Science of the Spirit

Book 2

Can you be too smart for your own good?

I once had a friend whose life was being ruined by a powerful and irrational fear. He went to see his doctor about the physical tremors that he had become convinced were the first stages of a nasty terminal condition. The GP recognized the illness as hypochondria but he decided the usual treatment would not work. You see, my friend was too intelligent for cognitive behavioral therapy.

Now before readers who have themselves tried and benefited from CBT protest, let me explain that I tell this story because it reveals several things about how fraught the concept of intelligence is. In many ways, my friend was very far from intelligent. Most obviously, why on earth did he not consider the possibility that nothing more sinister than his huge caffeine intake was giving him the shakes, which did indeed turn out to be the case? And if he was so smart, why the obviously irrational fear in the first place?

When the GP diagnosed excessive intelligence, he clearly had a very specific form of it in mind. Most of us would call it cleverness: the ability to work through very complex and convoluted chains of reasoning, irrespective of whether it leads to truth or not. Cognitive therapy works by challenging our irrational automatic negative thoughts. But if you're clever, this won't work, because all you do is come up with ever more elaborate rationalizations for why they are in fact rational after all.

Cupcake Pink

Can tear-jerkers turn you liberal? Yes, apparently!


Sentimental films, such as The Rainmaker (pictured), make you more liberal, research suggests
  • Political scientists found that Hollywood movies can change attitudes more than advertising and news reports
  • The researchers noted a leftward shift in attitudes after the participants saw a film with a liberal message
  • Sentimental films make you more liberal, research suggests.

    Political scientists found that Hollywood movies are better able to change attitudes - in a left-wing direction - than advertising or news reports.

    Todd Adkins, of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said audiences seemed to turn off their critical faculties when they reach the cinema.

    Viewers come expecting to be entertained and are not prepared to encounter and evaluate political messages as they would during campaign advertisements or network news,' he said. More...

    Book 2

    Brain function 'boosted for days after reading a novel'

    © The Independent, UK
    Reading a gripping novel causes biological changes in the brain which last for days as the mind is transported into the body of the protagonist.
    Being pulled into the world of a gripping novel can trigger actual, measurable changes in the brain that linger for at least five days after reading, scientists have said.

    The new research, carried out at Emory University in the US, found that reading a good book may cause heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist in a similar way to muscle memory.

    The changes were registered in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, as well as the the primary sensory motor region of the brain.

    Neurons of this region have been associated with tricking the mind into thinking it is doing something it is not, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition - for example, just thinking about running, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

    "The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist," said neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, lead author of the study.


    Tablets take away from activities that promote brain development - linked to behavior problems

    Tablet computers are so easy to use that even a 3-year-old can master them.

    And that has some pediatricians and other health experts worried.

    Since navigating a tablet generally doesn't require the ability to type or read, children as young as toddlers can quickly learn how to stream movies, scroll through family photos or play simple games.

    That ease-of-use makes tablets -and smartphones- popular with busy parents who use them to pacify their kids during car rides, restaurant outings or while they're at home trying to get dinner on the table. And many feel a little less guilty about it if they think there's educational value to the apps and games their children use.

    The devices are expected to rank among the top holiday gifts for children this year. Gadget makers such as Samsung have introduced tablets specifically designed for kids and many manufacturers of adult tablets now include parental controls. Those products are in addition to the slew of kiddie tablets produced by electronic toy makers such as LeapFrog, Vtech and Toys R Us.

    But some experts note there's no evidence that screen time - whether from a TV or tablet - provides any educational or developmental benefits for babies and toddlers. Yet it takes away from activities that do promote brain development, such as non-electronic toys and adult interaction.

    People 2

    Researchers: People more likely to tell secrets during post-sex conversation

    © Dreamstime

    The findings of a recent study indicate that people are far more likely to disclose secrets during "pillow talk," or post-sex conversation.

    According to an article that appeared in a recent edition of UConn Magazine, relationship researchers have learned why some people are inclined to feel more trusting post-coitus - and why others might still clam up.

    "When individuals experience orgasm, profound physiological changes occur as a hormone called oxytocin floods their bodies," the article, written by assistant professor Dr. Amanda Denes, indicated. "Increases in oxytocin have been linked to many pro-social behaviors - hence the hormone's nicknames, 'love hormone' and 'trust hormone.'"

    She continued, "While men as well as women experience the post-climax oxytocin surge, testosterone is thought to dampen the effects of oxytocin, which may mean fewer warm, fuzzy feelings post-sex for individuals with more testosterone, such as men."


    The Virgin Birth: Why we believe

    © joyart/Shutterstock
    Here, a copy of William Bouguereau's L'Innocence painting, depicting the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus.
    About three-quarters of Americans believe in the Virgin Birth, according to a recent Pew survey.

