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Thu, 11 Feb 2016
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


Attracted to your opposite? Brain chemicals may tell

© Stock.Xchng

What makes people fall in love with one person and not another?

Philosophers, social scientists and poets have tried to answer that question since time immemorial.

The answer may have a lot to do with brain chemistry, said Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, on Sept. 28 at the Being Human conference, a daylong event focused on the science and mystery of the human experience.

Several brain chemicals, including dopamine and testosterone, play a role in a person's drive toward romance, sex and other rewards, Fisher said. The specific balance of these chemicals in people's brains could shape their personalities and, in turn, the types of people they are drawn to, Fisher said. Sometimes, that means birds of a feather flock together, whereas for others, opposites attract.

Love addiction

In past research, Fisher found that the brains of the madly in love look markedly different from the brains of those who are not in love.

"Romantic love is akin to an addiction," Fisher said.

For instance, two areas of the brain - the ventral tegmental area, a "dopamine factory" associated with craving and obsession, and the nucleus accumbens, which is strongly associated with addiction - are overactive in those who are love struck, she said.


Abusive parenting may have a biological basis

© University of Oregon
Elizabeth A. Skowron of the University of Oregon has found a potential physiological trigger for a mother's abusive-parenting tendencies while attempting to provide a nurturing experience.
Research led by University of Oregon professor unveils a potential neurobiological trigger.

Parents who physically abuse their children appear to have a physiological response that subsequently triggers more harsh parenting when they attempt parenting in warm, positive ways, according to new research.

Reporting in the quarterly journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, a five-member team, led by Elizabeth A. Skowron, a professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services in the University of Oregon College of Education, documented connections between the nervous system's ability to calm heart rate -- via electrocardiogram (ECG) measures of parasympathetic activation -- and the type of parenting mothers displayed during a laboratory interaction with their preschool child.

Studies of child maltreatment have consistently found that parents who physically abuse their children tend to parent in more hostile, critical and controlling ways. Skowron's team appears to have found evidence of a physiological basis for patterns of aversive parenting -- the use of hostile actions such as grabbing an arm or hand or using negative verbal cues in guiding a child's behavior -- in a sample of families involved with Child Protective Services.

For the experiment, mothers and children were monitored to record changes in heart rate while playing together in the lab. Parenting behavior was scored to capture positive parenting and strict, hostile control using a standard coding system.

Eye 1

Rich people just care less


A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain.
Turning a blind eye. Giving someone the cold shoulder. Looking down on people. Seeing right through them.

These metaphors for condescending or dismissive behavior are more than just descriptive. They suggest, to a surprisingly accurate extent, the social distance between those with greater power and those with less - a distance that goes beyond the realm of interpersonal interactions and may exacerbate the soaring inequality in the United States.

A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. This tuning out has been observed, for instance, with strangers in a mere five-minute get-acquainted session, where the more powerful person shows fewer signals of paying attention, like nodding or laughing. Higher-status people are also more likely to express disregard, through facial expressions, and are more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the other speaker.

Bringing the micropolitics of interpersonal attention to the understanding of social power, researchers are suggesting, has implications for public policy.

Of course, in any society, social power is relative; any of us may be higher or lower in a given interaction, and the research shows the effect still prevails. Though the more powerful pay less attention to us than we do to them, in other situations we are relatively higher on the totem pole of status - and we, too, tend to pay less attention to those a rung or two down.

Comment: But no amount of social contact will help certain people in power regain their empathy and compassion. For more information see:

Moral Endo-skeletons and Exo-skeletons: A Perspective on America's Cultural Divide and Current Crisis
Political Ponerology: A Science on The Nature of Evil adjusted for Political Purposes


'Brain training' may boost working memory, but not intelligence

Brain training games, apps, and websites are popular and it's not hard to see why - who wouldn't want to give their mental abilities a boost? New research suggests that brain training programs might strengthen your ability to hold information in mind, but they won't bring any benefits to the kind of intelligence that helps you reason and solve problems.

The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"It is hard to spend any time on the web and not see an ad for a website that promises to train your brain, fix your attention, and increase your IQ," says psychological scientist and lead researcher Randall Engle of Georgia Institute of Technology. "These claims are particularly attractive to parents of children who are struggling in school."

