Science of the Spirit

Light Saber

Acts of kindness spread easily in social networks just by observing people's generosity

Kindness and generosity elevates all our morals
Acts of kindness can spread surprisingly easily between people — just by observing someone else being generous.

They activate parts of the brain involved in motivating action and of social engagement, a new study finds.

In turn we are also more likely to 'pay it forward'.

Scientists call this the 'moral elevation' effect.

The first evidence from the lab of this effect was found in 2010.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego and Harvard demonstrated moral elevation by having people playing a simple 'giving' game in the lab.

When people gave selflessly to others, researchers could see this act of kindness spreading from person to person.

One act of kindness was ultimately tripled in value by people subsequently giving more and more.

Comment: Perhaps observing others kindness and generosity reminds us of our built-in capacity for caring and the need for human connection.

Wine n Glass

Study: Alcohol and oxytocin work on brain in similar ways

Significant similarities have been highlighted by researchers between the behavioral effects of oxytocin and alcohol. The research team warns that the oft-used nickname hides the darker side of oxytocin, and claim that it bears more semblances with the effects of alcohol than previously thought

© Shutterstock
Researchers at the University of Birmingham have highlighted significant similarities between the behavioural effects of oxytocin and alcohol.

The research, published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, draws on existing studies into the two compounds and details the similarities between the effects of alcohol and the 'love hormone', oxytocin, on our actions. The team warn that the oft-used nickname hides the darker side of oxytocin, and claim that it bears more semblances with the effects of alcohol than previously thought.

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide hormone produced in the hypothalamus and secreted by the posterior pituitary gland. It has long been established as playing a significant role in childbirth and maternal bonding. More recently it has been identified as a brain chemical with a key role in determining our social interactions and our reactions to romantic partners -- hence its nickname of 'the love hormone'.

Oxytocin increases prosocial behaviours such as altruism, generosity and empathy; while making us more willing to trust others. The socio-cognitive effects come about by suppressing the action of prefrontal and limbic cortical circuits -- removing the brakes on social inhibitors such as fear, anxiety and stress.

Dr Ian Mitchell, from the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham, explained, "We thought it was an area worth exploring, so we pooled existing research into the effects of both oxytocin and alcohol and were struck by the incredible similarities between the two compounds."


Five ways oxytocin shapes our social interactions

© Psychology Today
New research is finding that oxytocin doesn't just bond us to mothers, lovers, and friends—it also seems to play a role in excluding others from that bond.

It's been called the cuddle hormone, the holiday hormone, the moral molecule, and more—but new research suggests that oxytocin needs some new nicknames. Like maybe the conformity hormone, or perhaps the America-Number-One! molecule.

Where does this many-monikered neuropeptide come from? Scientists first found it in mothers, whose bodies flood with oxytocin during childbirth and breastfeeding—which presumably helps Mom somehow decide that it's better to care for a poopy, colicky infant than to chuck it out the nearest window. And, indeed, one study found a shot of oxytocin more rewarding to rat-mommies than a snort of cocaine. (Don't worry, Dads: You can get some of that oxytocin action, too.)

As time went on, researchers found oxytocin playing a role in all kinds of happy occasions, from social activities (recognizing faces at a party) to more intimate ones (achieving orgasm with someone you met at that party). Lab tests found that oxytocin made people more trusting, more generous, and more gregarious. Thus oxytocin seemed, for a little while, to deserve its glut of touchy-feely nicknames.

In the past few years, however, new research is finding that oxytocin doesn't just bond us to mothers, lovers, and friends—it also seems to play a role in excluding others from that bond. (And perhaps, as one scientist has argued, wanting what other people have.) This just makes oxytocin more interesting—and it points to a fundamental, constantly recurring fact about human beings: Many of the same biological and psychological mechanisms that bond us together can also tear us apart. It all depends on the social and emotional context.

