Science of the Spirit

Snakes in Suits

New study reveals: Power can corrupt even the honest

When appointing a new leader, selectors base their choice on several factors and typically look for leaders with desirable characteristics such as honesty and trustworthiness. However once leaders are in power, can we trust them to exercise it in a prosocial manner?

New research published in The Leadership Quarterly looked to discover whether power corrupts leaders. Study author John Antonakis and his colleagues from the University of Lausanne explain, "We looked to examine what Lord Acton said over 100 years ago, that 'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'"

To investigate this the authors used experimental methods to distinguish between the situational and individual component; and determine if power corrupts or if corrupt individuals are drawn to power.

Comment: No discussion about 'leaders in power' would be complete without an understanding of the vital issue of psychopathy.

To understand the ramifications of psychopaths wielding power in society, check out the book "Political Ponerology".

"Political Ponerology is a study of the founders and supporters of oppressive political regimes. Lobaczewski's approach analyzes the common factors that lead to the propagation of man's inhumanity to man. Morality and humanism cannot long withstand the predations of this evil. Knowledge of its nature and its insidious effect on both individuals and groups - is the only antidote."

Black Cat 2

Study suggests neurobiological basis of human-pet relationship

fMRI identifies differences in response of mothers' brains to images of their child and their dog
It has become common for people who have pets to refer to themselves as "pet parents," but how closely does the relationship between people and their non-human companions mirror the parent-child relationship? A small study from a group of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers makes a contribution to answering this complex question by investigating differences in how important brain structures are activated when women view images of their children and of their own dogs. Their report is being published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

"Pets hold a special place in many people's hearts and lives, and there is compelling evidence from clinical and laboratory studies that interacting with pets can be beneficial to the physical, social and emotional wellbeing of humans," says Lori Palley, DVM, of the MGH Center for Comparative Medicine, co-lead author of the report. "Several previous studies have found that levels of neurohormones like oxytocin - which is involved in pair-bonding and maternal attachment - rise after interaction with pets, and new brain imaging technologies are helping us begin to understand the neurobiological basis of the relationship, which is exciting."

Social networks can strengthen knowledge-sharing

Contrary to the notion that social networks are time-wasters, they could improve project management and the spread of specialized knowledge in the healthcare sector and possibly other large organizations.
Contrary to the notion that social networks are time-wasters, they could improve project management and the spread of specialized knowledge in the healthcare sector and possibly other large organizations, according to new research from Missouri University of Science and Technology.

In their analysis of how information is shared on social networks, three Missouri S&T researchers explain how the creation of a specialized network could improve the way information is shared via web-based knowledge management systems (KMS). Many large organizations use knowledge management systems to capture, retain and communicate project results and staff knowledge. Such systems can also prevent knowledge drain and provide training as "lessons learned" following specific occurrences and the resolution of particular problems the staff face, the Missouri S&T researchers say.

In their paper titled "Improving Knowledge Sharing in Healthcare Through Social Network Analysis," published recently in the International Journal of Collaborative Enterprise, Drs. Elizabeth Cudney, Steven Corns and Suzanna Long of Missouri S&T's engineering management and systems engineering department examine a process for creating a social network to improve information- and knowledge-sharing for a large healthcare organization.
People 2

Social relationships, not individual achievements touch people's lives the most

When you look back over your life, which moments have given you the most pain - and which the most pleasure?

Some might guess it's individual achievements, like getting a promotion, or individual failures, like failing an exam.

In fact, research suggests that it's the highs and lows of social relationships that provide the highest highs and lowest lows that people experience across their lives.

Comment: Since our relationships with others form such an important part of our lives, being able to form intimate and meaningful relationships becomes of paramount importance. Engaging the vagus nerve is one of the best ways to help improve social communication and bonding. Vagus nerve stimulation releases hormones such as prolactin, vasopressin and oxytocin. These are anti-stress and social-bonding hormones. Oxytocin is known as the 'cuddle hormone', so it is no wonder that the vagus nerve has been called the 'nerve of compassion'. In fact, the vagus nerve is intertwined with neural networks involved in pro-social and empathetic communication, involving muscle groups that are related in care-taking. Oxytocin is intimately involved in the experience of trust and love.

The breathing and meditation techniques of the Éiriú Eolas program are geared towards stimulating the vagus nerve. You can get a copy of the program at, but you can also find an online version there where you can learn the techniques.


Pain words stand out more for those experiencing it

© geralt
Ache, agony, distress and pain draw more attention than non-pain related words when it comes to people who suffer from chronic pain, a York University research using state-of-the-art eye-tracking technology has found.

"People suffering from chronic pain pay more frequent and longer attention to pain-related words than individuals who are pain-free," says Samantha Fashler, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Health and the lead author of the study. "Our eye movements -- the things we look at -- generally reflect what we attend to, and knowing how and what people pay attention to can be helpful in determining who develops chronic pain."

Chronic pain currently affects about 20 per cent of the population in Canada.

The current study, "More than meets the eye: visual attention biases in individuals reporting chronic pain," published in the Journal of Pain Research, incorporated an eye-tracker, which is a more sophisticated measuring tool to test reaction time than the previously used dot-probe task in similar studies.

