Science of the Spirit


Your Memory Is Like the Telephone Game, Altered With Each Retelling

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Remember the telephone game where people take turns whispering a message into the ear of the next person in line? By the time the last person speaks it out loud, the message has radically changed. It's been altered with each retelling. Turns out your memory is a lot like the telephone game, according to a new Northwestern Medicine study.
Remember the telephone game where people take turns whispering a message into the ear of the next person in line? By the time the last person speaks it out loud, the message has radically changed. It's been altered with each retelling.

Turns out your memory is a lot like the telephone game, according to a new Northwestern Medicine study.

Every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. Thus, the next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time. The Northwestern study is the first to show this.

"A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event -- it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it," said Donna Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the paper on the study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience. "Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval."


Breaking Up the Echo

© Ted McGrath
It is well known that when like-minded people get together, they tend to end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. The same kind of echo-chamber effect can happen as people get news from various media. Liberals viewing MSNBC or reading left-of-center blogs may well end up embracing liberal talking points even more firmly; conservative fans of Fox News may well react in similar fashion on the right.

The result can be a situation in which beliefs do not merely harden but migrate toward the extreme ends of the political spectrum. As current events in the Middle East demonstrate, discussions among like-minded people can ultimately produce violence.

The remedy for easing such polarization, here and abroad, may seem straightforward: provide balanced information to people of all sides. Surely, we might speculate, such information will correct falsehoods and promote mutual understanding. This, of course, has been a hope of countless dedicated journalists and public officials.

Unfortunately, evidence suggests that balanced presentations - in which competing arguments or positions are laid out side by side - may not help. At least when people begin with firmly held convictions, such an approach is likely to increase polarization rather than reduce it.

Indeed, that's what a number of academic studies done over the last three decades have found. Such studies typically proceed in three stages. First, the experimenters assemble a group of people who have clear views on some controversial issue (such as capital punishment or sexual orientation). Second, the study subjects are provided with plausible arguments on both sides of the issue. And finally, the researchers test how attitudes have shifted as a result of exposure to balanced presentations.


Instinctively, People Are Generous

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Research shows human instinct may be to help each other.
Without thinking, people act with more generosity than if they take some time to weigh the logic of their behavior.

Contrary to popular and pessimistic thought, the discovery suggests that, by default, our gut instincts lead us to be more helpful than selfish. That may explain why door-knocking and phone solicitations, which demand immediate responses, tend to bring in bigger donations than statistics-laden e-mail messages or direct mail, which puts people in a rational frame of mind and allows them to think for a while before deciding whether to give.

Likewise, people who commit heroic acts -- like the man who jumped onto New York City subway tracks in front of an oncoming train to save a young man having a seizure five years ago -- often make split-second decisions to do the altruistic thing.

"If you look at testimony of a lot of people like that describing their decisions, you can see they are heavily weighted towards intuitive thinking," said David Rand, a behavior scientist at Yale who conducted the new study while at Harvard. "People say, 'I didn't think about it. I just did it.'"

In a 2011 best-selling book called Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel-Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman argued that a lot of decision-making comes out of a tension between two types of brain processes. On the one hand, we have quick and intuitive thoughts, which are often emotional. The other mode is slower, allowing for more controlled and calculated thinking.

Until now, Rand said, researchers had yet to combine the two kinds of thought processes in a way that explained how people actually behaved.


New Atlas May Help Solve Mysteries of the Human Brain

© Allen Institute for Brain Science
A 3D rendering showing the expression a single gene across the human brain, revealing areas with higher (red) and lower (blue) expression.
The genetic differences between normal and abnormal human brains may be determined one day from a "brain atlas" scientists are refining.

The scientists have compiled high-resolution maps of genetic activity in the adult human brain based on the complete brains of two men as well as a hemisphere from a third man's brain, all of the tissue healthy when the men died. The researchers are making their data freely accessible online to aid in studies of normal and abnormal human brain function.

"By themselves these data do not hold all of the answers for understanding how the brain works or what are the genetic underpinnings of disease," researcher Ed Lein, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, told LiveScience.

"However, we hope they serve as a catalyst in human brain research for understanding the brain's complex chemistry and cellular makeup, what goes awry in disease, and how best to design and test treatments for disease."

Identifying where and when genes are active or expressed within the brain is a titanic endeavor. In fact, ever since the human genome was completely sequenced nearly a decade ago, researchers have strived to identify what exactly each gene might do, with great interest focused on any genes related to the brain.

The main challenge when it comes to understanding the human brain is the fact that it is the most powerful computer known. It consists of approximately 100 billion neurons with roughly 1 quadrillion (1 million billion) connections wiring these cells together, and each connection or synapse typically fires about 10 times per second.

Magic Wand

Music underlies language acquisition

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Contrary to the prevailing theories that music and language are cognitively separate or that music is a byproduct of language, theorists at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music and the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) advocate that music underlies the ability to acquire language.

