Science of the Spirit

Magic Wand

The Power of Suggestion: What We Expect Influences Our Behavior, for Better or Worse

© Unknown
A lucky rabbit foot. A glass of wine. A pill. What do these things all have in common? Their effects - whether we do well on a test, whether we mingle at the cocktail party, whether we feel better - all depend on the power of suggestion.

In a new article, psychological scientists Maryanne Garry and Robert Michael of Victoria University of Wellington, along with Irving Kirsch of Harvard Medical School and Plymouth University, delve into the phenomenon of suggestion, exploring the intriguing relationship between suggestion, cognition, and behavior. The article is published in the June issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Over their research careers, Garry and Kirsch have both studied the effects of suggestion on cognition and behavior. Kirsch focused mostly on suggestion in clinical psychology, while Garry, whose work is supported by the Marsden Fund of New Zealand, was interested in the effects of suggestion on human memory. When the two got to talking, "we realized that the effects of suggestion are wider and often more surprising than many people might otherwise think," says Garry.

Anxiety Cranks Up Activity in Women's Brains

Worried Woman
© Dmitriy Shironosov, Shutterstock
Worry may ramp up activity in the brain, causing burnout.

Women who worry a lot have brains that work overtime even during easy tasks, new research suggests.

The findings could help in the identification and treatment of anxiety disorders, according to the Michigan State University scientists who conducted the study.

"This may help predict the development of anxiety issues later in life for girls," said Jason Moser, a Michigan State psychologist and the lead author of the study. "It's one more piece of the puzzle for us to figure out why women in general have more anxiety disorders."

Women are twice as likely than men to have anxiety disorders. To find out why, Moser and his colleagues used an electrode cap to measure electrical activity in the brain as 79 female college students and 70 male college students completed an easy task.

The volunteers were asked to identify the middle letter in a series of letters. In easy versions, all of the letters were the same ("FFFFF"), and in more difficult versions, the middle letter was different ("EEFEE").

The volunteers also filled out questionnaires about how much they worried.
2 + 2 = 4

Study: Biases in Human Thinking

© Unknown
How to correct for a bias that stop us learning from our mistakes.

Going into business for yourself is scary. Despite all the potential rewards, compared with getting a safe job with a big firm, being an entrepreneur means accepting huge risks.

All entrepreneurs know that there are no guarantees and that new businesses fail at a frighteningly high rate. Still many manage to convince themselves that their venture will be different.

As you might expect, as a group entrepreneurs are remarkably optimistic about their chances of succeeding (otherwise why bother?).

Comment: A good way to get a handle on your thinking processes is to do writing exercises. For more information, see this Sott article:

Writing to Heal


Link Between Touch And Emotion Discovered

Sight. Sound. Touch. These are just a few of the senses that the body has. This theme of senses was the subject of a recent study by neuroscientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) who reported a relationship between touch and emotion via the brain's primary somatosensory cortex.

The findings, described in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), were discovered by researchers Valeria Gazzola and Christian Keysers, who were visiting Caltech from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

"Intuitively, we all believe that when we are touched by someone, we first objectively perceive the physical properties of the touch - its speed, its gentleness, the roughness of the skin," noted researcher Gazzola in the statement. "Only thereafter, in a separable second step based on who touched us, do we believe we value this touch more or less."

The experiment involved measuring the brain activity of heterosexual males with an MRI scanner in relation to caresses during two different conditions. In the first condition, the participants saw a video of a female bending down to caress their leg. In the second condition, the participants were shown a clip of a male completing the same action. When the men reported their experiences, they expressed positive reactions when they thought that they were caressed by the female and commented on having negative feelings when they thought that they were being caressed by a male. Their brain activity also demonstrated this difference, which was shown in the primary somatosensory cortex.

