Science of the Spirit

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Electricity can make you see hovering shapes

© Tiago Sousa
There is a term for the little glowing shapes that temporarily appear when you rub your eyes or bang your head - phosphenes. In the 1930s, a German scientist found ways to make them appear via the use of electricity, and later the use of drugs.

Phosphenes can be caused by all kinds of things. The simplest ones are the little points of light that appear whenever you rub your eyes. Things get a little more complex when you take a hit to the head. Smacks to the visual cortex tend to result in people "seeing stars."

In the 1930s, one scientist found a more reliable, and less bruising, way to produce phosphenes. An electrical engineer by training, he found he could use electromagnetic waves to stimulate the brain. By varying the frequency of the waves by less than ten percent he found he could produce a "great number" of forms.

Eventually, he came up with fifteen different shapes that most people were likely to see. They could be variations on circular shapes, like radials, concentric circles, or spirals. They could also lines arranged in patterns like lattices, waves, and poles. (Personally I think he's being too vague when he gets to the eighth group, which he just classifies as "odd figures.")


How to be assertive without being aggressive

Have you ever been told you need to be more assertive? Do your needs get bulldozed or do you often capitulate to keep the peace? Sure, we would all love to be more self-confident, but there's a fine line between being firm about our needs and being petulant. How do we tell the difference?

If you're like me you're ready to live your truth, but you don't know where to start. I grew up in the South, in an authoritarian household. Women in my family weren't given a say in anything — I mean quite literally women remained silent at the dinner table while the men spoke. Women were considered silly, frivolous things that should neither be financially independent or self-reliant.

Fifteen years and three degrees later, I still find it difficult to find my voice — especially with new people. It could be something as simple as telling the movers I want my sofa against the south wall, not facing the fireplace. I don't spit it out, they put it in the wrong place, and then I just figure "I'll move it later." If I order the wrong thing at a restaurant, I may not bother the waitress to change it. With work, I tend to do the grunt tasks that others shrug off and if someone needs to work the weekend, I'm your woman.

I wish that I could set myself on a direct course for happiness and stop feeling waylaid by the needs of others. I'm taking my name off the sign-up sheet for thankless living, how about you?


Creativity and psychosis share a genetic source

© agsandrew/iStockphoto
Artistic creativity may share genetic roots with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, a new study suggests.

The research, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, delves into a well-known genetic database -- the deCODE library of DNA codes derived from samples provided by the population of Iceland.

The authors first compared genetic and medical data from 86,000 Icelanders, establishing a DNA signature that pointed to a doubled risk for schizophrenia and an increase of a third for bipolar disorder.

The next step was to look at the genomes of people engaged in artistic work.

Those samples came from more than 1000 volunteers who were members of Iceland's national societies of visual arts, theatre, dance, writing and music. Members of these organisations were 17 per cent likelier than non-members to have the same genetic signature, the researchers found.

The finding was supported by four studies in the Netherlands and Sweden covering around 35,000 people, comparing individuals in the general public and those in artistic occupations.

Those investigations used somewhat different parameters but found the probability was even higher, at 23 per cent.

"We are here using the tools of modern genetics to take a systematic look at a fundamental aspect of how the brain works," says the study's first author Dr Kari Stefansson, head of deCODE Genetics.

"The results of this study should not have come as a surprise because to be creative, you have to think differently from the crowd, and we had previously shown that carriers of genetic factors that predispose to schizophrenia do so," he says.

Source: Agence France-Presse


All by myself: "Alone time" can be good for you

© Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Eighty-five percent of Americans believe it's important to have times when they are completely alone and away from anyone else, according to a recent Pew survey. Another 55 percent believe this is very important while 30 percent say it's somewhat important.1

This desire for occasional solitude gives your body and, perhaps more importantly, your mind space and time to just be in the moment, experiencing it with your full attention and focus. It turns out alone time of this sort is highly rewarding.

