Science of the Spirit


Study: Oscillations of heart rate and respiration synchronize during poetry recitation

© TheShorty6636 / DeviantArt
The objective of this study was to investigate the synchronization between low-frequency breathing patterns and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) of heart rate during guided recitation of poetry, i.e., recitation of hexameter verse from ancient Greek literature performed in a therapeutic setting. Twenty healthy volunteers performed three different types of exercises with respect to a cross-sectional comparison: 1) recitation of hexameter verse, 2) controlled breathing, and 3) spontaneous breathing. Each exercise was divided into three successive measurements: a 15-min baseline measurement (S1), 20 min of exercise, and a 15-min effect measurement (S2). Breathing patterns and RSA were derived from respiratory traces and electrocardiograms, respectively, which were recorded simultaneously using an ambulatory device. The synchronization was then quantified by the index γ, which has been adopted from the analysis of weakly coupled chaotic oscillators. During recitation of hexameter verse, γ was high, indicating prominent cardiorespiratory synchronization. The controlled breathing exercise showed cardiorespiratory synchronization to a lesser extent and all resting periods (S1 and S2) had even fewer cardiorespiratory synchronization. During spontaneous breathing, cardiorespiratory synchronization was minimal and hardly observable. The results were largely determined by the extent of a low-frequency component in the breathing oscillations that emerged from the design of hexameter recitation. In conclusion, recitation of hexameter verse exerts a strong influence on RSA by a prominent low-frequency component in the breathing pattern, generating a strong cardiorespiratory synchronization.
People 2

Is it beneficial for people to fail occasionally?

In our highly competitive world, we prize success and hate it when things go wrong, but is there actually a value in failing?

When Irish author Flann O'Brien submitted the manuscript for his second book, The Third Policeman, to a London publisher in 1940 it was rejected.

But rather than admit this lack of success to his friends, he pretended the manuscript had accidentally blown out of the boot of his car on a trip to Donegal and had been lost forever.

"This was a ruinous thing to say because he couldn't then turn around and say, 'Oh I've found it again,' so the manuscript sat very openly on his sideboard until his death," says Booker Prize-winning author Anne Enright. She has selected O'Brien's story to appear in an exhibition entitled Fail Better at the Science Gallery at Trinity College, Dublin.

"The year after [O'Brien's] death, his wife got it published to a keen reception."

If O'Brien had been more open about his failure to get the book printed, he might have seen his work published within his lifetime.
Life Preserver

Why breastfed babies are so smart

© Harald Groven
Study of 7,500 babies finds two parenting skills that are crucial to IQ boosts at four years of age.
Many studies over the years have shown that children who are breastfed score higher on IQ tests, but until now the exact cause has been a mystery.

Some scientists said it was something in the milk, others that it's about the bonding between mother and baby and others still that these and other factors all contributed.

A new study, though, suggests that it's the parenting behaviours that make the difference (Gibbs & Forste, 2014). Researchers at Brigham Young University examined data from 7,500 mothers and children collected from birth to four years of age. They found that two crucial parenting skills were responsible for the boost to cognition. Mothers who breastfed were more likely to:
  • respond to children's emotional cues,
  • and read to children at 9 months of age.
Together these factors were enough to put children two or three months ahead when they reached four-years-old.

The pain of social exclusion

Trauer, traurig, Depression
© iStockphoto/Peter Brutsch
"Social" pain hurts physically, even when we see it in others

The distress caused by social stimuli (e.g., losing a friend, experiencing an injustice or more in general when a social bond is threatened) activates brain circuits related to physical pain: as observed in a study conducted by SISSA, this also applies when we experience this type of pain vicariously as an empathic response (when we see somebody else experiencing it).

We would like to do without pain and yet without it we wouldn't be able to survive. Pain signals dangerous stimuli (internal or external) and guides our behaviour. Its ultimate goal is to prioritize escape, recovery and healing. That's why we feel it and why we're also good at detecting it in others. Pain in fact protects not only the individual but also his social bonds. The brain contains circuits related to the more physical aspects of pain and others related to affective aspects. As observed in a study just published by Giorgia Silani, Giovanni Novembre and Marco Zanon of the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste, social pain activates some brain circuits of physical pain whether we feel it personally or when we experience it vicariously as an empathic response to other people's pain.

Our memory for sounds is worse than touch or sight

© Carolyn Williams
“I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember” –Chinese proverb
Our memory for things we've seen or touched is much better than for what we've heard, a new study reveals. The study had people listening to a variety of sounds, shown pictures and given things to touch (Begelo & Poremba, 2014). The researchers found that it was the things people heard that they were most likely to forget, more than things they had seen or touched. This study provides a fascinating insight into how memory works. Lead author James Bigelow explains:
"We tend to think that the parts of our brain wired for memory are integrated. But our findings indicate our brain may use separate pathways to process information. Even more, our study suggests the brain may process auditory information differently than visual and tactile information, and alternative strategies - such as increased mental repetition - may be needed when trying to improve memory."
In the study people were exposed to all sorts of everyday sounds, sights and tactile experiences. They watched basketball games, heard dogs barking and touched a coffee mug that was hidden from view.

