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Whether we like someone affects how our brain processes movement

Hate the Lakers? Do the Celtics make you want to hurl? Whether you like someone can affect how your brain processes their actions, according to new research from the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC.

Most of the time, watching someone else move causes a 'mirroring' effect - that is, the parts of our brains responsible for motor skills are activated by watching someone else in action.

But a study by USC researchers appearing Oct. 5 in PLOS ONE shows that whether or not you like the person you're watching can actually have an effect on brain activity related to motor actions and lead to "differential processing" - for example, thinking the person you dislike is moving more slowly than they actually are.

"We address the basic question of whether social factors influence our perception of simple actions," says Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, an assistant professor with the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC and the Division of Occupational Science. "These results indicate that an abstract sense of group membership, and not only differences in physical appearance, can affect basic sensory-motor processing."

Past research has shown that race or physical similarity can influence brain processes, and we tend to have more empathy for people who look more like us.

Magic Wand

What makes self-directed learning effective?

In recent years, educators have come to focus more and more on the importance of lab-based experimentation, hands-on participation, student-led inquiry, and the use of "manipulables" in the classroom. The underlying rationale seems to be that students are better able to learn when they can control the flow of their experience, or when their learning is "self-directed."

While the benefits of self-directed learning are widely acknowledged, the reasons why a sense of control leads to better acquisition of material are poorly understood.

Some researchers have highlighted the motivational component of self-directed learning, arguing that this kind of learning is effective because it makes students more willing and more motivated to learn. But few researchers have examined how self-directed learning might influence cognitive processes, such as those involved in attention and memory.

In an article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researchers Todd Gureckis and Douglas Markant of New York University address this gap in understanding by examining the issue of self-directed learning from a cognitive and a computational perspective.

According to Gureckis and Markant, research from cognition offers several explanations that help to account for the advantages of self-directed learning. For example, self-directed learning helps us optimize our educational experience, allowing us to focus effort on useful information that we don't already possess and exposing us to information that we don't have access to through passive observation. The active nature of self-directed learning also helps us in encoding information and retaining it over time.

But we're not always optimal self-directed learners. The many cognitive biases and heuristics that we rely on to help us make decisions can also influence what information we pay attention to and, ultimately, learn.

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Tracking uncertainty's origin in the brain

© Alla Karapova
In this composite image, a rat that has learned to push one lever for food is unaware that researchers have pulled a switcheroo, making the other lever the better option. But a growing uncertainty in its brain will ultimately change its behavior.
A team of mind readers can now pinpoint exactly when a rat feels uncertain about its choices, simply by measuring its brain activity.

Doubt, they've discovered, creeps into the mind slowly. It starts with a few nerve cells near the front of the brain that get themselves into a tizzy. More and more cells join in, until a line is crossed and the mental maelstrom shakes up established patterns of brain activity -- allowing rats, and possibly humans as well, to question their old beliefs about the world and explore new options, researchers report in the October 5 issue of the journal Science.

"When your environment changes, you want to be able to reevaluate the world," said Alla Karpova, a neuroscientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm campus in Ashburn, Va. "We have seen an abrupt change in neural activity at a moment when an animal seems to abandon a previously held belief."

Karpova studies the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region that's thought to guide decisions by weighing the good and bad outcomes of past choices. Levels of activity in a probably analogous part of the human brain can predict how well people do at games that require learning from past experiences, one group of researchers reported in 2007. Macaque monkeys with brain damage in this area can still use their most recent mistakes to guide their choices. But they can't draw on lots of choices made over time, an ability that's important for picking the best places to search for food in the wild.

Uncertainty plays an important role in making such decisions, helping to balance beliefs drawn from previous experiences against changing conditions. A fisherman who never doubts a favorite spot that has yielded good results in the past may miss the fact that the fish have moved on, for instance.

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Science confirms the obvious: Not everyone can be hypnotized

© Richard Bergh/Wikimedia
Hypnotic séance.
Not everyone is able to be hypnotized, and new research from the Stanford University School of Medicine shows how the brains of such people differ from those who can easily be.

The study, published in the October issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, uses data from functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging to identify how the areas of the brain associated with executive control and attention tend to have less activity in people who cannot be put into a hypnotic trance.

