Science of the Spirit

Magic Wand

Brainy babies - research explores infants' skills and abilities

© Unknown
Infants seem to develop at an astoundingly rapid pace, learning new things and acquiring new skills every day. And research suggests that the abilities that infants demonstrate early on can shape the development of skills later in life, in childhood and beyond.

Read about the latest research on infant development published in the November 2012 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

How Do You Learn to Walk? Thousands of Steps and Dozens of Falls per Day

Karen E. Adolph, Whitney G. Cole, Meghana Komati, Jessie S. Garciaguirre, Daryaneh Badaly, Jesse M. Lingeman, Gladys L. Y. Chan, and Rachel B. Sotsky

How do babies learn to walk? In this study, Adolph and colleagues recorded 15- to 60-minute videos of spontaneous activity from infants. They then coded the videos for the time infants spent walking and crawling, the number of crawling and walking steps infants took, and the number of falls infants experienced whether walking or crawling. The researchers found that the infants moved a tremendous amount and that new walkers moved faster than crawlers but had a similar number of falls at first and fewer as they became more experienced. This suggests that infants are motivated to begin walking because they move faster without falling more and that they dramatically improve their walking skills through immense amounts of practice.

Reading, writing and playing games may help aging brains stay healthy

© Unknown
Mental activities like reading and writing can preserve structural integrity in the brains of older people, according to a new study presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

While previous research has shown an association between late-life cognitive activity and better mental acuity, the new study from Konstantinos Arfanakis, Ph.D., and colleagues from Rush University Medical Center and Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago studied what effect late-life cognitive activity might have on the brain's white matter, which is composed of nerve fibers, or axons, that transmit information throughout the brain.

"Reading the newspaper, writing letters, visiting a library, attending a play or playing games, such as chess or checkers, are all simple activities that can contribute to a healthier brain," Dr. Arfanakis said.

The researchers used a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) method known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to generate data on diffusion anisotropy, a measure of how water molecules move through the brain. In white matter, diffusion anisotropy exploits the fact that water moves more easily in a direction parallel to the brain's axons, and less easily perpendicular to the axons, because it is impeded by structures such as axonal membranes and myelin. "This difference in the diffusion rates along different directions increases diffusion anisotropy values," Dr. Arfanakis said. "Diffusion anisotropy is higher when more diffusion is happening in one direction compared to others."

Readers join Dr. Eben's journey to the afterworld's gates

Dr. Eben
© Jennifer Taylor/The New York Times
Dr. Eben Alexander III
For years Dr. Eben Alexander III had dismissed near-death revelations of God and heaven as explainable by the hard wiring of the human brain. He was, after all, a neurosurgeon with sophisticated medical training.

But then in 2008 Dr. Alexander contracted bacterial meningitis. The deadly infection soaked his brain and sent him into a deep coma.

During that week, as life slipped away, he now says, he was living intensely in his mind. He was reborn into a primitive mucky Jell-o-like substance and then guided by "a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes" on the wings of a butterfly to an "immense void" that is both "pitch black" and "brimming with light" coming from an "orb" that interprets for an all-loving God.

Dr. Alexander, 58, was so changed by the experience that he felt compelled to write a book, "Proof of Heaven," that recounts his experience. He knew full well that he was gambling his professional reputation by writing it, but his hope is that his expertise will be enough to persuade skeptics, particularly medical skeptics, as he used to be, to open their minds to an afterworld.

Dr. Alexander acknowledged that tales of near-death experiences that reveal a bright light leading to compassionate world beyond are as old as time and by now seem trite. He is aware that his version of heaven is even more psychedelic than most - the butterflies, he explained, were not his choice, and anyway that was his "gateway" and not heaven itself.

Still, he said, he has a trump card: Having trained at Duke University and taught and practiced as a surgeon at Harvard, he knows brain science as well as anyone. And science, he said, cannot explain his experience.

"During my coma my brain wasn't working improperly," he writes in his book. "It wasn't working at all."
Black Magic

What if a psychopathic god exists?

