Your Brain Recognizes and Remembers Color, and It’s Amazing

If you’re a pet owner, you might know that dogs don’t perceive color very well. It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that they’re color-blind or that they only see in black and white, but they’re certainly not as good at perceiving fine hue variations as their human companions.

In fact, humans are actually pretty talented at perceiving color. No matter where you are while you’re reading this, you can likely look up from your screen and see dozens or hundreds of different hues, particularly if you’re within eyeshot of a window. But you probably don’t give much thought to how you’re able to achieve this impressive feat, or what has to happen in your eyes, optic nerves, and brain to make it possible.

How Do We See Color?

The Harvard Gazette reported that university researchers located the part of the human brain responsible for processing and recognizing color in the late 1990s. The precise location was actually a bit of a surprise. Similar tests on monkeys two decades earlier revealed the tree-climbing primates’ color centers to be in an adjacent, but different, brain region.

The process of seeing and interpreting color happens in a literal split-second. Our retinas have millions of light-sensitive structures called cones. For color-perception purposes, there are three main types of cone, each designed to perceive a particular wavelength range corresponding with one of the three primary colors (each primary color is a tighter wavelength range at the corresponding structure’s peak sensitivity).

When exposed to light, the cones communicate with retinal ganglion cells (nerve cells) via electrical signals. The ganglia interpret these signals, essentially coding for color, and then forward them to the brain along the optic nerve. After passing through the lateral geniculate nucleus in the brain’s thalamus region, the signals reach the primary visual cortex, where the spatial relationships between the colors (among other important pieces of higher-level information without which our visual experience would be very different) are assigned and preserved. This is how we “remember” color, and how it suffuses our emotional lives.

Birds Do It Better

Lest you get overly prideful about your brain’s ability to recognize and remember color, remember that humans aren’t the only animals capable of perceiving a stunning range of hues. In fact, we’re not even close to being the best at recognizing, seeing, and processing color. That honor goes to the birds — literally.

As an order, birds are far better at perceiving color than mammals, among which humans are better than most. Some birds are frighteningly good at seeing color — their eyes and brains have actually unlocked a portion of the near-visible light spectrum (part of the ultraviolet spectrum, in human terms) off-limits to mammals, such that they are able to see four primary colors.

The takeaway is clear: While the human brain is most definitely amazing, it’s best not to get cocky. Overconfidence is for the birds.

Should Your Brain Worry About Electronic Devices?

The darker corners of the Internet glow with speculation about the evils of the manmade electromagnetic emissions that permeate our atmosphere, from in-home WiFi networks to long-range radio and satellite networks. Inquiring minds want to know: what are all these “waves” doing to our brains?

Worrying about the effects of electromagnetic waves, and of the potentially negative impact of electronic device use more generally, doesn’t put you in league with folks who believe in chemtrails and lizard people. But it’s important not to confuse scientific fact with science fiction. Here is what the latest research tells us about the effects of electronic devices on our brains — and what regular people can do about it, short of ditching their iPhones, TV’s, and laptop computers.

The Brutality of Blue Light

WebMD has a great primer on the relationship between electronics use (or overuse) and poor sleep hygiene. The bottom line: it’s increasingly clear that electronic devices mess with the natural sleep-wake cycles of our brains and produce temporary stresses that affect the quality of our waking hours.

The mechanism by which this occurs is fascinating. Human sleep-wake cycles, known as circadian rhythms, are controlled by a specific area of the brain known as the superchiasmatic nucleus. This region uses inputs from retinal photoreceptors to keep a sort of internal clock driven by key hormones. When it’s time for the body to power down, the brain spurs the production of chemicals essential to sleep, such as melatonin. When it’s time to get up in the morning, the brain dials back the production of sleep hormones and ramps up the production of stimulative stress hormones, such as cortisol.