"Spoken language is a special type of music," said Anthony Brandt, co-author of a theory paper published online this month in the journal Frontiers in Cognitive Auditory Neuroscience. "Language is typically viewed as fundamental to human intelligence, and music is often treated as being dependent on or derived from language. But from a developmental perspective, we argue that music comes first and language arises from music."

Brandt, associate professor of composition and theory at the Shepherd School, co-authored the paper with Shepherd School graduate student Molly Gebrian and L. Robert Slevc, UMCP assistant professor of psychology and director of the Language and Music Cognition Lab.

"Infants listen first to sounds of language and only later to its meaning," Brandt said. He noted that newborns' extensive abilities in different aspects of speech perception depend on the discrimination of the sounds of language - "the most musical aspects of speech."


Why women speak less when they're outnumbered

Research shows how to improve group discussions & decisions.

New experiments in group decision making show that having a seat at the table is very different than having a voice.

Scholars at Brigham Young University and Princeton examined whether women speak less than men when a group collaborates to solve a problem. In most groups that they studied, the time that women spoke was significantly less than their proportional representation - amounting to less than 75 percent of the time that men spoke.

The new study is published by the top academic journal in political science, American Political Science Review.

"Women have something unique and important to add to the group, and that's being lost at least under some circumstances," said Chris Karpowitz, the lead study author and a political scientist at BYU.

Magic Wand

Songbirds shed light on brain circuits and learning

By studying how birds master songs used in courtship, scientists at Duke University have found that regions of the brain involved in planning and controlling complex vocal sequences may also be necessary for memorizing sounds that serve as models for vocal imitation.

In a paper appearing in the September 2012 issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers at Duke and Harvard universities observed the imitative vocal learning habits of male zebra finches to pinpoint which circuits in the birds' brains are necessary for learning their songs.

Knowing which brain circuits are involved in learning by imitation could have broader implications for diagnosing and treating human developmental disorders, the researchers said. The finding shows that the same circuitry used for vocal control also participates in auditory learning, raising the possibility that vocal circuits in our own brain also help encode auditory experience important to speech and language learning.

"Birds learn their songs early in life by listening to and memorizing the song of their parent or other adult bird tutor, in a process similar to how humans learn to speak," said Todd Roberts, Ph.D., the study's first author and postdoctoral associate in neurobiology at Duke University. "They shape their vocalizations to match or copy the tutor's song."


Just Thinking About Interacting With a Woman Is Enough to Cloud Men's Thinking Ability, Study Confirms

© Medical Daily
It's a pretty common trope in sitcoms: man thinks something, man meets woman, man is unable to continue thinking. But, like all good comedy, the cliché has its roots in human nature. It, in fact, has roots in science as well. Researchers found that, for men, even the thought of interacting with a woman was enough to cause cognitive impairment.

In 2009, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that, after interacting with an attractive woman for a short period of time, heterosexual men's cognitive ability declined. More recently, a team of Dutch researchers attempted to see if they could take that correlation one step further. They conducted two experiments using male and female college students.

Both tests started with the Stroop test. The test shows participants the name of a color, like "orange." The color is written in a different color, like blue. Participants need to quickly identify the color in which the word is written, rather than what the word is. The test is pretty difficult because participants naturally read the word, confusing their brains.


Brain Function is Different in Anorexic Women, Study Says

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Researchers from the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas, Dallas and University of Texas, Southwestern, discovered brain-based differences in women suffering from anorexia.

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that causes an individual to obsess about his or her weight. Many individuals suffering from anorexia may starve themselves in order to prevent weight gain.

Researchers used fMRI to observe the brain function in participants. Women were instructed to evaluate their own characteristics compared to a friend. The study tasks included self-evaluation, friend evaluation and reflected evaluation, which assessed an attribute about one's self as perceived by a friend.

The stduy was led by researchers Dr. Dan Krawczyk, associate professor at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and psychiatry at UT Southwestern, and Dr. Carrie McAdams, assistant psychiatry professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center,

According to Dr.Krawczyk, women who are suffering from anorexia demonstrated different types of brain activation compared to non-anorexic women.


Improving Memory for Specific Events Can Alleviate Symptoms of Depression

Hear the word "party" and memories of your 8th birthday sleepover or the big bash you attended last New Year's may come rushing to mind. But it's exactly these kinds of memories, embedded in a specific place and time, that people with depression have difficulty recalling.

Research has shown that people who suffer from, or are at risk of, depression have difficulty tapping into specific memories from their own past, an impairment that affects their ability to solve problems and leads them to focus on feelings of distress.

In a study forthcoming in Clinical Psychological Science, a new journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychological scientists Hamid Neshat-Doost of the University of Isfahan, Iran, Laura Jobson of the University of East Anglia, Tim Dalgleish of the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Medical Research Council, Cambridge and colleagues investigated whether a particular training program, Memory Specificity Training, might improve people's memory for past events and ameliorate their symptoms of depression.