Science of the Spirit


Ice-breaker effect: Singing can get groups of people to bond quickly

Psychologists compared the development of relationships between strangers joining singing groups to other adult education classes Getty Images
We have long known the power of a good sing-along. Now, research from the University of Oxford has shown that singing is a great ice-breaker and can get groups of people to bond together more quickly than other activities can.

The new study, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, looked at how people attending adult education classes grew closer over seven months. The conclusion - singing groups bonded more quickly than creative writing or craft classes.

Dr Eiluned Pearce, from Oxford's Department of Experimental Psychology led the research. She said: "One of the key differences between humans and other primates is that we can exist in much larger social groups. Singing is found in all human societies and can be performed to some extent by the vast majority of people. It's been suggested that singing is one of the ways in which we build social cohesion when there isn't enough time to establish one-to-one connections between everyone in a group.

"We wanted to explore whether there was something special about singing as a bonding behaviour or whether any group activity would build bonds between members."

Comment: Studies have shown that group singing has calming benefits and that singing can also improve cognitive function.


Research finds phobias may be related to genes passed down from ancestors

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Memories can be passed down to later generations through genetic switches that allow offspring to inherit the experience of their ancestors, according to new research that may explain how phobias can develop.

Scientists have long assumed that memories and learned experiences built up during a lifetime must be passed on by teaching later generations or through personal experience.

However, new research has shown that it is possible for some information to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA.

Researchers at the Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, found that mice can pass on learned information about traumatic or stressful experiences - in this case a fear of the smell of cherry blossom - to subsequent generations.

The results may help to explain why people suffer from seemingly irrational phobias - it may be based on the inherited experiences of their ancestors.

So a fear of spiders may in fact be an inherited defence mechanism laid down in a families genes by an ancestors' frightening encounter with an arachnid.

2 + 2 = 4

How to cope when chronic pain creates anxiety—With tools to calm & soothe

A toolkit of ways to calm and quell anxiety when you live in chronic pain

When you have chronic pain it's natural to feel anxious, especially when that pain is severe, unpredictable, and as a consequence, your life so filled with uncertainty and fears. But if anxiety becomes equally chronic, whether an ongoing feeling of unease or profound panic, it can truly hamper your efforts to manage the unmanageable.

Anxiety worsens pain, your ability to cope with that pain, and can also magnify feelings of loneliness, and depression, that so frequently come with chronic illness. Although everyone experiences anxiety or sometimes feels fearful, if you feel anxious, panicky or filled with fear much of the time, talk to your doctor, and try the tools herein.

Comment: To Soothe Chronic Pain, Meditation Proves Better Than Pills
New proof that our emotions cause physical pain


Get angry! If you want to change your life

This is the time of year that people declare what they want to change in their lives. Unfortunately the real-time decisions you make will likely be based on emotion and will supersede those you logically made on New Years. When the time comes to make the change, your emotions will trick you into finding a great rationalization for ignoring your stated intention.

The good news is you can counteract this process with emotional awareness. You have to recognize what you are feeling in the moment and then make a conscious shift to feel something else.

First you need to recognize if you are feeling discomfort, boredom, confusion, fear or worry when you consider making the change. Then you need to shift to a stronger emotion that will allow you to step through the pain and take the steps toward change.

In other words, you have to want the change badly enough to overcome the discomfort, boredom, confusion, embarrassment, and worry that pops up to stop you along the way.

The intensity of your desire to change, whether based on a positive or negative emotion, correlates to the likelihood you will complete the process.



What dreams may come: End of life dreams may be comforting

© missty / Fotolia
This is the first study to interview patients about their end-of-life dreams and vision experiences in the last weeks of life.
It's not uncommon for people to have extraordinary dreams or visions in the final weeks of their lives. Accounts of pre-death visions span recorded history, but have been absent from the scientific literature. Now new research suggests that end-of-life dreams are comforting and may improve quality of life.

Accounts of pre-death visions span recorded history, but have been absent from the scientific literature. A recent study in the Journal of Palliative Medicine by Associate Professor James P. Donnelly, PhD, and colleagues found that end-of-life dreams and visions (ELDVs) are an intrinsic and comforting part of the dying process.

