Science of the Spirit


Why Beauty Is Both Personal and Universal

Madonna and Child
© The de Brecy Trust
A Rennaissance-era version of the Madonna and Child. New research may help explain why everyone can be moved by art even though we react differently to different things.
As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, however, the experience of being moved by art seems universal. A new neurological study offers some insight into this aesthetic paradox.

The results indicate that connecting deeply to a work of art activates the same part of everyone's brain. However, part of the brain activated by such strong aesthetic appeal is associated with personal reflection, the researchers found.

A team of researchers from New York University showed study subjects 109 images of works of art from a variety of cultures, historical periods, styles and depicting a variety of subjects.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers monitored blood flow in the subjects' brains as they viewed the images and rated them on a scale of 1 to 4 scale, with 4 as the highest, in response to the question: "How strongly does this painting move you?"

"Your job is to give your gut-level response, based on how much you find the painting beautiful, compelling, or powerful," the team instructed.

To explore individual differences in aesthetic reactions after the brain scan was complete, the researchers asked subjects to rate the degree to which each work of art evoked nine emotions: joy, pleasure, sadness, confusion, awe, fear, disgust, beauty and the sublime.

Specific Genes Linked to Big Brains and Intelligence

Brain Genetics
© UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging
In studying a gene that drives cell growth, Project ENIGMA scientists found a variant that boosted gene expression levels (shown as colored dots), which also enlarged the brain's memory centers (shaded in green).
Brain size and smarts are, to some extent, genetic - and now, a team of more than 200 researchers has uncovered specific genes that are linked to both brain volume and IQ.

Though scientists have suggested bigger brains are "smarter," this study is the strongest case yet for a genetic connection to brain size and to IQ. Of course, brain size is not 100 percent correlated with a person's intelligence, and other factors, including connections between brain cells and even a person's experiences, play roles.

"We found fairly unequivocal proof supporting a genetic link to brain function and intelligence. For the first time, we have watertight evidence of how these genes affect the brain," said lead researcher Paul Thompson, a neurologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine.

The international research team pooled brain scans and genetic data from around the world as part of a collaboration known as ENIGMA (Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics through Meta-Analysis). They scoured the data for single genes that influence disease risk as well as for genes linked to brain-tissue atrophy and brain size, said lead researcher Paul Thompson, a neurologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine.

"Our individual centers couldn't review enough brain scans to obtain definitive results," Thompson said in a statement. "By sharing our data with Project ENIGMA, we created a sample large enough to reveal clear patterns in genetic variation and show how these changes physically alter the brain."
2 + 2 = 4

Reliving the Trauma of Child Abuse

"People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

~Albert Einstein

In a study done in West Germany on concentration camp survivors, it was found that each of the subjects, in a sense, still live in the concentration camp. 1

The same is true for survivors of child sexual abuse, who have not yet dealt with their subconscious mind.

Any stress, or feelings of being threatened or unsafe, can cause trauma survivors to return to earlier patterns of behavior that were utilized during the abuse. During this state of "high arousal," the survivor will do what they know, which is rooted in the instinct used while they were still a child. They will demonstrate defensive strategies - even if it didn't work the first time. 2
Heart - Black

The Psychological Trauma of Male Sexual Abuse

© Jorge Montalvo and Osa Okundaye
Male victims of sexual assault face an uncertain future

When they leave the bedroom, John grabs hold of Gary's shirt and whispers into his ear.

"You better not tell your parents. They aren't going to believe you."

Gary lowers his gaze and nods. He didn't think he would tell his parents, anyway. He's not even exactly sure what just happened.

His parents call from downstairs. It's time to go back home. John's family and Gary's family have been friends for years. They go over to each other's houses every week for dinner.

Even though John is much older than Gary, they hang out while their parents visit and their sisters play in the living room.

"What did you and John do?" his mom asks during the car ride home.

