Science of the Spirit


Authoritarians! New study shows that nice people are more likely to cause harm to others

good vs evil
Personality type was found to predict obedience in a study that asked the subjects to administer painful electric shocks to others, and the nice people were more likely to do as they were told. Those who scored as Conscientious and Agreeable on a personality test (specifically the Big Five Mini-Markers questionnaire) were more likely to be willing to administer higher-intensity electric shocks to an innocent victim.

This study was an extension of a previous famous study, called the Milgram study, in which subjects were tested on their willingness to obey an authority figure. In the original Milgram study of 1961 the experiment tested how far someone would go in obeying an order to give another person (an actor that faked feeling pain) a painful electric shock. In the experiment, someone played the part of being a teacher who asked the subjects questions. With each "wrong" answer, the subject was told to shock the actor who then screamed as if in pain. A shock of 450 volts is very painful and can cause death, however, 65 percent of the subjects in the Milgram study were willing to administer this level of electric shock despite the fact that it made the person receiving the shock scream as if he was feeling intense pain.

Comment: Comment:

Being nice to everyone is weakness. The problem may lie in social pressure to "be nice" and the so-called "be nice program" we see all around us. Why not try something like "be good", or even better, "be awesome."


Is the internet making us stupid?

© Thinkstock
A new study has found spending hours glued to a computer screen had a negative impact on cognition.
Reading online could be making us dumber, a University of Victoria study has found.

The study of offline and online reading behaviour found spending hours glued to a computer screen had a negative impact on cognition, concentration, comprehension, absorption and recall rates.

People were reading more text than ever, but retaining less of it.

Victoria's School of Information Management's Dr Val Hooper said people today almost expected to be interrupted when using their computers.

"Multitasking when reading online was common, with activities such as reading emails, checking news, exploring hyperlinks and viewing video clips providing distractions, which could have something to do with it."

While readers were churning through more content online, they were much more likely to be skim reading and scanning than absorbing anything of substance.

How your brain deals with a breakup

couple painting
© unknown
The thing about breaking up is that it's way less fun than falling in love. It's kind of like jumping into a pile of hot garbage. It's also like trying to kick a cocaine habit.

I should know. About two months ago, the girl that I loved like a maniac was totally driving me crazy (not that I was making her feel particularly sane), so we decided that the year-long rollercoaster of strife-ridden romance we had (mostly) enjoyed had come to its final stop. As twentysomething New York transplants with poor relationship models do, we broke up.

The resulting withdrawal? In a word: awful.

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Sex and drug addiction linked in the brain

Sex & Drug Addiction
© solarseven/
People with so-called "sex addictions" may have patterns of brain activity similar to those of people with drug addictions, a new study finds.

When people in the study who reported compulsive sexual behavior watched pornography, they experienced heightened brain activity in the same regions where activity is heightened during drug use in people with drug addiction.

The study provides evidence in the fierce debate over whether compulsive sexual behavior - also known as hypersexuality - should be considered a true mental-health disorder, and be included in the DSM-5, the American Psychological Association's handbook of mental-health disorders.

"There's a large literature that developed over the past three or four decades of how individuals respond to drug abuse, and we wanted to examine within that framework whether we see similarities and differences [to compulsive sexual behavior]," said Dr. Marc Potenza, a psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine who co-authored the new study. Although people with sexual compulsive behavior have shown behaviors similar to those of people with drug addiction, the researchers hoped to find similarities in brain activity as well.

Potenza and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom showed sexually explicit content, such as pornographic videos, to two groups of people - one group of people who reported compulsive sexual behavior and another group who didn't have such compulsions - and took magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) images of their brain activity. The goal was to see how their brains responded to sexual and nonsexual cues, Potenza said.

Amputee Stephen Sumner cures phantom limb pain with mirrors

mirror therapy
© Matt Wilson/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Mirror therapy can heal phantom limb pain experienced by amputees.
One of the few Khmer words Stephen Sumner knows is chhue. It means 'pain', and it's something Cambodian people know a lot about from their three-decade-long civil war. Stephen, 53, is a brawny Canadian with an ebullient, even boisterous, manner. This is his third time here in as many years. He rides around on a longtail bicycle with a stack of lightweight mirrors behind the saddle, going to villages, hospitals and physical rehabilitation centres looking for people who have lost their limbs.

Just as the pain of war lingers long after it is over, so an amputee can still feel pain in parts of a limb no longer attached to their body; a foot or a hand that they no longer own. It can be harrowing and difficult to treat with medication or surgery. Stephen helps people deal with their phantom pain, and he does it with mirrors.

We're in Spean Tomneap village in the Battambang province of north-western Cambodia - the most heavily land-mined region in one of the most heavily land-mined countries of the world. In Cambodia, landmines and unexploded ordnance killed around 20,000 people and injured 44,000 more between 1979 and 2011. Despite public information drives and de-mining programmes, it is still not unheard of for farmers to step on anti-personnel mines in the fields.

We've driven up along a mud road lined by fields and houses surrounded by tangled greenery. Stephen is perched on the landing near the staircase of a weathered wooden house on stilts. Chickens scurry about. A few onlookers gather.

