Science of the Spirit

Magic Wand

Consciousness as the key to our mental traits

© Unknown
In The Ravenous Brain Daniel Bor explores consciousness and suggests that its level of activity is linked to several psychiatric conditions.

It is a long-standing philosophical conundrum: is consciousness somehow separate from the physical world or merely an illusion conjured up by our complex brains? It took his father's stroke to convince Daniel Bor which side he was on.

Bor, who had previously been considering a PhD in the philosophy of mind, opted instead for one in the neuroscience of consciousness. To see his father "robbed of his identity because a small clot on his brain had potently wounded his consciousness" hammered home all too well that the mind really is the output of nothing more than a small sac of jelly.

But what an amazing sac of jelly it is. In The Ravenous Brain, Bor takes us on a tour of the fascinating world of consciousness research. He engages in "technological telepathy", taking part in a conversation where he communicates his thoughts using only an MRI brain scanner.

He also introduces us to conjoined twins with linked brains, an autistic synaesthete who can memorise the digits of pi up to 22,514 decimal places and chimpanzees that practise sophisticated mind games.

As well as providing a primer in the most popular current theories of consciousness, Bor introduces one of his own. This is that consciousness evolved to facilitate information processing, and thus learning and innovation.

Psychopaths not mentally ill and should be held entirely responsible: Canadian study

Canadian criminal psychopaths
© QMI Agency/Handout
Composite photo of Canadian criminal psychopaths (L to R): Michelle Erstikaitis; Paul Bernardo; Col. Russ Williams.
A new Canadian study suggests that psychopaths are not mentally ill and should be held entirely responsible for their violent and manipulative actions.

Researchers from universities in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan studied 289 murderers, rapists and other violent offenders, and concluded "psychopaths are executing a well-functioning, if unscrupulous strategy."

Psychopaths, with their trademark ruthless, risk-taking and often violent behaviour, "may have evolved to exploit others."

The theory rests in part on the victims of psychopaths.

Mental disorders "disrupt" the mechanism that stops people from hurting their families. But the violent offenders researchers spoke to, who were diagnosed as psychopaths, tended not to hurt family members.

"On average, psychopathy is associated with less harm to genetic relatives - that's exactly what you'd expect of healthy people," lead author Daniel Krupp, of Queen's University, told QMI Agency.

They are preserving their genetic material, he said.

It's called TV programming for a reason: Children exposed to sex on screen go on to be promiscuous

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The study showed that young people who are exposed to sex on screen tend to lose their virginity at an earlier age and be more promiscuous
Children who watch films with a high sexual content tend to lose their virginity earlier and have more partners, a study has found.

Not only are they more promiscuous, they are also more likely to engage in risky sex by not using condoms.

The six-year study of more than 1,200 teens refers to sexual content in films but campaigners against online porn say it could equally apply to videos on the internet.

They point out that children can now see a lot more sexual imagery online than they ever did at the cinema - meaning that the effect will be magnified. Pornographic images and videos are freely available on the net, many on sites with no age verification procedures at all, putting children at risk.

The NSPCC warns that young male teens are now pressurising their girlfriends to copy what they see on porn films downloaded from the internet.

Other reviews have found that exposure to porn makes boys more likely to view girls as sex objects.

The Daily Mail is campaigning for an automatic block on online porn. Over-18s would be able to see adult material only if they specifically opted in.

White Collar Psychopaths: Stealing and Backstabbing is 'busines as usual'

The notion of a colleague betraying you is at least as old as the tale of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, who famously uttered the phrase et tu as Brutus plunged a knife into his back.

And if you've ever encountered a co-worker who will do anything to get ahead - even if that means ruining your good name in the process - you know how calculating and callous such people can be.

But did you realize that such a person could also have psychopathic tendencies?

We often think of a psychopath as being a serial killer. Yet according to former criminal profiler Gregg McCrary, psychopathy runs on a continuum - with white collar criminals falling in the middle.

