Science of the Spirit


Dimming the lights can increase your creativity by making you feel 'free from constraints'

People in dim light are better at solving creative insight problems
Those in normal light are no more creative than those in bright light
And we can become more creative just by thinking about being in dim light

Dimming the lights can increase your creativity levels, new research reveals.

German researchers found that people sitting in dim light are significantly better able to solve creative insight problems than those working under normal or bright lights.

However, people working under normal lights are no more creative than those in very bright light.

People sitting in dim light are significantly better able to solve creative insight problems than those working under normal or bright lights
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Blind man's brain still responds to eye contact with unhappy faces and averted gazes

© Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Brain scans reveal a blind man reacts to averted eyes and emotional faces, even though he has no recollection of seeing them.
How much of this world does your mind actually see? Potentially more than you think, according to series of studies on a blind man whose brain can still record and respond to the facial expressions from others without him being aware of it. These observations, published today in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggest the existence of visual brain pathways that register hostile or unhappy visages without our conscious knowledge.

The man in question, who the study's authors refer to as Patient TN, suffered two strokes in 2003 that almost completely eradicated his primary visual cortex. This brain region, located at the back of the skull, is responsible for processing visual input from the eyes and shipping it to the rest of the brain. Thus, Patient TN's blindness is caused by a faulty brain circuitry rather than eye damage. Indeed, one could assume that his eyes are still transmitting visual information to his brain, but "nobody is home" to collect the message.

Without his primary visual cortex, you might have predicted that Patient TN should be utterly blind, but follow-up experiments at the University of Geneva suggested the contrary.

In 2005, neuropsychologist Dr. Alan Pegna and colleagues placed a series of pictures with facial expressions in front of Patient TN's eyes and asked him to guess the emotions being portrayed in the photos.

Amazingly Patient TN could accurately distinguish between happy and angry faces 60 percent of the time, which is a success rate that could not be attributed to mere chance.
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People can sense a smile before it appears on the face

People can sense a genuine smile before it even appears on a face, researchers say

Researchers say the study reflects the unique social value of a heartfelt smile
But a forced or polite smile does not transmit the same signals, meaning we only detect it when it is visible, reports journal Psychological Science.

Researchers say the study reflects the unique social value of a heartfelt smile, which involves specific movements of muscles around the eyes.

A team from Bangor University had noted that pairs of strangers getting to know one another not only exchanged smiles, they almost always matched the particular smile type, whether genuine or polite.

But they responded much more quickly to their partners' genuine smiles than their polite smiles, suggesting that they were anticipating the genuine smiles.

In the lab, the results were repeated and data from electrical sensors on participants' faces revealed that they engaged smile-related muscles when they expected a genuine smile to appear but showed no such activity when expecting polite smiles.
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Confirmation bias: Why it is hard to change your mind

People search for information that confirms their view of the world and ignore what doesn't fit.

In an uncertain world, people love to be right because it helps us make sense of things. Indeed some psychologists think it's akin to a basic drive.

One of the ways they strive to be correct is by looking for evidence that confirms they are correct, sometimes with depressing or comic results:
  • A woman hires a worker that turns out to be incompetent. She doesn't notice that everyone else is doing his work for him because she is so impressed that he shows up every day, right on time.
  • A sports fan who believes his team is the best only seems to remember the matches they won and none of the embarrassing defeats to inferior opponents.
  • A man who loves the country life, but has to move to the city for a new job, ignores the flight-path he lives under and noisy-neighbours-from-hell and tells you how much he enjoys the farmer's market and tending his window box.
We do it automatically, usually without realising. We do it partly because it's easier to see where new pieces fit into the picture-puzzle we are working on, rather than imagining a new picture. It also helps shore up our vision of ourselves as accurate, right-thinking, consistent people who know what's what.

Babies have sympathy for bully victims, study suggests

Baby Girl
© glayan, Shutterstock
A 10-month-old baby girl.
Babies may be able to show sympathy before their first birthday, according to a new study in which 10-month-olds preferred the victims rather than the aggressors in a bullying encounter.

The research, published Wednesday (June 12) in the journal PLOS ONE, is the first to find evidence of possible sympathy in children younger than toddlers, the researchers said. Sympathy is the feeling of concern for others.

Because 10-month-olds can't yet express sympathy verbally, Kyoto University researcher Shoji Itakura and colleagues turned to a common tactic in baby-brain research: using simple animations to determine what infants prefer. They showed 40 babies an animation of a blue ball and a yellow cube.

Half of the infants watched a short clip in which the blue ball chased the yellow cube around the screen, hitting it seven times before finally squishing it against a wall. The other half of the group saw the same movements, including the squishing, but the two shapes moved independently without interacting.

In some cases, the "bully" and "victim" roles were swapped, so that the yellow cube was the bad guy. After watching the show, the babies were shown a real yellow cube and a real blue ball, and given the chance to reach for one of the objects.

In cases where the babies had seen one shape beating up on the other, they overwhelmingly reached for the victim, 16 out of 20 times. In comparison, when the shapes hadn't interacted, the babies' choices were basically random - nine went for the shape that had gotten squished, and the other 11 went for the nonsquished shape.

