Science of the Spirit


How does the brain handle anesthesia and loss of consciousness

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Surgeons have been using general anesthesia since the 19th century, but until now physicians and neurologists didn't know exactly how brain activity correlates to the loss of consciousness.

A new study from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that was recently published in the journal PNAS demonstrated how distinctive brain activity patterns are associated with the loss of consciousness.

"How anesthetics produce unconsciousness is a major scientific mystery, so this finding is very important because it suggests a specific mechanism for how propofol, one of the most widely used anesthetic drugs, works," said study author Patrick Purdon, from MGH and Harvard Medical School. "The pattern that we found marks a new brain state in which neurons in different areas become inactivated at different times, impairing communication between different brain regions."

The study focused on three patients who had electrodes surgically implanted into their brain as a part of epilepsy treatment. Just before the surgery to remove the electrodes, patients were given the anesthetic propofol and then asked to push a button whenever they heard a tone, which was sounded every four seconds. If a patient missed two tones in a row, that time period was identified as the point when consciousness was lost.

Measurements of the action of single neurons by the still-functioning electrodes showed a reduction in overall activity 30 seconds after consciousness had been lost.

Science explains instant attraction

Romantic Judgments
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The brain makes snap romantic judgments about potential partners, research finds.
How do you know when you're attracted to a new face? Thank your medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region now discovered to play a major role in romantic decision-making.

Different parts of this region, which sits near the front of the brain, make a snap judgment about physical attraction and about whether the person is Mr. or Ms. Right - all within milliseconds of seeing a new face, a new study from Ireland finds.

The research is the first to use real-world dating to examine how the brain makes fast romantic judgments.

To conduct the study, researchers recruited 78 women and 73 men, all heterosexual and single, from Trinity College Dublin to participate in a speed-dating event. Like any typical speed-dating night, participants rotated around the room and chatted with one another for five minutes. After this meet-and-greet, they filled out forms indicating whom they'd like to see again.

But before the speed-dating event, 39 of the participants had their brains imaged. Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI), researchers recorded the volunteers' brain activity as they saw pictures of the people they'd soon meet at the event. For each picture, the volunteers had a few seconds to rate, on a scale of 1 to 4, how much they would like to date that person. They also reported their physical attraction to each person and how likeable they thought each person was.

Humans smell fear, and it's contagious

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Humans can smell fear and disgust, and the emotions are contagious, according to a new study.

The findings, published Nov. 5 in the journal Psychological Science, suggest that humans communicate via smell just like other animals.

"These findings are contrary to the commonly accepted assumption that human communication runs exclusively via language or visual channels," write Gün Semin and colleagues from Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Most animals communicate using smell, but because humans lack the same odor-sensing organs, scientists thought we had long ago lost our ability to smell fear or other emotions.

To find out, the team collected sweat from under the armpits of 10 men while they watched either frightening scenes from the horror movie The Shining or repulsive clips of MTV's Jackass.

We're more passive than we predict when sexually harassed, new study shows

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Sexual harassment is devastating in and of itself for its victims, but new research shows there can be an even more insidious and troubling consequence that goes along with it:

When confronted with sexual harassment, we don't stand up for ourselves to the extent we believe we will, and because we use false predictions as a benchmark, we condemn others who are passive in the face of sexual harassment, according to a new study co-authored by Ann Tenbrunsel, professor of business ethics at the University of Notre Dame.

In "Double Victimization in the Workplace: Why Observers Condemn Passive Victims of Sexual Harassment," forthcoming in Organization Science, Tenbrunsel, and researchers from the University of Utah and Brigham Young and Northwestern Universities, conducted five studies that explored observers' condemnation of passive victims.

Pointing to the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas' appointment to the Supreme Court, the researchers note that Anita Hill testified she had been sexually harassed by Thomas during his tenure as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She testified that despite being harassed numerous times years before, at no point did she confront Thomas about his behavior or take any action against the harassment. Her claim of repeated sexual harassment and perpetual inaction led to public suspicion with and condemnation of Anita Hill.

Baby Laughter Project aims to understand cognitive development

Laughing Baby
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Believe it or not, there's a lot to be learned from babies. In the 1890s the American philosopher and psychologist William James speculated that infants do not enter the world as 'blank slates' as had been previously thought.

Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, James suggested that rather than passively absorbing information from their environment, babies come equipped with a great deal of built-in cognitive machinery already in place to help them interact with, understand and process the foreign world that they enter into.

One of the challenges of developmental psychology has been to understand how an infant's pre-installed cognitive hardware interacts with and processes its environment over time to acquire an understanding of things like social cues, the emotions of others, language and even the basic laws of physics.

One significant part of the challenge of understanding cognitive development in babies can be traced to the very simple fact that they have only a very limited ability to communicate. In fact, one could almost say that babies speak binary: They cry when they're displeased and smile when they're happy - and there doesn't seem to be a whole lot in between.

And yet for a group of scientists in London, the language of laughter is a rich and informative one that can help us to unlock many secrets in the development of the infant mind.

Debunking the Myth of Intuition

thinking fast and slow
Can doctors and investment advisers be trusted? And do we live more for experiences or memories? In a Spiegel interview, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman discusses the innate weakness of human thought, deceptive memories and the misleading power of intuition.

