Sunday April 22, 2012

Q: What’s a most surprising nighttime way some people regain some mobility following a stroke?

A: Lengthy rehabilitation therapy may include "mental practice," where patients imagine movements impaired by the stroke, says Jessica Hamzelou in "New Scientist" magazine.

Research suggests that the neural networks involved in imagined and real movements are similar, so training these brain areas through mental practice could make the real movements easier.

Now for the surprising part: Research has also shown that people who practice tasks in their dreams are better at performing them the following day. In a study by Daniel Erlacher at the University of Bern, subjects who managed to dream about tossing a coin into a cup were better able to do this in reality than were non-dreamers, as reported in "The Sport Psychologist."

"The finding fits with claims of countless athletes that they honed their skills through dream practice," says Hamzelou.

Furthermore, stroke victims who learn to "control" their dreams by fostering "lucid" dreams -- where the dreamer becomes aware it’s only a dream -- may be able to manipulate them for therapeutic help. Brain regions active in imagined tasks and in lucid dreams are the same, so lucid dreams could prove as useful as mental practice.

And since dreams are more lifelike than imagination, learning could be boosted by their emotional nature and realistic environment. So, concludes Hamzelou, if you really want to accomplish something, you might be advised to "dream on" -- literally.

Q: Magic show stunt: You choose three people from the audience to help in lifting a fourth, heavy person, with each of you using only your index finger.

Fingers are placed below each armpit and knee of the seated person. Even with great effort, the four of you fail in your lift.

Now comes the "magic": You all place your hands on the head of the seated person and press down with a little pressure. Then your fingers are repositioned for another lift, and upon your signal, up comes the seated person. How was this done?

A: Obviously, if a little downward pressure can reduce people’s weight, few of us would have to worry about being overweight, says Jearl Walker in "The Flying Circus of Physics."

The trick here is that the initial forces at the four points on the body aren’t applied simultaneously or equally, resulting in the person toppling to one side. But the second time you give a strong coordinating signal so that the force is applied without torque and the person’s weight is shared equally.

"Now the heavy person can be lifted with a reasonable effort."

Q: When it comes your time, will you travel that mystic tunnel of light to a place of unearthly beauty and serenity?

A: Going by surveys, a large percentage of people surviving a close brush with death do not report an NDE (near-death experience), says Leonard George, Ph.D., in "Alternative Realities."

For those who do, feelings of calmness, out-of-body sensations, meeting a nurturing presence and life flashback are common.

How about visits to a hellish or purgatorial realm? Such reports are extremely rare, but what’s fascinating is that they figured prominently in NDEs of the Middle Ages, says Carol Zaleski in "Otherworld Journeys."

By contrast, NDEs today seem "shaped by optimistic, democratic, ‘healthy-minded’ principles that transparently reflect a contemporary ideology and mood."

One skeptic, neurologist Ernst Rodin, who described his own NDE as "one of the most intense and happiest moments of my life," attributed it to hallucinations of his oxygen-starved brain. Yet, said he, "I know I will accept these visions as full truth when the time comes."