Science of the Spirit


English speakers increasingly use self-centered words like 'get' and 'choose'

Individualistic Words_1
© Greenfield, Psychological Science 2013
Individualistic Words
The words that consistently pop up in published literature can tell us a lot about individual and cultural trends and values. Are people talking about their emotions more? Are people feeling depressed?

Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, decided to use word frequency patterns to identify how people's values have shifted over time from the sociological concepts of gemeinschaft (translated from German as community, reflecting a rural society with a subsistence economy) and gesellschaft (translated as society, reflecting an urban, wealthy, technological culture).

By analyzing word frequency data from more than a million books published in the United States and Britain between 1800 and 2000, using Google Books Ngram Viewer, Greenfield found that our language has slowly shifted to focus on individualism and material gain. We now use more individual-focused words like "get" and "choose," rather than group-focused words like "give" and "obliged."
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Emotional behavior of adults could be triggered in the womb

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Fetus. Adults could be at greater risk of becoming anxious and vulnerable to poor mental health if they were deprived of certain hormones while developing in the womb according to new research.
Adults could be at greater risk of becoming anxious and vulnerable to poor mental health if they were deprived of certain hormones while developing in the womb according to new research by scientists at Cardiff and Cambridge universities.

New research in mice has revealed the role of the placenta in long-term programming of emotional behaviour and the first time scientists have linked changes in adult behaviour to alterations in placental function.

Insulin-like growth factor-2 has been shown to play a major role in fetal and placental development in mammals, and changes in expression of this hormone in the placenta and fetus are implicated in growth restriction in the womb.

"The growth of a baby is a very complex process and there are lots of control mechanisms which make sure that the nutrients required by the baby to grow can be supplied by the mother," according to Professor Lawrence Wilkinson, a behavioural neuroscientist from Cardiff University's School of Psychology who led the research.

"We were interested in how disrupting this balance could influence emotional behaviours a long time after being born, as an adult," he added.

Tidy desk or messy desk? Each has its benefits

Working at a clean and prim desk may promote healthy eating, generosity, and conventionality, according to new research. But, the research also shows that a messy desk may confer its own benefits, promoting creative thinking and stimulating new ideas.

The new studies, conducted by psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs and her fellow researchers at the University of Minnesota are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"Prior work has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things: Not engage in crime, not litter, and show more generosity," Vohs explains. "We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting."

In the first of several experiments, participants were asked to fill out some questionnaires in an office. Some completed the task in a clean and orderly office, while others did so in an unkempt one - papers were strewn about, and office supplies were cluttered here and there.

Afterward, the participants were presented with the opportunity to donate to a charity, and they were allowed to take a snack of chocolate or an apple on their way out.

Being in a clean room seemed to encourage people to do what was expected of them, Vohs explains. Compared with participants in the messy room, they donated more of their own money to charity and were more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar.

Swansea scientists discover the brain's own 'sat nav' system

Sat Nav
© Wales Online, UK
Our sense of direction has been traced to a nerve cell in the brain that acts like an in-built GPS.
Researchers at Swansea University have found that the human brain is equipped with its own version of a GPS, helping people understand their location in an unfamiliar environment.

Our brains are equipped with their own version of a global positioning system (GPS), according to exciting new research by an academic at Swansea University.

Dr Christoph Weidermann of the University's College of Human and Health Sciences has helped identify a new type of cell in the brain.

It helps people keep in mind their relative location while navigating an unfamiliar environment.

The cells are thought to give people "spatial memory" and they were discovered by examining the brains of neurosurgery patient volunteers.

The discovery may be able to help scientists working to beat Alzheimer's Disease.

Dr Weidemann was part of a team which has identified "grid cells," which derive their name from the triangular grid pattern in which the cells activate during navigation.

The work is being published in the latest edition of Nature Neuroscience.

Dr Weidemann said: "The newly discovered cell is distinct among brain cells because its activation represents multiple spatial locations.

Brain's long-term reward system relies on dopamine

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From driving across country to graduating from college, long-term goals are often difficult to stay focused on when an immediate reward isn't within sight.

A team of researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle and MIT has recently discovered new details on how the brain is able to stay focused until these long-term goals are achieved, according to a report in the journal Nature.

The joint team's research builds on previous studies that have linked the neurotransmitter dopamine to the brain's reward system. While most previous studies have involved looking at dopamine with respect to an immediate reward, the new study found increasing levels of dopamine as laboratory rats approached an expected reward after delayed gratification.

To measure levels of dopamine in the rats' brains, the team used a system developed by UW behavioral scientist Paul Phillips called fast-scan cyclic voltammetry (FSCV) that involves small, implanted electrodes that continuously record dopamine concentration by looking for its electrochemical signature.

"We adapted the FSCV method so that we could measure dopamine at up to four different sites in the brain simultaneously, as animals moved freely through the maze," said co-author Mark Howe, currently a post-doctoral neurobiologist at Northwestern University. "Each probe measures the concentration of extracellular dopamine within a tiny volume of brain tissue, and probably reflects the activity of thousands of nerve terminals."

Social status and power of action of speakers determine the way their statements are perceived

Neurolinguists measure brain reaction to statements made by prominent speakers.

The actual standing of speakers within a society's power structure determines how their statements are perceived. This is the conclusion reached in a joint study undertaken by neurolinguist Professor Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky of the University of Marburg and linguist Professor Matthias Schlesewsky of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) with the support of Sylvia Krauspsenhaar, who participated in the study as a member of the Neurotypology research group at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig. The results were recently published in an article entitled "Yes, you can? A speaker's potency to act upon his words orchestrates early neural responses to message-level meaning" in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

For the purposes of the study, the team of researchers exposed their trial group to video recordings of a politically influential decision-maker, an eminent news anchor, and a person completely unknown to the test subjects expressing both plausible and implausible statements. The first speaker was Peer Steinbrück, the then Federal Minister of Finance, and the second was Ulrich Wickert, a former TV newscaster. They spoke from a script produced especially for the study; all the statements made were classifiable either in the categories "general knowledge" or "politics". While obviously false statements relating to the real world (such as "Fidel Castro is a pop singer.") triggered similar reactions in the test subjects' brains in the case of all three speakers, the reactions to implausible political statements (such as "The federal government has announced that it will be leaving NATO.") differed depending on the speaker. The EEG recordings made while subjects were listening to politician Steinbrück diverged from those made when the other, non-political speakers made the same statements.

Victims of bullying are more likely to end up in jail than those who are not bullied - and it affects women more than men

© Don Mason/Corbis
More than 20 per cent of children who are repeatedly bullied as children and teenagers end up in prison as adults, according to new research
Children who are bullied are more likely to end up in jail, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Carolina have found that being bullied throughout childhood and teenage years may lead to more arrests, convictions and prison time.

They also discovered that people who were repeatedly bullied throughout childhood and adolescence were significantly more likely to go to prison than those who did not suffer repeated bullying.

Almost 14 per cent of those who reported being constantly bullied from childhood through their teens ended up in prison as adults.

This is compared to six per cent of people who weren't bullied, nine per cent of people who were only bullied as children, and seven per cent of teen-only victims.

When comparing rates of convictions, more than 20 per cent of those who endured 'chronic bullying' were convicted of crimes. Almost double those who weren't bullied.

The study also found that while childhood victims faced 'significantly greater odds of going to prison' than non-white victims.

Doctor Michael Turner, of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of North Carolina in the United States, said: 'Previous research has examined bullying during specific time periods, whereas this study is the first to look at individuals' reports of bullying that lasted throughout their childhood and teen years, and the legal consequences they faced in late adolescence and as adults.'
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Can't we all just get along? Evolution says 'Yes we can'

Get Along
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The Prisoner's Dilemma questions human morality in a very interesting way. In essence, this hypothetical situation ponders the costs and benefits of individuals acting solely on their own interest versus social cooperation that involves benefits for others. More specifically, this notion suggests people can work together to receive a portion of a reward or betray one another to receive the full reward.

Last year a computer scientist and physics professor wrote a paper which found that, in general, people come out better in the end if they betray their fellow human and make the decision they know will most benefit them. Now, two Michigan State University (MSU) evolutionary biologists are challenging this conclusion.

According to Christoph Adami, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at MSU, working for your own interests may benefit you in the short term, but in the long run evolution favors those who look out for the good of others.

"We found evolution will punish you if you're selfish and mean," said Adami. "For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn't evolutionarily sustainable."

Adami and co-author Arend Hintze, a molecular and microbiology research associate, have just published their paper in the current issue of Nature Communications.

'Evolution will punish you if you're selfish and mean'

© G.L. Kohuth
"We found evolution will punish you if you're selfish and mean," said lead author Christoph Adami, MSU professor of microbiology and molecular genetics.
Two Michigan State University evolutionary biologists offer new evidence that evolution doesn't favor the selfish, disproving a theory popularized in 2012.

"We found evolution will punish you if you're selfish and mean," said lead author Christoph Adami, MSU professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. "For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn't evolutionarily sustainable."

The paper appears in the current issue of Nature Communications and focuses on game theory, which is used in biology, economics, political science and other disciplines. Much of the last 30 years of research has focused on how cooperation came to be, since it's found in many forms of life, from single-cell organisms to people.

In 2012, a scientific paper unveiled a newly discovered strategy - called zero-determinant - that gave selfish players a guaranteed way to beat cooperative players.

"The paper caused quite a stir," said Adami, who co-authored the paper with Arend Hintze, molecular and microbiology research associate. "The main result appeared to be completely new, despite 30 years of intense research in this area."
Arrow Up

How to protect yourself from a 'successful' psychopath

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Christopher Walken stars in Seven Psychopaths.
Psychopaths are everywhere. It's a recognised medical statistic that one per cent of the general population is psychopathic.

And they're trendy too, taking centre stage in Jon Ronson's investigative bestseller The Psychopath Test, and a murderous turn in horror movies like American Psycho and Arbitrage.

It's no wonder we're morbidly fascinated with them. The mental disorder is unnerving and enigmatic. If the psychopathic nature is to trick us, we want to uncover them. Just talking about the condition is enough to lead you to think: 'Am I a psychopath...?'

However if you're thinking that, chances are you're not a psychopath, who are defined by their lack of empathy, remorse and chronic irritability in the globally recognised PCL-R test.