Learning a new language can seem impossible, especially later in life, but it’s not–in fact, language learning is something our brains specially evolved to do! In this post I’ll share why why language learning is fascinating from a neuroscience perspective, my experience learning Japanese from scratch at twenty-eight, and end with three tricks for self-study that I learned along the way.

Language is a miracle, where neurons signal between brains by vibrating throat flaps

Just imitating a word is amazing. Think about it, we hear a word and then somehow figure out how to vibrate flaps in our throat to produce the exact same sound–what?! And that word spans a wide space of sounds–it can be said at different pitches, with different intonations and accents–yet we can hear that word through the roar of a crowded cocktail party. But speech recognition and imitation are just the beginning–we learn to impute the meaning of so many other words, just be hearing them or seeing them in context, and then using grammar can combinatorially recombine words into an infinite number of sentences, which can by understood by the listener even if they have never been uttered before in history.

Part of why language feels so miraculous, is because it is a human super-power. While animals like songbirds have the vocal imitation part down, and we can teach commands to dogs and rudimentary sign language to apes, we seem to be the only species specially wired to learn language, particularly when we’re young. I regret that I didn’t take advantage of free language classes when I was younger, but as cliche as it sounds, it’s never too late. Let me introduce you to Sally.

Sally: grandmother, and my roommate
Continue reading ‘Learning Japanese (or any other language) – 3 tricks I learned during my year abroad’


First off, if you’re experiencing the worst headache of your life, please stop reading and head to an emergency room, especially if it’s onset was sudden.
Alright, moving on:

I’ll start with a personal story and get to the studies, below. Feel free to skip ahead.

I was thirteen, in English class and struggling to read. Don’t get me wrong, I knew how to read, but on this particular day, in this particular class, I couldn’t read at all. The center of my vision looked something like this:


“I’m going blind,” I thought, as I strained to read the blurred letters. I’m going fucking blind. I was too embarrassed to raise my hand and ask to go to the nurse. What exactly would I say, if I did? That I’m going blind? I decided to wait it out. Always a smart to wait things out when you’re convinced you’re becoming permanently disabled, right? So, I sat waiting until the end of the period, hoping I wouldn’t get called on to read something.

When the period ended, I bee-lined it for the nurse’s office. On the way, my head began to throb.

“I’m going blind” I told her, expecting her face to fill with worry.

Continue reading ‘What is a headache: The four most common types of headache. And, can you hurt your brain by thinking too much?’

Lab Wars Interview

To subscribe to Neuroamer audio content in podcast form, click here.

This is an unusual post for the blog because it’s primarily an audio interview  with charming Caezar Al-Jassar, Ph.D, co-creator of the game Lab Wars. The conversation goes into having a side project as a young academic and Caezar’s kickstarter success, but also touches on heavier topics such as the difficulties of imposter syndrome, and leaving the academic bubble and trying to make it in the real world. I haven’t gotten a chance to play Lab Wars yet, but it’s gotten good initial reviews on Board Game Geek.

Following are links to the games we discussed, and some musings on why board games are fun, why boardgames appeal to nerds, and whether playing games can make you smarter.

Other games we discussed in the interview audio (which might make a great gift for a nerd you love this holiday season, hint hint, Mom). [Mom, if you actually read this that was just a joke]


Dominion: the first deck-building game ever and one of my all-time favorites.


Evolution: Haven’t played this but it looks rad and has great ratings on Board Game Geek.


Viticulture: Same as above.


Pandemic: the best science-themed game I’ve played. You play as different scientists and public health officials at the Center for Disease Controls, working collaboratively to try to prevent a pandemic from wiping out humanity. If you’re looking to play an interesting and challenging game where you work together as opposed to fight against one another, this is my top recc.

Why Are Board Games Fun?

Continue reading ‘Lab Wars Interview and What Makes Board Games Fun, Why do Nerds Like them, and Can they Make you Smarter?’

Do you drink a glass of water before going to bed? Then, hate to break it to you, but you have something in common with a mouse.


A new paper suggests that a mouse’s biological clock increases its thirst shortly before it sleeps.1 Why? The study’s authors suggest this increased drive to drink, allows a mouse to drink a little bit of extra water, which will help maintain the mouse’s balance of water and salt throughout the night as it loses fluid through for example through sweat.

The study shows the mouse’s brain is hard-wired to anticipate fluid will be lost throughout the night. The part of the brain that keeps track of the biological clock, the SCN, sends a connection that signals to the part of the brain that regulates thirst, the OVLT,2 and this connection releases Vasopressin as a neurotransmitter.

Brain Slices: Scientists anesthetize the mouse and remove it’s brain keeping it in an oxygenated fluid with nutrients, so the cells stay alive. In this case, they cut the brain at a 34 degree angle to obtain a slice that contains the OVLT, SNC, and connection between them.



Continue reading ‘Thirsty before bed. Connection between ‘body clock’ brain area and ‘thirst’ area creates thirst before sleep, to maintain water balance overnight.’

Fast Food – Fast News

Trump is really, really smart. His intellect is huge and he knows things. Many such things. Excellent man.

One thing he knows: Our schools are really, really bad. Really, really, really bad. They’re nasty places.

And maybe because of that, he uses plain language.

Shaming or blaming people for being stupid–for being uninformed, for not caring about politics–is stupid. It’s like blaming people for being fat.


