Science of the Spirit


How Neuroscientists and Magicians Are Conjuring Brain Insights

© Flip Phillips
Apollo Robbins (right) in action removing the wristwatch of Mariette DiChristina.
"I see you have a watch with a buckle." Standing at my side, Apollo Robbins held my wrist lightly as he turned my hand over and back.

I knew exactly what was coming but I fell for it anyway. "Yes," I said, trying to keep an eye on him, "that looks pretty easy for you to take off, but my rings would be harder." He agreed, politely, while looking down at my hands and then up into my eyes: "Which one do you think would be hardest to remove?"

While I considered the answer, he had already removed my watch and put it on his own wrist behind his back, unseen. He isn't called the "The Gentleman Thief" for nothing.

Robbins had just skillfully managed my attentional spotlight - that is, the focus of awareness at any given moment. To conceal his pilfering, Robbins had employed what is generally called "misdirection": he got me to attend to the wrong things, added to my brain's cognitive load with his humorous patter, created a distracting internal dialogue in me by giving me a question to answer, and generally flummoxed me all the while by pressing here and there on a shoulder or wrist. Adding insult to injury, Robbins had just described what he does - and shown his techniques while swiftly lifting another watch and emptying the pockets of the amiable Flip Phillips of Skidmore College. Still, I never stood a chance. My response to being fooled so easily? I laughed out loud. (Watch Robbins work in this Scientific American video, "Magic and Science Together Again at Last" and learn more in this blog post.)

Sexy Women in Ads Seen as Objects

Woman Running
© Shutterstock
When men and women look at sexy ads depicting women in their underwear, their brains process them as objects, not people, a new study suggests. Interestingly, men and women see men in their underwear as people.

This reaction, called sexual objectification, has been well studied, but most of the research is about looking at the effects of this objectification. The new study, published in the May 2012 issue of the journal Psychological Science, gets a grip on what humans actually do objectify - and finds that both men and women view images of sexy women's (but not men's) bodies as objects.

"What's unclear is, we don't actually know whether people at a basic level recognize sexualized females or sexualized males as objects," study researcher Philippe Bernard, of the Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, said in a statement. "What is motivating this study is to understand to what extent people are perceiving these [images] as human or not."

Psychological research has worked out that our brains see people and objects in different ways. For example, while we're good at recognizing a whole face, but just part of a face is a bit baffling. On the other hand, recognizing part of a chair is just as easy as recognizing a whole chair.
Arrow Up

Why Women Choose Bad Boys

© Dreamstime
Women choose bad boys because their hormones make them, new research suggests. When ovulating a woman's hormones influence who she sees as good potential fathers, and they specifically pick sexier men over obviously more dependable men.

"Previous research has shown in the week near ovulation women become attracted to sexy, rebellious and handsome men like George Clooney or James Bond," study researcher Kristina Durante, of The University of Texas at San Antonio, said in a statement.

"But until now it was unclear why women would ever think it's wise to pursue long-term relationships with these kinds of men."

The study was published today, May 14, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers had women view online dating profiles of either a sexy man or a reliable man during periods of both high and low fertility. Participants were asked to indicate the expected paternal contribution from the men if they had a child together based on how helpful the man would be caring for the baby, shopping for food, cooking and contributing to household chores. Near ovulation women thought that the sexy man would contribute more to these domestic duties.
Heart - Black

Understanding Psychopathic and Sadistic Minds

Hannibal Lecter
© Phil Bray / MGM Pictures / Universal Pictures / Getty Images
The fictional character Hannibal Lecter
Psychopathic serial killers are a source of infinite public fascination. If best-selling novels, hit TV series and popular films are any indication, you'd think real-life Hannibal Lecters were constantly running amok in the U.S. Thankfully, such offenders are far less prevalent in reality than they are in entertainment - but the disproportionate damage done by violent and even nonviolent psychopaths not surprisingly attracts intense scientific interest as well. On May 11, in fact, the New York Times explored whether psychopaths can be diagnosed as young as age 9.

Another way to figure out what makes the psychopath tick is to contrast him - and they are overwhelmingly male - with other abnormal personalities. In a recent study led by Jean Decety, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago, researchers looked at a personality trait often confused with psychopathy: sexual sadism.
Magic Wand

'Blindness may rapidly enhance other senses'

© Thinkstock/Imagebank
While this theory is widely regarded as being true, there are still many questions about the science behind it.

Can blindness or other forms of visual deprivation really enhance our other senses such as hearing or touch? While this theory is widely regarded as being true, there are still many questions about the science behind it.

New findings from a Canadian research team investigating this link suggest that not only is there a real connection between vision and other senses, but that connection is important to better understand the underlying mechanisms that can quickly trigger sensory changes. This may demystify the true potential of human adaptation and, ultimately, help develop innovative and effective methods for rehabilitation following sensory loss or injury.

François Champoux, director of the University of Montreal's Laboratory of Auditory Neuroscience Research, will present his team's research and findings at the Acoustics 2012 meeting in Hong Kong, May 13-18, a joint meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), Acoustical Society of China, Western Pacific Acoustics Conference, and the Hong Kong Institute of Acoustics.
Black Cat

Can Psychopathy in Children be Cured?

