Science of the Spirit


Baby Laughter Project aims to understand cognitive development

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Believe it or not, there's a lot to be learned from babies. In the 1890s the American philosopher and psychologist William James speculated that infants do not enter the world as 'blank slates' as had been previously thought.

Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, James suggested that rather than passively absorbing information from their environment, babies come equipped with a great deal of built-in cognitive machinery already in place to help them interact with, understand and process the foreign world that they enter into.

One of the challenges of developmental psychology has been to understand how an infant's pre-installed cognitive hardware interacts with and processes its environment over time to acquire an understanding of things like social cues, the emotions of others, language and even the basic laws of physics.

One significant part of the challenge of understanding cognitive development in babies can be traced to the very simple fact that they have only a very limited ability to communicate. In fact, one could almost say that babies speak binary: They cry when they're displeased and smile when they're happy - and there doesn't seem to be a whole lot in between.

And yet for a group of scientists in London, the language of laughter is a rich and informative one that can help us to unlock many secrets in the development of the infant mind.


Debunking the Myth of Intuition

Can doctors and investment advisers be trusted? And do we live more for experiences or memories? In a Spiegel interview, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman discusses the innate weakness of human thought, deceptive memories and the misleading power of intuition.

Spiegel: Professor Kahneman, you've spent your entire professional life studying the snares in which human thought can become entrapped. For example, in your book, you describe how easy it is to increase a person's willingness to contribute money to the coffee fund.

Kahneman: You just have to make sure that the right picture is hanging above the cash box. If a pair of eyes is looking back at them from the wall, people will contribute twice as much as they do when the picture shows flowers. People who feel observed behave more morally.

Spiegel: And this also works if we don't even pay attention to the photo on the wall?

Kahneman: All the more if you don't notice it. The phenomenon is called "priming": We aren't aware that we have perceived a certain stimulus, but it can be proved that we still respond to it.

Spiegel: People in advertising will like that.

Kahneman: Of course, that's where priming is in widespread use. An attractive woman in an ad automatically directs your attention to the name of the product. When you encounter it in the shop later on, it will already seem familiar to you.


Trickle-Down Anxiety: Study Examines Parental Behaviors that Create Anxious Children

Parents with social anxiety disorder are more likely than parents with other forms of anxiety to engage in behaviors that put their children at high risk for developing angst of their own, according to a small study of parent-child pairs conducted at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

Authors of the federally funded study say past research has linked parental anxiety to anxiety in children, but it remained unclear whether people with certain anxiety disorders engaged more often in anxiety-provoking behaviors. Based on the new study findings, they do. A report on the team's findings appears online ahead of print in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development.

Specifically, the Johns Hopkins researchers identified a subset of behaviors in parents with social anxiety disorder - the most prevalent type of anxiety - and in doing so clarified some of the confusion that has shrouded the trickle-down anxiety often seen in parent-child pairs.

These behaviors included a lack of or insufficient warmth and affection and high levels of criticism and doubt leveled at the child. Such behaviors, the researchers say, are well known to increase anxiety in children and - if engaged in chronically - can make it more likely for children to develop a full-blown anxiety disorder of their own, the investigators say.

"There is a broad range of anxiety disorders so what we did was home in on social anxiety, and we found that anxiety-promoting parental behaviors may be unique to the parent's diagnosis and not necessarily common to all those with anxiety," says study senior investigator, Golda Ginsburg, Ph.D., a child anxiety expert at Johns Hopkins Children's Center and professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Wedding Rings

Don't ignore doubts about marriage, researcher warns

Couples about to tie the knot shouldn't ignore nagging doubts about getting married, warns a University of Alberta researcher.

"If you are having doubts about the relationship, just ignoring them may make a difference years down the road," said Matthew Johnson who co-authored the study while at Kansas State University. Johnson is now an assistant professor in the University of Alberta Department of Human Ecology.

The study, published recently in the journal Family Process, found that couples who were more confident as they exchanged vows also spent more time together 18 months into the marriage, and were still happy sharing life with their spouses at the three-year mark.

The study used existing research data to weigh the marital confidence of 610 newlywed couples over a period of four years. Those who were most confident at the outset of matrimony were still showing their happiness by sticking together as a couple after the honeymoon was long over.


Social factors trump genetic forces in forging friendships

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"Nature teaches beasts to know their friends," wrote Shakespeare. In humans, nature may be less than half of the story, a team led by University of Colorado Boulder researchers has found.

In the first study of its kind, the team found that genetic similarities may help to explain why human birds of a feather flock together, but the full story of why people become friends "is contingent upon the social environment in which individuals interact with one another," the researchers write.

People are more likely to befriend genetically similar people when their environment is stratified, when disparate groups are discouraged from interacting, the study found. When environments were more egalitarian, friends were less likely to share certain genes.

