Decisions, decisions.

5351193177_323958b11a_zImagine this. You’ve bought a new house. It’s everything you’ve ever dreamed of and you can’t wait to decorate and furnish it. You come across a copy of the Ikea catalogue, which you casually flick through whilst having your breakfast. The sleek and affordable designs catch your eye and so you immediately make the trip to the nearest Ikea store. It’s 10am when you arrive and you happily weave your shopping trolley through the model kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms, around the aisles of quirky lampshades, bathroom accessories and contemporary artwork, finally reaching the mighty warehouse, stacked high with boxes of DIY flat-pack units.

Three hours have passed and you arrive at the checkout. You place your items on the conveyer belt for the shop assistant to scan through the till. You move closer to the front of the queue and greet them with a sigh and an awkward smile of embarrassment, as you hand over £3.50 for a solitary vanilla-scented candle and a pack of Daim bars!

So what happened? Why didn’t you buy anything else? Chances are you experienced Decision Fatigue. Scientists have coined this phrase to describe the exhausting process of making decisions, which we are all susceptible to in many aspects of normal life but particularly as consumers where willpower is key.

5076824636_060b30f19d_zExperiments have demonstrated the link between Decision Fatigue and willpower in various ways.  In one study (Vohs et al., 2008), subjects were asked to repeatedly choose one item from random pairs of inexpensive objects, ranging from chewing gum to tennis balls. They were also told their decision would influence which item they could keep and take home at the end of the day. Let’s call this group the deciders. Another group of subjects (we can call these the non-deciders) were simply asked to write down what they thought about each item (i.e. they didn’t have to make any decisions) and were told that the experimenters would choose an item for them to keep and take home.

Immediately after, both deciders and non-deciders, were asked to hold their hand in ice-cold water, as a measure of willpower. The results showed that deciders pulled their hands out of the water much faster than non-deciders. Essentially, those subjects who were forced to make several decisions in the first part of the experiment, gave up much quicker than those who didn’t have to decide on anything.

As a consumer the same tends to happen, whether you are shopping in a store, choosing food in a restaurant or browsing the Internet for holidays. To make any decision you need to place some value on each option and imagine the possible futures that would arise from selecting A over B. For example, if you were browsing for shower curtains in Ikea, you brain would be hard at work, pondering and analysing what the outcome would be if you chose shower curtain A over shower curtain B. Would it be long enough to fit over the bathtub? Is the material thick enough to prevent water spraying on the floor? Does the pattern match the bathroom tiles? Thought after thought. Question after question.

It’s the Prefrontal Cortex (at the front of your brain) that has the job of decision-making by processing this kind of information. You won’t be aware that this is happening, but it is, and if you spent a couple of hours looking at all the products in a large shop like Ikea your Prefrontal Cortex can go into overdrive (perhaps this explains why you often hear people complaining of headaches whilst shopping!). Your poor brain becomes exhausted, your willpower plummets and you could give up completely (explaining why the deciders in the experiment pulled their hands out of the icy water quicker than the non-deciders). Or, like the Ikea shopper, when willpower drops you could simply default to an easier decision such as the most pleasant smelling candle or which chocolates would best satisfy a sugar craving.

In fact, it’s no surprise that our fictional Ikea shopper sought out chocolates after their 3-hour shopping trip. It’s well known that willpower is reduced when blood sugar levels fall (Galliot and Baumeister, 2007). Indeed, have you ever wondered why there are 2410506932_5a64e1bc1e_zrestaurants or cafés in stores (and if the boss is clever enough, located right in the middle of them)? It gives hungry consumers, who have become tired of making decisions, the chance to re-fuel and boost their blood sugar, before continuing with their intensive shopping/decision-making trip.

So, perhaps the answer is to first have a hearty meal and then break the decision-making into small chunks interspersed with regular snack breaks to give your Prefrontal Cortex time to rest and re-fuel. That way your Prefrontal Cortex may be more able to effectively compute information and make clearer decisions. Otherwise, as time goes on, Decision Fatigue is still likely to kick in, your willpower could decline and your prefrontal cortex might only have enough energy to make the easiest decision it can – to do nothing at all.

Post by: Tarah Patel


Galliot M and Baumeister R,  Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2007 Nov; 11(4):303-27.

Vohs K et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008, Vol. 94, No. 5, 883– 898.


