Comments (0) | Category: Mental Health Issues

April 28, 2003

Our Enhancement Culture

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Signs abound of the growing culture of enhancement.  Some of the latest examples of enhancing human physical performance, include:

Comments (0) | Category: Neuroethics

April 25, 2003

Pharma's Industrial Implosion

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Posted by Zack Lynch

An important conversation between Richard, a biotech pro, and Derek a pharma veteran, highlights the pathetic state of the current drug discovery and development process. 

Both point out how Pharma's current top down development process is tedious, disconnected and in many cases just don't work.  Although Richard's prescription seems logical on paper, the reality of industrial reorganization coming from the inside is a long shot.

Industries evolve in a similar manner as ecological systems, via punctuated equilibrium. Industries progress slowly and then suddenly a new organism/organization that has been evolving along the fringe emerges to replace the parent species by taking advantage of a new adaptation/technology.

The history of economic geography is full of examples of how industries evolve between being vertically integrated structures to vertical disintegrated ecosystems, driven primarily by the disruptive effects of a new organizational species.

The current pharmaceutical industry is highly vertically integrated.  Although attempts are being made to extend their expertise through alliances and acquisition, the history of life proves time and time that most powerful driver of change is the emergence of an organization that leverages a specific adaptation to out fight, out wit and out compete the current dominant species.

With gene chips just beginning to fulfill their promise, I believe that the organizational form that will dominate the future of drug development will be the one who cracks the proteomics bottleneck and leverages this new information to dominate its ecology.  On that note, I'd give the upper hand to a biotech company that is most likely not even on today's industrial landscape.

Comments (0) | Category: Neuropharma

April 24, 2003

Live Better with Many-to-Many

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Humans are social creatures.  If you feed a newborn but don't provide it social interaction it will grow up with severe mental illnesses.  This conclusion was determined by studying monkeys, not humans. 

Social interaction is the hallmark of the human species.  On this note, the emergence of social software will inevitably foster, in its own way, more effective human interaction on a global scale. 

To keep you abreast of the latest developments in social software, Corante has launched a new blog today, many-to-many which will have contributions from leading thinkers across the social software space.

Comments (0) | Category: Writing & Blogging

A Personal Perspective on Neurotechnology

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Steven Johnson has finally finished the draft of his latest book:

"It's a bit more first-person than Emergence. I personally take a number of tests, and scan my head with a number of different technologies, from neurofeedback to fMRI. I also talk a little about the way understanding something about the brain's inner reality has changed the way I approached various events in my life. The general idea is that modern brain science can be understood as an extension of what the great chroniclers of mental life -- novelists like James, or Woolf, or Joyce -- did in a literary form: helping you see your faculties of mind with a newfound clarity."

Make sure to check it out. 

Comments (0) | Category: Perception Shift

April 23, 2003

Neurotechnology before Genetic Engineering

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Bill McKibben's brave new book, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age explores (excerpt) how human genetic technologies will soon give scientists the ability to re-engineer our children, undermining our common humanity, and leading to a 'posthuman' future.

The human germ-line engineering debate continues to capture the popular imagination, sitting at the core of bioethics debates, while neurotechnology quickly slips into existence.

It is my firm belief that neurotechnology's ability to provide tools that can temporarily influence human emotional, cognitive and sensory states via neuroceuticals will have more profound implications for humanity, in a much nearer time frame, than genetic engineering for several reasons:

  • Regulation and distribution systems are in place:  The FDA and pharmaceutical development and distribution systems are already globally refined, tested and trusted processes
  • Social acceptance is proven: Humans are already using early forms of neuroceuticals on a vast scale.  For example, 17% of the US white-collar work force is currently using anti-depressants. 

Humans will perform germ-line engineering on other organisms on vast scale, but human germ-line engineering won't become widely accepted until significant experimentation with less permanent tools helps people learn exactly what traits they would want their progeny to exhibit. 

Moreover, as neurotechnology becomes more precise and flexible, it may indeed turn out that humans will choose neurotechnology over genetic engineering to enhance themselves and their offspring.  Instead of debating the bioethics of germ-line engineering, we really should be focusing on the neuroethics of neurotechnology.

