Tea and Science

Well, yesterday I graduated from the University of Groningen, receiving a shiny new diploma in the presence of my friends and family.
The already fabulous day was significantly improved by the gorgeous weather and the fact that the judicium (latin honours) on the diploma is Cum Laude, which I guess means I can now properly call myself a true Master of Science.
So, watch out world, this master is not yet nearly done sharing her sciency knowledge with the rest of you!
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Well, yesterday I graduated from the University of Groningen, receiving a shiny new diploma in the presence of my friends and family.

The already fabulous day was significantly improved by the gorgeous weather and the fact that the judicium (latin honours) on the diploma is Cum Laude, which I guess means I can now properly call myself a true Master of Science.

So, watch out world, this master is not yet nearly done sharing her sciency knowledge with the rest of you!



(Early) Neuroscience Wednesday!(It’s actually still Tuesday…)

What is Chronobiology?
It’s no secret that teens have trouble getting up in the morning, often falling half-asleep during classes and maybe even labelled as ‘lazy’ by perhaps their parents or teachers.
“Well, if you would just go to bed earlier you wouldn’t feel so tired in the morning!”, is advise often given to those of us who just aren’t morning people. Easier said than done right?
Well, the next time you are berated by people older than you, let them know that the reason you go to bed late and don’t want to get up in the morning has less to do with your lazy personality and more to do with your brain chemistry!
In this post I will tell you what chronobiology is, how it affects every aspect of your life, and society as a whole, and explain the concept of Social Jetlag. Furthermore, you can test if you’re a night owl or early bird, and how you compare to other people your age (while at the same time participating in research)!
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Chronobiology
The study of sleep and other biological rhythms is called chronobiology. The part of your brain that controls your sleep/wake cycle doesn’t only affect what time you go to bed, but it also affects many other interesting biological processes going on in your body.
Chronobiology plays an important part in our lives, just look at the images below to give you an idea how your body changes throughout the day, and also how the outcome of certain activities and procedures is affected by what time of the day you perform them!

This rhythm means that you’re best at sports late in the afternoon, while low alertness at night (together with late shift changes) means that you’re more likely to die in surgery at midnight than at 2 in the afternoon. Furthermore, your rhythm influences your health in other ways: abrupt shifts in rhythm, leading to lack of sleep, can negatively affect your health, as can be observed during Daylights saving times. In the week following daylight savings time, there is a 10% jump in heartattacks and also a huge jump in the number of traffic accidents!  The image at the beginning of this post further demonstrates negative consequences of sleep deprivation.
Your brain and biological rhythms
The part of your brain responsible for your biological rhythm is known as the “Suprachiasmatic Nucleus”, or SCN for short. It is a teeny tiny part of your brain which is located just above your optic nerves as they cross over into your brain, and can also be described as a ‘master clock’. Its position allows the SCN to receive light information from the eye, thereby allowing for adaptations to day/night cycles.
When light enters the optic nerve and reaches the SCN, specific photosensitive cells react to the light, and can either phase shift rhythm forward or backwards. This entirely depends at what time the light information is received. If you’re in a very bright environment late at night, this will delay your rhythm thereby causing you to sleep very late. On the other hand, if you’re frolicking around in the sunlight at 6 AM, your brain will shift your sleep rhythm to get up earlier the following days. This timing-dependent-effect can be calculated using a Phase Response Curve.
Phaseshifting occurs because your biological rhythm is controlled by the presence of melatonin, a hormone that controls overall sleepiness which is produced in the Pineal Gland. The SCN controls the production of this hormone via axons projecting to the Pineal Gland. These activations occur rhythmically, under the control of a complex gene expression cycle: genes in this mechanism affect their own expression via the use of a negative feedback loop. Thus, when a gene is expressed, it can inhibit its own expression via this loop. The time it takes to complete this loop thereby generates a true biological clock, with genes being expressed in a biological cycle.
Left to its own devices, this clock is roughly 24 hours. However, because it’s not exactly 24 hours, but a little bit longer, normally in the absence of light people will start to ‘free run’. Meaning that they will get up a little later and go to bed a little later every day, until eventually, after many days, they’ve made a complete 24-hour loop. However, under normal circumstances the presence of light allows the SCN to adjust to the actual 24 hour cycle, which is why you’re able to get up at 8 o’clock for an entire year without freerunning. However, as you might have guessed, freerunning is absolutely a problem that some blind people have to deal with, especially in the absence of other zeitgebers (literally: ’time-givers’; stimuli that lets your body know what time it is, thereby allowing your SCN to adjust to this rhythm). For more information on this fascinating topic, and the problems blind people face, can be read here: Wikipedia article, Science article.