As a former agent for the FBI for 25 years, 10 of that in the behavioral science unit, McCrary knows the pattern of psychopaths well. While they vary in degree, he says psychopaths share common traits. "They have no guilt, remorse or shame. They're deceitful and egotistical. It's all about them."

Using standards developed by Dr. Robert Hare, a leader in the study of psychopathy, researchers estimated that 3 million Americans - or one percent of the general population in the U.S. - were psychopaths compared to about 20 percent of the prison population.

How fathers who had stressful lives as youths are more likely to have anxious daughters

A woman's risk of anxiety may depend on how stressed out her father's life was when he was young, new research has found.

A new study suggests the stress a man experiences when he is young can contribute to genetic changes in his sperm that can result in psychiatric disorders in female offspring.

And it's not only the first generation of daughters that can be affected, with the research showing the effects can last down to yet another generation.
© Alamy
Blame it on dad... or grandad: A study suggests the stress fathers experience as youths can be passed down to daughters in the form of psychiatric disorders
Researchers from the Tufts University School of Medicine subjected young male mice to a range of stresses by constantly changing the composition of their cages.

They found that the stresses led the mice, particularly females, to become rather more anxious and socially disfunctional than their peers who had not been subjected to stressful treatment.

The researchers then studied the offspring of these previously-stressed mice and observed that female, but not male, offspring exhibited elevated anxiety and poor social interactions.

Social rejection can lead to imaginative thinking and strong independence

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Rejected by your peers? Some people can take validation for this - and become more creative off the back of it
Most people experience social rejection at some time in their life, some of us more than others

But a study by a business professor at Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, found that social rejection can inspire imaginative thinking, particularly in individuals with a strong sense of their own independence.

Lead author Sharon Kim concluded that, for independent people, social rejection can be 'a form of validation' to their own beliefs - and spur them on to greater productivity.

Kim said: 'Rejection confirms for independent people what they already feel about themselves, that they're not like others.

'For people who already feel separate from the crowd, social rejection can be a form of validation - that distinction is a positive one leading them to greater creativity.'

However she added that social rejection has the opposite effect on people who value belonging to a group: It inhibits their cognitive ability.

With her co-authors, Lynne Vincent and Jack Goncalo of Cornell University, she decided to consider the impact of rejection on people who take pride in being different from the norm. Such individuals, in a term from the study, are described as possessing an 'independent self-concept'.

'We're seeing in society a growing concern about the negative consequences of social rejection thanks largely to media reports about bullying that occurs at school, in the workplace, and online.

Thinking and Choosing in the Brain: Caltech researchers study over 300 lesion patients

© California Institute of Technology
MRI scans of a human brain show the regions significantly associated with decision-making in blue, and the regions significantly associated with behavioral control in red. On the left is an intact brain seen from the front — the colored regions are both in the frontal lobes. The image on the right is that same brain with a portion of the frontal lobes cut away to show how the lesion map looks in the interior.
The frontal lobes are the largest part of the human brain, and thought to be the part that expanded most during human evolution. Damage to the frontal lobes - which are located just behind and above the eyes - can result in profound impairments in higher-level reasoning and decision making. To find out more about what different parts of the frontal lobes do, neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) recently teamed up with researchers at the world's largest registry of brain-lesion patients. By mapping the brain lesions of these patients, the team was able to show that reasoning and behavioral control are dependent on different regions of the frontal lobe than the areas called upon when making a decision.

Their findings are described online this week in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The team analyzed data that had been acquired over a 30-plus-year time span by scientists from the University of Iowa's department of neurology - which has the world's largest lesion patient registry. They used that data to map brain activity in nearly 350 people with damage, or lesions, in their frontal lobes. The records included data on the performances of each patient while doing certain cognitive tasks.

