Science of the Spirit


Too much choice leads to riskier decisions, new study finds

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The more choices people have, the riskier the decisions they make, according to a new study which sheds light on how we behave when faced with large amounts of information.

Researchers at the University of Warwick and the University of Lugano set up a gambling game in which they analysed how decision-making is affected when people are faced with a large number of potential gambles.

They found that a bias in the way people gather information leads them to take more risks when they choose a gamble from a large set of options, a phenomenon which researchers have labelled 'search-amplified risk'.

This means that, when faced with a large number of choices - each having outcomes associated with different probabilities of occurring - people are more likely to overestimate the probabilities of some of the rarest events.

The study, published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, found that with large choice sets, people took riskier gambles based on a flawed perception that there was a higher probability of 'winning big' - but in reality they more often went away empty-handed.
Book 2

The Heretic: Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him?

© C.F. Payne

Last fall, a few days before Halloween and about a month after the publication of Mind and Cosmos, the controversial new book by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, several of the world's leading philosophers gathered with a group of cutting-edge scientists in the conference room of a charming inn in the Berkshires. They faced one another around a big table set with pitchers of iced water and trays of hard candies wrapped in cellophane and talked and talked, as public intellectuals do. PowerPoint was often brought into play.

The title of the "interdisciplinary workshop" was "Moving Naturalism Forward." For those of us who like to kill time sitting around pondering the nature of reality - personhood, God, moral judgment, free will, what have you - this was the Concert for Bangladesh. The biologist Richard Dawkins was there, author of The Blind Watchmaker, The Selfish Gene, and other bestselling books of popular science, and so was Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts and author of Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. So were the authors of Why Evolution is True, The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World, Everything Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, and The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions - all of them books that to one degree or another bring to a larger audience the world as scientists have discovered it to be.

Contemporary philosophers have a name for the way you and I see the world, a world filled with other people, with colors and sounds, sights and sensations, things that are good and things that are bad and things that are very good indeed: ourselves, who are able, more or less, to make our own way through life, by our own lights. Philosophers call this common view the "manifest image." Daniel Dennett pointed out at the conference that modern science, at least since the revelations of Darwin, has been piling up proof that the manifest image is not really accurate in any scientific sense. Rather science - this vast interlocking combine of genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, particle physics - tells us that the components of the manifest image are illusory.

Young scientist has colorful 'superpower' -- and she wants to know why

Pine Crest student produces cutting edge research on sensory condition called synesthesia.

To the average reader, the words on this page are simply black. But for some, by the time they've reached this word, they've seen almost every color on the spectrum.

It's called synesthesia - a rare neurological condition that causes a sort of sensory remix allowing people like 16-year-old Laura Mariah Herman to see pink when she hears or reads her name, see orange when she hears "hello" or see red when she sees the letter "A."

It's believed geniuses like Albert Einstein had this, too.

"I have a special connection with colors," says Laura, a student at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale. "It's my special superpower."

Laura describes it as a "ticker tape" lodged like a screen behind her eyes that constantly streams with colored words of what she's seeing, hearing and even thinking - "I read my thoughts," she says.
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Expression of emotion in books declined during 20th century

The use of words with emotional content in books has steadily decreased throughout the last century, according to new research from the Universities of Bristol, Sheffield, and Durham. The study, published today in PLOS ONE, also found a divergence between American and British English, with the former being more 'emotional' than the latter.

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The researchers looked at how frequently 'mood' words were used through time in a database of more than five million digitised books provided by Google. The list of words was divided into six categories (anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise) previously used by one of the researchers, Dr Vasileios Lampos, to detect contemporary mood changes in public opinion as expressed in tweets collected in the UK over more than two years.

Dr Alberto Acerbi, a Newton Fellow in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol and lead author of the paper, said: "We thought that it would be interesting to apply the same methodology to different media and, especially, on a larger time scale. We were initially surprised to see how well periods of positive and negative moods correlated with historical events. The Second World War, for example, is marked by a distinct increase in words related to sadness, and a correspondent decrease in words related to joy."

In applying this technique, the researchers made some remarkable discoveries about the evolution of word usage in English books over the past century.Firstly, the emotional content of published English has been steadily decreasing over the past century, with the exception of words associated with fear, an emotion which has resurged over the past decades. They also found that American English and British English have undergone a distinct stylistic divergence since the 1960s. American English has become decidedly more 'emotional' than British English in the last half-century.

Gone but not forgotten: Yearning for lost loved ones linked to altered thinking about the future

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People suffering from complicated grief may have difficulty recalling specific events from their past or imagining specific events in the future, but not when those events involve the partner they lost, according to a new study published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The death of a loved one is among the most painful and disruptive experiences a person can face. For most, the grief subsides over time. But those who suffer from complicated grief continue to yearn for the lost loved one, experience waves of painful emotion, and feel hopeless about the future.