Comments (0) | Category: NeuroWave 2050 | Neurosociety

April 22, 2003

The Human Brain Project

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Posted by Zack Lynch

This year's annual Human Brain Project meeting will be held in Bethesda, Maryland, May 12-13.  Because understanding brain function requires the integration of information from the level of the gene to the level of behavior, neuroinformatics is the primary area of focus for the National Institute of Mental Health who sponsors most of government grants in this area. This meeting always has a few outstanding presentations.

Comments (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

April 21, 2003

Body, Brain, and Mind

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Posted by Zack Lynch

By providing new tools to influence human emotion, cognition and sensory systems, neurotechnology will have profound consequences for how people perceive social, political and cultural problems. This is why studying the societal implications of neurotechnology is so critical, and so different from previous technological waves

In Looking for Spinoza, Antonio Damasio, details a theory that describes a chain reaction that begins when an emotion (defined as a change in body state in response to an external stimulus) triggers a feeling (the representation of that change in the brain as well as specific mental images). In other words, feelings do not cause bodily symptoms but are caused by them: we do not tremble because we feel afraid; we feel afraid because we tremble.

By directly influencing the neurochemistry of our central nervous systems, i.e. reducing our bodies reactivity to trembling, via sensoceuticals, we in fact influence our minds conception/self-reflection of our selves and our environment. 

Comments (0) | Category: Perception Shift

April 18, 2003

The End of Drug Addiction

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Research into the neurobiology of drug addiction is progressing rapidly, leading prominent researchers to claim that within the decade there will be effective treatments for drug addiction

But will these new treatments actually stop people from seeking pleasure inducing drugs? Only time will tell.

Comments (0) | Category: Neuropharma

April 17, 2003

Neurotechnology will Define Mental Disorders

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Psychiatric Times has a revealing article this month that is before its time: Dump the DSM. The DSM, short for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is the leading resource used by mental health professionals to define mental illnesses.

In its 50-year history, the DSM has been significantly updated four times--in 1968, in 1980, in 1987, and in 1994.  The diagnoses of mental disorders contained within the DSM are made using specific criteria and are considered as reliable as those for physical medical problems.  The reality is they are not.

The problem with the DSM’s descriptions of mental illnesses is that they are top down.  By this I mean that mental disorders are defined primarily via evaluation of externally observed symptoms through the perception of the practicing psychiatrist against a checklist contained in the DSM.

As information from biochips and brain imaging technology becomes available it will be possible to diagnose mental disorders from the bottom up.  That is, from the precise neural chemical imbalances that actually exist, rather than through externally observed behaviors.  Moreover, neuroceuticals will make it possible to treat those imbalances accurately.

The DSM was a good first step, but soon it will be time to dump the DSM.

Comments (1) | Category: Mental Health Issues

April 16, 2003

What is a gene?  Really.

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Now that the human genome has been sequenced it is time to return to simpler questions, like what is a gene?

  • In the early 1900s, a gene was as an abstract concept to explain the hereditary basis of traits. 
  • In the 1930s, Beadle introduced the concept of "one gene, one enzyme," which later became "one gene, one polypeptide."
  • Today, a gene is defined in molecular terms as "a complete chromosomal segment responsible for making a functional product."  For more detail, see this week's Science.

Sequencing the genome is just the first step in a much larger project Human Biology Project.  As Eric Lander of the Whitehead Institute reminds us, "starting today, the real serious analysis of things can begin."

Powered by faster gene chips the cost of genetic analysis continues to plummet. At the beginning of the project "it cost $10 to definitively identify a single base pair... and a highly trained technician could scan perhaps 10,000 base pairs in a day. Now the equivalent cost is 5 cents and lightning-fast robotic sequencers routinely process 10,000 base pairs a second."   Now that's progress.  Next step, sequencing the proteome.

Comments (0) | Category: Protein/Gene Chips

April 15, 2003

The Next Techno-Economic Wave

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Posted by Zack Lynch

By viewing history as a series of techno-economic waves with accompanying socio-political responses it is possible to begin to understand how new technologies impact society. 

Techno-economic waves are driven by the development of a new low-cost input like the microchip.  A single new low cost product with a continuously declining price and wide availability can ignite entirely new industries, solving what previously were believed to be intractable problems. Moreover, the new technological systems built upon the new inputs shift competitive behavior across the economy, as older sectors reinterpret how they create value. 