"We demonstrated for the first time that the primary somatosensory cortex - the brain region encoding basic touch properties such as how rough or smooth an object is - also is sensitive to the social meaning of a touch," remarked Michael Spezio, a visiting associate at Caltech who is also an assistant professor of psychology at Scripps College, in a prepared statement. "It was generally thought that there are separate brain pathways for how we process the physical aspects of touch on the skin and for how we interpret that touch emotionally - that is, whether we feel it as pleasant, unpleasant, desired, or repulsive. Our study shows that, to the contrary, emotion is involved at the primary stages of social touch."

Why Some People Blame Themselves for Everything

© Roland Zahn, University of Manchester
In people who have experienced depression, these two brain regions communicate less effectively during feelings of guilt than in people who have never been depressed.
People prone to depression may struggle to organize information about guilt and blame in the brain, new neuroimaging research suggests.

Crushing guilt is a common symptom of depression, an observation that dates back to Sigmund Freud. Now, a new study finds a communication breakdown between two guilt-associated brain regions in people who have had depression. This so-called "decoupling" of the regions may be why depressed people take small faux pas as evidence that they are complete failures.

"If brain areas don't communicate well, that would explain why you have the tendency to blame yourself for everything and not be able to tie that into specifics," study researcher Roland Zahn, a neruoscientist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, told LiveScience.

The seat of guilt

Zahn and his colleagues focused their research on the subgenual cingulated cortex and its adjacent septal region, a region deep in the brain that has been linked to feelings of guilt. Previous studies have found abnormalities in this region, dubbed the SCSR, in people with depression.

The SCSR is known to communicate with another brain region, the anterior temporal lobe, which is situated under the side of the skull. The anterior temporal lobe is active during thoughts about morals, including guilt and indignation.

The researchers suspected that perhaps the communication channels between the SCSR and the anterior temporal lobe help people feel guilt adaptively rather than maladaptively: "I messed up and shouldn't do that again," versus "I fail at everything, why do I even try?"

The researchers recruit 25 participants who had a history of major depression but who had been symptom-free for at least a year. The participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a type of brain scan that reveals blood flow to active areas of the brain. As their brains were scanned, the participants read sentences designed to illicit guilt or indignation. Each sentence featured the participant's name as well as the name of their best friend. For example, "Tom" might read a sentence like, "Tom acts greedily toward Fred," to elicit guilt. The sentence "Fred acts greedily toward Tom" would trigger indignation.

The researchers compared the brains of these once-depressed volunteers with the brains of 22 healthy, never-depressed controls, matched to the depressed volunteers on age, education and gender.

Men's Porn Use Linked to Unhappy Relationships

© ZINQ Stock, Shutterstock
What's on his computer could cause relationship problems.
Young women who report that their romantic partners look at porn frequently are less happy in their relationships than women partnered with guys who more often abstain, new research finds.

The study bolsters some anecdotal evidence that men's porn use can shake the self-esteem of their girlfriends or wives, though certainly not all couples have conflicts over pornography, said study researcher Destin Stewart, a clinical psychology intern at the University of Florida. Stewart decided to investigate the effect of porn on relationships after some of her clients revealed that they were struggling with the issue.

Discovering explicit material on a partner's computer "made them feel like they were not good enough, like they could not measure up," Stewart told LiveScience.
Brick Wall

Liberals vs. conservatives: How politics affects charitable giving

© Rice University/
Americans are more likely to donate to a charity that reflects the values of their political affiliation, according to a new study from Rice University, the University of Texas at San Antonio and Pennsylvania State University.

"The political divide not only impacts political actions, but everyday actions such as donating to charity," said Rice University Professor Vikas Mittal, co-author of the research paper. "When you ask people if their donation behavior to a charity helping children will change because of their political leanings, most say, 'Of course not!' We wanted to see if that is true or not."

The paper, which will appear in the International Journal of Research in Marketing: Special Issue on Consumer Identities, is based on three studies, two of which comprised nationally representative samples of adults and another based on a randomized experiment with students. The researchers asked why liberals or conservatives would donate more or less to a specific charity.