Comment: See also:

The intelligence of self observation and self-awareness


Study of twins finds nature and nurture play equal parts in psychological makeup

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The effect of genetics versus the environment is around 50/50, a new study finds. When it comes to personality, intelligence, health and many other factors, nature and nurture play their part equally.

To reach this conclusion, scientists have reviewed almost every twin study conducted in the last 50 years. The research included data from 14,558,903 pairs of twins, measuring 17,804 individual traits across 2,748 separate publications.

Dr Beben Benyamin, one of the study's authors, said:
"There has still been conjecture over how much variation is caused by genetics and how much is caused by environmental factors — what people call nature versus nurture.

We wanted to resolve that by revisiting almost all the genetic twin studies conducted over the past 50 years, and comparing all of them together.
Dr Benyamin explained the study's results:
"...there is overwhelming evidence that both genetic and environmental factors can influence traits and diseases.

What is comforting is that, on average, about 50 per cent of individual differences are genetic and 50 per cent are environmental.

The findings show that we need to look at ourselves outside of a view of nature versus nurture, and instead look at it as nature and nurture."


Smokers don't vote and mistrust politics

A University of Colorado Cancer Center study published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research shows a new dimension to the marginalization of smokers: people who smoke are less likely to vote than their non-smoking peers.

"One on hand, the result is intuitive. We know from previous research that smokers are an increasingly marginalized population, involved in fewer organizations and activities and with less interpersonal trust than nonsmokers. But what our research suggests is that this marginalization may also extend beyond the interpersonal level to attitudes toward political systems and institutions," says Karen Albright, PhD, assistant professor at the Colorado School of Public Health, and the paper's first author.

The data comes from the Colorado Tobacco Attitudes and Behaviors Study (C-TABS), a questionnaire administered by Arnold Levinson, PhD, investigator at the CU Cancer Center, director of the University Health Smoking Cessation Program, and the paper's senior author.

Through random digit dialing, the study reached 11,626 people who completed a telephone survey querying a range of demographic, social, and behavioral factors. Questions included smoking behaviors and whether the respondent had voted in a recent election. Overall, 17 percent of respondents were smokers. Holding all other variables constant (included variables of socioeconomic status that were strongly associated with smoking), daily smokers were 60 percent less likely to vote than nonsmokers.

The study is the first to link a health-risk behavior with electoral participation, building on the work of a previous Swedish study that found an association between smoking and political mistrust. Voting is a direct behavioral measure of civic and political engagement that at least partly reflects trust in formal political institutions.

Comment: Maybe smokers are just smarter and cannot that easily be hoodwinked by our corrupt political system:

Mr. Potato

Let the kids learn through play

© Bjorn Lie
Twenty years ago, kids in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing: building with blocks, drawing or creating imaginary worlds, in their own heads or with classmates. But increasingly, these activities are being abandoned for the teacher-led, didactic instruction typically used in higher grades. In many schools, formal education now starts at age 4 or 5. Without this early start, the thinking goes, kids risk falling behind in crucial subjects such as reading and math, and may never catch up.

The idea seems obvious: Starting sooner means learning more; the early bird catches the worm.

Comment: For more on how school affects children, see this Sott articles:
We don't need no education: Seven sins of compulsory schooling

Eye 1

Psychopaths and society

© Winnipeg Free Press
After a conventional mid-Western childhood and up through university, my first encounter with a serious mental aberration was in the US Army in Germany when I worked for an Army captain, the likes of whom I had never seen. He was a pathological liar, and repeatedly claimed to be a "tough son-of-a-bitch" or a "mean son-of-a-bitch." The gentleman was erratic and abusive toward lower ranks, was indecisive in action until given direction by higher authority, but maintained a correct attitude toward senior officers who publicly commended him based more on his appearance and speaking ability than on any performance. I seriously thought he must be crazy. Our Colonel, whom had previously spoken highly of the Captain, caught the Captain in a serious operational dishonesty, and it was "Good-bye, Captain!" In the next eleven years I worked for three more very similar personalities in the military and in industry.

