Science of the Spirit
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Music

Singing together encourages social bonding

© Julie/Flickr
Cranking out a tune cements our social networks.
We're enjoying the one time of year when protests of "I can't sing!" are laid aside and we sing carols with others. For some this is a once-a-year special event; the rest of the year is left to the professionals to handle the singing (except, perhaps, some alone time in the shower or car).

Music - and singing in particular, as the oldest and only ubiquitous form of music creation - plays a central role in our lives and shared community experiences, and this has been true for every culture for as far back as we can trace our human ancestors.

So does singing in a group provide specific and tangible benefits, or is it merely a curious ability that provides entertainment through creative expression?

Comment: The numerous benefits of music should encourage everyone to incorporate music into their lives in as many ways as possible. Learning to play an instrument, joining a choir, or singing Karaoke with friends are great ways to begin. See also:

Bulb

Psychology determines our biology? How your personality is linked to your health

Researchers have found new evidence that explains how some aspects of our personality may affect our health and wellbeing, supporting long-observed associations between aspects of human character, physical health and longevity.

A team of health psychologists at The University of Nottingham and the University of California in Los Angeles carried out a study to examine the relationship between certain personality traits and the expression of genes that can affect our health by controlling the activity of our immune systems.

The study did not find any results to support a common theory that tendencies toward negative emotions such as depression or anxiety can lead to poor health (disease-prone personality). What was related to differences in immune cell gene expression were a person's degree of extraversion and conscientiousness.

Comment: For a more in depth look at the 'epidemiological associations between personality, physical health, and human longevity'' read:

Dr. Gabor Maté: "When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection"
The Vancouver-based Dr. Gabor Maté argues too many doctors seem to have forgotten what was once a commonplace assumption, that emotions are deeply implicated in both the development of illness and in the restoration of health. Based on medical studies and his own experience with chronically ill patients at the Palliative Care Unit at Vancouver Hospital, where he was the medical coordinator for seven years, Dr. Gabor Maté makes the case there are important links between the mind and the immune system. He finds stress and individual emotional makeup play critical roles in an array of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis and arthritis.

The point now is that the emotional centers of the brain, which regulate our behaviors and our responses and our reactions, are physiologically connected with - and we know exactly how they're connected - with the immune system, the nervous system and the hormonal apparatus. In fact, it's no longer possible, scientifically, to speak of these as separate systems, as if immunity was separate from emotions, as if the nervous system was separate from the hormonal apparatus. There's one system, and they're wired together by the nervous system itself and joined together by chemical messengers that they all secrete, and so that whatever happens emotionally has an impact immunologically, and vice versa. So, for example, we know now that the white cells in the circulation of our - of the blood can manufacture every hormone that the brain can manufacture, and vice versa, so that the brain and the immune system are always talking to one another.

So, in short, we have one system. The science that studies it is called psychoneuroimmunology. And scientifically, it's not even controversial, but it's completely lacking from medical practice.


Eye 2

Can psychopaths' brains be 'rewired' to make them less psychopathic?

© Shutterstock
A clinical psychologist at Yale is attempting to improve the cognitive functioning of psychopaths using computer games, Vox reports.

Arielle Baskin-Sommers claims that psychopaths are not, as is commonly believed, incapable of feeling emotion - and therefore unable to empathize with their victims. They suffer, she believes, from a cognitive deficit that prevents them from focusing on more than one subject at time, such that they pay attention to a goal (stealing money) without thinking about the consequences of attaining it (hurting their victim or being incarcerated).

Baskin-Sommers tells Vox that "[t]here's an attention bottleneck that essentially has the psychopath narrow the focus of their attention on something that's their goal."

Because her computer games enhance a psychopath's ability to attend to more than one matter at a time, Baskin-Sommers believes that they will be less likely to return to jail upon their release.

