Science of the Spirit

Better Earth

8 ancient beliefs now backed by modern science

The Earth may not be flat nor is it the center of the universe, but that doesn't mean old-world intellectuals got everything wrong. In fact, in recent years, modern science has validated a number of teachings and beliefs rooted in ancient wisdom that, up until now, had been trusted but unproven empirically.

A full 55 pages of Arianna Huffington's new book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, are dedicated to these scientific breakthroughs that often confirm the power of ancient psychology and contemplative practices. On an intuitive level, we've known for centuries that these lifestyle practices can help us lead happy, healthy and balanced lives. But now, with the support of hard science, we can embrace these pieces of ancient wisdom and start really living them.

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Some of the key elements seem to be the capacity to live for a greater goal, to share it with others, and to SEE reality as it is (which also involves acquiring knowledge about the lies behind conventional medical treatments, cultural programming, and the world at large).

This is why we often recommend the Éiriú Eolas program, a series of very simple exercises that you can practice at any time and place. Its benefits stem from the stimulation of the vagus nerve.

And what does the vagus nerve do?
- Vagus nerve's role in regulating inflammation
- Vagus Nerve Controls Intestinal Inflammation
- Nerve stimulation for severe depression changes brain function

The vagus nerve stimulation has also been proven to improve social relationships, altruistic tendencies, and social bonding.

You can find out more visiting the Éiriú Eolas website.

If you are one of the many people who have difficulties meditating with "an empty mind", this program might help you. It contains a series of affirmations that keep you focused and appeal to the creative side in all of us, the thirst for knowledge about oneself and the world, and allows for emotional release, which helps work toward a more fulfilling life and a happiness that is based on knowledge.

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Criminal minds are different from yours, brain scans show

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CT scans of a human brain.
The latest neuroscience research is presenting intriguing evidence that the brains of certain kinds of criminals are different from those of the rest of the population.

While these findings could improve our understanding of criminal behavior, they also raise moral quandaries about whether and how society should use this knowledge to combat crime.

The criminal mind

In one recent study, scientists examined 21 people with antisocial personality disorder - a condition that characterizes many convicted criminals. Those with the disorder "typically have no regard for right and wrong. They may often violate the law and the rights of others," according to the Mayo Clinic.

Brain scans of the antisocial people, compared with a control group of individuals without any mental disorders, showed on average an 18-percent reduction in the volume of the brain's middle frontal gyrus, and a 9 percent reduction in the volume of the orbital frontal gyrus - two sections in the brain's frontal lobe.

Springtime suicide peak still puzzles scientists

© Luna Vandoorne/Shutterstock
Springtime does not necessarily bring relief to people with depression. In fact, suicide rates around the world peak in spring.

On an average day, 105 Americans lose their lives to suicide. And counterintuitively, more of these lives are lost when the weather is warm and the sun shines bright.

Folk wisdom holds that winter is the most common time for suicides, with depressive symptoms exacerbated by cold, dark weather. Another myth suggests that suicides spike around the holidays, when struggling people feel left out of the cultural cheer.

In fact, studies dating back to the late 1800s find that suicides peak in the spring and are lowest in winter. One 1995 study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine examined monthly suicide rates in 28 countries and found that in 25 in the Northern Hemisphere, suicides were most common in May and ebbed in February.

Similar findings occur in the Southern Hemisphere - in South Africa, for example, suicides peak in the southern spring, in September and October, according to a 1997 study in the journal Psychiatry Research.

The reason for this seasonality is unknown, but there are hints. Some researchers think weather or the ebb and flow of sociality drives the trend; others blame inflammatory processes that increase in spring.

Sleep deprivation: The 10 most profound psychological effects

© EdMilson de Lima
Lack of sleep may feel horrible, but what is it really doing to the mind and brain?
American Randy Gardner holds the record for the longest ever scientifically documented intentional period without sleep. Without the aid of stimulants, he managed to stay awake for 264.4 hours, or 11 days and 24 minutes. Part of his motivation was to show that sleep deprivation wasn't that bad for you. He was wrong: it is bad for you.

In fact he suffered paranoia, hallucinations, moodiness and a whole host of psychological problems, many described below. It's just he did not notice many of the problems: that's how sleep deprivation gets you.

Here are 10 of the most profound psychological effects of sleep deprivation, on top of the fact that it feels horrible.

1. Sleepy brains work harder

Since brains that are sleep deprived aren't as efficient, they have to work harder.

