Science of the Spirit

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Knowing the end goal increases productivity

Working in a team is not always easy, and achieving our aims often turns out to be much harder than we thought it would be. What can we do to increase our chances of gaining ultimate success? A new study from Aarhus University's transdisciplinary Interacting Minds Centre (IMC) provides insight into how to improve productivity when members of a group share a clearly identifiable goal.

"Our study focused on how to improve levels of cooperation. What we found was that when people know exactly what they're supposed to be doing as members of a team, they are more willing to trust each other and cooperate more in the future," says Panos Mitkidis, a post-doc scholar at Aarhus University, Denmark.

He is behind a study published recently in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, and he suggests that levels of cooperation improve when we know exactly what our goals are - instead of just following a process without really knowing where we are going.

Sharing clear, identifiable goals

The study provides a clue about how science can help us to become more cooperative and productive by switching the focus to goals instead of focusing on processes. Successful cooperation depends on knowing more than just the rules and processes in which we are involved.


To preserve memory into old age, keep your brain active!

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Good news for those reading and writing this article: a new study from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago claims reading and writing may preserve memory into old age. By keeping your brain active, says study author Robert S. Wilson, PhD, you're able to slow the rate at which your memory decreases in later years.

This is not the first time researchers have arrived at such a conclusion, of course. Previous studies have also found keeping the brain active by reading, writing, completing crossword puzzles and more can essentially exercise the brain and keep it limber far into old age. One study also concluded that keeping television consumption to a minimal amount may also boost brain power over the years. Wilson's study was recently published in the journal Neurology.

"Our study suggests that exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as these across a person's lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age," said Wilson in a statement.

For his study, Wilson gathered nearly 300 people around the age of 80. He then gave them tests which were designed to measure both their memory and cognition each year until they passed away at an average age of 89. The same participants also answered questions about their past, such as whether they read books, did any writing, or engaged in any other mentally stimulating activities. The volunteers answered these questions for every part of their life, from childhood to adolescence, middle age and beyond.

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How human brains could be hacked

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In an episode of the Science Channel's Through the Wormhole, host Morgan Freeman, explores the potential, and dangers, of hacking the mind.
Like computers, human brains may be vulnerable to hackers. Technology is already allowing scientists to read people's thoughts and even plant new ones in the brain.

The latest episode of the Science Channel's Through the Wormhole, hosted by Morgan Freeman, explores the potential - and dangers - of hacking the mind. The episode premieres tonight (July 3) at 10 p.m. ET.

"We live a world of data," Freeman says in the show. "One day soon, our innermost thoughts may no longer be our own."

Mind reading

Reading people's minds doesn't always require technology. New York psychologist Marc Salem can decipher a person's thoughts using the tiny physical cues in a person's body language. "A scratch of the nose can mean you're lying, or it can mean that your nose itches," Salem told LiveScience. When he's trying to read someone's mind, he looks for what he calls a "packet of signals" that tells him what a gesture means.

The show follows Salem as he guesses the cards of professional poker players - a seemingly impossible feat. To do it, Salem relies on context. "I'm able to pick up their nonverbal inflections and cues," he said. "The more I have a context for them, the more I can pick them up."

Of course, technology can give scientists even more direct access to the human brain. Inventor and neurotechnologist Philip Low is developing a portable brain monitor called iBrain that can detect the brain's electrical activity from the surface of the scalp, Freeman explains. People with Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) or other forms of paralysis still have healthy brain activity. Using the iBrain, they could use thoughts to control a virtual hand on a computer screen.

Magic Wand

Are thoughts of death conducive to humor?

A new study shows an increase in humorous creativity when individuals are primed with thoughts of death.

Humor is an intrinsic part of human experience. It plays a role in every aspect of human existence, from day-to-day conversation to television shows. Yet little research has been conducted to date on the psychological function of humor. In human psychology, awareness of the impermanence of life is just as prevalent as humor. According to the Terror Management Theory, knowledge of one's own impermanence creates potentially disruptive existential anxiety, which the individual brings under control with two coping mechanisms, or anxiety buffers: rigid adherence to dominant cultural values, and self-esteem bolstering.

A new article by Christopher R. Long of Ouachita Baptist University and Dara Greenwood of Vassar College is titled Joking in the Face of Death: A Terror Management Approach to Humor Production. Appearing in the journal HUMOR, it documents research on whether the activation of thoughts concerning death influences one's ability to creatively generate humor. As humor is useful on a fundamental level for a variety of purposes, including psychological defense against anxiety, the authors hypothesized that the activation of thoughts concerning death could facilitate the production of humor.

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Just Breathe: The simplest means of managing stress

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Our bodies aren't shy about telling us that we are stressed out! Muscle tension, backaches, stomach upset, headaches, burnout and other illness states are ways in which the body signals to us the need to relax. Rather than run for that anti-anxiety medication, we can utilize our easiest, natural defense against stress: our breathing. The way we breathe can affect our emotions and mental states as well as determine how we physically respond to stress.

Fight or Flight Response vs. Relaxation Response

The general physiological response to stress is called the stress response or "fight or flight" response. When we experience stress, hormones activated by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system flood our bloodstream to signal a state of readiness against potential threats to our well being. While these hormones serve to help us act quickly and with great strength during emergency situations, they exemplify the concept that there can be "too much of a good thing." Chronic stress results in excess release of stress hormones, which can cause immune-system malfunction, gastrointestinal issues, and blood vessel deterioration, among other health complications. Over time, such symptoms can evolve into degenerative diseases like diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.

