Science of the Spirit


Early Neglect Alters Kids' Brains

Malawi Orphanage
© africa924 / Shutterstock
About 8 million children worldwide grow up in orphanages like this one in Malawi, according to UNICEF.
Until the 1990s, the orphanages of Romania were notorious for their harsh, overcrowded conditions. Those perceptions have been borne out in new research that finds growing up in such an environment can change the brain for good.

Institutionalization in early childhood can alter a child's brain and behavior in the long run, the research finds. Fortunately, early intervention can stave off the effects.

The study, conducted with children growing up in Romanian orphanages, reveals changes in the brain composition of kids who spent their first years in institutions versus those who were randomly assigned to foster care. The findings point to a "sensitive period" in the brain for social development, said study researcher Nathan Fox, a child development researcher at the University of Maryland.

"Infants and young children expect an environment in which they are going to interact and receive nurturance, not only food, but psychological nurturance, from adult caregivers," Fox told LiveScience.

The finding adds to evidence that early childhood experiences can have lasting impacts on the brain, with one recent study showing that child abuse may shrink regions in the brain's hippocampus.

Children in foster care develop resilience through compassion

© Unknown
A new study shows that a therapeutic intervention called Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) appears to improve the mental and physical health of adolescents in foster care. CBCT is a tool that provides strategies for people to develop more compassionate attitudes toward themselves and others.

It is well documented that children in foster care have a high prevalence of trauma in their lives. For many, circumstances that bring them into the foster care system are formidable -- sexual abuse, parental neglect, family violence, homelessness, and exposure to drugs. In addition, they are separated from biological family and some are regularly moved around from one place to another.

Emory researchers conducted the study in collaboration with the Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Division of Family and Child Services (DFCS). The study was recently published online in the journals Psychoneuroendocrinology and Child and Family Studies.

"Children with early life adversity tend to have elevated levels of inflammation across their lifespan," explains Thaddeus Pace, PhD, lead author on the paper in Psychoneuroendocrinology, and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory.

"Inflammation is known to play a fundamental role in the development of a number of chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, cancer and depression."

The study finds that adolescents who practiced CBCT showed reductions in the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP), reduced anxiety and increased feelings of hopefulness. The more the study participants practiced, the greater the improvement observed in these measures.
Eye 1

Using Twitter To Identify Psychopaths

© n/a
What would Patrick Bateman's Twitter stream have looked like?
People's nasty traits have a way of revealing themselves on social networks: in writing. Or rather in how they write. That means an analysis of how someone tweets could reveal whether he or she is narcissistic, Machiavellian, or psychopathic, according to researchers who plan to present their findings at DefCon next week.

What are some of the Twitter stylings of these undesirables? Curse words. Angry responses to other people, including swearing and use of the word "hate." Using the word "we." Using periods. Using filler words such as "blah" and "I mean" and "um."

(I suspect that an analysis of the Twitter streams of many a blogger would suggest they are potentially a narcissist, a psychopath or an avid reader of "The Prince." Which may well be an accurate assessment.)

"The FBI could use this to flag potential wrongdoers, but I think it's much more compelling for psychologists to use to understand large communities of people," says Chris Sumner of the Online Privacy Foundation, which collaborated with Florida Atlantic University and big-data competition site Kaggle to conduct the study. He imagines the algorithmic models his team developed could be used to compare character traits between different countries based on Twitter.

Experiencing Sense of Awe Expands Perception of Time, Makes People More Patient and Less Materialistic

© Galyna Andrushko / Fotolia
Grand Canyon. It doesn't matter what we've experienced -- whether it's the breathtaking scope of the Grand Canyon, the ethereal beauty of the Aurora Borealis, or the exhilarating view from the top of the Eiffel Tower -- at some point in our lives we've all had the feeling of being in a complete and overwhelming sense of awe.

It doesn't matter what we've experienced -- whether it's the breathtaking scope of the Grand Canyon, the ethereal beauty of the Aurora Borealis, or the exhilarating view from the top of the Eiffel Tower -- at some point in our lives we've all had the feeling of being in a complete and overwhelming sense of awe

Task-Oriented Cognitive Biases Drive The Highly Motivated

© kelsey_lovefusionphoto
A trick of the unconscious is responsible for spurring us on to difficult goals
It feels daunting when we draw the bow across a violin for the first time or start learning to samba, or pick up our first stuttering words in a foreign language. The ultimate goal of being able to dance, speak French or play the violin seems a long way off.

There is a strong temptation to give up and try other goals, perhaps less challenging ones. So how do we motivate ourselves to keep going?

Consciously we can use these 11 goals hacks described in a previous article. But our unconscious also chips in to change our perceptions and help us on our way, as revealed by an ingenious new study (Huang et al., 2012).
Cloud Lightning

Positive Psychology Theory of Happiness "Flourish" Lacks Humanity

© EssG
While trying to survive (as opposed to thrive) is the new normal, increasing numbers of people still debate the nature of happiness. I am not a gloomy person, but I don't spend a single minute working at being happy. Nonetheless, I understand the impulse, which has become a national obsession, the central topic in a plethora of best-selling books, the darling of big business and the media and a boon for motivational speakers and self-help entrepreneurs. In a world as complicated and disheartening as ours, who wouldn't want to have a method for feeling better?

The problem is that this happiness quest is, at its core, an inherently solipsistic and hedonistic enterprise - me feeling better. I like feeling good as much as the next person, but the pursuit of happiness alone is a narrow and ultimately unrewarding vision of a full human life - as even Martin Seligman, the founder of the positive psychology movement that helped spawn the happiness industry - now admits. "Happiness" is "so overused," he writes in his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, "that it has become almost meaningless. It is an unworkable term for science, or any other practical goal such as education, therapy, public policy, or just changing yourself."

