Science of the Spirit
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Emotion-health connection not limited to industrialized nations

Positive emotions are known to play a role in physical well-being, and stress is strongly linked to poor health, but is this strictly a "First World" phenomenon? In developing nations, is the fulfillment of basic needs more critical to health than how one feels? A new study shows that emotions do affect health around the world and may, in fact, be more important to wellness in low-income countries.

The study, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, is the first to examine the emotion-health connection in a representative sample of 150,000 people in 142 countries. Previous research on the topic has been limited to industrialized nations.

"We wondered whether the fact that emotions make a difference in our health is simply because we have the luxury of letting them," said Sarah Pressman, assistant professor of psychology & social behavior and the study's lead author. "We wanted to assess the impact of emotions on health in places where people face famine, homelessness and serious safety concerns that might be more critical correlates of wellness."

Against expectations, researchers found that the link between positive emotions (enjoyment, love, happiness) and health is stronger in countries with a weaker gross domestic product. In fact, the association increased as GDP decreased, according to Pressman.

Magic Wand

Better living through mindfulness

A new study from the University of Utah shows that individuals who describe themselves as being more mindful have more stable emotions and perceive themselves to have better control over their mood and behavior throughout the day. Higher mindful people also describe less cognitive and physiological activation before bedtime, suggesting that greater emotional stability during the day might even translate into better sleep. The study results will be presented later this month at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society.

Prior studies of mindfulness - paying attention in a particular way, on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally - have typically been conducted with participants trained in mindfulness, for example meditation or other interventions. In contrast, this study examines naturally-occurring traits of mindfulness. Using a novel method for data collection, the participants wore a monitor that measured cardiac functioning and were prompted periodically throughout the day to rate their emotional state and mental functioning. Examining these processes during normal daily living builds on prior mindfulness research conducted in laboratory-controlled settings.

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Marriage research: Study shows a 21-minute writing task can improve your marriage

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© Unknown
While millions of couples spend hours trying to learn how to improve their marriages through books or therapy, one recent study found that sustaining a happy marriage may only take 21 minutes, a pencil and a piece of paper.

A Northwestern University study set to be published in Psychological Science later this year surveyed 120 married couples for two years about their relationship satisfaction, and asked them to describe their most significant recent arguments. During the second year, half of the couples were also asked to complete three seven-minute writing tasks -- one task every four months -- in which they wrote about the arguments they'd had in the preceding months from the perspective of a theoretical neutral third party who wanted the best for all involved. These couples were found to have greater relationship satisfaction than the couples who did not participate in the writing task.

Heart

The health benefit of tears

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For over twenty years as physician, I've witnessed, time and again, the healing power of tears. Tears are your body's release valve for stress, sadness, grief, anxiety, and frustration. Also, you can have tears of joy, say when a child is born or tears of relief when a difficulty has passed. In my own life, I am grateful when I can cry. It feels cleansing, a way to purge pent up emotions so they don't lodge in my body as stress symptoms such as fatigue or pain. To stay healthy and release stress, I encourage my patients to cry. For both men and women, tears are a sign of courage, strength, and authenticity.

In Emotional Freedom, I discuss the numerous health benefits of tears. Like the ocean, tears are salt water. Protectively they lubricate your eyes, remove irritants, reduce stress hormones, and they contain antibodies that fight pathogenic microbes. Our bodies produce three kinds of tears: reflex, continuous, and emotional. Each kind has different healing roles. For instance, reflex tears allow your eyes to clear out noxious particles when they're irritated by smoke or exhaust. The second kind, continuous tears, are produced regularly to keep our eyes lubricated - these contain a chemical called "lysozyme" which functions as an anti-bacterial and protects our eyes from infection. Tears also travel to the nose through the tear duct to keep the nose moist and bacteria free. Typically, after crying, our breathing, and heart rate decrease, and we enter into a calmer biological and emotional state.

Info

KKK hood or blanket? How expectation misleads

© Layne Kennedy/CORBIS
Memorial Arch and building at Oberlin College.
Ohio's Oberlin College recently cancelled classes after someone reported spotting a person walking on campus wearing what appeared to be a Ku Klux Klan-like hooded robe at night. College officials released a statement on Monday explaining that "This event, in addition to the series of other hate-related incidents on campus, has precipitated our decision to suspend formal classes and all non-essential activities ... and gather for a series of discussions of the challenging issues that have faced our community in recent weeks."

What of the uniformed Klansman spotted on campus? According to a piece on Slate.com, "Local police responded to the report, but weren't able to find anyone wearing the hard-to-miss KKK garb. They did, however, discover a female walking with a blanket wrapped around her, suggesting the very real possibility that the eyewitness was mistaken."

