Science of the Spirit

Eye 1

Study pinpoints part of the brain responsible for slow wave sleep

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Findings may lead to new therapies for sleep disorders, including insomnia.
Researchers from the Harvard School of Medicine and the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences have discovered a region of the brain responsible for causing people to fall into a deep sleep.

This slumber-promoting circuit, which is located deep in the primitive brainstem, is only the second such "sleep node" ever discovered in the brains of mammals, the study authors said. In research published online last month in Nature Neuroscience, they explain how this region is not only capable of but also necessary for producing what is known as slow wave sleep (SWS) in humans.

By using genetically targeted activation and optogenetically based mapping to examine the brain's circuitry, the researchers found that half of all sleep-promoting activity originates from a region of the brainstem known as the parafacial zone (PZ). The brainstem is a primordial part of the brain and is responsible for regulating the basic functions necessary for survival, including breathing, body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate.

"The close association of a sleep center with other regions that are critical for life highlights the evolutionary importance of sleep in the brain," said Caroline E. Bass, assistant professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the University of Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and a co-author on the recently-published paper.
Mr. Potato

New study finds dreams increase in bizarreness as we fall deeper into sleep

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Many a time we've woken up without remembering our dreams from the night before. However, we may recall small slivers of them, or perhaps their general aura. They're usually pretty weird; we'll wake up after visiting a bizarre city splashed in pastel colors, giant giraffes, and winding staircases. Or maybe that's just me.

But according to a small new study, it's very likely that our dreams get weirder as the night goes on: right after we go to sleep, we dream of things somewhat based on reality. But once hours have gone by, our dreams tend to get stranger, the authors of the study surmise, "like a wild animal tearing up your back garden." The study was published in the journal Dreaming.

"We found that dreams were increasing in bizarreness from the early to late night," Dr. Jose Malinowski, a lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of Bedfordshire in the UK, told Time. These later dreams are also more emotionally charged.

For the study, the researchers examined 16 participants while they slept for two nights. They woke them up at various times of the night to ask them what they were dreaming about. Each participant was awoken about four times every night. In the morning, as soon as they woke up, they also reported what they had been dreaming about.

But whether or not dreams are rooted in reality, or if they're pretty far-fetched and bizarre, Malinowski believes that dreams are a "safe haven" for problem-solving and figuring out personal issues. They're a way for us to gain insight into our emotions that might normally be repressed, and are often a way for us to approach a problem we might not normally see in our waking hours. She also recommends dream therapy as a different avenue for people to examine their psyche.

"People really enjoy [dream therapy]," Malinowski said. "Dreams are like a safe space. People feel like they haven't generated them because they're often so bizarre. [But] they're a safe way to explore the self."

Source: Malinowski J, Harton C. The Effect of Time of Night on Wake-Dream Continuity. Dreaming. 2014.
Snakes in Suits

Ostracism and isolation just as damaging as workplace bullying


Ostracism and isolating people does more damage to their mental and physical well-being than bullying.
A new survey of 3,400 American workers in all kinds of organisations has found that one-third have been bullied at work and around 20% have been forced to quit their job as a result.

Amongst other things, bullying constituted feeling they were the subject of gossip, were taking the rap for mistakes they hadn't made and getting constantly criticised.

As bad as workplace bullying is, there is something worse for both mental and physical well-being, another new study finds.

A series of surveys carried out by researchers at the University of British Columbia and elsewhere asked people about their experiences of harassment and ostracism at work (O'Reilly et al., 2014).

These revealed that people felt ignoring others was socially acceptable - especially in comparison to bullying.

People generally thought that being ignored was significantly less harmful than being bullied.

A second survey, however, looked at people's actual experience of both ostracism and bullying.

Contrary to people intuitions, ignoring others emerged as more damaging than direct harassment.

Comment: The reason that abuse often not obvious to others is that psychopathic individuals are extremely adept at "wearing a mask" that often fools others into thinking they are ideal employees and leaders. It is only those that have been targeted, typically subordinates or peers, who begin to sense that they (and the organization) are being manipulated. They commonly marginalize others, create schisms between people and cause infighting within groups. Much of this is done secretly, so they are able to maintain a veneer of normality while disarming their prey. Educating oneself about the nature of these predators is of utmost importance in order to protect oneself and to understand how they have overtaken society.

Dr. Paul Babiak on the crisis of psychopaths in the workplace

Magic Wand

Just breathe: Yogic breathing can reduce symptoms of PTSD

It is estimated that more than 20 percent of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although, PTSD symptoms affect non-service people too - it can affect lots of different people who have survived trauma, hardship and extreme stress.

A new study from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers hope for those suffering from the disorder. Researchers there have shown that a breathing-based meditation practice called Sudarshan Kriya Yoga can be an effective treatment for PTSD.

Comment: Read the following articles to learn more about how deep breathing exercises can improve your life: Try the Éiriú Eolas breathing program and find out for yourself how breathing exercises can heal you emotionally, physically and mentally.


Beyond the 'animals are machines' metaphor

machine life
Animals are not machines, and the very idea is now holding back scientific progress

Many people who have not studied science are baffled by scientists' insistence that animal and plants are machines, and that humans are robots too, controlled by computer-like brains with genetically programmed software. In Richard Dawkins' vivid phrase, we are "lumbering robots."

It seems more natural to assume that we are living organisms, as are animals and plants. Organisms are self-organising; they form and maintain themselves, and have their own ends or goals. Machines, by contrast, are designed by an external mind: their parts are put together by external machine-makers and they have no purposes or ends of their own. If you get into a car and it's in working order, it will go wherever you want. If you get onto a horse, it might have its own ideas about where to go.