This cycle is driven largely by the availability of natural light, specifically sunlight. The brain is particularly sensitive to blue-spectrum light, which is more plentiful in the early morning (as opposed to red-spectrum light, which is more common in the evening). You see where this is going: electronic devices clearly emit ample amounts of blue-spectrum light, threatening the integrity of the cycle when used after dark.

Setting Ourselves Up for Distraction

Another potential downside of frequent electronic use is habit-forming behavior. When sociologists warn that we’re becoming “addicted” to our smartphones, they mean it literally. Even if we can convince ourselves that a behavior is productive, it’s simply not healthy to do engage in it to the detriment of all else.

Do Cell Phones and Other Transmitting Devices Cause Cancer?

It’s impossible to discuss the relationship between electronics and health without mentioning the perennial debate about cell phones and cancer.

In 2011, the World Health Organization evaluated troves of relevant data compiled from dozens of studies conducted over the preceding three decades. Its conclusion: it is “likely” that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, which cell phones generate, are carcinogenic. In other words, the energy emitted by cell phones likely raises cancer risk.

However, the WHO stopped short of arguing for a causative link between cell phones (and other transmitting devices, such as WiFi routers and Bluetooth headsets) and tumor growth. It’s not at all clear that the typical human is exposed to radiation from electronic devices in the quantities and amplitudes necessary to establish a clear link between said exposure and tumor growth. The strength of the correlation simply isn’t strong enough, and the number of confounding factors is, well, confounding.

Meanwhile, individual studies on the subject have generally been inconclusive. While some research indirectly supports the WHO’s assertion that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields contribute to the growth of malignant tumors, clear signals (no pun intended) have been elusive. It is possible that future studies that examine heavy cell phone users over the entire course of an adult lifespan will provide conclusive answers. But until then, it’s best to take wide-eyed claims with a grain of salt.

Keep It All in Perspective

It’s often said that moderation is the key to health. And while the adverse effects of electronic devices aren’t as obvious as, say, those of drinking alcohol to excess or overeating (or, in the spirit of fairness, over-exercising), this principle applies to electronics utilization. If you’re stealing a glance at your phone at wildly inappropriate times or checking your email the moment before you settle down to fall asleep, you’re engaging in behavior that most unbiased health professionals would advise against.

So the next time you’re tempted to sneak a peek at your SMS inbox while sitting across the desk from your boss or flip up your iPad while your partner is trying to get some shuteye, take a hard look at what you’re doing and ask yourself: am I doing what’s best for my mind, body, and family? At Healing Waters, we ask our patients this question all the time, and we’re happy to help them reach the right conclusions.

Got a Weekend? 4 Great Getaways in the Southeastern U.S.

The Southeastern United States is among the country’s fastest-growing regions. With the advent of air conditioning, the Southeast is hospitable year-round; more importantly, it boasts some of the nation’s rawest and most compelling historical sites, whether pure relics of history, such as Fort Sumter, or lovingly preserved colonial cities, such as Savannah and Charleston.

The Southeast is also a place of sublime natural beauty, from the towering mountains running along the North Carolina-Tennessee border to the bucolic “Lowcountry” of Georgia and South Carolina.

Best of all, the Southeast’s growing population, modern services and ever-improving transportation network mean that its bevy of tourist-friendly assets is more accessible than ever. If your family is considering a weekend getaway in the “lower right” of the United States, these four should be near the top of the list.

  1. Asheville and Environs

Asheville is an unexpectedly cosmopolitan refuge in the otherwise sparsely populated mountains of western North Carolina. Located in a high valley near the Great Smoky Mountains, this is a great place to escape summer’s heat and broaden your cultural horizons in the process. Can’t-miss sights in the Asheville area include the Biltmore Estate, which bills itself as the country’s largest private home; the quaint town of Black Mountain; and the myriad country- and indie-music venues within the city limits. The local art and cuisine aren’t half bad for a town of Asheville’s size, either.