"These dreams and visions may improve quality of life and should be treated accordingly," says Donnelly, associate professor of counseling and human services and director of measurement & statistics for the Institute of Autism Research at Canisius College.

People 2

Are you an introvert or just a covert narcissist?

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Something introverts really like to do, it seems, is read and talk about their own introversion. A commenter on a recent Science of Us post on the four kinds of introversion summed matters up quite nicely: "Gosh, introverts are just so FASCINATING! — Introverts." This tendency, you could argue, may arise simply because introverts like spending a lot of time in deep reflection, getting lost in their own thoughts — and some of those thoughts, naturally, are going to be about themselves.

But at what point does self-reflection cross the line into self-preoccupation? As it turns out, there are some striking similarities between the popular understanding of introversion and a psychological characteristic called covert narcissism: It's all the entitlement and grandiosity most people associate with narcissism, minus the bluster. Maybe you know someone like this: They tend to believe they're being underestimated or overlooked, like their amazing qualities are forever going unnoticed by everyone else. They often take things too personally, especially criticism, and sometimes feel a little resentful when other people bother them with their problems.

Green Light

Kids need less class time and more play time in school

I have published a number of pieces over the last year or so on the importance of allowing young children to play in school rather than sit for hours at a desk laboring over academic tasks. Here is a new post making the case for why less class time — and more play time — will actually lead to a better education for kids, however counter-intuitive that may sound. It was written by Debbie Rhea, an associate dean of the Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences and director of the LiiNk Project at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. The LiiNk Project is described in the post.

Comment: Let the kids learn through play


The Burakumin: Japan's 'untouchables'

© Mike Sunda
Abattoir workers at the Shibaura meat market
Japan has a reputation of being a homogeneous, mostly harmonious society. There are few foreigners, linguistic differences are rare and on the surface class distinctions are largely absent. But, as Mike Sunda discovered, there is one, often hidden, exception: Japan's untouchables.

In the corner of a pristine room tucked away in Tokyo's Shibaura meat market is a table topped with a stack of crudely composed hate mail - evidence of a prejudice that dates back to medieval times.

Slaughtermen, undertakers, those working with leather and in other "unclean" professions such as sanitation have long been marginalised in Japan. That prejudice continues to this day and especially for those working in the Shibaura abattoir.


Music listening habits tell about mental health

© igor / Fotolia
To investigate the brain's unconscious emotion regulation processes, the researchers recorded the participants' neural activity as they listened to clips of happy, sad and fearful-sounding music using functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Brain imaging reveals how neural responses to different types of music really affect the emotion regulation of individuals. The study proves that especially men who process negative feelings with music react negatively to aggressive and sad music.

Emotion regulation is an essential component to mental health. Poor emotion regulation is associated with psychiatric mood disorders such as depression. Clinical music therapists know the power music can have over emotions, and are able to use music to help their clients to better mood states and even to help relieve symptoms of psychiatric mood disorders like depression. But many people also listen to music on their own as a means of emotion regulation, and not much is known about how this kind of music listening affects mental health.

Researchers at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Music Research at the University of Jyväskylä, Aalto University in Finland and Aarhus University in Denmark decided to investigate the relationship between mental health, music listening habits and neural responses to music emotions by looking at a combination of behavioural and neuroimaging data. The study was published in August in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.


Identifying with your future self can help overcome the tendency to procrastinate

"I love deadlines," English author Douglas Adams once wrote. "I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."

We've all had the experience of wanting to get a project done but putting it off for later. Sometimes we wait because we just don't care enough about the project, but other times we care a lot - and still end up doing something else. I, for one, end up cleaning my house when I have a lot of papers to grade, even though I know I need to grade them.

So why do we procrastinate? Are we built to operate this way at some times? Or is there something wrong with the way we're approaching work?

These questions are central to my research on goal pursuit, which could offer some clues from neuroscience about why we procrastinate - and how to overcome this tendency.