If you've ever hesitated to spend time alone, perhaps believing you won't enjoy it, a recent study found that people have just as good of a time engaging in fun activities alone as they do when they're with others. The only down side came when the loners worried about how they would look to others, perhaps appearing they had no one to spend time with.2

This latter issue is easily overcome by positive thinking and directing your focus to your activities at hand and the enjoyment it brings. However, aside from enjoyment, spending time alone offers may additional benefits.

Comment: Along with practicing meditation techniques or yoga, sometimes it can be good to just dance by yourself:


Researchers find ability to delay gratification linked to how specific structures of the brain are connected and communicate

© The Royal Society
Pictured are a series of 12 serial views of a chimpanzee's brain, projecting from the base of the brain, showing the white matter connectivity between the caudate and the dorsal prefrontal cortex. The scans were projected onto a standard chimpanzee template brain.
The ability to delay gratification in chimpanzees is linked to how specific structures of the brain are connected and communicate with each other, according to researchers at Georgia State University and Kennesaw State University.

Their findings were published June 3 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

This study provides the first evidence in primates, including humans, of an association between delay of gratification performance and white matter connectivity between the caudate and the dorsal prefrontal cortex in the right hemisphere, said Dr. Robert Latzman, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Georgia State, who led the study with Dr. William Hopkins, professor of neuroscience at Georgia State.

The researchers found higher white matter connectivity between the caudate and dorsal prefrontal cortex in the right hemisphere of the brain was associated with the learning of delay of gratification.

Delay of gratification, the need to control emotional and behavioral impulses, is one of the earliest demands placed on individuals and is of critical importance, Latzman said.

"Delay of gratification or self-control is core to a number of different types of mental illnesses, most notably ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder)," said Latzman. "This ability and the developmental process that occurs when children learn to delay gratification and inhibit an immediate want for a longer-term goal is a hugely important developmental milestone."



Lost memories can be recalled by activating brain cells with light

© Christine Daniloff/MIT
Scientists use optogenetics to reactivate memories that could not otherwise be retrieved.
Memories that have been "lost" as a result of amnesia can be recalled by activating brain cells with light.

In a paper published today in the journal Science, researchers at MIT reveal that they were able to reactivate memories that could not otherwise be retrieved, using a technology known as optogenetics.

The finding answers a fiercely debated question in neuroscience as to the nature of amnesia, according to Susumu Tonegawa, the Picower Professor in MIT's Department of Biology and director of the RIKEN-MIT Center at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, who directed the research by lead authors Tomas Ryan, Dheeraj Roy, and Michelle Pignatelli.

Neuroscience researchers have for many years debated whether retrograde amnesia -- which follows traumatic injury, stress, or diseases such as Alzheimer's -- is caused by damage to specific brain cells, meaning a memory cannot be stored, or if access to that memory is somehow blocked, preventing its recall.

"The majority of researchers have favored the storage theory, but we have shown in this paper that this majority theory is probably wrong," Tonegawa says. "Amnesia is a problem of retrieval impairment."


Sitting in stillness: The benefits of doing nothing

We live in a society where sitting in stillness and silence, void of any stimuli, is seen as doing nothing - a view polluted with a negative stigma, with the implication that doing nothing is synonymous with being nothing. However, this could not be further from the truth. To sit in stillness is not actually to do "nothing," in the sense that time is wasted and there is no gain. It is, in reality, closer to doing everything, as being in touch with our inner stillness, or consciousness, has a powerful ripple effect on every single aspect of our lives in one way or another. Of course, failing to wake up to this truth also effects everything, but only by ensuring that what we consider to be "everything" in our lives has little substance and limited depth.

The type of downtime I am referring to is one in which we quiet our minds and do not work to achieve any particular goals, execute any task on our to do lists, or engage in external stimuli. It is not one and the same with leisurely downtime such as vacationing with friends, watching TV, or reading a book. That indulging in downtime - the kind in which we enter a state of idleness, quieting our mind - is unproductive and lazy is not merely an idea, but more of a belief a large portion of society has adopted as an absolute truth. However, concrete evidence proving it to be true is grotesquely lacking, leaving statements implying that always being on the go and doing something equates with a successful and meaningful life as nothing more than that: statements. semantics. words with no depth to penetrate.

