Science of the Spirit


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.

The science of older and wiser

© The New York Times
INFLUENTIAL: Joan and Erik Erikson devised a theory on human development.
Since ancient times, the elusive concept of wisdom has figured prominently in philosophical and religious texts. The question remains compelling: What is wisdom, and how does it play out in individual lives? Most psychologists agree that if you define wisdom as maintaining positive well-being and kindness in the face of challenges, it is one of the most important qualities one can possess to age successfully - and to face physical decline and death.

Vivian Clayton, a geriatric neuropsychologist in Orinda, Calif., developed a definition of wisdom in the 1970s, when she was a graduate student, that has served as a foundation for research on the subject ever since. After scouring ancient texts for evocations of wisdom, she found that most people described as wise were decision makers. So she asked a group of law students, law professors and retired judges to name the characteristics of a wise person. Based on an analysis of their answers, she determined that wisdom consists of three key components: cognition, reflection and compassion.

Outside the body our memories fail us

OBE Experiment
© Staffan Larsson
Swedish actor Peter Bergared took up the role of a fictional, very eccentric examiner in an experiment by Henrik Ehrsson and colleagues at Karolinska Institutet.
New research from Karolinska Institutet and Umeå University demonstrates for the first time that there is a close relationship between body perception and the ability to remember. For us to be able to store new memories from our lives, we need to feel that we are in our own body. According to researchers, the results could be of major importance in understanding the memory problems that psychiatric patients often exhibit.

The memories of what happened on the first day of school are an example of an episodic memory. How these memories are created and how the role that the perception of one's own body has when storing memories has long been inconclusive. Swedish researchers can now demonstrate that volunteers who experience an exciting event whilst perceiving an illusion of being outside their own body exhibit a form of memory loss.

"It is already evident that people who have suffered psychiatric conditions in which they felt that they were not in their own body have fragmentary memories of what actually occurred", says Loretxu Bergouignan, principal author of the current study. "We wanted to see how this manifests itself in healthy subjects."

The study, which is published in the scientific journal PNAS, involved a total of 84 students reading about and undergoing four oral questioning sessions. To make these sessions extra memorable, an actor (Peter Bergared) took up the role of examiner - a (fictional) very eccentric professor at Karolinska Institutet. Two of the interrogations were perceived from a first person perspective from their own bodies in the usual way, while the participants in the other two sessions experienced a created illusion of being outside their own body.

In both cases, the participants wore virtual reality goggles and earphones. One week later, they either underwent memory testing where they had to recall the events and provide details about what had happened, in which order, and what they felt, or they had to try to remember the events while they underwent brain imaging with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Magic Wand

OOBEs: The woman who 'can leave her body at will': Student sheds light on the strange brain activity

Researchers came across a psychology graduate who admitted she could have voluntary out-of-body experiences before she fell asleep. The 24-year-old revealed she is able to see herself floating horizontally in the air above her body, rotating and can sometimes watch herself from above (illustrated).
People have long been fascinated by out-of-body experiences - are they just tricks of the mind or do they have some sort of spiritual significance?

Now new research has shed light on what it terms as 'extra-corporeal experiences' by studying the brain activity of a Canadian woman who claims she can drift outside her own body at will.

Scientists believe the left side of several areas of the brain associated with kinaesthetic imagery (the perception of the sensation of moving) are responsible for the sensation of being able to leave your body and float above it - and that more people might have similar experiences than thought.

Researchers at the University of Ottawa came across a psychology graduate who admitted she could have voluntary out-of-body experiences before she fell asleep.

Why we hold grudges about little injuries but forgive big ones

Why do people forgive the guy who burned their house down, but still hate that one relative who had a nasty tone while thanking them for a birthday present? Here's why we nurse grudges about small things, but forgive the big ones.

We seem to have a kind of pettiness built into our nature. We will watch soppy movies about the redemption of murderers, or long tv series about gleeful serial killers, but have a character in a movie litter and we want them in prison. Our real lives are not exempt from this. We can nurse a grudge against someone who gave us a dirty look for years. When someone we love screams at us, we forgive them in a few days.

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.
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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.