Science of the Spirit


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

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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).

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

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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:

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The brain treats real and imaginary objects in the same way

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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.

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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.


Neuroscientists find that different parts of the brain work best at different ages

© Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT (with image courtesy of the researchers)
Researchers have been running large-scale experiments on the Internet, where people of any age can become research subjects. Their websites feature cognitive tests designed to be completed in just a few minutes. Shown here is a "pattern completion test" from their website,
Scientists have long known that our ability to think quickly and recall information, also known as fluid intelligence, peaks around age 20 and then begins a slow decline. However, more recent findings, including a new study from neuroscientists at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), suggest that the real picture is much more complex.

The study, which appears in the journal Psychological Science, finds that different components of fluid intelligence peak at different ages, some as late as age 40.

"At any given age, you're getting better at some things, you're getting worse at some other things, and you're at a plateau at some other things. There's probably not one age at which you're peak on most things, much less all of them," says Joshua Hartshorne, a postdoc in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and one of the paper's authors.

"It paints a different picture of the way we change over the lifespan than psychology and neuroscience have traditionally painted," adds Laura Germine, a postdoc in psychiatric and neurodevelopmental genetics at MGH and the paper's other author.


Brain scans reveal two different types of extroverts

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There are two types of extroverts, each with distinct brain anatomies.

There are two different types of extroverts — 'agentic' and 'affiliative' — each with distinct brain structures, new research finds.

Agentic extroverts are 'go-getters': the kind of outgoing people who are persistent, assertive and focused on achievement.

The other kind of extroverts have a softer side.

Affiliative extroverts tend to be more affectionate, friendly and sociable.

Both types of extroverts share distinct brain anatomy as well as displaying distinct differences, the new research finds.

Dr Tara White, the study's first author, said that extroverts in general are keen to share:
"These are people just sharing with you how they tend to experience the world and what's important to them.

The fact that that's validated in the brain is really exciting. There's a deep reality there.

This is the first glimpse of a benchmark of what the healthy adult brain looks like with these traits."

Scanning extroverts

For the study, researchers scanned the brains of 83 people to look for similarities and differences in key areas of the brain.

They found that both types of extroverts had more gray matter in the medial orbitofrontal cortex.

Comment: To learn more about extroversion, check out this link discussing Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration.

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No surprise there: Study reveals men more narcissistic than women

Women are just as vain and self-absorbed as men, but men are more willing to exploit others out of a sense of privilege.
Men are more narcissistic than women, on average, a new study finds. Data from almost half a million people collected across 31 years found that men score higher on narcissism across age groups and generations. The results are published in the journal Psychological Bulletin (Grijalva et al., 2015).

Dr Emily Grijalva, the study's lead author, said:
"Narcissism is associated with various interpersonal dysfunctions, including an inability to maintain healthy long-term relationships, unethical behavior and aggression. At the same time, narcissism is shown to boost self-esteem, emotional stability and the tendency to emerge as a leader. By examining gender differences in narcissism, we may be able to explain gender disparities in these important outcomes."
The largest gaps between the genders were found in entitlement. This suggests men are more likely to feel privileged and to exploit others.

Comment: If male psychopaths outnumber female psychopaths, their extreme narcissism could conceivably account for the "relatively small overall difference". Non-psychopaths - black, brown or white, male or female - have more in common with each other than they do with psychopaths of their own race or gender.


Eight classic signs of borderline personality disorder

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Borderline personality disorder is thought to affect between 1% and 6% of the population.

It is more common in women than men.

The most telling sign of borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a long history of instability in personal relationships.

This is partly caused by unstable and impulsive emotions.

At one time people with borderline personality disorder can idolise someone else, and soon after they hate them.



Boosting your brain: Why reading and writing on paper beats digital screens

Research shows that writing leads to an increase in conceptual understanding, application and retention.

My son is 18 months old, and I've been reading books with him since he was born. I say "reading", but I really mean "looking at" - not to mention grasping, dropping, throwing, cuddling, chewing, and everything else a tiny human being likes to do. Over the last six months, though, he has begun not simply to look but also to recognise a few letters and numbers. He calls a capital Y a "yak" after a picture on the door of his room; a capital H is "hedgehog"; a capital K, "kangaroo"; and so on.

Reading, unlike speaking, is a young activity in evolutionary terms. Humans have been speaking in some form for hundreds of thousands of years; we are born with the ability to acquire speech etched into our neurones. The earliest writing, however, emerged only 6,000 years ago, and every act of reading remains a version of what my son is learning: identifying the special species of physical objects known as letters and words, using much the same neural circuits as we use to identify trees, cars, animals and telephone boxes.

Comment: Why Does Writing Make Us Smarter?