The Chronicle-Telegram added, "Oberlin police Lt. Mike McCloskey said that authorities did find a pedestrian wrapped in a blanket. He said police interviewed another witness later in the day and that person also saw a female walking with a blanket."

In retrospect - and in the cold light of day - it's much more likely that a person on campus was wearing or carrying a light-colored blanket, coming back from a toga party, or even a prankster dressed like a ghost, instead of dressed in full Klan regalia. But why would someone make that particular mistake? The answer lies in what psychologists call expectant attention and confirmation bias.

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Mystery of 'cocktail party' hearing solved

© Neuron, Zion-Golumbic et al
At a cocktail party, the brain pays attention to a single speaker, while ignoring others.
The mystery of how the brain hones in on a single speaker in a noisy room may be solved, a new study shows.

Studying the infamous "cocktail party problem," researchers found that brain waves are shaped to allow the brain to track the sounds it's interested in while ignoring competing sounds. The findings could be used to aid people with problems hearing or focusing on sounds, linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and aging, researchers reported March 6 in the journal Neuron.

Humans don't have a way of closing their minds to sounds, and so the brain "hears" everything that reaches a person's ears. The new study confirmed this.

"We also provide the first clear evidence that there may be brain locations in which there is exclusive representation of an attended speech segment, with ignored conversations apparently filtered out," senior author Charles Schroeder, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, said in a statement.

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New U.S. study probing personality traits via brain scans

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© AFP Photo
U.S. researchers published incredibly detailed images of the human brain as part of an international project aimed at uncovering how brain architecture influences personality.

The five-year "Human Connectome Project" or HCP - being conducted at 10 research centers in the US and Europe - will use advanced brain imaging technology to collect vast amounts of data on healthy adults and make it freely available to researchers worldwide.

"The HCP will have a major impact on our understanding of the healthy adult human brain," said David Van Essen, of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

It will enable "the scientific community to immediately begin exploring relationships between brain circuits and individual behavior," he said.

"And it will set the stage for future projects that examine changes in brain circuits underlying the wide variety of brain disorders afflicting humankind."

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Brain scan can decode whom you are thinking about

© Nathan Spreng
Region of the brain in medial prefrontal cortex where patterns of activity can be decoded to determine who someone is thinking about.
Our mental picture of another person produces unique patterns of brain activation that can be detected using advanced imaging techniques, report Cornell neuroscientist Nathan Spreng and his colleagues in a study published online in Cerebral Cortex.

"When we looked at our data, we were shocked that we could successfully decode who our participants were thinking about based on their brain activity," said Spreng, the study's lead author, with Demis Hassabis of University College London, and an assistant professor of human development and the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

"Our findings shed light on how the brain formulates models of people's personality in order to anticipate their behavior -- a faculty critical for success in the social world," Spreng added.

For their study, the researchers asked 19 young adults to learn about the personalities of four people who differed on key personality traits. Participants were given different scenarios (i.e., sitting on a bus when an elderly person gets on, and there are no seats) and asked to imagine how a specified person would respond. During the task, their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.

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Mental picture of others can be seen using fMRI, finds new study

It is possible to tell who a person is thinking about by analyzing images of his or her brain. Our mental models of people produce unique patterns of brain activation, which can be detected using advanced imaging techniques according to a study by Cornell University neuroscientist Nathan Spreng and his colleagues.

"When we looked at our data, we were shocked that we could successfully decode who our participants were thinking about based on their brain activity," said Spreng, assistant professor of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

Understanding and predicting the behavior of others is a key to successfully navigating the social world, yet little is known about how the brain actually models the enduring personality traits that may drive others' behavior, the authors say. Such ability allows us to anticipate how someone will act in a situation that may not have happened before.

To learn more, the researchers asked 19 young adults to learn about the personalities of four people who differed on key personality traits. Participants were given different scenarios (i.e. sitting on a bus when an elderly person gets on and there are no seats) and asked to imagine how a specified person would respond. During the task, their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.

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Childhood ADHD may lead to troubles later on in life

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Children with ADHD often grow up to be adults with ADHD, a new study suggests.
Nearly a third of people diagnosed as children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) still have the condition in adulthood, according to a U.S. study of thousands.

The researchers, whose findings appeared in Pediatrics, also found that these people were more likely to develop other mental disorders, such as anxiety or depression, and commit suicide.

Lead by William Barbaresi from Boston Children's Hospital, they found that about 29 percent of participants in the study who were diagnosed with ADHD as children ended up carrying that diagnosis over into their late twenties.

"They still clearly had symptoms that continued to be consistent with that diagnosis," said Barbaresi. "But that in itself has been an area of difficulty and controversy."