Years later in the 1970s there were a series of psychopathic serial murder cases (Ted Bundy, Dean Corll, John Wayne Gacy) but I did not relate my experiences with military officers and industrial mangers to serial murderers. It was not until the 1990s that there were several cases of widely publicized corporate fraud (Bernie Ebbers at WorldCom, Jeff Skilling at Enron) and the perpetrators were identified as corporate psychopaths. This was the type personality that I had observed decades earlier and I now have professional confirmation that I have worked for four different psychopathic-type personalities.

Comment: Chances are you crossed paths with a psychopath today. Check out:


Acceptance of reality is key to ending the suffering of emotional pain

All of us experience pain. This pain might stem from losing a loved one, losing a job, ending a relationship, being in a car accident or undergoing any other kind of trauma or situation.

Pain is inevitable. It is part of being human. Often, however, we add to our pain and create suffering, according to Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, in her book Calming the Emotional Storm: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Manage Your Emotions & Balance Your Life.

In the book, Van Dijk focuses on four sets of skills in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which was developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. Van Dijk shares insights on everything from validating our emotions to being more effective in our lives to getting through a crisis to improving our relationships.

We create suffering by not accepting reality. For instance, we say things like "It's not fair," "Why me?", "This shouldn't have happened" or "I can't bear it!" writes Van Dijk, a mental health therapist in Sharon, Ontario, Canada.

Our instinct is to fight the pain, she writes. Normally, this instinct is protective. But in the cases of pain, it backfires. We might avoid our pain or pretend it isn't present. We might turn to unhealthy behaviors. We might ruminate about our suffering, without doing anything about it. We might turn to substances to forget the pain.

Instead, the key is to accept your reality. "Acceptance simply means that you stop trying to deny your reality and you acknowledge it instead," Van Dijk writes.

Comment: While it is often painful to have the veil of our illusions lifted, we cannot truly move forward or begin the healing process until we acknowledge the reality of the unpleasant situations in which we may find ourselves. Only then can we begin to take necessary steps to open a door to new possibilities.

The Necessity of Disillusionment


Are you a perfectionist? Having high standards can make you antisocial, says study


Study has identified three types of perfectionists, who set high standards and like to be organised and precise - 'self-orientated', 'socially-prescribed' and 'other-orientated'.
Having a perfectionist on your team at work might well be considered a positive when you're striving to do a good job.

But beware - they could have a dark side.

Researchers have found that the type of perfectionist who sets impossibly high standards for others also tends to be narcissistic, antisocial, and more likely to make jokes at the expense of others.

These people, described by psychologists as 'other-oriented' perfectionists, care little about social norms and also struggle with intimacy, the study of 229 people by the University of Kent found.

Evil Rays

Parental anxiety is contagious and can be passed to children

This mental health problem can pass between family members unless precautions are taken.

Anxiety is 'contagious' and can be passed from parents to children and the other way, a new study finds.

The 'catching' nature of anxious thoughts and behaviours exists over and above the effects of genetics.

That's the conclusion of a new study of twins conducted by researchers in the UK.

Professor Thalia Eley, who led the study, said that anxious parents should avoid passing it on to their children through their behaviour:
"Our research shows that even if you have had to cope with high levels of anxiety yourself, it is not inevitable that this will follow in your children.

There are many things that can be done at home to prevent or reduce anxiety in children and adolescents.

Whilst a natural tendency when your child is anxious is to try to protect them, it can be more helpful to support them in taking small age-appropriate risks.

This will teach them that the world is generally a safe place and they can manage situations that initially seem stressful, developing their sense of mastery and in turn promoting resilience."
Anxiety, one of the most common mental health problems, is already well-known to have a strong genetic component.

Comment: There are many ways to alleviate anxiety, and knowing that your behavior affects not only you but those nearby may be an additional motivating factor to try some helpful techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, or improving your diet.

The effects of anxiety on your brain and what you can do to help yourself