Science of the Spirit


Memories Serve as Tools for Learning and Decision-Making

When humans learn, their brains relate new information with past experiences to derive new knowledge, according to psychology research from The University of Texas at Austin.

The study, led by Alison Preston, assistant professor of psychology and neurobiology, shows this memory-binding process allows people to better understand new concepts and make future decisions. The findings could lead to better teaching methods, as well as treatment of degenerative neurological disorders, such as dementia, Preston says.

"Memories are not just for reflecting on the past; they help us make the best decisions for the future," says Preston, a research affiliate in the Center for Learning and Memory, which is part of the university's College of Natural Sciences. "Here, we provide a direct link between these derived memories and the ability to make novel inferences."

The paper was published online in July in the journal Neuron. The authors include University of Texas at Austin researchers Dagmar Zeithamova and April Dominick.
Heart - Black

Pathological Relationships Need More Than A Positive Attitude

"Some of the most disturbing realities are not that pathology exists, but that so little public pathology education for the general public exists."
-Sandra L. Brown, M.A., The Institute

The Problem of the Unrecognized Face of Pathology

© Unknown
We live in an age where 'Positive Psychology' has ingrained a mantra into society's psyche - which is:

If you think it

(i.e., the narcissist/psychopath needs to change his behavior)

Then you can make it happen

(i.e., your relationship will be successful when he changes)

That may be true when you are with a person who has normal psychology. But it's a long way from being true for those who have pathology.

For many years, people have thought that if they focused hard enough, loved long enough, tolerated more, and carried a positive attitude, their partner would somehow become unaffected by the personality disorder - even the psychopathy they bore. People believed this because they were often told this by professionals - all under the guises of different therapy approaches and theories.

Compassion Meditation May Be Key to Better Caregiving

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Empathy is the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others. When we meet someone who is joyful, we smile. When we witness someone in pain, we suffer in resonance with his or her suffering. Neuroscience has proven that similar areas of the brain are activated both in the person who suffers and in the one who feels empathy. Thus empathic suffering is a true experience of suffering.

When some empathic caregivers are exposed to others' suffering day after day, their continuous partaking in this suffering might become overwhelming and can lead to burnout. Other caregivers may react by shutting down their empathic feeling and drawing an emotional curtain between themselves and their patients. Both these reactions are far from optimal.

Could mind training and meditation on altruistic love and compassion serve as an antidote to burnout? An example of this is the caregiver who naturally displays overflowing kindness and warmth toward his patients and does not experience any burnout.


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Dangerous Mind: Criminal profiling made easy

On November 16, 1940, workers at the Consolidated Edison building on West Sixty-fourth Street in Manhattan found a homemade pipe bomb on a windowsill. Attached was a note: "Con Edison crooks, this is for you." In September of 1941, a second bomb was found, on Nineteenth Street, just a few blocks from Con Edison's headquarters, near Union Square. It had been left in the street, wrapped in a sock. A few months later, the New York police received a letter promising to "bring the Con Edison to justice - they will pay for their dastardly deeds." Sixteen other letters followed, between 1941 and 1946, all written in block letters, many repeating the phrase "dastardly deeds" and all signed with the initials "F.P." In March of 1950, a third bomb - larger and more powerful than the others - was found on the lower level of Grand Central Terminal. The next was left in a phone booth at the New York Public Library. It exploded, as did one placed in a phone booth in Grand Central. In 1954, the Mad Bomber - as he came to be known - struck four times, once in Radio City Music Hall, sending shrapnel throughout the audience. In 1955, he struck six times. The city was in an uproar. The police were getting nowhere. Late in 1956, in desperation, Inspector Howard Finney, of the New York City Police Department's crime laboratory, and two plainclothesmen paid a visit to a psychiatrist by the name of James Brussel.

Brussel was a Freudian. He lived on Twelfth Street, in the West Village, and smoked a pipe. In Mexico, early in his career, he had done counter-espionage work for the F.B.I. He wrote many books, including "Instant Shrink: How to Become an Expert Psychiatrist in Ten Easy Lessons." Finney put a stack of documents on Brussel's desk: photographs of unexploded bombs, pictures of devastation, photostats of F.P.'s neatly lettered missives. "I didn't miss the look in the two plainclothesmen's eyes," Brussel writes in his memoir, "Casebook of a Crime Psychiatrist." "I'd seen that look before, most often in the Army, on the faces of hard, old-line, field-grade officers who were sure this newfangled psychiatry business was all nonsense."

Study Finds: Facebook and Twitter Feed Anxiety

© David J. Green - lifestyle themes / Alamy
Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter feed anxiety and make people feel inadequate, a study has found.

A poll of those using the technology found more than half of those surveyed said the sites had changed their behavior - and half of those said their lives had been altered for the worse.

Most commonly, those who suffered a negative impact from social media said their confidence fell after comparing their own achievements to those of friends online.

Two-thirds said they found it hard to relax completely or to sleep after spending time on the sites.

