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Wed, 10 Feb 2016
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Science of the Spirit

Eye 1

Eye Contact: Not as persuasive as we thought

© Guido Reni, The Yorck Project via Wikimedia Commons
Look At Me When I'm Talking To You!
Here's a lesson straight out of my high school speech class: When making an argument, make eye contact with your audience. Connect with people. Stare deeply into the depths of their soul and convince them you're right. Except new research suggests that that might be exactly the opposite of what you want to do to be persuasive.

According to a study from the University of British Columbia, the University of Freiburg in Germany and the Harvard Kennedy school, locking eyes with someone discussing controversial views actually made the listener less likely to be persuaded by the speaker's argument.

In one experiment, this study used remote eye-tracking to record where the subjects (20 university students working for course credit) were looking as they watched several videos featuring people talking about controversial issues like assisted suicide, factory farming and nuclear energy. After each video, the participants were asked about their attitudes toward the arguments made in the video and how they felt about the viewpoints expressed by the speaker. The researchers found that subjects spent more time looking into the eyes of the speaker when they already agreed with the arguments the speaker was espousing.

People 2

Want to succeed in the art of persuasion? AVOID eye contact: Locking glances can lower your chance of winning a person over

  • The finding is only true if someone is sceptical of the speaker to begin with
  • The longer they hold eye contact, the more sceptical they will become
  • Locking eyes can boost receptiveness if person already agrees with speaker
If you want to persuade someone to do your bidding don't look them in the eye, according to new research.

A new study has shown that - contrary to common belief - locking eyes with someone when the aim is to persuade actually harms the chances of winning them over.

So demanding 'look at me when I talk to you' of someone may not have the desired effect after all

If you want to persuade someone to do your bidding don't look them in the eye, according to new research. Co-lead of the study, Julia Minson said: 'Whether you're a politician or a parent, it might be helpful to keep in mind that trying to maintain eye contact may backfire'
Experts say that eye contact with opponents in adversarial situations makes them more resistant to persuasion, although it still works as a sign of connection in 'friendly' situations


Divorce & other life stressors linked with dementia

© Shutterstock
Common life stressors - such as divorce, widowhood or losing a job - may increase the risk of dementia later in life, a new study of women in Sweden suggests.

In the study, experiencing such psychosocial stressors in midlife was linked with a 21 percent increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, and a 15 percent increased risk of developing any type of dementia, over nearly four decades.

The findings held even after the researchers took into account factors that may affect dementia risk, such as smoking habits, alcohol consumption and a family history of mental illness.

People who were exposed to psychosocial stressors were also at increased risk of experiencing prolonged periods of distress (or feelings of irritability, tension, nervousness, fear, anxiety or sleep disturbances). However, such distress could not fully explain the link between psychosocial stressors and dementia, meaning that the association may, in part, be due to biological factors that change in response to experiencing stressors, the researchers said.


New research reveals that oxytocin could make us more accepting of others

Oxytocin - often referred to as the 'love hormone' because of its ability to promote mother-infant attachment and romantic bonding in adults - could also make us more accepting of other people, as found in new research, "Oxytocin Sharpens Self-other Perceptual Boundary," by Neuropsychoanalysis Foundation research grantee Valentina Colonnello Ph.D. published online today in Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Together with Dr. Markus Heinrichs from the Department of Psychology at the University of Freiburg in Germany, Dr. Colonnello found that oxytocin can sharpen the brain's self-other differentiation - a function that has been shown to play a crucial role in social bonding, successful social interactions and the tolerance of others. They also found that oxytocin helps to increase our positive evaluation of other people. This further supports the role of the oxytocinergic system in the empathic response and the modulation of social cognition.

"Social bonding, mutual support, mate preference and parental investment," says Dr. Colonnello, "are all mediated by the oxytocinergic system, which is heavily reliant on a person's ability to appreciate that self and others are both different and valuable."

