Science of the Spirit


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


Signature of aging in brain: Researchers suggest that the brain's 'immunological age' is what counts

© Weizmann Institute of Science
Immunofluorescence microscope image of the choroid plexus. Epithelial cells are in green and chemokine proteins (CXCL10) are in red.
How the brain ages is still largely an open question -- in part because this organ is mostly insulated from direct contact with other systems in the body, including the blood and immune systems. In research that was recently published in Science, Weizmann Institute researchers Prof. Michal Schwartz of the Neurobiology Department and Dr. Ido Amit of Immunology Department found evidence of a unique "signature" that may be the "missing link" between cognitive decline and aging. The scientists believe that this discovery may lead, in the future, to treatments that can slow or reverse cognitive decline in older people.

Until a decade ago, scientific dogma held that the blood-brain barrier prevents the blood-borne immune cells from attacking and destroying brain tissue. Yet in a long series of studies, Schwartz's group had shown that the immune system actually plays an important role both in healing the brain after injury and in maintaining the brain's normal functioning. They have found that this brain-immune interaction occurs across a barrier that is actually a unique interface within the brain's territory.

This interface, known as the choroid plexus, is found in each of the brain's four ventricles, and it separates the blood from the cerebrospinal fluid. Schwartz: "The choroid plexus acts as a 'remote control' for the immune system to affect brain activity. Biochemical 'danger' signals released from the brain are sensed through this interface; in turn, blood-borne immune cells assist by communicating with the choroid plexus.This cross-talk is important for preserving cognitive abilities and promoting the generation of new brain cells."
Green Light

Willpower: Our greatest strength?

Mahatma Ghandi strength and willpower quote
© Unknown
According to cold, hard science, willpower is an unlimited resource. And small habit changes over time can drive big gains in our lives.

Comment: For some of the "cold, hard science" behind the claims in this article, the American Psychological Association has a great multi-part summary of the science behind willpower (with multiple citations) here:

What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control

Willpower is a mind-body response and the active ingredient that allows us to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. Stress is the enemy of willpower, so say the latest findings of neuroscientists, psychologists, and life coaches in the field. Inadvertently, threats of terrorism, economic uncertainty, and work-related anxiety have done their share to hijack current society's self control. Simply put, we're living in a time that requires more willpower than ever when it may be harder to come by. Indulgences soothe us - from the after-work cocktail to the weekend shopping spree to excessive Facebook time or that extravagant piece of New York cheesecake. But opting for immediate gratification and having the universe influence our agenda keep long-term goals outside our grasp.

Comment: The Éiriú Eolas breathing and meditation program is an excellent tool for reducing stress, boosting willpower, and promoting mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Learn it for free here!

Learn more about Meditation and Its Benefits: If you apply the willpower you have to improving your health, increasing self-control, and learning about the world and self, you create a positive feedback loop that may lead to self-mastery.


Scientists discover tinkering with brain's decision circuits make rats go random

© Bob Carey/LATimes
Scientists have found a way to tinker with a brain switch that regulates whether we make choices based on experience or we resort to rolling the dice.

Their study, published online Thursday in the journal Cell, no doubt frustrated the lab rats that were pushed to the limit of their strategic abilities. But the results could offer insights into disorders and diseases that affect attention, memory and cognition.

Researchers managed to tinker with a switch that shifts rats from strategic behavior to random choices. The results could shed light on the cellular level of decision making and offer new insight into neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. (Cell)

"Our brains have evolved to be strategic, so we have evolved to use our past experience to optimize future choice," said lead investigator Alla Y. Karpova, a neuroscientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus in Virginia.

"Against weak competitors, a strategic approach is probably useful, because if you figure out the approach of the opponent, you can actually do better than when you're just random. You can even out-compete them," Karpova said.

But random exploration may be more appropriate to a new situation full of mixed signals, where experience offers no guide. Some part of the brain has to decide how to decide.

Beauty behind the mask

© Casey Baugh
We can't wear masks forever. We can try, but they will crack.

The shells of armor and disguise we use to protect and hide ourselves will eventually shatter, tiny shards of ego crashing around us. The question is: when they do, and you are left bare for all the world to see, will you be brave enough to look yourself in the eye and find out who you really are, or will you chase around your own ghost trying to rebuild what never really was?

"If you pass your night
and merge it with dawn
for the sake of heart,
what do you think will happen?" ~ Rumi


Cognitive behavioral therapy the best treatment for social anxiety disorder

social anxiety

Large study reveals cognitive behavioral treatment most effective for social anxiety disorder
Social anxiety disorder is most commonly treated with antidepressants, but these are not the most effective treatment.

A new study finds that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is more effective and the benefits continue after the initial treatment has finished.

The study, which is published in The Lancet Psychiatry, analysed 101 separate clinical trials, which examined different types of medications and talking therapies for social anxiety disorder (Mayo-Wilson et al., 2014).

The disorder is thought to affect around 1 in 8 people, and is more than just being shy.

Comment: Meditation is another way to help with anxiety, and the Éiriú Eolas technique is particularly helpful as it stimulates the vagus nerve which naturally produces the stress reducing hormone Oxytocin in the brain. This technique increases social connection and emotional intelligence, makes you more compassionate and makes you feel less lonely.


Perfectionism and high self-criticism increase suicide risk

hidden cause of suicide

This hidden cause of suicide might surprise you.
Perfectionism is a bigger risk factor in suicide than is often thought, according to new research.

Perfectionism involves being highly self-critical, constantly striving to meet the standards of others (typically parents or mentors) and being unsure about the efficacy of one's own actions.

While a certain amount of perfectionism is adaptive and necessary, when it becomes an obsession, it can lead to a vicious cycle.

People in professions which have a strong emphasis on perfectionism - like lawyers, architects and physicians - are at a higher risk of suicide.

Comment: For more background on perfectionism, listen to the interview with Dr. Aleta Edwards on SOTT Talk Radio. Dr. Edwards is the author of the best-selling e-book Fear of the Abyss: Healing the Wounds of Shame and Perfectionism.