According to Engle, the claims are based on evidence that shows a strong correlation between working memory capacity (WMC) and general fluid intelligence. Working memory capacity refers to our ability to keep information either in mind or quickly retrievable, particularly in the presence of distraction. General fluid intelligence is the ability to infer relationships, do complex reasoning, and solve novel problems.

The correlation between WMC and fluid intelligence has led some to surmise that increasing WMC should lead to an increase in both fluid intelligence, but "this assumes that the two constructs are the same thing, or that WMC is the basis for fluid intelligence," Engle notes.


Truth or consequences? The negative results of concealing who you really are on the job

Watch Clayton Critcher talk about his research.

Most know that hiding something from others can cause internal angst. New research suggests the consequences can go far beyond emotional strife and that being forced to keep information concealed, such as one's sexual orientation, disrupts the concealer's basic skills and abilities, including intellectual acuity, physical strength, and interpersonal grace - skills critical to workplace success.

"With no federal protection for gays and lesbians in the work place, our work suggests that the wisdom of non-discrimination laws should be debated not merely through a moral lens, but with an appreciation for the loss of economic productivity that such vulnerabilities produce," says Clayton R. Critcher, assistant professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. Critcher, a member of the Haas Marketing Group, conducts research on consumer behavior and social psychology, including questions of self and identity.

Critcher's paper, "The Cost of Keeping it Hidden: Decomposing Concealment Reveals What Makes it Depleting," forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General and co-authored with Melissa J. Ferguson of Cornell University, details multiple negative consequences of concealment. The findings, says Critcher, stem from the difficulty of having to constantly monitor one's speech for secret-revealing content that needs to be edited out.


Forget delayed gratification: What kids really need is cognitive control


"The children take a favorite small stuffed animal, lie down on the floor and put the animal on his or her belly. Then they count one-two-three as they breath in and their belly rises, and the same as their belly falls on the out breath."
By now, we've all heard about the famous marshmallow test in which 4-year-olds are told they can either have the juicy one in front of them now, or two later. The 40-year-old experiment, which has been replicated using a variety of enticements, purports to prove that children who can delay gratification will meet with the most success in life. But fighting off impulses is just a one part of a much broader and more predictive mental skill, one that scientists call "cognitive control," or the ability to manage your attention.

Cognitive control plays a central role in mental skills ranging from plain concentration and focus (on your homework, not that text from your BFF) to calming down after you get upset (say, when you finally read that text). A study published in 2011 tracked 1,000 children in New Zealand after rigorously testing them in elementary school for cognitive control. By their early 30s, their ability to manage attention predicted their financial success and their health better than did their IQ or the wealth of their family of origin.

The brain's prefrontal circuitry for managing attention develops from birth onward into the 20s. Some children naturally have more cognitive control than others, and in all kids this essential skill is being compromised by the usual suspects: smartphones, TV, etc. But there are many ways that adults can help kids learn better cognitive control. For toddlers, playing games like Simon Says or musical chairs, where they win by playing close attention, works this mental muscle. Reading a story, or any activity that requires sustained attention, does the same.

Comment: Visit Éiriú Eolas for a comprehensive program on breathing exercises and cognitive enhancement.


'Dozens of mental disorders don't exist' and DSM-5 is 'a fiction,' of ideology, U.S. therapist claims ahead of World Mental Health Day

© Amazon.com
In his riveting tale of how psychiatrists "medicalize" human suffering, Gary Greenberg recounts that, in 1850, a physician called Samuel Cartwright reported a new disease in the highly respected New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal. Cartwright named it drapetomania, from the ancient Greek drapetes for a runaway slave; in other words, here was a disease that "caused Negroes to run away." It had one primary diagnostic symptom - "absconding from service" - and a few secondary ones, including "sulkiness and dissatisfaction just prior to flight."

Drapetomania was, of course, consigned to the dustbin of medical history. It never made it into the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the leading authority on mental health diagnosis and research. But, Greenberg suggests in his scathing critique of the DSM, it might well have done - had the manual existed at the time.

After all, he notes, homosexuality was listed as a "sociopathic personality disorder" when the DSM was first published in 1952, and remained so until 1973.

"Doctors were paid to treat it, scientists to search for its causes and cures," he writes in The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry. "Gay people themselves underwent countless therapies including electric shocks, years on the couch, behaviour modification and surrogate sex."