One, Two, Tree

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 09.04.55For centuries trees have defined our landscapes and proved homes for our ancestors. However, when walking through a busy town center or university square, it can be very easy for us to forget that trees even exist. In fact, when trees are acknowledged it’s usually just in terms of what they can do for us i.e providing clean air or a making places look prettier. But, trees are far more than just picturesque garden features, or soldiers against global warming. So, here is a list of little-known tree facts which prove that trees are much more in-tree-guing than we give them credit for.

Mother trees feed their young: One large tree can be connected to many others in a forest via an underground network of fungi associated with their roots. Studies have shown that older, more established, trees can provide young ones with carbon, water and nutrients through this fungal network to aid survival. Rather like a mother passing food through her umbilical cord to her offspring! Without this motherly nurture, many young trees would not survive. Resources can also be assigned depending on which individual needs them most.

Trees leave a will: Just as relatives pass money down the generations, studies have shown that dying trees can also donate their resources to the next generation before they die and collapse.

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 09.05.04Trees warn each other about danger: Studies have suggested that trees can communicate via chemical signals which travel through the air. A study from Pretoria University has found that Acacia trees emit warning signals to other trees in the area when they are being attacked. It is suggested that the attacked tree emits ethylene into the air which can travel up to 50 yards. Nearby trees can pick up on this signal, giving them time to produce leaf tannins, which can be lethal to the their biggest predator the antelope.

Trees cry:  It has been shown that trees can make sound when under stress. Zweifel, R and Zeugin, F (2011) carried out a study in Central Valais, Switzerland, which found that trees release Ultrasonic acoustic emissions (UAE) under drought conditions. The study suggested that this may be due to the collapsing water columns in the flow path resulting from high tension, due to drought. Although, these sounds cannot be heard by humans, a thirsty tree could be crying out for water, so go grab a watering can.

Trees look very good for their age: The oldest age documented for a human is 122 years and 164 days. However, one bristlecone pine tree in California’s White Mountains beats this by miles as it is thought to be almost 5,000 years old. So, respect your elders!

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 09.05.13So, there you have it, trees are much more than just a pretty picture, or a way out of global warming. They are living beings in their own right and should be respected! We can learn a lot from trees: they show that cries can be silent, that good mothering may involve sacrifice and that teamwork can be crucial to look after one another. The secret to aging slower is still unknown, but if anyone finds out, they’ll make a fortune on beauty products.

So, go hug a tree! – Although avoid the Manchineel tree, found in the Caribbean and Central America, whose sap can cause skin irritation and blistering on contact.

Post by: Alice Brown


Marine Strandings and Selfies: Should the two ever mix?

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 08.40.05No doubt everyone has heard about the dolphin that was passed between tourists for endless selfies, sparking debates over animal cruelty and inhuman acts. Of course the idea of a dolphin being dragged from the ocean and killed is diabolical, but probably what is most upsetting is that it is believable. It has been claimed that the dolphin was dead when it was found and did not die due to dehydration during the selfie frenzy that ensued, but this may be a lie formed by the offenders who felt guilty after the event – we’ll never know for sure.  Whichever story you decide to believe the sad fact still remains that humanity has become more obsessed with trying to snap the ‘perfect picture’ to get a few facebook ‘likes’, rather than trying to help an animal in distress.

Shortly after the baby dolphin story emerged, a video went viral of a man holding down a shark on a beach – again for photos. This time the video does confirm that the shark had been caught by a fisherman and was also filmed being released into the water. As far as I’m aware sharks can’t suffer psychological damage and if no physical harm was done it is no different from fishermen who visit fishing ponds. Assuming the animal isn’t away from the water from too long, a quick photo won’t kill it. However, it is setting a dangerous precedent for people to start deliberately seeking out marine animals to take selfies.

Sadly we have around 500 recorded marine animal strandings per year on Britain’s coasts. There are many reasons why these animal become stranded, it may be due to injuries, disease, or entanglement in fishing gear. Many strandings occur when young animals become separated from their mother and can’t survive. Whatever the reason these animals still deserve to be treated with respect.

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 08.41.07But, how many of us would really know what to do if we found a dolphin washed up on the beach? Well there are plenty of ways to find out. The WDC (Whales and Dolphins Conservation) have step by step instructions of what to do and who to call in such a situation. Or, if you are feeling more adventurous and want to be able to physically help a stranded animal, you can look out for training courses in your local area. The BDMLR (British Divers Marine Life Rescue) provide a single day course on how to rescue a beached animal, currently a training course is also being organised in the North West area, (follow the link below for more information).

