Science of the Spirit

Magic Wand

Learning best when you rest: Sleeping after processing new info most effective, new study shows

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Nodding off in class may not be such a bad idea after all. New research from the University of Notre Dame shows that going to sleep shortly after learning new material is most beneficial for recall.

Titled "Memory for Semantically Related and Unrelated Declarative Information: The Benefit of Sleep, the Cost of Wake," the study was published March 22 in PLOS One.

Notre Dame Psychologist Jessica Payne and colleagues studied 207 students who habitually slept for at least six hours per night. Participants were randomly assigned to study declarative, semantically related or unrelated word pairs at 9:00 a.m. or 9:00 p.m., and returned for testing 30 minutes, 12 hours or 24 hours later. Declarative memory refers to the ability to consciously remember facts and events, and can be broken down into episodic memory (memory for events) and semantic memory (memory for facts about the world). People routinely use both types of memory every day - recalling where we parked today or learning how a colleague prefers to be addressed.

How Society Works: 8 Revealing Psychological Insights Into Our Social Behaviour

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Would you post a letter dropped in the street, obey an order to electrocute another person, start a conversation with a familiar stranger or help a lost child?

Stanley Milgram was an American social psychologist who is most famous for his obedience experiments (see below), but he was fascinated by all aspects of social order, especially in the city.

Like me he wondered how city dwellers manage to live in such proximity to each other. He wondered at how orderly queues are and what happens when their delicate balance is challenged. And he wanted to see how interconnected people were in an age before Twitter and Facebook.

Here are eight pieces of his research which each provide insight into how society works.

How The Mind Really Works: 10 Counterintuitive Psychology Studies

© Corie Howell
Some critics say psychology is just common sense, that it only confirms things we already know about ourselves. Ironically this can be difficult to argue with because once people get some new information they tend to think it was obvious all along.

One way of battling this is to think about all the unexpected, surprising and plain weird findings that have popped out of psychology studies over the years. So here are ten of my favourite.

1. Cognitive dissonance

This is perhaps one of the weirdest and most unsettling findings in psychology. Cognitive dissonance is the idea that we find it hard to hold two contradictory beliefs, so we unconsciously adjust one to make it fit with the other.

In the classic study students found a boring task more interesting if they were paid less to take part. Our unconscious reasons like this: if I didn't do it for money, then I must have done it because it was interesting. As if by magic, a boring task becomes more interesting because otherwise I can't explain my behaviour.

The reason it's unsettling is that our minds are probably performing these sorts of rationalisations all the time, without our conscious knowledge. So how do we know what we really think?

Military-Funded Brain Science Sparks Controversy

Future Soldiers
© U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Design and Engineering Center in Massachusetts
The Future Soldier Initiative.

Brain research and associated advances such as brain-machine interfaces that are funded by the U.S. military and intelligence communities raise profound ethical concerns, caution researchers who cite the potentially lethal applications of such work and other consequences.

Rapid advances in neuroscience made over the last decade have many dual-use applications of both military and civilian interest. Researchers who receive military funding - with the U.S. Department of Defense spending more than $350 million on neuroscience in 2011 - may not fully realize how dangerous their work might be, say scientists in an essay published online today (March 20) in the open-access journal PLoS Biology.

For instance, a brain-computer interface was used by a monkey to remotely control a walking robot in 2007. However, such interfaces could help people operate weapons, robotic exoskeletons, killer drones and other machines while sheltered from the reality of combat and its deadly consequences, said bioethicist Jonathan Moreno at the University of Pennsylvania, author of Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense (Dana Press, 2006).

"The question about brain-machine interfaces is whether we are continuing to lower the bar for conflict," Moreno told InnovationNewsDaily. "Certainly there are people in the armed forces and in policy who find the distancing of war fighters from combat disconcerting."

Insight Into a Shocking Therapy for Depression

Brain Scans
© J. S. Perrin, et al., PNAS Early Edition (March 2012)
Toning down internal chatter. Imaging scans show decreases in brain connectivity before (orange) and after (blue) treatment with ECT.

Since the 1930s, doctors have been jolting the brains of depressed patients with electricity to relieve their symptoms. The treatment, known as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), works, but it can cause memory loss and confusion and lead to difficulty forming new memories. Today, physicians generally limit it to patients who are severely ill, including those at risk for suicide. Now, a brain-imaging study highlights the part of the brain most affected, perhaps pointing to safer, less-invasive ways to achieve the same results.

