5 German philosopher Karl Marx was born on this day in 1818. Although Marx is most famous for his political ideas, his philosophies also contributed indirectly to modern psychology. Embedded in Marx’s doctrine of historical materialism—the study of society, economics and history—is the idea that understanding the human mind relies not only on inward reflection but also on the historical and social context in which a person lives. For Marx, that meant a person’s work life. Today the study of social psychology explores in much greater depth how cultural influences, social status and other factors contribute to a person’s mind-set and behaviors.
11 Could working with animals help autistic children learn to speak? Although the scientific evidence for animal therapy is still controversial, anecdotes suggest that for some kids, four-legged friends might make all the difference. The Horse Boy, a new documentary from PBS, chronicles the story of Rowan Isaacson, an autistic boy who did not respond to modern medical treatment but started talking after befriending a neighbor’s horse. This small success inspires his parents to bring him to Mongolia, the only place in the world where horses are an integral part of healing.
11 Teens who begin drinking before the age of 15 are more likely to develop a dependence on alcohol later in life than those who start when they are older, according to a 2009 study by researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Understanding the neurological basis of alcoholism and other addictions is critical to treating these diseases. A public lecture series hosted by the Duke Institute of Brain Research focuses on how the brain is changed by addictive behaviors.
6–9 The human brain can store many times the amount of information acquirable in a lifetime. [For more on our memory capacity, see Ask the Brains.] Why did the brain evolve such complexity? The 18th Biennial Meeting of the International Society for Developmental Neuroscience will highlight this mystery as neuroscientists from around the world gather to discuss their work on how the brain develops in the womb and throughout childhood. Attendees will also delve into the neural circuitry that underlies common diseases, including autism, Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia.
Chatting with a friend and listening to music may seem like mindless tasks, but the way the brain orchestrates these everyday activities is quite complex. The Bloomfield Science Museum’s interactive exhibit Journey through the Brain illuminates the neural mechanisms underlying day-to-day cognition. In addition to the main exhibit, smaller ones investigate a variety of related topics. A display about illusions, for example, explores why the brain often makes sensory errors and how it responds to misperceptions. Another, called Neuroscapes, showcases images of neurons and neural networks.
Knowledge is Power
Education efforts in May and June aim to bring attention to diseases that damage the brain and to gain support for the scientific work that could yield new treatments.
When a stroke occurs, blood supply to the brain is interrupted, and neurological damage follows rapidly. Some stroke victims may not be aware that they have had a stroke, wasting precious time. The more easily onlookers can spot warning signs, the better the victim’s chances of quick medical treatment and recovery. During National Stroke Awareness Month, the National Stroke Association will teach people how to act “FAST,” recognizing changes to the face, arms and speech during a stroke, to save time and even a life.
Many people believe that multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that damages the brain and spinal cord, is fatal. Canada’s Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month aims to clear up such misconceptions. MS is not a death sentence, but it can often be debilitating, causing loss of balance and slurred speech. In addition to publicizing the facts about MS, participants will raise money for research into the cause of the disease, which remains a mystery.
In 2008 U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy became one of the nearly 200,000 Americans each year who are diagnosed with a brain tumor. Brain Tumor Action Week helps to fund cutting-edge research, such as the effort to target and eliminate tumor stem cells—seed cells that can regenerate a tumor again and again. [For more on this research, see “New Hope for Battling Brain Cancer,” by Gregory Foltz; Scientific American Mind, March/April 2010.]