Science of the Spirit


When you're at rest, your brain's right side hums

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There's plenty of brain activity even when people are thinking nothing at all. But it's the brain's right side - for most people the less-dominant half - that stays busiest while you're at rest, according to surprising new findings.

Researchers found that during periods of wakeful rest, the right hemisphere of the brain chatters more to itself than the left hemisphere does. It also sends more messages to the left hemisphere than vice versa. Surprisingly, this remains true whether the owner of the brain is left- or right-handed. That seems odd, because in right-handed people the left hemisphere is the dominant one, and in left-handed people the right is usually more dominant.

Andrei Medvedev of Georgetown University Medical Center's Center for Functional and Molecular Imaging asked 15 study participants to sit peacefully and let their minds drift while they wore a cap that measured brain activity.

This resting state, previously found to improve memory, "is a special state when the brain tries to deal with information that was acquired during previous active states," Medvedev told LiveScience.


Heaven Is Real: Neurosurgeon who claims to have visited the afterlife

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Dr. Eben Alexander claims to have visited the afterlife
Dr. Eben Alexander has taught at Harvard Medical School and has earned a strong reputation as a neurosurgeon. And while Alexander says he's long called himself a Christian, he never held deeply religious beliefs or a pronounced faith in the afterlife.

But after a week in a coma during the fall of 2008, during which his neocortex ceased to function, Alexander claims he experienced a life-changing visit to the afterlife, specifically heaven.

"According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent," Alexander writes in the cover story of this week's edition of Newsweek.

So what exactly does heaven look like?

Alexander says he first found himself floating above clouds before witnessing, "transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamer like lines behind them."

He claims to have been escorted by an unknown female companion and says he communicated with these beings through a method of correspondence that transcended language. Alexander says the messages he received from those beings loosely translated as:

"You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever."

"You have nothing to fear."

"There is nothing you can do wrong."

From there, Alexander claims to have traveled to "an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting." He believes this void was the home of God.

Magic Wand

New research reveals more about how the brain processes facial expressions and emotions

Brain feedback from facial mimicry used to interpret ambiguous smiles, shape relationships of power and status

Research released today helps reveal how human and primate brains process and interpret facial expressions, and the role of facial mimicry in everything from deciphering an unclear smile to establishing relationships of power and status. The findings were presented at Neuroscience 2012, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world's largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

Facial mimicry - a social behavior in which the observer automatically activates the same facial muscles as the person she is imitating - plays a role in learning, understanding, and rapport. Mimicry can activate muscles that control both smiles and frowns, and evoke their corresponding emotions, positive and negative. The studies reveal new roles of facial mimicry and some of its underlying brain circuitry.


Social contact can ease pain related to nerve damage, animal study suggests

Companionship has the potential to reduce pain linked to nerve damage, according to a new study.

Mice that were paired with a cage-mate showed lower pain responses and fewer signs of inflammation in their nervous system after undergoing surgery that affected their nerves than did isolated mice, suggesting that the social contact had both behavioral and physiological influences.

The social contact lowered the pain response and signs of inflammation even in animals that had experienced stress prior to the nerve injury.

These mice experienced a specific kind of nerve-related pain called allodynia, which is a withdrawal response to a stimulus that normally would not elicit a response - in this case, a light touch to the paw.

"If they were alone and had stress, the animals had increased inflammation and allodynia behavior," said Adam Hinzey, a graduate student in neuroscience at Ohio State University and lead author of the study. "If the mice had a social partner, both allodynia and inflammation were reduced."

More than 20 million Americans experience the nerve pain known as peripheral neuropathy as a consequence of diabetes or other disorders as well as trauma, including spinal cord injury. Few reliable treatments are available for this persistent pain.

"A better understanding of social interaction's beneficial effects could lead to new therapies for this type of pain," Hinzey said.

Hinzey described the research during a press conference Monday (10/15) in New Orleans at Neuroscience 2012, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

In the study, researchers paired one group of mice with a single cage-mate for one week while other mice were kept socially isolated. For three days during this week, some mice from each group were exposed to brief stress while others remain nonstressed.


Sandusky and the Science of Self-Delusion

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Jerry Sandusky arrives at the Centre County Courthouse for the third day of testimony in his sexual abuse trial
Sandusky's faith in his own lies is a common and very human trait, revealing the flexibility of memory in the mind.

For sexually abusing 10 boys while working as an assistant football coach at Penn State, Jerry Sandusky received a sentence this week of between 30 and 60 years in prison.

And yet, Sandusky continues to insist that he is innocent.

"They could take away my life, they could make me out as a monster, they could treat me as a monster, but they can't take away my heart," he said in a recorded statement. "In my heart, I know I did not do these alleged disgusting acts. My wife has been my only sexual partner and that was after marriage. Our love continues."

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Why are Americans so easy to manipulate and control?

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Shoppers, students, workers, and voters are all seen by consumerism and behaviorism the same way: passive, conditionable objects.