I am The Lord, your God!
If we're going to debate the existence of gods, we need to think about what sorts of gods we're supposed to be talking about - you can't just leave that question aside as if the answer were obvious. The Christian god, for example, looks positively psychopathic much of the time. What would you do if a god like that really existed?

Usually discussions and debates about the existence of gods don't do much to define what is meant by "god" - either no definition is discussed or a very minimal definition is given. There's value in that approach, but I think that occasionally more attention needs to be paid to what sort of god is being debated.

There are lots of reasons for this, but I'll focus on just one here: there can be significant moral implications to how you address and react to the issue, depending on what sort of god one is discussing. Remember, the end goal for many believers is to encourage worship of and obedience to their god. Is it moral to worship and obey a psychopath?

The nature of conscious thought may be rhythmic

Brain Waves
© xpixel/Shutterstock
How our brains encode thoughts, such as perceptions and memories, at the cellular level is one of the biggest puzzles in neuroscience today. One theory suggests that ensembles of neurons represent each unique piece of information. No one knows, however, just what these ensembles look like, or how they form.

A new study, published in a recent issue of Neuron, sheds light on how neural ensembles form thoughts and support the flexibility to change one's mind. Earl Miller, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, led the study which has identified groups of neurons that encode specific behavioral rules by oscillating in synchrony with each other. The nature of conscious thought, the results suggest, may be rhythmic.

"As we talk, thoughts float in and out of our heads. Those are all ensembles forming and then reconfiguring to something else. It's been a mystery how the brain does this," says Miller, who is also a member of MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. "That's the fundamental problem that we're talking about - the very nature of thought itself."

Using monkeys trained to respond to objects based on either their color or orientation, the team identified two neural ensembles. Such a task requires cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to switch between two distinct sets of rules for behavior.

Guilty pleasures: Feeling guilty enhances deliciousness of food

Apple Pie
© Medical Daily
As the holiday season approaches, many people are going to enter it with a diet in place. Then, with the introduction of a single slice of pie, that diet will be shot. We will demur at first, citing calories and healthy living, but then we will have a bite, then another, and then before we know it, that diet has fallen by the wayside.

Research indicates that we do get rewarded for throwing away our winter weight goals, even if our waistlines may not feel the same way. That piece of pie tastes even more delicious if we indulge than it would otherwise. Of course, that is something that we have all experienced - but science indicates that it is true.

In a study published in The Journal of Marketing Research, researchers from Northwestern University said, "People who are primed with guilt subsequently experience greater pleasure than people who are not. People lack awareness of this automatic process."

The study consisted of six different experiments. In the first, the researchers split 40 participants into two groups. Both viewed six magazine covers. Half the group was forced to look at four of those six magazine covers that were health-related; the other half looked at covers that were completely unrelated.

Study: Meditation influences emotional processing even when you're not meditating

© Huffington Post
Meditation may influence the way the brain processes emotions -- even when you're not actually practicing it, a new study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Arizona, Boston University, the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies and Emory University found that meditation changes the way the amygdala brain region responds to emotional stimuli - but that this effect on emotional processing takes place even when a person is not in a state of meditation. The amygdala is a brain region involved in emotion and memory processing.

"This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state," study researcher Gaëlle Desbordes, of Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University's Center for Computation Neuroscience and Neural Technology, said in a statement.

Researchers had study participants undergo one of three eight-week courses: one course was on mindful attention meditation, where they were trained to be more attentive and aware of their thinking, feeling and breathing; one course was on compassion meditation, where they were trained to feel compassion and kindness to other people and themselves; and one course just provided general health information.

Comment: The following articles are additional examples of how Meditation Techniques Have Different Effects on the body, brain and emotions:

Meditation builds up the brain
Meditation Makes You More Creative
Making Meditation Accessible
Meditation and Its Benefits
Meditation Reduces the Emotional Impact of Pain
Meditation Better Than Morphine?
Meditation As a Form of Mental Exercise to Improve the Brain

To learn more about an easy to use Meditation practice check out the Eiriu Eolas Stress Control, Healing and Rejuvenation Program here.

