Science of the Spirit


People who score high on the personality trait resilience have the highest amount of natural painkiller activation

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A new study suggests that there's more going on inside our brains when someone snubs us -- and that the brain may have its own way of easing social pain.

The findings, recently published in Molecular Psychiatry by a University of Michigan Medical School team, show that the brain's natural painkiller system responds to social rejection -- not just physical injury.

What's more, people who score high on a personality trait called resilience -- the ability to adjust to environmental change -- had the highest amount of natural painkiller activation.

Psychological resilience is an individual's tendency to cope with stress and adversity. This coping may result in the individual "bouncing back" to a previous state of normal functioning, or simply not showing negative effects. A third, more controversial form of resilience is sometimes referred to as 'posttraumatic growth' or 'steeling effects' where in the experience adversity leads to better functioning (much like an inoculation gives one the capacity to cope well with future exposure to disease).


Genes predispose some people to focus on the negative

© Tracy Whiteside, iStock
A new study by a University of British Columbia researcher finds that some people are genetically predisposed to see the world darkly.

The study, published in Psychological Science, finds that a previously known gene variant can cause individuals to perceive emotional events - especially negative ones - more vividly than others.


I'm ok, you're not ok: The right supramarginal gyrus plays an important role in empathy

© MPI f. Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences/Silani et al., The Journal of Neuroscience 2013
Participants in an experiment (a): while the participants were exposed do either pleasant or unpleasant visual and tactile stimuli (b), they were asked to evaluate the emotions of their partners.
Egoism and narcissism appear to be on the rise in our society, while empathy is on the decline. And yet, the ability to put ourselves in other people's shoes is extremely important for our coexistence. A research team headed by Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences has discovered that our own feelings can distort our capacity for empathy. This emotionally driven egocentricity is recognised and corrected by the brain. When, however, the right supramarginal gyrus doesn't function properly or when we have to make particularly quick decisions, our empathy is severely limited.

When assessing the world around us and our fellow humans, we use ourselves as a yardstick and tend to project our own emotional state onto others. While cognition research has already studied this phenomenon in detail, nothing is known about how it works on an emotional level. It was assumed that our own emotional state can distort our understanding of other people's emotions, in particular if these are completely different to our own. But this emotional egocentricity had not been measured before now.

This is precisely what the Max Planck researchers have accomplished in a complex marathon of experiments and tests. They also discovered the area of the brain responsible for this function, which helps us to distinguish our own emotional state from that of other people. The area in question is the supramarginal gyrus , a convolution of the cerebral cortex which is approximately located at the junction of the parietal, temporal and frontal lobe. "This was unexpected, as we had the temporo-parietal junction in our sights. This is located more towards the front of the brain," explains Claus Lamm, one of the publication's authors.

On the empathy trail with toy slime and synthetic fur

Using a perception experiment, the researchers began by showing that our own feelings actually do influence our capacity for empathy, and that this egocentricity can also be measured. The participants, who worked in teams of two, were exposed to either pleasant or unpleasant simultaneous visual and tactile stimuli.


Correcting emotional misunderstandings: We may make mistakes interpreting the emotions of others, but our brain corrects us

We may make mistakes interpreting the emotions of others, but our brain corrects us

When we are sad the world seemingly cries with us. On the contrary, when we are happy everything shines and all around people's faces seem to rejoyce with us. These projection mechanisms of one's emotions onto others are well known to scientists, who believe they are at the core of the ability to interpret and relate to others. In some circumstances, however, this may lead to gross mistakes (called egocentricity bias in the emotional domain EEB), to avoid them cerebral mechanisms are activated about which still little is known.

Giorgia Silani, a neuroscientist at SISSA, in collaborartion with an international group of researchers have identified an area in the brain involved in this process. The results were published on The Journal of Neuroscience.

In their experiments researchers have first measured the likeliness of subjects to make these kinds of mistakes. Then, thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging, a cerebral area has been identified in which activity is clearly more intense when the subjects are making EEB mistakes.

Red Flag

These experiments show that venting your anger makes it worse

© ollyy, Shutterstock
In the 1970s, Michael Crichton wrote a book called The Terminal Man, about a man with a chip in his brain who becomes addicted to rage and violence. A few experiments done in the 1990s suggest that we actually can get addicted to anger, and to venting that anger in violent ways.

In 1972, Michael Crichton published The Terminal Man. In it, a man with a particular form of epilepsy is finally getting treatment. Whenever he is about to have a seizure, electrodes in his brain will stimulate his pleasure centers and, hopefully, ease him out of the seizure behavior. The "seizure behavior" is extreme violence executed with extraordinary strength. The chip is implanted. It works. And all the people around this man quickly learn that giving someone a mind-cookie every time they are about to have a violent attack is not a good idea. The pleasure at the onset of every violent episode causes the man to commit more and more acts of violence.


Attracted to your opposite? Brain chemicals may tell

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What makes people fall in love with one person and not another?

Philosophers, social scientists and poets have tried to answer that question since time immemorial.

The answer may have a lot to do with brain chemistry, said Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, on Sept. 28 at the Being Human conference, a daylong event focused on the science and mystery of the human experience.

Several brain chemicals, including dopamine and testosterone, play a role in a person's drive toward romance, sex and other rewards, Fisher said. The specific balance of these chemicals in people's brains could shape their personalities and, in turn, the types of people they are drawn to, Fisher said. Sometimes, that means birds of a feather flock together, whereas for others, opposites attract.

