Science of the Spirit

Light Saber

Possessing an internal locus of control improves our ability to cope with adversity

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For me, one of the hardest facets of stress is relinquishing control. And though there is control in how I personally react and choose to respond to circumstances, there's also a feeling of helplessness; a feeling that control is not completely present.

I don't have complete control over genuine and natural shifts in relationships — the progression of people growing apart. New perceptions affect awareness; they affect how connections are conceived.

I don't have complete control of the past, and all the baggage that comprises such chapters.

I don't have complete control over nodules in my thyroid that may or may not get bigger; that may or may not require a biopsy or further treatment.

I don't have complete control over a competitive job market or a profession that may not lend itself to a stable, sufficient income.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the desire for a sense of control is a profound psychological need.

"If we are in control of our environment, then we have a far better chance of survival," an article on stated. "Our deep subconscious mind thus gives us strong biochemical prods when we face some kind of danger (such as the fight-or-flight reaction)."

Interesting. Though life is renowned for unpredictability, individuals crave a sense of control. Some factors, though, are simply uncontrollable.


Understanding the five-step series of fear / defense responses

When a person or animal experiences a dangerous situation, each will typically react with an inborn fear/defense mechanism, such as the well-known "fight or flight."

In a new article, published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, researchers offer a detailed framework of the "defense cascade," a five-step series showing different types of fear/defense responses.

Although both humans and animals react to fear in similar ways, animals are able to return to their normal mode of functioning once the danger has passed.

However, "Humans often are not, and they may find themselves locked into the same, recurring pattern of response tied in with the original danger or trauma," said researcher Dr. Kasia Kozlowska, a child and adolescent psychiatrist from the Children's Hospital at Westmead, Australia.

Comment: According to Dr. Peter Levine, the reason that animals in the wild do not experience ongoing trauma from dangerous encounters is that they have a spontaneous capacity for self-paced termination of the state of immobility induced by fear responses. When an animal comes out of the frozen state, it usually shakes and trembles, literally shaking off the state of immobility. However, when humans perceive they are in danger, their bodies assume specific defensive postures necessary for protection which are powerfully energized to meet extreme situations. When activated to this level and then prevented from completing the course of action - as in fighting or fleeing - our systems move into freeze or collapse, and the energized tension remains stuck in the muscles. In turn, these unused or partially used muscular tensions set up a stream of nerve impulses ascending the spinal cord to the thalamus and then to other parts of the brain signaling continued presence of danger and threat.

Fortunately, there are methods that can help to release stored trauma. Dr. Levine describes exercises that can help with the process in his book In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Another excellent method is the Éiriú Eolas breathing and meditation program that helps to effectively manage the physiological, emotional, and psychological effects of stress and helps to clear blocked emotions.

Heart - Black

Masculinity is killing men: The roots of men and trauma

We begin the damaging process of turning boys into men long before boyhood ends.
"The three most destructive words that every man receives when he's a boy is when he's told to 'be a man,'" —Joe Ehrmann, coach and former NFL player

If we are honest with ourselves, we have long known that masculinity kills men, in ways both myriad and measurable. While social constructions of femininity demand that women be thin, beautiful, accommodating, and some unattainable balance of virginal and fuckable, social constructions of masculinity demand that men constantly prove and re-prove the very fact that they are, well, men.

Both ideas are poisonous and potentially destructive, but statistically speaking, the number of addicted and afflicted men and their comparatively shorter lifespans proves masculinity is actually the more effective killer, getting the job done faster and in greater numbers. Masculinity's death tolls are attributed to its more specific manifestations: alcoholism, workaholism and violence. Even when it does not literally kill, it causes a sort of spiritual death, leaving many men traumatized, dissociated and often unknowingly depressed. (These issues are heightened by race, class, sexuality and other marginalizing factors, but here let's focus on early childhood and adolescent socialization overall.) To quote poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "tis not in death that men die most." And for many men, the process begins long before manhood.

Eye 1

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

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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

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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