"Played Nintendo 64," 6-year-old Gary mumbles. He doesn't say anything the rest of the drive.
Eye 1

Psychopaths in business and politics - Beware

corporate psychopath
© n/a
You find them in business and politics. They are smooth, charming and persuasive. Sometimes they project an image of caring. Sometimes they shy away from the spotlight. But the only thing they are really interested in is power.

History is littered with elected leaders who, once they are in positions of power, end up being uncaring ego-maniacs who manipulate and do dirty deals for their own benefit. Famous psychopaths and evil leaders like Hitler, among many others, who were elected leaders, and were in their positions with the support of their people.

On the face of it, psychopaths are often charming, outgoing people, who are eager to make a positive impression. But these behaviours are imitations of what they know to be socially acceptable: the so-called mask of sanity. The clinical checklist for psychopathy refers to "glib and superficial charm, grandiosity, need for stimulation, pathological lying, conning and manipulating, lack of remorse, callousness, poor behaviour controls, impulsivity irresponsibility, failure to accept responsibility for one's own actions", et cetera.
Heart - Black

Hollywood's Misrepresentation of Psychopathy

wall street Gordan Gekko
© Unknown
Wall Street psychopath Gordan Gekko played by Michael Douglas
Conduct a search on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) under the keyword "psychopath" and 1,196 titles are returned. After taking a cursory glance over the list, which includes such titles as M (1931), Peeping Tom (1960), Klute (1971), The Hitcher (1986), Se7en (1995), Drive (2011), and the soon-to-be-released Seven Psychopaths (2012), it is obvious that Hollywood, let alone the general public, has any real understanding of what constitutes psychopathic behavior. And if this short list of associated titles fails to prove this point, all one has to do is look at the top keywords, which include murder (798 instances), violence (445), death (348), gore (244), blood spatter (237), knife (233), and corpse (231), for confirmation.

Although it is true that "psychopaths probably commit more non-sanctioned violence than any other members of society" and that they "are more likely than other murderers to commit gratuitous and sadistic violence on their victims during sexual homicide," there exist far more non-violent "successful" psychopaths living in society than violent and incarcerated ones (Porter & Woodworth, 2007, p. 490). As one author explains, "most serial killers are psychopaths or at least exhibit psychopathic characteristics, (and yet) the majority of criminal psychopaths are nonviolent persons" (Hickey, 2010, p. 75). In fact, these "subclinical," white collar psychopaths have "normal" professions. They are lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, academics, corporate managers, bankers, and more (Hare, 1993).

Psychopaths are relatively rare in modern society: only 1% of the population have this personality disorder. To break it down, it is said that1 in every 200 persons in the U.K. is psychopathic, and 1 in every 100 Americans is (Purdie, 2000). The media may commonly portray psychopaths as maniacally laughing, mentally deranged people, and yet these people are not legally insane. They know right from wrong, can control their behavior, and are aware of the consequences of their actions, but because they are self-absorbed, impulsive, and callous they choose to do whatever best suits their needs (Hare, 1993). And because they do not empathize with others or experience fear, they are more likely to break the law. "Telling a psychopath that he will go to prison if he acts out only means that he understands the rules of the game and games are meant to be won, not lost" (Hickey, 2010, p. 80).

Cooperating Mini-Brains Show How Intelligence Evolved

© Jezper, Shutterstock
It may take a big brain to handle a big group of friends.
Working together can hasten brain evolution, according to a new computer simulation.

When programmed to navigate challenging cooperative tasks, the artificial neural networks set up by scientists to serve as mini-brains "learned" to work together, evolving the virtual equivalent of boosted brainpower over generations. The findings support a long-held theory that social interactions may have triggered brain evolution in human ancestors.

"It is the transition to a cooperative group that can lead to maximum selection for intelligence," said study researcher Luke McNally, a doctoral candidate at Trinity College Dublin. Greater intelligence, in turn, leads to more sophisticated cooperation, McNally told LiveScience.

It also leads to more sophisticated means of cheating, he added.