Research suggests that that people who suffer from complicated grief, similar to those who suffer from post-trauamatic stress disorder or major depression, have difficulty recalling many of the specific memories of their past.

But there's an exception: They often retain their ability to recall specific memories for events that include the lost loved one.

Graduate student Donald Robinaugh and professor of psychology Richard McNally of Harvard University were intrigued by this cognitive paradox, and it raised another question: Do thoughts of lost loved ones also shape how people with complicated grief think about the future?

Testing can improve learning among young and old people

Testing can improve learning among young and old people alike, according to new research from Rice University.

The study found that regardless of their age, intelligence or whether they work or attend college, people appear to learn more by taking tests rather than merely rereading or studying information. The research was published in the March 2013 edition of Psychology and Aging.

"There is a significant body of research examining the benefits of testing among young students," said Ashley Meyer '11, the study's lead author. Currently a cognitive psychologist with the Houston Veterans Affairs Health Services Research and Development Center of Excellence, Meyer conducted the research when she was a psychology graduate student at Rice. "Our study builds on existing findings and supports the idea that tests can increase learning and retention in adults of all ages, regardless of intelligence level."

In the study's experiment, adults of different ages improved their retention of new information approximately 17 points (approximately two letter grades) - just as much as college students - if they were tested on the material and received feedback on their scores, rather than just restudying the materials. Participants who took the final test on the same day as the study period did significantly better than participants who took it two days later, according to the study. However, participants still showed improved memory for previously tested material compared to restudied material, even after the two-day delay.

Viktor Frankl: Why to believe in others

In this rare clip from 1972, legendary psychiatrist and Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl delivers a powerful message about the human search for meaning -- and the most important gift we can give others.


Why humans get lost

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Despite our best efforts, it can be surprisingly easy for humans to get lost.
In 1996, a ranger flying a helicopter over Death Valley, Calif., spotted a minivan in a wash near Anvil Canyon. That was ominous for several reasons: There was no road leading up to the spot, and the area wasn't passable without a four-wheel vehicle.

After investigating the vehicle, park rangers determined that four German tourists - a man, a woman, and their two sons, ages 4 and 11 - had last rented the minivan. But there was no trace of the family itself.

Their remains were not found for about 15 years, until Tom Mahood, a physicist-turned-adventurer, retraced their steps. As he recounts on his website, a series of reasonable mistakes, such as misreading the steepness of a canyon descent and being led astray by culturally confusing map landmarks, likely led to the decisions that ended in them separating, then dying in the scorching desert heat.

The story reveals how easy it is for people to become hopelessly lost in the wilderness. Humans get lost in part because we don't pay attention and have lost ancient ways of reading the environment to navigate. But humans' way-finding abilities are also less precise than the abilities of other animals.

While innate navigational ability differs, "just about everyone can get better," said Daniel Montello, a geographer and psychologist at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Emotion-health connection not limited to industrialized nations

Positive emotions are known to play a role in physical well-being, and stress is strongly linked to poor health, but is this strictly a "First World" phenomenon? In developing nations, is the fulfillment of basic needs more critical to health than how one feels? A new study shows that emotions do affect health around the world and may, in fact, be more important to wellness in low-income countries.

The study, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, is the first to examine the emotion-health connection in a representative sample of 150,000 people in 142 countries. Previous research on the topic has been limited to industrialized nations.

"We wondered whether the fact that emotions make a difference in our health is simply because we have the luxury of letting them," said Sarah Pressman, assistant professor of psychology & social behavior and the study's lead author. "We wanted to assess the impact of emotions on health in places where people face famine, homelessness and serious safety concerns that might be more critical correlates of wellness."

Against expectations, researchers found that the link between positive emotions (enjoyment, love, happiness) and health is stronger in countries with a weaker gross domestic product. In fact, the association increased as GDP decreased, according to Pressman.
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Better living through mindfulness

A new study from the University of Utah shows that individuals who describe themselves as being more mindful have more stable emotions and perceive themselves to have better control over their mood and behavior throughout the day. Higher mindful people also describe less cognitive and physiological activation before bedtime, suggesting that greater emotional stability during the day might even translate into better sleep. The study results will be presented later this month at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society.

Prior studies of mindfulness - paying attention in a particular way, on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally - have typically been conducted with participants trained in mindfulness, for example meditation or other interventions. In contrast, this study examines naturally-occurring traits of mindfulness. Using a novel method for data collection, the participants wore a monitor that measured cardiac functioning and were prompted periodically throughout the day to rate their emotional state and mental functioning. Examining these processes during normal daily living builds on prior mindfulness research conducted in laboratory-controlled settings.