The positivity of negative thinking

rainbow cloud
© Yuko Shimizu
Last month, in San Jose, Calif., 21 people were treated for burns after walking barefoot over hot coals as part of an event called Unleash the Power Within, starring the motivational speaker Tony Robbins. If you're anything like me, a cynical retort might suggest itself: What, exactly, did they expect would happen? In fact, there's a simple secret to "firewalking": coal is a poor conductor of heat to surrounding surfaces, including human flesh, so with quick, light steps, you'll usually be fine.

But Mr. Robbins and his acolytes have little time for physics. To them, it's all a matter of mind-set: cultivate the belief that success is guaranteed, and anything is possible. One singed but undeterred participant told The San Jose Mercury News: "I wasn't at my peak state." What if all this positivity is part of the problem? What if we're trying too hard to think positive and might do better to reconsider our relationship to "negative" emotions and situations?
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Feeling bad is good

Most people do everything they can to fight sadness and misery from overtaking their daily routines. But a new study says that misery may be vital to our mental well-being. Is it time to rethink our efforts to curb negativity from our lives?

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How to win the war for your mind

Mind Maze
© n/a
All battles, all wars, all fistfights and bar brawls, all conflicts in every place and in every time (except those conflicts in which both sides answer to the same puppeteer) begin and end as battles of the mind. No struggle is determined on strength of arms alone. In fact, the technologically advanced adversary with all his fancy firepower is often more vulnerable than his low-tech counterparts. This fact is, of course, counterintuitive to our Western manner of thinking, which teaches us to believe that the man with the bigger gun (or the bigger predator drone) always wins. Sadly, we have had to suffer through multiple defeats and overdrawn occupations in Asia to learn otherwise. One of the great unspoken truths of our era is the reality that the modernization of warfare has changed little the manner in which wars are won. Since the beginning of history, intelligence, force of will, and guiding principles are the dominant factors in any campaign.

Therefore, it only stands to reason that the most vital battle any of us will ever face is the psychological battle, the battle within; for success in the mind will determine success in all other endeavors.

Unfortunately, very few people ever consider the importance of the mind war, let alone know how to defend themselves against psychological attack. As with any method of self-defense, constant training is required.
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People are overly confident in their own knowledge, despite errors

Overprecision -- excessive confidence in the accuracy of our beliefs -- can have profound consequences, inflating investors' valuation of their investments, leading physicians to gravitate too quickly to a diagnosis, even making people intolerant of dissenting views. Now, new research confirms that overprecision is a common and robust form of overconfidence driven, at least in part, by excessive certainty in the accuracy of our judgments.

© pressmaster / Fotolia
New research confirms that overprecision is a common and robust form of overconfidence driven, at least in part, by excessive certainty in the accuracy of our judgments.
The research, conducted by researchers Albert Mannes of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Don Moore of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that the more confident participants were about their estimates of an uncertain quantity, the less they adjusted their estimates in response to feedback about their accuracy and to the costs of being wrong.

"The findings suggest that people are too confident in what they know and underestimate what they don't know," says Mannes.

The new findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Research investigating overprecision typically involves asking people to come up with a 90% confidence interval around a numerical estimate -- such as the length of the Nile River -- but this doesn't always faithfully reflect the judgments we have to make in everyday life. We know, for example, that arriving 15 minutes late for a business meeting is not the same as arriving 15 minutes early, and that we ought to err on the side of arriving early.

Mannes and Moore designed three studies to account for the asymmetric nature of many everyday judgments. Participants estimated the local high temperature on randomly selected days and their accuracy was rewarded in the form of lottery tickets toward a prize. For some trials, they earned tickets if their estimates were correct or close to the actual temperature (above or below); in other trials, they earned tickets for correct guesses or overestimates; and in some trials they earned tickets for correct guesses or underestimates.

The results showed that participants adjusted their estimates in the direction of the anticipated payoff after receiving feedback about their accuracy, just as Mannes and Moore expected.

Fear of death makes people into believers (of science)

Fear of Death
© Andrew Dunn/Creative Commons
Thinking analytically. Nonreligious rowers may turn to science in times of stress.
Nothing, some say, turns an atheist into a believer like the fear of death. "There are no atheists in foxholes," the saying goes. But a new study suggests that people in stressful situations don't always turn to a higher power. Sometimes, they turn to science.

For the new work, researchers stayed away from foxholes. Instead, they focused on another stressful - yet significantly less dire - activity: competitive rowing. The scientists recruited 100 rowers mostly in their 20s who lacked strong religious commitments, as determined by a questionnaire.

The scientists broke the athletes into two groups. One was about to race in a regatta; the other was preparing for a less stressful training session. Both groups were asked whether they agreed with statements such as: "We can only rationally believe in what is scientifically provable," "All the tasks human beings face are soluble by science," and "The scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge."

Not surprisingly, the athletes who were getting ready to compete reported higher anxiety levels. They were also about 15% more likely to express a strong belief in science than their less stressed colleagues, a statistically significant difference.