© Elinor Carucci/Redux, for The New York Times
Michael, a 9-year-old whose periodic rages alternate with moments of chilly detachment, with his mother, Anne.
One day last summer, Anne and her husband, Miguel, took their 9-year-old son, Michael, to a Florida elementary school for the first day of what the family chose to call "summer camp." For years, Anne and Miguel have struggled to understand their eldest son, an elegant boy with high-planed cheeks, wide eyes and curly light brown hair, whose periodic rages alternate with moments of chilly detachment. Michael's eight-week program was, in reality, a highly structured psychological study - less summer camp than camp of last resort.

Michael's problems started, according to his mother, around age 3, shortly after his brother Allan was born. At the time, she said, Michael was mostly just acting "like a brat," but his behavior soon escalated to throwing tantrums during which he would scream and shriek inconsolably. These weren't ordinary toddler's fits. "It wasn't, 'I'm tired' or 'I'm frustrated' - the normal things kids do," Anne remembered. "His behavior was really out there. And it would happen for hours and hours each day, no matter what we did." For several years, Michael screamed every time his parents told him to put on his shoes or perform other ordinary tasks, like retrieving one of his toys from the living room. "Going somewhere, staying somewhere - anything would set him off," Miguel said. These furies lasted well beyond toddlerhood. At 8, Michael would still fly into a rage when Anne or Miguel tried to get him ready for school, punching the wall and kicking holes in the door. Left unwatched, he would cut up his trousers with scissors or methodically pull his hair out. He would also vent his anger by slamming the toilet seat down again and again until it broke.

Positive Dissociation, and its Importance: "Losing Yourself" in a Fictional Character Can Affect Your Real Life

© Unknown
When you "lose yourself" inside the world of a fictional character while reading a story, you may actually end up changing your own behavior and thoughts to match that of the character, a new study suggests.

Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own - a phenomenon the researchers call "experience-taking."

They found that, in the right situations, experience-taking may lead to real changes, if only temporary, in the lives of readers.

In one experiment, for example, the researchers found that people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later.

"Experience-taking can be a powerful way to change our behavior and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways," said Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

There are many ways experience-taking can affect readers.

Comment: Considering the above information, check out the following forum thread on Positive Dissociation.


Bipolar Disorder Has Its Upside, Patients Say

Bipolar Disorder
© Andrea Dal Max | Shutterstock
Bipolar disorder is characterized by elation and depression.
The problems that come with bipolar disorder are well-known, however, some people with the condition feel lucky to have it.

In a British study, 10 people with biopolar disorder - a serious mental illness characterized by swings between elation and depression - talked about positive ways the condition had affected their lives.

The participants described an amplifying effect on their own internal experiences, say the researchers in their study published online April 1 in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

For instance, a participant the researchers call Alan (names were changed to protect privacy), said: "It's almost as if it opens up something in the brain that isn't otherwise there, and er I see color much more vividly than I used to. ... So I think that my access to music and art are something for which I'm grateful to bipolar for enhancing. It's almost as it's a magnifying glass that sits between that and myself."

In some cases, participants believed bipolar disorder had helped them achieve goals that would not have otherwise been possible. For Alan, this meant performing in comic theater: "Had it not been for being bipolar, there's no chance I could have done it," he said.

When talking about the relationship between the disorder and a sense of self, only one participant described the mood swings as an illness separate from the self, as something that needed managing.

And most participants clearly viewed their "bipolarness" as a gift for which they felt extremely grateful, write the researchers, led by Fiona Lobban of Spectrum Centre for Mental Health Research at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom.

Brain Represses Bad Words for Bilingual Readers

Dual Language
© Lim Yong Hian, Shutterstock
Mandarin Chinese depends on tones to differentiate word meanings.
Reading a nasty word in a second language may not pack the punch it would in your native tongue, thanks to an unconscious brain quirk that tamps down potentially disturbing emotions, a new study finds.

When reading negative words such as "failure" in their non-native language, bilingual Chinese-English speakers did not show the same brain response as seen when they read neutral words such as "aim."

The finding suggests that the brain can process the meaning of words in the unconscious, while "withholding" information from our conscious minds.

"We devised this experiment to unravel the unconscious interactions between the processing of emotional content and access to the native language system.

We think we've identified, for the first time, the mechanism by which emotion controls fundamental thought processes outside consciousness," study researcher Yanjing Wu, a psychologist at Bangor University in the United Kingdom, said in a statement. "Perhaps this is a process that resembles the mental repression mechanism that people have theorized about but never previously located."

Fighting Learned Helplessness with Self-Compassion

© Unknown
After having worked in a residential treatment facility for abused and neglected girls for 8 years, I observed that the phenomenon of learned helplessness had become an all-to-common denominator for these children. It was very rare that an abused child was placed with us for a single incident of abuse. By the time these children reached our facility, many of them had already been physically or sexually abused numerous times throughout their childhood and adolescence.

Many times these children had been abused not by a single perpetrator but by several different people, including members of their families and outsiders from the community or in their schools, even after they had been removed from danger. One might assume that once children have been delivered from such abuse, they would immediately take advantage of their sanctum by staying away from dangerous situations, choosing more trustworthy friends and safer boyfriends. Yet again and again, these victims of abuse continued to find themselves with partners that would ultimately perpetrate on them or take advantage of them in some way. Once children are taught they have no control in their lives, it is extremely difficult to learn they can ever have it or that they even deserve to have any control at all.

Comment: It's been found that writing excercises can help with changing the way one thinks of themselves. For more information, see this Sott article:

Writing to Heal