  1. Historic Savannah

Savannah is an historic gem in the heart of Georgia’s Lowcountry, an extended region of swamp and forest that at one time served as the country’s cotton- and rice-growing heartland. Savannah itself features block after block of well-preserved and -restored 18th and 19th century structures, including an extended strip along Broughton Street. Pay special attention to the pocket squares at many intersections; there are several dozen flowery, and  live oak-shaded within the city limits. Historic churches and museums abound here, too.

  1. Charleston and the Sea Islands

Charleston is like Savannah’s older, bigger brother: Both are clearly cut from the same cloth, but Charleston has even more experience and adventure to offer. Charleston’s downtown is probably the most intact colonial historic district in the country, exceeding Savannah, Boston and Philadelphia in scope. What’s more, Fort Sumter lies just offshore, and the Sea Islands boast incomparable culture in a picturesque coastal setting.

  1. Atlanta City Weekend

Atlanta is the undisputed cultural and economic capital of the Southeastern U.S. What better place to spend a weekend in the city?

Atlanta has it all: incomparable shopping opportunities (particularly in trendy Buckhead), excellent fine dining options (in Buckhead, again, and Midtown as well), and top-tier educational institutions (the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Morehouse University, to name but a few). Depending on the season, catching a pro sports game may be in the cards, with baseball (the Braves), football (the Falcons), hockey (the Thrashers) and basketball (the Hawks) all represented here. And if you enjoy urban outdoor oases, Piedmont Park is truly not to be missed.

Do Spas Belong on Hospital Campuses?

When you think of the term “health spa,” you probably envision a facility that is only tangentially related to evidence-based medicine. Perhaps there are mud baths on the premises, or a place to receive a deep tissue massage. There may be restaurants that serve only the healthiest, most wholesome foods; perhaps there are more traditional vacation activities like golf and tennis available. Above all else, the experience is designed to be relaxing — and, incidentally, very expensive.

Another type of health spa exists, however, and it is increasingly popular with traditional hospital systems. The rise of this type of spa leads many in the health community to ask pointed questions about the role spa-like facilities do and should play on hospital campuses.

Spa Services in the Maternity Ward

The Boston Globe reports on one of the most common hospital spa settings: the maternity ward. Though the configuration varies from hospital to hospital, maternity spas generally feature a range of services typically found in private day or residential spas:

  • Acupuncture
  • Pressure-point massages
  • Aromatherapy rooms
  • Jacuzzi tubs
  • “Mood rooms” with ambient music and lighting

According to the Globe, these features have two main purposes. First, they are packaged as a fringe benefit for discerning mothers-to-be. When new mothers “shop around” for the right maternity ward, the thinking is that they will be drawn to hospitals that pamper them during what is typically a stressful although joyous period.

Secondly, spa services serve to distract and entertain mothers-to-be and their families, keeping them close in the event of unexpected or emergent labor and managing their emotional needs.

Cancer Treatment and Other Facilities

Maternity wards are not the only hospital settings in which spa services are prevalent. Some specialized treatment facilities, including residential facilities for the treatment and palliative management of later-stage cancers, include spa-like facilities that keep residents comfortable and occupied during what may well be the last months of their lives. For patients these services provide emotional support and distraction during treatment, therapy and recovery.

It is also worth noting that long-term care facilities, addiction treatment centers and other residential facilities often have spa services. As with cancer treatment facilities, these institutions cater to patients who require far more than stabilization and acute care; residency periods at long-term care facilities can stretch for years. At this end of the spectrum, the term “hospital” may no longer be adequate; “spa” or “home” may truly be a better descriptor.

The Future of Hospital Spas

As with many current trends affecting the medical field, it is not yet clear how the concept of “hospital spas” will evolve over time. However, it is certainly fair to bet that they will continue to play some sort of role in a healthcare system that increasingly values patient-centered care, positive outcomes and family support. Holistic approaches to health care are being increasingly accepted as mainstream. Those who work at and use these facilities should feel as if their jobs and routines are secure, at least for the time being.

