Science of the Spirit


The pain of social exclusion

© iStockphoto/Peter Brutsch
"Social" pain hurts physically, even when we see it in others

The distress caused by social stimuli (e.g., losing a friend, experiencing an injustice or more in general when a social bond is threatened) activates brain circuits related to physical pain: as observed in a study conducted by SISSA, this also applies when we experience this type of pain vicariously as an empathic response (when we see somebody else experiencing it).

We would like to do without pain and yet without it we wouldn't be able to survive. Pain signals dangerous stimuli (internal or external) and guides our behaviour. Its ultimate goal is to prioritize escape, recovery and healing. That's why we feel it and why we're also good at detecting it in others. Pain in fact protects not only the individual but also his social bonds. The brain contains circuits related to the more physical aspects of pain and others related to affective aspects. As observed in a study just published by Giorgia Silani, Giovanni Novembre and Marco Zanon of the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste, social pain activates some brain circuits of physical pain whether we feel it personally or when we experience it vicariously as an empathic response to other people's pain.


Our memory for sounds is worse than touch or sight

© Carolyn Williams
“I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember” –Chinese proverb
Our memory for things we've seen or touched is much better than for what we've heard, a new study reveals. The study had people listening to a variety of sounds, shown pictures and given things to touch (Begelo & Poremba, 2014). The researchers found that it was the things people heard that they were most likely to forget, more than things they had seen or touched. This study provides a fascinating insight into how memory works. Lead author James Bigelow explains:
"We tend to think that the parts of our brain wired for memory are integrated. But our findings indicate our brain may use separate pathways to process information. Even more, our study suggests the brain may process auditory information differently than visual and tactile information, and alternative strategies - such as increased mental repetition - may be needed when trying to improve memory."
In the study people were exposed to all sorts of everyday sounds, sights and tactile experiences. They watched basketball games, heard dogs barking and touched a coffee mug that was hidden from view.


Researchers prove that it's possible to die of a broken heart

© David Goehring
New research proves you can die of a broken heart

Experts studying the impact of bereavement on people's health have found that the chances of a heart or stroke attack doubles after a partner's death.

Bereavement has long been known as a risk factor for death and this study increases our understanding of its effects on cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks and strokes.

The study showed the likelihood of a heart attack or stroke doubled in the crucial 30 day period after a partner's death for those experiencing loss of a loved one.

Grief leads to extra physical stress and also may make people forget or lose interest in taking their medication, according to experts.

Dr Sunil Shah, senior lecturer in public health at St George's University of London, a co-author of the report, said: "We often use the term a 'broken heart' to signify the pain of losing a loved one and our study shows that bereavement can have a direct effect on the health of the heart."

People 2

The four things that kill a relationship stone dead

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For over 40 years the psychologist Professor John Gottman has been analysing relationships, both good and bad.

He's followed couples across decades in many psychological studies to see what kinds of behaviours predict whether they would stay together in the long-term or were soon destined for the divorce courts.

Amongst the factors he identified, four have stood out, time and time again. When Gottman sees a couple's communication overrun with these, the chances are they will divorce in an average of around six years from their marriage.


How new ideas change your brain cells

© MR McGill
Our ability to remember and learn is powered by a crucial molecular change.
A new study has identified an important molecular change which takes place in the brain when we learn and remember (Brigidi et al., 2014).

Learning changes the way a fatty acid in the brain attaches to a protein called delta-catenin.

This change is essential in adjusting the connectivity between brain cells, which enables us to learn.

One of the study's authors, Shernaz Bamji, explained:
"More work is needed, but this discovery gives us a much better understanding of the tools our brains use to learn and remember, and provides insight into how these processes become disrupted in neurological diseases."
The results come from the study of an animal model. They found that after learning about new environments, the levels of modified delta-catenin were almost doubled.

Evil Rays

Sick cities: Why urban living can be bad for your mental health

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Sometimes city living can just get too much for us to take – as depicted by Michael Douglas's everyman William Foster, in the film Falling Down.
Is our headlong rush to live in cities bound to increase incidences of stress and other mental disorders?

You are lying down with your head in a noisy and tightfitting fMRI brain scanner, which is unnerving in itself. You agreed to take part in this experiment, and at first the psychologists in charge seemed nice.

They set you some rather confusing maths problems to solve against the clock, and you are doing your best, but they aren't happy. "Can you please concentrate a little better?" they keep saying into your headphones. Or, "You are among the worst performing individuals to have been studied in this laboratory." Helpful things like that. It is a relief when time runs out.

