Science of the Spirit


The brain's GPS: Scientists identify 'internal compass' controlling directional sense

© AFP/Miguel Medina
The precise part of the human brain that controls people's sense of direction has been identified by leading scientists in a groundbreaking piece of research.

Those who have more robust nerve signals in what the scientists describe as the brain's "internal compass" are generally more accomplished navigators, the study suggests.

The report, published in prestigious science journal Current Biology, indicates people tend to get lost when their internal navigational compass cannot maintain pace with these nerve signals.

While scientists have long held the view that such nerve signals exist in the human brain, the theory was based on mere speculation until now.

University College London (UCL) researchers who conducted the study hope the discovery will help shed light on the relationship between Alzheimer's and a deteriorating sense of direction.

Scientists requested 16 volunteers take the time to mentally log a straightforward virtual courtyard. They were then asked to navigate around the space, relying on memory alone, while their brain patterns were scanned using a high-tech MRI machine.

The scans identified the relevant part of the brain responsible for such navigation, showing nerve cell activity in the region each time the participants attempted to virtually make their way around the digital courtyard.

The researchers concluded that the stronger the signal in that part of the brain - known as the entorhinal region - the better the volunteers were at navigating around the courtyard by memory.

Comment: See also:

Sleeping brain behaves as if it's remembering something

Food for thought: Eat your way to dementia - sugar and carbs cause Alzheimer's Disease

Ketogenic Diet Reduces Symptoms of Alzheimer's


Some people really do 'feel your pain'

© iStockphoto
Some people looking at this image will feel pain in their leg too.
Vicarious pain is real and heart-felt, say Australian researchers, who have revealed the physiological changes that occur when a person literally feels someone else's pain.

The findings shed light on this extreme version of empathy, which is experienced by about 20 to 30 per cent of people, says pain researcher Dr Melita Giummarra of Monash University's school of psychological science and Caulfield Hospital in Melbourne.

"This is the first time physiological changes associated with vicarious pain have been measured," says Giummarra.

She was among the first researchers to demonstrate the proportion of healthy people who feel pain when they see another person in pain.

"People who are naturally prone to this will usually say they experience pain in the same body part the other person is experiencing it," says Giummarra.

While vicarious pain might seem to be a burden for those experiencing it, Giummarra says this is not necessarily the case.

"Most people who have this (and) are otherwise healthy say it's just a part of their normal experience, just like synaesthesia is just part of how some people interact with the world," she says.

In research presented at the recent 15th World Congress on Pain in Argentina, Giummarra and colleagues investigated nearly 20 women, around half of whom experienced vicarious pain.

Comment: Related articles:

Ability To Literally Imagine Oneself In Another's Shoes May Be Tied To Empathy

I Feel Your Pain: Neural Mechanisms of Empathy

Empathy and age: Middle-aged most likely to feel your pain


Male sympathetic pregnancy or Couvade Syndrome

Couvade Syndrome
© io9
Couvade Syndrome is the name given to the conglomerate of pregnancy symptoms experienced by men when their partners are pregnant. The human mind is a powerful thing, but can a man's brain really convince his body that it's pregnant? And how does the pregnancy end?

Couvade Syndrome's Origins

I was surprised to find that sympathetic male pregnancy had a name - Couvade Syndrome. It sounds like it was named in honor of the extensive and groundbreaking work of someone called Dr. Couvade. In fact, it's a mangled French word coined by EB Tyler, and anthropologist who observed ritual pregnancies acted out by men in several different cultures around the world. "Couvade" comes from the word couver, meaning "to brood." (Brood as in "brood mare," not brood as in "to have a gloomy obsession.")

In the medical world, Couvade Syndrome isn't an official disease. It is more of an interesting phenomenon. Although doctors have noticed that fathers-to-be can experience weight gain, morning vomiting, heartburn, and restlessness, as well as more random symptoms like toothaches and leg cramps, there hasn't been any agreement as to what causes it.

Some doctors maintain that weight gain is normal, since generally the mother and the father live together, and as the mother's eating habits change, so do those of the father. Vomiting in the morning can be easily brought on by being around someone else who is vomiting. The rest of the symptoms can be brought on by stress.
2 + 2 = 4

Domestic abuse may affect children in womb


Domestic violence can affect children even before they're born, indicates new research by Michigan State University scientists.

The study is the first to link abuse of pregnant women with emotional and behavioral trauma symptoms in their children within the first year of life. Symptoms include nightmares, startling easily, being bothered by loud noises and bright lights, avoiding physical contact and having trouble experiencing enjoyment.

Comment: Emotional behavior of adults could be triggered in the womb

How Domestic Abuse Can Scar an Unborn Child for Life

That's why childhood psychological abuse should be as taboo as sexual or physical abuse: Large new study reveals how harmful psychological abuse in childhood can be


'Mindfulness' defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn

© Jon Kabat-Zinn CBS NEWS
Anderson Cooper reports on what it's like to try to achieve "mindfulness," a self-awareness scientists say is very healthy, but rarely achieved in today's world of digital distractions.

Comment: John Kabat Zin is author of the excellent book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. To learn more about better living through mindfulness and the application of mindfulness in daily life read the following articles: Learn about the numerous mental, emotional and spiritual health benefits of meditation and breathing exercises by visiting the Éiriú Eolas Stress Control, Healing and Rejuvenation Program website, try out the entire program here for free.