The Joys of Pinewood Derby Cars

Have you ever built a pinewood derby car? If not, know that there is something magical about the experience of building a speedy vehicle from a malleable softwood. Building a pinewood derby car is an activity that can be enjoyed by people of all generations, of course — it is the proverbial “8 to 80” endeavor.

But there is a particularly special aura around the father-son pinewood derby car-building experience, around the almost ritualistic passing of practical knowledge from one generation to the next. The Boy Scouts have honed this ritual to a ‘T’ and ensured that the tradition lives on. For those who wish to experience it firsthand, here is a comprehensive look at the joys and practical considerations of building a pinewood derby car.

What Is a Pinewood Derby Car?

A pinewood derby car — often misconstrued as a proper noun — is a wooden car designed for use in the Boy Scouts of America’s famed pinewood derby event. Cars are constructed by Cub Scouts with the help of their parents and raced in annual events held throughout the country. The first pinewood derby event was held in 1953, in southern California; the race and preparation were sponsored by Cub Scout Troop 280A and a local aviation company.

Pinewood derby cars vary considerably in construction and type, but all must meet certain specifications to be considered “race legal.” In most cases, cars must weigh no more than 5 ounces and be no more than 7 inches in length. There’s also a width requirement, typically between two and two-and-a-half inches, though this varies depending on the particular type of track being used.

How to Make a Pinewood Derby Car

Pinewood derby cars are typically fashioned from kits sold in stores, by direct mail, and lately on the Internet. Pinewood derby kits contain all the building blocks necessary to construct a basic car, including nails, wooden blocks, wheels and accessories.

It is important to note that the tracks on which pinewood derby cars run are not included in a typical kit. Individual Cub Scout troops, or groups thereof, typically order tracks and track accessories from specialized manufacturers.

It is equally important, and somewhat controversial, to note that there is a robust market for modified and even aftermarket pinewood derby car parts — just as there is for real modified and aftermarket automotive parts. In recent years, the Boy Scouts have cracked down on particularly egregious violations of the spirit of the pinewood derby, which dictates that scouts themselves spearhead the construction of the car and parents play an advisory role.

The Intangible Benefits of Collaborative Construction

With that in mind, countless fathers and sons — and mothers and sons, it should be noted — have come together over the years to build memorable pinewood derby cars and enjoy the intangible beauty of quality family time. Skills fostered by collaborative construction include:

  • Patience (for both parents and kids)
  • Motor skills (for kids)
  • Problem-solving skills (for kids)
  • Time management skills (for kids)
  • Spatial reasoning skills (for kids)

How will your first pinewood derby car look and drive?

Try These 5 Great Appalachian Trail Day Hikes

The Appalachian Trail is perhaps the United States’ best-known long-distance hiking trail. It is also one of the country’s most accessible: It is never more than an easy day’s drive from the Atlantic Ocean and passes within a few dozen miles of the country’s largest cities, including Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. And though thousands of brave souls attempt annual through-hikes that can take as long as six months, much of the trail is conducive to point-to-point day hikes by typical enthusiasts.

Whether you live in one of those big cities or are coming from afar to wonder at the “A.T”’s stunning beauty, try these five easy day hikes along the Appalachian Trail.

  1. Roan Highlands, Tennessee/North Carolina

The Roan Highlands is an extended region of high ground along North Carolina-Tennessee border. All told, it includes about 20 trail-miles along a ridgeline that ranges from about 5,000 to 6,500 feet in elevation. Along the way, the trail passes through a range of unusual biomes made possible by a confluence of climatic factors, including consistently high winds, poor drainage, rocky soil and raw altitude. Pay particular attention to increasingly rare Fraser fir and spruce forests, rhododendron and laurel groves, burnt-out grassy balds along mountaintops, and wetlands replete with rare flowers.

