Science of the Spirit


'Return To Life': How some children have memories of reincarnation

© Jake Whitman/TODAY
It's not unusual for little boys to have vivid imaginations, but Ryan's stories were truly legendary.

His mother Cyndi said it all began with horrible nightmares when he was 4 years old. Then when he was 5 years old, he confided in her one evening before bed.

"He said mom, I have something I need to tell you," she told TODAY. "I used to be somebody else."

The preschooler would then talk about "going home" to Hollywood, and would cry for his mother to take him there. His mother said he would tell stories about meeting stars like Rita Hayworth, traveling overseas on lavish vacations, dancing on Broadway, and working for an agency where people would change their names.

She said her son even recalled that the street he lived on had the word "rock" in it.

"His stories were so detailed and they were so extensive, that it just wasn't like a child could have made it up," she said.

Cyndi said she was raised Baptist and had never really thought about reincarnation. So she decided to keep her son's "memories" a secret— even from her own husband.

Privately, she checked out books about Hollywood from the local library, hoping something inside would help her son make sense of his strange memories and help her son cope with his sometimes troubling "memories."

"Then we found the picture, and it changed everything," she said.

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Why does gardening make people feel so good?

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Have you ever noticed how satisfying it feels to get your hands dirty in the backyard? Does working in your garden make you feel like everything is right in the world? Perhaps you've chalked it up to the sunshine and the exercise. After all, everyone knows that a good workout and a job well done is great for your self-esteem. But is there more to it then that?

There just might be if science has anything to say about it. As all experienced gardeners know, soil doesn't just consist of dirt and minerals. It is teeming with so much bacteria that it could be considered an ecosystem all by itself. And apparently, some of that bacteria might have an effect on your sense of well-being.

Did you know that there's a natural antidepressant in soil? It's true. Mycobacterium vaccae is the substance under study and has indeed been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress.

Comment: Get your hands in the dirt!


How parents turn their kids into narcissists

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Parents turn their children into little narcissists by overvaluing them, a new study finds. It is better to concentrate on being emotionally warm towards children — this leads to higher self-esteem, not narcissism. Professor Brad Bushman, one of the study's authors, said:
"Children believe it when their parents tell them that they are more special than others. That may not be good for them or for society."
The study is the first of its kind to follow children over time to examine how narcissists evolve. The researchers followed 565 children in the Netherlands who were between 7 and 11 when the study started. This is the critical age when narcissists emerge.

The children were tested for typical personality traits of narcissists, like thinking you are better than other people. The children's parents were also asked about their children. Professor Bushman explained that his research had changed his own parenting style:
"When I first started doing this research in the 1990s, I used to think my children should be treated like they were extra-special. I'm careful not to do that now. It is important to express warmth to your children because that may promote self-esteem, but overvaluing them may promote higher narcissism."

Comment: See also: No surprise there: Study reveals men more narcissistic than women

On the one hand, many parents overvalue their kids, potentially turning them into selfish brats as adults. On the other hand, abuse is rampant: Family secrets can make you sick: The link between childhood abuse and health

We just can't seem to make it work as a species, can we?

Bizarro Earth

Taken to the dark side: How we are coerced into accepting torture

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Cleverly at work for the dark side, the corporate media isn't going into great detail about the recent discovery that the Chicago Police Department has for years been operating a secret, off-site, extra-judicial, unconstitutional detention and interrogation center in a nondescript warehouse on the West side of the Windy City. Americans, so the talking heads would have us believe, have more important things to busy ourselves with.

The protest against this outrage is growing, however, because at Homan Square, as it's known, the local police 'disappear' American citizens before charging them with any crime. They hide them there for hours or days without the knowledge of lawyers, family, or friends, interrogating, threatening, abusing and at times coming up with cleverly inhumane ways to torture them.

Think Gitmo, think Abu Ghraib. Think Pol Pot, think Mao. Pardon my French here, but, c'est quoi ce bordel?

This sort of thing has always been in the play books of imperialists and barbarians, but in just over a short decade in the 'land of the free,' torture has clawed its gory soul into mainstream ideology, and it's making the death march to becoming acceptable public policy for your local police goons. Who, by the way, are already up-armed to the teeth and better equipped than most of the world's national armies.


Polyvagal theory: The biological fingerprint for compassion and empathy

What happens in Vagus... may make or break compassion.
© UC Berkeley
Is there a biological fingerprint for compassion?

Two scientific teams, one led by Zoe Taylor at Purdue and the other by Jenny Stellar at UC Berkeley, have found that the answer may lie in the Vagus nerve. That's the cranial nerve in the body with the widest reach, influencing speech, head positioning, digestion, and—importantly for these two studies—the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system's influence on the heart.

Students typically memorize the parasympathetic branch (PNS) as the "rest and digest" branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls bodily functions that we're not aware of when we're relaxed and feeling content. The PNS is also called the "feed and breed" branch—and recently, social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson added the label "tend and befriend" to the PNS, suggesting that it also supports functions that enable social engagement and nurturing behaviors.

These functionally descriptive labels for the PNS—"rest and digest," "feed and breed," and "tend and befriend"—directly relate to the Vagus nerve, which turns out to be something of an enforcer for the PNS when it comes to the heart and compassion.