Cracking the code of how the brain processes emotions

Brain and emotions
© Cornell University
Feelings are personal and subjective, just like all of psychology, but the human brain turns them into a standard code that objectively represents emotions across different senses, situations and even people, according to a new paper.

The authors set out to gain insight into how the brain represents our innermost feelings - what they call the last frontier of neuroscience - and upend the long-held view that emotion is represented in the brain simply by activation in specialized regions for positive or negative feelings.

"We discovered that fine-grained patterns of neural activity within the orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with emotional processing, act as a neural code which captures an individual's subjective feeling," says senior author Adam Anderson, associate professor of human development in Cornell University's College of Human Ecology.

"If you and I derive similar pleasure from sipping a fine wine or watching the sun set, our results suggest it is because we share similar fine-grained patterns of activity in the orbitofrontal cortex." Anderson says.

For the study, the researchers presented participants with a series of pictures and tastes during functional neuroimaging, then analyzed participants' ratings of their subjective experiences along with their brain activation patterns.

US military developing brain implants to restore memory

Restoring Active Memory program
DARPA's Restoring Active Memory program aims to bridge memory gaps in veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury and others.
The U.S. military has chosen two universities to lead a program to develop brain implants to restore memory to veterans who have suffered brain injuries, officials said at a news conference yesterday (July 8).

The Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program is a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the branch of the U.S. Department of Defense charged with developing next-generation technologies for the military. The initiative aims to develop wireless, fully implantable "neuroprosthetics" for service members suffering from traumatic brain injury or illness, DARPA Program Manager Justin Sanchez said at the news conference.

DARPA has selected two teams of researchers to develop the implants: The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.

Research shows children of same-sex couples physically and emotionally healthier than peers

Karine Hallier and her girlfriend Elodie Lucas pose walking with their children on Novembre 1, 2012 at their home in Nantes, western France. The couple had two children by artificial insemination and militate for the rights to same-sex parenting.
Children of same-sex couples fare better when it comes to physical health and social well-being than children in the general population, according to researchers at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

"It's often suggested that children with same-sex parents have poorer outcomes because they're missing a parent of a particular sex. But research my colleagues and I published in the journal BMC Public Health shows this isn't the case," lead researcher Simon Crouch wrote on the Conversation.

Crouch and his team surveyed 315 same-sex parents with a total of 500 children across Australia. About 80 percent of the kids had female parents and about 18 percent had male parents, the study states.

Children from same-sex families scored about 6 percent higher on general health and family cohesion, even when controlling for socio-demographic factors such as parents' education and household income, Crouch wrote. However, on most health measures, including emotional behavior and physical functioning, there was no difference compared with children from the general population.
2 + 2 = 4

Sleep deprivation leads to schizophrenia symptoms

sleep deprivation schizophrenia
© Volker Lannert/University of Bonn
Dr. Nadine Petrovsky and Professor Dr. Ulrich Ettinger from the Institute of Psychology of the University of Bonn measure the filtering function of the brain in a test subject (center) using the prepulse inhibition.
Psychologists at the University of Bonn are amazed by the severe deficits caused by a sleepless night.

Twenty-four hours of sleep deprivation can lead to conditions in healthy persons similar to the symptoms of schizophrenia. This discovery was made by an international team of researchers under the guidance of the University of Bonn and King's College London. The scientists point out that this effect should be investigated more closely in persons who have to work at night. In addition, sleep deprivation may serve as a model system for the development of drugs to treat psychosis. The results have now been published in "The Journal of Neuroscience".

In psychosis, there is a loss of contact with reality and this is associated with hallucinations and delusions. The chronic form is referred to as schizophrenia, which likewise involves thought disorders and misperceptions. Affected persons report that they hear voices, for example. Psychoses rank among the most severe mental illnesses. An international team of researchers under the guidance of the University of Bonn has now found out that after 24 hours of sleep deprivation in healthy patients, numerous symptoms were noted which are otherwise typically attributed to psychosis or schizophrenia.

Comment: Journal reference: N. Petrovsky, U. Ettinger, A. Hill, L. Frenzel, I. Meyhofer, M. Wagner, J. Backhaus, V. Kumari. Sleep Deprivation Disrupts Prepulse Inhibition and Induces Psychosis-Like Symptoms in Healthy Humans. Journal of Neuroscience, 2014; 34 (27): 9134 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0904-14.2014

Light Sabers

Excessive gaming linked to visual distortions in real life

© Shutterstock
A great video game, like any worthwhile piece of art, will stick with you. When you're playing it, nothing can pull you away; when you're not playing it, you can't think about anything else. The game will embed itself in your subconscious, so much so that you'll start to have literal visions of it: Gems on a Guitar Hero note highway scroll by your eyes as you listen to music; a Mass Effect dialogue wheel pops up during a conversation with a friend; while driving, you imagine running over pedestrians à la Grand Theft Auto.

Some people know this as the "Tetris effect," but regardless of familiarity, many find the episodes startling and even frightening. Did I just see what I think I saw? Is this normal? Am I in too deep? Should I see a doctor?

Comment: For more on the effects of gaming on the brain see: Brains of Excessive Gamers Similar to Addicts