Science of the Spirit


Meditation: Certain styles can make you more creative

Particular types of meditation can generate insight and new ideas, according to recent studies.

An 'open monitoring' style of meditation can promote divergent thinking, a crucial aspect of creativity, finds research published in the journal Frontiers in Cognition (Colzato et al., 2012).

Divergent thinking is the kind which is often used at the start of the creative process, in which new ideas are generated.

The typical psychological test of divergent thinking asks participants to name as many uses as they can for a mundane object like a brick or a pen.

In the study by Dr. Lorenza Colzato and colleagues, participants who'd been meditating in an 'open monitoring' style came up with the most uses for the mundane object.

An 'open monitoring' style of meditation is where you don't focus on a particular object or sensation, such as your own breath; rather you pay attention to whatever thoughts or sensations you are experiencing at the time.

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Sex, drugs, but not Rock 'n' Roll

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If music is a universal language, it doesn't speak to everyone. Psychologists asked more than 1000 college students what they found rewarding. Of those surveyed, the team selected 10 students who ranked music significantly less pleasurable than other choices provided, such as sex, exercise, and food. The researchers discovered that the students weren't tone deaf or incapable of grasping the emotional meaning of a song - their brains simply didn't find listening to music rewarding.

To prove this point, the scientists gave the students two tests. In the first, the students were asked to listen to popular music and rate how pleasurable they considered each song. In the second, the students were given money for quickly pressing a target. A music-loving control group responded positively to both tests, whereas the 10 musically indifferent students enjoyed only the money reward test.

While some psychiatric disorders are associated with the loss of the ability to feel pleasure, called anhedonia, the students represent the first evidence for not feeling pleasure from only one specific pleasing stimulant, the researchers report online today in Current Biology. The team suspects that between 1% and 3% of people suffer from the condition, called music-specific anhedonia. This musically apathetic group could help scientists better understand the neuroscience of the reward system, the team says. Curious where you fall on the music reward spectrum? The researchers have an online quiz.

Universally understood expressions of emotion are mainly specific to Western Culture

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A new study published on Wednesday in the journal Psychological Science has found that facial expressions and emotional vocalizations are not universally understood across cultural barriers - contradicting a long-held emotion science belief.

"Emotions are not universally perceived," said Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology Northeastern University. "Everything that's predicated on that is a mistake."

In the 1970s, psychologist Paul Ekman traveled to Papua New Guinea to see if emotions were generally experienced and portrayed the same around the world. More specifically, Ekman wanted to see if people perceive the same emotions in facial expressions regardless of cultural upbringing.

In his study, Ekman showed both Americans and isolated indigenous people living in Papua New Guinea a sequence of images showing facial expressions and asked his subjects to match the images to one of six emotion words or stories showing emotional scenarios. Ekman found that his subjects saw the same emotions reflected in the same pictures regardless of culture.

Based on her own research, however, Barrett has theorized that context plays a significant part in the manner we perceive facial expressions. She posited that Ekman put constraints on his subjects by asking them to match images to distinct categories and explicit stories about emotional events as opposed to allowing them to freely sort the images.

Ten fascinating memory quirks everyone should know

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Why we remember and why we forget: it’s context, fading emotions, deep processing, the ‘Google effect’, the reminiscence bump and way more…
Many people say they have bad memories, but the majority are wrong.

The way memory works can be unexpected, frustrating, wonderful, and even quirky - but not necessarily 'bad'.

For most of us the problem isn't with our memories, it's with understanding how memory works.

Here are ten interesting quirks of memory which provide a better insight into what makes us remember - or forget.

1. Context is king

What we can remember partly depends on the situation and mental state we are in at the time. This is because our memories work by association. The context itself can refer to all kinds of things: some things are easier to remember in a certain place, others when we experience specific smells, others when we are in particular emotional states.

One striking study which demonstrates this had deep sea divers learning lists of words either 15ft underwater or on dry land (Godden & Baddeley, 1975). It turned out that when they learned words underwater, they remembered 32% of them when tested underwater, but only 21% when tested on the beach.

Of course our memories are far more complex than lists of words: many will have all kinds of contextual hooks, but the study neatly makes the point that for memory, context is very important.

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

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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

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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

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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."