Depression may be caused by an overactive brain, says physicist and neuroscientist Christian Schwarzbauer of the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom. "There may be so much internal communication that the brain becomes preoccupied with itself, less able to process information coming in from the outside world," he says, noting that studies have found that people with depression have heightened connectivity among brain networks involved in paying attention, monitoring internal and external cues, remembering the past, and controlling emotions.

In a 2010 study, psychiatrist Yvette Sheline and colleagues at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, found that these overactive networks converged on a common point in a region called the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex. This common point, dubbed the dorsal nexus, may "hot wire" the brain networks together in a way that leads to depression, the authors hypothesized.
Heart - Black

Abuse in Childhood Common Among Alcohol Addicts, Study Finds

© Stefano Paltera / For The Times
In a survey of 196 men and women being treated for alcohol dependence, almost one-quarter of men and one-third of women reported a history of childhood physical abuse.
Abuse in childhood appears to be a particularly strong risk factor for developing alcohol addiction later in life, researchers reported Thursday.

Alcohol dependence is linked to many risk factors - including genetics, drinking in adolescence and having other mental health disorders. A history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse in childhood is known to be another risk factor. The new study, however, shows how strong this link could be.

Researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse surveyed 196 men and women who were inpatients being treated for alcohol dependence. Almost one-quarter of men and 33% of women reported a history of childhood physical abuse while rates of sexual abuse were 12% for men and 49% for women.

Are Some Brains Better at Learning Languages?

Language Studies
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Some brains may be better than others at learning languages.

In his spare time, an otherwise ordinary 16-year old boy from New York taught himself Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Swahili, and a dozen other languages, the New York Times reported last week.

And even though it's not entirely clear how close to fluent Timothy Doner is in any of his studied languages, the high school sophomore -- along with other polyglots like him -- are certainly different from most Americans, who speak one or maybe two languages.

That raises the question: Is there something unique about certain brains, which allows some people to speak and understand so many more languages than the rest of us?

The answer, experts say, seems to be yes, no and it's complicated. For some people, genes may prime the brain to be good at language learning, according to some new research. And studies are just starting to pinpoint a few brain regions that are extra-large or extra-efficient in people who excel at languages.

Baby Love May Be Hard-Wired in Human Brain

Crying Baby
© AjFile | Shutterstock
Your brain is telling you to scoop this cute baby up!

An infant's doting eyes and chubby cheeks can send many people into a heartwarming swoon. Turns out, rather than the heart, that lure of tots may stem from specific brain circuits, new research suggests.

The results, detailed in the journal NeuroImage, suggest such brain-activity patterns may represent some deep biological impulse driving adults' interactions with kids.

They also build on past research suggesting an evolutionary link between the cuteness factor of babies and caregiving by adults. And while some past studies have involved parents, this one found a link with those who had no children.

"These adults have no children of their own. Yet images of a baby's face triggered what we think might be a deeply embedded response to reach out and care for that child," senior author Marc H. Bornstein, head of the Child and Family Research Section of the Eunice Kennedy ShriverNational Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said in a statement.

Meditation Strengthens the Brain

© University of California - Los Angeles
Cortical Surface Shown is the lateral view of the right cortical surface. The red circle indicates where the maximum effect occurred. Top: Larger gyrification in 50 long-term meditators compared to 50 well-matched controls. Bottom: Positive correlations between gyrification and the number of meditation years within the 50 meditators.
Earlier evidence out of UCLA suggested that meditating for years thickens the brain (in a good way) and strengthens the connections between brain cells. Now a further report by UCLA researchers suggests yet another benefit.

Eileen Luders, an assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, and colleagues, have found that long-term meditators have larger amounts of gyrification ("folding" of the cortex, which may allow the brain to process information faster) than people who do not meditate. Further, a direct correlation was found between the amount of gyrification and the number of meditation years, possibly providing further proof of the brain's neuroplasticity, or ability to adapt to environmental changes.

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The Honking Experiment: Can You Predict Your Driving Behaviour?

© D. Sharon Pruitt
If the car in front pauses when the lights turn green, do you honk and does it depend on the price of the car?

Last week I asked you the following question:
Say you're in your car, sitting at a red light behind another car. The lights turn green but the car in front doesn't move. Twelve seconds go by. Do you think you'd be more likely to honk if the car was an old Ford or if it was a brand new Porsche?
Over the weekend 1,313 people took part and the results were clear-cut. Here's what you said: 781 people thought they'd be more likely to honk at the high-status car and 532 said it would be the low-status car.