Science of the Spirit


Multi-sensory learning methods using gestures and pictures facilitate remembering words

© MPI f. Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences/ v. Kriegstein
Pictures facilitate learning: our brain remembers the words.
"Atesi" -- what sounds like a word from the Elven language of Lord of the Rings is actually a Vimmish word meaning "thought." Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig have used Vimmish, an artificial language specifically developed for scientific research, to study how people can best memorise foreign-language terms. According to the researchers, it is easier to learn vocabulary if the brain can link a given word with different sensory perceptions. The motor system in the brain appears to be especially important: When someone not only hears vocabulary in a foreign language, but expresses it using gestures, they will be more likely to remember it. Also helpful, although to a slightly lesser extent, is learning with images that correspond to the word. Learning methods that involve several senses, and in particular those that use gestures, are therefore superior to those based only on listening or reading.


Brains of 'SuperAgers' look 50 not 80

© Andreas Lindmark/Flickr
Researchers are trying to figure out why the brains of some older adults look 30 years younger than their peers.

While these so-called cognitively elite "SuperAgers" may be 80 or more years old, they have memories as sharp as those decades younger. SuperAgers were first identified in 2007 by scientists at Northwestern University's Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center.

3 big differences

A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience is the first to quantify brain differences of SuperAgers compared to normal older people.

Their unusual brain signature has three common components when compared with normal persons of similar ages:
  • thicker region of the cortex
  • significantly fewer tangles (a primary marker of Alzheimer's disease)
  • whopping supply of a specific neuron - von Economo - linked to higher social intelligence

Comment: von Economo cells or spindle cells are related to higher cognitive functions such as empathy and consciousness. It seems that cultivating and facilitating such values in those who have the genetic wiring would yield some very interesting results!


Research offers scientific explanation for spontaneous emergence of social norms

A new study offers a scientific explanation for how social norms can spontaneously emerge on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, with no external forces driving their creation.

The findings help explain several social occurrences, from why different regions of the country have distinct words for the same product (soda vs. pop) to how norms regarding civil rights spread throughout the United States.

"Our study explains how certain ideas and behaviors can gain a foothold and, all of a sudden, emerge as big winners," said lead researcher Dr. Damon Centola, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"It is a common misconception that this process depends upon some kind of leader, or centralized media source, to coordinate a population. We show that it can depend on nothing more than the normal interactions of people in social networks."

Comment: It appears as if the random mixing allows a network to become more cohesive by bringing more people together, rather than confining people into familiar groups which then compete with each other.


Stay or stray? Stats hint at different sexual styles

© chaddlin/iStockphoto
Pinky promise: The longer your ring finger is compared to your index finger, the higher statistical likelihood of promiscuity.
Scientists say they have found the first evidence to back theories that people fall into two broad categories -- promiscuity or faithfulness -- when it comes to sex.

Why humans seem to be an exception among mammals on the matter of sexual relationships has long been a puzzle.

Other mammalian species are emphatically polygamous or monogamous as a group.

But as everyone knows anecdotally, Homo sapiens do not fall into one neat category or the other.

Everyone knows of couples that are sexually faithful, but also of those that are not.

What has been lacking are the statistics to show these differences, which is a key step to explaining them.

Now a team of UK scientists say they have found just that.

"We observed what appears to be a cluster of males and a cluster of females who are more inclined to 'stay,' with a separate cluster of males and females being more inclined to 'stray' when it comes to sexual relationships," says study co-author Rafael Wlodarski, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford.

In their study, published today in the journal Biology Letters, Wlodarski and colleagues compared two potential indicators of sexual behaviour.

One source was an online questionnaire on sexual habits, completed by 585 North American and British respondents between the ages of 18 and 63, who on average were nearly 25.

The other was data obtained from 1314 British men and women -- an investigation based on something known as the '2D:4D' ratio.

Magic Hat

Illusions that keep humanity trapped in the matrix

© unknown
For a magician to fool his audience his deceit must go unseen, and to this end he crafts an illusion to avert attention from reality. While the audience is entranced, the deceptive act is committed, and for the fool, reality then becomes inexplicably built upon on a lie. That is, until the fool wakes up and recognizes the truth in the fact that he has been duped.

Maintaining the suspension of disbelief in the illusion, however, is often more comforting than acknowledging the magician's secrets.

We live in a world of illusion. So many of the concerns that occupy the mind and the tasks that fill the calendar arise from planted impulses to become someone or something that we are not. This is no accident. As we are indoctrinated into this authoritarian-corporate-consumer culture that now dominates the human race, we are trained that certain aspects of our society are untouchable truths, and that particular ways of being and behaving are preferred.

People 2

New research discovers how easily individuals can be framed for crimes by planting false memories

Is it possible that you could one day be convinced to confess to a crime you never committed - because you don't remember you didn't commit it?

How could you not know that you didn't commit a crime? Perhaps because your mind was altered to prohibit you from remembering that you're innocent.

If that sounds confusing or bizarre, this will only add to the bizarre, confusing nature of such an event: New research suggests that this very thing may have already happened, and the implications are profound.