The starting point for modern science was the rejection of an organic view of the universe. In the seventeenth century, the machine metaphor became central to scientific thinking, with very far reaching consequences. In one way it was immensely liberating. New ways of thinking became possible that encouraged the invention of machines and the evolution of technology.

Before the seventeenth century, almost everyone took it for granted that the universe was like an organism, and so was the Earth. In classical, medieval and renaissance Europe, nature was alive. For example, William Gilbert (1540 - 1603), a pioneer of the science of magnetism, was explicit in his organic philosophy of nature. "We consider that the whole universe is animated," he wrote, "and that all the globes, all the stars, and also the noble earth have been governed since the beginning by their own appointed souls and have the motives of self-conservation". Even Nicholas Copernicus, whose revolutionary theory of the movement of the heavens, published in 1543, placed the sun rather than the earth at the centre of the universe, was no mechanist. His reasons for making this change were mystical as well scientific. He thought a central position dignified the sun.

Fairness evolved to support co-operation

Ice Cream
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The idea of getting our fair share has deep evolutionary roots, say researchers.
Our sense of fairness evolved in order to support long-term co-operation, a new analysis suggests.

The hypothesis comes from a review of primate behaviour data, published today in the journal Science.

"This is the first paper to put forth an evolutionary hypothesis for fairness based on experimental data from animals," says evolutionary biologist Dr Sarah Brosnan of Georgia State University.

For humans, fairness is a social ideal but Brosnan and colleagues were interested in whether fairness evolved in animals.

It's hard to test whether animals sense fairness, says Brosnan, but you can test animals' response to getting less than someone else.

In a study published in 2003, Brosnan and colleagues found a monkey given a cucumber as a reward for performing a task protested by hurling the cucumber back at the researcher if they saw their partner getting a more highly prized grape as a reward.

"They were perfectly happy to eat the cucumber as long as their partner was getting cucumber, but when the partner started getting grapes they started throwing out their cucumbers," says Brosnan.
2 + 2 = 4

Teaching the children: Political differences shape which values are passed down

Wide gaps over teaching faith, tolerance, obedience

As the public grows more politically polarized, differences between conservatives and liberals extend their long reach even to opinions about which qualities are important to teach children, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

Vegetative patient shows brain activity watching Hitchcock film

© AFP Photo DDP / Nigel Treblin Germany out
A man who has been in a vegetative state for 16 years showed neural activity while watching a Hitchcock film. Researchers say that for the first time, they've discovered that "a patient with unknown levels of consciousness can monitor their environment."

It has been assumed that about one in five patients who appear to be entirely vegetative may actually be conscious, but researchers had not been able to prove that was the case until recently.

A research team at the University of Western Ontario, led by post-doctoral researcher Lorina Nacia, has developed a sensitive method to test whether any neural activity is taking place during a film sequence. The study is described in a report approved in August.

The researchers needed a clip short in length, 7-8 minutes, for the duration that a person can be placed in an MRI. They discovered that Alfred Hitchcock's short "Bang! You're Dead" fit the bill. It has a story sequence with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and is about a child who carries a loaded revolver around town.

Reading slowly can benefit your brain and reduce stress

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Members of a Wellington, New Zealand, club gather weekly to read slowly.
At Least 30 Minutes of Uninterrupted Reading With a Book or E-Book Helps

Once a week, members of a Wellington, New Zealand, book club arrive at a cafe, grab a drink and shut off their cellphones. Then they sink into cozy chairs and read in silence for an hour.

The point of the club isn't to talk about literature, but to get away from pinging electronic devices and read, uninterrupted. The group calls itself the Slow Reading Club, and it is at the forefront of a movement populated by frazzled book lovers who miss old-school reading.

Slow reading advocates seek a return to the focused reading habits of years gone by, before Google, smartphones and social media started fracturing our time and attention spans. Many of its advocates say they embraced the concept after realizing they couldn't make it through a book anymore.

Slow readers list numerous benefits to a regular reading habit, saying it improves their ability to concentrate, reduces stress levels and deepens their ability to think, listen and empathize. The movement echoes a resurgence in other old-fashioned, time-consuming pursuits that offset the ever-faster pace of life, such as cooking the "slow-food" way or knitting by hand.

Comment: Another great way to reduce stress, increase concentration, and deepen empathy is to practice the deep breathingand mediation techniques shown in the Éiriú Eolas program, which may be learned here.


Imprinted brain theory links autism and schizophrenia

Imprinted Genes
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'Imprinted' genes may affect a baby's behaviour and could be involved in the development of autism or schizophrenia.
A Danish study has provided support for a controversial theory that says autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia are opposite ends of a spectrum, with normal brain function somewhere in between.

The 'Imprinted Brain Theory' postulates that these mental disorders are a result of a 'battle of the sexes', with epigenetic effects subtly controlling certain genes, expressed as a baby develops, to favour the survival of either the mother or the father's genes.

Published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the study has found relationships between a baby's size and its risk of getting schizophrenia or autism, which fit with the theory.

Parental Tug-of-War

The theory concerns 'imprinted' genes. These genes are very unusual because they are expressed differently depending on whether they come from the mother or the father. This contrasts with the vast majority of genes for which parental origin makes no difference to their activity.

"There are about 70-80 genes that are thought to be genetically imprinted in humans." says Dr Sean Byars, lead author of the Danish study who is now at the University of Melbourne.

It's thought that imprinted genes affect things like the size of the baby. For example, it is in the father's interests for babies to be big, as they are more likely to survive and pass on his genes.

For the mother, though, a baby that is too large may deplete her resources, and could jeopardise her chance of future pregnancies. This will reduce her genes' chances of being passed on through future children, explains Byars.

Many imprinted genes are thought to act in the placenta, with some from the father favouring larger babies while some from the mother favour smaller ones. What the baby actually ends up with is usually a balance between the two parent's needs.