It’s important that people start to appreciate the world without the need of a lens between them – isn’t a story about rescuing a stranded animal better than a picture with a dying one? So, let’s try and see more stories of people saving stranded animals rather than prolonging their suffering for a photo that will probably get lost in the many thousands we take over our lifetime.

Post By:Jennifer Rasal

For information about the training course-

WDC’s guide of what to do in a stranding situation-

A helping hand for oceanographers

Whilst exploring Google Scholar, I came across an interesting article that used a rather different approach to oceanographic observation: elephant seals.

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 21.08.10Living in herds in the Southern Ocean, these three tonne tanks seem a strange choice when it comes to measuring various oceanic properties, but are surprisingly efficient. By attaching conductivity-temperature-depth sensors (or CTDs) onto the heads of elephant seals, these mammals act as a biological platform from which measurements can be made. In fact, elephant seals are well suited to this job: they dive very deep and are able to swim long distances, likely visiting a wide proportion of the Southern Ocean. In a study by Xing et al (2012), 15 elephant seals were tagged in the region surrounding the Kerguelen Islands – an archipelgelo that lies on the boundary of the Antarctic tectonic plate. This equated to 1894 profiles being collected in just over a year, and emphasises the potential of utilising animals in this way.  As it happens, the use of animals in scientific research is a growing field, and is known as biologging.

Biologging has only become possible relatively recently and is used primarily to monitor animal behaviour e.g. foraging, migration and even environmental assessment – such as the impact of offshore wind farms on seabirds. However, over the last 15 years, the development of Satellite Relay Loggers (that is, the combination of satellite relay – essentially fancy GPS) and CTD sensors has allowed a collaboration between biologists and physical oceanographers, expanding our observational capabilities of the ocean.

One of the main problems with observational oceanography is the sampling resolution: there are enormous parts of the ocean that remain a sampling mystery. This is due primarily to the fact that the sensors we use are very small and the ocean is very big, so only a limited proportion of the ocean can be measured at any one time. Combined with the fact that research ships are expensive to run, this leads to some parts of the global ocean that are very well-known to us (such as the easily accessible coastal regions) and areas that haven’t seen any CTD sensor in over ten years, if ever!

One of the ways to combat this problem is through the introduction of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) – essentially robotic sensors. These robots are quite happy to go up, down, backwards and forwards, measuring the water column as they go for however long their lithium batteries last, and have drastically increased both the spatial and temporal resolution of observational oceanography.

However, they aren’t perfect, and there are still vast regions of the ocean where these robots can’t reach. Outside of 60°N-60°S latitudinal range, the presence of sea ice is a problem. When I was an undergraduate, we were told a story of a multimillion pound AUV that became lost beneath the Arctic sea ice. I have yet to know if it was ever recovered, but global warming might lead to some interesting robotic discoveries if the ice caps continue to melt.

New technological advances with AUVs are being made constantly, so it is highly possible that these type of limitations may not be permanent. In the meantime, however, biologging may be a useful and reliable alternative, particularly as elephant seals don’t need batteries and their thick skin is not prone to water leakage.

That being said, biologging does come with its own unique difficulties, the animal must be sedated for the sensor to be attached, and once again for its removal – a dangerous and sometimes laborious task. It also has to be noted that the animal’s welfare is a top priority for these researchers, and every effort is taken to ensure the animal is by no means distressed throughout the biologging process.

Nevertheless, biologging provides a useful tool to measure those hard to reach places where humans and robots dare not tread.

Post By: Jenny Jardine


Charrassin, J B., and others, (2010), Bio-optical profiling floats as new observational tools for biogeochemical and ecosystem studies: potential synergies with ocean color remote sensing, IN J. Hall, D. E. Harrison and D. Stammer (Eds.), Proceedings of OceanObs 09: Sustained ocean observations and information for society (Vol. 2), Venice Italy, September 2009. ESA Publication WPP-306

Roquet, F., and others, (2011), Validation of hydrographic data obtained from animal-bourne satellite-relay data loggers, Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, 28, 787-801

Xing, X., and others, (2012) Quenching correction for in vivo chlorophyll fluorescence acquired by autonomous platforms: A case study with instrumented elephant seals in the Kerguelen region (Southern Ocean), Limnology and Oceanography: Methods, 10, 483-495

The neuroscience of politics: what your brain says about your vote

So it’s super Tuesday. For anyone reading this in the US you’ll know that this is a pretty big deal in the presidential primary season but, to humour us Brits, here is a brief overview of what it all means.