This has been demonstrated in brain imaging studies which show the brains of the sleep deprived desperately pumping energy into the prefrontal cortex, trying to overcome the effects of sleep deprivation.

Psychological manipulation using cognitive dissonance

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The study of psychology results is useful knowledge about how we think and act, which (we hope) can be used to make our lives better. But the knowledge gained can also be used to manipulate people. The various forms of psychological manipulation are usually subliminal, meaning they happen without the conscious awareness of their use by the target. I've reported on these techniques before, and will continue to do so.

My goal isn't to provide you with tools to do nasty things, but to make you aware of tricks that might be used on you. Also, this information is just plain interesting. So with that in mind, here is what you need to know (or might like to know) about cognitive dissonance and how it is used for psychological manipulation.

Fear of math: How much is genetic?

© Brittney Bush Bollay
A new study finds two ways that genetic factors are important in the fear of math.
The fear of math has a genetic component, according to a new study to be published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (Wang et al., 2014).

The avoidance of mathematical problems and equations by children and adults isn't just down to bad early experiences with math or poor teaching.

To reach this conclusion, the study looked at the math anxiety of twins to tease out the genetic component. Zhe Wang, lead author of the study, explained the results:
"We found that math anxiety taps into genetic predispositions in two ways: people's cognitive performance on math and their tendency toward anxiety."
In other words people are anxious about math not just because they are generally anxious people and they're anxious about everything, but also because of genetically poor math/thinking skills.

Transgenerational memories passed down through DNA

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New research from Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, has shown that it is possible for some information to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA.

During the tests they learned that that mice can pass on learned information about traumatic or stressful experiences - in this case a fear of the smell of cherry blossom - to subsequent generations.

According to the Telegraph, Dr Brian Dias, from the department of psychiatry at Emory University, said: "From a translational perspective, our results allow us to appreciate how the experiences of a parent, before even conceiving offspring, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations.

Comment: Also see: Memories may be stored on your DNA


Stress undermines empathic abilities in men but increases them in women

definition of stress
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Stressed males tend to become more self-centered and less able to distinguish their own emotions and intentions from those of other people. For women the exact opposite is true. Stress, this problem that haunts us every day, could be undermining not only our health but also our relationships with other people, especially for men. Stressed women, however, become more "prosocial," according to new research.

These are the main findings of a study carried out with the collaboration of Giorgia Silani, from the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste. The study was coordinated by the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Unit of the University of Vienna and saw the participation of the University of Freiburg. This is the main finding of a study just published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, carried out with the collaboration of SISSA in Trieste.

Contagious yawning may not be linked to empathy; still largely unexplained: What are your observations?

While previous studies have suggested a connection between contagious yawning and empathy, new research from the Duke Center for Human Genome Variation finds that contagious yawning may decrease with age and is not strongly related to variables like empathy, tiredness and energy levels.

The study, published March 14 in the journal PLOS ONE, is the most comprehensive look at factors influencing contagious yawning to date.

The researchers said a better understanding of the biology involved in contagious yawning could ultimately shed light on illnesses such as schizophrenia or autism.

"The lack of association in our study between contagious yawning and empathy suggests that contagious yawning is not simply a product of one's capacity for empathy," said study author Elizabeth Cirulli, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at the Center for Human Genome Variation at Duke University School of Medicine.

Contagious yawning is a well-documented phenomenon that occurs only in humans and chimpanzees in response to hearing, seeing or thinking about yawning. It differs from spontaneous yawning, which occurs when someone is bored or tired. Spontaneous yawning is first observed in the womb, while contagious yawning does not begin until early childhood.

Why certain individuals are more susceptible to contagious yawning remains poorly understood. Previous research, including neuroimaging studies, has shown a relationship between contagious yawning and empathy, or the ability to recognize or understand another's emotions. Other studies have shown correlations between contagious yawning and intelligence or time of day.
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Charm or manipulation?

In his new book, Stephen Bayley argues that this is one verbal skill we all should learn

Mention "charm" and everyone gets interested. Often, people get annoyed. You can win friends with charm, but this most delightful subject can also be a reliable way of starting an argument.

Yesterday, I shared a BBC lift with Polly Toynbee to our shared destiny at the Today studio. When I told her my subject, she brightened up and said that the very brainy Isaiah Berlin always made people feel as intelligent as he was.

Was Berlin patronising or charming? He was perhaps a bit of each. Charm makes other people feel good about themselves. And who doesn't want to feel better than they did heretofore? You know you have been charmed if you are enjoying someone's company. And want more of it.