Greenberg, 56, is a U.S. psychotherapist of 30 years' experience and a prolific writer on mental illness (including his own depression after the collapse of his first marriage). But the target of his latest book is the DSM itself, the so-called "psychiatrist's bible," which aims to provide a definitive list of all mental health conditions, along with their diagnostic criteria.


Neuro-enhancement in the military: Far-fetched or an inevitable future?

© Alamy
The military has a genuine interest in brain stimulation research.
About five years ago, not long after I started up my research group at Cardiff University, something rather strange happened. One morning I came down to my lab to find the door wide open and a suited man standing in the middle of the room, peering around and scribbling on a clipboard. He told me he worked for a private defence firm who were interested in applications of my research on human brain stimulation. He also said there was funding available for joint research projects. We spoke for a couple of minutes before I made it clear I wasn't interested in that sort of collaboration.

Thinking about it afterward, something about the encounter chilled me. It wasn't the fact that this person had gained access to the lab seemingly unannounced, and it wasn't even the sense of entitlement that seemed to exude from the guy, as though he was standing in his lab not mine. What bothered me was the realisation that the work I do operates anywhere near the line where a military firm might find it useful. My opinion at the time - still unchanged - was that I would sooner quit science than get into bed with the profiteering wing of those whose raison d'être is foreign intervention and invasion.

Five years later, brain stimulation research has moved far and fast. A fascinating new issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience includes a timely review on the various ways brain stimulation can enhance thought and behaviour - with special consideration of applications in the security services and military.

Different forms of neurostimulation in humans have now been shown to boost our ability to learn and perform motor actions, to pay attention to events in the environment, to recall information in memory, and to exercise self-control. At the same time, evidence is mounting for more complex effects on cognition. For instance, stimulation of the human prefrontal cortex can enhance or inhibit our tendency to lie, improve our ability to lie successfully, and can encourage us to comply with social norms that carry a punishment for disobedience.


Science confirms the obvious: Political extremists think they are right and you are wrong

© Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons
Tea Partier Ted Cruz.
Why are political extremists so hard to argue with? Because they're just so darn sure that their views are the most winningest of them all. As perhaps evidenced by our current state of government, extremists aren't really into compromise. The underlying reason may be that they believe their beliefs are vastly superior to the views of others, according to a new study in Physiological Science.

The study, which implicated extremists on both sides of the political spectrum, analyzed the extent to which being extremely conservative or extremely liberal correlated with feelings of belief superiority. Belief superiority doesn't just mean you think your opinions are correct, it means also believing it's the only valid opinion, and that all other opinions or attitudes are inferior to yours.

"They don't just take a side, they actually believe that everyone who disagrees with that view must be wrong," lead author Kaitlyn Toner explained.

Toner and her colleagues from Duke University looked at political opinions asserted by 527 Americans recruited through Amazon's Mechanical Turk system. The participants completed a series of online questionnaires about their views on polemical political issues like health care, illegal immigration, abortion, affirmative action and income taxes. They indicated both their attitude on the subject and how correct they believed their belief was in comparison to everyone else's.


The four basic moves to strengthen focus

You're at your keyboard zeroed in on some compelling task at hand, say, focused on a report you have to finish today, when suddenly there's a pop-up box or melodious ding! You've got a message.

What do you do? Stay with that urgent task? Or check that message?

The answer to that dilemma will be determined by a strip of neurons in your prefrontal cortex, just behind your forehead - your brain's executive center. One of its jobs is settling such conflicts, and managing your priorities in general.

The ability to stay concentrated on what you're doing and ignore distractions counts among the most basic skills in anyone's mental toolbox.

Call it focus.

The more focused we are, the more successful we can be at whatever we do. And, conversely, the more distracted, the less well we do. This applies across the board: sports, school, career.

Focus is the hidden ingredient in excellence - "hidden" because we typically don't notice it. But lacking focus we are more likely to falter at whatever we do. A test of how concentrated college athletes are, for instance, predicts their sports performance the following semester. A wandering mind, studies show, punches holes in students' comprehension of what they study. And an executive tells me that whenever he finds his mind has wandered during a meeting, he wonders what opportunities he has just missed.

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