An ‘actogram’ plotting the time an individual was active during 24 cycle conditions (Day 1-10) and temporal isolation without a zeitgeber (Day 10-35) and back to a 24 cycle (day 35+). Under isolated conditions, this individual’s activity pattern (dotted black lines) slowly shift later into the day, until eventually the timing of sleep has made a complete loop and is back to what it was before isolation.
Social Jetlag
We’ve all heard of jetlag, but have you heard of social jetlag? It’s what occurs when your natural circadian (circadian means ‘about a day’) rhythm clashes with the rhythm society wants you to follow. For example, maybe you’re a student and like to go to sleep at 2 o’clock at night. But you have to be in school by 8 o’clock. This means you’ll slowly acquire a lack of sleep, which is usually caught up in the weekends, when someone’s true rhythm is shown. On these free days you’ll probably sleep until 1 PM in the afternoon, just to catch up on your sleep!

(The above image is from a really cool infographic by Bizbrain, I highly recommend clicking that link and reading the rest of it!)
However, if you’re a teen or young adult, it’s not unusual to have a rhythm that clashes heavily with that of school or work. During natural development and aging your biological clock phaseshifts; elderly people need less sleep than adults, but on the other hand young people often have very late sleeping cycle compared to their parents and society as a whole. This is completely natural, and some developmental scientists even argue that the time when your sleepcycle finally phaseshifts to a more ‘normal’ rhythm is actually the real start of adulthood, instead of an arbitrary age such as 18.
Thus, developmental changes in teens and young adults delay the timing of their sleepcycle, actively preventing them from going to sleep earlier in the evening because their brain only makes them feel sleepy much later.
Unfortunately school start times means that overall, students have to be alert during times that is in complete contrast with adolescent naturally preferred waking hours. This causes unusual early waking times, shorter sleep times and lack of sleep, lack of concentration and lower alertness and retention of facts. Some scientist believe that even shifting school’s starting time by as little as half an hour can dramatically increase academic performances. Try to get that suggestion approved by the schoolboard…
Chronotypes test
To find out your own ‘chronotype’, follow this link and fill out the form. Not only can you see how you compare to the rest of the population, you also help advance research into chronobiology and sleeping rhythms! Furthermore, you will be provided with a personal PDF with some handy advise on how to adjust your sleeping schedule if need be. As you can see below, I myself am quite the night owl.


Further reading:-You are most likely to die at 11 AM: an article by The Atlantic.-Scholarpedia article on Chronobiology -A BBC article that explains the interesting ways in which the biological clock can be used to increase the efficacy of medical treatments, known as Chronotherapy.  
Image credits:-Image Sleep deprivation:  Häggström, Mikael. “Medical gallery of Mikael Häggström 2014”. Wikiversity Journal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.153-Image circadian clock: Wikimedia Commons, by YassineMrabet.-Image freerunning period: www.sleepsources.org-Image Jetlag: Bizbrain-Image chronotypes:www.euclock.org
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(Early) Neuroscience Wednesday!
(It’s actually still Tuesday…)

What is Chronobiology?

It’s no secret that teens have trouble getting up in the morning, often falling half-asleep during classes and maybe even labelled as ‘lazy’ by perhaps their parents or teachers.

“Well, if you would just go to bed earlier you wouldn’t feel so tired in the morning!”, is advise often given to those of us who just aren’t morning people. Easier said than done right?

Well, the next time you are berated by people older than you, let them know that the reason you go to bed late and don’t want to get up in the morning has less to do with your lazy personality and more to do with your brain chemistry!

