Science of the Spirit

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Study shows, what you don't see could save your life

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Like millions of Americans, you may have taken a CPR course or learned techniques for dealing with other emergency situations at some time in your life. However, if a fire broke out or a medical emergency arose, would you remember the proper techniques? Would you know what to do in the event of a natural disaster like a hurricane or an earthquake? A new study from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLS) has shown that people often do not recall things they have seen or passed by hundreds of times.

The research team asked 54 people who work in the same building if they knew the location of the fire extinguisher nearest their office. Many of these people had worked in the same office for years, passing by the bright red extinguishers several times a day. Yet only 13 people out of 54 - less than a quarter - knew the location of the nearest extinguisher.

The same people were asked to locate the nearest extinguisher and everyone was able to do so within a few seconds. Most of the participants were surprised they had never noticed the extinguishers before. Researchers noted that there seemed to be no significant difference between male and female participants, or between younger and older adults.

The results of this study were published in the journal Attention, Perception & Psychophysics.


Practice makes the perfect liar

© andrea michele piacquadio |
People normally take longer to come up with a lie, but after practicing, liars and truth-tellers become indistinguishable, according to a new study.
The more you practice a lie, the better you get at it, say the results of a new study.

Published Nov. 12 in the journal Frontiers in Cognitive Science, the study found that, after 20 minutes of practicing their cover story, liars could respond just as quickly and easily to lies as to the truth. Moreover, they were no more likely to slip-up on falsehoods than on the truth.

"After a short time of training, people can be very efficient at lying," said Xioaqing Hu, a study co-author and psychology doctoral candidate at Northwestern University. "The difference between lying and being honest has been eliminated after the training."

Though people lie for myriad reasons, it's no easy task. Lying takes a lot of brainpower because it requires holding contradictory information in mind (the truth and the lie), while inhibiting the urge to tell the truth. Children are terrible liars and only improve as they mature. And several studies have found that people take longer to tell a lie than to tell the truth.

"Lying is a difficult, because honesty is the default communication mode," Hu told LiveScience.

But past studies mostly tested people's ability to offer a deception with no practice. In real life, criminals usually practice and perfect their alibis before facing a police interrogation.


What happens to the brain in a coma

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In comatose patients, high-traffic brain regions go dark while less active regions spring to life, a new study suggests
What is going on inside the heads of individuals in a coma has been steeped in mystery. Now, a new study finds coma patients have dramatically reorganized brain networks, a finding that could shed light on the mystery of consciousness.

Compared with healthy patients in the study, high-traffic hubs of brain activity are dark in coma patients while more quiet regions spring to life.

"Consciousness may depend on the anatomical location of these hubs in the human brain network," said study co-author Sophie Achard, a statistician at the French National Center for Scientific research in Grenoble.

The findings have several important implications, said Indiana University neuroscientist Olaf Sporns, who was not involved in the study.

"It gives us a handle on what may be different between healthy conscious people and people who have loss of consciousness," Sporns told LiveScience. "The traffic patterns have totally reorganized. And maybe it's the rerouting of the traffic patterns that underlies the loss of consciousness," or the mysterious ability to be self-aware that seems to set humans apart from other animals.

In the future, the research could also help doctors determine which coma patients are likely to recover based on activity in high-traffic brain regions, he said. The research could potentially even suggest ways to stimulate the brains of patients in a coma to improve their outcome, he added.

The study was published today (Nov. 26) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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

© 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

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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

© 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.