Consciousness: The Untamed Frontier Of Cognitive Science

© Unknown
In a mood-lit University of Quebec auditorium with red velvet seating, hundreds of researchers gather for the 2012 Summer Institute in Cognitive Science. Some of the field's biggest names are in attendance -- there's emininent philosopher John Searle, to whom we owe the "Chinese room" thought experiment; rabble-rouser Dan Dennett, who argues with panache that self-awareness is an illusion; Stevan Harnad, the theorist who reshaped robotics in his youth by defining the (still unsolved) "symbol grounding" problem"; and Simon Baron-Cohen, psychopathologist and top expert on autism.

While the world celebrates the discovery of the Higgs boson, these scientists are hard at work on one of the most profound mysteries left: Why, and how, did humans became conscious?

Many of the experts in attendance, like David Rosenthal, believe that consciousness is the exhaust of the brain, which arises from the neurological processes that actually control our actions. While being conscious may enrich our lives, it has as much influence on our behaviour as a paintjob does on the inner workings of a car. This is often called the "Steamwhistle Hypothesis", for early proponent Thomas Huxley, who compared consciousness to the steamwhistle on a locomotive -- it clues us in to what the train is doing, but it has no power to change it.
Magic Wand

Actions don't always speak louder than words - At least, not when it comes to forgiveness

© Unknown
Baylor University researchers examine restitution vs. apology.

People are more likely to show forgiving behavior if they receive restitution, but they are more prone to report they have forgiven if they get an apology, according to Baylor University research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

The study underscores the importance of both restitution and apology and of using multiple measures for forgiveness, including behavior, said Jo-Ann Tsang, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences.

"One of the main reasons for using behavioral measures in addition to self-reporting by individuals is that they can make themselves look better by only self-reporting, although they don't necessarily intend to lie," she said. "And it may be that 'I forgive you' is a more conscious feeling if they receive an apology."

In the study, 136 undergraduate psychology students were stationed in individual cubicles and told that raffle tickets for a $50 gift card would be given out in three rounds, with 10 tickets per round to be divided between a participant and a unknown "partner." They also were told they might receive a note from the partner.

In the first round, participants were given only two of the 10 tickets split between them and their partners; in the second, they got nine. Some were told the distributions were made by the partner; others were told it was by chance.

Psychopath Disinformation Alert! In the Mind of the Psychopath

Tony Blair: "vulnerable", according to Gullhaugen's redefinition of psychopathy
Ice cold, hard and emotionless. Such is the psychopath -- we think. Until we get a glimpse behind the mask. Researchers have for decades been almost unanimous in their accord with the popular perception that psychopaths are made in a certain way, and will forever remain that way.

But Aina Gullhaugen, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, disagrees.

Nature or nurture?

"A lot has happened over the past few years in psychiatry," Gullhaugen says. "But the discipline is still characterized by the attitude that a certain group of people are put together in such a way that they cannot be treated. There is little in the textbooks that says that these people have had a hard life. Until now the focus has been directed at their antisocial behaviour and lack of empathy. And the explanation for this is based on biology, instead of looking at what these people have experienced."

Through her experience as a psychologist, Gullhaugen has found, in fact, that there is a discrepancy between the formal characteristics of psychopathy and what she has experienced in meeting psychopaths.

Comment: Red flag #1: right there we can see she has failed to factor in the psychopaths' ability to manipulate her perception in their favour!

Gullhaugen thought if psychopathic crim­inals are as hardened as traditional descrip­tions would have it, you would not find vulnerabilities and psychiatric disorders among them. She wondered if perhaps we have asked the wrong questions, and studied the issue in the wrong way.

Comment: Red flag #2: psychopaths don't have "vulnerabilities". If someone has been diagnosed as a psychopath with a certain degree of probability, then a second or third diagnosis points to schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder or some other psychiatric disorder, it means that one of the diagnoses is incorrect. While you cannot have a "vulnerable psychopath", you most certainly can have psychopaths who fool even the world's foremost experts in the field.

With the same intense desire to get behind the mask as Clarice had in her meeting with Hannibal Lecter in the movie "The Silence of the Lambs," Gullhaugen has burrowed into the minds of psychopaths.

Comment: If there is perhaps some value to be salvaged from Gullhaugen's research data, it appears to suggest that there are very few psychopaths left in prisons - they have all been transferred to the TSA, the SEC, the police forces, the courts, the corporations, the military, the halls of Congress...

It has been amazing to that during the Anders Breivik trial no one in Norway raised the possibility that he is a psychopath, instead preferring to believe that he was 'schizophrenic', 'psychotic', 'insane' or 'poorly raised', etc.

Gullhaugen is welcome to continue 'looking for the Hannibal behind the Cannibal' - looking into the bottomless void, in other words - until she finds the human she mistakenly believes is behind their Mask of Sanity, but meanwhile the rest of us in the reality-based community have to deal with the consequences of psychopaths' actions day after day.


Giving Time Can Give You Time

© Unknown
Many people these days feel a sense of "time famine" - never having enough minutes and hours to do everything. We all know that our objective amount of time can't be increased (there are only 24 hours in a day), but a new study suggests that volunteering our limited time - giving it away - may actually increase our sense of unhurried leisure.

Across four different experiments, researchers found that people's subjective sense of having time, called 'time affluence,' can be increased: compared with wasting time, spending time on oneself, and even gaining a windfall of 'free' time, spending time on others increased participants' feelings of time affluence.

Lead researcher and psychological scientist Cassie Mogilner of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania believes this is because giving away time boosts one's sense of personal competence and efficiency, and this in turn stretches out time in our minds. Ultimately, giving time makes people more willing to commit to future engagements despite their busy schedules.