"There's never been a brain signature of being hypnotized, and we're on the verge of identifying one," said David Spiegel, MD, the paper's senior author and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Such an advance would enable scientists to understand better the mechanisms underlying hypnosis and how it can be used more widely and effectively in clinical settings, added Spiegel, who also directs the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine.

Spiegel estimates that one-quarter of the patients he sees cannot be hypnotized, though a person's hypnotizability is not linked with any specific personality trait. "There's got to be something going on in the brain," he said.

Hypnosis is described as a trance-like state during which a person has a heightened focus and concentration. It has been shown to help with brain control over sensation and behavior, and has been used clinically to help patients manage pain, control stress and anxiety and combat phobias.

Magic Wand

Not getting sleepy? Stanford research explains why hypnosis doesn't work for all

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© Unknown
Not everyone is able to be hypnotized, and new research from the Stanford University School of Medicine shows how the brains of such people differ from those who can easily be.

The study, published in the October issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, uses data from functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging to identify how the areas of the brain associated with executive control and attention tend to have less activity in people who cannot be put into a hypnotic trance.

"There's never been a brain signature of being hypnotized, and we're on the verge of identifying one," said David Spiegel, MD, the paper's senior author and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Such an advance would enable scientists to understand better the mechanisms underlying hypnosis and how it can be used more widely and effectively in clinical settings, added Spiegel, who also directs the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine.

Spiegel estimates that one-quarter of the patients he sees cannot be hypnotized, though a person's hypnotizability is not linked with any specific personality trait. "There's got to be something going on in the brain," he said.

Hypnosis is described as a trance-like state during which a person has a heightened focus and concentration. It has been shown to help with brain control over sensation and behavior, and has been used clinically to help patients manage pain, control stress and anxiety and combat phobias.

Magic Wand

Compassion meditation may boost neural basis of empathy, Emory study finds

A compassion-based meditation program can significantly improve a person's ability to read the facial expressions of others, finds a study published by Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. This boost in empathic accuracy was detected through both behavioral testing of the study participants and through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of their brain activity.

"It's an intriguing result, suggesting that a behavioral intervention could enhance a key aspect of empathy," says lead author Jennifer Mascaro, a post-doctoral fellow in anthropology at Emory University. "Previous research has shown that both children and adults who are better at reading the emotional expressions of others have better relationships."

The meditation protocol, known as Cognitively-Based Compassion Training, or CBCT, was developed at Emory by study co-author Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership. Although derived from ancient Tibetan Buddhist practices, the CBCT program is secular in content and presentation.

The research team also included senior author Charles Raison, formerly a psychiatrist at Emory's School of Medicine and currently at the University of Arizona, and Emory anthropologist James Rilling.

Magic Wand

John Major Jenkins, the Mayans, 2012 and All That Jazz

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John Major Jenkins - new age visionary (i.e. subjective) 'perspectologist'
A recent SOTT Focus article "The 2012 Collective Shift & the Secret History of End-Times Prophecies", written by yours truly, received some expected criticism. One such commentator was the renowned John Major Jenkins, himself. I was honored that Mr. Jenkins would consider little ol' me worthy of the hassle, to be honest. But as he has raised some complaints, the SOTT editors suggested that I respond accordingly. It's only right, after all.

John Major Jenkins, for those of you who don't know, is the principle architect of the December 21st, 2012 buzz. By his own admission, the idea didn't begin with him exclusively, however, Mr. Jenkins has taken the 'transformation 2012' concept to new heights with several books (eight, by my count) and a great deal of lectures and presentations, including at the Institute of Maya Studies, the Society for American Archaeology, and various universities - at least that's what he tells me. He has published and presented in a wide spectrum of venues and written a rather impressive number of essays on the topic. Mr. Jenkins has provided material for Joseph Gelfer's 2012 anthology (released in 2011), in a forthcoming anthology on archaeoastronomy by Benfer and Adkins (University of Florida Press), and his work has been debated in a discussion sponsored by Dr. Ed Barnhart at the Maya Exploration Center. AND - I'd like to mention in good will - his love of the Mayan community prompted him to help build a school in San Pedro, Guatemala.