Comment: Where's a face-palm when you need one? Yes, psychopaths have a type of 'attention bottleneck' when it comes to attending to consequences, others' suffering, and anything that isn't getting them what they want. That does not mean training them to attend to various things at the same time will allow them to grow a conscience. If anything, such treatment will make them slightly smarter, able to attend to more data, which they will then use to become better at getting what they want. Psychopathy is not a 'cognitive' disorder, at least not exclusively. It is an emotional disorder. The general emotional deficit in modern psychologists can probably be blamed for these ridiculous, dead-end theories.

Hearts

Hugging as form of social support protects people from getting sick

hugs can help stress
© Pauline Kim Joo
Psychologists go to surprising lengths in new study to show how much a hug can help.
Being hugged reduces the deleterious effects of stress on the body, according to new research which intentionally exposed people to a cold virus.

Hugging acts as a form of social support and protects people from getting sick and even reduces their illness symptoms if they do get sick.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, asked 404 healthy adults how much social support they perceived they had from other people (Cohen et al., 2014).

They were also asked about how often they were hugged and how often they came into conflict with others.

Participants were then exposed to a cold virus in the lab (they were well paid for this: $1,000 each).

Their condition was monitored in quarantine to see if they developed a cold and how severe their symptoms were.

Comment: The study results are not surprising as it has long been established that large social networks and high quality social support can boost your life span. Conversely, social isolation affects DNA, and is predictive of illness and earlier death. Other recent studies have shown that just being reminded of being loved and cared for dampens the threat response and may allow more effective functioning after stressful situations.

Compass

The brain's GPS: Scientists identify 'internal compass' controlling directional sense

© AFP/Miguel Medina
The precise part of the human brain that controls people's sense of direction has been identified by leading scientists in a groundbreaking piece of research.

Those who have more robust nerve signals in what the scientists describe as the brain's "internal compass" are generally more accomplished navigators, the study suggests.

The report, published in prestigious science journal Current Biology, indicates people tend to get lost when their internal navigational compass cannot maintain pace with these nerve signals.

While scientists have long held the view that such nerve signals exist in the human brain, the theory was based on mere speculation until now.

University College London (UCL) researchers who conducted the study hope the discovery will help shed light on the relationship between Alzheimer's and a deteriorating sense of direction.

Scientists requested 16 volunteers take the time to mentally log a straightforward virtual courtyard. They were then asked to navigate around the space, relying on memory alone, while their brain patterns were scanned using a high-tech MRI machine.

The scans identified the relevant part of the brain responsible for such navigation, showing nerve cell activity in the region each time the participants attempted to virtually make their way around the digital courtyard.

The researchers concluded that the stronger the signal in that part of the brain - known as the entorhinal region - the better the volunteers were at navigating around the courtyard by memory.

Comment: See also:

Sleeping brain behaves as if it's remembering something

Food for thought: Eat your way to dementia - sugar and carbs cause Alzheimer's Disease

Ketogenic Diet Reduces Symptoms of Alzheimer's

Info

Some people really do 'feel your pain'

Pain
© iStockphoto
Some people looking at this image will feel pain in their leg too.
Vicarious pain is real and heart-felt, say Australian researchers, who have revealed the physiological changes that occur when a person literally feels someone else's pain.

The findings shed light on this extreme version of empathy, which is experienced by about 20 to 30 per cent of people, says pain researcher Dr Melita Giummarra of Monash University's school of psychological science and Caulfield Hospital in Melbourne.

"This is the first time physiological changes associated with vicarious pain have been measured," says Giummarra.

She was among the first researchers to demonstrate the proportion of healthy people who feel pain when they see another person in pain.

"People who are naturally prone to this will usually say they experience pain in the same body part the other person is experiencing it," says Giummarra.

While vicarious pain might seem to be a burden for those experiencing it, Giummarra says this is not necessarily the case.

"Most people who have this (and) are otherwise healthy say it's just a part of their normal experience, just like synaesthesia is just part of how some people interact with the world," she says.

In research presented at the recent 15th World Congress on Pain in Argentina, Giummarra and colleagues investigated nearly 20 women, around half of whom experienced vicarious pain.