New low cost inputs become driving sectors in their own right (e.g. canals, coal, electricity, oil, microchips).  When combined with complementary technologies, each new low cost input also stimulates the development of new sectors (e.g. cotton textiles, railroads, electric products, automobiles, computers).  Technological waves, because they embody a major jump up in productivity, open up an unusually wide range of investment and profit opportunities, leading to sustained rates of economic growth.

So how might neurotechnology fit in this picture?

Comments (0) | Category: NeuroWave 2050

April 14, 2003

General Theories of Love

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Steven Johnson's May Discover article on the neurochemical basis of love declares that there is no love potion no. 9.  Although true today, researchers are making tremendous strides in understanding this ever-powerful emotion.

Citing leading love researchers like the neuroendrocronologistSue Carter and psychologist, Shelley Taylor, he details how the hormone, oxytocin, plays a critical role in creating tight social bonds.  Less than five percent of mammals practice monogamy, but it has been shown that in these mammals (humans included) oxytocin is expressed in much higher concentrations.  For example, oxytocin is released in men and women during sexual orgasm, as well as during lactation.

Oxytocin is only one part of this much more complicated phenomena.   Love is a complex emotion involving all three levels of emotions.  As explained in the recent book, A General Theory of Love, other neurotransmitters like serotonin and opiates also influence bonding while the amount and type of social interaction drive the expression of these proteins and other yet defined neurotransmitters.

Searching for the next level of detail, love researchers are focusing on developing animal models to help understand the neurochemistry of love.  But animal studies can only take us so far, especially given love's social complexity.

Animal models of physical disease have been the cornerstones of medical research, but they are limited in their predictive value of human emotions.  Animal models can point us in the right direction, but to understand human emotions requires studying them in humans

The lack of objective measurement tools to detect the changes in brain chemistries is holding back emotions research.  This reality has placed a high value on the development of new brain imaging technologies that can help us understand how the human brain functions.

As neurotechnology advances and insights into how our evolutionarily defined neural chemistry drives our daily decisions are illuminated there will be interesting insights across the spectrum of social behavior.  Just see how certain economists are already reacting to the oxytocin revelation and the potential implications of future love potions.

Comments (0) | Category: Mental Health Issues

April 11, 2003

Lastest Brain Imaging Breakthroughs

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Developing safe and effective neurotechnology will depend on continued advances in biochips and brain imaging technologies.  This week's Science reports good progress on the imaging front: (article links require subscription).

  • Single Neuron Imaging: Using a combination of genetic engineering techniques and optical imaging techniques, neuroscientists at several universities are now able to observe synapse development in live rats.  Still in it's infancy, this technique will be an important one to follow, as it will have significant implications for understanding how the brain learns.
  • Brain Imaging Archives Are Catching On: Standardized databases of brain images (especially fMRI data) are igniting neuroinformatics, making possible the analysis of different brain phenomena across thousands of subjects instead of just a few.  Moreover, it is leading to standardized formats and descriptions that are searchable and fantastic process,  Free examples at: BRAID, FMRIDC, MITRE. (see these!)
  • Visualizing Signals Moving Through Cells: The development of fluorescent sensors and improved microscopic imaging techniques it is now becoming possible to investigate how signals propagate through living cells.  Although a far cry from being able to do this for neurons, this approach does show promise.

Brain science still has a long way to go but these efforts show that we are making headway on many fronts.

Comments (0) | Category: Neurodiagnostics

April 10, 2003

Religious Comparative Advantage

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Posted by Zack Lynch

America's brightest bioscience researchers are shutting down their labs and moving to "friendlier" grounds.  In a small effort to slow this talent outflow, Stanford recently launched the Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine with a $12 million private donation.  Because the work is funded with private money it is not against federal rulings prohibiting stem cell research. 

This is a nice gesture, but it fails to recognize what the Guardian points out, "that creationists, pro-lifers and conservatives now pose a serious threat to research and science teaching in the US."

As the biosciences rapidly advance, many long-held sacred beliefs are being challenged. Neurotechnology and the battle for your mind will only accentuate differences in religious driven legislation. 

Certain regions will choose not to take advantage of new knowledge, holding their respective moral ground.  Other geographies will go the other direction and become mecca's of bioscience exploration and development.

I'm still working through the logic behind my thinking, but it seems to me that monotheistic-based societies will likely have a harder time politically sorting through where they stand on these issues, slowing overall bioscience development in those regions.