Scientists debate the extent to which genetics or environmental factors -- "nature" or "nurture" -- predict certain behaviors, said Jason Boardman, associate professor of sociology and faculty research associate with the Population Program in CU-Boulder's Institute of Behavioral Science. "For all the social demographic outcomes we care about, whether it's fertility, marriage, migration, health, it's never nature or nurture.

"It's always nature and nurture," he said. "And most of the time it has a lot more to do with nurture."

Boardman's team included Benjamin Domingue, research associate in the Population Program at IBS; and Jason Fletcher, associate professor of health policy at the Yale School of Public Health. Their research was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Eye 2

Psychopaths recognise emotions better than most normal people

The psychopath's fearlessness and focus has traditionally been attributed to deficits in emotional processing, more specifically to amygdala dysfunction. Until recently, this has led researchers to believe that in addition to not "doing" fear, they don't "do" empathy, either. But a 2008 study, by Shirley Fecteau and her colleagues at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, has thrown a completely different light on the matter, suggesting that psychopaths not only have the capacity to recognize emotions - they are, in fact, actually better at it than we are.

Fecteau and her co-workers used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to stimulate the somatosensory cortex (the part of the brain that processes and regulates physical sensations) in the brains of volunteers scoring high on the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI). Previous research has shown that observing something painful happening to someone else results in a temporary slowdown in neural excitation in response to TMS, in the area of the somatosensory cortex corresponding to the region afflicted by the pain: the work of highly specialized, and aptly named, brain structures called mirror neurons.


How the brain controls our habits

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Using optogenetics, McGovern neuroscientists identify a brain region that can switch between new and old habits. Habits are behaviors wired so deeply in our brains that we perform them automatically. This allows you to follow the same route to work every day without thinking about it, liberating your brain to ponder other things, such as what to make for dinner.

However, the brain's executive command center does not completely relinquish control of habitual behavior. A new study from MIT neuroscientists has found that a small region of the brain's prefrontal cortex, where most thought and planning occurs, is responsible for moment-by-moment control of which habits are switched on at a given time.

"We've always thought - and I still do - that the value of a habit is you don't have to think about it. It frees up your brain to do other things," says Institute Professor Ann Graybiel, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. "However, it doesn't free up all of it. There's some piece of your cortex that's still devoted to that control."

The new study offers hope for those trying to kick bad habits, says Graybiel, senior author of the new study, which appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It shows that though habits may be deeply ingrained, the brain's planning centers can shut them off. It also raises the possibility of intervening in that brain region to treat people who suffer from disorders involving overly habitual behavior, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Lead author of the paper is Kyle Smith, a McGovern Institute research scientist. Other authors are recent MIT graduate Arti Virkud and Karl Deisseroth, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.


Brain's complex clock explains our eerie sense of time

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Independent of a watch or the sun's position in the sky, humans somehow can figure out how much time has ticked by, and a new study reveals how. The study suggests the brain has no master clock, but instead that every individual brain circuit can learn to tell time.

"People think when you need to time something, that there's some clock circuit in the brain that we look to," said study co-author Geoffrey Ghose, a University of Minnesota neuroscientist.

"What our study indicates is it's actually very different. For every little task or every little action or decision you make, you could potentially develop timing representations."

A sense of time is fundamental to living creatures, Ghose told LiveScience.

"Often, you use external cues and events to figure out what time it is, like looking outside and seeing where the sun is or looking at a clock," Ghose said. "But you have a sense of time that's independent of all of that."


Take a breath

How many times have you heard someone say that to you? Angry? "Take a breath." Confused? "Take a breath." Frustrated? "Take a breath." I think this is one of the greatest things we can do for our own mental and physical health. But how do you remember to take a breath when you're angry, confused or frustrated?

I've been teaching myself and others for more than 50 years, and in that time, a sort of user's manual for living a life on the earth has formed in my mind. I've spoken in thousands of seminars, written more books than I can count, and now here's this blog: a distillation of useful suggestions for living a life that fully expresses who each of us is.

OK, how do you remember to breathe? And why should you have to remember - isn't it automatic? Like you, in times of stress I habitually hold my breath when I'd be better off putting my attention there rather than on what's bothering me. Focusing on my breath helps me relax so I can choose the next thing I need to do to handle the stress.

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Additional articles about how Deep Breathing Exercises Can Improve Your Life:

Meditative breathing may help manage chronic pain
Pranayama: Benefit from Deep Breathing
Doctor Says: Breathe Deep to Lower Blood Pressure


Cambridge scientists discover why children think they are invisible when they hide their eyes

Researchers are looking for a scientific answer to explain why children think they actually disappear when they cover their eyes while playing peekaboo.

Researchers led by James Russell at the University of Cambridge have carried out the first study into this bizarre trait with groups of three and four-year-old children.

The children's eyes were covered with masks and they were then asked whether they could be seen by the researchers - with most saying no.

Many also believed that the researchers could not see adults who were wearing eye masks - leading to the conclusion most young children believe that anyone who covers their eyes is obscured from other people's view.