In this post I will tell you what chronobiology is, how it affects every aspect of your life, and society as a whole, and explain the concept of Social Jetlag. Furthermore, you can test if you’re a night owl or early bird, and how you compare to other people your age (while at the same time participating in research)!

Read More


In the last 2 weeks of August, the normally quite tranquil ‘Noorderplantsoen' park in Groningen turns into a bustling festival full of music, theatre, art, dance, shops and stalls, and lots and lots of people. 
The festival is known as ‘Noorderzon' (northern sun) and is quite the experience for anyone, from kids to grandparents and everyone in between, and I really like it a lot. There's a lot to eat, drink and experience. There are lights everywhere and the whole park is just filled with whatever performance art (or just 'plain' art) you can imagine. To use a Dutch term, it's just really ‘gezellig’!
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(Photocredit: mathijzs on Flickr) 
Yesterday night I went with two friends of mine, listened to some bands and just walked around and had fun. 

One of them even assaulted me with his prickly beard stubble!

Today my parents unexpectedly paid me a visit and I took them with me to roam around Noorderzon by day, although not nearly as gezellig as in the evening, it was still a nice day and I highly recommend it if you ever find yourself in the North of the Netherlands in the last weeks of August :)
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In the last 2 weeks of August, the normally quite tranquil ‘Noorderplantsoen' park in Groningen turns into a bustling festival full of music, theatre, art, dance, shops and stalls, and lots and lots of people. 

The festival is known as ‘Noorderzon' (northern sun) and is quite the experience for anyone, from kids to grandparents and everyone in between, and I really like it a lot. There's a lot to eat, drink and experience. There are lights everywhere and the whole park is just filled with whatever performance art (or just 'plain' art) you can imagine. To use a Dutch term, it's just really gezellig!

Read More



Neuroscience Wednesday!

What is Synaesthesia, and do you have it?

I am quite sure a lot of you have heard about the phenomenon of synaesthesia, but if not, let me give you a brief introduction.

Synaesthesia is the name of a neurological phenomenon that occurs in the brains of individuals, that causes them to see, hear, feel or experience associations with certain stimuli that is unusual in the normal population. One of the most famous examples of synaesthesia is the experience of colours in response to seeing letters and numbers, as can be seen in the image above (known as Grapheme-colour synaesthesia). But it can also be that you taste specific things when you hear certain words (Lexical-Gustatory Synaesthesia), or experience colours when you listen to music (Chromestesia).

Synaesthesia can be any unusual crossovers between normally-separate experiences within the brain in response to specific stimuli. It could therefore be entirely possible that you are a synesthete without even knowing it! For example, I myself am a synesthete but only recently discovered that I am one, even though long before I discovered this I already knew about the phenomenon of synaesthesia.

Therefore, in this post I will be highlighting different (obscure) synaesthesia subgroups and will discuss the neurological background of synaesthesia. Since as many as about 1 in 23 people might have a form of synaesthesia, it is not unimaginable that you might discover you have a form of synaesthesia as well!

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Guess who gets colds in summer? I do!
It started yesterday evening, and as if slowly starting to feel more and more ill wasn’t enough, I soon discovered I had apparently raided my first aid kit some time before and had forgotten to replenish it. Therefore, I had only some simple home remedies to ease my suffering.
Today I decided it was best to drag myself out of the house and assemble an Emergency Kit for the survival of Colds, of which nasal spray, painkillers and SOFT tissues were the highest among the list. 
Not that the abilities of a nice cup of tea and some honey to sooth an aching throat should be underestimated, but if I could only pick one of the things on the list to get by on, it would have to be the super soft tissues, my nose was already starting to get quite raw from using paper kitchen towels… 
Do you have any home remedies or essentials that you wouldn’t want to miss when you’re feeling unwell? 
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Guess who gets colds in summer? I do!

It started yesterday evening, and as if slowly starting to feel more and more ill wasn’t enough, I soon discovered I had apparently raided my first aid kit some time before and had forgotten to replenish it. Therefore, I had only some simple home remedies to ease my suffering.