By examining these detailed files, the researchers were able to see exactly which parts of the frontal lobes are critical for tasks like behavioral control and decision making. The intuitive difference between these two types of processing is something we encounter in our lives all the time. Behavioral control happens when you don't order an unhealthy chocolate sundae you desire and go running instead. Decision making based on reward, on the other hand, is more like trying to win the most money in Vegas - or indeed choosing the chocolate sundae.
Magic Wand

Self-awareness in humans is more complex, diffuse than previously thought

© Department of Neurology, University of Iowa
Researchers at the University of Iowa studied the brain of a patient with rare, severe damage to three regions long considered integral to self-awareness in humans (from left to right: the insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex). Based on the scans, the UI team believes self-awareness is a product of a diffuse patchwork of pathways in the brain rather than confined to specific areas.
Ancient Greek philosophers considered the ability to "know thyself" as the pinnacle of humanity. Now, thousands of years later, neuroscientists are trying to decipher precisely how the human brain constructs our sense of self.

Self-awareness is defined as being aware of oneself, including one's traits, feelings, and behaviors. Neuroscientists have believed that three brain regions are critical for self-awareness: the insular cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex. However, a research team led by the University of Iowa has challenged this theory by showing that self-awareness is more a product of a diffuse patchwork of pathways in the brain - including other regions - rather than confined to specific areas.

The conclusions came from a rare opportunity to study a person with extensive brain damage to the three regions believed critical for self-awareness. The person, a 57-year-old, college-educated man known as "Patient R," passed all standard tests of self-awareness. He also displayed repeated self-recognition, both when looking in the mirror and when identifying himself in unaltered photographs taken during all periods of his life.

"What this research clearly shows is that self-awareness corresponds to a brain process that cannot be localized to a single region of the brain," said David Rudrauf, co-corresponding author of the paper, published online Aug. 22 in the journal PLOS ONE. "In all likelihood, self-awareness emerges from much more distributed interactions among networks of brain regions." The authors believe the brainstem, thalamus, and posteromedial cortices play roles in self-awareness, as has been theorized.

The researchers observed that Patient R's behaviors and communication often reflected depth and self-insight. First author Carissa Philippi, who earned her doctorate in neuroscience at the UI in 2011, conducted a detailed self-awareness interview with Patient R and said he had a deep capacity for introspection, one of humans' most evolved features of self-awareness.

Study reveals human drive for fair play

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People will reject an offer of water, even when they are severely thirsty, if they perceive the offer to be unfair, according to a new study funded by the Wellcome Trust. The findings have important implications for understanding how humans make decisions that must balance fairness and self-interest.

It's been known for some time that when humans bargain for money they have a tendency to reject unfair offers, preferring to let both parties walk away with nothing rather than accept a low offer in the knowledge that their counterpart is taking home more cash.

In contrast, when bargaining for food, our closes relatives chimpanzees will almost always accept an offer regardless of any subjective idea of 'fairness'.

Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL wanted to see whether humans would similarly accept unfair offers if they were bargaining for a basic physiological need, such as food, water or sex.

The team recruited 21 healthy participants and made 11 of them thirsty by drip-feeding them a salty solution, whilst the remainder received an isotonic solution that had a much smaller effect on their level of thirst. To obtain an objective measure of each individual's need for water, the team measured the salt concentration in their blood. The participants' subjective perception of how thirsty they were was assessed using a simple rating scale.
Magic Wand

Language and Emotion

We use language every day to express our emotions, but can this language actually affect what and how we feel? Two new studies from Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, explore the ways in which the interaction between language and emotion influences our well-being.

Putting Feelings into Words Can Help Us Cope with Scary Situations

Katharina Kircanski and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles investigated whether verbalizing a current emotional experience, even when that experience is negative, might be an effective method for treating for people with spider phobias. In an exposure therapy study, participants were split into different experimental groups and they were instructed to approach a spider over several consecutive days. One group was told to put their feelings into words by describing their negative emotions about approaching the spider. Another group was asked to 'reappraise' the situation by describing the spider using emotionally neutral words. A third group was told to talk about an unrelated topic (things in their home) and a fourth group received no intervention. Participants who put their negative feelings into words were most effective at lowering their levels of physiological arousal. They were also slightly more willing to approach the spider. The findings suggest that talking about your feelings - even if they're negative - may help you to cope with a scary situation.