Spiegel: Professor Kahneman, you've spent your entire professional life studying the snares in which human thought can become entrapped. For example, in your book, you describe how easy it is to increase a person's willingness to contribute money to the coffee fund.

Kahneman: You just have to make sure that the right picture is hanging above the cash box. If a pair of eyes is looking back at them from the wall, people will contribute twice as much as they do when the picture shows flowers. People who feel observed behave more morally.

Spiegel: And this also works if we don't even pay attention to the photo on the wall?

Kahneman: All the more if you don't notice it. The phenomenon is called "priming": We aren't aware that we have perceived a certain stimulus, but it can be proved that we still respond to it.

Spiegel: People in advertising will like that.

Kahneman: Of course, that's where priming is in widespread use. An attractive woman in an ad automatically directs your attention to the name of the product. When you encounter it in the shop later on, it will already seem familiar to you.

Trickle-Down Anxiety: Study Examines Parental Behaviors that Create Anxious Children

Parents with social anxiety disorder are more likely than parents with other forms of anxiety to engage in behaviors that put their children at high risk for developing angst of their own, according to a small study of parent-child pairs conducted at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

Authors of the federally funded study say past research has linked parental anxiety to anxiety in children, but it remained unclear whether people with certain anxiety disorders engaged more often in anxiety-provoking behaviors. Based on the new study findings, they do. A report on the team's findings appears online ahead of print in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development.

Specifically, the Johns Hopkins researchers identified a subset of behaviors in parents with social anxiety disorder - the most prevalent type of anxiety - and in doing so clarified some of the confusion that has shrouded the trickle-down anxiety often seen in parent-child pairs.

These behaviors included a lack of or insufficient warmth and affection and high levels of criticism and doubt leveled at the child. Such behaviors, the researchers say, are well known to increase anxiety in children and - if engaged in chronically - can make it more likely for children to develop a full-blown anxiety disorder of their own, the investigators say.

"There is a broad range of anxiety disorders so what we did was home in on social anxiety, and we found that anxiety-promoting parental behaviors may be unique to the parent's diagnosis and not necessarily common to all those with anxiety," says study senior investigator, Golda Ginsburg, Ph.D., a child anxiety expert at Johns Hopkins Children's Center and professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Wedding Rings

Don't ignore doubts about marriage, researcher warns

Couples about to tie the knot shouldn't ignore nagging doubts about getting married, warns a University of Alberta researcher.

"If you are having doubts about the relationship, just ignoring them may make a difference years down the road," said Matthew Johnson who co-authored the study while at Kansas State University. Johnson is now an assistant professor in the University of Alberta Department of Human Ecology.

The study, published recently in the journal Family Process, found that couples who were more confident as they exchanged vows also spent more time together 18 months into the marriage, and were still happy sharing life with their spouses at the three-year mark.

The study used existing research data to weigh the marital confidence of 610 newlywed couples over a period of four years. Those who were most confident at the outset of matrimony were still showing their happiness by sticking together as a couple after the honeymoon was long over.

Social factors trump genetic forces in forging friendships

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"Nature teaches beasts to know their friends," wrote Shakespeare. In humans, nature may be less than half of the story, a team led by University of Colorado Boulder researchers has found.

In the first study of its kind, the team found that genetic similarities may help to explain why human birds of a feather flock together, but the full story of why people become friends "is contingent upon the social environment in which individuals interact with one another," the researchers write.

People are more likely to befriend genetically similar people when their environment is stratified, when disparate groups are discouraged from interacting, the study found. When environments were more egalitarian, friends were less likely to share certain genes.

Scientists debate the extent to which genetics or environmental factors -- "nature" or "nurture" -- predict certain behaviors, said Jason Boardman, associate professor of sociology and faculty research associate with the Population Program in CU-Boulder's Institute of Behavioral Science. "For all the social demographic outcomes we care about, whether it's fertility, marriage, migration, health, it's never nature or nurture.

"It's always nature and nurture," he said. "And most of the time it has a lot more to do with nurture."

Boardman's team included Benjamin Domingue, research associate in the Population Program at IBS; and Jason Fletcher, associate professor of health policy at the Yale School of Public Health. Their research was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Eye 2

Psychopaths recognise emotions better than most normal people

The psychopath's fearlessness and focus has traditionally been attributed to deficits in emotional processing, more specifically to amygdala dysfunction. Until recently, this has led researchers to believe that in addition to not "doing" fear, they don't "do" empathy, either. But a 2008 study, by Shirley Fecteau and her colleagues at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, has thrown a completely different light on the matter, suggesting that psychopaths not only have the capacity to recognize emotions - they are, in fact, actually better at it than we are.

Fecteau and her co-workers used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to stimulate the somatosensory cortex (the part of the brain that processes and regulates physical sensations) in the brains of volunteers scoring high on the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI). Previous research has shown that observing something painful happening to someone else results in a temporary slowdown in neural excitation in response to TMS, in the area of the somatosensory cortex corresponding to the region afflicted by the pain: the work of highly specialized, and aptly named, brain structures called mirror neurons.