Vox Media is back with its 'Explained' series with a limited documentary called 'The Mind, Explained,' with five 20-minute episodes, narrated by Emma Stone.
If you've ever been interested in the way your brain works, this new limited series tackles the science of the human brain with a mix of cool graphics and visuals, and expert opinions, but the series does leave us wanting more. But in the age of short attention spans, it looks like the format works. It has received an 8.1/10 rating on IMDB in less than two weeks.
Before the series' release, the trailer hinted towards five different topics, and that's what the series delivered: memories, dreams, anxiety ("the most common mental illness" the trailer mentions), mindfulness ("the moment of awakening"), and psychedelics.
You could try and binge-watch this limited series in a few hours. You can even watch it in any order, skip the first episode on memories and go right ahead to mindfulness, if you wish. The series will undoubtedly make you more knowledgeable about the incredibly soft mass that is your brain.
Furthermore, it shows that in the pursuit of science, doctors and scientists have performed some questionable activities in the past, such as using a human baby to induce anxiety for research purposes or zapping the brains of patients with electricity to show stimulus response.
With no further seasons planned, we'll just have to wait for season 2 of Vox's original "Explained" series, out soon, on September 26th! If you haven't watched season 1, now's the time! And, if you haven't watched this limited show that we're about to discuss, watch it now or catch a summary of the episodes below.
The first episode — Memory, explained — looks at the science behind memories. It tackles an important question right at the beginning: "why do some moments feel so important?"
Cases of memories of unfortunate events such as 9/11, or the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales are somehow so etched in our minds. But how do some individuals, such as Melanie Mignucci, are able to recall minute details such as where they were sitting when it happened or where the smoke was billowing? It turns out that the memory that Melanie had was entirely made up by her mind. She was nowhere near Manhattan when it happened.
Harvard Professor Elizabeth Phelps, the neuroscientist cited in this episode, claims that around 50% of the details of a given memory may change within the year. Our memories are, then, not absolute recordings but can change through time. Some other memory experts, such as Elizabeth Loftus, have claimed that memories are more like Wikipedia pages?! Memories can be continuously edited, constructed, and reconstructed through time.
So, "how exactly does remembering work?" There is no absolute answer, but the series takes a look at memory "champions" and at individuals suffering from amnesia — at brains doing something out of the ordinary.
Triple world-record holder, Yanjaa Wintersoul, can remember 500 numbers in only 10 minutes. A memory champion, she participates in memory competitions, where participants memorize things in a short period of time and display their memory skills to remember information in the form of lists or images.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have "Patient H.M." or Henry Molaison. This is a man who underwent surgery in 1953 for his epilepsy and had parts of his amygdala, and hippocampus removed. That operation resulted in H.M. having severe amnesia and be in a "permanent present," with an inability to form new memories. His case ended up furthering neuroscience, memory research, and the study of the hippocampus and its role in memories.
In 2014, his brain was sliced 2,401 times (shown below) and was found that much of his hippocampus was intact, but most of the amygdaloid complex and entorhinal cortex in the medial temporal lobe was removed.
By looking at brains that are doing something out of the ordinary, and at the hippocampus and the amygdala, and the medial temporal lobe (MTL) in general, researchers have started understanding hippocampal function. Patient H.M.'s lack of episodic memories is linked to MTL damage and he lived his whole life, having forgotten his past and unable to imagine his future.
His case study is probably one of the most fascinating case studies in the show. It certainly makes you want to become more knowledgeable and appreciate the advancements in science and medicine today. Ultimately, it makes us appreciate the fact that we are very fortunate to live in an age where we can learn more about ourselves and our physical bodies.
What exactly creates memories? Experiences and special moments that change our lives, together with emotions, place, and narratives all work together to form strong memories and sense of self. Meditation, which the series' 4th episode also delves into, has been proven to improve memory recollection as well.
Other techniques such as associating things with structures that we already know, or mnemonic strategies like using visuals or sounds, and strategies like the memory palace, help memory champions and those with incredible memories to do immensely better than the average individual.
If you can't claim that the memory of you, from when you were 3-years-old, may or may not be completely accurate, then who are you? Autobiographical memory, which is what the episode mentions throughout, are based on long-term conceptual self-constructions, including beliefs and knowledge of one's self. Together with episodic memories, they form something called a self-memory system (SMS) that constitutes your "working self."
In the end, the episode ends with the conclusion that our memories are highly constructed information systems, but they are no better than chance, according to one study!
But, memories are significant for humans so that we can also imagine our futures — the same areas of the brains have lit up when we remember the past as well as when we try to imagine our futures.
