Science of the Spirit


My friends and I are all miserable - and we're failing to help each other

© David Hanover/Tony Stone
'Thinking hard about what might be bothering someone other than yourself is tremendously therapeutic.'
The dilemma The group of girls I consider my best friends are all having a difficult time and, instead of turning towards each other, we seem to be turning away. I care deeply about my friends, but I resent them at times. I understand that when I express my sadness it can sometimes come across as "crying wolf" because I tend to dramatise my emotions. We are a group of girls, one dumped, one sacked, one lost, one who loves unrequitedly, but we have no one to turn to in our sadness. I want to fix this, but I don't know how. I feel like I need to change my behaviour, so they will be able to confide in me.

Mariella replies I'll let you into a little secret. In my time in this agony chair I've come to realise that other people's problems are the path to personal happiness. Little did I know when I first sat down at the briefcase-sized piece of technology that was then known as a portable PC and started penning responses to Observer readers' letters what a healthy impact it was to have on my own state of mind. My dependence on my regular inbox sometimes makes me feel like a vampire, reliant for my survival on a diet of my fellow humans' misery. I'll come clean - the past few months haven't been great for me and there have been moments when sitting down to dish out advice to others from the quagmire of my own existence has felt fraudulent.
Cupcake Pink

Junk food mind control

Junk Food
© elifranssens/
Tough choice. Researchers have found a way to make us pay more attention to certain junk foods.
Think you'll always pick chocolate over a bag of chips? Don't be so sure. Researchers have found that if they can get people to pay more attention to a particular type of junk food, they will begin to prefer it - even weeks or months after the experiment. The finding suggests a new way to manipulate our decisions and perhaps even encourage us to pick healthy foods.

"This paper is provocative and very well done," says Antonio Rangel, a neuroeconomist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who was not involved in the new study. "It is exciting because it's a proof of concept that a relatively simple intervention can have this long-lasting effect."

Economists who study decision-making had previously found that, when deciding between multiple items, people tend to let their gaze linger on the things that they end up choosing. This observation has motivated companies to pursue flashy packaging to attract consumers' eyes.

Tom Schonberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas, Austin, wondered whether people's preferences could be changed before being faced with such a decision by training their brains to pay more attention to certain items.

His first task was figuring out what kind of junk food people preferred. He and his colleagues recruited more than 200 university students and set up an auction-style program that asked them how much they were willing to pay for 60 different kinds of snacks, from M&M's to Fritos. Then, the participants went through a 30- to 50-minute computer training program that showed photos of foods that the participants had already rated. When some treats appeared on the screen, a short tone would play and signal the subject to press a button as fast as possible. When other treats popped up, the computer remained silent and the subject refrained from pressing the button.
People 2

Neuroscientist: Male and female brains are the same and it's gender stereotyping which makes us different

Neuroscientist Gina Rippon, a professor at Ashton University, said this week that she believes gender differences are caused by society stereotypes. She said that gender differences have no scientific grounding
* Neuroscience expert Gina Rippon said there is no scientific evidence to prove male and female brains are wired differently

* Giving children gender-specific toys 'changes the way our brains are wired'

* She thinks women are better at multitasking as society requires them to be

A neuroscientist has claimed the expression 'Men are from Mars and women are from Venus' has no scientific grounding, and that instead our brains are changed by the roles society forces us to play.

According to Gina Rippon, a professor at Ashton University in Birmingham, stereotypes - such as women's supposed inability to read maps, or the idea men are bad at multitasking - have no links to science.

Instead of being wired in different ways, Professor Rippon said that men and women are only dissimilar because the world we live in encourages gender role-playing.

Verbal, physical abuse have similar effects on children

© Reuters
A recent study by the University of Pittsburgh suggests that yelling may be just as detrimental to the long-term well being of adolescents as physical abuse.

The study defines yelling, or harsh verbal discipline, as shouting, cursing, or using insults.

Researchers found that the use of harsh verbal discipline does not minimize problematic behavior, but instead may aggravate it.

Adolescents subjected to such discipline actually suffered from increased levels of depressive symptoms, and had a higher likelihood of demonstrating behavioral problems - including vandalism or antisocial and aggressive behavior.

Surprisingly, the results were comparable to a study focused on physical discipline over the same two-year period.

"From that we can infer that these results will last the same way that the effects of physical discipline do because the immediate-to-two-year effects of verbal discipline were about the same as for physical discipline," said Ming-Te Wang, assistant professor of psychology in education in the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education. "Based on the literature studying the effects of physical discipline, Wang and Kenny anticipate similar long-term results for adolescents subjected to harsh verbal discipline."

Comment: If yelling, or harsh verbal discipline, as shouting, cursing, or using insults aggravate problems, what does discipline by locking them up do?

Children in long-term solitary confinement - Modern Medieval Dungeons


Scientists unlock mystery of out-of-body experiences

Some people claim that they have experienced out-of-body experiences - aka "astral trips" - floating outside of their bodies and watching themselves from the outside. A team of scientists found someone who says she can do this at will and put her into a brain scanner. What they discovered was surprisingly strange.
© Gizmodo
Significantly activated regions of the brain while the participant was having extra-corporeal experiences. Most significantly activated regions are lateralized to the left side and include the supplementary motor area (F), the cerebellum (B,D,E), the supramarginal gyrus (D,F), the inferior temporal gyrus (B,D,F), the middle and superior orbitofrontal gyri (A,C,D,E).
Andra M. Smith and Claude Messierwere from the University of Ottawa described this subject's ability in their paper, published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience:
She was able to see herself rotating in the air above her body, lying flat, and rolling along with the horizontal plane. She reported sometimes watching herself move from above but remained aware of her unmoving "real" body. The participant reported no particular emotions linked to the experience.
How the hell is this possible? Can it be real? The researchers found that something dramatic, and consistent with her account, was happening in her brain: The fMRI showed a "strong deactivation of the visual cortex" while "activating the left side of several areas associated with kinesthetic imagery," which includes mental imagery of bodily movement. This is the part of the brain that makes it possible for us to interact with the world. It's what makes you feel where your body is in relation to the world.