Participants in the study were shown videos of their own face morphing into an unfamiliar face and vice versa, and were instructed to press a button as soon as they felt that they saw more features belonging to the incoming face. Of the 44 participants, those given oxytocin before the task were significantly faster at identifying the new face, regardless of whether it was their own or that of a stranger.

Magic Wand

Can phobias be cured in our sleep?

© Brian Gordon Green, National Geographic Stock
A three year old boy sleeping on a couch in Germantown, Maryland.
The brain can be trained to overcome fear during sleep, new research suggests.You may think you're doing nothing at night, but to your brain, sleep means finally having some spare time to take stock of the day's events. Freed from the distractions of recording new experiences, a deeply sleeping brain can organize and strengthen memories, especially emotional ones.

For Katherina Hauner, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago who studies fear, that makes sleep a fascinating frontier. Hauner's latest research, just published in Nature Neuroscience, explores the connections between fear, memory, and sleep.

Walk me through your study in layman's terms.

The subjects were all healthy adults. While awake, they looked at pictures of faces with neutral expressions and learned to associate these with a mild electric shock, so that eventually these face pictures elicited a fear response in the brain. This is called fear conditioning.

Sounds fun.

Just to clarify, these were not painful shocks! They were simply startling, like you might get from opening a car door.


I didn't love my wife when we got married

I'm a ridiculous, emotional, over-sentimental sap. I guess that's why I told my wife I loved her on our second date.

I had tried really hard up to that point to hold it back, honestly. I wanted to tell her on the first date, but I knew that would probably be weird.

I still remember her reaction. She kind of gave me this half-shy, half-amused smile. Then she nodded and looked off into the sky.

I wasn't heartbroken by the response. I think part of me recognized that she was much smarter and more modest than me.

But as time has gone on, I also realized that she knew something that I didn't.

Like most Hasidic Jews (we both became religious later in life), our dating period lasted a very short time. After two months of dating, we were engaged. Three months after that, we were married.

And that whole time I was swooning. This fire was burning in me, a fire that burned just like that second date: I was in love.

But then we got married, and everything changed.


Circuit that controls overeating found in the brain

© Shutterstock
When a particular circuit in the brain is stimulated, it causes mice to voraciously gorge on food even though they are well fed, and deactivating this circuit keeps starving mice from eating, a new study shows.

The findings suggest that a breakdown within this neural network could contribute to unhealthy eating behaviors, the researchers said, although more work is needed to see whether the findings are also true of people.

The circuit lies in a brain area called the "bed nucleus of the stria terminalis" (BNST), and affects eating by inhibiting activity in another region, called the lateral hypothalamus, which is known to control eating, according to the study, published today (Sept. 26) in the journal Science.

"Normally, there's a population of neurons in the lateral hypothalamus that's putting the brakes on eating," said study researcher Garret Stuber, a neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "But when you shut those cells down by stimulating this pathway, that releases the brake, and the animal starts to eat."

The lateral hypothalamus has been known for more than 50 years to be an important part of the brain for controlling eating. Scientists had learned that putting stimulating electrodes in the lateral hypothalamus of animals would influence their eating behavior, but exactly how it works has been a mystery.


Fetching faces and friendly foxes: Selective breeding of foxes reveals why with humans, beauty rules

© Quarterly Review of Biology 2013
Left to right: Figure 2, Friendly Fox and Technician, M. Nurgalieva (Photograph used with the permission of Lyudmila Trut); Figure 3, Bonobo Mutual Gaze (Photograph used with the permission of Frans Lanting/lanting.com); Figure 4, Human Mutual Gaze.
"What is beautiful is good" - but why? A recent article in The Quarterly Review of Biology provides a compelling physiological explanation for the "beauty stereotype": why human beings are wired to favor the beautiful ones.