800px-2008_Wash_State_Democratic_Caucus_03Super Tuesday is the day (or days) when the greatest number of states hold their primary elections, narrowing the field of candidates vying for power in the upcoming general election. The day is thought to ‘throw candidates in at the deep end’ giving them a taste of the trials and tribulation of running a national campaign. Results from Super Tuesday (which are expected to start flooding in soon after polls close at 19:00/20:00 EST, 00:00/01:00 GMT) will give a good indication of the direction of these campaigns – creating a sink or swim moment for candidates.

With heightened political fervour gripping the nation, we at the Brain Bank want to explore the role the brain plays in the way we vote:

One major question scientists have been researching is whether it is possible to predict our political leanings (conservative vs liberal or republican vs democrat) by delving into the structure of our brains. Although this question may seem pretty far fetched, a number of studies have in fact found links between the size and activity of certain brain structures and a subjects political beliefs. Specifically, these studies reliably show that liberals tend to have a larger and more active anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) while conservatives are more likely to show an enlarged amygdala.

Now, before we delve into more detail on the functions of these brain regions and how they could be linked with conservative or liberal thinking, we need to be clear on a few points. Firstly, even though a number of studies converge on the same findings, these do not represent a large enough sample size to say that this will hold true for all individuals. We also have no way of disentangling cause and effect in these studies, so we can’t say whether your brain drives your political views or whether it is your views which shape your brain – although this would be a very interesting question to ask!

So, with this in mind lets explore what these brain regions do and how their functions may be linked to political beliefs.

7488934812_d8bee1e2b0_qThe ACC is involved in cognitive control, conflict monitoring and emotion regulation. The ACC is basically the brain’s equivalent of a focused micromanaging boss. It helps us sort through incoming information and choose which bits are relevant and which are not. It also works to regulate our emotions, keeping them in check so they don’t get in the way of logical thinking. Those with the ability to maintain low emotional arousal alongside high cognitive control may be better at handling conflict, more adaptable and have high cognitive flexibility.

But what about the amygdala?

The amygdala is heavily involved in the formation of emotional memories and a process known as fear conditioning. People with larger amygdala may be more likely to show empathy and could be swayed heavily by emotive arguments. However, heightened emotions may also lead to less logical decision making, hinging choices on emotion rather than logic.

These findings could be used to argue that liberals may be more comfortable with complexity, more flexible in their thinking and more willing to incorporate new information into their current belief system. On the other hand, conservatives could be more likely to allow their beliefs to be coloured by emotion. This may make conservatives less comfortable with change, finding that stability causes them less anxiety. Interestingly, it has been suggested that conservative thinking hinges more on the stability of previously held values (think gay marriage) while liberals are thought to be more accepting of change and more willing to shift their world views based on new evidence.

66245374_afe6d3d8d1_qThis data is certainly interesting, however it is not helpful to view this as a strict dichotomy, or indeed something which remains rigid throughout the course of an individuals life. I wrote an article a few years back discussing plasticity in the brain. We know that every experience we have is capable of altering the structure of our brains at both a cellular and network level. Therefore, it makes sense that something as nuanced as political belief would undoubtedly be shaped and modified over the course of our lives by our experiences.

We know that, at least in Britain, age (and associated experience?) is a strong predictor of political affiliation, with liberalism associated with youth and conservative ideals with advancing age. Indeed it was once said that “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains”. It has been suggested that as individuals settle down, find secure jobs and start families they crave stability, are more anxious of change and therefore more likely to vote conservative. It is possible that these changes are based on incremental alterations in brain structure, perhaps brought about by lifestyle changes.

Personally, my voting style altered when I came to university to study a scientific subject. Before university I tended to base my vote on the beliefs of my parents and peers, whereas now I try to weigh up as much evidence about the candidates as I can find before making a decision. I generally lean to the left, but could (and have) been swayed by policies on both sides. I like to think I would be an outlier in these ‘brain structure’ studies, alongside many other moderate (middle ground) voters.

It seems clear that differences do exist in the thinking style of both parties and I am inclined to believe that this may be reflected in the brain structures of strong supporters on both sides. However, there is undoubtedly room for further research into this topic, including questions such as: what defines a moderate voter? Does brain structure change with political affiliation? and does brain structure alter with age?

What are your views? we’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

To learn more visit National Geographic

Brain Games:  Life of the Brain premieres Sunday, March 6, at 9/8c on National Geographic Channel.

Post by: Dr Sarah Fox