Few people would enjoy this experience, and indeed the volunteers who underwent it were monitored to make sure they had a stressful time. Their minor suffering, however, provided data for what became a major study, and a global news story. The researchers, led by Dr Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, were trying to find out more about how the brains of different people handle stress. They discovered that city dwellers' brains, compared with people who live in the countryside, seem not to handle it so well.

To be specific, while Meyer-Lindenberg and his accomplices were stressing out their subjects, they were looking at two brain regions: the amygdalas and the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC). The amygdalas are known to be involved in assessing threats and generating fear, while the pACC in turn helps to regulate the amygdalas. In stressed citydwellers, the amygdalas appeared more active on the scanner; in people who lived in small towns, less so; in people who lived in the countryside, least of all.


Dimming the lights can help people make more rational decisions, think more objectively


Scientists claim that turning down the lights (illustrated) reduces emotional intensity, allowing you to keep a clear head when making difficult decisions
Some decisions are so difficult that you can mull them over from every conceivable angle and there is still no obvious answer.

But if you need to make an enlightened decision, dimming the lights could help.

Scientists claim that turning down the lights reduces emotional intensity, allowing you to keep a clear head when making tough choices.

A new study led by the University of Toronto Scarborough has found that both positive and negative human emotions are felt more intensely in bright light.

Alison Jing Xu, assistant professor of management at the university and Aparna Labroo of Northwestern University, conducted a series of studies to examine the unusual paradox of lighting and human emotion.

While other studies have shown that people can be more optimistic about the stock market on sunny days, while gloomy days can result in seasonal affective disorder, Professor Xu said: 'we found that on sunny days depression-prone people actually become more depressed'.


Childhood amnesia: The age at which our earliest memories fade

© mexico rosel
Can you remember anything from before the age of three?
Most adults can't remember much, if anything, from before the age of three. It's what Sigmund Freud first termed 'childhood amnesia'. But it wasn't always this way: there must have been a time in childhood when memories from before the age of 3 could be recalled.

A new study of childhood memory reveals that childhood amnesia sets in at around the age of seven (Bauer & Larkina, 2013). For their study, the researchers began interviewing a group of children at the age of three, asking them what they could remember. They were then followed up at the ages of 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 to see what they could remember from before.

The results showed that between 5 and 7 years-of-age, the children could remember between 63% and 72% of the events they'd first recalled at the age of three. However, by the age of 8 or 9, the children only remembered about 35% of the events. Their memories had, though, undergone an interesting transformation. At the age of 5 or 6, children remembered more events, but their narratives of these events were hazy. When older, though, despite remembering fewer events, what they did recall had greater detail.

Psychologists theorise that childhood amnesia occurs because the brain is still learning to encode long-term memories. The neural architecture that underlies this ability needs time to develop.

Alarm Clock

Loneliness is killing us - we must start treating this disease

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'Feeling isolated can disrupt sleep, raise blood pressure, weaken immunity, increase depression and lower subjective wellbeing.'
A report says loneliness is more deadly than obesity - the challenge now is to help lonely people connect.

That loneliness is a health issue would not have been a surprise to Mother Teresa who once said: "The biggest disease today is not leprosy or cancer or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody."

But now doctors have quantified the effects of the loneliness disease, warning that lonely people are nearly twice as likely to die prematurely as those who do not suffer feelings of isolation. Being lonely it seems, is a lot more worrying for your health than obesity.

In a report called Rewarding Social Connections Promote Successful Ageing that Professor John Cacioppo presented in Chicago at the weekend, the effect of satisfying relationships on the elderly was measured.


How aging changes what makes you happy

© Flickr/ Victor Bezrukov
"We are the sum of all the moments of our lives - all that is ours is in them." - Thomas Wolfe
With increasing age, people get more pleasure out of everyday experiences; while younger people define themselves more by extraordinary experiences, a new study finds.

The study asked over 200 people between the ages of 19 and 79 about happy experiences they'd had that were both ordinary and extraordinary (Bhattacharjee & Mogilner, 2014).

Naturally, happy extraordinary experiences - like a expensive foreign travel - happen less frequently, while ordinary happy experiences - like seeing your family - are much more common.

Across all the age-groups in the study, people found pleasure in all sorts of experiences; both ordinary and extraordinary.