Comment: There is one proven technique that can assist you with reducing your stress, calming and focusing your mind, creating better links between body and mind and thus improving quality of life, increasing sense of connection with others in your community. It will help you to have improved overall health, a stronger immune system, better impulse control, reduced inflammation, etc. It will also help you to heal emotional wounds; anything that may hinder or prevent you from leading a healthy and fulfilling life.

To learn more about Vagus Nerve Stimulation, through breathing exercises, and naturally producing the stress reducing and mood enhancing hormone Oxytocin in the brain, visit the Éiriú Eolas Stress Control, Healing and Rejuvenation Program here.

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Penn Medicine researchers discover link between fear and sound perception

Anyone who's ever heard a Beethoven sonata or a Beatles song knows how powerfully sound can affect our emotions. But it can work the other way as well - our emotions can actually affect how we hear and process sound. When certain types of sounds become associated in our brains with strong emotions, hearing similar sounds can evoke those same feelings, even far removed from their original context. It's a phenomenon commonly seen in combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in whom harrowing memories of the battlefield can be triggered by something as common as the sound of thunder. But the brain mechanisms responsible for creating those troubling associations remain unknown. Now, a pair of researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has discovered how fear can actually increase or decrease the ability to discriminate among sounds depending on context, providing new insight into the distorted perceptions of victims of PTSD. Their study is published in Nature Neuroscience.

"Emotions are closely linked to perception and very often our emotional response really helps us deal with reality," says senior study author Maria N. Geffen, PhD, assistant professor of Otorhinolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery and Neuroscience at Penn. "For example, a fear response helps you escape potentially dangerous situations and react quickly. But there are also situations where things can go wrong in the way the fear response develops. That's what happens in anxiety and also in PTSD -- the emotional response to the events is generalized to the point where the fear response starts getting developed to a very broad range of stimuli."


What learning cursive does for your brain

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Cursive writing makes kids smarter

Ever try to read your physician's prescriptions? Children increasingly print their writing because they don't know cursive or theirs is unreadable. I have a middle-school grandson who has trouble reading his own cursive. Grandparents may find that their grandchildren can't read the notes they send. Our new U.S. Secretary of the Treasury can't (or won't) write his own name on the new money being printed.

When we adults went to school, one of the first things we learned was how to write the alphabet, in caps and lower case, and then to hand-write words, sentences, paragraphs, and essays. Some of us were lucky enough to have penmanship class where we learned how to make our writing pretty and readable. Today, keyboarding is in, the Common Core Standards no longer require elementary students to learn cursive, and some schools are dropping the teaching of cursive, dismissing it as an "ancient skill."[1]

The primary schools that teach handwriting spend only just over an hour a week, according to Zaner-Bloser Inc., one of the nation's largest handwriting-curriculum publishers. Cursive is not generally taught after the third grade (my penmanship class was in the 7th grade; maybe its just coincidence, but the 7th grade was when I was magically transformed from a poor student into an exceptional student).


Study finds that impulsive people more likely to sacrifice for others

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While the general perception of people who are impulsive in nature is that they are self-centered, new research appearing in the journal Psychological Science suggests that the reality is actually quite different.

In fact, the study authors report that when impetuous individuals are faced with a decision that involves either giving up their own time and energy to help a loved one or worrying more about themselves, they are more likely to sacrifice for others, according to The Telegraph.

"For decades psychologists have assumed that the first impulse is selfish and that it takes self-control to behave in a pro-social manner," explained lead researcher Dr. Francesca Righetti of Amsterdam's VU University. "We did not believe that this was true in every context, and especially not in close relationships."

To test their theory, Dr. Righetti and her colleagues conducted a study in which they told couples that they would have to approach twelve strangers and ask them embarrassing questions. They did not have to follow through with the task, but were not informed of that in advance.


Inside the minds of murderers: Impulsive murderers much more mentally impaired than those who kill strategically

The minds of murderers who kill impulsively, often out of rage, and those who carefully carry out premeditated crimes differ markedly both psychologically and intellectually, according to a new study by Northwestern Medicine® researcher Robert Hanlon.

"Impulsive murderers were much more mentally impaired, particularly cognitively impaired, in terms of both their intelligence and other cognitive functions," said Hanlon, senior author of the study and associate professor of clinical psychiatry and clinical neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

"The predatory and premeditated murderers did not typically show any major intellectual or cognitive impairments, but many more of them have psychiatric disorders," he said.

Magic Wand

Complex activity patterns emerge from simple underlying laws

A new study from researchers at Uppsala University and University of Havana uses mathematic modeling and experiments on ants to show that a group is capable of developing flexible resource management strategies and characteristic responses of its own. The results are now published in Physical Review Letters.

Group-living animals are led to regulate their activity and to make decisions on how to manage resources, under the action of a variety of environmental stimuli and of their intrinsic interactions. The latter are typically cooperative, in the sense that the activity of a single animal increases nonlinearly with the number of already active ones.

The researchers monitored experimentally and using mathematical modeling the activity profile of food-searching ants in a natural environment. The number of ants entering in or exiting the nest was recorded as well as the local temperature over several days.

The study shows that the group is capable of developing flexible resource management strategies and characteristic responses of its own. This is achieved by operating in an aperiodic fashion close to a regime of chaos, where nonlinearity is especially pronounced and offers the group more options than just following passively the day/night temperature cycle.