Comment: The dis-ease of being busy


Genetic variant enhances how people react to funny, sad situations


People with a specific gene variant, which affects the way the brain chemical serotonin works, smile and laugh (stock image) more often than those without. And data from the experiments indicated that people with the short variations of the gene showed greater positive emotional expressions in general.
  • Study looked at short and long alleles, or variants, of gene 5-HTTLPR
  • This is involved in the regulation of a chemical known as serotonin
  • Research found the short allele amplifies emotional reactions during both good and bad environments
Whether you're prone to bouts of giggling is genetic, according to a new study.

People with a specific gene variant, which affects the way the brain chemical serotonin works, smiled and laughed more while watching cartoons or amusing films. And data from the experiments indicated that people with the short variations of the gene showed greater positive emotional expressions in general.

In the study by Northwestern University in Illinois, the researchers looked at short and long alleles - or variants - of the gene 5-HTTLPR. This is involved in the regulation of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in depression and anxiety.

While previous research has found that those with the short version were more sensitive to negative emotions than those with the long version, this study found they were more responsive to the emotional highs of life as well. 'Having the short allele is not bad or risky,' said researcher Dr Claudia Haase. 'Instead, the short allele amplifies emotional reactions to both good and bad environments.
'People with short alleles may flourish in a positive environment and suffer in a negative one, while people with long alleles are less sensitive to environmental conditions.'

Comment: Genes predispose some people to focus on the negative

Quenelle - Golden

Interview with Sandra L. Brown on psychopathy and pathological love relationships

Jenna Stauffer and Sandra L. Brown on Psychopathy and Pathological Love Relationships

Sandra L. Brown, M.A., is the founder of The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction & Public Pathology Education. She is a former psychotherapist, community educator on pathological love relationships, clinical lecturer and trainer, TV and radio guest, and an author. Her books include the highly popular How to Spot a Dangerous Man Before You Get Involved, the award winning Women Who Love Psychopaths: Inside the Relationships of Inevitable Harm With Psychopaths, Sociopaths & Narcissists, as well as the clinically relevant Counseling Victims of Violence: A Handbook for Helping Professionals.

Sandra is recognized for her pioneering work in women's issues related to relational harm from dangerous and pathological partners. She specializes in the development of Pathological Love Relationship training for other professionals and the development of survivor-based support services. The Institute is the only formal Model-of-Care approach for survivors and offers the largest available array of products and services related to this population.

Her books, CD's, DVD's, and other training materials have been used as curriculum in drug rehabs, women's organizations and shelters, women's jail and prison programs, school and college-based programs, inner city projects, psychology and sociology programs, and distributed in almost every country of the world. Her books have been translated into several languages.

Comment: See also:

Magic Wand

Creativity and the cerebellum's surprising role

© Reuters
How do scientists capture the euphoric flights of creativity? The answer to this question led to surprising, some might say shocking, evidence of the human brain's capacity for invention, and quite possibly reinvention. The cerebellum, long considered a drudge-like region of the brain, performs its own unique dance in the creative process, say researchers from Stanford's School of Medicine and the (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design). Their new study also suggests that trying too hard can block, rather than increase, the inspirational flow.

You can't exactly command people to alight on an original thought or two while they lie on a cold, hard MRI bed. Considering this problem, Dr. Manish Saggar, a co-author of the study and instructor at the, figured it would be best to simply trick people into revealing their imaginations. With this in mind, he borrowed an idea or two from Pictionary, a game that requires players to draw instead of say words, when designing his experiment.

After selecting a few verbs, Saggar and his colleagues tracked the brain activity of 14 men and 16 women who drew the words while lying in an MRI chamber. For each word, participants improvised an illustration in the allotted time of just 30 seconds — time enough for a decent brain scan but not enough time for anyone to get bored. For comparison, participants also drew a quick zigzag line, an action requiring fine-motor control but minimal creativity. When finished, participants rated the difficulty of drawing each word.

When the experiment concluded, the researchers gathered all the drawings and rated each on five-point scales of appropriateness (the accuracy of depiction) and creativity (elaborateness and originality of design).

Comment: Creativity explained