Regions that are predominately polytheistic-based should have an easier time exploring the augmentation of the "natural" world.   Dana Blankenhorn seems to agree that if this holds some truth, look for places like Japan, China and India to become bioscience hotbeds with elaborately supported government funded research. 

On a positive note, it is good to see that today there is a U.S Senate hearing on brain science (thanks Sarah).

Comments (1) | Category: Neurosociety

April 9, 2003

Stuck with 4000 Year Old Tools

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Posted by Zack Lynch

As the Economist reports, "the framework for global drug policies is set by three UN conventions, dating from 1961, 1981, and 1988. Between them, these conventions set rules prohibiting, in almost any circumstances, the production, manufacture, trade, use or possession of potentially harmful plant-based and synthetic non-medical drugs, other than tobacco and alcohol." 

Recently, several countries like Australia and Canada have begun to question the logic of this global prohibition, and are considering legalizing certain illicit drugs while placing a heavy emphasis on "harm reduction" programs. 

It is good to see that governments are asking some of the right questions, but the legalization of harmful and addictive substances, although a step in the right direction for reasons of cognitive liberty, is the wrong answer.  Instead, we need to make it legal to research and develop new recreational substances that can induce similar pleasures but that cause less physical harm and are non-addictive.  

Government regulated pleasure enhancing neuroceuticals are the answer.  We want government involved to ensure that the safety and efficacy are proven through intelligent clinical trials.  Governments must make mental enhancement a viable market.

Alcohol and tobacco are 4000 year old tools, isn't it about time humanity upgraded?

Comments (2) | Category: Neuropolicy

April 8, 2003

Evolution IS a Fact

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Other than my concern that Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome may eventually overtake depression as the leading global mental health problem, Richard Gayle's blog today on evolution tops my list of memes that deserve repeating.

We again have people rejecting textbooks because the books discuss evolution but not creationism. Evolution is a fact. It is the foundation upon which modern biology rests. Trying to pretend differently (as one of the Board members said "I do not believe that we evolved from anything other than human beings") only hurts the students and furthers ignorance. It does not reflect well on Tennessee. But then it was the state that outlawed the teaching of evolution, leading to the Scopes Trial.

Comments (0) | Category: Protein/Gene Chips

April 7, 2003

Fishing Depression Away

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Posted by Zack Lynch

You are what you eat, or perhaps more accurately, you feel what you eat.  Research continues to show that at a specific nutrient contained in fish can help alleviate depression. The nutrient is an omega-3 fatty acid called EPA.

Healthy brains and nerve cells depend on omega-3s because the nervous system is made mostly of fat.  The fats that you eat influence the composition of your brain cells. Unlike many nutrients omega-3 fatty acids are not produced by our bodies.  Fish are an excellent source.

And if you don't like fish, you can also get your fill from walnuts or flaxseed.

Comments (0) | Category: Mental Health Issues

April 6, 2003

In the Pipeline: A Drug Development Blog

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Posted by Zack Lynch

A warm welcome to Derek Lowe who has joined Corante's blogging team to share his knowlege and insight into the complex world of drug development.  

In The Pipeline: Drug Discovery will cover: "recent developments in drug discovery and medicine and the IP issues and financial implications they have, along with general thoughts about research. Also likely to make an appearance: occasional digressions into useful topics like which lab reagents smell the worst." I highly recommend taking a look at the three months of blogs already in his archives.

The future of neurotechnology and the drug development process are intimately related as my blogs on emotions, sensoceuticals and barriers to drug delivery have previously pointed out.  Derek's daily focus on the drug development process along with Richard Gayle's "Living Code" blog on biotechnology will be excellent sources of inspiration and information as I try to untangle our emerging posthuman society.

Comments (0) | Category: Neuropharma

April 4, 2003

A Call to Fund Recreational Drug Development

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs are crippling our society.  Beyond the hard economic costs, addiction destroys people's lives.  Here are some statistics on the size of the problem in the US (more):

  • In 2000, Americans spent about $64 billion on illicit drugs
  • An estimated 61,000 (16%) of convicted jail inmates committed their offense to get money for drugs
  • The societal cost of drug abuse, including lower productivity, crime prevention and health care impacts was estimated to be $143 Billion in 1998

In 2002, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) received around $900m in federal funding to support addiction research, prevention programs and drug rehabilitation systems, a drop in the bucket compared to the size of the problem.  Something must change.

