Science of the Spirit

Mr. Potato

Shark attacks, murders and lottery wins: vivid events are more likely to affect judgement

If people really understood their chances of winning the lottery, they would never buy a ticket.

Yet tickets are bought so frequently that well-run lotteries are, for the organisers, virtually a license to print money.

All lotteries exploit a simple bias in the way the human mind works called the availability bias (that and people's desperation).

This is the tendency to judge probabilities on the basis of how easily examples come to mind.

Since lottery organisers heavily promote the jackpot winners, people are continually hearing about those who've won big. On the other hand they hear almost nothing about the vast majority of people who haven't won a bean.

So people assume they are much more likely to win the lottery than they really are.
Magic Wand

The Power of Negative Thinking

© Yuko Shimizu/The New York Times
Last month, in San Jose, Calif., 21 people were treated for burns after walking barefoot over hot coals as part of an event called Unleash the Power Within, starring the motivational speaker Tony Robbins. If you're anything like me, a cynical retort might suggest itself: What, exactly, did they expect would happen? In fact, there's a simple secret to "firewalking": coal is a poor conductor of heat to surrounding surfaces, including human flesh, so with quick, light steps, you'll usually be fine.

But Mr. Robbins and his acolytes have little time for physics. To them, it's all a matter of mind-set: cultivate the belief that success is guaranteed, and anything is possible. One singed but undeterred participant told The San Jose Mercury News: "I wasn't at my peak state." What if all this positivity is part of the problem? What if we're trying too hard to think positive and might do better to reconsider our relationship to "negative" emotions and situations?

Consider the technique of positive visualization, a staple not only of Robbins-style seminars but also of corporate team-building retreats and business best sellers. According to research by the psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues, visualizing a successful outcome, under certain conditions, can make people less likely to achieve it. She rendered her experimental participants dehydrated, then asked some of them to picture a refreshing glass of water. The water-visualizers experienced a marked decline in energy levels, compared with those participants who engaged in negative or neutral fantasies. Imagining their goal seemed to deprive the water-visualizers of their get-up-and-go, as if they'd already achieved their objective.

Bilingualism 'can increase mental agility'

Bilingual children outperform children who speak only one language in problem-solving skills and creative thinking, according to research led at the University of Strathclyde.

A study of primary school pupils who spoke English or Italian- half of whom also spoke Gaelic or Sardinian- found that the bilingual children were significantly more successful in the tasks set for them. The Gaelic-speaking children were, in turn, more successful than the Sardinian speakers.

The differences were linked to the mental alertness required to switch between languages, which could develop skills useful in other types of thinking. The further advantage for Gaelic-speaking children may have been due to the formal teaching of the language and its extensive literature.

In contrast, Sardinian is not widely taught in schools on the Italian island and has a largely oral tradition, which means there is currently no standardised form of the language.

Dr Fraser Lauchlan, an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde's School of Psychological Sciences & Health, led the research. It was conducted with colleagues at the University of Cagliari in Sardinia, where he is a Visiting Professor.

Childhood Mistreatment Primes Brain for Mental Illness

Sad Boy
© Suzanne Tucker | Shutterstock
Differences in the brains of abused or non-abused adults could be the source of abuse-related mental illness.
Changes in the brain linked to childhood abuse and maltreatment may prime a child for future mental health problems, new research finds.

The study, which compared the brains of teenagers who had been abused as children with those of very similar teens who had not experienced any mistreatment, is one of the first to follow individuals before they are diagnosed with a mental illness. That strengthens the case for a causal link between the damage and the disease, the researchers said.

"Maltreatment makes the subjects vulnerable to major depressive disorder and substance disorder," study researcher Hao Huang, a scientist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, told LiveScience. "And the damage can be seen even before they develop any disorder."

The abused brain

Numerous studies have linked childhood abuse to long-lasting changes in the brain. In February, researchers reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that abused, neglected and maltreated kids have smaller hippocampuses than kids who aren't abused. The hippocampus is involved in memory formation and can shrink as a result of exposure to stress hormones, the researchers told LiveScience.

A more recent study, involving children raised in Romanian orphanages, even found that simple neglect - particularly the lack of a warm and responsive caregiver to bond with - causes permanent changes in the gray matter and white matter of the brain.

Gray matter is made up of the nerve cell bodies in the brain, while white matter is made of the fat-sheathed projections of these cells, bundled together like telephone wire. White matter makes it possible for brain regions to communicate with one another.

Huang and his colleagues focused their research on the white matter of teenagers' brains. They screened these teens carefully to make sure they were free of medical and psychiatric problems. Nineteen victims of abuse were included, along with 13 teens who were similar to the first group except for never having experienced abuse.

Abuse (also called maltreatment) included physical and sexual abuse, as well as at least six months of witnessing domestic violence in the home.
Black Cat

The Startling Accuracy of Referring to Politicians as 'Psychopaths'

© Paramount Pictures
The characteristics that define clinical psychopathy are many of the same that make effective leaders.

In this presidential election season where, as usual, the fur is flying and name-calling is in full swing, one invective seems to be gaining currency -- psychopath. A web search for "Romney" or "Obama" and "psychopath" (or, more generally, "politician" and "psychopath") yields millions of hits. While it's tempting to dismiss this phenomenon as mere venting by angry voters, the rantings of conspiracy theorists, or even bloggers trying to drive traffic, it is worth at least asking the question: could they be right? If these pundits mean that the targeted office-seekers are evil or "crazy," probably not. But if they are pointing out that politicians and psychopaths share certain characteristics, they could be on to something.