Comment: Related articles:

Ability To Literally Imagine Oneself In Another's Shoes May Be Tied To Empathy

I Feel Your Pain: Neural Mechanisms of Empathy

Empathy and age: Middle-aged most likely to feel your pain

Info

Male sympathetic pregnancy or Couvade Syndrome

Couvade Syndrome
© io9
Couvade Syndrome is the name given to the conglomerate of pregnancy symptoms experienced by men when their partners are pregnant. The human mind is a powerful thing, but can a man's brain really convince his body that it's pregnant? And how does the pregnancy end?

Couvade Syndrome's Origins

I was surprised to find that sympathetic male pregnancy had a name - Couvade Syndrome. It sounds like it was named in honor of the extensive and groundbreaking work of someone called Dr. Couvade. In fact, it's a mangled French word coined by EB Tyler, and anthropologist who observed ritual pregnancies acted out by men in several different cultures around the world. "Couvade" comes from the word couver, meaning "to brood." (Brood as in "brood mare," not brood as in "to have a gloomy obsession.")

In the medical world, Couvade Syndrome isn't an official disease. It is more of an interesting phenomenon. Although doctors have noticed that fathers-to-be can experience weight gain, morning vomiting, heartburn, and restlessness, as well as more random symptoms like toothaches and leg cramps, there hasn't been any agreement as to what causes it.

Some doctors maintain that weight gain is normal, since generally the mother and the father live together, and as the mother's eating habits change, so do those of the father. Vomiting in the morning can be easily brought on by being around someone else who is vomiting. The rest of the symptoms can be brought on by stress.
2 + 2 = 4

Domestic abuse may affect children in womb

© RT.com

Domestic violence can affect children even before they're born, indicates new research by Michigan State University scientists.

The study is the first to link abuse of pregnant women with emotional and behavioral trauma symptoms in their children within the first year of life. Symptoms include nightmares, startling easily, being bothered by loud noises and bright lights, avoiding physical contact and having trouble experiencing enjoyment.

Comment: Emotional behavior of adults could be triggered in the womb

How Domestic Abuse Can Scar an Unborn Child for Life

That's why childhood psychological abuse should be as taboo as sexual or physical abuse: Large new study reveals how harmful psychological abuse in childhood can be

Info

'Mindfulness' defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn

© Jon Kabat-Zinn CBS NEWS
Anderson Cooper reports on what it's like to try to achieve "mindfulness," a self-awareness scientists say is very healthy, but rarely achieved in today's world of digital distractions.

Comment: John Kabat Zin is author of the excellent book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. To learn more about better living through mindfulness and the application of mindfulness in daily life read the following articles: Learn about the numerous mental, emotional and spiritual health benefits of meditation and breathing exercises by visiting the Éiriú Eolas Stress Control, Healing and Rejuvenation Program website, try out the entire program here for free.

Book 2

Want to influence the world? Get your message out in Spanish or German as well as English

Speak or write in English, and the world will hear you. Speak or write in Tamil or Portuguese, and you may have a harder time getting your message out. Now, a new method for mapping how information flows around the globe identifies the best languages to spread your ideas far and wide. One hint: If you're considering a second language, try Spanish instead of Chinese.
language influence
© S. Ronen et al., PNAS Early Edition (2014)
Many books are translated into and out of languages such as English, German, and Russian, but Arabic has fewer translations relative to its many speakers. (Arrows between circles represent translations; the size of a language's circle is proportional to the number of people who speak it.)
See larger image here.

The study was spurred by a conversation about an untranslated book, says Shahar Ronen, a Microsoft program manager whose Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) master's thesis formed the basis of the new work. A bilingual Hebrew-English speaker from Israel, he told his MIT adviser, César Hidalgo (himself a Spanish-English speaker), about a book written in Hebrew whose translation into English he wasn't yet aware of. "I was able to bridge a certain culture gap because I was multilingual," Ronen says. He began thinking about how to create worldwide maps of how multilingual people transmit information and ideas.
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