Generations of individuals didn’t become lazy gluttons at the exact same time because they were weak. No, our world changed. McDonalds everywhere, temptations everywhere. It was bad. Bad, bad food all around us.    Continue reading ‘Using Plain Language to Make America Great Again’

Circuit Neuroscience

Recently, research into psychiatric disease has made great strides, but continued progress may require unpopular and ethically murky research. Joshua Gordon, the new director of the National Institutes of Mental Health writes in this month’s Nature Neuroscience:

“At this unique and exciting time for psychiatry, novel therapies for individuals with mental illnesses seem just around the corner. In particular, recent technological advancements in the study of neural circuits provide reasons to be optimistic that the field is headed in the right direction. Nonetheless, maximizing the chances of translating these advancements into real improvements in patient care requires a carefully considered road map.” – Joshua Gordon, “On Being a Circuit Psychiatrist”

Gordon, a professor at Columbia University, studies ‘circuit neuroscience’—a new term given to the subfield of neuroscience that uses new technologies to monitor and manipulate very specific subgroups of neurons within the brain and measure their behavioral effects.

To give you an idea of circuit neuroscience, here’s a short talk Gordon gave about his research in 2011, describing how the coupling between two brain regions, the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex, may be disrupted in anxiety disorders and schizophrenia:

In the time since Gordon gave that talk, his lab has extended these findings from mere correlations to causative mechanisms of disease, in a new study, which shows that, amazingly,  Continue reading ‘The Primate Paradox and Circuit Psychiatry: similarity between primate and human brains makes primate research potentially necessary for psychiatric cures, but does it also make it unethical?’


“We are closer to attaining cheerful serenity by simplifying thoughts and figures. Simplifying the idea to achieve an expression of joy. That is our only deed.” – Henri Mattise

I’m of the opinion you should never trust a Nobel Prize winner[1], or at least you should pay them no more attention than your crazy uncle on any subject outside their expertise, so when Columbia Publishing sent me a copy of Eric Kandel’s new book: Reductionism in Art and Brain ScienceI was skeptical. Kandel won a Nobel studying sea snails; I’m sure he’s a smart guy, but do I really care what he has to say about Mattise’s The Snail? Turns out I do, and that this book isn’t a flight of fancy for Kandel. It contains ideas he’s been working on since 2002 and taps his expertise in neuroscience, his skills as a textbook writer in explaining neuroscience succinctly, and his clearly deep and authentic Continue reading ‘Review of Eric Kandel’s Reductionism in Art and Brain Science – Bridging the Two Cultures’

hotandcold2Modified from Mahmoud Ibrahim

I wake up drenched in sweat and shivering. I feel so cold, that I pull the blankets up over my face, but when my hand touches my face it feels burning hot.

What’s going on? Is this all a fever dream? I have a fever and I’m over-heating, so the blazing skin and soaking sweat make sense, but why am I simultaneously shivering and clutching for the covers?

In honor of last weekend, which I spent unable to think of anything other than my fever, I’ll explain how temperature sensation works and four situations when your brain lies to you, and the sensation of temperature you feel is opposite of what you would expect: why chili peppers actually make you cold, how eating the wrong fish can make cold feel hot for months, and why people freezing to death strip their clothes off. (It’s also a good reminder to get your flu shot or else you might find your whole week shot, lying in your own sweat and barely able to get out of bed.)

Fever Genes

Bacteria and viruses don’t cause fevers directly, but rather Continue reading ‘When hot and cold tell lies – Four situations where hot feels cold or cold feels hot’


While researching last week’s post on the Best popular neuroscience books, I came upon many people asking:

Which is the best neuroscience textbook?

Is there any consensus? I looked up the top neuroscience graduate programs in the U.S.[1] and found syllabi from introductory neuroscience classes taught at these universities.

Here’s a couple tables summarizing the textbooks being used (More information about how to get these books for cheap, where I got this data, and a tip-off to a dope coloring book are all below):

Continue reading ‘What are the Best Neuroscience Textbooks? Which textbooks do elite universities use? And how you can buy them for cheap?’

It was a book that originally piqued my interest in neuroscience and in the ten years I’ve studied neuro, what I’ve learned from books has stuck with me longer than what I’ve learned in classes, lectures, conferences.

Why do books stick with us? Are well-written books crafted for the structure of our minds—creating interesting stories that we can remember and connecting newly learned facts in our semantic memory with a narrative we store in our episodic memory?

Regardless, because of my belief in books and how they’ve benefited me, I’m compiling a list of my favorite books about neuroscience and psychology:


  1. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales – Oliver Sacks – Neurology

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat really was a life-changing book for me. After taking Psychology for the rumored easy A, doing horribly, and then studying like crazy to bring up my grade, I discovered I was genuinely interested in psychology. A friend recommended this book, which catapulted my interest from the psychology to neuroscience, and the hard problem of consciousness—how does consciousness emerge from our material brain, and how can changes to our or brain result in bizarre experiences of consciousness?

Oliver Sacks is a neurologist and writer, and in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat each chapter is a case study describing an interesting patient, and reflecting on them in a literary style. The eponymous character in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat suffers from a visual agnosia, a neurological condition where although his vision is largely intact—he can draw pictures of what he sees—he can no longer interpret his vision. Leaving his appointment, he mistakes his wife who is standing in the corner of the room for a coat rack, her head for a hat, and he ends up yanking up on her head Continue reading ‘Five Neuroscience Books That Changed My Life’

%d bloggers like this: