Science of the Spirit
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Music

Different notes for different folks: How music makes the brain happy

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© Snowbrains.com
I still remember when I first heard the song by Peter Gabriel, "Solsbury Hill." Something about that song - the lyrics, the melody, the unusual 7/4 time signature - gave me chills. Even now, years later, it still can make me cry.

Who among us doesn't have a similar story about a song that touched us? Whether attending a concert, listening to the radio, or singing in the shower, there's something about music that can fill us with emotion, from joy to sadness.

Music impacts us in ways that other sounds don't, and for years now, scientists have been wondering why. Now they are finally beginning to find some answers. Using fMRI technology, they're discovering why music can inspire such strong feelings and bind us so tightly to other people.

"Music affects deep emotional centers in the brain, " says Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at McGill University who studies the brain on music. "A single sound tone is not really pleasurable in itself; but if these sounds are organized over time in some sort of arrangement, it's amazingly powerful."

How music makes the brain happy

How powerful? In one of her studies, she and her colleagues hooked up participants to an fMRI machine and recorded their brain activity as they listened to a favorite piece of music. During peak emotional moments in the songs identified by the listeners, dopamine was released in the nucleus accumbens, a structure deep within the older part of our human brain.

"That's a big deal, because dopamine is released with biological rewards, like eating and sex, for example," says Salimpoor. "It's also released with drugs that are very powerful and addictive, like cocaine or amphetamines."

There's another part of the brain that seeps dopamine, specifically just before those peak emotional moments in a song: the caudate nucleus, which is involved in the anticipation of pleasure. Presumably, the anticipatory pleasure comes from familiarity with the song - you have a memory of the song you enjoyed in the past embedded in your brain, and you anticipate the high points that are coming. This pairing of anticipation and pleasure is a potent combination, one that suggests we are biologically-driven to listen to music we like.

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See also: Singing together encourages social bonding


Hearts

Addiction rooted more in social isolation than chemical dependency

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It is now one hundred years since drugs were first banned - and all through this long century of waging war on drugs, we have been told a story about addiction, by our teachers, and by our governments. This story is so deeply ingrained in our minds that we take it for granted. It seems obvious. It seems manifestly true. Until I set off three and a half years ago on a 30,000-mile journey for my book 'Chasing The Scream - The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs' to figure out what is really driving the drug war, I believed it too. But what I learned on the road is that almost everything we have been told about addiction is wrong - and there is a very different story waiting for us, if only we are ready to hear it.

If we truly absorb this new story, we will have to change a lot more than the drug war. We will have to change ourselves.

Comment: If the root of addiction lies with a lack of meaningful social connection, then it's both sad and ironic to see addiction so rampant in an age of social media that supposedly helps to keep us all more connected. Perhaps this would explain why a third of Americans would give up sex for their cell phone? Too much time and many friends on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram may be keeping people from developing the social skills necessary to have meaningful friendships and lasting relationships.


Bulb

Expectation is important: Seeing is not always remembering

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People may have to "turn on" their memories in order to remember even the simplest details of an experience, according to Penn State psychologists. This finding, which has been named "attribute amnesia," indicates that memory is far more selective than previously thought.

"It is commonly believed that you will remember specific details about the things you're attending to, but our experiments show that this is not necessarily true," said Brad Wyble, assistant professor of psychology. "We found that in some cases, people have trouble remembering even very simple pieces of information when they do not expect to have to remember them."

2 + 2 = 4

Men and women process emotions differently

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© MCN, University of Basel
Red and yellow indicates the more active areas of the brain when images are rated as highly stimulating. Green indicates the areas that specifically become more active in women.
Women rate emotional images as more emotionally stimulating than men do and are more likely to remember them. However, there are no gender-related differences in emotional appraisal as far as neutral images are concerned. These were the findings of a large-scale study by a research team at the University of Basel that focused on determining the gender-dependent relationship between emotions, memory performance and brain activity. The results will be published in the latest issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Comment: Men and Women May Respond Differently to Danger, Study Finds


Eye 1

How psychopaths see sex and why

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By definition, the psychopath doesn't have successful relationships. Actually, the truth is more about capacity than quality. With the psychopath, there is an absence of emotional connection and true empathetic feeling. The psychopath simply isn't capable of trusting and depending on another individual. To sit with them and assess them as I have in forensic settings, it's as if you're talking with someone who's part-human, part-ice. Though they engage in sex and relationships, their experience of sex is vastly different from their non-psychopathic peers.

First, let's quickly review the most disturbing traits of the psychopath. According to the Antisocial Personality Questionnaire (Blackburn & Fawcett, 1999), primary psychopathy is characterized by hostility, extraversion, self-confidence, impulsivity, aggression, and mild to moderate anxiety. Though the psychopath may commit illegal crimes, a psychopath can go through life wreaking harm on others and yet never commit an actual crime. The traits of the psychopath are deeply troubling when applied to sex and relationships.

Cult

Why the Dalai Lama is wrong to think meditation will eliminate violence

© Unknown
This quote by the Dalai Lama is going viral on the internet, "If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation." Marianne Williamson shared this quote via her Facebook account and it received a tremendous reception. Google the quote and you will find tens of thousands of web sites, Facebook pages and twitter feeds where it has appeared. Needless to say, the enthusiasm over the Dalai Lama's statement is profound. It has struck a cord for sure.

His words reflect the more widespread belief that spiritual practices can provide grounding for more ethical and wise action. One could substitute meditation in the quote with yoga, prayer, chanting or sacred dancing and people would generally agree that these types of things will inspire compassion, kindness and generosity. Through meditation one can hopefully gain a better realization of the interconnectedness of all things. Many believe, or at least hope, like the Dalai Lama, that this renewed sense of awareness will inspire us to take action against injustice in the world.

While for much of my life I've also shared this popular sentiment I've now come to see it much differently. Based on years of research and writing as well as personal practice of yoga, meditation and Chi Kung I've discovered some very strong flaws in the Dalai Lama's argument. Furthermore, I actually see these types of statements are very irresponsible as they mislead the public about the causes and solutions to violence. The real conversations about these very challenging issues that need to take place could potentially be minimized by these types of statements.

Boat

Transforming trauma into recovery

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With unusual honesty, Barry Lessin highlights the indefatigable work and refusal to submit to multiple frustrations and setbacks that is often required in psychotherapy with challenging clients. He describes how his long-term work with a woman whose history of severe sexual, physical and emotional abuse leads to hope and healing in a larger family context. This piece lays bare the complexity of mental health and addiction work, allowing old wounds to heal in a atmosphere of trust and safety. -Richard Juman


Each person's path to recovery is unique. Because the possible combinations of life history, pre-morbid personality and substance misuse are practically infinite, my work as an addiction psychologist is always intriguing. I look forward to each opportunity to share in my clients' journeys.

By the time people see me for consultations about their substance-using family member, they're generally feeling pretty battered and bruised. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness often aren't far behind, but the very fact that they present for treatment indicates that they still believe that change can happen. That part of the family psyche is my ally in treatment, the aspect that I rely on to help me move the family forward to a new way of responding to problems and, ultimately, a new paradigm for operating as a system. Here, things get even more complicated when a woman's history of trauma and substance misuse have multiple ramifications on the work that we do as a family around her son's substance misuse.

Books

Sad prospect for Finland's kids: Typing takes over as handwriting lessons end

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© AFP
Finnish students will no longer be taught handwriting at school, with typing lessons taking its place, it's reported.

Learning joined-up writing, often in fountain pen in the UK, is almost a rite of passage for primary school students. But Finland is moving into the digital age by ditching the ink in favour of keyboards, the Savon Sanomat newspaper reports. From autumn 2016, students won't have to learn cursive handwriting or calligraphy, but will instead be taught typing skills, the report says. "Fluent typing skills are an important national competence," says Minna Harmanen from the National Board of Education. The switch will be a major cultural change, Ms Harmanen says, but typing is more relevant to everyday life.

Comment: Another unfortunate sign of ongoing degradation of creative and critical thinking faculties among the world population. Handwriting is one of the most important skills that any child should have a proper grasp on. Read the following articles to learn more:


Handcuffs

Total recall? People can be convinced they perpetrated a crime that never happened

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© iStock
Evidence from some wrongful-conviction cases suggests that suspects can be questioned in ways that lead them to falsely believe in and confess to committing crimes they didn't actually commit. New research provides lab-based evidence for this phenomenon, showing that innocent adult participants can be convinced, over the course of a few hours, that they had perpetrated crimes as serious as assault with a weapon in their teenage years.

The research, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, indicates that the participants came to internalize the stories they were told, providing rich and detailed descriptions of events that never actually took place.

"Our findings show that false memories of committing crime with police contact can be surprisingly easy to generate, and can have all the same kinds of complex details as real memories," says psychological scientist and lead researcher Julia Shaw of the University of Bedfordshire in the UK.

"All participants need to generate a richly detailed false memory is 3 hours in a friendly interview environment, where the interviewer introduces a few wrong details and uses poor memory-retrieval techniques."

Comment: This is a well-known phenomenon that now has been proven in a lab environment. But the ramifications go much further: It also applies to witnesses of crimes, which can be influenced to arrive at testimonies that are entirely fabricated.


Toys

Don't be a helicopter parent! Autonomous tots have higher cognitive skills

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© TheOtherNate
Researchers look at how mothers support their babies' autonomy and the effect on executive functioning.

This news release is available in French.

Higher cognitive skills are found in the children of mothers who are consistently able to support the development of their baby's sense of autonomy, according to a study led by researchers at the University of Montreal. The researchers specifically looked at executive functioning, which refers to a range of cognitive processes that are essential for cognitive, social and psychological functioning. "We have shown that the child's executive functioning is linked to the mother's ability to support his or her autonomy.

Autonomy support includes things such as teaching children problem solving skills and involves taking the child's perspective while ensuring he or she takes an active role in completing tasks," said Célia Matte-Gagné, who led the study. "Importantly, the study shows that it's not just about getting off to a good start. While many studies have confirmed that a mother's support are critical, few have looked at how these skills might change over time and what effect that might have."