Science of the Spirit


Writing to Heal

© Marsha Miller
Dr. James Pennebaker
For nearly 20 years, Dr. James W. Pennebaker has been giving people an assignment: write down your deepest feelings about an emotional upheaval in your life for 15 or 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days. Many of those who followed his simple instructions have found their immune systems strengthened. Others have seen their grades improved. Sometimes entire lives have changed.

Pennebaker, a professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and author of several books, including Opening Up and Writing to Heal, is a pioneer in the study of using expressive writing as a route to healing. His research has shown that short-term focused writing can have a beneficial effect on everyone from those dealing with a terminal illness to victims of violent crime to college students facing first-year transitions.

"When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health," Pennebaker says. "They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up. People will tell us months afterward that it's been a very beneficial experience for them."

In his early research Pennebaker was interested in how people who have powerful secrets are more prone to a variety of health problems. If you could find a way for people to share those secrets, would their health problems improve?

Mysteries of the human brain revealed as scientists release detailed 3D image of its genes and pathways

Brain Pathways
© The Independent, UK
Scientists have generated the first detailed pictures of the intricate events in the womb that result in the formation of the human brain. The study could prove to be a decisive breakthrough in understanding the many cognitive disorders thought to be triggered before birth - from autism to schizophrenia.

The researchers believe that the findings could one day lead to a "blueprint for building the human brain" based on knowing the precise sequence of genes that are selectively switched on and off in different parts of the embryonic organ during the critical stages of development in the womb.

Researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, funded by the Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, analysed the brains of four human foetuses between 15 and 21 weeks to build up the first atlas of the developing brain based on differences in gene activities - a so-called "transcriptome".

The work is part of a much wider body of research aimed at a fundamental understanding of the brain, which is often described as the most complex structure in the known universe. Last month, President Obama announced the doubling of US Government funding on his brain initiative - from $100 million to $200 million.

Other approaches in the Obama initiative include the construction of intricate wiring diagrams of how the 100 billion nerve cells of the brain communicate with one another by sending electrical signals down physical connections, known as "connectomes".

Senior scientists believe that these revolutionary new techniques for studying the brain could transform our knowledge of how the brain works and so lead to radical new forms of prevention or treatment for the many psychological and developmental disorders that have so far defied medicine.

Erasing memories not just science fiction

Jim Carrey
© Shutterstock
Jim Carrey plays a man who has his memory erased in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Brooklyn, N.Y. - Whether it's messy breakup or a traumatic car crash, there are some memories many of us would rather erase from our minds. Although the idea was explored in the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the total erasure of conscious memories is no longer completely science fiction, says a neuroscientist who has been experimenting with such possibilities in rats.

New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux's preliminary studies suggest the idea of erasing memories like a painful romantic breakup (as was the case in Eternal Sunshine) is possible in humans.

"What [the film characters] were doing, obviously, is impossible," LeDoux told an audience at a showing of the film here at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of a program called Science on Screen. But "it's not so far-fetched as you might think," LeDoux said.

In Eternal Sunshine, the characters Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) are a couple who have broken up, and Clementine decides to undergo a medical procedure to have her memories of Joel erased. When Joel finds out, he decides to undergo the same procedure, but it doesn't completely work, and he finds himself running around in his mind, trying to safeguard his memories of Clementine.
Post-It Note

Night owls tend to be unmarried risk-takers - study

Night owls, people who stay up late at night, compared to early birds, people who wake up early in the morning, tend to be unmarried risk-takers.

Study author Dario Maestripieri, a professor in comparative human development at the University of Chicago, said women who are night owls share the same high propensity for risk-taking as men.

"Night owls, both males and females, are more likely to be single or in short-term romantic relationships versus long-term relationships, when compared to early birds," Maestripieri said in a statement. "In addition, male night owls reported twice as many sexual partners than male early birds."

The researchers used data from earlier research of more than 500 graduate students at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, which assessed financial risk aversion among male and female students and found men more willing to take financial risks than women.

However, men with high levels of the male hormone were more similar to men in financial risk-taking.

A bad night's sleep could age your brain by five YEARS

Sleeping badly can age the brain by as much as five years, reducing memory and concentration
  • Just three years of poor sleep could cause a decline in mental faculties
  • Poor sleep is linked to a 50% increase in risk of a decline in faculties
  • Sleep quality is more important than quantity in determining brain ageing
Sleeping badly could age you as much as five years, a study has revealed. Just three or four years of broken sleep patterns are linked to a loss of memory and concentration, American researchers found.

They say that poor quality sleep is increases the risk of of having impaired mental faculties by up to 50 per cent - equivalent to a five year increase in age.

Study leader Dr Terri Blackwell, of the California Pacific Medical Centre Research Institute, in San Francisco, said: 'It was the quality of sleep that predicted future cognitive decline in this study, not the quantity.