Book 2

Want to influence the world? Get your message out in Spanish or German as well as English

Speak or write in English, and the world will hear you. Speak or write in Tamil or Portuguese, and you may have a harder time getting your message out. Now, a new method for mapping how information flows around the globe identifies the best languages to spread your ideas far and wide. One hint: If you're considering a second language, try Spanish instead of Chinese.
language influence
© S. Ronen et al., PNAS Early Edition (2014)
Many books are translated into and out of languages such as English, German, and Russian, but Arabic has fewer translations relative to its many speakers. (Arrows between circles represent translations; the size of a language's circle is proportional to the number of people who speak it.)
See larger image here.

The study was spurred by a conversation about an untranslated book, says Shahar Ronen, a Microsoft program manager whose Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) master's thesis formed the basis of the new work. A bilingual Hebrew-English speaker from Israel, he told his MIT adviser, César Hidalgo (himself a Spanish-English speaker), about a book written in Hebrew whose translation into English he wasn't yet aware of. "I was able to bridge a certain culture gap because I was multilingual," Ronen says. He began thinking about how to create worldwide maps of how multilingual people transmit information and ideas.
Life Preserver

Listening to our emotions and learning to heed their valuable insights

© ArtFamily/Shutterstock
Many of us dismiss our emotions. We think of them as capricious and inconvenient. We think they stall problem-solving. We think they take too much time to process, and we don't have the luxury of simply sitting and stewing.

If we grew up in a home where emotions were vilified or regularly suppressed, where good girls didn't get angry and good boys didn't cry, we might've adopted the same views and habits of repressing ourselves.

But "emotions communicate invaluable insights to us," said Katie Kmiecik, LCPC, a psychotherapist at Postpartum Wellness Center in Hoffman Estates, Ill. She thinks of emotions as signs on the highway of life. "People who pay attention to these 'signs' lead happier lives. People who ignore their emotional signs may end up 'lost.'"

According to Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, RSW, a psychotherapist in Sharon, Ontario, Canada, "emotions always serve a function." They give us information about a situation, and motivate us to act, she said.

Comment: Dr. Gabor Maté says that emotions are deeply implicated in both the development of illness and in the restoration of health. The emotional centers of the brain, which regulate our behaviors and our responses and our reactions, are physiologically connected with the immune system, the nervous system and the hormonal apparatus.

His work with patients undergoing palliative care showed a number of characteristics of these patients. One was the repression of anger; people did not know how to express negative emotions. Another was people who were pleasers, they always tried not to disappoint other people and never knew how to say no. They took on everything without a murmur, because they saw their role as always being the caregivers and the caretakers. And they had an exceedingly powerful sense of duty, role and responsibility.

Learning how to acknowledge and express emotions properly may just save your life!

Snakes in Suits

Super psychopaths reign in politics and medicine

Psychopaths rule our world
The incidence of psychopathy among CEOs is about 4 percent, four times what it is in the population at large. According to Wikipedia, the DSM IV-TR gives the prevalence of psychopathy as 3% in males and 1% in females. Many forensic psychologists, psychiatrists and criminologists use the terms sociopathy and psychopathy interchangeably. Leading experts disagree on whether there are meaningful differences between the two conditions. Certainly there are meaningful differences from one psycho and sociopath to another.

In the United States congress the percentage is higher. In fact, in reading Dr. Ron Paul's most recent essay Reckless Congress Declares War on Russia - all but ten congressmen voted for the measure. Any good psychologist would conclude that there are 425 psychopaths in the House of Representatives and only 10 normal people who care about children and everyone else.
People 2

Masters and Disasters: Researchers able to predict marital happiness by measuring kindness and generosity

couple sketch
© sketchblog/flickr
Every day in June, the most popular wedding month of the year, about 13,000 American couples will say "I do," committing to a lifelong relationship that will be full of friendship, joy, and love that will carry them forward to their final days on this earth.

Except, of course, it doesn't work out that way for most people. The majority of marriages fail, either ending in divorce and separation or devolving into bitterness and dysfunction. Of all the people who get married, only three in ten remain in healthy, happy marriages, as psychologist Ty Tashiro points out in his book The Science of Happily Ever After, which was published earlier this year.

Social scientists first started studying marriages by observing them in action in the 1970s in response to a crisis: Married couples were divorcing at unprecedented rates. Worried about the impact these divorces would have on the children of the broken marriages, psychologists decided to cast their scientific net on couples, bringing them into the lab to observe them and determine what the ingredients of a healthy, lasting relationship were. Was each unhappy family unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy claimed, or did the miserable marriages all share something toxic in common?

Study finds mere presence of mother soothes infants and changes genes in emotional centers of the brain

infant brain development
© Oleg Sidorenko
Wonderful influence of mother’s presence on infants’ brain development and experience of pain.
The mere presence of the mother helps sooth an infant as well as changing genes in the emotional centres of the brain.

The new study from the NYU Langone Medical Center examined which genes in rat pups were active when its mother was either present or absent.

The study found that when experiencing pain, hundreds of genes in the rat pups brains were modified by the mother's presence.

The pups were also soothed by the mother's presence.

This is the first time that scientists have shown how the infant brain reacts to the presence or absence of its mother when in distress.

Comment: Any mother knows that an infant needs her presence to feel emotionally safe and nurtured. We don't necessarily need scientific studies to tell us this, but what is disturbing is that in our emotionally crumbling society, scientific researchers are still trying to find substitutes for parental nurturing.