And one quarter of those polled said they had been left facing difficulties in their relationships or workplace after becoming confrontational online.

In total, 298 people were polled by Salford Business School at the University of Salford, for the charity Anxiety UK.

What Makes People Take Big Risks

High dive
© Shutterstock
Ever wonder why some people are willing to risk it all to start a new career, climb a mountain or jet off to some foreign destination for a great adventure while others are afraid to do anything out of the ordinary? The answer may lie in how many surprise endings they've faced in the past.

According to new research from psychologist Heath Demaree, of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, people who've experienced surprising outcomes in various situations - whether those outcomes were good or bad - are less likely to take risks in the future. In other words, it's not whether you win or lose, but whether the outcome is expected. People appear to decrease their risk-taking levels after experiencing any surprising outcome - even positive ones.

"Surprising events are known to cause animals to stop, freeze, orient to the surprising stimulus and update their schemas of how the world works," Demaree said. "Our recent research suggests that surprising events also cause people to temporarily reduce risk-taking."

Demaree, who studies emotions and how they affect decision-making, set out to further understand how a person's current emotional state predicts risk-taking behavior. Past research has revealed that positive and negative emotional states generally decrease and increase risk-taking, respectively.

Psychological profiling 'worse than useless'

© Granada/Sportsphoto/Allstar
Robbie Coltrane (right) in the TV series Cracker, in which he plays a behavioural psychologist.
Profiling of killers has no real-world value, wastes police time and risks bringing the profession into disrepute, experts say.

Murder inquiries may be misled or delayed by psychologists who see themselves as real-life Crackers, researchers claim.

Police forces routinely ask behavioural scientists to draw up profiles of killers who are still at large, based on a knowledge of the victim and details recorded at the crime scene.

But according to a team of psychologists at Birmingham City University, the practice of offender profiling is deeply unscientific and risks bringing the field into disrepute.

In many cases, offender profiles are so vague as to be meaningless, according to psychologist Craig Jackson. At best, they have little impact on murder investigations; at worst they risk misleading investigators and waste police time, he said.

The Home Office holds a register of psychologists and other professionals who are qualified to give offender profiles to police forces after reviewing details of a crime.
Alarm Clock

Cycle of Trauma

© Unknown
I watched in horror as a little boy of about five was whacked - hard - across his face on the subway. His mother began to berate him, calling him names ("retard" was one of the ones I remember), ridiculing him. He didn't cry. He just stared straight ahead, as if he wasn't in his body.

I desperately wanted to do something, but there was only a subway worker in uniform and me on the train and she just looked the other way. Plus, it looked like the mother had some kind of weapon stuck in the top of her jeans.

At the next stop, I got off and asked another woman what to do. She, too, told me it's not a crime to smack your kid. But this mother didn't just "smack" him. She put all her force into the blow. I knew I couldn't identify her (I mainly looked at the little boy and then turned away in case I would incite her anger against him.) I didn't know what else to do. I felt defeated.

This was quite a while ago. But, if you live in New York, and you take public transportation, this is not all that unusual.

Unconscious Influence Trumps Conscious Thought

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Only a tiny fraction of the brain is dedicated to conscious behavior. The rest works feverishly behind the scenes regulating everything from breathing to mate selection. In fact, neuroscientist David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine argues that the unconscious workings of the brain are so crucial to everyday functioning that their influence often trumps conscious thought. To prove it, he explores little-known historical episodes, the latest psychological research, and enduring medical mysteries, revealing the bizarre and often inexplicable mechanisms underlying daily life.

Eagleman's theory is epitomized by the deathbed confession of the 19th-century mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, who developed fundamental equations unifying electricity and magnetism. Maxwell declared that "something within him" had made the discoveries; he actually had no idea how he'd achieved his great insights. It is easy to take credit after an idea strikes you, but in fact, neurons in your brain secretly perform an enormous amount of work before inspiration hits. The brain, Eagleman argues, runs its show incognito. Or, as Pink Floyd put it, "There's someone in my head, but it's not me."
Magic Wand

'Bargaining with the Universe': Investing in Karma by Doing Good Deeds

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For so many important outcomes in life - applying for jobs, waiting for medical test results - there comes a point when you just have to sit back and hope for the best. But that doesn't mean we always behave that way. New research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that even when an outcome is out of our control we often act as though we can still get on the good side of fate by doing good deeds.

According to lead researcher Benjamin Converse, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Psychology at the University of Virginia, the research was inspired by the kinds of deals many of us seem to make in which we promise ourselves that, if we can just make it through some trying situation, we'll be better citizens in the future. Converse and co-authors Jane Risen and Travis Carter, both of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, wondered if these kinds of deals might be part of a more general phenomenon in which we intuitively bargain with 'the universe,' however we might define it.

"Everyone is familiar with the basics of reciprocity, the idea that if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. We wondered if people think this way even when they aren't dealing with another person at all, but rather with the universe," says Converse.