'With the rate of cognitive impairment increasing and the high prevalence of sleep problems in the elderly, it is important to determine prospective associations with sleep and cognitive decline.'

The study, published in the journal Sleep, involved 2,820 men with an average age of 76 years.

Children suffer mentally and physically from too much homework

© flickr/Vic Xia
“…students described the amount of homework each night as “overwhelming,” “unmanageable,” or “more than [they] could handle,”"
According to new research, too much homework is associated with academic stress, a lack of balance in children's lives and even physical health problems.

The new study into 4,317 students at 10 high-performing US high schools questions whether the average of 3 hours homework per night is really justified (Galloway et al., 2013).

The researchers asked students about the work they were doing and discovered that:
"Some of the students described the amount of homework each night as "overwhelming," "unmanageable," or "more than [they] could handle," with one describing the load as "an endless barrage of work.""
One student wrote:
"There's never a time to rest. There's always something more you should be doing. If I go to bed before 1:30 I feel like I'm slacking off, or just screwing myself over for an even later night later in the week... There's never a break. Never."

Psychological benefits of being humble

What hope for humility as society celebrates over-confidence, entitlement and the ego?
The poet Tennyson once said that humility is, "the highest virtue, the mother of them all." Yet society celebrates over-confidence, entitlement and a perpetual focus on the self. People are increasingly competitive, attention-seeking, narcissistic, obsessed with their appearance and entitled.

A new study, though, underlines eight ways in which being humble can help us improve our lives (Kesebir, 2014). The author of the study, psychologist Pelin Kesebir, explains that:
"Humility involves a willingness to accept the self's limits and its place in the grand scheme of things, accompanied by low levels of self-preoccupation." (Kesebir, 2014).
Humility - or 'a quiet ego' as she calls it - can be surprisingly powerful in a variety of different ways.

Scientists map 21 emotional states that our faces can express

facial expressions
© Ohio state university
10 of the 21 facial expressions identified
Researchers in the United States have discovered how we can convey a much wider range of emotions through facial expressions than previously thought

The six basic emotions - happy, sad, fearful, angry, surprised and disgusted - do not begin to cover the range of feelings we convey with our facial expressions, a study has found.

Using new computer software to observe and record people's faces, scientists mapped no fewer than 21 emotional states, including apparently contradictory examples such as "happily disgusted" and "sadly angry".

The research more than triples the number of known emotional facial expressions and could help medical specialists improve the diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders.

Proving the paranormal: Scientific discussions

paranormal research
© Shutterstock
A growing number of scientists are calling for a shift in scientific methods to acknowledge phenomena commonly experienced but difficult to study according to conventional methods.

Here's a look at some insights from scientists who explore paranormal phenomena or matters related to human consciousness. They discuss how science can move forward.

Dr. Gary Schwartz

gary schwartz paranormal research
© YouTube
Dr. Gary Schwarz
Dr. Gary Schwartz received his doctorate from Harvard, taught psychiatry and psychology at Yale, and is now a professor at the University of Arizona. He has studied individuals who say they are able to predict the future.

"If you're going to test someone who claims to do extraordinary things, it's essential that you design the experiment to be as close as possible to what they actually do," said Dr. Schwartz on his website." And if you don't design an experiment around their actual skills, you can end up asking people to do things that they actually can't do or that don't really represent what they do."

Schwartz tailors the tests specifically to the individual abilities instead of imposing a cookie-cutter test of precognition. Not everyone who can predict the future can predict it in the same way, he says. He has found people he considers "the real deal."

Dr. Bernard Beitman

Dr. Bernard Beitman, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, proposes the establishment of a transdisciplinary study called "Coincidence Studies."

He wrote in a 2011 paper: "One of the biggest challenges in the development of the new discipline of Coincidence Studies is providing a systematic place in scientific research for subjectivity and for human consciousness. Meaningful coincidences depend upon the mind of the observer. The question of how to develop methods and an accompanying technical language that includes and respects the subjective element built into the fabric of coincidence needs to be answered."

Humans better lie detectors than assumed, but with a twist: It's the unconscious mind that spots a lie even when the conscious mind fails

New study finds that the conscious mind may hamper our abilities to detect lying.

It's remarkably difficult to tell when other people are lying.

That's not just my opinion, that's the result of many studies on lying conducted over the years.
Lies, lying, you lie
© Nicholas Noyes & Banksy
As, Leanne ten Brinke, the author of a new study investigating lie detection, says:
"Our research was prompted by the puzzling but consistent finding that humans are very poor lie detectors, performing at only about 54% accuracy in traditional lie detection tasks."
Given that 50% is pure chance, this isn't much of an improvement.