Love addiction

In past research, Fisher found that the brains of the madly in love look markedly different from the brains of those who are not in love.

"Romantic love is akin to an addiction," Fisher said.

For instance, two areas of the brain - the ventral tegmental area, a "dopamine factory" associated with craving and obsession, and the nucleus accumbens, which is strongly associated with addiction - are overactive in those who are love struck, she said.


Abusive parenting may have a biological basis

© University of Oregon
Elizabeth A. Skowron of the University of Oregon has found a potential physiological trigger for a mother's abusive-parenting tendencies while attempting to provide a nurturing experience.
Research led by University of Oregon professor unveils a potential neurobiological trigger.

Parents who physically abuse their children appear to have a physiological response that subsequently triggers more harsh parenting when they attempt parenting in warm, positive ways, according to new research.

Reporting in the quarterly journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, a five-member team, led by Elizabeth A. Skowron, a professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services in the University of Oregon College of Education, documented connections between the nervous system's ability to calm heart rate -- via electrocardiogram (ECG) measures of parasympathetic activation -- and the type of parenting mothers displayed during a laboratory interaction with their preschool child.

Studies of child maltreatment have consistently found that parents who physically abuse their children tend to parent in more hostile, critical and controlling ways. Skowron's team appears to have found evidence of a physiological basis for patterns of aversive parenting -- the use of hostile actions such as grabbing an arm or hand or using negative verbal cues in guiding a child's behavior -- in a sample of families involved with Child Protective Services.

For the experiment, mothers and children were monitored to record changes in heart rate while playing together in the lab. Parenting behavior was scored to capture positive parenting and strict, hostile control using a standard coding system.

Eye 1

Rich people just care less


A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain.
Turning a blind eye. Giving someone the cold shoulder. Looking down on people. Seeing right through them.

These metaphors for condescending or dismissive behavior are more than just descriptive. They suggest, to a surprisingly accurate extent, the social distance between those with greater power and those with less - a distance that goes beyond the realm of interpersonal interactions and may exacerbate the soaring inequality in the United States.

A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. This tuning out has been observed, for instance, with strangers in a mere five-minute get-acquainted session, where the more powerful person shows fewer signals of paying attention, like nodding or laughing. Higher-status people are also more likely to express disregard, through facial expressions, and are more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the other speaker.

Bringing the micropolitics of interpersonal attention to the understanding of social power, researchers are suggesting, has implications for public policy.

Of course, in any society, social power is relative; any of us may be higher or lower in a given interaction, and the research shows the effect still prevails. Though the more powerful pay less attention to us than we do to them, in other situations we are relatively higher on the totem pole of status - and we, too, tend to pay less attention to those a rung or two down.

Comment: But no amount of social contact will help certain people in power regain their empathy and compassion. For more information see:

Moral Endo-skeletons and Exo-skeletons: A Perspective on America's Cultural Divide and Current Crisis
Political Ponerology: A Science on The Nature of Evil adjusted for Political Purposes


'Brain training' may boost working memory, but not intelligence

Brain training games, apps, and websites are popular and it's not hard to see why - who wouldn't want to give their mental abilities a boost? New research suggests that brain training programs might strengthen your ability to hold information in mind, but they won't bring any benefits to the kind of intelligence that helps you reason and solve problems.

The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"It is hard to spend any time on the web and not see an ad for a website that promises to train your brain, fix your attention, and increase your IQ," says psychological scientist and lead researcher Randall Engle of Georgia Institute of Technology. "These claims are particularly attractive to parents of children who are struggling in school."

According to Engle, the claims are based on evidence that shows a strong correlation between working memory capacity (WMC) and general fluid intelligence. Working memory capacity refers to our ability to keep information either in mind or quickly retrievable, particularly in the presence of distraction. General fluid intelligence is the ability to infer relationships, do complex reasoning, and solve novel problems.

The correlation between WMC and fluid intelligence has led some to surmise that increasing WMC should lead to an increase in both fluid intelligence, but "this assumes that the two constructs are the same thing, or that WMC is the basis for fluid intelligence," Engle notes.


Truth or consequences? The negative results of concealing who you really are on the job

Watch Clayton Critcher talk about his research.

Most know that hiding something from others can cause internal angst. New research suggests the consequences can go far beyond emotional strife and that being forced to keep information concealed, such as one's sexual orientation, disrupts the concealer's basic skills and abilities, including intellectual acuity, physical strength, and interpersonal grace - skills critical to workplace success.

"With no federal protection for gays and lesbians in the work place, our work suggests that the wisdom of non-discrimination laws should be debated not merely through a moral lens, but with an appreciation for the loss of economic productivity that such vulnerabilities produce," says Clayton R. Critcher, assistant professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. Critcher, a member of the Haas Marketing Group, conducts research on consumer behavior and social psychology, including questions of self and identity.

Critcher's paper, "The Cost of Keeping it Hidden: Decomposing Concealment Reveals What Makes it Depleting," forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General and co-authored with Melissa J. Ferguson of Cornell University, details multiple negative consequences of concealment. The findings, says Critcher, stem from the difficulty of having to constantly monitor one's speech for secret-revealing content that needs to be edited out.