It's safe to say that Mr. Jenkins is a heavy hitter in the "2012" arena, and that he has done his homework. I'm betting there is nothing I could possibly say that could contend with his expertise on the topic. So why the fuss about a few claims I made in an article? Surely a nobody like me poses no threat to the empire Jenkins has built? Well, as Laura Knight-Jadczyk has assured me on more than one occasion, and knows all too well: "Being attacked often means you're doing something right."

Black Cat

'Workplace psychopaths' more common than generally thought

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© Unknown
An Australian psychotherapist has asked employers to watch out for workplace psychopaths, who 'are more common' than generally thought.

According to Doctor John Clarke can isolate and mentally destroy the staff around them. Dr Clarke said the only way to win the war against these psychopaths is to refuse to tolerate their damaging behaviour, a daily reports

"When people think of psychopath, they think of a serial killer or a rapist. And they are fairly similar things," he said during the Tasmanian Work Health & Safety Conference.

"The workplace psychopath is somebody who psychologically destroys the people they work with to feed their need for a sense of power and control and domination over other human beings," he said.

"They don't suffer any guilt or remorse, or in fact they enjoy the suffering of other people," he added.
According to the report, Dr Clarke said that between one and three per cent of the adult population is a psychopath.

Magic Wand

Quantum causal relations: A causes B causes A

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© University of Vienna
A new framework for quantum mechanics which does not assume a pre-existing global time. It demonstrates the possibility for two agents to perform a communication task in which it is impossible to tell with certainty who influences whom.
This press release is available in German.

One of the most deeply rooted concepts in science and in our everyday life is causality; the idea that events in the present are caused by events in the past and, in turn, act as causes for what happens in the future. If an event A is a cause of an effect B, then B cannot be a cause of A. Now theoretical physicists from the University of Vienna and the Université Libre de Bruxelles have shown that in quantum mechanics it is possible to conceive situations in which a single event can be both, a cause and an effect of another one. The findings will be published this week in Nature Communications.

Although it is still not known if such situations can be actually found in nature, the sheer possibility that they could exist may have far-reaching implications for the foundations of quantum mechanics, quantum gravity and quantum computing.

Causal relations: who influences whom

In everyday life and in classical physics, events are ordered in time: a cause can only influence an effect in its future not in its past. As a simple example, imagine a person, Alice, walking into a room and finding there a piece of paper. After reading what is written on the paper Alice erases the message and leaves her own message on the piece of paper. Another person, Bob, walks into the same room at some other time and does the same: he reads, erases and re-writes some message on the paper. If Bob enters the room after Alice, he will be able to read what she wrote; however Alice will not have a chance to know Bob's message. In this case, Alice's writing is the "cause" and what Bob reads the "effect".

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Study examines how memory load causes 'inattentional blindness'

© Photos.com
How many times have you driven a route that you were familiar with, made it safely to your destination, and then realized that you can't recall any of the specifics of your journey? Maybe you were focusing on the music on the radio or the stress of the day. Perhaps in our increasingly digital existence, you were paying attention to incoming texts or listening to the turn-by-turn directions of your GPS unit.

This psychological condition, known as 'inattentional blindness', occurs when we increase our memory load with information that deflects our attention from the task at hand. When we are focused on tasks or specific information, we can sometimes be effectively blind to things that are in plain sight.

Numerous real-world examples have been documented over the years. Workers in the medical or law enforcement fields - professionals regarded as educated, intelligent and even methodical - have botched their jobs in a manner that appeared careless or negligent and often led to dangerous or even fatal outcomes on account of inattentional blindness or the related phenomenon known as 'inattentional deafness'.

According to a new study commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, when we try to keep an image we've just seen in our memory, we can blind ourselves to things we are actually looking at.

A fun example, the now famous 'invisible gorilla' experiment, involves observers who are watching a video of basketball players passing around a basketball. They are asked to focus on and count the number of times the players pass the ball to one another. While focused on this task the observers fail to see a man in a gorilla suit who walks directly across the center of the screen.

While the 'invisible gorilla' experiment is an interesting way to explain this phenomenon, not all examples are so light-hearted. In 1995, while responding to a downed officer, several police cars began to pursue four suspects who had fled in a car. According to Dick Lehr, a reporter for the Boston Globe, "Cops were flying in from all over. There were more than 20 cruisers involved at different points in the chase." The vehicle chase finally came to an end in a cul-de-sac when all four suspects fled on foot in different directions.