Virtual neurons

McNally and his colleagues used artificial neural networks as virtual guinea pigs to test the social theory of brain evolution. These networks are the numerical equivalent of very simple brains. They're arranged in nodes, with each node representing a neuron.

"In the same way that neurons excite each other via signals [in the brain], these nodes pass numbers to each other, which then decides the activity of the next node," McNally said.

The neural networks are programmed to evolve, as well. They reproduce, and random mutations can introduce extra nodes into their networks. Just as in real-world evolution, if those nodes are beneficial to the network, it will be more likely to succeed and reproduce again, passing on the extra brain boost.
Heart - Black

Why fear is good for you

© Illustration by Yael Bogen
Fear helps us learn empathy and protects us from danger. But fearlessness, brain research suggests, is linked to lack of morality and hence to violent and criminal behavior.

This is a story about a woman who is not afraid of anything. Not snakes, not horror movies, and not walking alone in the dark. As someone who lives in a not-so-nice suburb in the United States, S.M. ‏(as she is known, to protect her identity‏), has wound up in quite a few scary and even traumatic situations: One day she was assaulted in her home and almost killed, another time she had a knife held to her throat while she was walking alone through a park at night, and on other occasions she encountered people who threatened her life. But all of this did not lead S.M. to become anxiety-ridden or even frightened. Quite the contrary.

Psychologists who have met her describe a vivacious woman, very friendly − one of those survivor types who arouse our admiration because of their capacity to endure in the face of life's calamities. But S.M. is no hero. It's not that she succeeds in overcoming fear by enlisting hidden inner resources: S.M. simply does not know how to be afraid.
Wall Street

How Investing Turns Nice People Into Psychopaths

© Betacam-SP/Shutterstock
The evidence suggests that corporations might encourage people to think and act more anti-socially. What does owning stock do to our brains?

It's conventional wisdom in business circles today that corporate directors should "maximize shareholder value." Corporations supposedly exist to serve shareholders' interests, and not (or at least, not directly) those of executives, employees, customers, or the community. However, this shareholder-value dogma begs a fundamental question. What, exactly, do shareholders value?

Most shareholder-value advocates assume that shareholders care only about their own wealth. But it is increasingly accepted that the homo economicus model of purely selfish behavior doesn't always apply. This possibility provides a challenge to the dominant business paradigm of "maximizing shareholder value:" the concept of the prosocial shareholder.

Is Some Homophobia Self-phobia? Anti-gay Bias Linked to Lack of Awareness of One's Sexual Orientation and Authoritarian Parenting

Homophobia is more pronounced in individuals with an unacknowledged attraction to the same sex and who grew up with authoritarian parents who forbade such desires, a series of psychology studies demonstrates.

The study is the first to document the role that both parenting and sexual orientation play in the formation of intense and visceral fear of homosexuals, including self-reported homophobic attitudes, discriminatory bias, implicit hostility towards gays, and endorsement of anti-gay policies. Conducted by a team from the University of Rochester, the University of Essex, England, and the University of California in Santa Barbara, the research will be published the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"Individuals who identify as straight but in psychological tests show a strong attraction to the same sex may be threatened by gays and lesbians because homosexuals remind them of similar tendencies within themselves," explains Netta Weinstein, a lecturer at the University of Essex and the study's lead author.

"In many cases these are people who are at war with themselves and they are turning this internal conflict outward," adds co-author Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who helped direct the research.

The paper includes four separate experiments, conducted in the United States and Germany, with each study involving an average of 160 college students. The findings provide new empirical evidence to support the psychoanalytic theory that the fear, anxiety, and aversion that some seemingly heterosexual people hold toward gays and lesbians can grow out of their own repressed same-sex desires, Ryan says. The results also support the more modern self-determination theory, developed by Ryan and Edward Deci at the University of Rochester, which links controlling parenting to poorer self-acceptance and difficulty valuing oneself unconditionally.