Curiosity puts brain in state to learn

Child's curiosity
© DNHanlon/iStockphoto
Tapping into a child's curiosity may trigger the brain's reward centre to help them learn.
Being curious fires up the brain's reward circuits, enhancing your ability to learn, MRI scans reveal.

The finding, reported in the journal Neuron, provides the first scientific evidence to help explain why it is easier learn about something that you're interested in, than if you're bored stiff.

Importantly, it seems that the enhanced learning ability is not limited to the thing that excites your curiosity: the curious state enables you to better learn about unrelated things too, says study co-author Professor Charan Ranganath of the University of California, Davis.

"Our results suggest that when people are in a state of curiosity it induces a motivational state and that actually helps you suck in other information as well," he says.

The researchers say their findings could point to ways to enhance learning in the classroom and may help understand memory problems in elderly people.

The study looked at 19 university students aged between 18 and 31. The students were asked trivia questions. When they didn't know the answer, they were asked to rate how curious they were about the answer on a scale from 1 to 6.

Sense of invalidation uniquely risky for troubled teens

A study of 99 teens hospitalized out of concern about suicide risk found that a high perception of family invalidation -- or lack of acceptance -- predicted future suicide events among boys, and peer invalidation predicted future self harm, such as cutting, among the teens in general.
Among the negative feelings that can plague a teen's psyche is a perception of "invalidation," or a lack of acceptance. A new study by Brown University and Butler Hospital researchers suggests that independent of other known risk factors, measuring teens' sense of invalidation by family members or peers can help predict whether they will try to harm themselves or even attempt suicide.

In some cases, as with peers, that sense of invalidation could come from being bullied, but it could also be more subtle. In the case of family, for example, a teen who is gay may feel a strong degree of invalidation if he or she perceives that parents would either disapprove or be disappointed upon finding out, said study lead author Shirley Yen, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior in the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

For the study, which appears online in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, Yen and her colleagues followed a group of 99 teens, each admitted to a psychiatric facility because they had tried to kill themselves or presented a serious risk of doing so, for six months of follow-up. Along the way they assessed the teens' sense of family and peer invalidation as well as other demographic and psychiatric data. They also tracked whether the teens (or their parents) reported new suicide attempts or related events by the teen, or whether the teen was engaging in cutting or other forms of self-harm.
Magic Wand

Nature walks improve mental well-being, lower stress and depression

forest lake in summer
© Axel-D
Taking group walks in nature is associated with better mental well-being and lower stress and depression, a new large-scale study finds.

The study is one of the first to show that simply walking in nature doesn't just benefit the body, but also the mind.

Sara Warber, one of the study's authors, said:
"We hear people say they feel better after a walk or going outside but there haven't been many studies of this large size to support the conclusion that these behaviors actually improve your mental health and well-being."

Comment: See also:


Judgment and decision-making: Brain activity indicates there is more than meets the eye

Brain monitoring
© The Melbourne Newsroom
People make immediate judgments about images they are shown, which could impact on their decisions, even before their brains have had time to consciously process the information, a study of brainwaves led by The University Of Melbourne has found.

Published today in PLOS ONE, the study is the first in the world to show that it is possible to predict abstract judgments from brain waves, even though people were not conscious of making such judgments. The study also increases our understanding of impulsive behaviours and how to regulate it. 

It found that researchers could predict from participants' brain activity how exciting they found a particular image to be, and whether a particular image made them think more about the future or the present. This is true even though the brain activity was recorded before participants knew they were going to be asked to make these judgments.

Lead authors Dr Stefan Bode from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences and Dr Carsten Murawski from the University of Melbourne Department of Finance said these findings illustrated there was more information encoded in brain activity than previously assumed.


Neurons form perception based on what we tell them to see

© Unknown
Neurons programmed to fire at specific faces - such as the famously reported "Jennifer Aniston neuron" - may be more in line with the conscious recognition of faces than the actual images seen. Subjects presented with a blended face, such as an amalgamation of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, had significantly more firing of such face-specific neurons when they recognized the blended or morphed face as one person or the other. Results of the study led by Christof Koch at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and carried out by neuroscientists Rodrigo Quian Quiroga at the University of Leicester, Alexander Kraskov at University College London and Florian Mormann at the University of Bonn, under the clinical supervision of the neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical School, are published online today in the journal Neuron.

Some neurons in the region of the brain known as the medial temporal lobe are observed to be extremely selective in the stimuli to which they respond. A cell may only fire in response to different pictures of a particular person who is very familiar to the subject (such as loved one or a celebrity), the person's written or spoken name, or simply recalling the person from memory.

"These highly specific cells are an entry point to investigate how the brain makes meaning out of visual information," explains Christof Koch, Chief Scientific Officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and senior author on the paper. "We wanted to know how these cells responded not just to a simple image of a person's face, but to a more ambiguous image of that face averaged or morphed with another person's face."

Comment: The field of cognitive science has provided much work in recent years on the subjective and mechanical nature of our minds. Reader's may wish to check out our forum threads on The Adaptive Unconscious and Thinking, Fast And Slow, which cover the unconscious mechanisms at work and how we might overcome them.

Interested readers may also want to see this related article:
Brain cells in amygdala make judgments based on a viewer's subjective opinions instead of true emotion expressed