Psychopathy is a psychological condition based on well-established diagnostic criteria, which include lack of remorse and empathy, a sense of grandiosity, superficial charm, conning and manipulative behavior, and refusal to take responsibility for one's actions, among others. Psychopaths are not all the same; particular aspects may predominate in different people. And, although some psychopaths are violent men (and women) with long criminal histories, not all are. It's important to understand that psychopathic behavior and affect exist on a continuum; there are those who fall into the grey area between "normal" people and true psychopaths.

Comment: And don't forget Dubya, a psychopath if ever there was one:

Textbook descriptions of George Bush reveal psychopathy, and much worse

Bush is a Psychopath

While some psychopaths do become politicians, for the most part politicians are mere figureheads playing second fiddle to the 'big kahuna psychopaths', éminences grises pulling the strings from the shadows (usually on Wall Street and throughout the international banking system).

Read Political Ponerology to understand the scale and depth of the root problem of everything that is wrong with our world.

Magic Wand

When We Forget to Remember - Failures in Prospective Memory Range From Annoying to Lethal

© Unknown
A surgical team closes an abdominal incision, successfully completing a difficult operation. Weeks later, the patient comes into the ER complaining of abdominal pain and an X-ray reveals that one of the forceps used in the operation was left inside the patient. Why would highly skilled professionals forget to perform a simple task they have executed without difficulty thousands of times before?

These kinds of oversights occur in professions as diverse as aviation and computer programming, but research from psychological science reveals that these lapses may not reflect carelessness or lack of skill but failures of prospective memory.

In an article in the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, R. Key Dismukes, a scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, reviews the rapidly growing field of research on prospective memory, highlighting the various ways in which characteristics of everyday tasks interact with normal cognitive processes to produce memory failures that sometimes have disastrous consequences.

Failures of prospective memory typically occur when we form an intention to do something later, become engaged with various other tasks, and lose focus on the thing we originally intended to do. Despite the name, prospective memory actually depends on several cognitive processes, including planning, attention, and task management. Common in everyday life, these memory lapses are mostly annoying, but can have tragic consequences. "Every summer several infants die in hot cars when parents leave the car, forgetting the child is sleeping quietly in the back seat," Dismukes points out.

How Men and Women Focus Differently

Couple at Beach
© Hanna Monika Cybulko | Dreamstime
During conversation, men and women fix their eyes on different things and their gaze is pulled away by different types of distractions, finds a new study that examines how men and women focus.

Researchers at the University of Southern California studied 34 participants as they watched videos of people being interviewed. Distractions such as pedestrians, bicycles and cars passed in the background within the video frame.

The researchers tracked the movement of the participants' pupils as they looked at the screen, and found that men, when focused on the person being interviewed, fixed their eyes on the speaker's mouth. They were most likely to be distracted by conspicuous movement behind the interview subjects.

Meanwhile, women altered their gaze between the speaker's eyes and body and they were more likely to be distracted by other people entering the video frame.

How Psychological Abuse is as Harmful as Physical Abuse

Physical abuse of children carries undeniable marks of pain, but in many cases the hidden scars associated with psychological abuse may be more detrimental in the long run, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics position statement published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

Psychological abuse may be the most common form of child abuse and often the hardest to treat, according to the paper.

"This is an area easily overlooked because it's hard to articulate," said Ruth Anan, director of the early childhood program at the Center for Human Development at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.

Many child health experts have grappled with properly identifying and defining the threshold for psychological abuse.

Brains Falter When Rules Change Making Learning More Difficult

© G.L. Kohuth
A cap worn by subjects in a Michigan State University experiment picks up EEG signals at the scalp; the signals are then transmitted via optical cable to a computer where the data is stored for analysis.
For the human brain, learning a new task when rules change can be a surprisingly difficult process marred by repeated mistakes, according to a new study by Michigan State University psychology researchers.

Imagine traveling to Ireland and suddenly having to drive on the left side of the road. The brain, trained for right-side driving, becomes overburdened trying to suppress the old rules while simultaneously focusing on the new rules, said Hans Schroder, primary researcher on the study.

"There's so much conflict in your brain," said Schroder, "that when you make a mistake like forgetting to turn on your blinker you don't even realize it and make the same mistake again. What you learned initially is hard to overcome when rules change."

The study, in the research journal Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, is one of the first to show how the brain responds to mistakes that occur after rules change.

New Pleasure Circuit Identified In Brain, Could Change Addiction Treatments

© Reuters
An article in the August edition of Scientific American by psychologists Morten Kringelbach and Kent Berridge details their discovery of a new pleasure circuit in the brain. The circuit is actually a series of hotspots in the brain that enhance sensations of pleasure beyond mere enjoyment.

The research uncovered that the existing pleasure centers of the brain, which have been established science for decades, actually create desires, not pleasures. Researchers are looking into how the stimulation of the newly discovered hotspots of pleasure can be used to treat mental illness and addiction.

"Higher brain regions receive information from these pleasure and reward circuits to consciously represent the warm glow we associate with joy," the article states.The research is also revealing how the brain processes wanting something, and alternately, how it processes liking something.

This can potentially lead to more effective treatments for people suffering from various addictions. Kringlebach and Berridge have been studying pleasure centers and their affect on addicts for years. They described the role the liking/wanting region of the brain plays in drug addiction for in an article for the academic journal Social Research two years ago.