    That's not surprising, experts say.

    Belief in Jesus' immaculate conception isn't such a leap once you accept the possibility of miracles and the supernatural. And from a cognitive perspective, the human brain is primed for a belief in God and the supernatural.

    Those polls are "evidence that most people know scientific knowledge is not the only kind of knowledge," said Stacy Trasancos, a popular blogger on science and Catholicism and the author of "Science Was Born of Christianity" (Amazon Digital Services, 2013). "People find it reasonable to believe in the reality of the supernatural."


    Brain connections may explain why girls mature faster

    © Newcastle University
    This is a colored image illustrating the brain connections for one of the 121 subjects (male, 4 years old)
    Newcastle University scientists have discovered that as the brain re-organizes connections throughout our life, the process begins earlier in girls which may explain why they mature faster during the teenage years.

    As we grow older, our brains undergo a major reorganization reducing the connections in the brain. Studying people up to the age of 40, scientists led by Dr Marcus Kaiser and Ms Sol Lim at Newcastle University found that while overall connections in the brain get streamlined, long-distance connections that are crucial for integrating information are preserved. The researchers suspect this newly-discovered selective process might explain why brain function does not deteriorate -- and indeed improves - during this pruning of the network. Interestingly, they also found that these changes occurred earlier in females than in males.

    Explaining the work which is being published in Cerebral Cortex, Dr Kaiser, Reader in Neuroinformatics at Newcastle University, says: "Long-distance connections are difficult to establish and maintain but are crucial for fast and efficient processing. If you think about a social network, nearby friends might give you very similar information -- you might hear the same news from different people. People from different cities or countries are more likely to give you novel information. In the same way, some information flow within a brain module might be redundant whereas information from other modules, say integrating the optical information about a face with the acoustic information of a voice is vital in making sense of the outside world."


    Meditation can 'debias' the mind in only 15 minutes

    © AlicePopkorn
    A new study finds that just 15 minutes mindfulness meditation can help free the mind of biased thinking.
    The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, tested the effects of meditation on a well-established mental bias called the 'sunk cost' bias (Hafenbrack et al., 2013).

    The sunk cost bias refers to the fact that people find it difficult to give up on a goal into which they've already made a large investment.

    Even once the goal has gone stale or proven unworkable, there's a tendency to throw good money (or effort) after bad, simply because a significant investment has already been made.

    "Well," people say to themselves. "We've come this far..."

    The effects of the 'sunk cost' bias can be seen in public projects that go way over budget and in military campaigns which continue long after their objectives have proven unworkable.

    Thinking clearly

    One of the strengths of meditation is that it shifts mental focus into the present moment.

    Comment: Learn about this and other benefits of mindful meditation with Eiriú Eolas here.


    False memories occur even among those with superior memory

    © Psych Central
    Some people have the unique talent of being able to remember daily details of their lives from decades past.

    But surprising new research finds that even among this select group of memory experts, false memories occur at about the same frequency as among those with average memory.

    False memories are the recollection of an event, or the details of an event, that did not occur. UC Irvine psychologists and neurobiologists created a series of tests to determine how false information can manipulate memory formation.

    In their study they learned that subjects with highly superior autobiographical memory preformed similar to a control group of subjects with average memory.

    "Finding susceptibility to false memories even in people with very strong memory could be important for dissemination to people who are not memory experts.

    "For example, it could help communicate how widespread our basic susceptibility to memory distortions is," said Lawrence Patihis.

    "This dissemination could help prevent false memories in the legal and clinical psychology fields, where contamination of memory has had particularly important consequences in the past."


    Happiness is overrated: It's better to be right says study

    © Beth Nakamura / The Oregonian
    The secret to a happy relationship? It's not simply a matter of one partner agreeing with the other all the time, researchers say.
    It is better to be right than to be happy - at least for one husband on the cutting edge of science.

    As part of an unusual experiment, the husband was instructed to "agree with his wife's every opinion and request without complaint," and to continue doing so "even if he believed the female participant was wrong," according to a report on the research that was published Tuesday by the British Medical Journal.

    The husband and wife were helping a trio of doctors test their theory that pride and stubbornness get in the way of good mental health. In their own medical practices in New Zealand, they had observed patients leading "unnecessarily stressful lives by wanting to be right rather than happy." If these patients could just let go of the need to prove to others that they were right, would greater happiness be the result?

    Enter the intrepid husband. Based on the assumption that men would rather be happy than be right, he was told to agree with his wife in all cases. However, based on the assumption that women would rather be right than be happy, the doctors decided not to tell the wife why her husband was suddenly so agreeable.

    Both spouses were asked to rate their quality of life on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the happiest) at the start of the experiment and again on Day 6. It's not clear how long the experiment was intended to last, but it came to an abrupt halt on Day 12.