People will not stop using harmful drugs until there are alternatives.  With breakthroughs in biochips and brain imaging on the horizon, it might just be time to invest heavily in better, safer, non-addictive alternatives to today's recreational drugs. 

This obviously goes against current public policy, but the benefits of developing alternatives would be tremendous.  Unfortunately it is illegal to start a company to research and develop potential alternatives.  This is wrong and must change. 

Alcohol, the most widely used/abused substance, is a 4000 year old technology.  Isn't it about time that we apply cutting edge research and knowledge to update the set of recreational tools humanity uses? 

Comments (0) | Category: Neuropolicy

April 3, 2003

Our Emerging Human/PostHuman Society

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Posted by Zack Lynch

What does it mean to be human?  Francis Fukuyama in Our PostHuman Future claims it's Factor X

"That is, Factor X cannot be reduced to the possession of moral choice, or reason, or language, or sociability, or sentience, or emotions, or consciousness, or any other quality that has been put forth as a ground for human dignity. It is all of these qualities coming together in a human whole that make up Factor X. Every member of the human species possesses a genetic endowment that allows him or her to become a whole human being, an endowment that distinguishes a human in essence from other types of creatures."

I'm not sure I completely agree with this definition, but it is good enough for this discussion. 

As neurotechnology advances, a new set of tools will emerge that will help humans to better control our emotional, cognitive and sensory states.  As these tools begin to influence social interaction, are we really becoming something else, say...posthuman, or are we actually becoming something else....more human?

Human gets my vote.  By providing entirely new ways to accentuate and differentiate those qualities that each of us chooses to decide what makes us human, neuroceuticals will provide humans the ability to experience life unconstrained from their evolutionarily determined neural chemistry.

Emotions, whether you acknowledge it or not, drive most of our decisions. Fear and anger easily bump conscious thoughts out of our awareness. Wishing that anxiety or depression would go away just doesn’t work.

By referring to our common future as a "Human Future,"  rather than our "PostHuman Future" it might be possible to extend the community of interest that would participate in the relevant and important discussions that will shape the boundaries of choice for years to come. 

Comments (0) | Category: Neurosociety

April 2, 2003

Biosimulation: Building upon the Past

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Like every technological revolution, the old is supporting the new.  Today's Protein Folding Project is leveraging the distributed computational capabilities of thousands of computers world-wide to unwind the hyper-complex problem of protein folding.  The emerging biological revolution is completely dependent on information technology, just as information technology would have been impossible without industrial age advances like electricity.

As Charles Delisi recently mentioned at a Santa Fe Institute meeting, "there is no way the past ten years of advances in genomics would have been possible without the computational capabilities brought forth by the microchip." 

Comments (0) | Category: Protein/Gene Chips

April 1, 2003

What's So Funny?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Last week comedian Ellen Degeneres, asked a packed crowd at Davies Symphony Hall, "How do lazy people work up the motivation to procrastinate?" ...And the crowd broke into hysterical laughter that literally stopped her show.

What is humor and how does laughter make us human?  Steven Johnson tackles this important question in his second of two articles in April's Discover magazine.  One fascinating fact he brings to light comes from the leading humor researcher, Robert Provine, who describes in his recent book Laughter that humans are 30 times more likely to laugh when you are with other people than when you are alone.  So if you didn't laugh at Ellen's joke, try it with a larger group of people. 

Laughter sits on the edge of primary and social emotions, a place where once your tummy is full and you don't have bodily needs, humans, especially the young, will engage in the type of vigorous social engagement that creates humor. 

Some great minds over the ages have engaged the perplexing significance of laughter, including Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Darwin in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and more recently, Jared Diamond in Why is Sex Fun?

Recent neuroscientific research suggests that there might even be dedicated "play" circuitry in the brain equivalent to the more extensively studied fear and love circuits.  Let's hope so, because just as advancing neurotechnology will enable us to down regulate fear it might just provide us with a safe and sane way to up regulate our potential for laughter.  We could all sure use it.

In the meantime, try these outlets: Ellen's Random Thoughts, Laughing Yoga (great combo!), The Humor Project, daily humor emails, international humor blog, or if you really need it...hire a certified laughter leader.

Don't forget to check out the Top 100 April Fool's hoaxes of all time!  It is April 1st after all :)

Comments (1) | Category: Mental Health Issues