Researchers prove that it's possible to die of a broken heart

© David Goehring
New research proves you can die of a broken heart

Experts studying the impact of bereavement on people's health have found that the chances of a heart or stroke attack doubles after a partner's death.

Bereavement has long been known as a risk factor for death and this study increases our understanding of its effects on cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks and strokes.

The study showed the likelihood of a heart attack or stroke doubled in the crucial 30 day period after a partner's death for those experiencing loss of a loved one.

Grief leads to extra physical stress and also may make people forget or lose interest in taking their medication, according to experts.

Dr Sunil Shah, senior lecturer in public health at St George's University of London, a co-author of the report, said: "We often use the term a 'broken heart' to signify the pain of losing a loved one and our study shows that bereavement can have a direct effect on the health of the heart."
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The four things that kill a relationship stone dead

love cancelled
© liquidnight / Flickr
For over 40 years the psychologist Professor John Gottman has been analysing relationships, both good and bad.

He's followed couples across decades in many psychological studies to see what kinds of behaviours predict whether they would stay together in the long-term or were soon destined for the divorce courts.

Amongst the factors he identified, four have stood out, time and time again. When Gottman sees a couple's communication overrun with these, the chances are they will divorce in an average of around six years from their marriage.

How new ideas change your brain cells

© MR McGill
Our ability to remember and learn is powered by a crucial molecular change.
A new study has identified an important molecular change which takes place in the brain when we learn and remember (Brigidi et al., 2014).

Learning changes the way a fatty acid in the brain attaches to a protein called delta-catenin.

This change is essential in adjusting the connectivity between brain cells, which enables us to learn.

One of the study's authors, Shernaz Bamji, explained:
"More work is needed, but this discovery gives us a much better understanding of the tools our brains use to learn and remember, and provides insight into how these processes become disrupted in neurological diseases."
The results come from the study of an animal model. They found that after learning about new environments, the levels of modified delta-catenin were almost doubled.
Evil Rays

Sick cities: Why urban living can be bad for your mental health

© Allstar/Cinetext Collection/Sportsphoto
Sometimes city living can just get too much for us to take – as depicted by Michael Douglas's everyman William Foster, in the film Falling Down.
Is our headlong rush to live in cities bound to increase incidences of stress and other mental disorders?

You are lying down with your head in a noisy and tightfitting fMRI brain scanner, which is unnerving in itself. You agreed to take part in this experiment, and at first the psychologists in charge seemed nice.

They set you some rather confusing maths problems to solve against the clock, and you are doing your best, but they aren't happy. "Can you please concentrate a little better?" they keep saying into your headphones. Or, "You are among the worst performing individuals to have been studied in this laboratory." Helpful things like that. It is a relief when time runs out.

Few people would enjoy this experience, and indeed the volunteers who underwent it were monitored to make sure they had a stressful time. Their minor suffering, however, provided data for what became a major study, and a global news story. The researchers, led by Dr Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, were trying to find out more about how the brains of different people handle stress. They discovered that city dwellers' brains, compared with people who live in the countryside, seem not to handle it so well.

To be specific, while Meyer-Lindenberg and his accomplices were stressing out their subjects, they were looking at two brain regions: the amygdalas and the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC). The amygdalas are known to be involved in assessing threats and generating fear, while the pACC in turn helps to regulate the amygdalas. In stressed citydwellers, the amygdalas appeared more active on the scanner; in people who lived in small towns, less so; in people who lived in the countryside, least of all.

Dimming the lights can help people make more rational decisions, think more objectively

Scientists claim that turning down the lights (illustrated) reduces emotional intensity, allowing you to keep a clear head when making difficult decisions
Some decisions are so difficult that you can mull them over from every conceivable angle and there is still no obvious answer.

But if you need to make an enlightened decision, dimming the lights could help.

Scientists claim that turning down the lights reduces emotional intensity, allowing you to keep a clear head when making tough choices.

A new study led by the University of Toronto Scarborough has found that both positive and negative human emotions are felt more intensely in bright light.

Alison Jing Xu, assistant professor of management at the university and Aparna Labroo of Northwestern University, conducted a series of studies to examine the unusual paradox of lighting and human emotion.

While other studies have shown that people can be more optimistic about the stock market on sunny days, while gloomy days can result in seasonal affective disorder, Professor Xu said: 'we found that on sunny days depression-prone people actually become more depressed'.