Studies have shown that humans subconsciously attribute positive social qualities (such as integrity, intelligence, and happiness) to physically attractive individuals. Even across cultures there exists a significant consensus on relative beauty: youthful facial features, including, for women, relatively large eyes, a relatively high craniofacial ratio, and a relatively small jaw. In an article published in the September 2013 issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology, Dr. I. Elia, an independent scholar at Cambridge University, bridges genetics, physical and social anthropology, and psychology to interpret the findings of the "farm fox experiment" in Russia to reveal "a possible and replicable demonstration of the origin of beauty while inadvertently illuminating its ancient philosophical connection to goodness via a plausible neurohormonal pathway."

Silver foxes (Vulpes vulpes) were selectively bred for "friendly" behavior toward humans. Within 20 years, a tame line of communicative, trusting, and playful foxes was achieved. Researchers also noticed that in addition to desirable behavioral traits, the foxes also experienced more rapid development to maturity and displayed more "attractive" and more juvenile physical features, including rounder skulls and flatter faces, with smaller noses and shorter muzzles. That these neotenic changes resulted from genetically controlled alterations in friendly behavior may suggest that to humans, facial beauty signals an individual's relatively greater level of approachability and sociability.


When the going gets tough and there is no spiritual depth, the materialistic go shopping

© G.L. Kohuth
A study led by Ayalla Ruvio, Michigan State University assistant professor of marketing, suggests materialistic people are more likely to deal with fear of death with compulsive spending.
Materialistic people experience more stress from traumatic events such as terrorist attacks and are more likely to spend compulsively as a result, according to an international study led by a Michigan State University business professor.

These possession-driven folks tend to have lower self-esteem than others, said Ayalla Ruvio, assistant professor of marketing in MSU's Broad College of Business.

"When the going gets tough, the materialistic go shopping," said Ruvio. "And this compulsive and impulsive spending is likely to produce even greater stress and lower well-being. Essentially, materialism appears to make bad events even worse."

For the first part of the study, Ruvio and colleagues surveyed 139 citizens from a southern Israeli town under extreme rocket attacks from Palestine for about six months in 2007. Ruvio, who is from northern Israel, coordinated the data collection amid the terrorist attacks. Her co-researchers were Eli Somer, professor and clinical psychologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, and Aric Rindfleisch, business professor and department head at the University of Illinois.


Children are suffering a severe play deficit

© Alex Webb/Magnum
In the country of Le Grandes Meaulnes; children play near the village of Baudrémont, Meuse, France.
When I was a child in the 1950s, my friends and I had two educations. We had school (which was not the big deal it is today), and we also had what I call a hunter-gather education. We played in mixed-age neighbourhood groups almost every day after school, often until dark. We played all weekend and all summer long. We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than the books assigned to us. What I learnt in my hunter-gatherer education has been far more valuable to my adult life than what I learnt in school, and I think others in my age group would say the same if they took time to think about it.

For more than 50 years now, we in the United States have been gradually reducing children's opportunities to play, and the same is true in many other countries. In his book Children at Play: An American History (2007), Howard Chudacoff refers to the first half of the 20th century as the 'golden age' of children's free play. By about 1900, the need for child labour had declined, so children had a good deal of free time. But then, beginning around 1960 or a little before, adults began chipping away at that freedom by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and, even more significantly, by reducing children's freedom to play on their own, even when they were out of school and not doing homework. Adult-directed sports for children began to replace 'pickup' games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents' fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised. There are lots of reasons for these changes but the effect, over the decades, has been a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children's opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.

Over the same decades that children's play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing. It's not just that we're seeing disorders that we overlooked before. Clinical questionnaires aimed at assessing anxiety and depression, for example, have been given in unchanged form to normative groups of schoolchildren in the US ever since the 1950s. Analyses of the results reveal a continuous, essentially linear, increase in anxiety and depression in young people over the decades, such that the rates of what today would be diagnosed as generalised anxiety disorder and major depression are five to eight times what they were in the 1950s. Over the same period, the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled, and that for children under age 15 has quadrupled.