Science of the Spirit


Rather than eat sweets empathic rats will save their buddies from drowning

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White lab mice
Rats are once again in the news. About a month and half ago I published an essay called "The Emotional Lives of Rats: Rats Read Pain in Others' Faces" in which I discussed research that showed that rats are able to read the pain that other rats are suffering. This study adds to an ever growing list of research projects showing that rats have evolved rather rich cognitive and emotional capacities including showing regret (please see "Rats Regret What They Didn't Do: Behavioral Neuroscience") and displaying empathy and freeing trapped rats from being restrained (please see "Empathic Rats Free Known Trapped Rats From Being Restrained"). In the latter experiment (please see Ben-Ami Bartal, I., Decety, J., & Mason, P. 2011. Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats. Science(link is external) 334, 1427-1430) the rats would even free other rats rather than selfishly feast on chocolate. In response to these studies I've received comments such as, "Oh really, I didn't know that" and "Wow, who would have thought rats would display empathy for others?" We also know that rats like being tickled (please see "Rats Like Tickling: Why Is the Animal Welfare Act So Lame?") and laugh when being tickled.

Comment: It may be in our biology to care for one another, but we also seem to be biologically inclined to find rats disgusting:
In a recent global survey, Curtis asked people in five places—India, the Netherlands, Britain, the West African country of Burkina Faso, and Athens International Airport—to describe what disgusts them. The results revealed some regional variations: "Lower castes" and "kissing in public" aroused disgust in India, whereas the British were particularly repulsed by dead sparrows and cruelty to horses; politicians and dog saliva revolted the Dutch, while airport travelers named everything from "wet people" to being eaten alive by insects. Yet it was the common threads that intrigued Curtis. Every region considered feces disgusting, while vomit, sweat, spittle, blood, pus, and sexual fluids inspired nearly universal loathing, closely followed by body parts and animals such as pigs, rats, maggots, worms, lice, and flies.
Perhaps only those who can see beyond these biological limits can appreciate a science of animal consciousness, or consciousness at all. Check out:


What are the psychological effects of being in space?

© NASA/Bill Ingalls
Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko left Earth on March 27 to spend a year on the International Space Station for a mission meant to determine how long-term spaceflight affects the human body.
On March 27, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko were launched into space, embarking on a mission at the International Space Station that will assess how a year in zero-gravity affects the human body. Scientists have already established that spending four to six months — the average duration of these expeditions — can cause changes in the eyes, muscle atrophy, and loss of bone density, but what else happens? How does a year isolated in space affect their behavior, their psychology, when cabin fever easily strikes some of us who voluntarily spend a weekend at home?

No human has ever spent a year in space, and because of that, the answer to those questions is still forthcoming. Both Kelly and Kornienko have each spent about six months on their own space missions and returned psychologically unscathed, qualifying them to go on this year-long journey. To become qualified, however, both astronauts were required to undergo rigorous — and somewhat mysterious — mental health training, building on the their innate, strong psychological foundation.

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It's okay to cry your eyes out

"Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do." - C.S. Lewis
Crying is our emotional connection with the world. This simple act is often seen as a weakness when it actually demonstrates the strength in us. It allows us to celebrate the positive and helps us to let go of the negative things in our lives.

There are three types of tears:
  • Continuous tears that keep the surface around the eye moist in order to protect against infection.
  • Reflex tears that flow when something irritates the eye area.
  • Emotional tears that have a different chemical make-up and can be a natural painkiller.

Comment: Why Cry? Evolutionary Biologists Show Crying Can Strengthen Relationships


Craving comfort: Negative emotions lead to eating for the wrong reasons

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So you walk past the snack room at the office and see a delicious piece of chocolate cake that a deviant co-worker brought in to share. At first you walk away, proudly reminding yourself of the steady diet path you have been on. However, only 45 minutes later you're suddenly overcome with the urge to have a piece of that delicious...whatever. Why now? Did you change your mind or your diet goal? Did you decide to self-sabotage? This is the type of psychological gymnastics one does to find an answer, assuming it will help fight the urge. But as you search for clues it feels more and more like a no-win situation, and your frustration grows.

Neuroscience tells us these urges have little to do with craving food and controlling our appetite, and more to do with another type of craving, "comfort." A wonderful feeling, comfort is the result of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in your brain that rewards you with security, confidence, and pleasure. Serotonin is our "well-being" drug. It evolved to tell us that our needs have been met — when we eat something we love, go on a shopping spree, feel adored by others, receive a compliment, or believe we are superior to others. You could say that Hollywood is the epitome of a serotonin junkie.

Comment: Besides the need for comfort, Candida is also related to craving sugary foods. But the sugar addiction wreaks havoc on the mind and body. Check out:


Restoring balance: The art of creating sane relationships

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"I almost missed my whole life."