This episode is unsettling as it shows that our memories are not 100% accurate recollections and can undermine justice systems, lead people to confess crimes they never did or identify the wrong perpetrator who might end up going to prison.
Given that memories were always thought of as concrete recollection of events in a person's life and are directly related to self-construction and identity, this episode will make you question a lot of your own memories.
Catch this first episode on YouTube, courtesy of Vox:
The purpose of dreams and what they mean has no easy answer. Majority of our dreams occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, where the logical judgment filter is off (hence why most of the dreams are somewhat bizarre), and the amygdala and hippocampus are active.
The episode explores concepts from the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and psychologist Carl Jung, along with the father of neuroscience and Freud's contemporary, Nobel-prize winning Santiago Ramón y Cajal.
The episode ends with something called "lucid dreaming." In lucid dreams, the person dreaming is aware of the fact that they are dreaming while still in the dream. It involves another part of our brain — the prefrontal cortex — which plays a huge role here in checking "reality."
This the same area of the brain that is not very active in REM sleep (which the episode also notes, right at the beginning). So, lucid dreamers have actually acquired skills — to question reality. One study has found that to be true: daily self-reflection is more pronounced in individuals who are also lucid dreamers.
The episode of anxiety starts off discussing panic attacks, just one form of anxiety, but it is "the most common mental illness," according to psychologist Ali Mattu. 30% of humans have or are destined to have this mental illness, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky declares.
The amygdala, again the same part of the brain that is important for memories and dreams, is also very important here.
This episode approaches the subject with a great set of case studies and factual information such as different kinds of fears that an individual may have and who is more prone, and what chemicals in the brain play a significant role.
Then, there are, of course, experiences that influence you, especially when you're young as highlighted in the very problematic Little Albert experiment, conducted in 1919. It showed that humans could be conditioned to act on and fear things that they previously didn't.
The experiment was done by Dr. John Watson, the psychologist who is now called "the father of behaviorism" and was performed on an emotionally stable, healthy baby. Through this unethical experiment, it was shown that you could condition someone to develop a phobia, in this case, of furry animals. The truth of who Little Albert was, was also destroyed when Watson burned his papers before he died. Recent theories have led to the real Albert and that he still despised dogs growing up.
Watch this episode to learn more about how someone could deal with anxiety and how cognitive behavior therapy can help.
The case of Yongey Rinpoche is just mind-blowing. Rinpoche is a Buddhist monk who runs the Tergar Meditation Community, a meditation community with centers around the world.
In 2011, he disappeared without a word except for a note; only to show up in 2015. During that time, he traveled as a wandering yogi and honed his meditation skills.
Scientists later found that he could intentionally control his brain's activity, unlike ordinary people or those suffering from epileptic seizures — showing 700-800 times greater activity than when his brain was resting. This research has now been included in the book, Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson (Dr. Davidson offers his expertise in this episode).
This episode showcases that there are many kinds of meditation and mindfulness techniques. When the brain is distracted, it lights up our Default Mode Network (DMN) or otherwise called the "monkey mind." With meditation, you can actually train your mind to stop and feel the present — something that mindfulness advocates.
Mindfulness has proven to help focus, alleviate pain, and reduce anxiety and stress, and even improve student grades. Now, there are dozens of meditation apps and videos to help everyone do just that.
However, this particular episode ends with the note that mindfulness meditation took a long while to catch on in the West. Even if it has become fashionable and trendy now, the use of these techniques to treat serious illnesses is unclear and that maybe its popularity will eventually wane.
The last part of the series could probably pique interest with audiences with little or no experience with the knowledge about psychedelics. Treating anxiety, fears, alcoholism, and smoking addiction are some of the case studies discussed in this episode.
The complex history of psychedelics, both in the Americas and especially in the U.S., is drawn particular attention to, where the drugs are in placed in Schedule 1. Within a few decades, the U.S. abandoned research on the drugs and even ostracized individuals associated with it — actions that are still affecting opinions about these drugs today.
In the finale, the episode ends on a high note, as psychedelics are helping people with debilitating anxiety, for example, and with no other viable treatment available.
But with clinical trials being small and research still in its early stages, we'll have to wait longer for any OTC prescriptions and perhaps, for laws and opinions to change as well.
This short, educational, and positive docuseries ( helped by Emma Stone's narration?) offers us a chance to explore topics that are quite popular today. If you wish to delve further into the various issues, there's a lot more information on the Internet, oftentimes confusing and disorienting — some of which we've highlighted here with relevant links.
This series certainly makes the task of researching particular issues and topics easier — as you watch, you can certainly Google unfamiliar concepts — but for those looking for more in-depth analysis and references, it'll require more than just 20 minutes of your time.