Today I decided it was best to drag myself out of the house and assemble an Emergency Kit for the survival of Colds, of which nasal spray, painkillers and SOFT tissues were the highest among the list. 

Not that the abilities of a nice cup of tea and some honey to sooth an aching throat should be underestimated, but if I could only pick one of the things on the list to get by on, it would have to be the super soft tissues, my nose was already starting to get quite raw from using paper kitchen towels… 

Do you have any home remedies or essentials that you wouldn’t want to miss when you’re feeling unwell? 



I recently received mail all the way from Australia!

My best friend is currently studying there, for 7 months (!), but I guess the card means that I don’t have to worry any more that she’s been eaten by crocodiles, bit by poisonous spiders or snakes, or stung by jellyfish, nor lost in the wilderness. Since she’s made it through the first 3 months, I’m a little more assured she can make it through the next 4.

Although surely not any longer than that. She’s been speaking very highly of Melbourne, but I won’t allow her to move back there for any longer periods of time. Come home to me! 

 The contents of the card itself were quite funny, but I have to admit I was more highly amused by the stamp. Lets just hope she isn’t changing allegiance to this other queen any time soon…

In other news, I drew a simple design on my ukelele a few weeks back, but it’s been slowing eroding over time (and usage), does anyone have any simple tips as to how to protect and/or seal it that doesn’t involve buying expensive sealing stuff? (It’s not that kind of design nor ukelele that I want to put a huge amount of effort in it).

Cheers!



Neuroscience Wednesday!
The Science of Daydreams

We all do it, some more than others, old people less than young people, women differently than men. Daydreaming. It can make you forget your current situation, and let you live out your fantasies.
There is certainly a negative aspect associated with daydreaming, with people in the past even warning parents not to let their children daydream, as it may lead to negative consequences such as psychosis!
But if everyone daydreams, than logic dictates that surely there must be a function to it. In short, what is the science behind daydreams?
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Although there is an ongoing discussion about the validity of the theory that certain brain areas are specifically involved in daydreaming, it is thought by many to occur when your brain initiates, as it does so often, a specific neuronal network. It’s not just any network. The so-called ‘default mode network’ is on at all times. It’s the areas of your brain that are busy communicating when your mind is actually not busy at all.
This network was discovered, as so many other things in science, accidentally when scientists were trying to determine which brain areas show more activity when working on various mental tasks. However, what they instead discovered is that activity in particular areas in the brain decreased when a person was engaged in mental activities. Further experiments showed that when people were asked to close their eyes and think of nothing in particular, these areas showed increases in activity.
The default mode network lends its name to the fact that it does truly appear to be the default network that is active in people, even when they are asleep, under general anaesthesia or even in people in a coma. The activity in these areas comes in waves, often too slow to be able to apply the label of ‘conscious thought’ to it in the case of the activity observed in coma patients. Conscious thoughts can occur in very brief moments of time, certainly much faster than the waves of activity (once every 10-20 seconds) that occurs in these brain areas under comatose conditions.
Do you often find yourself drifting off in thought? Daydreaming at moments you shouldn’t be? Then you probably have a very active default mode network compared to others. Scientists were able to predict when people were going to make mistakes during tasks up to half a minute in advance just by looking at spikes in the activity of the default mode network! Let’s hope companies don’t make brain monitors that beep warnings when employees are drifting off into la-la-land…
Faults in the network have been associated with particular psychiatric disorders, such as autism, schizophrenia, PTSD, depression and even Alzheimer’s disease. A decrease in the activity or connectivity of areas in the default mode network can lead to a failure to plan or predict future events, or losing one’s sense of self. In Alzheimer’s disease, the neurodegeneration particularly takes place in areas associated with the default network, while in Schizophrenia, there appears to be a consistent upregulation of activity in these brain areas, causing an inability to focus on tasks and perhaps facilitating a background for the delusional thoughts the disease is known for.
Women daydream differently than men. Men more often have daydreams of self-heroic situations, bizarre-improbable situations and sexual ideas. Women have more emotional reactions to daydreams, but also display more problem-solving orientated daydreaming. Men daydream more about things, while women daydream more about people.  The type of things men and women daydream about also changes with age.
Younger people daydream more than older people, although very young children, babies under the age of 1, show no particular activity in the default network at all. Since the network is thought to be involved with planning for the future, it is not surprising that it is not visible in babies as they also cannot display this type of thinking yet. On the other hand, older people might plan less or worry less about the future, thereby displaying less daydreaming than younger individuals.
So, perhaps you are someone who finds themselves having a lot of wandering thoughts or daydreaming at random moments during the day, thereby probably displaying more activity in the default mode network than average. Unfortunately, I have to inform you that greater activity in the default mode network is also associated with an increase in risk for Alzheimer’s disease, especially the hereditary kind, even decades before displaying the first symptoms.
Don’t worry too much though, daydreaming has also been associated with many benefits, such as the fact that a study from the University of Wisconsin showed that people who daydream a lot have a higher working memory. Thereby, these people are more inclined to be able to remember information even during distracting circumstances. Who said daydreaming in class was bad for you, huh?
Even though daydreaming is often frowned upon, because it represents non-activity when you probably should be doing something ‘more productive’, science has showed that daydreaming is actually beneficial for your thinking. It may lead to more creative thoughts, problem solving, understanding of the world and oneself in it, and better memory.
Furthermore, although daydreaming may be viewed in this negative way, it is certainly not non-activity. Even though the default network might be involved when you’re doing not much at all, the brain is actually incredibly active during these times. The next time someone berates you for having a wandering mind, remind them you’re just doing some brain maintenance.
Further reading:
PDF: You are who you are by default
Wikipedia: The default mode network
Ted Blog: The power of Daydreams
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Neuroscience Wednesday!