A press release from the Association for Psychological Science said that new research published in the organization's journal, Psychological Science, discovered evidence from some cases of wrongful conviction that suspects can be questioned by authorities in a way that could lead them to falsely believe in, and confess to, crimes they didn't really commit.

The organization said the new research is providing "lab-based evidence for this phenomenon, showing that innocent adult participants can be convinced, over the course of a few hours, that they had perpetrated crimes as serious as assault with a weapon in their teenage years."

Researchers said data suggests that participants in such cases had come to internalize stories they were told, then provided illustrative detail about them even though they were contrived.


Building resilience helps us to recover from life's difficulties

Nature teaches us a lot about what it takes to survive in the world. If only we'd listen.

As I watch the snow fall outside my window, I can't help but be impressed. This perfect snow clumps on the tree branches, building a forest of white.

But branches can only take so much weight. What happens when the snow becomes too much?

This is where nature's amazing architecture comes into play. Nature has a simple solution to the weight of the world - and it's one we can all learn from.

The branches fill up with snow. When it becomes too much, the branch gently bends, relieving itself of the snow and its weight. The branch, we could say, is practicing resilience.

Nature has considered all the possibilities of life, and built in mechanisms to ensure that things survive. It brings snow to the trees, and the trees bend to the weight of snow, allowing no real harm to come to them.

Nature has built these same mechanisms into us, too. We just don't always recognize or use them.

Comment: Two other excellent ways to improve resilience are the practices of mindfulness and meditation. Both have been shown to be able to transform health and well-being psychologically as well as physically. A highly beneficial meditation technique is the Éiriú Eolas program which can be learned quickly, and has immediate positive effects. There is no need to sit in special postures, or be present in a carefully prepared relaxing atmosphere. The strength of the program comes from its high adaptability to stressful conditions of the modern world.

Face life with Éiriú Eolas, a stress relief program


Mindfulness program for children shown to regulate stress and improve learning

A new social and emotional program with mindfulness techniques, called MindUp, has been shown to successfully help children become more caring and optimistic, improve their math scores and lower their stress levels.

The program, founded by Oscar-winning actress Goldie Hawn, was recently analyzed by researchers at the University of British Columbia.

During the program, children were given lessons on mindfulness techniques, in which they were instructed to intentionally focus on the present - while avoiding making judgments - through a series of breathing, tasting, and movement exercises.

Experts from across multiple disciplines - a neuroscientist, developmental pediatrician, developmental psychologists, and education experts - came together to examine the program's effectiveness.

They discovered that the fourth and fifth graders who participated in MindUp became better at regulating stress, were more optimistic and helpful, and improved their math scores. They were even better liked by their peers than children in another program that taught caring for others but without a mindfulness component.

Comment: Mindfulness meditation has been shown to produce changes in the brain structure. Researchers have found that participants in mindfulness meditation exercises had increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.

One of the best breathing and meditation techniques, which can easily be taught to children is the Éiriú Eolas Stress Control, Healing and Rejuvenation Program.


Pulling all-nighters? How memory affects the sleep cycle

© Kiselev Andrey Valervich/Shutterstock
Want to ace that test tomorrow? Here's a tip: Put down the coffee and hit the sack.

Scientists have long known that sleep, memory and learning are deeply connected. Most animals, from flies to humans, have trouble remembering when sleep deprived, and studies have shown that sleep is critical in converting short-term into long-term memory, a process known as memory consolidation.

But just how that process works has remained a mystery.

The question is, does the mechanism that promotes sleep also consolidate memory, or do two distinct processes work together? In other words, is memory consolidated during sleep because the brain is quiet, allowing memory neurons to go to work, or are memory neurons actually putting us to sleep?

In a recent paper in the journal eLife, graduate students Paula Haynes and Bethany Christmann in the Griffith Lab make a case for the latter.

Haynes and Christmann focused their research on dorsal paired medial (DPM) neurons, well-known memory consolidators in Drosophila. They observed, for the first time, that when DPM neurons are activated, the flies slept more; when deactivated, the flies kept buzzing.

These memory consolidators inhibit wakefulness as they start converting short-term to long-term memory. All this takes place in a section of the Drosophila brain called the mushroom body, similar to the hippocampus, where our memories are stored. As it turns out, the parts of the mushroom body responsible for memory and learning also help keep the Drosophila awake.

"It's almost as if that section of the mushroom body were saying 'hey, stay awake and learn this,'" says Christmann. "Then, after a while, the DPM neurons start signaling to suppress that section, as if to say 'you're going to need sleep if you want to remember this later.'"

Understanding how sleep and memory are connected in a simple system, likeDrosophila, can help scientists unravel the secrets of the human brain.

Comment: See also:


The power of vulnerability

We live in a culture of scarcity. We are never good enough: never rich enough, never beautiful enough, never safe enough, never certain enough. The greater the uncertainty in the world, the less tolerance we have for vulnerability in our lives.
We associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty. Yet we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love. Vulnerability is, in truth, our most accurate measure of courage.

Comment: Also check out Benefits of hugging, Isolation and addiction, Men and woman process emotions differently.