This is the very first time that this type of experience has been analysed and documented scientifically. Researchers know that out-of-body experiences can be induced "by brain traumas, sensory deprivation, near-death experiences, dissociative and psychedelic drugs, dehydration, sleep, and electrical stimulation of the brain, among others. It can also be deliberately induced by some." But this may be the first documented case of someone who can get into this state at will.

Free play: Simple items more fun for children

© Lars Ploughman
Study finds children play more intensely and vigorously with crates, pipes and buckets than with monkey bars and slides.
A new long-term study has found that traditional playgrounds may be stifling children's play.

The researchers found that relatively cheap items such as buckets and crates were more effective at encouraging children's play than expensive equipment.

The two-year study, published in BMC Public Health, followed 120 students at a newly built Australian primary school (Hyndman et al., 2014).

In their playground there were exercise mats, hay bales, pipes and buckets, along with other cheap, everyday items.

The behaviour of these children was compared with another local school which had a more traditional playground, containing slides and monkey bars.

The results of the study were striking: the cheaper items reduced sedentary behaviour by a half from 61.5% down to 30.5%.

Meditation: Certain styles can make you more creative

Particular types of meditation can generate insight and new ideas, according to recent studies.

An 'open monitoring' style of meditation can promote divergent thinking, a crucial aspect of creativity, finds research published in the journal Frontiers in Cognition (Colzato et al., 2012).

Divergent thinking is the kind which is often used at the start of the creative process, in which new ideas are generated.

The typical psychological test of divergent thinking asks participants to name as many uses as they can for a mundane object like a brick or a pen.

In the study by Dr. Lorenza Colzato and colleagues, participants who'd been meditating in an 'open monitoring' style came up with the most uses for the mundane object.

An 'open monitoring' style of meditation is where you don't focus on a particular object or sensation, such as your own breath; rather you pay attention to whatever thoughts or sensations you are experiencing at the time.

Comment: The Éiriú Eolas breathing and meditation program is the best around. You can try the program for free here and read more about the program and it's benefits from participants here.


Sex, drugs, but not Rock 'n' Roll

© Fitzer/iStockPhoto
If music is a universal language, it doesn't speak to everyone. Psychologists asked more than 1000 college students what they found rewarding. Of those surveyed, the team selected 10 students who ranked music significantly less pleasurable than other choices provided, such as sex, exercise, and food. The researchers discovered that the students weren't tone deaf or incapable of grasping the emotional meaning of a song - their brains simply didn't find listening to music rewarding.

To prove this point, the scientists gave the students two tests. In the first, the students were asked to listen to popular music and rate how pleasurable they considered each song. In the second, the students were given money for quickly pressing a target. A music-loving control group responded positively to both tests, whereas the 10 musically indifferent students enjoyed only the money reward test.

While some psychiatric disorders are associated with the loss of the ability to feel pleasure, called anhedonia, the students represent the first evidence for not feeling pleasure from only one specific pleasing stimulant, the researchers report online today in Current Biology. The team suspects that between 1% and 3% of people suffer from the condition, called music-specific anhedonia. This musically apathetic group could help scientists better understand the neuroscience of the reward system, the team says. Curious where you fall on the music reward spectrum? The researchers have an online quiz.

Universally understood expressions of emotion are mainly specific to Western Culture

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A new study published on Wednesday in the journal Psychological Science has found that facial expressions and emotional vocalizations are not universally understood across cultural barriers - contradicting a long-held emotion science belief.

"Emotions are not universally perceived," said Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology Northeastern University. "Everything that's predicated on that is a mistake."

In the 1970s, psychologist Paul Ekman traveled to Papua New Guinea to see if emotions were generally experienced and portrayed the same around the world. More specifically, Ekman wanted to see if people perceive the same emotions in facial expressions regardless of cultural upbringing.

In his study, Ekman showed both Americans and isolated indigenous people living in Papua New Guinea a sequence of images showing facial expressions and asked his subjects to match the images to one of six emotion words or stories showing emotional scenarios. Ekman found that his subjects saw the same emotions reflected in the same pictures regardless of culture.

Based on her own research, however, Barrett has theorized that context plays a significant part in the manner we perceive facial expressions. She posited that Ekman put constraints on his subjects by asking them to match images to distinct categories and explicit stories about emotional events as opposed to allowing them to freely sort the images.

Ten fascinating memory quirks everyone should know

© kozumel
Why we remember and why we forget: it’s context, fading emotions, deep processing, the ‘Google effect’, the reminiscence bump and way more…
Many people say they have bad memories, but the majority are wrong.

The way memory works can be unexpected, frustrating, wonderful, and even quirky - but not necessarily 'bad'.

For most of us the problem isn't with our memories, it's with understanding how memory works.

Here are ten interesting quirks of memory which provide a better insight into what makes us remember - or forget.

1. Context is king

What we can remember partly depends on the situation and mental state we are in at the time. This is because our memories work by association. The context itself can refer to all kinds of things: some things are easier to remember in a certain place, others when we experience specific smells, others when we are in particular emotional states.

One striking study which demonstrates this had deep sea divers learning lists of words either 15ft underwater or on dry land (Godden & Baddeley, 1975). It turned out that when they learned words underwater, they remembered 32% of them when tested underwater, but only 21% when tested on the beach.

Of course our memories are far more complex than lists of words: many will have all kinds of contextual hooks, but the study neatly makes the point that for memory, context is very important.