Science of the Spirit

Magic Wand

Dreaming can lead to amazing creative breakthroughs

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Sometimes people spontaneously generate creative solutions to difficult problems through non-traditional methods, such as through epiphanies, intuitions or dreams. Psychologists use the term Eureka! Effect to describe the process in problem solving when a previously unsolvable puzzle becomes suddenly clear and obvious.

While these types of Aha! moments do happen during conscious waking states, the ones that occur in dreams are particularly fascinating. While we sleep, we become connected to the unconscious creative aspects of ourselves. The dream state is an important, vital time where expressions of the self can come through without judgment and flow with clarity and honesty. By gaining access to the unconscious mind, we can begin to pull heavily from intuition and our deeper self-knowledge that might be concealed or suppressed during our day-to-day life.
Alarm Clock

Your brain learns, processes complex information while you sleep

The idea that during sleep our minds shut down from the outside world is ancient and one that is still deeply anchored in our view of sleep today, despite some everyday life experiences and recent scientific discoveries that would tend to prove that our brains don't completely switch off from our environment.

On the contrary, our brains can keep the gate slightly open. For example, we wake up more easily when we hear our own name or a particularly salient sound such as an alarm clock or a fire alarm compared to equally loud but less relevant sounds.

In research published in Current Biology, we went one step further to show that complex stimuli can not only be processed while we sleep but that this information can be used to make decisions, similarly as when we're awake.

Our approach was simple: We built on knowledge about how the brain quickly automates complex chores. Driving a car, for example, requires integrating a lot of information at the same time, making rapid decisions and putting them into action through complex motor sequences. And you can drive all the way home without remembering anything, as we do when we say we're on "automatic pilot."

When we're asleep, the brain regions critical for paying attention to or implementing instructions are deactivated, of course, which makes it impossible to start performing a task. But we wanted to see whether any processes continued in the brain after sleep onset if participants in an experiment were given an automatized task just before.

Comment: For tips on how to improve your sleep, read Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival by T.S. Wiley.

The mind and the gut connect via the vagus nerve. The Eiriu-Eolas breathing and mediation program activates the vagus nerve and has been shown to reduce anxiety and promote a sense of calmness. You can try the program for free here.

See also:
The Neurobiology of grace under pressure: 7 habits that stimulate your vagus nerve and keep you calm, cool, and collected

Face life with Éiriú Eolas, a stress relief program


Reading actual books is good for your comprehension and reduces stress

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It's no secret that reading is good for you. Just six minutes of reading is enough to reduce stress by 68%, and numerous studies have shown that reading keeps your brain functioning effectively as you age. One study even found that elderly individuals who read regularly are 2.5 times less likely to develop Alzheimer's than their peers. But not all forms of reading are created equal.

The debate between paper books and e-readers has been vicious since the first Kindle came out in 2007. Most arguments have been about the sentimental versus the practical, between people who prefer how paper pages feel in their hands and people who argue for the practicality of e-readers. But now science has weighed in, and the studies are on the side of paper books.

Reading in print helps with comprehension.

A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. Lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway's Stavanger University concluded that "the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does."

Our brains were not designed for reading, but have adapted and created new circuits to understand letters and texts. The brain reads by constructing a mental representation of the text based on the placement of the page in the book and the word on the page.

The tactile experience of a book aids this process, from the thickness of the pages in your hands as you progress through the story to the placement of a word on the page. Mangen hypothesizes that the difference for Kindle readers "might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you're reading."

While e-readers try to recreate the sensation of turning pages and pagination, the screen is limited to one ephemeral virtual page. Surveys about the use of e-readers suggest that this affects a reader's serendipity and sense of control. The inability to flip back to previous pages or control the text physically, either through making written notes or bending pages, limits one's sensory experience and thus reduces long-term memory of the text.

Comment: "My mind is my weapon. My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer, and I have my mind . . . and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge." Tyrion tapped the leather cover of the book. "That's why I read so much, Jon Snow."


Internet trolls are narcissists, psychopaths, and sadists

In this month's issue of Personality and Individual Differences, a study was published that confirms what we all suspected: internet trolls are horrible people.

Let's start by getting our definitions straight. An internet troll is someone who comes into a discussion and posts comments designed to upset or disrupt the conversation. Often, it seems like there is no real purpose behind their comments except to upset everyone else involved. Trolls will lie, exaggerate, and offend to get a response.

What kind of person would do this?

Canadian researchers decided to find out. They conducted two internet studies with over 1,200 people. They gave personality tests to each subject along with a survey about their internet commenting behavior. They were looking for evidence that linked trolling with the Dark Tetrad of personality: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadistic personality.

[Edit to add: these are technical terms with formalized surveys to measure them. You can find lots more information about their formal definitions online]

They found that Dark Tetrad scores were highest among people who said trolling was their favorite internet activity. To get an idea of how much more prevalent these traits were among internet trolls, check out this figure from the paper:

Look at how low the scores are for everyone except the internet trolls! Their scores for all four terrible personality traits soar on the chart. The relationship between this Dark Tetrad and trolling is so significant, that the authors write the following in their paper:

Comment: Ever wonder why some debates never end, or end up with character assassination?

The mistake of someone who is not pathological is to fully engage with these pathological people online.

Eye 1

Study pinpoints part of the brain responsible for slow wave sleep

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Findings may lead to new therapies for sleep disorders, including insomnia.
Researchers from the Harvard School of Medicine and the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences have discovered a region of the brain responsible for causing people to fall into a deep sleep.

This slumber-promoting circuit, which is located deep in the primitive brainstem, is only the second such "sleep node" ever discovered in the brains of mammals, the study authors said. In research published online last month in Nature Neuroscience, they explain how this region is not only capable of but also necessary for producing what is known as slow wave sleep (SWS) in humans.

By using genetically targeted activation and optogenetically based mapping to examine the brain's circuitry, the researchers found that half of all sleep-promoting activity originates from a region of the brainstem known as the parafacial zone (PZ). The brainstem is a primordial part of the brain and is responsible for regulating the basic functions necessary for survival, including breathing, body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate.

"The close association of a sleep center with other regions that are critical for life highlights the evolutionary importance of sleep in the brain," said Caroline E. Bass, assistant professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the University of Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and a co-author on the recently-published paper.
Mr. Potato

New study finds dreams increase in bizarreness as we fall deeper into sleep

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Many a time we've woken up without remembering our dreams from the night before. However, we may recall small slivers of them, or perhaps their general aura. They're usually pretty weird; we'll wake up after visiting a bizarre city splashed in pastel colors, giant giraffes, and winding staircases. Or maybe that's just me.

But according to a small new study, it's very likely that our dreams get weirder as the night goes on: right after we go to sleep, we dream of things somewhat based on reality. But once hours have gone by, our dreams tend to get stranger, the authors of the study surmise, "like a wild animal tearing up your back garden." The study was published in the journal Dreaming.

"We found that dreams were increasing in bizarreness from the early to late night," Dr. Jose Malinowski, a lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of Bedfordshire in the UK, told Time. These later dreams are also more emotionally charged.

For the study, the researchers examined 16 participants while they slept for two nights. They woke them up at various times of the night to ask them what they were dreaming about. Each participant was awoken about four times every night. In the morning, as soon as they woke up, they also reported what they had been dreaming about.

But whether or not dreams are rooted in reality, or if they're pretty far-fetched and bizarre, Malinowski believes that dreams are a "safe haven" for problem-solving and figuring out personal issues. They're a way for us to gain insight into our emotions that might normally be repressed, and are often a way for us to approach a problem we might not normally see in our waking hours. She also recommends dream therapy as a different avenue for people to examine their psyche.

"People really enjoy [dream therapy]," Malinowski said. "Dreams are like a safe space. People feel like they haven't generated them because they're often so bizarre. [But] they're a safe way to explore the self."

Source: Malinowski J, Harton C. The Effect of Time of Night on Wake-Dream Continuity. Dreaming. 2014.
Snakes in Suits

Ostracism and isolation just as damaging as workplace bullying


Ostracism and isolating people does more damage to their mental and physical well-being than bullying.
A new survey of 3,400 American workers in all kinds of organisations has found that one-third have been bullied at work and around 20% have been forced to quit their job as a result.

Amongst other things, bullying constituted feeling they were the subject of gossip, were taking the rap for mistakes they hadn't made and getting constantly criticised.

As bad as workplace bullying is, there is something worse for both mental and physical well-being, another new study finds.

A series of surveys carried out by researchers at the University of British Columbia and elsewhere asked people about their experiences of harassment and ostracism at work (O'Reilly et al., 2014).

These revealed that people felt ignoring others was socially acceptable - especially in comparison to bullying.

People generally thought that being ignored was significantly less harmful than being bullied.

A second survey, however, looked at people's actual experience of both ostracism and bullying.

Contrary to people intuitions, ignoring others emerged as more damaging than direct harassment.

Comment: The reason that abuse often not obvious to others is that psychopathic individuals are extremely adept at "wearing a mask" that often fools others into thinking they are ideal employees and leaders. It is only those that have been targeted, typically subordinates or peers, who begin to sense that they (and the organization) are being manipulated. They commonly marginalize others, create schisms between people and cause infighting within groups. Much of this is done secretly, so they are able to maintain a veneer of normality while disarming their prey. Educating oneself about the nature of these predators is of utmost importance in order to protect oneself and to understand how they have overtaken society.

Dr. Paul Babiak on the crisis of psychopaths in the workplace

Magic Wand

Just breathe: Yogic breathing can reduce symptoms of PTSD

It is estimated that more than 20 percent of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although, PTSD symptoms affect non-service people too - it can affect lots of different people who have survived trauma, hardship and extreme stress.

A new study from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers hope for those suffering from the disorder. Researchers there have shown that a breathing-based meditation practice called Sudarshan Kriya Yoga can be an effective treatment for PTSD.

Comment: Read the following articles to learn more about how deep breathing exercises can improve your life: Try the Éiriú Eolas breathing program and find out for yourself how breathing exercises can heal you emotionally, physically and mentally.


Beyond the 'animals are machines' metaphor

machine life
Animals are not machines, and the very idea is now holding back scientific progress

Many people who have not studied science are baffled by scientists' insistence that animal and plants are machines, and that humans are robots too, controlled by computer-like brains with genetically programmed software. In Richard Dawkins' vivid phrase, we are "lumbering robots."

It seems more natural to assume that we are living organisms, as are animals and plants. Organisms are self-organising; they form and maintain themselves, and have their own ends or goals. Machines, by contrast, are designed by an external mind: their parts are put together by external machine-makers and they have no purposes or ends of their own. If you get into a car and it's in working order, it will go wherever you want. If you get onto a horse, it might have its own ideas about where to go.

The starting point for modern science was the rejection of an organic view of the universe. In the seventeenth century, the machine metaphor became central to scientific thinking, with very far reaching consequences. In one way it was immensely liberating. New ways of thinking became possible that encouraged the invention of machines and the evolution of technology.

Before the seventeenth century, almost everyone took it for granted that the universe was like an organism, and so was the Earth. In classical, medieval and renaissance Europe, nature was alive. For example, William Gilbert (1540 - 1603), a pioneer of the science of magnetism, was explicit in his organic philosophy of nature. "We consider that the whole universe is animated," he wrote, "and that all the globes, all the stars, and also the noble earth have been governed since the beginning by their own appointed souls and have the motives of self-conservation". Even Nicholas Copernicus, whose revolutionary theory of the movement of the heavens, published in 1543, placed the sun rather than the earth at the centre of the universe, was no mechanist. His reasons for making this change were mystical as well scientific. He thought a central position dignified the sun.

Fairness evolved to support co-operation

Ice Cream
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The idea of getting our fair share has deep evolutionary roots, say researchers.
Our sense of fairness evolved in order to support long-term co-operation, a new analysis suggests.

The hypothesis comes from a review of primate behaviour data, published today in the journal Science.

"This is the first paper to put forth an evolutionary hypothesis for fairness based on experimental data from animals," says evolutionary biologist Dr Sarah Brosnan of Georgia State University.

For humans, fairness is a social ideal but Brosnan and colleagues were interested in whether fairness evolved in animals.

It's hard to test whether animals sense fairness, says Brosnan, but you can test animals' response to getting less than someone else.

In a study published in 2003, Brosnan and colleagues found a monkey given a cucumber as a reward for performing a task protested by hurling the cucumber back at the researcher if they saw their partner getting a more highly prized grape as a reward.

"They were perfectly happy to eat the cucumber as long as their partner was getting cucumber, but when the partner started getting grapes they started throwing out their cucumbers," says Brosnan.