Eye 2

Inside the Psyche of the 1%

We are the '1%' (although our real number is more like 6%)
Do the rich and super-rich tend to be psychopaths, devoid of guilt or shame? Are the 1% lacking in compassion? Does their endless accumulation of possessions actually bring them little to no happiness? To each of these, the answer is "yes" - but a very qualified "yes" with lots of subtleties. Even more important is what these issues suggest for building a society which does not ravage the last remnants of wilderness and rush headlong into a climate change tipping point.

Strange concepts of psychopathy

The word "psychopath" often elicits an image of a deranged murderer. Despite Alfred Hitchcock's chair-gripping Psycho, stabbing victims in the shower is not a typical activity of psychopaths. They are more often con artists who end up in jail after cheating their victims. Classic definitions of psychopathy include features such as superficial charm, anti-social behavior, unreliability, lack of remorse or shame, above average intelligence, absence of nervousness, and untruthfulness and insincerity. [1]

Most of those in the mental health industry sternly observe that a strict set of consistent rewards and consequences is the only treatment which works with psychopaths. But they admit that even this treatment might not work too well. Progressives may dismiss observations by psychologists because the field tends to explore a behavioral pattern as it exists in a certain Western culture at a given point in history and then imagine that it characterizes all people at all times. Psychology has a long tradition of bending to current race, gender and sexual orientation biases. Its class bias is reflected by the dominant portrayal of psychopathy.

Comment: Interesting research, but the problem, at root, is not capitalism. The problem is a biological one. The mind of a psychopath is so totally alien to people with a normal psychological substratum that we are literally talking about two completely different species. It's not about which model you use as a lens through which to view the world, it's about getting educated to the fact that humanity has an "intra-species predator", as foremost expert on psychopathology Dr. Robert Hare has defined them.


Are social networking internet sites a factor in psychotic symptoms?

Social Internet Sites
© Chums IT Systems
As Internet access becomes increasingly widespread, so do related psychopathologies such as Internet addiction and delusions related to the technology and to virtual relationships. Computer communications such as Facebook and chat groups are an important part of this story, says Dr. Uri Nitzan of Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Shalvata Mental Health Care Center in a new paper published in the Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences.

In his study, the researcher presented three in-depth case studies linking psychotic episodes to Internet communications from his own practice. According to Dr. Nitzan, patients shared some crucial characteristics, including loneliness or vulnerability due to the loss of or separation from a loved one, relative inexperience with technology, and no prior history of psychosis or substance abuse. In each case, a connection was found between the gradual development and exacerbation of psychotic symptoms, including delusions, anxiety, confusion, and intensified use of computer communications.

The good news is that all of the patients, who willingly sought out treatment on their own, were able to make a full recovery with proper treatment and care, Dr. Nitzan says.

Is that nervous feeling social anxiety disorder, or is it simply a case of being shy?

Rhode Island Hospital researcher explores common mental disorder, treatment options and its impact on daily life

Most people are faced with embarrassment or humiliation at some point in their lives. Maybe they get nervous before a big presentation to the bosses at work. Maybe they get a bit anxious thinking about approaching an attractive stranger at a party. But where is the line between normal shyness and social anxiety disorder?

Rhode Island Hospital researcher Kristy L. Dalrymple, Ph.D., of the department of psychiatry, explores the variances between the two, and discusses the differing beliefs of over, and under-, diagnosis of social anxiety disorder (SAD) and its treatment options in a paper published in the Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics.

"There are many differing opinions about social anxiety disorder and the best treatment," Dalrymple said. "Should it be treated with medication, behavioral therapy, or both? The significant increase in the prescription of antidepressant medications (which often are used to treat SAD) over the past several years - an increase of 400 percent -- should be considered when determining the best approach. Are we simply medicating, or are we helping patients to truly improve their quality of life?"