Roughly 20 years ago, Steve Porges of the University of Chicago pioneered PolyVagal theory, which suggested that the Vagus nerve fundamentally drives human social affiliation—the motivations and behaviors involved in approaching others in trusting, affectionate, and cooperative ways. Since then, social science researchers have measured Vagal activity to examine how it relates to social affiliation, particularly related states like empathy, sympathy, and compassion.

Comment: The Éiriú Eolas breathing program has had profound healing effects in its practitioners due to the stimulation of the vagus nerve and polyvagal system. It helps to effectively manage the physiological, emotional, and psychological effects of stress, helps to clear blocked emotions, and helps improve thinking ability. The program will unlock your social systems and heal imbalances related with depression, anxiety, trauma, etc. You can try it for free at

See also:


Research-based ways to form positive habits and make them last

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Everyone knows change is hard. If you want to achieve your goals, you have to learn how to delay gratification, step out of your comfort zone and overcome resistance to change.

But what's even harder is making change stick. Saying no to a cigarette. Keeping the pounds off. Ignoring that website. That's the real challenge. Or is it?

You can make change stick by making it easier for yourself.

In one study, university students only got vaccinated after they had been given a map to the health center. That one little thing made a big difference in their behavior.

Four things can make a big difference when making new habits stick. These are how you prime yourself to act differently, the defaults you set up, the commitments you make, and the norms of those you surround yourself with (Dolan, 2014).


Cooperative social networks significantly enhanced when reputations of those in the network are known

© Daniel Tenerife/Wikipedia
Social network diagram
People in a society are bound together by a set of connections - a social network. Cooperation between people in the network is essential for societies to prosper, and the question of what drives the emergence and sustainability of cooperation is a fundamental one.

What we know about other people in a network informs how much we are willing to cooperate with them. By conducting a series of online experiments, researchers explored how two key areas of network knowledge effect cooperation in decision-making: what we know about the reputation and social connections of those around us.

In most social contexts, knowledge about others' reputation - what we know about their previous actions - is limited to those we have immediate connections with: friends, neighbours and so on.

But the new study shows that if the reputation of everyone in a network is completely transparent - made common knowledge and visible to all - rather than limited to the individuals who are directly connected, the level of cooperation across the overall network almost doubles. The network also becomes denser and more clustered (so your connections tend to be connected with each other).

Heart - Black

Family secrets can make you sick: The link between childhood abuse and health

© Maria Fabrizio / NPR
In the 1980s, Dr. Vincent Felitti, now director of the California Institute of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, discovered something potentially revolutionary about the ripple effects of child sexual abuse. He discovered it while trying to solve a very different health problem: helping severely obese people lose weight.

Felitti, a specialist in preventive medicine, was trying out a new liquid diet treatment among patients at a Kaiser Permanente clinic. And it worked really well. The severely obese patients who stuck to it lost as much as 300 pounds in a year.

"Oh yeah, this was really quite extraordinary," recalls Felitti.

But then, some of the patients who'd lost the most weight quit the treatment and gained back all the weight — faster than they'd lost it. Felitti couldn't figure out why. So he started asking questions.

First, one person told him she'd been sexually abused as a kid. Then another.

Comment: For more information, these three books are must-reads:

Eye 1

The brain treats real and imaginary objects in the same way

© Flickr/Raphael Labbe
Does your brain know the difference between your real friends and your imaginary ones?
The human brain can select relevant objects from a flood of information and edit out what is irrelevant. It also knows which parts belong to a whole. If, for example, we direct our attention to the doors of a house, the brain will preferentially process its windows, but not the neighboring houses. Psychologists from Goethe University Frankfurt have now discovered that this also happens when parts of the objects are merely maintained in our memory.

"Perception and memory have mainly been investigated separately until now", explains Benjamin Peters, doctoral researcher at the Institute for Medical Psychology in the working group of Prof. Jochen Kaiser. There are close parallels, for in the same way as we can preferentially process external stimuli, we are also able to concentrate on the memory content that is currently the most important. These are essential skills of our brain, which are closely connected to intelligence and which are impaired in various psychiatric illnesses.

In their study, Peters and colleagues examined "object-based attention", a well-known phenomenon in perception research. This refers to the fact that we automatically extend our attention to the whole object when we attend only part of an object - like the front door and the windows. In the experiment the subjects were asked to direct their attention alternately to one of four screen positions, which formed the ends of each of two artificial objects. In accordance with the principle of object-based attention the subjects were able to shift their attention more quickly between two positions that belonged to the same object than between those that were part of different objects. It was discovered that this effect also occurred when the subjects envisaged these positions only in short-term memory.

Cell Phone

Is your smartphone turning you into an idiot?

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Smartphones have made our lives easier and more efficient. They allow us to call people, find directions, and look up virtually anything we want to know within seconds - with a mere touch of the screen.

But are we too reliant on these devices to do things for us? New research indicates that there is a downside to all of this convenience: we are becoming lazier thinkers.

The study, from researchers at the University of Waterloo and published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, suggests that smartphone users who are intuitive thinkers — more prone to relying on gut feelings and instincts when making decisions — frequently use our device's search engine rather than our own brainpower.

In other words, smartphones allow some of us to be even lazier than we would otherwise be.