Perhaps we can accept a definition of insanity, from the individual perspective, as repeating the same behavior and expecting different results. But how might we broach a definition of relational/relationship sanity? If we accept a simple and straightforward definition of sanity as "soundness of mind," could we say that experiencing ourselves as being loving and lovable is a (if not the) relational definition of sanity? Think about it, how could one possibly feel sane—of sound mind, secure—in a relationship sans either feeling loved or lovable?

"Yes," said Jim, "I almost missed the whole thing. A major part of changing my own destructive behavior was working on and practicing being loving, kind and generous to others. I thought that was enough. I never considered how important it might be to allow others to offer these same things to me."

Comment: For more on the difference between healthy vs. pathological relationships, check out:
Mature couples don't "fall in love," they step into it. Love isn't something you fall for; it's something you rise for.

The difference between a mature relationship and an immature relationship


Oxytocin associated with heightened willingness to lie for the benefit of one's group - study

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Oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone," has been associated with a heightened willingness to lie for the benefit of one's group, according to a recent study.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, details the work of researchers from the Ben-Gurion University (BGU) and the University of Amsterdam and focuses on the effects that oxytocin has on ethical decision-making.

Past research has determined that heightened levels of oxytocin in a person leads to more empathy, trust and acceptance (even between a dog and its owner). Recent research has even looked into the application of oxytocin therapy as a means to help people with social anxiety disorders - such as an eating disorder - dwell less on negative social factors and ideas.

This latest research looks into the theory that the hormone encourages greater feelings of association between people, making them more willing to bend or break ethical responsibilities for the sake of their group.

According to the study, the researchers had 20 teams of three male participants take a dose of either oxytocin or a placebo. The teams were then asked to predict the results of a coin toss 10 times and record whether or not they got the answer right. The amount of money each team was rewarded with at the end of the experiment was determined by how many times they predicted the toss correctly.

Comment: In the book, Molecules of Emotion, Candace Pert, Ph.D., shows that our internal chemicals underly our awareness, what we think and what we believe - affecting how we view each other and the world.

See also:


New study finds genes linked to why some people experience emotions more strongly

A proportion of people have greater activation in their brains linked to emotional processing.
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Carriers of a certain genetic variation experience positive and negative emotions more strongly, a new study finds.

The genetic variant is carried by around 50% of Caucasians — although the percentage varies between ethnicities.

The feelings are accompanied by greater activation in regions of the brain linked to emotional processing.

The study may help to explain why some people are particularly susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Professor Rebecca Todd who led the study, said:
"People really do see the world differently.

For people with this gene variation, the emotionally relevant things in the world stand out much more."
The gene is called ADRA2b and it regulates the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.

Comment: Genes predispose some people to focus on the negative

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Situational Awareness - Observe, Orient, Decide, Act

There's a scene at the beginning of The Bourne Identity where the film's protagonist is sitting in a diner, trying to figure out who he is and why he has a bunch of passports and a gun stashed in a safety deposit box. Bourne also notices that he, well, notices things that other people don't

That superhuman ability to observe his surroundings and make detailed assessments about his environment? It's not just a trait of top secret operatives; it's a skill known as situational awareness, and you can possess it too.

Comment: Another view The Myth of Situational Awareness

Bottom line, common sense is a good defense. Look up from your phone and pay attention to what's happening around you.


Violence in media creates symptoms of PTSD despite no real-life exposure to trauma - study

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Many of us turn to social media to keep up with the latest news. It has become an instant source of information, where photos and videos of news events are uploaded almost as soon as they happen. But a new study suggests that when it comes to viewing violent news events via social media, we should be cautious; it can trigger symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Study author Dr. Pam Ramsden, of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Bradford in the UK, and colleagues recently presented their findings at the Annual Conference of the British Psychology Society.

Past studies have found health care workers who help victims of traumatic events or situations may experience "vicarious traumatisation," in which they become psychologically and emotionally affected by victims' suffering.

But for their study, Dr. Ramsden and colleagues wanted to see whether exposure to violent and traumatic events via social media would have a similar effect.

"Social media has enabled violent stories and graphic images to be watched by the public in unedited horrific detail," says Dr. Ramsden. "Watching these events and feeling the anguish of those directly experiencing them may impact on our daily lives."

"In this study we wanted to see if people would experience longer lasting effects such as stress and anxiety, and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSDs) from viewing these images."

Comment: See also:


Excessive technology use causes decreased emotional sensitivity in children

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Researchers suggest children's social skills are declining as they have less time for face-to-face interaction due to their increased use of digital media, according to a UCLA psychology study. Scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.

The study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, studied two groups of sixth-graders from a Southern California public school. One group was sent to the Pali Institute, an outdoor education camp in Running Springs, Calif., where the kids had no access to electronic devices. For the other group, it was life as usual.