The Science of Daydreams

We all do it, some more than others, old people less than young people, women differently than men. Daydreaming. It can make you forget your current situation, and let you live out your fantasies.

There is certainly a negative aspect associated with daydreaming, with people in the past even warning parents not to let their children daydream, as it may lead to negative consequences such as psychosis!

But if everyone daydreams, than logic dictates that surely there must be a function to it. In short, what is the science behind daydreams?

Read More


The weather is atrociously nice outside and I’m chipping away at the last pieces of my master project thesis while trying to enjoy at least some of the sun from inside my little apartment. A few more days and I will officially be able to appreciate summer without having to worry about work any more. 
It’s a dubious feeling, however. On Tuesday I will have to present my research as one of the speakers at the Behavioural and Cognitive Neuroscience symposium, but at the same time it will be one of my last ‘official’ tasks as a master student. I will be done. 
I was 4 when I started at kindergarten, and I will be 24 when I graduate from University and will (hopefully) enter the job market. It’s a weird feeling to close the chapter on 20 years of school life. I will be relieved and glad when it’s all over, but I’m also feeling curiously sentimental about it. 
View in High-Res

The weather is atrociously nice outside and I’m chipping away at the last pieces of my master project thesis while trying to enjoy at least some of the sun from inside my little apartment. A few more days and I will officially be able to appreciate summer without having to worry about work any more. 

It’s a dubious feeling, however. On Tuesday I will have to present my research as one of the speakers at the Behavioural and Cognitive Neuroscience symposium, but at the same time it will be one of my last ‘official’ tasks as a master student. I will be done. 

I was 4 when I started at kindergarten, and I will be 24 when I graduate from University and will (hopefully) enter the job market. It’s a weird feeling to close the chapter on 20 years of school life. I will be relieved and glad when it’s all over, but I’m also feeling curiously sentimental about it. 


real-christianity: Could you post the whole essay you wrote on the illusion of consciousness? It's a very interesting stance and I would like to further read your thoughts on the matter.

It’s certainly something I would consider doing, however, as I have just finished writing the essay in question (which is the reason why I talked about it on my blog; it’s what I’ve been mulling over these past few weeks), I would first like to wait for the feedback I will get back from my supervisor so I can make potential changes, fix mistakes etc, and deliver something that is truly ‘finished’. 

(Furthermore, I wouldn’t want to be accused of plagiarism when an internet search brings my supervisor to my own blog, haha!)

But I’m sure I can oblige your request in a week or 2-3 :)


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