What a fascinating thing! Total control of a living organism! - psychologist B.F. Skinner

The corporatization of society requires a population that accepts control by authorities, and so when psychologists and psychiatrists began providing techniques that could control people, the corporatocracy embraced mental health professionals.

In psychologist B.F. Skinner's best-selling book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), he argued that freedom and dignity are illusions that hinder the science of behavior modification, which he claimed could create a better-organized and happier society.


On Edge: Why do some sounds make our brains go crazy?

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There are noises that set our teeth on edge, make us recoil, and generally unnerve us. For me, that noise is the sound of someone popping his or her back. Scientists from Newcastle University and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging say heightened activity between the emotional and auditory areas of the brain can explain why the sound of chalk on a blackboard, a knife on a bottle, or a joint popping is so unpleasant.

A new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, reveals the interaction between the region of the brain that processes sound - the auditory cortex - and the region which processes negative emotions - the amygdala.

The team used brain imaging to show that when we hear an unpleasant noise the amygdala modulates the response of the auditory complex. This heightens activity and provokes our negative reaction.

"It appears there is something very primitive kicking in," says Dr Sukhbinder Kumar, from Newcastle University. "It's a possible distress signal from the amygdala to the auditory cortex."

The team examined the brains of 13 volunteers using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see how their brains reacted to unpleasant noises. The test subjects listened to a range of noises while inside the scanners and rated them from most unpleasant - the sound of a knife on a bottle - to most pleasant - bubbling water, giving the research team the ability to study the brain response to each type of sound.

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The Illusion of Transparency: Other people can't read your mental state as well as you think

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Most people hate public speaking. The very idea starts the palms sweating and the stomach churning.

It makes sense: with everyone's eyes on you, the potential for embarrassment is huge. Crowds, we are told, can sense our nerves.

Or can they? We may feel terribly nervous here on the inside, but what can other people read from our facial expressions, speech patterns and general demeanour?

When this is tested experimentally we find an interesting thing.


Parental bonding makes for happy, stable child

© Tim Schoon, University of Iowa
A University of Iowa study shows infants who develop a close bond with at least one parent – mother or father – experience fewer emotional and behavioral problems in childhood.
Study finds that closeness with either parent has behavioral, emotional benefits.

Parents: Want to help ensure your children turn out to be happy and socially well adjusted? Bond with them when they are infants.

That's the message from a study by the University of Iowa, which found that infants who have a close, intimate relationship with a parent are less likely to be troubled, aggressive or experience other emotional and behavioral problems when they reach school age. Surprisingly, the researchers found that a young child needs to feel particularly secure with only one parent to reap the benefits of stable emotions and behavior, and that being attached to dad is just as helpful as being close to mom.

The study bolsters the still-debated role of the influence that a parent can exercise at the earliest stages in a child's mental and emotional development, the authors contend in the paper, published in the journal Child Development.

"There is a really important period when a mother or a father should form a secure relationship with their child, and that is during the first two years of life. That period appears to be critical to the child's social and emotional development," says Sanghag Kim, a post-doctoral researcher in psychology at the UI who collaborated with UI psychology professor Grazyna Kochanska on the study. "At least one parent should make that investment."

The researchers assessed the relationship of 102 infants (15 months old) with a parent and then followed up with 86 of them when they reached age 8. Separate surveys of the parents and the child were taken at that time. The infants and parents were drawn from a broad spectrum of income, education, and race. All the couples were heterosexual.

The authors also solicited feedback from teachers about the children, which ranged from concerns about inner emotions, such as worry or sadness, to more outward displays, such as disobedience and aggression.

Magic Wand

More than just 'zoning out': Exploring the cognitive processes behind mind wandering

It happens innocently enough: One minute you're sitting at your desk, working on a report, and the next minute you're thinking about how you probably need to do laundry and that you want to try the new restaurant down the street. Mind wandering is a frequent and common occurrence. And while mind wandering in certain situations - in class, for example - can be counterproductive, some research suggests that mind wandering isn't necessarily a bad thing.

New research published in the journals of the Association for Psychological Science explores mind wandering in various contexts, examining how mind wandering is related to cognitive processes involved in working memory and executive control.

Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation

You might be driving home from work, taking a shower, preparing ingredients for dinner and, suddenly - "Eureka!" - you have a new insight into some problem or situation. Anecdotes tell us that people often have these kinds of creative thoughts while engaged in unrelated tasks, but researcher Benjamin Baird and colleagues wanted to subject the phenomenon to scientific scrutiny. The researchers designed an experiment in which they asked participants to perform an Unusual Use Task (UUT), listing as many unusual uses for an item as possible. The participants were then split into four groups - one group was asked to perform a demanding task and a second was asked to perform an undemanding task. The third group rested for 12 minutes and a fourth group was given no break. All participants then performed the Unusual Use Task again. Of the four groups, only the people who performed the undemanding task improved their score on the second UUT test. Participants in the undemanding task reported greater instances of mind wandering during the task, which suggests that simple tasks that allow the mind to wander may increase creative problem solving.