  1. Mount Washington and the Presidentials, New Hampshire

Mount Washington and the rest of the Presidential Range occupy a harsh, high-altitude environment in northern New Hampshire. The weather here is notoriously unpredictable, so use caution at any time of year. The 14-mile stretch of high country here includes lichen-encrusted boulders, stunted krummholz and crystal-clear mountain lakes and ponds. If you need a break during your trip, the full-service summit lodge at Mount Washington is a great resting point.

  1. Bear Mountain, New York

The Appalachian Trail comes close to sea level at its Hudson River crossing, near New York’s Bear Mountain. From the high ground here (and, if the weather is clear enough, along the Hudson itself), you can just glimpse the spires of Manhattan. But for a real Appalachian Trail experience, stick to the lowland forests of this beautiful and often overlooked section of the trail.

  1. Delaware River Valley, Pennsylvania/New Jersey

The Delaware River Valley is another easily accessible area of the trail that lies within relative spitting distance of New York City. The Delaware Water Gap, found near the valley’s “trail midpoint,” is a stunning piece of scenery that looks like — and quite literally is — a long, lateral mountain sawed in half by the powerful erosive force of the Delaware River. During the fall, the view from the top of the Gap features seemingly endless waves of bright reds, oranges and yellows.

  1. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Famous songs aside, the Shenandoah Valley is a place apart. Like the Delaware River Valley, it hits its stride during the peak foliage months, but any time is a good time to visit and hike. For an added bonus, drive a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway or visit one of the area’s many caverns after your hike.

John Gorecki MD – Owning a Family Business

Dr. John Gorecki, MD, is a busy medical professional. With responsibility for a private surgical clinic in Buford, Georgia, and admitting privileges at Northeast Georgia Health System – Gainesville, among other regional medical centers, he has precious little time for himself. When he is not at the office, preparing journal work or traveling to professional conferences, he makes the most of his time with his family.

But John Gorecki MD is not the only member of his household with a full-time job. His beloved wife runs a successful business in which he plays an advisory role. The experience of keeping a business quite literally “in the family” has prompted a fair bit of reflection for the doctor, who is only too happy to share his insights and experiences with others in comparable situations. What follows is a look at the pros and cons of owning a family business, influenced by John Gorecki’s experience.

Pro: Flexible Schedules

Families tend to be a bit more low key about employees’ comings and goings, making for more flexible schedules among employees with competing priorities (such as kids).

Pro: Loyalty to the Business

In an increasingly mobile workforce, loyalty is more highly valued than ever before. As such, “family loyalty” can make the difference between retaining a talented and ambitious employee and losing him or her to a perceived competitive offer. Continuity at the management level is a bonus for prospective clients, too. John Gorecki MD and his wife, both loyal to a fault, have learned, and benefited from, this lesson many times over.

Con: Potential for Uneven Performance

Running a family business is not always smooth. When a family member doesn’t perform as expected, it can be difficult or awkward to discipline or even terminate them. In many cases, family businesses slog on for years without proper guidance due to stakeholders’ reticence to address such issues head-on.

While Dr. John Gorecki MD and his wife don’t have these problems, they are anecdotally aware of family business owners who do suffer from these issues. For family members who worry about conflicts developing own the line, it is highly recommended to “clear the air” prior to bringing new members on board or welcoming new partners into the fold.

Con: Rivalries Bubbling to the Surface

If those responsible for managing the business are not careful, dormant family rivalries can easily bubble to the surface in the boardroom, on the shop floor, or anywhere else (including in the family home). As such, it is important for those tasked with managing the business to keep competing interests in check and ensure that everyone feels as if they are treated fairly.

Con: Succession Planning

Another potential challenge to successfully running a family business: a lack of suitable successors within the family, or a lack of succession planning altogether. It is absolutely critical for closely held family businesses to have a viable succession plan or exit strategy in place, whether it involves handing the business off to a capable heir from the next generation, selling the business to an outside entity, or shuttering the business altogether.

Would you ever run a family business?