Fantasies May Lead to Biased Decision Making

Hamoa Beach in Maui
© Maui Convention and Visitors Bureau
Hamoa Beach in Maui. Fantasizing about your beach vacation may make you inclined to ignore the negative considerations while gathering information about it, research indicates.
Fantasies may influence people's eventual decisions by prompting them to overlook the negative considerations that arise farther down the road, a study says.

After researchers gave their study volunteers a chance to fantasize about one of three things: a dream vacation, wearing glamorous high heels or making a pile of money on the stock market.

Afterward, the participants were more prone to focus on the positive aspects than the negative aspects of such an event actually happening. In other words, the researchers found, fantasizing makes one more likely to focus on how fabulous her calves would look when wearing stilettos, rather than the calluses and bunions that might follow.

The finding has implications for how people get information when they are in the early stages of planning an event, according to the researchers, who point out that this bias ultimately may affect decision making later on.

"Our work suggests that before getting to this point, positive fantasies might lead people to acquire biased information - to learn more about the pros rather than the cons," Heather Barry Kappes of New York University said in a statement. "Thus, even if people deliberate very carefully on the information they've acquired, they could still make poor decisions."

Generation Wii... or Generation We?

On May 14, 2012, Greater Good Science Center Faculty Director Dacher Keltner delivered the commencement address for graduating psychology students at the University of California, Berkeley. We are proud to present the text of his speech.

© John Walker/Creative Commons
In 1986, Ivan Boesky, of insider trading fame, gave a graduation speech on this very same Berkeley campus of free speech and Nobel laureates. That day he declared, "Greed is healthy."

A year later in the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko famously turned that phrase into, "Greed is good." This battle cry was part of a pendulum swing seen before in history, one that expressed a certain view of who we are as a species. We are selfish gratification machines. Happiness is found in material pursuits. Other people's concerns are not our own. Altruism is an illusion. The bad in human nature is stronger than the good.

That phrase and its accompanying ideology was the mantra of my generation, and scientific studies show it brought us:
  • Rises in loneliness and a loss of friends;
  • A loss of trust in our communities and institutions;
  • Increases in narcissism and decreases in empathy;
  • Spikes in anxiety, to the point where 75 percent of Americans now say they are too stressed;
  • and Humvees, Enron, the recent economic collapse, an insulated one percent, and levels of inequality in the United States that are literally shortening the lives of our citizens.
Our graduates have been trained in a discipline - psychological science - that applies the impartial rigors and open-minded inquiry of science to hypotheses like, "Greed is good." And in any fashion that we test that hypothesis, it fails. Instead, we bring into focus a much different picture of human nature.

Parenting & The Human Baby

Tenderness appeared in man's mammalian ancestors eons before he learned to preserve fire or shape a stone.
- Lewis Mumford, The Conduct of Life
human baby
© Wikimedia Commons
The human infant is a helpless creature at birth. He is virtually immobile, he cannot creep, walk, or speak, and is greatly limited in his ability to act with purpose. Unlike other primates, he cannot even hold on to or cling to his mother. He must be carried if he is to go from one place to another. Seventy-five per cent of his brain develops after birth. He cannot continue to live without the efforts of another human. He requires years of development before he can care for himself. A baby's helplessness and immature development requires a source of care. Nature has provided a source to match this need - the human mother.

Mothers are biologically and genetically designed to nurture their babies. A newborn's mother has everything a baby needs - arms to hold him, breasts with human milk to feed and comfort him, a human body to share with him, a person to protect and be there for him. She is someone who has evolved with the power and specific resources that will allow her baby to continue to live and to develop normally after he is born. Mother and infant did not evolve separately, but together. The mother is the other half of the human nurturing process, a process which begins at conception and which continues for many years after birth. Although a mother and her baby are from the moment of conception structurally separate, they evolved to function together as a unit. Donald Winnicott, the English psychologist, has said that, "There is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone." This statement captures the reality of the human baby - a reality which is often overlooked in our society because babies are inaccurately perceived from the moment of birth as separate individuals.